Baranja could be one of the most magnificent tourist destinations in Croatia. There are not many places where on a way from dinner at about 1 AM you can meet a wild deer frolicking on a field by the road. There are very few places where you will sleep so soundly, intoxicated by the abundant oxygen and almost complete darkness, occasionally broken by the full moon and stars twinkling through the low rain clouds above Kopački rit and Karanac village.
There are, finally, few places where you will eat and drink so well for such a small price. Baranja really is beautiful, somewhat wild, very authentic, and rustic in a good way. But it seriously needs more places to go out. One of the very few is Kormoran restaurant at the entrance to Kopački rit, a flooded area at the mouth of the river Drava into the Danube River. Kormorans are large marsh birds that sometimes occupy whole trees in Kopački rit transforming them into spectacular huge black domes.
Kormoran restaurant became a media sensation when Prince Charles and Dutchess of Cornwall had lunch there during their visit to Baranja. In early spring, while the world was reeling from the terrorist attacks in Brussels, we ate at Kormoran twice, it was a Monday dinner and a late Tuesday lunch. Both times Kormoran exceeded all our expectations. Our dinner starteg with a salmon carpaccio, whic sounded original and sufficiently local, but the thin salmon slices were,alas, too cold.
Croatian chefs should learn that carpaccio is always served at room temperature. The thick, hearty beef soup made a much better impression, while roasted veal and whole, creamy roast new potatoes were rather exceptional. Our Tuesday meal was smaller but in no case simpler. After we enjoyed excellent pike mini burgers, we were impressed by a lovely large grilled zanders. Being served something as good and local as our zander, has to make you happy and content, and well aware of where you are.
Kormoran’s menu features many local dishes, from a hot fish stew (fiš paprikaš) a very worth trying goulash-like dish of capon (perkelt), to deer and other game. The food at Kormoran is very authentic, very attractive, and very, very good. And that is exactly what tourists in Baranja need.
Multi-award winning Baranjski kulen, a tradicional local spicy pork sausage, is great example of local specialty. Baranski kulen is probably the best kulen brand in Croatia; it certainly is not worse than 40 to 50 percent more expensive kulen from small private producers. The secret of Baranjski kulen is that it is completely made by hand, in a manufacture style local factory.
Production process of Baranjski kulen starts with placing of pieces of cleaned pork legs in meat grinders, where special spice mix based on paprika is added with pork fatback. Perfectly mixed spiced meat is then stuffed by hand into natural pork sausage casings and hanged in smoking rooms. After 90 days on smoking on natural beech wood, kulen loses about half its weight. It is a same production process as those in small butcher’s manufactures, except for the fact that this production amounts to 400 tonnes of kulen a year. That makes Baranjski kulen the only mass-produced handmade delicacy in Croatia, and it pairs perfectly with Belje Grasevina.
Standardised quality is the strategic market advantage of Baranjski kulen, made possible by controled temperature and moisture during maturation in Belje factory. Kulen needs harsh, dry winters in order to dry and age well, and such winters are rare nowdays, so kulens from many small privately owned manufactures often turn out too soft and wet.
Generally speaking, as potentially one of the most important continental tourist destinations in Croatia, Baranja must stick to its comparative advantages and make them widely recognisable. It must base its tourism on its hearty food, exceptional wines, beautiful and rather wild scenery, and low prices, at least during first growth phase.
Naturally, such a model of Baranja tourism should evolve in the context of broader destination management which includes Slavonia and the Croatian Danube with a similar type of food, Grasevina as the main wine variety and a globally recognisable element of local culture, distinct common identity and very good transport infrastructure.
A drive from Zagreb to Karanac village or Kneževi Vinogradi takes two and a half hours, and there are direct flights to London from Osijek airport. Considering all that, there’s no reason for thousands of tourists who flood Zagreb not to spend a few hours visiting Baranja, as there is no reason for British tourists who come to Croatia in ever greater numbers, not to begin their trip in the east, rather than in Zagreb or on the coast. There is no reason for tourism in Baranja not to boom, but there are obvious obstacles.
The Ministry of tourism makes a huge mistake not promoting Baranja as an exclusive and exotic part of Croatia. Then, there is absolutely no accomodation in Baranja, apart from rural pensions such as irresistible and ridiculously cheap Ivica i Marica in Karanac village.
One of the most beautiful parts of Croatia
Neither Baranja, Slavonia, nor the Danube region have articulated their brand of tourism and it’s clear that Baranja should be the main sub-brand in the joint Slavonian-Danube tourism project, something like Rovinj in Istria.
Finally, if Baranja and Slavonia wish to develop their tourism, a scores of attractive massive promotional activities are crucial. Maybe Grasevina festival, a gathering of all of important local producers, could visit Zagreb, Dubrovnik and Split? Or could they found Baranja marathon or half marathon through Kopački rit and Baranja vineyards?
Baranja and Slavonia, furthermore, need big festivals like those on island of Pag (Zrče) and in Split (Ultra), with somewhat different content, more appropriate for local surrounding. And when people have a very good reason to visit Baranja, and when they get to know the region, and when Baranja (and Slavonia) have more places like Kormoran, tourists will keep coming, and coming, and coming.
It really is one of the most beautiful parts of Croatia.