Steaming stew and a warm welcome

The Danube River and the bell tower of St Ivan Kapistran church, Ilok, Croatia
The Danube River and the bell tower of St Ivan Kapistran church, Ilok, Croatia
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With a steaming stew, stacks of home-made bread and a steady supply of the local wine on our table, the atmosphere is already hearty.

And then a large group of diners sitting nearby break into song.

This isn’t a raucous post-pub shout petering to a mumble as everyone forgets the words.

These tuneful customers have joined in with a traditional band wandering the tables, belting out a joyful medley of European folk tunes to the strains of accordion, guitar, mandolin, double bass and violin.

Then one of their number decides to really sing for his supper by going international. He gets up on his own and gives us O Sole Mio with a voice that is fork-dropping.

We’re sampling a slice of Croatian hospitality and warmth in the Slavonia and Baranja region of the country.

This is the interior of Croatia, bordering Bosnia, Serbia and Hungary. A few hours inland, it is far less familiar than the popular coastline but is still full of that easy Croatian charm.

It is also an area rich in vineyards and centuries-old wine cellars and is therefore becoming quite a draw for food and drink tourists.

But the warmth of the people and some fascinating off-the-beaten-track finds should appeal to anyone who loves to wander.

Baranjska kuca – our dining choice for the night – is in Karanac, one of the area’s ethno villages. Here people head for the quiet life, booking centuries hold holiday homes in areas that practice traditional farming and crafts methods.

The restaurant garden is full of curiosities, including antique farming equipment and a vintage Eastern Bloc motor. No one could accuse this place of not having character.

Another wonderful countryside attraction is the Kopacki Rit Nature Park where wildlife flocks and we spot the rare black stork.

But our hotel is in bustling Osijek the principal city of the region. Sitting on the River Drava, a tributary of the mighty Danube, it’s a city of busy squares, an old fortified centre, some wonderful buildings and an attractive riverside promenade.

It’s a jolt to see damage to some of the buildings from the Croatian War of Independence (1991 to 1995). A drive through Vukovar – a town that attracted international news coverage and a name that still resonates – delivers quite a history lesson. But this area has made great strides to recover and become a desirable tourist destination again.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the town of Ilok, sitting near the Serb border on the Danube. This was a scene of mass deportation and struggled for years, but there is now plenty to draw the tourist.

When Croatians create something they do it really well and the town’s museum, housed in an historic manor, is a case in point. To the music of Strauss we wander perfectly lit, well designed displays charting the fascinating and harrowing history of the region. It’s the most attractively curated museum I’ve ever visited.

Ilok is also home to Ilocki Podrumi – one of the oldest wine cellars in Croatia. It has some top quality, award-winning wines and is a good spot for vino vacationers.

Of course you need food for your wine – or the other way round at a push. A popular dish is fiš paprikaš – a paprika soup with thick noodles and a medley of the region’s river inhabitants.

It’s more spicy than fishy, works well with hunks of bread and serves as another dose of Croatian warmth.

ESSENTIALS

Croatia Airlines operate daily flights from London Heathrow to Zagreb, prices start from £97 return, including taxes. For reservations call +38 5 1 66 76 555 or go to croatiaairlines.com

Rooms at four-star Hotel Aristos, Zagreb, start from around £115 per night,

inc-luding breakfast and based on two people sharing. hotel-aristos.hr

Rooms at four-star Hotel Osijek start from around £100 per night, including breakfast and based on two people sharing. hotelosijek.hr

The quickest way to get around the region is to pick up a hire car at Zagreb airport.

You can also take a coach (six hours) or train (four to five hours) from Zagreb to Osijek.

Tours of the wineries can be arranged on request.

Contact the tourist board for all information on tours and the region at croatia.hr