Photo: Alexander Stemp

Splendour overcomes tragedy at Vukovar

Lesser-known Vukovar – Valkóvár to Hungarians – is a quaint riverside town within a remote agricultural land mass in the Slavonian region of eastern Croatia. For those outsiders who may know anything about this locale, it probably won't be so much for its perhaps predictable and familiar imperialistic Habsburg past, nor its impressive abundance of general history that dates to the dawn of civilisation. Rather, this town is recognised more, albeit unwittingly, for its “Water Tower”, an otherwise nondescript landmark that since the 1990sYugoslav civil war has taken the spotlight from much else in this immediate area.

Just as the Eiffel Tower can be said to have eclipsed much of Parisian culture during the last century, it’s theoretically the same here. The “Homeland War” of independence, as it is known in Croatia, from 1991-1995 saw the fall of Vukovar on November 18, 1991 with almost 85 percent of the town heavily damaged. The destruction also led to the entire Croatian population, nearly 70 percent of the town’s people, leaving their homes during the seven-year Serbian occupation. However, many Serbs left too, and the latest estimate is that closer to 90 percent of the townsfolk departed.

Little remained of this otherwise enchanting Baroque municipality after it was continually bombarded. But remarkably the 50-metre-high water tower, built between 1963 and 1968, stood upright throughout the entire war. Riddled with bullet holes and artillery fire, this “pillar” became a beacon of hope and symbol of defiance, not just to local people but to Croatia in general.

Although it no longer functions as before, this recent-time ornament rather than relic has become a cultural site. Respectfully restored from 2017 to 2020, it still serves as a testimony to the wartime, which remains a memory for some. This tower-of-strength is now preserved with full honours, continuing to display its war-torn scars on the outside while the inside has been transformed into a commendable museum and memorial centre, with a lookout atop.

Photo: Alexander Stemp

Before that tragic time, no one imagined that all would suddenly be lost like an apocalypse. Now this defining symbol shows the way to new life, becoming a sure sign to rebuild the town and bring back the people, who were an influx of Croats and Serbs, as well as some Hungarians and Germans. Even so, the population of 45,000 pre-war has decreased dramatically to roughly half that today. Since 1998 the locals have been returning to bring new life and foundations to their hometown, person by person, brick by brick, day by day. The recovery continues.

It is reassuring that 70 percent of Vukovar’s infrastructure has been rebuilt and the communities are more united than ever. Various old-style buildings such as the central (but redundant for now) Radnički Dom (Workers Hall/grand hotel) and some pre- and post- 19th- and 20th-century buildings are now cafes, bakeries and restaurants, complete with modern-day rooftops and updated interiors. But there is still much missing as some residents will never return, either killed or whereabouts unknown.

In addition to this recent-time heritage, there is the Vučedol Dove, a ceramic ritual vessel that is an ancient peace and continuity symbol relating to the Vukovar region. Made between 2800 and 2500 BC, it is from the Vučedol culture that flourished between 3000 and 2200 BC on the right bank of the Danube, and is the oldest dove figure found in Europe. It can be seen in the Museum  of Vucedol Culture. 5 kilometres from Vukovar, and representations of it are a prominent feature in the town today, as emphasised in the central square next to the glowing, affectionate love-heart feature and in various cafes and souvenir shops.

I was invited to the town for “Vukovar Day”, a traditional ceremony held every May 3, the day when this humble abode became a free and royal town in 1231. It is also the day of Saint Philip and Saint James, who are Vukovar’s patrons. The central Catholic church and monastery were respectfully built in their names in 1723. And now today it is important to make pilgrimages to the town and pay respects to those who died defending their homeland.

Photo: Alexander Stemp

However, it’s not just about reflecting on past issues, and rather there is also a strong emphasis to embrace the future too. Later on this distinctive day, my friends and I made it to the top of the all-important water tower and took in the splendid sunset over a serene setting, while standing with admiration under the proud Croatian flag.

There was a visit to the grandiose Castle Eltz and its Municipal Museum, on the other side of town. There are highly impressive artefacts relating to much of Vukovar from centuries gone by as well as imperial 19th-century times to the modern day, alongside local ethnography and exhibits of traditional folk culture and much more. But seeing how it looks today, it was also difficult to imagine that this elegant mansion house and estate were also attacked and destroyed too.

All rounded off on the following day with visits to the Memorial Cemetery, the Church of St. Philip and St. James and the Vučedol Culture Museum, which is based on prehistorical times. The significance of the site, as the eponym of Vučedol culture, makes it an important archaeological park for this part of Europe. And while walking around, take note of the compelling street art, which is also a strong feature here.

But due to the lack of time, I was not able to see it all. There is also a museum dedicated to the siege that has opened in a basement of a recently rebuilt hospital, which was likewise damaged during the war. Plus there are summer festivals, the most famous being the annual Vukovar Film Festival.

The Vukovar Chamber Music Festival is held in June at Castle Eltz, the Saint Rok Chapel and the Church of St. Philip and St. James, usually beginning with a concert by the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra. Guests are often solo performers who come in from elsewhere in Europe. For general tourism and events for children, such as puppet shows and more, see the website

Beyond all this, the highly impressive and twinkly River Danube and its tributary the River Vuka connect what is Croatia’s largest inland river port to upstream Budapest and on into Slovakia, Austria and Germany. Downstream are Belgrade, Romania, Bulgaria and the Black Sea. Ships occasionally stop at Vukovar with cargo from around the world, as well as bringing in tourists, and thus helping the economy. But when it comes to road traffic, very few visitors venture to this delightful sunshine- filled riverside territory. But with the newly restored Water Tower more accessible than ever, I am sure this will change favourably for a town that is worth a visit for sure.

Photo: Alexander Stemp

From a personal perspective, with so little to go on beforehand other than some very vague knowledge relating only to the tower, peaceful and prosperous Vukovar exceeded my expectations. The first thing that struck me, while heading there by car, was how spacious, green and splendid the immediate environment was in this uncongested area. I loved the abundance of flourishing riverside scenery, with Serbia on the other side. All this and more bought immediate cool, calm relief from the city.

I went on an early morning bike-ride along the official “Number 6” lane, an easy-going promenade, accompanied by birdsong at sunrise. This passes the White Cross, another memorial in honour of those fallen almost 30 years ago.

I had hoped to take a boat ride to nearby Mala Ada island, and round off my bid for further adventure, but it was still too early in the tourist season, and the boats resume in summer. So this and the festivals will give me something to look forward to when it comes to next time.

This small town is welcoming and provides everything relating to local hospitality, with a tourist information office at your service. The cuisine, including locally produced wines and honey, is rich and plentiful and will satisfy all culinary requirements, as well as one’s personal budget.

Getting to Vukovar from Budapest is a 300-kilomtre drive and a lot easier going than, for instance, busier Zagreb, or Novi Sad and Belgrade. All routes leading to Vukovar are lighter in traffic and the border crossing took only 10 minutes without fuss on both ongoing and return journeys.

This trip took me directly southwards, in parallel with the Danube on the Buda side of the capital onto the E73 and M6 motorway to Mohács. From there it was easy to proceed towards the Udvar border by following this same road, which also leads directly to the city of Osijek, the capital of the eastern Croatian region. Then one finally approaches the Number 2 road that leads the way with ease through the abundant agricultural plains to Vukovar.

There is a train option but it is fiddly and time-consuming. Take any train from Budapest to Pécs and await one of the four daily services from Pécs to Osijek, with a change at Beli Manastir. From Osijek, Vukovar is 40 kilometres further on via train or bus. Finally, do Vukovar your way and enjoy.

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