Most days during the spring and summer, you’ll find Nedeljko Doblanović in his backyard, about two kilometers outside of Rovinj, a small coastal city in Croatia’s Istria County. Since 2003, Doblanović has run a small institution out of his estate, one that offers a peculiar benefit to tourists: a tour where “you will be able to get across Croatia in no longer than half an hour or a bit more,” according to the Rovinj tourist board. This is Mini Croatia.
Sitting on 5,500 square meters (or approximately one ten-millionth of Regular Croatia’s total area), Mini Croatia just might be the smallest state to emerge out of the former Yugoslavia. The park contains tiny models of Croatia’s most famous landmarks, from the Game of Thrones-famous walls of Dubrovnik to the waterfalls in Plitviče Lakes National Park. While I walked through the winding paths, Doblanović cheerfully worked in a shed, fixing some models and adding new elements to others.
If you’re more than 2 feet tall, you’ll have to keep bending over to observe all the little quirks …
It’s not about technical exactitude. Instead, Doblanović’s works are filled with playfully eccentric details, giving the park a storybook quality (the fact that Mini Croatia is right next to a pirate-themed restaurant doesn’t hurt). If you’re more than 2 feet tall, you’ll have to keep bending over to observe all the little quirks: toy cars, model ships, houses built into the rock of a mountain. The park is especially popular for families and young children, with admission ranging from 10 to 25 kuna (about $1.50-$3.50).
As Doblanović puttered away, it was hard for me not to think of Croatia’s history of self-trained art. Zagreb, the capital, is home to a museum collecting such work, while various galleries sell works directly painted onto glass, a favorite technique of untaught artists from the northeast. Though attitudes toward these artists were once condescending — the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art was originally known as the Peasant Art Gallery — today they are recognized as one of Croatia’s most distinctive artistic traditions. But while glass painters from Hlebine paint uncanny and surreal scenes of country life, Doblanović has distilled his entire country.
Sure, you can rush through Mini Croatia at the tourist board’s recommendation of a jaunty 30 minutes. And in a hot Rovinj summer, you might want to get back to the real Adriatic Sea as quickly as possible. But take your time if you can. By using the numbered guide, you’ll leave the park with a solid understanding of Croatia’s diverse architectural heritage. I recognized the Pula Arena, a well-preserved Roman amphitheater (Rovinj, officially bilingual and known in Italian as Rovigno, was once ruled by the Romans, as were Zadar and Split), from the Croatian 10 kuna bill. Other monuments, like Zagreb’s neo-Gothic Cathedral and Rovinj’s Church of St. Euphemia, were a bit less familiar. There’s also a mini version of Zadar’s pre-Romanesque Church of St. Donatus, named after the local who served as a diplomat to the court of Charlemagne.
It’s not just budget-conscious families who have enjoyed this microcosmic achievement. When leafing through the informational pamphlet, I noticed a prominent picture of a mustachioed man standing next to Doblanović. That was the president of Croatia, he told me. When Stjepan Mesić visited the park, local media wrote it up as a diplomatic meeting, with the president of Croatia meeting the president of a backyard. But while Mesić’s tenure ended in 2010, Doblanović is going strong in the 14th year of his term.
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