The Secrets of Varaždin County, Trakošćan Castle & Croatia’s Own “Mona Lisa”
There’s a gorgeous portrait by an unknown artist of the 19th-century baroness Klotilda Drašković that hangs in one of Southern Europe’s most beautiful castles; Trakošćan. Local legend has it that this painting’s power is such that, every year, one female child in the Trakošćan region is born with the same beautiful gaze as the baroness wears in the iconic work of art.
The castle itself was built in the 13th century as part of Northern Croatia’s defense system. Up until the 16th century, the castle changed owners numerous times before the Drašković family took ownership. And it wasn’t until the 19th century that, after significant renovations by Count Drašković, the castle became the almost surreal, fairytale-like romantic palatial estate that it is today, surrounded by a park and a lake, both of which visitors can enjoy on easy hikes following along the five-kilometre trail.
Today, the castle is a cultural and historic monument of great importance for the region, and one of the rare structures in Croatia that’s this well preserved. For more than 50 years now Trakošćan Castle has housed a museum with a prized collection of paintings, furniture, weaponry, and priceless objects from the Renaissance through to Historicism. These treasures are exhibited in the original interior space of the castle and they represent the life of the nobility and the Drašković family in Trakošćan.
And Trakošćan Castle is just one of the many magical secrets waiting to be discovered in Croatia’s Varaždin County. This northwestern region of Croatia, where the last slopes of the Alps meet the great Pannonian basin, enchants with its diversity and rich offering of memorable experiences. It provides an exciting mixture of history, culture, art, gastronomy, nature, and active experiences away from the busy coast. Although it is considered an off-the-beaten-path destination, it is definitely worth visiting during your time in Croatia.
AndAdventure TOP 10 list for Varaždin County
Besides the absolute must-do trip to Trakošćan Castle, I’d also like to share my own TOP 10 things to see, do, taste, and experience while visiting Varazdin County.
A city of bicycles and the primary means of transportation for the people of Varaždin. While the total number of bicycles in the city is unknown, some estimates say that there are 22,000 bikes in the city, or one bicycle for every 2.3 people.
Situated about 80km from Zagreb, it is often referred to as the Baroque capital of Croatia. Its unique urban identity shows the opulent Baroque architecture of the historic core and the warmth of its squares and romantic streets. On weekends, the city is a bustling hub with a lively atmosphere, live music, and people enjoying their morning coffee at cafes on its beautiful squares. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, coffee houses became essential meeting places in the region and Varaždin’s traditional cafes have managed to keep pace with the famous coffee houses of Vienna or Zagreb.
And did you know? Legendary actress, inventor and producer Hedy Kiesler Lamarr was a big fan of spending time in Varaždin?
The Old Town of Varaždin
Here, the fortress is a must-see. The city’s feudal fortress was the centre of the noble estate, proprietary and legally separated from the free royal town of Varaždin. The fortress was built between the 14th and 19th century.
The Angels Museum
After almost three decades of painting a characteristic angel in Baroque motifs, artist Željko Prstec has provided his hometown with a special, permanent place in art history: the city where angels sleep.
The Green Market
The lively atmosphere of the market while locals are looking for the finest local produce on the market is always a great experience. Stroll around the market, explore the varying seasonal offerings from local farmers, which always include delicious local veggies, fruits, other culinary delights, like the must-try fresh cottage cheese with cream, which arrives fresh every morning from family farms in Varaždin and its surroundings.
The construction began in 1642, but the church got its final appearance in the 18th century. The Cathedral traditionally hosts a festival of baroque music, known as the Varaždin Baroque Evenings.
Grgur Ninski Statue
If you visited Split, the home of AndAdventure, then you’ve definitely seen the magnificent 8-meter high sculpture of Bishop Grgur Ninski (Gregory of Nin) and rubbed his thumb, wishing for happiness and fulfillment of your wishes. But did you know that the original version of this sculpture has found a home in Varazdin? The statue stands as the most significant and largest public monument in the city.
Špancirfest and events
Varaždin is an event city. Festivals, theatrical productions, museums, exhibitions, and more are all perfectly woven into the city’s historic fabric. If you visit Varaždin between the middle of April and October, you will be welcomed by the city’s traditional craftsmen at the Square of Traditional Crafts where you can have the local blacksmith forge a medallion just for you. And every Saturday, between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m., experience the “purgari,” the famous changing of the Civil Guard, followed by the guard drummers, one of ultimate symbols of Varaždin and a tradition dating back more than two and a half centuries. The most renowned event in Varaždin is Špancirfest. During the 10 days of Špancirfest the streets, squares, palaces, parks, gardens, and courtyards of historic Varaždin become stages, theatres, restaurants, bars, clubs, classrooms, and shops at the largest, most popular, and most diverse Croatian festival.
Drava River Safari
Immerse yourself in nature and enjoy a halcyon river raft safari while exploring the biological diversity of the Drava River’s eclectic flora and fauna; beavers, swans, white-tailed eagles, black storks, and different endemic fish all in their natural habitats throughout the gravel islands, flooded forests, and river tributaries and branches! And if you prefer SUP over rafts, we have great news for you – this option is available as well.
Cycling trails in Varaždin county
As we mentioned in our introduction – Varaždin is a town of cyclists. The easiest way of getting to know Varaždin County, with all its landmarks and heritage, is via bicycle. Ride on one of the numerous cycling paths or the Mura-Drava cycling route, explore the wine roads, castles, manors, parks, and more.
Hiking trails in Varaždin county
Varaždin County has a long hiking tradition on Ivančica Mountain; the highest mountain in Hrvatsko Zagorje. However, other nearby hills and slopes offer picturesque nature and lovely vistas as well. So, if you would like to hike some of the nearby mountains and hills during your visit, there are a number of compelling options to explore.
Nicknamed the Center of the World, Ludbreg is a town of many legends. The most intriguing and best-known of them is the one about Ludberg being the center of the world, which dates back to Roman times, a time when Castrum Iovia (modern day Ludbreg) was one of the most important settlements in the Drava River Valley and a military stronghold surrounded by walls. Because of its exceptional geographic position, it grew to become an extremely important defense and trading centre, complete with a spa and a forum. The old story from those times about Ludbreg being the center of the world has somehow survived across the centuries, thanks in large part to the Swiss historian Dr. Erasmus Weddigen, who gave it a new life when he stated:
The towns closest to Ludbreg- Varaždin, Varaždinske Toplice, Čakovec and Koprivnica are 20 km away from the “center of the world.” If we continue to delineate “the Earth’s circles” wider, we will notice that, for example, Vienna and Budapest are equally distant from Ludbreg, just like Paris and Athens.
The town of Ludbreg has decided to display this ancient story on the main square, where concentric circles are indeed delineated from the “center of the world” and suggest that, just maybe, there could be something to this ancient city legend.
The art of lacemaking has been preserved here thanks to a local lace-making school founded here in the early 20th century. In 2004, lacemaking was put on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The lace was introduced into the European market as a high fashion accessory and has won awards in world exhibitions. Today, lacemaking is encouraged by the Lepoglava Lace Society and every October Lepoglava hosts the International Lace Festival. In addition to the MUST DO visit to the Lepoglava Lace Museum, there is more to discover in Lepoglava, as it is also very important to Croatian art, culture, science, history, and religion.
In Lepoglava you’ll find a fossil volcano that formed some 22 million years ago. This area is known as the leading agate site in Croatia, and it is the only agate site in Croatia that is part of the European geological legacy, but you can also find some semi-precious stones like various chalcedonies, red jasper, and agate, as well as some amethyst and opal. Enjoy an easy hike up to the top while learning about different geological phases and what makes the makeup of this place so unique.
To put it simply: gingerbread. In the 18th and 19th-century gingerbread making was an important part of the local cultural heritage. This ancient craft hasn’t changed much through the centuries and was listed as a UNESCO heritage in 2010. While in the area, you can join a fun workshop and learn how to decorate traditional gingerbreads, which are most often made in the shape of a heart and are given as a sign of affection and love. While the ingredients used are edible, Lictari gingerbread is more widely used as a decoration or souvenir. The gingerbread is decorated in a specific way; usually colored bright red and decorated with pictures, small mirrors, verses, and messages.
Pumpkin Seed Oil
What olive oil is to Dalmatia and Istria, the pumpkin seed oil is to Varaždin County. Pumpkin seed oil is of high biological, nutritional, and gastronomic value. Dark green in color with a dark red reflection and pleasant smell and nutty taste, in addition to culinary value, each precious drop of pumpkin oil is a natural balm rich in many essential compounds that are great for your health. The best way to try it is by visiting the local producers who cultivate pumpkins on bio-dynamic and ecological farms.
Food & Wine
More great food to discover! Experience new tastes that differ greatly from what you would taste in coastal Croatia or Istria. Traditional dishes from the Varaždin area generally consist of a few simple ingredients, of which the most commonly used is wheat and cornflour, in the famous Varaždin’ klipič’, ‘mlinci’, ‘štrukli’ and ‘zlevanka’.
I will list just a few of the delicious things to try, but there are plenty of other options to enjoy. I’ll start with a popular breakfast item or snack throughout the day – Varazdinski Klipič, which is not to be missed. As locals love to say; there is only one klipič; the rest are just bagels.
Štrukli is another popular must-try dish. It’s composed of dough and various filling types that can be either boiled or baked. I love baked Štrukli with cottage cheese. In 2007, Zagorski štrukli was added to the list of Croatia’s intangible cultural heritage by Croatia’s Ministry of Culture.
Mlinci, a thin dried flatbread that is easy to prepare by simply pouring boiled salted water or soup over the mlinci, are most commonly eaten as a side dish with roasted Zagorje turkey – served by soaking the dried pieces in the drippings from roast meats.
The next item is not a typical food for Varazdin County, but I couldn’t create this list without mentioning PIZZA, which is made with dough kneaded using a special recipe containing medicinal sulfurous thermal water. You can taste this pizza and its secret recipe in Varazdinske Toplice at Pizzeria Bernada.
One tasty dessert to try also comes from Varazdinske Toplice. It is worth mentioning that a natural gift – a generous spring of thermal water – gave the town its location and name, and has enabled treatments and natural therapy across all the cultural eras of the region; from the Roman Empire, when the Romans named the town Aqua Iasae, until today, when it is once again a fashionable spa and a modern thermal riviera.
The town’s special spa cake,TOPLIČKA KUPALIŠNA TORTA (Cake), has a recipe that dates back to the 19th century, which was the golden era of spa treatments in Varaždinske Toplice. The cake was served during relaxing afternoons accompanied by a glass of Champagne.
And, finally, don’t forget about local wines – mostly whites: graševina, rhein riesling, pinot blanc, chardonnay, sauvignon, traminer, and yellow muscat. There’s plenty to taste and explore in the area while discovering local wine roads. Did you know that the famed inventor Nikola Tesla loved wines from the Varaždin region? His uncle was a colonel in the Austro-Hungarian army stationed in Varaždin and Tesla would ask him to ship local wine to him in New York.
And there’s more to the local wine story. The Pinta Association of Wine Drinkers, founded in 1696 by Count Baltazar Patačić, represents an especially interesting part of history, as this group was well known for bringing its “wine doctors” around for big feasts. To become a “wine doctor,” one had to follow strictly defined rules, which mostly meant drinking immense amounts of wine. The priests denounced their insobriety, but the “doctors” had a witty answer for them: “Who drinks well, sleeps well. Who sleeps well does not make mistakes. Who does not make mistakes goes to heaven. Therefore, who drinks well, goes to heaven.” There were even women from the highest level of the aristocracy who were considered amongst the ranks of the “wine doctors.” Patačić always carried the “wine doctors'” book of members around with him and he and managed to register as many as 173 “doctors” throughout Europe.
Discover Varaždin county with AndAdventure team!
And that’s just the beginning! We have so much more to share with you and to show you. All the little, hidden secrets of this part of Croatia must be waiting to be discovered. Join us, and we will be happy to take you to the different corners of Varazdin County by foot, bike, raft, and even a jeep, all while enjoying fantastic food and meeting welcoming people.