The beginner’s guide to Zagorje: five sites to see
Remember Kristina, the charming lady teaching English to residents of Rovinj? The dedicated environmentalist, lover of sunflowers, and author of Croatia Chronicles? We are proud to share her latest blog post, in which she continues to explain her fascination with the Croatian inland. Namely, the region of Zagorje.
To some, Zagorje may seem dull and modest, yet the region is in fact a rich cultural and historical hub. As a sort of epilogue to my previous post on Zagorje life (see: Country Livin’ for reference), I have compiled a list of some of my favorite sites in the region. But before I go into their descriptions, here are a few fun facts about Zagorje courtesy of my cousin, Romana, a former tour guide:
1) Zagorje has numerous sources of thermal water that you can enjoy at the following areas: Stubicke Toplice, Krapinske Toplice, Tuheljske Toplice, and Sutinske Toplice.
2) Krapina, Zagorje’s capital, is home to over 800 Neanderthal fossil remains found by archaeologist and paleontologist, Dragutin Gorjanovic-Kramberger.
3) Zagorje is the birthplace of the Kajkavian dialect, which once almost became Croatia’s standard dialect.
Now, on to my list.
1. Marija Bistrica
The religious mecca of Croatia, Marija Bistrica is a lovely town that thousands of Roman Catholics take a pilgrimage to every year to visit the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Though I love walking on the church grounds and admiring the town, I mainly go to Marija Bistrica for the Sunday market. There is no better place to get traditional Croatian goods as souvenirs or gifts. You can pick up any number of fun trinkets from handmade shell-encrusted jewelry boxes to traditional wooden toys.
If nothing else, you must get yourself a bunch of handmade heart cookie ornaments called licitarsko srce. You can find these cookie hearts almost anywhere in Croatia but they were first made in Marija Bistrica. The town’s market offers more than just toys and delightful trinkets though—you can purchase hand-sewn bags, handmade jewelry, and delicious goodies as well.
To me, Marija Bistrica’s colorful and lively Sunday market is pure wallet seduction, meaning that you’ll want to buy nearly everything there. And if you have plans for after you visit, consider making them a little later since you’ll certainly stay admiring goods at the vendors’ stalls well past you intend to leave.
2. Veliki Tabor
Veliki Tabor is just one of a number of castles you can find in Zagorje and it’s absolutely stunning. Built in the 12th century, Veliki Tabor once served as a fortress but is now a wonderful museum. I’ve visited the castle twice and both times were equally exciting. Walking through its door and entering the courtyard, you can imagine what scenes may have once taken place there—grand dances, tragic fights, or humorous plays.
Once inside, you can move from room to room and view swords and armor, uniform replicas, and various paintings. And if you choose to visit during the summer, try to catch the Tabor International Short Film Festival. I have yet to attend myself but I hear it’s fantastic. Certainly, any visitor who enters Veliki Tabor through its massive wooden doors won’t be disappointed.
Though Veliki Tabor is always a treat to visit, Trakoscan castle is definitely my favorite. Driving in, you see this gorgeous 13th century castle sitting atop a lush green hill and wish that you could call it your new home. Like Veliki Tabor, Trakoscan castle now houses a museum instead of people and is everything you imagine a castle to be: grand and filled with beautiful furniture and paintings.
Spend an hour or two walking through its colorfully decorated rooms that were once inhabited by the Celjski family, who ruled over the entire Zagorje principality, as well as Medimurje, Varaždin and large estates in present-day Slovenia. Afterwards, explore the castle’s gorgeous grounds. If you take a walk down to the lake, be sure to rent a paddle boat and enjoy a relaxing afternoon ride.
4. Varazdinske Toplice
This is one of my most favorite places to visit in all of Croatia and I always try to go back for an afternoon visit at least once when I’m in the country. Home to the Romans during 1st- 4th centuries CE (AD), Varazdinske Toplice contains the ruins of a Roman bath spa called Aquae Iasae. Here, the old spring is still sprouting hot water from the ground.
The spa ruins have recently been turned into a small park, making it the perfect place for taking pictures, reading, writing, and picnicking. Though the smell of sulfur (i.e. rotten eggs) gets more pronounced as you inch closer to the water, it’s not overpowering and becomes nearly unnoticeable in a few minutes. The park is small but completely enchanting. And while you’re in Varaždinske Toplice, check out the town’s Stari Grad (direct translation: old city), which is not really a city as the name suggests but rather a castle, and in this town’s case a quaint little castle that’s now a small museum.
5. Zoo Ervenik
Though not yet a major region attraction and not nearly anything like your typical zoological park, this small village zoo run by a kind and welcoming middle-aged couple is the perfect place to visit on a calm afternoon. You’ll encounter a wide array of country animals like turkeys, peasants, chickens, pigs, and goats, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to snap a picture of the zoo’s peacock’s beautiful plumage. My favorite animal? The goats. Once you pet them, they’ll follow you until you give ‘em some more lovin’. Check out Zoo Ervenik on Facebook.
With this list, I have only scratched the surface of what there is to visit in Zagorje, but if your time is limited the above five sites are definite must-sees.
Written by: Kristina Pepelko, The Croatia Chronicles