Friday, October 03, 2008

Croatia Online - Varaždin In Pictures

In our previous posting on Varaždin we drew comparisons with Portmeirion in Wales, the location, many years ago, of the popular cult series The Prisoner. Judge for yourself!
And whilst we're discovering inland Croatia, check out our sister site, Croatia Cruising Companion, set up to give regular updates and news to accompany our cruising guide of the same name. We are again very grateful to Ian Shaw for his latest detailed account of his ongoing exploration, by yacht, of the Dalmatian Coast and Islands, this time focusing on Hvar, Korčula and Mljet.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Croatia Online - Varaždin

In the course of researching our Croatia Cruising Companion, covering the Dalmatian Coast and Islands, we've come across some extremely photogenic villages and towns. Inland Varaždin has to rank high amongst Croatia's best, alongside the likes of Sučurac and Vrboska on Hvar island, Sali on Dugi Otok, and Primošten, Trogir and Šibenik on the Dalmatian mainland.

Varaždin, particularly its 14th century castle pictured in the background, has a slight feel of Portmeirion in Wales, made famous by The Prisoner TV series, though Portmeirion is based on the Italian city of Portofino and Varaždin is distinctly Habsburg. Whilst the castle and its manicured gardens is arguably the centrepiece, this city, once Croatia's capital, is bursting with architectural delights packed into a compact car free centre. In contrast with Dalmatia however, though there are bars a plenty, restaurants are not so abundant and most are in side streets leaving the prime locations for boutiques and other shops.

On the hotel front, there are two good new ones this year - Varaždin, by the train station, and Istra in the centre. Just as well as the accomodation is full to capacity when big events are on like last weeks Baroque musical evenings. Good budget alternatives are Pansion Maltar, near the Turist hotel, and the rooms above the BBC bar, on the west of town, though these can get pretty full as well so try and book ahead.

For restaurants, The Zlatna Gusta is Varaždin's most feted. Next door is the Park which offers cheap menus popular with the town's students, as does the Raj. We ate a good value Pizza in lovely surroundings in Pizzeria Domenico and hunted high and low for somewhere different the following night that wasn't crammed with queuing students, or temporarily closed or seemingly inhospitable. Those more used to Dalmatian restaurants need to adjust to inland Croatian restaurants which are, on the whole, distinctly more formal, sometimes less populated, and much harder to suss out from the outside.

Varaždin is the perfect place for a weekend break with a great mix of culture, art, shops and history - and just the right size to wander around and get to know intimately in a few days. Only a 2 hour bus ride or 2.5 hour train journey from Zagreb as well!


"Prisoner" lovers will be interested to know that, as we researched Portmeirion more closely to see if our initial gut comparison was justified, we discovered that a remake of the series for 2009 was being considered. Link to for more information on that or to for pictures of Portmeirion to compare, for yourself, with those of Varaždin - tourist board link

Croatia Online - Slavonia Part 4 - Kopački rit

No trip to Osijek (see earlier posting) is complete without a trip to Kopački rit. It's a vast area of wetland, covering 177 square kilometres and harbouring a huge diversity of flora and fauna. Part of the area is a specially reserve, observed but not interfered with by man - nature is left entirely to its own devices here; the rest of the Nature Park is open to commercial activities such as hunting, shooting and fishing, and Tito had a grand hunting lodge in Tikveš where he used to entertain statesmen and celebrities alike.
Kopački rit is in the centre of the Danube floodplain and bounded by the Danube and the Drava, a major tributary of the Danube. Carp, catfish and other species of fish come from these two rivers to spawn, and the whole area once hosted a thriving fishing industry. When the area became protected in 1967, and fishing was banned, the locals turned to growing vegetables in the fertile soil. The northern part doesn't flood, but, in spring after the ice thaws in the mountains, the waters in the southern area can reach up to 9 metres high and there are therefore different specific characteristics, and flora and fauna, for each part.
The picture shows our small group climbing aboard the visitors' ferry for a guided tour of the protected area though the waters were unusually low for autumn so we couldn't go very far. However we were able to see cormorants in abundance, grey herons cleaning up what the greedy cormorants couldn't keep down, kingfishers, white willows, mistletoe, and crab and water rat holes. On another day, and/or in another season, we might have seen red deer, the rare white tailed eagle, muskrats, otters, frogs, storks or white egrets.
In fact we may have been somewhat distracted by our fellow visitors - a Spaniard and New Zealander, both vets specialising in red deer genetics. That, together with the input of our extremely able and informed guide Renata, led to a fascinating tale of events turning full circle - one of the most successful red deer herds in New Zealand, founded by the Englishman Graham Carr, owes a lot to the blood lines of Tito's deers. A number of these deer were exported to New Zealand before Croatia's Homeland war. Then, during the war, Tito's herd was all but wiped out by the Serbians who occupied the area feasting on venison. However our New Zealand vet friend, Mike, returned to Croatia after the war with embryos from the original herd to replenish stocks. As a further twist, the reason for Mike and Antonio's visit this week was to improve the genetics of a local herd that are part of a hunting "farm" - effectively the hunting organisation's owners want the superior genes (in one respect at least) of the current New Zealand herd so that their visiting recreational hunters can get better antlers for their trophys.
If red deer genetics and breeding is your thing, read more on
For more information on Kopački rit, go to
And our most important tip - if you can't bear mosquitoes, avoid the summer months. Depending on the water levels, they're not always a problem but when they are, they really are. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit in any event.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Croatia Online - Slavonia Part 3 - Bizovac

Today's photo was particularly hard to select. We could have chosen to picture a quiet village with a post office and a couple of cafes, or the behemoth of a building that is Hotel Termia, or a spanking new, almost as enormous, hospital near to the hotel, or a very tatty looking hotel bedroom with basic and battered wooden furniture, or the steam from the healing hot waters blowing up from fields. Instead, the photo shows the best of Hotel Termia - its vast swimming area, or part of it at least. Not shown is the large "standard pool" for those that just want to get some exercise swimming lengths. The area pictured is for more of a relaxing experience - a number of different sized jacuzzis dotted around, for want of a better phrase, a "designer pool". Outside there's much more, including a water slide that empties its contents into the indoor pool.
Hotel Termia has its good and its bad side but the bad is not to be underestimated and hits you as soon as you walk into your room. That said, it only claims two stars and the bathroom was ok, even if the state of the rest of the room was not. It was probably clean but hard to tell! The outside is imposing but promises more than delivered by the rooms. Inside it's a maze of corridors, doors and stairs, and a huge reception area containing a shop and bar. There's a classic and clinical mass catering restaurant - you know, from the style, it's going to be stewed white coffee from an urn for breakfast - but the "National Restaurant" has more than a little to commend it including some imaginative dishes and a good attempt to provide a cosy atmosphere.
We're told by "the management" that the hotel will be privatised this year so for those high rollers who've escaped the Wall Street Blues, and relish a challenge, don't say you weren't warned!
And if you haven't guessed yet, Bizovac is the source of underground thermal waters, rich in minerals and used in a wide range of health treatments; state owned Hotel Termia has, to date, cornered the market, but not for much longer it seems.