Most visitors to Croatia know something about its sophisticated capital, Zagreb, and the country’s stunning Adriatic coastal scenery, but they know little about what lies beyond. There is much less traveler chatter about Croatia’s inland towns—both close to Zagreb and farther away—than there is about the coast, even though these interior regions provide rich alternatives to sun-and-fun culture. Croatia away from Zagreb and the coast dances to a much less frenetic beat than its glamorous siblings. The atmosphere in the cool, green hills is more down-to-earth and less commercial. Working towns and farms are juxtaposed with castles and medieval fortresses, built centuries ago to protect the country from foreign invaders.
The northern regions of the Zagorje and Međimurje are where many of Croatia’s heroes were born, and where many patriots died fighting for Croatia’s freedom. There, hilltop towers stand sentry, as if to protect the land against harm, and tiny klets stand between crop rows to provide shelter for farmers and their tools.
Towns among the rolling hills and flatlands outside Zagreb are beginning to actively court tourists as the capital spreads outward to meet fields of yellow sunflowers waving in the wind. So get out of town and take a trip to the country, where the roads less traveled will lead you to the “real” Croatia and the genuine people who live there.
Excursions from Zagreb
You don’t have to take a long road trip to sample Croatia’s northern heartland: Many of the castles, wineries, historical sites, and natural wonders within a 161km (100 mile) radius of Zagreb can be visited on day trips. Excursions such as a day of hiking the trails at Plitvice Lakes National Park, with its waterfalls and gorges, or exploring the shops, cafés, and castle in the Baroque town of Varaždin, are within easy reach of Zagreb. Whether you want to spend a few days driving through the Međimurje wine country in extreme northern Croatia, or if you have just half a day to wander around Tito's childhood village at Kumrovec in the Zagorje, you can do it without spending a lot of time in transit. Check with the Zagreb County Tourist Association (www.tzzz.hr; tel. 01/487-36-65) at Preradovićeva 42 for excursion possibilities. To get information on exploring the territory north of Zagreb in the Zagorje or Međimurje regions, contact the Tourist Board of Međimurje County (www.tzm.hr; tel. 040/374-064) in Čakovec at R. Boškovića 2.Getting There & Getting Around
From Zagreb, all of the destinations can easily be reached by car. Alternatively, visitors can travel by train; for schedules, go to Croatian Railways (www.hzpp.hr; tel. 060/333-444). Buses leave from Zagreb Bus Station (www.akz.hr; tel. 060/313-333). No matter how you arrive, your adventure will involve walking, as these destinations are compact, and some are even pedestrian-only.
Kumrovec & Veliki Tabor
The route north from Zagreb past Mount Medvednica and through the Stubica Valley leads to the Zagorje region, home to some of Croatia’s most beautiful vistas and the best castles in the country. On the way, you’ll be immersed in the Zagorje’s appealing rural atmosphere, which hasn’t changed much over the centuries. History buffs will make beelines for the ethno village of Kumrovec (Staro Selo), where Josip Broz Tito was born, and Veliki Tabor, one of Croatia’s oldest castles.
EssentialsVisitor Information -- The Kumrovec Tourist Board (www.kumrovec.hr; tel. 049/553-728) is at Ulica Josipa Broza 12.
Getting There -- You can see both Kumrovec (Staro Selo) and Veliki Tabor in a day if you are driving, but it will take longer if you are using public transport, which is available from Zagreb and other parts of Croatia. Several public buses run daily to Kumrovec. To get to Veliki Tabor, however, you’ll have to take one of several buses to Desinič and walk almost 3.2km (2 miles) to the castle from the bus stop. Getting Around -- Once you reach your destination, walking or biking are the only ways to explore this area. You can drive up to Veliki Tabor, but you must park outside the limits of Staro Selo and explore the village on foot.
What to See & Do
It’s possible to fashion a castle tour, a winery tour, or even a Croatian culture tour to take in the numerous sites here. It’s difficult to do justice to these beautiful areas without your own transportation or a focused, organized tour, because while public transportation is available, the time spent in transit and making connections is out of proportion to the time you need to see some of the sites.
Her Name Was Veronika
According to legend, Veronika of Desinić was a beautiful girl who lived in the village at the foot of Veliki Tabor during the 15th century. During that time, the castle was owned by Count Herman II of Celje, a powerful Croatian governor who had a son named Friederich. One day while out riding, Friederich spotted the lovely village maiden and fell in love at first sight. However, Herman didn’t approve of the liaison and forbade his son to see the lowborn Veronika. As the young are wont to do, the couple defied Herman and eloped, but their time together was short. When the count found out what Veronika and his son had done, he had his soldiers hunt them down. Friederich was captured immediately and whisked away to a solitary cell where he was imprisoned for four years. Veronika was not so lucky. The count’s minions found her and had her brought to Veliki Tabor, where she was jailed and tried as a witch. The judges found Veronika guilty of nothing more sinister than love and ordered her set free. However, Herman was still enraged at being defied and he ordered his servants to drown Veronika in a bucket of water before she left the courtroom. He then had Veronika’s body bricked into the walls of the castle’s pentagonal tower. In 1982, a female skull was found behind a Veliki Tabor wall during renovation, but there is no proof that it is Veronika’s. The skull now resides in Veliki Tabor chapel. It is said that on stormy winter nights, a woman’s screams can be heard at the castle.
Where to Dine
There is no shortage of restaurants in the Zagorje area, though most are very small, family-run affairs. Wherever you stop, it’s almost impossible to get a bad meal, especially if you stick to local specialties.
Excursions South of Zagreb
Undoubtedly the most rewarding day trip south of the capital is to Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia’s most visited inland destination. A lush wonderland of rocky slopes covered with dense pine forests, with a succession of turquoise-blue lakes and thundering waterfalls, it appeals to both young and old. Depending on levels of fitness and stamina, visitors can appreciate it at a slow, relaxed pace, contemplating the glorious vistas and natural wonders, or explore it with a vengeance, packing a picnic and hiking marked trails from dawn to dusk.
Visitor Information -- Just about every tourist office in every city throughout Croatia offers tours of Plitvice Lakes. Tourist offices in Zagreb in particular have racks of maps, brochures, and information on most attractions and events within 161km (100 miles) of the city. In addition, most towns in Croatia have city tourist offices with more localized information, plus commercial tourist agencies that run excursions and handle private accommodations.
Getting There & Getting Around -- Plitvice Lakes National Park (Plitvička Jezera) can be accessed via the Zagreb-Rijeka autocesta. It lies a 2 hr. drive from Zagreb, and you’ll want to allow plenty of time for exploring the trails and gazing at the countless waterfalls—in fact, if you have the time, an overnight stay in Plitvice is well worth considering. Plitvice can be reached by bus from Zagreb, but a rental car provides more freedom in planning an itinerary.