Seventy kilometres northeast of Zagreb, VARAŽDIN is one of the best-preserved Baroque towns you are likely to find anywhere in Central Europe and is well worth a day-trip. An important military stronghold for successive Hungarian and Habsburg rulers in their struggle against Ottoman expansion, Varaždin grew fat on the profits of the Austrian–Turkish wars of the late 1600s and early 1700s, and many noble families built houses here. From 1765 to 1776 it was actually Croatia’s capital, until a disastrous fire (allegedly started by a pipe-smoking local youth who fell over while chasing a pig) forced the relocation of the capital to Zagreb. Following the fire, life slowly returned to the town’s opulent Baroque palaces, many of which remain resplendent in their original cream, ochre, pink and pale-blue colours. There’s also a postcard-perfect castle, now home to northeastern Croatia’s most worthwhile museum, and quite a few churches – all crammed within the compact old town. An additional reason to visit is provided by Varaždin’s graveyard, famous throughout Croatia for its towering topiary and strollable park-like feel. A large student population ensures that modern Varaždin has a vivacious, youthful edge – the presence of an information technology faculty has made the town into one of the most prestigious places to study outside the capital. And Varaždin’s one remaining claim to fame is the extraordinarily high incidence of bicycle use among its inhabitants, giving it the air of a prosperous provincial town in the Low Countries.
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About 1km west of the castle, down Hallerova aleja, Varaždin’s municipal cemetery (Gradsko groblje) is one of Croatia’s greatest horticultural masterpieces. Begun in 1905, it was very much the life’s work of park keeper Hermann Haller, a serious student of European graveyards who believed that cemeteries should be life-enhancing public parks rather than the sombre preserve of wreath-laying mourners. He accordingly planted row upon row of conifers, carefully sculpted into stately green pillars that towered over the graves themselves – thereby providing “quiet and harmonious hiding places” for the deceased, as Haller himself explained. In among the greenery are some outstanding grave memorials, notably Robert Frangeš-Mihanović’s 1906 Art Nouveau relief of Death, angels and grieving relatives atop the tomb of Vjekoslav and Emma Leitner – it’s in the eastern end of the cemetery, and is marked as attraction no. 10 on the map at the main entrance.
The northern end of the cemetery contains a memorial to the communist partisans of World War II, with a row of spindly pylons exemplifying the kind of bold abstract art that sadly doesn’t often feature in public sculpture any more.
Festivals in Varaždin
Festivals in Varaždin
Varaždin is at its liveliest during the Špancirfest (late Aug/early Sept; w spancirfest.com), a week-long arts festival featuring street theatre, open-air rock, world music and jazz gigs, and carnivalesque costume parades. During the last two weeks of September the town’s churches and palaces provide suitably ornate venues for the Varaždin Baroque Evenings (Varaždinske barokne večeri; w vbv.hr), with international conductors and soloists performing a rich repertoire of early classical music.