Spread out between Zagreb and the Slovene border, the Zagorje is an area of chocolate-box enchantment: miniature wooded hills are crowned with the castles they seem designed for, and streams tumble through lush vineyards. At the top of almost every vineyard is a klet, a small, steep-roofed structure traditionally used for storing wine (nowadays they’re more often put to use as weekend cottages). Although the area is covered with a dense patchwork of villages, human beings seem outnumbered by the chickens, geese and turkeys that scavenge between the cornfields and vegetable plots. The museum village of Kumrovec, the Neanderthal Museum at Krapina and the castles at Veliki Tabor and Trakošćan are the main targets for visitors, although there are any number of Baroque churches and rural villages awaiting those who wish to explore further.
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One souvenir you’ll come across again and again in the Zagorje is the licitar, the icing-covered pepper-flavoured biscuit that often takes the form of a big red heart (licitarsko srce; invariably translated as “gingerbread heart” even though there’s rarely any ginger in them) and can sometimes assume enormous proportions. A popular holiday gift ever since the Middle Ages, the licitar is still considered an essential purchase for anyone visiting Marija Bistrica, where almost every bakery window displays gaudily decorated hearts, horses and other forms. Licitari are usually baked rock-hard and are supposed to be treasured as an ornament rather than eaten: sweet-toothed travellers may have better luck with the locally made medenjaci, melt-in-the-mouth biscuits made from honey dough.