Between the Mura and the Drava rivers lies Međimurje, Croatia’s northernmost county. In fact the Mura river is the border at that point, flowing east between Croatia and Slovenia on its way to join first the Drava, and then the Danube. This is a very green landscape, just at the edge of the Pannonian Plain, with pretty rolling hills and thermal hotsprings. Lots of good food and wine in beautiful countryside, a soak in hot springs and a massage – how perfect!
On our way there, we stopped off in Križevci for the annual summer Spravišče festival and some wine-tasting. This is a traditional street party based on the 13th century legend of a falling out and eventual reconciliation of townsfolk and the local Kalnik fruit growers. They’re proud of their history and put on a good show with a parade, concerts, horse games, fun-fair, wine-tasting and fireworks.
Križevci is not exactly on the tourist trail, and is a little light on accommodation choices for visitors. We’ve previously stayed at the lovely Rakić farm resort out of town a bit, but this time wanted to be within walking distance of the festival. So we stayed at Kapetanova Kuća, a truly amazing airbnb with a vast collection of souvenirs from a life working on the high seas. I was very taken with the 1-metre high carved Indian elephant standing on the stair, though it was very unforgiving to walk into at night! Here’s my sketch of just a fraction of the fascinating objects that covered just about every surface!
From Križevci, we headed north across the Drava into Međimurje. The backroads are very pretty, snaking up and over the ridge towards Varaždin. At that point, we reluctantly took the toll-motorway, but only in the interests of arriving in Čakovec in time for a tour of the castle and lunch! The capital of Međimurje is a pleasant little market town, with a colourful history, lying as it does at the border of Hungary and Croatia. At various times, it has passed back and forth between them. Our lunch stop here was Mundoaka, a delightful fresh food restaurant with, gasp, a choice of vegetarian food! Don’t usually find that in deepest rural Croatia!
The outer walls of Čakovec castle (and remains of a moat) are impressive, but are in serious need of some repair. In 1546, Čakovec and Međimurje were given to Nikola Šubić Zrinski to develop as a trading centre between the kingdoms of Croatia and Hungary and a defensive buffer zone against the encroaching Ottoman Empire. Under the many generations of the Zrinski family, the area grew prosperous, and the outer keep of the castle was stoutly fortified, while the inner residence was elegantly palatial. In 1738, the castle was badly damaged by an earthquake, and in 1741 fire did further damage to the structure. It’s a fine old building, set in beautiful parkland close to the town centre. It’s now the town museum.
Our destination for a couple of nights was Terme Sveti Martin, a spa resort tucked away in the hills above Sv Martin na Muri. The road in is a delightful succession of narrow winding lanes through farmland, up and over ridges, via picturesque villages and round another bend. All very green and peaceful. To get there, a GPS comes in handy, though we began to suspect that we had set the “avoid main roads” option! The terrace of our room looked out onto a peaceful meadow and trees. A relaxing massage and swim set us up nicely for dinner!
The next morning we set off to explore the area. The main town hereabouts is Sv Martin na Muri, which is to say St Martin on the Mura. It’s a sleepy little place, with the main attraction being the Mura river itself. This is the very northernmost point of Croatia, with a rich cultural heritage and some spectacular nature. The floating mill on the river is the last of its kind, and so are the rather derelict cable ferries, ignored now in favour of bridges. The beautiful Međimurje horses are doing rather better, thanks to a breeding program to preserve this fine working horse.
The area of the Mura–Drava–Danube is planned as a UNESCO biosphere reserve with the unique distinction (and challenge) of involving five countries: Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia and Serbia. Of those, only Croatia and Hungary have already received the UNESCO protection status, the others are still working on it. There’s an amazing diversity of wildlife here, due to the variety of natural habitats. Here live white-tailed eagles (the highest density of breeding pairs in mainland Europe), along with many endangered species such as the little tern, black stork, beaver, otter and the nearly extinct ship sturgeon. Each year, more than 250,000 migratory waterfowl use these rivers to rest and feed.
Lunch was in the hill country at the sublimely lovely Terbotz restaurant. Again, the produce is home grown, very tasty and fresh, and they have vegetarian versions of traditional Međimurje dishes, which was a real treat! The view from the terrace was just begging to be painted. There was a goodly amount of customers in for a Tuesday lunchtime, clearly some on business expenses. The restaurant is part of the Jakopić winery, and this is a truly wonderful place to enjoy a selection of their wines. Unusually for Croatian restaurants, tasting flights can be ordered, allowing you to sample as many wines as you choose.
Next ridge along (the one I was just painting) is the Cmrečnjak winery. The tasting room is open and welcoming, with a lovely selection of wines. Our absolute favourite of their wines is the orange pušipel, which is outstanding! Pušipel is otherwise known as moslavac or šipon, and in Hungary as furmint. One to look out for…
There are wine trails here in Međimurje, bicycle routes and walking trails. This is a fine place to enjoy nature! The Croatia Long Distance Trail takes you from the easternmost point in Ilok to the northernmost point here in Sv Martin na Muri, on to the westernmost point at Savudrija in Istria, then all the way down the coast to Prevlaka, the southernmost point. It’s whopping 2500 kms in total, estimated to take you 116 days.
For ourselves, I think we’ll just stick to the wine and gastro trails!
“A path is a prior interpretation of the best way to traverse a landscape.”
―Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking