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Lara Rasin / Time Out Croatia

Tourism as a long-term lifeline for earthquake-hit central Croatia

Plus, an awesome one-day itinerary for travellers eager to help

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Written by
Lara Rasin
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On Monday, December 28, an earthquake with a magnitude of 5.1 on the Richter scale hit Sisak-Moslavina County, with an epicentre about 50 km south of Zagreb. There were no major injuries or serious damage. On Tuesday, December 29, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake hit the same area. This time, there were seven casualties, major injuries, widespread property damage, and thousands were left without a safe home to reside in. Families and individuals were forced to sleep in communal areas or tents until small mobile home units arrived.

The one positive effect the earthquake left was an unflagging sense of community. Citizens from all over Croatia were quick to donate time, money, and unperishable foods and clothes. Donations flooded in from abroad, as well. The Red Cross alone received over 5.8 million euros along with donated goods valued at over 4.6 million euros. Communities were physically left broken, but the sense of community remained stronger than ever. 

What about long-term support?

Now, it's been almost 6 months since the devastation. Monetary and material donations have slowly tapered off, and headlines around Croatia have ceased to be earthquake-focused. Citizens of Sisak-Moslavina County slowly started to regain a sense of normalcy. However, many are still living in cramped mobile home units, as their houses haven't yet been fixed and marked safe. Some of the affected villages still don't have running water.

Long-term issues burden the region, too. Because many areas in Sisak-Moslavina County were previously devastated in the Croatian War of Independence from 1991-1995, the population was already dwindling. One of the largest demographics to leave was that of the young and well-educated. The recent earthquake has only made matters worse. As much as the County must deal with repairing houses and ensuring safe infrastructure, it also has to work on increasing economic opportunities and incentives for people to stay in and move to the area.

You can be a part of the solution to these long-term problems. How? Through tourism - which could serve as a sustainable lifeline for the region's current and future economic development.

Croatia is an established tourism hotspot for travellers from all over the world. Parts of Croatia, that is. The tourist picture of Croatia is often one of sun-soaked islands, cocktails under palm trees, and pretty pebbled beaches. Other than the coast, the most popular destination is the inland capital city of Zagreb. However, this typically touristic depiction of Croatia doesn't align with the country's actual culture and geography - in fact, much (if not most) of the country is cut out of this picture.

One of the areas missing from most tourist itineraries and "Top 10 places to visit in Croatia" lists is Sisak-Moslavina County. Granted, this region doesn't have as international tourist-centred an offering as, say, Split-Dalmatia County. But its cultural and natural heritage make it more than worthy of a visit. What it "lacks" in planned-to-the-minute sightseeing tours and large-scale hotels, Sisak-Moslavina County makes up for in unpretentious authenticity.

Tourist interest in this heritage-filled Croatian county would do well for the livelihood of its people in the wake of a major earthquake and for the long-term survival of the local economy. 

And there's yet another bonus. If you're not sold on spending your entire Croatian vacation alongside the green hills, flower-dotted valleys, and riverscapes of Sisak-Moslavina County... You can easily make a quick day trip out of it from Zagreb.

Visit Sisak-Moslavina County

Each city, town, and village in Sisak-Moslavina County merits a visit in its own right. But since this is just one article, we'll hone in on one area for now to offer our readers a one-day trip itinerary from Zagreb.

So without further ado, welcome to your Time Out-recommended destination: the historic village of Brest Pokupski.

Brest Pokupski (Brest for short) sits on the stunning Kupa River, just across the water from the larger city of Petrinja. Both Petrinja and Brest Pokupski are located just under an hour's drive from Zagreb.

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Google Maps / ScreenshotThe route from Zagreb to Brest Pokupski and Petrinja.

A bit of history before we dive into the trip details. According to historical documents, Brest Pokupski has existed as an inhabited community since at least the 16th century. The village likely started out as a feudal and agrarian community during the Middle Ages. Its fertile soil allowed for the cultivation of grains, root vegetables, and more, the Kupa River supplied freshwater fish, and game such as wild deer and boar roamed the surrounding oak-tree-blanketed hills. Along with being practical, the landscape was undoubtedly - as it remains today - easy on the eyes.  

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Lara RasinThe beautiful blues and greens of Brest.

A rich human heritage also developed in Brest Pokupski over the years to match the natural. One of this region's most characteristic cultural traits is its wooden architecture. Beautiful wooden buildings were prevalent across the area from at least the 17th century through the 19th, as the typical regional architectural style. They were constructed from large, robust sessile and pedunculate oak planks harvested from the area's abundant forests. Houses made up the bulk of these buildings, but the region had its fair share of wooden chapels, too.

Brest Pokupski has had the unique and unfortunate position of being a crossroads for warring groups throughout the centuries. From Ottoman Empire attacks in the 16th century to the Croatian War of Independence in the 1990s, armies have focused on crossing the Kupa River into Brest Pokupski as a route further into the mainland.

During the War of Independence, Brest Pokupski wasn't occupied. But neighbouring Petrinja was, and from there, grenades were regularly shot over the river into the village. Damages to property ranged from neglectable to ruinous. This is one reason why traditional wooden architecture, a poor match for grenades' fiery explosions, is unfortunately so rare today.

In light of this, the few wooden buildings still standing in Brest (which you'll see during your one-day trip!) are particularly precious. 

Your day trip itinerary: Zagreb - Brest Pokupski - Zagreb

Kick off your morning in Zagreb, keeping in mind that you should leave for Brest Pokupski by 10 AM. Pack a backpack or your car with some travel essentials ahead of time. Mandatory: water bottles, sunscreen, a light or heavy layer of clothing depending on when you're in town, any required chargers, and some light snacks. Optional but encouraged: A camera to capture the sights. If you wish, have a light breakfast before you hit the road. Bonus points if you also start the day with a cup of kava s mlijekom - the quintessential Croatian café order - coffee with milk. 

The ride from Zagreb to Brest Pokupski takes about an hour by car, so you're all set if you're renting as part of a road trip through Croatia. Many families sell local goods right out of their gardens on the side of the road, so consider pulling over to buy some fresh produce. Designated signs will point you to the food. A few key terms to know here are DOMAĆI (this adjective means local, and sometimes organic or homemade); MED (honey); MLIJEKO (milk); KOZJE MLIJEKO (goat milk); SIR (cheese); KUKURUZ (corn on the cob); VINO (wine); and RAKIJA (Croatian brandy). 

An alternative option to driving - this one is a bit more of a hassle; you've been warned! - is taking the bus from Zagreb to Petrinja. There are multiple buses daily with tickets starting at 30 kunas one way. Mondays through Fridays, your best option is the 7:30 AM bus (you'll be in Petrinja at 9:00 AM). On Saturdays and Sundays, you can catch the 8:30 AM bus (you'll be in Petrinja at 10:10 AM). The walk from Petrinja's bus station to Brest is an hour, the car ride (if you take a cab) is 10 min, while the bike ride (if you bring your own or a rented bike from Zagreb) is about 30 min.

Either way, your first stop in Brest is the quaint Pekarna (Bakery) Edi. This is a franchise of a small-scale chain bakery from Petrinja. Order from a selection of sweet and salty baked goods. Our recommendation is another classically Croatian combo: burek with meat (burek s mesom) with a side of yoghurt in a cup. Many a Croat has held this dynamic duo in their hands - be it at 5 AM standing (or swaying) in a 24-hour bakery after a night out or as a pick-me-up on the way to work or class.

Pekarna Edi should show up on your Google or Apple Maps navigation - but if it doesn't, you'll see a red sign marking it on Brest's stretch of the D30 road. It'll be on the right when you're arriving from Zagreb. Park out front - there are a few unmarked spots here available to the public.

Enjoy your burek and yoghurt in the mini parking lot (the bakery - it's tiny! - doesn't have seating) or on the go, because you're going for a little sightseeing. From Pekara Edi, head up Lijevi odvojak (meaning, Left branch). This is Brest's first and most historic street. 

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Google Maps / Screenshot / Edited via Canva1) Edi Bakery; 2) Chapel of St. Barbara; 3) House Jurinac

From Pekarna Edi (marked with a 1 on the map), you'll be heading to two of the most notable wooden architectural sights in Brest. These are the Chapel of St. Barbara (marked with a 2 on the map) and House Jurinac (marked with a 3 on the map). 

First up is the Chapel. You'll see a walkway leading up to it marked VJEČNI MIR, meaning eternal peace. Ages-old wooden churches and chapels like this one represent the importance of folk Baroque architecture in central Croatia. The region was once rife with them, but today there are about only forty left. 

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Lara RasinThe Chapel of St. Barbara's tower.

Throughout the centuries, Brest's Chapel of St. Barbara has been a focal point of the community. The first Chapel of St. Barbara in Brest was built from sturdy oak planks in 1673 - but it's undergone a series of renovations and reconstructions over the years. Nonetheless, the Chapel, located on a small hilltop overlooking the entire village, has always been Brest's guardian.

In 1991, during the Croatian War of Independence, the Chapel was largely destroyed due to grenade attacks sent over the river from then-occupied Petrinja. But the original altars from the 17th century, which are the work of an unknown folk artist, were saved.

The historic altars' saviours? Local residents. While grenades were still soaring through the air, Brest native Ivan Hren led an effort to remove the altars from the rubble and transport them away to safety. Professional art restorers in the Croatian town of Ludbreg spruced up the altars, which were finally returned to the Chapel in 2007.

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Lara RasinThe Chapel of St. Barbara's interior (as it looks in 2021) with the original painted altars.

Brest Pokupski's patron saint is St. Barbara, and the Chapel's altars depict various scenes from her life. She is said to have been born during the 3rd century AD in present-day Lebanon. The story goes that St. Barbara became a martyr after she professed her dedication to Christianity and was executed by her disapproving father.

Please note that the church is usually locked and closed for visitors but can be enjoyed from the outside.

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Lara RasinIn the middle of the Chapel's altar is the village's patron saint, St. Barbara.

So, who restored the demolished Chapel after the war? Also local residents. They prepared wooden oak planks - most of which were smaller than the originals, to the loss of the church's 17th-century look - marked with Roman numerals. You can still see these Roman numerals engraved on the Chapel's exterior planks (if you know to look for them!). Such marks are characteristic of wooden architecture in the area, where they served as guidelines on where each plank should be mounted.

Later on, locals took care to paint the Chapel with treatments against wood-hungry mites and put its tower back in place. "We walked on the roof, brought ladders, and took care of business," 77-year-old Brest native Mijo, who we had the opportunity to speak with upon visiting the village, noted. The community's drive to take the Chapel's reconstruction into their own hands attests not only to the building's symbolic importance, but to the community's will to persevere.

If you're in town for All Saints' Day November 1, you'll be greeted with the movingly beautiful sight of candles lighting up the graveyard; the locals' tribute to their ancestors' resting places. This graveyard is considered a prestigious resting place in the village. One of the village's oldest families, with the surname Jelača, made a parcel of their land part of the graveyard to ensure generations to come could be buried within. House Jelača (which can be seen from the graveyard) is one of Brest's only traditional wooden houses still standing. Today, it sits on private land owned by descendants of the Jelača family.

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Lara RasinA view of House Jelača from the Chapel of St. Barbara's graveyard.

The Chapel's graveyard isn't all solemn, though. In the past, kids would "steal" fruits like quince and apple out of fruit groves and head to the graveyard to hide away. "It was the place we were least likely to get caught!" Mijo explained with a laugh. 

***
Special event alert! Don't miss a special event at the Chapel of St. Barbara on Wednesday, July 7, 2021. The event is part of the Sancta Barbara Festival of Wooden Chapels, which hosts musical evenings in off-the-beaten-path pearls of traditional wooden architecture of central Croatia. The Festival aims to influence the development of cultural tourism in the area and raise awareness about these oft-overlooked architectural and historical gems. The festival will close at the Brest Chapel on July 7th at 8 PM. The closing night will feature the musical stylings, titled "Suite antique," of flautist Tamara Coha Mandić and harpist Diana Grubišić Ćiković. More info here!
***

Once you've taken in views of the Chapel and its surroundings, hop over to your next stop: House Jurinac (see #3 on the map above). House Jurinac is a typical example of traditional wooden houses that once dominated the region. 

These historic houses were built from oak planks laid out horizontally in the shape of rectangular prisms. Groups of relatives spanning generations lived and worked within them. This multi-family unit typical for pre-industrial Croatia is called a zadruga. The houses a zadruga inhabited typically had a ground floor, where storage rooms and a horse carriageway were located, an upper floor, where bedrooms were found, and an attic. The few windows these abodes had were small - to keep the heat inside during the long winter months. The houses were particular for their names, too. They were called after the then-residing family's surname: House Jurinac is a testament to that. 

House Jurinac is around 350 years old, and it's owned by the government of Croatia as a protected piece of cultural heritage. The house has had multiple restorations over the years. The most recent was completed in 2019, with upcoming plans to convert the house into an ethno-museum. Unfortunately, the earthquake put a stop to those plans. Because of the earthquake, House Jurinac was left with a damaged roof and interior. Floors and walls have fallen through, and rubble now covers the house.

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Lara RasinA 2021, post-earthquake view of House Jurinac. Its roof was once straight, but the earthquake altered it.

The house is not guarded - but please, refrain from going inside and climbing the stairs. Not only is it dangerous for you, but you could (unintentionally) further damage this protected piece of local cultural heritage. Instead, walk around it and admire what once was, from the outside. Picture the house in its heyday: children playing in the yard, a mother getting water out of the well, a father riding up to the house on one of the family's horses. The smells of freshly baked bread emanating from inside, while the sounds of laughter and birdsong rang out all around.

When you've had your fill of House Jurinac, pop over to your next stop: Mlinski Kamen Resort.

Now you'll be heading away from the village's oldest street of Lijevi odvojak (and its historic attractions) towards the village's newest street of Desni odvojak. Lijevi odvojak is as old as the village itself, while Desni odvojak didn't develop until the 1970s. Today, the two streets' have starkly - and fittingly - contrasting offerings. From the non-tourist-oriented, rough-around-the-edges to an experience fully catered to travellers.

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Google Maps / Screenshot / Edited with CanvaThe route from Edi Bakery to Mlinski Kamen Resort.

Mlinski Kamen (meaning millstone), which includes a restaurant and recreational activity offering, is your run-of-the-mill (pun intended) excursion site. What you'll do here first is up to you: you can grab a bite to eat or have a coffee and then take on boating down the Kupa River, quadding, and horseriding - or vice versa. Or go all out and eat before getting recreational AND after you're all recreationed out.

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Lara RasinWelcome to Mlinski Kamen!

Make sure to contact Mlinski Kamen and reserve a spot ahead of time - especially if you visit during the weekend. The resort is open year-round, but during the summer it's particularly packed. No matter when you visit, contact the staff ahead of time (this is their Facebook page) to reserve a table in the restaurant and a quad, horse, and/or riverboat. Keep in mind that some activities are seasonal - ask about your desired activity when you call. 

Mlinski Kamen is the place to be for anyone in need of relaxation.

"We're an oasis of peace," head of restaurant Mario told Time Out Croatia. "Stress is strictly forbidden here. We only have one rule: Stop being stressed or we'll throw you in the river!" Mario laughs. "No, really - we have a slip and slide!"

Mlinski Kamen is also the place to be for anyone who's hungry!

The restaurant has an indoor and outdoor space, but dining alfresco is our recommendation. Chow down in the fresh, clean air under the shade of the region's trademark oak trees - and delight in a panoramic view of the Kupa River.

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Lara RasinPleasantly earthy colours prevail around this superb restaurant.

What's on the menu? Mlinski Kamen serves up various maestro-made barbecue dishes, and they're also known for their whopping, 45-cm-diametre pizzas. The pizzas are baked in a traditional wood-fired oven, made with regionally procured and ground flour, and feature a special ingredient: pumpkin seed oil. Mario explains, "The oil makes our dough a little darker and even greenish. The taste is unique and quite, quite rich," adding "Whoever can eat one of our jumbo pizzas on their own gets another one 100% on the house!"

There are plenty of not-so-copiously-carby options in the restaurant as well. Our recommendation is to start with a cold cheese plate, which comes with three types of top-notch local cheeses. Wash them down with a glass of Mario-recommended white Šklret wine - an indigenous variety - from the region's own Trdenić winery.

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Lara Rasin / Time Out CroatiaMlinski Kamen's tasty local cheese plate makes for a great starter.

For your main course, the Kupska šiklja (named for the šiklja, a rowboat typical for this stretch of the Kupa River) is a good go-to for two. It comes with an assortment of meat that might not match the menu description exactly - chalk this up to local creativity. Either way, you can expect a mix of grilled chicken, ćevapi, beef or pork, plus a side salad, fries, traditional ajvar dipping sauce, and warm bread straight from the wood-fired oven. Pair your main course with a refreshing bottle of Old Charlie's pale ale. The brand behind this beer is Hrvačić brewery; Sisak's first craft brewery, opened in 2018. If you still have room for dessert after, finish off your meal with some palačinke - Croatian crepes - and your sweet filling of choice. 

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Lara Rasin / Time Out CroatiaBoost your energy by opting for a hearty entree!

Even if you don't decide to rent a rowboat during your sojourn at Mlinski Kamen, taking a walk down to the river is a must. The Kupa River was a lifeline to Brest natives throughout the centuries. Along with providing freshwater fish, the river was also the site at which clothes were washed with soaps made from resident farm animals; upon which flour from surrounding fields was ground; and where traditional linen was made from locally harvested flax.

The river is also closely entwined with locals' lives and emotions. Generations of children grew up learning how to swim and skate on the Kupa River; and it remains a sanctuary for avid lovers of fishing, swimming and nature today. "The Kupa was our second home. It's where we swam, fought, fell in love..." Mijo said.

You can dip your toes in the river and behold its sights with a stroll right below Mlinski Kamen. If you wish to swim in the Kupa yourself, it's safest to head to the designated Petrinja beach. Swimming in the river, with its unexpected currents and depths, can be hazardous. 

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Lara RasinWalk off the calories by the captivating Kupa River.

Allow Brest Pokupski to satiate your stomach and soul. Head back to Zagreb with a full heart and belly at the end of your trip (plus a happy conscience - you just helped contribute to local tourism!).

And so concludes your day trip itinerary to Brest Pokupski. However, extending your trip with overnights in Sisak-Moslavina County's pretty cities of Sisak, Petrinja, and Glina is always encouraged. All the more to explore.

Don't forget to continue supporting local development. Come again - and spread the word!

This feature is part of Time Out Croatia's commitment to support businesses, commerce and non-profit organisations during the period of social distancing and the post-earthquake period.

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