Beautifully landscaped by Herman Haller, who had carefully studied the layout of Vienna’s Schönbrunn before following in his stepfather’s footsteps, Varaždin’s loveliest garden is the City Cemetery. Founded in 1773, the graveyard was a motely group of headstones interspersed with the occasional chestnut tree until Josip Matušin took charge then, most notably, his successor Stjepan Haller. The cemetery had already begun to take on a more recreational appearance by the time his stepson, Herman, was touring Habsburg Europe to gain inspiration. From the early 1900s onwards, Haller junior planted magnolia, ash and sundry well chosen greenery, and hired notable sculptors to design ornate family vaults. Statuary here includes pieces by Roberto Frangeš-Mihanović, an acquaintance of Rodin’s, and considered the father of modern Croatian sculpture – it’s his commanding likeness of King Tomislav that greets railway travellers arriving in Zagreb. His pupil Antun Augustinčić, whose Peace stands outside the United Nations in New York, is also featured here.
A Baroque jewel of fine palaces and churches, Varaždin was a fortress town, a Habsburg stronghold against the Ottomans. Croatian aristocrats who prospered from these border wars turned Varaždin into a lively centre of society and culture. Meetings of the Croatian parliament were held here, and the town may well have become the long-term capital of Croatia were it not for the great fire of 1776. Today, Varaždin hosts August’s Špancirfest, a ten-day-long series of parades, street performers, theatre, craftmanship and music concerts, but there’s more than enough going on any time of year to warrant the two-hour journey from Zagreb.