Bjelovar-Bilogora County in central Croatia might not strike you as a must-visit region, not least if you're one of its residents and rarely see tourists making the trip there. However, you can sometimes live in a place for so long that you become blind to its best aspects and it takes the eyes of a stranger to point out just how charming your home actually is. Mentioned as far back as Roman times for its therapeutic thermal waters, the county has played a huge part in the history of Croatia and has monuments and traditions from throughout the ages to prove it. Aside from its history, the county is full of fun and contemporary things to do and see.
This article is sponsored by the Bjelovar Bilogora county TB and The Croatian National Tourism Board: 'Croatia Full of Life'.
Ten brilliant reasons to visit Bjelovar-Bilogora county
The brewery in Daruvar is not quite Croatia's oldest, but it is the oldest brewery in the country that remains on its original site. Throughout its history, the brewery's production has been informed by members of the sizeable Czech community who, hundreds of years ago, began to make a home for themselves in the town. They remain there to this day, Daruvar even having Czech language schooling for its children. Having brought their brewing know-how with them, the Czech community and their Croatian counterparts have since presided over an endeavour that has remained successful since its founding in 1840, this despite its independent standing within an industry now dominated by giant international brands. Their oldest beer was popular in the days of Yugoslavia but suffered a substantial hit when the country fell apart. Thankfully, the brewery's faith, perseverance and traditional working methods have paid off. It has once again found favour, this time among those who appreciate the championed ales of Croatia's decade-old craft beer revolution. Within this connoisseur's corner of small-production beers, it stands alongside the brewery's other craft range which has as many as nine different beers and is one of Croatia's premium craft brands. The brewery is also the chief instigator of the town's longstanding beer festival, which is one of the best in Croatia.
The low mountains of Bilogora in Bjelovar-Bilogora county are home to some of the most highly prized cows in Croatia. Their meat is distinct, thanks not least to the free-roaming lifestyle they have and the rich land on which they graze. When treated correctly, this prize beef is hung and aged prior to being sold. You'd be lucky to be able to buy some though, as most of the region's prime beef is exported or sold to some of the best restaurants in Croatia, the country's top chefs long having been aware of the fine quality of its succulent steaks and filets. Thankfully, there are many restaurants in Bjelovar-Bilogora County who stock and know exactly how to serve this premium product. Just, please, don't ask for a Bilogora steak to be cooked well done, you'll near ruin its best qualities and earn a terrible reputation for visitors.
Garić grad in Šimljanik, just south-west of Podgarić, is one of the oldest medieval cities in Croatia. Built at the behest of ban Stjepan Šubić in 1256, the city contained two sections, an outer part and an inner, both of which were surrounded by defensive walls. It also had two defensive towers. It's perhaps not surprising that the 18 metre-tall of these remains extremely well preserved when you consider that its stone work is some two and a half metres thick. Such fortifications were still not enough to keep the invading Ottoman army at bay and they set the city alight in 1545, destroying it. Later, it fell to ruin. Fruitful archaeological excavations were undertaken on the site, alongside restoration work, between 1964 and 1972 and the ceramics, fireplace, metal and stone work discovered there can today be viewed in the Moslavina Museum in Kutina. Today, the medieval ruins lie on a popular route for hikers taking on the nearby Mount Moslavina. The site is enjoyed by them as a picnic spot prior to the ascent or as a relaxing reward on the way down. The ruins are also accessible by car.
Not having the natural assets of an Adriatic seaside region, Bjelovar-Bilogora county has to work that much harder to attract visitors and has developed an events calendar richer than almost anywhere else in Central Croatia. Events in the county extend throughout the year, such as the Bjelovar Spring and Autumn fairs which are significant to those across the country who work in agriculture. More accessible to the layman are the famous Salaj Family estate events of Easter and Christmas, the latter seeing the estate grounds, which are located in Grabovnica, just to the east of Čazma, decorated with more than one million, eight hundred thousand lights. There are festivals dedicated to astronomy, beekeeping, documentary cinema and cheese. For music lovers, there's a festival dedicated to brass band music which draws participants from across the Balkans and a week-long celebration of percussion too. The music programme of the aforementioned Daruvar beer festival is also one of its best components. There are celebrations of Czech and Hungarian culture, the latter marked significantly on Terezijana which honours the empress who founded Bjelovar.
Although some claim their origins are from Hungary, the Janković family are associated strongly with the eastern regions of Croatia, particularly Slavonia and Baranya, and also Bosnia, the latter being where Mihovil Janković was banished after his capture by the Ottomans, following successful defensive campaigns he led against them on behalf of Austro-Hungary. This branch of the family returned to north-east Croatia and Hungary after the region's liberation from the Turks and in 1745 his descendant Antun acquired the northern part of the Sirac estate, which also housed the village of Podborje, the site of present-day Daruvar. He decided to build the family seat there and is still considered the most significant person in the town's history, not least because he also commissioned the construction of the famous spa building in the town. It was this family estate which originally held the title of Daruvar or Crane's castle, daru coming from the Hungarian word for crane, the bird still visible today on the city's coat of arms. The name extended to houses of Podborje village which lay within the estate, eventually supplanting the village's original title. Set on a hillside with extensive grounds, some sixty rooms and a grand salon formerly used for concerts and dances, the U-shaped castle was completed in 1777 and holds three wings and a grand central courtyard. The style of the castle comes from the Baroque period, although its Viennese architects have been restrained with outer decorations, granting the building a formal, elegant and timeless expression. The Ginkgo biloba aka maidenhair tree which greets you at the entrance is protected. The last surviving subspecies of a tree family which dates back as far as 270 million years, this particular Ginkgo biloba has a trunk circumference of some seven metres and is the oldest of its kind in Croatia. The castle itself is a nationally protected part of Croatian heritage and houses a celebrated wine cellar regularly used for wine tasting events, most notably the Vinodar wine festival (the region itself is able to trace its winemaking industry back some 2000 years). Also contained within the castle are rooms open to the public which are dedicated to the area's Jewish heritage, the family's history, regional history from the Second World War and one dedicated to the more recent Homeland War.
Bjelovar-Bilogora county boasts the most unique landscape within the broader region of Slavonia in which it is located, holding not only the typical flat land found throughout the huge Pannonian basin, but also low-lying mountains and hills. This makes the county perfect for a variety of different activities. Flat areas lend themselves well to cycling and walking; you can easily spend the whole day happily touring a rural topography beautifully impacted by vineyards and other traditional agriculture. Within Bjelovar-Bilogora county's rural flatlands you'll also find some of Croatia's best places for horse riding. The more challenging mountains and hills are perfect for hikers.
The Monument to the Revolution of the people of Moslavina, located in the eastern part of the village of Podgarić, is one of the most striking and famous of all the Yugoslavian-era war memorials. It stands ten metres tall and 20 metres wide. The communist regime of Yugoslavia commissioned many famous sculptors and architects, such as Bogdan Bogdanović, Gradimir Medaković, Vojin Bakić, Miodrag Živković, Jordan and Iskra Grabul to design similar modernist structures following the Second World War. Many of the memorials hold a specific inspiration and meaning. The monument in Moslavina is no exception. During the Second World War, Podgarić became a key encampment for the Partizan army, who were trying to free Croatia from the ruling, Nazi-sponsored Ustaša regime. A large field hospital was built in the village which accepted many hundreds of injured soldiers. The monument itself is a tribute to the people of the area who assisted both in the care of the wounded and in the effort to defeat the fascists. The Ustaša also interned thousands of Croatian Jews, Serbs, Roma, homosexuals and dissenters in concentration camps and they are commemorated at other monuments across the former Yugoslavia. The monument was designed by Dušan Džamonja and is the main draw for visits to the village, a benefit sadly not enjoyed in other locations where similar monuments were destroyed following the collapse of communism.
Compared to the global fame acquired by Italy and France's winemaking endeavours, Croatian wines have been a wonderful secret, long cherished by those-in-the-know. These days, the country's wines score highly at so many international competitions that the cat is finally out of the bag. However, it is red wines from Dalmatia and the wines of Istria that pick up most of the plaudits, meaning there's one more secret to keep hold of; the brilliant white wines of Slavonia. The unique terroir of Bjelovar-Bilogora County helps to make some of the finest white wine you will ever discover, in Croatia or indeed anywhere else and the county's vineyards and wineries are beautiful and informative places to visit and try them. Graševina is perhaps the most famous wine made in Slavonia and you'd have to look extremely hard to find a less-than-great version of this varietal produced in the region. Slavonia is also known for producing fantastic Rieslings and a limited production of very distinct, but highly-prized late-harvest wines, their grapes left on the vines almost until the first all-encompassing frosts, ensuring maximum flavour is derived from the fruits. Loathe as we are to give up the very last remaining secret, but this area also produces some of the greatest Sauvignon blanc wines you'll ever try. A sharper and often more punchy white wine than that made here from the more commonplace and traditional varietals, the Vinodar event also serves as the official evaluation of the region's Sauvignon production.
Life in rural areas can be a stifling and boring experience for some youths. But, sections of the young community living in Bjelovar-Bilogora county have risen to the challenge and created diverse and wholly contemporary manifestations on which to spend their time. The large amount of rural space in the county lends itself well to partying far from the earshot of close-by neighbours. Throughout the summer you'll find young people decamped in wooded or waterside locations where their barbeques flame throughout the night and their soundsystems blast out electronic music, some of it being produced locally by DJ and music-making collectives. Some are based in Bjelovar, and can be found holding regular sessions at the town's great skateboarding park. One of these collective's founders, Bjelovar resident Fran Zeman, is an award-winning BMXer, one of Croatia's best and he's in a position to be able to invite some of his similarly well-practised peers from throughout the country to their chief BMX event in May. For the last 14 years, the town of Bjelovar has become one of the best places in the country to see graffiti and street art, thanks to a street art festival. Most of Croatia's best-known graffiti artists have visited and painted in the town as well as some hugely impressive international names. They have left their mark on the walls of residential buildings, business premises and on the walls surrounding public spaces; 240 huge, colourful murals, most of which are still in situ, are a constant reminder of the persistence of the youth culture in the county.
Just because Bjelovar-Bilogora county is not by the sea, that doesn't mean you have to sit in the dry and dusty heat during summer. In fact, some of the earliest recorded mentions of the region detail its most-famous water asset, the thermal waters in Daruvar. The previously mentioned Daruvar Spa now houses some of these waters and it's a wonderfully-designed place, sat right next to a peaceful park. Within the spa you can relax and pamper yourself, taking advantage of health and beauty treatments or simply just enjoy the soothing thermal waters. If relaxation is not the only thing you want from a pool, the nearby Aquae Balissae complex has everything you and the family could want. In warmer months, its outdoor area boasts over 2,000 square metres of water features including two large swimming pools, children's pools, a 200-metre long artificial river, two slides, a sunbathing area and various catering facilities. In winter, there's the prettily-housed indoor pools which are positioned over 600 square metres and contain four large pools, a children's pool, a cave, a slide and a whirlpool. Like the spa, these baths use thermal water and also offer some health and beauty treatments. Daruvar is not alone in its offer though as, in summer months, Bjelovar also has an open-air pool that is incredibly popular and a great place to spend the day swimming and sunbathing. A short trip away, Veliki Grđevac offers attractive outdoor pools. Šandrovac is also known for its open-air swimming pool - one of the county's most beautiful, its set on a grassy terrain surrounded by verdant farmlands.