Karlovac: the town where everyone has two birthdays

Karlovac’s 440-year birthday celebrations are just the icing on the cake, argues Marc Rowlands, who finds this Medival city offers more than ever

Karlovac 440 years birthday celebration
© Izvan fokusa
By Marc Rowlands |
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Looking at Karlovac in an aerial photograph, you can still clearly see the six-pointed star whose defensive walls and moats once defined the limits of the town. But, modern-day Karlovac has spilled out from these once necessary restrictions. The edges of its suburbs now reach into nearby villages to form a thoroughly modern conurbation where over 55,000 people reside.

This gradual overflow is the typical story of a people and their progress, the finer details obscured by time as villages become towns and then sometimes cities over the course of generations. This, however, is not the case with Karlovac. For, although its moats are now without water, the walls comparatively redundant and worn in places, this star still shines. It illuminates the history of Karlovac, revealing the town's story from the very first day on which its construction began.

That very first day was 13 July 1579, orders for the city's construction came from the regional rulers, the new settlement intending to better fortify the area than their castle in Dubovac which still looks down upon the town today. In modern times, this rare ability to exactly pinpoint the birth of the town has some seriously fun ramifications for the city's residents and visitors.

© Izvan fokusa

Everyone in Karlovac has two birthdays, their own and that of the city. Commemorated for much longer than anyone still living can remember, these celebrations now merge into other well established annual events providing a summer full of excitement, entertainment and gastronomy. World-famous music stars and colourful international dance troupes, the spectacular theatre of Croatia's second-largest hot air balloon event, the biggest bonfires you've ever seen and arguably the best beer festival in the country all mark Karlovac as a town with an indefatigable ambition and optimism. Considering the number of obstacles it has faced over the years, modern-day Karlovac is nothing short of an inspiration.

The star-shaped fortress of Karlovac was deliberately placed at the confluence of the Kupa and Korana rivers, its suburbs now extend to the rivers Mrežnica and Dobra, inspiring its most famous nickname ‘the city of four rivers’. Once, these surroundings were a notoriously difficult topography of swampland and floodplains. People living in this terrain were susceptible to disease – easier to deal with if you're in a walled city equipped with the most modern sanitation of the day than if you're attacking forces outside, sleeping in a wetland insect paradise. Those unlucky invaders were the Ottoman army, Karlovac then being on the frontline of European defence against the encroaching Turkish forces.

© Izvan fokusa

Of course, the placement of Karlovac was not made solely to hamper its attackers; the four rivers which surround the town, essentially tributaries of the Danube, were trading routes that can be traced back to Roman times. From Karlovac, these rivers could be navigated to reach routes that would allow boat passage as far as Bosnia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria to the east, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia to the north and Austria and Germany to the west.

These days, aside from one remarkable exception, no trading boats navigate the rivers around the town, although it is common to see locals in small boats trying to catch some of the plentiful river fish which reside here. Instead, Karlovac's rivers are largely used for recreation, providing some of the cleanest waters and the best inland beaches Croatia has to offer. Almost every day in summer, Croatians from the surrounding regions make a beeline for the river Mrežnica to cool off under picturesque waterfalls, relax under the shade of lofty trees and get willfully lost in near-wild nature, save for the small wooden bar nearby serving up ice-cool beers and freshly fried whitebait (papaline) drenched in lemon juice. Although no longer dependent on the waterways for transport, Karlovac's rivers remain at the heart of the town's activities, so it’s fitting that the birthday celebrations should commence here.

Though Karlovac's birthday is a big deal every year, in 2019 the date has a significant milestone of being its 440th. St.John’s Eve is the official marker for the start of proceedings, an all-day event with street performers, a tug of war across the river, free outdoor music concerts and a firework display. Its most unique aspect is perhaps the construction of two bonfires, either side of the river, which can reach as high as ten metres into the sky. Once lit, their seemingly inexhaustible flames are reflected in the water surface almost until the start of the new day. From thereon in, Karlovac embarks on a summer-long party that takes over almost every part of the city.

© Izvan fokusa

Finally freed from its frontline responsibilities in the 1690s, Karlovac slowly embarked on its journey to become a thriving and prosperous town. With no sight of the Turkish invaders returning, Europe’s defence permanently shifted further south. Under the relative calm and stability of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Karlovac began to expand outside its city walls and trade along its rivers would become an increasingly common sight.

Establishing itself as a key inland port for the transference of goods with lands to the east, the next step would be to link Karlovac to the seaports on the Croatian Adriatic coast. To that end, three famous roads, the Josefina, Carolina and Louisiana were built, the latter, to Rijeka, completed by the French during a very brief period when the town was under Napoleonic rule. These roads still exist to this day and remain popular routes connecting the continental region to the sea. This link between Karlovac and the sea also allows access to one of Croatia’s most popular landmarks, Plitvice Lakes National Park. Karlovac serves as the perfect overnight stop off for many travelling to marvel at its gushing waterfalls (not least because swimming is forbidden at Plitvice, which is certainly not the case at the waterfalls in Karlovac’s rivers).

Recreation became more of a focus as the town became more prosperous and in the 1800s, drained defensive ditches were converted into some of the rich parklands that now run through the town. Walking around Karlovac today, these green areas, straddling the river or by shaded trees, provide idyllic spots to rest, relax and escape the heat of the day.
Karlovac’s cultural significance grew with its prosperity and in 1804 the town established the first school in Croatia dedicated entirely to music tuition. The school still exists to this day, its impact on the town greater than ever thanks to the many public performances given by its students, faculty and at events such as the annual International Piano Festival. In 1920, Croatia’s first purpose-built cinema was opened in the city. Sadly, the building no longer functions as a cinema. You could muse that this is the result of karma - the cinema was named after Thomas Edison, in hindsight, an ill-thought-out choice considering the American inventor’s rival, Nikola Tesla, grew up not far from Karlovac and was even schooled in the town.

 © Izvan fokusa

Through the 1900s, Karlovac became an important hub of industry, its population expanding with workers who ran the factories. Sadly, after the fall of Yugoslavia, much of this industry ebbed away, aside from the Karlovac brewery, which at one point was the town’s biggest employer (it has been superseded in more recent years by arms manufacturers). Karlovacko beer is one of Croatia’s most popular and to try it at its best, visit the Karlovac Days Of Beer, where a special unpasteurised version is made. Running since 1984, it is perhaps Croatia’s oldest beer festival and bookends a summer full of events which draw top-flight regional musicians and international music stars.

No longer key to transportation, Karlovac’s rivers have taken on a new life in the city. Aside from the swimming and fishing, some of Croatia’s most thrilling raft excursions take place on the Kupa and Dobra rivers. Add to that the town’s many cycle routes, the colourful spring carnival and mushroom foraging treks in autumn, Karlovac proves there’s a lot more to enjoy outside of the summer. But, for a town with such a significant history, it’s only fitting that today, Karlovac should have so much to offer.

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