Varaždin is one of the true Baroque jewels of Central Europe, with a parade of fine palaces and churches presiding over a calm, pedestrianised centre.
It is also home to the country’s one unmissable non-Adriatic summer festival, the Špancirfest, a week-long series of parades, outdoor concerts and club events that takes over the town at the end of every August. With the Trash Film Festival in September and the highbrow Baroque Music Evenings soon afterwards, there’s enough going on in Varaždin to warrant the two-hour journey from Zagreb.
Historically, Varaždin was a fortress town, and flourished as a strategically important Habsburg stronghold against the incursions of the Ottoman Turks. Croatian aristocrats who prospered from these border wars built their townhouses in Varaždin, turning it into a lively centre of society and culture. Meetings of the Croatian parliament were held here from 1756 onwards, and the town may well have become the long-term capital of Croatia were it not for the great Varaždin fire of 1776.
It’s an easy town to explore, with a compact centre bordered by strips of park that follow the lines of the former fortress moat. Presiding over grassy embankments at the north-western corner of the centre is the resplendently whitewashed Castle, with a beautiful Renaissance courtyard girdled by earlier, 15th-century towers. Inside the castle is the City Museum (042 658 754; 9am-5pm Tue-Fri, 9am-1pm Sat & Sun; admission 25kn), with displays of arms, local crafts and furniture.
For something completely different, the World of Insects exhibition at the Hercer Palace contains a well presented and visually stunning display of dead beetles, moths and butterflies, and ranks among the biggest such collections in the world.
Varaždin Cathedral (Pavlinska 5), built in 1647, is distinguished by its Baroque entrance and 18th-century altar. In between the castle and cathedral, the Town Hall, built in 1523, hosts the changing of a much-loved town guard unit known as the Purgari every Saturday. Nowadays they’re volunteers who dress up in 19th-century uniforms.
Varaždin’s other great claim to fame is the park-like town cemetery (open May-Sept 7am-9pm daily; Mar, April & Oct 7am-8pm daily; Nov-Feb 7am-7pm daily) located a brisk ten-minute walk west of the castle. Established in the 18th century, the cemetery was given a thorough horticultural makeover by head-keeper Hermann Haller from 1905 onwards, and is nowadays considered a wonder of graveyard garden design.
Haller was a keen proponent of the idea of the ‘living cemetery’ where locals could relax and enjoy nature, and filled the graveyard with row upon row of clipped evergreens to create a uniquely ornamental park of the dead. A helpful signboard at the cemetery entrance helps to guide you through what is an engaging open-air gallery of tombstone art – look out in particular for the Leitner grave, with its Art-Nouveau relief by Robert Frangeš-Mihanović,
WHEN TO VISIT
Varaždin’s biggest annual party is Špancirfest, when the streets fill with acrobats, musicians and performers of every variety. There are three main stages for evening gigs; a theatre stage; pitches for street performers and street musicians; and stands displaying local arts, crafts and gastronomy.
Kicking off the autumn cultural season is the Trash Film Festival (September 9-12) that screens kitsch horror and action movies and distributes the much-coveted golden chainsaw awards to the best in low-budget production.
The most prestigious classical-music event of the year is the Baroque Music Evenings, classical concerts given in churches, chapels and castles in town and surrounding area. This year’s festival runs from September 18 to 30 and will feature guest ensembles from France.
If you have your own transport, the Zagreb-Goričan toll motorway will get you to Varaždin in under 90 minutes. The bus (hourly; 90kn) spends almost two hours winding its way through the rolling vineyards of Continental Croatia. Train travel (2hr 30min), with only four services a day, is less convenient. The bus station is close to town, just south-west of the centre; the train station is less than a kilometre in the opposite direction.
Varaždin Tourist Office - Ivana Padovca 3 (042 210 987). Open 8am-4pm Mon-Fri; 10am-1pm Sat.