The Zagorje, a land of rolling green hills on the far side of Medvednica mountain, has always been something of a recreation area for Zagreb folk.
Perceptions of what the Zagorje offers are slowly changing, with traditional attractions like historic castles and pilgrimage churches jostled aside by a more pronounced accent on lifestyle and leisure. It’s the Zagorje’s spa hotels, restaurants and swimming pools that are increasingly pulling in the visitors. The region's farmland which supplies Zagorje's restaurants also supplies Zagreb. It is within this industry, as well as the homes of Zagorje's residents, in which two of Croatia's best delicacies are produced - Zagorje turkey and Zagorje mlinci.
When it comes to splashing around, the Zagorje always did have a solid reputation, with mineral-spring resorts such as Stubičke Toplice and Krapinske Toplice providing sanatorium-style spa treatments as well as recreational swimming pools. However, both places entered the 21st century looking a bit too old fashioned for the contemporary tourist industry.
However the Zagorje’s tourist facilities are currently in the throes of a major overhaul, with Krapinske Toplice building a large new aquatic centre and Tuheljske Toplice – the largest swimming-pool complex in the country – opening a brand-new four-star wing of its spa hotel.
Thirty-five kilometres north of Zagreb, Terme Tuhelj sits in a typically bucolic Zagorje valley lined with round-topped hills. The indoor section of Terme Tuhelj’s stirringly named Water Planet (Vodeni planet) sits beneath an innovative timber and metal canopy, with sunlight streaming in through the huge side windows. The outdoor part of the complex boasts wave pools, a 250-metre-long ‘river’ (grab an inflatable ring and just go with the flow), and shallow play-pools for the kiddies.
Terme Tuhelj’s naturally occurring, mineral-rich mud is celebrated for its joint-soothing and skin-softening properties. You can test this out at Tuhelj’s SPAeVITA centre, which also offers an up-to-date wellness menu of de-tox programmes, ayurvedic massage and aromatherapy.
Terme Tuhelj’s four-star hotel accommodation is made up of three startlingly geometric blocks decorated in bronzy-copper colours; a bold choice indeed for the Zagorje.
South-east of Tuhelj in the Stubica valley, Terme Jezerčica is a good example of the Zagorje spa industry at its more intimate, with a low huddle of buildings in a narrow green valley concealing an all-things-catered-for aquatic centre.
Indoor and outdoor pools are fed by natural thermal springs, and there’s an adjoining Wellness centre offering sauna, steam-bath and massage options. You’ll see locals paddling around or sitting in one of the Japanese-style tubs that run along the side of the complex. The Jezerčica’s hotel is more modest than Tuhelj’s, with small but adequate rooms decked out in muted colours.
Accessed by zig-zagging roads that slalom their way across the Zagorje’s many ridges, the town of Marija Bistrica is primarily known for a much-visited pilgrimage church that sits prettily on top of a small hill. It also offers some of the Zagorje’s classiest accommodation in the shape of the four-star Bluesun Hotel Kaj, whose swish, soothing rooms come with country-meadow views.
The hotel’s wellness centre features sauna, Turkish bath, massage and beauty treatments and exudes an aura of private calm that you might not get in Tuhelj or Jezerčica. The Kaj’s restaurant grows its own vegetables in a plot behind the hotel and serves typical Zagorje food (meat, meat, lots of meat) with a dash of European imagination and finesse. Sadly, the Zagorje’s fast improving spa facilities do not yet include any remedies for over-eating.
Bluesun Hotel Kaj Zagrebačka, Marija Bistrica (049 326 600). Doubles from €100.
Terme Jezerčica Toplička 80, Donja Stubica (049 200 600). Doubles from €45.
Terme Tuhelj Ljudevita Gaja 4, Tuheljske Toplice (049 203 000). Doubles from €83.