Remember those fairyland territories that featured in your favourite childhood books? Maybe the sweeping moors from the Lord of the Rings or the enchanted creepers-entangled woods from Alice in Wonderland?
Have you ever wished you could step inside there as if they were real?
I did. But my fairyland has always been Međimurje—Croatia’s northernmost county, the mystic ‘island’ between the rivers Mura and Drava.
My mother was born in this land where delight and dread live side by side. The view form her native hill makes you feel like you’re on the top of the world. When I stand by the cherry tree where she played as a child, I see five countries waltzing on the horizon. But the murky river Mura lurks nearby and can suck you into a deep dead-end whirlpool from its porous banks.
She often told me stories about my ancestors—tales so beautiful and bizarre that they could only happen in an imaginary land. So I kept hoping that one day I could step inside this enchanted riverscape as if it was real.
There, I’d listen to the wistful, arresting song of the rivers. Taste the red apples squashed into cider and climb up tree tops where birds left cookies for children. And I would throw my gaze from the top of her hill into the far-reaching world, without ever wanting to leave.
So imagine my happiness when this autumn I finally arrived to Međimurje. The living and breathing fairytale of my youth.
I stepped inside as a wide-eyed child. I held my breath for a moment, afraid the stories were real only in my mind. But there everything was—the bewitching rivers, the meek round hills, and the ancient tastes and smells—apples, poppy seeds and the tangy black oil.
The magic was real.
The Mystic Mura
On a cold winter night my great grandfather Viktor walked back from a village feast across the river Mura. Fuelled with a few extra spritzers, his heavy leather boots marched through the knee-deep snow.
There wasn’t a soul around the dark Mura—only a bright moonlight reflecting against the dancing ripples. The wooden transport raft had long stopped working. So Viktor grabbed hold of the raft’s sling wire and tried to scrabble to the other side. He dived straight into the belly of the cold river.
Pushed around by the current, he fought his dense woollen coat dragging him under. Down the stream he flowed. And he would have reached the Mura delta, or disappeared in a whirlpool, if it hadn’t been for a wooden water mill to catch him midstream. That night, Viktor made it home.
Viktor’s adventure happened long before I was born. Then, water mills on the river Mura were a traditional craft and you could see them floating on wooden jetties almost at every kilometre.
The raft that he missed on his way home carried people, cattle and carts from one side to the other. It was the only way to work the fields that slowly moved and ‘travelled’ together with the meandering riverbed.
You can re-live the milling past in the village of Žabnik. The last surviving mill from 1902 is set up there as a museum so new generations can get a glimpse of the days past.
The refurbished wooden raft is operating again. Don’t try to dangle on the sling wire! Hop on the raft and admire its ingenious operating system. It uses only the power of the water current and a rudder to close the width of the river.
Visit the nearby Miller’s House—an ethno museum where you can watch a documentary about the history of the Mura mills. Have a drink on the wooden terrace and let yourself be absorbed by the sound of the flowing river.
From there you can go on the leisurely Miller’s path that meanders along another of the Mura’s striking creations—an oxbow lake.
This large lilies-covered still water is locally called mrtvica (a dead stream), but soon you’ll see that just the opposite is true. Oxbow lakes are rich habitats for all kinds of plants and wildlife. The unique biodiversity of the Amazon River, for example, is a product of such closed-off landforms.
The healing underground currents: Sveti Martin Spa
On a Sunday afternoon my great grandmother Uršula takes my Mum to Vučkovci Spa. They trudge downhill for an hour. The way back home will be even harder but it’s worth it. The wooden pool with thermal water is a perfect place for soaking, socializing, and for some, even a place to have an occasional wash.
Women leave their skirts on. And as they wade in, the fabric blows up with air and the pool is suddenly dotted with hovering balloons.
Today this black-and white scene has a shining new sheen. Vučkovci Spa opened way back in 1936, when the thermal water was channelled into the first pool and seven soaking baths.
Fast forward a few decades and you’ll arrive to the luxe LifeClass Terme Sveti Martin. The same mineral-rich water now fills the pools inside a grand wellness centre designed in the style of Rudolf Steiner’s organic architecture.
The round-chiseled wooden arches in the Temple of Life building allude to the meandering shapes of nature. And when they connect with floor-to-ceiling windows you have a feeling you are swimming in the middle of the forest.
Every pillar stands for a mineral found in the thermal water. And if your eye gets drawn to the colourful charts on the wall in one corner, you’ll learn that the Spa’s overall approach runs on Steiner’s philosophy—the union of the body, soul and spirit.
You may be wondering how thermal water was discovered here in the first place.
Well, it all began with oil.
The thick black liquid found its way to the surface in the nearby village of Peklenica. When in 1856 people realized its value, they began extracting it. First up to 35 litres of crude oil a day. But this naturally occurring oil spring gave them the idea to drill for more.
The international London Budapest Oil company set up a number of oil fields in the area. As they started the one in 1911—they struck a different kind of luck. Because instead of oil, thermal water bubbled up.
You can visit the conservation site at the original Peklenica oil spring. Remember, it is the oldest concession oil field in the world. Organized extraction of oil there began 3 years before the world’s first oil drill in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
The healing overground currents: cider and wine
Life on my mother’s hill was simple. There was no electricity or running water. Cattle drank from a pond in the basin, but for people, drinking water was precious. As the youngest in the household, it was my Mum’s duty to fetch water from a spring in the forest. She would set out each day on a long tumble downhill and an even harder clamber uphill, with heavy clay jugs in both hands.
When the jugs were drank dry, everyone switched to alcohol. Even kids. She drank the sweet cider and men quenched thirst with wine spritzers. It was easier and more accessible. Because every family had a vineyard, an apple orchard and, most importantly, a cellar close to the house.
The wine-making tradition in Međimurje goes back a long time. The noble family of Zrinski who ruled these lands 1546-1671 were known for cultivating the eno culture. This is best evidenced in the original cellars from their time.
You can see a stunning example of one such cellar in the Lovrec Winery in Sveti Urban village. Centenary oak barrels are kept intact inside the vaulted atmospheric ‘tomb’ whose walls still keep the ‘good’ mold patina for optimum conditions.
Outside the cellar, you’ll be wowed by 300-years-old plane trees that have cleverly been planted as a natural cooling system for the cellar. Jasna Lovrec, the good fairy and the heiress of the family business, will take you on a fascinating journey of the wine-making rituals through time.
Her master-minded ethnographic collection includes an old room-size wine press and quirky tid-bits of information, such as that it was a woman who first cultivated the vine.
Before you are taken to the tasting house, admire the old red vine that proudly stands the test of time. It is an offspring of the world’s oldest fruit-bearing vine žametna črnina, which lives a happy 400-years-old life in Maribor, Slovenia.
To travel to the beginning of the 19th century, head to the magical Železna Gora village. There, perched on a hill is the striking Terbotz manor house, now the seat of the Jakopić Winery and restaurant.
Their wine cellar is a museum-like showcase of wines and wine-makers from the whole Međimurje region. In the dimly lit intimacy, you can open up to the magic of the white wine sorts that thrive in this mineral-rich sandy soil: chardonnay, pinot gris, gewurztraminer, sauvignon blanc, moscato, and the indigenous pušipel.
Upstairs in the opulent dining room, where the centrepiece is an impressive open fire, you can witness engaging wine rituals. Like the blessing of the young wine on St. Martin’s Day (11 November) when a mock bishop spices up wine with salt and bestows all kinds of good wishes on this principal Međimurje liquid.
Wine drinking in Međimurje swings both in the direction of quality and quantity. Before the high-end enology, a simple spritzer was a recipe for a healthy and happy life. And in many cases this is still true today.
Here is the indisputable evidence.
Croatian photographer Šime Strikoman is known for taking areal photos of motifs that epitomize a region. In Međimurje, he arranged 1000 people into the form of a grape bunch on the famous Mađerka’s Hill. Aside from choreography, the challenge was also to drink 1000 spritzers—the challenge was met!
Međimurje food for body and soul
There were plenty of eggs around, but no one dared to crack them into an omelette—not even my Mum. Eggs were a precious barter tool, an exchange for salt and sugar. She’d only be allowed to collect them and then dolefully watch her grandmother take them to the market. A slice of rye bread with pork fat was all that was left to quench her hunger.
Or anything else that grew on their fields or in their barns. Apples, poppy seeds, potatoes, buckwheat, cream cheese and sour cream. Her grandmother never knew what real coffee was, because this was not a local ingredient. She drank barley coffee.
The food in Međimurje has somehow evaded the rollercoaster of major foodie trends. When pork fat was abhorred in the West, people stuck to their delicacy zabil (pork fat with bits of meat) and still remained healthy.
The universal pumpkin seed oil—locally called črno ulje [black oil]—has now been discovered by world’s top-class chefs as deeply aromatic and beneficial. But in Međimurje, it’s been around for ever, side by side with pork fat.
Here, the return to ancient flavours is a contradiction in terms, because the flavours and cooking techniques of the past have continued to this day.
Delicious meso z tiblice is the case in point—roast smoke pork preserved in fat—is a regular starter in most restaurants. Now hugely popular gluten-free buckwheat is the region’s staple side dish and my favourite way of eating it is just with a dollop of black oil.
Meat lovers will love the traditional roast duck, venison steak or aromatic sausages spiced with different types of game.
But the heartiness of food translates into the plant world too. Here we have the ubiquitous sauerkraut, pumpkins in hundreds of ways, foraged mushrooms and, my all time favourite—chestnuts.
Mala Hiža has received so many rewards of excellence for their imaginative and elegant take on the traditional food. This is also the only place where, as a vegetarian, I didn’t feel out of place. I thoroughly enjoyed my cream chestnut soup, pumpkin ravioli and a buckwheat-stuffed pancake.
Another highlight of my fairyland tour was finally learning how to make the intricate and scrumptious four-layer Međimurje cake—međimurska gibanica.
The combination of poppy seeds, walnuts, cream cheese and apples could put you off as too hefty. But wait till your sink your teeth into this fluffy and juicy dish, which I always eat on its own—that’s how much I adore it.
At Međimurski Dvori restaurant, I was treated to a step-by-step presentation of how to make gibanica. I knew the recipe but dealing with so many ingredients neatly folded between paper-thin filo dough always seemed too daunting. Alas, not any more.
I finally broke the barrier and made my first gibanica at home. A success. The great thing is that you too can book cooking classes at Međimurski Dvori and in a day’s workshop learn how to make a typical Međimurje three-course meal.
Where nature and nurture are not opposites
My great grandparents did everything slow. They ploughed the land with oxen and beat the grain to release it from the ear with wooden sticks.
They preserved fruit and vegetables in trap—a cold storage made with sand and earth. Or they let it ferment naturally, like apples into cider or cabbage into sauerkraut.
Now some enlightened portion of the world yearns to go back to these old ways! And those who have no fairytales running in their family can safely rely on the sophisticated biodynamic agriculture, invented by Rudolf Steiner.
This Međimurje-born visionary indebted the world with other ingenious achievements, such as Waldorf education or anthroposophic medicine. Not many people know that his native village Donji Kraljevec is in Međimurje. You can visit the newly-open Rudolf Steiner Centre and learn more about his life and work.
Stick around the so called lower Međimurje and witness some of their traditional hand-crafted miracles.
In Kotoriba you can buy a basket for any occasion, hand-woven by Pogorelec family from the local willow tree.
Or visit Sveta Marija village where you can admire the tradition of the hand-made Svetomarska lace.
Even if you spend some time in Čakovec, the central and largest town in Međimurje, the tempo of life will remain slow.
I am told that the town embraced the slow life principle as early as in the 1940s.
You can walk its pedestrianized centre and the serene park surrounding the Zrinski castle.
To one side you’ll see a typical Austro-Hungarian coffee house—Gradska Kavana.
Delve inside its lush interiors and order a slice of unforgettable deep chocolaty Legenstein cake.
Then head towards the industrial complex Stari Hrast.
Unlike so many run down factories in Croatia, this space is getting a new lease of life.
There is a hip namesake pub on-site where you can taste the local Međimursko craft beer. And soon you’ll also be able to see it being brewed when Međimurski Lepi Dečki brewery opens next door.
Finally, if you ever wondered what inspired Steve Jobs to invent the iPad, duck inside the Međimurje County Museum.
Their ethnographic collection paints a vivid picture of what life was like in the old days.
Among many curious exhibits, there is a small square writing board that children used in school instead of a paper notebook. See the resemblance?
The treasure map of the fairyland
I won’t lie to you—it’s easy to get lost in Međimurje. Countryside roads meander just like the two rivers, fields seem to shift and move and nothing on the way in seems like on the way out.
When I tell my mother that I’ve just seen the wooden raft where Viktor fell inside the Mura, she asks me:
‘Did you turn right by the pil in Sveti Martin?’
‘Which one do you mean?’
A pil is the local name for the cross that is usually placed at a countryside crossroads. There are more than 400 pils and chapels all over Međimurje. They were built to help pilgrims find their way around, even to shelter them from bad weather.
Striking as they blend in with the fluid countryside, they also somehow keep nature together. It’s their purpose to keep you collected, on the right path. But this is not really what happens. Because they are everywhere, on every corner, every turn.
When someone tells you to go left or right by the pil, you have no idea which one they mean. And so once again, you step inside the fairyland as if it was real. And getting lost is the main ingredient of the story!
I, however, was lucky to have my own private guide: Kristijan Kovačić—a wise local wayfinder who kept at my side all the time. Who revealed stories and locations that even my Međimurje-born mother never knew existed. He knew every pil, every plane tree and every bird we spotted as we drove along the river Drava.
You simply must experience Međimurje in this way. Pick and choose any of the stories from my own journey and ask Kristijan to take you along.
I’ve begun a love affair with Međimurje. It’s an intimate thing, but if you insist, I can reveal more of its charms.
So drop me a comment. Anyone for a međimurska gibanica recipe?