A 14th century, virginal white castle-like structure resting on a carpet of manicured grass—a vision both alluring and awe-inspiring. The majestic ruins of a 13th century castle on a hill—a living relic of the past. A cascade of angels in a clandestine alley, slowly descending to Earth—ethereal, and yet, a little un-earthly. The European nation of Croatia may be better known for its Game of Throne sets in Dubrovnik, and lure of natural wonders, like Krka and Plitvice Lakes National Park—but on my recent trip, I unearthed these hidden gems nestled in smaller, story tale towns.
For an escapist like me, there’s no better joy than getting lost in old towns with magical stories, that urge you to travel back in time and speak of both mythology and mystery. And as any good philosopher knows, myths are nothing but true accounts of a remote past. Read on for the hidden gems I stumbled upon in Croatia, to find and live out your own, very real fairy tale.
Ruins of a castle in Samobor
A 30-minute drive west from the city of Zagreb lies the small quiet town of Samobor—known for its historic architecture, natural wonders, laidback vibe and un-real kremšnita. Fairly quiet even in the tourist-heavy month of August, it’s small enough to comfortably walk around on foot—and perhaps this is the best way, to make the most of its well-maintained architecture. The town square is filled with open-air cafes and little bars—where you must try the traditional kremšnita, a decadent dessert made from puff pastry and custard cream, that Samobor is well-known for. (I recommend Slasticarnica U Prolazu).
But the crown jewel of the town, and the sight I lost my romantic heart to is the Samobor Castle, a ruined castle atop Tepec Hill. A ten-minute walk from the town center, through a pretty public park takes you to the start of a hiking point. A quick 20-minute uphill walk takes you to the ruins of the castle that was erected back in the 13th century and sit at an elevation of 220m. I had the serendipitous pleasure of reaching the top just as the sun settled into a glorious sunset sky and the old castle moat, the massive entrance and most of the still-standing walls came to life against the fiery colours of the sky. And all I could think about was clandestine meetings with a Prince Charming as we soaked in the sights, with the stone castle protecting us.
Things to see: Samobor Museum, St Anastasia Church, Grgos Cave
Stay: Plenty of quaint apartments, but also ideal for a day trip from Zagreb
The angel alley of Varazdin
An hour north from Zagreb, lies a town from a different time. The former capital of Croatia, its cobbled streets, well-preserved baroque buildings and old town charm hark back to a simpler time and as you walk through Varazdin, you can’t help but be taken in by its medieval feel. One of the major tourist attractions strangely enough is the Varazdin cemetery—and one breezy, quiet evening took me through the immense space, created in the 20th century, filled with glorious, intricate garden architecture. While it is unsettling, walking around through the eternal homes of the deceased—deceased you don’t even know, the beautifully designed graves and regal air of the space are enough to keep you captivated as you digest the oddness of it all.
But it is the prevailing presence of angels, littered through the city that reinforce the magical energy—and the Angel Museum, set up by local artist Zeljko Prsetc is worth a fly-by (geddit?). Or just wing it, and wander down to Varazdin Andelinjak, where a tiny gate opens up to a cluster of angels descending towards Earth. Creepy, or cute? Have a look and decide for yourself… and keep your eyes (and heart) open for your guardian angel. I spent three days in Varazdin, and would have been happy to be there longer, spending evenings on benches beside the old fountain in the town square, because in addition to its architecture, the food deserves a special mention—the pizza at restaurant Angelus, and Domenico was the best I’ve eaten this side of the border, best followed by desserts and ice cream at Fontana.
Things to see: Varazdin Castle/Stari Grad (home to the Museum); Baroque palaces
Stay: Park Boutique Hotel; B&B Garestin
A centuries-old cave in Istria
Dating back to 1770, is an ancient cave that still stands today—rich in myriad-coloured dripstones, and gigantic stalagmites, the moment you enter, the temperature drops by 5 degrees, and you find yourself in a space better suited to the adventures of Indiana Jones. From microscopic little creatures that inhabit the caves, to the bats that you almost always miss, and the graffiti that cave-intruders left as little souvenirs of their adventure, the Mramornica marble cave is a cool (pun intended) hidden-gem on the Istrian coast, near Brtonigla, ideal to live out your Lara Croft-esque fantasies. Just don’t get left behind!
Istria, in the far north west of Croatia is dotted with pretty seaside towns and offers a little bit of respite from the international tourist-heavy stops of Dubrovnik, Split and the like. My home base was Porec, a 3-hour drive from Zagreb and providing easy accessibility to towns like Rovinj, Motovun and Novigrad. (Stay tuned for our Istrian road trip itinerary)
Things to see: Church of Euphemia, Park Forest Zlatni, Rovinj
Stay: Apartment Viva Molindrio, Porec; Apartments Casa Garibaldi, Brtonigla
Location: Croatia, Europe
Getting there: Connecting flights to the capital city of Zagreb
Best time to visit: May-June, Sept-Oct