In the small village of Peklenica, near Croatia’s northernmost town of Mursko Sredisce, a naturally occurring oil spring has been exploited since 1856. Back then, two men and a woman were paid to extract up to 35 liters of crude oil a day. Though dug-out oil wells had existed since the Roman times, Peklenica is the world’s oldest concession oil field associated with a company. This was three years before the oil pioneer Edwin Drake began drilling in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
Seem insignificant? It may be the fuel needed to make Medimurje—an inland county and continental in both climate and tradition—Croatia’s next tourist hot spot.
From the late 19th century, The London Budapest Oil company set up numerous oil fields in the area. But apart from laying the ground for the petroleum industry, the drilling had a curiously beneficial side effect: in 1911 thermal water springs were struck too.
Though first used for drinking, in 1936 the mineral-rich water was channeled into a wooden pool with seven baths, setting the scene for today’s top-notch Spa & Sport Resort Sveti Martin. Since the spa has been taken over by the Slovenian brand Life Class two years ago, Medimurje (the land between the rivers of Mura and Drava in translation) became one of the fastest up-and-coming tourist hot spots.
Spa & Sport Resort Sveti Martin
Image: Courtesy of Life Class
The luxe Sveti Martin Spa is a magnet for both locals and travelers, especially from neighboring Slovenia and Austria. But the health tourism that they promote, particularly cycling as the first Adria bike hotel (bikes and cycling routes available on-site), has also struck a perfect marriage with other nature, gastronomic, and cultural blessings of the region.
Medimurje’s two rivers—the Mura and the Drava—snake around an idyllic countryside, which quickly morphs from lilies-covered oxbow lakes to vineyards- and orchards-clad hills. Though hardly a wilderness where you’d walk for hours without spotting a soul, this rural stretch of Croatia bonds with nature in an organic and all-encompassing way.
This may be the reason why the rivers and their surroundings have been dubbed “The European Amazon” in a campaign to receive UNESCO protection as The Regional Park Mura-Drava. Since 2011, the Park has joined a large area all the way to the Danube, including the Nature Park Kopacki Rit, another of Croatia’s nature gems. Today the preservation of the natural heritage brings in eco-friendly outdoor tourist activities, especially cycling along both rivers’ marked routes.
But nature-awareness also helped restore traditional river-related crafts, such as water mills and wooden transport rafts on the wilder and faster-flowing Mura. In the village of Žabnik you can cross the river on the refurbished raft—a cleverly designed mobile contraption which runs only on water energy. Stick around the nearby Miller’s House ethno museum or take a stroll along the Miller’s Path that meanders along the arresting Mura oxbow lake.
In the Medimurje Nature Visitors Center you can book a tour around the protected areas and learn more about this unique river habitat.
Croatian cuisine is an amalgam of gastro influences from Central Europe to the Middle East via the Mediterranean—has impressed the world’s best chefs particularly because of its unspoilt ingredients and simple cooking techniques. Though unaware of foodie trends, the food in Medimurje couldn’t fit neater to the “return to ancient flavors” fad. The tight connection with the land has produced bold hearty dishes, with ingredients still preserved and prepared in traditional way.
Meso z tiblice (roast smoked pork preserved in fat), venison sausages, and roast duck are meat delicacies, usually served with locally grown buckwheat kasha and sauerkraut. Wild foraged food, such as chestnuts, mushrooms and dandelions, make fragrant soups and salads, with the omnipresent dressing of pumpkin seed oil, locally called crno (black) oil.
Apart from several outstanding restaurants, local gastro tourism also includes cooking classes. At Medimurski Dvori Restaurant, for example, you can learn how to make the famous Medimurje four-layer cake in a half-day workshop. Terbotz, housed in a 19th century castle, serves an upscale variant of local delicacies in a lavish period dining room. The darling among foodies even from neighbouring countries is the high dining Mala Hiža restaurant, just outside the largest town Cakovec. This is where the simplest of ingredients come with rich deep aromas, like the chestnut soup or pumpkin ravioli.
The rolling hills of Medimurje are said to be one of the best white wine growing regions in Europe. The indigenous variety is called pušipel, but the locally grown chardonnay, pinot gris, gewurztraminer, sauvignon blanc and moscato capture the uniqueness of the sandy soil and its blend of minerals. The long wine-growing tradition, cultivated first by the 16th century Zrinski noble family, can best be experienced at Lovrec Winery where wine is matured in the atmospheric centenary cellar. Wine tasting there (always book ahead) includes a visit to the superb collection of wine-related tools and rituals, such as a massive old wine press. The story about 300-hundred-years old plane trees, planted as a natural air-conditioning system for the cellar, is one among many awaiting at this wine haven.
Wine lovers will have the best time in Medimurje in the second half of May. This is when, during three consecutive weekends, the winemakers of the region join in an all-out festivity Urbanovo. At all other times, Jakopic Winery, housed in the already mentioned Terbotz Restaurant, features most local producers on their wine list and at tastings.
Image: Courtesy of Croatia Tourism Board/Bojan-Haron Markicevic
The Zrinski family heritage dominates the Medimurje’s central town Cakovec. The Zrinski Castle was the family’s headquarters in long battles against the Ottoman Empire. You can visit the on-site Medimurje County Museum where a good mixture of exhibits paints a picture of the region’s rural past as well as the history of its nobility. A stroll around the largely pedestrianized center reflects its unusually eclectic character. An Austro-Hungarian coffee parlor sits a moment’s walk from the socialist-industrial complex Stari Hrast. Instead of wasting away, the building has recently been occupied by the popular namesake pub and the local craft brewery Medimurski Lepi Decki.
The most widely recognized Medimurje-born person is the philosopher Rudolf Steiner. This year, the locals paid tribute to this father of Waldorf education and biodynamic agriculture by opening The Rudolf Steiner Center in his native Donji Kraljevec village (open workdays 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.). The Center’s design follows Steiner’s organic architecture principles—with soft round woodwork reminiscing natural shapes. Similar approach on a grander scale was used in the layout and design of Sveti Martin Spa where stunning wooden arches meet floor-to-ceiling glass walls.
Whether you’re already a Croatia fan, or are still only planning a visit, you won’t regret including Medimurje in your itinerary. This inviting bucolic area leaves a lasting mark on every nature- and foodie-lover.
Cakovec is a 60-mile drive from Zagreb, Croatia’s capital. Buses run regularly, but the region is best explored in a car. Small country roads criss-cross the hilly area and it may be challenging to find your way around. An excellent solution is to book a tailor-made tour with an expert local guide, such as Kristijan Kovacic of the Halicanum Agency. For additional listing of local sights and services, visit Medimurje Tourist Board.
Top image: Courtesy of the Croatian Tourism Board/Bojan-Haron Markicevic
Andrea Pisac writes offbeat stories about Croatia at Zagreb Honestly and for other travel publications. Follow her on Twitter.