The Zagorje region of Central Croatia is renowned for their centuries-old winemaking traditions, famous castles, and the historic Marija Bistrica church. This beautiful area serves as a foundational center for the region’s rich history. We enjoyed our stay at the Bluesun Hotel Kaj while exploring the local backroads through the vineyards during the day, rounding out our weekend road trip through central Croatia with both R&R and exploratory sightseeing. It’s only a short drive north east from Zagreb, so it’s easy to visit this lovely area for the day or a weekend. A scenic drive over the pastoral local rolling hills also easily adds Stari grad Konjščina and Milengrad castles to your itinerary of local sights.
We took a drive north from Zagreb through Đurđekovec on the east side of Medvednica, a mountain marking the southern border of Zagorje, the highest peak of which is called Sljeme (1035 m). This scenic mountain road ascends the mountains and has ample pullout areas and parking spots where hikers and view-seekers can venture out into nature and view the mountain and forests up close from the trails.
Once we passed the highest point, the road led us down through rolling foothills. Lovely views surrounded us all the way down into the valley, where we met the charming village Marija Bistrica. We stayed at Hotel Bluesun Kaj, a spa hotel with 360 meters of saunas, whirlpools and spa treatments. The sauna was fantastic for warming up after a brisk winter walk up the 12th Station of The Way of the Cross in Marija Bistrica and around the open-air church. The hilltop features three crosses, along the way to which are statues, including a statue of Jesus walking up the hill carrying His cross. It’s an incredible site to visit for self-reflection and reverence, whether you are religious or not.
The hotel restaurant serves delicious regional dishes, including a fantastic štrukle. Zagorski štrukli or štruklji is a popular traditional Croatian dish served in households across Hrvatsko Zagorje and Zagreb regions in the northern parts of the country, and is composed of dough and various types of fillings which can either be boiled or baked. Sometimes štrukli is sweet with sweetened cheese, or savory with fillings like pumpkin seed pesto, or truffles. We tried some lovely wines in their bar, the most notable of which was by a local winemaker, Kopja.
Marija Bistrica is a lovely village in the Krapina-Zagorje County of central Croatia, in the foothills of Medvednica. Inside this famous church, there is a 15th century black wooden sculpture of Mary and the baby Jesus.
Legend tells us that this 112 cm tall statue was revered in a chapel on the hill of Vinski Vrh near Marija Bistrica. In 1545, when the Turks got as far as Konjšćina, the priest of Bistrica transferred the statue to another church where they buried it under the choirloft to protect it from being destroyed. One evening in 1588, the parish priest Luka noticed a strange light under the choir in the church, and when they dug under the loft they found the statue, which was long forgotten for the years it was hidden. It is now a local treasure with even more historical significance and cultural lore.
In 1650 there was outside threat from the Turks again, and this time they hid the statue in the wall, hiding all but a piece of Mary’s face. Sometime between 1676 and 1679 the presiding priest was a man named Petar. Petar was performing mass when a beautiful woman came to him with a wax candle and asked him to pray with the people so that she could get her sight back. Petar was perplexed because she had walked straight up to him without help and was seemingly able to see. The next day he thought he saw the woman again, but she disappeared when he went to reach her.
Years went by, and in 1684 while Ivan was priest, the statue was once again discovered. They placed the statue between St. Peter and Saint Paul on the main alter. They believe that once this was done, a noble woman’s paralyzed daughter was healed as a result.
It’s said that on the same day Mary appeared to seven imprisoned Christians in the Hungarian town Kaniža, and said to them, “Do not fear my children, have faith; I have been blind for 40 years and have regained my sight in Bistrica today.”
Since that day, pilgrimages to this church have been regular part of Croatian Catholic tradition.
Another tradition of the village of Marija Bistrica is their cookies. There are vendors, candy shops and souvenir shops all selling two sorts of honey cookies, also called “gingerbread”.
The iced honey cookies, which are hearty round cookies, are mixed with a variety of flavors including lemon walnut, chocolate chip, coconut, cherry and, of course, the standard honey cookie covered in sugar icing.
The second famous cookies of the area are called the licitars of Marija Bistrica. These colorfully decorated biscuits made of sweet honey dough are part of Croatian cultural heritage and are a favorite decoration on Christmas trees. The larger ones are made for giving as gifts to loved ones on special occasions. They are shaped most famously into hearts, but can be found shaped as babies, birds, wreaths, and horses. The cookie-making tradition dates as far back as the 13th century.
The Croatian gingerbread-making tradition was made part of UNESCO-s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.
Wooden children’s toys and wooden flutes (known as žviegle and tamburitzas in bright colors and various shapes) are recognizable traditional products from Hrvatsko Zagorje, and the manufacturing styles have been handed down from generation to generation. The handmade toys can typically be found in the same shops selling the cookies. Culturenet has more specific information about these delightful toys.
The art of making traditional wooden children’s toys in Hrvatsko Zagorje was made part of UNESCO-s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.
Stari grad Konjščina
After leaving the hotel, we drove toward Varaždin, where we came across the Konjščina (Horse Land) castle in the village Konjščina.
This is where the baron of horses once lived. The seal on the castle is of a horse with an arrow in its chest. The medieval festival held in Kaštel, the old town of the Konszky family, features this flag.
At Milengrad, we opted for a thirty or forty minute hike and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the Milengrad Castle ruins from above. Afterwards, the relaxing drive over the winding hilltop back roads through charming village was an idyllic way to relax and unwind.
While at the Hotel Blue Kaj, we tried one of the offered local wines, and were so impressed with the winemaker Kopja that we had to find the winery. Here’s the address:
Strmec Remetinečki 44 A, 42220 Novi Marof
Bring hiking shoes because there are hiking trails everywhere. MilengradCastle is at the top of a steep hill. The trail is moderately easy and well worth the view, but it is rough terrain.
Dogs are not allowed in the open-air church, on the hill top, or in the Marija Bistrica church. They are allowed everywhere else. Hotel Bluesun Kaj is very dog friendly with nice pet walking areas outside the hotel.
Schedule a visit to Kopja winery before you go because they have set hours and may not be open every weekend.