October 28, 2023 – Less than two hours east of Zagreb lies a fabulous healthy foodie destination, arguably the greenest town in Croatia – the spa town of Daruvar was superb on so many levels.
I think it was the trees.
They were EVERYWHERE.
This town just felt so clean and healthy, and I was glad to finally make it. Apart from some destinations in Istria that I will visit next month, as well as the town of Valpovo, Daruvar was the last place on my list of places on mainland Croatia that I had not yet visited.
And you know what they say – save the best till last…
My guide to Daruvar contributed massively to the experience, as Karin Mimica and her Gastronaut crew have done many times over the last decade, introducing me to the treasures of the lesser-known parts of Croatia and its fabulous cuisine. But that is to take nothing away from the natural beauty of Daruvar – is there a town in the region with more trees in and around its centre?
I joined about 25 colleagues from Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, BiH and Macedonia on a 2-day culinary and cultural voyage of discovery, in partnership with the excellent Daruvar Toplice spa, Daruvar-Papuk Tourist Board and participating gourmet partners from Daruvar in a very cool destination project called 6-i-elementi (6 elements).
The 6-elements project is implemented by the Daruvar-Papuk Tourist Board in cooperation with Gastronaut. All Daruvar caterers gathered and created their gastronomic interpretations of the topics: Dishes that strengthen immunity, Dishes for athletes and Daruvar pairings.
Each of the Daruvar caterers offers at least one dish that “drives away” viruses, based on some of the ingredients that strengthen natural immunity – sage, garlic, ginger, hot pepper, turmeric, horseradish, honey…
As a large number of athletes come to Daruvar for recovery and training, Daruvar restaurants offer a special offer of dishes with a high protein content, whose nutritional values are in accordance with the needs of the people who train.
Under the Daruvar pairings menu, 6 elements combine dishes with ingredients from the Daruvar area with specific craft beers. Peti element and Staročeško, or with Daruvar wines and natural lemonade and homemade yogurt.
Both topics – dishes that strengthen immunity and the pairing of food and beer appear for the first time in Croatia at the destination level.
It sounded like an interesting concept, but was it just a marketing trick or was there some real quality cuisine behind the hype? After checking in to the Ljecilisni Spa Hotel and enjoying an excellent melon schnapps from the local Wise Grus distillery, I began to relax. Not only is a spa hotel a very relaxing starting point, but just the introduction was enough to more than whet the appetite.
Each participating restaurant set out the food in buffet style over the next two days, and I would need a book to mention them all, but the opening lunch at the hotel’s Taverna restaurant was a stunning opener. The baked potatoes in smoked cheese sauce, washed down the Daruvar Badel Sauvignon was one heck of a first mouthful.
After a very hearty lunch, time to explore the facilities of the spa, with most opting for a swim in the outdoor thermal pool – was it really late October?
A little info about Daruvarske Toplice from the official resort website:
Daruvarske toplice – Special Hospital for Medical Rehabilitation
People throughout this area have taken care of their health for two millennia. Tourism has been developed owing to protected environment and optimal combination of natural healing factors and sophisticated treatments of rheumatic diseases, medical rehabilitation and sports recreation. In this spa town, in ancient times named “Aquae Balissae”, the first springs of healing thermal water were arranged in 288 BC. Average water temperature is 46,6°C.
Daruvar has developed special type of health tourism just because of these natural benefits. We are specialised in the treatment of rheumatic diseases, medical rehabilitation, recreation and health tourism. It has also long tradition in the treatment of gynaecological diseases using natural healing factors – thermal water and mineral mud.
My first association with Daruvar was back in 2004, and it was related to the famous Daruvar brewery, but not for the reasons you might think. I was a real estate agent back then and had a buyer for an apartment on Hvar. For some reason, there was a lien on the property from the Daruvar property, and it took 10 years to resolve the final purchase.
But now I was in the brewery for all the right reasons, for an interesting overview of the brewery’s history, as well as a tasting of several beers, including the legendary project partner, 5th Element.
I also solved something that had puzzled me for years. I could never figure out why Croatia had a beer called Starocesko (Old Czech), but here I learned of a Czech community dating back to the 18th century, and with considerable minority rights. About 20% of Daruvar has Czech roots, and there is a vibrant cultural scene, even a Czech school. Any you know what happens when you put Czechs and beer together. A solid early evening stop.
The culinary highlight of the trip, for me at least, was dinner at Kavana Queen. It would have been all the more enjoyable if my Glas Slavonije colleague Slobodan Kadic hadn’t come up with the bright idea of lacing proceedings with ‘just another rakija’ every 10 minutes, But the meal and wines were superb, none more so than this steak and beetroot puree.
And I will just leave one of the desserts out there.
Croatian restaurant and hotel food can be quite repetitive and uninspiring at times. Daruvar was anything but.
Breakfast on Day 2 was followed by an interesting tour of the spa, which was also pretty busy. The resort has an excellent range of wellness and treatment services at very affordable prices. One more reminder of the year-round potential of the Croatian medical tourism industry. We were also given the opportunity later in the day to try out the rehabilitation services on offer, and this ageing correspondent enjoyed some relief to a dodgy knee.
Onwards, ever onwards, and into town we walked. What a lovely combination of historic low-level architecture and trees, trees, trees.
First stop was the Daruvar Beekeeping Association souvenir shop, with a truly exceptional range of innovative products. And being a Hvar boy, I was surprised to see lavender products, one of the many lovely natural products that grow locally.
And if you are looking for a stylish way to ask someone to be your best man (kum in Croatian – thanks for asking, Slobodan, I am honoured).
The town was clean and well-ordered, and even the street food was awesome, as our next stop, Black and White Street Food showed.
Now that is what I call a fitness salad.
Trees, trees, trees. And then the King of All Trees, and the perfect addition to my Bench Tourism concept.
This gorgeous ginkgo tree was voted European Tree of the Year in 2019, and it is also known as Adam, standing guard in front of the magnificent Jankovic Castle, just next to Eve, a smaller but equally elegant tree of a certain age.
As magnificent as the castle was, its immediate magic was to be found below in its impressive cellars, home to centuries of wine-making, including a reacquaintance with that marvellous Sauvignon.
The owners, Badel 1862, own a number of top labels, and the tasting included the Korlat Cabernet Sauvignon from Benkovac, with an excellent wine and cheese pairing.
Lunch at Srce was a more fishy affair, with grilled and drunk carp the main stars, and then more trees and lovely buildings.
And what better way to relax than with a healthy cup of tea, with hot thermal water straight from the source? This town is so damn healthy…
My knee a little recovered after my 30-minute electric therapy, it was time for dinner at Terasa restaurant, a short walk from the hotel, where there was more of a Czech emphasis to the menu. But also some innovative things I had not come across before, such as avocado soup.
Daruvar nightlife in late October? A late night swim in the thermal outdoor pool, with Croatian erotic poetry perhaps? After that kind of day, I slept like a baby.
But Daruvar was not done with its surprises. I slept so well that I completely missed breakfast, but not to worry, because in Daruvar, there seems to be always a culinary option.
How about Zdravljak Orijenta, perhaps – which was voted as home to the best burek in Croatia. And the cheesecake and homemade lemonade were not far behind. Lovely spot.
And where to finish, but in the Little Italy Pub, of course, a nice addition to the Daruvar dining scene and a fitting end to what was a rather astonishing 48 hours.
The food exceeded all expectations, as did the cooperation between public and private sector, so often the source of conflict here. Daruvar has so many individual gems, and it is exciting to see them polishing it into one big diamond with a strong and diverse tourism offer.
Looking for a weekend break less than two hours from Zagreb? I can think of few better options.
(With photo thanks to Spomenka Saraga, Gastro Bajter and Visit Daruvar)