Magical Medjimurje in March: a Major Surprise

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It is the smallest of all the Croatian counties, and the northernmost, nestled next to now borderless Slovenia and Hungary. And despite the fact I lived just a few kilometres from its capital of Cakovec during my time in Varazdin, Medjimurje is the county that I know least well in this fair land. Apart from one quite extraordinary 24 hours there with the Gastronaut legendica Karin Mimica back in 2016 (Read more in Gastronaut Discovers the Mystical Tastes and Traditions of Medjimurje in Northern Croatia), an excellent lunch at Mala Hiza (that horseradish soup was awesome), and a meeting with a web developer, my knowledge of Medjimurje was zero.

My motives for visiting Cakovec had little to do with tourism and more on spending time with a new business partner and defining our relationship.  She suggested I come for a couple of days to chat and have a look around her native territory, a good chance to mix a little business and pleasure, and to see Medjimurje through local eyes. 

And there was a lot to see. As I left some 48 hours later, the dates of May 12-14 and the Urbanovo festival already in my diary, I kicked myself for ignoring this rather fabulous region for so long. 

Although, truth be told, understanding the local dialect took even more servings of gemist than in Varazdin. 


First up, and what a way to start, a business lunch at Mala Hiza, the pioneering restaurant in Medjimurje and the first in the county to make the Michelin Guide. A superbly rustic setting with a very innovative menu including dishes such as horse, there was no way I was missing out on my favourite horseradish soup to start, which lived up to its billing. 


Wandering through central Cakovec that evening was beautiful. A little lonely, as there was almost nobody about, but beautiful. I put some pictures on Facebook to see if there was anyone around who might be interested in showing me around or pointing me in the direction of some hidden gems. It was one of my most popular FB posts of the year, with some 266 likes and a barrage of messages (apologies if I have not got back to you all yet – I will). 


After the statutory Croatian coffee and 12 cigarettes ritual at our morning meeting, it was off to Krizovec to the ‘Between Two Waters’ visitor centre, a fascinating look at the nature, flora and fauna of this unique region. Medjimurje had once been almost all forest, and its heritage was well documented. The prime oak tree was called Adam, and it took quite a team to fell it – and we would meet Adam over breakfast.


Did you know that there was a protected park on Croatia’s northern border which spans five countries? No, nor did I. 


And then I saw a familiar face, recorded for posterity. Mate Horvat, the last gold panner from the gold-panning era on the Drava. You can learn more about that in my 2016 article Aged 94, Meet Croatia’s Last Surviving Gold Prospector on the River Drava

Do you have any video footage of Mate in action? I asked.

No unfortunately, I don’t.

I did, from that amazing Gastronaut trip 7 years ago, which I will be forwarding. 


Medjimurje welcomes everyone. A 5-star hotel for bugs. 

 And I LOVED this. The Chapel of the Fallen Forest, a tribute to trees felled and what became of them. 

It was nice to see that even here, the art of Bench Tourism is alive and well.  


Time for breakfast at Beska in Cakovec, which had a very homey traditional feel – a nice spot to chill.  


And in the courtyard, remnants of Adam the Great Oak Tree, turned railway sleeper.  


I really enjoyed the tour of Cakovec Castle, which was of course dominated by the history of the Zrinski family, but there was SO much local culture and tradition on offer.  Among the many highlights was this extraordinary costume with a traditional mask called Pikac.


When they say that it takes a village, sometimes it really does… 


Time for some liquid refreshment, which came in the form of a recommendation from young Filip, the recently appointed Cakovec Tourist Board  Director, who was among those who contacted me on Facebook. A very cultured young man, we fell into earnest conversation about tourism over beer and cake – the legendary Medjimurksa gibanica, which sometimes is unfortunately translated as Middle Earth Moving Cake. Whatever the translation, it was delicious. 


Not gonna lie, I thought Mamas and Tapas was top, even more so when the owner came over to say hello. He insisted I try this dish on the house – fortune cookies stuffed with pork. 

As all fortune cookies should be. Croatia, why would you live anywhere else?


And rather a nice beer selection, if that is your thing. 


Enough beer had been consumed to take in the random facts of Cakovec. Did I know, for example, that the first Chinese restaurant in Croatia opened in Cakovec, and that David Bowie popped in for a bit to eat after a concert in Budapest en route to his next gig in Zagreb? There is a corner of a foreign field that is forever England…  


Breakfast in Upper Medjimurje looks like this, and if you have a hostess such as Tatjana Hazic, you know you are in trouble. One of the few female winemakers in Croatia, she is also one of the toughest, having completed an Ironman as well as running a rather excellent winery. 

 But how to make such a super overachiever nervous? Simple. Be the first person to ever try her first ever Pusipel, the pride of Medjimurje grape varieties. So special is it that it has its own individual bottle and wine glass. So how was it? See above. 


I loved everything about the Hazic winery – what a cool use of corks! 


And the first wine camp in Croatia! Bring your caravan and start drinking. Each pitch is named after a grape variety.  Please reserve Sauvignon for me – the Hazic Sauvignon is a Decanter medal winner and is awesome.  A small family winery, Tatjana sells all her wine locally. Why look for national distributors when you can open a wine camp and the drinkers come to you? Awesome lady.  


The vines dominate Upper Medjimurje, truly spectacular. 


And where better to take in the view of the whole of Medjimurje, as well as Slovenia and Hungary, than from the top of Madjerka Breg, fabulous out of season, and a cool rural party destination in season.  


If you were surprised that people were gold panning in Medjimurje, how about this for a claim to fame? While the first commercial oil drilling in the United States took place in Drake in 1859, meanwhile in Medjimurje in 1856… 

 I won’t pretend it was an easy place to find, but there you are, another slice of Croatian history which is relatively undocumented. 


My two days over and a little food hamper with love from Medjimurje for the way back to Zagreb. 

Overall impressions? This is what I posted on Facebook:

Not gonna lie, my expectations of a trip to Medjimurje in Feb for business were not huge. But what a fab little gem it is. I always prefer to see destinations out of season to see how much substance there is. So grateful to the many locals who reached out, showed me around, and made the 48 hours so magical.

First impressions. This is a land of oil exploration and gold panning, but the real natural treasures it possesses are its nature, traditions and fine food and wine. It feels like a contented independent and self-sufficient country, where hard work and gemist power the daily grind. A land where the small family businesses spanning generations provide the economic wealth and unique stories. I loved it and wil be back soon. If only they could work on making their Croatian more intelligible. And now with Schengen, Slovenia Hungary and Austria on the borderless doorstep. And just over an hour from Zagreb. Why aren’t you here?


You can subscribe to the Paul Bradbury Croatia Expert YouTube channel here.

What is it like to live in Croatia? An expat for 20 years, you can follow my series, 20 Ways Croatia Changed Me in 20 Years, starting at the beginning – Business and Dalmatia.

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Croatia, a Survival Kit for Foreigners is now available on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle.





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