Far from the fashionable Adriatic coast, a rather unlikely and heart-warming tale of tourism success by one family close to the Hungarian border. TCN reports on the fabulous 40-year story of Zlatni Klas in Otrovanec on September 15, 2017.
It is one of my favourite places in all Croatia, both for the wonderful hospitality and experience, and for the remarkable story of how one family can build up a highly successful tourism business from nothing in the middle of nowhere on the Croatian tourism map.
Starting a tourism business in Dubrovnik or on Hvar is one thing, booming tourism hot spots where it really is hard to fail, but try doing the same thing in a village two hours east of Zagreb, in a region where tourism barely exists. To make things a little more challenging, the village of your birth translates as Now You Are Truly Poisoned, hardly the most enticing of welcomes for the tourist to Croatia.
In this most unlikely of tales in this hidden part of Croatia, the village of Otrovanec is located between the towns of Virovitica and Djurdjevac, with no particular reason for anyone to come and visit or pass through. That was until one day in 1977, when one man’s vision began to change all that. Let’s start with the unusual name, as it is explained by a legend (as are so many things in this delightful little village):
The Legend about Otrovanec
A long time ago, during the period of Ottoman invasions in Croatia, there was a small village at the foot of green Bilogora, protected by the River Drava from the north. It was called Črlena Klisa.
The villagers lived happily until one “black day” a merciless Ottoman army reached the village. “The Turks are coming, the Turks are coming!” they yelled, fleeing away with their wives and children.
The Turks burnt the village, tore down the church, and stole the church bell to mend their cannons.
The poor villagers ran away, half to the north and half to the west. The villagers in the north gathered around a tame (“pitom”) pear with a cat (“maca”) nearby, so they called it Pitomačka or Pitomača. The villagers in the west gathered around a small lake with potable water where they decided to settle, but they could not think of a suitable name for the new village.
Not long after, the Turks set off for a new conquest, irking the villagers around the lake in the west and causing them to flee. “We cannot fight, there are too few of us and too many of them,” they cried. That is when a wise old man ordered them to gather herbs and plants from fields nearby so he could start making a poison.
When the poison was finished, he poured it into the lake. “What’s the crazy old man doing, what are we supposed to drink now?” the villagers thought. “We will manage, we know our lands and know where creeks can be found among the grass, and the Turks do not,” the wise old man said, and so they did. The army reached the lake and their horses started drinking from it.
The Turkish horses fell dead one by one, and so did many soldiers. And the wise old man said to the confused general “Now you are truly poisoned (“Otrovanec”).” And so the evil army started fleeing away to the east, yelling “Otrovanec, Otrovanec!” The happy villagers started celebrating their victory over the vicious Turkish army, and the wise old men in the village said “That’s what we will call our village so that the Turks should never return, Otrovanec, yes, Otrovanec.”
About 40 years ago, a young man from Otrovanec kissed his wife goodbye and headed – as so many other did (and continue to do so today) – to Germany to work as a waiter and earn money for his family.
Just over a week later, he was back in Otrovanec, to the surprise and chagrin of his wife.
“Germany was interesting, and I spent the week working and learning what I could about being a waiter and running a hospitality business, and I decided that rather than work for someone in Germany, I could run my own business back home.”
And so Zlatni Klas, one of Croatia’s oldest and very best rural tourism centres, was born. In the village called Poison. Never has a village been so misnomered – EVERYTHING about the Zlatni Klas experience celebrates the region’s wonderful nature. There was no doubting the number one activity of my daughters, no sooner had we arrived – horses! Zlatni Klas has evolved from its early days as a restaurant, then nightclub, into a wonderful hospitality centre hosting events, accommodation, restaurant and numerous activities, and Branko, that brief waiter in Germany 40 years ago, was on hand to lead the girls around on horseback. 20 minutes in, and I knew the weekend would be a huge success.
The horse led us to this gem of a tiny gingerbread house, just one of the beautifully presented traditional houses on the Zlatni Klas complex.
Tucked away from the rest of the complex beyond the horse paddock, it is a delightful representation of life as it once was in the village, with plenty of old features inside to give it authenticity. And it is possible to sleep there – adventurous minds were already racing.
Despite having dedicated most of his life to building up a very successful business, young Branko, together with son Bernard who now runs the business, does not know how to stop, and one of his latest projects is to build another authentic lakeside house by this tiny artificial lake which was teeming with fish.
The complex is surrounded by nature and fields of various delicious produce at exceptional prices (more on that later), and being a Hvar boy, I was drawn to this impressive field of lavender, just one of a diverse selection of plants growing in the village.
One of the most attractive things about Zlatni Klas was the seeingly endless supply of old and antique artefacts, which were blended into the general space, leaving plenty of things to explore and topics to discuss. The geese shared their pan with Branko’s original oldtimer, and while this may look as it has seen better days, he has a plan to restore it to its former glory once he retires. As if that will ever happen.
The main complex has some beautifully restored (and newly built – although you would never realise) buildings, with a green and diverse playing area in the centre, which offers different options for all ages.
There is also very quaint accommodation. Age of this traditional house? Just 12 years – one of the father and son projects as the business expanded.
Like many other aspects of Zlatni Klas, there is a legend. If you are looking to conceive a healthy young son, this is the accommodation for you, for exactly nine months after the first young couple stayed in the newly built house, a young son was born. Given the magic that surrounds this lovely place, I would not be surprised if the conception powers turned out to be true.
One of the highlights of Zlatni Klas is the astonishing use of wood in building and decoration, much of it by Branko himself. A traditional storage facility for corn.
And it wasn’t just the kids taking time out in the tree house.
Its core business these days is restaurant with accommodation, but it is also extremely popular as an event venue. What a delightful place to host a birthday party, as happened during our visit.
Lots of exploring opportunities for the little ones.
I loved the woodwork of the part where we stayed, as well as the very relaxed approach of owners and staff, and it was no problem to have our meal served in the courtyard below the room, from where we had a great view of the rest of the complex. Each course was served with a smile and an anecdote. Their friendliness was infectious, and it felt very much as being made welcome as part of the family.
The front garden.
This was my favourite piece of woodwork, the shoe of a giant, and Bernard tells a great story to wide-eyed kids of the giant who owns the shoe coming back later to collect it.
There was a birthday party during our stay, but also a wedding for 150 people, and the staff were busy catering to one and preparing for another. Just another regular weekend at Zlatni Klas, said one. This place was BUSY!
And it wasn’t just locals. There were Germans checking out as we arrived, and later that evening a group of Czech bikers arrived. They had discovered Zlatni Klas on the way to Greece and liked it so much that they came to stay on the way back. Zlatni Klas was unfortunately full, but that didn’t stop Bernard. He organised alternative accommodation, then fed and watered his guests, before driving them to where they were staying so that they could drink, then collecting them in the morning for breakfast. True hospitality!
As it is off the beaten path and the only quality accommodation in the local area, Zlatni Klas has become something of a magnet for travellers in the area, and many cyclists use it as a stop off on their major journeys. Cyclists such as the 72 year-old man who decided to cycle from the UK to New Zealand. You can see what the Cycling Nomad thought of his time in Otrovanec.
No wedding would be complete without the perfect wedding car, and one of Branko’s old timers, bought in Nevada and imported, had been spruced up and was dispatched to Virovitica to bring the happy couple to their wedding reception. An extremely pleasant time was had by all, and we wish the young couple the very best together.
We were surprised to see a lemon tree in one of the pots by our courtyard, and Bernard explained that each winter they take it into the basement to protect it from the cold. We were not as surprised as a guest from Sri Lanka, however, when he saw this plant, which is prevalent back in Sri Lanka. The guest, who was on a business trip to the excellent nearby Jan Spider tea factory, had been directed to Zlatni Klas as the best local accommodation. He stared at the plant for minutes, taking pictures and sending them back to his wife in Colombo. The plant is hard to control back home and grows to huge sizes, and he was stunned to see it surviving here in a pot in northern Croatia.
A truly divine spot. And if two men and their families can do it in the middle of nowhere with no assistance, what are the possibilities for continental tourism with a little financial help and promotion?
A fairtytale experience for the kids, who just LOVED our room.
I wonder why…
And the produce was fresh, fresh, fresh. Arguably the best paprika we have had in Croatia, so good we had to take some home. A bag of 13 kilo for just 52 kuna. You don’t get that in Konzum…
As one would expect, the food was abundant and delicious, and there was one interesting quirk – stinging nettles. They are an important part of the diet in the region, and they gave a great flavour to the daily (green) bread, as well as providing some excellent juice, but my favourite were the stinging nettle pancakes.
Father, son, and two grandson heirs. Heroes all. Next month will see the 40th anniversary of Zlatni Klas. It is a phenomenal achievement against all odds, and I sincerely hope the media give the Zlatni Klas team the recognition they truly deserve. Fabulous place for a family weekend, fabulous people.
To learn more about Zlatni Klas, visit the official website. To learn more about what to see and do in the Otrovanec region, stay tuned to find out more about the camels living 15km away, and a visit to the Croatian Sahara. But that is another story.