July 9, 2020 – Continuing the TCN series, The Croatian Road Less Travelled, Marc Rowlands explains why you should visit Ludbreg.
Situated in the far north of Croatia, just south-east of Varaždin and Čakovec and less than 20 kilometres from the border with Hungary, the small and picturesque town of Ludbreg is one of incredible contrasts and one with no small amount of ambition. Its close proximity to such neighbours pales into insignificance when you see the places Ludbreg would rather be judged against – this town is known as the Centre Of The World. The moniker was attributed when it was discovered, by accident, that it lies equidistant between many significant cities. Capitalising on the name, Ludbreg has charted these cities and their distance in a circular stone paving feature which can be found in the town’s central square.
Visit Ludbreg, Centre Of The World © Croatian National Tourist Board / Bojan Markicevic
However, as much as the town might name-check Paris, Athens, Vienna and Budapest on its monument, there’s actually no escaping the fact that it is actually a direct product of its local environment. Its close proximity to the river Drava – an important trading route since before Roman times – its major tributary, the river Plitvice, and its placing on the river Bednja, are doubtless the reasons for its position. That it sits on the border of three county lines – Koprivnica-Križevci, Varaždin and Međimurje – might be a modern administrative allocation, but it gives an indication of Ludbreg’s mixed identity.
The best place to chill when you visit Ludbreg is Youth island © Ludbreg Tourist Board
To the town’s east lie the vast flatlands of the Pannonian basin, to the south, a luscious green carpet covers the gently rolling hills of Zagorje, along the river Drava is the historic region of Podravina, stemming from the foothills of the Alps, to its north, historic Međimurje, then Austria and Hungary. You can see the land around the town juggle with this mixed identity, just as the town does; flat agricultural fields are interrupted by hills like Kalnički gorje or more gentle rises atop which beautiful holiday homes are placed. Nearer the centre of town, ultra-contemporary businesses lie next to routes of ancient pilgrimage. Neither here nor there, Ludbreg exists within a wonderfully mixed topography, with one foot in the past but a sharp eye on the future.
Hazelnut House holiday home, one option of where to stay when you visit Ludbreg © Varaždin Tourist Board
Truth be told, if you visit Ludbreg, you can see all of its sights in a day trip. And the town is perfect for just that. But, by doing so, you probably wouldn’t get more than a tourist’s glimpse of the place. Ludbreg is actually comprised of thirteen settlements that exist around the centre and it is within these quiet-looking hamlets and villages that most of the town’s drive and ambition lie. This is where the people live. And, for a while, you can too. The whole town has a reputation for sustainable living and sustainable growth – pioneering waste management schemes, growing allotments granted to residents without gardens and technically advanced green power solutions. It is in these settlements that you’ll find holiday homes designated to agro-tourism and ecotourism. Perfect for relaxing alongside only your nearest and dearest, they hold distinct, unique architecture, some have outdoor swimming pools and all are surrounded by clean, fresh air and nature.
Villa Mila holiday home, another great place to stay when you visit Ludbreg © Varaždin Tourist Board
Rural House Gabrijela holiday home – you can get close up to nature and still keep the swimming pool when you visit Ludbreg © Varaždin Tourist Board
The bountiful nature surrounding Ludbreg is one which services the town’s ancient industries, traditions and arts & crafts. Some of these you can see or join in with, the most famous being Ludbreg’s wine roads. Take a tour of the area’s vineyards, cellars and winemakers to sample great examples of continental wine. White wines are their forté and Graševina, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Traminac are just some of the major league players available here, alongside rarer names like Moslavac and Manzoni. Muscat, Pinot Noir, Frankovka, Cabernet Sauvignon and Poštenjak can also be sampled.
The wine roads surrounding the town are one of the best activities when you visit Ludbreg © Ludbreg Town
Alongside the sights, the other thing to catch when you visit Ludbreg is the events. In these regards, Ludbreg punches well above its welterweight. The town’s event calendar is brimming with exciting or entertaining things to see and do. It wasn’t so long ago that hundreds of participants and spectators from 33 countries descended on the town for the annual World Model Aircraft Championships. Ludbreg is used to happily hosting such hordes, its institutions beckoning thousands of visitors every year.
The peaceful approach to the pilgrimage site – one of the more famous reasons to visit Ludbreg © Ludbreg Tourist Board
The most famous of these institutions is the Catholic faith. Whether you believe the town to be named after a returning Crusader or an entranced winemaker, one history of Ludbreg holds a greater clarity due to its acknowledgement by the Vatican. Many people visit Ludbreg on devout pilgrimage because the Blood of Christ is said to exist here. When doubt entered into the mind of a local priest performing the Eucharist, it is said the vessel he held became filled with the actual Blood of Jesus Christ. Pope Julius II began investigating the claim thoroughly, so much so, that the miracle wasn’t confirmed until the reign of his successor, Pope Leon X, in 1513. Pilgrims have visited Ludbreg ever since. The relic of the Precious Blood of Jesus is kept in Ludbreg’s parish church of the Holy Trinity, although a special site for pilgrims was built on the edge of the town centre in 1992.
The pilgrimage site which the faithful flock to when they visit Ludbreg © Fraxinus
The most-famous architectural building in Ludbreg (and the prettiest) is the Baroque castle Batthyany. The castle dates from the reconstruction of the older medieval castle on the same site by Count Louis of Batthyany in the mid-18th century and today houses the workshop of the Croatian Restoration Institute. There, painstaking repair work is undertaken on historical items from all over Croatia which have been damaged by the years or in the war of the 1990s. Walking around the ultra-modern town centre of Ludbreg offers no clue that behind this castle’s walls such careful preservation of the past is taking place.
Batthyany castle in Ludbreg © Ludbreg Town
The other great institution of Ludbreg is also one which dedicates its life to preserving the past, but the history it protects belongs to the people, not the church. The cultural and artistic society KUD Anka Ošpuh, named after a female Partizan hero, has been operating in Ludbreg since 1976, although its roots are older. Many female-led charitable organisations operate in and around Ludbreg. That much of this work has existed in such hands for up to 150 years is simply remarkable, particularly within a broader Croatian society still viewed as patriarchal. Traditionally, while the young men of Ludbreg were drawn to more manly pursuits such as sports, bombastic brass instrument-playing and all-male choirs rooted in those of the church, the town’s women were instead occupied with chores, charity work and the songs, dances and costumes of folklore. Folklore societies and their preservation of local, peasant traditions became incredibly popular all over Croatia after the Second World War. Early examples in the area of Ludbreg include Braća Kavurić from Martijanec (founded 1945) and that of Kutnjak (1947) with similar established in Sveti Đurđ, Sesvete Ludbreški, Dubovica and Vrbanovac.
Contemporary members of folklore society Anka Ošpuh © Ludbreg Town
These village societies were mixed, but with the absence of any such society in central Ludbreg, it took 22 women to form the town’s own. They made a great success of doing so. Although initially so poor with resources they had to practise in the basement of factories and local houses, by 1977 the society had grown to contain 79 members and was able to establish its own group of attached tamburica musicians and an all-female choir. As their reputation grew, the society absorbed many key contributors from similar groups in surrounding villages and their assets. To the 12 valuable Moslavina folk costumes with which they began, KUD Anka Ošpuh were able to add examples from Podravina, Slavonia, Dalmatia, Lika and even some worn by Croats in Vojvodina (present-day Serbia). Many of these costumes are still preserved or worn by society members to this day, kept alive, like the songs and dances of the region, by the society. These days, KUD Anka Ošpuh is one of the most highly regarded in Croatia and has performed all over the country, plus internationally at folk song and dance festivals. Its essential work is passed down to children and young people of the area in order that these traditions survive. Highly skilled and beautifully presented, they offer a glimpse of authentic and historic local culture. If you get the chance to see them, you simply must.
Ludbreg © Ludbreg Town
How to get to Ludbreg: The town lies approximately 100 kilometres by road from Zagreb, with bus or car being your options. Ludbreg has its own train station with trains running direct to Zagreb, Osijek and Varaždin.
Črn-Bel restaurant © Črn-Bel restaurant / Luka Krušec (LuMedia)
Where to eat: Surrounded by vineyards and beautiful nature, the Črn-Bel restaurant is a brilliant spot for lunch or dinner. They do great grilled meats, superior pizzas from a wood-fired oven and sharing platters, with most ingredients sourced locally. Restoran Raj in the town centre is much more of an informal, family place, with pizzas for the kids and shared grills or deep-fried seafood for the parents.
Where to drink: Pivnica Mejaši is a great pub in the centre of town where you can refresh yourself. They have a lovely, covered outdoor terrace and a good pub-grub menu, including pizzas, which will satisfy for lunch or an informal evening meal.
Ludbreg’s first piece of street art is a mural of the moon © Ludbreg Tourist Board
What’s new: Although the ‘Centre of the World’ is the star of the town’s main square, you’ll not miss several new additions to their menu of monuments. The latest is an artwork dedicated to young, local athlete Sara Kolak, a javelin player who earned a Gold medal for Croatia at the 2016 Olympics. She shares the square with a fountain, a photo opportunity spot and a remarkable solar-powered tree where you can charge your phones and other devices for free. For the cool cats, the town has a brilliant mural of the moon on one building facade – it’s Ludbreg’s first street art piece. The town will host a conference on cycling tourism from 16 – 18 September 2020.
Ludbreg’s town centre © Ludbreg Town
What not to miss: For a small place, the list is huge. Don’t miss the parish church of the Holy Trinity, its interior is delightful. You must visit the castle too and take the pilgrim’s walk up to the modern ecclesiastical point of worship. LUMEN, a Ludbreg youth organisation, hold great music and theatre events. Centre of the World Day is April 1 and everyone joins in during the town’s big day. The fountain on the central square flows with wine for the occasion. The town’s carnival sees joyful residents march the chilly streets in costume. It’s 164 years old and takes place on Shrove Tuesday. Ludbreg’s Advent festivities grow year upon year. Also in winter, at the end of January, the town’s winemakers present their fresh batches at the Young Wine Days.
Ludbreg’s central square. During its three-day International Flower Festival, the town explodes with even more natural colour © Ludbreg Tourist Board
The town’s three-day International Flower Festival is the second biggest in Croatia and is an explosion of natural colour. You can visit it at the end of April / beginning of May. The Ludbreg Bike Tour is a 15 kilometre run around the town, with a great afterparty at the picturesque Youth Island (main picture). Two more great parties are Idemo Otok in June and Crazy Island in August. Strange to imagine such a small place hosting two electronic music festivals of such far-reaching repute, but it does. Young dance music enthusiasts from all over Croatia travel here to attend them. Again, they take place on Youth Island. Although pilgrims visit throughout the year, many reserve the journey for the seven days surrounding Holy Sunday. KUD Anka Ošpuh holds folklore events throughout the year including a memorial performance for former president Mirjana Bošnjak, a springtime celebration, Ludance (which focusses specifically on local folklore), a wintertime celebration, Christmas show and, pick of the bunch, Folklore Meetings in the Centre of the World, during which they’re joined by outside folklore societies. KUD Anka Ošpuh’s great tamburica orchestra also play many dates independently, as do the once-attached but now independent, all-female Podravina choir.
What to buy: Ludbreg has had a beekeeping society for over 70 years and local beekeepers know their stuff. Ludbreg honey is a great gift to take home, as are any of the bottles of fine wine produced around the town.
Ludbreg’s town centre © Ludbreg Town
On these links you can read about the other destinations in our The Croatian Road Less Travelled series:
For the latest news from Ludbreg, check out the dedicated TCN section.