Esme Clemo takes the road less-travelled to discover the charming traditions of north Croatia

Zagreb

Zagreb is a historically rich city © iStock

Mention a holiday in Croatia and many people think of warm islands and sun-kissed coasts. Few consider the richly cultured capital, Zagreb, and its neighbouring northern towns that are home to the country’s most mystical landscapes, warm-hearted hosts and antiquated customs.

City of Angels

Inland Croatia’s most architecturally stunning city is Varaždin. Once the country’s capital for a brief spell in the late 18th century, the streets are brimming with baroque palaces built by the local nobility during this opulent period and painted in candy pink and yellow hues.

Most of these grand homes have now been converted into schools and museums, like the Herzer Palace which houses the World of Insects exhibition, an extensive collection of exquisite butterflies and other species indigenous to the area.

Walk past the bright facades lining the lanes and over a drawbridge to enter Stari Grad where you’ll stumble upon the gothic Old Town’s castle.

A medieval fortress with whitewashed walls, the large renaissance building has been divided into 30 exhibition rooms with an abundant array of furniture, paintings, watches, ceramics, weapons and clothing.

These fairy-tale turrets and castles of the Old Town have inspired many a local legend including the story of the City of Angels.

Local folklore has it that the angels, flying around the world, saw the heavenly white towers of Varaždin and decided they had found a home on earth.

When walking around the city, see if you can spot where the angels settled in the architecture, rested atop the Varaždin coat of arms and fell asleep in an up-lit alcove of the Franciscans Square.

A capital idea

Take time to discover Zagreb, the country’s capital, and head to the Upper Town where charming old Croatian customs are still everyday practice.

Hop aboard the funicular, built in 1888, from the Lower Town and arrive at Lotršcˇak Tower by noon to hear the daily firing of the tower canon.

From Catherine’s Square wander towards the vibrantly tiled church in St Mark’s Square and notice the old gas lamps along the way.

There are 340 dotted about the capital and it is a tradition that one man walks the cobbles lighting and extinguishing the lamps every day at dusk and dawn.

Pass under The Stone Gate and head down towards the bustling Dolac Market, clearly visible by the red Šestine umbrellas that mark every flower stall and food stand. Nicknamed ‘the belly of Zagreb’, the market boasts the freshest produce from the surrounding areas, with Croatian delicacies like sauerkraut and cottage cheese in plentiful supply.

Just around the corner is the cathedral with its two huge spires that dominate the Zagreb skyline.

Inside, it’s a delight to behold with patterned floor tiles, faded frescos and crumbling wall engravings.

Zagorje

Take a lazy drive around the Zagorje hills © iStock

Welcome home

Skip the hustle of the towns and cities for a day trip to the rural hillsides around Zagorje. Hiring a car is the best way to travel around this unspoilt landscape, with its winding roads and sparse villages.

Plan a stopover for the night at Vuglec Breg and delve into their wine cellars for a tasting, only 50HRK, which is about £6. You’ll be struck by the cosy atmosphere, divine wine and delicious food this family-run ‘romantic village’ has to offer.

Local specialities and recipes passed down the generations make up the menu of the
on-site restaurant, Pri kleti.

So be sure to try the pumpkin soup and purica s mlincima, a dish of slow-roasted turkey and noodles that’s made all the more scrumptiously sweet by the local turkey’s love of eating grasshoppers!

Stay in one of Vuglec’s traditional log cottages that resemble gingerbread houses, called zagorske hiže, and wake up to the mists rolling across the hills from your balcony before taking a tour of the vineyards.

If, like me, you discover a new love of Croatian wine, the Zlatne Gorice vineyards are worth a visit, too. This family of wine makers will wow you with a tour of their 100-year-old barrels and bottles of red, white and rosé for visitors to try.

With a hearty hello and a fond farewell, the kindness of these locals with their charming customs made this corner of Croatia feel like a home away from home and one that was very hard to leave at the end of the travel croatia holiday. Five days was not enough.

Great for loved-up couples

It might not be an obvious choice for romantics but the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb is well worth a look. Pore over the memories and quirky keepsakes of past relationships, donated by heartbroken participants from all over the world.

Great for fun-loving families

The modern Museum of the Krapina Neanderthals is built on one of Europe’s largest Neanderthal excavation sites and a great place to learn all about the origins of mankind.

Start with a realistic film about primitive life, then take a guided tour through the hi-tech exhibitions and interactive displays before heading outdoors to walk amongst life-size models of our ancestors.

Great for tranquil travellers

Escape to Terme Tuhelj wellbeing resort to be pampered with positivity. Make sure you take your swimwear and enjoy a dip in the healing thermal waters, feel the heat in the saunas or relax with a luxury spa treatment.

Woman’s Weekly travel offer

Experience Dubrovnik, the Pearl of the Adriatic, and breathtaking Montenegro, with this escorted tour.

From £829pp for eight days. Selected departures from April to October 2016. Includes return flights, half board, guided tours and a tour manager. For more info or for a free brochure, call 01283 742 396 or visit womansweekly.com/dubrovnik

British Airways has regular flights from London to Zagreb, from £163 return. Car hire in Croatia costs between £35-£70 per day, plus an additional £15 day rate for a driver. For more information on Zagreb, and Varaždin, visit zagreb-touristinfo.hr and tourism-varazdin.hr.

Dolac market

Enjoy a browse of the trinkets on offer at the Dolac market © iStock