Fairy-tale endings in Croatia

Beyond Zagreb lies castle country. Adrian Mourby takes a tour
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The Independent Travel

As we turn a corner the castle emerges, abrupt, white and turreted. Dominating the dense, dark forests of the Zagorje region. Trakoscan is a pint-sized Neuschwanstein, that fairy-tale castle in Bavaria. It's impressive but hardly unique. The valleys outside Zagreb are littered with castles in various states of repair. Today we've seen castles falling apart, castles being restored, castles turned into homes or hotels and castles doubling as museums.

They come in all shapes and sizes, these castles. Gornja Stubica is baroque with a classic portico, and Veliki Tabor has medieval turrets with a Renaissance core. Trakoscan is rather splendid, though, because it has been preserved as a museum of the family that lived here right until 1945 when so many Croatian aristocrats fled from Tito's partisans to Austria.

A family tree of the Draskovic dynasty is on display just beyond the entrance. It's kept up to date and shows us that would-be counts Draskovic are still being born in properties across the border in Vienna. Indeed, as we wander the rooms with their Austrian ceramic stoves, hunting trophies and military portraits we could be in the country home of a minor Habsburg.

The Draskovics acquired Trakoscan in 1584. It was a gift from the Holy Roman Emperor who was busy installing military leaders in strongholds across what little remained of Croatian territory. The Ottoman army had marched through modern-day Greece, Bulgaria and Bosnia. All that was left of medieval Croatia were a few valleys north and west of the royal free city of Zagreb. This sliver of territory was known as Ostaci Ostataka, "the Remains of the Remains".

Nine years later, Baron Ivan Draskovic joined his forces with those of other Christian warriors to defeat a vastly superior Turkish force at the Battle of Sisak and stem Ottoman expansion. The fortunes of the family were established but so was the pattern of castle building in Croatia. All the war leaders and aristocrats who had retreated to Zagorje during the Turkish invasion maintained their castles rather than moving back down south.

In the centuries that followed, the Draskovic family acquired more castles and gained more power, but it kept Trakoscan on as a hunting lodge and in the mid 1800s, during the Romantic revival, Count Janko Draskovic added a lake and English park. He was an advocate of Croatian independence and a pioneer of the new art of photography.

His pictures were left behind when the family fled and now line the walls of an entire room on the second floor. Count Janko also took the first Croatian nude study, but she is not on display. What we see instead is the Four Continents, a series of paintings Janko commissioned from the Slovene painter Mihael Stroy. These colourful exotic nudes must have titillated the count's guests 150 years ago.

Another room in the castle is devoted to the paintings of Countess Julijana Erdody, mother of Count Petar, the last Draskovic to live in the castle before 1945. They're fine but much what you might expect, romantic images of castles and peasants. That idealised world fell apart during the Second World War. In 1941 Croatia responded to Nazi invasion by becoming a puppet state run by Ante Pavelic, leader of the Ustase, Croatia's fascists. To the south-east of Zagreb stands a memorial to the victims of the Jasenovac concentration camp where the Ustase murdered Gypsies, Jews and an estimated 45,000 Croatian Serbs.

This land with its pretty Ruritanian castles and baroque parks has seen some savagery in its time. It's not surprising that owners of these castles got out while they still could. Some buildings were left to rot; others such as Bezanec Castle in Valentinovo were used as orphanages. Trakoscan was luckier than most. In 1952, work began on preserving the castle's fine collection of aristocratic artefacts.

Other castles haven't fared so well. Novi Dvori, home of the Croatian hero Ban Josef Jelacic, empty for decades, has been systematically vandalised. Tito's government refused to turn Jelacic's home into a national memorial to the man who freed the serfs.

The castles of Zagorje are beautiful but I wondered why was I surprised to learn about the violent history over which they have presided. Castles are built by people who are fighting and the Remains of the Remains have seen plenty of that.

How to get there

Adrian Mourby stayed at the Regent Esplanade, Zagreb, as a guest of Bond Tours (01372 745300; bondtours.com) which offers weekend breaks in Croatia's capital from £339 per person (based on two sharing). Includes return flights from Heathrow, transfers and three nights' accommodation. Car hire is available from Holiday Autos (0870 400 0010: holiday autos.co.uk) from £105 per week.

Further information

Croatian National Tourist Office (020-8563 7979; croatia.hr)