In a country that is attracting more and more tourists each year a city like Karlovac can be a haven of tranquillity away from the more touristy spots. This region is rarely on the mainstream tourist radar and for some people this is what makes a trip. It’s a chance to experience “Real Croatia” or “Croatia off the beaten track”. Here you don’t have to go search for your own hidden corner to escape to, the whole town is the escape! If medieval castles, crystal clear rivers and unspoilt nature are your thing then read on…
A Town on the Edge of Empires
In short – Karlovac began its existence as a fortified town built completely from scratch. In the 16th century this region of Europe was the ever shifting borderlands between the Habsburg (Austrian) Empire in the north and the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire to the south. In an effort to strengthen the poorly organised defences between the two, the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand I decided that more forts and castles should be built along a rough geographical line from the Adriatic to today’s Hungarian border in order to establish a militarised buffer zone to be known as the “Military Frontier” or “Krajina” in Croatian.
Zvijezda: The Renaissance Star-Shaped fortress
The “Star” or “Zvijezda” as it is known locally is the oldest part of the city. It has this name simply because it was designed in the shape of a perfectly symmetrical six-pointed star. Architects and city planners of the time were extremely excited that a brand new town could be built to specifications that they believed exemplified the “ideal renaissance city”. Around then it was all about geometry, symmetry and order. The man who made it happen was Archduke Charles II of Austria. He negotiated funding and manpower for building the project so this is where the city gets its name. Originally in German it was; Karlstadt (Charles’ Town) – Karlovac in Croatian. Works began on the 13th July 1579, a date that is celebrated every year as the “birthday” of the city. Within a year the fortress was garrisoned and the terrorised villagers flocked to its shelter.
Let’s just say there were a few teething problems for the first hundred years or so. Plague, flooding and a couple of fires caused more concern than the occasional attempted siege by the Turks. Up until the biggest fire in 1692 most buildings were constructed from only timber. After that, city planners (taking the hint) began to rebuild with solid materials. At this time the city began to take on a baroque style. In the mid-18th century the fortifications and city underwent another massive renovation attaining an even more modern baroque look – a lot of what you see today. Inside the old town core you’ll find an assortment of repurposed former military installations (although some are still abandoned since the War), one time mansions of Karlovac Generals, artisans’ houses and palaces of wealthy noblemen and merchants.
Nowadays the main pedestrian street through the star is Radićeva Street. Here and on the streets branching off of it you’ll find cafes, places to eat and shops. At the south end you can still find the city guard tower which looked out over one of the original entrances to the fortress. The main central square (Ban Jelačić Square) is home to the Church of the Holy Trinity with its distinctive yellow façade and bellower. The Church is one of the oldest buildings in Zvijezda having been built at the same time as the fortress. Attached to it is the 17th century Franciscan Monastery and across the square the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas. Nearby is Strossmayer square, home to the city hall and the oldest residential building in the star (early-17th century) which now houses the Karlovac City Museum; well worth a visit to get your bearings. Although not inside the original boundaries of the fortress, Zrinski Square, or “Korzo” as it is known to locals, is lined by the first residential area built outside of the fortifications. A lot of the big houses formerly belonged to wealthy business families and merchants or were constructed as cultural institutions. Some really nice examples not to be missed in and around the city centre/Korzo include; Vranyczany Palace (1869), The Grain House (1813), Barako Palace (1872), Frohlich Palace (early 20th century), Zorin Dom City Theatre (1892) and Karlovac School of Music (1890).
These are just a few examples. Really, the best way to enjoy it is to just wander; every street tells a tale and definitely your exploration should include several coffee/beer breaks!
Of course at face value you could be mistaken to dismiss Zvijezda as having seen better days. It is true, it needs some love. In my opinion the fact that this little town has seen all the days is where the real charm is to be found. From when the fortress was command of the Croatian Military Frontier, to its declaration as a “free royal city” and the golden age of prosperity that followed, the short-lived but highly influential occupation by the French (1809-16) to the decline of the Ottoman Empire, two World Wars and the recent Croatian Homeland War (1991-95); the trials and tribulations of the city’s existence are visible for all to see, as are the reminders of great success and heady days of wealth and influence.
A “City of Parks”
Exploring the outer fortifications it becomes clear why Karlovac is known “the city of parks”. After the city attained its “free royal status” and the Ottoman Empire’s borders had shifted further south, the fortress began to lose its defensive worth. It became a wealthy centre for trade and was expanding freely and rapidly beyond the confines of the fortifications. Over time the ramparts and ditches fell into disrepair, that is until it was decided in the late 19th century that parks should be created in the by then drained ditches. Rows of chestnut and linden trees were also planted along the outer rim creating a beautiful star-shaped promenade. A stroll along these paths will take you by sections of the original retaining walls and parts where the ramparts are still intact. Only then can you get some idea of the scale of the original construct.
The wide space between Zvijezda and river Korana is now home to the forestry school’s Arboretum and Vrbanić botanical gardens, both havens for native woodland wildlife. Any given time of the year you can find locals jogging, walking dogs and relaxing.
Natural River Beaches
In summer the left bank of River Korana really comes to life as the bathing season begins. The river-beach Foginovo has won many awards and is still the only officially registered river-beach in the country. It is also the only one that has access to the water for people with disabilities. Korana is traditionally known for its healing qualities and the water can reach temperatures in the mid-twenties during summer. If you have been to Plitvice Lakes National Park you will have some idea of how beautiful the water is because there is the source of River Korana. Renting a bicycle will open up even more opportunities for swimming. Close to the city there are many secluded swimming areas to be found. Some even have bbq and picnic facilities. A little further away you can take local transport to the more well-known “Island of Love” or “Mrežnički Brig” near Duga Resa; both very popular with tourists and locals, particularly weekend day-trippers from Zagreb escaping the hot sticky city.
Medieval Castle Dubovac
A short walk from the city centre on an ancient hill overlooking the city is the 14th century Old town Dubovac which has been home to various Nobel families and Frontier army Generals over the centuries. The castle is open to the public and has a small museum in the main tower. Dubovac was named as one of CNN.com’s “most beautiful places in Croatia” in 2014. If you are visiting I recommend you go to catch sunset from the tower. They can be as spectacular as the much lauded Zadar ones, trust me!
The Kalvarija hiking trails behind Dubovac will take you through the forested hills to the west and just to the south is the Kozjača nature trail. Both trails can be combined for a full day’s hiking.
A Perfect Base for Adventure
Karlovac is spoilt for choice when it comes to river activities. All four rivers in their early stages are popular destinations for rafting, kayaking and canoeing. From April to October; outdoor companies in the city offer day-trips that cater for all levels of expertise and age.
The dramatic River Korana canyon near the village of Rastoke is a popular destination for professional rafters and is the location for the international competition “RastRaft”. Remote sections of the river downstream are only accessible by raft which adds to the unspoilt beauty. River Mrežnica is a regular candidate for most beautiful river in Croatia. It cuts though some of the most rugged and uninhabited karst landscape in Croatia. Locals will say that the best rafting in the whole country is on the River Dobra. The first commercially organised rafting trips began on this river. In early spring, the wild upper-reaches of Kupa attract the more experienced enthusiasts.
Off-road tours in all-terrain vehicles, mountain biking, canyon-ing, trekking, outdoor survival courses and even snowboarding in the Žumberak Mountains in winter are just a few more possible excursions on offer from the city.
Guilt-free Gastronomic Offerings
After a long day exploring or if you are coming down off your adrenaline buzz it is good to know you can find an affordable place for a meal accompanied by several glasses of quality, locally produced wine. Karlovac has many excellent family owned restaurants serving hearty traditional Croatian food, all fantastic value for money. Even the seafood is excellent this far inland.
Bars serving imported and local craft beer are fast becoming a thing now too – a very good thing in my opinion. This is after all also “the city of beer”, because – if you hadn’t already guessed it; “Karlovačko Pivo” has been brewed in Karlovac since 1854.
Dessert will not be a problem either, there are plenty of delicious cake, ice-cream and pancake shops strategically positioned in the city centre to tempt you. Don’t feel guilty though. With all the hiking, biking and rafting you’ll be doing, the kilos will fall straight off again the next day!
Author: Damien Cullen Družak
Damien and his wife Ana own an run Hostel Na Putu in Karlovac Croatia which opened in August 2014. Damien, who is Irish, has been living in Croatia since 2012 but first came in 2009 as part of a 6 month backpacking trip when he randomly got a job volunteering in a hostel in Zagreb – subsequently returning for two more seasons in 2010 and 2011. He has been writing his own hostel blog about Karlovac and its surroundings for the last couple of years with the mission to put this all to often overlooked city and region firmly on the backpacker map.