Music and Art in a Storybook Croatian City ; A Cultural Explosion Is Taking Place along Varazdin's Ancient Streets

By Vora, Shivani | International New York Times, May 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

Music and Art in a Storybook Croatian City ; A Cultural Explosion Is Taking Place along Varazdin's Ancient Streets


Vora, Shivani, International New York Times


A cultural explosion is taking place in castles and squares, in churches and a synagogue and along the ancient streets of Varazdin.

The Julijan apartment in the heart of Varazdin, Croatia, is as much a representation of the city's character as it is a short-term rental for travelers. Situated on the top floor of a two-story 18th- century building that is surrounded by cobblestone streets, the flat overlooks a small garden where more than 50 open umbrellas in bright shades rest on thin metal crisscrossing wires, forming a canopy, and the mishmash of seating includes a white bathtub that the owner, Martin Kaminic, cut in half and fashioned into a bench.

Come summer, Mr. Kaminic, 41, who dabbles in art when he's not working as a cosmetics sales representative, opens the courtyard to the public, and crowds take in the imaginative setting while drinking wine and honey grappa made in the neighboring valleys and listening to live music playing in one of the nearby squares.

I was there in January, and even the chilly and overcast weather could not conceal the artsy appeal of my accommodations, where the past and present collided in an intriguing snapshot -- much like the destination itself.

Croatia may be most famous for its picturesque Dalmatian Coast dotted with medieval cities like Dubrovnik. Varazdin, an inland city of 50,000 people an hour north of Zagreb, has an equally rich history, but over the past several years it has become better known as a hub for culture. Its festivals celebrate everything from contemporary art and dance to Baroque and rock music, and artists, ateliers and government initiatives continue to enhance a vivid scene.

The city's roots go back to the 12th century, when the Croatian- Hungarian king, Andrija II, declared it a free town in 1209. Over the next several hundred years, it became an important trading center and military base and was the country's capital for a period of time in the 18th century.

When a fire ravaged the town in 1776, the government institutions moved to Zagreb, and Varazdin was rebuilt to give it the storybook atmosphere I experienced on my trip. The centerpiece is the Old Town castle (Stari Grad), a sprawling Gothic-Renaissance complex built from the 13th to the 19th centuries as a military fortress, while the rest of the city is a collection of Baroque buildings with pink, yellow and cream facades spread out among 10 squares and including 30 small palaces that are a mixture of museums, government buildings and private residences.

Rumblings of Varazdin's evolution as an arts center go back to 1999, when the town's tourist board started Spancirfest, a festival on a late-summer weekend in the main square featuring musicians from around the country.

The initiative has blossomed into one of Croatia's most popular events, a nonstop 10-day bacchanal spread throughout the streets, with more than 50 concerts in diverse styles of music, including jazz, classical and rock. There are also outdoor theater productions, street performers and more than 100 stalls for food purveyors and artisans.

Attendance in 2014 was 300,000, up from about 100,000 five years ago, and the talent has become increasingly high profile: The American rock band Blondie played to 4,000 people last summer on a stage next to the castle.

The lineup for the 2015 festival, which runs from Aug. 21 to 30, includes Gogol Bordello, a Gypsy punk band from New York, and the Austrian musician Parov Stelar, who is known for a musical style that combines jazz, house, electro and breakbeat.

Wanda S. Radetti, who is from Rijeka, about two and a half hours southwest of Varazdin, and who owns the New York trip-planning company Tasteful Croatian Journeys, said that Spancirfest used to attract only locals. "For a while, Varazdin was waiting to be discovered, but the festival has turned into something that all of Croatia and even some international travelers look forward to, and it's part of the many events happening in the town," she said. …

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