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As to when the city was founded – we do not exactly know. We know it was a long time ago, sometime during the Middle Ages. We are also aware during industrialization in the 19th century until today, Varaždin has always been a city loved by its inhabitants, and admired by its visitors for its beauty and unique spirit. Varaždin has played many great roles during its extensive history, and its contemporary importance should not be overlooked. Varaždin is a small yet influential cultural, economic, educational and tourist centre of northwestern Croatia and one of the important urban points of the entire continental part of the country.
The City of Varaždin is found in the northwestern part of Croatia. The city is at an altitude between 169 and 173 metres, with an average annual temperature of 10° C. The city lies along the Drava River on a fertile alluvial plain that slopes towards the River Drava from the southwest to the northeast. The plain slightly elevates in the Haloze region and Varaždinsko Topličko Gorje hills.
Varaždin is positioned on the crossroads of the historical regions of Styria, Međimurje, Zagorje and upper Drava Valley, without belonging to any of these regional cultural circles. Varaždin is, simply, Varaždin; a special micro-region with its own, Varaždin identity, traditions and cultural patterns.
The first written reference to Varaždin, its name, inhabitants and the names of Varaždin counties are revealed in the document of King Bela III issued in 1181. The city was then called Guarestin (Garestin), its inhabitants were called Guaresdienses, and the names of the prefects were Beleé and Motmir. In that document, the king adjudicates in the dispute between the Zagreb Chapter and Varaždin County Prefect Beleé over the property in the nearby thermal springs, Varaždinske Toplice.
Exactly what the city looked like at the time and how people lived here is hard to say. The city originated as a settlement of craftsmen and merchants along the medieval castrum at the crossroads of ancient Roman roads on the stretch of today’s streets Optujska, Končareva, Vrazova, Zagrebačka, Braće Radića, Franjevački trg and Kukuljevićeva street.
Shortly after the first mention in 1181, Varaždin received another significant document – a charter granting citizens the rights of a royal free city. Varaždin therefore became the first city in continental Croatia whose citizens could choose their own ‘Rihtar’ (Judge) and were not obliged to pay taxes.
The charter was issued by the Croatian-Hungarian King Andrew II, who, in that turbulent period of Croatian and Hungarian history, was detained for some time near Varaždin, so the citizens (obviously) made his prison days somewhat easier. As a gesture of gratitude for the hospitality and support, the king granted them this right that was of crucial importance for Varaždin, and on a symbolic level, the people of Varaždin are extremely proud of that even today.
Varaždin as the capital
The status of a free royal city enabled the accelerated economic and social development of Varaždin throughout the Middle Ages. Its importance was confirmed in the middle of the 18th century, more precisely in 1756, when it became the seat of the ‘Ban’ Franjo Nadasdy, who brought together the political, economic and cultural elite of the Croatian Kingdom. This led to the decision of Empress Maria Theresa in 1767 to establish the Croatian Royal Council, i.e. the Government and to explicitly designate Varaždin as the seat of that body.
Varaždin thus became the capital of the Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia. Political power significantly changed the city with noble houses and palaces springing up almost overnight in the former settlement of craftsmen and merchants.
As we know, less than ten years after obtaining its capital status, Varaždin abruptly lost it – due to tobacco.
On the 25th April 1776 fire broke out on the city’s thatched rooves, due to the negligence of a local boy who was allegedly chased by a hungry pig, with his disgarded burning tobacco falling on the hay, setting fire to homesteads. The fire rapidly spread to houses outside the city walls, as the city was engulfed as the wind carried the flames. Gunpowder concealed in the basement of a merchant’s home exploded and caused even more destruction and panic among citizens. The fire continued destroy the city until the third day, when the fire was eventually extinguished. The inferno decimated almost 80% of Varaždin’s homes and buildings.
Many abandoned Varaždin including The Ban, the Royal Council, the Parliament, nobility, numerous citizens and craftsmen, in turn ending the story of the capital for good.
Fires have always been a common occurrence in this area. However, something good came out of the trauma that Varaždin experienced. Namely, in 1864, whilst extinguishing a fire in the Jesuit College, the firefighters came up with the idea to establish a fire department. The Brigade was founded in May 1864 and remains the oldest volunteer fire department in this part of Europe. The people of Varaždin eagerly joined the Brigade, which soon gathered an impressive 200 members.
The story of the history of Varaždin and Croatian firefighting is told by the unique Museum of Croatian Firefighting, which you should not miss.
The middle of the 19th century is a kind of European golden age. La Belle Époque, French for ‘Beautiful Era’, a period of peace, economic and social prosperity in Central Europe. Progress and development also manifested in culture, symbolized by merry salon parties, Viennese waltz, gramophones and newspapers, fine manners and aesthetically high criteria in all areas of human life.
Fashion, culinary and musical novelties appeared in Varaždin almost at the same time as in larger European capitals, and coffeehouses became central places for gathering and socializing. Varaždin’s main square had one such city café. Above it lived the composer Emmerich Kalman who allegedly knew a certain countess named Marica, so when the time came to write his famous operetta, he named his work after her.
Not only did he name his operetta after his Varaždin girlfriend, but he also dedicated the biggest “hit” of that work to Varaždin, the song Komm mit nach Varaždin, which was listened to, sung and performed (with different variations of lyrics depending on the occasion) in the entire Habsburg Monarchy and beyond.
A café named after the composer’s friend Countess Marica still stands today and with its decoration, as well as the offer of coffee and sweet desserts, it preserves the memory of Varaždin’s Belle Époque.
Varaždin has always been a city open to the world. Since it originated at a crossroads of ancient Roman roads, and developed into a trade and craft centre, people from all over Europe came to Varaždin to work or make it their home. This open spirit has remained in the form of a network of partner cities stepping far beyond the borders of Europe.
The Partner Cities are Auxerre (France), Bad Radkersburg (Austria), Montale (Italy), Koblenz (Germany), Ptuj (Slovenia), Ravensburg (Germany), Schaffhausen (Switzerland), Shaki City (Azerbaijan), Trnava (Slovakia) , Zalaegerszeg (Hungary) and Wuhan (China).