When one crosses the river Ilova and comes from the Central Croatia to Slavonia everything seems quite wide. On one side there are reach valleys of Sava River, while on the other low mountains dot the horizon. This is the region where Christianity defended itself in history from the Turkish invasions, and many people still regard themselves as border guards (graničari). First bigger city on the way is Nova Gradiška, a cosy town with specific Slavonian charm and beautiful natural surroundings.
Spending two days in Nova Gradiška was barely enough to learn all the potentialities of this micro-region, only 1,5 hours drive from the Croatian capital Zagreb on the Zagreb-Lipovac motorway and Zagreb-Vinkovci railway. There is lots of history here, lots of religious spots, but also beautiful Slavonian food, hearty and pleasing. And it comes with a wide Slavonian soul, of which this eastern Croatian region is especially proud of.
The city itself is rather new for Croatian standards, and is sometimes called the youngest Croatian city. It was founded in 1748 with support of Vojna Krajina, a special militarised cordon sanitaire that kept the border with the Ottoman Empire for centuries. In 1754 the first building made of bricks was made; it was the Church of Saint Theresa, the old court of law and the prison. Later, the Parochial Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary fulfilled the urban core of the town. These form today the city centre with the central park and square of King Tomislav. Unfortunately, the town was heavily destructed in the Homeland War in early nineties, although just a few areas still have the war scars.
The church of Saint Theresa is indeed an architectural jewel of Nova Gradiška and is known as the stone music. It gives a special significance to the town’s vistas but is excellently seen through the glass roof of the Tomislav Hotel’s cafe bar, which is settled just next door. The central park also hosts much larger parish church of Immaculate Conception, celebrated for the artistic masterpieces of Croatian religious painter Celestin Medović. The park also has Main Guard, the complex combining the old court and prison, with outside vaults. Park itself is French-style park with a central fountain.
The central walking area is the Ulica Slavonskih graničara – the Slavonian border guards’ street. It boasts secession-style buildings but also it is the best place to look at everyday life in the city and behaviour of its citizens. Just south of it is the Square of dr. Franjo Tuđman, Croatian first president, with several statues and monuments dedicated to the Croatian defenders and independence.
Every season brings new joys in Nova Gradiška, and given its surroundings and closeness to the capital, it is the great introduction to the southern Slavonia, land of bohemian people (known as bećar or lola), whose best representative may be famed Croatian poet Matija Antun Relković.
Nova Gradiška is also a very good place to savour excellent Slavonian foods. Specific cuisine of eastern Croatian region is heavily influenced by the Hungarian and Turkish cooking, and as such it is spicier than anywhere else in Croatia. Slavonians like to use paprika and garlic, and they are known for a table where cooking is plentiful, meals hearty and meaty, and always followed by excellent white wines such as Graševina and Traminac, and also red Frankovka.
Rich homemade dry meat products are among the most recognisable features in Nova Gradiška. This includes kulen (kulin), the paprika-flavoured sausage, often served with cottage cheese and pickles, and its sub-variation kulenova seka (literally Kulen’s sister) which is basically the same thing but with different shape and size. Every kind of sausages, but also cracklings and bacon are added to it. All of these you may try to find in local specialised markets in Nova Gradiška, such as the family run Tworek store.
In a more pronounced way you can eat it in the several Nova Gradiška’s restaurants as well as in the agritourisms and family homesteads around the town itself. We have visited the Dukat Restaurant, but very interesting menus may be found in the Slavonski biser restaurant and hotel, very close to the railway and bus station, and in the Tomislav Hotel on the main square.
Going out of the town, the Opođe homestead in Cernik, Slavonski sokak in Novi Varoš, as well as the Eco-Ethno Village in Kapela and Matin and Anin stan (which is part of the Dukat experience) are all cherished as places of homemade food, rural architecture, welcoming hosts, and grandma style accommodation. It is Slavonia on your doorstep!
Photos by: TZ Nova Gradiška & Taste of Adriatic