Having accepted an invitation from the Croatian Rural Tourism Association to visit some of their members and investigate the potential of continental tourism recently, I was not quite sure what to expect during my four-day journey which started in Medjimurje, took in Krizevci, Otrovanec, Baranja and Lonjsko Polje, but by the time I had approached my final destination of the tour, my eyes had been truly opened, and not only had my perceptions of rural tourism been turned on their head, but the warm hospitality and sheer work ethic of everyone I encountered left a lasting impression, as well as the realisation of course that in rural Croatia there is a surprise around every corner.
And, true to form, we could not go straight to our final goal, Kezele Seoski Turizam near Sumecani, without yet one more fascinating diversion, this time to nearby Ivanic Grad, a town on the commuter belt to the capital, about half an hour south-east of Zagreb. For our timing coincided with the annual Bucijada, or pumpkin festival. I have to hand it to Croatians - they really know how to celebrate what they have, and I doubt any country in the world has as many weird and wonderful food festivals as are celebrated here - here, for example, are just 25 wonderful natural food festivals which take place each year in Croatia.
There were pumpkins everywhere, in all shapes, sizes and manifestations, but perhaps the nicest moment was talking to this lady, the curator of the new and very small new museum in Ivanic Grad. She has been battling for 20 years to have a museum for the town, and finally this year got her wish. Just two rooms at present, and the exhibition is necessarily small, but there are plans to expand. A nice example of how one can achieve ones goals in Croatia with quiet determination.
If anyone is planning to write 101 Uses of the Pumpkin, I can recommend at least one use you have not yet come across - pumpkin beer, which I had never come across before. Brewed by some local craft brewers who wanted to mark their home town in their production, the pumpkin beer was (I think) making its world premiere, and there was an obliging pumpkin refugee nearby for selfies. As for the beer, surprisingly drinkable, and not too dissimilar to wheat beer which is such a hit in Germany and elsewhere.
Having ingested my pumpkin requirements, it was time to move on, and I was more than curious to visit Kezele, a supremely successful business built on quality local products, authentic rural charm, innovation, outstanding customer service and a dedicated hard-working family team. The innovation was on show on soon as we approached, the newest addition rising from the open fields. It was a privilege to meet Croatia's famous straw sculptor, Nikola Faller, who had been commissioned by the Kezele family. The kids were loving it of course, and my initial impression on arrival at Kezele was of a safe, expansive place, where kids could roam free and enjoy the considerable attractions both of nature and the traditional Kezele facilities.
And just walking to reception gave an indication of what was in store...
But it was that open space and well-designed complex with plenty of vantage points for parents to relax and supervise at distance which stayed with me, and the reaction of two young madams when I showed them the pictures back home a few days later only confirmed that. I was made to promise I would return soon by my daughters.
A natural blend of nature, animal life and kids forgetting about the trappings of the modern world. Refreshing.
And in the expansive grounds, plenty of smaller attractions and details to keep the little ones (and me in the case above) entertained. A rather different approach to skittles, and one which requires a different approach.
And there were horses... Horseriding is just one of the activities which can be organised.
And not just horses.
Nature aside, Kezele had one of the most impressive collection of traditional Croatian artefacts I had come across, from superbly restored and equipped accommodation to some real treasures of the past contained in its buildings.
Just one example. Any idea what the contraption on the table was used for?
Wall to wall antiques.
I joined a tour of fairly boisterous Slovenians - and this was before they had got to the wine tasting - and found out what the machine was used for - an old ironing board!
This was followed by a demonstration of an old fire alarm. Simply wind it up.
But many had come to eat, and none of them left hungry.
Great, healthy food, sourced and prepared locally.
The origins of Kezele rural tourism are in wine. The owner decided that he wanted to start producing wine (wine tasting of the excellent Kezele range is highly recommended by this correspondent). People liked what they tasted. Many came to visit and they wanted something to eat, a need which was catered to. Then some wanted somewhere to sleep, and the seeds of today's business were sewn.
As with all things I experienced on the trip, all ingredients were local - some of the Kezele vines near the complex.
One of the things that I liked the most about the trip was the sense of cooperation and cross-promotion that existed between the businesses we encountered. While time was always an issue on our punishing schedule, it was refreshing to have the bigger picture presented with visits to other producers. The indigenous grape variety of the region is Skrlet, which like the Moslavina region in general, is suffering from branding issues as the region is located across four different administrative counties, but rather a nice drop it was too, and I particularly enjoyed a tour and taste of the wines at nearby Vostinic, especially this rather unusual bottle, a sparkling Skrlet - a great way to start the week overlooking the picturesque vineyards of the well-presented estate.
The accommodation was a throwback in time, but warm and with all the modern conveniences, intelligently combined without compromising the authenticity more than necessary.
From that tiny vineyard concept, Kezele has expanded its operations in several directions, and it is now a popular destination for team building, business conferences and weddings, for example. It is not hard to see why.
Loving touches at every turn.
Combined with fine hospitality and professional service.
It was certainly the most multi-functional place I had visited on the trip, one capable of handling several groups with different interests simultaneously, without losing the intimate family feel.
But always with an eye to the needs of the modern tourist. Kezele has a rich tourism offer in terms of tours and activities in the vicinity, as well as useful on-site facilities, such as Next Bike.
And the innovation and expansion continues apace. One thing I have learned in my time in Dalmatia is that while locals here may not be the most hard-working in the world, if you find a really hard-working local, they work harder than anywhere else in the world. And the impression I got from my short time at Kezele is that here was a family who was working REALLY hard.
Many of the local wooden houses are sadly in a poor state. As I discovered the day before on my visit to Lonjsko Polje. the wooden walls of these magnificent houses were contructed without nails, but simply by interlinking the wooden panels, like a giant LEGO set. As such, it was easier to dissemble, then reassemble and renovate in a new location. The most important thing to remember, of course, is which piece belonged where, hence the red numbering above.
The latest addition to the Kezele project, a souvenir shop, with the workers working at an extraordinary rate to get the job done. This roof was going up in record time.
Enough! An outstaning four days, and one which makes me wonder what could be achieved for continental tourism and 365 tourism if more resources and promotion were allocated. I will confess to not eating for a full day at the end of my trip - a fabulous culinary experience to match the natural and traditional wonders I experienced.
Take a tour of Kezele in the video below, and learn more about their offer on their official website (English version) - for a family day out from Zagreb, there cannot be many which surpass it.