Seventy kilometres northeast of Zagreb, VARAŽDIN is one of the best-preserved Baroque towns you are likely to find anywhere in Central Europe. An important military stronghold for successive Hungarian and Habsburg rulers, Varaždin grew fat on the profits of the Austrian–Turkish wars of the late 1600s and early 1700s, and many noble families built houses here. From 1765 to 1776 it was actually Croatia’s capital, until a disastrous fire (allegedly started by a pipe-smoking local youth who fell over while chasing a pig) forced the relocation of the capital to Zagreb. Following the fire, life slowly returned to the town’s opulent Baroque palaces, many of which remain resplendent in their original cream, ochre, pink and pale-blue colours. There’s also a postcard-perfect castle, now home to northeastern Croatia’s most worthwhile museum, and quite a few churches – all crammed within the compact Old Town. An additional reason to visit is provided by Varaždin’s graveyard, famous throughout Croatia for its towering topiary and strollable park-like feel. A large student population ensures that modern Varaždin has a vivacious, youthful edge – the presence of an information technology faculty has made the town into one of the most prestigious places to study outside the capital. Varaždin’s final remaining claim to fame is the extraordinarily high level of bicycle use among its inhabitants, giving it the air of a prosperous provincial town in the Low Countries.

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