Make a date with the ‘oldest city in Europe

Tourism — By on March 30, 2016 at 11:31 PM
Prehistoric 'Orion' calendar. Photo Darko Puharic.

Prehistoric ‘Orion’ calendar. Photo Darko Puharic.

Make a date with the ‘oldest city in Europe, ’ the calendar cradle of eastern Croatia

By James Brewer

Vinkovci, an attractive city in the easternmost part of Croatia, is a locality that has been inhabited for more than 8, 000 years. This allows Vinkovci to lay claim to be the oldest city in Europe – and it boasts the oldest extant Indo-European calendar.

The calendar, known as Orion, was found by archaeologists during works for the Hotel Slavonija in 1980. Named after the dominant winter constellation Orion, this bowl-shaped object with its fascinating symbols is the pride of the city museum.

Osijek on the River Drava.

Osijek on the River Drava.

Copies of those symbols, representing groups of stars seen in the night sky over the area, have been incorporated into the city’s pedestrian zone. Professor Aleksandar Durman who led the excavation said: “Here in the heart of Vinkovci, Europe’s oldest city, stand together the symbols of space, time and civilisation. The engraved ornamentation on the vessel, unearthed from the Vučedol layer [Vučedol or Wolf’s Valley, is the name of a culture which was advanced in farming, trading and ceramics] in Vinkovci and made before 2600 BC, represents the most complete Indo-European calendar, which is based on astral symbolism with pertinent constellations for all four seasons.

“Although it was created in the same period as the Sumerian and Egyptian calendars, it does not represent a replica, since it is based on the 45th parallel. The climatic conditions which correspond to that latitude have four seasons as a consequence.”

Osijek: strategic location.

Osijek: strategic location.

Vinkovci is one of the towns of Slavonia being promoted by tourism officials under the ‘Continental Croatia’ banner which was a feature of the 2016 Destinations travel show at Olympia, London. Slavonia lays claim to be the ‘gold of Croatia.’

Most of the prehistoric settlement of what is now Vinkovci was situated on the high left bank of the River Bosut. Some 88 m above sea-level, that point was sufficiently protected from floods to allow for a flourishing settlement.

The Romans called the city Colonia Aurelia Cabala, and two Roman emperors were born there: the brothers Valentinian (364-375) and Valens (364-378). They were the only Roman emperors to have been born in the territory of the modern-day Republic of Croatia.

Every year in May the Roman dominion is remembered in the ‘Roman Days’ festival in Vinkovci: visitors sample ancient delicacies, play once popular games, watch gladiator fights and learn of other Roman customs.

As Slav tribes arrived, the centre of Vinkovci shifted west. Much later, in the second half of the 18th century, a line of sturdy public and private late baroque buildings was constructed, and these, restored after Allied bombing in 1944, give the town a fine architectural heritage. Vinkovci was close to the front lines in the 1991 battle between the forces of Croatia and the Serbs, but managed to avoid the bloodshed that afflicted Vukovar, only 19 km away.

Vinkovci City Museum, designed in the spirit of Military Frontier Baroque architecture with its recognisable arches, dates from around 1776. A claim to wider fame is that Vinkovci and its railway station are featured in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express as the place near to where the luxury train breaks down.

Kopački rit nature park.

Kopački rit nature park.

Vinkovci is noted too for the more than half century old folk festival Vinkovačke Jeseni which takes place every third weekend in September. It is a time of plentiful festivities with good food and drink, as well as a way of keeping alive the customs and traditions of the Šokci people of the area, who speak their own dialect of Slavonian.

The biggest city in the region and fourth largest in Croatia is Osijek, recognised by the Romans for its strategic position at the crossing of the river Drava. The Turks conquered the city in 1526, burnt it down and reconstructed it in their own way, retaining possession until 1687. Osijek was for a considerable while the largest city in Croatia, until almost the mid-19th century. Evidence of 300 years of architectural development and a summer cultural festival are among today’s highlights.

The city of Varaždin is another baroque gem of the Slavonia region and has been dubbed “Little Vienna”– having briefly served as capital of Croatia from 1756 to 1776.

In the Slavonia region are two world-class nature parks: Kopački rit and Papuk.

Kopački rit is a natural wetland – one of the largest in Europe – around the confluence of the rivers Drava and Danube, near Osijek, with a total of 238 hectares, and is said to have remained intact since ancient times because of its inaccessibility. Kopački rit has since 2012 been in the Unesco world heritage list. It is noted for large herds of deer and of wild boar, and there are 300 species of birds.

A resident of Kopački rit.

A resident of Kopački rit.

Papuk is a mountain that rises from what was once the bed of the Pannonian Sea. It was in 2007 designated part of the Unesco network of geoparks for the protection and development of natural resources. The essayist Matko Peić has written that, climbing high from the dead sea of the Miocene epoch, “one comes across fossilised sea shells, sea-stars, snails, and sea-weeds… during moonlight, the volcanic rocks are glowing in the dark.”

Gold finds its way into the wine glass, in the form to the people of Slavonia as Graševina, a variety long known to Germans as Welschriesling and introduced to the region probably 1, 800 years ago during the Roman Empire. Another theory has it that Welschriesling grapes originated in the Champagne region of northeast France, were planted at Heidelberg in Germany, and later transported to other terrains of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.

The most popular wine in Croatia,  Graševina is usually hay-coloured or has a yellowish-green crystal colour, a fruit or floral aroma, medium alcohol content, and a pleasantly bitter taste. As a young wine it develops a decidedly fresh scent. It goes best chilled with hors d’oeuvres, pasta, white meat and fish.

There is a renowned wine cellar in Kutjevo, which is in the fertile Požega “golden” valley, on the southern slopes of mounts Krndija and Papuk in a narrow valley of the small river Kutjevčanka. The cellar (where Empress Maria Theresa according to one legend had a seven-day romantic entanglement with the military commander and adventurer Baron Franjo Trenk) has survived from 1232 and was formerly connected by an underground passage to a Jesuit castle built on the remains of a Cistercian abbey, Vallis Honesta de Gotha. The company Kutjevo d.d. produces around 6m litres of wine a year and is said to be is the country’s largest exporter of wines. Kutjevo is noted for the varieties Kutjevo Graševina, Pinot Gris, White Pinot, Traminer and Riesling.

Ilok is the starting point for a wine route which includes several family wineries. It offers as whites Graševina, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Rhine Riesling, Silvaner and (served at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II) Traminac (Gewürztraminer). Red varieties are Pinot Noir, Frankovka (Blaufränkisch) and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The claim in the region is that the only true rakija (grappa or brandy) is Slavonia rakija.  The type of wood used for the barrels gives rakija its colour. Oak will give it an olive green hue, walnut an amber-yellow, mulberry an amber tone, and acacia produces yellow.

The best guideline for those who like to indulge is the annual Festival of Fruit Rakijas, Liqueurs and Jams. Viljamovka is traditionally made only from the viljamovka pear, which gives it a unique fruit taste. Orahovac is famous for its medicinal properties, and most commonly used for its beneficial effect on gastritis and cardiovascular disease. Višnjevac is considered a liqueur, but it can be prepared with the same percentage of alcohol as any other type of rakija. Whole sour cherries are placed in rakija to ferment and create a sweet, dark red liqueur that is easy on the palate and good for the stomach.

Šljivovica is a plum-based aperitif great with kulen (flavoured sausage) and cheese… or with any meal throughout the day.

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