An introduction to Osijek :
In my experience trips of this sort always end up running late and I half anticipated arriving late in Osijek. It only takes a delayed flight or a little over enthusiasm at one of the venues for things to start to slip. And, since the bad weather meant we were running late on arrival at Slavonski Brod, by the time I’d been a willing hostage in order to visit the fortress, we were perhaps an hour or more off schedule.
More bad weather didn’t help – and we arrived at Djakovo too late to see inside the Cathedral or to visit the Bishop wine cellar. The construction of St Peter’s Cathedral Basilica was started in 1866 by Bishop Stossmayer, who commissioned the design of the cathedral in Vienna. Completed in 1882, the neo-Gothic/Romanesque Cathedral is a major landmark in Slavonia.
Over dinner, my guide Darko Mrkonjic started to give me more of an insight into the area. We feasted on scrap pate (pasteta od cvaraka), a kind of pork fat pate followed by veal in wine sauce. And after all that, I could only manage ONE pancake.
My hotel for the night, the immaculate Hotel Osijek was modern and, in the morning I had a stunning view of the river Drava. But, nothing of the old part of Osijek (although I later discovered the nearby car-park was the original site of the oldest beer brewery in Croatia, founded in 1692).
All that changed quickly when we went for a tour of the old city (Tvrđa or Citadel). Starting in the main City square we drank coffee while Darko explained that the buildings, which were originally predominantly military, now housed a University and the Museum of Slavonia . It was a genuine surprise with stunning Viennese style architecture.
And, as I learnt more about the history of the area, the importance of Osijek became clearer. An important trade cross roads from as early as 5,000 BC, ancient flints and amber jewellery from the Mediterranean have been found in Osijek, showing the importance of the area at that time, with routes along the Danube and Drava. The Roman settlement of Mursa saw the construction of a stone bridge over the Drava and an extensive wooden bridge over the marsh and swamplands. In 1526 Osijek was captured by the Ottoman Empire and partly destroyed. But, its important Geographic location meant that the town was quickly rebuilt and became an important military centre. But, it was not until 1687 and the liberation from the Turks that the town became the centre of the whole of Slavonia. As the City developed as part of the Austro Hungarian Empire, it is perhaps not surprising that any visitor might wonder if they’ve taken a wrong turning and have arrived in Vienna or Budapest rather than Osijek. It was at one time the largest City in Croatia and even now is the fourth largest. And positioned close to the river borders of the Danube and Drava, it remained an important military and cultural centre for centuries
There are still remnants of Turkish occupation – outside the beautiful church of St Michael you can see the footprint of the Kasimpasha mosque that stood there previously. The Star Fortress built along the river Drava was constructed after the defeat of the Ottoman forces in 1687 inspired by the Dutch fortresses of its time. It is significant in that unlike many of the military centres in the area, the Fortress was built around the City, rather than apart from it. The Fortress was largely completed by 1715 although only small sections remain today.
Inside the Franciscan Monastery Church, built in the early eighteen century, we found the remains of a fourteenth century three nave basilica and the statue of ‘Our Lady of Osijek’ above the main altar. She’s believed to protect the city and during the home war local people believe that damage was limited because instead of sending her to Zagreb the Franciscan monks hid her somewhere in the Church grounds. The monastery is also home to a menorah-like monument, with 6 candles representing 6 million Croatian Jews killed during the holocaust. And there are excavations in progress to unearth a medieval church and graveyard.
I could have spent a lot more time exploring Osijek. A few hours just gave a taster of one of Central Europe’s hidden gems. But, we were off to explore the wine cellars and food of the Baranja so I had plenty more treats in store.
Many thanks to the Croatian National Tourist Board for their hospitality and to Darko for his insight into the cultural heritage of Osijek.