Friday, 22 January 2021

22 January: Vincekovo - St Vincent's Day in Croatia

January 22, 2021 – January 22 is Vincekovo - St Vincent's Day in Croatia. Marked significantly in continental winemaking regions, its folk traditions pre-date Christianity and are celebrated with food, wine, music and merriment

Nearing the end of January, it's not uncommon to see snow on the fields of Croatia. The ground can be hard, brittle, frozen. There's little to be done in them right now. And yet, on 22 January in Croatia, winemakers traditionally head to their vineyards. They do this not to undertake a day's work – for today is a day of rest. Instead, they go there to mark the tradition of Vincekovo - St Vincent's Day in Croatia.

Croatia_Baranja_Belje_Vineyard_0184_1.jpgSt. Vincent's Day in Baranja © Romulić & Stojčić

Vinceška, Vincekovo, Vinkovo, Vincelovo, Vinceće - St. Vincent's Day

As a name, Vincent has many variants, Vinko being one popular in Croatia. Similarly, Vincekovo is also known by several different names. For example, St. Vincents Day in Baranja is called Vinceška, in Erdut it's Vincekovo, in Ilok it's Vinkovo, but you can also hear it called Vincelovo and even Vinceće.

Vincekovo_GVT-2019-14a_1.jpgVincekovo marked with wine and meat in traditional folk costume in Varaždinske Toplice © Grad Varaždinske Toplice

Vincekovo is mostly marked in the northern continental area of the country and throughout the entire far east of Croatia - eastern Slavonia, Baranja and the Croatian part of Syrmia, around Ilok. In these places, it is a day inextricably linked with the production of wine. That people seem to associate St Vincent as 'the wine guy' seems reasonable – Vinko and vino (the Croatian word for wine) are almost the same, right? Well, not quite.

The related name Viktor (also used in Croatia) actually gives us the best example of the meaning of the name. Vincent comes from the Latin word 'vincere' (to conquer or to be victorious). But, although it looks similar in Latin, the word for wine is much, much older. And it may have an entirely different root.

Ilok2020.jpgVinkovo in Ilok 2020 © Youtube screenshot

Why we say 'wine'

Nobody is really sure where the word 'wine' comes from. The ancient Greek word 'oinos' certainly pre-dates the Latin but its true origins have been lost in time. This provides an entertaining mystery for today. Fascinatingly, we find a common origin word for wine in several completely different language groups.

You can trace the historic use of the word 'wine' through a vast territory. In ancient times, the name was used in the area of what is today southern Russia and nearby in the Caucasus. Although they belong to a different non-Indo European language group, peoples in what is modern-day Georgia used the same word. In the western Semitic languages of the Levant (Arabic: wain, Hebrew: yayin) it is the same. In Mediterranean languages like Latin and Greek, it is also virtually the same word. Travelling back up to the territory of modern-day Russia, this time through regions where ancient Slavic and Germanic languages were spoken, the word is still the same. It seems that ever since people learned how to cultivate and ferment grapes, they have somehow all referred to the end product using the same word.

Who knows? Perhaps there is a shared origin for the words? As any winemaker will tell you, to make good wine, you do need to conquer the vines. DNA testing proves that the vines from which we grow grapes originally come from varieties that grew historically in the wild in an area that is today Russia and central Europe. Yet, the earliest traces of wine production are found in more southerly regions, where the climate is warmer. This journey itself is a conquering act of cultivation. In early Indo-European languages, the root 'wei' means to turn or to bend. Could the word wine be referring to human manipulation of the wild vines?

The earliest evidence of grapevine cultivation and wine production comes from the South Caucasus, present-day Georgia and dates back at least 8000 years.

1275px-Barry_capitaine._F._25._Grand_vase_pour_la_conservation_du_vin_en_Kacheti_Géorgie._Mission_scientifique_de_Mr_Ernest_Chantre._1881.jpgA Georgian man in traditional dress stands alongside a qvevri, a clay pot used for making Georgian wine in 1881. Once filled, the clay amphora are buried beneath the ground, which helps regulate the temperature of the fermenting wine. Evidence of winemaking in the region is the oldest in the world - it goes back 8000 years  © Public domain

Saint Vincent aka Vincent of Saragossa (Vinko iz Zaragoze)

Vicente_de_Zaragoza_by_Tomás_Giner_14621466_1.jpgVicente de Zaragoza by Tomás Giner

Although several saints share the name Vincent, the Saint Vincent we celebrate on 22 January is Vincent of Saragossa. Born to a well-off family in Saragossa (Zaragoza), north-eastern Spain, Vincent devoted his life to the church and became deacon in the Church of Saragossa. He was tortured under the persecution of Christians demanded by Roman Emperor Diocletian. Vincent was asked to renounce his faith - which he refused to do. Subsequently, he was martyred around the year 304. We mark St Vincent's Day in Croatia and the western Christian world on 22 January as this is presumed to be the actual day of his death. Vincent of Saragossa is not only the patron saint of winemakers but also of vinegar makers. This may come as a comfort to some less able wine producers.

Basilica_del_Pilar-sunset.jpgCathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar and the Puente de Piedra bridge on the Ebro River in Saragossa, the birthplace of St Vincent © Paulo Brandao

Quite why the midwinter period of 22 January should be significant to winemakers poses some questions. “I have no idea!” one Dalmatian winemaker told TCN when asked to explain the significance of the day to his craft. “But, you know those Slavonians are all crazy, right?” And, on the surface, his unknowing is quite understandable. There is little happening in the frozen fields right now. But, it is possible that this celebration pre-dates not only St Vincent but also Christianity itself.

History of 22 January as Saint Vincent's Day (Vincekovo)

Vincekovo-slika-Likovna-Republika.jpgA Croatian painting tellingly shows how traditions of St Vincent's Day in Croatia have little changed over the years © Tourist Board Jestrebarsko

Everyone's favourite ancient God at the party, Dionysus had a wide portfolio of fun stuff to look after. He was the Greek God of wine, the grape harvest, fertility, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, festivity and theatre. He was traditionally celebrated in the period from the 11th to the 13th of anthesterion - which in today's calendar corresponds to the period between late January - around now - and the start of February. On the wild feast of Dionysus (who is sometimes called Bacchus or Liber, as in liberty, freedom), barrels of new wine were broken open. The celebration marked the impending arrival of the new season – spring. And, this too is how people mark St Vincent's Day in Croatia.

1775px-Cornelis_de_Vos_-_El_triunfo_de_Baco.jpgThe Triumph of Bacchus, a 17th-century painting by Cornelis de Vos © Public domain

Several saints' days in Croatia and Europe correspond to significant points in the agricultural calendar. This tellingly reveals their pre-Christian roots. Another of those corresponding to winemaking is Martinje – St Martin's Day in Croatia (which you can read about here). However, Martinje is traditionally a more proletarian festivity – it comes at the end of the harvest when there is no more hard work for all the manual labourers to do. Vincekovo is a day more traditionally associated with their boss - the vineyard owner. It is also traditionally a more testosterone-filled affair – a sausage party, perhaps. Well, you could say that, and in more ways than one.

Vinceška-Vina-Belje-2019-21-960x640meats.jpgKulen and other sausages, hung traditionally beside the vines on St Vincent's Day - the company that made these, Belje, is one of the best and most famous in Croatia. They trace their history in the Baranja region back to the year 1697. In Baranja, you'll most likely hear this day called Vinceška © Belje

Music, food, theatre and wine - traditions of Vincekovo, Saint Vincent's Day in Croatia

Around this time of year, vines within the vineyard will be cut back. There are a limited amount of nutrients that can pass down a vine. This cutting back ensures the nutrients are concentrated and helps guarantee a limited but good crop. Whether this cutting back has actually taken place in days prior, on Vincekovo vineyard owners are charged with visiting their vines. Whatever the weather, they will march into the fields and ceremoniously cut back a vine. Usually, it's one with at least three new buds on. Traditionally, this vine is then brought into the home and placed in a watered jar. The progress of the buds supposedly predicts the next season's crops. Many other folk traditions associated with Vincekovo also serve the same purpose of 'predicting the crops'. Melting snow, rain and sunshine on Vincekovo are also regarded as predictors of a fine harvest. Although, some believe that water dripping from the eaves on Vincekovo could mean the year will be wet.

Pavlomir_Novi_Vinodol_Primorsko-Goranska.jpgVincekovo celebrated in Pavlomir, Novi Vinodol, Primorsko-Goranska County © Youtube screenshot

Again following Dionysian traditions, Slavonian people are famously gregarious. They rarely make the trip to the vineyard alone. Neighbours, family, friends and even musicians might make the journey with them and join in the blessing of the vines. In Croatia today, you can still see some people undertaking this ceremony in traditional folk costume.

Vinkovo_in_Ilok_2019.jpgVinkovo in Ilok 2019. Brrrrrr! © Youtube screenshot

The vine that has been pruned is ritually sprinkled with old wine. Song and drinking accompany the ceremony. Both old and new wine may make an appearance. No Slavonia or Baranja party is complete without kulen, their king of sausages. And, on Vincekovo, it is traditional to hang kulen and/or švargla (another monstrous portion of preserved pig product) from a post. Supposedly, this theatre is done in order to encourage the next season's crop to be as fertile and bountiful as these sizeable sausages.

1626px-Sacrificio_a_Baco_Massimo_Stanzione.jpgSacrifice to Bacchus by Massimo Stanzione c. 1634 © Public domain. Some of the folk traditions observed on St Vincent's Day in Croatia probably pre-date Christianity

Hearty snacks usually accompany the celebration in the fields. After the ceremonious part is taken care of, people now think to return indoors. Although, not necessarily to your own home. Because now is the traditional time to march around the locale to visit the wine cellars of your neighbouring growers. If you're a winemaker of a Dionysian bent, you'll probably take along some food with you like kulen, a roasted pig or even the tamburica musicians who came to the fields with you. Croatians rarely arrive at a party with empty hands. If such treats are not taken to the event, probably they'll already be waiting in your neighbour's cellar. Although, you might have to pace yourself. If you live in an area of traditional winemaking, there could be quite a lot of neighbouring wine cellars to visit. Subsequently, celebrations on Vincekovo - St Vincent's Day in Croatia - can extend well into the night.

fishp.jpegFiš paprikaš is a spicy river fish stew, richly red from paprika. It is popular in Slavonia, Baranja and Syrmia. Along with the wild meats stew čobanac and whole šaran (carp), butterflied and cooked outside over an open flame, it is a warming and popular dish to eat in eastern Croatia on St Vincent's Day © Romulić & Stojčić

Saturday, 12 September 2020

Visit Osijek on the Croatian Road Less Travelled

July 8, 2020 - TCN travel series The Croatian Road Less Travelled with Marc Rowlands. In this edition, we visit Osijek in eastern Croatia, on the banks of the Drava river and look at things to do in Osijek 

Situated in the far east of Croatia, the city of Osijek is a sizeable distance from the regular coastal or capital city footfall of visiting tourists. Indeed, considering its history, importance and its vast, unique appeal, its surprising just how many Croatians you meet who have also never been to Osijek. Sitting on the banks of the Drava river, the city is the de facto capital of Slavonia and the administrative centre for Osijek-Baranja county and served as a strategically important outpost in the Roman, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Osijek was the first city in Croatia to have a tramway and, after Rijeka, the first Croatian city to be serviced by an international train route (running to Pécs in Hungary via Beli Manastir, this very line was re-opened in 2018).

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Osijek's Old Town, Tvrđa, is the largest and best-preserved ensemble of Baroque buildings in Croatia. It sits spectacularly by the Drava river, separated by the defensive walls of its Hapsburg-era fort © Romulić & Stojčić

Why visit Osijek?


Osijek is an incredibly beautiful place and perhaps Croatia's only option which simultaneously offers all the thrills of a genuine city coupled with incredible nature. It's possible to walk from one end of the city to the other passing only through statue-littered parks, the air is constantly fresh and, being Slavonia, the ground is entirely flat, making it a great place for bicycle enthusiasts. It's also a great place for swimming and other water activities such as fishing, rowing and boating. Osijek has a range of great nightlife options; three catering to fans of turbo-folk, two for those who prefer tamburica and Croatian folk music, one for students, one for the alternative crowd and several bars which host live music including jazz. Specialist monthly club nights offer drum n' bass, hip hop, house music and the techno night, Traum, is well known across Croatia and fronted by two of the country's finest DJs in the genre - Insolate and Volster.

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Cooling off in the Drava river, right in the heart of the city - just one of Osijek's great swimming options © Romulić & Stojčić

Osijek has, by far, the longest waterfront promenade in Croatia. Both banks of the Drava are pedestrianised. On the side of the city, the prom is lined with parks, cafes, bars and restaurants built within converted river-cruising boats. This side also holds the impressive Osijek city walls, behind which lies the Old Town centre, Tvrđa. On the opposite banks, you'll be walking alongside wild nature, with the vast open-air swimming complex Copacabana at one end and Osijek Zoo at the other. Osijek's pedestrianised bridge links both sides in the middle; it's is one of the city's most iconic sights and looks particularly special at night when colourfully lit.

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Osijek pedestrian bridge by night © Romulić & Stojčić

Osijek and wider Slavonia are Croatia's least-heralded gastronomic powerhouses. The cuisine here is as unforgettable as the warm Slavonian welcome. Paprika-rich stews such as čobanac (made with locally caught wild boar and deer), fish paprikaš and perklet are a clear influence of nearby Hungary and most attempts to faithfully reproduce them outside the region fall extremely short. Although all you'll ever hear about is pršut from Dalmatia and Istria, Slavonians are masters of curing pork and even have their own high-quality breed, Slavonian black. Authentic kulen from Baranja is unquestionably the highest quality sausage from Croatia and you'd have to look hard to top Slavonia's paprika or garlic-flavoured kobasice too. In Osijek, as in its wider region, you can go to a restaurant and order one of the best pizzas you'll ever try and pay the same as you would for a starter course on the coast.

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A selection of Slavonian meats. Kulen is a speciality of Slavonia and Baranja, the best quality sausage made in Croatia. It is preserved, made from top cuts of pork, richly red from paprika and versions from both Slavonia and Baranja are protected at an EU level. You can spot the one from Baranja by its irregular shape © Romulić & Stojčić

If you're a fishing or hunting enthusiast, this is also the place for you – days floating down the Drava along the 15 kilometre stretch before its confluence with the Danube can be as unforgettable as the monster-sized fish you can catch here. Osijek also makes a great permanent base for travel in the wider region, with trips across the nearby Serbian and Hungarian border offering different cuisines and culture again. The Slavonian white wine industry can also be explored from here. Equidistant between Zagreb, Budapest and Zagreb international airports, it's conveniently placed on the intrepid backpacker's route too.

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Rowing on the Drava river in Osijek. The city has produced several champions in the sport © Romulić & Stojčić

How to get to Osijek


Osijek has its own airport. With established internal and international routes, this holds huge potential for the city. However, it is not without its problems. That no public transport service runs between the airport and the city is shameful. Unless you know a local, your only option is a taxi, whose fixed rates are substantially higher than the 25 kuna maximum it will cost you to travel between any two points in the city itself. Conflict between budget airlines and authorities has resulted in some international routes being cancelled. Bargaining budget airlines demand lower landing fees in return for the tourists they can deliver into the local economy. But, largely, those using the routes are not tourists; they are locals from Croatia, Hungary, Bosnia and, in particular, Serbs from Vojvodina, for whom Osijek is the most convenient airport to fly to on their way back from work in Germany or Ireland. Why should Osijek subsidise their travel? One solution may be to implement a passenger landing fee which can be fully recouped by tourists via vouchers for any accommodation they take in the city or wider Slavonia.

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Osijek train station, one way to arrive when you visit Osijek © Romulić & Stojčić

Osijek is well connected by bus; you can travel there from Belgrade and Novi Sad in Serbia, from Zagreb, direct from coastal regions Istria, Kvarner and Dalmatia and even from Montenegro, via Dubrovnik and Imotski. It is accessible by train from all of northern Croatia and Zagreb although the lines and stock have not been updated in so long that, shamefully, it's actually quicker to take the fast train from Zagreb to Vinkovci, disembark and take a local bus to Osijek than it is to travel on the direct train there from the Croatian capital.

Where to eat: Slavonska Kuća, Kod Ruže, Vrata Baranje or Čarda kod Baranjca are brilliant, informal places to try traditional Slavonian cuisine, including all dishes mentioned previously. Further out of the city, Ugostiteljski Obrt Varga in Bilje, Citadela and Darócz in Vardarac and Didin Konak in Kopačevo are really special versions of the same. Rustika is the best sit-down pizza restaurant in the city, has a lovely summer courtyard for dining and is extremely affordable.

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The courtyard at Rustika, a great, casual place to dine and try Slavonska pizza when you visit Osijek © Grill pizzeria Rustika

Food to go / home delivery
: Lipov Hlad and Pizzeria Novi Saloon do the best home delivery pizza in the city (Rustika deliver too). Other choices are thin on the ground, save for the standard fast-food chains and pekara (the El Pan bakery on the edge of Sjenjak hood does the best burek with meat).

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Get to know Slavonian wine when you visit Osijek © Vinoteka Vinita

Where to drink
: The simple but extremely passionate Vinoteka Vinita is one of the best places to try Slavonian and Croatian wines, with many top and rarer titles sold by the glass. If you're more into beer, Beertija in the modern city centre has a great range. General Von Beckers on Tvrđa is the best place to try the leading local craft ale, Beckers, but all of the bars on Tvrđa are worth investigating and during the summer their terraces stretch far into the historic square creating a unique atmosphere.

What's new? Osijek's football club is undergoing a renaissance following its purchase by new investors. An impressive new stadium is reaching completion and you shouldn't be surprised to see this team challenging for the top domestic titles, or reaching European competitions, in the near future.

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Fiš paprikaš is a Slavonian speciality. Spicy from paprika, it is made from river fish and can often be seen being cooked in a large pot over a blazing open fire if you visit Osijek in warmer months © Romulić & Stojčić

What not to miss:
The protected nature park Kopački rit is wonderful to visit at any time of year, a sanctuary for all manner of wildlife, particularly rare species of birds. On Tvrđa, Slama Land Art hosts workshops, art and music events and you'll meet great creative types there. There's an extreme sports event, Pannonian Challenge, which sees international competitors visit Osijek and an annual Osijek Beer Festival which feels more like a street party. There's also a music festival called UFO. Osijek Wine Days and the celebrations celebrating the end of term at the city's sizeable university are each year accompanied by great partying and music performances. Look up the art deco Cinema Urania. At over 100 years old, it's Croatia's best independent cinema outside Zagreb. If you're looking for something a little more upmarket than the aforementioned Copacabana outdoor pools, or if you're visiting in cooler months, the renowned Bizovac Toplice is close by and there are free bus shuttle services from the city. It's a sprawling spa complex with multiple pools, offering fun and wellness therapies. But, whatever you do, don't miss the extraordinary and varied architecture of Tvrđa or Slavonian cuisine.

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Kopački rit. The nature reserve is a must all year round when you visit Osijek © Misalalic

What to buy:
If you're heading somewhere else in Croatia after you visit Osijek, take some Baranja kulen with you for posh sandwiches. Slavonia is famous for its honey, which is protected at an EU level. Take some back home with you. Local designers Lega Lega make cool t-shirts and accessories emblazoned with words exclusively used in the local dialect. Pick up some Slavonian white wine when you visit Osijek. Graševina is the most commonly made white wine in Croatia and the most popular. They make the best Graševina in Slavonia, but also look out for Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Traminac too. There are countless excellent wine producers in Slavonia to look out for, including Kutjevo Graševina, Krauthaker, Galić, Trs, Adžić, Kolar, Enjingi, Antunović, Erdut and Iločki Podrumi.

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'Lega' in local dialect is short for colleague. It is a term affectionately (and exclusively) used when speaking to someone from Osijek. Try using it when you visit Osijek © Lega-Lega

On these links you can read about the other destinations in our The Croatian Road Less Travelled series:

Ludbreg - a site of Holy pilgrimage where the historic meets the contemporary

Donji Miholjac - a hidden gem in the heart of the Pannonian basin

For the latest travel info, bookmark our main travel info article, which is updated daily

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Monday, 11 February 2019

Made in Croatia: Slavonski Kulen

February 11, 2019 — In this article of the Made in Croatia series, learn more about Slavonski kulen, the protected pork sausage from Slavonia.

Slavonian kulen or kulin is by far the best-known delicacy of eastern Croatian cuisine. Also, not only in Slavonia but all across Croatia, kulen is the most prestigious as well as most expensive sausage-type product.

This cured sausage made with premium pork cuts is heavily flavored with red paprika and garlic; it exudes a strong smoky aroma and has a rather piquant flavor. According to strict production rules, Slavonian kulen must be produced using the meat of pigs that have been raised in Slavonia whereas the most sought-after breeds include the black Slavonian pig and Mangulica. The animals are raised free-range and fed organically on corn, barley, and oats.

Kulen sausages are produced every year between the beginning of November and the end of March. Once they're made, the sausages are traditionally cured and smoked over beechwood for at least several months which is followed by a longstanding Slavonian tradition of enjoying kulen at Easter. However, kulen is also an essential part of other festive holiday spreads.

Kulen pairs well with mildly flavored cheeses and lighter red wines. If you happen to find yourself near Požega in June, don't miss the annual Požega kulenijada which is the oldest Slavonian festival and kulen makers' competition. As of November 2017, Slavonski kulen has been registered as a food product with a Protected Geographical Indication.

If you'd like to know more about protected Croatian food products, make sure you're following TCN's dedicated gourmet page.

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