Visit Donji Miholjac on the Croatian Road Less Travelled

By 12 September 2020
Don't miss Castle Mailáth (top) and Castle Prandau (bottom) when you visit Donji Miholjac
Don't miss Castle Mailáth (top) and Castle Prandau (bottom) when you visit Donji Miholjac © Croatian National Tourist Board

July 26, 2020 – Continuing our travel series Discover The Croatian Road Less Travelled with a look at things to do in Donji Miholjac and why everyone should visit Donji Miholjac

Situated at the heart of the vast Pannonian basin, in the far west of Osijek-Baranja County and just before Virovitica-Podravina County begins, young residents laugh at the idea that people would come to visit Donji Miholjac. But, when you're so used to looking at something, you can sometimes fail to appreciate just what you have.

The town sits on the southern banks of the Drava river and holds a central road and bridge leading to the border crossing just a few minutes away. Miholjac's history, cuisine and its everyday life are inextricably linked to this close proximity with the waters and with the country Hungary, which lies just on the other side.

Doubtless founded on this spot to take advantage of the Drava, Miholjac was inhabited long before the Roman, Slavic or Hungarian people arrived, but it is the latter two – save for the brutal occupation by the Ottomans – who have shaped the town ever since.

Visit Donji Miholjac - the life of its residents is governed by its close proximity to the Drava river and the Stara Drav lake (pictured) in its flood plain © Croatian National Tourist Board

Though just a few years earlier the settlement had contained little more than 50 houses, in the early 18th century Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI gifted lands containing Valpovo and Miholjac to Baron Petar Antun Hilleprandt von Prandau in thanks for assistance in repelling the Ottomans. Though of little immediate interest, the lands would stay within his family for many years to come. Just as nearby Valpovo now holds a castle named after the family, so does Miholjac and the town is forever associated with their name.

The Prandau family built its Baroque castle in Miholjac in 1818. But, in 1901 its grandeur was supplanted by the family's Ladislav Mailáth, whose adjacent castle, made in the Tudor style, towers impressively above it (today the two are joined by a short, covered walkway).

The castles and their ambitiously cultivated grounds (which, in part, became a public park) remain a focal point for the town. As well as holding local government authorities, such as the land registry and tax offices, the larger rooms of the castles and lawns are used to host public events, with classical music concerts particularly benefiting from the impressive backdrop (notably, the Prandau Festival in early July).

Castles Prandau and Mailáth, two of the best things to see when you visit Donji Miholjac © Croatian National Tourist Board

The castles were finally sold by the Hungarian family in 1923 when Miholjac became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. However, their Jewish buyers would not hold onto them for very long; they were forced to flee less than two decades later when fascism cast its dark shadow across much of the region.

The period following World War II was a boom time for Miholjac and indeed wider Slavonia. So fertile is the land here that Pannonian lands like Slavonia and neighbouring Vojvodina (present-day Serbia) became the breadbasket for the whole of Yugoslavia. People from across the Republic packed up and came to live here, taking advantage of the bountiful work opportunities in agriculture. Indeed, when you visit Donji Miholjac today, you can meet many residents who trace their roots back to Dalmatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina. The local exploitation of oil and natural gas added to Miholjac's successes.

The fields around the town are now not nearly so integral to national food production, but agriculture continues to thrive. In summer and autumn, trucks visit Donji Miholjac and depart filled with locally grown, traditional produce, such as sugar beet. Some of the monstrous grain silos located in areas around the town may now lie empty, but Miholjac's industry remains successful and the town has a considerable industrial park.

Though many Croatians themselves don't visit Donji Miholjac, the town is well known across the country; it is the birthplace of August Harambašić, a writer and political activist lauded for his support of Croatian nationalism and of Domagoj Vida, star defender of the Croatian National Football team. Although he is less well known, it is also the birthplace of Ivan Francuz, a painter and underappreciated contributor to Croatia's most independent art movement, Naive art. A national treasure, he still lives in Miholjac, having recently passed his 80th year in the town.

A piece by one of the last remaining bona fide Croatian Naive artists, the legendary Ivan Francuz. A national treasure, he has lived in the surroundings of Donji Miholjac for over 80 years © Ivan Francuz

Despite its history and celebrities, to a younger segment of Croatian society, the town is most famous for a song. Released in 2013, 'Donji Miholjac' by Toxara and Kandžija is a humorous, self-deprecating, sarcastic but ultimately affectionate tale by a proud former resident, executed to a tune originally made famous by Alicia Keys and Jay-Z. Whereas the American megastars are shown in their video surrounded by skyscrapers and playing a grand piano on even grander avenues, in theirs, Toxara and Kandžija cruise dusty Miholjac lanes, passing folks who stand aimlessly in the street and passing dogs aimlessly wandering through nature. It is so beloved that this Croatian version has almost three-quarters of a million hits on Youtube and sections of its chorus will likely be directed towards you by young Croats, should you mention the town's name.

Why visit Donji Miholjac?

Aside from those travelling there for business, the main reasons to visit Donji Miholjac are probably day trips and special events. The town is worth anyone's time for a day trip, its castles are unique and the surrounding gardens and park incredibly beautiful. If you're in the area, you must stop and take a look.

The Baroque castle, known locally as the 'old castle', has two lounges, fourteen rooms, and several kitchens and pantries. It was the first tiled building in the town and exists all on one level. On the street front, it holds nineteen identical windows with late Baroque decorations.

Mailáth castle, known locally as the 'new castle'. Taking in the view from its gardens is a must when you visit Donji Miholjac © Zdenko Brkanić

The 'new castle' contrasts sharply. Built over four floors, its decorative chimneys, spacious terraces with neoclassical balustrades and wrought iron fences identify its debt to the Tudor style. The building has some 50 rooms over around 3500 square meters. Its interior was decorated with hunting trophies from Count Mailáth's travels in Asia and Africa, set above oak panelling which lines every room. Incredibly modern when built, it held three types of heating system, hand-carved window shutters, a grand staircase, and even a bowling alley. Of particular note is the grand hall, which still hosts events.

The Prandau family were known for their interests in horticulture and transformed the areas surrounding their dwellings over successive generations. They moved significant parts of their gardens from the family seat in Hungary to allow them to thrive in the more moderate climate of Miholjac. Between the construction of the two castles, they built a greenhouse for tropical and winter plants which were often gifted to other noble families.

The park bequeathed by the Prandau family - don't miss it when you visit Donji Miholjac © Donji Miholjac Tourist Board

The results of their endeavors are the grounds that remain - another host site for events - plus the adjacent 16-hectare park which has been classed as a horticultural monument since 1961. Aside from being pretty, peaceful, and wonderful to walk around, it contains rare white magnolias, tulips, patchouli, rhododendrons, camellias and even a Ginkgo Biloba tree which spectacularly sheds a blanket of golden leaves in autumn.

Some might imagine that seasonality in Croatia most affects potential on the coast. Not true. It has an arguably greater effect here. The reason you have to visit Donji Miholjac and the things you can do here differ radically throughout the year.

Containing large areas of uncultivated land, the countryside of Slavonia is full of animals like wild boar, deer, grouse, pheasant and rabbit. Hunting is one reason to visit Donji Miholjac © Osijek-Baranja County Tourist Board

With some of the surrounding land not available for cultivation, wild countryside exists in much the same state here as it has for centuries. Dense forest and natural pastures are home to wild boar, deer, pheasant, grouse and rabbit which have been hunted as a tradition by Miholjac's residents. The town holds several organisations who help look after the countryside, protect animal numbers and welcome guests who visit Donji Miholjac on organised trips during the hunting season. Less affected by the time of year, Miholjac is also a great place for fishing. The Drava can hold some monster-sized carp and, alongside trout and catfish, it plays an important part in the region's delicious and distinct cuisine. In the Slavonian summer, you can often see whole fish being cooked outdoors in a rustic, traditional manner; impaled on wooden sticks over an open fire. The taste is sensational. Similarly, large pots of fiš paprikaš, a river fish stew, spicy and a deep red in colour from the paprika added, can also be seen cooked al fresco over burning embers. The Drava is not the only river to visit Donji Miholjac, nor is it the only water option used for recreation.

Stara Drava is a picturesque lake located on the river's flood plain. It's perfect for barbeques and picnics or just for chilling out. Difficult as it is to believe as their main dwellings may lie only half a kilometre away, but some town residents have actually bought vacation properties around the lake so they can spend as much time in the pretty environment as possible.

The Drava river is capable of creating sand beaches better than many on the coast. The water is refreshingly cool even at the height of summer and a dip is recommended when you visit Donji Miholjac © Hedonism tourism

However, no such properties exist within eyesight of Miholjac's beach, which is accessed by a walk through the wild woods. Yes, this town has a beach and, what's more, it's often better than many by the sea. The sand dunes formed are unpredictable, based on the Drava's want, and the water level can affect your ability to swim there or play sports on the sand. Surrounded by trees and with refreshingly cool water in the height of summer, the beach is usually active from June until September.

How to get to Donji Miholjac

The old bridge that used to cross the Drava in Miholjac carried both trains and cars, connecting the town by rail to Pécs in Hungary. Sadly, it hasn't carried trains since being rebuilt. However, there is good road access to the town and a reasonably sized intercity bus station.

What not to miss

All of the sights previously mentioned should definitely not be missed when you visit Donji Miholjac and can easily be taken in during a day trip. Set aside extra time to see them if you're coming here for a specific event. Slavonians really know how to put on a good party and theirs can be lengthy, all-consuming affairs, leaving little time for sightseeing.

The event of most national significance in Donji Miholjac is the folklore spectacular, Sijelo © Tourist Board Donji Miholjac

The event of greatest national significance is Miholjačko Sijelo (referred to locally as simply Sijelo). Organised by the town's 73-year-old folklore society KUD Matija Gubec, it's an incredible weekend-long celebration with over two thousand participants in traditional costumes representing the historic dances, music and culture not only of this town but wider Slavonia, Croatia, and even other countries. It's a big deal and everyone in Miholjac looks forward to it. The mass of costumed entrants is quite some sight to behold. There's a fantastic gastronomic offer attached where you can try paprika-rich Slavonian food, plus art exhibitions and a street market offering the pastries, breads, honey, arts & crafts of the locale. Sijelo takes place in the second week of July.

Don't worry if you miss Sijelo. Miholjac is actually comprised of seven settlements and several have their own unique folklore societies. You can catch 86-year-old KUD Franjo Ebling from Sveti Đurađ, 85-year-old KUD Napredak from Podgajci Podravski and 91-year-old KUD Josip Čoklić from Rakitovica at events in their own villages or in Miholjac itself throughout the year.

The preservation of traditional dance, music, costumes and culture is undertaken by several folklore societies in Donji Miholjac and its surrounding settlements © Tourist Board Donji Miholjac

The other similarly spirited event is kirvais, or the town's day. As Miholjac is named after Archangel Michael, this takes place on his day, September 2. Like Sijelo, kirvais holds a street market and the whole town gets involved. Although the folklore costumes are absent, there's no shortage of dancing and you'll probably see people practicing several local variations of kolo to fast-paced tamburica music, at least until they're too drunk for the coordination required. Music plays a large part of the celebration, and festivities continue long into the night.

Other notable events are the Prandau Festival, Bicycle Days, the annual fish cooking competition - Fišijada - and the XC MTB cycling race, the latter two both taking place at Stara Drava.

Where to eat

Although Slavonia is an undiscovered gastronomic powerhouse, in some places the restaurant offer can be thin on the ground. Miholjac is one of these places. You're not going to go hungry here – there are plenty of fast food and restaurant/cafe options, with pizza being a big part of the offer (and your eyes will pop out when you see just how little the best pizza in town sets you back). The town has two hotels – Borik and Slavona – both are great places in which to stay. The restaurant at Slavona specialises in Slavonian cuisine, is very reasonably priced and has a great reputation locally (it's where town residents might take a visitor for a formal dinner). You can often get really good fish meals from one of the angling societies based on Stara Drava or even from a local bar, so be sure to follow your nose.

Fiš paprikaš cooking over an open fire, a Slavonian specialty © Osijek-Baranja County Tourist Board

But, truth be told, the best place to eat in Miholjac is in the home. If you get an invitation to lunch or dinner at the house of a town resident, do not turn it down. Whether they spend hours cooking something fancy or throw together a quick lunch, you won't leave hungry, every ingredient will be super fresh (often grown in the back garden) and the meal will be delicious.

For an unforgettable restaurant experience that is markedly different from anything in Croatia, do what many in-the-know Miholjac residents do and simply hop across the border. Harkány is a town just on the other side and its well-known pools and thermal spa waters are used by all Miholjac residents. Just north of the centre, Tenkes Csárda is a rustic, informal restaurant holding a terrace in view of the vineyards which supply the house wine. The food is special; whole, corn-fed goose liver, an ethical take on foie gras, is served in a rich onion and paprika sauce with homemade bread. And if you're lucky, you'll catch traditional musicians playing lively folk music there (they have a cimbalom in situ and it's an incredible sound to experience while dining).

Tenkes Csárda.jpgTenkes Csárda, an informal and rustic restaurant beloved by in-the-know residents of Donji Miholjac. It lies just across the border, in the Hungarian part of Baranya and has earned its solid reputation over 140 years © Tenkes Csárda

Where to drink

Slavonians are the warmest and most welcoming of all Croatians. They will be really good with you until there is a reason for them not to be. Then, if you fall out, likely it's game over. This fickle phenomenon impacts on where to find the best bar in many Slavonian towns. Slavonians often care less about the fixtures and fittings of a bar than who else drinks there and who the business owner is they're handing their money over to. If you're in Miholjac independently, no problem. Just find a place you like and enjoy a coffee.

Cafe bar Rost is good for that, with nice seating. It used to be owned by members of a popular local family. But, they fell out. The business changed hands. I was once stood at the bar with a good friend who indicated that on the other side of the room was his best friend. My suggestion that we join him was turned down. They'd fallen out. They avoided eye contact for several hours. That friend, a bar owner himself, was told by locals that the establishment he opened in his own village would never work. So, he named his bar 'Spite' in response. To facilitate his bar's success, he kept window stickers supplied by pestering local politicians at the ready and would put different ones on display depending on whose car he'd see approach. I'm not sure how his bar is doing now. We fell out.

If you're not in Miholjac independently, just follow your host and they'll take you to where the best crew and vibe is. At the moment, that could well be Caffe Bar Twister, just to the northwest of the town centre. They have a great selection of beers, including craft ales, and a large terrace that can be busy and hold a great atmosphere.

A traditional Slavonian specialty; carp, impaled on sticks, cooking over an open fire outside Cafe Bar Twister © Cafe Bar Twister

What's new?

For many years, Miholjac's star attractions - the two castles – served solely as departments of the local governance. What lovely places at which to arrive for work each day. Charming though that must have been for the lucky few, the castles' tourist potential was largely ignored. Thankfully, this potential has now been re-evaluated and over the last few years restoration work has been undertaken to open up the buildings more to visitors. Even more recently, access to the Stara Drava recreational area has been improved by the asphalting of the approach road.

Over the last few years, the city has undertaken the renovation of the castles in order to open them up to visitors © Grad Donji Miholjac

What to buy?

Slavonia is famous for its honey, which is protected at an EU level. You can pick up a locally-made jar at the market in Miholjac alongside other produce, arts & crafts. Miholjac itself is not so renowned for its winemaking, but it is situated close to some famous winemaking regions in Slavonia and in Hungary too. For younger people, the 'Brate ja sam iz Miholjaca (Brother I'm from Miholjac)' slogan t-shirts and hoodies reference the aforementioned song. Domagoj Vida famously wore one in the televised triumphant return of the National Football team from the 2018 World Cup.

© Lumer shop

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

Osijek - the capital of Slavonia, on the banks of the Drava

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

Visit Donji Miholjac © Osijek-Baranja County Tourist Board

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