Valpovo Castle – Pineapples, Dragons and Ghost Ladies

If the path takes you to Eastern Croatia, turn to the lovely town of Valpovo. The town’s biggest attraction is the Prandau-Normann castle with its park. The history of the castle starts somewhere in the 15th century. Visitors, however, get to experience a little time-travel journey that begins in the 19th century at the entrance to the park and finishes among the 15th century remainders.

As you set foot inside the park, you find yourself immersed in the 19th century Valpovo. The impressive view of baroque entrance to the castle surrounded by a carefully arranged park, makes it so easy to imagine the noblemen and women enjoying their long walks through the English landscape garden, doing their leisure thing, while thousands of their farmers kept their noses to the grindstone throughout the 60 thousand acres of Valpovo property. Thanks to the nobility who knew how to make their surroundings as cosy as can be, we can now feel a bit like those counts and countesses of old. We can also enjoy the long serene walks completely forgetting about the harsh everyday lives, just like they once did, in the deep shade of the trees they left behind.

Even tough this is a historical park, some of its monuments are only preserved in memories. And what memories! There used to be a high-tech glasshouse for tropical plants with an underground heating system. The glasshouse came with specially designed cars for transport of palm trees and other Mediterranean plants. You got that right, they used to grow tropical fruits in Valpovo. At a certain point, they even exported lemons to wealthy Vienna. It was not unusual for the owners of the castle to have a pineapple for dessert. If you’re thinking about Croatia as a Mediterranean country, this might not seem surprising. However, the climate in the continental Croatia is very different from the coastal part. Just thinking about pineapples on a dining table in the region of Slavonia centuries ago, creates a luxurious, hedonistic and a very surreal mental picture.

If you enjoy the feeling of being in another time, it’s time to step into the baroque castle and travel a bit further back, deep into the 18th century.

Inside the castle atrium, find an old gate that leads to the Regional Valpovo Museum (Muzej Valpovštine) for a chance to enter the castle and see some of the von Prandau and von Normann family heritage. With the exhibited furniture, items and memorabilia, our time-travel adventure continues.

The museum information is only in Croatian, so it could be a good idea to check if they’re offering tours in English before you arrive.

I especially enjoyed reading about the members of the families that lived there. My personal favourite exhibit is a school certificate of young countess Marija Terezija Normann who received almost perfect grades. Almost… She earned a slightly lower grade in Maths and Literature. Don’t we love teachers of principle?

I love the fact that there are so many interesting Prandau-Normann women who left the mark in the area. In fact, the first Prandau in Valpovo only had daughters at the time when he took over the castle (it was a little token of appreciation for his services to the king). This gave his girls equal inheritance rights to his future sons. The practice of female governance of Valpovo lands often reappeared in the following centuries. It is quite unique to find a place with female and male personalities represented side by side. I enjoyed reading about the women and their influence.

Still, I have to admit that my favourite family member is a man after all. It’s the cosplaying count Eberhard. The man loved to travel and pose. Therefore, he left behind the coolest collection of photos from the beginning of the 20th century, photos of himself posing in outfits inspired by the countries he travelled to on authentic locations. Is this man every geek’s hero or what?

Do you like libraries and old books? If the answer is “yes”, you would get along with the owners of the castle real fast. The family used to own thousands of books, some of them as old as from the 16th century! Big part of the library was destroyed in a 1801 New Year’s Eve fire, another big part, just like the majority of Prandau-Normann family heritage, is now being treasured in Osijek, as a part of respectable Museum of Slavonia collections. There is a part of it left in the Valpovo castle, just enough to make us drift away for a moment, imagine ourselves seated in one of the cosy armchairs with with the yellowish pages of an ornamented book under our fingertips.

By the way, the 1801 fire wasn’t the first big flaming disaster in the family’s history. It could be that Prandau actually means “Burning Forest” because one of their Tirol forests had burnt down.

And now, time to step back into the early days of the castle. There were hints ever since we entered the park that we were within an area much older than the visible 18th century. The bridge in front of the castle? Memory of a defensive ditch from middle ages. Thick castle walls? The triangular shape of the atrium? The castle was built onto a medieval fort and has kept its shape. A better look, and the medieval history materialises right in front of our eyes: a chapel of Holy Trinity build on the spot of a 15th century chapel and the incredible 15th century tower are still here, a direct link to the times of the very first owners of Valpovo, the Morović family.

Valpovo offers a true privilege of stepping into a medieval tower that hasn’t been properly renovated. Isn’t it incredible that Peter II Anton von Prandau, who built the “new” baroque castle, decided to keep the 300 years-old-tower in his backyard and preserve it for generations to come? Btw, it’s the same guy who built the original glasshouse, so you could blame him personally for the astonishing mix of history throughout the castle and the park.

Steep vertiginous staircase within the tower

With the medieval tower and the chapel, our time-travel takes a mysterious turn into the secrets of long-lost-days. First, the chapel. Back in 1838, a guest stayed at Valpovo castle. Lieutenant Kuschmann, a friend of Gustav Prandau, was rather ill and he was recommended to visit the former spa delight of Valpovo hot baths. Gustav invited him to stay in his cosy home during his treatments. Kuschmann gladly accepted, but he didn’t know the home wasn’t cosy as promised and there was a price to pay after all. A price of a nightmare, as Gustav thought, although Kuschmann was sure that what he was seeing was real.

What was he seeing? In the dark hour, a white apparition came to him. A shadow of a ghost lady appeared at night by his bedside. She told him she was murdered a century ago and she wouldn’t rest until her body was properly buried. Her body, she said, was by the chapel, upside down in the ground with cannon balls on her feet to keep her down. If he helped her find her eternal peace, his health would recover and she would show him the way to the long-lost treasure.

Gustav didn’t believe a word his guest said, thinking he was heavily sedated and hallucinating from the illness. The apparition came again. This time, instead of promises about the treasure, the ghost came with a menace. She warned Kuschmann he was going to die if he didn’t help her.

Kuschmann told everything to the lady of the house. The baroness didn’t feel like having a ghost around, so she persuaded her husband to start digging. And he did. In the secrecy of the night, for he didn’t want to bring embarrassment upon his name by this strange endeavour, in the company of a priest in case the story turned out to be true…. they started digging. To their surprise, they found the body, just as Kuschmann described! Although there is a theory the woman was Catherine, a 16th century heroine from the times of the Ottoman invasion, we still don’t really know who the body belonged to and what happened to her. The mysterious lady was given a proper burial and her ghost hasn’t appeared anymore. Kuschmann miraculously recuperated.

Inside of the 15th century tower

Our exploration of the castle ends with my personal favourite part of the whole town: the tower. Built and left in the 15th century, the tower is such an incredible witness of the castle’s early days, yet it shares only what it wants to share, leaving us in awe and endless curiosity.

For starters, the tower literally carries signatures of its builders. If you take a better look at some of its details, you might spot simple carved markings. Those are signs left by various builders who worked on the tower construction. Imagine leaving a tiny signature in this world that will still be visible after six hundred years! It’s the most tangible connection with medieval craftsmen I’ve ever experienced.

Take a good look at the staircase pillar. Can you spot a little mark that looks a bit like a Tetris L block, and another one similar to mining symbol? They’re left behind by the craftsmen who were working on the tower construction.

The real oddity greets you when you step on the first floor and look around. On the ceiling, there is a sign that tells you that you have entered the dragon’s tower. A dragon with its body wrapped around Morović family crest and its tail wrapped around its own neck.

The same dragon symbol is associated with many noble families of the 15th century Europe, members of the mighty and mysterious Order of the Dragon. This particular symbol is unbelievably preserved, as it from the days when the Order was still rather young. The Order of the Dragon was founded in 1408 by the royal couple of Barbara Celjska and Sigismund of Luxemburg. If you haven’t heard about the order yet, you most probably know about its notorious member count Dracula. Ivan Morović, one of the first Dragons, was also the first owner of the castle.

On the other hand, the top floor is decorated with the symbol of the Sun. There are many strange things about the tower. Including a pretty vast toilet area, not so common for a defense tower which is a hint this tower might have had another purpose, not just a defensive one. How about a ceremonial purpose? I like to imagine that the tower was in fact some sort of a temple of the Order of the Dragon and that different floors were representing some sort of transformation within the Order. Isn’t it strange that the Ottomans, being in charge of the castle for almost 150 years, never took off the Morović family crest from the tower? That the Prandau family decided to keep the 300 years-old-dragon-tower? Who appreciated antiquities that much back then? Could it be they all knew more and that the castle used to have a mystical role as well? Are the flaming destinies of the Prandaus somehow related to dragon symbolism? All these ideas went through my mind as I saw the dragon on the ceiling.

I was still dizzy from climbing up the staircase, you can tell that by the poor quality of the photo.

What can I say? I was severely impressed by Valpovo castle and I dare to say that it is my favourite castle in Croatia. The incredible mix of centuries, the colourful party of residents, the palm trees that once decorated its garden and a ginkgo that still does… and the medieval tower. The tower won me over. I have read a lot about the Order of the Dragon and the mysteries that surround it. After all, the ancient society has an interesting link with my home town of Zagreb, too. Yet, I somehow didn’t expect to enter a part of their history on the day I visited Valpovo. You can only imagine my excitement when I set foot inside of the tower and spotted the symbol above me. When I learned that the carving has been there for 600 years, I was completely floored. The members of the Order used to call themselves Dragons, which means that Valpovo was an actual dragon town. That’s 100 extra points for coolness.

Another little thing. When he was sharing the story with the Prandaus, the ghost-seeing Kuschmann left out the part about the treasure. Did he come back to take it? Or is the treasure still there? It doesn’t really matter. After all, Valpovo’s lost treasure is nothing compared to the treasure that’s still here. Valpovo itself, just like it’s lost treasure, is waiting to be discovered by curious visitors.

If there is a place in this world where dragons, ghost ladies and cosplaying counts are sharing a pineapple, this is the place. Who wouldn’t join such a treat?

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