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Elephants, Islam and the German National Anthem: the Hidden Treasures of Osijek

“We should market ourselves as the Mid-Danube region,” said the ever impressive Mislav over a cold one. And he was right. Just 20 km from the centre of the middle of the Danube, I had no idea that Osijek was a river cruise destination.

I have a pathological fear of organised walking tours of cities.

The prospect of me spending several hours looking at churches, monuments and statues with my brain being bombarded with dates, events and historical figures I had not heard of before or since means that my retention levels of information from such tours is low.

And so as we arrived to a very warm welcome in the pouring rain in Osijek, I was keen to see what kind of guide would be showing us around, and I was more than delighted to be met with one of the stars of my friend Ashley Colburn’s ‘Wonders of Croatia’, Mislav of the Osijek Tourist Board.

“We can look at lots of monuments if you wish,” I started, “but I would much rather see Osijek through your eyes, and if we miss a church or two, I can live with that.”

I could not have found a better partner in crime for the task ahead. Early on he admitted that he was not a qualified historian, as many guides were, and I was thrilled that he was not, for he produced a tour rich in historic detail, but laced with stories, legends and anecdotes that brought buildings to life and Osijek’s rich and proud heritage into the present day.

The Croatian National Theatre, one of the first victims of the bombardment in the regional conflict 20 years ago had its facade smartened up by the Golden Arches of McDonald’s, in return for a prime location in the building. The McDonald’s sign, which will disappear next year, is at odds with the historic architecture, and its entrance used to guard the best brothel in town, where officials of yesteryear would enter from the administration building opposite, before heading for pious confessions in the stunning brick Osijek Cathedral close by.

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Three million bricks, with construction overseen by one of the city’s most famous sons, Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmeyer, it was exactly 90 metres high, the same height as the city itself is above sea level, as I found out later when Mislav invited me to climb Mount Osijek in a park. It is the second tallest church in South-East Europe after Zagreb, and there is a replica in Cologne a little smaller at 80 metres.

“Look at the altar. What do you see?” Something was different for sure.

“Our Catholic visitors always look at the altar when they enter, but our Muslim visitors – and we do have them, the latest was a group from Kuwait – look a little higher  The Islamic-style arch was a symbol of the bishop’s desire for Christian and Muslim co-existence.”

The cathedral was bombarded in the early days of the recent war, and the inhabitants of Osijek were quick to repair damage, and the cathedral stands proud today, by far the tallest building in Osijek. I was expecting to come across many more war memorials, and was surprised by the lack of them. But the few there were included one of the best I have seen anywhere in the world.

In a Tiananmen Square moment, the red Fiat of Branko Breskic was defiantly placed in front of Serbian tanks in June 1991 and subsequently crushed. Osijek itself was never conquered, however, and the striking monument shows a red Fiat sitting pretty on top of a crushed tank. Poignant.

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We watched the trams ply their trade on the main square in the drizzle, the first in South East Europe, three months ahead of Sarajevo, whose tour guides claim the prize for themselves, and interesting discussions break out when Osijek guides find themselves on organised tours of the Bosnian capital… But the thing I liked most on the main square was the little elephant.

I had no idea where Mislav was pointing, or what he was on about when he starting explaining about happy elephants having their trunks up, sad ones down, until finally on the corner of a building I saw a small grey elephant, sad trunk down, looking out over the square.

“One theory is that it was supposed to bring good luck. But the trunk is always down. Parts of the elephant keep getting knocked off by trucks coming round the corner, and it is replaced each time, but the trunk stays down.”

“It is missing a tusk now.”

“Hmm, that is a recent thing.”

I sat on a statue of Picasso, one of the most popular attractions in the city, but nobody knows of any Picasso connection to Osijek, but he sits there rather jollily looked out over the Drava, a wide river whose other bank is home to the zoo and the gastronomic delights of the Baranja region, as well as the spectacular nature reserve of Kopacki Rit, which is an extension of the back garden of my photographer friend Mario Romulic, who gave me a guided tour via a visit to the excellent cellars of a friendly winemaker celebrating ten years of his winery.

“And you know of course that the German National Anthem comes from here?” he asked, as we passed a statue of a chap called Franjo Kuhac.

“Of course it does,” I replied. What was he talking about now? Out came the phone and two pieces of music were played, and he was absolutely right. Judge for yourself on this link.

There were more statues, the Romeo and Juliet story, baroque streets in faded glory, all of it totally charming, but Mislav was a guide who could read his visitors.

“To the Old Bridge Pub,” he declared, “it is time to try the beer from the oldest brewery in Croatia.”

And rather agreeable it was too, in a delightful building which really felt like an English pub in its style and layout. And the English are coming. Ryanair now flies London Stansted to Osijek, and the first wave of tourists have been out, many of them openly admitting that they researched that the beer and wine was good and cheap, and so they decided to have a look. And they liked what they saw.

Some of them were not quite sure where they were going. We Brits are geographically challenged at the best of times, but the region of Slavonia in which Osijek resides sounds similar to Slovenia and Slovakia, and so there is I think, a branding issue to be addressed.

“We should market ourselves as the Mid-Danube region,” said the ever impressive Mislav over a cold one. And he was right. Just 20 km from the centre of the middle of the Danube, I had no idea that Osijek was a river cruise destination, but the proximity of the Drava and Danube rivers put it on the tourist river cruise map. Some 50 cruises this year, 100 already planned for next.

All that information and a lot, lot more in less than three hours in the rain and one rather refreshing beer. And we didn’t even get round to the gastronomy. A thoroughly entertaining tour in a city I liked a lot more than I thought I would, and full credit to young Mislav for bringing it to life. Why not check it out for yourself and see if you can find Mislav to show you round. He has a rare skill among tour guides in Croatia.

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