Croatia is bristling with romantic remnants of its aristocratic dynasties, writes Adrian Mourby.
As we turn a corner, the castle emerges, abrupt, white and turreted. Dominating the dense, dark forests of the Zagorje region, Trakoscan is a pint-sized fairytale castle of the sort you'd expect Sleeping Beauty to emerge from.
It's impressive but hardly unique. The valleys outside Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, are littered with picturesque castles in various states of repair. Today we've seen castles falling apart, castles being restored, castles turned into homes, hotels and museums.
Trakoscan is rather splendid, though, because it has been preserved as a museum remembering the family that lived here up until 1945, when so many Croatian aristocrats fled from Tito's partisans to Austria.
The family tree of the Draskovic dynasty is on display just beyond the entrance. It's kept up-to-date and shows us that would-be counts Draskovic are still being born across the border in Vienna.
Indeed, as we wander the rooms with their Austrian ceramic stoves, hunting trophies and military portraits, we could be in the country home of a minor Habsburg.
The Draskovics acquired Trakoscan in 1584. It was a gift from the Holy Roman Emperor, who was busy installing military leaders in strongholds across what little remained of Croatian territory.
The Ottoman army had marched through modern-day Greece, Bulgaria and Bosnia. All that was left of medieval Croatia were a few valleys north and west of the royal city of Zagreb. This sliver of territory was known as Ostaci Ostataka, "the Remains of the Remains".
Some years later, Baron Ivan Draskovic joined his forces with those of other Christian warriors to defeat a vastly superior Turkish force at the Battle of Sisak and stem Ottoman expansion.
The fortunes of the family were established, but so was the pattern of castle-building in Croatia. All the war leaders and aristocrats who had retreated to Zagorje during the Turkish invasion maintained their castles rather than moving south.
In the centuries that followed, the Draskovic family acquired more castles and power, but kept Trakoscan on as a hunting lodge and in the mid-1800s, during the Romantic revival, Count Janko Draskovic added a lake and park.
He was an advocate of Croatian independence and a pioneer of the new art of photography. His pictures were left behind when the family eventually fled and now line the walls of an entire room on the second floor.
Count Janko also took the first Croatian nude study, but she is not on display. What we see instead is the Four Continents, a series of paintings Janko commissioned from the Slovene painter Mihael Stroy. These colourful, exotic nudes must have titillated the count's guests 150 years ago.
Another room in the castle is devoted to the paintings of Countess Julijana Erdody, mother of Count Petar, the last Draskovic to live in the castle. They're fine but much what you'd expect; romantic images of castles and peasants.
That idealised world fell apart during World War II. In 1941, Croatia responded to Nazi invasion by becoming a puppet state run by Ante Pavelic, leader of the Ustase, Croatia's fascists. To the southeast of Zagreb stands a memorial to the victims of the Jasenovac concentration camp, where the Ustase murdered Gypsies, Jews and more than a third of all Croatian Serbs.
This land, with its pretty Ruritanian castles and baroque parks, has seen some savagery in its time. It's not surprising that owners of these castles got out while they still could. Some buildings were left to rot; others, such as Bezanec Castle in Valentinovo, were used as orphanages.
Trakoscan was luckier than most. In 1952, work began on preserving the castle's fine collection of aristocratic artefacts.
Other castles haven't fared so well. Novi Dvori, home of the Croatian hero Ban Josef Jelacic, empty for decades, has been systematically vandalised. Tito's government refused to turn it into a national memorial to the man who freed the serfs.
The castles of Zagorje are beautiful, but I wondered why was I surprised to learn about the violent history over which they have presided. Castles are built by people who are fighting - and the Remains of the Remains have seen plenty of that.
Getting there: Air New Zealand has daily flights to Zagreb, Croatia, in conjunction with partner airlines.
What to do: Visit Trakoscan Castle.
- INDEPENDENTBy Adrian Mourby