The Old Town of Ozalj is one of the most significant monuments of Croatian history, culture, and architecture. It is truly diverse from an architectural point of view as it was built and rebuilt in various eras, and each of them gave its own special characteristics to this extraordinarily valuable edifice. Also, the Old Town lays on a strategic point, next to the Kupa River which has always been an important communication.
Even long before the fortress was built, a Neolithic settlement was existing at about 4500 BC with dwellings consisting of pit-houses. Construction of the Old Town started sometime in the 2ndor 3rdcentury, which is confirmed by numerous remains of old Roman walls. Romans named the fortress Azelia, and this name could still be recognized in the modern name of Ozalj.
However, the beginning of construction of today’s edifice started at the end of the 13th century by the Babonić family, one of the most powerful families of that time in Croatia. It was mentioned for the first time in 1244 when it was taken by the King and owned by him for a brief time. After that, it was owned again by Babonić family, and then by other prominent noble families: Frankopan, Zrinski, Perlas, Batthyany and Thurn and Taxis. In 1928 Count Albert Lamoral Thurn & Taxis donated The Old Town of Ozalj to Brethren of the Croatian Dragon on the care and preservation as the cultural and historical value of particular importance.
The Old Town is protected by a deep ditch, used for defense of the castle, but today it is a beautiful park is located, which is preserved as a horticultural monument. The castle is entered via a wooden bridge, in which place there was a drawbridge until 1821. The center pillar which carries the bridge used to be a watchtower whose small openings for archers were used for defense of the town’s trench. The pillar is also very interesting from an architectural point of view since its lower part was built as a triangle, whereas its upper part as a square, and thus, it is also a very nice example of military Gothic-style architecture.
By crossing the bridge, you’re passing through the entrance tower (built in 1599 by Juraj IV Zrinski), which was used as a prison. The reason why the prison was right at the entrance was probably that it was a kind of warning what could happen to those who don’t obey the rules.
After passing through the entrance tower, you’re entering the courtyard, and to the left of the entrance tower, you can see a smaller tower which was used as armory. Just in front of you, you can see the main defensive-tower, i.e. Babonić tower (the oldest part of the complex), south, east and north wing (all three wings are big two-floor buildings) and Zrinski Palace which was home to many Zrinski generations.
The Babonić tower, which is named like that after its builders, the Babonić family, has some interesting details: arrowslits used instead of windows and a wooden balcony which is actually a toilet built on Medieval standards!
On the wall just below the Baboniće tower we see the coat of arms engraved into stone, and belonging to Frankopan family. They owned the Old Town from 1399 until 1550, and it was so important stronghold to them that even one Frankopan family brach was named after Ozalj. This family originates from the Krk island so they were originally called Krčki, but after gaining lots of possession and power, wanting to show their allegedly ancient origins, they took an old Roman surname Frangipani. That’s why on the coat of arms we see two lions faced to each other and breaking a loaf of bread (tal. Frangere pani).
To the left of the Babonić tower, in the north courtyard, you can see the former Zrinski Palace, which was built by the most powerful and wealthiest Croatian noble family. The Palace was built on a solid rock which ascends a slope over the Kupa River and has kept its authentic 16th-century architecture until the present days. It was constructed in a rectangular shape by Nikola Šubić Zrinski. The evidence thereof is the inscription engraved above the Palace entrance: NICO.COM.ZR.1556 (lat. Nicolaus Comes a Zrinio / Zriniensis; Croat. Nikola Count/ Duke Zrinski). To this day, this is only known the record of his name. The number 1556 tells us that it was completed in 1556, only ten years before his heroic death during the battle of Siget when with only 2000 men he stopped Ottoman army numbering 300 000 soldiers. In 1543 Nikola Šubic Zrinski married in Ozalj Katarina Frankopan, grandson of duke Bernardin and sister of Stephen III. Frankopan of Ozalj family. According to contemporary documents, the wedding party was lasting for 10 days! This marriage created a foundation for signing the agreement on succession between the two most important aristocratic families in Croatia. Nikola Subic Zrinski Sigetski is then administered with 17 towns and estates in Croatia and Slavonia, and Stephen III. Frankopan, brother of Katarina, got 25 cities with associated properties. And this is how the Old Town of Ozalj became the ownership of Zrinski family in 1550.
On the ground floor of the Palace, there is an antechamber and a big chamber which probably served as a living room, and which has big windows directed to the south, so that the owners of the Palace can have daylight the most of the time for their daily activities. The walls here contain 16th and 17th-century “graffiti”, inscriptions engraved with a sharp object. Some of them were written in Glagolitic script, an old Croatian alphabet, which also represents a unique and extraordinary phenomenon. The door then leads from the living room to the bedroom with remnants of a fireplace and valuable wall frescoes of religious content, which is very rare in secular chambers of our feudal castles. This room has small windows directed to the north so that daylight can’t disturb the owners while they want to take some rest. On the first floor, there is a large antechamber and only one big salon which was probably used for festivities. The assumption is that Nikola Šubić Zrinski and his famous great-grandson, Viceroy Petar Zrinski had their wedding celebrations in this hall.
Beside Nikola Šubić Zrinski, this historical building was home to Nikola, Petar and Katarina Zrinski as well as her brother Frano Krsto Frankopan, strong historical figures whose characters and culture surpassed other Croatian and Austrian nobles.
Even in those old days, masters of this town and celebrated heroes would sheath their swords and pick up their pens. According to Pavao Ritter Vitezović’s notes, it was in Ozalj – probably in one of the Palace rooms- where Petar Zrinski wrote his epic poem “Adrianskog mora sirenu” (The Siren of the Adriatic Sea), a paraphrased translation from Hungarian into the Croatian language. And it is well known that Katarina Zrinska wrote her “Putni tovaruš“ (Traveling Companion) right here, at home, in Ozalj. Fran Krsto Frankopan probably wrote one of his lyrical poems for his collection “Gartlic za čas kratiti” (The Garden to Cheat Time) in the shade of fragrant jasmine or roses in Ozalj gardens. Today, the Palace doesn’t look magnificent like it used to look in the past, because in 18thcentury it was turned into a grain warehouse, thus getting the name “Granary”.
The Palace was the scene of the unlucky Zrinski–Frankopan conspiracy, which significantly marked the history of Croatia. Zrinski and Frankopan families, as the most powerful families of that-time Croatia, unsatisfied with the policy of Habsburg royal court, started to plan a plot with a goal to get independent from the Habsburg Empire. Unfortunately, the plot was revealed, and Petar Zrinski and Fran Krsto Frankopan were executed in Wiener Neustadt on April 30, 1671. That date is today celebrated as the Ozalj Town day, as a respect to their heroic death. This also had bad consequences for the Old Town itself, because it was heavily pillaged together with all other Zrinskis’ and Frankopans’ towns. As a result of that, almost nothing of their wealth remains to this day.
If you walk through a small passage, you find yourself in the main, south courtyard. which is encircled by south, east and north wing. In the ground floor of the northern wing, we can see a Renaissance porch with its arches and columns. Further, in the courtyard, there is a cistern from 15thcentury, and an entrance into the cellar, in which even 400 barrels of wine could be stored. After passing under a Gothic arch, you enter a chapel dedicated to St. Anthony (Sveti Antun). It was probably built in 15thcentury, and we can late-Medieval corbels holding a wooden balcony from which the owners of the castle could observe the holy mass. It was partly rebuilt in 18thcentury, and covered by the baroque ceiling. However, during the Second World War, the chapel was looted, so no church furniture is left.
Next to this chapel, in the north courtyard, there was also a small Romanesque chapel with beautiful wall frescoes. Another chapel, located in from of the Old Town, at the other side of the ditch, was built by Petar and Katarina Zrinski as a fulfillment of the vow to the birth of their son Ivan Antun (John Anthony), and thus this chapel was dedicated to St. Anthony.
Of both chapels, only fundaments remain to this day. Opposite to the Old Town, the parish church of Sveti Vid (St. Vitus) is situated. Its structure originates from 14thcentury but was rebuilt in 18thcentury, and today it is a zero-category monument. Next, to the church, there is a grave of Slava Raškaj, one of the most prominent European watercolor painters who was born in Ozalj.
Back to the courtyard, while looking today at northern, eastern and southern wing, they look quite different today than in the past. But in the 18thcentury Ozalj was reconstructed and turned into a beautiful castle. R. Perlas thoroughly reconstructed the ruins of the Old Town, and Teodor Batthyany added the 2nd floor to the north wing and built a new baroque tract. The interior walls of the castle were decorated with frescoes, but only very little has remained until today. In the southern and eastern wing, the Ozalj heritage Museum is situated today. There was also a western wing, but it was demolished in the 19thcentury.
Unfortunately, we don’t know today what each part of the castle was used for. We just know that there were many workshops and warehouses, so the Old Town was like a small city because it was home not only to members of a noble family but also to many servants, craftsmen and military crew. According to some assumptions, up to 250 people lived behind the castle walls!
On the eastern edge of the Old Town, there is a beautiful terrace built in 18thcentury. From there, you can enjoy a beautiful view at Kupa River, old hydroelectric power plant “Munjara” and further in the distance, you can see the village of Trg, famous of the oldest Croatian lacework. The railroad is passing just under the castle through a tunnel thanks to which the Old Town is the only castle in the world with a railway tunnel under it.
And, at the end of our journey through history, like for every other castle, there are also legends connected to Stari Grad Ozalj. One such story tells us about old tunnels which were used as escape passageways. Another one narrates that in 17thcentury, during some construction works in a castle courtyard, a landslide occurred and opened a forgotten cellar, in which a lot of treasure and a royal crown was found. This is maybe not just a legend, because it is confirmed by a historical document. Unfortunately, we don’t know whether the treasure was taken away or not, so maybe it is still buried somewhere beneath the castle waiting for some brave explorer to find it…