Situated on a plain just south of the River Drava, Varaždin (pop. 50,000) is the most beautifully preserved Baroque town in this corner of the continent. A vibrant commercial and cultural center, still basking in the glow of its heyday in the 18th century, Varaždin is richly adorned by extraordinary churches and the palaces of the aristocratic families that once lived here. It was Croatia's capital from 1756 until a devastating fire in 1776 prompted a move to Zagreb. First mentioned under the name Garestin in a document by the Hungarian-Croatian king Bela III from 1181, it was declared a free royal town by King Andrew II of Hungary's Arpad dynasty in 1209 and went on to become an important economic, social, administrative, and military center. Near the heart of the city, in a park surrounded by grassy ramparts, the well-preserved castle is the main attraction. A short walk from the castle, on the outskirts of town, is one of Europe's loveliest cemeteries, with immense hedges trimmed and shaped around ornate memorials. Note that Varaždin's main churches are open only around an hour before and after mass, which is generally held several times daily, more often on weekends; the tourist information office can help you contact individual churches to arrange a look inside at other times.

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