My favorite event back home is the Candy Dance (coming up Sept. 24-25). There’s nowhere better to find unique, custom, handmade gifts. I love the ingenuity and mastery demonstrated in the array of booths, the fun community vibes, the music, the food. It marks the start of autumn, my favorite season, and it’s one of the few times a year I allow myself to splurge. I go every year.
Seeing as I’m in Croatia, I’m probably not going to make it this year (even if it’s tempting). I did, however, get to check out something similar.
Špancirfest takes place annually at the end of August in the city of Varaždin, which is about an hour north of Zagreb and sometimes called “Little Vienna.” The city is documented as long ago as 1181, and the fortress near the old center dates to the 1300s. This is a backdrop of white earthen walls, crawling ivy, sloping terra cotta roofs, and mottled cobblestone streets. The maze of broad avenues and narrow walkways connected by open squares was whimsically decorated, from massive butterflies soaring above a wide avenue, to a rainbow of a thousand footprints strung between buildings, to lights disguised as large metal flowers nestled into a canopy of ivy. The streets were filled with local handmade goods, the squares with an array of food and drinks, and musical acts popped up in every open space in between—including a bicycle-bound pianist pedaling the streets.
Some of the goods here are quite similar to things found at the Candy Dance. There are books, handmade scarves and jewelry, fairy wands and wooden swords. Of course, when it comes to craft fairs, everything is unique. The culture is evident, even in the similarities. Rakija is a strong alcoholic drink that Croatians often use as a home remedy, and stands sell it in souvenir bottles, often flavored with local honey. Wine and olive oil is locally made, or perhaps brought up from the coast a few hours away. Croatian symbols like the red-and-white checkerboard pattern, irises, and ties or cravats are prominent, along with images of white castles and churches with terracotta roofs.
The first Špancirfest was in 1999. It celebrates feel-good vibes and the end of summer over the course of 10 days, and annually attracts over a hundred thousand visitors, according to its website. For me, it was a tender reminder of the Candy Dance I’ve always loved, and how traditions are shared across borders, flavored with the unique flavor of the local culture.