Castles, Cellers, and Saints: Tasting History in Ilok, Croatia

The medieval walls of the Ilok Fortress looking down toward the Church of St. John Capistrano and the monastery.

The next morning Ivica meets me at the Iločki Podrumi, the Old Cellar. While wandering the medieval town, we connect with Guido Derksen, a travel and guide book writer from The Netherlands who is writing a new guidebook on the region and scheduled to tour the town with Ivica. They both let me tag along and join them.

The Old Cellars at Ilok Cellars or Iločki Podrumi has a rich history in Croatia. The cellars date back to the 15th and 18th century, the former built by King Nikola Iločki at the time the town was part of medieval Syrmia, and the latter established by the by Duke family Odescalchi. History in these parts is long, complicated, and bizarre. So, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Sitting on the banks of the Danube River, and with a population of about 5,000 people, Ilok is a small medieval town with a fortress, Franciscan church, this five-hundred-year-old wine cellar. It’s a popular stop for Danube river cruise ships, though most tourists from these ships stay only a few hours visiting the old cellar, church and monastery and the Odescalchi Castle even though there are twenty-three other wineries, a handful of hotels, guest houses, and restaurants—all surrounded by picturesque hills and vineyards.

Ilok’s history dates back over two millennia. The wine history traces back to the 3rd century BC when Roman Emperor Probus defied Roman law that prohibited growing grapevines outside the Italian peninsula, found the soil, climate, and position of the hillsides along the Danube to be ideal for viticulture. So he ordered his soldiers to plant and tend to the vineyards when they were not fighting wars and expanding the empire. His soldiers resented the emperor, which ultimately led to a revolt and assassination of the emperor.

While Ilok today is part of Croatia, when viewed on a map it appears to be a small notch or peninsula surrounded by Serbia That is you were to drive north, south, or east from the city center you would soon cross the border to Serbia. But like all towns and cities in these parts, it has been subject to the rule of monarchs, emperors, despots, dictators, sultans, and others. But in medieval times the entire region was part of a greater area known as Syrmia and part of the Kingdoms of Hungary and Croatia and governed by the Iločki family who built the towns fortress and the first wine cellars.

It was during the 14th century as the Ottoman Turks aimed to grow its empire into the Balkans and spread Islam, that Pope Callixtus III sent Franciscan friar and Catholic Priest John of Capistrano on a mission to preach a Crusade against the Ottoman invasion. During this time he passed through Ilok, before rallying an unlikely and ill-equipped brigade of peasants who marched with him to Belgrade and who along with John Hunyadi voivode of Transylvania and Governor of the Kingdom of Hungary ultimately forced Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror and his army of 100,000 Turks to retreat during the Siege of Belgrade. This battle earned Capistrano the title “Soldier Priest.”

Already in his late sixties at the time of the siege, Capistrano sustained life-threatening injuries in the battle. Famous for many years before the fight, Capistrano asked to return to Ilok where he chose to die in the church on the banks of the Danube. News of his illness spread and while on his deathbed in Capistrano healed many. There are reports of one hundred miracles documented in transcripts found in Naples, Rome, Venice, and Paris. Over two hundred years later in 1690, Pope Alexander VIII canonized Capistrano, and today his tomb lay in the church and monastery here in Ilok now known as the church of St Capistrano.

Hearing Ivica tell me this story as we walk across the grounds of the fortress, I realize I’ve got a remote connection to Ilok. Just twenty miles from my home in California is the town of San Juan Capistrano where they named the Franciscan mission there after the Saint buried here in Ilok.

While the Siege of Belgrade pushed the Ottoman’s back, they would return seventy-five years later and take over the town. For the next 169 years, the Ottomans ruled over Ilok. Although the Ottomans forbid alcohol and didn’t drink, they allowed the locals to continue producing wine provided they pay twice the tax of other goods. Likewise, instead of destroying the church, as they typically did, the Ottomans let it stand, using it as a stable for horses.

Ivica is a passionate historian, professor, and tourist information professional in Ilok, Croatia.

At the time of the Ottoman occupation, Ilok was part of the Austrian or Hapsburg Empire. From Vienna, Emperor Leopold turned to the Vatican for monetary support for defeating the Ottomans. After the Austrians defeated the Turks, the emperor could not pay back the loan. Instead of that, he gave the land of Syrmia, from nearby Vukovar to Novi Sad to the pope. In turn, the Pope Innocent XI gifted the land to his nephew, Livio Odescalchi, who went about renovating the town and restoring the castle. Twelve meters underneath it he built over one hundred meters of new wine cellars, connecting them with the original caves dug in the Fifteenth Century. The Odescalchi family also improved the vineyards and brought new viticulture practices which advanced and increased winemaking in Ilok.

Walking toward the castle, we pass an Ottoman turbe, or mausoleum which Ivica explains once was next to a mosque. When the Odescalchi family renovated the castle, they destroyed most of the ruins of the Ottoman and medieval period. Though ongoing archaeological work continues to uncover relics and remains, many now are exhibits in the Museum of Ilok inside the Odescalchi Castle along with ancient drawings showing minarets towering above the Ilok fortress.

Ottoman turbe, or mausoleum on the grounds of Ilok fortress.

The Duke of the Italian Odescalchi family rebuilt the King Nikola Iločki’s medieval castle on top of the existing foundation here in Ilok along the banks of the Danube River. The castle serves as a museum today and is packed with relics as far back as the Roman time. Even more treasures are found in the 15th and 18th-century wine cellars below the structure.

Later, Ivica treats us to a new high tech exhibit that celebrates and educates the history of Ilok. It’s an interactive holographic experience set up in the tourist information office. The display had yet to be open to the public. Here full size 3D holographic figures of King Nicolas and his only surviving son Laurence come to life and take visitors through the turbulent events of the time. It’s fun and fascinating and provides greater insight than even the information and well preserved, yet static exhibits inside the castle museum.

Back at the old cellar Guido and I are treated to a tasting of Ilocki Podcrum’s wines. During the era of socialism through the ex-Yugoslavia wars of the 1990s, the state-operated cellar produced about eight or nine million liters of wine. Deep in the cellars, they have large oak casks that hold 10,000 to 50,000 liters.

Most of the larger casks were destroyed during the ex-Yugoslavia wars when the Serbian troops emptied them and made grappa or rakija from the wine. They never refilled the barrels, and without wine inside them, they rotted and fell to ruin. Over the six-year occupation of the area, the Serbs either wiped out or let the vineyards decay.

After the war, they privatized the winery with one businessman from Zagreb holding eighty-five percent and three others sharing the remaining fifteen. Today they are making enormous investments in the vineyards and cellars. For tourists, the original fifteenth century is open to visitors, while the more extensive and deeper eighteenth-century caves and casks are under renovation.

Today, Iločki Podrumi is one of the top five wine producers in Croatia, producing about five million liters of wine. They are also the most awarded winery in all of Croatia. Seventy percent of its production is white wine while thirty percent comes from international red varietals.

Tours and tastings are offered in the winery building and the old cellars. They also offer a full-service restaurant and three-stary accomodations.

The most important grape varietal to Ilocki Podcrum is Traminer (Traminac), or Gewurztraminer from which they offer eight unique bottlings, each of a different style or quality. In 1953, to prepare for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the British royal family ordered 11,000 bottles of the 1947 Iločki Podrumi Traminer. Just last year, the winery provided wine for the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Our guide opens the door to the 15th-century cellar with an antique skeleton key. Guido and I then wander the one-hundred-meter old cellar, with its five-hundred-year history and walls covered in good black mold. Our guide points to a rack of dusty and mold covered bottles. “We still have 282 bottles of the 1947 Traminer,” she asks if we’d like to take one home. “It will cost you just $7,500!” We appreciate but decline the offer.

In this part of the cellar, each cask is filled with wine, totaling some 150,000 liters. We pass another cage in front of a large vestibule packed with thousands of bottles of wines. Passing by another cage, she explains that during the Serbian occupation between 1991 and 1998, a cellar employee single-handedly saved from theft and destruction winery’s 30,000 bottle archive of vintage wines.

Over two months, Franjo Volf would ride his bicycle over the back roads to avoid notice and snake into the cellar. Each day he moved one-by-one until he stacked all 30,000 bottles in this vestibule. He then built a wall to hide the wines from Serbian infiltrators. Fearing the Serbs would question a new wall in an otherwise dirty and dusty cellar, he gathered black mold and plastered it all over this wall, hiding—and saving—those bottles from destruction. Today, most of that archive is intact and lined against the walls.

There are more than 280 bottles of the 1947 Traminer that the Royal Family poured during the coronation ceremony for Queen Elizabeth II.

We can feel, smell, and hear the five-hundred-year history of the Old Cellar in Ilok.

The old cellar stretches more than one-hundred meters underneath the medieval castle at Ilok

Dusty and covered in black mold—a natural preservative and the source of antibiotics.

 

Travel and guidebook writer Guido Derksen from The Netherlands stands in front of the vestibule with our Cellar Guide where in the 1990s Old Cellar employee Franj Volf hid the Old Cellar’s 30,000-bottle historical archive from destruction and drinking by the occupying Serbians. Amazing story.

With massive bombings in Vukovar and the contentious battle over the rights to the region, civil leaders negotiated with the Serbs a “peaceful” evacuation of Ilok. On October 17, 1991, over 10,000 Ilok Croats exited the city en masse. The Serbian army assured townspeople they would grant them passage. However, some residents found themselves separated from the “Convoy of Ilok,” only to be captured and moved to prison camps in Serbia.

I cannot write about or explain the complicated mess, suffering, and uncertainty the people along the Danube here had to endure during that time. While I prefer to focus on the rich history of over two millennia of winemaking here, the dark past is hard to sidestep. To be sure, the atrocities, conflicts, and displacement of people around here are hardly new as it all started more than a millennia before.

Just about a mile outside town, Ivica leads us up a dirt road, as we climb the gentle hill vineyards envelop us. Near the top, we hop out the car while Ivica explains that this vineyard which the state government planted in the 1970s is one of just two large scale projects embarked on by the Yugoslavia government. Like the vineyard in Montenegro, I visited at Plantaze; they planted this vineyard with multiple varietals in a large area. Though the Ilok vineyard at just over 110 hectares is the second largest vineyard planted in one area in the Balkans, it pales in size compared to the largest at Plantaze which spans over 2,300 hectares in Podgorica Montenegro.

We walk to one plot in the vineyard devoted to an annual fundraiser led by the local Lions Club. People can bid on individual rows of vines within the plot. The winning bidder received wine bottled and labeled under their name. It’s a great way to have a vanity wine while raising money for the local schools.

Principovac, once the summer estate for the Noble Odescalchi family, today is owned by Iločki Podrumi and is a four-star hotel with a modern five-star restaurant and the amenities of a fine resort.

One of two large vineyards planted by government and state-owned cooperatives during the socialist period. Today owned and managed by the Old Cellar in Ilok.

Looking toward lovely Ilok from the Principovac estate and its designated single vineyard.


We then drive to Principovac, a stunning castle-like estate that was once the summer residence of the Odescalchi family. Owned by the people who own the Old Cellar, Principovac houses a four-star restaurant surrounded by vines designated as the Principovac single vineyard, an exclusive appellation for some of Iločki Podrumi’s highest quality wines. Also on the grounds are six four-star apartments—each with stunning views of the vineyards castle and the quaint Town of Ilok and Danube river.

Walking into the modern facility, we pass a memorial for fallen soldiers of the ex-Yugoslavia wars and handed a glass of sparkling wine. We toast what we hope will be for eternal peace in the region–and the world. Stepping out to the terrace, we finish our bubbly and reflect as the sun sets a golden hue over the vineyards, and the Danube shimmers in the distance.

Returning to Ilok, Ivica takes us down to the banks of the Danube to the lovely restaurant in the Hotel Dunav on the waterfront for local cuisine and more good wine. Over dinner, Ivica shares his experience as a younger man forced from his home and the seven years he was a refugee on the coast. All along, he wondered if he’d ever see his home again. Though in his mind, he dreamed of coming back to Ilok. While away he studied tourism but did not know he would later work as the Tourist Manager of Ilok, choosing first to teach. We toast again to the future.

Every mile I travel, and with each new friend I meet, I continue to learn and discover. Sometimes these discoveries yield a darker truth than I care to reflect. The brighter and larger truth is that we are all people, and we share more in common than we have differences. To cherish those moments of connection where the only thing better than a good glass of wine and a forkful of tasty food is a smile and a new friendship.

Tasty local fish and fare at the Hotel Dunav for my last meal in Croatia.

 

Enjoying a glass of Principovac sparkling rose on the Principovac estate while thinking and reflecting about the long history here along the Danube in Croatia.

 

 


Principovac Country Estate
Principovac 1
Ilok 32236, Croatia
385 32 590 088

Hotel Dunav, Ilok
Julija Benešića 62
Kralja Tomislava 23
32236 Ilok Croatia
+385 032 596 500

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