The patriarchal way of life of rural villages and settlements on the sunny slopes of Medvednica was sustained without major changes up until the 19th century when Zagreb began to spread by slowly “climbing up” the south mountain slopes. The settlements on those slopes were slowly included in the city area and then their transformation began.
However, the inhabitants of settlements under Sljeme still utilize the wealth of Medvednica, entangling their lives with the life of the mountain. Up until recently they built houses of Medvednica’s stone and wood, warmed themselves with coal extracted in the old mines or “cooked” in “charcoal piles”, used salt from the Slani potok, mined in the mines of Medvednica landlords, grinded corn and maize in the mills on Medvednica streams, made furniture, toys and many other useful objects from wood collected in the forests of Medvednica, fed on fruits, mushrooms and young herbs picked in the forest, treated themselves with “herbs” from Medvednica and feasted on the meat of Medvednica’s wild game. Even though their visits to the forest are now more recreational than economic, Medvednica is still an inseparable part of their reality, and the preserved parts of ethnographic heritage still remind us of a not-so-distant interconnection between the people and the mountain.
Medvednica’s mills and watermills
The abundant waters of Medvednica streams are ideal for powering mill wheels, so there were mills on every bigger stream. They mostly grinded wheat and oilseeds, but many sawmills, textile factories, and mills for powdering raw materials for production of paper and stoneware were powered by Medvednica’s waters.
The mills mostly grinded corn, barley, rye or wheat and they had a tremendous economic value, so many conflicts arose between Gradec and Kaptol regarding the rights for milling on Medvednica streams. At the end of the 14th century a special decree was adopted on who, when and how had the right to build mills. In the 19th century those rights were determined by a very powerful mill guild. The milling craft under Medvednica completely died out in the 1960s, and most watermills were left to rot away. Only in the last 10 years some of the mills are being reconstructed and are restoring their place as unavoidable elements of the cultural and historic identity of the Nature Park.
Did you know?
In the world of ancient legends, watermills had an important role. They were considered special places where mysterious creatures of water and darkness lived. In those legends, the millers who would work long at night would often encounter a water man with rugged beard who would come to get the flour at night. They would never spoke to him because he was very strong and could easily drag a man into his water kingdom. The water foam under the watermill wheel was considered particularly magical – it would wash away most fairy curses and all witch’s curses.
You can read more about Medvednica’s mills here.
The settlements and villages under Sljeme preserve a number of small houses, barns, porches and sheds built between the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Those vivid villages with slightly crooked wooden and stone houses are a true pearl of traditional folk architecture. Since they were mostly built on hilly slopes, the traditional houses – “hiže” – were in their lower parts underpinned to adjust to the sloped terrain. This underpinned stone part is called basement or “pemlica” and was used for economic purposes. The wooden construction of the residential part of the house was placed onto this underpinned part. Many houses were decorated with wood fretwork, and some of them are true works of art.
Even though such traditional houses can be found in most villages under Sljeme, village Pučki in Planina Donja is protected as cultural good. The village is now called Vinogorska ulica, and it is located southwest of the Chapel of St. Juraj. The village is unfortunately highly neglected, and what used to be warm homes are now mostly devastated and destroyed structures, often squeezed by awkward modern construction. However, if you pay attention to details, you will see the inspired fretwork on crooked beams, lovely windows decorated with wreaths and barred with masterly shaped bars. Even neglected, these traditional “hižice” point out the continuity, richness and diversity of the shapes of folk architecture.
Charcoal piles and charcoal burners
Still in the first half of the 20th century in beech forests of Medvednica you could encounter the improvised huts of charcoal burners or “vuglenari”, as they are called in this region. Those huts were built near big charcoal piles (“vuglenice”), mound-shaped structures made of wood, leaves and ground in which carefully arranged wood was burned in order to get the best quality charcoal. The construction of a charcoal pile required proper skills: first it was important to select a good spot, ideally an opening near a stream so that any possible fires could be put out quickly. Then it was necessary to choose good wood: the best quality charcoal is made of beech wood with slow combustion. The gathered wood was carefully arranged in a circle, until it reached the right height. The pile would then be covered with leaves, grass, moss or fern and a 50-cm thick layer of ground, to prevent the access to air. After lighting it, the charcoal pile would, depending on its size, burn for 1-3 weeks, while the charcoal burners would have to supervise it day-and-night, close or open holes and repair possible damages made by small explosions caused by quick combustion inside the pile.
Experienced charcoal burners knew by the sound of burning and the colour of smoke to assess in which phase the burning process was and what needed to be done to improve it. This was a very dangerous job: the charcoal burner sometimes needed to climb the charcoal pile to repair cracks or open new holes where necessary. Needless to say, the charcoal burner could fall into the pile and get badly burned while doing so. When the charcoal burner would assess that the combustion process is finished, all air openings would be closed and the pile would be left for another 48 hours to cool down. The ground would be removed from the cold charcoal pile, and pieces of charcoal would be extracted with special jaws or spades.
The charcoal burners were mostly inhabitants of Bistra, Poljanica and Gornja and Donja Pila. Even though they were mostly very poor, they were considered the best connoisseurs of the forests of Medvednica and theirs secrets. They would take the obtained charcoal from one blacksmith to another, because most coal was spent on blacksmith bellows, while in households the charcoal was mostly used for ironing “na vuglen”.
Toys from the forest
Medvednica’s forests are rich with timber so fretwork and other fine wood processing skills were developed in some settlements under Sljeme. Inhabitants of Vidovec were particularly famous for it. It was said that there were “all types of masters” amongst them. Inspired primarily by the things that surrounded them, they made children’s toys as minimized copies of everyday objects. Small trolleys, tables, chairs, baskets, cradles, colourful houses etc. would come out of their workshops. In the late 19th century the toys became more complicated and in early 20th century an organized production of toys was set up in Vidovec as an additional source of income within the first Croatian village association for production and sale of children’s toys. The association improved the production of toys and influenced their production all over Hrvatsko zagorje. It stopped functioning in 1956. That caused the demise of organized production of toys in Vidovec, but some masters continued to make toys for their children and grandchildren. Their mastery was confirmed by the UNESCO which protected the art of making traditional wooden children’s toys as an intangible cultural phenomenon of Croatia. The colourful traditional wooden toys can still be bought at village fairs on both sides of Medvednica.