Tourists and religious pilgrims who visit the Marian shrine at Marija Bistrica in the Hrvatsko Zagorje region of Croatia, north of Zagreb, arrive to the shrine on foot from several pilgrimage routes. Since the 1800s, they’ve been able to buy one-of-a-kind, handmade keepsakes and children’s toys in villages along the pilgrimage routes.
Wooden horses and a bird by Lovro FijanCroatian National Tourist Board
Marija Bistrica in the Hrvatsko Zagorje
The current view of the town, Hrvatsko Zagorje region of the country.
The current view of the market square, Marija Bistrica.
These brightly painted wooden toys are made only in the towns near the shrine.
They are ubiquitous to the region, so much so that in 2009, the traditional manufacturing of children’s wooden toys in the Hrvatsko Zagorje region of Croatia was inscribed to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Wooden bird toysCroatian National Tourist Board
Pilgrims have journeyed to the town of Marija Bistrica since at least the 1600s to worship at a statue of the Black Madonna, a carved figure of the Virgin Mary holding an infant Jesus. From the 1800s, townspeople in the villages along the pilgrims’ paths that lead to the shrine have sold souvenirs to worshipers, in the form of small, handcrafted wooden toys and musical instruments.
Wood making tools by Lovro FijanCroatian National Tourist Board
The craft, which first developed as a cottage industry in the poor, rural villages, gained popularity throughout Croatia and beyond.
Today, the handcrafted toys of Hrvatsko Zagorje are a beloved symbol of Croatia.
Wooden horse and a birdCroatian National Tourist Board
Wooden instrumentCroatian National Tourist Board
The toymaking tradition is strongest in the villages of Laz Stubički, Laz Bistrički, Tugonica, Gornja Stubica, Turnišče, and Marija Bistrica.
Hammering the nails by Lovro FijanCroatian National Tourist Board
There were two other centers of handmade toymaking in Croatia, but the practice there died off. It remains a vital tradition in Hrvatsko Zagorje thanks largely to the presence of the shrine, which draws as many as 800,000 visitors per year.
Toymaker working on the bird toy by Lovro FijanCroatian National Tourist Board
The toys are made from soft beech, lime, maple and willow wood that is harvested from surrounding forests. The wood is dried prior to being worked.
Blowing the dust by Lovro FijanCroatian National Tourist Board
In keeping with tradition, carving of the toys is typically done by the men of the villages. They work with hand tools such as carving knives, wood planers and awls or similar tools for creating holes in the wood. Today, woodworkers may use electric saws to hasten the process.
Closeup of the toymaker by Lovro FijanCroatian National Tourist Board
Painting of the toys is traditionally done by women. They apply non-toxic paint, usually a base of bright red, blue or yellow. On top of this, they may paint flowers, stripes or geometrical patterns.
The design of each item is improvised by the artisan at the moment the toy is painted, meaning no two toys are alike. This one-of-a-kind quality of each toy has contributed to the status of the craft tradition.
Artist closeup by Ivana FijanCroatian National Tourist Board
Painting the toy by Ivana FijanCroatian National Tourist Board
There is no formal training for toymakers. Instead, skills are handed down from generation to generation.
Working on toys - painting by Ivana FijanCroatian National Tourist Board
Historians believe that the first items created as souvenirs were miniature reed instruments such as like whistles and horns.
As these were purchased for children, artisans expanded their range of designs to include objects like horses and carts, flapping birds, and spinning tops.
Bird and a car toyCroatian National Tourist Board
There were once as many as 120 different toy forms. Today, about 50 styles are still being made. These include the older styles like horses, donkeys, wagons and carts, and doll furniture, as well as modern objects like cars, trucks, airplanes, and trains.
Some of the toys have moving parts, such as birds with flapping wings or spinning dancers. Some have working wheels and others have “clapping” parts that make noise when pulled or moved.
Colored toys planes by Lovro FijanCroatian National Tourist Board
Those created in the form of miniature musical instruments can actually be tuned and played. For many Croatian children, the mini-instruments from Hrvatsko Zagorje are their first introduction to the country’s rich folk music traditions.
Tambura toyCroatian National Tourist Board
The toys are prized not just for their novelty and decoration, but also as an alternative to mass-produced plastic and electronic toys.
Toy parts on the table by Lovro FijanCroatian National Tourist Board
Handcrafted wooden toys of the Hrvatsko Zagorje are sold at religious and municipal festivals and fairs, and at handicraft and souvenir shops in Marija Bistrica and surrounding villages.
Wooden toys cribs by Lovro FijanCroatian National Tourist Board
Many ethnographic museums throughout Croatia have historic collections of wooden toys on display.
Wooden toyCroatian National Tourist Board