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Villa Rebar

   
   - darkometer rating: 6 -
 
The remains of what used to be the private mansion of Croatia's Ustashe Nazi leader Ante Pavelić. In addition to the sparse ruins of the house, there are adjacent tunnels inside the mountain that provided an escape route for the former dictator, and which can still be explored today ...   
More background info: see also under Croatia in general.
   
Ante Pavelić, born in 1889 in what today is Bosnia & Herzegovina, but as an ethnic Croat, had long been an ultra-nationalist and fascist even before he rose to power as the country's dictator. He founded the Ustashe – the Croatian Revolutionary Movement – in 1929. At the time he was living in Italy – where the rise of Mussolini's fascism influenced him.
   
His own organization, the Ustashe took to terrorist attacks within the then Kingdom of Yugoslavia, culminating in the assassination of the Yugoslav King Alexander. Pavelić was sentenced to death in his home country for this but escaped execution by staying in exile in Italy.
    
But his time came when the “Axis” powers of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany invaded Yugoslavia in 1941. Hitler made Croatia the ruling power in the region through the creation of the so-called Independent State of Croatia (NDH), which is usually described as a “Nazi puppet state”, though that makes it sound rather too harmless, really. In actual fact, the level of brutality the Ustashe displayed disturbed even the German Nazis.
   
Pavelić orchestrated a policy of repression and extermination that led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people, in particular ethnic Serbs within Croatia but also – in accordance with the Nazis' racist policies – Jews and Roma, alongside political opponents such as communists. The largest Ustashe concentration camp in Croatia, Jasenovac, is sometimes referred to as the “Auschwitz of the Balkans”.
   
As “Poglavnik” ('head', 'chief', or perhaps more aptly: 'Führer') of the Ustashe and the NDH, Ante Pavelić ruled the regime as a de facto dictator right to the bitter end … or even beyond the bitter end, in a way. Even after the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany on 8/9 May 1945, he ordered his troops to continue fighting.
   
He himself, however, fled first to Austria, and then Italy (for a short while he was in hiding inside the Vatican). And eventually, in 1948, he slipped away to Argentina – in that standard Nazi fashion.
   
And so the “Butcher of the Balkans” got away with it. Well, almost.
   
For nearly a decade he lived undisturbed in his Argentinian sanctuary, provided for him by the Argentinian President Juan Perón, who even gave Pavelić a job as his 'security adviser' (really you couldn't make it up!)
   
But then, on 8 April 1957, the Croatian ex-dictator was shot and severely wounded by a Serbian former partisan who had searched out Pavelić's whereabouts and tried to assassinate him. Pavelić survived the assassination attempt initially, but died in 1959 from the after-effects of his wounds. By that time he had been given sanctuary in Franco's Spain, and so he was buried in Madrid.
   
But back to Villa Rebar. The mansion had been built in the early 1930s, long before Pavelić made it his home in Zagreb. Once he had moved in he had underground tunnels constructed as shelters and a secret escape route should his home ever come under siege. Several guard bunkers were also built to protect the property around the house.
   
After the ousted dictator had fled and the partisan communists took over and created the Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia, the former Poglavnik's home was seized by the state. In the 1950s it was turned into a mountain resort and restaurant called “Risnjak”.
   
This burned down in 1970 or 1980 (sources vary), and given that most of the house was built from wood, this meant that only the stone foundations remained. The place was then just abandoned. Anything that was still of any value (cables, pipes, the usual) was looted and so just a sad, beaten and overgrown shall remained. Forgotten by most, it has in the past couple of decades only been visited by local urban explorers … and a few intrepid dark tourists from abroad too.
   
   
What there is to see: On our approach to the former mansion we first passed the entrance to the Sljeme Tunnel, a project begun after WWII (and apparently using POWs for forced labour) but never finished. So it's a dead end tunnel. The inside is today used by mountaineers for training, but is otherwise useless.
   
Further up the slope a couple of old guard bunkers (now just full of smelly rubbish) are the first indications that there must have been something of importance here once. Then suddenly the iconic arches of the Villa Rebar appear. They are more or less all that remains of the building – basically just the stone foundations (the rest of the house had been built of wood and completely burned down long ago – see above).
   
There's some graffiti and evidence of recent visitors in the form of empty bottles and yet more rubbish. But the ruined remainders of the walls, partly overgrown now, aren't much to look at. In one corner there was a structure that looked like it may have been a wood-fired oven, so this may have been a kitchen. But otherwise there's nothing discernible left of the former dictator's mansion.
   
But then there are the tunnels. I had read about them before (namely in this very readable blog entry – external link, opens in a new window) and was thus quite excited about them. In that article it was suggested that there might be the risk of encountering bears inside the tunnels – after all the mountain is called Medvednica, which literally means 'bear mountain', and there is even some bear graffiti near the entrance to the tunnels. But my guide assured us that no bears would come down so close to the city, and that in fact bears had not been sighted anywhere on Medvednica in a long time. (Croatia does, however, have a fairly healthy bear population, but only in more remote corners of the country, not right on the capital city's doorsteps.)
   
We entered the tunnel system at an easy access point at the far end of the ruined mansion and with the help of torches first explored one stretch of tunnel bending off left. Inside there's plenty of graffiti – some of it quite spooky, such as when suddenly the silhouette of a man appears on the curved wall of the tunnel.
   
We then took a tunnel leading to the right and further ahead. And then there was a light at the end of the tunnel. We had come to the secret escape exit. I stepped outside and found that it was actually very near a mountain road, but invisible from it.
   
We then walked through the same escape tunnel back to the Villa Rebar, took a few more pictures, and then headed back down the hill to our parked car and moved on.
   
So, the Villa Rebar as such is really not much to shout about. As an abandoned ruin the site is quite unremarkable indeed. If it weren't for the tunnels, I'd say there's hardly much of a point coming here. But these tunnels are definitely worth exploring. They're not as dramatic as those vast underground galleries at Željava, but still nicely spooky … and knowing that this was once the home of one of Europe's most brutal dictators adds a good dose of historical graveness on top.
   
    
Location: just beyond the northern outskirts of Zagreb at the foot of the Medvednica mountain, ca. 4 miles (6.5 km) from the city centre, as the crow flies.
   
Google maps locator: [45.8634, 15.9791]
   
   
Access and costs: hidden and abandoned but not too tricky to find; free as such (but guided tours obviously cost).
   
Details: When I went to Villa Rebar it was the first stop on a longer guided tour I had booked with Destination Urban (sponsored page) who specialize in such urban explorations. The tour was by minivan and with a very knowledgeable local guide and also included Brestovac Hospital and Kerestinec Castle and together with a separate half-day walking tour in the centre of Zagreb the day before I was charged a bit over 1100 HRK (ca. 150 EUR) in total.
    
The advantage of doing it as a guided tour is not only that it takes the navigational issues out of the equation but more importantly someone who knows those tunnels, so that it is less of a trip into the unknown. In any case, you need good torches/flashlights if you want to go in (the tour guide I had provided plenty so we all had at least one).
    
But of course you can also get there independently and delve into the troglodyte adventure of those tunnels on your own …
    
To get to Villa Rebar from Zagreb city centre, it's best to take tram lines 15 or 33 all the way to the terminus, called Dolje. From there walk in a north-easterly direction past the loop that the tram turns round on and the car park beyond. Cross the road and carry on along the path leading north and you'll soon see the entrance to the Sljeme Tunnel. Climb the slope to the right of the tunnel entrance and you'll get to a small road leading through suburban housing first heading north-east, then after a sharp switchback turn it carries on north-west.
   
When the houses thin out keep looking for a path branching off to the right and into the forest. You'll see what must have been a guard bunker once. Leave that to your left and carry on walking. You'll pass another smaller bunker and then suddenly you'll see the arched foundations of the former Villa Rebar itself. The best entrance to the tunnel system is at the far end of the ruin, more or less on the ground floor level.
   
   
Time required: depends how deep you want to explore ... we spent about an hour at the site, including the escape tunnel all the way and back. If you don't want to (or don't dare) venture into the tunnels you probably won't need much more than a few minutes for a quick look around.
   
   
Combinations with other dark destinations: When I went to Villa Rebar it was as part of a longer guided tour that then carried on to the abandoned Brestovac Hospital higher in the Medvednica mountain and later all the way to Kerestinec Castle.
   
If you're going to Villa Rebar independently, however, it's best to head back to the centre of Zagreb for more dark things to do. The tram lines back into town (lines 15 and 33) also go fairly close past the magnificent Mirogoj Cemetery: get out at Gupčeva zvijezda and walk up Mirogojska cesta for ca. 0.6 miles (1 km) to get to the main entrance. Or carry on to the Grškovićeva stop further down and change into the bus line 106 there, which takes you right to the cemetery gate.
   
   
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Villa Rebar is at the foot of the Medvednica mountain, which is Zagreb's great outdoors destination. A cable car was under construction at the time I was there, and I could see the route from near Villa Rebar, so in future it might be quite conveniently combinable with a trip up to the summit even if you don't have your own vehicle. See also under Brestevac Hospital for more on Medvednica.
   
Alternatively head back to the centre for all of the city's attractions – see under Zagreb.
   
   
 
  • Villa Rebar 01 - use the path to the right of the tunnel entranceVilla Rebar 01 - use the path to the right of the tunnel entrance
  • Villa Rebar 02 - take the path up the hillside, turn right hereVilla Rebar 02 - take the path up the hillside, turn right here
  • Villa Rebar 03 - past this bunkerVilla Rebar 03 - past this bunker
  • Villa Rebar 04 - another guard bunker, presumablyVilla Rebar 04 - another guard bunker, presumably
  • Villa Rebar 05 - arrivalVilla Rebar 05 - arrival
  • Villa Rebar 06 - not much leftVilla Rebar 06 - not much left
  • Villa Rebar 07 - graffiti-enhanced oven faceVilla Rebar 07 - graffiti-enhanced oven face
  • Villa Rebar 08 - barVilla Rebar 08 - bar
  • Villa Rebar 09 - looking for the entrance to the tunnelsVilla Rebar 09 - looking for the entrance to the tunnels
  • Villa Rebar 10 - here it isVilla Rebar 10 - here it is
  • Villa Rebar 11 - going inVilla Rebar 11 - going in
  • Villa Rebar 12 - spooky graffitiVilla Rebar 12 - spooky graffiti
  • Villa Rebar 13 - unusual graffitiVilla Rebar 13 - unusual graffiti
  • Villa Rebar 14 - deeper into the tunnelsVilla Rebar 14 - deeper into the tunnels
  • Villa Rebar 15 - into the darkVilla Rebar 15 - into the dark
  • Villa Rebar 16 - light at the end of the tunnelVilla Rebar 16 - light at the end of the tunnel
  • Villa Rebar 17 - tunnel exit in the middle of the forestVilla Rebar 17 - tunnel exit in the middle of the forest
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
    
    
    

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