Ivica Mesar sits in the workshop below his house in the village of Tugonica, clamps a piece of wood into the vice, and leans back, pulling the blade of the two-handled wood plane sharply towards him and showering his faded blue work shirt with wood shavings.
Ivica has been making wooden toys in his village near Marija Bistrica for over 20 years, using willow, lime and other local wood, which after drying is carved using traditional tools and hand painted with floral and geometric patterns. Standing up from the kujsa (traditional vice) and putting the obrucnjak (two-handled plane) and partly worked piece of wood aside, he moves to another part of the workshop where he picks up a small, lidded wooden box, already painted pink with several stylized red flowers, and applies a final tracery of white lines to the decoration.
The tradition of wooden toy making in this rural part of northern Croatia (Hrvatsko Zagorje) developed in the nineteenth century, and survives in a few villages around Marija Bistrica such as Tugonica and nearby Laz. Around 50 types of toy are made today — from small, brightly painted animal toys and birds with flapping wings, to whistles, miniature furniture and other objects — though at one time, this number was over a hundred. Marija Bistrica itself is the greatest pilgrimage site in Croatia, its late fifteenth or early sixteenth century wooden statue of the Virgin Mary drawing over 600,000 faithful each year; and the fact that the pilgrimage routes pass through these villages probably accounts in some measure for the development of toy making here — the toys still make popular souvenirs.
The wooden toy making of northern Croatia is just one of several traditions in Croatia which have been inscribed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage — Croatia boasts 13 listed traditions (or ‘elements’ as they’re rather less inspiringly dubbed by UNESCO). That is (along with Spain) the largest number of any country in Europe. Anyone who watched the ceremony which marked Croatia’s recent accession to the EU will have seen some of these traditions already — though possibly without knowing it, since HRT (Croatian Radio and Television) coverage of the event inexplicably neglected to mention what any of them actually were.
Ivica Mesar explains that he doesn’t use nails in these toys — they are, as he very sensibly points out, intended to be played with by young children — preferring to employ simple joints bonded with glue, and non-toxic paints.