Stunning coastlines. Roofs tiled red. Our collective vision of Croatia is one of Mediterranean paradise. Like Amalfi, at a discount.
This isn’t the Croatia we visited.
Let me be clear—we’d never actively pass up the chance to sip Aperol spritzes seaside.
But even paradise is seasonal. That’s why we’re headed to Israel (Tel Aviv is 75 degrees right now). This reroute meant sacrificing coastal Croatia on our itinerary. You know, that Croatia in brochures.
But we kept Zagreb.
A big reason is its proximity to Plitvice Lakes, Croatia’s first national park. From Zagreb, it’s a two hour bus trip to the country’s most beautiful inland scenery: a series of 16 interconnected lakes and numerous waterfalls, including the impressive Veliki Slap.
(Slap translates to waterfall in Croatian, by the way. Isn’t that onomatopoeia at its best?)
The lakes were (and continue to be) formed by tufa, a porous rock created from calcium carbonate deposits in the water made by plants, mosses and algae. Their waters are a stunning turquoise, and the surrounding rocks and trees dipped in moss add to the ethereality of the place.
The lakes themselves are surrounded by 18 kilometers of traversable boardwalk divided into seven possible routes. Most of these routes involve taking a ferry across one of the lakes, and the option to return to the entrance via tram, so they’re easily doable regardless of fitness level. (Or footwear. We saw a few groups of women sporting heels who had no trouble).
Greg and I arrived around 10 am and spent the next five hours walking the park, stopping for lunch and hot chocolate and, of course, plenty of snapshots. Aside from a few huge groups of tourists, we were pleasantly surprised to find Plitvice empty.
It was a quiet, scenic retreat from city life that we needed; a place for us to ground ourselves in nature, away from the clouds of cigarette smoke and traffic jams that pervade Eastern Europe’s urbanity. I can’t recommend it enough.
Another reason we kept Zagreb?
Funny enough, there wasn’t one. And that’s part of what made our visit so pleasurable.
There was nothing we “had to see” or “had to do;” no lines or rows of tchotchke shops gumming up the scenery.
Zagreb gave us time to get our bearings; time to cook, do laundry, and reground ourselves in routines we missed after weeks on the road.
Our only compulsion was taking part in Zagreb’s famed “lounge culture.” Locals here love themselves an outdoor lounge—for snacking, but mostly for daily coffee and cigarette breaks. (Which must number in the double digits, based on the constant crowds we saw).
There is roughly a 1:1 ratio of people to lounges in Zagreb, ranging from chic to “dive lounge.” This is definitely something we could get behind.
Even McDonald’s has one.
Lounging serves multiple purposes here, but perhaps none so relevant for new initiates as people-watching. From your café perch, you’ll see the women of Zagreb; attired and coiffed like runway models, rushing by on improbably high heels without breaking a sweat. In contrast are the gray-haired bakas, weighed down by bags of fresh pomegranates and potatoes, bought daily from Dolac Market.
Dolac is also an excellent place to pass some time in Zagreb. Located just off the main town square, it has been the city’s main trading ground since 1926, and features produce, fish, meat, cheese and flowers. We were particularly enamored of the figs and pomegranates, which we bought to round out our grocery supply for the week.
Grocery shopping became another of our favorite pastimes in Zagreb. The city spoils you with options. You can’t turn around without smacking into a bakery, where all kinds of pastries, pretzels, rolls, and slanci (salt-topped buns) are constantly on offer.
The same goes for cake shops. I held out for a half-day before dragging Greg into one called Amélie, where we shared a Café Latte cake slice and tea.
Our favorite meal in Zagreb, though, wasn’t from the city itself. The cuisine at Heritage, a street-food style café and deli, features ingredients from around the country, which the waiter graciously detailed for us when he set our dishes on the table.
I wish I remembered more of what he told us, but I was too hungry at the time.
For a city all about taste, it was an excellent introduction.
Lounging and dining, though, are far from the only worthwhile pursuits here.
Zagreb has plenty else to offer, historically and culturally speaking.
We started as we usually do: with a walking tour, this one with Free Spirit. (Luka, a co-founder of the company, was perhaps our most knowledgeable guide yet.)
We began just below Dolac, at Ban Jelačić Square, next to a statue of the ban (“government head”) himself. Popular for helping abolish Croatian serfdom, Jelačić also had the rare distinction of having the square named after him while he was still alive (in 1866). Now it’s a pedestrian-only spot filled with vendors hawking strudel, liquors, and tasty soparnik (a flaky pie filled with kale).From the square, we followed Luka up a steep hill to Stone Gate. Built for fortification during the 13th century, it was the only one standing after a 1731 fire destroyed the others, three-little-pigs style, along with the rest of the city.
Most of the Stone gate and its contents were damaged too. Only a painting of the Virgin Mary emerged unscathed, due, of course, to divine intervention. (Funny how that intervention didn’t spare the rest of Zagreb).
In any case, the painting remained. And hangs today, bedazzled and guarded by a baroque fence, inside a chapel where locals and visitors go to pray. The particularly devout purchase tiles for their prayers, which line the altar’s alcove.
We continued up the hill to the romanesque Lotrščak Tower. From here, a cannon fired daily at noon to help Zagreb’s churches synchronize time.
Despite iPhones, Zagreb (and its taxpayers) keep this tradition. Each day at noon, the same guy fires the cannon, to the surprise and/or applause of tourists clustered below.
Once he’s done, he gives the crowd a warm wave. (The benefits of job security, I suppose). He’s the fifth person ever to hold this job, and gets holidays. That’s when the back-up cannon guy steps in.
For those who prefer less boom, the nearby area, called Gradec, has several museums. And not your average ones, either.
Originally a traveling exhibition, the museum is arguably Zagreb’s most famous now, even boasting a Los Angeles franchise. It features personal items, all donated, that represent failed relationships (of several years to several hours).
A description accompanies each item, and may range from a single sentence to an abstract poem to a play-by-play of the relationship’s creation and demise.
We wound our way through the baroque palace that houses the museum, taking in the sundry items and their owner’s stories: stories of long-distance love, intercultural unions, changed minds and hearts, captured in forms as obvious as engagement rings to subtler (and arguably more powerful) everyday items imbued with transcendental significance.
My favorite was a stuffed caterpillar with missing legs: one torn for each visit between the couple.
“When the final leg was removed, that’s when we’d move to be together.” The smiling caterpillar still has about half its legs attached; the others are clustered around its striped, fuzzy body.
The exhibits were heartening reminders of the power relationships hold; their effects, for better or worse, years after the fact.
(They were also a great reminder to nurture current relationships, even when travel fatigue hits. That’s when you should stop, pause, and get some European sweets and a cup of coffee).
Unlike its famous museum might suggest, Zagreb’s own tale is one of stable unity. But this wasn’t always so.
Her story begins as a tale of two cities: Gradec, and Kaptol.
Before uniting in 1851 to create central Zagreb, they were constantly warring with each other, across the former Medveščak creek. (It’s perhaps appropriate that, following unification, the creek was replaced by a street of popular drinking holes).
We spent much of our guided tour in the aforementioned Gradec, which, along with the tower and museums, is home to Old City Hall and the stunning 13th century Church of St. Mark. On its roof is a colorful tile array, outlining the coats-of-arms for each of Croatia’s three regions.
Luka explains the origins of central Croatia’s: one of a weasel-like animal, referred to as kuna in the lingua franca. This animal’s fur was so valuable that it once passed as currency. Its name still adorns Croatia’s money (though it’s doubtful kuna bills and coins do as much to keep you warm).
Some artistic liberty is at play here with the Dalmatian coast’s three lions. But the overall effect is stunning, and reminiscent of Budapest’s Matthias Church.
In contrast to the calm of St. Mark’s Square and Gradec, Kaptol (“Lower Town”), bustles. There, you can also find the stunning Zagreb Cathedral, with its stunning chandeliers: Vegas originals.
A wealthy Croatian bought them while on vacation in Sin City and then donated them to the church, which tried to appease its incensed congregation by promising they’d only be up for a “trial run.” (Guess that trial is still going, 17 years later).
In the early 1900, the city became a trinity, formed with the addition of “New” Zagreb to the east of its former center (Gradec and Kaptol are part of medieval or “Old” Zagreb).
This “new” area is now Zagreb’s bustling business district. But there are also galleries and gazebo-lined parks, getting dressed up for the holidays.
New Zagreb may be a place for working, sure, but she hasn’t changed the city’s character. At any time, on nearly any corner, you can do what locals do best, whether you’re in Old or New town: stroll, lounge, and enjoy life.
What else unites Zagreb (and Croatia) besides lounge culture?
Let’s start with Catholicism. Its strength and constancy persists, despite Croatia being secular on paper. (One such example is in the favoring of politicians with endorsements “from bishops and priests,” Luka tells us.)
Most citizens are also ethnically Croat, meaning her population is roughly as homogeneous as neighboring Slovenia’s (who, instead of Croats, is majority Slovene).
The two nations share more than ethnic homogeneity, however; they once joined together with Serbia to form the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. This state became Yugoslavia in 1918.
And, like Slovenia, Croatia is newly independent (as of 1995).
But her road there was much more brutal.
It’s known as the Croatian War of Independence. And despite the fact that it killed 20,000 people and displaced 500,000 more, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of it.
“Zagreb doesn’t even have a museum dedicated to the war,” Luka tells us on our tour. “There’s no place for kids to learn about it. About their history.”
One such place did open last summer. And while it lacks narrative, it’s still eye-opening.
On our last day in town, Greg and I visited this place, the Museum of War Photography, where dozens of photographs and personal stories show the impact of the conflict.
Most of the photos were taken by professionals who bore witness to the siege of Croatian cities by the Serb-led Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA). Following Yugoslavia’s collapse, the JNA wanted to co-opt areas of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina into a new Serb-led state; most people in these states, however, wanted nothing less than nationhood.
And so, for four years, the Croatians fought the JNA, with far less at their disposal. (At one point, a museum guide tells us, they went so far as to dive into the sea to recover ammunitions abandoned in WWII by the Nazis).
The JNA massacred thousands of Croatians, and sent thousands more to concentration camps. The Croatian Army and police, for their part, murdered, tortured and expelled thousands of Croatian Serbs in southern territories.
(And none of this accounts for the additional horror of the Croat-Bosniak War, which was waged by Croatian forces attempting to rid certain territories of their former Bosniak Muslim allies).
Zagreb avoided much of the conflict. But in May 1995, two rocket attacks killed seven citizens and wounded 200 more.
As we studied photos from the attack, a woman standing near us, probably in her late 50s, said something in Croatian to the museum guide. “She was there,” he said. “She remembers that day.”
Not until a ceasefire later that year did the violence stop. And it’s the toll of that violence on Croatian civilians, regardless of religion, race or creed, that the Museum wants visitors to witness. So that we learn from the consequences of war, and feel the imperative for peace.
Images of war aren’t ones we usually see of Croatia. But to see them is to understand the role of history, especially recent history, in shaping the country and its people.
I am glad we stopped in Zagreb. Not only to lounge, and recharge, but to see a side of Croatia often overlooked by visitors.
I only wish we could’ve stayed longer.
But Israel calls (and so does that sunshine). Til next time, Zagreb. Hvala.