November 8 – December 6, 2017 (Winter)
Greeting: Dobar dan
Currency: Kuna (kn)
Visa: 90 days in 180 RR
Cost of living: Medium
Wintering in Croatia’s inland capital was a very different experience than the two sunny months we spent on the Dalmatian coast last year. Zagreb’s Austro-Hungarian heritage and modern development came in stark contrast to the ancient Roman and Italian influence near the Mediterranean. We were attracted by the big parks, wide avenues, and myriad plazas. A more international city than most Balkan capitals, Zagreb surprised us with more diverse and delicious food options than we’d had in months. But most of all, we came for the world-class Christmas markets. From our arrival in early November, we eagerly embraced the cooler weather and the approaching Advent season.
Where we stayed
We’ve had fabulous apartments with Airbnb↗ before, but this one was probably our favorite to date. Just one block from King Tomislav Square and the Central Station. Less than a mile to every major sight in the city. Ground zero for Zagreb’s world-class Advent celebration. Even the bus station was within walking distance for our trips in and out.
And the actual apartment? Just lovely. Recently renovated and lovingly decorated, it had everything we look for in an ideal stay: comfortable couch in the living room, a great kitchen complete with oven and microwave (plus plenty of gadgets for good measure), an isolated bedroom with lots of closet space, a good washer, and even a shower with doors instead of… like… nothing. Winter’s chill set in early this November, but every room had potent radiators complete with humidifiers. We even had a full-size desk and table in separate rooms. Perfect for getting work done.
Coupled with the quiet and polite neighbors – polite human neighbors, anyway – our apartment in Zagreb blew away our expectations and seated itself firmly atop our list of perfect accommodations.
What we did
We had a while to wait until the Advent celebrations kicked off, but that was fine with us. Zagreb was a fascinating city to explore all on its own. For one thing, the architecture was incredible. Everyday we stumbled across beautiful buildings like the Croatian National Theatre and, next door, the Academy of Music (shaped like a metronome). The Academy of Dramatic Arts caught our eye for its fall colors, and we thought the spouting whale statue in front of the Croatian State Archives was pretty cool until we realized it was actually some guy. There were lots more statues as well, but the most popular subject was probably St. George of dragon-slaying fame, who earned at least two.
Even better were the vast array of parks. A chain of them just outside our door linked the Central Station to the Old Town core, easily the best way to cross that stretch in style. And the Botanical Garden offered a peaceful and serene place to take in the quieter joys of the changing seasons.
The Cathedral of Zagreb is probably the city’s most iconic landmark. To this day it remains the tallest building in the city. It is surrounded by a small square, a column of Mary, and what remains of the defensive walls. On the back interior wall of the cathedral is an inscription in Glagolitic script, the oldest known Slavic alphabet. And that makes sense, because Zagreb itself is old. More than 900 years old, in fact. For history older even than that, the best place to visit is the Archaeological Museum. Their collection is chock full of treasures from the distant past, and occasionally distant lands. There were lots of amusing baubles as well, like a grave marker with the likenesses of a couple that looked a little too alike, or a prototype razor, or whatever this is (the description said “maybe calendar?”).
Old Zagreb is split between the Upper Town (a few blocks of historic and government buildings at the top of a hill) and the Lower Town (everything else). It’s an easy climb, but those not in a climbing mood need not despair; the peak is serviced by one of the world’s shortest and steepest funiculars. The top is the best place in the city to appreciate Zagreb’s panoramic sprawl. Here is also where we discovered the offbeat – and surprisingly upbeat – Museum of Broken Relationships. This small but focused museum must be one of the all-time most relatable. The premise is simple but effective: people from relationships (mostly romantic, some familial) that have ended for some reason or another donate a meaningful item and share a story or memory attached to it. Most were charming, a few were… less so.
But the museum was more than voyeurism, it was catharsis. The lessons those stories tell, that it’s okay to cherish or mourn good memories even if things end badly, that no one who has experienced heartbreak or sadness is truly alone, that nothing is permanent but life moves on, are ultimately reassuring ones. It feels good to be reminded.
Alternately, one can simply drink until they forget. Or in our case, for the fun of it. An American couple we met at a wine bar turned us on to Zagreb’s biggest wine expo, which happened to take place during our stay at the historic Esplanade Hotel, just a few blocks away. So we splurged on tickets to VINOcom, the International Festival of Wine and Culinary Art. And it turned out to be the single best wine festival we’d ever attended. For $30 apiece, an absolute bargain by Seattle standards, we got an entire afternoon of unlimited wine tasting.
And there was plenty to taste. At least a hundred wineries brought their wares, most from Croatia (including our favorite of the night, Kurtalj Pinot Noir), but a few from neighboring nations. We even got a preview of what we could expect in Macedonia at the Tikveš table.
With three or more wines a booth, the small pours added up quick. Luckily an adjacent hall was packed with regional food producers (and even a couple breweries) providing scrumptious samples, as well as whole meals for sale or even handed out for free. As the night wore on though, things definitely got a little crowded and sloppy, much to the chagrin of the
babysitters hosts. Still, this event ended up one of our favorite memories. We think.
Mirogoj Cemetery made for a more somber stop, but by no means was it all sadness. The grounds themselves are historically beautiful, and the main entrance may be one of the top tourist sights in all the city. The gigantic graveyard is owned by the city rather than any particular church, so inters people of all faiths. Counted among the deceased are politicians and dignitaries, scientists and musicians, and favorite sons and daughters of Croatia. Dražen Petrović, a basketball player who died tragically just as he was starting to break out in the NBA, has an especially expressive tomb. An exceptionally beautiful piece adorns the gravesite of painter Edo Murtić.
The grounds also concentrate many of the nation’s memorials, like the Wall of Pain. Originally an organic demonstration built by individuals honoring their missing or fallen relatives, it was disassembled and replaced by a monument, though incorporating some of its predecessor in the design.
But throughout the month of November, we never lost sight of why we were here. Over the weeks, we watched as King Tomislav Square was slowly transformed into Ice Park. Market stalls began to spring up; leisurely at first, then as the month drew to a close, at a fevered pace. Decorations appeared everywhere but remained dark, waiting patiently for the opening ceremony. Then, sitting at home, the globes that had sat dormant outside our window the entire stay suddenly, magically, turned on. It was Advent in Zagreb.
The season was kicked off with a day full of celebrations. Ban Josip Jelačić hosted an incredibly-crowded candle-lighting ceremony, and the Ice Park opened with a flashy performance on skates. We braved the busy sidewalks to take it all in. And over the next few days, our last in Zagreb, we visited as many Christmas markets as we could. All three of the closest parks had them: King Tomislav Square had ice skating, Park Strossmayera had the classiest (and most expensive) food, and Park Zrinjevac mixed traditional markets and handcrafts with concerts in a gazebo. The main square had a market, with another right around the corner at Trg Europe. There was even a jolly Christmas train (as well a more… sinister version). But seemingly no part of the city was untouched by the holiday spirit.
On our last day, we paid a visit to the Ice Park. We picked a time when we figured we’d have the place to ourselves, but ended up in line behind an entire field trip! Even so, it was spread out enough that we rarely ran into anyone else. Romantic and fun, skating the Ice Park► was the perfect finale to our first holiday stay this December. Next stop, Ljubljana!↗
Food & Drink
Zagreb is the headquarters of Agrokor, the massive (>10% of the country’s economy, though during our visit in dire financial and legal straits) Croatian corporation that controls Konzum. Our local branch had at its ready-made counter whole pork knuckles alongside the normal options like rotisserie chicken. We were also happy to have Ledo frozen vegetables again, though we noticed the price was higher, and quality a bit lower (seriously, where’d the tomatoes go?) than on our last visit. There were rare alternatives as well, from the Prehrana just across the street to a Spar ten minutes away (a good place to pick up Dobro’s superb cured meats, just edging out Serbia’s Zlatiborac for our regional favorite). However, Dolac Market was the best spot for anything fresh. This plaza in the shadow of Zagreb Cathedral was packed with stands selling fruits and veggies, alongside smaller selections of cheeses, nuts, and eggs. A ribarnica in the back corner sold the best fish we’d had since Chile↗. Immediately below plaza was a matching indoor market where the meat vendors set up shop. Down here we discovered Crno Zlato – an excellent source of coffee beans and exotic spices – as well as something neither of us had ever seen before: a milk vending machine.
Zagreb was especially fertile ground for fun specialty shops, too. A small import retailer called Foodness! featured all sorts of US goodies we didn’t even realize we’d been craving. Our haul included such finds as Ranch (or “Cool American”) Doritos, Frank’s RedHot, ranch dressing, cream soda, and so many varieties of Pop-Tart. And while the Balkans aren’t known for a particular love of piquant food, Spicy Days was leading the charge to change that with a wide range of local and imported hot sauces. There we picked up a hot ajvar and a chili sauce that pretty much beat anything on the continent. Spice Up and Asia Store set us up with good Indian and East Asian ingredients, respectively. All told, this was a banner month for international dishes.
Since our stay overlapped with American Thanksgiving and the start of Advent season, we ended up celebrating with food quite a bit. An expat couple organized a Thanksgiving dinner at a pirate-themed Mexican restaurant, and we followed up with our own personal feast the next day. An entire kilo of salmon all to ourselves made for a luxurious meal, and several more of leftovers. The Christmas markets had more to offer than just sausage and mulled wine. A fluffy dumpling filled with jam and topped in sweet butter sauce, called Germknödel, was basically a dessert bao. We also tried štrukli for the first time. A Zagrebian delicacy, these pastries bursting with melted cheese were impossible not to love.
Wine was just as we remembered it being: very good. We jumped right back in, sampling both new and old favorites. Plavac Mali showed up often, but was far from the only option. Vinocom was of course an immense treat. We rarely get the opportunity to sample so many of a country’s wines in such a short time. And of course, to stave off the season’s chill, we indulged in our fair share of kuhano vino, “cooked wine.” Nearly every stand sold the stuff – generally the same stuff, actually – and we purchased it often (including, in what were somehow firsts for us, white and red+white blended varieties). But our favorite batch was nevertheless made in our own kitchen. With ingredients gathered from markets across the city, and a whole lot of love, we mulled some truly memorable mugs – perfect for cuddling up on a cold winter night.
Beer, on the other hand, was nothing like we remembered it. This time, it was actually pretty good! Okay, so the mass-market stuff still peaked at pretty okay (Karlovačko Crno and Tomislav). Even Ožujsko’s Christmas beer was so plain we could barely tell it apart from the standard variety. But this time, we made an effort to seek out smaller producers; Zagreb luckily had them in spades. We started at Pivovara Medvedgrad. Even with an incredible seven-course tasting flight, there were plenty of styles we didn’t get to try. An expat meetup brought us back and gave us a second shot at the extensive lineup. We took a couple of our favorites home with us, along with some not on the menu – like a Božićno (Christmas) beer with actual flavor. And all at a bargain price compared to the grocery store.
Tucked away in a quiet corner of the Old Town, Tolkien’s House was another great stop for suds. Their menu featured a lot of the most popular microbrews, but we most appreciated their yummy house beer. And nobody beats Craft Room for sheer variety. We were drawn in by what amounts to a mirage in this part of the world – pumpkin beer on the menu. Unfortunately, it was an illusion after all; they sold out the day before our visit. But the pair of beers we did get to try were the best of our entire stay.
Stuff of interest
Our SIMs↗ for the month came from T-Hrvatski. For $16 US we received a chip and 5,000 units of credit that were each good for 1mb, 1 text, or 1 minute of talk time. Croatia is also part of the European Roam Like at Home program. So with just one top-up at the very end of our stay, we were able to continue using our cards in Slovenia and Germany, saving a lot of money over the local offerings.
The digital nomad lifestyle is great for working on games↗, but it’s not always conducive to keeping up with industry events. So when our visit happened to overlap with Reboot InfoGamer, one of the biggest gaming conferences in the region, we jumped at the opportunity. All the biggest companies were there to showcase their latest wares (and wears, with big VR pushes from Sony and others). Indies were well-represented, too – maybe we’ll come back someday as exhibitors. With the event well outside the city center, we had to snag the only Uber↗ of the month to get here. But tickets set us back less than $9 US (and were a lot easier to get than a PAX badge), so it’s hard to complain. And on the way back, we spotted the second of two RIT campuses in Croatia↗.
Croatia and Serbia both lay heavy claim to the legacy of Nikola Telsa. He was born to a Serb family in what is now Croatia. Zagreb named their technology museum after him, and other tributes were commonplace. On the other hand, he did do most of his inventing after becoming a naturalized US citizen. Chalk up a win for the country of immigrants!
We started playing HQ Trivia last month in Sarajevo↗, but this month saw the first time we actually won! Unfortunately our prize was far too small to claim until they changed their payout limits many months later.
One of Zagreb’s truly clandestine treasures is a hidden-in-plain-sight scale model of our Solar System. The sculpture Grounded Sun has been displayed at various locations in Zagreb since 1971, but only in 2004 did another artist augment it with 8 (+1) planets, positioned across the city at accurate distances. The inner Solar System is easy enough to track down: little Mercury, steamy Venus, spaceship Earth, and future-colony Mars are all within a radius of less than ⅓ km. After that, things get far fast. We managed to get as remote as Uranus, which was just a block away from the expo hall for InfoGamer. Our final acquisition was Jupiter, which we stumbled on during the walk back from Mirogoj Cemetery. We didn’t pull off the whole set this time, but loved the journey anyway.
What we learned
Zagreb is a lovely city, even in winter. We felt at home from the moment we arrived, both in the apartment and around town. The Christmas markets are spectacular too; we recommend them as highly as any in Germany.