Zagreb: the real Balkans

Leaving Ljubljana proves to be every bit as difficult as arriving. Traffic is completely jammed on the main road out of the city. We sit through green light after green light without budging an inch. Horns are honking, people are getting out of their cars for smoke breaks (I’ve not yet mentioned how much smoking there is here!), others are yelling into their cell phones.

Then the sirens start and we are sure there has been an accident. A couple of police cars, then an ambulance go by in the opposite direction. Then the police on motorcycles, at least 20 of them. Can’t be just a car accident, we think. Must be a terrorist attack or some other serious incident. A few more police cars. And then we see the cause of the problem: a dozen or so bikers ride by. They must be pretty important! Whatever … we are finally on our way, wondering if this whole car rental thing is such a great idea?!

The drive through the Slovenian countryside can only be described as bucolic. The intensely green rolling hills, the church spires and red-roofed villages, the castles on the hill-tops. It is like something from a fairy-tale.

As soon as we cross the border into Croatia the countryside changes. It flattens and gets drier and less green. Zagreb, our destination, and the capital of Croatia, looks completely different than Ljubljana. It looks like the Balkans. Like Yugoslavia.

Zagreb seems grittier and less affluent. The hotel and restaurants are less expensive. We are at the ZigZag –  – a funky, modern place in the heart of the city. Our digs look like a college dorm room decorated a la Ikea.

Croatia, like Slovenia, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until 1918, when it joined other Balkan countries to form Yugoslavia. Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, a four year war with the Serbians in the early nineties was won by Croatia, leading to independence and, later, admission to the European Union. However the country did not adopt the euro as its currency and still uses “kuna”. We find ourselves stuck with several hundred euros that we won’t be able to spend.

Here too the language is full of consonants. We learn that “dobra” means “good” in many Eastern European languages, including Croatian. We smile and say dobra a lot! The locals smile back and seem to appreciate our efforts. We’ll spend more time in Croatia than in either Slovenia or Bosnia, so will try to expand our vocabulary. Pivo (beer), crno vino (red wine), bijelo vino (white wine), racun (the bill). Hey, it’s a start! The word for bathroom is multi-syllabled and too hard to pronounce so we stick with WC.

A visit to the Zagreb City museum tells the story of a place inhabited by iron age people in the 10th century BC. Since then the Romans, Mongols and Tatars from the Russian steppes, the Austro-Hungarians, the Ottoman Turks and the communists have had a go at ruling. Surprisingly little attention is paid to Joseph Tito, the president of Yugoslavia from 1953 until his death in 1980. He was born in Croatia and is generally revered for his role as a “benevolent dictator” during a time when the rest of communist eastern Europe suffered under the leadership of much less benevolent dictators.

At a museum commemorating the war with the Serbs we meet a young woman who was in her teens in the early 90s. She shares her story of being in Zagreb during the bombings.

We weren’t sure what to expect of The Museum of Naive Art. Naive? Immature? Innocent? It is full of folk art paintings, beautifully displayed. The rural, agrarian, peasant traditions of the country are very clear. On the street too, there is a Ukrainian-like culture evident in the crafts and the food.

TripAdvisor sends us to a bistro called Zrno Bio for dinner our first night. Craig balks as we walk in and see the word “vegan” advertised, but I argue that it has been a very meat-centric journey and it is time for something healthier. He relents and even enjoys his so-called burger on, not a bun, but rather a chickpea patty. The carrot cake is the only disappointment as it leaves us feeling virtuous and full of vitamin A but does not satisfy our sweet tooth.

The Bulldog pub becomes a favourite for lunch, where the chicken Caesar salad is one of the best we’ve ever eaten. A pan-Asian place called Time is just down the street from our hotel and we enjoy some delicious food there. We did not expect gourmet fare here and are pleasantly surprised. Best food on the trip so far, by far.

The waiter at the Bulldog takes a shine to us and, even though he is busy, shares his story about being in the army during the war. Neighbours stealing from each other when there was no water or food. Neighbours ratting each other out, to the Serbs, for being Croats. Asks us to think about what we would and would not do in desperation.

We have a long last day here as we check out of the hotel at noon but the flight to Sarajevo is not until 10 PM. It’s cool and rainy. We visit a few more museums, have a long lunch, and take refuge in the very chi-chi bar at the extremely upscale Esplanade Hotel. It was built in 1925 to lodge travelers on the Orient Express, on their way from Paris to Istanbul. We are wet and bedraggled by the time we get there in the late afternoon and I’m amazed they let us in the front door!


  1. Larry and Bev Amundsen says:

    The no clue guys could be members of the Ustaše , a far right para military group. No seriously we are enjoying the stories and pictures keep it up.

  2. Charlotte says:

    Zabreb looks like a really neat city so much culture that the Croatians are very proud of. Beautiful airport!! Have fun touring Sarajevo.

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