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Most travellers use the capital city of Croatia, Zagreb as a stop-over on the way to more exciting destinations like Split, Dubrovnik, Hvar or Plitzvice. But that’s a mistake, because even though it’s not as popular as cities along the Dalmation coast made famous by Game of Thrones, it wins for its quirkiness, history, large variety of food and craft beer. Plus, the cost of living in Zagreb is only a 3rd compared to the tourist-mobbed places.
In Dubrovnik, you’ll be paying through the nose. In Zagreb, you simply live like a local.
I also enjoyed the quirkiness of Zagreb. Case in point: The Museum of Broken Relationships.
Started by two local artists, Olinka Vištica, and Dražen Grubišić, after their 4-year relationship ended, the idea started as joke between the two to house their left-over personal items after the their breakup, but quickly gained traction globally as more and more ex-couples sent in their breakup items and stories.
Here are a few of the interesting items we saw:
And it isn’t just relationships between lovers, the museum also includes other types of relationships, like this person and their breakup with bread, after developing a gluten allergy:
Or this person’s relationship with their bra, after developing cancer:
The quirkiness of the city continued to amuse me as I walked around with the “Free Spirit Walking Tour”, as my hilarious guide Kristina regaled us with the wondrous tales of what it’s like to be a Zagrebian.
In fact, did you know that Croatians invited the tie? The French word for tie is “cravat”, which was the name given to the scarfs worn by Croatian soldiers in the service of the French army back in the 1600s.
Or that they put these spikey balls on to the top of their buildings in the 14th century to prevent witches from landing on the roof with their broomsticks?
Because even though witches have infinite dark powers, even they can’t land on a roof with spikes on them. So, they’re basically pigeons, or something.
And Zagrebians love pranking tourists by telling them to stand under this white tower for a good photo-op, only to have the crap scared out of them as a giant canon fires overhead every day at exactly 1 PM.
Finally, Kristina introduced us to the iconic Croatian comfort food that is Štrukli. A cheesy, pillow-y, melt-in-your-mouth casserole pastry that can be made savoury or sweet.
I chose the savoury option with lots of cheese and for only 42Kn ($6 USD), it even came with truffle! If you’re ever in Zagreb, go to “La Štruk”. Štrukli is the only thing on the menu and they are experts at it.
Another specialty was the Ćevapi, which is minced meat sausage, served in a warm pita shell with crunchy sweet onions. Quality and taste varies by restaurant, but the one that Kristina recommended was called Plac, kitchen and grill, and in my opinion had the best Ćevapi of all the places we’ve ordered this dish.
In addition to the free walking tour and eating until your pant buttons pop off, there are also lots of fun outdoor escape rooms and scavenger hunts that help you learn about Zagreb’s history as you explore the city.
I especially enjoyed this free scavenger hunt called “the Zagreb Ghost and Dragons Quest“, which can be downloaded and done any time at your own pace and convenience. Once you finish, you can take a picture, proving that you solved the scavenger hunt and get a discount off their paid quests.
Now, as fun and quirky as Zagreb is, you can’t visit Zagreb without learning about the fall of Communist Yugoslavia and the Croatian War of Independence from 1991-1995, which eerily resembles what’s happening in Ukraine today.
Now, having grown up in a communist country, I was bonding with my tour guide, Luka, over our shared childhood communist experiences, like this school uniform, complete with red comrade scarf:
In fact, back in my day (wow, that makes me feel old), teachers wouldn’t let you go to school unless you were wearing your red scarf. And you had to tie it the correct way or get beatings from your teacher with a ruler at the front of the class. Oh, and forget about telling your parents about it. They would just give you a second beating for embarrassing them.
What surprised and fascinated me about communism in Croatia, back when it was part of Yugoslavia, was that it was a milder version of the totalitarian style of communism that my family was subjected to. A “Communism Light”, if you will. I had no idea there was even such a thing!
From 1918 to 1941, Yugoslavia consisted of the current present day 7 countries: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia.
But unlike communist China of the 1950s-1970s, there was no famine or cultural revolution. Their leader, Tito, was also much shrewder than Mao, and managed to somehow thread the needle and play both sides of the Cold War, simultaneously courting support from the US and the Soviet Union. By allowing a hybrid of state-run companies and private enterprises from the get-go, he enabled the economy of Yugoslavia to flourish. And because Tito was born to a Croat father and a Slovene mother, he managed to hold together the country which consisted of a diverse patch work of Croats, Slovenes, Serbs, Albanians, etc. After his death, within 10 years, in-fighting began, fracturing along ethnic lines.
Older generations still talk about the glorious days of Tito and Yugoslavia and reminisce about how much better it was compared to now. Of course, there are many who hated him and had family members murdered by his regime, so even now, he’s a controversial figure that some say was a benevolent unifier while others say he was a power-hungry dictator.
Fast forward to the Croatian War of Independence, which eerily resembles what’s happening in Ukraine, this war happened because the majority of Croats wanted to leave Yugoslavia and become a sovereign country, while ethnic Serbs in Croatia, supported by Serbia, wanted to stay. Doesn’t that sound exactly like what’s happening with Ukrainians who wanted Ukraine to join the EU while the Russians living on the eastern border of Ukraine wanted to be part of Russia?
In fact, there was even a video clip that our guide played which showed a young Serbian soldier, who was part of the invasion, tell the journalist when asked “What are you doing here?”:
“Where I am. What is the day? How old am I? I know nothing.”
History repeats itself. This is what I learned from the Croatia Homeland War tour, and if you’re ever in Zagreb, I recommend you sign-up for it because it will shed so much light on what’s currently happening in Ukraine.
And now without further ado, here’s how much we spent in Zagreb:
|Category||Cost in USD/couple per day||Cost in CAD/couple per day||Notes|
|Accommodations||$0||$0||We used Home Exchange so the cost was free! (or nearly free. All you have to pay is the yearly membership cost and rent back home)|
|Food||$27.38||$36.50 (26.5 for eating out, 10 for groceries)||Eating out in Zagreb was 1/2 to 1/3 of the prices of the Dalmatian coast. Our Home Exchange host also left us a fridge full of craft beer so no need to even by booze!|
|Transportation||$12.74||$17||We took the bus from Zadar to Zagreb and the Home Exchange was conveniently located downtown and within walking distance to all attractions.|
|Entertainment||$28.68||$38.24||We spent the most on entertainment, compared to other categories, because of tipping for the free tour and the cost of the Homeland War Tour, which was $25 USD/person.|
|Misc||$5.51||$7.35||Other misc costs were for toiletries and data|
|Total||$74.31||$99.09||Overall, Zagreb is an inexpensive major city to live in and you can save a ton of money by homebasing it here instead of the beachy touristy destinations.|
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