I have found during my travels that when I really love a city, the next city, no matter how amazing, is a bit of a let down. It can also be a bit of a shock to go from a small town to a larger city. The noise, crowds, and trash can be a rude awakening from the quiet sleepy town. So I was worried that coming from Bled, Slovenia, a tiny and empty town in my new favorite European country, Zagreb, Croatia would be unfairly shafted. However, it was just the opposite. After just one day of walking around I was as much in love with Zagreb as I was with Ljubljana.
I find the history here so interesting but can’t possibly regurgitate everything I’ve learned. If you want to learn more about the most recent Balkan Wars I’d highly recommend the BBC Documentary Death of Yugoslavia (5 hours long and available on YouTube). I feel even more confident recommending it after my tour guide here said it’s the best video to watch for an accurate re-telling of that time in history.
Croatian history dates back for many many centuries, I mean look at the shape of the country, it’s obvious there have been some border disputes. But it’s amazing how much has even happened here in the 20th century alone. I really like the way my tour guide summarized it, so bear with me:
Imagine you were born in the early 1900’s and live in an apartment that overlooks Zagreb’s main square. You are born under the foreign rule of the Austrian Empire. The famous Ban Jelačić statue stands in the middle of Ban Jelačić Square. WWI breaks out in 1914 and with it the end of the Austrian Empire. You immediately join forces with Serbia and Slovenia to form the first Yugoslavia, also known as the Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs. In 1929 this is renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
In 1939 WWII starts and by 1941 Croatia is completely occupied by German and Italian forces. In 1943 the Partisan army, led by Josip Broz Tito, liberates the area and proclaims a Democratic Federal Yugoslavia, renamed the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia in 1946.
A communist government is now established. In 1947, the statue outside your window of Ban Jelačić is removed, because it’s a sign of nationalism which is no longer tolerated, and the square is renamed Republic Square (as are the main squares in every Republic of Yugoslavia during this time).
In 1963 your country is renamed yet again, to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). In 1990 elections are held in Croatia and the statue of Ban Jelačić is back in the square, there’s a big celebration. The next year Croatia declares independence from Yugoslavia resulting in a nearly 5 year war, with Zagreb itself being bombed twice, in 1991 and in 1995. What an insane amount of history to witness in one lifetime, right?
I learned so much here, but here are some of my favorite takeaways:
- Before it was Zagreb, this area was two medieval towns, Gradec and Kaptol, which were walled towns on top of hills on opposite sides of a stream. Gradec was mostly government related and only clergy (those related to the church) were allowed to live in Kaptol. These towns date back to the 11th and 13th centuries. The area which is still called Kaptol is still 95% owned by the church today.
- Croatian currency is called the kuna. A kuna (or marten, in English) is the very cute animal on the right, and during medieval times, Kuna fur was used as currency. When actual Croatian currency was created in 1994, they decided to keep the name, however you can no longer hunt kuna as they are now an endangered species.
- Josip Jelačić is the guy on horseback in the main square. The statue was erected and the square named for him while he was still alive, that’s how much Croatia loved him. He is most well known for leading the revolutions of 1848 against Hungary on behalf of the Austrian Empire. It’s still a bit confusing to me but hopefully I’ve got this right. Both Hungary and Croatia were ruled by Austria (the Hapsburgs) but technically Croatia was also subordinate to Hungary. Croatia of course wanted independence, but if not independence, at least equal with Hungary and directly ruled by Austria. Hungary revolted against Austria in 1848, Jelačić and his army (what is said to be the greatest army within the Austrian Empire at the time) defeated Hungary. In return, Austria allowed for Jelačić’s statue to be erected in Zagreb and then gave Croatia right back to Hungary. So Jelačić’s statue, depicting him defeating Hungary, stood in Zagreb while Croatia continued to be ruled by Hungary. A little odd, right?
- There was a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in Zagreb in 1880 which destroyed nearly the entire city. The restoration of the Zagreb Cathedral (and many other buildings in Zagreb) was led by a German architect named Hermann Bollé and completed in 1901. Unfortunately he chose to use limestone to rebuild the cathedral (it’s available in abundance on the nearby mountains), and limestone does not withstand weather very well. Below you can see a column from the 1901 limestone tower compared to a new one (not built of limestone).
- So, in 1990 they decided to renovate again, replacing each piece of limestone with a stone that would better withstand weather. Unfortunately this was ill-timing as the war started in 1991 and they had to halt the renovations until the late 1990’s. At this point, the city’s economy was unable to pay for the new cathedral and the city was accepting donations. One such donation was the three chandeliers which still hang in the cathedral today, and were sent by a Croatian who lived in Las Vegas. His boss owned a casino and was replacing the chandeliers, so the Croatian man convinced his boss to donate the old chandeliers to the Zagreb Cathedral. And so Zagreb Cathedral came to be the only cathedral with Vegas lighting.
- Yugoslavia is Serbo-Croatian for “Land of the Southern Slavs”.
- Croatians identify with three main local beverages: rakija, wine, and coffee.
- Rakija is a fruity brandy typically home-made and normally 40% ABV (but can be up to 90%). It is always served at family gatherings, is to be taken as a shot, not sipped, and never with ice. Croatian grandparents think rakija is the solution for everything, a stomach ache, a cut, etc., which reminded me of the Greek parents in My Big Fat Greek Wedding using Windex to cure all.
- Wine is very popular in Croatia and produced all over the country, but it is not exported, it is consumed 100% domestically.
- Coffee obviously isn’t unique to Croatia, but the way they take it is similar to other countries in the region. Coffee culture in Croatia means you sit down with friends, family, or business partners, and drink coffee. They do not do coffee “to go” and they do not have Starbucks (at least not in Zagreb). Coffee is not something to be rushed.
- The Croatians are really proud that Nikola Tesla was born in Croatia, even though technically he was born to Serbian parents. I’m told when I go to Serbia, they will also claim him as their own and even have a museum dedicated to him. He grew up in a small town near the Plitvice Lakes.
- Croatia joined the EU in 2013, making it the most recent country to do so. I didn’t really get a feel for how the locals feel about it. All I know is the EU imposed a number of laws on Croatia, including that they were no longer allowed to produce Rakija at home. So they moved the production from their backyards or living rooms to the basement.
- Croatia is a very religious country, with ~90% of its residents being practicing Christian Catholics.
- The old city has a tunnel under it, built during WWII mainly to be a bomb shelter in fear of Allied bombing. The tunnel was again used as a bomb shelter during the 1990s war. Interestingly, the tunnel hosted a rave attended by over 3,000 people, Under City Rave, in 1993 – right in the middle of the war. It was explained to me that the young adults of Croatia were annoyed that while their counterparts in other countries were out partying, they were constantly sent to wait out the night in bomb shelters, so they organized a rave in the tunnel.
- Croatia calls the war against Yugoslavia from 1991-1995 the Homeland War, as it was fought within Croatia. The presidency building in Zagreb was bombed on October 7, 1991, the day before Croatia was to declare independence for a second time. But the president was safely evacuated and Croatia declared independence the next day (October 8th). I say second time because Croatian parliament first proclaimed independence from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991 (the same as Slovenia). Because of the disruption this caused, Slovenia and Croatia agreed to hold off on this Declaration of Independence for three months (called the Brioni Agreement), and instead try to “work it out” with Yugoslavia. Instead the war broke out, resulting in Croatia’s second Declaration of Independence on October 8th.
- Croatia didn’t have an army when the war broke out, none of the republics did. The only army was the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), which was used against Croatia during the war. So this is their own army meant to be in place for their protection now attacking their own republic. Til the end, Milošević (the President of Serbia at the time) denies having ordered the JNA to attack Croatia.
- The square where the national theater sits recently underwent a controversial name change. What used to be called the Marshal Tito Square is now the Republic of Croatia Square. This was a heavily debated decision which I’m still wrapping my head around. Josip Broz Tito was the first (and really only) President of Yugoslavia, ruling from 1953 until his death in 1980. It’s hard to believe how powerful this man was, especially as I remember learning exactly nothing about him in school.
- Here are some interesting things I know now which have helped me understand it better.
- Yugoslavia was not liberated by the Russian Red Army, as much of Nazi-occupied Europe was. Tito and his Partisan Army liberated Yugoslavia, and so Yugoslavia was never occupied by the Russians, was never part of the Eastern Bloc, and did not have to endure Russian Communism. By staying neutral, Tito gained immense power and wealth, as the US began bribing him to stay independent, although he never had any intention to join the Eastern Bloc in the first place.
- Yes, Yugoslavia was communist, but it was very different from Russian communism; it was much more socialist than communist. People were free to travel, they could own and operate businesses, they could go to university, etc. However, you couldn’t have too much. If you owned three apartments, two were taken from you and given to others, and maybe someone was sent to live in the spare bedroom of the third. But the people had enough to be happy, especially when compared to being ruled by the Austrians (really the Hungarians) and the more recent German/ Italian occupation.
- Tito was so powerful and respected, he was known to visit Castro in Cuba, buy Cuban cigars, then visit the United States and smoke Cuban cigars (illegal in the US) while he was in the White House.
- Tito’s funeral in 1980 was and still is the largest state funeral in history. And it wasn’t just random representatives from countries that attended, it was the Queen of England, four kings, 31 presidents, six princes, 22 prime ministers – all in all, 128 countries out of 154 recognized countries at the time were represented.
I guess what I’ve gathered is that Tito did just enough good for Yugoslavia immediately following a very long troubled time for the region, so the people were able to let slide the bad stuff, and many in Croatia still think of him as a hero. As we were on a tour and the tour guide held up a photo of Tito a man walking by saw it and yelled “Tito! He is the greatest! Tito is #1!”. So there you go.
Some other stuff:
- I really enjoyed reading books about Zagreb while wandering Zagreb. I am listening to Girl at War by Sara Novic. The novel is fiction but follows a girl born in Zagreb in 1987 (same age as me). As I walked around Zagreb she seemed to be following me; she would be walking down the same street I was, or talking about a park I had just left, and even talked of her visit to Plitvice Lakes National Park while I was on my way there. The girl was brought even more to life to me as my walking tour guide was born just two years later in 1989 Zagreb and honestly could have been the girl in the story, their childhoods were so similar. She talked about her earliest memories as a child being of air raids, hiding in rooms without windows, wondering why everyone was crying all the time, and grandmothers trying to use rakija to cure everything.
- I am glad of the order I have travelled through Europe, as I saw Vienna early on, prior to seeing many of the cities which were ruled by the Austrian Empire. It gave me a really good baseline for what Viennese architecture looks like, and the ability to recognize it in prior Austrian ruled cities as well as the various flares each city adds to it.
- I didn’t eat out much but I did try a traditional Croatian dish called Štrukli. It’s very thin pastry dough baked with a mixture of cottage cheese, eggs, and other flavors of your choice. Most traditionally there is sour cream and salt. I got a seasonal one with pesto and pumpkin seeds and it was absolutely delicious. I also went to a cafe called Harvest where everything is made of ingredients from Croatia.
I also took a day to visit the amazing Plitvice Lakes National Park, about a 2.5 hour drive south of Zagreb. Plitvice Lakes is actually the location of the first casualty of the Croatian War of Independence (yet another name for it), when a fight broke out between a Croatian police officer and Serb armed forces. But I’m going to skip history here and just show you pictures of the national park. I happened to visit on the first snow day of the year, so only got to visit the Lower Lakes, but I enjoyed the freshly snow-capped trees and walkways, and especially how empty it left the park. I often had entire bridges across the lakes to myself, which is really something when you consider that in the summer, the park is visited by 15,000 people per day.
I’m not much for very descriptive literature. In fact I can’t stand when a book describes a setting for pages on end, just get to the point! But I’ve just started reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a famous travel book written by Rebecca West about her journeys to the Balkans during the mid to late 1930s and published in 1941, and I really like the way she describes Zagreb (and I’ve taken out a couple of parts I didn’t fully understand which I may not have annotated correctly but that’s not what I’m here for).
Anyway, here it is: “It has no grand river, it is built up to no climax; the hill the old town stands on is what the eighteenth century used to call ‘a moderate elevation.’ It has few very fine buildings except the Gothic Cathedral […]. But Zagreb makes from its featureless handsomeness something that pleases […] a delight that begins quietly and never definitely ends.”