The night air was cooler than I had expected as we exited the bus into the Zagreb terminal in Croatia. If Kristina’s friend hadn’t been waiting for us that night around 11pm, I think I may have been slightly more nervous. It wasn’t that there was anything or anyone that I was particularly fearful of, but Croatia was definitely different that the other places I had visited in Europe to date. We had been stopped twice during our 5 hour bus trip for police officers to come on board and check passports. Now that we were finally here, I looked around at the houses by the station covered in graffiti and metals bars placed over the ground floor windows. More than anything though, I was intimidated by how few people spoke English (which made me incredibly grateful for my Croatian-speaking travel partners).
We quickly loaded the bags into the back of the vehicle and made our way to a beautiful three story family home Kristina used to live in. The houses on the street were much different here; covered with ivy and grape vines, fruit trees lined the yards and children played (in the middle of the road). All the homes on the street were so bright and colourful with red clay roofs and open entrances.
As we walked through the front door (at about midnight) we were greeted by our hosting family with kisses on both cheeks and the most amazing spread of food you could imagine. The table was set, a bottle of wine chilling and beautifully-decorated cheesecake on the counter. Homemade stuffed peppers, chicken and salad were served to us and then continuously reserved as our plates emptied (which results in serious overeating because the food is so good it’s impossible to say no). I have to admit, it’s a very different feeling to be sitting at a table with loud banter and not understand a single word anyone is saying. I just sat and smiled politely, (closely watching the dynamics of everyone interacting) and Kristina translated when she saw fit. The truth is, I didn’t feel at all uncomfortable. I suppose it was the kindness I’d been shown, and that does not need words to be communicated. I felt such generosity and welcoming energy; and this was just the beginning!
After sleeping 8 hours (in what was the most comfortable bed I’ve slept in this month), I woke up to freshly squeezed orange juice and a platter of homemade cheeses, cold cut meats and fruit (traditional Croatian breakfast). Shortly after we ate, we were whisked away on a guided tour of the city by our amazing host.
Zagreb is the capital city of the country, and home to close to a million people. It is inland (not on the Adriatic Sea) and therefore, not known for its seafood or crystal clear beaches that come to mind when you immediately think of Croatia. But truth be told, old town Zagreb is really something special. The cobblestone streets are littered with patios and coffee bars (although not littered with people this time of year as most of the locals have run away to the Croatian coastline to vacation).
We sat and had Turkish coffee in a street cafe for literally less than one dollar. The coffee is crazy strong, (sometimes brewed with sugar) but I love it. It’s creamy and delicious; a real pick-me-up.
The central square has so much history. Croatian dancers, accordion players and artists line up and play for money against the colourful building walls.
We visited the largest cemetery in Europe, which contrary to what it sounds like, is really beautiful to see. Mirogoj is not only a cemetery, but also a tranquil park. It’s a place of beautiful architecture (with lush green ivy covered walls and monuments), and a place where you can enjoy a quiet walk.
Watermelon stands lined the highways.
In case you are planning a relaxing walk around the upper town of Zagreb around midday, be prepared for your peace to be suddenly interrupted at noon. The city is not under attack, it is just the Gric cannon marking its usual noon activity. I was not at all expecting this and nearly jumped out of my skin!
There are many super markets in Zagreb, however, Dolac (an open air farmer’s market) is so much more fun. Locals utilize the farmer’s market for purchasing almost all of their groceries (fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers and souvenirs). It is such a colourful place, not only in terms of produce, but the people aswell.
St. Mark’s Church, the oldest sacral monument in Zagreb, has the most colourfully tiled roof.
For lunch, we ate traditional Croatian food (always heavy on the protein). The platter came out and was placed in the middle of the table for everyone to enjoy ‘family – style’. I love the way food is the centre of everything here. Cevapi (minced meat sausages), beef, chicken, liver, pork skewers . . .
Originally our stop in Zagreb was simply planned to break up the 11 hour bus ride to the sea, instead it proved incredibly eye-opening. I spent more time listening and watching (less time talking than I ever thought was possible for me). It’s true what they say, ‘a warm smile is the universal language of kindness’ (and perhaps piping hot homemade meal too!). The more time I spend with people who don’t speak the same language as me, the more I realize that it’s really not a barrier to friendship. I’m amazed by the generosity one can receive, as a complete stranger; it’s both humbling and inspiring. So as I say goodbye to Zagreb and my new friends, I’m reminded how important it is to surround yourself with the people that feed your soul. My heart (and tummy) are so full!