Intro to the Balkans: Zagreb

I have never been to any Balkan country, but I needed to spend considerable time in non-Schengen countries to avoid overstaying my allowable 90 days out of 180 days in a Schengen country visa. Thus, I mapped out an ambitious 8 weeks in 11 non-Schengen countries itinerary, taking me through all 7 former Yugoslavia countries and Albania, Romania, Bulgaria and Moldova. It looked a little tiring, so I only booked lodgings a week in advance and gave myself permission at any time to say “enough moving about” and go park myself on a beach in an apartment for an extended period.


My starting point is Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, for no better reason than there were convenient and not expensive flights to it from Amsterdam that didn’t involve Ryanair. My Air France flight landed late, but free wine and delicious Madelines made up for the delay. The Zagreb airport hardly befits a capital city of 1 million. It is more the size of Saskatoon or Hamilton’s airport. At customs, no computers were available to scan our passports, just 8 customs and immigration booths with 4 people working them. They had an annoying habit of clearing 3 or 4 people, then closing the booth with no warning, forcing the line to go to the back of another line. This happened 3 or 4 times, resulting in it taking well over an hour to handle 150 people. Not an auspicious welcome to a country.

More promising was my accommodation. Searching for places to stay in the Balkans, there seemed to be 3 options: expensive full service hotels in the town centres, reasonably priced hotels beyond walking distance to the centre and renovated apartments, run like 1or 2 room hotels but without the amenities, for a fair price. My place in Zagreb was the  latter. Just a 5 minute walk from the city centre, I was met by Maja outside a 5 story building constructed in the Soviet Realism style. The non-descript double black doors opened to a dark, slightly faded hallway. “No elevator”, Maja said as she grabbed my suitcase and carried it up the wide, tiled staircase to the 1st floor, where a door opened onto a hallway with 3 suites. Mine was a studio that had every modern convenience needed, except a clothes dryer. Hardwood floors, 10 foot ceilings, AC, satellite TV, a fully equipped kitchen, etc. The place was immaculate, clean and quiet, everything needed for a home away from home.

Maja gave me a map and showed me where ATM’s, grocery stores, restaurants and the main streets were and off I went. First to an ATM to get Kuna’s, for although Croatia is in the EU, its economic indicators are considered too unstable for it to use the Euro. Next stop, the grocery store to buy basic breakfast items. It was a large grocery store with everything one might need except eggs. How or why there were no eggs in a major grocery chain in these times is a mystery and for a few minutes, I wondered whether Croatia had truly graduated from its communist past. Fortunately, there was another store in the same chain a few blocks away which had plenty of eggs, so mission accomplished.

The Walking Tour:

I took a free walk tour lead by the very capable Vid, through the main sites in Zagreb. Zagreb had traditionally been built on two hills – the Upper Town on Gradec hill where the elite lived and Parliament was located and Kaptol, another hill inhabited by church officials and the Cathedral. In between lay a valley which now houses the city centre, tram lines, bars, restaurants and a pedestrian walkway. Our tour started in the Upper Town, where the stairs leading up have graphics of famous Croatians and their inventions, including:

  • Slavoljub Eduard Penkala, who invented the fountain pen and gave it its name (this is not universally accepted);
  • Nicolas Tesle, who invented the electric light bulb but was working for the Edison firm so Edison got the patent; he is now much better known for inspiring the name Tesla;
  • Juan Vucetich who first recorded fingerprints for identifying criminals (in Argentina);
  • David Schwartz, who invented the dirigible, but whose plans were taken after his death by a German fellow named Zeppelin.

Missing from the wall, but sure to join it soon was the 2018 World Cup finalist Croatian soccer team, of which much mention was made.

Graffiti wall showing famous Croats

Vid led us through Upper Town, where we admired St. Mark’s church, saw the Parliament and heard the daily firing of the cannon at noon whose loud boom even the screeching of hundreds of school children failed to dampen. Vid pointed out that there were 55 museums in Zagreb, including the most popular and original Museum of Broken Relationships. Sadly, he noted (and more about this later), there are no museums dedicated to either WW2 or the recent Croatian Homeland War. As we walked towards Kaptol, we passed by giant neckties, another Croatian invention.

Giant Necktie outside one of many Cravat stores

We admired the Cathedral, but as I have had my fill of Cathedrals for a while, I decided not to enter. We ended our tour at the open air market in the town center, where I indulged in fresh strawberries and tried a typical Croatian dish, Cevapi, consisting of spicy ground meat, with tomatoes and onions of a flatbread.


History of Croatia since 1918:

(If you are not into history, best to skip to the next part. I have tried to synthesize the very complicated history of the Croats but it is impossible to do in 4-5 sentences).

The walking tour did not go into any details about Croatian history or the more recent wars; for that I signed up for the History walking tour, again with Vid but not free. Vid was 5 when the war ended, so he had memories of it but not full comprehension at the time. Interestingly, he had completed 1 of his 2 masters’ thesis (Croatian Heritage and Tourism) on Jews in Zagreb, but he was not Jewish.

I did visit the Croatian History Museum before the tour but it is housed in a temporary site and can show only one exhibit at a time. I learned a lot about the Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian State that was formed following WW1, but little more, so much of the following is based on Vid’s commentary during the tour, various You-Tube videos and Dervla Murphy’s book Through the Embers of Chaos which I am rereading as I travel through the Balkans to get an Irish perspective on the wars. Here goes:

Since the 1500’s, the Croats, Slovenians, Serbians and Bosnians lived in relative peace and harmony under the Hapsburg (later Austrian/Hungarian) Empire. WW1 broke out (thanks to the assassination of Archduke Frank Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Serbian Nationalist) and the Austrian/Hungarians were on the losing end. The victors created an artificial new state, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (meaning southern Slav and not to be confused with the Republic of Yugoslavia) comprising much of the Balkans. The Croats understood they would be equal with the Serbians in this new kingdom, but they were disappointed and held a grudge.

In 1938, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia negotiated a treaty with Germany, which Hitler broke when he invaded the Kingdom on April 6, 1941, ostensibly to assist Italy in its invasion of Greece and to secure gas shipments from Romania. The Nazis set up a puppet government in Croatia using a pro-Croatian nationalist movement called the Ustashe, which embraced fascism with a vengeance. Its leader was referred to in Croatian as “the Fuhrer”. It enacted the “racial laws”, proudly set up concentration camps manned by the only non-Nazis to do so and proceeded to exterminate most of Croatia’s Jews (about 90% of 20,000), gypsies and homosexuals. The synagogue was destroyed; a parking lot currently stands there, but the recently opened Jewish Museum is seeking to acquire the land. A small plaque marks the spot.

The Ustashe also invited Serbians into their concentration camps, killing between 50,000 and 200,000 and sowing the seeds for the later conflict. According to Vid, most current Croats are deeply embarrassed about the actions of the Ustashe, but there are also many Holocaust deniers and closet supporters of the Ustashe. Quite a few made their way to South America; there are more Croats living outside of Croatia than in it and the diaspora tend to be more militant than those in the country.

Zagreb was not bombed during the war, despite massive preparations for it. Long, lengthy tunnels run under the city and are still in use today as convenient thoroughfares. They were dug to protect the Ustashe from potential attacks and could hold up to 5,000 people:

A tunnel under Zagreb

Post WW2, Joseph Tito, a communist and freedom fighter, became the dictator for life and managed to hold the 7 separate areas together as the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia. As Yugoslavia was the only country not to be “liberated” by Russia during WW2, Tito was able to escape the grasp of the Warsaw Pact and succeeded in obtaining funds under the Marshall Plan. For 35 years, he was one of the few leaders able to visit the White House (where he smoked Cuban cigars), have tea with the Queen and walk into the Kremlin with Brezhnev. During his life, Yugoslavians were prosperous compared to their communist neighbors, stores were stocked with food, people had a bit of money, some Western luxuries and the freedom to travel.

Tito’s largest failing was a lack of a succession plan. Upon his death in 1980, the various ethnic groups in Yugoslavia tried different ways to govern- rotating presidents, multiple education ministers each representing a single group, etc. but nothing resolved the basic differences. Serbians, the largest and most powerful group, wanted to maintain the boundaries of Yugoslavia and retain a centralist and Communist government. Other ethnic groups, including the Croats, did not. In the spring of 1991, a Croatian referendum resulted in a vote in favour of independence. Most Serbs living in the Croatian territory had boycotted the referendum.

In June, 1991, Croatia declared independence, with a 3 month delay in implementation. Serbian reaction was swift; the Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA) bombed the Croatian Presidential Palace on October 8, 1991 and Serbian paramilitary forces within Croatia began terrorist attacks on Croatian military and police forces. Croatians defected en mass from the YPA and started to strike back at the largely Serbian YPA. The Serbians in Croatia escalated the violence by invading towns and beginning the process of ethnic cleansing, murdering or displacing local Croats and succeeded in capturing large swaths of land claimed by Croatia. In areas retained by the Croats, Serbs fled the area, while in Serbia, Croats fled to Croatia.

A ceasefire of sorts, with U.N. peacekeepers, was negotiated in 1992, but the sticky issue of what to do with the former Croatian lands in Serbian control remained unresolved. Meanwhile, Bosnia-Herzegovina, right next door, declared Independence and what remained of the former Yugoslavia, headed by Serbia, became embroiled in a far more deadly war. Croat forces initially supported the Bosnians, but alliances were fluid and at other times, the Croats were allied with the Serbians in the Bosnian conflict. I’ll learn more about it when I get to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

By 1995, Croatia had managed to repel the YPA from all of its former lands. The war, which had never been officially declared, was over. Over the course of the 4 year war, an estimated 20,000 Croats were killed and 500,000 displaced. Although Zagreb remained relatively intact, having suffered only 2 bomb attacks, other towns and cities had been destroyed. The cost of the war was estimated at $35 billion, 5 years of lost productivity and the burden of integrating all the refugees.

Vid finished the story by telling us his own thoughts. “Both sides,” he said, “were wrong and each committed horrible atrocities. But no one really expected the situation in the former Yugoslavia to explode as it did, no one understands exactly how or why it did, but the one misgiving was the failure of the West and especially the USA to intervene and stop the bloodshed.” He couldn’t understand why the USA was so eager to assist Kuwait (Desert Storm had just finished), but turned its back on the Balkans. “Maybe because there’s no oil in Croatia?” I thought to myself, but decided not to voice my opinion. I found it strange that Vid, who in every other respect, was open minded and forgiving, had no hesitation in blaming the USA for the war.

Zagreb: Final Thoughts:

Zagreb has a lot of good qualities. Its city centre is compact, easy to maneuver except for a few steep climbs to Upper Town, and its sites close together. Its low prices were a much welcome relief from The Netherlands and Belgium; a glass of wine cost only $3.00 and a decent meal less than $20. Uber is widely used and cheap – only $5 from the centre to the bus station 3 kilometres away. And very safe in the centre – as the guides kept telling me, a woman alone could walk comfortably at midnight. Although I never put it to the test, the worst hazards I encountered were the numerous smokers and vapers waking down the streets.

Alas, all is not rosy. Croatia has significant economic problems, some stemming from the war, others the transition (still) to a free market economy whose primary revenue source is tourism. One guide proudly proclaimed that health care and schooling, including university, are free, then decried the 25% consumer tax on everything. When I asked him if he paid income tax, he said he didn’t know because he is paid a net wage; his employer is responsible for paying the income tax. Unemployment amongst those under 30 stands at about 30% and the beneficiaries of the free university are flocking abroad for higher paying jobs.

More disconcerting is Croatia’s inability or unwillingness to deal with its past, from its wholehearted embrace of the Nazis during WW2 to the horrors (by both sides) during the Croatian Homeland War. Two unrelated incidents brought this home to me. I decided to visit the Museum of Illusions one day, dedicated to, as its name suggests, optical, scientific and other illusions. I entered about 2:00PM, but after 10 minutes a group of extremely rambunctious, noisy school children entered and started racing around and yelling, to the point where I was unable to enjoy any of it. I asked the receptionist when the school trips would end and she replied, a bit apologetically, about 7:00 pm. I couldn’t take it and left. The next day, about 5:00PM, our history tour entered the Memorial Museum for the victims of the Croatian Homeland War. The receptionist had to unlock the door for us and turn on the lights. There were no school kids there; nor anyone else. They were probably all at the Museum of Illusions. Sadly, their absence at the Memorial Museum was probably emblematic of their attitude toward the past.

Thus, my visit to Zagreb ended on a slightly bitter note. It’s a nice city, with a bit (but not a whole lot) to offer. Everything was superficially pleasant, but it has a dark, ugly history which it prefers to forget rather than confront.

Next stop: Ljubljana, Slovenia.