On the Road Again – My Impressions of Zagreb, Croatia

Dawn rises on the squatter party in Medika.

Dawn rises on the squatter party in Medika.


Travel to Croatia

I managed to find a one-way flight from San Francisco to Zagreb, Croatia for 20,000 American Airways points. That’s an efficient use of points, however, I was stuck with a 3-legged itinerary with a long layover in Heathrow. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until I landed in Heathrow and spent the night chatting with an older American couple and two Zimbabwean ladies that it really struck me like the sun parting through the clouds on a gloomy day… I am traveling again.

We giggled about the tiny mice running around under our seats and wondered how they escaped the watchful eyes of the Heathrow maintenance staff, as we “accidentally” fed them small snacks. We talked about our families and what life is like in Zimbabwe. My friend informed me her father has fourteen German Shepherds on his farm. They are great for protection but put unnecessary strain on her parent’s relationship, especially due to her father’s habit of letting them into the house.

In the morning we parted ways and headed to our respective gates. As London woke up for air travel I grabbed a sandwich and sat down for some people watching. Well-dressed businessmen, families and stag parties paraded by. I’d never been so happy to see men in drag before.

Landing in Zagreb

Walking into the airport I’m blasted with cigarette smoke. The border agent can’t be older than 20, however, he takes special care to look at my passport. I’m last in line and get the feeling that he’s simply bored, dreading the lull until the next plane.

The customs agents barely give me a glance as I exit the airport. From entrance to customs is 30 feet, and another 30 feet puts me outside. There’s no declaration card to fill out. Considering I’m entering this country for the first time and landing in a Capitol city, I’m surprised by the lack of attention.

I grab cash from the ATM and decide 300 Kuna should do it, even though I have no idea what the exchange rate is. I simply see that 300 is the third option on the withdrawal list and I know at home the ATM gives you preset options in increments like $20, $40, $60, etc. and I estimate $40 should get me to my hostel with cash to spare.

Outside it’s raining and cool and green like the wooded rolling hills of Pennsylvania. Taxis hustle by. I awkwardly ask the bus driver if this is the bus to the main station despite the fact that there is a sign on the bus, in English, stating such. I remember that it’s rude to assume people speak English so instead I revert to caveman, “This bus main station?”  He answers, with a slight accent, “yes, but it’s not leaving for thirty minutes.”

Thirty minutes later I’m cruising to town. Some song with the chorus, “You’re my sex pump,” is playing on the radio. I look around but nobody else appears to find this awkward.

Jet Lagged and Hung Over

It took me four days to adjust to the time difference and sleep the entire night through. Before that, my days were spent like a troubled vampire – awake all night against my will. It didn’t help matters that I decided to go out big on my first night in town. I figured, if I can’t sleep, I might as well dance. After ten beverages containing various alcohols, some of which remain nameless to me, and four hours of dancing at a club, I had thoroughly dehydrated and exhausted myself enough to get a few hours of restless sleep. I went to bed feeling like a king, and woke up feeling like a zombie. Vomiting at noon and again at 3PM the next day convinced me to lay off the booze, at least for a week.

Luckily, I happened to be staying at the coolest, most laid-back hostel I have ever had the pleasure to visit. Hostel Mali Mrak in Zagreb is more like a home than a hostel, making it a great place to nurse a hangover. Complete with cute dogs to cuddle, a piano to play, and a backyard to chill in, I felt right at home.

Hostel Mali Mrak

Besides the clean and comfortable accommodations, Mali Mrak has a great staff, decent location and solid WiFi. Also, it seems to attract the best of the best travelers. It strongly advertises that it is not a party hostel, and that they do not do pub-crawls. This message does well to keep the bros and frat party-esque travelers away, and attracts people with quieter, more subtle dispositions. People at this hostel still let loose and have a good time, it’s just not all drinking games and peer pressure.

On the second floor of the hostel sits a digital piano. After watching my new bud Kameron knock out some beautiful tunes I was inspired to learn a new song – Apologize by One Republic. Two days later I’m playing this song I have been meaning to learn for two years! I find the environment of this hostel to be very conducive to production; it’s nice to go from playing cards, to chatting, to writing, to reading, to playing piano, to eating and back to playing cards. Each action in small doses allows lots to get done over the course of the day.

Brazilian Concert

On Monday evening, while most of my friends back in the U.S. were just getting to work, I was at Hostel Mali Mrak, enjoying the wonderful tunes being produced by a pair of Brazilians from Rio De Janiero. They sang about sleeping on the beach, butterflies, riding your bike, and how Brazilian men deal with problems (do a little Samba). Afterward we enjoyed some Croatian green and had a five-language conversation between four people. I got to practice my hybrid Portuguese-Spanish and we all got along very pleasantly. I was given an open invitation to join my new Brazilian friends in Rio, to which I could only reply, “maybe.”

Visiting The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb

In Zagreb exists a uniquely Croatian museum – “The Museum of Broken Relationships.” The small museum, consisting of four display rooms, can be experienced in about two hours. If you’re looking for a quick dose of raw emotional connection, I don’t think there’s a better place on the planet to visit. Each station contains a short sentence or paragraph explaining the significance of the object on display. Entries come from all over the world and are written by men and women of all ages. Some describe the loss of a mother, the advice of a father, and many are about the dissolution of romantic love. The museum points out that we have traditions for Birth, Marriage, Death, as well as other life events, but there is no traditional societal construct for the celebration of the end of a relationship. The museum attempts to be that outlet.

The Medika Squatter Party

Near the end of my stay in Zagreb the hostel staff took a group of us to one of the most unique party experiences of my life.

At the end of a graffiti-lined alley, in an unmarked courtyard, is a space where homeless squatters invite the rest of the world in as guests. Opening their building to outsiders, they’ve created an underground club-like atmosphere with multiple music options of the fast-paced electronic genre. This raw experience is something that will stick in my memory for years to come. At first, I felt like an outsider, and people asked if I was police, most likely due to my clean-cut appearance. However, by the end of the night I was taking selfies with Mohawks and being invited to share their booze.

Setting up the Croatia Itinerary

Upon arrival I didn’t know how long I’d stay in Zagreb and was surprised, ten days later, that it was time to leave. The city is beautiful, livable and cheap, and I was drawn into the vortex of Hostel Mali Mrak. Another benefit of staying at this hostel is the treasure trove of information about Croatia that I was able to glean from Igor, the owner. He sat down with me and we spent an hour developing a potential route through Croatia. Referencing Google maps and Igor’s extensive knowledge of the region we came up with a nice mix of cities, national parks and islands to check out. I received foodie recommendations and some off-the-beaten path sites to scope out. I’ll be writing more about this in the coming months.

The majority of people I’ve met so far have been traveling very quickly, and only have a few days or a week to see Croatia. This is a damn shame. This country was built for slow travel. With so many small towns, islands, and national parks to see, I feel like the 10 weeks I have dedicated to Croatia is still not enough. Every one of these people says they wish they had scheduled more time to spend here and some have rearranged their schedules to do just that.

Practicing Croatian

I’m slowly picking up Croatian as I go, and the Croatians really appreciate the effort. In order to learn I’ve been listening to Pimsleur lessons and practicing with the people. Pimsleur is powerful for learning new words and proper pronunciation, and practicing with people is the way to become more natural, the way to understand which words are appropriate in which context. Yesterday I visited the emergency room at the hospital in order to get a prescription for cortisone nasal spray (for my allergies) and I had the nurses and doctor giggling along with me as I childishly tried to speak Croatian to them. It was a lot of fun and I think I brought a little lightness to their mostly serious day.

If you’d like to learn a few Croatian phrases check out the list below. The most useful are “thank you” (hvala) and “beer” (pivo). Note that Croatian is a phonetic language, like Hawaiian, so you pronounce each letter.

Some Croatian phrases

A Quick Note on My Posting Schedule

Regarding my posting schedule; I don’t have one. I don’t want this blog to be another job, I want it to be a work of art. I want it to be a beautiful, entertaining and sometimes useful part of the internet. I know that to grow the blog I should be posting more regularly but my strategy toward blogging is similar to my strategy toward travel; slow progress in a general direction with plenty of time to smell the roses and no need to ever set an alarm.

Maybe I should be working harder on becoming a better writer; after all, that’s what I profess to want to be when I grow up. But like with anything, that’s just another goal to reach and then what? More goals beyond. I believe it’s the natural human condition to achieve something, and then be looking for the next achievement. So I will keep writing, sometimes prolifically, sometimes not at all. We’ll see how this works out.

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  • Satish

    Very cool experiences. How’d you rate the Croatian green?

  • Pat Vicente

    Loving this and you will always work on your writing craft. It is a gift. Love

  • Uncle Tony

    I enjoyed your blog. I was going to tell you that you shouldn’t be doing some things but I don’t have to your body is telling you. I am happy you want to achieve things, that means you will never be a democrat. Watch your six o’clock, remember there are those out there that don’t work but live off of those who do.