Discovering Croatia


Heather Markel, Best Selling Author, Professional Speaker, Traveler, Full Time Travel and Business Coach

My bus from Turin is long. I expected, like my buses in France, there would be at least one stop for a meal along the way. And though there was a toilet on the bus, a proper rest stop. This ten hour ride, however, had two drivers on board that took turns. Any stops we made were merely for picking people up and dropping them off. When the toilet door in the bus opened, the stench was more than a tad malodorous. Between it and the very loud talking man in front of me for half the ride, I’m not sure which was worse. Ah bus adventures!

When the bus stops in Trieste I find myself wishing I had stayed there a couple nights to further break up the trip. A quick browse on booking.com reassures me not to feel too bad as the prices are out of my league. I’ve never been to Southeast Europe, well, apart from Greece many, many years ago. So, this part of the world holds some exotocism for me. And, to boot, I’ll be writing an article about what there is to do in Zagreb! A fun way to combine work with pleasure.

At the Croatian border we exit the bus to formally depart Italy via immigration agent, get back on the bus for a few meters then exit again and queue for our passport stamp. After ages and ages it’s my turn and I learn what’s taking so long. The passport officer is chatty. We speak about New York. He’s excited I’m visiting his country and wants to see New York. I’m not used to such friendly immigration agents but it was a delight.

I call my hotel, Hotel Croatia, and inform them we will be really late…like 11pm. They say they’ll wait for me. The bus finally arrives in zagreb. A nice woman helps me get one of my bags out of the bus. I find a taxi stand outside. The driver doesn’t speak English, but we compromise with Italian! He drives me to my hotel. It’s in the middle of nowhere. Nothing is open and I’m not sure it’s safe. “This is Zagreb?” I think.

The hotel has stayed open for me and confirms that after 11pm there’s nothing nearby that’s open. No dinner for me. I’ve booked a week here and wonder if I’ve made a mistake.

I wake up the next morning and try to find breakfast. All the cafes nearby have drinks only. No food? Everyone is drinking a morning coffee. I don’t understand why there’s no food and I’m hungry. I Google a breakfast place nearby. When I arrive, I learn they’re closed. I’m desperate and resort to returning to my hotel and asking if I can still pay for breakfast even though it’s almost over. Thankfully, they allow me to eat, and I fill my belly with some sustenance. So far, I’m not off to a great start. But, I’ve learned experiences like this are par for the course with nomadic living, so I don’t panic, yet…(!)


Food crises averted, I decide to take the tram to a get to the free walking tour I want to get to, because I’m now running late for the 11am start. I can’t figure it out. The map is in Croatian. I don’t know where I’m going. Luckily there’s a newsstand nearby. The attendant inside speaks English. Not just rusty either, she speaks it really well. I feel badly to be in her country and not be able to string a sentence together in Croatian, and am grateful for her fluency in my language. She sells me tram tickets and tells me to take the #2 or #6 tram line.

I hop on the #6 and make my way to the stop closest to the “Free Spirit tours” dot on my Google maps. Along the way I note that there are more and more shops and restaurants. Ah…so my hotel is simply on the outskirts of town. I see that the center is bustling and it lifts my spirits. (No pun intended!) 

I make my way to Josipa Jelačiča’s statue and get placed in a group with Luka as my tour guide. He’s fantastic and gives us a great overview of the city, complete with food and sightseeing ideas. Among other things I learn:

Zagreb has 1 million residents. There are 4 million total in Croatia

Zagreb started as two hills. One was inhabited by merchants, the other by the church. Any fights between the two communities were resolved at the bridge between them.. it became known as the bloody bridge.

The unification of these two towns created today’s Zagreb. Jelacic became Governor in the 19th century. He ended feudalism and became so popular the square was named after him

Croatia sits on 2 tectonic plates. They had a major earthquake in 1880 and they had TWO large ones in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic. (Check that sites you want to see are open because there’s a lot of reconstruction going on, such as in this photo below at the cathedral in the town center).

Interesting fact – Neck ties were invented by Croatians! Wives tied a red scarf around the neck of their husband when they went to war. The intention was to protect them and, to make sure they didn’t cheat. Because of the latter reminder, the wives would tie the scarves very tightly around their necks! French soldiers saw the scarves and loved them, and eventually turned them into a fashion. They are called “cravate” after the “croate” that wore them.  

During the tour I meet some fellow solo travelers including Martin and Sanne from The Netherlands, Evie from the UK, and Amanda from Germany. After our free walking tour, we walk the U-shaped gardens together and grab some food. The girls are all vegetarian so Martin and I try a Cevapi at one of the restaurants Luka recommended…it was delicious and really hit the spot as I was starving! (Little did I know it would become a staple food for me throughout the summer!)

Luka runs a war tour and after lunch I return to the square and meet him again. I knew very little about the former Yugoslavia and it’s strange to have someone relatively young tell me about his experiences living through a war. More in my next post!

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