For the second year in a row Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, has been announced the best Christmas Market Destination in Europe, and rightfully so. I was born and grew up in the downtown Zagreb. I remember how the winter holiday time was always special. There were lights everywhere, a big stage and music on the main square, the smell of mulled wine and sausages spreading through the air. This year the city was chasing its last year's title and made a great effort to make itself into an incredible tourist destination, the one that could compare to the Advent in Vienna or Strasbourg.
The whole affair is incredibly big, not that I am the one to talk about it... Each day I found myself downtown, I made a twenty minute round through the stands, just enough to find the best Bratwürst or Fritule and Mulled Wine, after which I would position my ass at one of the numerous bars selling overpriced alcohol and overcrowded ambient. Another thing where Croatia always wins - you can smoke virtually anywhere.
Croatia has been on many bucket lists for a few years now. People usually focus on party summers and island hopping, and more often than not, they tend to disregard Zagreb or winter in Croatia in general. But while the summer environment full of coke (not the store bought kind) and long fluorescent straws can be find almost anywhere, the winter Advent atmosphere is something very unique and special.
On my first day back home for the holidays I took a stroll through the center of Zagreb. The smell alone overwhelmed me. The smell of mulled wine, rum-tea, Croatian-styled bratwürst, and the array of sweets like fritule and germknödels... Wherever you walk in the downtown you will come across the little stands offering the variety of these holiday treats. Also, wherever you walk in the downtown you will come across some hot-as-hell people. That first night I made one more circle around the main square and missed a few trams just so I could admire the beauty of Croatian men. This is subjective, of course, but I had just gotten back from four months of hanging around guys age 16 to 21 who were just beginning to learn how to flirt (and not much else). The last time I dated a guy who was 21, I was 16. And there I was, stunned by the reality of so many prospects, and only 10 days to explore them.
The only thing I ended up exploring, unfortunately or not, were a bunch of holes in the walls, or in my case, basements. Imagine entering the central yard of a rundown building in an old street, lit up only by tiny yellow bulbs. Imagine walking down the stairs, creaking and crackling, the walls made out of cold stone, broken off at so many places. And suddenly you find yourself in this tiny, smokey, dingy little place where people are sitting around small tables on beer cases, drinking out of plastic shot glasses. This place is called Žiraffa Bar and it is a safe haven for young people on a student or a traveler budget. No self respecting adult is going to walk into a place like that. And a shot is about 80 cents of a US Dollar. Places like that are your safest bet of experiencing the traditional Croatian lifestyle of young people (followed by a brief club hopping, and then a Kebab).
Zagreb is one of the most romantic holiday destinations. As a little girl I never thought about how special it really was, I thought every city put on a show like that. I thought that wherever I went I would encounter bright lights, big smiles, the smell and the taste of winter. This year I spent the Christmas Eve with a friend, we had couple of drinks in a bar and then went strolling down to Zrinjevac park, a scene out of a fairytale. We stood there drinking our Mulled Wine and listening to a band playing as everyone around us counted down to midnight and to Christmas. I would like to find the words to describe magic, without sounding sappy. I would like to find the words to describe my eyes watering the first time these holidays when I smelled the food and the warmth and heard the music and the laughter. I would like to explain to you how come that cold basement is so welcoming to everyone.
There is something about the holidays, whichever you celebrate, there is something about decorating the streets and mixing people together that just makes everyone feel like they belong. Zagreb Advent will not make you feel like a tourist or like a traveler. It will make you feel like you are exactly where you need to be. It will make you feel like you are on a set of The Nutcracker as you ice skate in one of the numerous gardens of 13th century palaces, as you take pictures in the snow in front of the Cathedral, or as you watch ski veterans do a majestic slalom slope from that same Cathedral down to the main square.. It will make you understand what I mean when I say magic. And if you still don't understand, just make anouher round around the stands and try every type of Rakija they offer!