Zagreb – I’m Moving Here!

Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013

Our alarms went off at 5:30 a.m. and we took a quick cab ride to the airport. We checked into our TAP flight and headed to Starbucks where James fueled up on his grande latte and I continued to resist the idea of rekindling my relationship with shots of espresso for another day.

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FAIL.

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Our flight was delayed so we hung around before going through EU customs where the immigrations officer spent a good chunk of time flipping through my passport looking for a vacant spot to slap down an exit stamp.

Our two hour flight stopped over in Bologna, Italy before making the quick puddle jump over to our next country, Croatia.

Neither of us have ever been to Croatia and without having spent any time at all learning about the place, we were excited to be surprised.

At the Zagreb airport we traded in the last of our euros at the airport in exchange for a couple hundred kunas.

We made our way to the exit to find the bus depot and it was an exact duplicate of the scene from Cool Runnings where the team comes bounding out of the airport, gets hit by the cold and goes sprinting back inside.

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Sanka and I are pretty similar, man.

It’s freaking freezing here.

At one degree celcius this is coldest we have been since Kilimanjaro. The ground is covered in silver frost and the bare trees are painted in sparkling glitter, making even the most industrial looking airport parking lot look magical.

We boarded the bus and sat in the cold clouds of our own breathe while we listened to the crazy Russian sounding Croatian language bounce excitedly around the bus.

Within an hour and after one transfer to the old-school blue tram, we made the 10 meter walk from the tram stop to Swanky Mint Hostel.

While checking in, the kind gentleman at reception said he was giving us a free upgrade because it made his life easier. Hell yeah.

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Rather than sleeping in a 9-bed dorm we got our own apartment, also making our lives much easier. I think it’s safe to say, our luck has officially changed on this trip.

We took all of five minutes to unpack and call the apartment home. James had some work to catch up on and luckily for me the writing mill I work for is in the dumps and closed for Christmas to improve their fourth quarter so I’m officially on vacation. I went to celebrate and explore Zagreb on my own.

It was freezing cold, but absolutely incredible. The snow gently fell into the streets and it felt like I got placed straight into a snow globe. Little old blue trams skate across the streets while pedestrians kindly yield to one another. Christmas music soaks the cool air and it feels like attention has been paid to every detail to make this city feel like a fairytale.

I absolutely love this town.

Even James commented how remarkable it is that I can say I love Zagreb, despite the fact that I’m bundled up like I’m headed on an arctic expedition.

Unfortunately even though I was wearing every single t-shirt, jumper, jacket and pants that I own (yes, at the same time), my €9 cotton shoes weren’t exactly performing like Uggs. So very quickly I was on the hunt for the warmest, cheapest boots Zagreb could offer.

I continued to walk around the festive streets of Zagreb. It was the early evening on a Tuesday and the streets were overflowing with beautiful people chatting in front all of the heavily decorated stalls and booths lining the streets. There is a huge stage in the middle of the main square with a ice rink and indoor tents selling warm foods and drinks I’d never seen before.

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I walked around a bit longer before collecting James and heading back out to the main square to introduce him to beautiful Zagreb. We came back with a new hat and boots and officially ready to tackle the freezing winter segment of our trip that would last a short two and a half weeks.

We ended up in the Konzum supermarket buying ingredients for a spicy dinner creation. We made fajitas, grilled eggplant and zucchini (yes, I’m still American) stacks before popping some bubbly and enjoying the luxuries of our own apartment.

After making a very brief appearance in the busy streets, we called it a relatively early night.

Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013

I was up early and excited to do absolutely nothing, but make tea and watch cartoons in my underwear.

After a luxuriously long shower sans flip-flops, James snuck out to pursue ‘a surprise’ which I was given absolutely no hints about.

He had me wait impatiently in the apartment until he returned later with tickets in hand for the Nutcracker Ballet. I was beyond excited, and if you know me well enough, you know that there are three things I live for in winter. Elf, spicy candy canes, and the Nutcracker ballet. The show was at the Croatian National Theatre at 7:30 p.m. and we spent the entire day doing everything Christmas.

We hung around the apartment while James worked a bit and I watched Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want for Christmas’ music video about a dozen times while slapping on some festive red nail polish.

We left around 1 p.m. and headed to old town to take a walk around. We passed through the main Ban Jelacic Square and enjoyed the Christmas celebrations and indoor markets.

We then got some nasty tasting coffee at the American Steak House in Hotel Dubrovnik while we enjoyed people watching from the window.

We walked up through old town to the cathedral and strolled down the snow covered streets.

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We found a busy cafe and bar on the way back and decided 4 p.m. was an appropriate time to get wine and beer.

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Prices here are much more appropriate than anywhere we have been the past five to six months. A glass of wine is about 10-20 kunas, and beers are about 14 kunas, which is about $2.5. The place was packed with ridulously good-looking people all smoking, drinking coffee, cocktails, beer and wine.

We aimlessly wandered through the festive streets, slowly making our way back to the main square.

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We then headed back to the apartment to get ready for a night out on the town.

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Just before 7 p.m. we made the quick cold walk to the National Theater.

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We grabbed a glass of wine from downstairs and then made our way to our second tier box seats. From the center – left wing we had an excellent view.

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The show was awesome and no matter what country, again and again I’m convinced ballerinas are easily the most athletic physically fit humans on the planet. Sitting in the gold and royal red theater made it officially feel like Christmas.

After the show we headed out to see what trouble we could get ourselves into. We weaved our way back through the overflowing streets and decided to do like the Croatians do – which is apparently stand in the streets and drink all night.

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At about one degree celcius I was pretty confused how everyone was cruising around unaffected by the frozen streets. On Bogoviceva Ulica street we stepped aside and discreetly played detective and watched the pretty people excitedly dance around the stalls.

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Everyone was lining up and forking over 10 kuna notes in exchange for a steaming cup of something. We decided to give it a go and what we discovered is quite possibly the greatest idea of all time.

Sorry Berners-Lee and Einstein, but this is the best invention of all time.

Kuhano Vino – hot wine. For a buck eighty this is a sweet deal. Hints of apple and cinnamon dance in your cup of fermented grapes, and it’s the best tasting recipe that Martha Stewart has yet to discover. Standing under a purposeless umbrella, we now fit right in.

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With the most competitive prices by a kuna or two, we stayed put at Caffe Bar GENIUS.

After polishing off the first cup and finding it hard to believe there is actually any alcohol in that tasty Christmas steaming cup of booze, we lined up for another.

And another.

While still drinking the vino with doubt about it’s alcohol content, James decided it was time for food.

Everyone else seemed to be eating hot dogs. But these aren’t hot dogs. They are yet another brilliant culinary creation contibuted by the coolest country (or at least the country next door, see you soon Slovenia) on the planet.

The Kranjska kobasa – Slovenian sausage. A french baguette is heated and pressed in a panini style grill, then peirced through a spear. A sizzling chorizo style hot dog then finds a home in the baquette and you have yourself the best tasting $2 gourmet meal you’ve ever known.

After my 10 minute hot dog bashing digressing rant during my nutrition presentation at Fischer Communications, you would think my position on hot dogs wouldn’t change.

Well, eff the dietitian perspective on this one, the kranjska kobasa gets my support and makes your Capitol Hill 2 a.m. weiner run look like dog crap. So anyway, James bought himself a Slovenian killer and loved it.

The innocent bystander could safely assume we were pretty pumped about our situation. The employees at the booth thought our enthusiasm was a bit entertaining, so when we walked up to the booth once again, they handed us two cups of kuhano vino and another hot dog, on the house.

I think we might have repeated this order again once more before realizing that kuhano vino does actually contain alcohol. Awwww….whoops!

We decided a change of scenery would be healthy so we managed to find some lively bars with a fun scene, so we joined in.

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The rest of the night was spent indulging in the spirited nightlife this awesome city offers, on a random Wednesday night in the middle of winter.

I have very quickly fallen in love with Zagreb.

Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013

Somehow I was up before 8 a.m. and had some serious energy to burn so I ran around Ilica street for a few hours before returning home to make us breakfast. Well I would be making veggies and eggs for James and for some reason quinoa, Brussels sprouts and what I thought was tempeh for me.

We (I) made a mess in the kitchen and loved it. Google translate helped me divert a near-death experience as I discovered my ‘tempeh’ was actually wheat meat. Apparently seitan is incredibly popular in Croatia? Too bad this glutard has no idea how to say Benadryl in Croatian.

Of course our breakfast turned into lunch and just after noon we were cleaning up and collecting my application and forms for my appointment with the U.S. Embassy later in the afternoon.

We had an hour to spare so decided to head to the main square since it always seemed there was something entertaining happening there at any odd hour of the day.

Well, turns out somehow this market was missed by the market queen!?

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Very quickly we mazed through the colorful stalls with their neatly crafted displays. Figs were in piles everywhere. Black mission figs, Turkish figs, Calimryna figs. Just 20-30 kuna would buy you an entire kilogram! I was in absolute heaven.

NOTE: Tarynne was almost literally in heaven had she eaten the wheat meat for breakfast.

James reminded me there was a very important appointment not to be missed, so we jumped on the tram and then caught a bus from the station just south of town. The bus driver dropped us off on the side of the highway and pointed to a building in the distance, possibly suggesting that was the embassy.

I somehow got distracted with icicles and frost while James sniffed out the Embassy.

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We were greeted by a very intimidating Croatian giant that demanded my passport and appointment information before he would give up a good morning greeting. He snatched my passport and disappeared while we waited outside. He returned and had me come inside while him and his buddy performed a pretty intense search. They took my phone and camera and I made my way to the embassy.

I’ve never been in a U.S. Embassy. Its a pretty sterile quiet place, much different from the chaos I imagined. It was just James and I patiently waiting for a figure to appear behind the U.S. Citizen Services window.

A nice woman called me up and had me hand over my application and passport. She immediately asked why I didn’t include two middle and last names I have used previously in this lifetime. Honestly, having forgotten that they once belonged to me and I could only respond with that lame hint of Alzheimer’s. She made a comment that I was on quite the adventure and some of the countries filling my passport were some she hadn’t seen recently.

After convincing her I truly only need one additional set (24) of passport pages, rather than two, she searched worryingly for a place to stitch them in.

My passport isn’t yet two years old, but with a record of the past year stamped permanently inside, and with our wish list of a dozen or more countries to be stamped in the next half of a year, these pages are absolutely necessary. She sent me to pay the $82 to another man while she said she would figure out how to perform her seamstress magic on my little blue book.

While quietly waiting, a U.S. Immigrations officer stepped up to the window and called me up.

Oh boy.

I panicked and tried to imagine what essential bits my busy “type A” planning brain had missed in this whole travel around the world schbang.

He asked what I was doing, where I was headed and if I planned on staying around Croatia. He seemed satisfied with my itinerary, and unconcerned wished me safe travels. Within a half an hour, my blue baby was passed back through the glass a lot fatter! Blank pages, 24 of them! So many visas and immigrations stamps to be had!!

Excited we returned to the highway to catch a bus back to town. Of course a bus came within 10 minutes. Of course they stopped for us. This is Croatia. A land of efficiency, cleanliness, forward critical and intuitive thinking. Things work here. And its freaking amazing. Its also quite fun because having been to Ireland and Spain most recently, we are always excited when things just work!
We stopped in at the central bus station to purchase tickets for Fridays bus to Zadar.

By about 4 p.m. we quickly dropped of our new fat passport in our safe apartment and then headed back out. We said hello to our good friends at Caffe Bar GENIUS that greeted us with an English ‘hello’ and immediately two cups of kuhano vino.

All warmed up we then weaved through the main square up toward old town. We casually looked for the Museum of Broken Relationships. I didn’t exactly know what to expect from this museum. I thought maybe I had missed the memo on some historical former ally breakup or something. I was ready to buckle down and reenact the seriousness of the KGB Museum in Prague or something.

Wrong. The Museum of Broken Relationships is an exhibition showcasing tokens of love that are now trash and don’t even deserve a spot in a landfill. Instead their intimate stories want to be told to the strange public. It’s funny, and for a museum, not so serious. The free spirit, don’t take life too seriously attitude is consistent with that of all of Zagreb.

I loved it.

Feeling a tad bit awkward as the new foreign ‘regular’ at Caffe Bar GENIUS, almost embarrassed we avoided them and purposefully found a new spot, Bonita.

We thought exploring new turf would be a good idea and it would be a shame to not explore what else was on offer.  Well, turns out they have kahuna vino, for 10 kuna. This one was definitely a bit spicier and less wine-y, but as you can guess, the night was pretty predictable.

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Eventually we decided to head back to the Swanky Mint Hostel to see what the Swanky Music Factory was offering up this fine Thursday night. Well, the place was freaking packed.

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The reggae music was a hit and we spent a bit of time crammed in the bar before hitting the pillow.

Friday, Dec. 20, 2013

After falling in love with the Dolac Market the day before, I decided I would make the most of our half day in Zagreb and head to the market for one last lap. I enjoyed my walk around the market and picked up some essential supplies for the bus ride ahead.

Before noon we hopped on the blue tram and made our way back to the main Zagreb bus station.

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Our bus to central Croatia left at 12:30 p.m. and we spent two and half hours onboard writing this exact same blog that would only be erased by the POS iPad, for THE SECOND TIME!

We were finally headed to Rakovica in preparation for our Saturday day trip to the beautiful famous Plitvice Lakes National Park!!!!