From Roman fortresses on the coast of the Adriatic Sea to the Austro-Hungarian inspired inland, Croatia almost seems like two different countries. In Zagreb, the country’s capital, dishes are hearty; containing food forged from the forest and the people move at a faster pace than at its coast. Cities that border the Adriatic Sea specialize in seafood dishes, Roman ruins are found everywhere, and there is a more relaxed atmosphere. It’s almost startling traveling from one side of the country to the other; you truly feel as if you’ve been transported somewhere far away.
My home base was Zagreb; which was quiet in the summer since all of the tourists head to the coast. Because of this, I had the unique opportunity to meet locals in a more authentic environment. Thanks to the Couchsurfing “hangout” feature, I met two friendly Zagrepčani (local’s from Zagreb) who invited me into their home. If you’re traveling, there is no better way to explore than to be with a local. Download the app before your trip and create a profile. You won’t be disappointed!
Luis and I met local Zagrepčanin, Pavle, for a beer our first day in Zagreb and we instantly became close friends. After a few too many drinks that night, he brought us to a local spot to have burek, a traditional savory Bosnian dish that Croatians have accepted as their own. It is a type of savory pastry that can be filled with meat, cheese, or spinach. The perfect snack after a night out.
A week and several meetings later, Pavle invited Luis and I to his home in Slavonia, a region of Croatia about three hours east of Zagreb. There we spent two days drinking homemade Elderberry juice, eating delicious Paprikaš soup cooked by his mother, and sipping on rakija (a Croatian fruit brandy) and gemišt (white wine with sparkling water).
On Saturday night we attended a local rock concert featuring the famous Goran Bare of the band “Majke” on top of a mountain. I’ve seen a lot of strange things as a New Yorker, but Goran Bare tops the charts. This performer looks like a zombie because of years of drug abuse, yet, never missed a single cue. It was eye opening! Because of this unique style, everyone rushed to the stage as soon as he came on. It is something you can’t miss. Check out this interview with him on youtube, it will shock you!
The next morning, I enjoyed a Turkish coffee (hugely popular in Croatia) with his mother, a local jewelry maker. Goranka is a true Yugoslavian at heart. As we sipped on our drinks, she shared her stories of living through the Croatian sovereignty war with tears in her eyes; explaining how devastated she is that Yugoslavia is no longer a country. It was heartbreaking.
Almost thirty years ago, Croatia did not exist. It was part of a country called Yugoslavia. However, disagreements between sections of the country lead to war and eventually the area was split into the six countries that exist today; Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. Today, the hate between the areas is very much alive, and you shouldn’t mention the war or neighboring countries to any Croatian that lived through the turmoil unless they bring it up first.
Yet, with the youth comes hope. Young people in Croatia are accepting to foreigners and are open-minded - as Pavle was with us. They will gladly meet you for a pivo (beer) and show you around their beloved city. They will even invite you into their home. Another local I met, Katarina, invited us to her vacation home in a city called Pula on the coast.
I originally met Katarina through Couchsurfing hangouts. With her job as a lawyer and adventurous spirit, she reminded me of my best friend at home. Plus, I knew we would get along well when we discovered that we both hiked the same mountain on the same day. It was a perfect match!
Within a few days, we began to plan excursions together. On a Sunday morning, Luis, Katarina, her fiance Ivan, and I hiked to Japetic, the peak of Samoborsko Gorje mountain, and had Croatian mountain food at the lodge called Žitnica. The traditional meal after a hike here is grah s kobasicom (bean soup with sausage) with a beer. It is delicious! Plus, for non-beer lovers (like myself), they have Ožujsko Bazge, an Elderberry beer that is sweet and more like a juice. I adored it!
The hike was gorgeous and better than the touristic Medvednica mountain. At Samoborsko Gorje the views are just as beautiful, the food is delicious, and you practically have the whole mountain to yourself. The piece I loved most about this mountain was the hike down. We walked through a small farming village with sunflower and corn fields. The air smelled of wood burning. It was a truly unique experience.
Before heading back to Zagreb, we shared a traditional dessert together in a different quaint village called Samobor. The dessert is called kremšnita, a cake made with puff pastry and custard cream. It is heaven when paired with coffee! I highly recommend taking a day trip from Zagreb here. It has beautiful parks, and a castle on a hill.
We soon planned a larger trip together to visit their summer home in Pula, on the coast of Croatia. If you’re thinking of heading to Croatia, I recommend spending time in Pula. Since less tourists are here than the popular Split or Dubrovnik, you will have a more enjoyable experience with less crowds.
Pula was once the most important Roman city in Istria (one of the regions of Croatia). Today, it is a thriving town with a stunning coastline. Throughout the two days we spent there, I fell in love with its crystal clear waters, tasty coastal cuisine, and unbelievable landscape. The most memorable part of this incredible weekend was when Katarina and Ivan brought us to the sea caves at rt kamenjak. This is easily one of the top five sights I’ve seen in my life and if you’re going to the coast DON’T MISS IT. The natural sea caves are hidden in the coastline and have an opening on the ceiling for sunlight, creating a naturally golden blue atmosphere. The water is crystal clear with a blue hue from limestone. I couldn’t believe my eyes, I will never forget this moment.
Croatia is a country that I can’t wait to return to. Thanks to our fantastic experiences with locals, we have even discussed returning to live in Pula for a month. This country is one where you will be guaranteed to have a great time. If you’re visiting, I recommend reading my guides on Zagreb and the Croatian Coastal Cities. They include interactive & downloadable maps that you can take with you on the go. Making it easier to experience more while traveling through Croatia.