Zagreb

Moving north from Sarajevo, we opted to spend a month in Zagreb. Our stay timed well with the opening of the Advent markets which can claim the honor of being the best in Europe. We watched excitedly as the little huts were arranged on the squares, lights hung, and an ice skating park assembled near our apartment. The markets didn’t open until December 2, however, so we spent the first three weeks distracting ourselves with other things to do.

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Zagreb Views

An earthquake in 1880 caused the destruction of parts of the city and it was rebuilt with grand buildings and park spaces. It makes the city a sight in its own right. We walked, rather than funiculared, up to the Upper Town to get a better view. Near St. Mark’s Square (which holds the eponymous church with the brightly tiled roof) is the Museum of Broken Relationships. Items left over from failed relationships – a book, a wedding dress, a trinket, a toaster – are donated along with stories tied to their meaning. Sometimes sad, sometimes hysterically funny, it made me grateful to have someone to share the experience with.

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Lots of murals and a little relationship regret

Also before the Advent season got into full swing, we had a couple events to attend. The first was InfoGamer, the largest video game expo in the Balkans. Compared to PAX, it was nearly empty of people. Of course, we went in the middle of the day in the middle of the week and InfoGamer spreads out over six days rather than just four. All the major devices and games were represented. We tried out the new Mario Odyssey and a game called Inked that boasted an art style straight out of a paper notebook, and then spent most of our time checking out the smaller games built by Croatian start-ups. One called I Hate Running Backwards was a particularly addicting multiplayer.

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Advent Celebrations

We also happened to be in town for the International Festival of Wine and Culinary Art. Though the focus centered mostly on Croatian wine, there were some other countries from around the region represented as well. For just a $30 entry per person, we were able to sample as much as we wanted (really just as much as we had time for) for the six hours were stayed. With about 150 wineries each serving three or more wines, there was far too much to have a chance to taste everything. But we tried. And thankfully, almost everything was delicious (at least from what we remember). A few breweries and distilleries also showcased their wares, especially those evoking holiday flavors. And then there were a few stands slicing up cured Dalmatian pršut, an aged ham tender enough to nearly melt in our mouths.

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Everyone claims Tesla; Dolac Market, lights

And then, finally, on the last weekend we were in Zagreb, the Advent celebrations kicked off. The lightings in different squares took place on Saturday evening, as did concerts and the rolling out of a tram decorated as Santa Claus. Mulled wine was a must for staying warm, but it was readily available and cheap. Sausages were also being served up on every square along with balls of fried dough and germknödel, a pastry stuffed with spiced plum jam for dessert. The ice skating park finally opened, full of lights and music. We avoided crowds and skated on a Tuesday morning. Chilly weather is not our strong suit – living out of two backpacks apiece doesn’t let us carry many winter clothes. But most markets have plenty of heaters and warm snacks, and a coffee or pastry shop is rarely more than a block away.

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Market mulled wine, spiciness! mulling spices, tastes of the States

Zagreb is a large enough city to embrace a fully worldwide culinary cross-section. In addition to Balkan specialties like cevapi and štrukle (a cheese-and-cream-filled pastry), we found exceptional locally-made hot sauces and spicy ajvars, and even shops selling imported goods from Asia and the US. It was fun to have ranch and Poptarts back on the menu at least for a few days.

And of course there was plenty of Croatian wine. As the temperature got cooler, we headed to the sprawling Dolac Market for spices and citrus fruits meant for mulling. The wine is usually good by itself, but adding a few spices never hurt.

Zagreb is at least as charming as the coast, and there are fewer tourists, especially as soon as you step away from the Christmas markets. The cost of living was lower too, which definitely appealed to us. I’d like to return someday, though maybe in warmer weather.

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Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Since reading Zlata’s Diary in grade school, the idea of visiting Sarajevo had been tucked in the back corner of my mind. In October, we finally made our way there, bussing from Novi Sad, Serbia. Bosnia’s landscape stunned us right from the border. Crossing the Drina River put us squarely into the Dinaric Alps and our route followed a winding highway through the mountains that passed by small farms with herds of sheep grazing next to the road.

Sarajevo sits at the base of Trebević Mountain, and is ringed by hills. From our bus, our first glimpses of the city were of dozens of white minarets rising from among the hillside houses. The city looked quiet and peaceful, nestled in its valley. Our hosts met us at the station and saved us a steep walk to our stay. The Airbnb was spacious, but our favorite part was the view over the bright LED screens populating the sides of the new malls and office towers.

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Miljacka at sunset, and the city at night

From April 1992 until February 1996, the longest siege in modern history demolished Sarajevo and took the lives of more than 11,000 citizens and defenders, including more than 1,500 children. It was impossible to walk through the city and not see evidence of the bombs. Houses in our neighborhood were still in ruins, even 20 years later. Facades on older buildings often still bear missing pieces of concrete from shrapnel sprays.

Sidewalk dents filled with red resin mark sites where bombs rained down death. They are disturbingly common. In Veliki Park, a memorial to the hundreds of children killed in the siege lists too many names to count. The War Childhood Museum attempts to tackle the individual stories using a single object from a child’s life along with a (often) heartbreaking memory. We tried and failed to imagine how difficult life must have been during those years.

 

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Reminders of the Bosnian War

The Old Jewish Cemetery near our apartment had been used as a Serbian artillery position during the siege. Many gravestones still bear bullet and shrapnel scars; the landmines were thankfully removed after the war. Even the History Museum’s facade has shrapnel wounds and it only features war-related items.

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The Old Jewish Cemetery and the Historical Museum of BiH

Above the city, relics from the 1984 Winter Olympics lay abandoned and damaged in the woods. The most famous of these is the bobsled and luge track. Though local groups are attempting to revive the track as a sporting venue, it is still mostly utilized as a massive graffiti wall.

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The abandoned bobsled track from the 1984 Olympics

A far cry from its Olympic glory, the concrete track is now overgrown by trees and mosses. The bright paint provides a stark contrast to the rest of the structure.

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Some especially appropriate graffiti 

We walked the entire length of the track. The buildings at the finish line have trees growing up between what were shower stalls. Nearby homes were similar concrete shells, missing roof and windows alike. To return to the city, we hiked downhill on a narrow rocky track that ended in the back of a steep-streeted neighborhood.

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We heard rumors of Sarajevo’s tasty cuisine in Novi Sad, and the compliments were completely deserved. The crowning meal is cevapi, skinless sausages stuffed into a pita bun and topped with onion. Locals eschew adding sauces to this mix, though I preferred them with pavlaka (a heavy cream). Peanut crips that were a favorite in Croatia last year were outshone by Snacky Flips, a Bosnian brand that looked like onion rings and tasted light and crunchy.

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Local wine and beer, peanut crisps, the famous cevapi

Like its neighboring counties, Bosnia produces quite a bit of local wine. Our two most-purchased varieties were plavac mali and vranac. Bargain brands often have liter bottles for the same price as .75 liters (if you don’t mind thinner glass), and turned out to be the best choice. As in other Balkan countries, good craft beer takes a little work to find, but The Brew Pub had some tasty beers. Our favorite was Furka, their Amber Ale.

Sarajevo has come a long way from the end of the war, as the photographs in the museums attest, but memories from the conflict still permeate daily life. The Dayton Peace Accords ended the fighting but made the country difficult to govern. Local politicians are divided along ethnic lines and often refuse to cooperate, making further recovery an impossible task. Everyone we met carries hopes for a better and less bitter future, and we harbor the same wish.