Bye Bye Schengen Area, Hello Zagreb, Croatia!
After nearly three months of road tripping through Schengen Area member countries we were approaching the 90-day limit for visitors so we had to make our exit from the area. Traveling within the Schengen Area was great because we didn’t have to stop at border crossings, but the 90 day limit is way too short for an area that covers basically an entire continent (or at least close to it)!
Fortunately Croatia has not yet joined the Schengen Area, and upon crossing the border our passports were stamped with Hungarian exit stamps and Croatian entry stamps. With that we had permission to stay up to 90 days in Croatia (too bad we don’t have enough time to use all those days!). Our first stop (mostly due to its proximity to Hungary) was the capital city, Zagreb.
Zagreb Old Town
In order to get an introduction to Zagreb we joined a walking tour around the old city. We started in the main square of the lower town which is dominated by a statue of Count Josip Jelačić, who ended the practice of serfdom in Croatia.
Next we made a short walk to the upper town, which was surrounded by defensive walls in medieval times. As the name would suggest, the upper town is on a hill above the surrounding area and is approached by stairs or steep streets.
Lotrščak Tower was one of the defensive towers built to protect the city. At noon a cannon is fired from the top window; this practice stared in 1877 so that all the churches in town would be able to ring their bells exactly at midday. Despite clear warnings from the guide to be prepared for the loud noise, everyone in the group still noticeably jumped when the cannon fired (some much more than others).
St. Marks Church is located at the center of the upper town. It was originally built in the 13th century but has been extensively reconstructed since then, particularly after a large earthquake in 1880. The wonderful ceramic tile roof includes the coat of arms of Croatia, Slovenia and Dalmatia (on the left) and the coat of arms of Zagreb (on the right). In more recent times, the building in the west side of the square (just to the left of the church), which is currently the seat of the Croatian government, was bombed in an airstrike shortly after Croatia declared independence in 1991.
Zagreb is home to the world’s shortest funicular railway, which takes just over a minute to travel 66 meters. Near the bottom is the best gelato shop in town (according to our AirBnb host).
Also nearby is an “Art Park” that has some cool sculptures and a playground where the kids enjoyed running around for a while.
Back in the lower town, we visited Zagreb Cathedral, which was the tallest building in the country until this year (a recently constructed skyscraper in Split is now the tallest). The Cathedral has been under renovation for many years; postcards and photos from several years ago show the same scaffolding on the tower that was present when we visited.
During our walking tour we learned an amusing story about the chandeliers inside the cathedral. Apparently they were donated to the church by a Las Vegas casino. Initially there was an uproar about installing these chandeliers from a sinful place inside the church. Church leaders tried to quell the protest by blessing the chandeliers then installing them ‘temporarily’ to see how they looked. Sixteen years later they are still trying them out. They look pretty good to us.
Nikola Tesla Technical Museum
Named after Croatia’s most famous scientist, the Nikola Tesla Technical Museum is the countries’ premier museum dedicated to science and technology. The museum has a large collection of historic cars, boats (including an Italian mini submarine), and aircraft.
We enjoyed the guided tour of the replica of a mine that showed mining techniques over the years, but the highlight of our visit was the “Demonstration Cabinet of Nikola Tesla” where we saw replicas of many of Tesla’s inventions in action. Our excellent guide was kind enough to do the mine tour as well as the Tesla demonstration in English (normally these are presented in Croatian but they made an exception for us).
Museum of Illusions
One hot afternoon we were looking for an air-conditioned space to spend a couple of hours and the Museum of Illusions fit the bill. The museum has two floors of optical illusions as well as hands-on games and puzzles.
Since we’d already been to Camera Obscura in Edinburgh we’d already seen most of the illusions contained in the smaller Zagreb museum, but the kids were entertained nonetheless.
Eating Ćevapi on Ul. Ivana Tkalčića
Ul. Ivana Tkalčića is just to the east of the upper Zagreb and is the place to go when hunger strikes. The street is full of restaurants with cuisine from Croatia and all over the world, and it is here that we discovered the wonder of Ćevapi, a specialty consisting of seasoned meat shaped like sausages and usually grilled.
While many visitors to Croatia skip Zagreb and head straight to the coast we found it to be an interesting city to spend a few days. We visited a few months after the 2018 World Cup in which the Croatian team finished second (along with most of the world, we were pulling for them to beat France, but alas). Given that the country only has 4 million residents, finishing as runners up is still very impressive and national pride for the strong performance was on full display.
In our next update we head to Istria to take in the Roman and Italian architecture and to soak up some sun on the beach!