I have a confession to make (one which you’ve probably figured out already):
It’s been a lot more than three weeks since I last wrote.
The truth is, it’s not because I’m lazy (well, alright, it’s not just because I’m lazy – I did admittedly take a taxi to the shop at the end of the road to buy cheesecake earlier). A person I ceased contact with a long time ago has recently come back into my life and I’m not entirely comfortable with this person knowing where I am or what I’m doing, or being exposed to the kind of cheesey-inspiring inner thoughts which are apparently completely acceptable to throw out at strangers through the medium of a travel blog but are rather awkward to deal with in person.
Then, this morning, I had a revelation.
Why should I let this person stop me doing what I love? I’m not going to stop travelling because of them – why, then, should I stop writing for the same reason?
Right then, enough oversharing. Excuses made and here we are, finally – my first post since my interrailing trip through eastern Europe!
Let’s start with Croatia.
I spent three days in Zagreb – not through any particular desire to see Croatia, but rather because it was a convenient half way point (or quarter way point, to be more accurate) between Slovenia and Bosnia, the two places I had been really passionate about visiting.
I’ll be honest with you – Zagreb kind of bored me initially. Sorry, Croatia. I’m sure your beaches are much more exciting, but I’m not really a beach sort of girl. Sand in awkward places, sunburn, stupid societal pressures to look good in a bikini? No thanks. I’m much more at home on the British coastline, where you’re more likely to cover up in a mac and some wellies than you are with some sunscreen.
Britain – gorgeous coastlines, only with less sunburn and more umbrella.
I therefore deliberately chose a Croatian city over a Croatian beach as my post-Slovenia pre-Bosnia stopping off point (still with me?) and to be entirely frank, I was a little underwhelmed by Zagreb. It was pretty enough and certainly clean, but I never found myself stopping to take pictures of every passing building like I later would in Istanbul, there was no abundance of street performance like we’d seen in Slovenia only days before. There never seemed to be much going on at all; it struck me as much more of a business city than a tourism destination. Zagreb’s real big thing seems to be museums, but as we were on a tight budget and all the museums were at least as expensive as a cinema ticket and a good meal, we struggled to fill our time there and actually had to pace ourselves to one or two attractions a day (I did, in fact, forgo the museum for the cinema and the good meal, too). The much-hyped Plitvice National Park involved a 12euro trip – each way – not to mention the entry fee and we simply couldn’t afford it, leaving us with very, very little to do. At first it surprised me, considering it’s the capital, but then again I suppose all the tourism money goes into the beaches and islands along the coastline. Certainly almost every other person we met was using Zagreb as a brief stop-off point before or after hitting the sand. There was, admittedly, a moment of enormous excitement when we discovered Croatia’s supermarket chain Konzum (Yoghurts! Real cheese! VEGETARIAN FOOD! We’d been living off bread for a week by this point), but that was about the highlight for me.
Until day three, that is. On our final full day in Zagreb, we decided to head a little out of town to check out Mirogoj Cemetery (pronounced ‘Mih-rah-goy’ – I got a fair few blank looks asking for ‘Mirr-oh-godge’). I’d heard online that it was pretty impressive, but we were yet to meet anyone who had actually been there so I was frankly sceptical about the length of time I could happily spend in an oversized graveyard.
And then we got there and Mirogoj completely blew me away.
And that’s only the entrance.
The largest cemetery in Croatia and often considered the most beautiful in Europe, it was built in the 19th century and today is full of the rich and the famous, a veritable who’s-who of Croatian history (we had a bit of fun googling some of the names on my friend’s Kindle as we walked around – which also came in useful when trying to distinguish the male/female toilets, as Croatia never seems to put those handy little male/female drawings on the doors like most other European countries do. That avoided some potentially embarrassing mistakes. Thanks, Kindle! I’ll never call you overrated again). I’ll leave it to the pictures to describes its beauty, but it was truthfully like stepping into another world. The place is so big that you could literally spent hours in there without bumping into a single soul, despite the fact that there may be thirty or forty other people wandering around at the same time as you.
As a Religious Studies graduate, the really interesting thing for me was that the cemetery was full of graves from every religion and none with absolutely no segregation. One minute you would be walking past an atheist’s grave, the next a Jewish memorial, the next an Orthodox tomb. From giant states of Moses with Hebrew inscriptions (that was a good test of my old language skills – suffice to say my lecturer would have been ashamed) to elaborate Catholic statues and simpler, Arabic-lettered posts, Mirogoj had it at all. Considering Europe’s fraught religious history, it was refreshing to see.
There are literally hundreds of thousands of graves here, including several war memorials, but if you’re stuck for time simply wandering along the intricate arcades will easily let you see enough of Mirogoj to be suitably impressed. If you have got a bit longer, try and make your way into the graves on the ground – the occasional family tomb adds a bit of interest, but the real appeal here is seeing the graves of completely ordinary people, marvelling at the abundance of flowers still adorning some and the way nature has taken over others. We found several graves where people’s faces were actually carved into the surface – including a seriously creepy one with faces carved into it and no death date. How weird would it be, visiting your husband’s grave every week and seeing your own face staring back at you?
See how the woman’s portrait has no death date? Now that’s what I called prepared.
Not only is Mirogoj bursting at the seems with things to photograph and enough walkways to keep you busy all day, but it’s free too. It’s also deceptively easy to get to. Zagreb’s public transport system is incredibly efficient and clean, putting England’s utterly to shame. Even on the buses, each stop is announced by a sign and an automated voice so you always know exactly where you are and which stop is coming up. You only need to take one bus to get to Mirogoj from central Zagreb – head up from the main square to the bus stop just past the cathedral and literally just hop on bus 106. It even says Mirogoj on the top, it takes less than ten minutes and you get an amusing insight into real Croatian street names along the way (my personal favourite had to be ‘Rockefellarova’). It’s as simple as that.
Candles for sale at the bus stop outside the cemetery
I suppose the point I’m trying to make here (rather than simply bigging up Mirogoj) is that one good encounter in a city you’re not particularly fond of can really turn things around. Thanks to that stunning cemetery (and a quick side trip to the English language, Croatian subtitled cinemas to catch the latest Harry Potter film), I now remember Zagreb with fondness – and not with the boredom that filled our first two days.
So, if you find yourself stuck somewhere unfamiliar and little uninspiring, sit back and think for a moment about what you like to do. I’m hardly a cemetery nut (in fact, before Mirogoj I found them beyond creepy), but the place offered so many photographic opportunities that I adored it. Find a restaurant serving your favourite food, see a film with subtitles, sit in a cafe and watch the world go by. In the end, each and every place can only be what you make of it.