Back in the autumn of 2017 my girlfriend found out she would be working over Christmas and New Year. Not a surprise in her line of work, but given the circumstances and seizing an opportunity, we decided we were going to celebrate early by spending the early part of December back in central Europe to see a very different type of Christmas market.
This would, we hoped, yield less of the council cutback lights and overpriced burger vans of the UK, and more atmosphere, culture and, hopefully, snow. We were right.
5th December was our departure day, after months of switching plans to amend our original intentions. First off we were all set to fly from Gatwick to Zagreb, stay for seven days, and then fly back to the UK – but with the collapse of Monarch airline, we were left without a suitable and affordable option. Flying a few days earlier, we headed to Ljubljana (instead of Zagreb) in neighbouring Slovenia (instead of Croatia), from Luton airport (instead of Gatwick) for nine days (instead of seven)! Despite all the chaos in reorganising, our hosts, Airbnb and the car rental company were all extremely understanding and reasonable and, ultimately, it ended up costing us slightly less for more time away.
Arriving in Ljubljana, we were immediately greeted with the towering mountains of the Julian Alps and the flat farmlands and freeways of northern Slovenia covered in thick snow – a theme for the next few days. A short flight early in the morning, picking up the rental car and taking the slow drive across the countryside of eastern Slovenia and into western Croatia. Our plan remained that Ljubljana would be at the end of our trip, so day one was mostly driving and getting settled some 100 miles and a border crossing away from where we landed.
The car this time was an extremely reasonably priced Volkswagen Up! Not as plush as our summer car, but needing no more than the minimum space, something economic and a powerful heater, rather than the air conditioning that kept us alive in the summer, we picked this up for around £25 for the week plus a cross border fee of around £50.
The drive was wonderful, bar a near miss with a local over taking on the footpath, and the border crossing was quick and simple. We arrived in a cold but snow-free Zagreb around lunch time, and met with our hosts and settled down for a quick rest. Soon after, we took an impromptu walk down into the city to find our bearings. We were staying around a 40 minute walk outside of the city centre, mostly downhill, and got into the centre around dusk.
We found one strand of the market after riding the 120 year old funicular railway, generously running for free during the festivities, to the old town. It had already fallen dark, so our mission was to find food, drink and music rather than any landmarks, though its hard to miss the funicular, the trams, the enormous cathedral and Zagreb 360 skyscraper. All places we would visit over the next few days.
Settling down in the old town, we rewarded our journey with beer, mulled (cooked) wine that warmed the soul, hotdogs made of some familiar meats, and others not so much, and apparently festive fish kebabs. Wondering through the stalls and lights, we found some music playing at one of the highest points overlooking the cathedral and city lights, and danced and laughed the night away before taking a taxi back to the apartment.
Over the next couple of days we ventured down into the city mid-morning, and returned that night by taxi. Zagreb is a truly beautiful city, and whilst busy it never felt overcrowded and there was no concern of any fear or threat of violence, theft or worse. The Christmas market is extremely well planned – not confined to any one part of the city but spread out into clusters across the plentiful space Zagreb has to work with, each decorated beautifully, with different live bands or festive music playing, and even the most adorable performance by local school children.
A somewhat controversial reminder of Croatia’s recent past was the erection of a makeshift and very much live shrine to the recently deceased Slobodan Praljak in the main square during the aftermath of his dramatic suicide in court. Seeing a candlelit tribute burning to a man whom the western media and UN council had convicted of heinous war crimes, backlit by a Christmas tree and celebrating families, to us was a somewhat surreal experience. Within a few days however, parts of the shrine had been torn down, highlighting the divided opinion about the man and his death within the city. Leading up to his funeral in Zagreb later that week there were more than a few people proud to justify their point of view, a coward’s way out and an insult to the survivors of his crimes, or a wrongly accused veteran that would rather die than live a life of injustice. Real life is never as black and white as the stories lead us to believe, and this served as a stark wake up call to our fairytale adventure.
The next few days we visited landmarks ranging from the impressive Zagreb 360, a skyscraper that offers unmatched views across the cityscape. At this point we picked up a Zagreb 365 pass – a useful addition to our wallets as it gave us discounts at restaurants and places across the city lasting for the full year. Following the skyscraper, we also went inside the surprisingly new Zagreb Cathedral, rebuilt just over 100 years ago after it was destroyed by an earthquake. St Mark’s Church is another stunning landmark with its decorative roof, near the gate-less Stone Gate and its conflict and time defying picture of the Virgin Mary, said to have survived the fire that destroyed the gate itself.
Leaving Zagreb behind, somewhat, and keeping a close eye on the weather forecast, we took the bold decision to visit Plitvice Lakes and National Park (Plitvicka Jezera) on the day that heavy snow was forecast. Learning quickly that Croatian ‘heavy snow’ would be the equivalent of an ice age in the UK, the drive was two hours of heavy concentration, but the reality of driving abroad is that countries like Slovenia and Croatia are extremely well prepared, have snowploughs on standby and a continued effort to ensure the roads are passable. The reward for this was incredible.
Arriving around 9am, we entered the park to see waterfalls and snow on a scale we had never seen before. A walk around the boat, before taking a cold, slow meander across the lake and a hair raising shuttle bus back, was probably the defining moment of the holiday and the one that produced the most eye opening photographs.
Having visited Krka National Park, near Split, back in the heat of summer. The contrasts in colours was staggering, and also the cold temperatures, being out of tourist season and generally fewer tours and more difficult access by roads meant that tourist numbers were significantly reduced.
The drive back through Zagreb was eye opening as well. As a city of over one million people, around four times the size of Nottingham, I had my reservations about being able to drive through the city, avoid the devil-may-care attitude to driving that grips that part of the world as well as the trams – before even getting onto the fact that the car was unfamiliar and the steering wheel and roads were on the opposite side to what we’re used to. Despite this, Zagreb is a remarkable accessible city and easy drive. I would doubt that parking in the centre is a simple task, but to pass through and find an apartment on the outskirts put the UK cities to shame.
After a number of nights in Zagreb, we said goodbye to our accommodation and took the drive back to Ljubljana for the final few days. The journey back was drama-free, though the border crossings heading west seem to be more stringent and therefore slower. It has been documented that the Slovenian and Croatian governments have had their border control disputes over the past few years, but we saw nothing that caused us any great concern. Passing through, the snow gave us some beautiful views as we took the open, clear roads into Slovenia’s capital.
Our apartment was again on the edge of the city, but this time just a 20 minute walk into the centre. Ljubljana is evidently much smaller than Zagreb, and with the exception of the castle overlooking the high streets, much flatter.
On our first day, we explored the Christmas market stalls in the centre. Though more modest than Zagreb’s, still extremely extensive and welcoming. Mid-afternoon we left the cold but snow-free streets to stop off in Gostilna Sokol in the centre to dine on foal stake and drink a pint or two of beer. When we left an hour later, the snow had come down in force and the city took on a completely different appearance.
We decided to somewhat mimic our Zagreb excursion by going straight to the funicular. This time, being taken up to Ljubljana Castle where we had hot chocolate in the grounds before making our way up the spire for an extraordinary, all-be-it slightly misty 360 degree view of the city’s Christmas lights and falling snow.
The next day we walked out towards Ljubljana Zoo and spent a few hours in the company of the animals. In terms of visitors, it seemed at times that we had the place to ourselves, and seeing the likes of kangaroos and tigers playing in the snow was a new experience. Walking around back into the city, we ate the fastest served pizza we’ve experienced and again took in the lights, and alcohol, of the market stalls.
Our final two days were spent travelling out from Ljubljana, first to Predjama and Postojna, to visit the caves and castle. This excursion didn’t come cheap, not in comparison to the luxury of affordabilities we had in Zagreb, but for less than 100 Euros we were able to experience everything.
The caves at Postojna are impressive and expansive, with knowledgeable tour guides and a unique train ride to get to and from the heart of the cave. Heavily focused on the dragon that dwells within! A small eyeless salamander, called an Olm, can be seen in tanks in the nearby museum and also in the cave itself.
The castle is in the nearby village of Predjama, a short 10 minute drive further up the road from the caves. In this small enclave there’s a small hunting museum in the cafe and souvenir shop. A pleasant viewing that we were kindly allowed into for free. Its main attraction, though, is the castle in the side of the mountain. Backing onto the mountains and cave networks, the castle is a museum to the defiance of its residents over the hundreds of years it has held strong.
On our final full day, we drove up to the town of Bled, famous for the island on Lake Bled. The weather gave us everything on this day, everything snow related anyway, for our walk around that took roughly five hours with a few stops. For the first hour at least the island and church were completely invisible for falling snow, and whilst this began to clear it gave us some moody and incredible photographs. Also on the way round, we saw swans and robins, seemingly happy to get close, take bread and even pose for pictures. Our final adventure was to climb the winding staircase up to Bled Castle to eat their obligatory Bled Cream Cake and get a panoramic view of the lake and island.
One final evening in Ljubljana saw us having a couple of drinks and a wonderful meal in a Serbian restaurant in the city centre. Making the journey back, before flying back out the next morning.
Both cities are incredible and can certainly throw a Christmas market! Plitvice and Lake Bled in particular, also offered up an incredible spectacle in the heavy snowfall. It’s worth remembering that Slovenia, using the Euro, is generally much more expensive than Zagreb, using its own currency, the Kuna. That said, after Rome in the summer – which is only one border crossing to the west of Ljubljana, the value for money everywhere we went was incredible and allowed us to enjoy everything we felt we would enjoy.
For all the heavy snow, not once did it feel unsafe to be driving and the hospitality, food and drink were all absolutely wonderful. Even being greeted by an Italian in Zagreb who corrected us walking past people on the wrong side, before singing a line from “don’t worry, be happy”.
An unforgettable holiday and one we highly recommend that everyone invests in at least once in their lifetime!
by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan