A car’s side mirror on a plinth. Next to it, a mounted set of papier mache breasts. Between them, a hanging axe. I was standing in front of one of the world’s strangest – and strangely inviting – exhibitions.
Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships wasn’t quite the Croatia I was expecting when I set out to discover how the country had fared since the Balkans wars.
It had been 20 years since the former Yugoslavia imploded and I was keen to understand the changes to Croatia’s people, culture and outlook from that tumultuous time. Although the country didn’t suffer the destruction wrought on Bosnia it still bore signs of conflict, including where we began our journey, Dubrovnik.
“The jewel of the Adriatic” is indeed a picture perfect city. Dubrovnik, with its whitewashed walls, melt-between-the-toes sand and boats bobbing on a crystal harbour, is a camera-magnet. The UNESCO-protected city was shelled indiscriminately during The Homeland War (as it’s known in Croatia) for no real strategic reason; today it’s the shiploads of tourists who pose the most danger. Far from being overwhelmed, the locals handle it well, catering to the masses with a gelato bar on every corner and postcards for sale within arm’s reach.
Determined to be in central Dubrovnik we rented an apartment just off the main Stradun. It wasn’t hard to live like locals: drying washing on the pull-line above the narrow street and ducking out to grab a bottle of Grk when supplies got low. Nights were spent eating whole fish; days exploring the city’s galleries.
Walking the old town walls was a must-do (hint: go in the morning before the masses arrive), and looking down from Mt Srd at sunset gave me a new appreciation of renaissance architecture. For my friend who preferred liquid meals, the Buza bars on the walled cliffs were the highlight. For me it was the War Photo Limited exhibition put on by a New Zealander, Wade Goddard – a moving record of what Croatia went through between 1991-1995.
Dubrovnik is the gateway to Croatia’s hundreds of islands, the most legendary party one being Hvar. Little touched (or troubled it seems) by past history, Hvar is one of the few places in the world where you can order breakfast cocktails and then not move until midnight. The town’s buzz was nearly palpable with a cacophony of calls from the marketplace.
“You English, You English” beckoned the smiling mouth with the gold teeth, her hands dangling a lace creation. After the customary exchange, it was Hvala (thanks) then off to her next customer. Moving on ourselves, we started the climb to Hvar’s Citadel and were rewarded with a fantastic view of the harbour. The castle itself built in the 1500s is a permanent reminder that peace has never been easy for this part of the world.
Hvar is one of the few places in the world where you can order breakfast cocktails and then not move until midnight.
If there was one city that reflects how many times Croatia has been invaded, conquered, pillaged and annexed, it would be Split. Spalato (as the Italians called it when it was theirs) was built on resilience. With the ruins of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s palace forming the centre of the town, Split’s slower pace is the counterbalance to Dubrovnik’s franticness.
We found the people more welcoming, less harried and, dare I say it, prouder of their city and its history. Not that they dwell on the past; the locals were quick to point out that Split is now known for its gourmet food. In this town where al fresco on the Riva is a rite of passage, roasted mushrooms dripping with balsamic atop a seabed of rice seemed only right. For all of Split’s epicural delights though, it was natural beauty that beckoned us.
A few hours north of Split are Plitvice Lakes, a world heritage park of impossibly-coloured lakes criss-crossed by wooden boardwalks. Fed by hundreds of falls and scattered with autumn leaves, the lakes presented a surreal Monet-esque vista. We spent four hours exploring the park – which is so large it has its own ferries and tourist trains – and that wasn’t long enough. Protected by man for the enjoyment of others, Plitvice was a literally a breath of fresh air on our journey to the capital, Zagreb.
Far from Tito’s socialist dream Zagreb today is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city. If food rules in Split, then coffee is king in Zagreb. Black, strong, pure and not for the fainthearted. Only a town drip-fed on caffeine could have a Monday night like this one: the pedestrianised Tkalciceva street throbbing as bands competed with DJs to capture the fickle crowd. As we watched teenagers pile off the urbanised tram system in the city’s main square I realised many of them hadn’t lived through what we’d seen on the TV news every night. Zagreb too was touched by war and yet there was little sign that it had ever happened.
If anything, the independence that followed gave them permission to celebrate their unique past. New galleries, statues, theatres and museums have all sprung up in the last two decades … including the novel Museum of Broken Relationships. Originally a travelling exhibition, the collection now includes the weird, the wonderful, the sad and the funny. In a way it is a metaphor for leaving the past behind them.
So, has the country moved on since the war? Absolutely. Croatia’s islands are once again attracting the hordes; the country is going out of its way to protect its natural beauty; and its people are amongst the most welcoming in the Balkans.
It is telling though, that you still can’t exchange Croatian Kunes for neighbouring Serbian Dinars. Sometimes 20 years just isn’t long enough, even after a broken relationship.