St. Mark's Church in Zagreb, Croatia, dates to the 13th century. | Photo by Arvid Olson / Pixabay
Zagreb, Croatia, has seen its share of breakups. So its Museum of Broken Relationships, a modern collection of mementos and symbols donated by those who have gone through painful separations from loved ones, seemed an appropriate place to start this trip.
The museum is located in the upper part of this northwest Croatia city and is within walking distance of the historic train station and just a block or so from Zagreb’s 13th-century stone gate. Items in the museum include a wedding dress, a checkbook, a Magic 8 Ball, a Champagne cork, a court summons, a three-volume set of writings by Proust, a stun gun, an unopened letter, and an ax. The ax was donated by a man who used it to destroy his girlfriend’s furniture after he discovered she had cheated on him.
Even the café next door is in on the act. The sign outside reads: "We serve beer as cold as your ex’s heart."
Visiting this section of Zagreb was a perfect prelude to the next two weeks of touring Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. The area is a mix of modern and ancient, beautiful and tragic, simple and sophisticated. The tour, conducted by Alexander and Roberts, skillfully combined the area’s history, culture, and natural beauty.
It was a tour of stunning complexity.
This part of Europe has been conquered, conquered again, and again and again, all the way back to the eighth century. In 1946, after World War II ended, these countries became part of a collection of six republics under the national name Yugoslavia. But after the 1980 death of its communist leader, Josip Broz Tito, the region descended into a brutal ethnic and religious war that lasted into the late 1990s.
Every day, we saw reflections of the history of the Balkans, the countries of Europe’s Balkan Peninsula. On this tour, our group of 15 walked 5 to 7 miles a day, and each day seemed to span more than 1,000 years. We daily saw glimpses of the region’s future—new roads, vineyards, restoration of its culture, and modernization efforts in a desire to be embraced by the European Union.
We visited Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic cathedrals and Muslim mosques. One day, we walked along Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes, which are separated by natural travertine dams; each lake is fed by waterfalls from the lake above it. Another day, we toured the Palace of Diocletian and its Temple of Jupiter in the seaside city of Split. There, five men singing Croatian folk music a cappella in a stone rotunda brought us to a complete stop as the music soared into the past. Our tour guides took us to places most visitors don’t see, and in each area, we interacted with the people who lived there.
In Njeguši, Montenegro, not far from the coastal jewel of Kotor, we met a family who has been in the meat and cheese business since the 1850s. They served us prosciutto and sausage that they’d cured, along with their own cheese, tomatoes, and their wine made from honey. They took us into the smokehouse next door, where they showed us how they dry, smoke, and cure the meat, as the sausages hung from the ceiling like stalactites in an ancient cave.
Also in Montenegro, we had the best food experience on the same day we had the most astonishing visual experience. We loaded into Jeeps and headed into Durmitor National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. After two hours of switchbacks on unpaved paths high into the mountain, we stopped for a meal where the road ended at the edge of the Susica Canyon. An open wood fire awaited us, along with a lengthy picnic table and a crew of workers setting out chicken, veal, sausages, bacon, roasted vegetables, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, potatoes, pastries, and blueberry juice, all made from locally grown ingredients and ready to eat. This was the best meal I’ve had in my entire life.
Part of the magic was the setting—mountains and canyons like those in Switzerland surrounded us; the rivers and lakes were an aqua that exists on no artist’s palette. Part of it was the service—friendly local growers and cooks took great delight in providing a perfect meal. Mostly it was the food itself. The meat was tender and juicy, coming right from the open fire; the vegetables exploded with flavor that comes only from being picked fresh that day; the bread was dense and still warm. I can’t fathom the number of blueberries that had to be crushed to make the juice.
“If God created a more beautiful place than this, he kept it for himself,” said Jim Pettey, a doctor from Kentucky, as we ate.