What I miss about autumn in Zagreb after moving from Croatia
Unlike so many, I don’t get a sense of dread at the end of summer. While summer in Croatia is amazing, and I relished my time at the seaside, a calm and quiet sense of contentment overtakes me when I know autumn, or as we say in the States, “fall” is returning.
Fall is my favorite season. For some, it feels like an end, but for me, it feels like a reprieve – a return to normal and routines. I happen to like normal, and I guess I’m just a routine kind of girl.
Recently, I moved back to the States for reasons I could not escape, but my mind and heart still wander back to my favorite city in the world. I especially enjoyed the autumn in Zagreb, the 4 years I lived there.
The obvious signs appear: the crisp, clean, smelling air, the onset of bearable temperatures, and the grandest of them all – the changing color of leaves. Zagreb looks beautiful as the city rests at the base of the forest-covered Medvednica mountain.
There were subtle signs of autumn, things that disappeared, like the lightweight, breezy summer dresses Croatian women wear with their practical sandals. The bright red watermelons and the beautifully imperfect garden-ripened tomatoes started to dwindle from the Dolac market.
Never be fooled by those symmetrically round tomatoes that say domaće (homegrown). Yeah, domaće to Spain, Portugal, or some other distant land. We had to accept these imports in the winter, but I could not in the summer. The local, homegrown, sun-ripened were just too delicious to tolerate anything else.
Jump to Zagreb’s autumn sign:
- Trg Bana Jelačića coming back to life
- Hiking trails becoming more populated
- Local caffe bar reopening
- Enjoying wine at Bornstein
- Admiring the colorful autumn leaves
- Final thoughts
The facts are these…
Why I miss autumn in Zagreb after moving from Croatia
I noticed a strange thing my first summer in Zagreb. Towards the end of June, the city center got quiet, most obviously, Zagreb’s main square called Trg Bana Jelačića. There were less crowds, fewer tourists taking the obligatory selfie in front of the dominating statue, and on some days, no crowds at all. Sometimes, it felt like a national holiday, and no one had gone to work or the market.
I asked a friend what was going on, and she said “It’s summer! Everyone has gone to the seaside!” as if it was an obvious conclusion. I’m telling you, besides the several natives who hadn’t left yet or had just returned from the shore or tourists who choose not to skip Zagreb as most do in summer, few are in Zagreb the last two months of summer.
As autumn returns, so do the people. Trg comes back to life. People and commuters are crisscrossing the square, and market goers are making their way up the stairs to Dolac or chatting with the flower merchants on their way back down. A slight nudge may be required to step onto the tram at the station.
The caffe bars lining the side streets leading away from the square are once again full of coffee drinkers. The hum of friends chatting can be heard as you walk by through the wafting cigarette smoke. Did Croatia not get the memo on cigarette smoking?
I loved a stroll through the square, taking a pauza (break) to people watch and wonder about the history and stories of those who look like this was their millionth pass through Trg.
And on Saturday, špica is in full swing. Špica is a popular location in the center with many caffe bars where celebrities like to hang out. Interesting little ritual of the Zagreb residents: Saturday morning, many go to the main square to shop and, of course, have a loooonnnggg coffee with their friends. It is all about seeing and being seen.
Everyone making their way to Dolac, then most likely Cvjetni trg for a coffee and some schmoozing. In true Croatian style, everyone is well dressed while trying to look like they put in no effort. Outfits are carefully crafted to look like they were thoughtlessly thrown own, yet revealing their sense of style and individuality.
By October, špica was at full throttle! I knew autumn had returned.
Many weekends, I enjoyed a hike on Medvednica to Sljeme, its highest peak. My preferred trail began near the Gračani tram stop and took me about 2 1/2 hours to make it to the top.
I rewarded myself with a highly caloric homestyle meal that negated any calories I burned on the hike. I washed it down with a tasty German Radler. I ordered my favorite from the lovely but always cheeky waiters, either the turkey with mlinci or the venison stew with egg noodles, both with cabbage salad. What is it about the little side salads in Croatia? They are so simple, but I was obsessed!
Whenever I ate the turkey, I always thought “Wow, grandma put her foot in it!” (This is how we complement good home cooking in the deep south of good ol’ USA, meaning you put your whole self, real effort into it. You didn’t just “dip your tow in” so to say.) The grandma in the kitchen could teach us turkey-loving Americans a few things about cooking the giant bird, always deeply flavored with crispy skin. And the mlinci was never dry or soggy. Just perfect!
I loved my weekend hikes. The views and tranquility amongst the trees. But once September rolls around, the solitude starts to lessen. The trail becomes more and more populated as the temperatures cool. And rightly so, I must add.
The heat in the peak of summer can make the hike unbearable and difficult to complete. I would take the passing by of a few more chatting couples, giggly teenagers, and heavy/breathing mountain bikers to hike in more pleasant temperatures and not feel like I barely escaped death by heat exhaustion.
By October, the trail is full, almost crowded. The teenagers and families are now in packs, and dodging the overly excited dogs zig-zagging the trail is almost a full-time job. Traffic jams occurred as we had to wait for fully outfitted hikers to take the all-important selfies amongst the autumn-colored leaves. But who can complain? It is still wonderful, and the autumn weather is excellent.
The cafe around the corner from the flat where I lived is a locals’ spot through and through. Nothing fancy, nothing on-trend. Groups of local young adults will come to watch the games together and have pizza delivered to the cafe. The waiter couldn’t care less. No fancy wine or beers. Just the simple, affordable stuff and the cheapest cup of coffee in the hood.
This draws lots of gentlemen retirees who don’t want to pay the posh prices at the shop a block up the road, along with construction and sanitation workers on their breaks. They can all be seen here sipping their morning coffee with a rakija chaser.
I regularly passed on my morning walks and wondered how many years those “mature gentlemen” have been meeting their pals there for a chat and gossip. I always raised an eyebrow as I saw the high-vis vests of worker still on their “break” 35 minutes later on my return.
In August, a sign suddenly went up on a closed door, the curtains were drawn, and there were no signs of life for two weeks. Yep, summer vacation at the seaside! In late August, the door reopens, and signs of life begin to reappear, slowly at first, depending on who is back in town, I suppose.
The temperatures start to cool through September and into October, and the morning coffee becomes essential again. The same older gentlemen appear, stealing sneaking glances at the pretty ladies dressed for work as they pass by, along with the construction and sanitation guys in their high-vis uniforms laughing boisterously, smoking, and sipping their coffee, always followed by rakija.
Once again, the caffe bar is full, and the entertaining men are back. I used to smile inside because I knew autumn was also back, as I enjoyed these little glimpses into the daily lives of my neighbors.
I had taken to meeting a girlfriend or two on Friday evening for a drink at my favorite wine bar in Zagreb – Bornstein. It is set inside a lovely brick and stone cellar and owned by Ivan and Doris. Ivan, a Croatian diaspora from Australia passionate about wine and food, is married to the sweet Doris, a lovely Croatian lady he married when he moved to Croatia.
One reason my gal pals and I love it there is Ivan and Doris welcome everyone like an old friend. Ivan will always stop by your table, sit and chat with you (if he’s not busy), or talk you into trying a new libation. Doris is the worker bee, buzzing around and making sure things are getting done. They are a perfect team running a great place that happens to be the oldest wine bar in Zagreb.
While I was there, we always sat outside under the twinkle lights on a makeshift patio in the parking lot (due to COVID restrictions at the time). Ivan always kept it enjoyable by throwing something on the grill (he is an Aussie!), which was always delicious. We would finish our evening with a little “nip” of something special.
But by the end of June, these meet-ups became less and less, and by summer, they had come to a halt. We are all traveling or busy with summer, and our calendars could not be synched despite all our efforts.
Finally, in October, I messaged a friend and asked “How about a drink?” and I was rewarded with a “YES”. Ahhh, there it is – normal has returned! We would return to Bornstein at least a couple of times a month to share a chat, a drink, a nibble, and a usual laugh. Sometimes, we walked in and remembered we didn’t reserve a table, but Ivan would say “We always have a table for you!”
If you make it there, I hope Ivan has made his beef tartare, some of the best I have ever had.
You have probably figured out by now I enjoyed a good walk. I often walked along Medveščak heading north. When I rounded the corner near Mihaljevac, I always thought “How lucky am I to get to see a castle on my routine walks?” How many people can say that? I loved looking into the hills and seeing the Medvedgrad castle sitting there in its glory. I never got bored of it.
Most of the year, Medvedgrad is surrounded by the lush green forest of Medvednica. In the autumn, the leaves change, appearing snuggled in a blanket of gold, red, and orange. When the colors come on, they first appear like highlights in ladies’ hair and gently spread across the tree tops of the forest. Over a few weeks, they saturate the mountainside. It is truly beautiful.
This is not just a phenomenon in Medvednica surrounding Medvedgrad but something that happens all over Zagreb. Zagreb is full of parks and green spaces, with a lovely variety of trees. The changing color of the leaves completely alters the feel of the parks.
In the spring and summer, the parks bustle with energy and conversation. Parents play with their children and others with their hyper puppies and dogs. But then the leaves change to their astonishing autumnal shades and the atmosphere changes. A little calmer, quieter, cooler, slower, but in a contradiction, brighter. The yellows and oranges define the trees and almost feel like they bring the sunshine in.
While the city comes back to life, the parks calm a bit, and become even more stunning than in the summer, which some would call a peak season. But not me. Summer in the parks and the mountain is gorgeous, but fall is breathtaking.
You have probably come to understand how much I love autumn in Zagreb. For me, it is mostly positive. I enjoyed its signs, although some were a little more bitter-sweet.
I feel autumn is the time when the locals just live their daily lives and practice their personal rituals. It is before the tourists come for Advent, and the city center will be beautiful but a nightmare to navigate. It will be overcrowded and freezing.
I recall the special moments of sitting in my favorite cafe, enjoying a cappuccino, and people-watching with autumn in full swing. I could not have been happier! I savored the fall, and my heart remains with Zagreb.
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