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Alternative Guide to Christmas Holidays in Zagreb

If you love holiday season, Zagreb is the place to be. The city center turns into a huge Christmas market with many creative spots and events.

But not all of us love crowds, some prefer the exclusive feeling of participating in the not-too-touristy events. Enjoy this pick of under-the-radar winter events in Zagreb that will make your stay here feel even more authentic and bring back the true meaning of the holiday spirit. 

Explore the courtyards with the help of Advent Calendar 

Advent Calendar was introduced last year with a photo exhibition inside a hidden passage

In anticipation of Christmas, Zagreb is opening one courtyard per week to its visitors in the set of events called Advent Calendar. Each courtyard or street passage dreams its own quiet dream of life completely unnoticed by this city. The project isn’t trying to invade the quietude, quite contrary. Architecture students organised Advent Calendar to offer clever ideas and breathe new life into those spaces. Enjoy creative events in different courtyards every weekend in December.  

If you happen to be here on the weekend of December 19 and 20, make sure to join a little walking tour of the last courtyard, led by yours truly. 

Find the nativity scenes all over the town 

Live nativity scene by the cathedral

The most famous nativity scene in town is the live show in front of the cathedral. It takes place almost every day in the second half of December. But what I really love about Christmastime in Zagreb, is the fact that most churches exhibit their huge crèches full of carefully made figurines. This is a perfect time to visit churches that are otherwise closed for public. For example, the most exquisit baroque church in Zagreb, St Catherine’s church in the upper town area, is always locked. But just before Christmas, they exhibit their great nativity scene and you’re free to enter and take a look around. 

The same goes for St Mark’s church. It’s the most famous Zagreb sight with its coloured rooftop, but there’s hardly ever an opportunity to enter. As we’re approaching Christmas, you can visit it. Dart a glance at the nativity scene inside, and take a closer look at the incredible altars carved by Ivan Mestrovic, Croatia’s most famous sculptor. Even the small and unique St Dismas chapel, containing some strange relics, leaves its door open for public at this time of the year.

The nativity scenes can be found all over the city. There is a public surface in the neighbourhood called Precko. Each year, people get together and build the coolest king-sized scene. If it’s out of your reach, pay attention on everything from street windows to private gardens, you can find a Christmas crib decoration in the most unexpected places. 

This year’s most magical exhibition by Iva Lulic

Photo: Demonska coprnica/Demonic witch by Iva Lulic

Many museums organise special Christmas-themed exhibitions accompanied by workshops. It’s a great way to preserve a part of the heritage and get introduced to the old ways.

Etnographic museum is always the place to be as the wheel of the year is turning to its next phase. They traditionally exhibit their precious collection of cribs. This year, visitors will have a wonderful opportunity to learn about the customs of Croatia’s ethnic minorities in a separate inspiring exhibition. 

It’s not all just about Christmas in the Ethnographic museum this year. The last must-see exhibition in 2015 is Čarobna družba – vjerovanja u nadnaravna bića u Podravini (Magical fellowship – beliefs in supernatural beings in Podravina county). Creatures from folk imaginary brought to life through the lens of Iva Lulic’s camera. Iva is a well-known Croatian fine-art photographer who creates amazing images, thus restoring old folk believes. She already made several serials of photos representing the legendary creatures from folk lore. She shot them on the authentic localities in different parts of Croatia. Visit the new exhibition that opens on December 12 and remains on display all the way to May 2016. You’ll have to judge for yourself, but I’m pretty much convinced that some of those photos are real.

Unique Christmas gifts 

Speaking of magical realms, there is a warmhearted shop called Jasmina i lutkice in the centrally located Petrinjska street. Jasmina has been lovingly exhibiting her fairytalish dolls there for years now. Her shop windows are a vessel to fantasy worlds. As soon as you enter, her gentle hand-made dolls will start whispering enchanting tales to your imagination. During the Christmas season, you can find Jasmina and her dolls on the Zrinjevac square fair, too. 

All the locals love Christmas art fairs. artOmat has been the most popular one for years. It’s taking place in one of the most impressive modern architectural sights in Zagreb, the Mestrovic’s pavillion at Trg zrtava fasizma. artOmat is a true exhibition of creativity. It’s interesting enough to just take a look around, but you can also get wonderful stocking stuffers. Another big art and design bazaar called FISTT art takes place in the students’ center in Savska street. If you needed an excuse to visit some places just outside the city center, off you go!

Hear poems for snow and stories of old 

If you’re spending your winter holidays here in Zagreb, make sure to follow the 50 Poems for Snow festival on Facebook. It’s a pop-up poetry festival that takes place when the first snow covers the streets of Zagreb. That’s when the organisers quickly announce the location of the festival on their Facebook page, and everyone is invited to join this special experience. This year, the festival goes international and it’s going to be organised in other countries as well.

Cosy indoors seem more like your kind of fun on a cold winters’ eve?  Storytelling organisation Vilinput and their partners Vestigium organise storytelling sessions throughout the year. Christmas season traditionally makes a perfect timing to bring families together and share stories of old, so make sure to check their schedule and join some of their events. 

Enter the Croatian ethno-house “Materina prica” 

One of the exhibitions of traditionally crafted Christmas cribs takes place in the Croatian ethno-house Materina prica (Mother’s tale). It’s a wonderful place where you can learn about the old Croatian ways. Materina prica is goverened by Mina Petra, well known designer who finds inspiration in Croatian folk customs and patterns. She is a true guardian of old crafts. Materina prica is a warm place that often hosts seasonal exhibitions. Make sure to visit it, it’s placed in Preradoviceva street, in the city center.

Visit the collection of music boxes 

What would a Christmas fairytale be without the sounds of music boxes? There was a strange man called Ivan Gerersdorfer, who used to live here in Zagreb. He dedicated his life to collecting music boxes. His mother used to work for a famous noble family of Jelacic, as a housekeeper. It was precisely in the Jelacic manor when Ivan first saw a music box. He was just a little kid back then, but it was love at first sight. He was so amazed that he decided in that very instant that he was going to become a clockmaker. He knew it was the only way he could take care of his precious music boxes.  20th century wars passed, people were left penniless. Ivan Gerersdorfer took that opportunity to go around the city, dig through people’s cellars and attics in a frantic search for music boxes. He bought them off at low cost.. after all, they were worthless at that point, weren’t they? 

Not quite. Not once he took them back home. He would repair them, and conserve them.. he lived for the moment when an old music box started playing again. That’s when he knew exactly where it came from and when it was made. He thought of their music as their birth certificate. 

His amazing collection of musical automatons can be seen in the Museum of the City of Zagreb. You will be surprised when you discover his collection. There are closets playing the entire orchestra, and a book that reads its own stories, a wind-up paradise. Maybe he wasn’t just a clockmaker. Once you find yourselfsurrounded by his music boxes, you know he had the power to make the time stand still.  

Get into the Christmas spirit Zagreb-style 

When in Zagreb, act as Zagrebers do… and embrace the local Christmas customs! If you’re in town for St Nicholas saint day, December 6, you’re going to notice street vendors all over the city, selling thin golden branches. St Nicholas is the first Croatian Christmas gift-bringer. Even though the advent period has already started, St Nicholas day is the day when everyone enters a true holiday spirit. On St Nicholas Eve, children clean their boots and place them by the windows. In the morning, they find a little treat. (It used to be little up until recently, but it’s getting bigger and more hi-tech than in the old days, since Croatia is not quite consumerism-proof). 

But they also find another thing. Golden birch branches. It’s a warning that they should behave nice. Branches were left there by the devilish Krampus demon. It’s up to kids to imagine what would be the purpose of the branches if they misbehaved. 

Smell of mulled wine and warm sausages overflows the streets of Zagreb and it’s very inviting. But if you want to try a true Christmas dish, the most traditional Christmas dish in this region is purica z mlinci – roasted turkey with a special kind of dough. You can try it in some restaurants, but it tastes best in the mountain lodges on mount Medvednica above the city.

Winter scenery on mountain Medvednica

Back in the days, that dish was a must. There was even a turkey market in the heart of Zagreb, on St Thomas’ saint day just before Christmas. Women would then pick two living turkeys and take them home, alive and kicking. Before choosing their perfect turkey, they used to prepare a small spot at the balcony, where they continued feeding them until the time comes… One of them was getting ready for Christmas lunch, and the other one for Epiphany, January 6. Animals often had to walk all the way to the market, lead by farmers from nearby villages. Poor things didn’t know that a long walk wasn’t going to be the worst thing that would happen to them. 

Be warned – roasted turkey is for Christmas dinner, don’t even think of eating poultry meat at New Years eve! New Year is reserved for pork, because pigs go straight-forward, and birds just run in circles without a goal. You don’t want the year ahead to be like a confused chicken.

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