It was amusing to be welcomed to the hostel by a curious yet friendly receptionist. He probably didn’t get to meet a lot of Middle Eastern veiled Muslim females who travel solo before, so he was quite curious about me. I get that a lot and it never bothered me, on the contrary, I always enjoy those small but pleasant talks. After one such a talk with him- he didn’t introduce himself and I didn’t ask for his name for some reason- about where I come from and why Croatia, he led me to my room which was spacious and nice unlike other dorm rooms I stayed in before. There was enough space for everyone, a decently sized cupboard, a small table with a couple of chairs, and the capsule-like sleeping compartments were commodious. I even liked the paint and drawings of the walls. It was a cool place and I instantly loved it. I have stayed in places where it wasn’t possible to accommodate the suitcases of all the people in the room and that was quite unbearable!! Not in that hostel no! This one was funky, airy with a chillaxed atmosphere.
One of the things I experienced while staying in hostels in Croatia and found a little strange for my taste was how the receptionists led guests into their rooms without knocking at the door!! It struck me as a violation of the privacy of whoever is inside the room!! It got me thinking that such an action can easily violate my privacy as well; a veiled female who always books herself in female dorms for convenience. You can imagine how alarmed I was when the friendly male receptionist showed me to my room!
I tried not to consider it much but a while later as I was sitting comfortably in the room, the door was abruptly opened, and there it was, our friendly receptionist as he let another lady in!! The scarf was out of my reach and it was already too late to reach for it! Damage is done! The weather was so hot that day; I was super tired and all I wanted was to relax and have some rest before going out for dinner. So, I thought I take the scarf off and make myself comfortable. I didn’t expect though that my moment of peace will be disrupted in such a way. It was an uneasy moment that left me feeling gloomy as I was never put in such a situation before!
Staying in hostels is so different from having a hotel room all for yourself and I’m aware of that. Through all the times I stayed in dorm rooms though, I never thought of it as an inconvenience until that moment in Zagreb.
I know hijab doesn’t make sense to lots of people and it is always perceived with disapproval, but it is part of me and my identity as a female. Despite what most people think not all women are forced to wear it. I put it on by choice and I don’t feel limited by it, on the contrary, it makes me feel empowered. It is a visual display of my identity and what I stand for as a person in this world. Hijab is portrayed by the media as an oppressive act towards women in the Muslim world. Sadly, in some countries in the Middle East it is used as such a repressive tool but in others it is not. Choosing to cover our bodies is not synonym to having our brains buried under layers of soft fabric. Veiled women can be intellectual, highly educated, well-travelled, and even athletes. That piece of fabric doesn’t limit the abilities of our minds, it just curbs how much of our bodies we wish to show the world! I guess those are two entirely different perspectives!
It was super-hot that day and handling the afternoon heat felt like a daunting thing to do. So, I decided to stay in till the heat breaks down a little and have a little rest meanwhile. The hostel was close to Ban Jelačić Square which is the center of the pedestrian zone in downtown Zagreb and that made it easy for me to walk around and reach almost everywhere I wanted to go to on foot. Nearby that area was one of the dinner recommendations given to me by Sara, Vinodol. It was the busy dinner time again when I was there and I got worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a table. It turned out though that finding a small table for a solo traveler wasn’t an impossible affair. It would have been a pity if I wasn’t able to find myself a seat as the restaurant was cozy and beautifully interior-ed. I ordered grilled chicken that came with zucchini and mushrooms. The food representation didn’t take my breath away, but the taste did! The food was absolutely delish. After I was done with my meal, I fought the urge of ordering deserts. I wanted to checkout yet another recommendation, given to me by no one other than Sara, for desert. Torte i to was according to Sara the best place for cakes in Zagreb and indeed it was. I could taste the freshness of the cream and fruits in that piece of cake I ordered that night! It was simply scrumptious.
After a pretty much successful night of fine dining, I headed back to the hostel because I was just beat. As I walked into the reception, the guy from earlier was there and what started as a casual evening greeting turned into quite a conversation. He asked me if I was calling it a day and got so surprised when I said yes. It is only 10 pm, people start going out and enjoy their summer nights at such an hour and you are calling it a day, he said! I was lol-ing over his remark and I only had “I’m super tired” to say. He explained that during summertime there are lots of musical/cultural events that take place around the city. He even gave me a recommendation for the following two days in case I feel like attending such an event.
He then steered the conversation into a more serious angle, traveling solo while being the Muslim woman i’m. He asked about the hijab, eating pork, and drinking. He was taken aback when I told him I don’t eat pork nor drink! He even asked if- with all the traveling that I do- I didn’t give myself a cheat day! He then told me about one of his cousins who is half Croatian half Libyan and how he behaves as a Muslim should whenever he is in Libya but “takes a break” when he is in Croatia. He wondered why I don’t do the same so I can enjoy my time more “freely” whenever I’m traveling! According to him, the Croatian cuisine relies on pork and wine extensively and since I consume neither, I thereby didn’t fully enjoy the cuisine of the country! He couldn’t fathom how I can still enjoy my life and my travels while abstaining from drinking, partying, or even dressing more “comfortably”!! Despite the dissimilarities in both of your opinions, he nonetheless showed respect and admiration for living it my way! I wasn’t annoyed by such a discussion at all despite our little encounter earlier that day.
I woke up the following morning ready to explore the city but first, breakfast. For that, I found myself going back to Torte i to for cake and coffee. YUM! Let’s burn down them calories now 😀 My wanderings started at the Zagreb Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That cathedral is a Zagreb landmark and there is no wonder why! Not only it is the tallest building in Croatia, but it also houses one of the top 10 finest organs in the world. The original construction of the cathedral was damaged during the Tartar attack followed by a fire in the 13th century. The 1880 earthquake contributed to the severe damage that occurred later! It was restored to the Neo-Gothic style we can see today by Hermann Bollé. It is considered as the most monumental sacral building of such style southeast of the Alps.
After that I strolled around the famous and most visited open market in Zagreb, Dolac Market. Dolac is a farmers’ market with a big variety of goods ranging from fresh flowers and veggies, to souvenirs and lace. I got tempted by all those bee farmers selling their honey and decided to buy myself a small jar. The guy at the stall asked where I’m from and at the sound of the word Egypt, he told ah you are the daughter of the sun 😊 That was an exciting thought, one I didn’t think of before!
After the market, I continued to Gornji Grad which is one of the districts of the city of Zagreb. Gornji Grad translates into “upper town” and that refers to it being located on the city’s hillside. I always look for those hilly views of a city whenever I’m in Europe, I usually get rewarded with mesmerizing sceneries. That part of Zagreb didn’t disappoint, I absolutely loved it. The architecture, street art, churches, the 360-degree views of Zagreb, the street musicians! EVERYTHING!
Here are my favorite picks of that area:
The Lotrščak Tower which dates back to the 13th century, was built to protect the south gate of the old city. It has an observation deck that offers amazing views of Zagreb from every possible angle. What’s interesting about the tower is the cannon at the fourth floor which gets fired everyday at noon. Story has it that back in the days, a cannon shot from the tower flew over the Sava river to the Turk’s base camp and into a platter of chicken- turkey in other versions of the story- that was being served to the Pasha as his lunch! At such an incident, the Pasha decided against attacking the city and just like that Zagreb escaped the invasion. Since then, a cannon has been fired every day at noon. The tower can be reached either on foot or by means of a funicular and costs 20 Croatian Kuna. I don’t need to explain how pretty the city looked from up there. I enjoyed my panoramic views while listening to a guitarist playing his music somewhere in the street below. The guitar was followed by a sax and I thought to myself, it can’t get any better 😊
St. Mark’s Church as seen from the Lotrščak Tower
The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb is located in the baroque Kulmer Palace. Objects and tokens from brokenhearted people due to failed relationships along with short synopses are on display in that museum. The idea of such a museum sounded a little soppy I must admit but I was intrigued to check what kind of exhibits were being showcased. So, I paid those 30 Kuna and booked myself a ticket. The exhibits were not only about lost love, but also friendships and parental relations that were long gone. I guess the idea behind such a museum was to get over the tragedies associated with lost relations by getting rid of materialistic stuff that reminded a person of what was lost! The items on display might be unusual but you can feel the pain those pieces hold when reading the synopsis. One of the pieces that touched my heart was a suicide note from a mom to her children! I couldn’t find any exhibits from the Middle East but there were items from England, Ireland, Germany, Croatia, Bosnia, and the United States!
Strossmartre is a lovely promenade in the Upper Town of Zagreb. It has something for everybody even the little ones specially during the summer months. It is located near the Lotrščak tower and can be accessed either on foot or by means of the funicular. The promenade is mostly shaded, it has a couple of bars and food stalls. In the summer there are lots of activities that take place there between May and September. In the morning there is usually a market and crafts made by local artists are displayed and late in the afternoon the live music starts. I was in luck because that night there was a live jazz performance at 9 and I decided that’s how I want to spend my last night in Zagreb. You can also go for a drink or coffee, or even sit in the shade with a book. I simply loved the easygoing nature of the location.
The Upper Town is place for two churches that I absolutely loved. One is the Saint Catherine of Alexandria church and the other is St. Mark’s church. The church of Saint Catherine dominates Catherine’s Square, it was built by the Jesuits in the first half of the 17th century, and it is one of the most beautiful Baroque churches in Zagreb despite its plain façade. Behind that plane façade though was the most beautiful interior I have ever seen in a church. It consists of a single isle with 6 chapels on the sides and an illusionist moral that resembles the one found in the Il Gesu Jesuit church in Rome. The walls and ceiling are decorated with intricate white and rose motifs. It was so beautiful with all the contrast in the colors forming the interior layout of the building. Behind the church building there is a platform that offers amazing views of the cathedral and the Dolac market and if you walk around you can feast your eyes with some cool graffiti and street art.
St. Mark’s church was built in the 13th century and it derives its fame from the colorful tiled roof that was constructed in 1880. The roof shows the medieval coat of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia, and Slovenia on the left side and the emblem of Zagreb on the right side. An interesting piece of info I read online is that the pine marten animal in the coat of arms of Slovenia is where the Croatian currency got its name from, Kuna! The most iconic feature of the church though is the original gothic sculpture at the southern portal. The sculpture shows the statues of Joseph and Mary with the infant Jesus, St. Mark and the lion, and the 12 Apostles. The interior was painted by the Croatian painter Jozo Kljaković and it houses sculptures by the famous Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović.
After an afternoon well spent in the Upper Town, I walked myself to the Lower Town. I wandered around aimlessly enjoying the ambiance of the city. I was getting hungry by then and I treated myself to some quiche and passion-fruit bubble tea. I looked for a shady spot under a tree in one of the numerous green areas of the city and sat there resting, eating, relaxing, and just enjoying myself. I walked from one place to another with no set plan on where to go. I had another stop in a shaded lush green park with a fountain. I dipped my tired feet in the cool water of the fountain, took my book out and read. It was such an enjoyable moment, chilling in the shade in a park with a book. Such a simple act but very satisfying still.
I was too tired to walk back to the hostel afterwards, so I took the metro instead. The metro reminded me of the lovely city of Graz ❤ I was going to attend the free jazz performance at the Strossmartre Promenade that night and since I needed to start early the following day to head to the airport, I thought I better have some rest and start packing slowly so I wouldn’t bother my roommates late in the evening with my luggage!! I packed while conversing with two of my roommates, one Croatian and the other Aussie, we mainly talked about Croatia and how our trips were. I climbed up to my bed to lay down and relax with the sweet music of a street musician finding its way to my ears through the window.
When evening came and it was time for the concert, I was still tired and felt like staying in but I forced myself to go out. It was my last night in Zagreb, in Croatia, and it marked the end of my 3-week trip around Europe. This time I walked to the promenade, it was nicely lit in the evening and the summer night breeze made it so romantic. I was so glad I pushed myself to go, it was such a lovely evening and I wouldn’t have asked for a better closure to my trip. The band played some sweet melodies and their tunes encouraged people to dance. An old couple came close to the stage and danced in the most delicate and sweet way to the music. I was put in an entirely different mood, one that was tranquilizing and calming. It was all ending so beautifully, and I couldn’t be any happier.
The following day, I started my journey back to Cairo. I was numb about my trip coming to an end. It also meant that my summer break will be ending soon, and it will be time for me to fly back to Kuwait and start a new academic year! I was quite conflicted about that! It was a lovely morning that day as I took the metro to the bus station then a ride to the airport. Zagreb has been so good to me and granted me the best closure for my trip. Unfortunately, that peaceful feeling didn’t last for long when I transited in Belgrade en route to Athens.
I landed in Belgrade and as any transit passenger would do, I headed to the transfer desk to ask about my connecting flight. I was kept there for almost 15 minutes, my passport was taken from me and gotten searched thoroughly! I was asked about why I was in Croatia and what brought me to Serbia without being offered any info regarding my connecting flight. While I was kept for this small “interrogation”, a few other passengers came to the desk, asked about what they wanted and left just like that! I was the only one who was kept to be questioned. I was so frustrated for how I was being treated but what was even worse was my inability to protest! I had to wait, be calm, and suck it up! I was then asked about the visa to Serbia and I kind of snapped at the lady at that time! I explained that I wasn’t planning on entering the country, that I was only transiting here because it was my only way to go back to Athens from Zagreb and not because I wanted to. I also made it clear that I was sure to check about how possible it was for me to transit without a visa in Belgrade with the consulate in Kuwait! At my offer to show the email I received declaring so, that information desk personnel handed me the passport and told me which gate my connecting flight will be flying from.
I was frustrated because of what happened but tried to let go over a cup of coffee while passing the couple of hours I had till boarding. Buying that cup of coffee was probably the most pleasant incident I had in that airport! The barista was really friendly and spoke to me with what little Arabic words he knew and that was just sweet. He really put a smile on my face, one that sadly didn’t last for long! It was boarding time and I queued along with the other passengers waiting for my turn. When I handed my passport to the airline staff, she asked about when I left Croatia, which was a couple of hours earlier literally, then she told me I’m sorry I can’t see the entry stamp, how come you left Croatia, I can’t let you board!! WHAT!! I tried to explain myself and that I had all the needed stamps otherwise I would have faced an issue in Zagreb that morning!! Still, she wasn’t convinced! She confiscated my passport and very rudely told me to step aside and wait till her super comes!!
It was by far the most terrible way I was treated with in an airport! People started looking at me up and down once I was forced to step aside! The veiled female who is probably a potential terrorist!! I was kept waiting for some time without having my passport back nor being given any explanation till the super came. He was and old man with a kind face who looked at me affectionately with a gesture that assured me that everything is ok. And just like that, I got my passport back and was signaled that I can board the airplane without even being looked at or offered an apology for the inconvenience. You can imagine the worried looks I received by everyone once I passed that boarding gate!! I couldn’t understand what the problem was with the stamps in my passport!! The airline staff was saying I didn’t have an entry stamp to Croatia so how come I flew out!! That just didn’t make any sense!! Upon checking the passport when I was already on the airplane, I was able to find the entry and exit stamps from Croatia on the same page!! I was just puzzled, and my only explanation is that it wasn’t appealing for her that I entered Croatia by land and exited by air!!
I landed in Athens safely and passport control was quite easy. I had around 5 hours to kill and instead of staying in the airport, I stored my luggage and took the metro to town. I thought I would have a walk and something to eat but I really regretted it. I couldn’t really enjoy those last couple of hours because I was worried that something might happen and I would miss my flight. I tried to savor the little time I had till I needed to walk myself back to the metro station and into the airport but failed miserably. I ended up on the wrong train and I started to freak out but the people in the metro were so helpful and directed me in the right direction while wishing me a safe trip. It was a nice gesture that helped easing the mishaps that took place earlier.
I collected my luggage and queued for luggage drop and suddenly, an old lady asked me, in plain Egyptian Arabic, if I was from Egypt. In utter surprise, I answered yes and she replied back me too, I’m from Alexandria. It turned out that she was born in Alexandria, Shedy Bishr in specific, and was part of the big Greek community that lived in Egypt back in the days. She talked to me about Egypt and how she wished to go back for a visit specially to Alexandria. She was absolutely happy that she met an Egyptian in Greece. A person who reminded her of the great time she had while living in Egypt. That lovely lady probably didn’t have a clue of how happy I was with our little encounter. I was, afterwards, greeted by the friendliest check-in counter staff I have ever met. He asked me how I were and if I enjoyed my trip and wished me a safe flight.
It was all going well till I reached the security check! I usually get asked to be manually inspected if I beeped walking through the body scan which is fine by me! This time in Athens, I didn’t beep and accidentally saw a male security person signaling a female one to inspect my head!! I ignored it but as I was collecting my things, the female security person approached me and asked to inspect my headscarf!! I was in disbelief but indifferent at the same time and let her do the inspection! My head, neck, and ponytail were squeezed! I wasn’t sure what she was looking for exactly but I didn’t protest!! And when I thought this silly charade was over, I was surprised to see her bringing the metal detector scanner and circle it around my head!! I don’t mind at all being checked in such a manner if that was the standard airport security procedure which gets applied to everyone!! I highly doubt it would have been the case though if a nun was passing that security check point. I don’t think anyone would have ever thought of giving her head-cover an inspection!!
I shock all that off once the airplane took off! It was by far one of the most emotionally draining trips I have ever been on! My appearance always gives me away as a Muslim, nonetheless I never experienced that amount of prejudice for being who I’m as I did on that trip!! I admit that that trip put me off Europe for quite some time. And now that I’m reminiscing about it, I realize that it took me over a year till I was able to go back to that continent! And when I did, it was to the UK where I never ever had any such inconveniences. I always feel welcomed every time I’m visiting and never once did I feel out of place. No wonder I visited 5 times during the past 3 years.
In recent years, It has been getting harder and harder for me to be comfortable in my own skin whenever I find myself in that European continent. If only people would know how those persistent stares make me feel! We don’t get to choose our ethnicity or skin color at birth, but I totally believe that it is definitely up to us to choose how we want to see the world around us and perceive all its diversity while embracing the beauty it holds within. We just need to open up our minds and hearts a little.