A Practical Guide to the Way of Life in Croatia
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- Paul Zimmerer
The InterNations network helped me transition from a study abroad student to a resident of Zagreb.
Life in Croatia
- There are many leisure activities on offer for expatriates, whether they enjoy sport or cultural activities.
- The state provides education from six months to sixteen years free of charge, but there are also many private and international schools to choose from.
- Travelling by bus is a better option than train travel in Croatia.
Expats living in Croatia should have no difficulty finding their favorite leisure activities. Most expatriates relocate either to the big cities, especially Zagreb, where nightlife and cultural life in Croatia are booming, or to the seaside resorts on the Adriatic coast.
If you are free to travel around and choose where you’d like to be living in Croatia, you should take one thing into account. Small coastal towns, or smaller islands, are very picturesque locations in summer. Since a large part of their economy focuses on seasonal tourism, though, they can seem rather deserted and dull in the winter months. Unless you prefer leading a very quiet life in Croatia for half the year, you might be better off in coastal cities like Dubrovnik or Split.
The above advice aside, though, there should be available leisure opportunities for everyone living in Croatia, regardless of their personal taste. The country boasts beautiful scenery and a rich cultural heritage, as well as a varied cuisine.
Outdoor Activities in the Croatian Countryside
People who enjoy outdoor activities will really appreciate the countryside in Croatia. Rivers like the Kupa or the Mreznica invite the adventurous to try kayaking and white water rafting. Amateur speleologists visiting or living in Croatia can explore the Velebit caves, which are among the deepest in Southeastern Europe. Weekend travelers from Zagreb might prefer to take a guided tour round Veternica cave. Moreover, Croatia’s eight national parks and eleven nature parks are attractive destinations for hikers, mountaineers, climbers, anglers, and bird-watchers.
The most famous of Croatia’s nature reserves is Plitvička jezera, Plitvice Lakes National Park, which was one of the first natural sites worldwide to qualify as UNESCO World Heritage. Its lakes are popular for their distinct jewel colors, ranging from jade green to azure. In the dense forests, you may spot an eagle, lynx, or brown bear. Visitors from Germany, or German expats living in Croatia, might wonder why some of the scenery in Plitvice looks surprisingly familiar. In the 1960s, the area was used as a filming location for popular German “sauerkraut westerns”, which are still broadcast on TV nearly every Christmas.
Speaking of Christmas, many mountain ranges contain numerous skiing resorts for winter sports lovers living in Croatia. Medvednica is the closest location to the capital. It is also the venue for the Snow Queen Trophy, an annual slalom race in early January.
In summer, you can go diving and sailing on the Mediterranean coast. Expats living in Croatia’s northeastern parts, near the Slovenian border, are also in for a treat. It is here that you can find the village of Lipica, home to the original stud farm where the famous Lipizzaner horses are bred. And yes, you can take riding lessons there.
UNESCO Heritage Sites and TV Sets to Visit
If sports or hikes aren’t your thing, you may feel more at home in Croatia’s cities. The country’s fascinating heritage illustrates the many influences on Croatia’s long and eventful history: Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines in Antiquity; the Golden Age of free Dalmatian cities in the medieval era; and traces of the Venetian Republic, the Ottoman Empire, and Habsburg rule in later times.
There are some historical highlights you should not miss out on. In Split, you won’t be able to avoid Diocletian’s Palace, once a massive building right in the center of the city. In the centuries after the Roman era, parts of the medieval city were built inside the former palace grounds. Today’s UNESCO World Heritage Site is a protected complex that encompasses the historical core of the town, with Roman ruins, Romanesque churches, Gothic buildings, and sumptuous Renaissance and Baroque palaces all over the place.
From Split in southern Dalmatia, it is easy to travel to the city of Trogir, as well as Dubrovnik, both of which are also UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Lovers of medieval churches and fortifications will love taking a walk round their historical town centers, against the spectacular backdrop of the Mediterranean. Ask about guided tours at the official tourist information in Trogir or Dubrovnik!
If you happen to be walking around Dubrovnik and feel it looks familiar, you might be a Game of Thrones fan. The city plays the fictional metropolis of King’s Landing in HBO’s TV series. Some entrepreneurial locals have even started giving tours featuring all the famous spots.
If you’d like to know what else is currently going on in Dubrovnik, be it the Dubrovnik Summer Festival or the annual Shakespeare Festival, check the Time Out Dubrovnik site. There is a similar webpage for attractions and events in Zagreb.
A Foodie’s Paradise
Last but not least, you should definitely try the local cuisine. Vegetarians might be a bit disappointed, though. Depending on where exactly you live, traditional dishes tend to make frequent use of grilled meat or seafood. Everyone knows cevapčići, the local version of meatballs, usually served with rice and ajvar (a relish made of red peppers and garlic), but Croatian cuisine has so much more to offer! The ingredients include plenty of fresh produce, and the various regional specialties are an interesting mixture of Central European and Mediterranean recipes.
For example, pasta often comes with gulaš, a thick sauce very similar to Hungarian goulash stews, while tartufi (truffles) are an Istrian delicacy that will delight gourmets. You should also taste crni rizot, black seafood risotto from Dalmatia, or venison and wild boar as seasonal highlights of the hinterland. Even if you are not a carnivore, you may enjoy Croatian pastries and desserts, for instance, rožata, a famous, custard-like pudding from Dubrovnik.
Wherever you start your new expat life in Croatia, make sure you travel around the Croatian cities, country, coast, and islands. Most expats start with Zagreb and Split, and then get more adventurous!
Education in Croatia
Early Childhood Education
Early years education in Croatia is made up of both public and private kindergartens and nurseries. Your child can attend these nurseries and pre-schools from the age of six months until they start compulsory education at six years old. Whilst attendance is becoming more common, nurseries and pre-schools are still not attended by much more than half of children until the year before the start of compulsory education when 99% of children attend.
Just like this gap in attendance, there is a large disparity of quality between the various pre-schools around the country. There are also rather long waiting lists for pre-schools and nurseries, which can only be applied for from May onwards. If you want to avoid these waiting lists, or want to apply at any point of the year, a private kindergarten may be your best choice. The price for private kindergartens will most likely be between 2,500 and 3,500 HRK per month, but you should check with your kindergarten of choice for a specific price.
If you are only staying in Croatia temporarily without a permanent residence permit, you should be aware that the cost for public pre-school will be 1,900 HRK per month. You may be interested to know that many public kindergartens offer different programs, such as early foreign language learning programs or sport programs. Among the language learning programs, you can usually choose from English, German, French, Italian and Spanish, although not all languages will be available in every area.
At the age of six, primary school children in Croatia start the mandatory part of their education. Primary education in Croatia is split into two stages, the first being from grades one to four and the second being grades five to eight. In the first stage, students usually study Croatian language and literature, math, nature and society, fine arts, music, physical education (PE), a foreign language from grade four onwards, and supplementary and elective studies.
In the second stage, they will likely study Croatian language and literature, fine arts, music, a foreign language, math, history, geography, technology, PE, supplementary and elective studies, and nature in grades five and six followed by biology, chemistry and physics in grades seven and eight. Whilst the language in the classroom is usually Croatian, official minorities have the right to be taught in their mother tongue.
After finishing their primary education, children may continue into optional secondary education. There are three types of secondary education to choose from:
- At general or specialized grammar schools pupils study a comprehensive curriculum. At the end of the four years, they take the state matura, after which they can take up higher education.
- Vocational schools (business, technology, or industry, etc.) last one to five years depending on the end qualification, which can either be a final assignment or the state matura.
- Art schools (dance, music, fine arts, etc.) function in largely the same way as vocational schools.
Those who finish high school with a “Certificate of Education” can enroll in a university or a polytechnic school of higher education.
Local vs. International Schools
The public education system in Croatia has the obvious advantage that it is free of charge. Children of foreign residents are also entitled to additional language lessons in Croatian. Sending your kids to a public school in Croatia might make sense if they already speak another Eastern European language, if they are still fairly young, or if you are planning to stay in Croatia in the long run.
If none of this applies to your family, your children might be better off at a private international school. There are several of them in the Zagreb area. There are also a few independent bilingual or international kindergartens in Zagreb too. Plus, some of the international schools may offer an attached nursery or kindergarten for younger children. Here are some of the international schools on offer:
- American International School of Zagreb
- British International School of Zagreb
- Deutsche Schule Zagreb (website only in German or Croatian)
- École Française de Zagreb (website only in French or Croatian)
- Bright Horizons: International British School Zagreb
- The Learning Tree: International Kindergarten
- International Kindergarten Horizons
- Kindie Kindergarten
Health and Safety in Croatia
Before you move to Croatia, you should get booster shots for all standard immunizations: measles-mumps-rubella (MMR); diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus; varicella (chickenpox); polio; and influenza. Moreover, it is highly recommended to get vaccinations for hepatitis A and B, rabies, and tick-borne encephalitis, too. Local health risks include tick-borne diseases, especially encephalitis, lyme disease, and, rarely, spotted fever.
Keep Your Wits about You
Croatia is mostly a fairly safe country. In major cities, pickpocketing is the biggest safety risk. So you should not display ostentatious wealth in public and keep your belongings (wallet, credit cards, and important documents) as safe as possible.
One word of warning: Avoid any sort of “gentlemen’s club”, e.g. striptease shows, table dance bars, etc. These establishments are known for enticing punters into their establishments for free, then suddenly demanding extortionate prices for alcoholic drinks and threatening customers who refuse to pay.
Outdoors, hikers in the mountains and forests should mainly be aware of two things: bad weather and forest fires. It is very easy to get lost in a large Croatian forest when there’s a thunderstorm coming on, or when rain or fog prevents you from finding the right path. Obviously, inclement weather can lead to dangerous, even fatal accidents.
In dry summers, however, fires tend to break out in dense forests with little rain. Please get updated at local information centers, e.g. in national parks and nature reserves, before you go on longer walks or set out for more remote areas.
Landmines from the 1990s Balkan Wars may still pose a threat. However, they are mostly limited to specific areas. These include the border regions to Serbia and Hungary, e.g. Eastern Slavonia, Brodsko-Posavska County, Karlovac County, and areas around Zadar, as well as some of the more remote parts of the famous Plitvice National Park.
If you are planning extended travel in the easternmost parts of Croatia, or in the southeastern hinterland, check up on your destinations with the Croatian Mine Action Centre first. In general, do not leave the roads or enter any abandoned buildings, and pay attention to warning signs. A skull and crossbones symbol, the inscription “ne prilazite”, or areas cordoned off with bright plastic tape are common indicators. If you keep your distance from such places, you should be fine.
Travel Health Insurance
If you are planning a short-term trip to Croatia, you should get a decent travel insurance plan. Those nationals who have to apply for a visa before entering the country, as well as all expats applying for a residence permit, need to show proof of health insurance anyway.
But even if you are not legally required to get a medical insurance policy for your stay, you should not try to cut down on expenses. If you fall seriously ill or have an unfortunate accident during a brief business trip, you might be stuck with a huge hospital bill. EU nationals (though not citizens of EEA member states or Switzerland) can fall back on their European Health Insurance Card in case of emergency. However, a comprehensive travel insurance policy will cover a far wider range of treatment.
Healthcare in Croatia
Long-term residents will probably be required to participate in the public health insurance system. As of 2002, having a public health insurance plan with the HZZO (the official health insurance fund) is mandatory in Croatia. The public healthcare system is financed by means of taxation, as well as payroll contributions covered by your employer. Self-employed residents have to pay for their insurance premiums themselves. Basic health insurance in Croatia cost approximately 400 HRK per month in 2011.
The quality of medical care in Croatia is fairly good, though the average life expectancy is slightly lower than the EU average. However, the country is facing the future financial burden of an aging population and a low fertility rate. Moreover, despite relatively high government spending, the public healthcare sector is suffering from budget strains and personnel shortages.
To ease those financial strains, patients with universal healthcare must make co-payments on doctor’s visits, hospitalizations, and prescription medication. A co-payment of 10 HRK is required for a visit to the doctor or dentist, or the purchase of medication. Hospital stays are charged at 100 HRK per day, up to a maximum of 2,000 HRK.
Quite a few Croatians take out voluntary top-up insurance to cover those co-payments as well. Moreover, there are extra private insurance policies to give you better access to medical facilities and avoid long waiting lists. All expats who can afford it should definitely sign up for such an insurance plan in the private sector.
If you are in need of an ambulance, call 194. Of course, 112 is also the standard number in EU countries for any emergency.
If you simply want to see a doctor for a non-urgent check-up, there are several ways of finding a medical professional fluent in English, or one who might even speak your mother tongue. There are, for example, some English-speaking staff members at the following clinics and hospitals in Zagreb:
- Zagreb Dental
- Dental Clinic Ksaver
- American Dental Center Croatia (website only in Croatian)
- Dom Zdravlja Centar (website only in Croatian)
- SUNCE International Polyclinic
- University Hospital Centre Zagreb
- Clinical Hospital Dubrava (website only in Croatian)
- Merkur Clinic Zagreb (website only in Croatian)
- Polyclinic for Gynecology, Obstetrics and IVF
- Children’s Hospital Zagreb
- Children’s Hospital Srebrnjak
As far as pharmacies in Zagreb are concerned, the Centralna ljekama (website only in Croatian) is available 24/7, and the Ljekarna Frebel (website only in Croatian) is said to provide good service for ordering medication from abroad. If you need medical facilities in another city or a doctor with particular foreign language skills, check with your embassy or consulate or send an enquiry to the Croatian Medical Association.
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Transportation in Croatia
Air Travel Is Largely Aimed at Tourists
Most expats arrive in Croatia by plane, at one of the country’s five international airports. These are located in Dubrovnik, Rijeka (or rather on the nearby island of Krk), Split, Zadar, and, of course, Zagreb. Many international flights are seasonal, though, mostly during the summer season. However, Split Airport offers flight connections to Germany and Italy all year round. Most other international flights outside the vacation season start and land in Zagreb.
Zagreb Airport, aka Pleso Airport, is Croatia’s busiest international transportation hub. There are regular flights to Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Kosovo, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, and the UK. Again, you are able to choose among more destinations during the summer months. Throughout the year, flights to Frankfurt, Munich, London, Paris and Vienna are especially frequent.
Zagreb Airport is situated about 17 km from the city center, in the suburb of Pleso (hence the alternative name). It is easy to get there via an airport shuttle from the central bus station on Marin Držíc Avenue. Due to the high number of passengers (nearly 2.6 million in 2015), a second terminal is currently under construction. The project, worth 2.5 million HRK, is expected to be completed at the end of 2016. Local authorities are hoping to see Zagreb Airport become an important regional hub, which hopefully will lead to a wider range of international flights to and from Zagreb once Terminal 2 is finished.
Traveling by Rail Can Be Inefficient
Within Croatia, there are also domestic flights, e.g. from Split to Zagreb. However, travel by bus or train is far cheaper. Unfortunately, the railway network in Croatia is not particularly efficient. There are international rail connections to Austria, Germany, Hungary and Slovenia.
However, the interior railway routes are somewhat lacking. Northern and eastern Croatia profit from a major east-west link between Dobova (on the Slovene border) to Tovarnik (in the Serbian border region), which includes Zagreb as an essential stop. On the other hand, train connections to and within Dalmatia are not nearly as good.
Since much of the railway infrastructure is in dire need of modernization, trains often travel at low speeds. Though they can be rather slow, they are nonetheless fairly clean and mostly on time. If you are looking for a particular train connection, please check the website of Croatian Railways.
Buses Are a Better Option
Due to the above mentioned disadvantages of train travel within Croatia, residents and visitors alike tend to prefer going by bus or coach. Intercity buses are often faster than the respective train connections, and the well-developed market for coach travel includes a variety of providers with relatively comfortable buses and fairly inexpensive tickets.
The main hub for intercity bus travel is the Central Bus Station in Zagreb. It also features an adjacent tourist office, and its homepage provides an up-to-date timetable, as well as contact information/directions, in English.
Major bus companies (which also offer some online information in English and/or German) include:
In addition to planes, buses, and trains, ferries also belong to Croatia’s public transportation network. There are large Adriatic seaports in Ploče and Rijeka (especially for cargo traffic), and important passenger ports in Split and Zadar. International car ferries will bring you and your vehicle to Ancona or Bari on the Italian side of the Adriatic Sea.
There are many more local ferry routes to Croatia’s numerous islands in the Mediterranean. In summer, these routes are mostly aimed at tourists while visitors in winter might quickly notice that the ferries now cater to residents of the larger islands who commute to work or school on the mainland. The national ferry company operating along the Croatian coast is called Jadrolinija.
Driving in Croatia
If you prefer being independent of public transportation, you are probably interested in driving in Croatia. The road network is generally well maintained, but rural roads can be rather narrow and curvy. In such areas, you should also beware of farm animals or local wildlife crossing the road — or simply standing in the middle of it. The Croatian highway and expressway system is quite modern and safe, though, and there are more new highways under construction.
Highways are easy to recognize: Their symbol is a white A on a green background (for autocesta), and they have numbers from 1 to11. Highways in Croatia are all toll roads, so you should have a major international credit card or enough cash (kuna or euros) at hand.
Unlike highways, Croatian expressways do not require you to pay any kind of fee. They are the most important state routes, e.g. D1 from Macelj, via Zagreb to Split, or D8 along the coast from Rijeka to Dubrovnik. More information on highways and expressways, including traffic and safety reports, can be found on the Hrvatske autoceste website.
If you are in Croatia for a short-term stay only, you can keep using your own driving license. After six to twelve months, however, you usually need to exchange your foreign driving permit for a Croatian one. To do this, you normally have to go to the nearest police station and bring along the following documents:
- your old driving license
- an official translation into Croatian
- a recent medical statement that you are fit to drive
- two recent passport photographs
- a completed application form
- fees (HRK 105)
However, before you go to exchange your driving license, do check with the local police or with your embassy in Croatia if any special requirements apply to license holders of a particular nationality.
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