‘What should I read before travelling to Croatia’, is the most frequent question I am asked by my readers.
You know what? Thank you for this question. Your deep curiosity about Croatia makes my heart leap. It’s not only that you seek to uncover a place unknown to you, but you ask to do it through books!
In an increasingly digitalised world – this is gold.
And in a world that is increasingly reduced to a bulleted list of tourist attractions, reading local literature seems exceptional.
And I mean exceptional as both rare and excellent.
Why every traveller should read Croatian literature
Have you ever thought of literature and travel guides as two opposites? The former as fiction and the latter as facts? If that was the case, no traveller would seek out foreign literature in translation.
So why do we read foreign writers when we want a deeper understanding of a place we are about to visit?
Here is a list of my 5 essential whys:
1. People love reading stories. Serviceable information in travel guides are not stories.
2. People love personal accounts and perspectives. Guidebook travel information strives to be accurate but not personal.
3. People connect to that which sounds real, even if it
sometimes appears dark, troubled or chaotic. Tourist information is only
4. People are more interested in other people than museums,
buildings or empty landscapes. Literature best reflects local people’s values
and cultural customs.
5. When people are told what kind of experience to look for in a foreign place, they want to know why.
For example, when you learn that Zagreb coffee culture is one of the city’s highlights, having a cup is not enough. You’ll want to know why everyone in Zagreb seems to be lingering at café terraces, even during work times. Local writing has the best insights.
So let me quench your desire for Croatian literature before you set off on your journey. Most of you will have heard of the Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić and his classic The Bridge Over The Drina or the popular travelogue Black Lamb And Grey Falcon by Rebecca West.
My Croatia essential reading list is a bit different. It includes Croatian fiction and non-fiction in the English translation. But I also added novels originally written in English which are set in Croatia. Apart from a couple of exceptions, all titles are published in the last 25 years.
Some books focus more on the early 1990s years and the topics of war and post-socialist transitions. Others are very recent, portraying the Croatia that you will meet if you go there now. I find both perspectives valuable, especially to observe how much and how fast the country is changing.
Best books about Croatia: Croatian novels
1. Zagreb Noir
This collection of crime stories features several Croatian writers. Each of their stories is set in a different location across Croatia’s capital, revealing its darker, funnier and slightly rougher side. If you thought that Croats, and East Europeans in general, have no sense of humour – think again. These stories may be noir-ish but they’ll teach you what the locals find funny too.
2. Farewell, Cowboy
This book is the debut novel by the Split-based writer Olja Savičević Ivančević. It’s a tough yet poetic, dark yet funny story filled with local colour and sentiment. The story follows a Western film being shot on the nearby 'prairie' but it also questions our childhood ideas of heroism. It’s not the postcard-perfect Dalmatia but it’s a wonderful Dalmatian holiday read.
3. Zagreb, Exit South
This is the only novel available in English by the acclaimed writer Edo Popović. It portrays the 1990s Zagreb and the lives of common people struggling with socio-economic shifts after the fall of communism. The novel deals with relationship break-ups and alcoholism, but Popović has a way of turning his prose into a vibrant and uplifting read. This of him as a Croatian Bukowski.
4. Hedgehog's Home
Most Croats still know a few lines of this story by heart. Branko Čopić created a timeless tale about a determined little hedgehog that loves his humble home above all else. Wonderful illustrations by the Croatian artists Sanja Rešček will appeal to the imagination of the little ones. But the book’s message carries over into the adult, especially with its sentiments for our natural habitat.
5. On The Edge Of Reason
This novel is a classic of the Croatian literature by the renowned writer Miroslav Krleža. It will especially delight those who appreciate East and Central European writers, such as Dostoyevsky, Hasek and Kafka. The novel was written in 1938, but Krleža’s dry and witty insights into the human nature are as fresh as ever. Don’t forget to visit his statue in Tuškanac forest in Zagreb!
Best books about Croatia: Croatian history books
6. The Culture Of Lies
This is a time-tested collection of darkly humorous essays about post-socialist Croatia. Anyone interested in the region’s politics enjoys Dubravka Ugrešić’s sarcastic but witty writing. The essays range from academic topics to satirical insights into soap operas and pop music. If you’re a fan of Kundera, don’t think twice about picking up this book.
7. Cafe Europa
This is one of many essay collections by the celebrated journalist Slavenka Drakulić. The title speaks of the 1990s when Eastern Europe yearned to acquire a more Western flair. And one way to do it was opening Vienna-style cafés. Some images of Croatia will seem out of date, but Drakulić’s writing is beautifully crafted. And the book is shows how much Croatia has changed in the last 25 years.
8. Zagreb: A Cultural History
This book was written by Celia Hawkesworth, the acclaimed translator of Croatian literature into English. Although it’s not well known as a travel guide, the book offers the richest account of Zagreb’s cultural and historical life. From coffee drinking and city walking to key artists that have shaped the city, this is a treasure trove of little known facts that will truly make you bond with Zagreb.
9. Chasing A Croatian Girl
Not a history book per se but a must-read for anyone married to a Croat or planning a long trip to Croatia. The book earned its author, Cody Brown, the title of the most famous Croatian son-in-law. Not merely because he married a Croatian girl, but because he writes so warmly and insightfully about the importance of close-knit families, where the mother(-in-law) figure exudes most authority but also most love. His observations about coffee-drinking rituals or the fear of draft in Croatia are a perfect introduction into the country’s culture.
Best books about Croatia: novels set in Croatia
10. Girl At War
Sara Nović’s debut novel delivers a moving story about a Croatian girl Ana who was 10 during the 1991 Homeland war in Croatia. We follow the storyline of her childhood, her adult life in NYC and finally her return to Croatia to face the ghosts of the past. Nović received heaps of praise for her accomplished style or writing in which she delivered the gravity and brutality of war and loss.
11. Running Away To Home
This memoir won Jennifer Wilson Best Nonfiction Book of 2011 by the American Society of Journalists. Already an established travel writer, Wilson embarks on a sweet journey of reconnection. With her husband and two kids, she travels to her ancestral home in Croatia to learn more about her immigrant story. In the process, Wilson shares with us her heartfelt epiphanies about ‘home’ and ‘family’.
12. The Hired Man
Aminatta Forna crafts a haunting, suspenseful story about wartime secrets in a small Croatian town. When a British family takes up residence there, they get assistance from a local man Đuro. As the trust between them depends, the town begins to talk. Slowly but surely we are let in on the secrets of the town and the house’s former occupants. Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle voted the novel the best book of the year.
13. Immigrant Daughter
In this much acclaimed memoir Catherine Kapphahn weaves together two narratives: the present-day journey of the daughter and her mother’s unspoken history. As Kapphahn discovers the tragic events during WWII Zagreb, she gives voice to her mother’s experience. Her cultural identity begins to take shape. Eventually, the overlapping stories merge into a whole as loss transcends into love through our own act of imagination.
14. Under A Croatian Sun
Plenty of books have been written about moving to places off the beaten path, but Anthony Stancomb delivers a truly charming story. It’s a lyrical and often funny account of his and his wife first year on the island of Vis. If you’re not ready to relocate to Croatia, make this book your holiday read. It’s a warm story about cultural difference and acceptance.
What is your favourite Croatian read? Drop me a comment and help other travellers discover the local culture.