In Croatia, the weather talk is not as big a subject as it is in Britain. But there is still weather wisdom you should know, especially when you visit in the winter.
For starters, Zagreb has a continental climate. Which means crispy cold, sub zero winters with a good prospect of snow. We may not always have a white Christmas, but the first flakes of the year never fail to fill us with that childish joy.
We even indulge in the ritual of making a wish during the first snowfall.
My take on Zagreb weather
Back when I lived in Britain, I learned to check the forecast at least once a day. There was all kinds of advanced data that a lay person had to grasp only to be able to dress for the weather. Temperature, precipitation probability, humidity, visibility, wind direction, speed and gust and so on. And the funniest of all was the ‘feels like’ temperature.
Now if 15°C ‘feels like’ 8°C under certain conditions, the weather must be a subjective thing.
Of course, I learned that the hard way. I set off to the sunny Brighton only to freeze to death while walking on the Brighton Pier. Temperature was 20°C. But I neglected the last column which informed me that I should ‘feel like’ being caught in the eye of a storm.
If the hard science of meteorology explains the weather in a touchy-feely way, imagine how many different emotional reactions the rest of us can have!
I’ve met many people from different climates with reactions to winter weather almost schizophrenic.
Some parade in strapless dresses as snow flakes glitter on their shoulders. And others bundle up in layers which are even difficult to count. They may even forego sex until the spring arrives.
But as varied as these reactions come, there is a peculiar pattern to them.
The milder the winter, the hardier people react to it. So, you get the Brits and the Dutch wearing short sleeves and pants in the middle of January. Or you meet girls from New Castle who prowl the frozen streets in mini skirts and stilettos, coatless.
We who endure sub zero winters, almost seem like sissies to them. We shiver without tights or long johns and we fire up our central heating to the point when we can liquify steel on the radiators.
Some of us even sleep with socks on.
Winter arrives both here and there. We all experience the same low temperatures. But whose visceral or emotional reaction is right?
Or at least right for the Zagreb weather in wintertime?
What does Zagreb weather in the winter feel like?
It feels bloody cold it does.
Having grown up in this climate and this culture, I can’t say if it’s really that cold or I’ve just learned to feel it as cold. Because my own and everyone else’s Croatian mother always warned us at the door: ‘Bundle up, it’s cold outside!’
And so we did. In Zagreb and the rest of continental Croatia, we start wearing hats, scarves and gloves by the beginning of November. Winter jackets and coats are dusted off, and out come fur lined waterproof boots.
But the essential trick is to dress in layers.
Here’s what I normally wear in the winter, layer by layer:
Vest, tucked in
Cotton tights (long johns for men)
Extra socks (preferably woollen)
Woollen accessories—hat, scarf, gloves
The weather wisdom passed down from our mothers also points to more specific pitfalls. It seems that some body parts are more prone to freezing than others.
For example, we are warned that ‘the cold comes from the feet’. It’s why we are obsessed with warm socks and boots, and why, in this case, comfort always trumps fashion. Whenever I’d se British girls wearing high heels in the rain or snow, my own feet would go numb with cold.
Croatian girls are warned never to sit on a cold surface because ‘this gives you cystitis’. The warning is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every time I ignored it, I ended up with an infection. Meanwhile, my British girlfriends sat, laid, even slept through the night on a cold surface with no consequences.
Instead of tucking in their vest, they wear low rise jeans and show off their bellybuttons. A Croatian mother would cringe at the sight of bare kidneys. These, according to the weather lore, are organs most susceptible to cold!
The head is not immune either. The countless times I’ve heard the warning ‘don’t go out with your hair wet’! If I ignored it, I’d immediately catch a cold. But not my London friends who regularly ride the tube with wet hair.
Now this may all seem like the Croatian ‘feels like’ reaction to winter. But there is some hard evidence that we do deal with winter more efficiently.
Why we’re good at dressing for the Zagreb weather
Call our winter warnings paranoid, but there is a certain respect we show for the chilly time of the year.
We’ve been trained to deal with snow, slush, ice, frozen roads, blizzards and as low as a -20°C nip. This is why our transport never fails. Even with knee-deep snow, city trams and buses run regularly, planes are never cancelled and schools and offices never close.
Public services are delightfully efficient. You’ll be amazed at how quickly snowploughs get out to clean even the smallest country road. Or just watch at people’s team spirit when shovelling snow in their neighbourhoods so no one slips and falls.
We know how to drive in the snow and we never break on a frozen road. Actually, we respect the elements so much that we would rather cancel a trip than grovel on at any cost.
Our houses are always nice and warm because we know how cold it feels outside.
The opposite is true on the Croatian coast, where winters are milder. While we have proper central heating, sometimes even a log fire, they huddle around their AC set to blow warm air. Maybe their ‘feels like’ cold is different. But every continental person can tell you a story about freezing their bones there in wintertime.
Being winter-cautious doesn’t stop us from enjoying the great outdoors. We go hiking, skiing, sledging, even partying alfresco.
There’s no bigger delight than frolicking out in the cold and coming back to a warm house. Providing you’ve worn all your layers. And making sure you stripped off your wet socks the minute you walked in.
Then you treat yourself with a rum-spiced tea or mulled wine. You watch your wet socks dry off on a burning radiator and gaze at snow flakes dancing outside your window.
You drink after to thaw. Not before to endure the cold.
The weather lore has it that alcohol only masks the cold. So if you’re out and about enjoying Zagreb winter, sip at your drink. Enjoy it. Don’t guzzle it to chase away the chill on your bare head and hands, or God forbid, bare shoulders.
Zagreb weather in the winter demands respect.
And this brings me to my final insider tip:
‘Bundle up—it’s really cold outside!’