Bucket List item 631 – Upper Town Witches Tour
Every bucket list check is absolutely unique. Some of are flops, some are great, some are memorable, and every once in a while it’s once in a lifetime epic. The Gornjogradske Coprnice witch tour was exactly that. When Dave and I reminisce on past travels, this is one of those memories that just keeps giving. It’s easily in our top five list of coolest shit we’ve ever experienced.
I’ll bet you’re wondering how a historical tour about witches could be such a show-stopper when we’ve done so many things, which is totally fair. I think the answer is a mix of an amazing tour company mixed with the stars aligning. You’ll need a little back story to understand why.
When Dave and I first moved to Prague, our visa was taking much longer to process than expected and we ran out of time in Schengen. We were forced to leave the country and spend some time in a non-Schengen country, so we ended up living in Zagreb for the month of October. We really wanted to do something for Halloween, but there just wasn’t much to do there. Croatians don’t celebrate Halloween and November 1st and 2nd are big public holidays as it’s All Saints’ Day and Day of the Dead, both of which are very quiet holidays. It’s really spooky, but in an eerie way. The town gets very quiet around that time as the locals are spending time with family and honoring the dead. The cemeteries are quite a spectacle as they’re hopping and there are many candles lit at night, so the cemeteries glow. It’s a neat time to be in Croatia, but if you want Halloween festivities then you’re fresh out of luck.
I was feeling desperate for some sort of Halloween fun. I had basically run out of scary movies on Netflix that Dave would watch with me (he doesn’t like most horror films) and I was really struggling. This witch tour was something I had already added to my bucket list, but I had emailed them weeks ago about a tour and they told me they didn’t do any tours in English that time of year because it was low season for tourists. I had also exhausted all my alternative creepy options like old churches and cemeteries. We’d seen it all.
I told Dave we had to figure something out. Maybe we could drive or fly to another country and find something cool, but we were so near Halloween that it was hard to plan so last minute. Then I had a thought. I knew that the witch tour had openings for an entire group. They had told me if we had a group of people, they could do an English tour, but I hadn’t given it any thought. I remembered that the individual tickets were very affordable, so maybe, just maybe, we could afford to buy an entire tour. Turns out it was 170 euros to buy an entire tour. So, we did just that. It felt worth it to have an exclusive witch tour for Halloween for just the two of us. Boy, was this the best decision we could have made. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a better Halloween.
The tour was pretty late in the evening as they had another tour earlier in the night. Our meet time was 9pm. An unexpected plus to this specific date was that it was the night before All Saints Day. The streets were dead. It was shockingly quiet, and it was late enough that the businesses were all closed. It was like we had old town Zagreb to ourselves. We saw barely anyone the entire time we were on the tour. It set the perfect ambiance for what was the most involved historical tour I’ve ever been on.
We were greeted by a group of ladies dressed as witches and they came baring cookies that looked like witch fingers and hot chocolate. Their costumes were really fabulous. I felt like I was in Practical Magic with Aunt Frances and Aunt Jet.
Our main tour guide took us down a back alley and the rest of the witches dispersed. I wondered why so many of them greeted us in costume if they weren’t coming along. I didn’t realize they would later be a part of the tour.
Our main guide, Daniela, was amazing. Most of the women involved with the tour are historians and professors, so they know their shit. Daniela is a professor by day, and her tour was the perfect balance of information, flourish and acting. Did you know that Zagreb has some of the best documented witch trials in the world? Did you know that over 300 women were accused of witchcraft and over 100 were burned at the stake? And this all started 100s of years prior to Salem and finally ended in 1756 when the empress Maria Theresa passed an act ordering that all witchcraft incidents were to be reported and the final decision must be handed to her. She pardoned a “witch” at her first trial and the rest is history. This was possible because the witch trials were a civil matter rather than religious. Witch trials are often associated with the church, but for Zagreb it was social. If you want to know more, I highly recommend Nikolina Demark’s article for Total Croatia.
Warning, the rest of this is going to give you some serious spoilers, so if you plan to do this you will lose some of the surprise factor by reading any further. I won’t include every detail, but I want to give a rough outline of how epic this was.
Remember all those other witches? While we got the historical part of our tour, the other witches dispersed throughout old town and set up stations as a part of the tour. First, I have to tell you that the first part of the tour had a few big surprises that I couldn’t have foreseen. Daniela managed to take us down passages in the city we’d never seen yet walked by every day. I mean, secret paths in small nooks filled with things like doorways that were a story up and didn’t touch the ground. It was wild!
Anyway, there were numerous stations around the city with the other witches. One practicing witch had a cauldron in the park and was making potions. We each got a personal potion on a scroll, both of which were different. Of course, we still have them. At another point, our tour guide started conjuring a spirit seemingly out of nowhere. It was so spooky because the area was so empty, and her voice echoed against the cobblestone streets and stone walls. Then out of nowhere, a woman dressed as a ghost creeps up from behind us with a candelabra. We follow her down back alleys and streets and meet yet another witch who tells us our fortunes (and was shockingly astute at figuring out our current worries and doubts) and gives us protection amulets. All the while, we’re continually fed more information about the witch trials, including anecdotes about witches and their personalities mixed with grim details. It was historically accurate AND entertaining.
We wound through the city by the light of a lantern and popped out the other side. We were given more hot chocolate and the cutest witch bookmarks (I still use mine every day) and there you have it! I mean, my heart skips a beat thinking about this, and it gives me goosebumps thinking about following a ghost through a medieval city by candlelight. In this day and age, you just don’t have the opportunity for many experiences like this. I could have never imagined what an effect this would have on me and Dave feels the same. It’s one of our most cherished memories.
If you are ever in Zagreb, you can’t skip this tour. I understand not being able to buy an entire tour or plan for this time of year, so just do whatever you can. However, if you can repeat our timing (or at least go in winter months – snow would have also made this epic) you just must. You’ll be talking about this for the rest of your life.