Croatia Prepares to Get its Carnival Freak On, Zagreb Prepares to Move to Samobor

Lent, a time of pious renouncement of earthly goods for the betterment of one’s soul, a time of inner reflections and feast, a test of character, a yearly weight loss and body cleansing program, that time of the year your chain smoking aunt tries to cut down on tobacco again and that one friend that goes around calling people out for not giving chocolates they gave up on to the poor.  Those forty days leading up to Easter can be tough with all the giving ups. That’s why people invented Carnivals.

The word Carnival most likely originates from Latin carne vale that translates to farewell to meat, indicating the upcoming feast. In Croatia, karneval (carnival) is also known as maškare (masquerades), poklade and fašnik (from the word fašnek used in Zagreb, indicating Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day, Mardi Gras), taken from German Fasching). There are many different local traditions for the carnival, but most have a few common things. The carnival starts when the mayor of town hands out the keys of the city to the Carneval master (meštar od karnevala) who then proceeds to take control of the city and declares it a free zone of debauchery, satire and criticism of public figures.

Photo: Tourist board Viškovo
Halubaj bell ringers from Viškovo in their full garments

Masked parades are held, but in many coastal parts of the country they still only wear traditional regalia, bell ringers dressed in animals hides and heads that aim to scare off evil spirits, gnomes and other Fae. The pinnacle of every carnival is the burning of a straw man. Around Zagreb they call him Fašnik, on some islands he is called Jure Piškanac and around Rijeka the call it mesopust (feast) and name him each year anew. The straw man is a personification of every trouble the community has had in the past year and by burning him they burn those troubles away. Rijeka names its mesopust by the troubles the city has had that year.  In 2016, they named him Tomica Karamost (a wordplay on Tomislav Karamarko, leader of the winning coalition in the general elections held in December and Most (Bridge), the third-way party they needed for a majority vote. Kara is a Turkish word for ‘black’, but in colloquial Croatian it means ‘penis’ (noun) or ‘screws’ (verb)).

Photo: Rijeka tourist board
The international carnival in Rijeka is the biggest and oldest in Croatia.

Carnivals start at different dates around the country, but most begin at the very end of January. Zagreb, however, does not have a carnival. There were a few attempts to organize it on a city-wide scale, but the idea never stuck. Zagreb had never had a full blown carnival in its history. There were a lot of masked balls in the center of the city during the 19th and early 20th century while the towns on the outskirts had their little carnivals. These cities, like Sesvete, are now neighborhoods of the city that still hold their small traditional processions around community centers. Some satellite towns around Zagreb, like Velika Gorica are trying to revive and modernize their carnival traditions in the recent years.

There used to be a tradition of masked groups going door to door and singing, but now it’s mostly kids going around neighborhoods exchanging children’s rhymes for candy, very similar to Halloween.  One thing that did stick as a tradition is homemade krafne (donuts) people share with their families and friends on Shrove Tuesday. The reason why Zagreb doesn’t have a carnival is not that we don’t like socially sanctioned debauchery, on the contrary, we just know that how to recognize when other people do it better.

Samobor, a picturesque town on the outskirts of Žumberak nature reserve, some 25 kilometers west of Zagreb, is known for its calming, family friendly atmosphere, small local crafts, pastries, beautiful promenades, parks and nature walkways. The town has been a favorite weekend destination for many Zagreb families throughout the 20th century. But comes February, that peaceful little town goes belly up. The carnival takes over the entire town for ten days, now renamed to ‘the Republic of Fašnik’ ruled over by Prince Fašnik (embodiment of the ruling class who’s going to get burned later), princess Sraka (crow, embodiment of satire, truth telling and jest), Fiškal (fiscal, the corrupted carnival treasurer) and Sudac (judge, one that judges the sins of Fašnik). All the characters are dressed in different themes each year, except Sraka, the crow. The four watch over all day festivities during the carnival.

Photo: Samobor tourist board
Burning of Fašnik on Samobor carnival finale. Fašnik is the personification of all the troubles the community had last year.

During the carnival, daytime is reserved for children and family masked parades, programs from local cultural and folk societies and different workshops, while the nights are reserved for parties under masks on the main square and bars around ‘the republic’ with traditional feasts prepared everywhere (sour cabbage, aspic, pork chops and sausages, with krafne and world famous Samoborske kremšnite (Samobor cream cakes) as desserts). During those ten days pretty much everybody in Zagreb will visit Samobor at least once.

Samobor carnival starts on January 29th with the mayor handing over the keys to the city to Prince Fašnik and ends on February 9th with the burning of the same prince.  In the days between that, what happens in Samobor, stays in Samobor.