December 10, 2019 – No guided tour is the same, but there is one company in Croatia that guarantees quality, innovation, engagement and the personal touch each time – roadtesting the Secret Zagreb experience.
As we approached the Zagreb funicular for our 19:30 late November appointment, I was a little nervous as to how this would go. It has been a long day, it was not warm, we still had a 75-minute drive home, and if the kids were grumpy, this could really backfire. But then I figured that there was not much point living close to Zagreb if we did not experience what it had to offer as a family. But still, it was cold, dark, the day and been long, and the kids’ enthusiasm for one of Daddy’s Great Ideas – a walking tour with some ‘teta’ – was lukewarm at best.
And there she was, waiting, dressed in black, including her hooded head, holding a lantern which was not lit.
“Good evening, I am the Black Queen, and I need your help.”
There was no recognition that we had met before, that we were friends even, no 21st welcome, but straight into character from the character of the Black Queen, who had risen from a 100-year sleep with the dragons somewhere below Zagreb.
I looked anxiously at the kids – how would they react?
They were hooked.
And from that moment, for the next two hours, the artist formally known as Iva Silla, charismatic owner of Secret Zagreb, led my kids (and their parents and aunt) on a mesmerising tour of the upper town of Zagreb in her persona of the Black Queen. A modern version of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, pointing out fascinating things along the way, dropping in appropriate jokes, then moving on.
We were all made aware from the start that, in addition to the tour, we would have to fulfil a task at the end to help the Black Queen. A list of clues would send us scampering all over the old town to retrace the steps of where we had been and the things we had learned to solve a clue which would provide the code to unlock the padlock of the lantern that the Black Queen held in her hand. Once unlocked, more clues would lead to the candle being lit, so that she could go back to where she had come from.
The kids were mesmerised. Having resigned myself as a parent of two daughters attached to their gadgets, this was a revelation. Pens were found, notes taken on the palm of their hands, questions asked, suggestions made – in fact, they were far more engaged than the three adults. But the Black Queen did not break from character once, which made her mysterious, slightly intimidating, but totally transfixing.
Some very simple techniques of storytelling were used to superb effect. As this was the first time the Black Queen had returned to Zagreb above ground in 100 years, she was easily able to reference the past and have us appreciate the changes.
“Yes, this is the shortest funicular in the world,” she told us as we made the short ascent to the upper town, “but standards have really gone down. Last time I was on it, 100 years ago, they had first, second AND third class.”
The Black Queen was looking forward to showing us the view from the top.
“You will love the endless cornfields you can see from the edge of the city. But wait, what’s this? What has happened? The last time I was here, the last building in the city was that yellow one over there (the Croatian National Theatre). Where have all the cornfields gone?”
Simple techniques to allow tourists to appreciate how Zagreb has changed in 100 years.
Sleeping Dragon Quest is inspired by interesting local legends. Before the game begins, our tour guide in a costume presents old tales about dragons and some mystical history. She gives them a book of instructions and tasks. The winner is the first team to solve all the riddles and finds the last required location.
storyline based on Zagreb legends
solve riddles and find the clues within the oldest part of town
stories about dragons brought back to life
And so we walked, following our Pied Piper, learning all about the dragons, the secret societies involving dragons, forgotten graveyards, earthquakes masked as stirring dragons. All expertly and engagingly told, but in a way that really brought the past to life and revealed knowledge of events and characters of the time.
And the Black Queen somehow knew her audience.
“But I hear you are from Varazdin, the Baroque town, yes?. Well, don’t be angry, but they say that the very best Baroque building in Croatia is this one in front of you. Haha. Let’s move on!”
With most people in the city centre the night before the opening of Advent in Zagreb, we more or less had the streets of the upper town to ourselves, and there was a certain magic being guided (or was it glided?) around by the Black Queen. It had been just over an hour and we had taken in SO many facts, stories and impressions. But how much had we retained?
Despite our reluctance, the Black Queen was quietly insistent in her assertion that the quest would work better if we split into groups of two. Realising that Aunt Tina was smarter than both parents combined, the girls took their clues from the Black Queen and headed off in the direction of the main cemetery, leaving my wife and I asking each other how much we had been listening.
The clues were presented in lovely rhyming couplets, and off we went, retracing our steps. Five clues would yield a letter each, which in turn would produce the three-digit code to unlock the lantern. We saw our competing team racing eagerly through the dimly lit, but very romantic streets, and it was little surprise that they managed to get all the clues before us. Having unlocked the lantern, however, we were not yet there – there was one more step, to get the lantern lit. And in order to do that, another task had to be performed. One which was mastered by a beady-eyed 11-year-old who was so engrossed in the Black Queen’s world that I doubted she would need a gadget for a week.
An absolutely fantastic family activitiy, and the Black Queen kindly had time to join us for a hot chocolate after the tour, where she reverted to the lovely Iva we all know and love.
And this, for me at least, was the best part of an excellent evening, as Iva was VERY interested to get our feedback on every aspect of the tour. For what perhaps many people who take her tours do not realise is that she is the creative and pioneering author of all of them. Many of them, such as Badass Women of Zagreb, and the 19th century tour where you, the tourist, are accused of a crime and have to find clues to prove your innocence, are Iva’s ideas alone. And not content with being just the creator, her expert delivery as such an engaging guide completes the perfect package.
“Dad, that was the best tour we have ever been on. I really liked the way the Black Queen told us everything but then we had to go and solve clues. It was really great, and so was the Black Queen. You know some really cool people.”
The aura of me being a cool Dad survives for another week. Thank you, Black Queen…
Learn more about how Iva can inspire you as the Black Queen or her many other personas on the Secret Zagreb website.