Travelling with a broken heart? A Zagreb local shares advice
The collection manager of the Museum of Broken Relationships offers tips for processing grief while travelling — plus her favourite spots in Zagreb
25 January 2024
It’s hard to imagine a more conventionally romantic location for the Museum of Broken Relationships.
The stately white museum sits perched on an elegant street in Zagreb’s Upper Town, halfway between the city’s iconic Church of St. Mark and a scenic overlook, where locals and travellers alike stand shoulder to shoulder, admiring Zagreb’s expanse.
The museum’s fairytale-like setting may seem – at first – to clash with the mementos of pain contained within its walls. The collection is wildly eclectic and includes items that hold clear significance (a Simone Rocha wedding dress) displayed nearby devastating reminders of the impermanence of life (the bedroom door of a deceased teenager, autographed by his friends).
The mundane (a household espresso machine) alongside the downright macabre (a years-old scab, kept by a former lover).
All items have been donated to the museum by heartbroken people from around the world, along with a short description of their story and why they consider the item meaningful.
But despite the melancholic nature of the collection, the museum holds plenty of beauty.
“Museum of Broken Relationships is an invitation on an empathetic journey to the depths of the human heart,” said Charlotte Fuentes, collection manager. “It is a testimony to our ultimate need for love and connection despite the difficulties that go with it.”
Fuentes, who spent most of her life in Provence before moving to Croatia, first came to Zagreb for an internship at the museum. “I was writing a book about my relationships,” Fuentes explained. “I heard about the museum while writing my thesis and was very curious to go.”
The museum’s exploration of loss proved deeply compelling to Fuentes. “I have always been exploring feelings that are profoundly human but set aside because they’re too often misjudged to be negative: the loss, the absence of something or someone, warped memories, suppressed fantasies, misunderstandings, the unsaid, all the things that seem impossible to share,” she said.
The Museum of Broken Relationships, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually, seems to resonate with others as well.
“People find comfort in knowing that we all go through the same rollercoaster of emotions when it comes to love,” she said. “The museum shows how something creative and inspiring can emerge from such a painful and heartbreaking experience.”
In addition to finding meaning in her work at the museum, Fuentes has fallen for Zagreb, too.
“It is hard to explain what I love about Zagreb,” she said. “It has…a soul, an ambience, an atmosphere, and a simplicity that feels like home.”
“Before anything else, what makes me love Zagreb are the people I met here,” she added.
In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, Fuentes shared a few of her favourite places in Zagreb – plus some tips for travellers hoping to process a breakup or find connection while visiting her city. Visit Zagreb with an Interrail Global Pass.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and flow.
Describe the perfect day in Zagreb, from a local's perspective. Where are your favourite places to go?
I would start my day by going to one of the local markets. There is one in each neighbourhood. I love to cook and eat, so for me it is wonderful to have fresh food accessible every day.
If it happens to be the weekend, I would go to the flea market in Britanski to find some books. Then, I would go for a coffee with a friend and for a walk in the city or the parks. To end the day, I would go to see a movie or attend a concert.
I have simple needs, so I don´t think it would be a perfect day for everyone, but it would be for me.
What do Zagreb locals wish tourists knew about their city?
That is a hard question. From my point of view, I would like for tourists to have the experience of walking randomly and getting lost in Zagreb.
I think the beauty of Zagreb is in these little details hidden in some streets. The only way to find them is to get lost.
What hidden gem in Zagreb do tourists usually miss?
I don´t know if tourists would go to a cemetery, but I think they should go to Mirogoj because it is a beautiful place.
What are the best places to process heartbreak or mourn a loss in Zagreb? (besides the Museum of Broken Relationships)
Parks! It is so easy to access nature from the centre of Zagreb. I love to walk and reflect, so I think a park or forest would be a good place to mourn a loss.
What is your advice for solo travellers in Zagreb? Are there any places you'd recommend they go to find community?
Lots of couples will go on dates this Valentine's Day. Do you recommend the Museum of Broken Relationships as a date spot?
Yes, I think the museum is a good date spot! Even if the museum is about breakups, it is firstly about love.
Couples that come to visit the museum may get the chance to reflect on their relationships. Reading stories from anonymous contributors can make them think about what they have or what they would like to have in their relationship and how to protect their love and make it grow.
Or – and it is not a bad thing – it can also make them realise they are not safe or comfortable in their relationship. Sometimes reading others' stories can change our perspective on what is “normal” or not.
What item (or items) in the museum is most meaningful to you at the moment?
I was very touched by a Japanese contribution – a reel-to-reel tape recorder and audio tape from Tokyo. Often the stories that touch us the most are the ones you can relate to.
Here is the story: In 1968, exactly 50 years ago, my father passed away leaving me and my mother behind. I was barely one year old then.
There had always been a tightly sealed package inside our family Buddhist altar, and my mother repeatedly warned me not to open the package. To satisfy my curiosity, she said it was a reel-to-reel audio tape recorder with the recordings of my father’s voice when he was still alive.
The reason my mother sealed the recorder was because of an Italian film that she had seen. There was a scene in it in which a motherless young boy finds a tape recorder, and when he plays it back, he hears the voice of his loving mother. The boy misses her so much that he plays the tape over and over again, until he accidentally erases her voice.
The shock she had had during the movie affected her so deeply that she decided to wrap the package up carefully and place it at the very back of the altar to avoid the same tragedy happening to her audio tape.
How ironic it is to resign oneself to never hearing the voice of a loved one in an attempt to never lose them! I thought it was about time that we released ourselves from this binding spell, so I asked a technical expert to play this reel-to-reel recording that has since become an antique.
It plays the sweet and loving voices of my mother and father, cheering and clapping, and encouraging me to sing. I had just started learning how to sing.
I am the kind of person who tries to catch everything on a durable medium, such as film photography, in the hope of keeping my memories intact as long as I can. I cherish photos and videos that keep alive what is not here anymore.
Some people choose to travel after a heartbreak, as a means of processing the loss. In your opinion, is there a relationship between travel and heartbreak?
I travelled after a heartbreak, so I can relate to this question. I think, after a heartbreak, it is good to have some distance from our daily life. Going through a breakup is losing a part of yourself, the part of you that was connected to this person. I think travelling is a good way of connecting with yourself again and accepting what we have lost and what we have gained from this loss.
Most of the time, we are blind in the moment of breaking up, simply because it is a lot of emotions to process. Only time brings us clarity about what happened. Travelling seems, to me, a way to accelerate the mourning process.
As the collection manager of the Museum of Broken Relationships, what is your advice for travellers experiencing heartbreak?
I am a very stoic person – and I guess this is a good thing when your job includes reading a lot of heartbreaking stories – so I would say this:
I think every failure and every success in our relationships is worth living because they make us understand more about the mystery and beauty of what Love is.
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