It’s quite rare for me to review a hostel. Most accommodation reviews on blogs are sponsored. This post is not. Instead, this is an actual no holds barred look at a new, unique hostel in Zagreb, Croatia: the aptly named, no-frills Atomic Bunker Hostel.
Why I Booked
My original plan to tour the Balkans began with a ferry ride straight from Italy to Dubrovnik, Croatia. I was admittedly bested by the Jadrolinija website and decided instead of tearing my hair out, I should just change my plans. I charted out an overland route up the length of Italy and through Slovenia to reach Croatia. That then meant I would have to travel overland down the length of Croatia to reach the coast.
I am strongly opposed to bus rides longer than 10 hours. That meant I would want to take a break for a night during my travels from Ljubljana and Split. I checked out what Croatian cities might make a reasonable pit stop and vetted accommodations. Seeing that a hostel had just opened less than a month prior to my trip in an old atomic bunker sealed the deal for my visit to Zagreb. I wouldn’t have much time to spend in the city itself, so having a unique sleepover seemed like a good remedy to my tight schedule.
Would You Wander Down This Alley?
I hate arriving in new cities after dark (or before sunup). I try to avoid it at all costs. This, however, wound up being one of those unavoidable days when I’d be relying on streetlamps and a solid resting bitch face to safely reach my final destination. The bunker was, appropriately, located far from Zagreb’s attractions and perhaps a 20 minute walk from the main bus terminal. I took comfort in the fact that the sidewalk I took most of the way was relatively well populated by cyclists and old ladies walking their dogs.
I used a combination of Google Maps and written directions from the hostel and successfully found the street on which the bunker was supposed to be located. As I passed a bakery, a man in his 30s noticed my backpack and smartphone and called out to ask if I knew where I was going. I genuinely thought i did and nodded in his direction before moving swiftly along. One of the many uncomfortable things I have had to confront about myself on this trip is how little I trust men.
After a few minutes I reached the end of the street, with no sign of the hostel or the stencilled blue bombs they insisted guests should follow. I started to retrace my steps and Bakery Guy approached me. In retrospect, I feel so bad for blowing him off that first time. I never got his name – it seems to be a habit with my saviors on the road, to whom I may devote a future post – but he was one of the kindest, most helpful people I met in Europe.
A White Knight with Red Flags
He explained that he lived on the second floor of the apartment building on the corner and he knew exactly where the hostel was. As we walked, he vented a bit about how frustrated he is with the owners of the place. He sees travelers just like me wandering like lost lambs practically every day and he keeps trying to convince the owners to put up signage and improve the lighting. This lifelong local said he wouldn’t want to walk to this hostel by himself – he definitely didn’t think I should. He went on to joke a bit about how the owners kept brushing him off. “I’m not convinced this place is legal!” he laughed.
As we chatted, we entered an unmarked tunnel with a single light bulb on a motion detector. My companion had clearly walked this way with travelers several times. He could mark the time of the tunnel light with a snap of his fingers. But the tunnel was long and the light only reached so far.
The hostel was at its farthest end. Apparently, the proper entrance does not match the hostel’s address at all. I rang the bell and thanked my companion who turned around to return to his coffee and friends.
Being a small, new project, the only hostel staff appear to be the owners themselves. One opened the heavy bunker door and showed me down the concrete steps. There’s no doubt: this is a real deal atomic bunker. We passed a couple more large doors before entering the reception area.
I had my passport and wallet ready to go. I have never been in a hostel that did not immediately make a copy of my passport. So it was odd that the owner (I have no reason to believe otherwise, so will continue referring to him as such) seemed bewildered by my handing it over. “Oh, okay, I guess we can do that now,” he shrugged.
While he copied the numbers down, I got my first impression of the place. Sign after sign after sign outlining rule after rule after rule. The most disturbing was a notice that effectively told guests not to complain about anything. The owners worked for three years to turn this bunker into a hostel, so it bothers them when people have complaints.
It’s true there are particularities about atomic bunkers that guests probably need to be prepared for. There certainly isn’t going to be any WiFi or cell phone reception buried underground, for example. But for the first thing a guest sees warn them to withhold any complaints or GTFO? It’s not welcoming.
In fact, I would argue that I spent three years planning and saving for this RTW trip. So my stay at a hostel is every bit as important to me as it is to the hostel itself.
No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition
My details having been recorded, the owner proceeded to show me around the place. But first did I want to drop my bag at reception? I don’t leave my pack anywhere but a secure locker if I can help it. I assume a simple no, thank you will suffice. It’s not uncomfortable. “Okay, good enough,” he shrugs. Here’s the common room and the dorm I’ll be staying in, and now we’ll go find the bathroom. Am I sure I don’t want to leave my bag at reception? The bathroom is a bit of a hike from the dorms. I’m sure. I’ll be trekking in Nepal soon, so it’s good practice for me to carry the weight. “Okay, good enough, I suppose,” he shrugs.
We embark on our own trek, up the stairs, out of the bunker, around the building, and up another flight of stairs to a slightly rundown bathroom. As we walk, the owner grills me about my travels and especially why I booked a night at his hostel. It’s perhaps 10pm at this point, and I’m a little caught off guard by the interrogation. As I stumble through my answers, wanting to share neither too little nor too much, he repeats his catch phrase. “Okay, that’s good enough, I suppose.”
I honestly started to worry about what would happen if my answers were arbitrarily deemed “not good enough.” Would I be thrown out on the street in the middle of the night?
A Night in the Bunker
Should the antagonistic reception not deter you, fellow traveler, from booking a stay at Zagreb’s Atomic Bunker Hostel, I advise the following:
- Don’t trust Google Maps.
- Do trust the locals.
- Don’t expect cell phone or Internet service down below.
- Do set the alarm on your cell phone. There’s no natural light in a bunker so you’ll need help waking up.
- Don’t expect much in the way of amenities.
- Do pack a sleeping bag. My Cocoon silk sleep sheet and warm socks were enough to keep me from freezing, but I would have slept better in a sleeping bag.
- Don’t stay more than a night or two.
- Do use a headlamp for midnight bathroom runs.
- Don’t complain about anything. Apparently it hurts the owners feelings.
- Do eat before you check in. Food and drink are strictly prohibited in the dorms.
Future Nights in the Bunker
It may seem like a have an ax to grind with the Atomic Bunker Hostel. And in some ways, I do. Overall, I am glad I stayed. It was a completely unique experience, and I think with better management, could be one of the coolest places to stay in Europe. As is, I got the definite impression that the owners are far more interested in the idea of running a hostel than they are in the reality of working in the hospitality business.
So, should this post ever cross their eyes, fellas here’s some constructive criticism about how you can make Atomic Bunker Hostel a raging success.
- Send all your guests your own confirmation email, instead of relying on the confirmations sent by Hostelworld. You have the chance before your guests even arrive to inform them about some of the oddities of bunker life and ensure they know what to expect.
- Offer a pick-up service. This hostel is difficult to find, even with written directions, and especially at night. Guests will happily shell out a few extra bucks to have someone meet them at the station. Or even have someone meet them at the tunnel entrance.
- You get what you give. With all that time we had to talk about reception, you could have done far more than drill me on my motivation to stay. Use that walk to the bathroom to tell guests about the history of the place! Share this one-of-a-kind experience with us. Let us see your passion.
- Do everything you can to encourage socialization. Without phones and Internet, we have a unique experience to break away from our screens and get to know our fellow travelers. Having a common area is a start, but having social events like game nights or movie nights goes a long way toward creating an atmosphere. Wanna go above and beyond? Put an historical twist on social events and help guests experience what it really would have been like trying to entertain yourself during a bombing.
Zagreb’s Atomic Bunker Hostel could be so much more than a cheap place to stay for a night. As is, the only thing it adds to the hostel experience is a dose of hostility. It wasn’t the worst hostel I’ve ever stayed in. But it was definitely the strangest.
So what else is there to do in Zagreb? Read up on this and many other Balkan cities in my Balkan itinerary planner.
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