Childhood dream makes Croatian Christmas sparkle

Every Christmas, thousands of people flock to this village not far from the Croatian capital to see Zlatko Salaj's childhood dream come to life in all its dazzling, glittering glory.

Growing up here decades ago, Salaj would spend Christmas in his father's dilapidated -- and poorly lit -- mill, dreaming of a bright, cheerful holiday.

His impoverished childhood prompted Salaj to seek work abroad. A decade ago, he returned to his hometown with an idea.

He repaired the old mill in the village some 60 kilometres (35 miles) east of Zagreb, planted trees and flowers and offered his family the type of Christmas he'd always dreamt of.

"I bought Christmas lights, 70,000 bulbs, and decorated two trees outside the house. Everyone stopped to admire this spectacle of lights," Salaj told AFP.

Now the light show has become a local draw, with crowds of parents and kids coming to gawk at the display, which this year features Santa on a sleigh, an illuminated igloo and polar bears.

"Every year, I increase the number of bulbs and this year, we are at 1.3 million," Salaj said.

His property is open to the public between December 1 and January 8, a day after Orthodox Christian Christmas.

"This year, we expect up to 50,000 visits during these 39 days," said Ana Bertic, who manages the operation.

"I really feel like in a fairy tale," said Dragica Vinkovic, who came to see the dazzling display with her daughter Josipa.

Salaj has spent his life savings on the project.

"At first, I could lie to my wife, saying that (for) something that really costs 5,000 euros ($6,600) I have paid 500 euros, but not for long," he said.

The light show now costs more than 65,000 euros per year, he said. Visitors who can afford it pay an admission fee of 2.5 euros each.

Local authorities help with the electricity bill and the Zagreb tourist office, as well as the country's tourism ministry, have also chipped in.

Salaj's property now spans about four hectares and is planted with about 800 trees, many of them dripping with sparkling lights.

Salaj said his "life story was decisive" in fulfilling his dream. His mother left when he was only four years old and the "ember lived" in him all the time.

"My friends did not have a spectacular Christmas tree, but they had a mother and sweets hanging from the branches," Salaj said.

Today, his eyes twinkle when he sees groups of children visiting, especially if they are orphans or are poor.

"I am really happy that I can make those children happy who do not have anything, like me once," he said.

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