Zagreb (Feb 15-17)

I wasn’t sure what to expect of Zagreb or Croatia, so it was somewhat of an adventure into the unknown for me. We started our journey from a rather drab and run-down concrete Budapest train station (Deli, as opposed to Keleti the station we arrived at), and managed to bag a compartment on the train to ourselves. It was to be a long train journey, so we’d stopped by a couple of bakeries to stock up on sandwiches and cake for lunch. In the end it was a very interesting train journey. We skirted a huge lake (called Balaton, with many villages surrounding all with names starting with Balaton) for much of the first stage of our journey, and it was fun to watch for the large and plush summer houses that were situated by it’s shores, all currently shuttered up awaiting summer.

Once we left the city the snow returned, and like our journey to Budapest we were transported through a winter wonderland. We kept the compartment to ourselves for most of the journey, being briefly joined by a smart looking older gentleman who sat quietly doing the crossword for a couple of stops. Later the front desk staff at our Zagreb hotel joked about the slow speed of the train. One of them grinned, saying that as I enjoyed walking I’d have been able to get off and stretch my legs by walking by the side of the train! It wasn’t that bad, though it did stop at a lot of local stations, which we found interesting. Many were tiny, and had no platform to speak of. Sometimes the only person in sight was the station attendant, standing outside to greet the train.

At the border with Croatia we had our first passport check, as all our previous journeys had been within the Schengen area. At the last town on the Hungarian side various officials boarded the train and systematically went carriage to carriage. First we were greeted by a slightly dour Hungarian official, who checked our passports. Then came the Croatian border official, who was a friendly lady who gave us passport stamps. Finally was the customs official, who grinned when Greg said that all he had to declare was chocolate cake. This process was apparently an improvement from the recent past when the train would stop at the same station and passports checked by Hungarian officials before all passengers would have to disembark, get on a bus to be taken over the border to a small village on the Croatian side where papers would be checked by Croatian officials before all passengers would board a Croatian train for the onward journey.

Our Zagrab hotel was very close to the train station – a short walk. I soon discovered that this was because the Esplanade Hotel had been built in 1925 to cater for travellers on the Orient Express, a fact that it celebrated with many vintage photographs from that age on it’s walls. It was a larger hotel than our previous ones, and very grand. The staff were very welcoming and our room was well appointed, and quiet as it was on the inside of the hotel. Dinner that night was at the pub of a small local brewery (Pivnica Medvedgrad Ilica), where I enjoyed a popular mix of their locally micro-brewed lager and ale, together with some plain but tasty local fare (overcooked beans – like baked beans – and sausage). Walking down the main street (Illica) we were also impressed by how modern that area of the city felt. Lots of people were around, including more young people than we’d seen at our last stop (and less rowdy than can be the case in the UK). All in all a reasonable contrast from Budapest, and both of us agreed that the right word was vibrant.

In the morning the hotel sorted us out a couple of Zagreb tourist cards, and we set out to explore. We were immediately impressed by the extensive tram system. Most of the trams were very new and spotlessly clean; we travelled very near the driver once and were impressed by the 100% digital display panel. They were also very frequent – in fact during our visit I don’t think we ever waited as much as 10 minutes for a tram to arrive. It was a short hop to the center of town, and then a short walk to the funicular which would take us to the upper (old) town. On the way to the funicular we noticed a wonderful watchmaker, who was busy repairing a timepiece in a shop which looked like it might have appeared the same 50 or 100 years ago. It reminded us of the wonderful watchmakers shop in the fantastic movie Hugo. The funicular itself was rather short (66 meters, not quite the shortest one in the world but close), but a fun way to travel up to the upper town, and included in our Zagreb card. It ran every 10 minutes, so there was never long to wait before we were lifted up to this historic upper town.

Our first step was a rather unusual place – the Museum of Broken Relationships! (romantically, Greg brought me here the day after Valentine’s Day…). This unique museum contained objects donated by someone in memory of a relationship which had ended for them. It proved very interesting, if somewhat dispiriting at times. From here we went to explore a sculpture studio, but unfortunately it was closed for renovations. So instead we visited the city museum. This looked small at first glance, but turned out to be a huge place, with a very comprehensive history of the city, very well presented. We spent over 2 hours here which took us from the cities ancient roots – the merging of the two fortified settlements of Kaptol and Gradec – right to the most modern history of the Yugoslav war and the Croatian war of independence, only 10 years ago. I remember an interesting section on associations, where in the 19th century lots of city associations were formed, like clubs, to facilitate noble endeavours such as sports, music and mountain climbing. We finished here later than anticipated and headed to a restaurant for a late lunch. We found a great place (Kerempuh) near a large market, which was just packing up. There we had a great meal – Greg had particularly wonderful slow roast veal with roast potatoes and I had duck with potato salad and grilled vegetables and some local beer.

After lunch we looked round the cathedral, which had an interesting interior and included some very tall stained glass as well as a large sarcophagus for Cardinal Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac who was declared a martyr and canonised by Pope Jean Paul II in 1998. He was a controversial choice as he apparently died peacefully at home aged 61 of natural causes from thrombosis brought on by polycythemia, rather than being martyred. His very close relationship with the Nazi regime during the Second World War and using their support to force conversions to Catholicism was also very divisive. We also enjoyed the very colourful St Mark’s Church from the outside, which is a well known image of Zagreb, but it was closed so we couldn’t go inside. Peering through the window it looked very severe, with stark architecture and a huge crucifix. We also visited the Stone Gate, which has an altar to the Virgin Mary which seemed pretty busy with visitors. I’ve never seen a chapel under a road arch before; it made a pretty unique setting. It became a shrine in 1731 when the so-called Madonna miracle occurred. There was a huge fire that swept through the town and the only thing to survive was the statue of the Madonna.

We decided that a little dessert was now in order, and went to a fine looking shop on Illica that we’d spied earlier. There we each had 3 scoops of ice-cream from the 15 on offer, and also got three slices of delicious cake to eat later. From here we headed back to the hotel to dump our stuff and get changed, and headed back out to dinner in the upper town. On the funicular we met a couple of American ladies who happened to be headed to the same restaurant as us. We chatted about traveling on the way; one of the ladies was returning home to San Diego, and the other was going on to Istanbul. They asked us what time our reservation was, and we admitted we didn’t have one. They looked doubtful as they’d got the last reservation going, but we kept going to try our luck. When we got there we did indeed get the last walk-in table available, not a great spot but we could eat. Over the next 30mins we watched about 5 sets of people turn up and get turned away, and realised that it was the Friday after Valentine’s, and our table was decorated with a red rose and petals – lucky to get a table indeed! The restaurant was called Konoba-Didov San (Grandfather’s Dream), and offered a wonderful selection of traditional Croatian food. Greg had particularly excellent veal liver (which they asked him how he liked it cooked) and I had a selection of meats with a tomato sauce including mushrooms and onions. I also enjoyed a glass of local house wine, which was pretty good and cost almost a pound!

On the second day we headed slightly further afield and visited Maximir park. This is a large wooded park area very popular with locals in the summer for picnics and walks; we saw several joggers whilst we were there enjoying some exercise. Even though it was only about 20mins from the city center there was noticeably more snow in the park than in the center itself (where it was almost all melted). We aimed for the Zoo which is contained with the park and enjoyed a wander around what proved to be a fairly large site. Some animals were, understandably, hiding away from the cold weather. But quite a few were out and not bothered, such as the Russian Wolves which looked rather like nice dogs to me (safe the other side of a wide moat surrounding their enclosure…). We were particularly impressed by the indoor exhibits they had. There was a good section on snakes, with examples of the great variety of snake found throughout Croatia. Many were poisonous. The particularly venomous ones were marked with a skull and cross bones, and the non-venomous ones were marked with a smiley face. Others were marked with a face half smiling and half unhappy; we guessed somewhat venomous! There was also a good display of insects and lizards; extensive and well set out. We were much less impressed by the current enclosures for big cats and bears, but pleased to see that they were busy building much better facilities – a large African savannah and an equally big and varied bear habitat.

We left the zoo and wandered round a little more of Maximir park before returning to the city center and revisiting the restaurant for lunch which we’d enjoyed the previous day. It was equally good the second time around, and Greg enjoyed Pašticada, a Dalmation style beef pot roast/stew whilst I had grilled sea bass and a nice glass of local white wine. After lunch we headed up to the upper town again and visited the Natural History Museum. (We tried the Naïve Art Museum which looked interesting, but it was closed for the afternoon). This was very quirky, with a couple of pretty odd art installations as our first introduction. Then there was a series of stuffed animals, which looked like they needed a good clean (though to be fair, several of them dated from 1750). We then hit a stairwell where without explanation the glass window was covered with photos of characters from the recent Hobbit movie; we were slightly perplexed at this, but at least they didn’t have labels indicating they were ancient Croatians! Finally we were surprised by an excellent geological exhibition, with a wide variety of interesting rocks and crystals shown excellently in well lit sparkling glass cases.

Next stop was a local cafe called Amelia, which felt a bit like a Zagreb version of our local Bristol favourite, Tart. We had excellent slices of cake here, Greg had the local signature cake and I had a chocolate tart. This confirmed to us, from our small but determined sampling, that Zagreb unexpectedly scored better on the cake selection than Vienna. Before dinner we headed back to the pub we’d visited for a quick drink, and then chanced trying to get a table at the TripAdvisor number one restaurant in Zagreb (Trilogija). This proved to be a small place, which not unreasonably was fully booked. So we headed to our 2nd choice, Agava. There Greg had an excellent starter of local meats and cheeses, whilst I had a surprisingly tasty potato soup. Greg’s main of sirloin steak in a local wine sauce was also very good as was my Gilt Head (Bream) with black squid-ink gnocchi.

Overall Zagreb impressed us. It felt much more modern and vibrant that we were expecting, whether this was in respect of the people we saw and met, the transport, or the streets, or attractions. It definitely had the feel of an up and coming country. We did see much more run down buildings as we left the city by coach for the airport; huge and very basic looking blocks of flats. But overall we came away with a more positive impression than we expected (the opposite of Budapest), and we’d certainly return. (In better weather there is a very local mountain which I’d love to climb, amongst other things).

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