Ugly concrete apartment buildings loom in the distance as we drive our rental car toward “New” Zagreb. Our GPS tells us to turn into the entrance of one tall, gray building, and I get a sinking feeling in my stomach. Is this where the cute apartment I booked online is located? Inside this charmless high-rise housing project?
“Probably built in the Communist time,” Peter says. I’m thinking the neighborhood looks a little iffy and wondering what to expect.
We pull over, and for the fifth time, I call the owner of the apartment. Still no answer—just a message in Croatian, which sounds like Greek to me. We park, and I get out to look around while Peter and Jasper, our son, wait in the car. It’s Sunday, the shops are closed, and the streets are eerily quiet. Luckily, it’s a gorgeous spring day, and the few people I pass by seem friendly enough.
I find the entrance to our flat and ring the buzzer, hoping our host will magically appear—and he does, apologizing for not catching my phone calls. With some trepidation, Peter, Jasper, and I grab our bags and follow Sasha into the elevator and up to the ninth floor, where our cozy cheerful apartment awaits. Whew! It looks just the pictures. You can’t judge a book by its cover, right? So now we can relax and start getting to know Zagreb.
After nearly a week in Croatia, we’ve fallen head over heels for this sparsely populated country beside the Adriatic Sea. We’ve hiked in national parks, explored the coast, walked among Roman ruins, and tasted amazing food and wine. Now we’re checking out the capital city of Zagreb, where a quarter of Croatia’s four million residents live.
Nestled in rolling hills not far from the border of Slovenia, the city feels like it’s been here forever. Turns out Zagreb’s history dates back to the Roman times when a settlement was established in the region. The city of Zagreb was officially founded in 1850, when two adjoining towns merged into one, and in 1945 it became the capital of Croatia. A sense of history pervades Zagreb, yet its hip, trendy vibe, cool lounges and boutique hotels, and colorful design district suggest this is not a place that’s stuck in time. Zagreb flows seamlessly from past to present, and we can’t wait to discover its charms.
GRILL AND CHILL
But first we’re hungry. We have a few odds and ends to eat, but nothing meal worthy, and since it’s Sunday, stores are closed. “No problem,” says Sasha. “There’s a food festival called ‘Grill and Chill’ going on in the park next door. There’s music and beer, too!”
That’s what I call the ingredients for a great dinner. We drop our bags, get the key from Sasha, and head back down the elevator into the late afternoon sunshine. It turns out there’s a huge, gorgeous park behind our apartment building with lakes, playgrounds, hiking trails, lush grass, and tall trees. Sweet!
Music plays in the distance, and we head toward a cozy tented area where about 10-12 vendors offer tasty morsels, including our new favorite Croatian food: cevap cici. It’s pronounced chuh-VOP chee chee, and I like saying it almost as much as I like eating it. Basically, it’s a mixture of ground beef, lamb, and/or pork with garlic and tasty spices.
We grab three cold craft beers and listen to the band playing Joe Cocker tunes. Around us hipsters, young parents with kids in tow, and a few older folks are enjoying the music, food, beer, and laid-back vibe. I feel like we could be in Norfolk, listening to a band at Town Point Park or the Hermitage. Not for the first time, I think about how alike we all are, no matter what country we live in. Whether we’re from Croatia, the U.S., Holland, or Mexico, we all want to be happy, feel safe, and celebrate life. And these Croatians definitely know how to have a good time.
Turns out the food vendors at this festival are Zagreb’s elite chefs, creating festival food with flair. We find a table and dive into a cevap cici sandwich, a burger, and some fries. The food is fabulous, and we can’t believe our luck, having this cool festival right next door. And only a couple hours ago I was wringing my hands, worried about how safe the neighborhood was. Now we feel right at home.
Zagreb has a way of making you feel welcome. The next morning Peter, Jasper, and I are sitting at a terrace in the main square, enjoying a cappuccino and chatting about our plans for the day. A man at the next table leans over, smiles broadly, and says in perfect English, “Excuse me. Welcome to Zagreb! I wish you a good time on this beautiful day.” He’s beaming, and you can tell he loves his city. What a lovely gesture.
We meet our guide near the tourist office, an affable young man named Jurica. As we begin walking, he points out architectural details of the buildings we walk by, noting the influence of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He’s right. It feels more like Vienna in Zagreb with its pink and gold buildings and ornate white molding, whereas Split had a much more Venetian vibe.
Jurica tells us about Zagreb’s coffee culture, and indeed everywhere we look are terraces full of folks enjoying coffee. He proudly points out that Starbucks didn’t succeed in Zagreb and closed, since the residents prefer to patronize local cafes. There’s even a name for enjoying coffee on Saturday mornings in Zagreb. Spietze is when people meet for coffee after shopping in the Saturday market. But it’s not just about the coffee, says Jurica. “When a Croat says let’s go and have coffee, it means to spend time together.”
Europe has always known how to live more slowly and more deliberately, and relaxing on a terrace on a sunny day is a European tradition I’ve always admired. People need to slow down more, especially in the U.S. where everyone always seems to be racing the clock. Spending time in Europe is a reminder for me to slow down and be in the moment, a souvenir I always bring back from my trips abroad.
At a leisurely pace, Jurica shows us the city sights, including the huge cathedral (Zagreb is 97 percent Catholic) and the “green horseshoe,” a series of parks that form a U around the city center. As we walk under shady trees, he points out some of Zagreb’s attractions: the train station, the National Arts and Crafts Museum, the Croatian National Theatre, and the Hotel Esplanade, Zagreb’s most elegant hotel built in 1925.
Next we take an old-fashioned funicular up a steep hill to Old Town, a beautifully preserved section of the city with views for miles. Up here another historic church awaits, one that has become a symbol of Zagreb. St. Mark’s Church is one of the oldest buildings in Zagreb, known for its distinctive roof made of colorful roof tiles depicting two coats of arms, one representing the regions of Dalmatia and Slavonia and the other, the city of Zagreb.
We say goodbye to Jurica in front of the Museum of Broken Relationships, an attraction I read about and can’t wait to explore. The museum was started by a couple who broke up and couldn’t decide what to do with the things they co-owned. Turns out there are many people who have items leftover from former relationships they are willing to part with, so the museum features a crowd-sourced collection of poignant mementoes that is constantly changing. In fact, the idea has caught fire. Another MOBR has opened in Los Angeles, and a traveling exhibit is touring the U.S.
Inside the museum in dimly lit rooms, the items are displayed in simple exhibits with stories that tell their meaning, written by the owners. There’s an old toaster, for example, titled the Vindication of the Toaster. The accompanying story says when the owner moved out, she took the toaster, thinking, “That’ll show you. How are you going to toast anything now?” There’s also a little toy frog with the note, “My mother left when I was 3. This is the only toy she ever gave me.” Peter and Jasper grow weary of the emotional revelations and head for the gift store, but I walk through the entire museum and read each story and look at all the objects, stark symbols of sad stories.
All this emotion makes us hungry so we have a late lunch at a restaurant called Nokturno, which serves basic, but tasty food, including our favorite, cevap cici. Before heading back to our apartment, we stop by the main square and take an elevator 16 floors up to an attraction called Zagreb 360°. As the name suggests, it’s an observation deck with 360° views of Zagreb. Visibility is perfect, and tile-roofed buildings stretch as far as you can see underneath a cerulean sky dotted with cottony clouds. To the north, green mountains rise up, a nature park—over 55,000 acres—which offers skiing in winter and hiking in summer. I wish we could go explore the mountains, but with barely three days here in Zagreb, there just isn’t time.
Our last full day in the city starts with a visit to the Zagreb Zoo, where we view camels, lions, bears, lemurs, and toucans. We stop in the Arts & Crafts Museum, which features furniture and decorative arts from various eras. I love the clock exhibit, which displays dozens of clocks and watches from past to present. An interactive computer exhibit lets visitors try their hand at watchmaking by digitally moving various wheels, spokes, and screws into place. Suffice it to say, the docent has to help me build my watch!
Another interesting Zagreb attraction is a mushroom museum, with a display of 700 species of mushrooms, indigenous to Croatia. The mushrooms have been freeze-dried and look just as they would if you stumbled upon them in a forest. Each is labeled with its species and an adjective indicating whether it’s safe to eat and/or if it has any special (ahem) properties associated with it. A few are labeled deadly, so it pays to know your mushroom species.
After seeing all those mushrooms, guess what I’m hungry for? We head for a restaurant in Old Town called Grandfather’s Dream—don’t you just love the name?—which specializes in authentic Croatian cuisine, and sit at a cozy table under the awning out front. When I hear they have mushroom soup, I am thrilled, and it turns out to be the best mushroom soup I’ve ever had: creamy, flavorful, and a bargain at $3 for a large bowl. We take our time enjoying our meal and watching the local townsfolk walk by. The restaurant is located on a quiet side street, and everyone seems to know one another, shouting out greetings and stopping to chat. I like the slow pace of the city.
We miss the seasonal festivities called Zagreb Time Machine, which run from mid-spring through fall. Throughout the city, costumed interpreters—men in top hats and white gloves and women in beautiful frocks and hats—provide a glimpse into days gone by. The city also hosts concerts, folk dances, military displays, workshops for children, and storytelling all summer long. But we decide we like being in Zagreb in the shoulder season with lovely spring weather and relatively tourist-free streets.
As we head to Zagreb’s new, modern airport the next morning to fly back to Amsterdam, we try to figure out what it is about Croatia that makes it so special. It doesn’t take long. Of course, we loved seeing the sights, the museums, the attractions, and the beautiful nature, but truly it’s the Croatian people that nudged their way into our hearts. Genuine, welcoming, and friendly, they epitomize what I wish all of us could be like. Another souvenir to take home.
If you missed Part 1 of our Croatian adventure, visit www.tidewaterwomen.com/travel-articles
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