No! July is probably not a good time to travel in Croatia or anywhere else in Europe below the Arctic Circle. Nevertheless, we do travel then, each year to attend our literary society’s annual two-week conference somewhere on the continent. Recent venues have been in Poland, Spain, Italy, France, and, of course, Croatia.
That said, of the several countries that made up the former Yugoslavia, Croatia strikes us as the most agreeable. It has a long, beautiful Adriatic coastline with many offshore islands.
It has splendid national parks.
It has historical ruins galore.
And it has Zagreb, its capital city, a very nice place to spend a few days.
Although this summer’s conference would be near the coast in the town of Solin, Kay and I elected to spend four pre-conference days in the capital, lodged in one of the world’s finer hotels.
The Esplanade was built in 1925 to be an elegant stopover for moneyed travelers on the Orient Express. We were able to afford this lapse into luxury due to Kay’s prescience; she booked our room months in advance for no more than the cost of an ordinary hotel.
Since its opening, the Esplanade’s exterior hasn’t changed. Its black-and-white marble lobby with a grand staircase and an array of clocks showing the time from London to Hong Kong to Buenos Aries is as impressive as hotel lobbies come.
Everywhere we looked – in the lobby, the corridors, and the sleeping rooms – the walls were hung with fine art. Best of all for us was the Esplanade’s highly personalized service.
Early on the first morning of our stay, I walked out into the limpid sunlight and discovered that the workday begins early in Zagreb. The hotel is located across from the principal train station designed like many other of the city’s landmark buildings in the Austro-Hungarian style of the late Hapsburg Empire. As I watched, a crowd of commuters poured from the station, heading for the several tramlines that interconnect nearby.
In another direction, I saw that the hotel was surrounded by manicured green spaces, one of which is the splendid formal garden at whose end stands the yellow stone Art Pavilion, built in 1897 to be Croatia’s pavilion at the Budapest Millennial Exhibition. When that exhibition closed, the pavilion was brought home to Zagreb and reassembled where, today, it houses special exhibitions.
Zagreb is a city of museums, of which one, the Museum of Broken Relationships, is a Croatian original. Of course, we had to see what it contained so we joined the crowd inside to view a few of the exhibits. In Croatian and English, these related bittersweet memories of ordinary people whose romances had ended. Each story was illustrated by an artifact such as a letter, photo, or object symbolizing the relationship.
We had been to Zagreb before, eleven years ago on a road trip through the Balkans with our friends Larry and Susan. We enjoyed it briefly then, but now the city has risen in our estimation. It is small enough to be walkable, yet it is filled with interest for those who admire cities. It has splendid architecture, much of it built at a time when architects decorated the exteriors of their buildings with carving, unusual stonework, etc. Besides its museums and many parks and green areas, the city has some great restaurants. It’s bike-friendly, as well.
By virtue of staying at the Esplanade I was able to have a Segway lesson. For the past few years, each time I’ve seen these strange, two-wheel, self-balancing vehicles, I wanted to try one but had not had the chance until now. I shared my lesson with two young Croatian women. Our Instructor, Bruno, led us through the basics with a strong emphasis on safety, appropriate since controlling a Segway is like nothing else the three of us had ever done. After practicing, off-line, we went out into the crowded pedestrian areas of the city and did a tour. I discovered how much ground one can cover quickly. My curiosity satisfied, I don’t know that I will ever ride a Segway again, but I’m happy I did it once.
To look at Zagreb today with its expansive lower town of avenues, parks, and squares and its medieval upper town with its impressive cathedral and colorful fruit and vegetable market is to see little evidence of its turbulent history. In fact, the city of Zagreb didn’t exist before the beginning of the 17th century. In prior centuries there were two rival hill towns, Kaptol and Gradec, whose enmity was so fierce it often became violent. A short street retains the name of Bloody Bridge that no longer exists, but is a reminder of those times.
Kaptol, where the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary stands, was under the jurisdiction of the Bishop and the canonical establishment. Gradec, patronized early by King Bela was a walled and fortified town with royally bestowed privileges. Both towns were menaced by the Turks who invaded the surrounding country in the 15th century, and it was only later that changing economic circumstances had them unite to form the city of Zagreb.
It’s fun to explore both lower and upper towns. To reach the latter we chose to walk up a longish hill and pass through the ancient Stone Gate that had once been Gradec’s eastern entrance. Besides the cathedral, the most eye-catching sight in the upper town is St Mark’s Church with its colorful tiled roof unlike any we’ve seen elsewhere. The designs in the tile depict the medieval coats of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia, and Slavonia.
We ate well during our days in Croatia. Zagreb’s Esplanade has two fine restaurants: At Le Bistrot, the hotel’s less formal one, we chose from a menu created by the restaurant’s female chef that included her specialties as well as some classic dishes like the Wiener schnitzel with mashed potatoes that Kay ordered. My choice was a piece of veal, crusted with horseradish and served with a sauce and a small portion of round dumplings. Before we ordered we were given a cornet of thin, house-made crackers that we spread with cottage cheese prepared with onion and cumin. We drank a bottle of a Croatian red varietal called Dingać and a sparkling water named Jamnica.
On our last evening in Zagreb, after drinks made with Irish Gunpowder gin and Fever Tree tonic, we ate at the Esplanade’s Zinfandels dining room. Our first course was an extraordinary corn soup, in which a broth infused with the flavor of corn was brought to the table and poured into bowls, containing bits of tiny corn cobs and tiny fresh shrimp. It was a most unusual preparation; we have not stopped thinking about it since.
Dessert for me was a lime-flavored crème brulée that I enjoyed with a glass of sweet wine.
I can’t end these notes on Zagreb without mentioning the extraordinary atmosphere that prevailed in anticipation of the World Cup soccer match between Croatia and France that was played in Russia on the last day of our visit. Tiny Croatia (population: four-and-a-half million) had never advanced to the finals before. We were told, in fact, that no country of its size had won that honor since 1950.
On Sunday morning the day of the match, we saw hundreds of fans, garbed in the red-and-white checkerboard of the Croatian flag, some with decals on their faces. It was quite a sight. In spite of the rain, spirits were very high. Most were heading for Trg Ban Jalačića, the main square, where a giant screen would show the match in the early afternoon to the thousands gathered there. It didn’t matter that Croatia lost 2 to 4. Just the fact that the team had reached the finals made Croatians immensely proud of their country.
at the Hotel President in Solin that Kay and I spent most of the two weeks following Zagreb. Solin is a pretty place, very green along the Jadro River and with clear views of mountains in the distance.
The days of our conferences are nothing if not intense. They are filled with papers, workshops, play readings, films, meals, parties and a few organized excursions. One of these took us to the small town of Omiš that straddles the Cetina River close to where it empties into the Adriatic.
High, sheer-sided mountains closely surround the town, giving it a fantastic, unsettling appearance. The town’s claim to fame is that from the 11th until the 14th centuries it was a center for pirate activity. Our guide softened the word “pirate” by calling the men who did the deeds “corsairs” who used their spoils to nourish the town. They used special narrow, fast-moving ships called sigata, which means arrow. Their favorite targets were crusaders traveling to fight in Palestine.
Our walk through the medieval town was short, and after a break for coffee, we all boarded a boat that took us forty-five minutes up the river to a spot known as Rabnanove Mlinice or Rabnan’s Mills. There, we sat at long tables under tarp coverings and ate a delicious lunch. Most of us had chosen fish over meat and were served some of the most satisfying trout I’d ever eaten. It was grilled to a crisp and served with oven-baked potatoes and green salad. It tasted as if the skin of the very fresh fish had been rubbed with some kind of spice mixture. We all agreed that what we were eating was very special.
It’s possible that Kay and I will return to Croatia. If so, we will plan a fresh itinerary, for there is much more to see and more adventures to be had in this intriguing country.