We are between house sits; our next one is in Italy in about 3 weeks. In the meantime, we are touring one of the two countries that were at the top of our list this year, Croatia (the other was Italy, so more on that country in a few weeks).
We managed to make the perfect arrangements for handing over keys and car in Zurich. We drove the homeowner’s car to the airport, left it and our luggage in the parkhaus and went to meet their flight (they had been in Australia for a month while we took care of their home and cats). We helped them back to the car with all their gear (they were traveling with a toddler, ’nuff said), took our bags out of their car, put their bags in, said our goodbyes, and headed back into the airport to check in for our flight just under 2 hours before takeoff. We couldn’t have planned it better had we tried.
In Zagreb, we stayed in an AirBnB apartment that is located about 10 minutes by foot from the center of town. Our host let us know that we were visiting on the last weekend of Advent, which meant that holiday celebrations were still very active in town, that Saturday was a national holiday, and that on Sunday anything that was open would close down in the early afternoon. As well, the tram system was free for the weekend because of the Advent celebrations. (What we also found out from our host and others we spoke to over the weekend was that the weather should have been at least in the minus single digits Celsius with snow, but daytime high temperatures while we were there were 15-17°C. Not bad!)
We arrived early enough in the afternoon to be able to walk to town and enjoy the evening festivities. We thought we had left Christmas markets behind, but here they were again, and on steroids. Instead of natural wood or red and green sheds, everything was white, so it had more of a winter festival feel. In Zagreb, there are loads of central plazas and wide public pedestrian spaces between buildings. It seemed that each one we came to over the weekend was filled with market sheds, or food kiosks with tables and seating. There were the usual handicraft stalls, cured meat and cheese stalls, and plenty of places to grab a sausage or ham hock meal; mulled wine, coffee, or beer; and a couple of desserts like Croatian donuts (round balls with chocolate or Nutella sauce) and another one that looked like a molded upside-down bowl of ice cream (we didn’t try either, sadly).
In Zagreb, you can walk to almost all the key sites, and there is good signage (with English translations) everywhere pointing tourists in the right direction.
For our first evening, we picked a few spots in Upper Town and then just walked and explored.
We wandered up streets that appeared to be filled only with cafes, each of them doubled or trebled in size with covered glass- or plexiglass-walled patios. Some of the umbrellas were enormous. Regardless of the temperature, Croats (we were told by other Croats) enjoy their socializing over coffee or other beverages.
Our first view of the outdoor section of the Dolac market was at night as it was being cleaned up. We weren’t able to see it in action until two days later.
Our first view of the Zagreb Cathedral was at night (with no tripod for good low-light pics). One of the spires is being worked on so is draped.
On our first full day in Croatia, we started our wanderings in the Upper Town and ended in Lower Town. At one point, we saw a tunnel opening. People were walking in and out so we decided to join in the fun. For quite a while we just walked, not knowing where we were going in this concrete tunnel with blocked off tunnels branching off here and there. Then we came across what was probably the tired end of an Advent display with oversized presents hanging from the roof and streamers dropping here and there. Once we were through this display, we were back in a regular old mysterious underground tunnel that may or may not be open at other times of the year.
Graffiti is everywhere. A lot of it is tagging and not particularly artful–the kind of graffiti that many places try to eradicate. The murals are interesting and colourful.
We ran into many more streets filled with market kiosks and stopped at one for a quick lunch before continuing our explorations.
While resting at a cafe and enjoying a coffee (when in Croatia …), we decided to walk to Lower Town again, to see the several-block-long public space that ended in King Tomislav Square. We picked a Trip Advisor top-rated Cheap Eats restaurant that we planned to visit on our way back.
Before we arrived at Zagreb, I decided I was a bit tired of taking photos of buildings and would look for photo inspiration in other things. But at every turn, the buildings here just cried out to be captured. Many of these beautiful structures are museums, theaters, city archives, or art galleries.
In King Tomislav Square we found the largest outdoor ice rink we had ever seen. When we got there, the lone Zamboni was trying desperately to clean the ice and sop up all the water on this 17°C day. But the line-up of excited skaters waiting to get in was long, and when they were given the all-clear, they burst onto the ice, around the traffic circle, and down the block.
A block away from all this partying, with everything in between closed and dark, we found the door of the Heritage Restaurant open. This was a delightful find–a tiny shop with only a few stools at a counter and a few outside. It is a tapas restaurant, designed to showcase local Croatian products. As one of the young owners told us, they wanted to open a place to share Croatian food and drink that they enjoy themselves.
We ordered 3 items to share: Prosciutto with black truffle spread (which ended up being a delicious toasted sandwich), dried fig and walnut salad (I declared this the best salad I’ve ever eaten), and a pumpkin seed pesto open-faced sandwich (the most popular item on the menu, we were told). We accompanied these with a delicious Croatian pinot grigio wine (Ken tried a red first, but was less impressed), Ken followed this with a shot of kruskovac (pear brandy or schnapps), and we ended our meal with two tiny truffles (one fig, one carob). Cost: About 150 ku ($30 CAD). As each item was delivered the server explained what we were about to eat and from where in Croatia the ingredients were sourced. We also enjoyed chatting with these two about Croatian life. It was a great way to end the day.
On our last day in Zagreb, we wandered into parts of Lower Town that we hadn’t seen before.
A very short funicular connects Upper and Lower Town, but there are many stairs and roadways that do the same. The tower at the top of the funicular is called Kula Lotrščak (or Lotrščak Tower) and dates back to the 13th century. Every day at noon a cannon is fired from it. We were just up the street from it when we heard the explosion, and then we realized why all those people were standing at the top of the funicular the day before at the same time.
On the recommendation of our dinner hosts the night before, we hopped on a tram (free, remember) and rode it 7 stops down the road to the Maksimir Park, the oldest public park in Zagreb (opened in 1794). This park is huge and includes a zoo and many hectares of forest. We walked around a little, but it was getting late, we were tired, and the park was wearing its winter camouflage, so wasn’t as interesting and wonderful as I imagine it to be in the summer.
As much as we enjoyed our month in Switzerland, everything there is expensive. Though we knew this ahead of time, I’m far too money- and budget-focussed to be able to look past the price tags. We are now in a country where costs are much lower, which is very refreshing (and relaxing for me!).
One criticism for Zagreb
Smoking laws need an update. People in Zagreb smoke a lot–it is a key part of the coffee socializing culture and, unfortunately, many of the coffee bars (which are also often restaurants) allow smoking inside. All of the patios are smoking as well.
Smoking was so prevalent, I looked up lung cancer statistics, sure that Croatia would be near the top of the list. It is ranked among the top 20 countries in the world for lung cancer rates but, much to my surprise and chagrin, Canada is in the top 20 as well, and at an even higher position.
Flight from Zurich to Zagreb: We flew on a Swiss Air flight (the 1 ½ hour flight was operated by Croatia Air). We purchased the flight about 3 weeks ahead (that’s when we decided what we were going to do) through Expedia for a total price of $552 CAD for both of us.