For years, Croatia has been Eastern Europe’s great secret. Since 1989, it’s been a holiday haven for those from the Czech Republic, Austria and the former Yugoslavian nations, but few others. Its beach resorts were the place to go for a sunny summer holiday; Zagreb for a city break. However the secret’s now out, and the capital city is gearing up for an influx of tourists from around the world. Its airport is so new it practically still has the plastic on its fixtures and fittings, its baggage carousels currently trundle around nearly empty but ready to withstand a phalanx of tourists.
And they’ll come alright: the city’s gorgeous, the modern lower town sitting below the older residential upper sector, both of which are embraced on several sides by green hills that are prime skiing spots in the winter. It has a vibrant mix of traditional Eastern Europe architecture and modern-day western touches: it’s Paris without the crowds and the aloof French folk, Rome without the queues.
The best place to base yourself is – weirdly – The Dubrovnik Hotel. Dubrovnik the city is nearly 400 miles down the coast, but the four-star hotel that bears its name is right in the heart of Zagreb, just off Ban Jelačić Square, the city’s main meeting point. The Square, as it’s called by the locals, isn’t much to see, truth be told, but the streets leading immediately off it are a treasure trove of touristy attractions as well as bars, restaurants and shops that locals inhabit. Walk a minute north of the square and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a heaving daily market, its red umbrellas shielding the freshest fruit, vegetables and knick-knacks from the sun. Pick up a punnet of strawberries and head five minutes east, where you’ll join the first of seven city-centre parks that form what’s colloquially called the Green Horseshoe, a tranquil natural haven where you can pick at the fresh fruit as the city bustles around you.
Follow the horseshoe around the city for a walk, taking in some of the main sights of Zagreb’s lower town, including the Modern Gallery, Croatian State Archives, Museum of Arts and Crafts and Croatian National Theatre (where you can see world-class opera or ballet for the price of a takeaway pizza back home). At the bottom curve of the gardens you’ll find the grand old train station, once a key stop as the Orient Express chuffed its way across the continent. Nowadays, you can take the train a few hours to the coast and enjoy some of the best shoreline in Europe, or inland to the vineyards that produce internationally-renowned wine.
But to be honest, there’s so much to do in the capital that you’ll want to stay here. Walking back up to Ban Jelačić Square, and heading west from the building the locals call the Skyscraper (from the top of which you get panoramic views of the city), what’s claimed to be one of the world’s shortest funiculars helps the elderly residents of the upper town make their way home of an evening, its 64-second journey up a steep slope down an alleyway just off the capital’s equivalent of Oxford Street, Ilica.
Once you make it up the hill, you begin to see an entirely different city. The sleepy residential area is serene, narrow cobbled streets closed in by old buildings. Wandering around this area will give you serious home envy and have you looking up house prices online once you return home. Take a seat in a neighbourhood bar and grab a coffee and a plate of savoury donuts, served with cheese – a traditional light bite round these parts.
Make sure you’re by Lotrščak Tower, right by the upper funicular stop, at noon though. Every day a cannon’s fired from the 13th century tower, scaring the tourists silly. From there, head just up the street to The Museum of Broken Relationships, a modern intrusion into the old-school section of the city, where the world’s brokenhearted descend to hand in a memento of a loved one and to tell their story. The museum’s a small, five or six-room affair, and the exhibits change regularly, constantly being added to as the newly single make their pilgrimages here.
Turn right out the door and follow the road up to the Croatian Parliament, cheek by jowl on a square with St Mark’s Church, the local parish. This isn’t your normal church, though: the 13th century church was pimped in 1880 with the addition of a colourful red, white and blue tiled roof that glistens in the sunlight. It manages to even outdo the city’s cathedral (nary a two minute walk from Ban Jelačić Square), which shares the same source of marble for its interiors as the fascia of the White House in Washington DC. A few steps away from St Mark’s is Trilogija, a small, family-run trattoria that serves up the best Croatian food in a welcoming atmosphere. There are no menus: just a blackboard chalked up with what’s fresh that day.
Vegetarians might find it difficult to take a full culinary tour of the city. Meat and fish (particularly veal and sea bass) feature prominently, and the best indication of the Croatian attitude towards a diet without meat can be found in the name of Zagreb’s main vegan restaurant: Nishta, which means ‘nothing’.
But for proud meat eaters, there’s a full complement of the freshest seafood and best meat at hand, often served with mlinci, a carb-heavy accompaniment of dried pasta sheets cooked in meat juices. Truffles also feature heavily – though don’t push up the price of a meal to an astronomical level – and any restaurant worth its salt will offer strukli (a cheese-filled pastry, brushed with sour cream and baked to a golden colour) as a starter. The most accomplished example can be found at Vinodol, a fancy fine dining place on Nikola Tesla street (like everything here, a five minute walk from the main square) where the food is cooked in giant ovens and smokers visible from the dining room.
The stodgy, rich food is a treat for a holiday, and will, truth be told, leave you craving vegetables on the flight back home. Stronger than those pangs, though, will be the desire to return to the Croatian capital. It’s a warm, welcoming place, with plenty to do and the ability to make you feel at home within minutes of setting foot on its streets. The secret’s out – and the upper town’s house prices aren’t too expensive, either...
Monarch operates year round flights to Zagreb from London Gatwick and Manchester with fares, including taxes, starting from £47 one way (£85 return). Monarch offers city break holidays staying at The Dubrovnik Hotel starting from £169 per person. For further information or to book Monarch flights and Monarch Holidays please visit www.monarch.co.uk. For more information on Zagreb, please visit www.infozagreb.hr.