As a travel writer I’m usually too busy flying somewhere to enter competitions but every once in a while I throw my business card into the hat, thank goodness I did. I recently won an all expenses paid trip for two to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, courtesy of Monarch Airlines and the Zagreb Tourist Board.
One of the grand old dames of Eastern Europe the Esplanade was built in response to the demand of passengers on the Orient Express wishing to break their journey. This is not just a luxury staging post it’s a destination in its own right. Its cool Art Nouveau architecture touches are present throughout. With a recent renovation it has every mod con but still retains its grandeur.
The great and the good have stayed here, from European presidents and royalty such as Prince Albert of Monaco to films stars like Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and writers such as Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming, they have all laid their heads on their sumptuous pillows.
As a child watching the James Bond cold war thriller ‘From Russia With Love’ that I decided I wanted to visit Zagreb. As the Orient Express pulls into the station and John Barry’s terrific score plays with the tension, Bond’s escape plan starts to fall apart. Grant the SMERSH killer boards the train in Zagreb posing as a British agent intent on killing Bond and his beautiful accomplice Tatiana. The train moves up through Istria and story continues but what I wanted to know then and now was why all those famous and influential people made it their business to visit the Croatian capital.
There have been settlements since Romans times but the Austro Hungarian Empire built the Zagreb we see today and were responsible for the attractive architecture and layout of the city. It is also known as ‘small Vienna’ as I walked around it is easy to see why. The Esplanade sits in a green horseshoe surrounded by parks and open spaces and next to the train station. By 1907 the city had horse drawn trams, a gas and electricity works and by 1927 its own radio network.
It’s a simple city to explore either on foot or by the excellent tram service that covers the centre. A Zagreb card valid for 72 hours is the best way to pay for this, just hop and off at your leisure, it will also get you into museums, on the small funicular railway and even the zoo. In the old town they still light 276 gaslights every night by hand.
There is much to see with plenty of museums and historic buildings open to the public. A favourite was The Museum of Broken Relationships, which is a small series of rooms with a variety of exhibits like shoes, dress or even a champagne cork. Each comes with a personal story, some tragic and some hilarious such as an axe entitled “ex-axe”, which was donated by a woman from Berlin. She used it to chop her former lover’s furniture in frustration after being left for another woman: “two weeks after she left, she came back for the furniture. It was neatly arranged into small heaps and fragments of wood. She took that trash and left my apartment for good”.
St. Stephen’s cathedral in an area known as Kapitol first started in 13th century then refurbished in new Gothic after an earthquake in 1880. It has twin steeples soaring 108m into the sky and is a familiar landmark seen from most parts of the city. To the side of the nave there is a relief of Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac with Christ done by the Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović. From here it is a short walk to St. Mark’s Square (passing a sculpture of George and the dragon on the way) where at the weekend you can see the changing of the guard. A cannon is fired at noon exactly and then a slow paced sort of abstract dance takes place with two sets of soldiers in bright red tunics. Very attractive and strangely mesmerising it lasts about 15 minutes and is worth catching.
Lunch at restaurant Dubravkin Put set in woodland just outside the centre of town was an event. Offering world-class cuisine including a terrific strawberry ‘soup’ that was as sublime as it was tasty. The location makes this a superb spot that is walkable from the city but seems a million miles away, a hidden gem.
There are many back streets with cobbles worth nosing around with interesting shops as well as a vast market in the old city. Plenty of good little restaurants and bars as well. I’m a great fan of an open topped bus tour of any city. There are two available one that does the outskirts of the city and one that does the city itself. Take the city one as it has more to offer.
Our visit coincided with a heat wave and it was 34c when we arrived. After a day’s wandering around the city we stopped for a cocktail or two and watched the clouds gather. The storm was about to break. Hopping on a no 13 tram we reached The Esplanade just in time. From our room we had a grandstand seat over the square and surrounding city with lightening and monsoon like rain for a couple of hours.
Staying at such a swish hotel usually means that there is a good restaurant, The Esplanade is no exception. On our last night we checked out the cocktail bar with grand piano then sauntered into Zinfandel the main restaurant in the hotel (there is a bistro as well which is also good).
The meal was top notch. They have a variety of menus to choose from we chose the intriguing flambé menu. Run by Ana Grgić the first female to head up the kitchen in Zagreb. She comes with great credentials, a litter of Michelin starred restaurants have seen her talents and she is also a judge on Master Chef The Professionals.
Cooked at the table in front of us the foie gras in brandy was not only fantastic theatre (think big flames and aromas to die for) it tasted brilliant as well. And it kept on coming, the beef with truffles didn’t disappoint nor did the exceptional local cheeses. The sommelier, Ivan Šneler has been there over two decades and was a great help choosing Croatian wines to accompany each course.
Did Zagreb live up to my childhood expectations of espionage and danger? Well not quite for those reasons as I didn’t see any agents at the station (how would I know?) but I did really enjoy this vibrant city. Full of history and glorious architecture, superb food and charming people it’s hard not to like. A perfect weekend getaway for non-prize-winners too.