After Plitvice Lakes, we were on our way to our final destination on our epic Balkans road trip – Zagreb, the capital, and largest, city of Croatia. It was an easy 2 hour drive to the Hotel Panorama, where our Sixt rental car drop off location was. We had to circle a few times to figure out the drop off point. Dropping the car off was no problem – there was no damages assessed and it appeared that we were off the hook for having to pay anything for the flat tire debacle (unfortunately, a few days after getting back to Denver a bill for $250 showed up that we are fighting).
Ubers were readily available in Zagreb, so we took one to get the few miles to our hotel, Hilton Canopy. It’s a new brand concept Hilton has recently introduced to appeal to the high-end hipster crowd. We felt at home right away in the inviting space.
I had used Hilton points for our one night here in Zagreb, so this was a freebie. We got up to the room and continued to be impressed. There were cool little premium extras waiting for us too – like socks that we could take with us, robes, and little gourmet treats.
After relaxing for a bit, we decided to make the most of the waning daylight and get out in to Zagreb. The Austrian architecture permeated the old town area, which was only a few blocks from our hotel. We could already guess at the waves of history washing over the city, similar to what we’d seen elsewhere – Roman, Hungarian (Catholic), Austro-Hungarian Empire, Yugoslavia. There difference in Zagreb appeared to be fewer turmoil and turnover than in other parts of the Balkans, with fairly consistent rule by Hungary/Austro-Hungarian Empire for 800 years. There was an earthquake in 1880 that let to an architectural revival, the foundation for modern times. We were starting to understand the importance of earthquakes, floods, and fires in the evolution of modern cities – providing a natural forcing function towards technological advancement.
We marveled at how green Zagreb was – so many parks and flowers!
Each block kept getting better and better. We were thinking this as we stumbled in to a food, drink, and music festival in the central square. We enjoyed some sangria.
And the photo spots.
Continuing the walk through the historical center of Zagreb from south to north, we enjoyed see the old-timey trolley contrasted with modernity – posh shops and restaurants, complete with pedestrian areas.
We were falling in love with Zagreb, and found it a very livable city. Although we never got to take a guided tour and hear the stories of its history, we felt the same way about it that we felt about Lisbon. Doing some research after the fact, I discovered that high-tech is one of Zagreb’s main industries, and that the temperate is very mild year round. Livable indeed (probably the only city in Croatia we could actually find work, unless we were working remotely).
We stopped to enjoy some folksy renditions of rock songs – including a heart-wrenching rendition of “Zombie”. It was so good, we were compelled to donate some loose change.
Our last stop before finding the restaurant we had made reservations at earlier was the Zagreb Cathedral. It was destroyed in the earthquake and was in the process of being restored. There was an entire exhibit outside explaining the restoration process.
Our restaurant, Pod Zidom Bistro & Wine Bar, turned out to steps from the Cathedral, with seating on an outdoor terrace. We had worked up an appetite and were looking forward to trying the cuisine. It was our last supper after all on this epic road trip. Zagreb was so modern and civilized, we even were able to make reservations on OpenTable.
The waiter was very kind but the dinner itself became a comedy of errors, even though the food was very good. We started off by ordering a bottle of wine (after I tasted a few), only to be told that the Grimalda bottle we wanted only had two glasses left. It was delicious, so of course we went with it. It accompanied the Croaian dumplings with spinach puree well.
Brendan then switched to a different white wine, which just was not as good (the wine was called Posip). I switched to a Pinot Noir on the recommendation of the waiter, who thought it would pair well with the rabbit ravioli I ordered. Brendan ordered the Bonito, since it was another recommendation by the waiter, only to be told after 30 minutes of waiting for our entrees, that the chef wasn’t satisfied with it and they could no longer offer it. He switched to lamb, which was good, but delayed our entrees even further.
My entree was very good, and so was the lamb when we finally got it. At this point, a fat American woman at a table next to us got up to use the restroom, and decided to slide into the narrow space between our two tables to get out – as opposed to walking around where there was more space. She obviously significantly underestimated the size of her body (Brendan has been guilty of this – zing!), and ended up knocking over Brendan’s water, getting it on him and the waiter as he was bringing us our entrees. The waiter was embarrassed, since nothing could go right for us during this meal!
After the food, we just wanted to leave. It had taken longer than expected, and we were tired from driving the whole day. Brendan was uncharacteristically cold as well. The waiter tried to offer of another glass of wine and dessert on the house, but we decided to just go. We did try to get gelato back in the food festival area, but again our hopes were dashed when then old took cash (and we were out of kuna). Definitely not the perfect last meal, but the food was good and the waiter tried really hard to make it right.
Back at our hotel, we tried to get to sleep quickly since we had a 0600 morning to make a 0915 flight. On the way back, we had many issues – with security, with our connecting flight in Zurich which we almost missed, and with immigration back in the US. We think the fact that we bought liquids from Duty Free in Zagreb (and then forgot to declare them going through security in Zurich since we were rushing to our flight) flagged us to the US officials upon entry. Brendan was pulled in to secondary and it was a whole hullabaloo. It cost us another 90 minutes and took away our privileges of using the TSA PreCheck line. We were frustrated and tired, despite the flights all being good (we even had an empty middle seat from ZRH to IAD).
At the end of the day, we loved Zagreb and wished we had a an extra night. But, we were very happy to be home.
This was certainly NOT a vacation. We were going going going nearly continuously (besides that one down day in Split/Hvar). It was certainly an epic adventure, with all the accouterments that go along with adventure – euphoria, adrenaline, frustration, unanticipated circumstances, anticipation, contentedness, joy, and a sense of accomplishment. All in all, it was a great trip.