The afternoon had cooled down to a light chill, a hint of the autumn twilight that was just behind our shoulders as we roamed through Zagreb’s pedestrian walkways past 19th century and Baroque buildings, massive in the long shadows across the small parks that dot the Lower Town to the Upper Old Town.
In just a few days, our rewards were many and simple: sipping a beer in the city’s oldest tavern, shopping in market square for stukli and coffee, meditating in the pink and white stuccoed Baroque Jesuit Church of St. Catherine, revisiting the Mestrovic Museum, set inside the artist’s former home all give clues to this graceful Central European city. And it is clues that you look for as the city is reserved, careful about who she lets into her inner circle.
Up to now, even in the throes of old conflicts, Zagreb seems to have developed on its own terms - from its medieval beginnings in the Old Town above the city below - yet, it too, will succumb to a few modern invasions. The first Starbucks is scheduled to arrive in October, just time for shoulder season. Business pundits are already predicting it may not last long, as Starbucks coffee costs around three Euros, more than twice as much as this java-oriented cafe society is used to paying.
Still, it would take a great deal more to sully the face of Zagreb, which is a classy city of less than a million residents. If one wrote a biography of the city, it would not include the big attention getters like giant ferris wheels, a frenetic pace or splashy neon strips. Zagreb is cool, sophisticated and understated. It counts more than 20 theater venues and concert halls, 30 museums and more than 60 galleries at last count. One of the best places from which to view the city is the Regent Esplanade Zagreb Hotel (www.esplanade.hr) set along the Orient Express track, it was once the classic choice for upscale rail aficionados.
If Zagreb were a woman, you might say she wants to know your intention before she divulges her secrets. The city is an example of 19th century urban planning. Among its 30 parks, the most distinct are the Lenuzzi Horseshoe or the Green Horseshoe, eight inner circles or small parks that are surrounded with many of the city’s must-see attractions.
Think Ivan Mestrovic, the Museum of Broken Relationships, Naive Art Gallery Mijo Kovacic and the first private museum in Croatia - the Marton Museum. Some contend that the Mestrovic Pavilion, a rotunda built in 1938 by the sculptor himself is an avant-garde project that may have been the precursor to the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York.
The country of Croatia straddles what has come to be known as Middle Europe. Although it lived under the constraints of the Iron Curtain as so many other European countries did for half a century, Croatia has always been a welcoming destination for tourists, especially Americans. While summer is glorious along the Dalmatian coast and on its lively islands, travel agents say no time is better than the off-peak, or shoulder season - September through October - it is also the time airlift is still at its peak.
Under Marshal Tito, Americans traveled there in droves with low-cost packages often targeting the senior community; they could stay for long periods of time in sometimes austerely-furnished hotels along the Dalmatian coast, a big draw in the off-peak months as the weather is Mediterranean, the Adriatic pristine and the sunshine seems to last forever.
Fast forward to Croatia’s secession from Tito’s once delicately unified Yugoslavia, and you will find a country with its face forward, and its tourism infrastructure in place.
Season of Perfection
The Huffington Post recently named Croatia among the world’s top five honeymoon destinations for 2013. More international hotel companies and tour operators continue to develop travel products to Croatia, many with an eye toward special interests. At the same time, Cruise Ship News named Dubrovnik as a top wedding venue.
Select Italy, a travel agency that often finds itself on Travel and Leisure’s A-List and as one of the top agencies in Conde Nast Traveler each year, has veered from its singular staple, Italy to include Croatia with an emphasis
Says Maja Gudelj, one of Select Italy’s travel consultants who specializes in her home country, “September and October are quite popular travel months for American travelers, as the main season rush is over, but the weather is still beautiful, and hotel rates are a bit lower, making the trip more affordable.”
Predrag Krivokapic at Kompas Holidays International (www.kompas.net), says his company has created two tour products that are well-suited to off-season pursuits that can coincide with a long roster of festivals that take place throughout the country in the early fall. As the weather cools, and people are not apt to swim in the Adriatic, Kompas serves up programs that takes them inland where visitors have more of a chance to see life as it is really lived in Croatia. Kompas’ Northern Croatia program visits Vukovar and Ilok, Osijek, Nasice and Varazdin, all of which are dotted with castles and villages.
This year, the 42nd edition of the Varazdin Baroque Evenings, a classical music festival, starts at the end of October in this baroque town not far away from Zagreb (www.vbv.hr). Spancirfest is another festival held every year for a week at the end of August to early September, featuring local folklore and costumes
New York-based Sharyn Lewis, president of Lewis Travel Management says, “My clients usually like to arrive in Zagreb and stay a few days to take in cultural events, museums, visit Plitvice Lakes, which is not far from town, before driving down the Dalmatian Coast to visit Dubrovnik of course, and hop on a ferry or two to the islands of Brac or Hvar.”
Kompas’ Croatia Express chases the last licks of summer starting in Zagreb, touring Plitvice Lakes, and racing south along the Dalmatian Coast to Split, Dubrovnik, the island of Hvar, further south to Montenegro, and the Bay of Kotor, the longest and deepest fjord in Southern Europe. From Cetinje, once the powerhouse city in Montenegro, include a short stop on the islet of Sveti Stefan, home to the Villa Milocer, now an Aman Resorts property.
Festivals and Events
Come September, locals and international visitors arrive for the Vinkonci Autumn, one of the best-known festivals featuring original Croatian folklore that has become an annual event for more than 40 years. It is a competition of top culture and art societies from Croatia and Croatian emigrant communities. Events feature original folklore music, dances and customs performed daily in the town of Vinkovci, located in the region of Slavonia, which is less than 100 miles from Zagreb.
By early October, Croatians go mad over tartufada or truffles. One of the most expensive mushrooms in the world, truffles grow in the Istrian region. In the forest area near the old town of Motovun, as well as in other surrounding towns and villages, there are white and black truffles in abundance.
One of the biggest festivals celebrating the ugly mushroom is Tartufada (Truffle Days), taking place in the village of Livade, in the valley of river Mirna. From Oct. 1 - Nov.12 there are exhibitions and tastings of various agricultural products, while truffles are prepared in many different dishes in
This year marks the 15th anniversary celebration of the biggest white truffle in the world discovered in Istria by Giancarlo Zigante and his dog Diana. The nearly three-pound tuber magnatum pico is still holding its place in the Guinness Book of Records. Truffle season generally starts in September and lasts through the end of March. www.livadetartufi.com
Lika is a highland region just two hours drive south of Zagreb, recognized for its well-preserved natural attractions. The world-renown UNESCO site, National Park Plitvice Lakes, is located in the heart of Lika. www.np-plitvicka-jezera.hr
Coincidentally, the national park that is home to Plitvice Lakes was recently chosen by British website FemaleFirst as one of the world’s top 17 fairytale places. Visitors will be impressed with the park’s winding trails, its maze of lakes and spectacular waterfalls (pictured on most postcards), lush greenery, birdlife and turquoise waters are breathtaking.
Not far from Plitvice is the village of Smiljan, where Croatian inventor Nikola Tesla was born 150 years ago. A memorial center and museum opened last year, dedicated to this great scientist. Springtime is perfect for visiting this unspoiled region and to savor the local delicacies such as poppy seed cake.
Combine a visit to another national park, “North Velebit,” with a tour of the Cerovac Caves located nearby. Discovered some 100 years ago, during the construction of Zagreb-Split railroad, no one was prepared for its wealth of geological ornaments. The Croatian National Railway Company operates excursion trains that wend their way around the caves. Archeological remnants from the Bronze and Iron Ages were
Should clients stay until the fall ebbs into early winter, suggest they join natives on a chilly Sunday afternoon as they crowd the Tkalciceva Street restaurants for a platter of grilled meats cooked on an open fire. Restoran Kaptolska Klet opposite the cathedral is such an option. With its worn wooden floors, long tables and endless flavorful aromas, this is a good place to meet people and dine well on
hearty Zagreb soups.
The U.S. travel market is riddled with two and three-night city-packs including Zagreb, try to convince clients to stretch their stay a night or two longer. They’ll be glad you did.
For more information about Croatia, visit www.croatia.hr