Monday, August 22, 2011

Dobre dan Zagreb!

Elliot and I just returned from 15 blissful days in Croatia. What a country! Because we explored several interesting, beautiful, and all very different places I have divided the trip into three blogs: first Zagreb and Lovran, then the islands of Rab, Pag, and Vis, and finally Split and Plitvice Lakes National Parks.

Our 15-day route
To give you a sense, Croatia is a small country of 4.5 million people in the Balkan region of Europe, shouldered up between Slovenia, Hungary, Bosnia & Hercegovina, and Montenegro. The Adriatic Sea lines its coast and Italy is a boat ride away. The country's rich history, going back to the Illyrian population of 1000 BC and Roman rule during 11 BC was evident throughout our trip. More recently, in the early '90s, Croatia fought for its independence from the former Yugoslavia and Serbian forces. Serbian forces retreated in '95 and Croatian boarders were reestablished. Croats seem very proud of their country; we couldn't walk one block without seeing a Croatian flag. And considering its rocky recent past, its economy is doing quite well--especially tourism!

Croatian flags proudly hanging; Zagreb's manhole covers

After about 12 hours of travel (starting at 3am!), we arrived at our hotel, about a 20 minute walk from the center of Zagreb. We grabbed a quick gyro and then headed to the Lower Town. Zagreb is separated into two areas, the Upper and Lower Towns and mountains surround the city. We walked past the Arts & Crafts Museum, the Art Pavilion, and the Croatian National Theatre--all built in the 1880s and lovely buildings. In front of the Arts Pavillion, we stood in Marshal Tito Square (the former President of the Yugoslav Federation) and studied the Well of Life. The bronze fountain, sculpted by a Croatian artist in 1900, depicts a very sensual scene of young and old couples gathering around the fountain. Around the corner, we saw Zagreb's first skyscraper (1933) which is not all that impressive to look at, especially compared to the attractive 1880s art nouveau buildings around it. But I guess 79 days of construction can't get you much better than that! Also, I couldn't help but notice the adorable 2-feet-wide separated bike lanes painted in red onto the sidewalk!

First [modern] skyscraper in Zagreb and the cute 2' sidewalk bike lane; the first fountain in Zrinski Trg (1850s)
We somehow ended up in a lovely park--one of the eight parks in the Lower Town that make up the 'Green Horseshoe' sequence of parks, laid out in the late 19th Century--called Nikola Šubić Zrinski TrgThis park used to be a cattle market until the 1850s when it became a park. A charming outdoor space with pristinely manicured landscape and a wrought-iron bandstand, it's obviously a central and active respite area for the people here. We sat on the grass and watched teenagers flirt with eachother, people play frisbee, and others just enjoying the live jazz band like us. 

Street food; Ilica shopping street in the Upper Town
Our only full day in the city was jam-packed. We headed straight to the Upper Town, walking along the trendy shopping street, Ilica, and first hit up the Dolac Market, an enormous open-air market on three levels that sets up shop every day. It was refreshing to notice that nearly all the products were from Croatia! [A very different story in R'dam, for another blog.] We sampled some fresh cheese and then a shot of espresso got us jazzed up to see the impressive towers of the St. Stephen's Cathedral, built in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries, complete with a fortress around it for defending Ottoman Empire advances. Winding up the street we found our way to the wonderful street, Tkalčićeva. It's ok, sound it out: te-KALL-chit-SAY-va. Tons of cute boutiques, cafés, bars, restaurants, and shoe shops in some ancient-looking crooked houses line this lovely pedestrian street--definitely the place to be.

[ALL] Dolac market

Cute little alleys off Tkalčićeva 
In the afternoon, the weather decided to change and all of a sudden it poured down rain! The streets were flooding and we got absolutely soaked running under the awnings towards a burger place we saw earlier, in the lively Petar Preadović Trg. But it was best and biggest $2 burger I've had in a while!

Burger time!
I really enjoyed wandering the winding hilly streets of the Upper Town, and the parks and buildings of the Lower Town. I felt an enchanting old world charm, but matched with a modern, hip vibe. The people of Zagreb we found to be kind and humorous, spoke English, and for the most part had a great sense of style! Glad we were coming back for one more night at the end of the trip!

[TOP] Radićeva street and a little alley; [BOTTOM] St. Stephens Cathedral and a view of Tkalčićeva 

Our first traveling experience in the country went smooth, though a little frustrating--naturally. First, it was quite more expensive than we planned. To travel beyond the intercity limits, the only options are the train (extraordinarily slow) and private bus companies. To get from Zagreb to Lovran, there are several bus companies and they all run at different times and with slightly different prices. It ran us about $60 for two tickets for a 3-hr ride to the coast. Not too bad, but still. Oh, then, if you want to put your suitcase under the bus, it costs you another $1-2 per bag. And you have shove it in there and retrieve it yourself! A bit of a strange system, but we managed. The bus ride was actually very nice. We only stopped a couple times and the views of the mountains, and then the spectacular coastline were breathtaking. I've never seen water like the Adriatic. Beautiful jade blue/green water. We finally arrived in the small town of Lovran, just passed Opatija and walked the last mile along the road. We noticed a few nice swimming areas and huge gorgeous, old mansions hiding behind ivy on the hills. I was definitely in love with this area.

Sights of Lovran
 I think this was my favorite hotel throughout the whole trip. We had a nice little room, with a balcony facing the mountains. We had a wonderful, hearty breakfast (included) every morning, sitting on the terrace with an uninterrupted view of the calm Adriatic and the islands of Cres and Krk. I haven't seen anything like that view. We got settled and went straight back to one of the swimming areas we saw earlier. The water was pretty darn cold, but refreshing, and so salty we could float without any effort whatsoever. That evening, we read for a while on the terrace with the view and then ate dinner at the hotel. For an extra 8$ each, we took the "half board" option which included a 3-course dinner.

View from Pansion Stanger
After a huge breakfast of breads and local cheeses, fresh jams, hard-boiled eggs, figs and watermelon, coffee, and juice (phew!), we set out for a hike. We weren't up the full 1600m ascent to Volak but made it up to 700m, seeing lots of vineyards, family farms, and more ancient-looking homes along the well-marked trail. After about 4 hours, we finally descended into the town of Lovran and had espresso while the rain down-poured and lightening crashed down on the area for about 30 minutes. Made it down the mountain just in time!!

Hiking up Mount Volak
When the rain lightened up, we hopped on the local bus to Opatija, the main town in the area. Although it was still drizzling a bit, the warm weather made up for it. We took the Lungemare waterfront walkway back to Lovran, about 5 km. What a scenic walk! It's a 6' promenade that winds its way for 12km right along the coast and a great way to see everything!

Walking along the 12km Lungamare waterfront pathway
After another quick dip at a local 'concrete beach', and then once again, that evening we enjoyed reading on the terrace and another fresh fish meal at the hotel. 

Next stop: the islands!

1 comment:

  1. Lovran looks similar to Opatija, beautiful as well.
    Great Shots of the market.


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