From sipping rakija in the sun to exploring squares and markets, Andrew Doherty discovers the draw of Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, on a trip with Monarch.
Time travel is a concept that has always fascinated me; unfortunately, such a pursuit has been limited to the realms of Hollywood. Yet on a trip to the Croatian capital with Monarch, I discover the city offers an abundance of antiquities, and I can barely contain my excitement at the prospect of absorbing myself in the history of this European gem.
Originally constructed in 1929, the Hotel Dubrovnik is a convenient base for city breakers in Zagreb, situated just off Ban Jelacic Square, a few steps from the heart of the city. With an easily accessible car park for hotel guests and free Wi-Fi, the property offers clients plenty of creature comforts. Getting there is easy too: Hotel Dubrovnik is less than half a mile from Zagreb Central Station and 11 miles from Zagreb airport. A taxi fare from the airport costs around £20, while a bus ticket will set customers back £4.
I begin my city tour in the square, which my guide, Jurica Puskar, informs me is busiest on Saturday mornings on account of the green market where residents come to buy and sell fresh produce.
“Notice everyone is wearing sunglasses so they can spy on each other,” he jokes.
Indeed the square is busy – children leap across the cobbled stones clutching balloons, residents barter over fruit and veg and hip young couples sip coffee beneath umbrellas in the shade. I’m already feeling like a local as I stop to examine a punnet of sweet-smelling strawberries. Puskar informs me that there is a chance I could appear in the society pages of the local magazine. I quickly try to look as photogenic as possible.
Zagreb is the most populous city in Croatia, with more than one million citizens, and is split into three parts: Upper Town (Gornji Grad), Lower Town and New Zagreb (Novi Zagreb). The latter is located further from the city centre and characterised by its high-rise modern buildings.
Crossing the square I bump into a man and woman dressed in traditional Croatian regalia (pictured right) posing for pictures with delighted weekenders. Puskar informs me that the duo are part of the Zagreb Time Machine programme, an interactive history lesson that sees individuals in costume taking to the streets. Remind your clients to look out for the friendly band who’ll strike up an upbeat medley before moving on to another popular tourist area.
Ilica is the longest street in Lower Town and contains many of Zagreb’s best shops. Clients visiting in summer can take advantage of the tram service running the length of the road should they want some air conditioned respite. It’s worth noting that most shops close on Sundays apart from the city’s 20 green markets.
Fans of coffee should explore Tkalciceva street, home to the highest concentration of cafes in the city – and plenty of excellent bars too, including Agava, where I enjoy an ice cold glass of local spirit, rakija. Zagreb really can get hot, as I discover during the walking tour. Temperatures may reach 30 degrees during the peak summer season with high humidity, so recommend clients pack suitable clothing.
Next stop is Zagreb Cathedral. The Gothic-style building was originally built in the 11th century and is impressive in its eclectic design. I crane my neck upwards to look at the exquisite 105 metre-high twin bell towers adorned with religious figures and stone carvings.
“There are 35 churches in the city centre – we are a very religious nation,” laughs Puskar.
Inside the cathedral is just as impressive, with its mixture of Baroque stone fixtures and Art Nouveau floor tiles. The cathedral is steeped in history and offers clients plenty to discover. It’s important to note that women should take something to cover their knees and shoulders on entering. I’m distracted by a cacophony outside and make for the door as the city’s guard of honour troop, The Cravat Regiment, have begun to assemble in front of the building.
Established in 2010, the regiment can be spotted on Saturdays and bank holidays in various tourist hotspots across the city. It’s well worth checking out the display: the soldiers are kitted out in fur hats and long red cloaks similar to the uniform the Croats fought in during the Thirty Years’ War, which took place 1618-1648 and was considered the deadliest European religious conflict in history.
Dolac, the city’s largest green market, is a hub of activity. Looking across Ban Jelacic Square, the space is crammed with stalls selling anything from fruit and vegetables to dairy produce. I pass through the colourful stations, catching the tail end of intense bartering sessions before heading inside the market hall, where vendors are flogging their wares.
I have worked up an appetite on the morning walk, so I head to Trilogija for lunch. This charming eatery, located near the city’s Stone Gate medieval shrine, and a 10-minute walk from Dolac, is divided into two – one side is a cosy wine bar and the other is the restaurant. With more than 110 wine labels from across the world along with a frequently updated menu comprising fresh ingredients sourced from Dolac, Trilogija makes a convenient and satisfying lunch stop for those exploring the city.
Sufficiently full, I decide to burn off a few calories by walking the city’s Green Horseshoe, a U-shaped system of squares and parks in the Lower Town.
Similar to the boulevards of Vienna, the Green Horseshoe encapsulates the grandeur of post-industrial Zagreb and is peppered with gorgeous buildings such as the Croatian National Theatre, Academy of Sciences and Arts, and the Croatian State Archives, with huge stone owls perched upon the roof. I begin my journey at the top of the “U” in Ban Jelacic Square, making my way through the various gardens towards Marshal Tito Square, the last open space on the route.
An ideal spot to take a breather is the Zagreb Botanical Garden with its 4.7 hectares of green space containing 10,000 species of plant. Puskar says that the arboretum bursts further into life during certain weekends in the summer, when popup music festivals take place.
The next morning I’m up bright and early to ride the Zagreb funicular – the shortest cable car trip in the world. Located on Tomiceva Street, the 64-second vertical tram leads to the base of Lotrscak Tower and costs just 50p, so it makes for an ideal way to reach Upper Town.
Here I manage a quick visit to the quirky Museum of Broken Relationships, filled with displays of romantic liaisons gone sour.
Puskar tells me that the best time to visit Lotrscak Tower, the 13th-century lookout post that protected the southern city gate, is midday, when the daily firing of the cannon takes place. Visitors can also pay to climb the tower for £2.30 for spectacular views over the Lower Town.
As I turn to ask Puskar a little more about the tower’s history the cannon goes off. I leap into the air in fright, just about managing to keep my camera from flying out of my hands. It’s a final reminder of the city’s rich history, which I have been able to discover over the past two days, despite my lack of a time machine.
Book it: Monarch offers two nights at the Hotel Dubrovnik from £169pp with Gatwick and Manchester flights included.