This is the fourth installment in the chronicle of the European vacation where I decided to plan the entire trip and not tell my wife where we are going. She has discovered each destination as we cross a border or enter a new city. In most cases she has been in the dark until almost the last minute. If you missed the first installment you can find it here: My Wife Doesn’t Know Where We Are Going. The second installment is here: Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret? And the third is here: Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border.
CHAPTER FOUR …
The wine-infused drive through Slovenia and into Zagreb all but assured that the post-Venice leg of our trip would be a positive one. What really had me worried was three nights in Zagreb, a city that neither my wife nor I had every visited. Of the many risks of planning a vacation without any input or knowledge of one’s “other half,” probably the biggest is picking the wrong hotel. After 11 hours on the road from Venice, our driver dropped us off on a side street in Zagreb, about a block from our hotel. She explained that our hotel was in the “pedestrian zone” and therefore she could not get us any closer to the hotel via car. Thus, we dragged our large suitcase, two backpacks, and an entire case of wine that we picked up in Venice from our new friends, the Abruzzo winemakers.
As we approached the hotel from the other side of the street, I couldn’t help but think it looked very unimpressive. Rather than having a grand entrance like many hotels, the Jägerhorn had a small archway stuck between two retail stores. Oh boy, I thought, this doesn’t look anything like the pictures on the website. Because it is “off-season” in Croatia, many of the places I planned for us during our trip are much lower than summer rates – in some cases a third of the cost. My first thought about the hotel was, maybe I played it too cute – did I get us too much of a bargain? Three days in a bargain hotel would be a great way to mess up the entire “surprise” nature of this entire trip.
I shouldn’t have worried. Once we passed the archway and entered the courtyard, I could see that the hotel was as nice as it looked online. Because we had not eaten for several hours, we had some coffee and tea and dessert in the hotel cafe before heading up to the room. “Oh my god!” said my wife as she pushed the door open. As any husband knows, “Oh my god!” can have several positive connotations and many negative ones as well. When uttered, it is often difficult to tell what the motivation behind the words are in that moment. I held my breath as the missus looked around the room. “Is this a suite?” she asked. “Why yes, of course it is,” I answered, as if I could have reserved nothing less.
She breezed into the bedroom and I heard another “Oh my god!” “Yes?” I asked nervously. “I love it!” she exclaimed. “What a beautiful room!” An examination of the bathroom ensued, which also turned out to be more than acceptable and generated a final “oh my God!”
Everything about the hotel turned out to be ideal. The buffet breakfast each morning was cozy and well-stocked. The cafe/bar was a perfect spot to stop in every night before heading up to our room for the night. And the location could not have been better: we were right in the middle of the coolest part of town, about a quarter of a mile from the main square and no more than 10-15 minutes walking distance from all of the places we wanted to go. Our hotel was located in the “lower town” of Zagreb, but literally through the center of our hotel courtyard were stairs going to “Upper Town.”
One of the things I read while planning this trip is that Zagreb is a town for people who love coffee. According to many blogs and travel sites, there is a coffee shop almost every 50 meters in Zagreb. If this is an exaggeration, it is only a small one. We did in fact find coffee shops all over town. Most importantly, these coffee shops were authentic, local places serving really nice brews. I am happy to report that there is not a single Starbucks in Zagreb; in fact, there are zero Starbucks locations in the entire country of Croatia. There will also be no Starbucks locations in any of the countries remaining on our trip. Just real coffee made by genuine roasters of coffee beans and brewers of coffee. Okay, I will get off of my soap box now.
Needless to say, we consumed a lot of coffee in Zagreb, although it took us a while to learn how to order what we wanted. I started out ordering “coffee,” but that confused the people at the coffee shop, and they would reply “American?” Well, no, I don’t want “American” coffee – do I have to get back on my soapbox about Starbucks? What I realized is that “American” means coffee with milk, although I tend to think as “American” as black coffee. Eventually I figured it out and we made the most of the both “American” coffee, black coffee, and various Croatian takes on espresso, cappuccino, latte, and other coffee drinks.
What else did we do besides drink coffee? We walked around Zagreb quite a bit to soak up the ambiance of the city. Neither of us likes to go to a city and take the mandatory 25 pictures of monuments so that we can say we “saw” the city. We prefer to follow the rhythms and routine of the locals and go the places they go and do the things that they do. If we see some monuments along the way, that’s a bonus.
The first morning we left the hotel to get to know Zagreb better. A wonderful part of traveling so late in the year (“off-season” for sure in Croatia) is that there were almost no tourists in town. We were walking among Croatians, among the people who live and work every day in Zagreb. It was an amazingly lively city, very reminiscent of a place like Milan: everyone was dressed very stylishly and there were fancy stores and quaint squares on almost every block. Certainly, it was not what I was expecting, having visited Eastern Europe and Slavic countries in the past. Zagreb was much more cosmopolitan than I imagined and more reminiscent of a Western European capital.
The missus, who is originally from Russia, was delighted that she could understand quite a bit of the Croatian language being spoken. Apparently there are many words that are identical or very similar between Croatian and Russian. She did most of the talking when we were not speaking English. Right across the street from our hotel she ordered her favorite thing: chestnuts.
We then decided to walk to the main Zagreb Farmers Market. It is important to distinguish between the U.S. version of a farmers market and the Croatian version. In the United States, the farmers market is usually a weekly event where people pay too much money for small amounts of fruits, nuts, vegetables or other food items. No one (at least no one in their right mind) would do their weekly shopping at an American farmers market. In Zagreb, by contrast, the Dolac Farmers Market is the market – the place where locals of all income levels do their fruit, vegetable, fish, meat, eggs and other food shopping. The giant market has both an outdoor and an indoor section and covers several acres.
It would have been fun to buy some mushrooms, meat, pork or chicken and cook it up but this was not possible as we were staying in a hotel. We did, though, pick up some very tasty local fruits and hazelnuts for our walk around town. From the market we made our way to Zagreb’s Upper Town, perched on the hills overlooking the city. We were in search of another coffee shop, of course – Palainovka, which we had read about in a blog about Croatia. To get from Lower Town to Upper Town there are two ways: walk, or ride a funicular. We were feeling energetic so we walked up the stairs next to the funicular, which we were later told is the shortest one in the entire world.
We did pass some cool monuments along the way to the coffee shop and we dutifully took pictures of them.
But we mostly enjoyed blending into the city as much as two Americans can and living the live of Zagreb citizens. We went to a restaurant one evening that was recommended by locals – Lari I Penati. We ate some great Croatian dishes and had our first taste of Croatian wine.
After nearly three years in Napa Valley we have gotten used to the big, bold flavor of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. The Croatian red wines have a much different aroma and flavor profile than anything we are used to drinking at home. The flavors are subtle and the wines are silky and fruity, although not overly so. We are planning on drinking more local wines during our trip including visiting some actual wineries when we get farther along on our trip.
Because we are not experts on Croatian wines (yet), we thought it would be fun to get a deeper understanding of them. While planning the surprise trip, I “met” Dario Drmac (through our blogging and Twitter), a real-live Croatian who lives in Zagreb. Not only does he live in Zagreb, but he runs an online wine export company focused exclusively on Croatian wines, and he owns a bar that serves only Croatian wine. As it turns out, this bar, Wine Bar Basement, was about 200 meters from our hotel. Before leaving the United States, I arranged to meet Dario at Basement for some charcuterie, cheese and, of course, Croatian wine. Dario and his partner spent nearly three hours with us taking us on a tasting tour of Croatian white and red wines, as well as our first ever “black” sparkling wine. Most sparkling wines are either white or pink; we had a Croatian sparkling wine that was very dark. Anyone visiting Zagreb must make time in their schedule to visit Wine Bar Basement and check out their assortment of well over 100 Croatian wines. One thing we liked the most about Basement’s wine selection is that Dario focuses on small-production family wineries that are generally not available in stores or restaurants. He is committed to supporting local Croatian producers. Ask for Dario and let him know that you are friends of ours.
Wednesday morning came and it was time to leave Zagreb. Our bags were even heavier than when we arrived a few days earlier as we purchased several bottles of Croatian wines from Basement the night before. But no worry, we were renting a car from Zagreb and heading ….well, you’ll have to wait until the next installment.
October 28, 2016