Croatia: The Perfect Trip

Croatia
Photographer: Justin Foulkes

Far from the well-trodden tourist trail of Dubrovnik, Split and Hvar, another Croatia lies in wait. Take the time to discover its electrifying capital, fairy-tale castles and secret coves on a northern road trip around the eastern Adriatic

WORDS MIKE MACEACHERAN
PHOTOGRAPHS JUSTIN FOULKES

Savour street life in Zagreb, from markets and coffee shops to a lantern-lit, late-night pub crawl

THE church bells chime over the red-tiled roofs of Gornji Grad-Medveščak as the morning’s commute across the Old Town begins. Office workers dash beneath Viennese baroque façades. Jam-packed trams glide past Tito-era Communist blocks. Latecomers guzzle Bosnian pastries and students linger at a Roman stone fountain before class. Watching over it all astride a stallion is Josip Jelačić, a folk hero and figurehead for Croatia’s independence movement, his achievements now immortalised in bronze on Ban Jelačić Square.

It’s cultural history such as this that makes Zagreb so engrossing to explore. At Dolac Market, traders peddle souvenirs from stalls hung with marionettes, wooden toys and gingerbread hearts as they have done for centuries. Atop Lotrščak Tower, a cannon is fired every midday to remind the city’s bell-ringers to get to work, while worshippers bow piously at the country’s ecclesiastical masterpiece, the monumental sandstone Zagreb Cathedral.

None of this, however, would be possible without another venerated tradition: the brewing of dark, Turkish-style coffee. At the forefront of this scene is Cogito Coffee, a start-up with a roastery in a restored light-bulb factory. “No one works until they’ve had at least two cups,” says owner Matija Belković, making a double-shot espresso. “Four is normal and, without it, Zagreb would grind to a halt.”

Coffee addiction is just one modern quirk in Zagreb, but so, too, somewhat ironically, is its affection for Croatian scientist Nikola Tesla. The 19th-century physicist transformed daily life with his invention of the alternating-current (AC) electric system, but only visited Zagreb once; arriving in 1892 to convince Parliament to help finance his proposals. Despite failing to do so, his legacy is celebratedby two namesake bars and an evocative graffiti mural, where he appears alongside Zagreb’s other greatest minds: Eduard Penkala, who patented the fountain pen and hot-water bottle, and David Schwarz, the creator of the first airship.

Zagreb wasn’t electrified until 1907 and a stroll through the Old Town at dusk reveals why: every corner has a gas lamp. Introduced in 1863, the lamps still number 214 in total and each is hand-lit every night, to continue the city’s 155-year-old ritual.

This is just the beginning of Zagreb’s night-time spectacle. Beneath the green-gold spire of St Mary’s Church, Tkalčićeva Street is picking up from where it left off the night before, with bar after bar growing steadily livelier. Until WWI, virtually every house on this boulevard was a brothel, but it now pulls in a different sort of crowd. Many are here to try rakija, a fruit brandy and Croatian firewater. At Rakhia Bar, a rainbow of shots is being poured by bartender Helena Hrastov. First cherry, then dried plum, apple and cinnamon, lavender, walnut, strawberry and – lastly – mistletoe. “My grandmother drinks a shot every morning to clear her throat, so this is almost family routine,” says Helena. As every night finishes with rakija, so the next day begins again with strong coffee. Small wonder it’s needed.

Explore the fairytale landscape of the castle-strewn northeast, taste zero-mile farm produce and drink wine straight from the cellar barrel

“Can you hear it?” whispers guide Tomica Forko, listening intently for something he has heard many times before. It’s late afternoon and a hush has fallen over Veliki Tabor Castle. The air feels fraught and, outside, a thunder-storm is ready to break on the horizon. “Sometimes when I close the gates at night, I can hear a ghostly howl, like someone calling me,” he says, with a glint in his eye. “It can be creepy, but that’s just Veronika. She’s an old friend – and she’s always around.”

With an echo of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the 15th-century romance between peasant girl Veronika of Desinić and Frederick II, Count of Celje, is legend in Croatia. As Tomica tells it, after falling in love and secretly marrying Frederick, Veronika was accused of witchcraft, then drowned in a large wooden vat following trial. As a poignant reminder, she was sealed for eternity inside the castle walls. “Superstitions run deep in Zagorje and we keep our stories,” Tomica says. “The previous owners never slept lying down, because they were scared the devil would come to take them away.”

Such tales offer a glimpse into the hidden life of Zagorje, a region on few travellers’ itineraries. The topsy-turvy landscape of castle-topped hills, huddled Red Riding Hood cottages, Hansel and Gretel chimneys and wolf-filled forests are the Grimm Brothers fables sprung to life. It was once a lawless place of bandits and battles, the nexus of a contested trading route between the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, but a road trip today is interrupted only by necessary detours. Stop-offs at bucolic pony farms, rolling vineyards and zero-mile-philosophy restaurants are a must.

Beneath the apple trees at nearby Grešna Gorica, on a tract of land known as Sinful Hill, an accordionist entertains the lunchtime crowd with stirring folk melodies. Plates of smoked prosciutto and pumpkin-seed cheese are passed around, followed by duck breast-mlinci (scalded pasta soaked in fat) and štrukli, a cottage-cheese soufflé baked with sweet cream. Devilishly stodgy, it is a Zagorje speciality, but proves too much for one table. Appetites defeated, they saunter off to admire the view: a panorama of cornfields and fluted mountains marking the frontier with eastern Slovenia.

Zagorje’s commitment to its farm-to-fork food scene extends to its love affair with homegrown wine. Every half-timbered house has a plot of dense vines bookended by a klet, a small house for secret drinking with friends. Sun-facing graševina and glossy chardonnay are the best examples of the area’s terroir, and their undulating furrows unfold as far as the eye can see at Vuglec Breg, a pension and winery in the neighbouring valley.

“Our cellar is too small for what we produce, so you could say we’re not drinking enough,” says winemaker Jasminka Šaško, entering the dimly-lit cellar for an end-of-day tipple. Inside, there are overflowing crates and chalked-up barrels, and, as the solid oak door clicks shut, she pops a bottle. A moment of contemplation and her glass is soon empty. “Ukusno vino!” she says. Delicious wine.

Travel this Perfect Trip to Croatia to know more about fairy tale castles, secret caves and more…. NOW, check out LPMI’s February 2019 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.