The people are friendly and the wine is delicious in this charming central European country






Tourism in Croatia is on the rise:

Visitors from:
1) Germany..up 9%
2) Slovenia...up 8%
3) Italy...up 5.6%
4) Austria...up 4.8%
5) Czech Republic...up 5%








National Theater in Zagreb, CroatiaNational Theater in Zagreb













Palace Hotel, Zagreb
Palace Hotel, Zagreb












Croatia sign



Zagreb cathedral

Interior, Croatian cathedral

Zgreb funicular
Zagreb funicular




Zagreb tower



Seafood at Zagreb market


Lady shows breads at Zagreb market








Croatia tram
Tram on the streets of Zagreb

Croatia's trendiness on the rise
Continental Croatia: Europe's Next Hot Spot?

By Don Heimburger
Photos by the author

With trendy Croatia one of the top travel destinations these days, I learned quickly that everyone wanted to go with me when I visited this small southeastern European country, tucked between Bosnia, Hungary and Slovenia.

Who wouldn't want to go to the country that invented the sophisticated cravat, the forerunner of the modern tailored necktie and bow tie, or was now producing a truckload of good white wines, or was bounded by the romantic Danube? Although this land still bears the scars of the Bosnian War which affected the region between 1992 and 1995, the country is gradually moving on.

The warmth of the Croatian people, the abundant agricultural possibilities of the land, and the natural beauty of the country's rocky mountains and green woodlands are only now being discovered, and touted in national tourist publications.

Some eye-opening travel gems await those who venture into the awakening interior.

Croatia is shaped somewhat like a horseshoe, with one side extending 1,100 miles along the Dalmatian Coast, with seaside Dubrovnik at one end and Croatia's third largest city, Rijeka, at the other. The entire country of 4.2 million people is only as large as West Virginia, or just 21,829 square miles.

While I wasn't going to where most tourists journey—the coast and the Adriatic Sea— the interior of the country presented its own set of unique opportunities for exploration. I started my venture at the capital, leafy-green Zagreb, which sits on the historic and political threshold between Eastern and Western Europe.

Sitting on the Pannonian Plain as well as on the edge of the Dinaric Alps, this Hapsburg-inspired city has been inhabited for centuries by people coming from all over Europe, thus insuring a rich cultural heritage. It is the home of Croatia's parliament, government and its president. It sits next to the lush, forested slopes of Mount Medvednica, often referred to by the name of its summit, Sljeme.

The city's elegant facades, a horseshoe of green spaces—eight green squares created by Milan Lenuci in the 1880s— and a growing contemporary scene, are attracting the curious traveler; more may come soon as well, as Croatia and thus Zagreb are poised to join the European Union in 2013. Known as Vienna's little sister, Zagreb is smallish—about one million residents—which makes it easy to walk around without a car, meet the populace, and indulge in the city's cultural and historical attractions, and growing nightlife. I did a little of each.

My flight on Lufthansa from Frankfurt landed at Zagreb airport outside of town, where I hopped a cab to the Palace Hotel, located in an Art Nouveau palace in the center of the city. It was the first hotel in Zagreb, opened in 1907, across from a beautiful green park and where the likes of Orson Welles and actress Sophia Loren have stayed. I figured I was in good company.

Finished in elegant woods, the hotel's lobby is inviting, and glass cases filled with historical artifacts give the visitor information about the history of this four-story gem.
Zagreb was on the route of the famous King of Trains, the Orient Express, where Hercule Poirot solved his most famous case, where Alfred Hitchock's The Lady Vanishes was staged, and on which James Bond rode from Istanbul to London in the movie From Russia With Love. Everyone loves a train with a good mystery, and Zagreb uses these connections to promote its mystique as a city. The train station is just a few blocks from the Palace Hotel, and an old black steam locomotive decorates the lawn on one side of the station.


Like all major cities, Zagreb is divided into areas, but the Upper Town (located on a hill) and the Lower Town, where streets are laid out in a simplistic and government-mandated style, are two that most visitors will learn quickly. You could cover the town's main attractions in two days, but a third day will offer the best impression of the city.

Main square, Zagreb
Main square, Zagreb

Zagreb's main square, referred to as Jelacic plac, is a large, busy place with adjacent Ilica Street housing many shops. Croatians use the main square, just down from the hillside settlements of Kaptol and Gradec, to make connections with friends, to catch one of the many street trams pulsating here and there on tracks that run through the streets, or use the square's large clock as their time-keeper. There are 37 clocks like this throughout the city, all maintained by the sixth generation watchmaker Lebarovic Dalibor, who has manufactured more than 200 public clocks in this country.

The main square, featuring a large statue of Croatian hero Ban Josip Jelacic, has been the commercial heart of the city since 1641. It is so large that fairs used to be held here; the buildings around the square date from the 19th century, and feature Biedermeier, Art Nouveau and post-modernism architectural styles.

The city's twin-spired landmark structure in the Kaptol neighborhood is the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin Mary, created by Hermann Bolle in the 19th century after an earthquake badly damaged the original church. In the 15th century it was the furthest outpost of Christianity. Beautiful marble side altars, statues and pulpit adorn the inside, as does the life-like tomb of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac by Ivan Meštrović. You can't miss it: it sits dead-center in front of the church near the choir.

Giant Easter eggs in Zagreb

While you're there, notice the adjacent overpowering bishop's palace with large turrets on the corners. The accompanying lawn features large colored Easter eggs during this season.
Not far away, the fortified 13th century Lotrscak Tower in Upper Town, signals 12 o'clock by loud cannon fire and trailing white smoke, as it has every day since 1877. The bells of the stone tower used to summon residents back into the town gates at night before they closed. After watching this display of time-keeping, wander a few steps down the hill to the family-owned Pod grickim topom restaurant, where you'll be treated to large portions of pork, beef and spaetzle while overlooking the city.

Croatian food
Dish at the Pod grickim topom

A funicular, the shortest in the world at 216 feet in length, takes you up to Upper Town in 55 seconds. Departing every 10 minutes, it accommodates 28 people each trip. Once powered by steam, the brilliant blue funicular pre-dates horse-drawn trams by a whole year.

St. Mark's church, Zagreb

At colorful St. Mark's Church in St. Mark's Square, you're in the heart of Upper Town; the square used to be Gradec's main market area. The 13th century Church of St. Mark's is a Romanesque structure with Gothic arched ceilings and 15 Parler family statues that stand in the southern portal. The colorful roof is decorated with coats of arms of the triune Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia, as well as the city of Zagreb.

Dolac market

The Dolac open-air market is a must-see, must-do free attraction. Close by the Cathedral, sun-ripened fruit, fresh fish including octopus trucked in from the coast overnight, colorful vegetables and hearty meats, nuts and fragrant spices are sold every day of the week. Known as the “belly of Zagreb,” the market dates from the early 1900s.

Zagreb market

Croatia is a religious country, with about 77% of the residents Roman Catholic. The Upper Town is entered via the Kamenita vrata or the Stone Gate, which is the only city gate still remaining. It was built in the Middle Ages, and today acts as a Christian way station for anyone wanting to give thanks, or to make requests. The small chapel inside, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, patron saint of Zagreb, houses a painting of Mary miraculously saved from a fire in 1731. At all times of the day, this small chapel—complete with several wooden benches— attracts worshippers and the curious.

Candles at the Stone Gate, Zagreb

Stop by Zagreb's oldest pharmacy on Kamenita ulica (Stone Street) where you'll discover a two-story white building which has housed this business since 1355. And built along the former Medvescak Creek is Tkalca, Zagreb's colorful downtown street where you'll find a plethora of nightclubs, small boutiques, traditional shops and cafes. Stop by the Bulldog, an upscale downtown bar where the drinks flow until 3 a.m. from Wednesdays to Saturdays. The decor features aviation and nautical themes, with propeller-shaped ceiling fans, and there's a mezzanine observation level. A bowl of shelled peanuts to accompany a cool drink doesn’t cost much, either.

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