Travel: A short stay in... Zagreb

Strolling around the capital of Croatia, it's hard to believe that until recently this was a country at war. With its medieval buildings, rumbling trams and rich cultural heritage, it's one of eastern Europe's lesser known treasures. And that's before you've tried a few glasses of its famous slivovia plum brandy. By Gareth Lloyd

WHY GO THERE

Those who come to Zagreb wearing flack jackets will be disappointed. The city survived the last Balkan War practically unscathed. Indeed, much of the medieval quarter is still there, with rumbling trams, stately 19th century buildings, world-class museums, galleries and theatres. Zagreb is similar to Budapest, but without obtrusive McDonald's outlets and without the scrums of tourists. Come and meet the city's warm and open people over a glass of their highly flammable herb brandy.

WHEN TO GO

While there's no denying that the blossoming spring and balmy summer months are the best time to visit Zagreb, autumn and winter also have their merits. Zagreb, unlike some other European capitals, does not go into hibernation as soon as it gets chilly and dark. The people just try to be more sociable to brighten things up.

HOW TO GET THERE

Air: Croatian Airlines (tel. 0181 563 0022) run an efficient daily service between London Heathrow and Zagreb from just pounds 149 return. British Airways (tel. 0345 222 111) have daily flights from Gatwick for pounds 236 return.

Coach: Eurolines (tel. 01582 404 511) have four coaches a week travelling from London Victoria and back. It takes 34 hours (one way) and costs from pounds 141 return.

Train: International Rail Enquires (0990 848 848) can supply details on the daily train service to Zagreb. Expect to pay from pounds 163.50 return.

GETTING AROUND

Buses leave the airport for the central station, and vice versa, every half hour for as long as there are flights. The trip either way takes between 30-45 minutes and costs 20 kuna (pounds 2). Taxis offer an attractive alternative at just 5 kuna per kilometre around town. Tipping isn't the norm, but it's polite to round up the fare. Trams form the backbone of the public transport system but most are desperately overcrowded. Claustrophobics will be pleased to know that the sights in the city centre are sufficiently concentrated to make walking a more plausible alternative. If you fancy exploring the surrounding region then car hire is certainly worth considering. Europcar (tel. 271 469; Varsavska 13) has cars for just 140 kuna per day plus about 1.5 kuna per km.

SPECIAL EVENTS

Carnival will be a big event in Catholic Croatia this February. In spring the Zagreb Biennial Festival of Contemporary Music is traditionally the city's most important musical event (but is not being held until 1999). In June the city's social calendar gets a bit hectic with events like Euroka (the International Festival of Avante-garde Theatre), the International Festival of Contemporary Dance, the World Festival of Animated Films and the International Aviation Exhibition. July sees the beginning of the Zagreb Summer Festival which continues until September with a series of concerts and theatrical performances on the open air stages of the upper town. For a more complete agenda of events, contact the city tourist board (see Information).

WHAT TO SEE

q Museum Mimara (Mon 2pm-5pm, Tue-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat & Sun 10am-lpm; adults 20 kuna, children & students 15 kuna) is one of Europe's finest art galleries. This diverse collection, ranging from Greek silverware through the ivory sceptres of Polish kings and Burgundian sculptures, to art work by Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt and Goya, was donated to Croatia by ex-pat Croat Ante Topic Mimara. Only the lack of explanations (in any language!) is slightly baffling.

q Mirogoj, (population circa 250,000), is reputed to be the only formal cemetery in the world with a mixture of Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim and Roman Catholic graves, all facing towards their respective religious homelands. Check out the English-style landscaping, oddly enclosed by a long 19th century neo-Renaissance arcade.

q Dolac Market is a great place to take in everyday Croatian life. Although Fridays and Saturdays are when things get really busy, any other day of the week is good to wander round the stalls tasting the smoked cheeses and pickled cabbage and smelling the wild boar and deer meats.

q St Stephens Cathedral has had a tough life. In 1880 it was destroyed by an earthquake and now its neo-Gothic sandstone facade is crumbling away due to the unwanted attention of acid rain. Apart from the 13th century frescoes, Renaissance pews, and Baroque pulpit, it is interesting to note how the place is packed to the gills every Sunday. Roman Catholicism is seen as an integral part of a rediscovered Croatian identity.

q Lotrscak Tower is a lookout point dating from the Middle Ages when the city was on constant alert for a Turkish attack. Today you can get a splendid view of the city from its summit. Don't panic if you hear an explosion at noon, it's only the ongoing tradition of firing the cannon from Lotrscak to inform people of the time of day.

q Art & Craft Museum (Mon closed, Tue-Fri 10am-6pm, Sat & Sun 10am-lpm; adults 20 kuna, children and students 10 kuna). With its paintings, tapestries, silverware, ceramics, religious paraphernalia and clocks and bells, from gothic to modern, this place is a veritable Aladdin's cave of great art and occasional garbage. If you want to save an arm and a leg on the price of the guide book, try the free, user-friendly computer guide in the museum foyer.

q Holy Mary of Stone Gate, just down past Dante's grandson's old pharmacy, is a 13th century entrance to the city with a painting of the Virgin Mary. It has been a shrine since miraculously escaping the devastating city fire of 1731.

q Gallery of Naive Art (opening hours vary, Mon closed) is a small place given over to the paintings of the Hlebine School. The school is bound up with the difficult technique of painting mainly on the back of a pane of glass, whereby the detail comes first and the background later.

q Croatian National Theatre. Opera and ballet performances are staged within this neo-baroque edifice. The box office is open week days from 10am-7.30pm, Saturday 10am-1pm as well as half an hour before the curtains go up.

FOOD & DRINK

The fact the locals like to eat is obvious in any cafe or restaurant, where huge side dishes and starters could often qualify as main courses. Croatian food is deliciously uncomplicated, with potatoes accompanied by either meat or fish featuring prominently. Before any eating is done though, it is customary to neck a small glass of the plum brandy (slivovia) or herbal brandy (travarica) - both highly flammable!

q Gradska Kavana, on the north side of the main square, the city's most pretentious cafe, is where the beautiful people come to sip their cappuccinos and gossip into their mobile phones.

q Gradski Podrum (City Cellar) on the main square, specialises in national dishes at fast food prices. A large plate of mashed potatoes and beef chunks covered in onion gravy can be washed down by a spicy Bansko'Pivo beer for about 30-40 kuna.

q Medulic, at Meduliceva 2 at Ilica, offers some respite for vegetarians in the back dinning room (ask for the English menu). On offer is quality food at prices that won't bring tears to your eyes.

q Restaurant Hrvatski Kulturni Klub (closed Sundays), just inside the Art & Craft Museum, is the place to rub shoulders with Zagreb's intelligentsia. The menu includes main courses like Dalmatian ham, fresh oysters and steak for less than 70 kuna.

q Paviljon, in the yellow exhibition centre is undoubtedly the most elegant restaurant in town. Main courses with an Italian accent start at 60 kuna, but the house speciality is a local dish called "Strukli", a pastry pouch filled with fresh soft cheese and covered in a creamy sauce.

q Sladoledi Vinek Slasticarnica, at 18 Ilica, might not have the snappiest name but it is cake and ice cream heaven. The counter at the front caters for those who prefer to hit and run, while the one at the back serves those who wish to enjoy their delicacies in semi-secluded booths.

NIGHTLIFE

Tkalciceva, a street just north of the main square, becomes a sea of tables and chairs in the summer months, as just about every other place is a bar. In winter, people cruise the street before choosing the bar with the atmosphere, coffee or beer to suit their fancy. Alternatively, just behind the Pengvin Sandwich Bar on Teslina, there's the Hard Rock Cafe or, for more high brow entertainment, the excellent BP Jazz Club in the same area. This inexpensive club has live music every evening and tables which can be booked in advance at no extra cost. Those with the stamina should try to make it to the Sokol Klub, across the street from the Ethnographic Museum. It's one of Zagreb's funkiest nightclubs with different musical themes each night.

WHERE TO STAY

You won't find any really cheap beds in Zagreb as a shortage of hotels means there's little competition. But on the other hand, you'd have difficulty finding a fleapit at a rip-off price.

q The Omlandski Hotel (77 Petrinjska; tel. (00385 1) 48 41 261) is actually a youth hostel. You don't have to be a member to stay here and it is quite central, but the big draw back (apart from the 9am checkout time) is that you can't occupy your room until 2pm. A space in a six-bed dorm will cost about 70 kuna, singles start at 180 kuna and doubles start at just under 200 kuna.

q Central Hotel (Branimirova 3; tel. (00385 1) 48 41 122) opposite the train station is the best of the two star-type hotels. Singles start at 308 kuna and doubles at 446 kuna with a decent full-breakfast thrown in.

q Dubrovnik Hotel (Gajeva 1; tel. (00385 1) 45 55 155) is a huge 3-star hotel right in the heart of the city. It's almost always full so book in advance and ask for one overlooking the Trg Jelacica. Singles go from 528 kuna and doubles from 716 kuna

q Esplanade Hotel (Mihanoviceva 1; tel.(00385 1) 45 66 666). Elegant 1920s 215-room five-star hotel is the city's swankiest. Its restaurant has an excellent reputation. There's also a casino if you'd like to try winning back the price of your room which is 890 kuna a single and 1200 kuna a double.

OUT OF TOWN

Plitvice Lakes National Park (adults 60 kuna, children and students 30 kuna), a UNESCO world heritage site, lies 100 km away from Zagreb along the road to Zadar. Nearly 20 hectares of woodland enclose 16 turquoise lakes which are linked by numerous beautiful waterfalls and cascades. Pathways and foot bridges follow the lakes and streams for 16 soggy kilometres or so and you can swim in several places along the way. The lakes and the surrounding area are also among those rare regions in Europe where bears and wolves still roam free.

Sadly, Plitvice is perhaps even more famous for the events of 31 March 1991, when rebel Serbs seized control of the park headquarters and murdered Josip Jovic, a Croatian police officer. This single event was the catalyst for the ruthless war in the former Yugoslavia. When the Croatian army retook the park in the summer of 1995 they found the places of natural beauty intact but all the hotels completely gutted. If this doesn't put you off, take one of the several buses that travel between the park and the central bus station each day or hire a car. Once inside the park shuttle buses ferry visitors around and electric boats ply the large middle lake. There is a park information office in Zagreb at Trg Tomislava 19.

SHOPPING

To be honest there's little to buy in Zagreb that you couldn't pick up elsewhere, though a trip around the shops to tune into Croatian consumerism is an interesting affair. Opening hours are 8am-8pm with many of the smaller places closing at 2pm on Saturday.

q Nama Department Store, at the start of Ilica, is Harrods Eastern European style. Most of the imported stuff comes from Italy and hefty taxes make goods expensive even by UK standards.

q Ilica is Zagreb's main shopping street and at 7km it's the longest. Here you'll find a curious mix of western-style designer boutiques, dusty dungeons selling sewing machine parts, and grocery stores that still offer old fashioned over-the-counter service.

q Dolac Market is the place to hunt for old men selling home-made herb brandy (the herbs are left in the bottle). On the steps leading to the upper section are local peasants and gypsies selling lace goods. A little haggling is expected.

q Croata in the octagon shopping forum at Ilica 5, is the best place to pick up a cravat with an original Croatian motif. Cravats (ie "Croats") originated at the time of the Thirty Year War when they were worn by the Croat Army and adopted by French dandies.

LANGUAGES

Prior to the war both Croatian and Serbian were considered dialects of a single language known as Serbo-Croat, but now both are being revised with spellings and idioms changing. The biggest difference is that Croatian is written in Roman script and Serbian in Cyrillic script. Being a phonetic language, Croatian is considered fairly easy to learn. If you fancy a bash, the Knjizara Ljevak bookshop on the main square has a small selection of phrase books and dictionaries. (invaluable for restaurant excursions). While most older people speak some German, younger people are more likely to speak English.

BOOKS

The Zagreb Tourist Guide booklet, available from the local tourist, offices, is handy for reference, although the flowery language and 60 kuna price tag are a bit hard to stomach.

Eastern Europe on a Shoestring (Lonely Planet, 14.99) by Krzysztof Dydynski et al, has useful sections on Croatia and Zagreb. Despite some of the information now being dated, the concise account of the last Balkan War is great for those of us who didn't have a clue what was going on.

DEALS/PACKAGES

Travelscene (tel. 0181 427 4445) offer 2, 3 and 4 night breaks to Zagreb staying in either Hotel Dubrovnik or Hotel Esplanade starting from pounds 299. The deal includes return flights from London Heathrow, airport taxes, transfers and breakfast. Fregata Travel (tel. 0171 451 7066) offer a similar package with prices starting from pounds 318.

MONEY

The Croatian currency is the "kuna", named after a marten whose pelt was a tradable currency in the Middle Ages. The kuna is not convertible and is difficult to obtain outside Croatia. Sterling and most credit cards are widely accepted with the exchange rate currently hovering at around pounds 1 to 10 kuna.

Costs tend to be reasonable rather than bargain basement when compared to the UK. But if some things seem more expensive, think of the poor Croats who have to survive on an average monthly income of just pounds 220.

INFORMATION

The helpful Zagreb Turist Office (tel. (00385 1) 481 4052), at Trg Jelacica 11, is a good place to pick up a copy of the free monthly leaflet "Zagreb - Events and Performances", which also lists things like museums, galleries, films, fairs etc. In the UK, the Croatian National Tourist Office at 2 The Lanchesters, 162-164 Fulham Palace Road, London W6 6ER (tel. 0181 563 7979), is good for general advice and glossy brochures.

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