The One with Zagreb, Croatia

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

When we first moved to Germany we bought as many European Rick Steves travel books as he had available - including "Croatia & Slovenia". 
During one of the kids' naps I went through the book and mapped out the ultimate 8 day road trip down the coast of Croatia, to Montenegro, and back, with stops all along the way - including a jaunt to Mostar, Bosnia! Honestly, I'd never heard of any city in Croatia nor anyone who has ever gone there so this was all new to me! When I started googling images of some of the cities, my excitement reached a whole new level I never knew was possible! A few months ago Chris' brother Jay and his wife Haylie (whom we call "Jaylie") decided they wanted to come on our trip and booked tickets to Munich and we'd pick them up on our way out of town. Perfect!

History of Croatia: With thousands of miles of seafront and more than a thousand islands, Croatia's coastline is Eastern Europe's Riviera. Holiday-makers love its pebbly beaches, predictably balmy summer weather, and dramatic mountains. Croatia is also historic. From ruined Roman arenas and Byzantine mosaics to Venetian bell towers, Habsburg villas, and even communist concrete, past rulers have left their mark. Aside from its fun-in-the-sun status, Croatia is also known as one of the sites, just over a decade and a half ago, of the most violent European war in generations. Locals call it the "Homeland War" or more casually "The Last War" though it's ambiguous whether they mean "final" or "more recent." Thankfully, the bloodshed is in the past. While a trip to Croatia offers thoughtful travelers the opportunity to understand a complicated chapter of history, most visitors focus on its substantial natural wonders: mountains, waterfalls, sun, sand, and sea. The official name is Republika Hrvatska, or Hrvatska for short. After losing their independence to Hungary in 1102 the Croats watched as most of their coastline became Venetian and their interior was conquered by Ottomans. Croatia was "rescued" by the Habsburgs, but after WWI it became part of Yugoslavia - a decision many Croats regretted until they finally gained independence in 1991 (not very long ago!) through a bitter and violent war with their Serb neighbors. It's similar latitude to Venice, Italy or Portland, Oregon. It's 22,000 square miles, similar to West Virginia. The capital, Zagreb, has 780,000 people. Much of the country's wealth comes from tourism, banking, and trade with Italy. The average Croatian will live to age 76 and have 1.4 children. Croatia officially joined the EU on July 1, 2013, though we still had to stop at the borders and they don't use the Euro. Hopefully that'll switch soon!

Unlike me who has terrible luck flying internationally, Jaylie's flights took off and landed on time without a hitch. They even landed a half hour EARLY in Munich and had to wait 45 minutes for us! We picked them up and even though they were tired and it felt like the middle of the night for them, they were happy-go-lucky as ever and ready to party! We had a five hour drive ahead of us including passing through the entire country of Austria. It was a jaw-droppingly beautiful drive.
We passed cute town after cute town, castle after castle, mountain range after mountain range.

One of my favorite things about Europe is you'll just be driving along and then all of a sudden you'll pass a ginormous, magnificent castle! They're everywhere!

And then, things went downhill for the next couple days. We were about 4 hours into our 7 hour total drive of the day, passing through the mountains in Austria, when Chris hit the guardrail and totally ruined our car. The passenger tire burst. The passenger door doesn't open anymore. Our brand new car. Not even 7,000 miles on it at this point. Chris and I were in shock and had no idea what to do. Luckily, Jay and Haylie were more "with it" and helped put on the spare tire. Chris: 0 | Guardrail: 1
 Should we turn around and head home? Or should we keep driving to Zagreb, the capital and largest city in Croatia and hope we could find a new tire? We chose the latter and I took over driving. I was so nervous, we had to stop about 4 times so I could use the bathroom, we had to get gas, eat, I took a wrong turn and added another half hour to our never ending drive... By the time we pulled up to the Doubletree Hotel in Zagreb, 3 hours later than our originally scheduled arrival time, our nerves were shot.

Our comfy cozy room.
Our rooms were nice and high up so we had a great view of the city.

There was still a couple hours of daylight left so Chris took one for the team (he felt bad about the car accident) and stayed at the hotel with the kids and put them to sleep while Jaylie and I went to see some sights in Zagreb.

Getting out of the underground parking lot was a nightmare. Sometimes being in a foreign country where things are so different is just... hard!! We pulled up to the arm raise thing, but we didn't have the parking pass ticket - it was all the way up on the 8th floor with Chris. Jay ran up and got it. We put the ticket in but nothing happened. I pressed the help button and they said we had to put money on the card. Where? There was a cash machine in the garage. So Jay went back and tried to pay with euros. No dice. Only Croatian kunas. So then he had to run around the block and find an ATM. Finally, he got some dough, paid the parking fee, we exited the parking lot, and made our way to the city center. Only after putting in the wrong address and driving around for like 20 minutes before figuring out we were going the wrong way... Seriously. What a joke. I'm getting flustered just writing about it!! Okay, so we finally made it to Old Town Zagreb.

In this land of time-passed coastal villages, Zagreb (ZAH-grehb) offers a welcome jolt of big-city sophistication. You can't get a complete picture of modern Croatia without a visit here - away from the touristy resorts, in the lively and livable city that is home to 1 out of every 6 Croatians. Zagreb began as two walled medieval towns, Gradec and Kaptol, separated by a river. As Croatia fell under the control of various foreign powers - Budapest, Vienna, Berlin, and Belgrade - the two hill towns that would become Zagreb gradually took on more religious and civic importance. The two towns merged in 1850 and soon after the railroad connecting Budapest with the Adriatic port city of Rijeka was built through the city. Zagreb prospered. While many Croatian destinations are becoming more popular (think cruise-line stops) Zagreb is an underrated, unsung exception that still feels relatively undiscovered.

We parked our (ruined, sigh) car and made our way to Jelačić Square.
 The "Times Square" of Zagreb bustles with life. Watching crowds pile in and out of trams and seeing the city buzz with activity you feel the energy of an on-the-rise capital of a vibrant new nation.
  It's hard to believe that this once held the townspeople's farms!
 There is a prominent equestrian statue in the square of national hero Josip Jelačić (YOH-seep YEH-lah-cheech) a 19th-century governor who extended citizens' rights and did much to unite the Croats within the Hapsburg Empire. This square is named after him. We walked down Ilica Street, turned right up Tomičeva, and rode the funicular up the hill to Gradec.

The tall tower at the top is the Burglars' Tower. After the Tatars ransacked Central Europe in the early 13th century, King Béla IV decreed that towns be fortified - so Gradec built a wall and guard towers just like Kraków and Budapest did. Every day a noon a cannon at the top of the tower fires a shot, supposedly to commemorate a 15th-century victory over the besieging Ottomans. The right picture is Stone Gate.

We got an amazing view of Zagreb. There was a storm brewing in the not-too-far distance.
 At the end of the block we came to St. Mark's Square and the Church of St. Mark. The original church here was from the 13th century, but only a few fragments remain. The present church's colorful tile roof, from 1880, depicts two coats of arms.

Inside Stone Gate (pictured three above) is an evocative chapel. The focal point is a painting of Mary (top right) that miraculously survived a major fire in the adjoining house in 1731. When the medieval gate was reconstructed in the Baroque style, they decided to turn it into a makeshift chapel.

We walked down Radićeva Street and smelled waffles - they were just too good to pass up! So eat some waffles we did!

Jaylie walking down Radićeva.
 We turned left onto the street called Krvavi Most - Blood Bridge. This lively café-and-restaurant street used to be a river - the natural boundary between Gradec and Kaptol. The two towns didn't always get along and sometimes fought. Blood was spilled and the bridge that once stood here between them became known as Blood Bridge. By the late 19th century the towns had united and the polluted river began to stink so they covered it over with this street!

We walked to the Cathedral. The full name is the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saintly Kings of Stephen and Ladislav (whew!) but most locals just all it "the cathedral."

In 1094 when a diocese was established at Kaptol, this church quickly became a major center of high-ranking church officials. In the mid-13th century the original cathedral was destroyed by invading Tatars who actually used it as a stable! It was rebuilt, only to be destroyed again by an earthquake in 1880. The current version is Neo-Gothic.
 We stopped at a McDonald's (the last one we'd see the rest of our trip!!), got some food to go, then went back the hotel to get some shut-eye. Jaylie had stayed awake for sooooo long in hopes to skip jet-lag. It seemed to work!

The next morning, after I got ready, I opened the hotel door and Jane ran out. I followed her and hoped to get out some wiggles. We took the elevator up to the swimming pool and gym. It wasn't opened until 10am so I got back in the elevator and pushed "8". Nothing happened. Weird. I got out and looked for a staircase. None in sight. Note to self (or rather, note to Doubletree Hotel - that's a major fire hazard to have all the doors locked and no way to get down!). We got back in the elevator and I pressed "1" - surely it would go down to the lobby! It did. We hopped out and I chased Jane around some more. When I decided it was time to go back to our room I got in the elevator and pressed "8". Nothing happened! Stupid elevator! I tried the other two elevators and still nothing happened! Why couldn't I get up to my floor?! I went over to the receptionist and told her that the elevators were broken. She said you needed a room key for it to work. Duh! I forgot about that. I was too busy thinking and worrying about other things to remember to grab a room key. So she made me a new one. I got back in the elevator and I was waving it all around the numbers and the sign that said "use room key" but NOTHING WAS HAPPENING! I tried the other two elevators. Nothing. At this point, I just broke down. I was so stressed about the car, lack of sleep, remembering the hell of trying to get out of the parking garage the night before, and I already had a major headache. I started to cry. I walked back over to the receptionist and begged her to help me. She took pity on me, rushed to my aid, walked me inside the elevator, and waved the card over the huge symbol I somehow missed on the bottom left. She rode up to my floor then Jane and I walked back to our room. So embarrassing. But wait, it gets better, keep reading.

So Chris and Jay took the poor car to a Ford dealership we saw on the way into Zagreb. We figured, if they didn't have a new tire, we were SOL. I didn't want to stay cooped up in the hotel room so I decided I'd go on a walk with the kids. Get some fresh air.
 We passed old mailboxes and old doors.

Graffiti and worn down houses.

I noticed a park across the street so to the park we went! Fox and Jane were in heaven!

And then. It started raining. Not just raining, a torrential downpour.
 I had to laugh to keep from crying, again.
Not an hour after my super-lame meltdown, I walked back into the hotel, completely dejected. COULD NOTHING GO MY WAY???

A few minutes later, the phone in our room rang, I picked it up, and it was the hotel people saying they'd like to give me a free breakfast for all my troubles. Oh wow! Thank you!!
Just as the food was brought in, Chris and Jay came back. While the Ford dealership did NOT have the tire we needed (ahhhhh!), they were referred to a tire place which miraculously had the ginormous American-sized tire for our car and got it fixed in under an hour.
HOORAY!! We could continue on our adventure!!

Next stop and blog post recap: PLITVICE LAKES, CROATIA.


  1. Don't worry everyone, the trip gets better from here! So, who knew you weren't supposed to hit the guardrails? (Too soon to joke about it?)

  2. I moved to Austria 3 years ago, and still get excited about all the beauty around me. If you're ever in Steiermark, I'd love to meet you, and show you around this beautiful region, it's called the green heart of Austria:) I really admire how you travel with your kids! We have a 4 and a half year old girl, and although it's getting so much better and easier, it's still challenging to travel. Looking forward to reading more about your trip, I always enjoy your posts, scrapbooking related or otherwise. We're planning a trip to France next month, so I definitely want to pick up the Rick Steves book for France. TFS!

  3. Ohhhhhhh I am so sorry the trip started off so badly ... but I read Chris's comment above and sounds like the rest was much better!!!

  4. That's some good service from the hotel! Sorry about the crappy morning :)

  5. Great post! I can only barely imagine how stressful that first day was. You hadn't told me about the hotel breakfast. That was incredibly nice of them. And having J and H with you was an amazing blessing! Thank you, Jaylie for all your help!!!

  6. You make me want to come back! Sorry about your car troubles but I know Croatia is worth the visit! :)

  7. Bummer about all the crappy stuff happening. Thanks for the photos and a wonderful history reminder. I wouldn't know that about the parking, either...something the hotel should have mentioned. Maybe you can come back again. There are some other wonderful places to visit in Zagreb and shop. Great food, too. Can't wait to hear about the rest of the trip.

  8. Oh gosh, I would have just given up right then. Just reading all of this is stressing ME out! But thankfully, judging by your last post everything gets better!

  9. Ah... I really hope the trip ended better...I would have cried too and I'm not a cryer, but that's a nit much.

  10. Definitely not cool for all of the bad things that happened, but WOW you were in an amazing place! LOVE those castles...that would just be so cool to see! And you did much better than me...I would have needed some medication and would have went through multiple meltdowns!!

  11. Australian Football and free wifi?! What could be better than that? Yay for Zagreb!

  12. Wow! You shouldered on with all the car, parking lot, weather crap but took some fab photos in Zagreb and now you have stories and memories for a lifetime. Thank you for your travel put so much into them and very much appreciated. Hope all goes well now.

  13. Ohhhh my goodness. I think I would have had more than one meltdown. That is a rough couple days.

    But at least Austria TOOOOTALLY looks like The Sound of Music. And that just makes my heart happy!

    And Croatia, who knew??? Incredible!

  14. Oh sorry about your misadventures. But since I'm reading the blog backwards, I know it all turned out OK. ;)


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