Zagreb – Strawberries and Stout

It was spring and there were strawberries everywhere. Little stands on just about every street sold punnets of them. The vast farmers’ market in the city centre was overloaded with them. The prices varied, but only between cheap and very cheap. If you’re ever suffering from a craving for strawberries, then Zagreb in springtime is the place to provide relief.

Market

Market

There is, of course, a lot more to see in Zagreb than strawberries. The city is essentially in two parts, the Upper Town and the Lower. Gornji Grad, the upper part, is Zagreb’s historical centre with its great Gothic cathedral, Croatia’s tallest building.

Like Venice, Zagreb has a St Mark’s Square. This is also in the old town and houses a number of government buildings, evidenced by the slightly sinister looking collection of men in black that hang around the area. Rather smaller than the cathedral, but no less striking, is St Mark’s Church with its chequerboard roof that portrays the Croatian flag. The flag is a three-part affair that comprises the flags of the Kingdom of Croatia (red and white), Kingdom of Slavonia (white and blue) and Kingdom of Dalmatia (red and blue). Nature lovers should look out for the pine marten, the symbol of Slavonia, that scampers across the middle of the flag.

St Mark's

St Mark’s

The other significant church in the old town is the elegantly Baroque St Catherine’s. Many of the buildings around it were the property of the church, but are now secular. Several are galleries or museums.

One of these is the Zagreb City Museum, housed in a former convent. First impressions suggest that it’s not particularly interesting, but it gets better as you go further into the building. It does very much as its title suggests, taking you on a tour through the history of Zagreb from Roman times to the present day.

This is very mainstream, of course, but this being the Balkans, expect something a bit odd to turn up. Not far away in the Old Town is the Museum of Broken Relationships, a positively mad collection of items donated from all over the world. The theme, rather obviously, is of those things that are left behind after failed love affairs.

Zagreb also has a Railway Museum, which has an eclectic assortment of photos, videos and equipment. If the collection is a bit haphazard, so too the opening times. They don’t always seem to have staff available to keep the place open, but train buffs can console themselves by walking a little further to the superb, Neo-classical railway station just to the south of the city centre.

Station

Station

The Archaeological Museum is well worth a look, packed with ancient artefacts and hosting a substantial Egyptian collection. Check out the ‘Zagreb Mummy’, taken home from Alexandria by a Croatian official from the Hungarian Royal Chancellery. It’s not so much the mummy that is interesting, but the wrappings. These were discovered to be covered in Etruscan writing, so unusual that the text is, for the most part, untranslated, so little being known about the language.

The city is straightforward to navigate and is, generally, quite flat. The Upper Town, if we can state the obvious, is uphill, but it’s not a huge hike and there is a little funicular to help out. Beyond the Upper Town, there is the opportunity to escape from city life, with plenty of green space and some pleasant woodland walks.

Funicular

Funicular

The Lower Town has its own escape area in the shape of the botanical garden. It’s not the biggest around, but it’s a nice place for a stroll or a sit down. On a hot day, it’s a welcome haven in which to cool down under the shade of a tree. There are set opening times, but it won’t cost you anything.

Duck Holiday takes a swim at the botanic garden

Duck Holiday takes a swim at the botanic garden

Zagreb does not lack for cafés, restaurants and bars, and there’s no need to spend a fortune on refuelling. Croatian wine is mostly for the internal market, which is something of a shame (not for locals, obviously), as it is very good. There is also a decent range of beer, with some excellent dark stuff among the Pilsener-style lagers.

Duck Holiday, having a significant proportion of Irish blood, is not very keen on so-called Irish pubs, believing them to be something of a travesty. Most rules, however, have an exception, and Sheridan’s Bar in Zagreb is one of them. For one thing, it is run by a man from Offaly. For another, it sells terrific beer. O’Hara’s Stout, from Carlow, is a proper stout, unlike the pasteurised chemicals served up by the likes of Guinness, Murphy’s and Beamish. Sheridan’s also serves ales from independent breweries in England, Scotland and the US, along with more localised stuff. Unlike most pubs of this ilk, this one is well worth an evening of anyone’s time, the only caveat being that it’s a bit more expensive than ‘local’ pubs.

Yes!

Yes!

Further down the same road, if you fancy a change of scene, is the Bikers Beer Factory. This is, as you might expect, big on motorbike memorabilia. You don’t have to be a biker to enjoy it, though it probably helps. An enthusiasm for beer is more important, with the selection being more of a local nature. Beware, though of the Tomislav. This is a dark beer that could easily be mistaken for a 5% porter, but is, in fact, a rather vicious 7.3%.

Bikers Beer Factory

Bikers Beer Factory

One thing worth noting is that the airport is a fair trek from the city. There is an airport bus that is pretty cheap (about three or four quid) and certainly a great deal cheaper than using a taxi. The latter option would set you back about ten times as much. However, the bus station is a bit out of town, so if you’re staying in the centre, allow yourself plenty of time. If you need to get to the airport very early, as Duck Holiday did, a taxi to the bus station and the airport bus will do the trick. The fares work out at about the same for each journey, so it’s still an economical option.

Spring is a nice time to visit Zagreb. Temperatures are warm without being overpowering. If it does get a bit hot, taking shelter in the botanical garden or slipping under an umbrella at a café is a nice option. You can sit out in the evenings with a glass of something and watch people rushing around. If it rains, there are plenty of things to keep you amused. And, of course, you can indulge in those strawberries.

Dubrovnik – where the Balkans meet the Mediterranean

Dubrovnik is overloaded in the summer months. It is not a large city and the beautiful little Old Town gets seriously busy. So here’s an idea – take a trip there in the winter. As long as you’re not desperate for a sun tan, there’s a lot to recommend it.

For one thing, the place is quiet and it’s very easy to stroll around, see what you want to see and take photos without feeling hemmed in. For another, the hotels are virtually empty at this time of year and often offer discounts. Lastly, the temperatures are usually pretty mild and even in December, it’s common enough to have double figures. You’re not going to get baked, but you’re highly unlikely to freeze, either.

Strolling around is the perfect pastime for Dubrovnik. Staying out of town in one of the many hotels on the Lapad Peninsula west of the city is a good option. If you’re not out on the far reaches, it doesn’t take to long to wander into town, but either way, there are frequent and very cheap buses that will take you to the very edge of the Old Town.

Duck cam view of Stradun, the main street

Duck cam view of Stradun, the main street

One thing you’ll want to do is take a walk around the walls of the city, something else that is a much more civilised experience when things are quiet. It provides some splendid views and provides you with some useful historical information on the way. One uncomfortable piece of modern history can be gleaned by looking at Dubrovnik’s roof tops: they are look remarkably similar. That’s because they were all repaired at the same time following the nine-month siege of the city between 1991 and 1992.

View from the city walls

View from the city walls

Dubrovnik doesn’t have any ‘wow’ museums, but there’s still plenty of interest to be found. The Maritime Museum reflects the history of the Republic of Ragusa, as Dubrovnik was known, and the feuds and battles with Venice across the Adriatic. One thing that British visitors might note as they look around the museum is the sheer number of the featured ships that were build in Britain; the museum almost serves as a monument to the British shipbuilding industry. A ticket to the Maritime Museum also allows access to other, smaller museums nearby. One is the pleasant little Ethnographic Museum on the site of the city’s former granary. The other is the Rector’s Palace, the residence of the Rector of Ragusa in medieval times. It doesn’t quite attain the grandeur of the Doges’ Palace in Venice, but the building is an interesting mix of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance and has a Venetian look to it. It also houses a small and slightly ramshackle museum.

Rector's Palace

Rector’s Palace

While the Lapad Peninsula is well stocked with hotels, there are still plenty of open spaces and places to walk. It’s possible to walk around the peninsula, though you have to circumnavigate the odd hotel. Another good walk is up to Velika Petka, a hill thick with pine trees. The climb to the top is not too strenuous and offers a splendid view of the whole peninsula. Either of these walks offers decent opportunities for spotting birds. What you might spot is rather dependent on the season, but there is always something to see. During this particular visit, the number of human tourists may have been few, but the grey wagtail visitors were present in large numbers.

View from the top of Velika Petka

View from the top of Velika Petka

It’s easy to forget that you’re in eastern Europe sometimes. Walking around in the middle of December with orange trees in full fruit makes you wonder for a moment if you’ve strayed into Morocco. The buildings, too, tell of a varied past, with a synagogue, a mosque and a Serbian Orthodox church all within a short distance of each other in the central area. There is also a plethora of churches, led by the lovely Baroque cathedral.

When it comes to food, not surprisingly fish restaurants abound. There’s something for everyone, though. Dubrovnik gets masses of visitors and there are restaurants to cater for all tastes. Prices vary considerably and it’s understandable that it’s a bit pricey in the Old Town. Away from the centre, food and drink can be very cheap indeed.

Croatian wine doesn’t get exported much, but there’s plenty of it and much of it is very good, as well as inexpensive. The same applies to beer and you’ll find a variety of brews and styles. Drinking local beer is always guaranteed to be cheaper, wherever you go, and it also seems a great deal more civilised. It always seems somewhat impolite to visit a country and drink stuff from other places.

It’s pretty hard to avoid rakija (or variants thereof) anywhere in the Balkans and the Adriatic Coast is no exception. In fact, the area seems to have even more types of the stuff than just about anywhere else, with all of the Dalmatian islands having their own particular concoction.

One drawback of visiting in the winter is that visiting the islands isn’t quite as easy as during the rest of the year. Croatia has more than a thousand on its Adriatic coast, so there’s no shortage of possibilities. The advantage in winter is, of course, that if you can arrange a boat trip, you won’t have to battle with the crowds of summer.

Travellers to Dubrovnik should note that the city is not accessible by train. There is, though, an airport and the bus ride from there to the city is probably one of the most scenic you’re likely to find when it comes to travelling to or from an airport. Airport buses usually make their way past dismal industrial estates and retail parks. This one gives you the splendour of the Adriatic coast.

Our preference would be to avoid Dubrovnik in the summer, but – as with everything else – it comes down to personal choice. The winter offers a look at the city at its quietest, but not everyone wants peace and quiet. It is, though, quite a delight to take a photo of a completely empty square at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon when you know for certain that it would have been jam-packed a few months earlier.

Sarajevo – A City Reborn

The city of Sarajevo

The city of Sarajevo

The buildings tell a story. It’s only when you’re close to one that you see the shell and bullet marks in the walls. Then, there are the plaques on public buildings. These tell you when the building was restored. Sarajevo has a lot of these plaques. The restorers have done a remarkable job. From a distance, nothing appears to be amiss.

Sarajevo is a case of east meets west. Sitting in a coffee house with a cappuccino, you could be in Vienna. Stroll around the market and you might be in Istanbul. Sarajevo essentially comes in two parts; the old town, built by the Ottomans and the more modern city centre, built under Austro-Hungarian rule. As it is a small and compact city, the contrasts appear more striking.

The River Miljacka, running east to west, is the focal point of the city. Anyone with even the vaguest sense of history will want to see the 16th century Latin Bridge, site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. There is a small museum on the northern side, showing film footage surrounding the portentous events.

Latin Bridge

Latin Bridge

Along the river a short distance to the east and there is a building with a rather more amusing history. The Inat Kuća (Spite House) is on the south bank, but was once on the other side. When the Austrian administration was sanitising the river, they planned to knock down several houses, but the owner of this residence would only agree if the house was moved, brick by brick, from the northern to the southern bank. Incidentally, the sanitisers must have done a good job, because the water in Sarajevo is exceptionally good.

The Spite House

The Spite House

Staying in a delightful guest house (the Ada Hotel) just to the south of the Latin Bridge proved to be an inspired idea. The service is very good, it’s inexpensive and it’s all of ten minutes’ walk from the city centre. Even better, it’s about 200 metres from the Sarajevo Brewery and the excellent bar and restaurant attached to that establishment.

The brewery has somewhat legendary status. Certainly, it brews good beer, but its value during the 1992 to 1996 siege was crucial to the survival of the city and its inhabitants. Because the brewery is built on a water source, this was one place that citizens could access clean and safe water. Happily, these days the brewery is back to doing what a brewery should and providing beer. The dark beer (Sarajevsko Tamno) is especially tasty and light enough in strength to act as a session beer. The bar is slightly expensive by Sarajevo standards, but is a thoroughly pleasant place to spend an evening.

The Sarajevska Brewery

The Sarajevska Brewery

Sarajevo hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics and there are still legacies of that today. The Olympic Stadium is now home to FK Sarajevo, one of the city’s two major football clubs and to the Bosnian national team. FK Sarajevo’s city rivals, Željezničar, have also played European games at the stadium. For skiers and hikers, the Olympic skiing venues of Bjelašnica and Jahorina are within minutes of Sarajevo and offer a considerably cheaper alternative to the trendy resorts further west. The excellent local bus services will take you to even the remotest mountain villages.

There’s no real need to use buses in the city, as it is small and ideal for strolling around. Apart from the hills above the old town, it’s also very flat. It’s worth a tramp up the hills, though, to see the beautifully maintained cemetery at Alifakovac and the view of the city from the hill top.

Back at ground level, all of the places of cultural and historical interest are near the centre and the wonderful Viennese coffee house at the Hotel Europe is a perfect place to take a break for a cup of coffee. For those lucky enough not to worry about their waistline, the cakes, strudels and other delicacies are tempting. You can also have a beer there and the Irish coffee is very good, if a little pricy. There are cheaper places to have a drink in Sarajevo, but none more stylish.

The National Museum is, in fact, three museums pleasantly situated in a small botanical garden on the northern bank of the Miljacka. These Austro-Hungarian buildings are worth a view even if you don’t want to see the exhibits. The main museum contains a decent range of archaeological finds and the other museums are dedicated to natural history and ethnography. The last-named is probably the best, but a single, inexpensive ticket allows access to all three and the gardens are a nice place to stroll around and sit for a while.

To the north of the museum is one of the few Communist-style buildings, the railway station. It’s a glass and concrete affair, but by the standard of some of the architecture of that era, it’s not too hideous. One thing for train enthusiasts to note is that photography is not allowed at the station. This was probably logical 15 or 20 years ago, but seems a bit pointless now.

There are no big parks, but like many cities in the Balkans, there are plenty of green spaces. House sparrows are still a common sight in most towns and cities, but it’s pleasing to note that tree sparrows are abundant in the parks of Sarajevo. Indeed, the city is home to birds such as nuthatches, blackcaps and redpolls alongside the more familiar species.

Sarajevo may not be a tourist hotspot, but given its size, that is positively a good thing. It is, though, ideal for a three or four day visit. Visitors are certainly made to feel welcome – Sarajevans always seem delighted that people want to visit their city – and while it’s possible to overspend if you put your mind to it, it’s also very easy to live cheaply. For Sarajevans, simply living peacefully is enough.