Join Alice Woolliams on her epic drive through deepest Hrvatska (that’s Croatia to us!)
Croatia is one of those rare countries in Europe that’s yet to fully make it onto the tourist map. Although the beautiful beaches of the Dalmatian Coast attract international visitors during the summer, much of this fascinating place remains unexplored. I took a road trip through the back roads of Croatia to explore one of Europe’s hidden gems.
Zagreb – Pula – Zadar – Trogir – Krka National Park – Split – Korcula – Dubrovnik
Although it was a little cramped at times, we squeezed five of us into my trusty old Volkswagon and set off across Europe! Apart from a brief stutter in Germany (where there are, handily, tons of VW garages…), we had great fortune with our wheeled companion, even though the Croats like to drive rather erratically.
Croatia is a well developed country with an easy to use network of motorways that whizz you from one city to another. Where it narrows in the south, however, it’s worth remembering that there’s only one main road (the A1) which can get very busy in peak times.
The larger highways also often require a toll like many countries in Europe, so it’s handy to keep some kuna (Croatian currency) ready for this. Off the beaten track, the roads are smaller but still well surfaced and easy to navigate with a map or GPS – and the scenery can be stunning.
Starting off in Zagreb
Like most capital cities, Zagreb is a big, sprawling urban area that’s not particularly car friendly. It does, however, provide the perfect starting point for a road trip because almost all the autocesta (motorways) in Croatia start or end at the city.
In the city itself, it’s advisable to leave your car at your hotel and take advantage of Zagreb’s excellent public transport network, where trams run 24 hours a day. Tickets for the buses and trams can be bought cheaply in bulk from newspaper kiosks or from the driver, but make sure you punch the ticket to validate it once you get on the tram. Don’t be tempted to ignore this rule and re-use the ticket as the offence carries a hefty fine. Dvertna karta (24 hour tickets) can also be bought if you plan of doing lots of transport.
Hotels and hostels are usually cheaper outside of the city centre, but thanks to those 24 hour trams, it’s never a hassle to find your way back to where you’re sleeping. Dorm beds are the best budget option, starting from the bargain price of 100 kuna per night.
For a touch of history, try Hotel Jägerhorn (Ilica 14), the oldest hotel in Zagreb which dates back to 1827. If you want to splash out, the Regent Esplanade Zagreb (Mihanovićeva 1) is a magnificent building with a ballroom that was very popular with travellers on the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul at the turn of the century.
Zagreb is packed with history, culture and interesting architecture that mixes medieval roots with grand Viennese squares and cobbled streets. The city is divided into the Upper Town (the medieval heart) and the newer Lower Town extends south of the vast Trg Bana Josipa Jelacica (Jelacic Square) to the railway station and the Sava River.
Start your sightseeing in the historic Upper Town, which itself is divided into two parts – Gradec (the upper) and Kaptol (the lower). Engraved with the names of dead, the Old Town Gate divides these two areas and is a poignant reminder of Croatia’s troubled past. From here, you can take the funicular to Gradec to the 13th Century Lotrščak Tower. At the top of the tower is the Gric canon, which is fired ceremoniously at noon every day – it’s quite a shock to hear the blast the first day you’re in the city.
In the Old Town, you’ll also see the unusual St Mark’s Church, a historic 13th Century building with rather eye catching roof tiles shaped in a mosaic. They’re laid out as the Zagreb city coat of arms and the ancient flag of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia.
Down in Kaptol stands the magnificent Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, a brooding Gothic church with twin spires and marble interiors. If you want to shop, there’s only one destination – Dolac Market, the huge, colourful open-air market north of Jelacic Square that must be one of the best in Europe.
Arguably the best museum in the city, Umjetnički Paviljon (Art Pavilion, Trg Kralja Tomislava) is a landmark itself. Designed by famous Viennese theatre designers, it’s a grand and imposing building with top quality exhibitions inside. From here, you can wander around the European influenced squares and streets of the Lower Town, which have a graceful feel.
If you’re looking for something a little unusual, head over to the award winning Museum of Broken Relationships (Sv. Ćirila i Metoda 2). This innovative exhibit offers a journey through the leftovers of love collected from around the world. Mirogoj, the impressive city cemetery, is also well worth a visit. With the Church of Christ the King, crumbling tombs of notable Croats and picturesque arcades, it’s a hidden gem that you can get lost in for hours.
For the best views over the city, climb Medvednica, the mountain which looms over Zagreb. At the top, there’s a historic fortress to explore and a handful of cafes where you can get refreshed and marvel at the vast city spread out below you.
Eating and Drinking
Zagreb has a buzzing cafe culture, especially on Saturday mornings. Take a seat at one of the pavement tables in the roads surrounding Jelacic Square and order a crna kava, a strong local coffee, and soak up the vibrant atmosphere of the city. This area is also the best place to look for street food and budget eats, with everything from kebabs to take away pancakes on the menus.
Get your first tastes of traditional Croatian food on the road trip at Mali Medo (Tkalčićeva 36), an affordable and lively restaurant with good local beer and specials such as ćevapčići and gulaš.
There are also a large number of pubs and bars around Jelacic Square and Cvjetni Trg, many of which have live music at the weekends and pavement tables to add to the ambiance.
In the summer, the locals head south of the city to Lake Jarun (tram 5 or 17) to cool off for a lunchtime snack or evening drink. Trendy bars line the shores and shingle beaches and offer a great spot to people watch and unwind. Strossmayer šetalište (Strossmayer’s Walkway) is another popular meeting place with cafes, artists and a great view of the Lower Town.