Croatia: A taste of the Balkans

Zagreb by night

Zagreb by night

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No longer Europe’s dullest capital, Zagreb is the northern powerhouse of a Croatia best known for its coastal resorts. Rob Parsons gets his fish knife out on a foodie tour.

It’s been 17 days since the people of Zagreb have seen the sun, our guide tells us matter-of-factly as we prepare to set off on for a stroll round Croatia’s capital city. By the time my fellow journalists and I head home the sunless streak extends to 20 days, many of them rainy.

Suffice to say, Zagreb in December may not be the ideal place for a break from the English weather. What it does have though, is character in abundance, and a growing reputation for great food and a vibrant metropolitan culture.

Six years ago Zagreb was named in a poll as the most boring capital city in Europe. Stung by this criticism, the city has now made itself more visitor friendly and has a feast of annual exhibitions, festivals and cultural attractions.

There’s a film festival and an exhibition by Joan Miro, as well as sundry Christmas attractions, on at the time we visit. Asian and Chinese tourists now come here in greater numbers, we’re told, making up for the drop in tourists from Germany and the US during the war-torn 1990s.

On the drive into the city centre, the Soviet-style architecture gives way to an appealing mixture of neoclassical and art nouveau. The centrepiece is a horseshoe of parks and green spaces.

There are more museums here than hotels, we’re told, though our accommodation at the Palace Hotel is certainly pleasant enough.

The signs of Croatia’s turbulent recent history are there if you look in the right places. A statue of former leader Ban Jelacic adorns the square that bears his name, but was absent during the majority of Tito’s reign after being torn down, only to mysteriously reappear in 1990.

The most eye-catching way to get between the lower town and the upper town is to ride the small funicular up from Tomiceva street, where stalls range from the festive (serving mulled wine and local brandy) to the unusual (burgers for dogs). A genuine must-see in a city full of culture is the Museum of Broken Relationships, created by a couple who split up and decided to turn the ruins of their failed union into a museum that has since toured the world.

We wandered around looking at the exhibits, each an artefact from a failed relationship with a description to go with it. They ranged from the funny (a basketball shirt above a notice simply saying “he was a player”) to the shocking (a story written by an Armenian woman, now 70, whose object of affection drove himself off a cliff after a formal approach to her parents was rejected).

A day of our trip is given over to a foodie tour, organised by travel agency Konoko. Karlo, a local chef, restaurateur and famed sommelier, is our guide and takes us round the busy Dolac market.

Despite understanding none of his conversation with the stall-owners, it’s an entertaining half hour following him as he bustles round like a Balkan Gregg Wallace gathering ingredients for lunch, a three-course fish meal resembling what many Croatians would have on Christmas Eve.

After reconvening at his restaurant, Bistro Karlo, Karlo brings us into his kitchen. We are put to work gutting fish and helping create a buzara, a type of seafood stew, and an octopus salad, before sitting down to eat.

Though the city itself hasn’t gone overboard with festive lights, Cazma, an hour away by car, makes up for this with gusto. There are 1.5 million lights in total, taking three months a year to set up. We later move onto Stari Cardak, a charming establishment where local meats and cheeses are served in large quantities alongside Croatian wine and brandy.

Getting to Zagreb from Yorkshire requires a little effort as the only direct flights are from London, though East Coast trains run regularly to King’s Cross, from where there are several options for getting to the capital’s airports. At Heathrow, the Hilton hotel is a luxurious option for an overnight stay.

Though most tourists coming to Croatia will be more familiar with its showier coastal rivals Dubrovnik and Split, Zagreb and its population of 700,000 in the north dominates the economic and political life of the nation.

It’s Croatia’s own Northern Powerhouse, and in a year where the previously war-torn Balkan state is hoping to plant its flag ever more firmly on the map it deserves a place at the centre of any prospective tourist’s itinerary.

• For tourist information visit www.croatia.hr and www.Zagreb-touristinfo.hr. Croatia Airlines flies daily from London Heathrow to Zagreb. Fares start from £120 per person (1,181 Croatian Kuna) for a return trip. Visit www.croatiaairlines.com.

The Yorkshire Post travelled to London Heathrow by train with East Coast to King’s Cross, which is directly linked to all Heathrow terminals by London Underground. Standard Advance returns, booked online at www.eastcoast.co.uk, from Leeds to London start from £26. Times and fares also on 03457 225225 or from staffed stations and rail booking agents.

Rates at the Hilton Heathrow Airport start from £170 for a one-night stay. Visit www3.hilton.com.

Rates at the Palace Hotel Zagreb start from £66.84, based on two people sharing a double room including breakfast. Visit www.palace.hr.

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