Thursday, March 26, 2015

Meeting New Cousins in Croatia

We recently traveled to Croatia because my husband, Abdulhamid, wanted to meet a cousin.  Abdulhamid had a favorite uncle who took him on travels through the former Yugoslavia when he was much younger.  He had fond memories of the parks they'd walked through.  The coffee they drank in town squares.  The markets where they purchased food for dinner.  The views of the countryside.  Sadly, this uncle just died in a nursing home in Vienna.  He had a son living in Zagreb, whom Abdul contacted and we made a plan to go there.

We were welcomed and somehow managed to communicate with some Italian and English.  They  invited us into their home for a delicious homemade meal.  His cousin, who is part Croatian and part Somali was interested in learning more about his father and other relatives while he showed us his beautiful city.  They were tremendous hosts.  It was good for Abdulhamid to recall his happy memories too.
Abdulhamid with the cousins we met
It was also great fun to explore greater Zagreb for a few days.  Croatia is incredibly affordable for anyone looking for a budget vacation.  The dollar is strong now, which certainly helps, but prices are also lower than one might see in other European destinations.  We used Hilton points to stay at a Doubletree Hotel.  We got a corner room with wifi, breakfast, and access to the spa/gym/pool included.  The hotel staff were some of the friendliest and most accommodating we've ever met so our stay was fantastic.  We used the adjoining restaurant Oxbow for meals and were surprised at the quality.  Breakfast was huge and amazing!  If this is out of your price range, there are many hotels in the downtown that are great too.  A luxury room can be found for less than $100 night.  We were about 1 1/2 miles from the city center.  There's a tram stop just across the street which made for easy access, though we rented a car at the airport, just in case we wanted to do some touring outside of Zagreb.
View from our room 

I might mention that if you plan to rent a car, you will get a manual transmission (stick shift).  We requested an automatic and were happy they found a brand new Audi for us and threw in a GPS (which was English programmable) for free.  My husband felt a little bit like James Bond driving this sleek black sporty car around town. Parking was challenging.  If you park on street in the downtown, you need to have local currency in coins and have to figure out how to find a kiosk and get a printed parking receipt to put on your dashboard to avoid parking fines.  We were lucky that people spoke English nearly everywhere and were incredibly friendly.  A young man at Cafe Chocolat 041 walked two blocks with my husband to assist.  What great people!  And if you need help, why not find the best chocolate cafe around?  We ended up staying there for the delicious gelato and free wifi. Parking garages have machines that take cash mostly.  You bring your ticket with you and pay before you return to your car.  Croatia does take credit cards, but cash is more widely used.  Be sure to plan ahead.  There are ATM machines in the airport.

Chocolat 041 has a wide variety of goodies...and has unique decor fashioned from old CDs
Are you planning a trip to Zagreb?  Here are some of my favorite discoveries- a top 10 list.  Maybe you'll want to check them out.  It definitely gives you a taste of Zagreb, even if you have just a couple days to explore.

1.  Elis Caffe- a fantastic small coffee joint that roasts their own coffee, located on the long shopping street Ilica.  This is a great street to walk along.  The tram runs through the center and you can find anything you may never have known you've needed.  We had a couple of delicious cafe lattes while we were there and took a bag of ground coffee home with us.  I'm enjoying the memories of Zagreb while I sip my coffee here in my house.  It was also here we chatted with some locals and got some ideas of what else to see.  There was a mom and her daughter who come here regularly and they recommended a visit to nearby Samobor, which I'll write about in my next blog entry.




2.  Museum of Broken Relationships- can't believe no one thought of this in the US, but it's a quirky place to read about failed romances and other great break up stories.  People from around the globe have donated stuff that reminds them of these horrid relationships.  There's wifi here so you can post what you think about it online while you're enjoying it....or should I say experiencing it.  I really enjoyed reading the letters accompanying the items, but unfortunately about 15 minutes into the experience, 9 year old Omar disappeared.  You know it's one of those things that often happens when we travel. I think he's with Dad.  Dad thinks he's with Mom.  Omar is actually two blocks away pursuing his newly found cousin who attends school nearby.  Reminder that we should not point out where beautiful cousins are attending school if it's within running distance.  Luckily he was discovered pretty quickly, but we weren't able to go back to the museum and see it all.  On the checklist for next time....
Just one of many articles left behind about a failed relationship

3.  Museum of Naive Art- All the paintings here are by artists thought to be self taught.  The painting is done on glass so they actually paint somewhat backwards so it can be seen through the glass.  Some fine folk arts seen here.  There are taped limits on the floor to let people know not to get too close to the walls.  We saw some Japanese tourists challenging these and they got a stern reminder to enjoy the paintings from a distance.

A painting on glass at the museum
4.  St. Mark's Church- Even if you never go inside, find this beautiful tiled roof church in the upper town.  My son thought it looked like Minecraft.  It's shiny, colorful and unique.  It's set in the center of a bunch of governmental buildings.  We saw news crews and a few limousines out behind it...all black...looking covert and quite interesting.


5.  Take the Funicular to Upper Town Love Locks- The view from this place is pretty great.  You can take the funicular up to the top for fun and then use the steps to come back down.  This view is at the top of the steps.  You'll notice (if you look very carefully) the fence is adorned with love locks placed by lovers who pass by.  Spend some time viewing the engravings or place your own there.
The funicular- a fun easy ride from lower town to upper town

Look closely between the greenery and you'll see locks attached to the gate

6.  Stone Gate in Upper Town- The link tells you much more about this, but it's basically a stone entryway in a very old gate into the upper part of Zagreb that has been converted into a church.  Is it a passageway? church? art museum?  Well, it's a bit of all.  They are doing some construction on the outside of it currently, but you can still sit in the pews, light a candle, and enjoy the painting of Mary and Jesus which survived a fire.

7.  Taste fresh fruit at the Dolac Market.  This is the outdoor market which has vendors with all kinds of fruit, vegetables, and flowers.  There's an upper vending place and a lower one.  Be sure to check out both.  So colorful.  I found oranges here so juicy I had to wash my face after eating one.  



8.  Eat at McDonalds.  OK, I know there are plenty of reasons why you wouldn't want to try a chain restaurant when in a foreign city, but I think this is so unusual, it's worth checking out.  It's more like a Starbucks/hamburger joint.  There are 3 locations.  We tried the one nearest our hotel which was out of the city center.  The coffee was great, but so were the burgers.  No artificial coloring in the Fanta orange drink.  The meat tasted like meat- not preservatives.  They clearly are doing something different. 


9. Find the solar system.  Yes.  Really.  It is all here for the scavenger hunt.  Built to scale, you'll find the sun near the marketplace and the planets scattered in direct relation, but beware because some are so tiny they are placed on a plaque on the sides of buildings.  
You'll find the Sun in the center of this plaza near the market

This yellow ball is not part of the solar system, though we thought it was the sun.  Darn!
10. Buy something local.  You can find lots of souvenirs, but I think these are some useable items you might consider for a practical gift.  Borovo Shoes.   Preradoviceva 16. They come in so many unique colors and comfortable styles.  I just loved the kid colors, but we were unable to find a pair in Omar's size.  The women's sandals are simply not like anything I've ever seen.  They also specialize in orthopedic shoes for women, which really means comfy shoes you can wear all day which look attractive.  Cerovecki Umbrellas. Ilica 49  Incredibly durable umbrellas here.  Not easily packable, but if you have room these are useful. Harissa Spice Store.  Masarykova 3. Cheap and aromatic.  Take some home to make a dish that reminds you of your time spent in Zagreb. Gradska Ljekarna. Ulica kralja Drzislava 6. Essential oils and herbal treatments.  Pick up some lavender oil for just a couple bucks to keep in your medicine chest or to help you sleep.  These natural stores are popular in Europe and are an alternative to a pharmacy.
Borovo shoes are colorful and comfy

So many spices to choose from at Harissa

Bright umbrellas to cheer you on a rainy day
Lots of essential oils- but try the lavender for sure


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