Much has changed for the Croatian capital city of Zagreb in the last few years. Less than seven years ago I shared a drink with a well-travelled Zimbabwean acquaintance from Belgium (yes, really) at the Goodge Street blues bar, when he summed up his visit to my hometown of Zagreb (rather than Dubrovnik since he’d had a choice) as “an error of judgment”. I cringed and I sulked but had to accede that, despite its capital city status, Zagreb was not a tourist destination. Being a native of this quaint city whose population never quite crossed the one million threshold, I was well used to its reluctance to “play ball” with tourists and its being overlooked by visitors making a bee-line for the better known and undeniably spectacular cities of Pula, Split and Dubrovnik on the Adriatic Coast.
And then, something altered. As I watched in wonder, Zagreb transformed itself as if by holiday fairy magic into a lively, quirky and definitely happening destination. It didn’t happen overnight but it seemed to. Suddenly, there were tour groups competing with natives at my local farmers’ market, couples with children speaking French, English, Spanish and Mandarin at my local kiddie playground and a mind-boggling number of Korean tourists everywhere at all times of the year (this being a fortuitous consequence of Croatia featuring in a Korean reality-style show).
So, what came first – the chicken or the egg?* The world’s tourists or the world-class tourist offer? One thing is certain – Zagreb had transformed itself from a sleepy capital into a first-rate European destination. Encouraged by an ever-growing number of affordable flights, visitors from all over come to enjoy cultural festivals, street events and Zagreb’s every-day life throughout the year. Every season has a bounty of interesting, joyful happenings on offer, with winter being one of the best and my favourite.
It may not be the perfect time to attempt road cycling Croatia through its snow-swept continental regions (this can wait until early spring), but you can definitely make a reconnaissance trip to Zagreb and size it up while enjoying the lights and street food stalls in this wonderful Advent winter setting. The city centre and the historic Upper Town are awash with Christmas cheer, music and dance and there is a wonderful open-air ice skating ring in one of Zagreb’s favourite parks on Tomislav Square. Just few hundred meters from the main square, you will hear the electro-swing beats of Fuliranje Christmas festival at Tomićeva Street – it has a retro feel and offers good tunes, great food and drink (some of the leading producers of rakija brandy have their stalls there) and a cutting-edge Croatian design merchandise.
For those who wish to venture closer to nature (and almost certainly experience snow, even when the city’s streets have none), Medvednica Mountain Nature Park and its summit Sljeme lie at an altitude of 1.030 m and are so close to the town you can reach its foothills by tram. A great place to try out skiing and sledging or to just hike around breathing the crisp, clean air before enjoying a hearty lunch with beer or mulled wine at one of its several mountaineers’ lodges. And as you do, imagine yourself taking on this mountain in your cycling gear come spring, summer or autumn – because every one of these seasons will bear exceptional gifts for a cyclist. There are a number of routes mapped out by the Zagreb County Cycling Network and you can incorporate this with an exploration of Zagreb and its surrounding Zagorje region (all rolling hills with castles on top, sprawling vineyards and pretty villages) into a wonderful cycling experience of continental Croatia.