Deliciousness incarnate, juice dribbles down my chin as I sink my teeth into the reddest strawberry ever – is it drool or fruit juice? Jackets tossed over our shoulders ready for the night ahead, we begin the first descent of many stairways in Zagreb, from our apartment onto the street, and there before us is a wooden farm wagon piled high with fresh produce – the beginnings of immersion into food here. 

Local strawberries and quince

Local farm strawberries and quince

The journey had been long and tedious, our bottoms numbed and eyelids heavy after many hours’ train travel. To pass the time, one can only pace floorboards, rattle food packets and throw paper planes around so much until other passengers become irritated. My worst possible nightmare would have been traveling during Covid times, when moving around on board a bus, plane or train wouldn’t have been permitted. Anyway, we disembark in the cool but sunny late afternoon and casually roam some streets, pulling our little suitcases on wheels (how cool was this invention) to find our apartment. By now we had learnt how to simplify navigation by photographing street names from Google Maps, in both English and Croatian hieroglyphics to refer to offline.

Quaint restaurants & coffee shops

Underground nightclub, restaurant spilling out to cafe

Easily found, we meet the apartment owner on site and begin to make for the sky behind him to our apartment in the attic’s second cousin’s cousin’s mouse hole! Small. Chris has to bend to enter, the ‘kitchen’ only has a kettle and the bathroom has a half sized sliding door – my worst. Surprised we didn’t need to book the room by weight and height to ensure we’d fit. Nevertheless, it’s pretty and feels like walking into a blooming lavender bush. Standing on the bed, I pop my head out of the little rooftop window to discover we are in “lower town” and there is an ornate church spire watching over us in the distance in “upper town”. My pipe smoking neighbour and I shoot the breeze with an alliteration of hand waving and shouting to be understood (why do we do that – shout?).

The indigo sky has cast her magic over central square where we circle the twinkling perimeter wine bars in search of a seat. We spot a table set for two mice, and a white jacketed waiter obviously thinks we look like mice and ushers us to the space, borrowed from a child’s doll’s house, where we slither between arm rests and table to sit. A festival of red, white and blue Croat flag dancers performs around a horse and soldier statue while we sip deliciously pungent nectarine infused house wine.Ancient Buildings

Overnight, in the Lavender nest, we slept like 10 drugged donkeys and now, at 8am, awake and refreshed we are swept into the slipstream of tourists in lower town.That’s how we tour, follow the crowds who are always going towards something interesting.  April being the shoulder season, provides sufficient crowds to create an atmosphere yet few enough not to overwhelm and smother. Waiters outside “Franks Cafe” flirt and chat as we pass by, calling us to stop for a Cava with the locals and seat us with a visiting Chef who persuades us to sample Zagreb’s famous Strukli for breakfast. Stukli is a mouthwatering confusion of fried sweet salty sour-cheese and cream filled pasty which is Strudels’ cousin. NUMMY. Our new Chef friend, who speaks perfect lisped English, regales us with tales of how he decides on his weekly menu, by walking around the city inspecting menus of the day en route to the Dolac Market which we must go to! – up there he points to rows and rows of red umbrellas snuggling between ancient buildings.

Sugar cones laden with three ice creams flavours (yes, more food) in hand for moral support, we trudge up up and up a cobbled pathway to reach Old Town Cathedral Glavni, passing golden angel statues, huge man-sized elaborately painted eggs and stunning frescoes. Catching our breath outside a beveled glass bay window we notice indoors a pile of Croatian themed gift boxes and huge barrels brimming over with every candy you can dream up – a candy treasure trove. Half an hour later and much sweeter for sampling, we walk out with a packets full of locally made quince candy, Membrillo and pin striped wrapped Bajadera chocolates. Such decadence.

After a full day’s exploration we head back to our Lavender mouse hole for power nap and shower, to prepare for a midnight pavement walk under yellow bulbed lanterns. Once again we follow the crowds into a new area and happen upon a street flowing with restaurants, pizzerias and wine bars where we find a good table to watch from, the menu is printed on a place-mat – displaying Bear Paw on a plate with French fries. No ways, this is real! I spring out of my seat and away from the establishment as though a thousand bees had stung my behind. Further down the way, a barman has calmed my sad heart with locally made Travarica, a herbal Rajka made with fruit brandy, honey, cherries and plums – and 40 % alcohol and just what the Doctor ordered!!!! Tummies, overstimulated brains filled with people, churches, gothic steeple’d, dilapidated buildings cuddling elegant museums, stone cathedrals and THE glorious Dolac Market it’s time to call it a day. Our cousin’s, uncles, grandmothers ex sister-in-laws attic is the most welcome place in the world, we tumble into bed and I dream of staircases.

At the train and bus station we scuttle around to find travel food, the next trip will be seven hours and we buy pizza, smothered in an orange coloured cheese, and Knedli for desert, a sweet potato dumpling rolled in breadcrumbs and sugar stuffed with plums and apricots.

Who’d have guessed we’d be carried away by a gastronomical experience. Food has always been a part of the journey – never the journey. Thank you Zagreb, you are a proud and old City ‘who’ has the oldest, steepest, shortest funicular in the world which purportedly has run every day for 109 years! To be honest – we hadn’t done an ounce of homework nor met anyone at home who had visited the capital of Croatia so she was just to be an en route stopover to wherever we were going to next. She revved our taste-buds and became a beautiful never ending story, of which we’d only read a few chapters and won our hearts.