Breakfast at Zagreb’s Hotel Esplanade is a splendid affair. Every uniformed staff member in the dining room says hello amid a sea of white tablecloths under chandeliers. There’s sparkling wine and fresh-squeezed orange juice chilling at the buffet if you care to start the day with a mimosa.
Out on the terrace on an unusually cool grey day, guide Marco awaited to take us on a city tour via Segway. We’d all seen the battery powered stick on two wheels but never tried them. After a few minutes’ practice we were zooming up hills with ease, threading our way between people on the sidewalk and gliding between the tram tracks in the middle of the street. It’s easy peasy … stand up straight, lean forward to go (up to 20 km), lean back to stop and move the handlebar slightly to turn left or right. Five hidden gyroscopes under your feet constantly “read” your body weight and keep you upright.
The tour ended in a chic coffee shop where we had to taste the cakes! Like the Viennese who once ruled them, Croatians have a sweet tooth and are magnificent bakers. Wedges of double chocolate torte, almond cream, chocolate raspberry and cheesecake soon filled the table. The cappuccinos here are strong!
Back at the hotel, Mia gave us 30 minutes for lunch. Cam from Spokane needed money so I showed her the underground shopping centre next door where she found an ATM and I found a bakery – there’s one on every corner – where we bought ham and cheese baguette sandwiches to munch. The crusty bread was sooo good.
Time to hit the mountain for our 20 km downhill bike tour, the one I’d worried about since receiving the “soft adventure” schedule a month ago. After a long, winding car ride up the mountain, we met our guide from Blue Bike tours. As I wobbled around trying out the jumpy brakes of the mountain bike I’d chosen, I told him I don’t own a bike and haven’t been on one for years.
His response: “You don’t have a bike? So you will be killed by the end of this day?”
Well, yes, something like that. But I’m happy to report that I did survive … barely.
As we hit the forest trail I hit the brakes – as softly as I could – and kept them there for most of the downhill runs. Rocks and sticks became my enemy, and I tried to steer my beast around them as delicately as I could. Then there were the many deep muddy trenches left by three-wheeled ATV machines, which left us manoeuvring on a narrow track. When that failed I learned that it’s perfectly okay to get off the bike and walk. Man, those bikes are heavy when you have to push them! They also have a mind of their own. So many times, no matter how well I steered the wheels headed toward the rut, or toward the edge of the trail where even the trees hung on for dear life.
Occasionally, after turning a corner and finding myself facing yet another steep descent with no end in sight, I froze with fear and had to stop and convince myself that I really could do it. Another big breath (there was much exhaling through ballooned cheeks and many variations of GRRRRR) and on I went.
The guide at one point advised me to put all my weight on the handlebars for maximum stability, which is probably the source of my sore shoulders today. And here I’d been worried about my knees!
I never did learn to properly use the gears on both handlebars, though Mia tried valiantly to teach me, and ended up gliding most of the way down instead of pedaling. By the last hour I was walking the bike uphill rather than struggling with pedals, but turned into quite the daredevil on smooth downhill runs, almost daring sticks to get in my way! I can’t tell you anything about the terrain, since I spent the entire trip focussed on the trail a few feet ahead.
Nearly two hours later, we reached the rest stop at Glavica, where we gratefully took off our helmets and rested our beasts before heading inside for bottles of water. My cami, polar fleece top and jacket were almost wringing wet! From fear, I suspect.
A few steps from the hut lay the entrance to a famous cave. Trading our bike helmets for construction helmets, we followed a new guide, who’d appeared with a key to the wrought iron gate in front. He was very enthusiastic about his subject but I’m afraid I spent more time trying not to bump my head on the ceiling than listening to him.
Since it was getting dark, our hosts decided not to make us cycle the rest of the way into town. Instead, they called taxis to return us to the hotel. We didn’t get back to the Esplanade until 8:30 and it was close to 10 when we finished our first course in the elegant dining room … the famous cottage-cheese filled strudel-like Stuckli doused with cream. There was nettle and green tea soup, a square of perfectly cooked sea bass in a savoury broth and a strawberry mille feuille for dessert. The local wines were the evening’s stars, though the only name I remember is something like plavics mali. Yes, language is still proving to be a problem.
I left the restaurant at midnight and don’t know when the New Yorkers called it quits – they were both pretty quiet this morning. I took an extra-strength Advil as a precaution and finally turned off the light at 1:30 after a few more chapters of Dan Brown’s Inferno, which I proceeded to dream about for hours. Calm sleep finally came between 4:30 and the 7:30 alarm.