The first test was the night flight over. No more business class for me … it was back of the Air Canada bus with mystery beef, a lousy selection of movies we couldn’t hear through the earphones provided and a truly uncomfortable seat for the 7 hour flight to Munich.
The highlight of that long night was being moved to an exit row seat beside a wonderful accountant from Newmarket. She was heading to the south of France for a hiking expedition and, like me, hadn’t trained for it at all though we both bought nearly the same Merrell hiking shoes!
We plan to compare notes when we get home. We ended up having lunch together during a four-hour layover in Munich after she missed her connecting flight by minutes.
It was wet, cold and windy when I left Munich, yet an hour later – a hop over the mountains – Zagreb was gloriously green and a sunny 22C. A lovely sweaty guy whose name I can’t pronounce drove me to the Hotel Esplanade, built in 1925 for passengers of the Orient Express. Though I was tempted to lounge in the vast five-star room with a marble bathroom the size of my living room at home, I forced myself out for a walk to celebrate my only few hours of free time for the next week.
I love Zagreb! It’s laid out in a grid, which makes it hard to get lost, and the downtown is the perfect size for a few hours’ walk. Like so many great European cities, the buildings are massive and grand, some a whole block long, with sculpted edges and ochre facades. Yet when you walk north into the old town, the scale shrinks to quaint little two-storey businesses on pedestrian-only streets filled with umbrellas and tables. Every one was filled with locals and tourists enjoying a coffee or beer. The cafes were still full around 7:30 when I got serious about finding some dinner, so I figure Zagrebians/Zagrebites? must eat late.
I sought restaurant advice from a lovely local named Marta who’d opened a fine food shop called Pantry just three weeks before. She said expats are thrilled to find Heinz beans and cheddar cheese, and she sells beautifully-packaged truffle products if I need something to take home.
Though it’s impossible to decipher written Croatian, especially on the first day, everyone speaks wonderful English. Marta gave me a few names of restaurants serving fresh seafood, and we found them on the map which made things really easy. I didn’t even mind that the fish dishes at Ribice i tri tockice all came with English translations – when you’re about to be seriously jet-lagged in a new country, a restaurant catering to tourists is welcome!
The tall waiter in the flowing white shirt, a burgundy sash around his waist, offered to speak English, French, Italian or German, whatever I wanted. When I told him I was from Canada he said Kitchener? Montreal? Toronto?
With his help I chose grilled orata and a plate of grilled vegetables. He cleaned the fish at the table so I didn’t have to deal with bones, and brought a little sauceboat of minced garlic in olive oil to sprinkle over top. I have to say it was the Best Fish Ever. Pure white and almost fluffy, mild and sweet. I even ate the skin, crisp and sweet as candy.
I still don’t know how much 65 kunas is – haven’t done the math – but it was worth every one, and went well with the chilled glass of whatever red wine he brought. I tipped 20 kunas on the 107 kn bill, not knowing if I was being generous or cheap! Guess I’d better get that straightened out pretty quick.
I’m trying not to look at the corner of my screen, which says it’s 5:43 p.m in Toronto while my watch says 11:45 p.m. Croatia time. With a gruelling press trip about to officially begin in a few hours, I definitely need my beauty sleep!