Last Updated : 25/10/08
his trip was a return to the place where my current travelling mania had begun back in 2003 when, accompanying five other rail (and beer!) cranks, I’d visited Slovenia and Croatia for a week’s exploration. Back then things such as budget airlines were still in their infancy and flew mainly to far less exotic destinations than Zagreb which had necessitated our trip utilising Croatian Airlines from Heathrow, LHR not being the best start to any trip, but remembering what happened I’m amazed I got there at all and wanted to travel again after this first time…
A quick recap of how not to begin a trip…
At the time I was living in Tamworth so the trip down to London was, theoretically, an easy one; Vermin west coast to Euston then the tube out to Heathrow for the flight… what could be easier? Well, on the day we were travelling, I’d say plenty of things would have been easier! All went swimmingly at first as I sat aboard a speeding train bound for Euston, and even when we stopped outside Milton Keynes I wasn’t particularly worried as, knowing how flaky the Vermin service was, I’d built a hefty dollop of recovery time into my schedule. After an hour, however, we still hadn’t moved and the worrying news came across the tannoy that “a train in front of us has brought the wires down”… and suddenly I was looking at the very real possibility of missing my flight.
The train eventually crawled into Milton Keynes well over an hour late and by this point I was in a bit of a flap. The alternative being offered by Vermin didn’t help much as they were suggesting we were bussed to Bedford for a Thameslink into to London, but I knew that this would take far more time than I had and I would, therefore, require a far more drastic plan. Outside the station was a taxi rank and an idea dawned on me; I'd take a taxi to Heathrow and send the bill to Vermin and the travel insurance company! My mind made up that this was the only realistic option available to me, I leaned through the window of the first cab in the line and asked the slightly bemused yet happy driver how much it was to Heathrow…
Obviously sensing this was to be his payday, the driver stated “Ł100” without any trace of embarrassment and so, after asking if anyone else in the queue wanted to join me (they didn’t, or at least no-one replied… but I put that down to them all being miserable southerners) I reluctantly accepted this extortionate rate and off we went. Despite this being probably the most expensive journey per mile I’ve ever taken I knew that there was no alternative if I wanted to reach the airport in time for our flight to Zagreb and so when we pulled up at the terminal, a mere 45 minutes later, it was with a mixture of relief and reluctance that I handed over the money, wondering why there seemed to be an unnecessarily large number of armed police, army and tanks arranged around the buildings…
Inside was a queue for security the likes of which I’ve never seen since; we soon found out that the huge security shambles was due to a foiled terrorist plot involving explosives either in shoes or in pop bottles (I can’t remember which now!) which meant the queue for security was snaking out of the security area, along a corridor, round a few more passages and finally almost out of the door! I met up with my five comrades and we hurriedly checked in before joining the improbably large queue in the vain hope of getting through security before our flight left.
The queue moved frustratingly slowly and we realised, as we finally neared the security area, that we had no chance of getting through at the speed we were moving. Luckily for us the airport seemed to have implemented a sensible procedure of inviting those whose flight was imminent to pass through the “fast-track” gate and so, when the next call for passengers in danger of missing their flight was heard, we hot-footed it towards the gate where we were quickly checked and let through airside whereupon we legged it along almost deserted corridors (not surprisingly, as most of the passengers were still in the queue landside!) to our gate where we made the flight with only five minutes to spare!
As you’ll appreciate, after this shambolic beginning to my first real foreign beer trip, being abroad in a country where I had no idea about the language or what was going on didn’t really faze me at all and I had a superb week of beery (and cultural) enlightenment in Slovenia and Croatia where I scooped some amazing beers in brewpubs both remote and in cities, saw first-hand war damage in Osijek – the sight of bullet perforated walls, still-live minefields and a tower block ripped apart by a shell are things which tend to stick in your mind – and realised that my beer awakening was beginning. I’d been becoming more interested in foreign – mainly Belgian at this point – beers and had been visiting Belgium reasonably regularly but this trip showed me that there was a world beyond the safe, comfortable borders of the “known beer world” and I knew I wanted to see it all!
Sorry about all that gibberish, but as I didn’t do a report for my first trip to Croatia I thought that the story was suitably interesting enough to devote a page to… so, now you know how much of a farce my first trip was, you’ll be relieved to know the second in March 2008 went far smoother and so you won’t have to read any more pages of waffling about airports such as that above!
Thursday 13th March 2008.
Lie-in for Luton.
With our flight at the ludicrously late – for us – time of 13:00 we had the unbridled luxury of a lie-in which, if you’re a regular reader of my gibberings, you’ll appreciate is a rare thing as we’re generally hammering along the A14 at 04:00 in the morning… and you thought I wouldn’t mention the A14 this time, didn’t you, as we were flying from Luton? Wrong!
It was strange to be travelling in the daytime and we soon realised why, despite the very early mornings, 07:00 departures are infinitely preferable: as well as getting a full day in the city we also miss the busy traffic that was plaguing us on the M1 at that point and, despite the tiredness felt in the dead of night, I decided there and then that it was far better than trundling along at 40mph with nothing but brake lights in front of us! Despite the traffic we maintained a reasonable schedule and were at Airparks within 2 hours (we were still boycotting APS owing to their 20% price hike!) where we saw the amusing spectacle of a badly-parked car being jacked up onto teensy little wheels and pushed across the tarmac to another area.
Once at the terminal we managed to check-in early; we were flying with low-cost carrier Wizzair, our first flight with them, and unfortunately they don’t offer online check-in but this didn’t really matter as the desk was open and we were soon equipped with our boarding cards with reserved seats, a novelty for us more used to the typical “riotscrum” or “easyscrum”! Herbal had advised us, having done the Zagreb flight numerous times, that the plane operating it was invariably the same one, LZ-WZA, and as we approached the gate we saw that this was indeed the case, although as we required every plane in their fleet this wasn’t such a big issue for us…
Despite the flight being almost full we left on-time and even managed to arrive into a murky Zagreb 25 minutes early. Immigration was easy – plus we got a passport stamp, very rare these days, as Croatia isn’t yet in the EU – and as I still had some Croatian Kuna left over from my last visit we had enough to pay for the bus into Zagreb. Passing an ATM, however, we decided that we may as well get some ching and so in went my card only for the machine to reject it with a random error message! We did have a small amount of money, but if we couldn’t get an ATM to spread it’s munificence between us then we weren’t going to get a lot in the way of food and beer… and would probably have to walk back to the airport!
So, luckily having enough money for the bus to Zagreb’s autobusni kolodvor (main bus station), we climbed aboard and paid the driver 50 of our 73 Kuna. Once there we located a line of ATM’s so I chose the one with the most amusing bank name on it (my usual criteria when choosing banks abroad is how amusing their name is – as well as accepting visa, obviously) and inserted my card… only for it to be rejected! “Cheers then, good job there’s two more”, I thought, trying the next one which did exactly the same thing; luckily the final machine took pity on us and dispensed the very necessary scoop tokens we needed; result, at least now we wouldn’t starve, die of thirst or have to hitch back to the airport…
Flush with Kuna, it was off to the nearest shop to buy our tickets. This procedure was accomplished with a surprisingly lack of problems; I asked – in Croatian – for four day tickets (Dnevna karta) and a bottle of water, the woman understood me (although I’m not sure where she thought I was from!), handed over our tickets, I returned the money and all was well! So, armed with validity, it was time to check into our hotel so we left the bus station (which is more like a shopping centre albeit in a very “central European” way, if you’ve seen one you’ll know what I mean) and headed for the tram stop in the middle of a very busy road outside.
“Boutique” hotels and other such pretentiousness.
I knew that Zagreb’s tram system had taken delivery of a large batch of plastic trams but still had a wide variety of unusual stock running, so it was with relief that we saw a motley collection of vehicles passing with plenty of superb Tatra T4’s, some rather less hellfire K4’s, a few heritage Düwags plus, as I’d hoped, some of the locally-built Đuro Đaković beasts, the only ones running on any system in the world as far as I know! We took the first one which arrived as far as the station, passing the hotel on the way, and then walked back the short distance to check-in.
The hotel was pretty posh and is what's probably classed as a “boutique” hotel although I’ve no real idea what this pretentious description really means! Our room was facing the rear so, despite having no tram views, we could still hear them as they pass on two of the four sides of the building: this was good enough for us! The room had a mini-bar, perfect for chilling any “room beers” we found, plus had all the essentials such as a shower, comfy bed and TV to watch randomly dubbed cartoons whilst drinking beer later on, but now it was time to hit the streets and see how the tram system measured up to our demanding targets!
Very well, it turned out, and we spent a good few hours storming around the city on a right old mix of vehicles, even scooping some rare curves in the process as one tram we rode did a non-booked route back to it’s depot. We took the chance, whilst at the Črnomerec terminus, to eat a flaky, cottage-cheesy burek and visit a supermarket where we picked up a couple of beers for later on before taking a T4 to the Zlatno Pivo “brewpub” to see what was happening there.
Brewpub – or not?
I say this as I’d scored the place on my last visit when it was, at the time, the only outlet for Medvedgrad and brewed four beers on-site plus served up some decent food too. Medvedgrad have since moved out to a new brewery (not brewpub) in the countryside near Zabok and have opened a handful of new bars throughout the city serving their beers leaving their old brewpub in the hands, apparently, of new owners who might or might not, depending on who you believe, still brew there… confused yet? I was, and I wanted to try and get a definitive answer on the situation there although I wasn’t hopeful of finding out for sure, language barriers and all.
All looked promising as we arrived with the stainless steel brewplant still on prominent view in the front window, but on closer investigation I wasn’t so sure it was still utilised… a few pipes didn’t seem to be connected, most of the digital gauges weren’t working and the whole thing gave off the impression of something that just wasn’t used anymore, although it takes up so much space that I’m not sure they’d leave it there and take the hit for all that wasted space which could be filled with paying customers? We decided to give the place a go, being hungry as usual, so in we went and I was amazed to see it looked almost exactly the same inside as when I’d last been there some five years previous!
At our table, I noticed that the menu bore a very heavy similarity to Medvedgrad’s one; was this because they still owned the pub or was it due to customer demand for the old regime’s food? Two beers were on sale, Ban crno and Zlatno pivo, which the menu claimed were brewed there… I knew this wasn’t going to be easy to work out and, predictably, the waiter was no help claiming – as expected – that “yes, beers made here” and gesticulating in the direction of the brewkit. A large one of each, then, and I hoped that I’d be able to tell what they were…
Both beers were pretty good, although that didn’t really help as I remembered Medvedgrad beers being good too! I’d taken my old tasting notes from my 2003 visit and both beers seemed suspiciously similar to how I remember the beers brewed there; Ban was a murky brown dark chocolatey brew with a dry, full maltiness and a good rich graininess and toasted malt finish, whilst Zlatno was, as it’s name suggests, golden in colour with a yeast haze although the nose and flavour were pure lemon jelly from what tasted very much like Slovenian goldings with a bitter, malty and lemony hop finish which lasted and lasted.
The meal, too, was of good quality and soon we were smiling contentedly, full of food and beer, but I was still slightly concerned that I’d not got to the bottom of the brewpub issue at Zlatno Pivo and still didn’t know if the beers were brewed there or not although I had a general feeling that they were simply rebadged Medvedgrad brews. This feeling came from several clues such as the menu being very “Medvedgrad”, the beers tasting suspiciously like my old tasting notes described and not like typical brewpub beers plus the slightly neglected look of the brewery, but mainly it was down to “scooper’s insight”: a nebulous concept which 20 years of scooping teaches you, but may still be totally wrong!
Belgian beers in Zagreb.
Whatever the truth about the provenance of the beer at Zlatno Pivo, however, it was undeniable we’d had some top food and beer so, casting a final look at the brewery for any clinching evidence of brewing or non-brewing, it was back into the centre for a nightcap at a very unusual bar I’d discovered next door to our hotel. A most welcome Düwag of 1950’s vintage took us back to the Branimirova stop, literally outside the hotel, from where we entered the Branimir shopping centre to find the Hop Devil; from it’s website this bar sounded like a slightly tacky yet decent attempt at a Belgian beer bar with, if the pictures were to be believed, stone effect monastery remains, presumably fake Brueghels and tapestries plus a rather surreal “wall of water”!
After wandering around the small shopping centre for a while we found a map which revealed where the pub was and why we hadn't found it yet; it was in the basement! We eventually found some escalators, hidden behind a coffee bar, and as we descended into the subterranean level we immediately saw the pub in front of us with it’s admittedly rather tacky plastic monastic ruins! It seemed fairly lively but we soon found a table next to the water wall (this was indeed a full wall of the pub down which water ran into a sump under the glass floor!) and perused the beer list to see what we fancied.
I’d already pored over the list on their website and thought that, despite there being no winners, there were plenty of decent beers available and we chose Westmalle Dubbel and something else which I’ve forgotten from the surprisingly knowledgeable waitress. The beers came at a decent temperature with the correct glasses pre-rinsed and we were allowed to pour them; better service than at many Belgian bars, then!
The prices were also very reasonable, factoring in how far the beers had come, and the only thing missing was a plate of buttery cheese to ease the beer down. The pub seemed to be attracting a lot of young people who, far from all swigging Duvel, seemed to be drinking a wide variety of the beers on offer and some even seemed to be doing something perilously close to scooping by trying beers they’d not had before… We decided that this place was definitely worth another visit so, after paying the bill and saying “thanks” in as many languages as I could manage to the very sociable waitress (I think we managed a dozen between us!) it was back to the hotel to scoop the two beers we’d acquired from the supermarket earlier in the day.
Sue opened the minibar lock with the staple she’d used earlier to crack it before we opened a nicely chilled Jadranska “K Plus” pivo which was billed as an 11° and 4.9%, suspiciously similar to the brewery’s ordinary beer, which I’ve subsequently decided it’s a rebadge of! For a dodgy rebadge in a plastic bottle it wasn’t too bad with a crisp maltiness, some residual malt sugars and then a mix of toffee, a slight dryness, bitter hints and more maltiness in the finish. Our other scoop came from something worse than a plastic bottle, a can, but would you refuse Sarajevo beer if you saw it? No, nor did we… at 11.2° and 4.9% it’s specification was comparable to the Jadranska yet the flavour was far more “lagery” and bland with only hints of malt and grassy hop to keep it anywhere close to interesting. And what was on TV? Yep, badly-dubbed cartoons, but not the usual South Park Mr Hankey special but Family Guy in German… followed by South Park!
Friday 14th March 2008.
Rare curves and 4-wheelers.
We were up early on Friday morning with the plan being to cover the rush-hour tram service to see if anything mega-rare came out to play; I knew that Zagreb still had some 4-wheel Đuro Đaković trams, possibly the last 4-wheelers in service anywhere in Europe with the exception of the two Konstals on Katowice’s route 38, and I was keen to scratch one or two in. I didn’t really believe we’d find one seeing as delivery of their second batch of plastics had commenced, but was suitably impressed when we passed one on only the second move of our bash! A hurriedly revised plan was pressed into action and we intercepted it on it's return run at Olipska whereupon, clambering aboard this heritage vehicle, I grinned with elation; what a beast!
The little vehicle was small and basic inside yet had obviously been refurbished with, presumably, a view to keeping it as a museum tram and I realised that this was probably the very last 4-wheeler in service. We planned to take it to the Črnomerec terminus and back out again but, as we passed under the railway and prepared to turn left into Branimirova, I noticed that trams were stopped all along the road with their hazard lights flashing; the driver made a quick phone call and then, to our surprise, hand-cranked the points and we carried on northwards towards Kvaternikov Trg! We then turned left and rumbled along Petrova before joining Ilica and then onto Črnomerec; it had been great to score a Đuro Đaković 101 tram, but getting it over a rare diversion route was just taking the piss!
We indulged in a celebratory Burek and cake from one of the many kiosks around the tram loop before embarking on a frenzy of tram route scooping which I’ll not bore you with, save to say that Zagreb’s network is very impressive with almost every stop being served by at least 2 routes and the frequency being very adequate. One amusing thing seen was an Ada who seemed to be have been teleported back from Victorian times, complete with full clothing and accompaniments, crossing the road; it wasn’t just us, the whole tram stared as we passed!
You’ll find me in Route 66…
Once we’d scooped most of the city’s tram routes it was decided that we’d done enough bashing and the time had come for a beer! I was keen to try the rare Velebitsko beer made by Pivovara Ličanka down in the mountains of Gospič in central Croatia as I’d scooped the dark (temno) version during my previous visit and had been impressed by this unpasteurised dark lager which I'd jedged as second in quality and taste only to the Medvedgrad beers so, naturally, I was after the golden version (svijetlo) to complete my set and, if possible, try the temno again to see if it was as good as I remembered it to be.
We took tram 3 to Lisinski, out on a busy road south of the centre, where I eyed the map I’d printed with suspicion; this didn’t seem right at all, where the pub was supposed to be looked just like a farmhouse in the middle of a field! After a few minutes debate we decided that it wasn’t a particularly large field and walking across it wouldn’t take too long so once we’d managed to cross the dual carriageway (luckily only half of it as the tramlines were in the middle) it was a short trudge across the field towards a small cluster of buildings which might – or might not – be our destination of the Route 66 bar which, according to gen I’d read, served both Ličanka brews.
Dusk was coming in quickly and it wasn’t until we’d almost reached the buildings that I saw the Route 66 sign adorning what I’d assumed to be a farmhouse… and now, being next to it, I was even more convinced that it had been one up until relatively recently! The bar seemed to be a magnet for bikers with a decent array of motorbikes parked up outside and a thump-thump of decent-sounding music coming from the door so, deciding that we may as well check the place out, in we went to the dark and smoky bar.
Inside was just about what we’d expected with low-wattage lighting, a haze of tobacco smoke (and, by the smell of it, hints of other substances) with the acceptable end of rock music pounding out of the speakers. There was no obvious beer menu although I saw several of the grungy clientele swigging from Ličanka bottles which proved that the stuff was available and so, after shouting my order at the barman from a very short distance owing to the blaring speakers, I received my winner of Velebitsko svijetlo. This was soon poured and supped; very pale in colour (well, I think it was, but the lack of light in the room didn’t help my analysis) this beer had a decent bitterness with a dash of citrussy Slovenian Goldings, a tasty malt-accented flavour, a decent body although slightly dry then finished decidedly bitter and dry; not bad at all, this was one of the better bottled lagers I’ve sampled.
An evening’s wander.
With our scooping done and with the Cult’s “Rain” playing us out of the door, we returned to the tramstop and took the next Düwag all the way to Trg Bana Jelačiča where we went for a wander around the centre. Zagreb’s central areas have scrubbed up very nicely and we enjoyed our stroll along the streets although we were distracted by a chocolate shop and walked right past the funicular we’d been intending to scoop! This was soon rectified after we’d realised we were half-way to the Zagrebačka brewery, although the funicular is so short it’s only really worth doing as a scooping procedure and you could walk up the steps alongside in a couple of minutes!
Our plan was to visit the new Medvedgrad restaurant out in the west of Zagreb and sample their beers from the new brewery whilst partaking in some, hopefully, good food; I remembered well the huge feast I’d enjoyed during my previous visit and was hopeful of emulating it again! First, however, we called in at a bar on the way down towards the station as I’d got gen than it sold a decent range of beers including AmBev’s best beer, Tomislav porter, a 7.3% dark beastie brewed in Zagreb which, if tasted blind, most beer lovers would swear to be a micro-brew.
We heard Dobar Zvuk before we saw it; alternative music was being played at a decent volume and it looked as if the customers appreciated it as every window seemed full of people swigging beer and having a good time. We climbed the steps and made our way to the bar where I was disappointed to see nothing rare on draught, but with plenty of time we reasoned that we’d have a beer anyhow and so a couple of bottled Tomislavs came our way and we retired to what may have been the last free table to relax. I say relax, but this wasn’t really possible with the quality music being played – Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly – so we jigged away to ourselves whist appreciating just how much better than all AmBev’s other beers Tomislav was.
Despite having no scoops on sale – well, nothing I’d contemplate drinking – we enjoyed our time in Dobar Zvuk; the Tomislav was as good as I remember it, the music was superb and the staff sociable, so sociable that I became engrossed in conversation with the barman for ten minutes as I tried to pay our bill, although this was probably my fault as I was wearing a Flogging Molly t-shirt! We eventually paid up and left, wandering along the leafy squares, until we reached the station where we caught the first No.2 tram to Adžijina; we passed under the railway and followed the route from my map, although Medvedgrad was fairly obvious even from distance due to it being the only brightly-lit building on the street!
Inside was busy yet relaxed and we had a choice of tables. I was secretly relieved as, had the place been full, our evening meal would have been something a lot less sociable with much worse beer! I’d soon relayed our order to the waiter and he returned with two foaming mugs of beer, Zlatni Medvjed (golden bear) and Crna Kraljica (black queen), which we got stuck right into; the Zlatni was a hazy gold brew with a full malt taste overlain by a herby, bitter and lemony hop character then a dry, bitter yet juicily malty aftertaste – excellent stuff – whilst the dark was deep red with less taste that the colour suggested and a dry, malty, caramel and dark chocolate flavour which needed, in my opinion, a dash of bitterness to even it out. Both beers had been very good with the pale shading it, but I couldn’t help feeling that I’d drunk something very similar not too long before… I was now even more convinced that Zlatno Pivo didn’t brew but simply rebadged Medvedgrad beer although I conceded the possibility that they’d kept the old recipes…
Our food arrived and was as good as the beer; ten minutes later we’d cleared our plates and drained our glasses whereupon I was looking for one more scoop, Medvedgrad’s new strong beer Grička Vještica, but for obvious reasons we were flagging the wheat beer plus Mrki Medvjed which their website said was a mix but did't specify whether it was done in the brewery or at the bar! I succeeded in getting a small glass of the strong brew from the harassed waiter but, on sampling, decided that it hadn’t really been worth the bother apart from, obviously, the huge scoop value! A tawny/red brew, sweetish toffee-malt ruled the flavour with a suggestion of dry bitterness although nowhere near enough to balance the cloying sweetness, then a surprisingly well-balanced finish clawed back some respect although there was little suggestion of the hefty 7% alcohol anywhere… it wasn’t as accomplished as the other brews but, with a bit more work (read more hops!), it could be much better.
Our meal finished, we paid the very reasonable bill and hurried back to the tramstop, convinced we’d see one leave just as we got there! Unfortunately, Adžijina is one of the only stops on the whole network served by just one tram route and so, the time being late, we had no option but to take the first No.2 back to Branimirova and although we didn’t just miss one as we expected, predictably the next tram that arrived was a plastic… we had no option but to take it and having one of only two plastics of our entire trip wasn’t the perfect end to our second evening and even put us off a nightcap in the Hop Devil! Feckin’ plastic crap…
Saturday 15th March 2008.
Tram up Chav Mountain.
After a longer-than-planned lie in we eventually prised ourselves out of the hotel and trekked off to scoop tramline 15 to Dolje, a strange affair which climbed part way up mount Medvedgrad to the north of Zagreb, connecting into a cable car which finished off the ascent. As the single T4 climbed the surprisingly steep single-track we were amazed by how many groups of sullen chavvy youths were using the trackbed as a footpath; it was almost like being back in the UK! At the top station, as the tram ran round, more chavs skulked around and I half expected them to all be speaking “estuary Ing-er-Lish”… they didn’t, but if you imagined they were then it really was like being back home!
Back down Chav Mountain we clattered at a ferocious speed, scattering groups of youths as we passed, prior to heading back down to city level for a wander around the open-air market where the fish section had just closed so we made do with perusing the other goods. As an aside here, why is it that markets abroad seem to sell perfectly-presented fruit and veg along with other necessities whilst markets in the UK are full of stalls rammed with garish plastic tat and manned by semi-evolved Cro-Magnons? I don’t know either, but that seems to be the way things are…
The great twig mystery.
Whilst looking around the market one thing we noticed was that everyone seemed to be either selling, buying or holding bunches of twigs; I reckoned they were olive branches, and presumably part of some religious festivities, but why olive twigs? We watched for a while in hope of working out what was going on; were they going to build something with all this wood, or was it simply part of some strange religious festival of which we knew nothing? Not knowing enough Croatian to ask anyone, and finding nothing about carrying bunches of twigs in the rough guide, we gave up wondering what was happening and went to find something to sustain our exploration.
We stopped at a bakery for a simply sublime freshly-baked burek before scooping in the other car of the funicular (which luckily have huge numbers on them!) along with a professor of Italian at Zagreb university who seemed desperate to try out her Italian on us despite my pleadings that we only knew “un poco”. A touristy amble around the cathedral revealed (well, sort of) the mystery of the twigs… everyone in the city seemed to be heading for the church clutching half an olive tree and stalls had been set up outside, in reality pasting tables buried by mountains of olive twigs, by enterprising people cashing in on those who had neglected to acquire any foliage beforehand. I’ve still no idea what it all means, but then again if it was some religious activity then I plead ignorance… but I’m still intrigued to know what they did with all those twigs!
Walking back from the cathedral we noticed a small bar which advertised Velebitsko pivo and so, ever one for a swift pivo, in we went to, ostensibly, take the weight of our feet after a lot of tramping the streets. I acquired a temno and, despite being pasteurised, the brew was still a very good bottled lager with an attractive russet-brown colour, good dry malt in the flavour with a good dab of chocolate and bitterness which became dryer in the bitter chocolate finish… not bad at all!
We completed our exploration of the centre by visiting Trg Bana Jelačiča, the main square, where even more people were heading to the cathedral armed with their twigs and the floor was littered with bits of wood and olive leaves from their passing. Giving up trying to understand what all this twiggy mayhem was about we took a T4 to Črnomerec to have a shufty around a huge supermarket we’d noticed there the previous day, although it’s size seemed to have no relation to the beer range inside and all we could find were the usual suspects and so we traipsed back to the terminus empty-handed.
In the house of Satan.
For our final evening’s fodd I’d decided to risk stepping into the very jaws of capitalism itself; we were off to the AmBev owned Zagrebačka brewery, not too far from the centre, where the on-site restaurant was, apparently, pretty decent and the draught Tomislav (which, in itself, is very rare on tap) was about as fresh as it’s possible for corporately-made, pasteurised beer to be. We studied the menu as our Tomislavs were poured and, having decided to go for the “tablecloth” restaurant rather than the bar menu, we trooped into the posh bit to order our food.
Now I know this whole thing may seem vastly hypocritical as I’m always banging on about how much I hate multinationals and that I try never to give them a ha’penny of my hard-earned cash, but I must plead only slightly guilty on this one; the brewery may be owned by AmBev, the world’s largest “brewer”, but the company that runs the restaurant on-site is a private one and so our money would be going to this company and not the coffers of AmBev although I do accept that I broke my usual boycott of multinational beers here… for a good reason, and that is Tomislav is a cracking brew! It may be made in a brewery under the control of a global conglomerate but, facts are facts, and this beer is one of the best in Croatia; I suspect the brewery have a reasonably free run as I’d guess it’s so far out on a limb that no-one important from head office can be arsed to visit and see what’s going on down in Zagreb!
Suffice it to say that the food was very good (although maybe not quite as impressive as that in Medvedgrad) and, after another half-litre of Tomislav, we were well and truly chilled! I tried, as a final act of desperation, to see if Ožujsko was available unpasteurised but the kvasnicové revolution doesn’t seem to have reached Zagreb as yet so we supped and headed off. You may be wondering what this Tomislav stuff tastes like; well, it’s a beast of a beer with it’s garnet red/black colour and strong treacle toffee aroma. The flavour is full, malty and has hints of liquorice, roast grain and a prickle of alcohol, then finishes long, sweetish yet surprisingly bitter with loads of molasses, toasty malt, caramel and more bonfire toffee to end… as I said, I’m 99% certain that it’s AmBev’s best beer and I’m certainly more than willing to break my multinational boycott for a beer as good as Tomislav.
The final evening in town.
We fancied a final drink in Hop Devil and so paid up, said goodnight to the smiling barman who probably expected tourists to fall down the steps after two pints of Tomislav, before taking the next T4 along Ilica along with several people who seemed to have bedded themselves down for the evening in the back seats! There was some kind of live music festival being held in Trg Strossmayera which involved vaguely punky bands playing from the bandstand to a huge audience of locals, but what amazed us most was the almost complete lack of police considering how much beer was being drunk, an example of which were the two youths dressed in kilts (!) carrying a full crate of beer between them! We paused for a while and listened although as night closed in we hadn’t heard anything good enough to tempt us to stay and so it was time for some beer.
We were soon at Branimirova where we were straight down the escalators like ferrets down a hole; the Tomislav had made me thirsty, and I knew what would sort that out: a bottle of Boon Oude Gueuze for want of anything sourer! The pub was busy but we still managed to find a table under a preposterously huge Brueghel print and studied the beer list until the waitress to appear. Sue had a Trappiste whilst I ordered my Boon which triggered a question from the waitress; “this beer has a strange taste, do you like strange beers?” to which I replied yes, bring it on! This question impressed me greatly as it proves that either the staff know their beers through tasting them or they’re trained in the characteristics of each and what they taste like, something that is sadly lacking in 99.9% of pubs and bars across the world and especially in Belgium, where waiters in most bars know nothing about the beers on offer apart from Leffe or Duvel.
My Gueuze wasn’t particularly sour, Boon not being that way inclined, but being from the 2003-4 vintage it had plenty of soft Brettanomyces flavours with almost crunchy woodiness and a decent bitter, woody and classically “lambic” finish. Sue’s Westmalle Tripel was surprisingly pleasant, nothing earth-shattering but simply a mellow, honeyed and malty brew with a good body and biscuity malt finish, and that was that, our time in Zagreb was over, but despite the relatively limited scooping potential of the city we’d really enjoyed our visit, owing much to the excellent tram system and it’s heritage vehicles (which are probably already gone by the time you read this), and had supped some good beer, eaten lots of cracking food and even enjoyed Belgian beers in the cellar of a shopping centre… what more do you need?
Back in our room we drank a bottle of Tomislav we’d bought the previous day and Sue sealed up the mini-bar with the “staple key” and that was that! As we supped our Tomislav we flicked through the TV channels and what should we find but the “as booked” South Park Mr Hankey special dubbed into German – wherever we go it’s on! – but we’ve seen it so many times now that even the superb phrase “der Weihnacht poop” isn’t as funny as it used to be, sadly… The next day was spent scooping our remaining bits of the tram system before we caught the bus back to the airport and, as we left Zagreb behind aboard LZ-WZA, I couldn’t help feeling we’d be back at some point as this is a city that is immensely likeable… all they need is for a few more micros and scooping pubs to open and it will be a very rewarding destination indeed.
The first thing to point out is that Croatia as a whole isn’t a great beer scooping country. That may seem harsh but it’s true; the large brewers are owned by multinationals (no surprise there) and there’s a distinct lack of micro-brewers and brewpubs, even in Zagreb, which is where you’d expect to find them. That’s not to say that there are no beers around, as there are, but most bottled beer you’ll see will come from either Zagrebačka (owned by AmBev), Karlovačko (Heineken), Panonska (Carlsberg) or Osijecko (which I think is independent but is still crap). The large Slovenian Laško brewery has a plant near in Solin, close to Split, called Jadranska and their beers are seen all over the country which is more than can be said for the few remaining small independents – Buzet, Tvornica and Daruvar – who seem to be struggling to get their beer out into the trade and will probably vanish over the next few years.
It's not all bad news, however... there are micros if you know where to look with brewpubs scattered throughout the country, although most are in extremely hard-to-get-to places. Two big success stories are Medvedgrad of Zagreb and Ličanka of Donje Pazarište, both of which are increasingly easy to find and make some good beer; Medvedgrad have moved out of their original brewpub in Zagreb (which may still brew, or may not…) to a brand-new place out in the suburbs and now have a growing chain of pubs which serve their unfiltered and admittedly impressive brews. Ličanka are expanding their distribution meaning their good bottled beer can be found increasingly easily and has a good reputation with Croatians, although I don’t think it’s as good as it was before they began pasteurising it…
As for Zagreb, well it depends what you want out of a trip. If all you require are scoops with a few winners thrown in then you’ll probably end up disappointed as there’s not a huge range of beer in town, although some of the Medvedgrad ones are bloody good all the same. What you need is a liking for small, compact cities with excellently designed tram systems – although very few real trams will remain after the new batch of plastics is delivered in 2008/9 – and feel content wandering around a scenic, interesting city which is far more modern, consumerist and attractive than most people would think.
With direct flights now available from Luton Zagreb is an easy destination for the traveller and it’s simple to combine a visit with one to Ljubljana in Slovenia, a quick 2.5 hour train ride over the border through some stunning mountain scenery. Zagreb isn’t a city for desperate beer scoopers, then, but one for those who want to combine some good beers with an exploration of an interesting city and one I fully recommend. If you know any Czech or Polish then the language won’t be a massive problem as it’s similar, although many words are subtlely – or totally – different! A good percentage of the population speaks English however, especially in the centre of Zagreb, so you’ll be okay even if you know nothing of the language.
Getting there and getting around there.
Wizzair fly from London Luton direct to Zagreb and, if you take advantage of their regular sales, you can get a return for around Ł35 to Ł40 which is a bargain considering it cost me well over Ł100 with Croatian Airlines back in 2003! Wizz are a relative unknown quantity for most Brits although they’ve been flying from the UK to various central and eastern European destinations for a few years now and seem to be building a reputation for more exotic destinations than Ryanair and easyJet currently offer.
Zagreb’s airport is a mere 5 miles from the city's main bus station (autobusni kolodvor) which, itself, is a few stops on the tram from the centre of the city and has all the necessary shops where you can purchase your transport tickets and suchlike as well as ATM’s on the 1st floor lobby. There is a direct bus connection run by Pleso coaches; the coaches are painted in Croatia Airlines Livery, leave every half-hour or so, take 25 minutes and you pay the driver 25 Kuna on-board. They arrive into a separate terminal at the main bus station which is on the right-hand side as you look from the tramstop.
Other options are easyJet to Ljubljana (only from Stansted, unfortunately) in neighbouring Slovenia from where it’s a bearable 2.5 hours on the train to Zagreb although there aren’t as many trains cross-border as you’d expect. Ryanair fly to the coastal resorts of Pula (close to Italy) and Zadar (down on the Adriatic coast) and, although both cities have rail connections to Zagreb, it takes a while and is bound to involve changes of train. easyJet also fly to Split during the summer months and this is worth considering with a few breweries locally and a direct overnight (with sleepers) train into Zagreb which is hauled, if you like such contraptions, by GM non-turbo 16-645 engined locos.
Zagreb has a superb public transport system run by ZET; this involves trams (metre gauge) and buses plus a tiny funicular up to the Lotrščak Tower at the entrance to Gorni Grad (if you can’t be arsed to walk up a few steps!), all valid on a day pass (Dnevna Karta) which you can buy from almost any kiosk displaying either tickets or the blue ZET symbol in the window for 25 Kuna. Apart from the extensive tram network there’s also lots of buses but, with central Zagreb being so eminently walkable, it’s unlikely you’ll need more than the trams and you can certainly get to all the beery places via tramvaj. Travel within Croatia is possible by bus or train with the national company HZ running the decent rail service.
See the free “In your Pocket” guides for a good heads-up on Croatia and Zagreb; they’ve got guides for both on the website as well as many more interesting places – mainly in central and eastern Europe – and are generally my first call when researching unknown cities.
A bit of Croatian.
Da : Yes
Ne : No
Molim : Please
Hvala : Thanks
Gdje : Where?
Gdje Je : Where is?
Koliko Stoji : How much?
Veliko : Large
Malo : Small
Dobro : Good
Dobar Dan : Hello
Dobro Jutro : Good Morning
Dobra Večer : Good Evening
Laku Noč : Good night
Do Videnja : Goodbye
Jedan, Dva, Tri, četiri … 1,2,3,4.
Oprostite : Excuse me / sorry
Imate Li : Do you have…?
Cjenik : Price list / menu.
Beer and Brewery gen.
Zagreb might have one brewpub, definitely has one micro nearby and has a few decent bars where craft beer can be enjoyed. As I’ve said, it’s not a scooper’s paradise but is well worth a few days exploring the city with some surprisingly high quality beer – including AmBev’s best beer – during the evenings. Pivo is the word for beer, just in case you hadn’t realised by now, with svijetlo meaning golden and temno dark.
See my Croatian beer gen here.
Pubs and bars in Zagreb.
There are a few places worth a look in Zagreb and these are listed below along with details on how to get to them and what you'll find there; see my updated Google map here.
Pivnica Medvedgrad, Božidara Adžije 16. Open 10:00-24:00 daily. ()
The brewery itself has now moved out to Zabok (north of Zagreb) and so there isn't technically a Medvedgrad brewpub any more although they now operate five bars in the city and it's environs and I suspect also supply food/beer to Zlatni Medo too. The beer range has now expanded to five; Zlatni Medvjed (pale hoppy beer), Grička Vještica (strong 7% amber brew), Crna Kraljica (dark lager), Dva Klasa (wheat) and Mrki Medvjed (brown beer, which may or may not be mixed in the pub itself), all pretty decent and well worth a try. The Adžije restaurant is a large rambling building without the "beer hall" atmosphere of the old brewpub at Savska Cesta although it's a lot quieter!
Take tram 2 from the main station (Glavni Kolodvor) heading for Črnomerec to Adžijina, turn left under the railway bridge opposite the stop, and walk down Božidara Adžije for 200 metres. On your right is an unpaved track and the pub is easily visible around 100 metres along here on the right; it's only a five-minute walk from the tramstop.
Mali Medo (Little Bear), Tkalčićeva 36, Kaptol.
Situated on the main tourist road in Kaptol, this is a new addition to the Medvedgrad estate and serves all the beers plus their standard food menu; one of the better options in Kaptol.
Tkalčićeva is the main road just NW of the famous Dolac market and the bar is around 200 metres north of the Krvavi Most (Bridge of blood, which isn't a bridge as such!).
Zlatni Medo (Golden Bear), Savska Cesta 56. Open 10:00-00:00, Sundays from 12:00. ()
The old Medvedgrad brewpub on the corner of Vukovarska/Savska Cesta is (or was) now under new ownership and brewing it's own beers, Zlatno (golden), Trenk (brown) and Ban (dark) although I have my suspicions that these are not brewed on-site any more and are simply rebadged Medvedgrad beers... if anyone has any proof otherwise (not the waiters saying it's brewed there, that's not proof!) then please let me know! It's still a good place for a beer and meal although the food menu is suspiciously similar to that of the Medvedgrad bars, make of that what you will, plus the beer is cheaper than usual for the city and very good.
Take tram 4 from the station (Glavni Kolodvor) heading for Savski Most to the Zagrepčanka stop and the brewpub is on the ground floor of the beige curved buildings on your right at the major road junction.
Hop Devil Pivnica, Branimirova 29. Open 10:00-02:00 daily. ()
A strange pseudo-Belgian bar situated in the basement of the new Branimir shopping centre just a few minutes' walk east of the main station (Glavni Kolodvor). It's full of fake monastic decoration, some huge prints of Breugel and the like plus a rather strange full-length wall of water but the beer is what matters and, to be honest, it's not a bad list featuring all trappist beers except Westvleteren plus 100 or so others of which there's a fair few worth a go amongst the predictable crap. Expensive for Zagreb although 20-25 kuna a bottle isn't too bad when you consider how far the beer has come... it's well worth a look. Food comes from the pizzeria next door.
Leave the train station, turn right, and walk along Branimirova past the hotel Central and post office until you reach the Branimir centre on the left-hand side of the road just past the tramstop (trams 2,4,6,9,13). Enter the shopping centre via the main doors on Branimirova and when you reach a coffee shop/seating area turn left around the back of this where you will find some escalators, go down these and the bar is right in front of you.
Zagrebačka brewery tap, (K Pivovari), Ilica 244. ()
An institution on Zagreb, this restaurant has been comprehensively refurbished over the last few years and now offers decent meals to go with the full range of Zagrebačka and InBev beers on draught from the bar including Ožujsko, the winter seasonal Božićno and it's one of the rare places to serve Tomislav on draught.
Take trams 2 or 6 (direction Črnomerec) to the Mandaličina stop and the brewery is on the right-hand side of the road with the restaurant at the front - you can't miss it. I'd take the route 2 as the unique Duro Dakovic bogie trams (series 2xx, run weekdays only) will be replaced by plastic junk shortly and already are at weekends.
Dobar Zvuk, Gajeva 18 / Ljudevita Gaja 18. Open from 08:00, 10:00 Sundays!. ()
A bar with an above average beer range (although not worth a special trip) which plays lots of alternative music at loud levels; smoking is compulsory.
Walk south from Trg Bana Jelačica along Gajeva and the bar is up some steps after the junction with Berislavićeva - you'll probably hear it before you see it.
Route 66, Paromlinska 47, Novi Zagreb. ()
This unusual bar is a live music venue seemingly built from an old farmhouse along one of the southern approaches to the city which also just happens to sell bottled Velebitsko beers from Ličanka at fairly cheap prices. Worth doing if you're tram bashing or just fancy a change from the centre of town.
Take tram 5 from the Autobusni Kolodvor (direction Prečko, usually plastic) or 13 from Glavni Kolodvor (direction Žitnjak, operated mainly by ex-Mannheim Düwag trams) to the Lisinski stop. Looking south across a field you'll see some buildings 300 metres in the distance - take the path over the grass until you reach the bar.
Carpe Diem, Opatovina 23, Kaptol. ()
A nice vaulted cafe/bar with Laško on draught and Ličanka beer in bottles. Good for a stop when wandering around Kaptol and not that far from the main square either. One of the few places to serve Ličanka in Zagreb.
Opatovina is one of the main roads in Kaptol and the bar is half-way along it. I've also heard that Ro&Do, a few doors further north, also sells Velebitsko beers but it was closed when we visited so I can't confirm this.
Beer of the trip.
As with my first visit in 2003 this wasn’t a very difficult decision, but look at AmBev getting into the top five… there’s nowhere else in the world this happens, believe me!
Pub of the trip.
We visited a good variety of bars during this trip from the genteel restaurant feel of Zagrebačka’s brewery tap through the faux Belgian-ness of Hop Devil to the raucous Route 66 and Dobar Zvuk. I feel that with a better local beer scene there could be a real good pub crawl to be done in Zagreb…
© Gazza 25/10/08 v1.0