By Caitlin Kelly
I’m now in Istria, the northernmost part of Croatia, only three hours by car from Venice. I’ve booked a week’s stay in the town of Rovinj, hoping to do a lot of nothing — no museums, no shopping, no walking with a bum knee along hot, crowded streets.
I really enjoyed my four days apiece in Budapest and Zagreb, my first visits to both. I’d definitely return to either one, but in spring or autumn.
One of the pleasures of this trip is seeing how different each city is from the next. Budapest is very much not Berlin; its buildings feel older, dirtier, more massive in scale and design.
I stayed with my best friend from University of Toronto, (who lives far from me in the interior of British Columbia), and her 24-year-old daughter in a rented one-bedroom flat in District VII, the former Jewish quarter, which is very lively and filled with bars and restaurants.
The company is called 7 Seasons, on Kiraly Street, (with a Metro stop within a two-minute walk.) I liked the flat very much — although the bedroom didn’t have air conditioning, which in this brutally hot summer, was unpleasant. It had a small balcony with table and chairs, and lots of natural light. facing a huge central courtyard; below were about five restaurants, including a fantastic Middle Eastern one.
Lots of fun shops, including vintage clothing and (!) endless “escape rooms”, whose attractiveness completely eludes me.
A great pleasure of Budapest is how affordable it is, for food, lodging and transport (except taxis!) A great disappointment for me was — because it’s so much more affordable than other European cities — it attracts roving/shouting/shrieking gangs of men and women who’ve flown in cheaply for their “hen” and “stag” do’s, (what North Americans call their bachelor or bachelorette parties.)
We visited the 99-year-old Gellert Baths, (about $20 for admission; bring your own bathing suit, cap and towel), and savored the warm waters of its two indoor thermal baths. I didn’t try the sauna or swimming pool but dipped my toes into the frigid cold bath.
The place is astounding and well worth a visit to spend a few hours lolling beneath its stained glass and mosaics.
Budapest’s Houses of Parliament
Loved our night cruise on the Danube, choosing a 10:00 p.m. boat so the sky would be completely dark. Like Paris and New York, Budapest is a city of bridges, each with its own history and character.
The New York Cafe, Budapest
We also loved our visit to a local legend, the New York Cafe. Go!
One hot afternoon I managed to walk for ages (!) in the opposite direction to my goal, passing every embassy on Andrassy Avenue, which terminates in Hero’s Square.
Desperately tired and thirsty, I staggered into a shady seat in a cafe…full of men smoking hookahs! I got chatting to a man beside me, about my age, and happily puffing away on his after-work treat. We had a great conversation: he was born in Lebanon, raised in Kuwait, studied to his PhD in India and had worked with NGOs in Africa before coming to IBM. Hussein was a sweetie and I so enjoyed meeting him.
So far, perhaps, my favorite city for its relaxed quality: Berlin’s blocks are very, very long (so tiring to navigate) and Budapest was just too full of bro’s.
Zagreb — with only 790,000 people, (to B and B’s 3 million or so) — felt just right.
I liked my hotel very much, The Palace, and my small room with its quiet garden view; (the street-side is busy with tram traffic.) Had a phenomenal massage in their wellness center for $60 — about half what it costs in New York.
Zagreb feels lived-in, in a good way. I was very struck by how clean the streets are, and its many green, flower-filled parks. No graffiti, at least not in the central areas — something Berlin is covered with.
The city’s many cafes were full of people actually talking and laughing with one another —- not staring grimly into laptops.
Food is a mix of Eastern European (lots of meat!), Italian and Balkan, with various kinds of cheese and cottage cheese I’d never seen before.
Loved the Dolac, the central daily farmer’s market that runs from 7:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m, filled with fruit and vegetables and flowers and cheeses and nuts and lavender and local shoppers with their wheelie carts. The square is edged by cafes, so you can take a break as you head home laden with cherries!
Loved the city’s many blue trams, making it quick, easy and comfortable to get around.
Loved its architecture and ocher and yellow-painted walls.
Loved most the Upper Town, silent and breeze-blown, with a spectacular church. I visited two museums there and loved both — the atelier of Ivan Mestrovic, Croatia’s most famous artist. His sculpture is exquisite, in marble and bronze and his home, built in the 1920s, a lovely space as well. If you like Rodin/Giacometti and/or the work of Diego Rivera, you’ll like this.
The Museum of Naive Art, a block away in Upper Town, is fantastic — filled with works on paper and many done on glass. A small museum, maybe four or five rooms, (a docent told me they have 1,900 items with only 75 on display), it’s really special. (Word of warning, though: both of these museums have steep narrow staircases to enter and to see everything in the Mestrovic site. Those with mobility issues might not be able to enjoy them.)
The city has 37 hotels — and 33 (!) hostels, making it an accessible place for all budgets.
I mostly loved seeing how people enjoy their city — guys playing badminton in the park, little girls rollerblading, people just sitting on the many pretty benches to chill out in the shade.
Zagreb felt civilized in all the right ways.