I wrote recently that, as cities go, Paris is my first love. But after only a short interlude with shy and unassuming capital of Croatia, I fell under her spell. There’s something about Zagreb. Maybe it’s her faded looks from a bygone era; her slowly modernizing touches ; her tumultuous history; her love of culture and coffee; or her forthcoming accession into the EU next summer? Whatever it is, I’ve fallen for this moody and plucky city, and at the heart of my infatuation is the Esplanade Hotel.
A black-suited doorman greeted me with a smile and dober dan (hello), and through the revolving doors I twirled into yesteryear. The round clock faces on the wall harken back to the days when the Esplanade Hotel was once a pillow stop for wealthy Orient Express travelers who descended in Zagreb for a night. The train station is just down the road from the hotel and now whisks travelers to other far flung destinations around Europe and within Croatia. The lobby clocks tell time for Paris, London, New York, Buenos Aires, Moscow, Sydney and Tokyo—cities not strung together by steam engine, but cast a wanderlust mystique over the lobby, as if somehow guests who enter, just like the cities, are tethered together by travel.
The imposing neo-classical edifice was built in 1925 and frequent guests included journalists who came to snoop around the society galas and balls held in the ballroom. Later, the hotel became the Zagreb headquarters of the Gestapo during WWII. Eventually the Esplanade regained its regal status as the center of social and cultural life in Zagreb, where it has reigned since. Many famous names have been inscribed on the guest register, from movie icons, to royalty and political heads of state. I ran my hand over the polished wood and imagined the stories and whispers, secrets and lies that were glued forever into the wallpaper.
Rest assured, there is nothing old about the rooms. I’ve stayed here three times. Twice in a superior room with a gorgeous view over the park and fountain, and once, one category up in a deluxe room. Both were nicely decorated, modern, and roomy, with a writing desk, sitting area, large closets, iron, safe, and spacious bathroom with a bubble-bath-worthy tub and separate walk in shower. A generous supply of L’occitane bath products is a nice touch too. Hip hip hooray— The hotel offers free wifi in all its rooms and common areas—proof that the management of this hotel understands that nickel and dimimg guests for precious access codes is archaic. There are also several private meeting rooms and the ball room, of which the ceiling looks like a Fabergé egg. A small but nice gym and sauna are free for guest use. I have not had the pleasure of staying in the 1200 square feet Esplanade Suite with views over the fountain and park below. Maybe next time.
Locals and visitors alike frequent the Zinfandel Restaurant, widely regarded as one of the top restaurants in Croatia. If you just want to stop into the bistro, make sure you try the Štrukli, a traditional cheese strudel from the Zagreb region, regarded by many as the best in town. On nice days, the sprawling Oleander Terrace tables are set to enjoy alfresco meals or a late after noon coffee in the sun.
Truth be told, I came to the Esplanade because of James Bond. As a fan of the intrepid spy, especially the early days of Sean Connery, I couldn’t help but steal glances around the elegant art deco lobby in search of a sexy white-jacketed espion, peaking over a newspaper or posing suavely against a column while women in slinky evening gowns polished his shoes. In one of my favorite films, From Russia With Love, Bond boards the Orient Express with a dubious devise knowns as “The Lektor.” An assassin and rival spy out to get Bond boards in Zagreb. Plot thickening spy mayhem ensues aboard the famous luxury train. I’m sure it all happened on a London sound stage, but as a kid, what I recall was hearing the name “Zagreb” for the first time. You have to move your mouth and lips to say the word, Za-Greb. Plus it was fun to whisper to my imaginary undercover colleagues, “We shall board in Zagreb.”
I had read that American cabaret singer Josephine Baker once sang at the hotel and I imagined her croaky voice and accompanying tinny background music echoing out of the 1925 Bar, where, I soon discovered, you could still ride the Orient Express, albeit in cocktail form. Yep, a cocktail for every city on the original line–London to Istanbul, with eight whistle-stops in between. Quel hangover!
I started in Paris of course. She’s my first love after all. I held her in my hand, all her rum, triple sec, strawberry and lime strength kissing me, and I caressed her curvy, chilled outline. I sipped Paris, but my thoughts and heart had floated elsewhere. I’m now filled with beguiling thoughts of Zagreb.
The Esplanade Hotel has a way of doing that.
Rates: As low as 112 euros per night for a superior room . Online packages and specials are available. Breakfast is included in some rates but ask while booking.
Location: Just a short 10 minute walk to the main square, upper town, Illica Street, the city’s wonderful museums. Two minutes from the main railway station.
Good to know: A taxi will cost about 130 Kuna (about $25) from the airport. The onsite concierge can arrange transfers and dinner reservations. Ask for the taxi company Cammeo, they are about 20% cheaper.
What to do: The Zagreb Tourist Info Website is a good place to start