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DESTINATION: Croatia

Balkan Surprise

When Yugoslavia split apart in 1991, 80% of its resorts ended up in Croatia

September 15, 1996|HELMUT KOENIG | Koenig is the author of Fodor's "Yugoslavia," published 1991

ZAGREB, Croatia — Returning to Croatia after an absence of half a dozen years, I am filled with a mix of anxiety and anticipation.

At one time, when Croatia was part of Yugoslavia, I considered it my second home. Over two decades, my wife and I came here at least once a year to visit friends and relatives and explore this beautiful country from one end to the other.

But the breakup of the Yugoslav federation in 1991 triggered a war that would rage across much of the land, until the Dayton peace agreement enforced at least a temporary cessation of hostilities.

In June, we needed to return to Croatia on family business. So, with a tenuous peace in place, it seemed as good a time as any to go. According to reports, Dubrovnik--"the Pearl of the Adriatic"--had been rebuilt and was back in business after Serb artillery attacks early in the war. Tourism was said to be flourishing in the seaside resorts on the Istrian peninsula.

Although the parts of the country we would be visiting had remained on the periphery of the fighting and were spared the devastation that decimated much of Bosnia and Herzegovina, I was still torn between fear and trepidation on the one hand, curiosity on the other.

As it turned out, nothing could have prepared me for the reality.

On the flight from Paris to the Croatian capital, a full-page ad in the International Herald Tribune for the new Sheraton Zagreb Hotel described Zagreb as one of "the great capital cities of Central Europe," on par with Budapest and Prague, to which "business travelers and tourists will be thronging."

Indication of things to come? We were still dubious.

We landed at a revamped Pleso airport on the plains 12 miles southeast of Zagreb. Efficiency appeared to be the order of the day. Major auto rental agencies offered late model cars in tiptop condition. From Avis we picked up a bright red Opel Corsa with only a few thousand kilometers on the odometer. A first-time visitor might not know there had been a war. Approaching Zagreb, the heavy traffic seemed to be made up mostly of expensive, new cars.

The 19th century lower town--the present-day commercial center, with tree-lined boulevards, leafy squares, parks and gardens--had shed its image of a grim, minor Eastern European metropolis of the socialist era. The facades of gracious, century-old buildings had been scrubbed, fresh coats of paint applied to window frames, parks and gardens tended. Water from fountains splashed merrily.

The medieval upper town--which developed from the 11th to the 13th centuries--also appeared buffed to a high gloss, with historic structures restored close to their original glory. In this romantic quarter, too, boutiques, cafes and bars lined the cobblestone streets. It was as though after six years of semi-isolation and war, a whole new Zagreb had emerged. The so-called self-managed socialist system had been dismantled and replaced by an anything-goes market economy.

We moved in with friends and, over the following days, got on intimate terms with the city.

*

It is boomtown, central European division, and a new class has emerged: nouveau riche. Men in Armani suits. Shiny BMWs and Mercedeses. Cellular phones. Attractive women in the latest fashions and chic jewelry, living in lavishly furnished homes with weekend hideaways on the side. All of which is in large measure because of the influx of foreign capital during the war years and the continuing peacekeeping efforts.

In the atrium of the historic Oktogon Building, between the main street, Ilica, and the flower market on Petar Preradovic Square, the shops would fit right in along Rue du Faubourg St. Honore. Prices may not be as high as at Hermes, but they are high enough for this poor country: $60 for a necktie (said to have been a Croat invention); a shirt for $75. Women's scarves at $100 and up? In Zagreb? Well, why not?

Zagreb also serves as good-time city, with what sometimes seems to be the densest concentration of cafes in any Continental metropolis.

Fancy restaurants open frequently; prices are more or less on a par with other European capitals.

One day, we settled in for a late lunch at the newly opened Klub A.G. Matos, a current "in" spot on the second floor of a building overlooking Zagreb's main square, Trg (square) Jelacica. It's elegant, ostentatious, with obsequious waiters and features "continental" cuisine with a Viennese accent. Prime time is between 2 and 5 in the afternoon. (A hangover from the bad old days of socialism, most offices still close at 2 p.m., after which executive types repair to their favorite restaurants, clubs and cafes.)

The city's refurbished grand hotels boast high occupancy rates, thanks in part to the U.N. and NATO officials headquartered here. Entire floors are occupied by U.S. troops. A vast underground shopping center, Importanne, with more bars and boutiques, has been inlaid across from the railway station beneath Trg Starcevicicev.

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