In February the Dahonies took a trip to Croatia. Even though we left our beloved bikes behind, we couldn’t resist going on a couple of cycling expeditions while we were there. On our very first day in Zagreb, we took a bike tour of the city then cycled to the 3,273 foot summit of Mount Medvednica (aka Sljeme). Sub-zero temperatures, an impending snowstorm and failing daylight all added up to a truly epic and unforgettable adventure.
Zagreb Blue Bikes
Run by artists Alida and Bruno Mezić, Zagreb Blue Bikes offer a number of interesting tours – we plumped for an early morning ‘Ancient Tour’ of the city centre. Our big cruiser bikes had back-pedal brakes and upright riding style which felt a little strange at first, especially after being so used to our sporty little Dahons – but they proved to be easy to handle and as comfy as armchairs to sit on. We also discovered that cyclists and pedestrians coexist quite happily in Zagreb and cycling on pavements (sidewalks) is completely accepted – if only it were like that here!
Alida is an extremely knowledgeable, friendly and enthusiastic guide. As an artist, she has a special affinity for contemporary art and culture. Throughout the tour, not only did we get a historic, cultural and architectural overview of this fascinating city, but we learned lots of things that you wouldn’t find in a simple guidebook. For example, where to find the best street art in Zagreb, why many of the old buildings are painted yellow, what everyday life is like for the people who live there, and about the attitudes of Croatians as they prepare to enter the European Union.
We also received some insights on the controversies surrounding many of the monuments around town, and about the city’s equally controversial mayor. We won’t give away everything that we learned and all the the juicy town gossip, though! If you want to find out, you’ll have to visit Zagreb and go on a Blue Bike Tour yourself!
Alida and Bruno are excellent ambassadors for their wonderful city. When we finished the tour, we were given many suggestions on museums and other things to see, and recommendations for good places to eat, especially on our search for the best ćevapčići. They also suggested Hrelić flea market in Novi Zagreb as a great place to see real life in Zagreb – we did manage to get there and it was a real highlight of our trip.
Journey to Sljeme, the summit of Mount Medvednica
Distance: 17.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 2857 feet
Terrain: Moderately steep incline for 12 miles!!! Paved road with many hairpin bends
Time it took us: 5 hours, including a quick stop at Mirogoj Cemetery
We decided to rent mountain bikes for the rest of the day, as we knew we’d need the extra gears to tackle the Sljeme summit. Before we went on our way, Bruno and Alida gently warned that it would take quite a long time to reach Sljeme and that it might be dark by the time we reached the top. Despite the ominous forecast for snow and sub-zero temperatures we (perhaps foolishly) decided to go anyway, as we’d been planning and looking forward to it for weeks.
En route we had a quick stop in Mirogoj Cemetery, one of the quintessential tourist destinations on any visit to Zagreb. It was already past midday so we could only linger for a few moments but we would have liked to spend much more time strolling around the peaceful grounds, taking pictures of the lovely architecture and getting to know some of the many resident cats.
I should mention that while the summit of the mountain is called Sljeme, the mountain itself is called Medvednica, although confusingly, sometimes the whole mountain is referred to as Sljeme as well. The name “Medvednica” can be translated to “bear mountain” and a bit further up the park road we encountered a gigantic bear sculpture. We stopped for a quick pic of the big bear, and then rounded the first of the many hairpin bends we’d face that afternoon.
Most of the area is a forested nature park, and early into our ascent we passed an abandoned car from the dismantled cable car (žičara) – a legacy of the many foibles of Zagreb’s mayor. He ordered the ageing service to be torn down in 2007, but still hasn’t fulfilled his promise of a more modern replacement. All that remains are abandoned cars scattered around the mountain and elsewhere throughout town – some of them have even been turned into sculptures.
The constant cycle uphill and the promise that we’d find a great restaurant with sausage and bean stew (grah s kobascicom) helped to keep us warm and inspired during the tough ascent – at least in the beginning. But the endless hairpin bends began to take their toll and we were finding ourselves rather discouraged and weary. The television tower at the top, would tantalizingly appear and disappear time and again, but never seemed to get much closer.
We were exhausted and starving when we finally reached the summit. By then it was starting to get dark and suddenly very windy and exponentially colder. Keen to get off the mountain before hypothermia claimed us, we decided to forgo our bean and sausage stew. We mounted the GoPro camera to the handlebars and immediately started our descent. Woo wee it was freezing riding down the mountain! Even with thick gloves, within moments our hands were frozen solid.
When we finally reached the bottom, we stopped at the Šestinski Lagvić restaurant. Shivering, bleary eyed, runny nosed and bright pink with windburn, we must have been some sight to the waiter who opened the door for us but he wasn’t the least bit phased. He laughed and said, “warm going up, but very cold coming down, eh?”, then kindly invited us to warm ourselves by an enormous 150 year old ceramic heater (grijanje).
We ordered some warming mushroom soup, spicy zagorje soup, bread and soft cheese, and a mixed grill with ćevapčići, pljeskavica, pork chops, and veal on skewers. It came with a side of potatoes, ajvar and peppers. And for drinks, two delicious and much needed Ožujsko pivos! After all the lovely food and drink and a good hour sitting by that gigantic heater, we were pretty much defrosted but thoroughly exhausted.
Alida and Bruno had been in touch throughout the day via text to make sure we were okay. They were really worried about us and in an amazing example of Croatian hospitality, Bruno came all the way to the restaurant and drove us back to our accommodation. Not only that, but in finally parting, he presented us with some souvenirs of Zagreb. Unbelievable! We’ll never be able to thank them enough for everything they did. What a day!
It was very sad to have to leave behind our beloved bikes for this trip, but paying the extra ‘sports and equipment’ charge on EasyJet would have doubled the price of our otherwise cheap flights. Having to connect in London would have meant an additional charge of £27.00 x 4 flights! In the summer there will be some direct flights from Glasgow to Pula and Dubrovnik, so we very well may go again someday soon, and bring our Dahons with us next time!