Osijek – Vukovar

I wake up to discover that snow is blanketing Zagreb. AAARGH! Yes, it’s white and fluffy and picturesque when covering the blue Zagreb trams, but NOT what I want when I have to drive 300 km! I set off in a hurry after breakfast but soon find myself in a total white-out. My route takes me on the main motorway towards Belgrade, there’s not much traffic, but all the cars and lorries are proceeding in single file behind a snowplough. No more than 50 km an hour for a good 100 km east of Zagreb. I resign myself to being late and phone ahead to warn my customer. No problem, so I settle back and concentrate on keeping my car wheels on the tracks in the snow. As I go along, I notice that the older motorway signs have had Beograd painted out and replaced with Slavonski Brod. The latter is only a mid-sized town along Tito’s old “Brotherhood and Unity Highway”. After the wars of the last decade there’s not much brotherhood and unity left around here, and Belgrade seems not a destination to be mentioned!

My visit today is in Osijek, not far from both Hungary and Serbia. The place was along the front line in the Croat-Serb war, and the town of Vukovar is close by. The Serbs saw fit to blast the place to smithereens in 1991 and the scars of war are still evident: burnt out houses, walls pockmarked with bullet holes, factory buildings with concrete walls blasted out. Reconstruction has been going on, but it’s still disconcerting to see a brand new glass and marble hotel surrounded by blackened building shells. And on opposite sides of the Danube, long lines of Serbian and Croatian flags defiantly face each other. Not pretty.

The road back to Zagreb is much better compared to the morning slog, with most of the snow cleared off the road. Still, it takes me until seven in the evening to get back, and by the time I’m in the hotel, I’m knackered and with no desire to explore the Upper Town as I had wanted to. I decide to try out a Slavonian restaurant nearby the hotel – note, not Slovenian, or even Slovakian, Slavonia is a region of Croatia that I had passed earlier in the day, supposedly famous for its good meat. I say supposedly, because the restaurant I entered is a Big Mistake: the starter of Slavonian salami is remarkably like a chorizo sausage without the spicy taste, the main course of “Slavonian steak” turns out not to be a juicy grilled meat as expected, but instead a fried pork cordon bleu affair, with more of the tasteless sausage, far too many breadcrumbs and a heavy cream sauce. Nah! Never again!

Roving Gastronaut in Croatia

It’s time to visit the countries next door: short trip this week to Slovenia and Croatia. Just over a couple of hours from Bassano I’m in Gorizia, the smallest province of Italy, bordering the twin town of Nova Gorica in Slovenia. Here I have a quick meeting and lunch with a customer. We are in Italy, but the influence of the former Austro-Hungarian empire is strong: bilingual population, austere architecture, even the gnocchi at lunch come with a gulasch sauce!

On to Slovenia. It is known as the “Switzerland of the Balkans” and rightly so: the road snakes through the hilly. heavily wooded Karst region with the snowy Kranjska Gora mountain range in the distance. The houses are neat and tidy. EU membership is evidently a benefit here: the entire road system is being upgraded, so the motorway towards Ljubljana is new, but still ends abruptly in the middle of nowhere, whilst linking sections are being built. Within an hour and a half I am at the Croatian border, and a real border it is! The frontier of the EU – ID card must be produced, customs scan the car and wave me on. Cars with Serb number plates are given a through going-over.

The Croatian motorway seems brand-new and within twenty minutes I’m on the Zagreb ring-road. Here I manage to get lost – it’s my first time here and night is falling. Signs indicate “Centar”, but the hotel guide map gives only the sparsest indications and the street names in the immediate vicinity. I drive around fruitlessly for an hour before being guided by mobile phone to my destination!

At the hotel I manage to get my bearings: central Zagreb is divided between an upper town with the old Citadel and a more modern lower town. My hotel is in the lower town near the railway station, with wide formal parks leading towards the upper town. It’s getting late and I have a long drive tomorrow – so I take a brisk walk in the cold evening to the main shopping drag, the Ilica and the main square of the lower town, the Trg Bana Jelacica. A statue of a Croatian governor on horseback brandishing a very pointy sword dominates the square. Supposedly defeated a Serb army. Not the proper attitude in Yugoslav days, so they put the statue away in a warehouse and only reinstated it in 1991, with the sword pointing towards Belgrade!

Dinner at an old beerhall: Stari Fijaker 900. A jovial waiter speaks a smattering of English. He waves the menu away and says he will “look after me” with the “daily special”! Ok, I put myself in his hands and await with trepidation. To drink, an excellent crno pivo, a black beer in the porter style, full-tasting and a perfect complement to the meal I am served, Srna a la vild, a rich venison stew with potato dumplings. The venison is tender and I suspect the creamy sauce was made with beer too. As a dessert, a Strudl, aka Apfelstrudel mit Schlagobers! More shades of Empire! A very good meal and excellent value at 130 kuna, about 17 Euro!