ZAGREB, Croatia – It’s hard to find, but tucked into Ban Jelacic Square, crowded with pedestrians and old-fashioned tram cars, is Europe’s shortest funicular. Grand funiculars typically take you high into the air, but this little one is like an old subway car on inclined tracks. After one minute, it lets you out at a spot overlooking the city and rows of red-tiled roof tops and stucco buildings.
We ride it and later on YouTube find the Three Tenors singing “Funiculi Funicula.” That becomes the theme song for a 12-day road trip with friends (four in the car, two drivers on the rental agreement), which begins in Zagreb, weaves along the Dalmatian coast to Split and Dubrovnik, turns north to the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, through Mostar, Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and back to Zagreb. The ports along the Adriatic Sea are dazzling and in spring, not yet crowded. Farther inland, Bosnia and Herzegovina is bleak by comparison. Its countryside and capital, Sarajevo, show the scars of the four-year conflict that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia.
Zagreb’s city center, where cars are banned, is easy to navigate. Even without sufficient signs (none for the Croatian History Museum, for instance), locals are helpful, in English and using pantomime. The city isn’t glitzy and there are hardly any American businesses, but upscale shops, a daily farmers’ market, and lively cafes. Coffee here, strong Croatian and espresso, is an important part of the culture and cafe tables spill onto sidewalks.
This capital city, once two Medieval hamlets, is now Upper Town and Lower Town. Hotels and shops are in Lower; Upper has less commerce, fewer restaurants, the striking 13th century St. Mark’s Church on a square it is named for, and the Parliament. This section houses the Zagreb City Museum, the Croatian History Museum, and an unusual Museum of Broken Relationships with exhibits on failed connections. A candy bar in the adjacent shop bears the label, “hope your a-- gets bigger . . . CHOCOLATE.”
Never believe what map apps tell you about distances in foreign countries. The drive from Zagreb to Split seems endless (it’s billed as four hours). Grey skies and drizzle don’t help. Way past lunch hour, we’re on country roads on a wild-goose chase, looking for lunch. Finally, we appear, desperate, at Hotel Gacka in Otocac.
The place, set on the Gacka River, is a trout fisherman’s dream — Orvis outfitters would have a heyday here — a hunting lodge with fish instead of animals. Speakers are blaring “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” (a lot of music in Croatia is American retro). The menu offers soup, pate, carpaccio, and more, all made with trout. We eat the freshest whole pan-fried fish imaginable and then watch the chef fishing for that night’s dinner.
Historic Split also has a car ban, so someone from our hotel meets us on the outskirts of town, hops in the car, directs us, and parks the vehicle. We walk the wide boulevard and its many cafes along the Adriatic. The ancient city, with ruins of Diocletian’s Palace from the Roman era, is a warren of streets with shops, cafes, and bustling produce and fish markets.
On summer afternoons cruise ships drop off thousands of tourists. If you’re fit, climb the Pjaca clock tower, and if you want a light meal, look for the refined Wine & Cheese Bar Paradox, behind the National Theatre, where you can sip local varietals with a tasting plate. “We have made for you a trilogy of our cheeses,” announces our waiter, “and a trilogy of our meats.” It’s a delicious sextet.
The drive to Dubrovnik (three hours, ha!), passes rocky mountains, greenhouses, sweeping vistas of the sea and the popular Southern Dalmatian islands, mussel farms near shore (the Romans found mollusks here) and roadside vendors selling oranges and honey. You go through passport control at the Neum Corridor, which is a part of Bosnia that juts into Croatia. In adjacent booths you show passports to leave one country, enter the next, drive about five miles, and you’re back in Croatia.
Midday, we stop at Mali Ston on the Peljesac peninsula, for lunch at a waterside table at Kapetanova Kuca, which serves the mussels and much more seafood, and an interesting local specialty for dessert called Stonska Torta, in which macaroni, nuts, and cream are baked with plenty of butter and eggs to make a surprisingly delicious cake.
Later that afternoon, outside the walls of Dubrovnik’s old city, a hotel porter meets us and helps get a parking space. Crowded Old Town has just hosted a “Star Wars” film crew (“Game of Thrones” also shot here). As we walk over an ancient bridge, following the porter into the main square, we too feel like we’re in a film.
Magnificent Dubrovnik, restored by UNESCO after the war, has views of a startling blue sea that take your breath away, churches, palaces, narrow walkways, and steep stone staircases. We walk the ancient wall (for a small fee) for hours. One night we dine at the gracious Taj Mahal Bosnian Cuisine, where we have the first of many homemade chicken soups and meat stews that will follow.
On to Mostar (two hours, says the app!). The scenery changes: bombed residences with trees growing up the middle, half-built houses, littered roads, too many cemeteries. In almost every house, there’s a vegetable garden and lines of laundry with clothes pinned up in order of size, one meticulous line after another.
Mostar is home to the famed arched Stari Most (“Old Bridge”), built in the 16th century and rebuilt after it was destroyed in the 1990s war. The bombing became an emblem of the conflict’s pointless destruction.
At last, Sarajevo: ornate low, Ottoman buildings, architecturally elaborate Austro-Hungarian edifices that look like wedding cakes, abandoned construction, and unsightly cement blocks, many with bullet holes. In 1914, Sarajevo became known as the place where World War I began, when a young Bosnian assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Next to the Latin Bridge, where the motorcade had been passing when he and his wife were shot, is a tiny museum that tells the story in detail.
Also on the Miljacka River sits Inat Kuca (literally “House of Spite”), a restaurant in an 18th century home. As the story goes, the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy tried to demolish the house, but the owner, an old man, stubbornly insisted they move it instead (and also give him a sack of gold). We dine on luscious kebabs and stuffed vegetables with homemade yogurt.
In the city, inlaid in a pedestrian walkway, are the words “Sarajevo Meeting of Cultures,” put there by a nonprofit group of the same name, and meant to emphasize the melting pot history and tolerance of the place, and the point where the East (Ottoman and Islamic cultures) meets the West (Austro-Hungarian and Christian).
Alas, time for the final leg to Zagreb (five hours; good luck!). The valleys are turning green, sheep graze in fields, roads are narrow and curvy and a little scary when a truck is passing, golden primroses bloom near small streams, and regrettably, litter is strewn there too.
Banja Luka, on the Vrbas River, is a good stopping point. We spend half an hour trying to find the stunning, cheerful Kazamat restaurant (not a single sign), on the river, which turns out to be in the back of Kastel fortress, parts of which date to the Neolithic era.
Near dusk, we pass through the border crossing into Croatia, where trucks are lined up for miles, then finally, Zagreb, and back to the friendly Jagerhorn Hotel. The city seems particularly full, the neon lights especially bright. We’ve put 900 miles on the car. We have seen cities and countryside a full two decades after bombs and violence were part of daily life. And quite close to one another, we’ve been surrounded by majestic beauty and sadness and hope.