Eastern Europe Trip – Day 1 – Travel Day & Zagreb, Croatia

Today I embarked on a 3-week trip to Eastern Europe to complete an Eastern European journey across 8 countries. The countries that I will be visiting are Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia, Vienna, Estonia, and Finland. During my trip I’ll go into a brief history of each country I visit, as well as go into more detail about specific places in each country that I visit.

My journey started in Calgary with a 9 hour flight on an Air Canada Boeing 787-9 to Frankfurt, with a quick layover before flying on a Lufthansa Airbus A320NEO to Zagreb, Croatia. I booked the outgoing flights in Premium Economy, however was upgraded to business class, which was nice. On the Air Canada flight I had Smoked Duck Breast as an appetizer, Chicken thighs with lemon mustard sauce and sautéed gnocchi for the main course, and cheese and crackers with Port for dinner. Breakfast was fruit, oatmeal, and cheese, however I skipped eating the oatmeal.

Upon arrival in Zagreb I picked up my rental car from Budget; a Skoda Kamiq, a mini SUV, which I only paid $65 CDN for two days.

After picking up the rental car I drove to downtown Zagreb. Before we dive into my adventure out let’s talk about Croatia’s history.

Croatia’s History

Croatia’s history dates back to roughly 5000 BC. After 390 BC the Greeks settled in colonies along the coast line. After 229 BC the Romans gradually took control of Croatia, and ended up ruling the entire country by 12 AD. The Romans divided up the area into provinces of Dalmatia (the coast), Noricum (which included part of Austria), and Pannonia (which included part of Hungary). The Roman control of Croatia came to an end in the 5th Century when the Roman Empire collapsed.

In the early 7th Century Slavic people, known as Croats, migrated to the area. They first settled in Dalmatia, expanding further northwards and inland in the 8th Century. During the Middle Ages trade flourished in Croatia, which allowed many towns to grow significantly. In 1202 of Venetian Crusaders took the town of Zadar to repay a debt that the Croatians owed them. In 1205 the Venetians also captured Dubrovnik and Istria.

In 1358 the Hungarian-Croatian king defeated the Venetians and took back control of Dalmatia, however this didn’t last long because in 1409 after a war the king of Hungary-Croatia sold Dalmatia (except Dubrovnik) to the Venetians. The reason why Dubrovnik wasn’t included was in 1382 Dubrovnik became independent and remained so until 1808.

In 1493 the Ottomans defeated the Croatians during the battle of Krovsko Poje. Peace in the area remained short lived with another war occurring in 1526, when the Hungarians were invaded by the Turks during the battle of Mohacs. The king of the Hungary-Croatian empire was killed and the kingdom was based to Austrian, Archduke Ferdinand of Habsburg, however the Turks continued to control most of Croatia until 1716 when they were defeated during the battle of Petervaradino.

In 1797 Venice was forced to return its Croatian territory to Austria. In 1809 Napoleon formed the territory into a new stated called the Illyrian Provinces, but this was short lived because in 1815 Napoleon was defeated. Austria took back the territory, including Dubrovnik.

In 1848 the Hungarians and Croats had a falling out and went to war, but the Austrian monarchy was still able to maintain power until 1867, which the Austrian Empire was split into two halves; Austria and Hungary. The Austrian monarch remained king of both independent halves. Croatia was eventually split; Dalmatia was ruled by Austria, while most of Croatia was ruled by Hungary.

In October 1918 the Austro-Hungarian empire broke up and Croatia declared its independence. On December 1 1918 the Croats agreed to join with the Slovenes and Serbs to form a new state called the kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. The Croats soon became upset, as they wanted the new state to become a unitary state. In 1929 King Alexander suspended parliament and introduced a royal dictatorship, and named the state Yugoslavia.

There were two extremist parties in Croatia during the 1930’s; the Communists and the Fascist Ustase. In 1939 the Yugoslavian government gave into the demands for Croatian autonomy and created an autonomous region called the Banovina.

During the beginning of World War 2 Yugoslavia had a neutral stance, but in March 1941 a coup was held by pro-British officers, and as a result the Germans invaded Yugoslavia on April 6 1941. The Germans set up shop in Croatia with the fascist Ustase in charge, but the Croatians were able to liberate them by 1945.

During the 1960’s nationalism re-emerged and more people were demanding autonomy. In 1971 Tito, the Communist leader put a stop to it, but he ended up dying in 1980. Communism collapsed in most of Eastern Europe in 1989, during the same time frame that many non-Communist organizations were being setup. In May 1990 elections were held, with the Croatians seeking to leave Yugoslavia, but with a substantial number of Serbians living in Croatia this created issues. In May 1991 the Croatians voted for independence, but The Yugoslavian army invaded to protect the Serbians living within the Croatian borders. This was the beginning of a long war, which didn’t end until 1995 with the signing of the Erdut Agreement. Croatian independence was recognized by the European Union on January 15 1992, even before the war was over. Eastern Slavonia was ran by the United Nations until 1998, when it was handed over to Croatia.

Exploring Zagreb

Zagreb’s history dates back to the Roman times, and was founded in 1134. Today Zagreb is home to 1.1 million people, housing about 25% of Croatia’s population. I spent the late afternoon exploring the old city including Lotrščak Tower, Ban Josip Jelačić Square, Zagreb 360°, Museum of Broken Relationships, St. Mark’s Church, and Atelijer Meštrović Museum.

As I drove into Zagreb I saw how beautiful the streets were. They reminded me quite a bit of the Czech Republic.A notable building was the circular Croatian Society of Fine Artists. I parked my car in the downtown area and explored for a bit before having to take my COVID test @ 430pm.

Lotrščak Tower is a fortified tower that was built sometime in the 13th century to guard the southern gate of the Gradec town wall. Gradec is an old part of Zagreb known as Upper Town. The name is derived from the Latin saying “Campana Latrunculorum”, meaning thieves bell, making reference to a bell that was hung in the tower in 1946 to signal the closing of the town gates. The tower had a cannon placed on the fourth floor, and since January 1 1877 the cannon is fired from the tower to mark midday so that bell-ringers of the city churches know when it is noon.

Ban Josip Jelačić Square is Zagreb’s central square. The square has existed since the 17th century, and was first named Harmica. It was renamed to its present name in 1848 after Count Josip Jelačić, who was in office from 1848 to 1859. In 1946 the square was renamed Republic Square and Josip Jelačić’s statue was removed the following year as the new Communist government of Yugoslavia denounced him as a “servant of foreign interests”. After the breakup of Yugoslavia Josip Jelačić’s historic role was again considered positive and the statue was returned to the square, but in a different location on the north side, facing south. Today the square is a common meeting place for the people in Zagreb and is a pedestrian only zone, as well as the main hub for the ZET tram lines. The square is adorned by a variety of architectural styles ranging from classicism, secession, and modernism.

The Museum of Broken Relationships is a museum in a baroque palace displaying personal objects from former lovers along with brief synopses.

St. Mark’s Church was built in the 13th century and was radically reconstructed in the second half of the 14th century to a Gothic architecture style. Massive round columns support heavy ribbed vaults cut in stone and an air of peace and sublimity characterizes the church interior in its simplicity. Outside, on the northwest wall of the church lies the oldest coat of arms of Zagreb with the year 1499 engraved in it. On the roof, tiles are laid so that they represent the coat of arms of Zagreb. There was police tape all around the building so I wasn’t able to enter. I couldn’t figure out why there was police tape all around.

The Atelijer Meštrović Museum is dedicated to the artwork of Ivan Meštrović, a renowned Yugoslavian and Croatian sculptor, architect and writer of the 20th century. He lived from 1883 to 1962, where he died at an age of 78 in South Bend, Indiana, USA.

During my walks I also saw a vineyard in the middle of town.

For dinner I had a Truffle Strukli from La Štruk. Štrukli’s are a popular Croatian dish made of pasty, cottage cheese, eggs, sour cream, and salt. All I can say is WOW this dish is delicious!

I explored the night life walking the streets back to my car before driving back to my hotel called Hotel & Hostel Zagreb; a basic accommodation for about $40 CDN. I finished my blog, had a shower, did some work, and went to bed.

Be sure to check back tomorrow when I travel from Zagreb, Croatia to visit the Uprising Monument, Plitvice Lakes National Park, Postojna Cave, Predjama Castle, and Ljubljana, Slovenia.

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Belgium – Brussels – Day 1 of 2

Today was the start of another travel adventure. This adventure involves Belgium, Luxembourg and Czech Republic.

My first stop was Brussels, Belgium via Amsterdam. I boarded my KLM Airbus A330-200 flight to Amsterdam at 2:20pm. The flight departed on time at 3:10pm. Flight time was roughly 9 hours gate to gate and went quite smoothly. There was free WiFi in the flight so I ended up chatting with a few friends. The flight arrived at 7:30am the following day.

I was supposed to have a quick 50 minute layover before boarding my next flight, but it ended up being almost 2 hours due to a technical fault. The original plane (an Embraer ERJ-190) was swapped for a Boeing 737-800. Flight time was roughly 45 minutes gate to gate.

After landing in Brussels I caught the train to the inner city for €8.90 ($11.70 CDN). After arriving at Brussels Central Station I visited St. Michael and St Gudula Cathedral, a Roman Catholic church in Gothic architecture style. The Cathedral was started sometime in the 9th Century but wasn’t completed until 1519.

The next stop was the Royal Gallery of Saint Hubert, a spectacular covered alleyway built by architect Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer completed in 1847. The gallery includes shops auditoriums, cafes, restaurants and apartments. I decided to visit Maison Danboy, a renowned bakery chain, where I ordered some delicious lemon and ginger cookies.

Next up was the Grand Place and surrounding Grand Square. The history of the Grand Palace started in the 11th and 12th Century, when a building was built on Coudenberg hill to house the Dukes of Brabant. Over the next few centuries the building was rebuilt, extended and improved to align with the increased prestige of the Dukes of Braband and their successors. The complex was destroyed in 1731 by a large fire and was eventually rebuilt in 1775. During this time excavations of the site unearthed various remains of different parts of the original palace as well as surrounding town. The monumental vaults still remain under the square and can be visited.

Next stop was a quick stop at the Brussels Stock Exchange, a beautiful building designed by architect Léon-Pierre Suys. The building was completed on the site of a former butter market in 1873 and housed the Brussels Stock Exchange until 1996. The building has since been transformed to a museum.

I then stumbled upon the Brussels Les Halles Saint-Géry, a former covered market that was completed in 1881. The market now houses Brussels Vintage Market, which is a collection of 40 vintage and second-hand merchants and more than 20 designers.

At this point in time I was starting to get hungry so I started to seek out some food at the well renowned Tonton Garby, but more on that in a minute. On my way to Tonton Garby I stopped at a famous fountain of a young boy peeing called “Manneken Pis”. Okay now onto Tonton Garby; the best way to describe this place is it has the most delicious sandwiches being served up by one of the funniest people I’ve ever met in my entire life. I was recommended this place by numerous blogs and YouTube videos, so I figured it had to be good; I was not disappointed. While I was eating my sandwich I met a wonderful couple from the Rochester area in the US. They had just recently gotten married and are travelling the world together. We chatted for a bit before going our separate ways.

Next up was a few other sights before visiting the Place Royale and Royal Palace. Place Royale, also known as the King’s Square, is a historic neoclassical square in the Royal Quarter that was completed in 1782 as part of an urban project.

The Royal Palace is situated in front of Brussles Park and was designed by multiple architects including Chislain-Joseph Henry, Charles Vander Straeten, Tilman-François Suys, Alphonse Balat, Henri Maquet, and Octave Flanneau. Construction started in 1783, but wasn’t completed until 1934 when the new facade was finally completed. The impressive facade is 50% longer than that of Buckingham Palace in Great Britain, but it has less than half of the square footage of Buckingham Palace.

My energy levels were starting to dwindle so I walked towards my Hotel; Hotel Retro, a cozy mid-range boutique hotel. Before checking into the hotel I checked out the beautiful Le Botanique conservatory.

Check-in was very seamless. I was placed in Room 501, a penthouse room at the top with wonderful skylights overlooking the city. I decided to take a 3 hour nap before continuing on my grand adventure.

After waking up from my nap I was feeling much refreshed and ready to do more exploring. I walked to the nearby Metro station and boarded a train to the University area where I took a bunch of pictures of some beautiful buildings; one in particular caught my eye; Villa Empain. Villa Empain was built in 1934 by swiss architect Michel Polak in the Art Deco style. As many of you may know from reading previous blog posts of mine; I’m a huge sucker for Art Deco.

It was time to get some dinner so I walked towards Flagey square, where there was a beautiful building and somewhere I wanted to eat called Frit Flagey. Unfortunately at this time is when a group of men tried to rob me, but I managed to escape through some alleyways. Never in my 38 countries of travel have I had an attempted robbery. I’m a fairly careful person but they surrounded me so quickly as I was trying to take a photo of the Art Deco style Flagey building.

I walked around for a bit and came back to Flagey square about 45 minutes lated to eat at Frit Flagey; I was not disanointed. I then obtained some beers from a local beer store called Melting Pot. The gentleman recommended me a few beers to try.

I then took a bus back to my hotel where I enjoyed my beers, edited photos, and typed up my blog.

Be sure to check back tomorrow when I explore Brussels in further detail!

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