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Croatia surprises as a vacation destination

Party people find their groove at Colosseum, a hot spot in Opatija. It takes about four hours by bus to get from Zagreb to Opatija.

EMILY NIPPS | Times

Party people find their groove at Colosseum, a hot spot in Opatija. It takes about four hours by bus to get from Zagreb to Opatija.

ZAGREB, Croatia

Meeting for a long weekend in the sunny hills of Croatia, my friend Aaron and I had no desire to visit historical landmarks or the relics of a country that survived countless territory wars. We agreed to skip the cathedrals, avoid the museums and ignore the arts.

What we really wanted to do was party. The Croatian capital was only a five-hour train ride from where I was in Austria, and Aaron could fly directly from the States. We Googled "Zagreb," which quickly connected us with "Zagreb discotheques," which led us to dreams of Europop, bad dancing and late-night fun. Perfect.

Quick confession: On my list of dream vacations, Croatia has never made the cut. It doesn't have the romance of Italy or the exotic allure of India. We went there on a whim, as a meeting spot during part of a longer trip. I knew nothing about the place.

And what a surprise Zagreb turned out to be.

By day, it was a quaint old town with charmingly decrepit neo-Gothic buildings, old ladies selling homemade cheeses at markets and pockets of pretty green parks.

By night, the sloping brick streets were alive with late-night dinner options, quirky cocktail bars and hordes of pub-crawling tourists from around the globe.

While we didn't hit the dance floor as much as we expected — the true discotheques were off the main drag and we didn't have a car — we found that simply walking up and down the busy pedestrian-friendly Tkalciceva Street was exhausting enough.

Excited and hungry on our first night, we had our pick of fancy restaurants, as Croatia isn't yet using the euro and the Croatian kuna had a favorable exchange rate. Stuff was cheap. At Agava, we ordered a bottle of wine, ate octopus stew and finished with tiny glasses of honey and mistletoe grappa. The honey was sweet. The mistletoe was astringent. (And now we're wondering: Isn't mistletoe poisonous?)

After dinner, we hit the more crowded areas of the streets, where people seemed to gravitate toward bars with hip English names: Oliver Twist, Funk, Maraschino. Many of them blurred together, as all seemed to lean one of two ways: Irish publike or modern artsy decor with nice lighting. Right next to Oliver Twist, there's a medieval-looking set of stairs that leads to a cool archway with spooky lighting, where people stopped to take photos.

Up the stairs, we found an adorable corner bar called Dobar zvuk, which had a small patio that faced an old cathedral.

And here's the big difference between American bars and Croatian bars: The people seem generally more reserved and quiet, less obnoxious or showy there. The bartenders aren't as smiley. The crowds aren't as meat market-y. Couples or groups tend to keep to themselves, without spilling into other people's business.

Yet the place is warm and welcoming. At each bar, pub or restaurant we went to, we felt comfortable, despite no knowledge of the language or culture. No one went out of their way to lure us through the door, but we didn't get any stares or glares. No one pushes another round on you. But they'll happily bring you one if you want.

We hit about six or seven bars before our feet and calves felt sore and the drinks began dragging down our energy. Zagreb is hilly. Trying to read, or even just pronounce, the various Croatian street signs or menus is exhausting. After a failed attempt to find a 3 a.m. pizza stand, we trudged back to our hotel, climbing the sharply steep street we dubbed the Hill of Doom.

After a long night out, we were quickly restored by a cappuccino at an outdoor cafe, one we were happy to find facing a busy morning market. It was a nice way to wake up the brain, watching elderly women in aprons and head scarves haggling with housewives over the price of cherries or pressing a yogurtlike liquid into molds to make pag, a sheep's milk cheese.

Each morning, we ate at Ivica i Marica, which was surprisingly empty before noon. The restaurant and bakery offers a beautiful glass case of "healthy" cakes and pastries, meaning they claim to make them with wheat flour and unrefined sugar, though we weren't sure how healthy it was to eat cheesecake and chocolate tortes for breakfast.

After daytime shopping and gelato sampling, we were ready to hit the night scene again, this time starting at Lemon Bar, an artsy outdoor patio bar that sits behind the archaeological museum. We sat among replicas of old statues and architecture, watched people come and go with their bikes and tiny dogs, and ordered from the eclectic and extensive bar menu, which included something called Head Shot, a mix of absinthe and tequila. (We weren't that brave.)

We bar-hopped some more along Tkalciceva, at one point lounging at an outdoor table near Oliver Twist. We struck up a conversation with a group of American teenagers from California who had just graduated from high school and were on a 10-city European trip. One bragged about how much Jagermeister he drank the night before, and they were excited about an upcoming booze cruise. We shuddered as we watched them get up and teeter off into the night.

By day three, we'd had enough stumbling around Zagreb. It was charming, and we were disappointed we never found a true Croatian discotheque, though we got a good taste of the younger nightlife scene.

But there was one more stop we wanted to make before our weekend was over: We wanted to see the Adriatic Sea. We looked at a map and found that the closest "beach town" was Opatija, a cheap four-hour bus ride away.

Word of warning: If you're thinking of tides washing up and tickling your feet or strolls along a sandy shore, you're in for a surprise. This is not that kind of beach. Much of Croatia's shoreline is made up of concrete walls with steps leading to ice-cold water. Still, the view is beautiful and the waterside is just as relaxing. That is, if you don't mind a little nudity from your sunbathing neighbors.

As tiny as Opatija was, we were pleasantly surprised that we had nightlife options after a long day of relaxing on concrete. All of the bars seemed to be concentrated along Marsala Tita, which was right across the street from most of the hotels.

There, we found Colosseum, a startling crush of young and old (but mostly young), who had come here to take in the scene:

Tiki bars, DJs spinning, sparkling light effects and blond dancers with bunny ears dancing on platforms.

We had arrived in discotheque heaven.

Emily Nipps can be reached at enipps@sptimes.com. She spent seven weeks in Austria this summer on a journalism fellowship.

. IF YOU GO

Ready for fun?

WHERE TO PARTY: In Zagreb, you can't go wrong with Lemon Bar at Ljudevita Gaja 10, Centre, 10000. Early in the night, the outdoor terrace is a nice, breezy spot to unwind with a cocktail, and inside, it's a two-level bar and club featuring DJs, attractive bartenders and dancing. In Opatija, hit Colosseum, which is downstairs from Disco Seven along Marsala Tita.

WHAT TO DRINK: If you want to drink the local stuff, try Ozujsko beer or ask the bartender or waiter about the local red or white wines. Try a shot of grappa or schnapps after dinner, or if it's available, taste the Orahovak, a walnut liqueur.

WHERE TO EAT: Earlier in the evening, you'll find pizza and kebap (like gyros) places abound. But with the dollar still holding strong against the Croatian kuna, go ahead and splurge on the local cuisine at Isabella (Vinogorska 55) or Lido (Malo jarunsko jezero bb). It's tough to find postbar options, so eat well early in the night.

HOW TO GET AROUND: Staying in a hotel close to the city center is ideal, as taxi service is spotty in Zagreb. There is a late-night tram that runs through the downtown center (just look for the young folks lined up waiting), but that's even more unreliable. Best to either go by foot or prearrange a cab ride.

BEST HANGOVER CURE: Get up early enough to find one of the city center's morning markets (you'll see the workers setting up tables the night before) and sit at any of the nearby cafes to watch people haggle over fruits, spices and cheeses. Or head to Ivica i Marica (Tkalciceva 70) and eat a blueberry and cream cheese-layered pastry concoction for breakfast!

Croatia surprises as a vacation destination 09/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 18, 2010 5:30am]

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