World Cup Hometowns: Ivica Kostelic’s Zagreb
By Michael Mastarciyan
If you didn’t make it to Croatia this year to watch American Young Gun Mikaela Shiffrin be crowned Snow Queen at the famed Zagreb/Sljeme Snow Queen Trophy slalom, then you might want to add it to your World Cup travel calendar for next season.
Zagreb, my Croatian friends tell me, is the perfect place to watch a race if you’re traveling with a significant other who isn’t as obsessed with ski racing as you are (my wife is gonna kill me when she reads this), with tons of cultural attractions, great shopping, and unbelievable cafes and restaurants for your other half to enjoy while you’re taking in the gate-bashing going on just north of the city.
With a whopping elevation of 122 metres, the bustling Croatian capital of Zagreb isn’t your typical sort alpine racing town, and certainly not the kind of place you’d expect to be a cradle for future ski racing superstars.
Truth be told, other than the wildly popular World Cup slalom races (yes the men race there too) held at the Sljeme peak, near the outskirts of the city, there isn’t anything really “alpine” about Zagreb at all - at least not in the traditional geographic sense.
Vertical challenges aside, the city of a 1.2 million souls on the banks of the Sava River, still happens to be the birthplace of two of the World Cup’s most decorated and popular racers ever - Ivica and Janica Kostelic. A brother and sister tandem unlike no other, the Kostelic siblings have left a moon-crater-sized impact zone on the ski racing world with 123 combined podiums captured at the World Cup, the Winter Olympics and the World Championships.
Janica, is the younger, retired sibling - and I’m thinking some of you have heard of her before.
Ivica, her older brother, is still racing, and still in the hunt, trying to pad the family treasure chest with more gold, silver and bronze.
I’ve had the great misfortune of never having visited the jewel of the northern Balkans, but have had Zagreb on my travel bucket list for eons. Being a firm believer in the benefits of “local knowledge” as a frequent traveler, I thought it would be a really cool idea to hit Ivica Kostelic up for a few travel tips recently. Well, I got what I wished for, and a little more!
Here’s a detailed transcript my recent conversation with Ivica and a few surprise visitors who also had a few things to say about Zagreb….
MM: Ivica, what is it you love about Zagreb as a city?
IK: Zagreb has four distinct seasons and I really like that. As a city, it’s not too big, not too small, it’s exactly the right size and it’s quite flat, so you can get everywhere on a bike. It also has a couple of great marketplaces where farmers sell local products, and that’s great as far as healthy eating goes. The city also has a lot of history. Back in the old days, during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they used to say Zagreb was a small version of Vienna. Another thing I like is the abundance of green space in Zagreb, lots of parks that are still like natural forests, uncultivated, trees everywhere inside the city and that’s pretty fantastic.
MM: Some people enjoy living in cities like Vancouver because of it’s close proximity to big mountains and the ocean at the same time, is Zagreb kind of like that too?
IK: Yah, what I noticed in Vancouver at the Olympics was that there was a lot of green space. Vancouver kind of feels like a place set in nature, and I really think that’s awesome. You kind of feel cozier in those kinds of cities, and Zagreb is kind of like that too. Zagreb is about 90 minutes from the beach but it’s close to great skiing too. For big mountain skiing, you head to Austria which is about three hours by car to the closest glacier. Zagreb is pretty close to everything. There’s a lot to do living in a city like Zagreb because you’re close to all these beautiful places.
MM: Okay Ivica, time for the lightning round...favourite place for breakfast in Zagreb?
IK: Haha, home! I don’t get out for breakfast very much!
MM: Okay, how about lunch then, where’s a good place to go?
IK: That’s easier. Somewhere in Gornji Grad, which is the upper town part of Zagreb, it actually means upper town. In old Zagreb there were two settlements, Gornji Grad, the upper town, where most of the citizens live and the capital, Donji Grad, the lower town, where the churches were. Gornji Grad is full of history and has a very nice view because it’s perched on a hill so you can see the centre of town below. It also has a lot of restaurants there that serve great traditional/regional food from the Zagreb area.
MM: What about dinner, where’s a good place to go in the city?
IK: What’s really good about Zagreb is the huge variety of cultural influences that are found in the city that translate into lots of different kinds of food. For example, there’s a lot of Muslim influenced restaurants with great Bosnian food in Zagreb. My favourite type is Cevapcici which is a kind of minced meat sticks, almost like a Shish-Kebab. I also like Sarma which is a cabbage roll stuffed with minced meat. You can get food from any kind of kitchen here, from east and west and that’s really fantastic.
MM: How about a romantic meal? Where’s a good place to take a special person for a special meal?
IK: Hahaha!!! Where would I go for a romantic meal?
* At this point, Ivica’s sister Janica walks into the room and I option to ask her the question as Ivica continues to laugh.
MM: Okay, I’ll ask your sister the question...Janica where would you go for a romantic meal in Zagreb?
JK: That’s easy, I would cook myself! (She laughs)
MM: Okay, let’s say you weren’t in a mood to cook?
*Ivica jumps back in to answer the romantic restaurant question.
IK: I think a good place to go would be a restaurant called Dubravkin Put. It’s a really classy place.
JK: Yeah, it’s a traditional Croatian restaurant with seafood, Mediterarrean food, good wine. It’s kind of fancy, but it’s also very homey.
IK: And it’s not a huge restaurant, it’s got a really intimate vibe and it’s tucked away on the edge of a park, a really soothing atmosphere.
MM: Where would you go for a really good cup of coffee?
IK: I’ll let my sister field that one because I don’t drink coffee.
JK: Good coffee? Golf Caffe, in one of the bigger city squares called Cvjetni Trg (which means floral square). There are a lot of good cafes in this area. Golf Caffe is my favourite. It’s really small, tiny cafe with a good cup of coffee I think.
*At this point we’re joined by former World Cup racer and runner-up of the 2007 Zagreb Snow Queen Trophy slalom Ana Jelusic (who also runs the FISALPINE.COM website) who also chimes with some great insight...
AJ: Golf Caffe is in a spot where you can do some great people watching too. If you’re not into coffee like Ivica, tea might be another option. For a great cup of tea, I’d go to a place called Velvet.
MM: What’s a good place to go for a beer?
IK: I would say the Jarun Lake area. There are good places there and there are beer garden type places around the city too, but I don’t drink beer.
MM: Okay, moving on from food and drink to cycling. Ivica, where would you go for a nice bike ride in or near Zagreb?
IK: For mountainbiking, I’d go to Sljeme. It’s 20 minutes from the city and it’s got all sorts of great trails to ride. Most of the time I go road biking though. I go north of Sljeme, it’s a hilly region and you can find a road where there’s nothing other than the odd cow here and there. It’s very relaxing, cycling through vineyards, hard to beat.
MM: What about another great form of exercise, clubbing? Any cool clubs you can think of or trendy parts of the city for good music and dancing?
JK: Pepermint. It’s a club that looks kind of like a home, and is really kind of comfy. It’s also kind of “alternative” and a really cool place to be on a Friday night. It’s in the center of the city. Jarun Lake is another good area for clubbing. There’s a couple of good clubs there but it’s mostly popular during the summer.
MM: Okay, how about shopping? Where’s a good place to shop in Zagreb?
IK: Are these seriously questions for me? I think the ladies should answer.
JK: For trendy shops, the city centre is the place to be. For upscale shopping, it’s Ilica Street, a really long street with lots of nice shops.
MM: Okay what about best place to get your hair done, like a nice salon?
IK: Haha! I’ve heard the Perman Experience is a good one but my godmother cuts my hair!
MM: Best place for a nice walk?
IK: Maksimir, it’s a really nice family park. There are a couple lakes in the park, a lot fields, a lot of playgrounds and a zoo too.
AJ: Visitors should also check out the Uspinjaca, it’s a funicular that takes you up to Gornji Grad, the upper part of the city. There’s a tower up there with a cannon that fires at noon every day.
MM: What about museums in Zagreb?
IK: Museums are abundant in Zagreb. You have a lot of galleries and Croatian painters are quite talented. The Croatian History Museum is also very interesting and it’s located in Zrinjevac Park which is also very nice for strolling. It’s a cultivated park and one of the oldest in the city. The MUO is an arts and crafts museum which is really special too. The Mimara Museum is very interesting too and it’s in the centre of town.
MM: What about theatre, ballet and opera in Zagreb?
IK: There’s a lot to choose from in Zagreb. The National Theatre is probably the most beautiful building in the city, built in the 19th century. There’s ballet, opera, comedy, always something on stage in Zagreb in the city’s many theatres.
MM: Anything else you can think of for a real Zagreb experience?
IK: The trams. You have to ride the trams in Zagreb. They are part of the city’s character. It’s an important mode of transport in Zagreb, and it’s above ground unlike public transport in other cities that are under ground.