Oct 24, 2011

There's Something About Zagreb

Hotel Regent Esplanade

I wrote recently that Paris was my first love and it's still true. (Don't be jealous darling).

But Zagreb...there's something about Zagreb, and I'm having a love affair with this moody and plucky city. 

An Air of Old Romance 

Zagreb had me at dobar dan (hello), when I stepped into the regal Regent Esplanade Hotel, built in 1925 as a stopover for wealthy Orient Express travelers en route to Istanbul.  Through the revolving doors and into the 1920s I went.  The old clocks on the wall tell time for Paris, London, New York, Buenos Aires, Moscow, Sydney and Tokyo---cities not exactly reachable by steam engine, and the timekeepers bely their intention, instead giving the hotel a nostalgic mystique, as if somehow guests, like the cities on the clocks, are tethered together through time.

Clocks in the Regent Esplanade
In the early days, some of the most frequent guests of the hotel were journalists that came to snoop around the society galas and balls held in the grand rooms. The hotel later become the Zagreb headquarters of the Gestapo during WWII. Eventually the Regent Esplanade regained its regal status as the center of social and cultural life in Zagreb, where it has reigned since. Many a famous name has been inscribed on the guest register, from movie icons, to iconic crooners, to royalty and political heads of state.  I ran my hand over the polished wood and imagined the stories and whispers, secrets and lies that were glued forever into the wallpaper. 

 Truth be told, I came to Zagreb because of James Bond. As a fan of the intrepid spy, especially the early days of Sean Connery, I couldn't help but steal glances around the elegant art deco lobby in search of a sexy white-jacketed espion, peaking over a newspaper or posing suavely against a column while women in slinky evening gowns polished his shoes. In one of my favorite films, From Russia With Love,  Bond boards the Orient Express with a dubious devise knowns as "The Lektor." An assassin and rival spy, out to get Bond of course, boards in Zagreb. Plot thickening spy mayhem ensues aboard the famous luxury train. I'm sure it all happened on a London sound stage, but I recall hearing the name Zagreb for the first time. You have to move your mouth and lips to say the word, and it sounded so foreign and far away. Plus it was fun to whisper to my imaginary counter terrorism colleagues, "We shall board in Zagreb."  Isn't that what we love about movies, about travel, and about the imagination---that they each encourage wandering?

I heard that American cabaret singer Josephine Baker once sang at the hotel and I imagined her croaky voice and accompanying tinny background music echoing out of the bar, where, I soon discovered, you could still ride the Orient Express, albeit in cocktail form.  Yep, a cocktail for every city on the original line--London to Istanbul, with eight whistle stops in between. Quel hangover! I started in Paris of course. She's my first love remember? I held her in my hand, all her rum, triple sec, strawberry and lime strength kissing me, and I caressed her curvy, chilled outline. I sipped Paris in the hotel's 1925 bar, but my heart was elsewhere, and filled with beguiling thoughts of Zagreb.  

The 1925 Bar where thoughts of Zagreb still linger


Melinda said...

Try Belgrade as well - Austro-Hungarian splendor next to Tito-era concrete boxes. Fab food and wine and lovely wide boulevards like another city I won't name here...

Kimberley Lovato said...

Melinda, yes, I have heard that Belgrade is a lovely city as well and in fact I met some travelers in Zagreb who were on there way there next. Thanks for the tip. Any recommendations in Belgrade?