Again, I found myself alone as I took in the gilt-framed Italian, Dutch, French and Croatian artists from centuries past. And again, the building itself was beautiful, a neo-Renaissance pastry with a tall Ivan Mestrovic statue of Bishop Strossmayer looming over the backyard.
The galleries were fine, but so many streets seemed to beckon. Some led -- disappointingly but inevitably -- to unattractive apartment blocks. Others took roundabout ways to lead me back to Kapitol or the main downtown plaza.
On one of those strolls, I came upon an unusual statue of poet August Senoa -- a life-size and stylized figure in black granite, casually leaning against a matching kiosk. Marija Ujevic finished the work in 1986, my guidebook said, but the book had provided no directions to the spot. Aimless wandering has its rewards.
When it came to the city's botanic garden, my destination was much more specific. I walked west from the magnificent Esplanade Hotel on a street filled with imposing government buildings and private apartments. On a sweltering day, those businesslike blocks cried out for green relief, and the gardens appeared at just the right moment.
Before plunging into the nearby museum complex and the bustle of city life, I could walk around flower beds and stands of trees, cross a broad lawn and pause on a graceful little bridge fit for a Monet lily pond.
I saw a few young men and women lounging on the grass, obviously with romance on their minds. At that point, clearly, they had come to the right place -- not just the Botanical Garden but Zagreb as a whole.
At 6 kuna to the dollar, a Zagreb Card good for 72 hours costs about $15, and it's honored on every sort of municipal transportation. Flash it at museums and many other attractions for discounts on admission tickets. I never used a taxi, except for airport transfers. The 25-mile cab ride from downtown to the airport costs about $25, plus tip. A bus from the central depot is $5, one-way. Trolley tickets cost about $1.15 at kiosks and $1.50 on board.
I found the streetcars most useful for getting from one district to another. But it's easy to walk almost anywhere in central Zagreb. That part of town is quite compact, and streetscapes are rarely dull.
Where to stay:
I chose the Hotel Palace (Trg. J.J. Strossmayera 10, 1000; 011-385-1-4899-600; palace.hr) for a sense of old Zagreb. It's an elegant but casual place with lots of dark, polished wood in the public areas and fine leather furniture in the lobby. Upstairs, my single room -- one of 123 rooms and suites -- followed the European single-room standard, i.e., cramped. Still, comfortable enough, and it had a nicely accessorized (but tiny) bathroom -- shower only. $128 to $383, plus tax and including full breakfast.
I also spent a night at the 360-unit Sheraton Zagreb Hotel (Kneza Borne 2, 1000; 011-385-1-455-3535) to rub shoulders with the expense-account set. On the outside, it's all gloss and glass, while the grand lobby tips its hat to tradition. My room was spacious and modern, a definite break from the European claustrophobic-single tradition. $334 to $365.
There are several other choices -- most, naturally, on the expensive side.
Where to eat:
Couldn't stay at the fabulous Regent Esplanade Hotel (Mihanoviceva 1, 1000; 800-545-4000; 011-385-1-456-6021; regenthotels.com), but I did have a dinner in its Zinfandel Dining Room. After days of food on the run (the pizza is first rate), I hungered for a lingering repast in the kind of place where white linen, huge vases, rippling fountains -- plus a pianist playing "La Vie en Rose," and the like -- all set the tone.
I ordered from the Croatian Specialties side of the menu and ended up with a wonderful salad populated by squid, octopus, scallops and prawns. The roast lamb served with broiled vegetables may or may not have been cooked the Croatian way (whatever that is), but it was delicious nonetheless. $64. Note: Prices often are quoted in euros, and euros are readily accepted almost everywhere in Zagreb.
The cooks at Boban (Gajeva 9, 1000; 011-385-1-481-1549) demonstrate that Croatians have learned the secrets of fine pasta from their neighbor across the Adriatic. Food is served in a quiet cellar below the far noisier bar. I had a simple tasting menu of three pastas and three sauces. $12, including salad.
At Kaptolska Klet (Kaptol 5, 1000; 011-385-1-492-1307; mediacaffe.net/kaptolskaklet), I ate with members of an English-speaking bus-tour group bent on winding up their excursion in good spirits. We had dancing, folk-singing, and platters of meat and stuffed dumplings in an Old World setting reminiscent of a German rathskeller. The food arrived hot, and the attitude of the entire staff was boisterous and warm.
Croatian National Tourist Office, 350 5th Ave., Suite 4003, New York, N.Y. 10118; 800-829-4416; croatia.hr.