Upon arrival, a besuited doorman welcomes you into a doubleheight lobby of marble and inlaid wood floors. Everything from the crystal chandeliers to the Art Deco mirrored tray tables nod to the Roaring Twenties. But Hotel Esplanade’s ambiance is not retro – ninety years on, Zagreb’s preeminent hotel is as debonair as ever.
This belle époque icon began life as a luxury stopover for passengers travelling on the Orient Express’s southerly route from Paris to Istanbul. In the spring of 1925, the hotel boasted guest rooms with such luxuries as sinks with hot and cold running water and inroom telephones. The Esplanade’s domed Emerald Ballroom, with its marble ionic columns, mirrored alcoves and Tiffanystyle stained glass accents, was the venue for talk-of-the-town social gatherings.
In its early days, everyone from Josephine Baker to Charles Lindbergh passed through the Esplanade’s doors. Writers of the time were inspired to use it as the setting for many a literary love affair.
Thoughts of romance faded during World War II and in 1941 the Esplanade became the headquarters of the Gestapo, Nazi Germany’s secret police. In the early 1990s, as Croatia struggled for independence from the former Yugoslavia, the hotel once again found itself at the centre of the action, housing refugees and serving as a headquarters for journalistscovering the conflict. Following several reconstructions, the hotel continues to attract an A-list clientele from Queen Elizabeth II and Richard Nixon to Woody Allen and David Beckham.
The Orient Express last plied a route through Zagreb in 1962 but tourism to Croatia’s capital has been on the rise again in the last five years, encouraged by the country’s entry into the European Union. Today, Hotel Esplanade maintains its imposing presence next to Zagreb’s main train station and surrounded by a horseshoe of verdant public parks.
Thanks to renovations completed in 2004, the hotel’s interior has been cleverly restored to its former 1920s grandeur. In the lobby, the swirled black and white marble is original but the inlaid floor is a replica of one the designer, Mari Vafiadis, found in another part of the hotel hidden under carpet.
(The library in Hotel Esplanade’s lavish Presidential Suite; Built in 1925)
(The hotel was a grand addition to the Zagreb cityscape)
(The Croatian capital charms visitors in every season)
(A busy morning in Zagreb’s open-air Dolac farmer’s market)
(A raspberry confection from the kitchen of Chef Ana Grgic)
(Chef de Cuisine Ana Grgic puts the finishing touches on a dish)
Even as the hotel’s aesthetic honours the past, the Esplanade is not afraid to change with the times. Modern amenities such as a business lounge and a fully equipped health spa have been added.
The hotel’s 209 well-appointed rooms and suites now boast plush furnishings, L’Occitane en Provence toiletries and thoughtful touches like heated tile floors in the spacious bathrooms, super soft robes and high speed Wi-Fi. For an extra charge, guests can avail themselves of the services of a butler or a personal stylist or have a hot, scented bath drawn and waiting for them at the end of a long day.
In 1925, the hotel’s famed restaurants served Austrian and Hungarian cuisine. Today, Chef Ana Grgi?, the hotel’s first female head chef, has revamped the menus of the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, Zinfandel’s, and its sunny bistro. Le Bistro’s signature dish, Štrukli, is a Croatian specialty: handmade puff pastry filled with cottage cheese and baked in cream until golden.
What stands out even more than the hotel’s Art Nouveau architecture, its comfortable rooms and central location, is the warm and adept service of its hospitality team. Like Chef Grgi?, many of the Esplanade’s employees have been with the hotel for more than a decade or even – like the hotel’s General Manager, Ivica Max Krizmanic, who followed his father into service – for generations.
With grace and class, the Esplanade continues to deliver a five-star experience for guests who, these days, expect much more than just hot running water and an in-room telephone.