Hotel Esplanade and the Legendary Orient Express
Not many human activities have captivated the human mind and soul as much as traveling has. From the narratives of meeting new cultures and pursuing self-fulfillment to grandiose adventures undertaken only by the bravest, traveling was, and remains to be, a huge indicator of who we are and an inspiration to millions throughout the centuries.
A great Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, once said that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. And while that, most certainly, is true, I think it would be more appropriate if we said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single shovel full of coal being thrown in the locomotive firebox. At least for this story.
Only few means of transportation are romanticized as much as trains are. As one of the oldest means of transportation, trains have enjoyed almost two centuries of connecting people, nations and civilizations. Their slow pace, characteristic sound and spacious interior add up to the mysterious attractiveness that has been so characteristic for trains during that time. The feeling of sticking your head through the window while being on train is one of the best feelings a traveller can experience. Any traveller will tell you that. So, it is no wonder that one of the most famous train routes of all time, the Orient Express, played a major role, not just in the history of railroads, but also in the history of travel. Even Agatha Christie sent Hercule Poirot to a mission on the Orient Express train. The significance of the route that changed throughout the decades was so immense that numerous cities did everything they could to be a part of the route, and Zagreb was one of them.
During the early 20th Century, the growth of the train transportation was so big that the hotels in Zagreb were simply overcrowded and couldn’t accommodate all the travellers passing through Zagreb. And so, in year 1925, a grandiose hotel, Hotel Esplanade, was built in order to accommodate the passengers of the Orient Express train. It was a daunting task, no doubt, since, at the time, Zagreb didn’t have the accommodation capacities to properly host travellers. Hotel Esplanade was a complete success. A building that beautiful and exquisite was an appropriate accommodation for passengers of a train of such reputation. It was, without a doubt, the largest and most exquisite hotel in Zagreb at the time, and it offered everything that an average Orient Express passenger could have wanted. Everything was done to satisfy the passengers who traveled from Istanbul to Paris, via Zagreb and Milan.
Image credit: Zagreb Tourist Board, Goran Vranić
The Orient Express didn’t stay for long in Zagreb and the last time the train passed through Zagreb was in 1939, but Hotel Esplanade still remains one of the most prominent displays of wonderful art deco architecture, not just in Croatia, but in the whole of Central and Eastern Europe. Even though the legendary train ceased to operate, it didn’t take long for Hotel Esplanade to build reputation as one of the premier hotels in the region and has a long guest list to prove that claim. Alfred Hitchcock, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Queen Elizabeth II, Orson Welles and Louis Armstrong are some of the famous names that had the privilege of staying in Hotel Esplanade. The reputation built around it was so strong and powerful that it remained the center of cultural, social and political life in Zagreb for decades and decades to come. Some, for that time, revolutionary events, such as the first Miss Croatia beauty pageant, were hosted in Hotel Esplanade. Esplanade’s casino was the first casino in the country. It had the first snack bar in the whole country. The hotel was a symbol, a pioneer of modern tourism in Croatia, and it set the standards upon which we judge the quality of elite accommodation in Croatia. Even today, Hotel Esplanade is one of the premier places in Zagreb, and the building itself hasn’t lost a bit of its charm throughout the years.
Looking at old photos, it’s easy to see how times have changed. Esplanade is no longer the only luxurious hotel in Zagreb, and its societal role has become less significant over the decades. The Orient Express ceased to exist six years ago, but we’ll invent something new, I’m sure of it. We are not just travellers, but also inventors. We invent new routes and new reasons to travel. Most of the things around us change, and that’s perfectly fine. But Hotel Esplanade shows that some things, just like Hercule Poirot’s wit, are eternal. Trains come and go, but the charm and history related to this building will live on forever.
Header image credit: Zagreb Tourist Board, Tomislav Rastić
Author: Marko Pačar