Hotel Esplanade is one of Zagreb's most iconic locations, and not just because of its top-tier restaurants (lauded Zinfandel's is Michelin-guide recommended) and sumptuous rooms and suites. This is a hotel with history, and it's got a stirring story to tell.
As one of Zagreb's many historic buildings affected by the March 22 earthquake, Esplanade is currently closed due to sustained damages. So as we, with bated breath, wait for the hotel to reopen, let's explore its 100-year-old past.
1917: The beginning
The legendary Orient Express flourished from the late 19th century through the 20th century and Zagreb was a main stop for passengers on the Paris-Venice-Istanbul line. Orient Express trains, equally steeped in luxury as mystery, served affluent clientele desiring an equal amount of comfort on and off board.
Zagreb's two leading inns of the time couldn't meet growing demands nor capacity, so in 1917, an international tender for a new hotel in the city was called. Among renowned applicants was Austrian Adolf Loos, one of Europe's most influential architects of the time. The winner, however, ended up being German architect Otto Rehnig, whose original ideas were altered into a Belle Epoque masterpiece by Croatian architect Dionis Sunko. Sunko worked on the extravagant design from 1922-1924. The hotel was christened 'Esplanade', a French word adopted in English, similar in meaning to 'promenade'.
1925: A star is born
Hotel construction began in 1923 and lasted 26 months. Esplanade was built, not accidentally, next to the Zagreb Train Station. On April 22, 1925, the hotel ceremoniously opened with a gala dinner, hosting almost 200 prominent party-goers. A few days later, the first guests flooded in, choosing among 200 grand rooms all with hot and cold running water and a telephone (both luxuries for the place and time). The hotel also offered private lounges, a ballroom with ionic columns and sculptures, and a dining room serving Viennese and Hungarian cuisine. Esplanade embodied a level of splendour never before known in Croatia: it was the first hotel of its kind in the country. Public opinion was that 'once you step inside, the experience is worth mentioning to your grandchildren'.
The roaring twenties and flirty thirties
Over the next couple decades, the Esplanade was graced by glamorous visitors. One of its first famous guests was Danish silent film star Asta Nielsen, who was among the world's first international celebrities. United States-born civil rights activist, actress, and cabaret queen Josephine Baker could barely make her way through crowds of fans upon arrival at the hotel, where she later performed.
King Alfonso XIII of Spain, Prince Basundhara of Nepal, and Egyptian King Abbas Hilmi also spent time at the Esplanade. Further famous guests included Czech entrepreneur Tomáš Baťa, founder of European shoe titan Bata, Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly over the Atlantic and French writer Jules Romains.
With the arrival of celebrities came talk of scandal. Gossip circulated the city about a certain local Lothario having an affair at the hotel. Rumours claimed the Esplanade 'attracted dissatisfied wives and their lovers'. The first recorded striptease in Croatia took place at the hotel during a party thrown by an Italian count. Police intervened to shut down a casino operation posing as a golf club...
...and so on.
During WWII, the Esplanade plummeted from grace. In April of 1941, after the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia, the hotel was left bereft of guests. Soon after, soldiers occupied the building and the Esplanade became the Gestapo and Wehrmacht headquarters in Zagreb. These four years are an ugly stain on the hotel and its history.
Resistance movements were prevalent nonetheless. Waiters assigned to private parties, where they could access classified information, gathered any intelligence they could and sent it to anti-fascist forces. Those who were caught were executed by the Gestapo.
1945-1960: Changing tides
Following the war, the building became a soup kitchen serving food to those in need.
Later on, investments and interest by figures from business and cultural fields changed the hotel's tides again. In the first half of the 1950s, renovations were undertaken to officially reopen the Esplanade as a hotel in 1957. Prominent Italian opera tenor Mario del Monaco and his wife were among the first guests to experience a new Esplanade era.
1960s and 1970s: The Esplanade's new groove
In November of 1964, the Esplanade joined Inter-Continental Hotels, a corporation founded by Pan American World Airways to ensure superior accommodation for their guests worldwide. Esplanade was the first hotel to be inducted from a socialist country. It introduced high standards of supply quality (for everything from soaps and shampoos to butter). Business began to boom again.
Miss Italy ceremoniously opened Croatia's first official casino opened in 1967 at the hotel. In 1968, Esplanade was voted best among 62 of Inter-Continental's European and Middle Eastern hotels.
The Esplanade was back, again the alluring centre of Zagreb's social life, and location of choice for upscale fashion shows, symposiums and culinary events galore.
During the 60s and 70s, the hotel saw another influx of high society sojourners. Musical guests like Tina Turner, Maria Callas and Louise Armstrong flitted through the hotel's resplendent halls. Elizabeth Taylor, Giuseppe De Santis, Vivien Leigh, Richard Burton and many more film industry greats laid their head on its satin pillows. Orson Welles, in particular, imprinted on the staff's collective memory. Stories tell that Welles refused to take back any money he left in the pockets when he had his suits cleaned. He's remembered at the hotel as a 'great gourmand and very jolly man'.
During the mid-60s, another famous guest left her mark. Sex symbol of the time Anita Ekberg was arriving at the hotel on a known date, but at an unknown time. So, a staff welcoming committee waited at the reception from opening hours. The staff had never seen her, but figured she would be hard to miss. When a beautiful woman with blonde hair walked through the door, she was presented with a bouquet of red roses and escorted to the hotel's finest suite. The welcoming committee, pleased with their performance, sat down to have a cup of coffee. Then another beautiful blonde woman walked in. This time, it was Anita Ekberg - the first woman had been her secretary. Ekberg, in good spirit, made a joke and laughed the whole ordeal off.
The captivating hotel also waded into literary waters. In 1975, Italian author Elena Tessadri wrote a book titled 'Esplanade'. The setting for the romance novel is, of course, the hotel, which she described as elegant, warm and luxurious.
Many a diplomat and politician stayed and dined at the hotel too. Records show interesting details about the then-statespeople's experiences with Esplanade's kitchen:
Elizabeth II (queen of the United Kingdom) - ordered gilt-head bream prepared Dalmatian-style, which she enjoyed so much she gifted the Head Chef a gold coin
Milton Obote (president of Uganda) - left a fantastic review, but his meal of choice wasn't recorded
Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev (first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) - ordered duck in red cabbage
Norodom Sihanouk (head of state of Cambodia) - savoured his dinner (which wasn't recorded) so much that he presented the Head Chef with gold cutlery as a gift
Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev (secretary of the Central Committee of the governing Communist Party of the Soviet Union) - ordered venison à la wild and crabs
Richard Nixon (president of the United States) - left a fantastic review, but his meal of choice wasn't recorded
The decade of decadence
Esplanade kicked the 1980s off with a performance in its Emerald Ballroom by renowned classical pianist Ivo Pogorelić in 1981. His show was part of the hotel's recurring 'Concerts at the Esplanade'. Esplanade continued to host elite events in fields from business and fashion to gastronomy.
The already-extensive list of famous Esplanade guests prolonged. Soccer legend Pelé visited the hotel, along with film stars Kurd Jürgens, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret.
Actor Stuart Granger's stay was topped off with a special surprise. On his birthday, Granger left the hotel early to travel to Split. After staff found out, the front office manager, a cook, and a waiter quickly followed him to the train station and presented him with a huge, specially made birthday cake, to his delight.
In 1986, the first French-style bistro (which you may know today as Le Bistro) in Croatia opened at the Esplanade, featuring a fabulous glass ceiling. This was the first restaurant of its kind in the country: hostesses wore silk uniforms, every female guest received a red rose and each coffee came with a rich chocolate on the side.
Esplanade joined organisation 'The Leading Hotels of the World' in May of 1988 as the first to be inducted from a socialist country.
Croatia was introduced to Valentine’s Day through the Esplanade in 1989, before which the holiday hadn't been celebrated in the country. Decadent tiramisù marked the occasion, being offered for the first time at its new bistro. Soon after, restaurants across the country began offering the dessert and the public adopted Valentine's Day celebrations too.
1990s: A time of transition
In 1991, Croatia proclaimed independence from Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav wars began. The hotel became a base for international journalists and peace mission members. Esplanade also accommodated 70 refugees from the devastated city of Vukovar in December of 1991. One of those refugees, a nurse, still lives at the hotel today. Guest numbers dwindled as war raged on, and a makeshift shelter was erected in the hotel's basement.
After Croatia won independence in 1995 and the war ended in the country, the Esplanade underwent transformations. Its Taverna Croatica restaurant, since closed, began offering over 400 brands of wine, and introduced the country to renowned Californian and Australian wines. It was proclaimed one of Croatia's ten best restaurants. In 1996, the Esplanade became the first hotel in Croatia with a website. The prestigious Vienna Opera Ball took place at the Esplanade in 1998, and it was officially assigned five stars in 1999.
A 21st-century affair
The hotel entered a new phase, again, in 2002, when it shut down for a top-to-bottom renovation. Zagreb's best architects and London-based interior architecture company MKV Design (which has masterminded some of the world's top hotels) were tasked with transforming the Esplanade. Their extensive work lasted two years and its final product is the Esplanade we know today: a glorious balance of Art Deco pomp and modern luxury.
In 2003, Esplanade joined Regent International Hotels. A small-scale opening on May 18, 2004 presented the hotel with a new name, Regent Esplanade Zagreb, and new dining establishments: restaurant Zinfandel’s (named after the wine variety autochthonous to Dalmatia), Lounge & Cocktail Bar Esplanade 1925 and the renovated Le Bistro. A grand opening followed on November 11, 2004.
The remodeled hotel quickly garnered new luxury awards and offerings. In 2006, the hotel introduced a Hugo Boss mobile boutique, segway tours of the city, and VIP treatments and special menus for dogs. In 2011, the World Luxury Hotel Awards were held at the Esplanade.
The hotel started operating independently again on October 1, 2012, and changed its name back to Esplanade.
For Croatia's acceptance as an EU member state on July 1, 2013, the Esplanade hosted a league of top-level delegates. Staff remember it as the day the largest amount of security forces (with which it, due to its lineup of high-profile clientele, was not unfamiliar) guarded the hotel than ever before.
During the last few decades, the perpetual parade of well-known guests continued. Music industry visitors included Lenny Kravitz, Shakira, Guns N’ Roses and Morrissey. The film industry's most famous flowed in too, including Courtney Thorne-Smith, Orlando Bloom and Hugh Laurie. David Beckham, Jennifer Capriati and Cristiano Ronaldo are among athletes who have frequented the hotel. Politicians, diplomats and royalty of their time, such as President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Japanese Prince and Princess Akishino also chose to stay at the Esplanade.
The Esplanade was named Historic Hotel of the Year at the 2019 European Hotel Awards. Its most recent grand event was the prestigious Gault&Millau Croatia awards dinner on March 4, 2020. Food was prepared by onsite Zinfandel's acclaimed Head Chef Ana Grgić and Coline Faulquier of Signature in Marseilles.
The hotel was hit hard by the earthquake of 5.5 on the Richter scale that rocked Zagreb on March 22, 2020.
Like many other buildings in the city centre, the Esplanade sustained damages. Though it's structurally stable, being originally built to the highest quality, some rooms and public spaces suffered impairment. Ultimately, guests and staff were evacuated and the hotel's doors are currently closed until further notice.
Throughout its 100-year-old history, the Esplanade has undergone change after change, and challenge after challenge, and it has always come out stronger. We eagerly await its reopening, which is sure to come with a few new recherché revamps, and the days we can again sit on its opulent Oleander Terrance with a glass of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Brut, channeling our inner flapper lady or dapper gentleman.