April 7th-12th – Croatia 🇭🇷 – Trip#5 of 2023

Following 6 days in Austria and Slovenia as covered in Part 1, the next 6 days of our Big Trip of 2023 were spent in Croatia – firstly in Varaždin then the capital Zagreb!

Day 1 – Ptuj 🇸🇮 to Varaždin 🇭🇷 – Rail Replacements on Good Friday?

Unlike the almost seamless border transition by train between Graz 🇦🇹 and Maribor 🇸🇮, crossing the border from Ptuj 🇸🇮 into Croatia 🇭🇷 looked wooly to say the least. One of the spectacularly pointless elements of nationalism is making larger settlements that are in close proximity poorly connected – the Balkans is a particularly bad example. A 7am train from to Čakovec 🇭🇷 looked like the only option. Then, on inspecting the information online it appeared the train would go no further than somewhere called Ormož 🇸🇮 due to staffing issues and Good Friday. Unfamiliar with the reliability of Croatian rail replacement services, but aware all our eggs were in one basket, we had to try it.

In the end, the switch to the replacement bus was well choreographed by the train conductor, but the bus trundled along, getting us to Čakovec later than planned. A connecting train to Varaždin appeared to be horribly delayed, and the passengers listlessly kicking dust around the station concourse didn’t seem promising. The ticket officer also assured us it wouldn’t be coming and we could only get the next train 2 hours later. Resigned to that, we set off into Čakovec centre to have a look around and kill some time. Except – what is that on the horizon? As the station disappeared behind us, a train emblazoned with Varaždin approached. Running full pelt with full rucksacks, we got back to the platform in literally the nick of time, as the guard was about to blow his whistle. Off we went to Varaždin!

A northern city with an impressive central castle and beautiful Austrian-era old town, we first visited Varaždin in September 2014 where a 10-day festival Špancirfest was in full swing. Memories of cheerful crowds, bunting, huge barbecues, live music on the street and magical courtyards like Julijan’s Apartment 🇭🇷 left rose-tinted spectacles.


It is to be expected that any town goes through its highs and lows, and perhaps being Easter we could hope for something similar. We were wrong – on this year’s visit. Grey, quiet, with a hint of rain in the air, the experience was initially like after the Lord Mayor’s show, the air had been sucked out of the balloon somewhat. Still, after a café stop-off, castle visit and lunch, it was time to inspect the bars – bars we resolutely failed to visit in 2014, 3 years before this site was founded.

The first stop off, one we had recommended to us, was south east of the old town near the park. Medina Škrinja Pub 🇭🇷. Tucked around the rear of the building, you’ll find a pretty unremarkable set of patio furniture used by smokers, and uPVC type entrance, none of which sets off any great vibes. Hang in there though as the interior space opens out into a historic vaulted room, vast and dark. The ‘Bear’s Chest’ is decorated with a large ceiling centrepiece, the eponymous bear with a chest of treasure chained to it. Around the brick interior there are medieval sigils and a general acknowledgement that this is a very old building. The bar enjoys a decent beer selection – only a few that would get any beer geeks purring, but still clearly above average, and even during the afternoon there was a decent clutch of people and plenty of activity at the bar to create adequate atmosphere. We are confident the evening would be even better, and it was an easy inclusion to our guide.


Finally, it had rolled around to 3pm allowing us to check in our apartment, drop off our luggage and have a rest. Our next stop was on the fringes of town, around 25 minutes walk, Picabia Pub 🇭🇷. One of Croatia’s persistent issues is a lack of a pub type feel to its communal social drinking venues. While this place wouldn’t make our guide, it was pleasingly pubby in feel and appearance, the complimentary nuts made it reasonable value and it is basically a spacious neighbourhood hangout of a kind that are in fairly short supply in provincial Croatia.


After a stop for dinner, we looked around the centre in efforts to find Julijan’s Apartment 🇭🇷, only to find that it was closed (for the day, not permanently). Pretty gutting when you average 1 visit to Varaždin every decade.

This left 2 venues remaining, the first being only a semi-promising looking bar called Medonja 🇭🇷. Some places perhaps don’t photograph well, and this is one of them. It is true that the main lounge is unnecessarily green, and the bar area is pretty unremarkable. And yet two elements entirely compensated for that. Firstly the surprisingly good beer selection – you are not starved for decent choices, both Croatian and International. Secondly, it is a very effective social space that was on our visit buzzing with people.


A last stop of the evening was to the imaginatively titled Craft Beer Bar 🇭🇷. This guesthouse has converted its entrance hall into a café bar. It’s all done on a budget, with portable keg machines lined in a row below the stairs, the 1 member of staff gamely trying their best to cover orders, but nevertheless a long wait on a Friday night. There is a good social scene here, some interesting local craft beers on offer too, but the bare bones of the bar are somewhat lacking.


Day 2 – Arrival in Zagreb 🇭🇷

Varaždin to Zagreb by train involves a scenic, but very long journey around the villages, so we made the call to get a coach (not exactly quick either). The bus journey, mainly along single lane roads passes along rolling hills and villages, many of which have simple little farmsteads, a few chickens, goats, the odd pig here and there. It’s a good reminder of how fast the Balkans slides into simple rural life outside of the cities.

We spent 3 days in Zagreb on our previous visit, mainly staying rigidly around the old town and the boulevard towards the train station. It is curious looking back how much more closed and conservative our urban exploration was. This time, 5 nights would allow us to explore the city’s suburbs and its different sides.

As per usual, the dead time while waiting to check into our apartment was filled by bars – firstly Swanky Monkey Garden 🇭🇷, a hostel with an attractive modern tiered courtyard and bar – a fairly well executed bit of funkiness.


After that, a beer at the Ilica branch of Pivovar Medvedgrad Illica 🇭🇷 Tucked away off the street in a shopping mall, this is more of a traditional beer hall, with a large garden at the back. It had been a while since our last beer of theirs, back in 2017. What is noticeable is what strides forward they have made with both the traditional and modern beers. This operation is equipped and future-proofed, as far as beers go. In terms of the venue, it is a little too drab in terms of décor and atmosphere, not a place I would want to spend a long time in unless I was eating.


After check-in and a rest, we visited the fun, tragic, disturbing and amusing Museum of Broken Relationships which is worth a first time visit for any tourists.

The evening started with a walk along the Strossmayer boulevard, a treelined route overlooking central Zagreb with a great view of the cathedral at one end, through the old town to Tolkein’s House 🇭🇷, which was shut. We learn it has been closed a while, but may reopen soon. Oddly, the extension to it, Veliki Tolk 🇭🇷 was open. A little sparse on decoration and people, the drinks were fine, service also friendly enough, but we didn’t linger long.


One of the joys of exploring European cities is the prevalence of trams. Zagreb residents seem rather modest about their service. Perhaps theirs may seem inferior to some neighbours but trust the view of this English person with our generally awful urban transport: it’s still damn good. Affordable and comfortable, allowing to whoosh around the city. The pink line heads into the hills, and halfway up towards the cable car is the pubby mini-brewery Pivovara Mlinarica 🇭🇷 (possibly translates as Miller Brewery?). This roadside pub isn’t typical of Croatian drinking venues, with an interior similar to some English or American pub-restaurants. Their beers are really nice, the food and service seems appropriately pubby and my partner really liked it. I’d say it was decent, but it just misses something. We returned later in the trip for a second try, and it still just didn’t cut it. One of the clear disappointments is that the bar area, which should in theory be a social magnet, is far too small. Being tucked away from the main seating areas loses whatever atmosphere it may generate. Yes, these are the careful considerations we make when reviewing bars.


Seeing as we were taking a tram back down the hill, we allowed it to drop us off in the commercial centre, which is a largely familiar, unremarkable set of shopping streets you could place anywhere on Earth. There are plenty of bars and eateries of course, most of which are unremarkable so far as the bar guide is concerned, but we had passed one by chance that looked very different. Another venue we hadn’t found on our research but found out in the wild! Orient Express 🇭🇷 has an eye-catching train theme, a small narrow bar you enter straight off a shopping street. Wood fittings, leather upholstered seats and booths, golden age ephemera on the walls, this is noteworthy, particularly in a country with a famously ‘who cares?’ approach to decorating its caffe bars. Drinks are fairly stock and predictable, but complimented with some local craft beer options. Service is very friendly and used to touristic custom, and the place does a familiar kind of city centre trade, perhaps not a place with regulars in the evening as such, but well worth a look while in Zagreb given it goes the extra mile.


Back in 2014 we may have visited this place (but there is no evidence to prove it) – Čeh Pub 🇭🇷. This very directly-named pub is situated on the run between the station and central square, and has been a fixture of the city nightlife and social scene for a long time. Very smokey, noisy and vibrant venue with layers of event posters plastered along the wall and, it must be said, excellent Kozel and Pilsner Urquell on tap. It remains one of my favoured spots in the city. Yes, your clothes will end up stinking of smoke and your eyes streaming, but that applies to the majority of Zagreb bars anyway, in a nation where smoking inside pubs is still permitted.


There was time for a last stop of the night, and this was a place I remember we attempted to visit in 2014, but being timid little… *checks* 29 year olds, weren’t brave enough to explore. Bacchus Jazz Bar 🇭🇷 . This was a time when we may have still relied on paper maps, I can imagine us missing this place, tucked around the corner inside an alleyway. Neon-signage beckons you through but you still have to keep going until the stairs to the basement are visible. In summer months the courtyard is a popular place, but the weather was still a bit iffy so there was only the usual few smokers outside chatting. Indoors, you’ll find a cosy little underground bar with curved ceiling and warm lighting. They host occasional live music events but it is very much an attractive, social venue regardless of if an event is taking place. Some of the drinks options may be a little last gen, but this is also one of Zagreb’s longer-running city institutions, so deserves a bit of leeway. Even if they still hadn’t taken the Christmas decorations down! After an enjoyable nightcap it was very much time for bed.


Day 3 – Easter Sunday In Zagreb 🇭🇷

Croatia is a religiously observant country and there was a good chance Easter Sunday may have been a washout for bars. In reality, there was a very slow start with a lot of closures before the nightlife gradually got going in the evening time. An appropriate activity, and largely chosen because nearly everything else was shut, was the incredible Mirogoj Cemetery. Yes, spending time in a cemetery is not everyone’s holiday activity, but this is a colossal site with a mile of domed towers facing the street, and inside rows of porticos and beautiful headstones. Easily worth the tram ride and 15 minutes walk out.

After some lunch we returned to town to Carpe Diem 🇭🇷, which is one of those versatile café/bar/pub/anything tourist places with an uncanny valley appearance between Czech pivnice and English theme pub. Despite these sneery remarks, that’s not such a bad thing, and with a reasonably interesting drinks menu you could do far worse. It is versatile for a reason and does a good job, as reviews will attest to.


Next stop in the old town was our only surviving Zagreb inscription, Pivovara Medvedgrad’s old town pub Mali Medo 🇭🇷. On a sultry summer evening in 2014 we were treated to live music from the upstairs window onto the street and a great terrace atmosphere. Inside was the typical trad beer hall look. A refit has spoilt the interior which lacks a focal point, while it wasn’t exactly buzzing so early on an Easter Sunday. Still, it is a typically reliable option.


Another open attraction was the 80s Museum. Most Eastern-Bloc countries have their own version of these, and this leans straight into nostalgia and interactive exhibits rather than torturous captions about ideological repression. A fun time exploring Yugoslavian commercial and domestic life. Kudos to whoever donated the pornography.

Quite a few recommendations had come in online to visit Valhalla 🇭🇷 which was our next stop. One of Zagreb’s strongest beer specialists, combining a great range on tap and in the fridge with a venue that is itself worth hanging out in even if the beers weren’t there. A pubby understated space just off one of the main tourist streets, the Nordic signage is unmissable, though not over-the-top and leads into a two room pub with a mixed crowd. While this isn’t somewhere you’d go for a wild party, there is a social atmosphere around the bar and in the backroom, which all combines effectively to make this somewhat of an obvious choice.


After a rest and dinner (Sri Lankan food – go out with a vegan, interesting things happen!) we visited another old town circuit pub we had walked past the previous evening, Kvazar 🇭🇷. This small bar picks up the pace a little, with sport on TV, free popcorn, louder music and a younger crowd, but it’s a pretty well put together pub with some nice music memorabilia, leather upholstered bench seating, and a range of Croatian craft beer that goes beyond the norm too, a nice surprise. The atmosphere is friendly rather than brash, and it’s good enough overall to warrant an inscription to the guide. As we left, walking to the centre we noticed a man shouting, repeatedly, seemingly trying to get our attention. Then, as he approached he signalled, and we noticed a dog he was trying to chase down. The dog seemed to think this was a game so would wait until he got close then run away again. This scene continued to the central square, by which point it had descended into farce. Did he eventually grab his dog? Who knows!


I remember the day really sliding away, and somehow we ended up back at Swanky Monkey Garden 🇭🇷 barely getting in a round of cocktails (which are not amazing) for last orders.

Day 4 – Monday, Monday In Zagreb 🇭🇷

On the continent nearly all museums and attractions close on a Monday, so it is worth targeting what to do in advance, as neurotic as that may seem to some people. Zagreb Zoo, in Maksimir Park seemed a nice Monday morning activity, particularly as the weather was beginning to improve. Very good value for money attraction (for context about 15% of the cost of Chester Zoo with about 80% of the contents). Another opportunity for a tram ride, and to see Dinamo Zagreb’s battered stadium en route.

After that we paid a visit to a suburban pub Pivnica Budweiser 🇭🇷 which promised – and delivered – lots of chunky wooden rustic furnishings and a Krčma pub-restaurant experience. Not overly distinctive enough to be worth including but not an unpleasant experience either. The Budweiser was Budvar, not the US tosh, btw.


As we were in the vicinity, we paid a visit to neighbourhood pub Legend Riders 🇭🇷 On approach, it was one of those slightly intimidating ‘Am I really going in here?’ moments, and on entry we found a small pub with a large friendly dog blocking the path to the bar. Distinctly local, we expected a Hell’s Angels type theme, but instead it was classic rock with guitars on the wall, TV churning out rock videos and enough Eric Clapton memorabilia that it moved from a feeling of ‘that’s quaint’ to ‘that’s slightly disturbing’. Well reviewed, and you can see why, because this is unpretentious, local, has far more to the décor than the average Zagreb caffe bar and a bigger surprise, has decent beers – including local craft on tap from Nova Runda. It wouldn’t make our guide but it sticks in the memory, and is a good indicator that if craft beer has permanent taps in a place like that, it is making a breakthrough in a land dominated by Karlovačko, Ožujsko & Pan.


Running out of Monday activities, a trip to Muzej Marmaluka, aka Hangover Museum (yes, Zagreb’s speciality is wacky museums) killed an hour, with anecdotes and props – some hilarious, some moronic about drunken escapades with possibly ankle breaking tests for you to conduct, followed by a shot of herbal liqueur.

We returned to the city centre for a rest before any evening activities, but would be targeting the bars dotted along the epically long Savska cesta, which is also frequently serviced by passing trams. Running from south west towards the city centre north east, this is a transect of regular Zagreb life. Hi-rises, arcades, precincts, mainly dated, but life goes on.

The first target venue goes by a few names, but Hendrick’s Garden 🇭🇷 seems to suffice. Images of a fairylit treehouse and painted frontage are eye-catching, particularly given how few places are remotely like that. On arrival anticipation rose, only to find it wasn’t open. Everything shut! At least there was time to return.


Fortunately it wasn’t far to the substitute venue, Vintage Industrial Bar 🇭🇷. Modern, with a typical enclosed courtyard area with tactical graffiti and festooned lights, with a repurposed interior. Most Westerners will be familiar with this format. Given this is less usual here, I was confident this would be an inclusion to our guide, but somehow it managed to miss the mark. The seating is not very collected and communal at the bar area, everything feels overly dispersed, and there is an absence of something lovable, something quintessential about it that would have got it over the line. Oh well. It’s there if you fancy it.


With an appetite for something less corporate, the next stop delivered. Woody Beer Bar 🇭🇷 is everything Vintage wasn’t. Ad hoc, honestly priced, free of beer tie, neighbourly and local, raucous and generous. Unvarnished, but packed to the rafters with people visiting for the live music and deli spreads put on by the owner. The beer options were very good with a well chosen balance of Czech lager, Croatian craft and some international classics. We can’t guarantee it will be like this every time but it provided what we were looking for and deserved an inclusion.


The next choice, buried in Zagreb’s labyrinth of hi-rise, was Sunshine Inn 🇭🇷. Following on from the unpretentious experience in the last place, this was local, busy and considering how far off the beaten path – quite friendly too. More of a retro café with parquet floor, but music memorabilia and a pool table in the backroom underlined that it is still ‘a local’. It didn’t do enough to merit and inclusion but was worth visiting as a sample of real life.


If only there had been any life, real or otherwise at Medvedgrad’s 3rd venue, Fakin 🇭🇷. Well-financed, this large venue is built for volume, but didn’t have any. No-one was there. Given the array of beer taps including guest options (in this case Garage Brewery 🇪🇸 from Barcelona ) a lot of beer was going to waste, but if so many people prefer the likes of Woody and Sunshine, that should probably set off some soul searching. A venue without an audience, seemingly.


The evening ended where people actually were, underlining a distinct pattern for the evening, the corporate venues shut, quiet or dead, the neighbourly down to earth venues lively, vibrant and raucous. Take note, craft beer world. Krivi put 🇭🇷 is a large venue with huge courtyard hangout in summer and a barn like interior. Smokey, lively, another venue showing how frequently in Croatia there is little division between where the alternative crowd and the posers hangout. It ended up being a great choice to end the evening, concluding with the classic Imbiss kebab by the tram stop!


Day 5 – And then there was one. Zagreb 🇭🇷

My partner was due to return home mid-afternoon, leaving me (how dare she!) to myself for the rest of the trip. The flight was not until the afternoon though, and we had pencilled in a trip to The Garden Brewery 🇭🇷 around lunchtime. Way out of town, you’ll need a bus or tram, which takes around half an hour each way, dropping you off on some industrial scrubland. A major, well-funded operation with an international distribution network, this is no tinpot operation, but it does do legit craft beer, focusing on porters, pales and sours (quelle surprise). Enormous premises with a greenhouse type building housing the brewkit, large beer garden, tall plants and street food vendors. There’s something obnoxious about its utter predictability (although for some reason they don’t offer a taster set) but you can’t quibble with the quality of produce and amenities available. We’re sure it’ll continue to be an appealing venue for many and it just squeaked onto our guide, all things considered.


As we said our goodbyes I found myself just south of Kvaternikov trg, which wasn’t all that far from Caffe Bar Croatia 🇭🇷, a venue I’d researched in advance as it appeared to be a tiny old battered bar that had virtually fallen off the map. It felt like the ultimate counterpoint to the demographic led corporate brewery tap we’d visited. On entry, that classic head-turning as a stranger arrives occurred, but the young bar staff didn’t bat an eyelid and that gave me sufficient welcome. With basic drinks and zero glamour, the experience of visiting this pub is about authenticity. Local life, way, way off the tourist trail in Stara Peščenica, an old working class district near the railways. Smoking, drinking and banter at the bar in surroundings more personalised than most, with wood fittings and unexpected nautical nik-naks.


Rather than heading home to the safety of the old town, we kept going further out to try Hub Cooltura 🇭🇷. A neighbourhood café bar, versatile hangout spot with pleasant beer garden and vintage furnishings in the interior, this attracts a young boho crowd. It’s a likeable place with a very snug backroom, a bit of a diamond in the rough.


It was time to return to the apartment and sleep off some of that booze. On the route back we popped our head in a bar we would return to later. The evening started with a return to Mlinarica 🇭🇷 to try and understand why we hadn’t given it an inscription on the guide. One lovely beer later, we still weren’t fully sold on it. Not that it’s bad, it’s just that our inscriptions need to possess a certain something. The challenge is to reach 7.5/10. This is the most 7.4 place we’ve been to. Maybe in a year or two this fussiness will seem mad.

Back down the hill to a 2nd stop at Kvazar 🇭🇷 and found another busy, buzzy environment with a football game on, and then headed into the centre for a first visit to an intriguing venue, The Beertija 🇭🇷. A courtyard with a hint of ruin bar to the environment, ideal for lounging in summer, very useful in an area of the city without much outdoor bar space. However it is also a basement bar, reasonably mainstream and very ‘worn’, clearly hosting a few too many nights out for its own good. Overall though, it ticked plenty of boxes to warrant an inclusion.


The night ended with a 2nd trip to Čeh Pub 🇭🇷 which was starting to wind down for closing time, but that helped to appreciate another side to what had always otherwise been a bustling bar. Once the beer was sunk it was time to get some late night scran at Pingvin, a cult fast food kiosk in the centre.


Day 6 – The final day in Zagreb 🇭🇷

After a well-earnt lie-in, we rose to a warm, sunny day. It had been a while since one of those. Taking the tram out to Jarun with its swimming lake and park was a nice way to get ‘out of the city’ (while still essentially being in the city). The fresh air and sunshine was welcome, but as always, the next bar visit wasn’t far away. Jazz Café 🇭🇷 is set in a pleasant neighbourhood, and the interior is a labour of love from someone who appears to be a water polo medallist. We didn’t enquire further! Quite a way ahead of the typical interior décor you’d expect from a Caffe Bar, with a few nice bottles available to drink. It was too early for that business though, so we made do with the Balkans classic – Cockta!


In the vicinity of Hendrick’s Garden 🇭🇷 this represented the final opportunity. Google said it was open so this seemed an appropriate time to visit, with the sun blazing. Well, what a waste of time. A 15 minute wait in a near empty bar for the staff to take my order, and no sign of the drink 15 minutes hence. After sitting on the patio furniture clicking my fingers, the novelty of the treehouse was no longer enough, I just left. This venue had the biggest gap between expectation and reality.


Referring to the remaining venues we had yet to visit, the next nearest bar was Ero 🇭🇷, a knackered old wooden boozer in a square, fairly brutalist complex. The staff were friendly, it was fairly quiet, fairly priced and photographs reasonably, but let’s be real – there’s nothing much to the place overall other than basic provision for locals.


Working my way up Savska cesta, en route I was advised to pay a visit to Le Petit Belge 🇭🇷 This Belgian café in a modern complex is a very good option when in Zagreb and was instantly likable. While there’s no point going too over the top, it covers drinks, decor, atmosphere, amenities and reasonable value, the service was nice and the environment is friendly, day or night. Not the worst place to drink Czech/German lager or Belgian ales.


After a break, it was time for some final drinks in Zagreb before my flight onwards. One of our followers on Twitter invited me to meet up, which I eagerly accepted. It’s great to meet some locals and help understand the local scene. Better still, the place he chose was another first time visit and one that ended up on our guide afterward. Cajt 🇭🇷 is located a short walk from the old town and its unprepossessing exterior appears to successfully deter tourists. Inside, a typically battered café layout with wood partitions and old patterned upholstered seats are opposite the bar. This is a place where everyone knows each other, a pleasant feeling, rare to find in a city centre, and certainly not something you’d find so centrally in a city like London. Cajt’s big draw is beer, which covers local craft to international classics both on tap and in the fridge. We worked our way through several before moving on.


The final venue ensured that the wake-up for the flight the following morning would be hungover and unpleasant, but those are the sacrifices you make sometime. Modern bottleshop and taproom Ambasada 🇭🇷 was recommended by our friend, and is walkable from Cajt, if not exactly close by. The offerings here are not so much vast as extremely well curated, with each beer style represented by particularly strong brands. The atmosphere was also jocular, local, with plenty of banter between people that knew each other, and the fact they were willing to switch to speaking English was very generous too. The venue itself is painted in warm ochre and furniture is the typical ‘does the job’ utilitarian approach. So somewhere that is full of pretty familiar generic elements is elevated to an inclusion by virtue of its friendly atmosphere and excellent beer.

And that was that! The final stop, after which we staggered home to bed ahead of a 4.45am start to Zagreb airport.

Conclusions:

5 days is a pretty good amount of time to spend in a city the size of Zagreb and it would have been a poor performance by us if we hadn’t done a thorough search. After visiting 30 venues, we’re pretty confident there isn’t some world-beating bar that’s slipped our net. In truth Zagreb has a number of good, likeable if flawed bars but very few that breakthrough as being among the very best. You won’t run out of options, and nightlife is overall pretty lively too, with the old town, the commercial centre and Savska cesta offering three quite distinct districts to explore. Zagreb has a number of varied activities making the city well worth a visit in general, never mind the bars. We didn’t get time to head into the hills, which are full of other excursion possibilities. Aside of one or two streets in the very centre of the old town, Zagreb still feels refreshingly local and not over-saturated with tourists most of the year.

Where next? Join us for Part#3 – April 13th-18th as we journey to Czechia 🇨🇿 and the Borderlands of Germany 🇩🇪 & Poland 🇵🇱 !

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