Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS -

One of the most re­veal­ing Za­greb ex­pe­ri­ences – namely, re­veal­ing the char­ac­ter of Croatia and her cap­i­tal – is a sim­ple glance at the shelves of a bak­ery at break­fast-time. Ly­ing side-by-side, you will spot bu­rek: long cheese-filled rolls whose na­ture and name re­veals their deriva­tion from Turk­ish börek; ap­ple or cherry

štrudla: ev­i­dently an Aus­trian-style strudel; ki­fla: a yeast crois­sant, and sand­wiches with de­li­cious Is­trian or Dal­ma­tian pršut: pro­sciutto-type smoked ham. In all like­li­hood, there will also be a fairly good range of well-pre­pared cof­fee drinks re­flect­ing the Ital­ian and Aus­trian tra­di­tions.

As a cos­mopoli­tan trav­eller, used to the fancy café break­fasts of Lon­don, Ber­lin or New York, you will hap­pily and un­think­ingly choose from this se­lec­tion of de­lights de­rived from mul­ti­ple Euro­pean culi­nary tra­di­tions, in­clud­ing Mediter­ranean, Ot­toman, Ger­manic and a hint of French. But over the sec­ond sip of cof­fee, it will be­gin to dawn on you: this is not a fancy café, Za­greb is not ex­actly a global metropoli­tan hub, and all those foods with their di­verse back­grounds are ac­tu­ally lo­cal!

And there you have Za­greb in a nut­shell. The place is at first sight a mod­est, homely and sim­ple one, pretty but un­spec­tac­u­lar. Only at sec­ond glance, or sip, or bite – and only if you pay at­ten­tion – it re­veals an oc­ca­sion­ally daz­zling de­gree of hid­den depth, such as the vast ar­ray of cul­tural in­flu­ences that have shaped the city and its coun­try over mil­len­nia, some­times mak­ing it a lit­tle dif­fi­cult to put your fin­ger on quite what that cul­ture is. That is not a fail­ing but a bonus!

In re­cent years, Croatia has re­gained its right­ful place among Europe's sought-af­ter des­ti­na­tions, af­ter a deep slump caused by the 1990s wars that cat­a­pulted it off the travel map for a decade or more. Those con­flicts are now for­got­ten (more or less) and Croatia is cur­rently en­joy­ing a ver­i­ta­ble tourist boom. The fo­cus of that boom is – of course – the long and con­vo­luted Adri­atic shore of Is­tria and Dal­ma­tia with its blue waters, its in­nu­mer­able is­lands and islets, its fas­ci­nat­ing his­toric sites such as Dubrovnik (‘King's Land­ing’ to many vis­i­tors), Split or Pula and the re­dis­cov­ered is­lands of Krk, Hvar, Vis and so on. This sum­mer, the coast is teem­ing with happy vis­i­tors from all over the world.

At 125 km or about 80 miles, Za­greb is quite far from the shore and most of the sum­mer vis­i­tors pass it by. Some may fly through Za­greb air­port and choose to spend a night or two in the cap­i­tal city, but the vast bulk make their way di­rectly to the sea. Sure, the typ­i­cal Euro­pean cul­tural voy­ager and also the global back­packer can be en­coun­tered in its streets – and the lat­ter do con­trib­ute to the sum­mer nightlife – but few take the time to stay longer and ex­pe­ri­ence the city and her sur­round­ings.

Ex­plor­ing Za­greb

Za­greb is a great place to ex­plore at leisure. Even if you stay just three or four days, you can gain a deep un­der­stand­ing of the city and its unique pace, mix­ing phases of ac­tive cul­tural ex­plo­ration (mu­se­ums and such) with an even more real dis­cov­ery of Za­greb's true cul­ture – by sit­ting back to watch what's hap­pen­ing, by talk­ing to the lo­cals – or by en­joy­ing a sur­pris­ingly fine gas­tron­omy and a no­table nightlife...

The city's scale is mod­est, at less than 800,000 in­hab­i­tants. Most vis­i­tors come with no de­tailed pre­con­ceived no­tion of what a Za­greb ex­pe­ri­ence should be like – no Paris Syn­drome here, no mourn­ing the lost ro­man­ti­cism of Barcelona, no lament­ing the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion of Ber­lin or the crass com­mer­cial­ism of Venice. There is no in­ter­na­tional Za­greb cliché – pre­vent­ing such dis­ap­point­ment!

As ap­plies to any city, the vis­i­tor to Za­greb should start by get­ting his or her bear­ings. Hav­ing checked into your ho­tel or apart­ment (there are many of high qual­ity in the very cen­tre), you should make your way to the main square, Trg bana Josipa Je­lačića (Ban Je­lačić Square, named for a 19th-cen­tury na­tional leader). This is a per­fect place to start your ac­quain­tance with the city.

Do so leisurely, by hav­ing the afore­men­tioned break­fast at one of the afore­men­tioned bak­eries or, if you missed that, a gablec, lit­er­ally a fork-eaten meal, the tra­di­tional Croa­t­ian sec­ond break­fast. Take your time and look around: the square it­self is spa­cious and sur­rounded by rep­re­sen­ta­tive and mostly com­mer­cial ar­chi­tec­ture, pre­dom­i­nantly of the early to mid-20th cen­tury. There are el­e­ments of many styles, among them Art Deco, clas­sic mod­ernism and so­cial­ist bru­tal­ism around you. The over­all at­mos­phere is bright and busy, and rather Cen­tral Euro­pean, en­livened by the con­stant come-and-go of trams and the bus­tle of crowds, some in a hurry, oth­ers lin­ger­ing.

Sit­ting in the square, do have a look at the map. Ig­nore the sub­urbs and con­cen­trate on the dis­tricts known as donji grad (lower town) and

gornji grad (up­per town). To­gether, they form the

his­toric cen­tre ( cen­tar), an area cov­er­ing not even 2 by 2 km, but rep­re­sent­ing nearly all of Za­greb's ur­ban his­tory. The square you're in is ac­tu­ally the linch­pin link­ing the up­per and lower towns.

Still look­ing at the map, or al­ter­na­tively walk­ing the streets, you'll note that the cen­tre com­prises two very dif­fer­ent ur­ban schemes: donji grad is made up of broad and ax­i­ally aligned streets, lined with large and im­pres­sive build­ings and fo­cus­ing on a se­ries of squares and green spa­ces. It sits on flat land, just north of the River Sava, on which the city turns its back. In con­trast, tiny gornji

grad con­sists of smaller and older build­ings along nar­row and curved lanes, set on twin hills. No sub­tlety here: Za­greb wears its ur­ban his­tory on its sleeve: the up­per town is the me­dieval core and it grew grad­u­ally and hap­haz­ardly; the lower town is the planned 18th/19th cen­tury city added on to it. Both are in­evitably sur­rounded by var­i­ous sub­urbs, in­clud­ing leafy ones of old vil­las and stern ones of Yu­goslav-era apart­ment blocks. That's the way of the world.

Ci­tyscapes re­flect his­tory – in Croatia, in Europe or any­where else. I'm not let­ting you in on a se­cret by telling you that Croa­t­ian his­tory is com­pli­cated: it's in the Balkans af­ter all (and be­fore all). The point is that through­out its his­tory Croatia has been a quintessen­tially Euro­pean coun­try, nearly al­ways shunted about by large power in­ter­ests and al­ways con­tribut­ing to a greater whole, be it Slav, Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian, Yu­goslav or mod­ern, in its own dis­tinc­tive and dis­tinc­tively mod­est way. It is rarely the cen­tral ex­am­ple of any­thing, but it is fre­quently the best ex­am­ple of ev­ery­thing com­ing to­gether!

Now, you have choices. If you head north­wards, within a few me­tres you will en­ter the up­per town, if you stay south and down­hill, the lower town beck­ons.

Gornji grad (up­per town)

I'd start with gornji grad. This is where Za­greb came to be. The twin hills of the Old Town have at­tracted hu­man set­tle­ment since pre­his­tory, as they are de­fen­si­ble and as set­tling them left the pre­cious Sava flood­plains free for cul­ti­va­tion. Un­usu­ally, they also give the city a dou­ble his­tor­i­cal core: Kap­tol and Gradec.

Kap­tol, the east­ern hill, has been the seat of Za­greb's bish­ops since 1094. It used to be par­tially for­ti­fied, but the dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture to­day – and for the last 800 years or so – is the grandiose cathe­dral of Cathe­dral of the As­sump­tion of Mary, one of Za­greb's main land­marks. At first sight, it is a rea­son­ably typ­i­cal Gothic church of grand scale, closer scru­tiny re­veals mul­ti­ple build­ing phases from Ro­manesque via Gothic to Baroque (on the in­te­rior) and Neogothic. The view of the

fa­cade just be­fore sun­set would have de­lighted both Monet and Van Gogh! It is still sur­rounded on three sides by mighty 16th-cen­tury for­ti­fi­ca­tions, show­ing how Za­greb had to pro­tect it­self from var­i­ous in­vaders, among them the Mon­gols, who razed the city in 1242, and the Ot­toman Turks, who were de­feated out­side its walls in 1493.

To the west of the cathe­dral the ter­rain drops slightly, giv­ing ac­cess to an­other square, the Do­lac Mar­ket. Just a few steps away from Ban Je­lačić Square, this is one of the most de­light­ful ur­ban fea­tures in any Euro­pean cap­i­tal city: it's worth bring­ing an ap­petite. At street level, it is home to a vast and daily farm­ers' mar­ket, filled with stalls sell­ing fruit and veg­eta­bles from the sur­round­ing coun­try­side and fur­ther afield. Over­looked by the cathe­dral spires, it demon­strates Croatia's fer­til­ity and her di­ver­sity, tak­ing in both Cen­tral Euro­pean and Mediter­ranean cli­mate zones. But there are more plea­sures await­ing: next to the open mar­ket is the cov­ered rib­ar­nica fish mar­ket, show­cas­ing the Adri­atic's rich catches. This is a great place to try some fresh Adri­atic oys­ters or crabs, washed down with a glass of white wine. If you're not a seafood­eater, you may want to ex­plore what is hid­den be­low the Do­lac square: a large un­der­ground mar­ket. Here they are sell­ing meats, game and poul­try, as well as Croatia's su­perb sausages, salamis and pršut; oth­ers spe­cialise in cheese and dairy – try the su­perb hard cheese from the is­land of Pag, or taste sir i vrhnje, a lo­cal soft cheese spe­cial­ity. The pršut is also not to be missed – it goes well with one of Dal­ma­tia's fine red wines! It's im­pos­si­ble to get bored in Do­lac Mar­ket: you can spend hours here, ac­quaint­ing your­self with Croatia and its re­gions, sim­ply by tast­ing your way through the best of their of­fer­ings...

Just a few steps fur­ther west, you reach pic­turesque Tkalčićeva Street. Here, tiny lit­tle houses line a slightly curved street run­ning at the low­est point be­tween the Old Town's twin hills. Its fol­low the line of a for­mer streambed, cov­ered up since 1898, the houses bor­der­ing it were the homes of millers, fullers, tan­ners and so on. To­day, most of them are cafés, bars and restau­rants, mak­ing Tkalčićeva a lit­tle hub in the city's so­cial life and a pop­u­lar spot for vis­i­tors to en­joy.

Even­tu­ally, you should con­tinue west­wards, to

en­ter the slightly labyrinthine Gradec, old Za­greb's other core. Set on steep-sided hill, Gradec used to be a stand-alone for­ti­fi­ca­tion (that's what its name means), sep­a­rate from the bish­ops' cen­tre on Kap­tol. The set­tle­ment was granted city rights by King Bela IV (of Hun­gary and Croatia) in 1242, mark­ing a sec­ond and more civic ‘foun­da­tion’ date for Za­greb. The streetscape still be­trays Gradec's ori­gins in a for­ti­fied ci­tadel town, built to re­pel the many po­ten­tial in­vaders. The area is best en­tered through the Ka­menita vrata, the only one of its four me­dieval gates to sur­vive.

In­side the gate, you find your­self in a some­what dif­fer­ent world. Gradec is near-fully pedes­tri­anised and many of its fine 18th and 19th cen­tury build­ings, set along a street grid that is much older. Many fine Baroque and Neo­clas­si­cal fa­cades have re­cently been ren­o­vated. The at­mos­phere is quiet, serene, even so­phis­ti­cated. The area is cen­tred on the dig­ni­fied Trg sve­tog Marka (Saint Mark's Square), where the me­dieval church of Saint Mark with its colour­ful (and slightly na­tion­al­ist) tiled roof is sur­rounded by var­i­ous grand build­ings hous­ing the Croa­t­ian gov­ern­ment.

Gradec con­tains two of the city's cul­tural high­lights, one that in­cludes a sur­prise and one that is one!

The Za­greb City Mu­seum, set in the for­mer Con­vent of the Poor Clares, is an ideal place to get a grip on the city's long his­tory. Arte­facts, mod­els, cos­tumes and images, all beau­ti­fully dis­played, ex­plain the de­vel­op­ment of the city from its be­gin­nings to the present. A spe­cial treat is the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal area: dur­ing the mu­seum's ren­o­va­tion, ex­ca­va­tions re­vealed re­mains of a for­ti­fied set­tle­ment from the Iron Age Hall­statt pe­riod (8th-6th cen­tury BC), demon­strat­ing that the first set­tlers here were Celts. Part of the pre­his­toric ditch and bank is pre­served and ac­ces­si­ble in the mu­seum's base­ment.

Much more un­con­ven­tional, how­ever, is Za­greb's Mu­seum of Bro­ken Re­la­tion­ships, open since 2010. The brain­child of two lo­cal artists, the mu­seum is based on a sim­ple idea: it in­vites peo­ple from all over the world to do­nate an ob­ject that is con­nected with a lost re­la­tion­ship, ac­com­pa­nied by a let­ter or note ex­plain­ing its

sig­nif­i­cance in the donor's life and mem­ory. The con­cept may ap­pear friv­o­lous, al­though it is based on a per­fectly rea­son­able con­sid­er­a­tion: ‘so­ci­eties oblige us with our marriages, fu­ner­als, and even grad­u­a­tion farewells, but deny us any for­mal recog­ni­tion of the demise of a re­la­tion­ship, de­spite its strong emo­tional ef­fect.’ Th­ese ob­jects and their ex­pla­na­tions are dis­played in a themed ex­hibit and the visit is an in­tense and sur­pris­ingly fas­ci­nat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, per­mit­ting the vis­i­tor to con­front his or her own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences through their com­mu­nal­ity with all hu­mans. I was sur­prised to find my visit touch­ing, then cathar­tic and lifeaf­firm­ing.

Hav­ing ex­plored both parts of gornji grad, it is ap­pro­pri­ate to take the short fu­nic­u­lar – near the Bro­ken Re­la­tion­ships Mu­seum – that takes you back down to the lower town. If you're still shaken, note that Croatia pro­duces a vast va­ri­ety of ex­cel­lent fruit schnappses. A bit of rasp­berry spirit might just be what you need now. Also, it's only a few steps to re­turn to Ban Je­lačić Square, where you started.

Donji grad (lower town)

If you have time, but per­haps not even on the same day, you should cer­tainly also en­gage with donji grad, ex­pand­ing to the south, west and east of the square. This is the grand Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Za­greb of the 18th and 19th cen­turies, in many ways a provin­cial-scale edi­tion of Im­pe­rial Vi­enna. Here you will find most of Za­greb's ur­ban pub­lic build­ings, in­clud­ing many mu­se­ums housed in fine pala­tial man­sions. Be­ing an ar­chae­ol­o­gist, I can't help rec­om­mend­ing some, but do beware my bias!

My top pick is nat­u­rally the Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Mu­seum, housed in the im­pres­sive 19th-cen­tury Vrany­czany-Hafner man­sion. The ex­hibit, re­cently ren­o­vated, com­prises a care­ful se­lec­tion from the mu­seum’s enor­mous col­lec­tions, high­light­ing the coun­try’s com­plex pre­his­tory, its Greek (there were Greek colonies in the Adri­atic is­lands!) and Ro­man an­tiq­ui­ties, as well as a fas­ci­nat­ing sec­tion on the enor­mously volatile 1st mil­len­nium AD, the pe­riod of pop­u­la­tion move­ments that brought the Slavic Croa­t­ians to the coun­try. The pre­his­toric and early me­dieval ex­hibits con­tain very much that is

un­fa­mil­iar even to the well-trav­elled and well-mu­se­umed vis­i­tor. If you are not an archaeology-buff, you should still go, stroll the ex­hibits, read some of the la­bels and pick a hand­ful of ob­jects that draw your at­ten­tion, to look at them at your leisure and to your de­light – there is no exam to be passed! I rec­om­mend the won­der­ful dis­play of Ro­man le­gionary hel­mets, the su­perb col­lec­tion of Mid­dle Bronze and Iron Age weaponry and ar­mour, the Ro­man metal plaques de­pict­ing gods and he­roes and the pre­his­toric fig­urines.

You should also pay a visit to the Meštro­vić Pav­il­ion, de­signed by the in­flu­en­tial early 20th­cen­tury sculp­tor Ivan Meštro­vić (his house and mu­seum in Split are well worth an ex­cur­sion). It houses chang­ing mod­ern art ex­hibits in a uniquely fine set­ting and is al­ways good for a sur­prise or two.

My third rec­om­men­da­tion is the highly worth­while Mu­seum of Arts and Crafts. Go­ing back to the 19th cen­tury, it in­cludes a host of col­lec­tions, in­clud­ing ar­chi­tec­ture, ce­ram­ics, clocks and watches, de­vo­tion­a­lia, glass, graphic de­sign, ivory, fur­ni­ture, metal, mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, painted leather, paint­ings, pho­tographs, prod­uct de­sign, sculp­tures, tex­tiles and fash­ion ac­ces­sories, and so on. Sur­pris­ingly, such col­lec­tions, ex­press­ing the very na­ture of ma­te­rial cul­ture as an ex­pres­sion of time, iden­tity and place, are rare enough in Europe. This is one of the best.

There is much more to dis­cover in Za­greb, and its sur­round­ings, peace­ful, pleas­ant and very Cen­tral Euro­pean, also beckon. One way or the other, you should re­ward your­self with a fine din­ner. There are too many op­tions, of­fer­ing all kinds of cuisines, but our ad­vice is to go for one of the many fine restau­rants of­fer­ing the best of Croatia’s re­gional cuisines, of which there are many. If you choose a Dal­ma­tian or Is­trian restau­rant (ask for ad­vice), there will be su­perb seafood and won­der­ful pršut, if you go for Slavo­nia or other in­land re­gions, sausages of many types should be on your mind. In all cases, try the enor­mous va­ri­ety of Croa­t­ian wines (my per­sonal favourite is the Plavac Mali grape from the Dal­ma­tian coast and is­lands). All you need to do, at the end of the day, is find a good and timely rec­om­men­da­tion, go there, sit back, en­joy, re­lax and plan fu­ture trav­els.

If you em­brace Za­greb, Za­greb will em­brace you.

Hein­rich is an ex­pert guide with Peter Som­mer Trav­els who of­fer a num­ber of gulet tours to Croatia. See www.pe­ter­som­mer.com/croatia/tours/

(All images © Marko Vr­dol­jak, Za­greb Tourist Board)

Above: The Up­per Town at night Next pages: The red um­brel­las of Do­lac Mar­ket Page 90. Top: The Cathe­dral of the As­sump­tion of Mary Mid­dle: Tkalčićeva Street Bot­tom: The amaz­ing Do­lac mar­ket

Above, left, top: Cafe cul­ture in Ban Je­lačić Square Above, left, bot­tom: Street en­ter­tain­ers. Above, right, top: golden an­gel Above, right, bot­tom: Street theatre dur­ing fes­ti­val time. (All images © Marko Vr­dol­jak, Za­greb Tourist Board)

(All images © Marko Vr­dol­jak, Za­greb Tourist Board)

Page 91, top: Easter eggs near the statue of the Vir­gin Mary; Bot­tom: the Ka­menita vrata - orig­i­nally one of the stone en­trance gates into the city (Im­age: Hein­rich Hall) Left, top: Fun near the fu­nic­u­lar. Left, mid­dle: Sum­mer on the Stross Left,...

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