A WEEKEND IN:
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.
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/
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)
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
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, bottom: St Mark’s Church in Markov trg (St Mark’s Square); the roof tiles show the coat of arms of Zagreb (right) and the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia (left)
Below: The Archaeological Museum