One morning in Zagreb, I decide to venture out to see how the city starts its day. I suddenly feel like Alice in Wonderland had she wandered out half asleep in jogging clothes. The streets already bustle with well-dressed pedestrians striding purposefully to their place of work or study. The bakery on the first floor of my building has been in business for several hours. I realise that you need to wake up really early, or perhaps not even go to bed, to see this city kick into gear. Some locals affirm: Zagreb is an early-bird city. The evening rush hour starts at 3 pm, as those who began work at 7 am start to go home. I ask a driver how people spend their evenings if they get up so early. He shrugs and replies: “I think they go to bed at nine.”
A few days later I meet an American who's lived in Zagreb for eight years. I mention that I live in Sofia, and her eyes widen. “I was there!” she says wistfully. “You're so lucky -you can buy your vegetables after work!”
After a few days, I see what she means. The main outdoor market is closed after noon each day. Most shops close by 8 pm, making the shopping arcade under the train station your best bet for late-night food shopping. This is much better than it sounds, however, with none of the seediness you might expect from such a location. Of course, Zagreb's station itself is hardly typical, nestled at the edge of one of the city's main park blocks, its regal façade harmonious with the city's other gems of Austro-Hungarian architecture. Not far from the station is one of the city's smartest hotels, the beautiful, Art Nouveau Regent Esplanade, where Josephine Baker, Orson Welles, and Ella Fitzgerald once rested their weary heads.
Zagreb is not at the top of most lists of must-visit European cities. Part of the blame goes to Croatia's extensive and gorgeous coastline for detracting attention from the inland capital. Granted, it may not offer the hedonistic pleasures of the blue Adriatic, and it's unlikely to sweep you off your feet like Rome, Barcelona or Paris. Think of it more like watching a Merchant Ivory film: maybe a little on the stodgy side, but classy, charming, and with a subtle, solid beauty.
Old Zagrebers take a break in the Academy of Arts and Sciences Park
I might even venture to say that visiting Zagreb is a relaxing experience. Of course, it helps that the city has a population of less than 800,000, out of Croatia's modest four and a half million. Arrival at the charmingly small airport or the well-maintained and centrally located bus or train stations is perfectly painless. While local residents complain about traffic, drivers seem relatively sane and law abiding. The city centre is almost cosy in its modest size and is a pedestrian's delight, with clean and smooth pavements, numerous car-free streets and a generous amount of green spaces. Plenty of signs point the way to cultural sites. You get the feeling that it's very much a city that was built and continues to be developed with people in mind, first and foremost.
“Zagreb” has the rather unromantic meaning of a trench or ditch, perhaps so named because the city was once entrenched. It grew from settlements built on two hills, the first of which was founded in the 11th Century. Kaptol was a canonical settlement and today is the area surrounding Zagreb's attractive neo-Gothic cathedral. A settlement sprouted on neighbouring Gradec hill which was in constant conflict with its Kaptol neighbours. The threat of the Turkish onslaught in the 15th Century forced the communities to unite into one town, which became by default the capital of the fledgling Croatian state. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, under the Hapsburgs, the town grew as a commercial centre and expanded towards the River Sava. During the next century Zagreb earned its place as the cultural and economic centre of Croatia. The city had a leading role in the Illyrian Movement that promoted unity among southern Slavs. In World War II, Zagreb was the headquarters for Ante Pavelic's vicious Ustaše, though Pavelic's political support was reportedly based in other areas. The city was under Belgrade's shadow until the break up of Yugoslavia in 1991.
Zagreb's urban design was the subject of a recent Harvard University study that explored how the city managed to plan and build in a coherent way despite significant political change and instability throughout its history. The pioneer in this effort was Milan Lenuci, the Zagreb city surveyor in the late 19th Century. He and his colleagues deftly negotiated the Hapsburg Empire bureaucracy, which tended to squash decisions by local officials in subject territories. Rather than embarking on large urban projects that would only be vetoed by Vienna, Lenuci began with sites certain to be popular with the public. His sports fields and academic buildings then became awkward for the Hapsburg authorities to take away. Lenuci's greatest triumph was the “Green Horseshoe,” a u-shaped area of green space anchored by the main train station and botanical gardens. These park blocks contain the national theatre and several museums and galleries, and seamlessly integrate bountiful green spaces into an urban area. The spacious promenades of the horseshoe absorb pedestrians and provide a venue for outdoor concerts and romantic walks amidst colourful flowerbeds and fragrant trees.
Today as Croatia is poised to enter the EU, there's little in Zagreb to remind you of its Communist past, except for some enormous housing blocks in Novi Zagreb. (As ugly socialist-style housing goes, it's actually not so bad.) Also absent are outward signs of Croatia's more recent wartime history, as Zagreb was far from the front lines during the conflict among the former Yugoslav republics in the early 1990s. In 1995, however, Serbia retaliated against the Croatian recapture of western Slavonia, territory that the Serbs had held since 1991. Serbian missile attacks hit several parts of Zagreb, killing seven people and injuring at least 175.
Street market in Central Zagreb
Any tour of Zagreb should start at the main square, Trg Bana Jelacica. Its focal point is an equestrian statue of Ban Jelacic, a 19th Century governor who battled the Hungarians. Supposedly the statue was cut into pieces and disappeared during the Communist period, only to reappear and be welded back together for re-installation in 1990. From the square it's a short walk up a flight of stairs to the Dolac market. Besides stall after stall piled high with colourful fruit and leafy greens, you'll find vendors of local honey, olives, cheese, olive oil, and dried tomatoes. Below the vegetable market is an indoor food hall where serious shoppers buzz from counter to counter picking out the finest salty prsut, or smoked ham, Pag, or sheep's, cheese and other specialities. On the lowest level, grandmother types eagerly hawk neat mounds of fresh curd cheese, as well as a dozen other forms of dairy produce. If you want to taste the svezhi sir, choose your fat content and the lady will smear a blob on the back of your hand. The indoor fish market is also worth a visit if you're not deterred by shiny piles of inky squid and the accusing eyeballs of the day's catch.
After your market visit, keep heading up, passing the bright colours of the flower market. The streets will get smaller, steeper and cobblestoned as you pass through the Kamenita vrata, or Stone Gate, one of the original entrances to the city that hasn't been touched since restoration in 1760. It's something of an outdoor chapel; worshippers gather and light candles near where there was a reported vision of the Virgin Mary after a fire in 1731. Once you're in the upper town, you'll find the charming Croatian Museum of Naïve Art, the Zagreb City Museum and the impressive Klovicevi dvor Gallery, a former Jesuit monastery turned into modern exhibition space. St Mark's Church at the top of the hill has a strikingly decorated rooftop adorned with the Croatian, Dalmatian and Slavonian coats-of-arms.
The flat lower town is the place for more museums: the Archaeological Museum, Ethnographic Museum, Arts and Crafts Museum and the enormous Mimara, housing almost 4,000 works. It's also the place for shopping, particularly along the main thoroughfare Ilica. The upper town also has some interesting small shops, as well as the sleek Kaptol shopping centre, a fine architectural blend of old and new, indoor and outdoor.
If you're looking for gifts, something edible from one of Zagreb's numerous delicatessens is a good option. Choose from Croatian wines, olive products, cheese or smoked ham. Kras, a Croatian chocolate company, has shops all over town with many choices of attractively packaged treats.
Speaking of food, you can eat and drink well here, especially if money's no object. Croatian cuisine has the kind of variety you might expect from a country characterised by distinct regions and a history of foreign influence. A meal of heavy Viennese-style roast meat might be followed by a piece of baklava. Seafood is ubiquitous thanks to the bountiful coast. Pizza and pasta are quite at home here, though it's the regional cuisine of Istria to the west that has the strongest Italian flavour. Traditional fast food tends to be of the greasy fried-meat variety.
A sample dish in local cuisine is Zagreb steak: veal stuffed with ham and cheese, coated with breadcrumbs and fried. Should the fare be too heavy or meat based for your taste, rest assured that there is a macrobiotic restaurant in town. The local Bio Bio stores also sell all sorts of organic goodies and more varieties of tofu and soy milk than you probably knew existed. White flour addicts beware: Apparently it is a law that every city block must contain a tempting bakery (pekarnica).
If you tire of the urban experience, even as low key as it is in Zagreb, grab a bus or tram and head for the hills. On winding roads lined with houses that seem to get bigger the higher you go, you'll see how the elite and diplomats live. Skiing, hiking and mountain biking is just a tram ride away from the city centre, on Mount Medvednica. A short bus ride from the cathedral takes you to the Mirogoj Cemetery, considered one of the most beautiful in Europe for its meticulously tended lanes of stately gravestones, almost all of which are adorned with flowers. Tudjman's massive black granite tombstone occupies prime space near the entrance. Maksimir Park, east of the centre, offers 18 hectares of green oasis.
Zagreb is proud of its old urban funicular, like Salzburg and Stuttgart
Zagreb's cleanliness and orderliness is marred only by the graffiti that adorns almost every downtown building - perhaps a youthful attempt to give the city a bit of an edge. Some expat residents gripe that the city can get a bit boring, but they can't possibly complain about the options for quick escapes to Vienna, Lubliana, Budapest, Belgrade, Sarajevo, or one of the hundreds of amazing tourist destinations in Croatia itself.
10 THINGS TO DO IN ZAGREB
1. If the weather's fine, grab a seat on one of the benches lining the pedestrianised Strossmayer promenade under the old city wall. Take in the panoramic view of lower Zagreb, with its refreshing lack of high-rise buildings. If you time your visit near 12 pm, your reverie will soon be interrupted by a heart-stopping boom. It's the daily shot fired at noon from the cannon atop nearby Lotrscak tower in a tradition going back more than a century.
2. Throw calorie caution to the wind and try a Zagreb speciality, strukli, an utterly diet busting but delicious combination of thin pastry stuffed with cheese, covered with more cheese and baked in cream.
3. After your Strukli indulgence, don't dare think you've earned a ride on what is probably the world's shortest cable car, which ascends just 40 steep metres from the lower town to the upper town.
4. If it's Sunday, get up early again (it's called adapting to the local culture!) and head for the outdoor market at Britanski Ttrg. The small square is packed tight with colourful tables arrayed with antique and not-so-old jewellery, books, rugs, lace, furniture, art, and ceramics. If you sleep until noon…you'll miss it!
5. Walk the length of the main shopping thoroughfare, which changes names a few times but for the most part is called ilica. prices are definitely on par with Western Europe. If you were hoping for bargains, indulge in dessert therapy instead of retail therapy with some of the city's best ice cream at patisserie Vincek.
6. Discover Croatian Naïve art, also called peasant or primitive art, at the small and manageable Museum of Naïve art in the upper town. Many of the works are painted on glass.
7. Park yourself at one of the many outdoor tables on lively Tkalciceva Street in the upper town and nurse a coffee or beer. Nothing rude about staring at everyone who passes by - it's exactly what the locals are doing.
8. Enjoy being able to walk and look ahead of you, rather than down at your feet. The central pavements are refreshingly free of parked cars and (almost) void of doggy pooh.
9. If lace doilies aren't your thing, take home another very croatian souvenir: a necktie. After all, this is the country that invented its ancestor, the Cravat. Croatian shops in several locations offer a wide selection.
10. Find out not only the exact time of day, but also the barometric pressure, wind speed and a dozen other useful measurements at the 19th century meteorological column located on Zrinski square, the upper corner of the city's green horseshoe.