If I had only one word to describe Zagreb, it would be “character”- charismatic character at that! September is a month of festivities – Zagrebacki Vremeplov (Zagreb Time Machine); and Ban Jelacic Square, hosting many of the events is a mere block from our door!
We line up at the “poljicki soparnik” tent numerous times for this pizza-like treat of chard, onions, parsley, and garlic (of course) between layers of thin crust. A cold or flu virus stands no chance with us!
We are swept back into the city’s and country’s history with singers of old traditional favourites that have the crowd swooning with nostalgia. At one performance a “baba” hangs onto every word and is seemingly lost in reverie, and I can only imagine how the county’s often tumultuous past has shaped her life.
Our Zagreb Photo Gallery
Dancers from every part of Croatia kick-up their heels –with different groups taking to the stage daily.
Watching over all this action is the statue of Count Ban Josip Jelacic (1801-1859), after whom the square is named. As general in the Austrian army and governor of Croatia from 1848 until his death, he abolished serfdom and held the first ever elections for the country’s parliament; a few of his accomplishments to his being celebrated as a national hero.
The ubiquitous blue trams run in an almost continual stream on the tracks that side the square – an extremely well utilized mode of public transportation.
This square is considered the beginning of Upper Town. Our climb takes us to “The Cathedral” (formally the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary). This stunning edifice reaches high into the heavens with its twin spires. It largely dates back to the 19th century, although its origins are from the time the diocese was first established by Bishop Duh (duh means spirit) in 1094.
Defense walls and towers to protect the cathedral were built with haste from the threat of Ottoman Turk invasions in the 16th century.
The open-air Dolac market, fondly known as “the belly of Zagreb”, is piled high with fresh vegetables, fruit, cheese, meat and fish brought in from around the country. It is open every day of the week, and has been in operation since the early 20th century.
In Zagreb one is never more than a step away from a café/bar. Outside tables have colonized almost every square inch of space along major streets; in some instances the roadway is reduced to one lane to accommodate them. Many of these café/bars serve only beverages, making it necessary to check menus to see if a solid form of intake is available. And they are always packed with customers – smoking, chatting, smoking, sipping, smoking….the cigarette companies do good business here.
Another day we meander through the Lower Town. King Tomislav Square is graced with a statue of Croatia’s first king (crowned in 925) known as a courageous warrior who united all the Croatian lands into one country. The Art Pavilion dating back to 1896 backs onto the square with its gardens. The Main Railway Station, built in 1862, faces the square.
Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980), known as Marshal Tito or just Tito was Prime Minister and President (post-WWII and until his death) of the newly formed Yugoslav Federation. Tito is remembered for his successful economic and diplomatic policies, and his authoritative methods (some say benevolent dictatorship) to quash nationalistic urges of the countries that made up Yugoslavia.
Other buildings of significance that side the square are Zagreb University and the Museum of Arts and Crafts; in front of the latter we watch art students sketch a model sitting in view of their easels.
Why is a cemetery listed in the top three sites of Zagreb? We are about to find out. Bus 106 shuttles back and forth – testimony to Mirogoj Cemetery’s popularity. We enter through gates that open to a vast area with beautiful tree lined avenues between family tombs, holding many generations of family members. Some families have had renowned sculptors individualize their burial place with religious statues or elaborate tomb facades. Prominent Croatians from every field are laid to rest here – politicians, artists, musicians, scientists, inventors. Mostly the marble is shiny, or the concrete is clean, often with adorning flowers and lamps. Some are covered in moss and vines – we wonder if these families no longer have heirs, or if their progeny have moved to far-away places. Monuments for Croatian soldiers killed in every war are interspersed throughout the cemetery.
While walking along a soft rumbling causes us to turn. A purring cat is cozied up on one of the family plots and another feline peaks out from behind the headstone – I have a smiling thought that this deceased once took loving care of many cats.
The story of Mirogoj started in 1852 when Ljudevit Gaj, a Croatian reformer and poet bought a small forest and vineyard on the slopes of Medvednica Moutain. Gaj spent his fortune turning the land into beautiful gardens. After his death in 1872, the town of Zagreb purchased the property for the central cemetery of Zagreb. Over the years the buried in other cemeteries were moved here, and by 1910 most other cemeteries were closed. We leave with no doubt in our minds about the cemetery’s architectural, artistic and historical significance.
The next morning it is back to Ban Jelacic Square for a modern festival event of the “Zagreb Time Machine”. The 5th Annual “Utrka na Stitlama” (High Heel Race) is underway.
Tension builds in the race participants. Spectators call out words of encouragement; although in this case “good luck” seems more appropriate then the theatrical slang of “Brake a leg”.
The first race will be the men’s – and three brave fellows with revved testosterone levels march to the start line. Expecting clumsiness, my jaw drops when they speed by like “Roadrunners being chased by Wile E Coyote”! They are presented with huge gift bags for their sportsmanship!
The ladies are up next – in sets because of the number of participants. They whiz by with gusto, arms pumping and the resounding clatter of spikes on concrete! The winners of the sets go on to the final prize money race –the 1st prize winner walks away with 10,000 Kuna ($1,700 US) and 2nd and 3rd winner monetary prizes are none too shabby either!
And there is more – spectators can bid on the high heels of movie stars/celebrities, bags by Zigman (a young Zagreb fashion designer) can be purchased for 10Kuna, and of course the latest issue of Story Magazine is on hand – the major sponsor/promoter of this event (with all sponsors named on info panels) – the proceeds from the High Heel Race will go to the Centre for Autism, a worthy cause.
One Potato, two potato, three potato, four…and much more!
“Krumpir Gulas” – Potato Stew
At the lower end of the funicular to Upper Town, we come across “Vallis Aurea” which locals say, “serve the best traditional lunches – different specials for each day of the week.” On this day we choose the Potato Stew, and a wise choice it is. A giant bowl of potato and tender pork chunks, carrots, onions, garlic stewed in a rich paprika broth – served with light rye bread, crusty on the outside and spongy inside. Along with a local beer, we leave warmed and full with this delicious fare!
Okay, we must go back for another lunch…known as traditional with a capital “T”;
“Grah sa Kuhanim Buncekom” – Beans Stew with smoked pork knuckle. Ahhh, a variety of beans simmered with pork hocks, carrot, onion and garlic until the meat falls off the bone and the beans are reduced to a thick flavourful sauce, perfect to lap by the spoonful and to dip white fluffy bread wedges in….my mouth will forever water thinking about it!
Our Zagreb stay is longer than in other countries along our route, as per our intent to obtain our India visas at the embassy here…until we hit a snag. Due to agreements between Croatia and India, it is a requirement to present flight tickets to and from India when applying – and we are not ready to commit to specific dates as yet. This actually is a plus, giving us more leisurely days to absorb Zagreb’s exuberant character – especially while sipping cappuccinos in the sunshine – all of which will long be remembered
It is next off by train to Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina!
And….my $-man Rick (a.k.a. Finance Minister) reports our costs for Zagreb (including accommodations, food, travel, sites) comes to $149 a day!
Praška 8 Apartments Zagreb – nice décor in newly renovated apartments -with kitchenette, flat screen TV with English channels, good WiFi. The office is not regularly staffed, but there is a number to call if needed. All apartments are up 6 levels of stairs (or 85 steps -we counted) but good exercise for the glutes. The location is chose to supermarkets, the train station, and perfect for checking out the Upper and Lower Town sites.