A weekend in Zagreb is full of surprises
Zagreb is a relatively undiscovered delight of a capital city. Often overlooked in favour of the beautiful Croatian coastline, this charming city has much to recommend on a visit. Heinrich Hall takes us on a perfect weekend sojourn
The red umbrellas of Dolac Market (Image © Marko Vrdoljak, Zagreb Tourist Board)
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.
Tkalciceva Street (Upper Town) (Image: Julien Duval, Zagreb Tourist Board)
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.
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.
This article is from the Autumn 2016 issue of Timeless Travels magazine.
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