The city of hearts
Medieval towers, cathedral spires, besides open-air markets, give an old-world charm to the lively city of Zagreb
Tanushree Podder

National Theatre
National Theatre

Museum of Ethnography
Museum of Ethnography

St. Mark’s Church
St. Mark’s Church

The Zagreb cathedral
The Zagreb cathedral

Fruits at the Dolac market
Fruits at the Dolac market

zagreb is young at heart. It is also one of the youngest countries, having attained independence in 1991. The vibrant city set along the Sava river is one of the most beautiful places in Eastern Europe. The city that began as Gothic settlements perched on two hills by the side of the Sava became an important trading centre as it lay on the route that connected Central Europe with the Adriatic Sea. Zagreb, today, is a city with history, medieval towers, lofty cathedral spires, umpteen parks and lively open-air markets. Here’s tryst with the capital of Croatia that began on a beautiful summer morning.

Images from the movie Murder on Orient Express flit through the mind when one looks at the beautiful neo-classical structure of the Zagreb railway station. It was once a stopover for the famous Orient Express that chugged from Paris to Istanbul. The Esplanade Hotel, constructed in 1925, to accommodate the passengers is just a stone’s throw away, its elegant art-deco lines framed against a clear blue sky.

Across the station, in the park, people bask in the summer sun with the statue of King Tomislav, the first medieval Croatian king, astride a magnificent stallion. The walkways are abuzz with walkers. The lovely yellow building of the Art Pavilion provides a superb backdrop to the park.

The feeling of old-world charm lingers as one walks through the leafy promenade past unpretentious Austro-Hungarian buildings standing cheek to jowl with the classical ones. Besides the striking neo-Baroque building, which house the Croatian National Theatre, there is the ‘Well of Life’, another masterpiece created by the sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. It is said the theatre was inaugurated by the Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef, by striking a silver hammer.

It is a good idea to take the Zagreb card. With it, one can take a ride in one of the ubiquitous blue trams to the busy Ban Jelacic Square that is touted as one of the most beautiful squares in that part of the world. This is where the young and the old Zagrebians hang out, sipping their coffee or slurping their gelato, with the huge statue of Ban Jelacic watching over them.

Snaking one’s way through enthusiastic crowd of shoppers on Ilica Street, one can take the century-old funicular to the Upper Town (Gornji grad), the medieval part of Zagreb, to travel back in time. The Lotr`9Acak Tower offers stupendous views of the city and its bell dating back to 1646 continues to toll. Called by different names like ‘the brigand’s bell,’ ‘tinker’s toll’ and ‘drunkard’s ding-dong’, it rings every evening before the city gates are closed. Once a day, at noon, the traditional cannon shot rings through the Upper Town.

Gas lights from the past line the cobbled Radiceva street. Two lamplighters continue to light and extinguish the street lamps as these did in 1863. There are 217 gas lights, which are lit by the two lamplighters — a task that takes them close to two hours.

The picturesque roof of St Mark’s Church with its coats of arms dazzles from a distance. Built by Venetian craftsmen, the church with its Gothic south portal with the statues of the 12 apostles is an eye-catcher, besides the change of guards of the Cravat Regiment at the square.

According to legend, Matija Gubec, the leader of the Croatian peasants’ revolution, was tortured and killed in the square. This is also the square where women accused of witchcraft were burnt at stake.

The Stone Gate is the only remaining city gate. It is said in 1731, when a massive fire broke out and engulfed the wooden parts of the gate, all that remained was the statue of Madonna with infant Jesus. In the passage behind the doorway is a tiny chapel where people flock to pray. Thousands of prayers engraved in stone, line the walls.

The Zagreb museum, housed in a lovely Clarissan Monastery dating back to the 17th century, is a treasure trove of exhibits and information. Ambling towards the Kaptol, the past seat of the Bishop, are the lofty spires of the Zagreb cathedral. The tallest structure in the city, the cathedral has seen tumultuous times. Plundered by the Tatars in 1242 and damaged by the earthquake in 1880, it was restored by Hermann Boll`E9 and has found a place on the Croatian Kuna (currency).

Zagreb is a green city. With a grid formed by the Lenuci’s horseshoe, which is a series of squares and parks, the city is a treat for sore eyes. The chestnut tree-lined Strossmayer Promenade is just one of the beauties that draws the public. The first public park of Croatia, Maksimir Park, was founded in 1787. The sprawling green lung of Zagreb is a delightful mix of rolling meadows, creeks, and lakes. It is also a treasure trove of flora and fauna.

It was time to leave and one had to return but there was a long list of unfinished sightseeing in the city.

fact file

Reaching there: There are several flights connecting major Indian cities with Zagreb. Lufthansa has flights from Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai with a stopover at Frankfurt.

Staying: There are umpteen hotel options at Zagreb right from the mid to high-end hotels with the Regent Esplanade at the luxury end. If you are looking for central location and affordable tariff Hotel Central is a good option.

Getting Around: The city has an efficient tram service. The Zagreb card is a good option for travellers since it can be used for unlimited rides on trams and also fetches good discounts on museum entry tickets, restaurants, shops, etc. The card is valid for 72 or 24 hours from the date and time entered on the card and is not transferable.

Eating: Although all kinds of cuisine, including Indian, are available at Zagreb, do try out the local specialties like Zagrebacki odrezak (stuffed veal steaks), Kotlovina (stewed meat), local cheeses, paprenjak (spicy biscuit) and strukli (cottage cheese stuffed pastry with sour cream).

Shopping: The most popular souvenir at Zagreb is the licitar. For those who are looking for wines, there is the Plavac mali, and Gra`9Aevina Portugizec, Rizvanac and Zeleni Silvanac. Don’t forget to visit the Dolac Market if you are looking for cheese or any local gourmet items. A visit to the flea market for brica-a-brac and antiques can also be worthwhile.

Currency: The local currency is Kuna, although Euro is widely accepted. 1 Kuna = Rs 11 (approx)

Best time to go: June and July are the best months to visit Zagreb.