A Must-See City: Zagreb
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  Posted February 13th, 2010 by Zdenko  in Purgerska Nostalgija, Travel | 3 comments

Traveling Croatia

By: ROBERT CROSS, Chicago Tribune

Zagreb (Croatia) Reclaims Its Status As Must-See Old World City
One morning, shrieking whistles yanked me out of a deep sleep. They sounded like a thousand cops dealing with an apocalyptic traffic jam. The constant racket drove out all rational thought.

From my room’s window, I couldn’t see the source, but the whistling persisted as I showered and dressed and made my way downstairs to the lobby of the Hotel Palace, where, just outside, hundreds of young people marched north past Strossmayerov Square, led by bands of whistle-blowers.

“They are finished with school,” a porter explained. “They have no more classes. They look ahead now. It’s good they have something to look forward.”

Ah. Seniors on the cusp of graduation. Party time!

I walked upstream from the revelers and found still more students pouring from the main railroad station via an immense underground shopping mall. They eventually would join the crowds gathered at Ban Jelacic Plaza, the heart of downtown.

A huge equestrian statue of viceroy Josip Jelacic dominates the plaza. He was a 19th-century hero who tried, unsuccessfully, to wrest Croatian independence from ruling Hungary. Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslav strongman, disliked that symbol of Croatian nationalism and had it removed. In 1990, when Eastern European communism collapsed, Croatians took the statue out of storage, reassembled it and returned it to its original site.

In preceding days, I had grown fond of Ban Jelacic Plaza, because it looks so wonderfully Old European, an expanse surrounded by shops and cafes, a pedestrian zone buffering the lower, more modern, city from the medieval enclaves on the bluff above. Bright red and blue trolleys clang past umbrellas emblazoned with brewery logos, inviting everyone to linger awhile. But even the “modern” city holds on tight to structures with all the European architectural frills: ornate pediments, statuary, latticework, Renaissance and baroque touches, and Gothic buttresses.

Over the Cold War years and again during the conflicts of the 1990s, Zagreb had filtered through my imagination mostly as a black-and-white image of a troubled and fragmented Yugoslavia. Now the capital of an independent Croatia shows off its colors and vibrancy. Maybe it always was thus, but it never came to mind as one of the must-see cities on the Continent.

The Day of the Whistles dawned with misty rain, the sort of drab beginning that can make an aged metropolis feel mysterious, even grim and threatening. But the students brightened everything. It was a fine time to find a cafe and watch the party rev up.

On other days – some rainy, some not – Zagreb felt welcoming and yet enigmatic, one of those places where the next corner likely holds something unexpected and – delightful. The metropolis blossomed in Technicolor, no matter the weather: yellow on the walls of some beaux-arts buildings, orange tile roofs, murals and frescoes.

A woman passing my hotel (built lavishly in 1891) exclaimed to a companion, “Look at this! The buildings are beautiful.”

As in most cities, the exuberance of youth enlivens the surroundings but can mar the decor. I came to the conclusion that a wall in Zagreb without graffiti was a wall built, or scrubbed, that morning. Graffiti has reached the level of a local art form (in some places), as well as an eyesore (in a lot of places).

Other examples of artistic expression tend to be hidden away. On the same block as my hotel, the Gallery of Modern Art appeared gray and deserted, its tiny portal sheltering some pedestrians from a sudden downpour.

I took a chance and found the door unlocked, and up some stairs discovered dazzling, vivid and wickedly humorous statuary and paintings, including a streetscape by Ivan Benkovic labeled “Chicago 1914″ and Edo Kovacevic’s “Tkalciceva Street,” painted in 1933.

Tkalciceva Street itself, I later found out, looks very much the same as it does on that canvas. Shops, bars, restaurants and all the other attractions that make the street a nighttime magnet and a boon to strollers have been carved into old, renovated buildings.

During the day, the area steps lively too. Dolac Market operates in a large outdoor space nearby, every day from early morning until well into the afternoon. Tkalciceva and its winding cobblestone pedestrian walkway flanks one side of the medieval upper town, and the Kapitol district is on the other side, marked by the two spires of the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

A short, uphill walk leads to St. Mark’s Church. Its brightly tiled roof is decorated with a medieval coat of arms and the city emblem, providing a touch of color in a square otherwise dominated by the neoclassical presidential palace, the Parliament building, city hall and strings of black BMWs awaiting the lunch hour.

I spent most of a day exploring that little sector and I could have spent a few days more.

At the City Museum, a 17th-century convent has been fitted out with an organized maze of displays. Children far too young for whistle blowing laughed and shouted through a comprehensive and fascinating series of galleries that took us with curatorial artistry from medieval Zagreb to the present. Seemingly nothing had been left out: We saw weapons, religious objects, costumes, historic paintings, photographs, manufactured goods and scale models of the city at various stages of its growth.

All through my visit to Croatia – from Dubrovnik on up the coast – I kept an eye out for the creations of sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. His impressive Native American equestrian statues that flank Chicago’s Congress Plaza have always been among my favorite landmarks. Toward the end of his life, he taught at Notre Dame, which exhibits samples of his work.

So seeking out Mestrovic’s atelier felt almost like a pilgrimage, because Zagreb would be my last stop on the Croatia tour. After so much anticipation, I nearly passed right by the studio, because a restoration crew had obscured the entrance area with scaffolding and tarp.

Art And Architecture
Across from the Hotel Palace, in one of the park-like plazas that ring Zagreb’s central district, I visited the Strossmayer Gallery of Old Masters. It’s named for the 19th-century Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer – a leader of the movement to unite the country and an avid art collector. The gallery sits two floors above the Croatian Academy of Arts and Sciences (founded by the bishop).

I found myself alone as I took in the gilt-framed Italian, Dutch, French and Croatian artists from centuries past. And again, the building itself was beautiful, a neo-Renaissance pastry with a tall Ivan Mestrovic statue of Strossmayer looming over the backyard.

The galleries were fine, but so many streets seemed to beckon. Some led to unattractive apartment blocks. Others took roundabout ways to lead me back to the main downtown plaza.

On one of those strolls, I came upon an unusual statue of poet August Senoa – a life-size and stylized figure in black granite, casually leaning against a matching kiosk. Marija Ujevic finished the work in 1986, my guidebook said, but the book had provided no directions to the spot. Aimless wandering has its rewards.

When it came to the city’s botanic garden, my destination was much more specific. I walked west from the magnificent Esplanade Hotel on a street filled with imposing government buildings and private apartments. On a sweltering day, those businesslike blocks cried out for green relief, and the gardens appeared at just the right moment.

Before plunging into the nearby museum complex and the bustle of city life, I could walk around flower beds and stands of trees, cross a broad lawn and pause on a graceful little bridge fit for a Monet lily pond. I saw a few young men and women lounging on the grass, obviously with romance on their minds. At that point, clearly, they had come to the right place – not just the Botanical Garden but Zagreb as a whole.

For more information: Croatian National Tourist Office: 350 Fifth Ave., Suite 4003, New York, NY 10118; www.croatia.hr; Zagreb Tourist Board: www.zagreb-touristinfo.hr.

Have a good and healthy season.

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3 comments to “A Must-See City: Zagreb”

  1. Comment by Stella & Zlatko:

    thank you for creating this beautiful site and sharing all these wonderful pictures with us all!
    Zlatko & Stella from Stuttgart…

  2. Comment by Sasa:

    Zdenko kompa, zakon si, kad god me uhvati nostalgija za mojim Zagrebom, odem na tvoj sajt i odmah se osecam kak da sam doma, bok i pozdrav !

    Sasa

  3. Comment by Marko:

    Truly great article. Nice blog… appreciate your ideas on this and all other selected topics.

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