Why not Zagreb?
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  Posted April 2nd, 2016 by Zdenko  in Travel | No comments yet.

Travel destinations

By: Chris Kitching

Croatia’s capital is a cultural hotspot
Bleary-eyed from an early morning six-hour train ride and staring blankly at a tram system map like it’s an ink blot, I start to wonder if this episode is off to a disastrous start of Griswold proportions.

Trams in Zagreb are blue – favorite local color

  Sveti Duh, Savski gaj, Harambasiceva. Hieroglyphics would be easier to decipher than these tram stop names at this moment. Overwhelmed and impatient in the rain because of a lack of sleep, culture shock, foreign language, and absence of fellow tourists — which novice traveler hasn’t been there?

 The question is, how do you escape before your boil over? In this case, it was one of Zagreb’s finest ambassadors who scooped my girlfriend and I from this predicament — a young English-speaking woman who recognized two fish out of water and went out of her way to approach and assist.

St. Mark’s Church in the Upper Town

Interpreter
Unsure which tram to recommend, the woman led us to an information booth, acted as an interpreter, and led us back to the tram stop and told us which one to catch. Crisis averted. The people of Croatia’s capital would put out a few more fires for us in the next 72 hours as we found our way around its tangled streets in what turned out to be a pleasant and surprising visit.

Zagreb is vibrant, comfy and cosmopolitan — a cultural hotspot with an abundance of museums, cafes, historic sites, parks and good shopping, and a mix of architectural influences. Old meets new in its medieval-like “old town” or Upper Town (Gornji Grad). More on that later.

Zagreb – panoramic view of the city and its mountain Sljeme

Typical street in Zagreb

With one million citizens, Zagreb is Croatia’s largest city. Many speak at least a little bit of English. The tram system, it turns out, is easy to navigate once you pick up a map and find your bearings.

Before we embarked on a two-week trip to Europe, which included stops in Munich and Vienna, most friends and relatives asked, “Why Zagreb?” Some didn’t know where to find it on a map, lending credence to its reputation as an overlooked city.

“Because it’s out of the way and not as expensive as other cities,” I replied.

The latter part of that explanation isn’t as true as it used to be. Prices for most things are catching up to Western Europe as Croatia — birthplace of the necktie and ballpoint pen — prepares to join the European Union and shed its Kuna for the Euro. Food, alcohol (how does a pint of beer for $2 or less sound?) and souvenirs, however, remain a bargain.

Cibona tower – local basketball team headquarters

Geography is to blame for Zagreb being lesser-known. Flocks of tourists bypass it for Croatia’s sunny beaches on the Adriatic coast or central European cities such as Budapest.

First impressions of Zagreb, which attracts about half a million visitors annually, can be underwhelming but don’t let that deter you or veil its true beauty and charm. Rolling in on a train, the immediate scenery is dull — cluttered yards or vacant lots, tiny homes and bleak colors.

“Zagreb?” asks a Croatian woman on the train. She recommended we visit a coastal city instead. Go figure.

Once we finally boarded that tram, we escaped Lower Town (Donji Grad) and entered a drab-looking neighborhood filled with rows of communist-era apartments or shops. Graffiti covers every grey concrete wall.

The King Tomislav square

In many cities, this is a sign of a crime-ridden no-go zone. In Zagreb, it’s the norm and it doesn’t reflect the social status of the law-abiding apartment dwellers. These simplistic apartments in soul-leeching grey were built when Croatia, now a republic, was part of the former Yugoslavia. Croatia’s secession led to a deadly war in the 1990s. Zagreb was mostly untouched but emotional wounds remain.

Ban Jelacic monument

The best place to start the day is Ban Jelacic Square (Trg Bana Jelacica), the heart of the city. It’s within walking distance to all major attractions. During a break on our second day, it was this square where we grabbed a gigantic slice of pizza and soda for $3, sat down in 20 C weather that is unusually warm for late October, and engaged in people-watching.

Zagreb in winter

The square is crawling with people, all of them locals. Tourists are scarce at this time of year. People spill out of the overcrowded trams. Young women strut with confidence, young men take notice, a senior feeds a crush of pigeons, and men in suits scurry to work. This is the spot to arm yourself with a map and comfortable pair of walking shoes and head out at your own pace or join a walking tour so you don’t miss anything.

To the north is Upper Town, a pedestrian-friendly area with cobblestone streets and red-tile roofs. It overflows with history.

Upper Town attraction – Stone Gate

Stops must include Zagreb Cathedral and colorful St. Mark’s Church and square (home to the parliament building). For a panoramic view, visit the observation deck of the 13th-century Lotrscak watchtower. Visit at noon when its cannon is fired daily.

Dolac Market, steps away from Ban Jelacic Square, is a lively place that is olfactory heaven. Consider it an outdoor farmer’s market on steroids. Fresh vegetables, fruits, eggs, cheese and fish are brought in daily.

Dolac market

Flowers are sold on the street

Of interest to tourists is the souvenirs — crystal, hand-made crafts, soccer scarves, and other knick-knacks. Vendors are willing to barter, so let ’em have it.

Nearby, we found a decent restaurant, Pivnica Medvedgrad, specializing in its own brew, sausage and pasta. A filling plate of pasta and a pint of beer sets you back $6.

More modern Lower Town is south of the square and home to Zagreb’s collection of museums (archeological, arts and crafts, naive art), galleries and theatres (of those, the Croatian National Theatre is the crown jewel).

Ban Jelacic Square at night – Zagreb downtown

For shopping, go to the boutiques and name-brand stores of Ilica, a street dividing the upper and lower towns. Or, take a 20-minute tram ride to the south, crossing Sava River, to Avenue Mall in “new” Zagreb. For women, there’s trendy stores like Top Shop and Zara. For men, you can have a beer in the food court. Did I mention beer is inexpensive here?

Zagreb’s grey buildings are countered with its colorful parks. Its gem, 316-hectare Maksimir Park, lies to the east.

New modern buildings

Away from bustle
Maksimir is an ideal place to burn a few hours. Away from the hustle and bustle of central Zagreb, it’s easy to feel alone here. Stroll the paths, paddle a canoe on a man-made lake, sip a drink at the outdoor cafe, or take in a free outdoor concert, depending on the season.

Or, drop by the animal kingdom at Zagreb Zoo, located within the park. The grand attraction is two African lions but there are more than 200 species. The zoo was a bit of a concern, however, because some animals are in aging, cramped enclosures.

Arena – new sports center

The $6 admission is cheaper if you buy a Zagreb Card, providing unlimited travel on public transportation for 24 hours ($13.50) or 72 hours ($20), and discounts at museums, shops and restaurants. We bought our cards at our hostel but not once did a tram operator ask to see our cards or a ticket.

It’s tough to measure a city’s inhabitants in three days but I gathered the people of Zagreb are friendly, laid-back and very proud. Obesity doesn’t seem to be a problem here. So, it may not have white-sand beaches or glistening blue waters, but our answer to our prodding relatives and friends and the lady on the train remains the same: “Why not Zagreb?”

Lake Jarun

More pictures from Zagreb are available here.

Have a good and healthy season. 

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