Parks, naïve art and a miracle-working icon make up Croatia's undeservedly underrated capital
The people of Zagreb are fond of saying that their city is too quiet. For the visitor, however – especially if you began your journey by crossing the western suburbs of Sofia – the quiet of Zagreb is a blessing. It has everything Bulgaria's capital city doesn't – wide streets, well preserved old architecture and a preternatural cleanliness.
Historically, the name of Zagreb was first noted in 1094, but up until 1850 the city consisted of two settlements on either side of the Medveščak creek. On the hill to the west was the fortified town of Gradec, and on the east was Kaptol, a community formed around the Archbishop's cathedral. Today Gradec and Kaptol are the two main attractions of a tour of Zagreb. A third area of interest is Donji Grad, situated at the foot of the hill.
1. Green Horseshoe
Zagreb's lush greenery is one of the city's hallmarks, and its most famous gardens make up the so-called Green Horseshoe. The sequence of eight parks in Donji Grad, or Lower Town, became part of Zagreb's urban plan in a project by the Croatian architect Milan Lenuci. Starting from the Zrinjevac Park to Kralja Tomislava Square and on to Maršala Tita Square, the Green Horseshoe lets you traverse half of Zagreb's central area without losing sight of either trees or gardens.
Zagreb's youth have long made the city parks their favourite places to hang out. During the day you can see them sunbathing, talking or reading a book while lying on the grass. They are there again in the evenings, quietly drinking beer and chatting. The Zrinjevac Park is the most popular. At weekends you can find an orchestra playing in the centrally located rotunda, while people dance round about and lovers of vintage clothes stroll by in 19th Century costumes.
2. Ulica Ilica
They say that Ilica, the Josipa Jelačića Square and leads westwards, is Zagreb's backbone. The metaphor is apt: the street is the longest in the city and the home of a large number of up-market shops. Ilica Street became a popular commercial centre on the day it was created, in the 18th Century, when the area at the foot of Gradec and Kaptol was turned into a marketplace.
One of the shops, the Oktogon Arcade, is itself a landmark. It has a majestic glass dome and leads to the flower market. If you are in Strossmeyer Alley in Gradec and look down at the dome, you will see a grid of stylised menorahs, a detail which cannot be seen from below. These are a homage to the Jewish merchants and bankers who financed the construction of the building.
3. Stone Gate
If you stroll down from St Marco Square you will soon reach a very unusual place. Surely this passage between the houses must have been a gate in a fortress wall? Inside, however, it is like nothing else. Those who step in cross themselves, parents take their children by the hand and hush them and some of the passersby stop to say a prayer before an intricate wrought iron grille. People deep in thought can be seen sitting on the prayer benches scattered around. The passage walls are covered with dozens of stone plaques where, in several languages – Croat and German predominantly, but also English – anonymous donors express their gratitude to the Virgin.
It was in dramatic circumstances that Kamenita Vrata, or the Stone Gate, became one of Zagreb's shrines. In 1760 a fire destroyed Gradec. Miraculously, an icon of the Virgin Mary, almost undamaged, was recovered from the debris of the gate. Although nowadays the icon is hidden behind a metalwork grille, people still pray before it. The grille is opened twice a day and then the atmosphere of devotion becomes even more intense.
4. Museum of Naïve Art
There are lots of museums and galleries in Zagreb, but if you're looking for a place with a unique collection, start with the Museum of Naïve Art in Gradec. Situated in an old house just a few metres from the Church of St Marco and the parliament building, the museum is, ironically, full of pictures that reject any form of authority.
The collection's centrepiece is works by artists of the so-called Hlebine School. Hlebine was a village where, in the 1930s, a group of remarkably talented naïve artists appeared as if from nowhere. Their art had no idea of perspective, but carried a strong social message. Regrettably, when Yugoslavia became a Socialist state the artists gave up their penchant for the topical.
5. Cathedral and Cardinal Stepinac
The first cathedral in Kaptol was built in 1093, but the Gothic building you see now dates from after 1880, when an earthquake devastated the area. Like many other Zagreb landmarks, the cathedral was also designed by the Austrian architect Hermann Bollé. When the English writer Rebecca West visited it in 1938, her chief interest was in the vault. She was so impressed with the lengthy search for the key to the vault that she used the experience as a metaphor for the differences between Serbs and Croats (back then Croatia was part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia). Today there's an important piece of the new Croat nationalism to be found there, as the altar houses the sarcophagus that holds the remains of Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac (1898–1960).
Underneath the sarcophagus there is a constant line of people who have come to pay homage to the man who has become a symbol of Croatia's self-determination. Stepinac was a senior clergyman who initially showed some tolerance towards the regime of the Independent State of Croatia, set up in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia in 1941. In the following year, however, he began to condemn the repressions of the Ustaše against both the Serbs and the Jews, but this attitude didn't do him much good during the years of Socialist Yugoslavia. In 1946, in a political trial, Stepinac was convicted of high treason. He was imprisoned until 1951 and later spent the rest of his life under house arrest. After his death, his remains became an object of veneration.
If you want to see the sacristy, you have to book in advance.
6. Flea Market
If you happen to be in Zagreb on a Sunday morning, walk down Ilica Street and keep an eye out for Britanski Trg, or British Square. There's no need to look for signposts – you'll recognise the place by the dozens of stalls set up for the weekly flea market.
There you're likely to find what you'd expect to find at similar venues: old photographs, Wedgewood porcelain and gramophone records. Nonetheless, the Zagreb flea market offers some local "antiques" – propaganda statuettes, coins and postage stamps from the times of the Kingdom and Socialist Yugoslavia.
7. Botanical Gardens
Botanicki Vrt, Zagreb's Botanical Gardens, has been part of the Green Horseshoe since 1889, when it was founded by Antun Heinz, a professor of botany. Currently, more than 10,000 species from around the world are grown there and make the garden a pleasant place for a rest during your walk around Zagreb.
8. Tkalčićeva Street
The capacity of the inhabitants of Zagreb to spend hours drinking coffee outdoors is proverbial. So too is the place in the city where this activity is carried out most often: Tkalčićeva Street, between Gradec and Kaptol.
Even if you tend to avoid areas of mass tourism, it's worth your while to look for an unoccupied table and order a cup of cappuccino. After all, you don't often find yourself drinking coffee sitting over a covered river, do you?
Tkalčićeva Street did not exist until 1889, when the city authorities decided to cover the Medveščak creek and turn it into a street. Today the only visible evidence of the underground river is a small street leading to Tkalčićeva, with a strange name. Krvavi Most, or Blood Bridge Street, spans the bridge on the Medveščak creek where the dwellers of Gradec and Kaptol used to fight, sometimes to the death, for control over the mills along the river.
9. Funicular and Cannon
"Bammmmmmm!" The explosion shakes the glass walls of the carriage of the Zagrebačka uspinjača, or the funicular railway, which climbs the 66 metres linking Donji Grad and Gradec.
The sound takes some of the tourists by surprise – an American woman starts looking around uneasily – but two Croatian women just keep discussing whether thermal powered heating is to be preferred to electric. They are quite accustomed to the report of the small cannon that, every day at 12 o'clock sharp, is fired from the Kula Lotrscak, or the Tower of Lotrscak, in Gradec. The tower was erected in the Middle Ages, but the tradition of firing the cannon dates from the second half of the 19th Century. It was started by one of the mayors of Zagreb so that the vergers in the nearby churches would know the exact time to ring the church bells.
The funicular is a landmark in its own right. Built between 1890 and 1893, it operates one of the shortest routes in the world. A ticket costs 4 kuna, about 55 euro cents, and there is a train every 10 minutes.
10. Railway Station and Hotel Esplanade
Generally, city railway stations are places from which you want to get away as soon as possible. But Zagreb's Glavni Kolodvor, or Central Station, is the complete opposite. Located in the city centre, near Kral Tomislav Square, it is a clean and pleasant place from which you can buy a ticket to either Munich or to one of the nearby villages. Also the hotel that's close by has nothing in common with what you probably expect from such a venue. In fact, the Hotel Esplanade is the most exquisite place to stay in Zagreb. It has been open since 1925, when it was built to host the passengers on the Orient Express.
One of the biggest surprises that Zagreb offers is its central cemetery. It has neither the dreamy fascination of Highgate nor the collection of famous dead of Père-Lachaise, but in this case this is all to the good. The Mirogoj Cemetery is at once picturesque, maintained and undiscovered, a worthy candidate for a possible list of the hidden treasures of the Balkans.
The cemetery was built in 1876. Its designer, Hermann Bollé, put all his creativity and energy into the fashioning of a sentimentally melancholic landscape: trees, a church and two covered colonnades, which are now overgrown with ivy. The cemetery is the resting-place of generations of Zagrebians – Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, Jews and atheist. But the Mirogoj does have its famous dead. One of them is the politician Stjepan Radić, who lies in the southern colonnade. In 1928 he was assassinated in the Yugoslav parliament building in Belgrade by a Serb nationalist. The tomb of Franjo Tuđman (1922–1999), the first president of independent Croatia, is just behind the church.