To Zagreb with Love
Zagreb (capital city of Croatia) was my first introduction to this beautiful country. How can you not fall in love with a city which has a heart (licitar) as its emblem and celebrates even the heartbreaks through a museum?
Local folklore says that sometime in 1600s, an artist gave a red heart with a mirror to his love as a window to his heart. This translated into a Christmas tradition of giving heart shaped gingerbread (technically, they are honey dough) cookies to loved ones, which the city of Zagreb aptly made its emblem.
The city also houses the museum of broken relationships, which is a cathartic experience for anyone who has ever been lost in love or lost his/her love. A bunch of hair, a packed but never used suitcase, a used toothbrush, a half knit sweater, a train ticket, a rabbit shaped vibrator, an anal plug…memoirs of love reciprocated, lost, unrequited, jilted or just painfully snatched are part of the exhibit. It’s not just the exhibits that display a smorgasbord of emotions (love, pain, anger, grief, sorrow, regret and what not!). One can sense an overwhelming heaviness, see a few quick face-wiping gestures or some shameless run on the cheeks, and almost hear the thoughts of folks writing their own break up rituals or stories in visitors’ log book. I wrote mine too; for one that ended painfully, and thanked the powers that be for bringing more love my way.
Now, it’s a different matter that I fell in love multiple times during the trip; sometimes with the place, sometimes with the food and many a times with the people. Yes! Croats are gorgeous people, so beautiful that I wanted Croatian babies J.
Travelogue: Usually my travels are always constrained for time. It’s either because I book the cheapest possible itineraries or my middle class upbringing forces me to optimize, and worst of all, when I have limited vacation days. Zagreb was one of those rare cities where I had the luxury to explore the city, understand its pace and absorb its culture. We spent days just walking aimlessly, reveling in the city’s architecture, interacting with the locals, street shopping on Illica, napping in the parks, and exploring local markets. In parallel we also ended up interacting with locals and learning about Croatian history and culture; at times almost with an academic ardor.
I found Zagreb to be captivating in its own cute, charming, quaint way and still seemingly unscathed; despite tourism being its primary industry. It was such a relief to find souvenirs which were not “made in china” (one of my travel pet peeves). Hell! I will go to China for souvenirs from China. Initially; we were pleasantly surprised to see the number of tourists or lack thereof. However, the notion was short-lived till we saw the tourists swarm like dark clouds over each and every monument. We had a few days of sunshine; I am not complaining.
Upper Town: Zagreb is divided into the Upper town aka old and lower aka new town. Living close to the city center and Bana Jelacicia square, we decided to explore the old town first. Uphill towards the Kaptol area, we found the Cathedral, majestic and under repair. The cathedral is the most prominent structure in Zagreb and we were lucky to see a colorful procession as if of kings with guards in full armor right outside.
Continuing our lollygagging, we just about made it in time for Muzec de Grada (museum of the city) where we almost got thrown out in our rare moment of pseudo cultural enlightenment (for taking pictures). Hopeless tourist that I am; this was forgotten all too soon. I was instantly charmed by the cobbled streets, beautifully carved iron gates hiding lush gardens, arched wrought iron lamp posts with hanging flowers pots against the backdrop of dark hued walls. There were cute cafes or souvenir shops at every nook and cranny waiting to be discovered and be delighted at. And, then we came across St. Mark’s church which has the most beautiful tiled roof of any church I have seen, probably the only tiled roof on any church I’ve seen. The colorful tiles represent the coat of arms of Zagreb and Kingdom of Croatia side by side.
Taking the world’s safest mode of transport (an old funicular) to witness a cannon ball being fired at noon from the old tower introduced us to yet another quirk of the city. In addition to the childish delight this perpetrates, climbing to the top of the tower lets you feast on a 360 view of the city. The view is predominantly uniform rust colored roofing, the cathedral, St. Mark’s church, squares as voids and parks as green patches and a distinct transition towards more modern and grey building as you glaze towards lower town.
Lower town: A long stroll in lower town has its own share of architectural, cultural as well as natural delights. It’s marked by several parks (Zrinjevac being the largest one) and squares (my favorite being Tomislav, dedicated to Croatia’s first king) and almost always full of tourists’ and lovers’ shenanigans. We took several bench stops; mostlywhen tired to exhaustion in convoluted positions publicly. One particularly regal was lying prostrate in front of Hotel Esplanade which was built to cater to the bourgeois travelling on the Orient express.
Given my interest in poetry (I try to jumble a few unrelated words and emotions and hope to God that they stick); my literary taste buds were instigated by reading Juditha. It’s the first poem written in Croatian by Marko Maurilic (father of Croatian literature). There are many a monuments after him but nothing excuses one very phlegmatic and shapeless statue of Marko. If you believe my hypothesis, this was an act of recognition gone tawdry due to jealousy.
What I distinctly liked about Zagreb is that a cultural or historical monument is not just a memory of days gone by; it's part of the day to day life. The knight on a horse statue on Bana Jelacicia square is the most well-known meeting point in Zagreb. Muzec de Grada does not just store artifacts and history; it is part of their history itself and “Madonna of Stone gate” is not just a religious relic but the most popular place of worship for locals. While walking through the city, one cannot miss the roman influence whether it’s the architecture or the food menu. One could stand in old town and be transported to the “Age of Empires” in the words of Jordan. This is exactly what happened to us at one point of time as a few horsemen probably dressed as Knights Templar trotted away to glory in front of us and we were too spellbound to even take pictures. The city still has two designated lights men on it's payroll who go around old town lighting the lamps around sunset every day. I mean, one could very well be living in the Roman era. Also, you cannot miss the wafting fragrance in the city perpetuated by every souvenir shop selling lavender seeds, soaps, pillows, sheets, face masks, paintings…and what not !
Jordan, Jumbo and Coco bring it down: Well, the party started on Tkalčićeva Street or Radićeva or both since we were staying very close. For the uninitiated, these are probably the most important streets if you were ever so inclined to be young i.e. eat, drink and be merry or stay at hostels. That’s not saying that there aren’t other places. In fact, the best food we had was at Trilogija near stone gate, coolest bar we went to was on Petar Preradovic square and both streets combined would pale in front of Jarun lake for clubbing. Still, the rows of bars, hostels, local clubs, and food joints on these streets create the vibe that you dare not miss. Jordan, Jumbo and Coco’s usual night ranged from bar hopping to dancing at the local spots (we were at a reggae club till 3 AM on a Monday night) or hobnobbing at clubs at Jarun lake. This process involved Bollywood moves, rakija shots, walking around with personal hukkas and fine combing the streets for any drop of alcohol at ungodly hours. Many a friends were made (numbers, emails, smokes, salivas exchanged) in this process; some still active thanks to social media and some forgotten as the alcohol wore off.
Jarun lake deserves a special mention. One, the idea is brilliant! What’s not to like about nightclubs where you can walk straight into a lake in front in stilettos after downing innumerable drinks? Second, it has the maximum density of beautiful people per square feet; NY’s meatpacking district has got nothing on Jarun. Last but not the least, the bouncers are human. What else would explain the bouncer at Mansion letting us cut ahead of 100s of gorgeous Croats who were twice as tall and with one tenth the body fat post a 20 sec monologue? My Friday night memory tells me that it included NY, tourist, and last dying wish!
The Culinary Trails: Zagreb was the starting point of our epicurean delight along the Adriatic. Fishing for recommendations from locals as well as the tourist office; we ended up eating at Nocturno (great local food at reasonable price), Trilogija for its amazingly fresh food, Stari Fijaker (traditional Croatian), and Boban (contemporary Croatian cuisine). Traditional Croatian cuisine includes a lot of grilled meats and heavy Italian influences only added to our delight, whether it was cuttlefish risotto, or truffle infused pasta or melt in your mouth gnocchi. Bana Jelacicia square is full of surprises in the form of local markets selling Croatian wines, fresh produce, lavender and also the only place open at 3 AM selling food for the inebriated. Dolac food market was a different treat of its own where we feasted on Croatian breads, desserts and again farm fresh fruits. I loved the strawberries so much that I had a guy for my daily supply. Overall, I was a very well fed and happy traveler.