Zagreb: City of provincial charm
Airport: Zagreb International Airport (Zracna luka Zagreb) is in Pleso, 17 kilometres southeast of Zagreb. Buses leave for the city centre every half hour. 01 45 62 222 or 01 62 65 222. www.zagreb-airport.hr
Tourist information: The main tourist information office is located on Trg Bana Josipa Jelacica. Ask for the monthly magazine listing events in the city. 01 48 14 051 www.zagreb-touristinfo.hr
Summer festival (Zagrebacki ljetni festival) Classical music concerts are held in parks and churches. Zagreb film festival www.zagrebfilmfestival.com. in October.
Tourists in a hurry to reach the Croatian coast rarely stop off in Zagreb, yet this capital is worth a great deal more than it is given credit for. Indeed, the area of the city south of the Save River, with its miles of grey buildings, is not very appealing. But the two hills in the historic heart of Zagreb have retained their pleasant provincial charm. Life seems to go on peacefully here to the jingling sound of the tramway.
Touring Zagreb, with its relatively small city centre, is very pleasant; and walking up Gradec Hill is a good opportunity to get some exercise. Furthermore, driving here can be complicated due to scarce parking places and the traffic full of tramways and cars - difficult for the uninitiated. The Zagreb card gives you unrestricted use of all public transportation for 72 hours (including the cable car to the national park north of Zagreb) as well as a 50% discount on museum tickets.
A bit of history
The city's history mainly involves two rival hills. The first recorded history dates back to 1094 when the bishop's diocese was created. The canons built a cathedral on Kaptol hill, while a town grew up on Gradec, the hill across from it. The rivalry between the two towns frequently culminated in clashes, which ended when the Ottoman threat forced the two hills to become allies.
|Marché de Zagreb
After an earthquake which destroyed a large area of the city (1880), the town was entirely rebuilt, mainly by Austrian architects. It was adorned with majestic façades (neo-Romanesque to neo-Classical). The First World War brought an end to the Belle Epoque.
In 1918, Croatia was part of the brand new Yugoslavia, but Belgrade was named capital and Zagreb continued to play second fiddle. In the 1950s-60s, the rural exodus and increasing industrialisation drove many Croatians to settle in Zagreb. To deal with this influx of people, Novi Zagreb (New Zagreb) was created south of the Save, and the huge blocks of buildings suddenly appeared on the landscape.
When Croatia gained its independence in 1991, Zagreb became the capital of the new state. During the war in Yugoslavia, the presidential palace was the only building in the city bombed. The war and displaced populations finally turned Zagreb into a big city of 900,000 inhabitants, but it has retained its provincial atmosphere.
Kaptol, which is also the name of a street and of the square where the cathedral stands, is the lower of the town's two hills. The bishop's see has been here since the 11C. Kaptol Street is the main artery of the quarter. It contains the old canons' houses, some of which are remarkable.
Zagreb Cathedral has a long history and has survived many perils. Construction began in the 13C on the remains of a Romanesque cathedral destroyed by the Tatars. It was built in the Gothic style. In the 15C the cathedral was surrounded by ramparts and towers to defend it from Ottoman invasions.
Some of the towers can still be seen on the southern side of the building. The interior of Zagreb Cathedral has been rather well preserved from the hazards of history. It still contains the original (13C) sacristy, decorated with delicate frescoes.
From cathedral square you can't miss the shouts of the vendors and old women wearing black scarves at the city's main market: the town's big popular market, supplied by small local producers, is in full swing every morning. Flowers, fruits, vegetables, crafts, honey and olive oil are spread out under large red parasols.
Go down a few steps : this pedestrian street, lined with low-lying houses painted in warm colours, is the liveliest in the city thanks to its many restaurants, cafés and above all its terraces vying to provide the biggest and most comfortable armchairs.
Museum of the City of Zagreb
This museum, housed in the former Convent of the Poor Clares, recounts the history of the city of Zagreb from its origins. Starting with the rivalry between the two hills and including the war of independence from 1991-1995, it is an essential part of your exploration of the capital.
Open Tue-Fri 10 am-6pm, Sat-Sun 10am-1pm, 20 kn. Free guided tours at 11am on weekends.
Ivan Mestrovic Foundation
The works of the great sculptor, an admirer of Rodin, are presented here in a magnificent 17C house where the artist had his studio from 1922 to 1942, before going to the United States. It has a beautiful garden and patio decorated with furniture designed by the artist.
Open Tue-Fri 10am-6pm, Sat-Sun 10am-2pm, tickets 20kn.
St. Catherine's Church
This church built by the Jesuits is as discreet on the outside as it is rich inside. The walls and vault are covered in pink and white stucco, and the chancel is decorated with a splendid trompe-l'œil.
Open daily 10 a.m.-1p.m. and 5p.m.-7p.m.
The cemetery. A tour of Zagreb wouldn't be complete without seeing Mirogoj Cemetery. Peaceful and majestic are the two most fitting adjectives for this monumental cemetery, in existence since 1876. As you stroll down the lanes, the history of this land is recreated before your eyes, with Stars of David, Catholic crosses and Cyrillic characters on the tombs, as well as white Muslim tombstones.
Where to stay
Renting a room in a guesthouse is a popular form of accommodation in Croatia. Although less common in Zagreb, it does exist. Prices range from 600 to 800 kn. Pansion Jagerhorn. Ilica 14; 01 48 33 877; www.hotel-pansion-jaegerhorn.hr
This pension is in a great location, in a cul-de-sac between Ilica Street and the wooded slopes of Gradec Hill. It also has a good restaurant with a pleasant terrace. There are 11 rooms and 3 apartments with kitchenettes (950 kn).
Where to eat
Purger. This is an excellent place for traditional Croatian dishes. Don't be put off by the austere décor. From 100 to 200 kn. Pod Grickim Topom. This restaurant at the funicular terminal has a magnificent flower-decked terrace with a view over the city's rooftops. It is one of the few restaurants in Gradec. The inside is equally welcoming with its warm décor featuring old sepia photographs. Around 150 kn.