G&J (Great Journeys): Zagreb: A Shy Violet Blooms
When it was a part of the old Yugoslavia, Zagreb was looked upon as Belgrade’s oft-overlooked poor relative. When Croatia became independent in 1991, the shy violet earned its spotlight in the sun.
The neo-Gothic cathedral in Zagreb, Croatia, was suffused with a spiritual light and the strains of a choir that rode the air in mighty waves of sound. The notes seemed to rise to the vaulted roof of the cathedral like a hundred birds in synchronised flight. We felt uplifted and understood for the first time the renewing power of Easter (which marks the Resurrection of Christ) for the Catholic community worldwide.
Indeed, with its twin spires raking the blue skies over Zagreb, the cathedral is a poignant symbol of the spirit of survival. Damaged over the centuries in earthquakes and fires, it has been restored and its current avatar dates back to the 19th century. As spring sunlight streamed through the stained-glass windows and shone on the baroque marble altar, we felt the pomp and pageantry of the Roman Catholic Church merge with the mystical presence of the divine.
This intimate little capital of Croatia, a staunchly Roman Catholic country, is not only about piety. It is also funky and quirky, holding onto the tradition of firing a cannon at noon every day from the Lotrscak Tower, for the last 100 years! The best part is that the fiery, noisy outburst celebrates a battle that never happened!
Incidentally, the cannon was fired for the first time at the invading Turks who had camped on a bank of the Sava River on the outskirts of Zagreb. As the cannonball ripped through the air, it landed on the Pasha’s platter of chicken, scaring him out of his wits. Another story goes that as the cannonball careened over the city it hit bull’s eye, and crash-landed on the Pasha’s pet rooster who met a noble end! So terrified were the Turks of a city of sharpshooters that they fled and decided not to attack the city!
In this charming capital, legends gather momentum, especially when recounted over a cup of coffee in the convivial cafes that dot the city. Bars, alternative music and edgy fashion impart an aura of cool. (Incidentally, the cravat/tie is a Zagreb invention.) Despite its youthful buzz, Zagreb exudes the innocence of a near-perfect world, devoid of terrorism and violent crime. Terracotta-roof pink buildings, baroque churches, a luxuriant fruit and vegetable market in the heart of town, numerous museums, hushed historic churches, theatres, parks, and gardens make Zagreb an eminently livable city; a nubile teenager blossoming into a Croatian diva.
Zagreb is not one of those grandiose European capitals where armies of tourists march through its cobblestone streets with a flag-waving guide. Emperors did not covet it nor did conquering armies goose-step across it to ravage it of its treasures. When it was a part of the old Yugoslavia, Zagreb was looked upon as Belgrade’s oft-overlooked poor relative. When Croatia became independent in 1991, the shy violet earned its spotlight in the sun.
In a city like Zagreb, one tends to look for the out of the ordinary. The Esplanade Zagreb, a heritage luxury hotel built for the passengers of the Orient Express, was known for its aura of luxe and the idiosyncratic. Located within walking distance of the city’s charming sights, this impressive Art Nouveau building was the scene of balls and often risqué revelry. In the early years of its existence, the Esplanade featured as a ‘protagonist’ in many novels of the time as the ideal place to have a naughty love affair when the hotel, it was rumoured, attracted “dissatisfied wives and their lovers.”
The Queen of Parisian Cabarets, Josephine Baker, dubbed The Black Venus, was a habitué in those early days. And, not surprisingly, the very first striptease in the country took place at a farewell party given by an Italian count when a few women flung off their gowns and remained in their undergarments for the duration of the event! Later, The Esplanade became elitist and began to draw celebrities and heads of state such as the King of Spain Alfonso XIII, Charles Lindberg, the first man to fly over the Atlantic, and Hollywood stars.
Zagreb is essentially an amalgamation of two medieval settlements, Upper Town and Lower Town. For an overview of the city, we clambered up the 13th-century Lotrscak Tower in Upper Town and even heard the cannon going off at 12 noon to celebrate an aborted battle.
We delved further into Upper Town with its gas lamps and narrow cobblestone streets and stopped by the Museum of Naive Art and the trendy Museum of Broken Relationships. (The latter was set up by a couple whose own relationship was on the rocks and brimmed with heart-rending stories of broken relationships and weird mementoes of lost love.) Mestrovic’s Atelier dedicated to Ivan Mestrovic, Croatia’s most famous sculptor and artist, is a must-see, too.
The main square Ban Jelacic in the heart of the city is a great place to people watch. In the summer, the square buzzes with lively open-air concerts and folk festivals where you can feel the pulse of the city over a mug of foaming craft beer. In winter, a twinkling Christmas market takes over the square and the city, and the chilly air is suffused with the aroma of mulled wine and baked delicacies.
But while nothing can divorce residents of Zagreb from their God, nothing can pry them away from a cup of strong espresso either. So we also stopped at Vincek, a cafe on Ilica, the city’s main promenade, to refuel in its woodsy interiors. We savoured a cup of coffee and a Kremsnita, a local vanilla and custard cream dessert, and nibbled a Viennese style pastry. It was a sweet finale to an amazing city break.