I won’t go into the history of Croatia here, but will tell you a little about the history of the capital Zagreb because this is where we spent our week in the country.
During medieval times, two towns emerged on neighbouring hills; one called Kaptol and the other Gradec. During the 16th century, the two towns became one, and Zagreb was chosen as the new name. The trade fairs and market stalls were located on the relatively flat land just south of Kaptol, and as the economy blossomed, so did the buildings around the edges of the square.
The 19th century saw Zagreb become a major centre for the clothing trade, resulting in a rail link to both Vienna and Budapest. Zagreb’s cultural scene began to thrive as well. Theatres, concert halls and museums were established in grand buildings between the central square and the railway station.
Following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of WWI, Zagreb joined with its neighbours to form the Kingdom Of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (colloquially known as Yugoslavia right from the start).
There was little to no resistance to the German Army when it invaded Zagreb in April 1941. André Pavlić and the Ustaše established the Independent State of Croatia and ran the fascist state from Zagreb until 1944, despite the fact that the majority of the citizens of the city continued to support Tito.
After the end of WWII, Zagreb continued to expand but began to take a backseat to Belgrade. With the breakup of Yugoslavia, Croatia asserted its independence in 1991 and Zagreb was named the capital.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
When making plans for our trip through the Nordic countries, the Baltic States, Poland and Hungary, we weren’t at all sure that we would have time or good weather to explore further south before travelling to Munich to catch our flight back to Canada on December 1st. As it turned out, we were able to add Slovakia, Croatia and Slovenia to our itinerary because we decided early on to focus mainly on the capital cities, a sort of scouting expedition for future travels.
And what a surprising bonus Zagreb turned out to be. It’s been only a mere twenty years since the end of the Bosnian War, a conflict triggered by the breakup with the former Yugoslavia, that saw hundreds of thousands of people die and millions displaced in the region. Canadian soldiers were called in to act as peacekeepers, and this brought the war very close to home for all Canadians.
For this reason, I wasn’t at all sure what to expect during our visit to Zagreb. I knew that most tourists rave about the beauty of the Dalmatia, the portion of Croatia that sits along the Adriatic coast, but I knew next to nothing about the capital city. We arrived after dark by train from Budapest, and emerged into a dramatically beautiful train station, well maintained and spotlessly clean.
We had booked an apartment situated in the heart of the Lower Town, right beside the funicular lift, within a short walk of the central square, now known as Trg Josipa Jelačića. Our host kindly picked us up at the station and whisked us away in her brand-new Volvo SUV. She gave us a quick overview of the district as she drove through the attractive streets to the pedestrian zone near the square.
To our delight and surprise, we entered a 19th century building to find our Zagreb home on the ground floor, recently-renovated to add all the modern conveniences we’d seen pictured in the photos on the booking website. The apartment was even better that we’d imagined. In order to make our stay even more relaxing, our host had kindly stocked the kitchen with a few basic foodstuffs so that we wouldn’t have to head out into the streets looking for a nearby supermarket after dark.
After settling in, we went for a stroll to the Trg Josipa Jelačića and found it buzzing with young people. We’d read that Zagreb is a year-round outdoor city, and the dozens of café tables lining the neighbouring pedestrian streets proved this to be true. Modern trams pass through one side of the otherwise pedestrian square, and hundreds of people were lined up waiting for the trams to take them back to their homes in the suburbs.
Just as we were about to turn back towards our apartment, we noticed a group of people assembled at the far end of the square, just below the street that rises towards the Upper Town. They were carrying candles, and singing softly while some supported a banner over their heads. At first, I thought it might be a protest, but it seemed too solemn. I mentioned to Anil that perhaps it was a memorial to someone who had died recently.
We decided to spend our first day in Zagreb, relaxing in our lovely apartment. We had been going full tilt in Budapest because there was so much to see and do there, and we took a break from sightseeing to catch up on our emails and to take a much-needed afternoon nap. In the evening we set out for the train station to purchase our tickets to Ljubljana and to have dinner in a traditional Croatian restaurant.
It’s a beautiful walk south through the Lower Town, past treed parks and magnificent 19th century buildings housing museums and theatres. We had written the details for our train booking on an index card so there would be less of a problem communicating with the ticket agent, but despite the fact that she had to hand write the ticket details on a blank stock, she spoke excellent English was able to answer all our questions.
We set off to look for a restaurant that was recommended in our Lonely Planet guidebook. It was a bit of a walk east of the center, but it sounded like it was well worth the effort. I had checked the opening hours on line to be sure it was open, so you can imagine our disappointment when it was locked up tight, with all the lights off. There wasn’t even a note on the door to explain why it wasn’t open.
We started making our way back to the center, looking for another possible restaurant for dinner, and seeing very little along the quiet streets. The Lonely Planet described Zagreb as having a limited number of interesting restaurants, although new ones are coming on the scene each month. We wanted to try typical Croatian food, so we didn’t seek out swanky eateries for our first meal in the capital.
Suddenly Anil stopped in his tracks when he spotted a sandwich board at the entrance to a small pedestrian alley. ‘Great Food’ was written in chalk, and followed by ‘Croatian Specialties’. I wasn’t so sure, but Anil said he had a good feeling about the place, and I’ve learned to go with his hunches. We walked down the quiet lane, towards the bright lights at the end, where we could see several people standing, looking like they were deep in animated conversation.
When we opened the door, we found ourselves in a lively bar, filled with young men obviously celebrating something. I was ready to turn away, but they spotted us and suddenly we were the center of attention. I could see a small sign indicating the restaurant was on the lower floor, and as I made my way across the room, a couple of the young men grabbed my hand and started kissing it!
I began to laugh, and the waitress hurried over and starting apologizing for their behaviour. I didn’t really mind, though I would have minded if they had tried to kiss me on the cheeks for the lips! We headed down stairs, to the cheers of the entire bar and the waitress kept saying ‘Sorry, Sorry’. The restaurant was almost entirely empty and seemed rather lonely compared to the energy upstairs. There was one other older couple sharing a carafe of wine.
We asked the waitress to suggest some dishes for us, making sure that none contained fish or seafood. The restaurant was a glassed-in gazebo, and opened onto a little garden. We enjoyed the view, sipped on our wine, and waited for our meal to arrive. A short time later, a group of four musicians came down the stairs and prepared to serenade the four patrons. One man struggled with his huge double base on the winding staircase, the others had an easier time with their violin, guitar and small mandolin.