Zagreb airport is a very small one with our flight being the only one as we landed. The immigration took fifteen minutes. Our wait for the checked in baggage was another five minutes and soon we were out through the green channel.
Exchanged some Euros, bought a cigarette lighter and looked around for our chauffeur. He was nowhere to be seen. Had booked our pick up to take it cool after a longish journey.
Michael came after five minutes profusely apologizing for the next few minutes, one ‘extremely sorry sir’ every ten seconds till we reached our car. We were off soon and the next ten minutes or so gave us a feel of this capital city. Lots of green, huge open areas, parks, tall trees and as we started approaching the city area, the trams. I love trams and so you can guess, I was happy. Nice place, I told my wife and she nodded. She loves trams even more than me. Probably that’s the reason she nodded without any second thoughts. The dark clouds looked a little threatening as we reached our hotel.
We had our booking in ‘The Loop Hotel’ a three star property in Otona Zupancica, a residential locality on the green outskirts of the city. Mia at the reception extended us a warm welcome and she was such a sweetheart. With a smiling face she took us through the smooth check in process and in the next few minutes guided us on all we needed to know to move around in the city and get the best from our trip. It was great interacting with her over the next few days. The room was huge and nice with a great view of the highway. We freshened up quickly and were soon on our way to the city center. The clouds had cleared. The sky was blue.
The hotel is conveniently located with a few minutes walk taking you to the nearest tram stop and then a fifteen minute ride to the center of town. We were soon at Republic Square, the heart of Zagreb city.
Had a quick bite at McDonalds and got going. To explore on foot. Our first stop, Zrinjevac Park.
Zrinjevac Park was the first park in Donji Grad (Lower town or Downtown) and it brought a dash of modern times to Zagreb. The construction of a park on this location was a turning point in Zagreb’s urban development. It is a part of known “Green horseshoe” or “Lenuci’s horseshoe” – conceived in 1882 by Croatian Urbanist Milan Lenuci, building a series of parks bordering the Lower city in a shape of a horseshoe or letter “U”. Zrinjevac is enlisted as a monument of landscape architecture due to its design being preserved for more than 100 years!
Today Zrinjevac is a favourite part of the city for people to walk and rest and for tourists like us to be amazed at the beauty of the surroundings. Because of the buildings around it, today this park is like an entrance to Croatian history and art. On the north side you have The Supreme Court of the Republic of Croatia, The Zagreb Archaeological Museum on the west side, The Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts on the south side, and The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration and the Zagreb County Court on the east side.
End of the 19th century witnessed an incredible enthusiasm of Zagreb citizens towards Zrinjevac. Meteorological column and music pavilion were gifts of wealthy citizens, and everyone wanted to contribute. Ones with enough money and influence were building magnificent palaces around the park, but the common folks gave it the final touch. Ordinary citizens participated in selection of trees that were to be planted in newly founded park. In 1872 two hundred and twenty ‘platanus’ were planted. Now these trees are under special protection and the most preserved ones from that time, when platanus were very popular.
Meteorological column on the northern part of the park was a donation from known army doctor Adolf Holzer in 1884. Herman Bolle made blueprints for it and it was made from Istrian marble. Meteorological column still works today and people often stop at it and check on the temperature and air humidity. But as column doesn’t meet today’s standard measurement by World Meteorological Organisation, data isn’t considered as official.
The centerpiece of the park is the Music Pavilion, donated in 1890 by Eduard Prister, a wealthy trader. It was placed on 6th February 1891 on the exact spot where a monument to Nikola Subic Zrinski, the famous Croatian-Hungarian nobleman and general was supposed to be. By the end of 19th century, regular concerts were held in the bandstand. In memory to past times, concerts are still held during the summer time.
‘Advent on Zrinjevac’ is a part of ‘Advent in Zagreb’ programme. The Music pavilion comes live again and again and sounds of classics and waltz take over the park. Unique christmas ornaments during winters by selected artisans are sold and the whole park smells of Zagreb specialties – fried apples, baked strukle and cabbage cloths. The theme of ‘Advent on Zrinjevac’ is to live, hear and taste. There are stalls selling Croatian speciality fast food including Croatian Strukla meals everyday around the pavilion.
Water fountains in the park have a very interesting story attached. There are three fountains but the one with the most ironic story is “The Mushroom”.
The fountain was designed by Hermann Bolle and made by students of School of Crafts out of stone. It was placed in 1893 and citizens immediately nicknamed it “Bolle’s mushroom” out of mockery and laughter. It was proclaimed a fiasco because the fountain tended to flood the whole part of the park or splash people walking by. In 1975 Restauration Institute remade the fountain out of granite, fixed flaws and made it functional. The irony in the whole story is that mushroom became one of symbols of Zagreb and a common motive on postcards, after all the object of laughter.
We had opted for a walking tour and our guide Tomislav Stefanic was a young enthusiast with quite a good knowledge of Croatian history and Zagreb. We now walked back towards Republic Square and on to Ilica Street. This street is one of the longest streets in Zagreb. The busy street is home to many shops and cultural sites and spans through most of the northwestern part of the city, from the Ban Jelacic Square or Republic Square in the city center westward to the Vrapce district. Almost six kilometers long this is the busiest and most popular shopping streets in Zagreb. This place is ideal for shopping lovers, for a couple of drinks and dining out. You will find everything from the most expensive to the cheapest shops and some well known addresses including Metropolitanate of Zagreb, British Council, The Toso Dabac Archive and Zagreb Academy of Fine Arts among others. And also, the first business Scyscraper in the heart of lower town at landmark 1, Ilica Street.
We took a different route to catch on to Ilica Street. Through the Gric tunnel. One that was used by natives during the time of World War II for safe shelter during bombings and also as a promenade. The tunnel consists of a central hall, which is connected by two passageways to Mesnicka Street in the west, Stjepan Radic Street in the east and four passageways extending to the south. Later it started being used as a short route to reach the funicular towards Upper Town, Gradec. In 2016, the tunnel was remodeled and opened to the public serving as a tourist attraction and for hosting cultural events.
As we came out on Ilica street, walked a bit and turned towards the famous Zagreb funicular there is this not to be missed cute little Ice Cream, Cake, Pastry & Coffee shop with a romantic terrace. Vis-à-vis by Vincek. Vincek Slasticarnica, the famous brand of Zagreb is on the other side of the street and this shop offers a new approach to cakes and pastries for all those who follow the newest nutrition trends, whether for health reasons of out of curiosity. The major novelty is the fact that all the cakes and pastries are gluten-free, and only brown sugar, stevia and agave syrup are used as sweeteners. You must check out their yummy stuff without fail.
Almost all of us in our small group picked up an ice cream quickly and moved towards the funicular. The Zagreb Funicular is situated in Tomic Street, connecting the Ilica Street (Donji Grad) with Strossmayer Promenade to the north (Gornji Grad). Its 66-meter (217 ft) track makes it one of the shortest public-transport funiculars in the world.
The funicular was initially propelled by a steam engine and in 1934 its steam propulsion was replaced by an electrical engine. The funicular has two cars for 28 passengers each (16 seated and 12 standing places). It runs at a speed of 1.5 m/s (4.9 ft/s) requiring 58 seconds to cross the distance. Its rides are scheduled every ten minutes every day till midnight. Come let’s take the ride to Upper Town, Gradec enjoying the views.
As we reached the top, the views were even more spectacular. But before that an interesting bit of history around Gradec. In 1242, Gradec was declared and proclaimed “A free royal city on Gradec, the hill of Zagreb”. The citizens engaged in building defensive walls and towers around their settlement, fearing a new Mongol invasion. They completed the defensive system at a time between 1242 and 1261. It could be rightly assumed that by building its fortification walls in the middle of the 13th century, Gradec acquired its outward appearance that can be clearly seen in today’s Upper Town (Gornji Grad). The defensive walls enclosed the settlement in the shape of a triangle, its top located near the tower called Popov Toranj and its base at the south wall (today’s Strossmayer Promenade) and Lotrscak tower, which could be explained by the shape of the hill. In some places, rectangular and semicircular towers fortified the defensive walls. There were four main gates leading to the town: the west gate in the Mesnicka Street, the new north gate, later known as the Opaticka Street gate, Dverce in the south and the Kamenita vrata (Stone Gate) in the east. Kamenita vrata is the only gate still preserved to date.
The Lotrscak Tower, in an old part of town called Gradec or Gornji grad (Upper Town). The tower, which dates to the 13th century was built to guard the southern gate of the Gradec town wall. The name is derived from Latin campana latrunculorum, meaning “thieves’ bell”, referring to a bell hung in the tower in 1646 to signal the closing of the town gates. The Gric Cannon is one of the Zagreb landmarks. In the 19th century, a fourth floor and windows were added to the tower and a cannon was placed on the top. Since 1 January 1877, the cannon is fired from the tower to mark midday. The cannon was to give the sign for exact noon for the bell-ringers of the city’s churches and the tradition continues even today. Come let’s take a walk around and move towards the main square.
The focal point of Gornji Grad (Upper Town) is the square around St. Mark’s Church that is called St. Mark’s Square for years. St. Mark’s Church is the parish church of Old Zagreb. At the west end of St. Mark’s Square, the mansion called Banski dvori, the former residence of the Civil Governor of Croatia was built at the beginning of the 19th century and yet, it can be classed among the Zagreb antiquities. Banski dvori, along with the Baroque mansion beside it, is the seat of the Government of the Republic of Croatia. Since 1734, the Croatian Parliament has taken up the east side of St. Mark’s Square.
Many years ago, Virgin Mary of Stone Gate became the most significant oath site where pious find comfort and hope, light candles as a token of gratitude or a prayer. There are many citizens of Zagreb who got their prayers answered to and plates with engravings of gratitude stand as a testimony. During centuries you can hear people in Zagreb saying: “I’ll light a candle in Stone Gate if Virgin Mary hears my prayer.” Such words are not a figure of speech but are seen every day in Stone Gate, where citizens of Zagreb stop by, light candles and pray for health, happiness, good luck and love. Even in the times when praying publicly was forbidden, citizens of Zagreb continued visiting the Stone Gate, which testimonies the significance of the Gate in everyday life.
It is sure that Stone Gate exists since 1266 despite the first mention dating back to 1492. In 17th and 18th century, Stone Gate was damaged in fires four times: 1645., 1674., 1706. and 1731. The city was mainly made out of wood and fires were a frequent occurrence. During the last fire in 1731, Stone Gate was damaged badly but one painting remained intact – the painting of Virgin Mary with baby Jesus. Widow Modlar, the owner of it built a chapel inside of Stone Gate where it still stands named “The Virgin and Child”.
St. George is one of the few figures that has two statues dedicated to his name in Zagreb, both placed in prominent locations in the city. People in Zagreb, as is the case throughout Europe, always had an appreciation for Saint George, a Roman military tribune turned Christian martyr.
In this instance, a dragon had made a nest for himself next to a spring that provided water to the city of Silene. In order to get the water the people of the city lured the dragon away from the spring with sheep. When they run out of sheep, maidens would be used. They were picked by drawing lots. So it came one day that the king’s daughter was to be offered to the dragon. As the princess was being offered to the dragon, George stumbled into the city, found out what was going on and rushed to slay the monster wearing the sign of the Cross. After he defeated the dragon, the king and all his people turned to Christianity.
As we walked down the street from the statue towards Republic Square, it was time for some coffee. There are few small cafeterias around which are nice and quiet to rest a bit.
We saw our tram approaching and boarded. Blue, my favorite colour. ‘It’s blue’, I said looking at her. She looked back, smiled and said ‘It’s Zagreb, Croatia’.