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Zagreb, the beautiful Croatian city

Zagreb, the beautiful Croatian city

Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2008-10-06

In the past, passengers on the Orient Express heading for Istanbul stopped off in Zagreb for a stroll in Maksimir Park and dinner at the Hotel Esplanade… Nowadays, Croatia’s largest city is worth a visit as much for its historic heritage as for its Slavonic and Mediterranean atmosphere.

In just a few years, Croatia has become one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations. In 1999, soon after the tripartite war pitting Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina against each other, only 32,000 French people were going there as opposed to nearly 500,000 today… Although the Dalmatian coast remains a must with its jewels – Dubrovnik and the islands of Hvar, Brač and Korčula – the capital nonetheless remains full of charm with its Baroque old town riddled with alleys and stairs, its palaces, tramways, typical craftsmen and its ski resort, located less than 30 minutes from the city centre. Zagreb is an ideal starting point for travelling to Split on the coast (3hr20min by car), Budapest (3hr45min) or even Vienna (4hr10min). In two days, you can grasp the essence of the place and discover the sights near Sljeme, Medvedgrad and Samobor.
If you are flying to Zagreb, the journey from the airport to the city centre (approximately 25 minutes) will take you through the new town of Novi grad to the south, which certainly does not appeal for its innate charm, consisting mainly of large blocks of flats intersected by expressways… In reality, when one mentions Zagreb, one thinks above all of its two hills, Gradec and Kaptol, which, in the Middle Ages, housed two separate, rival towns (the episcopal one and the feudal one) both of them surrounded by walls intended to repel Mongolian and Turkish invasions. These two towns merged and now go by the name of “Upper Town” (Gornji grad). At the foot of this little Croatian Montmartre is the “Lower Town” (Donji grad), built in the 19th century by Viennese architect Hermann Bollé and fascinating for its large squares and its palaces of neo-Classical inspiration. If you are staying here, I recommend the Palace Hotel, set on the splendid Strossmayer Square in the Lower Town. Of Art Nouveau style, it was built in 1891 and is Zagreb’s first Belle Epoque hotel.
The Lower Town
Starting from the very busy Ban-Josip-Jelačić Square (named after the father of the Croatian nation), which is the heart of Zagreb and where trams travel to and fro incessantly, I recommend beginning your tour of the capital with a little walk through the Lower Town, nicknamed “horseshoe” on account of its U-shaped plan. As a first stop on your tour why not go for a coffee on the terrace of the Hotel Esplanade? In the 1920s-1930s, Orient Express passengers used to come here to eat and dance and today it is still the city’s most prestigious luxury hotel.
With its neo-Classical and neo-Renaissance palaces adorned with atlantes, caryatids and Venuses emerging from the waves, this monumental district expresses the energy of an era (1880-1900) which, on the eve of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, worshipped the idea of Progress. The Botanical Garden, Ethnographic Museum, Technical Museum and Mimara Museum (renowned for its collection of old masters such as Raphael, Velasquez, Rubens and Rembrandt) are of course worth a little visit. But the most beautiful part of Donji grad is still Marshal Tito Square, at the centre of which stands the Croatian National Theatre built in 1895. Here, I suggest contemplating “The Source of Life”, a bronze fountain created by sculptor Ivan Meštrović (1883-1962), Rodin’s favourite disciple!
Disappearing craft industries
In the age of globalisation, all the cities of Europe tend to resemble one another more or less, with the same shops, the same signs, the same restaurants, the same architecture… If you stay in Zagreb, you will however have the pleasure of discovering craft objects that you won’t find anywhere else. Silk ties (an invention of Croatian soldiers in the 18th century), hats, handmade umbrellas, red hearts made of gingerbread, candles, mustard, pepper biscuits, brandies, 100% natural soaps, but also Penkala fountain pens (Slavoljub Penkala invented the mechanical pen in Zagreb in 1906).
You will also find a multitude of cobblers and luxury shoemakers (such as Renato Bočak). But the most sensational thing is still the crystal factory in the village of Samobor, 20 miles west of Zagreb: be it glasses, carafes, salad bowls or vases (all of extreme purity), all the crystals here are handmade. The designs are mostly Art Nouveau and the value for money is extraordinary (50% cheaper than in France): a good idea for a gift!
The Upper Town
The jewel of Zagreb is the district perched on Gradec hill, accessed via a funicular built in 1890 and located in Tomićeva Street or by taking the very steep wooden steps called “stube”. Before heading up there, I strongly recommend taking a walk along Tkalčićeva Street, which separates the two hills of Gradec and Kaptol. Once crossed by a stream coming from Medvedgrad mountain, this street served as a border between the two rival cities – episcopal and feudal – which were engaged in bloody combat as witnessed by the name of an adjacent alley, Krvavi most, which means “bloody bridge”! Tkalčićeva is delightful in the morning, with its cafés and pretty houses with pastel-coloured façades lit up by the rays of the rising sun.
To come back to the district of Gradec, I recommend going there shortly before midday. As soon as you arrive at the top of the funicular, wait at the foot of Lotrščak Tower which is a vestige of the mediaeval fortifications. Every day, at midday, a town hall employee fires a resounding cannon shot that leaves an enormous cloud of powder hanging in the air… The view of Zagreb from the top of the tower is amazing.
With its Baroque churches and palaces, its gas street lamps, multicoloured roofs and promenade following the old ramparts, Gradec is a real film set that brings to mind the historic district of Malá Strana in Prague. Here, the capital’s oldest pharmacy stands near the oldest café (built in 1825 near Illyrian Square) and the seat of government. The Strossmayer Promenade mapped out on the site of the old ramparts is, for its part, a panoramic viewpoint of the entire Lower Town. Above all, it is impossible to stay in Zagreb without visiting the Croatian Museum of Naive Art, which is unlike any other in the world!

In the past, passengers on the Orient Express heading for Istanbul stopped off in Zagreb for a stroll in Maksimir Park and dinner at the Hotel Esplanade… Nowadays, Croatia’s largest city is worth a visit as much for its historic heritage as for its Slavonic and Mediterranean atmosphere.

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Zagreb, the beautiful Croatian city

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    • Language: gbr
    • Position : With friends


    Very nice place, comfortable and handy for exploring the city. Very raechable with public transport. Easy to get everywhere.


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