Discovering Zagreb
by Dalia Miller
Photos: Kip Miller

Croatia was about the last place on my bucket list. Until one winter evening when a fellow folk dancer of Croatian descent bragged convincingly about her ancestral country. "You absolutely have to go there," she insisted as we joined hands the end of long line of people at our Friday evening Greek dance center. "It is an unbelievably beautiful country with lots to see and the friendliest folks ever! But, of course, I am hopelessly biased," she admitted.

Her words lingered in my imagination. After 28 trips to Greece interspersed with a few European and Asian destinations, we were long overdue to branch out. "Let's have a good look," my husband suggested on a rainy February afternoon, a glitzy European tour book plopped open on our kitchen table. Their "Adriatic Adventure" itinerary immediately caught our attention. Croatia, an offspring of the former Yugoslavia with a rich and diverse heritage, is renowned for its storybook city of Dubrovnik, the jewel of the Dalmatian coast, not to mention dozens of pristine islands and the historic Istrian Peninsula to the north. Less famous but worthy of a visit is its intimate inland capital, Zagreb, a park-filled city boasting elegant Austro-Hungarian buildings, colorful markets, dozens of museums and a friendly native population.

Weeks later, with little advance preparation, we board a Lufthansa connecting flight heading south out of Frankfurt toward Zagreb, flying low over the rugged Dinaric Alps still flecked with late spring snow. "Hey, check out that view," I motion to my husband as we shadow the dramatic mountains, an extension of the Julian Alps and birthplace of Croatia's notorious Bura wind that often reaches hurricane force, bringing travel in the country to a total standstill. All at once, Zagreb comes into view, tucked between the Medvenica Mountains and the Sava River, the right tributary of the mighty Danube. "Wow, so much greenery," says my husband. "Zagreb is not an urban jungle! It's exactly what I had hoped for."

Zagreb's historic Esplanade Hotel, a mecca for celebrities and heads
of state, dates back to the days of the Orient Express.

At the city's bustling airport, Jelena, our tour director, is waving a small flag to grab our attention. Apparently we are the last of the group to arrive. "Welcome to Croatia," she smiles warmly. "I hope your flight went smoothly," she purrs as we gather our luggage and follow her to our shuttle van. The afternoon traffic is light and we arrive at the city center in no time. "Our hotel is the historic Esplanade Zagreb," Jelena boasts. "It was put on the map when it became a major stop on the old Orient Express that shuttled Europe's rich and famous from Paris to Istanbul. You'll notice that we are just a few hundred yards away from the train station. The Esplanade was the design concept of Germany's Otto Rehnig, with modifications by Zagreb's famous architect, Diois Suno. The name Esplanade refers to a large field on which it was built."

We pause in front of the hotel entrance and survey the Belle Epoque property. "After its completion the Esplanade immediately became the number one place for social life in Zagreb" Jelena reveals. "During the 1920s it was also 'the rendezvous place' for secret lovers, quickly becoming a magnet for lavish parties for the Continent's rich and notorious. Unfortunately, during World War II it was taken over by the Gestapo during the brutal occupation of the city. It took many years to erase the Nazi stain," Jelena admits. "By the 1960s it became part of the Inter-Continental Hotels chain and a magnificent casino was added. It continues to rank as one of Europe's very best hotels and was once awarded a golden wreath by President Tito." "Can you tell us who stayed here during those years?" I ask Jelena. "Who hasn't stayed here!" she waves her arms for emphasis. "Everyone from Charles Lindberg, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Richard Nixon, Khrushchev and Queen Elizabeth to Yves Montand, Mick Jagger and Maria Callas. The celebrity list is endless," she boasts. "This hotel has also appeared in many films and television shows."

"What a stellar introduction," I mutter as we check into our tastefully furnished room complete with a lavish marble bathroom. "You have a few hours to rest or to explore some of the surrounding downtown area," Jelena had explained in parting. "Our entire group will meet for an orientation at six o'clock, followed by a welcome dinner at Le Bistro, the hotel's main dining room." We decide to rest for a couple of hours, but after thirty minutes curiosity overtakes us and we venture out to explore. The Esplanade's public rooms and Art Deco furnishings are unabashedly elegant. Its Emerald Ballroom is enormous and I can easily envision the fabulous concerts and events that took place here. When Croatia became independent, it immediately exceeded the bounds of a socialist country by joining "The Leading Hotels of the World Group." According to our hotel booklet, it was the first place in the country to celebrate Valentine's Day, a holiday that swept the entire country thereafter. The Esplanade also became a mecca for international journalists and was a safe haven for refugees from the Balkan War that erupted after Croatia extracted itself from the old Yugoslavia. Posted in front of hotel's premier restaurant, Zinfandel, is a long list of award-winning Dalmatian Coast wines. "Wow, I sure hope we'll have an opportunity to visit an island winery," my husband remarks.

Zrinjevac Park is one of eight green spaces that enclose Zagreb's grand public buildings
A quick stroll toward the heart of the city takes us past the train station, built when Zagreb was under the aegis of the Hapsburg Empire. Zrinjevac Park stretches ahead, its vast green lawns shaded by towering plane trees. Local lovers lounging on blankets spread out on the grass are chatting animatedly. There are fountains, a music pavilion and flower beds abloom with late season tulips. Of the many buildings framed by the greenery, the baroque National Croatian Theatre is a standout, painted in vivid yellow, only to be rivaled by the Art Pavillion, also in yellow and reigning over beautifully landscaped Tomislav Square. We continue as far as Jelacic Square, Zagreb's central pedestrian space, and pause by the massive statue of Ban Josip Jelacic, the notorious provincial governor of Zagreb under the Hapsburgs. It was erected in 1866 by Austrian authorities who were then in control the city. Apparently this caused an immediate uproar among the local population who considered Jelacic a traitor. "Wow, this square sure is humming," says my husband, amazed by the size of the crowd in front of us. "But it's getting late, and we need to make tracks for our tour briefing and dinner."

Jelacic Square, Zagreb's largest pedestrian space, is named for its notorious governor, Ban Josip Jelacic.
Jelena is brimming with enthusiasm as she outlines our touring schedule for the next 12 days. "I encourage you to get out and explore Zagreb on foot," she emphasizes. "It's a real walking city and you will be wowed by the architecture, the little pubs and our friendly people. Do try to visit a couple of museums. There is one for every taste, from the Museum of Broken Relationships to our prestigious National Archaeology Museum." After a brief history lesson, we regroup in the Esplanade's dining room for a welcome dinner. "We begin our feast tonight with one of Croatia's signature dishes, štrukli, and the hotel's version is spectacular," Jelena goes into raptures. We dive into a crunchy round pastry filled with cottage cheese, eggs and sour cream, and drizzled with clotted cream, a cholesterol time bomb, but tangy and delicious. The feast continues with sole in lemon sauce, roasted asparagus and an olive oil sponge cake topped with house-made almond ice cream. "Delicious," I comment to the couple on my right, making a mental note to eat more salads in the days ahead.

Mirogoz cemetery, a supra-denominational burial park, is filled with arches, arcades and tombs of the city's most illustrious citizens.
The morning sky is cloudless as we gather around our enthusiastic local guide, Davor, for a city tour of Zagreb. "We will begin in the Upper Town at Mirogoz Cemetery," he smiles. "It's our number one attraction and it's regarded worldwide as the ultimate in 'taphophilia,' or what we call tombstone tourism!" A triple streetcar whisks us to the cemetery in no time. "Over 300,000 souls are buried here," Davor says in front of the entrance. Begun in 1879, the cemetery is distinguished by magnificent arcades and cupolas that were added by the famous German architect, Herman Bollé. But what makes the cemetery unique in the world is that it is "supra-denominational," with tombs and plaques for such notables ranging from Franjo Tusman, the first president of Croatia, and the revered Zagreb rabbi Hosea Jacobi, to August Senoa, the father of modern Croatian literature, and Olympic basketball medalist Drazen Petrovic. One can easily get lost here. We stroll at leisure through endless rows of sculptural graves and mausoleums alternating with contemporary marble and stone slabs, finally stopping in front of a memorial to the "Fallen Soldiers of World War I." "So what did you think?" Davor asks us later. "Mirogoj gives us a quick peek into the who's who list of Croatian Society, doesn't it?"

The old parish church of St. Mark's is famed for its colorful tiled roof displaying the coats of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia.
The elegant upper town, Gradec, is a medieval jewel that is separated from the lower town, Kaptol, by the remnants of a covered stream named Medveš?ak, once the major water source for both towns. "Croatia has had a long and convoluted history," says Davor as he leads us toward St.Mark's, the city's iconic landmark. Its breathtaking tiled roof brandishes the full-color coats of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia. "This roof was designed by Bollé at about the same time he directed the restoration of Mirogoj," Davor explains. "All Croatians love this parish church, and you will notice that it is a seamless blend of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture. The south doorway is decorated with 15 effigies that are inserted in niches. It is considered the most important portal in Southern Europe. Just ask any native which building symbolizes Zagreb and he or she will probably choose St. Mark's." We turn our gaze to the endless sea of beautiful red roofs that dot Gradec. "If you have a chance, go to the terrace of the funicular for a fantastic view of both towns," Davor recommends.

A steep, cobbled street in Gradec is crowded with shoppers and tourists who frequent its galleries and boutiques.
It's a pleasant downhill stroll to the touristy stream area where several local girls in colorful Croatian costumes are displaying an array of embroidered linens. A few steps away four singers known as a klapa ensemble are in the middle of a remarkable harmonic song. Klapa music may be Croatia's best-known export, and each group consists of two tenors, a baritone and a bass. Their musicality is breathtaking, transporting us back to earlier times when vocal ensembles reigned supreme. "How can we even begin to decide which recordings to bring home?" my husband asks as he sifts through a stack of klapa CDs available for purchase, perfect souvenir gifts for all our musical friends. The lead tenor quickly comes to our rescue, recommending several that he considers their best.

Croatian klapa ensembles consist of two tenors, a baritone and a bass whose voices unite in harmonic perfection
Zagreb's atmospheric lower town, Donji Grad, is only minutes away. Here rises its massive cathedral, the grandest sacred space in all of Croatia, dominating the entire downtown area. Beyond sprawl many of Zagreb's major public spaces, including eight magnificent parks and most of its academies, theaters and museums. "The cathedral was built in Gothic style and is famous for its architectural details," Davor enumerates some of the highlights of the building. "Its two non-matching towers reach a height of 354 feet and are visible from nearly every part of the city." "I'm guessing that the cathedral has been rebuilt several times," one of our group comments. "Yes, you are correct," Davor replies. "Croatia has been invaded continuously. It was completely destroyed by the Mongols and rebuilt. Later, when the Ottomans infiltrated the country, fortifications walls were erected around it. You can still see remnants of those walls today. As you would expect, frequent attacks and earthquakes also necessitated repeated restorations to the interior, the most extensive ones by our Herman Bollé." We step inside to find a mass in progress and stand in the rear as we survey the interior. Slender Gothic windows soar upwards and Baroque marble pulpits exude understated elegance.

Zagreb's massive cathedral is a Gothic masterpiece. Its soaring towers can be seen from every corner of the city.
Outside the cathedral a massive courtyard area serves as a stage for costumed folk dancers and several horsemen. The Croats fully understand the kitch value of their cultural icons, and take every opportunity to inject local color to the delight of tourists. Davor waves his flag for us to follow him to Dolac, the city's popular food market. It is a huge open air emporium that commandeers the main square near the Cathedral. Major trading has gone on here for centuries, but the current market dates from 1930, planned after careful analysis of similar open air markets in Munich, Vienna and other cities. It is the preferred venue for female farmers known as "kumice" who descend from the surrounding towns with their homegrown fruits, vegetables, and freshly made cheeses, spreading their goods under red octagonal umbrellas. We stroll past heaps of enormous radishes and varieties of lettuce that I have never seen before. "Dolac sure is a happy and hectic place," says my husband as we maneuver past crowds of locals with overflowing shopping bags. Farther down in Cvetni Trg, or flower square, countless varieties of colorful flowers dazzle the eye. "Well, now you have experienced 'The Belly of Zagreb,' Davor chuckles as he concludes our tour. "Please be sure to explore Tkalciceva Street where there are wonderful cafes, art galleries and plenty of ethnic eateries."

Dolac market, an enormous open-air food market, is run by village women who sell home grown produce under octagonal umbrellas.

We take Davor's advice and head to the popular pedestrian-only street, paved over the stream that separates the upper and lower towns. Here one can find every kind of restaurant imaginable, interspersed with wine shops, boutiques and galleries. "What are you in the mood for?" asks my husband. "I sure would love to try one of Croatia's signature dishes," I respond. "OK, how about ?evapi," he suggests. "Exactly what I am in the mood for," I concur as we rush toward a crowded eatery with outdoor tables and a huge image of the local kebab. A mixture of beef and lamb generously seasoned with garlic and red pepper, it is grilled to order on an open fire and inserted into pita. The fragrance is tantalizing. We dive into our luscious lunch accompanied by chilled Ožujsko, a popular lager beer dating from 1872. "Man, that was really delicious," my husband sighs as we stagger back toward the upper town for some museum visits.

Dozens of Picasso posters dominate a little square in Gradec. Some 56 paintings and sculptures from the Picasso Museum in Paris, plus numerous drawings and prints, are on display here for a few months at Gallery Klovi?evi Dvori, the first time such a massive collection of the modernist's art has ever left France. A few years earlier, we spent several hours at the Picasso Museum in Paris, gawking over its magnificent paintings, drawings and sculptures. In this gallery, the entire exhibition revolves around a painting of Dora Maar, the Croatian muse and lover of Picasso. "I must say," I remark to my husband, "Anne Baldassari, the Picasso Museum's director, did an amazing job putting this together. I have gained a greater appreciation of Picasso's genius here in Zagreb than when we were in Paris." The gift shop is jam-packed with customers purchasing Picasso books, T-shirts and other memorabilia, but we have no trouble finding the perfect mementos for family and friends.

The museum of Zagreb's greatest artist, Ivan Meštrovi?, is our next stop. Primarily a sculptor and painter, he also dabbled in architecture and was a gifted writer. "Would you call Meštrovi? a Renaissance man?" I ask my husband and a friendly New England couple from our tour who met us in front of the entrance. Located on a quiet Gradec street not far from St. Mark's, the museum was his former family residence and studio. Meštrovi?'s immense talent gained immediate worldwide attention and in 1947 he was the first living artist ever to be exhibited at New York's Metropolitan Museum. Among the stunning pieces to be seen here is his "Zagreb Women in Agony," a massive bronze masterpiece. We tour through two stories of the house and its courtyard where the breadth of his work leaves us speechless. An English-speaking attendant is pleased that we appreciate his art. "He is represented at some of the best museums in the world," she boasts, "from Chicago, Belgrade and London, to Rome, Cannes and many more."

The museum of Croatia's greatest artist ,Ivan Meštrovic, showcases several bronzes in an interior courtyard.

Back at the Esplanade, late afternoon tea is the perfect way to decompress, and the hotel's elegant outdoor terrace overlooking the city park is ideal for people-watching. "Where shall we go for dinner?" we ask Robert and Joanna, our newly-minted companions. "Jelena recommends Vinodol," says Robert. "It's a large downtown restaurant with an enormous menu, great service and even some music. We can easily walk there from the hotel." A couple of hours later, the four of us head out toward the restaurant to be warmly greeted by their English-speaking wait staff. "Have you noticed the English fluency level of many of the locals?" Robert comments. "They must begin language classes in grade school." We are led to a beautiful room with stone arches and presented with their very long menu. Vinodol does not disappoint. Their execution, presentation and refined service are impressive. "Yum! I will always remember their fish soup with root vegetables," says Robert as we head back to the hotel. "For me it was the baked sea bream and the luscious mocha mascarpone cake," I sigh, having totally forgotten my earlier resolve to eat more salads.

"Today is going to be extra special," Jelena brags as our group gathers in the Esplanade lobby bright and early for a long touring day. "We are going to visit Plitvice Lakes, Croatia's famous national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Center. "But before we head to Plitvice," she explains, "we will make a stop at Turanj, an area that was ravaged during the Balkan War for Independence. It was here that some of the heaviest shelling took place and an open air museum dedicated to the Croatian War of Independence has many poignant visuals from the war. We won't have time for anything more than a brief stop, but you will see abandoned tanks, old rockets, cannons and plenty of bullet holes in blackened farm buildings. It literally rained bullets here," Jelena admits. About an hour out of Zagreb, our bus approaches the war museum area. Just as described, the rusty tanks and rockets send chills down my spine. Skeletal farmhouse remains are riddled with bullet holes. Hardly a wall remains unscathed. "How those people must have suffered!" I blurt out loud. But the memorial is necessary, I realize. The world must not forget how hard it was for Croatia to maintain its identity.

Plitvice Lakes is a natural park blessed with waterfalls and magical lakes that reflect the sky into the water.

Plitvice Lakes is one of Southern Europe's grandest natural sites. It is blessed with a unique microclimate and groundwater that is filled with algae and mosses. Water drains from nearby mountains over the stony terrain, mosses and algae, coating the floor of the lakes with a white chalky powder that creates mirror-like qualities, enabling the lakes to "reflect the sky into the water." The magical lakes are transformed as the hours pass and the weather changes, and as the mineral levels in the water shift. "We will be walking at a leisurely pace around a few of the lakes," Jelena explains as we all change into our most comfortable walking shoes.

"The park has 16 lakes and more than 90 waterfalls," Jelena continues. "Each time I come here, it's as if it's my very first time. The lakes are amazing, fluctuating from emerald green to deep blue and even pale grey. The key ingredient is always the calcium carbonate. Without it, the water would not change colors," she smiles. "According to one of our urban legends," Jelena continues, "Lake Proscansko is associated with the myth of the Black Queen who saved the region from a protracted draught by creating the lakes. Not far from here is the Great Waterfall which spills down a 78-meter cliff into a lower canyon," Jelena waves her arms upwards for emphasis. "In truth, there are so many amazing stories here. It would take days to share them all." We spend a couple of hours in the park area following a trail that takes us past several cascading waterfalls and ultimately ends with a boat ride on a lake that returns us to the parking area. "By the way," Jelena remarks as we board the bus, "did I already mention that the forests here shelter many animals, including dozens of brown bears?"

Gallo, a popular Michelin-rated restaurant in downtown Zagreb, showcases its house-made pasta.

The bus heads back to Zagreb. After the long hike, all of us have worked up epic appetites and break into cheers as we pull up in front of a Michelin-rated downtown restaurant. "You will love Gallo," Jelena assures us. "It is one of Zagreb's finest restaurants, and it's famous for its house-made pasta and the freshest seafood ever!" So far so good. Gallo is furnished with well-chosen antique tables and chairs, vintage silverware and china, and many decorative accents. A huge display of hanging pasta and local produce is a knockout. "Everything on the menu is seasonal and also organic," Jelena explains. "And all our herbs and vegetables are grown a few minutes from here in a special garden," our waiter adds. We both wish you 'dobar tek' (bon appétit)!" Tonight's group menu lists two choices for each course. Ultimately, we can't pass up their linguini flecked with Istrian truffles, nor their tuna steak with polenta and red wine sauce. And for dessert, a semifreddo blended with tiramisu is the apotheosis of "la dolce vita."

"Dubrovnik here we come!!" I proclaim as we board a late evening flight to Croatia's storybook city. "Luckily, our notorious Bura wind is on good behavior tonight," Jelena informs the group. "We'll be departing right on time!"