Sure, all countries have regional differences. New York versus Los Angeles; Paris versus Marseilles; Jerusalem versus Tel Aviv (that’s a big one, and they are only 44 miles apart). So I when I left Croatia’s coast for Zagreb, the landlocked capital buried deep in the Balkan Peninsula, I expected there to be a switch. After all, seaside Dalmatia was for 500 years under the sway of the very-Italian Venetian Republic, whereas the interior was a part of Austro-Hungary since 1527. Plenty of time for separate identities to emerge.
I didn’t expect to find a mini-me of Paris, however.
I had less than 24 hours in the city; it was me, my camera, and a race against time. Still managed to learn a lot though: For much of its history, Zagreb was provincial outpost. It wasn’t even one city; the hilltop villages of Kaptol and Gradec would only grow together to become “Zagreb” post-1242, and it wasn’t until the fabled Orient Express swept through town in 1800s that the capital began to take a recognizable shape. But what a shape!
The Croatians wasted no time in gussying up the place. Neoclassical architecture was all the rage then, and from Zagreb’s medieval nucleus fanned out boulevards lined with pavilions in the Second Empire Beau-Arts style then gripping Paris and other grand European cities. Buildings like the canary-yellow Arts Pavilion, National Theater, and Oktogon, spiced with neat, symmetrical parks, were all indicative of a city on the rise. If you are into channeled rustication, boy, do I have a destination for you!
Ironically, because all the new-fangled architecture appeared at the same time, “new” Zagreb has a remarkable uniformity to its look. It isn’t until you stumble into Kaptol and Gradec (yes, they are still around) that you get an inkling the city is far older then it appears and has more stories to tell than you would think.
Turns out, Kaptol and Gradec really did not like each other. So raw was the discontent that Medveščak Creek, the rivulet dividing the two, saw numerous scuffles, skirmishes, and all-out wars. The span over the creek was so notorious as a good place for getting whacked it was called Krvavi Most — the Bloody Bridge.
Today, all that’s left of that hissy-fit is the Krvavi Most street sign, and even Medveščak Creek is gone. Covered up in 1898 under the cobble stones of Tkalčićeva Ulica, what had been the flashpoint of a completely self-made and pointless conflict is now the shmoozy-touchy-feely-super-fun night street of Zagreb. Go to one of the cantinas, get a glass of šljivovica (the local firewater) and raise a toast to irony.
In this part of town, the buildings are lower, which make the churches seem that much higher. You cannot miss the Church of St. Mark, its tilework roof is emblazoned with the coast of arms of the city on one side and the distinctive checkerboard of old Hapsburg Kingdom of Croatia on the other. As for Zagreb Cathedral, if you’ve seen it, congratulations! You’ve seen the tallest building in the whole country.
The cathedral, around since at least the mid-1000s but looks rather new thanks to extensive reconstruction after the Earthquake of 1880, also houses the remains of cardinal Aloysius Viktor Stepinac, one of the bigger thorns in the side of communist Yugoslavia (of which Croatia was a part until 1991).
I ended my whirlwind tour back amid the revelry of Tkalčićeva Ulica. Pulling up a chair at Agava, I recharged my batteries with a heapin’ helpin’ of zagorski štrukli, a type of cheese dumpling that is the national nosh and that other point of Croatian pride: wine. Croatia has some of the best wine-growing regions in Europe — and that is saying something — I fully intended to get as much of Zagreb and Croatia down as I could.
So it should come as no surprise I really don’t remember much after that point and have no idea how I got back to my hotel.