We drove into Zagreb’s attractive downtown, finding a parking spot reasonably close to our apartment. Our self-check in flat turned out to be quite lovely, a two bedroom affair with a large living room with a modern and attractive kitchen on one end. Strung out along the hall from the only entrance, off an ancient and rough looking courtyard, there is a full bath, then a bathroom and finally a second shower. Somewhere in there’s a washing machine. It was plenty comfortable for the three of us, and amazingly quiet given its ground floor setting on a busy street.
We were within blocks of a large park, which we passed on our way to the oldest areas of town, then across the main plaza and uphill, passing a goodly number of the city’s 750,000 inhabitants, not to mention tourists and other visitors to the nation’s capital, plus commuters among the 1 million plus living in the area. Slovenia is not far away, making for a rivalry such as we witnessed in a grocery store between the checker and an inebriated customer who traded friendly insults.
There are bars and eateries galore, generally much less expensive than on the heavily touristed coastal areas. The cuisine is more Croatian, featuring grilled meats and stews, although Italian offerings are readily available.
The city was heavily influenced by the Jesuits, who in circa 1669 built the first grammar school and St Catherine’s Church. They found an academy which developed into today’s University of Zagreb. Croatia remains a strongly religious country.
Zagreb was alive in Roman times, although the name dates from the 11th century. At that point there were two city centers. Kaptol was the smaller of the two, where you find the cathedral. It was mostly populated by clergy. The Gradec area was larger, where craftsmen and merchants lived. The two areas remain today, still divided by a stream. We learned this and more from our walking tour led by an eccentric local who loved to point out his country’s governmental flaws.
Zagreb underwent a make over in the late 1800’s, lasting until the outbreak of WWI. It retains the layout then established. In 1891 the first horse-drawn tram went into service, while in 1907 came its first power plant, which began replacing the many gas lamps then in use, some of which still adorn the walls. The central area has that great turn of the century architecture, lots of monuments, parks and many museums as well as many live theaters. The Gric cannon is fired daily, a tradition started in 1877. In WW2 Zagreb was the capital of the Independent State of Croatia, backed by Hitler and Mussolini. There was state violence and resistance.During the 1991–1995 war of Independence. The city was not heavily damaged. Zagreb has a long history of earth quakes. Our guide remarked that these occur soon after a major building has been restored, damaging it yet again. The latest was in 2020, 5.5. on the Richter scale, the strongest since 1880.
There are museums galore. Modern Gallery holds more than 10,000 works of 19th- and 20th-century Croatian artists. It is located in the historic Vranyczany Palace. Croatian Natural History museum has an important collection of Neanderthal skeletons. Our co-traveler went to the Museum of Broken Relationships. The rest of us fought over whether to go or not.
The city bustles with young people hanging out with friends at the numerous bars, cafes and restaurants. We enjoyed the hearty cuisine, featuring stews and grilled meats. I really liked the fish stew, in Croatian brodet. They were served by male waiters, all named Igor, all of whom who spoke good English, sometimes with a strong accent serviceable for any Dracula movie. The waiters worked on us for tips, and always earned their keep in the very traditional white cloth yet reasonably priced restaurants. Most people speak English quite well, especially in the larger cities and the highly visited towns.
There are plenty of very good craft beers and Croatian wines, the latter at least drinkable if a bit eccentric. I often found myself saying of the latter, “I’ve never tasted anything quite like this.” Maybe with some getting used to I’d become a fan, but it would take more than the two weeks I had.
These are an energetic people, with a long history of war and political conflict. My impression is that on the whole they are on a good path, with reasonably strong democratic and other public institutions, with an appreciation for art and the other aspects of culture, and yet humble enough to realize their shortcomings. I am not sure what more you could ask for.