We’ve been planning to visit Zagreb, the capital of neighbouring Croatia ever since I returned from Ljubljana. Once again it was mainly Dušan’s idea – being the restless traveller that he is, he jumps at every chance to go out and about. And since he’s been to Zagreb dozens of times before, I let him pretty much set up everything and be a bit of a tour guide as well. Once again our friend and good guy Gregor came with us, and we also picked up a girl who was looking for a ride on prevoz.org, Slovenia’s largest ride sharing site.
It took us almost 2 hours to do the 120-ish kilometers from Maribor to Zagreb. While Croatia’s been an EU member for the last year, there’s still border checks to get through – nothing severe, but enough to cost you a few minutes, especially if you run into a cranky policeman. Right now with the holiday rush and the refugee situation on their heads, they’re probably not the happiest people in the world.
We were slowed down further by “big city” traffic in and around Zagreb. Cars there share roads with blue trams and the inner city is a maze of one way streets with people running across them without caring much for the traffic lights. I guess it can get even worse in some places of the world, but for me it was crazy enough. Seeing as I don’t come from a big city myself, I’m not used to driving in such conditions. I’ve driven trucks for a while some years ago, but I still felt nervous, and not knowing the roads didn’t help either. Luckily Dušan was there to give a bit of guidance and after 15 minutes of aimlessly navigating the one way streets, we eventually found a parking space near the main bus terminal.
Now, while Croatia is an EU member, they still use Kuna as their currency and the exchange rate is a bit over 7 kunas for 1 euro. Gregor came prepared with some kunas already in his wallet, so, much to our surprise, we ended up paying a mere 10 kn for a day’s worth of parking and set off towards the city center.
Only then did I really begin to take in the feel of the city and I was sad to find out that it failed to impress. It had nothing to do with high expectations – I didn’t set any in the first place. Sure, the streets felt alive, the cars and trams buzzed by busily, but there was something missing, perhaps a sense of tidiness and splendor that befits a nation’s capital of almost a million residents. In that respect, I think Ljubljana does a much better job of presenting itself to visitors.
Also I failed to note any clear directions towards the city center, or a city center itself for that matter. I’m used to oldtowns being the historic focal points around which neighbourhoods would then grow as time went on. Here it was all a grid of streets and avenues, crossing each other at right angles, lined by dirty grey socialist architecture that didn’t look inviting at all. Dušan once again took charge as we navigated this maze in hopes of finding the Zagreb Cathedral. His experience proved handy and 15 minutes later we were standing in front of a grand ol’ gothic church with two belltowers rising high above the connecting square. So high in fact, that they make the cathedral the highest building in Croatia.
Heading inside we found lines of people waiting to take their turn at confession, looking for redemption and forgiveness before Christmas eve. This was still a normal workday, mind you, so I was more than a little surprised to see so many people visiting church at midday. We quickly proclaimed ourselves without sin and made a round around the splendid interior, past the Christmas tree beside the altar and the tomb of the Blessed Alojz Stepinac. Gregor was the only one with a mentionable interest in religion, but he tends to keep it more private than not. We soon made our way back outside and down towards Ban Jelačić Square.
The Ban Jelačić Square gets it name after a 19th century general Josip Jelačić. A statue with him on horseback stands tall in the middle, while all around people gather to enjoy the festive spirit and mulled wine served at the surrounding stands. This is Zagreb’s main meeting point and is a traffic-free zone, while trams still pass through the square.
Ilica street runs west from it, one of the longest streets in Zagreb and commercially the most interesting. Many shops, boutiques and restaurants line both sides of it and Dušan insisted that we visit the Vincek pastry shop and try their cream cakes. Not unlike our own Bled cream cakes, they feature a thin sheet of chocolate topping over a layer of whipped cream, all resting on top of a thicker layer of pastry cream. Another thin layer of dough serves as a base and adds a bit of texture.
Beside their cream cakes, Vincek also makes a number of other sweet pastries, cakes, cookies and ice cream. If you have a bit of a sweet tooth and find yourself in Zagreb, be sure to check them out.
Soon it was back onto the busy streets again and more and more people were filling the squares to celebrate the festive spirit. We moved past busy street food stands, groups of people busy in discussion and stages ready to host their evening performers. You could sense the carefree joy in the air. Then I noticed that something was missing from the experience. Perhaps it was the lack of snow, or maybe I would have liked it more after dark, when all the lights gave the city an even more special feel. Or it might have been the place itself. It somehow left me cold and failed to leave a lasting impression. There was nothing really special to be seen and remembered, at least to my mind. And despite everything going on around me, I felt somehow lost and purposeless.
We walked along the long, grey streets some more and I wondered what brings tourists and travelers to Zagreb. Gregor and Dušan were busy chatting away, but I was still puzzled. There had to be more to it than a couple of churches, squares and an occasional restaurant. For a long time we walked east towards Maksimir, the locale where you’ll find Croatia’s biggest football stadium, home of Dinamo Zagreb. The bustle of the city center was gone here and it made me want to get back home even more. We might have stayed longer were it not for Christmas eve – we all had dinners with families to get back to and in that instant a table full of food and presents under the tree were the only things I could think of.
Much like other buildings around the city, Maksimir Stadium left me wanting for more. I’m sure the atmosphere would be pumped up on matchday, but as it stood now, it was cold and lifeless. The outside is a square structure with a glass facade and you could see unfinished spaces with bare walls even at a distance. Take a look across the fence and the inside isn’t much better.
With that we decided to start back towards the car. Somehow we still had half an hour of walking to do and we contemplated jumping on one of the trams, but in the end it wasn’t to be. So once again we set off on foot, mainly to take one last feel of the place before we left. Perhaps I would have liked Zagreb a bit more under different circumstances. We left a bit too early to see the lights truly shine, and as we didn’t plan ahead much, we maybe could have made more of our day. As it stands I must say that I wasn’t too impressed – something was missing and I couldn’t say what. I do hope that I find it next time I’m in town.