A relaxed city-break in Zagreb | DW Travel | DW | 09.05.2018
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A relaxed city-break in Zagreb

European cities tend to be crowded with tourists but not the capital of Croatia. DW's Eesha Kheny spent a relaxed weekend in Zagreb getting a taste of local life while taking in some interesting sights and good food.

Despite being a major hub, Zagreb does not have a big city feel. With its cobbled streets, colorful walls and mellow vibe, it lacks the typical metropolitan non-stop hustle and bustle. I started my visit with a delicious lunch in the blue-walled little street called Skalinska and I wondered what the next two days might bring. The lunch already let me know that Zagreb has something for every kind of taste on offer from street food, Croatian wine bars serving tapas style food, traditional restaurants to fine dining establishments.

The city of stories

Zagreb is also packed with attractions owing to the city's status as a former Hapsburg hub and capital of a new nation. My interest in the city however started with its very name. To me 'Zagreb' sounded medieval and mythical, which I would soon discover, it really is. While most cities have locations which inspire postcards and Instagram posts, Zagreb is full of stories.

Kroatien Zagreb - Medvedgrad (picture-alliance/PIXSELL/M. Prpic)

Medieval Medvedgrad Castle on a hill near Zagreb

During my time here, I heard many versions of the famous "Medvedgrad" folktale of the Black Queen and her fortress. According to legend, an evil queen was cursed, turned into a serpent and now haunts the underbelly of the city and her fortress, located outside Zagreb, guarding her treasure.

Curious to know more, I joined a night walking tour which saw me following a guide - dressed in medieval robes, carrying a lantern and talking in a spooky voice - around the city. He spoke of dragons and witches, humouring the inquisitive questions of his listeners and creating an entertaining atmosphere.

Zagreb - Denkmal von Anton Dominik Fernkorn (picture-alliance/akg-images)

Popular statue: St. Georg is fighting the dragon

Apart from captivating stories, I also found that Zagreb is dotted with numerous statues. The most popular being the one of St. George and the dragon by Austrian sculptor Anton Fernkorn, located next to the national theatre. The statue pays homage to the Golden Legend, yet another compelling tale claiming that St. George slayed a dragon -- a popular motif since medieval times, symbolizing the struggle between good and evil and the victory of Christianity over paganism. This statue shows him with his sword in hand at the moment of slaying the dragon. 

Continuing on my exploration, I headed for the pedestrian-only Tkalčićeva, a lovely street lined by 19th-century town houses, most now hosting popular bars and cafés at ground level. Walking down this lane it was difficult to imagine that this very street was originally a flowing river which was filled with gravel in the 1800s.

Kroatien Zagreb - Straßencafé (DW/E. Kheny)

Street cafés in the historic centre of Zagreb

The coffee culture in Zagreb plays a large part of everyday life so I immersed myself. As I lingered over yet another delicious cup of coffee I found myself talking to the kind owner of the café. From him I learnt that Tkalčićeva Street had not only been a river but in the 1900s it was also the center of the red light district of Zagreb, when prostitution was legalized and advertised as a tourist attraction to help the economy. This helped to explain the peculiar statue called the 'Lady in the window' by sculptor Vera Drajh Kralj. I had not expected to hear such shocking and juicy stories in Zagreb but I embraced them all along with the city's happening café culture, which was really growing on me.

The Grič Canon of Zagreb

Taking the funicular -- which at 66 metres in length is known for being one of the shortest public-transport funiculars in the world -- I made my way to Gornji Grad or Upper Town, which is popular with tourists and therefore often fairly crowded.

Kroatien Zagreb - Seilbahn, Funicular (DW/E. Kheny)

The Zagreb funicular has been in operation since 1893

As Zagreb's history began here it is a must on any visit, and most tourists stroll through the pedestrian only streets or head to the main attraction of St. Mark's Square. The ornate square consists of the 13th century St. Mark's Church, with its red-white and blue tiled roof, and the Croatian Government offices.

Despite the charm of the area, the experience that really stood out for me was at Lotrščak tower -- a 13th century fortified tower which to this day still follows an age old tradition of daily firing a canon to mark midday.

Kroatien Zagreb - Lotrščak Turm (DW/E. Kheny)

Views from the Lotrščak tower, a symbol of Zagreb

Initially I had planned to climb the tower solely to enjoy the view of the city, but after hearing about the Grič cannon, I had to witness this ritual in person. As I stood in the tower, watching the man prepare for the blast, I contemplated my sudden decision to rush across town for this event. He instructed everyone to cover their ears as he waited for the exact second to pull the cord.

The booming sound of the canon could be heard loud and clear despite the sound-proof room and reverberated under our feet. The tremble seemed to go through the glass and pass through the visitors, myself included. I was impressed and amazed to learn that the city has been firing this canon every day since January 1st, 1877 -- much to the dismay it seemed of the pigeons and tourists caught unaware. Wanting to get away from the smell of gunpowder, I climbed to the top of the tower to enjoy the view. All this excitement - for the mere price of 20 Kn (2.7 €) - definitely built up an appetite.

Kroatien Zagreb - Dolac Market (DW/E. Kheny)

Dolac Market

I treated myself to fresh fruit and vegetables under the cool shade of the red umbrellas at the nearby Dolac Market. I enjoyed the local ambience of this farmer's market, often referred to as the 'stomach of Zagreb', before catching a bus to Mirogoj cemetery located nearby.

Mirogoj Cemetery

Although it's a tourist attraction, what interested me most was that the cemetery inters members of all religious groups. After a comfortable ride, I disembarked at the bus stop with dozens of other tourists only to be enchanted by the cemetery's entrance. The impressive domes and vine clad walls of the beautiful arches created such a peaceful atmosphere that it felt like it would help people forget their sorrows.

Kroatien Zagreb - Mirogoj Friedhof (picture-alliance/PIXSELL/S. Strukic)

Grave at Mirogoj Cemetery

The cemetery is owned by the City of Zagreb and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that visitors didn't have to pay to enter. Once inside I quickly understood why this cemetery is so famous. The brilliance of Austrian born architect Herman Bollé can be admired in the 500 meter long neo-renaissance arcades with its 20 domes. As I walked around, it felt less like a cemetery and more like a vast outdoor museum displaying elaborate sculptures contributed by many artists over time. The tilled floors, marble pillars and green spaces created a striking combination of color and patterns. The significance of Mirogoj became evident to me when I saw the names of many famous men and women on the tombstones, including that of architect Herman Bollé or Franjo Tudman, Croatia's first president following independence from Yugoslavia. It is little wonder that the cemetery is called the Pantheon of Croatian history.

Kroatien Mirogoj Friedhof (picture-alliance/Pixsell/S. Strkic)

Mirogoj Cemetery with magnificent arcades

As evening descended I left the tranquility of the graveyard and headed back into town as I had one last thing on my agenda that required darkness. That night, as I looked out at the twinkling lights from the observation deck called Zagreb 360°, I realized how much I had come to like the city. Since Zagreb is often overshadowed by the country's famous coastline, it isn't overrun with tourists, adding to its allure. I had the impression that many are drawn here to take in the sights and museums, of which there are some 40. But what made an impression on me and stayed with me long after my visit were the unique experiences I had in Zagreb. It turned out, at the end of my trip, I had a few stories of my own to share.