The guidebooks will tell you to skip Zagreb, to head to the Dalmatian Coast, to Split or Dubrovnik. At most, one might tell you to stop over in Zagreb as you make your way to these more picturesque places. Well, I recently ignored that advice, and now I’m advising you to do the same.
Zagreb, Croatia is a place to see in its own right.
My friend Katie and I arrived in the capital city via train from Budapest late on a Wednesday evening. The train station sits on one end of the horseshoe parks that extend all the way to the main square. It’s a massive green length in the middle of the city, lined with trees and spotted with fountains and benches. During our stay it was home to a happy little craft and music festival. Happy, happy. Our hostel, Old Town Zagreb, sat on one of the streets extending perpendicularly from the park. We arrived, tired, to be greeted by one of the kindest hostel-owners around. Jelena marked up a map for us, took care of our van arrangements to Plitvice, and (most crucially) told us all of her favorite meals and where to find them.
We awoke the next morning hungry to explore Zagreb, and, also, just plain hungry. So, first stop: the market. The city of nearly 800,000 people has a bustling produce and flowers market right off of the main square. Here, local Zagrebians move underneath bright red umbrellas amid ripe fruits and crisp vegetables. We can smell something spiced and fried, so we follow our noses. Along Dolac street we dip into a bakery to buy Börek. Börek is a pastry made with layers of phyllo dough and cheese, meat, or vegetable filling. It is served drizzled with yogurt and dusted with garlic. Yes. We will be told repeatedly that it is a hangover assassin. I believe it.
Filled with rich pastry and cheese we began a city walk in the city square, Trg bana Josipa Jelacica, where we run into an Aussie from the train. Side note: Zagreb, although a capital city, still feels small. The market seems familiar, the park like a family get-together. This will not be the last time we simply and accidently run into someone we know on the street. It’s a good feeling.
Then around to the Cathedral, called The Cathedral by the Zagrebians. Then we backtrack Ilica street, the main artery of the city, lined with clothing stores and banks, run through by tram lines right next to sidewalks, and head up the stairs beside the out-of-order funicular to the upper town, Gradec.
Zagreb has an Old and New town. The Old, Gradec, sits above the new. Ascending, you enter a quiet district, as if sound and crowd thin out like the air with the altitude. The stone streets are devoid of traffic even though the upper town houses the government buildings. We see St. Mark’s church, which boasts a beautiful, colored, tiled roof with dual Zagreb and Croatian coat of arms. It shouts its allegiance from its rooftop.
A group of small school children sit on the steps – they are the only other life forms in the square and on the block.
From here we descend again to lower, new Zagreb by way of a open air prayer chapel underneath a bridge and a row of ancient brothels – ironic in their proximity. After a respite in the park to watch puppies running around (happy), we again ascend (I’m not saying it was the most direct itinerary) to the Museum of Broken Relationships. Yes, that is correct, a museum dedicated to break-ups. This museum is a must-visit. Its 4 or so rooms showcase items that remind their donors of past relationships and lovers. Each item is accompanied by a story – some angry, some heart wrenching. It’s an ode to memories and the physical things that love accumulates – the actual baggage.
Naturally, after this, Katie and I need a glass of wine. Or two.
And then a great dinner. A really fantastic, typical northern Croatian meal. The homemade bread and cooked goat cheese, then veal chop with cheese crust, pesto sweet peas, and bread dumplings at Vindolo makes the list of monumental life meals. Go there.
Thursday morning we awake to journey to Plitvice National Park. This is the reason I wanted to come to Croatia – lakes, waterfalls, clear water, paths over the lakes. The park is about 2 hours from Zagreb by van. Katie and I lace up our tennis shoes, fill our backpack, purchase and eat our now mandatory coffee and pastry, and load in a van with an American family, and 2 Aussie girls.
The park is truly another world. We kept joking that we had found the lost city of Atlantis. But, no joke, we may have. The water is its own shade of blue. It’s a light aqua that is crystal clear; Plitvice blue – entirely unique. You can practically have conversations with the fish. The lakes link together in sequences of pools and falls. It goes on and on.
Somehow, between the lower and upper lakes – kind of like Zagreb’s lower and upper city – between boat and railroad and hiking, we become horribly lost and turn our 3-mile hike into about 15. I don’t advise following suit in this case. But, if you must be lost somewhere, do make it Plitvice.
Finally returning to our van, which, remarkably, is still there, we head back to Zagreb with heavy legs and empty stomachs. This we soon fix with dinner at one of the numerous outdoor cafes. Then, to sooth our bruised spirits, a piece of pistachio lemon mascarpone cake at the adorable Amelie. All better.
A night’s sleep, cappuccino, cheese borek, and back to the train station.
Zagreb has a culture that makes it more than a stopover; it’s a destination rich like its pastry. The town has a distinct coherent feel that melds new and old while it appreciates and preserves each. It comments on the natural beauty of Croatia, with its park, in a way less obvious than the spectacular coast. The outdoor arena of the city – the cafes, the park, the squares, the market – feels almost Italian in its friendliness. It’s entirely livable, absolutely happy, yet so layered – with even a place for love lost.
When you find Atlantis, it’s hard to leave.