Europe | Croatia | Zagreb – Balkan Tours #1
19, 20, 21 june 2001
Getting from Pecs in southern Hungary to Zagreb isn’t the easiest. There are a few complicated itineraries you can take and between myself and the nice girl in the train station we went for train via Osijek. At the border the Croatian guard liked my passport so much he decided he’d take it with him off the train. After 5 minutes, during which I convinced myself I’d never see it, or my family, again, he brought it back. Everything was ok. Which was a relief.
Changing trains in Osijek was no problem. I didn’t get to see much of the town. But it looked grim enough. Lots of building pockmarked with bulletholes.
It was 20.30 when the train pulled into Zagreb. I was a bit worried because I hadn’t been able to ring ahead and book somewhere to stay. But everything went real well. The Omladinski Hotel, at Petrinjska 77, is actually a hostel, and is only 5 minutes walk from the station. It had beds aplenty. Well one for me anyway.
Zagreb is pretty much centred around a central square called Trg Bana Jelacica. This is full of crowded cafes, trams, pigeons and tourists. The tourist office on the corner gives out helpful map and walking tour combos. This book divides Zagreb in two.
North of the square are the old town quarters of Kaptol and Gradec. This is where Zagreb was born. Kaptol was officially founded in 1242. These twin hills are squashed full of windy cobbled red roof lined streets, historic churchs and medieval gates and statues. Often you expect a tuniced knight or raggedy urchin around the next corner. Worth looking out for are St. Mark’s church with the Croatian and Zagreb coats of arms on the roof in multi-coloured tiles, the Stone Gate with a medieval painting of the Blessed Virgin and Child surrounded by flickering candles and people praying, and the view from Visoka which overlooks most of the city.
The lower town, south of the central square, is obviously of a more recent vintage. If you can negotiate the maze of pavement cafes and make your way south, you soon find yourself inside a horseshoe of public parks, filled with imposing 19th century museums and university buildings, and with a general Habsburg central European city atmosphere. Museum Mimara, on Roosevelt Trg, has an impressive art collection, with El Greco, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Manet and Degas all in there somewhere.
But that wasn’t near as interesting as the Gallery of Naive Art, near Tolkien’s house in Gradec. Naive Art is a home-grown Croatian movement, mostly kickstarted by local painter Ivan Generalic. I’d never heard of it, or him, but Hugo, an English guy I met at the hostel, convinced me to give it a gander. Naive Art is typically painted onto glass and depicts traditional Croatian peasant life. There were lots of shawls and hogs. The detail, colours and subject matter were striking. I was rather taken with Generlaic’s ‘Crucified Rooster’. It made me think. The whole place was something different. Thanks Hugo. Find out more at www.hmnu.org.
The Dolac Market, just to the north of the central square, is a worthwhile experience. It’ll thrill you while it feeds you. In the open air are fruit and vegetable stalls and underneath there’s meat and cheese. I found the biggest apple ever. There was food and drink in it. It was too much, even for me.
Everywhere in the city are holes in the wall selling pastries filled with cheese, chocolate or pizza. One especially nice place on Cesarceva sold me a toasted pizza sandwich and refilled my water bottle for free. That was a nice man. If you want to sit down for something more substantial, Skalinska, a stepped street behind the market, is a good place for cheap and tasty pasta dishes. And they’ve got beer.
The Omladinski Hotel is basic. That’s being kind. As well as hard up travellers, it is home to a lot of refugees from the Balkan wars. I’d say more than half the residents were permanent, including families with kids. None of them bothered me, but it meant the place was noisy 24 hours a day. At 6.30 one morning a guy came into my dorm asking for a light for his cigarette. It was a bit odd. Each room has only one key. You’re supposed to leave it behind the desk. Once I got locked out for a few hours. I was all set to deck the guy who’d kept the key until I saw he was this ginormous Polish guy. I guess he got lucky. In that he was a ginormous Polish guy. But, all said, the Omladinski is cheap. A bed in a 6 bed dorm cost me 67 Kuna a night (9 euros). It’s about double that for a single. There’s no breakfast and no cooking or socialising facilities. But, like I said, it’s cheap.
At the hostel I hooked up with two new friends, Javier from Gijon and Hugo from Devon. They were good people. We went out for dinner one night and ended up in an outdoor place with a kicking live Jazz band. Twas good craic.
My first two days were overcast, but on the third day the sun came out. And all these incredibly beautiful Croatian women appeared. Really brightened the place up. Again I had no trouble with bankomats and finding internet cafes and my phone switched automatically to the Croatian network. And most of the people I met spoke English. Generally Zagreb had a relaxed atmosphere. Anyone worried about going because of the Balkan strife shouldn’t be put off.
Before I go, a thought I’d like to share. I’m noticing, as I hop from city to city every three or four days, that I’m looking at each city as a kind of giant outdoor museum, with the people, streets and buildings as exhibits. Almost like a show put on for my enjoyment. I’m not sure that’s such a good way of looking at things. It detachs me from the real life of the people living there. But I shouldn’t really expect any different I suppose. Anyway it’s just a thought. As for me, I’m off to Sarajevo.