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Zagreb, Croatia

Jessica Baldwin overcomes the language barrier and is overcome by the many charms of 'must-visit' Zagreb, from statues to markets to a most unique museum

Ironically, language has never been my forte. Growing up in deepest, darkest Norfolk I spent years grappling with English, let alone the French and German they optimistically hurled at us in high school. However, often finding myself in foreign climes I occasionally attempt a bit of French, or whack an ‘o’ on the end to magically make it Italian, but Croatian?! As we say in Norfolk, heya havin a laugh my man.

I have never seen so many consonants laughing at me in one word—good old Vorderman would have a hay day (sorry Carol, you’re not old… not any more)! Trying to navigate my way around the city’s streets was laughable. So, having quickly given up on the cryptic consonant-strewn map and seriously fallen out with Siri, I decided that Zagreb was a city best navigated by one’s senses.

However, if there is one thing I have always understood less than language, it is religion. Which is probably why I found myself fleeing Zagreb’s stunning cathedral in a flurry of confusion and embarrassment. I knew I should never have entered, but its dramatic neo-gothic twin towers and hypnotic organ had been teasing me since I arrived. I thought I could just slip in and admire it unnoticed; the beautiful building has quietly witnessed everything from fires and wars to earthquakes—surely a harmless Norfolkian could go unnoticed? Modest attire, check. Phone on silent, tick.

But, oh no, Vodafone, that would’ve been too easy, hey. As my phone alarm went off just as mass began, I frantically searched for the blasted thing as an automatic ‘oh god’ slipped out of my mouth and echoed around the enormous building, followed by a cascade of ‘I’m sorries’ to all of the unimpressed bystanders.

Great, a ringing phone and blaspheming within the first two minutes. Ashamed and embarrassed, I tottered off to the farthest corner of the elaborate building as fast as my toes would carry me (note to self: wear ballerinas next time, not heels), as a man approached me with a barrage of consonants. If it was Scrabble he would have whipped me, but it wasn’t, it was mass—shhhhh, man, shhhh.

Having pleaded ignorance and English, he defiantly insisted I follow him. The blood drained from my face as I caught site of the elaborate confession booths. Phew, he whizzed past them and towards… a nun! Yes, really. A nod of the head meant we were past her and hurdling towards the altar—it was like a religious assault course. Despite my repeated pleas he urgently ushered me into a side room… where the priest was getting changed. Yes, really.

“Can I help you?” asked the baffled priest.

Out of my quivering mouth fell the vowels “I’m sorry! I don’t know where I am, I don’t know why I’m here and I have no idea who this man is!”

“Don’t worry, we have this problem a lot,” he said, bemused, with a suggestive hand elegantly pointing towards the exit.

With a confused curtsey I fled from Kaptol Square and its historic cathedral, watched over by its gold-plated angels, until I reached Tkalciceva; the city’s most soulful street.

Lined with boutiques, bars and cafes, it offered the perfect refuge, but this infamous street hasn’t always been so welcoming. In fact, the buzzy street of Tkalciceva was once a creek that separated two warring hilltop towns; Gradec and Kaptol. The creek was at the centre of production and its mills powered the local workshops creating everything from soap and paper to liqueurs—rather apt given that today it’s liqueurs and gift shops that pull in its crowds. In the nineteenth century the creek was paved over and eventually became the pastel-painted social hub that it is today, merging the towns and creating the capital city of Zagreb.

Wandering around the city’s chestnut-lined promenades sprinkled with proud statues, local stories and more museums than hotels, it is easy to forget that this fascinating country only gained independence in 1991. For such a new capital city, Zagreb certainly has a lifetime of tales woven within it, and it displays them with pride. It’s hard to turn a corner without careering into a statue of a former king, artist or poet.

Watching over Tkalciceva is the elegant statue of Zagorka, Croatia’s first female journalist. The controversial author, now famous for her dramatic love stories and tales of witch hunts, wrote for years under a male pseudonym. It is these crafty and inspirational characters casually placed on the city’s streets and squares that make this city so enchanting; everything has a tale to tell.

With blushing cheeks still bursting with embarrassment, I strolled along the soulful road to find a suitable espresso spot. You see, in Zagreb coffee isn’t a drink, it is a ritual. For a little entertainment, try asking the barista for a takeaway coffee and watch the eyebrow rise in horror.

No, in Zagreb, a coffee is to be savoured and enjoyed over hours with friends—and always outside. Zagreb, one resident proudly told me, is an open-air living room; come rain or shine the city’s lively squares and terraces are crammed with blue-fingered blanket-clad coffee sippers, stylishly taking in the fresh air over a steaming macchiato.

On Saturday mornings this coffee culture is cranked up to a whole new level; spica. Pronounced like a drunk requesting pizza, this weekend ritual is like a celebrity safari. It sees the city’s hot shots and wannabes flock to the buzzy café quarters to see and be seen. Think Made in Chelsea on steroids. The paparazzi await and the socialites casually don their chicest clobber, squish their pedigree pooches in their designer bags and sip an espresso until that flash bulb goes off.

“They like to show off their new things”, explained our guide, “maybe a new bag, or shoes… or a man.” A brave move considering the 17th century local women who had it all were declared witches and burned at the stake. When I asked how they knew who was a witch, our guide shrugged and casually said, “If she is pretty, and clever and blah… they would be jealous. So we call her a witch and burn her.” Crikey, they’d better be good bags they flaunt!

Tkalciceva is popular, but the serious headline hunters hit Petar Preradovic Square—Flower Square to you and me. Forget your Siri and follow your nose; a short waft from the main high street of Illica, the pretty courtyard is awash with blooms and heated al fresco terraces—even in the dead of winter the stalls are bursting with fragrant roses and pristine petals. And it isn’t just the googly-eyed lovebirds floating around the city’s streets clutching their stems: flowers are the seed of celebration in this city, flowers and food, that is.

In Zagreb, convenience shopping isn’t popping to a Co-op, it’s wandering daily through the labyrinth that is Dolac; one of Croatia’s best food markets. Located close to the cathedral, the open-air food market is locally referred to as ‘the belly of Zagreb’. Greeted by a punch of zesty lemons, we meandered through rows of fresh ginger and pungent garlic before making our way through the pickle parlour where table upon table were covered in sauerkraut. But this was just our warm up; passing the toasty bakery section we finally hit the hustle and bustle of the fish market. Here gleaming clams and scallops scattered the stalls, live langoustines reached for our limbs and glistening tentacles hung all around.

Luckily our market tour, arranged through the tourist board, was led by local celebrity chef, Karlo, who masterfully navigated the stalls, striking a bargain at every corner. “I will show you how Dolac works,” he said as he began exchanging words with a stern looking lady selling vegetables. Honestly, it was like Kanye and Kim were having a show down. “Mozete uciniti bolje od toga,” our handsome chef blasted with passion. “Da je to vrlo jeftino,” replied our feisty garlic guard, her hands waving as a competitor opposite tried to join the battle.

Just as I thought they might come to blows, they burst into huge smiles, embraced and we left with a bag of delicious fresh veg, and even a wink. I looked apologetically at the cathedral once more; Dolac was one ritual I would not be attempting alone.

Back in the serene whitewashed walls of Karlo’s stylish restaurant, it was straight from the frying pan and into the fire as I donned my apron and hit the kitchen, and my mentor was taking no prisoners. “Right, who’s going to gut the squid?” he said as his accomplice foraged around with a razor sharp knife, gauging the eyes out with a flick. Having watched a terrified teen wrestle with a cuttlefish on Masterchef just days before, I cockily put myself forward for the task as black ink covered the surfaces and tentacles flopped around.

After an hour of slicing and dicing, we were finally ready to dine in the pristine Bistro Karlo. This elegant high-end restaurant proudly displays his wife’s playful paintings, which instantly made us feel at home. Now, I hate to blow my own trumpet but my squid salad was a triumph and tasted even better alongside his fantastic selection of Croatian wines—unsurprising when we found out that Karlo was once the personal sommelier to the country’s former prime minister (who is incarcerated now—a long story, but one I am assured is worthy of a Saturday espresso).

“Ignore what the journalists say about your wine,” Karlo insisted with a swirl of the glass, “Come on! If you like it, drink it!” and with that the aerating and leg-checking ceased and the quaffing began.

Hours later, bursting with culinary pride and perhaps a little schnapps, I left cosy Bistro Karlo and walked into a wall of sobering frosty air as I followed my senses towards the centre of the ancient upper town area, formerly known as Gradec. This area has always been the political hub of the city, and today its ancient buildings still define its future. It is easy to become absorbed in its cobbled streets, an historic treasure trove of immaculate baroque mansions, religious buildings and museums all surrounding the ornately tiled St. Mark’s church.

It is rare that a museum captures me—I remember as a child trying to clock each object as quickly as possible and escape, and as for reading the accompanying text—please. However, Zagreb is home to one of the most immersive museums I have ever visited; The Museum of Broken Relationships. The quirky gallery began when two artists parted ways and had countless objects of sentimental value, each with their own story. They decided to create an exhibition of the objects and the stories behind them to try and gain closure.

Having first opened almost a decade ago, the museum has been on a world tour everywhere from Argentina to Macedonia and every day they receive countless objects from around the globe from broken-hearted souls hoping to be part of the exhibition. With an embarrassing back catalogue of failed flings to rival Bridget Jones, I half expected to find all my missing belongings in there (I swear that singer nicked my phone!). As I entered via the convivial gift shop selling tongue-in-cheek t-shirts and funny confectionery to the background vocals of Ed Sheeran I wasn’t sure what to expect.

It got me. I was glued to each object and desperate to read the significance of it. From the Parisian woman parting ways with her sex shop stilettoes and an abandoned gnome that a Slovenian woman catapulted at her ex-husband’s car as he drove away, to the scary axe that a German woman had used to hack up all of her ex-girlfriend’s belongings with. But it wasn’t all silenced giggles and wide-eyed disbelief—some of the stories were deeply poignant, like the postcard sent in by an Armenian woman who had been sent it by the boy next door, who drove his car off a cliff when her parents refused to give their blessing for him to propose to her.

There was also a room dedicated to people coming to terms with the loss of their parents or their lack of relationship with them. Part of the beauty of this museum is that it is living, it evolves continuously, as one exhibit gains closure, another begins. And, I am relieved to say that I didn’t recognise anything in it—though part of me desperately wanted to leave a piece of me in this fascinating city. But what would it be: the cheating stripper’s dickie bow or the deluded singer’s empty words? Decisions, decisions.

With a playful smile on my face and the city’s infamous honey brandy flowing through my veins, I wandered along Strossmayer Promenade taking in the scent of roasting chestnuts as the sun set and the lower town came to life, when I stumbled upon a like-minded soul; Antun Gustav Matos. The intriguing bronze man has been sitting upon the metal bench since 1978—well, it’s quite a view I suppose.

Matos was a lovable rogue, poet and columnist who, having become besotted with the city of Zagreb and inspired by it, penned some of Croatia’s best-loved poems. Having always been a sucker for a silver fox I found myself within his embrace, just Matos and I overlooking the buzz of the city below. As the night set in, the old town’s traditional gas lamps were lit by hand, one by one, illuminating the cobbles and baroque facades with a warm sepia hue.

The lower town is accessible via the world’s shortest funicular or… by foot, and following my senses once again I strolled towards The Stone Gate. This enchanting archway is the last remaining original gateway from the old town. Dating back to the middle ages the archway holds a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which houses a painting that was the only thing miraculously saved from the great fire of 1731. The archway has a constant stream of locals kneeling with a prayer, or lighting a candle for a lost loved one. It has an inherent sense of peace and, despite not being fluent in religion, it is my favourite part of this fascinating city.

Zagreb is a capital city that doesn’t feature on many travellers ‘must visit’ lists… yet. But with stunning architecture, a rich history and an exciting cultural calendar, this absorbing city is one of Europe’s best kept secrets. It won Matos over and it won me over, and with so much to ‘ooooo’ and ‘aaaa’ at, this city needs no extra vowels—I’ll have another consonant please Carol.


For more information on what to see and do in Zagreb, visit www.zagreb-touristinfo.hr and to explore more of Croatia see www.croatia.hr.

Croatia Airlines fly daily from London Heathrow to Zagreb. Fares start from £120 per person (1,181HRK) for a return trip.

Rates at the 4* Palace Hotel Zagreb start from £66.84 (€85) based on two people sharing a double room including breakfast. To book visit www.palace.hr.

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