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Previously overlooked for the sandy stretches of Split or Dubrovnik, Croatia’s capital Zagreb is now growing in popularity, offering a rich tapestry of historical, cultural and culinary interests. Michelle Heffernan reports on a trip to a capital city undergoing a touristic evolution.

Zagreb is experiencing a renaissance. In the aftermath of an austere communist regime and a crippling civil war, a Croatia of renewed resilience and vitality has emerged, with Zagreb at her centre. I’m not sure if it was the architecture, surroundings or the attitudes of the Zagrebians, but from the moment we landed, I felt a sense of a relaxed exuberance, of a people ready to dust off the cobwebs of the past, and create a city centred on past beauty and future promise.
Pic 5a
Travelling with Croatia Airlines directly to Zagreb, we arrived mid afternoon into the new, sleek and modern terminal of Zagreb Airport. A mere 30 minute journey into Zagreb centre, we soon checked into the Hotel International, just one of the 62 hotels in Zagreb city. It was a gorgeous afternoon in the Balkan sun, and we had just time for a much needed drink in the shade of the many outdoor restaurant terraces off Ban JelačićSquare. In the shadow of the overlooking Mount Medvednica, the city centre had a uniquely dimmed kind of light, which only enhanced my feeling that I was living in some kind of surreal fantasy, kicking back with a beer on a Thursday evening to gaze idly at the beautiful passers by. People watching, purportedly, is one of the Croats’ favourite pastimes, and centred on their love of coffee and café culture. Business, I’m told, in Zagreb is not done over drinks or golf, but coffee, and the Zagrebians value slow social coffee culture so much that Starbucks and its “coffee on the go” philosophy has been denied rights to franchise here. I’m enjoying observing the life and bustle so much, I find it hard to move for dinner reservations! Following a delicious Mediterranean inspired three course meal at the nearby Bon Appétit restaurant, I’m spent, and retire to the hotel excited to explore more of the city’s idiosyncrasies the following day.

15.	The Art Pavilion in the Lenuci Horseshoe

15. The Art Pavilion in the Lenuci Horseshoe

The next morning we meet our guide from Zagreb Tourism, Antonia, an enthusiastic but relaxed lady who rightly embodies the city’s modus operandi. She takes us straight from the hotel to the nearby “green” district known as the Lenuci Horse shoe, a remarkable 19th century patchwork of squares and parks, home to many of Zagreb’s cultural and scientific institutions. Named after its architect Milan Lenuci, this area is also known as the “green” horse shoe as it connects seven gorgeous green parks, including the beautiful Botanical Gardens. The buildings here are simply stunning, painted a wonderfully soft yellow colour. This district began under Hapsburg rule, I’m told, which is why these buildings, and their beautiful yellow, so resemble the streets of Budapest or indeed Vienna. While the architecture is certainly prim, elegant and sophisticated, the visitors and locals enjoying the green walkways are much the opposite, totally relaxed and informal, just enjoying a sunny morning in the sun kissed fountains and gardens. I’m slowly noticing this dichotomy more and more in Zagreb- a mix of old, classical, formal influences, with a very laid back, welcoming and relaxed culture. And it’s very much a mix I like!

We move from this green oasis in “The Lower Town”, into the city centre, where the quiet bustle I witnessed yesterday evening has tripled into a buzz of people, stalls, noise and colour. Apparently although only about 5% of the city’s population live here in Ilica, almost everyone comes in here daily to work, shop, or of course, people watch. Our arrival is announced by a blow of trumpets, and Antonia explains we have stumbled on a military march, as today (May 26) is Croatia’s memorial day. As hundreds of Croatian soldiers march through the square in military dress, I’m pleased to find there is more to look at here than just architecture! Before leaving the city centre we browse Dolac, one of the city’s 22 markets, where fresh fruit, vegetables and local craft produce allure both locals and tourists. I consider spending far too much money on a handmade lace parasol, something to make me seem as pretty as my surroundings. Instead I grab a mid morning snack from the vendors, a štrukli, the traditional filo pastry snack that Zagrebites eat as sweet or savoury, and tuck into a soft cheese filling while taking in the colours and sounds.

The Dolac Market from above

The Dolac Market from above

We begin the climb up to Gradec in the historic town, passing the Cathedral, an awe-inspring neo-gothic church, that dates as far back as the 13th century. Filing through quaint medieval-like streets, we arrive at the Špica, the pedestrianised stretch between Ban Jelačić and Petar Preradović square that makes up Zagreb’s celebrated coffee strip. Numerous eyes linger over us as relaxed coffee lovers sip and survey the people, something I’m definitely looking forward to doing more of this afternoon.
Passing through the gates to Gradec, we notice a hush descend on the passers by. Here at the old stone gates to the city lies a shrine to the Virgin Mary, patron saint of Zagreb city. The old city walls here are made up of ancient stone tablets, all with personally carved messages of thanks(Hvala) to the Virgin Mary, and locals as well as tourists kneel at benches before the shrine to offer their prayers of gratitude to the saint.

Finally after a steep climb and all those alluring smells of coffee and food, we finish our tour in St. Mark’s square, home to the magnificent St. Mark’s church, as well as the Croatian seats of government. The church is just like something out of a sylvan playset, with its colourful glazed roof tiles that give the impression of a tapestry covering the building. This is not only the more quaint and rustic part of the town, but also the museum district, where visitors can find the Museum of Naïve Art, The Zagreb City Museum, as well as the famous Museum of Broken Relationships, a very famous exhibition that has won an award as the most innovative museum in Europe

Zagreb’s stunning neo-gothic cathedral

Zagreb’s stunning neo-gothic cathedral

At last we tuck into a fabulous four course lunch of fresh fish (in a restaurant so fancy I cannot figure out the cutlery!). With still so much to see or do in Zagreb, I know I should head further afield, and explore perhaps the Museum of Illusions or the famous Mirogoj cemetery. But Špica and the option of digesting my lunch over coffee and people watching sounds much more appealing right now! And that’s what I love about Zagreb really, her ability to cater for every kind of traveller or trip, the adventurer and the pedestrian. I know my more energetic friends would take off on a day trip to Mount Medvednica or take a tour of the Zagreb street murals, which contrast beautifully with the city’s traditional features, much like our own Waterford Walls. But I’m a dichotomous kind of traveller too and I opt to take a break from Zagreb’s buzz and attractions to enjoy her stillness and calm. Zagreb, I’m won over by your mix of old and new, of action and relaxation, and I’ll be back again to see more of Croatia’s capital and her culture. Hvala!

The Munster Express together with Croatia Airlines are giving away return flights to Zagreb! Pick up your copy of The Munster Express print newspaper to enter our competition and win a trip to Zagreb!

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