Zagreb hasn’t featured on my list of cities to return to. I remember being singularly unimpressed with it, the last time I was there …. for a Leonard Cohen gig back in 2010. Is it that long ago? Granted, few cities are at their best on a Sunday evening if you’re not staying in the happening part of town.
We stayed at the fabulous Hotel Esplanade, built to house the weary travellers disembarking from the Orient Express at the turn of the last century. It was magnificent. We walked. We saw the famous red umbrellaed stands at Dolac market and discovered the wonderful Mirogoj cemetery. That’s what set me off down my cemetery road; it was the first visit logged on www.dyingtogetin.com. I remember the maps didn’t reflect the names on the streets, something that caused more than a little angst. And this was before Google Maps and ready Internet connections. And it was raining.
This time around, dropping the THs to the city on their way to Serbia seemed like a long overdue visit, considering I’m now closer to Zagreb airport than to Budapest, assuming everything is going lickety-split at the border crossing. Himself, with his fascination for old towns and historic centres, booked us into an Airbnb right by the thirteenth-century stone gate, Porta di Pietra. This was our landmark, a lovely place to light a candle and stop for while to pray. Or take a photo. Or just watch other people praying and taking photos. Note though that lighting candles is allowed Monday through Saturday from 8 AM until 5 PM and on Sunday from 9 AM until 12 PM. Not quite sure why, but hey ho. Them’s the rules.
All I had on my list this time was a visit to the Museum of Broken Relationships. I kid you not. But I’d been misled by photos posted by an Aussie mate who’d been here a few weeks back. The two pictures he posted were funny – and I expected a tongue-in-cheek, laugh-out-loud exhibition of toasters and phones and all sorts of remnants of broken relationships annotated with caustic comments and witty put-downs. And while there were a few, most of the items on exhibit were emotional souvenirs of life and the twists it throws at you. From dreadlocks to a black dildo, from the iron that ironed a wedding suit to a destroyed VHS tape of a father’s wedding – it’s all there. People from all over the world, perhaps in search of closure they never got, have sent items to the museum along with their stories. Some are short essays, others a couple of sentences – every one of them makes compelling reading. This is probably the first museum since the Resistance Museum in Amsterdam where I read it all – every word. It was strangely moving. If you see nothing else in the city, make this it.
The city skyline is quite spectacular, the colours quite something. I hadn’t remembered the hills or the steps or the San Francisco’ishness of it all. Dolac market, with its signature umbrellas, is still the place to go for fresh produce and souvenirs. But head up the steps away to the back and lose yourself in the second-hand bookshops. I could have spent hours there. There’s no shortage of restaurants and cafés, many offering happy hour specials. Zagreb has its equivalent of Budapest’s Raday utca, a street lined with bars and eateries making it difficult to choose. My pick: Otto & Frank, Tkalciceva 20. And if I was there every day for a week, I’d have that same breakfast over and over. Excellent service with fresh produce sourced daily from the market. Fabulous food. Make it top of your list.
I kept harking back to the last time I was here – in July 2010. Obviously, we were in the wrong part of town or weren’t out on a Friday night because far from the empty, deserted streets and shut-up bars that have lodged in my memory under the heading of ‘don’t bother going back’, the place was buzzing. Maybe Zagreb has found its rhythm in the last nine years. Whatever. We wandered around, stopping here and there for a beer or a coffee (I wouldn’t be writing home about the wine) and soaking it all up. It has a lovely vibe and a very cheeky sense of humour. The graffiti is hilarious. I was particularly taken with the little old ladies and Gulliver’s choice of reading material.
The city is lovely by day and just as nice by night. Whether you’re looking down on the rooftops, meandering down a seemingly endless set of steps, or wending your way through a narrow alleyway, there’s nearly always something worth stopping to take a closer look at. And for all that, or perhaps because it was still not quite in season, there was no one running into me from behind or tutting impatiently at me for ruining their photo. Perhaps like Prague and Budapest, Zagreb also gets overrun in the summer – but not on a Sunday 🙂
Now that I’ve rediscovered the city, I’ll be back. Those 24 hours felt like a week-long vacation.
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