Day one got off to an early start. It is a 4 hour drive to Zagreb from Budapest plus whatever time is needed at the border. From previous experience, one of our drivers was worried about the time and difficulty in crossing the border. Croatia is not a part of the Schengan zone, nor is it even part of the EU (though they voted earlier this year to join, so you need your passport to cross the border.
There was a short line, but before long we were at the front. They took a quick glance at our documents and then we were through. Before long we were on the outskirts of Zagreb, the land of the blue. Everything is blue: bridges, their trams, even their fire hydrants! It was such a shockingly bright blue too.
Our first glimpse of the Zagreb centre was Ban Jelačić Square. There was some sort of festival happening the day we were there so we couldn’t full appreciate the length of the square. The colourful buildings around a main square reminded me in many ways of the main squares in Brussels or Antwerp.
We had a couple hours to explore the city, but our first order of business was to get some food in us. One of my friends traveling with us knew someone from Croatia and she had recommended us a place to eat. Trying to find this place was an exercise in patience. We walked and walked around in circles. One of the streets we went down at least 4 times.
In our wanders to find the restaurant we passed through a market and went to visit the Zagreb Cathedral (also known as the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary). Its two spires, each looming at over 300 feet tall, can be seen from all parts of the city, making the cathedral the tallest building in Croatia. The cathedral houses an 800 year old treasury and a sarcophagus of the controversial 20th-century Croat Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac.
Finally we were able to locate the restaurant and I had the most amazing mushroom risotto. I was starving and was too excited to eat that I don’t have a photo. Just trust me when I say it was amazing.
After lunch, we did a bit more wandering of the city by heading up to the Upper Town. The area, called Gradec, together with Kaptol (where the cathedral is located), forms the medieval centre of Zagreb. We passed through a gate where there were plaques and a Virgin Mary on display. There were people lighting candles and praying, but at the time I had no idea what it was and it seemed very random to be there. After doing some research, I’ve found out its called Kamenita Vrata (the Stone Gate), which was one of the four entrances to Gradec:
“In 1731, after a devastating fire had consumed the surrounding wooden buildings, a painting of the Virgin Mary was found in the ashes, remarkably undamaged. Kamenita Vrata was reconstructed and became regarded as a place of miracles. Today locals come here to pray and pay tribute to the Virgin: there’s a delightful shrine adorned with flickering candles and the walls are hung with small plaques saying Hvala (thank you)” (tripwolf.com)
The main square of Gradec is around St. Mark’s Cathedral. I love the details in the roof of the church and the colours made it stand out against the surrounding buildings and sky.
The rest of our time in Zagreb was spent wandering aimlessly. One of the tourist books we had picked up at the information center had a walking tour that we could follow so we used that as a guide for a bit.
I want to draw particular attention to the sun in the above photo. What I originally thought was just random art, is actual a part of a much bigger piece that is spread around the city. There is no plaque or any sign explaining what it was and as a result there is a lot of graffiti and writing on it.
Zagreb is a small capital city. In many ways it looks very generic with many similarities to other European capitals. It was very scenic and relatively quiet. While a lot of people could speak English, there weren’t that many tourists around (granted, we were there in mid March during off season). Many people skip Zagreb when they travel to Croatia, instead opting to go to the seaside. I can understand why, especially if you’ve been to other cities in Europe. Zagreb can be underwhelming. While I’m glad to have come here, I don’t think I’ll be in a hurry to go back.
This is part 1 of a 5 part series on my recent road trip to Croatia and Ljubljana. To read about the rest of my trip, click here.