As the sun set, I waited on St. Mark’s square in the medieval old city of Zagreb. Lamps on the streets leading to the square glowed. But on the square itself, the lamps remained extinguished since the morning’s dawn. The lamplighter would arrive soon, no doubt. I imagined him carrying a long, flaming torch and wearing the garb of yesteryear – a tan vest over a lace festooned blouse, leather knickers and belted shoes or boots. I sat alone but for the occasional tourist striding across the square, glancing at the elaborate coat of arms tiled church roof. Some paused – though only long enough to snap a photo. Detecting a flicker of movement to my left, I turned to see the lamplighter – dressed in jeans and running shoes with a simple white shirt. No ceremony, no tourist stoked pomp – with a deft flick he illuminated the lamps and moved on. Such is Zagreb – a city steeped in traditions where the lamps are lit one by one solely to keep the gathering darkness at bay.
We hadn’t planned to visit Zagreb and honestly, it was never a city I aspired to see. The very name to me is harsh – a place existing as an after thought capital to the more famous stone walled villages of the Adriatic shoreline. We decided to stop as a convenient resting point on our trip from Budapest to the Slovenia coast. After a six and a half hour train ride, I figured (correctly) we would need a break.
Zagreb surprised me. Reminiscent of Prague, or even our home city of Budapest, Zagreb’s anchor is the medieval core topping the hills and overlooking a newer 19th century town below. But Zagreb is neither a poor man’s Paris nor a Disney-esque city which can barely keep pace with its tourist crowds. Zagreb is what Central European capitals should be – gritty with a residue of communism, ancient and steeped in centuries of tradition, modern with a 21st century running shoe attired lamplighter.
We exited the train into the rectangular King Tomislav Park. Unlike many European train stations, which deposit you into the seediest part of town, Zagreb offers a stylish welcome. The park stretches for several city blocks and houses museums, fountains, massive sycamores, and lolly-gagging families and couples. The buildings surrounding the park are of stone – five and six-story adorned apartments exuding the old world opulence of Haussmann. Had I grown up in Zagreb, I would have coveted an apartment on the park.
The newer town is a mix of apartments, , and shopping malls. It supports every day city life. Streets overflowed with umbrella covered tables as one café adjoined the next. Each appeared full – or at least busy. Many of the cafes served only drinks but I noticed several people dipping into the brown wax bags of neighboring bakeries as they sipped their espresso. We have seen this in less travelled countries of Central Europe with high unemployment, a strained economy, relatively few tourists and less disposable money to spend eating out.
Most of our visit we wandered the old town perched on a hill above the lower sprawl. The Dolac market is the entry point of town. Rows of tables were stacked with fruits – apricots and cherries the most dominant choice. Vendors weighed purchases in ancient scales by carefully pinching out the appropriate mix of brass weights as counter balance. This was very much the market of the local people – no hand sewn doilies or calico pouched spices, no stacking dolls or decorated cookies. This was a fruits and vegetables market with a sprinkling of honey, olive and nut vendors thrown into the mix.
We walked the old town on a Sunday morning – looking into the full churches of what appeared a devote city. Near Saint Mark’s we passed through the Old Town Gate as pilgrims prayed at the portrait of Mary - thought to be a miracle surviving the devastating fire of 1731 which destroyed the city. Nuns lit candles and bowed their heads in prayer, townspeople genuflected, and tourists snapped photos of the unexpected place of worship (this is a sacred place – please be respectful).
We met an elderly woman who returned to Zagreb from a small sea-side village to remember the Zagreb of her youth – the city where she attended university decades ago. She mentioned a musical concert in St. Mark’s at 11. We returned for what was, in actuality, a musical mass. The unexpectantly youthful choir sang to a full church. And again, I considered the degree to which tradition seems to underpin this city – even in the younger generation.
Had we visited the museums of Zagreb, we could have easily spent three or more days exploring the city. But on this trip, our itinerary only allowed for one full day – adequate time to walk the city core and whet our appetites for a return visit. Zagreb tapped me on the shoulder and reminded me of the hidden gems of Central Europe easily missed clinging to the comfort zone of the beaten path. We set a goal to travel closer to home where traditions are still valued, tourists are less inclined to roam, and the homogenizing influence of western culture has been – for the moment – kept at bay.
Getting to Zagreb: We took the ”express” train (which stops at every large and small village along Lake Balaton) from Budapest’s Deli station. No neeed to buy the ticket in advance - no reserved seates, no first class.