We woke to the sound of Euro-pop music coming through our window in the Hotel Plitvice. On the previous day we’d noticed a little grandstand and a few booths and banners being set up near the information booth on the road below, and even with our extremely rudimentary knowledge of Croatian we were able to understand that these were preparations for a road race — in fact, for the 23rd Plitvice marathon (a series presumably interrupted during the years when the park was held by the Serbs and people were preoccupied with more violent forms of competition). Dorothea noted that the selection being played at 8:15 am was “Hava Nagila” — not a tune one naturally associates with Euro-pop, but played in a style that fit right in.

The race was to begin at 9:30, but since we didn’t plan to be around for the finish, we didn’t bother to watch the start; we went to breakfast instead. At about half past ten we left the hotel with the porter who had been assigned to help us. He took both of our large rolling bags, and set off at a pace that we found grueling, considering that each of us was carrying a second suitcase (smaller but still heavy enough) and wearing a full backpack. We were winded when we got to the highway. We’d felt we’d need his services to get our luggage up and down the steps of an elevated pedestrian bridge that crossed the road to the stop for buses heading toward Zagreb, but he barged right across, and we followed. It was in fact, as you can see in the picture below, a pretty narrow road, one lane each way, and not very busy, though it might have been more so in former days — before the superhighway (the one that doesn’t go through Plitvice) existed to provide a faster route to the coast.

All of this meant that the porter didn’t have to do a lot for his 10-kune tip, and we could have gotten our stuff to the bus stop easily enough without his help, at a more comfortable pace. But maybe he shouldn’t have had to do any more for the equivalent of $2.20, which might buy him a cup of coffee, or perhaps not even that.

Waiting for a bus to Zagreb
We sat down in the little roadside booth (though Dorothea stepped outside to take this picture). A few other people waited with us, and in 15 or 20 minutes a bus came along. It didn’t belong to Autotransport in Šibenik, the bus we had been told to expect, but to a small company named Dražan Čupić (presumably that was the owner’s name) in a smaller town named Drniš. We got on board with the others, and settled into our seats for a comfortable two-hour ride back through Karlovac and on to the big bus station in Zagreb.

When we got there at about 1:40 pm, we took a taxi to our hotel, the Best Western Astoria. We’d be taking a train to Ljubljana fairly early the next day, so we had only the remainder of this afternoon, plus this evening, to see Croatia’s capital. Our sightseeing plans were correspondingly modest, and the hotel was near the part of the city we planned to see; it was also within walking distance of the railway station, a huge edifice built in monumental Austro-Hungarian imperial style — not unlike the one in Ljubljana, but even larger.

We found the hotel staff pleasant and our room small, but well equipped and peaceful. Though the day was warm, the air conditioning did a good job of keeping it comfortable.

Parkside promenade
By this time we were considerably interested in lunch, for which we had in mind a restaurant praised by the guidebooks: the Rubelj Grill, which was said to have excellent čevapčiči. The most direct route would have been to continue north up Petrinjska, the street the hotel was on, but by first going one block to the west we were able to walk along a row of three block-wide parks past monumental but graceful neoclassical buildings — products, like the palatial railway station, of 19th-century Habsburg affluence. An array of international flags let us know that embassies occupy many of the offices in these buildings today.

The parks are separated by cross-streets, and the first two contain public buildings: an art pavilion in Tomislavov Trg, and the Croatian Academy of Arts and Sciences, which faces the cross-street at the end of Strossmayerov Trg.

The street that brought us to the parks divides Tomislavov Trg from Strossmayerov Trg, or in more understandable terms, divides the park dedicated to King Tomislav from the one dedicated to Bishop Strossmayer, a 19th-century advocate for Croatian national aspirations. To see the first of these two parks we’d have had to turn in the wrong direction, back toward the railway station. All we missed by turning right instead was a monumental statue of Croatia’s first king on horseback, but — as Tomislav lived in the 10th century — no one really knows what he looked like, so it wasn’t a great loss.

The fact that little is really known about King Tomislav hasn’t prevented his memory from being celebrated throughout Croatia, but Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer is well documented. Click here for more information about him.

Mysterious heroic bust, later discovered to be Ivan Kukuljević Sakcinski
In Strossmayer’s park, the first thing we saw was this bust, which didn’t appear to represent a prelate of the Roman Catholic Church. No name was inscribed on the pedestal. I remarked to Dorothea that the subject looked like a 19th-century field marshal gotten up in medieval costume for a fancy-dress party. Was this, I wondered, an artist’s conception of one of the Croat kingdom’s 10th or 11th century military leaders? Or was it a 19th-century soldier, presented as a medieval Croatian warrior for reasons of national pride?

Not quite either, but closer to the second than the first. I was able to find information on the web that identified him as Ivan Kukuljević Sakcinski, a 19th-century Croatian politician and an early opponent of Hungarian attempts to “Magyarize” Croatia. Click here to find out more about him.

We took our time on this pleasant street, not too hungry to enjoy a stroll in the sunshine, which showed the the green parks and dignified Central European buildings to great advantage. The last of the three parks was Zrinjevac, named for Nicola Šubić Zrinski, a warrior hero who was Ban of Croatia in the 16th century. Click here for more information, with heroic pictures, on his military career.

Zrinjevac Trg
Zrinjevac Park, with its benches and fountains, would have been a pleasant place to linger, but we didn’t stop there; we continued up an ordinary city block and arrived at the center of Zagreb, Trg Bana Jelačića, or “Governor Jelačić Square.” Unlike the three parks, which are also called Trg, this is not a green area, but an open, paved plaza surrounded by large commercial buildings and crossed by tracks, trolley wires, and hurrying trams.

In the center is a dashing equestrian statue of Count Josip Jelačić, the soldier and patriot whom the Austrians appointed Ban of Croatia in the dangerous days of 1848, when revolutionary movements seemed to be breaking out among all the national minorities in their polyglot empire.

Jelačić chose to support the Empire and led an army against the Hungarians, who were in revolt against it, but he also issued proclamations that, had they remained in effect, would have effectively made Croatia self-governing though not independent. His military efforts bought Austria some time, but didn’t manage to stop the Hungarians — eventually the Tsar of Russia did that. When peace was restored, the Empire reversed most of the Ban’s policies.

Ban Jelačić leads the way
Rebecca West, in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, says that the heroic statue in the middle of the square was the only reward Croatia received for assisting Vienna in its hour of need. Originally the Ban faced north-northeast, brandishing his sword in the direction (more or less) of Hungary. But Tito’s postwar government, considering it a dangerous icon of ethnic separatism, renamed the square Trg Republike and covered the statue with a wooden shell painted with Communist slogans. According to the Rough Guide: “Party agitators finally dismantled the statue on the night of July 25, 1947, although its constituent parts were saved from destruction by a local museum curator, who stored them in a basement of the Yugoslav (now Croatian) Academy of Arts and Sciences.” In 1990, as Croatia prepared to declare its independence, the square was once again named after Jelačić and his statue was put back in place — with the significant exception that it now faces south, toward Serbia. Or at least that’s the story. In fact, the statue’s south-southwest orientation means that the only Serbs being symbolically defied are the ones who formerly inhabited the Krajina; Serbia itself is well off to the east.

Click here for more information about Ban Josip Jelačić.

The part of Zagreb south of Jelačić Square (the direction we had come from) lies on fairly flat land bordering the River Sava. This part, called the Donji Grad or Lower Town, is comparatively modern, built mostly in the 19th century. North of the square are two older and higher sections, Kaptol and Gradec, which were separate cities in the Middle Ages, but served jointly (somewhat like Buda and Pest in Hungary) as the capital of the country. Kaptol was dominated by the Church and its buildings, including the cathedral and bishop’s palace. (It’s no accident that the name looks like “Capital:” the area where the canons of the cathedral resided was traditionally called the capitulum, and that’s how this district was named.) Gradec was the headquarters of the civil administration. Although both places are now relatively small districts of the same large city, they’re still distinct in much the same way — the cathedral and other church buildings are still in Kaptol, and Gradec (though it also has a couple of churches) has the Sabor, the President’s (formerly Ban’s) Palace, and other buildings belonging to the national and local governments. Long ago, when the two cities were still separate, relations between them were not always friendly: a street that connects them (across a small stream that’s no longer there) is still named Krvavi Most, or ‘Bloody Bridge.’

By this time we were focused on lunch, and we found the Rubelj Grill a block beyond Jelačić Square and next to Dolac, the public market square. We both ordered čevapčiči, spicy Balkan meat patties that were served in a sandwich made with bread baked at the restaurant. Dorothea remembers it as more like Indian naan than loaf bread, combining very well with the grilled meat. I put ajvar on mine, and we shared a tomato salad and some French fries. As usual, I drank Ožujsko lager and Dorothea had Jemnica.

Two market women, one bronze
After lunch we walked through the market, but it was 3:00 pm and people were closing their booths. An old woman sat at the top of the stairs that led up to the market. On her lap she held a box containing a few vegetables, which she apparently hoped to sell, a respectable cover for begging. Just above her, a bronze statue of a sturdy countrywoman carrying a basket on her kerchiefed head represented a more idealized version of what the market was supposed to be about. Dorothea bought a carved box from a souvenir seller who was still open for business.

We weren’t inclined to visit the Gothic-style cathedral, built in 1880 after an earthquake had destroyed its predecessor — and with one of its two spires encased in scaffolding, it didn’t even make much of a picture from the outside. St. Mary’s, a humbler church that overlooks the market, was more photogenic. Although there have been churches on that site since the Middle Ages, St. Mary’s in its present form dates from the 18th century.
Bell tower of St. Mary's Church

We went around it to follow a street named Tkalčićeva that the Rough Guide described as “probably the prettiest single street in the city.” Though we didn’t see all the streets in the city, this one was certainly the prettiest we saw. It runs between Kaptol and Gradec, but belongs to neither; instead, it follows the course of the filled-in stream that once ran between the two cities and was crossed by the Bloody Bridge. (Before being named after Ivan Tkalčić, a noted historian, the street was called ulice Potok, which might be translated ‘Brook Street.’) St. Mary’s bell tower can be seen from almost everywhere on the street.

Tkalčićeva Street
Tkalčićeva is lined with small, steep-roofed 19th-century houses that, the Rough Guide notes, have largely disappeared from the rest of the city. The narrow street is open only to foot traffic, and most of its houses have been turned into restaurants and taverns. One of these occupied the ground floor of a house that had, in place of one window on the second floor, a glassed-in niche containing a statue of the Virgin and Child, both crowned, and a sign reading “Sv. Marijo, moli za nas” (‘St. Mary, pray for us’). Our Lady stood just above an awning advertising Heineken beer. But it should be noted, in fairness to the piety of the tavern owners, that they have named their establishment “Cafe/Bar Donna.”

On this summery day, we found lots of people strolling up and down the street or sitting at the tables that were out in front of many buildings. Tkalčićeva looked like a pleasant place to have a drink or a snack, but we had just finished lunch, so we contented ourselves with strolling (and, of course, picture-snapping).

Radićeva Street, with the Sabor building looking down from Gradec
Having walked some distance up the street, we walked down it again and took a right on Krvavi Most to get to Radićeva, a street no doubt named for the martyred politician Stjepan Radić. It climbs up a long hill to a place (called a gate, but really a tunnel) where you can enter Gradec, which is sited appreciably higher than Kaptol. We didn’t feel like a long uphill hike, however, and we felt even less like climbing a long stairway that goes up from the lower end of Radićeva. Instead, we walked down to Jelačić Square, turned right onto Ilica street, and in a block came to Tomićeva, another right — a little dead-end street with a funicular station at the end of it.

The funicular, with the Burglars' Tower partly visible at the upper right
Here we bought tickets, waited for the next car, and rode to the top of the hill in style. Ljubljana has a funicular that carries passengers up the Castle Hill, but since our walking tour had included a ride up to the castle on the “tourist train,” we never took that one. However, the Gradec funicular wasn’t a totally new experience for us, because Pittsburgh, where we commenced married life 45 years before this trip, has more than one of these transportation devices. Pittsburghers call them inclines, with a heavy stress on the first syllable.

From its southern end, where the funicular took us, Gradec looks down on the Lower Town from a fairly steep bluff. Though only about three stories high, it offers a fine view over the 19th-century splendor of the Lower Town. Next to the station is the “Burglars’ Tower,” part of the upper town’s old fortifications. It wasn’t used to incarcerate burglars; the name comes from the custom of ringing a bell from the tower each night before the gates were closed — to keep burglars out. Some people climb a spiral staircase to get to the top, but we were sufficiently charmed by the view from the promenade outside. Among the assortment of walkers and bystanders there, we saw three young people dressed in costumes from the late Imperial days: a woman wearing a long satin dress and a big hat; a blue-clad policeman in a “Kaiser Bill” helmet, wearing a long sword; and a postman, also uniformed in blue, carrying a shiny brass post horn of the kind that postmen once used to blow (I suppose) as an early form of “You’ve got mail” signal.
Lower Town from Gradec

A short way down to our right was St. Catherine’s Church, which the Rough Guide describes as having “one of the most delightful Baroque interiors in Croatia.” However, we saw people who looked like wedding guests in the little square outside the church. It was clear that someone was about to tie the knot in St. Catherine’s, so we didn’t think of trying to look inside. Instead, we walked straight ahead, up a gently rising street that passed the Museum of Naive Art. This was highly recommended by our guidebooks, but unfortunately it closed at 1:00 pm on both Saturdays and Sundays. We had known that we couldn’t get to Zagreb early enough to see it, but we harbored a slight hope — vain, as it turned out — that the guidebooks might be wrong about the closing time. Alas, they were not.

What we could see of St. Mark's Church
At the top of that street we came to Markov Trg, an open square the opposite side of which was formed by St. Mark’s Church. Because of its colorful tiled roof, this is by all odds the most photographed church in Zagreb. Unfortunately for us, however, St. Mark’s, like the cathedral, was not yet ready for the high tourist season, and the whole building (though not its famous roof) was shrouded in scaffolding and plastic. The tiles on the side facing the square are arranged to display two coats of arms: Zagreb’s on the right, and on the left the arms of the Kingdom of Croatia, which in the 19th century, when the church was rebuilt in its present form, was still very much alive — if only in the hearts of Croat patriots.

The Croatian arms are divided in three to represent the three sections of the country: At the upper left the checkerboard (šahovnica) stands for the central province, the original Croatia. At the upper right are three crowned leopard heads — sometimes described as lion heads, and in fact it’s by no means obvious what sort of heads they are, especially in a medium with the low resolution of roof tiles — standing for the western province of Dalmatia. Below both are the arms of the eastern province, Slavonia: A marten (Croatia’s national animal, after whom its currency, the kuna is named), running between two blue areas that representing the rivers Drava and Sava, which are, for a considerable distance, the northern and southern borders, respectively, of that province. Croatia’s contemporary flag includes all these heraldic elements, and adds extra ones for Dubrovnik and Istria, both of which have histories somewhat different from that of the rest of Dalmatia, though artistic considerations may also have influenced the design.

Wedding party at the municipal office building
At the top of the street we had just come up was a large, yellow, official-looking building with lamp standards lining its front. The two that flanked the door had baskets of flowers hanging from them, and we noticed that wedding guests, cameras at the ready, were also gathering in front of it. A procession of cars soon arrived and delivered a wedding party, who after greeting the assembled throng and providing a photo op, disappeared inside. St. Catherine’s Church being a couple of blocks away, we assumed that this was a different wedding, but a friendly nun whom Dorothea questioned told her that it was the same one. Croatian law and custom apparently require a couple to register their marriage in a municipal office even when they have also celebrated it in a church. Studying my picture of the building, I worked out that the bronze plaque next to the door says “Croatian Republic — City of Zagreb — City Assembly.” I don’t suppose that the city’s legislative body involves itself in registering marriages, but there’s plenty of room in the building for other municipal offices.

Dorothea and the postman
Important government buildings, including the Sabor and the President’s Palace, line the other sides of the square. As we stood on the corner looking for them, we met the 19th-century postman, a young man in his early 20s, who spoke English well and was glad to chat for a while. He told us that an annual celebration of the city’s history was held on this day, featuring numerous small ceremonies in various places, and that he and the other costumed characters we’d seen were student actors hired for the occasion. The focus of the celebration in 2008 was “Zagreb 100 years ago,” so they were dressed in turn-of-the-century uniforms and outfits.

He told us he’d like to study in the US, and asked lots of questions about the cost of living here as a student. It was quite a long time since either of us had done that, and we were dubious about the value of our guesses regarding what it might cost to share a low-end apartment in Boston. Before we parted, he obligingly posed for a picture with Dorothea. The building where the Sabor meets is in the background.

By now it was late afternoon, we needed to find a WC, and we were also ready to sit down and rest. We went out of the square at the southeast corner, down a street parallel to the one we had come up. It ended at the square outside St. Catherine’s (called Katerinin Trg, naturally), but before it got there it widened into an area called Jesuitzki Trg — no prize for guessing the meaning of that one — in front of a building that had indeed once been a Jesuit residence. (Guidebooks and tourist sites call it “a Jesuit monastery,” but that would be a misnomer — Jesuits have never been monastics.)

Dorothea in the courtyard of Klovićevi Dvori
The building is now an art museum; it doesn’t house a permanent collection, but is used for temporary exhibitions and sometimes for concerts. It’s called Klovićevi Dvori, or ‘Palace of Klović,’ after a Renaissance artist who never lived there, and in fact died many years before it was built. The gallery was opened in 1984, several years before Croatia achieved independence, and clearly the Yugoslav authorities of that time had no interest in celebrating the Society of Jesus. But it isn’t surprising that Croatia would want to celebrate Juraj Julije Klović as a native son — click here for more information about him.

Klovićevi Dvori gave us what everything were looking for: not only a loo, but a small bar where we got refreshing drinks — grapefruit juice mixed with Jemnica — and a cool, quiet courtyard in which to sip them. The young woman who waited on us was friendly and happy to chat; she told us that Dubrovnik is terribly expensive, and that she considered Istria the best place to go in Croatia, because it has both mountains and beaches. She also praised the island of Cres, which we had seen from our waterside table at Lovran.

For now, at least, the Unknown Croatian
The grapefruit drink was wonderfully restorative, and we indulged ourselves in a second round. Our only company in the courtyard was this statue of a man wearing a more or less antique costume (including the short boots that seem to be a Croatian tradition) and holding out a book. There was no sign to tell us who he was, and we didn’t think to ask while we were there. But a kind lady at the museum answered my later email query with the rather surprising information that the statue represented the artist Klović himself — surprising because it bears no resemblance to the distinguished citizen of the Eternal City whom El Greco painted. The sculptor must have felt the need to present him as the 19th-century patriot’s idea of medieval Croatian manhood.

Rested and refreshed, we took the funicular back to the Lower Town and headed for the Astoria. On the way, we stopped at the well regarded Vinodol Restaurant on Teslina, where we made a reservation for 7:30. (The street is named for Nikola Tesla, who became an American citizen and the leading electrical engineer of his time. He deserves most of the credit for the development of alternating current electricity and motors and their adoption in our country. He was an ethnic Serb, but Croatia is willing to claim him because he was born in the Krajina.)

Vinodol terrace
At the hotel, we had about 40 minutes to rest and clean up; then we walked back to the restaurant. It had both an indoor dining room and a big terrace under the shelter of a high canopy. We sat on the terrace and and enjoyed a cool breeze. The Vinodol is named after a Croatian region on the coast of the Kvarner gulf not too far from Rijeka; it faces the island of Krk across a strait called the Vinodolski Kanal (‘channel’). So it isn’t surprising that the menu features coastal and Dalmatian specialties. Unfortunately, we didn’t take pictures, so I had to purloin this photo of the terrace where we sat from the restaurant’s website.

Here’s Dorothea’s description of the meal:

Charlie had octopus salad for a starter; I had Dalmatian pršut. For dinner we shared lamb baked for a long time in a pot with hot coals on top, around, and under it. The style of cooking is called “peka,” [a Dalmatian specialty]. It was fantastic! The meat was juicy but had a caramelized crust that was crunchy and delicious. With it we had local mushrooms and grilled vegetables. This whole dinner was served for the two of us on a large platter, which the waiter placed in the middle of the table. The lamb was priced by the gram – 1 kilo for 220 kune. We had about .6 of a kilo, which was decided for us by the chef. He felt that this was the right amount for two people, and he was right. We had a bottle of Teran [Croatian, not Slovenian] which was inexpensive at 130 kune. It was a bit raw, but it grew on us and was improved by being mixed with a bit of Jemnica. For dessert, we had strawberry strudel, which was perfect. The pastry was crunchy – almost like phyllo flakes.

We took our time enjoying these delights, and it was about 10:15 when we walked out of the restaurant and made our way back through the park to our hotel in the quiet, breezy evening.