This letter included my first impressions of Zagreb. I took the pictures in this post in 2001 and 2011. We had been evacuated from Tirana and had been traveling for two months on only the carryon bags we got out with. We were working TDY jobs for our IREX as needed. We had just come from Prague.
April 25, 1997
Sometimes something you learn in the first hours visiting a place can prejudice you against it before you have a chance to really get to appreciate it. That could have happened to me in Croatia. According to the tourist brochures Croatia’s greatest claim to fame, one you cannot escape as you pass storefront windows, is that the Croats invented the neck tie, or cravat, as the French called it. (Cravat is a corruption of Croat) The Cravat was part of a military uniform worn by Croatian Mercenaries fighting in 17th century France. South Slavs call the neck tie a cravat while East Slavs call it a gallstuk, derived from the same root as gallows, leading to the American term “neck tie party.”
Croatia is a newly emerged independent nation that grew out of a devastating Balkan war. There are nationalistic symbols everywhere, the neck tie being only one. Others are flags national shields, and my favorite, chocolates boxed in a three dimensional relief map of the country (which looks kind of like a boomerang.)
Zagreb is a fine old Hapsburg city with a main square that has buildings a bit more modern in appearance than in old town Prague. But Zagreb is more homey than Prague. It feels smaller. In the part of Zagreb laid out under the Hapsburgs there are wide malls with lots of museums and galleries, and pedestrian streets with frequent fountains and pleasing sculpture, much of it modern. Along the streets in old town Zagreb buildings are only two stories with sharp peaked roofs and either shutters or large second floor verandahs. These walking streets have comfortable outdoor cafes. It feels a little Mediterranean.
St. Mark’s square has a small gothic church with a 19th century “Middle Europa” steeple and a painted tile roof with heraldic designs. The Presidential Palace sits across from the church. It is one of those shuttered Mediterranean buildings and looks more like a regional administrative center than a national capital. There was supposed to be a changing of the presidential guard at noon, but when we arrived in the square at five to noon, we found no guards to change. They are supposed to be dressed in red coats with Cravats, white gloves and Ray Ban sunglasses. We waited with five other tourists and a group of 33 grade school kids and their two teachers, the kids clutching cameras. At about two to twelve church bells started chiming as each ancient clock in each steeple found its own noon. We could hear them ringing from all over town at this high point. Each time a new set of bells added into the chorus some of the kids would frantically start crossing themselves, almost as if they were in a contest to see which one would react first. Actually they were having a contest. In the middle of the chiming someone set off a cannon to mark true noon. But after the clang was over no guards appeared so the kids dutifully took pictures of St. Mark’s church and filed out of the Square. Suzi and I retreated to a cappuccino in an outdoor cafe.
One of the nice things about being in Zagreb is the church bells. They wake me up at 6:00 AM. They are not as exotic as the call of the muezzin, but serve the same purpose. (Note, we had been living in Tirana, Albania for the previous two years, within earshot of a mosque.)
Another sound that is never far from us is the sound of the tram. Zagreb has more trams running in more different directions than anyplace I’ve ever seen. There are several designs from single street cars to modern articulated trams with clerestory windows. They also have different liveries. Some are Coke red, others Heineken Green, Nivea blue, or the United Colors of Benetton . Some have bells, some horns, and some a little whistle that sounds like its steam powered. Each tram has its distinctive sound as it moves along the track.
Eight different lines converge on the Trg Ban Jelacic where something is always happening. A group of electrified Andean pan pipe players seems to have taken up permanent residence on the square. A mime in white face stands on the base of a street lamp and clowns to the music. A small kiddy train runs around the square giving youngsters rides. Other buskers try to compete with the amplified pan pipes (the pipers have their own Honda generator and charge their batteries during breaks.) My favorite is a puppeteer who controls a man in tails, who sits on a boom box facing a toy piano and plays Chopin etudes that are really coming from the boom box. Every time someone puts money in the hat sitting on the piano the puppet leans over to look and tips his glasses up. The puppet does a virtuoso one handed run as he waves at kids or lifts his glasses to wink at a pretty girl. Another busker is taking a break. His violin sits in the case with the bow surrounded by cassettes while he lets his boom box do the work. This is all to the constant sound of trams and a babbling fountain. A gaggle of pre-teens in baseball caps roller blade through it all, using pedestrians as moving slalom gates.
Our flat is in the middle of the city. We are on the 9th floor of a building surrounded by older five story buildings. We have a balcony and a glass wall in the living room that makes us feel like we’re living in a penthouse. We had a power outage Wednesday so we watched the full moon rise against the steeples of the city, highlighted by the flares of an oil refinery in the distance. Last night the city intentionally turned off all its street lights from 9:15 tp 9:30 so Zagreb could get one last look at the comet Hale-Bob. What a nice thing to do.
And here are impressions of Zagreb 14 years later, from a Sept, 2011 letter.
We spent Thursday night in Zagreb although getting there was a challenge. The day we arrived downtown Zagreb was declared, for one day only, an automobile free zone. We had a map to take us to the hotel parking lot but at each approach a policeman told us to go a different way. We were bounced back and forth between cops with no explanation. One policeman, having encountered us a few minutes earlier, let us through to the hotel parking lot, which is a good thing because on “car-free day” every parking place on the periphery was full with cars cruising, looking for a free space while downtown parking lots stood empty. It was only when we got to the hotel, and its empty parking lot, save for cars with diplomatic plates, that we learned that, for that day only, the whole of central Zagreb was a pedestrian zone.
The city is much as we remembered it from a decade ago when we worked there frequently. A street has been named for Nikola Tesla and there’s a Tesla square with a new statue. Serbia and Croatia both claim Tesla, as does America. Radio 101, which is just off Tesla street, is about to shut down. It was the main voice for democracy 15 years ago, Suzi and I worked with them in those days, but 101 wasn’t able to make the adjustments it needed to compete commercially. It served Croatia well and one note of sadness at the Weekend Media Festival was the feeling that Croatia was losing an important part of its media, and political, history.
Zagreb still celebrates the necktie in tourist posters and brochures. The necktie was part of the Croatian military uniform. Croatian military uniforms have always seemed foppish to me. Statues of famous generals in main squares have men adorned in silly hats with long feathers, overdone neck ties and wildly embroidered cloaks. They look like they are going to carnival, not battle.