Many visitors to Croatia skip Zagreb, going directly to the Adriatic or Dalmatian coasts, or the Istrian Peninsula. While beautiful, with many attractive old towns and wonderful beaches, these areas have also become very touristy with sprawling resorts.
On both our visits to Croatia we decided to spend a few days in Zagreb first, and are glad we did, as it gives a whole other dimension to trying to understand this country and its history. Each time we arrived by train from Ljubljana in Slovenia, a trip of about two and a half hours.
Later I’ll describe our city walk and some of the sights, but for now, a brief overview, and pictures of some of the distinctive features/symbols of the city and the country.
This modern and lively capital city of Croatia, also boasts an interesting history, as do pretty much all places in Europe. It started as two walled medieval towns, Gradec and Kaptol, separated by a river—now covered over with Tkalčičeva Street, a pedestrianized street lined with shops, cafes and restaurants (I wonder how on earth you pronounce that?!). As Croatia fell under the control of various foreign powers—Budapest, Vienna, Berlin and Belgrade—the two hill towns that were to become Zagreb gradually gained more religious and civic importance. Kaptol became a bishopric in 1094 and is still home to Croatia’s most important church (the Cathedral). In the 16th century, Croatia’s governor (the Ban) and the parliament (Sabor) were centered in Gradec. The two towns officially merged in 1850 and, soon after, the railroad connecting Budapest to the Adriatic was built through the city, helping it to prosper. Zagreb became an official European capital in 1991 when the country declared its independence.
These days, Gradec and Kaptol are in the historic Upper Town (Gornji Grad), with the modern Lower Town (Donji Grad) to the south, its center Jelačič Square.
The Flag: The Croatian flag has 3 horizontal bands—red, white and blue—and a traditional red and white checkerboard shield in the middle (it symbolizes north-central Croatia).
Roof Tiles with Meaning: A famous square in Zagreb in Gradec is St Mark’s Square. It has the Sabor (parliament) building, the Ban’s Palace (today the prime minister’s office) and the Church of St. Mark. The original church was from the 13th century but only a few fragments remain. The present church’s colorful tile roof, from 1880, depicts 2 coats of arms. On the left the red and while checkerboard symbolizes north-central Croatia, the 3 lions’ heads stand for the Dalmatian Coast, and the marten (kuna in Croatian, like the money) running between the two rivers (Sava and Drava) represents Slavonia—Croatia’s northern inland panhandle. On the right is the seal of Zagreb, with a walled city. We see this same seal made from growing flowers, outside the Cathedral.
Croatia is famous for a number of things, notably the Cravat (more on that later), Nikola Tesla (who championed alternating electrical current rather than direct current), Naïve Art (peasant art), Josip Jelačič (19th-century governor who extended citizens’ rights and helped unite Croats in the Hapsburg Empire), and beautiful needlework.