Epiphanies in Eastern Europe

Epiphanies in Eastern Europe

Despite the region’s chequered political history, Croatia’s capital Zagreb holds on tenaciously to its good humour

Soity Banerjee
February 23 , 2018
12 Min Read

Sometimes it takes little to make a good day better: 8ml of free shampoo, three not two pints of beer, Sundays or (almost tumbling into) an open grave– its heavy marble top propped on two of the scrawniest pieces of wood east of the Adriatic. For it’s one thing to remember Zagreb’s Mirogoj Cemetery by its gorgeous ivy-draped arcades, conveniently backlit by an Insta-friendly, no-filter, late afternoon sun, and quite another to think of it as the place you nearly pushed up daisies in a borrowed box. Things could only get better.

Not to suggest that tourism in Croatia is in grave need of help, certainly not for its casually charming capital city Zagreb or the striking seaside spectacle that is Dubrovnik. Zagreb, in particular, is like a Balkan mistletoe under which East Europe kisses the West in slow, unhurried ways. Oblivious to its own beauty, the city lets its blue skies and good humour spill over like Istrian wine on its cobbled streets and stately statues, funicular trams and modern trams, marching bands and music bands, often strumming their guitars under a gorgeous pergola from 1891 at Zrinjevac, a public garden square.

Count Josip Jelacic of Buzim (16 October 1801, Peterwaradein ?€“ 20 May 1859, Zagreb) was the Ban of Croatia between 23 March 1848 and 19 May 1859. He was a member of the House of Jelacic and a noted army general, remembered for his military campaigns during the Revolutions of 1848 and for his abolition of serfdom in Croatia.

Yet my encounter with the freshly dead at Mirogoj, on my very first afternoon in the country, gives me just enough pause. Back from the marbled maws of death as it were, epiphany arrives instantly under the heartbreakingly beautiful, blue-green cupolas at the cemetery. I know then without a doubt, that an intrepid traveller, no matter how intrepid, must always keep her feet firmly on the ground.

Hours before I met Mirogoj and its inhabitants, my head was firmly in the clouds: first class, Emirates style, no less. The daily flights to Zagreb have made it easier for Game of Thrones fans and, of course, plain vanilla travellers from India to get there in a single hop (via Dubai). Making the most of my prime real estate on the Boeing 777-300ER, with beds that were actually flat and sleep that was sweeter than the sweetest dates served with Arabic coffee on board, ground realities couldn’t have been further from my mind, preoccupied as it was by matters more pressing. Such as, whether to have a prawn machbous, a Middle Eastern ‘biryani’ studded with pine nuts or a traditional Arabic mezze, or both (both, of course).

Back on terra firma, things aren’t half bad either. Zagreb has practically emptied itself out–summering at one of the country’s many beautiful beaches, presumably to make room for the next lot of tourist coaches and jilted lovers (more on that later). The few locals who linger are out ‘drinking coffee’–a catchall term for meeting friends or closing a business deal over a cup of kavu, or even a glass of something stronger. So much so that to a particularly perceptive bird, the entire city could well appear to be a giant coffee shop, with rows upon rows of patio umbrellas like colour-coded pushpins on a map. It is easily the friendliest sight in Europe–and Zagreb is friendlier still in the company of Ožujsko, which, according to Wikipedia, “is the most popular beer in Croatia, with 10 bottles being consumed every second”. I’ll take their word for it because, really, why the hic should I Ožujskcount?

Marshal Tito Square, Croatian National Theatre, Zagreb, Croatia

Besides, if there’s one thing that Indian travellers need not do in Croatia, it’s count. This is Europe at cut-price, with exchange rates that rival Nepal’s. Or Sri Lanka’s. It is clear to me–in what is yet another moment of Continental lucidity, I suppose–that not all bargain deals must end in disappointment. Even if you arrive on a public holiday to find padlocked museums and a desolate Dolac–a farmer’s market straddling the Upper and Lower Towns, abuzz for nearly 90 years, except on the day I decide to visit.

 The city, meanwhile, couldn’t care any less about my privations; going about its business in entirely disarming ways, especially at places like Zrinjevac, a public garden square, which is a microcosm of Zagreb’s cultural and social life, and its ‘beating green heart’. One of the horseshoe of parks that flank some of the city’s most impressive buildings, and more importantly, the best ice cream shops (look for Vincek, Amelie or Millennium), Zrinjevac is the sort of place where no one minds when you gawp at them like a tourist. And unless you look particularly homeless, most return your greetings too. Yet, of all the attractions at Zrinjevac that day, I am certainly the most fetching. With three left feet, I spend my time tying my limbs in knots, mastering the instructions painted in large blue circles on doing the cha-cha-cha, the waltz and foxtrot. Someone even clicks a picture of me. Talk of role reversals!

Zagreb souvenirs at Dolac Market stall

When not being a performing pretzel, I dutifully absorb the built heritage of Zagreb’s eminently walkable city centre. A word of caution here: if you, like me, find it hard to remember your own car number, try not to get too upset about not being able to keep track of the many historical and political gear shifts in the region. And consequently, the many styles of local architecture on the medieval hills of Gradec and Kaptol in the Upper Town and the relatively newer Lower Town towards the River Sava. Channelling the unassuming Balkan grace of the city, let words like Romanesque and neo-gothic, neo-baroque and art nouveau, neoclassicism and Soviet architecture glide over you, while you watch regal buildings like the Croatian National Theatre and the ‘Legoland Gothic’ St Mark’s Church preen and pout.

The best pout in town, however, belongs to a rather more modern ‘church’, conceived by estranged lovers, film producer Olinka Vistica and sculptor Dražen GrubiÅ¡ic, in 2010. A vital Zagreb experience, the Museum of Broken Relationships attracts droves of heartsick pilgrims to find comfort in collective misery and photograph themselves with ‘home-breaker’ axes, nose-less gnomes, volumes of Proust and ‘incompatible’ Wi-Fi routers. Among other assorted sentimental tosh are also a Che Guevara sweatshirt and love notes from Prasanth, who shed “a new river” from his eyes.

 Given the context, the eagerness with which most visitors photograph themselves and the exhibits here seems inordinate. And that’s just one of the many contradictions here. So while the most popular merchandise, a Bad Memories Eraser, flies off the shelves, young people scribble furiously into a book of confessions to, I assume, ‘unerase’ the same memories. I stand in the queue too, hoping to add my two kunas to this important global cause. But soon, baffled by the boundless enthusiasm of others, I abandon my plans to sign off with an epiphanic finality: True love is dead

Arched collonade and stairs along a passage way in Mirogoj cemetery. Zagreb, Croatia

As it well might be, except maybe at that other museum of ‘broken relationships’, the Mirogoj Cemetery at the foot of Mount Medvednica, which deserves at least one long afternoon and one more paragraph–gaping vaults be damned. A short bus ride from the square outside the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary–also known as that imposing church with a long name and two spiky neo-Gothic spires that you never quite lose sight of as a tourist in the city centre–the beauty of the Mirogoj belies its grim purpose. It celebrates, instead, a sort of discreet egalitarianism with gilded Orthodox epitaphs, and Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim ones too. An open-air gallery of sculptures, calligraphy tablets, tiny chapels and grand trees, Mirogoj was designed in 1876 like almost every other important building in the city by architect Herman Bollé, who had the foresight to save a sunny spot for himself. Today, a patch here, if you’re lucky to find one, costs an undead arm and a leg, and three more limbs to boot.

The altar of the Zagreb Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Croatia

Giving Bollé company at the Mirogoj, therefore, are old statesmen and war heroes, artists and feminist writers, and at least one 21st-century man in a tearing hurry. A man wealthy and brazen enough to buy up in advance a front row seat to heaven, all polished granite and unpolished bulk, etched with his date of birth only–for now. I imagine Franjo Tuðman, independent Croatia’s first president and his future neighbour, rolls his eyes nightly in protest. But he of all people should know, peace is hard won in Croatia. For everything else, there’s coffee and Ožujsko and music at Zrinjevac. And really, that’s quite enough for me.

The information

Getting There
While a handful of airlines offer one-stop connections to Zagreb from India, I took an Emirates flight via Dubai that was introduced last summer. Round trip fares are about ₹58,000 (economy), ex-Delhi.

As is the common Emirates experience, one is always aware of a large, well-oiled machinery at work in the background to ensure a largely seamless check-in process. Nowhere is the scale of operations more palpable than at their hub in Dubai, where entire concourses are dedicated to the airline, with the bridge of the gates directly connected to the lounges–so you can walk straight into your flight after you’ve drained your glass of champagne and smoked your Cuban at the Cigar Lounge. The first-class lounge is bound to see less traffic (although I must admit, it was far from empty) than business class, but the latter seemed to function quite well even when it was packed to the gills on a Friday morning, for instance. The Wi-Fi can be patchy here, but that’s a minor quibble when there’s plenty of other delicious distractions at hand, including Wagyu beef burgers, if you please.

Once airborne, the service is superlative, especially in first class, where customers can expect to be treated like Middle Eastern royalty. Not surprisingly, there are gold trimmings on every available thing or surface in the private cabin. But when your eyes have adjusted to all that shimmer, there are mini bars, writing sets, boxes of cookies and chocolates, elaborate menus and a large selection of entertainment options on Emirates’ ICE TV. I spent most of my time tucked under the covers of a properly flat bed, of course, happy to dream my very own first-class dreams in the air. VISA Online applications for a Croatian visa can be made at vfsglobal. com/Croatia (fee of ₹6,170; online appointments). The passport is returned within a fortnight.

Where To Stay
 Options begin from AirBnbs starting at ₹866 a night. But we stayed at The Westin, Zagreb, a short walk from the city centre, anchored by the Ban Jelaˇci´c Square. While it has a rather austere, Soviet-style exterior, the rooms are spacious and well kitted out (from ₹7,000; westinzagreb.com)

 What To See & Do
 Take your time to walk around Zagreb to get used to its casual, cultural air, albeit marked by the scars of Croatia’s War of Independence. The Ban Jelaˇci´c Square, watched over by a handsome statue of Josip Jelaˇci´c on a horse, is a good place to start. The Dolac Market is a flight of steps away from the square, as is the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Take a bus to the Mirogoj Cemetery in the afternoon and later, head back to the Cathedral again. Find a spot at any of the restaurants nearby–go early, before 7pm, if you’re planning to have dinner–and tuck into some seekh kebab like ´cevapiˇci, or schnitzel. Better still, queue up at La Å truk for the local ‘lasagna’, which when paired with truffle is especially delightful. Evenings are also well spent in the Upper Town–take the funicular–and explore the area around St Mark’s Church and the Museum of Broken Relationships. Look out for the museum of traditional miniature naïve art, right across from the latter. In summer, entire streets here are also converted into open-air music venues and movie theatres ‘framed’ by fig trees. Garden lovers should spare some time for Maksimir Square, Botanical Garden, King Tomislav Square (near the main train station) and the lively, musical Zrinjevac.

The Museum of Contemporary Art

The Museum for Contemporary Art and the private collections at Mimara Museum, next to The Westin, are also big draws.


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