Sretan Božić Zagreb <3
26.11.2015 - 28.11.2015
Zagreb is a highly underrated city. She's like the forgotten little sister of Vienna--slightly less fancy perhaps but still with her share of charm and history. Zagreb is the capital of Croatia (Croatia in Croatian is Hrvatska, incidentally, "her-VAHT-skah") and home to roughly a million people. While there are some massive apartment blocks, she really doesn't have skyscrapers or much of the towering glass behemoths we associate with large cities. And is much the better for it.
We spent a few days in Zagreb at my cousin Klara's (Dalia's eldest daughter) apartment. She just started at a university not far from the apartment, and she is very busy with exams but still found the time to take us out. But first Dalia drove us to Zagreb (less than an hour from Križevci) and took us around a bit.
The main square, Trg Ban Josip Jelačić, right at the foot of the upper city, flaunts a large state of Ban (like a governor) Jelačić astride a horse. Croatians really love a statue of a man on a horse. I feel like one is always staring down at me, no matter where I am in the city. Some pop-up Christmas stalls were selling Croatian goods in the middle of the square, items like olive oil and brandy, hand-knit mittens and frutile, which are tiny little dollops sort of like doughnuts, with powdered sugar or Nutella on them. We browsed the Christmas displays at Müller, a large department store in the square, before strolling up towards the cathedral.
The double-spired cathedral is emblematic of Zagreb, and I was impressed to see how much progress has been made on its restoration. Age and pollution has rendered the statues of saints faceless, their hands and clothes worn down to shapeless bumps. The carvings around the front doors and niches of the saints were similarly blunted. Restoration is costly and time-consuming, and when I saw the cathedral first in 2010 and then in 2013, it was draped in scaffolding and the old statues littered the courtyard behind a chainlink fence. Now there is only one small section that still has scaffolding, and the rest of the face of the cathedral is crisp and uniformly sand-colored, with distinct florals and whorls curling between the alcoves of the now clear-faced saints.
After a bit of time inside the cathedral, Dalia led us through the winding streets of the upper city to the Porta di Pietra just as the sun was setting. It is one of the old gates to the city and I enjoy coming to this small, peaceful spot. When the old city burned in the eighteenth century, one of the huge city gates was destroyed, except for a small portrait of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus, an area the size of a large dinner plate, that remained unharmed. This was taken as a miracle and now the portrait sits behind thick glass and a new iron gate, surrounded by flowers and candles as a token for answered prayers. Stone plaques surround the glass with the words "hvala" and "Majko," ("thank you" and "mother"), and a few names and dates.
The Klovičevi dvori (Klovic castle) was just a short walk away, where we saw a temporary exhibit on street art. It seemed a strange focus topic for an exhibit (isn't a large part of the point of street art is that it is not in a museum?), it was still very interesting how they covered such a broad topic and its implementation across the globe. The best part though was an interactive computer wall with a "spray can" that you could use to graffiti.
Gina used this opportunity to practice her new and favorite sentence in Croatian, which Bruno and Marta taught her. "Ej mala oš pivo," which is basically a cocky pickup line, offering to buy someone a beer. My sister has repeated this phrase often and with growing enthusiasm. We finished the night with Dalia by sitting together outside near the Flowers Square. It's quite chilly out but most of the chairs under the wide umbrellas are full of people eating cake and drinking coffee or beer, smoking and chatting. We huddled under blankets as the space heaters buzzed overhead and we talked and people-watched for a long time.
When G and I tackled Zagreb the next morning by ourselves, and I dragged her to the Museum of Broken Relationships. Calin and I went there with Dalia when I was here last, and I found it very interesting. Gina found it slightly depressing (as she thought she might) but with a unique concept. The museum is comprised of thousands of items submitted by individuals from all over the world (only a portion of which are on display, though they are rotated out periodically). These individuals have donated an object that represents a failed personal relationship in a significant way, along with a short written explanation of the relationship's arc and how the object represents part of it (be it positive or negative).
This can get depressing after you've read through a few dozen heartbreaking accounts, but it's also supremely interesting. The relationships are largely romantic but there was also a section of familial ones. It can be a downer to read about all of these broken hearts (the common denominator here is that all of these relationships are broken, after all) but many people also wrote that they felt cleansed by this process, and thanked the museum for giving them an outlet to let go of and yet pay homage to these feelings. The items are largely mundane--everything from burned CDs to olive pits, with a huge red wedding dress and a full-sized axe to liven things up--but they all encompassed a human relationship in some way. It makes one think about the objects that might also encompass past relationships in their own past, and how to sum up those stories in a few small paragraphs.
We then spent several hours in our usual wanderings. Zagreb is a wonderful city for strolling around and getting purposefully lost, even if the sun does start to set at 4pm right now.
The next day was Saturday, so once Klara had finished some studying we were all able to go out to see the opening of the Zagreb Christmas Market. G and I had seen some of the setup in the Trg Ban Jelačić, as men dragged in huge pine trees and snaked electrical wires through the huts.
The Zagreb Christmas Market is quite classy. Similar to other markets, the huts sell warm mulled wine and cocktails, sausages and sweets such as frutile. They have Croatian handicrafts and tree ornaments, as well as lots of jars of honey and honey liquor (medenica), as well as every flavor of rakija (brandy) you could imagine. (I enjoy rakija and love medenica, but it does rather knock the wind out of you). We ate sausages in the square and then Klara took us to Vincek, a popular local cake and gelato shop.
Her boyfriend met us there and together the four of us went to Zrinjevac, a small park between the two major squares of the city. When we had crossed through it earlier there was live music in the pavilion and people were just starting to line up at the little houses for wine and things. But now it was wall to wall people, with children and dogs squeezing between the forest of legs. This was the first night of the Christmas Market, and they were there to see the lights turn on to mark the beginning of the Advent season.
Downtown Zagreb doesn't have ordinary Christmas lights scattered here and there. In addition to the illuminated trees in the main square, there are festoons of lights down each of the main streets, sometimes in the red, white and blue of the Croatian flag or in huge twinkling chandeliers or giant red hearts.
We were going to go ice skating afterwards at Tomislav Trg not far away. Zagreb just started turning the large public square into an ice skating rink but already it has been voted one of the best in Europe. The crowds however, reflected this status and we didn't feel like waiting in line in the cold for a spot on the ice. Instead we sipped mulled wine and watched the skaters from the square, which is also beautifully decorated and coated in lights. Then Klara drove us all back to Križevci, so we could prepare to cook our Thanksgiving dinner the next day.