12.10.2012 - 15.10.2012 15 °C
Episode 18: Makarska to Zagreb
Another gem; stopped clocks; pancakes and singers on the street
Zagreb was never on my radar. I didn’t even know it existed. However, as the non-beach, rainy and grey weather caught up with me while I was in Makarska, and as I had a few days up my sleeve before I had to arrive in Prague, I decided to do a pit stop in Zagreb.
I had no preconceived ideas, images or, in fact, any knowledge about this city. My mind was a blank page. And as it turned out, despite the rather dodgy weather, particularly on the first day, Zagreb turned out to be another unexpected gem. I totally enjoyed exploring the city, eating yummy pancakes, listening to street buskers, and learning its history.
I took Bus 1 (seat 9) from Makarska to Zagreb departing at 0930 with a pit stop in Split for about 30 minutes. It’s 459 km from Makarska to Zagreb, 419 km being a non-descript four lane motorway which we plowed through in pouring rain and no visibility. From Split, I sat next to a young Croatian lass who lived in New York but had been visiting her family in Băska Voda and was on her way to visit a friend in Zagreb. We had an interesting conversation about Croatians and what she saw was the stubbornness and intransigence of her family, and her opinion that Croatians have no sense of entrepreneurship, risk or imagination. She maintained that they liked to play it safe and as a result, there are 100s of pizza shops lined up next to each other as no one is willing to break the mold and do something different. She was not far wrong. The lack of diversity was something I did notice in Makarska – there was little variety in the types of restaurants and shops: pizza dives and jewellery shops were definitely the go along with a multitude of seafood restaurants all with basically the same menu. How so many of the same type of shop manage to stay afloat (although for how long) had me beat.
I stayed in the Palmers Lodge Zagreb which, although almost directly across from the railroad station, took some effort to walk to as you had to walk about 500m in one direction to cross the tracks and then backtrack to your starting point. The lodge was functional but dark given that my room was in the basement and all I saw through the small window near the ceiling were feet walking through puddles. The room had two bunk beds and a bathroom ensuite, which, admittedly, was convenient. However, the rather amorous couple from Slovenia were more than happy to share one of the single bunks until I decided that I was most uncomfortable being forced to be a voyeur. A question asking if their parents knew where they were saw them leave for the nightclubs in a rather sprightly manner – and, as I discovered, this is what young Slovenians do. The nightlife in Ljubljana seems to cater more to the geriatric set (i.e. anyone over 25), so the youngies come to Zagreb over a weekend for a bit of excitement and a tickle as the trip one way takes under two hours by train.
Zagreb is very hilly and is divided into 17 districts with the most interesting being the Upper Town and the Lower Town, although I am not really sure where the demarcation line lies (on the flats and up on the hill, perhaps). The Lower Town has the grand neo-renaissance buildings, the museums, national library, stock market, the main railway station, the botanical gardens and theatres. Zrinjevac Park, with its Meteorological Post constructed in 1884 where you can check the temperature and pressure, and co-ordinate your watch to a 24 hour clock, is located in this area as well as King Tomislav Square with its monument dedicated to Tomislav, Croatia’s first king. Ilica Street, once the longest street in Zagreb, is lined by shops, theatres, government buildings and markets and there are some ripper pastry and coffee shops along the street. The Zagreb orange or tangerine fair was being held in Ban Jelačič, the main square, so the square was crowded and there were people in costume dancing and singing and free bags of tangerines were being given out (there were so many in the bag, they lasted me until Prague).
I liked the Upper Town (Gornji grad) better with its small lanes taking you into cobblestone streets and the past and this is where I spent most of my time. The easiest way to get to the Upper Town is taking the little funicular, but as it wasn’t working I walked up the hill via a cobblestoned street that passed through Kamenita vrata which is the only surviving gate to the Upper Town. The story is that in 1647, Zagreb was gripped by the plague and all the gates were closed except this one and it was guarded by the most respectable of citizens, who, I assume, could tell if someone was afflicted with the plague.
Strolling up and down the maze of streets was a joy and I was particularly taken by the Lotrŝčak Tower which gives a fantastic view over the Lower Town. For whatever reason, the tower and streets were empty but there was a busker playing a guitar on the street below which was really very bohemian and soothing to listen to while enjoying the view. I also got particularly fond of the jam pancakes they make for you from little stalls on the street.
There is no shortage of churches in the Upper Town: the very gothic Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Mary with its defensive walls, St Stephan’s Chapel, the Franciscan Church and, the highlight, the 13th century Church of St Marks with roof decorated in tiles showing coat of arms from the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia which dominates St Mark’s Square.
As a point of trivia and general interest, there are 217 gas street lamps in Gornji grad which are lit every night by two gas lighters. And every morning just before sunrise, two lamplighters douse the lamps. Supposedly it takes two hours to light the lamps and another two hours to douse them. Also, there was a major earthquake of magnitude 6.3 in Zagreb in 1880 which not only caused severe damage to the Cathedral and about 500 other buildings but also stopped many of the clocks in the city from working. The Cathedral clock stopped at 7 hours, 3 minutes and 3 seconds which is the time it still shows. I find this rather interesting as, supposedly, the earthquake hit at 7:33.
To me, Vienna is the grand dame, the fat lady who sings the last song of the opera, the sound of music. It is majestic, statued, cultured and shrouded in geraniums. I have visited Vienna a number of times and have always enjoyed touring the city and surrounding countryside. This time, my trip was just an overnight stop and it was the pits because it was cold, blustery and rainy and I was once again happy the next morning when I was back on the train.
Train K220 departing Zagreb at 0725 saw me arrive in Vienna about 7 hours later. The countryside, between cloudbursts, was stunning and green as one expects of Austria. I stayed at the Pension Vienna Happymit on Liebenfrostgasse and although the pension was not far from the bus station, it took me ages to find the building as signposts seemed to be a rare commodity in this part of the city. I scored a room that would have fitted into a shoebox and I had to step over my backpack to the bed due to lack of space. But it was only overnight and it was within walking distance to the Innere Stadt (central district) where I bought a Mozart music motif scarf (as one does) and visited Julius Meinl am Graben, the yummy and excessively expensive deli to stock up on a favourite comfort food, Mozart marzipan chocolates.
Next stop: Prague