It was spring and there were strawberries everywhere. Little stands on just about every street sold punnets of them. The vast farmers’ market in the city centre was overloaded with them. The prices varied, but only between cheap and very cheap. If you’re ever suffering from a craving for strawberries, then Zagreb in springtime is the place to provide relief.
There is, of course, a lot more to see in Zagreb than strawberries. The city is essentially in two parts, the Upper Town and the Lower. Gornji Grad, the upper part, is Zagreb’s historical centre with its great Gothic cathedral, Croatia’s tallest building.
Like Venice, Zagreb has a St Mark’s Square. This is also in the old town and houses a number of government buildings, evidenced by the slightly sinister looking collection of men in black that hang around the area. Rather smaller than the cathedral, but no less striking, is St Mark’s Church with its chequerboard roof that portrays the Croatian flag. The flag is a three-part affair that comprises the flags of the Kingdom of Croatia (red and white), Kingdom of Slavonia (white and blue) and Kingdom of Dalmatia (red and blue). Nature lovers should look out for the pine marten, the symbol of Slavonia, that scampers across the middle of the flag.
The other significant church in the old town is the elegantly Baroque St Catherine’s. Many of the buildings around it were the property of the church, but are now secular. Several are galleries or museums.
One of these is the Zagreb City Museum, housed in a former convent. First impressions suggest that it’s not particularly interesting, but it gets better as you go further into the building. It does very much as its title suggests, taking you on a tour through the history of Zagreb from Roman times to the present day.
This is very mainstream, of course, but this being the Balkans, expect something a bit odd to turn up. Not far away in the Old Town is the Museum of Broken Relationships, a positively mad collection of items donated from all over the world. The theme, rather obviously, is of those things that are left behind after failed love affairs.
Zagreb also has a Railway Museum, which has an eclectic assortment of photos, videos and equipment. If the collection is a bit haphazard, so too the opening times. They don’t always seem to have staff available to keep the place open, but train buffs can console themselves by walking a little further to the superb, Neo-classical railway station just to the south of the city centre.
The Archaeological Museum is well worth a look, packed with ancient artefacts and hosting a substantial Egyptian collection. Check out the ‘Zagreb Mummy’, taken home from Alexandria by a Croatian official from the Hungarian Royal Chancellery. It’s not so much the mummy that is interesting, but the wrappings. These were discovered to be covered in Etruscan writing, so unusual that the text is, for the most part, untranslated, so little being known about the language.
The city is straightforward to navigate and is, generally, quite flat. The Upper Town, if we can state the obvious, is uphill, but it’s not a huge hike and there is a little funicular to help out. Beyond the Upper Town, there is the opportunity to escape from city life, with plenty of green space and some pleasant woodland walks.
The Lower Town has its own escape area in the shape of the botanical garden. It’s not the biggest around, but it’s a nice place for a stroll or a sit down. On a hot day, it’s a welcome haven in which to cool down under the shade of a tree. There are set opening times, but it won’t cost you anything.
Zagreb does not lack for cafés, restaurants and bars, and there’s no need to spend a fortune on refuelling. Croatian wine is mostly for the internal market, which is something of a shame (not for locals, obviously), as it is very good. There is also a decent range of beer, with some excellent dark stuff among the Pilsener-style lagers.
Duck Holiday, having a significant proportion of Irish blood, is not very keen on so-called Irish pubs, believing them to be something of a travesty. Most rules, however, have an exception, and Sheridan’s Bar in Zagreb is one of them. For one thing, it is run by a man from Offaly. For another, it sells terrific beer. O’Hara’s Stout, from Carlow, is a proper stout, unlike the pasteurised chemicals served up by the likes of Guinness, Murphy’s and Beamish. Sheridan’s also serves ales from independent breweries in England, Scotland and the US, along with more localised stuff. Unlike most pubs of this ilk, this one is well worth an evening of anyone’s time, the only caveat being that it’s a bit more expensive than ‘local’ pubs.
Further down the same road, if you fancy a change of scene, is the Bikers Beer Factory. This is, as you might expect, big on motorbike memorabilia. You don’t have to be a biker to enjoy it, though it probably helps. An enthusiasm for beer is more important, with the selection being more of a local nature. Beware, though of the Tomislav. This is a dark beer that could easily be mistaken for a 5% porter, but is, in fact, a rather vicious 7.3%.
One thing worth noting is that the airport is a fair trek from the city. There is an airport bus that is pretty cheap (about three or four quid) and certainly a great deal cheaper than using a taxi. The latter option would set you back about ten times as much. However, the bus station is a bit out of town, so if you’re staying in the centre, allow yourself plenty of time. If you need to get to the airport very early, as Duck Holiday did, a taxi to the bus station and the airport bus will do the trick. The fares work out at about the same for each journey, so it’s still an economical option.
Spring is a nice time to visit Zagreb. Temperatures are warm without being overpowering. If it does get a bit hot, taking shelter in the botanical garden or slipping under an umbrella at a café is a nice option. You can sit out in the evenings with a glass of something and watch people rushing around. If it rains, there are plenty of things to keep you amused. And, of course, you can indulge in those strawberries.