I would argue a city’s most inspiring idiosyncrasies can only be found à pied. As someone who tries to be active wherever I go, I discovered running to be an exciting method to explore foreign territory. In this series, Running Guide, I’ll give you information to help you discover your next destination through the eyes (or rather, feet) of a runner.
As I run down Frankopanksa in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, I dodge elderly women and hop around little children to avoid collision. Surprises constantly catch my senses: street vendors, cyclists, the clanging of church bells. Keeping a steady rhythm proves difficult as I run through the main square, Ban Jelacic, mid-afternoon, whizzing past tourists, local vendors and hyper high schoolers. The sound of the tram chugging along the rails beside me makes my heart pound faster and pace quicken as if real danger neared.
In May 2016, I went to Zagreb for a travel-journalism, study-abroad trip with the University of Georgia. The excursion was co-led by Paste’s travel, health and science editor (hi Alex!). Before departing my Atlanta home, I was expecting several outcomes of this journey: a discovery and love of a new culture, beautiful scenery, growth in my writing skills and, overall, an unforgettable experience.
What I did not expect was that many of those expectations would be fulfilled while huffing and puffing through the streets and trails of this Central European city.
Photo: Courtesy of Trail Running Croatia
On Your Mark
Goran Muric, founder and head coach of the Forca Club, said running is a recent “boom” in Croatia’s capital. Less than a decade ago, running groups were rare indeed. Since, the locals have caught the bug.
“Lots of new runners came into running, and today you can find—along the River Sava, for instance—a few hundred runners every day,” Muric said. “Five years ago, there were probably five to ten runners, especially in winter. Someone started organizing exercises for them, then the boom came.”
There are two main differences between American and Croatian athletic habits. One: a typical American teenager might try ten different sports over the course of his or her adolescence, whereas a Croat will most likely spend most of their time perfecting one. Two: runners in America tend to claim just about every available landscape (streets, parks, neighborhoods, urban areas) as training grounds. Purgers (as folks from Zagreb are called) use specific locations as running spots. In Zagreb, two of those main areas are the River Sava and Maksimir Park. If a runner needs a challenge, the Medvednica Mountain is always an option.
Photo: McGee Nall
Joggers in downtown Zagreb are not something locals see every day. Even though I received some chuckles from Croats as an American millennial pounding down the pedestrian-only, cafe-strewn Tkalciceva street—interrupting their slow living and coffee breaks—I’m grateful for those stares. I never would have made that discovery unless I ran around Ban Jelacic Square.
That being said, Zagreb’s Lower Town is not the recommended scene for training or even leisurely jogging. If you’re craving an abnormal route that will give you a taste of the city’s character, Upper Town is the place.
Photo: McGee Nall
There’s a street called Strossmayer that includes an overlook, with views of Lower Town. While on a run during my trip, I passed a white-haired man selling popcorn and a cloaked woman near St. Mark’s church. Her back was toward me, and in the afternoon sun she stared at the cobblestones before her, as if she were haunting them. I ran past her towards the city’s famous Stone Gate, but stopped to walk quietly in an attempt to not disturb a woman gazing up at Mary’s shrine and an elderly gentleman lighting a candle. Running in Upper Town almost felt like a jog through time. Nothing 21st century lay before me.
Though I felt slightly isolated running the heart of Zagreb, I found companionship in athletes scattered to the outskirts of the capital. Maksimir Park, located northeast of Ban Jelacic square and across from the capital’s soccer stadium, is a key jogging location, particularly during summer’s peak when shade is coveted.
The park, which includes several trails, a café at the entrance, and a zoo, is home to the Zagreb Runners. Founded just over a year ago, the crew trains three times a week and participates in local and international races. Domi Nation, one of the group’s presidents, never seems to stop moving.
“Wherever I go, I do take my shoes,” Nation said. “I always do it because it’s a way to see a city in a different way.”
The Forca Club, however, is a bit more regimented. For travelers dedicated to a schedule and planned workouts, Muric’s group is ready to invite you into the warm-up circle. He might even announce your name during the beginning stretches, leading the rest of the group into applause. Even though I’m not sure exactly what he said, I still smiled, feeling completely at ease.
Forca’s goal is to help challenge veterans, but also help beginners gain endurance and speed in a fast amount of time. Within a few months, a new runner should be able to complete a half-marathon.
The Zagreb Marathon will most likely take place in Fall 2017. For those who aren’t as spontaneous but still want to explore the city at a quick pace, running tours are offered as well.
If you’re looking for something just a smidge more exciting and are willing to go outside city limits, IstraTrek will take place Feb. 4, 2017. Athletes can trek (a combination of trail running and orienteering) in the green hills and valleys of Motovun and Istria. With a compass, headlamp, and a few other supplies in tow, athletes will go the distance while also finding map checkpoints. What’s better than a treasure-hunting race?
Photo courtesy of Forca
When I ran with Forca on that hot summer night, Muric placed me in Team 6 due to my pace. Running alongside foreign strangers was an unforgettable experience, especially when local Martina Srnec was kind enough to stick by my side as we battled against the last heat of the day. We swapped stories and ran along the gravel. With the Medvednica Mountain on the horizon, apartment buildings to the right and the river to our left, I couldn’t help but (almost) feel like a Croat as we ran together, gliding in the wind as one mobile chorus.
Due to the city’s small size, the cool summer temperatures, and rising zeal for the sport, running in Zagreb is not just a great way to learn about the city. It is also a great way to learn about yourself.
Maksimir 5K loop
River Sava Trail 16K
Can’t Miss: The view from Strossmayer
Image: Mario Fajt, CC-BY
McGee Nall is a freelance writer based out of Athens, Georgia. She was probably eating Nilla wafers and Nutella while writing this.