Travel Sketches: Zagreb, Croatia

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Travel Sketches: Zagreb, Croatia

The Museum of Arts and Crafts and the University of Zagreb’s Music Academy form the Republic of Croatia Square’s western boundary.

When the weather and my schedule cooperate, I leave my apartment in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, around eight o’clock in the morning and head to an open-air café terrace to drink coffee the way Croats do — without laptop, earphones, and work to-do list. I prefer to take a seat on the northeast corner of the Trg Republike Hrvatske, or Republic of Croatia Square in the city’s Green Horseshoe of parks. From my table’s vantage, the Croatian National Theater dominates the space. On the far side of the quad, the Museum of Arts and Crafts and the University of Zagreb’s Music Academy form the western boundary.

This square is the synapse that connects my neighborhood to the city center. It is also a junction where you irrefutably know you are in a Central European capital. Both the architecture and customs belong to another era … and, at the same time, are modern and Continental without trying.

mainZGsketch1.jpgThe Neo-Baroque Croatian National Theater opened in 1895.

At this hour, old men and women are returning from the nearby outdoor market. Fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, bread, and flowers fill up and poke from the two-wheeled cloth shopping carts they pull. The victorious shoppers pass the Neo-Baroque national theater, which debuted in 1895 with Franz Joseph, emperor of Austria, in attendance. Rectangular gardens full of red, purple, yellow, and white flowers surround the building, mustard-colored in all its Hapsburgian glory. The gardens, still wet with dew, lead the eye to the Arts and Crafts Museum, a Neo-Renaissance masterpiece, which dates to 1888 and stands in stark contrast to the post-modernist Music Academy — opened in 2015 and topped with what looks like a multi-colored fez. In the academy’s courtyard, a giant conductor’s baton, perhaps 100 feet high, shoots into the sky, shimmering in the sun.

I am drawn to the beauty of the structures. However, it’s the unapologetic incongruity of the buildings that attracts me. Like Zagreb generally, the square is comfortable. It feels lived in. There’s an equal-opportunity aspect about the way centuries of history and present-day life commingle so nonchalantly. In the evening, well-dressed men and women will assemble here before entering the theater for opera, ballet, and dramatic performances. A couple hours later, students, hippies, skateboarders, and artists will take their place — rolling cigarettes and sitting among the flowers drinking wine from the bottle.

There are other landmarks in Zagreb that are arguably more iconic than the ones found in this square. The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for instance, is among the largest religious buildings in this part of Europe and has two 354-foot spires that rise above the ancient city that extends between the Sava River and the foothills of the Dinaric Alps. In the city’s Upper Town, cobbled streets climb to the 13th century St. Mark’s Church with its tiled roof displaying the coats of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia, Slavonia, and Zagreb.

It is, however, the Republic of Croatia Square that I claim. It is this quad, its quirks, its occupants, and its hodgepodge of charm that make Zagreb my home.

When a nearby church’s bell chimes, I am snapped out of my daydream. Work deadlines await. I sip the last of my coffee and settle up with the waiter — thankful for Zagreb, its collection of historic distractions, and a moment to breathe and imbibe.

Alex Crevar is a travel journalist and Paste Travel contributor. He lives in Zagreb, Croatia. Many of Christine Bednarz’s sketches can be found on her Instagram account.

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