I Could Live Here. Yes I Could.
Friday, May 10, 2019
I fell in love with Zagreb the minute we drove into the city. There are old sections and newer ones, an upper town and a lower one, and taken together it is a city with a vibrant and truly distinctive character that I could begin to appreciate even during a two-day visit.
Zagreb is the first city I’ve visited that has embodied my vision of what a “European city” ought to look like. The women are beautiful, the men are beautiful, the atmosphere is upbeat and classy. Everywhere there are cafes in the streets – all of them filled with people who are mostly talking animatedly to one another rather than looking at their cell phones. (Who works? Aside from the waiters, I don’t know. Everyone seemed to be outside enjoying the late spring sun on the Friday as well as the Saturday of our visit.)
And the perfect backdrop to all of this activity is the centre of the city itself – its lush vegetation and spectacular and beautifully maintained old buildings: from Romanesque to Gothic to Baroque to art deco and beyond. (I am not normally so knowledgeable about building styles: Ksenija, our generous and enthusiastic host, grew up in Zagreb and studied architecture at the university there before moving to Toronto during one of Croatia’s many periods of political and economic unrest. She worked for the City of Toronto for many years, and continues to live in Toronto half the year, and in Zagreb for the balance. We met her through a mutual friend — thanks, Miro! — and she and I hit it off immediately. She is the person who insisted we visit Zagreb as her guests, or we might never have gone to Croatia, and while we were there she was not only a generous and most gracious host, but also a source of unending knowledge and amazing first-person stories from post-second-world war right up to the present day. )
For the benefit of those who are still a bit confused about the location of Croatia, I am including a more extensive map than the one I included in the last post. You can read the turbulent history of the country, part of the former Yugoslavia, in this Wiki, which also explains that today, Croatia is a sovereign state, “a republic with a parliamentary system, a developed country with a very high standard of living.” Two of its cities, Dubrovnik and Šibenik, both on the Adriatic Sea, have been filming locations for Game of Thrones (which I have not yet seen). The currency is the kuna, but since Croatia is a member of the European Union it seems likely that the euro will be adopted before too long.
Ksenija lives near the magnificent Zagreb Cathedral — the tallest building in the entire country, which makes it easy to orient yourself when you’re lost. You can see its spires in the photo of Zagreb’s rooftops at the top of this post. Originally completed in 1217, the Cathedral was rebuilt in the neo-Gothic style after it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1880. Some of the fortifications dating from the Renaissance remain. I can’t believe that I neglected to take a photo of such an important landmark from the front, but here are two open-domain photos showing the Cathedral pre-earthquake and after reconstruction.
The first full day we were in Zagreb, after a breakfast of strawberries straight from the market that must have been picked that morning and were the sweetest I have ever tasted, Ksenija took us on a tour of the “upper town,” and related the history of Zagreb dating from the days of the Romans. We walked the streets of this lovely part of Zagreb in the sunshine, past the Croatian Parliament Palace, St. Mark’s Church, and one of the city’s two statues (that I know of) of St. George slaying the dragon, this one near the “Stone Gate” (the only surviving medieval tower and gate to the Upper Town built in 1266!), and admired many other of the city’s must-see edifices.
We took a break for coffee, after which Ksenija had to leave us to attend a class reunion. After checking out the very interesting Croatian Museum of Naive Art (Hrvatski muzej naivne umjetnosti) but bypassing the possibly equally interesting Museum of Broken Relationships (next time. Sigh), Arnie and I headed for the funicular. This public-transport option turned out to be closed, so instead we walked down to the lower town, where we had lunch and then meandered back to Ksenija’s apartment via a lovely series of downtown parks and various iterations of the hustle, bustle and unfurling of the last day of the work week.
After a rest, Ksenija, Arnie and I stepped out into the closing minutes of a downpour to attend a sabbath service at Zagreb’s Jewish community building. The service was preceded by a personal tour of Croatia’s newest Jewish museum, curated with careful attention to detail and obvious love by Ksenija’s friend Myra Wolf — who was herself our guide. (A graduate of the Sorbonne, Myra spoke only a bit of English and of course we speak no Croatian, but we managed fine, thanks to Ksenija’s able translation combined with the knowledge we shared with Myra of rudimentary French.)
The museum is called “The European Day of Jewish Culture,” and it displays “ritual objects, textiles, documents and other material related to the 210-year history of the Jewish community in Zagreb.” Zagreb’s synagogue -– built in 1867 – was blown up in 1941 by the fascists who were then in charge of the city, and prayer services now take place on the second floor of the community building. The Friday service was followed by the sharing of a meal and a lively conversation (some in Croatian, some in English) concerning such matters as why some vegetables are kosher and others are not, and who decides the status of converts to Judaism in Israel.
(Later on our trip, we visited synagogues and Jewish museums in Florence and Venice, and I intend to share with you what I gained from those experiences in a separate blog post later in this series.)
We walked back through the wet, post-storm streets of night-time Zagreb still deep in conversation, which is exactly the way one ought to finish off such a perfect day.