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Zagreb Tourism

Discover Croatia's capital Zagreb's rich heritage

Large-scale or mass tourism can bring in much desired revenue and provide jobs. But in the long run it can also destroy the very source of the tourism dollar. David Block investigates how they deal with it in Croatia's capital Zagreb, whose popularity is growing as it attracts more tourists every year.

Zagreb has a rich heritage

Zagreb is a mixed Croatian blessing, a treasure that has yet to be overrun by large-scale tourism. This compact capital offers bustling street- and night-life and encompasses more museums than many other European cities. But how long can that charm and vivacity survive?

Zagreb has plenty to offer to its visitors, not the least its rich heritage.
The cathedral of St. Stephen can be seen in the background, overlooking the city.

Food consultant, journalist, and man-about-Zagreb René Bakalovic hopes the future of Zagreb is not in mass tourism:

"We don’t want to measure visitors in millions. We want upscale tourism. When we first got noticed by tour operators, one of the first things we did was to hold a symposium called ‘How to Have Fewer Tourists.’ We tried to take on board the lessons of the destruction of the Spanish Costas and, more recently, the tripper invasion of great East European capitals. I suppose I’m protective of my beautiful city and it upsets me to see hundreds of tourists milling through without understanding its history."

Part of the problem is the city’s mixed heritage. Trg Bana Jelacica, the city’s center and main square, is named after the Croatian hero who defeated the Hungarians in 1848 and is celebrated by a monument, sitting in the centre of the square. The monument, showing Ban Josip Jelacic on horse, is probably the most recognized monument in Croatia.

But Mr. Jelacic might not recognize this part of the city today, as diagonally opposite sits a squat monstrosity built during the socialist regime in the 1950’s that can’t be pulled down—because it’s over 50 years old and is listed.

One of Zagreb's landmarks is King Tomislav square
(Croatia's best known king from the
10th century),
which is a great place to relax and unwind, or just take a stroll.

A mix of the old with the modern

Lidija Anic, from one of the country’s leading tour operators, Hidden Croatia, asks, "Does the city spend money on restoring many of its wonderful but crumbling buildings? Or should it take the cheaper route and knock them down to build characterless modern blocks? It’s a battle between developers and traditionalists. We’re the latter and continue to plough our profits back into the country. That’s how Croatian tourism will best survive and prosper: for the good of everyone."

Another example of the curious juxtapositions that are part of the fabric of this city is in the cathedral. St. Stephen’s was built on the foundations of an 11th-century church, then reconstructed with twin neo-Gothic spires in 1899. Inside is a massive chandelier from a hotel in Las Vegas, installed in 2004. The topic keeps Zagreb’s café habitués arguing to this day about its aesthetic merits.

A short uphill stroll away is the 13th-century Stone Gate (Kamenita vrata) featuring a painting of the Virgin Mary that miraculously escaped the great fire of 1731. Since then the locals consider the Virgin Mary to be protector of the city.

Further on are the Presidential Palace, with colorful guards, the Croatian Parliament, and St. Mark's Church, housing works by Ivan Mestrovic, Croatia's most famous sculptor. Mestrovic's works were displayed in cities around the world, including London, Paris, Vienna and Chicago.

With any remaining breath, it’s worth climbing the Lotrscak Tower for a panoramic view, but watch out if you’re there at precisely noon, when a loud gun is fired. It used to sound as night fell, to warn citizens back into the city to avoid brigands. An enjoyable route back to the lower city is via the hundred-year-old funicular railway. Who needs mass tourism?

For those who enjoy walks and getting away from the city's busy streets,
a visit to the city's Bundek park will be a great getaway to peace and nature.

Zagreb's birth

Modern-day Zagreb has emerged from two medieval settlements that developed on neighbouring hills for centuries. The first written mention of the city dates from 1094, when a diocese was founded on Kaptol, and in 1242 neighbouring Gradec was proclaimed a free royal city. Both were walled cities, remains of which are still preserved. They were an important border during the Turkish attacks on Europe but it wasn't until 1850 that Kaptol and Gradec were brought together administratively as the city of Zagreb that we know today.

A strong earthquake in 1890 brought about restoration and modernisation of many buildings and city suburbs. During the 19th Century Zagreb's population grew tenfold. In the 20th Century Zagreb developed links with European centres of culture, art and science. Since Croatia's independence in 1991, Zagreb has become an important central-Europe metropolis.

by David Block
"International Living" magazine

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