Our one-in-the-morning bus from Split arrived right on schedule at seven o’clock at Zagreb bus station. I investigated the local area to figure out where to go, bought a couple of tram tickets (making a tram motion with my hand and a tram noise to confirm what I was on about to the newsagent kiosk woman who didn’t speak English) and led the way to the tram stop. We had been told by our Couchsurfing hosts for Zagreb to meet them at the main square with the statue of a man on a horse. Happily, they also provided the name of said square, because the tram passed through another square with a man on a horse – in front of the railway station – before heading on to the main one, Trg Jelačića.
We whiled away a couple of hours at a café drinking capuccinos, eating food we’d bought elsewhere and reading before our hosts, Sanela and Damir arrived (at the time at which we’d arranged to meet). They were a friendly, likeable couple from a small town in northern Croatia. We took our bags to their car and then they took us on a walk around the old city centre.
It was Saturday and they were free to spend the whole day with us – which they did. After looking around the main area, they took us to a supermarket in a big, new shopping mall to buy food. At home, they made a meal of grilled fish for us. And in the evening, they took us to a rather grungy, but trendy bar full of studenty bohemian types. We drank rakije and beer and played cards.
The next day, they had to work at home for a few hours, so Habiba and I walked to the centre and did more sightseeing. Zagreb’s city centre is full of imposing, eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings, just like London, but – as in many of the other places we’ve visited and will visit – they’re all whitewashed or painted in bright pastel colours. As a result, Zagreb is a very attractive city – although if you stray away from the main area you’ll quickly find lots of communist era conrete tenements.
The main attractions in Zagreb are St Mark’s, a large church on the pedestrianised square between the parliament and presidential offices. It has a brightly roof depicting Croatian emblems like the coat of arms. Each tile is a single colour – red, white, blue – effectively a pixel. The whole thing looks like a 1980s video game. Zagreb Cathedral (also known as Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin) is a beautiful building that is evidently routinely cleaned and restored on the outside, as it was in pristine condition with very little weathering of the stone work. One of the two spires was covered in scaffolding.
Near St Marks is a shrine in a little road tunnel, simply referred to as the Stone Gate. It’s part of the old fortifications of the city, apparently and the street that goes through it turns a corner right inside. In the angle of the corner there are some pews; the shrine part is in front and the walls are covered with little plaques with messages of thanks. We also walked through part of the Botanical Gardens; it was nice enough, but at this time of year, things are only just starting to grow. Close to Trg Jelačića there’s a wonderfully ornate church tower, the upper portion of which is black covered with gold designs; it’s not easy to find reference’s to it, but it appears to be part of St Mary’s Church.
When they met us later, Sanela and Damir drove us to a restaurant on a mountain close to the city. It was a long, winding drive through bare deciduous forest. I had ćevapi – a kind of kebab, sausage-shaped meatballs – with fries; Habiba had a veal sauce and pasta. Afterwards we shared strudel.
We said our goodbyes that night, in our hosts’ living room – our bedroom. We left early the next morning, took a tram to the railway station and caught a 7:25 train to Vienna, where we would transfer to one for Bratislava, our next port of call and home of two of our friends from Korea.