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Weekender: Zagreb

Forgo the crowded Croatian coast and head inland for a quirky, coffee-loving city with bags of confidence, and a wilderness of wild, blue lakes and tumbling waterfalls

Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:16 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 12:07 BST
Weekender: Zagreb

Zagreb Cathedral

Photograph by AWL Images

Day 1: Going green

Strossmayer Square is sizzling. Patties can't hit hot grills fast enough for punters at the Zagreb Burger Festival, where the crowd are enjoying Balkanburgers and cold brews. "Since I lived here in 2009, Zagreb has changed so much. It seems like there's loads going on," says my partner, Dan. Damjan, our guide, agrees: "It used to be a very dull and quiet city, but now we have a lot of festivals — every weekend something is happening."

The free event is only a brief stop — we're walking the Green Horseshoe, a mile-long series of parks, leafy squares and gardens. The bucolic route also takes in several stunning buildings from the Habsburg era, such as the golden Art Pavilion and neo-baroque Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb.

Beyond King Tomislav Square — an oasis of spouting fountains and flowers — is the 11.6-acre Zagreb Botanical Garden, a sanctuary of secluded benches, ponds and over 10,000 plant species. But it's in the Upper Town where I find some of Zagreb's quirkier attractions.

A climb to Stone Gate, the last remaining medieval entrance to Upper Town, reveals a Marian shrine with pews and flickering candles, marking the spot where a fire in 1731 engulfed all but a painting of the Virgin. I emerge in the historic hilltop district, where manually lit gas lanterns line cobbled streets.

It's up here I visit St Mark's Church, an ode to the Croatian flag, with coats of arms emblazoned against a red, white and blue tiled roof. It faces the Lotrščak Tower, a 13th-century fortified tower where a cannon's been blasted at noon each day since 1877. At its base, I hop on the Zagreb Funicular — the shortest cable-car in the world — and slide back down to Lower Town before I can blink.

Design district
Bathed in red, the Croatian Design Superstore is a pop-up shop and design exhibition space with everything from ceramic bowls to minimalist coffee tables. "Everything here is designed in Croatia and many of the products tell a story about Croatian heritage, cultural habits and history," says Marija Kata Vlašić, the company's PR manager. "We also started a project that aims to turn this whole area into a creative zone." Design District Zagreb was launched last year, and will be held from 13-18 June 2017, with food stalls, workshops, exhibitions and urban gardens.

Day 2: Like a local

Croatia's capital may not get the same level of attention as the coast, but it's more than just a gateway to the Adriatic. It's a self-confident city experiencing a creative awakening with a series of regeneration projects, openings and a newfound focus on local products — like coffee.

Busy baristas steam and slosh batches of java at Cogito Coffee, one of the city's pioneering bean-roasters. I order their speciality blend, Tesla. "We don't drink espresso — it's always coffee with milk, for a longer sip," Damjan explains. "Coffee culture is closely linked to Zagreb."

Post-latte, we emerge onto Flower Square. It's Saturday — a day for the Croatian špica, a social phenomenon where locals and celebrities alike stroll, shop and sip with the aim of being seen. "It's a must for us — it shows a provincial mindset," says Damjan.

We pass a crowd forming around the mayor and a footballer as we head to the Grič Tunnel, a WWII relic that opened to the public last summer. The walls are bare, but there are plans for exhibitions or a museum here, Damjan says. I emerge to find Art Park, a former junky hangout that's been transformed into a graffiti-splashed open-air museum.

A few hours later, I scoff vegan fare sourced from a local organic farm at Zrno Bio Bistro, and head to Tkalčićeva Street, a pedestrianised lane lined with outdoor boozers. At Rakhia Bar, I order a citrusy pale ale from Zmajska Pivovara, a craft brewery that opened in the city in 2014. Watching the street swell with people, I remember Damjan telling me it was once known for seedier evening encounters; the ladies of the night may be gone, but hedonism has remained.

Don't miss: Quirky museums

Museum of Broken Relationships: Founded by a former couple, this museum contains mementos of failed relationships. Bizarre exhibits, including stilettos and stun guns, have been donated from around the world by members of the broken hearts club.

Museum of Illusions: Nothing appears as it should at this museum that opened in late 2015. Set across two floors, this is a world where water flows upwards, perspective is warped in tilted rooms and optical illusions line walls.

Mushroom Museum: A fungi-filled space that exhibits around 1,000 specimens, from rare truffles to death caps. Due to freeze-drying, the mushrooms look as though they've just been picked. For the fearless forager, there's also lectures and mushroom gathering exercises.

Day 3: Into the wild

Planks of wood are all that separate me from a waterfall hissing below. In fact, cascades spurt and stream into turquoise water everywhere I look. I've reached Plitvice Lakes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site two hours from Zagreb. These 16 terraced lakes are connected by hundreds of tumbling cataracts.

Fifteen miles from the Bosnian border, I plunge into a forest of beech, spruce and fir, where roots bulge like varicose veins and stretch across worn tracks. From the upper lakes, we descend through the trees, emerging onto wooden boardwalks that zigzag above the marble-green shallows. These take us through reedy backwaters plied by carp and pike, where moss and epiphytes spill from the rock.

Where water laps at a walkway, I stop to fill my bottle. My guide, Jasmina, explains: "The average person who drinks this water daily digests 180 kilos of rocks in their lifetime." The high prevalence of limestone here has splashed leaves white with calcium carbonate.

A boat takes us to the lower lakes, where we find the pretty Milka Trnina Waterfalls, named after a Croatian opera singer. "This was her favourite part," says Jasmina, pointing to the short, sinewy, luminous blue cascades.

We walk in the shade of soaring cliffs, staying out of the way of backpacks and selfie sticks. A distant roar grows louder as we approach Veliki Slap ('Big Waterfall'), an imposing, 255ft-high torrent that throws up curtains of mist. It's busy, and as I turn to leave the packed area, Jasmina smiles. "I also prefer the upper part," she says. "It's more interesting. It's more wild." 


More info

How to do it
Rooms at Palace Hotel, in central Zagreb, from £87 a night, B&B. Rooms at Hotel Jezero, at Plitvička Jezera, from £51, B&B. Return flights from Heathrow to Zagreb with Croatia Airlines or British Airways, from £138.

Follow @stacava

Published in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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