Our Zagreb Hotel - built for Orient Express passengers.

Our Zagreb Hotel – built for Orient Express passengers.

ZAGREB is the capital and largest city of Croatia, which declared its independence in 1991, disaggregating itself from what had been Yugoslavia (which means “South Slavia”) as Eastern European communism dissolved. The new Zagreb we see along the half-hour drive from the airport to our hotel (“The best in town!” says our cabbie) surprises us for its greenness.

(click on photos to enlarge them; more in gallery below)

Zagreb Rail Station

Zagreb Rail Station

We’re told that a fifth of the city’s area is set aside for parks. A string of them begins just a block from our hotel, built in 1925 to accommodate passengers on the Orient Express, and the nearby rail station, where the legendary train stopped.

Monument to King Tomislav

Monument to King Tomislav

In the closest park square stands a monument to King Tomislav, who united the Dalmatian Croats and Panonian Slavs into a kingdom spanning modern Croatia and Bosnia in 925. The Croatian kings ruled until the beginning of the 12th Century when, threatened by Hungary, Venice, and Byzantium, Croatia allied with Hungary, beginning 400 years of Hungarian rule. Venice had seized most of the Dalmatian coast, except for the independent city-state of Dubrovnik (aka Ragusa) by the early 15th Century, while the Ottomans pressed in from the East. Following major Ottoman victories, Croatia turned to Austria for help and bowed to a Habsburg king.

Zagreb Spires

Zagreb Spires

As you might have guessed, Zagreb owns the world capital closest to the end of the alphabet (the English one, anyway)—edging out Yerevan, Armenia by a full letter. As well as standing guard over this orthographic border, under the Austrians, Zagreb anchored the territorial border between Christian Europe and the Ottoman empire—a military frontier cultivated by the Habsburgs, who offered tax incentives to encourage Orthodox Serbs and Bosnians to relocate to the region and provide military service to buttress the empire against Westward Turkish expansion. Meanwhile, many Croats migrated towards Austria. These migrations not only provided security at the time, but also helped set up the tensions that would trouble the Balkans throughout the 20th Century and spill out into wars, culminating, most recently, in the “Homeland War” of 1991-1996.

Ban Josip Jelačić

Ban Josip Jelačić

As for Zagreb, in 1851, Josip Jelačić, the Ban (or Viceroy), joined the upper “Bishop’s town,” home of Zagreb Cathedral and a Roman Catholic Diocese since 1094, with the larger “King’s town” (a free, royal city since 1242) creating a united Zagreb. Jelačić’s equestrian statue stands in the city’s main square, which is named after him.

Art Pavilion in Tomislav Square

Art Pavilion in Tomislav Square

A walk to the Old Town bring Zagreb’s origins, conquests, and alliances into relief. Much of the City’s architecture comes from its period of Austro-Hungarian domination—as in much of the rest of this part of the world. Many of these buildings are 130 to 150 years old, and never have gotten the maintenance they deserve and require. The World Wars, communist-era neglect, damage from the 1990s “Homeland War,” and the current world recession all have taken their toll. Much has been rebuilt and renovated over the past 15 years, but much more remains to be done.

Nice starter block - needs TLC

Nice starter block – needs TLC

What has been restored is beautiful. Some of the grander, restored buildings bear the same yellow color found throughout the cities of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Empress Maria Theresa’s favorite color was yellow, and her decorating preferences made that color the cheapest one on the market, and the most popular.

Croatian National Theater (through a window)

Croatian National Theater (through a window)

The idea of “South Slavia” bears a bit of reflection. The people who live in this region of former Yugoslavia are Mediterranean Slavs—a combination of concepts that an American might find disorienting. But here they are, Slavic peoples far away from the snow and ice of the North, enjoying the warm, Mediterranean climate and hot, Mediterranean sun, building and sailing yachts, grilling calamari, and serving fine, local wines to throngs of European and Asian tourists along the Dalmatian Coast.

Zagreb rooftops and stuck funicular

Zagreb rooftops and stuck funicular

Americans have been slow to discover this Riviera—a fact we don’t mind as we soak it in over the next couple of weeks. Our fellow Yanks are likely still uncertain about the region following the 1991-1996 “Homeland War,” as Croatians and Slovenians call the latest Balkan conflict, whose principals are still being tried for Genocide at the Hague. It has taken fifteen years to repair much of the damage (we are shown bullet and shrapnel holes that remain here and there), and the result is classic, Adriatic beauty. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; we’re still in inland Zagreb.

Pahrt being made in Switzerland

Pahrt being made in Switzerland

If Croatia’s shape suggests the head of an alligator swallowing Bosnia and Herzegovina, Zagreb is its eye, situated in the nation’s Northwest, along the Sava River, and on the slopes of the Medvednica Mountains. Its metropolitan area, the largest in Croatia, cradles 1.1 million souls.

St. George and fish-faced Dragon

St. George and fish-faced Dragon

And what’s the second largest Croatian city? Not Split, nor Dubrovnik—but Pittsburgh! Without supporting evidence, I’d guess New York City ranks third. 4.2 to 4.5 million Croatians are counted in Croatia, another million in the rest of former Yugoslavia, and 2.3 million more around the world.

Epicenter of Neckwear

Epicenter of Neckwear

What’s Croatia famous for? It’s the birthplace of the necktie, for one thing. International necktie day is celebrated there and elsewhere on October 18. 17th-Century Croatian soldiers’ wives and girlfriends tied scarves in a distinctive style around their men’s necks to show that they were spoken for. French soldiers, with whom the Croats served in the Thirty Years War, picked it up as a fashion statement and enshrined it forever—at least until “business casual” came along. Every former schoolboy forced to wear a jacket and necktie to class may now pick up a rock to throw in the direction of Croatia…

Yup, there's a Museum for that! Don't burn that note from the schmuck who dumped you; send it here!

Yup, there’s a Museum for that!

…Except that Croatia has quite enough rocks already, thank you. The place is famous for rocks, in fact. We’ve never seen so many! The country easily could double its size by dumping endless truckloads of rocks from its fields and hills offshore into the Adriatic. That would ruin the Adriatic and put hundreds of beautiful seaside towns far inland, but you get the point. They could probably reach Italy with a good month’s work. In some sections of the country, literally every square meter of arable land has been made that way by clearing the endless small stones out of every field.

Can't park this close to NYC hydrants!

Can’t park this close to NYC hydrants!

They are used to make New England-style dry walls (the stones are smaller and rounder here), which divide the countryside into vineyards, olive groves, and farm plots. From the larger stones, they make tool sheds, field huts, and other buildings. But don’t pity Croatia; it has lots of lush, flat farmland in one of its river deltas.

Gothic South portal at St. Mark's

Gothic South portal at St. Mark’s

The torpedo was invented here, too. What good would submarines be without it? You may not have one of those in your garage, but you probably have more specimens of another Croatian invention in your desk than you will ever use: the pen. The name of that jotter probably came from an Anglo-Saxon grunt meaning stylus or writing instrument, right? Wrong. It was named after its inventor, Slavoljub Eduard Penkala—not a name that rolls easily off the tongue. In one European language, the last part of his surname means “fish,” and no one would be caught dead writing with a fish—hence, the shortened name for his 1907 invention: the Pen. Penkala held a PhD in Organic Chemistry, no less, and, among his many inventions, he also held a patent for a rheumatism drug (a Painkilla?). Read all about him, if you’re inclined: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavoljub_Eduard_Penkala.

Baroque Interior, St. Catherine's

Baroque Interior, St. Catherine’s

One (admittedly inconsequential) implication of the fact of Mr. P’s invention is the consequent need to discredit the term “quill pen.” No one who ever wrote with a feather, when that was the way to scrawl, could have called it a “quill pen.” Penkala had not yet appeared on the scene to jab his “pen” into the lexicon.

Plaque commemorating Nikola Tesla, groundbreaking electrical engineer and inventor of AC.

Nikola Tesla

One could go on and on, no doubt, reeling off Croatian achievements, but Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) simply cannot be passed over. This giant of electrical engineering is responsible for much of the development of electrical power distribution in the USA and around the world. Among his many innovations was alternating current—AC—the “flavor” of the electric juice we get out of our wall sockets.

A memorial at Miragoj Cemetery

A memorial at Miragoj Cemetery

Because this kind of electricity cycles between positive and negative 60 times per second, in contrast to direct current—DC—which is a steady flow in one direction, thousands of us every year don’t freeze up and fry, cartoon style, when we put our fingers in light sockets or spit in the back of a malfunctioning TV. AC and DC were neck-and-neck as the first burned-out light bulbs were being changed, but Tesla won the tussle and I, for one, escaped being buried prematurely with my hair standing on end.

Does Zagreb have a zoo? Yes! Does it have a zebra? Yes, it does! And also a crosswalk on the way to the zoo that looks as if a wet, painted zebra rolled around on the pavement (http://zgzoo.com/en/news-and-events/news/step-closer-to-the-zebra/).

But is the Zagreb Zoo’s Zebra named Zoë, is she zealous, and does she come from Zanzibar or Zimbabwe? Stay tuned (but don’t hold your breath); we’ll send someone over to find out! If all that’s not the case, someone is failing to take advantage of all the promotional possibilities.

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