Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Croatia: Surprising Zagreb

In the old town, everything seems to be in the same direction.
Walking in the old town usually involves long
flights of stairs and steep hills, but look at all
the places you'll go! 
Somehow Zagreb doesn't sound like an inviting city. It sounds like a remnant of the Cold War. Before going there, we knew only one interesting thing about Zagreb: it is the home of the Museum of Broken Relationships.

Turns out that it's also home to a large Museum of Contemporary Art, a plaza called Victims of Fascism Square, small but world-class Botanical Gardens, and the wonderful Croatian Museum of Naive Art. At first we thought maybe four nights here were too many, but we had no trouble filling our three full days here.

We arrived by air from Split and a taxi took us to our hotel, Esplanade Zagreb, a rather formal and old-school five-star hotel opened in the 1920s to cater to the wealthy passengers of the Orient Express trains. Only a shady, small square separates it from the train station. After one night in a large room with a view of a giant air shaft, we were relocated for our last three nights to an even larger room with a view of the shady square and the train station.

We spent our days exploring the city. The central part of the city is more or less defined by geography. There is Lower Town, a flat area with many tree-filled squares and palace-like government buildings, an opera house and the Museum of Arts and Crafts on Marshal Tito Square. There was an evening folkloric performance in one of the squares while we were there. Most streets here accommodate cars and often electric streetcars, and form a conventional city grid.

To the north, in the older  Upper Town, streets are not so straight, tend to be pedestrian-only, and lead to small museums and restaurants. It took us maybe 15 minutes to walk from our hotel the several blocks to the first hill leading to the old town. Walking here involves a lot of stairs or steep hills. But the payoff is in where your walk ends. A couple of times for us, it ended just north of the pedestrian district at Wine Bar Bornstein, a wine bar and wine shop in a 200-year-old cellar. It has only a small sign on Kaptol Street; you enter by finding your way around to the back of the building and down a steep flight of stairs. On our first visit, we had a well-informed waiter who took time to discuss the wine list with us. On our second visit, that waiter was busy elsewhere and we got the understudy, who seemed barely willing to take our order, which included a much-too-generous platter of meats and cheeses. I'd recommend this place (click HERE) to anyone visiting Zagreb.

Another evening we took a streetcar a few stops west of our hotel to Tian Tan  (click HERE), a far-off-the-beaten-track Chinese restaurant on a commercial side street a short walk from a streetcar stop. We almost always have duck at Chinese restaurants, and the duck here was wonderful. Don't expect your hotel to know about this place, though. The Esplanade certainly didn't.

Here are some photos.

"Gypsy Wedding" (1936, oil on canvas) by Ivan Generalic
is among the works by untrained artists at the
Croatian Museum of Naive Art.

"Portrait of Mate Bujne" (1959, oil on glass) by
Dragon Gazi is among many works painted
in reverse on glass. All the paint is on the
other side of the glass, meaning that details
in the foreground, such as the flute and the
fingernails, are painted first.

"Luxury Boat" (1974, marker and oil on paper) by Drago Jurak reminded me of works
by other untrained artists at the Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore.

This toaster is one of the most famous exhibits at the
Museum of Broken Relationships, which accepts
donations of many types of objects that symbolize
a former relationship. The donors provide information,
including the duration of the relationship,
as is seen on the museum note card below.

This photo is explained below.

This bicycle is the subject of a poem, below.

Meanwhile, south of the new town is the Museum of  Contemporary Art. We took a streetcar
to reach it, but returned to our hotel in much less time by taking a more direct city bus. This
work is "I Spit on My Own Tomb" (2007) by Jan Fabre. Looks a bit like Boris Johnson, I think.

This work is little more than its own title. (1993)  Mladen Stilinovic, who died in 2016, was
one of Croatia's most prominent conceptual artists.

Stairs at the Mestrovic Studio in the old town.  We were
introduced to this prolific artist at his former villa (now
a museum) in Split.

Everything I saw by Mestrovic was representational, nothing
abstract. Many of his works have Croatian themes or
subtly promote Croatian national identity.

Motherhood figures frequently in his work.

Towers of the southern reaches of the Lower Town can be seen in this view to the south, over the
red tile roofs of the Upper Town from a high plaza in the Upper Town.

Streetcars are easy to use. Just buy tickets at any newsstand.

The Zagreb opera house. We didn't get inside, but I bet it's as ornate as the exterior.

Zagreb is sometimes described as a gallery
of Secessionist architecture. I'm not a student
of architecture, but I would guess these buildings,
above and below, are examples of that.

This round exhibition hall is in the center of Victims
of Fascism Square. We thought it would have something
about Croatia under fascist rule, but inside was one
large conceptual art installation, with the rest of the
space closed awaiting another contemporary

Dress properly to enter Zagreb's Cathedral of the
Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And don't smoke,
be a dog, use a phone, or eat ice cream, either!
Inside the cathedral, which dates to 1217, though much of
the current structure is the result of a rebuilding after
an earthquake in 1880. The building was neglected
during years of communist rule and is having much
of its elaborate exterior stonework cleaned or replaced.
The cathedral soars above the roofs of the Upper Town. Scaffolding around the right steeple
has been there for years as stonemasons repair the damage of years of neglect and air pollution.
This is not a criminal tree at the Botanical Gardens.
It is a rare Wollemi Pine from the Blue Mountains
of Australia. The species was discovered in 1994
and is one of the world's most rare and sought-after
trees. The cage is for its own protection, though
we happened upon another of these trees elsewhere
in the garden that was not caged.
Wine Bar Bornstein is a great place to sample the many good wines of Croatia.

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