By Molly Harris
Summer arrives in Eastern Europe and suburban Croats and travelers alike arrive in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, for the summer solstice. Exit the train station through a series of double doors and see vendors flanking the footpath perpendicular to a statue of King Tomislav, the first king of Croatia. The right branch of the Green Horseshoe park extends through rows of red roses to the Academy of Arts and Science. The Cathedral steeples stand tall in the distance.
A city steeped in tradition, the city balances old and new with a variety of architecture styles covered in graffiti. As a visitor, prepare to scratch the surface and to spend the solstice in the style of a Purger– a Zagreb local– shake off the stale air of the train ride and embrace the local culture. Begin with a garden walk and coffee and end with wine and a view of lower town.
1. Historic Botanical Gardens. King Tomislav’s statue stands just before the crossing in front of the train station where a left turn onto Ulica Grgura Ninskog curves to Botanicki Vrt, one of the oldest botanical gardens in Europe founded in 1889. Through the painted wrought iron gate the shade of jade, veer right toward Arboretum Polje twenty-six where a bed of fuchsia roses border the green space lined by peonies. Wander the winding paths under old growth Persian ironwood tree canopies that arch, drape and scatter along the ground. Fresh air and the scent of roses is enough to restore any travel-worn visitor.
2. Coffee at Toster. For a caffeine kick, head back toward the train station and up the horseshoe park on Petrinjska ulica. Toster, a toast shop, is burrowed between retail stores just up the greenway and one block to the right. This mod shop delivers a full coffee menu accompanied by a variety of light breakfast or brunch options. The owners of the six-month- old establishment expanded the storefront to include a second smoking room in what was once a storage closet. If you are sensitive to smoke, enjoy the first tidy and open enclave; however, to really dig into the life of a Purger, follow the narrow hallway to a doorway lit by an overhanging yellow taxi sign. Clustered in corners are men and women in concerted conversation while animatedly waving their cigarettes. From burnt-orange comet chairs to giraffes donning pink round glasses painted on the wall, this space draws a young but casual crowd.
3. Kerempuh. The stroll towards the central square is marked with the noon cannon signaling the meal of the day. In Zagreb, lunch is the main fare, which is often savored just as coffee, an event spanning several hours. The restaurant, Kerempuh, is located in the northeast corner of Dolac, the main market. Red umbrellas open over the fresh produce, breads, cheeses, meats and fish that source all entrées at Kerempuh. Try the pasta with truffle cream sauce for a rich dish that will not disappoint the tastebuds or drain the wallet. Afterwards, wander Dolac and take in the sights and sounds. To the left of Kerempuh is a single row of stalls selling handcrafted traditional Croatian products such as lace, licitars – heart-shaped ornaments – and umbrellas.
4. Museum of Naïve Art. Through Jelačiću Square on Ilica, past the Cathedral of Zagreb and just below St. Mark’s square, the Museum of Naïve Art is located through an airy hallway lined by white doors ending at a staircase. Upon entering the gallery, a self-portrait of Ivan Generalić greets guests with a bowed head. Every artist within this collection is self-taught. The pieces begin with oil on glass, increasingly vibrant works with layers of paint from foreground to background. Sculptures, pointillism, and other art forms can also be found throughout the gallery’s rooms.
5. Wine at Pod Topom. Round out the evening at the restaurant Pod Grickim Topom while taking in Croatia’s colorful history configured in both the national and city coat of arms imprinted on the glossy tile roof of St. Mark’s Cathedral. Watch as a lamplighter greets the night by igniting each gas lantern in St. Mark’s square– a daily occurrence at dusk. Continue down the road toward Strossmayer which overlooks lower town. The end of the ulica, or road, will open up to a panoramic view of lower town. Just below the lookout point, Pod Topom is pressed into the thirty-two foot hill. Past the geraniums along the brick walkway, the ceiling to floor glass door opens onto the terrace. This twenty-two year old establishment offers the best view of lower town and an ideal setting for welcoming the evening with a glass of wine. Ivan, a waiter of twelve years, recommends the house merlot. This red is an astute choice for recounting the longest day of the year.
With the intel of a Purger, step forth into a city of both tradition and modernity. Though the solstice is long, the hours will pass quickly. Be present and absorb Zagreb through sights, sounds and tastes for today. Just under the surface is a culturally rich setting to appreciate with each returning visit.