The Croatian capital, Zagreb, is very much Central Europe’s surprise package, a preconception-challenging city that combines the gritty urban culture of northern Europe with the laidback manners of the Mediterranean south. It has always been a somewhat more arty, quirky and creative place than its tourist-deluged cousins on Croatia’s coast – it’s just that Adriatic-bound travellers never paid it enough attention until now. Always home to a thriving scene of alternative music, edgy fashions and addictively eccentric bars, Zagreb is currently enjoying something of a moment, with a sudden increase in the number of things that make a city really purr, including more good places to eat and a festival-driven sense that things are happening in the arts. The relative absence of international franchises in the centre (and the ubiquity of small cafés serving good strong coffee) make Zagreb something of a collector’s item among connoisseurs of Central European authenticity, a city pursuing its own, idiosyncratic path.
Although capital of an independent Croatia only since 1991, Zagreb has served as the cultural and political focus of the nation since the Middle Ages. The city grew out of two medieval communities, Kaptol to the east and Gradec to the west, each sited on a hill and divided by a (long since dried up) river. Zagreb grew rapidly in the nineteenth century, and many of the city’s buildings are well-preserved, peach-coloured monuments to the self-esteem of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nowadays, with a population reaching almost one million, the city is the boisterous capital of a turbulent, changing nation. A number of good museums and a varied nightlife ensure that a few days here will be well spent.
Just one word of advice: don’t expect too much excitement in August, when locals head for the coast and the whole city seems to indulge in a month-long siesta.
Despite evidence of Iron Age settlements on top of Gradec hill, the history of Zagreb doesn’t really start until 1094, when Ladislas I of Hungary established a bishopric here in order to bring the northern Croatian lands under tighter Hungarian control. A large ecclesiastical community grew up around the cathedral and its girdle of episcopal buildings on Kaptol (which roughly translates as “cathedral chapter”), while the Hungarian Crown retained a garrison opposite on Gradec. Following the Mongol incursions of 1240–42, King Bela IV declared Gradec a royal free town in order to attract settlers and regenerate urban life.
The communities of Kaptol and Gradec rarely got on – control of the watermills on the river dividing them was a constant source of enmity. The biggest outbreak of intercommunal fighting occurred in 1527, culminating in the sacking of Kaptol by the Habsburgs – who were now in control of Croatian lands. Henceforth the separate identities of Kaptol and Gradec began to disappear, and the name Zagreb (meaning, literally, “behind the hill” – a reference to the town’s position at the foot of Mount Medvednica) entered popular usage as a collective name for both.
Under the Habsburgs
By the end of the sixteenth century the Ottoman Empire was in control of much of Croatia, reducing the country to a northern enclave with Zagreb at its centre. Despite hosting sessions of the (largely ceremonial) Croatian parliament, Zagreb increasingly became a provincial outpost of the Habsburg Empire, and the Croatian language was displaced by German, Hungarian and Latin. It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that the growth of a Croatian national consciousness confirmed Zagreb’s status as guardian of national culture. The establishment of an academy of arts and sciences (1866), a university (1874) and a national theatre (1890) gave the city a growing sense of cultural identity, although ironically it was a German, the architect Hermann Bollé (1845–1926), creator of the School of Arts and Crafts, Mirogoj Cemetery and Zagreb Cathedral, who contributed most to the city’s visual profile.
Yugoslavia into the present
With the creation of Yugoslavia in 1918, political power shifted from Vienna to Belgrade – a city that most Croats considered an underdeveloped Balkan backwater. Things improved significantly after World War II, when Croatia was given the status of a socialist republic and Zagreb became the seat of its government. A major period of architectural change came in the 1950s and 1960s, when ambitious mayor Većeslav Holjevac presided over the city’s southward expansion, and the vast concrete residential complexes of Novi Zagreb were born. The city survived the collapse of Yugoslavia relatively unscathed, despite being hit by sporadic Serbian rocket attacks.
Zagreb has fared much better than many Croatian cities in the slump-boom-slump cycle that has characterized the post-independence economy. As well as being the commercial capital of the country it is also the undisputed centre of cultural life, boasting the kind of concert seasons, venues and arts festivals that most other Croatian municipalities would die for.
Top image: St. Mark's Church in Zagreb © 9MOT/Shutterstock