Welcome to Zagreb, the capital city of the Republic of Croatia. Zagreb is an old Central European city. For centuries it has been a focal point of culture and science, and now of commerce and industry as well. It lies on the intersection of important routes between the Adriatic coast and Central Europe.
Today’s Zagreb has grown out of two medieval settlements that for centuries developed on neighbouring hills. The first written mention of the city dates from 1094, when a diocese was founded on Kaptol, while in 1242, neighbouring Gradec was proclaimed a free and royal city. Both the settlements were surrounded by high walls and towers, remains of which are still preserved.
Characterized by its soaring twin towers, the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of Zagreb’s defining symbols. Although it is a largely Neo-Gothic structure dating from the late 19th century, its origins are much older. The Zagreb bishopric was established in 1094, and construction of the cathedral started soon afterwards. An early Gothic sanctuary with polygonal apse was added at the end of the 13th century, while the nave was modified and heightened during the 14th and 15th centuries. The expansion of the Ottoman Empire put Zagreb within range of enemy raids, and the cathedral was fortified by adding a turreted outer wall. Once the danger of invasion had passed, a single bell-tower was built in the 17th century. At that time the Baroque became the most prevalent style, which is today borne out by the richly decorated altars.
During the 18th century the defensive bastions on the south and east were reconstructed to form a monumental bishop’s palace. A huge earthquake in 1880 did enormous damage to the cathedral, and it was reconstructed along Neo-Gothic lines, a style that was popular across Europe at that time. Local architect Herman Bolle was in charge of the project, although the blueprints were provided by Austrian designer Friedrich von Schmidt. Thus the cathedral took on its present-day shape with its slender 105-metre-high towers dominating the Zagreb skyline. There is no consensus about the height among the inhabitants of the city.
St Mark’s Square (Trg svetog Marka) constitutes the heart of the Upper Town, having formerly served as the main market square of the settlement of Gradec. Dominating the square is the 13th-century Church of St Mark, a threeaisled Romanesque church which still retains much of its original shape. The Gothic arched ceiling and the sanctuary were added in the late 14th century, along with the fifteen statues that stand in niches above the southern portal. Some of the statues were made by masters from the Parler workshop in Prague in around 1420.
The church was substantially rebuilt in the Neo-Gothic style by Herman Bollé at the end of the 19th century. The roof tiles, decorated with the coats of arms of the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia and the city of Zagreb also date to this period. The interior was restored between 1936 and 1938 by the sculptor Ivan Meštrović and the painter Jozo Kljaković. Meštrović’s work in the church includes the large crucifix above the main altar, the Pietŕ in the apse and a silver cross, as well as the Madonna portrayed as a village woman in the south apse. Kljaković’s murals in the main body of the church portray scenes from The Old and The New Testaments, while in the adjacent chapel of St Fabian and Sebastian they focus on themes from Croatian history.
One enters the Upper Town through the Stone Gate (Kamenita vrata in Croatian), the only old town gate that has remained intact. Built in the Middle Ages, it assumed its final form after being rebuilt in the 18th century.
Under the arch of the gateway is a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It holds a painting of the Virgin that was miraculously saved from a devastating fire in the year 1731, and the chapel has been a place of pilgrimage ever since. The Virgin Mary is the patron saint of Zagreb, and Her feast day on May 31 is also the date of the annual city holiday.
Dominating Catherine’s Square (Katarinin trg) is Zagreb’s most beautiful Baroque church. The church was built by the Jesuits in the first half of the 17th century. It consists of a single aisle with six side chapels, and a sanctuary which ends with a grand Illusionist mural modelled on the one found in the “Il Gesu” Jesuit church in Rome. The chapels hold five wooden Baroque altars from the second half of the 17th century, and one made of marble in 1729. The church façade was reconstructed by Hermann Bollé after the 1880 earthquake.
Central focus of modern Zagreb is Ban Jelačić Square (Trg bana Jelačića). Situated just below the hillside settlements of Kaptol and Gradec, it has served as the city’s commercial heart ever since 1641, when it was designated as a place where fairs could be held. Most of the buildings around the square date from the 19th century, and display a variety of architectural styles, from Biedermaier to Art Nouveau and Post-modernism.
The square was Zagreb’s main marketplace and carried the name “Harmica” (Hungarian for “one thirtieth”),after the tax levied on the goods that were sold here. In 1848 the square was officially renamed in honour of Ban (“Governor”) Josip Jelačić. After World War II the name of the square was changed to “Republic Square”, only to return to its previous title in 1990. Ban Jelačić Square stands at the centre of Zagreb’s social life and the most popular meeting points are “under the clock” on the west side of the square, and “under the horse’s tail” –a reference to the equestrian statue of Ban Jelačić in the square’s centre.
This is the only preserved mediaeval tower from the 13th-century fortifications, slightly modified in the 19th century, with a small lookout post on top. The bells of the Lotrščak tower used to summon the townsfolk to return to the town at sunset, when the gates were locked for the night. Nowadays Lotrščak is more famous for its cannon, which is fired every day at noon. The canon-firing tradition was initiated on New Year’s Day 1877, although several legends connect it with much earlier events. According to one story, the cannon was presented to the townsfolk by Hungarian King Bela IV in 1242, as a reward for protecting him from marauding Tatars–on condition that the cannon was fired every. The cannon could also have come from the spoils of a victory over the Turks, but whichever story is true, locals set their watches by the sound of the shot heard all over the city centre.
The Croatian National Theatre is located on Trg maršala Tita (Marshal Tito Square), which is named after Josip Broz Tito (1892 – 1980), former president of the Yugoslav Federation. This square, formerly known as University and Theatre Square, is the last in the arc of eight green squares that formed Lenuci’s Horseshoe, the central component of 19th-century Zagreb’s urban plan. Well-known Viennese architects Ferdinand Fellner and Herman Helmer, who designed forty other European theatres, were responsible for the plans for the building, employing a rich Neo-Baroque style that was at the time thought most suitable for theatres.
Officially opened in 1895, the building brings the national opera, ballet and drama companies together under a single roof. With a repertoire that ranges from classics to contemporary pieces, and with both Croatian and international works well represented, the theatre occupies a central place in the cultural life of the capital.
Zagreb’s main cemetery, Mirogoj, crowns a low hill just outside the city centre. Built in the late 19th century by Hermann Bollé, it is a wonderful example of a grand civic graveyard, featuring monumental arcades, domed gatehouses and pavilion chapels. Opened in 1876 with the funeral of fencing instructor Miroslav Singer, Mirogoj is the last resting place of many eminent Croats, their beautifully sculpted grave memorials giving the whole place the appearance of a park-like outdoor art gallery.
Mirogoj accommodates people of all religions, which is why Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim symbols can be seen on many of the gravestones.
In a city that has more than its fair share of green squares, Zrinjevac is arguably the best loved of them all. It’s certainly hard to imagine that this neat quadrangle of flowerbeds was until the late 19th century a meadow where cattle markets took place. It was subsequently transformed into an elegant promenade with plane trees imported from Trieste, a wroughtiron bandstand, fountains and busts of notable figures. The square gets its name from Nikola Šubić Zrinski (1508 – 1566), the Croatian Ban who died during the heroic defence of Szigetvar, a Hungarian fortress besieged by the Ottoman Turks.
Zrinjevac is the northernmost square of “Lenuci’s Horseshoe”, a line of eight green spaces laid out by municipal engineer Milan Lenuci in the 19th century. An outdoor gallery of 19th- and 20th-century urban culture is a convenient starting point for a walking tour of the Lower Town.