My brother is on a two week visit to Croatia and this is one of the few free days we have in Zagreb. It wasn’t difficult figuring out which parts of the city I wanted to show off to him – the centre and the old town. While the centre is bustling, the old town is where the hoardings and trams get left behind and quiet history takes over, at least the feeling of it does.
“This is my favourite part of the city.” I reiterate as we make our way up to the old town gate – Kamenita Vrata or Stone Gate. The gate, now an archway, seamlessly connects the modern city to the old. One world here, another there.
Within the archway lives one of the city’s oldest legends – a shrine dedicated to Mary. This symbol of faith goes back to 1731 when the town was ravaged by fires. While structures and property were eaten up by angry flames, a picture of the Virgin Mary survived within the stony arch; the frame was destroyed but the picture was undamaged.
The curving walls are covered with prayer tiles – shiny black slates with golden wording. An old lady dressed in black kneels down at one of the four pews, deep in prayer. She is almost hidden by the dark, save for the light of the candles; lit hours ago and now standing at half their original size, the candle tops wobble with melting wax and their orange-yellow flames grow and dim in turns.
“Can I take photos here?” he asks softly. I nod. He makes sure to check the flash first.
On the other side of the Stone Gate lies the old town – pastel in pink, yellow, orange and cream – and at its centre is an ornate opening.
“This is the St. Mark’s Square and that in the middle is the St. Mark’s Church. These buildings to the side are all Government, and that there is the parliament.”
A set of twin guards stand by the doors. I have seen them standing with guns across their bodies a few times, but mostly I’ve seen them chatting, with each other, and even with passing tourists. It’s unusually informal and very refreshing in this age of heightened security.
We don’t stop. The plan is to first visit the museum of Zagreb, past the St. Mark’s square, and then on our way back stop by the Church.
An hour or so later the quiet square is noisy. Unlike the usual batches of tourists, today it is men in uniform milling about the square and the church. Some are arraanging chairs, one of them carries a brass instrument and sets it right in front of a make-shift podium. There are others too, spread out across cafes along the square, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.
“What’s going on?”
I’m not sure. It’s not a national holiday but the cavalry is here, and by the looks of it the event is set to take place right beside the church.
“Let’s go to the tower instead. We’ll get a nice view today.”
We make sure not to get in the way, taking the pavement all the way around instead of cutting across the square. There are more soldiers on the other side. They seem more at ease.
The Lotrščak Tower dates back to the 13th century. It was built to keep a protective watch over the city. Now for 10 Kuna, visitors can scale its four floors for a bird’s eye view of Zagreb. The ticket counter is on the third floor, right next to the Grič cannon (which continues to be fired everyday at noon). I pull out a 20 Kuna bill for our tickets and take the opportunity to ask the lady behind the counter about the day’s program on the Square.
“What’s happening on the square?” The conversation is in English. My Croatian vocabulary can’t support this exchange.
She looks up from the desk and in the direction of the square. There is no window on this floor. “On the square?” She raises her eyebrows and tilts her head to the left; it meets her shrugging left shoulder – a gesture I’ve come to associate as typically Croat. “Some government shit. I don’t really care!”
Taking the tickets, we head to the open roof for a more wholesome view of Zagreb.
St. Mark’s Photo by Nilay Puntambekar