Fifteen years ago, the Croatian capital was in the middle of a war. Now Zagreb is booming and tourists are starting to rediscover its elegant boulevards, ornate architecture and cafe society
Scrambling off the Venice express, I was struck immediately by a rocket attack. It screamed across the headlines of the local newspaper. Only a couple of hours before my arrival, Serb missiles had slammed into the suburbs snuffing out the lives of three civilians. Edging away from the relative safety of the station, I descended into a twilight world of sandbagged buildings, khaki-clad soldiers and ashen-faced widows.
That was back in 1993, when I first ventured to the fledgling Croatian capital to report on the nation and its struggle for independence from the former Yugoslavia. The name Yugoslavia instantly conjures up images of war-torn strife and back then I had been immersed in this gruesome reality long enough to get some idea of how much the country was suffering.
Over a decade and a half later I roll into Zagreb station aboard the same express train and am greeted, not by missiles and machine-gun-toting soldiers, but by the ubiquitous golden arches of a global fast food chain. It is clear that Zagreb in the new millennium has changed.
In truth the Zagreb that I now found showed no signs of the 1991-1995 war and it was anything but the provincial eastern European city that some may expect. Last time I visited the city it was in a state of ‘heightened awareness’ as a UN soldier then told me. It still is today - but only in the fashion stakes, as Zagreb’s bright young things are amongst the most avid followers of fashion in Europe. This is partly due to the large student community, who make up around 40,000 of the million strong population. Back in 1993 I had felt underdressed without a pistol tucked into my jacket pocket, but now I just feel underdressed.
This time I am not the only traveller coming off the Venice express. Backpackers are joining the well-heeled travellers who see Zagreb as an alternative European break when they are looking for something a little different beyond all the usual clichés. There was a queue at the information desk at the train station, an information desk that had not even existed before.
It is not difficult to see why people are finally discovering Zagreb. It was always one of the most attractive cities in the former Yugoslavia, and the war did little damage to its looks. There were civilian casualties from rocket attacks, as the city spent years cowering under the constant threat of Serb missiles, and there were air raids – including one on the late President Tudjman’s palace - but these left relatively superficial scars in comparison with the battering meted out to some other Croatian cities, such as Vukovar and Osijek.
Since the end of the fighting, the civic authorities have spent millions of kunas touching up the city and improving its facilities as they attempt to woo Western visitors. On the street outside Zagreb’s voluminous twin-spired cathedral stands a Madonna and a quartet of golden angels, polished so hard that they practically blind passers-by. My guide, Tanya, tells me that in the 1990s Serb warplanes targeted the cathedral, aiming also to decimate civic morale. Delving inside, it was clear that they had succeeded in destroying neither, with an impressive central nave filled with worshippers.
The focus of the city is, as it always has been, firmly on Ban Josip Jelacic Square. Discard any images of the deprivations of war or dull communist cities, as this square could be anywhere in Europe. Businessmen with mobile phones race past Nirvana T-shirted students, while camera-toting tourists jostle for space with Armani-suited professionals on the trams that zip across the square.
While the MTV generation rule the city’s cafes, Zagreb’s elegant boulevards and sweepingly ornate architecture hark back to the days of the mighty Austro-Hungarians, all ornate touches, bold domes and towering colonnades. I stroll around a city enjoying its makeover, taking in its most dramatic buildings - the pastel yellow Art Pavilion, the neoclassical National Theatre and the sweeping Mimara Museum, the latter home to over 4,000 paintings by the likes of Raphael, Rembrandt, Renoir and Degas.
Along Ilica I find all of the big Western names crammed into a street that has become the 'in' place for the local beautiful people. Running parallel to Ilica is Tkalciceva, a medieval street that today is lined with bars and cafes. In the warmer months all of the seats outside are filled, as the local cognoscenti come to see and be seen. This could be anywhere in Italy or France, but the incessant beer consumption tells you that this is Zagreb, a city where hard drinking is the norm.
Sitting in a café on Tkalciceva it is hard to believe that this is the same city that I cowered around back in 1993. Then it was full of khaki-clad soldiers and torrid tales of war, while today the only khaki I find is the trendy combat trousers on sale in the fashion boutiques, and the tales of war already seem like something from another era. As Elana, a waitress in one of the cafés, says when I ask about the war, ‘The war does not feel real for me any more. I was young then, too young to feel what it meant. and today it does not matter.’
Where to stay
Regent Esplanade: traditional luxury and swathes of history in the heart of the capital.
Archotel Allegra Zagreb: trendy design hotel with its own fitness suite.
Where to eat
Zinfandel: the Esplanade’s signature restaurant is arguably the city’s most elegant dining spot, with Californian and Mediterranean specialities.
Gallo: first-rate seafood from the Adriatic coast; the pasta with black squid ink and fresh truffles is the highlight.