At what point does one become “churched-out?” I think on my first trip to Europe, I was sufficiently churched out.
It’s amusing and kind of sad. I was reading one of my last journal entires from my previous trip and I had noted every significant place I had been. In the entry I had actually written, when trying to convey the enormity of my experience, that I had walked past the Duomo. Walked past.
Who writes that?
I also walked past the Sistine Chapel. I never made it inside. I had arrived to the chapel just as the doors had shut, and at that point, I was ready to head to Florence, you know, to walk by the Duomo, and didn’t want to stay another day in Rome just to go there. Ridiculous.
In reading that journal entry, I realized I wasn’t really about hitting all of the hot spots. Yes, I have every intention to go and walk IN the Duomo and the Sistine Chapel. And, soon. But, the true beauty of traveling in my mind isn’t those places that everyone says you must go to — it’s the places that you discover on your own.
My first morning in Zagreb, one of the first things I discovered all on my own was the McDonalds. I had promised I would not eat fast food. I don’t in real life and in travel life, I try to stay pretty healthy (at least in terms of food). But, after a night of binge drinking, chicken nuggets and a Diet Coke fountain soda soundly godly.
Of course, no one believes in “Diet” in Europe, so I settled for a Coke Zero. Ice-free (they don’t believe in that either. Even if you get a shot, it comes with one pretty cube of ice and that’s it). And chicken nuggets.
As I walked around Lower Town’s Trg Josipa Jelacica (the main square) and its meandering streets, I ate my breakfast of chicken nuggets chased with Coke Zero and tried to figure out where I was going next.
And, by “try” I mean “walked around aimlessly.”
When I had arrived at Fulir, they gave me a nice pocket guide detailing walking tours in the city. I left that in the room. Along with a New York Times article detailing how to spend a good 36 hours in the city. And the map.
Here’s the thing — I don’t believe in maps. Or tours. I prefer to just move. Learn as I go.
So, it was just me and my gut instinct which guided me back towards the hostel, first to the Katedrala Marijina Uznesnja (Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary) and then to a street I had seen the day before.
There was a large crowd gathered at the church, which didn’t surprise me much since the day before in my quick wanderings to get my bearings, I had seen numerous tour buses parked on the street. This time, the buses were absent, and just people filled the area. People and television trucks.
I walked up to the entrance of the gothic structure and was pretty much stopped by the wall of people at its doors. I could hear mass taking place and when I peaked in, there was a massive crowd, cameras on dollys and studio lighting. Something was going on.
I asked a monk and he explained it was something like the 800th anniversary of the order. We couldn’t communicate that well, but I gathered it was a pretty big deal to the people there, so instead of being an obnoxious tourist and fighting my way in so I could say I was there, I settled for exploring around the church instead.
Behind the church is this whole other area of ancient buildings, a part of Kaptol Square. I quietly, with camera in hand, walked around the church, taking in the silence and stillness of the area, despite the large gathering of people at its front. I would have loved to have sat down on one of the old, cracked steps and pulled out my journal to write, but I already felt like I shouldn’t be there and didn’t want to draw any more attention to myself than necessary. Even if I was the only person back there.
Instead, I settled for sitting out front on the fountain wall and writing for a little bit.
Then, when I felt a few sprinkles of rain, decided it was time to move on. And, while I didn’t go IN the church exactly, I can still say I was there for its 800th anniversary.
From there I zig-zagged around the Upper and Lower Town for a bit, passing by an outdoor market, some more churches and then finally coming to Dolac Fruit and Vegetable Market, where Croatians from all over the country go to sell their produce. I have never seen anything like it. From the stairs I walked down, all you could see was a sea of red umbrellas. Once you were in the mix, it was packed and you could barely move without bumping into someone, or something.
I headed back towards Fulir to continue my newly created walking tour of Zagreb.
The hostel was located in a part of town that didn’t allow cars (unless you have a permit — but that’s for another day, another time), so you could walk down the center of the street if felt the desire. Or the necessity. Dotted along every street in the area is cafes with large outdoor terraces with seats and tables stacked on top of each other and residents sitting outside, talking, sipping their coffee and smoking their cigarettes.
Just past the hostel was a small and narrow road, which really probably could have fit a horse in ancient times, never a car. The road, which was more of an alley between to old buildings, led uphill to stairs. I was drawn to it because of the mystery it held. The walls on either side of the street were covered in graffiti. It kind of invited you in. That, and the image of colorful graffiti juxtaposed with the ancient history of everything was just eerily beautiful to me.
In America, that serves as a warning sign telling you to turn around, to stay out. But, not here. In fact, clear as day, a sign at the entrance to the road identified what treats awaited you should you want to explore — museums, galleries, churches — in Croatian and English.
So, I went ahead and explored. I passed by a little store selling wigs, purses and jewelry, and went up some stairs. And some more stairs. And then some more stairs. Eventually, the stairs led me to Upper Town, which boats numerous structures from the city’s ancient times.
Then there was the view.
From the top of the stairs I could see the entire city of Zagreb. The old areas, and further back the newer areas with the high-rise apartments and the namebrand hotels (Westin was clearly identifiable).
I kept walking and came across another church. St. Mark’s. This one was less spectacular, but equally enthralling. In fact, it was pretty simple, aside from its ornately detailed tiled roof which was constructed in the late 1800s. According to Lonely Planet, its courtyard in front of it is used for a carpark for government workers. But, since it was Saturday, people flooded the area instead. I was lucky, on my second lap by the church, I caught a rare moment of solitude. There was no one in the square and a single women sat sitting on St. Mark’s front step. Just sitting. I can only guess she was just enjoying the silence.
That’s the thing about Zagreb. The silence is everywhere. Noises don’t seem to carry like they do anywhere else. I couldn’t hear the mass, even though it was being broadcast, when I was wandering through the back area of the church, and I couldn’t hear anything when I caught the young woman sitting on the steps.
During my little exploration of Upper Town, I also stumbled upon Galerija Klovicevi Dvori, a stunning gallery housed in a former Jesuit monestary and apparently the city’s most prestigious place for art exhibitions, and the Muzej Grada Zagreb, the City Museum. Both were interesting, but the City Museum was the definite highlight.
You weave through various exhibits starting from ancient times to Zagreb today. In between, you see how the city came into its own. And, then you see how the war in the 90s made an impact. The exhibit for that part of its history was simply a burned out couch with a television showing damage that had occurred. Simple. Impactful.
I walked around the city a bit more and then decided I was done playing tourist. I liked Zagreb, but wanted to keep on going with my Croatian exploration. The next place on my trip I knew I wanted to go to was Plitvice Lakes National Park. As I walked back to Fulir, I was contemplating checking out of the hostel, catching a late bus to the park and staying the night there.
When I got back to the hostel, Davor, the owner, greeted me. He had apparently met me the night before, although my recollection was a bit spotty of our actual meeting.
“You feeling ok?” He asked.
“Why wouldn’t I be,” I shot back. Right. He had seen me with the Aussie.
“Well, I guess you would be feeling pretty good after the night you had, eh?”
I laughed and then quickly put the kibosh on that rumor.
We spoke for a few minutes about the hostel, him owning it, what it was like, and then I mentioned that I was planning on checking out and heading west to the park.
“No. Don’t do it. It’s a bad idea. You will be sorry.”
Only a few hours later, I realized just how right he was.