Ka-boom! In a flash, the reverie in the old part of Zagreb in Croatia has been shattered. Just seconds ago, people were drinking mulled wine and swaying gently to a Christmas song, when they were suddenly shaken by a loud explosion.
Looking up in surprise, they see white smoke coming from a window of the Lotrscak Tower. Tour guide Maja Halvaks reassures her guests that nothing is amiss. Every day – even during the pre-Christmas period – a cannon is fired off at noon from the tower up on the old city hill. It’s been that way for more than a hundred years, she says.
Zagreb can be a study in such contrasts. When arriving from the airport, visitors first see the long stretches of drab massive prefabricated communist-era apartment complexes. But then, entering the old part of the city, there is a different world. Originally founded in the 11th century and called “Agram”, today’s Zagreb also has a whiff of old Vienna with its art deco buildings dating to the days when this region was part of the Habsburg empire. You can go up the Lotrscak Tower located in the “Gornji grad” (upper town), riding a mini-cable car to take visitors to the 30m higher elevation and look out over the city.
But the action is back down below in the Donji grad (lower town), where at this time of year the attraction is Zagreb’s Christmas market with its tantalising scents of cinnamon, bakery items, mulled wine – and sausages to no end. At one booth, there is a mountain of sausages in a giant pan, in all 12 different kinds – venison sausage, garlic-spiced sausage, sausage with cheese in it, among others.
A stroll around Zagreb shows why Lonely Planet chose the Croatian capital in 2017 as one of its “Best of Europe” destinations. During a tour, the first stop is often the Zagreb Cathedral, where during the Christmas season there are live performances of the Nativity. Back in the days of socialism, the story of the birth of Christ was not welcome, our tour guide informs us. But those days are over.
A few streets further, there is the Church of St Mark with its white-and-red tiled roof bearing the municipal coat of arms. Not far from the cathedral in the heart of the old city is the bustling Dolac Market, dubbed the “stomach of Zagreb” with its fruit and vegetable stands and food stalls.
A local speciality souvenir is a “licitar”, a colourfully decorated heart-shaped biscuit made of sweet honey dough. Some have a tiny mirror embedded in them. Men will give one to their sweetheart and say: “Look into the mirror and you will see who it is I love the most in this world.”
And if the heart-shaped licitar isn’t romantic enough, then the winter wonderland feeling will be all yours in the evening when you stroll through the old Zrinjevac Park, now a sea of light with its lanes of plane trees covered in Christmas lights. In the old music pavilion a chorus is singing Christmas carols, and there are small wooden stalls selling decorations. The lights, the music, a glass of steaming mulled wine: What more Christmas feeling can there be? – dpa