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Travelogue: Returning Home to Zagreb from America

Zagreb (Photo: Sandra Tralic)

By Loreta Kovacic

Soon after we drove through Slovenia, right after the border, we hit my hometown, the magnificent Croatian capital, Zagreb. I was so happy to be home again and so happy that the secret is out, and many more visitors have discovered the great attractions of my beautiful Zagreb. These days even big shots like Will Smith are vacationing in Croatia!

When I first immigrated to Houston in 1990 and told people that I was going home to Croatia for the holidays, some of them felt sorry for me for going to the war zone, and those that did not, they simply had no idea where Croatia was. I have a heavy Slavic accent so most people thought I was Russian. In the beginning years I used to tell people all about the beautiful place that I come from, but after a while, I replaced it for a broader and more efficient “Texas Slav” identity, and, to make it clear, I sang it in one of my songs: I was reborn as a Texas Slav. (No trouble in Texas)

Loreta on the main square in Zagreb (Photo credit: Loreta Kovacic)

These days Zagreb is way more international: one can find even Indian food here, and also much more touristy: I observed a steady flow of Tour groups decorated with a weaponry of Selfie Sticks. But on the other hand, things are perfectly the same, just amplified; all coffee shops are frequented at all times, there are just many more of them. Every inch of downtown and upper town (Gornji Grad) is covered with coffee shops.

A favorite pastime of every Croatian is to sit in a coffee shop and observe passers by. I guess this is the Southern European or Mediterranean lifestyle AKA “la dolce vita”. When you’re in Rome, do as Romans do, so if you are not a big fan of sitting and observing, you are not really going to experience Croatia.

In Zagreb everything happens on the streets: people meet, people fall in love, people show off their newest fashion style, people sing and make music or just dream. Zagreb is full of street musicians, and its streets, rooftops, and benches all tell a story. Zagreb is romantic and poetic. I always sit and philosophize next to Croatian poet AG Matos on that old bench in Upper Town overlooking the city.

(Photo credit: Loreta Kovacic)

Vendors on the streets of Zagreb offer everything, from great food to great shopping. I love the street vendors on the street of Zagreb and I always get roasted chestnuts (yum) or corn. Next level up is Zagreb’s famous pastry shops or “slasticarne”.

The most popular one is the traditional “Vincek” close to the Flower Square and next to “uspinjaca” our cool public vehicle lift that takes you to upper town in minutes. Zagreb people love their desert, and probably the most authentic and my favorite is “kesten pire” or the chestnut puree. It is topped with whipped cream or “Slag”, just because a traditional Croatian dessert has to be covered with whipped cream. I also like my coffee with slag since the first time that my mother got me into that bad habit at an early age of 10.

Selling corn on Tkalciceva street (Photo credit: Stanislav Kovacic)

There are five main squares in the very center, each famous in its own way. The main square, or Jelacic square has an old clock used traditionally as a meeting place for lovers, especially on their first date.

Up above it is our grand Cathedral and our fabulous open market where Zagreb residents enjoy negotiating with local farmers the freshest ingredients for their daily meals. Don’t forget, it’s not just about shopping, it’s also about seeing people, observing, conversing, chit-chatting, catching up, discussing, sharing recipes etc…Next important nearby square is “Cvjetni Trg’ or the “flower square”, a place to buy flowers for your dates or simply sit amongst them.

The square I grew up on is “Britanac” or the “British square” known for its fantastic second-hand market every weekend. Again, you don’t go there just for your greatest find in antique jewelry but also to have your coffee while observing all the known Zagreb people, chit chat, and sometimes, when it rains and all the vendors are gone, just to recall your colorful childhood memories or simply to live in phantasy for a moment, from this same spot.

Britanac (Photo credit: Loreta Kovacic)

Zagreb is a city full of rich culture and music, from incredibly funky street musicians to numerous performances at concert halls, theatres, museums and churches every day. Sunday morning mass at St Mark’s Church with its colorful roof decorated with red white and blue Coat of arms is a must. This mass features fabulous performances by its choir and its virtuoso organ player. It’s really worth going there to catch him play his grand finale at the end of the mass. His performance gives a boost of exaltation to any, even the sleepiest Sunday!

Music is everywhere in Zagreb; if you come during Christmas season, you will hear live performances on every city square and you will enjoy great street vendors selling Northern Croatian food like sausage and sauerkraut and hot spicy wine. Last Christmas when I was flying from London to Zagreb, I made a fabulously unexpected connection on the plane with a cute young couple from Brighton, England. I was a bit surprised when they told me that they have been vacationing during Christmas season in Zagreb for years.

Reasons they listed are: great street food, great restaurants, awesome nightlife, fun street life. My hometown has come a long way these days. It had all of these great things when I was young, but now it is just bigger and better: more great restaurants, bars, night clubs, etc… At night you will probably catch my brother Stanislav Kovacic play his street cello not very far from St Mark’s in Upper Town, probably somewhere like Strosmayerovo setaliste, overlooking Down Town. He will be jamming to tunes he loves from Amy Winehouse to famous Zagreb tunes by rock bands like “Haustori” or “Azra”.

Stanislav Kovacic (Photo credit: Loreta Kovacic)

Zagreb is a city full of fashion, and one of my favorite cities in the world for shopping! If you are looking for souvenirs or folk art, you will find it on “Dolac”, the main open air market, in the middle of the city, next to the beautiful Zagreb Cathedral and right above the main square, “Jelacic plac”. Main street, “Ilica” is full of great boutiques with super modern clothes made by local designers, not just your typical Zara and H&M. Every second store is a shoe store, so if you are a shoe addict, you will find fashionable International and Croatian made shoes everywhere.

One of my favorite clothing stores in the world is Xenia Design in Zagreb because Xenia is from Zagreb and she makes super modern clothes that make me feel and look great. I usually go to her store in Gunduliceva street, but this time they sent me to her second location in Gajeva, maybe a 15-minute walk. You can walk entire city of Zagreb without ever needing a car, but if you get tired, you can take a tram: they are very functional and beautiful blue. Cabs are pretty cheap too. I love walking everywhere, and in Zagreb Center, I never miss driving, not for a minute.

(Photo credit: Loreta Kovacic)

As I am trying to locate the second Xenia Design store, I realize that the house numbering is a bit confusing. A lady passer-by notices my hesitation and looks ready to help. I tell her how the numbers are not logical and she replies philosophically: “Logic moved away (from here) a long time ago, but you, (sister), are not the only one still trying to find it.” She leaves me pondering the current state of affairs, politics, etc….There is a sense of camaraderie on Zagreb streets, people are ready to help and connect. There is that thing I call the addictive magic of Zagreb streets. It’s a very potent alchemy.

As I walk those well-known ancient streets, I run into very old friends and colleagues. In many cases, I do not have to call them, set appointments, put them in my calendar, etc. I simply have to walk the streets. And there they are: older but still same old, creative, cool, interesting, exciting people of Zagreb. Today I ran into actor-director Filip Sovagovic, the kid I used to take the same tram to go to school with.

Filip Sovagovic (Photo credit: Loreta Kovacic)

We went for a coffee, of course, and we talked about everything, including his upcoming show about Nikola Tesla at the nearby theatre “Gavella”. His father was also a famous Croatian actor, Fabijan Sovagovic, and I still vividly remember his great performances from Gavella stage. It is not surprising in the least that Filip’s latest show is about Tesla. We are all secretly in love with Tesla, our greatest scientist.

One of my best Zagreb friends is Croatian director, extremely talented, funny brilliant Kreso Dolencic. He is always busy, creating new shows at the Croatian National Theatre and every other theatre from Zagreb to Dubrovnik. Spending time with him is a whirlwind of old and new memories combined with the best and funniest jokes and stories on earth.

With Kreso Dolencic (Photo credit: Loreta Kovacic)

Another cool thing in Zagreb are its numerous festivals from “Cest is the best” (street performance festival) to “Animafest”, Zagreb’s famous world festival of animated film. My highs school age kids are really enjoying this festival, they got passes and are spending full days watching cool cartoons and interviews with the artists who made them. This was also one of my favorite festivals in Zagreb during my teenage years. It’s equally entertaining and educational, but above all, very artistic.

If you are visiting Croatia, you are probably going to the beach, but please do not forget to stop and spend at least a few days in Zagreb, its fantastic capital: I promise you will not regret it!

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