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Up on the Hill: How Artists and Writers Shaped Zagreb

nazorBy Andrea Pisac

We all have favourite spots in a city. A secluded corner, a reading bench, a vista. It’s a place which we flock to like a bee to the nectar. We don’t think why, we just go there to get nourished…

Rokov perivoj is my Zagreb nectar

It’s a serene uphill meadow, hidden behind the bustling British square. You can’t see it from down below, you have to know it’s there. But Rokov perivoj is much more than a meadow or a park. It’s a uniquely designed architectural achievement that combines early 20th century villas and protected natural beauty. As such, it tells a story of how Zagreb had transformed from a provincial town into a modernist Central-European capital.

Rokov perivoj – photo by Saša Pjanić

Rokov perivoj – photo by Saša Pjanić

I fell in love with Rokov perivoj before knowing its complex history. One day a friend took me there to have a quiet conversation. Ever since then, I’ve been coming back in search of either peace and quiet, inspiration or a good stroll. It was much later that I learned I had been drawn to a former cemetery. Is that what gives Rokov perivoj its poetic melancholy charm? I was never deterred by its dark past. My love has only grew stronger, the way a close person is cherished for revealing to us all their quirks.

Vojin Bakić’s house – photo by Saša Pjanić

Vojin Bakić’s house – photo by Saša Pjanić

Today, the most somber spot of Rokov perivoj is the decrepit house that once belonged to the sculptor Vojin Bakic. Seeing it will make you weep because its old glory shines through crumbling walls, broken windows and piles of rubbish in the courtyard. Zagreb city council aimed to refurbish it into a memorial centre but legal quarrels over its ownership put a stop to the project.

Rokov perivoj – peasant land and cemetery

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It’s hard to imagine that a place of such Arcadian serenity is nestled only a few steps up the hill from the busy Britanac. You’ll find it if you walk around the corner from the post office and continue up the very steep and winding Rokova street. 2 centuries ago, this was the route a horse-drawn hearse took on the way to the cemetery. And in winter time, when the street was slippery, horses would give up half-way up and people would take over carrying a coffin.

Steep uphill to Rokov perivoj – photo by Saša Pjanić

Steep uphill to Rokov perivoj – photo by Saša Pjanić

When you reach the clearing on your right is the St. Rocco’s chapel. It was built in 1648, after a disastrous plague had killed all but those walled up inside the city. The chapel was erected as an act of gratitude for sparing (the wealthy) citizens of Gradec (At that time Zagreb consisted of the secular town of Gradec and the church town of Kaptol). Shortly afterwards, the burials around the chapel began. At some point the Jewish community bought a burial lot, which made Rokov perivoj the first Jewish cemetery in Zagreb.

During that time Rokov perivoj was an uncultivated outskirts of Gradec, where peasants farmed land and kept kettle. No houses existed, a apart from the undertaker’s residency (today Rokova 15) and the morgue (today Rokova 10: the run-down Vojin Bakić’s house). At the turn of the 20th century, however, it was where the first urban villas popped up, turning Rokov perivoj into the Zagreb ‘cottage neighbourhood’.
This radical transformation was preceded by two events. Firstly, the cemetery was closed and exhumed in 1877 (after the famous Mirogoj cemetery became the city’s main burial ground). And secondly, industrialism created a rich bourgeois class that looked for a place to build urban villas. Under the artistic influences of modernism, green spaces would be cultivated and for the first time associated with prestige rather than with peasantry.

Rokov perivoj villas: Viktor Kovačić’s unique modernist design

In 1909, the acclaimed Croatian architect Viktor Kovačić was commissioned to design a blueprint that would transform the cemetery into a residential area. Kovačić’s vision consisted of three elements: designing urban villas, landscaping the park and connecting Rokov perivoj to Dežmanova street and Ilica with staircases. His emphasis was on preserving the greenery, using both the urban and the wild as ingredients of the modernist architecture.

Villa Deutch, Rokov perivoj – photo by Saša Pjanić

Villa Deutch, Rokov perivoj – photo by Saša Pjanić

The area of urban villas begin after you pass St. Rocco’s chapel. They were part of the original Kovačić’s plan, though several other architects (Hugo Erlich and Milan Lenuci) later joined the project. The land was given to established painters and sculptors who, in return, would donate their work to the city. These artists changed Rokov perivoj’s somber provincial character into that of a vibrant social hub. The houses still bear their names.

Villa Frangeš (number 2, sculptor Robert Frangeš Mihanović)
Villa Babić (number 5, painter Ljubo Babić)
Villa Auer (number 1, painter Robert Auer)
Villa Rojc (number 6, painter Nasta Rojc)
Villa Kljaković (number 4, painter Jozo Kljaković)

Villa Auer, Rokov perivoj – photo by Saša Pjanić

Villa Auer, Rokov perivoj – photo by Saša Pjanić

The centrepiece of Rokov perivoj is the so-called Frangeš well – a sculpture of a young naked woman reclining over a well, decorated with motifs from Dante’s Hell, Purgatory and Heaven.

The Elegy, work of Robert Frangeš Mihanović – photo by Saša Pjanić

The Elegy, work of Robert Frangeš Mihanović – photo by Saša Pjanić

When Frangeš revealed the naked Elegy in 1912, the city authorities refused to exhibit it. It took 82 years for the Elegy be restored to its rightful place. And it only happened when Frangeš’s heir donated the sculptor’s collection to the city under this condition. The old beauty is here now, so admire it!

Aleksandrove stube – onwards from Rokov perivoj

At the end of the green space of Rokov perivoj there are staircases leading down to Dežmanova street.

Aleksandrove stube [Aleksandar staircases] – photo by Saša Pjanić

Aleksandrove stube [Aleksandar staircases] – photo by Saša Pjanić

Although it was Kovačić’s plan to connect this affluent area with the rest of the city, Aleksandar staircases were built much later on, in 1935. They too are a unique work of architecture: not simply imposed on the landscape (where once was a ditch) but create a unique unity of the man-made and nature.

The writers of Tuškanac

Aleksandar staircases lead to the beginning of the Tuškanac forest. Following the trail uphill brings you to the statue of the famous Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža. It was erected in 2004 to mark the 30th anniversary of his death.

Statue of Miroslav Krleža, work of Marija Ujević-Galetović – photo by Saša Pjanić

Statue of Miroslav Krleža, work of Marija Ujević-Galetović – photo by Saša Pjanić

The writer and his actress wife Bela lived in the villa Rein up the hill on the left-hand side (Krležin Gvozd 23). With them moving there in 1952, the poetic residency became a cultural salon to famous artists, writers and politicians. Today it’s a memorial centre, opened on Tuesdays from 11.00 to 17.00.

Villa Rein was commissioned by the banker Adolf Rein in 1928. It is one of the finest examples of rich urban houses constructed between the two world wars.

Krleža’s study – photo courtesy of Muzej grada Zagreba

Krleža’s study – photo courtesy of Muzej grada Zagreba

The walk takes you up and through Krležin Gvozd street – beautiful houses along the way are home to many foreign embassies – until you reach Tuškanac park.

This is one of the most beautiful green spaces in Zagreb. It’s still quite wild and surprisingly empty. Even though there are benches dotted around, you will rarely see people making use of this peaceful setting. A random jogger or a dog walker might be the only people you’ll meet. The park is also known as Vladimir Nazor park, after another famous Croatian writer whose statue dominates the entrance.

Statue of Vladimir Nazor, work of Stjepan Gračan – photo by Saša Pjanić

Statue of Vladimir Nazor, work of Stjepan Gračan – photo by Saša Pjanić

Nazor’s statue is the work of the sculptor Stjepan Gračan. It was revealed in 1972, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the writer joining Tito and the Partisans. The statue is 3,5 metres high, portraying Nazor in an elongated expressionist style. Monumental and slightly somber, it blends in with the environment by being erected directly on the lawn.

The stunning wooden pavilion behind Nazor’s statue was constructed in 1891. An octagonal oak construction built in the style of late romanticism is a delightful example of garden architecture.

And now just walk

After this rich lesson in Croatian art history, it’s time to clear your head and just walk. Forget the mental information and sink deep into your bodily sensations.

Vladimir Nazor park – photo by Saša Pjanić

Vladimir Nazor park – photo by Saša Pjanić

The walk takes your through the trodden paths until the end of the park and then meanders to even more secluded leafy trails. There is nothing but nature, until you reach the Zelengaj street. This is your way back to the British square through another affluent and green area.

Treat yourself with a nice cup of coffee at one of two excellent cafes at the square: Kava tava or Mali kafe. By then, you will know more about the Zagreb arty hills than an average local!

This year Zagreb Honestly has joined the global movement. ‘Jane’s Walk’ and will be conducting a walk in English on 8 May. The walk will take you through leafy trails overlooking Downtown Zagreb, with stories along the way being shared in English. Click here for more information on how to join the walk.

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