I took a chance and found the door unlocked, and up some stairs discovered dazzling, vivid and wickedly humorous statuary and paintings, including a streetscape by Ivan Benkovic labeled "Chicago 1914" and Edo Kovacevic's "Tkalciceva Street," painted in 1933.
Tkalciceva Street itself, I later found out, looks very much the same as it does on that canvas. Shops, bars, restaurants and all the other attractions that make the street a nighttime magnet and a boon to strollers have been carved into old, renovated buildings.
During the day, the area steps lively, too. Dolac Market operates in a large outdoor space nearby, every day from early morning until well into the afternoon. Tkalciceva and its winding cobblestone pedestrian walkway flanks one side of the medieval upper town, and the Kapitol district is on the other side, marked by the two spires of the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.
Locals differentiate the Kapitol section and the district called Gradec, but they flow seamlessly together in Zagreb's Upper Town.
An opening in the remains of an ancient city wall loosely separates the two and marks the beginning of a steep ascent toward the government complex and a dense mix of intriguing places. A few people almost always can be found gathered at an opening in the wall and facing the small chapel there. They genuflect toward a 17th-century painting of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, said to be the only flammable object to survive a major fire in 1731. Many Zagreb citizens believe the painting has magical powers.
A short, uphill walk leads to St. Mark's Church. Its brightly tiled roof is decorated with a medieval coat of arms and the city emblem, providing a touch of color in a square otherwise dominated by the neo-classical presidential palace, the parliament building, city hall and strings of black BMWs awaiting the lunch hour.
I spent most of a day exploring that little sector and I could have spent a few days more.
At the City Museum, a 17th-century convent has been fitted out with an organized maze of displays. Children far too young for whistle blowing laughed and shouted through a comprehensive and fascinating series of galleries that took us with curatorial artistry from medieval Zagreb to the present. Seemingly nothing had been left out: We saw weapons, religious objects, costumes, historic paintings, photographs, manufactured goods and scale models of the city at various stages of its growth.
All through my visit to Croatia -- from Dubrovnik on up the coast -- I kept an eye out for the creations of sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. His impressive Native American equestrian statues that flank Chicago's Congress Plaza have always been among my favorite landmarks. Toward the end of his life, he taught at Notre Dame, which also exhibits samples of his work.
So seeking out Mestrovic's atelier almost felt like a pilgrimage, because Zagreb would be my last stop on the Croatia tour. After so much anticipation, I nearly passed right by the studio, because a restoration crew had obscured the entrance area with scaffolding and tarp.
Inside, however, the Mestrovic home and workrooms appeared to be little changed from the time he occupied them in the 1920s and '30s. He left Zagreb in 1942 for travels that led, in 1947, to his settling in the United States.
Of course, the studio couldn't hold Mestrovic's more monumental projects, so the displays lean heavily on photographs, sketches and preliminary studies rendered in clay. Still, the power of his genius shines through.
Art and history lovers stay in the neighborhood and proceed to the Croatian Museum of Naive Art, which is splashed with the colors of a long Croatian tradition. Around the corner, Galerija Klovicevi Dvori has transformed a former Jesuit monastery into a lean, contemporary space for traveling art exhibits.
That was just a slice of the old part of town. I walked a short block to a point where I could look down at the "new" Zagreb and its orange-tile rooftops and old Vienna-style institutions. The vista sprawled toward infinity. More than a million people live in the metropolitan area. I know many of those streets were made for walking and long, deep breaths of atmosphere. Therefore, I'd have to miss a lot and savor what little I could.
A funicular connects upper and lower Zagreb. I stood only a few yards from the upper station. "This is a symbol of the city," a funicular attendant told me. Symbols are best seen from a distance, and I chose to descend on the steep zigzagging stairway, getting a peek at tiny backyards and perched terraces during the descent.
The list of museums in the lower city is overwhelming, and sometimes I was forced by time constraints (or opening hours) to settle for a long look at their exteriors, an aesthetic feast ranging from Byzantine to art deco. The Renaissance-style Arts and Crafts Museum, the Art Nouveau Art Pavilion and baroque Croatian National Theater, for example, are wonders to behold.
I did spend a good chunk of a hot afternoon wandering through the Museum Mimara. It was nearly empty, except for crews preparing for some kind of big event. Outside the neo-classic former school building, workers were erecting a stage, and, inside, more workers rolled out a red carpet and filled the atrium with pots of fresh flowers.
Other than that, the activity level remained pretty low. The cheerful middle-age man who sold my admission ticket also scurried across the lobby to the cloakroom and checked my bag. In most of the Mimara galleries, only security cameras guarded the treasures. Thanks to the thousands of donations tendered by collector Ante Topic Mimara, I found treasures in abundance: archeological pieces from the Middle East and Europe, antique furniture, textiles, fine examples from the ateliers of Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Renoir and Delacroix. And, of course, much more.
By the time I returned to retrieve my bag, two young men were working at the cloakroom counter. One of them explained that Story magazine would be taking over the museum that evening for its big annual bash. Story might be described as a Croatian celebrity slick. Its ads on the trolleys shout, "Cafee! Lifestyle! Cocktail Party!"