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Zagreb, Croatia: Europe's new star

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Zagreb, Croatia

One morning, shrieking whistles yanked me out of a deep sleep. They sounded like a thousand cops dealing with an apocalyptic traffic jam. The constant racket drove out all rational thought.

From my room's window, I couldn't see the source, but the whistling persisted as I showered and dressed and made my way downstairs to the lobby of the Hotel Palace, where, just outside, hundreds of young people marched north past Strossmayarov Square, led by bands of whistle blowers.

"They are finished with school," a porter explained. "They have no more classes. They look ahead now. It's good they have something to look forward."

Ah. Seniors on the cusp of graduation. Party time!

I walked upstream from the revelers and found still more students pouring from the main railroad station via an immense underground shopping mall. From there, they came racing to the surface and eventually would join the crowds gathered at Bana Jelacica Plaza, the heart of downtown.

A huge equestrian statue of viceroy Josip Jelacica dominates the plaza. He was the 19th-century hero who tried, unsuccessfully, to wrest Croatian independence from ruling Hungary. Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslavian strong man, disliked that symbol of Croatian nationalism and had it removed. In 1990, when Eastern European communism collapsed, Croatians took the statue out of storage, reassembled it and returned it to its original site.

I strolled near, but by then the square belonged only to the students, packed shoulder to shoulder around the Jelacica monument. They wore their school colors in the form of T-shirts: red, blue, yellow, orange, green . … They yelled through bullhorns, waved school banners and blew those whistles nonstop.

In previous days, I grew fond of Bana Jelacica Plaza, because it looks so wonderfully Old European, an expanse surrounded by shops and cafes, a pedestrian zone buffering the lower, more modern city from the medieval enclaves on the bluff above. Bright red and blue trolleys clang past umbrellas emblazoned with brewery logos, inviting everyone to linger awhile.

But even the "modern" city holds on tight to structures with all the European architectural frills: ornate pediments, statuary, latticework, Renaissance and baroque touches, and Gothic buttresses.

Over the Cold War years and again during the conflicts of the 1990s, Zagreb had filtered through my imagination mostly as a black-and-white image of a troubled and fragmented Yugoslavia.

Now, in person, the capital of an at-last independent Croatia shows off its colors and vibrancy. Maybe it always was thus, but it never came to mind as one of the must-see cities on the Continent.

The Day of the Whistles dawned with misty rain, the sort of drab beginning that can make an aged metropolis feel mysterious, even grim and threatening. But the students brightened everything, even the inclemency. It was a fine time to find a cafe and watch the party rev up.

"Be careful," warned a travel agent whose window faced the plaza. The waiter who brought my espresso glared in disgust at the antics across the way. But I raised my cup in a toast to him and a city I was glad I hadn't missed.

On other days -- some rainy, some not -- Zagreb felt welcoming and yet enigmatic, one of those places where the next corner likely holds something unexpected and -- a stranger would hope -- delightful.

The metropolis blossomed in Technicolor, no matter the weather: yellow on the walls of some Beaux Arts buildings, orange tile roofs, murals and frescoes.

A woman passing my hotel (built lavishly in 1891) exclaimed to a companion, "Look at this! The buildings are beautiful."

As in most cities, the exuberance of youth enlivens the surroundings but can mar the decor. I came to the conclusion that a wall in Zagreb without graffiti was a wall built, or scrubbed, that morning. Graffiti has reached the level of a local art form (in some places), as well as an eyesore (in a lot of places).

"The government does nothing about it," I heard a guide tell her tour group. "There is a fine, I think, but nobody pays."

Other examples of artistic expression tend to be hidden away. On the same block as my hotel, the Gallery of Modern Art appeared gray and deserted, its tiny portal sheltering some pedestrians from a sudden downpour.

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!"

Across from the Hotel Palace, in one of the parklike plazas that ring Zagreb's central district, I visited the Strossmayer Gallery of Old Masters. It's named for the 19th-century Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer -- a leader of the movement to unite the country and an avid art collector. The gallery sits two floors above the Croatian Academy of Arts and Sciences (founded by the bishop) in a series of wood-paneled rooms.

Again, I found myself alone as I took in the gilt-framed Italian, Dutch, French and Croatian artists from centuries past. And again, the building itself was beautiful, a neo-Renaissance pastry with a tall Ivan Mestrovic statue of Bishop Strossmayer looming over the backyard.

The galleries were fine, but so many streets seemed to beckon. Some led -- disappointingly but inevitably -- to unattractive apartment blocks. Others took roundabout ways to lead me back to Kapitol or the main downtown plaza.

On one of those strolls, I came upon an unusual statue of poet August Senoa -- a life-size and stylized figure in black granite, casually leaning against a matching kiosk. Marija Ujevic finished the work in 1986, my guidebook said, but the book had provided no directions to the spot. Aimless wandering has its rewards.

When it came to the city's botanic garden, my destination was much more specific. I walked west from the magnificent Esplanade Hotel on a street filled with imposing government buildings and private apartments. On a sweltering day, those businesslike blocks cried out for green relief, and the gardens appeared at just the right moment.

Before plunging into the nearby museum complex and the bustle of city life, I could walk around flower beds and stands of trees, cross a broad lawn and pause on a graceful little bridge fit for a Monet lily pond.

I saw a few young men and women lounging on the grass, obviously with romance on their minds. At that point, clearly, they had come to the right place -- not just the Botanical Garden but Zagreb as a whole.

Getting around:

At 6 kuna to the dollar, a Zagreb Card good for 72 hours costs about $15, and it's honored on every sort of municipal transportation. Flash it at museums and many other attractions for discounts on admission tickets. I never used a taxi, except for airport transfers. The 25-mile cab ride from downtown to the airport costs about $25, plus tip. A bus from the central depot is $5, one-way. Trolley tickets cost about $1.15 at kiosks and $1.50 on board.

I found the streetcars most useful for getting from one district to another. But it's easy to walk almost anywhere in central Zagreb. That part of town is quite compact, and streetscapes are rarely dull.

Where to stay:

I chose the Hotel Palace (Trg. J.J. Strossmayera 10, 1000; 011-385-1-4899-600; palace.hr) for a sense of old Zagreb. It's an elegant but casual place with lots of dark, polished wood in the public areas and fine leather furniture in the lobby. Upstairs, my single room -- one of 123 rooms and suites -- followed the European single-room standard, i.e., cramped. Still, comfortable enough, and it had a nicely accessorized (but tiny) bathroom -- shower only. $128 to $383, plus tax and including full breakfast.

I also spent a night at the 360-unit Sheraton Zagreb Hotel (Kneza Borne 2, 1000; 011-385-1-455-3535) to rub shoulders with the expense-account set. On the outside, it's all gloss and glass, while the grand lobby tips its hat to tradition. My room was spacious and modern, a definite break from the European claustrophobic-single tradition. $334 to $365.

There are several other choices -- most, naturally, on the expensive side.

Where to eat:

Couldn't stay at the fabulous Regent Esplanade Hotel (Mihanoviceva 1, 1000; 800-545-4000; 011-385-1-456-6021; regenthotels.com), but I did have a dinner in its Zinfandel Dining Room. After days of food on the run (the pizza is first rate), I hungered for a lingering repast in the kind of place where white linen, huge vases, rippling fountains -- plus a pianist playing "La Vie en Rose," and the like -- all set the tone.

I ordered from the Croatian Specialties side of the menu and ended up with a wonderful salad populated by squid, octopus, scallops and prawns. The roast lamb served with broiled vegetables may or may not have been cooked the Croatian way (whatever that is), but it was delicious nonetheless. $64. Note: Prices often are quoted in euros, and euros are readily accepted almost everywhere in Zagreb.

The cooks at Boban (Gajeva 9, 1000; 011-385-1-481-1549) demonstrate that Croatians have learned the secrets of fine pasta from their neighbor across the Adriatic. Food is served in a quiet cellar below the far noisier bar. I had a simple tasting menu of three pastas and three sauces. $12, including salad.

At Kaptolska Klet (Kaptol 5, 1000; 011-385-1-492-1307; mediacaffe.net/kaptolskaklet), I ate with members of an English-speaking bus-tour group bent on winding up their excursion in good spirits. We had dancing, folk-singing, and platters of meat and stuffed dumplings in an Old World setting reminiscent of a German rathskeller. The food arrived hot, and the attitude of the entire staff was boisterous and warm.

Information:

• Croatian National Tourist Office, 350 5th Ave., Suite 4003, New York, N.Y. 10118; 800-829-4416; croatia.hr.

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