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Comparing Belgrade and Zagreb

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Belgrade and Zagreb, capital cities of Serbia and Croatia respectively, have much in common. The cities, as the countries, have a large portion of their history in parallel tracks. Both are Slavic lands and were, for the most part, engulfed in the same empires.

However, Belgrade and Serbia have a slightly less fortunate recent past. In 1999 NATO bombed the capital for two months in retaliation for strikes against Kosovo (now its own fledgling nation). It’s difficult to recover from that quickly. In 2000, citizens took to the streets to overthrow the Milosevic government in a nearly bloodless coup. But this meant temporary destabilization as power changed hands. And Croatia has a popular coastline on the Adriatic Sea to which tourists flock, providing tax revenue for the country.

Both peoples speak what amounts to slightly different dialects of the same language. Serbia prefers the Cyrillic script to Latin, but that seems to be changing. And Serbians seem to prefer affecting a deeper voice, both men and women.

Belgrade seems quite a dirty city in contrast to Zagreb. However, both feel very safe even at night. And both are cheap, though Belgrade moreso.

In both cities, young people congregate on the streets at night. They will either stand around in the pedestrian areas or fill up sidewalk cafes and bars as groups.

Belgrade also doesn’t seem quite as crowded with tourists in the off-season. That’s nice. But this will soon change, I’m sure, as Serbia prepares to enter the Schengen agreement nations. Ironically, Croatia, the better developed and more frequently touristed country, has not become a part of this pact.

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Zagreb, Croatia

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Zagreb sits mainly on the flat land around some foothills. The contours are obvious on a map by looking for the roads that twish sharply, those that refuse to continue and the designated green spaces. Fortunately, most sites are on the flat lands, or nearly so, and the city is compact enough to walk around it in a day.

Leading from the train station to the main square is a series of parks, making the short walk more pleasant than taking the tram. I was told that taking a couple of stops on the tram is free. However, in practice nobody seems to have a ticket no matter how far they’re going.

Zagreb’s main square is the Trg Bana Jelacica – a bustling open pedestrian area crossed by trams but forbidden to cars. Numerous stores trace the borders. Just behind the square and up a few stairs is the city’s fresh food market – open daily until 2pm or until the sellers can move their goods off the grounds. Usually it’s the latter.

Up the hills a bit further on the Kaptol side you will find the cathedral that watches over the city, as well as the Archbiship’s Palace. Ribnjak park sits behind that, sprawling into the Gornji Grad.

On the other side, leading up through Gradec, the “upper city”, is Tkalciceva which also leads to the Gornji Grad. This excellent walking street is flanked by cafes and restaurants and is wonderful for sitting and watching the world go by. A couple of streets west is St. Mark’s, the Croation Parliament and the Museum of Zagreb.

Zagreb seems to be a young city. At night the square comes alive with young people, walking, talking, sitting, and generally congregating the way young people do. The preferred drink on Tkalciceva changes from espresso to beer (pivo) and the people continue to sit in groups on the patios and enjoy camaraderie.

The people of Zagreb, and I’d guess the rest of Croatia, are tall – both women and men. And quite attractive, unlike some countries where there is a disparity between the genders in quality of their looks. Many of the people I saw could have passed for models.

I stopped into a few places here for food or for an espresso.

  • Mali Medo is a restaurant that brews their own beer. They call it a Pivnica. The beer is tasty, as is the food. The specialty of the house is a three-meat combination platter served on what seems like a small pizza crust with a gravy-like sauce. Tasty and filling.
  • Nocturno is a local favorite and serves Italian cuisine as well as Croatian dishes. Good and cheap.
  • Tolkien’s house is a cafe/bar with a great selection of beers – including a few Belgian ones. The small inside feels quite cozy. The walls are lined with memorabilia and kitch that evokes the spirit of Middle Earth. The dishes and drinks are similarly themed. In fact, the menu is covered with scribblings and drawings which are inspired by the famous author.
  • Paladium is a small cafe that is packed with students because of its prime location and cheap coffee.