Much of the easy-going charm of Croatia’s capital – quaint yet not too done up for visitors – lie in the ample pockets of green space that show up just in time to break up the downtown façades. Sights such as the Cathedral steal the limelight as the must-see attractions, but it’s the supporting cast – the public parks – that make the fanfare possible.
Verdant, urban sanctuaries allow the eyes to reflect on the landmarks during the pauses between. The parks provide spots for a break during sightseeing or for locals to spend time with friends and family.
The Green Horseshoe
The first of the green spaces many visitors encounter is the row of three extending from the train station and to just south of the main square, Trg bana Jelačića, or Jelačić plac. This row is the eastern prong of the so-called Green Horseshoe, designed by urban planner Milan Lenuci and consists, from Jelačić south, of Zrinjevac, Strossmayer and Tomislav. Two events enabled Lenuci to redefine the character of the city with a progressive approach that capitalises on flower power rather than brick. The first was an edict in 1850 to bring the various boroughs together to make the Lower Town, from Jelačić to what would become the train station, more important. The second was the earthquake of 1880, which provided a clean slate from which to create.
Of these squares, Zrinjevac, bordered by the Archaeological Museum and the Croatian Academy of Arts & Sciences, is best for grabbing a bench and opening a newspaper on a warm spring day. If you’re lucky, while sitting among the bright flowerbeds, ornate fountains, plane trees and Neo-Classical buildings, a jazz ensemble will kick up in the music pavilion which acts as the park’s hub.
The Botanical Gardens run perpendicular to the main row and forms the east-west anchor of the horseshoe. The plan for the gardens, which fall under the auspices of the University of Zagreb’s biology division, was originally drawn up in 1889 with the first plantings occurring three years later. The 4.7 hectares next to the train station are a lovely, relaxing and cost-free way to escape the rumble of trams and local bustle without leaving the centre. Most of the area is devoted to an international arboretum displaying trees and plants in an English-garden fashion. There are also symmetrical flowerbeds and rose gardens constructed in the French style characterised by strict geometrical lines. Croatian species are well represented. In total there are 53 plots and 10,000 species of plants amid the picturesque footbridges, lakes and ponds.
The Maksimir Park elegantly frames Zagreb’s eastern edge. Named after its founder Bishop Maksimilian Vrhovec, it opened in 1794, ‘the first public promenade in this part of Europe’, as the tourist brochures boast. Its rolling hills cradling oaks, lakes, footpaths, cafés and ample room for jogging and getting away, the park is also home to Zagreb’s zoo. This is spread over seven hectares and houses more than 2,000 animals, including monkeys, a red panda, a snow leopard and African cheetahs.
Jarun & Bundek
South of the city centre, Lake Jarun and Bundek Lake, which straddle the Sava (Jarun is just north), are key elements to understanding the overall Zagreb picture. First and foremost they are tranquil oases to clear the head, sit with a friend, burn a few calories or practise your athletic endeavour of choice. Administratively, they are essential links in the city’s push to incorporate the river into Zagreb’s overall future vision.
Built in 1987 for the International University Games and as a recreation space, the 240-hectare Lake Jarun actually numbers two lakes which contain a handful of islands connected to each other and the shore by bridges. For discogoers, Jarun is synonymous with clubbing. For others, especially families, this is the place to rollerblade, bike, row, simply luxuriate with a coffee and feel the breeze – or take advantage of 2,500 metres of pebble beaches and escape the heat of the Zagreb summer.
Bundek, also dominated by two lakes, was renovated three years ago. Once a favourite place for locals to bathe, this rehabilitated space serves as something of a Jarun junior while bringing the centre closer to the Sava. Beyond its footpaths and tucked-in-the-woods appeal, and its function as a tasteful incorporation of Novi Zagreb, the residential area south of the river, Bundek has become a venue of choice for events such as the International Flower Show, September’s beer festival and the Folklore Festival.
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