Getting angel thrills in Zagreb

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CHRISTMAS and angels go together, in my mind at least. But who knew there were more than 400 of them to choose from when in Croatia? Not even in the videogame, League of Angels are there that many!

We in Malaysia seem besotted by sparkly baubles, fake Xmas trees, tinsel of all colours and of course the Christmas tree – big and small, fake or real – during this season.

In Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, the open-air Christmas bazaars are sprouting all around the city but on offer are the people’s handicrafts rather than the commercial variety we know so well. Are there shopping malls too? Sure, but on a comparatively smaller scale.

The markets are part of the lure of Advent in Zagreb, which won ‘Best European Christmas Market 2016’ by travel portal European Best Destinations this year.

On a recent trip to the city, the wintery air sparkles with the season’s excitement exuding from the people themselves.

In the search for that choice angel at the markets, I must have walked up and down the main thoroughfare of the more historic part of the city, as most of the markets were located around that particular stretch.

Historic Zagreb is located across the Saba River, which acts a convenient divider between the newer part which links to the airport. By the way, the latter has the charm of a regional hub similar to the Penang airport.

Old Zagreb is surely where Advent is in full swing for Croatia, with streets lit up by various designed lights as well as the oak and birch trees.

The mainly Catholic people mark Advent with the start of the fourth Sunday before Christmas. It ends Jan 6.

At the Christmas markets, which are open from 10am to almost midnight, I was taken up by the Advent calendar wreath. Coming in all sizes, and mostly handmade from local wood, the wreath is placed on a table with four candles on it, and you light each one as the weeks to Christmas whizz by.

There’s a large Advent calendar (pic, below) in the main city square, called Ban Josip Jelacic, with electric candles and huge holly leaves. You already know the colour scheme (red and green). It makes for a popular picture backdrop. advent in park

It’s at Ban Josip Jelacic, with 19th century-style buildings around it, where I met the “angels”. Either carved on blocks of wood, or mounted on them, or laminated pictures, these angels ranged from Fortuna (the goddess of fortune) to Athena (goddess of wisdom, and other qualities).

I think the abundance came from Zagreb being a city dating from the Roman times, for the myriad angels are from that era as well as the Greek historical period. The oldest settlement in Croatia is Andautonia, with an archeological site of a Roman city remains dating back to the first century .

On the main road of Zagreb are a few museums including the fascinating Archaeological Museum. Its more famous collections include the Zagreb mummy. An open-air section offers stone monuments dating back to the Roman period. Aah, see the connection?

From ancient angels to modern ones, the range is amazing. One window display showed ballerina-looking angels in pure white only. Zagreb designer Jasmina Kosanovic has made her mark with these handmade, round-headed dolls, whose faces are usually marked by three dots and a smile. By the way, don’t confuse these angels with the country’s rock band, White Angels!

The Christmas markets are bustling, with throngs of people walking from each bazaar to the other, lending a post-concert feel to old Zagreb. Prams, strollers, walkers and leashed dogs are everywhere.

The central focus is the Ban Josip Jelacic Square, named after the man who supported the Croatian aim to maintain autonomy from the Kingdom of Hungary, Count Josip Jelacic, who died in 1859,

There are open-air stages at all the squares, which come with the bazaars. The variety of free performances include children’s choirs, traditional ensembles in their getups, as well as rockers. The square has a sweet blue Tin Express Christmas Train, mainly for children and usually running on weekends.

The other Christmas markets include one for flowers, just next to the Ban Josip Jelacic. All kinds of roses, the season’s flowers like African violets and green foliages are available.  The smell is rosy.

The Dolac open-air market has mainly fresh fruits and vegetables. The vendors say the produce are from Croatia itself.  Open from 7am to 4pm, any good Malaysian will know the best bargains are near closing time.

Another Xmas market is on King Tomislav Square, with an open-air ice rink and ice-skating ring.  The skates can be rented at the tent beneath the viewing deck overlooking the rink. I was it seriously cold, at 3 to 5 degrees centigrade, but families and teenagers seem to get a kick out of whirling around on the ice.

It’s wholesome good fun. There’s much singing, dancing at the outdoor stages with mulled wine (at 10 to 12 kuna a paper cup), and traditional delicacies to try. (1 kuna = RM1.79)  Mulled wine is a hot drink made from red wine boiled with water, cloves and cinnamon, among others or fewer spices. I so appreciated the warmth from that drink !

The markets are points to relax at after visiting some historical sites around old Zagreb, which is described as the Big U on the city map.

One of them is the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, a.k.a. Zagreb Cathedral. With a new-Gothic look, it has soaring twin spires (one under repair) that surely make it iconic for the city.

I was blown away by the fantastic organ music which was being played then. The organ is one of the biggest in Europe, built in 1855 by the German company E. F. Walcker, with 78 registers, and 6,068 pipes. Rightfully then, it is the focus of a concert cycle, “Sounds of the Organ of Zagreb’s Cathedral”, in July, August and September. The organ is also heard for Advent. There’s something about organ music that makes it so uplifting.

This season also brought out the Strauss Ensemble performing in the Oktogon passage, that’s nearby. From waltzes and polkas to marches, the music resounds in the octagonal-shaped glass-stained domed roof.

At the tip of the Big U is the Old Town Gate, in the northern section of historic Zagreb, which one reaches after the cathedral.  There is a portrait of the virgin Mary there which was the only item that survived the 1731 fire in Zagreb. To get to this section, one passes through the old Red Light area of the city. They say it’s no longer in use as such.

The gate is in the area called Gradec, which has St Mark’s Church, the governor (prime minister)’s building and the parliament house. It also boasts a funicular railway that only runs for 66m (217 ft), every 10 minutes, and a cannon fires from the top tower at noon. Paper cannonballs are used, but the sound is loud!

A must-see museum here is Museum of Broken Relationships. Innovative, it has about 100 exhibits in place, around the question, what remains after a break-up? Leftovers of love were collected from ordinary people around the world. They include a football jersey, with the note, “He was a player” to that of a handheld watch. All come with little, or long notes by the person who sent in the memorabilia.

Zagreb won the ‘Best European Christmas Market 2016’ title, with good reason, I feel.

Are you going to ask if I found my angel? Obviously, more than one!

Travel tips to Advent in Zagreb:

Dress warm. Thermal underclothes are best. A cap, hat or some woollen headgear is a must. Good shoes, woollen socks, gloves and a thick coat are needed.

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Subhadra Devan

A journalist who has been writing about culture, arts and heritage since the 1980s. She is herself gobsmacked to have started the Sunday arts pages for English newspapers in Malaysia, in the new millennium. The passion for these genres rages on.

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