The interior of the theater glows golden like a giant bee hive as each honey comb fills up with patrons buzzing with excitement. We are seated in plush red velvet chairs in our little partitioned box, just one honeycomb in the three rows of box seats that encircle and rise above the orchestra seating of the Croatian National Theater in Zagreb. Known as HNK (Hrvatsko Narodno Kazalište), the interior of the theater is lavishly decorated in red and gold. A golden chandelier dangles from the center like a delicate jewel on a queen’s necklace. Claudia and I move our chairs to the edge to take in the old world beauty of the decor.
The theater was designed by Viennese architects Ferdinand Fellner and Herman Helmer, the same architects that built the opera house in Vienna. The theater first opened in Zagreb on October 14, 1895. Today, on the Fourth of July, Claudia and I wait to watch Petar Pan, a ballet by Giorgio Madia, that will be performed by the Ballet of the Croatian National Theater. The ballet premiered at HNK just five days earlier.
Prior to our trip to Croatia, I bought these box seat tickets on-line directly from HNK website. Although the site is available in English, the prices are only listed in Kunas, the Croatian currency. Unknown the me at the time, Croatians use commas where we use periods when listing prices. I really want to see a ballet at the HNK. Claudia and I are only scheduled to be in Zagreb for the last three days of our trip. The Fourth of July, the day we are scheduled to arrive in Zagreb, is the only day that tickets are available. The only remaining tickets are box seats. Box seats seem so extravagant. I am unfamiliar with the exchange rate for the Kuna, so I type in a google search in an effort to figure out the price. I enter the wrong amount, misunderstanding the price because of the comma. I think the price is $300 for two ticket. Well, I rationalize, this performance will be my birthday gift to Claudia, my daughter, who turns twenty-one on July seventh. After I purchase the ticket, I notice that the charge on my credit card is only $30. I figure I got lucky. However, after traveling for two weeks in Croatia, I now understand that Croatia is just very affordable.
Soon the crowd settles down and the lights dim. The green and purple lights shine down on a three dimensional, moving box. This box is configured and re-configured by the dancers into a bedroom, a lost boy’s den and a pirate ship. Peter Pan has a florescent green pointed wig. Peter, Wendy and her brothers soar over head as they fly off to Never, Neverland, suspended on wires. The lost boys tumble over themselves like a mass of wiggling puppy dogs. Tinker bell and her clique of fairies spin on point as their electric wings light up like fireflies. When the box set is a pirate ship, the acrobatic pirates dance on top as a giant mechanical crocodile slithers by on the stage floor below. Tiger Lily in long purple braids unfolds her long sinewy legs as her partner bends her like a gumby doll in their pas de deux. The lighting and costumes are displayed in variations shades of the green and purple combination. When the performance concludes, the people of Zagreb rise to their feet and give the dancers a standing ovation.
Claudia and I wander outside into the warm night. Now that the show has ended, it is dark outside. The exterior of the theater glows golden into the evening as well. We wander across the street and find the Hemingway Bar that has an outdoor patio with a perfect view of the theater. Claudia sits next to a heat lamp, causing her to glow golden in the evening light too.
Earlier that evening, we arrive in Zagreb at the Panorama Hotel after two weeks of traveling up the coast of Croatia. I have on short shorts and a tank top. We have tickets to the ballet and a few hours to kill. After two weeks of sun and sea, we are in desperate need of a manicure. After leaving our clothes to be washed by the hotel staff, we head out looking for a nail shop.
After wandering the streets, I realize that our beach bum attire is entirely too causal for sophisticated Zagreb. We get a couple of disapproving glances. Unlike the tourist zone of the coast, English is not as prevalent. Luckily, I remember how to say manicure in Croatian; “Manikura?” After three “Nažalost, nemam vremena” (Unfortunately, I don’t have time), I realize that appointments are probably recommended in Zagreb. The women keep repeating a word that I do not understand. When I ask them “Gdje?” (Where?), they respond “Müller.” I cannot figure out what müller means. We give up and head back to the hotel the dress for the ballet.
Sea of Books
The next day, we trade our beach attire for sundresses. Our first stop is Zrinjevac Park known as the green heart of Zagreb. Zrinjevac is flank on four sides by the Supreme Court of the Republic of Croatia on its north side, Zagreb Archaeological Museum on its west side, the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts and the Strossmayer Gallery of Old Masters both on its south side and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration and the Zagreb County Court both on its east side.
As we wander through this lush green park filled with fountains and gazebos, we come upon an area filled with beach lounge chairs and colorful umbrellas. People are lying on the lounge chairs or sitting on the benches reading books. Several nearby kiosks are selling either books or cocktails. This gathering of bookworms is called the Sea of Books. This is the second annual event sponsored by the Lumin publishing house.
Our next stop is Gornji Grad translated as Upper Town. This area of Zagreb contains an old town with pedestrian only walkways. We follow the self-guided tour up through the narrow stone streets heading to St. Mark’s Square. Our first stop is the Zagreb Cathedral. Inside, an old woman angrily shakes her finger at me. I realize that even though I am wearing a long dress, my head and shoulders are bare. I grimace at my faux pas and quickly leave.
My favorite stop is Zagreb’s oldest pharmacy. It was founded in 1355. Its walls are line with shelves filled with jars containing intriguing elixirs and exotic substances. At the top of the hill is St. Mark’s Church. Its distinctive roof is covered with tiles in the red and white checkerboard that depicts Zagreb’s coat of arms.
We stop for lunch as a tavern called Grandfather’s Dream, feasting on snails and sea bass. This is our last full day in Zagreb. I notice that the waiter presents us with a fresh knife and fork displayed on a napkin on a plate before each course. This practice is one that I have seen repeated again and again in all of the restaurants in Croatia. This touch is so elegant and so simple. I will miss it.
After lunch, we head back down the hill to Ban Jelačić Square, the main square at the base of Gornji Grad. Along the road runs the tram, an electric train that is Zagreb’s equivalent to San Francisco’s muni/BART system. Shops line the tram route and the nearby square. I see Kraš and head over to buy some chocolate. This chocolate store is a world famous Croatian institution. Inside, I see what I have come for, a box of Bajadera. The Bajadera is a creamy square with chocolate on the outside layers and almond nougat in the middle. Its name comes from the ethereal ballet called La Bayadère about a beautiful temple dancer in India. It melts in my mouth sending me into an opium like trance just like the hero of the ballet.
As we walk out of Kraš, immediately opposite I see a large department store with a sign on top that read “Müller.” Claudia sees it too. Simultaneously we say “Müller!” Finally, what the ladies in the nail salons kept saying makes sense. We head across the square. Müller is Zagreb’s Sephora. On the second level, we find a nail bar with an opening and plop down for a manicure.
As we get ready to leave Zagreb, I realize the I have not scheduled enough time to truly take in all the wonderful sights that Zagreb has to offer. We have not visited any of the numerous museums. Zagreb is the cultural and educational heart of Croatia. Although many of the young people we met during this trip flock to the sea to make money during the summer months, they return to study in Zagreb. Zagreb has a different more refined atmosphere than the causal informal fun of the coast. Zagreb is the place where you read a book in the park, where you go to the ballet, where you study your history, where you savor your art and you honor your religious roots. A perfect place to end our Croatian journey.
Life is an adventure, not a destination. Live it in Croatia, at least for a few weeks.
Bezuvjetna ljubav i prihvaćanje najveći su darovi koje mogu dati i primati. (Unconditional love and acceptance are the greatest gifts I can give and receive.)