Read, Write, Run, Roam


Church on Sunday: Zagreb Cathedral

This Church on Sunday features a Cathedral of many names. Most guidebooks will call it the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Others call it St. Stephen’s Cathedral. (The Cathedral is devoted to both.) I prefer the third name, Zagreb Cathedral-it’s probably the least accurate, but most informative.

St. Mary Statue facing the Cathedral

The Cathedral serves two purposes: providing Catholicism to the masses, and helping people orient themselves in Zagreb, since its twin spires dominate the skyline from most of downtown. It was built on top of the ruins of an earlier, unfinished cathedral that was destroyed by the Tartars in 1242. (It’s not just a sauce, people!) The current cathedral was built in the second half of the 13th century. The spires aren’t original-they were added during repairs stemming from earthquake damage in 1880. The spires are 108 meters, or 354 feet, high.


The Cathedral’s interior is noted for its frescoes, baroque statutes, and other treasures. I tried to take photos surreptitiously, but they didn’t come out very well. I hope this isn’t a sign from the Big Man Upstairs.

The Cathedral also contains the tomb of Archbishop Aloysius Viktor Stepinac, a controversial figure in history. During WWII, Croatia was invaded by Germany. The NDH (Independent state of Croatia) was then formed with the help of the Ustaše movement. Stepinac was Archbishop at the time. Stepinac supported some Ustaše leaders, but also protested against the Nazi persecution of Jewish people in Croatia, helped Jewish people escape, and criticized the Ustaše regime. After the war, he criticized the Yugoslav government, led by Marshall Tito. (Political positioning was not his strength.) Shortly thereafter, he was convicted of war crimes, imprisoned, released after five years and placed under house arrest in his old parish, where he died.

Archbishop Stepinac

Sorry for the downer of a story, but Stepinac is an important part of Croatian history, particularly for Catholics, so he’s a good person to know. He’s been called a Nazi sympathizer, savior of Croatian Jews, anti-Socialist and anti-Fascist; sometimes in the same book. As always, I’m sure the truth lies somewhere in between.


Springtime in the Balkans

If my “Daffodils” post was too Western for you, here’s a more Balkan sign of spring: when the mulled wine stands in Zagreb turn into rakija and apple syrup stands. Once again, I made the mistake of thinking there were non-alcoholic options available, and asked if they sold apple juice. The woman’s mouth said “no,” and her eyes said, “amateur.” Touché, lady.

I’m still not sure why the apple syrup is popular this time of year. Any ideas? Answers?

When all at once I saw a crowd/A host, of golden daffodil

Zagreb has been (relatively) warm and sunny, and there’s talk of Belgrade getting to the high fifties this weekend. After last week’s snow, do I dare to dream of spring? The remnants of Zagreb’s flower market yesterday say YES.

This blog post title is from William Wordsworth’s Daffodils.

Zagreb’s Mimara, the Museum of Mystery

Greetings from Zagreb, readers! It’s my second visit to this lovely city, and a much warmer one. The kuvano vino stands are gone, the sun is shining, and despite the great weather, I hightailed it for the Mimara Museum this afternoon. Why would I spend part of a lovely day indoors?  Because the Mimara is no ordinary museum.  It’s full of famous masters, intrigue, and fake art.

That’s right, the impressive building shown here contains art that can’t quite be attributed—that’s lawyer-speak for “Nah, I don’t think so.” The museum has a charming way of explaining the forgeries/faux-pas: by stating that the painting is in the Flemish, French, etc., “school.”

In addition to the paintings, there are rooms and rooms of 14th century icons, Egyptian artifacts, Ming dynasty pottery, and Persian rugs. The collection is so vast, and eclectic, that I was left wondering how, and where, it was stored before donation.

The intrigue continues with the collector, a Croatian named Ante Topic Mimara, who was born near Split but lived most of his adult life abroad. The origin of his wealth remains a mystery. According to the museum, he was an art restorer who somehow generated vast wealth. But according to a Forbes Magazine article, it’s much more sinister than that:

[Mimara] was born illegitimate in the old Austro-Hungarian empire. By the time he died in Zagreb, Croatia, in 1986, age 88, he had changed names, identities, passports and home nationalities so many times he lost count…perhaps his greatest coup after the war was to get the Yugoslav authorities to appoint him as Marshall Topic with a grand uniform so he could go to the German authorities and reclaim art [that] never belonged to Yugoslavia in the first place….He got hundreds of pieces out, but instead of sending them all on, he kept a large percentage. In later years, he became a leading source of fakes on the market, which he commissioned people to make. What he couldn’t sell, he eventually persuaded the Yugoslav authorities to house in a special Museum in Zagreb with the condition that he be allowed to live permanently in a huge apartment at its top floor.

Even the donor’s identity had been questioned. One website has alleged that “Mimara was in reality Mirko Maratovic, born March 16, 1897, in Split, Croatia. During the 1920s, Maratovic operated under the name Count Mirko Pyelik-Inna…Presumably, Maratovic bought the papers of Ante Topic, after the real Topic died in a military hospital in Rome, and assumed his identity.”

The man. The myth. His mask.

Add to all this rooms filled with paintings “by” Degas, Renoir, Manet, and Velázquez, and it’s enough to make your head spin. I’ve heard that Mimara was unconcerned about the prospect that he had fake art-apparently it was enough that he liked it-but I haven’t found anything to prove it. In any event, it was intriguing enough to be my first stop in Zagreb, if not a long one. I figured if I was looking at reproductions or terribly renovated paintings, I should move on to more important things…like shoe shopping on Illica Street…

Balkanalia, Zagreb


No hot chocolate for you!

I asked for hot chocolate at this mulled wine stand and was firmly told, “No. Only wine or Rakija.”

Let me get this straight. If I walk around with a bottle of water, I get quizzical looks. But if I walk around with a cup of hot wine, it’s commonplace. If I drink said hot wine during daylight hours-not a problem! After all, there’s nothing else for sale on the street.

Maybe it’s a ploy to get people in the Christmas shopping spirit, or a way to avoid human hibernation in 20 degree temperatures. Personally, I was cold and had a lot more exploring to do. So I chose white wine mulled with honey, lemon and cloves. Not exactly hot chocolate, but a tasty-and toasty-way to explore Zagreb.

Zagreb: Breaking up is hard to do

Much better than St. Mark's (church in background)

Zagreb has a lot to offer: great shopping, nice architecture, and a slew of museums. But the best museum in Zagreb wasn’t in any of the guidebooks we saw; Privi and I found it by chance.  We were walking to a church when I saw this sign and blurted out, “The Museum of WHAT?” We decided to risk our eternal salvation and skip the church to check it out.

At first I thought the museum might be about war. After all, the Balkans have had their share of broken political relationships. Fortunately, this was about something a little lighter and a lot juicier: breakups. That’s right, readers: the entire museum consisted of items associated with failed relationships. Stuffed animals, sweatshirts from a beloved’s college football team, wedding dresses, and more. Placards by each item explained the significance of the item and the end of the relationship. The exhibits were divided by the type of item or story. There was a section devoted to breakup humor, where a “Dumb Frisbee” exhibit explained how useless the gift-and the giver-turned out to be. Some stories (divorce, infidelity) were serious. Others (untimely death) were tragic. Oddly, there was a whole section about shoes received or given as gifts.

The curators accepted any kind of breakup story. In the “thank goodness the other person got away” department, one guy wrote a rambling letter about his heartbreak when he left his country and girlfriend, subsequently married someone else who he fathered a child with, but was heartbroken because his former love had no interest in reconnecting with him 15 years later. Oh, and he was still married. Classy guy. Another person turned in one of the “many” cat collars she wore when she was in a relationship. No comment on that one. Prvi’s favorite exhibit was an axe, used by the donor to destroy a piece of a live-in girlfriend’s furniture every day that she was on vacation-with her new lover.

The museum is a great combination of voyeurism and entertainment. It’s designed to make you think you’ve seen it all-until you read the next breakup story. While not every exhibit was written well, some had twists that made us laugh or grimace. I’ve included a funny example here, but I have to warn you that it’s mildly NSFW.


NSFW: not suitable for parents, I mean, work

The MBR has been on tour all over the world, including two cities in the United States. It’s permanently housed in Zagreb, but I’m hoping they go back on tour soon. Check out their website, encourage your local museum to host the exhibition, and start collecting your best breakup stories.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…

I left my heart in Zagreb...along with some frostbitten toes.

I’m in Zagreb, where much of the population celebrates Christmas on December 25th, as opposed to the Serbian Orthodox Christmas on January 7th. It’s almost been a shock to to hear Christmas music and see trees set up around the city. We’re getting our first live tree for Christmas this year, and I bought this traditional Croatian ornament to decorate it. Back in the day this would have been a gingerbread cookie, but I opted for the less mice-attracting ceramic version instead.

The ornament is fitting since Zagreb is somewhat of a gingerbread city. There is a lot of  Austro-Hungarian architecture. This time of year there are Christmas markets set up in parks and mulled wine stands to help fight off the cold. It’s almost working-I walked around most of the city today without realizing the temperatures were in the 30s. Rakija, a Balkan brandy made from fruit, is starting to sound a lot more appealing as the temperatures drop. So are the fake-fur vests I laughed at when we first arrived. If I start wearing Uggs, please call the authorities.