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Zagreb: tourists enjoy even misty days. Yugoslavia's second-largest city seen by some as a cultural capital

Dame Rebecca West, the late English author, put her finger on it. Writing about her 1937 visit to Yugoslavia in ``Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,'' she observed this about Zagreb: ``We believed we were being annoyed by the rain that first morning we walked out into it, but eventually we recognized we were as happy as if we had been walking in sunshine through a really beautiful day.'' Drizzle and mist in Zagreb are the equivalent of blue skies anywhere else. The intimate, iconographic quality of the Croatian capital is best underscored by rain, when this city of 800,000 evokes a yellowy old photograph or a daguerreotype: one of those blessed places where travellers still arrive by train, which further emphasizes the prewar aspect.

``It is full of those vast toast-coloured buildings, barracks and law courts and municipal offices, which are an invariable sign of past occupancy by the Austro-Hungarian empire: and that always means enthusiastic ingestion combined with lack of exercise in pleasant surroundings . . . ,'' Dame Rebecca went on to say.

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Zagreb, however, isn't so completely a product of central Europe as Dame Rebecca intimates. Situated near the old borders of Byzantium and the Turkish sultanate, it has a Balkan character as well. Time moves slowly here, and the ghosts of a cruel, hotly disputed past still grip the city, a past pitting group against group and communist against noncommunist -- a very Balkan situation.

Between 1941 and 1945, the worst civilian atrocities of World War II occurred in the vicinity of Zagreb, perpetrated by the Fascist Ustase government in the Nazi puppet state of Croatia. The questions of guilt and responsibility are a subject of controversy to this day, forming a barrier between the Roman Catholic Church here and the communist government in Belgrade.

These are things the traveler should be aware of, but need not feel oppressed by. History haunts this city, yet it instructs as well as it horrifies. Zagreb, in effect, is a place where the traveler encounters real, authentic passion.

Though there are several hotels in Zagreb, there is really only one place to stay: the Hotel Esplanade. Not that the other hotels are bad, but rather, that they pale in comparison. The Esplanade is more than a hotel, it is ``the'' grand hotel of Zagreb, evoking the backdrop for a Henry James novel and perfectly situated within walking distance of both the railway station and downtown.

It's a slate-gray building, which from the street appears more like a government ministry than a hotel. But inside, it captures the delicious gloom associated with Austro-Hungarian influence in the Balkans. The plush, dark interior features red velvet valances, black marble alcoves, dim yellow lamps, and paintings that reminded me of the garish work of Gustav Klimt. All the mirrors are in gold frames and the dining room is like a cluttered art gallery. (Singles range from $45 to $61 per day, doubles range from $63 to $88. For reservations from US, phone: 38-41-512-222.)

Once fortified by a meal in the Esplanade dining room after your arrival by train, step out and enjoy Zagreb. Hopefully, the weather will be cloudy with only the hint of rain.

Zagreb is an architectural treasure chest of Romanesque, Gothic, and mostly Baroque styles. The second largest city in Yugoslavia, Zagreb is to many the cultural capital of the nation.

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The name Zagreb means ``behind the hill,'' the hill being the site of the upper town which dominates a lower one. Both parts are gems. The lower town is the site of various turn-of-the-century theaters, gallery buildings, and pavilions separated by parks. Here is the business center of the city, and the place where one first notices that the joys of Zagreb can be little ones: such as the eclectic bookshops in eastern Europe, featuring volumes on jazz, Henry Kissinger, the Talmud, and the Koran.

The upper town, however, is the real jewel -- a place to wander from dawn till dusk, visiting cathedrals, museums, small galleries, and refreshing oneself every few hours with a meal or a hot drink at one of the many restaurants or caf'es.

This part of the city is divided into two areas, Gradec (meaning ``fortress'') and Kaptol. The latter is the less interesting of the two, but it contains the neo-gothic Cathedral of St. Stephen, whose principal attraction for the local populace is the tomb of World War II Croatian Cardinal Aloiz Stepinac. To many Croats, he was a hero who did the best he could to preserve the church during the difficult period of Nazi rule. To others, he was a collaborator who did little to stop the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies. This is not an aspect of Zagreb mentioned in guidebooks, but one which the intelligent traveler must know about.

Gradec is entered from the huge, outdoor market up the steps behind Republic Square. Its sleepy, serpentine streets and predominance of Hungarian baroque fa,cades make for an instant comparison with the castle district of Budapest, while the towers topped by rusted green onion domes remind you of the nearness of the Orient.

If it's a cold day, warm your hands over the smoking chestnuts sold in the park by the entrance to the funicular railway that links the heights of Gradec with another section of the lower town. The view from here is fabulous: like a monochrome engraving of a typical central European cityscape.

The centerpiece of Gradec is the Church of St. Mark the Evangelist, reconstructed in the 19th century with a roof of red, white, blue, yellow, and green tiles depicting the emblems of Zagreb and Croatia. Go inside to hear the organ. The acoustics are truly exceptional.

Other churches in Gradec include St. Catherine's, whose 17th-century fa,cade is like so many baroque churches throughout Hungary, a country which perennially dominated Croatian affairs. (The interior of stucco and wall paintings resembles one long tapestry.)

Then there are the art galleries, which are almost as numerous as the caf'es. Most are small, and thankfully lacking in the representational landscapes so often sold in the galleries of other tourist areas. The Mestrovic Gallery, on the corner of Demetrova and Mletacka streets, is particularly worth a visit, featuring a lovely reclining nude statue in a silent, empty courtyard -- another example of the modernism that has seeped into the Balkans from Vienna.

The Zagreb City Museum is nearby on Oraticka street, but it is disappointing, containing only a few inscribed slabs and similar paraphernalia. It doesn't matter, though. As in the case of other cities whose architectural beauty makes it ``a living museum,'' the joys of Zagreb lie in walking and eating rather than in conventional sightseeing.

Owing to the constant devaluation of the Yugoslavian dinar, I have had multi-course meals with beverage at first-class establishments for $10 dollars (US) including the tip.

In the upper town, an excellent place for lunch is the Kaptolska Klet at 5 Kapitol street across from the cathedral. The soups here are especially good. A full meal is under $7.

Zagreb is strong on seafood, due to the nearness of Dalmatian ports on the Adriatic sea. The town of Split is one such port and the name of a fish restaurant on 19 Ilica street, which has a lovely interior of low archways with outdoor vine pergolas for summer eating.

Caf'es are so numerous that they need not be named. Just look for misty windows, through which you see the backs of people sitting at tables. Zagreb's lure is, after all, its intimacy -- one growing out of a past that is both a disturbing and sentimental part of the present.

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