Just steps from the Hotel Dubrovnik is Zagreb’s central square and its epicenter of public transportation – Ban Jelačić Square, an expansive public space reminiscent of what one would find in the more stately European capitals, with a splash of Helsinki thrown in.
On our first day in Zagreb, after taking the two-plus-hour bus ride from the Plitviče Lakes National Park [Nacionalni Park Plitvička Jezera], we arrived too early to check in, as we were in Zagreb by 9:30am. We stowed our backpacks at the hotel and headed a few steps away to the main square, and with coffee on our mind, parked ourselves at one of the three or so large cafes that line the square.
The square’s most prominent feature, a familiar man-on-horse statue of Jelačić, loomed near us as we sipped our cappuccinos. The name of the square comes from Ban Jelačić, a governor who led Croatian troops against Hungary in the nineteenth century in an unsuccessful battle for autonomy. Erected in 1886, the statue was taken down during Tito’s control of what was then Yugoslavia, lest it give a reason to remind citizens of Croatian nationalism. It then was put into storage until 1990, when forty-three years after it was taken down it was put back in its original position at the center of the square.
Throngs of locals waited for one of the many modern blue trams to take them to their destination. Having just arrived, my ever-so-British travel partner and I watched the locals, trying to get a feel for what the square was all about. She was clearly distracted, no doubt dreaming of her next Croatian cherry brandy.
The square was a flurry of activity, and the locals lined the tram tracks on either side waiting for the next one to arrive. There was something strange about the way they were waiting – very relaxed, almost zombie-like; just standing there staring off into space. Later that night, I noticed the same thing that I had made a mental note of earlier in the day vis a vis the locals – they were standing in the square like the Moai of Easter Island, a human sculpture depicting patience and order. I kept looking up to see if they were waiting to be abducted.
As we walked by the square on a Sunday afternoon, it was eerily empty. Had everyone gone to the coast for the day, or had the ship arrived and carried the people off? In any event, we remained on terra firma, grabbed another cappuccino, and listened closely for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.