A city with a million hearts- The New Indian Express

Express News Service

Zagreb, Croatia’s largest city, thrives on contradictions. Its heart—divided into an upper town and lower town, connected by the world’s shortest funicular— is a mix of cobbled streets, baroque buildings, medieval towers and spires.

Despite all the ancient history though, there’s an unmistakable youthful vibe. Attend rock concerts in a plaza built in the 17th century; explore pop-up markets in the old town; choose from one-too-many hipster cafes that sit within heritage structures.

It’s almost as if time zones converge at this meeting point of history. If there’s one way to describe Zagreb, it would be that it’s young at heart. Emblematic is the licitar, the traditional heart-shaped cookie, which dates back to the 15th century, yet is steeped in popular culture. Its deep-red heart is the most recognisable symbol of Zagreb, featuring on the very logo of the city’s tourist board.

Licitar is sold almost everywhere in the city—souvenir shops and cafes—grace storefronts and dangles
as chimes. They come in an array of sizes too. Our guide gifted us a licitar-on-a-stick on our first day in Zagreb, and just as we peeled away the plastic packaging to dig into it, she looked mortified. Because, while it is technically a cookie, it’s hardened to make it last longer. That’s because the licitar was born as a keep-sake.

The tradition of gingerbread-making emerged in European monasteries in the 15th century.  While some historians believe it has its roots in Hungary, it was elevated to an art form in Northern Croatia. The makers or medicari, as they are referred to in Croatia, experimented with the dough. They moulded it into a variety of shapes, and embellished it in their own peculiar manner, with colourful glaze and icing, flowers and even mirrors because it’s not meant to be eaten, but preserved.

The shapes varied from silhouettes of swans and cats, church bells and Christmas trees, and more. Unsurprisingly, the heart shape became the most popular. Zagrebian Opsidijan Sapat says, “I still recall when I got my first licitar. My parents got me one on Saint Nicholas Day. It smelled so sweet that bit into it, even though I was warned not to. It crumbled instantly. I still feel bad about damaging it.”

City With
Cafe overlooking the Croatian National Theatre

Ironically, or perhaps aptly, the city whose symbol is a heart, also bears the Museum of Broken Relationships. It is a tribute to love that was lost. The items are peculiar and personal: an axe, used by a man deeply in love to destroy his ex’s furniture when he felt betrayed; lint, from the belly button of her former lover was what a woman was left with, and probably eager to give away; a wedding dress that’s gorgeous and now bears a melancholic air. There are boots, postcards, handcuffs and dildos, each with a placard revealing the story behind the item.

The story may be the same for all but means something different to each, based on individual life experiences. The museum also, unsurprisingly, bears a licitar, with a tumultuous long-distance affair behind it. The licitar reminds you that to understand this city, you need to let your heart lead. The resilient spirit of Zagreb also shines through in her skyline.

The 13th-century Lotrscak Tower stands off as a reminder of a time when Ottomans ravaged Eastern Europe (but couldn’t invade this city). St. Mark’s Church, is one of the oldest buildings in the city was repeatedly ravaged by earthquakes and fires. Yet it stands tall bearing a vibrant roof.

Walk through Dolac, the open-air farmer’s market, that’s often referred to as the ‘belly of Zagreb’ to get a taste of local cuisine and culture. Under bright red umbrellas, you’ll find home-grown cheese and local wine, fruit preserves and jams, hand-made dough and the licitar. Some are too large to fit into your palm, while others seem like heart-shaped lollipops.

In Zagreb, two travellers may see the same destination but experience it differently. But one thing is for sure: To know Zagreb, you have to open up your heart to her. And the licitar really says it all.

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