One morning, shrieking whistles yanked me out of a deep sleep. They sounded like a thousand cops dealing with an apocalyptic traffic jam. The constant racket drove out all rational thought.
From my room's window, I couldn't see the source, but the whistling persisted as I showered and dressed and made my way downstairs to the lobby of the Hotel Palace, where, just outside, hundreds of young people marched north past Strossmayarov Square, led by bands of whistle blowers.
"They are finished with school," a porter explained. "They have no more classes. They look ahead now. It's good they have something to look forward."
Ah. Seniors on the cusp of graduation. Party time!
I walked upstream from the revelers and found still more students pouring from the main railroad station via an immense underground shopping mall. From there, they came racing to the surface and eventually would join the crowds gathered at Bana Jelacica Plaza, the heart of downtown.
A huge equestrian statue of viceroy Josip Jelacica dominates the plaza. He was the 19th-century hero who tried, unsuccessfully, to wrest Croatian independence from ruling Hungary. Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslavian strong man, disliked that symbol of Croatian nationalism and had it removed. In 1990, when Eastern European communism collapsed, Croatians took the statue out of storage, reassembled it and returned it to its original site.
I strolled near, but by then the square belonged only to the students, packed shoulder to shoulder around the Jelacica monument. They wore their school colors in the form of T-shirts: red, blue, yellow, orange, green .
They yelled through bullhorns, waved school banners and blew those whistles nonstop.
In previous days, I grew fond of Bana Jelacica Plaza, because it looks so wonderfully Old European, an expanse surrounded by shops and cafes, a pedestrian zone buffering the lower, more modern city from the medieval enclaves on the bluff above. Bright red and blue trolleys clang past umbrellas emblazoned with brewery logos, inviting everyone to linger awhile.
But even the "modern" city holds on tight to structures with all the European architectural frills: ornate pediments, statuary, latticework, Renaissance and baroque touches, and Gothic buttresses.
Over the Cold War years and again during the conflicts of the 1990s, Zagreb had filtered through my imagination mostly as a black-and-white image of a troubled and fragmented Yugoslavia.
Now, in person, the capital of an at-last independent Croatia shows off its colors and vibrancy. Maybe it always was thus, but it never came to mind as one of the must-see cities on the Continent.
The Day of the Whistles dawned with misty rain, the sort of drab beginning that can make an aged metropolis feel mysterious, even grim and threatening. But the students brightened everything, even the inclemency. It was a fine time to find a cafe and watch the party rev up.
"Be careful," warned a travel agent whose window faced the plaza. The waiter who brought my espresso glared in disgust at the antics across the way. But I raised my cup in a toast to him and a city I was glad I hadn't missed.
On other days -- some rainy, some not -- Zagreb felt welcoming and yet enigmatic, one of those places where the next corner likely holds something unexpected and -- a stranger would hope -- delightful.
The metropolis blossomed in Technicolor, no matter the weather: yellow on the walls of some Beaux Arts buildings, orange tile roofs, murals and frescoes.
A woman passing my hotel (built lavishly in 1891) exclaimed to a companion, "Look at this! The buildings are beautiful."
As in most cities, the exuberance of youth enlivens the surroundings but can mar the decor. I came to the conclusion that a wall in Zagreb without graffiti was a wall built, or scrubbed, that morning. Graffiti has reached the level of a local art form (in some places), as well as an eyesore (in a lot of places).
"The government does nothing about it," I heard a guide tell her tour group. "There is a fine, I think, but nobody pays."
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