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Matters of heart - Deccan Herald
Matters of heart
Lakshmi Sharath,
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St Marks Church
A handsome young man in a vintage car stops in front of me as I stand mesmerised in the middle of the quaint Markov Trg or St Mark’s Square in Zagreb. Painted in white with a sloping roof topped with ceramic tiles is the medieval St Mark’s Church that looks straight out of a fairy tale. However, it is the colourful ceramic tiles that catch my attention. Representing the Zagreb Coat of Arms, the glistening tiles also form the flags of the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia. My guide Hela smiles and recalls a story from her highschool days when two of her friends exchanged rings in front of the church. "It was their first love,” she says.

The romantic allure of the church sets the tone for my walking tour of the Croatian capital. Cosy and quaint, Zagreb, with its beating red heart as its symbol, is known for its idyllic cathedrals with kissing spots, and is divided into the Upper Town or Gornji Grad and the Lower Town or Donji Grad. Taking you into an old world charm is a pretty little funicular that can zip you from the world of Baroque monuments of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in the Lower Town to a fairy-tale medieval land of cobbled streets, gaslight lamps, picturesque churches and quirky museums in Upper Town in just a minute.

A historical fabric

Hela mentions that the change of the royal guard is a ceremony that happens in this square every weekend. She also tells me the story of 'cravat’ (necktie), another symbol of the country. The story goes that cravats were worn by the military in the 17th century and became a fashion accessory as the French army was fascinated by them. These scarves have a romantic touch to them as they belonged to the girlfriends of the soldiers who tied love knots as a parting gift. They now carry symbols of the country ­- from the Dalmatian coast to the famous dogs, and Croatians even celebrate National Day in honour of the same.

We potter around Upper Town by taking in the silence and the beauty of the town, listening to the call of the birds, when all of a sudden, the blast from a cannon shatters the silence. It is noon and we are in front of the imposing Lotrscak tower, which was once a priso. As the birds fly away, Hela tells me of a legend when a shot was fired and it landed across the river on the enemy Turk’s camp, but on a plate of chicken that was served for lunch. The Turks apparently chickened out and did not attack the Croats. The story goes that the Gric cannon, which was initially fired at noon, became an everyday ritual in the city, signifying the time. Stories that like this endear me to Zagreb.

The Stone Gate, which is one of the gates of Upper Town, is now a small shrine dedicated to Virgin Mary. As I light a candle in front of a painting depicting Virgin Mary that had survived the fire in the 17th century, I realise that time stands still in Zagreb. Locals believe that the painting has magical and divine powers. As we wander, exploring another charming St Catherine Church and the informative Zagreb Museum that takes us back to the Stone Age, we stumble upon the Museum of Broken Relationships.

Started by a couple who had broken up, it was initially meant to showcase their personal souvenirs of their relationship. However, the museum eventually became a monument of heart-wrenching stories. Every story tells a tale from around the world of lost love and broken relationships, and it is woven around an object that stood for their failed love - be it a shoe, a car, or an axe. As I stand there, moved to tears, I see other tourists hugging each other. But Zagreb, the city of love, is a perfect panacea for broken hearts.

The charming spell of the city can drive any blues away. Sipping hot chocolate, we are now back in Lower Town where colourful markets and shiny statues greet us. There is poet and writer Antun Gustav Matoš, dubbed to be one of the most photographed statues in Zagreb. "If you rub his nose, you can meet your heart-throb,” says Hela, and we both laugh and sit on one of the red love-chairs to pose for a picture.

Bleeding red

Every thing in Zagreb is a story related to love, including the 'licitar’ or the bleeding red heart, which floods the markets and the souvenir shops, and is now the symbol of the city. These licitar hearts were actually gingerbread cakes made in medieval times and given as tokens of love or gifts with romantic messages. There was even a ballet called 'Licitarsko srce’ or the 'Gingerbread Heart’, and the hearts were given by a boy to his dance partner.

As we potter around, taking in some of the stately monuments, the lush parks and gardens, the vibrant squares, we listen to more stories. The market is abuzz as I see a beautiful memorial dedicated to a dog, Pluto, set up by the construction workers who were protected by the canine years ago. Hela takes me through a narrow street that suddenly opens into a tunnel from the World War era, only to find it filled with colourful art as it opens into a bustling neighbourhood.

The 13th century Gothic Cathedral stands tall, basking in the glow of the sun. There are museums galore - from the Ethnographic Museum to Croatian Museum of Naive Art to Museum of Arts and Crafts. Finally we head to the magnificent Croatian National Theatre monument, but my interest lies in the sculpture 'Well of Life’ or 'Fountain of Life’, carved by artist Ivan Mestrovic in the last century. Twisting their bodies, men and women in various forms of embrace depict love as they sit around a well that symbolises life, youth and beauty.

It has been a long day and the sun is finally cloaked by the night sky. As I sit with my glass of Croatian wine, I realise that the Croatian capital is still steeped in its medieval world with folklore and charm. And to give me company stands a triumphant St George, their patron saint, slaying the monstrous dragon as the lights come up in the city.