Untold Stories

Long October evenings overtaking the Upper Town

October has walked into the town. It’s not your most typical Zagreb October. We’ve been blessed with sunny days and only the best of autumn so far. However, not even the warm weather can stop the quick changes in the year’s cycle. The days are getting visibly shorter. If you like long walks, prepare to get caught up by the nightfall.

When you do stumble upon the dark hours, make sure you find yourself in the streets of the old Upper Town. The city rush usually sets together with the sun, and the colorful facades turn a gentle shade. The lights are sparse and dim in this part of town. Believe it or not, it was precisely 160 years ago in October when the gas lamps were first lit. One day, they left the usual oil lamps for the first part of the evening, only to show the contrast after ceremonially lighting the gas lamps for the first time. People were astonished, and you could hear the comments such as “Oh, my, it’s as bright as midday!”

At a certain point, the number of gas lamps decreased by 40-ish. In the ‘80s, they recognized their uniqueness and started their revitalization.  

Fun fact: the lamp lights were first lit on Halloween. Which brings me to the actual stories I’ve intended to share today. Long October evenings are the perfect setting for history to come to life. The dark history, to be more precise. When the old town is so quiet, you can hear nothing but your own footsteps and feel nothing but a strange chilly breeze that comes over you each time you ask yourself “What’s behind this door?” Join me on this walk through the Upper Town after dark. The perfect start is through the only medieval gate preserved to the present day: the Stone Gate

Stone Gate Passage - a famous attraction and a place with a mysterious feel. 

Entering the Stone Gate passage at night can intrigue your imagination. Some lights are pointing at the holy painting, but everything else is left in the dark. The benches in the corner, where people sometimes sit to pray, are in the deep shadow. If anyone is there, you might get a proper scare once your eyes get used to the darkness and you spot a human shape. A strange ornament sits at the Stone Gate roof: a mace full of long spikes. Supposedly, it’s meant to prevent the witches from entering the city. If they tried to fly over on their broomsticks, their capes would inevitably get caught. 

The Black Eagle’s pharmacy is the store with the longest tradition in Zagreb. 

Here’s a better look at the black eagle symbol of the pharmacy.

A few steps from the Stone Gate, K Crnom orlu (At the Black Eagle’s) pharmacy awaits. It is a special place with a seven centuries-long history. Some remedies sold here were iron with arsenic, radium pills, or fairy creme. The pharmacy is still operating. If you need anything from a pharmacy, try this one. With every purchase, we are giving it reasons to stay in business and continue its incredible tradition. 

The filter of night sheds a new light on St Mark’s church.

Our next stop is St Mark’s Square, which hides so much history on the surface and so many secrets underneath. There are legends about underground passages connecting St Mark’s church with the castle in the mountains. But we don’t need legends tonight - the factual history is just as weird. Did you know that this square hides a bunch of skeletons? A medieval cemetery was here, and it was never fully exhumed. The pillar of shame was right in front of the church entrance. Where else would you put the accused villains to public shame if not at the central square of a medieval town? Take a good look and spot a red square on the floor. It is believed this was the location of the pranger, the pillar of shame. Many think the red marks stand on the exact spot of the most gruesome execution. Indeed, it happened somewhere in Zagreb, but some believe it was right there. After the great Croatian 1573 peasant revolt was suffocated, its leader Matija Gubec was captured. The nobles put him on a throne and mockingly called him the king of serves. They put a melting iron crown on his head, tied each of his limbs to a different horse, and publicly quartered him. 

As far as we know, nobody found the tunnel under St Mark’s church. But you could visit tunnel Grič under the Upper Town. This will have to be during the day when it’s open.  

As you’re walking around the old town at night, you might pass by the Lotrščak Tower that overlooks the city. It looks so proud and safe, but it hides some dark secrets, too. Centuries ago, there was a prison with a torture chamber. Imagine passing by the tower at night back in the day, and hearing the unbearable screams from behind its thick walls. 

The tower got its name from Latin words for the bell of the thieves. It used to ring the bells in the evening to warn everyone that the city gates were about to close. All the decent residents hurried back into the old town, and only the thieves stayed outside the city walls. For many Zagreb locals, the name Lotrščak evokes memories of a novel by the famous writer Marija Jurić Zagorka
It tells a story about Manduša, a lady who rang the bells giving them the most beautiful sound. The tale is full of twists and legends of this region, which makes it one of the most popular books by Zagorka. Though, it's fair to say that the most popular one is Witch of Grič (Grička vještica), inspired by the local history of witch hunts.

The Lotrščak Tower is one of the iconic symbols of Zagreb.  

In a disgraceful turn of events, Zagreb became home to some of the most notorious witch hunts, that marked the first half of the 18th century. The mass psychosis was overwhelming, and people turned against each other for any reason or no reason whatsoever. Almost anything that went wrong in the town, required an explanation in the form of a confession by a woman accused of being a witch. Once you got on trial, there was hardly a way back. Under torture, women confessed to anything, and those confessions are still kept in the archives and are completely surreal. They talked about meeting their friends at crossroads, where they danced their naked dance and tricked innocent passers-by into joining them. They flew over to the top of the mountain where they would meet the devil himself. They created storms and caused all sorts of disasters and tragedies. Those omnipotent witches had only one flaw. They got caught easily. The city courts accused dozens of women of witchcraft and successfully solved their cases by tossing them in flames. 

An intersection of three roads just outside of the old town with the Holy Cross chapel at Ilirski trg. 

When you walk the streets of the old town at night, it doesn't hurt to be aware of bits and pieces of the dark history. I am sure they form a part of the unique atmosphere. Wherever you are in the Upper Town, you might be passing by a former cemetery, torture chamber, execution spot, or a place full of legends and superstitions. Bear that in mind, as the magical end of October is approaching. 

You know that door you asked about? What’s behind it? Could it be some restless spirit lurking and watching your every step? Maybe that’s where the chilly breeze comes from.

Author: Iva Silla