Untold Stories

The City and Its River

Zagreb lies on the banks of the river Sava. I bet that some of you who don’t live in Croatia, even if you visited Zagreb once, are asking yourselves as you’re reading this: “Wait, there’s a river in Zagreb?”

If that thought occurred to you, don’t be too hard on yourself for not noticing. It sometimes even slips our minds to define Zagreb as a city by a river. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at blogs and info about Zagreb online. Or simply search for Zagreb images. Our river is rarely found in the first plan.

I think the reason behind this is the unique relationship between Zagreb and its river. Different than the one between other cities and their rivers. First of all, it’s not in the narrow city center. Also, there’s no crazy nightlife, no panoramic boats... You could spend your Zagreb holiday and not even hear one recommendation to go and check out the river. Also, we would never call it the river, we call it by her name - Sava; and I’m deliberately going to talk about her instead of it, and I’m not going to use articles. That’s how we refer to rivers in Croatian - the same as we talk about people.

Still, the relationship exists, and a very deep and winding one, as you might expect from a river. I’d compare Zagreb’s Sava to a grandma. You take her for granted and never bother to think about what your life would be like without her. Her life was probably much crazier than yours, but you always think about her as a peaceful safe zone. You care deeply for her even if you don’t really think about love when you think about her.

A child enjoying the calmness of grandma Sava’s child: the Bundek Lake was built thanks to the vicinity of Sava

At this point, it would be fair to mention that Sava runs through a big part of the country. In fact, 25 000 square kilometers of Croatian territory is a part of the Sava basin. Still, the locals of Zagreb think of her as theirs. Even more, in the times of Yugoslavia, the 950 km-long river was one of the symbols of the federation as it springs in the mountains of Slovenia and joins Danube in Serbia passing through Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina - it  symbolically and physically connected several countries. But all of that is far from our concept of Sava. For us, Sava is simply here.

When we visit some other towns and regions by Sava, we get so excited - like kids - to see the same river in a different environment. If it’s down the stream, the thrill is even greater - this water passed through Zagreb a little while ago. It carries a piece of home.

Meet different faces of Sava in different destinations. This is Sava in Lonjsko polje Nature Park, some 115 river miles down the stream from Zagreb

One of the worst natural disasters in the history of Zagreb was the great 1964 flood. After that, the embankments have prevented Sava from spilling out of her channel again, and have formed a long recreational area, perfect for long walks, runs, or bike rides. Speaking about sports activities, let’s not forget rowing. The first rowing club in Zagreb was founded at the end of the 19th century. Rowing still completely engages many young people who, once they try it, become the most dedicated athletes. Just a few days ago, the Sinković brothers from Zagreb won European gold in Italy, and that’s just the last one in their long row of wins.

The Sava embankment is a green belt of Zagreb. The green bridge in the back is the railway bridge, popularly known as the Hendrix bridge because of a graffiti of the word Hendrix

The city crossed Sava in the second half of the 20th century and this is considered an exemplary urban development and a milestone in the city’s lifespan. One of the oldest roads in Zagreb is called Savska Cesta and it’s a historical name as it used to bring goods and traffic to the old part of the city from the direction of Sava centuries ago. Savska cesta, Prisavlje, Savica, Savski Gaj, and more... these are all place names in Zagreb derived from Sava. Thousands of people cross the river each day to get to their workplace or school. The Sava bridges are important landmarks. Sava is truly  such an inseparable part of our city and our lives. If you don’t hear us talking about her, it’s just because we take her for granted. Just like we take our heartbeats for granted.

I suggest you visit Sava after all. The best way to get the most of your Sava exploration is by bike. That gives you enough liberty and time to explore more than 15 kilometers long embankment and all the special sights alongside the river: the art sculptures if you’re on the north bank or a special view of Zagreb with some of the most important pieces of 20th-century architecture in the first plan if you’re at the south bank. The Bundek Lake is easily accessible from the city center

You could also visit some of the lakes connected with the river Sava. Jarun and Bundek were created thanks to the vicinity of the river.  You can even go for a swim there in summer. Jarun lake is known as the sea of Zagreb. There’s even a nudist beach. Why not? There’s plenty of space and privacy in more than 200 acres of the Jarun Lake surface. You will find sports objects, natural oases, art pieces, playgrounds, bars, free-to-use barbacue spots, even a Tesla tower.

The surreal scenery of Savica lakes

At the end of your Sava day, take some time to explore the little swamp area of the Savica Lakes. This area is somewhat of a surprise even for Zagrebers. Many only found out about it for the first time during the 2020 lockdowns. For years, the lakes served as a junkyard of industrial waste. However, the lakes were cleaned and nature claimed them back, forming a post-apocalyptic scenery with the backdrop of heavy industry combined with soothing nature sights - this is now an ornithological reserve within the city with 160 bird species identified.

To answer that first question: yes, there is a river in Zagreb. Just like your grandma, don’t even think she’s going to reveal all of her secrets to you. Don’t think that you will have enough time in your life, let alone your visit, to learn all about her. But as you explore some of the surprising corners by the Zagreb’s Sava, the respect for that awesome old lady will grow faster than her wild waters during a rainy season.

Sava’s hidden corners and rewarding moment

Image credit: Iva Silla                                                                                           

                                                                                                                                 Author: Iva Silla