What do you think about Croatian history

When the diesel engines start at four in the morning, you think they're screwed under the bed. If you plug your ears with earplugs, the vibration in your stomach increases.

You look behind the curtains and know that the day will never get light. Is this the time to pull the bed tight, put on your dress uniform and get poisoned?

From the corner room of the "Regent Esplanade" in Zagreb you have a view of the train tracks and Tomislavov Square in the lower town. The diesel locomotives are warming up in the station. No more thought of sleep, and you go to the history of the house in which you are staying.

The more recent history of Zagreb is concentrated in the "Esplanade". Built in the roaring twenties as a hostel for the illustrious guests of the Orient Express and furnished in Art Deco style, the Balkan adventure began here.

The "Esplanade" survived the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the occupation by the Nazis (the hotel was the headquarters of the Wehrmacht and the SS), Tito's Yugoslavia and the war of independence against Serbia.

Love nest for flinging on the side

Soon after it opened in 1925, the house became a discreet love nest for infidelities of the Haute Volée, and later a meeting place for international film stars, musicians, writers and politicians.

The guest book includes names such as Asta Nielsen, Josephine Baker, Charles Lindbergh, Orson Welles, Yul Brynner, Arthur Miller, Maria Callas, Louis Armstrong, Leonid Brezhnev, Helmut Kohl. Journalists and agents used the hotel as a typing and broadcasting center in times of war, most recently in 1991. In November 2004, the house was reopened as "Regent" in the original Art Deco style.

Her grandmother was very proud, says Tea, the marketing manager, when she found out that she worked at the "Esplanade". The grandmother was employed here as a housekeeper during the Second World War.

She told Tea how the young Nazi officers were found poisoned in their beds in their dress uniforms after the surrender. That was the end of the pro-fascist regime of Ante Paveli and the Ustaša movement with their terror against Jews, Sinti, Roma and above all Serbs who fought back in the Tito state and after its end.

But Grandmother, Tea says later after dinner, Grandmother always had sparkling eyes when she talked about the dead soldiers in the beds.

Big puzzles

The "Esplanade" is a white giant in the geometric lower town from the 19th century. From here, Zagreb can be unraveled in a few afternoons. You just have to go out the front door and then straight on to get to the square where Zagreb's history took place.

Austrians, Germans, fascists, communists. Everyone has marched up here, and everyone was waved to. But the more you think you have come across this city, the more puzzling it becomes. One can quickly get lost in the horseshoe-shaped street of the upper town.

Always ends up under the arch of an old city gate, in the niche of which women and mothers of the sons and men who disappeared in the last Balkan war pray in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. And below, the yellow tram screams in the curve of the rails, pasted with the German-language advertising: "Gin Tonic - not quite normal".

The prefabricated building is in bloom on the south side of the railroad tracks. From there, the new town stretches for kilometers like a cactus steppe to the airport. Zagreb is in the eye of the Pulpo. The state is in the shape of an octopus.

Dream behind scotch tape

Anyone who scoffs at this should realize how much the national territory was torn apart between Austria, Italy and the Ottoman Empire, and finally between Serbs and Croats.

Here the borders ran between Occident and Orient, between East and West Rome, between capitalism and communism, between Latin, Cyrillic and Arabic script. Zagreb was a frontline city under Austrian rule for four centuries.

Maybe that's why the Croatian metropolis still looks a bit homemade today. A little little Prague, a little little Vienna, a little little Milan. A little stragglers.

Inventor of the fountain pen

After all, it was here that the engineers Slavoljub Eduard Penkala invented the fountain pen and the ballpoint pen, Josip Ressel the propeller and Ivan Blaz the torpedo. Even the manliest of all items of clothing, the tie (Croatian) comes from Croatia.

Croatian mercenaries rode everything down during the Thirty Years' War. They wore scarves around their necks that their wives had given them when they said goodbye. The neck bows became a fashionable favorite. Zagreb is a capital that is underestimated by foreigners and overrated by its residents.

From waiters, taxi drivers and tour guides you get to hear a mixture of post-socialist, neo-nationalist and Danube Monarchy dreams. The EU hardly plays a role in this.

One problem is the former Croatian national hero, ex-general Ante Gotovina, who is number three on the list of The Hague War Crimes Tribunal and is accused of massacring 150 civilians in 1995. The man went underground. England and Italy accuse the government in Zagreb of directly or indirectly protecting Gotovina.

In the Louvre of the East

Strangely enough, the Zagreb architects only built one museum during the founding period (today the Ethnographic Museum). Nevertheless, since 1987 Zagreb has had one of the largest museums in Southeast Europe with a collection of 3750 objects, including pictures by Velasquez, Murillo, Goya, Rembrandt, Rubens, Bosch, Van Dyck, Caravaggio, Holbein, Liebermann, Turner, Manet, Renoir, Degas.

The Croatians proudly call the museum the "Louvre of the East". But nobody outside of Croatia takes it seriously. In the Mimara Museum the sloping position of this city crystallizes between overestimation and underestimation, between laughter and amazement.

The Mimara Museum on the outskirts of the lower town is indeed Louvre-like in size. The building from 1895 was originally a high school, and you might think that all of Croatia went to school here. In 1987 the Mimara Collection moved in, a gift from the Salzburg-based art collector Ante Topi Mimara, who died in the same year.

The story of a rascal

If you follow up on the name, you will come across the story of a rascal. Mimara was born as Ante Topic Matutin in 1897 in a Dalmatian village. Another version says that the man was a foundling and was given the name Mirko Maratovic.

He later assumed the identity of a dead war comrade by the name of Ante Topic and then called himself Count Mirko Pyelik-Inna. There are other names: Popic, Pasko, Zglado, Mimarov. Whoever the man really was, he ended up as a prisoner in Rome after the First World War and later became a pupil of the portrait painter Antonio Manchini.

Dream behind scotch tape

It is undeniable that Ante Topic had a talent as a painter. But he was also a gifted art thief, a clever art collector, a skilled art smuggler and forger. Rumor has it that he was Hermann Göring's art advisor and, on the other hand, worked as a spy for Stalin.

He achieved his greatest coup in Munich in 1948. He appeared at the American collection point for the return of art treasures stolen by the Nazis as the restitution commissioner of the Yugoslav government with a list of missing art objects and requested the return.

The young art historian Wiltrud Mersmann, who had access to the depot, helped him identify the works. She later became his wife and, at the age of 84, still lives as an art professor at Schloss Neuburg near Salzburg.

Covering up an embarrassment

In the spring of 1949 paintings by Tizian, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Constable, Waldmüller from the collections of Göring and Bormann were loaded onto trucks, but only a few works arrived in Yugoslavia. The Americans soon realized that they had been linked. The embarrassing incident was later covered up. In 1973 Ante Topic gave his collection to the Republic of Croatia in exchange for a state pension and a house in Zagreb and one on the coast.

The Mimara Museum is visited by few tourists. Many of the objects in the lower rooms are handicrafts. The paintings are on the top floor. And for some reason you have to start laughing at the Monets, Raffaels and Goyas hanging on the walls completely unprotected and like clap after clap of thunder.

Arch around the Louvre

If you step closer, you can notice here and there something like strips of scotch tape stuck over cracks. The international art experts avoid the Louvre in Zagreb. Some of it may be real or at least come from famous painting schools. Nobody wants to burn their fingers.

And so over the museum, as over the entire city, there is a strange pride in all sorts of things, in pencils, in dubious works of art, in the victory over Serbia, in the highest espresso culture outside of Italy, perhaps also in rascals like Ante Topic and more recently that Berlin gambler Ante Sapina, whose brothers ran the "Café King" and who played a major role in the German referee affair.

In the coffee house on the edge of the meat market, the landlord points to a kind of no-traffic sign that is stuck to the door to the private rooms. In the red circle you can see an expansive woman's buttocks in a tight black robe and a spread white man's hand on it. A red crossbar runs through the circle. We are fit for Europe, says the landlord and means business.

Dream behind scotch tape

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Getting there: Croatia Airlines flies three times a day in codeshare with Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Zagreb, on weekends only twice and, except on Saturdays, once a day from Munich, from 286 euros, Internet: www.croatiaairlines.hr.

Accommodation: The Regent Esplanade Zagreb, Mihanovi eva 1, 10000 Zagreb, Croatia. Telephone: 00385/14 56 66-66, Fax: -050, Internet: www.regenthotels.com. Room prices: Superior 149 to 215 euros, Deluxe: 169 to 235 euros, Regent Deluxe Suite 300 to 350 euros.

City tours Zagreb-Touristik, Kaptol 5, 10000 Zagreb, phone: 00385 (0) 14 89 85 55, fax: 14 81 43 40, Internet: www.zagreb-touristinfo.hr, organizes trips to Zagreb and the surrounding area.