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St Roch’s Hilltop

Croatia cherishes the Marian traditions, including long, sometimes barefoot processions towards one of many Marian sanctuaries to celebrate the Assumption of Mary, August 15.  Even the state honored that tradition by recognizing this festivity as a public holiday. 

Those who choose to remain at home, tend to spend a rarely peaceful day, just doing nothing. Reasons come from an old Catholic tradition that forbids any work around house on Sunday or any other holy day, since even God rested on the seventh day. Those who respect that on a regular Sunday are outnumbered. Still, most of us feel uncomfortable getting caught mowing the lawn or even plugging in the vacuum cleaner on main Catholic holidays like yesterday. So it really was a day off. 

The tradition of doing nothing is well worth following even if you’re not really a church-goer. I was finally able to sit down and write a new post after too long a break:)

St Roch’s Church fresco

And, what a coincidence, just in time to remember another Catholic saint. Today we celebrate feast day of Sveti Rok – St Roch. Even though he is more popular in southern Croatia, we’ll stick to Zagreb. Many are unaware of the importance that residents of the old cities of Zagreb attributed to this saint. And when I say cities, I really do mean two towns – Gradec and Kaptol. They started off as two not so friendly medieval towns separated by a stream, and were unified into the sole city of Zagreb only in 19th century. Once upon a time, each of the two towns was surrounded by fortified walls and gates. Sometimes you could have heard an unwanted visitor knocking on the town gates. Sometimes, the visitor was the Black Death itself. 

It so happened in 1647 that the black plague came to harvest the surroundings of nowadays Zagreb. While the town of Kaptol carelessly let the visitor in, Gradec decided to close its gates shut. Months passed without anyone being allowed to leave the town or to come back inside, Black Death included, no matter how hard it knocked the door. When the disease finally left the area, both cities had their reasons to turn to the heavenly healer, the saint with miraculous ability to scare away the plague with just a cross sign. Kaptol, that was still counting those who succumbed to the illness, turned to prayer to keep the plague away from its streets and homes for good. Gradec, on the other hand, was obliged to show dedication and gratitude because it was saved.

So, they both built chapels dedicated to Saint Roch on the hills outside the two towns. And while there’s no material evidence of the exact place where the chapel of St Roch of Kaptol used to be, little church of Gradec is still there, on the edge of serene Rokov perivoj (St Roch’s park).

Elegy – fountain by R.F.Mihanovic

If you decide to take a nice walk through the park, you might want to know that there used to be a cemetery on that very spot. Don’t worry, unlike the old St George’s cemetery, this one was completely exhumed a century ago, and the only thing that reminds us of its former existence is a beautiful sculpture called Elegy. It was made by one of the greatest Croatian sculptors Robert Franges Mihanovic. The church authorities of the time, however, didn’t really like the fact that the artist wanted to honour the souls with a naked lady standing by a well engraved with Divina Commedia scenes. Beautiful Elegy had to wait to reach her 80s to be finally placed at the center of the park. 

The sculptor himself used to live in a house nearby. The entire park was surrounded by beautiful mansions, some of them designed by the most famous architects of the era, some pertaining to Croatian artists. Take house Auer for example. I never miss a chance to mention it, since it’s the most infamous haunted mansion of Zagreb. It’s under reconstruction at the moment and I personally hope the new owners won’t scare away the undead residents of the house.

Villa Auer – supposedly haunted

And St Roch? His humble little church is still there, it’s charming exterior renovated several years ago. On this day, many pay avisit to this little sanctuary hidden in what is now a rather elite neighbourhood, thus reviving the three-and-a-half-century-old gratitude.  

Rokov perivoj is one of those places in Zagreb that gets under your skin with no obvious reason. It’s lovely, no doubts about it, but it’s just hard to explain where do impressions come from. Probably it’s just the mix of holiness of the place, traces of all the poor people that used to turn to St Roch for help, then there’s a beautiful panorama of the city underneath it, tranquility of the tree-shades that once surrounded the graves and today they give shelter to love couples or some weed-smoking high-schoolers… Not to forget the beautiful architecture of famous Croatian artists’ homes and what used to be oversized summer houses… yes, the feeling the place gives to its visitor must come from all the pieces of its rich (hi)story. You’ll get used to that when you visit Zagreb. There are so many corners of this city that will impress you beyond obvious reasons.

Alexander’s steps lead to Rokovac