The mountain you see above Zagreb is called Medvednica, meaning ”Bear Mountain”.
We in Zagreb actually call it Sljeme, meaning mountaintop or peak, but we refer to the whole mountainous area in such a way. The usual phrase ”Are you going to Sljeme?” doesn’t apply just to the top anymore, in fact, it even applies to some areas of the city now.
”Podsljemenska zona” or ”The zone under Sljeme” is how we refer to the fancy neighborhoods close to the mountain, bordering the forests, although the whole mountain is by default ”under peak zone”. Only when somebody breaks the law in those fancy neighbourhoods by building a mansion in the middle of the forest are we reminded that it is called nature park Medvednica… But, we don’t think about the bears and their mountain.
On the slopes of Bear Mountain overlooking Zagreb sits a medieval castle called Medvedgrad, meaning ”Bear Town”. Historically used for exploiting serfs and protection against invading hordes, it’s now a place for weddings, concerts, and family trips. Below the main tower of the castle is Oltar Domovine (Altar of the Homeland) which is dedicated to the Croatian soldiers killed during the Croatian War of Independence. Historians asked for a different location, seeing as the main tower was used as a lavatory for ages, but politics of course wanted the best view. So, from the Mongol conquerers to Lonely Planet’s tourists, they’re all part of the Bear Town experience, but… just where are the bears?
A mythological creek divides Zagreb in half – Potok Medveščak, meaning ”Bear stream”. Before it was covered over with streets and cement during the last century, Bear Stream was a line dividing two historical twin cities of Zagreb; Gradec – run by the nobles or gentry, and Kaptol – ruled by bishops and priests. Often, they would go to war against each other. So fierce was their rivalry, that they would always choose opposite sides in every civil war, defying national interests, like in 1529 when the armies of the Catholic bishop of Kaptol allied with Ottomans and attacked Gradec. They would fight on the line, the line being the bridge above the creek, and Bear Stream would turn red with all the spilled blood. Even today, the street where the bridge was is called ”Bloody Bridge”. Nobody talks about the Bear Stream. Still no bears.
With the Bear Mountain, and Bear Town, and Bear Stream, one would think Zagreb should be full of bears. Bear statues, bear dolls, bear masks, bear paraphernalia and all different types of bear souvenirs. There is a hockey club called Medveščak, nicknamed ”Bears”, some pubs called Medvedgrad, but, that’s about it. There are no bear festivals. No bear legends or stories. No bear appreciation days. Just a name, but no bears.
The real bears of Sljeme died centuries ago, well, they either died or ran away down south, but their name still lives on. Bear mountain is not such a big mountain, and as it wasslowly becoming more and more surrounded by the towns, villages, and Zagreb itself, the bears didn’t really feel all that comfortable. Rightfully so.
Even today, Croatia doesn’t take proper care of the bear population. Officially, there are 1,000 bears in Croatia, but some experts claim those numbers are fake, that corruption which allows for unregistered bear hunting hides the real number which is likely closer to 400.
If you take into account the fact that registered bear hunts in Croatia cost you under 2,000 euros, you’ll slowly understand why there aren’t really any bears. Soon all that will be left, will just be names.