As you step into the Stone Gate passage, the scent of candles and a respectful silence take over and you simply have to stop for a second and ask yourself: what is this place?
As you look around, you will notice many peculiar sights: there could be someone who’s praying. There could be someone immersed in deep thoughts lighting a candle. Some passers-by cross themselves as they enter. The walls are covered in plaques. A better look at the plaques and you will notice there’s one word that keeps repeating, and that’s hvala. It means thank you.
Part of the wall inside of the Stone Gate passage
The Stone Gate passage is a Marian shrine. The city was severely damaged in the great 1731 fire. According to the famous local legend, on this spot, they discovered a painting of the Mother of God and baby Jesus. The painting was intact.
The painting had belonged to a woman who lived by the Stone Gate. She had it in her apartment and even had built a wooden altar for the painting. All of that burnt in the big fire, even the frames of the painting turned into ashes. But as the flames reached the very painting, they stopped and left it complete. The painting was discovered on 31 May and that date is now celebrated as the day of the city of Zagreb.
The mysterious painting, more than 300 years old, is still on display inside the Stone Gate
Stopping by the Stone Gate and saying prayer has been a custom in Zagreb. Even people who are not religious will sometimes light a candle or make a wish. The thank-you notes represent the fulfillment of many vows. People come to seek divine help. When their prayers were answered, they left a plaque.
During the day, you can buy and light a candle
The enormous procession on the day of the city back in 2016 captured the attention of my Ghosts & Dragons Tour group, so we paused the dark tales and watched it in awe
Just as it captures the attention of every passer-by, the Stone Gate has been a very strong symbol of the city for centuries. I dare to say that the Stone Gate is one of the most special, and most mysterious places in Zagreb and makes an important part of the city’s identity.
Once you start slowly looking around the passage, you will discover that Stone Gate is a core of many curious stories and intriguing sights that radially spread from it. For example, in the vicinity of the Stone Gate, you can spot a statue of St George the dragonslayer that unusually doesn’t fight the dragon. You can see the chains that supposedly come from the Trafargal-battle ship Victory. The spikes on top of the Stone Gate tower are connected with the old witches’ superstitions, the little statue on the outer wall reminds us of a famous love story... an immense number of surprising historical tales, legends and sights float around this wonderous place. Stone Gate will grab your attention, but you will probably not understand just how special it is without a help of a local who could tell you some of the related stories.
Stone Gate is one of the symbols of Zagreb
Even if you don’t have a source of information with you, you will pick up the strong vibe of the place. Take your time and do stop for a while to observe it. Even without knowing all of the stories, you will notice, and maybe even learn, the word “hvala”, written on the walls hundreds of times. Could it be that just seeing the word so many times, could trigger some gratitude in all of us on a subconscious level? Isn’t it amazing how the simple word that we use so many times a day, can have such a connection with eternity and the holy?
Hvala turns to fala in the local dialect
If you try to read the word out loud, you might have a tiny problem pronouncing it, many foreingers do. Don’t worry about that - when in Zagreb, the more local version - much easier to pronounce - will do. You can simply say: fala (pronounced: phuh-luh). If you still worry you might forget the word just when it could come in handy, a musical cheat sheet might help. Let’s end this post with a memorable song called Fala. The words were written by Dragutin Domjanović, a poet that cherished the special dialect of northwestern Croatia. To many locals, it comes as a surprise that this iconic song with its melancholic music that captures the spirit of this region so perfectly, was written by the talented Vlaho Paljetak who was born in a very different region, in Dubrovnik. The song Fala is one of the most emotional songs of this region. You don’t need to know Croatian to understand the emotion behind it. Just like you don’t need to know Croatian to feel the meaning of the word Hvala when you discover it on the Stone Gate walls.
A big fala for reading!
Image credit: Iva Silla
Author: Iva Silla