Zagreb : 'All hail to King Tomislav, the President of Couchsurfia!'
Zagreb Travel Blog› entry 186 of 268 › view all entries
â€˜Okay man, thereâ€™s no food but help yourself to drink. The internetâ€™s there, the drugs are over there, wait for the girls and okay, cool, Iâ€™ll catch ya later!â€™. A typically swift and super-chilled proclamation from â€˜The Dudeâ€™, â€™El Duderinoâ€™ and President of the future island republic of Couchsurfia from where a doctrine of peace, unity, and â€˜no borders, no boundariesâ€™ travel multi - or rather - uni-global-culturalism will one day be lovingly enforced upon a divided world, Tomislav. Tomi to you and I, and my host for my time in the capital of Croatia.
In fact yesterday evening, the very second I stepped off the train from PÃ©cs he was there to greet me, palm outstretched in greeting â€˜Hi Steve, good to see you man.
CABOOOOOM!!!! â€˜WHAâ€™ THE F**K WAS THAT?!!â€™. â€˜Ha ha ha - thatâ€™s just my little way I like to introduce my Couchsurfers to my city - ha ha - I like to see their reactions so I always bring them here at the start of my little tourâ€™ Tomi grinningly explains as Lisa, Juan, Cara, Dana and I pat ourselves down to see all our limbs remain intact and in place and dust our nerves down. Itâ€™s midday and Tomi had led us up the stairs to beneath the LotrÅ¡cak Tower from whose high window every day at this time since New Yearâ€™s Day 1877, to mark the countryâ€™s historic victory over the Tartars or the Turks depending on which history book you pick up, a tiny canon with a gargantuan BLAST is fired upon the hour.
LotrÅ¡cak Tower marks the beginning of Upper Town Zagreb and of Tomiâ€™s little introductory guided tour of his city that he kindly takes us on. We wend our way through the cobble streets of this older heart of the city that rests upon Zagrebâ€™s two central hills of Gradec and Kaptol. We are introduced to the colourfully tiled roof of St.Markâ€™s Church, pass through the cityâ€™s one remaining Medieval â€˜Stone Gateâ€™ whose interior takes the form of a street-spanning chapel after a painting of The Madonna and Child was (so the story goes) the only item to survive a devastating fire here some centuries back and so has been herein venerated ever since. Next we cross the intimidatingly named Krvavi Most, or â€˜Bloody Bridgeâ€™, nowadays a cobbled street and so named because as the umbilical walkway between the often feuding hills of Gradec and Kaptol a fair few spats took place upon it back in the day, the towns peoplesâ€™ blood spilt and flowing down to strengthen its mortar with its stock of iron one supposes.
My favourite item, by virtue of its explanation, that Tomi introduces to us is a poignant and well executed statue of St.George and the dragon that sits here in a bed of red summer flowers. It is apparently one of the only statues of St.George in Europe that does not interpret the symbolic moment of the dragons slaying but instead has the dead dragon already peacefully deceased, laying at the feet of his vanquisherâ€™s horse. George sits upon his steed, head bowed with his helmet off and respectfully clasped between his hands. Tomi explains that this helps to embody the spirit of Zagreb and the Croatian people. A people, fatigued by war, whose conflicts are now over and done and in the past. It now being time not to cry over losses or gloat over victories concluded but to move on from battle to a brighter more peaceable future.
In a similar vain of conciliation the statue of historic Ban ( â€˜Governorâ€™ ) Josip Jelacic with its defiantly pointing sword sat in the Lower Townâ€™s and cityâ€™s main Jelacica Square has variously through its life pointed North and East to ward off the countryâ€™s rivals, Austria and Hungary, but now faces south for the far more prosaic reason that â€˜itâ€™s more compositionally pleasingâ€™ to the space. Jelacica Square also contains The ManduÅ¡evac Fountain that cradles a fountain of natural spring water from where - myth has it - the beautiful peasant girl Manda scooped up water for a returning, battle-weary and thirsty Croatian war hero. The Croatian word for â€˜to scoop up waterâ€™ being â€˜zagrabitiâ€™ from where the city Zagreb supposedly takes its name.
Following a fine good olâ€™ Catholic Friday fish lunch (traditional Croatian fish soup and black risotto and parmesan) with Tomi and his new Ozzy guests Dara and Cara, Iâ€™m left to my own devices and bobble merrily around town, taking a slower look at some of our earlier destinations. I consume the first kebab of my journey (many more of those to come in Turkey Iâ€™m sure!). I watch the locals dismantling the historic daily Dolac Market. Get dazzled by the four glittering gold muses that form the base of the statue that sits before the grand Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary whose spires differ in colour right now, one painted likewise white-gold by the suns setting rays, the other greyer, as yet uncleaned and swaddled in preparatory scaffolding.
Itâ€™s then back down through Lower Town to the Cyber Funk CafÃ©, a fine, dreamy smoothie and internet cafÃ© thatâ€™s Tomiâ€™s place of employment between the hours of 15.00 and 22.30 and where the CS crew spend some good hours over the days sat in the sun supping such delights as a â€˜Foxy Ladyâ€™ - blackcurrants, OJ, frozen yogurt and honey amongst other ingredients. How Tomi finds time for this job on top of 24/7 Couchsurf hosting ( heâ€™d hosted 35 guests from a gazillion countries in the month of July by only the 20th and found time to fall in love with one of them too - â€˜Iâ€™ve never felt this way about anyone before.
Zagreb is another one of those ever-so-slightly shunned European capitals that for the most part exists only as a necessary transport hub for the majority of travellers. Bucharest and Sofia are other prime examples of such â€˜passed overâ€™ Eastern European cities. But especially with Zagreb, I wonder why. Whilst I have appreciated and written of the less immediate but discernible charms of Bucharest and Sofia myself, Zagreb has the look and feel of a city that I would expect to tick the more formal boxes of any and many a guidebook clutching, camera-coddling tourist. It has charm and beauty both in the form of architecture and green and watery open spaces. It has clean and super efficient ( and if youâ€™re naughty, risky and bold, FREE) public transport and fine cafes and restaurants and a great night life and good food and beautiful churches, informative museums, galleries and history of course and so on and so onâ€¦ but as Tomi or any other Croatian will explain to you â€˜everyone just heads straight for the coastâ€™.
A final day for musing and strolling. The weather slides between stretched out bouts of sweltering summer sun and unpredictable sessions of heavy downpour as I head out (for free ;) by tram to walk around the large Jarun lake that sits besides the Sava river in the Southwest corner of Zagreb.
Back in town, a coffee whilst listening to Nick Cave Live in London inside the Tolkeinâ€™s House cafe ( â€˜I wanna tell you something that I donâ€™t think can be easily contradictedâ€¦ there ainâ€™t no cure for loveâ€™ ) and then evening sweeps in. The gas lights are lit. Yes, real, old school 19th Century gas lights. Zagreb, Europeâ€™s last city to retain operational gas street lighting, two lamp lighters or â€˜naÅ¾igaciâ€™ employed to illuminate more than 200 such lights every day.
Back at operation Couchsurfia, itâ€™s gone midnight and Cara and Dara and I greet Tomiâ€™s return. We spend a couple more hours whilst he teaches us how to thread our own cotton bracelets around cardboard beer mats so I have finally some more threads to keep my travel karma in good shape. Tomi and I discover we have a shared passion for the old British sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf (then forcing the girls to watch the episode Backwards ) before setting alarms for the next day.. But NOT at 7.