Zagreb : 'All hail to King Tomislav, the President of Couchsurfia!'

Zagreb Travel Blog

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The CS Crew (L-R back) ? , Tomi, Laura & Martina (L-R) front Martina, Juan, Lisa and ME!

‘Okay man, there’s no food but help yourself to drink.  The internet’s there, the drugs are over there, wait for the girls and okay, cool, I’ll catch ya later!’.  A typically swift and super-chilled proclamation from ‘The Dude’, ’El Duderino’ and President of the future island republic of Couchsurfia from where a doctrine of peace, unity, and ‘no borders, no boundaries’ 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 Pécs he was there to greet me, palm outstretched in greeting ‘Hi Steve, good to see you man.

Statue of King Tomislav I
  Okay in about 15 minutes we’re gonna meet some more CS [ Couchsurfing ] people.  Have a little meeting.  A little get together.  Maybe have some beers.  Cool?  Cool!’.  ‘Uh… yeah, cool.’.  And so, backpack still sweatily attached to my back, it’s straight to chilling on blankets with beers in the appropriately named Tomislav Square… Tomislav also being the name of a former great king of Croatia as well as the current President elect of Couchsurfia.  As the stars come out to play there’s 15 of us or so (many Croatians, 2 Hungarians, a Romanian, another Brit, a Quebecoise and a half-Colombian half-Bosnian named Juan) back to Tomi’s to drink home made Croatian wine, eat chocolate, burn some Js and listen to Tomi’s guitar music hit the night air as we wave, clap and grin at trains as they zip above us on the overhead rails.
'Don't move or the bunny gets it!' - prizes available (err... probably) for the first one to recognises the quote ;D
  A nice way to be greeted by a city.  Couchsurfing will colour, flavour and otherwise enrich your travel lives when you need it people!  Trust me.

CABOOOOOM!!!!  ‘WHA’ THE F**K WAS THAT?!!’ ‘Ha ha ha - that’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 tour’ 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.  It’s midday and Tomi had led us up the stairs to beneath the Lotršcak Tower  from whose high window every day at this time since New Year’s Day 1877, to mark the country’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.

St. mark's Church with its beautiful roof.

Lotršcak Tower marks the beginning of Upper Town Zagreb and of Tomi’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 Zagreb’s two central hills of Gradec and Kaptol.  We are introduced to the colourfully tiled roof of St.Mark’s Church, pass through the city’s one remaining Medieval ‘Stone Gate’ 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 ‘Bloody Bridge’, 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 peoples’ blood spilt and flowing down to strengthen its mortar with its stock of iron one supposes.

National Opera House

 
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 vanquisher’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.
The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  We hope.

In a similar vain of conciliation the statue of historic Ban ( ‘Governor’ ) Josip Jelacic with its defiantly pointing sword sat in the Lower Town’s and city’s main Jelacica Square has variously through its life pointed North and East to ward off the country’s rivals, Austria and Hungary, but now faces south for the far more prosaic reason that ‘it’s more compositionally pleasing’ to the space.  Jelacica Square also contains The Manduševac 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 ‘to scoop up water’ being ‘zagrabiti’ from where the city Zagreb supposedly takes its name.

Dolac Market worker

Following a fine good ol’ Catholic Friday fish lunch (traditional Croatian fish soup and black risotto and parmesan) with Tomi and his new Ozzy guests Dara and Cara, I’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 I’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.

The slain dragon looked respectfully down upon by St.George the victor.
  I sight this whilst sat drinking a beer at the Carpe Diem café on quiet Opatavina Street, my resolution of alcoholic abstinence for financial reasons over for sure by now. 

It’s then back down through Lower Town to the Cyber Funk Café, a fine, dreamy smoothie and internet café that’s Tomi’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 ‘Foxy Lady’ - blackcurrants, OJ, frozen yogurt and honey amongst other ingredients.  How Tomi finds time for this job on top of 24/7 Couchsurf hosting ( he’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 - ‘I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.

Fountain statue in front of Zagreb cathedral (detail)
..’ ) I‘ll never know.  Bless ‘is cottons.

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 ‘passed over’ 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 you’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 on… but as Tomi or any other Croatian will explain to you ‘everyone just heads straight for the coast’.

  Namely Split, Dubrovnik and the islands.  My own next destinations - even ignoring the apparently stunningly beautiful national parks that sit at the nation’s heart on route to the sea.  95% of visitors to the country do just this in high season claims wise-up tour-guide Tomi.  But seriously guys, head to the excellent Tourist Information office in Jelacica Square, grab their superb booklets ’Zagreb, Croatia’ and ’Step by Step’, do give this one at least 24 hours of your time and you can‘t go wrong. 

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.

Zagreb is Europe's last city to utilise actual gas lamps in some of its streets.
  Cyclists, joggers and rollerbladers breeze their way around.  Kids jump from platforms into the waters shared with the odd windsurfer and duck.  It rains hard and long at one point and I’m already pretty dooshed through so take refuge with some punk kidz in one of the sheltered public toilets for an ungraceful half hour.  I give the nudist ’beach’ a skip too you’ll be only too glad to hear. 

Back in town, a coffee whilst listening to Nick Cave Live in London inside the Tolkein’s House cafe   ( ‘I wanna tell you something that I don’t think can be easily contradicted… there ain’t no cure for love’ ) and then evening sweeps in.  The gas lights are lit.  Yes, real, old school 19th Century gas lights.  Zagreb, Europe’s last city to retain operational gas street lighting, two lamp lighters or ‘nažigaci’ employed to illuminate more than 200 such lights every day.

Super efficient (and free to the cheeky and bold) trams in Zagreb.
  And I am charmed to be reminded of one of The Little Prince’s many planet inhabitants, the lamp lighter who forever and rapidly must light and then extinguish and then relight his solitary gas lamp, his little planet revolving so rapidly between dusk and new dawns.

Back at operation Couchsurfia, it’s gone midnight and Cara and Dara and I greet Tomi’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.

kids and the lake 1
00 or 7.30 or a quarter past the hour or any other on-the-dot or rigid number, for Tomi is officially the only other person so far in this world that shares my one truly odd personality quirk of always setting an alarm clock at a slightly ‘abstracted’ time.  I, for example, always must have the last number as ’3’.  Don’t worry I’m not OCD about this.  I just dig it.  It was my idea by me for me ‘'cos I like it like dat‘.  So ya wanna wake up for 8.00?  Then it’s 7.53 or 8.03.  Take your pick.  Tomi, he’s a ’4’ guy so ya wanna wake up at 9.30, then he’s up at 9.24 or 9.34.  Ya get it?  ‘Hey, don’t look at me funny like that!’.  It’s just one tiny little gesture of behavioural defiance against the arbitrary rigidity of the modern lives we lead.
The weather begins to turn at Jarun Lake.
  So much softer on the soul to wake up (for work!) and not see a clock face at right angles or at the ’timetable’ impersonality of a ‘round number’ stamping your destiny by the quarter hour or with the tyranny of the number 5.  2 + 2 = 5 in a dystopian society remember people.  No my friends, 3, in all its curvaceous glory is the magic number… so good night Zagreb and I’ll see you tomorrow at 7.13 in the ‘a’ of the ‘m‘.  

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The CS Crew (L-R back) ? , Tomi, L…
The CS Crew (L-R back) ? , Tomi, …
Statue of King Tomislav I
Statue of King Tomislav I
Dont move or the bunny gets it!…
'Don't move or the bunny gets it!…
St. marks Church with its beautif…
St. mark's Church with its beauti…
National Opera House
National Opera House
The Cathedral of the Assumption of…
The Cathedral of the Assumption o…
Dolac Market worker
Dolac Market worker
The slain dragon looked respectful…
The slain dragon looked respectfu…
Fountain statue in front of Zagreb…
Fountain statue in front of Zagre…
Zagreb is Europes last city to ut…
Zagreb is Europe's last city to u…
Super efficient (and free to the c…
Super efficient (and free to the …
kids and the lake 1
kids and the lake 1
The weather begins to turn at Jaru…
The weather begins to turn at Jar…
Music Man Tomi!
Music Man Tomi!
Tomi, Cara and Dana and our Hungar…
Tomi, Cara and Dana and our Hunga…
The Opera House (I think?)
The Opera House (I think?)
St.Marks church roof (detail) - T…
St.Mark's church roof (detail) - …
The chapel beneath the Stone Gate.
The chapel beneath the Stone Gate.
Hvala or thank you - a predomi…
'Hvala' or 'thank you' - a predom…
Kitty
'Kitty'
Dolac Market being disassembled fo…
Dolac Market being disassembled f…
St.George and the dragon in peacef…
St.George and the dragon in peace…
A Zagreb panorama
A Zagreb panorama
The Strossmayer Promenade (detail)
The Strossmayer Promenade (detail)
Street Art 1
Street Art 1
Street Art 2
Street Art 2
A more conventional George & the D…
A more conventional George & the …
part of Jarun lake
part of Jarun lake
kids and the lake 2
kids and the lake 2
Zagreb
photo by: EmEm