The view from my hotel daubed the city in Wes Andersoneqsue grapefruit pinks, aquamarine blues, and comfortable mustard tones. Communist concrete tower blocks punctuated the air space. Terracotta tiles lined the roofs, and art nouveau buildings lounged along the boulevards. I watched the citywide tableaux range out in front of my hotel window; each glass square representing a life unknown, a family crisis and a yard of dreams. It felt old-world and modern both at the same time – but it had no real grandeur. From the dotting satellite dishes to the unwieldy air-con outlets, it felt one part student village, two parts home. It was comfortable and quiet and worn.
The City of Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, was founded 900 years ago. Although as with most European cities, habitation occurred in the thickly forested past at a time when mists would swirl and wolves would howl and myths were born out of fear. It is nestled along the River Sava which is a tributary of the Danube and would have been a hallowed transport network in a land that was once wild.
Once in the city though, especially if you are not here for very long, you may entirely forget that a river runs through this urban amalgamation. Zagreb is bigger than Paris (at least geographically), but it feels quite provincial. Never the less, it is important to remember that this is the centre of intellectual development in the region and one of the main transport hubs connecting Central Europe with the Mediterranean and South East Europe. And in many ways it feels exactly that, it has some of the food culture and cuisine from Italy; the techno, indie club vibe of Berlin; the creep of communism from its time as Yugoslavia – the war recovered from but very vividly remembered.
The day was a little underway by the time I prized my eyes open. So I sat a moment, at the window, sipping cold water and drinking in the view. I’d rather be nursing a cup of tea, but they didn’t do that sort of thing here. There are no teabags in little packets, sachets of coffee, little milk cartons and those weird, but surprisingly tasty biscuits at the Hotel Panorama. Everywhere is different and sometimes leaving behind the rituals of home is difficult, but necessary. Tea is just something I miss though. I should really start to bring my own supplies, but I don’t think a travel kettle would fit in my tiny bag packed with Tetris like skills. So artfully squished and pulled together, it can always be counted on to incur no additional costs on a budget flight.
I stepped out the front of the Hotel. It had the right architecture to be grand (on the inside at least) but felt like a forgotten place. Like somewhere Scooby Doo or the Ghost Busters would come to investigate. Or perhaps the setting to an early 00’s drama; where a dour but handsome protagonist is fighting the crippling boredom of being in Zagreb. Not that Zagreb was boring. Only, the hallowed hush that had fallen upon the city, as all locals hid inside waiting out the end of the heat, now made the place seem slow and painful.
My friend and I were disagreeing – about everything it seemed. The last few times I’d travelled, I’d travelled alone and I’d developed a hard waxy shell – like a passionfruit. I liked doing what I liked doing, and I couldn’t fathom someone that didn’t love museums and their dusty quiet halls filled with curiosities and knowledge. Museums are exciting, right? Indianan Jones? The Mummy? Stargate? Museums are magic and I wanted to see them all. I wanted to learn. I wanted deep down to be a better person…maybe like the ones off the telly?
The moment I stepped out the building I couldn’t help but be aware that I might actually be cooking, but I had exploring to do and an addiction to satisfy. A plethora of institutions were opening their grand doors and inviting me to spend an afternoon basking in their knowledge.
My friend wanted to do other things. I’m not quite sure what those things were; we’d argue and peel away from each other at times. The arguments were born out of stress and a slowly melting sidewalk. Neither of us thought that we’d be where we were in our lives when we booked this holiday. We were both taking on new jobs and facing the prospect of moving across the country. Our lives were changing, and I wasn’t entirely sure mine was for the best. She missed her mum. We were frazzled.
But we both wanted to go to the grandly titled Museum of Illusion which is filled with half-hearted games and photo opportunities. This tourist trap is essentially a Daily Mail article with a clickbait headline paired with some selfie opportunities. Safe to say, it was nothing I hadn’t seen before, or anything executed particularly well. I don’t like to call anywhere rubbish, but this was a bit, and the entrance ticket was more than most other attractions in the area.
Of much more importance, both in terms of a sense of place and history, is the Croatian Museum of Naive art. Naive meaning untaught or self-schooled. The paintings here possess a strangely lucid quality. The sort I’d rarely seen in galleries elsewhere. They were psychedelic, dreamlike and haunting in their brutality and use of colour, but also bewitchingly beautiful at times. I bought a handful of postcard reproductions and they are now hanging from my wall. Their emotional resonance at times arrests my gaze with such force that I worry they will go ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ on me. I fear they will take on a life of their own if I look too closely.
I also stopped in at the Museum of Modern Art, where a room attendant grilled me about Brexit and tried to convince me that a degree in textiles was very difficult to earn. I’d met a lot of angry young boys on my Fine Art course – so this was nothing unusual – but I found myself getting quickly bored. Word of warning to all of you grandstanders out there, make me laugh or make me think, don’t make me yawn.
Then there was the more melancholic Museum of Broken Relationships, which through a series of objects, grieving singletons would tell stories of heartbreak. I love people spinning tall tales and stretching out the truth for a gasp and a laugh, so in theory, this sounded like the perfect afternoon. There are some that talk with a hushed voice about the quasi-religious experience they have at this place, but I thought it was a bit self-pitying at times. It, however, was a quirky and innovative stance to curation.
Zagreb also has a tiny funicular – which some people criticise and call pointless because there is also a staircase, but I loved it because I have a massive soft spot for bizarre and antiquated methods of transport.
There’s loads beside to see and do (other than what I mentioned). I spent one lovely afternoon in the Zagreb zoo. It was a strangely deserted place; financially very reasonable. The whole time, it rained and the heat began to cool. I know some people think zoos are cruel, but they are no more so than our own confined existence perhaps.
Speaking of cruelties, the Museum of Torture catalogues, across a series of small spaces, all the spikes and probes one could ever wish to inflict upon an enemy. In many ways – it’s a bit like Zagreb. Not that Zagreb was especially boring or painful. I just perhaps wasn’t having the best of times due to the whole skin cooking debacle. Or actually, it wasn’t really my skin, it was more like my lungs and my heart boiling in my chest cavity.
And on the last day the heat broke and we crawled the bars. It was a lot of fun. I remember playing mum and looking after some very drunk baby Australians. We rode the night trams home and my friend screamed out loudly, ‘They’re dead! They’re dead!’ But they weren’t dead, they were just the homeless and the drunk riding the trams round and round in the midnight air. Bored to death…in Zagreb.
I actually really enjoyed Zagreb, but somehow whenever I tried to write about it in the past, words failed to materialise. Even now the melancholic nature of my review surprises me. Every word is honest, but my trip was tinged with anxiety and stress. It colours a view, even in retrospect.