International Writers Magazine: Zagreb
from a Café Zagreb
strings of cigarette smoke rise up in synchrony, like ballerinas
magically suspended in mid-air. Through the haze, and inter-cutting
electric blue trams, I trace graffiti smothering the city walls.
I'm sitting at a little café in the heart of Zagreb. Being
the only visible foreigner around, Im at the receiving end
of a dozen masked stares, and even though I'm used to this, I can't
help but smile.
Zagreb is a petite
city, barely filling into the size its been allocated. Emerging
from the Balkan war relatively unhurt, it took on the role of national
and financial capital of Croatia. Today, even in the midst of administrative
responsibilities, it still holds on to its old world charm: church spires
dominate the skyline; cobbled stone streets swerve around legends and
Baroque structures. The sidewalks double up as parking spots, cars settled
partly on the kerb and partly on the road.
has seeped through ever corner of Trg Bana Jelacica, Zagreb's main
square, where the imposing statue of Croat hero Josip Jelacic, perched
on his horse, enjoys his mocha tan. Flanking it is the city's chicest
street, Illica. Hours simply slip away while walking in, out and
past the high-fashion boutiques that line up here. To make matters
worse, every third store offers the most tempting shoes; it's a
struggle not to succumb. But even amidst this snobbery, over the
big branded shopping bags, there are reminders of the old life:
filling up across terraces and other open spaces are the city's
popular open air markets. Fresh strawberries mingle with cherry
tomatoes. Coy little daisies blush under the gaze of the flamboyant
chrysanthemum. Old, rusting pocket watches, ticking loudly above
the other "antiques" on offer, beg to be bought. As the
sunburnt peasants hawk their wares, Zagreb is filled with the sounds
of the countryside.
History has seeped
through every stone here, staining them with images of the past. Elegant,
imposing buildings dominate this post code. On their roof tops, gargoyles,
lions and angels stand guard. Walking around the Old Town is a lesson
in history. Little cobbled streets lead me to churches and landmarks
that have survived centuries. Some structures like the medieval Lotrscak
Tower hold on to the memory of a glorious past. A watch tower in its
time, today its rickety steps take tourists to the top of the city:
a bird's eye view reveals clusters of orange roof tops holding leafy
courtyards in their midst - some display the day's laundry, others hold
bursts of spring in terracotta pots. Other buildings like the pastry
coloured mansions on Tkalciceva, Zagrebs party street, adapt and
reinvent themselves from haughty Baroque villas to trendy cafes and
city's split personality, however, comes to the fore in the suburbs.
The old world sophistication of the centre gives way to a more practical
get-on-with-it style. Elderly communist buildings stand in a morose
row. Underneath the peeling paint, a pipe-line network of ageing
veins crawl around. The newer constructions fare equally badly.
Fashioned after cardboard boxes with cut-out windows, they do little
to lift the drab landscape. Like any other condemned suburb, life
here goes on in a 9-5 shuffle homework, chores and shopping
lists clutter the day. Stifling a yawn, I head back to reclaim my
place at the centre.
Between the two
worlds though, one thing remains constant - Zagreb's laid back attitude.
Even the traffic jams here are relaxed. Work is something that fills
up the time between cigarettes and coffee dates. Needless to say, the
cafés are bustling and have hardly a minute to spare. The air
is warm with the clatter of tobacco tinged Croatian as gossip is exchanged
and coffee is consumed. Somewhere a cell phone rings loudly, piercing
the day. I sit down and place an order.
© Neha Puntambekar
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