The Pleasures of Zagreb – Disneyland for books
Caffeine-addicted? You'll like this place. I'm finishing my novel in Europe's most underrated capital, during which time many people have asked, “What is Zagreb like?”
Aside from a smattering of the usual Balkan ingredients – the crazy driving, ground floor to entresol graffiti trails, horse statue meet points, VW Golf Mk2s, bakeries galore – Croatia's inland capital offers something on a level that's somehow more subdued, like James Joyce enjoying a calligraphy class on Valium. Too, it's like turning up from the cold for an impromtu dinner party, and then being invited to stay the night in thick antique pyjamas. What's clear is that Zagreb reserves a slow-groove rhythm all of its own, which its residents love. Felt immediately, the city keeps pace in that peaceful end of excitement that holds sensations in rather than spraying too soon in an assault-of-the-senses-type upload. Many broad-shouldered, square old buildings in various states of repair rise out of each square and line the racing tracks between traffic lights; but it's the less celebrated streets that catch me... those around the often infamous hubs of a city – its bus and train station. In Zagreb a hotchpotch kilometre-long wall of weathered street art separates the two entities. But Zagreb's central train station surprisingly flies in the face of the seedy entry point recipe of most European capitals, with not a reprobate in sight around the exit mouth, rather a welcoming treat for the eyes beckoning onto the tranquil lawn of the yellow Art Pavilion that frames King Tomislav's square. In the same vein, heading for the angular escalator-in bus station complex offers little more than the most occasional glance of a giddy man laughing aloud to himself, swerving widely on foot while sailing down the pavement.
All this languidity, bar the odd elbow in the shopping aisle, meets the style of the most fashionable residents who adorn the cafes for hours over little cups – the seated limbs cocked at supple angles perfected over a hundred thousand sips, as each wrist confidently orbits a blithe cigarette in proximity to the flammable dark puffer jacket beneath. Black designer sunglasses serve to complete the aesthete's uniform in the full-to-the-brim coffee joints, the opaque lenses flashing from outside tables with a bite of winter sun, held big on the faces of men and women who convert cigarette smoking back to a mystique art form. So Zagreb is a coffee shop – these establishments are where every piece of human business tends to emanate from. And once the white cup business is done the streets offer book shops galore to get lost in, with even the poky cigarette kiosks remembering to celebrate the literary feel with a stock of featured novels – taken away, one by one, to be devoured in the swirl of a back-courtyard bar.
Up on the hill Zagreb's old town is pierced from north to south by a long stream of bars and restaurants along Tkalčićeva street, which, stepping back 100 years, was inhabited by brothels in almost every building, when the area became well-known as a pleasure centre. Further west, in British Square, the Sunday outdoor antiques market still provides a chance to get your hands on relics from that era, and has long since been a Zagreb institution for anyone who can appreciate umbrella tables scattered with a substantial film of patina lamps, locks, and coffee grinders, with a dollop of friendly haggling stirred into the throng of leather jackets, beards, and tobacco. All told, then, providing you're not run over by a graffiti-commissioned tram, a bike, or a bike chasing a tram, Zagreb makes a fine and splendid place to come to finish a manuscript. It has just enough distractions.
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Topic: The Pleasures of Zagreb - Disneyland for books
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