Zagreb – State of Affairs

My brother is on a  two week visit to Croatia and this is one of the few free days we have in Zagreb. It wasn’t difficult figuring out which parts of the city I wanted to show off to him – the centre and the old town. While the centre is bustling, the old town is where the hoardings and trams get left behind and quiet history takes over, at least the feeling of it does.

“This is my favourite part of the city.” I reiterate as we make our way up to the old town gate – Kamenita Vrata or Stone Gate. The gate, now an archway, seamlessly connects the modern city to the old. One world here, another there.

Within the archway lives one of the city’s oldest legends – a shrine dedicated to Mary. This symbol of faith goes back to 1731 when the town was ravaged by fires. While structures and property were eaten up by angry flames, a picture of the Virgin Mary survived within the stony arch; the frame was destroyed but the picture was undamaged.

The curving walls are covered with prayer tiles – shiny black slates with golden wording. An old lady dressed in black kneels down at one of the four pews, deep in prayer. She is almost hidden by the dark, save for the light of the candles; lit hours ago and now standing at half their original size, the candle tops wobble with melting wax and their orange-yellow flames grow and dim in turns.

“Can I take photos here?” he asks softly. I nod. He makes sure to check the flash first.


On the other side of the Stone Gate lies the old town – pastel in pink, yellow, orange and cream – and at its centre is an ornate opening.

“This is the St. Mark’s Square and that in the middle is the St. Mark’s Church. These buildings to the side are all Government, and that there is the parliament.”

A set of twin guards stand by the doors. I have seen them standing with guns across their bodies a few times, but mostly I’ve seen them chatting, with each other, and even with passing tourists. It’s unusually informal and very refreshing in this age of heightened security.

We don’t stop. The plan is to first visit the museum of Zagreb, past the St. Mark’s square, and then on our way back stop by the Church.

An hour or so later the quiet square is noisy. Unlike the usual batches of tourists, today it is men in uniform milling about the square and the church. Some are arraanging chairs, one of them carries a brass instrument and sets it right in front of a make-shift podium. There are others too, spread out across cafes along the square, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.

“What’s going on?”

I’m not sure. It’s not a national holiday but the cavalry is here, and by the looks of it the event is set to take place right beside the church.

“Let’s go to the tower instead. We’ll get a nice view today.”

We make sure not to get in the way, taking the pavement all the way around instead of cutting across the square. There are more soldiers on the other side. They seem more at ease.

The Lotrščak Tower dates back to the 13th century. It was built to keep a protective watch over the city. Now for 10 Kuna, visitors can scale its four floors for a bird’s eye view of Zagreb. The ticket counter is on the third floor, right next to the Grič cannon (which continues to be fired everyday at noon). I pull out a 20 Kuna bill for our tickets and take the opportunity to ask the lady behind the counter about the day’s program on the Square.

“What’s happening on the square?” The conversation is in English. My Croatian vocabulary can’t support this exchange.

She looks up from the desk and in the direction of the square. There is no window on this floor. “On the square?” She raises her eyebrows and tilts her head to the left; it meets her shrugging left shoulder – a gesture I’ve come to associate as typically Croat. “Some government shit. I don’t really care!”

Taking the tickets, we head to the open roof for a more wholesome view of Zagreb.

St. Mark’s Photo by Nilay Puntambekar

Welcoming 2011 in Barcelona

Along La Ramblas

Between dinner and the New Year the heart of Barcelona has been barricaded. Cops in yellow vests stand in pairs, checking bags, behaviour and drunken mishaps. The shift has just kicked in; the cops still have a sense of humour. They laugh and joke. “Happy New Year,” I call out, zipping my bag shut. “Same to you!” he answers like he means it, before turning away to argue with a man who doesn’t understand him.

On Placa Catalunya
They sit with many others along the edge of the fountain. She has salt and pepper shoulder length hair. He has a short silver crop. They are dressed in that simple but effortless manner of the rich. I wonder why they are out on the square and not in an ornate, warm room. Like the others, they too hold plastic glasses, filled with a dark liquid – maybe wine, maybe something stronger. They sit quietly, sipping their drink and people watching; when they catch the other’s eye, they smile.

Off Placa Catalunya
A drunken girl, American by accent, is dressed in an off-shoulder dress and nothing warm. She stops at a crossing and leans into the man she is with. Her movements are as slurred as her words, “I so love it that we are here right now!” The man, not American, and not very interested, answers her glossy puckered lips with an impassive, “uhuh.”

Near Barri Gotić
“Go vomit, and then come back and I take you.” He looks like an old hippie forced into ´regular´ clothes. “If you vomit,” he goes on, “you pay me 200 Euros.” 200 Euros for a 7 Euro cab ride. “200 Euros or I call police.” Still unsure if this is a joke, we agree. On the way to the apartment he tells us about his colleagues driving cabs stained by thrown-up bits around the city. “I’m sorry, but I hope you understand why I demand this.” We roll down the window, take gulps of fresh winter air. We don’t throw up. It’s a good start to 2011.

This Morning at the Christmas Market

The main square is crowded. And yet there are no crowds in my way. The many people, wrapped in winter coats, caps and gloves, cluster around the Christmas sales, leaving me with enough space and no regrets.

It’s a cold day. I can feel the winter thud down in my chest despite the hint of warm cinnamon in the air. The guy selling Christmas curios asks me to take a look at the handcrafted Croatian artwork lining his stall. “Best in Croatia,” he assures me. The cherubic angle with blue wings and squint eyes suggests otherwise. I smile, shake my head.

I’d really like a glass of hot wine but it’s a bit early to start drinking; even holiday drinking. I tighten my scarf and prowl the stalls instead.

The stalls are built like log cabins. They come stacked with food and Christmas kitsch, all that’s missing is a fireplace. The more I stare at them the more they remind me of the house in the woods that lures Hansel and Gretel: the bright colours, the gooey cakes and the heaps of candy. I wait for the witches crackle: car horns come blaring through.

When my nose feels like it’s going to fall off, I look at my watch. It’s still early. Left with no choice I step into my favourite bookstore that stands quietly at the edge of the square. It’s warm and smells of crisp paper.

Paper trumps cinnamon.

I forget all about the hot wine.

Dubrovnik Diaries – The Water

Outside the walls there’s a whole other world. Two actually. On one side is the city, the rest of the city, where regular people lead regular lives, go to work, go to school, fuel up their tanks, and clean their floors. On the other, is the sea, the Adriatic and everything it brings with it.

This is an anomaly in Croatia. The sea usually doesn’t play second fiddle to anything. The electric blue-green water, so clean that you can see the floor down below, past the fish and other sea creatures, takes it well though.

It entertains those who’ve had their share of the city within the walls without sulking. Sometimes it’s a giggling group with a hyperactive camera, at others the solo traveller with a paperback, or an exhausted local grabbing a bite (and some peace) on a bench.

It’s never too lonely though, not with the daily ferries, charters and fishing boats. When the people turn away, it entertains cats and spiders and sea creatures like crabs before they are caught and added to the pot. When it’s left alone, as it usually is at some point, it sings and hums, sometimes softly, at others it’s a roar.