The timeless sounds of Zagreb
Written by Cody McClain Brown
A tram rattles down Ilica Street, a cannon fires from Gri Fortress at noon, and the hubbub of hundreds of people talking over coffee echoes in the city squares. These are the sounds of Zagreb. As a journalist for Croatian Radio’s The Voice of Croatia, I’ve learnt to love the sights and sounds of Zagreb, one of Europe’s most overlooked capital cities.
For the longest time Zagreb was a one-night stopover from ‘wherever’ to Croatia’s beautiful seaside. Lately, however, the city has become a destination in its own right. Many visitors are learning to love Zagreb.
For me, it wasn’t love at first sight. While the city may be surrounded by the relics of socialism, the centre is alive and thriving. Filled with statue-adorned squares, Hapsburg-era architecture, and verdant parks, this part of town (referred to as the Donji grad or Lower Town) is teeming with the sounds of Croatia’s culture and unique vibe.
Take coffee, for example. If there is one sound that epitomises Zagreb’s city centre, it is the sound of a spoon stirring strong coffee in a small cup. The next sound is the conversation that accompanies every coffee.
In other parts of Europe, like Italy for example, espresso is drunk with speed and efficiency. It’s downed like a caffeinated bullet, designed to give you a quick shot of energy. Though Zagreb has enough cafés to keep half the world buzzed, coffee in the city’s centre is not just about caffeine, it’s the city’s social scene. It’s about being seen and seeing others. A coffee in one of Zagreb’s central cafés lasts at least 45 minutes and can go on for as long as three hours.
The coffee scene is especially vibrant on Saturdays in the centrally located Flower Square (Cvjetni Trg). You might expect the city to be empty on a Saturday morning, perhaps the only sound coming from a couple of pigeons cooing on Petar Preradovi’s statue. And yet, on weekends the centre resonates with all the energy of a vibrant block party. While most of the world sleeps in on Saturdays, or gets up and hangs around the house in their pyjamas and sweatpants, real purgers (the term used for Zagreb natives) dress up and head to spica (pronounced Sh-pi-tsa). The word spica is not, like I once thought, the Croatian way of mispronouncing pizza. No, spica is Zagreb’s weekly social event.
Beginning around 9am on Saturdays and lasting until the afternoon, spica is where both ordinary people and celebrities put on their most fashionable ensembles and have coffee side by side. Pop stars, writers, and actors sit and enjoy a kava s miljekom (coffee with milk) while trying their best to look nonchalant about looking good. Even the paparazzi enjoy a coffee, snatching their big-lensed cameras and snapping photos between sips. Spica has all the frenzy, glitz, and glamour of a red-carpet event, but is one where everyone is invited.
It is also not uncommon to hear the names of food being hollered into the street. Admittedly this seems a bit weird. Nevertheless, in the neighbourhoods, men selling produce walk up and down the block, announcing in a sing-song style their potatoes, apples, and onions for sale. In the open-air markets the old ladies yell descriptions of their wares in an attempt to entice you to come, and if not buy, then at least try a smoked fig, a clementine, a slice of cheese. Then you’re sure to agree that, yes, this is the best ‘whatever’ you’ve ever had.
The central market, Dolac, just up from the main square, has all the commotion and frenzy of the New York Stock Exchange. Only, instead of young, cut-throat brokers barking orders to buy or sell, the sounds of the Zagreb market are these old sellers hawking domestic fruits and vegetables or gossiping with their regular customers.
The old ladies who sell their produce are an indispensable part of the city’s charm. At the market’s entrance, there is even a statue of the iconic seller, balancing a basket on her head, placed in honour of the hundreds who have trekked every day from their farms to these stands for as long as anyone can remember.
In the autumn and winter, when Zagreb can be inordinately grey, Dolac serves as much as a palette of colour as it does a place to buy groceries. Bright red umbrellas act as a canopy against the mist and rain. Beneath their crimson hues radiates a rainbow of fresh produce, oranges, red and green peppers, cabbages, aubergines, olives, figs, and cured meats.
At times it feels like Zagreb has been forgotten by the rest of the world, as if it were secreted away in a corner of Europe, overshadowed by the majesty of Vienna, the romance of Paris, and the mystery of Prague. In many ways this is Zagreb’s greatest blessing. The sights and sounds of Zagreb continue to feel authentic in a world that often feels inundated with artificiality. By being forgotten, Zagreb has remained real.
Nowhere is this truer than around the city’s oldest part, the Upper Town (Gornji grad). On an autumn evening, when you stand amid the flickering gaslights (still in use) around St Mark’s Square, marvelling at the silhouettes of old mansions that are now mostly government offices and museums, there is a timelessness in the air. It’s as if by walking through the Stone Gate, the last remaining gate from the city’s old walls, you have stepped not back in time, but somehow out of it.
The beauty of Zagreb comes in the comfort of knowing that its sounds – the noise of coffee, the sellers’ shouts, spica’s glamorous tumult – have reverberated through Zagreb for as long as anyone can remember, and will continue for as long as anyone can imagine.
Zagreb Eye is a top-floor café with a view. While the panorama is impressive, the best part about the Eye is being able to see into Zagreb’s mysteries. See where that curvy road leads to, look down into the inner courtyards behind the red-roofed buildings that dot the city centre, all while sipping on some of the best coffee in town.
Ilica 1, 10000, Zagreb, Croatia
Tel: +385 1 6446 400 Hours: 10am–11pm
Kiba’s guitar playing is as much a part of Zagreb’s centre as the city’s statues. The old street musician usually sets up down from Hotel Dubrovnik on Gaya Street. Kiba delights in playing songs about mice and school for any passing children. Stick around and he will most likely tell you about the time Paul McCartney stopped by to jam on a few songs with him.
Iva Sila and Secret Zagreb Walks
A thousand-year-old city is bound to be steeped in folklore and myths. Yet a lot of what was once common ‘knowledge’ among Zagreb’s residents, such as the story that Zagreb’s rare earthquakes are the result of a restless dragon that lives under the city, has all but been forgotten. Thankfully, tour guide Iva Sila has rekindled Zagreb’s myths with her walking tour Secret Zagreb Walks. Well researched, and often spooky, Iva’s walks have become popular with tourists and locals alike.
Distance: 3,894 km
Flight Time: 7 hours, 50 minutes
Frequency: Daily via Budapest