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I nominate Zagreb as best city!

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Aaah, Croatia…mmm!

Being a tourist in Croatia for a couple of weeks is barely enough to graze the surface.  There is so much to see: the Dalmatian Coast, the old stones of Split and Dubrovnik, the amazing Plitvice lakes…but of all places, Zagreb I loved the most.

Zagreb is not particularly big, as European capitals go, about a million people.  I didn’t expect much, it was just a place to catch a train to somewhere else.

Arriving by bus, we got into a streetcar to get downtown.  An excellent, easy to use system; but this is the norm in Europe (wish that were the case in Vancouver).  Still, when you’re new to a place, you appreciate discovering it at ground level, through the windows of a very cool tram car.

Trg Bana Josipa Jelacica, the main downtown square where the tramways converge

Trg Bana Josipa Jelacica, the main downtown square where the tramways converge

What makes for a good city for tourists?  I got my list of criteria. Good public transit is a must.  So, check that off the list, but it is so compact, we walked everywhere.  A good walking city? Check.

Much of downtown, in fact, is car-free (or car controlled – I’ll explain ).  That goes without saying in the old city, the touristy area.  But through the downtown business district?  Wow!

And what do you see when you walk around?  Cool parks, old buildings…and cafés.  My God, cafés are everywhere, and seeing them in action redefined café culture for me.

Because they are in action.  You see business folks, in power suits – maybe even politicians – conduct meetings, greet each other with a formal handshake.  You see students mulling over homework.  You see one of these students, a college age woman, getting up from one table, only to stop at another table fifty meters down the street, running unexpectedly into another group of friends.  You see someone glancing at their watch, wondering if they’ve been stood up.  A whole theater of life.  All of a sudden it becomes much easier to relax – you’ve come here to watch people, and the people oblige.

The main tourist drag, Radiceva st, with wall to wall cafes

The main tourist drag, Tkalciceva, with wall to wall cafes

The cafes on Gajeva street, in the middle of the downtown business district

The cafes on Gajeva street, in the middle of the downtown business district

(And good looking, they are, too.  I suppose it helps that it was spring, nice weather, and people were wearing easy smiles over their understated elegant clothes – it’s Europe.  I could have watched them a long time – oh wait, I did.)

So you just sit, people watching, reading a bit, whiling away the time and ordering another coffee, piece of cake, or beer, depending on the time of day.  Ah yes, this is it.

What else?  Good bookstores, another essential on the list.  Antiquarian, used, new books, this is a city that reads.  I found a large bookstore with a great stock of books in English as well as in Croatian, the sign of a healthy local publishing industry.

Trg Kralja Tomislava, one of the many green spaces downtown

Trg Kralja Tomislava, one of the many green spaces downtown

Bike paths, well used – check.  Green spaces downtown – check.  Good food, too: a nice mix of Balkan, Slavic, and Viennese influences – check.  And local!  In the geographic centre of town is a large square, the main farmers’ market.  This is a working market, not a quaint set-up for tourists.  And the produce!  Locally grown greens, tomatoes, strawberries…  The square is bordered by butcher and fishmonger shops, with a few restaurants peppered through.  Up the stairs above the food market (that part of town is hilly) is another, smaller square, the beautiful flower market.

The produce market, Trg Dolac...right downtown!

The produce market, Trg Dolac…right downtown!

The flower market right just above the produce market

The flower market right just above the produce market

Culture?  This is Europe, so you’ll find your museum with your old masters.  But Zagreb is home to a very distinct art scene.  There is a very vibrant naïve painting school, with some truly amazing works.  There is also the very memorable Museum of Broken Relationships, awarded Best New European Museum last year.   The street festival Cest is d’best was setting up: street performers, acrobats, music, visual arts.  (Some BC performers were there, such as Space Commander.)  This is the art scene that had invited Canadian artist Franke James to exhibit  (yes, the artist who irritated Harper enough that he got her stuff black-listed).  Culture?  Check, check, wow, check.

Painting by Mijo Kovacic, typical of the Croatian naive art school

Painting by Mijo Kovacic, typical of the Croatian naive art school

In his Croatia guidebook, Rick Steves comments: “One of my favorite Zagreb pastimes is nursing a drink along its thriving people zones, watching an endless parade of fashionable locals saunter past, and wondering why they don’t create such an inviting space in my hometown.”

Back in Vancouver, I keep wondering what it would take to create a little Zagreb feeling here, a people city.  We’re not as compact as Zagreb, so that presents difficulties.  But surely we should try.  Here are a few suggestions: cheaper facilities for artists to work and exhibit; permanent sites for farmers markets; better public transit; fewer cars.  More pedestrian streets: we have many streets that would be good candidates.  Yes, many merchants are fearful of pedestrian-only streets, and with good reason.  The right conditions must be there, otherwise it can be a costly flop.  So let the merchants use the streets, expand onto them.  Allow cafés to have permanent tables on the streets, under cover; make it relatively cheap for them, help the independent stores by lowering their taxes.  The outdoor cafés would bring shoppers to the bookstores and the shoe stores and the markets.  The artists would draw people to the cafés.  And, please, let people enjoy a drink on the street, at a café table.  I’m not advocating public drunkenness; on the contrary, I think that civilized drinking in public would help to prevent it.  We need to relax these silly drinking laws, and help the merchants.  I think we could do it, and we should do it.  And as we grow, let’s grow denser; the rest follows.

And, yes, those car-controlled Zagreb streets?  There are large bollards that prevent vehicles from entering the pedestrian-only streets.  Unless it’s a delivery van.  I saw one drive up to the bollards, point a remote control device…and the bollards disappeared under the street, letting the truck through.  It’s just plain smart, and you need smarts to have a liveable, human-scaled city.  Don’t we have that?

Some other treasures of Croatia: the Plitvice lakes

Some other treasures of Croatia: the Plitvice lakes

...or the city of Dubrovnik (yes, plenty of cafes there too...)

…or the city of Dubrovnik (yes, plenty of cafes there too…)

Addendum: At one of those cafés I noticed another traveler, furiously scribbling in her notebook.  We introduced ourselves: she’s Melanie Chambers, a fellow Canadian, teacher of travel and food journalism (you could do worse than check her travel blog on Croatia).   Café culture is about meeting people.  Why does this seem harder back home?  Denise Ryan recently wrote about how hard it is to meet people in Vancouver:

Vancouver is the hardest city to date in in North America. We have no dating culture here. In Edmonton, Toronto, Calgary there is a much higher chance that people will come out just to meet you for a coffee, just for the social aspect. Because Vancouver doesn’t have that dating mechanism, it’s awkward for people to ask each other out.

Indeed.  We need outdoor cafés!  We need the spirit of Zagreb!

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Written by enviropaul

March 17, 2013 at 3:13 pm

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