Monday, 15 April 2013

The first time..

Before I left Singapore, I'd been getting word from Zagreb that snowfall was forecast for the coming days. I was in a bit of a panic: how much snow would there be? Do I need to pack more clothes? More importantly, will I withstand the cold?

Regular checks on the weather assured me otherwise. The mercury would not dip below 7 deg C for the most part. Plus, since I've experienced temperatures around that figure, it shouldn't be too unbearable. When I got into Zagreb, it was 15 deg C. Perfect.

The very next day was dulled at around 5 deg C, and it rained in Belgrade the day after that. On the third day, I decided to go out for a walk at around 7am because I could not sleep anymore and breakfast was only going to be served about 2 hours after that. I stepped out of the building into a chilly street, eyes darting this way and that, before I turned the corner to walk down the slope in the direction of Kalemegdan Fortress. Very quickly I fixed my gaze to something floating in the air. The faint white specks themselves looked confused as they fell erratically and disappeared as immediately as they appeared. What is this, I asked myself as I took slow measured steps. I looked around me and it seemed it was only I who was disoriented. This is it, I beamed -- snow! I ran back to my room in the hostel to add another layer of clothing (I'm sure if I had run down the stairs afterwards any sooner my vacation would have taken a dramatic turn). Back on the street minutes later, I walked calmly with a regular pace. It's only snow, nothing extraordinary to be excited about. But the child in me was thrilled, of course! I tried several times to capture the sight with my camera but the white stuff was too mild. The next best chance was when a blizzard occurred while I was walking along Knez Mihailova Street, but I did not want to risk damage to my camera.

When I returned to the hostel, the receptionist look at me in complete shock.
'Where were you?'
'Oh, I'd gone for a walk!' I beamed.
She raised her eyebrows. 'In the snow?'
'Yes! It was my first time!' It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that she was disgusted. 'I'm sorry,' I continued, 'it's just that I come from a city where the average temperature is 30-33 deg C virtually every day of the year.'
She looked at me as if to say 'that's no excuse', but finally said: 'Please take me back with you!'

Post script: I may not have managed to take pictures of snow in Belgrade, but I had ample opportunity to do so in Timişoara, Romania. Attached below is one such photo.

the snow settles for a bit and the pigeons come out to socialise at Piaţa Victoriei

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Destination Zagreb

panoramic shot of the Upper Town (Kaptol area) 

Think Croatia and almost instantly, the image that comes to mind is that of islands and the coast. Mention 'Zagreb' and chances are you'd get someone scratching his/her head wondering why anyone would go there (that is, if they even know where it is). But having been there twice, I'm happy to report that the Croatian capital has its own share of things to see. For instance, Zagreb has some fine museums, with several of them located in Gornji Grad (Upper Town). The following are some of the ones I personally liked:

Museum of Broken Relationships (Ćirilometodska ulica 2): People drift away after relationships end, but what about the things that bound them together--letters, gifts, etc? This museum is a mausoleum to love lost. Some have funny stories attached to them, others lean toward insanity, and then there are a few which might just break your heart. This museum was the winner of the Kenneth Hudson Award 2011 for the most innovative museum in Europe, and I highly recommend it.

Meštrović Atelier (Mletačka 8): The former home of Ivan Meštrović now houses about a hundred of his sculptures, drawings, lithographs and furniture over three levels. A similar museum is located in Split, and his works are also to be found in parts of the former Yugoslavia.

Museum Mimara (Roosveltov Trg 5): Here lies the diverse private art collection of Ante Topić Mimara. He donated over 3,750 objects to the city of Zagreb even though he spent much of his life in Salzburg, Austria.

Other attractions
St Mark's Church (left): This 13th century structure is Zagreb's most emblematic building. As you walk towards the church from the direction of the Museum of Broken Relationships along Ćirilometodska ulica, you'll see the church's colourfully-tiled roof. They make out the coat of Zagreb and Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia. 

Dolac Market (below): This place has been heaving with activity since the 1930s and traders from all over Croatia come here to sell their products. Snoop around for locally produced honey, handmade ornaments, and delicious food. 

Old Town Gate, at the top of Radićeva street (Upper Town): It is now a shrine to the Virgin Mary. You can light a candle here and (locals believe) your wish will be granted. But do remember to maintain silence, even if you're only passing through.

Trg Josipa Jelačića (right): This is Zagreb's main square and a common meeting point. Being part of the pedestrian zone, it is mostly inaccessible by car but most tram lines through the city stop here. The square also features the equestrian statue of ban Josipa Jelačić. It commemorates his battle against Hungary in the Revolution of 1848.

part of the fountain outside the Cathedral
 Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (left) at Kaptol Square: Coming from the airport, the twin spires come into view even before you reach the city centre. Construction began in the 13th century and the structure underwent reconstruction in the neo-Gothic style around the turn of the 20th century following an earthquake in 1880. Do remember to dress appropriately if you want to enter.
Zagreb's Green Horseshoe: If you look at a map of the Lower Town, you'll notice a green U-shape extending from the Croatian National Theatre from one side, to the Gallery of Modern Art and Archaeological Museum on the other. This green space was the brainchild of an urban thinker by the name of Lenuci at the end of the 19th century. It takes in several squares in the city (including Trg Maršala Tita and Trg Kralja Tomislava). Along the way you'll pass gorgeous Art Nouveau buildings, the Strossmayer Gallery of Old Masters and the iconic Regent Esplanade Hotel (above), which was built next to the train station in 1924 to welcome the Orient Express crowd in style.

a stretch of the Green horseshoe along
Trg Kralja Tomislava
 Getting In
Air: You have Croatia Airlines which flies you to major European cities such as Amsterdam, Paris and London, Qatar Airways to international destinations via Doha and Turkish Airlines via Istanbul. Air France and Lufthansa also have flights from Paris and Frankfurt respectively.

Train: Connections include neighbouring cities such as Ljubljana and Belgrade, and other major points in Europe including Zurich, Munich and Vienna. 

Bus: By far the most reliable if you're travelling around the region to cities such as Sarajevo, Belgrade and parts of the Croatian coast.

When to go
I went in March and April, but if you don't like spring (or a period when winter hijacks the season as happened during my 2013 trip), I suppose a better bet would be going between late May and early October. High season is between June and September.

How many days
Depending on what you'd like to see, really. If you're a museum junkie, 4-5 days would be good. The same duration would be good if you'd prefer to do day trip(s) out of Zagreb. Otherwise, I'd say 3 full days if you decide to pick and choose.

Croatia uses the 'kuna' (Kn). The country will join the European Union in July 2013, but there won't be a change to its monetary unit (yet).

Nobody's Home by Dubravka Ugrešić
Trieste by Daša Drndić

Friday, 12 April 2013

Game of the Year

19th Mar '13
Some MPs are crying foul over the names of some fellow parliamentarians: their last names sound Serbian. Never mind that they may not be Serbs. Nationalism is on a high, said Vjeko. I told him it reminded me of a wedding party I saw in Split last year: the couple was being cheered on at the steps of the main cathedral, their relatives and friends were dancing, and in the background, someone was waving the Croatian flag. I was told people are asserting their patriotism at any given opportunity. People need to be sure of who you are, your allegiances. Loyalties cannot be suspect.

Especially not at this time, when there's going to be a football match between Croatia and Serbia in a matter of days. The game, a World Cup qualifier, is the first between the two sides in at least 10 years. It is to be held in Zagreb, and Ognjen told me Serb supporters would not be allowed to enter Croation territory to attend the match. There's no guarantee for their safety, especially if Croatia loses the match. As it is, matches between rival clubs within the country have often triggered violence, so one with the (former?) enemy would not be spared, he pointed out. I was reminded of the soccer war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969.

The day of the match
The game between Croatia and Serbia took place while I was in Belgrade. Walking back to the hostel, I passed bars and pubs with flat screen TVs mounted on walls and scores of eyes glued to them. The same was true of the hostel, where I found one of the receptionists standing behind his counter.  The other one, however, had his back to the TV and was surfing the web.
'I'm back in time it seems.'
'Yes!' the first one said to me. I looked at Max, the one on the computer, and asked why he wasn't watching.
'Why bother? Serbia is going to lose.'
'How can you be so sure?' I asked.
He turns towards me, 'The Croatian team is ranked way higher than the Serbian one. The stadium is filled with Croatians, and there are no Serb supporters. So what do you think?'
'Yea but who knows? Things can happen, no? Maybe the lack of supporters might spur them on, you know, reverse psychology and all..'
'Uh huh.'
'What do you think?' I ask the first receptionist (whose name I've forgotten).
'I think there's no saying what would happen. Serbia might win.'
'That's such a typically Serb position. We're always hoping against hope,' Max countered. 'Don't get me wrong, I love my country. But I know when to call a spade a spade.'
'OK, but I'm not Serb..what do you have to say about that?' We waited for a response. Max went back to what he was doing.

After the first half, Serbia was down 0-1. Sometime into the 60th minute, Croatia gave the Serbs what they were waiting for: a guaranteed exit. I could not watch anymore. That night, the streets of Belgrade were quiet.

The next night..
I met Nikolai in his pub behind Novi Sad's famous Cathedral. At some point the game took centrestage in our conversation.
'Did you watch it?' I asked.
'Yes, we lost 2-0.'
'Oh well.'
'Too much attention was given to it anyway. You know Serbs weren't allowed to attend the match?'
'Yes, security concerns and all. I also heard that the Croatian side had a lot of media attention while the Serbs conducted their training under tight security and a media blackout.'
'I don't understand..why does a football match have to be politicised? I have Croatian friends, I have Bosnian friends. Why does it always have to be 'us' against 'them'?'
'I heard similar rumblings in Zagreb. Nobody wants another war.'
'The politicians do. The other thing is this: Serbia has talent in other sports, but they never get as much attention. Everything is focused on football even though we don't do well in it.'
'Sounds familiar,' I offered.

Towards the end of my trip two weeks later..
I was walking down from Ognjen's apartment to the main square. Nothing much has changed here from the last time I was in the city. The same cafes, the same pubs. I went past a chocolaterie, and made a mental note to drop by before flying back to Singapore. A few doors down is a pub, whose tables outside were empty. I caught sight of a blackboard stuck to a wall close to the door. On it were the words 'Hrvatska i Srbija', and under it, 'GAME OF THE YEAR!'

Ognjen was probably right. It could have been very ugly, if Croatia had lost the match.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Spring on a break

I returned to Zagreb for the second time in mid-March. Strangely it felt like I'd come back to a city I know very well. I walked around without the curiosity of a first-time traveller. I knew which corners to turn to get to a destination in the shortest time possible. Heck, I'm sure I could have given directions to a lost tourist as well.

The temperature on the day of my arrival was 15 deg C, the warmest it had been in days, as I was told. Little wonder then that Vjeko was most amused seeing me in a leather jacket when we met in the late afternoon.
"How often do you wear it in Singapore?"
"Never, of course."
"Ah. It's your journey jacket then."
I liked the sound of that.

The mercury dipped the very next day, as I left for Belgrade. Coupled with days drenched in rain or speckled with snow, the temperature hovered between -2 and 6 deg C for the most part of my journey around the region. Everywhere I went it was the same lament:
"This is nasty weather!"
"We're not supposed to still be getting this much snow now!"
"There were days in February when we had sun. Who knew it was because this was coming?!"
"What are you doing here?"
"I feel sorry for you."

It was the same routine everyday: rub sleep off the eyes, turn on wifi, check the latest temperature, peek outside the window for a confirmation.

Zagreb's main square, 3rd Apr '13
I have to admit I was not really perturbed by Europe's meteorological problem. Granted, the most annoying thing about the weather was the fact that I had to spend a few minutes putting on a few layers before stepping out (returning to Singapore and walking around in just jeans and a tee left me feeling naked for some days). Otherwise it was yet another experience for me. One morning in Novi Sad, someone marvelled at the fact that a marathon was to take place in the city. A check on a mobile phone revealed that it was -1 deg C at that moment. So this is what going below zero feels like, I thought quietly to myself. I could have said it out loud to perhaps elicit a few chuckles. After all, I was the only foreigner around from the tropics in the distant East. But judging by the company I was keeping, it was a better idea not to try my luck. The other thing I discovered was how blood quickly rushes back into exposed palms once the slightest hint of heat envelopes it. This observation was more palatable, and whoever I said this to usually responded positively: "You learn something new about your body everyday."

St Mark's Church in Zagreb, 4th Apr '13
I returned to Zagreb on the 3rd of April. On one day while I was away, I was told the city received 15 centimetres of snow (didn't sound too bad to me) and I was forewarned to expect some as well. I suppose the snow got tired of falling by the time I got back. Zagreb was on edge, trying as quickly as possible to melt remnants of the white stuff (get lost! Spring is due any minute!). You could still see big lumps gathered around parts of the city, much like mounds of rubbish in some other part of the world. And as it turned out, the 4th of April woke up to a crisp 11 deg C, inching up at some point to 12 or 13. What a difference a day makes! You could actually see the relief on their faces, and the spring in the steps people took was conspicuous. I even spotted some cyclists in just T-shirts and jeans -- such was the desperation to shed the extra layers as soon as they could.

While we sat down for an afternoon coffee, I remarked to Ognjen how my arrival in and departure from Zagreb had been characterised by sunny days. He agreed and smiled. 'Looks like your city and I have established a peculiar relationship,' I said.

Quite possibly. The very next day, as I was flying out of the city to return to Singapore, the clouds burst forth once again.

Everything is free!

At a museum in Novi Sad, Serbia...

Me:         Hi, I'd like a ticket please?
Curator:  Oh, it's free. (Shows me the way into the exhibition space) Please, enjoy the artworks.
Me:         Thanks!

After I'm done with the exhibits, I return to the main lobby and browse postcards at the information desk.

Curator:   (Appears from another room) Please take them, they're free.
Me:          Really?
Curator:   Yes. (smiles)

I pick the cards I want. Then I turn towards the curator..

Me:          OK, so the exhibition was free, and the cards were free..are the paintings in there free too? Can I take one too?
Curator:   (Roars with laughter) Of course! Help yourself!

Collection of Rajko Mamuzić
 It represents works of post-World War II Serbian/Yugoslav painters. it was presented to the city of Novi Sad as a gift in 1972.