Thursday, March 18, 2010

Zagreb, Croatia: First Impressions

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia
Spring is in the air. Hooded crows and rooks are constructing nests, flowers are blossoming, and chaffinches are in full song. This may explain the good mood of the natives here in Zagreb.

Zagreb might be the nicest city I have ever visited. Jane Austen had a good riff on the word "nice" in Northanger Abbey, which has resulted in my suffering a permanent aversion to that word, so let me expatiate.

Zagreb is not nicest in the sense of "the most beautiful" (although much of it is beautiful), nor is it nicest in terms of efficiency and modernity (although its tram system is superb), nor because of the climate (although the weather today is gorgeous).

Zagreb is the nicest city I have ever visited because everybody here is just really, really nice.

In Budapest, a woman at a cash register usually grunts as she hands you your receipt, but in Zagreb my efforts to speak a few lines of polite Croatian were always met with happy grins and commendation for my effort. In Budapest, a tourist is perceived by myriad con artists as a walking ATM machine, but in Zagreb people leave you alone (although they are happy to chat with you if you wish to start a conversation with them).

I discussed the Zagreb niceness thing with a Finn from the hostel last night. He had noticed the same.

We both feel that Hungarians are somewhat Ukrainian in habit. They seem instinctively suspicious of other people and are a bit guarded (though, like Ukrainians, they warm up after a few beers). The volume of cruel scams perpetrated on tourists in Budapest is an echo of the exploitation of visitors to Kiev. Violent, racist youth gangs are present in both countries.

But in Zagreb cheeriness is omnipresent. The only police officer I have seen strolled down Tkalčićeva ulica bantering blithely with a pedestrian. You hear laughter everywhere. Old men chatter away with one another on the tram. There is a pinch of Italian extroversion in the Croatian mindset which flavors the Balkan temperament.

The Finn and I agreed that Croatia should certainly be a member of the European Union. It isn't, because EU member Slovenia has repeatedly blocked Croatia's accession over a long-running border dispute between the two countries (the collapse of Yugoslavia led to a variety of catastrophes regarding borders and displaced people which has shaken the region for decades, now).

It's a pity. But for now, Croatia retains a certain hipness for travelers who wish to brag of adventures in Europe outside of the EU.

(My Finnish friend also said that, with regard to attitude and values, Croatia deserves EU membership more than Hungary ever did, and that Italy ought to be kicked out of the EU due to extensive corruption and organized crime. Proud Hungarians and Italians, feel free to fight in the comments area here.)

Zagreb is a small city; you can explore most of it in a day. The crown jewel is Tkalčićeva ulica, a pedestrian-only street lined with coffee shops and bars with tons of comfortable chairs to lounge on outside. It's fabulous for people-watching any time of day or night. To stroll down that street is to feel like a star. I suspect that is where I will park myself most of today and much of tomorrow as well.

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