Travel and the Unexpected
On arrival at Zagreb’s Glavni Kolodvor or Central Station there are no signs showing where the main exit is. There are, however, numerous bad examples of graffiti smearing the walls and ceiling of the passageways leading to the exit. This is sad because the city of Zagreb has much to offer – but in the main its filthy and crumbling walls are the introduction a visitor gets on arrival.
I like street art
I like stencil art
I do not like the mindless and illiterate and talentless scrawls and tags that proliferate on so many city walls – and in Zagreb, also on the sides of suburban train carriages. Vienna, which I had just left, also had graffiti but it seemed to be confined to the walls of the pathways lining the Danube – and in most cases was very artistic and almost attractive. Several huge pieces of street art were indeed attractive, clever and attention-grabbing.
I cannot recall seeing any graffiti elsewhere in Vienna – but of course there was probably lots I did not see – but in Zagreb it was almost impossible to avoid. The delightful Upper Town and Lower Town of the old city seemed mercifully free of it, as were most of the splendid public buildings – museums, theatres, banks and galleries – but the brutal socialist buildings dating from the communist era are so besmirched with senseless juvenile scribbles that it may almost be seen as a statement of some sort:
- Give us ugly cold concrete slabs of buildings and we will destroy them
- Give us a building of beauty and dignity and we will respect it
Of course there is another possibility that my naïve thinking had overlooked: the owners and managers of banks and government buildings perhaps have more funds to wage a constant battle with the tag artists, cleaning up their scrawls as fast as they are spewed onto the walls.
Well, that is a possibility of course, but at Zagreb’s new 2009 Museum of Contemporary Art (MSU Zagreb) (http://www.msu.hr) this is not the case. In the spectacularly ugly forecourt of this new gallery is a blot of a grey concrete cube. I heard water falling somewhere and noticed that there was a path leading into the cube. I followed the track inside, paddling through muddy sandy puddles underfoot, turned a corner and found that water was falling through two square holes in the roof, and that what had appeared to be a solid exterior wall actually stopped at water level with sunlight flooding in under the abbreviated wall and making the inside of the cube glow. It would have been quite a pleasant surprise, had the walls of the cube not been defaced by graffiti.
The museum is a curious place = with pointless stairways leading up and down – in one case leading down into a small room with no other exit so visitors then have to trudge back up the stairs to find another way out. The permanent exhibition has some striking works – including a lovely whimsical tribute to Manet by Josip Vanista: a silk top hat sitting on an impossible walking stick placed on a gold brocade chair.
However, one of the most striking and disturbing exhibits was huge 15 x 6 metre banner by Sejla Kamenc showing a pretty young woman, but with a superimposed photograph by Tarik Samarah of a graffito written by an unknown Dutch soldier on the wall of the army barracks in Potocari, Srebrenica.
Smell like s***?
This is the featured image (left) of this blog. Samarah documented many of the obscene images – including the one used in this image – from the time of the Srebrenica genocide. For those with strong stomachs see http://www.srebrenica-genocide.blogspot.hr/2008/06/dutch-graffiti-in-srebrenica
The troops were there as part of the UN force in Bosnia and Herzegovina supposed to be protecting the Srebrenica safe area during this unbelievable complex Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian conflict. The soldier’s ignorance and racist comments reflect the troubled times this part of the world has endured for all too many years.
Even in the quiet residential suburb of Ljubljanica where I stayed in a lovely Airbnb apartment owned by Sara and Mateo, graffiti was present, including the sad slogan scrawled on a footbridge:
- This is white man’s land
However there are signs that the Croatian government or the local authorities or private investors are starting to do something, as several of the crumbling, graffiti-clad Stalinist buildings were clad in scaffolding and canvas, and were slowly being cleaned up and restored. To clean the whole city will be a big task indeed.
In Vienna, too, there is work to be done.
While most of the spray-painted “art” is restricted to the riverbanks and bridges – and in one instance, a large ferryboat moored in the river – the angst of the nation is seen in the defaced and spray-painted posters all over the city. A new Austrian Presidential election was due to take place shortly after my visit and the would-be statesmen had huge posters everywhere.
Virtually none had escaped the attention of vandals – or political commentators. Some posters had little Hitler (that great Austrian export) moustaches sprayed on; others had their eyes torn out, while others had stickers of various sorts splattered on the candidates’ eyes or mouths.
So all is doom and misery?
Well not really. To say that Vienna and Zagreb are nothing more than spray-painted hells is to miss the point. The ugly graffiti and the one or two very rare striking graffito are just one part of the whole, and once a visitor can get past the ugliness, a new world of beauty opens up in both cities with beautiful public parks and gardens – Zagreb in particular has a generous allocation of green spaces – and impressive and historic buildings. There are pretty areas in the old towns of each city, and the historic areas’ relatively small sizes make a slow stroll a real pleasure.
Everyone is aware of Vienna’s golden boy – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – (actually born in Salzburg about four hours west) to whom there are numerous statues and even more numerous young men clad in imitation 18th Century brocade coats flogging tickets to the many Mozart concerts available at any time. Other famous sons and daughters of Vienna include Gustav Mahler, Johann Strauss (Sr and Jr), Otto Preminger, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt and the woman who lost her head over a slice of gateau, Marie Antoinette.
A butterfly that did not quite take off
I attended a rather middling production of my favourite opera – Madama Butterfly – at the State Opera House, but enjoyed rather more the shocking pink bunny sitting, for some reason, outside the opera house in a rare Viennese moment of absurdity.
Elsewhere in the city are other occasional visual treats. The splendid Camelot castle housing the Bundesministerium für Landesverteidgung und Sport (Ministry of National Defence and Sport – an odd pairing of portfolios? Perhaps in the next war Austria will employ karate experts and archers instead of soldiers) is next to a similarly striking white marble palace of a building housing the Ministry for Internal Affairs … but a couple of kilometres to the west is the bizarre and inelegant and surprising complex of buildings and towers housing Fernwärme Wien – the electricity company.
Fernwärme Wien has gleaming copper towers topped with odd decorative touches, vinous red growths creeping up the sides of buildings and merging with the letters forming the company name, and around many of the windows are odd-shaped mosaic patches. I am sure the Viennese burghers and matrons would have something to say about its construction, muttering into their wattles as they shook their greying heads.
On the other hand, today’s Viennese young men and women are elegantly dressed and tanned and whippet slim … but then something happens … and in middle and old age they all become dumpling and gnocchi shaped and coloured. The same phenomenon can be seen in Zagreb – although there the young men – surprisingly far more so than the women – are not only whippet thin, but also on average about seven feet tall. I am about 185 cm tall and I am used to looking over people’s heads in a crowd; in Zagreb I found myself looking at passers-by whose chins were at my eye level. There must be some special growth hormone in the local Medvedgrad beer.
Zagreb’s Old City is divided into two parts – reflecting the historical development of the city. While the Lower Town has more gardens and grand buildings, the Upper Town has twisting little streets lined with pretty shops and old houses and castles, and at night time much of it is lit by gas lanterns: Austria still employs a full-time lamplighter who has apparently become a tourist attraction in himself as crowds of Chinese or Japanese tourists line his path to click a jolly selfie as behind them he lights the 200 lamps still in use.
As I boarded my train to go to Split, I thought back on first – and subsequent –impressions of these two cities. In Vienna my taxi driver was a Nigerian named Albert who had been living in the city for ten years, and the population seemed to have very few Asians but lots of Africans and lots of Muslims. It was a quiet, elegant city with an undercurrent that offered a bit of a zip and fun.
Zagreb, on the other hand, filled me with dread on arrival – not only the interior ugliness of the railway station (whose exterior by contrast is really quite grand and impressive) – but also the crowds of football hooligans (they could have been happy school kids, really) standing on opposite sides of the tram tracks shouting yobbo slogans back and forward and making abusive gestures to each other.
And then I stopped judging the city by its cover and dug a little more deeply, finding in it elements that reminded me of the nicer parts of Barcelona and Munich, and left it with a touch of sadness, as it was a really enjoyable place of such huge contrasts.
If only someone would repair the crumbling buildings and get rid of the graffiti.
- Journey: September 2016
- Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2016. Fernwärme and Austrian political poster images from Internet
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