I had just arrived in Zagreb the previous day - my first time abroad in almost a decade, and more importantly, my first time abroad alone. I came here wanting to revisit my Fallout Hacking Minigame that I had made two years earlier, so a priority would be finding somewhere I could work comfortably and consistently.
I was the first to wake at the Hostel I was staying in. I had also been the last to go to sleep, so even though I was a little sleep deprived I must have been excited to greet the city. I wanted to see and experience everything Zagreb had for me.
My first task was to pick up a toothbrush and toothpaste as I had forgotten to buy one the previous night. The text on my toothpaste was in German, which I found interesting, and I was encouraged that my German skills were good enough that I could read it. The shop assistant spoke to me in Croatian and was really surprised when I apologised couldn’t speak it - I think perhaps I went to a shop frequented by locals!
Where To Work
Next, I needed to find somewhere I could work out of. I had pretty stable WiFi in the hostel I, but I didn’t want to spend all my time there. Plus they wanted rooms empty between 11AM and 2PM for cleaning.
I had an idea that public libraries might make a good space to work from.
My first attempt was the City Library Zagreb, located at the edge of the King Tomislav Square. The foyer really didn’t look very promising; there were ancient-looking computers available to use freely, but no space to sit down alone with a laptop.
City Library Zagreb. Photo taken from here.
There was a stairwell at the back of the building, and I ascended to look at different floors; perhaps I could find a suitable space up there. I kept seeing these little plaques on the doors, which I assumed denoted the function of the room. I used the Google Translate app’s “Camera” functionality to inplace replace the Croatian with English so that I could understand the labels on the doors - Reading Room, Resource Pickup, etc.
I got to the top floor of the building, where a cleaning lady was sweeping a landing. Through a door behind her I could see lots and lots of desks, but before I was able to investigate, she barked something Croatian at me and her general demeanour made me think I shouldn’t be here, so I went away sheepishly after explaining I hadn’t understood. She merely rolled her eyes.
I had been running into the Eduroam WiFi signal pretty much everywhere I went so far. Eduroam is a WiFi network that is used by universities around the world; if you have an account at one university, you can connect everywhere. This gave me the idea that I may be able to find a University library that I could work out of, just like I always did as a student in Southampton. I looked online and The National and University Library of Zagreb seemed a good candidate.
The National and University Library of Zagreb was semi-close to King Tomislav Square where I was standing, but on the other side of the train lines. I could see a set of stairs which appeared to go down to a tunnel and then under the tracks. What I found there was not what I was expecting.
Beneath the train station and the local park in front was a big underground shopping mall. It really surprised me as I was expecting a dirty tunnel and the smell of pee, but instead was this relatively well-kept place. It reminded me of something you might see in a Cyberpunk film, novel, or artwork, where the rich live on the surface and the population live underground. It’s a novel solution as much of the architecture in the city is old, so it lets them have a central mall without demolishing anything with history.
It’s weird, because directly on the other side of the train station is a lot of abandoned places. For example, there was somewhere that looked like it once used to be a mall or a bus station or something in the 60s, but now was just completely and utterly covered with graffiti. I also saw a huge concrete structure with a whole side of the building ripped off, and all the furniture missing.
Eventually I found my way to the University Library, but was disappointed to find that the main part of the building was behind a card-scanner. I had been expecting this but hoped it might be open to the public. I was able to sit in the large open lobby here, with my laptop on a bench. I was considering my options here, when a young lady comes over to me with a microphone and asks if I was here yesterday, and if I witnessed ‘The Incident’. I explained I had only just landed in the country the day before and I didn’t know what she was talking about. It seemed obvious that being here wasn’t sustainable, and I was getting strange looks from those around me, so I left.
Sveučilišna livada park. The path isn’t aligned properly, which is mildly infuriating.
I loitered in the nearby Sveučilišna livada park, trying to look up other libraries, and then coworking spaces, on my phone. I noticed a common theme; the libraries were either just places with books and no places to work, or they were only available to Croatian citizens. The coworking spaces were too far out of my price range, or catered only to Croatian citizens. Bummer.
I had also noticed from my little bit of walking around that I hadn’t yet seen a single person using a laptop at a café. There are probably dozens of cafés around the city, and I had probably already seen over a thousand people sitting in them, but yet not one where someone was working there? Most cafés in Zagreb have mostly-outside seating, so it’s not like I’d miss it. I didn’t want to go in and sit down only to be forced to leave again. This observation basically nixed my fallback plan.
It was now that I started to get this sense of dread. This feeling that I had made a huge mistake coming here. I started to feel sick in my stomach and I was suddenly really not confident that my decisions were sensible.
Adjusting To My Environment
I decided that what I really needed to do was settle down and get comfortable here and not worry about that stuff. Put myself at ease, you know? Maybe the solution would come to me, who knows? No point getting stressed out.
I had been talking to my friend Daniel whilst I wandered around, and he said that the next thing I should do is find somewhere to eat. I actually hadn’t realised how hungry I was until he told me that. He helpfully looked up Zagreb on HappyCow (a Vegan/Vegetarian website) and pointed me towards Green Point.
Green Point sells burgers, falafel wraps, grilled vegetables, fruit shakes, and Thai and Chinese-style wok-cooked foods, as well as different types of fruit- or milk- shakes. I had trouble ordering at first because the main display board is in Croatian, but they helpfully provided me with a hand-held menu in English.
The decor here is really minimal but with a romantic charm - they leave out post-it for visitors to leave messages, and they’ve plastered the walls with them.
I spent the rest of this day just exploring and trying to relax my nerves.
Zagreb is an incredibly green city. There are lots of little green parks and spaces all over, and I enjoyed seeing each one.
In the botanical garden pictured above, I saw a metal tin stuck to the back of a sign with a magnet. Inside was an incredibly cryptic note. It seemed to be about some kind of puzzle or something, and there were a few scraps of paper with symbols. I felt like I was finding it part-way through the puzzle and didn’t comprehend it, so I left it alone. Interesting, though!
I explored for hours and it was quickly dark as we were rapidly approaching November. A few of the roads I had explored had been pretty dead during the day, but when I went back there during the night, they were bustling with activity.
An advertisement for beer that reminded me of Hotline Miami.
Some of the back streets felt even more alive than the main squares. There was music coming from the bars and restaurants, there were people everywhere, and there were pleasant smells wafting around. I even saw a couple of guys wandering around dressed up in WWII-looking uniforms and gas-masks, which was a little cool but also weird and at some point I started to wonder if these guys were actual Croatian authorities.
I went to bed exhausted that day.
Frustratingly, a new guest arrived in the hostel room at 4AM and woke me up, so by the time I got up at 9AM, not only was I exhausted and cranky, but I also found that the bathroom had been flooded and that there was a horrible smell and black dirt everywhere. I had wanted to stay a few hours in the hostel in the morning to do some more research and decide on a plan of action, but the smell was so bad that I just left immediately.
Back when I was on the plane and about to land in Zagreb, I had seen this huge smoke stack in the west of the city - it towered above pretty much everything else and I had made myself the promise that I would go and visit it. I spotted it again from the first crossroads that I came to after I left the hostel that day; it seemed so far away now that I was here on foot.
I decided go there anyway, as getting to know the outskirts of the city could be both gratifying and possibly useful. I passed through the heavily graffiti’d streets I had seen on my first night, and then out towards a main road. Graffiti really is everywhere here. Most of it is just tasteless rubbish scrawled by a vandal with nothing to do, but a portion of it is legitimate art.
Eventually, I arrived at the smokestack and found that it was for a power plant. It was really, really, really massive though - it is 200m tall. I’ve seen the top of it be obscured by fog and clouds. I think it is one of the tallest structures I have stood at the base of.
It’s still only half as tall as the tallest chimney is the world, but when you consider that the chimney is a quarter as tall as the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, it still feels very impressive, at least to me. I also find it impressive that the tallest chimney in the world is taller than the roof height of the Empire State Building. Wow! (Tune into my ChimneyFacts(TM) podcast for more exciting chimney information.)
At the base of the chimney is a sports pitch. I wondered if the football players who came second in the World Cup this year ever played there?
The chimney was in the west of the city, and I continued wandering west and south west a little while. A lot of the buildings were quite run down in this direction, which I found quite sad. I even saw a few buildings that were clearly abandoned, whilst others appeared lived in but had collapsed roofs. Others were structurally sound but were very run down.
This area felt a little dangerous, and not wanting to go too far in a direction away from the city centre, I decided to start heading north, up into the hills. In the north, the architecture is very different, and it feels a lot more high-end residential. You see more traditional houses rather than the big communist-looking block-y houses or blocks of flats that are common further south. Everything was in much better condition; the houses were well kept. The gardens were neat and maintained, and everything looked like it might have been painted sometime in the last few years. Little alarm systems were fitted to the front gates.
I was trying to find a good place to take a picture from as the hills are substantially elevated, and whilst I kept seeing little slices of the city, I didn’t find a good spot. The roads were really windy, so when I decided to go back to the city, I ended up getting really turned around and ended up heading west rather than the east I had intended. I kept expecting that I’d run into a street I recognised, but that didn’t happen. I wasn’t paying attention to the direction of the mountain relative to myself, so the only indication I had that I was heading in the wrong direction was that the crowds were thinning and the types of building started transitioning from downtown-looking places to residential places again.
I eventually encountered the railway, which offered an open clearing allowing me to see where I was better. I saw a bridge that was brown with rust and marked with signs saying that using it was at your own risk. I hesitated taking it, but when I saw that the locals were happy to use it then I was too. I was able to take this panoramic photo. The chimney I had visited earlier seemed so far away now!
A Working Solution
An observation I made was that free, public WiFi sources were available pretty readily throughout the central parts of the city. The connections were fairly stable, and fast enough that I figured I could comfortably sit in the main plazas and parks with my laptop and work there. There were thousands of people around and police too, so I wasn’t worried about becoming a target for criminals. Crime is fairly low in Croatia anyway, if the official statistics can be believed.
I sat by this fountain so often that I was caught in people’s Instagram pictures.
Sitting in these public spaces to work has a lot of quirks and perks. I saw countless street performers, including a man who plays familiar pop songs on a saxophone, a Spanish woman who sang the same song over and over again every night, and a lady dressed in some kind of milk-maid-looking-outfit who continually cranked some kind of mechanical organ. I’ve even seen processions of Buddhist monks, dressed in orange robes and with shaved heads too, which was bizarre to see in Europe. They came and hassled me about ‘money to print books’, so I feel like they are running a scam of some kind and are not actually proper monks.
I also sat in King Tomislav square fairly often. It’s a less favourable spot though, as people go there to smoke. Judging by this picture there also seems to be some kind of spatial anomaly centred on my laptop. So watch out for that.