Eastern European Expeditions

Eastern European Expeditions: Lost in Zagreb

Budapest was next up after Bratislava, and it did not disappoint. Although firmly on the tourist track, I felt it lacked the overbearing touristic style of places like Prague. No scam restaurants trying to usher you in for an overpriced and bland bowl of pasta, far fewer souvenir shops trying to flog you fridge magnets and bongs in the shape of penises. Budapest is certainly a city, like Tallinn, that has crafted its own direction and vibe since Communist rule.

The tight streets of Pest come alive at night, and the clubbing scene does retain a semblance of originality in places like Szimpla Kert, the quintessential ruin bar with enough rooms and bars for multiple evenings worth of exploring. Instant comes across a bit less unique, but is sufficiently cavernous and labyrinthine to keep you entertained after you’re inevitably sick of the mid house the DJs insist on playing. A highlight was betting with some guys from Coventry over their upcoming fixture against my dear Norwich City, and although we shook on the terms, I was never paypalled my winnings for a dominant 3-0 victory. Gutting.

The sights of Budapest by day are equally sound, the heights of Buda with St Matthias’ and the Castle, the parliament building is majestic despite the inadequacy of its current tenant, St Stephen’s and so on. Indeed the aesthetics of the Fisherman’s Bastion and Szechenyi Baths are almost beautiful enough to justify the Instagram caption ‘Budababes’, but not quite. A walk around central Pest itself conveys its grungy-but-hip character, like Berlin with the depravity toned down a good amount. So yeah, great place, fun times etc.

Someone trying to sell me a Danube booze cruise brought my desperation to get back away from the really mainstream places back to the forefront of my mind however, so I left for Zagreb. The five-hour bus journey was mired by a 15-strong contingent of Croatian youths chatting noisily at the back of the coach, although the views over Lake Balaton somewhat balanced it out. Delivered safely to the bus station, I trammed it over to my hostel and took in a good half of the city’s main sights through a graffiti-covered window. They looked nice.

That evening, in classic fashion, I was shoe-horned into a hostel organised pub crawl, although being the sneaky man I am I didn’t pay and just tagged along, wristband-less but marginally richer. I met two fellow Norwich fans on the crawl and told them about the situation with the Coventry lads. They disapproved of their dishonesty too, all the while acknowledging that I obviously had no intention of paying them in the event of a Norwich loss either. However, with Coventry all but secured in the playoffs and Norwich stagnating mid-table, I think they got the last laugh. #webberout.

The two bars crawled ranged from good to bad, one being an edgy, all black decor, kinda goth place playing the Grateful Dead and Black Sabbath, filled with interesting people and two (!) well-behaved dogs. The other was a soulless box, albeit with a balcony overlooking Josip Jelacic Square (the main one), and indeed overseeing the mildly reprehensible yet depressingly relatable Friday-night antics of Zagreb’s adolescent community taking place upon it. Blissfully, it soon came time to go to the club.

The club at the end of the crawl can be very hit or miss. By Zagreb I was well-versed in the phenomenon, the need to socialise and have fun while travelling solo having driven me onto more than I would have liked, and so my expectations were aptly managed. It was soon revealed that our destination was a strong hour’s walk away, which became 45 minutes after we were thrown off the tram we collectively bumped. Out of the centre and well into the depths of huge Tito-era housing blocks, we reached Boogaloo. It was hit. Music: drum and bass, beer: cheap, vibes: exquisite.

After dancing the night away with the Zagreb locals, it sadly came time to depart. A very speeded man from the hostel attempted to entice a few of us into accompanying him to a rave another hour’s walk away. A tempting offer, but the collective need for a kebab had already been established so we left him to it. He was still up at noon the next day, playing beer pong shirtless in the common room blaring bad techno. What a man.

Post kebab, everyone else managed to hop into a taxi so I was left to my own devices, which I didn’t really mind. Google maps wasn’t really working as I didn’t have data, but my sense of direction is indomitable. So, I set off through the yellow-lit streets of central-ish Zagreb grooving to Bicep’s Glue, half a kebab which I was saving for later in hand. The walk went fast, I was in a good mood, high on life, appreciating the distinct beauty of an empty city in the dead of night. I made it back without any hiccups, although I did succumb to scranning the other half of the kebab.

In the end, it’s a night in my memory that I treasure, just one of those itinerant weird ones that hold a special place. Maybe ‘lost’ was inaccurate, but I didn’t like the ring of “Nocturnal Ruminations in Zagreb” or something equally pretentious. The city itself is also calm, but alas there’s not the space to discuss it. Until next time.