Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

While many European cities decorate their squares and boulevards with statues of kings and generals in heroic poses, Zagreb takes a different tack. The Croatian capital gives its prime spots to poets, philosophers and novelists. Rudolf Abraham takes us on a tour of Zagreb's literary ghosts.

article summary —

Seated on a worn and silvery metal bench, on a quiet tree-lined terrace in Zagreb’s Gornji grad (Upper Town), a lone figure gazes out over the red-tiled roofs and Secessionist facades of the city below. He sits, evidently lost in thought, his arms flung languidly across the back of the bench. The man is seemingly quite untroubled by the traces of graffiti on his chest and legs. Sometimes a passer-by joins him on his bench, perhaps leaning against him or slinging an arm loosely around his silvery neck, and on such occasions it is not always entirely clear who is keeping whom company.

The figure is Antun Gustav Matos (1873- 1914), poet, critic, journalist and essayist, writer of short stories as well as travelogues and one of the most celebrated figures in Croatian literature. He is to be found on his regular bench throughout the year, lightly dusted with snow on a cold winter’s morning, silhouetted against the warm golden light of a summer evening. The statue is arguably one of the most beloved in a city rich in outdoor sculpture. It is not just by chance that we find him here, though his final resting place is in the great cemetery at Mirogoj. Matos was especially fond of this spot on Strossmayerovo setaliste (Strossmayer’s Walk), writing in 1909 that "there is a bench, from where Zagreb is most beautiful in its autumnal days".

The statue is the work of Croatian sculptor Ivan Kožari?. And it is just one of the many sculptural works which grace Zagreb’s public spaces — from street corners to squares, gardens and fountains. Often standing at street level rather than raised on a plinth, they seem — despite their silence — to interact with the everyday life of the city, as if they are somehow still very much part of Zagreb today.

What is remarkable about these statues is the high proportion of literary figures and intellectuals. Most European capitals celebrate their rulers, soldiers and kings. Zagreb takes a different tack.

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Rudolf Abraham is an award-winning travel writer and photographer specialising in Croatia and Eastern Europe. He is the author of several books including Walking in Croatia, The Mountains of Montenegro, Torres del Paine and St Oswald's Way, all published by Cicerone, National Geographic Traveller Croatia, and is co-author of Istria - The Bradt Travel Guide. He has also updated the Bradt guides to Croatia and Transylvania, and his work has been published widely in magazines and online.

In 2012 his article on the 16th-century pirates of the Croatian Adriatic, the Uskoks, published in hidden europe 34, secured an award for best travel feature from the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild, of which Rudolf is a member. He is also a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Current projects include Croatian Miscellany, an ongoing and deeply personal portrait of this southeast European country, as well as new guidebooks to Croatia's islands, Arctic Norway, the Faroes and the mountains of eastern Turkey.

He lives in London. Find out more about Rudolf's work on www.rudolfabraham.co.uk or visit his blog at rudolfabraham.wordpress.com.

This article was published in hidden europe 28.