Croatia

Dubrovnik – history, haircuts and sex tapes

He has the look of an ageing and slightly punch-drunk heavyweight boxer. A beast of a man. I am dwarfed as he circles around me. In his giant hands he wields a cut throat razor inches from my face.
I glimpse two, maybe three, front teeth. A drop of sweat hangs precariously to the end of his nose. The heat is no friend to his size.
The bruiser pauses, stands back a little, then takes a drink from an ice cold beer. His thirst quenched he picks up his razor and returns to the task in hand. My haircut is back on track.

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Click on the picture to see Hrvoje’s unique salon

Hrvoje Cikato has been cutting hair, he’d never say styling, for 52 years. His shop is a monument to the bizarre. It houses an eccentric collection of clocks, caged birds, old hairdressing paraphernalia, religious artefacts, girlie calendars and all manner of pictures.
It is a small room in the ancient walled city of Dubrovnik. The Croatian city is UNESCO world heritage listed. The UN would be well advised to consider a separate listing for Hrvoje and his shop.

Hairdressing is in the blood, his father Angelo was a barber for 50 years. They’ve used the shop since the 1940s save for the time the Serbs and Montanegrins laid siege to the city in the early 1990s. Around 100 people were killed and two thirds of the Old Town buildings were damaged.

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Hrvoje after the 1991-92 siege

Among them was the Cikatos’ salon. It took a direct hit. Father and son had completed an expensive refit of the shop a few weeks before the siege. They moved to temporary premises just down the alleyway and couldn’t return for a decade.

The shop is rarely empty. Most callers are friends who come to chat, they also bring the 66 year old some bottles of beer. I hope I’ve timed my cut so that the beer is a help rather than an intoxicating hindrance. His friends assure me he never has more than two or three bottles a day. There are a few empties around the salon including a bottle of cognac. But who’s counting.

The shop is a draw for tourists who venture down the alleyways off the Stradum, the Old Town’s 13th century limestone cobbled thoroughfare. In summertime the city heaves with visitors. Four cruise ships disgorge 11,000 in a single day while I’m there. A walk along Dubrovnik’s walls can take hours.

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The gentle giant hairdresser

Many tourists stumble upon Hrvoje’s shop, peer inside and when they spot the exotica their cameras begin to whir. He never complains, knowing some will venture in for a cut. Thank you letters from around the world adorn his walls.

Pride of place is a photo of film star Richard Gere who dropped in one day for a trim. The gentle and personable giant even has a photograph of a member of the Obama clan getting a cut. My enquiries can’t quite work out the exact relationship with Barack but the beer will probably aid his memory later in the day.

One star whose hair he won’t be cutting is Severina, Croatia’s version of Kylie Minogue. While I’m in town she gives a free concert in the Stradum to mark the country’s entry to the EU. The Old Town is packed tight that night. I knew nothing of the diva but a quick search of the net reveals her star status.

Like any pop princess she has a history of controversy. Primarily an affair with a married businessman despite earlier public statements that she was a good Catholic girl who opposed premarital sex. The leaking of a sex tape from the tryst added to the outrage. But as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Severina dressed for a hot night in Dubrovnik

Severina suitably dressed for a hot night in Dubrovnik

This was back in 2004. Sex tapes are a little old fashioned for current en vogue pop stars so the Dubrovnik performance features her kissing women on stage. Much more 2013.
The next night is a more gentle affair, the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra, opera singers, classical guitarists, dancers and choristers do their bit for the EU. I’m not aware of any of the performers having a leaked sex tape……in some cases this is definitely a good thing.
The setting is the Rector’s Palace, an inspiring mix of ancient architecture. It’s a great night except I miss my last bus home. I’m left with a three kilometre walk and two staircases with a total of 400 plus steps.
Which reminds me, if you’re planning on coming here do yourself a favour, visit outside peak summertime and enrol yourself at your local gym’s step class a few months in advance. Dubrovnik has a world monopoly on steps and they will take their toll. They are everywhere and they don’t just come in ones or two.
The good news is that Hrvoje’s shop is in the flat part of the Old Town. Call in and he might share a beer with you while he cuts your hair. It will steady his hands and your nerves.

(Main Picture courtesy of Suellen and Roger Petrie)

Categories: Croatia, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 10 Comments

Zagreb – coffee, cafes, cigs and broken hearts

Two facts about Croatia’s capital Zagreb.

A) 109% of the population smoke
B) The city has 76 million coffee shops – that works out at ninety seven for each and every citizen.

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Zagreb’s life blood

Oh, you spotted the exaggerations. Try this then. Replace the word ‘facts’ with ‘impressions’ and now you’ve got a fairly good idea of how it actually feels.
They are the two great passions here. When you combine coffee drinking with smoking it adds up to a state of nirvana for the average Zagrebian (Yes, I made the name up as well. Humour me, I am writing this in a state of euphoric bliss on one of Europe’s prettiest train rides in Slovenia).

Zagreb, particularly the attractive old part of the city, morphs into one huge outdoor coffee lounge. Rows of tables and chairs stretch as far as the eye can see. They’re all there to serve the connoisseurs of coffee.
You’d think this would lead to a wildly manic city full of caffeine fuelled Zagrebists. Strangely, it doesn’t. The difference between here and say the US is that coffee shops are really social shops. They are for meeting and greeting, flirting and fighting (only verbally). They are about human contact more than the drink itself. It’s where life, business and pretty much everything else happens and it makes for a very social and relaxed atmosphere.

However, look closely and what you’ll notice is a whole heap of talking going on and actually not much coffee drinking. A single cup can last an eternity as they animatedly talk the day away. Croatia was ranked 18th in coffee consumption in the latest figures I could find. The biggest consumers? Finland. I can’t explain that one.

A tip for you. If you’re planning on going to Zagreb avoid repeating my mistake. I sat down, ordered my coffee and asked for the food menu. There wasn’t one. They look like cafes and they sound like cafes……but they aren’t. They don’t serve food.
What you will find, however, are cigarettes. Billions of them. Zagreberites seem to be permanently lit up. Choose the wrong table and you will disappear in a Singaporean style smog never to be seen again. This despite attempts by the government to restrict smoking.

Lighting up outside Croatia's parliament

Lighting up outside Croatia’s parliament

In offices and public buildings the recent ban is generally both enforced and effective. The only puffers unaffected are those with frayed nerves – psychiatric wards have official exemptions.
The outlawing of smoking in enclosed bars is a different matter altogether. Nobody gives a stuff about the rules. There are lots of very small drinking holes in the city. In almost every one you’ll see a Zapruder or two with a cancer stick in their mouth.
Small establishments meeting very strict conditions can apply for dispensation to allow smoking. One year after the ban was introduced just 16 bars in the whole country had carried out the work.
Good luck to the city worthy who tries to take action. The reality is that Croatians are born to smoke. Babies who are teething are given Marlboro Lights instead of a pacifier and they never get weaned off them.
The same applies to coffee. Mothers who’ve been downing espressos all their lives no longer produce milk but a kind of light latte. By the age of two the little ones progress to neat cappuccino and on it goes. The good news is that they are happy little bunnies as the early introduction to coffee shop culture teaches socialisation.

This may go some small way to explaining Croatia’s comparatively low divorce rate. All the more strange then that the capital should be the home to the Museum Of Broken Relationships. No, this really isn’t a joke. It actually exists. In 2011 it won a prize for being the most innovative museum in Europe.
I came across it in the old town and thought long and hard about entering. Given my own broken relationship from a couple of years ago I wasn’t sure if this was good for my psyche. But I’d already had 14 coffees and passively smoked 40 fags so I reckoned my health, mental and physical, would be better served in the museum than anywhere else in the city. So in I went.

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From the museum. The story read : this iron was used to iron my wedding suit. Now it is the only thing left.

What you find are the personal stories of the broken hearted along with a donated item which symbolised the relationship. There are bikes, wedding dresses, teddy bears, an iron, handcuffs (everybody in the museum stopped and read that story). There is pain, sadness, hope, anger and bitterness – definitely no shortage of this one. The range of human emotions should make it compelling but for me it didn’t quite work. I’m not quite sure why. It could have been the setting, the storytelling or the uneasy sense of voyeurism, at having a ringside seat at a stranger’s broken heart.
By the time I left I felt oddly flat. I wandered along lost in contemplative thought. Although being Zagreb it could easily have just been a cloud of smoke I’d stumbled into.

Footnote: in case it comes up in a trivia quiz, the citizens of Zagreb are called Zagrebcan or Zagrebchan. Don’t say you don’t learn something from this blog!

Categories: Croatia, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments