Zagreb's secret garden

Fabulously fun micro-festivals like Pop Up Summer Garden are livening up the quiet season and keeping people around for longer. Marc Rowlands leads us down the garden path
Petar Santini
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August is silent season in Zagreb. As the days grow stiflingly hot, the city closes its shutters and falls into a month-long siesta. With everyone on holiday, many of its bars and restaurants are closed. But Zagreb is no longer the soporific experience it once was in late summer. Over the past few years, the capital has embraced its public spaces, successfully rebranding itself as a city of outdoor events. Sprung up in parks, leafy promenades and Austro-Hungarian courtyards, city festivals are bringing some much-needed pizzazz to the drowsy summer season.

Zagreb with its picturesque upper town, sprawling lower town and characterful suburbs, obviously doesn't have the sea. But its ever-improving cultural calendar is giving people more reason to stick around in summer before they glide off to the coast.

Unlike the cooling sea breeze from the Adriatic, the concrete streets of Zagreb offer no relief from the blazing heat. But if you take a turn off Ilica onto Tuškanac, that changes rather quickly. A route seldom walked by Zagreb's residents, this street offers an instant getaway from the baking concrete and retained heat of the city centre.

After following Tuškanac for less than a hundred metres, you can feel the warmth of the day being absorbed by the tall trees that surround you on each side. The drop in temperature is noticeable on your skin, the accompanying calmness almost difficult to adjust to as, just moments ago, you were on one of Zagreb's main thoroughfares. At the end of this street, the sounds and fragrances of Zagreb's Pop Up Summer Garden greet you.

The temperature drop is amplified as you walk into the tree-lined valley which holds the summer garden, an elongated space at the end of which lies the Tuškanac Summer Stage. Tucked away from the hubub of Zageb's city centre, this summer stage offers a beautiful outdoor cinema experience, its programme running into early autumn.

A small hut housing a DJ booth is the first of the buildings you see inside the garden. But this is no outdoor rave. The DJ plays at a reasonably quiet volume, adding to, rather than intruding upon, the peaceful vibe of the garden. People sit on benches, lean back in deckchairs or lie in hammocks as they sip colourful cocktails prepared at one of the site's two bars. Others bite into burgers made on site, the after-work crowd mingling with international visitors. The disparate demographic of the crowd is something familiar to the event's co-organiser, Ante Grancerić.

Grancerić, alongside Igor Lešković and Andrija Pirnat, makes up Urban Entertainment, an event management company that has been active in Zagreb over the last ten to 15 years. They are also the team behind Zagreb's fabulous Swanky Mint Hostel, the adjoining Swanky Monkey Garden Bar and the more recent concern, Swanky Travel, a tourist agency. With the hostel and bar, they have a proven track record in creating spaces beloved by tourists and locals alike.

‘We first came here three years ago and made a small pop up for another festival’, says Grancerić of Pop Up Summer Garden. ‘We immediately saw its potential.’ They then tried a winter garden on the site here at Tuškanac. ‘That year was a really tough winter.,’ remembers Granceric, laughing. ‘If it was zero degrees in the centre, then here it was close to minus 10. But, we survived.’

The reduced temperature of the natural space may not have been so welcome in winter, but it’s what makes Pop Up Summer Garden such a success in summer. Now in its second year (although Grancerić considers 2018 its first year), it has become a calm and green oasis for those in the know, its natural environs mirrored in the all wood design of the features and stalls here.

Pop Up Summer Garden's nearest neighbours are several embassies, detached houses and a park, although all are hidden from view by trees. Zagreb's once infamous Jabuka club is also nearby, a school and sports training space too. But all are similarly obscured. Here, you can really forget you're in the middle of the city.

An 'urban jungle', is how Grancerić describes the locale. An animated and enthusiastic talker, he particularly comes alive when discussing plans for Pop Up Summer Garden's proposed end of season finale; a free outdoor concert, possibly two, to take place in early or mid-September on the neighbouring Tuškanac Summer Stage. He hopes the event will help spread the word about this little-known bolt hole in the centre of Zagreb. But Pop Up Summer Garden's relaxed atmosphere and slow pace is one of its best features. Perhaps it's selfish to hope not many more will discover it and ruin the vibe? It's rather nice having your own secret escape in the centre of Zagreb.

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