IT’S Saturday morning in Zagreb and the streets have turned into a catwalk.
The cafés are also filling up as people stroll and have coffee in the city centre.
They have dressed to impress in the same way we wear our best outfits for Saturday night cocktails.
This Croatian phenomena is Špica, pronounced like pizza and it translates as peak – occurring at the end of the week.
It means to drink coffee but also crucially it’s about being seen.
Ban Josip Jelačić
K&K (knjiga&kava which means book and coffee)
Cafe de Paris
It captures what Croatians care about most and that’s being with family and friends and looking fashionable.
And this cultural quirk takes place from 10am to 2pm in just two parts of the city – the pedestrianised Main Square and the Flower Square.
You could slurp caffeine in any of the coffee shops during these hours but it wouldn’t be Špica.
There are around 100 cafes in this compact area to take a seat in and watch the show.
The custom began in the 19th century and might explain why Zagreb is not swamped with chain coffee shops. There’s not a single Starbucks or Costa Coffee insight. Both came and left, promptly .
This capital city has its own rules. Coffee here is not casual. It’s not to bring a laptop or to order a latte in a pint-sized paper cup to takeaway.
Neither is it Italian, where it’s important to drink espresso at the bar as soon as it’s poured.
Instead, there’s a sense of occasion. You take time over coffee. You can even buy a sandwich from a bakery and eat it at your table. You sit and converse for on average two hours.
Špica is an art.
If you’re alone, you read a newspaper, sit outside and smoke or put on your sunglasses and just stare.
So wearing an uncomfortable dress and high heels I step out to walk the walk, talk the talk and drink the coffee, Croatian style.
In the Flower Square aka Cvjetni trg, I take a seat out in the sunshine at the Cafe de Paris. Inside there are velvet chairs and mural art works and outside there’s a large seating area with neat tables and uniformed waiters. Best of all though, it gives you a great view to people watch.
To my right, the florists sell beautiful roses and to the left and straight ahead are packed coffeehouses.
For my first coffee, I order an espresso. I had high expectations but I needn’t have worried. It was excellent. It had to be with so many venues to choose from.
Barely 10 minutes passes though and I neck it so I order another.
With the average Croatian drinking four coffees a day, you’d think this would see them ranked highly among the world’s coffee drinkers. Yet in a recent poll they only just made the top 20. Finland, Norway and Iceland took the top three spots. Croatia reached number 19. But coffee here too is a religion here.
Under the warm Adriatic sun, I begin to relax and take in the other coffeehouses.
I watch glamorous women in trendy ripped jeans and sunglasses, bearded hipsters in colourful jumpers, teenagers in branded sportswear, men in designer suits and a juggler in a onesie.
It’s a mecca for the young and trendy set in an outdoor living room.
When life comes to you in this way, there’s really no need to rush.
The biggest pressure is deciding which cafe. Beside the Hotel Dubrovnik, where I stayed, there are at least five cafes. There’s the Cosmopolitan, Charlie’s, Espresso, Le Petit, and the Hotel Dubronik Cafe.
Take just 10 steps forward and there’s 30 more. There are estimates of up to 100 coffee shops in the compact Špica area and 200 in wider the city centre. It feels there’s a seat for everyone.
There’s cute, retro and hipster coffee bars with big sofas. Some are hidden down narrow passages, others upstairs with balconies or down in dark basements and a few are spread across many floors.
In Peper they play the Beatles and in Millennium, coffee comes served with gelato.
There are no skyscrapers and the highest building in the country remains the cathedral.
After a couple of hours sitting, I need to get up. I had planned to walk the Green Horseshoe, which is a mile-long route that takes in the Botanical Gardens, the National Theatre, the cathedral, the Green Market and Stone Bridge. But I’ll go tomorrow.
Now I’ve shifted down a gear, I want to linger.
I wander, peek into cafe windows and strut across the tram filled street over to the Ban Josip Jelačić Main Square. The two big coffee houses Mala Vavana and Johann Franck are full.
I squeeze into a corner seat at K&K (knjiga&kava which means book and coffee). Inside it’s dark and cosy, packed with photos on the walls of the late journalist and owner Zvonimir Milcec. It is now run by his daughter Ana.
By my third coffee, I realise I have barely made it out of the Špica area.
But in that short time, I understand Špica underpins a whole way of life – one cup at a time.
- Zagreb is the capital city of Croatia in Central Europe
- Špica means to drink coffee but also crucially it’s about being seen
- Pronounced like pizza, Špica translates as peak and takes place at weekends between 10am to 2pm in just two parts of the city – the pedestrianised Main Square and the Flower Square
- The Špica custom began in the 19th century and there are estimates of up to 100 coffee shops in the compact Špica area
- Croatians are among the world’s biggest coffee drinkers. In a recent poll they only just made the top 20. Finland, Norway and Iceland took the top three spots. Croatia reached number 19