In need of Shelter: Medika, Zagreb’s independent creative community

By Connor Newson

Its been a little over a month since myself and Jean began hitchhiking from the West of France towards Eastern Europe. By now I have become pretty familiar with some kind of routine, or at least understanding certain objectives that need completing before the day is out. This usually includes finding a place to sleep: a field, a park, somebody’s sofa or van, a cave, practically anywhere that wouldn’t mean being moved on by police at 2am (which has happened twice already) is suitable. Think our standards seem low? Me too, but I find this is the best way to truly experience local life. However today I didn’t expect to stumble upon Medika, a former squat turned creative and cultural centre, which sheltered me if only temporarily from the fast approaching winter.

It doesn’t take long for the 20kg bag on my back to begin taking its toll as I walk towards the city centre. I take refuge in a pub and make a list of other objectives to pass time: “buy new gas canister, find gloves and scarf, buy tomato to cook with, FIND SOMEWHERE TO SLEEP”. After an hour the rain subsides, so I pack up my things. As I do so the barman asks where my hostel is. I explain to him I don’t have one. “Actually I’m looking to pitch my tent, do you know anywhere?”. He tells me this is going to be difficult in a big city, and this I know all too well from sleeping on the streets of Modena in Italy two weeks ago. “You should check out a squat called Medika, they might let you sleep there if you wash some dishes or something for them,” he adds.

With some brief directions to work with I thank the barman and set about completing my task. Daylight quickly fades and I become exposed to the captivating, however wet, atmosphere of Zagreb by night. I navigate through the bustling centre of town, watching as people pile in and out of the packed evening trams on the main square. As I pass by the National Theatre I spot a tiny patch of grass concealed underneath a small bush surrounded by busy roads. “Just enough space to squeeze my one-person tent if all else fails,” I think to myself. I carry on, determined to find this safe haven.

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Finally, as the rain picks up pace once again, I reach a complex of buildings hidden behind tall walls. Every inch is a plastered palimpsest of thought-provoking graffiti. This must be it. I enter through the darkness of a passage until I stand alone in the middle of what resembles a concrete courtyard surrounded by more elaborate street art. The rain continues to fall, and there is little sign of life besides two rooms illuminated by dim flickers of orange. A man then walks out into the shadows from a door, struggling to pull a hood over his head whilst simultaneously lighting a cigarette somewhat unsuccessfully.

“What is this place?” I call, hoping to spark some sort of conversation.

“Well”, he replies in a heavy Balkan accent walking towards me. “It’s everything.” An ambiguous response. He then gestures over to the flickering orange windows, “that’s our library on the ground floor. It has a Free Shop [where people take or leave items of clothes as they need], a small information desk, and occasionally workshops. Above is the gymnasium, and a few bars and a club space are dotted about.” They seem to have everything. I ask to check out the library thinking – or rather hoping – it’ll be warmer inside.

As I enter through a very used looking door I interrupt a group of four people who all turn to me eagerly from a table in the corner.

“Are you here for the workshop?” A guy with blonde hair, Stan, asks.

“Unfortunately not, I wondered if I can just sit in here?” I reply.

He graciously accepts, hearing the rain hammer down more heavily now. I see a sofa in the middles of the room and sit, drying off my sodden clothes by a small log-burner to my right. The embers gently throw a flickering warm glow onto the shelves of books that surround me. Lining the walls are posters of political resistance, anarchistic drawings and paintings, humanist and feminist slogans confessing solidarity in support for equality. Meanwhile a small French pug is gnawing on a bone as big as her little head underneath the Free Shop (which is essentially a coat rack full of clothes and a few bags of scarves and gloves). I quietly coax her over and she complies, bounding onto the seat next to me.

Now I sit content, listening to the relentless downpour on the window panes whilst Stan explains how clay can be purified to make medicines and toothpaste. I feel relieved not to be on the other side of that door, for instead of facing the bitter elements alone on the street I now face the warmth of a log fire with the company of a canine companion. Soon enough the workshop is finished and myself, PhD Chemistry student Stan, Art student Erica, Language student Isa, and my new French friend – who is now curled up on my legs – are sat around the burner, drinking ginger and rosehip tea to nurse our shared cold. I become eager to understand more about Medika and Stan seems more than happy to give me the low-down.

Apparently, the space was formerly an abandoned medicine factory (which explains its name) until about a decade ago when it became occupied illegally by a group of people who wanted to use it for their own desires – otherwise known as a squat. Judged as unwelcoming to begin with, the early days of Medika lacked government and public support which is not unusual when it comes to the opinions of squat communities. But time passed and creativity flourished, the space has since transcended as an independent creative social and cultural centre. With its potential now acknowledged at least in part, Medika has acquired a partial legal contract with the city which means they rely on donations from its own facilities – such as Stan’s workshop – and subsidies from exterior organisations to pay the bills.

Whether this is a genuine understanding of creative subcultures on the council’s behalf, or an effort to utilise Medika as a strategic tool to draw in tourism and subsequent capital is a different matter. Either way it seems to be surviving for now. However Zagreb’s reputation of becoming a Global City is continuously proving more fruitful, so the probability of such cultural communities becoming susceptible to over-commercialisation is undoubtedly high.

I begin to question the often negative stigmatisation of squat-like social centres across Europe. Such generalisations only serve to limit the effectiveness of similar creative spaces. Moreover, these communities are usually born from a genuine desire to construct a space that allows the free collective creation and consumption of creativity, which is becoming increasingly important as more and more public spaces become privatised.

As late evening approaches, I again become aware of the outside world and my imminent mission to set up a small tent underneath a small bush on a small patch of grass, surrounded by not-so-small roads. However, on hearing this, Stan instead invites me to crash on his sofa. My need for shelter has been graciously welcomed by a likeminded soul in the confines of a former medicine factory – a perfect turn of events in Zagreb, besides the illness of course. But we have more hot tea for that inconvenience.

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Trespassing inside a dragon in Vietnam’s most impressive abandoned waterpark

by Connor Newson 

Hue is a city probably best experienced in high season when the sun is bouncing off the glorious roofs of the luxurious palaces and Imperial City, that reside within the walls of its 19th Century Citadel. But when you find yourself trapped under the sheltered balcony of a hostel during monsoon season, with the rain relentlessly blanketing the city, what better thing to do than explore an abandoned waterpark eight kilometres from the city centre.

Ho Thuy Tien cost its investors about three million US dollars to construct and was only partially complete when it opened to the public in 2004. Soon after the project was abandoned, characterising a failed attempt to capitalise on Vietnam’s recent influx of tourism. Now, as nature rightfully reclaims its space, the park has become a hidden gem for avid urban explorers eager to experience the seemingly post-apocalyptic paradise.

Over the past few years I have obtained the firm belief that the most effective method to discover a place, whether that rural or urban, is to get lost in it. To wander almost aimlessly rather that being herded by a tour guide who pre-emptively assumes the sites she or he thinks you want to see – so long as you have your wits about you. With this in mind, I head out.

A quick Google search suggests the location can be found only by word of mouth, by the subtle exchange of a scrunched up piece of paper passed from one traveller to the next. When I ask some locals how to get to Ho Thuy Tien they appear as oblivious as I am. I begin to question whether this place really exists, or that maybe its whereabouts is being desperately suppressed to preserve its non-commodified beauty. Possibly neither, because when I mention the words “abandoned waterpark”, something clicks.”Ah yes! Waterpark”.

Eight kilometres later, my taxi tentatively approaches a large algae-covered decaying archway Paint peels from its walls, raised letters read ‘Ho Thuy Tien’ in a bold blue font. Below there is no gate, no makeshift barrier obstructing my entry, and no gatekeeper pretending to be an official guard ready to exploit the curious explorer by asking for a fee – something I was  warned about. Only a long straight road lay in front, disappearing into the foggy woodland. I continue, knowing the taxi would wait only an hour at the entrance and begin to follow the mysterious path, hesitantly remembering that crocodiles once roamed these lands soon after its downfall. (They have since been removed, apparently).

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Soon enough I stumbled upon a clearing where unusual shapes, sculptures crafted from stone, had been scattered across the grass. They stood isolated from one another, mimicking the parks isolated geographical location. Untouched and unobserved for over a decade, I find myself feeling selfishly fortunate of being able to admire a stranger’s artwork with no other human distraction, in the eerie tranquillity of a foggy gallery.

A little further and the terrain alters. The grass becomes swamped with water as I trudge to the edge of a lake sprawling into the distance. Dirty, green, and unmaintained, I think of whether it would look more beautiful if instead it had been maintained, if instead there were hundreds of people sat around or rushing to the now deteriorating attractions. Then I become content with the idea that nature being able to flourish without intervention is much more beautiful.

I wander further down a narrow broken path with tree roots clawing at the unused waterlogged path that winds around the lake. My pace comes to a steadying stop as a large and pervasive dragon emerges from the heavy fog. It towers high, looming over me with its gaping jaw guarding its territory from one end of the lake. Its tail coils around a dome-shaped smaller structure, the metallic skin rusting where the algae has not yet claimed. A darkened doorway  lays ahead with shattered glass glistening in the water at its base. Not the most welcoming of entrances, but then those in abandoned complex’s rarely are. I guess that’s part of the thrill in urban exploration: heading into the unknown and discovering without someone to guide your hand.

I step through, observing the graffiti that plasters the walls, and begin climbing a spiral staircase into the darkness above. After a few flights of watching my footing intently, feeling daylight struggle through the clouds to illuminate my path, I stand in awe staring at the teeth of the beast. I am standing in the mouth of the dragon I had gazed at only moments before. I feel suddenly superior, suspended high above the trees observing the desolate vastness of the park. The lake stretches out in front, three dilapidated waterslides that descend into the trees in the distance on my left, and an eerie-looking grandstand looms opposite.


From this slight altitude I feel a real sense of how isolated and beautiful such a place can be, especially without the interference of excessive human presence. It makes me think, as it usually does in these situations, would I really  have found this place if I was being led on a leash by an overpriced guide showing you places that they think you would want to see? Maybe, but  I prefer going solo. There is more risk that way.