Thursday, June 23, 2016

Berlin

"Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher
Verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen"
(That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.)

– Heinrich Heine, 1821

These stirring words stare from a brass plaque placed near the memorial on Bebelplatz, a large square in the middle of Berlin. This memorial consisting of empty bookshelves under the ground was built as a poignant reminder of the day when student groups collected more than 20,000 books from different libraries in the city and burnt them in this very square on 10 May, 1933, apparently as “Action against the Un-German Spirit" and “cleansing” by fire. When Heine wrote these words, Germany was yet to witness its most historic decades that completely altered the fabric of its society. And his words, like those of all those genius littérateurs in history who could accurately discern the metaphysical human tissue with their pens, came as true in Germany as anywhere else in the world.

Remnants of the World Wars present themselves as stoically in Berlin as in most of the historic cities in the European subcontinent that suffered the ravages of battles fought by men at this historically unprecedented scale. A major part of Berlin was destroyed in the 1945 battle, following which the city was butchered horizontally and vertically into four. The local populace, largely homogenous as left over by the Nazis, suddenly found itself being ruled by US, UK, and French capitalists on every street in the west, and by the Soviet socialists on the east. And when they tried to choose one over the other, Moscow erected the 150 Km concrete wall with shoot-at-sight orders for anyone trying to cross over. Taking a walk on the East Side Gallery, the 1.3 Km stretch of the Berlin Wall that survives today makes one wonder how drastically life would have changed overnight for the residents of this land: waking up one fine day, and suddenly finding oneself unable to walk to the other side of town where your aunt lives. For thirty years.

Modern day Berlin is the most startling city I have seen in Europe. A sprawling young metropolis, Berlin clocks time as if it were an unpredictable, but endearing orchestra, playing symbolically from its Philharmonie. It preserves its classical notes of history, both old and recent, as much as it can. There are those tenors conveying the grandiose of the German Empire, as well as those sombre basses of the Nazi atrocities. And then it also offers the cheerful baritone and an infectious energy that is constantly discovering and defining the character of a merely 25-year old city.

On one hand are the castles at Potsdam and Schwerin, not too far from Berlin, which present a glimpse into the royal past. Most of the monuments in Potsdam are from the times of the much revered King Frederick the Great of Prussia, a ruler fond of music and arts. In his Sanssouci palace I saw magnificent rooms with different themes, decorated with paintings, silk hangings, sculptures, furniture, porcelain vases, and every possible piece of beauty brought from different parts of the world or created by some of the finest craftsmen of their time. Schwerin palace, situated on an island in the Schweriner See lake, was a feast for the eyes - a beautiful example of revival architecture. Within Berlin itself lies the museum island, a world heritage site consisting of four museums, the Lustgarten park and the Berlin Cathedral that offer a soothing area for a stroll.


On the other hand are the impressions of numerous known and unknown artists who paint the ruins as well as the underbellies of Berlin's modern structures with the world's most famous graffiti. On a beautiful sunny evening, I climbed up to the Teufelsberg hill with a beer in hand, a location that once was the base of a spy station used by the US National Security Agency (NSA) during the cold war (thanks to the Germans that one can drink in public). The dark leftovers of the abandoned station today host brilliant graffiti work - some more poignant than the images painted on the Berlin Wall itself. It is here where the world can feel both doomed and resurrected at the same time: there are artworks that scream out to save the world from war and destruction, and ones that show the brighter side of a life of freedom. The almost teenaged quirkiness of Berlin doesn't end here. What's even more alluring is a whole airport from the Nazi era replete with a passenger terminal and runways at Tempelhof in the middle of the city that Berlin just decided to abandon. Today, Tempelhof could easily be the largest possible public recreation area in the world where summer evenings see a horde of cyclists, picnickers, couples, and often barbecues and concerts on the flat grass and runways.


Berlin's tryst with rediscovery is most visible in the upcoming areas of Kreuzberg that host modern eateries, bars and sheesha places and where its young often hang out. I sampled what could classify as the most authentic Neapolitan pizza at Zola, courtesy my generous host at Berlin who rightly claims that hers is a city like no other and it's impossible to understand Berlin's evolving culture even after staying here for months. An evening at a local bar with a bunch of young city dwellers reinforces this feeling of permanent transience in Berlin's air.

My previous destinations in the Baltics and Poland seemed to boldly offer a platter of symbolism depicting the cruel destructions of the war and almost forcibly eliciting an instant empathy. Berlin, on the contrary, seems to constantly struggle in dealing with its vicissitudes of the previous century, like a teenager struggling to make peace with herself. Nationalism is subdued in Germany, visible only occasionally and diffidently, such as in the Germany vs Northern Ireland football game of the 2016 UEFA European Championship that happened this week. It's probably one of the fewer instances when cries of "Deutschland!" roar amongst the rambunctious young who gather for the live public screening of the game at Brandenburger Tor. It feels like history is available in Berlin for the tourist-mind to see and infer, not force-fed like elsewhere. The Berlin Wall exists, and the stark difference between the buildings on both sides of the wall also exists for one to notice. But there is no old town with cobbled streets thrusting history and European charm in your face, until you leave Berlin and go to one of its historic suburbs. The reminders of the Nazi history also exist, as a poignant Holocaust memorial in the center of Berlin, as well as the dreadful remains of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp 35 km away. But one is free to choose: to either get burdened by the sins of the past, or to look forward to the effusive creation of a city by its young.

On a cheerful note, I thoroughly enjoyed the bratwurst curry, probably the only food item that can be called 'German', consisting of sausages sliced and topped with a generous portion of mildly spicy ketchup and curry powder. Berlin also has a large population of Turks, and the ubiquitous street-side 'Kebap' shops sell, amongst other things, the delectable dürüm döner; essentially a shawarma wrap with veggies and meat. A day trip to the beautiful port of Rostock offered me further gastronomic explorations, specifically into fresh seafood coupled with beach-side beer.


Moving around Berlin is fairly easy with a highly dense public transport network consisting of regional trains, S and U Bahns, trams, metros, and buses. It is on one of these train stations that I was discreetly asked - "hey, you want some weed?" I later found out that legality of cannabis smoking in Germany falls under grey areas of the law, and possession of “small amounts” for personal use generally does not lead to prosecution (thanks to the Germans once again). Relics of the soviet era are another delight to watch in the city. There are a bunch of tourists driving around the Trabant, arguably one of the worsts cars in the world designed by the former East Germany that's now offered painted with bright colorful stripes by the Trabi museum for a self-drive. Tourists still pay to get fake visas of the erstwhile German Democratic Republic on their passports at Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie, the infamous gate where fully armed US and Soviet tanks had a weeklong stand-off during the cold war; one cannon even mistakenly fired would have escalated the world into a third war of absolute annihilation. And then there is Markthalle Neun, one of the thirteen city markets of Berlin that survives until today after 125 years. I visited the market on a Wednesday only to get disappointed; apparently it's not the day of the week when this market is setup as a warehouse of street food stalls with culinary delicacies and freshly brewed beer.

I could see today's Berlin as a pliant teenager with one foot planted on each side of its own symbolic wall - on one side is its difficult past, and on the other side is the cautiously optimistic mêlée of the present. The city itself is hesitantly taking strides, as if drifting away from both its past and the present to an altogether new identity whose demarcations are unknown. And it is precisely this celebration of transience that makes it so desirous a city to actually live in, instead of merely traveling to.


Saturday, June 18, 2016

Poland

"It's interesting how we use the land, you see", continued Loco, my host at Vilnius who is a seafarer working as a salvage man when ships sink anywhere in the world, and a farmer who loves driving combine harvesters when he isn't out into the seas. "When you are in the Baltics, you would see these farms on both sides of the road, and the farmers will cultivate maybe just a circular portion at the center of the land they have. All the corners will be left untouched. It's like f*** it, I don't care. I have enough. It works in these countries that literally have just about 6 million people combined who don't need too much grains." For a man whose three generations have been sailors, his cussing is remarkably non-existent; maybe his German origins make him a polite and engaging conversationalist. His entire sense of orientation revolves around the seas though: what's there when one drives south from the Baltic Sea towards the Mediterranean Sea, or how the world changes when one goes west towards the Atlantic Ocean, or, even more peculiarly during a board-game we were playing about identifying countries from their flags, his hint was - this country is between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Talking more about the land use, he continues - "once you get into Poland from here, you will see that the fields on both sides still have some corners untouched, but it ain't as careless as the Baltics. The Poles utilize the land better than here. And if you were to drive west into my country, you will see how every square inch of a German farm is used. Germany is tough, you can't eat if you have no money, it's as simple as that. At least in Lithuania, you won't go hungry. And my dear friend, go to Netherlands to see how they use their land! I think if it was permitted, those guys would grow crops even in the tiny spaces between the sidewalk and the fields and chop off all the trees there!"

Riding into Poland from Lithuania, I immediately notice the lack of smoothness of roads; the bus ride gets noticeably bumpy and one can feel the vibrations that were non-existent up north. The onboard WiFi service stops working, and I need to put a lid on the free cup of hot chocolate I take from the vending machine - it might spill otherwise. On a closer scrutiny of the farms, I do notice what Loco said about the fields: the human settlements in the Polish countryside start to appear more frequently, and there is somewhat ominous air of impoverishment hung all over, especially noticeable when one is traveling from the Baltics. The landscape itself is pretty flat and seems devoid of emotions, and by the time my bus is in the suburbs of Warsaw, traffic jams start appearing and reduce the speed to a crawl, further prolonging the 8 hour journey from Vilnius.

My first impressions of Warsaw are that of any massive city with concrete, coal-tar, and crowd. After much struggle, I manage to find the local bus stop from where I need to get another ride to the old town. Unlike Lithuania, where English speakers aren't as difficult to find, Poland is almost exclusively Polish, the language that probably hosts the hardest tongue twisters in the world of languages and everything from street names to last names of people are impossible to pronounce correctly. Lack of an area map even at the Warsaw Central station coupled with my non-existent local language skills made me spend an hour walking all around the station to find the correct bus stop. Twenty minutes later, I was in the old town - a small and crowded quarter by the Vistula river in the north-eastern part of the city.

The old town is filled to the brink with tourists, and it felt almost repulsive to be here: an old town that seems rather a recent urban concoction of wide roads, however cobbled, arcades, manicured gardens, a few statues, and buildings that seem desperately attempting to belong to historic Europe one sees on postcards. Roaming around amidst the hordes of people, salesmen, Romanian gypsies seeking alms, and vehicles that never stop for pedestrians, Warsaw's old town made me feel almost similar to what one experiences in China Towns in the US or Little India in Singapore: a sense of superfluity, something artificial and decidedly fake; a town desperately trying to belong, and a motley of visitors equally trying hard to justify that they are in Europe mostly by drinking what could be the cheapest alcohol in the sub-continent. I wasn't surprised to learn later that almost the entire city was razed to the ground during the second world war, and what we see today in the old town are all buildings that have been rebuilt over the last 50 years (many as recently as in the last decade) just the way they were in the past. The fact hit me hard, as if it were almost vulgar; something as disgraceful as recreating a dead man's body using a plastic mold, and displaying it to the world as a story of death, tragedy, and resilience of the descendants. I am sure the intentions must have been right, and several visitors love Warsaw just for its rather hip old town, but to me, it was a rather nauseating realization.

Poland is one of the countries that bore the brunt of wartime destruction. In fact, it was oppressed much before the war started: the flourishing land of its glorious kings which was one of the first countries to declare democracy as early as 16th century was 2 centuries later cut up into three by the Prussians, Austrians, and Russians, and ceased to exist on the world map for almost 120 years. The first world war gave the Poles an opportunity to declare themselves as a country once again in 1918, but the Nazi forces soon unleashed a reign of horror on Poles, and particularly their Jews, that has been well documented. Warsaw was the epicenter of the assault, and most of its cultural symbols were targeted and decimated. What remains today is not much: a few remains of old walls (on top of which the reconstructions happened), two or three statues that were spared probably because the Nazis thought they could use their copper later for making weapons, and some pictures from the old, prosperous Warsaw that the underground resistance managed to save. I had a chance to flip through "Yesterday's Warsaw", a coffee table book with a curated collection of pre-war photographs of Warsaw by Andrzej Sołtan that I found in a local eatery. Sipping on their Żurek, the traditional meaty soup, and snacking on Pierogi, boiled Polish dumplings filled with meat, the pictures in the book seemed more endearing and authentic than the actual old town.

Amongst the few notable people that stand out through various memorabilia dedicated to them throughout town are the first female Nobel laureate Marie Curie - the genius who escaped to France to study science against all odds and ended up inventing radioactivity and polonium, an element she named after her homeland. The city also dedicates lots of space to Frédéric Chopin, the legendary composer and virtuoso pianist who, like most gifted musicians, ended up having several scandalous affairs, drank too much, and died young. The best Warsaw has to offer probably lies outside of the old town. I met a local friend online who took me out of the old town to the library of Warsaw University - a library that consists of one of the largest botanical gardens on the roof and might just be the prettiest library in the world. We also went to grab a couple of beers from the makeshift summertime pubs besides the Vistula river. This is where I saw the jubilant local students enthused with energy and cries of "Pólska!" - Poland's football team is playing against Germany tonight in the 2016 UEFA European Championship making the environment electric. And this is where I am quietly told: locals hate the old town; too many tourists, too much noise, and there is hardly anything good about it.

My next destination in Poland is somewhat better: Krakow, a town which apparently has a friendly rivalry with Warsaw, and which used to be the original capital of Poland. Krakow survived the wartime destruction, and is the starkest reminder of World War II brutalities through its museums, and the Auschwitz concentration camp nearby. The deadly history is presented to visitors in its full force through preserved ghetto corners, and several objects and documents from the deadly era. The Krakow old town itself is so old that its 11th century buildings, some of which are still preserved, have seen remodeling from various periods - gothic, baroque, renaissance, and a tour guide pointed out patterns from each era in the same church, a field that I do not particularly understand.

I think visiting the twin cities of Warsaw and Krakow doesn't do justice to Poland. To appreciate the country, maybe one needs to at least visit the mountains of Tatras at Zakopane in the south, and the Baltic coast at Gdańsk in the north. Meanwhile, visiting the cities leaves a lasting impact on one's thoughts about humans and war. How do humans achieve such powerful cohesion and form large collective, often destructive, masses? How can human brains, the most advanced biological machines on the planet, get shaped through speeches, molded through propaganda, and made to act through persuasion as well as coercion? How do we, each of which are such fantastic individuals with unique thoughts and conscience, develop a collective thinking of abstract ideas such as nation, patriotism, purity of blood, etc. at all?


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Trakų


Today, let me start with making a case for potatoes. The beloved staple of my childhood, the humble tuber, the vegetable of euphoria. Bad press for potatoes started in my early childhood by the unscientific, clamorous in-house media departments, the ramparts of which are staunchly held by legions of relatives in any typical Indian family represented principally by their viragoes. The sloganeering that was perpetuated in those days of my early childhood development, when the brain apparently creates more than 500 new neural connections every second, went as the following: eat a potato, be a potato. To a developing brain, this worked like a Goebbelsian lie - repeat it enough, and it will become the truth. The most versatile entity of the eatable diaspora, at least for my pure vegetarian family, thus, ended up being the black sheep of the refrigerator's green compartment. This also meant that for me as a child, demanding quick fixes such as mashed potatoes with salt, fried potato wedges, or the quintessential Bihari chokha with my otherwise tasteless meals was considered an act of disobedience ('defiance' hadn't even evolved as a word or a concept until I attained post-graduation, which is when Indian males are expected to reach puberty so as to be married off) and one could lose precious brownie points for it. These brownie points were essential to gain permission for the Sunday evening 4 pm movies on our Bush black and white television set, telecast on the Doordarshan channel. And so goes the potato story: the nutrient-rich, cost-effective, high shelf-life, versatile delicacy remained vilified forever in the household.

"Eat a potato, be a potato" is a lie. I am in Trakų (pronounced Trakai), a small village surrounded by picturesque lakes in the Lithuanian countryside, and can witness the love for potato the local populace has. My hearty dinner consisting of a local delicacy, the Cepelinai, is essentially potato dumplings filled with minced meat. It's the largest portion of potatoes I have seen so far in the Baltics, and with a large mug of home-brewed local lager, it is impossible to finish. Potato dumplings are not all; in Lithuania, I have tried potato pancakes, the usual potato wedges and fries, mashed potatoes, and just boiled potatoes on the side of everything, including Lithuanian herring that consists of raw, pickled fish. Lithuanians have perfected the art of combining potatoes with cheese, meat, onions, and spices, and have truly demonstrated the versatility afforded by this king of vegetables. And if one indulges in people-watching at Trakų, observing the local men (and particularly women), one knows how we have been living the 'eat a potato, be a potato' lie!

For the love of potato, go to the Baltic countries. Put Trakų on your travel plan. Try the Cepelinai and drink beer. Eat Kibinai too. Smoke a cigarette on the numerous jetties protruding in the lake. Listen to Stephan Micus after you are satisfied with the sound of the waves and the ducks. Sleep under a tree. Soak in the life when the slow button is hit, if not the rewind one. For some time, forget the horror the Lithuanians went through at the hands of Germans and the Soviets around the time of the world wars, and countless oppressors before that. When you spot a beautiful Tatar girl in the townhall square of Vilnius, remember to etch that beauty in your mind for later. This is probably the best Europe can get.

And on a sidenote, a majority of us in India don't know where Lithuania is on the map. A souvenir being sold on the streets here in Trakų says "Yes, we exist." And a tiny group of people in JNU are researching how the Lithuanian language, one of the only surviving Indo-European languages, has so many words from Sanskrit. Surprised? This country has closer ties to us than we would imagine. And it has potatoes.


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Rīga


Here is a small exercise: search the Internet for "Prague quotes". Chances are, you will end up with praises of the city from Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera, and, if you ever looked for Hindi literature in the past, maybe a personalized result with Nirmal Verma in it. Now repeat this search replacing Prague with Rīga. It is highly unlikely that you will find anything of note. At this point, let me propose something seemingly preposterous: if I were to choose, I would choose Rīga over Prague.

Rīga, the only city in Latvia, is so underrated that it doesn't even elicit an obscure mention in European travel diaries. And I think the miscarriage of justice meted out to this pearl of a city is of criminal proportions. Rīga is a city of cobblestones and culture as much as any other destination on the European subcontinent, and then much more. Rīga is charming, for starters: consider walking around a picturesque old town with street-side cafés, cathedrals, frescoed porticos and ceilings, town squares, and shops selling spurious objects of virtu. Add to it the wistfulness of chiming trams and the charismatic inflorescence of public gardens wrapped around manually dredged canals channelized from the Daugava river: you get Rīga. Rīga is historic: two UNESCO World Heritage sites, a number of exquisite cathedrals and museums, incredibly preserved Hanseatic buildings, and its status as the seat of Art Nouveau movement in Europe - a movement in early 20th century that stressed on creative freedom and dynamic, flowing lines unlike the stiffer sensibilities of the old Victorian style. And Rīga is surprisingly unspoilt and pocket-friendly. It doesn't get the sheer number of camera-toting humanity from all over, it isn't dotted with an excess of loud pubs and nightclubs (though there are just enough of them), and a meal and a drink at an elegant street-side café will not plunder your pockets to reconsider the next one. It is possible to drink, shop, and have day trips out of Rīga to beaches and castles (Jūrmala and Sigulda respectively, for instance) without facing issues of ticket unavailability or unaffordability. 

Yes, Rīga is the only city in Latvia and over one third of the Latvian population lives here (a large proportion of the rest work here). And after visiting Rīga, I only wish there was a way for me to discover much more of the Latvian countryside. If there were a country for introverts, I think it would be Latvia. With just about 2 million Latvians in all, it's a nation of 'personal space' - to put it mildly - and what I earlier perceived as the sternness of Estonians was explained better to me in Latvia: people in this part of the world aren't cold or uncommunicative, they just take ages to open up. It's possible to be neighbors in the countryside for years without knowing each other's names. But every Latvian still belongs to the countryside at large, where people farm, grow berries and mushrooms, grill meat, and have holidays that involve long walks in the forest.

I spent most of my time in the Rīga old town, visiting the usual sites listed in the travel maps: old town square, St. Peter's Church, freedom monument, national opera, and a few museums. However, stepping out of the old town throws some real surprises. It's a treat to visit the Central Market - five imposing structures incorporating the frames of World War I-era dirigible hangars that today host the largest bazaar in Europe. People-watching here is a delight, from babushka women to high-heeled ladies, all descend to the Central Market for buying vegetables, meat, and spices. It is here that I bought my bottle of Rīgas Melnais Balzams, the traditional Latvian herbal liqueur I have begun to love.

There are several events lined up at Rīga for the summers; things as grand as an International Jazz Festival, and things as small as the Night of the Churches, and there is never going to be a dull moment. For the sake of my childhood love for potato - and there is a Reddit thread of jokes on Latvians' love for potato - I think I am in love with this European pearl. And if there was one city I would want to come back to, it is Rīga!


Friday, June 10, 2016

Pärnu


"Viisakas Linn" - Estonian for "Polite City" - is how the Mayor of the town likes to promote Pärnu. And for good reason: his hometown has no traces of the sternness of the Estonian north, and happens to be a beach paradise. Located on the south-western seaside, Pärnu is a 13th century town that happens to be modern Estonia's summer capital. On bright sunny days, it has an infectious atmosphere with mostly Finns, Russians, and Estonians from other parts of the country zooming into town for its peaceful beach promenade, famous spas, shopping, and planned exhibitions and festivals throughout the summer. They call it white nights - the timeless summers of Estonia with 20 hours of daylight. I chose Pärnu for its annual Grillfest - a 2 day festival that takes place in June on the scenic meadow of Pärnu Moat. During the festival, more than 250 food vendors from Estonia and abroad offer their delicacies in open-air restaurants and cafeterias and the town sees a lot of visitors.

I am staying in a cheap dormitory right opposite to the Pärnu Moat, and arriving a day before the weekend festival, I was a little taken aback to notice no one else on my entire floor. The very next day, the dormitory is a full house - the summer has arrived!

Pärnu happens to be historic in more ways than one. It got populated after the Ice Age itself, and much later in the 13th century, developed as the only major sea port in Livonia - a term used in those times for the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. That's when it joined the Hanseatic League and became a seat of medieval trade. Amongst others, Russians and Swedes ruled the town in various phases until it came under the Soviet occupation - the phase depicted as "red terror" in most of Estonia I have seen so far. In between, after the World War I, the Republic of Estonia was declared in Pärnu, though the joy was short-lived. Russians withdrew from Estonia only in 1995, and the country has been an EU member State since last 12 years.

The city of Pärnu has been carefully nurtured with walking and biking paths, numerous parks, hiking and fitness trails, outdoor gyms, and basically anything that can promote movement. The beach itself has shallow waters and limited waves considering Pärnu's coast being located at an inlet of the Baltic Sea, making it ideal for swimming during summer days. Pärnu is also famous for its spas, water centres, and health resorts. One of the oldest spas is the Pärnu Mud Bath that can be traced back to 1838 that was burnt and reconstructed in the early 20th century. It now houses a slick modern hotel and spa, and I was pleasantly surprised to notice how it promotes several treatments that are 'aligned with principles of ancient Indian ayurveda' that may lead to self-healing. The description of the treatments were tempting, but the right hand column desisted me from indulgence!

The weather was unlucky enough for me in Pärnu - after the highs of 20 degree temperatures last week, the mercury has plummeted to sub-10 degrees this week, and walking too much outside in the wind was difficult for my rather equator-adjusted body of New Delhi. Carrying no headgear other than a women's scarf, I did brave the weather to visit some of the notable sites in the city. One of them is a 1747 built Lutheran Church: the St. Elizabeth's Church where I again reached at the 6 pm evening prayers, sat through the priests' singing of the rosary, and ate the bread and wine offered after the mass. Renting a bicycle and exploring wider wasn't an option in the wind-chill, and I covered most of the old town on foot. On arterial streets such as the Rüütli, shops alternate with cafés, and there are a number of bars all along to eat and drink pork, potatoes and beer. The beach promenade itself was deserted, and stacked sunroofs and closed kiosks were the biggest disappointment for someone who carried swimming and running gear from 6,300 Kilometers away! Rains washed away the evening, and are predicted to continue tomorrow - a bummer for the locals considering its impact on the Grillfest. Luckily for me, though, I spent 3 hours at the Moat this morning, sampling the traditional roasted pork, baked potatoes, handmade chocolates infused with Vana Tallinn, and Estonian craft beer. Despite the cloudy skies, the festival kept up its tempo with revelling music, hordes of people, and savory aroma of fresh meat and vegetables all around.

With Pärnu, I am bidding farewell to Estonia and moving further south in the Baltics. However, some part of me believes this is the best of the three States with its rich seafaring life, food, and amalgamation of the new and the old. Until next time, and hopefully in better weather, hüvasti!


Thursday, June 09, 2016

Estonian Countryside

When there are about 5 hours between a sunset and a sunrise, the term 'nightlife' essentially loses its relevance. Thus happens with Estonian summers, though the light doesn't deter the revelling of pub-hoppers through the night in cities. The countryside, however, is a different story.

About 200 Kms southwest of Tallinn lies the island of Saaremaa, the biggest island of Estonia situated between the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga. The journey from Tallinn to Kuressaare, the island's capital, is one of the most picturesque routes in this part of the world. Buses from Tallinn drive southwest to Virtsu, a small port town on mainland Estonia. The route passes through a number of small, pretty villages where the buses make stops. They then ride straight on to a ferry at the Virtsu port. The ferries, carrying people and vehicles, take about 30 minutes to cross the Suur Strait to reach Kuivastu on the Muhu island. The buses get off the ferry and ride on to Saaremaa on a bridge that connects Muhu and Saaremaa islands. The journey from Muhu to Saaremaa is densely forested and is even more enchanting than the mainland. The buses themselves, operated by the Lux Express Group, are an ultra-modern fleet replete with television screens for every seat, a collection of movies and songs, and an on-board WiFi throughout the route validating Estonia's claim to be one of the most wired countries in the world. Estonia, just to mention, serves as a model country for free internet access mostly throughout its land area.

Saaremaa island retains its old world charm of having villages with stone fences, houses with thatched roofs, and windmills from the days of yore. Products and artifacts made of juniper wood are common all across, and the island also hosts two nature reserves that protect its rich flora and fauna. Kuressaare itself is probably one of the sleepiest island towns that has little in terms of tourist attractions and activities. There are very few tourists at this time of the year, and probably the lack of any budget accommodation further deters solo travelers and backpackers. The only sight worth visiting is the Kuressaare Castle dating from the 13th century, one of the best preserved medieval fortifications in Estonia. It is now a museum that hosts a permanent exhibition on the history of Saaremaa: a history chequered with wars, and especially the much detested Soviet occupation. The museum dedicates a floor to the Cult of Communism, the destruction brought about by collectivism, and the propaganda tools used during the occupation.

Walking around Kuressaare is difficult as the wind makes it extremely chilly to stay outdoors for long, and awkwardly enough, most places seem to be closed for the good part of the day. Kuressaare might appear dead for those with expectations of a beach-side liveliness. A breakfast at my hotel surrounded by septuagenarians reaffirmed the profile of visitors the island attracts. There isn't much to do while being here other than enjoying the overdose of cheese in local dishes (the islanders love cheese), building a taste for the tangy black bread made of rye, sipping home-brewed beer available almost everywhere, and resting at peace.

Two things stayed with me at the end of today: the drive through the Muhu island, and this quote from the Saaremaa museum - "Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man, socialism is the other way round."


Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Tallinn


"Enormous portions" is what got my attention. A cheap-looking food place, not so far from the old town square, ragged looking tables, a television up on the opposite wall mutely playing what clearly seemed like a soap-opera, and an almost empty bar counter at this odd, 5 pm hour: I had almost walked past Kompressor, a legendary pancake pub in Tallinn Old Town, my first gastronomical delight in the Baltics. Flying into Tallinn in the afternoon via Moscow, my first impressions of the town were of a quintessential European city with a strict, Russsian demeanour of its people. The Gothic charm of Europe, replete with its cobbled streets, cathedrals, and cafes is seamlessly juxtaposed here with the sternness of Russia (or at least how it seemed to me). The lady at the Kompressor service counter took my request for a smoked-salmon and cheese-filled pancake with characteristic nonchalance, as I mentally prepared myself to devour what was claimed as enormous.

One-third of entire Estonia lives in Tallinn, a port city of the erstwhile Hanseatic League (Bergen is another city on the map of Hanseatic merchants I wrote about earlier). With just about half a million people, it still isn't one of those crowded places, but does attract the highest number of tourists in the Baltics. The history of Estonia is that of a damsel in distress that has undergone so many occupations and change of names over the last several centuries that it is tough to remember. Russians have been here the longest, and have evidently left the most influence. One of Tallinn's rulers built a wall around the city in the 13th century, a common fortification strategy of medieval times, and large portions of the wall and its subsequent reinforcements are still preserved. I chose to pay a small price to climb up the Munkadetagune Tower and stroll on a section of the old wall very near to the Viru Gate, one of the eight or so gates that were part of the original wall. The entire area inside the walls is what forms the Old Town of Tallinn: a postcard-perfect UNESCO World Heritage zone of old houses, churches, and cafes. Outside of the wall lies contemporary Tallinn, a bustling modern city with glass buildings that made it Europe's silicon valley: a city with the highest number of startups per capita. One shouldn't be surprised at the quirky signs near the airport such as "You might not need to struggle for armrest space today, jus' saying" posted by Skype, a company whose hometown is Tallinn.

Exploring the entire Old Town on foot is easy with a map available almost anywhere; I picked up mine from the Red Emperor Hostel, my abode for two days in Tallinn old town that happens to be as funky a place as any dormitory in major European cities. Google Maps, unfortunately, doesn't allow saving the city limits through its Offline Areas feature, though relying on printed maps often does a better job of identifying landmarks. The labyrinthine streets are a delight to explore, and churches and cathedrals pop up after every few turns; most being Orthodox or Lutheran from years of German and Prussian occupation instead of Roman Catholic. Eastern Orthodox churches do not believe in papacy and consider all bishops as equals. Lutherans are also a class of Protestants who reject papal supremacy and emphasize the priesthood of all believers. I visited the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Tallinn's largest Orthodox Cathedral during its evening prayers, and walked out with no clue of the prayers except a sweet peaceful sound reverberating in the mind. Since prayers must be followed by food, I continued my hunt for authentic places away from the rather touristy Town Hall Square. A larger-than-life sample of the smallest pizza on the menu of Pizza Grande on Väike-Karja street convinced me that Estonians are generous with food everywhere, and love their pork and beer.

A major attraction outside of the old town is the Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour museum that easily takes about half a day to explore. It contains several wooden and motorized boats from different centuries, ice yachts, dinghies, buoys, sea mines, a seaplane, air defence systems from the Soviet Era, the original 60 mts long submarine 'Lembit', and one of the most powerful 1914-made icebreaker Suur Tõll anchored at the quay. Walking inside the 1936-made Lembit and exploring its torpedoes, staff quarters, control rooms, and engines is an enigmatic experience, and is worth the €14 entry ticket to Lennusadam. I also tried the keefir at the museum's café Maru in addition to sumptuous chicken skewers on orzotto bed. Turns out, keefir is to Estonia what plain lassi is to India. Adjacent to the Seaplane museum is the Patarei Merekindlus, a Soviet era prison that's now converted into a museum and interestingly, houses a quaint graffiti-painted bar by the beach: a gem of a secluded place that's away from the hustle-bustle of the old town.

Tallinn has been an alluring entry point to rest of the destinations in the Baltics on my radar. A land of summer sunshine where the light refuses to part with the sky even at midnight, Estonia elevates itself to mystical proportions.

About that enormous pancake meal at Kompressor? No, I couldn't finish even half of it!