Showing posts with label Europe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Europe. Show all posts

Sunday, June 09, 2024

Vienna: Take Two

About 30 planes descend into Vienna every hour. Each of these metal birds cruises through the air, seemingly by magic, carrying human lives along with their hopes, dreams, anxieties, and plans. When the skies are clear, one of the most noticeable features of the Austrian landscape visible from these planes are perhaps windmills. Their white blades turn slowly and languidly, appearing to yawn and stretch, almost slowing the passage of time.

The passage of time has always been more a product of fragile human imagination than an immutable truth. Attempts to quantify this infinity have confounded us for ages, and we find solace in sayings like: Years fly quickly, but hours stretch long. Or more simply: life is short.

The city of Vienna has seen its years, and life in those years. Generations have lived through tragedies, wars, prosperity, and resurrections, all woven into the ebb and flow of the city’s history. From Roman military camps in the first century, to the Babenbergs a thousand years later, to the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the World Wars. History only occasionally throws surprises; pick any parcel on the planet from any era, and you will find humans surviving under kingdoms, religion, tribalism, business, and propaganda, and yet creating thoughts and objects of incredible beauty and value. Vienna generated its share of art, music, architecture, and intellectual life with composers like Beethoven and Schubert, luminaries like Sigmund Freud, and painters like Gustav Klimt. And it produced architecture like the 12th-century Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral, 17th-century Baroque palaces such as Liechtenstein and Belvedere, and the Neo-Renaissance Opera House (Wiener Staatsoper). The weathered cobblestones of Vienna still murmur the tread of generations.

Vienna State Opera (Image courtesy: Official Website)

Time also offers perspective, which perhaps is nothing more than an assorted mélange of experiences, learnings, some wisdom, and a healthy dose of nostalgia. However, one must pay attention to discern this perspective.

My last visit to Vienna was ten years ago, in May 2014, as my social media ‘timeline’ keenly reminds me. A decade is usually considered a milestone, rather arbitrarily, because at some point in time, the decimal number system won over other formats, and we thought fives and tens were nice ways to measure life. Ten years, that flew by. Or ten years, that fundamentally altered who I am: it’s perhaps both a Ship-of-Theseus question and an egoistic proclamation. But I digress.

Ten years ago, Vienna was merely a checkbox on my backpacking itinerary. Traveling through Europe's iconic cities on a shoestring budget is a common, yet challenging dream for most youth from my part of the world. I arrived in the city in my late twenties, stayed for two days in a hostel, and set myself up to the task of circling everything the city could offer on a paper map through free walking tours, wandering by myself; capturing, and often posting every sight on social media for a combination of instant connection and perpetual archiving, or something in between which is now difficult to remember. I saw Vienna from the tourist’s eyes: the Wiener Staatsoper, Karlskirche, Kohlmarkt, Naschmarkt, Albertina – neatly tagging each picture with its corresponding location. I clicked pictures of streets, supermarkets, people, spices, food stands, road signs, and skies. The visit was an exercise in optimization: seeing everything in minimal time and at minimal cost. The trip included an expensive hospital visit for an ankle sprain, a moderately priced ‘Strauss and Mozart’ concert at Kursalon for an ‘experience,’ and a somewhat costly visit to ‘Café Sacher’ to sample their famous torte and coffee. I felt happy and fortunate to be in Vienna, but the city was always distant and elusive – to be looked at from outside the glass, like Mont Blanc and Cartier products neatly displayed at airports. Knowing something like that exists was enough, the thought of actually using or owning a piece of it was absurd. Vienna existed, like a wonderland where I had a two-day economy access pass, and I had to see the most of a city where ‘other people’ lived, on the other side of the glass; it wasn’t a place where I could imagine myself. Even the extravagant desire to eat a Sacher torte was overlaid with self-doubts of the possibility of being denied entry based on appearance, uncertainty about being offered an actual table, anxiety about the prices on the menu, potential self-humiliation of having to leave if nothing seemed affordable, and a lack of confidence about trying all this anyway regardless of the outcome. I had managed to dare back then, picking a low-rush time to visit the café, asking for the cheapest combination of torte and coffee, fumbling my way through documenting the process using my camera while no one was watching, eating and drinking with trepidation, and leaving without a tip. I do not remember whether I liked or disliked the combination – it was a time when if someone offered me a Mont Blanc pen to try, I wouldn’t observe the quality of its writing.

My Sacher-torte and coffee, May 2014.

Ten years flew by. And I found myself in Vienna again.

The Viennese experience is perhaps a nice sliver of European summer. There is an elegant charm to its urban life that is organically slower, lived at an unhurried and intentional stroll, perhaps flowing with the pace and tranquility of windmills. For most of the local populace, life is lived more in the streets, cafés, parks, and performances than in offices, stores, cars, and bank accounts – the defining characteristics of America. In the morning, there is no queue of supersized vehicles outside schools with haggard parents dropping their wards for the purpose of education. Instead, there are 8-year-olds standing on their scooters, pushing their way to school with apparent autonomy, distinguishing themselves from the overtly protected enterprises of child-rearing elsewhere. Cyclists zoom past at almost dangerous speeds, and trams chug slowly through the streets depositing and collecting people across the town. By the evening, a relaxed fervor starts to build up. Streets have more activity, with perhaps everyone getting out of stone and glass buildings around the same time, ending the rationed hours allocated to capitalism. The flavor of businesses shifts to the more relaxed pursuits of horse-carts ferrying tourists, well-dressed waiting staff serving coffee and schnitzels and radlers, hawkers in uniform selling tickets to concerts and exhibitions outside the opera house, and violinists and saxophonists in parks hoping to be graced by a few coins from sympathetic ears. As I stroll through Stadtpark just before dark, a group of elderly men and women are doing tango on a makeshift dance floor with a Latin American background tune. In Leopoldstadt at dark, there is an African movie playing on a giant open screen. There seems to be a certain poetry to humans extracting more of life from the metronome of existence and the jaws of mortality. A cynical view could be that this life is afforded by the arc of history that deposited wealth from elsewhere in the world into Europe through plunder. A counter view could be that history has always been a story of the plunderers and the oppressed, of the winners and the vanquished, and those roles have kept changing around different parcels of the earth more or less equitably, in accordance with the fundamental laws of nature.

Graben near the Pestsäule, Vienna (Image courtesy: Viator)

I try to measure myself across the short span of ten years – it’s a good perspective, however biased by the interspersed experiences of life, the winnings and losings, the happiness and pain, and healthy doses of nostalgia. Ten years hence, I have more agency, and the city responds by being more accepting and accessible. I do not experience the city as an ‘other,’ through an insurmountable glass barrier, and I am able to feel its breath and blood and sparkles and wounds. Imagining myself here does not seem to be an audacious indulgence. I have grown enough to have the privilege of being able to exercise choice, discern my likes and dislikes, and feast upon sights and things that soothe my mind and senses instead of documenting them. Ten years later, the torte at Café Sacher feels a tad too sweet, and its coffee a tad bit disappointing by Viennese standards. The café itself feels small, like the houses and rooms where you grew up as a child that feel smaller when you revisit them after years. The sense of wonder and enchantment is muted, and I question the notion of an objective reality and the nature of memory. Perhaps time has shaped my identity and tastes differently, and perhaps there is some personal growth and an evolution of perspectives in the past ten years. Or perhaps, I just liked my flaky croissant and wiener melange elsewhere in the city too much!

My Sacher-torte and coffee, June 2024.

Thursday, June 23, 2016


"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


"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


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


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


"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!

Wednesday, June 08, 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."

Tuesday, June 07, 2016


"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!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


"Grande pescado!" — he whistles to me, and makes a calling gesture. It's midnight, and we are sitting at the base of the lighthouse at Puerto de Eivissa — a rather small lighthouse on a jetty protruding into the Mediterranean Sea. "Tuna?" I ask, looking at about the two-feet long fish swimming in the clear waters below which he is pointing at. "No no, Barracuda" is his response. We have been communicating with either single or two-word sentences, or just sitting in silence for about an hour now.

After rejecting the idea of "dude, you definitely want to be at the opening party of Space tonight" put forward by an Australian traveler in my hostel, I had taken a leisurely walk to the harbour, and reached the end of the jetty to this lighthouse. He was busy attaching bait to the end of his fishing hook, and was about to throw the line when I reached. His response to my greeting was "no hablo Inglés, only Español", and since then, the number of spoken words between us have been minimal. "What's that? Pollo? Trenera? Carnes?" I ask, pointing at the bait, using whatever Spanish vocabulary I can muster. He says something, and points at the box of live snails from which he meticulously picks out the bugs and puts the hook through their mouths. On the other side of the port, music is bursting out from the white roofs of a club — one of the numerous ones that have made the island of Ibiza infamous — the silhouettes of young people dancing on the techno sound seem to be moving like banished souls of graveyards stuck on the white walls with black glue. The noise, to me, seems to be tearing apart the tranquility of this beautiful night, drowning the sweet whispers of the ocean waves caressing the shores of this island.

"No party?" he asks, pointing towards the club. "No no, no me gusta party" is my response, to which he laughs heartily. The fishing rod has been stuck in the ground for quite a while now, and we haven't been able to see any to-and-fro movement of the string so far as he had demonstrated a while ago, a sign of a catch stuck on the hooks. "Gitano. Gypsy" he says pointing at himself, almost baring his life to me with that single word. Gypsies are equated, almost generically, as evil people in at least the Europe I have seen so far — just another easy generalization humanity is so accustomed to in every corner of the world. "Ibiza?" he asks, probably trying to understand who I am and what I am doing here. "Me Indien", I say, and make a swooshing gesture through the air to demonstrate that I flew here for travel. "Muy bien, Ibiza" I add, hoping he would understand I like this island so far. He smiles at this. I have not been quite lucky for him — he did catch a few different types of sea-creatures I can see deposited in a box — but over the last hour, there has been no success. But I guess he likes my company, as do I.

Just after I said "buenas noches, adios señor" and started walking back at about 1:30 am, he whistles again. He has caught a round shaped creature I can't identify, and is excited to show it to me. The creature is flapping itself on the ground, apparently gasping for air. He deposits it in a polythene bag and says "restaurant, bien moneda" suggesting that he hopes to get good money selling it. I decide to sit for a while longer — we have walked to a different spot on the jetty which is more lit up, and it's nicer to see different fish and other creatures swimming in the clear waters below. He has changed the type of hook at the end of his rod, probably to catch something different.

The polythene bag is still flapping, it has been several minutes but the creature inside it hasn't probably given up on life as yet. The music at the club hasn't given up either, though the tone seems to have diluted — I can now distinctly identify Celine Dion's "My heart will go on", a stark departure from the electronic noise that was blasting a while ago. I walk back at about 2 am — the previous night was long for me at Rome, and the early morning flight to Ibiza had been tiring.

I meet Phillipe, Leo, and Karen the next morning - the Brazilian guy, the Mexican guy, and the Austrian girl, respectively, who are my roommates, and who returned at different times this morning from Space. Ibiza has a number of nightclubs — gigantic in size that boast of being the biggest in the world — and most of them open at midnight, admitting people who love music, drinks, and dance. Clubbing is definitely expensive, and might not be suitable for every palate — for instance, if you are not into hard drugs, you really need to be a mad music lover to pay and get inside the clubs.

Phillipe and Leo, even after a hard night of partying, are up for a trip to Formentera during the day, and we head off to the Figuretas port to catch an Aquabus, a ferry which gets to the island of Formentera from Ibiza in about an hour. Formentera is an unspoilt piece of land amidst the sea, slightly south of Ibiza, which is famous for its numerous pristine beaches and lakes. We rent a bike and pedal our way to Playa de Ses Illetes, a beach on the north coast of the island replete with nude and semi-nude people sunbathing on the clear sands on the shores of crystal clear, perfectly turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Taking our clothes off, we jump into the cold, transparent waters and swim across. Formentera is breathtaking; the beaches are shallow for at least 200-300 meters into the sea, and one can easily wade through the waters to the tiny islands surrounding Formentera when the tide is low. It's definitely a place for the wealthy, though, and the skyline is full of numerous yachts floating in the sea with backdrop of white walls of Ibiza's Platja d'en Bossa beach hotels visible afar. As the evening approaches, we pedal back to La Savina to catch the 5 pm ferry back to Ibiza. On realizing that we still have 30 minutes before departure, we once again jump into the sea near the port itself - this part of the island has rocky beaches and needs a little effort to get a foothold beneath the water on algae covered rocks, but the lack of sand on the shores makes the swim even more enticing.

On getting back at Ibiza, me and Phillipe are interested in catching the sunset from Café del Mar, the iconic bar at Sant Antoni de Portmany, and after a quick shower, manage to catch the 7:30 pm bus to San Antonio on the western coast of the island, a thirty minute ride from Ibiza town. The Sunset Strip consists of numerous western facing cafés apart from Café del Mar, the oldest establishment that started the tradition of playing ambient, balearic music, often called chill-out music during sunset. Every evening, numerous tourists and locals gather on this strip sipping wine and beer in a festive atmosphere of golden sun slanting across the horizon with smooth music playing in the background. Phillipe and I wrap up the evening with a sumptuous dinner and beer, talking about India and Brazil.

The next day I meet Israel Ponce, a Mexican man living in Ibiza since two-and-a-half years building beautiful houses across the island in his profession of being an architect. He has promised me a visit through Ibiza's inland villages — the island's countryside which generally remains unexplored during tourist visits. Deftly mixing his work with my tour, he drives me to Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera, a village right in the middle of Ibiza where he is building a small house in the hills for one of his clients. The inland villages in Ibiza are quaint and small — each village consisting of a small church, one or two restaurants, and a handful of houses. I take a stroll in the church at Santa Gertrudis, followed by a tea with Israel in the small market plaza opposite to the church. Our next stop is Sant Joan de Labritja, another village in the north of the island, where Israel is working on a grand villa of another client. The beauty of this house in the hills enamors me — spread over several acres of land, this white structure is resplendent in the sun with a perfect design of porticos, gardens, pool, and the house itself. There is a separate area which looked like a place for a barbeque, and I asked Israel the purpose of the same. "To hang clothes for drying in the sun" he responded, and looking at the astonishment on my face implying my lack of comprehension for why this big space at all, he added — "when you own thousand dollar bikinis, you better have a space like this to hang them!"

We drive back to Ibiza town passing through the countryside consisting of pastures, sheep, and numerous trees dotting the hilly landscape, and decide to walk up the Dalt Vila, a historical esplanade which is a world heritage site. Walking up the narrow, winding, steep cobbled streets flanked by Mediterranean style houses, Israel explains a bit about architecture, and the principles behind designing buildings over different ages. The top of Dalt Vila offers wonderful panoramic views of the island and its main port. There are many fine dining restaurants in the main plaza of Dalt Vila, offering romantic candlelit dinners to tourists. Ignoring these expensive destinations, Israel takes me to an interior street in the Ibiza town itself into a traditional restaurant, and I deliciously gorge myself on some mushroom croquettes on his recommendation. The goodness of food for the price I pay makes me regret the expensive salmon I had eaten by the port-side touristy restaurants earlier. We wrap up our meeting after a lengthy conversation on Mexico, India, the house he was building, and the purpose of life — the last topic being the one which generally pops up after alcohol goes into the system of any human being irrespective of which part of the world he / she belongs to!

It's time for me to bid farewell to Ibiza. The anchors have just been retracted, and the ropes unfastened from the port — heavy motors have turned the spindles that just gobbled up the ropes into the hull. The gigantic vessel makes a creaking noise as it pushes against the dock with a start. It's exceptionally quiet at the front deck where I stand to witness this giant of a ship that will carve its way in the Balearic Sea from Ibiza to Barcelona in the next nine hours. The only sound here is that of winds hissing through the ears and flapping the small flag in the front, and a mute rumble of the engines as they churn the ocean underneath. My fears of being sea-sick by the end of this journey are alleviating, as I notice that this vessel is rather stable with non-discernible wobbling, unlike the smaller ferries that I took around the island and to Formentera, impatiently swaying me sideways. As it starts getting colder, I get back inside to explore the rest of the ship. The map tells me I am on Deck 8, on the fourth storey of this five storeyed structure. The bottom two storeys are reserved for cargo, including numerous cars, while the third storey has sleeping cabins. My floor has a restaurant, a cinema, a luggage room, a shopping area, a few slot machines in a casino-ish corner which also has dart boards and a kids' play area, and a number of viewing areas to sit on the sofas and soak-in the vistas of the sea. None of these seem much interesting, and I am vicariously hoping to find a corner at the front somewhere that could be THE point for me, had I been Leo DiCaprio, and had there been a Kate Winslet traveling to Barcelona on this ship. I climb up the next level, which happens to be the top storey of the vessel, and find a swimming pool with people sunbathing by it, a gymnasium, and a bar by the poolside. As I walk to the far end of this floor, I see a long white streak in the ocean behind our ship, as the landmass of Ibiza is fading in the background. The gigantic size of the ship suddenly, and humbly starts appearing small as it delves deeper into the vastness of the ocean beyond. I decide to settle here, grabbing a drink from the bar and sprawling myself on a poolside chair perched up in a corner lit by the sun and peppy music. Barcelona is several hours away, and there is a lot to write in this beautiful spot somewhere in the waters which is unspoilt by GPS coordinates.

Friday, May 16, 2014


The first thing that a solo traveller will notice about Prague is beer. A beer bottle for 29 crowns is cheaper than water, and says a lot about the love of the Czech for their beer.

However, judging this city by its drinking habits and fervent nightlife is probably an injustice to its great Bohemian past. Founded about 1100 years ago, Prague was the seat of Bohemian kings who also ruled as emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. Considered one of the most charming and beautiful cities in Europe, Prague is dotted with numerous bridges, cathedrals, and churches.

For me, revisiting the city after 9 years is like walking inside a fading memory. With some new friends I met in the train to Praha, I walk back to the historic Charles Bridge on the Vltava River — named after the 14th Century emperor Charles IV, who personally designed most of the medieval quarters of the city that have inspired countless artists over the ages.

Fortunately, Prague remained largely undamaged during the World Wars, and its cobbled streets replete with walled courtyards and gold-tipped towers proudly reflect its enviable Gothic charm to this day. We continue our walk towards the majestic 9th century castle, and pass by the Old Town Square, where the Prague Astronomical Clock of the Old Town Hall installed in 1410 is still working, and announces the time with its own magical parade of apostles and a bell-ringing skeleton every hour. Looking at a bird's eyeview of the city from the castle, I recount the words of Milan Kundera and Franz Kafka who probably gained inspiration from this beautiful skyline.

"And therein lies the whole of man's plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition."

Today, Prague is a modern and vibrant city full of energy, music, cultural art, fine dining, and nightlife that can cater to the burgeoning tourist influx. Drinking through the night to modern music and numerous people in a rather unknown pub in a basement with unplastered walls and extreme graffiti, I reminisce on my fortune of being here a second time. In the same lifetime.

Thursday, May 15, 2014


Doe gewoon, dan doe je gek genoeg.
(Just act normally, that's crazy enough.)
- Dutch saying

Amsterdam is a quintessential Dutch city – a small historical town with a rustic charm. There is a lot in Amsterdam that might not appear normal at first, but once you start pedaling your bicycle in its numerous narrow streets by the canals and waterways, the city unfolds its secrets one-by-one and doesn't take very long to absorb you as a local. Here, pretty much similar to the rest of Netherlands, you won't find those luxury cars that roll their way through wealthy European towns – Amsterdam is limited to standard BMWs or Benzs, and is proud commuting on its bicycles. There is no glamour or glitter of big money, and the city itself is quite small – a characteristic feature of the land of the Dutch. Entire Netherlands has a number of small urban communities, rather than large metropolises like Paris, Berlin, New York or Tokyo. If Amsterdam is the destination for arts, the national government and the parliament are in the Hague, the broadcasting media is in Hilversum, the world's largest port is in Rotterdam, and all major conferences and large-scale events are held at Utrecht.

The first thing one notices about Amsterdam is what, according to folklore, a Brazilian had told his daughter who had moved to the city – "You should not stay here, the sky is too low." And remarkably so – the land throughout the city is extremely flat, shedding some light on the interesting topography of about one-third of Netherlands. It's said that the God created Heaven and Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands. The reference is to the ingenuity of the Dutch in hydraulic engineering, leading to what is often termed as 'living on land that has been snatched from the sea'. Majority of the country lives on marshy land, sometimes even below the mean sea level, protected from the sea by elaborately planned dunes and dykes constructed ages ago. After the Middle Ages, the country saw the advent of wind mills – an invention from the Islamic world. These windmills were used to drain out excess water from low-lying areas which were protected by the dykes, and to keep them dry. Several windmills were often linked together in parallel for deriving more power – some of these are still seen at Kinderdijk (near Rotterdam) – a visual treat for window seat passengers in the flights landing at Schiphol. Since the nineteenth century, the windmills have gradually been replaced by pumps, but the basic principle remains the same.

Amsterdam is built on a marshy meadowland surrounded by lakes and riddled by waterways and canals that were mostly constructed in the 17th century. My host at Amsterdam is Ramón Ster, a thorough-bred media professional who is the most hospitable person I have ever met. Ramon's apartment is one of the typical Dutch dwellings that take pride upon the idea conveyed by a local saying – Over Smaak valt niet te twisten, meaning "there's no accounting for taste." Like other apartments in the neighbourhood, this house is also full of bric-à-brac, has minimal, but solid oak furniture, and numerous lights. Roaming around in the city, one can notice the Dutch characteristic of having living room windows and doors made of glass facing the roads – showcasing the lives and tastes of their inhabitants. We are living in an area called the Oud-West, which Ramón says is about 4.5 meters below sea level – protected by schutsluis, or water-locks made as part of the Delta Project.

Spending some time in the city, one quickly gets attuned to the Dutch way of life marked by clear agreements and firm commitments. The Dutch are perfect with time management – the accuracy of trains and buses to the second is surprising at first, but as a book on Dutch culture in Ramón's library says, firm commitments have become second nature in a country where decision-making is always a compromise between equal partners and where you have to be able to rely on each other if the water level rises too high. Apparently, the reference is to the fundamental tenet of cooperation which evolved this society into fighting the gigantic forces of nature together.

My days in Amsterdam are limited, and Ramón gives me a 15 minute crash-course on the parks, museums, food places, and cycling areas that can be explored. Cycling is a way of life in the city, and all streets have earmarked cycle tracks replete with dedicated signalling systems for two-wheeler traffic. I take some time adjusting to Ramón's guest bicycle with its pedal brakes, but quickly realize that there is no better way to be in Amsterdam than being on two wheels. Ramón does pass on a word of caution though – it's tough to find vacant bicycle parking posts in prominent areas, and not parking in designated spots might lead to them being stolen; the statistics of stolen bikes in Amsterdam is staggering.

Armed with a bicycle, I spend a day visiting the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum. The Van Gogh Museum has the world's greatest collection of Van Gogh's masterpieces, including the Sunflower and the Bedroom, and presents a great story of the painter's short, ten year career in arts. It also has a section on paints and tools used by artists over the ages, and an intriguing section on modern technologies being used to analyze works of art from two centuries ago. The Stedelijk is dedicated to modern and contemporary art and design, and also houses the Beanery – a three-dimensional collage created by Edward Kienholz in which visitors can enter. My favorite museum ends up being the Rijks Museum that I visit the next day. Re-opened last year after 10 years of renovation, it showcases 800 years of Dutch culture, as well as the works of Rembrandt – including his masterpieces the Night Watch, and the Milkmaid. On one of the days, I also visit the Anne Frank House – a poignant reminder of the two years spent by the Frank family in hiding where the diaries of Anne Frank were written before the Nazis raided the house.

Apart from its museums, Amserdam has some great areas to walk around, such as the Vondelpark and the Westerdoks, or the Veemkade – a pleasant street by the river IJ. In addition to a number of squares and market places where locals and tourists hang out for food and drinks, Amsterdam also boasts of the infamous Red Light District, a set of prominent streets in the heart of the city where sex, sleaze, and drugs flow uninhibited, and are almost celebrated. Prostitution is legal here, and so is cannabis – a feature which probably attracts numerous tourists from all over the world for indulgence. Walking around the district, one can witness scantily clad women standing behind the typical Dutch house windows, looking for their next visitors. Ramón tells me about the trafficking issue as well – similar to any other prostitution market in the world, this market also has a number of women forced into the flesh trade, and it's extremely difficult for the authorities to differentiate between women who are willingly into the trade and the ones who have been trafficked and threateningly silenced. The market itself is lively with the cheerful bars and coffee shops where a pure weed joint can be ordered for about 8, enough to knock one out for hours. The area is, contrary to intuition, not male dominated at all, and women stroll around in the evenings in equal numbers, roaming through the lively streets and indulging in the intoxication on offer. Damark Street even has a sex museum, replete with the history of this oldest act of mankind, artifacts and objects with erotic engravings excavated from various historic sites, and a history of pornographic literature and cinema.

However, the best parts of Amsterdam lie away from the hustle-bustle and the sleaze that take the largest mindshare when thinking about this city. Walking on the peaceful streets by the canal, Prinsengracht being my favorite, could be more enlivening to the soul than anything else. Amsterdam is the place that inspired numerous artists and creative minds, and understanding them requires understanding the Dutch way of life – of constant, friendly social interaction or the 'gezelligheid,' something that can be taken as a souvenir back home.

Amsterdam is a city of beauty and art, simplicity and taste, love and life, and is concluded best by another Dutch poem I located in Ramón's library -

"I wish my life to be grand and dramatic
But not today. I think I'll wait a while."

Monday, May 12, 2014

Norway – A Pilgrimage to Nature

Sticking out as a rather imposing and easily identifiable landmass in the northern hemisphere on a world map is the amazing country of Norway – a land so pristine and one with nature that it almost makes it impossible to believe that vikings once made this place their home. The hinterlands of the country are a jigsaw of various elements combined into one – earth, air, and water – coexisting with humans who have lived here since time immemorial. Its fjords – those magnificent land formations caused by the sea making inroads into the mainlands all over, offer delectable sights of mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and forests, interspersed with long tunnels, wooden cottages, green pastures, and slow, peaceful lives of humans who built them. The fjords were carved by glaciers during the ice ages. They started as small cracks in the mountains which ice and water gradually gouged out, and they became deep enough to come in contact with the outside sea.

My journey from the port city of Bergen in Western Norway to the city of Voss on the scenic local train run by NSB takes me through Osterfjord – a fjord surrounding the island of Osterøy, Northern Europe's biggest inland island. The train crosses several villages, such as Dale, the house of famous Dale Fabrikkar knitwear factory, and Bolstadøyri, the village where Osterfjord ends and moving further east, gives way to only fresh-water rivers and lakes. Bolstad has a history of being a trading post – before the railways came, Bergen to Voss journey on boats and horses started at this place. The train climbs up the valleys from Bolstad into several tunnels carved into the mountains towards Upsete and Myrdal. It also crosses the Vossavassdraget river system – a regulated and conserved ecological system consisting of three rivers, some of which are known for their great salmon population. Further up is the town of Evanger, a place known for its production of cured meat from various animals. The train comes to a halt at Voss, one of the biggest municipalities in the Hordaland County, and one of the most important tourist and skiing destinations.

From Voss, I take a bus to Gudvangen, a steep descent down from the mountains to the head of the Nærøyfjord – a World Heritage Site which is the narrowest and the best known arm of Sognefjord. The bus to Gudvangen climbs down a 20% steep gradient from Stalheim, a farm area that sits atop the end of the Nærøydalen valley which is famous for its location atop an almost vertical cliff. The steep gradient stretch of Stalheimskleiva ensures that this road is open to traffic only one way – downwards. This road has numerous hairpin bends with scenic views of the valley and numerous waterfalls, and used to be the mainstay for traffic between Oslo and Bergen after it was built in the mid-nineteenth century. With the opening up of the railway and several road tunnels, this stretch now opens one-way only in summers and is usually frequented by tourist traffic. From Stalheim to the fjord along the entire length of the Nærøydalen valley flows the river Nærøyelva, also known for its great stock of salmon. The beautiful waterfall of Kjelsfossen high above Gudvangen on the south-eastern side of the valley comes into view a little later. It is said that drinking the fresh waters of this waterfall increases the human lifespan – the driver of our bus chuckles that he is already 150 years old, and probably a ghost. We finally arrive at Gudvangen, a small village in the Aurland Municipality consisting of just 120 people.

I take a ferry from Gudvangen to Flåm, a journey through the narrow Nærøyfjord and Aurlandsfjord offering some dramatic and spectacular scenery. On the way are small villages and hamlets on both sides along the coast, such as that of Bakka, Styvi, Dyrdal, and Stigen. The village of Undredal on the western shore of the fjord that inhabits about 100 people, comes into view. This village also houses the Undredal church, the smallest "stave church" in Scandinavia built in 1147, visible to us as a small white hut in the center of the village. The ferry edges its way through more such hamlets, accompanied throughout its journey by noisy seagulls trying to grab pieces of bread and other food thrown by people on the deck. The winds can get strong, and add a handsome chill to the summer sun – sometimes it does get very cold to even stay on the front deck. I jealously peek into the captain's den – a wonderful glasshouse on the top where two gentlemen are comfortably sitting sipping on a cup of coffee, observing the scenic cruising path through their sunglasses. One of the best jobs on this earth, I must add!

The ferry docks at Flåm, a beautiful village of roughly 400 people, known specifically as a popular cruise harbour during summers. It became a tourist destination sometime during the end of the 19th century, when British "salmon lords"  came to fish in the rivers here. I have around two hours in Flåm, before taking the Flåmsbana to Myrdal, and I decide to go by the recommendations of a local storekeeper on utilizing my time. The guy has convinced me for a two hour roundtrip hike to the Brekkefossen waterfalls – a risky proposition for a very limited stay. The hike up Brekkefossen is an extremely steep climb up the fjord face through a rough and rocky terrain and isn't an easy thing to attempt wearing loafers and trousers. However, the majestic view of the waterfall itself, together with the magnificent vistas of farmland and huts of the village including the Flåm church of 1668 below make this climb totally worthwhile.

From Flåm, I take the famous Flåmsbana, the Flåm-Myrdal railway which is considered a masterpiece of engineering. The train climbs from 2 meters above MSL (Flåm) to 866 meters above MSL (Myrdal) with a gradient of 1 in 18, the steepest normal gauge line in Northern Europe. Completed over 20 years in the year 1944, the train passes through 20 tunnels in its one hour of journey from the wild and beautiful Flåm valley to the high-mountain plateau of Myrdal. Eighteen of these tunnels were built by hand, including the hairpin tunnel – a tunnel which makes a 180 degrees turn inside the mountains itself. The longest tunnel in the line is the Nåli tunnel running to almost 1.4 kilometers. The train also stops at several hamlets along the way, including a station by the Kjosfossen waterfall, the one I visited earlier during the bus journey from Voss to Gudvangen, albeit at a much lower altitude. The train platform is at about 670 meters above MSL right next to the 94 meters high waterfall, and is a magnificent site for tourists' selfies. Further up after Kjosfossen, there is a fantastic view of the oppoite side of the valley showing three different levels of Flåmsbana up the mountainside, the train itself being on the fourth level. The scenery also shows the Rallarvegen, or the Navvies' Road, pasted like a ribbon on the mountain face. It's a twisting and turning road with twenty one bends all the way up to Myrdal that was used during the construction of the Bergen Railway.

The Flåmsbana journey ends at Myrdal, from where I take the main Bergen Railway back to Bergen with its own scenic views of the countryside along the way.

Visiting Norway is a pilgrimage to the nature at its best. It's a country where the conquest between man and nature seems to have neutralized into a trance-like beauty. The humans here haven't encroached upon the majestic, beyond humbly registering their mere presence, and the nature has offered its  unadulterated treats in full glory along the colourful land and waterways and snow-capped peaks throughout the countryside. One word which could sum up the feeling of being here? It's Takk!

Friday, May 09, 2014

Bergen – The City of Seven Mountains

Straight from the blistering 42 degrees May heat of New Delhi, landing at Oslo several latitudes up on the globe can cause a steep, unexpected drop in mercury levels of those old thermometers of yore which used to signal something drastically different not necessarily for bad reasons though.

The wind outside the Oslo airport from where I need to take a train to Oslo Sentralstasjon is predictably chilly for my Delhi skin, and there seems to be a nip in the air exacerbating the effect. I am not well prepared for this climate a voice in the brain tells me, evaluating the contents of the small backpack which is the only luggage I have. I am on my way to Bergen, a 6 hour ride from Oslo on the Bergen Railway that runs from Oslo to the Western Coast of Norway, crossing the Langfjellene mountains and the Hardangervidda mountain plateau.

After spending 5-6 hours in downtown Oslo shivering through its most popular attractions and getting the usual tourist clicks at the Royal Palace and the Vigeland Park, I am ready to ride the Bergen Railway arguably one of the most scenic train routes on the planet. Completed in 1909, this 500 kilometers line is Northern Europe's highest stretch of railway with almost 100 kilometers of tracks running through the wild mountain country. The train crosses several areas of open countryside, wooded valleys, lakes, and snow-capped mountains to reach the western fjords of Norway. The route also passes through Finse, the highest railway station in Norway (1222 meters above MSL) located above the ridge of Hardangervidda. Between Finse and Myrdal, the train runs atop a relatively flat mountain-plateau covered with thick snow even at this time of the year a treat for the eyes. The Bergen Railway route is known for its several tunnels dug through the mountains, the longest of which is more than 5 kilometers in length (the Gravhalstunnel).

Soaking in the the artistic beauty of the countryside all through the train journey, I get into Bergen a city surrounded by many mountains whose numbers is arguable. It is Norway's second largest city and even served as Norway's capital in the 12th and 13th centuries. The old name for Bergen was Bjørgvin, meaning 'the meadow among the mountains'. It was one of the trading posts (kontors) founded by North German merchants (Hanseatic merchants) who traded in cod and stokfish with fishermen from northern Norway in the 13th century. The area of Bryggen, a World Heritage Site, is a medieval style reconstruction of the old warehouses used centuries ago by the Hanseatic merchants. The city has seen numerous fires and in one of them in 1702, almost entire Bergen burned. Most of the old buildings of Bergen, including Bryggen, were rebuilt after the fire. The area around Bryggen is a lovely walk in the evening, offering great views of the numerous yachts and cruises parked along the bay. There's a small market on the harbour that sells local culinary preparations of the day's catch the prices, however, like the rest of Norway, could be steep for what's on offer.

Another must-do on the list in Bergen is the hike up to Fløyen, a plateau in the mountain massif north-east of the city center offering some great views of the city. It is also served by a funicular (Fløibanen); however, it's advisable to take it only one way, and walk down the other way through the numerous alleys and beautiful hillside houses of the city. The view up at Fløyen is magnificent on a clear day such as the one coinciding with my trip, the top offers a bird's eye view of the main fjord. Bergen could be notorious about weather, though; clear sunny days switch to rains in less than 10 minutes (it rains almost 260 days a year in Bergen), and not carrying an umbrella or a poncho could lead to scampering into the souvenir shops. The sunlight itself during summers is generous it's a treat to visit these areas in the summer having almost 18-20 hours of daylight.

My host at Bergen is Eugene, a student from Belarus working towards his Masters degree in computer algorithms at the local University. The city has numerous student accommodations, the biggest one being at Fantoft a suburban locality to the south of Bergen served by the city's modern tram called Bergen Light Rail (Bybanen). I meet Eugene in his hostel room at Fantoft, and amongst other things, learn about one of the quaint urban traditions of the students here "diving."  About once a week, Eugene and his friends (all postgraduate students) leave on foot or bicycles at about 11 in the night to various supermarkets, grocery chains and other food stores, scourge the trash of the day, and rescue eatables. It might sound repulsive at first, but considering how easily the supermarkets throw away stuff, it becomes increasingly easier to "digest" the novelty of this method. Most of the bigger chains discard food which do not conform to the highest levels of quality checks a little mark in the skin of fruits, just day old packs of bread, coffee and packed groceries with damaged packaging due to manhandling, several products which are nearing their stated expiration dates strict Norwegian laws constraint the chains to give-away these items directly as charity lest someone sues them for feeding stuff gone bad, and it's always easier to just trash them. The rescued food is distributed amongst the gang, and students wash and store them for consumption over the next few days. Eugene tells me he hasn't bought any food except oil over the last several months. The process also makes him a great experimenting cook based on what he finds after a dive, he generally tries to cook something out of it. During the night, we try to make a pancake from some bananas, chocolate milk, and semolina, all 'dived' during the previous week! Eugene introduces me to Stephan Micus' music, a music so beautiful that it seems to reflect the beauty and magnificence of the world outside the hostel windows. I am lost in the thoughts of exploring a bit of Norwegian countryside from Bergen, and Eugene's experienced hands over the Jew's Harp produce a beautiful trance music at this midnight hour curing me of the tiredness of day's walking and putting me to sleep.