Monday, August 11, 2008

Notes from a Cafe

I have a piece over at hackwriters. Hop over for a read.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

A day with the Stone Beauty

She is known as the Stone Beauty. Over the ages many have vied for her attention: they’ve tried to woo her with castles and riches; they’ve tried to impress her with art; they’ve even fought wars over her. Today I get to see for myself what all the fuss is about.

Trogir is a town-museum on the Croatian coastline and the best preserved Romanesque-Gothic town in Central Europe. From a distance you can see her magnificent stone structures rising to the sky; white stones and orange rooftops stand stark against the clear blue sky. Keeping with the theme, a stone bridge joins the islet of Trogir to the mainland; a mobile bridge, which wobbles alarmingly, connects it to the island of Ciovo.

Trogir is surrounded by 2300 years of history and tradition, and the sapphire sea. At one end is a shiny white promenade, flirting with yachts from across the world. At the other, years and years of accumulated history beckon. Trogir was first settled by Greek colonists in the 3rd century BC. They christened the town as Tragurion, or Goat Island. It became a Roman municipality in the first century AD, a part of the Roman province of Dalmatia. Over the coming years the town would swap hands between Hungry, the Venetians, Napoleon and Austria before finally settling down with the Croats.

While the city walls were destroyed during the early 19th century, Trogir’s medieval core, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, still sits secure within its stone walls. Built between the 13th and 15th centuries, it is a tizzy of tiny, narrow cobbled lanes, castles, towers, churches, squares and homes in Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque imprints.

Entering the old core of Trogir through the northern entrance, we are greeted by St. John of Trogir, the town’s patron saint. He leads us to the main square, Trg Ivana Pavla II, which holds an overwhelming amount of history. In the middle stands the town Loggia, ancient relics, sculpted by the old masters Ivan Mestrovic and Niccolo Fiorentino, spruce up its walls. Next to it is the Clock Tower. Standing sturdy in pastel blue, it’s hard to miss. It was once the small Renaissance church of St. Sebastian, believed to protect the town from the onslaught of the deadly plague.

This is also home to Trogir’s most famous building, the 13th century St. Lawrence Church. A magnificent shrine, its main portal is a masterpiece created by the Croatian master artist, Radovan, in 1240. As Adam and Eve, carved to perfection, peer out from their artistic abode, tourists capture a slice of the most prestigious work in the Roman-Gothic style, in their cameras. The 15th century Cipiko Palaces and the Town Hall complete the square, each holding treasure of its own. A little way from the City Hall is the Church of John Baptist. It displays a unique collection of sacred art, as does the Benedictine nuns’ monastery. In fact, for those who love art and history, there are several such small palaces and churches hidden here; the more you look, the more you find.

Just as charming are the paved, narrower than narrow lanes of the old town. An air of mystery and romance clings to them as they slither and turn around the history that surrounds them, and in the gaps, regular people continue to lead regular lives, unaffected by the mass of tourists gaping at their idyllic homes. Sturdy stone walls hold bright windows; across it locals swap daily gossip. The day’s laundry hangs from a clothesline strung up. Old tea pots and tin cans hold bright floral bursts, while a forgotten football lolls around. The more entrepreneurial lot have opened their courtyards to tourists, serving Dalmatian specialities in quaint boutiques, cafes and little restaurants.

Outside the walls, hidden behind the palm fringes and oversized umbrellas is the Small Loggia. It’s a forgettable structure but for its story. The Loggia was built as a night shelter for travellers who arrived after the town gates had been shut for the night. Today, after serving time as a fish market in the 80s, it lets several souvenir stalls sit in its shade.

Walking past the Loggia, to the other end of the islet, we head towards the fifteenth century fortress, Kamerlengo. It was once connected to the rest of the town by fortified walls; today it stands alone, overlooking the waters. The high tower was built by the Genoese in the 14th century and reinforced by the Venetians when they took the city in 1420. It served as a navel base; today it functions as an open air cinema and summer concert venue. After paying the ten kuna entrance fee, we scale the fort. A series of stairways help us explore the fort walls and take us to Kamerlengo’s heart. Its insides smell of bird poop. Little grey feathers are scattered all across the floor. Home to nesting pigeons, we interrupt a petty squabble between two residents. We charge on, past a ladder to the top of the tower, which opens to the most magnificent views of Trogir. The town resembles an artist’s impression in Lego from up here. Satellite dishes sit cosily on terracotta roof tops, hinting at the changing eras; church towers stand up straight reminding you who’s in charge. Off the land, the startling blue water swishes and sways gently. Small boats bob about, while the majestic ones stretch in the marina and get a tan.

Across the fort stands the smaller St. Mark’s Tower. It was built in the 15th century by the Venetians to solidify their defences against the Turks. The two forts were connected by strong stone walls. Today the walls give way to a football field, the goal post are precariously close to the water.

The sights covered, we make for the riva. The promenade is shielded from the growing summer sun by a school of perfect palm trees. White sun chairs and garden swings are spread out for us. Behind us the unassuming St. Dominic Monastery stands guard. In front of us, the sea shines on.

This piece appeared in the Hindustan Times dated July 2008.

Thursday, June 12, 2008