Thursday, August 23, 2007

History, soaked in colour and wood

Across the Bergen Harbour I can see the medieval district of Bryggen. It is a fascinating sight; a row of colourful, crooked wooden buildings from an era long gone, effortlessly blending in with the 21st century.

Bryggen is the only surviving settlement from the Hanseatic era; the oldest structure here dates way back to the 15th century. As we walk towards this series of 61 protected buildings, I'm half worried they will topple over and collapse; instead they stand strong, shoulder to shoulder across 13, 000 square meters of land.

As you step into these narrow alleys, you leave the 21st century far behind. Inside you find a clutter of over hanging balconies, shared passages, over beams and wobbly stairways. There is just about enough space for two people to walk together. It’s hard to imagine that these lop-sided buildings were once the head quarters of the influential Hanseatic League, a trading partnership between German and Scandinavian merchants trading along the Baltic ports.

Many of these little rooms and cellars served as offices, warehouses and lodgings for the League. This is where they led their insular lifestyle, following a strict code of conduct; they had their own education system, laws and were known never to mingle with the locals. Their lives revolved around work, fires and reconstructions. A number of monstrous fires have ravaged the district over the years. The worst fire broke out in 1702 when the entire settlement, apart from one or two stone cellars, was burnt to ash. The last major fire to sweep through the area was in 1955. Today only a quarter of the original construction survives.

The smell of dried fish and the sacks of stored grain have now made way for little souvenir shops, artists’ studios and craft workshops. Set against the aged window frames are enticing souvenirs; a row of Vikings look through the gleaming windows, straight at me. Behind them I can spot a bunch of trolls, and in the corners a few reindeer have gathered, some posing as candle holders, others as bookmarks. The stores are flooded in a warm yellow light. There are racks of Norwegian sweaters waiting to be bought. Near the counter stand lines and lines of stunning postcards. Even though I have already bought four, I can’t resist picking one more.

Outside, the shared passages are narrow and dark. I peep into closed windows and discover trendy little pubs and restaurants. These draw large crowds every evening. The food is scrumptious and the drinks flow in these rooms built hundreds of years ago.

The walkways open up to stone paved courtyards. Neat manicured gardens sit at the edges. A water sprinkler is spinning around, a modern addition to this ancient world. Here you’ll find Bryggeparken - a medieval vegetable patch, the Hanseatic Museum, and a little out door café. During the summer several guided walks are available to Bryggen; you can learn the history, sip on a cup of coffee and take a million pictures. Every tourist who walks through these wooden frames stops at the heart of the ancient construction, at the old wishing well. Red benches sit against the cracks in the old stone walls. The stone walls in turn hold on to two shiny plaques which proudly pronounce Bryggen as a World Heritage Site. Any coins dropped in the well, I learn, go towards the conservation of Bryggen. I toss a coin in, close my eyes and make a wish; who knows may be it will come true; maybe I’ll come back here soon.

A version of this appeared in the Hindustan Times – 23/08/07

Monday, August 06, 2007

Hangover Street

There are lots of places in and around Zagreb where you can unwind, but by far the most popular is Tkalciceva Ulica (pronounced Kal-chi-cheva, and Ulica meaning Street) - the party street of the capital. Here you’ll find a row of pubs, café-bars, coffee shops, restaurants, gift-stores, fast food joints and even quaint art galleries etched into the sides of the street.

This is one of Zagreb’s oldest streets. It is also one of the prettiest. Before the unification of Zagreb, Tkalciceva sat between the rivalling quarters of the Upper Town and Kaptol (both of which are part of the old city of Zagreb, today). Where once the street played peacemaker between the two rivals, today it shrewdly steals their tourists and enchants them with party spirits, willing them to stay in its arms well into the night.

The street makes quite a picture. Tiny bits of squared tar mat the street, swerving deftly into the corners and disappearing somewhere behind brown tables with beer bottle-stains. On either side stand proud Baroque homes; almost every home here today serves out a heady café or a scrumptious gift shop out of their living rooms.

Little tables and chairs spill out onto the side walk, colourful street umbrellas stand on their toes, hoping to catch some free space overhead. On Fridays the whole city can be found here, and you’ve got to be really lucky to find either a parking spot or an empty space. On the menu is a mix match of parties - from bohemian spots like Melin, to the chic overtones of Oliver Twist. The mantra being - choose your mood; choose your party.

There's no way you can go wrong with coffee in Zagreb; every place serves a killer cup. But the beer isn't bad either. More importantly it isn’t expensive. You could go for one of the popular international brands or try a mug of the local beer – the list is endless, but a few of the more popular beers here include Karlovasco, Tomislav and Oujsko. What took me a little getting used to is that none of the cafes or the pubs serve food - no sandwiches, not even peanuts. Some of them are nice enough to let you buy your munchies from near by stalls and polish them off at the cafe tables, with the drinks they serve.

Tkalca, as it is better known, is really where all East European clichés unwind, with a cool pint; gorgeous women with never ending legs; not so gorgeous men with enormous beer bellies; giant backpacks with their bent tourists somewhere below; narrow winding streets dotted with multi-coloured cafes; and the obligatory church tower beaming overhead. All just hanging around to have a good time.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Bits of Bergen

Bryggen – the face of Bergen

The Bergen Waterfront

Don’t miss the Indian restaurant on the left

A stone celler in Bryggen - one of the oldest buildings in Bergen

Spooky, isn’t he?

The Bergen Castle

The waterfront in a splash of colours

I’ve never seen penguins before. They are so beyond cool.

I love the crazy cobbled patterns leading up to the blue and white castle