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

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Lost in Gamla Stan

It’s a bright sunny day in Stockholm, and yet I’m grabbing for the warmth hidden in my navy-blue sweater sleeves. I’m standing on one of the four bridges that lead to Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town; on the other side a different world exists.

The Old Town is an endless maze of winding cobblestone paths, with candy-coloured, eighteenth century buildings flanking them on both sides; a few remind me of the gingerbread house, from the tale of Hansel and Gretel. Peeping out from their midst is a church spiral, and hidden around the bend is the Royal Palace. If ever a fairytale needed a setting, this is it.

Gamla Stan is the heart of the Scandinavian capital, and it opens up at Stortorget, the old square. It’s still early, but already a street band fills the morning air with music. On the sidelines delicious cafes are hard at work; little wooden tables, draped in red chequered tablecloth, are serving out hot coffee and pastries. As the crowd swells, waitresses dart in and out with the day’s orders, while their guests enjoy the music and toss a few coins into empty guitar cases. It makes for a pretty picture, a sharp contrast to the history of the square: this is the scene of the infamous ‘Stockholm Bloodbath.’ In November 1520, the Danish King, Christian II, had all his political rivals, comprising a large section of Swedish aristocracy, beheaded in this very square. The act would lead to an uprising and the end of his reign.

A I stroll along, I learn that the city of Stockholm was born here, before spreading out to include the fourteen islands that form the city today. This is the oldest part of the city, and also its biggest attraction. This is the seat of Swedish Royalty. The official palace – Kungliga Slottet – sits on the waterfront, towering over locals and tourists alike. The palace is open to the public, and a visit is recommended. The interiors are lavish and house some very interesting museums: The Royal Armoury holds an intriguing collection of medieval weapons; The Royal Treasury exhibits the crowned jewels; and The Museum of Antiquities stores many priceless treasures from the past.

Everyday, from May to September, the change of guard ceremony takes place outside the palace. I arrive just in time as synchronised marching boots halt in front of me – attention! Stand at ease! The guards perform this ritual with a fantastical sense of duty and patience; ever tolerant of the many cameras flashing in their faces.

A few cobbled feet away stands Stockholm’s oldest cathedral – Storkyrkan, the address for all royal weddings and coronations. Adding to the prestigious company, you’ll also find the House of Knights and the spectacular Knights garden here, as well as the Nobel Museum and Library. The museum was opened in 2001 to mark a hundred year’s of the prize and showcases portraits and citations of the winners.

Of all Gamla Stan’s landmarks, the most magical are perhaps the old alleyways, and walking past them is just as fascinating. Some are impossibly narrow, just slight openings between ancient buildings, it is a mystery how they manage to hold the tourists that flood them all through the day. At either end you’ll find quirky little souvenir stores; miniature trolls and Vikings, dressed up in helmets and swords, stand outside, luring tourists into buying bags worth of souvenirs.

Like the rest of Sweden, the old town too is a showcase of the country’s multi-ethnic atmosphere, which for first time visitors comes as a pleasant surprise. Store windows display little statues of Buddha, Krishna and Mary, all standing side by side. Outside a million tourists, speaking a dozen different languages, jostle past hot-dog kiosks and street performers, singers (they all have a slight bias for Dylan and Alanis numbers), jugglers and artists. It’s easy to envy those who work and live in these quarters; despite the endless crowds it never once loses it charm.

Along with the history and the culture, another attraction here is food. There are a number of chic cafes and restaurants on the menu: while some choose to spill out on the street, enjoying the bright midnight sun, others prefer a more interesting modus operandi – serving out of underground, or cellar cafes. Unless you are claustrophobic, these make for a memorable culinary experience. Keeping in sync with the city’s multi-ethnic attitude, a variety of world cuisine is on offer across Gamla Stan. The real adventure, however, lies in a plate of traditional Swedish food: cloudberry jam, a choice between reindeer, elk and moose, served with mashed potatoes, and rounded off with some traditionally made vanilla ice-cream topped with warm wildberry jam.

I could spend the whole day wandering these alleys, but across the bridges the rest of the city waits. The City Hall, an imposing brick figure spread across the landscape, beckons from the other side, and I succumb. As I walk in a number of elegant statues greet me, following my awestruck progress from their enclaves high in the walls. Ahead, towards the waterfront brick gives way to soft green lawns, each with a fountain, statues and a flowerbed. Along with a spectacular view of the city, you’ll also see young couples with family and friends, some waiting to be wed, others newly wed; there is confetti and flowers, and beautiful wedding gowns.

Stockholm is thirty percent park and thirty percent water – you can tell just by how sweet the air tastes. This makes walking around the city, along the waterfront, across the many bridges, past the squawking gulls and expensive boats anchored in, even more special. A must do here is the archipelago cruise; stopover at the Djurgarden island park, at the Vasa Museum. The Vasa was the Swedish navy’s most sophisticated battleship. She set sail on her maiden voyage in 1628, only to sink a few meters away from the harbour. In 1961 she was raised and restored, becoming one of Sweden’s most visited tourist attraction. Right next to it is the Nordic Museum holding exhibits of cultural, historic and artistic importance, and the Skansen Open Air Museum, one of Europe’s oldest museums; it offers a glimpse to the Swedish way of life.

Royalty, history, sightseeing; It’s been a long day. My feet have taken in every inch of the city, and as the midnight sun calls it a day, casting long shadows into the night, I decide to follow suit. I settle down at a cosy little restaurant by the waterfront; the perfect end to a perfect day in Stockholm.

A version of this appeared in the Hindustan Times on 21/2/08