A ghosthunters guide to Mumbai

In India, there is a small crew of people that go out at night, armed with EMF sensors or detectors, EVP recorders, motion sensor cameras, and touch sensors, to explore myths about the paranormal. Yes, you can call them desi ghosthunters.

One such team is The Parapsychology and Investigations Research Society (PAIRS), group of paranormal investigators and researchers, parapsychologists, demonologists, spiritual healers, and counsellors. Their modus operandi includes heading to “active spots” armed with equipment to try to record and, later, analyse these abnormal energies.

“Before we go to a location,” says demonologist Sarbajeet Mohanty, “we try to get a recent picture of the location so that psychic mediums can give a reading of what to expect or find at the locations, which provides a roadmap for the investigators.” Mohanty founded PAIRs with psychic developer Pooja Vijay.

Disclaimer: PAIRS highly recommends you do not venture into these places without proper knowledge. All PAIRS investigators have been researching this field from the past 6 to 10 years and are certified. Enter at your own risk. 

Amar Dham Crematorium, Panvel

Cemeteries and crematoriums are apparently common hunting grounds for ghosts – location certainly does matter. This particular burial ground has spooked many a passer-by. One story goes that a woman crossing the street outside at night suddenly got goose bumps, and at that very moment the nearby lights went off, including those on her scooter. Others have spoken about seeing apparitions and moving shadows and hold them responsible for the accidents that happen in the area.

During their investigations, the PAIRS psychic team found that the location had multiple spirits, as recorded through changes on the temperature sensor and EMF sensor.

Amar Dham Crematorium, HOC Colony, Panvel, Navi Mumbai 410 206.

Mumbai Pune Highway

The story goes that PAIRS member Jignesh Unadkat was riding his motorcycle on the highway, near Bhingari, Old Panvel, when a wayward car forced him to the side of the road. It was then that he realised there was someone standing in front of him, and he veered off the road to avoid hitting the person. His bike was damaged, but he survived. When he went to look for the person, he realised there was no one there.

A few days later, Jignesh, along with Mohanty, returned to the spot to investigate this strange phenomenon, armed with a PAIRS Spirit Box app (developed by Brian Holloway of Soul Seekers, Javier Sanz of  Spain Paranormal). “Jignesh got two replies to questions,” says Mohanty. “One was, ‘Do you recognize me…my bike overturned here some days back’ to which he got a ‘yes’. The other was ‘How did you die?’ to which he got a one-word reply, ‘accident’.”

While this may be a “real” story, there are many legends associated with the place. Another story has a well-dressed lady asking for a lift. Those that don’t stop are treated to a vision of the women running alongside their vehicle, with an evil smile, saying, “You’re next”. Many crashes have been attributed to it. Mohanty says there is also a ‘fake road appearing out of nowhere, which if taken leads to death’.

Vasai Fort

Vasai Fort, or Bassein Fort, is a sprawling structure built by the Portuguese that overlooks the Arabian Sea. The fort has been under the control of the Portuguese, the British, and the Marathas and has been silent witness to many deaths. It is one of the many places in the city that locals truly believe is haunted – though that didn’t stop Coldplay from shooting their video there.

Shishir Kumar, former journalist and founder-president of paranormal research organisation Team Pentacle, and his team conducted an investigation at Vasai Fort. Initially, they didn’t think it was haunted because it still had many people living in the vicinity. “The first time,” says Kumar, “everything went smoothly and none machines worked. Then I used this trick where I asked the spirits to clap as I clap, and that started happening.”

Mohanty adds that their psychic readings reveal a woman who was murdered and whose body was dumped near the well in the fort. Village lore says a lady, assumed to be a witch, committed suicide in that same well, but her body was never found.

Vasai Fort, Killa Road, Police Colony, Vasai (w), Vasai 401201

Mukesh Mills

Mukesh Mills was built in 1870s by the East India Company and was shut down in 1892 after a strike. Soon after, a fire broke out, killing thousands of people. This dark history is possibly what led to it being considered haunted. The mill is a popular shooting location, and there are many stories of how no one, not even film crew, venture there after dark. In fact actor Bipasha Basu has claimed she was unable to speak her dialogues in one room because of some strange power.

PAIRS’ investigations and psychic readings reveal that the location has “some evil and negative spirits from its dark and painful history”. “Such psychic readings are a warning for us not to venture in there,” says Mohanty, “especially if you’re a beginner.”

Mukesh Mills, Narayan A Sawant Road, Colaba, Mumbai 400 005

St John Baptist Church

This Portuguese Jesuit Church was abandoned in the 1800s after an epidemic. Although no one visits the place any more, a Mass is conducted once a year. The claim is that the church is haunted by the evil spirit of a bride who scares anyone who enters the place. In 1977, an exorcism was conducted there, and everyone present suddenly heard a loud moaning sound and maniacal laughter. It was believed that the exorcism destroyed the spirit.

In 2016, a PAIRS team visited the space to check if it was an “active” location. “We were about to enter,” says Mohanty, “when Pooja told us that a woman was watching us from the wall nearby. When inside, we heard footsteps running away from the place. Later, one of the team members told us that while he was texting, out of the corner of his eye he saw an apparition near him. All this happened in broad daylight.” Mohanty intends to return to do proper investigation.

St John Baptist Church, Seepz Road D, Andheri (E), Mumbai 400 096

 

[This story was first published in The City Story: THE GHOSTHUNTERS’ GUIDE TO PARANORMAL MUMBAI]

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The Goan good food guide

Goan food is the new flavour of the season in Mumbai. Tourists, who travel to the sunshine state, clearly cannot get enough of the food – the choris or cutlet pav; the Portuguese-influenced rissois, vindalho and sorpotel; the coconut and amsol-filled curries; and the coconut-milk based dodol and bebinca.

It’s an experience that is now possible to avail of, sometimes at a price, in the city. There’s no feni or shack and the sunshine and sand is missing but, a few restaurants here are doing their bit to provide a feel and a taste of Goan food.

Snow Flake

Walking into this restaurant is like going back in time. Nostalgia oozes out of the marble topped tables, the sepia-tinted photos stuffed in dusty shelves and the creak fans. The day’s specials, a stock list of about ten dishes, can be found scrawled on a whiteboard in the corner. The cats at the entrance all seem to embody to susegaad feeling of the place – you may sometimes feel like stretching yourself out and curling up into a ball after a good meal here. It is here that I find food that comes closest to what my mother prepares at home – offal laden sorpotel; the tangy fish curry, ambotik; tongue roast with browned onions and just a hint of gravy and quite the best fish cutlets I’ve eaten in the city.

Snow Flake started as an ice cream shop/bakery selling food to what was once a thriving Goan population. Today, the customers are sparse but they soldier on, relying on patrons like me, keen for a taste of home.
At: 18, Ribeiro Building, first Dhobi Talao Lane.
(Read a detailed review, here.)

Sushegad Gomantak

Sandwiched between shops selling Keralite fare and kebabs, this tiny restaurant isn’t easy on the eyes. What it lacks in looks, it makes up for with delicious food and warm service. The only wall décor here is a chart showcasing the fish in the Indian Ocean with their local names, a blown up clipping of a newspaper article mentioning the place and the day’s specials. There’s a menu of course, but everyone comes here for the fish – eaten fried or in a curry.

It is here that I always manage to find xinanio (mussels), best eaten fried and piping hot; kalwa (oysters), typical had in a thick curry; and muddoshi (lady fish), also eaten fried. The restaurant’s cooking style is Goan Hindu and is heavy on curries, many of which don’t feature coconut. The fried fish comes with a thick coating of rice flour and rava and isn’t oily. Other stand out dishes include prawn cutlets accompanied by a thin, green chutney; tisrya sukhe – shellfish served with a garam masala and coconut mixture; and a crab thali featuring one huge crab in a spicy red curry.
At: A11, Opposite Paradise Theatre, Mahim Shivsagar Society, LJ Road, Mahim.
(Read a detailed review, here.)

Gables

This eating house is often ignored by those seeking out the more popular New Martin, which is around the corner. A visit to this four-seater restaurant will surprise you. One of the few places in the city offering free Wifi, Gables has a faux tiled roof inside, a wall mirror giving the illusion of extra space, two glass-fronted stands showcasing chops, cutlets and other fried snacks, and even a bookshelf filled with old magazines and the odd cookbook.

Mel, the in-house cat, will accompany you while you eat. There are also a few Italian dishes but skip those and opt for the sorpotel (with chunky bits of pork) or sausage chilly fry mopped up with fresh pao. The prawn rava fry or calamari fry will satiate your fish cravings.
At: Opposite Shiv Mandir, Colaba.

Soul Fry

The 20-year-old place enjoys iconic status in Bandra, not the least for those weekly karaoke nights, I’m told, also serve as good matchmaking venues! The festivities apart, Meldan D’Cunha, the affable owner the place, loves experimenting with food. This finds the form of lesser known Goan, East Indian, Koli and Manglorean food. Here, the cafreal, prawn recheado, and sausage fry find place with the Portuguese-influenced crab xec xec, caldeirada (Portuguese fish stew) and Guisado De Galinha (chicken stew). These are best washed down with pints of beer for that perfect laidback vibe.
At Pali Mala Road, opposite Pali Vegetable Market, Bandra West.
Call 7208316545

New Martin Hotel, Colaba

This iconic institution in Colaba is a simple, no frills place. The formica topped tables, high seating, the two blackboards announcing the day’s specials – the interiors may not have changed even if the owners did. ‘Goan meals served here’ is proudly painted on the door shutters and a small board hanging outside.

The hotel now has Manglorean owners, but the food is still Goan though heavier on the spices. The beef chilly fry is succulent and spicy; prawns pulao has golden long grained rice heaped over a masala prawns and their pork sorpotel is adequately greasy and flavourful. Their specialty is beef steak, cooked till tender and served with generous helpings of onions and potatoes. Here, just like at Udupi restaurants, you might have to sometimes share a table with strangers. There’s no need for conversation, everyone is too busy eating.
At 11, Glamour House, Strand Road, Apollo Bandar, Colaba.

Mangoes

This rooftop restaurant in Orlem gets its name from the fact that the owners are Goan and Manglorean. They serve both kinds of cuisines. The décor here is spartan with plastic chairs and tables. It doesn’t matter because Mangoes serves some hearty Goan fare, largely focuses on non-vegetarian food. There’s the beef, and pork roast – both of which are so popular, people freeze it and take it abroad; tongue jeere mere, caldin, the street staple roce omelette, cutlets and potato chops.
At: 601, 6th floor, Almar Arcade, Near Punjab National Bank, Orlem.

Fresh Catch

A pelican with his catch of the day greets you at the entrance of this Mahim icon. It’s an indication that if nothing else, you can get good fish here.

The interiors remind me of an old aunt’s home – patterned napkins, red checked tablecloths, black chairs, sepia-tinted photos on the wall and music from the 70s and 80s. The service is warm and the food, homely. Best known for its butter garlic crab, Fresh Catch also dishes up stellar bangda jeera meera, a spicy and tangy balchao, prawns sukka and a wholesome seafood pulao filled with juicy prawns, crabmeat and shellfish. The prices may be a tad expensive for Goan grub but the food is delicious, which makes it worth it.
At Lt Kotnis Marg, Near Fire Brigade, Off L J Road, Mahim West, Mahim.
(Read a detailed reviewhere.)

Porto & Poie

The azulejo-tiled space in Juhu is the newest Goan restaurant to hit Mumbai’s shores. It’s a simply-designed space – the outdoor area has a small balcao area with a bar in the centre. On the inside are black and white photos of markets in Portugal and Goa, a tiled ceiling and laterite stone-arched windows.

It is the food prepared by Goan chef Gracian de Souza that reminds me of home. The tender marinated salted tongue with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, the crunchy and cheesy Portuguese style prawn rissois, and the classic Goan fish curry and slow cooked tenderloin chilli. The vegetarian dishes are stellar too, especially the coconutty mushroom and tendli tonnak. There’s no feni but there is Vagator Rave, with its hints of cashew and sweet pineapple, and the welcome drink, the alcohol-soaked cherry liqueur ginjinha.  Best of all, there is poee, brought in from Goa every day.
At Above Royal Garden Hotel, Juhu Tara Road; 6 pm to 1.30 am; Call 26602955
(Read a detailed review, here.)

Lady Baga

A makeshift beach with a shack, a surfboard and swaying palms greets you at the entrance of Lady Baga in Kamala Mills. One whole wall is painted blue and has the lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s Going to California on it. Inside, the place channels a kitschy shack vibe with swinging hammocks, fairy lights, stars, coloured walls and cane furniture with tie-dye cushions.

Behind the bar, Eric Lobo dishes up cocktail experiments. His version of cashew feni is a potent cashew and and coconut vodka. I recommend the scotch-heavy Ginger Man, and the Bloody Mariana – a Bloody Mary with balchao and Goan sausage-infused vodka. The food, from the hands of an East India chef, is worthy of seconds. The stand out dishes include rissóis prawns, kokum & chilli pumpkin and Chef Aloo’s prawn curry – a rice plate with prawn curry with bhindi, tendli pickle, kismur, fried whitebait, and local red unpolished rice.
At Oasis Complex, Kamala Mills, Gate No 4, Lower Parel. Call 022 4931012

O Pedro

The food here isn’t Goan, not the way I’ve grown up eating it. But it is delicious and inspired by Goan food, which makes for some interesting dishes. There’s rissois stuffed with crab instead of prawns and coated with Panko crumbs; kalchi koddi served as a sauce with boiled eggs, kismur with raw papaya and shrimp, red rice sannas, and serradurra with orange segments. There’s even a sourdough poee, best paired with chorizo butter. The best one being the veal tongue prosciutto, a take on salted tongue with pickled cucumber and a garlic-mustard aioli.

The interiors, some call it granny chic, are filled with knick knacks and elements expected in an old house – cane backed chairs, hanging creepers, the red tiles and the plates on the walls. A good place to hang out at is at the polished wooden bar, sipping on the homemade Vasco Sour with its hit of Goan toddy vinegar, and tapping your feet to the music.
At: O Pedro, Unit #2, Ground Floor, Jet Airways-Godrej BKC Building, Bandra Kurla Complex.

Box:

Goa Bhavan Canteen
At Cross Road No.12, Samarth Ramdas Marg, Gulmohar Road, JVPD Scheme, Juhu.
Call 98205 97275

Goa Portuguesa
At Mili Building, TH Kataria Road, Matunga.
Call 24440707

C D’Souza
At 314, Cawasji Hormusji Street, Opposite Our Lady of Dolours Church, Marine Lines.
Call  22065893

Goan Cart
At 1st Domnic Lane, Tank Road, Orlem, Malad West.
Call 9820756797

Cozinha Goana
At: Beverly Park, WING-A, Mira Bhayandar Road, Chandan Shanti, Mira Road. Closed on Mondays.
Call: 9920854955

 

[Versions of this story appeared in The Hindu and The City Story]

Kalchi kodi and the taste of nostalgia

When I was growing up in a village in India’s then-smallest state, Goa, my family had a Sunday tradition. We love to eat and we have the hips to show for it.

Located on India’s west coast, Goa is known for its sun, sand and beaches. A typical Goan meal is xitt-koddi-nustem (rice, curry and fish). A long coastline meant a lot of wealth came from the sea; an easy availability of coconuts meant they often found their way into the food – which, like all aspects of Goan life, is heavily imprinted by four-and-a-half centuries of Portuguese rule.

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The prawn curry at Lady Baga, which I then turned into the kalchi kodi!

Our breakfast, after early morning Mass and catechism classes, was an elaborate affair. It was a mix of local food and imported (‘tinned’) foodstuff. The dining table would be loaded with tinned cheese, butter, beef roast, omelette, tea, coffee, jam and fresh poee (Goan flatbread). The piece de resistance, to us children anyway, was kalchi koddi, a dish that literally translates to yesterday’s curry.

Kalchi koddi was usually made of fish curries inflected with coconuts – either grated coconut ground into a paste or coconut milk. The beauty of this simple dish was that it made leftovers exciting on their own. Yesterday’s fish curry, minus the fish, was just warmed over a low flame till it condensed and thickened. This was then eaten plain or topped with an egg.

When we were children, visions of that perfect kalchi koddi were enough to ensure that we ate a little less fish curry the night before. Reheated, the orange gravy thickened to a point that enhanced the flavors of coconut and various spices; it was an exciting new way to eat our staple curry.

Though we didn’t know it at the time, the dish was born out of necessity. “The Goans have always been a practical community. They never wasted anything. If a pig was cut, the entire animal, from snout to tail, found its way into different dishes,” says Odette Mascarenhas, a Goan food critic and author.

Refrigeration didn’t become commonplace in Goa or much of India until much after independence in 1947. Even then, only the affluent could afford to buy one. So food had to be cooked fresh daily. Whatever remained “was eaten the next day or just fed to the pigs,” says Mascarenhas.

“When fish curry was cooked, only the required pieces of fish were added – usually one per person. If this curry remained, it would be kept in the kunddlem [an earthen pot] overnight over the burning embers so by morning, it would thicken and coat the sides,” she says. “This was then scraped out using hot poee.” She recalls her mother-in-law serving her kalchi koddi made out of sorak (coconut curry made without fish).

If not for breakfast, kalchi koddi was eaten with the mid-morning meal of congee or pez (rice gruel) in most Goan homes. In her book, Cozinha de Goa: History and Tradition of Goan Food, Fátima da Silva Gracias writes, ‘In the past, people ate congee with the previous day’s condensed coconut curry, to which they at times added leftover ambot-tik (translates to sour-spicy) curry and a little sugar before placing it on the fire. This was called kalchi koddi in Bardez (or North Goa) and atoilolem humon(translates to condensed curry) in Salcete (South Goa).’

The pez was plain and watery, so the accompaniment had to be tasty and mostly dry —- like pickle, dried fish. Those who worked in the fields – Goa and much of India back then was largely an agrarian society – would rely on this healthy meal to sustain them till lunchtime.

Ask any Goan and they will tell you kalchi koddi tastes best when made in an earthen pot. “Each dish had its own pot for cooking, and fish curry was always made in the kunddlem and served with a dhoilo (coconut shell spoon),” says Gracias. The taste probably was enhanced by the fact that these utensils, in essence, came from the soil of the land.

Over the years, this dish has seen its fair share of variations. Any curry that has coconut in it, but no souring agent, can be turned into kalchi koddi. These days, people have leftover xacuti (spicy chicken curry) or caldin (a stew made with coconut milk) heated the same way.

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A modern take on the dish: Kalchi kodi with devilled eggs at O Pedro, Mumbai

Old-timers will tell you these new versions don’t quite taste the same. It could be the shiny copper and steel vessels that have replaced earthenware, the stove top that’s replaced firewood furnaces or the fact that curries are now refrigerated and then reheated the next morning. There’s some romanticism still attached to the act of sneaking into the kitchen as a child with a piece of poee and scraping the sides of the kunddlem for a taste of that thick gravy.

This curry has the distinction of being one of those rare dishes that has inspired a song. In ‘Kalchi Koddi’, the (late) Goan singer and actor Alfred Rose sang about how the dish added flavor to his rice or pez and how he didn’t need fish or anything else as an accompaniment as long as there was kalchi koddi. Sing this song to a Goan and chances are they will either rhapsodize about the breakfast staple or serve you some (if available), giving new meaning to the phrase, sing for your supper.

But, for a taste of that delicious leftover curry, I would sing like a canary.

 

[The story was first published in NPR’s The Salt as An Ode To Leftover Curry on March 11, 2018.]  

Porto & Poie: Comfort food 

What happens when you put three Goans together in a room? They start talking about feni, sausages, argue about whether South Goa is better than North Goa and within minutes, discover a common friend.

It’s what happened to Goan friend and I when we visited the city’s newest restaurant, Porto & Poie in Juhu, and met Chef Gracian de Souza. A Bombay boy, Gracian has spent many holidays in north Goa though he considers the South better and within minutes, was talking about the best place to get rosary sausages. 

In the recent past, Goan food has become the flavour of the season. Diners are talking about serradura and caldinha with an enthusiasm that Goans would find hard to understand. In fact, the table near us kept talking about the highlights of the other two places and how nothing can beat food eaten in a Goan home.

I agree. But, if seeking a comforting fish-curry-rice with a little brinjal pickle by the side, Porto & Poie is a good option. 

The 110-seater space is situated above Grandmama’s Café in Juhu. A curving staircase (there’s also an elevator) leads to an al fresco section, which is taken up by an open bar. There’s blue everywhere, possibly to make up for the lack of the sea that is part of a Goan experience. Azulejo tiles decorate the underside of a bar and the lamps outdoor, blue and white porcelain plates pepper the ceiling in the enclosed area, and a similar colour scheme gives the upholstery a soothing touch. Inside are faux laterite stone arches and blown up photographs (by Goan photographer Vince Costa) of marketplaces in Goa and Portugal.

Porto & Poie is Gracian’s labour of love, a realisation of the dream he had of creating a place ‘to call my own’. Having worked as a chef and consultant for nearly two decades, he finally got the chance to return to his roots. “This is my home now,” he says with a laugh. “I spend all my time here!”

As we settle in, he comes by with three shot glasses filled with a blood red drink. “This is ginjinha, a Portuguese local liqueur made by fermenting cherries with sugar and alcohol. I experimented with this a lot since I wanted to get the flavours right and I think I have,” he says. We sip on the drink, basking in the strong but sweet flavours of wine, rum and spices. It’s the perfect start for a meal we are promised, features traditional Goan and Portuguese food, done his way. The recipes and dishes are based on his memories of eating this food as a child, and his trips to Portugal to understand the country’s cuisine.    

We focus on the Goan dishes, some of which has Portuguese influences. The first dish is Portuguese style hand folded prawn rissois. The crescent-shaped, prawn-filled snack is creamy and cheesy with a crispy outer crust and a touch of green chilli. Slow cooked Tenderloin Chilli with Green Peppers and Goan Spices is a fancier version of the beef chilli we’ve eaten at carts in Panjim – it’s too spicy but the meat is cooked perfectly.

A staple order at any Goan restaurant we visit, the Classic Goan chorizo pav is good but we’ve had better. The pav here is replaced poee – specially brought in from Goa every day. The 48-hour Marinated Salted Tongue is tender with extra virgin olive oil adding a different layer of flavour. The surprise for us is the only vegetarian dish we order – the Mushroom & Tendli Tonnak. Heaped with roasted coconut and spices, it is a twist on the tradition cowpeas preparation, with mushroom and tendli adding different textures to the dish.    

The food would’ve been perfect with feni or even coconut rum but since they’re not available, I opt for the Vagator Rave from the restaurant’s tiki cocktail section. The drink has enough cashew to hint at feni, and a sweetness from pineapple and sugarcane juice. Calm Chapora looks good on paper – a mix of bourbon, curry leaves, pumpkin and sea salt – but the bourbon overpowers everything else and the curry leaves are there just for decoration.  

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Vagator Rave, Bombil and Tendli pickles, Marinated Tongue.

Our main course is focused on fish. Amsol (or kokum) is typically used to flavour Goan curries and here it does its job in the Classic Goan fish Curry (Rs 500). The curry doesn’t have coconut but garners flavour from the many spices and tirphal (Goan peppercorn). The Grilled Prawn Caldinho is a creamy, soupy stew with drumsticks and radish. In both dishes, the fish, prawns, and kingfish, are fried separately and then placed in the curries. It feels like we are eating two different dishes – a fried fish and a curry but, the fish is fresh and fried perfectly. Is it tasty? Yes. Will I order it again? Probably not. I prefer keeping those two dishes separate.      

Dessert is the bebinca, the layered cake that’s as easy to polish off as it is tedious to prepare. Like the ingredients and the bread, this dish is brought in from Goa and doesn’t have the lightness associated with homemade bebinca. 

How does Porto & Poie measure up one the Goan food scale? I’m not impressed with all the dishes and find the prices a bit steep but, Gracian’s food has soul. It reflects his love and respect for the cuisine. He makes people feel at home. And, that’s enough. 

After all, only a Goan can create a true Goan culinary experience.

Porto & Poie is located above Royal Garden Hotel, Juhu Tara Road, Mumbai 400049; timings: 6pm to 1.30am (all week); call 2660 2955

 

[This review was first published in The Hindu: With Heart and Soul, on February 17, 2018]

 

 

Czech out of Prague

In Czech Republic, it is possible to actually jab at a map of the country and say, ‘Let’s go here’. That’s because every small city, village or town in the country is worthy of a visit. They are full of history, beauty, charming landscapes, and friendly people. Each place has something unique to offer – hot springs, a bone church, thermal springs, underground dungeons, breweries, underground limestone caverns and a renaissance-style castle.

The beauty of these towns and cities is they are easily accessible, especially from the capital city, Prague.

Telč

Go for: A picturesque old town square chance and a chance to live in a Renaissance house

The southern Moravian town of Telč (pronounced Telchh) is filled with babbling brooks, verdant woods, cobblestoned pathways, and painted wooden houses. Visitors, though, come here for its centerpiece, the old town square or Náměstí Zachariáše z Hradce.

This UNESCO heritage site, which completed 25 years of its inclusion in the World Heritage List, is easily the prettiest in the country. The long, ‘rectangular’ square is flanked by wooden Renaissance and Baroque burgher buildings, painted in pastel shades of blues, greens and blues.  

The houses, church and town hall of the city were destroyed in a fire in the 1500s. Zachariaš of Hradec, who gives the square his name, brought in Italian architects to rebuild the place. They gave it a magnificent Renaissance makeover. This is best experienced in the castle. Here, guided tours showcase the armory in Knights’ Hall, the trophies in the African Hall, the rooms of the chateau and the Chapel of St George, which holds the remains of the nobleman. 

The houses were furnished with gables and vaulted arcades in the front, creating a covered walkway that is now home to tourist traps: restaurants, shops and stores. Some are even open to tourists, giving them a chance to live in a piece of history. It is the façades of these homes, each unique from the rest, that bears closer scrutiny. Some have fresco paintings or sgraffito, while others feature the leaders of Old Testament.

Other places to discover include the Church of the Nativity and Assumption, whose tower holds the oldest Telč bell (1515), the Marian (or Plague) column, a spacious park with two fish ponds filled with ducks, and even a bar with slot machines.     

Read more, here.

Olomouc

Go for: An astronomical clock to rival Prague’s Orloj, and discover six fountains  

Olomouc (pronounced Olomotts) is home to the second largest and second oldest historic preservation it was once the capital of Moravia (before ceding it to Brno) and is the fifth-largest city in the country. Legend has it that the town was founded by Julius Caesar though he never visited. The city, though, began as a Roman military camp named Julii Mons (Julius’ Hill), which got corrupted to the present Olomouc.

The old town is an intriguing mix of architectural styles, from Renaissance, baroque, gothic and even modernist. The most stunning piece of architecture here is the UNESCO World Heritage Holy Trinity Column, which was built in the first half of the 18th century at the end of plague. The arrest column in Europe was built by locals and features saints important to the city. It has a tiny chapel within with a small altar and faded paintings on the ceiling.

A close rival is the Astronomical Clock, which some consider to be better than the one in Prague. Built in the 15th century, it was destroyed at the end of World War II and then reconstructed in 1947. The clock has rebuilt by Soviets at the beginning of the Communist regime and the Socialist Realist theme means it reflects proletarians (scientists, sportspeople and labourers) instead of saints.

Other places to visit include six baroque Roman-themed fountains including Caesar riding a horse, and Hercules fighting Hydra; the second oldest university in the country (Palacky University); and a little distance away, St Wenceslas Cathedral. The three-tower cathedral is an important part of the city skyline and has the tallest church tower in Moravia.

Karlovy Vary

Go for: Thermal springs and the chance to follow (‘soak’) in the footsteps of Beethoven, Tolstoy and Marx

In the abundance that is Czech Republic’s spa towns, Karlovy Vary – Vary to the locals or Carlsbad – stands out for being the prettiest of them all.

Karlovy Vary owes its name to Charles IV, King of Bohemia who founded the city in 1370; it literally translates to Charles’ Bath. He was the first ‘patient’ and supposedly used the water from the hot springs to heal his wounds.

Today, the city has evolved and is known for its thermal and mineral springs, spa treatments and its whimsical architecture. In the 18th century it was a popular tourist destination, seeing guests of the likes of Beethoven, Tsar Peter the Great, Emperor Franz Josef I, Brahms, Wagner, Tolstoy, and Marx. World War I destroyed the city’s tourism and after WWII, Czech settlers came in. Look closely and it is possible to find signs of German heritage.

Take the funicular up, or walk through a verdant spa forest to reach Diana Lookout Tower. The 547 meter tower was built in1914 and affords a spectacular view of the city. Stroll by the impressive colonnades – Park, Mill, Market, Castle and Hot Spring – are located close to each other. The most impressive of these is the Mill Colonnade with its walls of allegorical reliefs, statues representing months of the year and even an orchestra stage.

No visit here is complete without trying out the traditional herbal liqueur Becherovka, produced only here, and consumed either chilled or with tonic. The bittersweet herbal liquor was first sold as stomach medicine. The recipe is a closely guarded secret; so close, that apparently only two families have it. To learn more about this mysterious drink, visit the Becherovka exhibition, in the historic building where the liquor was manufactured for 150 years.

Other places to explore include Lazne I – a spa building housing Franz Josef’s baths; the Karl Marz monument, the Karlovy Vary Museum, and Church of St. Peter & St. Paul. The latter was built in the 1800s and sports five golden domes and paintings and icons gifted by wealthy Russians. Look out for the relief representing Russian Tsar Peter the Great.

 

[The story appeared in Jetwings International in February, 2018]

 

 

Unusual museums in Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe abounds in such unusual museums. A region that’s rich in history and culture, it has many a splendoured space dedicated to both. During my visits there, I’ve toured horrific Nazi prisons in Warsaw, studied the life of the tortured genius at the Chopin museum in Vienna, and learned about the history of sex machines at the Museum of Sex in Prague. 50 instruments of grey?

Here then, are my picks of some of the most interesting and innovative museums to visit.

Bunker 10-Z

As museums go, Bunker 10-Z isn’t a typical one. The Cold War remnant is a chilling (literally) tribute to its origins, that of a nuclear fallout shelter. Now a hotel, it makes for an interesting exhibition space, with a diesel generator engine room, an air filtration room, an emergency telephone exchange, a decontamination room and a milk bar. The best way though to absorb this museum is by living in it.

10 Z was built by the Germans during WWII as a civil defense (Luftschutz) shelter from American and Soviet bombardment of Brno. After the war it served as a wine store for awhile before being confiscated by the Communists. The nuclear fallout shelter was completed in 1959 and intended protect 500 of the city’s political representatives, for three days. It opened to the public last year as hotel, with 18 rooms.

Nothing prepares you for the fallout of a nuclear war more than sleeping in a deathly quiet, pitch dark, underground space surrounded by gas masks, medicine boxes, maps, old motorbikes, telephones, typewriters and other items that would come in handy in case of a nuclear war.

There are guided tours. I do one on my own, armed with a map. There’s a diesel generator engine room, battery room, air filtration room, emergency telephone exchange and a decontamination room – all of which form the technical part of the shelter. Atop ventilators and electrical machinery, tiny televisions screen short videos and documentaries of the people who built and took shelter in bunker during WWII. There’s one that screens advertisements from Communist times. 

I end my tour at the milk bar, run by Chef Marcel Ihnačak, which serves ‘Stalinist and wartime specialties’ such as salads, open sandwiches, bread spreads, sundaes and custard cream. Russian Egg (35 Kč), Sweet Crêpes (45 Kč), washed down with cider (35 Kč) and beer (25 Kč).

Bunker 10-Z is located at Husova ulice. Daily excursions happen between 11.30 am to 6.15 pm; tickets without guide are 130 Kč. The milk bar is open from noon to 7 pm (except Mondays). 

[Read more about Brno’s underground spaces, here]

Time machines

Vienna’s Clocks Museum is an informative journey though time. Housed in one of the oldest houses in Veinna, Harfenhaus (Harpist’s House), it has over 700 clocks on display.

My knowledge of timepieces is limited to simple watches and clocks. At the museum, I learned about early chronometers, tower clock, pillar clocks, clock organs, lantern clocks, pendant and pocket watches studded with diamonds and miniature paintings, mantel clocks with pendulums, and Viennese flute clocks that played music. There were clocks bigger than me, and some smaller than a thimble.

Austria was once one of the leading clockmakers in the world and the museum showcases some of this history through exquisite pieces – an astronomical bracket clock from 1653, a tower clock from St Stephen’s Cathedral, and the oldest object in the museum, a watchman’s clock with ceramic figures dating back to the early 15th century.

All the timepieces had notes displaying their age and history, and many were in functioning order. My favourite section was the picture clocks, which were made in Austria in 1780. These stunning pictures usually features landscapes and historical events painted on metal sheets and hiding tiny dials. The most unusual piece was an astronomical clock designed by a priest. The altarpiece with wings it showed planetary constellations, and calendars of different cultures and faiths.

The timepieces are arranged in chronological order offering a good time machine into the history of clocks and watches, going back to the 15th century.   

The Vienna Museum of Clocks and Watches is located at Schulhof 2, Vienna, 1010. Entry is 7 Euros. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10 am to 6 pm. 

Memories of a breakup

I walked into the Museum of Broken Relationships for a lark, wondering what catharsis the lovelorn could find in sending in mementos of relationships gone bad. An hour later, I walked out much sobered and realising that love can leave behind emotional and physical baggage. The museum was a repository of the latter.

The physical representation of broken relationships could not have a more apt, or beautiful setting: a baroque Kulmer palace in Zagreb’s historical Upper Town. The space is all white and has three main sections – the shop, the exhibit space, and a café. 

Each object had a synopsis, a story if you may, about its value. There were the usual stuffed animals, toys, books, letters, and drawings. The entries were anonymous so it was up to me to decipher the gender, the age and the person who has sent in that note. I read every story, and though much of it was lost in translation, the sense of loss was easy to understand.

MOBR mother, Mare Milin

A tribute to a mother lost to cancer. Photo courtesy: Mare Milin.

In the family section, a small nook had a dress, shoes and a handbag. Sent in by a grieving woman from Warsaw, they told a story about a family fighting cancer. Another story was of a supportive man who turned out to be a sexual predator. The story was from a survivor of child sexual abuse. An audio-visual section told the story of a young girl who fell in love with a soldier who never returned.

It wasn’t all sadness and despair. Some stories made me laugh. A hamburger toy, sent in from Luxembourg in 2011 had the note: ‘His dog left more traces behind than he did’. A router, sent in from San Francisco in 2008, had the neatest story: We tried. Not Compatible. An axe, called the ex-axe, told the story about a jilted person who took the instrument and destroyed all the furniture belonging to her lover. The cutest one was a list of 10 Reasons to stay. It was sent in by someone from London, and dedicated to a woman he knew for three weeks and who was leaving for Australia. Among the reasons were this gem: lately I’ve been finding lots more money on the streets of London.

The museum was started as an art project by Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić in 2006, a former couple who decided to celebrate the mementoes that made up their relationship. What started as a travelling exhibition found a permanent home in Zagreb in 2010.  

The museum has a Brokenships Museum Café for those looking for a pick-me-up but, I found the shop more exciting. Abundant in puns on break-ups, my favourite were chocolates with the message, hope your ass gets bigger.  

The Museum of Broken Relationships is located at Ćirilometodska 2, 10000. It is open from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m (June 1st – September 30th), and 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m (October 1st – May 31st). Entry: 30 kuna.

Let’s go LEGO

It felt like we were in the middle of the LEGO movie. The LEGO Museum (Museum of Bricks) is the world’s biggest and expectedly, is designed to astonish and delight.

Every brick had purpose. They found their way into over 2,500 exhibits, divided into 20 themes. There was a mini city, complete with little houses with gardens, police stations and post offices and constructions sites; railway sets; F1 racing cars; and characters from comics, movies or books. Think Batman, Captain Jack Sparrow, Indiana Jones and even Barbie and Ken sharing one roof.

The corners and alcoves were reserved for standalone heritage structures – the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Kremlin, among others. An impressive and pristine white Taj Mahal, we found out, was the biggest factory set LEGO ever made, with 5,922 bricks. 

The museum’s top floor was for those seeking to pay homage to that cult space saga, Star Wars. Characters, battleships, props from the movies were stacked, from floor to ceiling. A section was dedicated to that JK Rowling series, Harry Potter, was uninspiring. The giant spiders looked cute, Hagrid didn’t seem giant enough, Quidditch was indicated by just three hoops and the characters looked bored.   

The home city also found adequate representation. An entire alcove was dedicated to the Charles Bridge – a five meter monument filled with 1,000 figurines, which made for a fun game of guessing which characters were on the bridge.

The museum is located at Praha, Národní 362/31; it is open from 10 am to 8 pm; the nearest tram stop and metro station is Narodni Trida; ticket rates start at 100 Kč. 

 

[The story was first published in Deccan Herald as Diversity in Display on January 6, 2018.]  

Chopin’s Warsaw

Last year, for three cold, wintry days, I found myself stalking a man. I couldn’t help it; his presence was everywhere – on benches, in the park, museums and in the churches.  

It is expected when you are a genius. A beautiful city, Poland’s capital is not as compelling or historically relevant as Krakow. But, it has Fryderyk Chopin.

The city’s most famous son wasn’t born here but his genius was discovered and nurtured in the Warsaw’s salons, churches and concert halls. It was here that he learned to play the piano, and gave his first concert when just eight. He spent the first half of his life in the city and his heart lies here, quite literally.

Today, it is possible to walk in the footsteps of the composer. Armed with a guide book and an app, I set out to discover the genius in the city that was once his home.

The churches

I stumbled onto one of Chopin’s resting places by accident. Walking along the beautiful Krakowskie Przedmieście, I take a pit stop at the Holy Cross Church. In the early 19th century, this baroque church was the largest Catholic place of worship in Warsaw.

 It was packed with tourists, who weren’t there to pray but to pay homage. They were busy admiring the church’s plain white pillars, one of which had Chopin’s heart interred within it. The pillar is simple, with a carved bust of the composer and two cherubs. The church was significant to the Chopin family – Fryderyk’s sisters, Izabella and Emilia, were baptised in it. Although the composer’s remains are in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, his heart lies in Warsaw.

Chopin played in the choir for masses held at Visitationist Church.

A little down the road is another church of importance. The 17th century Visitationist Church was built for French nuns and has survived World War II with majority of its original furnishings, including a rococo boat-shaped pulpit. It was here that Chopin played the organ – which is still intact – as a pupil of the Warsaw Lyceum. A plaque outside confirms this fact. My guidebook tells me that it was while playing in this church that he met his first love, Konstancja, who sang at mass. Needless to say, he made sure Sunday mass was quite the experience. 

Musical signposts

As I leave the church, Chopin’s Largo in E Flat Major fills the evening air, mellowing out the sounds of traffic and chatter. The source for this is a smooth cast iron black stone bench. These benches – 15 in all – are spread through the city and act as musical signposts to signify important sites in his life. There are 15 of them are spread across the city. Designed by Professor Jerzy Porębski, these benches come with a button, which plays music for 30 seconds; a route map and an explanation (in English and Polish) about the site’s relevance.

The coolest part though is that the benches have photo codes, which gave me access to an instant audio and visual Chopin guide, and other melodies. 

Saxon palace/garden

If Chopin grew up performing at the Holy Cross Church, he probably played games and took walks in the Saxon Garden; the family lived near the park. The city’s oldest public garden, it gets its name from the Saxon figures that lead up to Warsaw’s first city fountain, and a marble sundial.  

In those days, the Saxon Palace complex housed the school Warsaw Lyceum. Fryderyk’s father was a French language teacher, and the family lived in the staff quarters. It was here that Chopin composed his first pieces, with the aid of his father and teacher. The Saxon Palace was completely destroyed during WW II, only the triple arch remained. Today, the remains of the palace hold the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dedicated to the unknown soldiers who have given their lives for Poland.

Fryderyk Chopin Museum

The Chopin museum is a four-floor structure in the Ostrogski Palace. The museum opened in 2010 and houses the largest collection of Chopin memorabilia in the world. 

Here, I get a comprehensive and interactive look into the musical genius’ life, from birth to death. The museum is multimedia – there are e-books, audio-visuals, and touchscreen options. There are games too – on one floor is a musical version of Twister, which has me jumping from one spot to another creating my own compositions. Microphones hanging from the ceiling recorded exclamations, sounds of laughter or music depending on the exhibit. Another section allows me to open drawers, which display a sheet of music while speakers play its musical notes. I spent the most time learning about the women in his life – there were many – through photos, letters, sketches and notes.  

The museum is based on the family’s collection of mementos – letters, autograph music manuscripts, books. Some of the weirder exhibits include his school exercise books, a lock of dark brown hair, a gold watch he received from an admiring singer, a gold barrel-shaped pendant with his monogram, and dried flowers from his deathbed. There is also a detailed recreation of his Paris drawing room, with the Pleyel grand paino, which he played in the final two years of his life.

Łazienki Royal Park

The Łazienki Royal Park is a stunning palace and garden complex, built in the 17th century as the summer residence of the last king of Poland. A vast expanse of trees and shaded paths reveal places of interest: a baroque bathing pavilion (which gives the park its name), the Palace on the Isle, a little White House, a water tower and an old guardhouse, among others.  

Chopin monument

Wacław Szymanowski’s monument of Chopin.

The park is home to Warsaw’s most iconic and visited structures, sculptor Wacław Szymanowski’s monument of Chopin. It shows him sitting beneath a stylised willow tree, with a Polish eagle’s head at the corner. The sculpture was erected in 1926 before being one of the first structures demolished by the Nazis. After the war, it was rebuilt thanks to an original mould, and placed on a red sandstone pedestal and basin.

Every year, concerts are held at the foot of the monument. When I visit, it is filled with tourists sunning themselves on the manicured lawns. It is easy to imagine pianists filling the park with sweet melodies in front of a captive audience, while Chopin watches benevolently from above.  

Log on to www.chopin.warsawtour.pl

 

[A version of this story appeared in the Indian Express: My heart beats for Warsaw, on January 7, 2018.]