An evening at Vienna’s Central Cemetery

It was meant to be a search for the final resting places of music legends Schubert, Brahms and Mozart. In two hours, however, the Central Cemetery in Vienna gave us all the trappings of a horror flick with a surprising cast of characters. No, they weren’t the ghosts of music past. 

It all started quite harmlessly. We had earlier visited the St Marx Cemetery that once contained the remains of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and now just had a representative grave. 

 It seemed only right that we follow the trail of his remains, which were resting at the city’s largest cemetery, Vienna Central Cemetery or Zentral Friedhof. His grave was moved in 1891 on the occasion of his 100th death anniversary. Another attraction was the fact the cemetery was home to the graves of over 2.5 million souls. 

There we were, having braved a 40-minute tram ride to the cemetery, situated on the outskirts of the city at Simmering, on a cold and wet evening. On entering, we perused the map, neatly divided and numbered into sections. There was no mention of the grave we were out to find so we decided to start walking, hoping the memorial would be conspicuous enough to spot. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. 

The oldest and largest cemetery in Vienna, much like the rest of the city, is pleasing to the eye. Every grave was different and more intricate than the rest. We spotted the normal angels and religious figures gazing beatifically down; statues of children clutching toys and pets as if they were frozen in time (creepy, yes); canopies shielded scenes from history; busts of people; They were creepy but we couldn’t help admiring the artwork; many tombstones also had the names of the architects who built them. 

Aside: History lesson  The cemetery was built in 1870 and opened on All Saints Day in 1874. It is quite interdenominational – houses a Protestant cemetery, a Muslim burial ground, two Jewish cemeteries, Russian Orthodox Burial Ground – which caused much controversy at the time. At 620 acres, it is the largest in Europe and the dead population is believed to be more than the actual population of Vienna! 

The cemetery was empty but for us, and another couple who walked ahead, frequently taking detours to hunt among the rows. We stuck to the main path, losing them in the bargain, and 40 minutes later, couldn’t find anything; even the tombstones had begun to lose their charm. 

We were ready to give up and return – the light was fading and a slight drizzle had begun – when we spotted the church. It suddenly struck us that the most important graves would be around the structure and so set off towards it. Our hunch proved right when we stumbled on the Music Graves, and there were the souls we had come to see. 

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In the centre was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; to the left was Ludwig van Beethoven, to the right was Franz Schubert and a little further away, Johannes Strauss and Johannes Brahms. 

Suitably wowed – we were in the presence of geniuses, after all – we turned back. It was only after reaching the gate, half an hour later, that we realised it was shut. We were locked in. (I confess, at this point, I had a moment of terror. I’m not a fan of cemeteries and especially not when it was getting dark and we were all alone in). A few tense moments later, we realised there was a sign for an emergency gate so we started walking back the way we had come, this time taking a short cut through the muddy paths between the graves. 

A few steps later, my friend K (who has been laughing at my attempts at stalking all the dogs I saw during my trip) suddenly said, “I saw a dog here”. We were both surprises, stray dogs don’t exist in most European countries and who would bring their pet to a cemetery. We continue walking and then in the distance, the ‘dog’ appears. It isn’t a dog but a deer and it freezes just like the idiom it gave rise to. We pull out our cameras with as little noise as possible, not wishing to scare it away before we get a shot at it. But, it scampered away. We ran into it again, a few metres away but my squeal of surprise scared it. It seemed alone and we couldn’t spot any other deer or any other animal around, leading us to wonder what it was doing in an empty cemetery. 

We will never know. 

Conclusion: After walking through half the cemetery in the rain, we found the tiny emergency gate and made our exit quickly. We don’t know what happened to the couple, we didn’t spot them anywhere.  

At: Zentralfriedhof, Simmeringer Hauptstraße 234, 1110 Vienna (look for group 32A).

 

[A version of this story was published in Hindu: On the Graveyard shift in Vienna on December 27, 2017]

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The sound of silence in Ramgarh

“Why are you going to Ramgarh?” enquires my driver. We are in the middle of a nine-hour drive to the hills from Delhi. I tell him I’m on a holiday, and need a break from the chaotic city life. He looks confused. It is off-season and tourists are a rare sight at this time, except the foreigners. “They come here for hash,” he says conspiratorially.

At the end of my stay in Ramgarh, I discovered that I don’t need help to be intoxicated by this hill station.

I have the best view of the place from my resort at the top of the hill, V Resorts. The six-year- old resort has just four rooms. The main cottage has three rooms, a dining and living area, a porch and a balcony with the kitchen one level below. My room is simple, wooden floors, blinds on the windows and dim lighting. There’s a cosy reading nook and no TV – they expect us to be entertained by the scenery.

The fourth ‘room’ is actually the writer’s cottage and has its own entrance. It is for those seeking retreat and possibly writing inspiration. When I’m there, it’s occupied by a group of Punjabi friends who dispel the nightly silence with writing of the most annoying kind, the lyrics of Bollywood songs. The cottage owes its name to two writers who were famous in this region, Mahadevi Verma and Rabindranath Tagore – it is believed that Verma got the idea of writing her famous story Lachma here; and that Tagore
wrote parts of his epic Gitanjali at his mountain abode.

The silence, to someone accustomed to city noise, is deafening. I feel it wrap around me, as if to keep me warm from the sudden chill of the evening. Over the course of my stay, I realise that people here cherish the quiet. They don’t waste words while talking.

Besides, I find myself at a loss for words to describe the vista in front of me. Sunsets are an artist’s dream, with the sky changing colour and dusk adding a filter to the surroundings that no photo app can replicate. It’s a more refined version of those childish nature drawings we did in school – the setting sun over the mountains, trees all around, streams running past tiled houses and animals and children dotting the landscape. Is this what inspired the two great writers who came to this region?

The next morning, I set out seeking answers. My literary trail begins at Tagore Point, home to a now decrepit cottage that once was Tagore’s home in the hills. My guide is Indra Bahadur, originally from Nepal, and a man of few words. During the
three-hour trek we pass small hutments, terraced slops of potatoes and peas, little clumps of deodhar trees. The fruit-plucking season is over so the apple trees around me are all bare. Our search for Tagore’s abode is futile, the path is too overgrown and repeated whacking with sticks doesn’t help. “The place is too dangerous,” he tells me, pointing to the denser region of the forest. Bears and tigers reside there but they rarely make an appearance. The last time he took a group there was five years back. “No one
but trekkers come here.” he says. 

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The last mountain in the range is Tagore Point.

The Mahadevi Verma library is also shut, the caretaker has gone home for a wedding. “Barely anyone comes here,” says Bahadur. “Who has the time to go visit a library, everyone is busy with their lives.”

I can’t visit that library so I turn to the one in the resort. There are barely 50 books, including trashy romance novels and the odd classics. I seek out different reading nooks in the resort, devouring the words on page with the same intensity with which I reserve for food.

As with any cold region, I often find myself hungry. Pankaj, the chef who doubles up as a driver and guide, doesn’t disappoint. His chicken and fish curries are light and wholesome; the omelettes are fluffy and the dals are filled with flavour. I ask for local food and he serves me a Kumaoni meal. There’s bhatt ki churkaani – a thin gravy with black soya bean and local herbs; aloo ke gutke – a snack similar to jeera alu made with boiled potatoes, cumin turmeric and coriander; and steaming fat-grained local
rice. Whenever I am thirsty, there are endless glasses of the refreshing buransh, the blood red juice of the rhododendron flower.

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A Kumaoni meal.

I burn off the calories by walking around the resort. V Resorts is located in the upper region of Ramgarh (Malla). The resort’s manager Nitesh accompanies me sometimes, and we talk about tourism and how Uttarakhand attaining statehood has changed the region. Around me, the twinkling of lights announces the onset of night and we soon hear crickets, buses honking in Talla (lower Ramgarh) and the beginning of a Ramleela performance.

Sightseeing at Ramgarh is incidental. When not resting, I visit a tea estate, a temple filled with bells, and on the last morning, I go paragliding. The journey in the air is a short one that offers me a bird’s eye view of the region. The Himalayan mountains, their peaks shrouded with clouds, the Bhimtal lake glimmering in the distance, cows and horses grazing at pasture, trees as far as the eye can see, and cutting through this landscape, different signs of civilisation. If I wasn’t fighting gravity in a tight harness, I could wax
poetic eloquence about the view.

The thing with Ramgarh is that there’s writing inspiration all around. You just have to know where to look.

Things to know: V Resorts Ramgarh is located in Malla (Upper) Ramgarh, Nainital district in Uttarakhand, about three hours away from the nearest airport (Pantnagar) and 332 km from Delhi. A Cottage room costs Rs 2,860 and the Writers Room is Rs 3,560.

The article appeared in National Geographic Traveller India in December 2017: Solitude and stunning vistas in Uttarakhand. Read my other stories for the magazine, here.

Telč: A fairy tale town

I fell in love with Telč at first sight. I was looking at day trips from Prague and one of the images opened up to reveal pastel-shaded wooden houses with painted fronts and an empty cobbled square.

Further research revealed this town square, called Náměstí Zachariáše z Hradce, was an UNESCO heritage site. (We all know how much I love heritage spaces. Read Hoi An: The Town that time forgot.)

I knew I had to get there. 

I got off the bus at the town square in this Southern Moravian town, and dragged myself (and my suitcase) over cobbled grey paths before reaching the square. It was bitterly cold and I had two heavy bags with me. And then I round a corner and stop short.

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The town square

The town square

In person, Telč is even prettier than its pictures. The square, often called one of the prettiest in the country, lies at the centre of the town and on all sides, are beautiful wooden buildings – in yellows, pinks, greens and blues. Each of the houses has its own history and distinct style. I spent my first few hours there, just craning my neck upwards trying to understand the artwork. 

Aside: History lesson –  The history of Telč dates back to the 1300s. In the 1500’s, Zachariaš of Hradec rebuilt the town square after a massive fire damaged it. The houses thus had vaulted arcades added to their fronts, creating a covered walkway. Italian architects arrived and the Gothic castle, chateau and town underwent a magnificent Renaissance makeover. The houses are residential spaces or homestays, shops or restaurants and administrative centres; No 2 is a former Jesuit hostel, No 10 is the town hall and No 3 is a study centre. 

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No 61 – In 1532, this house was bought by Michael, a baker and the chairman of the town council. In 1555, he rebuilt it and it now boasts of the sgraffito decorations of the leaders of Old Testament.

The centre of the square had two fountains and a Marian column. The Marian (or Plague) column, dates back to 1717 and has the saints: Jan Nepomucký, Jakub, František Xaverius, Roch, Sebastián and the Guardian Angel; St. Rosalia (in a small alcove), and finally, Maria Magdalena. Atop a column of clouds on the globe stands the Virgin Mary. There’s a small water pump too, at the side. 

It is around the square that tourists and townsfolk congregate, drinking cheap alcohol (hello white wine that costs 20 Kč – Rs 12 approx). Since we landed there late afternoon, K and I had a leisurely lunch and then walked about, stopping to admire street musicians filling the silence with the sweet melodies of the saxophone and trumpet.   

Beyond the square

Away from the square, the town is quite small. It was originally created as a moated fortress so is surrounded by a ring of interconnected lakes. A walk to the north, takes us past a small gate and into a spacious park surrounded by duck ponds. There, we spot horses in a nearby field, duck chasing each other, owners taking their dogs out for walks and spectacular views of the town.  

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A view from the other side…that twin towers belong to the Holy Name of Jesus Church

The northern end of the square is the chateau; Zachariáš of Hradec who transformed a Gothic castle into a Renaissance residence. It is beautifully preserved and there are daily tours  -two, in Czech but with English booklets – of about an hour each. One tour takes us through the different halls: the Golden Hall, which has carvings and paintings on the ceiling; the Knights’ Hall has armory and weapons, and the African Hall has wall-mounted trophy busts. The tour also gives a glimpse into the rooms of the chateau, filled with waffle ceilings, a naked statue of Adam and Eve and oil paintings of the castle’s inhabitants. The Chapel of St George, which has a detailed depiction of St George fighting a dragon, holds the remains of Zachariáš. 

The town’s shops/ restaurants shut by 6 pm, so we amble about, stopping to eat pastries at tiny bakeries, exploring a supermarket before finally settle in at a local bar, Herna (Non Stop Bar). There, we drink Czech beer (14 Kč)  and try to make sense of local music videos. A closer look inside the bar reveals a room full of slot machines!

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Bars with unique entertainment!

Telč is undoubtedly a pretty and romantic town and a well preserved historic square. Itis possible to explore it in a day, since the town shuts down early and there’s no nighttime entertainment.  

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Where to stay/ The homestay

Unknown to me, the homestay I booked was actually part of the heritage site, which meant I was actually living in a piece of history – Pension Stedler was  newly reconstructed Renaissance 16th century building. The house, number 8, was a beautiful shade of pastel green and opened into a dark cool space. It was in the middle of the main square in front of baroque pestilence column an fountains. The bus/ train station is a ten-minute walk away.

I booked a twin room with private bathroom, common living room with a little kitchenette for 800 CZK without breakfast (870 CZK with breakfast). 

Getting there

There are direct buses from Prague (Florenc bus terminal) to Telč and back; takes about two hours. A cheaper option, which I took was taking a Student Agency bus from Prague to Jihlava (150Kč) and a local bus from there on; took about 2.5 hours and cost much lesser (about 50 Kč).


TL:DR

  • Telc is a heritage town about two hours away from Prague. 
  • It is a perfectly preserved example of a historic town square, and a UNESCO heritage site.
  • It boasts a beautiful town square, surrounding duck ponds and parks, churches, a watch tower and a well-restored chateau.
  • The place is relaxed and quiet and everything shuts by 6 pm; very few places stay open for dinner. 
  • It is good for a day visit, or a night stay if you want to live in a house that dates back to the 16th century.