Category Archives: Visit

Travel stories from the road.

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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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.]

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. 

IMG_20170418_192454586

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]

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.

Kumaoni meal

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.