Category Archives: World

A taste of Bavaria

Think Adelaide and open parklands, indigenous art, understated beauty, good weather, and live music come to mind. You certainly don’t picture an old German village where beer jostles for shelf space with wine, where brick houses with sloping roofs reveal antique stores and craft breweries, and where you can find sausages and pretzels at every corner.  

This is Hahndorf, a state listed heritage town, about 25 minutes away from Adelaide. It is Australia’s oldest surviving German settlement.

It was in 1839 that Captain Dirk Meinertz Hahn brought 200 German-Lutheran migrants, fleeing religious persecution in Prussia (north-eastern Germany), to Adelaide Hills where they made their home. Today, 189 years later, though Hahndorf (Hahn’s village) has seen much change, it remains at heart a German town.

“It’s old world charm very popular with tourists. History apart, they are very serious about their food and wine here,” says David Sly, a food and wine journalist from Adelaide.

I spend a day in Hahndorf and David’s words ring true at every place I visit.

I begin my day strolling through the Beerenberg Strawberry Farm picking dew-dusted strawberries. It is 9am and the farm, a few minutes outside the town, has just opened for business. It’s a calming experience, walking through neatly segregated rows of strawberry plants, digging through the leaves to find the fruit nestled within. I take my slim pickings to the Beerenberg Family Farm shop to be weighed and packed, and meet Monique Lomax, a staffer who doubles up as a guide. “The founders, the Paech family, are among Hahndorf’s first settlers. They started with dairy but soon decided to try branch out. Now we grow chillies gherkins, cherries, plums, Satsuma, and Lincoln roses,” she says. Everything finds its way into marinades, jams, chutney and dipping sauces. I sample a few of these, and am instantly impressed with the smooth and fragrant rose petal jelly, and the tart mango and Mandarin curd named after Monique (staffers above five years get products named after them).

Beerenberg, which means berry hill, is in its 50th year of strawberry picking and needless to say, strawberry jam is a best-seller. People generally queue up here for the freshly churned strawberry ice cream, delicate swirls of creamy goodness piled high in a cone. Over 80 percent of their products are gluten free and they do collaborations with locals like Cooper Ale and Gaucho sauces.

Ice cream in hand, I stroll down the picturesque main street. This historic street is lined with 100 year old elm trees, and shows off timber and German-style stone or brick houses with their steep, sloping roofs and cosy verandahs. Here I find boutiques, German pubs, restaurants and cellar doors, cafés, gourmet bakeries and delicatessens, and sweet shops. On sale is Aboriginal art and puppets, German clocks, and candles – the 3 Wishes Candle Barn that allows you to create your own.  

A life-size yellow cow with a milk pail underneath welcomes me to my next destination, Udder Delights. The word cheese is written in bold letters for those confused about the offerings at the place. Run by the husband and wife team of Saul and Sheree Sullivan, Udder Delights’ Cheese Cellar sells goat’s and cow’s milk cheese, hosts fondue and cheesemaking classes and is best known for their cheese wedding cakes. I opt for a cheese tasting. The goats curd is tangy with a smooth finish and the cow’s milk brie is velvety and has a sharp earthy flavour. My favourite is the Heysen Blue, a firm and moist cheddar-like rich cheese.   

Udder Delights

Fresh cheese is difficult to carry back homes so I regretfully leave the store and set out in search of something more travel-friendly. David takes me to an ‘iconic place’. The MenzFruChoc Shop is known for their FruChocs – milk chocolate covered apricot or peach. A happy accident, the Menz family developed these in 1948 to use up excess fruit. Today, the product is a South Australian icon. I happily snack on honeycomb and coconut variants thinking that this sweet treat really deserves a FruChocs Appreciation Day (celebrated on the last Friday of August).

Another place chock-a-block with history is the Hahndorf Inn. Built in 1853, it is owned by the Holmes family, whose German descendants arrived at Port Adelaide in 1847 to settle in the Barossa Valley. The food here is traditional Bavarian – big portions of schnitzels, sausages, beef and pork ribs, pork knuckle, and hot dogs. These come accompanied by steamed greens, mash or fries. I try the Hänchen Schnitzel, crumbed chicken breast cooked to perfection and paired with a cream mushroom sauce. Dessert is the German apple strudel (Apfelstrudel), which we learned to make (assemble) at a strudel class earlier.

I end the day at Prancing Pony Brewery, a boutique brewery located a short drive out of Hahndorf. Here, they use the traditional method of fire brewing, resulting in beer that has caramel and toffee like malt flavours. I sip on their India Red Pale Ale, which was the 2016 supreme champion in the International Beer Challenge, London. The strong caramel notes and intense hop bitterness is mellowed down by hints of tropical fruit, making for a refreshing drink.  

A day in Hahndorf and I realise, they do take food, wine and beer very seriously.

 

 

[A version of this story was published in BL Ink: Bits of Bavaria, on April 13, 2018]

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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]

 

 

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.  

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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. 

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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]

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.

 

 

Eating Banana fritters in Hoi An

On our first trip to Vietnam, my friend and I found slices of India everywhere. A popular Hindi TV show played on tiny screens in markets, hosts shared notes about their favourite Bollywood movies, and we had in depth discussions about why Indians don’t win global beauty pageants anymore.

At the end of our ten-day trip, we chanced upon a fried street snack that satiated our craving for home food. The Banana Fritters (chuối chiên) were as brown as our skin, and as sweet as they were cheap. The golden brown banana fritter was sticky, speckled with sesame seeds, crispy on the outside and oozing with sweetness on the inside. It was the perfect morning treat, a sweeter version of the fried snacks we eat on Mumbai’s crowded streets when in need of a quick and filling meal.

We discovered it, much like the best things in life, by accident. It was our last day in Hoi An, that heritage town of cobbled paths, ancient shopfronts and lanterns swaying in the wind. We had guzzled cheap beer, munched on grilled meat on the streets and loaded up on cheap trinkets at the night market. We were on the hunt for an authentic eating experience.

A crowd led us to it.

They were gathered around a small cart so, we went to investigate. This curiosity is an innate Indian thing – we see a group of people gathered around something, and we will instantly gravitate towards it. People were engrossed in watching something. A closer look revealed a street cart, and the people around it were brimming with desire.


We heard the sound first, the heavy sizzle that signifies something has been dunked into a pan full of hot oil. It soon relapsed into a melody of crackles and hissing. A young woman stood behind the cart peeling bananas and slicing them into perfect halves. The bananas, swaying in the wind above her head, were no ordinary ones but small and stubby (called chuoi su or chuoi xiem). She dunked these slices into a mixture of rice flour, sugar, salt and water, before popping them into a pan of oil. When they attained
a golden brown colour, she held it aloft for a few seconds before placing it on a stand. As it stood there, dripping oil, us hungry hordes could only gaze at its delicious crunchiness, willing it to cool faster so we could get our hands on it.

banana fritter

There were also plates of crab fritters and sweet buns filled with mung bean and coconut but we only 
had eyes for that stick sweet snack. Money exchanged hands and soon, we were holding then in our hands, a flimsy napkin protecting us from the heat.

We were soon busy munching on the fritter, enjoying the noisy eating process and savouring the ensuing sugar rush. It was a high that lasted us till lunchtime, and one that was more intoxicating than the local beer.

The piece was first published in Roads and Kingdoms, here.

Brno: To the market

This is the second story in a three-part series about Brno’s underground wonders. Read the first one here: Bone Season 

The Labyrinth underneath the Vegetable Market

There’s a legend related to the tunnels under the vegetable market that I discovered in the book, The Czech Republic – The Most Haunted Country in the world? It says that the beautiful Countess Amalia murdered her lovers – 13 in all – and hid their bodies underground. She still roams the tunnels, ensuring the bodies remained hidden. If true, she is doing a good job, because during my one hour tour of the tunnels, I didn’t spot any bodies.

The Labyrinth underneath Zelný trh (Vegetable Market) is located about eight metres, and 200 steps below one of the oldest squares in the city. The individual cellars, I’m told, were discovered in the last decade. In 2009, they were reinforced and connected via passageways.

I join a Spanish tour group, lurking in the back with my English audio guide, which though informative, is boring. Luckily, the tour is fascinating.

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The Alchemist’s lab.

The guided tour is actually an exhibition offering insight into the different uses of the cellars. In the early 13th century, the cellars under the Horní trh (Upper Market) were used for storage of food, wine, and beer. My audio guide points out the barrels of wine and beer, which were ‘refrigerated’ by placing them on wooden grates. An alchemist’s lab shows us how medieval doctors functioned, and a wine cellar and tavern are reminders of the local tradition of winemaking. We learn about the different sources of light used back then, from the first torches to oil lamps. Our guide allows us to reference our cavemen ancestors, by trying to start a fire using two stones. She isn’t disappointed when few of us can.  

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The wine tavern.

The most chilling section is saved for last. Here, we are shown replicas of torturing devices and punishments used on dishonest people. In a corner, by itself, is the much-publicised cage of fools. In the olden days, the small iron cage was stuffed with people – the unusual height meant you couldn’t sit or stand in it. A few braver members of the group attempt squatting uncomfortably but give up after a few seconds.

 

At the exit, I ask the guide about the legend of the Countess. She dismisses me with a wry smile.

Information: Located at Zelný trh 21, 65878. Closed on Monday; 9 am to 6 pm (Tuesday to Sunday). Cost: 80 Kč to 160 Kč

These wonderful photos are courtesy Michal Růžička, TIC Brno