Tag Archives: Travel

Brno: Bone Season

The Moravian capital of Brno, Czech Republic’s second largest city, has much to offer those looking for a break from Prague. Their biggest attractions are down under. There is a has a thriving underground network of crypts, museums, and even a hotel, showcasing bones, Cold War mementos, and torture devices.

This is a three-part story.

Church of St. James Ossuary

It is the second-largest ossuary in Europe, after Paris. Yet, as I tour the crypt beneath the Church of St James, I’m underwhelmed. The entire place is about 100 metres in length, with just a main chamber and two side passages.  

Then, I take a closer look at the walls and the pillars. They’re made up of the remains of 50,000 people – skulls bones, tinted yellow because of lack of exposure to sunlight. They stare at me, hollow-eyed and un-moving.

In the central chamber, I come across the creepiest chapel – it has a life-size cross and pulpit and ‘walls’ made of bones; in the far corner is a small stained glass mural. Nearby are two glass coffins – one has the skeleton of a grown man, and the other, the bones of a 13-year-old child.

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The central chamber has a small chapel and brackets holding candles, which in the evening, throw light and shadows across the skulls.

There are glass cases and thin railings shielding the bones but, they’re well within reach. Around me, many are surreptitiously touching them. The thought of disturbing the tightly packed bones and have them fall on my head is enough to turn me away. At the end of one passage, is a pyramid of just skulls, some of which still have decayed teeth in them, making it seem like they’re grinning at me.

A few modern sculptures, in black, provide visual relief, including a statue of a guardian angel. The other relief is tonal – somber music composed especially for the especially for the ossuary, streams over the speakers.

The tour is self-guided. I refer to a pamphlet and elsewhere, displays in Czech and English. The sheer volume of the bones does most of the talking. The original crypt was built in the 17th century to accommodate the remains from the cemetery of the church of St James. The initial three rooms filled up quickly and had to be expanded to accommodate more bones. These were victims of the biggest serial killers of the time: plague, cholera, the Thirty Years’ War and the Swedish siege of Brno. Once the ossuary was full, it was covered up and lay in oblivion for 200 years. It was discovered in 2001 as part of a land survey. Researchers spent a decade gathering the remains, cleaning them and rearranging them back. The ossuary opened to the public in 2012. 

It’s not just all bones. Along the passages are tombstones, from the original graves. At the entrance is a mini exhibition, showing old photos of the church and cemetery.

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My tour has taken me just 20 minutes but, I’m glad to leave. As I walk out, I silently say the Latin prayer inscribed on the marble wall outside: Eternal rest grant unto them….

The ossuary is located at Jakubské náměstí; it is closed on Monday; 9.30 am to 6 pm (Tuesday to Sunday). Cost 70 Kč to 140 Kč. 

These wonderful photos are courtesy Michal Růžička, TIC Brno

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Still life in Prague

It isn’t often that I see naked men on the street. These two stand proud in the courtyard of the museum dedicated to Franz Kafka. The tourists milling about aren’t interested in learning about the life of the tortured genius. Their voyeurism is basic. They watch in delight as the men move their bronze penises to spell out quotes from famous city residents. On moving closer, I realise the men are urinating into a puddle shaped like the map of the Czech Republic.

‘The Piss’ is one of the more whimsical works of contemporary and controversial artist, David Černý. When it was created in 2004, many said he was showing his displeasure at his country joining the European Union. Others said it was a reference to the many invaders in Czech history. I soon learn that the artist, like his mechanical figures, enjoys pissing people off.

Černý’s art is a social commentary and the city of his birth, Prague, is his playground.

The Czech capital is rich in historic imagery, from the Baroque statues that line Charles Bridge to the horse-riding monument at Wenceslas Square. The public art at Prague’s squares, parks and streets is alternative and experimental, amusing and irreverent, playful and provocative.

A troubled past

On a narrow alleyway near the Old Town Square, a glance upward reveals the figure of a man about to commit suicide. This is the ‘Man Hanging Out’, or what the locals call ‘Hanging Man’. Another Černý special, it has a bearded Sigmund Freud hanging by his right hand, at the end of a beam. This sculpture hints at the hopelessness of the psychoanalyst’s life and his phobia of dying. The other meaning is more symbolic. Černy called Freud “the intellectual face of the 20th century” and perhaps, this is the artist’s way of pondering the role of intellectuals in this century.

Hanging man

The Hanging Man is such a lifelike figure that when it was first put up, local police got a lot of calls about a man committing suicide.

I leave Freud hanging and head out in search of another troubled genius. Self-doubt and depression had plagued Kafka all his life. Černý represents this through an 11-m, 45-tonne stainless-steel kinetic bust of the writer. The ‘Head of Franz Kafka’ rests near the office where he was a clerk. The head consists of 42 motorised layers that move independently, metamorphosing into the writer’s face only for a split second.

Another strange tribute to Kafka lies in the old Jewish Quarter, in the neighbourhood where he lived, worked and wrote. In it, sculptor Jaroslav Róna has a mini version of the writer riding on the shoulders of an empty suit, a reference to a passage in Kafka’s short story, Description of a Struggle. It’s a surreal tribute, slightly ruined by tourists touching the statue’s feet and sitting on each other’s shoulders, mimicking the pose. I wonder if it would depress Kafka to see this base devaluation of art.

Kafka monument

“I leapt onto the shoulders of my acquaintance, and by digging my fists into his back I urged him into a trot..”

In the streets of Mala Strana or Lesser Quarter is a monument that truly does depress. At the base of Petřín Hill, I climb the stairs to find six naked figures. Unlike the gleeful naked men in ‘The Piss’, these men are zombie-like, their faces a mask of pain and despair. This is Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek’s ‘Memorial to the Victims of Communism’. The six figures, in different stages of disintegration, descend a flight of stairs. A bronze strip tells us of the losses — 205,486 arrested; 170,938 forced into exile; 4,500 dead in prisons; 327 shot while trying to flee and 248 executed. Only one figure is whole; the rest are missing body parts, and the last one has just limbs. For a monument that’s a sombre reminder of the perils of despotism, the setting couldn’t be more picturesque — the surrounding garden and paths are blooming with colour.

Local legends

The most scenic view is at Prague’s oldest bridge, the Charles Bridge. I weave my way through street musicians, artists and selfie-sticks to admire the 30 Baroque statues lining its balustrade. I’m searching for a legend, which I find at the feet of the statue of St John of Nepomuk. John was a priest in Prague, under King Wenceslas IV. He was thrown into the river for refusing to divulge the queen’s confessions to the king, who suspected her of having an affair. It is believed that touching the plaque commemorating his martyrdom brings good luck. The brass portion I run my hand over is smooth, and gleams bright against the blackened surroundings. Nearby is a plaque of a dog, whose shining body indicates that it also receives attention.

St John statue

Locals dismiss this legend associated with the statue putting it down to a tourists phenomenon.

My favourite legend in the city involves a statue of a ghost. This creepy cloaked figure sits outside the Estates Theater in the Old Town, where composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart conducted the première of his opera Don Giovanni in 1787. The creation of Austrian artist Anna Chromy, it is said to represent the opera’s character, Il Commendatore, who appears as a ghost.

The cloaked figure has no face and is empty inside, possibly an allusion to the emptiness of Don Giovanni’s soul. Local legend has it that pictures taken without a flash reveal the image of a face inside the empty cloak. My photos reveal nothing but a black hole but I revel in the possibility of a spectre haunting this ghostly figure.

Il Commendatore

The artist created a similar Cloak of Peace (Pieta) in Salzburg.

 

It’s what makes Prague a fascinating city. Every statue has a story to tell, even if some are more believable than others.

Desi vibes in Vietnam

What do I and Aishwarya Rai have in common? We are both Indian beauties.

Or so I, and my friend Chandani, are told at Nha Trang.

It was the fourth day of our trip to Vietnam and we just had our first taste of how much the locals love Indians.

The man at the reception of our hotel looks at us and says, “You are from India.” It isn’t a question as much as a statement. We nod. “Indian women are easy to recognise, they’re very beautiful, like Aishwarya Rai.” 

I want to protest – isn’t Sushmita Sen prettier? – but I don’t want to burst his Rai-bubble and be stuck waiting for our room. He then asks us a million dollar question. “Why are there no Indians winning the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants anymore?”

Why, indeed? We mumble incoherently, at which with a look of disdain at our inadequate knowledge of India’s pageant industry, he gets down to business.

This is our first visit to Vietnam – a country with gorgeous landscapes, delicious (and meaty) street food, stunning hillsides, spectacular landscapes and a strange love for India. We are instantly recognised everywhere, by our accents or the colour of our skin or ‘our beauty’.

That child marriage documentary

One of the girls at our home stay in Da Lat squeals in delight on hearing we are Indian. “I love Indian men,” she says. “They’re so handsome.” C and I exchange eye rolls. 

She then proceeds to talk at length about her favourite Indian movies – at that moment she was obsessed with 3 Idiots and had seen it a 100 time. Before leaving, she makes us promise to get two Indian men along the next time we visit. We reply with that Indian trademark, the head nod. 

It is in Da Lat that we learn of another Indian obsession.

On a freezing cold evening, C and I are at the town’s market, trying to warm up while simultaneously doing our’ souvenir shopping’. We stop at a stall that has jars filled with dead snakes – it is a local wine. Ignoring the scaly creatures, we try some of the dehydrated foodstuff on offer – fruit, fruit peels, strips of beef, dried fish. Our shop owner and her husband are very distracted and we have to repeatedly call out to them. They’re watching something on a small TV at the back of the stall. We soon recognise the show, which we learn later is the country’s favourite – Balika Vadhu.

They watch it with the same fervor Indians would an Ekta Kapoor serial. The show comes up again, a few days later. We are in Saigon, talking to a local I met through Instagram. He is Indian but has lived in Veitnam for most of his adult life. I ask him about his favourite Indian film. “There’s this story I like. It talks about child marriage….it highlights the social evil of a young girl who is dragged into child marriage.” We rack our brains wondering what Bollywood movie actually takes on such a deep issue when it hits us, he is talking about the same show. He just thinks it is a documentary! Again, we don’t burst their bubble.

Food and free advice

In Da Lat itself, we chance upon a Vietnamese pizza that looked like a masala dosa stuffed with vegetables and fish sauce. 

The next day, we visit the Dalat Train Cafe, an abandoned carriage that doubles up as a restaurant and smirk at the tourists going gaga about the railways. But, since we (C) are obsessed with Bollywood, we recreate the iconic ending of DDLJ without the blood, violence or inherent patriarchy.   

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*Cue DDLJ music*

In the heritage town of Hoi An, we play a version of tambola, with lots of singing and wooden platters instead of cards.  

Our favourite desi experience though has nothing to do with India but with the country that’s become an abode for beef-loving, non-Hindutva, western clothes wearing anti-nationals, Pakistan. 

To give ourselves a break from the bread, noodles and grilled meat, we decide to find a place that can serve up simple dal, rice and chai. A quick Google search – there’s WiFi everywhere here – takes us to a tiny lane in Saigon’s backpacker area.

The Taj Mahal restaurant is empty and we settle in and start talking to each other in Hindi (it’s a practice we maintain through the trip). On hearing this, the owner (a Mr Zaman) comes over and starts chatting. It turns out the place may have an Indian monument as its name but it is actually Pakistani. We sample butter chicken, rice, masala papad and chai, while asking the owner questions about what to do and where to go. We are soon joined by waiters, a regular customer, a man who delivers goods to the place till we have our own little desi party.

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Butter Chicken and Biryani

Two hours later, we realised that though a border may divide us, we share many habits. Chief among them was the penchant to freely dispense advice – they told us where to exchange Indian currency, taught us a few basic Vietnamese words, recommended places to visit and how to get there and generally, did not stop talking. 

We walked out of there with one thought: you can find India anywhere, even in a tiny Pakistani-run Indian restaurant that employs Bangladeshis.

Travelling solo, in Alibaug

In April last year, I brought in my 30th birthday in Europe on a three-week trip. I had my cousin and a friend for company for half of the trip, the rest was spent alone. It took me a day to realise that I didn’t like solo travel, it was too quiet (even for me). It took me back to my first time as a solo traveller, at everyone’s favourite weekend hangout, Alibaug. 

There is a lesson to be learned from travelling alone. It is very quiet. Justifiably so. You cannot talk to anyone and you obviously do not want to talk to yourself for fear of appearing deranged.

At first you do not realise it. You are immensely excited to be travelling to an unknown destination, alone, for the first time in your life. Your nervousness has been masked at home as you get busy packing and jotting down a list of to-do’s.

Once on the road, the thrill sets in. It is a new place, there will be new experiences and hopefully you will meet some interesting people. Meeting interesting people finds itself at the top of many a journalists’ to-do list. You meet interesting people, you get them talking and voila, you have a story or at least an idea for one. The silence is relegated to the background as modernity comes to your rescue. The car has radio, your phone has the latest songs and if really bored, the internet is a few clicks away.

Your destination is just two hours away, Alibaug. Once there, you check in at the resort you’re staying at, sip on your welcome drink and wait to be guided to your room. As you walk through the corridors, the silence creeps up from behind and whacks you on the head. You turn to the resort staff walking with you and state the obvious, “It’s really quiet here, isn’t it?” She smiles back, “It always is”.

Lunchtime and you are at a restaurant seated at a table for four. The waiter comes and clears the plates and napkins from the other seats, gives you a sympathetic smile. You ignore him and get out your book. ‘No one can stop you from reading a book, can they?’ People stare, so the book goes back into the bag. You have a backup plan. You think for a minute as to who would be awake (it’s 3.30 pm and relatives back home tend to take a siestas at the time) and free (it’s a weekday and most friends would be working), call them and conduct a desultory conversation. Your food comes and you’re relieved. A lot of it gets wasted and you apologise sheepishly to the waiters. You hate wasting food. 

It’s evening. You hire a rickshaw and set out to explore Alibaug. Your driver turns out to be the talkative kind so you keep him engaged in conversation. You visit a few temples; explore the village and the market place.

Then you come to Varsole beach. It reminds you of home and picnics spent on the beach. The camera comes out as you attempt to capture all the little eddies in the sand, the tiny crabs scurrying away and the beauty of a blue sky reflected in the sand. Silence creeps in again, this time adding to the pounding of the waves and the whoosh of wind through your hair. There is so much of beauty out there that you want to share it with someone. You look at the pale sky and think of all those email forwards you’ve read about being nothing but a speck in this mighty universe, how the vastness of the sea is supposed to mean something and so on. You laugh out loud and then stop: what if someone heard you? There is no one around. You laugh again, a little louder. 

To fill the silence, you start singing all those inane songs that you have on your playlist and which have hitherto been reduced to being sung in the bathroom. The wind provides background music. You walk along the sand singing loudly and then softly to yourself. Every song has a memory attached to it and those memories come to mind.  You look up at the sky and quietly tell yourself that things will be all right.

The silence no longer threatens or frightens you. It helps you think, clearly. And it helps you be silent within. This is better than meditation because you’re doing it with your eyes open. You think back to the problems in your life, how insurmountable they seem and how simple it would be if you didn’t allow them to weigh you down. You work out solutions to them in your head. You ponder on the presence of god, of a being whose existence you question. Thoughts tumble in your mind- what would your family/friends be doing, would people in office miss you, which places you want to visit next.

You stand there for an hour, just by yourself, without moving.

As you walk back, you realise, it’s okay to travel alone as long as you have memories for company.

Street eats: Gofry

This is a Gofry. The snack ties in with the Polish love for all things sweet. It is simply a waffle or a waffle sandwich that is topped with everything sweet possible: think whipped cream, jam, Nutella, fresh fruits. It is sinful and delicious, if you ignore the amount of sugar that’s going in your body. 

I was recommended this snack by my couchsurfing hosts, who even told me precisely where to get it. It was a tiny stall, a hole in a window, at the first turning near  Łazienki Park. My hosts had written down exactly what I should order and so I did – a gofry with whipped cream and every fruit available. I ate every last bite, after carefully removing most of the whipped cream. The pancake was soft and crunchy and combined with the cold whipped cream and fruits made for a tasty and very filling snack.