Some years ago, I had seen this George Clooney-starring thriller called The American, revolving around an assassin hiding out in a village for his last hit job. While I was taken in by the story, it was the place that the movie was set in — Abruzzo, Italy — that really impressed me. The last time I was as impressed by the Italian country side, was while watching The Godfather.
Cobble-stone roads going up and down hillsides, church bells ringing in the background, old nonnas going about business in their Sunday finest – were scenes I had formed in my mind to associate with Italian villages.
In the summer of 2016, while travelling to Venice from Munich, a detour in north Italian town of Trento had increased our appetite to see smaller non-touristy Italian towns. Our Airbnb in Jesolo wasn’t very far from two well-known villages in northern Italy – Arqua Petrarca and Monselice. The plan was to head to Padua directly, but since these two villages were on the way, the decision was made, to make it a staggered journey with two pit stops.
Monselice is located around a mountain valley. The entry to the mountain, called Rocca hill, involves walking through an arched gateway – a definite throwback to its walled past. There weren’t many people around, apart from the local hangers on outside a Gelateria. These sort of communal places are so abundant in small towns, be it anywhere on the planet.
Walking up the stony pathways, reminded me of one travel show I loved watching on TLC (back when it had genuine travel shows) – Grandma’s Boy – where a chef tries his hand at cooking traditional Italian dishes under the guidance of Italian nonnas (grandmas). Throughout the show, there used to be montages of Italian villages used as fillers. The scene in front of me, could easily have been one of those very montages. Cloudy skies. Temperatures on the slightly higher side for a European summer. Only locals to be seen around.
At the top of the Rocca hill is the Monselice Castle. Somewhere close to the highest point of the hill is the church of San Giorgio, and if you continue walking further, there are rows of six small chapels – the Seven Churches Sanctuary. These form part of a pilgrimage which is at par with the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome.
These chapels are located at a slight height from the regular road, with the connecting wall covered in lush green vines. The immense use of stone in the architecture, as well as with the pathways, certainly makes this area fire-proof.
Arqua Petrarca makes it to every ‘Villages to be seen in Italy’ list. But it is more renowned as the home of poet – Francesco Petrarca aka Petrarch – who lived here in the 1370s. I just happened to see the house from the outside, but since I had just learnt about the poet while researching the town, there wasn’t much to do going inside.
Arqua Petrarca, just like Monselice, is a town located around a hill. Although I didn’t notice too many religious places while walking around this town. I did spot a couple of cafes and gelaterias which looked like they were meant for locals. In terms of activity, there wasn’t much happening here either.
One cafe had an Italian football-jersey wearing old man, sitting on a bench, staring into space. Even his dog was mimicking him, for a while, before getting back to playing around.
I kept my camera aside. Settled down myself under the shade of a tree. Watching Vespas pass by. Tying my best to mimic the guy the in blue jersey, who seemed to be attracting a crowd.
Both Monselice and Arqua Petrarca, are located within a 20 km radius of the more popular Italian university town of Padua.
If you are headed to Padua, make sure you take some time out to see these two beautifully laid-back villages as well.
Tallinn can easily get sidelined as a destination that is only known for its Old Town. Yes, the Old Town is the piece de la resistance of the Estonian capital. But there are other aspects to this city, which also deserve mentioning.
After exploring the Old Town to my heart’s content for two days, and just to get a break from all that old-world charm (yes, I am a golden-age syndrome addict), I decided to venture out into the nearby localities. The first stop: Kalamaja neighbourhood.
Kalamaja is an old part of Tallinn – although not as old as the fortified Old Town. A former Soviet Armed Forces base, the district is now renowned for its unique wooden houses. These structures date back to hundreds of years and one glance at these houses’ aged exteriors will tell you that they have seen many many monsoons.
Kalamaja translates to ‘fish harbour’ and considering its proximity to the Baltic Sea it is not hard to imagine how important a role fishing must have played in this locality. Around 1870s, the neighbourhood also started housing a lot of Soviet factories, thereby bringing with it a working class vibe to the place. Back then, Kalamaja was connected to St Petersburg, in Moscow, by a railroad.
As it is with places having this sort of historical background, Kalamaja was left to itself after the Soviets factories went kaputt and workers started leaving the place. The supposed ruin has now become desirable. Kalamaja today is the bohemian capital of Tallinn, attracting the creative types. I didn’t visit all the many art galleries and museums here, but spent most of my time just wandering through the quiet lanes. The idea wasn’t to tick off places to see here, but just to amble away time and get a feel of the place. Besides, the whole neighbourhood in itself is an art gallery: Wooden houses with interesting architecture paying homage to an era gone by; fresh coats of hues of red, green, yellow painted on some houses, depicting the pride the residents living inside must be feeling and some stone structures punctuating the row of wooden houses.
Thanks to its proximity to the Baltic Sea, the Kalamaja neighbourhood was always prone to attacks by invaders before the Soviets settled here. That’s the reason most of the houses here were made out of wood. In case the city anticipated an attack, the houses would be burnt down before people moved to the fortified Old Town. The current structures, therefore, aren’t older than a 100-150 years.
Most of the buildings I saw were two-three storey structures covered with wooden planks on all sides and having a defined structure with few variations.
During my flanerie, I didn’t see a single soul hanging by the window. It made me wonder, if anyone resided in these houses or of they were abandoned? Especially, because it was a warm July afternoon. It was quiet, except for the howling sound of the breeze. After a point, I even stopped photographing the buildings as I realised, I wasn’t doing any justice to the photographs, thanks to the constraints of space and the not-so-wide angle lens on my smartphone camera.
A little reading on the neighbourhood after a few days of leaving Tallinn, gave me the cliched answers. About how it’s now undergoing a revival as it has been discovered by artists. The restaurants in this neighbourhood are still relatively affordable than the ones at the Old Town square. But as a side-effect of not researching the place beforehand, I missed out on possibly exploring the abandoned Patarei Prison, which was right by the sea, and a glimpse of which I saw while hanging around at the shore.
Well, I guess one can’t always plan enough.
Thankfully, I didn’t spot any massive construction or renovation projects happening on my walk in this district. The spectre of gentrification wasn’t that explicit here. Having said that, the district has reinvented itself with concepts such as the Telliskivi Creative City that has revamped the abandoned warehouses in the area to house over 200 indie businesses. I did not visit these areas, as I was not really going by the map.
But I wonder, how long the status quo would remain.
I have spoken a lot about the ‘Old Town’ of Tallinn in a few posts previously. For a golden-age-syndrome addict like me, walking within this 100 plus hectare space was probably what Owen Wilson’s character must have felt like in Midnight in Paris.
I had landed in Tallinn after an almost 6-hour journey from Berlin, and had five days to explore the place. But no sooner had I checked into my hostel and freshened up than I set out in the chilly Tallinn evening to get a taste of this part of the world. Tallinn had been on my bucket list for quite some years and I wasn’t going to let a bit of flight-weariness stop me from my first outing here.
The Old Town came into existence between the 13th and 16th centuries, when Estonia was part of the grand Hanseatic League: “a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns in Northwestern and Central Europe.” More detailed information here. The architectural elements seen in the Old Town are quite reminiscent of the town centres of other European countries which were part of the guild, such as Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and more.
The stone walls of this fortified old town still stand according to the original plans and in many areas you will come across guard towers. According to our guide, the original limestone walls snaking around the old town covered a distance of 4 km which housed eight gates and over 40 towers. To this day, more than half of that structure is intact. I didn’t keep a track on the number of towers – there are many. A quick glance at the map outside the Old Town gate got me excited. So here are some of my favourite spots from the Old Town aka Vana Tallinn.
Town Hall Square aka Raekoja Plats
As is the case with every old part of town in Northwestern Europe, this is that traditional square which houses the Town Hall. The tall spire of the Town Hall can quite easily be a North Star so to speak, a reference point in case you are lost. With the winding alleys of the Old Town, rest assured, you will get lost.
The Town Hall building was quite functional looking, having none of the intricate architectural detail one generally associates with these buildings. The best time to visit this place is late in the night or early in the morning, as the rest of the time it is thronging with people, thanks to the surrounding cafes and souvenir shops. I bumped into a few Indian restaurant managers, who were more than happy to see an Indian face in this part of Europe. Facing the Town Hall building are around five to six buildings in varying pastel shades which are attached to each other. Every one of them has a restaurant establishment on the ground floor.
Toompea Hill and its many viewing platforms
Back in the day, the Old Town of Tallinn was divided into the lower town (residents: regular folks) and the upper town (residents: royalty and nobility). But, the lower part of the town had houses made from stone whereas the upper part of the town used wood in its construction. As one would expect, that led to a lot of fires. So in terms of age of the buildings, the lower town has buildings from the 13th and 14th centuries, whereas the ones in the upper town due to reconstruction are relatively newer, dating back to 1700s.
Just beside the Toompea Hill is an imposing neoclassical structure, called the Stenbock House which houses the office of the Prime Minister of Estonia. This place does not have any z-level security that one would normally expect at such places. This was also the case with the Toompea Castle, which is this baroque structure painted in a peachy colour. This structure houses the Estonian Parliament, and I could only see two guards on its gate. This really piqued my interest and I asked my walking tour guide, Helena, about it and this what she had to say:
The true Estonian answer is: Nobody cares. It is the most uneventful country. Nothing happens here:) We have a lot of CCTV cameras here, but nothing really happens here to justify massive security. Even the Presidential Castle just has two guards, and those too are youngsters picked up from the mandatory army program.
Thanks to the height at which this upper part of town is located, it gives one sprawling panoramic views of Tallinn, not just of the light brown roof-topped buildings of the lower town, but also the Baltic Sea in the distance and of course the spires of the churches I shall discuss ahead.
The Kohtoutsa Viewing Platform was the first one I saw and was immediately taken in. The stony railing was glistening thanks to the mild morning showers. Thanks to the proximity to a water body, there are always seagulls around this spot. And they always stand by the railing as you are making photographs of the panoramic view of the city behind them, almost as though they are posing for you. You see five spires – one belonging to the Town Hall and the other four belonging to churches – from the viewing point. It can get a bit crowded during the late mornings and evenings thanks to the small area, but there is another viewing platform called Patkuli, which is at a slightly lower elevation, but a lot more spacious. I came here a couple of evenings, to watch the sun set and just take in a bit of the Vana Tallinn magic.
Kiek in de Kok
Literally translating to ‘Peep in the Kitchen’, this tower is located as you make your way from the erstwhile lower town to the upper town. It was meant to house artilleries and it reaches a height of around six floors when compared to modern buildings. Thanks to the height of this tower, it allowed anyone inside to literally peep into the kitchens of the houses in the lower town. A closer observation of this structure will reveal as many as nine cannon balls which are still stuck in various parts, remnants of a bombing attack back in the 15th century. It now houses a museum inside it.
This tower came up sometime in the 16th century and as the name implies, it has quite a few meters around its waist as compared to the other cylindrical towers. Thanks to its location close to the port, the Fat Margaret also served as a fortification and the first tower and gate for anyone coming from the Baltic Sea.
It houses a museum inside it as well. It was also used as a storehouse for artilleries, gunpowder and served as a prison at some point in time.
Cathedrals in a land where atheism rules
One of the surprising things I discovered on my walking tour here was that the majority of Estonians are atheist. Over 60 percent of the population does not follow any religion. So it’s surprising to see so many cathedrals in the Old Town and a few outside. You have the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, St Olaf’s Church, St Nicholas’ Church, St Mary’s Cathedral and a Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
One look at the St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and you can immediately find similarities with the St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, Moscow. The onion-shaped domes of this Orthodox cathedral is a reminder of the Russian rule in this region. St Olaf’s Cathedral has a spire which rises like a sharp needle. It is indeed the highest spot in the Old Town, and at one point in history was the highest building in Europe. Having come up in the 12-14th century, this cathedral was from the era of Norway ruling Estonia. The reason behind having such a tall spire was to be able to see the Finn enemy across the Baltic Sea (you can cross the Baltic Sea from Tallinn to head to Helsinki, Finland). No, you couldn’t see Helsinki from the top of the spire then, and neither can you now. Legend has it that around seven men fell to their death during the construction of the spire as no one thought of adding a lightning conductor atop the spire till quite late. Thanks to its height, St Olaf’s spires were also used as a radio and surveillance tower till 1991 by the Russians.
The church which was quite different from the norm, however, was the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. It almost seems to be hidden in one of the many stone buildings in the Old Town. Unlike other churches, this one doesn’t have any distinguishing spires. But the simple paintings of the Virgin Mary surrounded by biblical scenes, painted out in a similar style, puts it in a stark contrast to the intricacies seen in a Catholic or Orthodox church. The reason behind ‘three-hands’ is that while the church was undergoing restoration when it burnt in the 1990s, a limestone replica of a hand was discovered. There’s also a letter box with this text, which puts things in context behind the three hands.
“Church to the Blessed Virgin with three hands. She is the protector of the innocent who have been wrongly convicted, deceived and sinned against. You can describe your problem and put a letter into the box. The priest will pray for the settlement your question”
A north European country with over 60 percent of the population being atheist, was another googly for me. As usual, the journalist in me questioned Helena about this and I learned that native Estonians were Pagans and never really followed any religion as such. They did believe in the notion that every living thing has a spirit, but that was about it. The over-600 year occupation of Estonia by the Germans (who brought Christianity), Swedes (who brought Lutheran Christianity), Russians (Orthodox Christianity) and so on were religions brought along by outsiders. The natives practiced their paganism underground and when Estonia finally got independence, takers for organised religion were under a third of the population. But Christmas is celebrated with great pomp, said Helena. “For those three December days, we are quite religious because we get a holiday. Same with Easter. No one would know the significance of it, but everyone embraces the holidays,” she said tongue firmly in cheek.
Danish King’s Garden
The Danish King’s garden is a wide open space in the surroundings of one of the wall and connects the Toompea Hill to the Lower Town. Legend says that this is the space where the Danish Flag came into existence. Back in 1219, this is where the then Danish King Valdemar II camped with his troops before conquering Estonia. It is said that during the battle with Estonians, the Danes got a sign in the form of a red flag with a white cross across it which eventually led them to victory and this flag, called Dannenbrog, became the flag of Denmark. Sounds quite convenient, doesn’t it.
The things that grab your attention in this spot in the 21st century though, are these faceless hooded sculptures, which almost look like stationary dementors from Potterverse. Called the three monks, these statues can creep you out around dusk as you make your way from the shortcut which leads from the Lower town to the entrance of the Danish King’s Garden.
This was one place I stumbled upon purely by accident. Well, it was a fragrance wafting from this courtyard which made me follow my nose. Sure enough, there was a chocolaterie inside (Pierre’s Cafe and Chocolaterie) this courtyard. It’s otherwise filled with workshops dealing with local arts and crafts. The uneven cobbled streets and the roundish structure of the courtyard made it look like not much had changed in the architecture for centuries. I parked myself in a grandfather chair in the Chocolaterie to enjoy a cup of hot chocolate while watching the people outside.
There are tonnes of other places to see inside the Old Town, but these were the ones that left an impact on me and ones I still recall fondly without having to hunt for the photos.
The best plan when going around the Old Town is to have no plan at all (of course, this is after you have got your bearings). Taking the free guided walk is a good idea to get the lay of the land. Then, you just explore the side alleys at your own leisure.
Sometimes follow senses other than sight, and you shall be duly rewarded.
The Old Town of Tallinn has lots to offer — cobbled streets, limestone fortress walls, church steeples, old typography over some medieval looking inn, hand-drawn wooden carriages from which emanate fragrances of sweetened almonds and much more. It is the most well-preserved walled city which has earned the Old Town of Tallinn the tag of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I come from Mumbai, which also used to have fortifications. Not one bit of the erstwhile fort wall was left behind when the city authorities, then under British rule, decided to take the fortifications down between 1860-1874 for the city to grow. So I can only imagine that wall around the then H-shaped Bombay island.
Tallinn’s Old Town has a lot of its 13th century walled city plan, still in place. In a way, Tallinn’s Old Town is like a time capsule if you can unsee the touristy mores present all around you. Things can get overwhelming soon. It can then get tricky to focus on any one thing.
After many hours of walking spread out over three days, one thing started to emerge in the old city to me — the doors of houses and buildings which had retained the aesthetic of the eras gone by.
I was in Tallinn during the summer of 2017. Considering its geographical location, it’s safe to say that the cold climate dominates the city. The doors, therefore, were made out of wood — most of the ones that piqued my fancy at least.
Doors in Mumbai (back in the day) had a character to them, till everything became a sun mica polished affair with grilles on majority of them, to give an illusion of more space in this city. Doors in my native place and other rural parts of India that I have been to, still retain some character and you can see the wooden texture without much embellishments.
In Tallinn’s Old Town, doors to some buildings looked like they were just meant for one thing — arrest your attention. It made me wonder, how many feet must have passed through these doors, from the many centuries past. Oh the stories they could have told, if only they could speak. Most of the doors were closed, hinting at residential properties. Only the souvenir shops had open doors, thereby inviting you to closely observe them.
There was nothing elaborate in terms of design when it came to most of the doors. It went with the philosophy of the more modern architecture I had observed during my week long stay there. While function trumped form for most of the doors, it was the little things that differentiated them from one another.
An overuse of red with green demarcations on one door to the light brown pastels on the other. From a diamond shaped design on one, to the wooden portion in the top half replaced by glass in some. Floral flourishes on some to others which were intriguing enough to lead you down an underground cellar. Considering most of the structures are made of stone, inside the Old Town, painted in light pastel shades, the only dark colour profiles were seen on the doors of these buildings.
There is one door in particular that is quite popular in the Old Town. It is the door that leads to the house of Brotherhood of Blackheads — a brotherhood of unmarried, legally dependent, jobless German youth who could get acceptance to the Great Guild — a collective for artisans and merchants who were operating in Tallinn from the 14th century till around the 1920s.
The door stands out from all the others, and why not? The facade of the door was designed in the 16th century. The last members of the Blackhead brotherhood were around till the 1940s, before being sent away by the Russians. The distinguishing factor of the door on this house is the presence of intricate art work on the top portion of the door, with a wooden bust of their patron, St Maurice. The brotherhood exists in Hamburg, Germany, to this day.
There were parts of the city where the doors didn’t seem like they had kept up with their contemporaries. Here, I realised, the crowds were also non-existent, so there was fairly little incentive to ensure the door looked its best. The doors here had the paint peeling off, the inner wooden texture visible and appearing brittle. Basically, a door screaming for a paint and polish job.
I would have loved to talk to the residents living behind those doors. But on my first day in Tallinn, my walking tour guide had informed me that Estonians are generally quite reserved by nature, and will not immediately strike a conversation with random strangers.
I tried my luck with some strangers on the street, but to walk up to a house to speak to the residents was a bridge too far, for an introvert like me.
Taking random paths while travelling is one of my favourite pastimes. In Tallinn, the old city does tend to grow on you after a couple of days. For someone afflicted with the golden-age syndrome, the old city can be overwhelming. Lest you are determined to discover some portal that will take you back a few centuries, like Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris, I’d say it would be a good idea to get out of the fortified old town of Tallinn.
Estonia is a sparsely populated nation of just 1.3 million inhabitants. Tallinn, its capital city, is where a third of that population lives. And still, there were only pockets of places where I could find a crowd. I can’t put my finger on it, but wherever I went in Tallinn, there was this thought at the back of my mind always: “Tallinn is on the verge of becoming a hotspot, give it five years.” The possibilities for that happening were palpable, outside its main tourist draw.
After exploring the Kalamaja neighbourhood, with its Soviet-era wooden houses, I was longing to check out the sea-facing portion of Tallinn. According to Google Maps, I wasn’t too far from the shore. I followed the Maps, in the direction of the light blue area close to a spot called Kalarand — the Baltic sea. Its first sight just filled me with immense happiness. All the exhaustion from the five hours of walking done before that, kind of evaporated. I always feel at home in any city, which has access to a water body in the form of a lake, river or a sea. It just gives me some much needed extra energy after I am weary from travel. Blame it on growing up in Mumbai, with its access to the sea. I’m at sea when I am in land-locked areas.
The beach or rather the sandy portion of the shore, looked like it hadn’t or wouldn’t in the near future, at least, see any major development. But sitting there on a warm by breezy July afternoon, was probably a good decision after hours of walking in the Old Town. There weren’t many people around. Two grannies, who could be tourists or locals, just sitting together but staring into the horizon. Not speaking a word to each other. Another youngster just parked his bike behind me, and took out his laptop. The calm sea with its waves lapping by the shore gave him the perfect lo-fi ambient sound to focus on his pending work. A father-son duo were sitting on the rocks ahead, with the son trying to play the stone surfing game.
When I parked myself there along with these people, the atmosphere looked dramatic in the sky. I wasn’t carrying any umbrella on me and was afraid that it would pour any moment. But it was a good idea to stay on, as the sun was out soon enough.
The promenades were not neatly demarcated and there were a lot of pods which had rusted iron bars exposed. The aqua blue of the water was wonderfully complementing the royal blue sky, which was impregnated with clouds. In the far distance, I could make out some boats and a cruiseliner.
As for me, I was reflecting on the time spent during my close to three month fellowship stint in Germany. I felt like writing something, but decided against it. At that moment, I just wanted to be present with nothing to do. In the now. There would be enough opportunities to put pen to paper later. After ages, I had taken a vacation where I had no agenda for the rest of the next couple of days as I had stretched what could easily be done in three days to almost five days.
After around 30 minutes of just sitting there and doing nothing, other than watching the waves, I continued the onward journey along the shoreline on the left first, and then on to the right. I passed by the Seaplane museum, but I really did not have the mental agility to do a museum tour after that 30 minute break at a random run down beach. If I had a bike, I would have carried on further, but knowing the frequency of the buses here, I did not want to take any chance walking more than I had for the day.
While exploring around the shore, I came across a gate which had a tiny opening. I looked in and saw a glimpse of an abandoned place. It piqued my curiosity and I decided to check out the place later. I never did that, and while writing this blog post when I looked up the map, I realised that I had missed out on seeing an important slice of Estonian history — the Patarei Prison.
No, I don’t regret not seeing it. It was just meant to be a chill day after all.
There have rarely been any instances, where I have immediately been sold on a location – after watching a TV show.
Ever since I saw that episode of Travel with Rick Steves on Tallinn in 2014, this Estonian capital had already made its way to my travel bucket list. A city, touching the Baltic sea, with an old town surrounded by fortifications – majority of which was still standing – was all it took to have me convinced.
So when I had a couple of weeks free, after my German fellowship (three months in Germany, whaat?), it was really a no-brainer as to where I would be headed. This is the thing I love about Europe. Getting access to so many different cultures, without having the hassle of bothering with paperwork – God bless the Schengen Visa.
As I made my way outside the airport, I was introduced to a slice of the tech savviness that is part of this country’s DNA. I purchased a travel card, Uhiskaart, for which you pay a 2 Euro deposit and load some balance for local travel. Having come from dot-on-time German public transport, I immediately realised that Tallinn’s sense of time was stretchable, after I waited ages for my bus to the city. That kind of reminded me of Mumbai, where time-wise things are fluid.
Tallinn streets were empty as my bus made its way outside the airport terminal. Only when I had made my way into the city centre, did I see more people around. Turns out the population of the whole of Estonia is a mere 1.3 million people, out of which around 450,000 live in Tallinn. That’s 1/20th the population of the city I come from. To put things into perspective there are more people living in Andheri than in the whole of Estonia.
When I told friends that I am going to Tallinn for a week, I got blank stares. ‘A week in Tallinn?,’ many questioned. ‘You can wrap it up in three days,’ said my German roommate. Ideally, if I were up to it, I could even wrap it up in two days. But I was not really looking at having a hectic tick-off-the-to-do-list vacation. I’d booked myself into this hostel – The Monk’s Bunk – for a good five days and all I was looking forward to, was travelling at a really slow pace.
The moment I checked into my hostel, I was treated to a shot of local cognac by the name Vana Tallin (which translates to Old Tallinn). The mere thought of that translucent dark brown concoction still makes me salivate. It was sweet with a hint of orange. There was a mild bite. A liquer I could easily have more than a couple of shots of. One thing I regret, is not picking up a bottle of it from Tallinn. That shot of Vana Tallinn immediately set in motion the friendly vibes I would continue to keep getting from this tiny European capital.
Most of my time in Tallinn was spent walking around the Old Town, the only reason for which I had decided to go there in the first place. After a point, I sort of became familiar with some roads, as I had exhausted the list of free things to see and do.
With Tallinn, walking led to a plethora of surprises. Discovering a rundown beach by the Baltic sea and taking a walk to one end of it, I stumbled on an abandoned prison which was not accessible, but only visible from a hole in door. I wasn’t expecting to see many Indian restaurants in Tallinn as it’s not really a must-do among the Indian tourists. I was proven wrong on my first evening. After a few walks around the main Town Hall Square, a couple of Indian waiters would flash a smile at me asking me my ‘haal chaal’. I relented and had dinner one evening at an Indian restaurant. Spoke at length with the Andhra owner of the place in Hindi (I was speaking with someone in that language in almost two months). Turned out there was a whole community of Indian traders in Tallinn’s old town. Were I in my journalist mode, I would have surely thought up a story idea.
On another day, I walked into an alcove from where I heard a lot of chatter. This led me to a courtyard which was surrounded by local handicrafts shops and a bakery which was adorned with old grandfather chairs. I just had to have a hot chocolate sitting in one of those cosy chairs.
You’ll see symbols of religion all around you in the old town, but surprisingly, Estonians aren’t a religious bunch. With over 90 percent of the population not following any religion. I didn’t know whether to feel relieved or surprised. But when you consider how technologically advanced this tiny nation is, that detachment from religion seems logical. Having just got independence from Soviet Russia in 1991, Estonia adopted technology early to avoid concentration of power. It’s the only country in the world which offers an e-Residency program. I can go on and on about how tech-forward Estonia is, but I’ll stick to travel.
A side-effect of the being ruled by Denmark, Sweden and finally Russia is that a lot of Estonians are quite reserved by nature. It’s a pretty young country.
Nicola, the effervescent walking tour guide who always had us walking tour participants in splits with her sardonic humour, recalled an amusing instance, to draw home the point of indifference shown by Estonians, to each other. Once when she was travelling in a bus, she noticed one of her neighbours in front of her with her shoe laces undone. But because Estonians generally keep to themselves and are awkward at the aspect of drawing any attention, she didn’t bother telling her neighbour about her laces. This – said Nicola – was considered normal behaviour.
“So don’t get demoralised if elderly Estonians don’t return your smile. It’s just how we are,” she said.
I had five days to figure out if this was indeed true.
I always used to read travel writing literature as a destination-specific story, informing me about a place or the adventures had along or during the journey. While that still holds fort for me, off late it’s the ‘Why we travel?’ question that I seek answers to. Iyer’s work always gives nuanced responses to that question and one of the reasons why my locker and Kindle always have his books up front.
His work stands out amidst the travel writers I have read (and I have read a lot of them) in the sense that his writings are as much about the inner journeys one undertakes during the external wanderings. He has touched upon it brilliantly in his TED Talk on the Art of Stillness.
Sun after Dark: Flights into the Foreign is yet another fine example of that oeuvre. He weaves it into beautiful prose and gives a resonance to the thoughts you may have had on some trip to some place, planned or otherwise.
Unlike his other books such as Video Night in Kathmandu or Falling Off the Map or even The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto, where Iyer goes all in on the nuances of the places explored through the places and its people, in Sun After Dark, the place happens to be incidental whereas it’s the layered perspective he brings out that make the story. After a point, you forget that it is a travel book. In that sense, it is on the same wavelength as that philosophical treatise on travel by Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel.
Sun After Dark is a collection of travel stories, philosophical essays and slice-of-life profiles of people encountered during the travels. And keeping in the vein of Falling off the map, Iyer ventures to some remote places on the planet. Easter Island, on a new year’s eve, anyone?
What’s more interesting though is the places or subjects he revisits: Japan (he has been living there), India, Tibet, personalities such as the Dalai Lama, Leonard Cohen. This revisiting gives interesting insights into a place and the personalities. The chapter on Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer-song writer turned Buddhist monk’s right hand man, wonderfully explores the reasons behind the transformation of the person. The Dalai Lama, on whom Iyer has written a separate book altogether (The Open Road), straddles the world of monastic duties, keeping the exiled Tibetan flock together, addressing huge crowds, being in celebrities’ list of friends and more. Who’s the person behind the personality? The chapter “Making kindness stand to reason” explores just that.
In the essay “Nightwalking”, one of my favourite in the book, Iyer explores that state of limbo that is somewhere between a jet-lag and re-adjusting to your home or foreign settings after a long-haul flight. The virtues of being on the same time setting of your home country to the absolute failure of trying to fight jet lag as you age, Iyer wonderfully explains that feeling of being in that weird frame of mind that follows a return from a long journey. I have experienced that always after a trip to and from the US, where no matter what strategies I try, I end up ruining my sleep cycle for a few days at least.
“A Far off Affair” showcases India in an interesting light, through the typos in the sentences on notice boards or language in daily parlance, and not just stopping there but trying to dig in to the etymological histories.
“Happy hour in the heart of Darkness” set in Cambodia, debates on the ethics of travel to places where you could be enriching an extremist government. This is something even a Jack Dorsey could relate to, after the furore caused online after he posted his post-Vipassana photographs from Myanmar.
Each essay is full of insights which needs to be read, reread and pondered over. It peels another layer of that question which has started to pique my interest – why I travel?
I would like to end with one (of the many many lines) that stuck with me after I was done with the book. Says Iyer,
The physical aspect of travel is, for me, the least interesting; what really draws me is the prospect of stepping out of the daylight of everything I know, into the shadows of what I don’t know, and may never know.
We have all come across these shadows, at some point in our travels.
Iyer does the hard work of putting them into words.
I ended my last blog post with a bit of a riddle. The street art I documented in the last post, most of it seemed like commissioned work. Visually brilliant that it was, it still missed that edginess one generally associates with street art. While walking the streets of Kochi, I also came across this artwork which was a bit quirky, political in its messaging and not too elaborate.
The tag read “Guess Who”.
The striking aspect of this stencil art was the mashups of popular international figures with Indian everyman/everywoman. For instance, the smiling face of Colonel Sanders pasted on a daily wage labourer sitting on the ground in dhoti and chappals or Mona Lisa’s face on the body of a typical Indian village girl carrying a pot of water.
The artwork, which did not have these kind of mashups, was mostly accompanied by some witty prose.
First I thought it may be some local artist, who is renowned for these cheeky artworks. But spotting Guess Who artwork isn’t that easy, like it wasn’t at the best of Kochi locations to sport artwork. It was mostly to be seen on walls in tiny lanes or plastered on the sidewalk which was filled with advertisement posters.
This made me wonder, if this was one of those genuine street artists who stamp the city with their artwork for no money, but to make a statement?
Sure enough, a Google search online revealed interesting aspects of Guess Who. The artists’ work apparently started showing up around the time of the 2014 Kochi Muziris Biennale, the first of its kind to be held in India. Guess Who’s artwork was a protest against what he/she thought to be an elite art festival. There even was a map of Fort Kochi dotted with Guess Who artwork.
Some of Guess Who’s earlier works involved pasteups, which of course because of their very nature must have been taken down or painted over. I didn’t see a lot of the works which I later discovered online. Some of those that survived, seem to be on their last leg. The stencil work though did pop up with some cheeky messaging on the side. I would assume that was the more recent work.
With the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2018 all set to begin from 12 December and go all the way up to March 2019, will Guess Who strike again? Will it be that much more difficult to spot new Guess Who artworks, now that it is a well known fact that one of the motivations behind the artworks was to protest against the Biennale? Will the Biennale let him be, knowing that the artist started his/her documentation on the walls of Kochi, to send a message to the organisers of the Biennale?
The Gothic Quarter of Barcelona is a chaotic mess.
A Google Map view of the Gothic Quarter shows a hodgepodge of roads and alleys, when not too far from it is structured octagonal-blocks of planned Barcelona. Barrio Gotico, as it’s called in Catalan, is a maze of Gothic structures, cathedrals, narrow lanes, wide open squares and buildings from the Roman era which formed the heart of Barcelona at one point in history. So clearly, for a visitor it can take months or years to completely wrap their heads around the various Calle’s and Carrer’s of the Barrio Gotico. I had the good fortune of being shown around the quarter by a local who lives in the area.
As we made our way around the Catedral, Marta took me aside, “Now I will show you a place that not many tourists know about.” I was expecting her to take me to the Carrer de Bisbe, which is actually quite well known to travellers. But instead of going straight and left, she took a small lane on the right hand side and we entered a courtyard which had a small fountain placed bang in the centre of the square. And true to her word, there was barely anyone apart from a group of three people in this square. A stark contrast from the hordes of crowds just a minute away.
“This is the Placa de Sant Felip Neri. Take a look around and tell me what you observe,” questioned Marta.
But before I could start observing the place, I had this nagging doubt at the back of my head that this place seemed familiar. You know, sometimes you just know that you have seen the place somewhere before. It may be deja vu or as Marta joked, some past-life connection with the place. And no, it hadn’t shown up in any of my research that I had done on places to see in Barcelona. I started thinking hard, but was finding it difficult to recall. I gave up and instead started looking at the place around me. Although it was night time, there was enough light to notice details in the square.
The octagonal fountain, which was more of a glorified tap network with a pail of water in the collecting area below, was surrounded by paved street blocks. There were brown coloured walls of what looked like a school and a church. There were two trees and there were pigeons flying around. I noticed pock marks at the base of the two structures, and pointed them out to Marta, telling her something was off in the architecture at the base and the top. Was it deliberate? I wondered. This is Gaudi’s city, after all.
Marta approved my observations and then took me to the bronze plaque that was located in the building opposite where we stood, and went on to tell me the story.
The Placa de Sant Felip Neri was the site of the bombings by the erstwhile Spanish dictator Fracisco Franco’s air force on 30 January 1938 – one of the most tragic chapters from the Spanish Civil War history. There was one bomb that was dropped in the square which ended up killing close to 30 people, mostly children who had taken shelter in the school in the courtyard. Later when the people around came in to rescue those injured, another bomb was dropped taking the death toll to 42.
The Catalan government had decided not to renovate the buildings and keep the pockmarks intact to remind anyone visiting this square of its brutal past. Even the debris from the attack has been used in buildings around the square. Franco had even used this tragic history to peddle his propaganda of the square being used by anarchists to line up the priests from the church along the wall and kill them by a firing squad – which is absolute rubbish.
I re-visited the square early the next morning. A mild drizzle had just added a lovely wet layer on the cobbled stone pathway leading up to the square. There was a slight nip in the temperature and the courtyard had just two other travellers apart from me. It was a quiet, peaceful place. The Sant Felip Neri school was shut for the day. I walked around the square, touching the pock marks left behind by the bombings.
I couldn’t help thinking about a similar sort of tragedy that took place in Punjab in 1919, which had a much higher casualty. The Jallianwallah Bagh tragedy, where an English general named Reginald Dyer blocked the only exit to a public park and asked his troops to open fire on the unarmed families who had collected in the garden. There too, the bullet marks in the walls have been left intact.
The Baroque facade of the church, which was built in the 1750s, was quite modest as compared to the Gothic finery outside the square. I walked around the fountain, the water in the pail was overflowing today thanks to the drizzle. I dipped in my hand to feel the temperature of the water, waving the hand to create ripples in the cold water.
And that’s when I had a eureka moment.
I finally recalled where I had seen this place.
Many years ago when MTV India actually was a music channel and aired music videos, the song My Immortal by Evanescence was picturised in a similar looking location. I fired up Google, and sure enough, this was the place. I always used to keep wondering why are there children playing in the background in that song, which is supposed to show the protagonist as a spirit that is yet to depart from this world. Now I get it.
Whether that was intentional or not, that’s how I now interpret it.