Street Art in Fort Kochi: 12 murals that had me impressed

Earlier this year, I took off to Kochi, my maiden visit to ‘God’s own country’. I hadn’t done much research on Kochi, and wanted the place to surprise me. The only visual I had in mind were the 14th century Chinese fishing nets that have become a symbol of Kochi, and that was one of the primary reasons I decided to pick this location. That, and the fact I had never set foot in Kerala.

On my first stroll around Fort Kochi, I knew that this place was filled with street art gems that would have to be discovered over the next four days that I was here. The approach to my hostel was via this road which was walled off on both sides and had old trees providing the canopy. The white-washed walls were painted with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016 ads. I had read about this Biennale, the first of its kind to have happened in India from 2012 onwards, but couldn’t recall much.

As I walked around Kochi, the walls started rewarding me with views of the artwork around this old town which is a melting pot of cultures. Towards the end of this year, from 12 Dec 2018 to 29 March 2018, will be the next edition of the Biennale. Street art by its very nature being very ephemeral, some of the art murals in this blog may not exist in a couple of months.

Here are some of the murals that impressed me. The art works showcased local portraits, concept works, hand-painted art exhibition advertisements and more.

 

 

 

 

There are some portraits, presumably of famous locals, strewn all over Fort Kochi. Accompanied by Malayalam text (which I could not understand). The works seem to be part of a street art project.

 

 

Mattancherry is the spice market district inside Fort Kochi, and walking along here the fragrance of the spices is almost like a perfume. Inside Mattancherry there are a few art galleries as well. But on the way there, I noticed advertisements of art exhibits, which were hand painted paste-up works. There was a very Zine feel to them.

 

But when in Kerala, it would be a pity, if you don’t dig out a street mural paying tribute to one of its local superstars — Mammotty! Engage in a conversation with locals on the Mammotty vs Mohanlal (the other superstar) debate, and watch in fascination how fans defend their favourite and take down the other.

All the art work shared here, most of it at least, seems to have been commissioned. But what’s street art if there is no element of rebellion involved? Fort Kochi was plastered with art work which fulfilled that gap as well. I shall talk about it in a future post.

Till then, keep guessing who I am talking about.

Junction: A book lover’s paradise in Thimpu

It had been a while since I had visited a bookshop. In Mumbai, I just buy books online, or visit one of the many book sales to fill up my quota of books. I can’t remember the last time I went to bookshop here and spent hours browsing through the titles. Or better still, finished an entire book over multiple visits.

So when I was roaming around the streets of Thimpu, Bhutan, I came across a bookshop named ‘Junction’. It was guarded by furry dogs, and looked quite inviting with its door stuck with pages from books forgotten. Located just off the main traffic signal in Thimpu, Junction really was one of the most attractive bookshops I’d been to in a long time. Unlike franchises such as Oxford and Crossword that I see in Mumbai, this one was a lot more cosy, personal and a place where a book-lover would feel at home.

Everywhere I looked around, there was some stamp or the other, of a certified bibliophile. Be it the pages from old books made into origami birds, or snapshots of authors with some famous lines from their books to the apparent appreciation of the Game of Thrones books/series that was on display all over the bookshop or even the chilled out dogs hanging around the bookstore; this was one place which could give an instant high to any book-lover.

The elegantly dressed Mui, the partner of the bookshop, who (wo)manned the reception/bill payment counter and always had something to give away — in the form of a calendar celebrating Bhutan’s indigenous weaving art forms to milk chocolates brought from a trip abroad. She is the kind of bookshop owner with whom you could chat for hours, without even making a purchase. Her boyfriend, also the owner of the bookshop, seemed like a reserved fellow despite the lengthy dreads he was sporting.

I asked her if she actually was the owner of all the dogs hanging around the bookshop?

“I have only one dog, the other 5 are strays who hang around the shop. I use all the money in this box (pointing to the donation box) to get food for these guys every evening,” she said. Dogs and cats make my heart melt. So naturally, out came the money.

Junction had a good collection of books. I was naturally attracted to the books on Bhutanese culture and spent a good amount of time checking out a photo book, which I could obviously not afford. On the top floor of the bookshop, was a section of second hand books, a la the second hand bookshops you come across in expat tourist-heavy destinations such as Rishikesh. I noticed flyers of book club meetings, which happen regularly in the shop. I was even invited to one, but I would have to spend another fortnight to be able to attend it.

Apart from books, the shop also sold a lot of local Bhutan-made artefacts such as bookmarks, books made from recycled paper, book covers woven from wool and so on. I picked up one book cover for a friend who still prefers physical books over ebooks.

If you love books and happen to be in Thimpu, you should really check out ‘Junction’. Just take the right from the main traffic signal check post on the Norzim Lam. Walk around 50 metres and you will come across the bookshop on your left. There probably will be some dogs around the place.

Say hello to Mui, if she’s around. And pet that black shaggy dog on my behalf.

Munich diaries: Surfboarding in the middle of a garden on the Eisbach Welle

Surfing or Surfboarding is an adventure sport one generally associates with the sun and the sand. Something that you see from the corner of your eye while you are bumming around at the beach. The only surfing I have seen at home is on TV. So it came as quite a shock when I first learnt about this legit surfing that happens smack bang in the middle of a huge garden. That too on a river bed!

I am talking about the Eisbach Welle in the Englischergarten in Munich.

When I first saw it while channel surfing (no pun intended) many summers ago, I thought it was an indoor surfing-practise centre. Where artificial waves were generated. Till I noticed the surrounding greenery. And the penny dropped, that this wasn’t an indoors thing.

When I landed in Munich, among the Frauenkirche, the many beer gardens, die Altstadt and other tourist magnets, seeing the Eisbach Welle was high on my list. Of course, I did not have any delusions of trying my hand (rather legs) at the sport.

Eisbach Welle literally translates to ice-brook wave. The wave appeared for the first time somewhere around 1972 when the city was constructing a bridge over the Eisbach stream, which is basically a tributary of the larger Isar river that flows through Munich. Eisbach follows a 2km path inside the Englischer Garten. While the wave that formed initially was just a couple of feet in height, the local surfers with their ingenuity decided to improvise. The current wave, which rises over a metre, has been created by strategically submerging concrete blocks and having wooden planks on the side to stabilise the wave as well. It has become a surfers paradise since. Considering the nearest surfable ocean is almost a 1000km from Munich.

 

As you are trodding on the path leading to the Eisbach Welle, it is the roar of the waves that will first reach your ears before the actual sight. Now there are many ways to reach the Eisbach Welle. You could just put it in Google Maps and navigate right to the last step. Or switch off Maps once you hear that roar of water, and just aurally figure out the way. I did the latter. It’s not too difficult. If you are trying to locate it from the road, then it is on Prinzeregentenstrasse or near Haus der Kunst museum.

As I made my way through the clearing, there was already a crowd collected to watch the pros at work. And yes, it is only meant for learned surfers. This is not your beginner’s surfing school in Munich. I was under the assumption that things would be casual as it was an unconventional surfing destination. I was thinking bare-chested men in QuikSilver surfing shorts and women in long-sleeved spring cut surfing gear (Yes, I had to Google the technical term). But to my surprise, there were surfers dressed in proper wetsuits – the type you see scuba divers wear – covering the entire body complete with the zip tag hanging around the neck region. On enquiring with my cousin, I learned that the temperature of the water even in summers is under 20 degrees Celcius.

One look at the surfers and you know that these guys know their shit inside out. Considering the 10-12 mt width of the river, and the wave formations operating at its fiercest in a limited area, which is the real challenge, there is no scope for a party of surfers to be on the waves at the same time. Es wird chaotisch sein. It would be chaotic.

Since we are in Germany, you see a process to address this conundrum. At a time, only one surfer is allowed to surf the waves. If he or she falls, then they clear the space for the next surfer while themselves standing at the end of the queue which has formed. Order is the name of the game here. And it is quite fascinating to watch, to time the surfers. Maybe if you have time and can gather some friends around, you can even start taking bets on the sly. Just kidding.

You can either watch these surfers from the side of the river or head up the mound of the dirt path which leads to the road connected to the bridge. The bridge functions as a gallery, and the tributary of the mighty Isar river turns into a stage, on which the surfers are performing. Seemingly for the delight of its audience. Maybe I am exaggerating there. Most of the surfers don’t even acknowledge the crowd, directing all their focus on the waves.

I am not a surfer, but watching that sport was lovely. The idea of trying to maintain balance when every force is acting against you is a pleasure to behold. Using the correct stance, guiding the front of your surfboard in a way that nullifies the effect of the wave which is trying to topple you over, needs your 110 percent attention. Unless of course, you like embracing the river, that is. Mind you, the banks are made of stone. So you have to be ultra-careful if with your balance around the edge of the Eisbach.

As I said before, only experienced surfers should bother on this wave. The Eisbach stream, although isn’t as dangerous as the Isar river, has still claimed some lives. While the administration wanted to ban the surfing, owing to the danger it presented, a ‘Save the Wave’ campaign eventually prevented that. It was illegal till 2010. There were even reports of surfers being chased away by the police, and they had to eventually collect their surfboards from the police stations, after paying a fine of course. But by 2012, it was hosting a European River Surfing Championship.

Now, though it is woven into the cultural fabric of Munich.

Monselice and Arqua Petrarca: Two villages in North Italy worth visiting

Some years ago, I had seen this Geroge Clooney-starring thriller called The American. While I was taken in by the story, it was the place that it was set in (Abruzzo in Italy) that really impressed me. The last time I was as impressed by the Italian country side, was while watching The Godfather.

Cobbled 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.

The detour in Trento had suddenly increased our appetite to see more such small 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 mountain valley. The entry to the mountain 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. This sort of communal places are so abundant in small towns, be it anywhere on the planet. And rare in cities such as Mumbai.

Walking up the stony pathways, reminded me of one travel show – Grandma’s Boy – where a chef tries his hand at cooking traditional Italian dishes under the guidance of Italian nonnas (grandmas). Reason being, there are a lot of montages of small Italian villages which are shown during the show. The one I was walking in, could easily be one of those.

 

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.

 

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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 who was 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. Tyring 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 Padua. If you are headed to this university town, make sure you take some time out to see these two beautiful villages as well.

Trento: A detour in Northern Italy, which reset my expectations from the country

Outside of India, I have never been on road trips.

So when my cousin floated the idea of going to Venice from Munich via road, I was completely on board. Unlike travelling straight to the city via a plane or train, road trips present immense opportunities for doing things at your own pace. The presence of a fixed train or flight schedule can be limiting to travel. This road trip just reiterated that fact.

On crossing the Austro-Italian border, one of the first detours we took for lunch was in a small town called Trento. This was completely unplanned, with the only agenda being having a traditional Italian pizza.

Off the highway we were quite close to the city centre of Trento. But just like most European cities, as I would later learn, there are lots of restrictions on parking your vehicle. If you are near a medieval city centre, then you have to look out for the No Parking zones. As only the citizens have the privilege of parking within.

Entering the city centre, the first thing I saw was the facade of a church. Taking a left, we entered a traditional Italian square, which I later learned was called the Piazza Duomo. With a fountain located in the middle of the small piazza, which had a church right behind and mountains on the right, it took me no time to start using my camera.

The church, called the St Vigilio Cathedral, was made in brown sandstone and unlike many European churches, did not have towering spires. The front facade of the church had the Romanseque circular window – the rose window – something similar to the one on the Santa Maria Del Pi of Barcelona or the Notre Dam Cathedral in France. One side of the church had an onion-shaped dome top. Whereas just above the apse region was an octagonal roof structure. The Cathedral is said to have been built atop an existing church going back to the 6th century. Behind this church, were remnants of what looked like fortifications with a clock tower at one end.

The Piazza Duomo had a fountain in the middle, which had the trident sporting Neptune on it. Surrounding the piazza, were buildings which looked like they were from another era. Some of these buildings had facades painted with biblical scenes. A gelateria here. A farmacia there. A ristorante around the corner. Most of the buildings were four to five stories high with semi-cylindrical orange coloured roofs covering them on top.

The restaurant we went to for lunch was much more modern. The pizza I ordered for, was hot, thin-crust, uncut, ham-mozarella pizza with lots of olive oil and pickled tomatoes on the side. Washing that down with Paulaner beer while it drizzled outside is one memory I now associate with the place.

Since this was just a detour, I didn’t really get to explore the town much. But Googling the place later, I came to learn that Trento was annexed to Italy only in 1919, till then it was part of Austria. It is an autonomous town, that explains why there were flags with a coat of arms, and which didn’t have Italian colours, in a lot of establishments. It is located in the Aldige river valley region of North Italy.

Unlike most detours, this one turned out to be a great experience. Suddenly I wanted to see more such small Italian towns. With their grand cathedrals behind charming piazzas.

We did do that. But that’s another post, for another time.

Barcelona Diaries: Eureka moment at the Placa de Sant Felip Neri

The Gothic Quarter of Barcelona is a chaotic mess of Gothic structures, cathedrals 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 around their head with the various Calle’s and Carrer’s of the Barri Gotic. 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? 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 propoganda 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 tradgedy that took place in North India in 1919 and which had a higher casualty – the Jallianwallah Bagh tragedy – where a maniac named Dyer blocked the only exit to a public park and asked his troops to open fire on 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 quote 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.

Barcelona diaries: Churros in chocolate heaven – Granja La Pallaresa!

Finding a place in the labyrinthine alleys of the Barrio Gotic, in Barcelona, is quite a task, unless you are accompanied by a local. After my Barcelona Ciclo Tour, I was famished and knew that nothing but a traditional Spanish churro (or xurro) would get me in high spirits to explore the city further. Granja La Pallaresa came highly recommended by not one, but two Barcelonians. Naturally, I knew I HAD to taste the churros here.

Located in Calle Petritxol, also popularly known as the sweet street, in the Gothic Quarter, the Granja La Pallaresa is a shop which is not very aggressive with advertising. The narrow lanes actually don’t give it much scope. In fact, I ended up walking past it on more than one occasion. In my defence the place was shut for the famous Barcelona siesta time. The board outside said that it would open at 4PM. With the clock saying 3PM, I still had an hour to kill. I decided to check out the Santa Maria del Pi cathedral which was just a 2 min walk from this place. 

Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

I returned by around 4.15PM and the place was already buzzing with the evening crowd. In fact, I spotted a couple of people who were hanging around from before. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait outside for long and the liveried waiting staff quickly escorted me in the inner chamber.



The fragrance of hot chocolate and fried churros was wafting in the air as I was making my way towards the Pallaresa. But inside the cosy cafe, despite the perfumes worn by the customers, the aroma of chocolate was much denser. The crowd was a mix of locals and tourists, but majority of the people looked like locals – as I was hearing a lot more Catalan than any other language and also from the fact that not many were lugging around DSLRs and clicking the surroundings. Except for this bunch of these Korean women, with their exquisitely blingy smartphone covers, elegant overcoats and a Korean Lonely Planet guide. The leader of that group didn’t even call for the menu – but just pointed to a photograph inside her guide book to her server. And then she got around to making selfies with her gang of girlfriends.

Granja La Pallaresa was established in 1947 and has been in this spot since then. Granja means a traditional snack bar and Granja La Pallaresa is one which is renowned for its liquid chocolate treats. The serving staff dressed in white shirts, black trousers and a black bow, are a throwback to an era gone by. The immediate Indian analogy I could think of was the turbaned wait staff at the India Coffee House, that charming cafe opposite Presidency College in Kolkata. Stepping into such establishments, takes you back a few decades and la Pallaresa was fulfilling that requirement.

Taking some inspiration from the Korean women, even I didn’t call for the menu – something that is unusual. I just ordered the Xurros with Suizo, which was clearly the most popular item.

Xurros or Churros are the thick chakli or murukku-like fried food item made of dough (most likely maida/refined flour) which can be had with a dash of powdered sugar atop them or the best way – dipping in hot chocolate. Suizo is the that liquid dark hot chocolate topped with a mountain of sugarless cream.

It took a while for me to get my order (god bless that waiter who approached me after seeing me try to haplessly get someone’s attention) – and in a place like that, that can be torturous if the last meal you’ve had is breakfast at 8AM which is followed by 3 hours of cycling tour. Specially so, when you see the wait staff make two rounds in the kitchen to carry out two plates full of fragrant Churros to the main counter.



I have to say I was a bit disappointed to see just five churros along with the Suizo. “C’mon man, I can surely have more,” I thought. But by the time I was finished, I knew for a fact that I could have had no more. The fried dough of the Churro when had with cream and hot chocolate – is kind of heavy.


The Suizo in particular was mind-blowing. I love hot chocolate and my concept of hot chocolate, so far, had been chocolate mixed with milk and made into a thick consistency. At Granja La Pallaresa, hot chocolate was just that – Hot molten glazy dark chocolate! Of course, getting to the hot chocolate took some cleaning off of the smooth cream layer, which wasn’t sweet. So that was had with sugar-dipped thumb-licks. (I don’t care if you think that’s gross!)


The Churros – crunchy on the outside and getting progressively softer on the inside, were great in themselves. Dipping them in that dark hot chocolate, just elevated the experience to a whole new level. I was a kid again, who couldn’t get enough of his chocolate fix. And since this was molten dark chocolate with some cream, it was just the way I liked it. By the time I was done with this manna, I just wanted to take a nap inside La Pallaresa.


The yellow walls inside are full of local art work – mostly street scenes involving Barcelona as well as the establishment in some manner. I liked the fact that they weren’t using that real estate to advertise about the prizes they have won, which I am sure must be countless. The cane wooden chairs and marble topped tables are quite reminiscent of any traditional Irani joint in Mumbai. And the convivial atmosphere is similar.  
The place serves other specialities as well – such as the Crema Catalana – which is a Catalan version of Creme brulee. And another item I saw in the store window as a caramel custard surrounded by cream dips.


If you’re a dessert or chocolate lover, I don’t have to really state the obvious!


And yes, did I tell you, the weather in Barcelona was cold and it was raining heavily, before I entered the Pallaresa? Imagine, a hot chocolate and Churros in THAT weather:)