Friday, August 30, 2013

Hello Baltics

House of the Balckheads

This was not planned. Oh, Baltics was, Riga was not. My initial understanding of my itinerary was that I have to go to Vilnius at some point. A lot of time was spent reading up about Vilnius and Lithuania and learning from my colleague who lives there. But, Riga came up before that and there was an exciting meeting to attend and an interesting forum to speak at. The flight, mind you could be a little terrifying at the start. The planes which ply on these regional European routes are the smallest commercial planes could ever be. It was a small Bombardier this time, Air Baltic. Pretty stripped down budget airline with a rare direct connection between Warsaw and Riga. The airplane is so small that smoothness of the flight is totally a factor of wind and weather and plane's actual weight is a non entity. Anyways, I reached Riga, the small capital of Latvia in about 1 hour of flying. A beautiful tiny capital on the baltic sea, Riga is a delight for lovers of art-nouveau buildings and quaint cobblestone alleys.
Riga is only a small city, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in character and colour. You can travel everywhere by foot, and within minutes you’ll start to notice it’s a city that takes pride on skirting away from the norm. I didn't find the same generic shops, restaurants and bars that most major cities have bought into; instead every corner invites you to learn more about Latvian / Baltic culture, whether it’s one of the many restaurants offering potato rich Latvian cuisine, or one of the many shops stacked head-to-toe with books and vinyl records. In fact, this is the first capital city I’ve been to in which I just saw 1 (yes, just ONE) McDonalds sign.
I was staying in the Old town area, so the first thing I did after reaching Riga in the evening was to stumble on the rough cobblestone streets, not once and not twice, but at least five times in a span of about a minute, simply because I was looking up at the buildings and not watching where I put my feet.
Once that bout of clumsiness was over and I figured out how to walk again, I proceeded to spend a couple of hours, just walking, turning left and turning right, choosing random streets and lanes and just seeing where it would all lead me. Riga old town is a colorful collection of restored historical buildings, which happens to contain the largest collection of German Art Nouveau architecture on the planet, a fact that, when read carefully, is quite an astonishing fact indeed. Riga and other baltic countries (Lithuania, Estonia) had a big German population until the Nazis arrived and sent them back to Germany. Riga also has a nice Indian restaurant, with a very corny name - ‘India Raja’. The food was delish and hosts nice (British, not Indian). British have become the biggest beacons for Indian food anywhere, if you go to an Indian restaurant and hear british people there, its bound to be good. They have a good palate for curry.
Lovely boats in the canal
Medieval street and very authentic medieval restaurant
Cool colorful buildings where everywhere
Bird's eye view of Riga and the daugava river
Freedom memorial
Old town 

Next day was supposed to be all business and I attended a workshop which was almost all in Latvian. So, I basically checked email and wrote a blog post while smiling and nodding to the crowd. Such huge is the difference between Baltic languages that my colleague from Lithuania, which is just 400 km away couldn't understand a word either. The binding language for the Baltics is guess what? Russian. Yes, Russians pretty much ruled these lands till the 1990s until the USSR broke down. And, they are hated here. The baltic nations have one and only one foreign policy - ‘Do anything that pinches the russians’. I also learned that in order to get sovereignty and get the russian army to leave after USSR fell, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians created a massive human chain of millions of people holding hands and walked to the russian border. Very interesting.
Another great thing about the Baltics is the almost ubiquitous internet. Internet penetration is in the north of 80% and its incredible. When you walk into a restaurant, you are offered the menu and the password. I came to know of an interesting fact regarding this. When the Russians finally left in early 90s, Estonia thought of being a ultra modern state right away. They became the internet hub of Europe, leap-froged bureaucracy and became a totally e-governed state, almost completely paperless. Initially they even branded themselves as “e-Stonia”. High speed internet is almost a fundamental right here. Our 12% internet penetration suddenly looked a little low.
That evening was spent dining with colleagues and partners at the ‘Biggest open rooftop restaurants in the region’, quite a place to spend an evening overlooking almost all of the city in every direction. Also, helpful was the fact that the days are really really long there, sun was yet to set at 10 PM. In the conversation, I discovered that Riga was a very important Hansa port on the Baltic sea.And, that explains the very ornate ‘House of the Blackheads’ (pic at the top). I had never before heard of the ‘Hanseatic League’. It was powerful commercial and defensive confederation of merchants all along the land and sea supply lines in Europe. Hansa cities and ports also had a very unique architecture, Hamburg used to be one of the most prominent ones. Luft’hansa’ - rings a bell?
Spent the next day in more meetings (thankfully in english) and then was invited to speak at the only startup accelerator in Latvia about Enterprise Technologies. A very enthusiastic, young bunch of entrepreneurs working on the next gen mobile apps and web based services. Roamed around the city again and it was wonderful. Riga is only around half a million people and although it has recently become famous as a party destination for piss drunk teenagers from western Europe (thanks to Ryanair), the city was very pleasantly not full of people. Very walkable and full of great architecture and beautiful little sights on every turn and corner. I particularly liked the two big churches in the small town, both in brick gothic and with very high watchtowers.  One of the must dos in Riga according to tripadvisor was climbing the high watchtower of St Peter’s Basilica, I did that. I love vantage points, they give you a unique perspective of a place, they broaden your horizon, quite literally. The after a long ride on the elevator, which seemed to take ages I reached the top most part of the tower and the view was really breathtaking.  That was infact the last thing I did in the city before heading back to Warsaw and I would consider it to be the highpoint of my visit (again, quite literally). 
Impressed with how much of a unique culture, architecture and history this little country has packed in itself.Four months ago, I had not even dreamt of visiting Riga or Latvia and had a very very bleak idea of what the Baltic states are. But, having spent 3 days in this lovely city, I definitely understand more and what I had not even dreamt about is suddenly one of the coolest places I have seen. So much for four months.

More later


Friday, August 9, 2013

The golden city of a hundred spires - Prague

It might have been not more than 10-15 years since I first heard of Prague. It was a pretty unknown capital in the nineties, at least for people not from Europe. Capital of Czechoslovakia till 1990, no one would have dreamt of traveling to Prague because it was eastern bloc. The only reason we would ever quote Czechoslovakia during school was to check the other person's knowledge of its twisted spellings.
But something happened after the iron curtain came down in the nineties and much like other cities of far more repute like Berlin, Prague reinvented itself as a destination of the alternative arts movement. All kinds of grunge artists, musicians, painters and writers started flocking to the city, which even the great (though a little eccentric) Franz Kafka called home. The whole metamorphosis of the city in this manner has been a tourism boon and Prague is suddenly on many travel buckets lists for people from all over the world.
So, what were we expecting to find in the ancient capital of 'Bohemia'? Well, honestly a lot of heritage buildings, cobbled stone streets and hmmm,,,thats about it. We were a little skeptical because the over hyping of Krakow which everyone seemed to have done for us. Krakow was good, though a little dilapidated and crumbling. I guess maybe we missed the whole point of being in Krakow. But, to be honest it was just okay. The only highlight in Krakow was the Oscar Schindler factory and museum.
Hence Prague was being planned with a high level of probability for a 'meh' kind of a reaction.
We reached late in the evening and it was surprisingly warm. People with kids would attest and understand that if your kid behaves well during a flight and does not create embarrassing moments for you, your trip is half successful anyways. So, reaching Prague was good and we were looking forward to the next day of exploring the city.
Susan Miller was correct, next day was a mini disaster. Sort of a day when you just want to go home and not even look outside the window. Prague was in the middle of a massive heatwave. It was 40 degrees there that day, totally not my idea of a place in Europe, absolutely not my idea of a day walking around the streets in hot, scorching sun. This reaction comes as a shocker to many, being Indians and also being exposed to the nastiness of the Australian sun people assume that 40 degrees might be a piece of cake for us. But, let me correct you, in India no one willingly ventures out in open sun say in June to 'enjoy' themselves. These kind of leisurely activities are parked till autumn or early spring. And, Australia thankfully has a wonderful cartel between sun and rain, so the day it touches a certain temperature in summer, rest assured you'll get some welcome showers in the night. So, being out in Prague that day trying to squint (to basically cut the amount of light entering and hence hurting your retinas) and look at all the gothic architectural marvels was excruciating. Oh, all this while we were taking turns in pushing a stroller with a kid and the poor guy looked tired and red like a slightly wilted tomato in all that heat. We had simply picked the wrong weekend to be here.
So, after a quick stroll around the old town square (totally not enjoying it) we decided to just go back to the hotel and chill. Who remembers that sinking feeling one gets after spending the money and then realizing it just went down the toilet? I do, I do.
But things have a way of working out, just when you decide to just screw it. We went for a boat ride on the Vltava river in the evening and although still hot, that was a good experience. We got another chance to see and thus appreciate the wealth of beauty that this city has. Prague has been a capital for most of the last 1200 or so years. At least a couple of Roman Emperors were based here and hence it was once a capital of the holy roman empire, followed by the Habsburg monarchy and their Austro-Hungarian empire. After the world war it became the capital of Czechoslovakia and we know the rest. But, since the city was around during the Romanesque period through to the Gothic and then the Renaissance, it has an imprint of all those periods on it. A good 70% of the building would still confirm to a more Gothic style of architecture though. A lot of famous landmarks, like the very well known Charles Bridge are named after, well Charles or Emperor Charles IV, whose reign was probably the golden era in Prague's history.
The most amazing thing that strikes you while in Prague is the fact that there are streets and corners and building in the city which haven't changed fot the last 700 years. This city basically escaped WW2 untouched. Every corner of the city, believe me every corner has something to prove it. There are statues of Gods, sometimes just the busts and sometimes in full glory (read naked glory), which were amazing examples of workmanship. Possibly in every form of medieval architectural design style you know of, from gothic to baroque to renaissance. We saw the astronomical clock which has various urban legends around it, people still trying to figure out the hidden cryptic meanings of all the marking on it. The strange yet enormously beautiful chimes and trumpet sequence that the clock plays at top of every hour is a must watch. With elves and various figures coming out of small windows signifying a life and death philosophy. Tyn church is just across the big town center courtyard. The most original example of a gothic building you'll find anywhere, just beautiful.

Next day was reserved for the beautiful Prague castle or 'prazsky hrad'. This is one landmark which stands out in the whole city. Visible from everywhere, the castle is build on a hill. We took a tram which travelled uphill to one of the side entrances of the castle. You walk-in leisurely and as you take the first turn your eyes are greeted by something out of this world - Rising, as if from the pointed canopy of the trees, in front of the Prague castle is the cathedral of St Vitus, designed and commissioned in the 14th century by Charles IV, the then king of Bohemia and soon to be the Holy Roman Emperor. It is hands down the most beautiful building I have ever seen in my life. It is something that dwarfs everything around it. Superb Gothic architecture and design and big scale beautiful construction. We went in and were amazed equally by the interior, the ornate stained glass windows and the unbelievably high ceiling. Breathtaking. Couldn't get enough of it. Strolled the various courtyards of the castle and also various side streets and alleys around it. This castle is also home to the President of Czech republic so had a wing which was pretty modern compared to majority of the structure.

Then we did, the opposite of what we had planned to do day before. We walked down the narrow yet very very beautiful street that leads to the rest of Prague through Charles bridge. It was an experience in itself. Almost pristinely medieval, this street is a must walk while in town. Small boutiques selling handicrafts and souvenirs, Kafka-esque art with existential theme and beautiful paintings of various parts if the town.
Also feeling hungry since it was past lunch time, we were essentially looking for an Italian place to eat (the fact that you can always find some pizza and a couple of different pastas, this cuisine is godsend for vegetarians). But, surprise surprise, we saw 'Gopal vegetariansky restaurace'. This place was unique and superb, run by a Czech guy along with his wife. This guy is a ISKON follower, down to the last detail with a 'choti' and a 'hare krishna' kurta. Soft spoken almost to a fault, he welcomed us with folded hands, which even people in India have stopped doing. When asked for a menu he said, he has a set menu, a thali in a typical ISKON style with sabzi, daal, chawal and sweet. There comes a time while traveling when you are so sick and tired of eating out and that you just want something simple like daal chawal to eat. We were going through that time and Gopal was the perfect antidote. Simple comfort food is one of the most underrated great things in the world. We thanked him profusely for the amazing lunch (with folded hands, of course). Walked further down to the Charles bridge through the busy street with cafes and little boutiques selling all sorts of things. Facades which haven't changed in centuries and restaurant which have been around for decades if not more. Charles Bridge or 'karluv most' is one of the most recognized landmarks of the city, studded with 30 statues in baroque style. A walk across it ranked pretty high in my travel to-do list not long ago.

So, that was a superb end to our Prague trip after not-so-ideal start. Me and my wife both agree that Prague by far is the most beautiful city we have ever seen, there is a strange charm about this city which is different and unique. I have an inkling that Ljubljana or Paris might change our ranking of the most beautiful city a bit. A lot of travel coming up and I have some very interesting places in my itinerary.
This blog is going to be a busy place.

More later.