Hrvatska 01 : Zagreb, Croatia’s capital in the northwest

“​Zagreb, Croatia’s northwestern capital, is distinguished by its 18th- and 19th-century Austro-Hungarian architecture.” That is how Wikipedia starts describing the city of about 800000, capital of a country that the EU considers one of the poorest and backward in the union. This isn’t large by any standards, but packs a lot of character. Croatia is one of the parts that former Yugoslavia got broken into. 

Landing in from Heathrow, the new Zagreb airport was quite a change. Small, with one KLM 737 just arrived before us, and three luggage belts but modern.

Immigration takes a while, and so does luggage. But, as a tourist, who cares. Not as if I had some place to get to in a hurry. As one steps out, has a different feel compared to a western European city. Felt somewhat like Bratislava really. The trees look different, but green. The houses look different, but nice. Somewhat picturesque, but not overwhelmingly so. 

Took about 20 minutes to town. The taxi drivers at the airport will fleece you. Uber is available, but has long wait time. What showed 3 minutes turned to 24 as soon as I booked it.

Staying at a mid range place in Donji Grad, the lower city, which is one of the 17 districts of Zagreb. Two days of lack of sleep is about to take a toll, but certainly not before stepping out to buy some food.

If you happen to buy at the local super market, it is pretty cheap. I bought a baguette, some cheese, some prosciutto and a beer in glass bottle (bottle returnable). A quick efficient sandwich, more like four.

All of 50 kuna. But, there is plenty food available,  plenty coffee and plenty beer ( Ožujsko, made by Molson Coors, is the most popular Lager around). All across town.

The Best Western that I am in is in a less touristy area, and this closer to where locals live. Has a different, quieter feel, but is close to the railway station and about 10 minutes from the center of town. It is reasonably priced, provides a turn down service with a chocolate on the pillow and a pretty decent breakfast.

I walked out, looking for a local Sim card. Don’t go by what web sites seem to proclaim about tourist Sim cards with great deals. Those are difficult to find. Get a local whatever Sim to ensure you have telephony, internet would be available in your hotel. 

This area of Donji Grad has a different feel, with neighbors talking to each other, petunias on windows, some dereliction, coffee bars with friends smoking over coffee or a beer, some super markets.

 

 Many of the walls are covered with rather artistic graffiti. Check my facebook post on the same subject and some other interesting images.

 You get the drift. 

As I ambled around, I visited the railway station for a short while. In front of the station is a large park at the end of which is the Opera house. 


There is this ancient hotel, the Esplanade next door which was used by the passengers of the Orient Express which used to stop at Zagreb. The railway station has a quaint feel to it, some buildings from the early 20th century and some rectangular non description ones from the communist era.

There is a small railway museum here too.

Later in the night, I stepped out to get to the main square, with the famous equestrian statue. Found a busker, playing out a very familiar tune.

You will recognize it too. Very often, I find the quality of buskers in western towns often betray the cultural standards of a city. Classical music, if you find, is a good sign.

Ban Jelačić Square is officially known as Trg bana Jelačića, is colloquially called Jelačić plac. This is where the young of Zagreb seem to  hang out, and most tours start from. This is a good place to see Zagreb’s famous blue trams including the old heritage  ones.

Incidentally, the day before, 11th April, marked the anniversary of Croatia’s declaration of independence by a puppet regime, in 1941. These are a handful of people, a bit of an embarrassment to the populace who celebrated the event. The group gathered at Jelačić square.

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Touch down Croatia / Hrvatska

Ever read Alistair MacLean novels, as a young adult or even later? He wrote one called ‘The Partisans’, which I read while in senior school. Never mind what that story was about, but the setting was former Yugoslavia. Exotic sounding Zagreb, Mostar, Sarajevo, Graz, Zadar etc which became infamous later during the Serbo-Croat-Bosnian conflict. Somewhere along the line a city whose name started with a Z, sure did pique some interest in me and that interest to get there, sometime in life, remained.
Just before getting my shackles removed, closing my eyes and forefinger jabbing a map of Europe pointed roughly to Croatia. What shackles, you ask. Ah, but that is a story for another day.

Dealt with the Croatian embassy for a Visa. Have never figured why such seemingly immigration risk insignificant countries need such amazing amount of paperwork to issue a tourist visa and why do they charge so much? Am I about to illegally migrate…to Croatia? Not as if there is a large bunch Indians traveling to Croatia either.

 

Meanwhile, getting tickets on miles from British Airways was as much a bitch as it always has been. Can’t fly through here, not from there, not on this day, not on that, not in economy, not this airline etc etc. Getting some workable, but inconvenient combination is akin to expecting a singularity type event to happen and a space time continuum portal, to the other dimension,​ open up. So they routed me through LHR, but couldn’t find me a miles seat to Zagreb. That is supposed to be my destination, you see. In any case, my return trip on miles and paid LHR->ZAG ends up costing more than flying economy to ZAG and back.

The travel day from finally arrived. BA seems to have fallen on bad times. Their planes lack upkeep, the service borders now on surly, the food is just plain bad. Their Twitter CS team is callous in approach as well.

If you are flying short-haul economy, then you pay for food. Their central software system crashes, and disables online check-in too.

But, still interesting things happen. There are things happening everyday which make one gleeful. Finally the app based check-in today morning, self baggage drop and tag printing, and touch less card swipe on board for a coffee. Technology, when it works, is sheer magic.

Then this beautiful innovation of filter coffee in this cup with a cloth net filter.

Why didn’t someone think of this earlier?

Visible sunrises are still a delight. Even more so in England.

And then, John Cleese is going to be back on the tube; so reports The Telegraph.

…And touch down into sunny Zagreb. After a long line at immigration and a (fleecing) taxi drive, here is the view from my upgraded room

More on Zagreb and Croatia as I travel through next some days…

Fontainhas, Goa

Touching nostalgia in ‘Bairro das Fontainhas’

All this started while planning for a class reunion in Goa. The thought was to extend the trip on the back of this reunion, and indulge my amateur hobby of being behind the lens. Goa is overrun with tourists and photographers and there isn’t really anything new to shoot. But, just a little bit of research revealed this old Portuguese quarter of Fontainhas in Panjim. It is visited enough, but not enough. It is somewhat touristy, but quiet. If you see what I mean.

The visit was in last April, and quite out of the tourist season. Booking a hotel is easy if you do it early enough. In-season rates are obscene, but quite reasonable in April. Because I wanted to shoot in Fontainhas, I chose La Maison Fontainhas, right inside the quarter. It all started very unpleasantly (read review based on this experience), but the hotel itself is nice and some of the staff are nice. Temper your expectations down a bit, compared to the Tripadvisor reviews you read, and you will be alright. Don’t go by the response (from the hotel) to adverse feedback. But, this post isn’t about the hotel.

The once Latin quarter, is borderd by the Ourem creek on one side and the Altinho hill on the other. It has a relaxed old world feel, bordering on 19th century Mediterranean Europe muddled with (perhaps) a Konkani way of life. The Fountain of Phoenix, from which Fontainhas takes its name, can still be seen near the Maruti Temple in the Mala area. The settlement came to being somewhere early 18th Century, and was caused by a Goan expat (read its history). Most of the houses here are more than a hundred years old; some of them have been converted to galleries, cafes, and boutique hotels.

The place has somewhat been frozen in time in the way it appears, but tries to meld into the 21st century. The houses are still painted brightly (mostly) and add a splash of colour whichever way you look. But, you step out of this enclave, and you have the usual hustle bustle of the rest of Panaji.

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Imagine my surprise when I peeped in through the broken pane of a decrepit old house and and old lady peered back at me. Surprised, I could just mumble “Good Morning, Ma’am” and step back.

By the time I started walking about to shoot at at seven in morning, the sun was already up and it was warm and humid. The neighbourhood had just started waking up. The pav-wallah, had just started their early morning round going to designated houses, selling pav from their blue plastic sheet covered baskets on the back of their bicycles. The pav-wallah seemed like a morning alarm for the neighbourhood. He goes (as is the tradition in Goa) from house to house and rings is bicycle bell. Momentarily the door of the house is opened, by the residents, morning pleasantries exchanged and some pav handed over.

People just about had started opening the windows of their homes. But, few had yet stepped out. Some had started cleaning up the front sitouts, and washing them.

Fontainhas is a  beguiling neighbourhood with colonial quirks, throwing up pleasant surprises in every corner. As I walked around, I chanced up Anita Tea house and ventured in. Place has maybe eight tables, and able to seat may be 20 people at the most. It might have been, say eight in the morning and the tea house was busy serving tea, pav and bhaji. The bhaji looked and tasted something like usal. I sat around stuffing my face and drinking tea. Person sitting next to me got interested in my camera equipment and we got chatting. He was one of the local newspaper delivery people, who had stopped by for tea after his morning rounds.

The winding streets are an invitation to walk around and explore. I dipped into alleyways which looped back into themselves and chanced upon little shrines with candles or little LED lights. The names of the streets, most of them, are still in Portuguese. The arterial street is called Rua de 31 Janeira signifies the Portugese day of independence from Spain, in 1640. Then there is this 18th June road named after day, the civil disobedience movement (for freedom from Portuguese rule) was started by Ram Manohar Lohia and Dr Menezes

Little door painted at the bottom of a wall

Little door painted at the bottom of a wall. May be 3″ X 5″ in all.

Fontainhas, being relatively cleaner than rest of Panjim is evident, is a community with an interesting mix of Konkani speaking Hindus, and Portuguese and English speaking Christians. The Maruti (Hanuman) temple flanks the enclave. Right in the middle is the St. Sebastian Chapel (built in 1818), and right next to it is a “Sai Niwas”. The fringes of the quarter seem to blend into other cultures and what is the rest of Panjim.

Reviews and travelogues paint a picture more steeped in yore than Fontainhas is. Mario Miranda’s amazing sketches show scenes of time that isn’t anymore; Dalrymple’s description of streets full of VW Beetles, violinists heard from every other window, senior citizens in linen etc. don’t hold anymore. Faux historian Dalrymple visited Fontainhas in the early nineties, and that is not what the place feels like anymore. But, that doesn’t make it any less interesting. It is a delightful mix of the old world, and Kinetic Hondas, zooming motorcycles, people walking briskly to work, some backpackers frequenting the one cafe and restaurants and sleepy dogs. Yet the place is laid back, and lets you wind down.

Cafe Chodankar

Or find a place which asks you to F***. Not really, that is a local last name that many people carry.

By the time, I was done with my morning shoot I looped back to Anita Tea house for another cup. It was already shut for the day. Given where this place is, even it shutter is coloured bright orange.

The humidity was energy sapping, and after an early lunch I did as the Goans do. siesta. Felt hungry when I woke up late in the afternoon. Asking the receptionist wasn’t much help. Kinda pretty and dumb, at the same time. So, I walked out to Urban Cafe which I did notice in the morning though it wasn’t open at that time. Is a yuppie /backpacker visited cafe with a relaxed (surprise) feel about it. They had an electricity problem and did not have much to offer in terms of eats. After a coffee, I strolled out to the side of Fontainhas away from the creek to find bakeries. Later in the evening and next day I found a bunch of restaurants and cafes within a kilometer or so. Udupi place, Konkani sea food, pizza (decent one, by the way) and good Goan food.

As I walked about in the evening, went up the hill, went out to the water front and trudged back. Lost my way, grabbed some food instead and found my way back. Place is safe, and there are enough people on the streets till fairly late in the night.

I Ate dinner than night at Viva Panjim. There are boards everywhere in and around Fontainhas and you won’t miss the place though it is in an alleyway. It is a restaurant in an old house, with a little sitout. Beer, chicken liver fry, and a fish curry with rice. Generous servings, amazing taste. Heaven.

Go there to feel the world of yore, experience the cafes, the small boutique hotels,  and the warmth of the people. But, also for things which belong to that land, and non-Portuguese. Locate Anita Tea house there. Enjoy the company of locals, local food, warmth for about next to nothing.

Quick Facts

Places to Stay : Three WelcomHeritage Panjim properties, and Le Maison Fontainhas (at your own risk). There are some other hostels, and guest houses which I wouldn’t really recommend.

Food: Anita Tea Stall, Black Sheep Bistro, Viva Panjim, restaurants at the WelcomHeritage properties, Urban Cafe, Vihar (Udupi restaurant), the Caravela Cafe (good pizza)  and various others in and around Panjim.

You can see some of what I shot here, and then on flickr.

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cup of tea

End of Tea as some of us knew it

Tea, historians say, arrived from China and went all the way to England somewhere in the 17th century and it took another 100 years for black tea to become the norm. The British East India Company brought the tea to the subcontinent early in the nineteenth century and started large scale production in Assam. A hundred years hence, somewhere in the 1920s, did tea become a recreational drink in our country.

Tea is a herb. There, I said it. Because it is, there is a way of preparing it. It needs to be, as you know,  made in a warm pot (if heavy ceramic or stoneware) with boiling water (somewhere 85oC – 95oC for black tea) splashed on the waiting tea leaves and allowing the leaves to brew for a bit. The hot water torture is what wakes the tea leaves up.


But, of course, most Indians make it differently. The usual concoction is tea leaves being boiled with water, milk and sugar till the end of time. Try this in a hill town, or up in the mountains in cold weather. Tastes like heaven.


Tea isn’t really what it was. I exaggerate, but no one seems to know how to make tea anymore. And this is a global phenomenon. Yes, global. Alas, the tea drinking experience has been violated beyond repair.

First – The convenient but rubbish habit of using a tea bag. Needless to say, the now ubiquitous tea bag was invented (though accidentally) in America; like most other time saving devices. (I am so sorry for you, if you are a tea-bag-liking person) Tea bags, regardless of what type of tea they may contain, are rarely full leaves but broken, granules or really left overs. Broken leaves and granules can never ever produce the taste, flavour, body or the aroma that loose leaf tea made the right way can. Admittedly, there are loose leaf tea bags but those are few and far between.

America has still not figured how to drink tea; Tea arrives separately – a cup of warm water, and a tea bag on the side. Sorry, that doesn’t do it. But, that way of serving tea seems to be catching on everywhere. Recently, I was served tea just like that in a hotel lounge (part of an old Indian chain) by the sea in Bombay. Seriously?

Another aside – no, drinking green tea does no additional good to you. Don’t fall prey to the lobby propaganda which wants you to drink green tea because they can differentiate and sell it costlier. Same anti-oxidants are present in black tea as well. And green tea is a wuss drink in any case, without any character.

 

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Second – Chamomile Tea, Raspberry Tea, Jasmine Tea, Lemongrass Tea, Lavender Tea etc. are not really teas. So, please don’t call them that. These are other herbal or fruit infusions which need to be similarly hydrated before consumption.

Third – has to be just basic human stupidity. Remember the curious case of the McDonald’s coffee incident? What that did was reduce the temperature of every hot beverage served in restaurants, especially drive-throughs across the world. You never know which Darwin award aspirant might hold a cup of hot coffee between his / her legs in a moving car, open the lid the wrong way and spill coffee on his / her groin. What also got impacted were coffee / hot water making machines in offices. The machines just don’t dispense water hot enough to brew tea in, anymore. So, you can choose to put a tea bag into the tepid water but it will float obstinately till you shove it down with a spoon and hope the water will turn a turbid colour of whatever. No more bold and robust brown, no more instant aroma of an English breakfast, Darjeeling or an Earl Grey.

Tea isn’t the same anymore

Coffins of felled soldiers

The degeneration of media, and #maggiban

It really is true that who holds the power to disseminate information, holds the power to move human sentiment. Happens in every country, happens every day. In fact there was even a Bond movie made grossly on this subject.

The fact that the media in our country, at least most of it, is completely sold to causes nefarious is now a foregone conclusion. It chooses to show you what it wants to, what will catch more eyeballs, or what will raise TRPs and thus get more advertising. Hence you have the neurotic Goswami, or diabolic Dutt being stalwarts.

Take what is happening today for instance.

Nestle’s CEO Paul Bulcke has had to travel to India to save his brand, after lead was discovered in Maggi. The company is trying to do damage control. Media can’t get enough of it. Reluctantly, Nestle started doing a recall, but was prompt in lending support to actors who had endorsed the brand previously. Complete morons like Mahesh Murthy tweet “Nestle India market cap drops by Rs.5,500 cr. Dear VPs of Marketing, now do you see the value of hiring a good digital & social firm?” Must be f*#$@%g mad. In which world did brand protection become more important than consumer safety? In Muthy’s world perhaps.

Then, the who hullabaloo about yoga day. अरे बाबा , if your religion gets bothered by exercise, don’t do it. Why does the nation have to know your opinion and why do we have to watch endless, nauseating debates on the subject? But, switch on a tv news channel and this is what you get to watch.

What the TV channels won’t spend time on is the fact that 20 soldiers of the Dogra Regiment got killed in an insurgent ambush in Manipur. The newspapers use some space to talk about this. No imagery to talk about. Have you seen images of the burnt bodies of the soldiers? Likely not. But there are images of Paul Bulcke. Did you notice that even his initials are Pb? Heck, I digress.

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The media however, protects its own and whoever pays to be protected. Certainly you remember the entire scam that Barkha Dutta was embroiled in and how TV media provided no coverage on the subject. Similarly, do you remember the circumstances that Ravi Venkatesan resigned from being the country head of Microsoft India? Remember the scam that the top leadership of Microsoft was (allegedly) involved in (along with counterparts in HCL)? Yeah? Now, try to find a news item on the web which talks about Venkatesan’s implicit /moral involvement in the scam. You won’t. Today, Venkatesan has resurrected himself as a social entrepreneur able to talk from a high pedestal. Right! That is what you can do if you can get media to work for you.

Complete morons like Mahesh Murthy tweet “Nestle India market cap drops by Rs.5,500 cr. Dear VPs of Marketing, now do you see the value of hiring a good digital & social firm?” Must be f*#$@%g mad. In which world did brand protection become more important than consumer safety?

A few days back, 104FM in Bangalore ran a program where they were asking for public opinion on the Maggi ban. The RJ made fun of the state governments’ concern, the recall, the bans and kept mentioning that Maggi will be back. Really? So may be Mahesh Murthy was wrong, and Nestle is already spending money sponsoring radio channels.

Bottom line, if you have a powerful spread out fifth column working in the country, why do you need enemies?

Do you feel as outraged about this as I do? Write.

Sondesh (সন্দেশ ), and its history – my hypothesis

Bhim Nag

Bhim Nag’s sweet shop in Calcutta. Sondesh was made famous in the last century by these guys and Sir Ashutosh, but as far as the present goes…they have seen better days.

Trust a Bengali to write paeans about sweets. It is equally interesting to dip into the genesis of a rosogolla or a rosomalai. What I have found however, is a lack of history of the sondesh (সন্দেশ ) ; the sweet any Bengali sweet shop worth its salt sugar would like to be known for. K C Das in Bangalore does not make sondesh. Do they count as a Bengali sweet shop then? Never mind, I digress, that is a story for another time.

Sondesh, as many of us know, is made of chhana (cottage cheese) kneaded till softness, sugared somewhere in the process and then put through a die to give it a shape. Many of us would also know that there is a harder (কড়া পাক – Kodha Paak) form of the sweet, and a softer one (নরম পাক – Norom Paak). It is usually sweetened with sugar; but during winters sugar is replaced with date palm jaggery. Some forms of sondesh are also steamed. Oh well, you know all that.

So, here is my hypothesis on the birth (or should I say evolution) of the Sondesh.

Name – We Bengalis pronounce the “अ ” with a rosogolla in our mouth as the way you would pronounce “au” (as in aurum). Okay, so the word is सन्देश . In at least Sanskrit, Hindi or Bangla the word means “message”. However, the word is not really used in Bangla. The word used is Bārtā (বার্তা). Ergo, there is a potential for the word to have crept in from a different language and culture. The one culture which does use the word “sandesa” (संदेसा ) is the Rajasthani one.

Timeline – If that logic holds, then from a timeline perspective the first (?) intense brush with Rajasthani culture would have been during the period of Mughals (somewhere late 16th century). During Raja Jai Singh’s time for sure, could have been earlier (with the other Muslim dynasties which ruled Bengal). This could also have been during Sher Shah’s rule, who did create the basic administrative structure that India still uses. But, there is little evidence of Rajasthani influence in Bengal at that time (before Akbar, that is).

Name again – So, if we are talking about a message indiao367aand from the Mughal period, why would a sweet be named message? What might it have to do with a message? Let’s recall for a moment how messages were sent those days. We did not have a postal system to talk about. Kings, nawabs and other administrative officers (subedars, jahagirdars, mansabdars etc.) did however have messengers who traveled long distances on foot, or rode horseback. There is a theory which talks about sondesh being sent from the (message) sender to receiver. That doesn’t really make too much sense, because one would want the messenger to get to wherever he needs to, as quickly as possible. Wouldn’t want to increase load. Could it have been that these messengers carried the sondesh with them as their own food? Clearly the messengers needed nourishment which wasn’t bulky to carry, would keep for longish time, provide energy and nutrition. What better than sondesh which is a gunk of protein, some fat, and sugar?

Form

There is a types of sondeshproblem with the type of sondesh. The norom paak would not do because it does not keep very well. It needs to be a drier (thus harder) form which does keep well over time. All good so far, and the theory does seem to hold to logic. But, there is no reason why the messengers of Rajasthani (or Mughal) administrators would use sondesh made out of chhana. Chhana isn’t used to make any of the milk based sweets which originated in northern parts of the country.

Birth / Evolution

I submit, that the precursor would have been something like a pedha (पेढा). Sound familiar? Pedha would work okay because it is sweet, and made of milk. Three problems with that though. One, its not a sweet which is light on the stomach. Too many of these will sit in your stomach like a lump of lead. Second, again is that in the humid climate of Bengal, it certainly won’t last long. And finally that khoya (made by thickening milk) is not used in any regular Bengali sweet and thus might have been difficult to produce or source in those days. Chhana should however have been available in plenty. A pedha transformed and made with chhana could be a sondesh, no? It then might also be possible that norom paak sondesh was made first, and that evolved to a kodha paak type through experimentation.

Does that hold to your logic, and historical reasoning? Do you happen to know more about this than what I have written here or do you have another theory? I would be delighted to know (as much as biting into a sondesh).