Stroll in a cemetery that is worth a thousand pictures

Zagreb’s most surprising architectural gem…

Lovingly encased within seven acres of lush landscaped gardens, Miragoj Cemetery figures as one the top 20 must-visit places in the Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. The final resting place of 300,000 souls from diverse religions, created by architect Hermann Bollé, is one of Europe’s most beautiful cemeteries. 

A mere 10-minute bus journey from Kaptol in Zagreb’s Upper Town will take you conveniently to this remarkable landmark. The ogling will commence even as you roll along that endless, monumental brick wall draped with green-red ivy leaves. And as you cross the street towards the entrance, you will have to peel your eyes away from the 20 gorgeous onion-shaped lime-green onion cupolas crowning the wall. Be careful not to stub your toe on the sidewalk or knock over a dustbin. Indulge your eyes with the sight of the central dome of the Church of Christ the King that dominates the entryway. More drama waits to unfold inside.

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Beyond the gate, for nearly a half a mile to the left and right, lies a stunning Neo-Renaissance arcade. Pause at the elegant archway visible through the thick clumps of ivy carpeting the wall and let your eyes travel all the way to the end of the arcade. Your feet will guide you further. Impossible to resist a closer look at those decorative tiled floors, fine cast-iron lanterns, carved columns and graceful statues….all classic reminders of a museum! Pinch yourself as a reminder…this is a cemetery!

As you step outside to admire the entire structure yet again, consider the miracle…all this survived the massive earthquake of 1880, when more than 1700 houses in the neighbourhood were heavily damaged!

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But the real treasure of Miragoj lies in its sprawling gardens. What a stroke of genius that the city council not only acquired this stunning property from Ljudevit Gaj (Croatian reformer and poet), for use as a cemetery in 1872, but also retained and expanded the green expanses. 

Stroll along the numerous walking paths of this magnificent park to experience it in all its glory. Trace the shadows as the sun plays hide-and-seek under the tall chestnut, lime, maple and spruce trees. Find the birds that chirrup from among the dense bunches of leaves and feel the gentle breeze that ruffles your hair.

Chapels and mausoleums lie scattered around. Scan the lanes and lanes of graves, big and small, some enclosed within decorative grills, some with steps leading up, some mentioning multiple names of family members. Some graced with candles and flowers left by loving family and friends. Others as if they had been unvisited since years. You may identify tombstones of Franjo Tuđman, the first president of the Republic of Croatia, basketball player Drazen Petrovic. Many prominent citizens including poets, scientists, writers and politicians, are also buried here. 

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Depending on how you look at it, the walk is calming or disturbing. You certainly cannot ignore the fact that its a burial ground. Thousands and thousands of graves, spread over acres of lovely gardens. You wonder if visitors ever get lost in here…there don’t seem to be many directions or signboards. 

When you finally exit the Cemetery gate, maybe you will encounter a hearse arriving quietly, accompanied by a procession of solemn faces. The guard at the gate will ring a rope-bell to announce their arrival. You wait for them to pass through and the overriding thought in your mind is this. Miragoj is peaceful, artistic and graceful…like the rest of the city. And why not? The deceased deserve it!

 

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Miragoj Cemetery, as one the top 20 must-visit places in the Croatia’s capital, Zagreb

 

The curious case of the immortal European square

Six sides of the square…

What’s the single-most universal impression you carry home from European cities? For me, it has to be timelessness. Translated: continuity. And one of the best examples is reflected is the enigmatic town square. 

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Get arty at Piazza della Signoria, Florence

The European square offers the most scintillating peep into the fascinating big picture connecting the past with the present. Starting with the 6th-century Agora of Greece, public spaces have spread across the continent as everlasting symbols of the past. The Forum or Piazza (Italy), Markt (Netherlands), Place (France) Praça (Portugal), Platz (Germany), Námesti (Czech), Rynek (Poland) or Trg (Croatia), may be identified by different names, but their essence binds them together. Have you noticed the six common recurring themes that I have mapped out?

Of the heart and soul

The one common place that dominates the map of any city or town in Europe is the Old Town. And at the nerve centre of the Old Town, you’re sure to pin down the biggest draw…the inevitable town square, reverberating with original character. Traditional architecture, historic cafes, local specialities, explosion of arts-crafts and culture overload, all in a fully-pedestrian zone. Its literally like walking into a time capsule. Follow that human stream if you lose your way… 

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Outstanding Flemish architecture in Burg Square, Bruges  
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Savour lunch in the shadow of the Heiliggeistkirche Cathedral at Marktplatz, Heidelberg
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A ride into the past at Grote Markt, Antwerp
Designed for drama

There’s always the surprise element. Narrow, winding cobbled streets that end in a small entry, often an archway. Cross the threshold, and boom….you’re in a sunny, airy, wide open courtyard enclosed with medieval buildings on all sides. Walled in on four directions, with the sky as a ceiling, this sudden contrast of spaces can take a while to adjust to. But you love it, don’t you? What’s not to love?  

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Window to the world of Nazare’s main square
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Peek into Piazza Umberto I, Capri
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Generously proportioned Praça do Comércio, Lisbon
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Be seen at the celebrated Piazza San Marco, Venice
Star attraction

Look around for a unique feature, or an emblem from the past. You can’t miss it. Often, its a grand monument like a cathedral and a town hall (mostly both), a towering memorial, a fountain, or statue. Most of these squares, after all, have lineage in the medieval age, nearly 2000 years ago, when these were the central areas for religious, political, social and commercial gatherings. Even coronations and executions! 

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Age-old legacy

Public squares of the yesteryears continue to retain their glory as chosen sites for annual festivals, national celebrations, art performances and political protests in their cities even today. It is truly incredible how age-old traditions and rituals have not just survived, but also thrived through these squares scattered all over Europe. Nearly every event happens in a legendary square. They’re almost earmarked for this purpose. 

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Social hotspot, then to now

Squares have always been hubs for people to commune, gather, converse, collaborate, feel part of a social milieu. Ubiquitous canopied cafes line the sides. People bask in the sun, converse, drink and dine in the peaceful traffic-free zone, sheltered from the bustling web of streets around. Cutlery clinks, children feed pigeons, band of performers engage the crowds, outdoor exhibits liven up the area. Its one massive living room and you’re part of the guest list! Amid carousels and wedding shoots… 

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Square, you said?

The shape of a ‘square’ is defined by the buildings that surround it. Despite being rectangular, circular, oval, hexagon or even completely irregular, it still magically remains a square! Find a vantage point high above for observation, ideally the tower of a cathedral. There’s bound to be one in the vicinity, if not in the square itself.  

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Get over the fact that its oval. Lucca’s Piazza dell’Anfiteatro was once a colosseum
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Grandeur oozes from every pillar of the colonnades at the semi-circular St. Peter’s Square, Vatican

Modest or grandiose, hidden or legendary, blink-and-miss or monumental, in Europe, you would have to think twice before concluding that a square is a square is a square. It was here yesterday, is here today, and will certainly be here tomorrow too! 

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Treasure hunt for the most exquisite hidden havelis

Beauties and bounties in the bylanes of Bikaner…

“You won’t be able to find them on your own.” The hotel manager dismisses our valiant declaration of self-exploration with a mysterious smile. “I’ll arrange an auto rickshaw to guide you. The lanes are too narrow for a car.” Intrigue levels: brim high.

Our driver, Wali, nods knowingly, when I show him the google pictures in my phone. We climb into the well-padded back seat of our colourful three-wheel drive towards the oldest part of the city. At 11 am, its still a lazy morning in the marketplace. Steamy curls rising from chai cups, brooms swooshing across verandahs and biscuit-laden carts rumbling along to designated spots. The man stirring hot milk at Ramji Ghewar Wale sweet shop seems absent-minded…still not fully awake yet?  

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Revealing rare treasures in the house of God

Brace yourself for a spectacle at the Siena Duomo…

Digital familiarity is a far cry from the real thing. And no amount of images can prepare you enough for this fascinating walled city built on three hills in the heart of Tuscany. Siena is bound to spring like a charming surprise onto your unsuspecting traveling soul…and reserve its own tiny corner forever. This dawned upon us the moment our cab entered one of the city gates and started navigating a curvy, concentric, seemingly confusing route through a tight maze of solid stone-and-brick palazzos spread over 170 hectares.

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Do you know who was madly jealous of the Pope’s powerful palace?

A tale of rivalry and royalty at Avignon…

As you near the ramparts of the fortified old town, you will know why it’s considered the prettiest town of Provence. Entering one of the seven gates of the 4.3 km medieval ramparts punctuated by 39 towers, you are transported into a fairytale. Aptly deserving of its UNESCO world heritage site status, Avignon’s one-half mile wide and long historic centre has a unique soul…and it will connect with you…subtle, but sure.

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Do you know of the glorious Gloriette?

Pretend to be Austrian royalty…

If you’re smitten by lavish and ostentatious heritage of Vienna, you’re bound to fall in love with Schonbrunn Palace. The summer retreat of the Habsburg royals is a worthy candidate for travellers with a cultural bent of mind, as well those who lust after perfection in garden landscaping.

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A city risen from the ashes

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Resurrection and resplendence in Dresden…

Crossing the bridge across the Elbe River, you will be stunned by this Jewel of Baroque. Tall elegant spires and lavish domes dominating a gorgeous skyline of extravagant architecture all along the tranquil leafy banks of the river, and the unassuming arches of the Augustus Bridge, as if frozen in time while leapfrogging across! If the picture postcard perfection of this first view hasn’t quite moved you, try this. This ornamental town, called the Florence on the Elbe, was almost razed to the ground during WW II. But it survived. And rose to its former glory. Resurrected. Reborn. Rebuilt. And how!

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