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Shades of the Past

The best way to explore a new place is to walk across its back lanes, streets and nooks and corners, writes Annie Datta in her column From the Varsity.

india Updated: Oct 08, 2005 17:23 IST

To be able to really know a place one ought to have the time, the leisure and the ability to deviate from one's focussed routine. The best way to explore a new place is to walk across its back lanes, streets and unfamiliar nooks and corners. Any number of mental blocks has to be overcome before a place truly discloses itself.

Imagine having left a modern concrete structure to arrive suddenly in an altogether different setting. We were looking for a place to eat and came across a traditional tavern. It was crowded, noisy and uninviting. The hesitation to enter lasted only a few minutes. Soon we became part of the crowd amidst the clank and clatter of service and equally sharp human voices. We literally wedged ourselves into a 'real' Portuguese clientele. A prototype usually visible at small village parties or huddled together somewhere in the plains of Alentejo. Alternatively you meet such figures in familiar TV serials.

Calendars, a rare sight today, decorated a part of the tavern wall. There was house wine from wooden barrels to accompany traditional Portuguese food. Here one felt free to talk loudly or demand extra rice or molho. Every few minutes a stocky figure with puffed up cheeks and a big moustache would enter the swinging saloon doors. He could be easily mistaken as someone from a Hollywood Wild West film what with a wide-brimmed hat and studied gait. A type usually identified with pub-crawling.

Recalling the lunch afterwards was almost the opposite of what one had apprehended. It was enjoyable to say the least. Curiosity is the first step to learning. This particular tavern O Manel had the words Bota Abaixo in parenthesis. This led one to make inquiries. Luckily the person next door was the same who had lunched with us on an adjacent table. He explained the meaning of the term. This was once the site of houses that no longer exist. Yards away a half razed structure spoke of a vast grandeur even in a state of dilapidated isolation. A signboard announces the imminent arrival of the metro -- both a bane and boon of modern cities.

One is however hurriedly assured by a group of walkers that it might take another sixty or seventy years to realise. The people here see reality differently from behind sceptical and ageing frames. One could relax safe in the knowledge that this fading grandeur from another time was under no immediate threat. The entire Rua Direita, as the street is called, is a block of heritage houses with age-old taverns and barber shops. There are buildings where time has stopped. Their dark interiors show the way to another era. The Rua opens onto a praça with a church front. A wing of the same church has become a cafeteria. A fountain with alternating spouts of water helps make a beautiful transition to another Coimbra, unparalleled in beauty and bearing comparison to the best cities of the world.

The way a seeker after beauty tracks light, a person in search of historical truths and temporal parentage tracks time. Time is a great link between civilizations and relates cities that are far apart. Such relations are just being discovered. Once upon a time, cultures and continents remained aloof due to climate, geography and overall ignorance. Half eaten doors on Rua Direita reveal stairways that lead to some familiar place in memory. So many associations are touched off by peeping into one such half-blocked interior. A lone half-lit shop selling fruits and flowers highlights the sickness of shopping in ultra modern hypermarkets. The cluster of houses in this part of Coimbra is old and dilapidated but all gold from the point of view of heritage.

First Published: Oct 08, 2005 00:00 IST