Rome’s Never-Ending Charm

Rome was a live theatre. Whistling lotharios passed me by, chic women kicked their heels and rested tired feet in sidewalk cafés, the carabinieri dipped into pots of gelato (the Italian police too need their share of happiness), Rastafarians plied their trade of rainbow coloured beads and men spray painted canvases on streets with fascinated bystanders looking on. Some wove carpets in quiet alleys. Others sold cones of piping hot chestnuts. Not to overlook the old man with the accordion and the woman with the cello at street corners, or the young boy’s raspy crooning of the same song over and over again to the strumming of his guitar.

Modern day Romans set the tone for Roma as they lovingly refer to their city.

Just as effortlessly ancient Rome steps into the fray. The Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Pantheon ratchet up the quotient of its rich past. The ruins encapsulate in them the pagan past of the city when Roman emperors stomped around in hauteur; of bloodthirsty crowds and gladiatorial combats that the Romans indulged in, inspired by the Etruscans who ruled ancient Roma; and the initials SPQR that appear carved in historic walls in tribute to the Roman Republic. Senatus Populusque Romanus is Latin for The Roman Senate and People which came into existence in 510 BC after the rape of a genteel woman called Lucretia.

Even the alleys in the historic districts of the city exude atmosphere. It was difficult for me to imagine that once upon a time Rome used to be a crowded city, dirty, smelly and filled with beggars and slaves. The masses in the city meant that Julius Caesar forbade the use of carts during the day. So, the nights used to be noisy with horses clattering down its cobbled lanes, drawing carts laden with goods.

The heart of gladiatorial activity. The Colosseum.

On a bus heading to the southern coastline of Italy, I met a Hollywood film distributor. She was meeting her girlfriends for a hiking holiday. We were heading to a picture-postcard location, yet the moment I mentioned Rome, she went into raptures.

The first night, when we made our way to the hotel in Rome passing by ancient gates and monuments bathed in golden hues under the halogen of the street lights, my bus friend’s words came back to me.

The historic centre of Rome is crowned by the smallest city-state in the world and the bedrock of the Catholic faith.

The Vatican was a step back for me into the world that I had a glimpse of through the historical-fiction drama show, The Borgias, many moons ago. Actor Jeremy Irons plays Rodrigo Borgia, the ambitious patriarch of the Borgia family who became a pope in the 15th century through avarice and simony. Tales of incest, bribery, assassinations, poisoning, adultery, theft are a legacy of Rodrigo Borgia’s reign as Pope Alexander VI, yet the Borgias were determined patrons of Renaissance art. That comes through in the group of six rooms that make up the Borgia Apartments inside the Vatican. They were sealed off after Alexander VI’s death because the Borgia family was quite despised for all their many intrigues.

The Sistine Chapel was spellbinding. The Last Judgment by Michelangelo and the Renaissance frescos by Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Roselli send you into a trance which not even the guards in chapel can break with their spiel of ‘no photography’ and stern shushes issued from time to time.

Beyond admiring the papal residence and St Peter’s Basilica, I was taken in by the costumes of the papal Swiss guards in their doublets, flat white collars, breeches, boots and black berets. They were straight out of the sets of a costume drama. Yet they are as real as the Honour Guard who stands within the Pantheon. When I beheld the Honour Guard in his capacious robe and beret keeping guard inside the temple, next to a huge guest book where people seemed to be diligently putting down their signatures, I was mystified. It turns out that he is a voluntary guard, a part of an institution called the Honour Guard to the Royal Tombs of the Pantheon, that has been keeping watch for about 130-odd years over the tombs of the Savoy Kings who ruled Italy. One of these kings was King Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of unified Italy. But the Savoy family was exiled in 1948 from the country for supporting the Fascist Mussolini and then not only falling in line with his anti-Semitic laws but also fleeing German-occupied Rome for Puglia.  The ban has been lifted since 2002 but the chequered tales of the current heirs are enough for the family never to recover their tainted reputation.

The Pantheon and I.

When River Tiber showed up, so did the cylindrical Castel Sant’Angelo along with the bluish bronze statue of archangel Michael standing atop the castle. The archangel cut quite a militant figure with his sword and there are many legends about him, one of which is related to pagan worship in the city and the destruction of pagan sites by Pope Gregory I.

The original structure of the castle had been erected by emperor Hadrian (of Hadrian’s Wall fame) as his mausoleum. It did contain the ashes of Hadrian and his family members till it was looted during the 410 AD Sacking of Rome by Alaric, king of the Visigoths.

Now, the Rome that you see in the films and its iconic edifices of the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain are thronged by crowds. In the blistering summers when it is inevitable that one should get baked slowly but surely, one needs an escape route from the numbers. During the sultry midday hours, we therefore indulged in long walks through the leafy atmospheric quarters of Rome, away from the crowds.

One noon we had a beautiful view of the domes and campaniles in the city from the Gianicolo, the Janiculum Hill that is scattered with references to one of Italy’s battles for independence when in 1849 Garibaldi and his army had defeated French troops. At the top of the hill, we soaked our feet in the icy cold waters of the 17th century Fontana dell’Acqua Paola or the Gianicolo fountain and the tiredness of the day was washed away in its white marbled glory.

The Trevi Fountain. It is really more crowded.
The fountain on Janiculum Hill.
Roofs. A Roman vista.

Further exploration led us into the cobbled streets of the Trastevere neighbourhood, dotted with rustic osterie and trattorias that serve up cacio e pepe and traditional paper-thin Roman pizzas. Old basilicas show up in its alleys and more vine-clad eateries pop up on the sidewalks where people seem to have all the time in the world for noshing and the good things of life. We sat in a quiet alley and gorged on pizzas and then tucked into some fabulous gluten-free gelato from Fatamorgana, one of the hip n’ happening gelatarias in Rome. It does have a quirky range of flavours. Sample this: Goat cheese and coconut, black cherries and beer and chocolate-tobacco flavours.

A short walk from the Trastavere is a little island on the Tiber, Isola Tiberina. In times of antiquity, a temple of Asclepius (ancient Greek god of health and well-being) stood on the island but it is home today to the Fatebenefratelli Hospital. When the Nazis occupied Rome in 1943 and started rounding up Jews, Dr. Giovanni Borromeo, a surgeon at the hospital, saved Jews by putting them into a ward that he labelled “Il Morbo di K” (K disease or tuberculosis), a highly contagious illness that kept the SS away.

Early evenings meant aperitivo o’ clock. Cooling off with camparis and beers in sidewalk bars became a ritual for us.  Aperitivos, in my books, are the best of all Italian rituals apart from the gelato and the paper thin pizzas. The idea behind the aperitivo concept is that post work when you are hungry, you grab a drink and sate the appetite with a buffet of little snacks. One of our favourite spots for aperitivos was on Via dei Banchi Vecchi.

Off the Ponte Sant’Angelo on the Tiber, the Via dei Banchi Vecchi is a street that has been named after the bankers who lived and worked there. It has Renaissance buildings, their facades decorated with silhouettes of cupids and heads of women, and the Palazzo Sforza Cesarini, a building commissioned by Rodrigo Borgia before he became pope. But most importantly, it has small and friendly aperitivo bars that charge anything between 8-10 Euros for a drink, accompanied by unlimited refills of a line-up of snacks such as pastas, pizzas, risottos, salads and small tarts.

We spent time soaking up the night life in Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori, catching up with local friends and hearing fantastic stories of their lives, and guarding our bags with lives. For you know, thieves are a smooth lot in Rome. They can apparently whisk you away and you would never know.

On our last night in the city, we wound up our Roman adventure with queues at pizzerias and gelatarias. When a friend, a local, had pointed out that they were two of the best things to do in Rome, how could we not give in?

We queued up outside Pizzeria Baffetto, an old pizzeria that serves up tasty, no-frills pizzas and makes you share tables with strangers. After a substantial wait, we found ourselves seated with artichoke and ham pizzas, as paper-thin as they could get, with a lovely French couple. Now as we exchanged travel notes, a few women passed by shrieking at us. It turned out a big fat mouse had taken a liking to our part of the pavement and decided to adopt us.

Right opposite Baffetto was another institution, Frigidarium. If you take your gelato as seriously as we do, a queue here cannot put you off its creamy offerings. In the old days, Romans would bathe in large cold pools called frigidarium and there we were doing our own version of it.

The contemplating monk. As life passes him by.

At the end of those glorious four days in Rome, I could see why it was dubbed the Eternal City. Ancient Romans had this belief, you see, that no matter how many empires came and went, Rome was invincible. That it would live forever.


Delhi’s Steep Stepwells

Delhi is such a city of layers. You have to keep peeling to reach back to the rich city that it once was. Or remnants of it in any case. I had this task many years ago, as a correspondent on the heritage beat with The Times of India in Delhi, of exploring those remnants. It was 2003 and I was in the best training ground possible for an amateur journalist – because when you are in a place where the editor hurls phones in his rage and expects you to read all possible newspapers every morning to know what you have missed, wet as you might be behind the ears, you will pick up the pace. There was never a moment to think. The drill was routine. Go out every day, meet contacts, network, gather stories, return to the office and get down to subbing copies before making pages.

Yet the beat was right up my alley. I have always had a fascination for old, peeling buildings with many stories to tell. And far from the madding crowds as Hardy put it, I was a happy creature hunting out unobtrusive monuments in the city’s various corners. They were my own little adventures in this rushed, modern world that allowed me moments of quiet and a window into the glorious past.

In the old days, kingdoms in India could be undone by the lack of water. Kings left behind their resplendent palaces and moved to areas that held the promise of the all-important element of life called water. In response, stepwells known as baolis locally, were constructed to address those urgent needs. As reservoirs, they stored ground water when it rained.

The stepwell has, as you can gather from its name, steps which go down into a well. It is usually surrounded by galleries and chambers with colonnaded verandahs, some of which provided shelters to travellers. The social aspect apart, stepwells provided drinking water, and others simply water to bathe in.

The largest baoli of the few remaining stepwells in Delhi is an 800-year-old structure. Gandhak Ki Baoli is named after the smell of sulphur in its waters. I reached Hauz-i-Shamsi in Mehrauli, known for the hauz or water reservoir that was built there in the 13th century by Sultan Iltutmish of the Mamluk Dynasty, who was considered to be the founder of the sultanate of Delhi. Through the maze of narrow, congested alleys of Mehrauli, which might have once been one of the seven cities that made up Delhi but smacks of dereliction in its present state, I made my way to the baoli.

The landmark I had to get to was Adham Khan’s tomb. I have to tell you a small tale behind this tomb because well why surpass the chance of stories where they can be had. Adham Khan was the son of Maham Anga, Emperor Akbar’s foster mother. He had murdered one of the emperor’s foster brothers. How could such an act go unpunished? So, Adham Khan was tossed off Agra Fort’s ramparts and a tomb was built for him by Akbar. Hundred yards off this tomb is the site of the baoli which I was seeking.

At the entrance to the baoli, I was greeted by the sight of a strange fakir (mendicant). His name was Pocket Baba. A headful of hair stuck out in an untidy bush above his head. A pair of glasses that were incredibly round, black and as thick as bullets sat upon his dark pudgy face – the glasses reminded me of Barfi, a character from the master filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s fantastical tale for children, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. Only Barfi had diamond-shaped glasses and Pocket Baba’s glasses were not. The bullet-like lenses could clearly be detached and pushed to be raised above the frames.

Barfi, from Satyajit Ray’s fantasy tale.

I had a conversation with Pocket Baba in Hindi. First of all, I was curious about his name. He promptly asked me mine, and said: “Why are you called Arundhati?” Next, I asked him about his glasses. His repartee went thus: “Why are you wearing what you have on?” Such niceties concluded, I asked him about the story behind the baoli. Showing me his teeth that had been stained black, he rasped out that a week before Muharram (the Islamic New Year that is), the waters in the baoli used to turn red. Those waters, according to him, had healing powers. People with skin disorders bathed in their old clothes and left them behind in the well. And just like that they used to be cured of diseases like eczema.

Leaving behind the odd baba, I entered Gandhak ki Baoli. Before me lay a five-tiered structure with ornate columns, chambers and ledges and it dipped into a reservoir at the bottom. Only where water once used to reach high up a few tiers, at that point I saw a mossy layer somewhere deep down below. At the other end, was a well that can be reached by walking along the ledges of the stepwell. Descending a few crumbling steps – there are a total of 105 steps leading down – I was ambitious enough to stand on one of the ledges and try and fathom its depth but that bottom was so deep, dark and mysterious that it gave me the jitters. My only companions were pigeons who gurgled away as they hopped nimbly along the ledges. I hurriedly stepped back. It would be unfortunate to come to a messy end in a dirty, mossy stepwell.

Steps leading down to Gandhak ki Baoli.

The baoli was Iltutmish’s tribute to a Sufi saint who had impressed the slave king with his philosophy. In a book, The Delhi That No-one Knows, writer Ronald Vivian Smith writes of an incident when Iltutmish visited the saint and observed that he had not had a bath for days. The saint apparently had no place where he could take a bath and the king immediately ordered the construction of the stepwell for the saint. The supposed presence of sulphur and its healing properties made the stepwell a popular place with locals.

The baoli was in a fairly decrepit shape and I could see rubbles of stone lying around. At the time, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was carrying out conservation work which was clearly not in line with the preservation of the stepwell. Though the ASI’s superintending engineer (Delhi Circle) at the time, A K Sinha, had assured me that they were using traditional mortar for the restoration of the stepwell, conservation architect AGK Menon had tut-tutted the claims. He had attributed the broken-down state to ASI’s “beautification drive”. “Dry-stone masonry technique (in which no binding agent is used) was used on the structure,” he had pointed out. “The ASI plastered the walls instead. Water accumulated and pressure started building up on the walls.”

I wonder whether the stepwell has been restored the way it should have been.

There are so many of them. Delhi a long time ago had about a 100 of these stepwells yet a handful remain. Of them, there are baolis such as the one inside Red Fort that pre-dates the fort and served once as a prison for the incarceration of Indian National Army officers by the British during the 1940s; Rajon ki Baoli, a Lodhi period three-storeyed step-well which is located about 400 m away from Gandhak ki Baoli and that got its name from the masons (raj) who lived there for some time.

Near where I lived at the time, was another stepwell, the Nizamuddin baoli that dated back to the mid-1300s. It was referred to as Chashma Dilkusha which means ‘the spring that gladdens the heart’ and was said to have been constructed by the Sufi saint, Nizamuddin. So, its waters are believed to possess curative powers. The construction of the stepwell was a sore point for Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, the ruler of Delhi at the time. The emperor was building his citadel at Tughlaqabad. He forbade labourers to work anywhere else than Tughlaqabad. The story goes that the labourers respected Nizamuddin enough to work around Ghiyasuddin’s ban. They worked on the baoli by night – to counteract which the emperor apparently banned the sale of oil for use in lamps. The baoli is said to have been completed by the labourers who worked by moonlight. Don’t you just love listening to such stories, however unlikely they might be or not?

There are a few more but there was one that lay right in the heart of a residential road in the city. When I reached Agrasen Ki Baoli on Hailey Road in Barakhamba, I was surprised that in the midst of the commotion of Lutyens’ Delhi, there was a piece of beauty. I love the kind of silence that exists within the thick walls of old monuments.

Agrasen ki Baoli.

A few couples were on dates inside the baoli, about 104 steps down which you would be in the well’s waters – all that was left then was silt. The baoli dated back to the 14th century Pre-Lodi era. Legend says that an ancient king, Raja Agrasen, had built the stepwell. It was restored during the fourteenth century by the wealthy Agrawal merchants who were supposed to be descendants of Agrasen.

If you do want to find out more and visit these baolis, you could always get in touch with The Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (Intach).

Most of the baolis that I ventured into lay in ruins but Menon had suggested that they could be effectively revived and used by harvesting groundwater. In this current concern for global climatic change and the emphasis on using natural resources, it makes complete sense when I recall that Menon had even given me an instance of a place called Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh where stepwells are used on an everyday basis. His exact words were: “Delhi is a sophisticated metropolis where the Dilli billis (cats of Delhi) might rebel, but people do survive on stepwell water.”


Bremen’s Fancy

I was on the sets of a film. A heroine treading the cobbled stones in an alley flanked by medieval half-timbered houses, strains of Sinatra floating in the cold, evening air. All in my imagination. Except that the houses, the network of alleys and the musician duo playing poignant tunes on their accordion and guitar did exist.

It was a moment that demanded to be stuck in. I was walking through the narrow lanes in the Schnoor quarter in Bremen in freezing February.

Bremen is a small city in north western Germany on the Weser river but do not let its size beguile you. It is a former superpower of an erstwhile pan-European power block called the Hanseatic League. The title Freie Hansestadt Bremen (Free Hanseatic City of Bremen) is a tribute to its past glory. The Hansa came to power in the 13th century and lasted four centuries, protecting its network of 200 North European members in all matters political and economic, with a powerful fleet. Modern day Bremen is the second-largest port in Germany.

Almost no one speaks English in this city that dates back 1,200 years in the pages of history. Yet with a handful of German words in my kitty and elaborate gestures, it was surprisingly easy to get by.

The only person who dazzled me with her English was an avuncular woman who met me at the town hall along with a French couple and their young boy. She was a smartly turned out German who showed the four of us around the Town Hall of Bremen with panache.

That Town Hall is a work of Gothic art. If on the exterior it is decorated with sculptures of emperors and prince-electors who back up Bremen’s imperial background, inside the hall is a stunning ceremonial venue with model ships hanging from the ceiling to signify its rich heritage in maritime trade. Art Nouveau decorations add a mind boggling lushness to the rooms with intricately carved wood, cherubs, chandeliers and gilded leather wallpaper.

Behind the old part (which dates back to 1405) of the town hall is an extension that is the new town hall. In this sits the Burgomaster (mayor) of Bremen. Once a year, the mayor throws open the town hall to the youth of Bremen and they have parties and events in the old town hall but as was pointed out to me, ‘the youth are so proud of their heritage that they make sure that they do not harm it in any way’. I appreciated the idea and the sense of responsibility it entails.

The Town Hall of Bremen.
Bremen’s food stalls
The Roland of Bremen.

One evening I sat in its Ratskeller, the cellar that is, where there is a tavern and one of the oldest cellars in Germany. Wines in gigantic barrels here date back to the 17th century. I dined on fish and an exquisite glass of red wine. A bit of an aside: Have you noticed how they top up your wine glasses in the northern half of Germany? I would feel tipsy with just a glass even during lunch. Indeed, I cannot whine about such a wonderful wine-y feeling. For it is a happy feeling to totter about, a halo of alcoholic haze about your person.

I loved the way that the Marktplatz (Market Square) stops you in your tracks. It is surrounded by the most stunning architecture. For one, you cannot miss out on the protector of the city. He is the 15th century giant Roland who stands tall and broad in front of the Town Hall with his ‘sword of justice’.

Next to the town hall is a bronze sculpture of Bremen’s most famous citizens. A donkey, a cat, a dog and a cockerel. Yes, you heard me right and no I have not had a few happy brownies. These four are a part of the fabric of the town — as the musicians out of the Grimms Brothers’ fairy tales from whom the town gets its epithet, ‘die Stadt der Stadtmusikanten’ (The Town of the Town Musicians).

Old, gabled town houses stand around the square. They were mostly damaged during WWII bombings but the people of Bremen got together and spent their money to get them back on their feet. A part of the Marktplatz is dominated by the exquisitely gilded 16th century Schütting, a Flemish-inspired merchants’ guildhall, and off it is St Peter’s Cathedral, the towers of which aspire to touch the sky. Then there is the Bremische Bürgerschaft (Parliament of Bremen) which is curiously modern. To me the only redeeming feature in the rectangular frame was the sheath of glass on its facade. It came to me as I crossed it each time and saw the beauty of the old buildings reflected in the glass along with the blue skies of Bremen.

The Schutting.
Gargoyles and St. Peter’s Cathedral in the backdrop.

Kaffee (coffee) is the rationale behind Bremen. It is where the German affair with coffee started. The first coffee house in Germany is known to have come up in Bremen in 1673. No one knows where it might have been but six years later the coffee house was shifted to the Schütting. It was such a fashionable drink that it was served at the court of the Great Elector, Frederick William of Brandenburg in 1675, and inspired composer Johann Sebastian Bach to write a paean of praise for it.

Here is how his “Coffee Cantata”, in which a young woman pleads for her love for the new drink with her disapproving father, goes:

Oh! How sweet coffee does taste,

Better than a thousand kisses,

Milder than muscat wine.

Coffee, coffee, I’ve got to have it,

And if someone wants to perk me up,

Oh, just give me a cup of coffee!

I could see the lovelorn maid’s point when I sat in the Kaffeehaus Classico, an institution in Bremen. Inside the café with its Renaissance painting clad walls and Doric columns, you are just one step away from perfect coffee and the most luscious cakes you will dip your fork into. I was in the company of well-heeled and beautifully dressed elderly folks who I could see fully appreciating the beauty of the cakes and coffee. And I could not shake off the feeling that I had stepped back in time into the sets of a classic film where everyone is dressed to the hilt and that at any moment they would set off into a smooth foxtrot.

The café was also my go-to during rainy afternoons and I have to point this out to you, that if you are in Bremen, you cannot (and I repeat must not) miss this café. It is right opposite a Starbucks which remains mostly empty, because who would want to sit in a chain coffee shop when you have an old-world café at hand, right? Plus, I noticed that in Bremen they are sure that they do not want to be invaded by an army of chain restaurants and coffee shops. That thought process grew on me.

Where coffee left a mark.

Just off the Marktplatz is an entire alley that was built by a coffee baron. His name was Ludwig Roselius and he built the Böttcherstrasse at the start of the 20th century. The alley, named after the coopers or böttcher who once worked here, was dilapidated till Roselius bought it, executed his vision and transformed it into something entirely eccentric. The hotel I was staying in, the Grand Atlantic, was right off the Böttcherstrasse and I took this path every day to make my way to old town.

Roselius with the help of Bernhard Hoetger, a German architect and artist of the Expressionist Movement, designed the alley as a tribute to art and culture and he dedicated the alley to Hitler by placing a bronze relief at its entrance called “The Lightbringer”. It depicts a man with a sword descending from the sky and attacking a dragon. His aim was to glorify Hitler’s victory over the so-called “powers of darkness”. His reward? The Führer rejected it as “degenerate art” and Roselius was denied membership to the Nazi Party.

I was taken in by the Glockenspiel House. Glockenspiel is a carillon that is a musical instrument usually housed in the belfry of a church. This particular one has 30 bells made of Meissen porcelain and it chimes twice every day, rather ethereally, while a revolving panel depicts the city’s adventurous Hanseatic merchants. People come together at those times most magically and gape at the revolving panels. It is like a brotherhood of the like-minded who are transfixed by all things beautiful. Then just as if with the breaking of spell, in a trice, they disperse.

The Glockenspiel House. Once the panels start revolving and the bells start chiming in unison.
The Light Bringer
That ethereal moment between rain and sunshine in The Böttcherstrasse
On the River Weser.


Kaffee Mühle

If you want a bit of evening drinks and laughter, head to the garden bars in the Schlachte area that is positioned by the river. During my ambles in the city I came across the Kaffee Mühle (The Coffee Grinder), a 100-year-old picture perfect mill that lies on the route from the railway station to the old town. But the quarter in Bremen that drew me back again and again was the Schnoor.

In the 10th century the Schnoor was the poor corner. A district of fishermen and sailors. Meaning string, the Schnoor gets its name from old handicrafts associated with shipping such as ropes, cables and anchor chains. Stories say that it refers to the rope makers who lived here, while another version is that it is named after the 15th-16th century half-timbered houses that are strung together like pearls in a row. The maze of lanes inside is lined with art galleries, chocolateries, cafés and little boutiques. Adding a piece of quirk to its medieval atmosphere is Birgittenkloster (Convent of Saint Birgitta), a modern Bridgettine convent housed in bright orange and green buildings. It is a good place to sit in a chocolaterie, sip on coffee accompanied by chocolate goodies, and watch the world go by in its quaint quarters.

In to the Schnoor.
The Schnoor. Once the poor quarter of Bremen, but now certainly its best.
Quirky art and the Schnoor.
The art of crafting truffles. In the chocolateries of the Schnoor.

Bremen catches the fancy. It certainly caught mine and in the week that I spent there I was content roaming its medieval lanes. Not once did it occur to me to catch a train from the hauptbahnhof and get going.

I have a quirky memory that was shared with a bunch of strangers who I was on a walking tour with one afternoon. The skies had swollen up beyond compare that afternoon and before we could do anything about being out in the open, the heavens burst forth, and we were showered by hail that pricked the skin like a thousand tiny needles at once. We were soaked to the skin and terribly cold but I remember the broad smiles on all our faces by the end.