The Essence of Café Mitra
Wandering around Thamel, one street runs into another, one bar or restaurant into the next. It is a tourist ‘ghetto’ where no one makes any bones about why these places exist – to make money. To do so, they are styled around tourists’ perceived needs and requirements, such as huge portions of food, cheap and cold beer; and to compete with the next place. A themed approach is often taken. It is a pseudo-culture, pretence of being ‘western’, to create an easy atmosphere in which to make the tourist comfortable and make it easy for them to part with their money. There is a clear concept of the cycle of tourism, be it the ‘seasons’ for trekking or the patterns of tourism, i.e. tourists stay one or two nights in the city before trekking, then return to the city once their trekking is complete. This latter period is probably the most lucrative for business in the city.
There are a few places where the primary approach is to present Nepali food, culture or architecture, but these are few and far between, and possibly not as well attended or marketed as others. This could be because of location. The overall image portrayed is that of the Westernized city with all the hustle, bustle and choice that it offers.
Walking in off the street, there is a feeling that Café Mitra is a separate place from the world outside. There is a clear sense of identity here which sets it apart from what is going on in the rest of Thamel.
There is no theme here, rather a working with an existing space and allowing its strong features to be shown to the best advantage, rather than trying to make it into something it is not. After all, it is what it is, a small yard behind an old house, hemmed in by uncontrollable development. The skill lies in having used all those factors to its advantage. There is a feeling of quiet and privacy, to walk in is to walk into someone’s home that will appeal to some, and fend off others. I sense this is a feeling that is encouraged! The place looks beautiful and exclusive in terms that it will exclude anyone who isn’t receptive to that quiet appreciation of what is on offer here.
It is almost anti-tourism as one feels this place will be as it is with or without us! The place is more important than anything else. If it is that it could be more commercial and financially viable, it seems that maybe these things are secondary factors to something other, something more important. I think guests sense that.
The entrance is discreet which is a good thing and a bad thing. Bad, because many people will walk past it without noticing the gateway. They are looking at ground floor level, and the doorway is surrounded by shops hanging their wares and, generally, disguising the entrance.
Good, because a gateway into a walled garden space is always enchanting. An uneven, ancient feeling stone path leads you in to an enclosure with an ancient temple at the bottom of the garden. How special can that be! This isn’t a monument you must pay to see but a living, cherished temple used daily by inhabitants of Thamel. During the day or at night, the entrance to the compound is delightful. The intense greens in the vegetation with all the texture and occasional splashes of colour (if the lady upstairs hasn’t stolen the flowers!) in flowers and cushions against the backdrop of the red/orange walls look chosen, designed and cared for.
There is little sense of commercialism here, at a glance, rather a sense this space exists for its own sake. That sets it totally apart from other places around it. There is a feeling of intimacy of a human scale which encourages people to enter and stay or, equally, to leave as the feeling of its intimacy - even privacy - can be off-putting to some. In the evening, subdued lighting paints the garden with shadows and light which again reinforces the feeling of intimacy, enhanced by the ‘strong flavour’ of the 'night blooming' plants (Akkal, one of the waiter’s, wording!).
Old buildings always have a strong spirit of place, crafted over generations of use and living. Impractical and difficult they may be to live in with all our needs today, but people react instinctively to the bones of a space built long ago. A spirit can be built into new buildings of course, but it is much harder as designers tend towards the ‘themed’ aspect when designing from scratch. Café Mitra’s rooms are of human proportions: low ceilings, series of small rooms, which make it fascinating for a visitor. It is as though we are invited into someone’s ancient home. The craft of handwork very much in evidence, in the carvings and uneven floors and walls. The glorious result and uncertainty of the ‘hand made’ process! The flair for colour and design within understands this very human approach to the space and has worked with the building but has not been dictated by it. While the spirit of the place is clearly there, a contemporary touch has bestowed this space enormous appeal, the mix of the old with contemporary, history with modern needs.
The overall feeling of the place is tastefulness, soft lines, human proportions and thoughtfulness stemming from the fact that it is a home, not simply a commercial enterprise.
NOTE: We are thankful to Jo Pott from Wales, a frequent visitor to Nepal, for sharing her much appreciated thoughts.