Incredible India

October 2013

We are seated at our dinner table with our guests for the evening. Paul and Maureen are English, Françoise and Jean-Leopold are Swiss. Both couples have lived in different parts of the world and are very well travelled.  As conversation flows, my husband talks of the invitation he has just received.

We are going to a wedding in India, do you want to come along?’ he asks impulsively. To my surprise, both couples agree immediately. I am not sure that this is a good idea. They are widely travelled, yes, but India…is India.

They are all so very proper, how will they react to the chaos that is India?’, I ask myself doubtfully. Switzerland is orderly, pristine, timely, restrained, wealthy. India, in sharp contrast, is chaotic, dirty (at times filthy), unreserved, and with a great disparity in wealth. Normally when I visit India, I struggle with the differences for a few days and then learn to ignore them. But without the love that I feel for India, will my friends be able to ignore these differences which jar us so ? ‘This is going to be a disaster!’ I tell myself gloomily.

Reservations aside, I take over organizing the holiday at everyone’s request. Before long I have a plan in place; we are to attend the wedding for a week and then spend two more weeks in tourism. Our group swells to 10 with the addition of our daughter, Maitu, her friend Jas, and Paul and Maureen’s children Matthew and Ricarda. The younger contingent is made up of twenty somethings; the older ones range from mid-fifties to early seventies.


 

Attention : This is a mammoth post and I cannot imagine anyone being interested in everything, so here are links to the different sections. Feel free to jump ahead!

Kolkata
Darjeeling
Jaldapara National Park
Hampi
Badami
Goa


Feb 28 2014-Mar 5 2014 : Kolkata

Arriving at our hotel in Kolkata, I am excited to meet all the others and officially launch our holiday. Kenilworth turns out to be a good hotel choice. It is comfortable without being overwhelming, clean, with excellent service and a very good kitchen. It’s outdoor sitting area becomes our favourite place for R&R.

On that first day, there is a mad scramble to get Indian clothes organised for our English friends. My husband takes the boys to Bada Sahab near New Market and orders Sherwanis and Kurtas. I drag the ladies through multiple malls for Salwar Kameez and then through the many sari stores in Ballygunge. It is a long day but we achieve a lot.

Bride with her parents

There are five occasions for the marriage spread over six days. It starts with a ceremonial feeding of the bride, then the ceremonial starting of her getting dressed, an even more ceremonial wedding, a ceremonial farewell, a ceremonial lunch with the new bride as the hostess and finally a reception. Did I mention there is a lot of ceremony? And eating – each event is accompanied by a feast. Maitu tells me ‘They always ask if I ate well, that seems to be the most important thing!’ and laughs. She finds it all too long. There isn’t much of a party atmosphere; there is no alcohol, no dancing. I wonder if our friends are bored by it all but are too polite to say so. Still, it is all very colourful and if you are a people watcher, it is entertaining. Above, the bride in her glorious costume with her parents.

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In between, we manage a few touristic visits as well. My friends visit Victoria Memorial (photo by Maureen) on their own. Maitu and Jas visit Mother Teresa’s centre.

No visit to Kolkata can be complete without a trip to see the Hooghly, a distributary of the Ganges. It is muddy with silt, which is quite normal. The shores are strewn with garbage. ‘Ah my Holy river’, I think, ‘why do they treat you so?’ We stop by the burning ghats but I don’t take any pictures there.

We then visit Kumortuli, the potters quarter. Though they live close to poverty, their artistry is admirable. They produce idols of Gods and Goddesses for worship during the festivals. The little lanes are clean and the potters we see are welcoming. It is a very interesting area and I would like to visit it again just before Durga Puja, when they are at their busiest and most creative period.

Our last touristic stop is at the Dakshineshwar temple. It is rather crowded. I remember visits during my childhood when it had felt vast and silent, a place of contemplation and devotion. Now it looks like just another touristic site.

Mar 6, 2014– Mar 8, 2014 : Darjeeling

We fly from Kolkata to Bagdogra airport where we are met by our drivers. Our drive to Darjeeling through windy mountain roads takes almost three hours. I have taken some anti-nausea pills which make me drowsy, I hardly notice what passes by. We stop on the way for a light lunch of Momos which I quite fall in love with! Yum!

We are booked at Windamere, a hotel which holds on strongly to it’s Colonial past. The hotel looms on the hill over the Mall, with beautiful gardens and lovely old buildings. Our rooms are all in the building above. Everything has an old-world charm. For instance, the fireplace in each room is lit every evening and they tuck in hot water bottles in the bed every night!

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The living areas are equally charming with interesting old photographs decorating every wall. We spend warm, convivial evenings chatting and imbibing heart-warming fluids in the rooms above.

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That evening we explore the shops in the Mall (above, photo: Maureen) and the streets nearby. My husband remembers the Mall from his childhood visit as something bright and beautiful, with wonderful shops and charming houses. Now it all seems a bit dilapidated and dull. I had expected Darjeeling to be clean. I am disappointed; it is as dirty as any Indian city and very polluted.

The next morning we head out to the Happy Valley tea estate. We have an introduction to the managers and we are warmly welcomed. After a tour of the factory which is being renovated at present, we are taken for a stroll in the gardens. This is the best part of the tour; the tea gardens seem to spread as far as our eyes go and are stunningly beautiful.

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After our walk, Jean-Leopold, who has climbed mountains all his life, clambers back up to the factory by the steepest paths. As for me, even the normal paths seem steep enough! The manager tells us that he regularly walks through all of the tea estate, all 435 acres of it! Some of the bushes here are very old, planted nearly 150 years back. Living history!

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I do not normally enjoy visits to the zoo, worrying about the well-being of the animals. But the Darjeeling zoo is well-kept and I see some animals I have never seen before. After that we visit the mountaineering institute. There are some very interesting exhibits about various climbs to mount Everest. We return to the hotel after this to enjoy a very nice dinner and even nicer drinks.

This morning Françoise and Jean-Leopold leave us. They are going to Kerala for a few days before returning to Switzerland. The rest of us set off to first visit the Monastery at Dali, which is called Druk Sangag Choling Monastery. As we walk up the stairs, there is a prayer room at the right. I am reluctant to disturb the women who are turning huge cylindrical drums in prayer. Still further up we meet a number of young student monks, some as young as seven or eight. I wonder about them as I gaze at the hillside around me. Why did their parents send them away? Is it poverty? Beliefs? Are they destined to a life of prayer and celibacy, a life not of their choosing? Do they not miss their mothers’ presence in their lives?

Right at the top is this beautiful hall (above). We enter to see three huge statues, one of which is Lord Buddha (photography not permitted). About 30 monks march clockwise around a central structure, reciting prayers. Some read from books. Others know it by heart. They are of all ages, the oldest seems to be in his forties, the youngest not older than six. Some are curious about us and stare. Others don’t even notice us. As I sit and listen, the sound of their prayers resonates inside me. It is peaceful. Can sounds be holy? This sound is holy. As the chanting draws me within itself, I feel very blessed to be here.

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Next we go to Darjeeling station to take the tourist round trip to Ghoom. The so called Toy Train (above left, a picture of a picture from the museum) has been accorded the UNESCO world heritage status due to the engineering feats in its construction. I am amused to see Paul as excited as a child in a toyshop to see the old retired steam engines! At Ghoom, there is a small railway museum which tells you all about this train; here is link if you are interested. The train at times passes mere inches from people’s homes or shops. I take the mandatory cheesy holiday pic with my husband.

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Walking back from the station to our hotel, we all fall victim to the lure of shawls and scarves temptingly displayed in many storefronts. They are so beautiful! Before we know, we are all the happy owners of several irresistible items of neck/shoulder wear. The evening is spent cosily closeted in the drawing room of the hotel, snuggling in my new shawl in front of a roaring fire, with a nice drink in my hand. What could be better?

Mar 9, 2014-Mar 10, 2014 : Jaldapara National Park

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We wake up early this morning, hoping to have a glimpse of Kanchenjunga. But it remains as elusive as it has been the previous few days. Wrong time of the year, I am told. Oh well, it is a reason to come back to Darjeeling one day.

We set off towards Jaldapara National Park in two cars. It is a lovely ride. Near Coronation Bridge (above) we stop at a little cafe for tea. We have a lovely encounter with the family which runs it. It takes nearly four hours to reach the forest and we are rather tired.

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At the Tourist Lodge (photo: Maureen), we are told that they have vacancies in the newer bungalows. These turn out to be very nice indeed and we are very comfortable. Maitu complains next morning about monkeys waking her up all night with a fusillade of stone fruits on the roof, so if you are a light sleeper, this is not for you!

We are soon met my Mithun Das, the guide whom I had contacted from Switzerland. Elephant safaris are not bookable by normal channels; Mithun has an inside contact and he confirms our booking for the first safari at 6 am the next day. We dine at the Tourist Lodge after a walk in the nearby village.

Early next morning, we drive to the Hollong guest house (above). Even though this is not as new and spiffy as the bungalows we are staying at, its location is far superior. Mithun says that he could have booked these if we had done so 4-5 months in advance. If any of you are inspired to go to Jaldapara, do book a stay here.

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I am charmed as soon as the elephants start walking up the path towards us. All are lady elephants; one of them has a 9 month old baby-girl as a shadow. For me, it is love at first sight! She is beyond gorgeous! Mithun murmurs to the mahouts and we get to ride on the little one’s mum. She follows us at times and darts forward to lead at others. Every now and then she stops to have a scratch against a rock, pull at some leaves (she is still on mother’s milk only) and squirts dirt and mud on herself. I could watch her antics all day!

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The scenery around us is surreal. The sun is just rising, there is a light mist hanging just above the ground. The birds have woken up and are chirping in the distance. As we enter the grasslands, it all seems to grow quiet. The other elephants walk slowly in the distance. Ours rocks us gently, evading tripping over her little one who darts this way and that. Sounds seem dampened. It is an other-worldly atmosphere, difficult to describe, impossible to encompass in a digital image alone. One of the most beautiful moments of my life, a moment to treasure.

The mahout suddenly stops and points us towards the rhinos. Slowly the elephant walks towards them; soon we are but 20 feet from them. They seem oblivious. It is thrilling to see wild animals in their natural habitat. If you want to know more about this animal, click here. We see four rhinos in all. We also see plenty of birdlife from peacocks to hornbills.

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I say goodbye to the little one and her mama. She is one gorgeous girl, isn’t she?

We come back to the Lodge for breakfast. Some of us then head out to a tribal village called Totopara. The others are visiting an animal rescue facility. The village is very remote and in wet season it is totally isolated. We cross a large dry riverbed to get there.

It is beautiful and green with a predominance of betel-nut trees.

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We also see some jackfruits and a papaya tree. The people are hard at work bring down betel nuts. We continue on an uphill track; the guide promises to take us within spitting distance of Bhutan. But the heat and the climb tires me. Ricarda and I perch on a rock while while Maitu and Jas walk on. They come back soon abandoning their mission due to lack of time.

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That evening we set off on a jeep safari. We are lucky enough to spot an Indian Bison, also called Gaur. I had expected a look-alike of the American bison. Instead it looks just like a huge bad-tempered buffalo. I am told that it is one of the most dangerous animals here. It does seem to have a serious attitude problem when it stares at us so!

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The highlight of the afternoon is watching a huge bull elephant crossing our track. That evening we excitedly look through our photos, trying to relive a wonderful day.

Mar 11, 2014-Mar 12, 2014 : Kolkata

The next morning we set off towards the airport, about 2.5 hrs away. On the way we pass many tea gardens where picking has already started. The scenery is outstanding.

Back at the Kenilworth, we have two days to get our laundry done and catch up on chores. I have cushion covers being tailored which I need to collect (excellent fit for my sofas!). Paul and my husband have to give one last trial of their business suits and collect them tomorrow morning (What a bargain! What good fit!). Maureen has to get back to Barkat Ali who has promised to get her favourite dress copied. My husband has a couple of family visits. Jas, Maitu and I want to pack off a bag to courier to Mumbai to avoid lugging it around in our Southern travels. The day passes busily.…

Mar 13, 2014-Mar 15, 2014 : Hampi

The holiday is over for Paul and my husband; they take their international flights out this morning. The rest of us pack up and take a flight to Bangalore. There we are met by our dear friends who collect us, feed us, and then load us safely onto our night train to Hampi.

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Our friends recommend catching it at the Cantonment station where it stops for only 2 minutes. In spite of local help, it is stressful to get all of us and our baggage into the train. The train leaves at 10pm and arrives at Hampi at 7am. We all manage to sleep, even poor Matthew who, at 6’4’’ needs to take a foetal position to fit on the berth !

We are met by our driver Umesh at the Hospet station. We drive to Vijayashree Resort which I have booked for 2 nights. This is half way between Hospet and Hampi; I had not found anything I liked closer to the monuments. Not a suitable hotel if you don’t have your own transportation. The rooms are individual bungalows set in very nice gardens. The place is run by Rajasthanis which is quite surprising to see in the middle of Karnataka! The rooms are very comfortable and well decorated but it all seems like a very ambitious project by someone who doesn’t quite know how to maintain it. This, like everything else in the Hampi region, is vegetarian and serves no alcohol.

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After breakfast, we set off towards Hampi, about 20 mins away. Hampi was the capital of the Vijayanagara empire which ruled in South India between the 14th to the 16th century. Spread over 25 sq. kms, there are many monuments attesting to the glory of the empire that was. Some monuments are in good condition, others in ruins. The setting is rural with villages, fields and orchards. Hampi is a UNESCO world heritage site.

We are met at Hampi by our guide Manjunath whom I have hired for two days. We head first to the Raghunatha Temple at Malayavanta hill. Our guide’s English is first difficult to understand, as also his forays between mythology and history. But we settle down to his style; he is very informative. This temple was built in the 16th century by the Chalukyas. There is great mythological significance to this whole area which is called Kishkinda in the Ramayana (a great Hindu epic). I am surprised to hear North Indian style chanting at the temple. There is a group listening also to a lecture in Hindi to celebrate Holi.

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We walk up to the top of the Hill behind the temple. This is our first view of the landscape at Hampi. I am enthralled by the sight of monuments and boulders, one merging into another, interspersed with palms and green fields. Stunning!

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Next we head to see the Queen’s Bath in the Zanana enclosure. It is interesting to see a mix of Hindu and Islamic styles here. The guide tells us that the guards were female as well. I imagine little Indian Amazonians (paradoxical!) strolling on the parapet wielding swords and daggers, peering us at our invasion into their private area!

We go next to the Royal enclosure which looks very much like a vast archaeological site.

Close to our entry point is a huge platform with beautifully carved sides and a flight of steps leading to the top. This is called the Mahanavami Dibba and was use by royalty on festive occasions. There is no shade here and it is about 36 C or higher. We are wilting. The pale skin of my friends cannot last long under this onslaught.

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A few metres away is a stepped tank which reminds me of a similar one in Rajasthan. I wonder if there is any connection? The tank is filled by an aqueduct (above right). I would have loved to linger and explore the many sites here. But dissuaded by the heat, we ask to be led out to somewhere with shade.

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The Hazara Rama temple is just outside the Royal Enclosure. It was used by the kings as a private place of prayer. The walls are beautifully carved with episodes from the Ramayana. We spend a little time here but we really want a break. We stop for lunch at the Mango restaurant in Hampi and then go back to the hotel for a rest.

After spending the afternoon safely away from the sun, we meet the guide for another couple of hours of tourism. We start at the Lakshmi Narasimha temple. This representation of Narasimha is very different to ones I am used to. The face doesn’t really look leonine to me. An arresting image, but a trifle scary don’t you think?

Our next stop is the Sri Krishna temple. This was built in 1513 AD as a celebration of victory over the kingdom of Utkala. In the setting sun, the stones shine like gold. It must be too hot for everybody; there are no tourists except us here.

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What a pleasure to see monuments all by oneself! Our group disperses and we wander around taking pictures and admiring the artwork.

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Dusk is approaching as we reach the Sasivekalu Ganesh (or Mustard Ganesh) temple. Built in 1506 AD, the idol is carved from one huge 8 foot boulder.

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Hemakunta hill is fascinating with its boulder formations and many monuments and shrines. Some are rudimentary, others quite elaborate. The temples on this hill pre-date the Vijayanagara empire. Built between 9th and 14th centuries, all are Shaivaite shrines. None are used at present as a place of worship. Instead, it has become a land of monkeys. Earlier in the day, I had been frightened by a monkey trying to grab my water bottle. But they still fascinate me as I take many pictures of their activities.

The top of the hill is an almost flat sheet of granite. I peep in and out of shrines and almost miss the sunset which we have come to see.

I am just in time to take in the glory of the setting sun. But I feel a bit rushed; I had been much too distracted. I decide to come back here tomorrow evening to watch the sun set once more. With the sun dipping below the horizon, light reduces rapidly. The guards hurry us out of the hill and we clamber down just as the gate closes. We are all quite tired and happy to retreat to our hotel rooms.

I feel grumpy this morning; the breakfast is not at all to my taste. Sigh! I cheer up as we head out to another day of sightseeing. We start today with the Kadalakelu Ganesh temple. The huge 15 feet Ganesh is carved out of a single boulder. It looks as if the shrine was then constructed around this idol. I am saddened to see how the idol has been defaced by the invaders. The many pillared hall is quite beautiful. The morning light casts lovely shadows. I had hoped that today will be cooler but the heat is already starting on the rise.

We are back at the Hemakunta Hill to visit the Virupaksha Temple (far right).

Virupaksha temple is the only one so far that we have had to pay an entry fee for. Unlike most of the temples, this is still in use as a place of worship. I understand that this has been a functioning temple since its inception in 7 AD. Of course the structure as it stands now was built over centuries. The mantapa above, for example, is from 1510 AD. There are some finely painted ceilings in this hall which we admire. There are many outstanding carvings as well. We stream past the sanctum but I don’t feel prayerful. ‘Can a place of worship be a tourist site and still maintain its sanctity?’ I ask myself.

Leaving the temple, we walk between the now empty Hampi Bazaar towards Matanga Hill. Our guide tells us that the bazaar used to be a lively place until but recently. The government moved the people away in order to preserve the area and now it lies lonely and desolate. You can see the Virupaksha temple in the horizon above and the market stalls which lead up to it.

The Matanga hill is beautiful with many wonderful rock formations and a few small shrines. And when one crosses the crest, there is a wonderful view of the landscape with the Achyutaraya temple in the foreground.

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Here is a close up. Doesn’t it look exactly like the ruins where King Louie sings ‘I wanna be like you’ in Jungle book?

Built in 1534 AD, the Achyutaraya temple was one of the last grand projects before the fall of the empire. I am pleased that we have this stunning temple all to ourselves. Is it not odd that I myself am a tourist but am glad that no other tourists are around? Still, one cannot sense the atmosphere of a place when one is surrounded by chattering hordes. We cannot linger; I am sorry to go on about the sun but it is getting to the unbearable stage by now. We look for spots of shade to cower under.

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This temple is just amazing! Photo opportunities abound..

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We exit from the Achyutaraya temple, walking in the corridors of the Courtesans’ street. After walking past the temple tank (above right) we reach the shores of the Tungabhadra river.

The landing place on the left is called the Chakratirtha Ghat. We sit for a while on the river side, sipping fresh coconut water, watching the activities nearby. I am soon lost in my imagination of this world as it once was, busy with boat traffic, pedlars, royalty, mendicants, holy men..oh how vibrant it would all have been!

The others are happy to have some quiet time looking at the river too. My Hindu self makes a stand and demands that I visit the temple when I am so close to its door, so I take a quick peek into the Kodanda Rama temple. It is crowded with worshippers. The guide tells me there is a Hanuman temple close by which he visits every week. ‘Empires come and empires go’ I think ‘but the stones still draw in worshippers! Will it always be so?’

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We decide to take a ride in a Coracle boat (the baskets, above left) to our next destination. I am hesitant as I step into the basket; I don’t swim! But it feels quite steady. The boat  takes 8 people with no trouble. Despite my hesitation, it turns out to be a lovely experience and we all enjoy it very much.

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The perspective from water level is very different. We pass interesting looking shrines along the river. We are told by our guide that after the monsoon, when the river flows full, many of these are totally underwater.

At the other end of our boat ride is the Vitthala Temple, the extravagant showpiece of Hampi. This is not just a temple but a temple complex with many shrines and halls. Originally built in the 15th century, it was enhanced by kings over time. The stone chariot above is an icon of Hampi. The entry ticket that we got at the Virupaksha temple is valid here as well.

This is a truly beautiful temple complex with some of most elaborate carvings that we have seen so far. The heat beats down on us mercilessly, rendering everything into bleached sunlight or deep darkness. The world seems quiet here and very old. The guide tries to point out interesting carvings to us but we are all too hot to pay attention.

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Instead, I just absorb the essence of the place, clicking pictures from the safety of a shady spot. When it is time to leave, I feel reluctant to go. I want to see this temple in the sunset, but it cannot be. ‘I’ll come back’ I tell myself. Even as I think it, I have to acknowledge that it is probably unlikely. It’s hard to acknowledge that.

Our next destination is the Lotus Mahal, back in the zanana enclosure. Jas says that this was her favourite monument from her last visit. But I am not really drawn to it.

Our last stop is at the Elephant’s Stables built in the 15th century in an Indo-Islamic style. The various stalls are all connected by man-sized doorways. I stand there imagining the elephants shaking trunks through them! This is our last stop and we say goodbye to the guide and head back to the hotel. After lunch, I have a little snooze and then we all head back to Hemakunta hill for a second shot at the sunset view.

There is a stream of tourists walking up the steps of the hill. I almost feel as if I am getting to see a theatrical production! Everyone takes up a spot, some on boulders, others on monuments, all facing west. The sky is a vast screen after all, nothing is going to hide this show!

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The sun doesn’t disappoint. Its a great show of light and energy that it puts on. ‘Isn’t this wonderful’, I think to myself, ‘I have seen so many man made wonders here but not one of them comes anywhere near what nature can do every single day?’.  I have a wonderful, satisfied feeling when we rise finally and say goodbye to Hampi.

Mar 16, 2014-Mar 17, 2014 : Badami

We head to Badami on the day before Holi. This is relevant because on the way to Badami we are stopped by a gang of hooligans. They are all quite high on alcohol and/or drugs. They surround our little mini-bus and try to open the doors and windows. I am quite anxious. Our driver never loses his cool. When he gets an opportunity, he slowly starts rolling the car and soon we are out of it. We see evidence of other road blocks on the way. I am happy to arrive safely at our hotel.

The Krishna Heritage is relatively new. Our rooms are excellent, with a bathroom as big as most hotel rooms and even an outdoor shower! However the fear of the monkeys which often drop in into the veranda-shower keeps me from testing this out. The restaurant is a nice airy place to relax. We settle down, have lunch and decide to stay in till the afternoon to allow the holi-revellers to go back home.

We are in Badami to see the four caves carved into sandstone hills. Ajanta and Ellora are in a far grander scale, but Badami has its own charm.The first cave is a temple of Shiva in the form of Nataraja dated 578 AD. The carving above is quite unique with 18 hands. The combinations of left and right hands forms traditional mudras or gestures of the classical dance Bharatanatyam. I am very taken by this beautiful representation of Shiva, the Lord of Dance.

The second and third caves are in honour of Vishnu. The third is quite the most elaborate and beautiful one (above). The last cave is Jain and was built about 100 years after the others.

After seeing the caves, we take a walk around to the other side of the lake. The path is filthy. Dogs and pigs lie listlessly in garbage. Children are playing and women gossiping outside their little homes. There is a museum here but we don’t plan to visit it. The hills look beautiful from this side. You can see the Bhoothnath temple at the other end of the lake above. That is the end of our sight seeing today. We get back to our hotel and enjoy a nice dinner.

As today is Holi we decide to not leave the hotel until the afternoon. I had originally planned to visit both Pattadakkal and Aihole, but I decide to drop the latter. I am disappointed but then I am a monument junkie. The others all seem lacklustre and I see that I have failed in my planning. ‘We should have headed out to Goa today’, I think. Sigh!

When we leave in the afternoon to see Pattadakkal, the roads are quite clear of the revellers and I breathe a sigh of relief. The road to Pattadakkal is quite awful and the abject poverty of the villages we pass saddens me. With Bangalore booming, surely the state of Karnataka is rich enough to improve conditions for the poor? Why are so many people living in tents ? Why do the children look so wraith-like? Please India, do something !

Pattadakkal is site with a number of temples and shrines in a mix of Dravidan (South Indian) and Nagara (North Indian) styles.  This is an excellently maintained site, very neat and clean. There has been quite a bit of reconstruction work done I believe. A UNESCO world heritage site, these monuments are from the 7th and 8th centuries. I am quite excited as I have not seen many monuments from that era. I struggle to remember, what was happening in Europe then? Who was building what? I can’t quite remember.

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The carvings are very beautiful, especially in the Virupaksha temple. The huge statue of Nandi the bull, carved out of a single boulder and hand polished,  is quite outstanding. We spend perhaps an hour in Pattadakkal. Back at the hotel, it is another quiet evening. We are all tired from our tourism and it is time for something more relaxing.

Mar 18, 2014-Mar 21, 2014 : Goa

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We leave Badami by 6 am. It is a long drive to our hotel in Goa but quite a pleasant one. We reach the Park Hyatt by about 2pm, stopping only for breakfast. The hotel is excellent with an enviable location. It’s a large property with beautiful gardens, restaurants and cosy little corners and direct access to a wonderful beach. And a spa. Highly recommended.

We dive happily into the sybaritic pleasures that the resort offers us. I abandon the idea of heading into Panaji for some sightseeing. That can wait for another trip. Instead I enjoy long walks on the beach, excellent mojitos, breakfasts to die for, ayurvedic massages and simply lazing around reading my book under an umbrella. Here are some pictures for you to appreciate the ambiance !

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So on that note, I will end this marathon post. In spite of my misgivings, my friends have taken all of India’s shortcomings in their stride. I had deliberately planned a variety of places for our trip – a big city, a hill-station, a wild life park, an important historical site and finally a luxurious beach holiday. Not everything appealed to everybody; that is indeed a hard ask. But on balance, each of us found something to take pleasure in so I shall count it as a successful holiday.

From Temple to Temple

As we head from Chennai to Kumbakonam on a temple tour, My daughter asks me ‘So, is this a pilgrimage?’, I am not sure. What constitutes a pilgrimage? Is it just the process of visiting religious or holy sites? Or is it the intention? Whether it is a pilgrimage or not, my intention is to visit some of the many temples which dot the landscape around Kumbakonam.

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We leave Chennai by 7 am in order to avoid the morning rush. The toll road which takes us a fair way is very good but later on we encounter rather poor roads.  The drive of 275 kms takes us about 6 hrs, including a short stop for breakfast. Travelling by road in India is always difficult. Our driver is excellent but still he overtakes from the wrong side, squeezes past motorcyclists in the same lane and makes overtaking decisions against oncoming traffic which I would not dream of. I force myself to disassociate from the driving by looking outside. That is not easy either. The poor condition of the roads, the shacks, the poverty, the interminable garbage everywhere…ah, its not easy to see. I am a foreigner in an Indian skin, I realise, yet Indian enough to feel both frustration and shame at the state of things. Am I overreacting? I don’t know.

Our hotel is very average but adequate. My daughter does not like it. ‘Surely we can do better?’ she asks. We could. But secretly, I had wanted simplicity, not luxury. Perhaps this is a pilgrimage after all.

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I want to give our driver a rest so decide to walk to get some lunch. The Venkataramana restaurant was recommended to us for a decent vegetarian meal. I am melting with the heat by the time we reach it. Its a typical middle class eatery with long tables shared with strangers. At lunch time, there is only a set meal. The AC room is full and the waiter rudely turns us off. My daughter won’t stand for it and barges in to seat herself at a table. I wash my hands, cringing at the state of the basin, and come to sit beside her. We are getting strange looks from everyone; I assume it is because of my daughter’s non-Indian English. But we realise soon that we have barged into a wedding party! The room has been reserved for a group. We are too hot and hungry to care! The meal tastes good.

We return to the hotel to rest a while and then set out at 4pm to start with three temples within Kumbakonam. My blog posts are as much about photography as they are about travel. However this time I am shackled by the rules in most temples; photography is not normally permitted inside temples. So excuse the quality of the pictures below.

SARANGAPANI TEMPLE

007 Kumb Sarangapani006 Kumb Sarangapani

We start with the Sarangapani temple. We are told that it would open at 4:30 pm but it doesn’t open until 5 pm. As we wait, we see a Hare Rama Hare Krishna group. They are very loud in their chanting and my daughter does not like their noisiness. She likes temples to be quiet, a place of contemplation. But Indian temples are seldom like that, I explain. These are not churches, where silence is advocated. Temples resound with music and chanting, with conversations and children’s cries, with trumpeting elephants or mooing cows. Its like life, a confusion of sensory inputs. Yet millions of people find their moment of peace within these walls.

013 Kumb Sarangapani

This ancient temple is more than 2000 year old but I have read that it was renovated in the 16th century. It has a sanctum shaped like a chariot with beautiful sculptures of elephants and horses pulling the gigantic wheels. My hands itch for my camera but I desist. The sanctum is dark. I peer into it to see the deity in the lying down posture, head supported up by one hand. I wonder, did the great azhwars (Saints from 7th-9th century) see exactly what I see before me when they wrote their beautiful songs and hymns? Did Andal walk the same steps that I take? This temple has been venerated by many of the Azhwars including Andal, Periyazhwar, Peyazhwar, Nammazhwar etc. I feel linked to them through the centuries, my beliefs a continuation of theirs. To read more about this temple, click here.

ADI KUMBESWARAR TEMPLE

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021 Kumb Kumbeshwarar

We walk past a long corridor with shops on both sides as we approach the Adi Kumbeshwarar temple. The town gets its name from this very temple. Praised by the 7th century saints Appar and Gnanasambandar in their hymns, these stones have been here for many centuries. The Shiva Linga is said to be svayambhu – self-formed. As I walk around the sanctum in the prakaram, as is the practice, I enjoy seeing the statues of all the Nayanmars, the great Shaivaite saints. This is a lovely temple.

017 Kumb Kumbeshwarar

019 Kumb Kumbeshwarar

We stop to admire the handsome temple elephant. I encourage my daughter to hold out a coin to the elephant and receive its blessing. She giggles nervously as the elephant lays its trunk on her head after delicately picking up the coin from her hand. To read more about this temple, click here.

SRI RAMASWAMI TEMPLE

026 Kumb Ramaswamy025 Kumb Ramaswamy

Our last visit within Kumbakonam town is the Ramaswami temple. It is is said to have been built in the 16th century by Raghunatha Naik, King of Tanjore so is not as ancient as the other two. The temple is not in funds, I guess, as it is very shabbily maintained. The pillars inside are intricately carved and the deities inside are huge. There is not much of a crowd as we visit and I feel a sense of peace.

027 Kumb Ramaswamy

The temple is famous for the scenes of Ramayana painted in the outer prakaram. I wander past looking at these paintings and wonder at the rather naive style with no attempt at perspective or reality. The art of sculpting is so well developed in India from ancient times. Why did the art of painting not really match up? Yes, there are some cave paintings I have seen but still… Being a great admirer of art from Europe I am puzzled by this.

029 Kumb Ramaswamy030 Kumb Ramaswamy

The utsavar or the festival deity used for processions is very beautifully decorated.  I love the boots! To read more about this temple, click here.

SRI UPPILIAPPAN TEMPLE

033 Uppiliappan

As I walk into the Uppliappan temple, I am riveted by the colourful ceiling! I am again walking the corridors of another ancient temple, praised repeatedly in the hymns by the Azhwars (7th-9th centry) such as Nammazhwar, Thirumangaiazhwar, Poigaiazhwar and even Peyazhwar. The deity is a very impressively large Lord Vishnu in a standing form. There is a legend which says that Lord Vishnu came to claim as bride the Goddess as a young girl. Her father claimed she was not ready as she could not even cook with the appropriate amount of salt. So the Lord agreed to eat without salt and therefor the offerings in this temple are always salt free! That is one explanation of the name of the temple (uppu=salt). The other possible meaning comes from the tamil word oppu (comparison), calling the Lord here as the Incomparable.

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(Source of picture : Temple.Dinamalar,com)

I had been wanting to visit Tirupati for sometime but it was not possible during this trip to India. I was relieved to know that Uppiliappan is considered the elder brother of the Lord at Tirupati and the priest said that visiting here was considered to be equal to many visits to Tirupati! To read more about this temple, click here.

SRI NAGESWARAR TEMPLE

034 Naganatha-Rahu037 Naganatha-Rahu

Our last temple visit of the day is one of the famous Navagraha Sthalams, temples dedicated to the nine Vedic astrological deities. This one is dedicated to Rahu, a deity with malefic attributes. The main deity of the temple is Lord Shiva; there is a shrine dedicated to Rahu in the outer Prakaram. Appar  and Tirugnana Sambandar, both from the 7th century, have sung in praise of this temple which means that the temple is more than 1300 years old. There are some nice carvings but I am tired and can’t give it the attention it deserves. To read more about this temple, click here.

We are hungry by this time. On the way back to our hotel, I spot what looks like a decent place to dine. The Quality Inn turns out to be very neat and clean with an extensive menu. We like it well enough to return the next day as well.

BRIHADEESWARAR TEMPLE

162 En route

The next morning we set off before 8am to Tanjavur (Tanjore). I reckon we are already late but my daughter objects to earlier starts. The temples are open normally from very early morning to noon and then again from about 5 pm to 9 pm. To make most of the day, one should start as early as one can. The road to Tanjore is really bad, very bumpy indeed. But the landscape is a beautiful carpet of rice fields.

052 Tanj-Brahadeeswarar
I am delighted from the first glimpse of the temple. Unlike other South Indian temples, this is not coloured, which makes it look very elegant. It is an immense complex built by the Chola king Rajaraja 1 between 1003 and 1010. As we enter it, I absolutely understand its common name ‘Periya Koil’ , the Big Temple! Built entirely in granite, it is majestic. At the time it was built, it was the tallest temple in India by a magnitude of 10, a great achievement indeed! At 216 feet, the vimanam (tower over the sanctum) is the tallest in India and the temple complex is spread over 40 acres (160,000 m2).

The main deity is Lord Shiva. The mandapa is impressive and is topped by a 81 ton stone kalasam. . It is said that a 6km ramp was built so that elephants could drag the granites for the tower.You can see the back of the colossal Nandi facing the temple, a later addition from the Nayak period.

There were plenty of visitors, both worshippers and tourists. But the complex is so huge that one doesn’t notice the crowds. We go into the main shrine (above). It is very crowded and we are given a scant few minutes before being hurried along by the priests. There is no time even to pray, which rather defeats the idea of a temple! As we walk barefoot on the paving outside, I am glad that the sun is comparatively mild today. I must remember to pack some sock-slippers the next time I come on a temple tour.

This is truly one of the most impressive temples I have ever seen. If you are in the South of India, I strongly recommend a visit. There are so many details! I regret not having taken a guide for I am sure I missed many things. Some pictures from my collection below to whet your appetite. To read more about this temple, click here.

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GARBHARAKSHAMBIKAI TEMPLE

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I had asked our driver to take us to Darasuram on the way back to Kumbakonam. However, he chooses to take an alternate route back and it takes very long. I am annoyed but he has been so good that I do not protest. He recommends the Garbharakshambikai temple on this route. We do a quick tour but I do not think it a worthy replacement of what I have missed. Sigh! To read more about this temple, click here.

SWAMIMALAI TEMPLE

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As the time creeps up to noon, we can fit in a quick visit to Swamimalai which is on the way. I had expected to have to climb a lot but in fact there are not many steps. Nor is it really a malai or a hill, so there are no views of the surrounding country. The temple is beautiful but as I do the pradakshina, my right foot slips into a groove in the ground, a water channel. The pain makes me cry out and I shed a few silent tears. Within a few minutes my whole foot, especially my ankle, swells up like a balloon. I give up on visiting the rest of the temple and somehow limp back to the car. I am dismayed, but I don’t intend to let a small thing like this come in the way of my temple visits. Stopping at a pharmacy, my daughter, a doctor, straps my ankle firmly and with it, I can limp comfortably. To read more about Swamimalai temple, click here.

NACHIYAR KOIL

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We have lunch and rest for an hour before setting off again. My foot is worse after the rest. I swallow ibuprofen and some paracetamol hoping that no ligaments are torn. Our first stop is at the Nachiar Koil temple. This ancient Vishnu temple was praised in the hymns of the Azhwars (6th to 9th centuries). It is said to have been built by the Chola king Kochenganan in the 3rd century. There is an amazing stone Garuda shrine which is supposedly made of saligrama stone. In this temple, the Goddess is given precedence over Lord Vishnu. My feminist self rejoices! To read more about this temple, click here.

SRI TYAGARAJAR TEMPLE

130 Thiruvarur

With my great love for Carnatic Music, Tiruvaroor is a must-see destination for me. The three great poets-composers-musicians (imagine being all three!) who were instrumental in developing the tradition to what it is today were all from this little town. Tyagaraja is celebrated as a Saint and I have come to visit his temple here.

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We are lucky to arrive just in time for the 6pm puja. I am surprised at how crowded the temple is. It grows dark as the service finishes and so I abandon the idea of exploring the extensive temple complex. I am nervous about hurting my foot further on the uneven paving. The outer areas seem rather run down.

135 Tyagaraja home

136 Diskhithar home138 Syama Shastri home

The homes of the three great composers are within walking distance to each other. It is like having Mozart, Beethoven and Bach living one block from each other! How blessed is this town! Tyagaraja’s house is closed but Dikshithar’s house has a simple shrine which I visit. We then go around a few times before we find Shyama Shastri’s home. There is a small shrine and I leave a small offering. The man who takes care of the shrine begs me for a bit more as he says he has run out of oil for the lamps and does not have the money to buy more. My heart is heavy as I leave a bigger amount. Why does India value its great composers so little that it cannot even afford to keep up a small shrine in their honour?  Why can so many more people name A.R.Rahman’s compositions rather than Tygaraja’s compositions?  Why are we so eager to abandon the old for the new? I ache with sadness.

We go back to the very clean Quality Inn restaurant before calling it a night. I have much to think about from this day’s excursion.

VAITHEESWARAN KOIL

We check out and in the car by 7:30 for which I thank my daughter as she finds this difficult. I stare blindly out of the window, by now immune to the visible poverty. It has taken only two days to desensitise me, I think with shame. ‘What if we started a meals-on-wheels, but as a charity?’ I ask my daughter, referring to the Australian initiative I am familiar with. ‘Can we afford to sponsor a hundred simple meals a day for the poor?’. I talk of ideas with my daughter, but I know even as I speak that I will return to my home and my life and forget about the way my heart cringed on seeing old, withered hands held out to me in supplication.

151 Vaitheeswaran Koil

As we walk up to the temple of Shiva as the Great Healer, we are accosted by shopkeepers wanting to sell us jaggery, salt and pepper to dissolve in the Temple tank, thus dissolving our illnesses. I buy some at a very inflated price and pray that my ankle heal quickly (post script: it has!). It is even more swollen than before today and each step is stiff and painful. My daughter helps me up and down many steps. The temple is very crowded and it is hard to even get a glimpse of the deity. Another of those very ancient temples, this has been sung of by the Nayanmar saints from the 7th century. If you want to read more about this temple, click here.

On the way out I pause curiously to ask about the ‘Nadi’ astrologers who seem to abound here. I am not convinced about their authenticity and later our driver tells us that it is all a big scam to relieve the sick who visit the temple of their much-needed money. Yet I remember my mother’s faith in this kind of astrology. I wonder who is right?

THILLAI NATARAJA TEMPLE

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This is a temple that I have long wanted to visit, so I am very excited as we enter it. I have a love for the ancient, and this is ancient indeed. The temple was built by early Cholas in the 3rd century but of course future kings of many dynasties have added to it. Much of what we see now is from the 12th or 13th century. The deity is Shiva in the form of Nataraja, the Cosmic Dancer. I am very attracted to the concept of the cosmic dance which keeps everything in the universe moving; I also admire the form of Nataraja – it is so very beautiful! If you want to read more about this temple, click here.

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I am puzzled to see a crowd of worshippers craning their heads to look at a sannidhi through a window. I ask and am told that indeed it is the main shrine. We make a small payment for archana and are allowed up into the hall in front of the deity. There is an abhishekam of the crystal linga in progress. I, who am not in the least ritualistic, feel my soul become entwined with the ritual. As the holy ash is poured over the deity, I feel myself cleansed and born anew. ‘Ah, so this is what they call Thillai. I have heard it talked of so many times, but today I have finally realised what it is’ . I sit beside the ancient columns lost in the thought of the dancing God while Gopalakrishna Bharati’s beautiful song in Raga Behag plays a background score in my head.

The long drive back home is uneventful. This has been a good trip and I feel blessed for having had this opportunity. For those considering a visit to these temples, here is a map of the temples I visited.

Two Walks from Männlichen

This summer we went on two easy and enjoyable walks from Männlichen which I would like to recommend to fellow travellers to the Jungfrau area in Switzerland. These are not walks for dedicated hikers; they would better suit families and day trippers wanting a taste of the alps.

We parked our car at the big parking lot near the Grindelwald-Männlichen Gondola station. The parking charges are very reasonable. You can also reach Männlichen from Wengen using a cablecar.

Mannlichen station

Männlichen Gondola station is at 2222 metres and it takes about 15 minutes to reach the top. The views from the top are spectacular.

Mannlichen station

There is a restaurant and a play area for children as well.

Mannlichen stationThere are plenty of photo opportunities for those who like to click.

Green and white

Going early in the season gives you the unique perspective of both snow-covered slopes as well as green ones.

Walk 1 : Panoramaweg

This is an easy 5 km walk from Männlichen to Kleine Scheidegg. There is a gentle downward slope of 161 m over the 5 kms. The path is wide and well-made, suitable even for older adults with uncooperative joints. It is very well marked, either pointing to Kleine Scheidegg or saying ‘Panoramaweg’; you cannot possibly get lost. It is marked as 1.5 hrs but we walked it in just about 1 hr. Add time for getting to Männlichen and for getting back from Kleine Scheidegg back to Grindelwald Grund, and it makes an easy morning’s outing. For details look here. Here are some pictures from our walk.

Start of Panorama trail

The path is fairly level most of the way.

Mountain landscape

The clouds add an other-worldly element to the landscape.

Vertiginous views

The views of the valley below are vertiginous at places. My daughter poses for me on a rocky outcrop.

Hugging the slopes

The path hugs the slopes all the way.

Viewpoint

It seems to be a popular path; there were so many people there that it was practically a thoroughfare! There were young parents with children on their backs, little ones toddling and being carried, young tourists in groups, and even older adults in their seventies or more. Even if you are travelling alone, you will not feel lonesome here!

Ticino 057

You can see the Kleine Scheidegg station at the end of the path. There are eateries here as well as a small children’s play area. From here there is a train directly to the Grindelwald Grund station, very close to the Gondola station where our car was parked. You can also find trains going to Lauterbrunnen and Wengen.

Walk 2 : Felix Weg

This walk is directed towards young folk; there are way stations along the path which are for the amusement of children. It is not suited for strollers. It is a bit steep in places and often rocky, good shoes are recommended. The walk starts at Männlichen station (2222 m) and descends 693 m to Holenstein (1529 m), which is the first stop on the Grindelwald-Männlichen gondola. My husband and I (in our fifties, not very sportive) walked down with a young family with two children aged 4 and 7. The children did the walk comfortably, as did their parents. My husband and I complained of aching knees even the next day! The walk is marked as 1.5 hrs but we took nearly 3 hrs with plenty of stops at way stations. Details of the walk are here.

This is the start of the walk. You can either follow this wide path or take a shorter one down the slope.

The walk gives plenty of opportunities to enjoy the beautiful mountain vistas.

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A way-station where the kids enjoyed ‘milking’ the cows! They also enjoyed seeing real cows with their huge bells ringing music in the slopes as we walked down.

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My favourite part of the walk were the meadows strewn with wild flowers. Simply gorgeous!

A Taste of England

Day 1 Friday, 26 July 2013

…or should I say a Taste for England? This long-awaited trip is my first outside of London. Yet, this is a country that I am very familiar with. Schooled in India, I have struggled over its history, pored over its literature and fiction, quoted its poets, admired its artists – why, its language has even become the language of my thoughts! It is with a great deal of anticipation that I have planned this trip.

The 750 kms drive to Calais seems interminable. This is our first experience of the Euro Tunnel and we are very impressed with the efficiency with which hundreds of travellers are briskly taken across the channel.

On the other side, my husband keeps muttering ‘Drive on the left’ to himself and I feel a sense of panic sitting on what should have been the driver’s side. The roads are busy and I am glad when we reach the little village of Bletchingley where we are to stay tonight. I had chosen it purely because of its proximity to the motorway. We check in to the pub where we shall be staying and enjoy a nice walk beside the fields before dinner.

For iphone users, I have a recommendation : City Maps 2Go is an excellent ap which you can buy at a small price. Maps are free. It works offline and therefore doesn’t cost you an arm and leg in roaming costs. I pinned all the hotels, tourist offices, parking spots and places of interest before we left. It is extremely useful and accurate even in the footpaths by the fields in the middle of nowhere. Great when you arrive at a new town and do not have your bearing. And no, I am not in their pay!

I am surprised by the variety and quality of the food at the pub. In fact, I am to find a variety of vegetarian choices in the menu almost everywhere we go, from the smallest of country pubs to the more expensive places. In the 27 or so countries I have visited, next to India, this has been my best experience as a vegetarian. Our room is just about adequate but it is quite noisy till late in the night. But I am dead to the world.

Day 2 Saturday, 27 July 2013

We leave early to drive to the station where we are to meet our son who will train it from London. In his last year of undergraduate studies in Medicine in Australia, he is doing a 6-week project at King’s College. I haven’t seen him for nearly 6 months so I am delighted to see him again. We head out to Salisbury which we reach by noon.

We grab a quick meal at the Cathedral Hotel (mediocre meal) and walk to the Cathedral. I am bursting with suppressed excitement! A long time back I had read a book called Sarum by Edward Rutherford. Amongst other things, it describes the building of this Cathedral. Since then, it has been an ambition to see it for myself. What a stunning achievement by those long-gone builders and masons! I am spellbound!

I wander inside in a state of wonder. There is lot more light inside that I had imagined. I feel such a strong pull of the stones, such a reluctance to leave. Ah, a wonderful place!

Stonehenge is not far. The traffic however is terrible and it takes ages to reach. The first glimpse from the car is eerily impressive. Just as we park, the skies open up and despite our umbrellas, we are drenched to our skins. However, we doggedly continue, listening to the audio tour and doing a leisurely circuit of the site. I am interested to hear about its orientation with the sun. Were they worshippers of the Sun God, I wonder, thinking of Surya, the Hindu God. I am very annoyed at not being able to take photos to my satisfaction, I had been so looking forward to this!

Sogging wet, we reluctantly abandon our intended visit to Avebury. Instead, we drive straight to Bath and find our B&B without difficulty. Our rooms are lovely and our host very hospitable. Highly recommended. After drying and refreshing ourselves, we set off to the city. My husband enjoys Jamie Oliver’s cookery show on TV so I surprise him by leading the way to Jamie’s restaurant. We enjoy a wonderful evening together over a delicious dinner.

Day 3 Sunday, 28 July 2013

After breakfast, we stroll down to the Abbey Yard to join the walking tour at 10:30am. A free tour offered by the Mayor of Bath’s Corps of Honorary Guides, it is an excellent introduction to the city. Highly recommended.

The site of the Abbey has a long history. The Anglo-Saxons built a church here in 757 AD. This was pulled down by the Normans who built a Cathedral at the same site 1090. This fell to ruins by the 15th century when the current Abbey Church was built. The guide points out the ladder of Angels in the facade with an interesting story of a Bishop and his dream. We hear all about the history of Bath from Roman times to the story of how Richard Beau Nash developed it as a resort town.

The guide points out historical places and architectural details in his tour. We pass by Abbey Green, a pretty square with a historical pub called the Crystal Palace (extreme right above). In this beautiful and shady square, there is no hint of the executions which took place in the past but the tree is still called the Hanging Tree.

The Royal Crescent built by John Wood the Younger between 1767 and 1775 is a spectacular sight, There are 30 residences, one of which is a museum. I think about visiting it later but it doesn’t come about.

The Circus is another architectural marvel! It was designed by John Wood the Elder and built by his son of the same name between 1754 and 1768. We are interested to learn about the celebrities who have lived here.

The tour finishes in front of the Assembly rooms. We stop in its cafe for tea and scones of very disappointing quality. Don’t eat here! I think about visiting inside but my dear man is not interested. My son suggests the Jane Austen museum we passed by before. I have my doubts and they are proven right – this is a Tourist Trap with a capital T. For £8 a person, we get to see a house which is ‘like’ the house Jane Austen lived in and display boards about her books. Not recommended.

We then go back to the Abbey to listen to the Evensong. The music is lovely. Unfortunately photography is not permitted during the service so I cannot show you how beautiful the Abbey Church is inside. The music is interspersed with lessons and I am very uncomfortable when they go on about idolatry. As a Hindu, I think very fondly of my idols! I remember all the idols I have seen in hundreds of churches I have visited and am puzzled by this..for the first time, I feel out of place and rather disrespected in this alien world I am visiting.

Finally we head to our last destination of the day, the Roman Baths. The site is very well organised for visits and the audio tour is informative. I have been fascinated by the Romans, more so after I read Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series some 15 years back. My mind is full of times I have never witnessed, of the Romans and also of the Regency period from other books I have read. A lovely site! It takes us about 1.5 hrs for the visit.

We walk our boy to the station. I am saddened by our goodbyes even though I shall see him again next weekend. My life seems to be so full of goodbyes from those I love the most..

I have looked up a well-rated vegetarian restaurant called Demuths and my dear man kindly agrees to eat dinner there. The food is mediocre but the prices are not. When the young girl who serves us stops to chat for barely a minute, the manager comes to hurry her on to someone else, without so much as an apologetic look at us. Are we invisible? Or not worth being polite to? Not recommended.

Day 4 Monday, 28 July 2013

It is another rainy day to which we wake. Tired from the long day yesterday, we have a leisurely start to the day. As we drive to Glastonbury, I am surprised at how flat the landscape is. I had imagined a more hilly country.

Glastonbury is quite busy this morning. We park at St.John’s square and check to see if the Tourist office provides any guided tours. The times don’t suit so we set off to see the ruined remains of the Abbey. The £6 admission includes a guided visit but the young guide is more concerned about getting wet than about showing us the site. The exhibition inside is far more informative and interesting. The ruins themselves are very atmospheric and I enjoy the visit very much. In 1191, based on hints in some books and rumours, the monks dug out a coffin with two bodies, supposedly that of the legendary king Arthur and Guinevere. I am sceptical but interested. The visit takes more than an hour. An interesting site.

We look in some of the shop windows. Many of them are related to the occult, given the connection of Glastonbury with Avalon and King Arthur. I find such shops exploitative, selling charms and spells to people who may genuinely believe in them. I myself believe in parapsychology and the mystical and have some skills as a palmist. My two bits: Be suspicious of anybody who charges you for these things. Those who have the gift will know that it is a blessing and think it a privilege to help those they can. So I ignore the shops and decide to go on to Wells.

We park at the Waitrose mall, grab a quick meal there before walking 10 minutes to the Cathedral. Even the facade takes my breath away. How beautiful it is! So many carvings! It is hard to take it all in.

I am even more awed by the interior! I am sorry but I have to gush, this is a truly gushworthy site! The elegance of the fan vaulting, the proportions of its columns, the light which fills it – simply glorious! Luckily, we are just in time for the last guided tour of the day at 3 pm. Our guide is excellent. Her knowledge is astounding and her passion infectious.

Just as we finish, the choir start practising. Their voices soar up effortlessly and my heart soars even higher. This is a place of beauty. It will remain with me for a long time.

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I had intended to visit the Bishop’s palace and its gardens. But my dear man complains of a stinging pain in his foot. My heart drops; a few years back I had suffered terribly from Plantar Fasciitis and his symptoms ring a bell. Poor man! We walk back slowly to the car and return to our B&B in Bath. A local newspaper in our room has an article on a successful Indian restaurant which we had seen on the way to the city. My husband is keen so we eat dinner there. It turns out to be reasonably good.

Day 5 Tuesday, 29 July 2013

We enjoy a bit of a lie-in and a leisurely morning as our bodies seem to need a recovery time. After breakfast, we check-out and say goodbye to our host. It has been a comfortable stay here. Our plan is to weave our way through villages to our destination for the night in the Cotswolds.

Our first stop is Lacock, not far from Bath. It is another rainy day and the streets are deserted. BBC’s Pride and Prejudice used this village as one of its locations but I cannot quite spot where or when. It is quite a charming village but the rains have dampened my spirit. There is an Abbey open for visits but we skip this.

Castle Combe is our next stop. It is delightfully quaint. The 14th century market cross above was built when the village was granted the privilege of holding a weekly market. I understand that this village has won the title of the prettiest village in England a few times. I am not surprised.

The street above is very charming and the Manor House Golf Hotel at the end of it is so pretty that my dear man thinks about returning for a stay here one day. The rain is sporadic and I am happy to be able to click some pictures.

We drive on to Tetbury, recommended in the Lonely Planet guide. We pass a posh girls school on the way and an arboretum which is said to be interesting. We were told that we would be passing Prince Charles’ home but do not spot it.

Tetbury is a busy town and has a number of antique shops. After Castle Combe, this town does not appeal to me at all. We have a very nice lunch at the Snooty Fox pub. Then we head to Painswick, also recommended by the Lonely Planet. This is a small village but again, I cannot see it as charming. In spite of not having done much, we both are quite tired so we abandon the pursuit of more pretty villages and head to our hotel in Broadway.

The Lygon Arms is a traditional inn referred to in a parish register as early as 1532. Oliver Cromwell stayed here in the 17th century. The public areas are charming and old-worldly with rafters and beams and old-fashioned fire places. Check-in is a slow process and I stand in line for a long time. Glad when it is finally over, I look forward to relaxing in our room. My heart plummets when we are shown in (room 90). There is no other word for it, the room is just shabby. We soon find out that the TV doesn’t work and the wifi doesn’t reach our room. We are both very unhappy as we unpack reluctantly. I go back to the reception and demand another room before we go out for a walk and dinner.

We dine at the Swan, a pub nearby. The table is dirty and nobody bothers to clean up, even after we have sat a while. My husband says that his burger is too dry but my dish is ok. I am depressed, thanks to our room. We have paid decently well for it, surely we can expect better?  When we return,we are told that we will be moved to room 70. This is much better, evidently refurbished recently. But I still feel resentful for having had to go through the stress.

Day 6 Wednesday, 30 July

We have slept reasonably well. I peep out of the window to look at the sky and make a moue of disappointment to see that it is another rainy day. I want a couple of sunny days for some photography..sigh!

After breakfast we wait for our daughter to be free to facetime from Australia. She is travelling interstate for her examination in Paediatrics. The six cases that she will present tomorrow will determine whether she can call herself a Paediatrician at the end of next year. I am anxious that it all goes well. The wifi still doesn’t work in our room so we wait in the lobby for her call. At last the call comes, we wish her well and then set off for the day.

It is almost noon when we reach Moreton-in-Marsh. It looks to me much like Broadway; a big market town with a broad street and many nice limestone buildings. But I do not find these as attractive as the smaller villages with cottages and lovely little gardens, I tell myself.

I am proven wrong in our very next stop, Stow-on-the-Wold, I think it very charming indeed! There are some interesting shops, many nice eateries and quite a few galleries. My dear man, a cricket fan, spots the Cotswold Cricket Museum. For £3.50, you can see memorabilia of cricketing greats such as W.G.Grace. He enjoys his visit while I wait outside clicking pictures. We then take a pleasant stroll through the town. I spot the Cotswold Galleries which has a lovely collection of old fashioned paintings. I have a happy browse and a delightful chat with the friendly proprietors.

We head next to the kind of village I like – Lower Slaughter. It is a quiet and very charming with a real rural feel to it.

We stroll past the mill and have afternoon tea in a little terrace next to the river. It is beautiful and peaceful.

The walk to Upper Slaughter would have been just a short one. But it has been raining on and off all day so we just drive. This is even smaller than Lower Slaughter. There are a few tourists like us but it is mostly very quiet. It has a stillness about it which appeals very much.

My theory about my tastes for small villages is again tested at Bourton-on-the-Water. This is an unashamedly touristic destination; based on the little canal above they call themselves the Venice of the Cotswolds!!!! But I still find it very charming. There are some nice shops to browse and benches to rest by the water and watch the children play in the shallow waters. We do a little shopping and then find a Chinese restaurant which has enough vegetarian choices to tempt me. The food is inexpensive and tasty, I am happy to recommend the China Town Restaurant.

Day 7 Thursday 31 July 2013

At last we are to have a rain free day! Pleased with the weather report, we set off enthusiastically towards Stratford-upon-Avon. We are well in time for the 11 am walking tour which starts at the swan fountain above, close to the Royal Shakespeare Company (in the background above).

Our guide David is very good and takes us for an interesting two hour stroll around town. Almost everything we visit is Shakespeare related; as the guide says, the town ‘milks Shakespeare for all he’s worth!’. We see sites related to him, his wife, his granddaughter and even his grand son-in-law.

I confess that I am not much taken with this town though the tour is very nice. My favourite part of the town is the river above.

My husband is keen to see a play. I had checked their schedules earlier and not been attracted by the plays on offer. But we still buy tickets for the 7 pm show of All’s Well That Ends Well (£35 each for upper circle). Not being a die-hard Shakespeare fan, nor wanting to spend such a sunny day indoors, I tell my husband that I would rather skip the visits to the museums. He agrees happily.

We drive out first to Chipping Campden. It has a nice Market Cross but otherwise I admit I do not find it interesting.

I then demand to be driven to see the Lavender fields near Snowshill, close to Broadway. I am just looking for photo opportunities on this warm and sunny day. That I get in plenty. I am very happy!

Next we drive past a little village called Stanton, not yet in the tourist train I think. It is entirely charming. We are surprised to see that it has such a large cricket ground! We drive past an even smaller village called Stanway before returning to the Lygon Arms for a rest. Changing into our travel best, we head back to Stratford upon Avon and have a meal at the Pen and Parchment, a pub close to our parking. We have left it a bit late but the folks here are very good and hurry with our order. The food is reasonable.

I am worried about our seats in the upper circle. Will we see well from up above? It turns out to be fine though the stalls would have been better of course. The play is not bad; some of the actors are very good indeed.  It finishes after 10:30 pm and it is almost midnight before we get to sleep. It has been a long day.

For those considering a shorter stay in this region, I recommend visiting Castle Combe, Lower & Upper Slaughter, Bourton-on-the-water and Stow-on-Wold. This is achievable in a day. Include Stratford-upon-Avon if you are a Shakespeare fan, in which case you need an extra day.

Day 8 Friday 1 August, 2013

This is the eighth day of travel and our energies are flagging. We are lethargic this morning and take our time in departing for Oxford, our next destination. The landscape is lovely and we enjoy our drive. At the hotel, our room is not yet ready. We leave the car and head out to the city. It is a 17 minute walk which we enjoy.

My plan is to spend the afternoon in the Ashmolean Museum. We take audio guides (£3 each) but we hardly use them. The descriptions on the exhibits are good enough and we spend a happy afternoon examining objects from many cultures and times.

We then stroll around town, more or less aimlessly. I enjoy its youthful atmosphere and grand buildings. Satiated for the day, we walk back to our hotel. On tired feet it takes 30 mins instead of 17. Both of us are limping a bit with our respective feet problems. Tourism is hard on one’s feet! Flopping in bed, I am reluctant to get up and go out again. But we have promised to have dinner at our young friends’ home. We stir ourselves to finally drive out and have a very enjoyable evening.

Day 9 Saturday, 2 Aug 2013

I wake up cheerful, our son is coming to meet us again today! We get ready and are at the tourist office by 10:15 am. Our son joins us soon after. I have pre-booked a tour from the tourist office at 11 am. We have some free time so we pop into the History of Science museum. I am delighted to see Einstein’s black board from a lecture in 1931 and Marconi’s first tuned transmitter! ‘Yes!’, I proclaim to my family, ‘the geek in me is alive and well!’. There are a number of treasures here for the scientifically minded but the display is rather dry; it would have been nice to have a guided tour.

The guide is informative but not entertaining, there is no passion here. We first visit Exeter college. The guide tells us about the college system and talks about famous students from various colleges. Our son is pleased to know that Tolkien studied right here!

We then walk to Radcliffe Square, past the Bodleian Library, under the Bridge of Sighs, past the Turf Tavern and back to tourist office. The tour takes about 2 hours though we do not cover much distance.

Our son is keen to eat lunch at Jamie’s, to repeat our Bath experience. We enjoy the meal and a nice catch-up with him. I want to see at least one more college. I drag my family to Lincoln, which is closed. We try New College, Trinity and Christ Church only to meet more failure. It seems to be a ceremonial day with many young ones in their graduation robes. Perhaps that is why everything is closed. My husband and son are now displaying signs of rebellion so I finally give up.

We walk to the Folly Bridge where the first Ox crossed the Ford to come to Oxford – or so I tell myself! We enjoy a short rest by the river and then walk back along the Christ Church Meadows, finally to trudge back slowly to our hotel. This is the end of our trip. We say goodbye again to our son and drop him at the station to head back to London. As for us, it is a drive of 200 kms to get to our night stay in a small pub just 7 kms from the Euro Tunnel. It is adequate for our needs but is too noisy to recommend.

Day 10 3 August, 2013

Our holiday is over. We get to the Tunnel in time, cross the channel and then drive 750 kms back home in about 7 hrs. All that is left is the pleasure of sorting through 800 or so photos and ruminating over the holiday as I write my blog….

Cruising the Eastern Med

June 7th, 2013

As we set off from home towards Venice, I look thankfully up at the skies. May had been cold and depressingly wet and I had worried that our cruise would be a wash-out. Thankfully the weather has seen a turn for the better this week. We are driving up to a small resort called Desanzano on the shore of Lake Garda today where we shall stay the night.

18 Desenzano19 Desenzano

Our hotel is an old-fashioned little place right on the lakeside. I walk out to the balcony to see the sun shine brilliantly on the water, throwing diamonds of reflection all around. Interesting paint work on the boats!

We set out for a wander around town. It is alive with the sound of local youngsters; summer has arrived. It is not yet too crowded but we see a number of fellow tourists. At dinner our waiter tells us that the rains have kept the tourists away.

02 Roman villa

We stumble upon an archaeological site, the remains of a Roman Villa (entrance fee: Euro 2). There is a short film in English which tells the story, otherwise all the explanatory boards are in Italian only. What a grand villa it must have been! The centuries have reduced it all to a rubble but the wonderfully colourful and artistic mosaic floors which have survived let us imagine it all.

We eat pizzas for dinner. Delicious! Afterwards we are happy to go back to the hotel and call it a day.

June 8th, 2013

We don’t hurry this morning. After a leisurely breakfast, we check out Sirmione which is close by. This is in a little needle of a land, sticking out into Lake Garda. There is a castle and narrow atmospheric lanes which are teeming with tourists. We don’t stay long as we are both keen to get to the ship.

We reach the port by 1:30 pm, unload our luggage and park in our pre-booked spot. For those interested in practical details of booking the cruise, the parking spot and other such information, see here.

05 Room 106 Room 2

Embarkation is quick and easy. It is about 2:30 by the time we are aboard. We find our stateroom, leave the carry on bag and head towards the buffet to find something to eat as we were very hungry indeed. The buffet is enormous with many choices. As a vegetarian, I had wondered if I would have to survive on salads but that is not the case, not at all. I fear now that I shall gain weight by overeating! Still..neither of us can resist the desserts. Sigh! What hard lives we lead!

04 Our Ship07 Venice Depaarture

We check out the ship all the way to the top. It is simply enormous! We then park ourselves for a grand-view of Venice as we depart. The cruise director gives an informative and interesting talk as we sail majestically out of port. I have been to Venice many times but this view from the top of the Cruise ship is quite unique. We are told that this will soon stop as they are building a port outside the canal which will be operational within 2 years. If you have a yen for seeing Venice from a deck, do it soon.

We head to dinner at 8pm. There are two big dining rooms and the lines are long in both. We are given a beeper and told that the wait is about 30 mins. We are called in sooner than that. We share a large table with two other couples, strangers to us. The conversation is lively, the food delicious and we spend a very congenial evening.

June 9th, 2013

We wake up fresh after a good night’s sleep. I had ordered room service for breakfast, this is a pleasure for a slow starter like me. Every evening they deliver a newsletter with all the activities for the day. Each evening, I religiously highlight everything which interests us. Highlighted newsletter in hand, we set out to listen all about shore excursions and then go to the desk to book ourselves in for a couple. Afterwards, remembering the evils of gluttony, we use the stairs for exercise and explore the ship.

.08 Dubrovnik approach12 Dubrovnik

At 2 pm, the ship glides majestically into the harbour at Dubrovnik. I can see how arriving like this can become addictive. So much nicer than airports!!

We have booked a shuttle-bus (Eu 12 each) to take us to town, as have many others. There are taxis which cost about Eu 10 each way; this is more economical for a larger group. Walking to town would have taken between 40-50 mins. In this heat, I do not recommend this option.

20 Dubrovnik

The shuttle bus leaves us at Pile. This is a busy transport hub with people milling everywhere. The square is quite nice with lots of restaurants and a view of the city walls.

10 Dubrovnik

We enter through the Pile gates. Having visited many European walled cities, I am expecting something dark. Instead the city glints almost white under the hot sun. The large polygonal fountain in the picture above is the Onofrios fountain built in 1438. In front, you see the Placa or Stradun, the main street with beautiful houses on either side. The bell tower is visible in the far distance.

11 Dubrovnik

At the other end of the Placa is an impressive square in the middle of which stands Orlando’s column put up in 1418. It represents the knight Roland from the 8th century who became famous due to the medieval epic Chanson de Roland. On the left you see the Church of St Blaise constructed in 1715.

35 Dubrovnik

Seeing the square from another angle, you can see the 16th century customs palace called Sponza on the left. It is a museum now. Next to it, you can see the base of the 15th century bell tower Luža which was restored in 1952. I don’t feel like visiting a museum in the short time we have; I would rather wander around absorbing the spirit of the place.

Continuing on, we pass the magnificent Rector’s palace, the colonnaded building in the centre of the picture above.

76 Dubrovnik

We visit the Cathedral (above) which was built from 1672 to 1713. Interestingly, there used to be a 12th-14th century Cathedral in the same place which was built with funds donated by the English king Richard the Lion Hearted when he survived a shipwreck close by. Unfortunately that Cathedral was destroyed in an earthquake in 1667.

We walk on to the Ploce gate from where we climb the ramparts (Euro 12). These fortifications were built from the 8th century but most of the construction happened later between 15th and 16th centuries. This is the star attraction of Dubrovnik and what an attraction! I find the climb tiring in the heat (33C/91F) and soon my clothes are plastered to me, But I still enjoy every moment of our walk. The views over the rooftops and the harbour are just magnificent.

Afterwards we wander in the relatively cooler small side streets and alleyways. Finding a little cafe, we sit to have a drink and people-watch. The waiter speaks perfect English. Amused by the communication struggles of the French group at the next table, I strike a conversation with them. Indeed it is difficult to travel with little English.

09 Ship

We take the shuttle back to the ship. I ask my husband to take a picture of me against the whole ship. I am the little black dot in the middle distance in the pic above!

Today we choose the second of the grand dining rooms for dinner. The menu is the same in both dining rooms, it is only the setting which differs. We are early and get a window seat. Dining on excellent fare, watching the ship slowly set off towards further shores, I feel in the lap of luxury. After dinner there is a very good magic show which I enjoy except for the presence of a truly enormous snake which I really object to (phobia). I try to block out thoughts of the snake escaping and wandering free through the corridors of the ship, but until the end of the cruise, I am always aware at the back of my mind that my enclosed surroundings house a snake as well. Shudder!

June 10, 2013

This is a rest day on the ship. I sleep in late while my husband makes use of the gym. I spend the morning reading on the deck and chatting with strangers. There are other readers like me, but only a few. Most head out for the pool where there is live music and a party atmosphere. The fitness room is full of the work-out addicts. The constantly open buffets and cafes are well used. There are people perusing the library, the card room looks empty, the casino is always ringing, the bars are well populated. There are a number of organised events as well. We attend a ‘meet the Officers’ event and a lecture on Greek Gods.In the evening there is a leisurely dinner, followed by a shipboard version of Deal-or-No-Deal , very nice music by a group from Spain called Forever, then a rather funny dance competition. It is not difficult to pass time on board.

June 11, 2013

We dock today at Piraeus, the port of Athens. We have signed up for a conducted tour to see the Acropolis. Originally we had signed up for a longer version of 6.5 hrs but we change it after our day at Dubrovnik. I have become a wimp, a shame on my Indian heritage, thanks to too many years in the mild heat of Switzerland. I seem to get very tired even under what some others were calling ‘only mild heat’.

It is all very well organised. Hundreds of fellow cruisers gather in a large auditorium and as our tours are called, we are ushered out, given stickers with bus numbers, shepherded into buses and off we go. I have not done this kind of touring since our first ever European travel in 1983. In one way it is so much easier, no thinking, no planning, no worries. But also no excitement, no knowledge gathering, no seeking, no finding, no knowing.

We are driven first to the ancient stadium which seems to have been much maintained. The sun burns down on us as we take pictures.

Other sights are pointed out to us from the bus but there are no photo opportunities. We finally park at the Acropolis and gather to climb to the top. This is only about 150 metres, less than my climb on my daily walk. But it is hot and very very crowded. I am glad I am wearing comfortable shoes.

12 Athens

As we climb up the steps, we peep over the balustrade for a stunning view of the Odeum of Herodis Atticus which is at the foot of the hill. This theatre was built by the Romans in 161 AD. Our guide tells us that it is still used as a concert venue.

27 Athens

At the top of the steps we come to the Propylaea, the entrance gateway built in 432 AD. We also see the temple of Nike Athena to the right but I miss taking a picture.

Inside the gates there is a great clearing with the important buildings including the Parthenon. These were built in the 5th century BC. I am stunned by what they achieved 2500 years ago! Simply astounding! In the picture above, you see the Parthenon on the right and the Erechtheion on the left. See close ups of both monuments below.

36 Athens62 Athens

The Parthenon (above left) is the temple dedicated to the Goddess Athena for whom Athens is named. It was built between 447 to 432 BC. The Erechtheion (above right) was built between 421 and 406 BC. The close up is of the Porch of Caryatids, with six draped female figures used as columns. What we see are replicas; of the originals, one was taken to Britain by Lord Elgin and the others are housed in the Acropolis Museum.

26 Athens39 Athens

The Acropolis is also a good vantage point for seeing other monuments of Greece. Above right, we have the Temple of Zeus. Above left is the temple of Thission built in 449 BC .

66 Athens48 Athens

The rock on the left above is the Areopagus which served as a Court of Appeal in ancient times. The Apostle Paul is said to have delivered a speech from here. On the right, you see the Mount Lycabettus, the highest point in the city.

Our guided tour includes only the Acropolis. Once that is done, we are bundled back into the bus and taken back to the ship. I am regretting not having the time to explore the city at leisure. But then the heat zaps my energy…so perhaps, one late autumn, we shall come back again.

After a delicious dinner, this evening’s entertainment is a singing competition. There are some dancers as well. Not bad.

June 12, 2013

We dock at Izmir nice and early. We are off today to visit the ancient ruins at Ephesus. As before we are shepherded efficiently onto buses. The trip from Izmir to Ephesus takes almost an hour. Our guide is very knowledgeable and tells us lots of interesting information about Turkey and its history.

At Ephesus the bus stops at the higher gates and our guide leads us into a large open area. The area in the middle with columns used to be the State Agora built in the 1st Century AD. Both political and religious meetings took place here.

14 Ephesus

We see some partially excavated baths and then walk to the area above. On the left, the arch is part of the Fountain of Pollio built in 97 AD. The water was brought here by aqueducts. In the centre of the picture are the remains of the Temple of Domitian.

22 Ephesus21 Ephesus

The site is very crowded and as I pause for pictures, I lose the guide. Running to find him in the crowd, I miss seeing other monuments nearby like the Prhaneion and the Memmius monument. Or did I see them but not register what the guide was saying? I really don’t like this guided tour; give me a guide book and I can do a much better job myself! What you see above is the Curetes street, one of the main streets of Ephesus.

26 Ephesus29 Ephesus

Above left is the Fountain of Trajan built in 104 AD.  I believe the statues which stood there are housed in a museum. On the right is the arch of the Temple of Hadrian built in 138 AD. It is a very beautiful monument, with lovely carvings and beautiful columns.

After seeing very impressive public toilets and the bordello, we come out to this wonderful spot. On the left is the famous Celsus Library built between 117 AD to 132 AD. In fact, it was a built as a tomb for the governor Celsus Polemaeanus. The library could store 12,000 scrolls. All the books were destroyed in an earthquake and fire in 262 AD.The front facade as we see was reconstructed in the 1960s and 70s. On the right you see the great Marble road from the 1st century which leads from the library to the Great Theatre.

A closer view of the library. From here we go in through the arches on the right which leads us through the commercial Agora up to the magnificent Grand Theatre..

65 Ephesus

This huge structure with a capacity for 25,000 people was built in 3rd BC. It is at the end of the Harbour road which leads to the lower gates. There was a great riot against Apostle Paul right here! This was the last part of our tour of Ephesus. A note to fellow travellers : wear shoes with good tread, the marble and stone  pathways were quite slippery in places.

71 Ephesus74 Ephesus73 Ephesus

From Ephesus we are carted to a carpet store(!) for a forced sales talk. Actually, it is not too bad as I watch the beautiful carpets rolled out in front of us. At the end there is a bit of pressure to buy but we withstand it bravely. I understand that the cruise company and the guides probably get a cut from the spend in these shops, so the price would have been appropriately raised. Then if you build in bargaining, the ‘real’ price would be hard to judge……buyers beware!

I read my book all afternoon. After a delicious dinner, we are entertained by an amazing aerialist duo. They are brilliant!

June 13, 2013

A rest day at sea. My husband decides to go to the gym in the morning while I wander around clicking pictures and then attend a couple of lectures by the very talented cruise director. Later in the day we go to see an Art auction, quite surprised by the number of people who buy art while on a cruise. Even for non-pool loungers like me, a day at sea is entertaining enough.

June 14, 2013

41 Split40 Split

We dock in Split today. Tendering is a new experience for us. Instead of docking, the ship anchors a short way out at sea. The lifeboats are lowered and used to ferry the passengers to the port. They land us very close to the old town, it is just a few steps away, at the end of pier above right.

38 Split

On the left is the facade of the Diocletian Palace built in 3 AD. The Roman Emperor spent the last years of his life here. The entrance to the old town is an underground passage at the right end of the picture. The passage is full of shops and tourists are milling around.

Climbing up the steps at the end of the passage, we arrive at this very beautiful and busy square. Called Peristyle, There is much to admire here, the brightness of limestone with accents of granite columns and even a sphinx! Facing us (on the right) of the picture above is the entry to the emperor’s apartments. In the middle of the picture you see the Cathedral of St Domnius, previously the Mausoleum of Diocletian.

13 Split20 Split

The old Palace walls remain otherwise the palace is taken over by medieval buildings.

14 Split18 Split

The main part of the Cathedral was Diocletian’s mausoleum which dates from the end of the 3rd century. The Bell Tower is from 12th century and the chorus from the 17th century.  My guidebook says that it is possibly the oldest building in Christendom used as a Cathedral. I take quite a childish delight in facts like that!

17 Split21 Split

Just under the Cathedral is the Crypt of Saint Lucy, the entrance to which is just next to the man standing under the umbrella. It feels blessedly cool. We then walk a short distance to the Baptistry of St John which was consecrated in the 6th century. It was originally built as a Temple to Jupiter. It is very small with a very nice roof.

We then stroll down to the Northern gate of the palace, called the Golden Gate. This used to be the main entrance to the Palace, and so is the most elaborate gate. Outside the gate is the striking statue of Bishop Gregory of Nin, whose toe I rub for good luck.

We then weave in and out of the small streets, enjoying the charm of these old streets where history has streamed past.

This evening there is a grand production by the entertainers on board including music, dance, magic and aerialists. At the end a representative group of officers, crew members, chefs and support staff come on stage; I clap their efforts sincerely.

June 15, 2013

13 Venice24 Venice

We stand on our balcony as we sail back into Venice. This is a grand experience, great photo opportunities! The ship docks right on time. We have a hearty breakfast and then disembark. Our luggage awaits us at the terminal. We drag our cases to the car and set off home. Discussing the trip, we both decide that it has been a very nice experience. Will we cruise again? Yes!

A Long Weekend in and around Nice

Easter weekend is coming up soon’ I mutter to myself ‘Where shall we go to escape this damp and cold weather?’. ‘I know’, I exclaim loudly. ‘Nice will surely be nice?’.

This, my readers, is the kind of foolishness which lands one in equally damp and cold weather far from the comforts of home! But I was not to know that till later. Let me add the disclaimer than a couple of days is not enough to see anything much in a region which offers a lot of possibilities. But this is all we have. I am determined to enjoy whatever we do manage to see.

I find ourselves a moderately priced hotel with private parking on the internet. We intend to drive. This is not the best option for short holidays for far too much time is spent on the road. But I am remembering an astounding drive along a coastline from our last trip 28 years ago and hence the car.

On the morn of Easter Friday, we leave home at a very reasonable time. We are taking a familiar path through the  Saint Bernard tunnel which will get us into Italy, heading towards Genova and then driving along the coast to Nice.

003 On Road

The snowy landscape of Switzerland looks gorgeous as we drive to the pass.

 

Unfortunately, it is soon apparent that we are not going to enjoy the wonderful scenery around us. The clouds are  low and we are soon driving through a haze. This fog lasts until we descend from the Alps into the plains of Italy. We are determined to make good time so we don’t stop often. Still it is 5pm before we reach our hotel. It is a small one with a lovely open outdoor area and parking, a surprising little oasis in a congested area of the city.

006 Marché aux Fleurs

We head straight to the Tourist Office where we book ourselves in for the Saturday morning walking tour of the old city. Then we wander down along the promenade to the old city. At the Marché aux Fleurs, the last of the daily flower market stalls are still there.

As we sit with a drink next to the market and people-watch, a sense of well-being descends upon me. ‘How pleasant this is!’ I tell myself. ‘This is quite the place to throw away the winter gloom!’, 

012 Place Masséna

We then wander aimlessly for a while, have dinner at a wood-fired pizza place (very pedestrian) and finally make our way back to the hotel, admiring the lights of Place Masséna.

Saturday morning dawns as miserable as can be. We dress warmly, get our rain gear on and head to the Tourist Office well in time for the walking tour.

We’ll have the tour only if at least 5 people come’ says our guide-to-be, obviously hoping that they would not! ‘It’s all very well for you!’, she tells us later, ‘You’re used to the rain! I am from Nice, this is unusual for us..’, She is not in luck. Enough people turn up for a group in French as well as a group in English.

030 Old Pattisserie

We start with a bit of history and then walk to the old city. At Rue St François de Paule, we admire the Beau Rivage building, the Opera House and the Baroque façade of the Église St François de Paule. But it is the confiserie, once patronised by Queen Victoria, which gets a lot of aahs and oohs from our group! I want to come back later for some treats but get distracted and never make it.

033 Marché aux fleurs

The Marché aux Fleurs is very busy. The guide tells us about the Palais de Justice and the Chapelle de La Miséricorde. The yellow house at the right end of the picture above was where Matisse stayed for 10 years, we hear.

Next we walk along the old winding lanes to the Cathédrale St Réparate. We hear the story of the boat which arrives with the body of the saint. We hear a similar story in Monaco on Monday. ‘So many bodies floating hither and thither on the Med? What a ghoulish traffic jam!’ I think irreverently.

037 Palais Lascaris041 Palais Lascaris

Our guide, who is bent upon finding covered areas to tour in, takes us next to the Palais Lascaris. It is a lovely old house with some nice furnishings to admire (free entrance). The collection of musical instruments on display is very interesting.

Our last stop is Place Garibaldi, a beautiful and expansive square. Here we say goodbye to our guide and set out by ourselves.

047 Socca045 Restaurant

Our guide has recommended Socca D’Or, a little place in Rue Bonaparte just off Place Garibaldi. We want to try the local speciality, a savoury pancake made of ground chickpeas. My husband and I share a portion which turns out to be greasy but delicious. It awakens our appetite. Spotting a likely looking restaurant (Pourquoipas) in the same street, we pop in. The food is excellent and host very welcoming. I also enjoy a nice conversation with a couple of ladies in the next table. Whoever says that the French are not a friendly lot? I’ve always found them to be genial!

After lunch I want to walk back to the Rue Droite where we saw Palais Lascaris. The street has a number of lovely galleries which I enjoy  peering into. I also enjoy browsing through a few shops.

We head back to Rue du Château and climb slowly up the hill to the Colline du Château. At the top we find a bench and sit for a long while admiring the stunning views.

As always, I am fascinated by the rooftops.

Eventually we walk down towards the port.

072 From Colline du Chateau

We walk towards the lighthouse watching with interest a ferry which draws in. The boats look lovely but a wind is blowing and I am feeling cold. I want to get back to somewhere warm. But instead, we buy ourselves some ice cream from Fenocchio, an ice cream parlour in the Cathedral square. They have so many flavours that it is hard to choose! I am flagging soon and not interested in any dinner. My husband grabs a Turkish sandwich and we head back to the hotel.

097 Mougins100 Mougins

Sunday dawns much more pleasant though it is not much warmer. We have a leisurely breakfast and set off towards out first stop, the hilltop village of Mougins where Picasso spent many years. It is a quiet little place with a few nice galleries.  We buy some lovely postcards of paintings by a local artist. If you are short on time, I do not recommend this as a stop.

Grasse seems to be not too far out and on an impulse, we decide to check-out what it is like. I am not much taken by what I see and decide not to stop. However we are lured by strategically placed advertisements to visit one of the perfume houses and emerge with multiple bottles of perfume, for ourselves and as gifts.

101 Cannes festival hall

We head next to Cannes, not too far away. We park right beside the festival hall. We are very ready for lunch. The promenade has more restaurants than we can count. We randomly wander into one and are not disappointed.

Given the shortage of time, we decide to take the petit-train tour. It is a good way to get an overall idea of a place but I dislike it so! I would much rather walk. However, our ages are telling on us and the all day walking yesterday has left my knees a bit sore and so a petit-train it has to be.

106 Cannes108 Cannes

Lose 10 kilos and get fit!’ I mutter to myself as I look longingly at the many missed photo ops and manage to take some  hideous shots of beautiful buildings. If you enjoy photography, don’t take the petit-train!

We do get to stop at the top of the hill for some panoramic shots.

After the tour, we spend a short while on the promenade. I notice that the beach is much nicer than the rocky one in Nice.

137 St Paul de Vence

Our last stop for the day is St Paul de Vence. This is another hilltop village, a village perché as it is called.

There are a group of men playing Pétanque in the village. We sit and watch them awhile but cannot really figure out the rules.

This is a truly charming village filled with many beautiful galleries. Both my husband and I declare it as our favourite stop for the day.

I am charmed by the beautiful stone houses and tiny squares.

197 Vase

I am much taken by this beautiful vase I see in a gallery and now it sits proudly on my table!

t is almost eight o’clock and we are tired. If I had known what I know now, I would have chosen only two destinations for the day, Cannes and St Paul. I would have been happy with more time at both. Well, one lives and learns…

We go out to a late dinner at a restaurant not too far from our hotel and sleep the sleep of the exhausted.

Monday morning starts looking dull but improves on acquaintance.  After checking out, we drive out to Èze by the Moyenne Corniche. This is a spectacular ride and I am enthralled by the beauty of the Mediterranean.

There are a number of vantage points along the road. A strong recommendation for photo enthusiasts.

157 Eze

Èze is another village perché, a beautifully preserved medieval village. It is a bit of a climb from the parking lot. I find very many charming corners which please me..

There is a little church and some lovely views from the top. But it is cold and windy and we do not have the time to linger. We head out towards Monaco for another short visit.

182 Monaco

Much as I like walking around to discover places by myself, the short time makes the choice of a petit-train tour a sensible one. Monaco is small and one can explore it easily on foot, given the time. It has a nice promenade, some grand old buildings and a few lovely looking gardens.

At the end of the 30 min tour, we walk back to the Cathedral and then to the palace square. I was here last in 1985, sick as a dog from carrying my daughter who is 27 now. Seeing the ghost of my young self standing beside me, I declare ‘You, my dear, may be younger, slimmer, prettier and have stronger knees but at least I am not throwing up at every street corner!’. With a grunt of satisfaction, I move away.

There are many vistas to admire but it is past 1:30 pm and we have a long drive back home.

Our drive is uneventful except for the traffic we get stuck in near Genova in Italy and then again near Aigle in Switzerland. We reach home much later than we estimated. My poor husband had a 8am meeting on Tuesday morning but I sleep in, waking late to browse through my many photos and reliving our holiday yet once more. In spite of the weather throwing a damper, it has been a good holiday.

Museum Hop Till You Drop in Paris

Warning : This may be seriously injurious to those who think that holidays are for relaxing!!

Attention: For serious art-lovers only!!

I’ve just spent one week in Paris, spending all day everyday in either museums or monuments. In my previous trips to Paris, I have explored the normal touristic destinations but never had time enough to devote to museums. First trippers may who wish to fit in as much as they can into their holidays may also find my tips useful.

Where to Stay: It doesn’t matter. Whichever arrondissement you elect to stay in, you’ll end up having to take public transport from place to place. I stayed in a hotel in the 1st last time, but I didn’t like it much. I liked my apartment in the 9th close to Folies Bergère much better; it was a normal residential area. In both cases, plenty of commutes by metro were inevitable.

Hotel or Apartment : There is a case for both. I was alone and stayed in a tiny studio apartment. It was comfortable and the location convenient for the metro. For those considering apartments, the points to look for (in addition to location) is availability of lifts in the building, washers/dryers if you need them and internet connection. The additional costs of agent’s fees, renter’s insurance and cleaning fee are not always evident. With an apartment you can save some eating out costs if you are prepared to make simple meals or bring in take-away.

Museum Pass : I bought the 6 day pass for a hefty Eu 69. On calculating after the trip, I visited Eu 104 worth of museums, though of course I went to a couple only because I had the pass. The main advantage is bypassing the ticket queues at the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay where ticket queues are very long. It did not save any time in the other places. On the whole I recommend it for those who do want to museum & monument hop.

Which Museums & Monuments : It is important to plan ahead by checking the list of museums and monuments there are in Paris and selecting the ones which interest you most. It is impossible to see them all anyway, so being selective is the key. My area of interesting is paintings from the 15th to the early 20th century and my selections were based on that. I visited the following museums: Louvre, Orsay, Petit Palais, Orangerie, Cluny and Rodin. I also visited the following monuments: Notre Dame (free), Basilque St. Denis, Invalides (free) & Napoleon’s Tomb, Versailles, Sainte Chapelle, Basilica at Montmartre (free) and the Pantheon.

Transport Pass : Transport passes seem too expensive to make sense. When you buy a carnet of 10 tickets, each ticket costs only Eu 1.27. A daily pass is Eu 8.55, nearly 7 trips to break even. Even if you buy a 5 day pass, you’ll need to make 5 trips to make it worthwhile. I one week I used two sets of 10 tickets and a return ticket to Versailles for a total of about Eu 32. I also took taxis to and from Gare de Lyon (total Eu 28). I did cleverly route myself so that I was not crossing to and fro across the ciry. I travelled only by Metro or RER. The buses seemed frequent but the traffic so heavy that the going would have been slow. The Metro is easy to figure out and the correspondences and exits very clearly marked at each station. I found the Plan de Quartier (Plan of the area) stuck on walls close to exits very useful to get oriented. These maps show the streets around the metro and the various exits are clearly marked. Important: Do not throw away tickets until you finish the complete trip. You need the RER ticket for exiting stations. There are random checks on the Metro (I was checked once) and there is a heavy fine if you don’t have a valid ticket.

For those with Reduced Mobility due to disability, injuries or age : Paris is hard. Only a few Metro lines have escalators or elevators, at most times you will need to climb a lot of stairs, for entry & exit but also for correspondences between lines. This page gives a very useful list of stations which have lifts or escalators. There is often a long walk along tunnels when making correspondences. I recommend taxis for those with any serious disability or weakness. People with aches and pains, like myself, can manage but it takes a toll. Buses would be easier but slower. It was hard inside the museums as well; even when there were facilities, some were reserved only for people with a real disability. Sometimes the cost (energy & strain) of having to find a lift did not seem worth it. I found an older gentleman walking around with a small foldable stool; it seemed like a good idea to me! I have also made comments on the individual museums and monuments I visited re accessibility. I personally suffer from a bad back and sciatica and some knee & ankle issues, all of which were put to test and failed miserably during this visit to Paris. It was pain-killers and anti-inflammatories to the rescue!

Tips for Museums and Monuments:

Musée d’Orsay

Queuing: Outdoors, with no shade. Special entry for museum pass holders and advanced tickets with hardly any wait time. Extremely long queue for others.

Time inside 1.5 days, for a total of 10 hours for a thorough visit including the special exhibition on Degas.

Audio Guide: Paid audioguide available. It was excellent for the special exhibition, only limited coverage for the collection but still worth getting. Note: you need to deposit a photo id (passport) to get the audio guide.

Mobility issues: There is some information for people with disabilities at the museum site. For other, there are steps to access the entrance and plenty of steps inside as well. There are escalators to the upper gallery but the escalators down go only part of the way. There were steps for the toilet and café access as well, I think the lifts are reserved for people with disabilities only. There are very few places to sit inside the galleries, it was very tiring.

Musée du Louvre

Queuing: Outdoors, with no shade. Special entry for museum pass holders and advanced tickets with short queues. Extremely long queue for others.

Time inside: 2 days, for a total of 14 hrs. I was thorough with Paintings and with French Sculpture, superficially walked past Near-Easter Antiquities, paying attention only to a couple of very famous exhibits, did a superficial walk through of other antiquities (mainly to see the Palace). I did not enter the Decorative Arts, Arts of other continents or the History of Louvre sections. Nor did I see the temporary exhibition.

Audio Guide: Very good. It was particularly useful because it knew which room I was in and automatically showed the available information! Highly recommended. Note: You need to deposit a photo id (passport) to get the audio guide.

Mobility Issues: This page has detailed information for people with disabilities. The museum is huge and is a physical challenge even for those in perfect health. I used lifts whenever I found them, but sometimes I had to walk for miles (ok, not miles Smile ) before I found them. At times the effort seemed too much and I just limped my way up and down stairs. There is thankfully plenty of seating in the galleries but because of the crowds, it was difficult to find free seating especially in the first floor paintings section.

Musée de l’Orangerie

Queuing: A short queue, no more than 10 mins.

Time Insde: 1 hr. The lower level had an unexpectedly excellent collection of 19th-20th century paintings.

Audio Guide: Paid audioguide was available, I did not take it.

Mobility Issues: The museum has support for disable visitors. For others, there are a number of steps to the lower level, I am not sure if a lift was available. There was plenty of seating in front of the waterlilies but none in the lower level.

Petit Palais

Queuing : None

Time inside: 1 to 1.5 hrs. It is a small collection and not crowded.

Audio Guide : It was available but I did not use.

Mobiliy issues : It is adapted for people with reduced mobility, find information here. However, I did not find the lifts and used the stairs but it was not difficult.

Musée National do Moyen Âge (Cluny)

Queuing: None

Time inside: 1 hr, this is not an area of primary interest for me.

Audio Guide: I took it but did not listen to all the entries. Reasonable information.

Mobility Issues: It is not adapted for the disabled. There are narrow stairs to be taken to go the upper level. It is a small museum and not tiring. I don’t remember any seating inside the galleries.

Musée Rodin

Queuing: Short queues but I imagine it would be longer in high season. No shade.

Time inside: 1.5-2 hrs. I did not linger.

Audio Guide: It was available but I did not use.

Mobility Issues: The gardens and the lower levels of the museum are accessible to all. There is no lift to the first floor. It is a small museum with plenty of seating.

Château de Versailles

Queuing: First there is a queue to buy tickets, not very long and there was overhead cover. Museum-pass holders can skip this. Then there is the queue to enter the palace which is common to everyone. This is extremely long, with no cover and no seating. It took me 1.5 hrs to get in and my back was in poor shape after that.

Time Inside: 1.5 hrs for the palace. The museum pass did not include a visit to the gardens for which there is a separate queue, again with no cover and no seating. I was too tired and too irritable with the crowds and noise to want to see it. I will not come back to the Versailles, I did not enjoy my visit at all.

Audio Guide: A free guide is included with the entry fee and is reasonable.

Mobility Issues: There is information for people with disabilities here. For others, there are steps to the upper floor and steps down. The Palace is extremely, excessively crowded and there is no seating so it was tiring.

Sainte Chapelle

Queuing: Long and slow moving queue to get past the security, no cover. I stood for 1hr 15 mins. Very short queue for the tickets.

Time Inside: 30mins. There were explanatory sheets in English which were useful.

Audio Guide: Paid guide available, but I did not take it.

Mobility Issues: No support for people with reduced mobility. Narrow staircase up to see the chapel. The chapel itself is very small and there is no seating.

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris

Queuing: Long but fast moving queue to enter. I stood for about 20 mins.

Time Inside: I stayed for 30 mins but I think with the audio guide it would take longer.

Audioguide: Paid guide available, but I did not take it.

Mobility Issues: Most of the Cathedral is accessible to anyone. There are a couple of steps neat the choir. Plenty of seating inside.

Basilique Cathédrale de St Denis

Queuing : There were just a couple of people.

Time Inside: 1 to 1.5 hrs. I could have spent longer, but I was tired. This was the surprise of my trip; I did not know that this is in fact the necropolis and the remains of many royals rest here. A list is available here.

Audioguide: Paid audioguide was available but I did not take it.

Mobility Issues: There is information for disable visitors here. For others, there are steps to be taken but not very many. Staircase to the crypt is narrow. There is plenty of seating in the main church; a limited number of seats in the necropolis area and none in the crypt.

Invalides & Napoleon’s Tomb

Queuing: None

Time Inside: 1 to 1.5 hrs. I did not visit the Musée de l’Armée.

Audioguide: Paid audioguide was available for Napoleon’s tomb but i did not take it. I had an mp3 audioguide I had bought online which covered the Invalides & the tomb which I was informative.

Mobility Issues: The website says that Musée de l’Armée is accessible to disabled visitors. The Invalides itself is partially accessible as there were steps to the Cathedrale St Louis. There were steps to the Eglise du Dôme and Napoleon’s tomb but I am unsure if there was also a ramp or not. There are steps leading down to the Tomb with no lifts. There was seating in the Eglise but not elsewhere.

Pantheon

Queuing: Very short.

Time Inside: 30 mins.I did not spend much time in the crypt.

Audioguide: Paid audioguide was available but I did not take it.

Mobility Issues: There are many steps inside and outside without ramps. The crypt is accessible by a narrow stairwell. There is seating available in the main level but I did not see any in the crypt. The toilets are down some steps.

La Basilique du Sacré Coeur de Montmartre

Queuing : None

Time Inside : 30 mins

Audioguide : I did not notice any.

Mobility issues: There are steps up to the Basilica; I did not notice any ramps. I could not do a detailed visit as there was a service in progress but I think there are some steps inside. There is plenty of seating.

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