Not Quite a Pilgrimage

This journey started nearly six years ago. A couple of my friends from Australia suggested walking the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela to celebrate a big birthday. I agreed quite enthusiastically. But before I even started training properly, I had a health issue which made it impossible for me to join in. The books I had read in preparation and the stories my friends told me after their journey had me dreaming about seeing at least some of those places one day. And so, when my husband suggested a driving tour this summer, I quite happily started planning a trip along the North of Spain. We drove from our home in Switzerland, crossing the width of France to enter Spain close to San Sebastian. We drove a total of 4300 km over sixteen days. Here is an account from my diary.

31 July 2014

Perigieux

We have a very good run to Perigueux where we stay tonight; we cover 650 km in about 6 hours. We are staying in a motel in the outskirts; it is very basic. We have been to Perigueux a few years back on a longer trip to this area. It is a different kind of pleasure to revisit places one has been before, don’t you think? The weather is pleasant and I am pleased to discover nooks and crannies we missed in our previous trip. Having skipped lunch, we are ready for dinner the moment the restaurants open. We head to a vegetarian restaurant that we had noted from our last trip. My husband, a dedicated carnivore, is happy to accommodate me. Izba is a little restaurant run by a French-Russian couple. They seem like gentle, friendly souls. The food is delicious and very reasonably priced. This night our sleep comes early and deeply.

1 August 2014

01 Melia Hotel

The drive today has been a horror; it has taken more than 7 hours for just 450 km. The roads are crowded with holidaymakers, this is school holiday time. Many stretches of the road are under maintenance and we see a number of accidents as well. The toll way gates take forever to pass. A nightmare of a drive! Finding the Melia in Bilbao is easy and we park in their underground parking. The check-in is fast and efficient and our room quite nice.

1 Guggenheim Out

We settle in quickly and set off towards the Guggenheim which is just a 10 min very pleasant walk away. What a stunning building! It is very artistic, very interesting from every angle.

2 Guggenheim Out

Designed by American architect Frank Gehry, the building is quite amazing. The angles and curves, the reflections of the sky and the water and the very unique surfacing of titanium panels, limestone and glass grab and keep my attention. It is a building which I will remember forever.

3 Guggenheim In

It is convenient that the museum is open till late. The building is equally interesting from the inside. There are special exhibitions by Yoko Ono and by Georges Braque. Both my husband and I quite detest what we see of Yoko Ono’s work – if it makes us philistines, so be it! But really, condoms filled with water? How can this be considered art in the same way as, say, Rembrandt’s Night Watch or Vermeer’s milkmaid? My dear husband gets so  angry with the exhibits that he refuses to even see Georges Braque whom I like well!

We are still put out when we exit. After popping into the tourist office just outside and booking the old-city walking tour for tomorrow, we go looking for a restaurant. Nothing is open at 7:30 pm so we enjoy a pleasant stroll instead. We have a drink at an old-fashioned very quaint cafe-bar and then dine at Tagliatella, an Italian restaurant. For those wondering why eat Italian in Spain, Spanish cuisine is unfortunately very short on vegetarian options.

2 August 2014

4 Old City Tour

After an excellent breakfast at Melia, we head to the old city. The walk along the river is very pleasant but it takes a good 30 minutes to reach the tourist office. The walking tour was advertised as being in English but it is a bilingual Spanish-English one. The guide seems knowledgeable and enthusiastic but a 5 minute spiel in Spanish is translated into just a minute’s explanation in English. I feel a bit cheated! The old town is deserted at this time of the morning and frankly, doesn’t look very interesting to me. Still, it is nice to be out and about.

After the tour we sit in the park above and watch the world go by. The crowd has picked up somewhat by now. There are senior citizens in benches having a friendly natter. There are children running around. There is a small group of young folk practicing for theatre of some kind. There are young couples out for a stroll. Life streams around us.

5 Old City Glimpses

We then walk slowly back towards the Bellas Artes museum. My husband is happy to eat lunch at a small restaurant filled with locals but the heavy breakfast has been enough for me. We get a bit lost on the way and then get caught out in a sudden torrential downpour. So it is nearly 4bpm that we come to the museum. It is an excellent museum with some very lovely artworks and we spend a very happy couple of hours inside.

Returning back to the restaurant, we have a little rest time checking emails. The wifi is very good in the lobby but not so good in our room. We dine at Melia’s in-house restaurant which has a couple of vegetarian choices. My husband is happy with his menu while my stir fry is a well below average.

3 August 2014

02 En Route

We dawdle over a very generous breakfast this morning and set off on our 158 km drive to Burgos at 10 am. I enjoy the drive on AP68 very much indeed. At the start the landscape is mountainous and slowly gives way to rolling plains and fields. Very pretty!

1 NH Hotel

Our hotel NH Collection Palacio de Burgos is simply gorgeous!  Housed in a tastefully renovated 16th century building, it even includes a wonderful Gothic cloister. Our room is luxuriously fitted and very comfortable. The exterior still looks like a church (see above).

2 Cathedral Ext

The Cathedral is just a few minutes walk from the hotel, no distance at all. Now, I am a bit of a Cathedral enthusiast; I even have my own ‘hit list’! So it is with experience that I say that this Cathedral is one of the most magnificent ones in Europe, a real treat for a Cathedral aficionado. The exterior is a soaring symphony in stone, each angle offering a new and beautiful portrait. I am overwhelmed. In awe.

3 Cathedral Inside

The interior is equally overwhelming. I walk with my head craned up, not wanting to miss the many beautiful designs made with light and stone. Built first between 1221 and 1260, it was added to for the next few centuries. There are so many altars, each more beautiful than the other. The choir (1550) is a beauty and so is the Golden Staircase (1477). But what makes my heart stop are the three central reliefs in the ambulatory sculpted by Felipe de Vigamy between 1497 and 1503. Two of them are water-damaged but they are all quite outstanding. I sit down to take a breath and know that the beauty of this cathedral will remain with me as a wonderful memory forever.

We have lunch at one of the very touristy places just outside the Cathedral. To be avoided.

4 Burgos

We then have a walk around Burgos, enjoying the sun. I have an after-glow from the Cathedral and cannot quite take an interest in anything else. Still, I enjoy our wander.

5 Castle Views

We then head uphill to the ruined castle from where there are excellent views of the city. There is a lovely park to sit in and watch the world go by.

Dinner is a problem. I had taken note of a vegetarian restaurant but sadly it is open for lunch only. We wander around looking at menus but no one offers vegetarian choices. Finally we walk out of the old city and see a Chinese restaurant called Hong Kong where they make me vegetable dish. I envy my husband’s ability to consume anything and everything – sigh!

4 August 2014

1 Parador

After an excellent breakfast at our hotel, we set off towards León. It is an easy drive. This is agricultural country; the fields look lush and lovely. Spain, I tell myself, is quite beautiful!

We arrive at our hotel in good time. The Parador has an amazing frontage and the public areas are stunningly beautiful. It is like being in a museum! However we notice that the hotel is very much in need of a renovation. Our room is ok but not the level I expected. The plumbing is old; the veranda is quite filthy and unusuable. The back part of the hotel is quite dilapidated.  Still, it is an experience, staying in such a magnificent old building.

We set off to find lunch in a cafe but my husband gets called by work for a conference call. So it is back to the hotel for a couple of hours before we can set out to explore León.

3 Cathedral

Our first stop is, of course, at the Cathedral. After Burgos, it seems small in comparison but of course there is much to see. The exterior is all light and air; very elegant indeed. The interior is specially interesting for stained-glass window connoisseurs. They are very beautiful and I am mesmerized by the colours (I played with Photoshop with my composite above to give you a hint of how it felt). There is an audio guide but it does drone on a bit so I just let me senses do the seeing, feeling and absorbing.

2 Leon

We stroll through the old town, checking out the places that the receptionist had marked on our map. We walk the old city wall, getting a bit lost on the way. We check out the Iglesia Santa Marina and then the Casa de Botines by Gaudi. We then wander on to Plaza Mayor and sit for a long time watching the activity. This seems to be a meeting point for the whole town. I am charmed by the way the older people have dressed for their evening stroll, the men with jackets and some even with hats, the women in dresses and skirts. They sit in little groups, catching up with the news and then walk around the plaza meeting others. The younger ones are casually dressed, looking like young ones from anywhere. There are couples holding hands, families trying to control runaway children, groups of young men looking ‘cool’, groups of girls giggling – ah! I love this place! It feels so very welcoming. We get up finally at dinner time, relaxed and happy to be in León.

5 August 2014

01 Cueva

I had planned today as a ‘do nothing’ day but well, we don’t quite do that very well! We do have a leisurely morning enjoying the delicious breakfast spread at the Parador. I see something in my travel book which interests me; I want to see the Cueva de Valporquero which are not that far from León. I set the name of the nearby village on the GPS and we merrily head off. After a while, I am suspicious as to why we are heading East instead of North. Well, there are two villages with the same name and I have chosen the wrong one! We have to retrace our path but we finally hit the correct road.

On the way we pass the gorges called Hoces de Vegacervera. The road is very narrow and the rocks climb steeply on either side; a very other worldly landscape.

The entrance to the caves is on top of a hill and the scenery on the way is very beautiful. The caves can be visited only with guides and the tours are in Spanish. But it doesn’t matter to us; the stalactites and stalagmites are lovely and we enjoy the visit anyway. It is cold (7 C) underground but we have cleverly carried some warm clothes so we are fine. My photos don’t turn out well as I have not carried a tripod and the light is very low.

01 Cathedral

We head next to Astorga. I am surprised at parts of the landscape where the earth is as red as in Australia, makes me home sick!  We park very near the Cathedral and walk up to the square next to it. It is a lovely square with the Cathedral on one side and the Episcopal Palace built by Gaudi on the other. The palace looks like a fairy tale castle! We head inside the Cathedral which is quite nice. The attached museum is simply excellent. I am quite surprised to find such a treasure trove; an unexpected pleasure!

02 Gaudi personal

We then visit the Episcopal Palace, admiring the unique touch of Gaudi. It has a very small museum as well. We don’t linger too long.

Back at the Parador we walk around admiring the hotel and taking many pictures of the interior. There is a beautiful cloister which we admire. There are many lovely pieces of furniture in the corridors – three legged chairs, chests, old wooden rocking chairs etc. Nicely done!

We then head back to the city centre to find dinner. My husband is keen to try local fare and I encourage him to find a nice restaurant. It seems unfair that he has to compromise with restaurants all the time because of my vegetarianism. I see a nice looking place and we peep in. Nobody seems to be around. We call out and the proprietor comes to talk with us. He speaks no English and we speak no Spanish. I ask him about French; his is rusty but we manage to communicate. Yes, he can serve us dinner and yes, he can even serve me a three course vegetarian ‘menu’! We are delighted! The food is very good and the host very hospitable. He recommends the delicacies the region is famous for and my husband really enjoys his meal. I am happy to recommend Adonias to you.

6 August 2014

01 Poferrada

It is nearly 10 am by the time we set out this morning. We are driving 351 km to Santiago de Compostela today. When we see the sign for Ponferrada, we decide to go and check out the castle on an impulse. It seems to be a market day; the streets are very crowded. We do not stop to see the market though which I regret later. The castle is up on the hill and today it is free entry for all. We walk around the ramparts, admiring the views. There is a museum inside which we do not visit.

01 Praza de Obroidoro

We reach Santiago well into the afternoon. The GPS brings us to what is definitely a pedestrian area. We drive around in circles wondering how we are to reach the Parador. A friendly policeman points the way but we have qualms as we drive into what is the heart of of Santiago, the Obradoiro square (above). But what a superb location for a hotel! Leaving the car outside in the square, we check in and are then helped by concierge in parking the car.

02 Parador

The Parador is simply magnificent! We are to spend quite a bit of time exploring the hotel itself. The Hostal de Los Reyes Catolicos was built as a Hospice for the pilgrims which became operational in 1509. In 1958 it was converted to a Hostal. It is quite beautifully done with lovely furnishings, beautifully fitted out rooms and splendid public areas. There are plaques everywhere describing the history of Santiago and the Hostal. You can find further information here. It is not exactly budget friendly but it is a marvellous hotel and I strongly recommend a stay for just the experience.

7 Cathedral interior

After settling in, we set out to explore the town. The main frontage of the Cathedral is under construction. The interior is very crowded. We do a little walk around and then sit quietly taking in the atmosphere. I think about the millions and millions of pilgrims and believers who have sat as I have and see what I am seeing. I think of their journeys, the journey of the pilgrimage, the journey of their life. I think of their beliefs. I think of their pains, their sacrifices. I think of their joys, their achievements. My mind merges the then and the now. There is a sense of sanctity here and I let myself absorb that into myself. Our journey here is not quite a pilgrimage, yet today it feels like one.

It is well into the evening now; our stomachs make strong demands as we had skipped lunch. Skipping lunch is bad strategy in Spain as restaurants do not open for dinner until late. We go for a walk and check out some of the ‘veg friendly’ restaurants that I have a list of. None looked very interesting and they were still closed at 7:30 pm. The last one on my list is Malak’s, a Middle-Eastern restaurant. It is happily open, the proprietor is very friendly and the food quite delicious! We at once decide to come back tomorrow evening too! After dinner we enjoy strolling around before finally going back to the hotel to relax for the rest of the evening.

7 August 2014

4 Cathedral roof 1

Right after breakfast, I go to book ourselves into the much lauded Cathedral Roof tour. The English one is at noon. As we are a stage of the journey when we are gently fatigued, we are happy to wait it out back in our hotel. I enjoy taking some photographs before sitting down to play with the wifi. What did we do before the world was so connected? I am such a wifi junkie!! The Cathedral roof tour is quite incredible. Not to be missed. I have been to so many cathedrals but never seen one from this angle. The guide tells us a lot about the construction which I find very interesting.

5 Cathedral Roof 2

I also enjoy the views of the city from the roof. It all looks quite lovely!

03 The Plazas

For the rest of the day, we don’t do anything in particular. We just wander from plaza to plaza, enjoying drinks and nibbles more often than is good for us! It is very pleasant to have a day to just chill!

8 August 2014

01 Cathedral Ext

It is long drive we have to get to Salamanca, nearly 450 km. We make good time despite a gentle brush with the police…but we won’t speak of that! The landscape is beautiful and our drive very pleasant. We reach our hotel Eurostars Las Claras in good time. The underground parking using a car-lift is an adventure in itself! The hotel is modern and quite nice; the reception staff are the most helpful we have come across on our holiday.

As always we first head towards the Cathedral. I am captivated at the very first sight! It is so impressive! In fact it is two Cathedrals in one; the old one was thankfully not demolished before the new one was built. This is the first time I have seen such an arrangement. The main entrance is quite spectacular.

02 Cathedral Int

The interior is equally awe inspiring. We pick up an audio tour which is very informative. The old Cathedral is especially interesting. But in the new one we come to one chapel after another until I cannot absorb any more information!

05 Glimpses of Salamanca

We then wander to the Roman bridge and then back to one beautiful little square after another, ending up at Plaza Mayor. Finally we settle to dine at a Tapas bar recommended by the hotel. The choice for vegetarians in minimal but the service is friendly and the food tasty. We enjoy a nice meal, wander back to Plaza Mayor to see the lights and evening crowds before heading back to the hotel. I do like Salamanca, it is sol elegant looking!

9 August 2014

06 Salamanca

Its a lovely warm day today and we enjoy our easy stroll to the university. The entrance is stunning and there is a little puzzle to entertain us. We have to find a little frog in the facade for good luck. With my abysmal eyesight, I am quite hopeless at it, A fellow tourist points it out to us; it is a frog on a skull. I have hidden a blown-up version in my picture above; see if you can find it! The oldest one in Spain, it has a lovely old library which is very much worth seeing. An audio tour tells us details but it does ramble on a bit. There is a wedding in progress at the chapel and I happily join the gawkers!

03 Cathedral Roof

Now that I have a taste for Cathedral roofs, I want to climb this one too. There are 300 steps with a few places to halt in between. This is another climb well worth the effort. One gets an outside view of the world, a close up of towers and structures, an internal view from high up of both the old and new Cathedrals and a chance to experience the bells ringing at close quarters! How happy I feel surrounded by these old stones, I think, how they weave their tales and magic in me! Definitely recommended.

It is nearly 3 pm. We find a vegetarian cafe which is empty except for us. It seems to be run by some very young people. The food is reasonably good; I hope they get more customers and make a success of it. I am tired today so we head back to the hotel for an afternoon nap.

7 San Esteban

The last on my wish list is San Esteban but unfortunately it is closed today. Instead we visit the Convento Los Duenos which is nearby. It is a nice tranquil place to spend a few minutes thinking of times past. After that we are happy to wander around clicking pictures, eating ice cream and finally having a nice pizza for dinner.

10 August 2014

01 Avila

Today we turn back westwards again; the holiday has reached a logical mid-point. Our first stop today is Avila where we see the imposing medieval walls (11th-14th centuries). It is meant to be a very brief stop as we have a long drive ahead of us. But it takes longer than we expect as we get hit by a motorbike from behind. The damage is minor, but the conversation with no common language and the filling out of the ‘green form’ is daunting. Though it is nothing major, we are both a bit shaken. We walk along the wall and pop into the city to see the Cathedral. Sadly it will not open for another hour. We decide to skip it and continue on our journey.

01 Seogovia

Our next stop is at Segovia where we want to see the Roman aqueduct. It is indeed a wonderful sight! I am much in admiration of Roman engineering. We then have a quick visit to the Cathedral. It is very beautiful but they do not allow photography. When younger, I had a wonderful graphical memory; now, without photos I can hardly remember anything. Sad. The roof vaulting is quite exquisite.

01 Madrid GlimpsesThe

We reach Madrid with no further drama. We are staying at Mercure Plaza de Espagna. It is an old-fashioned hotel in need of some renovation. But I like old-fashioned things so it pleases me well enough. We get some good advice at the reception and set out to enjoy Madrid.

I have been to Madrid before for a longer stay and liked it very much. This trip is for my husband as he hasn’t been before. He wants to have a quick look at the masterpieces in Prado so we head there for the free entry in the evenings. The queue is long and we get about an hour inside. I take a map and walk him military style to the most important works. It helps that I had spent about 8 hours here in my previous trip! But he is not art-mad like I am so he is quite content with his hour long tour.

After a week without Indian food, we both are longing for something spicy. There are a surprisingly large number in Madrid. We walk from Prado towards the city centre and stop at this Bangladeshi run restaurant called Indian Spice. The food is very good but it is very expensive in my opinion. We eat a bit too heavily and decide to walk back to the hotel This is a mistake as it is just too far. I have been struggling with my plantar fasciitis the entire trip; I am in serious pain by the time we reach our hotel. Madrid is big, it is a mistake to underestimate the distances based on a map.

11 August 2013

02 Madrid Glimpses

A good night’s rest and a good breakfast gives me the courage to test my foot again. We walk along Grand Via to Sol and I check out some of the shops. We then take the metro to the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum. It has free entry every Monday between 12:00 and 16:00 sponsored by MasterCard. What a great idea! I don’t know if it is for tax reasons or it comes out their marketing budget, but I wish other organizations follow suit to make art available to everybody for free. This is my favourite museum in Madrid. We spend a couple of hours and then set out to explore the city. My husband is not keen on visiting anything in particular or doing a tour so we just amuse ourselves seeing this and that. It is a nice relaxed day. I like Madrid very much indeed.

12 August 2014

06 En Route

It is 11 am when we set out today; we are infected with ‘Spanish’ time as we call it! We drive with minimal stops to Pamplona. The drive is quite pleasant. I see many windmills on the way. They are of the modern kind but they still remind me of Don Quixote.

02 Pamplona glimpses

Our hotel in Pamplona, Maissonave, is right at the heart of town. Our GPS leads us to a pedestrian area and we can’t figure out how to get around it. I leave my husband in the car while I briskly walk up to the hotel and get directions. It is a bit complicated but we finally park our car and settle in. The hotel is very nice and the room is comfortable.

We have afternoon tea at the hotel and then set out to explore the town. The tourist office says that an English walking tour will run if there are enough takers. There aren’t. So we get a map and take ourselves for a walk along the route of the bull run. The old town is quite tiny, it takes us very little time to do this. Then we go for a quiet stroll on the old city walls. After a light dinner of sandwiches at a cafe, we head out to the castle for the jazz concert that the tourist office had told us of. But we are a bit late for it and all the seats and benches are taken. As we sit a bit far away listening to whatever snatches of music comes our way, I think of how pleasant life can be with just a park, some sun and some music.

13 August 2014

01 Plaza de Castillo

We wake early and look around for a place to have breakfast. It is 10:30, most places still seem closed. There is an abandoned air in the morning like many Spanish towns we have seen. Luckily the famous Cafe Iruña, said to be the favourite hangout of Hemingway, is open. What a lovely old place! I just adore it!

We then visit the Cathedral and the excellent archaeological museum attached. The explanatory boards are unfortunately only in Spanish. After that we stroll around town but it is very small, and we are in holiday fatigue. I am thrilled to find an excellent vegetarian restaurant called Sarasate; the food is delicious and it is very busy. I get a cider and my husband some wine. After a while a local Spanish family seated at the next table come up to us. The parents speaks no English, the twenty something daughter acts as the spokesperson. They give us half a bottle of wine which they say is much nicer than the one my husband is having and show me the right way to drink cider. It is lovely isn’t it when locals extend a friendly hand to us visitors? I felt very warmed by their gesture.

After lunch we decide to just laze at the hotel for the rest of the day. We dine at the in-house restaurant where I get only a salad but my husband finds his meal very satisfying.

14 August 2014

01 San Sebastian

We head out from the hotel at about 9 am, thinking to visit the ‘5 villages’ which are on our route back. We reach the first one by 10 am. It is picturesque but we are used to picturesque mountain villages as we live in Switzerland. The village is lifeless; no one seems to be around. And there is no cafe for breakfast. We head to the next one which has the same abandoned air. We give up on the villages and head to San Sebastian instead, which turns out to be a very good decision. It is a lovely sea side city, very charming indeed. It is busy with locals at the market, holiday makers and tourists, from the very young to the old. We have a nice breakfast at a cafe and stroll around, enjoying the ambience.

02 Ocean

And then there is the ocean! Sun, sand and an easy atmosphere; beautiful, isn’t it?

We head out at 2 pm reaching our Ibis hotel at Brève at a good time for dinner. It is very conveniently placed close to the freeway,  There is an in-house restaurant which manages to make a vegetarian meal for me and the room is adequate.

15 August 2014

All that is left is a long drive home. I happily relive our holiday while drifting in and out of a doze, the beautiful French countryside streaming outside the window. I am content.

Four Schlosses in Two Tags

Friday 4th July 2014

I stare in dismay at the weather outlook for the weekend. I had been hoping to go away to the mountains  but a lot of Switzerland is predicted to be under a deluge. “Shall we just have a movie and popcorn weekend then?” I ask myself. That doesn’t tempt me at all! Recalling my interest in a list of must-see castles of Germany, I search for the ones closest to the Swiss border. I make up my mind quickly, call my husband to come home early, book hotels and pack my overnight bag. I even make sandwiches for dinner as there will not be time to dine. I am ready and waiting at the door by the time my husband comes home. We drive 4 hrs that evening and settle comfortably into our hotel which is in a small town on our route.

Saturday 5th July 2014

Out first castle, Hohenzollern, is about 70 kms from our hotel. Our drive there is truly picturesque. We pass by the Swabian Jura (Schwäbische Alb), a green, forested area with rolling hills and beautiful pastures. We breeze through small farming communities with their quaint farmhouses and steep roofs. It is very charming and I tell myself that we should come back and explore the natural aspects of this area another time. But this trip is about castles and we arrive at ours very soon.

Castles 005

The first sight of the castle on a hill is very impressive.

Castles 002

A zoomed-in picture for a better view of the castle. At the bottom of the hill we get tickets for the English tour at 11:30. There are only limited tours in English; I had looked up the time online to be sure. It starts raining just about then so instead of walking up the hill as we planned, we take the bus.

Castles 014

We are well ahead of time. We hang around the courtyard, checking out the Catholic and Protestant chapels while we wait. The interior of the castle can be viewed only as part of a guided visit.

Castles 011

We wait by the ramparts, enjoying the magnificent views of the countryside.

Castles 028

Photography is not permitted within the castle; you can check out the pictures at the castle website. It is a well-maintained and furnished castle. The family tree at the entrance hall is fascinating; our guide is excellent. I am happy to have come here.

It is past lunch time by the time we get back to the car and we are hungry. We set off towards Tübingen for lunch.

Castles 033

This is a busy little town this Saturday. We quickly find a nice pizzeria and have a very nice lunch. The old town is very attractive and beautifully preserved. We have time for only a quick stroll; it deserves more than that. But I have one more castle to visit this afternoon and that takes precedence.

Castles 037

The Lichtenstein castle is a tiny little one on the top of another hill. We park quite close to the entrance. There are no English tours but one can visit the castle with a German tour and use the provided pamphlet for a translation.

Castles 044

The castle enjoys an enviable location! Very fairy-tale like, isn’t it?

Castles 059

There is  small garden area where we wait for our tour. The views are quite outstanding.  It is well worth a visit just for the views. My husband and I sit for a while on the bench above, taking it all in.

Castles 051

No photography is allowed inside however you can find some good photos in their site. It is a very small castle yet interesting enough. It is a pity that there are no English tours; it is not half as much fun reading things off a pamphlet.

Castles 069

We have a 200 km drive to our hotel tonight at Füssen. We pass through some stunning scenery and I keep asking my husband to stop so that I can take some pictures. We finally reach the hotel at 7:30pm. It is spotless and quiet. We have dinner at the local restaurant opposite our hotel and call it an an early night.

Sunday 6th July 2014

Castles 104

We don’t hurry this morning; it is past 10 by the time we check out and head out I had booked online for the two castles that we plan to visit, Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein. Both of these can only be visited as part of a tour. The tour-times they gave me online were for the 12:55 & 16:55. Given that we have to drive back 450 kms tonight, I am anxious to see if we can get the times changed to earlier ones.

The queue at the ticket counter is very long; there are at least 150 people there. Thankfully there is a separate line for reserved tickets and I am second in line. This alone is worth the extra euros I paid for the reservation! The young lady at the counter manages to find earlier times for our tours so I am very happy.

Castles 120

There are stairs to climb up the hill, or you can take a longer gradually rising road. The stairs take us about 10 mins. I click pictures while we wait for our tour to start. Again, there were no photos allowed inside the castle. This castle is not very big, more like a large manor house. The tour takes about 30 mins and is quite good. There is some info about both the castles at their site.

Castles 086

The walk back is  very pleasant, with lovely views of the lake below. I regret not having the time to explore the area a bit more. I would have loved a walk by the lake. Just look at its colour – a brilliant sapphire!

Castles 115

One can walk up to the Neuschwanstein castle, take a horse-carriage or take a bus to the Marienbrücke (above). This bridge is suspended precariously over a deep gorge and has a magnificent view of the castle. A great place for photography.

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View of the castle from Marienbrücke.

Castles 108

It is a pleasant 10 min walk downhill from the bridge to the castle with lovely views all the way. At the entry of the castle there seem to be hundreds of tourists. There are tours every 5 mins and we queue up when our tour number is announced on the board. The interior is extravagantly done, extremely theatrical. Quite over the top, but in a nice way. The tour however is very short; we hardly have time to pause and look as the next lot of people are at our heels. Many rooms are just skipped as there is not enough time. Again, as there is no photography allowed inside, I cannot show you any pictures. I buy myself a souvenir book to remind myself of the interior.

We walk down the hill towards our car; it is a very easy and pleasant walk. On the way there is a restaurant and we stop for lunch. The service is terrible and the food mediocre. Its nearly 4pm by the time we get to our car and head back home. The drive is long and tedious, but we are both happy to have had a nice weekend away.

Easter Weekend : Parma, Bologna and Ravenna

It is Easter soon and my husband will have four days off from work. I would like to take advantage of it but am reluctant to plan anything complicated. We have just returned from a long trip to India which had required much organising and so I am quite put off at the thought of any grand plans. I look at Google maps and my eyes fall on Bologna. Our friends had mentioned it as a charming place to visit; the decision is easily made.

18 April 2014

We are up at 5 am, intending to leave by 6. As always we dither over something or the other and do not leave until 6:30. Still, the roads are quiet and we make good time to the Saint Bernard tunnel. There is still evidence of snow at this altitude though it is not cold. The roads in Italy get busier. We stop for pizza lunch at Piacenza and reach Parma in the early afternoon. As planned, I want a quick look-see before getting to Bologna.

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I am not in the mood for any major tourism; I just want to check out the place and get a feel for it. Busy looking around us, we miss the ‘pedestrians and authorised vehicles only’ sign and venture happily into the city centre. But I get a feeling…’This looks like a pedestrian area’ I tell my husband ‘Lets get out quickly’. My husband is not sure about my ‘feelings’ but I am right after all! We feel lucky for not having been fined! After parking, we admire the nice Piazza della Pilotta, peer into the tourist office and have a hot drink before having a wander. There are plenty of young people in the piazza. Students? I wonder. Is there some educational institution close by?

Parma 2 Garibaldi square

Our stroll takes us to large and impressive Garibaldi square. My tourist book tells me that this is where the Romans had a forum. It’s a busy square with the town hall, the Governer’s Palace and a nice statue of Mr.Garibaldi (General/Politician) to watch over it all.

Parma 3 Duomo

Next halt, the cathedral. The 12th century Romanesque Cathedral looks quite plain from outside. But when I step in, I am rendered breathless by the beauty of the frescos! The vivid colours! It’s a joyful looking cathedral, I like it very much indeed. The Cupola by Corregio is famous.

Parma 4 San Giovanni

We cannot come to Parma and not take a picture of its ham, can we? I am pleased with my photo with our reflections alongside the ham..it places us squarely in Parma! Our last stop is the San Giovanni church which features another cupola by Corregio. To the left of it is a 16th century monastery with its tranquil cloisters.

We get back to the car and set off towards Bologna, about an hour from Parma. Out hotel is in a quiet neighbourhood outside the city walls, about 15 min walk from the centre. We are quite happy with it, That night we have dinner at Osteria Broccaindosso, a short walk from the hotel. With a limited menu, it serves delicious Bolognese food and the host was very hospitable. Recommended.

19 April 2014

We are lucky to have a local Italian friend who has offered to show us around his town. My pictures below are from our walk with him, a latter walk by ourselves the same day and a walk on 21st morning before we head back.

Bologna 1 Towers

One cannot visit Bologna without noticing the Due Torri, a symbol of the city. One of them leans drunkenly, while the other stands tall and strong. The city is said to have more that 180 towers in the 12th and 13th centuries. I wonder how it looked! Seems there was some one-upmanship in tower building; height equated with power and wealth, I would imagine. Less than 20 survive today, the tallest being Asinelli Tower (97m) in the photo above.

Bologna 2 Porticos no us

Bologna is famous for its miles and miles (wiki says 38 kms in the city centre) of covered porticos. Our friend tells us that on a rainy day one can walk from one end of town to another without getting wet at all! These porticos are very charming, some quite plain, others highly decorated. These give the city a very unique look.

Bologna 3 Piazza Maggiore

As in many European cities, the Cathedral square is impressive in its size and the beauty of its architecture, Bologna matches up to all my expectations. Note the handsome Neptune fountain in the picture above. The upper part of the Cathedral is uncovered brick, it seems they ran out of money while renovating it. This gives the Cathedral an interesting air.

Bologna 4 Piazza ri Enzo

Piazza ri Enzo is adjacent to the Cathedral square. The old Pallazzo looms over the road, looking mildly grim. Our friend informs us that it is used for hosting business events etc.

Bologna 5 Markets Shops Restaurants

Bologna has a busy and vibrant market place. There are lovely looking delis, fruit and vegetable markets, cheese shops selling enormous blocks of cheese, book shops and a Saturday Market selling the usual market-ware. I take it all in, enjoying the buzz that a market produces. I do like Italy!

Bologna 7 Basilica San Stefano

The Basilica San Stefano is very interesting. It is a complex of five churches in one, ranging from the 4th to the 13th centuries. I don’t believe I have ever seen a 4th or 5th century church before; I am interested to see how different the ancient church looks to the churches of today. None of the churches are heavily decorated, but I still like it very much.

Bologna 6 Cathedral Sant Pietro

I have a quick look inside the Cattedrale Metropolitana di San Pietro; it deserves a more leisurely explore but the others are not much into churches and I feel guilty about making them wait. There is a marvellous terracotta sculpture by Alfonso Lombardi (16th Century) which catches my attention. The expressions of the figures are so real!

Bologna 8 San Domenico

Best for last – the Basilica di San Domenico has a chapel for the Saint with his remains in an exquisitely carved sarcophagus. The carvings are such a delight! I cannot find the words to express how beautiful I find them! What amazing artistry! What an imagination! For me, this is the highlight of our trip. I walk around to the back. There is a skull inside a reliquary; is it really that of the Saint? A little macabre, no?

20 April 2014 Ravenna

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The amazing Basilica of San Vitale is an early Christian church with a highly decorated interior quite unlike other churches I have seen. My guide book says that this kind of Mosaic work is the best outside Constantinople; I can well believe that! No photos can do this justice, you just have to see it for yourself! The shape of the church, an octagon, is also interesting. The access to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (5th century) is from its gardens. again, I admire the Byzantine mosaics.

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Next we visit the Baptistery of Neon (4th-5th century), the oldest monument in the city (above left). Again, this is octagonal. ‘Is there any significance in that? Is the number 8 sacred in any way?’ I wonder. The Cathedral is next to it behind which is the museum which we visit. There are a few quite interesting exhibits but photography is not permitted inside.

Ravenna 3

Seeing that Dante’s Tomb is here, I demand to see it. We wander around a bit lost but that’s ok, I quite enjoy the walk and admiring the architecture. Dante’s tomb in itself is quite a simple structure (above bottom left and right).

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We next visit the Basilica Apollinaire Nuovo (6th century), again with some wonderful mosaic decorations (above top).  The last monument we visit is the Arian Baptistery (4th-5th century). I am very satisfied with our visit to Ravenna as I have seen some of the oldest churches in Europe. Ravenna Tourism is very organised; there is one ticket for all monuments and they provide a good map with it.

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We wander back to the car, admiring the impressive Piazza del Popolo which is buzzing with life. On the way back to Bologna, we take a small detour to admire the port and the canal.

21st April 2014

We take a morning stroll in Bologna, taking pictures and checking out places we had missed before. This is a very photogenic town, my eye is caught by many an attractive corner. This has been a good little break; it is with a feeling of contentment that we wave goodbye to Bologna.

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.

197 Raghunatha Temple

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.

207 Malayavanta Hill

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!

210 Queens Bath211 Queens Bath

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.

220 Stepped tank221 Aqueducts

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.

226 Hazara Rama Temple

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.

263 Sri Krishna Temple

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

265 Sasivekalu (mustard) ganesha

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.

271 Hemakunta hill269 Hemakunta hill

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.

337 Achyutaraya Temple

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.

347 Achyutaraya Temple350 Achyutaraya Temple

This temple is just amazing! Photo opportunities abound..

362 Courtesan's street 368 Temple tank

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?’

397 Tungabhadra River383 Coracle boat ride

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.

393 Coracle boat ride388 Coracle boat ride

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.

409 Vittala Temple419 Vittala Temple

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!

459 Hemakunta Hill463 Hemakunta Hill

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.

527 Pattadakkal

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 !

591 Goa

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

016 Kumb Kumbeshwarar

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.

 097 Tanj-Brahadeeswarar100 Tanj-Brahadeeswarar

101 Tanj-Brahadeeswarar104 Tanj-Brahadeeswarar

GARBHARAKSHAMBIKAI TEMPLE

110 Thirukarugavur112 Thirukarugavur

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

113 Swamimalai

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

114 Nachiar Koil119 Nachiar Koil

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.

132 Thiruvarur133 Thiruvarur

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

173 Chidambaram

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.

170 Chidambaram171 Chidambaram

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.

102 Mannlichen

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.

.

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….

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