May 3rd Week
My husband reminds me that he is going away to Japan on a business trip next week. He says ‘Suja, why don’t you go somewhere for a short break?’. I hesitate for a moment..I have lots of travel planned for the summer, should I bother? Should I not be doing some spring cleaning instead? The moment that thought occurs, I rush to my computer to do some research! I check the Easyjet site. I set the ‘from’ to Geneva and look at the ‘to’s. Copenhagen immediately catches my eye. It seems to fit all my criteria – not too far, safe, big city, somewhere I haven’t been. I immediately book myself in. The next day I go looking for hotels and get a shock at the prices. They are SO expensive! Is this because this is last minute? Ordinary chain hotels are charging as much as what we paid for a lovely cliff side hotel in the Amalfi coast..and that I thought was expensive! I decide to check Airbnb. I have never used their services but decide to take a chance. I find myself a small apartment not too far from the city for about 60% of the cost.
29 May 2016
I am panicking! I have been busy with two lots of guests last week and have had no time to do any planning. In fact, one couple is leaving this afternoon. I abandon them to their own devices to give 5 full hours of concentrated effort to my travel plan. I download Copenhagen region map to my CityMaps2Go App (Love this!), download Danish to my google translate offline language (never use it!), research places to visit using Copenhagen Tourism and Tripadvisor sites, decide on my priorities, pin everything on my offline map, pin the apartment, train and bus stops, find vegetarian friendly restaurants and pin that too, pack my bag as lightly as I can and finally feel ready for the trip.
For those who are reading this, I take interest in art, architecture, history and monuments. I am not interested in restaurants, night life or adventure pursuits, so if these are your areas of interest, you may as well give up reading now!!
30 May 2016
I take the train to Geneva airport well ahead of time. We board on time but then it is announced that we will not depart for another 45 mins. Something about weather. I worry. I am supposed to pick up the keys to the apartment from the corner store which closes at 11pm. Am I going to make it in time? I text the host. She replies that if I am late, her sister would be able to come and give me the spare keys. Still, this is stressful. Arriving in a new city at night and having to make your way to the burbs using public transport can be difficult. But thanks to my prep work everything went well. At the airport I struggle a bit with the metro tickets at the machine but there is nobody at the info desk, its too late. Finally I manage it. In the train the stop names flash across the scene so it is easy to get off correctly. After I exit the metro I figure out the bus stop. My CityMaps2Go uses GPS to show my position which I follow as I ride the bus. From the stop I again use the mapping app to find my way to the apartment. I make it just in time, it is 10:40 when I collect the keys. There is still plenty of light and the streets are busy on this Monday night.
31 May 2016
I have a relaxed start to the day and set out at about 9:15am. I am dismayed to see that it is raining, it was supposed to be a fine day! I walk to the tourist office, it takes about half an hour. There is a bit of a queue but finally I get what I have come for, a three day Copenhagen Card which gives me free entry to all the sights I am interested in as well as free transport. It costs DKK 699 and I reckon it is a good deal. I also collect the free city map which clearly shows the bus routes and metro stops. Very useful.
Nobody who knows me will be surprised that my first stop is at the National Gallery of Denmark – Statens Museum for Kunst. It opens at 11am and I am there before the gates open. There are four main sections, European Art 1300 to 1800, Danish and Nordic Art 1750-1900, French Art 1900-1930 and Danish and International Art after 1900.
The exhibits are very nicely arranged and descriptions are in both Danish and English. I really enjoy the Danish and Nordic Art as well as the European Art from 1300 to 1800. The French collection is OK but I have seen many better collections so I am not much taken with it. I quite dislike the last section; it is not to my taste. I abandon it after a couple of rooms. I spend a total of 2 hr 30 mins here.
The Rosenborg Castle is just a few minutes walk from the National Gallery of Denmark. It stands in a beautiful garden called the Kings Garden.
I walk around snapping pictures from different angles. A very photogenic castle!
There are some interesting exhibits. I particularly enjoy the gorgeous Venetian glass collection, some very pretty Porcelain service and, of course, the Crown Jewels including a beautiful jewelled sword. I spend about an hour including both outside and inside.
Next, I head out to the Round Tower. I had been planning to climb it but then seeing that it is already almost 3pm, I decide to skip it. I am feeling really hungry and stop at a café for a quick carb kick of pasta and juice. I feel rather overcharged for a very simple and ordinary meal.
My next destination is the Christiansborg palace which is also the seat of Parliament. As there is hardly a queue I decide to first go up the tower for a view. There is a security check but it is quick.
The views from above are very good but I don’t stay long; I want to see the reception rooms and they will close soon.
The inside of the palace is sumptuous, I especially admire the many gorgeous chandeliers.
There are plenty of beautiful paintings and objets d’art to be admired. However I am conscious that the palace closes at 5 pm so I am brisk. I spend about one hour here; I could easily have spent another hour or two; as it is, I have no time to see the kitchens or the stables. Sigh! The reality of short trips is that one cannot see everything. Is it better to see a bit of as many places as you can fit, or just choose a few for a thorough exploration? I tend to go with the former but sometimes it leaves me disappointed, as in this case.
My feet are really tired now and I need a rest. I decide to take the canal boat ride. The current boat is already full, I need to wait 30 mins for the next one. I don’t mind, I am happy to sit at the pier and enjoy the sun. Yes, the morning rain gave way to wonderful sunny weather while I was indoors all day in museums!! The boat ride has live commentary to point out places of interest but it isn’t exactly riveting. But this is a very pleasant way to spend an hour watching the world as they watch us back.
After the ride, I walk down to Nyhaven area which is very lively and full of restaurants. But after my rather late lunch I am not hungry so I decide to find a café near the apartment to have a salad. Stupidly, for I was tired, I decide to walk back as I normally enjoy walking everywhere. But I give up half way through and take a bus. The café experience is suboptimal..I should have chosen more carefully. I upload my pics on my computer and savour my day once more before falling into bed to an exhausted sleep.
01 June 2016
My day yesterday has given me a more realistic picture of what is feasible and what is not. I spend a little time in the morning tweaking my plan and reordering priorities. As this is a fine day, I decide to head on a day trip to the two northern castles.
I take the bus to Norreport and switch to the train to Hillerod. The station is easy to navigate, the trains are clearly marked and it is not at all hard to find my way to the right train. Hillerod is the last station. The bus stop is right outside the station and number 301/302 takes me to the castle entrance. I am at the castle by 10:15.
Most of the current structure is a re-construction from the 19th century after a fire destroyed major parts of the 17th century castle built by King Christian IV. It is now the National Museum of National History and houses some beautiful artwork. At the reception, I leave an id as deposit and take the free mp3 audio tour. The rooms are richly decorated with furniture, objects d’art, paintings, tapestries, panels etc. The audio tour is useful and interesting. I am so glad I have come to see this castle!
This beautiful chapel, which mostly escaped the fire, is gorgeous. It is of great historical significance as this is where almost all Danish monarchs were anointed between 1671 to 1840. I admire the beautiful organ, the oldest in Denmark.
The Audience Chamber is another room which escaped the fire. Large and airy, it has stunning views of the garden. I am amused by the hand-operated ‘lift’..the red chair you can just glimpse at the left corner of the room above.
There are many wonderful portraits here, but my favourite is Christian IV because he has a marked resemblance to Obelix! See the braid? See the figure? He made me smile so!
This grand hall looks amazing with a most intricate ceiling and many portraits of the royal family.
I spend about 80 mins inside the castle. I then head out the large ornamental garden with cascading fountains. It is nice to be outside, so I take my time wandering down the paths and taking pictures.
I head out back to the bus stop..or so I think. Instead I have exited from another entrance and have to walk around the moat to reach the bus stop. I feel hot and grumpy with my mistake; then realise I am hungry as well. I stop to have a sandwich and a drink. It is 1:15pm by the time I am back at the bus stop.
I take the bus 301/302 to the station and catch the train to Helsingor to see Kronborg castle. The train is easy to find. Exiting from the station at Helsingor I see the castle in the distance. It takes about 15 mins to walk to the entrance; I am there by 2:15pm.
This castle is markedly different to Frederiksborg. While Frederiksborg is a luxurious palace, this is more of a solid fortress. This castle is the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet and many famous actors have performed the play right here, starting from Richard Burton, John Giulgud and Christopher Plummer to Kenneth Branagh and Jude Law. There is a room with photos from their live performances here; I enjoy my star gazing!
The insides are rather plain and not that interesting. I still do a complete walk-through in case I miss something. What I like best is a room full of beautiful tapestries.
There are 144 steps to climb up the tower, but it is worth it as the views are amazing! I am alone up there, nobody else has bothered with the climb! Once I climb down again I head towards the exit. I hesitate in front of the dungeons. I don’t like dark and creepy places…and this one would have been such a sad place, with so many prisoners living in misery, seeking death as a relief. I decide that I don’t want to see it after all.
I exit and walk up to the ramparts. The guns here attest to the role of the fortress in days gone by. I walk back to the station, passing through Helsingor and admiring its lively central area. I find my way to my train and have a nice restful time while the train takes me back to Copenhagen.
I reach Copenhagen Central station just after 5 pm and and head straight to the Planetarium. I somehow forget to take pics; this is from the tourism website. I haven’t been to a planetarium for many years, I am not sure what to expect. I certainly do not expect this huge 100 square metre screen and a 3D star voyage! The first 15 mins just take my breath away! It is incredible! The IMAX documentary which follows is also very educational. I really enjoy my experience. Note : If you carry headphones with you, you can save 20 DKK on buying one in order to listen to the commentary in English.
It is past 7 pm and I am hungry. As the Copenhagen pass includes entry to the Tivoli gardens I decide to go and see what they have to offer. It is interesting to see an amusement park right in the centre of town! There are any number of eateries here but as a vegetarian, my choices are, as always, limited. I spot Wagamama, a chain I am familiar with. I am very pleased with my lovely vegetable and tofu stir fry.
After dinner I wander around and spot a jazz concert in progress. I sit down and enjoy the music for about half an hour. I am kind of fading, it has been a long day. I head out and catch a bus back to my apartment. However the bus veers away from the normal path as there is some kind of a street festival. There are thousands of young folk thronging the streets. I thank heaven for my mapping application; I get off a few blocks away and trudge on tired feet back to my apartment. The noise levels are horrendous and the streets are a garbage dump. I cannot understand why streets should be trashed thus for the young to amuse themselves! It is late by the time I get to bed but the street noise doesn’t abate..I nod off in exhaustion but wake repeatedly; there is noise even at 02:30 am! The light wakes me up at 5. Not much sleep for my tired body.
02 June 2016
I am a bit dizzy with lack of sleep this morning but the day is bright and lovely and soon I feel myself again. I head straight out to the aquarium. This is just one metro stop away from the airport. A 10 minute walk from the metro gets me to the aquarium. If my flight timing had been suitable, it would have worked very well to see it on the way back but unfortunately that didn’t work for me. I’ve seen a few good aquariums in Australia; I wonder if this will stand up to those in Sydney and Melbourne?
It turns out to be very charming. I am so glad I came! I am mesmerized by the so many different colours and shapes of the life forms, isn’t the world quite a magical place? I spend just over an hour here. I leave at about 11:15.
My intention is to see the changing of the guards at Amalienborg at 12 noon. By the time I walk to the station, wait for the metro and get off at the appropriate stop, there isn’t much time left. Instead of trying to figure out the bus, I decide to just walk – or rather run – to the palace. It’s a mistake, the bus would have been quicker. Still, I arrive at the square in front of the palace just before noon. There is quite a crowd but the square is big and I get a ringside place. The changing of guards is a long process, I need not have run at all.
It is an impressive square. There are four palaces arranged around a central statue of King Frederik V from 1771.
One of the four palaces is open as a museum about the royal family. There are some well preserved rooms on display, such as Christian Xth study above. However I don’t find this museum very interesting; perhaps it is just a matter of too many palaces in too short a time! I spend about 30 mins here.
I walk across to the Marble Church which is close by. The Dome is very impressive! I spend only a few minutes here.
My next port of call is the Hirschsprung Collection, an art museum. As there doesn’t seem to be any convenient bus, I decide to walk it. I realise on the way that I am hungry..it is such an inconvenience, this hunger! Such a waste of time when I could be doing something else! I can’t spot any likely café on the way so I stop at a supermarket and pick up a Danish pastry and a yoghurt drink. I settle down under a tree in the King’s garden to enjoy a little rest and my picnic lunch.
I am just at the right time to enjoy gardens as the flowers are all blooming!
I am rather hot by the time I reach the Hirschsprung collection. I am wondering if this would be worth the effort. I am blown away by what they have, what a treasure! They have a free mp3 audio tour which is very good. I learn a lot about some excellent Scandinavian artists. I want their catalogue but it is rather heavy and won’t fit in my hand baggage. They tell me I can buy it online..note to myself, do this soon!
I leave the art gallery at 3:30 pm and take a bus to see the National Museum of Denmark. I guess that it would take about 30 mins and I will still get an hour to see something of the museum. But our bus stops at a stop half way there and everyone is asked to get out. The next bus which comes along disgorges passengers as well. I don’t know what is happening, I just wait at the stop to see if the next bus will take us on. It does. The bus is very full. I somehow miss my stop and land up somewhere else. I have to take another bus back. I’ve made such a mess of this! I land up at the museum at 4:30 and they kick me out at 4:50. I see just the one section about Vikings which is very interesting. I realize that I could happily have spent half a day here, sigh! Wish I had skipped Amalienborg and come here instead. Regret this…(picture from the internet)
I head to the Town Hall square to take some pics. A nice square, very busy. Then I walk through a pedestrian area towards the Canal.
My intention is to catch the Harbour Bus Number 902 (included in the Copenhagen card) which has a stop close to the Little Mermaid. The boat ride is pleasant. The statue is about a 10 min walk from the stop. There is a good crowd there. I am not sure why there is such a song and dance about it, but it is the statue to take a picture of in Copenhagen and so I too join in.
I then walk through the Citadel and the pretty park around it and head to the bus stop. I am done. I go back to Wagamama where I am assured of a tasty dinner before going back to the apartment. Tomorrow at noon I fly back home. This has been a great little holiday, I am content.
I confess, I was very nervous about visiting Russia. Memories of Soviet era stories lingered in my mind, leaving a sense of unease. Latter stories about the political situation or the Mafia didn’t help either. Russia has had some bad press, hasn’t it! Yet, I wanted to see the art galleries in Russia so very much! So when my friend suggested doing a trip together, I raised Russia as an option. She reacted with enthusiasm but like me, was a bit wary. So, instead of setting off by ourselves, we decided to go with a package tour. The last time I went on one was 30 years ago, so I had my hesitation about this too…but it seemed the safer option. After doing a fair bit of research, we ended up with Cox and Kings package which included 3 days in Moscow and 4 in St Petersburg. We joined the tour directly in Moscow and extended the stay by one day in St Petersburg.
We flew into Moscow and out of St Petersburg. I considered taking the train to get to our hotel in Moscow but did not fancy dragging my suitcase up and down the Metro stairs. I found that Lingo Taxi had a good reputation and booked transfers via the internet. This worked perfectly; I was sent the driver name and car number the day before I travelled and we were met by an English speaking driver at the airport. In retrospect, this was a good decision because we did not find escalators in the Metro stations we used. Our pick up at St Petersburg went without a hitch as well. I am happy to recommend the services of Lingo Taxi.
Day 1, 4 Sept 2015
We arrived late afternoon; it was past 6 pm when we settled into our Hotel National. It is right across from Manezhnaya Square, just a minute away from the Red Square. The hotel is old fashioned but very nice. Breakfast was excellent. The location was just perfect, couldn’t be better!
This was the view from our breakfast table! There is a well-reputed Italian restaurant in the hotel with equally good views.
Manezhnaya and Revolution Squares
After settling in the hotel, we went to explore the squares just across from our hotel, both just outside Red Square. The Red Square was closed for Moscow’s 868th birthday celebrations. There was much activity in these squares with stalls selling local arts and crafts. A lot of police presence as well. I had downloaded the Yandex Translation App (free) before this holiday. The great advantage is that it works offline, with no roaming charges. It even speaks aloud!! I promptly tested my app on unsuspecting stall holders and even with the police; I got a lot of giggles and laughs, but it worked fine! I highly recommend this app if you travel in Russia as English is not spoken commonly. We saw that tickets were available for a Military Tattoo in the Red Square for the next night. I successfully used this translator to buy the tickets on the date we wanted!
Day 2, 5 Sept 2015
Poklonnaya Gora or Bow-Down Hill
A city tour was included in the package but it was a total wash out. Thanks to the Moscow city celebrations, the Red Square was closed and traffic disrupted. We were taken to some less important sights, such as the Poklonnaya Gora or Bow-down Hill and the cemetery. All this was also a wash out because of the rain. A great disappointment.
Cathedral of Christ The Saviour
The only good part of this morning was a visit to the Cathedral above. This is an impressive structure and quite beautiful inside (no pictures allowed). I was intrigued by how different it was from the many Cathedrals and churches I have seen in Europe. The original had been destroyed by Stalin in 1931; this church was built within an incredible 5 years (1995-2000) . It is an exact replica of the demolished Cathedral. There is a metro station very close by.
That afternoon, we made our own way to the Tretyakov Art gallery. The Metro was quite easy to manage on our own; the Yandex Metro app that I had downloaded was very useful. The other app. that I use extensively in all my travels is City Maps2Go. I download the map of the places we are visit before leaving home and mark all the places of interest, hotels etc. I use this to navigate when I am out and about. As it works offline using only the GPS in your smartphone for positioning, there are no roaming charges. An invaluable app! At the gallery I took the audio guide which was quite good. It took almost three hours to make our way through the gallery. I found the visit a great learning experience as I was not familiar with Russian artists. Some wonderful pieces of work here..loved it!
Day 3, 6 Sep 2015
Today was a free day in our itinerary. As we set off to explore, our way was blocked in all directions by barricades and stern policemen. It was so frustrating! We must have walked 30 mins to reach the Bolshoi theatre which is just a 5 min walk from Hotel National! The theatre looks very stately and impressive. I had tried to get tickets for a show online but it was shown as ‘sold out’. However, our guide procured tickets for some of the others in the group in the ‘black market’ with a grand mark-up! Quite a racket, to be sure!
Just getting to the Red Square was an adventure. We walked around in circles and tried many avenues until they finally opened the barricades at 11:30 am. Crowds just poured in! The square was taken up by the stalls for an equestrian performance and another for the Military Tattoo. So we didn’t really see the square in its glory. The red building above is the history museum which we did not have the time to visit.
Along one side of the Red Square is the Gum Department store. What a marvellous old building! We had lunch in a cafe inside; it was the worst sandwich I’ve ever eaten!
This is also in the Red Square but we couldn’t get near because of the barricades. I had expected something more grand…
St Basil’s Cathedral
This iconic Cathedral is so unusual and arresting! The exterior is very flamboyant and quite charming. After walking around and taking pictures from all possible angles, we went for a (paid) visit inside. It is essentially a museum. Some of the icon screens were very interesting to look at but otherwise I was rather disappointed with the interior.
Komsomolskaya Metro Station
After having heard much about the Metro Stations in Moscow, I had considered finding a guide to take us around. But then I like to do things on my own, so I did some research to find a good route to take. We visited (in order) Ploschad Revolutsii with some great sculptures, Arbatskaya with its beautiful ornamentation and chandeliers, Kievskaya with its amazing mosaics, Mayakovskaya with its stunning marble floor and strong columns, Novoslobodskaya with its wonderful stained glass artwork and finally to Komsomolskaya with its Baroque ceiling, marble columns and chandeliers. For the price of a Metro Ticket (50 Roubles), we spent a fun couple of hours visiting some of the most impressive stations. Warning : Lots of steps to climb up and down!
After dinner and a bit of rest, we set off excitedly to see the Military Tattoo, the tickets for which we had bought on the first day. The setting was quite extraordinarily impressive and so was the show! It was raining buckets but we were determined to sit it out. Unfortunately, my raincoat was not sufficient for the deluge; my jeans got soaked and water seeped up all the way to my waist. I was so wet, cold and miserable that I finally gave in and abandoned the show. The Muscovites are a hardy lot; except for some families with children who left, the stands were all full!
Day 4, 7 Sep 2015
This morning, we had an organised tour of the Kremlin which was very interesting. The Kremlin is a solid presence in the city; we had been seeing its walls every time we went out.
Four Seasons Fountain
This fountain was the first thing I noticed after we entered. What a marvellous sculpture!
The Russian Two-Headed eagle
I learnt that it signifies looking both at the East and the West..interesting…
The Cathedral Square
What an impressive square! The Golden domes seem to surround you in all sides!
We went inside only the Assumption Cathedral. The disadvantage of being in a tour is that you cannot quite wander at will so I did not get a peep inside the other Cathedrals. Photos were not allowed inside; this rather poor shot was taken before I realised it.
We also went inside the Armoury to see the simply jaw-dropping wealth of the Tsars. I’ve never seen anything quite like it…I was left quite speechless! Add this to your bucket list, its incredible.
This large square behind the Cathedrals is quite interesting. The Tsar’s Bell and the Tsar’s Cannon are both here. As is Putin’s office which is in the small yellow building in the distance above.
The formally laid out Kremlin gardens were beautiful with flower beds in bloom.
We exited by the Spasskaya Tower into the Red Square. I couldn’t resist taking pictures of the young guards who stood stiffly beside the gates!
That afternoon, we were bundled into a bus and taken to the train station to catch a fast train to St Petersburg. Until now I had not seen anything that I didn’t feel confident of doing by myself. But this, I would have found quite difficult. There is security to enter the platform. The train didn’t come until later but the porters knew where to stand for our carriage. The train was clean and comfortable but the food on board didn’t appeal. I wish I had carried a small picnic meal for myself..
We were met at the station and taken to our hotel. A converted palace, it has a rich and interesting history. There were plenty of public areas but unfortunately not much natural light inside. Our room was great, we faced the canal above. They provided excellent breakfast. Above all, the location is simply perfect! Even if you don’t stay here, choosing a nearby hotel will be a good idea.
Day 5, 8 Sept 2015
We had a very nice organised ‘City Tour’ this morning. After seeing some of the important squares of the city, we headed to the Port area for a little stop.
Peter and Paul Cathedral
Then we headed to the Peter and Paul fortress where the main attraction is the Cathedral. The interior of the Peter and Paul Cathedral is quite beautiful.A number of Tsars and Tsarinas are buried here.
The Saviour of the Spilled Blood
Our next stop was the iconic, exuberant church above. It was made to commemorate a Tsar killed by a terrorist (?) but it is nowhere near as sombre as the name suggests. Instead, it looks just joyous and flamboyant! I couldn’t help smiling when I saw it! The soaring lines, the myriad colours and the light streaming from the windows add to the joyous effect.
St Nicholas Naval Cathedral
Our last stop on today’s tour was at the Cathedral above. My mind was still reeling with the ‘blood cathedral’ ; on a sensory overload, I did not pay good attention to this Cathedral but I remember it being beautiful as well.
After some rest, we set off that evening to explore Nevsky Prospect, the busy and vibrant main arterial street of St Petersburg. We visited the Armenian Church, the Catholic Church and even made a quick foray into the Great Gostiny Dvor Departmental Store.
Day 6, 9 Sept 2015
The Palace Square
This was the day I was looking forward to from the very start..the day we get to visit the Winter Palace and the Hermitage. My very first sight of this beautiful square stunned me! I came back over the next couple of days and took many pictures in different light conditions.
The Winter Palace
What can I say about the magnificence of this palace? The decor is over the top- gold and incredibly beautiful stones, gilding and wood, plaster work and glass…it was all quite overwhelming!
The painting collection in the Hermitage (both buildings) is quite amazing. And then the richness of the objets d’art! As an art lover, I was in heaven! Our guide did an excellent tour of the Palace and the classical art. Most of the group went on an optional cruise but I chose to stay behind and drool over my favourites. There were also a number of rooms that the tour did not cover; I was determined not to miss a single room..
I was lucky that the impressionist gallery (separate ticket) was open till late. It is just across on the other side of the square. The collection is quite superb; don’t miss this! By the end of the day, I had spent 9 hrs. inside the museums; except for a 30 min lunch break, I had been on my feet all the time. I limped my way back to the hotel in a happy daze! I also came away with a heavy gallery book and a lovely necklace in Malachite to remind me of this amazing day!
Day 7, 10 Sept 2015
Today there was a whole day tour organized to visit Catherine’s Palace and Peterhof. It took us about an hour to get Pushkin (35 km). Catherine’s Palace was built in the 1700’s. It was commissioned by Catherine I as a summer palace; subsequently Elizabeth of Russia completely reconstructed it. Catherine II had parts of it redecorated. Damaged heavily during German occupation, restoration work continues to this day.
Catherine’s Palace Interiors
This was the richest palace I’ve ever seen! Quite amazing! The glitter and gold overtakes everything but if we put that aside, there was much else to admire. The famous Amber Room was quite astounding! Photos were not permitted in that room, check out it’s history in this article.
Catherine’s Palace Gardens
After seeing the riches of man-made objects, it was sheer pleasure to see the beauty of nature in the extensive gardens.
Known as the Russian Versailles due to the beautifully laid out gardens, Peterhof is about an hour’s drive (50 km) from St Petersburg. Built in the 1700’s by Peter the Great and then by Elizabeth of Russia, it was looted and destroyed during German occupation. The restoration work started immediately after the war and still continues. It is small compared to the other palaces we saw but still full of gilt and grandeur.
Peterhof Palace Gardens
The gardens and the fountains are especially beautiful. I was pleased to get my first glimpse of the Baltic sea from here! It took about 45 minutes to get back to town from here. The tour of the two palaces took almost the whole day.
After resting a while, we went out to see the Kazan Cathedral before having dinner. Another place of beauty; no dearth of them in St Petersburg. No photos were allowed inside.
Day 8, 11 Sept 2015
St Isaac’s Cathedral
I had added this extra day at the end of our trip to cover a couple extra museums or monuments. I had in fact wanted to see the Alexander Nevsky Monastery but my friend was not so enthusiastic. Instead, we took our guide book’s recommendation to see the exterior of the Summer Palace and gardens. It was a much longer walk than I expected and in the end, not a very interesting experience. I regret not having made it to the monastery.
We then walked back along the river to St Isaacs which was simply wonderful. I thought I had seen the best of Cathedrals in Russia already when we made our way to this one. I was wrong! The fourth biggest is the world, it is quite an amazing Cathedral.
St Isaac’s Interior
It is very beautifully proportioned and decorated with some stunning artwork. I was especially impressed by the mosaics. They were so detailed!
And the relief work on the huge doors was simply outstanding! Reminded me of the doors of the Baptistery in Florence…they were equally remarkable!
St Isaac’s Collonaded Walkway
We walked up to the colonnaded walkway on the roof. It’s a climb but not too hard. The excellent views are worth the effort.
We managed to get some time to look at the shops before returning to the hotel to get ready for the ballet performance (Le Corsair) at the Mikhailovsky theatre. I had bought the tickets at a very reasonable price at this site. It is all in Russian; I used the browser’s translate features to navigate through it. I was even able to see the seats we would get, which was great! I paid using a credit card online and collected the tickets in their office on the first day. It was all very easy, there is no need to pay black market prices. The ballet itself was simply superb! I am so glad we got to see it!
Day 9, 12 Sept 2015
We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast this morning and set out to the airport with plenty of time. This Russian holiday had been excellent, there had been so much to see! I definitely recommend it as a destination.
Susten. Furka. Grimsel. Even the names sound wonderful, don’t they? Ever since I heard of this route which goes through all the three mountain passes, I have been wanting to see it for myself. Given that the route is open only in summer and you need good weather for views, my few efforts in the past failed. We were free this weekend and the weather seemed good so off we went…
If you take a round trip from Meiringen, its only 131 km and should take no more than 3 hrs. of actual driving even on the slow mountain roads. As it would take us more than 2 hrs. to get to Meringen and I had a few stops in mind, I decided to do this over the weekend. Here is a picture-story of what we saw..
You remember when Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty struggled over a fall and then fell over? Well, these are the falls!! There is a funicular close to Meringen which took us up to a very good viewpoint. From there we walked up a little till we reached another viewpoint and then took the funicular back down.
This is the view of the valley from the top of the funicular.
The entrance to the Aare Gorge is about a kilometre from the funicular to the falls, just across the highway.
There is a walkway along the river which takes about 30 minutes each way. It is an easy walk, almost flat and wheelchair friendly. It is quite an extraordinary experience..the force of the river, the extreme narrowness of the gorge in places, the ‘wall’ of limestone looming very high at other places..I loved it!
There were some great rock formations. The ‘mills’ were especially interesting. Also of interest was the entrance to military bunkers from WWII!
On the way to Susten Pass, there is a good spot for a great view of the Stein Glacier.
The Susten Pass at 2224m, with the famous Post Bus driving past. For those who don’t want to drive, this is an excellent alternative to go on this route.
THE DEVIL’S BRIDGE
The Devil’s Bridge is right outside Andermatt. There is a nice story about it, you can read it here. Once we cross this bridge above, there is a tunnel which takes you across to the other side of the waterfall.
It was about 5:30 when we reached our hotel in Andermatt. We had a small wander through town, it was all rather quiet. After enjoying a leisurely meal, we called it a day.
ROUTE TO FURKA : JAMES BOND POINT
This spot is famous for its appearance in Goldfinger, the James Bond film! There is a video here of the car chase.
We continued on towards Furka pass by this marvellous route..beautiful at every point!
AT Furka pass – 2436 metres. There was a big flock of lambs passing through, it was fun to see them dot the landscape like so much fluff!
The clouds looked threatening but thankfully it didn’t rain. I wouldn’t have liked to drive in these roads in bad weather.
THE RHONE GLACIER
The Belvedere Hotel is quite near to the Furka Pass. This is a great spot to see the Rhone Glacier, the source of the Rhone river which meanders its way through Europe. You can see the tip of the glacier beyond the hotel.
The Rhone Glacier at the distant left.
At the Grimsel Pass there is a small dammed lake. I saw some fishermen around too. In fact, on the way down from the Grimsel, there are a number of dams and lakes.
Our last stop was the Gelmer funicular. Right next to the base station there is the Handeck suspension bridge. I tried to cross it but lost my courage half-way through when it started swaying rather alarmingly! I also decided not to take the Gelmer funicular when I saw how very steep the climb was.
That was the end of our trip. The drive was just fantastic and the views spectacular. An experience to remember!
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
I also enjoy the views of the city from the roof. It all looks quite lovely!
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
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.
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!
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
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
The first sight of the castle on a hill is very impressive.
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.
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.
We wait by the ramparts, enjoying the magnificent views of the countryside.
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.
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.
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.
The castle enjoys an enviable location! Very fairy-tale like, isn’t it?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
View of the castle from Marienbrücke.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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!
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
What a pleasure to see monuments all by oneself! Our group disperses and we wander around taking pictures and admiring the artwork.
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.
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.
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.
This temple is just amazing! Photo opportunities abound..
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?’
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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 !
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.