My brother and I drove from deep southern Bavaria to Innsbruck for a day out and to have a spot of lunch with a friend, at the popular ski resort of Innsbruck in #Austria. It was late summer, so we also got to enjoy the city’s other attractions on offer.
I was surprised at just how much character this picturesque capital of Tyrol had, nestled deep in an Alpen valley. My favourite attraction was the Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof), in the old town. The photo below doesn’t quite do it justice. It has over 2000 gilded copper tiles and was built in 1500 to commemorate Emperor Maxmilian the First’s, marriage to Bianca Sforza (Italian noblewoman and daughter of the Duke of Milan). There are wall murals and impressive reliefs line the bottom edges. It’s pretty extraordinary and each tile glowed radiantly as a sunbeam caught it, shining out from behind a cloud. We walked around the Old town and got soaked in its medieval charm.
I loved visiting the Jesuit church, which was built in the mid 1600s and is decorated with paintings and memorials dedicated to St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. It’s also a part of the working University for Jesuit teaching. I remember my uncle, who is a Jesuit himself, telling me about his visit to Innsbruck over fifty years ago when he was there as a student. It felt a little uncanny walking around the church, knowing that my uncle had once spent a brief time living there himself. If you find yourself at this church, there’s a chapel inside dedicated to the ‘Lightbringer of the Far East’ or St. Francis Xavier, a well-known name in Goa.
We took the funicular or ‘Hungerburgbahn’ to visit the Bergiselschanze ski jumping facility, which goes upto 860metres above ground, rising above the valley and providing stunning views across Innsbruck city against the background of the surrounding Alps. There’s a beer garden on the top, where you can relax with a Weissbeer (white beer) and take in the views in a relaxed atmosphere. Just don’t attempt this if you’ve got vertigo! An additional reason to go up is to see late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid’s fabulous UFO-like station halfway up the mountain. It’s typical of her well-executed style entered around organic curves.
We couldn’t walk past ‘Cafe Kroll’ without grabbing a strudel (okay, two) and it is honestly the best strudel I’ve had to date. I ordered the ‘Plaume und Mohn’ which is German for Plum and Poppyseed. We also split a rather staid and traditional Apple strudel with coffee. Heaven!
The mother of a good friend of mine was going on and on about how I should visit Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France, if I ever had the chance. So, when I did get the chance a couple of years later, I went without knowing what exactly to expect.
For example, I didn’t expect my first approach to the island to be so fascinating. It’s a tidal island, which means that high tide blocks the entire island from the mainland as it is surrounded by water on all sides. The most fascinating aspect of the island is Mont Saint-Michel Abbey, which crowns the top of the island and has been an integral part of the island’s characteristic skyscape, since medieval times.
For obvious reasons, the entire island is navigated by foot only. Wandering up the steep, rambling alleyways that coil around the island and eventually lead you to the Abbey, you realise pretty quickly that the island still preserves most of its medieval character. Over time, as local merchants, suppliers and servants relied more heavily on the Abbey’s finances to provide them with a living, they moved onto the base of the island so that they were less reliant on the tides to give them access to the Abbey and provide the monks that lived there with the support they required.
The Abbey is a strange mix of Norman and Gothic architecture and there’s now a bridge connecting the mainland with the island. I visited it around 2002 when one still relied on knowing the tides to get there, or risked being trapped on the island overnight. Just be warned that those quaint medieval narrow streets on the Mont also get packed full of tourists very quickly and you’ll feel like you’re in a crowded cattleshed. Still, it’s a pretty special place and I’m very glad I got to visit it when I did. This unique UNESCO World Heritage site is definitely worth a visit, just be warned that’s it’s one of Normandy’s premier tourist attractions.
The medieval Breton town of Dinan is a short drive away from Mont Saint-Michel and is worth a poke around if you’re exploring the area.
For two years I’d wanted to attend the #JaipurLiteraryFestival. Ironically, when I lived in Delhi, I was so busy with my job that I couldn’t make the time to go there. Only after I moved back to Goa I was able to have the mind space to plan a trip there. My Jaipur visit was part of a long-held dream of wanting to visit the Pink city anyway. So, it made sense to couple my visit with a literary-festival-author-talk binge. I’d been to Jodhpur years before, but again, for work. And everyone knows a work visit isn’t quite the same as a holiday visit. There’s a different kind of focus.
I booked a room with a heater (it was a cold, windy January in the Rajasthan desert at the time) in an old haveli that was kept together by a few family members and some strutting peacocks. They were all over the place, the peacocks, that is.
The literary festival itself was fun, though packed full of people. I managed to get a seat to most events I wanted to attend and learned about a few new authors that sounded interesting. I listened to Jeet Thayil interview Will Self, heard Hanif Kureishi talk about his writing, watched a fascinating presentation by Simon Singh about the show The Simpsons and where all the mathematical principles presented in the show come from (the show’s writers are all Ivy League graduates in Maths), heard ex-president Abdul Kalam speak to a packed audience that almost caused a stampede. I saw travel writer, Mark Tully, and Welsh novelist, Sarah Waters, strolling around the grounds and attended the launch of Granta’s ‘India’ edition, presented by Urvashi Butalia, founder of Zubaan books.
I took two days out to rent a cab for a tour of the city and saw these gorgeous highlights, in photo form below:
Hawa Mahal (the palace of winds):
Exterior views –
Interior views –
Jaipur city Palace:
If you have time to only see one thing in Jaipur, its the Four Seasons doors at the City palace. Pay the entry fee and wander deep into the palace till you find the courtyard with the four doors. You’ve got to get close-up to each one to spot the unique detailing and vibrant colouring of each one, that tells a story of its own. These photos below barely do it justice.
Ok, I openly admit that I have a fetish for Blue (and Iznik) pottery. I spent a couple of hours at the place below buying soapfishes, coaster tiles, bowls and toothbrush holders.
The Albert Hall museum (state museum of Rajasthan):
They had a LOT of beautiful objects that I whisked past due to limited time, including an armoury with medieval weapons and lots of interesting earthenware. There was a floor of fascinating folios from a version of The Panchatantra that I loved.
And I spent an entire afternoon at the Anokhi showroom, buying ethnic wear in print block patterns (yes, yes, another thing I have a fetish for!) and stocking up on their gorgeous blank diaries.
I visited Warsaw, in #Poland, for work in 2013, but made time to visit two of the city’s attractions on the weekend: The Warsaw Uprising Museum, and the Frederic Chopin museum.
If you want to learn more about Warsaw’s significant and historically important role in World War 2, the repercussions of which resonate with Warsaw residents even today, this is the only museum you need to visit in the city. Here, you can read about the story of the Warsaw Jewish ghetto (largest ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe) created by the Nazis and see original landmines from the war in glass display cases. There’s also a fascinating video that was playing, of aerial film taken over the city just after the war ended. It showed how a city of 1.3million at the start of the war in 1939 was reduced to a few thousands condemned to living in the rubble of their bomb-ravaged city.
I then made it to Frederic Chopin’s museum where I saw things like a bronze cast of his left hand, his death mask, sketches of him made on his death bed. Granted, it was morbid, but someone actually made these. I think it was the custom for celebrities to have these things done in those days. I’m a big fan of his music, so it was interesting to stroll around the Museum house, reading interesting displays about his life and listening to audio recordings of his work.
Apart from work and visiting these two museums, I found the city unattractive. It has all the qualities of an urban centre in a coal-reliant country that lacks the proper investment in infrastructure and development. I thought it was brooding and formidable. Warsaw’s complex history of suppression and annexation, deceit and despair lingers over it like a dark cloud that it’s occupants seem unable to shake from their spirit. It seems the city and its people will need more time to rise out of their economic need and feel the air of prosperity around them. Not a place I’d visit again anytime soon even though its historical and cultural heritage was fascinating.
My visit to Bali was a last-minute proposal from a friend I hadn’t seen in three years and we decided to meet up in this gorgeous South-East Asian paradise, full of colour and surprises. I hadn’t ever been before and had no interest in exploring #SouthEastAsia (yes, inspite of Gilbert’s best-selling travel memoir Eat, Pray, Love), something I’ve pointed out before in my post about Singapore. However, after my short 10-day visit, #BeautifulBali turned out to be one of my top five favourite places to visit in the world, after Florence and Venice. A few photos of my stay are included below.
Below is a Civet cat in a coffee plantation that produces #kopiluwak, the most expensive coffee in the world. The coffee is processed from the civet cat’s excrement, after the cat eats coffee cherries. The bean’s skin is digested away, leaving behind an intact coffee bean that then goes through processing (picture on the right). Yes, I tried some Luwak coffee. No, I didn’t like the taste.
The week we arrived, we didn’t realise it, but the Balinese Hindus were celebrating ‘Nyepi’ or the Balinese ‘Day of Silence’ where devotees burn huge demonic effigies. It commemorates the Balinese new year and this is just one of the rituals and celebrations that happens before and after the day of silence, when even tourists are asked to stay inside their hotels and the streets are conspicuously empty and silent.
After Venice, Florence is one of the top five cities that I absolutely love, love, love. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about the city that I love. The gentle light that spreads over the city bathing it in a soft yellow glow every morning and at the Golden Hour in the evenings? The first view of the stunning Duomo as you stroll round the street corner and see it for the first time? The sweet stickiness of a cornetto filled with jam that wedges itself into every molar in your mouth?
It helps that before setting off for a long weekend (3 nights) there with my brother, I went online to check out what we absolutely had to see and do. A friend of a friend happened to be renting out the decrepit one bedroom flat she’d inherited from her grandmother, located in the heart of Florence, complete with framed vintage pictures of horse-riders and their racing horses. The rent was just right and besides the double bed, we were told there was an extendable sofa-bed. Their neighbour, who didn’t speak a word of English, gave us the key and pointed to the bed in the bedroom, the coffee in the kitchen and the switch for what I presumed was the hot water in the oddly shaped bathroom, and then left. The bathroom was narrow and had the odd shape of a coffin – wide at one end and tapering into a narrow end at the other. It was papered with dull 70s design wall paper from floor to ceiling. The bathtub was clean enough and as long as there was hot water coming out of the small hand-held shower head attached to the tap, I didn’t care. We were in Florence. I didn’t plan on staying in much.
We woke up early our first morning and wandered out in search of a café for breakfast. A rather dark, poky, empty one hidden in the recesses of an alleyway caught our attention. Caffeine and one ham croissant later, we walked down a street that turned straight into the imposing, stunning façade of the Duomo, the most popular sight to see in the city that’s world famous for its architecture and art.
The 13th century Gothic style church with Brunelleschi’s 15th century dome has become the most iconic structure in Florence immediately associated with this great, vast city nestled in the Tuscan countryside. I have to admit, that a first sight of the church façade integrating white, pink and green marble together, is pretty jaw-dropping. The interior is imposing and beautiful, though stark by comparison. Vasari’s famous frescoes of The Last Judgement are a 16th century addition that definitely liven up the interior.
The Il Duomo di Firenze complex consists of the Baptistry and Giotto’s campanile (bell tower), along with the church. If we’d had more time in the city, we might have joined the long lines to get to the top of the campanile. But we didn’t, so we didn’t. As it is, we had to stand for about twenty minutes in line, early in the morning, to get into the church! I can only imagine how long the lines got later on as more tourists strolled in from their late breakfasts.
Don’t miss seeing the East doors of the Baptistry. The panels are in gold and represent the Gates of Paradise. This is one of my favourite things to see in the city. The scenes come alive in exquisite detail, with faces coming out of the panels in vivid scenes embossed on stretches of gold. You won’t be the only one queuing up for a selfie with the door.
My brother had downloaded a DK Eyewitness app on his phone, that indicated all the eateries in whichever area we were walking in, as well as their reviews and starred-rating. That’s how we came across the arched doorway of ‘Il Latini’ one evening for dinner. Sure, it was supposed to be a popular tourist haunt, but one that everyone assured we would love. It had lots of rooms inside and we were led to an available two-person table.
We ordered a la carte and in all, must have been there for 3 hours eating primi piatti, secondi piatti, dessert and the staff gave everyone a dessert wine and a plate of biscotti for free. We had no idea about the portion size when we ordered and asked for whatever was most popular. We ended up labouring through getting hunk after hunk of meat brought to us on a platter. True, it was succulent and tasty, but our bodies would take months to digest all of it! Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit. But, vegetarians, be advised. This is NOT the place for you. This isn’t the place for a quick meal either. We thought we’d be done in an hour and a half tops. Nope! If you visit here, be prepared to slow yourself down to Tuscan time. It’s got a great communal atmosphere. You’ll find yourself chatting with others under the dried hams hanging from the ceiling, and laughing at the waiters who seem determined to make you eat as much as you can manage. Chalk it down to them wanting you to have the true experience of eating at a Tuscan family table, and you’ll be guaranteed to enjoy yourself at ‘Il Latini.’
The next morning, we decided to head to the world class, world famous Uffizi museum. It’s where Western classical artists go to have a religious experience. To get tickets at the Uffizi, without waiting in line for close to an hour, pre-book them online and join the much shorter queue which should take you inside within ten minutes. Yes, there is a LOT to see and I was struck by the rather modern 15th century renderings of some of the lesser known Italian artists using vivid colours in the style of Titian but combining them with modernist designs – favouring fine geometric design though picking romantic style subjects and scenes.
I didn’t know that Botticelli’s iconic ‘The Birth of Venus’ was in the Uffizi and was thrilled to see it centered in one of the museum’s vast rooms. This museum, of course, is THE place for fans of all the great Italian renaissance artists from Bellini and Piero della Francesco to Titian and Mantegna. I quite enjoyed Caravaggio’s Medusa which isn’t easy to spot, as it’s placed in a small room on your way out. After a couple of hours (hardcore fans will need a full day at least) of walking through corridor after corridor of greats (including Leonardo da Vinci, by the way) we got out, had a quick lunch and then kept on sight-seeing.
Which brings me to the Basilica di San Lorenzo. There are lots of churches you could visit in the city, but there’s only one that contains the grandest tombs of the infamous Medici family in the apse of the chapel – multi-coloured marbles and imposing grandiosity in one of the best ever examples of Pietra Dura style.
Then, there’s the Laurentian library designed by Michelangelo, in the church cloister. The library is an interesting study in the Mannerist architectural style that was popular in Italy at one time, both in its painting and its famous buildings. The red and white terracotta floor of the Reading room is supposed to demonstrate the principles of geometry. The library was built to house the Medici’s private collection of manuscripts and printed books, collected over centuries and was supposed to establish them as an academically-inclined, scholarly and educated family to extend their status beyond the power-hungry image they were known for.
If, after wandering around the city, you feel the need for a bit of space and greenery, stroll through the romantic Boboli gardens, which is littered with sculptures, walkways, grottoes and has a wide, landscaped terrace with a fantastic view over the city that’s great for scenic photographs.
The Ponte Vecchio is an arch bridge over the River Arno, known for having shops built along it in typical pre-medieval city style. If it wasn’t for the 1666 great fire of London, there might still be shops lining London bridge as well. We tried to find out how to gain access to the Vasari corridor, which is an aerial walkway built by the famous architect Vasari for the powerful Medici family so that they could walk safely from their Palazzo Pitti to their Palazzo Vecchio without the threat of assassination in the open street. It’s only open at certain times and through timed guided group tours, I read online at the time. Thanks to limited time, we gave up on that, but got to walk directly under it instead.
Not far from the Ponte Vecchio bridge in the city’s historical centre, is the Galileo Museum. I have to admit that I’m a fan of this guy ever since I learned that he was asked by the Inquisition to recant his scientific claim based on observation and evidence, that the earth revolved around the sun, instead of adhering to the religious view that the earth was the centre of the universe. He stuck to his view, inspite of being threatened, and was under house arrest until his death. The museum has Galileo’s main telescopes on display and a variety of other instruments both used by him and from the Medici’s vast collection of astronomic instruments. There’s also a great display of the prevailing theories and how the instruments work.
I can’t quite put my finger on why, but the Piazza della Signoria is probably the best square I’ve seen in all the cities I’ve been to. It’s an L-shaped ‘square’ (?!) in front of the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, which was once the political hub of Florence. Among the most famous statues there are ‘Judith and Holofernes’ by Donatello and ‘David’ (a copy, but…still) by Michaelangelo. There’s a gorgeous fountain of Neptune…. Then there’s the rather odd Loggia dei Lanzi, that seems rather out of place with the rest of the area but makes for a very interesting little corner of the Piazza with Cellini’s ‘Perseus holding up the head of Medusa’ and ‘The Rape of the Women of Sabine’ by some guy called Giambologna. It’s like a parade of the grotesque on display in the tucked-away corner of a prominent place.
What I love so much about this Piazza is probably the great location for people-watching and the fact that it connects so many significant structures together in one place. The Palazzo Vecchio, which is now the town hall, the Uffizi and the Loggia. Then, there’s the fountain of Neptune in the centre of the L-shape. It’s not a massive fountain, like Rome’s impressive Trevi, which almost, sort of, arches across the street corner where its wedged in. But, I do love the theme of the Roman god Neptune and his nymphs coming out of the water and looking down and over the people in the street as they walk past. It’s just cool.
Now, let’s be honest. We’re in Florence, in Italy. So the chance of coming across bad gelato isn’t that high anyway. However, there are some gelaterias that are better known than others and the locals swarm there, swearing by the creamy texture of the ice-cream. The Vivoli gelateria in Santa Croce, is just one such place on a not-so-easy-to-find side street. It is narrow inside and a popular tourist and back-packer hang-out, with ice-cream lickers pouring out onto the sidewalks and just lounging in the side street happily licking away at one flavourful scoop before ordering seconds. Personally, I think locals choose their favourites based on their favourite flavours, which are exotic and even extreme, like the Cheesecake flavor or the radical stinky Gorgonzola (yes, you read it right!) flavor. And no, I didn’t try either!
All I can say is, extreme gelato aside, I cannot wait to get back to that city for a longer visit someday!
Note: These are just a few of the highlights from my trip in 2011.
For decades, I’d never been able to muster up any excitement to travel to #SouthEastAsia. When the option to visit a cousin who’d moved to Singapore came up, and I asked a few people about it, the overall consensus seemed to be, ‘It’s known for its Financial district and it’s too sterile and boring. You’ll think so too.’ I went anyway and maybe it was the lower expectation I had, but my first time there was a blast! I’ve been to Singapore three times in all since then, and each time has been more wonderful than the last. Here are some of my best memories and recommendations from each trip:
First trip: 2009
We posed for photos by the Merlion with a grand backdrop of the 1928 Neo-classical style Fullerton Hotel in the background.
We also had a night-time river ride down Singapore river and back. The financial district was all lit up like London’s Canary Wharf and made for a garish nightscape along the river. But some might think otherwise and really love it.
If you like theme parks, visit Sentosa island. We loved the Aquarium!
We had our first experience of Korean BBQ at Red Pig restaurant on Amoy street which, unfortunately, is now closed down. It was so much fun watching the chef grill our meats on the hot grill at our table itself. Great recommendation, glad you took us there Pinaki B 🙂
We visited the National Museum, where audio guides were included in the price of our ticket. The museum was deceptively larger than we realized, but also very interesting as it described the development of Singapore from pre-historic origins right through colonial times and into modern Singapore. The displays are vibrant and informative and the audio guide is quite comprehensive about each object it describes.
We went to Raffles hotel to sample its famous signature drink, ‘The Singapore Sling’, at The Writer’s Bar and the manager kindly offered to take our photograph. He even directed us to the inner room where framed writings of Rudyard Kipling, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham are hanging on the wall. They were early customers at Raffles when it was just a bungalow with guest rooms started by a couple of Armenian brothers who were hoteliers and businessmen.
We sampled some mall food courts, which served cheap but tasty, quality eats from across South East Asia
We shopped for souvenirs in China Town and had relaxing cups of chai in Little India, after devouring Fish Head curry, one of Singapore’s signature dishes.
Marina Bay Waterfront Promenade is great for night-time walks and the Esplanade had lots of night-time entertainment options in its ticketed arena – it’s a lovely place to catch a show if that’s your thing.
Second trip: 2015
Marina Bay Sands hotel and a handful of cafes in their retail space with a skylight lightening things up – that feel of being outdoors even though its grey and overcast outside.
My first sight of Singapore’s latest tourist attraction, Gardens by the Bay, with the zany, metallic flowers reaching into the sky. Quite stunning! It’s the first view you get if walking from Marina Bay Sands hotel on the walkway towards the flowers and you can get some gorgeous pics of the flowers from the height where you are! Thanks to Patty B for taking me there 😀
The Asian Civilisations museum had some eye-opening displays that I just loved and if I’d had time, I would have visited the Peranakan museum too
Changi Prison and museum was three bus rides away from where my cousin lived, but it was a lovely day out for us both as we walked around the small, free museum with displays about the history of what happened in the little village outside the city, and how people coped when the prison was set up by the Japanese to incarcerate WWII Prisoners of War. There isn’t much else around the area, so plan for lunch or a snack in the museum’s restaurant to keep you going.
Sri Mariamman temple and the Buddha Tooth Relic temple – I loved them both and took lots of photographs of the stunning visual details and architecture. Both located in Chinatown area.
Had amazing seafood at a popular restaurant (the name of which I can’t recall) while in search of chilli crab but had to settle for chilli crayfish instead, which was just as good I think. Kudos to locals Ronnie and Gloria for knowing we’d have a great time here!
La Pau Sat is one of my favourite spaces in the city, especially when the lunch crowd arrives. Great for people-watching, especially those not glued to their phones. There’s a system of leaving your stuff on the table to ‘book’ seats and going in search of the stall (from over 100) that serves what you want to eat. I couldn’t believe that people were happily leaving their valuables behind to book their seats. When I asked someone about it, they said that no one would dare steal here. Hmmmm. This system wouldn’t work in any place I’ve been to in India.
Had my first Coldstone Creamery icecream ever – knarly concept. Thanks for the intro, Lisa A!
Loved the Singapore Art Museum – they were having an open exhibition of contemporary art by local students and artists and it was pretty interesting innovative stuff including installations and sculpture.
Third trip: 2016
Din Tai Fung has the best dim sum and noodle-soups around and because it’s a chain, you can find one across the city, and probably even abroad as its starting to go global. And if you have the chance, book a table at Paradise Dynasty restaurant. Try the soupy dimsum, which is a specialty there. Thanks for taking me ther, Bobby K!
I went nuts buying poetry books from local poets at Kinokuniya here. The Japanese bookstore is one of the best brands to be exported across Asia. My first Kinokuniya encounter was in Dubai mall and Singapore has a couple of stores in different malls. They’re great for a sheer variety of books but also for local reads. Very pricey though!
My next trip?
Next time, I’ll visit some of the independent bookstores, more independent cafes, the Chinese Heritage center, see Little India again, visit the Botanic gardens and the Peranakan museum. I’m not sure what it is about the city, but the cultural heritage is so rich and the city has made great strides in putting it on display so that visitors can learn and enjoy the variety, encouraging open spaces as creative hubs so that contemporary modern mixes well with the old. It’s an interesting city with inarguably lots to see and something for everyone. It’s the kind of place I wouldn’t mind staying for a year. Yup, that should give me enough time to really get into the feel of the place and explore it properly.