My colleagues and I flew in for an intensive 5-day workshop in The Gambia where we met for breakfast, conducted the workshop, did a lot of trouble-shooting during lunch-times and had side-meetings with others slotted in for post-workshop hours, before dinner.
Consultants will tell you about how they travel often, visit many countries, but don’t get to ‘see’ very much of the country beyond the four walls of the hotel. It was exactly like that for me.
The hotel was a short stroll away from the beach, but I didn’t was too busy trying to overcome jet-lag to wake up even once before breakfast, to make it to see the beach. I did get to enjoy the pool one day after the workshop however, when it was my turn to lead a meeting and I gave everyone five minutes to get into their swimsuits and meet me in the pool. It was the only way any of us was going to get in and have some fun. Luckily my colleagues, who were from Brazil, Ethiopia, India and the USA were all up for it and we had a lovely time getting work done combined with having a bit of fun.
Unlike Senegal, which was under French colonial rule, The Gambia was under British colonial rule (though the French and others did try) and everyone here speaks English.
We were located somewhere outside Banjul but still on the coastline, hence the beach linked to our hotel. What was an eye-opener was the sophistication of coastal tourism there, and by that I mean, the level of sex tourism that was thriving in that coastal belt. I should add here that The Gambia is a narrow, thin, tongue of land jutting into Senegal countryside, with a short coastal part. Just outside our hotel were pimps who followed you as you walked down the street to the local shop for amenities, asking if you wanted a man, a woman or a child for company. They’re open and blatant about it. There’s nothing covert about it being a business, an exchange and an enterprise. They could have been taxi-men begging for your custom. It gave us insight into the level of poverty surrounding us in the country.
The workshop we were here to do was to facilitate local staff’s understanding of how to train the farming communities in The Gambia that they worked with, in agro-ecological methods of farming so that their crops (and their families) could survive intense drought and sporadic flash flooding.
I only took work-photos on this trip, as I didn’t do much else 🙂 Yep, I was one of those odd creatures.
I’m so glad that I visited Venice with my friend Maria when we both had the chance to. She knew a smattering of Italian, much more than my meagre ‘Capuccino’ and ‘Pizza’ abilities anyway. So, she was in charge of booking accommodation at a modest three-star bed and breakfast family run hotel, and figuring out the transport basics to get us there by train from Marco Polo airport.
Venice was one of the top ten cities on my bucket list. Ernest Hemingway was a regular at the city’s popular Harry’s bar, author Henry James wrote ‘The Aspen Papers’ here and poet Robert Browning’s last home was a palace in this little lagoon. If that wasn’t enough for this writer to dream of rocking gondolas then watching movies like ‘Summertime’ and ‘The Wings of the Dove’ clinched it. There’s nothing quite like the beguiling backdrop of Venice to bring out the best in tragi-romantic storylines.
Katharine Hepburn (left) and Rossano Brazzi in Venice in David Lean’s 1955 film Summertime.
As our train slid past deluged sandbars scattered around the city before crawling into St. Lucia station in Venice, I couldn’t help wondering how such a tiny lagoon of a city, apparently drowning in the Adriatic Sea, had managed to become the seat of financial, trading and religious power for so many centuries.
With 160 canals running through and around Venice, one can’t help but realise that it’s the delicate latticework of its 400 or so bridges that keeps the city stitched together. Thank God for the solid foundation of larch pikes drilled into the muddy seabed, mounted by thick marble slabs on top of which the brick and wood structures of Venice are built. The candy striped and plain wood markers outside house entranceways and windows help residents mark the level of rising waters every year, when Venice has seasonal flooding. That’s how they keep track of danger points when they know they have to evacuate their homes to higher ground. I can’t even begin to imagine the level of water damage that ground floors in all homes and hotels have to suffer often during the year.
There are only two ways to explore Venice – by foot or by boat. Vaporettos, or water buses, are an effective way to get to all the major attractions and a much cheaper option than the black and blue Gondolas sliding their way up and down crowded canals. Venice is the first place where I learned that waterways get clogged up with traffic too.
You can buy a ticket on the vaporetto or get anything from a three-day to a week’s pass from one of the launch stops dotting the city’s main waterways.
Of course, the only way to see the city’s guts is to slip on your most comfortable shoes and traipse up and down those bridges of Venice, which will make you wish you had spent another half hour on the stairmaster at home. Right away, Maria and I decided to walk around the city and promptly got lost after an hour. But, it was only our first day there, and everything was sign-posted so we wandered around enjoying the atmosphere and the spirit of Venice all around us.
It’s a haunting city, besieged by a host of moods from melancholic fogginess to sun-drenched optimism. You’ll find yourself picking up the city’s ever-changing mood of the moment. Whatever you do, don’t miss taking photos on Rialto bridge…
…and the Bridge of Sighs (Ponti dei Sospiri). When we visited, unfortunately the Bridge was being ‘renovated’ and was almost entirely covered in tarpaulin with Chopard advertising on it. By the way, the reason for its name is because this bridge connects the Doge’s palace which was the seat of justice, to the prison. Prisoners convicted and sentenced at the palace court were led across this bridge into incarceration and legend says that their sighs were the result of their last view of Venice before they entered the prison.
Whether it’s agony or ecstasy you’re feeling, make sure you don’t miss the art and architecture of Venice that brings students and established professionals of the same over to this soaking city time and time again.
From the decadent Baroque folly that is St. Mark’s basilica to the neo-classical lines of the Doge’s palace, both at San Marco’s Piazza, you’ll be transported to a place that no picture postcard could have prepared you for. Track down Tintoretto’s ‘Stealing of the body of St. Mark’ in Venice’s museum of art ‘Accademia’ which illustrates the story of how the city of Venice came to adopt St. Mark’s Lion as its own emblem. If you look closely at the detail on one of the basilica’s entrances, you’ll find a painted etching of the story.
The story goes that in 828AD two merchants smuggled the body of St. Mark out of Alexandria by covering it with pork to get past Muslim custom officials. When the body arrived in Venice a chapel was built to house the saintly remains. That chapel was gradually built over into St Mark’s Basilica where the saint’s remains are apparently buried under the altar.
Paolo Veronese was brought before the Inquisition in 1573 to answer the charge of irreverence in a painting intended to represent the Last Supper. Instead he changed the name of the masterpiece to ‘Feast in the House of Levi’ which can also be found at Accademia.
This museum also has a great collection of Titians, Tintorettos, Canalettos and Canovas. If you’re an early bird who wants to avoid the jostling crowds, take advantage of the early morning opening hours of the museums and galleries. By 11am all of Venice is coffee-ed up and pounding the cobblestones in search of their own Muses.
A couple of interesting sightings for us included Tintoretto’s humble house along the canal in Canareggio and Canova’s tomb in the Church dei Frari.
If the inundation of Italian Renaissance art and architecture leaves you longing for something more abstract, expressionist, realist or surrealist instead– visit Peggy Guggenheim’s collection of 20th century modern artist’s works at her palatial home in Venice, now converted into a museum housing her own personal art collection of Brancusi, Picasso, Duchamp and Max Ernst (her husband). Peggy was a patron of Jackson Pollock – the American abstractionist most famous for his series entitled ‘One’ and you’ll find two rarely seen Pollocks on display here.
We even found Peggy Guggenheim’s grave in the palace garden where her ashes are interred, next to the graves of her dogs.
We were tired of walking around all day and through Peggy’s palatial home turned art gallery, so we refreshed ourselves at the museum café with home-made Tiramisu and freshly pressed Italian coffee.
If you’re looking for something special to buy as a memento beyond postcards of the incredible sights you will have already seen, the information point opposite the Vallaresso boat stop past the gardens facing the canal of the Piazza San Marco will have books on Venice aplenty, translated into English. You could grab a carnival mask to adorn your wall at home – they’re available to suit any budget, or pick up a wad of Venetian paper, famous for its quality and raw texture. Then again, you could easily take a boat trip from Piazza San Marco to the island of Murano to watch the art of glass-making and pick up a set of exquisitely blown, Venetian glass goblets for your dining table.
You can’t go wrong with Venetian coffee, keeping in mind that this is the real, full-bodied, sun-soaked flavour of Italy infused into every sip you take. But, you must have it Venetian style, standing up at a coffee bar.
If you must sit down at a cafe, then do it in style at Cafe Florian on the Piazza San Marco. Around since 1720, some claim it is the oldest cafe in Europe and was a favourite hunting place of Casanova. Be prepared to pay an exorbitant 10 Euros for a cup of coffee with more on top if the musicians are playing. For the cheapest and the best coffee, stand up at the St. Lucia train station’s bar for the best espressos and cappuccinos at 1.50 Euros (2009 prices) a pop.
While in Venice, we decided to stop and relax over long, leisurely dinners only, trying out some of the restaurants in Canareggio and Castello, and avoiding tourist traps as much as possible. Keep in mind that you’ll only find Italian food in this city – like a Panini lunch at one of the sandwich bars dotting the city. But infinitely preferable is a slice of pizza and a coke for all of 4 Euros (2009 prices) – not the healthiest option but definitely filling when you need to replenish all the calories spent waiting in lines to get into the Palazzo Ducale, the Basilica San Marco or the Campanile on the Piazza, which I was told has the best views of Venice from its bell tower.
We went in search of Venice’s five hundred year old Jewish ghetto, mostly because I wanted to see the seat of so much intrigue in medieval Venice. Shakespeare’s work was influenced by this Venetian community, which had a reputation of its own in his time. Read the ‘Merchant of Venice’ if you want to know what I’m talking about.
After visiting Academia, I finally understood why people make such a fuss about Titian, after seeing his grandiose, large-scale paintings on display. Here’s his first Venetian commission that forms the altarpiece inside the Church dei Frari…
…which incidentally also houses Titian’s tomb, grand-arch included, not far from Canova’s.
Venice is one of the few places that I’d love to visit again, along with Florence, Washington DC and Bali – all of which are on my list of top five places I’ve ever visited. I’m glad I got to go when I did, and the next time I’ll make sure to spend more than just 3 nights there, so that I can take in more of the city.
Washington DC is one of my top five cities in the world to visit. It isn’t because it’s the home of power-mongering politicos, journalists and spies, but because it’s the home of the largest group of museums and artefacts on display FOR FREE.
This is the home of the 19-strong museum and research collection of the Smithsonian. Each museum has a selection of timed, free tours led by experienced, knowledgeable docents, most of whom are art historians or cultural curators themselves. It’s one of the best ways to learn about art and certainly how I began to explore collections. I knew little to nothing about art for the first two decades of my life and didn’t have much of an interest in it. Now, I know that that was because of a lack of understanding and context. I started to learn about artists and their work after visiting the National Gallery in London (another free institution) where I tried to make it to as many free gallery tours as possible. Next, I visited the British museum – one of my favourite places in the world to be, after the V&A. The Victoria and Albert museum is where I still go to dream. The William Morris room in their Canteen is where I go to revel in something beautiful while feasting on tea and their scrumptious lemon tart. But, I digress. The point is, I started to learn about artists and their work from free gallery tours at these museums. So, by the time I visited the Smithsonian, I was in awe at the size of the collection and the variety of themed museums on display.
Besides having its own theme, each structure has its own unique design, interior space and attractive personality. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say the National Air and Space Museum is probably the most visited and it’s easy to understand why. The building is shaped like a large square block hangar, and once you’re inside, you’ll see why.
The ceiling is loaded with dangling airplanes from when the Wright brothers began to fly and speaking of the Wright brothers, there’s a room with their story and one of their original gliders (the one that didn’t crash, of course!) is on display along with the chronological story of their success displayed in a room.
The ground floor is full of Astronaut suits, Mars probes and photographs, the Apollo 11 command module and lunar samples. There’s a permanent special exhibit where you can squeeze through a narrow space and walk around a Skylab and view the actual insides of a space rocket – gym, kitchen and research lab included.
But, I confess, its not my fave museum. Whenever I visit the Smithsonian I tend to spend most of my time at the National Art Gallery, American Art gallery and the Museum of the American Indian. A few of my favourite highlights from the art galleries are here:
A sunny Summer’s Saturday in London is precious purchase when you live on a landmass oft-swept in mad maritime climate. Here’s a visual representation of one of my favourite Saturdays, from when I lived in London aeons ago:
1) There’s nothing that quite comes close to spending a couple of leisurely hours of brunch with one of my closest friends – someone whose creative spirit and sense of joie de vivre always seems to stimulate me. I strongly recommend the Huevos Rancheros at Giraffe, with fried egg, chorizo, black beans, avocado and jack cheese to line your stomach for the rest of the day.
2) A stroll along Southbank especially when its sunny, is always a lovely treat. We had to stop by the second-hand bookstalls in front of the National Theatre, of course and spotted prints of old maps and some lovely old editions of books.
3) One of the things I love so much about Southbank is that it is full of surprises. We were treated to a display of the Red Arrows spurting Britain’s glorious colours.
4) The sun was feeling a bit shy that morning, so occasionally the grey vista of London’s skyline exposed itself to us. We walked to Temple station where I bade my friend farewell and decided to go exploring on my own. I wasn’t far from the Templar church, made famous by the Da Vinci Code so went in search of it. I came across the magnificent Royal Courts of Justice in The Strand.
5) And found myself on Fleet Street, which was the established collective name for British broadsheets for about four hundred years until the 1980s when their headquarters began to shift to cheaper locations around London.
6) While taking photographs I spotted the easy-to-miss alleyway entrance to the Templar church’s courtyard
7) Unfortunately it was closed for a private event. I’ll definitely come back again though.
8) I then caught a bus back past the Strand to Trafalgar square and the National gallery
9) Where I spent way too much time (actually not enough) ogling the Impressionists that I love so much.
10) I remember the first time I walked into this particular room in the gallery and saw my first living, breathing Van Gogh painting. It was sunflowers. Over time though, I grew to fall in love with these two little fellas below:
11) And my first Monet – the Waterlilies. I couldn’t believe that I could walk into this gallery any day for free and sit in front of the actual paintings of Great Masters, meditating on how close I was to them, although separated from them in life by centuries.
12) I strongly recommend taking the free tours offered at museums. I decided to go on the 2.30pm one where you are taken around the gallery for an hour, learning about 4-5 key paintings in the collection. Here’s a little about the National gallery –
Built in 1838
Contains only Western European paintings from the mid-13th to early 20th century – all modern paintings (ie 20th century onwards) are housed at the Tate.
has a collection of about 2300 paintings on display at one time.
Sainsbury wing (newest wing) opened in 1991 to house the early Renaissance collection
Here are a few tid-bits from the tour for your reading pleasure:
Why was Caravaggio considered so avant-garde for his time?
We looked at the example of The Supper at Emmaus, painted in 1601. Unlike paintings at the time, Caravaggio put the two disciples in this painting in tattered rags, dressing them like peasants instead of in regal robes. Jesus himself was portrayed without a beard, appearing almost effeminate. The open arms showing broad gestures and emotion were too controversial for Caravaggio’s critics and gained their dislike. But, the most surprising element of all was the artist’s ability to structure the perspective of the painting so that the viewer felt like a participant in the painting.
What’s Michaelangelo’s style doing in every other Italian painting?
Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus was drawn from original designs by Michaelangelo. Art historians know this only after discovering the drawings in archives. This is how they came to realise that, at a time when Michaelangelo and Raphael were the most sought after artists in Rome, Michaelangelo was probably producing drawings for a number of great artist’s works, without getting the credit for it. There are certain giveaways, like the muscular nature of the figures and the sometimes odd perspectives of the figures and how they are laid out in the picture. For example, Lazarus in this picture, if he stood up, would be abnormally taller than anyone else in the picture because of the extended length of his legs and torso.
How did the French painter Claude (Gellee, not Monet) make it big in Rome?
Claude came to Rome, like so many other artists, to make his name. But, he first began as a chef to earn a living while he built up his career. Over time, he became known for his landscapes and seascapes. At the time, pictures of landscapes and seascapes weren’t valued above historical pictures, which required a certain amount of learning and education plus understanding of the world from the artist. It was believed that any fool could paint a landscape. Claude couldn’t paint figures well, but he kept on doing them so that he could convert his land/sea scapes into historical paintings by including figures from biblical stories and myths in them. His paintings became so prized in their time that fakes were reproduced at an incredible rate. Claude began keeping a diary of his drawings so that, if asked, he could confirm whether he had actually painted something or not. Turner and Gainsborough learned about elements of light in painting from studying Claude’s paintings.
Why does England have so many Canalettos in the country?
There were so many brilliant artists in Venice at the time that Canaletto decided to specialise in order to make a living out of his art. He painted scenes of festivals and big events in Venice to sell to a particular audience: young, English gentlemen who were completing their Grand Tour in Venice, to round up their university education.
So, there you have it, a few of the things that makes one of my favourite London weekends.
Forty-three kilometres from Agra lies Fatehpur Sikri, the once-capital of Emperor Akbar’s Mughal Empire. He moulded the city into his capital and lived there for about thirteen years before being forced to move out due to lack of a sustainable drinking water supply. The impressive, colossal edifice that is called ‘Buland Darwaza’ or ‘Gate of Magnificence’ was the entrance to his capital city. It’s a steep climb up uneven steps, but its worth it for the interesting prize encompassed within its inner courtyard.
Apart from the unimpressive views of a generally uninteresting sprawl of houses, buildings and cars that stretch into the barren dirt, there’s not much to appreciate once you get to the top. Maybe it’s just me, but I found the entrance a little smaller and less impressive than it seemed from the bottom of the staircase. Don’t get me wrong. The gateway is still a muscular hulk of a thing.
However, I was more interested in the tomb of Salim Chisti. Akbar built the glowing white marble mausoleum to house the body of this Sufi saint. The story goes that Akbar approached the saint asking him to bless him and pray that he would have a son. After the birth of three sons, Akbar’s ties to the saint got much closer and he held the saint in so much esteem that after his death, he built this tomb in his honour. It is considered to be one of the best existing examples of sixteenth-century Mughal architecture. When you go up close, you can see why. The intricate curves of the glowing marble are mesmerising and the internal panels of jaliwork run along the edges of the area of the structure, showing haunting patterns of evening light across the marble floors.
Truth is, I hadn’t heard of the myth surrounding Salim Chisti’s tomb until someone mentioned it to me. The story goes that thanks to Akbar’s wish being granted, Chisti’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage by infertile couples. In order to have their wish granted, they’d have to tie a piece of thread around the filigree marble of the tomb. After someone did this once and had a child after, it because an established practice that spread across the country. The myth has evolved into a grant-any-wish situation for anyone who ties a thread around the cutwork marble wall that separates the inner tomb from the person viewing it. The lady I met who told me the story was actually on her way to the tomb to remove three threads that she had tied around the tomb twenty years ago. Although she didn’t tell me what they were, she said all her wishes came true and she was fulfilling a long over-due promise to herself to untie the threads to thank Chisti for granting her favours.
And yes, I made a wish and tied a thread too. Hasn’t come true yet, but maybe…one day.
What was disappointing to see, however, were the filthy grounds and hallways running around the tomb. Besides pigeon shit and feathers everywhere, there were bits of chip packets, juice packs, crumpled bits of paper scattered here and there. Walking around the tomb, there were some lovely details in the walls and hallways worth noting.
I didn’t have time to visit the rest of Akbar’s palace at Fatehpur Sikri. I did come back and do that on another trip. But, that’s for another blog!
Eating out in Bali was such a pleasure. I’ve said before in an earlier post that Bali was one of my favourite travel destinations and the food there helped make that happen. Either we were very lucky or it actually is very difficult to find bad food in Bali. We stayed in Seminyak so the first part of this post is going to be about the restaurants, cafes and eateries I visited in and around our hotel. First off, if you’re on a budget, you’ll love this. A #warung is a small family-owned business like a cafe or a small shop that serves stuff including food. Sometimes these look really spare, with a few dishes on display and some formica benches and tables inside a poky hole. Don’t be afraid to eat here – the food is good, local and cheap. Just observe and go to the ones you see locals frequenting, or ask your hotel for the popular ones in the area. Language might be a barrier, but that’s why the food is on display – just point to the dishes that appeal.
Some warungs are better established and have turned themselves into larger restaurants. The most popular one in Seminyak is ‘Warung Ocha’ and we kept going back to try different things because the food was so tasty (and yes, cheap). They also had the most incredible smoothies – aromatic and flavourful.
‘The Dusty Cafe’ is a lovely continental cafe if you’re a lover of all things cold coffee or frappe-related, as I am. The music is chilled out and lounge-y, and they make very tasty crepes. I ordered the ‘Deep Playa’ which had ham, mozzarella and mushroom shallot sauce in a savoury wheat crepe (for about INR 350), and a frappe. It’s air-conditioned, which is great if you need to escape the afternoon heat and just read or hang out somewhere quiet.
Absolutely-without-a-doubt my favourite eatery and chill-out place for breakfast and lunch was ‘The Shelter’ cafe.
We found it at the tail-end of our holiday but made sure to return anyway. They kept running out of ingredients, that’s how popular they were. For breakfast we tried Nalu bowls which were basically homemade granola, yoghurt, juice and fruit combinations of your choice, topped with bananas and served in a large half-coconut shell with a spoon.
The smoothies were out of this world. I tried a Green monster: spinach, cucumber, green apple, coriander, parsley, ginger, lemon, which was a great boost of superfoods to my system. The Shelter Booster was also amazing: papaya, banana, almond butter, coconut oil, flax seeds, honey, soy milk, cinnamon, honey and ice. Great filler for breakfast!
This sandwich is called the ‘Noah’s ark’ and has roast chicken,bacon, lettuce, danish ham, cheese, aioli and some sort of chutney on freshly made sourdough bread (about INR 315 and worth every paise).
The lighting at Bo & Bun was all low lights and candlelight, with tables pouring onto the street. The restaurant was stylish, modern interiors and a little more up-market than some of the other restaurants around. It’s more of a meat-lovers place with lip-smacking pork ribs on offer.
Pork ribs with messy, tangy, sticky BBQ sauce and chips.
This was the tasting platter of Vietnamese spring rolls and other bite-sized items we had as a started. It was tasty but m-eh. Yes, our expectations were quite high of Bali restaurants in Seminyak by the time we found this place.
Ok, I did have a sushi craving that needed to be sated. It happens sometimes and lucky for me, Sushimi Japanese restaurant, the sushi place on our street, had some tempting weekly offers. I splurged here. What can I say, except #sushirocks !
‘Fat Gajah’ is a noodle and dumplings restaurant in Seminyak with a low key atmosphere that just about crosses the line into fine dining. We ordered the Curried Beef noodles which consisted of beef tenderloin, beef floss, crisp beef jerky, bok choy and shiitake mushroom. We also ordered a filet of something called ‘butter fish’ which had a refined flavour and texture I’d never encountered before. It was off the specials board, so you may not find it on the menu.
Lunch at the Tea gardens in Tegalalang.
A gorgeous all-you-can-eat buffet dinner and traditional dance at a hotel one evening
People go on and on about eating ‘Babi Guling’ or roast suckling pig so we went to a lovely, restful restaurant with a maze of greenery and tables dotted here and there, surrounded in water features that tinkled brightly in the background.
Seemed like a popular tourist stop but we spotted a few locals here too. In fact, they were visiting with large families so we were hopeful about the food. The restaurant was called the ‘Dirty Duck Diner’ or ‘Bebek Bengil.’ I passed on the suckling pig and chose a crispy duck creation instead, which turned out to be the house specialty. It was good. Ask your hotel or local taxi driver for names of the best restaurant that offers the best roasts in your area.
There are plenty of shack-like places lining the beaches where you can get a local beer and just chill for ages without worrying about someone asking you to leave. But, I’d recommend trying a shack where you’ll get a wide variety of gorgeous flavours and combinations of fruit and aromatic smoothies, blended with ginger, herbs, lime and fruit.
On Ubud high street, we came across a relaxing, open restaurant where we drank our body weight in coconut water to avoid dehydration and ate some spare ribs with rice to fill up our tummies. Great selection of drinks and if you are lucky enough to get one of the tables overlooking the street, its great for people-watching.
Calling all Jane Austen fans! One of my favourite day trips ever in England was when friends drove me to Bath in Somerset for a day out. We were lucky that an otherwise wet season kept itself in check for us and the sun came out to bless our outing. I think my friends were quite amused to see me go ga-ga over the spaces that Jane Austen wrote about and the whole time we walked around the city, I was in a bit of a daze as I’d remind myself that Austen had tread the same cobblestones I was stepping on. I visited The Pump room which was mentioned in Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’ and tried to get into ‘The Assembly Rooms’ which she mentioned both in ‘Northanger Abbey’ and in ‘Persuasion.’ They were shut for a private party when I visited, but there was plenty of other stuff to see so I wasn’t too disappointed. I also heard that these rooms were used in film locations for movies of the same names.
Only an hour and a half out of Paddington station, Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage site for a reason. The natural hot springs were the site of a Celtic shrine before the Romans built their temple and the baths over them. A visit to the Roman baths should be at the top of your list of things to see in the city. Unfortunately, it’s probably THE most popular attraction in the city, so make sure you get there first thing in the morning to avoid the queues. You won’t want to spend all of your time just queuing as there’s plenty more to enjoy in the city. For the price of a ticket you’ll get an audio guide to talk you through the 43 AD foundations of the temple site of Aquae Solis, Bath’s Roman name, the Sacred spring and the original sites of hot and cold baths that were excavated in the 20th century. If you look carefully at the surface of the water in the protected hot springs area, you’ll see it punctuated by water bubbling up at 46 degrees centigrade, from the limestone aquifers deep under.
Of course, it does take more than that for an entire city to get on the World Heritage list. You’ll see why as you amble through the city streets, revelling in spectacular Georgian architecture reflecting the mellow sand coloured hues and tones of the stones from local quarries. Sunshine reflected off the beige buildings gives the city a welcoming warmth and energy that will brighten up any visit. The entire city forms a perfectly preserved example of Georgian architecture in Britain today.
This leads me to the next must-see on your list. The Royal Crescent – a visually impressive semi-circle of thirty residential houses atop a hill. Visit house No.1 which is open to the public as a museum exhibiting Georgian-style rooms, interiors and objets d’art. Its lesser relative, The Circus, is only a stone’s throw away. It isn’t as impressive but is equally worth a visit if you have time.
For the price of a traditional English Afternoon tea of cucumber sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and mouth-watering pastries at The Pump Room, you can relax in surroundings immortalised in Jane Austen’s novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Let your mind drift away to imagine high society sitting in the Pump room all abuzz with gossip, discussing the latest fashion and eyeing up eligible men as they walked through the entrance.
The Assembly Rooms I mentioned earlier are another exquisite example of Georgian period style, also made famous by Austen. Visit the ballroom where the five original crystal chandeliers still dangling from the ceiling would have scattered little rainbows of light against the powder-blue walls as one thousand of Georgian high society danced to an orchestra. British period art fans will spot Thomas Gainsborough’s paintings in the Great Octagon Room.
A visit to Bath Abbey, just across from the Roman baths exit, is another must see if only for its unusually stunning ‘fan vaulting’ on the ceiling, which bears a light contrast to the ornate perpendicular Gothic facade. Italian-looking Pulteney Bridge over the river Avon is another ambitious project by Robert Adam, characteristic of the 18th century city’s momentum to convert Bath into a showcase of period splendour. Stroll down Grand Parade and take in the sounds of the river streaming over Pulteney weir.
Pop into the Jane Austen Centre only if you’re a hard-core fan. For the value of the over-priced ticket, you’ll get a brief talk about Austen’s family tree and background, see the only hand-drawn authenticated portrait that exists of her and see an exhibit of furniture and fashion of the time. There is next to nothing here that actually belonged to Austen and the museum is housed in a house that is the exact replica to Number 25 up the street, where she actually lived and is now a dentist’s office. There is a lovely letter hand-written by the actress Emma Thompson when she sent memorabilia to the Jane Austen Centre after the filming of Sense and Sensibility.
Jane Austen Centre
Period Clothing inside the Jane Austen centre
If history, architecture and period interiors are your thing, you may want to spend more than just a day in Bath. It’s full of themed museums to cater to all tastes and interests. If an overview of the main city sights is all you are looking for, the Mayor of Bath has honorary guides who offer free, two-hour walking tours at 10.30am and 2pm daily from Sunday to Friday and at 10.30 on Saturdays. Tours begin in front of The Roman Baths.
Shopping: For gifts for loved ones back home or for that special little something that you just must have, wander the lanes around Bartlett and Brock Street, check out the Guildhall Market or for something more upmarket, visit Milsom Place.
Food: Bath is filled with gastro-pubs, cafes and restaurants, but if you’re looking for something trendy sample the Wild Truffle Tagliatelle followed by a to-die-for Tiramisu dessert at Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant.
Bed and Breakfast: The Henry Guest House located in the city centre has comfortable rooms to lay your head while getting a taste of family-owned B&Bs (prices start at 85 pounds per night) or for a cheaper option try Bath YMCA.
Kefalonia, the largest of the Ionian islands, was the fulfilment of every vision I had of what a Greek island should be like: clear, azure waters perfect for diving, stunning salmon pink sunsets, olive trees around every bend and warm, open hospitality from everyone we met, all making for a lovely, quiet beach holiday. I visited with a friend in 2007 and stayed near Skala beach. The geology of the entire island is unique and filled with caves, rocky shores and sandy beaches. Even before Myrtos beach was made famous by the 1994 Hollywood movie ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ it was the most photographed beach in the world thanks to the unique limestone pebble sediment that slopes off from the beach into the Ionian waters, giving them a bright turquoise glow.
I also visited Melissani Cave lake, which is a large underground lake with a part of the roof open to the sky where it caved in years ago. Sunlight streams in from here, onto the waters below giving them a curious, shimmering blue hue that immerses the lake in a sense of mystery and enchantedness. From here, you can climb down into the lake’s edge where, for a fee, boatmen will row you around the small lake so you can see the bowels of the cave. The most fascinating thing about the lake is that archaeological revelations found in the lake sediment, dating back to 3-4th century BC, confirm that a cult of Pan and the Nymphs had once worshipped at this site.
The Drongarati Cave is another famous tourist spot, that was discovered about 300 years ago after an earthquake revealed its present entrance. It has a large central chamber where concerts are sometimes held, because of the exquisite acoustics the cave provides. There’s an arresting array of stalactites in the chamber, but I was curious about what looked like bullet holes dotted around the walls of rock. I was told by a guide that during World War II, German soldiers used the cave for target practice and some of the bullets are still firmly wedged into the rock.
A few days before 12th August 1953, some villagers recalled that their dogs had been barking all night for no apparent reason and others noted that their donkeys, sheep and other animals had been restless and agitated without cause. On Sunday 9th August, at 9.40am, the first of a series of earthquakes that was to ravage the island, hit Skala village and its environs. Stores and shelves collapsed, walls cracked but no lives were lost. On Tuesday 11th August, at 5.30am the ground began to convulse and opened up to swallow houses whole into large gaping holes that appeared in the Southern part of the island. Houses and their outer walls collapsed outwards onto streets killing people, instead of inwards in the way earthquake resistant housing should be built. People didn’t realise until later that the entire Southern part of the island, including the nearby islands of Ithaca and Zakynthos, had been affected. Those who survived watched in despair as their homes, families and livelihoods disappeared into craters that opened up in the ground or as rubble fell atop everything. The villagers across the island believed that the worst had been done and fell into the rhythm of burying their dead and trying to deal with the losses they’d incurred.
On Wednesday morning 12th August 1953, an earthquake with a measure of 7.2 on the Richter scale, rocked the North of the island leaving even more vast areas of rubble and death in its wake. This time, all the buildings and other structures in the Northern part of the island were destroyed. Geologists have recorded that there was a 60cm rise in Kefalonia’s land area upwards, thanks to this earthquake. Between 500 and 800 people died, many were missing and many others were severely injured. An Israeli military ship was the first to respond with relief and other assistance when the SOS was sent out, followed by the British Navy soon after as they were recalled to port, stocked up with emergency aid and sent to Kefalonia. A worldwide appeal was sent out with graphic images of the effects of the devastating earthquake on the island. Australia, Canada, the USA and South Africa responded by offering Greek refugees who had lost all their possessions and means of livelihood, migration opportunities and many of the islanders literally shipped out, causing a brain-drain of sorts on the island as Kefalonians escaped to countries where they believed the ground would never shake.
Oddly enough, as a direct consequence of this earthquake, there is a handful of villages, including the quaint town of Fiskardo, where traditional architecture is still intact and a huge tourist attraction now. The lovely harbourfront is lined with expensive restaurants and high-end jewellery and crafts shops.
If you visit the Korgialenos museum in Argostoli, Kefalonia’s capital city, you’ll see a fascinating display of pre- and post- 1953 earthquake photographs showing the scale of devastation on the island’s landscape, villages and structures. They also show the huge ships that docked into broken ports with relief for refugees who were living out in the open without facilities or fresh water for days on end.
One of the reasons the island is a diver’s paradise is the clarity of the surrounding water; the calm, clear water gives visibility about 50 metres deep which means that snorkellers can see beautiful coral and colourful fishes of quite a variety. Kefalonia will always be a place that holds a fond memory for me because it was the first time I went snorkeling (and I enjoyed it so much!) and also, the first time I tried Planter’s Punch and decided to make it one of my favourite summer cocktails to order whenever I’m on holiday.
Lord Byron lived for four months in Metaxata in Kefalonia, where it is said, he wrote ‘Don Juan.’ If you visit the town’s central square, you’ll see a bust of Lord Byron and next to it a plaque that commemorates the site of his house, which was destroyed in the 1953 earthquake.
Stunning natural beauty, an intriguing history, great food, and comfortable accommodation made this a really great holiday. Writing this vignette reminded me of how quickly this wonderful break actually flew by and made me wonder if it isn’t time for another Greek holiday.
I visited Jodhpur in Rajasthan for a work trip twice. Both times we were driven out of the city by our colleagues, into the Thar desert to meet desert village communities that were struggling to survive in agricultural lands with barely a drop of water to share between them. Drought in these lands has a different meaning altogether. They rely on water tankers, reservoir tanks and wells. We’d worked with communities to identify shared spaces where we had built water reservoirs and rainwater harvesting structures so that they could collect water for their daily needs. While my work trip was engrossing and very engaging, especially meeting the communities and getting to learn about the vulnerabilities they face, my colleagues and I managed to carve out a free day over the weekend to take in the blue city.
My sight-seeing priority was to visit Mehangarh fort, built around 1460. The steep incline leading to its entrance is worth the climb if only to see the best views of Jodhpur’s blue-walled city from across the impressive walls of the structure. There are lots of entrance gates to the fort, each with its own unique historic moment and the story behind it, but Loha Pol was probably the most disturbing one I encountered. It supposedly has the handprints of all the royal widows who have committed ‘sati’ that is the Hindu ritual of wives burning themselves on the funeral pyre with their dead husbands. On closer examination, the hand imprints, though of varying sizes, look a little too uniform to be original. Perhaps the imprint once made was further worked on and embellished to appear more clearly as evidence that the widow had indeed committed ‘sati.’ The thought that these were palm prints of real people made me shiver. But a love for the ironic struck me: I wondered whether they all had lifelines that reflected their unnatural deaths. Unfortunately the palm prints on the wall weren’t defined enough to reveal this.
My favourite room of all the interiors was the extravagant and elaborately decorated zenana where royal wives and court women played cards, discussed their love lives and delved into political intrigue.
The museum inside the fort has got an interesting collection of fine and applied arts. The rulers of the area had close links with the Mughals, so you’ll also find objects that once belonged to them here. There’s an interesting collection of palanquins, folios from medieval manuscripts and various other objects d’art of significant beauty and value. After visiting the fort, I wanted to buy myself some silver jewellery. Rajasthan is known for particular silver craftsmanship and designs. I bought a chain, two stone pendants and a bracelet all in silver, all of which I treasure to this day.
Next time, if I’m lucky enough to return, I plan to visit the second most popular attraction in Jodhpur: Umaid Bhavan Palace.
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!