My London Loves

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.

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Huevos Rancheros for Brunch at Giraffe restaurant on South Bank, Waterloo

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square

9) Where I spent way too much time (actually not enough) ogling the Impressionists that I love so much.

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‘Powerless structures, Fig 101’ by Elmgreen and Dragset

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:

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Two Crabs by Vincent Van Gogh

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.

June 2012

Pretzels and Schnitzel

What do Lederhosen, Swiss army knives and Weinerschnitzel have in common? You can find all three in the medieval, island town of Lindau.

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Lindau harbour

On the eastern edge of the freshwater lake Bodensee in southern Bavaria is the beautiful island town of Lindau. This German town is one of the most beautiful locations on the Bodensee (also known as Lake Konstanz) which also touches Swiss and Austrian borders. On a hot summer’s day, there’s not much that beats sitting on the promenade of Lindau harbour watching yachts and ferries coming in on the glistening waters while sipping a cold Weissbier. The wonderful thing about this island town, connected to the mainland by only a narrow strip of road, is its collection of historic buildings which bring alive the medieval feel of the town. The island is small and can be enjoyed as a full day trip. From the train station, head over to the marketplace first, where you can view the churches and the state museum before walking around the rest of the island.

The marketplace’s atmosphere is dominated by three main structures surrounding the fountain of Neptune, the King of the Seas in the centre. St. Stephan’s church, in one extreme corner of the market place, was built in 1180. Enter quietly to note the contemporary feel brought on by the cream coloured walls with pastel green embellishments, modern stained glass windows and use of open space that flows between the pews, the altar and the baptismal font behind it.

In sharp contrast, the inside of the Catholic church of St. Mary’s is a breathtakingly kitsch, Baroque vision of Italianate marble, gold and silver work. I was enamoured with the intricately carved wood ends of the pews which formed an ornate fantasy of flowers and leaves entwined against a background of fish scales and shell-like motifs. The massive silver organ at the back-end of the church is impressive and fully functioning.

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Baroque church interiors

At the opposite end of the marketplace is the 18th century House Cavazzen that once belonged to a wealthy merchant and is now the city museum (Stadtmuseum). It has a rich facade of colourful frescoes on the outside and contains collections of glass, pewter, paintings and furniture from the past five centuries. If you’re an Art Nouveau fan, the 3 Euro entry fee is worth the visit to the two rooms containing furniture and collectibles from the Jugendstil period.

From the marketplace, head west to the Diebsturm or ‘Thieves tower’ which was built around 1370 and housed prisoners in medieval times. It’s a curious structure with four mini-towers built into the pointy roof. The roof tiles sparkle in brilliant multicolour, making an otherwise plain tower rather attractive.

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Multi-coloured tiles of the Diebsturm roof

Next to the Diebsturm is the Peterskirche church and war memorial. This is the oldest church in the region, dating back to 1000 AD. However, what makes it truly remarkable is what it contains. I walked through the entrance into complete darkness. There was a button to the right of the entrance to switch on a light. Not knowing what to expect, I pressed it and gasped at the sight of the 15th century fresoces by Hans Holbein the Elder that came to life when the lights came on. These are the only wall frescoes by him that are known to exist in the world.

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Close-up of Han Holbein the Edler’s wall fresco inside Peterskirche

From the church, head toward the harbour via the Old Town hall, a large box-like structure crammed into one end of Reichsplatz. The brightly coloured frescos have been refreshed and contain wonderful detail.

Lindau harbour is only a stone’s throw away from this spot. You’ll easily spot the yellow and green tipped Mangturm, which once formed a part of the island’s fortifications and served as a lighthouse for some years. It was built in the 13th century and was in use until 1856. Don’t miss the Rapunzel plait lowered from the tower window. For Euro 1.60, you can climb up the tower for a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding mountains.

The promenade goes all the way around the harbour entrance, where you can get a closer look at the magnificent lion statue, the heraldic emblem of Bavaria, and the ‘new’ lighthouse flanking the mouth of the harbour. From here, you can catch day ferries to other lakeside towns in Austria, Switzerland and Germany. There are plenty of cafes and restaurants along the promenade. The Marmosaal cafe and cocktail bar serves a great selection of food from breakfast to regional specialities and everything in between. They have tables outside for you to enjoy the harbour view with a Weissbier or if it’s wet and windy, the inside is a combination of chandeliered luxury with brocade-covered sofas and high-backed wooden tables and benches.  There’s even a mock altar behind the bar.

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A lion guarding the entrance to Lindau harbour

After your meal, you’ll want to digest with a quiet walk from the promenade along the west side of the island. The old wall runs around this side and at the westernmost point, you’ll find the Pulverturm or ‘Powder tower’ dating from 1508 AD. It forms a part of the island’s fortified wall.  The views from here stretch across the lake to the Swiss and Austrian alps in the distance.

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View from Lindau Pulverturm

The final must-see item is one that many tourists miss, simply because it’s just off the island on the mainland. It’s the local cemetery in Aeschach, where people have been buried since the plague came to the island in the 16th century. This beautiful, old cemetery has mausoleums dating from 1510 to 1915, in a range of styles including Baroque, Renaissance, Neo-classical, Gothic and Jugendstil. They are laid in a beautiful park, shaded by tall trees. Not far from the cemetery entrance are the remains of a Roman villa dating back to 200AD when the first settlers came to Lindau. Stones from the Roman ruins were used to build the cemetery.

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Jugendstil design on a tomb in Lindau cemetery
Baroque tomb in Lindau cemetery
Baroque tomb design in Lindau cemetery

 

Lindau is two hours by direct train from Zurich and three hours away from Munich.  The best time to visit is from May to August when the weather is warmer and great for walks along the promenade. Food and drink-wise, Bratwurst (sausage), kasespatzle (cheese noodles) and Maultashcen (dumplings) are the regional dishes to sample. Pretzels or Flammkuchen (flatbread) go very well with a local Weissbier (White beer).  Drink up and enjoy a hot, summer’s day out at this character-laden town the next time you’re in the area.

#jugendstildesign #lindau #allgau #germany #bodensee

 

Visited in Sept 2012

 

Visiting Fatehpur Sikri’s Sufi saint

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.

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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.

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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.

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And yes, I made a wish and tied a thread too.  Hasn’t come true yet, but maybe…one day.

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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.

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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!

#fatehpursikri #agra #salimchisti #mughalarchitecture #mughaltomb #emperorakbar

 

Visited in 2013

 

 

Eating out in #Seminyak #Bali

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.

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Front entrance of Warung Ocha
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Noodle dish with egg, chicken and fresh veggies plus a green tea, mint and coriander smoothie

‘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.

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A cold coffee
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The ‘Dusty Playa’ crepe
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The Dusty Cafe interior & decor

Absolutely-without-a-doubt my favourite eatery and chill-out place for breakfast and lunch was ‘The Shelter’ cafe.

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Cool interiors of the Shelter cafe on the first floor of a building in a side street

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.

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Shelter cafe Breakfast: sourdough bread, two eggs, spinach, bacon, roasted tomatoes, mushrooms, hash browns and avocado with toast
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Nalu bowls with coconut flakes and granola

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!

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Shelter booster smoothie

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).

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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.

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Pork ribs with messy, tangy, sticky BBQ sauce and chips.

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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.

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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.

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Curried beef noodles
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Filet of Butter fish

Eating experiences:

Lunch at the Tea gardens in Tegalalang.

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A gorgeous all-you-can-eat buffet dinner and traditional dance at a hotel one evening

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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.

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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.

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Crispy duck at the Dirty Duck Diner in Ubud

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.

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The coffee plantation we visited presented us with different samples of coffee and tea including vanilla tea which was surprisingly soothing

 

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.

Period drama with Jane Austen in Bath

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.

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The Roman Baths

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.

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Actors dressed as Romans and answering questions from visitors about the period

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.

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The Pump Room – exterior

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.

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The Pump Room interiors enjoyed best while having a spot of afternoon tea

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.

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The Assembly Rooms

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.

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Fan vaulted ceiling of Bath Abbey

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.

 

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.

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The Circus, one of the most famous streets in Bath

EXTRAS-

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.

Visited in 2011

Kefalonia in #Greece

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Visited in summer 2007

 

Silver and Blue in #Jodhpur

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Muscular Mehangarh fort looks down protectively over Jodhpur from a height.

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.

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Handprints of ‘sati’ royal wives at Loha Pol (gate)

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.

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Interior chamber room – Takhat vilas

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.

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Traditional silver jewellery design – snake weave bracelet

Next time, if I’m lucky enough to return, I plan to visit the second most popular attraction in Jodhpur: Umaid Bhavan Palace.

If you’re interested in reading more about Rajasthan, read about my visit to Jaipur.

Visited in 2007, 2009