Plum and poppy seed #Strudel in #Innsbruck

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.

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The city of Innsbruck behind me in the valley below, and the Alps in the background

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.

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Posing in front of The Golden Roof

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.

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St. Francis Xavier’s memorial chapel altar

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.

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Station stop by Zaha Hadid, on the ski jump station

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!

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Apple strudel with a dollop of cream at Cafe Kroll
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Plum and poppy seed strudel at Cafe Kroll

#innsbruck #austria #cafekroll #zahahadid #apfelstrudel

Visited in 2011

Mad about #MontSaintMichel in #France

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.

Front approach to Mont Saint-Michel at low tide

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.


Visited in 2002

Visiting #Chopin in #Warsaw

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.


Visited in 2013.

Spa-ing at #Baden-baden in the #Blackforest #Germany

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Heated swimming pool inside the spa

Nestled in the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg is the almost mythical and enchanting Black Forest, laden with waterfalls, moss-covered trees, rolling hills and plunging valleys. This is the place where fairy-tale writers the Grimm Brothers imagined their characters, from Hansel and Gretel to Snow White, ensconced. The beautiful spa town of Baden-baden is located at the foothills of the Black Forest. It was known during Roman times for its thermal springs that had curative abilities. I visited with a friend while I was still in my twenties and young enough to enjoy a day at the spa exploring the different kinds of saunas on offer– semi-precious stone saunas, herb saunas and aromatherapy ones with invigorating scents were the ones I can vaguely recall. There were really a lot of them at Freidrichsbad – seventeen in all. I tried the amethyst stone one and an aromatherapy one. In the end, energy vibration aside, a sauna is as hot and steamy as its supposed to be and somehow I found the courage to take a flash cold shower in between sauna-hopping to clear out my pores and improve my circulation, as recommended. The gently heated open pool was a treat in the slightly cool weather.


Friedrichsbad spa in the Black Forest

But more than enjoying the spa, I loved the huge 170 year old Roman-imitation building in which the spas were housed. It was a day out at the spa for my friend and me so we didn’t take the time to see the rest of the elegant town known for its luxury. Maybe, next time!

Moviestar Deauxville beach in Normandy, France

Beach cabanas on Deauxville beach
Deauville beach boardwalk

It’s known for its American film festival but we only visited it for a few hours for a brief respite before my friend had to go home and dress up for his wedding!  We had strict instructions from his wife-to-be to keep him occupied for the morning and away from the house as he was hyper-excited and getting in everyone’s way while they were getting ready for the wedding J  We visited the famous boardwalk, glanced at older women strolling down the beach, keeping their plastic faces out of the sun and trying to be seen without being seen in fashionable swimsuits, beach wraps and wide-brimmed sunhats.  It’s a town for the rich and the famous – where one is to dress a certain way to be seen.  Striped beach cut a pretty picture of the beach promenade.  But, to be honest, there’s nothing very interesting about the place.  It looks manicured and set, the beach looks terribly boring and bare, except for a few posers around.  One point of interest is the line of beach cabanas with entrance posts that are named after film stars like Burt Lancaster. Note how they misspelled Harrison Ford’s name! We took pictures as a reminder of the morning of the wedding, before loading ourselves into the car and high-tailing it back to the house to get ready for the afternoon’s celebrations.

Deauxville Harbour

Pfahlbaumuseum Unteruhldingen, Germany)

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I know the title reads like something I typed while having a stroke, but this is actually German for a very unique archaeological museum. This open air museum lies on Lake Constance in Bavaria and translates into Stilt House Museum.  It consists of reconstructed houses built on stilts in the Neolithic Stone or Bronze ages that show one of the few examples of lake dwellings from this pre-historic era. The museum also displays original items and objects that were archaeological findings from in and around the lake area.  A designated UNESCO world heritage site.  Quite fascinating and worth a daytrip visit if you’re into history and archaeology.

A Glass of Madeira, my dear

Winston Churchill painted here, Margaret Thatcher honeymooned at the Savoy here but what this little- explored, Portuguese island of volcanic origin is internationally
renowned for is its wine.

Winston Churchill painting in Funchal, Madeira

Welcome to Madeira, with a population of 250,000 and a land area almost double the size of Mumbai. In the winter months, the mild weather of this idyllic island creates the senior citizen’s Shangri-la. It’s the perfect haunt for those in search of a tropical island paradise that isn’t noisy or too hot and still covered in lush green foliage. But there is something here for wine connoisseurs of every age with an interest in the origins of Madeira wine.

Vintage Madeira wine

The unique wine-making techniques that create the flavours of Madeira wine can be traced back to the 16th century but were developed more accidentally than by intention. Back then, early wine traders on the island would head over to India, China and Japan where early European communities and their military were prime customers for their products. The story goes that one shipment passed the equator and was returned to the capital city of Funchal unsold. Thinking the shipment was spoiled, the ship’s captain instructed his crew to throw the entire load overboard but the sailors decided to sample a bottle and found it was still of very good quality and indeed had improved greatly during the voyage. For many years, it was believed that the swaying motion of the ships matured the wine in a unique way. For decades, casks of wine were sent on return sea voyages from Funchal to far-flung countries. These bottles were called Vinhao da roda to indicate wine that had been on a round trip, and were in great demand from the European colonies. Each load of wine was named after the ship it journeyed with. It was only in the 1800s that the secret of Madeira wine was discovered. The changing temperature of a ship’s hold as it moved to and from the equator on its voyages, was reproduced inside a building. Now known as an Estufa, wine is stored within this building and heated in different compartments at varying temperatures within different time periods.

Book a table for afternoon tea at Reid Palace hotel in Funchal

The ship carrying Napoleon to exile in St Helena docked at Funchal in 1815 and history has it that the British consul on Madeira persuaded the famous prisoner to take on board a pipe (equal to 418 litres) of 1792 vintage Madeira wine. When he arrived at St Helena, Napoleon’s barrels of wine were found to be too young, so remained unopened. They were still unopened at his death and were reclaimed by the British consul in 1822 and sold to the Blandys, who put it into demijohns in 1840. When Sir Winston Churchill visited Madeira in 1950, the story goes that an authentic demijohn of Napoleon’s Madeira was opened for him. Apparently, he was so touched by the gesture that he personally poured a glass for each guest at the table, pointing out that the wine was vintaged when Marie Antoinette was still alive.

The first vines were brought over by Jesuits when the early settlers began to populate the island, and the plants loved the rich volcanic soil. Madeira island has one of the longest grape harvests in Europe because of the different altitudes where the grapes grow. The lower slopes are harvested for sweet grapes from the end of August, then again in October or November, when Muscatel grapes ripen. The upper slopes produce the Sercial vines, which grow up to altitudes of around 700 metres above sea level and are the last grapes to ripen, producing a drier wine. Visitors to Madeira in autumn will see trucks laden with fruit filling the roads on their way to the wine producers. Visit the Wine Festival in Estreito de Camara de Lobos in September to see the foot-pressing techniques used to persuade juice out of the grapes, careful not to crush the pips or stems of the grapes as they add a bitter taste to the juice. The juice is then placed in huge vats, wooden ones for better quality, spirit is added to fortify it and it is gently heated to equatorial temperatures, then cooled in a process that can take months. Madeira wine is the only kind that can be left open to the air resulting in an improvement in its taste. The wine that finally emerges is categorized into one of four types. Malmsey is a dark, brown, sweet wine usually drunk after meals. Boal is lighter and less sweet, more popular as a dessert wine. Verdelho is a medium dry that turns a beautiful golden colour and can be served either as an aperitif or a dessert wine. Sercial is the driest of the four and usually drunk as an aperitif.

View over Funchal from the funicular

Visit the Madeiran Wine Institute, a yellow and red
building designed by British consul Henry Veitch
who gave Napoleon the Madeira wine. It houses a
small wine museum where photographs of wine production
on the island and pieces of old wine-making
equipment are on display. The 45-minute tour at the
Old Blandy Wine Lodge is more informative. It is
housed in the remains of a 16th-century convent
which today forms the headquarters of the Madeira
Wine Company, a merger of the four largest Madeira
wine families on the island: Blandy, Miles, Leacock
and Cossart Gordon. Guided tours start off in the
vintage cellar where barrel upon barrel of fragrant
maturing wine can be found and end in a winetasting.
A great start for any Madeira wine virgin.
Prices stretch from as low as $23 for a three-year-old
bottle of Madeira wine to about $950 for a bottle of 1908 Boal.

GETTING THERE | Fly to Funchal airport from Portugal or
any other major European city
_ STAY AT | Many luxury resorts offer package deals from
$100 a night upwards. If you want to stay in the room George
Bernard Shaw occupied in 1925, ask for number 770 at the
Reid’s Palace luxury hotel. A 7-day package is $320 a night
_ FOOD | Try the swordfish at any restaurant with a good
selection of seafood. Have a coffee at the Golden Gate
Grand Café on Avenida Arriga for a 19th century atmosphere
and watch the world go by from the terrace. For a bit of
celeb-spotting, try afternoon tea at Reid’s Palace or visit their
cocktail bar one evening
_ GIFTS | Madeira is known for its embroidery besides wine
_ WHAT TO SEE | Cabo Girao is one of the highest cliffs in
Europe at 589 metres above sea level. Take the funicular up
to Monte Palace Tropical gardens and take a traditional
touristy toboggan ride down the Monte
_ BEST SEASON TO VISIT | It is warm throughout the year
with showers occasionally. Visit during the wine festival in
September or for fireworks on New Year’s eve

(First published 25th December, 2010, TimesCrest edition)