Nostrovia!!

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Vodka Museum

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Public tea shop

A nations’ toast, several towns have museums for it. No prize for guessing Russia’s famous tipple.

A close second is …………………………………………………………TEA.

A country of tea drinkers, a lot of ceremony, drama & melodrama goes into the making & having of it.

Witness this parody:(courtesy ‘Lev Tolstoy’)

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A family gathers around the tea table, at the center of which is a samovar. Practically every household has one. A prized possession, its importance can be gauged from the fact that the government has banned taking it out of the country, if it is antique.

The lacy, hand embroidered linen & china is family heirloom too.

Notice the festive layout. The two young girls, impatient to be served. And to the assortment of goodies – delicious Russian cakes & pies. It must be cold outside.

Tea is taken as tea, without the aid of additives. You may want a sugar cube but dip it in the brew before putting it into the mouth. Absorb the taste, let it linger & sip your tea thereafter. That is common practice. Drinking off a saucer is not taboo Nor is it bad manners. Just remember not to slurp.

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Anatole comes home after a long day at work & is welcomed with a steaming hot cup. Pure bliss! “That feels good”.

But what if he’s had a bad day, returns in a foul mood & feels like flinging the cup across the floor?

His wife may be hapless but she is clever too. “Wait. Wait,” she says, “I’ll be right back. In a minute.” And off she goes…….

To return with a stiff one, poured straight from the bottle onto the gentle brew.

And offered to him with a smile.

All’s well. Naturally.

And Anatole can eat humble pie.

Olgha on Volga

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Happy ever after

Olgha on Volga

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Russia is large, diverse & different & I was determined to do it differently. My choice narrowed down to taking the ‘Trans Siberian’ to Vladivostok, 7- 8 days on the train from Moscow or cruise along the Volga – Baltic waterway, from Moscow to Petersburg, touching 5 medieval towns & Europe’s largest lakes.

Moscow –  Petersburg is 650 kms or 4 hours by the super – fast Sapsan. I did this one way watching the countryside whizz past in a whirl. The water route along Europe’s longest river, draws one into the heart of the country. Cruising at 11 knots, over 5 languid days, with an additional 3 days each in both the major towns.

(River Volga is connected to the Baltic by an intricate system of canals, lakes & reservoirs. A remarkable feat of engineering.)

Dense forests of Silver Birch line the entire 1000 km coastline. The trees visible night & day like ghost companions, the landscape never varying. Neither bleak nor spectacular it has a quiet beauty that does not get monotonous. As a Russian epic baring the soul.

Summer nights along the river – never pitch dark, the sky changes colour from red, pink & white to every shade in – between. It is the strangeness that enthralls making one fall in love with the quiet of vast uninhabited spaces. The Volga with a rhythm of its own showcases everyday life by the riverside. A lone vessel passes by, hands waving. A solitary log cabin. People swimming, fishing, sun bathing, enjoying a family picnic on a warm day.

The first thing to strike you on arrival at Petersburg is the stark change from rural to urban. The Birch lined coastline has suddenly disappeared.

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Along the way. Ruins, Nativity Church, village Krokhino, Rybinsk

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‘Lev Tolstoy -’ named after Russia’s famed writer – advertises an 11 day itinerary that has a spew of activities ranging from Vodka – Bliny parties & costumed tea ceremonies to professionals speaking on the art, culture, history & language of the country. Concerts & recitals enliven the evenings. You could be at the bar, on the dance floor or catching up  on social media. The travel brochure does not mention the fantastic range of culinary delights coming out of the kitchen. A big plus & the fact that the ship carries a relatively small number of passengers.

Uglich, Yaroslavl, Goritsy, Kizhy island & Mandrogi are the 5 stop overs, each with a character uniquely its own. The Rybinsk reservoir with sea like dimensions is crossed soon after Yaroslavl, followed by Goritsy on the White lake. This monastery houses Russia’s largest collection of icons. Mandrogi is on the river Svir that flows out of lake Onega into Ladoga, Europe’s largest lake. A reconstructed village, the original was razed to the ground in WW2.

Uglich, a 10th century habitation is associated with Ivan the Terrible & Dmitri his brutally murdered infant son. I liked it that Ivan had proposed to his contemporary Elizabeth 1 & that she had turned him down. A cheery old band greets us on arrival, as we walk down the marketplace where the best bargains are to be had. The ‘Church of St Dmitry on the Blood’, a little red structure with blue domes, is built on the very spot the child was killed. It has iron floors intended to retain heat generated by burning embers from below the surface. Frescoes & nude murals adorn the walls. Hardly shocking to one coming from a country of erotic sculptures. But this is Russian Orthodox. But then again, this church was built for family use.

Yaroslavl is historically a big trading center. It boasts elegant new buildings besides old churches, a Monastery & a Nunnery both connected by a secret passage – if locals are to be believed. It is the art collection at the Governor’s, that takes your breath away. Three lovely maidens in gossamer white show you around their father’s property, ostensibly in his absence. They introduce you to the traditions & customs of the 18th century, replete with ball rooms & gentlemen in tails leading ladies up a waltz.

A world of elegant make belief that transports.

The river section between the 2 great lakes is most spectacular. Kizhy island in particular. A world heritage site it has been described as an open air museum of old wooden architecture, the 22 domed Church of Transfiguration the highlight. It was constructed without using a single nail or metal joint. Legend has it that one man built it using a single tool, an axe that was thrown away on completion. The church houses a fine collection of iconostases. Other relics of the past include 2 wooden houses, 2 windmills & a traditional Russian bathhouse on the shore. Kizhy is about 7 km long & 0.5 km wide. It is covered with meadows & giant Elm trees, marshes & bushes & is surrounded by 5000 other islands, from very small (2×2 meters) to fairly large.

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Iconostases, Kizhy

 

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Kizhy island

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The Governor’s 3 daughters. Yaroslavl

Moscow & Petersburg are both modern cosmopolitan cities of great historical & cultural significance. Doing Moscow by night, with a local preferably is a good idea. Walking or using the Tube. The metro stations, conceived as people’s palaces are works of art bearing proud witness to people’s aspiration & power. Lenin himself is said to have authorised it.

St Petersburg too is best seen on foot. Either walk the historic city or view it from a Hydrofoil on the waters. Everything is right there along the Palace Embankment. And do stay up for the opening & closing of the river locks. It happens past midnight, every night. Built on 42 islands in the delta of the Neva Petersburg is said to have 4 seasons in a day. Weather is never discussed or taken seriously for it suddenly changes. Just when you are beginning to enjoy it. A visit to the ballet/opera/concert/theater followed by fine dining is the ultimate round off. Both cities have much to offer & compare favourably with others around the world. It is the massive scale & size that astounds.

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Metro, Escalator 40′ down

 

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Geographically, Russia is Europe, but not quite. It is distinct & dissimilar & may it remain so. Much is made of the elusive Russian smile, blamed on the weather or the theory that people here are wired different. (Better by far than smiling & not have the smile reach the eyes.) The western world has successfully created & vilified an entire nation, one it terms an ‘enigma’. The supposed picture behind the ‘iron curtain’. Is that the truth? Nyet! Nyet! Nyet! The reality is a warm, sensitive & caring people. A beautiful country. Also the safest in the world.

Russians are simple. They are music lovers & singers with an innate sense of song & dance. Accordion – Bayan players & string quartets greet you at every port playing anything & everything from ‘Lara’s Theme’ to the soulful ‘Song of the Volga boatmen’. A land of churches, domes & cathedrals, choral music & Chants. I was witness to an absolutely mesmerising performance of big & small church bells chiming to distinct orchestral notes. This at a church in Yaroslavl.

Knowing, not knowing a local language can be an asset or handicap. Especially so in Russia. Despite supreme efforts I never did get a hang of the language, the vocabulary limited to just two words ‘Da’ & ‘Nyet’

“But that is all a lady need know” said a friend. Unwilling to give up, I progressed to ‘previart’ & ‘spaceba’, wishing with all the heart Peter the Great was around to force English on his countrymen.  But Ha! Ho! I still manage the last laugh. More than a fortnight later my Russian speaking skills suddenly come alive as another lovely new word is added to the vocabulary.

Yellowbluevase.

The meaning? Guesses? Anyone?

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Enroute to Peterhof

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Staff Quarters. Palace Square. Petersburg

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Peter the Great’s little home on the gulf

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Mother Volga, entrance Rybinsk

Bhutan Mist

On a scale of 10 Bhutan gets a 9

Clean air – water

Clear blue skies

Dense forestation

Sparse population

Sans pollution

Beautiful queen

Gentle people

Getting there in –

Health care – education

Super highways, traffic, roads

No honking. India, please take note.

I last visited Bhutan in 1983 & recall driving along an excellent highway from Phuntsholing to Thimphu (165 kms). Mostly forest land, with a few scattered villages there was hardly a human in sight. A time when tourists were shut out of the royal kingdom

Change has arrived in a singularly regulated, planned manner. In 2018 today, there are more visitors & many more cars. The country still ranks first on the international index of Happiness with, a monarch who continues to reign popular despite abdicating in favour of his people, on whom he has bestowed the gift of democracy.

The weather channels were completely wrong about local conditions – temperature especially. As a result we ended up lugging more woolens than required. Paro & Thimphu at the same altitude almost, have similar weather patterns. End May, it was a mild bracing cold with occasional showers for which a light jacket was sufficient –    even when going up to Dochu La (10,000’). The 108 stupa memorial at the pass, laid out beneath giant oak trees, is serene & beautiful as is the slow engulfing mist that brought back memories of another more potent, ‘Bhutan Mist’. ( for the uninitiated, this used to be a popular brand of whiskey that is unfortunately, no longer available)

Bhutan is all mountains, rivers, streams, forests & waterfalls. Nature at its pristine best. Ancient dzongs & monasteries dot the skyline evoking tradition & history. For most visitors the trek up to Taktshang (Tigers Nest), perched atop a cliff hanger ridge is the highlight of the trip.

For me it was walking through Sobsukha village (Punakha) & water logged paddy fields to the Temple of Fertility – a plethora of out sized Phalluses –  where each woman’s yearning for motherhood finds fulfillment.IMG_4355IMG_4356

That walk & the incredible flight into the country. Barely 2-3 hours flying time from New Delhi, Paro airport is said to be one of the most difficult landing strips in the world. One flies in traversing almost the entire breath of the mighty Himalayan range offering tantalizing views of some of the highest peaks – Everest, Annapurna & Kanchenjunga included.

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Mt Everest

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Kanchenjunga

So why does Bhutan not score a perfect 10 ?

Minus one. For what?

To be forewarned is forearmed.

Hence, an early bird warning against the thronging tourist hordes. The vans & the trucks  beginning to spew dark deadly fumes that will some day choke & kill & turn the mist to smog & smoke.

* INR is legal tender & Hindi a language of currency

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Dochu La

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108 Stupa memorial

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Giant Buddha, Thimphu

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Paro: International cuisine. Chilli cheese – highly reccommended

Gates of Heaven

Kalind Parvat

Yamunotri – Gangotri

May 2-16, 2017

 

Day 1 Delhi – Dehradun

Day 2 Doon – Janakichatti

Day 3 Janakichatti

Day 4 Janakichatti – Hanumanchatti

Day 5 Hanuman chatti – Maneri,Uttarkashi

Day 6 Maneri

Day 7 Maneri – Gangnani – Harsil

Day 8 Harsil – Lanka – Bhaironghati – Gangotri

Day 9 Harsil

Day 10 Harsil – Uttarkashi – New Tehri

Day 11 New Tehri – Rishikesh – Dehra Dun

 

Janakichatti

The Doon valley was always ‘idyllic’ space, if only in the mind. The approach is green & wooded arousing expectant hope in a first time visitor; hope that is soon belied. For it’s the same old story that is the bane of all our towns & cites. Tales by Ruskin Bond made one expect litchi trees at every bend & turn but you are hard put to find a single one.

Dehradun became the state capital of the newly formed Uttarakhand in 2000. It is a classic example of opportunity lost: not only to create something beautiful & new but to re create, decongest & improve.

 

The Doon – Janakichatti stretch is what I looked forward to. A 6 hour drive, the road was good & the first 2 hours – up to Yamuna bridge – scenic. Denuded forest-land took over thereafter with trees giving way to shrub & barren rock. And a scorching sun beating down upon sun burnt faces. We pass a gas station which is purported to be the last en route to Yamunotri. It is a little short of Barkot. There are roadside eating joints & places to stay all along the way but we go right up & halt at the GMVN guest house, Janakichatti. There are 2 of these, both very basic & functional & we opt for the lower one as it is closer to the parking. The cook turns out to be really good, serving fresh, hot vegetarian food; a welcome respite for the weary, especially at 15 degrees C.

The ride up was pollution – litter free. A strong stench of horse dung now assails the senses. There is noise & traffic too with bus loads of pilgrims trickling in steadily. The 5 km trek to Yamunotri (3291 meters) will be tomorrow.

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The next day dawns bright & clear with rain forecast for late afternoon. As we begin the climb it becomes abundantly clear that the yatra this year is disorganised. There are people from all over the country & all walks of life. Walking up a narrow mountain track, men & women, palkis, basket bearers & ponies jostle for space with multitudes coming down the same way. Sudden death strikes early in the day causing panic, making some call it off altogether while others plod on. A pilgrim has been hit by a rolling stone fallen off the mountain side & he has succumbed to the injury.

It becomes the talk of the day.

( Govt rates: Palki Rs 4000/- Basket Rs 1200/-)

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River Yamuna at Janakichatti is a clear bubbly stream that flows beside the GMVN. I take a leisurely walk down to the temple by the river. It is smothered in wild flowers & boasts a hot spring not many know about. Our next stop, Hanumanchatti, is a mere 10 km away. We drive down after lunch, in the middle of rain, & cold & arrive just as the lights go off. Electricity does not return for another 4 hours so we sit comforting ourselves with tea & pakoras.

 

Hanumanchatti is a small nondescript town with a few houses & a row of tiny shops. It’s main feature is the Sankatmochan temple atop a hillock overlooking the river with barren rocks all around. That must be how it derived its name  – Hanuman for the temple & chatti, as in rocks.

The priest turned out to be highly erudite & knowledgable, with wide interests ranging from the ancient to the modern. He had a view on everything – spiritual, historical, local, political, scientific – and a well informed one at that. Like an emperor surveying a kingdom he pointed out distant geographical features : “ that snow capped mountain peak is the Kalind parvat. Legend has it that Parvati……….. That is the holy sangam, the confluence of the Hanuman Ganga & the Yamuna. The two rivers part here & continue on their individual path, to meet once again at the sangam at Allahbad…..”

 

I had so far, been starved of factual information. Now here was a gobful !

The temple was inside a cave with a corridor connecting it to another that served as living quarters. And what do you know ? Along with roses transplanted from Darjeeling & Himalayan Kedar Patti, Panditji had all the trappings of modernity. Just name it – gas, solar panels, dish antenna, mobile, TV, water, electricity, internet – he had it all. I was enthralled.

It was a strange encounter of a rare kind. Strange, because the place was so remote & far out. Panditji had an aura & a ‘presence’ & he did something quite strange. When about to leave we were asked to wait while he went into the cave & came out with 2 Hanuman Chalisa’s. One was given to my husband but he held on tightly to the other while I looked expectantly on. Should I have asked for it? I didn’t & he did not give it to me. I wonder why. Because it rankles.

 

 

From Hanumanchatti it took an hour reaching the Barkot Bund, then a detour via Radi Top to Uttarkashi. Great road, dense pine forests, lovely weather, scenic drive. We halted at a Gurkha dhabha at Radi Top. Lunch consisted of rajma–chawal, salad, pickle, vegetable, all for a measly Rs 35/- The Dharasu – Uttarkashi stretch is a bit drab but gets better a little further. And lo & behold, there is the Ganga, a mere trickle at Uttarkashi.

The entrance to the town has a new tunnel but we go another 7 km past to halt at the beautiful GMVN guest house at Maneri. It is newly built & is beside the lake. Truly quite lovely, the perfect place to rest & recoup from the rigour of the trip. To laze about, walk around & to read. I have Khalil Gibran. Pure bliss!

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 Maneri lake

And onwards to Harsil via Gangnani, a 3 hour drive passing by giant Deodars, fresh water springs, waterfalls & the Ganga, which is a constant right up to Harsil & beyond. There was some kind of a traffic snarl at Gangnani – known for its sulphur springs. Except for that the views got more & more scenic with tall snow capped peaks, meadows & bugyals, the closer we got to Harsil.

There is nothing quite like a military camp in the middle of nowhere. We were guests of the Unit stationed there, a true home coming. The camp had poor connectivity but it was located in a thick forest beside the river, the waters icy cold & brimming. Harsil, among other things is famous for apples & its unique wind–chill factor. Harsil ki hawa, as locals call it. Day breaks with clear blue skies & winds that still around 3pm, after which comes the storm – rain, dark & cold.

 

Bagori

To Gangotri ( 3200 meters), penultimate destination today,  via Lanka – Bhaironghati. With an excellent road it does not take more than an hour. The drive up is phenomenal & overwhelmingly beautiful with fantastic glacial views all along.  Parking, is about a km short of the ivory white, gold domed temple dedicated to Ma Ganga. One either trudges up therefore or hires a wheel chair. Beggars line the route, displaying small change ( for everyone’s convenience) while a myriad shops sell puja samagrihi. The atmosphere is both festive & religious. A mela. Faith, seen to be believed.

 

Back from Gangotri, the next day which is also our last, is spent enjoying the place, walking to Wilson’s cottage & to Bagori, a village a km away. 7 picturesque little culverts have to be negotiated to get there. It is a sweet little hamlet of 400 families & old wooden houses. Most of the inhabitants leave during the harsh winter months & return in time for the sowing. Mountain streams have been channeled & pucca canals built for the purpose – a pretty cool picture. (Harsil – 2620 meters – offers a panoramic view of peaks, Bhagirathi 1,2 3 & Shivaling. It must also be the only place where pasta – mamma mia –  is stacked & sold from open gunny bags.)

 

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A Bagori knit

 

Off to New Tehri tomorrow, then back home via Rishikesh – Dehradun. A long, uneventful drive. The Sainik guest house at New Tehri is at a commanding height & offers a birds eye view of a town that could have been. Another wasted opportunity? After Old Tehri was submerged & residents relocated to make way for the largest dam in Asia, this was the chance – like Bhuj after the earthquake. But that requires imagination & foresight. Leave alone creating a beautiful new town they have not as yet given it a proper name.

New Tehri.

New ??? Uhh!!

 

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 Tehri Lake & Dam

18519981_10210860107353109_6590158683257839983_n Continue reading

All our yesterdays

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Returning to a once loved place has its risks & rewards. Especially after a lapse of 40 years. It had been lovely. Would Deolali have changed?

It is a 3 – 4 drive along the national highway from Bombay to Nasik, cutting through the Sahyadri ranges & ghats.

Since change is in the order of things yes, it had changed but not in any ugly humongous way. The cantonment is as serene & laid back as ever but there are barricades – signs of the time perhaps. Recognizable old landmarks hark back. Temple Hill Institute, where tombola is played as a weekend ritual and Barnes the residential school that continues with what it calls the ‘Brothers’ Hour’ – a delightful euphemism for social inter mingling by young co eds.

That’ there was our house & ‘this’ Tinas’. And ‘that’ is where we had the crazy party when AAK jumped off the balcony.

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The 70’s craze for foreign goods is over. The market, still bustling but not half as exciting. ‘Variety’ is but a shadow of its former self & ‘Empire’ has reinvented to become a store cum café.

The days continue warm, nights nippy. The great Banyans stand tall & wide in full regal splendour, gorgeous as before, inserting roots deeper & thicker into the air & soil. Banyans, Parsi sanitariums & stately homes, together all 3 make Deolali.

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I checked out both Lamb & Dhondy roads, taking random photographs, delighted to find Mr Lamb’s old house standing. At one place a security guard admonished me for being diffident, told me to step inside & not take pictures from outside the gate. I entered the grounds marveling at the good luck & had just about started clicking when the owner appeared – not to evict but to invite me in.

What followed was a classic old ploy – to which I played along.

An age old opening line –

We’ve met before, haven’t we?

But, of course! I exclaimed. You are Mr ……..?

Rustomji

Ah yes. How nice to meet again. How are you?

A charming old gentleman. He led me into his home, a world of gracious living. Stain glass windows, Belgian chandeliers, Persian carpets, fine crystal, paintings & sculpture.

Perfetto! And he turns out to be a raconteur too.

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Rewind to 1974 when my father had visited us. An old soldier, he fondly recalled his short stint in Deolai Camp during the great war. He remembered riding horseback from what is now Nasik Road to the camp, dropping in on a friend en route. A Mr Parikh who lived in the Bhatia sanitarium,* on Lamb road. Not sure if it still existed, we offered to take him there. Dad recognised the place instantly. There was a large banyan tree which rekindled memories as he pointed to the spot where Parikh & he had sat & talked. He walked around reminiscing & found a lone man under the tree. Would he have heard of Parikh or know of his whereabouts?

You may never believe this but believe it you must. The gentleman turned out to be the long-lost Parikh himself.

After 3 decades ! 1941 -1974.

Hail fellow, well met!

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Fast forward to January 2018. In Deolali once again & there is another old soldier to be met.

Our friends have planned a Sula outing & want us to accompany them to the vineyards, a most happening place apparently. But it is our last day in Deolali & we’d much rather spend it in the company of a regiment buddy. Sula will have to wait.

At 82 Brig. J is frail of health but in cracking good mental condition. All dressed & ready, he is expecting us & makes a valiant effort to stand up as we enter. He has been in & out of hospital of late but stand up he will – for a lady, be it anyone.

He gets breathless as he speaks. Takes frequent pauses, laughs, jokes & talks of everything practically –   not just the good old days. He always was a ‘cerebral’ one &  continues  fully in tune with the times. Big thanks to the internet. A ‘ most wonderful thing’  he calls it.

Does he miss company? Not really. He never was very social. As his generation passes on, he does not feel the need for new friendships. What could he possibly have to say to the young ? It would be boring.

J lives alone on the information highway – happy & content. He is well looked after by a family of old faithfuls, attendants who have served him long & to whom he has bequeathed his house – his everything. His situation no better or worse he says, than that of many of his friends & contemporaries who are alone or lonely because their children are settled abroad.

A morning well spent. Goodbye J. And thank you for your time .

*(Bhatia sanitarium stands. In a ramshackle condition however)

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Out on a limb

We were at the sanctuary much before the gates opened at 6. The end October  sunrise was in itself a reward.

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The Reserve, located in the  Vindhyachals had a thick cover of Teak & tawny grassland. And the Karnavati/ Ken flowed through it plunging over gorges of limestone & granite, in ever changing shades of pink & grey.

This, at the Raneh Falls which has a dormant volcano next door.

Panna had a count of 28 tigers. We were lucky to spot a family; tigress & cubs frolicking together while the male went out for the kill.

Leopard & spotted deer were also sighted.

And the call of the Sambar in the wild!

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Find him silhouetted ‘midst the foliage – Do you spot him?

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The crocodile inside the river – partially submerged & cleverly camouflaged between rocks – was barely visible above the water.

I got him none the less, as I did all the others, with  Iphone 5C – distance ranging from a few yards to over 500 meters.

(Which will explain the hazy contours no doubt)

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ALLORA….

Italia, here I come.

Rome, we know was not built in a day, but where are the Gladiators? There are carabiniere – armoured vehicles only. Forget about strutting, these chaps don’t like being photographed.

 

A ‘Night by Rome’ tour was a great idea. It was semi walking through city sights via narrow lanes & by lanes with little or no traffic & small crowds. The historic places – brilliantly lit up – appeared to have better visibility too.

So also a boat ride down the Tiber, music, food & wine included. We started at the bridge near Castel Sant Angelo & finished at Isola Tibertina near another historic bridge, the Ponte Cesare.

 

On the go, meet – eat –shop one must & no place better than the newly opened ‘Mercato Centrale’ (Roma Termini) Its size & scale will astound. What absolutely caught the fancy was a leisurely day out in Trastevere. Absolutely enjoyable wandering aimlessly – gelato in hand –scouting the Sunday Flea market & riding a tram back to the train station.

Trastevere: Steps                                                 And the tram

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Ponte Cesare

Most people visiting Italy make it a point to include Pisa & Pompei in their itinerary but they make day trips, basing themselves elsewhere. That, I think is a mistake for both towns deserve better as they have much to offer. Sleeping – awaking in a place is in any case an entirely different experience. Little things like having a cappuccino – croissant at an outdoor café as the town comes alive. Or watching the streets swept & washed. In Pisa they did it everyday.

A word about ‘M Gorkij’. Having checked in I was handed a set of 3 keys – entrance, corridor, room – & shown around before Elena vanished never to be seen again. Neither she nor any other hotel staff, all the days I was there. Not even when I finally checked out. I simply deposited the keys & whamooshed. But, who’s complaining. It was a nice, quiet place. Room cleaned & linen changed every day.

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Doors, Florence

                         Roof tops, Pisa                                               River Arno, Pisa

Pisa, was my base for day trips to Chianti /Tuscany & Cinque Terre. The small towns of Siena, Luca, Castellani & Monteriggone were a delight, more so with generous amounts of Chianti red wine, cheese, salami, olives & balsamic. All of it, followed by more wine & 3 course meal at a country resort.

Luca, with its old Renaissance walls is especially memorable. It was a lovely day. I had missed the 10.20, it was an empty platform & I had it all to myself so, a few yogic stretches & bends seemed perfectly in order.

(Luca to Pisa is a mere 30 minutes & the train brings you right inside the ancient walls.)

Monterosso, Cinque Terre

Renaissance walls, Luca                 Monterigione

Chianti, wine country

Traveling solo is ideal but a little company gives variety. We were a group of 7 doing Cinque Terre along with Amy, our young, vivacious guide & we ended up using every mode of transport – minivan, train & ferry. Starting at La Spezia, a port town from where the hill climb begins ( also famous for the white Caracas stone used by Michelangelo) & onwards to the 5 picturesque towns wedged between mountain & sea. The first of these was Riomaggiore where we switched from van to train, journeying along the Tyrrhenian coast to Vernazza & Monterosso with brief halts everywhere. Monterosso is the largest in the region but Riomaggiore, with its quaint little train station & murals is special. A break for lunch, some souvenir shopping & a ferry, to Porto Venere, going past Lord Byron’s alcove (he liked swimming there), bidding goodbye to the gorgeous coastline. Cinque Terre or the Italian riviera is stunning, the landscape more real & authentic than its counterpart on the French side which, comes across as a cluster of ultra rich towns & designer villages. 5 Terre is a UNESCO heritage site hence any new construction or alteration is forbidden. Consequently, there are no lifts or elevators. Flights of stairs that look like gateways to heaven lead to precarious homes atop cliff hanging villages. The inhabitants, all old, retired fishermen continue to toil up & down,visiting friends & neighbours et al.

 

A small, mixed group is also jolly good fun. And Americans are outrageous fun. Naïve, simple, generous, Robert hated walking. He was, quite obviously there on account of his wife who nagged him – sweetly & constantly.

“ Rob – Bert. Where arrrr U Rob-Bert,” she’d drawl, looking around.

“O, F—k off”, he’d respond.

Robert was of Italian origin & mouthed aphorisms like – “a happy wife is a happy life,” & “water for lungs/wine for the heart.”

Said with a straight face, his favourite was, “ Italians never divorce their wives. They simply murder them”

There was this other wearing flimsy, skimpy clothes & fanning herself on a cold windy day.

“you must be cold?” I say.

“No Dear” she replies. “I have the hot flushes”

 

Cinque Terre

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Train station, Riomaggiore

Pompei can only be described as picture perfect. Mute witness to the splendour of the Roman empire, a smoking volcano in the background, it has the most spectacular ruins anywhere in the world. And Iside, the lovely family owned property was precisely 10 minutes away from the Scavi. It was a boutique hotel, gave personalised service & breakfast that included an assortment of fresh fruit, juice, home-made cakes & jam.

Pompei Scavi

The pleasures of strolling in traffic free Venice – best place ‘tween earth & sky – can only be experienced not described. One easily gets lost, then miraculously finds the way again. I soon got a hang of it, which was that Venice essentially revolved around 3 major pivots – VSL station, San Marco Square & Rialto bridge – One simply followed clearly marked arrows leading to either of these places. Venice is in any case too small. Getting lost is therefore an impossibility. It is quaint, it is strange, it is above all like none other.

I did a Chichetti /wine, walking tour of the Jewish ghettos walking from Osteria to Osteria & Bacaro to Bacaro tasting wine & small eats that can hardly be termed small.

Venice: San Marco, Bridge of Sighs & Rialto

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Capri’s iconic swimmer

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Murano:  glass blower in action

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Burano

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Torcello

Naples, a city I hardly researched or expected anything from turned out to be full of surprises. From the moment of setting foot all & sundry warned – ‘do be careful’. Total strangers even, setting off a panic scare but the reality was something different. Anything untoward can happen anywhere. Lets just say that Napoli is as safe or unsafe as any other city. It is vibrant & full of energy, with fair amounts of noise, speeding & honking. It has, to top it all, Mt Vesuvius – the best view by far. There are other memorable vignettes, like the eye-catching metro at via Toledo & the balcony singer on via Trebunale who had every passer-by enthralled. There definitely is something in the air that spells music, soft breezes, romance, abandon & laughter. No surprise therefore that it was the scene of movies like ‘Yesterday,Today, Tomorrow’ & ‘Scent of a woman.‘

My one big regret? I did the unthinkable. I did not have a Neapolitan. This, in the birthplace of pizza is an unforgivable sacrilege. ‘Antica’ Trattoria, Pizzeria & Frigettoria inundate the place, so what was I thinking?

 

Naples cannot be signed off without a big thank you to Gabrielo, Cristina & the team at ‘B & B Sweet Sleep.’ Go for it guys! This B&B is money’s worth. Not just the breakfast & service but rooms on the top floor with balconies overlooking Piazza Garibaldi. The terrace with a roof top garden had a jacuzzi, restaurant & bar & a tantalising glimpse of Vesuvius.

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Mt Vesuvius from Naples sea front

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via Toledo, Naples – adjudged best metro station in Europe

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Naples, Balcony singer

I arrived at Salerno on a feast day – the feast of St Mathew, patron saint of the city. There were marching bands, firework displays, tableau, crowds & an entire city decked up to witness the saints taken out in procession.

Salerno was meant to be a spring-board to Amalfi, because of its proximity & because it was budget friendly. It is a city of churches & fountains & has a long, arching promenade. There is a ferry to Amalfi, Positano & Capri by the hour. Avoiding hair pin bends & traffic jams this is the best & least tiring way to enjoy the beauty of the coastline.

Sorrento, Amalfi, Positano –  all lovely, albeit touristy & overwhelming. The real steal is Ravello. Gem of a mountain town Ravello assaults the senses. The bus from Amalfi climbs steeply up the sea-coast offering sudden & breath taking views. It boasts a beautiful Duomo, castle & square & has cafes, bars & ceramic shops along with quiet corners & walks. Only 30 minutes from Amalfi, it is neither crowded nor touristy.

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Salerno

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Positano

Ravello: Ceramics galore

Hotel vs Air B&B vs Home Stay, what should it be? What would Salerno have been without Annarossa?. She met me on arrival, hauled luggage up 40 stairs, served a bountiful Feast day lunch & opened hearth & home in the most generous of ways. Anna was bohemian & care free & spread good cheer much like Amelie who gave every visitor a friendly ‘meow’ before settling on the sofa. Anna was like, ‘ prego…….make yourself at home…. all yours….’

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Amelie on her perch

21 days in Italia. What does one make of it?

May or may not make sense but Sophia says it best

                                     “ Everything you see I owe to spaghetti”