Pining for those Pines

When ‘Liberty of the Seas’ docked at ‘Civita Vecchia’, our excitement leapt unbound. Rows of buses lined & ready to transport us into town. Details of that drive are blurred, not the moment of entry, first glimpse & impression. Watching knee deep crowds from a high seater bus, a Romanesque extravaganza unfold, made me want to jump out in frustration. All I did was gawk at the grandeur that was Rome. The guide drew attention to the unending line of monuments on either side of the moving bus. Not knowing whether to look right or left. Or in front. Whichever way one turned one would miss something or the other. An architectural trove. An open air museum. Was it for real?

A first visit, seeing Rome this way was heartbreaking. I could have killed myself.

The second time, five years later, was a definite plus. A month long solo trip that involved a lot of research & planning. Wanting to pack-in as much as possible I over stretched to include Florence, Pisa, (Tuscany/Chianti countryside), Cinque Terre, Venice, Naples, Pompeii, Salerno & Amalfi along with Capri. Which in effect left just four – five days in Rome.

Difficult choices. What’s to do?

*Onboard Apertivo. A boat ride down the Tiber past Romes’ only island – Tiberina. Under ancient bridges offering splendid Vatican views.

A midnight walking tour especially enjoyable without daytime hordes that practically take over the city.

Double flavour gelatos (past midnight) around Trevi, the fountain lit up fairy – like.

The metro to the Colosseum, a walk around & the tram to Trastevere.

Caffe & trattorias for the Carbonara Rome’s known for.

And a last ride on ‘Leonardo’ – to the airport, going back home.

Got a sense & feel of the city that left me asking for more.

Soon it was time to leave.

Arrivederci Roma.

Another five years & I was back with a clearer idea of what I desired. I wanted to roam around at random. Care-free, unmindful. To experience the city first hand. With a plan & a will it was doable. Only 4 days once again. Even so.

Aided by self guided walking tours were curated.

Jewish Ghetto Tour. I got pickpocketed aboard Bus 64 going to Largo Torre Argentina. It was bound to happen. What’s Rome’s without hiccups. Jokes apart, I should have known better than board a crowded bus.

Piazza ‘Largo Argentina’s an archaeological site not many visit or know about. Hollowed out ground off the main street, it has ruins of four Republican era temples. Overlooking it is Teatro Argentina, a modern state-of -the -art theatre built on the remains of another – Pompey’s – ancient one. Home to a large colony of cats, one can hardly believe it was once the seat of the Roman Senate. The spot where Julius Caesar was stabbed – 23 times (44 bc) – The Ides of March. “Et Tu Brutus !”

A busy transport junction it has cafés, parks, bars & restaurants. A cool place to hang around.

I begin walking from Torre Argentina – ‘via Arenula’ to reach the Tiber, turning left to walk along the river front – ‘lungotevere,’ – the Vatican & Sant’Angelo across the river to the right. At Ponte Fabricio, the oldest Roman era bridge (62 bc) still in use, one could take a right to go to Trastevere & the Vatican or simply cross the road taking a left for the Jewish Quarter. A Catholic Church at the corner the landmark, onwards to the Synagogue, museum, theatre Marcello, Portico Octavia & Piazza Mattei. The last with its absolutely must – see Turtle fountain: Fontana Tartarughe

Old cobblestone streets, buildings in rich ochre-orange tones, the Jewish Quarter is fascinating. Largely traffic free, vibrant & alive it is best to walk it’s maze of lanes & by lanes, soaking in the atmosphere. With stone benches to sit & people watch & outdoor eateries that provide the best Jewish traditional. All Kosher of course. Even coffee & sushi – whatever – The deep fried zucchini flowers were best.

The main attraction is the Synagogue & Museum. A pleasant way to while away the afternoon, the place has history. And, it makes a statement. Portico Octavia’s where a thousand plus Jews were rounded up for deportation. On Oct 15, 1943. Never to return. Along the walk one stumbles upon brass plaques embedded on cobblestones. Called ‘tripping’ stones for you to slow down & ponder. They bear names/dates of victims, stirring both remembrance & feeling. A short walk distance-wise, one ends up spending hours. Such is its charm.

Rome Jewish Ghetto Tour
The Tiber
Ponte Cesare
Entrance to the Jewish Quarter
Portico Octavia
Turtle Fountain
Jewish Quarter

Tour 2 Via Napoli – via Nazionale – via Fontane, across back streets to the ever popular Fontana Trevi. The crowds seen to be believed. But crowds can sometimes be fun. I plonked myself on the steps of an adjacent church and sat down to watch & enjoy. (One of the many advantages of travelling solo)

When I’d had my fill of crowds, time again to strike out alone. On to via Condotti, Romes’ upscale shopping street, to the Spanish Steps and ……… more crowds. How does Rome cope, I wonder.

Been here, seen that. The sights – piazza, church, obelisk, monument & fountain. Each clicked & written over a thousand times. I’ve come looking for the Keats- Shelley House however. ‘Casarina Rosa’ as the locals call it. A memorial to Romantics it was for me a place of pilgrimage. A bright red banner proclaims its presence on the second floor of the building to the east of the Steps. Alas, for a yet to be recognised poet to die at twenty five. Keats spent his last days here, with a clear view of the Steps, the Square & Bernini’s boat shaped fountain. I looked around the museum, watched a documentary on his life & left – for Piazza del Popolo. Walking all the way back to the hotel having clocked over twenty thousand steps, hurray!!

Largo Torre Argentina
Keats – Shelley House
Keats House Interiors
From Capitoline Hill
Spanish Steps
Around Bernini’s Boat Fountain
Via Condotti
Piazza Popolo

Tour 3 What could be nicer than walking the streets accompanied by a local? One born & bred here. Who better than my one time language teacher (Italian)? Architect by profession, Carlo loves the city. We spent the day walking & chatting – history, culture, arts – step by measured step, stopping by places, breaking for lunch. Pizza-beer at an ‘antica trattoria’.

Food’s no trifling matter, going by the category of eateries. A ‘trattoria’ for instance is not as formal or high end as ‘ristorante’ but it’s a notch superior to ‘osteria’. A ‘Pescaria’ serves fish based cuisine & the difference between ‘caffe’ & ‘bistro is small but significant. If you wish to sit & eat out in the open you must go to an ‘Al Fresco’. And if it’s fast food you crave there’s ‘Tavola Calda’. A ‘Pizzeria’ is simply what the name states. And ‘Enoteca ? – the closest to a tavern, pub, bar.

Grazie Signor, that was quite an education.

A mild October sun radiating warmth & joy we started near Piazza Cinquecento, crossing streets & back streets between via Nazionale & Piazza Venezia. Right across stood the building from where Duce Mussolini had addressed crowds, giving fascist speeches from the second floor balcony. To its right was the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, a monument many years in the making. One every Italian loves to hate. Some call it the wedding cake, others the typewriter. Not surprising in a country with fastidious taste. Foreign tourists flock to it however. Its humongous size the attraction perhaps.

Crisscrossing streets & alleys we arrive at Piazza Navona & Bernini’s ‘Fountain of Four Rivers’ – a remarkable piece of baroque. From there to Capitoline hill for an uncommon view of the Roman Forum.

Despite belonging to different periods of history a noticeable feature of the architecture is that it comes across as a harmonious whole. The modern alongside the ancient & renaissance, medieval, baroque, all juxtaposed side by side. Friendly & approachable and without arrogance. These monuments were never meant to intimidate. They exist for everyone’s pleasure. Walk you must. The only way to truly enjoy the city.

City of palaces & squares, fountains, gardens & springs. Everything on a grand scale, everything captured & documented a zillion times. The little things too draw attention.

Never before had I seen construction sites camouflaged so aesthetically. Giant posters with post completion images cover entire walls. Even before completion. To enable passersby I was told, to familiarise themselves with street/ corner/ place & not feel disoriented on coming upon it suddenly.

Practically every road had a sunny & shady side, giving pedestrians the choice of walking whichever side they preferred. A practical lesson in urban design – planning.

Anyone visiting Rome would have noticed the Stone Pines. Those beautiful, stunted, umbrella like trees that standout amidst a sea of ochre. The pines seemed taller than before. Had they really grown or was it my imagination.

Back home in India the trademark pines are the first thing I sometimes see on waking up each morning. Stark – dark & strangely alluring. Some kind of a karmic connect surely.

The infamous balcony (view blocked unfortunately) & the Wedding cake
Under construction Site with Advt et al.



No love for Paris. It was first port of call only because France gave Schengen V. Forty eight hours, no more I swore & ended up wasting half a day tackling post Covid challenges. Travel no longer easy, the pandemic had wreaked havoc on the psyche too.

I did manage a few delightful hours at Montmartre, walking up the 200 odd steps to the ‘Sacre Coeur’ for a fantastic view. Watched little children run, play, ride the carousel & chase pigeons in the sun.

Then off to Sicily, the largest Mediterranean island.

Why Sicily? It is the birthplace of the Mafia. It is also fifty years of ‘Godfather’. Long exterminated, the mafia no longer exists. There is instead a ‘No Mafia’ museum. A citizen enterprise open everyday, entry free. Unsurprisingly there is a lot of ‘mafia’ nostalgia. The hugely popular ’Don Corleone’ tour cashes upon it showing visitors around places where the film was shot. Sound business sense. Why not?

I solo circumnavigated the island in 20 days. From Palermo the capital to Stromboli, Catania, Taormina, Siracusa – Ortigia & Agrigento.

Alluring landscape, delicious food, fascinating history, varied culture. Sicily has it all. Every ethnic group that ever came here – Arab, Norman, Byzantine, Greek or Roman – left an indelible mark on its cuisine & architecture.

A blend of Italy & Greece, a cocktail of cultures, there is something robustly magical about it. As for the average Sicilian, he is passionate about everything

Italy’s fifth largest city, Palermo comes across as chaotic & grimy. It scores high on charm not cleanliness & can best be described as a city upon cities going deep into the earth one below the other. There are buildings with glass floors under which are visible ancient walls, fortification, artefacts from layers of history. The pride of a city in its well preserved past.

Music fills the air at the historic centre, ‘Quattro Canti’. An opera singers’ deep tenor serenading crowds from Romeo – Juliette balconies. Around the corner is ‘Fontana Pretoria,’ the Fountain of Shame with statues of nude men & women from Greek & Roman mythology. Defying convention, cocking a snook at the seminary, nunnery & church nearby. Nobody seems to mind nor is anybody scandalised. The priests & nuns least of all.

It’s a pleasure walking streets & back streets, soaking in the atmosphere, going in & out of churches (leg & shoulder fully covered), idling by roadside cafés. Granita in hand. Or an Aranchina. Perhaps a coffee – Canola. Palermo is easily the street-food capital of the world. And Sicilian tapas has great variety. You cannot miss having ‘Panificio Pollicino’ the local pizza. I liked trying something new everyday & chanced upon ‘Polpette di Sarde’ a dish of sardine cakes stuffed with pine nuts & raisins & served in a rich herb infused sauce.

No Mafia Museum, Palermo
Palermo Harbour
Archeological sites under shops & buildings
Film shoot at the Fontana Pretoria

Italian railway is streamlined, efficient. It is also the best way to see the country. Train cancellations happen but with systems in place disruptions are rare. I experienced it first hand when a connecting train was suddenly cancelled. A Flix Bus arrived transporting passengers to their destination, taking us cross country with the added pleasure of seeing places we never would otherwise.

The trip up the Tyrrhenian coast from Palermo to Milazzo must rank among the most beautiful train journeys of the world. It takes 2.30 hours, the tracks running closely parallel to the coast, less than five yards in places. With a window seat facing the direction in which the train was moving stunning views flash by.

Palermo to Milazzo by train

The highlight was of course crossing the straits from Messina (Sicily) to Villa San Giovanni on the mainland. The Palermo-Rome ‘Intercity Notte’ takes 12 hours & is a memorable experience. Bedding, water, chocolate bar, juice provided, as is a mug of steaming hot coffee early next morning. Not to forget breathtaking views along the way, the stretch from San Giovanni to Naples especially.

At Messina the entire train (8 bogies) is loaded on to a ship in a precise, clinical manoeuvre. The exercise takes about 2 hours including a 30 minute halt at Messina. Thirty minutes loading, thirty for the crossing & another thirty off loading & assembling. The train rocking gently on the ferry one is literally shipped to Italy. Passengers have a choice of continuing inside the coach or coming out on the deck for a breath of fresh air – coffee.

The Strait of Messina is narrow – barely 30 kms. It is therefore unclear why an underground tunnel or overhead bridge cannot be made. Reasons like the meeting of seas are often cited, as are currents & geological fault lines that cause the mainland to drift.

Loading the Inter- City Notte on to the ship

A quiet seaside town, Milazzo is the gateway to the Aeolian islands. I took the hydrofoil, negotiating choppy waters at terrific speed, a 2.30 hour ride to the farthermost island – Stromboli. The first thing to catch the eye is the mountain/volcano looming large over the tiny isle. It has been bellowing smoke & fire, spewing lava for over 2000 years. I am lucky to get a room with some kind of view but the fireworks are best observed at the opposite end from around the island. I plan to do it from a boat bobbing on the waters.

A perfect holiday destination Stromboli is barely 8 kms end to end. Scenic, remote, beautiful, it has wild flowers & rare botanical plants. One can spend time walking, hiking, trekking up the mountain, swimming or spending happy hours drinking, eating, reading & relaxing. Shopping too, for souvenirs made of black lava. Besides a picturesque lighthouse, church, village & observatory there is a museum dedicated to screen pairs down the years, inspired by Ingrid Bergman & Rossellini the lead pair of the 1953 classic (‘Stromboli’)

The sea around Stromboli
Stromboli in all its glory

Sicily’s second largest city Catania was the springboard for trips to Taormina & Etna. (A meter gauge train goes right up to the foot of Mt Etna). In the shadow of an active volcano that rumbles & spurts, Catania is compact & easy to walk, a favourite among tourists many of whom prefer it to Palermo. I enjoyed walking the main street Corso Emanuele & Duomo Piazza with the black lava Elephant Fountain. Catania’s subterranean river, Amenano, surfaces at a baroque fountain in the corner of the square. Carved with mythological figures it separates the piazza from a bustling fish market. Adjacent to it is Sicily’s oldest university (1434). Great Baroque architecture, great food, I liked Catania but didn’t find it exciting. Not many will agree. The shortcoming mine for not giving it enough time, being in too much of a hurry to get to Etna & Taormina.

Piazza Duomo Catania
Amenano fountain – spring

Atop a promontory on the Ionian sea the latter is a gem. A charming mountain town with shades of Amalfi & Cinque Terre but less crowded & touristy. A cable car connects Isola beach to Corso Umberto the main thoroughfare ( €3 / every fifteen minutes). A fifteen minute walk end to end Taormina quite literally has beauty spilling down its mountain slopes – enormous sea views, Mt Etna views, medieval ruins, a Greek amphitheatre, churches & cafe lined squares. A ‘passeggiata’ of sorts, the most popular activity strolling, people watching, window shopping. A one street wonder it is wonderful.

Caricature artist. Taormina
Taormina views
A superb example of Baroque. Taormina

Among Italys’ famous three, Mt Etna at 3350 m is the highest (in Europe). Also the youngest (1000 years). It has been erupting for centuries, the last big eruption in 1669 when Catania was completely destroyed. It is a six hour day trip from Catania. Three hours to and fro & another three for a halt 2000 metres up. The wind – chill factor is high. There are eating & staying places, a bio-park, birch woods, vineyards & citrus groves. One either treks up from 2000 m or takes the cable car upto 500 metre’s short. OR, circumnavigates from the comfort of a small train. Silvestri the central crater is active as are fourteen others. There being 260 scattered craters in all.

And…. taking ‘work from home’ to a whole new level, a fellow with a laptop. One begins to wonder…

Mt Etna @ (1000’). Hut made of lava

A reference to St Paul/Siracusa stored in hidden memory, Ortigia had entered the consciousness long before reaching there. Along with a very definite connect was the mystery of the unknown. Small seaside towns enamour. This was perfect.

Two little bridges connect this magical isle (1000 x 500 meters) to Siracusa, birthplace of Archimedes. A lovely Baroque town, world heritage site, Greek, Roman, Jewish & early Christian influences visible everywhere. One can imagine it some 2000 + years ago. Not very different I guess. There – in lies its charm.

A no traffic island with parking along the periphery, it is immensely walkable. And walk I did exploring it end to end, tasting each & every flavour of Granita along the way. Negotiating streets & alleys, map in hand for better navigation. Doing the forbidden – talking to strangers. You simply cannot get lost, would find your way if you did.

500 m from the train station, Piazza Pancali’s the hub. Six streets leading to six different directions radiate from here. It has cafés & bars, an ancient market & St Paul’s church that overlooks the ruins of the Temple of Apollo (6 BC). My walk starts here going past the ruins & the church to Dianas’ Fountain in Archimedes Square. Onwards to the Cathedral (former temple of Athena ) & Arethusa Spring. It has a really evocative sculpture of ‘The Chase’.

Sea winds, sail boats, blue waters, bluer skies, I am at the southern most end in front of the supremely imposing Castello Maniace. A military base, one can wander around nonetheless. Turning the corner at the castle the walk continues along a splendid marina, the waters of the Ionian washing against the shore. A tiny ‘spiaggia’/ beach along the way surprises. It has a few bathers & swimmers. Wandering & wondering I stroll into an alley to find myself in the fascinating Jewish Quarter. A feast of sights & sounds. Then out again into a large Square that has the temple of Minerva – a place of Christian worship today.

Time to treat myself to a beer (Peroni) / Tuna – pasta, don’t you think?

Self guided walking tour, Ortigia
‘The Chase’ Arethusa Spring
Beach head, Ortigia

A train to Noto leaves every four hours – €5/30 minutes. Another heritage site, Noto is early 18 century Sicilian Baroque – churches, palaces, squares, architectural sites. I took an early morning train hoping to spend an entire day out but a sudden downpour spoilt the fun. An enchanting train ride across rain washed countryside the only consolation.

Siracusa to Agrigento – just about 150 kms as the crow flies. One ends up clocking 250 instead. Thanks to poor connectivity. There are no flights or direct bus/train connections. One has to travel back via Catania. A bit of an annoyance considering that moving from place to place never took more than an hour or so thus far. And to think that Agrigento was just about 2 hours from Palermo, I certainly could have planned it better. On the flip side was the thrill of going deep into the interiors, never mind that it took more than 6 hours doing so.

The Sicilian heartland is a kaleidoscope of hues – black, brown, tan, shades of green. Wide, bowl shaped contours, fields of yellow & green interspersed with dark magna rich soil. Sweeping downs & gentle slopes leading to mountains on the rim.

A small, quaint town Agrigento’s main street has flights of stairs ascending to higher streets & alleys. Full of cafés & bars, restaurants, book stores, shops selling jewellery – fashion brands & churches. Church bells ring out every half hour but there are no candles to light, churches having switched to an electric system where candles light up when a coin is inserted.

The Valley of Temples, a 2500 year old archaeological site is on the outskirts, 3 kms away. It has remnants of the ancient Greek city of Akragas (5-6BC). Spread over an area of 13 sq metres there are Greek & Roman statues, seven Doric temples & a series of Byzantine tombs built into city walls/fortifications. The temple of Concordia 430 BC is the best preserved, a fallen Icarus & a gnarled 800 year Olive tree by its side.

A lush green, shady corner of the site, history & nature meet at the Kolymbetra gardens – A citrus grove with over 300 + labelled species of Mediterranean plants

Devoid of natural vegetation walking under a harsh sun can become an ordeal. It was a rainy day luckily making the 5-6 km walk pleasant & enjoyable. A blessing of sorts that cost me a visit to the ‘Scala dei Turchi’. Just about ten kms away I got to see it only in passing. Wedged between two sandy beaches these stunning limestone cliffs are in the shape of a staircase. Called Turkish Steps as it became a safe haven for Turkish pirates who boarded, landed & took shelter here.

Piazetta della Camilleri, Agrigento
Section of Akragas city walls 5-6 BC
Valley of Temples Agrigento
Over 800 year old Olive Tree

Some Takeaways

*A 20 day solo trip with an 8.5 kg backpack.

*Visa delays & woes. Well laid plans out for a toss. Impromptu travel instead.

*Delicious food everywhere. My vote however goes to ‘L’Ambasciata di Sicilia’ Agrigento (1928) for the best Ravioli ever.

*Sicilians have winsome ways. This one goes to the unknown stranger handing me a 10€ note & scurrying off hurriedly. Thought me a beggar or was he just being nice. I’ll never know.

*Towns. All charming. Have to hand it to – Ortigia though. It was the best

*The weirdest thing, Sicilian breakfast of course. Ever heard of Brioche with a filling of Granita?

*A Sicilian proverb lastly. Unable to recall the exact words it would translate as “do not dwell on the good you do. Move on. Give serious thought to the evil in you”

Locked:Down Not Out

Swami Rampuri Maharaj

Sankatmochan Temple Hanumanchatti


2020 is the inauspicious year of the Bat_Man. A virus mutated in the badlands of Wuhan traveled from bat to man, grounding entire populations, halting the world in its tracks, forcing it to perceive itself anew- vis-a-vis life, work, travel.

Luckily for me, the year began quite auspiciously. Or so I think. Holiday, Dec’19 went into ‘20 & beyond, right up to Feb. Which is why the sledge hammer impact of a complete travel ban thereafter, fell with gentler effect.

The first month of the New Year had been spent loitering in and around the Cormondal coast. And here was I, relishing every moment, nine months later.

Coming to think of it, very little time is spent on ‘actual’ travel. I’d say only about 3-4 months a year – in real terms that is. One is however in perpetual travel mode, either planning journeys or savouring them, recalling strange encounters and reliving every nuance of an experience, much like poetic emotion,“recollected in tranquility”

I still want to know why that very interesting sadhu at Hanuman- Chatti did not give me the ‘hanuman chalisa’ he had so obviously brought out to give. It’s been 5 years but the thought continues to rankle. Just what was he thinking?

In Covid enforced solitude Eva comes readily to mind. Slim as a reed, she trudged the streets of Karaikudi because, “I want to lose weight……..”

“Do you watch Guru Dutt” she once asked.

I had heard of the French obsession with Guru Dutt. How they loved and admired his work just as the Russians did Raj Kapoor – Nargis-‘Awaara’ I had not however realised the extent of their fascination until Eva broke into song,”jaane woh kaise log the jinko pyaar se pyaar mila………”

It wasn’t merely song & tune, she understood the meaning.

Travel is not – nor ever can be, about ‘places’ alone. It comprises a gamut of imponderables and in-variables that come beautifully together. Take a visit to the Kanchi temple for example. The one that has a thousand and one lingams. This ancient temple is built around an even older mango tree. And mango, leaf and tree get incorporated in the famous Kanjeevaram weave. Temple hopping – imagine, not 1 or 2 but 1008 lingams – and shopping is interesting and fun but nowhere near meeting & interacting with real life characters.

Long black hair & glossy skin, Yellamma was a beauty, except that she often came across unkempt & untidy. Touching a delicate chord, she gave me her reason one day. She did not feel like doing anything, let alone dressing because she had been unable to get over the loss of a dearly beloved daughter. She had 3 sons she didn’t care about. They weren’t any good, much like her good for nothing husband. She had absolutely no desire to live.

Sharing ones private life & thoughts with a total stranger is to give wholly & completely of ones self. The rarest of gifts. Thank you Yellamma.

Or take Erica for that matter. She was from Sweden, a country I had visited the previous year. I ran into her at an Udupi restaurant in Pondicherry. Seated across from me, she was debating what to order, plying the hapless waiter with impossible queries.

What is Dosa? What is Uthappam? What is Idly?

What was each made of ?

Remembering the courtesy extended to me in her home country, I had of course to intervene and help. After that, we met practically every evening, walking the promenade or watching the waves hit the shore.

Foremost among modern, open & free societies, it was interesting to learn Sweden too had its share of MCP’s.

Erica’s marriage broke up because her husband had badgered & pressured her into starting a family. This, when the two had a pre nuptial agreement to the contrary.

With lockdown eased and ‘work from home’ the new norm, young people especially are already on the move. And ‘home’ mind you is anywhere and everywhere. Not only where heart but essentially where WiFi is. Ask the unencumbered Single already on the go, scouring the countryside from Goa to Manali.

Mention Covid to village folk around Manali and come face to face with pure, unadulterated innocence – not lost. They will look at you in wonder and ask “why ?….. are there no Gods where you come from?”

Eyes shut, an unbelievable image hovers into view. It is an expression of yearning & hope. And of regret and envy too.

Walking the African wilds is dear friend Kitty. Alone and unafraid. Staff in hand, among the lions.

You live only once but –

Would I?

Could I?

Dare I?

In another life, perhaps.

Village, Upper Manali


Meenakshi Amman, Madurai

The train halted in the middle of the night. To my surprise it was Madurai. Not my destination. I got off nevertheless. On a whim, just like that & spent the next 48 hours frequenting ‘Meenakshi Amman’, overwhelmed by the architecture, beauty & ambience. Her memory undimmed all these years.

Madurai. Repaving work around the temple

In Madurai once again, the city looked unchanged. On the face of it at least. More traffic & crowds but tight security. The queue at entry points long & serpentine, reaching the Sanctum Sanctorum takes anything from 2 – 3 hours. This on a normal day. A measure of the change in four decades. As beautiful & resplendent as ever, there were no to & fro trips this time. Just a ‘quick’ darshan of the Fish Eyed One, then off to Rameshwaram.

Agni Teertham
Lands End Dhanushkodi
Rama Padam, Rameshwaram

Driving by the clean & open countryside was a welcome change. Soothing palms, fronds & paddy fields that kept increasing closer to the sea. Rameshwaram too had changed – but slightly. It was larger, dustier and smelt old – as always. An ancient town, the Ramanathaswamy temple is at its heart. Another marvel of architecture, it would have been wonderful to capture the perfect symmetry & alignment of the sculptured pillars but photography is not allowed. Just as it is not in Meenakshi.

The town is said to have 62 water bodies/tanks/wells or teerthams as they are called. 22 within the temple complex itself – water being an essential of ritual.

Less than 5 kms away is another smaller temple, purported to have the footprints of Lord Ram. 25 steps up the ‘Rama Padam’ plus another 20 to the terrace & you have a perfect birds eye view of the town – the Ramanathaswamy towering in the distance.

I asked a wandering sadhu about the footprints. I thought them too small. He laughed, calling it artistic imagination. License. But seriously …… Coming from a sadhu? “If this is how He is remembered so be it. ‘Ram ka naam‘ kept alive, whatever the way. It hardly matters”

25 kms away lies Dhanushkodi, a fishing village that the Tsunami all but wiped out. Marked by a pillar with an Ashoka emblem, it is Lands End. Beyond the Gulf of Mannar lies Sri Lanka, 8 kms as the crow flies. And connecting the two is what used to be Adams Bridge. Today’s Ram Setu, visible from land & air. A narrow sandbar, Dhanushkodi has sea on either side, the waters of the Indian Ocean & Bay of Bengal mingling here. There is an old church that survived the tsunami, a post office & a police post. The one hour trip costs Rs 1500 by taxi & Rs 60 by bus – buses available every half hour. The parking is about 500 metres short, one has to walk up to Lands End.

It was lovely at last to find a clean, un-littered beach & stray cattle that did not feed on plastic. I actually saw a cow searching for edibles inside a polythene bag. And junking it thereafter. The result of properly feeding animals I suppose – a common practice in these parts.

Ex President Kalams’ house-turned-memorial is a prominent landmark. Rameshwaram remember, is where he was born & brought up. The common mans’ perception of him therefore, telling & revealing. Said without any pride but great regret & repeated over & over again was the lament that the President had done no one, including himself any favours. “He did nothing for his family. Could have given them good jobs at least…….”

Tch Tch…… Indians!

Pamban bridge
From atop the Rama Padam
Dhanushkodi: Remnants of the church


Where is Chettinadu? I am frequently asked.

Locate Karaikudi (district Thanjavur) on a map of Tamil Nadu. It is the area around it. 72 villages. Karaikkudi & Puddukottai being the large towns.

First impressions always count. Driving in, the countryside looks green & prosperous. This being the rice bowl that produces lentils too. It is the aesthetics however that catch the eye. Most homes have brick tiled roofs & hand made ceramic- pottery of exquisite shape & design still in use.

Karaikudi’s antique market at Muneeswaran Kovil has 17 shops stocked with a variety of interesting bric-a-brac. Cultural & household items of everyday use down the ages. One needn’t buy anything. One is not expected to either. Just scour around happily and enjoy it all.

The region is well known for cotton handloom. The ‘Kaandaangi’ sari its specialty – A checked weave in earthy colours, the border & pallu have traditional design.

More than anything else it is the food – the spicy/tangy, lip smacking cuisine now popular all over India. I had the most delectable chicken kurma – ragi roti combo. It was out of the world. Also because the chicken was not a broiler.

Most people come here for its heritage architecture. A mercantile & trading community, the Chettiars earned large sums & built stately mansions, decorated with the best from around the world. Unlike royal palaces built with public funds elsewhere, these were built with the owners own hard earned money.

Kanadukathan, a picturesque village on the outskirts of Karaikkudi, has ‘Annamall’ a Chettinad palace that you can admire from the outside. There are others one can enter paying a small fee. ‘Aayiram Jannal Veedu,’ the house with a thousand windows. Or ‘Periya Veedu’ on a one acre plot. It has a hundred rooms.

Village Athangudi had several. Also a factory making hand made tiles with local material – cement, sand & glass.

Built on several acres, nobody today lives in these mansions. They are empty palaces showcasing opulence of a rare kind: Belgian glass chandeliers, Carara marble, ivory & teak from Burma, Japanese & Portuguese tiles.

Not only are the Chettiars ultra rich, they are also great philanthropists. It was therefore heart breaking to find a wretchedly poor family where a twelve year old dropped out of school to take care of a bed ridden mother. Her 15 year old sister – the sole bread earner.

Hand made Tiles
Teak-Ivory pillars
A thing of beauty
Portuguese Tiles
12 year old Selvimari


Governor Dupleix

Rue petit canal

Rue Romain Rolland

On everyone’s bucket list, Pondicherry retains a colonial flavour. ‘White Town’ in particular. Despite being cheek by jowl with a sprawling metropolis that is everything Indian, ‘White Town’ stands out, like a slice of France. Therein lies its quaintness.

It is a few Sq Kms of heritage with streets parallel to the promenade & the sea. It has wide tree lined boulevards, French colonial architecture, cafes, bars & boutiques. French street names too, honouring a historic Franco-India connect. Most of its residents have dual citizenship & income from homes converted to ‘home stays’.

A quick & easy getaway, Auroville is at a distance of 16 kms. With about 40,000 people & 40 villages in the larger bio regional area, it was conceived as a utopia. An experiment in international living, health initiatives & eco systems that has succeeded in greening & reviving a traditionally parched & arid land.

Pondicherry Tourism must reconsider Arikamedu & Ranga Pillai mansion on its list of ‘sights’. A 30 minute drive, Arikamedu is a Roman era archeological site with nothing on offer. Exhibits & finds all housed in the local museum, the only structure left standing is a ruin – 17 century French.

Ranga Pillay mansion is difficult to locate. Opposite the vegetable market, locals appear never to have heard of it. A 300 year home, 8 rooms on the ground floor have Tamil features while the top 8 are architecturally French. The present occupants are 10th generation descendants of Mr Ranga Pillay, official translator to Governor Dupleix. A man of wealth & renown, a widely traveled linguist, he is said to have kept an open house. Even today entry is free & visitors welcome. A heritage home that has stone floors & Burma teak interiors, it has quite obviously seen better days. Of interest now to students of architecture alone.

Closed to vehicular traffic between 4 pm – 8 am, the Promenade is the heart, soul & lung of Pondicherry. A 2-3 km stretch, it is a bustling place with Governor Dupleix standing guard at one end & the Mahatma the other. In between lie upmarket hotels, cafes, restaurants & a WW1 memorial that commemorates Bastille & Armistice Day. A live band performs every Saturday evening. Bringing weekend cheer & nobody in a hurry to rush back home. The morning has crowds of another kind – sunrise gazers, joggers, fishing trawlers & honeymooners, photo shooting in the most hilarious of poses.

Pondicherry to me will always be its raucous crows. Those cheeky rascals finding a perch on your head to swoop down for a peck below.

That and the waves crashing endlessly against the shore.

Rue Romain Rolland
Arikamedu: Roman era archeological site
Ranga Pillai mansion, Pondicherry

Mother tree(Banyan),Auroville



Ekambareswarar Temple, Kanchi
The Kanchi Weave
Kanchi Kadai Heritage Home. See, that’s how we lived
Post Rains

It had rained the night before. The morning crisp & cool with a day long drizzle that was more than welcome. (The sun harsh in these parts, even in winter.)

It is a two hour drive from Mahabalipuram. Via Chengalpattu –  the countryside fresh, clean & beautiful.

An ancient town, Kanchi is known for its thousand temples, Ekambareswarar holding pride of place. Also called Shiv Kanchi, the 1500 year old temple is built around a 3000 year old mango tree under which Shiva – Parvati got married. So goes the legend. Green & tender, with several little shoots & off shoots it is obviously a case of expert grafting.

On 25 acres, the sandstone & granite structure is a stunning piece of architecture. It has the tallest gopuram (gateway/60 metres) & fascinating ‘mandapams’. The pillared corridors house 1008 lingams. With garlands & ‘tilaks’ each neatly in a row. It would be interesting to do a physical count. Not that there is any dispute or doubt.

There are temples. And temples. Each unique on its own – in South India especially. Not a temple goer, it is the architecture, more than ritual, that attracts. To find a quiet corner, to sit down & absorb. Then get up & get going, feeling completely re-energised & recharged. That’s what temple going is about.

The town is famous for Kanjeevarams. Saris every bride dreams of. It’s thriving silk weaving industry incorporates temple designs in silken weaves. The mango & tree not forgotten. Paisley motifs in subtle designs woven along the border or on the ‘pallu’. The weavers humble tribute to his antecedents – town, temple & tradition. He believes himself to be a  descendant of the celestial weaver Sage Markanda who weaved silk & cotton garments for the Gods. What he earns is another matter, a question largely unanswered.

Kanchi by itself does not impress. The town has vestiges of old homes, few & far between but attractive still. Of brick, stone & wood these are low built & have tiled, sloping roofs. Keeping in mind the tropical climate which can be described as being hot – hotter – hottest. Wood being a poor conductor it’s use here most striking. Which leaves one shuddering at the modern day monstrosities. Heritage forgotten. Tradition out for a toss.

One man alone knows its worth & has endeavoured to preserve something before all is lost. A cardiologist from Apollo, Chennai. No one lives in ‘Kanchi Kadai’ but it has a caretaker welcoming anyone who cares. For a fee of course. Rs 10 only.

See, that’s how we lived!

Kailasha Temple, Kanchipuram
Kailasha Temple
The Mango Tree at Ekambareswara
Enroute. Eagle Temple on the hill top

AQI 200+ Escape. Mahabalipuram

Rock Sculptures. Bas Relief
Break of day

Mahabalipuram was swarming with kindred souls. The indefatigable old & ageing from around the world, fleeing the winter chill to spend time where their pensions could afford. Some here for 3-6 months. Living carefree. Eating, drinking, sleeping. Doing their own thing. Connecting with strangers in the many cafes about town. Several, returning year after year. Some married to locals – fishermen mostly – financially empowering & settling them in vocations of their choice.

Germans – erudite ones – outnumbered all. A 75+ lady who took pride in her ability to speak the worlds oldest language. A 70 something Croatian, a wanderer who spoke 9 international languages but insisted upon conversing only in Hindi. Frequent visitors all.

The streets are full of trendy tailors, art studios (one boasting a herb garden) & multi cuisine restaurants. There is the ubiquitous ‘German Bakery,’ that is to be found everywhere. Also ‘Nautilus’ for authentic French, ‘The Sea Rock’ – sea food on the beach, ‘Mamalla Heritage’ – local vegetarian & ‘Ice & Spice’ for everything nice.

Not being a morning person, getting up early wasn’t easy but it had to be done. At least once. This being the East coast. The sun rising on the horizon, its first rays over the Bay of Bengal, touching the pinnacles of the Shore temples & giving the sky a luminous glow. It had to be seen – experienced.

It did not disappoint. What did was the crowded, strewn & littered beach. What kind of thinking makes people do this? The same, repeated everywhere down the coast. From Cuddalore to Poompuhar & Velankanni. Sandy beaches buried in litter.

Despite the downside Mahabalipuram exuded charm. It was the season around Pongal when the outdoor dance festival is on. Within the temple complex each evening – Folk, Kuchipudi & Bharatnatyam ( entry free). The ticket to the Heritage Site is otherwise Rs 40 – valid for the day. A 6 Sq Km area it has 2 exquisite Shore temples ( 8th century, sandstone, Pallavas) and Rock sculptures (bas relief).

Researching Tamil Nadu, ‘Quora’ was an important source for sundry tit bits of information. What rattled most was the kind of questions it posed. Yes, there is pride in everything Tamil. Rightly so. But nothing to suggest a desire to break away, as ‘Quora’ would like us to think. More intriguing I thought was the Cine Star – Politician connect. Also, why Tamil politicians wear dark glasses – 24×7?

The Shore Temples

AQI 200+ Escape. Temples & Forts

Languidly down Coromondal Coast

Shore temples, Mahabalipuram
Traditional homes. Kanchipuram

Coromondal. The word opens a thousand and one vistas, conjuring images of unheard places where the ‘firangi’ first landed. In search of fame & fortune – it wasn’t only the British, French, Portuguese or Dutch as one believed but the Danes & Swedes as well. There actually was a Danish & a Swedish East India Company. But, winner takes it all. The British stayed.

The silver beaches of Mahabalipuram, Auroville, Pondicherry. Velankanni, a place of undying hope & faith. Chettinadu too – Not strictly Coromondal but close enough, as was Tanjore, Trichy, Madurai & Rameshwaram. Each with a narrative of its own. And since it was the Delhi winter one was evading there could be no half measures. A full month’s sojourn, no less.

I took the ECR (East Coast Road) that runs from Chennai to Kanyakumari, doing the Mahabalipuram stretch in 90 minutes. The distance is 57 kms but exiting Chennai takes a while. A fairly decent highway, it would have been more scenic if it was closer to the coast. Except for a mile or so near Pondicherry, it is almost 10-15 kms in the interior. Without exciting ocean views either.

Pondicherry to Velankanni – 162 kms/3.30 hrs – made interesting by stoppages, at fortunately still surviving relics of history: The ruins of Fort St David Cuddalore, Parangipettai (Portuguese) & the well documented Danish fort – museum at Tranquebar.

An otherwise nondescript town, Chidambaram, that boasts the one & only Nataraja temple, definitely merited a halt. It was luckily along the way & I was able to get there before it closed for ‘darshan’ (between 12 noon & 4.30pm).

Slightly off track, Poompuhar is the coastal town – short of Nagapattinam – that lends its name to the many Tamil Nadu State Emporiums across the country. Famous for its sculptures, arts & crafts it is also known as Kaveripattam – the spot where the Kaveri enters the sea. There is a lighthouse, museum, temple & a shamefully littered beach.

An easy ride overall, the ECR transports from dull to scenic, rural to urban, ugly urban often taking over to become a traffic crawl.

Forays into the interior, Kanchi – Tanjore – Trichy – Karaikudi – Madurai, not only helped break tedium but provided invaluable insights. It was mid January, around Pongal. After eight prolonged years of drought the countryside was once again green & alive. The general landscape – low, dark, distant hills with palm trees dotting fields of sugarcane & paddy. The fields stretched in shades of brown – yellow – green, village ponds & water bodies nestling migratory birds. Markets too were plentiful – sugarcane, turmeric, rice, bananas etc

It got tawny & dry further south. Nothing to write home about, can’t imagine what the Karaikudi – Madurai stretch would be like in summer. Madurai to Rameshwaram eases out once again. Nearer the sea especially where it is all palms, fronds, backwaters, paddy & sea.

There was poverty too. A harsh reality. Mud huts & thatched roofs which I thought a thing of the past. The only difference being a motorbike at the door. Or a dish antenna on the roof.

The long skirt – half sari, special to this region is not to be seen any more. It has all but disappeared from Kerala & Karnataka. In Tamil Nadu also most appear to have switched to ‘Punjabi,’ the traditional visible in old photographs inside antique shops only. The other surprise was the near absence of ‘filter’ coffee in outlets along the highway. Hope it is not on the way out too. That would be a tragedy. Food, thankfully remains the one constant. The ‘Adyars’ & ‘Saravanas’, great levelers, serving affordable, authentic meals in an egalitarian setting.

Tamil Nadu has its own version of the national 3 language policy where Hindi is ‘not’ taught at all. Before anyone begins to howl, kindly remember the formula in the original & you will know who back tracked first. If it’s any consolation, the anti Hindi wall is somewhat breached, with words such as – ‘accha, na, haan, thik hai, kyon’ in common circulation.

A roller coaster that was far from easy, the one big takeaway was the joy of knowing it was (in many ways) a perfect ‘solo’. Meaning that I made friends & found companions along the way. Fellow travelers I could hang out with when I pleased. Who left me to my own devices otherwise. Respect for time & space being, as always, a true base for relationships.

Some pertinent questions at the end. Based on general observation. No offence meant. Even if I sound like a rank outsider.

Why are we uncaring of heritage?

Must we litter public spaces?

What kind of thinking makes us do this?

Is it impossible to walk up to a dust bin?

Instead of shooting at it from a mile?

And…….must every morsel be broken & mashed?

When it can be picked up & eaten?

Just asking.

Ruins of Fort St David, Cuddalore
Danish Fort. Tranquebar
nataraja Temple. Chidambaram
Nataraja temple. Chidambaram


The Nordics



IMG_5552The Pig-Duck, Helsinki

Join me journey across the Nordics by land, air & sea*.

Five countries in twenty five days. Not as rushed as it would appear to be. Pace, budget, time, mine & mine alone.

Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway/ (Estonia) – have a natural, cultural & historical homogeneity. What makes it easy cakewalk is the widespread knowledge & use of the English language. These are a practical people. The world neither speaks nor understands Norwegian, Danish, Finnish or Swede. They, must therefore learn the world’s language – English. And boy do they speak !

Of handsome lineage, the average Norse is tall, bony, light eyed & blonde. Not dumb. Never (jokes apart). If he does not willingly smile or look you in the eye, the problem is not yours but partially his, for he is naturally shy. Shy, reserved & taciturn. One rarely comes across public displays of affection & emotion or even two strangers engaged in conversation. Which is not to suggest that the Scandinavian is aloof or rude. Far from it. He is a congenial fellow who will step out to help & engage. His native speech is riddled with tongue twister words & unpronounceable place names, not polite ones like ‘please’ or ’thank you.’ Terse perhaps, not rude. Remember, he was a Viking not very long ago. A warrior, hunter, seafarer. Out of the woods only now. The sauna’s the only place where he may perhaps let down his hair. Then it is back to basics.

Denmark, Norway & Sweden boast the world’s highest per capita income. A cashless economy, Kroner is king with neither dollar nor euro commanding much respect. Scandinavia tops the world happiness index. Bhutan literally a poor second, which in itself is telling. Minimalism is the key to this happiness. Tipping a strict no – no. Not even to the cabbie.


The Swedes have ‘Fika’ & Norwegians/Danes their ‘hugge.’ Pronounced as in sugar. While fika may be described as the simple pleasure of eating a sweet along with coffee, ( fika breaks are common) ‘hugge’ is impossible to accurately translate. Lets just say that it is a sense of perfect well-being. Happiness derived out of little. Less is therefore More. Imagine food & drink, friends & tales & a small group snuggled around a fire while a cold wintry wind blows outdoors. That’s where ‘hugge’ comes from. Its a national obsession & the raison d’etre of existence.

Like the rest of Europe Scandinavia too has beautiful churches. Devoid of churchgoers too. Whether there be a God or not is nobody’s concern. One does not even hear the clanging of church bells. With the odd exception, weddings take place in the town hall. A funeral service perhaps but that is few & far between.

For a person who cannot otherwise walk 2 steps without gasping I was averaging 10 -15 kms a day & feeling completely energized. Pure clean air: everyone’s right. It was pristine because people wanted it that way & took care to see that it was. People were pleasant & nice ‘cos that’s how they wished to be. ‘They work towards it,’ was my thought. Without any kind of supervision or enforcement. No signs of squeamishness either. It’s a free society in the truest sense & completely trust based. One buys a ticket & gets onto the tram, ferry, train or bus. Without checks or controls. Not even automated ones like stiles. Random checking happens but it is perfunctory.

The Nordics in many ways are a mark & cut above western Europe. With 20 – 24 hours of  daylight in summer, much can & does get done. Besides, travel is easy, hassle free and stress free, with no fear of mugging or pick pocketing. Above all everything just works & falls into place.

That said, mishaps do occur. And no trip of mine is known to be complete without one. Of my own making mostly, I am so organized that I tend to become disorganized. Departing Oslo early one morning I readied (so I thought) the ‘travel – card’ to make it easily available in case of need but began fumbling soon after when the airport shuttle arrived. Euro 7 had to be paid but the card was not to be seen. Paid by cash eventually the card with Euro 2000 had to be found. I thought of having it blocked but called up the hotel just in case I had lost or forgotten it there. Five minutes later I am informed that it was found lying on the floor of the lobby where I was waiting & that it would be delivered to me in 10 minutes at most. I was to wait at the very spot where I had disembarked. The incident is remarkable at several levels. Not only had I once again emerged unscathed but it was wholly as expected. In perfect sync with Nordic character that places a premium on honesty & probity & displays it in abundance.

Note that I have not called it budget friendly. For it is not. Scandinavia is expensive. But if you have the money go & spend it. Just go!


Talinn Estonia

IMG_5830Opera House, Oslo


IMG_5725IMG_5701Twisted Torso, Malmo Sweden

(For the record, this trip could not have been the smooth sailing it was without the aid of the following Apps:


GPS My City





VR Mobile




Iceland & Scandinavia Travel Tips ( Facebook group)

And most importantly Thank you Man on Seat 61. The inputs provided were, as always, invaluable.)


* Route/Via

Delhi-Helsinki-Delhi (Air)

Helsinki-Rovaniemi-Helsinki (Air)



Oslo-Copenhagen (Ferry)

Helsingør – Helsingborg (Ferry)

Flam – Balestrand – Bergen (Ferry)

Helsinki – Tallinn – Helsinki (Ferry)


Copenhagen – Malmo (Train)

Copenhagen – Helsingor (Train)

Helsingborg – Gothenburg (Train)

Gothenburg – Oslo (Bus)

Oslo – Myrdal (Train)

Bergen – Oslo (Train)


65387357_10216659181246332_5775396223183749120_nElsinore, Denmark: Fish out the rubble