Rameshwaram

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

Chettinadu

Where is Chettinadu? I am frequently asked.

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

First impressions count. Driving in, the countryside is lush green & prosperous. This being the rice bowl that produces lentils too. It is the aesthetics however which catch the eye. Most homes have brick tiled roofs & hand made ceramics – pottery of exquisite shape & design are 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 from down the ages. One needn’t buy anything. One is not expected to either. Just scour around, happily enjoying it all.

The region is known for its cotton handlooms as much as its cuisine. The ‘Kaandaangi’ sari especially. A checked weave in earthy colours, the border & pallu with traditional design.

More than anything else it is the food – the spicy/tangy, lip smacking cuisine 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 visit to see heritage architecture. A mercantile & trading community, the Chettiars earned large sums & built themselves stately mansions, furnished with the best from around the world. Unlike palaces elsewhere built with public funds, these were built with their 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 has had to drop out of school in order to look after a bed ridden mother. Her 15 year old sister – the sole bread earner.

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

Pondicherry

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.

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

Mother tree(Banyan),Auroville

Auroville

Kanchipuram

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Ekambareswarar Temple, Kanchi
The Kanchi Weave
Kanchi Kadai Heritage Home. See, that’s how we lived
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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
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Kailasha Temple
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The Mango Tree at Ekambareswara
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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

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courtesy manonseat61.com

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.

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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!

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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

VY

HSL

DSB

SJ

VR Mobile

FlixBus

XE

ToGo

Iceland & Scandinavia Travel Tips ( Facebook group)

And most importantly www.seat61.com. Thank you Man on Seat 61. The inputs provided were, as always, invaluable.)

 

* Route/Via

Delhi-Helsinki-Delhi (Air)

Helsinki-Rovaniemi-Helsinki (Air)

Helsinki-Oslo-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

 

 

Norway

 

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Despite similarities with the rest of Scandinavia, Norway is unique & distinct, marked in particular by breathtaking beauty of landscape. No hyperbolics therefore, just a photo diary so the pictures do the talking. I will share itinerary, nitty gritty facts, place – experience only.

A country of fjords, building bridges is impractical. Connecting people & places, simpler by far is the ubiquitous ferry, which I used a plenty. A country of mountains & tunnels too. Only 167 kilometers separate Bergen & Flam for instance but there are 35 tunnels between them. Some even have windows & roundabouts, some remain close for repair – a fact no traveler can afford to either ignore or neglect. With almost 24 hours of daylight summer is especially to be experienced.

The Bergen rail connecting to Oslo is a 497 km passenger train that traverses both the Longfjellenethe mountains & Hardangervidda plateau, a height of 4058’ before descending to sea level. The trip offers spectacular views. In the blink of an eye a mountain or a glacier will most certainly slip by. Its best therefore to put aside the camera & enjoy kaleidoscopic views of snow covered mountains – rivers – streams – waterfalls – rocks –stones -trees- cabins – fields & lakes. Never ending, the beauty does not pall. There are temperature variations, the outside temperature dropping to 0 around Myrdal for the snow never melts, not even in summer. A seven hour ride, there is NSB for sustenance. Wine, beer, coffee, the onboard café has it all.

I took the night train from Oslo getting off at Myrdal next morning. A beautiful mountain stop 2844’ (I will be the only one saying so), it was bitterly cold that early & there was nobody else in sight. A cosy waiting room/toilet thankfully open & a souvenir shop/café that was not. A vending machine with hot coffee & snacks, proving useless as it accepted Kroners only.  The station was deserted & unstaffed yet charming & sweet. Myrdal has three platforms but if you get there morning 4.30 as I did, the first train to Flam will always be a long wait (departure 8.30 am.) With 4 hours to kill I could have walked or cycled down as it is downhill all the way but the sensible thing was to stretch out on one of the long wooden benches & go silently to sleep.

Flamsbana, the Flam – Myrdal line is said to be the most beautiful train journey in the world. It runs on steep gradients across a high plateau & valley, covering the 20 km distance in an hour. Halting at 10 stations, past a bridge & 20 tunnels, eighteen of which excavated by hand, it crosses the Flamselvi thrice – but not once over a bridge. The river has instead been diverted underground. At Reinunga, it passes a ‘window’ thoughtfully cut out in a tunnel to enable a peek at the magnificent valley floor & at Kjofossen it halts for a photo – op. Passengers can get off on to the platform which in fact is a promontory. The lines main attraction is the thunderous Rjourndefossen, a waterfall that has a vertical 140 metre drop.

As for Flam, imagine an extremely picturesque village of 450, over – run by 4000 tourists on a daily basis. Alas for the plight & misery of the local. A 17th century cruise ship port it has a Stave church, a railway museum dedicated to the Flam line, a hotel, shops & eating places. It gets so crowded that I would not advise staying for the night. Cross over to Balestrand instead & spend not one or two but several nights.

Besides being a cruise ship port Flam is gateway to the world heritage Naeroyfjord  (Flam at one end & Gudvangen at the other), the narrowest & in parts the shallowest of the many arms of the Sognefjord. While the over land bus makes the trip in 20 minutes, the ferry takes 2.15 hrs. Passing steep mountain sides, hanging villages, peaks & waterfalls there are small communities & centuries old Stave churches along the way. A landmark for miles around is the Linden tree at Bakka, unique for sprouting yellow leaves in Spring, shedding green leaves in Autumn. Naeroyfjord  must not be missed. It is an ethereal out of world experience, where the immense beauty of the land is mirrored in the waters.

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Across the fjord from Flam is Balestrand where I arrived in pouring rain. Unhappy at the prospect of having to walk to the hotel, lo & behold there was a car waiting for me at the pier. This is what is so special about people in small places. They will go the extra mile to make one welcome & at home. I had requested a room with a view & got one with the most astounding sea view. ‘Midtnes’, is a family run boutique property. An excellent host, the public area has a library, billiard & snooker room & a scattering of interesting bric a brac. Breakfast next morning was homely & wholesome, a variety of fresh bread, home made jams, goat cheese, catch of the day. Herring, shrimp, trout & sardine in a range of traditional sauce. The coffee was great as was the ambience, soft music, sea view, personalised – village girls in service.

 

I was not paid to write praises. A word about another, larger, more famous hotel therefore to give balance & perspective. Family owned, Kviknes is a 19th century, Swiss style, 200 room luxury hotel that has been popular with historic European visitors. Bang on the fjord, the water around sparkling clean with algae & jelly fish visible down to the depths. Roam free, the area is not restricted, Balestrand in any case being a village where one may wander at will.

It is a sparsely populated, 260 acre village on the northern shores of the Sognefjord. Popular with artists for scenery that inspires it has an active art scene. An interesting food & pub scene too with cuisine from around the world. What does one do but eat, drink & rest? Enjoy the view, breathe clean mountain air, fish, swim or walk. I for one could live here forever.

The sweetest walk, a 2 mile culture trail along the shoreline takes you past the old harbour, 19th century dragon head, red Swiss villas, St Olaf’s church, statue of King Bele & 2 Viking age burial grounds.

There is another, longer 10 km walk around the bay. In search of an enamel jewellery store near Dragsvik, I inadvertently sauntered into an arbour of gigantic trees & bushes.  Meticulously marked & labeled there was Beech, Fir, Pine, Cedar, Redwood, Aspen & Oak. The Himalayan Deodar too, spindly & shrivelled, unlike its magnificent cousin in India. Poncho clad, I continued in the drizzle, learning later that the six acres by the fjord was ‘Lunde Arboretum.’ It had free entry & free camping. Pays to be nosy sometimes! While the enamel shop was never found, Tjugum church was – Ordinary & unimpressive, it housed the village graveyard.

Navigating Norwegian fjords is both relaxing & pleasurable. Wind & surf, sea & sky & never a care. No hurry to get anywhere either. Everything aboard perfect to a T the ship negotiated a passage through the Sognefjord exiting & turning south along the west coast to Bergen – a 4 hour journey from Balestrand.

Situated between seven mountains, with museums & art galleries Bergen is a city of culture. I had planned 5 lazy days, doing things at my pace in this most beautiful of cities. It is one of the wettest places in Europe with nearly 266 rain days in a year. It drizzled all the time I was there but undeterred, life went on as usual. I had a studio apartment walking distance from Bryggen a heritage site but that was for 3 days only. I would move to a hotel near the train station later. Sleeping under the same roof, night after night  drags, you will agree.

Bryggen’s crooked wharf & colourful wooden houses along the dock have long captivated visitors. It is a cheery sort of place except that the over hyped fish restaurants quoth prices going through the roof.

Alongside Bryggen is Floibanen. I took the funicular up to Mt Floyen – seven minutes  up – and came down walking (30 minutes) The view from on top stunning, it was nippy despite the sun. An ideal quiet afternoon haunt, to walk, read, lie down or gorge on Rudolph’s hot dogs.

And then to my very own version of the ‘Bergen Walk,’  starting at Bryggen – Floibanen – Train station – Public Library – Park /Lille Lunge – -Torgallmenningen – Vagen Bay – Begenhus Fortress.

Torgallmenningen is the main city square/street, vehicle free & full of cafes & shops while Vagen Bay & Bergenhus offer splendid views of sail ships & old Hanseatic buildings.

I later moved to a hotel adjacent to the train station. I mention this for several reasons. The area around interesting & beautiful, the train station is the grandest in Norway & building laws forbid any kind of trivial renovation.

As for the hotel, ‘Zander’ is an ode both to the cold & wet city of Bergen & to one of its most prominent citizens. With a plain, dull exterior you could never imagine the inside décor. Not ostentatious. Far from it. Do check it out yourself.

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Bryggen Bergen

Balestrand, window view

I was in & out of Oslo thrice. For a short duration every time, the city practically covered piecemeal. Which, coming to think of it is not a bad idea at all. Karl Johans gate is a good place to start. A kilometer long, it is the main street that connects Central station to the Royal Palace – Parliament, National Theatre & Grand Hotel/ Café somewhere in between. The entire city appears to be heading in that direction, strolling or lounging in one of the many cafes. I too settled down to a beer, kicked at the thought of having it sitting in front of Parliament House. Come to think of it this is the most striking feature of Norway/ Scandinavia. The freest of societies, it does not have a ‘touch me not’ culture. Beautiful public spaces are created for people to experience & enjoy. The same was apparent at the Opera House & Vigeland park where space was designated not only for children but also dogs to run unleashed. The concept is appealing. So here was Parliament house with a few sundry cars parked out in the open. Did the lawmakers walk to work or did they not work at all? Another striking feature was zero to minimal security. Even at the Royal Palace. Makes for a great first impression.

Most visitors use either the hop on – hop off or its Ruter equivalent. There is really no need, for Oslo is made for walking. One certainly needs transport coming in from the airport. Flytoget Airport Express gets you into town in 20 minutes but at Nok 190 is a trifle expensive. NSB, the regional train is a better option – 23 minutes, Nok 100. Or a taxi if you prefer, Nok 1300/ 45 minutes.

Vigeland park is the only site where one may perhaps use some form of transport as it is a little way out – about 4 kms from Central station. Tram 12 will get you there. A part of Frogner park, Vigeland has 212 life size nudes depicting the wheel of human life from cradle to grave. The statues of granite, stone & wrought iron were made by Gustav Vigeland over a hundred years ago. Entry free & open 24×7 round the year it is the most popular destination.

The Akerselvi river running through the city makes for a nice walk since most of the sights are located along it. My personal Oslo walk took me via:

Central station – Opera House /Bar Code Area – Akershus castle – City Hall – Nobel Peace Centre – Aker Brygge Harbour – Karl Johans gate – Vigeland Park.

Not a foodie by any count, I prefer what restaurants call ‘child portion,’ both for quantity, taste & nutrition. What may I ask is wrong with a meal consisting of a fruit platter, scrambled eggs, ham – cheese sandwich, pancake with chocolate sauce?

And for the curious, no, I did not taste Smalahove which – for the uninitiated – is dried, salted & steamed sheep head. I did try Voss sausages with bacon & boiled vegetable. To each his own. ‘Hugge’ to me can never mean food. In Norway at least it was the luxurious warmth of a heated bathroom floor.

 

Bar Code district Oslo ( view from atop the Opera House)

Tallinn

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To be in Helsinki & not go over to Tallinn is sin unpardonable. Two hours across the waters it is every Finns watering hole. Ferrying me there was ‘Finlandia,’ nothing less than a floating hotel with restaurants, bars, casinos, live music. The shore line had barely receded when those not hitting the bottle hit ‘duty free’ – a riot either way.

I had lodgings in the historic centre – a 15 minute walk from the harbour. It is the most happening & buzzing of places. Car free, a few horse carts, E Ricks & almost everyone in medieval attire. Tallinn was quaint & profuse of atmosphere. Like a scene out of Cantebury tales. Troupes from one or another guild regularly entertained & performed. A procession of musicians sometimes or an artisans market selling genuine Estonian ware. All part of the summer madness, great fun nevertheless. Tallinn is believed to have started the European tradition of X’mas celebrations around a tree placed in the city  centre. Rest of the year sees sundry markets, colourful canopies & tables laid out for food & drink. Saku ( a local brand of beer) overflows. As the day advances & evening chill creeps in, out come blankets & brazier. But, it is never too cold for beer.

An eclectic variety of cuisine was on offer with ‘Italian’ the favourite & ‘Indian’ catching on (ever heard of ‘moose kathi roll’?) Eating places sporting the egg – saucepan image meant the food was Estonian while ‘vanaa’ attached to a name indicated grandma’s kitchen. Life made easy, like the animal drawings at street junctions in Finland. One may not recall long unpronounceable names like Hietaniemenkatu where I stayed but will never forget a reindeer image, especially in search of bearings.

A word about Lauri’s apartment – in the heart of the old town. Formerly part of a medieval bishop’s house it was done in muted tones of white, grey, pale blue. The creative use of space & retention of historic features lent it character & style & spoke of Lauri’s good taste. I was lucky to have it.

Mariannes’ walking tour started at ‘Tourist Information’ in down-town, leading to middle & upper, the old town being at 3 levels. It was history encapsulated – 2 hours walking a heritage site. St Olaf’s spires, visible from every part of town offered the best birds eye view as did the viewing platforms on 14 century walls. Freedom Square had a cenotaph made of a glass like material that could withstand a nuclear blast. The only one of its kind in the world. ‘It did not survive the first winter,’ laughed Marianne.

Tallinn was planned as a last stop before heading back home. A place to recoup after crisscrossing Scandinavia using every mode of transport. Taking it easy, I wandered at will, making friends, chatting up folks or just hanging around & having a nice time. It felt good. I loved Catharine’s passage with its array of cafes & antique shops. Its walls encrusted with ancient tomb stones so that they are preserved, not lost. A haunting thought. Also a novelty.

Memories aplenty …..The woman inviting passers by to try sweet, roasted almonds  or the trinket seller who insisted I buy a Ganesha ear-ring. Women pretty & demure in a way those from advanced societies are not.

A brick red building in a far corner of the Town Square housed ‘Raeapteek,’ Europe’s oldest apothecary. It has remained in business since 1422 & houses a small, well documented museum with exceedingly interesting displays. Samples of medical prescription down the ages:

Hollyhocks, highly recommended for a variety of ailments.

Fried deer penis

Earthworms in oil

Sun bleached dog faeces

Check it out. Entrance is free.

( A bar of hand made cannabis dark chocolate was all I bought.)

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Catharine’s Passage

 

 

 

Sweden

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In retrospect, the hours spent in Sweden seem like a flash in the pan. Wish I’d had time to linger & pause.

All it took was a dash across the Oresund from Copenhagen to Malmo, getting there in less than 45 minutes without any need of booking or reservation. There is a train every half hour. The Oresund link connecting Denmark & Sweden is a massive bridge – tunnel – bridge structure. An exceptional piece of engineering, it is an awesome travel experience that feels like skimming over the surface of the waters. (Return fare DKK 182)

 

Why Malmo is ‘fallafel’ city is anyone’s guess. Because of its cosmopolitan & multi cultural character perhaps. With Griffins head the logo, it is small in terms of area & size.

It was on a late June afternoon that I made my way from Malmo Central to Lilla Torg (450 m) & Stortorg, the Small & Large city Squares. Lilla Torg is cobble stoned & picturesque & bursting with antique shops selling local handicraft. It is full of cafes & beautiful old, half – timber houses. Prominent, overlooking the Squares is St Peter’s, a brick red Gothic church dating back to 1300. Gamla Vaster/ Old Malmo is full of interesting old architecture as is Malmo proper with its blend of the old & the new.

 

It was a very hot June afternoon & I was thirsty. Lunch turned out to be Vegan Burger, fries & beer followed by a post lunch stroll through lush green city gardens. I could have laid down right there, under the trees. I almost did.

At the corner where the gardens ended was an old prison converted to a pre – school & opposite it the castle. Malmo Castle is a 16th century fortress surrounded by a moat. It has nature exhibits & houses a history museum. Standing tall, in the distance is the Twisted Torso. One look & I was compelled to walk in its direction – not a short walk by any reckoning. At 190 metres, this sculptured tower stands out against the horizon. It was built on the promenade near the western harbour in 2005 & has upscale home & office space.

It is evening & time to return. The ride back to Copenhagen something to look forward to once again. Via the Oresund link. Do try it sometime. Difficult to accurately describe but it is as if one were flying low, above the surface of the sea.

IMG_5701The Twisted Torso

IMG_5685Old half timber houses

IMG_5700Malmo:modern architecture

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Small towns across Denmark & Sweden not only have easy connectivity but can be accessed in a myriad ways. This makes for an unusual & interesting travel experience. The train chugging into Helsingor (Denmark) halted on the platform adjacent to which was the ferry station. Absolutely whacko & least expected. Not to mention the convenience of it all. One disembarks from the train, takes the elevator up, buys a ticket & comes down to board the ferry. It is a 20 minute/37 DKK crossing to Helsingborg (Sweden). Probably the shortest between any two countries as the Strait is narrowest here (4 kms).

 

It may be the briefest of passages but ‘Forseas’ ensures every entertainment & facility. With calm seas & stunning views it is a super hit, especially with the Swedes who come aboard for duty free liquor shopping.

 

However, my destination is not Helsingborg but Gothenburg & I must figure a way of commuting from ferry to train station. GPS estimates a 20 minute walk, a full 360 degree circle if I were to follow it blindly. But I believe in taking risks & talking to strangers is one of them. Just as well, for it turned out to be a 2 second ride down the elevator. LOL! Helsingborg ferry station on the top floor & train terminal at the bottom. Got to hand it to these guys. Who could have imagined it. Look at the convenience once again.

 

There was nothing remarkable about the 4 hour trip to Gothenburg except that the onboard Wifi & superfast train had speeds to match.

With only a day & half in Sweden’s second largest city it is obvious that time & activity are both at a premium & both need management. The first evening was spent in Haga, a Bohemian suburb with shops, charming cafes & a respectable night life.

Goteborg (as the Swedes call it) has a cluster of islands on its periphery. The Northern & Southern archipelago that are car free but can be accessed by ferry & traversed on foot. I decided on Donso, Vrango & Styrso, the islands of the south. Fishing villages with granite cliffs, sandy beaches, beautiful old houses & unique flora fauna. The weather was balmy & Sunday crowds added to the fun of getting a peep into big & small neighbourhoods from the comfort of a tram. A lovely city.

The ferry from Saltholmen to Stryso Bratten takes 20 minutes. There is a café at the pier & a gradual walk through the woods that leads to Stora Ros the summit. Grand views here, also strong winds to knock one off. There is the Great Cairn at the pinnacle, a mound of stones with objects of flint & bronze dating back to the pre historic.

And there is Stryso Tangen, the equally beautiful smaller island preferred by many. I do a beach walk then hop on to the ferry for Donso & Vrango (380 inhabitants). Time for lunch too. Beer – Sandwich will do.

Incidentally, Sweden – the little I saw of it – came across as different & apart in an unexciting sort of way. The use of ‘English’ was limited & English language road signs practically absent. It was also as expensive as its neighbours. Toilet use always had a fee. Never less than Euro 3, unless one coughed up SEK coins. Then it was 10 only.

Yet, to judge any country on the basis of a 3 day/2 city stopover would be grossly unfair. I would not presume to do so. Another time……….Until then – No comments !

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Crossing over, Helsingor – Helsingborg