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 http://www.com 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.
Trastevere

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Sicily

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
Strombolica

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”

Shantiniketan: Red Earth

The Master himself

Tagore did most of his writing under this tree

Sunit, Toto driver-guide

A Santhal village

Sonajhuri Forest

A Noble laureates’ refuge, Tagore-Vishwabharati-Shantiniketan are inextricably linked.

Essentially a university town it has a homely feel, students from around the world giving it a special flavour.

There is no public transport. You either commute by E Rick or cycle or walk. For a nominal Rs 500, the ubiquitous Toto takes you everywhere. Driver cum guide, Sunit knew people & places & had facts on his finger tips. He showed me around at a leisurely pace every day. Tribal villages, Kankalitola, Surul, Kopai, Vishwabharati, Amar Kutir, Srijan. Cool wind in the hair & face, where’s the hurry after all.

The trip happened after a year of waiting & watching. Waiting for the right time so as to avoid both summer heat & winter rush. The Poush Mela – Durga Puja crowds too. Zeroed in on the monsoons therefore, when the heavens descend in a celestial downpour, creating magic everywhere.

It’s the last day of June. The last day also of my stay and I’m still waiting for the rains. For the skies to open & the magic to begin. Unlucky me!

“Not so,” corrects the Toto-wallah. “You are not unlucky. But ‘His’ blessings are missing.

One and the same thing I thought but to him there was a clear difference.

Shantiniketan is three hours from Calcutta. I prefer to drive down from Durgapur instead in just an hour & half. Rain or no rain, rural Bengals’ flat, lush green countryside, forests, water bodies & fields are guaranteed to mesmerise. A pretty good road too which was a surprise, as was the eight kms stretch of forest along the way.

I am staying at a traditional mud villa. An architectural style particular to the place. The outer walls, decorated in what has come to be known as Shantiniketan art, depict local flora & fauna & carved panels & doors show scenes from folklore. Sadly, very little of it survives.

The interiors are modern & comfortable. It has wifi that works and splendid cuisine, Bengali & Santhal both. As authentic an experience as one can expect.

Coming in late Friday I decide to sit back & enjoy the quiet beauty of the place. The sole reason for being there in the first place.

Khoai Shaniberer Haat’ is lined up for next day. A weekend market where artisan & connoisseur interact in the hope of a meaningful transaction. Spread across a vast swathe of forest land, goods sold range from handcrafted jewellery & textiles to musical instruments & leather-ware. Watching sellers bring in stuff on mo-bikes & accept payment via portals like ‘phone-pe’, was quite an eye opener. A result of being so out of sync living in the city

Under a canopy of Sonajhuri trees, tribals decked in finery dance to the beat of cymbals & drums. A plaintive cry rings out from somewhere. A Baul, his Ektaara tugging at the heart strings as he belts out a tune. I roamed about soaking in the scene. Munching on ‘Jhal Muri’ – a puffed rice concoction I was having for the first time. There is always a first time.

Everyone liked & noticed my pink umbrella-hat. The tribals especially who inspected it minutely to understand how it worked. Would try replicate it, they said. Sell it for nothing less than Rs 200, I advised. A start-up hopefully.

Owl motifs & figures abound. Here an owl, there an owl, everywhere an owl-owl. In most parts of our country the owl stands for stupidity. In Chinese culture however it is a symbol of ill omen. A bird of wisdom in the West, it’s significance here was largely unclear. Being animists, tribals worship nature. This night bird too is worshipped.

Kankalitala temple on the banks of the Kopai is one of the 51 Shaktipeethas. A little out of town, it was a huge disappointment. “Never again”, I swore. How often have I said that before? I never seem to learn.

The terracotta temples at Surul are a delight however. Over 300 year old they are privately owned & are being restored by artisans brought in from Murshidabad. Skilled craftsmen working on it for six months & will take another six to complete. “They are like family” says the Thakur who hired them.

(Surul, Supur & Itonda, are the three places that have temples made of terracotta.)

Wandering into a Santhal village I chance upon a film crew shooting a Bengali serial. And further down the neat row of mud huts is Lipis’ studio. An alumni of the Faculty of Arts Baroda, her creations are lovely, the ceramic studio a piece of art in itself. One of the joys of solo travel is meeting people, encounters that add value & make for a memorable experience. Here was a qualified young person who had chosen to live & work among tribals in a remote part of the country. No doubt enhancing their lives as well.

Most of us have phobias. We harbour unfounded stereotypes. A stereotypical Bong to me was one into music, art & culture. Rabindra sangeet, rosogolla, fish. Not off the mark completely but to that I shall now add ‘lottery’. Seeing is believing.

Who doesn’t love a sudden windfall? But this was something else. Lottery tickets from all over bought & sold everywhere. Within the precincts of Kankalitala too. The temple was a disappointment I said. Not so the sight of diehards seeking divine intervention. Young & old, high & low. All come here. Buy lottery tickets, bow in prayer & leave. Beaming & smiling. Prayer answered ? As if. Wish fulfilled? Almost.

Easy come, easy go.

Rajasthan On the Rebound

In Bishnoi land. Pic says it all

Staying home-bound is doable for just about 6 months. Impossible after that.

Wave 2, ‘21 had us boxed in but a window of opportunity had to appear. And it did. April – July was hard, come August, bags packed, vaccinated, I was raring to go.

Pushkar for the umpteenth time.

Once, never enough. Never, during the cattle fair either.

An eight hour drive across rain washed countryside, beyond the Aravalis.

(The Monsoon I am convinced, is the best season to travel. In the plains at least. Not winter, as many believe. The sun being quite harsh then)

What’s not to like about a heritage hotel with rooms overlooking the sacred lake, a view of the Brahma temple and hills along the periphery?

Where dawn is welcomed with a chiming of bells and sun bid adieu in a crescendo of drums.

Kailash & his son are ‘nagara’ players who regularly perform outside Sunset Cafe, where everyone meets to catch up over ‘chai’ & watch the sun go down.

Essentially a one-lane town, Pushkar is full of bookstores, rooftop cafes & hair braid parlours. As famous for Gulkand – Malpua as it is for pandas & sadhus. One of whom took me on rather zealously, wanting to know if I did not see the difference between Brahmin & Bhangi. His words alas, not mine.

“None. To my mind” was the reply. An upper caste advantage emboldening the retort.

And did I detect something akin to Covid effect in the little town’s sulk at the loss of tourists?

Why then had people suddenly become so apathetic & uncaring?

Don’t ever remember seeing littered ghats either (the reason for that altercation with the panda)

Less than 8 kms away is another Holy of Holies. Ajmer Sharif. Corona or not the crowd is knee deep and almost everyone is without mask. Time to scuttle and scoot, for if the virus doesn’t get you beggars and touts certainly will.

The magic hour

Jodhpur is four hours away. The drive through dull countryside and semi desert vegetation. A grey monsoon sky completed the picture. Or saved the day?

Everyone makes a beeline for the charming, ‘old’ town with a clock tower. It’s historic gullies and lanes crowded with heritage havelis & step-wells. The magnificent Mehrangarh looming above it all.

This time however the old vibes were missing. The flavour gone. Abandoned by travellers, shops & cafes closed, without the regular hustle and bustle the place was dead.

Apologising profusely, I checked out after a single night & moved to a great place near the Circuit House.

One word that best describes Jodhpur is ‘order.’ A strange term in the context of an Indian city but I cannot think of another with its mix of history, heritage, beauty, modernity – ‘order’ and ‘discipline’.

The Royal Estates are managed by a Trust headed by the Maharaja. The great Gaj Singh. Be it the many palaces & museums, the Mehrangarh Fort or the royal cenotaphs (Jaswant Thada). Or even the gardens at Mandore. Each exceptionally well maintained, traveler friendly. Signages, ramps, lifts, bins, toilets, kiosks – everything in place.

Move about freely, without fear of harassment. There isn’t a beggar or tout in sight.

Pushkar happened simply because it was along the way. The prime attraction, the Bishnoi villages near Jodhpur. The entire trip planned around it.

The Bishnoi’s love of environment is well known and well documented. They stood up to a Raja’s diktat ordering the felling of trees. The year 1730 when 363 villagers were killed endeavouring to protect trees. Making the ruler retract. At the forefront was Amrita Devi, hugging a tree, proclaiming, “a chopped head is cheaper than a chopped tree.” The episode, the inspiration for today’s ‘Chipko’ movement. Not to forget the more recent killing of a black buck that sent Salman Khan to jail. For Bishnois, environment is everything.

The main villages are Khejarli, Guda, Kankani, Rebari, Salawas and Singhasni. Each known for a particular trade. Inhabited by about 2500 families.

Guda has a lake, home to myriad bird & fowl, the Great Indian Bustard, Brahmi Duck & Siberian Crane among them.

Guda Lake

Khejarli has the martyrs memorial, a tribute to Amrita Devi and her companions. A man-made oasis of green in a landscape of Keekar, Pathar and Kankar. Populated by trees, mainly Neem, Peepul and Bargat, squirrels and birds abound and peacocks strut about vainly. A cool breeze picks up and blows. Bird-calls fill the air.

Step-Well, Old City, Jodhpur

Jaswant Thada, Cenotaphs

Village Kankani

The Khejarli Memorial

Khejarli

A road trip from Delhi to Udaipur. Return by air. Kumbhalgarh and Ranakpur enticingly along the way.

The route should have been – Jodhpur-Ranakpur-Kumbhalgarh-Udaipur – along the national highway but an oversight made me do Kumbhalgarh ahead of Ranakpur. Resulting in a choppy, four hour drive across State Highways. A lucky mistake that took me into the interiors. Inside villages nestling in the lap of the Aravali. The mountain high and mighty. How high, I had quite forgotten.

Kumbhalgarh has the world renowned fort with incredibly long – wide walls. A wonder, no less than the Great Wall. If only it was better managed. I had expected a lot and felt cheated of what could have been a memorable experience. Spending a night there was another mistake. It gets noisy because of visitors who come solely to drink ( Gujarat, next door having banned liquor)

Village Narlai would have made a better stay option.

The Kumbhalgarh Fort

On to Ranakpur and it’s architectural wonder, the 15th century Chaturmukhi Jain Temple in the middle of a forest. It is a lovely drive (90 minutes) through villages with stone huts. Where custard apples grow wild.

It’s impossible to capture the beauty of this wonder in marble. The Derasar has 80 sculpted domes, 446 columns and 1444 intricately carved pillars. There is one without any carving at all. An artistic imperfection to ward off the evil eye. Also, no two pillars are alike.

As in most Jain temples there is a Rayan tree inside. Data apart, what truly touches a chord is the pillar inscribed with Emperor Akbar’s Din- Ilahi. A late 16 century addition.

Ranakpur was a fitting finale to a wonderful trip, ending with the satisfaction of knowing it was worth it.

Entrance to Chaturmukhi temple

Pillar No: 13 Akbar’s ‘Din Ilahi’

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 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
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A thing of beauty
Portuguese Tiles
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12 year old Selvimari

Velankanni

Kolam

I came seeking ‘Our Lady of Good Health’ blessings, curious about the Basilica too.

A pilgrim town of repute, Velankanni has 5 other churches, a temple & a dargah. It is 162 kms, a 3.30 hour drive from Pondicherry. Down the coast, past several historic towns – Cuddalore, Parangipettai, Chidambaram, Poompuhar, Tranquebar –

The place itself is dusty & unremarkable. The beach lovely but – you guessed it – littered. The same old story. The dust & heat kept one indoors throughout the day. Lucky therefore to have found a nice place to stay. The big plus being the leisure of food, rest, sleep & time to enjoy & finish a good read – Taran Khan’s travelogue on Afghanistan.

One ventured out in the cool of the evening but there still was no place to go. Wandering around I chanced upon a village, a panchayat block rather, with thatched huts, clean, paved roads & a river running by. Making for a pretty picture & one-to-one interaction. Language no bar, for in the end, people are people. I was invited into their homes with shy smiles & ‘vanakams

Velankanni is nicely located for a quick dash across to Tanjore & Trichy. Enroute, Vadalur lake had water to the brim & was host to a variety of migratory birds. Tanjore is an absolute must. The grand & impressive Brihadeeswara fort temple is early 11 century, Chola. It has little Nandis atop ramparts and murals on the outer corridors.

I thought the 7 tiered bell tower, topped with a clock, impressive too. This, at the Tanjore palace.

Trichy, next door, also has its ‘must sees’. There is the famous church of course. As well as the Rock Fort Ganesha temple. And the Kaveri – with its old & British era culverts – flowing quietly by.

I did not quite know what to make of Velankanni & the church signifying it. To put into words all that it conveys. Feelings of hope, faith & love. There certainly is an aura about the pearl like Basilica with beautiful stained glass & blue Crosses, visible from every part of town. It is the paraphernalia surrounding it that surprises & enthralls. Visited by people of all faiths, from all over it is a veritable conundrum of custom, belief & ritual. A church going westerner would be utterly flabbergasted.

One walks through milling crowds, past shops selling candles & flowers & everything else. Barbers also, for a sacrificial mundan/tonsure, should you want one. A deadly inter-religious mix that leaves one bewildered.

I visited around Pongal, a Harvest festival common to all. There were crowds in their festive best & a cauldron of Pongal cooking at the doorstep. Decorative Kolams adorned the churchyard where Prasadam was being distributed. Traditional breaking of coconuts, vermilion tilaks & a provision for special Darshan too. What looked like absolute chaos could well be a case of Hindu ethos over shadowing Christian belief or as I’d prefer to think – Indian secularism at its living best.

Strangest of all was the sight of a man blowing out candles the faithful had lit. Un-heeding to our protests & pleas. Making space for more candles perhaps. But that is hardly the way.

Brihadeeswara temple Tanjore
Trichy Church
Rock Fort Trichy
Clock Tower Tanjore
Brihadeeswara Ramparts, Tanjore

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