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

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Denmark

IMG_5783Kronborg Castle

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IMG_5707This colourful street was once a stinking sewer

Goodbye Oslo                               Hello Copenhagen

Nothing like a twist for that extra zing to travel. What better than a voyage by sea? There were flights to Copenhagen, train & bus connections too but this looked to be an interesting option – zara hatke.

 

‘The Pearl’ would sail at 4.30 pm & arrive 17 hours later. I joined the motley crowd around the Skybar on Sun deck. Solo travelers, who clinked glasses as Oslo receded from view, Opera House & traditional wood cabins still clearly discernible on the shore. A soft drizzle accompanied the ship’s passage through the fjord.

‘The Pearl’ was on 11 floors, a floating city with a pulsating life of its own. Sailing the narrow Oresund at 16 knots it had a capacity of 2000 passengers. The cabin small & comfortable, I settled for the night. Next morning was bright & sunny with everyone on deck for a first glimpse of Denmark.

 

Copenhagen again is not a budget destination. It is a compact city, easy to walk or cycle, map in hand. The challenge is to manage time effectively. The Copenhagen card helps, vis a vis transport & access to sites – Euro 77/48 hours. Cycle, DKK 30 rental.

 

The first day was entirely devoted toMalmo(Sweden). An awesome passage via the Oresund link that connects both countries. An experience in itself.

 

I had a booking with Sandeman’s at 10 the next morning. A free – tip based walking tour, 2 hours & half through 6000 years of history. We collected near Dragon fountain, City Hall, Soner the guide bursting with enthusiasm. One of the best in the trade.

 

He walked us through Stroget the oldest & longest pedestrian street in the world. Chok-a-block with designer brands & upscale stores, Stroget connects the City Hall to Kings Square the largest in the city.

Onwards to the area around the new Harbour via a bright, colourful street that was once a sewer. Nyhavn, with gabled houses has history, atmosphere & gastronomical delights. The oldest house # 9 built in 1681 remains unchanged as does #67 purported to belong to Hans C Anderson. Copenhagen started as a fishing village remember. From fishing village to national capital – modern harbour, all thanks to Bishop Absalom.

 

We were lucky to witness the changing of the guard outside Amalienborg palace. The tour perfectly timed to end at Queens Square.

 

On everyone’s wish list, the Little Mermaid can be approached strolling by the Marble church – Queens garden or along the water front. Beautiful options both, on an equally beautiful day. Which is why I have wondered at tourists coming in bus loads for a quick photo – op with Denmark’s beloved maiden. Forgetting she is indeed ‘Little’ many return disappointed while some others have tried to deface & harm her.

With empty churches converted to museums, yoga & play centres 82% non believers now have a new religion; Cycling. Consider this: There are over 400 kms of cycle tracks. There are cycle repair shops. People take pride in the brand they own, the fancy gear & accessories as well as the level of upkeep in much the same way most others do with cars. It is almost a sub culture with young & old alike. Consider yourself lucky if a bicycle never knocked you down. 63% parliamentarians are said to cycle to work. Can another country hope to match this? Denmark has flat terrain but that is not the only reason.

So, how does a nation make a quick & complete turn around & progress? “With laws shalt thou a country rule & make,” says Soner, taking pride in his nation’s history, culture & achievement. It is Europe’s oldest monarchy, has an 800 year old flag & a Crown Prince who is a legit Green beret. If taxes are high these are willingly paid. An investment for the future when health, education & social security continue to be taken care of.

A slow train meanders by little homes & hamlets to stop at Helsingor (45 minutes). One steps off the platform to the ferry & train stations adjacent to one another. Rather a neat arrangement – both terminals on either side of a single platform.

 

A sleepy old town Helsingor is charming none the less, with cafes, boutique hotels & 18th century lanes to aimlessly wander. There is a Carmelite Priory, several medieval monasteries & a harbour that makes for a nice seaside walk. Stretching out on a rock is the male version of the Little Mermaid – Han Estatua – minus the thronging hordes. Strangely enough the Elsinore walk, a self guided city tour does not mention him. Sadly alone & unheard of Han sits gazing out to sea.

Taking centre stage is 16 century Kronborg castle – scene of Shakespeares ‘Hamlet’ – A renaissance castle & Unesco heritage site, Shakespeare can take credit for putting it on the world map. The story goes that a troupe performing ‘Julius Caesar’ at the castle heard the story of the Prince of Denmark. It was narrated to Shakespeare with the plea that he adapt it into a play. And he did, using both Kronborg & Elsinore as backdrop to the tragedy of ‘Hamlet’.

The play is performed everyday from June through August. A live, inter active theatrical experience, it is a must for Shakespeare buffs as is the theatre festival hosted at the castle –  in August once again.. The bard comes alive like never before, attracting theatre aficionados. Rekindling emotions.

 

 

 

 

Randomly ……. ok

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Traveling cross country reinforces a definite impression that the South at least has got its act together. Kerala in particular. Kochy – Munnar – Thekkady –Thiruvanthapuram – Alappuzha – mile upon mile of forest, plantation – sparse population (relatively). The education hurdle was crossed way back in the sixties closing at 100% literacy. Mass emigration followed leading to the Gulf rush & new found prosperity, visible everywhere. Notice the flamboyant houses – size, hue & colour. Infrastructure & super highways that offer zero chance of knocking down stray cattle in this, our very own beef country.

From smog filled Delhi to clear blue Munnar skies & a state wide ‘bandh’ against the entry of women into Sabrimala. It is a fairly peaceful affair with complete business shut down, people – traffic off the roads & driving a pleasure. Going past tea gardens, spice – rubber plantations, forests, dams, waterfalls, river Periyar & the quiet serenity of the backwaters.

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Renji our driver & guide, barely communicates but he is pleasant, well informed & an ex army man to boot.

The State has a large reserve of ex servicemen & they are of two kinds. The Bacchus brigade that believes it has earned the right to endlessly imbibe & the ‘Diehards.’ Veterans putting skills to use, earning a tidy packet. Selvi, the owner of the houseboat we hired was that. Through dint of hard work he had acquired a fleet of 6 houseboats. Considering that each cost over Rs 90 lakhs, this was no mean achievement. He sat us down to banana chips, drinks & a wistful chat making sure his boat departed on time & everything was in order. The Captain was directed to cruise to a certain spot for us to select from the catch of the day. Our sea food dinner, prepared on board. A splendid meal on all counts after which we retired to the comfort of air conditioned rooms, experiencing the backwaters ‘neath star spangled skies. Our boat anchored near paddy fields we were in the company of fire flies, crickets & tadpoles. It was a night to remember. As was the golden dawn.

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Sabrimala devotee

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Mattupetti dam

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Munnar,rolling hills

The days went swiftly by soaking oil massages, cuisine to die for & the arts – Bharatnatyam, Kalari etc – so intrinsic to this land.

There was a shopping list of sorts. Ayurvedic herbs, oils, exotic spices & ‘halwa’, the famous fruit- dry fruit- molasses combine.

Hence, off to the legendary spice markets……

Fort Cochin area has elegance & charm. Also, the aroma of whole & freshly ground spices. Our hike through spice country had been an experience but this was something else. An array of spices greeted the eye. Cinnamon, cardamom, bay leaves, cumin seeds, star anise, vanilla, cloves, ginger, nutmeg & peppers. Peppers, round & elongated. Peppers red, white, black or green. Had no idea such a vast variety existed or that there were 2 kinds of cinnamon. The soft – light variety used in sweets & the thick, hard, dark kind that spiced up curries. Deliciously exhilarating, I could easily have swooned.

The shop keeper, a pro fished out jars full of spice for us to touch, feel & examine. Dive our nose into & inhale. The perfect seller – buyer quid pro quos.

Ahhh! Ahhh!! No word to describe it.

While settling the bill it was like “…..17000? Is it gold I’m buying? Or spices?”

Sudden comprehension dawned in the realisation that this was what had brought the world to our shores & us to our knees. The English, Dutch, French & Portuguese, who  arrived from around the Cape of Good Hope. They conquered, made quick fortunes & disappeared – into the dust bins of history. With new found culinary skills & a rudimentary knowledge of spices one would hope. Or were they merely after that pot of gold?

On this my 4th visit I had once again missed the spectacle of the flowering Neelakurinji. A once-in-12 year occurence, when a carpet of violet- pinky blue covers entire hillsides for the shortest duration – 2 months to be exact. The next flowering would be in 2030 & I may not even be around. In response as if, a tiny little floweret caught the eye. The last of the season. Bidding a lingering farewell.

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The Neelakurinji

Change happens everywhere, every time. Sometimes for the better, needless & distressing otherwise. An ordinary break in continuity, like a change of place names can disorient & bring on a wave of nostalgia. Alas, for the cadence of soft sounding names: Cochin, Trivandrum, Calicut, Alleppy, Quilon. Forever gone. Like the topless old women & little girls in long skirts – half saris. Mundu clad men too, a breed of the past.

If only there was a way of turning back the clock.

PS: Old/ New Kerala hands. Your comments please!

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Nostrovia!!

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Vodka Museum

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Public tea shop

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

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

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

Witness this parody:(courtesy ‘Lev Tolstoy’)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And offered to him with a smile.

All’s well. Naturally.

And Anatole can eat humble pie.

Olgha on Volga

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Happy ever after

Bhutan Mist

On a scale of 10 Bhutan gets a 9

Clean air – water

Clear blue skies

Dense forestation

Sparse population

Sans pollution

Beautiful queen

Gentle people

Getting there in –

Health care – education

Super highways, traffic, roads

No honking. India, please take note.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mt Everest

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Kanchenjunga

So why does Bhutan not score a perfect 10 ?

Minus one. For what?

To be forewarned is forearmed.

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

* INR is legal tender & Hindi a language of currency

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Dochu La

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108 Stupa memorial

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Giant Buddha, Thimphu

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Paro: International cuisine. Chilli cheese – highly reccommended

Gates of Heaven

Kalind Parvat

Yamunotri – Gangotri

May 2-16, 2017

 

Day 1 Delhi – Dehradun

Day 2 Doon – Janakichatti

Day 3 Janakichatti

Day 4 Janakichatti – Hanumanchatti

Day 5 Hanuman chatti – Maneri,Uttarkashi

Day 6 Maneri

Day 7 Maneri – Gangnani – Harsil

Day 8 Harsil – Lanka – Bhaironghati – Gangotri

Day 9 Harsil

Day 10 Harsil – Uttarkashi – New Tehri

Day 11 New Tehri – Rishikesh – Dehra Dun

 

Janakichatti

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

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

 

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

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

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

It becomes the talk of the day.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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 Maneri lake

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

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

 

Bagori

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

 

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

 

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A Bagori knit

 

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

New Tehri.

New ??? Uhh!!

 

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 Tehri Lake & Dam

18519981_10210860107353109_6590158683257839983_n Continue reading

All our yesterdays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An age old opening line –

We’ve met before, haven’t we?

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

Rustomji

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

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

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

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

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

After 3 decades ! 1941 -1974.

Hail fellow, well met!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Out on a limb

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

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

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

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

Leopard & spotted deer were also sighted.

And the call of the Sambar in the wild!

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

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

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

(Which will explain the hazy contours no doubt)

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