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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Pleasure of Hiking

A hiking trail in Moneglia
Hiking on well established trails is an engaging activity and requires little except fitness level , and a bit of will power. On the contrary, trekking is a  more rigorous and challenging activity, mostly on an uncharted route. Most of us love to engage in this except for the lazy bones and 'couch potatoes' who like to sit back and relax or maybe prefer watching the TV instead. 

I remember the times when as a child I would wander off to explore the city and later after joining the Navy, it became an obsession. When I was posted in  Mumbai, every evening I would head for Marine Drive and take a walk for about 10 km in the evening which not only helped in keeping fit, but also, was an engaging pastime to see the life flow in the busy metropolis. Later in Jamnagar and Goa, it helped in exploring places like far off salt pans, bird watching spots, and some lesser frequented beaches. There were times I walked more than 10 km just to return home via a route I had not seen especially in Goa! I almost got lost climbing the wrong hill on a trek to Chandanwadi from Pahalgam, just after my marriage! Fortunately, my wife and I found a shepherd who guided us in the right direction.The trek through Kangra valley, tough terrain of Kinnaur and watching mountain lizards in their natural habitat are some of the most endearing memories. 
Old fortress ruins atop hill overlooking sea
In subsequent years during travels to many places, I hiked on the Alps in Switzerland for more than 15 km through the meadows beyond Zurich, went hunting for the Orange groves in Jaffa along the coastline in Tel Aviv and most recently in Moneglia in Italy.Moneglia, is a small village well connected by TrenItalia which is sparsely populated. The natural beauty of the place locked between the hills and Mediterranean sea offers the most spellbinding views. There are trails that lead to nearby places like Deiva Marina, and Bonassola along the coastline to some arduous ones through Riva Trogoso to Sestri Levante.  Unfortunately, as the time was the most precious resource, I did not want to go beyond 10 km a day so I did take 2 or three trails but more to enjoy the journey than reaching the destination.
Cherries on the way 
The trips were never more than 3 hours at a stretch. This gave me an opportunity to see the huge expanses of Olive groves, pluck the cherries, apples and plums from the trees and enjoy their flavor which is a rare treat. The exotic plants and blooming flowers were a captivating sight.
The garden of a beautiful house on way
Of and on, around the bends the views of the sea, the church spires and small houses perched atop the hill  were fascinating. I came across some houses of the local villagers where I wished I could stay forever.
The juicy lemons!
The Fresh produce market in Moneglia
Thankfully, my family supports me in these silly endeavors and join me too! I find  hiking extremely rewarding in terms of experiences and building stamina and resilience. It also offers a first hand knowledge of the locals, their culture, ways of working, and their friendly ways.The fresh produce markets are always a delight to see

Friday, June 23, 2017

A Dream called Cinque Terre


The train left the La Spezia station and within ten minutes entered a tunnel which was fairly long. As it sped out in daylight, at the other end what I saw left me agape. The crystal blue sea and sky met the mountain in a never before spectacle. The small boats moored alongside added to the picture postcard setting. I had waited for months ever since the trip had been planned for such sights and more! Within a couple of minutes the train once again vanished into a long tunnel. In the entire journey lasting almost an hour till I reached Moneglia, a small sleepy village, the train crossed more than a dozen such tunnels and each time emerged with a more spectacular setting.

The quiet village of Moneglia
The Italian Riviera, or the Cinque Terre region is not just a jagged coastline on the Ligurian  region of Italy, but the most endearing set of five villages adorning the pearl like formation on a necklace, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. These five fishing villages were once isolated hamlets, but are now well connected by a narrow highway and an excellent train connection. The region has maintained its authenticity and beauty of small houses clinging to the hillsides with trails which are extremely rich in flora and fauna.

After reaching Moneglia, our hostess Silvia and her daughter picked us up from the small station to take us to our temporary abode. The tiny village with a huge expanse of beach was as inviting as the tall trees that swayed when we checked in.The fresh mowed grass and the green shrubs with locks of lavenders elevated the spirits after a long journey.

A view of Riomaggiore
Next morning we left for Levanto by train from Moneglia.Here we bought tickets for two days of unlimited rides by trains, that connect the five villages (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia,Vernazza, Monterosso)  buses to national parks, free wifi etc. The first stop was Riomaggiore, the first village of the 5terre region, where via Colombo is the scene of action where most of the major cafes, sea food restaurants, gelateria and fruit shops are located.The entry to the small village is through a long well lit tunnel, where the locals play music. A steep climb brings close to an old church, an ancient castle and a lovely view point perched atop a hill. There is a small jetty by the harbor side where the fishing boats are parked. At night these fishermen explore the sea for anchovy that are very popular in this region.

Pesto Pizza and Focaccia
In the afternoon, we headed for La Spezia a small town by another train and had a lovely lunch at a local pastisseria of pesto pizza, focaccia and farinata.

The pretty Manarola perched atop a hill
Our next destination was Manarola , a sleepy village lined with many colorful boats.The place has several places to swim, explore the caves and lovely trails leading to other smaller villages. There is a long flight of stairs from almost atop the hill all the way to sea level, lined with small restaurants overlooking the sea where people throng to have a lunch.We explored the place for a while and then headed to Vernazza to spend the rest of the day.

Vernazza , beach and clock tower
Vernazza has a maze of tiny streets that eventually lead to the main street.It has a boisterous street that becomes very lively as the sun sets and there is a small beach and two clock towers here.A bigger beach is a little distant called Guvano, a haven for nude swimmers!

As the day was ending we boarded the train to Moneglia and witnessed a first amphibian plane landing on the sea and taking off from water , truly  a James Bond movie style,while we enjoyed the train ride.

A narrow street in Corniglia
Next day,once again we left Moneglia and headed directly to Corniglia which lies midway between the five villages.A short bus ride on the steep climb on a road lined with lemon trees and their sweet fragrance, brought us to the centre of this very quiet and quaint village.One can have a spectacular view of the five villages from a view point facing the glittering blue Mediterranean Sea.

The beach at Levanto
We then headed to Levanto by a train for lunch.It was a very rewarding trip as we discovered a  very cute eating place brimming with people and amazing food. A short walk from place was a huge beach full of people , where I  succumbed to the temptation to swim as I was carrying my swimming gear! This was an unscheduled stop but very enjoyable.

Mesmerizing beauty of Monterosso beach
We then headed to the last stop Monterroso which has miles of beach divided between the old and new township.The new township has a lovely sandy beach and modern apartments where as the old township has an old church of St John and an old castle. The streets are lined with places to  eat and selling antiques. The beach was full of people so yet another trip to sea was inevitable!

The lively beach of Bonassola
After an action packed day, I took a long train ride to Riomaggiore one more time before a final stop at Bonassola, a small town wedged between the mountains and the sea.The place is close to Levanto and has one of the finest beaches in the Ligurian region.

The view with a setting sun was a grand finale to a dream like holiday in Cinque Terre. The long walks in Moneglia exploring olive groves, having a bite of freshly plucked cherries and plums and amazing views of the sea , visiting  Santa Margherita Ligure, Portofino, and Sestri Levante would need another post!

PS- Image of the map kind courtesy Google but rest of the pictures are taken by self

Monday, June 19, 2017

A Tale of Lost Bags


How many times have you lost your baggage while traveling?

Not a very nice question to ask, but then some of us do face this once in a while and what follows next depends on the outcome in immediate future that follows.

On my recent trip to Italy, it happened, and despite all precautions what I could possibly take. Before I come to this episode, I would like to share the one which was a little less disastrous. Quite a few years back, I arrived in Paris from Amsterdam and was informed that my baggage had not reached. It was a winter month, so but for a thin jacket that was my shield, I had no protection. After lodging a complaint, I went to the hotel and since it was morning time, after checking in,I decided to explore the city, as brooding in the hotel room would hardly help. So I took off and went around the city and being the first visit to the city, everything looked very pretty, except for the freezing cold weather! Towards the evening, I reached Eiffel  Tower and purchased the ticket to climb to the top. The view was fabulous with neon lit streets, the boats full of merry makers astride boats on the adjacent Seine,even the tower dazzled in the illumination. Gosh! it was really cold on the top so after a while I climbed down and returned to the hotel. I had the most pleasant surprise to find my bag in the room which the airlines had located, and delivered to the hotel, bringing an end to the misery.

Not this time as on arrival in Rome , coincidentally from Amsterdam yet another time, the entire bag was missing, but for the hand bags. This time I was with my family, so the setback was bigger! The same evening, we were to board a train to Florence, from the Roma Termini station , so the anxiety was doubled. After lodging the complaint, we headed to the Roma Termini  to take the train. There was still some time for the train to leave so we made a few quick purchases to mitigate the situation created by the loss of bags! An urgent purchase of SIM card was necessitated as now we had to follow up with the airlines too!

The train arrived and with just a few handbags we boarded the ride to Florence.As the sun sets late by 9 PM we got a glimpse of the lovely towns of Orvieto, Arezzo located in the Tuscany region. A glimpse of the quiet flowing River Tiber, the verdant countryside tried to lift our spirits and by the time the train entered the sprawling Florence city, we almost forgot about the incident. We checked in the room our temporary abode for next  three nights . My spare night suits came to the rescue and we dozed off after a bite.

The next  three days it became a routine to follow up with the airlines as we kept exploring the marvels of Medici's and Michelangelo's city. We spent hours appreciating the art of some of the greatest sculptors and painters at the Uffizi Museum and Galleria dell Accademia. The creations of Michelangelo, Bernini, Lippi, Leonardo di Vinci,Raphael, Botticelli and many others left us spellbound with its sheer beauty and depth. Even the unfinished works of Michelangelo that adorn the Galleria are marvellous. The remaining time was spent admiring the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio, Ponte Vecchio, the Cathedral and several other attractions.

The little time in between was devoted to finding some more daily essentials for our minimalist existence and following up with the airlines who kept assuring that it would reach us the next day. In fact it became  a celebration time for my family to indulge in some shopping at Mango, Zara and other leading brands which was not on the agenda . One man's sorrow became other's delight!On the last evening in Florence I got a call from the transporter that he will deliver the next morning which was not agreeable as we were to depart for next destination Moneglia by the morning train. With a little more patience and deliberation he agreed to deliver the bags next afternoon in Moneglia.

The next morning, with just hand bags and a few more additions we reached Santa Maria Novella station of Florence. The journey to the small village of Moneglia in the Ligurian region deserves another post as the train passes through some breathtaking views besides Pisa Centrale, through tiny towns of La Spezia, dozens of tunnels in Cinque Terre before arriving at Moneglia. Our hostess Silvana with her pretty daughter awaited us at the station and took us to our temporary abode for next one week. She gave us the good news that the transporter would arrive with our bags in an hour and so did he!

We had got accustomed to our handbags to to an extent that for our next train trip we wished the airlines guy reappears to take care of our bags so that we travel with just handbags and he delivers our bigger bags at the hotel door step. The lesson learnt on the trip was that one must carry at least two pairs of change in handbags especially when traveling by air, keep patience, be ready to exceed the budget and above all enjoy the planned itinerary without getting flustered as otherwise a good holiday could become a nightmare

PS Image Kind Courtesy Google

Friday, June 9, 2017

Eatly- Try you must

                                                         TriScalini Gelato-Rome
Traveling to a foreign destination is always thrilling and when it comes to food what better destination than Italy. Food is synonymous to the culture, art, history and splendid man made and god's creations in Italy, to the extent that people fondly refer it to as- Eatly!

My tryst with food in Italy goes back to many years ago. In childhood it was the friendly Nirula's in the foyer of the now extinct Chanakya theatre in the heart of  New Delhi! The pizzas dished out were yummy and could not find many places that made pizzas better! Little did I know that I would have a good fortune of traveling to the birth place a couple of times.

 In early 1980s I passed through Rome and had a bite of Pizza at the airport and it tasted good. A little later in late 1990s the first trip to Milan gave me an opportunity to taste Ravioli , Polenta and Minsterone soup and a few more dishes in the company of office friends! The food was as great as the Duomo in the vicinity adding to the charm!

On subsequent trips to Genoa, Padova and Venice the best food was the one available at roadside eateries dishing out pasta, spaghetti, pesto(Genoa is the birthplace of Pesto)  and different desserts.The wood fired ovens prepare the best pizzas,breads and focaccias.

Imagine , I traveled all the way to Naples on the last trip just to eat the pizzas prepared at the famous Pizzeria Del Presidente at via Tribunali, which has hosted many a dignitaries including President  Reagan.

My current trip to explore the little towns an villages in the Ligurian region has perhaps been the most rewarding one. Staying in Moneglia, a small village, I got to taste the freshest breads, buns, focaccias, torts, cakes, tarts and so on. A morning walk would invariably end up at the Panificio Marco Castellucchio, located just a 100m away from my place of stay. The fragrance of the fresh baked products would drift to trigger the taste buds in a manner that I would head to the place as if a magnet attracts the opposite pole. The taste of fresh olive oil in focaccias, amazing spinach and potato torts would linger all day .The cakes, tarts, biscotti and the works prepared would make it difficult to not let the eyes feast , as eating so many was a tough proposition!

In smaller towns like La Spezia, Levanto in Cinque Terre region the Bruschetta, Farnitas,different breads and pastas are mind blowing. The smaller the pizzeria the more crowded it is , the better is the taste!This, I learnt by hunting in alleys and by lanes and not being carried away by fancy advertisements.

At the final stop in Rome, I just discovered two more gems, TreScalini a small restaurant in Piazza Novino that serves a signature gelato prepared by 13 varieties of chocolate which is sinful indulgence. The master craftsman has been serving this since 1946 and is unbeaten.

A cup of coffee is what one desires after all this lovely food and a perfect answer lies at Casa Del Cafe which blends the best coffee from the water from aqueducts of Rome and  coffee seeds roasted to perfection.The shop is in existence since 1946 near Pantheon.

My only worry after all the lovely food is how to check the waistline! Even the yoga gurus that visit Italy, let it go once in Italy, so lesser mortals like me who melt at the sight of good food find it difficult to resist the gluttony


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Singinawa-A Date with the Nature


There was a shrill call of the ‘crying deer’ and a hush fell. The naturalist who was accompanying us informed that we were close to the ‘tiger’, and if lucky, could spot one. Soon enough, our jeep converged near a water body, where a tiger majestically lay in the water beating the summer heat. In a while, its young cub crawled out of the bushes to join his mother in the swim. It was a priceless moment! You guessed it right, the scene was at Kanha Tiger Reserve,

Singinawa Jungle Lodge
About Singinawa
Most of the visitors come to just have a glimpse of the ‘tiger’. However, the region abounds in art, culture and is a bird watching paradise.  Welcome to Singinawa! A hamlet spread over an area of 110 acres that has many treats to offer. 
A bird perching in the morning
Singinawa offers a world class accommodation.with beautifully appointed cottages, lapped in luxury of the art and culture of the region and yet modestly priced.The excellent hospitality of the knowledgeable and friendly staff will bowl anyone over. A brief tour of the sprawling premises that has 18 cottages in the afforested area, an organic farm. a swimming pool a Spa walks next to the buffer zone of the forest area. is a delight. 
A Spotted Deer
The Tiger Safari
An early morning, safari to the Tiger Reserve in the company of knowledgeable Naturalists will help in understanding about the wildlife better. The safari starts at 5 am at Mukki or Khatia, the two main entry points. Mukki gate is more convenient from Singinawa. The bumpy ride on the narrow dusty roads provides a wonderful opportunity to spot the Barasingha, Spotted deer, Bison, Gaur and of course –the tiger! The gates close by 11 AM, 
The Baiga Dancers
A Village Experience
In the evening, an exploration to nearby villages, like Lagma, provide a vivid glimpse of the lives of Baiga tribes.Here their simple lifestyles are well preserved. The art of brewing ‘Mahua’(a local wine) from the extract of Mahua flowers, can be witnessed.The locals are fond of body tattoos. The beat of drums and a traditional dance is a perfect way to end the day.
An Ant Weavers Nest
Bird Watching 
Next morning, an appointment with the ‘bird watching’ naturalist is a must! This experience affords travelers to learn about the calls and cries of different bird species, spot some rare birds in their natural habitats and ‘shoot them' with cameras’. Over 300 specimens of birds, both resident and migratory, ranging from the Green bee eater, White-throated Kingfisher to Black Drongos grace these environs. It is also not unusual to spot simians, rare spider webs,  Ant weavers nest, and rabbits on their walks!
A local artist Manoj displays An Eye of a Tiger, painting by charcoal
The Local Artists 
Another experience not to be missed is watching local artists displaying their artistic skills of charcoal or 'Gond ' paintings.These artists excel in the art and use mostly organic colors and brushes made of old newspaper cones. 
A sleepy Night Jar spotted during the Night Safari
An Evening and A Night Safari
 A nocturnal safari to the Kanha forest to catch a glimpse of animals that prefer to show themselves after sunset is recommended. Singinawa is the only resort that can take the visitors for a ‘Night Safari’. The buffer zone of the forest can be explored by night to witness the eerie silence, punctuated by a hum of cicadas, a rustle of animals prying on the dead leaves, or many eyes glittering in the dark..The sighting of owls, fruit bats and some rare birds like the ‘Night Jar’is not uncommon.
The Gond Art at the Museum
Singinawa Attractions and Museum
A lesson in meditation, indulging spa, cycle on the premises,well-stocked library, videos on wildlife or a swim in the beautiful pool are other options available to spend the time. Nestled in the premises of Singinawa, Kanha Museum of Life and Art houses a rare collection of art and artifacts of the Gond region.This gem is curated by Dr. Alka Pande, a renowned cultural theorist.
A beautiful Gond painting at the Museum
Singinawa supports the cause of promoting the local arts and protecting the environment. Each visitor is given an opportunity to plant a sapling before he leaves.These experiences will only strengthen the resolve to come back to revisit the place for the rare treats it offers.
Acknowledgements
1 Grateful thanks to Tulika Kedia, MD, Singinawa Jungle Lodge and Philippa Kaye of Indian Experiences for their support in making this trip possible
2. Picture of tiger, kind courtesy David Raju, a well-known Naturalist serving in Singinawa

Monday, May 8, 2017

Friendly Stranger in Geneva

Jet d'eau fountain in Geneva
It was a cold morning as I stepped out onto the balcony of the 6th floor of the Hotel Central, located in the midst of the Old City of Geneva. The previous evening we had landed from Berne.The distant Alps with snow clad peaks looked beautiful. Our breakfast was delivered in the room sharp at 8.30 AM. Armed with all the information provided by the pretty girl at the reception we stepped out. The morning rush hour had begun as we arrived at the Bel Air  bus stop near the hotel. We waited for a tram to take us to Saleve in the direction of Vernier Covane. Mont Saleve is a tourist attraction in French territory from where one can have a panoramic view of France/ Switzerland and the return trip is about 70 km. I tried to take direction from a man who spoke only German.He told us to get on the tram which he also boarded. He got off after a while and told us to follow him. He then brought out a car after the bend and told us to hop in. We were a little concerned with this overtly kind gesture as I enquired if he was a taxi driver. He waved his hand saying no he was not as he started his car. He drove for about 10 minutes before stopping his car near a house. A lady appeared from the house along with this man and spoke in fluent English. She queried as to where we wanted to go and laughed when her husband explained that we mistook him to be a taxi driver. She then informed us that her husband would take us up to Saleve and will drop us back to the tram station. This was the best help we got!!

I was now convinced that there was some divine force at work in Geneva since I had recovered my lost mobile phone the previous day. We thanked them both profusely. The kind gentleman showed us around Saleve. The panoramic view of Geneva and Lake Geneva was unforgettable from Saleve.  After about an hour and a half, he dropped us at the tram station in the city. We could enjoy a nice trip which we had contemplated only previous night in the company of a total stranger was a sure sweet encounter!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Traboules of Lyon


We meandered through the cobbled streets of Vieux( Old) Lyon in France in search of the’ Traboules’ as droplets of rain descended from the heavens. It was a bit cold although, the flavor of the velvety ice cream at the Nardone (one of the best ice cream in the town) had still not left the taste buds. The old Saint-Jean church provided a temporary shelter as we stood on the archway, ‘wishing rain, rain go away…”. After a little shower, the weather cleared and we looked around for the elusive Traboules!

Then we chanced upon one, as we walked a little distance. The word ‘traboule’ is a corruption of the Latin,trans-ambulare', or to ‘pass through’. Between the courtyards and through buildings, secret alleyways, staircases, and passages, these provided a safe and efficient passage to the silk workers of that era, to get their wares unhindered to and from the market. Many of these secret passages worm through several buildings, forming secret passageways. These were built in the 4th century, to allow direct access to town’s fresh water source, then the long winding streets provided. At one time there were more than 400 of these around the old city of which now only about 40 are open to the general public to visit. The ones open to the public have a seal outside the gate, while those that are private and inaccessible are generally behind the locked doors. In the 1990’s the Lyon Department of Urban Planning, started restoration and maintenance to encourage the visitors to have a glimpse of these.

Around the 1830s there was about 25000 silk looms around the city of Lyon. Most of the silk weavers would meet at these ‘traboules’ or the courtyards. These workers rose for a rebellion when their existence was at stake due to the advent of new technology, extortionist merchants, and economic uncertainties. They picked up the weapons to get better wages. Their indefatigable spirit of ‘live free working or die fighting’ is all evident in the stories that abound.

Going through the Traboules is an unforgettable experience as one goes through the narrow alleyways and staircases sometimes even dungeons and very small cramped rooms. A new world of Gothic galleries, ancient wells, fountains, staircases, and wells opens up as one goes around these miracles of medieval engineering. Since most of these ‘traboules’ are private properties, one is expected to maintain decorum and not to create noise, while exploring them.


During the Second World War, these taboule's provided a perfect escape and hiding place to the soldiers to escape the terror unleashed by the ‘Gestapo’. They provided a perfect getaway from the German raids, and safe passage  and shortcuts to give the pursuant a slip. 
The Longest Traboule

La Longue Traboule is the longest one in the town. There are conducted tours too, but with a little bit of detective work by identifying shield shaped bronze plaques, one can find these in the Vieux Lyon area. The effort and discovery of one is a thrilling experience that gets embedded in the memory for all times to come.

PS- All pictures are mine.