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Monday, August 19, 2019

The Miracle of Dunkirk

The Gare de Dunkerque Railway Station

Never had I ever imagined that one day I would be able to see the place Dunkirk! A couple of years back, Christian Nolans' award-winning film ' Dunkirk', which I had seen, left a lasting impression. The landmark evacuation of British and French armed forces cornered and outnumbered by the advancing German army (from 26 May to 4 June 1940 ) happened on this coastal town of France. It is near the Belgian border, just a few kilometres away. It was a dream come true to stand on the same seashore almost 79 years later.

The journey started from the city of Lille Flanders, where I had landed the previous evening. The train journey from Rotterdam via the pretty towns of Antwerp, Ghent and Courtrai was an amazing experience. The revelation that Anvers is nothing but Antwerp occurred just ten minutes before we were to disembark to change trains at Antwerp. All along while reading the EU Rail timetable, Anvers( French name) was indicated as the station for a change! It is remarkable how the names and spellings change for towns, as we travel from one country to another in Europe.  I wish, I had more time to see the quirky fascinating city of  Ghent which we passed by and had power to the allure with its charm of canals and gothic church spires in silhouette.
The harbour of Dunkirk
On arrival at Lille, I had thought it to be a small town which I had passed by a couple of years back while travelling from London to Paris by Eurostar. I learnt that this city is the fourth largest in France and is on the Northen tip of the country. The city has so much to offer that I will need a separate post to dwell on its history and beautiful experiences.
St Eloi Belfry Tower
The journey to Dunkirk which is about 80 km from Lille Flanders commenced in the morning. It took about an hour and fifteen minutes to reach Dunkirk( spelt as Dunkerque in French) passing through the little towns of Armentieries, Hazebrouck, Cassel and Bergues. Dunkirk rail station has huge plaques that highlight the history of the evacuation that occurred during WW2 in this small town. A pleasant surprise awaited us, as we stepped out of the station that the city provides 'Free Bus Service'  for travel from any part of the town. The strong and icy winds from the North Sea greeted us as we moved towards the city. The imposing tall St Eloi Belfry Tower looked grand from a distance. It is one of the most beautiful buildings.
Church Eglise Saint Eloi

 A 450-year-old Gothic Church Eglise Saint Eloi stands across the road on Belfry in all the glory.
The bullet marks on the walls of the church
It still has the bullet marks that it faced during the WW2, though the structure is restored. A walk around the harbour was pleasant. Little Elisabeth(ship) which was used in the evacuation of soldiers is berthed here, besides the several sail ships moored adds to the beauty of the place. Nearby is a cemetery of graves of the soldiers who lost their lives during the evacuation and gun battle.
Operation Dynamo Museum
We then headed to the War Museum located close to the East Mole and the evacuation beaches in Bastion 32. The War Museum gives an insight into the 'Operation Dynamo', the codename for the evacuation of 338000 British and French soldiers during WW2, biggest in the war history
A replica of a nurse serving during Operation Dynamo
The canons, arms, ammunition, uniforms worn by the soldiers, even the aircraft that were flown and their remains, war maps, and photos are well preserved in the museum. They create the environment to transport the onlooker back to the period
Remains of an aircraft shot down over Dunkirk
It is a moving experience to witness the bygone era where hundreds lost their lives and many managed to survive.
The Bray-Dunes
Another bus ride to the Bray-Dunes (17km from Dunkirk ) was the last destination. A 30-minute drive is full of excitement as the bus traverses through the thick foliage of trees lined along the coastline. The  Bray-Dunes is the site from where most of the evacuation was carried out.
WW2 Memorial at the Bray-Dunes

 A memorial has been erected at the site that overlooks the sprawling blue sea. Hundreds of boats of all kinds had landed along the coastline to execute the "Operation Dynamo' to evacuate the stranded soldiers who literally faced the devil on one end(German forces) and the deep blue sea (the English Channel)at the other. Churchill in his famous speech of 4 June1940 'we shall fight on the beaches' hailed this operation as a 'miracle of deliverance'.
At Dunkerque
It had been an engrossing day. The pride of having visited a historical site of a major  'Naval Operation' for an ex-Navy man like me is difficult to express. The return journey to Lille was uneventful but the lasting memories of Dunkirk will stay forever

PS- All Pictures are mine. Will take you around Lille the birthplace of General De Gaulle in my next blog post.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Building Nation


A day to take pride in,
 as tricolour unfurls everywhere
Hundreds of sacrifices 
  many a life laid threadbare
No easy task it was
 to attain freedom from naysayers
  Yet, today we stand
 At  crossroads between hope and despair

Its time to rise above pettiness,
       Clear overhang, an air of gloom
To build a strong nation
      Work honestly, to see it bloom
We have the right skills, learn more
     Have steely resolve and a strong will
Let's  rededicate sincere efforts
    To conquer many more hills.

PS Image Kind Courtesy Google

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Story of Chocolates



Some amazing creations of Casa Nobile-Bern
I am yet to come across someone who does not like chocolates. A single sweet that is universally loved and cuts across all the barriers of age, sex, religion, geography or any other. With the passage of time, the appeal of chocolates has only grown.

Some more chocolates!
It all began in Latin America where the Cacao trees grow wild and the first people who perhaps used the chocolates were Olmec or Mexico as known today. This was around 1000 BC and later the Mayans who lived in the region from 250-900 AD used chocolates extensively. Cacao beans were used as a currency for the longest times and 10 beans could buy a prostitute! The most rampant use of cacao was in drinks and not as solids. Aztecs who came after the Mayans continued to love the cacao as a drink but introduced a variant as a cold brew. Spaniards were the first Europeans who learnt to use the cacao beans for making chocolates as a health food and medicine.

The credit for the first chocolate goes to Englishman Joseph Fry in the 1850s who made the first solid chocolate using cocoa butter, cocoa powder and sugar. In 1875 Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle added condensed milk to the above chocolate bar to produce the first-ever milk chocolate bar. In 1875 Rudolph Lindt invented conch, the machine that rotated and spun the concoction to a silky smooth consistency. The factory still stands in Bern, next to the Bear Pit which I was fortunate to visit.

The first factory of Lindt chocolates in Bern- Faded signs can still be read
By 1907 Milton Hershey's factory was producing 33 million kisses per day. To learn more you can read (https://facts-about-chocolate.com/chocolate-history/)

The chocolates have come a long way since and some of the best chocolate factories and artisan chocolates are made in Europe especially in Switzerland, Belgium, France, Netherlands and in the USA too! A list of these was compiled by National Geographic(https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/intelligent-travel/2012/12/28/the-10-best-chocolatiers-in-the-world/)

I had visited the chocolate factory of Nestle ( Callier) in Broc, in Switzerland which is a rare treat. You can read this post on one of my old blog(http://www.rahulsblogandcollections.com/2013/09/a-swiss-reverie.html). It is an unforgettable experience to take a ride in the chocolate train from Gruyere to Broc before witnessing the unfolding of creation of amazing chocolates at the factory and tasting by the mouthful.
Casa Nobile in Bern

The creators of the chocolates are artisans who make some of the best treats and keep the recipes as secrets which are handed down the generations. During the recent visit to Bern, one such well-known creator in Bern that I came across was Casa Nobile. They can create chocolate exclusively for you including the aroma and texture as desired, bringing the customer expectation to a new level, a sweet tie customer loyalty.

Alluring treats at the shop
Their own creations and wrapping of chocolates with exclusive designs are mind-blowing. Great importance is attached to the raw materials with a clearly defined denomination of origin, ecological, economic and social aspects. The incomparable hay milk couverture is the ingredient of most seductive creations that melt in the mouth with a mere stroke of tongue in the mouth. The place is also a perfect location for a family treat, or a corporate workshop to witness the experience and emotion of creation of exclusive chocolates, sparking a passion.
The mouth-watering packaging

Away from the hustle-bustle of the busy shopping street, chocolate lovers will have their sweet dreams come true. It is a small paradise for chocolate lovers and has been ranked as number one in the Choco Guide 2018.

The desire to keep digging into luscious chocolates will hopefully take me to new destinations to taste the god's own creations in those places in future too.....

PS All pics are mine



Monday, July 15, 2019

A Dreamy Swiss village-Murten/Morat

The pretty little town Murten/Morat

Seldom does one come across such an abundance of prettiness. Murten is a short train ride of about 40 minutes from Bern, the capital of Switzerland, via Kerzers, another small hamlet. The lush green fields, famous Swiss cows grazing the fields with nonchalance, winding rivulets and clear blue skies greet the approaching visitors. On arriving at the tiny train station of Murten, do not be surprised to see the two names on the hoarding at the station as MURTEN/MORAT. It was a little baffling, but after a bit of research, I learnt that Murten is the German name whereas Morat is the French name. It is one of the municipalities that are predominantly German-speaking  ( 75%) and the rest minor majority speak French. The little place is wedged between Bern and Lausanne. The city has a population of just 4000 odd people and with very little activity.
A replica of the Swiss cow

The place got its name from the Celtic word 'Moriduno' which means 'lakeside fortress'. The freshness of the air and the sparkling greenery all around is overwhelming. The place can be traversed on foot and that is what we precisely did. It is one of the only places in  Switzerland where the entire place can be covered by foot
Multihued flowers everywhere

A short walk from the train station brought us to a short climb with a beautiful facade of multicoloured flowers. As we climbed atop, a magnificent panoramic view of the shimmering silver lake Morat ( also known as lake Murten) awaited us.
Arcaded Houses( A Police Post!)

The tiny houses that surrounded it and distant sailboats added to the beauty. A town wall( Ringmauer) encircles the town protectively, which was built to resist the attackers. Murten also offers plenty of opportunities to trek, sail, row, windsurf, canoe and angling too. There are lovely cycle tracks to explore the adjacent countryside The slopes of nearby Mont Vully are famous for vineyards
The Castle

The little town has cobbled streets crammed with arcaded houses, with a 13th-century castle at one end, and Berntor, City Gate at the other end. There is a German Church dating back to 1399. The streets of the Old town has pretty eating places where one can indulge in coffee, bruschetta topped with spiced herbs and cakes!
The Berntor

At the end of the Berntor, a walk down to the lake just about 500m away is rewarding. The old buildings stand on one side and old women peering out of the windows make it difficult to distinguish who is older of the two!
The Wooden Peacock

By the side of the walk, one can see wooden peacocks carved out of oak. The quiet lapping of the waves from the lake adds to all prevailing calm which is interrupted only with a chirp of birds and swaying of tall trees.
A tiny market

The two main streets the Rathausgasse and Hauptgasse are linked and atop the Rathausgasse is a small garden that overlooks the lake. The small houses lined along the lake appear to have the magical fairyland appearance with multi-hued flowers spreading their fragrance all around.
Lovely flower decoration in a garden at Rathausgasse

After encircling the lake we had covered the entire town and were back at the railway station. A tiny place like Murten was like a small gift-wrapped parcel that we had opened after a long day at Bern exploring its beauty. It was perhaps one of the best birthday gifts trips which had commenced in the early morning at Basel, onwards to Bern and culminating at Murten/ Morat. A post on exploits in Bern would follow.

PS: All pictures are mine.
2. Next week we head to a new destination,Bern


















Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Awesome Gingerbreads and Beauty of Strasbourg

Ile River flowing through Strasbourg

Food lovers, I am sure you have tasted so many delicious things in life, but when it comes to Gingerbread, you have travel far literally to get the best bite! Frankly, I was not even aware that such a thing exists in Strasbourg, in France till I arrived there. Before we take a bite for an out of the world experience, I would like to tell about the beautiful place Strasbourg.
Gare Du Strasbourg- Station
Our generous host at Basel had arranged the Basel Pass for us that facilitated the travel within the city. On the previous evening, I had read that The Church of Notre Dame at Strasbourg has an Old Astronomical Clock which can be seen in action every morning at 12 O' clock by arranging a pass in advance from the Presbytere( Clergy) at the Church. So, I dropped in the mail before boarding the train from SBB station at Basel. The next halt about 10 minutes later was St Louis a border town between France and Switzerland. A pretty little station where another SNCF( French Railways) train awaited on the other side of the platform left sharp at 10:28 AM. It went past the gorgeous scenic views and small train stations of Mulhouse Ville, Colmar and Selestat before arriving at the sprawling station of Gare de Strasbourg. As we stepped outside, we were impressed by the glass dome that encapsulated the train station. The city is the official seat of European Parliament and an important town of the historic region of Alsace. It was a warm day as we strolled out in the direction of The Church of Notre Dame( or Cathedral of Our city of Strasbourg), following the signs from the station.
Cathedral of Our City of Strasbourg
The busy streets were crowded and overflowing with tourists, due to a long weekend. The aroma from coffee shops was overpowering and filled the air. We then sighted the huge Gothic structure of the cathedral also called as Strasbourg Munster. In the words of Victor Hugo, it is a 'gigantic and delicate marvel'. At 142m the bell tower surmounted with a spire was the tallest structure in the world for 227 years from 1647 to 1874. The milling crowds around the building and overflowing coffee and curio shops around the square were an indication of its popularity. As the doors opened, we made way inside the huge portal and were struck by its magnificence and beauty. The cathedral was struck with American and British bombs on 11 Aug 1944 as the WW2 drew to a close, inflicting heavy damage to it and close by structures. The stained glass windows, artistic work on pillars, tapestries ornate decor and the Astronomical Clock are spellbinding beauty.
The Astronomical Clock inside the Cathedral
The Astronomical Clock dates from 1843 and has a perpetual calendar, a planetary dial, that displays the positions of the Sun, the Moon and eclipses. The main attraction is the procession of 18 figures of the Christ and apostles every day at mid-noon.

The Palais Rohan, the former residence of the prince- bishops and cardinals is at a short distance from the cathedral. It reflects the long history of the place and is a cultural landmark.
Petite France
The city is strewn with delightful places, structures and churches. Petit France, also known as Tanner's Quarters (Quartier des Tanners) is a very popular World Heritage Site of the Old Town. It is situated on the Rue Grand Ile-a quaint picturesque neighbourhood with canals crisscrossing, narrow stone-cobbled streets, medieval buildings and cute charming bridges.
The beautiful canals in Petit France
It was once home to Tanners workshops, millers and fishermen. It smelled of dirt and grime and was an ugly place. Today, there are several swanky restaurants, that serve Alsatian cuisines. Two prominent churches in this area are Saint Thomas and Saint Pierre Le Vieux Church.
Pain 'D'Epices- Mirelle Oster- A world class bakery


Pain 'D'Epices- Mirelle Oster
Just as you come to Rue des Dentelles, the aroma of freshly baked gingerbread accosts you. Right in front is Pain'D'Epices, Mireille Oster, the famous bakery that is not to be missed. The gingerbread baked here takes to another level as the blended butter, anise, cinnamon, honey and other spices added in the gingerbread melt in the mouth leaving a lingering flavour of spices long after they are gone.
The beautiful city-Strasbourg
A walk past Grand Ile an island in the middle of the city centre, a world heritage site and Place Kleber the huge square filled with cafes and shops on way back to the station brought a very rewarding day to an end. It was interesting to find graffiti adorning the wall with  a caricature of Lord Ganesh
A Graffiti on the wall of Strasbourg
We boarded the train back for the return journey and enjoyed the French countryside as it flashed past till we could sight the twinkling lights of Basel. There was still so much more to see but the time run out, Sigh!!

PS: 1. All pictures were taken by me.
2. Next week I will continue with the Tour of Europe with a new destination

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Delightful Old Town - Basel

The Rathaus
As you step out of the tram at the Marketplatz, a huge red coloured building which is imposing and even at this early hour you can see a flock of tourists craning their necks to admire the structure. It is the Market Square of Basel, an old town in Switzerland, which is a lesser explored place compared to Jungfrau, Interlaken and other touted destinations. The Red Coloured building is the Town Hall that has stood since the 14th century and once a corn market used to flourish here. It is also known as the 'Rathaus' or the Council Hall, though it sounds like the Red House. It has such vivid colours and gold cast engravings that one gets transported to an era when a queen may peer out from one of the huge windows. It has a Golden Tower with a clock. There are three patron figures on the clock. As you step into the big courtyard after crossing the huge gate, Gothic style archways and windows and a  statue of Lucius Munatius Plancus, the founder of the Roman City of Augusta Raurica( 10 km from Basel) welcomes the visitors. The Town Hall was built in Neo-Gothic and Neo-Renaissance style 500 years ago.
Mittlere Brucke
A short walk from the Rathaus brings you to Eisengasse and Lallekonig, where till the 19th century one could hear the noise of the blows of iron smith's hammers. The place overlooks the Rhine river, where a bridge now stands. Lalle means 'the Tongue '. A mask once stood here that showed its tongue and rolled his eyes to the onlookers. It is now kept in the History Museum. The Middle Bridge or Mittlere Brucke,  across the Rhine River facing Eisengasse, was built in 1226. It was an important link that helped in flourishing the trade.
St Martin's Church
A tour of the Old Town can commence from this point and in the direction of St Martin's Church. It is said that 11000 holy virgins accompanied St Ursula in the march to this church and were killed at Cologne in Germany on 21 Oct 383 AD.  The St Martin's Church dates back to the 12th century and is one of the oldest church in the region. It was damaged in an earthquake in the 13th century and was built to its present form today. The place is now used as the University church and is the venue of music concerts due to its beautiful acoustics. A further short walk leads to the yellow building of the Old University of Basel. It was established in  April 1460 and is the oldest in Switzerland. It is ranked among the top 100 in the world. From Rhinesprung the narrow alleyways lead to Minster Square. The old houses of the craftsman can be seen even today. Some of these houses have Gothic windows and belong to the 15th-century vintage. A lovely view of the River Rhine can be had from behind these old houses. Coming back to the alleyway, you can see the Blue and White Houses. These iconic figures were built between 1763 and 1775 for businessmen Lukas and Jakob Sarasin engaged in the manufacture of silk ribbon. Today the offices of the Department of Economy, Social Welfare and Environment exist here.
The Augustine Fountain
Nearby is the Augustine Fountain which is very pretty and has interesting stories woven around it. Adjacent to the fountain is the Museum where one can explore the collections of the period.
The Grand Cathedral at Minster Square
Minster Square has rows of very old houses that belonged to people with a rich lineage dating back at least to eight generations. The Minster is one of the major landmarks of the Old Town and has two slim Gothic towers. The towers are 67m high and are named after Georg and Martin, the saints of the Knights.
The Galluspforte
The Galluspforte is the oldest entry to the Minster. A huge portal displays the highlights of 'The Last Judgement' giving an insight into what is the road to heaven. Above the portal is the Wheel of Fortune highlighting what goes up must come down. Right behind the Minster is the Rhineplatz that offers the splendid views of the River Rhine, the several bridges across it, and views of Germany in distance.
The Cloister
A retreat to The Cloister brings a sudden air of quiet. The Gothic columns and beautiful designs can be seen here. The scholars and businessmen of repute were buried here. After leaving the Cloister one can see The Key Guild, where a restaurant now stands today. It is one of the guild houses of Basel owned by its Guild to this day. Likewise, TheWine People Guild also exists here and is among the fourteen guilds that were formed four centuries ago.  The last stop in the walk of Old Town was Kunstmuseum which is a must visit if you have the time.
Rhinegasse
Later in the afternoon, a walk along the Rhinegasse along the banks of River Rhine was a lovely experience of seeing the locals making merry and basking in the sun.
The Tinguely Fountain
Our final destination was a visit to the Tinguely Fountain, made from mechanical scraps into working/dancing artistic forms that throw spray of water giving an impression of the dancing mermaids.  The backdrop of Theatreplatz and the 19th-century church with a 72 m tall bell tower make this place absolutely adorable. It was time to retreat after an action-packed day of absorbing, history and culture of the German bordering Swiss town, Basel

PS: All pictures were taken by me
2. Another post on a new destination and experience will follow

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Agony and the Ecstasy

The Cologne Cathedral
The sight of the Cologne Cathedral that we managed to see unexpectedly due to an hour-long break, after coming from Frankfurt was a bonus. As the time of boarding the next train arrived, we learnt about the cancellation of our train due to some technical reasons. More was to follow. There was a technical snag in the railway network resulting in delays and cancellations besides a blackout of displays. I was getting a little exasperated due to further cancellation of trains in the direction we were proceeding. The train station at Cologne was unusually crowded, probably due to the long weekend in most parts of Europe. We too were returning from Basel after a lovely trip of hopping around nearby places. We were to board a train to Utrecht and after another change there, were to proceed to Rotterdam. Not knowing the German language was a barrier difficult to bridge at this juncture.

We came to the platform from where the train was to depart. A train arrived and I saw the electronic display flash past on one compartment indicating,’Amsterdam’.We managed to squeeze into the compartment and just then realized that it was headed for Frankfurt airport and not to Amsterdam. In the melee that ensued my daughter managed to get off the train with the tickets in her purse while we were unable to get off. It was the most unusual situation as we were now headed in the opposite direction and that too on a non- stop fast train to the Frankfurt Airport. To our good luck, the train conductor appeared and gave the broadest grin when I explained our situation to him. He said he will see if it is possible to get us offloaded. In the meantime, our daughter who was in touch with us seemed more relaxed than us, messaged a copy of our Eurail Pass, while she boarded the right train headed for Utrecht.

After about ten agonizing minutes the conductor broke the good news that the train will briefly halt at Bonn, to deboard us only. At that moment the train conductor appeared a God incarnate, who suddenly took care of the misery of a long unintended journey. After 20 minutes of journey precisely, after leaving Cologne, the train halted for 30 seconds at Bonn to offload us with our belongings.
The Cologne Railway Station
We changed the platforms and boarded the next Regional train headed for Cologne. In less than an hour, we were back to square one. In the meantime, our daughter who was headed to Utrecht informed that even she had to cut short her journey at Arnhem as there was some malfunction on her train too! Anyway, she got another train to Utrecht after changing tracks.

We finally boarded a train headed for Utrecht, from Cologne hoping to reach our destination without further gaffes. I looked for the conductor to break the news of travelling on the international train without our Eurail pass in our possession, an otherwise mandatory requirement. The Lady conductor in the adjoining compartment heard my story and after verifying the passport details allowed us to continue our onward journey.

It was 9.30 PM when we landed at Utrecht to return to Rotterdam. What a day it had been! We had left Basel in Switzerland 12 hours ago, and by the time we reached Rotterdam our final destination, it was 11 PM. A cool breeze and drizzle were so soothing after a unique journey unparalleled despite travelling for many years.

PS:  Last five weeks was a time of digital detox and exploring Europe. Soaking different cultures, seeing new places, tasting some exotic local cuisines, brushing up the history, were indulgences and experiences of a lifetime. I plan to share some of these experiences on my blog in the coming days