UNDER-RATED DESTINATION: SRI LANKA

I am often asked: what is the most under-rated destination that you have been to. My reply would be Sri Lanka with its stellar combination of World Heritage sites, wildlife, history, rich culture, terrific hotels, friendly people and a friendlier currency.

NOTHING BEATS QUEENSLAND!

I was in Queensland, Australia after many, many years and it was truly a wonderful experience filled with new friends, good wine and food and exciting travel.

IN THE MOST POPULOUS LAND IN THE PLANET!

Everyone’s talking about China...There is great interest in China as a travel destination .

UNDER-RATED DESTINATION: SRI LANKA

I am often asked: what is the most under-rated destination that you have been to. My reply would be Sri Lanka with its stellar combination of World Heritage sites, wildlife, history, rich culture, terrific hotels, friendly people and a friendlier currency.

NOTHING BEATS QUEENSLAND!

I was in Queensland, Australia after many, many years and it was truly a wonderful experience filled with new friends, good wine and food and exciting travel.

Of Flash mobs and Antwerp...

There’s so much talk about flash mobs and viral videos now- the best flash mob to date was the one I saw on 'You tube' some time ago, set in Antwerp Station.

Monday, May 30, 2011

SLOVENIA- GREAT EMERGING DESTINATION


This pint sized country sandwiched between Italy and Croatia is a stunner. It joined the EU in 1994 and adopted the Euro in 2007- it is one of the most affordable European countries that I have visited. Why is Slovenia so special? I love countries that offer a great diversity in terrain over a small distance to cover- Slovenia has the Julian Alps, spectacular lakes, phenomenal caves and castles, a little Adriatic coastline thrown in, even a wine growing region, some three thousand- plus churches and monasteries and some stunning architecture. Slovenia is also one of the greenest European countries (about 60% of the country is covered with forests)- A perfect short break destination. As a vegetarian I also found that the country offered a good variety of options and some fine wines. The highest peak Mount Triglav is a national symbol found even on the flag and attracts hikers and climbers. The Venetians once controlled the south west of the country and left their mark on its architecture. My pick of the Must-Sees of Slovenia –

LJUBLJANA:



A melting-pot of different cultures, with a medieval castle, statues of dragons, and candy coloured Baroque buildings Ljubljana (pronounced Lyoobliana), the Capital city, is truly fairy tale land. There are decorative Bridges over the Ljubljnaca River, cobblestone alleys and a cafĂ© culture with a Bohemian vibe. Preseren Square is the heart of the city filled with street performers, musicians and milling crowds Much of Ljubljana’s architecture is the work of master architect Joze Plecnik. Visit the distinctive Triple Bridge, the churches and the university library which are his handiwork.
Walk up the hill to Ljubljana Castle and climb the tower for a wondrous view of the city with its orange roofs, the green river and the distant Julian Alps. Take a river cruise to the Botanical gardens admiring the willow lined banks and the artworks on the walls. Walk through the eclectic flea market south of the Triple Bridge and pick up wild honey, decorative glass, painted wooden toys.

LAKE BLED AND TRIGLAV NATIONAL PARK:


 A glassy emerald lake ringed by forests, a picture perfect island perched in the centre with a dainty baroque church and a forbidding medieval castle on a rock crag overlooking the lake like a protective guardian. Bled castle which is a storybook castle- complete with ramparts, towers and moat and Disneyesque red conical brick roofs. The Triglav National Park is a hiker’s paradise with lakes, waterfalls and wildlife. Spend at least one night in Bled though it can be done as a day trip from Ljubljana.
                                                     
POSTONJA CAVES AND PRETJAMA CASTLE:




 Slovenia is famous for its peculiar karst or limestone landscapes and caves. There are more than 8000 caves all over this country and caving is a much enjoyed local pastime. Stretching over more than 20 kilometres, the Postojna caves in Slovenia is breathtaking. There is a miniature, open narrow gauge train which ferries the tourists through an artificial tunnel. There are all kinds of fanciful shapes which were pointed out by our guide- some look like animals, some like birds, there are sheets and translucent curtains, even razor thin spaghetti on the ceiling, Predjama castle, close by is wedged tight into a rocky cliff 100 metres high. The castle hosts the Erasmus Knights Tournament in the month of August every year. This is a re-creation of medieval games complete with people in period costumes, archery, swordplay, and jousts.

PORTOROZ:
                                                                                                                                                        
Portoroz is a relaxing seaside getaway touted to be the Slovenian Monaco. So if casinos and a swinging beach life is your style, head here!
                                                                                                                                                                     
MARIBOR:

This is Slovenia’s second largest city but feels like a small town. It has medieval churches, castles and mansions and it’s the European capital of Culture in 2012. There are wine cellars, even an old synagogue and an excellent Old Town.
                                                                                                                                                                  
PIRAN:



Narrow streets, compact houses, and a Mediterranean feel, this town is not only geographically close to Italy, its architecture is heavily influenced by the Venetian republic. It is a walled city with numerous churches and squares. Get a feel of the place by sitting in a cafe and watching the Adriatic sunset. And be sure to taste the local chocolate made with the local salt( yes!) from the salt pans nearby.                                                         

CELJE:


This medieval city with a city wall and ramparts, the past residences of the Counts and princes and 18th and 19th century facades looming over the picturesque Savinja River, has to be visited just for its architecture. The largest fortress in Slovenia, is on a hill. Among other sights, you can see the Roman remains of this town. Celje has many thermal springs which are located a stone’s throw from the town.

There are many more worthy sights in Slovenia like the Skokjan Caves, Lake Bohinj, Lipica famous for its horses, the Vintgar and the Tomin Gorges. Do put them on your itinerary if you have the time.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

THE RAW TRUTH

When I was in Ghent, Belgium a couple of weeks back, our local guide ordered a dish which I was not familiar with. Beef Tartar- which consisted of raw beef, minced and then mixed with a raw egg, some mustard, pepper and Worchester sauce and eaten with a side of fries. I then found out that it’s a very common dish served in America too! Why Tartar, I wondered, and my research led me to very interesting facts. The Oxford Dictionary says that a Tartar is a person who is fierce and difficult to deal with... The Tartars were nomadic horsemen of Turkish- Mongol descent who controlled and terrorised a large part of Central Europe in the 13th century. They pillaged homes and spread fear. Lore has it that the name Tartar originated from the people’s cries- as they heard the trrtrr of the hooves and said that the ‘ trrtrr’ people were coming! Another version has it that its origin is the Latin word ‘Tartarus’, which means savage or barbaric.


The origin of the dish? They say that the Tartars tenderised and marinated the horse meat by placing it under their saddles. As they rode horses all day, they ate this, cutting it into small bits and adding some pepper and spices. I also read another version, which says that this was a misinterpretation: the horsemen did place the meat under their saddles, but this was to treat the horses’ sores! I am inclined to believe the first version;maybe all their aggression and power stemmed from the energy source of raw meat and spices? Reports suggest that this raw meat recipe was carried by German soldiers to their country and was the origin of hamburgers and steaks!

There’s also Tartar Sauce that we are familiar with- mayonnaise with pickled cucumber, capers, onions and Dijon Mustard, commonly served with fish. The French call it Sauce tartare- loosely translated, tartare means rough..the tartars were after all considered rough and savage!

Dishes centred on raw meat exist in almost every culture- Carpaccio and Sashimi, for example. Of course there are the inherent dangers of contamination in raw meat and to some people the very idea of ‘raw’ is nauseous. And in a totally unconnected aside. does this have any connection with the dental tartar- the salts of tartaric acid deposited on our teeth? Words..words they fascinate me!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

FLUID PERFORMANCE

One of the absolute must-sees of a trip to Vietnam is a traditional water puppet show. We saw one at the Golden Dragon Theatre at Ho Chi Minh City. The water puppet show dates back to the 11th century and had its beginnings in the delta of the Red River where flooded paddy fields became stages. The stage is set on murky water and the puppeteers are behind a bamboo screen manipulating a complex system of strings and bamboo poles.

There’s a live orchestra of musicians in resplendent traditional costumes playing traditional instruments like a two string violin, cymbal, flutes and drums. The puppets are made of special fig wood (which is light and easy to carve) and coated with waterproof paints.

Dragons belch fire and cavort, men row boats over stormy waters, phoenix fight, and mythical goddesses preen as statuesque women walk with baskets of fruit piled on their heads. There are vignettes of rural life, legends, fishing, folk tales and even historical tales and the children in the front rows laugh with glee as water splashes on to them! The Dance of the Fairies is a legend about the creation of the country.

In the end the five puppeteers come out and take a bow, knee deep in water. Truly fascinating experience!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

FACE READING IN CAMBODIA

I was in Cambodia last month, which has been on my travel radar for years.. so it was really a culmination of a long cherished desire. Angkor Wat was an amazing experience and the symbolism, architecture and the symmetry is mind-boggling but my high points were the two temples of Bayon and Ta Prohm. Bayon is at the centre of the Angkor Thom or the Great City. Bayon is a surreal mass of stone faces with an enigmatic expression and downcast lids. A kind of Cambodian Mona Lisa! They say that the faces represent the compassionate Buddha but have a startling resemblance to the visage of the king- Jayavarman VII. Did the egoistic king want his face to be imprinted forever? This was the last official state temple to be built.

What’s very interesting is that the Bayon started out as a Buddhist temple. Later on when the Khmers reverted to Hinduism in the 13th Century, the Buddhas were defaced and converted to Hindu gods and a few centuries later the reverse happened. Our guide, Vin, showed us several places where you can see these changes! Also because of re-building in various stages, sometimes they discover hidden statues like this one of the king with a serpent!


The temple has bas reliefs inside and outside. Our guide explained the bas reliefs on the outer walls which are great for a quick history lesson. There are scenes of battle between the Khmers and the Chams (the Vietnamese)-this was a naval battle on the Tonle sap (which I visited...more about it later), and some grisly images of the dead being devoured by the crocodiles… there are scenes of daily life- cock fights, jugglers and wrestlers, a wild boar fight, women tending to their children, one woman even blowing a kitchen fire and a man handing a turtle to a chef.. I was fascinated by the myriad images – the sandstone like a canvas preserving these images for posterity.. there are numerous images of dancing Apsaras all over- usually Apsaras dance alone, but here you find them in pairs.

We walked through a maze of galleries, passages and towers. As you climb the Bayon towers, on the upper levels are free standing face towers… you come across some smiling faces too! And there’s a troupe of traditional dancers that stand there waiting to perform for a fee of course, and you can even pose with them for a picture!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

LILLIPUT LAND

Last week I was in the Flanders region of Belgium travelling through Brussels, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp. I was pleasantly surprised by Brussels which has a reputation for being a grey and stodgy city. And there was a really cheesy attraction that I thoroughly enjoyed- Mini Europe, a theme park near the Atomium filled with scale replicas of famous landmarks from across Europe.

Mini Europe has about 350 models, giving you a kitschy whistle stop tour of Europe in a day! This project which began in 1987, had art historians selecting the buildings to be represented. All the models were created on a 1:25 scale. They were all painted in one site in Brussels, so that they were consistent. That’s not all ...they have trains, boats , water and characters complementing the buildings. And the attention to details is amazing- all the names on the Arc de Triomphe, for example, correspond to the actual names of officers and battlefields on the Parisian original!


There are models of both ancient buildings like the Viking Camps in Denmark and the stone temples of Malta as well as the modern TGV train! And every model has a push button which you can press to listen to the strains of the national anthem. At the touch of a button, you can bring down the Berlin Wall or set off a rocket! And talking about details- the plants and vegetation next to each model are also in-theme, like lavender from Provence! A comprehensive printed guide is provided at the entrance so you can follow the whole trail picking up trivia like why Venetian gondolas are black or that the Brandenburg gate in Berlin was modelled on the Acropolis in Athens. You can have a lot of fun combined with learning and  even take your picture as a British guard. And I noticed that adults enjoyed the experience as much as kids, some even crawling to the level of the model to have their photographs taken and perhaps fool their friends on Face book!
It was really a great experience to re-live the places that I had already visited and put others on my ever- increasing wish list:)

This visit spurred my research on other such mini- cities around the world and would love to visit some of these in the future! It’s a small world after all....

1. Bekonscot Model Village and Railroad - United Kingdom

2. Window of the World, Shenzhen China

3. Madurodam, Hague, Netherlands

4. Swiss miniature park, Melide on the shores of Lake Lugano

5. Cockington Garden, outside Canberra, Australia

6. Mini Israel near Tel Aviv

7. Miniuni in Ostrava, Czech republic

8. Catalunia in Miniature near Barcelona, Spain

9. Tobu World Square in Nikko, Japan

10. Forbidden gardens, Katy, Texas.

And I wish we had miniature parks in India- the Tajmahal, the temples of South India, The Qutub minar all pint sized...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

IN THE MOST POPULOUS LAND IN THE PLANET!

Everyone’s talking about China...There is  great interest in China as a travel destination . Yes, it’s a wonderfully different destination and even given the food issues for vegetarians and the HUGE language problem this is one country which should be high on your wish list! The REAL attraction is the mind-boggling diversity of attractions. There is drama, colour, entertainment, noise and none of the glossy packaging of the West. Just remember that it’s a huge country, so focus on your itinerary and to really do it any justice you will need at least two weeks. My pick of the absolute must -sees of China.


SHANGHAI: This showpiece is the modern Chinese city- has to be seen to understand the amazing growth of this economy. Glitzy skyscrapers, flyovers, bridges, the sleek Maglev- the fastest train in the world rub shoulders with a lively market around a Buddhist Temple. Spend some time at the Bund, taking in the astounding skyline. Take a day trip to Zhoujiajiou water Village, a kind of oriental Venice. And spend some time at the Nike shop on Nanjing Lu where you can even design your own shoe!


BEIJING: For your dose of history and Chinese culture. Ramble in the Sprawling Forbidden City with a guide, visit the Temple of heaven where the Emperor prayed for bountiful harvests (with its lovely park where you can catch the locals) and the Summer palace. Catch the Kung Fu show for an amazing martial arts display. Get a glimpse of the modernistic Olympics water Cube and Birds Nest and do take a Hutongs tour on a rickshaw- this is the oldest neighbourhood of the city. For some retail madness, visit the Silk Market. Take a day trip to the Great Wall, forsaking the touristy Badaling for either the Juyong pass, Simatai or the Mutianyu sections. Spend an evening at the Donghuamen night market at the end of Wangfujing Street to see some weird food. Scorpions, or star fish, this is the right place.




CHENGDU: This is the city to visit the Panda research station, cuddle some of these loveable creatures and sample the fiery Sichuan food. Jinli Street is a magical street, lined with red lanterns where you can buy handicrafts and eat street food. Don’t miss the Sichuan Opera where they change masks in the blink of a second. Take a day trip to Leshan to see the largest stone Buddha carved in to the side of a mountain.




XIAN: This is a mandatory pilgrimage to see the incredible terracotta warriors built for the emperor’s after life. Xian itself is an interesting city where you should spend some time in the atmospheric Muslim quarter with the oldest mosque. Take a trip to the hot springs at Hua Quing where the emperor spent the winter months with his concubines! It’s a scenic spot and you can dip your tired traveller’s feet in a special pool there. See the Tang Dynasty show to be transported to the yesteryears with an esoteric mix of ballet, opera and gymnastics.



GUILIN: This is the China of the scroll paintings: misty mountains, limestone gorges and a sinuous river. Take the idyllic river cruise between Yangshuo and Guilin, shop on West Street and a have a relaxing bamboo raft ride. At Guilin, don’t miss the Reed Flute Caves all lit up with the Chinese penchant for coloured lights. Catch the incredible open-air Impression San Jiu Li show at Yangshuo where the mountains are the props and the river the stage. Mesmerising!

On my future wish list for China:

1. Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in Hunan Province.

2. Yellow Mountains

3. Three Gorges on the Yangtze River

4. Jiuzhaigou Valley in Sichuan- a world of more than 100 lakes and valleys.

Some tips to survive China in my next post!

Monday, May 2, 2011

CUSTOM MADE HOI AN

One of the highlights of our trip to Vietnam was our time in Hoi An, in the heart of the country. This used to be a traders’ town visited by merchants from all over the world especially the Chinese and Japanese. Today it’s a slice of old Vietnam-a UNESCO heritage list town with more than 800 old buildings. What the town is better known as is a place where you can get custom made clothes and footwear ! The main street, Tran Phu, has more than 100 shops filled with material, design, catalogues (they are master copiers!) and a willing- to- please staff! Most of the tailoring is carried on in sweat shops outside the town and quite often a svelte evening dress is delivered in 2 hours!


The other thing that the town is famous for, are the handmade silk lanterns that it makes which are foldable. More than 10, 000 lanterns are exported every year. At night the town is a magical sight lit by the soft glow of the lanterns and a stroll along the Thu Bon River is a must! Every 14th of the month, the residents switch off electric lights even street lights and the only light is provided by these lanterns. Traditional games, food and music are on the itinerary- what an innovative idea to go back in to time:)

Well how do you go about getting a dress or a suit or winter jacket made? You can browse the catalogues or if you have done your homework and brought your own designs, they can copy that for you. Choose from the bolts of colourful silk, chiffon, knits and cotton stacked in the shops. Generally the cost of a dress varies between 20-30USD. You are measured and called for a fitting in about 2 hours. If the fitting is ok you get the dress immediately otherwise it’s sent back to the factory for adjustments. There are up-market shops like Yaley and A Dong Silk which are a bit expensive and other mid -range shops. We used a shop called Hugo II on Tran Phu street. My daughter had a dress made in chiffon- really good fit!

The local tourist office sells a ‘five attractions’ ticket which entitles you to visit five ancient buildings of your choice. We visited an old Chinese assembly hall now a temple, and some exquisite old homes where the owners give you a guided tour. The Old Town is completely closed to motorized traffic and is a pleasure to stroll through. There are art galleries filled with colourful lacquer work and paintings- worth a splurge!!

Our stay at Life Heritage Resort on the river was another highlight. Wonderful rooms with daybeds outside, overlooking a garden and a spanking new Spa in the heart of town was a great experience. There are bikes provided by the hotel which you can use and a host of restaurants in town provide an eclectic choice ranging from Indian to Italian.

The day trip from Hoi An to My Son, the ruins of the Cham Kingdom from the 7th to the 12th centuries was a revelation. Hindu gods and goddesses, Shiva lingams, all in the bowl like valley surrounded by misty mountains- truly our Indian Jones experience of the trip! There are groups of ruins and an outdoor theatre with a sensuous Apsara dance. Very atmospheric! In all Hoi An is a great destination and should be on every one’s Vietnam itinerary.

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