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.


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.


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


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.


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.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Prehistoric mystery...

There are places that cast a spell on you.. Newgrange is  on that list. A pagan dream of esoteric ceremonies and mystical dances. Time and space frozen into stone... Newgrange  which is a 30 minute drive from Dublin, Ireland, is older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge..

Newgrange is part of a heritage trail in Ireland, called Bru na Boine which includes the burial mounds of Knowth, Douth, and the Hill of Tara among others.
 The Newgrange site sits perched on a hill in the Boyne Valley with lush green pastures and hills all around. 

  The exterior of the mound is decorated with 97 large kerbstones(that are carved with intriguing spiral designs).

This tomb is called a passage tomb because of the long corridor leading to a central burial room. Were these sacred temples or astronomical observatories? Or territorial markers? Or were they a pagan homage to the seasons?  Nobody knows for sure.

 Our guide, Karlos warns us that those who are claustrophobic should think twice...We crept into the narrow passage, squeezing ourselves between closely placed rocks. The path went on a slight incline and then widened into an inner burial chamber built in the shape of a crucifix. 

The overlapping stones form an intricate conical roof and have been packed with burnt clay and sand. For millennia, the roof has been intact and kept the inner chamber dry.

 Many of the stones are decorated with ancient art- symbols like triangles, waves, spirals, lozenges and circles. Karlos tells us that this place has two thirds of all the known Neolithic carvings and they are similar to Aboriginal representations found in other parts of the world.

Maybe they represent symbols from nature: the sun, sky and the air? 

Newgrange is famous for its winter solstice when the rays of sunlight enter the roof box at the entrance, crawl into the passage, and fall on the inner chamber, illuminating it with golden light- the event lasts just 17 minutes. This incredible event is a great tourist attraction and tickets are sold by luck-of-the-draw lottery.         

Monday, April 23, 2012

48 hours in Ho Chi Minh City

Chaotic motor scooters, old wizened women with baskets on yokes, high rises rubbing shoulders with eclectic colonial architecture,luxe shops and bustling local markets and ubiquitous street food, Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam or Saigon as it was called, is a frenetic city with an infectious energy.

We first visited District One which has most of the main attractions. Here is the Neo classical Municipal theatre and the Caravelle and the Continental hotels. The Continental Hotel was the haunt of writer Somerset Maugham and the setting of Graham Greene’s novel.

 The Notre Dame Cathedral standing in the heart of the government quarter on Dong Khoi, with a large square in front is dominated by a statue of the Virgin Mary. It is a piece of colonial France with bricks from Marseilles and glass from Chartres!

I loved the General Post Office close by built by none other than Gustave Eiffel. This has an old world ambience with a glass canopy, vaulted ceiling, vintage maps and old-fashioned telephone booths. Send a postcard by snail mail from here to your loved ones!

For a dose of local culture we watched a traditional water puppet show at the Golden Dragon Theatre. 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. The shows retell local folk tales whose storylines and humour are universal.

We visited a lacquer factory to see patient workmen using crushed duck’s egg shells and mother of pearl inlay to create masterpieces.

For a glimpse in to the city’s troubles past we went to the Re-unification palace, a 60’s style building which used to be the residence of the South Vietnamese President. This was where the communist tanks stormed the gates victoriously during 1975. There are boat shaped tables, carpets with dragons, regal staircases, receiving rooms with red chairs and heavy drapes. 

Local Transport- cyclos outside the market.

For our dose of retail therapy we headed to the chaotic BenThanh market which sells cheap material, glitzy ao dais, baskets and crafted bags, even roasted coffee beans. Bargaining is de rigueur here and a great place to pick up laquerware, snake wine, silk and silver jewellery.

 Loved this set of Vietnamese musicians in soapstone that I bought! Reminds me of this atmospheric city whenever I look at it....

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Water therapy...

One of the strangest places that I have visited is Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic. This town’s therapeutic mineral springs attracted the rich and famous- its visitor’s book reads like a roll call of honour for the great people of their times like Goethe, Mozart, and Chopin.

We walked through a handsome boulevard in the centre of the town, where pastel Art Deco and Nouveau buildings festooned with shapely balconies, (many of them converted in to designer shops and hotels) competed for attention on both sides of the river.

The Grand Hotel Pupp
Our wedding cake- like Grand Hotel Pupp felt like the sets of a period drama- a Baroque excess with glittering chandeliers and red velvet panelling that has starred in several movies like Casino Royale and the Last Holiday.

Classic pavillions

There are pavilions and colonnades that dot this spa town. The Mill Colonnade is a long outdoor walkway built like a classical Greek temple with graceful columns
Small kiosks sell the special Karlovy Vary cups which look like miniature watering cans to drink the special water from the springs- the porcelain cups have a straw built in to the handle.
The typical cup for  drinking the water

Spa junkies

The taps with the spring water- the board tells you the temperature of the water.

Elderly people walk around clutching a stylish cup, filling it at the fountains and sipping on it in between their spa treatment appointments.

The Sprudel

There is the giant geyser called the Sprudel  which is the hottest spring here, belching scalding hot water and steam, 49 feet into the air at 72* centigrade enclosed in a giant glass building.

There are three things that are sold almost everywhere: the first is the ultra- thin wafers in different flavours called Oplatky which are meant to be nibbled on between sipping on the spring waters.
 The other is the famous Czech drink Becherovka also referred to as the ‘thirteenth spring’ which was invented by a pharmacist in 1807 and whose recipe is still shrouded in secrecy.

Moser Glass

The third thing is the famous lead-free Bohemian crystal which was first made here by Ludvic Moser in 1857. Visiting the Moser factory on the outskirts of the town, we were treated to a display of glass blowing. Every famous person owns a Moser glass...

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Its heart in the right place!

One of the most ethereal places that I have been to is Bergen in Norway. This is the gateway to the fjords and most people spend just a day here. But I would recommend at least three days soaking in its charm .
                                                                                                                                                                   A spectacular setting of blue ocean, towering mountains and the rugged fjords, Bergen is a city that grew around its harbour. Bryggen is the historical centre of this maritime city- a picturesque Unesco-listed area of reconstructed medieval homes and warehouses converted in to shops and cafes.

We visited the Hanseatic Museum, an erstwhile office of a Hanseatic trader re- created with meticulous details. The house with creaking floorboards has dark, cramped rooms which used to be home to merchants and their apprentices. They resembled the cabins of a ship with space saving furniture and beds that were tucked away neatly behind cupboards.

I always try to get a bird’s eye view of a place that I am visiting...The quaint Floibanen Funicular hauled us 1050 feet in a flat seven minutes for a spectacular view of the city- the sea and sky in a stellar combination, the tiny houses like Legoland and the harbor.

We drove through the area called Klosteret with its ‘chimney houses’ which posed a great fire hazard. Since there was a law passed in the 1800s that all buildings should be built using stone or brick, many people added  cement and stucco facades to wooden buildings.

Sandviken was a hillside area of steep streets with higgledy piggeldy clapboard houses in odd angles perched precariously. Some of these pastel coloured homes were more than two hundred years old!

The waterfront was home to a raucous fish market , the Torget, filled with tightly packed tents with benches and stalls with fish mongers in bright orange suits vending pearly pink slivers of marinated salmon.

Loved  the beautiful tourist office which occupied the remarkable Fresco Hall at Vagsallmenningen, a historic building decorated by murals telling the story of Bergen.

Saw these adorable school children at the local Aquarium.

This city bills itself as: "A city with its feet in the sea, its head in the skies and its heart in the right place."  I could not agree more!

TIP:If you go to Bergen, don't forget to pack a sturdy umbrella. And your raincoat. For this place has 270 days of rain in a year! 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Please pass the salt!

One of the strangest places that I have been to are  the Wieliczka  salt mines in Poland which date back to the 13th century with more than 200 kms of galleries from a depth of 64 metres to 135 metres on the tourist trail.

Mining rock salt was a dangerous job and this made miners a very religious group. Many of them were artistically inclined and created works of art in their spare time. The miners built underground chapels too- they were initially made of wood but after many fire accidents they realised that the best material was in front of them- rock salt.

We walked through miles and miles of subterranean timber structures which support the mines and are painted white to help the miners find their way in the dark.

Some displays showed the dangers that the miners had to face before adequate ventilation systems evolved: they had to creep on the ground and burn the methane known as salt petre accumulated in the ceilings with a long torch.

The miners did not create just religious stuff: their sense of play is evident from the scene out of Snow White and the seven dwarfs that we saw illuminated by coloured lights. 

Legend has it that when the miners were tired and needed to nap, these loveable sprites helped in their work!

The pièce de résistance is the Chapel of St Kinga made over 67 years- an elegant ball room where everything is made of yes, salt.

On the ceiling were  five chandeliers strung with hand cut crystals of salt. On the wall were a wealth of rock salt images and bas reliefs: starting from a dramatic Last Supper and the Wedding of Cana to images of St Kinga.

Some figures were made of translucent salt and lit up on the inside.

We had lunch at the deepest underground restaurant in the world with some Polish smoked cheese and potato pancakes. When we came into the sunlight again, we really felt like blind men gifted sight!

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