culture, Travel, Wine and Cuisine

10 Things to do in Athens

The glorious capital of Greece has so much more to offer than the Parthenon and the Acropolis. Here are 10 things you can do in Athens

The Parthenon

You haven’t seen anything until you have seen the Parthenon and the Acropolis, it is said. While that may be true, there is more to Athens than these two historical monuments. With its pulsating rhythm, sidewalk cafes spilling with ecstatic crowds, designer boutiques, art galleries, and a plethora of museums, there are scores of attractions to satisfy the thousands of travellers who disembark each day at the port of Athens.

Here’s a list of top 10 things to do when in Athens:

  • Visit the Acropolis cluster of architectural wonders — Sited on the Sacred Hill, the Acropolis, nominated as one of the seven wonders of the world, is visible from every corner of Athens. It is the soul of the city. The Parthenon, with its marble Doric columns, is the most magnificent temple dedicated to Goddess Athena, the guardian of the ancient city of Athens. The Parthenon and the Acropolis were built by Pericles in the fifth century BC. While you are there, have a look at the Theatre of Herod Atticus, built by the Romans in 161 AD. It is a venue for concerts, ballet and performances. Yanni has also performed in this theatre. The Theatre of Dionysus, which seated up to 17,000 people during the ancient time, is situated nearby.
  • Gape at the Hadrian’s Arch & the Temple of Olympian Zeus — Construction for the Temple of Olympian Zeus, one of the largest Grecian temples, began in 515 BC, and had 104 gigantic marble columns, of which only 15 remain today. There were various hiccups in the construction of the temple and the Greeks left it unfinished till Roman Emperor Hadrian finished the construction in 131 AD. Needless to say, he placed his own statue along with that of Olympian Zeus, who the Romans called Jupiter. Today, neither the statue of Zeus nor Hadrian remains. The emperor also built the Hadrian’s Arch, which separated the ancient city from the new one built by the Romans.
  • Wander through the Acropolis Museum – This huge museum is a treasure trove of ancient relics and statues, including the famous relief of ‘Mourning Athena’. Also on display are the remnants of the friezes from the Parthenon.
  • Loiter around the Lycabettus Hill — This hill can be reached by funicular or by walking up. It is an ideal spot for a stunning view of Athens, the Parthenon and the Aegean Sea. Grab the famous Greek spanokopita or tiropita (spinach and cheese pie) from one of the many bakeries that line the way up to the hill.
  • Enjoy the Changing of the Guards — Catch the ‘changing of the guards’ at the Greek Parliament near the Syntagma Square. The Evzones, as they are known, are a special unit of the Hellenic Army who guard the Monument of the Unknown Soldier. Their traditional uniform, with kilts and pom-poms on the shoes, is rather interesting. At 11 am on Sundays, there is a spectacular ceremony which draws hordes of tourists.
  • Relive the past at the Ancient Agora — In ancient times, the Agora was the city’s main hub, with political, cultural, philosophical and commercial events taking place there. This was where Greek democracy was born. Imagine Socrates and Plato engaged in serious discussions at the Agora. The Greek and Roman Agoras stand within a stone’s throw from each other. The Tower of the Winds, nearby, is one of the many interesting structures.
  • Walk around the historic Plaka — Plaka stands at the foot of the Acropolis with whitewashed houses, narrow cobbled streets, shops and cafes and picturesque ruins from the Roman era. Dotted with tiny Byzantine churches, it is an interesting place to loiter around.
  • Haggle at the Flea Market — The Flea Market at Monastiraki is a buzzing place on Sunday mornings. This is where you are likely to find the most exotic things like ancient gramophone records, tea sets or masks. A couple of hours at the market can be an interesting experience. Street musicians abound as do pickpockets who are likely to clean out your pocket while you are bargaining for an interesting piece of antique.
  • Experience nightlife — You haven’t seen Athens if you haven’t seen its nightlife. Despite the dire economic condition, there is no let-down in merrymaking. You will find live music at almost all clubs, cafes, bars and ouzeries at night. Visit a traditional Greek bouzoukia to enjoy the live performance of famous Greek singers like Antonis Remos and Anna Vissi.
  • Pamper the taste buds — Savour the taste of traditional Greek dishes like moussaka, souvlaki, tzatziki, gyros, tiropita, Greek salad with feta cheese, and umpteen mezedes. Down it all with a glass of ouzo or retsina, the popular Greek drinks.

    (Published in Sunday Herald, June 16, 2018)

 

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culture, Travel, Wine and Cuisine

Black Pearl of Aegean

The tiny island with an area of just about 29 square miles has been a playground of the rich and famous for a long time, and with valid reason.
White washed houses spilling down the craggy rocks in Santorini.

White washed houses spilling down the craggy rocks in Santorini

The Cyclades group of islands along the Aegean Sea has hundreds of islands but Santorini remains an all time favourite of travellers to the region.  The tiny island with an area of just about 29 square miles has been a playground of the rich and famous for a long time, and with valid reason.  Imagine a beautiful island standing atop towering multihued cliffs, with beautiful turquoise blue waters at its feet. Effortlessly, Santorini manages to floor the visitors with its beauty. Thousands of tourists travelling to the island will vehemently vouch for the attractions of the tiny island, a few of them swearing to return.  Santorini needs no validation, though. It is spectacular and the islanders know that.  

Aegean
 

Is it possible that such a place does exist, you may well ask. It does. The island known as Santorini, created as a result of a massive volcanic eruption, is such an island. The volcano eruption, which wiped out the Minoans around 1650 BC, is responsible for the formation of Thira, as the island is known by the Greek.    Not just geographical distinction, Santorini also enjoys an interesting history. Originally used as a place for exiles by  the Romans, the island was a target of pirates for a long time till it was occupied by Venetians in the 13th Century and later by Turks. It finally managed to chase away the Turks in the early 1820s. The present structures came up only after the devastating earthquake that destroyed it in 1956. Even today, Fira has a population of just a little over 3,000. The tourists, during peak season, outnumber the residents.

Church
 
A host of fables pepper up interest in the place. Among them is the belief that the Atlantis once stood here till the volcano ruined everything. Although there is no validation of that claim, the islanders have named local wine as Atlantis.  A deep crater, known as caldera that kisses the feet of the surrounding cliffs, is also a result of the explosion that took place millions of years ago. It is the only peopled caldera in the world with several tiny towns perched atop its gigantic cliffs. Thira, as it is known by the Greek, is a beauteous island in the Aegean Sea and this was the place we had chosen to spend a week at. The crescent shaped island is known as the Black Pearl of the Aegean. The capital of Santorini, Fira, is also the place where most tourists dock in the first phase of their visit to the island. It is a town with breathtakingly beautiful white washed houses spilling down the craggy rocks. 

SANTORINI
 
According to a local guide, the houses were whitewashed to disinfect them in the 20th century when diseases like cholera plagued the Greek islands, and since then they have been painted white. Before that they were painted in dark colours to match the rocks. This was done to avoid being spotted by pirates.  It was a perfect June evening when we disembarked at the port sited at the bottom of the island. While travelling toward Fira, the town that sits on the rim of the spent volcano, Nicolas, our driver, gave us a weather update in broken English. That was the first encounter with the hospitality of the islanders. Thereafter, almost every restaurant would greet us with a namaste. The waiters seemed to have honed the art of identifying the nationalities of visitors and also picked up a smattering of most languages. It did go a long way in making their customers feel welcome.

SANTORINI
 
More than 400 churches and 40 jewellery shops, most of them tiny and quaint, dot the island. These along with the dazzling sunset constitute the island’s appeal. The alluring town with its blinding white and cobalt blue houses lining narrow and winding streets is an artist’s delight. Little wonder that poets, painters and musicians have eulogised it in their creative works. The markets were ablaze with colourful souvenirs, painted tiles and other artifacts. Cute stuffed donkeys lined almost all shops. Not surprising since the animal is still used as a beast of burden for the tourists. It is far easier for donkeys to navigate the narrow, winding and steep streets of Fira. 

Donkeys have been the breadwinners for many in the town. There are two ways to reach the top of the caldera for a picturesque view.  While a sturdy pair of legs could climb the 587 steep steps, a donkey ride will definitely prove a lesser ordeal, guides are likely to warn.   During the evenings, visitors throng the cafes that promise great view of the caldera, eager for a glimpse of the setting sun. There is nothing more spectacular than the view of sunset from the island. The sighs and exclamations as the sun is swallowed by the sea is a testimony to that fact. 

If Fira is so enchanting, we wondered about the charms of Oia, which is described as a beautiful painting. The portrayal turned out to be true. Incredibly lovely churches, narrow alleys running along the volcano ridge, whitewashed houses with colourful entrances, atmospheric cafes and a brilliant sunset add to the beauty of the place. Add to that a bakery that offers the best chocolate mousse and it is easy to figure out why tourists flock there. Santorini boasts of several beaches, some of them with different coloured sands. There are white, red beaches and the popular Kamari beach with black sand. Dramatic cliffs that rise from the beaches make them unique.  Also worth a visit are the famous ruins of Akrotiri, with its well preserved Minoan remains that date back to  pre-historic time. 

IMPORTANT FACTS
Reaching Santorini: There are many airlines that connect the major Indian cities to Athens.  You can take a short flight from Athens or catch a ferry from Athens’ Piraeus port. While the flight will take under an hour, the ferry would take 10 hours and a hydrofoil (costlier than ferry) would take about half that time. 
Stay: Fira offers a wide range of options from B&B to service apartments to expensive hotels. The thumb rule is that the better the view the more expensive the place. Oia is a more costly option. 
Food: There are several local delicacies that must be sampled. The fava, which is a variety of yellow peas, keftedes are like koftas made of tomatoes, spinach or some other item (Santorini is famous for its cherry tomatoes), dolmades are stuffed vine leaves, gyros are skewered and roasted mince, moussaka and the famous Greek salad are a must-eat. Ouzo is the local wine. A word of caution — the prices are in direct proportion to the location of the restaurant. The better the view the more costly the fare.
Buy: Cycladic art jewellery, local products such as Santorini wine, handwoven rugs, crocheted and embroidered items with Greek motifs. 
Going around the island: The best option is to hire an ATV or a motorcycle. There is a frequent bus service between Fira and Oia.
Excursions: Take boat rides to Nea Kameni, which is a volcanic island and Palia Kameni that boasts of hot springs.
Currency: Euro

(Published in Asian Age, July 1, 2018)
culture, Travel

Bearded queen

It happened at the Egyptian Museum at Cairo. Eyes dazzled by the spectacle of treasures in the museum, I soaked in the information relayed by our guide, a young Egyptian woman named Dalia. Everything I had read in the history books came alive as she explained the process of mummification and took us through a short account of the rich treasures found in the pyramids.

a statue of Hatshepsut with the ceremonial beard‘That’s Queen Hatshepsut,’ she said, coming to halt before the bust of Hatshepsut, who ruled the country for twenty two years. It was a record of sorts, since no other female Pharaoh had ruled so long or been as successful as a ruler. There was peace and prosperity in the region. ‘She was more important than Nefertiti or Cleopatra, an extraordinary woman and one of the most successful pharaohs of Egypt.’

Fascinated, I looked at the arched eyebrows, aquiline nose, doe eyes of the bust. It was a smiling face with feminine features but on the chin was the typical beard worn by Pharaohs of Egypt.

Why did the queen wear a beard?

Intrigued, I studied the other statues of the queen in the museum. Each of them showed her with a ceremonial beard; a hallmark of Pharaohs.

a mural on the walls of the temple

That was the starting point of my quest for information about the interesting queen named Hatshepsut. My exploration led me to the magnificent funerary temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri, which is considered an ancient architectural marvel. It reflects her knowledge of architecture as well as her desire to create a temple very different from the ones existing during her time.  She called it the Djeser Djeseru, which means ‘Wonder of Wonders’.

Construction of temples was an important part of a Pharaoh’s activities for not only did they create a sense of awe in the people but also helped to elevate the ruler’s image, immortalise their names and provide employment to the subject. Each of the pharaohs, thus, spent considerable time, money and energy in designing these temples.

Hatshepsut commissioned hundreds of construction projects throughout both Upper and Lower Egypt. The need to legitimize herself as a pharaoh saw her constructing structures that were far grander than the ones constructed by her predecessors.  She was the only female pharaoh from Egypt’s golden age to build a tomb for herself in the Valley of the Kings.

The Funerary temple of Hatshepsut

The funerary temple of Hatshepsut is one of the finest temples constructed in ancient Egypt. A magnificent structure set on three levels, it is designed to merge with the rocky landscape of Thebes.

A long and elaborate ramp from the first courtyard took me to the upper level of the temple. During the time of Hatshepsut, the ramp passed through fountains, lush gardens and resin trees. Several sphinxes lined the path that led the worshippers to the higher floor, a pair of lion statues flanking the impressive entrance.

There are several chambers, colonnades, reliefs, hieroglyphs, inscriptions, altars and statues, with Hatshepsut appearing frequently in them, her chin adorned by the ubiquitous beard.  The beard, I learnt was an important part of the pharaoh’s regalia. In ancient Egypt, the ceremonial beard was a symbol of a pharaoh. Since the pharaohs were regarded as children of god, the beard also conveyed divinity.

The reliefs on the walls of the funerary temple illustrate her commissioning obelisks for God Amun’s temple and ordering an expedition to Punt (now known as Somalia), which brought rich haul of ivory, ebony, resins, gold and animals like panthers and baboons. It is all documented on the walls of her funerary temple. All that remains of her efforts is the depiction on the walls and the dried stumps of two myrrh trees brought from Punt. Incidentally, it was the first successful attempt at transplanting of trees from an alien land.

At Karnak Temple, the grandest temple in Egypt, I gaped at the enormous festival court and a pair of obelisks dedicated to God Amun by Hatshepsut.

Bit by bit, the inscriptions and illustrations pieced together the story of an ambitious woman who would be a pharaoh.

Hatshepsut became a queen at the age of twelve when she married her half-brother Thutmose II.  It is said that she was the power behind the throne.

It was only after her husband died after a short reign, that the young widow appointed herself as a regent to Thutmose III, her step son, who was still a child. Not content with being a regent, in the seventh year of her reign, she took full charge of the kingdom and declared herself a pharaoh. As a woman, she had to resort to a few untruths to accentuate her suitability as a Pharaoh.  This she did by declaring that she had been sanctified by none other than the God Amun (considered as the king of gods). She claimed that Amun had said – Welcome my sweet daughter, my favorite, the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Maatkare, Hatshepsut. Thou art the King, taking possession of the Two Lands.

Hatshepsut had no wish to be known as a queen. She wanted to be a Pharaoh, since the pharaohs were much more powerful than kings.

Once a pharaoh, she began donning the regalia and symbols that befitted the stature. Not only did she wear the royal headdress called the Nemes, and the royal apron, known as the Shendyt and the false beard, she also carried the crook (heka) and flail (nekhakha), which were the symbols of pharaoh’s authority. With that, her transformation was complete.

Knowing the fickle ways of the world, Hatshepsut wondered if she, a female pharaoh, would be remembered at all. Etched in one of her obelisks at Karnak Temple are the words – “Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.”

After Hatshepsut’s death, her step son, Thutmose III, embarked on a campaign to erase her name from history.  Her statues were defaced, obelisk broken, and many of the hieroglyphs and illustrations scratched. The story of the female pharaoh was buried under the sands of time.

The world did not know of her existence till 1822, when Egyptologists stumbled upon the hieroglyphics on the walls of Deir el-Bahri. Strangely, it was a broken tooth that led to the discovery of her mummy. It is now known that she had problems with her teeth, suffered from diabetes and died of cancer. According to Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s chief archaeologist, “the fingernails of her left hand were painted red and outlined. She was bald in front, with long hair remaining at the back. She was a little bit fat, her face was strong and she had a problem with her back. She had many health problems.”

Valuable information about the powerful woman is emerging with each passing day. Notwithstanding the efforts of Thutmose III, Hatsheput’s place in history is now assured, deservedly so.

culture, Travel

The Bard’s wife

ife & times: The Hathaway Cottage, where Shakespeare's wife Anne Hathaway lived; the Hathaway Bed, in Shottery. Photos by author

The cottage where the Bard’s wife lived

Ever since he found fame, Shakespeare’s personal life has been under the microscope. Curious about his life, one fine day during my visit to the United Kingdom, I made my way to Stratford-upon-Avon, where the bard was born. On my agenda was a small village known as Shottery, where Anne Hathaway, the bard’s wife, lived before her marriage.

Shottery lies just about a kilometre-and-a-half from Stratford-upon-Avon. It is a small and idyllic village, and retains its medieval charm. Ambling through green meadows, ancient houses wreathed in roses, I picked my way to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, which is a part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Shakespeare’s father, who was a prosperous glove maker, bought his supply of sheepskin from the Hathaways. This gave rise to frequent interaction between the two families. William’s house at Henley Street, Stratford, wasn’t too far from Shottery, which made it easy for him to visit the Hathaway family. Soon, young William fell in love with Anne and began courting his future wife at the Hathaway home.

The Tudor cottage, set in a sprawling farm, was just a couple of rooms constructed by the Hathaway family, who were prosperous farmers, in the mid-15th century. It’s here that Anne lived with her siblings. During the winter months, the large family of 11 members crowded into the two rooms with their livestock to keep themselves warm.
Originally a farmhouse, it took the shape of a sprawling cottage. Anne’s father had left a dowry of 10 marks for his eldest daughter, which was considered a reasonably good amount in those days. It didn’t make her a rich woman, but increased her marriage prospects significantly. Destiny, however, had chalked out romance for the girl.

Age doesn’t matter

By then, she was 26, and considered left on the shelf by the standard of those days. Besides, Anne was a full eight years older to William. This, however, made no dent in the young man’s love for her, and he continued to woo her ardently.

The two of them decided to seal their love with matrimony, and William set out to obtain a marriage licence. It was probably the haste with which a marriage licence, costing 40 pounds, was procured, that set tongues wagging. Soon, the rumours of Anne’s pregnancy and scandal raged through the small town.

Despite the hiccups, William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway were married at Temple Grafton, a small village about eight km from Stratford-upon-Avon, on November 27, 1582.
After the wedding, Anne moved into the Shakespeare house at Henley Street to live with William’s parents and siblings. Six months later, a daughter, Susanna, was born to the couple. They went on to become proud parents of twins.

William, who had set his heart upon becoming an actor, left for London and became a member of the popular theatre ensemble known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The famous theatre group, which was later called the King’s Men, also built the renowned Globe Theatre in London. While William moved to London, Anne continued to live at Stratford with her children.

It was only after he had found fame and prosperity that William Shakespeare returned to Stratford-upon-Avon and bought a luxuriant house in 1597. There he wrote some of his famous plays like The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale.

The Hathaway Cottage, in the meanwhile, had passed on to the next generation of Hathaways. Although the farmhouse during Anne’s childhood was a mere two-room cottage, the succeeding generations added to the original construction till it became the 12-room sprawling cottage that stands till date.

By the late 18th century, several of Shakespeare’s plays were published and became popular. With his popularity came the curiosity about Shakespeare’s life and wife. Soon, people began flocking to Stratford-upon-Avon, keen on seeing the house where he lived. Not content with a visit to Shakespeare’s house, visitors made a beeline to Anne Hathaway’s childhood home. In the meantime, the descendents of the Hathaway family continued to live in the cottage until in 1846, when financial problems forced them to sell the property. The family, however, continued to live in the cottage as tenants.

When the Stratford town was connected by railway in 1864, it began to see more footfalls, and soon the Shakespeare house on Henley Street as well as the Hathaway farmhouse saw an increasing number of visitors.

In 1892, the farmhouse was acquired by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which renovated the cottage while preserving its Tudor architecture. Trees and shrubs mentioned in Shakespeare’s works were planted in the adjoining Shakespeare Tree Garden.

Extensive herbaceous gardens, orchards, arbours, stone-paved paths, topiaries and well-planned arbours were built around the thatch-roofed cottage, adding to its pastoral charm.

Romantic strolls

As I wandered through the beautiful garden and orchard, laid around the 600-year- old cottage on a rambling nine-acre property, I could visualise the romantic setting that had brought out the lover in the Bard. The rooms inside the cottage, with original family furniture that includes a four-poster bed and courting settee, helped in strengthening my fanciful visuals of Anne Hathaway and her family. It was almost like stepping back in time.

Sitting at the adjoining garden café, I ordered the famous English afternoon tea. It came in the form of flavourful Lapsang Souchong tea, along with different kinds of sandwiches and scones. Tucking into the sumptuous fare, I wondered if Anne Hathaway had once enjoyed a similar tea at the farm.

Published in The Sunday Herald, August 6, 2017

Travel

Cavorting around caves

In Pune recently, a few of our relatives wanted a trip of the Karla Caves, the ancient rock-cut caves in the town of Karli, situated on the highway between Pune and Mumbai. Though reaching the caves would mean an arduous climbing of steep steps, the adventurous aunt, in her 50s, insisted on it. All our efforts to dissuade her failed.

chaityagriha

The Chaityagriha

So, after scanning the maps and preparing the family jalopy for the bumpy ride — loaded with a hamper full of food in the boot of the car, an overenthusiastic aunt, and a team of energetic teenagers in the back seat — we took off on a day trip to reach the Buddhist caves.

a panel on the exterior wall of the Chaityagriha.JPG
A panel on the exterior wall of the Chaityagriha

The destination was about 60 km away, but the journey had umpteen stops — tea halts, photo halts, a special vada pav halt and a washroom halt, of course — and took more time than the actual journey. The cool October morning was perfect for the drive until we veered off the highway and took an apology of a road! It resulted in a few backaches and a punctured tyre. Not that it deterred anyone from the mission. An hour later, though, we stared dolefully at the steep 350-step climb. Taking inspiration from the locals who seemed to have no difficulty negotiating the steps, we began to pull our resisting bodies towards the top.

Sculpture of  Buddha.JPG

The benign Buddha

Surprisingly, the place teemed with scores of goats. Garlanded with marigold strings and spotted with a tilak on their foreheads, they were being led to their doom. Those who could not afford goats carried chicken or coconuts. On enquiring, we were told that they were being taken to the Ekvira Temple for sacrifice. Saddened by the plight of the bleating animals, we followed them up the steps. It seemed an anticlimax to carry out animal sacrifice in the vicinity of the Buddhist caves.

The Ekvira Temple, right next to a chaitya (Buddhist shrine or prayer hall) is said to have been built by the Pandavas during their treks through forests and mountains, while on exile. Ekvira aka Renuka Devi, is mainly worshiped by the Koli community, who are fishermen by profession. Lord Buddha’s mother, Mahamaya, is believed to have belonged to this tribe.

Are we there yet?

Coming back to our own tribe, gasping and panting — and with several halts — we, at noon, reached the top, which fanned out in a semicircle. We were greeted by a magnificent view of the adjoining area. Minutes later, we turned our attention to the stunning chaitya in the backdrop. The entrance, adorned by elaborate sculptures, illustrated the tenacity of those who had etched out stunning rock figures using simple tools like chisel and hammer. The garrulous aunt, struck by the beauty, stood speechless.

sculpture of a couple on the exterior wall.JPG

Exquisite craftsmanship

“The caves were carved out in the 4th century by Buddhist monks belonging to the Hinayana sect, during the Satavahanas’s rule,” the scholarly niece read out from a brochure. “I thought the sculptures were made by monks from the Mahayana sect,” countered her brother.

“These caves were developed over a long period of time, from 2nd century BC to 5th century AD, with monks from different sects taking over and adding fresh sculptures to the existing ones,” the niece corrected him. “In fact, some of the sculptures were painted with natural colours during the 5th and 6th centuries.”

It didn’t matter which sect had been the master planner and executor of the impressive structures; all that mattered was the beauty around us.

An immense pillar topped by lions stood guard before the main hall. The outer walls of the chaitya were embellished with scores of human and animal sculptures. Familiar with the arched entrances and vaulted ceilings in the Buddhist caves, I stepped into the main chaitya, which was similarly embellished.

Set in stone

Inside the 45-metre chaityagriha, supposed to be one of the largest in the country, I was struck by the row of elegantly carved pillars, each one topped by a distinctive set of sculptures, and some of them were inscribed with words — believed to be names of donors — in the ancient Brahmi script. The main chaitya was flanked by smaller viharas, which served as monasteries. These were small, hard and cold cells carved into rock faces, with windows for light. “It must have been a tough life,” the niece echoed my thoughts. “Imagine trekking up hundreds of steps every day.”

a view from the top.JPG
A view from the top

The Ekvira Temple was packed with devotees who were dragging their balking goats. Casting one last look at the serene caves alongside the gaudily decorated and noisy temple, we began our downward climb. The descent was easier, but meditative, as we tried to come to terms with the diversity of the place.

Fact File

Getting there:

Located between Mumbai (120 km) and Pune (60 km), the caves of Karla can be accessed by road. The nearest railway station is Malavli.

Places to visit:

The Bhaja Caves, which boast of superior architecture, are located within a radius of 10 km.

Accommodation:

Day trips to the caves are preferred by most, but Lonavala, about 10 km away, offers accommodation.

 

(Published in The Sunday Herald, November 20, 2016)

Travel

Take a spa break

Pearl of the Danube, City of Bridges and City of Spas, it has many names. Budapest wears its many names with aplomb. During the communist reign, it was also known as the Happiest Barrack in the Eastern Bloc. That title wouldn’t have come without reason.Coming back to spas, there is an interesting history about them. When the early residents of Budapest discovered that there were innumerable natural springs of warm water lying within the womb of the city, they decided to set up thermal baths. The Celts are known to have enjoyed the warm spring waters as healing water and baths.

In the first century, Romans established a province called Pannonia in what is known as the Obuda district today. Ruins of elaborate Roman baths in the Aquincum area vouch for the fact that the Romans enjoyed the medicinal water available in the area. Not surprising since Budapest is known to have more than a 100  springs, perhaps the largest number in any other capital.In the 13th century, the knights of St John built their healing centre where Rudas Bath stands today.

When the Ottoman Turks conquered the city in the 16th century, they were delighted to discover the natural springs. Known for their fascination for baths, they set up several ornate baths around the city, most of them around the Danube. Like the Celts, Romans and the knights, they used the deep underground hot spring waters in the baths for bathing, healing and relaxing. In the next 12 years of Sokoli Mustafa’s reign, many Turkish baths are built. Special tiles and pipes were imported from Turkey for this purpose.

Octagonal Turkish pools (known as ilidzas by the locals) topped with beautiful domes with multi-coloured glasses attracted the inhabitants and the bath culture of the city took a serious turn. Several of them like the Rudas, Kiraly and Veli Bej Bath, dating  between 1550 and 1600s are still functional.

This was also the time when aqua therapy was advocated by doctors and the healing spa waters became very popular with the locals. Gellert Hotel, which has a beautiful spa, was constructed in the early 20th century when Ödön Lechner, who was known as the Gaudi of Hungary, began designing art nouveau structures.

More baths were added and the old ones renovated as the popularity of the thermal baths began drawing tourists to the place and in the early 20th century, Budapest was declared as the City of Spas.Today, there are more than 15 baths for the public. Many upscale hotels have their own spas. Parties are held in some of the baths like Rudas Bath (on Friday and Saturday nights) and guests can enjoy music and light effects, along with their bath.

Many of the city’s baths are unisex in nature, especially during the weekends. Szechenyi baths and pool, an architecturally stunning bath, is about a 100  years old and is one of the most popular ones today. It even offers short guided tours for the visitors.Besides the bath, one can book a session of massage, mud therapy or hydrotherapy. Most baths have various bath tickets. Full day tickets usually include the use of all bath pools and facilities but not personal services like massage, manicure, etc.

(Published in The Sunday Tribune, November 6, 2016)

Travel, Wine and Cuisine

A Beijing break

Beijing takes your breath away. Whether it’s Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace or the Great Wall, everything’s on a grand scale. And it isn’t just the ancient monuments that are awesome. The Chinese capital has no fewer than six Unesco World Heritage sites and it has also wholeheartedly embraced modernisation. Ancient historical monuments stand cheek-by-jowl with futuristic constructions. The impact of fast-growth is visible everywhere and it’s all about being glitzier, bigger and bolder.

Mao's poster over the Tiananmen gate

Chairman Mao’s mammoth poster on the Tienanmen Gate

I wasn’t prepared for the city’s magnitude, despite reading descriptions. From its sprawling airports to high-speed trains and lofty structures, everything’s outsized.

The stark image of the ‘Tank Man’ that went round the world during the Chinese students’ protests resurfaced in my mind as I ambled through gigantic, tightly protected, teeming Tienanmen Square.  It was here that Chairman Mao declared the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, and it’s also where he’s interred. Each sunrise and sunset, goose-stepping soldiers perform a flag-raising and lowering ritual.

Tiananmen Gate - entry to the Forbidden City

The Tienanmen Gate — or Gateway of heavenly peace — is the entrance to the Forbidden City and I made my way through a crowd of selfie-seekers jostling for a snap against the backdrop of a huge image of Mao Zedong.

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A sculpture of revolutionary struggle at Tienanmen Square.

The Forbidden City was everything I’d imagined — enormous and forbidding. It was home to a long line of emperors — from the Ming to the Qing Dynasty. Surrounded by a moat and beautiful gardens, it’s a gigantic complex. It’s impossible to see all the halls and gardens in a single day. But if you’ve only got time for one hall, head to the Hall of Supreme Harmony with its ornate Dragon Throne.

The Forbidden City

If you’ve a little time, stop by the Imperial Garden with its beautiful pavilions, walkways and water-bodies. I found myself calmed by the garden’s languorous ambience.

Later, I rushed to the Temple of Heaven, another UNESCO Heritage Site. Roughly three times the size of Forbidden City, it’s a sprawling and beautiful complex with a clutch of temples, halls and parks. This is where the emperors offered prayers for good harvests.

Right near the entrance I was delighted to hear a concert. The rambling parks here draw musicians from all walks of life.

Hall of Prayers at Temple of Heaven

Gnarled pine trees, some over 500 years old, form the forested foreground for the impressive Hall of Prayers. There are several places to halt like the circular Mound Altar, octagonal Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Echo Wall. Traversing the Long Corridor connecting the Divine Kitchen to the Hall of Prayers, I spied some senior citizens playing cards, while another group practiced music.

The Summer Palace, my next stop, was an enormous complex surrounded by the massive Kunming Lake and overlooked by Longevity Hill. Every imperial place is built on a colossal scale.

The 17 arch marble bridge at summer palace

Instead of walking around the lake for half a day, I opted for an enchanting boat ride to reach the palace hub. The main palace, built to serve as a summer retreat for the royals, has numerous ancient palaces that housed the emperor, queens and concubines. I was enchanted by the 17-arch marble bridge that spanned the lake and colourful wooden palaces.

Also, the Long Corridor, with its never-ending array of traditional Chinese paintings was enchanting. The palaces were wrecked during the Opium War II by French and British soldiers and later rebuilt — only to be burnt down and restored several times.

It takes a full day to appreciate the beauties of the Summer Palace but darkening clouds hurried me along.

I was left with barely two days and had yet to visit the enormous Great Wall and shop at the Panjiayuan flea market. Then, I criss-crossed ancient streets to sample street food. The next morning, at the crack of dawn, I headed to the Great Wall, prepared for a knee-torturing climb. A few hours later, I stood at Juyong Pass, staring at the the wall that snakes through lofty mountains for almost 6,700km. The ambitious wall, with its watchtowers and temples, was built to halt the Mongolian invaders.

Great Wall

I climbed bravely to the highest watchtower and surveyed the stunning landscape. It was dusk when I reached the Panjiayuan flea market. Muscles protesting, I ambled through the place once known as Dirt Market. My eyes took in the array of interesting curios, exotic paintings, exciting junk jewellery, fascinating porcelain and carved furniture, many labelled antiques. I made one last stop at a restaurant to sample the Peking Duck which turned out to be as delicious as expected. The meal and the Middle Kingdom left me pleasantly sated.

NOT TO SCALE

READY RECKONER

♦ How to get there: Calcutta-Beijing is a one-stop flight on airlines like China Eastern and Thai Airways.
♦ Where to stay: Beijing has lots of options from the five-star hotels to backpacker hostels.
♦ What to see/do: Visit the UNESCO World Heritage Sites like the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall and so on. Buy silk, jade and curios.

(Published in The Telegraph, July 10, 2016)

Travel, Wine and Cuisine

Hit the Silk Road

The legendary Silk Road began at the city,  once known as Chang’an (Eternal Peace), many eons ago. Today, the city is called Xian and is more famous for the terracotta warriors, which were placed in a vast necropolis to guard Emperor Qin in the spirit world, than the silk produced there.  Old timers at Xian maintain that the city traded in Jade even before it began trading in silk. According to them, the Jade Road came in play almost seven thousand years ago and traded in precious white jade.

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Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi province | Anton_Ivanov

The marvel begins as soon as one embarks on the journey from Beijing to Xian, a distance of  more than 1200 kilometres. It takes just about  six   hours  by the high speed bullet train. The Xian railway station, pristine and striking, could give any of our airports a run for  money.  An eight lane road fringed by lush greenery led to our hotel downtown. It was clear that the entire city is going through a serious facelift of no-nonsense kind.

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Xi’an city wall

In recent years, Xian has transformed into a glitzy city with huge malls, impressive  buildings and a sprinkling of KFC and McDonald outlets.  The Chinese youth love the fare in McDonald and KFC, I discovered.  Everyone is in a rush to catch up with the lost time. Bigger, flashier and costlier seems to be the watchwords. All this belies the reputation of the city as a cultural hot spot during the Tang Dynasty reign.

Notwithstanding the city’s race to modernise itself, travellers find it an amazing place where the old melds with the new.  Xian, at its peak, was a power centre.  It is also one of China’s oldest cities that has seen no less than thirteen dynasties. Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who sat on the throne at the age of 13, is credited with the unification of China. He brought together the warring states, interlinked them with canals and roads, standardised the measures, currency and began constructing the astounding Great Wall.

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Big Wild Goose Pagoda

Xian was  the best planned and affluent city of ancient China.  Part of that affluence can be credited to the Silk Route, which saw caravans arriving from far flung empires of Rome and Persia. Remnants of its past glory can still be spotted as one goes around the older parts of the city. The ancient town was ringed by 39 foot-high walls with 13 imposing gates. The Yongning Gate is the oldest one of the gates. It is also beautifully restored and draws hordes of tourists, eager to pose for a selfie.

Soon after he was crowned, Emperor Qin embarked on an ambitious project of creating an army of terracotta warriors to guard him in his afterlife. The project took many years, with 700,000 workers toiling through the day to create horses, warriors and chariots that would populate the vast necropolis.

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Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s terracotta army

It was a chance discovery by a few farmers that led to the discovery of the terracotta warriors. While digging for well in 1974, they stumbled upon several broken statues and weapons.  Their discovery led to a full scale excavation process by archaeologists, who unearthed an amazing subterranean world.

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Bronze chariot of emperor in Xi’an terracotta army museum | Hung Chung Chih

Of the colossal necropolis only three of the pits have been partly excavated.  These pits have yielded a treasure trove of military, cultural and artistic excellence of that era. Thousands of clay warriors clad in colourful uniforms with metal weapons, many of them in perfect condition. What is amazing is the unique facial features and hairstyles of the warriors. Of the estimated 7000, only 2000 have been unearthed yet.

Excavation still continues, with fresh discoveries being made even today. According to Siam Qian,  a historian in Emperor Qin’s era,  the mausoleum holds riches beyond imagination.  The historian documented that there were many statues of musicians, dancers, performers and precious items buried around the emperor’s mausoleum.

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Bell Tower of Xi’an

While the theatre of terracotta figures have drawn universal attention, the attractions of Xian are not limited to them. There are many interesting places to explore in the bustling city. The Big Goose Pagoda is one of them. The seventh century pagoda, sited close to the erstwhile Tang palace was constructed to hold some precious scriptures brought from India by the travelling monk, Xuanzang (Hsuan-Tsang).   Since then, the tall pagoda, which is a part of the Da Ci’en Temple complex, has been reconstructed many times.

Drum tower and Bell tower, two adjacent structures, also witness a lot of tourist footfalls. Almost all cities ruled by the Tang dynasty had a Drum Tower and a Bell Tower to announce the sunset and sunrise, each day. They came handy to announce emergencies like invasions and dangers. The Drum tower at Xian, houses many of the ancient drums that were used during the imperial times. Musical performances, held at regular intervals at the tower hold the public enthralled.  The nearby 14th century Bell Tower marks the geographical centre of the ancient capital. With dark green tiles, gold plated roof and gilded paintings, it is a resplendent representation of Ming architecture that deserves a visit.

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Drum Tower of Xi’an was erected in 1380 during the early Ming Dynasty | Anton_Ivanov

The Muslim Quarter of Xian stands close to the Drum tower. The city has a sizeable Muslim population and the Muslim Quarter provides an interesting peep into the culture of its inhabitants. Islam was introduced in the area by Arab traders and travellers, who came from Persia and Afghanistan during the 7th century. Many of them married local women and settled down at Xian.  With ten mosques located in the area, there is bound to be one that tourists find interesting, but it is the Great Mosque that sees many visitors.  For those looking for typical Muslim cuisine of the area, the adjoining streets, including the Beiyuanmen Muslim Street are of particular interest. Most people flock there to sample delicacies like fried rice with pickled Chinese cabbage and the spicy lamb soup served with flat bread.  Foodies are likely to drool over the roast beef, mutton, lamb and stuffed bun as well as persimmon fruit pies that can be found in the innumerable eateries.

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Beiyuanmen Street | OBB APH

With so much on offer, is it a wonder that a trip to China is incomplete without a visit to Xian.

Reaching Xian -Although Xian has an international airport and is connected by air and road to almost all major cities of China, the high speed bullet train is an experience by itself.

Staying – Xian has a plethora of hotels to suit all budgets. international youth hostels and backpacker inns and guest houses are also available for those desiring an inexpensive staying option.

Food – Xian is famous for its dumplings and noodles with no less than 20 types of the former.  Heletiao and androujiamo, available in the Muslim Quarter,  are a must-sample. Ugyhur cuisine boasts of delicacies like bamian and kebabs.

Shopping – Haggling is a must while shopping in any Chinese city. While at the Terracotta Warrior museum, shop for the replica of warrior, horse or chariot. Jade and silk as well as local souvenirs are a shopper’s delight but beware of the fake stuff.

Entertainment – The Tang Dynasty show is a much touted performance that provides a diversion during a leisurely evening. One could opt for a  combo of the show with a dumpling banquet.

Currency – 1 Chinese Yuan= 10.25 INR (approx)

 

(Published in The Week, June 26, 2016

Travel, Wine and Cuisine

Stop on the streets

Whoever dreamed of a day when street food would crawl into the hallowed pages of Michelin Guide, which has hitherto restricted its list to classy restaurants! Well, Hong Kong’s street food has just managed that impossible feat. As many as 23 eateries in Hong Kong have been included in the 2016 edition of Michelin Guide, which has created a new category for street food. In short, the street food of Hong Kong has made history.

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Food stalls in Old Quarters

Fried pork-fat noodles, delicious Thai rice noodles, exotic soy-sauce-coated octopus, unpretentious rice rolls, Shanghainese pork buns, delectable burgers, fragrant satay, Korean fried chicken, mild Cantonese puddings, tantalising tofu pudding, famous Cantonese waffle, popular wonton noodles — you name it and it’s there on the list.

Popular, tasty and pocket friendly, street food across many Asian countries can give the classier restaurants a run for their money. But they have been denied their rightful place, till now.

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Many takers

Like Singapore and Malaysia, the street food of Hong Kong has many fans. The vast repertoire is possibly one of the factors that have highlighted the Hong Kong street food. In the recent years, many adventurous tourists have begun crowding the tiny outlets or food carts to sample the fare that have earlier been known only to the locals. So much so that the undisputed Tsar among chefs, Anthony Bourdain, has claimed that Hong Kong is the world’s best city for street food.

Hong Kong is indeed a cuisine cauldron; right from the Malaysian satay to the Cantonese delicacies to Vietnamese and Korean fare, the city has adopted every kind of Asian cuisine.

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an array of skewered meat

Some districts in Hong Kong are more famous for their street food than the swanky restaurants in their neighbourhood. For instance, Mong Kok, which is reputed to be the world’s most crowded area, is famous for its street food. In the modest stalls there, you are likely to find the most delicious curried fish balls you’ll ever taste. The other neighbourhood popular for its offerings is Kowloon, where the night market draws hordes of people every night.

For an unforgettable experience, sample food at a dai pai dong (open-air street food stalls with discernible green-coloured kitchens), or a cha chaan teng (tea restaurant). These are no-nonsense type of eateries with cheap and tasty Cantonese cuisine. And, the boisterous setting is a bonus.

Sadly, these hectic and noisy places are a dying phenomenon, with just about a handful of them left in Hong Kong today. Some of the dai pai dongs, with tiny tables spilling over to the streets, began business during the 50s and catered to the working class. Unpretentious but popular food stalls still draw large working-class crowds to their cluttered tables during lunch hour.

The way forward

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dai pai dong

In the past decades, they have acquired a reputation for being unhygienic traffic blockers, which is why the Hong Kong government is chary of renewing the licences. Many enterprising dai pai dongs have moved into ‘cooked food centres’, which are akin to food courts. Some have refurbished their eateries into tiny but attractive restaurants.
In a typical dai pai dong, you can smack your lips on classic Cantonese fare like fried pork-rib, stir-fried beef noodles, noodles with ground beef and egg in tomato broth, sweet & sour pork, crispy buns, and pork rice rolls.

The cha chaan teng, although a tea restaurant, also serves food. The name came about as they serve all kinds of tea.

Local cuisine as well as Western cuisine are available here at affordable prices. One is likely to find baked chicken pies, egg tarts and bo lo bao (pineapple buns) along with wonton noodles, scrambled egg-and-ham sandwiches, together with drinks like black tea, coffee, lemon tea, green tea and milk tea, which are popular among the locals. Surprisingly, you’ll also find Horlicks and Ovaltine, and a drink known as yin-yang, which is a blend of tea and coffee.

The gai dan zai deserves a mention while writing about Hong Kong favourites. The traditional egg waffle, sometimes called ‘eggettes’, rose to popularity in the 50s, and has remained so.

Next time you visit Hong Kong, visit the traditional dai pai dong for a thrilling hole-in-the-wall eating experience. Who knows how long these gastronomic icons will continue to serve those who want to enjoy the old Hong Kong!

(Published in Sunday Herald, July 3, 2016)