A Once-in-a-Lifetime Hike

The hike I am going to talk about does not promise staggering heights as say the Himalayas but it does end on a note of staggering beauty. The kind of beauty that is all natural. Not fenced in since the Norwegians are not paranoid about safety. They leave the environment to itself, being wholly dedicated to preserving the pristine nature of it.

Adi had first seen a shot of Preikestolen in a coffee table book. This was as far back as his teens.

One evening, we were seated in a hotel room in Berlin trying to find tickets for a bank holiday weekend. As it happened, there were tickets to nowhere available, except Stavanger. That is how some trips are meant to be. The universe does conspire to make them happen.

For our hike to Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), our base was the oil-boom town of Stavanger, right on the North Sea. An erstwhile fishing port dedicated to sardines and herrings, its cobbled lanes strung with 18th-century wooden houses and the atmospheric harbour lined with old warehouses-turned-pubs. Stavanger is lively too. Friday-night party-goers add the necessary va-va-voom to weekend evenings there.

The town itself is split into two pretty quarters. The eastern part of the harbour houses a colourful street, Øvre Holmegate, which boggles the senses. The harbour meanwhile with its crew of sailing boats and ferries creates a busy picture. Often a hunkering cruise ship rolls into town. The day we left Stavanger, the Caribbean Princess arrived at Vågen, standing athwart the city’s skyline like a mighty giant surveying its kingdom. You could see the cruise ship from everywhere in town.

Swooping into Stavanger 


On the outskirts of Stavanger is Sverd i Fjell. The Three Swords Monument commemorates the Battle of Hafrsfjord in 872 after which King Harald Fair Hair united the three districts of Norway into one kingdom.
Thoroughfare along Lake Breiavatnet
Pedestrian crossing signs in Stavanger, random but dapper.
Pavilion at Lake Breiavatnet
Lake Breiavatnet


Feeding ducks
Stavanger Cathedral
Hip Stavanger
Man in Iron. Part of an art installation project called ‘Broken Column’.


 Øvre Holmegate
Our Øvre Holmegate capers 


The harbour


The bars by the waterfront


Gamle Stavanger

The oldest part in town is Gamle Stavanger. At any time only a handful of tourists can be found to saunter through its cobbled alleys because it is residential. This means that those neat rows of idyllic white wooden cottages, old properties with rose-trellised doors, baskets of black petunias, pretty hydrangeas and weeping willows, are enveloped in solitude. My favourite find among the winding lanes of this quarter was an Old English Sheepdog, and a small canning museum, where you can stroll at leisure, studying the fishing heritage of this old town.




Inside a former canning factory which has been converted into a museum
Stavanger’s herring past

The Hike 

On a sunny day, we cruised into Lysefjord on a boat. Wads of clouds rolled into the sky and we puttered by the occasional tiny lighthouse on a boulder, with tiny wooden cottages in the distance popping up amongst tall evergreens. The wind was wicked and icy as it whipped through us and the red, white and indigo cross of the Norwegian flag flying at the helm of the boat. The real drama picked up when we came upon the granite cliffs of Ryfylke. They tower 3,000 feet above the fjord and glow in the sun’s rays like liquid gold. Yet at times when the sun was obliterated for minutes by clouds scudding across the sky, a brooding air came upon this seemingly serene fjord carved out by glaciers during the Ice Age. Only two sparsely populated villages lay along its 40-km length.

At one point, we looked up and spied the flat mouth of Preikestolen hanging out. It looked like a tiny slab of rock and beneath it was a sheer fall into jagged cliffs.

So, if you did fall, it would not be death by water.

Tiny villages along the fjord



Panoramic view of the Ryfylke
Dwarfed by the Ryfylke
Beneath Pulpit Rock. The jutting rectangular portion you see up there.




We were dropped off at the village of Tau, where the local iconic beer Tou was brewed in the mid-19th century. Later, the brewery was moved to Stavanger. A bus took us to the starting point. The hike was arduous. It took us about two hours of walking, climbing up boulders and gingerly making our way down them, tripping across brooks, and slipping on the occasional slimy rock before we were anywhere near Pulpit Rock. When the legs started to shake with exhaustion, it was worth our while to turn back and survey the landscape of misty fjord and islets, punctuated by scenic lakes, trails that opened into ravines and evergreen forests. It was in sync with the Norwegian motto ‘Ut på tur, aldri sur’ (‘Out on a hike, never gripe’).

Surrounded by young mothers with babies strapped onto them, young boys with fathers, dogs panting alongside their masters, teenage hikers, and gutsy old women and men armed with walking poles, I was finding it all rather surreal. That we were indeed on the way to Pulpit Rock. My partner and I had almost decided against the trip, you see. The weather forecast for the weekend was pouring rain. And, I am a fair weather hiker, thank you.

Yet we decided to do as the Nordic do: wing it. They say that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.

Ahead of us a scene played out that could have made it to Fifty Ways to Kill Your Mammy (an adventure series on British telly about the experiences of a 70-year-old Irish mother and her intrepid son). A portly woman trudged ahead of us, puffing out questions to her teenage son, which ran along the lines of ‘Where is the lift?’ This cheeky boy replied calmly, ‘You asked for Norway. So This is It, mum!’ This mother-and-son team duo in tow, we suddenly came upon Pulpit Rock. The one prize that had us all in its grips.

Local lore presages that the rock shall fall off the mountain into the fjord the day seven brothers marry seven sisters from the area around it.

When we finally arrived at Pulpit Rock, we were faced by a steep cliff that true to its name jutted out squarely, like a pulpit, above the fjord. Around me, Brave men and women – trust me on this – walked right up to the edge of the rock, sat down and flashed toothy grins for their shutterbug friends. Then there was the category of the Very Brave – they stood at the edge and clicked a few dozen selfies.

The occasion demanded an attempt at bravery. Adrenalin pumping, I walked right up to the edge. Stopped. Sat down. My left foot dangling off the edge of the ledge, I took a peek down, and my right foot never got the chance to be as brave as its counterpart. Perched upon that rocky outcrop in the heart of Norway’s Rogaland county, my nerves were taut with the possibility of a tumble into the dark waters of the fjord, unless the rocky cliffs met me first.

This is what had transpired a few minutes before.

“But I want to sit at the edge like I would at the dining table,” I negotiated terms with my grim partner, who in turn looked down at the glassy waters of the fjord below, looked up, and said, “And I want my wife. Tough.”

I was halfway on the road to bravery.

Blame it all on the right foot.

The pleasant leg of the hike at the very beginning
Then it suddenly gets properly exhausting



Man and dog catch a break by the edge of a cliff
A couple catches a breather by a lake
Where we pause awhile to catch our breath
Finally, Pulpit Rock
Peeping down from my lovely seat on Pulpit Rock


Oh that surreal landscape before our eyes!

Nothing, and I shall have to insist on it, nothing prepares you for the thrill of Preikestolen. No amount of photographs/videos approximate those moments of sheer exhilaration, of having made it to the flat outcrop scoured by glacial erosion. You just drink in the dreamy beauty of the fjord with hungry eyes, because let’s face it, it is the kind of place that makes people lose their common sense.




A Chunk of South West Wales

In the midst of all our European jaunts, we had left behind the strong love that my husband and I nurse for our English country holidays. If anybody claims that there is nothing that compares to the countryside in Britain, that would be me. Adi would nod vigorously in assent.

On a Friday noon, we booked a cottage and drove through the cool evening, four hours away from home. It was late at night when we rolled into the pebbled driveway of the cottage tucked into a quiet hamlet in the Carmarthenshire county of Wales. A tablet on the front door announced it to be Penrhiw (pronounced as pen-ru, it means ‘head of the street’). The landlady, Naomi, showed us into a compact annexe at the rear of the house that overlooked a vast network of fields. Outside the door stood a pair of wooden chairs, a small slatted table and a portable fire-pit. Adi immediately started rambling about his visions of jacket potatoes and butter.

There was no wifi, no mobile network. Suited us just fine. Technology is too much with us anyway, you think when you look up at the open sky on a dark night, see the stars grow brighter, more popping up by and by; herds of cuddly sheep that materialise when morning dawns to stare at you warily, cows who chomp away contentedly in herds and horses that trot up to meet you from their patches of green.

The road that led to our cottage in the county
The cottage we stayed in


The kind of view we had from our part of the cottage
The woody bit adjoining the cottage where the piglets live
An adorable twosome and Naomi
Curious cows
The two beauties we came across
The next day we looked high and low for them but our two friends were missing

Day 1

The morning started with a meeting. With Naomi’s two new piglets. Off the driveway was a glade of white and lilac summer flowers and tall trees and walking down its muddy track, we came upon a pen from which emerged the pair of squealing and grunting piglets. One of them had differently coloured eyes – one was blue, the other brown.

Tenby: Our drive along the rugged coastline in the adjoining county of Pembrokeshire led us to Tenby,  a town with a significantly long Welsh name, Dinbych-y-pysgod. It is supposed to sound something along the lines of ‘dinbeekhapusgod’ which means ‘fortlet of the fish’, derived from the nature of the town’s original trade. I thought Tenby suited us fine anyway. Walking in through its Five Arches Gate which are remnants of a once castled town, we came upon a bustling Welsh town. Pastel coloured house fronts spoke of Victorian revival architecture – the town was a picture of abandonment and decay after the English Civil War and a plague in the mid-1600s – till the Victorians turned their attention to Tenby. There was an increasing emphasis in Victorian England on bathing holidays in English towns because the Napoleonic wars of the time made it difficult for the posh crowd to frequent European spa resorts. The man who became associated with reviving Tenby was merchant banker and politician Sir William Paxton. He bought a house in Tenby in 1802 and decided to design it into a ‘fashionable bathing establishment suitable for the highest society’.

Tenby’s harbour
St. Catherine’s Fort on that limestone outcrop.
Ruins of the castle can be spotted in the background


Pub grub at Three Mariners


Look ye, someone was spotted knocking back tipples at the Three Mariners
The owl who puts up with her owner. After all, hers is the hand that feeds her.
Strawberry and clotted cream ice cream


Lawn bowling











Only some walls and a tower of the castle remain of the once medieval walled town of Tenby. Outside one of these walls, by the harbour, an old man with no teeth but a wide smile pasted upon a sorrowful face played tunes on an accordion. The afternoon demanded a good tuck-in at a pub and it was followed by dollops of heavenly ice cream from a small shop. The continuous pealing of church bells as the sonorous background music, we surveyed charming cottages, in vivid colours dominate the harbour of Tenby that hugs the Celtic Sea. Henry VII escaped in a boat from this harbour to Brittany during the War of the Roses.

A fort stands high above a tidal island off Tenby, mysteriously aloof on a limestone outcrop facing the sandy beaches of Tenby. It is St. Catherine’s Fort that was built in 1867 to fortify the British empire against attacks from the French. Your ears would probably perk up if I told you that a couple of years ago Tenby was vying with beaches in Portugal, Croatia and Italy for the most-beautiful-beach-town-in-Europe tag.

Carew Castle: In the industrial town of Milford Haven stands Carew Castle. The castle and its tidal mill overlook a tidal estuary.

This is a castle that has a family home kind of a touch to it unlike its neighbour, Pembroke Castle, which is austere and typically Welsh.

I was transfixed by stories narrated by the woman who walked us though it in a small group. Its cellars, dark kitchens and chapels, and garderobe (cloakroom) came alive with tales of people who lived there. She was a good storyteller, that woman.


The chapel inside which must once have been furnished with rich, luxurious fabrics



Hunting grounds in the background of the castle.
The tidal mill in the distance.

The story that got me was that of Princess Nest of Deheubarth (regional name for the realms of south Wales). Nest was born around 1085 to Rhys ap Tewdwr, king of the Deheubarth. Her famed beauty got her the nickname, ‘Helen of Wales’, and a highly eventful life. She became Henry I’s mistress and then the same Henry I married her off to Gerald de Windsor, an Anglo-Norman baron. She was later abducted by a Welsh prince called Owain who is said to have been her cousin and very much in love with her.

Nest had borne 21 children in her lifetime and lived into her 50s (a ripe old age in those days). “Though she is spoken of in a cavalier manner, I believe Nest was a survivor. In those days, women had to marry to be safe and give birth to seal in their security. She must have been quite intelligent to survive the difficult years she was born into,” our guide pointed out.

Carew Castle was part of Nest’s dowry when she married Gerald, a man who was 40 to her tender 14 years. It was their son, William who adopted the name ‘de Carew’.

As for Nest, she left behind her legacy with the Tudor and Stuart monarchs of England as well as Princess Diana and US President John F. Kennedy.

Skirting past the darkened interiors of the castle, which are home to bats and owls, we heard so many more stories – the ghastly tale of a cruel man called Rhys ap Thomas who took over the castle when the de Carews went broke. Rhys ap Thomas betrayed his friend and backed Henry Tudor when he came back to England to claim the throne. He was rewarded generously when Henry became the king. This Thomas kept a vicious barbary ape in the castle and mistreated it.

At the end of it, the ape ripped his throat apart one stormy night and died in the chamber too.

The castle is said to be haunted by that ape. A visitor to the castle had apparently caught the ape staring down at him from one of the windows. In that very apartment where the ape killed his master, I was deemed a ‘snail murderer’. A loud crunch beneath my boot-clad feet and to my dismay I discovered the remains of a hapless snail.

The Elizabethan wing
The drama of Carew

Do look out for the Elizabethan wing which were built by the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir John Perrot. He had acquired the castle after its last owner, Rhys’ grandson, was executed by Henry VIII for treason.

Barafundle Bay: Limestone cliffs and dramatic red sandstone cliffs stand guard over the sandy beaches and jewel coloured waters of Barafundle Bay. It is a part of an old grand home, Stackpole Estate, that is located between the villages of Stackpole and Bosherston near Pembroke. The estate with its property of farmland, lakes, woodland and beaches is now part of the National Trust. It was owned by the Cawdor family, descendants of Thane of Cawdor who is celebrated in Macbeth – Macbeth was made Thane of Cawdor by Duncan in the play.




We could not help but be mesmerised by the waters here, the collapsed caves in the bay and the various cliff-y walks that always lead to breathtaking views. We only saw a handful of people exploring Barafundle and that made us feel that we had the bay all to ourselves.

St Ishmael:  If you are passing through St Ishmaels, a village in Pembrokeshire, and you see traffic halted on a narrow country road, you shall know that the miscreants are two adorable hunting dogs, running ahead of the cars. A woman is probably running after them trying to get them into the car so that she can hand them over to the Pembrokeshire County Council as abandoned dogs.

That is how we ended up chasing Holly. We were the second car in the line-up and the thought of dogs having been abandoned was awful enough to get us off the car and try to help out the above-mentioned woman.

Both were beagles, one a pure-bred, and the other a mix. The pure-bred beagle pretty easily allowed the woman to pick him up (why walk and run when you can get a ride, right?). The hybrid beagle on the other hand kept on running ahead and even growled at the woman.

After about two miles of jogging behind her – in which time the woman decided to go drop off the first dog at the council – I was stunned to see the dog leap into the arms of an old man. It turned out that, Holly the hybrid beagle, and her friend the pure beagle, have a penchant to run off. They are hunting dogs, so when they catch a scent in the air, off they go.

“They are my daughter’s dogs. She left them with me because she had to move to Cardiff,” said the man with a suitably harassed expression. Quite understandable when you find someone chasing two dogs every other day.

Marloes: After ravishing a bar of Bournville – because chasing a dog is hungry business – we reached Marloes Peninsula. It is a world made up of silence – because you are pretty much two of the four people out there – and prickly yellow gorse bushes and sprays of wild flowers. Jagged cliffs drop off into miles of sandy beaches. A few miles away stands a white 17th century lighthouse which used to be run on coal, funded by the toll charges paid up by ships that passed by.

We walked on that windy peninsula, admiring the various strata of sandstone marking the cliffs and glowing golden in the setting sun. We sat and admired the mine of geological treasures that Marloes is. Why, one of those formations even resembled a shoe. My father studied geology and I could understand his fascination with the subject, seated on the heather of that peninsula as we saw in front of us fractured stacks, folds of volcanic rocks and sea caves.

Across us, over miles of blue ocean waters and headlands that claw their way into the ocean, stood the islands of Gateholm, Grassholm and Skomer, known for their colonies of puffins, choughs and seals.

On the climb to Marloes


The walk to Marloes which is a part of ‘Little England beyond Wales’, an area in Wales. The name is a reference to the fact that it has been English in character for centuries despite its geographical distance from England.


Marloes. A peninsula on the western edge of Pembrokeshire.
Doesn’t that rock formation look like a boot?
Sunset at Marloes
Chicken tikka barbecue

When we reached our cottage, we spent the evening barbecuing chicken tikka over charcoal and warming ourselves on that chilly evening by a blazing fire. We smelled thoroughly smoky by the end of that evening, but as we sipped on a rosé wine and snacked on those delicious charred morsels of meat, we were in our own little heaven under a sky bejewelled with stars.



St. David’s: We were in Britain’s smallest city – in terms of size and population. In it, Wales’ patron saint, St David is said to have established a monastery and church in the 6th century. That church is no longer there but in its place is the spectacular St. David’s Cathedral. This cathedral goes back to the times of the Normans, before which stood another cathedral that was plundered by Vikings and burnt down.

St. David’s Cathedral


The stream that runs by the cathedral
There has always been a church on the site since the 6th century but the cathedral itself dates back to 1181.
The simple yet beautiful nave of St. David’s Cathedral
River Alun that flows through St. David’s
Ruins of the medieval Bishop’s Palace. The palace is said to have been built by a series of ‘builder bishops’ during the late 13th and 14th centuries.

Looking at its grand visage, I could imagine why this cathedral was a much-hailed pilgrimage in the early days when starting with William the Conqueror, many kings and queens had paid it a visit. St. David’s Cathedral is beautiful not because it is bombastic. In fact, it is austere in its wooden interiors which are reminiscent of its medieval past. You cannot help but gawk at the ceilings and floor tiles that crop up inside. Do look out for the remains of St. David which are kept inside the cathedral.

If you have time, spend some time in the city which houses a cute assortment of houses and boutiques. And do fall prey to the crunchy onion rings at The Sound Café. It is worth its batter.

The charming city of St. David’s
In Britain’s smallest city (in terms of size and population).
A lovely café in St. David’s.
Those onion rings *shuts her eyes and smacks her lips
Gammon and chips



And then we met award winner, gentle Alfie, at a horse and dog show in St. David’s. All he wanted to do was catch a snooze before which he accepted Polo.
Meet Mr. Bojangles. He was a stud. It  also seemed that he knew it.

Brecon Beacons

Walks and drives in the heather-clad mountains (or hills) of the Brecon Beacons National Park are just serene and filled with natural beauty. Once in a while, the tiniest of hamlets pop up along with pubs, but for the most part it is filled with miles and miles of green pastures dotted with sheep. There are more sheep than men out there. I promise.

In to the Brecon Beacons National Park
Motorbikers, bikers and hikers are quintessential to the landscape of the Brecon Beacons
As of course are these beautiful posers who are woven into the fabric of the rural vista.
Every year I read about a few soldiers dying in the Brecon Beacons. It is a favoured training ground for the British armed forces.
Hamlets crop up once in a while within the park
But my favourite thing is meeting the cuddly timid creatures
The Brecon Beacons are one of four ranges of mountains and hills in South Wales
The kind of views you come across within the Welsh national park


Roads that snake past reservoirs
Reservoir within the Brecon Beacons

There are plenty of trails and drives to choose from within the park. We took the A4069 Black Mountain Road that took us on sinuous, curved roads through the park and led us to the Usk Reservoir. The other route we drove down was the Abergavenny-Penderyn route.

There are six peaks within the park that is supposed to have been named after an ancient practice of lighting beacons on the mountains to warn of invaders attacking.

I am quite ready to relive the magic of south west Wales, all over again. For how often do you have a holiday spending time with curious horses, friendly cows, naughty hunting dogs and charming piggies?



Wanderlust the Smart Way

There is this spark in my husband’s eyes whenever he redeems his airline miles or acquires free nights in hotels in various locations in the world. That spark is an outcome of a clever collection of air miles and hotel loyalty points. Those two components, through a series of permutations and combinations, add magic to our holidays.

Imagine paying in terms of loyalty points and miles for a holiday. You would then have to take care of just the regular expenses of eating, drinking, sightseeing and shopping in a destination.

Travelling could be that much simpler, yes.

My husband has been inspired by our Seattle-based brother-in-law who is a firm believer in the goodness of the concept. Their conversations revolve highly around these subjects when we meet or talk on the phone.

A lot of eye rolling happens on my side whenever they are in the groove.

Then on a hike in Norway we made a new friend who it turns out is as obsessed with air miles and hotel loyalty talk. And boy, those conversations can put me to sleep but that is because I am an air travel simpleton. Before I met my husband, I used to book air tickets in the basic mode: Cheapest fare, tick; Destination A to Destination B, tick; Timelines that suited me, tick. I did not even collect hotel loyalty points.

After years of watching the husband spend hours researching deals on his laptop and whittled by his conversations with like-minded people, it has seeped into me – that travelling intelligently, armed with miles and hotel points, is a gratifying process.


This deconstruction of getting started with air miles and hotel points is for the uninitiated (I shall try my best and let the three experts I had a chat with take over).

What are air miles? A word from the mile-wise friend: “I would say miles are the same as any other form of travel currency. Registering with most airline programmes does not cost anything.  If you do not collect air miles, you are giving away travel currency.”

Similarly, hotel points are the kind of loyalty that you receive when you favour a certain property during booking rooms for holidays.

There is a third way of maximising points. Apply for a credit card with sign-up bonus points for hotels and airlines. For e.g. in the UK you get 30,000 reward points on a certain credit card company’s platinum card. “The aim should be to hit the spend limit, get bonus points and then churn (cancel the card once the bonus points have been accrued and then reapply for the card after a few months so that you get fresh points all over again) the card. I have earned 300,000 points through applying for credit cards for my wife and me, and churning them,” says the husband.

He adds: “Always keep an eye out for offers from hotel chains on their loyalty programmes. I did a mattress run recently and earned 80,000 points by just spending 120£.”

The brother-in-law is an expert and rather passionate about the subject. He once took eight flights in a day. He got up early one morning, spent 110$ on a round trip, flying from Raleigh to Charlotte to DC to Pittsburgh to Buffalo and returning to Seattle via Philadelphia, DC, Charlotte and Raleigh. “US Air was showering travellers with bonus miles at the time. I was a gold card holder and I ended up with 20,000 miles. They upgraded me on every flight to first class,” he notes. You see the way the expert’s mind works.

The most lucrative promotion came about in the early 2000s, he recalls, when Swiss Air went bankrupt. KLM ran a promotion which stated that if you were an elite member with another airline, had a European address and earned 12,000 Flying Dutchman points or flew 20 segments within 6 months, KLM would make you an elite member. It would also give you an equivalent number of points as the miles you had collected on the other airline’s frequent flyer account.

The brother-in-law explains: “It was aimed at people who were frequent flyers on Swiss Air. The deal was that you had to fly 20,000 miles within three months. I was an elite member of US Air already. To satisfy the other clause, I used a friend’s mail address in the UK. I cadged up the miles by taking a trip to India and a round trip to Europe within three months. I numbered six flights on the round trip to Europe, then were another six flights involved in reaching India and getting back. I booked these on KLM and Northwest, former partners of Swiss Air. As a result, I got the equivalent of gold elite membership on KLM, and 880,000 points.” Subsequently, when KLM moved to a mileage-based programme, they converted each point to 1.8 miles.  The brother-in-law ended up with roughly 1.5 million miles.

For the friend everything changed about six years ago when he first acquired an air miles co-branded credit card that allowed him to collect Emirates Skywards. He had never bothered checking how many miles he had on it till he received a notification from Skywards that stated that he had about 80,000 miles. “That started my ‘miles hobby’ and I quickly changed my alliance from Skywards to BA (Oneworld).  Now I almost never book with booking sites. I only use airline and hotel sites — as you can see the benefits of travel programmes,” he points out.

But it does not really mean that these air miles and hotel points make you travel for free. For let us sober up, there is nothing called free travel but there is award-happy travel. As the friend notes: “Contrary to the popular misconception, travel is not ‘free’.  What a ‘miles hobby’ does is that it makes you travel extensively, explore new places, look up new hotels and new airlines. It has done all that for me, and most importantly, it has made me more spontaneous with travel. Many would say that travel is only about getting from point A to point B. Miles let you enjoy how you make that journey. Last year, I visited 10 cities and seven of those had some form of connection with redemption of miles (e.g. cash fare plus upgrade, an all-mile redemption etc.).”

Vignesh, a points addict. Pic courtesy: Vignesh


How do you get started?

“Look up blogs. There are so many out there which dedicate posts to conversations about air miles. I got hooked when I was doing a search on frequent flyer issues and ended up on FlyerTalk (www.flyertalk.com). They discussed all kinds of tricks, how to maximise your miles and even listed out details on every programme,” says the brother-in-law, who in the last 15 years has funded 75 per cent of the family’s travel through miles.

According to the friend, FlyerTalk forums are the best way to get updated but if you are a beginner, they can confuse you with too many details. “You need to be an aviation geek and follow the forums on a regular basis. Headforpoints and Godsavethepoints are two good blogs which I would recommend. Headforpoints focus exclusively on the UK market.”

Another point to note is that miles do not belong to you but rather to the airlines. The friend adds: “This means that they can be devalued, at least theoretically, overnight. You could lose value drastically (e.g. Alaska miles devaluation in US recently). Miles, just like cash, lose value over time, so I would never keep hoarding on to miles with a view of reaching some magic number. Collect miles on more neutral programmes like American Express Membership Rewards or SPG rewards as they can be converted to a number of different programmes and you can hedge the exposure towards any one airline programme. That said, you also need to have frequent flyer status with some of the main programmes (e.g. Oneworld or Star Alliance) as it makes travel even more pleasant.”

The kind of rewards you can reap through collecting air miles. Pic courtesy: Vignesh

With respect to maximising miles, you have to know when to redeem them. For short-haul flights within Europe, my husband opts for low-cost airlines instead of throwing away miles on what would anyway be a cheap air ticket. But when we think of tickets to far-off destinations, he does extensive research on how to best use our bank of air miles.

“In the UK, government taxes are so high that it makes sense to redeem the points for a business class or first class ticket. When we travelled to Seattle and back, we chose business class. We had a companion voucher which I had got through a credit card. We redeemed 80,000 points – without the companion voucher it would have cost us double the points. We paid only 600£ taxes for two return business class tickets. In economy, the taxes would have still gone up to 550£. That is the point of maximising miles,” adds the husband.

The same goes for loyalty points. Redeem them at a top-of-the-line hotel of the chain that you bank your loyalty with.

Now are you up for making a change to intelligent travel and getting adventurous with it?

The husband pipes out while I am writing – “Remember, with miles and hotel loyalty points, you feel your next holiday is more achievable. More than when you look at your bank balance.”

As the aviation geek would aptly insist: “It is never too late to start this hobby.”












A Few Travel Trimmings This Spring

Nothing can add a spark to travel like a bit of fun accessorising. I have my eyes on a few things:

Like the cute travel tag from Etsy (’tis my featured shot for the post) which recalls the words penned for Catherine Morland (ref: Northanger Abbey). The leather tag scores by merely inscribing one of my favourite author’s (and I bet yours too) words on it.



A black & tan roll top rucksack, again from Etsy, which doubles up as a travel bag. It does not look frilly or feminine, just quiet grown-up chic.



If you want to be playful and add colour to your travel essentials, The Darling Trap does a cheeky polka-dotted lingerie case. Why let your lingerie float around in the suitcase feeling unloved?



There are also these lingerie cases from Mochi that come in burnt orange, peachy pink and deep wine tones.



When I am packing my trinkets in, I always find myself looking for small pouches and bags. This should be a nifty way of organising my pretty somethings.

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There is nothing like indulging in a spot of yoga in the mornings before you set out for the day during your travels. Here’s a much-needed non-slip yoga mat that can easily fit in the luggage, without taking up the entire bottom of the suitcase.



A folding travel kettle sounds a bit unreal does it not? But a designer has come up with exactly such a kettle that is made of silicone. It is yet to be put out on the market but when it does, I shall be in the queue. I cannot bear the thought of a room without a kettle in it — oh, the harrowing idea of no tea in the morning.



Sublimely Yours, Sintra

Two centuries before I trudged up the densely wooded hills of Serra de Sintra, the mountains of Sintra that is, the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Lord Byron had spent time falling in love with its ‘variegated maze of mount and glen’. My arrival in the foothills of Portugal’s resort town and former royal haunt of Sintra was not a mistake as the poet’s was. Byron had set sail for Malta, missed the boat, and taken off to Lisbon instead. That is how he found himself in ‘Cintra’ enchanted by its ‘palaces and gardens rising in the midst of rocks, cataracts and precipices; convents on stupendous heights’.

His voice tinged with horror, a local in Lisbon had insisted, ‘You cannot be in Lisbon and Not go to Sintra’. The Portuguese adore this town which lies 20 miles west of their capital city. Even the royals coveted it so that they transformed it into their summer retreat.

As the train pulled into the station, my eyes fell upon a grey mist hanging atop a panoply of trees and in the backdrop, aged buildings in vivid reds and yellows. I could smell the promise of faded glory in the air.

Town hall
Yellow-blue fountains spewing drinking water
Syvan Sintra




At the old train station made up of intricate wrought iron railings and a white and brick red front decorated with azulejos, I spent time warding off a tout advertising an electric car tour.

In the heart of old town, a pair of unconventional conical chimneys stuck out above a rambling white palace. The Palacio Nacional de Sintra (National Palace of Sintra). A big, plain summer retreat — with Moorish touches to its architecture — for the Portuguese royal family since the 14th century. Hans Christian Anderson, the Danish author, described the chimneys as giant champagne bottles.

Through a maze of restaurants, cafés and boutiques, I climbed stairs and walked the length of narrow alleys, stopping to gaze at geometric azulejos, gulping down shots of Ginjinha, that wonderful Portuguese liqueur made with an infusion of morello cherries. They give you edible chocolate cups along with the liqueur to seal in the heady flavours.

Spooky statues of angels playing guitars and the strains of soulful Fado wafting from the interiors of a restaurant evoked fatefulness and melancholia on a foggy day. I could not have asked for a more atmospheric walk. Steep paths, buildings matted with ivy, yellowed Santa Maria Churches and then a pink, dilapidated casa with a marble plaque, ‘Hans Christian Andersen’ inscribed upon it. The writer had lived his fairy-tale in Sintra in 1866 when he visited Portugal, it seems.

A few more minutes of hiking with my heart fit to burst and I reached mossy stone stairs leading up to the 9th-century Castle of the Moors. The fog was a wall — so dense that I could not see the town at all. A steady pitter-patter of water drained off the thick foliage above yet not a drop fell upon my head. I had the run of that forest terrain to myself, giant boulders sheathed in moss, lichens and ferns. An enchanted forest, the dream of a king who wanted to be surrounded by sylvan beauty.

The railway station 


Pampilhos. A confection from the Central-West region of Santarém in Portugal that is a thinly rolled sponge cake filled with gooey egg yolk cream called ovos-moles (soft eggs).



The 18th-century mansion and boutique hotel where Byron put up when he visited Sintra
Castelos dos Mouros, the Castle of the Moors, crowns the hills above Sintra
Cafés popular with the swish crowd
Mourisca fountain


The forest that leads to the Castle of the Moors 
Devotee at the door of a church



The National Palace
Conical chimneys of the palace 
Hans Christian Andersen’s villa in pink



“Do you know how rare it is for Sintra to get blue skies?” said a Lisbon cabbie during my days of rambling about the city. On a sunny day, swathes of cloud hanging above me in a blue, blue sky, I returned to it. I opted for a hop-on hop-off bus that would take me to the westernmost point of the country. Cabo da Roca. The bus wound its way through woods offering views above town, revealing mansions such as Chalet Biester to curious eyes, and when we had ascended all the way to the top, I walked the ramparts of Castelos dos Mouros. Ivy-clad battlements, thick woods out of which chalets and palaces, and the red roofs of buildings in old town reared their heads. I could have been a medieval figure standing on a fantasy fortress, gazing at the azure Atlantic, scanning it for invaders.

The most remarkable sight that popped up by and by was Pena Palace. All pink towers, yellow towers and turrets and golden dome against the backdrop of a cobalt blue sky and billowing white clouds. A product of the imagination of Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a nephew of mad Ludwig who built the most eccentric Bavarian castles. It figured.

Further along the woodland paths beneath the granite massifs of the mountains, past tiled fountains and giant redwoods, were more romantic pieces of architecture. But my eyes were held by the sumptuous beauty of the Quinta da Regaleira. A mansion unlike any I have seen, conceptualised by a Brazilian coffee tycoon and designed by an Italian opera set designer. Turrets and finials, drooping willows and wisteria, gardens filled with follies, grottoes and fountains and lakes. You get the picture.

The ramparts of Castelos dos Mouros. Pena Palace shows up above on the left.
Shy kitty in Castelos dos Mouros



Chalet Biester with its turrets below
Quinta da Regaleira


Towards afternoon I boarded the hop-on hop-off to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in mainland Portugal and Europe. We passed by pristine sandy beaches and wine-growing villages. When we arrived at Cabo da Roca, the driver gave us about 30 minutes. A red and white lighthouse, the landmark cross on the cliff with an inscription by the Portuguese poet Luis de Camões stating: ‘Land ends and the sea begins’; I sauntered along to the furthest end of the cliff where it fell below into a deserted beach and then the turquoise blue waters. On my way back, I had 10 minutes at hand, and so I dawdled around clicking photos of a trio of enthusiastic tourists. Then just as I started moving in the direction of the parking lot, I spied to my utter disbelief, the red top of the bus moving away at great speed.

Bald bastard had left me behind.

Beaches that precede Cabo da Roca
Cabo da Roca and the landmark cross
 Cabo da Roca lighthouse


After hyperventilating for the most part of an hour, I took a local bus into town, my senses frayed to bits by the caterwauling of a horde of school children. Anyway it turned out to be an adventure in the sublime environs of that fairytale place called Sintra.


Beyond Fashion in Milan

I had gone to one of the world’s fashion capitals with a pre-conceived notion. In my mind, I had seen women dressed to make me swoon with wonder at the sharpness of their fashionable sensibility. Well, as does happen with most exaggerated versions that live in the imagination, I found that the women wear their clothes with flair but none that does justice to the epithet associated with Milan.

When I found myself there at the onset of spring this year, the Milanese women had decided that palazzo pants were their It statement for the season. The palazzos skimmed the knees or flapped beyond the ankles often revealing pencil heels. The lone incident when my eyes did boggle was when I was on Via Monte Napoleone, in the posh fashion district of Milan, studded with designer names and appropriately enough referred to as the Quadrilatero d’Oro or Rectangle of Gold. In the twilight of a beautiful evening, a woman stepped out of a sleek dark car in the briefest of mini-skirts, transparent tights, leather jacket and big sunglasses – with a necessary accessory tucked beneath her elbows, a tiny pooch.

I told myself that I needed to see the city during the Milan Fashion Week. But just to offset that statement, I have seen enviable, effortless everyday fashion on the streets of Paris and London. Yet Milan had fashion lacing its genes. Since the medieval period it was renowned for its luxury fabrics. Its very name attests to its fashionable past derived as it is from the old English word millaner. It meant a producer of luxury goods. To keep up with the boom of industrialisation, new factories came up in Milan and the corollary was that manufacture of furniture got a boost – a reason why interior design stores are big in Milan.

Now, it is a distinct possibility that you might like Milan.

When I was in the city, walking all around it trying to locate China Town because my Google Maps had chosen to take me to a completely different area, a former colleague messaged me. In between charting a road that led to a rundown quarter and discovering that I was not where I was supposed to be, our conversation went thus:

She: You like Milan? Strangely, I must be the only person on this person who doesn’t like it.

Me: Well, my husband is with you there!

She: Great Minds

I rattled out a list that had got me going.

She: Yeah the Duomo is great and after that? Dull Grey City, but enjoy it. I got into some design stores for furniture. Felt very poor though.

With that she left me to my zeal to locate China Town. I did eventually get to it and ended up feeling let down. I had built up in my mind the image of a bustling community spread out over a substantial area, and there it was, a flimsy strip filled with Chinese boutiques and cafes.

There is quite a few things you can do in Milan before ennui creeps in. I spent about three weeks living in the city, a large part of which was used up in catching a train to go somewhere else because, let’s face it, my above-mentioned friend was not too off the mark. After a few days in Milan, you do run out of places to haunt.

The chair mender


Via Monte Napoleone
Atnospheric cafes
La Scala, the famous 18th century opera house in Milano
Display windows on Via Monte Napeolone
Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi, the famous Italian composer, always had his sights on Milan where he applied unsuccessfully to study at the Conservatory. But he did have a happy career in Milan.
Monks and ducks by a well
Unicredit building in the Porta Nuova district
Glitzy Porta Nuova
Bite-sized goodness in a Porta Nuova cafe
Cafes in the centre of town
Swordfish with aubergines, peppers, arugula and zuchini

A few things in Milan manage to stay on in the mind.


A strange Milanese tradition for good luck. It takes place within the shopping arcade of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. Locals call it il salotto buono or the ‘fine drawing room of Milan’. People go there to see and be seen.

The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is named after the first king of a unified Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II, and one of the oldest arcades in the world, built by a Giuseppe Mengoni between 1861 and 1877. The soaring glass roof arched over it and the intricacy of the cast iron architecture incited in me a feeling of awe, a reaction that Mengoni wanted to garner for the new industrial Italy of the time, replete with high fashion and high finance.

When I did see a person spinning on his toes, I observed to myself, Probably a kickback from too much LSD. Turns out, he was following a quirky passage of rite. Right.

Looking closely at the mosaic on the floor, in the middle of the gallery, I saw a white bull reared up on a blue backdrop and a big hole now where its genitals once used to be – poor thing has to get it crushed again and again for people to be happy. The bull is the centrepiece of the coat of arms that was shared by the important cities of the kingdom of Italy – Turin, Florence, Milan and Rome.

So, you step your right heel on the bull’s balls, the hole that is, and twirl thrice. Anticlockwise.

Inside the arcade


Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II


The story is a bit grim, but in the gallery, Mengoni suffered a fall from the scaffolding just a few weeks before completion and died. This tradition is supposed to counteract that piece of bad luck. Crushing a bull’s balls and good luck. I am yet to figure that out.

Did I do it? *rolls eyes



The first morning on which I climbed the steps of the metro exit in Milan, Bam! emerged the Duomo. A chimera of filigree in pink Candoglia marble. In its backdrop, the bright blue sky. “A delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath,” as Mark Twain put it after he lay his eyes on it in the summer of 1867. He had also noted that “the figures are so numerous and the design so complex, that one might study it a week without exhausting its interest…everywhere that a niche or a perch can be found about the enormous building, from summit to base, there is a marble statue, and every statue is a study in itself”. He was not exaggerating. There are 3,400 statues, 135 gargoyles and 700 figures adorning the Duomo, more than on any other building in the world.

I had to start with the iconic image that pops up in our collective consciences when we think of Milan. Plus, the city’s protector stands tall on the dome of the Duomo – a gilded Madonnina (Little Madonna) in copper.

To quote Twain again on the Gothic cathedral that took 600 years to complete. “They say that the Cathedral of Milan is second only to St. Peter’s at Rome. I cannot understand how it can be second to anything made by human hands.” So it is not a matter of surprise that on any given day, the queue to see the interiors of the cathedral snake on for miles. I checked again later in the afternoon and the scene was not very different.

Here’s a tip that no one will tell you. When you want to book tickets for the Duomo, do not stand at the queue that forms up at the entrance. Instead, walk into the museum adjacent, on the right hand side of the Duomo, and you will find minimal people waiting to buy tickets.

I did enter the Duomo another day. I climbed the steps to the rooftop and it being a clear day, through the marble spires and pinnacles, I spotted the glistening white peaks of the Alps.

In its crypt is interred Carlo Borromeo, the 16th century cardinal archbishop of Milan. The story is that when Charles Borromeo was born to an extremely wealthy family at a castle in the vicinity of Milan, a brilliant light surrounded it. The light faded away only when day broke. A saint had been born. And well, he was so ascetic in his livelihood that he never revealed any body part to be seen by anyone. He also spoke to no woman without two witnesses at hand – and even then he kept words with women to a bare minimum.

The side benefits of travelling: Stories of human quirk.

The Duomo glows golden at night and on its left is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Inside the Duomo. Construction of the Duomo commenced in the year 1386.
The first duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, had a vision for the Duomo – that it would be the world’s largest church.
The architecture of the Duomo is distinctly Gothic.
The Duomo is distinguished by the fact that it has more statues than any other building in the world. It has about 3159 statues.
The stunning facade of the Duomo


Piazza del Duomo, once the sun sets on Milan.
Piazza del Duomo. The equestrian statue is that of  King Victor Emmanuel II.
Milanese trams



Centro Storico in the heart of Milan, a few steps away from the Duomo.


Windows in the Centro Storico



That a cemetery can warrant a visit might seem odd. But once you walk into Milan’s vast compound of graves, you know you have struck gold. For a start, it lives up to its name. It is Monumental sprawling over an area of roughly 2,700,000 sq ft and the graves are just elaborate verses in marble. Milanese from all ranks and walks of life lie there but it is mostly the domain of the wealthy, you can tell. I chanced upon the cemetery one day as I was walking down the Maciachini area, on my way to the Duomo. Its Byzantine personality caught my eye.

I could not sidestep it which meant that I spent an entire day roaming around it till my head buzzed with the details and the stories, the lives that were and that could have been. A map acquired at the entrance (which is free, whee!) guided me around the outdoor compound which was wrought in marble and interspersed with trees and plants. It was a landscape to soothe the senses, tranquil and several worlds away from the rush outside on the main road that wound into the city’s centre.

In 1866 this cemetery was opened up to the public for burials of the wealthy Milanesi and even the common folk. The famous architect of the day, Carlo Maciachini, wanted to bring together small cemeteries from around the city under the umbrella of Cimitero Monumentale. So there was the result of his immaculate imagination – the grandest Italian sculptures and Greek temples, obelisks and tombs, designed by the famous artists of the day. It seemed as if the dead could outdo each other in possessing the most resplendent tombs that art and wealth had concocted together. A women with a babe in the arm trying to open the door to the afterlife, the bust of a small child, the nuns praying for the dead,

There is a memorial too for the Jews who died in concentration camps during WWII and in the Lake Maggiore (Meina Massacre when 16 Italian Jews were killed by the German SS).

I doubt there is a second cemetery like the Cimitero Monumentale though I remember a beautiful one in Warsaw, Poland, which was more of a park dedicated to death.

The Cimitero Monumentale
Famedio. The Milanese Hall of Fame inside the cemetary building, made of marble and stone, which is home to the famous citizens of the city. Here you can see that of novelist Alessandro Manzoni.
The Neo-Renaissance glory of the Famedio.
The Cimitero Monumentale was designed by architect Carlo Maciachini and opened in 1866.







Milan is old. The plan was simple, it seemed, when the city was designed. Roads diverged from and converged at the Duomo. Everywhere I walked, every street I took was flanked by old buildings with wrought iron balconies, verandas trimmed with neat rows of balustrades, rusted iron, copper and bronze knockers gleaming on antiquated doors. Occasionally there would be the odd (because Milan is just so modern apart from the old architecture) sight of an old man working away on re-caning a chair by the side of a busy road.

In the early hours of the morning the frequently spaced out cafés sent out rejuvenating whiffs of coffee onto the pavement, the ubiquitous gelateria winked at me mischievously with its hoard of colourful iced creams (you do give in eventually and, even if you have it once during the day, the craving to have more, every time you pass by another gelateria, is not to be scoffed at) and the pasticcerias or delis threatened to keep me glued to the display windows with their hoard of pastries and baked goodies.

Milan’s every street and corner held immense possibilities and it was all a proverbial red rag to my food-loving genes.

Food makes me feel at home in any place. Food does not judge. Food welcomes you and makes you a part of the fabric of the city you are in.

To the tune of stopping for coffee breaks every now and then and giving into the allure of gelatos, I took in diverse architectural styles that popped up – the old palazzos (palaces), beautiful churches and museums, legacies of the Lombardian Capital’s past.

The railway stations – the Parisian structure of the Milano Centrale station and the cutesy, red and green Cadorna station – make you take a second, closer look at them. Outside the Cadorna railway station, the Piazzale Cadorna is marked by a distinct ode to fashion. It is the Monumento alla Fashion, a sculpture in red, yellow and green that represents a needle, a thread and a knot. The colours correspond to the three underground lines of Milan – which must be one of the simplest and easy-to-chart metros in the world.

I will let you onto a secret. A few hundred metres down the Piazzale Cadorna is Chocolat. A café that serves the best gelato in Milan. The address is Via Boccaccio, 9. And, you are welcome.

Walking ahead of Cadorna station, I spied the walls of the iconic red-brick castle, Castello Sforzesco. The castle was once home to the mighty Sforza dynasty that ruled Renaissance Milan. If you have watched the BBC show, The Borgias, you might remember Caterina Sforza. I was thrilled to see the castle therefore and learn of the fact that its defences were designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Entry is not ticketed even though the castle houses seven museums. You can enter and decide if you want to see Michelangelo’s final work, the Rondanini Pietà, spend time in the museum of ancient art or browse the museum on antiques.

If your imagination is an active creature, you might want to saunter down to Piazzale Loreto, about a 15-minute walk from Milano Centrale. It is the square where in 1945, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was strung up along with his girlfriend, Claretta Petacci, after they were shot in a village on Lake Como and their bodies brought to Milan.

Hoary incidents are a part of the past of every place you go, it seems. You cannot escape stories that are a constant reminder of man’s insatiable appetite for cruelty.

The other hub in Milan is the Porta Nuova Business District. There the buildings are glitzy enough to make you wonder if they exist in the same city as the Duomo. They are new-fangled environmental-friendly buildings, all decked up in metal and glass. My pick of the lot was the Unicredit Tower that at 760-odd feet stands tall above all in the city and has been declared to be the tallest skyscraper in Italy.

But, I have reserved the best of the lot for the last. Look out for the charming Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore. Going by its rather plain exterior, you might not think of entering the church that dates back to 1503 and was once attached to the most important Benedictine convent for nuns in the city, Monastero Maggiore. Do step in. You will not be disappointed.

I was enchanted by the stunning panels of 16th century frescoes which covered the walls of its interiors. It was so very different from the bombast of Catholic churches you see from time to time. No, this was pure artistic endeavour which is bound to remain as a sigh in the memory.

Garibaldi water tower. The rainbow effect.
Old theatres on Corso Garbaldi. This here is the Fossati Theatre.
Wait till you set foot inside the Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore.
One of the most stunning interiors I have seen inside a monastery.
The grandeur and artistic beauty of the ceiling inside the church.
The perfect Palmier
Toasted foccaccia with ham, emmenthal cheese and arugula.jpg
Foccacia with ham, Emmenthal and rocket leaves
Macaroons from Rinaldini at the Vittorio Emanuele II. They are average and do just the job of looking pretty.
Unmissable is the gelato at Chocolat on Via Giovanni Boccaccio, 9
Old Milanese mansions
Piazza Cadorna



Milano wood-fired pizzas
Piazza Cordusio
Castello Sforzesco. A 15th century castle built by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan.
Ruins of the castle
Fountains at Castello Sforzesco
Parco Sempione
Parco Sempione. Established in 1888.
The Arch of Peace


Would Leonard da Vinci have recognised The Last Supper?

Here was one of the most reproduced and studied paintings in the world, preserved most carefully in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Where they let you in for just 15 minutes at a stretch because it is a moisture-monitored space for an already fragile mural – that is if you have managed to lay your hands on a ticket which during the summer months is a fairly tricky business. And yet what I was seeing in front of me was not what Leonardo had painted but the work of many painters after who had extensively worked on the original.

I had seen a reproduction of The Last Supper in Poland. It was an unusual copy because the tableau was carved out in salt inside the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow.

Now, I stood inside the convent’s dimly lit dining hall and stared up at the 29 feet by 15 feet mural, witnessing a mural that must have given the friars who used to dine there at one point of time some fodder for contemplation. Leonardo had painted a scene that depicted the last supper of Jesus with his disciples. When Jesus had announced that one of them was going to betray him, much consternation broke out amongst the apostles who are seated at the wooden table in bunches of three and it is in the reactions that there is significant drama. And deceit as we all know.

Around 1495, The Last Supper was commissioned by the Duke of Milan and Leonardo’s patron, Ludovico Sforza. Frescoes were traditionally painted on wet plaster for them to successfully withstand the ravages of time and at the same time they did not allow the painter much time to finish his work. The work had to be finished while the plaster was wet. Leonardo decided that it would not work for him, plus he wanted greater luminosity. He executed his mural on a dry wall as a result of which the paint never firmly adhered to the wall. Oh, but it was luminous alright. Completed in 1498, The Last Supper started to flake by 1517.

A host of artists worked on renovating the 15th century mural which went through a series of damages – it received a fair bit of attention from French revolutionary troops in 1796 who not only pelted the painting with stones but then proceeded to climb ladders so that they could scratch out the eyes of the apostles. Such dedication, isn’t it? If that was not that, the refectory was struck during the WWII bombings and the painting must have undergone further damage even though it had been protected through sandbagging. That is The Last Supper for you.

Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie
The rear portion of the convent.
The Last Supper
At the other end of the room is this painting, The Crucifixion. It was the work of Italian Renaissance painter, Giovanni Donato da Montorfano. Leonardo is supposed to have painted on this fresco and that (peeled off) praying lady on the right is attributed to him.


North of the Duomo is a quaint quarter. The Brera district stands out in a swish city like Milan where there are not many such atmospheric neighbourhoods. Large swathes of ivy dominate the façade of the apartments as do overflowing pots of plants hanging off the verandas that overlook picturesque alleys and add to the romance of the Brera.

The highlight of the area is the Pinoteca di Brera which houses the best collection of Italian classical art in Milan. Art studios, small fashion boutiques, interior design boutiques and dark taverns flourish in the neighbourhood and a day spent walking around the Brera is an idyllic time. When the 20th century began, the Brera was populated by a mixed milieu of classes. Artists, philosophers and architects found themselves living alongside the upper crust of society.

I always ended my walks in the Brera with a gelato at Amorino.






Fashion boutiques on Via Brera
Via Brera





Evenings in Milan without aperitivo are evenings not well spent. A Spanish friend from the Basque Country, who is partly Italian and a lover of all things Italian, took us to the canal area called Navigli for our first experience of an aperitivo. It is the direct counterpart of the Happy Hour in English-speaking countries and the Tapas in Spain.

The aperitivo, dear friends, though scores way higher. It is truly One Big Happy Hour when you order a drink and end up with unlimited access to a plethora of bite-sized dishes. The bar in Navigli that we sat at had a fantastic spread from olives, cheeses, various pastas, pizzas which disappeared as quickly as they were served up, bruschettas, cured meats, cardoon (thistle-like vegetable) fritters to grilled vegetables and salads. We had some entertainment too when a gaggle of police arrived at the bar, looking very important and serious. They did a lot of checks at the bar. Apparently, they frequently raid the bars in Navigli when they get tip-offs.

The Navigli
Argentine empanadas
Empanadas and us in the Navigli.
Of giant gelatos and goofy grins in the Navigli.

On a pleasant high, we stopped at another bar for a bottle of fine Prosecco and then tripped on for spicy empanadas at a small joint set up by a flat-capped, enterprising Argentinian. It was nippy that night when we walked along the canal in the Navigli. Milan was once served by an interconnected network of canals and it is on the barges that plied along these canals that marble for the construction of the Duomo was brought to the city. Artistic boutiques thrive along the canal along with a small church, the Santa Maria delle Grazie al Naviglio, and a row of neat bars and restaurants. A walk in the evenings by the Navigli is a romantic affair in Milan. For what is travel without romance, huh?




The Wolds on the Windrush

What do you do when you have been particularly lazy on the Labour Holiday weekend, woken up at a leisurely pace, dawdled around the apartment with a mug of cold coffee and a book? But then you want to step out on a beautiful spring day too for a spot of pub lunch and browse around idly for knick knacks.

Our bank holiday weekend began in the above-mentioned way because we are just notoriously lazy – my husband and I. We live in the vicinity of the rolling hills in England that are dotted charmingly with sheep, cows, thatched medieval villages, churches and mansions. When the sun shines, the cottages in these villages glow honey gold and look so out of a picture postcard setting that they are generally deemed to be ‘chocolate boxes’. They were mostly constructed during the Middle Ages when wool trade brought wealth to the area, and alongside the cottages, merchants constructed ‘wool churches’ using the locally-quarried limestone.

The villages of the Cotswolds that run the length of five counties – Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire – make up the best of rural England and fall within the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in the country.

We have spent most of our stay in the good old Blighty exploring them. There is no fighting it. The Cotswolds steal upon the senses. The list is long and varied in character and you can never associate ennui with the region, even if you end up visiting the same villages again and again.

When we go on these frequent trips, I imagine bumping into Laura Timmins tripping down a field in her pretty straw hat and postwoman’s sober ensemble or the sly Twister Turrill, hobbling down a country lane, muttering away to himself. They are characters from Lark Rise to Candleford, a trilogy of 19th century novels that were written by English poet and novelist Flora Thompson, inspired by her own life in Oxfordshire. You must have read them, right? If you are not much of a reader, you have to catch up with the eponymous BBC series. I promise you, you are in for a treat. When parts of it were enacted in plays in London in the late 70s, a theatre critic had observed: “It will send most spectators out wiser and happier human beings…one of those rare theatrical occasions with a genuine healing quality.”

It is crucial to have a car to drive around the Cotswolds. Unless you plan walking holidays around the place – there is actually a 102-mile long Cotswold Way walking trail which starts at an escarpment from Bath and continues up north to Chipping Campden. Maybe someday I can convince the husband to undertake a walk along this trail with me, though that might entail innovative bribes like carrying a massive bag of M&M’s to lure him from Bath to Chipping Campden. A plan to be pondered upon (If you are reading this, o husband of mine, and feeling suitable alarmed as I imagine you are, ‘tis a good reason to wean yourself off M&M’s).

The town of Burford in the Cotswolds was our chosen spot for lunching on a sunny Saturday. Though, as is usual, the weather gods were in a tizzy. The day alternated between inky grey clouds scudding across a bright blue sky, scattered drizzles and downpours. It would turn sunny, become slightly warmer in intervals and all over again the cycle would kick in – the clouds would come haunting the sky and dastardly cold winds lash out at us. There is never boredom to be associated with a day out in the English climes.

Rapeseed fields


The delightful shop, Three French Hens, in Burford.



A traditional 18th century pub in Burford, The Cotswolds Arms.
Gammon, fried eggs and chips at the Cotswolds Arms
Stilton and walnut salad with a portion of grilled chicken.


The timber-framed houses on Burford high street





The road from the university town of Oxford that enters Burford is a particularly leafy avenue that takes a sudden dip and opens up a vista of yellow rapeseed fields in the horizon. You find yourself driving through a bustling high street flanked by old Tudor and Georgian properties, pubs and antique shops. It is one of the most charming entrances in the Cotswolds. It is difficult to forget Burford in a hurry.

The once fortified Anglo-Saxon ford – the town gets its name from the Old English words ‘burh’ that means fortified town and ‘ford’ — was a wool town of considerable wealth on the River Windrush. Its geographical position, as a town at the crossroads, only heightened its popularity. Local industries such as tanning, weaving and sheep farming thrived in Burford. At one point of time, it had the best saddle-makers in Europe.

There are a host of lovely eateries in the town. One of our particular haunts is The Cotswolds Arms, an ivy-covered rustic 18th century pub that serves good ales and home-cooked pub grub. My husband had his favourite pub meal of gammon and chips and an ale, I tucked into a light but tasty beetroot salad served up with chunks of Stilton cheese, caramelised walnuts and roasted chicken.

After a prolonged lunch, we set off to do our cherished browsing around the boutiques and shops of Burford which are small and mostly family-run affairs.

My picks of the lot are The Oxford Brush Co. where there is a brush for every need in the household. Think on the lines of hair brushes, shaving brushes, computer brushes, shoe brushes, bottle brushes. The bristles on these brushes are so incredibly soft that you could bury your face in them and sigh away. They are apparently crafted out of hairs of horses, badgers and Chinese long-haired goats. Only the prices make sure you do not go bonkers about ‘em brushes.

I almost always fall for foxed books at a former coaching inn which is now Antiques @ The George. This time I picked up a translation of Bede’s Anglo Saxon Chronicles and an old tome of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury for nostalgia’s sake. They cost me a mere 7 quids. If you are into rummaging for vintage finds, this antique centre has some treasures and pre-war memorabilia that makes the heart skip a beat. Our treasured buy from Antiques @ The George is a 19th century iron – it is deceptively small but packs a punch on the weighing scales, made as it is of cast iron . Skip across the road and there’s The Burford Emporium with its collection of wooden carts, old maps and books.

Lastly, do not miss out on the cuteness of Three French Hens, with its treasure chest of collectibles and gifts. I have to put on blinders and exert all my self-control when it comes to not raiding this shop.

There is a Burford walking tour that orients visitors with the area but the main two buildings of note are the church and the 16th century Tolsey building on the high street. The church, in 1649, served as a prison during the Civil War 340 prisoners were held inside it. The Burford-ians celebrate the incident by organising an annual Levellers Day in town during the month of May. They commemorate the Burford Levellers who protested against Oliver Cromwell for not paying his troops post the Civil War. Three of their leaders were executed by Cromwell’s men in the church yard. Their graffiti and carvings have been left intact in the church. While the Tolsey market building with its white Tudor façade has been transformed from a medieval merchants’ meeting grounds into a museum on the trades that flourished in Burford – clarinet-making, brewing beer, bell-founding and rope-making. A big incentive is a famous doll’s house that reflects the Georgian era style in which Jane Austen lived.

Leaving ‘the gateway to the Cotswolds’ behind in Oxfordshire, we puttered into the ‘Little Venice of the Cotswolds’ in Gloucestershire. Bourton-on-the-Water, a beloved village of ours in the Cotswolds, also sits pretty on the Windrush. A series of low-arched stone bridges span the shallow river that runs along the high street. On any sunny day in summer and even winter, children and dogs are the popular occupants of the river. The ducks are quite used to them by now. The ice cold waters of the river reach my ankles but the sharp-edges of the pebbles in the river bed is enough to make me hop out as quickly as I hop in.

Bourton lies on the River Windrush




You can do a lot of touristy things in Bourton. Visit its small perfumery, gawk at the exotic birds in the Birdland and spend time in the model railway museum and motoring museum, but for us, Bourton has become a ritual, of walking past the willow trees that droop elegantly over the river, the riverfront stone cottages that make me yearn to live in one, tucking into full-fat ice creams, browsing the cutesy shops around and relaxing in the lovely garden of The Kingsbridge Inn, chugging on frothy beer.

Yet, on this bank holiday weekend, the clouds rolled in again and the evening started getting unaccountably cold – a bit of shopping done, the husband amused me by shivering away and gorging on a massive dollop of mint-chocolate chip ice cream, while I had the most bitter cup of cappuccino I have had in some time. It did the trick however and we drove back home in pelting rain followed by a full rainbow appearing in the lavender blue sky of the evening.