The Bizarre & the Beautiful in Barcelona

How much had I heard about Barcelona before I decided to join my husband for his work trip? A Lot. I stayed for a couple of weeks in the city in the month of February in 2016 and soaked up everyday living in the Spanish Capital. The first thing that struck me as we entered the city were massive concrete blocks of buildings that flanked the roads. They smacked of social housing architecture and thrilled me (not). The heart sank a little.

Armed with enthusiasm – you need a reserve of this emotion when you go to any place with sky-high expectations (everyone must love it for a reason) –  eventually, I did find bits of it that I fell for. It is not your quintessential pretty city but it does have pockets of interesting architecture. Below are a few elements of Barcelona that do appeal if you have a streak of craziness in you, because, it is after all the home of Catalan Modernism, a pioneer of which was Antoni Gaudi.

Park Güell

The park that Gaudi built for Eusebi Güell, a Spanish entreprenuer and an ennobled count, who was the Catalan architect’s patron. What the Medicis were to the Renaissance in Italy, Güell was to Gaudi. Gaudí is supposed once to have commented to Güell, “Sometimes I think we are the only people who like this architecture.” What was Güell’s reply you think?”I don’t like your architecture, I respect it,” he had noted.

On a bright sunny morning, I walked from the centre of the city to the district of Gràcia. It took me a long time, through narrow alleys, up and down hilly roads, up lots of steep stairs (after which I spied the escalator, but of course) till I reached the park on Carmel Hill. In the  year 1900 when Güell had bought land in this district, it was deemed to be a remote area. The site for the park itself was a rocky hill with sparse vegetation.

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The elite of Barcelona must have been particularly hoity toity if they could not wrap their heads around living in such a beautifully developed place. They would have none of it. Out of the 60 houses that were conceptualised within the park only two came to fruition. Here is a look into its lush gardens inspired by the utopian English garden city movement. The spire peeking out above the vegetation is that of Gaudi’s house where he lived for two decades.
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A couple of fairytale casas studded with broke, iridiscent tiles atypical of Gaudi.
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The central plaza with all its curvilinear, flowing design and mosaic-studded roofs reflect the architect’s intent to play with free-flowing forms and the baroque.
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Gothic and curvilinear Art Nouveau come together in the park that was the home of the Güell family till they donated it to the public some time in the mid-1900s.
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Bird’s nests that reflect the form of the trees growing around the walkway.

La Sagrada Familia

Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia (Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family) is the iconic Gaudi structure. Those cranes have been perched atop it for what seems like forever because its construction is supposed to be completed by 2026. But as Gaudi remarked famously: “My client is not in a hurry.”

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The Nativity façade to the East (the rising sun being the symbol of the birth of Christ) is the front of the church presented to the world at large.
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Nature is intertwined with humans in these scenes that are carved into the facade. Gaudi had visualised them to be painted, each and every figure and statue. Just imagine what that might have looked like.
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I have not seen anything like the interior of this church in all my travels. Gaudi had woven nature in with the columns reflecting trees and branches. The splashes of colour leave you lost for words. So you sit and stare at this wonderful, bizarre symphony concocted by a man who must have been very, very weird and a genius. Remember that Gaudi was a staunchly religious person. If you sit inside and take time (even amidst all the crowds inside) to take it all in, you will feel what he had set out to achieve – a temple where even a n0n-religious individual like me can experience exaltation.
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The Passion Façade cross-sectioned, which with its bare stone, harsh straight lines and austere design reflects the suffering of Jesus Christ during his crucifixion. It is straight out of Gaudi’s vision of it is as a vision of bones and a complete about-turn from the intricately carved Nativity Façade up front. The third front, the Glory Façade, is still under construction.
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An oasis of calm across the busy street from La Sagrada Familia.

Montjuïc

A hill with a view of the city. The Palau Nacional crowns it and on certain evenings (Thursday to Sunday) a magic fountain show grabs all eyes.

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Palau Nacional is home to 19th-20th century works of art. Those four columns in the middle transform into the magic fountain. I would suggest taking those stairs (forego the escalators you lazy bum!) if you want to burn off the brioche you have wolfed down.
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Classical statues with a view of Sagrat Cor
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The city from atop Montjuïc Hill
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The night views are not too bad either.

Passeig de Gràcia

On the most expensive avenue of Barcelona are these paeans to modernism by Gaudi.

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Casa Batlló, a building designed by Gaudi for Josep Batlló, a wealthy textile industrialist. It was re-designed by Gaudi in the early-1900s as an affair reminiscent of skull and bones. Those balconies are the skulls in the affair and the supporting pillars are the bones.
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The other of Gaudi’s creations is this, Casa Milà also popularly known as ‘La Pedrera’ or the stone quarry (alluding to its front design that might remind you of an open quarry).

Parks & Promenades

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Passeig de Lluís Companys, a promenade dedicated to the memory of a Spanish president, Lluís Companys i Jover, who was executed under the dictatorship of the infamous Francisco Franco in 1940. At one end of the promenade is the Arc de Triomf and at the other end is the Ciutadella Park.
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The triumphal arch was the access gate for the 1888 Barcelona World Fair. I quite liked its red brickwork, its Neo-Mudéjar style of architecture and the promenade it led to with a series of palm trees and ornamental lamp posts. There was a chilled-out air about it with entertainment provided by buskers and street artists, while joggers made their way through the palm-lined avenue at a sedate pace.
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The Palace of Justice shows up impressively along the promenade.
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Cascada Fountain inspired by the famous Trevi Fountain of Rome, was designed by Josep Fontseré in 1881. Guess who was his assistant? A young Gaudi. It was displayed proudly at the 1888 World Fair.

Poble Espanyol

On Montjuïc is this rip-off that is sold as a representation of a Spanish village with a recreation of houses from the various regions in the country. It is ticketed. Do steer clear. Unless you want to kick yourself at the end of a saunter through it. I did.

Barri Gòtic

I spent my evenings walking through the narrow cobbled streets of the Gothic Quarter, in the shadow of its old buildings and churches. It had its famous residents – Picasso and Joan Miró and historically it was once the stomping grounds of Christopher Columbus. His figure stands high above a Corinthian column down La Rambla to commemorate his report to Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand V in Barcelona after his maiden trip to the Americas.

Extremely narrow alleys, mosaic motifs of saints looking down benevolently upon you from their alcoves upon alley walls, squares like Plaça del Pí with 14th century churches and other small churches frequented by Gaudi crop up. Basically I went with my gut here, walking into various streets. I had read plenty about safety and pickpocketing issues. But wear your bag in front where you can see it and you shall be golden. I did not feel unsafe at all during my walks in the city.

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Bell Tower of the Barcelona Cathedral
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Carrer del Bisbe or Bishop’s Street houses Pont del Bisbe (Bishop’s Bridge). The neo-Gothic bridge connects two historic buildings. The story goes that the architect who constructed the bridge in 1928 wanted to design new buildings inspired by the Gothic Quarter but the government did not grant its approval. Miffed, he put a skull with a dagger somewhere in the bridge. Try and not spot them, okay? The story warns that if you do, you shall be cursed. Trust the human imagination to come up with charming stories.
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Barcelona Cathedral is dedicated to Saint Eulalia. The Gothic cathedral is the seat of the archbishop of Barcelona. On any given evening it is a festive place to be at. Buskers sing soulfully and people love to mill around it.
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Pla de la Seu. In this forecourt of the cathedral, Catalans tap their feet to a traditional dance, Sardana, on weekends.
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Plaça de Sant Jaume, home to the Palace of the Generalitat of Catalonia and the City Hall.

La Rambla

The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca had remarked once that La Rambla was “the only street in the world which I wish would never end.” Now if he had seen it as I did, stuffed with tourists (God knows what happens in summer), he would have held his tongue. And if he had been pickpocketed, you can see how that line would change. The famous 1.2 km pedestrianised walkway is the nerve centre of Barcelona, popular with tourists and even more so with pickpockets. I am happy to say I survived it, more so because I would take off into the alleys, away from the main thoroughfare. If you are on La Rambla, a good place to walk into is Boqueria market that houses fishmongers and butchers. It dates back to the year 1217 when meat was sold there on tables.

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La Boqueria

El Born Barrio

This district is absolutely charming. You are likely to find mostly locals here. It gets its name from the adjoining former market of El Born and is filled with lovely restaurants, small bars and boutiques. It is a nice place to head to for dinner and drinks.

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The old Born market. A concoction in iron and glass built by Spanish Catalan architect Josep Fontserè in 1876. The first market in town was constructed ala the Parisian mode of architecture. It is no longer a market however. Today it serves as a cultural centre.
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The quarter is full of old alleys as this where you can spot old men, hunched into their coats in the cool evening air,  walking their sniffy spaniels.
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In medieval days it used to be a seaside residential area for the elite.
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This shot of Adi and our Spanish friend Nacho is in the El Born district. I would meet them every evening for dinner or drinks and boy those dinners would be elaborate. You will see the kind of dinners we would have laid out before us daily, below.
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The artistic community have now taken over the El Born district.
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Evening streets of Barcelona
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Santa Maria del Mar. A Catalan Gothic church built in the 1300s at the height of Catalan dominance in maritime trade that dwarfs you quite easily. Hemmed in by narrow streets, it is quite impossible to do justice to a shot of this church.

Sagrat Cor

How I wanted to see this basilica. To the extent that I was ready to even hike up to it except that I had left the idea alone too late. Till my last day in Barcelona when I had to catch a flight in a few hours. I went all the way up to Avenida Tibidabo with its quirky and flamboyant mansions only to realise that hey in spring they somehow do not expect people to arrive in the city. So they stall their quick fix funicular and elevator options to the top till summer arrives. The thought of the frown on the husband’s face if I was still hiking my way down Mount Tibidabo when I should have been inside the airport terminal made me think twice. Thus I never laid my eyes on Sagrat Cor. But you should if you are in the city.

Catalan Dinners

Local taverns were our pick. Our Spanish friend took us to small eateries that served excellent tapas and often food from his part of the country, that is the Basque region. We did try out various Spanish specialities but I quite loved the classic tapas dish of Patatas Bravas. When you are on holiday mode, the body and mind slip in too quite easily and my glutton genes can always be counted upon to make the most of well-laid out tables. Though I confess that this holiday was all about bread, meat and seafood. They can get me only that far. Yes, go on roll your eyes, but by the end of the trip, I was frantic for greens.

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Medium to rare beef steaks. The sight of it made me want to gag but it was enjoyed by Adi and our friends  while I watched them slice into the pink flesh with great gusto.
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Grilled prawns
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Jamón ibérico. Because how can you be in Spain and not have its famous cured product, the Iberian ham.
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Morcilla or Spanish blood sausage, stuffed with rice. I am not a fan of bloody stuff. That said, I did take a bite and it was actually tasty.
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Lemony Calamari
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Pork ribs and artichokes

 

Adi’s Travel Tips

  1. To appreciate Barcelona, you need time. Make a stop for at least three nights in the city. You can add on time depending upon the other destinations that you plan to visit from Barcelona. There are plenty of choices -Cadaqués, Girona, Zaragoza, Taragona…
  2. The moment you get into the city, do yourself a favour and buy the T10, a travel card that will cost you a little less than 10EUR but will give you a whole lot of travel options within Zone 1 (which covers the areas within the city that you will mostly want to see). You can avail of 10 single journeys on the Barcelona metro, its buses and FGC trains. You can also make use of the card more than once on the metro or buses within a duration of 1 hour and 15 mins roughly and you will be stamped only once within that time frame.
  3. Otherwise buy a three-day travel card for 21EUR.
  4.  Uber does not work in Barcelona (let’s not get into that discussion). But there is a way out for those who do not like to avail of public transport (especially after a night of drinking) — download the Hailo Taxi app. Hailo ties up with registered taxis and you can punch in your credit card details on the app. Works like Uber and you can just open the app and select your current location for a pick up. At the end of the journey, you don’t have to rummage through your wallet to find cash. The trip is charged to your credit card. And if you are using an Avios credit card, then, you earn points on that as well.
  5. SPG has a great Category 3 hotel at Diagonal which is roughly 2km walking distance from La Rambla and the same distance from La Sagrada Familia. The hotel charges you about 96 EUR per night. However, if you have 28000 Starwood points the hotel can be yours for four nights for free.

Miles & Point Speak

Introducing a crazy travel-lover-cum-consultant who likes to indulge in intelligent travel. This guest post is by my best travel bud, the husband aka Adi (in the featured photo). I shall let him take over without further ado.
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I love travelling as much as my Dippy-Dotty Girl. I am writing this for you because I think that travel can be rewarding and enlightening. If you do it with some plotting n’ planning, it might even be cheap. Collecting loyalty points is my hobby. If you ask Dippy-Dotty, she would remark that it’s my obsession. I spend hours scouring loyalty blogs/websites to boost my loyalty point balance which does make her climb the walls at times. But it keeps us on the move.

Most of my points on travel will focus on short breaks (for those in Europe). If you plan to fly across the pond or visit from Asia/ Oceania, you will want to cover multiple destinations given the amount of time invested in getting to Europe.

The Miles Cache

At the outset, let me say that I am not a low cost carrier fan (EasyJet/ Ryanair). Just the thought of spending time at Luton/ Stansted is something that I personally don’t enjoy. Also the lack of any meaningful rewards programme makes me steer clear from them. Not collecting rewards on the money and time you spend on flying or staying at a hotel is like throwing away a portion of your next holiday that could be ‘free’. However, if you do you get a great deal – such as a return trip for £20-35 – on low-cost airlines then it might be worth a thought.

I mostly bank my loyalty with British Airways (OneWorld Alliance). Flying to Europe with BA can be cheap, regardless of whether you choose to pay the fare or redeem your points. Apply for one of the co-branded credit cards in UK, and you can get anywhere for 18K to 25K bonus Avios, which would be enough for 2 to 3 return tickets for short-haul flights. If you fly regularly, either for work or pleasure, you should look at sticking to one alliance/ airline and bank points on it. I highly recommend BA if you are based in UK and looking at exploring the continent.

Now assuming that you have chosen BA as your preferred carrier. The first thing for you to do would be to register for their loyalty program called ‘Executive Club’. You will earn ‘Avios’, their term for flying currency in terms of miles travelled on most, if not all, Oneworld Alliance Partners. Open accounts for everyone in the family (spouse and children, if applicable) and create a ‘Household Account’ which allows you to pool in/ combine everyone’s frequent flyer points. These can be used for flight redemptions.

Let me give you an example. I am looking for a four-night break in March and aiming at flying out of Gatwick.

Getting to The AirportWe live in Northampton and a taxi to Gatwick can set us back £130. Steep, ain’t it? But I want to get something out of spending the cash. Avis has tied up with British Airways and you can earn Avios for renting a car. At a minimum, you get 750 Avios for a three-day rental. They are running a promotion of 5000 Bonus Avios for a 3-day rental and 1500 Avios for the car. All terms can be viewed on their website (https://www.avis.co.uk/). So I decide to book a car for four days for £60 and  a one-way fee of £50. That equals to about £110 and in return I get 6500 bonus Avios.

Points Redemption Option: For example, if you look at flying to Barcelona, the city falls within Zone 2 in the Avios map – which means that you require 6500 Avios (off-peak) for a one-way redemption in economy and £17.50 in taxes. Return tickets therefore cost 13000 Avios (off-peak)  and a tax sum of £35. Peak flights cost 500 Avios more per sector (1000 more for a return-trip). Now using points is a big deal for me. I want to get the best value. I want to get at least 1p per Avios.

Buying a Ticket: A quick search on buying an economy ticket (without checked bags) for Barcelona during reasonable hours (first flight out and last flight back in) is £123. You would earn 538 Avios for the booking. Currently there is a triple Avios offer for bookings made and flights taken before March 31st.I could potentially earn 1500 Avios off this booking. For the two of us that’s 3000 Avios.

Conclusion: In this scenario a redemption is giving me is giving me <1p in value. In such a scenario, I will the buy the ticket outright and save my Avios for later. However, you can also choose to do a combination of Avios and Money.

Tips: Remember that for redemptions your best chance is to look out for seats early. Sometime, options also open up a couple of days before you want to travel.

Other Options: For the same days, a Ryanair ticket is for £53 (choosing similar flight times). This is approx. £70 less than BA. It is tempting. But in the long run, I prefer to stick to a global carrier with multiple alliance partners. You never know when you need the status and points.

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When DD travelled on Virgin Upper Class from Delhi to Heathrow, downing flutes of Champagne
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The kind of indulgence she could avail on board Virgin Upper Class.
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A typical British Airways Continental-style breakfast in Business Class.

Hoarding Hotel Points 

For hotels, I am a big fan of the Intercontinental Group (IHG) and Starwood Properties (SPG). As with airlines, most global chain have loyalty programs and co-branded credit cards to get bonus points. You can sign up for the programs for free. IHG has hotels in 60 countries and SPG in 100 countries. For hotels that are not part of a global chain you can consider Hotels.com or points sites like Kaligo and Rocketmiles (I will expand upon this).

Assuming that you want to build on your points balance and don’t have any points currently, you can look at booking and earning points directly through hotel websites. Remember nowadays that hotels chains have woken up and are usually cheaper to book directly through their own websites as opposed to aggregators like Expedia.

Point to note – hotel points can only be earned if you book at the hotel directly.

Hotels.com is a good option as well if you are not looking at boutique properties. The site gives you one free night* (explained below) at any hotel after you book 10 nights with them. The value of the free night that can be redeemed is equivalent to the average value of the 10 nights you have booked with them. For example, if you have spent 600EUR over 10 nights then you will get EUR600/10 = 60 EUR to redeem at a hotel worldwide. For example, if you were making a trip to Vienna and you do get a hotel for 60EUR, then your points could be redeemed here to avail of a free stay. If it is 80EUR, you only need to pay the surplus 20 EUR.

Alternatively, lets assume you want to collect airline points from hotel stays. Then head to Kaligo.com or Rocketmiles.com. These sites give you a variety of options for earning airline points for your hotel stays. The points can be credited to airlines such as BA or Virgin. For instance, a comparable hotel to Four Points, NH Barcelona Diagonal Center, will cost 71EUR per night and you could earn at least 1500 Avios for the stay. On your first booking at one of the sites, you can earn a bonus 3000 Avios. Four Points hotel will cost the same and earn you at least 3900 Avios. You have hotels starting at 30EUR per night on these sites.

Note that sometimes hotels on these sites can be 2-5EUR more expensive than on Hotels.com or chain websites (IHG, SPG…). Comparisons are provided on Kaligo.

Rocketmiles is similar to Kaligo though, according to my observations, it has limited options as compared to Kaligo.

Bottom Line

I have gone on for a while now. But there is a point to this crazy/absurd/ methodical planning. You chose which adjective you prefer and then check the figures.

Let’s assume I did all of the below stated activities:

1. Booked a car for the airport                                 £110

2. Bought flight tickets                                              £250 approx

3. Booked hotel through Kaligo (Four Points)    £350 approx

4. Travel money for holiday                                     £420 approx

Total Spend                                                                    £1130

I spent £1130. Not a meagre sum, eh, but then I earned some dough back.

 Avios Earned

1. Car Rental                                                    6500

2. Flight Tickets                                             3000 + 750 Avios for booking on Avios CC

3. Hotel                                                             5900 (including first-time bonus)

4. Avios earned on Credit Card spend     400 approx (I spent 50% on CC)

Total Avios Earned                                          16550

Given that I value my Avios at least 1 p, the value of my return is £165. It effectively brings the cost of the trip down to £965.

More importantly, those 16550 Avios can be used for our next holiday and used to redeem at least one return ticket in Europe or I can get two free return tickets to destinations like Paris/Amsterdam on Economy.

Points add up fast. And the cost of your trip can go down rapidly as you build up your balance. I started with zilch (points) three years ago, but plenty of careful planning and now I have enough hotel and air miles for a few trips.

I have rambled enough but I hope I have introduced the concept and not made it more confusing. Here’s to maximising each pound/euro/dollar/yen/rupee/ any other currency.

What are your thoughts on the entire spectrum of loyalty programs?

Meanwhile, happy travelling!

Cheers

Adi

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A Weekend in Oxbridge

Oxford vs. Cambridge. The eternal debate has been going on for centuries now in England. The two institutions are referred to together as Oxbridge. Last weekend we decided to take a leisurely stroll through them. There was no pressure to explore since we have dealt with that about a dozen times. This included a couple of days of sauntering through illustrious colleges and daydreaming, downing ale, tucking into fish and chips, the works.

Both universities are heavyweights in the world of academia. I tend to think of them as brothers, pre-eminent personalities, vying with each other for a more elevated presence in the same frame.

Oxford is the older of the two with education in it dating back to the 11th century. Its oldest colleges are 13th-century buildings. The honey-hued buildings made of sandstone and its many spires get me. The quiet courtyards, ivy-covered towers, the student entering her room in a tower to show her mother her digs with immeasurable pride, ambles along the river, punting and then Blackwell’s with its happy plethora of books and posters…there is also my favourite tea-room in the city. A cafe with a duck-egg blue front and the gilded letters, ‘The Grand Cafe’, written on its august facade. The English diarist Samuel Pepys had noted that it was the location for the oldest coffee house in England. A Jewish entrepreneur by the name of Jacob had established it in the 1650s. Here are a few lines from ‘The Life and Times of Anthony Wood, Antiquary of Oxford 1632-1695″: “This year [1651] Jacob the Jew opened a coffey house at the Angel in the parish of S. Peter, in the East Oxon; and there it was by some, who delighted in noveltie, drank. When he left Oxon, he sold it in Old Southampton buildings in Holborne neare London, and was living in 1671.” The cafe shut shop and in its place came in an inn, then a hotel followed by a grocer’s, a co-op and a post office till it finally gave way to The Grand Cafe in the ’90s. The interior is impeccable — high ceilings, mirrors and more gilded elements and teas that will gladden you that you stopped there for a break.

The city itself is big which means there is enough to keep you engrossed through the day, and once night falls, Oxford is the boisterous party place. Walk the streets at night, drunk friends thrown into the mixture and chow down takeaways at mobile vans – you’ve had a taste of partying Oxford-style.

Cambridge upon River Cam is the smaller of the two cities with the ambience of a market town and is comparatively quiet. It is said that scholars who were fleeing the hostilities of the townspeople of Oxford arrived in Cambridge and founded it in the early 1200s. The university I had visited when I arrived in UK for the first time was Cambridge. The son of a relative had studied there and the proud father had taken my parents, an aunt and me to the university town. It was a trip for a few firsts, one of which included trying a pasty and then wondering if I would be able to waddle after because a pasty packs a starchy punch.

I returned with my husband to explore it and did more climbing and walking than I had the first time. We went up extremely narrow and winding stairs of a church for a view of the city when we received prudent advise from an elderly couple, “Remember to breathe”. I suddenly noticed that I had indeed stopped breathing as I scampered up to be done with the ghastly stairs. But when you get a look at the city from atop the church, a bucket of wheezes is a small price to pay.

In Cambridge, the buildings are disparate because they were made from various kinds of stones but I savoured the sight of the lawns at Corpus Christi college, the red facade of St. John’s College, which if you enter is the way to the Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge, and the Round Church. The last is one of the four round churches in England. One of those four churches is what I see everyday from our apartment window in Northampton.

It was a cold and windy day and we could not think of winding it up better than with Chinese dumplings in its market square that had been a market since the time of the Saxons. I wonder if anyone in those medieval times had such a delicious, cheap meal as we had standing there while a gaggle of school kids sat with their mum, digging into plates of dumplings and piping up with the ‘it’s too spicy’ grouse.

Cambridge

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The late-Gothic English architecture of King’s College founded in the mid-1400s by Henry VI
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Colourful awnings in the market square
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‘Oxford is Oxford: not a mere receptacle for youth, like Cambridge. Perhaps it wants its inmates to love it rather than to love one another.’ E. M. Forster. He studied here.
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‘Apparently, the most difficult feat for a Cambridge male is to accept a woman not merely as feeling, not merely as thinking, but as managing a complex, vital interweaving of both.’ Sylvia Plath
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Fish n’ chips can never hurt you
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Gushing of the Cam
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‘What has influenced my life more than any other single thing has been my stammer. Had I not stammered I would probably… have gone to Cambridge as my brothers did, perhaps have become a don and every now and then published a dreary book about French literature.’ W. Somerset Maugham
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Courts of Cambridge
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Corpus Christi College

To round off my few shots of Cambridge, I shall quote Bertrand Russell: “Against my will, in the course of my travels, the belief that everything worth knowing was known at Cambridge gradually wore off. In this respect my travels were very useful to me.”

Oxford

The featured photo starts with the neo-classical building, the Radcliffe Camera.

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It is the reading room of the Bodleian Library. Named after a doctor, John Radcliffe, who had bequeathed a sum of 40,000 quid in the 1700s for its construction.

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The bronze figure in the quadrangle of Bodleian Library is William Herbert, the third Earl of Pembroke. He to whom William Shakespeare had dedicated his First Folio. The library itself gets its name from Sir Thomas Bodley, an English diplomat who had studied at Merton College and had taken upon himself to restore the 15th century library.
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The Tower of the Five Orders is the main entrance to Bodleian, one of the oldest libraries of Europe. It gets its name from the five – Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite -columns of classical architecture that adorn it.
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Adi in front of the Sheldonian Theater, a design of the famous British architect, Sir Christopher Wren. It still serves the purpose for which it was conceived —  graduation ceremonies. 

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I shall leave you with these vintage tin signs for the two university cities because I collect tin signs and because they get the vibe of each city so prettily.

Just to humour the rivalry between the two (which goes back to the 1200s), which do you like the sound of more?

Candour, Cannabis and Cheese in Amsterdam

It is a city that does not apologise. It is uninhibited and frank, take it or leave it. Most do take it, because the level of candour which they come across in Amsterdam is rare and quite so refreshing.

Candour, cheese and cannabis make for a heady amalgamation in Amsterdam. They are such tangible commodities in the hip capital of the Netherlands that it would be quite alright to layer up the Dutch penchant for frankness with a hunk of golden Gouda and munch on it.

If you do survive the fast bikes in Amsterdam (let me know), you would find the Dutch propensity for frankness disarming as it is beguiling. It seeps into the very fabric of life in Amsterdam. We, in turn, let it seep in to us on a cold November weekend when we strolled along the canals, past handsome, gabled houses. In warmly lit rooms, people gathered around tables with glasses of wine and couples curled up in armchairs with books by windows remarkably untrammelled by curtains.

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‘Don’t want to mess with me. Just follow.’

De Wallen

You know it is as the Red Light District. The locals know it as De Wallen, the quarter which is home to Oude Kerk, the oldest church in Amsterdam dating back to the 13th century, and the alternate sections of society who are not stashed away in the country. As we explored the area, sculptured tokens of acknowledgement of the sex trade stood out near Oude Kerk. From the cobbled pavements arose a hand in bronze groping a breast, and nearby, stood a girl in bronze named Belle, reminding the onlooker to ‘Respect sex workers all over the world’.

A German-born tour guide, Michael, who is part of a free walking tour outfit in Amsterdam gave us a succinct introduction to De Wallen and its ladies, including their minimum charges. “The prostitutes are freelancers just like I am. But there is a fundamental difference,” Michael pointed out. “They earn more. Also, they are tax payers with health rights and safety.”

In the network of alleys that made up the oldest part of town, women in minimal bits of clothing strutted behind red-lit window parlours with abandon, occasionally opening the windows to negotiate with customers. The windows revealed, in the backdrop, mini living rooms with lamps, mirrors and wall art. A particular style of prostitution that took off in the 1930s when women would sit behind windows, albeit fully clothed. They were preceded in time by ‘street daisies’, that is, women who sat in long dresses on the streets outside their houses for customers.

But there are more surprises in store for the first-time traveller. Such as a condomerie, a  homage to the concept of safe sex, and boy, they customise everything, right from colour and texture to sizes and fittings. Then there are erotic museums, live sex theaters, sex museums, lots of coffeeshops where they do cannabis, not coffee you simple-minded thing. And at the end of it all, if you have had a drink too many, a ‘Hangover Information Center’. A strange clinical place with men in white lab coats (straight out of the sets of a sci-fi film) in a space that was once a brothel. I could not help observe to the husband, “Now we have seen it all”.

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De Wallen and Oude Kerk in the backdrop
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‘Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.’ John Green.
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The Condomerie — one of its kind shop in the world
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The Condomerie
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In De Wallen, an old 17th century warehouse stands by the canal with a neon-lit sign on it proclaiming it to be a museum on all things erotic. The contrast is this: During daylight look up and you can spot four words that mean, ‘God is my Castle’.
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De Wallen despite the performance-oriented offerings might feel weird but not seedy
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Grabbing a pint in De Wallen
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The Bulldog Cafe is probably the most popular space for spacing out with an amazing number of flavours on the menu
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Mushrooms. Not for cooks.
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A surreal sight

Chasing Cheese

In Amsterdam, Gouda is eternal. It will have you instead of the other way around. Pronounced ‘How-dah’, the gouda is a yellow product of extreme goodness made from cow, goat and sheep’s milk and is named after the Dutch city of Gouda in which it has been traded since the 12th century. When I sunk my teeth into the salty, aged varieties, I had struck gold. My chosen ones were mostly the crumbly aged kinds made from sheep’s milk and a gouda that is named after the Dutch queen, Maxima. The Dutch love their queen, more than their king, and that is enveloped in a bite of the cheese named after her. You can find it in the Amsterdam Cheese Co. Yes, I know, you should send me a gift in gouda for spilling the beans on it.

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Big wheels of gouda, one of the oldest recorded kinds of cheese out there in the world. Some wonderful individual started making it in the year 1184.
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Gouda comes in all flavours and textures
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You do need some bread with all that cheese
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Meet the optimist. Cheese, cakes and bread surround him, but he reads a manual on How to Diet.
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Cheesy loot. The sheep’s cheese is still there because it lasts six months
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 Gouda heaven

Beyond Cheese and Cannabis

There is a big beyond. Named Amstelredamme after its beginnings as a dam on the river Amstel, Amsterdam got its rights as a city only in the early 14th century. Though the dam was built by locals in the 12th century after the city was continually flooded by waters from Zuiderzee (it means South Sea – but it is a bay of the North Sea).

The city’s past points to its origin as a small fishing village but by the 17th century Amsterdam was wealthy  – it gives you an insight into the industriousness of the Dutch that it became the wealthiest city in the world at that time. Spice trade was its mainstay and it spawned the formation of the world’s first transnational outfit, the Dutch East India Company and subsequently the Dutch West India Company. The headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, Oost-Indisch Huis, still stands in the centre of the city, as does the West-Indisch Huis which housed the Dutch West India Company. Over time, the city spread itself out beyond its oldest part which is centered around De Wallen.

 

Wander into the Jordaan quarter that is just the most charming neighbourhood you will come across. It was a district for the undesirables during the 1600s when the city was a ironically enjoying a boom time. Immigrants, poor artists and refugees found place in the tightly packed houses in the quarter but now that very part of the city has been transformed into a chic, bustling hub peopled by artists.

Bordering the Jordaan is Anne Frank House, an important place to get into not for any other reason but that we cannot and should not forget. If you would not like to faint from standing hours in a queue in the latter part of the afternoon for on-the-spot tickets, booking a slot online is a good idea. Also, I shall send a prayer for you – that you shall not be tailed by amorous couples indulging in PDA in an atmosphere that can only make you choke up with emotion.

When you buy doobies, do make sure you do so at a coffeeshop. Not on the streets of De Wallen. Illegal peddlers emerge once dusk falls.

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The 17th-century Dutch East India Company
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‘My experience in Amsterdam is that cyclists ride where the hell they like and aim in a state of rage at all pedestrians while ringing their bell loudly, the concept of avoiding people being foreign to them.’ Terry Pratchett. 
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The Dancing Houses, once the working and living quarters of well-to-do merchants. They tilt all over the place because they were built on swampy soil and stood on stilts. 
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Antique stores in the Jordaan
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Delft blue miniature houses. These are special. Each carries a number and is a replica of an actual old house in the city.
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Three modes of transport in a frame
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Old hotels on the canals of Amsterdam
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Jordaan. The number of bridges and canals in Amsterdam is beguiling. There are supposed to be over 150 canals and  1281 bridges and, beat this, the Dutch win hands down over Venice with three times the number of bridges that the Italian city has.
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Because I could not get enough of the loveliness of these bridges and their reflection once it was dark.
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Houses and boats in the Jordaan
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Curious inhabitants of Jordaan
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Boutiques in Jordaan
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Idiot cap wearers fit right into Jordaan
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Royal Palace on the Dam

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Spicy Woks and Intrepid Strangers

I have to make a last note – do walk into Wok to Walk. There are outlets of it all over town. They will spice up your food tales of the city and possibly make you chat with strangers. On a spectacularly icy day when the winds tore through us, the prospect of a spicy wok meal was a welcome thought. We sat chowing on our respective plates when from opposite us came a laugh with the line, ‘I always do that to my partner’ because Adi was filching noodles off my plate.  Meet Ben, an Aussie from Queensland who was on a Grand Tour for a month. Stories exchanged, nuggets of gold, which you would not happen upon if you were not at that place and at that time.

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Wok to Walk

And do look left and right before you cross roads. Remember the way your parents schooled you as a child about the dangers of not doing so? It is a life lesson you will need to evade the whizzing wheels of terror in Amsterdam.

 

Grand Dame of the Amstel

Luxury is such a precious word when you dabble in it. But once in a while, maybe? Because who wants to develop a thick skin when it comes to appreciating the good things in life.

Adi and I are cost-conscious travellers. When you are passionate about travel and want to see as much of the world as we do, it is quite impossible to indulge in luxury in the true sense of the word (unless you have trust funds in place).

On that note you will, if you can imagine, feel the thrill we felt when we walked into the InterContinental Amstel. The five-star hotel as you can see on the main featured photograph is a beauty and sits on the river Amstel in Amsterdam. On a dull day when a fine mist hung in the air, we were at the portal of this old-world Dutch hotel. A doorman in a smart livery and top hat ushered us into a warmly lit lobby that was marked by classic white walls, high ceilings, glittering chandeliers and sconces. It radiated a sense of classic grandeur. The interiors were not of behemoth proportions because before it opened doors in 1867 its founder Dr Samuel Sarphati had fallen short of funds. He died during its construction. This man, a Dutch physician of Portuguese Sephardi Jew descent, was key to developing the city of Amsterdam. He was a philanthropist. After he came to understand the poor hygiene of the people while treating them, he set up projects to uplift them and the city at large. He set up a bread factory that would produce affordable but good bread and initiated an effective waste collection system. Let’s put it thus: Amsterdam owes him.

Back into the exalted lobby of the InterContinental Amstel, there is a bust of Sarphati inside to make you look up the unusual name of the gentleman. Though I did chance upon a ‘tabloid’ titled Amstel Times. An interesting way of putting out information about its 150-year-old history. Instead of gadding about it further, I shall let the photographs take you into the hotel.

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Rembrandt van Rijn. The Dutch master who lived during the 17th century finds mention in the hotel throughout. It overlooks a piece of land called De Omval that is known to have inspired Rembrandt’s sketches. There is even a Rembrandt suite in his memory.
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Rembrandt looks on as you enter the hotel.
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An old wooden staircase, high ceilings and pretty chandeliers mark a quietly elegant lobby inside the Dutch hotel. There are about 55 executive rooms and 24 suites, not a vast number, but what it lacks in number, it makes up for in style.
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The Amstel InterContinental was envisaged to be grander. With two more wings. But as it happens, the best-laid plans often go awry. Don’t we all know a bit about that?
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Guests’ scribblings. Post the year 1867 when it opened its doors to the public.
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George Clooney, Audrey Hepburn and Queen Elizabeth are a few personalities to have stayed here. Here you can see a Clooney doodle.
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The bar has a stunning view of the river. You can sit here and while away time with a pint of Dutch beer and just that view.
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And if you get fidgety after a few drinks at the bar you can always head out to the Jordaan quarter which is a few minutes’ walk away.
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The Wellness Suite. I scampered down mostly to dip into the wonderful spicy mix of seeds and nuts they put out with tea (basically, after I had a go, no one else did).
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A not-too-unhappy duo inside their suite.
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Into the executive suite that we were upgraded to. Look at that gorgeous wallpaper.
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An old-world decor can never fail to charm an old soul.
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Entry level rooms start around 300-400 quids a night. That is pretty much a standard quote all through the year.

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The hotel should not do too badly, says that smile.
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Yippeee, says mine.

Lastly, I have to mention the chief concierge, Aad van den Berg, who was lovely with his recommendations. He got us tickets for Anne Frank House which we had failed to book online because they happened to be sold out. Did I mention also that this was an IHG free reward night redemption at the InterContinental Amstel? Well then, let me say this that if you have a free reward night too and you are in this beautiful, vibrant city, you know where to look in. For me, it made me feel nothing less than a pampered princess.