Guest Post: Traditional Dubai

Hello guys, welcome to a guest post from Neha who blogs at Dubaiwikia

Dubai, the capital of glitz and glamour has a charming traditional side to it which brings to mind its transformation from a pearl diving and fishing village to the cosmopolitan giant it is now. Dubai’s history, along with that of the UAE, goes back for millennia. The city has a rich culture and a richer background which forms a tapestry of traditional jewels that adds to Dubai’s charm. Here are glimpses of Dubai’s traditional elements. You’ll see from them that the pearl-diving village still exists, underneath the glamorous layers.

Al-Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood

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The Bastikaya Quarter, or old Dubai, in Bur Dubai is Dubai’s oldest neighbourhood, built by Persian merchants in the 19th century, who named it Bastak, after a town in Iran. The Persian merchants were attracted to Dubai owing to the relaxed trade tariffs. This picturesque heritage neighbourhood has quaint lanes, sandstone buildings, and wind towers, an old but effective form of air conditioning. While in the Bastikaya Quarter, be sure to learn a bit more about Dubai’s history at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Visit the Dubai Museum, the Arabic Tea Garden, and other places of note.

Al-Fahidi Museum

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The Dubai museum occupies the old Al Fahidi fort which dates back to 1800. The front rooms showcase old weaponry, and various utensils that were used in Dubai from historical times. In a corner of the museum is a traditional “Sarasti hut” which is topped by a burlap wind tower. This is the sort of structure where Dubai’s past generations lived. The walls of this hut are made of palm fronds which allows plenty of air circulation.

Explore the museum’s underground displays which showcase traditional Emirati and Bedouin life. There are several rooms with life-size mannequins and dioramas that showcase every aspect of traditional Emirati life including prayer, traditional clothing, games, camels, falconry and local architecture.

The Dubai Creek

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The Dubai Creek is a deep seawater inlet which was used as a main trading route at one point. The creek runs through the heart of the city, splitting Dubai into Bur Dubai and Deira. Along the sides of the creek are modern hotels, restaurants, office buildings and old sandstone dwellings and wind towers as well apart from bustling souqs.

Souks in Dubai

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Souqs are traditional Arabian markets. There’s a souq on either side of the Dubai Creek – one on the Deira side and one on the Bur Dubai side. The gold souk is located at Bur Dubai. At this old market you’ll see traditional storefronts selling 24 carat gold, along with rubies, diamonds, emeralds and other gemstones, all decoratively arranged in windows. The gold price here is much cheaper than elsewhere in the world, as it is tax-free.

The narrow and colourful spice markets in Bur Dubai declare their wares from a distance when the delicious smell hits your nostrils. Follow the exotic aromas to the traditional open stalls selling cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, saffron, and a myriad other spices.

On the Deira side, you’ll find stalls selling carpets, Arabian clothing and pashmina shawls. You’ll find some gold souqs there too, but not as many as in the Bur Dubai side. You can set up a quick bargain for any item you wish to buy from any of the souqs, something you cannot do at Dubai’s posh malls.

Heritage Village

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The Heritage Village is a reproduction of an old Bedouin village. It’s an attempt to showcase the way life used to be before oil was discovered and the world changed. Here you can witness traditional palm-leaf huts and wind towers being built from scratch. Wander around the replicated village and admire the handicrafts and woven articles made by the women. It’s a fine place to pick up some souvenirs. Be sure to observe the falconer’s ability to train and control his falcons at the Heritage Village – it’s a treat!

The Dubai Desert

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The most ancient and most enduring aspect of Dubai and the UAE is its desert. The desert has been around for millennia, shaping the lives of the people of the Middle East. Sign up for a desert safari to truly appreciate the beauty of the mysterious, mystical red sand dunes. Even if you’re not into desert adventure sports, take a tripod and camera and capture some great sunsets or sunrises. The desert safari comes with typical Arabian entertainment such as the Tanura dance show and bellydancing, so it’s a good way to get to know the region’s culture as well.

The Dhow Harbour

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Don’t miss a visit to the old dhow harbour, where you can see old dhows lined up for repair and renovated dhows all decked up for cruises on the creek and on Dubai Marina. Observe the traditional methods of ship building that are still being followed. Dhows have been built in Dubai for many thousands of years. Today, dhows are being used not just for trading and fishing, but for recreational pursuits. If you’re in Dubai during May, be sure to catch the Al Ghaffal Traditional 60ft Dhow Race. Enjoy the emirate’s rich maritime heritage by signing up for a dhow cruise.

Dhow Cruise Dubai

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You can sign up for a dhow cruise of the Dubai Creek or Dubai Marina. The piece de resistance in either case is the beautifully renovated and decorated dhow, done up in beautiful glass with gold accents. The dhow, when fully lit up, makes for a festive sight on Dubai’s waters. Enjoy the pleasant atmosphere, on-board entertainment, and a wonderful Emirati vegetarian and non-vegetarian buffet dinner on board. On the Creek, you’ll pass by the old town, Sheikh Saeed’s house which is the birthplace of Sheikh Saeed, the Dubai Golf Club, and several major landmarks including a distant view of the Burj Khalifa. If you’re taking the dhow cruise on the Dubai Marina, then you’ll see the Burj Al Arab and the Atlantis hotel along with the Palm Islands close up. You’ll also get to enjoy close up views of the super yachts moored at the Dubai Marina, the yachts that cost millions of dollars.

While modern Dubai’s distractions are great to see and admire, it is Dubai’s traditional aspects that actually feed the visitor’s soul. Don’t ignore what your soul demands. Take a trip down the lane of history and make good use of your time in Dubai by learning the story behind its stupendous success. Learn about the grit of the Emirati, the vision, the determination and the nerve to keep trying. Be sure to spend time at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding to know more about Dubai’s origins.

The Tall, Taller and Tallest in Manhattan

“You can do what you like, sir, but I’ll tell you this. New York is the true capital of America. Every New Yorker knows it, and by God, we always shall.”

That’s not me spouting off biased and borrowed wisdom in my two days of being here. I am not a New Yorker yet. I do not know if I shall ever be one in my heart. The quote is from ‘New York’, a historical novel by British author Edward Rutherford. If you like the kind of bulky tomes that you can hurl at people (who annoy you) and thereby cause serious injury, Rutherford is your man. If you are the kind of person however with a penchant for useless dreaming, and you also possess the patience of a beaver, then you would rather flip open that tome. Channelling your inner Om.

‘New York’ introduced me to historical layers of a world that I had no idea of. The story of Native Americans who lived on Mannahatta, or ‘the land of many hills’, the name given by ancient tribes to Manhattan that is the city’s historical birthplace. The plot starts thickening once the European settlers trickle in.

Now that busy streak from Manhattan’s past, my friend, has infiltrated the present day in which I found myself walking down the busiest of the five boroughs of New York.

On a noon hedged in by skyscrapers, there we were, two people ultimately new to New York’s glitzy glory, craning our necks to take in the full view of an army of towers. Some tipped with golden spires, others with sombre spires and facades sheathed in glass in which you could catch reflections. Just a vision of tall buildings looming above us, no matter what angle we turned our heads at. Oh, it was a giddy feeling alright.

A series of impressive court houses with their massive pillars achieved the intended effect of imbibing us with the requisite amount of awe. A colonial building in a leafy park turned out to be the city hall where the mayor of New York sits and an old church in red bricks shot its hand out to declare its presence right after.

Walking beneath old gaslights into the leafy City Hall Park that was the place for public executions and recreations in old times, we soon found that we were at the portals of the hallowed St. Paul’s Chapel. Standing outside the oldest church building in Manhattan, where George Washington prayed and which survived the 9/11 attacks, we were in a sense soaking in the colonial heritage of the city.

Then there’s the iconic One World Trade Center, rebuilt upon the old World Trade Center complex, catching reflections of the changing skies above us and… wait, what was that strange building, presenting a strange vision of bifurcating ribs?

A thorn in the taxpayer’s line of vision, as a New Yorker might say. Or The Oculus. But I cannot and shall not complain about this building that was conceived of as a giant dove by a Spanish architect. It might end up looking like giant claws apart from ribs but that is a different matter. Some have even likened it to a dinosaur.

You do feel for the architect. Creativity requires imagination and not everyone can give into your vision, however grand and ambitious it might be. It might not be everyone’s favourite building but The Oculus is a paradigm of space and modern design. Through its ribs the skyline of the city was broken up in a linear manner, which was strangely engrossing as the three pink balloons winking down at us from its elevated spot upon the glass beams.

Dear old Oculus is now one of my closest buds in New York. I shall not try and explain that odd fact away given that you know me by now. You see, I enter the city through The Oculus which is the World Trade Center Transportation Hub. It replaced the old PATH station that was destroyed by the 9/11 attacks. Just to put it in perspective, the PATH decoded is Port Authority Trans-Hudson, the rapid transit system that connects places like Newark, Harrison, Hoboken, and Jersey City in New Jersey to New York City, apart from linking up lower and midtown Manhattan as well.

You can well imagine then why I shall rely upon Oculus dear for emotional support and extensive hand holding during all the times that I shall find myself goofing my way around New York, boarding the wrong trains and finding myself in places unknown.

I know this that Oculus shall always be there for me.

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Meet Oculus
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Gaping at The Oculus. Just a very normal reaction.
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Manhattan skyline through the Oculus
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A hip photographer hugs the ground as he waits for the four to kick their feet into the air
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Imagine all the times they must have fallen on their heads. I am odd anyway. A fall or two might take it to unnecessary levels.
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Approaching the pillars of justice around the bend
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Hefty pillars of governance
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The traffic is incessant
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The wheels of justice. They grind on.
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Sizing up the city
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City Hall. The office of the mayor of New York.
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City Hall. A profile.
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The goodness of two alliums bobbing their pretty heads inside the City Hall Park
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Gaslights and the city
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City Hall Park
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The old and the new stand shoulder to shoulder
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Brownstone buildings of Manhattan
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One World Trade Center
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Mr. Whippy where art thou?
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St. Paul’s Chapel, cross-sectioned
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Spires. Old and new.

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Entering the picture in silhouette
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‘Show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ What would you have made of this, Mr. Chekhov?

The Manhattan Story

His face etched by age, the man in front of Big Wong stood with a faraway look in his face, his hands busy stuffing golden tobacco into the thin stem that stuck out from the side of a wooden bong. That’s not the bongo which would imply an antelope, or on the other end of the spectrum, a drum. But since you can spot our man in the featured photograph with the bong in his hand (behind the potbellied man in the blue tee), you could safely cross out both antelope and drum-shaped possibilities. Instead, you can probably figure out that the bong is a pipe with a filtration device that allows you to smoke anything from tobacco to cannabis. His white apron flecked extensively by red sauce, the man then continued to puff away at the pipe and release curls of smoke as he nodded vigorously to emphasise that he was not partial to getting clicked. Why he was out for a break from his overwrought job of churning out noodles and sauce-laden dishes.

With the clucking of his tongue and the shake of his head, he might as well have mouthed out, ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than shooting photographs, so really Horatio, go eat some’.

We did eat a whole lot right after. Steamy bowls of soup with pork dumplings floating in them, a massive plate of noodles topped up with greens and strips of chicken and then the ubiquitous American Chinese dish called General Tso’s Chicken (that often surfaces on pinterest) appeared within minutes of our sitting at the table. All in big portions. We had forgotten the monumental portions of food served up in America. Surrounded by Chinese families going about their bowls with chopsticks and speaking in rapid Chinese, we slurped away.

This was Manhattan. Chinatown, New York. But I could have been easily in an eatery on the streets of Chinatown in Calcutta where the Chinese folks around us would been chattering in Bengali. The common factor was the intensely flavourful food, because that is what makes Chinese such a Friday night comfort food, isn’t it?

Do you put on your PJs after a long day at the end of the week and unwind with delicious Chinese and a frightfully scary movie? I look forward to such evenings when I rustle up Indochinese fare (typically it is about Schezwan dishes concocted with garlic and dried red chillies, moreish Manchurian dishes and chilli dishes which are typically batter fried chicken/fish/ veggies tossed up in spicy sauces). It is a version of Chinese food bequeathed to every Indian by the Han/Hakka community who made their way to Calcutta as far back as the mid 1800s when a businessman called Tong Achi established a sugar mill there.

The migrant Hakka people who belong to the provincial Hakka-speaking provinces of China started working in the sugar mill. In time they turned their skills to work in the tanneries (the stench of which can and will send you into a dead faint) to churn out fashionable and high quality leather goods in British India (working on leather was looked down upon by upper-caste Hindus) and some even operated opium dens. There are faded sepia photographs of rake-thin Chinese men with pipes of opium and punkahs (hand-held bamboo fans) alongside, staring at the lenses with glazed eyes, a sense of detachment from the squalor of their den. I wonder about stories from another era that the Manhattan Chinese have to tell too.

At the same time that some were making their inroads into British India, others chose to make the considerably longer journey to America, lured by stories of the gold rush of the 1840s.

Now New York to Calcutta spells a gigantic leap, but the common thread that runs through them is woven with the warp and weft of stories. Of migration, of immense determination to make it work despite abject circumstances and then these migrants’ renditions of Chinese food that was inevitably tempered by the environment that they found themselves in.

My jaunts have taken me to the Chinatowns in London, Kuala Lumpur, Seattle, Bangkok, Singapore, Port Louis in Mauritius to name some but the way of life of the Manhattan Chinese and the Calcutta Chinese have seeped into the very fabric of their surroundings.

Bringing you back to the streets of Lower Manhattan, the older generation of Chinese turn out to be sticklers for their customs, language and stern expressions. Far removed from the glitziness of the nearby Financial District of New York City, it is a world peopled by old Chinese men and women, bent double with age over walking sticks as they hobble across pavements, stopping once in a while to look askew at passers-by, cordial young bankers sitting inside their chambers and talking about their love for everything modern and coming across as the quintessential New Yorker living in their microcosm, younger store workers with colourful dragon tattoos splayed across their arms and then the antique shop owner with five generations of antiquing in the blood. The streets of Lower Manhattan are entrancing.

This was how we were introduced to the well-known and oft talked about grand American dream – that if you put in hard work why you shall reap the rewards –  all tucked in comfortably within the streets of Chinatown.

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The Georgian-style Roman Catholic Church of the Transfiguration does stand out in its very obviously Chinese surroundings.
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Sunday masses at the church are held in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.

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Chinatown Starbucks
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Heritage and modernity join hands in Starbucks, Chinatown.
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 Colours of Chinatown in Lower Manhattan
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The oldest store in Chinatown, Manhattan, is this antique store called Wing On Wo & Co. Generations of Chinese have been selling porcelain here since the 1920s.
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Those fire escapes fascinated me. Here you see them on Mott Street, which is the nerve centre of Chinatown.
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A Cantonese businessman was the first to arrive in Lower Manhattan and start the process of slowly and surely changing the nature of these streets.
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At Big Wong, we let go. Pork dumplings.
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Noodles laden with pak choi and chicken
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General Tso’s Chicken. A piquant affair.
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Fire escapes and dimsum palaces
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Chinatown leads you into Little Italy. A neighbourhood where once immigrants from Naples and Sicily arrived in the 1800s.
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I was taken in by those fire escapes as you can see.
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Italy nostalgia. 
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A typical NYC sight
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Red chequered table cloths, cannoli, espresso, pizzas, pastas…a feast awaits you in Little Italy. I cannot wait to get back and tuck into some Italian fare.
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We might have started with Chinatown but I leave you here with Little Italy, which goes to show that here is a city that belongs to everybody, and at first glance, seems to be made up of a million dreams and desires. 


Even a Shed in Ravello Would Do

On the other side of Scala, far from the crowds of the Amalfi Coast is Ravello. The town hugs the top of a ridge that looks out onto the Gulf of Salerno. Our very first sight of it and we were irrevocably, irreversibly hooked. If a fairy godmother materialised and swished her wand for me, I would ask for a home in Ravello, on those mountains with a view of the inky Tyrrhenian. We would then be residents of a town with a history that goes back all the way to the 5th century when it was founded as refuge from attacks by barbarians. In time, it became a wool-producing, trading powerhouse in association with the Republic of Amalfi.

There is a story behind Ravello’s name. The first known inhabitants of this hamlet were Romans. There is little knowhow about Ravello from that period except for the fact that it was absorbed into the Republic of Amalfi during the 11th century. Two centuries later, its residents rebelled against Amalfi and the hamlet was dubbed ‘Rebellum’.

I revel in the sound of it. Ravello. Mark how it rolls off the tongue. And when locals enunciate it their sonorous way, she sounds like such a beauty, with the lush ways of a Sophia Loren about her.

The first thing you will notice from the coastal road that winds around the town, apart from the lush green hills and the very blue duet played by the sky and sea, is surely a modernist building that rises like a wave. It is a theatre designed by a Brazilian modern architect, Oscar Niemeyer, which sticks out incredulously in a medieval town. But then, it did fit in with the stories that add an aura of glitz to Ravello.

The town was the romping grounds of the rich and the beautiful during the ’50s and the ’60s. Stories abound, of the reclusive Greta Garbo who took off with conductor-composer Leopold Stokowski to the Villa Cimbrone in Ravello, in the midst of a highly secretive affair. Of how the villa was thronged, and Garbo heavily annoyed had remarked about the need for a doctor, ‘in case anyone is hurt’.

I could, in my imagination, see film stars clinking flutes of bubbly and emitting tinkling notes of laughter as they took breaks from lazy laps in the pool of the uber luxurious hotel that stood adjacent to the theatre building. A contrast to this picture was perched, immediately across the valley, atop lush green mountains in the form of an austere monastery.

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We ambled down to the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie, a 12th-century church with steps leading down to the coastal town of Minori. Lured by the solitude, we descended the steps as a local led his donkeys down alongside, beneath a tall, lone Cypress. If we had been going down them steps in the old days, say in the 16th century, we might have been offered wine on our way down to Minori. The man who had built the church had apparently stipulated it to his heirs. 

We sat on the walls of that church, with a view across the Gulf of Amalfi. It had an unreal quality. We had turned out to be the hero and heroine of our own dreams.

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In the cathedral square of Ravello, stands Villa Rufolo, named after the powerful family who lived in it. They became even more famous when the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio made a Landolfo Rufolo one of his protagonists in Decameron.

D.H. Lawrence is said to have spent time in the villa when he started writing Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Yes, writers such as Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster and Andre Gide too had soaked in the wondrous charm of Ravello, not to leave out the German opera composer Richard Wagner.

Wagner visited Villa Rufolo in the late 1800s and he was inspired to compose the opera Parsifal. On a stone plaque on the walls of the villa are immortalised the words: ‘Il magico giardino di Klingsor è trovato’. It means ‘the magical garden of Klingsor has been found’. Now, every year Villa Rufolo hosts a Wagnerian concert in its gardens and this summer music festival gives it the epithet, la città della musica (The City of Music).

Standing upon the terraces of Villa Cimbrone, a few yards from Villa Rufolo, I could appreciate the words of Catullus that’s inscribed upon a bronze statute of Hermes: ‘Lost to the world of which I desire no part, I sit alone and speak to my heart, satisfied with my little corner of the world, content to feel no more sadness for death.’



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Things to Do: 

Mamma Agata’s ( cooking class. She has cooked for the likes of Fred Astaire and Humphrey Bogart and has many a story to tell.

Take the coastal footpath down to Minori.

Monastero Di Santa Chiara. You have to plan for it. It is open only on Sundays for morning service.

Ravello-Atrani walk along one of the oldest routes on the coast.


Where to Stay: 

Villa Amore (, a basic bed & breakfast priced between €120 and €150 per night.

Hotel Rufolo ( Superior Sea View Rooms start at € 195 per night. The hotel has a roll-call of famous names to boast of, and one of it guests, French writer Lucette Desvignes wrote words that makes you want it all. She had noted: ‘From the medieval towers to the infinity of the sea, all belongs to you: mountains, coast, lemon valley or vineyard, magic garden, Moorish cloister, Byzantine cupolas, pine trees, all is yours and you take it with you when you leave.’


The Amalfi Dream

On the string bean of a road on the Amalfi coastline, it is imperative that you shall be caught in the midst of substantial traffic jams. You will hear a fair bit of Italian cursing or laughter — depending upon the mood of the driver. You will also peek out of your window, curious about the ado, till you spot the troublemaker. A man in a blush pink blazer getting into his ramshackle car with a sheepish smile and a few scusas and molto bene grazies. But he has had his coffee, thank you. Such important matters of life are not to be bypassed in Italy even if it means that you park your car on a ribbon of a road, okay?

We were on the way from Positano to Amalfi. After the essential coastal drive drama we were back on the road, with a stop at the fishing village of Conca Dei Marini for coffee. The driver wanted it, we wanted it, and we had a parking spot. The stars were aligned. From the coastline we had a spectacular view of its claim to fame – the Grotta dello Smeraldo — a cavern that glows shades of emerald inside as the sun shines through its fissure. It all seemed unreal at the time and even now, yes. If you have been a part of the Amalfi dream, you know what I mean. If you have not, what are you waiting for?

Then turned up the romantic town of Praiano. The brilliant white, yellow and blue colours of its majolica tiled domed church beckoned to us very invitingly indeed as it towered above a maze of pretty pastel houses, azure blue waters its immediate backdrop.

How to Get There: For any of these towns on the Amalfi Coast, opt for a water taxi or local shuttles. There are options for hiring private car/bus tours depending upon the depth of your pocket. I would steer clear of hiring a car because it would give you a few nerve-racking moments, guaranteed.

Things to do in Praiano: Relax on its beaches such as the Marina di Praia, scuba/snorkel or work off the pasta by taking steps down to Torre di Grado, one of the 16th-17th towers built by the Spanish on the Tyrrhenian Coast for defensive purposes.

If you are staying in Praiano, hop over to Africana Famous Club, a club which sits inside a cave. While dancing look down. You would be thrilled to feel that you are dancing upon water (’tis a glass floor). But this is a club which has received the likes of Jackie Kennedy, so beware of the prices of drinks.

Jump onto the local bus to Furore, a tiny village that is quipped not to exist because you cannot see it from the coastline. You know what that means. More steps. Who can complain about a little workout after a gelato? Head for the Fiordo, a narrow gorge.

Where to Stay: If you want atmosphere look out for the three-star hotel, Hotel Torre Saracena ( Standard rooms range between €80-€150.


The 16th-century watchtower of Torre del Capo di Conca, also known as Torre Bianca, stands on the headland of Conca Dei Marini. A lift takes you down to the Grotta della Smeraldo. 
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Coastal route traffic jam

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Majolica dome of the Church of San Luca Evangelista
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A hint of the beaches in Praiano

In Amalfi, a plaque on the Porta Marina declared: “The judgement day, when Amalfitans go to Heaven, will be a day like any other”. It is not a swollen-headed claim given Amalfi’s scenic home in the valley of the Lattari Mountains. For all its small stature, it was a naval powerhouse in the 11th-12th centuries, drawing out codes of marine laws that were followed by medieval kingdoms and minting its own gold and silver coins known as tari. In the 11th century, a chronicler, William of Apulia, noted of Amalfi: “No other city is richer in silver, cloth, and gold. A great many navigators live in this city… famous almost throughout the world as those who travel to where there is something worth buying.”

From its busy harbour, we took a boat ride that gave us an eyeful of Amalfi’s landscape – pastel coloured houses, gaping caves in cliffs and well-perched convents, not to miss out on a certain white villa with green window shutters that belongs to actress Sophia Loren.

The stars of Amalfi are the glazed majolica dome of the cathedral with its stunning Arabic and Norman architecture and the basilica. Souk-like streets run the length of Amalfi, taking you past lattices of dried red chillies and baskets of Amalfi lemons, shops selling fresh seafood, gelaterias that charge you horrifically for a cone of gelato, but by and by, there are not many old structures around. In 1343, an earthquake brought down old structures in towns such as Positano and Amalfi and most of Amalfi’s old buildings along with its people were swept into the sea. Amalfi never recovered from its bad fortune after. Newer trading routes had started opening up with discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus. Amalfi became a wallflower of sorts till it drew the attention of the Grand Tour-era travellers.

What to do: Vallone delle Ferriere hike. Take the steps that lead up from the main street of Amalfi, through the hamlet of Pogerola. Make your way to Pontone that is a another scenic hamlet in the oldest town of the coastline, Scala. The hike will lead you into chestnut and fern woods through charming waterfalls, rivers and lemon groves.

Where to stay: I fear that if I did recommend staying here you might pick up lemons again. The town is just too crowded.

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Cruising along the waters off the coast
The unreal beauty of the Amalfi Coast
Streets of Amalfi
Summer crowds
Lemons or softballs
A 9th-century edifice
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In front of the Cathedral of St. Andrew where we watched a bride and groom trip down its steps with love and laughter
The most expensive gelatos we had had in a long time
The white house discreetly located along the Amalfi Coast drive is that of Sophia Loren. It is right at the bottom on the right hand side of the photo with the Norman tower next to it.


Portraits of an Old Man in Kuldhara

In the desert city of Jaisalmer in India is an abandoned 13th century village called Kuldhara. I had gone many years ago on a junket to write about a hotel, when along with another journalist and PR I came upon a curious settlement of honey-hued roofless houses and temples that seemed be at one with the desert they were a part of. The empty village was the erstwhile home for a high caste of Hindus known as the Paliwal Brahmins who were said to have been royal priests thousands of years ago, till they vanished from their home in the matter of a night.

The story of Kuldhara hinges upon the beauty of a woman, the daughter of a Paliwal Brahmin chief and the lust of a prime minister (to a king in Jaisalmer) for her during the 18th-19th century. The Paliwal Brahmins would have none of it and they decided to pack their belongings and leave the village. That is the local lore. Also, that they cursed this village so no one could inhabit it ever again.

Do abandoned villages make your curious? You see traces of lives that must have been, empty fireplaces, pits covered with ashes where the villagers would have cooked their food, the beams on ceilings that must have been constructed out of locally sourced wooden branches, stepwells from where they got their supply of rain harvested water, the temples where they prayed – and you wonder, what could have really happened for them to have abandoned their homes. For would an entire community really abandon the roofs over their heads for the sake of honour? Or could it have been more practical matters such as the water drying up in the vicinity?

The eerie quiet was resounding.



In that ghost town of crumbling mud houses and remains of walls inscribed with the ancient Devanagari script (it traces its roots back to the 7th century CE), we met one old man. The 75-year-old frail Sumer Ram who guards the entrance to the village that is supposed to still have precious gold coins buried in its vicinity.



How to get there: You would have to first get to Jaisalmer. On the way to the sand dunes of Sam, you shall spot the village of Kuldhara. There is a sign board that announces its presence in the deserts of Rajasthan.

What to do: Spend time listening to this old man playing his flute which he does hauntingly, explore the 400-odd ruins of the abandoned village and search for the paranormal (Rajasthan Tourism deems it to be a haunted village). If you do spot ’em ghosts, I would say keep a camel handy. Those yellow humped babies can run. One almost threw me off its back once.


Girona was mine when I walked its medieval ramparts. It was in the early half of February of this year, a grey day when the drab skies above my head seemed to intensify the cold in the ancient town that is located in Spain’s Catalonia region. The bitterness  of the day meant that I beheld a deserted town, but I was not going to bemoan the lack of day-trippers for the desolation compounded the aura of antiquity that hung around its terracotta roofs.

I took the train from Barcelona Sants to Girona, early one morning. Forty minutes later I was transported to another world when I started climbing a certain Capuchin Hill upon which the old quarters of Girona perch themselves strategically. The hill was named after the Capuchin friars who arrived there some time in the late 16th century.

Amidst the bleakness of the day, a meek sun struggled to part the clouds, and beneath its watery sunlight, I walked aimlessly. There is such joy in pottering around without an agenda – it affords one the thrill of discovery and is doubly pleasurable to the incurable romantic. Steep stone stairs and cobble-stoned alleys took me into the heart of Girona. Girona which was once Gerunda, when it was once home to the Iberians. Its coveted position as a highly wealthy town invited the attention of marauders. So they all came — the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors, followed by the Romans again led by Charlemagne, the stalwart emperor who constructed a defensive wall around Girona. A canny move, I suppose, because the city was prey to many sackings.

In its old quarters, Barri Vell, I came upon a garden that read (bizarrely) ‘Jardins de John Lennon’. One of the mayors, it turns out, was a fan of Lennon. This garden was an oasis of solitude that guided me to some narrow winding stairs in a tower and soon I found myself walking old Charlemagne’s walls. Before me lay the panoramic view of Girona’s terracotta roofs, cathedrals and spires, stitched seamlessly with tall cypresses offering a dark green contrast to the dull ochre of the medieval buildings. The Pyrenees were its charming backdrop, a chain of smoky blue undulations on the horizon. One end of that wall seemed to dip into a sea of modern apartments, so I decided to turn back towards the old quarter.

In the Call, the Jewish quarter, I walked through such narrow alleys that if I stretched my hands out, they would touch the walls on both sides. It was moody, that neighbourhood with its huddle of decrepit houses and dark corners, cobbled lanes and gently ascending stairs. In the museum and bookshops, old Jews sat behind tills, adding to the atmosphere of the Call. Just as in other European cities, Jews were expelled from Girona in 1492 by the Catholic Kings, and it is said that while some families sold their properties to Christians before leaving, others blocked their houses in the hope that they would return some day. Encroachment over the years meant that these old houses were buried away till in the 19th century they were re-discovered during the construction of a railway line in town.

But a whole bunch of those abandoned medieval houses still seem to be waiting for their former residents to return. The La Judería turned out to be one of the most haunting Jewish quarters I have come across in all my travels in Europe because it seemed to centre around that singular feeling called hope, yet there remains that disquieting thought. What happens when hope does not get you anywhere?

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Trudging up Capuchin Hill to the Basilica of Sant Feliu
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Ancient walls that stand formidably tall

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The Pyrenees form the backdrop to Girona

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Moorish baños dating back to the late 12th century. In the 15th century, these Arab baths were privately owned. But in the 17th century, they were transformed to serve as laundry rooms for the Order of the Capuchin nuns.

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In Sant Feliu are buried the remains of martyrs and saints
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On the left are Emperor Charlemagne’s walls

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Cathedral of Saint Mary 

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Sant Pere de Galligants is a 12th-century monastery and one of the most important Catalan Romanesque legacies in Girona
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Gardens of Sant Pere de Galligants
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Plaça de la Independència where once stood an old convent. Today, restaurants are tucked into the porticoes of these beautiful neoclassical buildings. In its centre is a monument dedicated to the 1809 War of Spanish Independence against Napoleon Bonaparte.
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I had to nibble on something and what better than a Roquefort quiche in a French bakery
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 Les Cases de l’Onyar (The Houses on the Onyar)

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The Eiffel Bridge of Gustave Eiffel
River Onyar from Eiffel Bridge



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The Call

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It would be uncommon not to chance upon a muttering old man climbing the steps in the Call 

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