To Gibralfaro

Moorish Spain is enchanting. You who have wandered through the grand gardens of the Alhambra and the steep cobbled alleys of Albaicín in Granada, the Alcázar in Seville or even the Aljaferiá in Zaragoza, would know what I am banging on about. For one, the Moors knew how to pick on the best views of the city – for them though it was a matter of survival so they chose the locations of their fortresses for their defensive positions. But I would like to believe that the hedonists in them marvelled at the sight of what they had accomplished. Those great gardens of pleasure, water trickling off pretty fountains wrought in marble, intricate columns that look like they have been punched out of geometric patterns with precision and passion…for some reason they remind me of the ‘stately pleasure-dome’ decreed by Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. You know, those ‘gardens bright with sinuous rills,/ Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree’. But then you might argue, ‘You daft creature, Kubla was a Mongol and his palace was in Xanadu, in another continent altogether.’ I merely refer to the lushness of the description concocted by Coleridge in his opium-induced dreams.

One of the Moors’ famed castles sits atop the hills of Málaga, surrounded by dense forests of eucalyptus and pine. My mission one noon was to walk up to Castillo de Gibralfaro before I took the train for Madrid with my husband and his colleague that evening. Of all the many unwise decisions I have taken during my solo travels – I have to confess there are many – Gibralfaro possibly topped it.

There is a route through the Alcazaba that takes you to the castle. I could not figure it out and naturally I took the longer trail after I got out of the Alcazaba. The plus point was that I got to make a pitstop at Plaza de la Merced, a square that was home to Pablo Picasso for the first three years of his life. The 20th century artist was born in a house here and took his first baby steps in this part of the world, so I had to go gawk at it even though the guard rattled out ‘no puedes entrar’ blended with sign language to inform me that it was shut for the day.

I passed through avenues of trees with silver barks, swishing in the gentle breeze that alleviated the heat of the noon, past old churches and villas that put me in mind of lavish courtyards, pitchers of iced teas and slowly rotating fans in cool, dark rooms, and trudged up a steep ascent. Small villages studded with white villas cropped up across the winding roads, and after what seemed like eternity, I arrived at Gibralfaro. During the entire duration of which I was passed by a dozen taxis and a couple of buses full of tourists as I huffed and puffed uphill, bullied by an unrelenting sun.

The views from the castle are spectacular beneath the midday sun, the pale shimmering waters of the Mediterranean holding you in its spell like an enchantress, loathe to release you. I walked its solid ramparts which towered above the port city and thought of what the Phoenician lighthouse might have looked like. For a lighthouse stood there before the Caliph of Cordoba built the castle sometime during the 10th century on that very site. Its name – derived from Gebel-faro orrock of the lighthouse’ – attests to it.  But the time that I spent in the castle ended on a whimper. Midway through it I looked at the watch and remembered I had a train to catch in an hour and a half. That and the husband’s wide collection of scowls made me whiz through the castle at remarkable speed before I made my way back to the hotel at an equally frantic pace – it somehow happened that I could not catch a bus during my way to the castle or on the way back.

At the end of it all, the palm-fringed beach near the hotel and a bottle of beer helped soothe my high-strung chattering when I met a startled Adi and his colleague. But the relief was this that I did get on the train to Madrid.

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Plaza de la Merced
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Picasso’s childhood home

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Gibralfaro
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From the ramparts of the fortress

 

 

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The drink that relieved my overwrought senses
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Train to Madrid

Chasing Illusions in Gudvangen

Google Gudvangen. ‘Has she gone crazy?’ you might interject. ‘Here I pop by her post and she asks me to google the name?!’ Humour me for two seconds.

Atop the wikipedia page (you do not have to click further) dedicated to the small Viking village in Norway, you find yourself staring at an image of marvellously lofty peaks. The main peak in it has been squished and stretched up to look like a model lengthening her svelte body. Then you notice later, much later, that the topmost peak seems to show you the middle finger.

Somebody’s idea of awful humour.

The day we reached Els’ cottage in Norheimsund we drove straight up into the county of Sogn og Fjordane. Gullible us inched closer and closer yet the peak did not materialise. Something was terribly wrong. The GPS informed us that we were there.

If you can look high and low for a peak, we did the job alright.

Then there we were in the middle of a valley that looked like it had been scooped out of the surrounding steep mountains, parts of which carried patches of fresh snow. A row of waterfalls gushed down in slender threads of white from the mountains, at the foot of which stood a handful of white and red cottages and a harbour.

Welcome to Gudvangen. Not least like the photo we had seen. The jaws dropped once in disappointment – I cannot lie about that – but then it did drop once again in recognition of the tranquil beauty towering above us.

Dwarfed by the mountains, I stood there and wondered about what the Vikings must have felt when they arrived in this scenic spot on Nærøyfjord and transformed it into their market place. Did their seafaring nature make them glad that they had chanced upon this sublime Norwegian landscape? Or were they intimidated by the mountains that stood guard around the valley like antiquated sentinels. Who knows, but they did not survive the 12th-century onslaught of black plague. People returned to Gudvangen only when hundreds of years had passed by.

Some of these Viking graves are to be found nearby. Hiking paths lead you into other pretty villages but it was too late for us to start on a hike. We never got the chance to do any hike (Trolltunga or Gudvangen) given the rains holding sway over the next few days that we spent in Hordaland. We did however bask in the shadow of those mountains as we popped into Gudvangen Fjordtell, a hotel that makes you think you are entering a Viking home, its roofs charmingly sheathed in grass. Inside the hotel’s cafe, I bought a wrap, the price of which was pure extortion. Then in Norway, you are holding onto your purses in vain if you decide to venture into any eatery.

An astonishingly expensive wrap in our bellies and mixed feelings of satisfaction and dissatisfaction (strange bedfellows) mingling in our minds, we left Gudvangen, the village whose name translated, reads, ‘God’s fields by the water’.

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The Weathered Viking of Gudvangen
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Roads that take you into Gudvangen, flanked by dramatic mountains.
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Cottages in the village

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One of the highest waterfalls in Norway is this, Kjelfossen.

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Gudvangen Fjordtell
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Ferry dock where cruise ships roll in from time to time

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Hamlets that pop up after you have left Gudvangen behind

Where to Stay: If you want to do hikes in the area, it would be a good idea to stay in Gudvangen. You have all of two choices: Pitch up a tent or mobile home at Gudvangen Camping. Prices range between NOK 500 to NOK 800 per night. Or  put up at the Viking-inspired hotel called Gudvangen Fjordtell.

What to do:

The Magic White Caves of Gudvangen

Take a ferry trip between Gudvangen and Flåm

Hike the mountainous paths for views over the fjord. From a tiny village called Bakka, which is about 5 km from Gudvangen, take the path to the steep mountain of Rimstigen. It is a steep hike which takes two hours one way.

P.S.: The misleading wikipedia photo that I talk about right at the beginning is that of Lofoten Islands, the dramatic archipelago in Norway, and for added misery beat this, it is a photoshopped version of it.

A Walk in the Cornish Woods

I am knackered and I have a suspicion. I am on my way to turning into a hefty Cornish cow. A thought fuelled by a steady two-day diet of scones, pasties, tarts, full-fat ice creams, butter biscuits and onion rings. Is it possible that the waistband of the jeans can scream out for temperance within a short span of time? These are grave times.

The scoffing has been going especially strong after steep climbs through woods in the heart of Daphne du Maurier country. Our walk started in the fishing village of Bodinnick where the author of Rebecca lived with her mother and sisters – after they had left behind their home in London. Ferryside is a pretty cottage, blue pipings framing its doors and windows. What a view young Daphne must have had. The turquoise waters of the river that acquire emerald tones even when the skies are overcast. Daphne’s son lives in Ferryside. I did have thoughts of knocking upon his door – suitably alarming Adi who since then started thinking about paths to take on the return and how not to walk past the cottage again.

A two-second ferry from Fowey took us into Bodinnick where we climbed steep roads past Daphne’s cottage, and then a row of rustic white, blue and yellow cottages, the doors of which had Easter egg wreaths in keeping with the seasonal cheer.

During walks in the English countryside, you inevitably get directions that ask you to proceed past old school houses, and that right lane there past the pub, then a kissing gate in the field and further in continue through the church gates. Or cross Two-Turn Lane past the sheep that guards the gate into its grassy knoll of heaven… you get the drift. The directions are as old-fashioned as the villages you find yourself in. Like a time bubble. Once you make it past these stellar signposts into the woods, you strike gold. If you have not made it to those landmarks, my friend, you are doing it all wrong. You are probably in another country.

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Fowey

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The inn that Daphne du Maurier must have seen when she came into the village in the 1920s to move into her new home.
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The climb gets steep in Bodinnick once you are off the ferry

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Views from the woods above Bodinnick
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Abandoned water mills near Polruan

I shall have to continue this into the next post because I can barely keep my eyes open. But I have to say this that the skies outside at this time of the night are speckled with stars. The early morning glum clouds gave way during the course of the noon to a clear firmament so spotless that the stars have declared that the inky dome is theirs. Life should be just so. Lived beneath vast swathes of sky unfettered by the trammel of city lights, busy dreams and the worry of tomorrow.

 

A Day at Horniman

Sparkling sunny weekends are a rarity in our part of the world. If the week shall go in a sunny, breezy mode, Friday rolls in and the clouds declare their presence, often not in a I-am-billowy-and-pretty-just-like-that way. The weekend did start on a cracking note and the sun did power its way through Sunday. So the British have declared summer. Over the last two days, men have been spotted in speedos atop caravans, women have been noted to drive in bikinis and others have been sitting in barely-there-shorts in the backyards.

On Friday, quite early in the morning I had work in London – which meant I had the whole day to myself after. I made my way to the Horniman Museum. The fact that it was free added a spring to my step. But what I had overestimated was my power to get lost. I Will get lost. No matter how many years I have been living in a country. My teenage years in Calcutta were spent regularly landing up in odd places and an irate father coming to the rescue. Once after a date, I took the wrong bus and reached another part of Calcutta quite late at night. I was invited by an old man to his terrace home – when I look back I am astounded at my calibre for silliness. I did go up to the terrace with him and make an SOS call to the parents (who could not believe their ears). As it happened, it was new year’s eve, and my uncle and his family were visiting us from London. The whole family came to get me back home. Suffice it to say that the evening is etched in my memory.

It took me two hours to get to Forest Hill from Baker’s Street by tube and overground trains (when it should have taken me all of 50 minutes). I do not know where I went wrong except that I did get on and off a few trains and stand at stations where I should not have. In the meantime, the person who was getting steadily worked up through watsapp was the husband. He had visions of massive charges on the card because of all the overground trains I was changing.

But I did reach Horniman. I have proof of meeting the in-house walrus.

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Walking beneath the cherry blossoms of Forest Hill take away the sting of goofing up.
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Beneath bowers of cherry blossoms who can be woeful for long.

Our Walrus is an unusual taxidermy specimen, it appears stretched and ‘over stuffed’ as it lacks the skin folds characteristic of a walrus in the wild. Over one hundred years ago, only a few people had ever seen a live walrus, so it is hardly surprising that ours does not look true to life.

The name Horniman is owed a great deal to by tea lovers. Today it is owned by Douwe Egberts but the founder of the eponymously named Horniman’s Tea was a trader called John Horniman. He had started the tea trading business in the small but beautiful Isle of Wight in 1826 and had also changed the concept of selling of loose leaf teas which were often adulterated with dust and hedge clippings by unscrupulous sellers (horrendous, right?). He sealed his packages of tea thus ensuring that authentic tea leaves reached the customers sans the extra ingredients. Even our much-touted philosopher of profoundness, Nietzsche, deemed Horniman’s to be his preferred brand of tea. Who likes the great outdoors (apart from the leaves) in his tea? Well, the great majority clearly gave John a thumbs up, so his company did become the largest tea trading company in the world by 1891.

The museum however was not his idea. It was his son Frederick’s brainchild.

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Portrait of Frederick John Horniman

Thanks to the country’s passion for tea, Frederick had enough moolah to indulge his passion for collecting. Everything from natural history to musical instruments and cultural artefacts. This museum of his has a sum total of about 350,000 objects. As a tea lover how could I not see what tea had wrought?

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Meet the walrus of Horniman’s. He is a celebrity, okay? He was possibly sourced from the area around Hudson Bay in Canada. Queen Victoria too had visited our tooth-some friend.
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If he looks unnaturally fat, blame it on the taxidermist. He/she overstuffed him. So there are no folds on his skin.
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Meet the three long-eared owls. I took to them. I mean, just look at them. Especially the look of the third fellow on the extreme right.
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Look at that beak of the Crowned Horn Bill. Solid as a curved piece of wood, you think?
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Iridiscence. Beetles and bugs.
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Scarlet Ibis
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A Central American beauty. 
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Merman. ‘WHAT’, did you say? In the early 18th-19th centuries, mermen were brought by sailors to Europe. They were believed to be real for centuries, inhabiting the oceans around Asia, till it was discovered that they were indeed products of man’s genius for imagination. They were found to have been the head and torso of a monkey put together with the tail of a fish. Man is a genius. Fraudulent ones, more so.
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Golden-headed Trogon
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Philosophising orang-utan. He has the stance and stick of a hermit.
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Be kind to my special friend, the red-howler monkey. He belongs in the treetops of Brazil. I am sure he thought, ‘Oh no, am I in the Blighty?’ and that priceless expression was thus frozen.

Lest you think that strange stuffed animals is all you shall get to see, there is also the wonderful park and greenery around you on a fine summer’s day.

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Horniman gardens
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Views of London’s skyline (you can just about make out the silhouette of The Shard on the horizon)
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Conservatory at the Horniman Museum
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When you leave the museum, you might just be rewarded by a Mr. Whippy.

So, the question is that if you are in London, should you or should you not head over to Horniman’s. I would say give it a go if you feel like turning into a child all over again. And do remember me if you meet the walrus and the red howler monkey.

Glass for Princes in Murano

A mile north off Venice is the cluster of islands called Murano. We crossed in a vaporetto (water taxi) from Venice to Murano on a day that was joyously sunny. The kinds that come wrapped up in a bow only once during a few miserably cold and foggy winter days spent in Venice. When we got off the boat at Murano, the first sight that greeted me was that of a bearded local dragging a sizeable carton on wheels . He looked like a fisherman, the lines of the years marked out on his weather-beaten face.

A rustic, atmospheric introduction but what lay after was anything but unassuming. Workshops, boutiques and factories cropped up in a row, flanking the grand canal. Stepping inside them, my senses were dazzled by the rich colours of delicately designed glassware — and, may I add sheepishly, the prices.

There we were at the heart of it all – Murano thrives on the art crafted by the glass blowers of the island. They have been at it for centuries. Somewhere towards the end of the 13th century, the Doge ordered the glassmakers to move their factories to Murano. Now there is a bit of dilemma about why he did so. But it sways between two schools of thought – one that the Venetian authorities did not relish the thought of their wooden buildings exploding with the danger of fire at large, and secondly this that they did not want the craftsmen to divulge their secrets to outsiders.

The glassmakers achieved exalted status soon. They could carry swords, evade prosecution by the Venetian state, and by the late 1300s, their daughters could even be wedded into blue-blooded families. The only glitch was that the glassmakers could not leave the Republic. If a glassmaker had plans of setting up shop on lands beyond his own, it would mean two things for the fellow – he would either lose his hands (sounded to me like Shah Jahan’s edict for the workers behind the Taj Mahal had travelled far – the Mughal emperor was supposed to have had their hands lopped off so that they could not replicate the glory of his tribute to his empress), or, he would be killed by the secret police.

We had to watch one of the glassmakers at work. It is quite a touristy thing to do, yes I know, but sometimes I feel that you have got to be a tourist to the hilt. We marched into one of the factories and paid up about 8 euros each to watch a third-generation glassblower go about his job with incredible ease. Within the time that we spent gaping at him twirling a long pole, the tip of it encased in a glowing cone of fiery melted glass, he had moulded a handful of pretty pieces of coloured glass including one of a horse rearing up.

Veneto-Byzantine summer palazzos and cathedrals apart, I was taken in by the iridiscent blue sculpture at Campo Santo Stefano. It was a veritable starburst in glass. I gaped more – by which time Adi was fairly tired of sulking and being ignored while I kept staring at glass. To not have your sulk acknowledged is worse than your partner shopping on the sly. My husband shall confirm both. He does the first, I do the second. At that point of time he had made the transition to Mr. Grumps. He had not been fed gelato on time.

Off we went on a gelato hunt which concluded the visit to the island on a fairly satisfied note. Not to mention the few colourful pieces of suspended, ceiling lamps that we bought before boarding the boat to Burano.

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Baked and bearded Murano locals
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Grand Canal
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Boutiques that line the canal
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Glass blowing – at the very heart of Murano is this art.
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Inside a glassmaker’s workshop
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The focal point of this shot being the horse. 
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Emerald hues of the Grand Canal and cathedral walls looming alongside.
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Blue glass sculpture at Campo Santo Stefano, the 19th century clock-tower.

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Post mint chocolate chip gelato, all is usually well.
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Murano’s lighthouse made of Istrian stone.

How to Get There: Look out for Vaporetto 41 and 42 from Piazza San Marco in Venice. You can also stop at the cemetery island of San Michele, that lies between Venice and Murano.

Where to Buy Glass: Go with your instinct. We stopped at a shop that was quiet but the owner refused to haggle (which was a bummer) but the relief was that we did not come out with products made in China.

Where to Eat:

La Perla Ai Bisatei. An Italian eatery where I stopped for cappuccino and a spinach puff pastry that delighted my tastebuds with its flakiness. The food is supposed to be good here and the prices reasonable.

Osteria al Duomo (www.osteriaalduomo.com) is a family-run affair and known for the freshness of the locally-sourced food it serves up.