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Sharing 16 UNESCO Sites of 2016 in My Hundredth Post

Sharing 16 UNESCO Sites of 2016 in My Hundredth Post

Soon, we will all be celebrating the onset of 2017. Before 2016 bids goodbye, I have another milestone to celebrate – I am scoring a century! Yes, that’s right. This is my hundredth post. I wanted it to be a landmark in more ways than one. Hence, I decided this post would be about the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I visited during 2016. Coincidentally, there are 16 of these!

Instead of keeping this post chronological, I am going to mix it up a bit! Some of these UNESCO sites may seem inane, but each is loaded with solid reasons for inscription. I’ll be going over those too. So, let me start the sharing.

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Reclining Buddha, Cave Temple, Dambulla

#1. Golden Temple or Cave Temple, Dambulla, Sri Lanka

It lies around 150km East of Colombo, in central Sri Lanka. While the distance isn’t much, it can take you around 4 hours to reach here from Colombo.

While there are many caves sprinkled around the area, most travellers visit the 5 significant adjoining caves in the temple complex. The entire complex is still functional as a Buddhist Temple though it dates back to between 3rd century BCE and 18th century CE. Extremely well preserved, it was inscribed as a UNESCO site in 1991.

sharing-16-unesco-sites-2016-hundredth-post
Qutub Minar on a lunar eclipse night

#2. Qutub Minar, New Delhi, India

This 73-metre tall minaret is the tallest brick minaret in the world. It was commissioned in early 13th century by Qutb-al-Din Aibak and was completed by his successor, Iltutmish. Along with the other monuments in the Mehrauli Archeological Park, Qutub Minar has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

You may wonder why I talk of Qutub Minar – a monument near my home. Well, I know of many people who live in Delhi but have never visited some of the monuments here. So, no harm sharing about my visit here during this year!

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Nederluleå Church, Gammelstad, Sweden

#3. Church Town of Gammelstad, Luleå, Sweden

Stone church of Gammelstad was built by Sweden in 1492 as the first move to lay lien on the territory, as borders were not well defined in those days. A church town came about around this church.

Here, people would build cottages and would use them for stay during their big feast pilgrimage. Though privately owned, these cottages were not meant for permanent residence. These had no water supply, no heating facility, and no cooking arrangements. All that was and still is taboo as these cottages were meant for a spartan stay during the pilgrimage. And that is what defined a church town. As it stayed true to the initial intent, the church town of Gammelstad has earned a UNESCO World Heritage site inscription in 1996.

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Dressing up Buddha at Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba, Anuradhapura

#4. Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

Considered to be the first capital of Sri Lanka (from 4th century CE to 11 century CE), Anuradhapura lies 205 kms North-East of Colombo. This distance may take up to 6 hours by road.

The excavated ruins consist of three types of structure – monastic buildings, Dagobas (bell shaped masonry), and Pokunas (bathing tanks). The largest Dagoba (Ruwanwelisaya) is 1100 feet in circumference. It got inscribed as a UNESCO site in 1982.

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Across this Amsterdam canal, you can spot the Anne Frank House

#5. Canals of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

More than one hundred kilometers of canals, about 90 islands and around 1,500 bridges are there in Amsterdam. The three main canals from 17th century – Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht – were dug during the Dutch Golden Age. These form concentric belts around the city, the Grachtengordel.

These canals are the keystone of Amsterdam’s exemplary city planning and were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010.

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A memorial commemorating indentured labour landings in Mauritius

#6. Aapravasi Ghat, Mauritius

Aapravasi Ghat (Immigration Depot) or Coolie Ghat has earned its UNESCO inscription in 2006 for being the first port that received indentured labour, many of whom settled in Mauritius, while the others made their way to the plantations across the British empire.

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Impressive interiors of San Agustin Church, Manila, The Philippines

#7. San Agustin Church, Manila, Philippines

San Agustin Church is one of the four Baroque Churches of Philippines that were inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1993.

The church building does not only seem imposing and indestructible, it truly is. It has withstood repeated calamitous damage at the hands of raging fires, enemy attacks and high-intensity earthquakes.

Its flat ceiling has been painted in a magical way to give an illusion of 3D bass relief work, just like what you see in the Gallery of Maps (Sistine Chapel), Vatican!

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Sanchi Stupa, Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, India

#8. Sanchi Stupa, Sanchi, India

This Buddhist monument is the oldest brick monument in the country. It was commissioned in 3rd century BCE by Emperor Ashoka and was built over the relics of Buddha.

It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989.

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Bali Rice Fields

#9. Cultural Landscape of Bali Province

Volcanoes provide Bali with fertile soil. Combined with a wet tropical climate, that makes it an ideal location for crop cultivation. River water has been channelled into canals for irrigation. It allows the cultivation of rice on both flat land and mountain terraces.

Rice, water, and subak, (water-controlling cooperative social system) together have shaped the Bali landscape over the past thousand years. These are an integral part of Bali’s religious life too. As rice is seen as the gift of god, the subak system is considered part of Bali’s temple culture.

Together with their temples, five rice terraces of Bali covering an area of 19,500 hectare, became a UNESCO site in 2012.

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Polonnaruwa Buddhist Temple Ruins

#10. Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

After the decimation of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa became the second capital of Sri Lanka. The most illustrious king who reigned was Parakramabahu I. His reign is marked by a distinctly superior irrigation system as he was obsessed with not wasting even a drop of water that descended from heaven. It was inscribed as a UNESCO site in 1982. Even today, Polonnaruwa remains an important Buddhism pilgrimage site in the country.

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The intricate system of windmills for keeping the sea waters out

#11. Kinderdijk, The Netherlands

When you are living 7 metres below sea level and you do not have gills, you need to keep the sea water out of your village. The residents of Kinderdijk, a settlement that is a 25-minute speedboat ride inland from Rotterdam, deployed an ingenious technique to pump seawater out – an elaborate arrangement of 19 windmills.

Though these windmills were commissioned in the mid-eighteenth century, they are still functional. They continue to fulfill the original purpose of keeping the land dry while providing 3-storeyed living quarters to the farmers who own them. A windmill-turned-museum gives you a glimpse into the local culture and lifestyle. This well-preserved traditional innovation has earned the windmills of Kinderdijk UNESCO World Heritage status in 1997.

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One of the water bodies in Singapore Botanic Gardens

#12. Singapore Botanic Gardens, Singapore

Created in 1859, the Singapore Botanic Gardens demonstrate the evolution a Pleasure Garden, to a colonial Economic Garden for research, to a world-class botanic garden that is both – a scientific institution and a place of conservation, recreation and education. This site got inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015. Incidentally, this is the only UNESCO site in Singapore.

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The Secretariat Building in the Capitol Complex, Chandigarh

#13. Capitol Complex, Chandigarh, India

In 2015, the architectural work of Le Corbusier got acknowledged by UNESCO as World Heritage, thanks to its outstanding contribution to the modern movement. This work is spread over 7 countries – Argentina, Belgium, France, Germany, India, Japan and Switzerland. Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex is a part of this UNESCO listing. While the Secretariat building is a typical Le Corbusier structure, the Open Hand Monument is an abstract installation in the Capitol Complex that has been adopted by the Chandigarh Administration as the symbol of the city.

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Le Morne Brabant forms the backdrop of the Crystal Rock

#14. Le Morne, Mauritius

These are two of the most recognisable spots in Mauritius! While Crystal Rock is just a fossilised coral reef, Le Morne Brabant got inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 for an unfortunate reason. This monolith was a hideout for slaves who would run away from their masters. When the Abolition of Slavery Act got passed in 1853, these masters went to Le Morne to give the good news to the slaves. The slaves misunderstood the intent. They jumped and committed suicide from this cliff!

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Visitors enjoying a lazy afternoon on one of the ramparts of Galle Fort

#15. Galle Fort, Galle, Sri Lanka

Built in 1588 CE and further fortified extensively from 1649 CE onwards, the fort is a living, buzzing township with multi-cultural population. The town planning of this habitation is typical of the Dutch (a sterling example being Amsterdam). It survived the notoriously devastating tsunami that hit 14 countries on 26th December 2004. It houses a few churches, one of which has been converted in to a mosque after Muslim accession of the fort. Additionally, the fort has a clock tower and a lighthouse.

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Skogskyrkogården or Woodland Cemetery

#16. Skogskyrkogården or Woodland Cemetery, Stockholm, Sweden

Few cemeteries across the globe can boast being UNESCO World Heritage sites. Skogskyrkogården is one of those. Interestingly, this cemetery got inscribed in UNESCO list because of its landmark architecture that influenced numerous cemeteries across the globe. It is a brilliant blend of terrain, vegetation, and purpose. Interred grave of Greta Garbo, the heartthrob of Hollywood in 1920s and 30s, is also here (she passed away in Manhattan).

Now, while visiting 16 of these heritage sites during the year was fascinating, here’s looking forward to 17 or more during 2017!

sharing-16-unesco-sites-2016-hundredth-post
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Mauritius for FUN (Part II)

Mauritius for FUN (Part II)

In the last issue, you had read about my first three days in Mauritius (You may read it here). This edition brings you my exploits from the rest of the trip – Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN (Part II). For Part-I, click here!

Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN (Part II)

Mauritius - A 9-lettered Word for FUN (Part II)

On our fourth morning in Mauritius, we were looking forward to a spectacular sunrise. The sun did appear, but only momentarily. It decided to peep out from the horizon and promptly hid behind the clouds.

Mauritius has its own microclimate. It ensures that high temperature and high humidity does not last for long. That morning, we went about checking out Radisson Blu Azuri Resort and Spa Hotel. Its classy décor was striking, yet subtle. The emerald blue pool of the spa and the deep blue of the sky were competing to out-sparkle each other! Suddenly, it started to drizzle. The ocean-side property looked gorgeous as it was washed clean by the mild rain.

Mauritius - A 9-lettered Word for FUN (Part II)
Spa Pool of Radisson Blu Azuri Resort and Spa Hotel

After a hearty breakfast, we set out towards North of Mauritius. Today was ‘In-Water’ day. Our itinerary had mentioned about Sea Walk in Grand Baie area in the morning and a sub scooter ride in the afternoon. Grand Baie has a splendid marina and is one of the two party hubs for locals and tourists alike (the other being Flic en Flac).

A stroll on the sea bed!

Mauritius - A 9-lettered Word for FUN (Part II)
Under Sea Walk

Sea Walk had intrigued us. Some of us did not know how to swim and were naturally apprehensive about any scuba/snorkel gear and a swim in the ocean. With anxiety writ large on some faces, the group sped away in a nifty speedboat towards a platform secured to the ocean bed.

At the platform, we looked around for clues on how we were going to be walking around in the sea nonchalantly. Since the group before us had already plunged in for their walk, all we could see was an intricate network of yellow rubber tubes entwined and floating on the ocean’s glittery surface.

For Part-I, click here!

Soon, the earlier group emerged from the ocean. What we were not prepared for was that they were carrying a heavy, metallic mask with a helmet-like visor on their shoulders. It was connected with an air supply machine on the platform through those intriguing yellow rubber tubes. This was the air supply mechanism for the sea walkers!

With repeated assurances from the Sea Walk operators and the group that emerged, these scared group members also steeled themselves and decided to take the plunge. Once inside the sea, they felt further reassured as their feet touched the seabed that was only 8-10 feet under. We were breathing normally! And soon, we could hear their giggles – that is, if we could call a gargle like sound emerging from grinning faces as giggles. Water does some strange things to normal sounds!

Mauritius - A 9-lettered Word for FUN (Part II)
Beach at Sofitel Mauritius L’Imperial Resort & Spa, Flic en Flac

Soon enough, we were surrounded by a myriad variety of colourful fish – largest numbers being Zebra Fish. Their inhibitions and worries long gone, the scared lot joined us in a tribal dance on the ocean bed. The experience of walking with fish was surreal!

A Tourism Board that means business

Chairman of Mauritius Tourism Promotion Authority, Mr. Arnaud Martin, CSK, graciously hosted us for lunch at Le Courtyard. Besides a delectable fare served by the top-notch fine dining restaurant, Mr. Martin’s insights into the Island and its history left us richer. He talked about MTPA’s continual attempts at adding exotic attractions for travellers to Mauritius.

Mauritius - A 9-lettered Word for FUN (Part II)
Souvenir hunting at Port Louis

That afternoon took us to Trou aux Biches in North-Northwest Mauritius – not too far from Grand Baie, but about 20 km from Le Courtyard. Here, at Blue Safari, we again took a speedboat ride to a mid-ocean platform. Soon enough, we changed into wetsuits and waited for our chance to experience another unique underwater adventure – the sub scooter!

Mauritius - A 9-lettered Word for FUN (Part II)
Sea-side pool at Sofitel Mauritius L’Imperial Resort & Spa, Flic en Flac

A bit like a moped, a sub scooter also gets its air supply from the platform. The underwater speed is 3-4 kph. It feels as if you are sitting in a small underwater auto rickshaw that has a transparent bubble-like canopy covering you, allowing you a view of the ocean life as you glide about the blue waters. It seats two and trained divers escort you as you enjoy the ride.

The evening was a relaxed affair as we dined at the beach restaurant called Ocean One while it drizzled steadily outside. We stayed up late as we had a late check out next morning.

The French Connection

Mauritius - A 9-lettered Word for FUN (Part II)
Chateau de Labourdonnais

Chateau de Labourdonnais is a heritage mansion that is still owned by Wiehe family. This French colonial house has been in the family for 162 years. It has been superbly restored during the last decade. It gives an insight into the plantation living in Mauritius. Our forenoon visit here was rounded off by a rum-tasting session.

Mauritius - A 9-lettered Word for FUN (Part II)
Verandah of Chateau de Labourdonnais

Sugar production is an integral part of Mauritius’ history. Our next stop was L’Aventure du Sucre – an erstwhile sugar factory, now turned into a sugar production process museum. Besides rum tasting, we also tasted various types of sugars here – from raw to refined.

The afternoon was spent souvenir-hunting in Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius. Besides scrounging the Waterfront markets and cafes, we also checked out the Blue Penny Museum that houses two of the rarest postage stamps in World Philately.

Old is gold

Mauritius - A 9-lettered Word for FUN (Part II)
A calming water body at Sofitel Mauritius L’Imperial Resort & Spa, Flic en Flac

That evening, we checked into our third hotel of the trip – Sofitel Mauritius L’Imperial Resort & Spa, Flic en Flac (West of the island). Despite being a twenty-five-year-old property, its charm is evident as soon as you swing into its driveway. Water bodies, fountains, native Mauritian thatched roofs, sprawling gardens, a turquoise pool overlooking the ocean – they collectively seduce your senses. The cherry topping that night was an exclusive Teppanyaki dinner created by a magician of a chef!

Mauritius - A 9-lettered Word for FUN (Part II)
Seven coloured earth at Chamarel Estate

Our penultimate day in Mauritius took us to some different parts of the Chamarel Estate – seven-coloured earth and Curious Corner. Seven-coloured sands are a natural volcanic phenomenon that has multi-hued volcanic earth concentrated in a small area, while the Curious Corner boasts many masterful illusions.

Mauritius - A 9-lettered Word for FUN (Part II)
Let’s do a group photograph while we defy gravity

Some of these illusions include gravity-defying photo opportunities, gaping down an elevator shaft as the elevator floor caves in and a Hall of Illusions (similar to a set from the 70s hit, Enter The Dragon, where Mr. Han and Bruce Lee engage in a climax scene fight).

Mauritius - A 9-lettered Word for FUN (Part II)
Oops, the elevator floor just gave way!

Gliding on the ocean

Mauritius - A 9-lettered Word for FUN (Part II)
Le Morne provides an imposing backdrop for Crystal Rock

The afternoon offered our most thrilling moments during our Mauritius stay. We went Sea-Karting near Le Morne and Crystal Rock – two of the most recognisable spots in Mauritius! Sea-Karting offered a-thrill-a-minute experience in a 2×2.8 metre speedboat we rode ourselves. Despite zipping around at speeds of over 60 kph in 15 feet waves, its safety record is unmatched – it does not overturn. This makes it any adrenaline junky’s favourite while offering ultimate safety!

Mauritius - A 9-lettered Word for FUN (Part II)
Sea-Karting Fun!

Grinning ear-to-ear, we reached our hotel where another breath-taking visual delight waited for us – our dinner was in an exclusive setting by the beach. While we were enjoying delicious cocktails, a set of fire dancers arrived and gave a performance that enthralled!

Next day, we had an afternoon flight to catch. But, we were behaving like we hadn’t had enough of Mauritius just yet. We took a speedboat ride out into the ocean to spot and swim with dolphins! After ogling at these cute creatures, we also snorkeled and swam with fish.

Mauritius - A 9-lettered Word for FUN (Part II)
Waterfalls are everywhere in Mauritius

As we left Sofitel Mauritius L’Imperial, profusely thanking the hotel’s management team, the thought uppermost in my mind was – “While this island holiday offered a lot of action and adventure in the ocean, what it offered on land was equally astonishing.”

In case you find it difficult to believe my statement, I urge you to visit and experience for yourself the unlimited FUN Mauritius stands for!

You may check out more attractions in Mauritius here.

Here’s the published article titled Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN (Part II):

Mauritius - A 9-lettered Word for FUN (Part II)

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Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN

Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN

Recently, Mauritius Tourism had invited me to visit the Island nation. Though it was my third visit there, this weeklong visit left a life-long impression. I am privileged to share the experience with you. Since it was a packed fun-filled itinerary, the story is being shared in two parts. The fun in the itinerary prompted me to aptly title the story as Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUNHere’s Part-I of my Mauritius story that appears in June 2016 issue of Smart Photography! For Part-II, click here!

Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN

Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN

The van was speeding down a perfectly tarred dual carriageway. We were doing 100 kmph and the lush green sugarcane plantations seemed to be travelling with us. On the horizon, the sky was a striking shade of electric blue. Soon, we made a turn and the greens of sugarcane fields gave way to myriad hues of unending ocean.

The van windows were down and the air felt invigorating and, well… clean! It had just been a few minutes since we stepped out of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport, and yet, the closed confines of the aircraft were already a thing of distant past.

Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN
Beach at Shanti Maurice

Soon, we reached our hotel – Shanti Maurice. Its entrance and the driveway were nondescript. But as soon as we reached its lobby, the magic of the property started to unravel and it reached its zenith once I checked in and reached my room. The French window opened straight on to the beach. Soon I realised that since the hotel was at the southern tip of the island, the beach offered glorious view of both – sunrise as well as sunset!

Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN
Sunset at Shanti Maurice Beach

After a relaxing massage in Nira Spa, the lazy evening that followed was made special by some exotic Mauritian home-brewed infusion rums and rum-cocktails, served in Shanti Maurice’s signature restaurant – Rum Shed.

Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN
Giant Tortoises

Our next morning took us to La Vanille Reserve des Mascareignes – a crocodile park that also houses giant tortoises and iguanas. These giant tortoises were once plentiful in Mauritius but were driven to the verge of extinction as sailors hunted them in hordes. This park is engaged in a laudable effort of saving them from total extinction. Some of these tortoises residing here are over a hundred year old!

Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN
A baby crocodile being held gently

We took pictures with baby crocodiles, giant tortoises and colourful-yet-menacing-looking iguanas. The park had multiple enclosures that helped segregate the species and also provided a friendly habitat for them to thrive.

An interesting private collection of butterflies, beetles, bugs and spiders by Mauritian scientist, Jacques Siedlecki, also resides here. This is a result of a 30-year labour of love and has on display some of the rarest species of butterflies and bugs!

Interestingly, the restaurant here serves crocodile dishes!

Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN
A waterfall in La Vallee Des Couleurs Nature Park

We had our lunch at La Vallee Des Couleurs Nature Park. Spread over hundreds of hectares, this nature park boasts of a hilly terrain and scenic waterfalls. It offers a wide range of leisure activities for the visitors.

We experienced the thrill of zipping down the third-longest zip line in the world – a 1.5 kms long wonder! The view from here was breath-taking – while it passes over a stretch that has the 23-coloured sand (remains of volcanic lava), the view included some other spectacles like the scenic waterfalls, the lush green estate and the deep blue Indian Ocean on the horizon!

Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN
Quad Bike Fun!

Later, we climbed on to the quad-bikes. A short beginner lesson followed and soon, we went vrooming around on these powerful hunks! The terrain was rugged and we were still unfamiliar with the manoeuvrability of these machines. That added hugely to the adrenaline flow and also contributed to some amount of fear-factor! Overall, this ride was sheer thrill!

For Part-II, click here!

Day 3. It was time to move from south to east. We checked out of Shanti Maurice and carried our bags in our van as we were to check into Radisson Blu later in the day! It was the day when our bags would roam around with us!

Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN
Kudus at Casela

Our first stop was Casela Nature and Leisure Park. While the name betrayed little, the adventure we were in for was huge. We started by entering an enclosure of lions. Under strict attendant supervision, we patted the lions here and got our pictures taken with these graceful creatures!

Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN
Stroking a caracal

We were then ushered into another enclosure that housed caracals. These knee-high felines are one of the rarest animals on earth. While we were clicking around merrily, these adorable things were snuggling up and gently brushing past us. Their pointy-ears were a fascinating sight!

Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN
Ostriches at Casela

Our further exploration of Casela took us to a machaan from where we fed giraffes and to an open zoo where we saw Kudus, Rhinos, Ostriches and many more exotic species of fauna.

Afternoon took us to a lovely meal and some rum tasting at Rhumerie de Chamarel. The route to this iconic estate is lined with sugarcane, coffee, pineapple and other tropical fruits. Their accomplished chefs painstakingly curated the fare served. It included a variety of local fish like Mahi Mahi, Dorado and Salmon along with delicious Duck Confit served with an orange dip. The meal was rounded off with delicately flavoured sorbets.

Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN
A exotic variety of rums at Rhumerie de Chamarel

After the meal and the conducted tour of the Rhumerie, we were escorted for a rum-tasting session. A wide variety of subtle and not-so-subtle tastes followed – XO rum, VSOP rum, spice rum, vanilla rum, coffee rum and then some! This tasting session ensured that we carried some of these exotic flavours back with us for subsequent imbibing!

Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN
Rainbow-hued greetings!

As soon as we stepped out of the Rhumerie, a rainbow splashed across the sky greeted us! It had been a pleasant, yet a long day. And we were glad to be driven back to our new abode – Radisson Blu, an east-coast condominium hotel. With a resolve to catch the sunrise next morning, we called it a night!

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Before I sign out, I just thought I may as well flag an important observation – normally, my experience of visiting an island is all about chilling on the beach, reading a book, having a beer, or at best partying at a nightclub; but, the experience in Mauritius has been a complete departure since this island relentlessly throws you in the whirlwind of activities suited for all age groups. Just go there and your impression of an island vacation would transform forever!

(To be continued in July Issue as Part-II)

Mauritius – A 9-lettered word for FUN

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My Article – Enter the Illusion

My Article – Enter the Illusion

Recently, Mauritius Tourism had invited me to visit that Island nation. During this trip, I also visited Curious Corner, an illusion-filled abode in Southwest Mauritius. My account of this visit appeared in BLink – the weekend Magazine of The Hindu’s Business Line. The published article is reproduced below.

My Article – Enter the Illusion

My Article - Enter the Illusion

A house in the southwest corner of Mauritius is the most intriguing tribute to Dutch artist MC Escher.

Through his works, MC Escher, Dutch artist and master of illusions, proved that nothing is impossible. Inspired by geometry, nature and shapes, he created illusions that perplexed the left brain.

In the sprawling Chamarel Estate, tucked away in the southwest of Mauritius, lies Curious Corner — a larger-than-life reminder of Escher. Most of us have been brought up on the dictum “seeing is believing”. We are used to the blacks and whites. This house of illusions persuades you to deal in greys.

My Article - Enter the IllusionMy Article - Enter the Illusion

The first room in Curious Corner is a library-cum-cigar-room. “There is a secret door here. Find it if you wish to progress!” we were told. We pushed the walls, nudged the bookshelves, took out light bulbs from the lamps — in short, tried everything we’d read in childhood detective novels, but nothing worked. We were, quite literally, shown the door, but I am not going to spill the beans here. We passed through that door into a world that was topsy-turvy. Up ahead, there were videos jam-packed with illusions that boggled the mind. As if that weren’t enough, the next door took us into the Hall of Illusions. Remember the climax scene fight between Mr Han and Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon? This was no different. Before we stepped out, we were ushered into a lift. The illusion of the missing floor and a gaping shaft below left us breathless.

If you are curiously inclined, visit this corner of the tiny island. It has it all — Möbius strips to Penrose triangles, not-so-parallel parallels to not-so-straight straight lines, an inverted world to a bulge without a bulge.

My Article - Enter The Illusion My Article - Enter The Illusion

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Simbel Wonder

Simbel Wonder

This article was published in Times Travel in September 2010.

Lisbon. 7th July 2007. While other worthy contending monuments (including the Taj Mahal) anxiously waited to know their fate in the worldwide voting for the nomination of new 7 wonders, one specific landmark — the Pyramids of Giza — was turning all the other contenders green with envy.

These pyramids had already been given an honorary nomination, even before the voting concluded!

Well, that was not so surprising since, for most people, Egypt stands for pyramids. In the face of this reality, I make a blasphemous statement, one that may invite severe criticism from Egypt lovers, and from those who claim to know their travel

 “Anytime you plan a trip to Egypt, and have a choice to see only one monument there, that monument should be the temple of Abu Simbel and NOT the Pyramids of Giza”.

 Now, now — before you react, read on to know why!

Simbel Wonder
Abu Simbel Panorama

Ramesses II, ancient Egypt’s longest reigning pharaoh (his reign lasted 67 years!), commissioned Abu Simbel to impress his southern neighbours and to establish Egyptian religion in the region.

It is, therefore, strategically located approx. 290 km southwest of Aswan, near the Sudan border.

This mega-monument was carved out of a single cliff, and has 2 separate temples — that of Ramesses II (primarily dedicated to Amon-Ra, Re-Harakhte, and Ptah, while deifying Rameses II too), and that of his wife, Nefertari (dedicated to Hathor).

Each of the 4 statues guarding the temple of Rameses II is 20 metres tall and the 6 guarding the temple of Nefertari, 10 metres tall.

This mega structure was architecturally and astronomically so advanced that its sanctum sanctorum got a shaft of light from the rising sun only twice a year. This used to happen during the spring and fall equinoxes (22nd February and 22nd October).

It mystically illuminated 3 out of the 4 statues there, while the 4th one remained in darkness, as that’s the statue of the god of darkness (Ptah).

Simbel Wonder
Abu Simbel Sanctum Sanctorum

Simbel Wonder

Impressive! Right? Well, this is just about why it is an ancient wonder! 

 I consider it a modern day wonder too. And let’s see why!

When Nasser (the erstwhile PM of Egypt), with Russia’s help, commissioned the Aswan High Dam, it threatened inundation of around 60 ancient Nubian temples. Egypt requested UNESCO’s help and UNESCO appealed to the member countries at large.

Around 50 countries came forward to help, and a full-fledged temple relocation industry got established. Though some of these temples did go underwater, most were relocated to safer locations, including to far away places like a US museum, and Amsterdam!

Simbel Wonder
Aerial View Lake Nasser

In 1960s, Abu Simbel was dismantled into large stone blocks and transported from its original location to a sandstone cliff 65 metres higher, and about 200 metres back from the river.

Originally, the backdrop of Abu Simbel was the cliff it was carved out of. Problem: The relocated temple would be on top of the cliff, which had no backdrop. Solution: Construct an artificial mountain behind the relocated temple’s facade.

This entire feat took over 4 years to pull off (from 1964 to 1968), and was almost a photo-finish in construction industry terms. Just before the Aswan High Dam led to a rise in the water level of River Nile in the area, the temple had been re-assembled at the safe height of the cliff.

There’s an exciting thriller that UNESCO has put together on DVD — titled ‘Abu Simbel, Philae…Saved’. It is a highly recommended must-watch for all heritage lovers.

Today, the re-assembly has happened, and the temple stands tall and proud atop a cliff, but one slight miscalculation happened during its re-assembly. As a result, the shaft of light from the rising sun does not penetrate the sanctum sanctorum on its originally planned dates of 22nd February and 22nd October but does so a day earlier (21st February and 21st October).

Simbel Wonder
Abu Simbel Rameses Temple

This entire roller coaster through the history makes me consider Abu Simbel the 9th wonder of the world, and I am sure, by now, most of you would agree.

Simbel Wonder
Abu Simbel Nefertari Temple

Simbel Wonder

Enough of delving into history. Now let’s see how we can actually make a visit to this exotic place happen. As I mentioned earlier, it is closest to Aswan, in terms of tourist itinerary.

The choice is to take one of the early morning convoy of buses that leave for Aswan and deposit you there any time between 5.30 and 8.00am. These buses give you an average two and a half hours at this gorgeous spot, and then ply back to Aswan to bring you back by evening.

Or, if you are flying into Aswan from Cairo in the morning to embark an afternoon Nile cruise, then you should ask your tour operator to book you on any of the 2-3 morning flights to Abu Simbel, which return the same afternoon (after the conventional two and a half hours in Abu Simbel) to bring you back in time for the departure of the Nile cruise. The total cost for such a trip (including both way airport transfers at both ends, the entry ticket to the temples and an English speaking guide) is about US$ 150.

The most exotic choice is the 3,4 or 7 night cruise on Lake Nasser, which takes you around to not just Abu Simbel, but also to other relocated temples around the area. Depending on the length of the cruise, as a part of your itinerary, you might also be visiting the Valley of Kings, the Valley of Queens (in Luxor), the temples of Hepshutset, Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Kalabsha, El Sebuoa, Dakka, Amada, El Derr, Qasr Ibrim, and Philae. And each of these sites tell you multiple stories about the greatness of the civilisation that was.

Hopefully, by now you are a convert to what I consider the 9th wonder of the world!

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