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A good time to visit London? Now!

A good time to visit London? Now!

good-time-visit-london-now
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, London

London!

I saw some.

I missed some.

So, London keeps calling me back.

When am going to plan a visit again?

The answer is ‘Right Now!’

Want to know why?

Then, read on!

A good time to visit London? Now!

It was summer of 2012. My elder daughter, who was just 20 then and was doing her graduation with an offshore London School of Economics-affiliate (LSE-affiliate) college, got selected to do her summers in London. It was going to be a 6-week residential programme.

Like most Indian parents, while we were proud, we were also concerned about her first-ever solo stay in an alien town. So, after some intense family deliberations, my wife nominated me to accompany her and see if the stay and other arrangements were satisfactory.

good-time-visit-london-now
Oxford Street in Olympic Finery

Here, let me just remind you that summer of 2012 was Olympics-time in London! Though a popular phrase goes – “All roads lead to Rome”, around that time, the world had replaced ‘Rome’ with ‘London’. This little fact ensured that my trip cost was going to be through the roof.

As a travel photographer and writer, I naturally wanted to make the most of this… er…  opportunity. After all, it was going to be my first-ever visit to London!

All the same, with due consideration to the budget, I decided to keep my stay in London short. So, three nights it was. In this city packed with places of interest of all hues. But then, something is better than no something!

After settling her in, I started my brief sojourn with London. The more I saw, the more I fell in love with it. Besides the usual day-long London city sightseeing trip, I explored the city on my own too. I was truly on the move there!

good-time-visit-london-now
The Tower Bridge, as viewed from the Tower of London.

So, let’s see what all I managed

The city has 4 UNESCO World Heritage sites – The Tower of London, Kew Gardens, the site comprising Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, and St Margaret’s Church, and the historic settlement of Greenwich where the Royal Observatory marks 0° longitude, the Prime Meridian, and GMT. I managed to visit three of these, but ran out of time and had to skip Kew Gardens. A pity, really!

good-time-visit-london-now
The Royal Observatory at Greenwich

At the Tower of London, I took a Beefeater tour (Yeoman Warder tour) and visited the Crown Jewels vault and saw the Koh-I-Noor diamond. I took a Verger Tour of the Westminster Abbey and clicked a photograph (with Verger’s permission) of the first grave in the Abbey – that of Edward the Confessor. I stood astride the brass (or is it copper?) strip that marks the Prime Meridian.

good-time-visit-london-now
A Beefeater. They are the traditional custodians of the Crown Jewels.

I did a ride on the famed London Eye. I did a short cruise over Thames. I took a walk through Hyde Park and swung past Royal Albert Hall. I admired the artists and their gorgeous art near the National Gallery. I saw a unicyclist perform at the Covent Garden. I also witnessed the ceremonial change of guard at the Buckingham Palace.

good-time-visit-london-now
The Tower of London

I spent some time in Trafalgar Square; though, the pigeons I saw Amrish Puri feeding in ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’ (the biggest hit Bollywood has ever produced) had gone missing by then! I had a pint of beer at Sherlock Holmes – a pub on Northumberland Street that was established in 1736! I watched the Spain vs Italy Euro Cup finals at Buckingham Arms in Westminster area.

good-time-visit-london-now
Stonehenge, near Amesbury, Wiltshire, UK

Heck… I even managed a day trip to Salisbury and checked out Stonehenge – another UNESCO World Heritage site.

Well, I did manage a lot, but I have some regrets… regrets of not being able to do many more things.

good-time-visit-london-now
London Eye, South Bank

Let me share some of those

I missed out on visiting Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. I also did not have enough time to make it to the Museum of Brands (this one is of special interest to me as I have spent 27 years in Advertising!). Though I am an avid Hard Rock Café T-shirt collector, I could not find time to visit this iconic destination in London.

good-time-visit-london-now
Ceremonial Change of Guard, Buckingham Palace, London.

I did go past Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, but I could not see a show there. I missed out on seeing the great displays at the Tate Modern and the National Gallery. Remember that popular TV show – Crystal Maze? I was a big fan of the show. And naturally, I wanted to take on the Crystal Maze in Zone One. But, I couldn’t.

good-time-visit-london-now
A potpourri of traditional and modern at the Westminster Bridge

I also did not manage Ripley’s Believe it or Not at Piccadilly Circus. Or the London Zoo. Or the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221b Baker Street. Or the Royal Opera House. Or even the Museum of London. Or… well, there is so much more I wanted to do in London that this list can be endless!

good-time-visit-london-now
Tomb of Edward the Confessor, Westminster Abbey

Why this post now?

I chanced upon the British Airways (BA) page recently and discovered they had unleashed some bonanzas – exclusively for their customers. BA customers enjoy special shopping discounts at multiple outlets across London (for the whole list, CLICK HERE). They are offering their lowest fares – with hotel stays thrown in! I found a return ticket with a 5-night hotel stay, breakfast included, for just Rs. 54,106!!!

They have also suggested some real cost-saving itineraries under various heads. Check these out HERE.

And, the icing on the cake – British Pound that used to hover around Rs. 100 is now at Rs. 82.

good-time-visit-london-now
Royal Albert Hall

What Next?

I feel this is too good an opportunity to let go. So, I am going to book a trip right now! Those of you who have always wanted to visit this great city but have been deterred by the high costs should also do the same. As they say, opportunity knocks but once!

good-time-visit-london-now
City view from London Eye.

Like I said – A good time to visit London? Now! Happy Travels!

 

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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.

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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!

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A Tucked-Away Town – Gammelstad

A Tucked-Away Town – Gammelstad

A Tucked-Away Town - Gammelstad
The 15th-century Nederluleå Church was the pivot of community life.

My story, A Tucked-Away Town – Gammelstad, has appeared in October 2016 issue of JetWings International – the in-flight magazine for international sectors of Jet Airways.

Exploring Sweden’s best-preserved church town, Gammelstad

As we approached Gammelstad, the imposing Nederluleå Church filled the horizon. Our guide, a summer volunteer, pointed at the imposing structure and said, “This church was built by the Swedish to stake a claim on the territory rather than with the intention to propagate religion.”

We had driven from Luleå, a city on the coast of northern Sweden, to Gammelstad to see its deep-red cottages, over 400 in number. The church town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

A Tucked-Away Town - Gammelstad
Quaint red cottages with farms dot the Gammelstad Village

In 1323, a peace treaty was signed between Sweden and Novgorod Republic, a medieval Slavic state that extended from Baltic Sea to regions of modern Russia. In those days, the boundaries of the two countries were not clearly defined, thus resulting in attempts of colonisation. The first move to assert its lien on the territory was made by Sweden in 1492 when the stone church was inaugurated.

A Tucked-Away Town - Gammelstad
The altarpiece at the Nederluleå Church is one of the finest of its kind in Sweden

Across the road from the church is the Visitor Centre, a good place to start a tour of the town. The Centre regales the town’s history with an exhibition, slideshows, and brochures. Our guide took us through the architectural model of the town, complementing it with stories from the medieval times – the narration was nothing short of a period drama!

The church town tradition

Nederluleå Church was the pivot of community life for villages within a radius of 15 kilometres. Though privately owned, the cottages were not meant for permanent residence – the pilgrims resided in these wooden cottages during religious festivals, when owing to the distance, travelling to and fro from their village was difficult.

A Tucked-Away Town - Gammelstad
Measures for safety such as a firefighting tool is placed at an accessible spot

These cottages had no water supply, no heating facility, and no provision for cooking. Even today, these church cottages are used in the traditional way – there is no running water, no open flames are allowed, and the cottages can be used for not more than one night. This spartan lifestyle continues to define the church town, even today.

A Tucked-Away Town - Gammelstad
Travellers often bake their own bread, an activity that we also engaged in

Things changed in 1621 when the town got its city rights. Luleå was initially founded here and it transformed from being a temporary church town to a town of residents. That worked well for a few years but, in 1649, Luleå was moved to its current location, 10 km away from Gammelstad, to meet the growing demands of an expanding maritime trade. This development led to Gammelstad re-assuming its church town role. A beached ship that we discovered during our walk through the town is a telltale of the times when Gammelstad was a harbour.

Around the town

The construction of the Nederluleå Church started in the 15th century and continued into the early 16th century. The church has a huge organ that was inaugurated in 1971.

A Tucked-Away Town - Gammelstad
High tea at a church town cottage

During our visit, we engaged in baking bread using a flat stone oven and making butter. The pilgrims, during their stay, made their own bread here. Making butter entailed churning buttermilk in a tall wooden barrel – a rhythmic process emitting sounds akin to a traditional percussion instrument.

A Tucked-Away Town - Gammelstad
Pews arranged inside the magnificient Nederluleå Church

At one of the eateries, you are served the bread you have baked with evening tea – a tradition practiced in Gammelstad for the last 400 years. Interestingly, it is said that while all pilgrims baked bread, making butter was restricted to the well-heeled as butter was used as currency in those days.

We had another culinary surprise in store for us. In the heart of the town, we savoured a seven-course exotic meal at Kaptensgården. A fine dining restaurant, Kaptensgården serves preparations made from local meats and ingredients. The menu ranged from ptarmigan to quail, white fish to salmon, reindeer to chicken and much more.

A Tucked-Away Town - Gammelstad
The antique key to the church town’s museum

After lunch, we visited the Hägnan Open Air Museum – a town cottage converted into a museum. A walk through Hägnan, along with its large vintage key, takes you closer to the lifestyle of the town. Amidst the small red cottages, stands a fairly sizeable farmhouse, which is Gammelstad’s mayor’s house.

Gammelstad, with its humble cottages, is a remarkable example of the traditional church town of northern Scandinavia. Instantly allowing you to travel back in time, this is indeed a travel experience not to be missed!

A Tucked-Away Town - GammelstadA Tucked-Away Town - Gammelstad

 

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Windmills at Kinderdijk, The Netherlands

Windmills at Kinderdijk, The Netherlands

Windmills at Kinderdijk, The Netherlands

In September 2016 issue of JetWings International, my image from Kinderdijk, The Netherlands appeared in their regular BW section – Radar.

Windmills at Kinderdijk, The Netherlands

When you live seven metres below sea level, you need to keep the water out. The residents of Kinderdijk, a village about 12 km south-east of Rotterdam, deployed an ingenious technique for this purpose – an elaborate arrangement of windmills. Built around 1740, 19 of these windmills continue to survive and fulfill its original purpose of keeping the land dry. They also provide a three-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 innovation has earned the windmills of Kinderdijk a UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Windmills at Kinderdijk, The Netherlands

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The last days of Vincent

The last days of Vincent

BLink, the weekend magazine of The Hindu’s BusinessLine carried this article of mine on Saturday, august 27, 2016

The last days of Vincent

Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum looks back at the most disturbed yet defining years of the Dutch painter’s life

Year 1881. It was at the age of 27 that Vincent Van Gogh considered painting as a full-time occupation. And it wasn’t until 1888 that the Dutch post-Impressionist artist had formed the style that the world remembers him by. In just two years after that — on July 27, 1890 — Vincent shot himself in the chest. The bullet wound ended his life in 48 hours.

The last days of Vincent
Through sickness and trouble: ‘On the Verge of Insanity’ is a study of the events that may have led to Vincent Van Gogh’s suicide

‘On the Verge of Insanity’, an ongoing exhibition at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, delves into the last 18 months of the life of the tortured artist, who cut off his ear during an altercation with his friend, Paul Gauguin, the French painter. Vincent’s last days were spent in poverty while battling mental illness. During the few years he devoted completely to painting, he is said to have created over 2,000 pieces — over 850 oil paintings and the rest, sketches. That comes to about three works in just five days.

The last days of Vincent
Artist’s corner: Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is the second most visited museum in the Netherlands

Despite the frenzied pace, Vincent managed to sell just one painting during his lifetime. The buyer was Anna Boch, a Belgian painter, who paid 400 francs (around $2,000 now) to the impoverished Dutchman, who lived on his brother Theo’s kindness. A heavy drinker who didn’t eat enough, Vincent’s troubled behaviour sent him to a mental institution several times. And his violent fight with Gauguin led people to ask why a man as gifted as him would do any of this.

The last days of Vincent
A hearing: An audio transcript of a letter (from Emile Bernard to Albert Aurier) containing a description of the altercation between Paul Gauguin and Vincent

Van Gogh Museum’s latest exhibition looks into some of these controversial episodes: Whether or not Vincent cut off only a part of his left ear; whether he was forced into taking admission at the mental asylum; the reasons behind his fight with Gauguin, and his relationship with Theo in the troubled years.

The last days of Vincent
In his words: Pages from Vincent’s diary. The exhibition also showcases letters he wrote to friends and family

The display of information on Vincent’s mental condition — drawn from diagnoses by doctors as well as his correspondence — is punctuated with paintings that mirror the state he was in.

The last days of Vincent
Home for two: A painting of the Yellow House in Arles which Vincent shared with his friend Gauguin

Some of his letters are also available as audio clips in Dutch and English. Among the exhibits is a letter from the residents of Arles, the French town where Vincent cut off his ear, who begged the local mayor to have the painter institutionalised.

While the exhibition is a detailed reconstruction of events that led to Vincent’s suicide, it also includes posthumous diagnoses over the last century into the probable causes of his illness. Quite predictably, the answers are inconclusive.

‘On the Verge of Insanity’ runs till September 25; www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/whats-on/exhibitions

The last days of Vincent

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Bofors Gun – The Inside Story

Bofors Gun – The Inside Story

 

Bofors Gun – The Inside Story
Ersta Gun Museum

A museum with a difference!

Just before the commencement of TBEXStockholm, VisitSweden had organised a familiarisation trip for us to Landsort. It is a small, scenic, sparsely populated, yet a strategically located island in Stockholm Archipelago. We had travelled from Stockholm by bus to reach a jetty. From here, a fast ferry took us to this island. Here, our abode for the night was a Naval Pilots’ Tower. Till then, I had no way of knowing that soon I will be telling my readers a gripping tale titled Bofors Gun – The Inside Story !

Bofors Gun – The Inside Story
Panoramic view of Landsort – as seen from the Naval Pilots’ Tower

The presence of a Naval Pilots’ Tower indicated some sort of military connection of the island. But the exact linkage did not dawn upon us till a small buggy pulled by a quad-bike transported us to a huge gun that just seemed to jut out of a solid granite rock face.

Bofors Gun – The Inside Story
Our Guide – a retired Brigadier
Bofors Gun – The Inside Story
Camouflaged entrance of the museum

Once there, we were told that we were about to enter the rock that has now been preserved as Ersta Gun Museum! Upon careful scrutiny, we noticed a well-camouflaged dirt passage that led to a solid metal door. In fact, the entire site was so well camouflaged that even careful aerial surveillance would not have revealed the gun. By the way, a Bofors that fired 12cm shells was the gun deployed here! That’s when we realised we were just going to be told an interesting tale: Bofors Gun – The Inside Story ! 

Bofors Gun – The Inside Story
A sectional plan of the museum

Thanks to his just-right military past, our guide, a retired artillery brigadier, was more than suitably equipped to explain every detail of the museum. Be it the strategic importance of the location, the gun & ammunition, the living quarters beneath, or whatever else!

Bofors Gun – The Inside Story

As we went into the artificially lit underbelly of the earth descending steep, well secured, sturdy metal ladders, the import of this strategic position was explained to us. During the cold war era, this was the shortest route Russia could have taken to attack the US.

Bofors Gun – The Inside Story
The room stacked with mortar shells

These guns, 18 of them, were meant as a line of defense deployed by Sweden. These were located on 6 different islands of the archipelago. Given that none of these guns were ever fired, it is evident that this move proved to be an effective deterrent for Russians.

Bofors Gun – The Inside Story
Bofors 12cm shells

After climbing down, we were ushered into a decent sized room. Its walls were lined with rows of crates stacked with mortar shells! We were in a state of shock seeing all this high-powered ammunition! Seeing our surprised looks and gaping mouths, our guide told us that these shells have all been emptied out!

Bofors Gun – The Inside Story
The insides of a Bofors Shell – a diagrammatic representation

An on-going commentary about the gun, its precision and firepower continually drew gasps of amazement from our group. This fortification was created with a plan of ensuring the survival of the men manning the gun station for one whole month, without any outside support! And, this survival was not just in ordinary times, but also even in the event of a nuclear blast of 100 kilotonnes happening just 300 metres away! Now, that’s an atomic blast 5 times the size of the bomb that hit Hiroshima!

The Hovercraft Technology at work!

The magazine of the gun contained 25 shells, which could be fired at a maximum speed of 25 shells per minute. Each of these live shells weighed 46 kg. The combined weight of the magazine (without counting the weight of the container) was a whopping 1150 kg.

Bofors Gun – The Inside Story
Close up of a 25-shell magazine

Even more amazing was the fact that just one person was enough to pull that magazine and bring it to load the gun since the crates moved around on an air-cushion – a technology similar to the one that makes a hovercraft glide over land or water! Volvo had provided this know how indigenously!

Bofors Gun – The Inside Story
Volvo Technology

Considering that the gun would have heated up if it rapid-fired 25 shells per minute, the gun barrel was water-cooled with pipes coiled around it. This brings us to another important aspect of this unique stronghold – WATER!

Water!

Since this bastion was created to provide wherewithal of survival for a month without outside support, naturally water was necessary for such survival. 2 tanks with a cumulative capacity of 10,000 litres were installed 4 levels beneath to take care of this vital need!

Bofors Gun – The Inside Story
Water storage tanks – four levels below the surface

Let’s now see how this gun worked! The design of this remarkable gun was such that while the gunner would fire from the cabin just behind the barrel of this artillery gun, a simple computer joystick in the GPS/Control Room controlled the aim. When we enquired about the precision of the gun, we were told that it was capable of hitting a pilot boat moving at 100 kph at a distance of 20 km. And the range of the gun? It mind-numbing 27 km!

Bofors Gun – The Inside Story
Our guide explaining the intricacies of the computer controlled trajectory of the shells fired by the gun
Bofors Gun – The Inside Story
Pantry in the living quarters

As we started our climb back from the bottom-most floor (four levels under the earth) taking in the cramped living quarters, the pantry, the toilets, etc., we couldn’t help feeling amazed at the stupendous feat of various different streams of engineering that had been painstakingly brought together to make this remarkable fortification work!

Bofors Gun – The Inside Story
The writer/photographer trying shooting of a different kind

If you visit Stockholm and are able to spare a day, do visit this unique museum with a difference. It will bring you face to face with the way of life of an artilleryman! The museum fee is steep (US$100 per person, with a minimum group of 4 and maximum of 10), but well worth it!

Bofors - The Inside Story!

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The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach!

The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach!

After TBEXStockholm, VisitSweden had organised a 2-night/3-day fam trip to Luleå for us. In Gammelstad, a restaurant we dined in blew my mind! This is an account of that experience by a non-food blogger!

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
The Table Setting

Here’s a candid admission (and the food-lovers are welcome to shower me with brickbats) – I normally do not write about food. In fact, for me, food is a necessary evil we have to waste time on during our travels. In my nomadic stints, I make do with whatever takes the least time and provides enough energy to keep moving on.

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
The humble signage of a not-so-humble restaurant

An exception occurred while I was in Gammelstad! This 500-year old Church Town that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, slow-paced our group. We spent a whole day in this one square mile township! While this town was pretty and we learnt a lot about Scandinavian history, we were glad when the dinner was announced!

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
Johan talks about his inspiration while Evelina creates the first starter

It was 6 pm and we made our way into a nondescript back alley of Gammelstad. There stood Kaptensgården, a fine-dining restaurant run by Johan Thingvall, who got his chef training working with many a fine-dining restaurant in Stockholm! The restaurant seemed like just another gleaming cottage – the likes of which were lining the many streets and lanes of Gammelstad.

Once we entered the restaurant, we quickly became aware of the immaculate attention to detail all around us! And the biggest surprise Johan announced was that theirs was a live cooking kitchen!

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
Our dinner menu

We settled down in our respective places and were greeted by our own individual 7-course dinner menu comprising 3 starters, 2 entrees and 2 desserts! Since the menu was in Swedish (Greek to me!), I promptly sought help and wrote down the names of the dishes and their ingredients in English.

As such, the ingredients seemed exotic enough. Its true magic started to unfold once the live-cooking started. Johan, assisted by his able deputy Evelina, slowly began casting his spells of wizardry.

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
Whitefish roe, red onions

The first course, a subtly-lemony creation, was a delicately prepared starter of trout and cucumber. As we were slowly nibbling through this course to savour the taste for longer, we found Johan creating some intricate nests, complete with whitefish-roe-filled quail eggshells!

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
The skinning of a willow grouse

While pecking at this delicacy, we found him skinning a couple of grouse. The next starter was a ptarmigan (willow grouse) topped with a quail egg yellow, served rare. While he served the starter, he shared an interesting tale from the arctic.

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
Ptarmigan and dove

He talked about his ptarmigan-hunting expeditions up in the Arctic Circle. Day after day, he would ski for hours and then set up camp for some rest. Some days he was lucky, while the other days would just be a wild goose… er… a wild grouse chase! During the entire hunting expedition, he might land himself a couple of dozen willow grouse, if he was lucky. And here, he had just served almost 10% of his entire season’s hunt!

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
Whitefish, oats, turnip and herbs
The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
The reindeer entrée

Soon, the starters were done and dusted and the entrées followed. Whitefish was steamed to perfection and the reindeer entrée was succulent! Though the portion looked small, we realised how scientifically well-worked out they were as we felt stuffed to the gills trying to wade through these delicious entrées!

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
Blueberries, egg, vanilla

The dessert listing of blueberries, egg and vanilla hardly did justice to the intricacy of this masterpiece – it was a double whammy of a tart shell and a meringue! The explosion of flavours of the blueberry filling and the creamy sauce together left us all smacking our lips in delight!

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
Cloudberries and Chocolate

Our last course, another dessert, was rustled up with light, sweet-sour cloudberries and heavy, almost too sugary dark chocolate. The combined taste was amazing! As I licked off the last remnants of this awesome dessert, I casually looked at my watch and realised we had been witnessing a showman for three hours! Yes, our dinner had gone on till 9 pm! This dinner made me recall the oft-heard phrase –

‘The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!
The White Guide listing plaques

Given that such prodigious, almost inspirational innovations are a norm for Johan and Kaptensgården, it is little wonder that this distinctive eatery has been making its way into Scandinavia’s premier and authoritative dining guide – The White Guide – year after year!

If you enjoy magical meals and happen to be around Luleå in Sweden, do make your way to Johan’s Kaptensgården in Gammelstad. But do remember to call +46-920-25 70 17 and make a booking first!

Kaptensgården
Häradsvägen 9
954 33 Gammelstad
Sweden
www.restaurangkaptensgarden.se
info@restaurangkaptensgarden.se

The way to a man's heart is through his stomach!

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A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow

A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow

A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow. This travel story has been published by Smart photography, India’s leading photography magazine, in their December 2015 Travel Special Issue.

Canon India had provided me an EOS 5D-SR body and an EF 11-24mm f/4.0 USM lens for review during my Moscow visit. If it were not for these pieces of equipment, I would surely not have managed to capture the stunning images you will see in this feature. My grateful thanks to the camera giant for their generosity!

A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
Kremlin Wall, Red Square

I travelled to Moscow with some trepidation. Knowledgeable folks had told me the language was a big issue – not many understand English there. Despite this, I took the plunge and travelled. Thanks to a friend’s contact in the Indian Embassy, I got a cab driver that could manage some English. Well, not really. But he was eager to help and he had a Wi-Fi router in the cab that turned out to be a blessing. Both of us were able to communicate through a phone app that could translate English to Russian and vice versa.

A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
242-Metre long facade of Gum Departmental Store

Upon landing at Sheremetyavo Airport in Moscow and after the customary once-over by the passport control, I made my way towards the baggage carousel. To my utter surprise, there was no duty-free at the Airport. When I enquired, I was told the duty-free is only at the airport departures.

A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
Russia’s symbol at VDNKh Entrance

As I made my way to the hotel, I felt a certain lack of character in Moscow that most other cities normally exude. Over the next couple of days, this first impression was to be totally, comprehensively and permanently dislodged from my brain.

A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
State Historical Museum, Red Square

 

Moscow-1 Small
State Historical Museum – viewed from Red Square, Moscow

I started my sojourn with the capital of Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic the following morning. My first stop was Red Square – a globally famous city square. The sky was overcast. So, while I shot some images, I made a mental note that I needed to visit this location again during my short stay. Sergei, my young cabby, pointed out it would be better if I visited again in the evening. And that is what I did the following evening.

A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
St Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square

This remarkable landmark is 330×70 metres in area and is surrounded by five heritage marvels. These were Gum Departmental Store in the North-East, State Historical Museum in its North West, Kremlin’s Outer Wall in the South West with Lenin’s Mausoleum projecting out from the middle of this wall and St. Basil’s Cathedral at the South East corner. While we may be more familiar with the onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral, I found the State Historical Museum and Gum Departmental Store to be true architectural gems. Gum, for instance, has an intricate façade that extends an unbelievable 242 metres in length, while the museum’s brickwork is brilliance personified.

A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
Famous onion domes of St Basil’s Cathedral at Red Square
A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
VDNKh Entrance

From here, I proceeded towards an imposing Orthodox Christian church – Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. It is scenically located on the northern bank of River Moscow. It is the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world – standing tall at a neck-craning 103 metres. En route, I made a few stops to capture some more stunning structures lying littered across the entire length and breadth of Moscow.

A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
Church of the Theotokos icon – Joy of all who Sorrow – at the MONIKI-Research Institute Hospital
A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
A couple posing for their pre-wedding candids at Moscow University

Next stop – Moscow University. Its building not only has 6 other look-alikes in Moscow (one of them being the office block of Russia’s Ministry of External Affairs), but it has an uncanny resemblance to the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw. Sergei mentioned that this similarity might be attributed to the fact that Stalin was instrumental in commissioning all of these. Its stunning design and captivating locale attract Moscow-ites for their cherished photo-ops – be it the candid pre-wedding shoots or the celebratory videos a spouse commissions to surprise her partner.

A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
Commercial buildings along the banks of River Moscow
A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
Arbat Street, Moscow

A short visit to Victory Park and Triumphal Arch later, I called it a day over a chilled glass of beer at the Hard Rock Café. It is situated on a historical pedestrian avenue called Arbat Street. Interestingly, here I had a chance encounter with dancing Russian devotees of ISKCON. Though I had no intention to cover any more landmarks that day, I swung by Red Square again and on my way back to the hotel. Once there, I could not resist capturing a stunning blue hour image of Bolshoi Theatre – the home ground of the world-famous Bolshoi Ballet Troupe.

A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
Bolshoi Theatre
A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
Moscow Metro Station

Next day took me around the underground Moscow. No, I am not talking about the crime-spewing dark underbelly that characterises all large cities! But am referring to the palatial Metro Stations of Moscow’s Metro network. Stalin had envisioned these as the palaces for the proletariat. Some of these are akin to larger than life art galleries and are surely an envy of many-a-museum across the globe. What is even more remarkable is the fact that these were constructed in the mid-1930s – the period between the two World Wars. The deepest station is 84 metres beneath the ground.

To read more about Moscow Metro, click here for my photo-feature that was carried by Conde Nast Traveller.

The reason for building them so deep was they were to double up as nuclear shelters in the event of a nuclear war. I spent 4 hours moving from one Metro station to the next – all with just one ticket that cost me 50 Rubles (approx. 80 US Cents).

A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
Monument to the Conquerors of Space

I made a stop at the 110-metre tall Monument to the Conquerors of Space that is made entirely of Titanium! From there, I reached VDNKh – a permanent exhibition site that may be called Moscow’s equivalent of New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan. The place is popular amongst the local Moscow crowd as the structures blend beautifully with the landscape. Additionally, the area is large enough to offer privacy to the thronging multitude and has places that cater to their food and entertainment needs. It sprawls over an area of 2,375,000 square metres!

A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
Inside VDNKh
A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
Tsaritsyno Park

Another similar vast landscaped leisure space in Moscow is the Tsaritsyno Park. The place takes your breath away with its beauty and leaves you short of breath when you walk around its vast expanse. After this, I made one final visit to the Red Square in the evening. This visit resulted in some idyllic blue hour shots.

A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
Sunset at Red Square
A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow
Red Square as seen from a bridge over River Moscow

Before rushing off to the airport next morning, I stopped by at Kremlin. There are only two words that describe the monuments and churches lying scattered over Kremlin’s outspread grounds – Gigantic Opulence. While being driven to the airport, I found myself smiling at my stupidity of harboring an initial thought that Moscow lacked character. I also silently wondered about how many times I would have crossed the lovely river, Moscow, through its many different bridges during this short, two and a half day trip. I also wished my trip was a little longer! I conclude with an earnest request to the heritage and architecture-loving photophiles to add this magnificent city to their personal must-visit bucket list.

SP_Dec2015 Pin

A ‘Monumental’ Visit to Moscow

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Getting More With Less in Travel Photography

Getting More With Less in Travel Photography

Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
Gum Departmental Store – its facade is 242 metres across!

Canon India had provided me an EOS 5D SR body and an EF11-24mm f/4L USM lens for review during my Moscow visit. This combination added tremendous firepower to my arsenal. Before we see how, let’s take a look at some of the truly useful features/specifications of this camera body and lens (In case you find any of this too technical, please leave a comment and I’ll be happy to resolve the tech-query for you).

Canon EOS 5D SR:

While EOS 5D SR is a hugely competent camera with its features and settings manual running into 532 pages, I’ll focus on just a few useful features/specifications of this recent entrant to the Canon stable.

  1. Full frame, with flexibility to become an APS-H (crop factor of 1:1.3 as in Canon EOS 1D Mark IV) or APS-C (crop factor of 1:1.6 as in Canon EOS 7D Mark II) sized sensor
  2. Maximum resolution: 50.3 Mega Pixels or 8688 x 5792 pixels; at APS-H crop – 6768×4512 pixels (30.5 MP); at APS-C crop – 5424×3616 pixels (19.6 MP)
  3. ISO Sensitivity – Auto, 100-6400 (Extended Mode: 50-12800)
  4. Continuous Shooting – up to 5 fps
  5. Besides the usual picture styles (Auto, Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful and Monochrome), an additional picture style – Fine Detail – has been added.

Canon EF11-24mm f/4L USM:

  1. The lens’ effective Field of View (FOV) in landscape mode at 11mm is 117.1° (as against 73.7° for 24mm); and in portrait mode, it is 95° at 11mm (as against 53.1° at 24mm)
    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    In Portrait orientation, 11mm lens offered an extra 78% FOV

    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    In Landscape orientation, 11mm lens offered an extra 58% FOV
  2. 11mm also allows you the leeway to shoot handheld till slow shutter speed of 1/10 secs (inverse of focal length rule)

I went around shooting in Moscow, a city well-known for its large, tall, wide buildings, unique onion domes and startling brickwork and masonry. I will now be delving into the mishmash of advantages this unique combination provided to me.

  1. I did not have to carry my TS-E (Tilt-Shift) 24mm lens as the FOV provided by 11-24mm was 1.58 times the FOV provided by a 24mm lens in landscape orientation. Let’s see what that translates to. Capturing a tall structure like the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (103 metres tall) normally would lead me to use the TS-E, as tilting the camera up would lead to an unavoidable distortion of parallels converging towards the top of the building. The 58% increase in the coverage angle helped me keep the camera parallel to the ground and still capture these tall structures without distortion.

    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    Cathedral of Christ the Saviour – this 103-metre high cathedral is the tallest Orthodox Christian Church in the world!
  2. I did not have to stitch panoramas of extremely wide structures like Gum Departmental Store or the State Historical Museum in Red Square as it all fitted into the wide FOV provided by the magical 11-24mm lens while retaining textural details. To give you some idea of what fitting Gum Departmental Store in a single frame meant – the facade of this classic structure is 242 metres from left to right and I was shooting it from 60 metres away. It still fitted the frame! Now, that’s one heck of a FOV!
    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    Gum Departmental Store
    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    State Historical Museum at the Red Square

    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    State Historical Museum at the Red Square – 100% crop of the above shot. Please note how the textural details are intact.
  3. The small ISO sensitivity range of 100-6400 was deceptively effective. Normally, in my Canon 5D Mark III (ISO Sensitivity: 100-102400), I would play it safe and seldom go beyond ISO 1600 to avoid noise (way below the upper limit of 102400). In 5D SR, I shot hand-held at ISO 1000 and discovered there was no noise. I shot with a shutter speed of 1/30 and since this shutter speed was faster than the usual ‘inverse of focal length’ rule, there was no camera shake either.
    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    Red Square

    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    The above shot at 100% crop
  4. While shooting St Basil’s Cathedral from close quarters, I realised I could only fit it into the frame in a distortion-free manner if I tuck it in top left corner of the frame while keeping the camera parallel to the ground or if I tilted the camera upwards (latter would have led to distortion). I preferred tucking it into the top left corner. This was possible as the lens gave me a 78% extra FOV and the high resolution offered by EOS 5D SR allowed for a fair degree of cropping, while still giving me extremely hi-resolution cropped frame (see St Basil’s Cathedral uncropped and cropped image below).
    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    St Basil’s Cathedral – Uncropped

    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    St Basil’s Cathedral – Final Shot after cropping
  5. The picture style of Fine Detail helped me get the textural details of Church of the Theotokos Icon – Joy of All who Sorrow – at the MONIKI-Research Institute Hospital, in its full glory (see the image below and its 100% crop)
    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    Church of the Theotokos Icon – Joy of All who Sorrow – at the MONIKI-Research Institute Hospital

    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    Church of the Theotokos Icon – Joy of All who Sorrow – at the MONIKI-Research Institute Hospital – 100% crop
  6. Its fast fps (frames per second) helped me capture this heart-warming action on the streets of Moscow.

    Getting More With Less in Travel Photography
    Russian ISKCON devotees on Arbat Street

For me, what this body-and-lens combination offered was invaluable as it delivered quality results, accorded me the freedom to carry lesser gear and still capture crisp images.

It truly was the case of getting more with less in Travel Photography. So, should one procure this combination? My counter-question to that is – Do I really need to answer this?

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