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A good time to visit London? Now!

A good time to visit London? Now!

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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 Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
A view from my balcony

TBEX Asia 2016 took me to Manila. I was a speaker there – my topic being Architectural Photography (For those who may ask – “What is TBEX?” – well, TBEX is the largest conference and networking event for travel bloggers, online travel journalists, new media content creators, travel brands and industry professionals). Once I was in Manila, my mind went through a roller coaster of thoughts. Go on, read about them!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes

I was on a ‘Smoking in Balcony Only’ floor of Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila. It was evening when I checked in. So, I opened the blinds and stepped out into the balcony for a smoke. Voila! A stunning cityscape greeted me! Beautifully illuminated high-rise, a couple of merry-go-rounds draped in psychedelic lights, a seemingly-reclaimed peninsula jutting into the bay, much greenery and smoothly gliding traffic – everything that marks a throbbing, buzzing town, was there!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
Another view from the same balcony

Later that evening, we had to travel to Hotel Shangri-La at the Fort. A quick Google Search revealed a horrendous truth – this 9.9-kilometer journey would take us over an hour! I suddenly became present to the horrors of ‘smoothly gliding traffic’ in Manila! But, thanks to the police escort provided by Tourism Promotions Board (TPB), Philippines, we reached in 30 minutes!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
Just after rains

Next morning, we were to visit an Island that held strategic importance during WW-II – Corregidor Island. The gory events of WW-II have turned this island into one of the ‘Top 10’ haunted Islands of the world – mainly because of mass suicides by Japanese soldiers in Malinta Tunnel.

For more on Corregidor Island, visit Eerie, not abandoned – Malinta Tunnel, Corregidor Island, Philippines.

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
They do this every day

As we reached the Sun Cruises Jetty, a delightful sight warmed our hearts. Scores of serious cycling enthusiasts were zipping around the place. They were engaged in their morning routine of completing their own personal targets of exer-cycling. And the road was a blurry riot of their colourful attire!

The Photo Walk Route

These initial glimpses were exciting! TBEX folks had requested that I conduct their pre-TBEX Photo Walk next morning. But then, October normally has moody weather in Manila. It falls bang in the middle of the Typhoon season. There was a threat of rain. A typhoon named Sarika (local name – Karen) was threatening to hit Luzon, the island on which Manila is.

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
In the distance – Manila Port

This reality was making TPB veer towards caution. They did not want the Photo Walk disrupted by high winds and a downpour. They suggested we do our Photo Walk in an area dotted with shopping malls – Bonifacio Global City.

Having read a little about Manila and having chatted with our guide to Corregidor Island, I requested that the Photo Walk route be changed. I proposed that we flag off from Bayleaf Hotel as this property has a viewing terrace that gives a panoramic view of Manila and its Spanish walled city called Intramuros.

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
Erstwhile moat along the city wall – now a posh golf course, courtesy the Americans

From there, continue our walk on the famed city wall of Intramuros. Then, proceed to check out the San Agustin Church (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and round off the walk at Casa Manila – a heritage house that showcases the colonial lifestyle. Despite their weather-related misgivings, TPB was pleased with the route as it showcased the real Manila! And, without much persuasion, they agreed!

A Photo Walk to Remember

After a night of pouring rain, the day of the Photo Walk presented a bright sunshine – the type not seen in Manila for days! I guess the elements were with us!

The usual police escort whizzed us past the US Embassy en route Bayleaf and we were chaperoned by the hotel reception personnel to their gorgeous viewing terrace. The view around accorded us a visual understanding of Intramuros and its surroundings. One side presented the Manila Port while the other showed us the colonial quarters! The view was totally breathtaking!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
The wide city wall we walked on

A few hundred photographs and a refreshing iced tea later, the group stepped out to climb up the city wall. Post-rain high humidity made its presence felt – especially for those who wore grey Tees, with sweat visible all over!

But this humidity was not going to dampen the spirits of the group. They charged on regardless, admiring the moat along the city wall that is now a stunning golf course created by the Americans and the Jolly Bee tableaus spreading some jollity and bonhomie along the way! Ronnie, our guide, told us Jolly Bee is the most successful example of entrepreneurship in Philippines – a fast food chain even McDonald’s hasn’t been able to challenge!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
Manila University

Surprise, Surprise!

Walking on the wall, we went past Manila University and suddenly found our way blocked by a gate! Even our guide seemed surprised by this little barrier. Surely, it was a new development. We backtracked, got down to the street and walked back to enter ‘Baluarte de San Diego Gardens’. Inside the garden was a 16th-century rampart that was constructed to fend off the high-frequency attacks by the Chinese pirates.

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
The rampart of San Diego

The gardens were beautiful. Here, our guide pointed out an insignificant-looking ornamental plant called Manila Hemp or Abaca. He told us it is used to make the paper on which Filipino currency is printed!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
The Photo Walkers

By now, the heat and humidity were visibly affecting the group. Sensing that, TPB pulled another surprise out of their invisible witch-hat. We were treated to ‘Sorbetes’ (Filipino for Ice Cream) – that too, in a shaded cabana, well-covered with huge trees!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
Sorbetes cart

Suddenly reinvigorated, the group refused the offer of getting into the van and instead, chose to walk to San Agustin Church, the star of the day’s walk. In a way, it was good, as we stumbled upon the gallery of the Philippines Presidents as we walked!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
The Presidents’ Gallery
A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
Casa Manila courtyard – here, photography is permitted
A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
Ornate entrance gate of San Agustin Church

Art meets Heritage

San Agustin Church remains closed for lunch from 12noon to 1 pm. And that was the time when we reached there. Our guide steered us towards Casa Manila, the colonial lifestyle museum, to meaningfully utilise the time till the church opened. Like many museums, photography inside Casa Manila is not permitted. Since we were on a Photo Walk, we spent minimal time here. But what we saw during that brief while, sure gave us a good idea about the colonial lifestyle.

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
Inside San Agustin Church

We entered San Agustin Church sharp at 1 pm. While being ushered through history, Ronnie talked about the superlative work of art that adorns the church ceiling. He talked of how 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!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
3D or 2D?

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.

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
The Crypt inside San Agustin formerly called the De Profundis Hall

Back to the future

As we exited San Agustin, we were herded into our transport to return to the conference venue. Since Ronnie had endlessly talked about an air conditioned church (The Manila Cathedral), the group requested for a quick, short, stop there. Though the air conditioning makes Manila Cathedral sought-after for weddings, it is notoriously jinxed and normally results in divorces!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
Awesome stained glass work inside San Agustin

Over the next few days, TBEX conference kept us busy. But the evening parties were taking us places – from Chaos in City of Dreams to The Blue Leaf in Aseana to the Long Bar in Raffles, Makati. The drive to these venues showed us the buzz that is Manila!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
The Manila Cathedral

I can broadly conclude that this little bit of Manila in my life has been addictive. Leaving Manila has given me cold turkey. Hence, I am resolved to be back here sooner than later, for more of my Manila fix!

A Little Bit of Manila in my Eyes - Little Bit Manila Eyes
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Discover how it is carved in stone – Rani-ki-Vav, Patan

Discover how it is carved in stone – Rani-ki-Vav, Patan

Carved in stone, Rani-ki-Vav, Patan

My image has appeared in Radar section of October 2016 issue of JetWings Domestic, the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways (Domestic sectors).

Carved in stone, Rani-ki-Vav, Patan

It is said that this stunning structure, Rani-ki-Vav (The Queen’s Stepwell), was built in 11th century as a tribute to the king and founder of the Solanki Dynasty by his widowed wife, Udayamati. This 64 metre-long stepwell is seven levels deep and is embellished with over 1,500 statues. The stacking of statues on the levels as you go down the stepwell is conceptually an inversion of a typical temple that pays obeisance to water. These sculptures mostly depict Vishnu’s different avatars and the traditional solah shringaar (16 styles of adornments). Rani-ki-Vav made its way into the UNESCO Heritage List in 2014, for its outstanding architecture and creativity, and is an absolute must-see site in Gujarat.

Carved in stone, Rani-ki-Vav, Patan

Carved in stone, Rani-ki-Vav, Patan

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Waterfront Wonder – Opera House, Sydney

Waterfront Wonder – Opera House, Sydney

Waterfront Wonder - Opera House, Sydney

My image has appeared in Radar section of October 2016 issue of JetWings International, the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways (International sectors).

Waterfront Wonder – Opera House, Sydney

The infamous 1966 fallout of Australian Government’s project in-charge, Davis Hughes, and designer/architect Jorn Utzon, who envisioned the landmark Sydney Opera House, is widely known as ‘Malice in Blunderland’. Seven years later, Queen Elizabeth finally inaugurated the structure in October 1973.

Waterfront Wonder - Opera House, Sydney

Today, it is one of the busiest performing arts venues in the world with over 1,500 performances annually in its multiple theatres. Over eight million people visit this landmark annually. An unusual fusion of innovation and creativity in architecture and structural engineering, this Sydney icon was accorded a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing in 2007.

Waterfront Wonder - Opera House, Sydney

 

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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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Conversations with God

Conversations with God

In August 2016 issue of JetWings International, my image from Wailing Wall, Jerusalem appeared in their regular BW section – Radar. The text was by editorial team from JetWings International.

Conversations with God

Conversations with God. Old City, Jerusalem

A holy place for Jews, the Kotel HaMa’aravi or Western Wall located in the Old City of Jerusalem is a 187-foot-high section of limestone wall— a remnant of the Temple Mount complex, built by Herod the Great, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Devotees come here to pray, lament the loss of their temple and also pour their hearts out to God; these conversations with divine powers are sometimes so heartfelt that it is often referred to as the ‘Wailing Wall’.

Conversations with God

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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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A WALK DOWN HISTORY – KUMBHALGARH

A WALK DOWN HISTORY – KUMBHALGARH

A WALK DOWN HISTORY - KUMBHALGARH
The majestic dome of Badal Mahal

My article on Kumbhalgarh has appeared in July 2016 issue of JetWings, the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways.

SURROUNDED BY THE MIGHTY ARAVALLI MOUNTAINS SITS THE SPLENDID KUMBHALGARH FORT IN RAJASTHAN.

A WALK DOWN HISTORY – KUMBHALGARH

Looking at a knee-high stone structure that resembled a small temple and housed a couple of vermillion-covered stone idols, I was intrigued and asked my guide about it. He told me it was the Bhairon Temple, and noticing my raised eyebrows added, “No. It is not the Indian deity Bhairava, but a monk, Bhairon Singh, after whom the temple takes its name.”

A WALK DOWN HISTORY - KUMBHALGARH
The Bhairon Singh temple, where the monk is said to have sacrificed himself.

A Story of Supreme Sacrifice

This piqued my curiosity. He went on to tell me a tale of extreme sacrifice. He mentioned that when Rana Kumbha, the then ruler of Mewar, was getting this fort built, the construction completed during the day would mysteriously crumble and fall apart in the night. Rana suspected sabotage. He assigned the fact-finding task to his trusted general.

A WALK DOWN HISTORY - KUMBHALGARHA few nights of vigil later, the general reported that the happening seems otherworldly and no one was indulging in any foul play. Rana asked around to check the probable causes for these weird episodes. The general came across the monk, Bhairon Singh, who told Rana that they would be able to build the fort only if someone voluntarily sacrifices his life for the cause.

A WALK DOWN HISTORY - KUMBHALGARH
Badal Mahal is the highest point of the fortress

Bhairon Singh noticed that Rana was worried and he willingly offered to sacrifice his life, but on the condition that his name be kept alive even after his death. Rana agreed and kept his promise. The spot from where Bhairon Singh started his sacrificial walk was where the main entrance of the fort (Hanuman Pol or Hanuman Gate) had been built; the spot where he sacrificed himself was where this little temple had been built; and the spot where Bhairon Singh’s body finally fell became the main entrance to the palace.

A War Strategist and an Architect

Rana Kumbha is credited with an astonishing feat of having built 84 forts—of which he designed 32! As a brave military strategist, some of the forts built by him have a glittering track record of seldom having fallen to the enemy. Kumbhalgarh is one of the forts that was both, designed and built by Rana.

A WALK DOWN HISTORY - KUMBHALGARH
Ruins of a royal stable in the fort premises

Rana selected this unique location for strategic reasons—anyone approaching the fort could not see it till he was just about a kilometre from the fort, meaning that when the enemy would get a glimpse of the fort, he would concurrently be spotted by the fort guards—a definite strategic advantage. The fort was built on a ridge that separated the arid side of Aravallis from the fertile pasture. Thus, in case an escape became necessary during a battle, it was easier to flee into the thick vegetation cover.

The Great Wall of India

A WALK DOWN HISTORY - KUMBHALGARH
The peripheral wall of the fort, which runs for 36 km, is second only to the Great Wall of China

An astonishing fact unknown to most is that after the Great Wall of China, Kumbhalgarh Fort’s peripheral wall is the longest one in the world. The wall runs around the perimeter of the fort for a modest 36 km and is wide enough for eight horses to stand side by side.

A WALK DOWN HISTORY - KUMBHALGARH
As many as 300 Jain temples dot the fort, a testimony to the flourishing culture.

Kumbhalgarh Fort was built in the 1440s and its construction took 16 years to be completed. The fort houses approx. 360 temples—of which 300 are Jain temples and the rest are dedicated to other Hindu deities. Along with five other hill forts of Rajasthan, Kumbhalgarh Fort was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013.

A WALK DOWN HISTORY - KUMBHALGARH
Rani Mahal is one of the numerous palaces on the fort

The highest point of the fortress is Badal Mahal (Palace of Clouds). It is here that Maharana Pratap, one of the legendary rulers of Mewar, was born.

A WALK DOWN HISTORY - KUMBHALGARH
A view of the surrounding hillsides and deserts from Badal Mahal

Given its vantage, one can see sand dunes of the Thar Desert from the fort on a clear day. Kumbhalgarh Fort has only been captured once during its entire history; this was because the fort ran out of water despite having one of the most sophisticated rainwater harvesting systems in place at that time. It did not fall to a single army, but to the joint armies of Mughal Emperor Akbar, Raja Man Singh (Amer), Raja Udai Singh (Marwar) and the Sultan of Gujarat.

A Must-Visit

During your next trip to Rajasthan, make it a point to visit this magnificent heritage marvel.

While in the state, you could also make a short trip to Haldi Ghati and the Ranakpur Jain Temple, both detours on the Udaipur-Kumbhalgarh route.

A Walk Down History - Kumbhalgarh

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