Granada – A blend of Hispano – Muslim culture and architecture

Granada is  located at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Andalusia South of Spain, it was the seat of the Moorish Kingdom for over 700 years. The streets of Granada are packed with tea stalls, bohemian cafes and Flamenco clubs. Granada has a rich cultural heritage, and enjoys a peaceful co-existence among many cultures. It has been widely admired for its architecture,  music, and is well known for it’s monumental complex, the Alhambra. The city of Granada is unfortunately often overlooked by visitors.  Most spend only a day, and more than 2 million descend on one single site – The impressive UNESCO World Heritage listed – The Alhambra. The Spanish have maintained and preserved the existence of many medieval Muslim palaces and gardens in Granada. 

The ancient Arab quarter of Albaicín, located on the foothills of the marvelous Alhambra is often overlooked by tourists. It is one of the unique neighbourhoods in Granada. The Albaicín is a historic and a charming quarter and it weaves around the river Darro, and  overlooks the monumental complex of the Alhambra. The cafes and restaurants located along the Albaicín quarter are an ideal backdrop to admire the views of the Alhambra and the lively neighbourhood. The influence and integration of Islamic architecture and culture is beautifully depicted in the Albaicín quarter. The best way to experience this charming neighbourhood is by walking along the narrow cobblestoned streets while passing by some of the historical buildings. In this way, one may experience  the life of this Hispanao – Muslim neighbourhood. 

View of Alhambra from Albaicín quarter

The gypsy quarter of Sacromonte located on the hills of Granada is another charming quarter. The Abadía del Sacromonte, an Abbey located on the top of the hill provides a panoramic views of the city. The walk towards Sacromonte is very steep and windy and takes 15 minutes from the Albaicín quarter. The strenuous effort is rewarded with breathtaking views of the city and the Sierra Nevada mountain ranges. 

View of Abadía del Sacromonte Abbey

The monumental complex of the Alhambra and the Generalife situated atop Sabika Hill is Heritage Listed, and one of the world’s most visited site. There are three different ways to access the monument: by public transport, taxi or on foot following the historic pedestrian route from the city centre. This path runs through the lush green Alhambra woods. Washington Irving, native writer from New York was perhaps the first person to bring the Alhambra to the world. The council of Alhambra has paid a tribute to the writer by dedicating a statue of his image inside the Alhambra walls and is only accessible by foot. 

Alhambra means “the red one” in Arabic and was built by the Nasrid dynasty. They were the last Muslims to rule over the Iberian Peninsula,and turned over their possession, the Alhambra, over to the Catholic Monarchs in 1492. The Alhambra palace complex extends over 100,000 square meters, and is built adjacent to another city and Granada was protected by a surrounding wall. There are three important areas you will want to visit once inside the monumental compound of the Alhambra; the Alcazaba, Nasrid Palace and the Generalife. 

Alcazaba

On the western part of the Alhambra complex lies the Alcazaba, which housed the military district and the living quarters of the troops who provided immediate defence to the sultan and the palace. It’s one of the oldest parts of the Alhambra, and there are numerous watch towers in this complex . Torre del Homenaje is the highest tower in Alhambra and offers the best panoramic and visually delight with views of the Alhambra and also Granada. A famous Mexican Poet Francisco de Icaza who fell in love in Granada said “… there’s nothing worse than being a blind man in Granada”. The conspicuous historical significance and ancient surroundings of the Alhambra will unequivocally evoke the past. The tranquil surroundings above the walls of the Alhambra away from the hectic city life of Granada will unquestionably transform you back into the history of the complex. 

The Military District – Alcazaba
View of Granada from a tower in Alcazaba

The Nasrid Palaces

The Nasrid Palaces are located in a single complex inside the Alhambra and can also be viewed from the Albaicín quarter.  Built on steep hill, there are three independent areas in the palace complex; the Palacio del Mexuar, the Palacio de Comares and the Palacio de los Leones. These palaces are independent of each other but are connected with each other as they were commissioned by different Nasrid sultans. Behind the interior rooms lie fragile works of elegant architecture and ingenious decoration. The Hispano – Muslim architectural design is represented in every corner of this palace; an open air courtyard with elaborate fountains and ponds equipped with a source of water to maintain  perfect architectural harmony. The most remarkable of the palaces is the Palacio de los Leones.  A central fountain in the courtyard, consisting of twelve lions from which water pours and are exquisitely crafted. One of my favourite courtyards is the Palacio de Comares, an architectural marvel with supreme works of Islamic art, structured around a large rectangular courtyard to provide a perfect harmony between the walls of the palace and nature. Inside the central area of Palacio de Comares lies Patio de los Arrayanes, an open air courtyard equipped with a rectangular pond in the middle and delicately trimmed hedge alongside the pond. 

Interior Mocárabe ceiling in the Sala de Dos Hermanas, the pinnacle of architectural decoration in the Alhambra
Palacio de los Leones
Patio de los Arrayanes
The back of the Sala de Dos Hermanas
Patio de los Leones
The Mirador de Lindaraja ceiling

The Generalife

The Generalife or market garden situated outside the walled compound is surrounded by gardens which are still being cultivated using traditional agricultural techniques passed down from generations since the 14th century until today. This is where the sultans came to rest and has various courtyards leading to the palace rooms. It feels rural and tranquil as the path leads through various orchards, ornaments trees and shrubs. The romantic gardens offer breathtaking views of the surrounding area.

Palacio del Pórtico
Patio de la Acequia
Patio del Generalife

It is recommended to start the tour of the Alhambra through the Puerta de la Justicia as the ticket counter and the information desk are located outside the gates. I highly recommend buying the tickets as much as 2 months in advance,  as the tickets to Nasrid Palaces are limited and can sell in minutes.  The tickets go on sale midnight (Spain time). You will need to buy the Alhambra general ticket which costs €14.00 and the visit includes Alcazaba, Nasrid Palaces and Generalife. You will also need to select a time to visit the palace and strictly adhere to the specific time slot you have picked and if you miss the time slot, you won’t be allowed to access the palace. It takes 20 minutes to reach the Nasrid Palaces from the ticket counter. If you are unable to get the tickets, do keep trying as they always update the available spots online after midnight (Spain time). I strongly suggest checking the availability of the tickets first and then planning your trip to Granada. The other visits such as Alcazaba and Generalife can be visited at your leisure in any order. The tickets can be purchased on the Alhambra official website https://tickets.alhambra-patronato.es/en/tickets-alhambra-general/

Wishing my followers a very Happy New Year and a fantastic year ahead.

A journey through Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook in pictures

Lake Tekapo, a small country town located on the South Island of New Zealand is picturesque and makes it a perfect journey for a pitstop en route to Queenstown from Christchurch and vice versa. The stunning snow capped Southern Alps provide the perfect backdrop over the turquoise blue waters of Lake Tekapo. You will definitely fall in love with the views surrounding the lake and come back to visit again and again.

Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo

On the shores of Lake Tekapo overlooking the Southern Alps sits the Church of The Good Shepherd. It’s the most photographed church in the South Island of New Zealand and can get very crowded with photographers. The best time to visit is just before sunrise when the first rays of the sun gently touch the lake shores.

Church of The Good Shepherd just after sunrise
Church of The Good Shepherd

The tallest mountain in New Zealand, Mount Cook / Aoraki located over an hour’s drive from Lake Tekapo is a rugged land of ice and glaciers. It’s a perfect place to take a helicopter ride over Mount Cook and an opportunity to experience landing on Fox Glacier. It’s one of the few glaciers in the world which lies in close proximity to both rain forest and an ocean. When we landed on Fox Glacier the snow was frozen due to heavy rain and freezing temperatures the night before.

Mount Cook
Landing on Fox Glacier
Neil and Ansh experiencing the snow for the first time, Neil was disappointed the snow was frozen
View of Fox Glacier from the helicopter
View of Mount Cook from Lake Matheson near Fox Glacier Village
Lake Pukaki en route to Mount Cook Village
Lake Pukaki
Tasman Glacier – Mount Cook Village
View of Mount Cook from Mount Cook Village

If you are keen on enjoying the views of Lake Tekapo with less tourists, try and avoid the school holidays and especially Christmas season as its impossible to find accommodation and can get very crowded.

Nara – A rewarding destination

Japan’s oldest and largest temples are located in Nara in the Kansai region. Nara was the Japan’s first permanent capital city which was first established in the year 710 AD. The Miyakoji rapid trains operates every 30 minutes between Kyoto Station and JR Nara Station. The one way trip takes around 45 minutes and costs 690 yen and the Japan rail pass is valid on these trains. There are also multiple Yamatoji rapid trains every hour which operate between Osaka Station and JR Nara Station (45 minutes, 780 yen one way). These trains also stops at Osaka’s Tennoji Station (30 minutes, 450 yen one way) and the Japan rail pass fully covers the trip.

 
Nara is commonly visited as a day trip either from Osaka or Kyoto. All of the Nara’s main attractions can be easily accessed and the best way to explore central Nara is by foot.
 

Nara Park (Nara Koen) is a large park located in Central Nara. The park is home to freely 1200 roaming Deer and have been designated a natural treasure. Deer crackers are available for sale around the park to feed the Deers. 

 

 

Kofuku-ji Temple

One of the eight historic monuments of ancient Nara inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list is the Kofuku-ji Temple a Buddhist temple and was the main temple for the Fujiwara family. In the grounds of the temple, there are two Pagodas dating back to 1143  AD and 1426 AD. The five storeys Pagoda is the second largest in Japan after the Kyoto’s To-ji by few centimetres. The second Pagoda is three storeys and they are the landmark and symbol of Nara. The temple can be visited free of charge and the grounds are open all year round.

Todai-ji

Todai-ji one of Japan’s most famous and significant temples located in Nara is a must see destination in Nara. The Hall of the Great Buddha is located inside Todai-ji. Nara’s famous Great Buddha – Daibutsu is housed inside the Daibutsu-den. The Daibutsu-den is the largest wooden building in the world. The seated Buddha represents Vairocana and is flanked by two Bodhisattvas. The present statue, recast in the Edo period, stands just over 16m high and consists of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130 kg of gold. Along the approach to Todaiji stands the Nandaimon Gate, a large wooden gate watched over by two fierce-looking statues. Representing the Nio Guardian Kings, the statues are designated national treasures together with the gate itself. After visiting the Great Buddha and when you exist the main hall, look to your left and you will see a statue seated next to the building. It’s been said that if you rub on the statue and touch your body, you will be healed. 

 

After you exist the main hall, don’t forget to pay a visit to the cafe located inside the Todai-ji museum for delicious authentic Japanese desserts accompanied with Japanese Green Tea. 
It was time to say Sayonara to the beautiful city of Nara and board the train back to Kyoto.

My very own love affair

Bollywood’s love affair with Switzerland started almost 50 years ago. It is still a popular destination amongst people from India to this day. The pristine backdrops of the snow capped Swiss Alps provided a perfect location for many of Bollywood’s dreamy movie  sequences and romantic songs. A quiet country, nestled in the heart of the Europe, Switzerland, soon became a mecca for travel enthusiasts from India. Switzerland is diverse, multicultural country with a modest population. It gained international significance not only because of tourism, but also for banking and finance, world  class Swiss trains and watches.

My very own love affair with Switzerland began by watching Bollywood movies when I was a young boy. I had always dreamt of visiting Switzerland. Unfortunately, because it is one the most expensive countries to visit, my plans of traveling to Switzerland would need to be put on the back burner. After meticulously planning, I finally decided to venture out to Switzerland and cover every part of the country from the Swiss Alps to the Swiss Riviera. I bought my unlimited Swiss Train Pass for 14 days which was the best way to travel as buying a point to point ticket might get expensive and requires booking tickets in advance. The flexibility of train pass gave me option to travel on a budget and jump on any train without consulting a timetable. I decided to travel in March as it’s border season and not many tourists visit during this time of the year. It’s cheaper to travel during this month and trains are not packed, and its  easy to zip around minus the bus loads of tourists. Since I was traveling during the shoulder season just before the tourist season, I was able to afford a first class Swiss Train Pass for the price of a second class pass during the peak season.

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Zurich Train Station

I started my Swiss adventure from Zurich. After spending few days getting over jet lag, my Swiss train adventure began. I validated my Swiss travel pass and my unlimited travel pass began which gave me free access to various chateaus and museums and sometimes the local trams in few places. The 14 days starts once you activate the rail pass at the train station, so if you have just arrived in the country and are planning to stay for a few days, don’t validate until the day you are going to start your Swiss rail journey, as it takes only few minutes to validate the pass.

Once onboard, I always managed to get a window seat, and seeing the beautiful countryside was like watching scenery on a high definition television. I passed through many Swiss villages, with beautiful churches, an abundance of lakes, and the Swiss Alps provided a perfect backdrop at every turn. After couple of days of zipping through the northern part of Switzerland, I finally arrived at the Alpine village of Interlaken, the gateway to one of the most beautiful locations in Europe. Jungfraujoch, one of the tallest mountain in the Swiss Alps standing at 3,454 meters above the sea level is a different world. This region nicknamed “Top of Europe”, and is not to be missed on one’s itinerary.  As it can get very crowded during the tourist season, I had chosen the perfect time to travel to the top of the Europe. Unfortunately the Swiss train pass is not valid on the Jungfrau railway and a separate train ticket and entrance to the summit are required.

And so I boarded my train to the top of Europe from Interlaken OST, the main station in Interlaken. The train passed through the alpine village of Grindelwald, which is popular among the skiers.

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Grindelwald Village

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Kleine Scheidegg

It took more than 2 hours to reach the summit after a change at Kleine Scheidegg where I boarded the cogwheel train which took me to the highest train station in Europe, Jungfraujoch. My train passed through various tunnels and stopped for a brief stop to view the mighty Eigher and finally arrived at Jungfraujoch. It was a surreal moment standing on the top of Europe and witnessing the beautiful alps covered with a thick blanket of snow and handful of tourists around. The temperature on the summit was around -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit) and it was a perfect spring day and the sun was shining beautifully. I found a quiet spot inside the warm viewing deck where I enjoyed most of the day watching the beautiful Swiss Alps with a warm hot chocolate, and later indulged in variety of Swiss chocolates and cheese in Swiss style.

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Cogwheel Train from Kliene Scheidegg to Jungfraujoch

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View of Mount Eigher enroute to Jungfraujoch

It was time to say good-bye to this beautiful Alpine village of Interlaken and board my next train to Luzern, yet another amazing destination located on Lake Luzern. Stay tuned for more on Switzerland in my future blogs, until then Auf Widersehen (Goodbye in German).

“Once upon a time, there was a quite little village in the French countryside, whose people believed in Tranquilité (Tranquillity)”

Once upon a time, there was a quiet little village in the French countryside, whose people believed in Tranquilité (Tranquillity). Gordes, perched on a hill-top in the heart of the Luberon region in Avignon is one of the most beautiful and tranquil villages in France. I had arrived from Avignon as a day tourist in this picturesque village, and instantly fell in love with this charming village. My bus stopped right in the centre of the village and I had arrived on the market day. It was a busy square, and there were many stalls scattered about. Almost immediately, my attention was drawn to a crêpe stall, with its delicious scent of fresh made crêpes. I ordered my favourite Nutella with Strawberry crêpe and found a secluded spot away from the hustle and bustle of the markets looking over the beautiful valley of Luberon. It was a stunning spring day with clear skies and was bit chilly. After my sumptuous crêpe, it was time to explore Gordes.

Gordes has been featured in many Hollywood and French movies. It also is a popular village among many budding artists who regularly visit to paint its loveliness. Numerous Hollywood stars have called Gordes their second home, Gordes was also featured in Ridley Scott’s movie, “A Good Year”. In order to fully appreciate the beauty of this village you would need to spend a day in Gordes exploring the beautiful stone cottages which have been standing strong for many centuries.

A legend says that this town was born out of stones, and the houses are built on several levels. The narrow cobblestone lanes wind through the stone cottages, making it a picturesque location. Gordes is a well-preserved village, and the architecture dates back to the renaissance period. The square in the city houses a small fountain, and is surrounded by cafés and restaurants. The weekly market in Gordes takes place every Tuesday, and it’s a perfect day to explore this market as the region’s plentiful local produce is displayed, as well stall showcasing local art. The art is produced by the many artists within the local area. There are also numerous stalls selling lavender products, as it’s grown in abundance in the Luberon region.

One of the main highlights in the village of Gordes is the 16th century castle which was originally built-in 1031 AD, it is a huge stone building located in the village centre, it was used to protect the village from invaders during the 16th century. The impeccable stone castle is now a town hall and also a museum, the castle is open to the public all year round. The museum houses some beautiful paintings painted by local artists and portrays the lovely Luberon region.

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Village Church

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View of the castle

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The village centre

After spending a day at Gordes, it was time to say good-bye and head back to Avignon. The public transport services to Gordes from Avignon are limited, so my advice is to hire a car so you can also visit other villages in the Luberon village as the region is well-known for its picturesque villages and lavender fields.

“Sur le Pont d’Avignon…..”

“Sur  le pont d’Avignon, L’on y danse, l’on y danse, sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse tous en rond…”, the lyrics of this beautiful song echoed in my head when I had the first glimpse of Pont d’Avignon. “On the bridge of Avignon, we all dance there, we all dance there, on the bridge of Avignon, we all dance in a ring…”. While I didn’t dance on the bridge of Avignon as I would have fallen in the mighty Rhône River, I was very happy to be there. I had finally made it to one of my favourite regions in France, Provence. The Provence region is renowned for its outstanding beauty, history and culture that has flourished for many centuries. It is one of the top destinations in France. The Luberon region is well-known for its beautiful country side and picturesque villages.

When I arrived from the French Riviera, Avignon was my first destination in Provence. Lavender is grown in abundance in the Provence region and the smell of lavender everywhere awakened my senses as soon I stepped out the train station. The walk from the station was pleasant and this lovely scent accompanied me till I reached my hotel, which was located in the main square. The smell of lavender just didn’t stop outside the hotel, but I could smell it in my room. Even the toiletries were lavender based. I had planned to stay in Avignon for 3 days and made this town my base to explore the beautiful Provence and Luberon regions renowned for their picturesque villages. It was perfect spring weather, but bit warmer than it had been on the French Rivera. I had been waiting to get my first glimpse of Pont d’Avignon (bridge of Avignon) and didn’t waste any time. As soon I checked in I had to decide between a lunch at a fine French restaurant, or to head to the bridge of Avignon. Guess what, the bridge would have to wait, as I couldn’t resist to have a nice lunch in one of the café facing the main square. I managed to get the perfect table facing the square and ordered a beautiful glass of Grenache Gris before I could decide on the food. I slowly sipped my wine enjoying the beautiful scenery and decided to take a break from sightseeing as it was my final week of the 7 weeks I had spent in France. One of the pleasant things about France is that you can stay in the cafe as long you would like, as long as you have ordered coffee or a drink. After a refreshing break, I decided to explore the town. I didn’t bother to pick a map, as I wanted to explore on my own and by this time I had become confident in asking directions in French if I did happen to get lost.  

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Pont d’Avignon

I continued on and finally made my way to Pont d’Avignon. Once again the song started to echo in my head. It was an indeed a great moment to see the bridge up close. The bridge was built-in the early 12th century, on the mighty Rhône River. It was a beautiful evening, the perfect time to enjoy the views of the bridge without many tourists around. Listed by UNESCO world heritage site and only 4 out of 22 original arches remains. It is one of the most popular attractions in France. In years past, the bridge was frequently damaged by the mighty Rhône River and re-repaired many times, only a portion of the bridge remains. Pont d’Avignon does not disappoint one and the views are still clearly etched in my brain.    

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Papal Palace

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View of Avignon from Pont d’Avignon

During the 13th century the Pope no longer wanted to stay in Rome and made Avignon his official residence. There were 6 successive Popes who have resided in Avignon. The city was radically transformed by this and Avignon became one of the largest cities in Europe. The Pope had no longer wanted to stay in Rome as Italy had been ravaged by wars in the 13th century. The Pope’s Palace, also known as Papal Palace in Avignon, is one of the most important monuments in the Provence region. 

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Papal Palace

Another interesting place I wanted to visited in the Provence region was the UNESCO World Heritage site, Pont du Gard, located near Avignon. The Pont du Gard is considered a brilliant masterpiece of art. It’s one of the finest pieces of Roman architecture dating back to the 1st century. It’s a 50 kilometer long aqueduct that once supplied water to the city of Nîmes. The Pont du Gard is 50 meters high and built on the River Gardon. It is a three level aqueduct. Even now to this date, it is a source of inspiration for artists and a model for architects. Continuing along the banks of River Gardon and near the Pont du Gard one will see three Olive trees dating back to 908 AD and still standing strong. 

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Pont du Gard

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One of the three Olives trees dating back to 908 AD

During my visit to Avignon, I also experienced Le Mistral, a strong wind that blows along the River Rhône and towards the Mediterranean sea. At times, it blows continuously for several days and the wind is capable of reaching speeds at 90 km per hour blowing away   everything in its path. Le Mistral is a vital component for the wine growers in the Provence region and without it the wines would not taste nearly as good. The Le Mistral is  known for keeping the skies clear in the Provence region, which is beneficial for wine growers as clouds can generate moisture and proving deterrent to the vineyards. Le Mistral is a much hated and much-loved wind in Provence as it drives the locals mad,  but is rejoiced by the wine makers. The next time you savour Rosé, remember Le Mistral.

I would like to return and spend more time exploring the Provence region, as spending just 3 days isn’t enough to cover this beautiful region. The best time to visit is July when the lavender are in full bloom and the Luberon countryside is turned into blanket of lavender colours. There are many picturesque villages that I visited in the Luberon and Provence regions, we will journey to these in my future blogs. 

It’s times to say Au Revior (Goodbye, until we meet again) and have a great week!

 

 

A day to remember

It was a beautiful spring morning and it was time to say good bye to the city of London. I would be boarding the first Eurostar service at 5 am in St Pancras International Station. This service, which whizzes along the English Channel, would take me to my next destination, Paris Gare du Nord on the mainland of Europe. After I arrived, I made my way to another train terminal in Paris Gare de Le ‘Est. The Gare de Le ‘Est terminal situated few hundred meters from Gare du Nord is quiet and not as busy or as elegantly designed as the Gare du Nord. From this station I was heading towards east of France, to the beautiful French city of Strasbourg. Strasbourg is situated on the borders of France and Germany. I boarded the French super-fast Train à Grand Vitesse (TGV) at Gare de Le ‘Est in Paris. This train whisked me through the beautiful French countryside and in less than 2 hours I arrived at Gare du Strasbourg.

The city of Strasbourg is now the official seat of the European Union Parliament.  It is a modern and dynamic city.  Most of the attractions in the city are within walking distance and you will soon fall in love with the city of Strasbourg. After a long journey from London, then to Paris and finally to my final destination in Strasbourg, I was tired. I decided not to visit the tourist office when I arrived at the train station Gare du Strasbourg, instead choosing to dine in a local French restaurant and then end the night early. The next morning I went to the local tourist centre, located next to Gare du Strasbourg. Unfortunately it was not yet open and I would have to wait for another hour. I found a quiet spot near the train station so I could watch the TGV speeding through the station. After few minutes a French policeman approached me asked in French “Puis-je voir voter passport?” translated “Can I see your passport?”. Before I planned my 7 week trip to France, I completed 3 semesters in Basic French at the Alliance Française in Perth, so I knew exactly what the French policeman asking me. Unfortunately I didn’t have the passport on me, but had my Australian driver’s license. The policeman refused to see my driver’s license and again demanded to see my passport. After few minutes he walked away and I was relieved that I hadn’t needed to go back to my hotel room to get my passport. I continued waiting in front of the tourist centre and it had been perhaps more than 10 minutes and the policeman appeared again but this time with 3 other senior officers. One of the senior officers asked the same question and I had the same answer. The officer spoke English and I tried to convince him that I was a tourist and had arrived last night from Paris. He insisted that they needed to see my passport to make sure that I had entered the country legally. I was then escorted by 3 French policemen to the hotel where I was staying and once they saw the passport and the entry stamp they were satisfied and left me on my own. I was bit humiliated, as I had been escorted through the market square by the police officers, as passers-by looked at me as though I was a criminal and had done something wrong. After that unfortunate experience, I made sure to keep my passport on me all the times for the rest of my journey in France. My plans for the day in Strasbourg hadn’t started as planned, so I headed back to the tourist office to get the map of Strasbourg so I could get on with my day of exploring this amazing city.

My first in stop in Strasbourg was the magnificent Cathédrale Notre-Dame. This gothic styled Cathedral has been standing since the early 14th century. The glass stained windows and the paintings on the ceilings of the Cathedral are an absolute masterpiece and very pleasing to the eyes. I highly recommend visiting the Cathedral late in the afternoon or in the evening to avoid the tourist rush, as most of the “day tourists” have left for the day. One of the greatest and best French poets, Victor Hugo described the Cathedral beautifully, he said, “From the belfry, the view is wonderful. Strasbourg lays at your feet, the old city of tiled triangular roof tops and gable windows, interrupted by towers and churches as picturesque as those of any city in Flanders”. He also declared the Cathedral a “Gigantic and delicate marvel”.

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Cathédrale Notre-Dame

After a visiting the Cathedral, I decided to take a boat trip on River III and gently glided along the river, admiring the many beautiful attractions of the city Strasbourg. The boat passed through numerous heritage sites, such as Petit France district, tanners quarters and towards the European Parliament, which is situated on the banks of River III. The cherry blossoms along the river banks were in full bloom and drenched the branches of the trees with blanket of pink flowers. The 70 minute boat trip along the River III made my day after such and unfortunate start and I forgot the morning drama that had unfolded.

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European Parliament  in Strasbourg

It was late afternoon and time for a break before I started on the next leg of my journey, in the beautiful and dynamic city of Strasbourg. I found a quiet café in one of the alleyways, quietly tucked away from the tourists and with a view of the River III. I ordered my favourite French baguette with freshly sliced tomatoes and slices of Mozzarella cheese and drizzled with olive oil, along with French pressed coffee. It was delicious and I enjoyed my food watching the boats go past by and with absolutely no worries. Next it was time to head to Petit France quarter, one of old Strasbourg’s most beautiful districts, built along the waterways of River III. The timbered houses are lined against the waterways and are magnificent with sliding wooden roofs. I again would recommend visiting the quarter late in the afternoon, as its gets very crowded. The best way to explore and appreciate the medieval quarter is on foot. As the sun started to set, the beautiful orange glow is reflected on the timbered houses and is a magnificent sight. One of the best places to enjoy the views of Petit France quarter is standing by the stone bridge which is across the timbered houses. This view is best enjoyed along with a glass of French champagne, which can be easily purchased, as there are numerous restaurants and cafes situated alongside the banks of the river.

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Bridge on River III in Strasbourg

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Petit France District

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Border Crossing – Germany and France

The next day I decided to cross the French border into Germany and decided to do it by foot and experience the seamless border crossing. I decided to disembark from the bus one stop before the French and German border. The longest and Europe’s most important river, the River Rhine divides the French and German borders. I admired the magnificent River Rhine from the bridge which divides the two countries with one foot in France and the other in Germany.

I then headed to the German border town Khel, situated on the banks of River Rhine. It was a beautiful day with clear blue skies. In Khel the best way to enjoy the gorgeous view is to sit at one of the cafes located in the market square near Friendenkirche church. I relaxed there, letting the world go by and lost track of time. I hadn’t realised it, but the café had started to get full, it was then that I  was approached by a lovely family who asked if they could share my table. They had just finished their shopping and wanted to take a break before they headed off to another place. I happily nodded my head and offered to share the table with them. I started enjoying their company and we started conversing in a universal language of humanity, facial expressions and smiles as I didn’t speak German nor did they speak any English. I don’t know what they were asking me but I replied in English with a smile on my face and they spoke in German. I think we talked about weather as the grandmother was pointing towards the sky and I think about how beautiful and crisp the spring day was. I was telling them how beautiful Strasbourg was and also of my time in France. The conversation continued for a while in two different languages which none of us knew what the conversations were about. I enjoyed their company as this was the first time in 7 weeks in France I had someone to share my beer. This lovely German family consisted of a grandmother, mother and daughter who might be in her twenties and was suffering from cerebral palsy. She was in a wheel chair and could hardly use her hands to do anything and couldn’t speak clearly. I felt saddened to see this beautiful girl in such a state. The mother was happy to feed her first before she had something to eat. The girl was enjoying ice-cream and her face glowed, as every time she tasted spoonful after spoonful of  rich chocolate ice-cream. That afternoon made me think how life can be unfair for some and often we may complain about things that simply don’t go our way. I could see the patience and warmth of the mother caring for her precious daughter, knowing that her daughter would never be independent.  But she didn’t give up on her daughter and I saw the unconditional love of the mother. It was indeed a heart-warming afternoon and eventually the family said good bye and thanked me for sharing the table. I thanked them for joining me and said good bye with a sombre heart and thoughts of the warmth and friendship they had shared with me. They went their way and I went my way, I boarded the bus to Strasbourg with sadness on my face and the memory of a beautiful afternoon.

After spending 7 weeks in France I arrived back in Australia with lots of memories. Some memories of my travels are of the beautiful sights I’ve seen, but some are of the people I have met especially the beautiful afternoon I had spent with the German family. It’s now been more than 7 years I met this family, but I still think about the girl and the mother and hope the girl is doing fine and her mother is still there to look after her. I still think of this family, and the beautiful afternoon I spent sharing a table with them in Khel.

A city of ancient love – Verona

It was Year 2013 and I had been waiting for my connecting flight to India at the Dubai International Airport when I noticed that someone had  left a travel section of  The New York Times newspaper on a chair next to my seat,  in it was an article about Italy and the places to visit in Italy. One of the tips for traveling mentioned in this article was to travel to Italy during December and January as it’s off-peak and less tourists visit Italy during this time of the year. I thought about this as I continued my holiday in India. While I was on my holiday, I started watching a movie on the HBO channel called “Letters to Juliet”. It didn’t make it to the Oscars, but it definitely grabbed my attention. The scenes in the movie were shot mainly in and around Verona, it reminded me of the New York Times article I had read a few weeks earlier. After I finished the movie, I grabbed the article from my bag and read it again,  I quickly sketched a rough itinerary to Italy. It took me a few days to finalise the plan and by then it was a week before Christmas, over the next few days I spent time planning and finalising the itinerary, it was the first time I had planned, booked my flights, trains, hotels and travelled within a period of 10 days. I landed in the beautiful city of Venice on the Boxing Day, the 26th December.

After spending a few days in the romantic city of Venice I boarded the Regionale Veloce train to another romantic city, Verona. In Verona, I arrived at one of the oldest train stations in Italy, Verona Porta Nuova, which was located few meters from the city centre. An ancient city, Verona is a mecca for lovers around the world. There these lovers pay homage to some of the most mythical lovers of all time, Romeo and Juliet, these famous fictional characters were created by William Shakespeare in the late 15th century and their tragic love story was one of the most popular plays during the golden age of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

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Statue  of Juliet

As the old saying goes “All roads lead to Rome”, but in Verona it is “All roads in Verona lead to Juliet’s house”. In Verona,  I quickly checked in to my room and dropped my luggage and decided to head to Juliet’s house. There is no need to ask for directions to ‘Casa di Giulietta’ or Juliet’s house as you can follow many young lovers making their way holding roses. I passed through Verona’s famous arena which was built before the Coliseum in Rome and is believed to be a prototype of Rome’s more famous monument. I finally arrived at my destination, it was full of lovers of all ages excited to have made the journey to Juliet’s house, the walls and paths were covered with messages of  love written in many languages but all contained one universal word “Love”.  It is believed that if the couple write their names on the walls of Casa di Guilietta, Juliet will cast a spell on them and their love will be eternal, even in this modern age thousands of admirers of Romeo and Juliet still believe this to be true and write their message of love on the wall. In the courtyard, one can spot the iconic balcony where Juliet used to call her lover  “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” and Romeo declared his love for Juliet from the courtyard looking towards Juliet waiting on the balcony, a modern-day enactment of this famous scene from Shakespeare’s play still takes place while the lover stands in the balcony and looks into the crowd to spot her lover waiting anxiously in the courtyard.

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The iconic balcony where Juliet called her lover “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

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Love messages on the walls of ‘Casa di Giulietta’

The ancient city of love is also well-known for its grand Arena built-in the 1st century well before the Coliseum in Rome. It’s a legendary open air arena which seats around 30,000 people. It was the 8th biggest amphitheatre in the Roman empire and it survived a massive earthquake which rocked Verona in the 12th century. Not far from the Arena is the busy market square, Piazza Delle Erbe, also known as market for herbs, the square is surrounded by historical buildings and monuments that have existed for centuries and has always been a major hub for the locals to trade their produce. In the square is a 4th century fountain with its statue “Madonna Verona”, this noisy bustling square also houses some of the finest Italian restaurants in Verona, not to be missed is a taste of the  local wine, Bardolino  which compliments the local cuisine.

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Verona Arena

One of the many bridges in Verona is the beautiful and magnificent Ponte Pietra, a beautiful stone bridge built over the river Adige,  is the oldest stone bridge dating back to 18 BC. The Ponte Pietra symbolises the history of the town and one of the products of the Roman era. The bridge doesn’t draw significant numbers of tourists and a pleasant walk over the bridge takes one over to the other side of the town. Another point of interest located close to the bridge is the Castel San Pietro, the Castle is perched on the top of a hill and provides an unrestricted  panoramic view of the beautiful town Verona, including the Ponte Pietra. The walk up the hill takes around 25 to 30 minutes, winding through picturesque old buildings and houses.

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Ponte Pietra

This ancient city of love houses numerous Basilicas of Roman architecture, one of the most interesting ones I visited was the Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore, this Basilica wasn’t on my list of things to see in Verona, in fact I had lost my way around the old city after my walk to Castel San Pietro and couldn’t find my way back to my hotel, which was located near the Arena. This beautiful brick and stone Basilica houses some of the most beautiful, meticulously crafted bronze doors and the paintings on the ceilings of the Basilica are a sight not to be missed.

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Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore

Much too soon it was time to stay arrivederci (goodbye) to the city of love and I packed my bags along with many memories of this amazing town. Verona didn’t disappoint me and I was glad I made the trip along with other thousands of lovers. My next destination was  Tuscany and in my next blog join me as I travel to the beautiful cities of Florence and Siena.

On a side note, readers may remember that a few weeks ago, I had written an article on my blog entitled, “The things I took for granted“. In regards to that article, I recently received a thank you video from the kids at the hostel, it brought tears to my eyes and made my day.

The Island of Jeju-do

안녕하세요 annyeonghaseyo (Hello), and thank you for joining me as I  visit the island of Jeju-do . This is Korea’s largest island, and it attracts thousands of tourists and honeymooners. It is a Special Administrative Province of South Korea; Jeju-do (제주도) island is just off the southern peninsula of South Korea. It’s a popular destination for the Koreans as well as neighbouring countries, such as Japan. Jeju-do, located off the mainland, is renowned for its beautiful beaches, volcanic mountains and lush forests. The island’s splendid nature will definitely take your breath away. This island offers easy, moderate and difficult hiking trails so there is something for all ages. The best way to experience the island is to rent a car, as the public transport is very limited. This island has two major cities Jeju and Seogwipo. The capital city Jeju is located on the northern side of the island and is the major hub for international tourists arriving and departing the island. Seogwipo is located on the southern side of the island and is laid back and offers a quiet retreat for the tourists. There are numerous highways and roads that connect to every major tourist attraction that the island has to offer.  Having stayed in both the cities, I personally prefer to stay in Seogwipo,  It’s not crowded and evenings are peaceful, as most of the day tourists return back to the capital city Jeju. If you are going to stay in Seogwipo I highly recommend renting  a car at the Jeju International Airport. An international driving licence is mandatory to rent cars. The rental cars have in-built GPS, but unfortunately they are in Korean and you will need to pay extra to rent  a GPS in English. In most of the western countries the address is used to enter in the GPS as your final destination, but in Korea and Japan the final destination address system works on the telephone number so you will need to have a local map handy as they have telephone numbers listed for each attraction. There are numerous attractions on this small island and it has more than 100 museums that are enticing for all ages from the Loveland and sex museum for the grown-ups to car museums, Hello Kitty and Teddy Bear museums for the little ones.

A Unesco World Heritage site is the Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak, located on the eastern side of the island. The peak rose from under the sea during a volcanic eruption 100,000 years ago and has a huge crater at the top of the mountain. The crater is 600m in diameter and 90m high. The sunrise is magnificent from the top of the mountain, but one has to be there by 5am. The hike to the top of the mountain takes around 30 minutes and is manageable as there are various rest points along the way. The view becomes more amazing as you start ascending towards the top of the mountain. Once you reach the top of the mountain, you are rewarded with a splendid panoramic views of the countryside.

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View from the Seongsan Ilchulbong peak

Another attraction is the Seongeup Folk Village. The village is located on the foothills of the Hala mountains and is surrounded by a fortress wall.  Inside the walls lie traditional homes with thatched roofs,  alongside volcanic black lava rocks. The only Confucian temple in Korea is located in this folk village, and it is also home to a 1,000 year old Zelkova tree. There is no entrance fee to visit the folk village. There are locals still leaving in this folk village and are welcoming to tourists. Every house has a pole located in front of the house, if the pole is down, you’re welcome to enter and if the pole is up then they are not home. The unique lifestyle and culture of these people is beautifully represented in this village. The houses have been handed down from generation to generation. This folk village has treasures of the bygone era of traditional Jeju. This village also holds a vast amount of culture and the best way to experience is to sit and watch the locals using the old techniques of millstones pulled by horses or ox.

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Seongeup Folk Village

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1,000 year old Zelkova Tree

A second UNESCO World Heritage site located on the island is the Manjanggul cave. It is also known as the lava tube and is located on the eastern side of the island. It is  the 12th longest lava tube in the world. It’s estimated that the lava tube was formed some 300,000 years ago, and only a kilometre is open to the public of the 13 kilometre tunnel. The path is uneven and one needs to be cautious walking inside the cave, as it is wet. At the end of the tunnel is the massive lava column formed when a large amount of lava spilled from the upper level down to the lower level and formed a large lava column. Standing at 70 meters, this stalagmite is the largest known in the world. This lava tube was formed by the flow of basaltic lava when the Geomunoreum volcano erupted. This created numerous lava tunnels finally flowing into the coastline. Some 30,000 common bent wing bats have taken permanent residence inside the tube.

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Manjanggul cave (Lava tube)

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Manjanggul cave (Lava tube)

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70m lava column (Manjanggul cave)

The island of Jeju features three popular waterfalls Jeongbang Falls, Cheonjeyeon Falls and Cheonjiyeon Falls.  The most popular is the Jeongbang falls and is the only waterfall in Asia to fall directly into the sea. The Cheonjeyeon Falls consists of three sections and the views from the Seonimgyo Bridge (arch bridge) are gorgeous.

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Jeongbang Falls

On the southeast side of Jeju lies Sangumburi Crater with a circumference of over 2 km. When seen from above it looks like a man-made circular stadium.  It’s a popular tourist attraction and many of the Korean TV dramas are filmed here. There are many varieties of plant life around the crater and one popular tree is the Gusang tree. It is widely known as the Christmas tree. The Gusang tree is an indigenous species of Korea and has been re-imported into the country after paying a royalty to the Smithsonian museum as the property rights of the tree belongs to the museum.

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Sangumburi Crater

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Gusang Tree (Christmas tree)

To appreciate the natural beauty of Jeju, plan to spend at least 5-7 days to cover the length and breadth of this amazing island. The large parts of the island remain stunningly natural with windswept coastlines, lush evergreen forests, rich flora and fauna.

고맙습니다 Gomabseunbnida (Thank you) for reading this week’s blog.

Coming up next week, travel with me as I visit the  mainland of Korea.

A world class city – Vienna

After flying for more than 19 hours and then being in transit for almost 10 hours in Bangkok I finally arrived in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Vienna the capital of Austria. The flight landed at 5:30am and the captain announced that the outside temperature was -1 degree centigrade or 30 degrees Fahrenheit, I almost felt the chill when I heard the announcement. I disembarked from the plane and arrived at the central station in 15 minutes travelling on the City Airport Train. I then had to wait in the freezing cold to catch the next tram to my accomodation in the heart of the city. Vienna is a city with a well-developed tram network, the fifth largest in the world, this system is a vital part of the transport network for the locals and tourists alike. It’s also the cheapest and quickest way to travel around Vienna, I love the city which has maintained and kept trams as part of their public transport network, while other cities have gotten rid of  trams to make way for more traffic lanes for cars and busses.

During winter in Europe the days are very short, and the day time temperature in most of the European cities are in single digits, night temperatures can reach below freezing temperature. I prefer traveling to Europe during winter since its less crowded and the tourist season for the year is over. It’s also cheaper to fly and stay in Europe during offseason, sometimes the weather may not be great, but there are choices of indoor activities, such as visiting museums or palaces. I always plan an extra day in each city in case the weather gets bad and you have to change your plans.

Despite the low temperatures there are many things going on that will entice you to brave the crisp and chilly cold weather. Vienna is beautiful in winter with Christmas markets and decorations, the city comes alive with festive music and beautifully decorated Christmas trees. The delicate ornaments on the Christmas trees are meticulously hung which is a symbolic gesture of the art and traditions of Austria. It mainly depicts white and red colours which are now a standard tradition for many Christmas trees around the world. The times are changing but the traditional spirit of Christmas in this part of the world is still alive.

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One of the many traditions in Austria and Germany are the Christmas Markets. Vienna has few markets but the biggest and most beautiful is Rathausplatz located in front of the town hall Rathaus. If you are in Vienna between Mid November and Christmas Eve, a visit to the market is a must, it is a beautiful sight to see  families walking around the markets, teenagers walking around in groups and the children running holding all sorts of Christmas chocolates and biscuits. The adults may be holding a red decorated mug and  drinking Gluehwein – a hot wine which contains herbs and spices, it’s a traditional drink in Germany and Austria during the cold Christmas time and has a subtle taste which warms the body in matter of minutes.

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Town Hall Rathaus

The beautiful city of Vienna has lots to offer and one of the classics that must be visited is the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, it is one of the most beautiful palaces and is heritage listed. The palace is self-funded and manages its own restoration and maintenance. In order to appreciate the palace and it’s history, a guided tour will give you the detailed history of the origins of the palace and the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph who was the longest serving emperor of Austria. After his death Austria became a Republic and the monarchy was abolished. Emperor Franz Joseph’s day started at 4am (well before the servants woke up) when he would meticulously planned his day and the affairs of Austria. Every citizen was given a chance to meet him, whether it was to lodge a complaint or to thank the emperor for the issues that he had helped to resolve. Emperor Franz Joseph lived a very modest life and didn’t spend much on luxuries in the palace. Most of the palace restoration and beautification was undertaken by Maria Theresa, who was the only female ruler in Austria during the 1700’s.

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Schönbrunn Palace

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Christmas markets at the Schönbrunn Palace

Another place to visit on the palace grounds is the Gloriette which is located on the hillside and provides a panoramic view of the palace and the city of Vienna, the gardens are a major attraction during all the seasons except winter. The Neptune fountain which is located between the palace and Gloriette is also closed during winter months. The palace hosts Christmas markets from mid-November until Christmas eve.

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Gloriette -Schönbrunn Palace

Another classic must visit is the Belvedere Palace, built by Prince Eugene of Savoy as his summer palace, it is located outside the city walls and houses amazing paintings from the middle ages and also the world’s largest Klimt collection. A highlight of this collection are the golden paintings, “The Kiss” and the “Judith”. The palace also houses a beautiful garden, this  beautifully symmetrical garden is worth a visit with its stunning fountain and statues.

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Belvedere Palace

I love Vienna for its easy access and its laid back cafe and pub culture that has existed for many centuries. The public transport in Vienna is fast, efficient and will whizz you through the city without fuss, I took the opportunity to explore Vienna on the Vienna Ring Tram which takes around 30 minutes, on the journey you will get to experience Vienna’s beautiful boulevard and learn your way around the old city. One of the advantages of having a day pass in Vienna is that you can jump on and off the trains, busses or  trams and switch between the different forms of public transport all day long. If I felt lazy during the day, I would board a tram, sit back and watch the world go by, it was interesting to see people getting on and off the tram, some are in hurry and some are taking it easy just like me.

Danke (Thank you) for reading and following my blog! Your feedback and comments are much appreciated and it gives me an opportunity to tailor the blog to the readers.