“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.

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“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.

 

The things I took for granted

When I was growing up, I took many things for granted. I had wonderful parents, a safe home, good education and holidays. Like most children, I sometimes felt unhappy and cried when I was not able to get the things I thought I wanted. I received the best education my family could afford. When I decided to move to Australia, they also supported me, and I now call Australia my second home. It wasn’t easy for my family financially to support my education in Australia, but they went beyond what was expected and paid for my tuition fees. I was lucky to have such a great parents who supported me, and were always there for me. Sometimes I realized, I had complained about the small things, and took things for granted.

During one of my visits to my hometown Koppal, my perception towards life changed. I started spending time with one of my good friends, Sanjay Kotbal. He is not just a childhood friend, but a mentor and a role model. I am very fortunate to have good friends in my life who have helped me along the way and have always there for me when I needed them most. Since I was a child, my mother had always said to make and maintain friends for life. Sanjay is a benefactor and plays an active role in the community in Koppal. His schedule is busy, but he always makes sure that he gives time to the local community and also helps with the local trust, the Sri Gavimath Trust which is run by the main temple of Koppal Sri. Gavisiddeshwar Temple. The temple is headed by Pontiff His Holiness Swamiji Sri Abhinava Gavisiddeshwar. The Trust manages many educational institutions including hostel for the girls and boys and an old age home for the needy in Koppal.

The boys and the girls hostel (opened in 2016) are separately managed and run by the Trust. There is no fee to stay in these hostels and all the essentials including food are provided by the Trust. There are more than 1,000 boys and girls who stay in these hostels. Most of the kids who stay here are orphans or their parents can’t afford to send them to school and provide basic needs, which I and you take these things for granted. The Trust looks after them and also provides free education and basic amenities to all the kids who stay in these hostels.

These children are fortunate that they can depend on these facilities provided by the Trust and call the hostel their home and the Pontiff their God-parent. Every Sunday evening Sanjay spends time at the hostel with these kids socializing and getting to know them, and seeing if they have any issues that need to be addressed. Many of us spend Sunday evening either relaxing at home, or taking our family for an outing to a restaurant, Sanjay however, makes sure that he is there every Sunday evening spending time with the children and guiding them.

I was fortunate to accompany Sanjay one Sunday when I was in Koppal and spent the evening at the boys hostel. The kids gathered around Sanjay and I could see that they respected him and thought highly of him. Everyone at the hostel calls him Sir, and they see Sanjay as their mentor. These kids have great ambitions, and they make sure that they work very hard to achieve their goals. I asked the kids what they would like to do when they finished their education and some mentioned that they would like to serve their country by joining the Indian Arm Forces, some teachers, scientists and engineers. Every child has a dream and they would like to achieve these dreams so that they can pay it forward. I was blessed to spend the evening with these kids, talking to them and listening to their stories. They had no desires of  materialistic life, but  rather it is a basic and simple life they are longing for, to be part of a community. They don’t take these desires for granted. They feel that they are very fortunate to be at the hostel and, that there is someone to help and look after them.

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Sanjay spends a few hours at the hostel and listening to everyone’s concerns. It was the final term of the school and soon these kids were going to sit for their final exams. Sanjay spends the next 30 minutes counseling them on preparing and writing at the exams and to be calm on the examination day. He also suggests that they read the questions over and over again so that they understand the question and write the correct answers. These kids patiently listened to Sanjay’s advice and jotted down in their books so they didn’t forget.

It was almost dinner time and the kids invited us to join them for dinner. It was  one of the greatest evenings I had in a long time, and it made me appreciate the things I taken for granted. These kids valued and appreciated the kindness showered on them by the Pontiff and the Trust. The Pontiff also spends time with the kids making sure that the hostel is taking care of the kids and they are well looked after.

If you are ever in Koppal next time, take  some time to visit the hostel, so you will see first hand of the facilities and get to know the kids and the struggles they have gone through to reach this place, and to be in a safe and secured environment.

If you would like to assist the hostel in the care of these children,  please let me know so I can get the details. A small donation will definitely change the lives of these children, and help them achieve their future dreams.

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His Holiness Swamiji Sri Abhinava Gavisiddeshwar
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Lunch organised by Sanjay to celebrate the auspicious month of Shravan (Spring Festival) in August

 

 

In Bruges

It’s 5.30am on a cold spring day and I arrive at the beautiful and elegantly designed railway station, Paris Gare du Nord. Paris Gare du Nord is one of my favourite stations in Europe. I could easily spend a day watching the high-speed trains arriving and departing the railway station. It is the busiest railway station in Europe. I developed my love for railways at  a very young age, as I grew up in the steam era. My school was located next to a railway line and frequently saw trains going past. Every passenger train in India has a name and I used to write down the name of the train whenever I would  come across a new passenger train I hadn’t spotted.

Paris Gare du Nord

My train wouldn’t leave for another 3 hours, and one needs to be at the train station 30 minutes before the train departs ,as the platform number is announced only 15 minutes before departure. I stand in place in front of a huge display board so I can  spot the trains arriving and departing Gare du Nord. The next 3 hours go pretty quickly, and soon it was my turn, and I head to the platform to board my high-speed Thalys train to Brussels in Belgium. The train departs on time, and in less than 2 hours and 30 minutes I arrive in a new country, and thanks to one Europe, I didn’t have to show my passport. I had no plans to stay in Brussels but instead headed to a beautiful fairy land town, Brugge or Bruges located less than 2 hours by train from Brussels. Bruges is a UNESCO World heritage site and the slow train from Brussels pleasantly passes through the country side of Belgium and arrives in this modern railway station.  I was bit confused when I saw the modern railway station. The Bruges I had been told about was different. The disappointment only lasted for few minutes when I realized  that I had arrived at the new part of the town, and the hotel I had booked was located inside the old town which was surrounded by an old wall.

Once I entered the old town, my heart pounded, and I felt that I had actually travelled back in time as I walked into this wonderful medieval town. Nothing much has changed in Bruges since the 14th century and it has escaped the modernisation and globalisation. I lost the interest to locate my hotel but rather wandered around like a kid in a candy store. I walked through the cobble lanes through the idyllic canals and passed on the stone bridges and had no idea where I was heading as if I had no worries in the world. I had not seen such a beautiful town and only heard in fairy tales. I spent the next two hours wandering aimlessly on the cobblestones. I had no idea where I was in town, or  where my hotel was. It had been more than 10 hours since I had checked out my hotel in Paris and since breakfast I hadn’t eaten anything. But the thought of eating didn’t even enter my mind. Instead, I enjoyed walking aimlessly around the winding streets of Bruges until the sun started to set, and the chilly wind started blowing through my jacket, reminding  me to start looking for my hotel. I had planned to stay in Bruges for 3 days, and had enough time to explore this beautiful medieval fairly land. I went and located my hotel. Finally, I settled down for the night and fell asleep listening to the horse carriages going past my room and the noise from the horse shoes trotting  on the cobblestone.

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Bruges is often called Venice of the North due to its numerous and tranquil canals.  It mentioned on the brochure of Bruges that this magical town will capture your heart, and definitely it did for me. It was indeed magical, and I had never stumbled across anything like this beautiful, peaceful, picturesque fairy land. Perhaps next you would ask me if I had spotted any fairies in this magical land, but of course not. It is the image of an ideal place, that was prefect in every way. If you are on a diet, I don’t recommend visiting Bruges as its famous for its hand-made exquisite chocolates and there was a chocolatier shop every few meters you walked. I did finish 250 grams of these exquisite chocolates in one sitting.

Bruges gets very busy during the day, with  the tourist buses arriving in the morning around 10am from Brussels bringing loads of tourists. The streets are crowded with tourists and a peaceful stroll along the canals can be challenging. The tourists start to disappear around 4pm,  and then the  town’s quietness is finally restored. Only a handful of tourists stay in Bruges to explore the quietness of Bruges. As the night falls and the wind starts to get chilly, its time to once again explore the cobblestone streets and wander through the alleyways once again enjoying the tranquillity.

The next morning I decided to wake up just before sunrise, and so headed to the historic part of the town to  explore more of Bruges before the tourists arrive. The churches were open for the morning service and was a perfect opportunity to sit in silence and gaze over the medieval building. The architecture in Bruges is beyond belief and they have a unique way of designing the buildings. You can easily spot Bruges if you happen to see a picture of the buildings in a brochure, or in a book, because of its uniqueness.  I found an old cafe , and a perfect spot next to the window and gazed at the Markt (market square) and admired the architecture. I spent few hours at the cafe,  ordering coffee, one after the other. Then the coffee order turned into glasses of wine. I had done most of the sightseeing for the day, and wanted to relax and watch the world go by.

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The best time to take a boat around the canals is during lunch time, when most of the tourists are having lunch or have  already completed the boat trips. The journey through the quiet canals, winding along the streets was very peaceful. There were only few people on the boat, and I  could enjoy the quietness after a very busy morning at the public square. The boat drifted through the quiet waters of the canal, and white swans swam in pairs made it a perfect journey. I still remember this day and takes me back to this peaceful medieval town. Bruges is a place I would go back again and again and should be on one’s itinerary if you are in Paris or Brussels. I had the perfect 3 days and it gave me the chance to unwind after a hectic few days in Paris. It felt that I had taken a break from my 7 week-long  holiday in France.

I left my heart in Bruges and as it was time to step away from this magical place. I walked past the walls of the old city and entered into a different world of chaos.  I said goodbye to this fairyland while finishing my last box of exquisite hand-made chocolates as the train zipped past through the idyllic town and in few hours I was back in the chaotic Paris Gare du Nord.

If you would like to see Bruges through my eyes, click on this link In Bruges.

Now is the time to say Au-revoir (Good-bye until we meet again), I  hope you’ve  enjoyed reading this week’s blog. Your comments and feedback are highly appreciated. Have a great week, and warm thoughts for my friends in Perth who have been experiencing the coldest and wettest winter in decades.

My childhood days

I have travelled to more than 28 countries, and the place closest to my heart and soul is my hometown, Koppal.  Koppal is  located in Karnataka State, India. Even though I was not born in Koppal, this place is  significant to me. During my childhood Koppal was a small town with a population of less than 50,000 people, you could walk from one corner of the town to the other end in less than hour. There were hardly any vehicles on the streets of Koppal everyone either walked or bicycled in the town. There were horse driven carts  called Tanga in Kannada, which took people around the town. Our only mode of transport to the school was the Tanga and 10-15 students crammed in this small Tanga. The lucky ones got to sit on the edge of the Tanga and I was one of them, the last one to be picked up.

My life was very simple growing up, we didn't have television, nor any electronic gadgets. The only entertainment was playing outdoors and running around in the streets.  We didn't have a telephone at home, and only 5 houses in the whole town had their own telephone. There were no public payphones as it was unheard during those days. It was safe to play outdoors even late in the evenings as everyone knew everyone in this small town. When my parents were looking for me and my brother, they would ask people walking past the house to inform us to return home if they happened to see us somewhere on the streets. I spent most of my spare time at my grandparents house, often with my cousins. My cousins were much older than I, but I accompanied them to the markets as my grandfather wouldn't allow my female cousins to go out on their own. My eldest uncle looked after my grandparents and had a big family and they all stayed at the ancestral home. My grandfather was well-known in the community and he had a lot of visitors everyday, and no one went home without having food. My aunt always made sure to cook extra everyday as she knew that there would be many visitors dropping in unannounced.

Our ancestral home is still in Koppal and currently no one lives there.  Its not a modern abode as we the younger generations long for modern, contemporary and sophisticated houses. The ancestral house was warm, elegant, relaxed and foremost very inviting. Our ancestral home is a traditional and beautiful hand crafted home, with wooden doors and windows. There were beautiful handcrafted teak pillars inside the home, and it had a grand entrance. Unfortunately due to town planning we lost the front part of the house and we were all devastated to see it being torn down by a bulldozer. Our once a grand ancestral house is now a vacant home haunted by old memories longing to be called a home again.

 

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Our ancestral home in Koppal

My grandfather was very protective of his grandkids and I still remember one incident that my mum reminds me of again and again. I was 9 years old,  and it was school time and as usual I was  ready to be picked by the horse cart. I hadn't done my homework  for one of the subjects. My teacher was Miss Isabella, and I was sure that I would be punished. She was the strictest teacher in the school and everyone was scared of her. I was feeling anxious about going to the school that day. We had a another floor, it was rarely used since it was infested with bats. I sneaked in there and hid under a bed so that I could feel safe from Madam Isabella.  The tanga came on time as usual, and the tangawalla (carriage driver) didn't find me standing in front of the house, and without informing my mother he drove off.

My mum always came to school with my brother's and my lunch everyday. We always sat under the tree and had lunch with other friends and their mothers. When I didn't show up for lunch, my mum was worried as my brother and friends mentioned that they haven't seen me at the school on that day. She immediately contacted the school headmistress Ms. Mary Vaz  and she checked the school attendance and the register was marked absent. The school principal re-checked year 6 and both the sections and confirmed that I was not in the school. There had been an incident few months earlier,  a small boy was kidnapped and taken to another town to be sent to a big city, but luckily he escaped and was returned back to his parents. Nobody is sure if the story was true or a made up story to get away from school. My mum panicked and  didn't know what to do. She immediately returned home and informed my dad and he searched our premises. We have a huge factory and huge warehouses located next to the house, so he sent everyone working at the factory to look for me. I could hear all the conversations from the first floor but was too nervous to go down as I was afraid it was too late  and would get into trouble. My mum sent the factory mechanic to my grandparents house to see if I was there instead of going to school. My grandfather found out that I was missing, so he immediately arrived at my parents place. He saw my mum crying and immediately summoned the Commissioner of Police and the town police superintendent. They arrived as soon as they could and a search party was sent to search for me. I could hear and see from the window, many people gathering in front of the house.  After hearing the news my relatives started pouring in and also some politicians, one of whom is my uncle, a well known politician. The news spread throughout the town and since our house was located on the main street of the town I could see people standing in groups and chatting amongst themselves. I was pretty sure that I would be in trouble once they found me. There was one way I could get out of the house, but was  risky. It was the balcony outside.   I wasn't worried that someone would see me, but outside our balcony there were lot of monkeys hanging around. They lived there most of the time, and they were a nuisance to the neighbourhood as they stole fruits and vegetables from the vendors. So there was no chance I could venture out, and I was sure the monkeys wouldn't allow me to pass to get onto my neighbours roof and then use the back alleyway to go to school. I had already made up a story to tell everyone, that I was kidnapped and ran from the clutches of the kidnapper. My plans didn't work, so I had to sit under the bed and think of something else. It was mid-afternoon and more and more relatives started arriving. There must have hundreds of people outside the house and the factory was shut down as the factory workers went looking for me.

It was almost late afternoon. One of my cousins would smoke in secret, as he would get into trouble if my grandfather ever found out. So he decided to come upstairs to smoke, as he was climbing the stairs, he spotted me hiding under the bed. He immediately called my mum and asked her to join him on the stairs. She saw me hiding under the bed, instead of feeling happy and joyful, she was feeling very embarrassed and regretful that she forgot to check the house first. The search party was called off and then everyone went back to their daily routines. I still had to go to the school that afternoon and guess what, Ms. Isabelle's class was the last class during that day and still got punished for not doing my homework. The plans of hiding didn't work and embarrassed my parents. The one things I learnt that day was how protective my environment was and the support received from my extended family. I never attempted this again as I didn't wanted to embarrass my parents.

 

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The first floor of our house where I was hiding 

 

 

Part II – Memoirs of Japan Kyoto – Japan’s Heartland (Day1)

Kyoto is one of my favourite city and the most visited city in Japan and should be included in one’s itinerary. Kyoto is located in the central part of the Island of Honshu. It’s place where you see authentic Japanese traditional culture, ancient temples, colourful shrines and sublime gardens. Kyoto’s is world’s culturally rich and diverse city. It’s one of the busiest destination for international as well as domestic tourists in Japan. Kyoto is packed during Cherry Blossom season and finding accommodation during this time is impossible. I would suggest booking as early as 3-4 months in advance to avoid disappointment. The best times to visit is during Spring to witness the beautiful Cherry Blossoms and during Fall to experience the colourful foliage. Kyoto has a lot to offer and can be done in 2 days, but four to five days  is about perfect amount of time to spend.

Kyoto is on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen line and there are frequent services available on this line. There is no need to book your tickets in advance as there is a Shinkansen (Bullet Train) every 3 -4 minutes. The fastest is the Nozomi with fewer stops and can cost around 13,200 Yen in Reserved car. If you are travelling from Tokyo, try to get a seat on the right side of the train so you can see Mt Fuji from your train window.

The best way to travel around Kyoto is by Kyoto City Bus and one day pass costs 500 yen and can be  boarded or alighted as many times during the day. A single ticket costs 220 yen and is only valid for one journey.

Suggested Itinerary in Kyoto –

Day 1

Kinkaku (The Golden Pavilion) /  Rokuon-ji Temple 

Kinkaku is located in the Kinkakuji Area in Kyoto and is one of the most visited sites. It’s also called The Golden Pavilion as gold foil on lacquer covers the upper two levels of Kinkaku. It is a representation of Muromachi-period architecture. The temple’s main image is a stone statue of the Buddhist deity Fudo-myo-o. The statue is hidden from public view and the image has long been revered for miraculous power.

The easy access to the temple is by Kyoto Bus and can be accessed by various locations throughout central Kyoto. The buses you need to look out are – Kinkakuji-mae (Bus # 12 and 59) Kinkakuji-michi (Bus # 101, 102, 204, 205).

Try the Japanese powdered green tea at the Tea House for 500 yen which comes with a Japanese sweet. It’s worth the experience.

Ryoanji Temple

This temple is located 20-30 minutes by foot from Kinkakuji Temple or if you feel lazy then take the bus either # 12 (5 minutes walk from the bus terminal) or # 59 goes directly to the temple.

This temple was founded in 1450 and the main attraction is the garden arranged in the kare-sansui style (Japanese Rock Garden) or often called as Zen Garden. The garden is meant to be viewed from a seated position on the verandah. It gets very busy and going early in the morning before 10am is advisable. The garden represents an austere collection of 15 rocks, apparently adrift in a sea of sand, is enclosed by an earthen wall. The wall behind the garden is one of the important feature, pay close attention to the wall; it’s made of clay which has been stained by age with subtle brown and orange tones.

 

Daitokuji Temple

Daitokuji Temple is a collection of Zen temples, raked gravel gardens and wandering lanes. The entire complex contains a total of 24 temples. This temple is not usually crowded by tourists, so it’s worth visiting the temple any time during the day. The temple is of interest who have fascination for Japanese Gardens.  The Rock Garden of Daisen-In Temple is located in the temple complex and costs 400 Yen, but worth the experience to witness the peaceful Zen Gardens. The Spirit of Zen is expressed here through the media of only rocks and sand. At the end of the touring the gardens, experience Japanese style tea for 400 yen along with a Japanese sweet (Photography is not allowed inside the Daisen-In Rock Garden).

Daitokuji Temple can be accessed by Kyoto City Bus # 12, 204, 205 and 206.

Well that’s the end of day 1. I will be writing more on Kyoto and Nara in my furture blogs. Stay tuned, until then Sayōnara.

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