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.
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 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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 –
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.
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 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.
When I first heard the phrase “ಕಾಲ ಇದ್ದರೆ ಹಂಪಿ ನೋಡ ಬೇಕು”; translated from Kannada, “If you have legs, visit Hampi” (Author – Anonymous); I couldn’t understand what it really meant until I experienced it myself and found the real meaning of the phrase. An UNESCO world heritage site, Hampi is located in Karnataka State in India and 50 km from my hometown Koppal. This is one place I must have visited countless times during my childhood. Whenever we had relatives and cousins visiting us at Koppal, the first place we would take them for a day trip was Hampi. My mum packed delicious home cooked food and we kids made sure to pack our cricket bat and ball so we could have a quick match after lunch.
The journey to Hampi took more than 2 hours by bus and we changed at Hospet as there were no direct connections from my town. My cousins, brother and I always sat at the back of the bus so we could have a bit of fun along the way so the 2 hour long trip passed quickly. We didn’t have an iPad, or personal audio system nor video games, the one thing we did was to chat.
The Vijayanagara Kingdom was founded during the early 1330 AD and flourished for more than 300 years until it was destroyed by Deccan Sultanates. The beautiful city of Hampi which was once a rich and vibrant capital city of the Vijayanagara Kingdom was ruined by the Sultanates. They destroyed and defaced the statues and the temples and the damage to these beautiful monuments is still visible. The main bazaar or the market place in Hampi was a vibrant marketplace where one could buy precious gems and stones just like we buy vegetables today. There was no gap between the rich and poor in this Kingdom and every citizen enjoyed the prosperity of the Kingdom.
After arriving in Hampi, the first place we always visited was Sri Virupaksha Temple, a Shiva temple situated on the banks of Tungabadra river. Once we had paid our respects at the temple and being attacked by monkeys after they stole coconuts and bananas from our basket it was time to head off to the local cafe. We had a nice sumptuous South Indian breakfast and my favourite dish was Idli Vada Sambhar and my brother’s was Puri Bhaji. It was time to start the sightseeing by foot as there were no buses or taxis that took us around the monuments. The only way we could cover all the places was by foot, so the term “If you have legs, visit Hampi” made a lot of sense. We started the long walk along the banks of Tungabhadra river through the rocky terrain as there were no proper paths. It was the only way to see the real Hampi as most of the monuments were not easily accessible by vehicle. The temperature during summer peaked around 40 degrees celsius.
After walking over 10 km we took a break at Purandaradasa Mantapa which is situated near the banks of the river. It is huge open temple with no walls but beautiful carved pillars built from local stone. While my mum and aunties were busy arranging lunch, we kids took the opportunity to swim and play in the river. After a heavy lunch it was time for a quick 2-3 overs cricket match while my mum and aunties took some rest before we started the next leg of the journey. The cricket match always ended in a draw as somehow there was often a complaint that one of us was cheating, or the umpire wasn’t fair etc., None of us would talk to each other and we maintained a distance between us when we walked. It only lasted for an hour, then we were back to being friends and forgot why we had the arguments in the first place.
We covered most of the monuments during the day and also learnt about the historical significance of Hampi. I always carried a small book to note down the places we visited so I could write to my pen friend Mikhael in Sweden about my visit to Hampi.
After a long and tiring day we stopped at a small town near Hampi, Kamlapur where we had tea and snacks at a roadside tea stall. We all sat on the bench outside the stall and watched the world go by. It was the last stop for the majority of the tourists and also the transport hub to nearby towns. The bus trip back to Koppal felt long and exhausting but the memories of the day lasted a lifetime.