A Travellerspoint blog

LANDOUR

a place over-run with simple and pure joys.

sunny 6 °C

Landor is a perfect getaway for anyone seeking solitude from the heat and hustle of the cities. This gorgeous part of the world offers breathtaking views of the mighty Himalayas and allows endless opportunities to experience all the virtues of a hill town – gorgeous views, rambling walks, happy people, hot chai, delicious food teemed together with a constant urge to literally stop and smell the flowers.

Situated about 5 kilometres away from the chaos of Mussoorie is its twin - the quaint hilltop town of Landour which was a British cantonment during the days of colonial rule in India and as such came under the Cantonment Act of 1924 which has had a far-reaching ecological impact on the region. This law in particular has prevented deforestation and as a result, Landour remains green in comparison to Mussoorie. Another clause in the act, which terms all non-governmental and non-military buildings post-1924 as “illegal” has saved the town from rampant construction. Only repairs of the existing old houses are allowed.

Just passing through both these towns could very well be considered a study of contrasts - in terms of tourists, carbon footprint, real-estate development and noise levels. Landour, named after Llanddowror a small village in the southwest of Wales calms and relaxes you and nourishes creativity. Just being here amidst the tall deodars and the hills, surrounded with the air thick with the sounds of the naughty whistling schoolboy makes you feel like you have somehow slipped into the world between the pages of a Ruskin Bond novel.

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A beautiful trail called the Chakkar winds through these hills and if find yourself here in early April as I was, it offers the opportunity to walk along a path dotted with rhododendron trees bursting in crimson bloom welcoming spring and cutting through the dense pinewood cover. The walk allows for some brilliant birding opportunities with beautiful sights along the way. Some of the highlights of this walk are:

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Catching the sight of the Himalayan range from Lal Tibba: On a clear day the walk through the chakkar trail is broken by glimpses of silver peaks glistening at a distance, which is a preview of the uninterrupted sight that can be viewed from Lal Tibba. The view point itself is an unadorned two-storeyed commercial structure with no character and fitted with a telescope for viewing the peaks. There is a helpful mural on the wall identifying the various peaks in the part of the Himalayan range visible from this viewpoint.

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St. Paul's Church is a beautiful pause on one end of the Chakkar trail. It was commissioned as the house of worship for the serving officers who came up for recuperation to the hills and for the missionaries who were posted here. Built in 1839 high up in the mountains, this church has seen its share of history. I heard a local say that the Jim Corbett’s parents Christopher and Mary Corbett were married at this very church in 1859. The largely wooden frame of the church also houses tall arched windows framed with beautiful stained Belgian glass windows.
With the backdrop of the setting sun, the beauty of church revealed itself with breathtaking contrast bringing into sharp focus all the details of the dark wood and the altar bathed in gorgeous light only made the contrast of the deep shadows along the pews seem conspicuous.

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Landour Language School is yet another lovely stop on the Chakkar trail. It is an almost-100 year old institution housed in the Kellogg Memorial Church complex established with the idea of teaching the Hindi language to the missionaries who cared for the sick soldiers who would come to the hills for recuperation. Even today the language school admits large number of foreigners who visit the school in order to learn Hindi and it is not an uncommon sight to see a person of foreign origin having a conversation in halting Hindi with the locals.

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One evening I went down the hill to the heart of Mussorie and dove straight into the chaos of Mall road, I found the entire experience over-rated and exhausting. The whole space is filled with shops hawking everything from woolen wear to Tibetian artifacts and is packed with tourists and honeymooners. I admit it offers a great opportunity for people watching while sampling the many food offerings, but honestly the only reason I undertook this exercise was to meet my childhood hero and one of the best authors of all times. The Cambridge Book Depot on Mussoorie's Mall Road hosts a meet and greet session with Ruskin Bond most Saturday evenings. My ultimate fan moment came when Mr.Bond signed my battered 20 year old copy of Rusty and proceeded to engage me in a conversation about Coorg and anthuriums.

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Stepped out of the bookstore to find the Mall road bathed in twilight and the brisk weather prompting me to wrap my scarf a little tighter around my neck. The evening atmosphere of the entire area was such a clash to the tranquility I had experienced for 3 days that I found myself rushing back to the serene twin town. The more distance I put between myself and the hustle and bustle of Mussorie, I came back to the presence of fantastic views of the cloud covered Doon Valley broken by picturesque little houses and the sight of locals going about their business — kids climbing uphill with school backpacks on their wiry frames, teenage sweethearts stealing glaces of each other from balconies, housewives returning with vegetables from the local farmers market and men gathered around small shops that sell tea discussing the days events - all while birds filled their air with their last songs for the day.

I stayed at the beautiful 175 year old heritage property - Rokeby Manor with its stone and wood architecture, balconies, tea gardens, rooms with views overlooking the Doon valley and its very English aura. Spent the stormy evening exploring a charming private library named "Wilson's Chamber" sipping a cup of brilliant masala chai to the sound of rolling thunder.
The walls of this property are decorated with ample sayings oozing with classic British tongue in cheek humor. The walls of Emily's houses some of the best, I particularly loved one that read "Harassing the cook will definitely result in smaller portions" and another that asks you to sleep in the kitchen if you want breakfast in bed.

Char Dukaan a group of 4 shops is a landmark at Landour. You'll find the shops selling different varieties of pancakes, omelettes, Tibetan food and cheese maggi. On that note, the more I've travelled I've come to realise that a hot bowl of maggi and a cup of chai at one of the mountain highway stops is all the refreshment you need to make a hill station experience in India complete. I still remember wolfing down a bowl full of steaming maggi at Rohtang pass and feeling blissfully satiated.

Landour has got to be one of the best birding destinations in the world as it offers a perfect setting for the migratory birds travelling across continents to break their flight. The air is rife with the sound of grosbeaks, finches, tits, sunbirds and flycatchers. In my opinion, birding on the Chakkar trail in the morning is a must do not just for enthusiastic birders.

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Life up in the cloud bank is shrouded in mist and rain, broken by beautiful spells of sunshine peeking from in between the tall ancient deodars. If you are the kind of traveller who is travelling with an agenda of visiting a ton of places on a 3-4 day getaway, Landour is definitely not for you.
Landour is where you go to when you just simply want to “be” — be amidst the sparkling air and the towering deodars all in the constant presence of the Himalayas that spring into view on a clear, bright day.

I would go back in a heartbeat, to views of pure majesty and trails lined with fallen pine cones.

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Till next time,
Sowmya

Posted by Ceej 04:36 Archived in India Tagged bond landour mussorie paul's_church kellogs_church ruskin chakkar Comments (1)

Lucerne

– a picturesque medieval Swiss town

sunny 12 °C

Stepping out of the train station, the first very sight Lucerne awards is almost picture perfect - with the Swiss Alps in the background, the Reuss flowing beneath your feet, the swan filled impossibly blue Lake Luzern and the ancient wooden bridge adorned with flowers.

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The Chapel Bridge (called Kappelbruke by the Swiss) is a beautiful covered wooden footbridge built during the Middle Ages right in the centre of the town diagonally across the Reuss River. It is decorated with pretty flowers at its side and is the oldest surviving wooden bridge. The whole area seems to be very popular with tourists who seem to spend most of their time enjoying the view, sipping wine and tucking into delicious fare at any of the numerous lake-side restaurants. Enjoyed taking a walk across the Chapel bridge and found out a great deal about the history of this town.

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Another unique feature of the Chapel Bridge are the paintings under its roof that depict scenes from Lucerne's history and date back to the 17th century. Apparently many of the paintings were destroyed along with most of the bridge in a fire in 1993 post which the bridge was re-built. Apparently people from around the world sent pictures they had taken of the Chapel Bridge during their visit so that it could be re-built to the most minute detail.

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A little way away, up the river is a second covered wooden bridge called the Spreuer Bridge which is smaller and less adorned than the Chapel Bridge, but what sets this seemingly normal bridge apart are the paintings that adorn the roof of this bridge. There are a series of 17th century plague paintings titled "The Dance of Death" which depict skeletons and soul reapers in great detail and is intended to highlight that there's no place on land or at sea where death isn't present and that that every second brings us one step closer to death.

The old town (as is with the Old Town part of most European cities) has a rich historic feel to it. There is enough to engage your interest and pique your curiosity including the architecture, great cafes, clock stores that house thousands of those beautiful cuckoo clocks that are synonymous with Switzerland and some quaint shopping outlets. The town square is a very pretty compete with the town hall tower, a pretty fountain, tiny lane-ways, old buildings, cobblestone streets and houses with beautiful painted façades.

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One of the most interesting sights during my walking tour was the Needle Dam that was constructed in the 1850's to govern the level of Lake Luzern. This dam consists of a series of long narrow paddle boards (known as “needles”) that are inserted vertically side-by-side to form a wall. These needles are increased and decreased in number to control the level of the lake and I was lucky enough to have been around to see them add a few needles to this ancient machine.

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Lucerne according to me was perfect for wandering about even though I didn’t step inside a single landmark.

Until next time.
Safe Travels

Posted by Ceej 05:12 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

As Audrey Hepburn famously said“Paris is always a good idea”

sunny 11 °C

I walked up to the Eiffel tower one autumn evening with a picnic in tow to pick up from where I left off during my last visit. Found a nice spot on the lawn to settle down only to notice that all around me were book-readers, star struck-lovers, dog-walkers, joggers, mothers, babies in strollers and leisurely walkers. What else could I have asked for? The sounds of random chatter and laughter surrounding me, the wafting smells of yummy food from picnickers baskets and the sight of the twinkling lights on the Eiffel Tower.
Couldn’t have spent my evening in Paris in a better way.

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Early next morning I sat mulling about a decision to pay a visit to Montmartre as I dug into croissants and coffee and eventually decided in favour of seeing the Sacre Coeur. When I got off at the Montmartre bus-stop, I found most of the cafés still closed, the neon lights of the Moulin Rouge off, the souvenir peddlers nowhere in sight and the tour buses that bring the crowds yet to arrive. There was something so beautiful about quietly walking around a touristy and busy part of this city when the day was still about to start and for that brief period the entire place felt like it was all mine to enjoy and explore. I wish there was more time to idle away on the back alleys of Montmartre and get to know the place for more than just the clichéd and well documented experience that most people are subject to when they visit.

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The Sacre Coeur stands on the summit of the highest point of Paris and the white-domed Basilica acts as a beacon when you hike those steep stairs to get to the top of the hill. Built out of travertine stone, the structure is pristine white inspite of constant exposure to the weather and pollution. The inside of the church is a true sanctum of peace (unlike the experiencing the evening service at Notre Dame Chapel) and I even attended the morning service conducted by nuns.
Please note : Photography is strictly forbidden within the church.

As the day wore on, I hopped on a train and decided to pay a visit to the place I had been reminiscing about these past two years - the Pont Alexandre III . This bridge is truly as beautiful as the city that houses it and I have zero qualms in admitting that this is my favourite sight in all of Paris.

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Paid a visit to the Musee de L'Orangerie and realized to my extreme surprise that Monet’s “WATER LILIES” are much more beautiful and so much bigger than I had earlier imagined looking at the pictures. Walking through the two elliptical rooms that house the murals, I couldn't imagine that this was the work of a single person and he created not one but eight of them!!! It is said that some of them were painted when his vision was failing him.

Stumbling upon this museum was a happy surprise since the original agenda for the day was to visit the Tuileries Garden. It is strange that with so much information available and a million people giving you specific ideas about what to see and what not to see and how to spend your time while in Paris. As I walked about this compact and intimate museum and explore it at my pace, I completely fall in love with it and find myself recommending a visit here to every friend who has been planning a Parisian vacation.

I learnt while at the museum, that Monet had donated these murals to the French Government as a way to offer solace to people of Paris after the First World War. Such a novel thought isn't it?!
A few lesser known works of Renoir, Manet and other Impressionist masters are housed at the L'Orangerie too, but I would highly recommend a visit to the Musee de'Orsay housed in an old train station on the opposite bank of the Seine.

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Walked past the Tuileries gardens on my way to Notre Dame and came across the Pont de Arts or what was famously known as the "Love Locks Bridge". Crossed over the bridge that had at one point held more than a million padlocks snapped on by people in love which now stands desolate. There was an ordinance passed and during the summer of 2015 and the city council cleared the bridge off the locks since the additional weight (45 tonnes!!) was causing structural damage to the bridge.
There is a small section to the side of the bridge on the Left Bank where I noticed people putting up new locks.

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Spent the evening submitting myself to the charms of the historic wonderland for bookworms nestled in the shadows of the Notre Dame chapel - Shakespeare and Company. I made friends with the pet dog Colette while I sat on a couch in the Oak Room reading books and celebrated the experience by buying a novel the title of which is the same as this little furball. I so dearly wanted to take pictures inside this magical place but photography is prohibited inside and guess we'll make do with memories.

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I walked back to my hotel after what had been perfect autumn day packed with enough moments in the sun that allowed me to walk around-take in the sights-make pretty pictures equaled by times where I had to duck indoors to the immediate comfort of mugs of choc-au-lait or coffee because of the cold. I remembered thinking that I idealise Paris to unbelievable levels and I know that my romantic notion of this city that was born out of books and movies and solidified by Google surfing only seems to be getting stronger with each visit. I’m pretty certain that daily life in Paris may not be as romantic as I believe (as I said to R&D my charming neighbours one evening), but we all need some romance in our lives and I am very happy with my affair ;)

I will never bid you adieu Paree. Instead a tout l'heure.

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Posted by Ceej 00:05 Archived in France Tagged paris l'orangerie Comments (0)

Temple Diaries

BHUBANESHWAR

semi-overcast 35 °C

If there ever was a part of this expansive and colourful country that was worthy of the term “Temple City” – the beautiful Oriya city of Bhubaneshwar would be it. With almost a 1000 temples dotting the landscape of this part of the world that was once the seat of the Kalinga dynasty, it represents the magnificence of a kingdom that ruled millenniums earlier. As you explore this city, you quickly discovered that most of the heritage places in this city are concentrated in the “Old Town” area.

I had once made a hurried day visit to this quaint historic city on work and explored a fraction of its breath-taking expanse and had vowed to one day return. My second visit spanned 4 days and this is a brief travelogue of the beauty I saw.

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The Mukteshwar Temple built in the 10th Century AD is one of the smallest temples rising to a full height of just 35 feet but it is also one of the temples with the most detailed and ornate craftsmanship. The decorated archway in front of the main temple is a significantly differential feature in comparison to the architecture of the rest of the temples and it also holds some of the most ornate carvings of tales from the Panchatantra on the sides. The Siddeshwar temple, where both Shiva and Vishnu are worshipped is also present in the same complex and was a beautiful addition to this entire experience. The annual Mukteshwar Dance Festival in hosted in January every year and I was lucky to watch a dancer perform in the deserted courtyard just for herself and God making the beginning of a hectic week seem so tranquil.

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The entire Old Town area is criss-crossed with narrow lanes and hidden jems. I stumbled upon artisans creating palm leaf engravings depicting scenes from Hindu mythology. Also nestled in these bylanes was a worshop producing beautiful tribal and bastar art works. I managed to pick up a few pieces directly from them which I am pretty certain I would have had to pay anywhere between 5 to 10 times if I had picked it up at an emporium.

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The Lingaraj Temple which is one of the largest and most celebrated temples in the region is not written about here since my visit turned out to be a harrowing experience due to the harassment by the pandas in the temple who are just looking to making a quick buck in the name of devotion and destroy every bit of the faith that brings people to holy place. To the extent where I later heard that people are pointedly avoiding paying a visit to the Lingaraj Temple as it has already gained an infamous reputation due to the pandas notoriety.

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Constructed in 650 AD, the Parasurameswara Temple is widely considered the oldest temple in Bhubaneshwar and was commissioned by the Shailodbhava Kings. I visited this temple on a Monday morning and found myself alone except for the priests in the temple courtyard. Most of the temples in the area are dedicated to Lord Shiva – the patron God of the Kalinga empire, but Parasurama temple is dedicated to an avatar of Vishnu. Among many other stories, it is said that Parasuram at some point decided to do devout austerities to please Shiva and Lord Shiva rewarded his devotion by granting him an axe. I had never seen a temple dedicated to the Parasuram avatar of Vishnu (actually I did not know that they had temples dedicated to Parahsuram), so it turned out to be a good occasion to understand more about the mythology related.
Also, the Parasurameswara temple was one of the few temples that used to house Devadasis.

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20 kilometers outside of Bhubaneshwar in the middle of rice-fields filled landscape lies the beautiful, roofless, circular Chaunsath Yogini Mandir which is a sight shrouded in mystery. The temple dates back 1200 years and was lost for generations until it was rediscovered in 1953 according to the Archeological Survey of India plaque at the entrance. This perfect example of tantric worship which involves the five elements of nature - fire, water, earth, sky and ether and reflects the role of feminine power, is one of only four hypaethral temples in the country. The visit to the temple was fairly brief but once done, you can spend some sitting on the platform facing the temple and take a walk around the temple which has paddy fields and beautiful water bodies.

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Set in a garden and peaceful surroundings, I managed a brief stop over at the Rajarani Temple which is named a temple but was actually a pleasure resort for a king and a queen. I heard another version for its unique name that it was derived from the kind of sandstone that was used in its construction. There are no idols here and the architecture is delightful.

As my cab whizzed passed the temples dotted landscape on my way to the airport, I remember thinking to myself that this city is truly a heritage wonderland.

Safe Travels!!
Sowmya CJ

Posted by Ceej 22:13 Archived in India Tagged temple city 64 mandir mukteshwar yogini mukteswara parasurameswar parashurameshwara chaunsath bhubaneshwar Comments (0)

Amsterdam

Canals and a bike. Could one need anything more in life?!

rain 10 °C

The first thing that comes to my mind after all this time when someone mentions Amsterdam are the canals, and walk I did along these 400 year old canals as often as possible during my stay in this lovely city which is a world unto itself. I did not know until my visit here that Amsterdam has more bridges than Venice - three times more than in all of Venice!!!

At first glance, Amsterdam appears to be bursting with people and is a lot more compact than I had originally imagined. Such a marked difference from the rest of Europe where amidst extreme development and vast spaces I’ve seen a sparse population. Took the tram from the Centraal and smiled every-time I heard the sound of the bell on the tram. I’ve been on trams in so many major European cities but I've never heard any of them make that sound.

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To me this is a typical Amsterdam-postcard and this picture could have been taken anywhere in this beautiful city on a sunny day. The canals, the narrow Dutch houses on the side, bicycles parked everywhere, bright flowers in bloom on bridges and before I forget - ferries and house boats. I loved it here and as my time here proved, you can walk for hours along the canals and explore every corner that seems to be teeming with adventure making for very few dull moments and a very exciting holiday.

Went on early morning walks and took in the sights of incredibly narrow but very tall houses with decorated gables. The stairs appear very steep and almost go straight up and the door to each apartment rests on a narrow landing. During one of my walks I visited the Begijnhof, which is an enclosed courtyard dating back to the early 14th century. Heard a guide mention that this was originally a community created for single and widowed women during the time of the crusades where the women lived almost like nuns, but did not take vows and still live in these houses that line the courtyard. The courtyard houses the oldest house in all of Amsterdam and is also home to the beautiful English Reformed Church that has a service in English on Sundays only.

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Amsterdam supposedly serves the best Indonesian food outside of Indonesia. My palette has no past reference when it comes to Indonesian cuisine but the dinner I had at a lovely restaurant called "Kartika" was nothing short of spectacular.

During one of my walks, I came upon the Flower Market and looked around at the masses of bulbs and potted plants available for thoroughly cheap prices. Was disappointed to know that they do not having the floating market in operation anymore.

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The more time you spend here you cannot help but fall in love with the Dutch bike culture. It makes for such a lovely sight to watch people and families riding around this city on their bikes in all types of manner and in all kinds of weather. I heard a local say that “whether the sun is shining or it is snowing, we always are on our bikes!”. Seems to be such a practical and sustainable mode of transport and says so much about the Dutch as people. They say that there are more bikes than the number of people in Amsterdam, apparently 1.3 bikes per citizen old enough to ride. No wonder then that it has the distinction of being the most bike-friendly city in the world.

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A visit to the Anne Frank Huis was a bone-chilling experience for me. Joined a fairly long queue at 6.30 in the evening and it took about an hour and a half to get to the front, in the meantime it started raining (because, hello!!! you're in the Netherlands) but the museum staff came by with umbrellas for those of us who needed one. Walked floor to floor climbing steep stairs to reach the secret annexe hidden behind the bookcase where Anne and her family along with Peter’s family hid during the second World War. I learnt that in addition to her diary, Anne was a budding writer and was writing novels too during their period in hiding. Seeing her red-checkered diary with pages filled in Anne's handwriting brought history to life in a very disturbing way. Being in this space allows you to gain a different but profound perspective from the one gleaned by reading pages from her diary.
At one point I looked around and found people reflecting after taking the tour, a few looked horrified and some were wiping away tears. I left feeling completely emotionally drained.
NOTE : Photography is not allowed within the Anne Frank House but that in my opinion heightens the entire experience.

The Rijksmuseum is a beautiful and houses works of art by many Dutch masters including Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Frans Hals and others. Most people tend to make a bee-line to visit Rembrandt's famous works especially "The Night Watch", but I found myself being partial to Vermeer's works - "The Milk Maid" in particular.
Side Note: Do make goofy pictures by the IAMSTERDAM sign out front (if you can find some space that is!)

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For me Amsterdam was less sin and more city. But having said that, I did pay a visit to Amsterdam's notoriously world famous attractions which I figured deserves all the curiosity and was definitely worth a visit.

A walk through the Red Light district alone was such an empowering experience. Walked through pink neon lit alleys and watched girls in windows tempting and teasing the people separated from them only by glass, found stores plying every imaginable toy that I'm pretty certain would not be found in India, I even laughed at loud-happy-drunk men "window-shopping".

It was easy to spot people who were here to provide business versus people who were there out of sheer curiosity like the large group of American senior citizens who were a part of a walking tour looking around with shocked expressions at the sight of it all, girls celebrating hens night and curious tourists - who much like me who looked extremely intrigued. I think this part of the city has something to offer for everyone - from the more adventurous to the merely curious.

Found an extremely interesting bit of history about Rossebuurt from one of the guides of the walking tour - apparently this section is the oldest part of Amsterdam and 900 years ago when this was just a small fishing village, sailors would dock their shipping vessels and meet women carrying red lanterns near the port for some good times while they were on land. Found it hilarious that it was forbidden for married men and priests to enter this area for a very long time.

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Spent countess hours being happily lost, walking around canals whose names I couldn't even find on my map let alone pronounce correctly.
Oh this city is amazing!!! With its bikes, canals and happy ways - it leaves you with a feeling of fresh romance.

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Doe-doei Amsterdam!!! (plus three kisses)
Sowmya CJ

Posted by Ceej 07:34 Archived in Netherlands Tagged bikes canals flower market amsterdam light red netherlands holland district tram frank anne rijksmuseum bejignhof Comments (0)

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