A Travellerspoint blog

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)

Zaanse Schans

CLOGS, WINDMILLS AND CHEESE - A TRUE SLICE OF HOLLAND

rain 9 °C

This little village was the very postcard of Holland I had carried in my mind. Beautiful majestic windmills, ladies wearing Dutch bonnets, wooden clogs and gorgeous countryside dotted with cows and sheep. If only I could have found tulips, my postcard would be complete.

There is a direct bus 391 that leaves every hour from the Amsterdam Centraal to Zaanse Schans and the entire journey takes a little over half hour. I was staying at a B&B in a quiet village around the small quaint city of Purmerend because I wanted to experience the Dutch countryside for longer.

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Pretty much the minute I got to the village I ran into my first roadblock - how to navigate through the vast Dutch countryside? My happy B&B owners thankfully answered my present dilemma when they wheeled out an old bike they had in the woodshed for me to use during my stay with them. At this point, my behind hadn’t been on a bike saddle in more than a decade but once I got on, it was as easy as going for a spin on my scooter back home - only the view was better and much more scenic. As the transportation problem solved itself, I was moving right along and even caught myself smiling like a kid again as I pedalled away.

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Biked all the way to Zaanse Schans from my little village (8 kilometers!!) on a bike path parallel to the road that cuts through farmland and marshland. The roads were not at all busy and as I passed by fields, dairy's, lily ponds, farms and ranches, all I could hear was the rustle of the reeds bordering the small canals dividing the fields and the hum of the tyres on the smooth path. The constant drizzle added to the overall experience and made the landscape appear lush green.

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Zaanse Schans is picturesque to say the very least - complete with working windmills, green wooden houses, small hump-backed bridges, a clog workshop and a million picture opportunities at every corner (Side note: I realised during my time in Holland that you get prone to keeping your eyes open to signs of all things clichéd-ly Dutch). The village currently has 6 windmills in working condition, but a plaque I read inside one of the windmills "De Kat" stated that there were almost a 1000 windmills dotting the landscape of this village a few centuries ago therefore, being referred to as the first industrial site in the world.

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What an experience it was to watch the sails of the windmill go faster or slower depending on the speed of the wind. The way they sound when you are inside one of these mammoth machines is something that is better experienced than written. I recommend you go up the steep ladder and step out on to the deck as the sails of the windmill pass in front of you.

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Note : It costs 4 Euros to gain admittance and there is a lovely little coffee shop on the ground level inside the windmill that serves hot chocolate and little else. But My-God they serve that hot chocolate with flair!
The two options available are :
Hot chocolate with whipped cream and
HOT CHOCOLATE WITH DARK RUM AND WHIPPED CREAM!!! ;) ;) ;)

The Clog Workshop in Zaanse Schans was a place you could not have pried me away from even if you tried. One has to experience what it feels like to clomp around in klompen because one has to! Spent hours at the workshop being a child with no inhibitions and every time I slipped into a quirky handcrafted wooden shoe, I would hopelessly succumb to giggles. There was an interesting demonstration on clog making by the gentleman at the workshop which was a very insightful experience into a tradition that date back a thousand years. Along with work-clogs, sunday-clogs and clogs made as a wedding present, I saw smuggler's clogs too.

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This wonderful Dutch village has quickly become one of my favorite places in the world.
I’m leaving you with happy pictures.

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Tot ziens!!
Sowmya CJ

Posted by Ceej 10:18 Archived in Netherlands Comments (2)

The Golden City Of One Thousand Spires - PRAGUE

overcast 10 °C

At first sight the layout of Prague is definitely medieval - with its narrow-winding-cobblestone streets, tight imposing architecture and the gorgeous Charles Bridge straddling the Vltava river. Within an hour of walking through this city, it dawns on you that the buildings and history of this beautiful part of Europe is not simply years old, they are centuries old and I could only stand in awe and try to envision what it must have been like to live in a time and period far removed from today's modern times.

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Prague's layout comprises mainly of 4 sections which in the earlier days were 4 separate towns: The Castle Town which houses the Prague castle , the Old Town, the New town which holds the Wenceslas square and a section around the Castle Town called the Little town.

The Old Town seems to hold some sort of magnet, because whichever direction you walk in Prague, you're guaranteed to end up at this square. Once here, you tend to lose all sense of direction staring at the grand churches, castles, bell towers and clocks all around this beautiful square. I found that most people wander into the square single-mindedly to watch the astronomical clock put on its hourly show. The oldest working astronomical clock in the world is magnificent and forms a part of the southern wall of the Old Town City Hall in the Old Town Square. Do spend some time in between the hour change to just marvel at this amazing piece of history and art.

I would recommend going up the tower to take in the sight of the red roofed, spire filled view of Prague just as the sun dips over the horizon. The effort pays off grandly by providing you with opportunities to make gorgeous pictures like the one below.

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NOTE : There will be a 1000 cameras pointed up at the astronomical tower at the turn of every hour and you will be pushed and shoved by people in pursuit of a good picture or video. Mercifully, the entire spectacle lasts under a minute.

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Once you are done watching the show the astronomical clock puts up and take in the view of Prague from atop the tower, I recommend you stroll down to the square and take in the sounds of Prague, and spend the rest of the evening tasting the best of the local fare. The Old Town square buzzes with activity and the atmosphere in the evening with the street performers and cafe life is hard to miss. Walk the side streets off of the Old Town Square and grab some of the famous local beer which in my opinion is brewed to perfection and goes excellently when paired with some succulent ham straight from the source, as it roasts on a spit over an open fire.

The freshly made Trdelnik are a must try and a local favourite. The dough is rolled onto metal bars turning over hot glowing coal and pulled off the bars at just the right moment as they turn a golden brown colour and immediately rolled in a bed of sugar. The end result is a lightly sweetened pastry that smells like heaven and tastes divine and goes perfectly with coffee. There seem to be stalls everywhere selling them at a very affordable price of approximately 60 CZK.

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A short walk to the right of the Old Town's square, past the fashion street is the Old-New synagogue (which was unfortunately closed by the time I got there). Would have loved to pay a visit to Europe's oldest active synagogue that mercifully survived the bombs of WWII.

The maps and the locals say that the famous Charles bridge lies to the left of Old Town's square, but I got lost in the narrow streets only to realise that there are signs pointing in its direction on most major street corners. The only problem is that it is defined by its Czech name - Karluv Most on all those signs as well as on the map.

Karluv Most or more famously the Charles Bridge is a half a kilometer long pedestrian bridge that seems to be where all the action in Prague is. Artists, musicians, beautiful views that adorn postcards, nice picture opportunities and not to mention crazy tourists with selfie sticks pack the length of this bridge at all times. I quickly realised that to enjoy this city in its true splendour one has to make the effort and get to the bridge early in the morning whilst it is still quiet. As the sun gets higher in the sky the number of feet treading the length of this bridge keeps rising astronomically.

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You can get around just about anywhere in Prague by walking, without having to take the metro or the bus or even the tram – but they are such a lovely things that I did end up hopping onto a tram (ok just once - while going to the Prague Castle). To my lovely surprise, my cousins description of the experience fits to a T - they do shake and quake quite a bit as they go ;)

Spent some time exploring the Castle town which houses the Prague Castle. The steps leading up to the gates of the Prague Castle are in my opinion one of the most charming places in all of Prague and I guess its not much of a secret since it looks like it is the most frequently used access paths. I took the tram up to the castle but walked on my way back. The Prague Castle complex includes courtyards, churches, museums and is considered the city’s historical and political center. Located within the walls of the Prague Castle is the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral that seems to rise up above and dominate the skyline from the city below. The view of Prague from the Castle is something that leaves a permanent imprint on your mind - complete with red roofs, medieval architecture and incredible old world charm. You cannot help but be thankful that the city escaped major structural damage from World War II bombings therefore retaining its old world glory.

Side note : There are stores selling HOT WINE on the steps of the castle. I found one past the Toy Museum and it was the perfect accompaniment to the walk on a cold windy evening. If hot wine is not your thing, then I would recommend some delicious Grog ;)

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A 20 minute walk brought me back to familiar territory - under the the Charles Bridge where the 1000 or so swans were busy preening themselves or posing for pictures. There are lovely views of Prague from this point and is a great place to make pretty pictures, I clicked a few and headed back towards the Old Town. As I set foot on the bridge again, found myself amongst thousands of people taking pictures during the golden hour and even ended up getting thumped on the head by an enthusiastic selfie-stick waver in pursuit of the right angle.

Side note : I wish they had never invented selfie sticks. When you arrive at a gorgeous place that you've always dreamt of visiting, all that one wants to do is just take in the scenery and the atmosphere of the place. But instead, on almost every street, every square, in front of an old church, inside the old church, over the bridge, under the bridge and next to the nose of extremely irritated swans who just wanted to preen themselves in peace, there were people waving their selfie sticks. There were times I wished I could just yank it off their hands, break it in half and throw the bits in the Vltava.

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Found myself at Wenceslas Square which has seen many important events that have shaped Czech history. This boulevard - almost a kilometre long, was originally a horse market and I couldn't help but find it amusing that this section of Prague is known as the New Town - especially when you consider Wenceslas Square has history that pans 700 years!!
Flanked by the National Museum with the statute of St.Wenceslas in front on one side and the entrance to the Old Town on the other, the entire area holds great cafes, restaurants and places to shop. Made a few pictures and proceeded to rest my aching feet and the painful bump on my head after a long day spent exploring the sights, smells and sounds of this gorgeous city.

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As I did one last shot of Becherovka Lemond on this trip, I realized that this city is truly a postcard from any angle and couldn't help but hold tight to the memory of watching the sun come up over the horizon early in the morning while being the only person on the Charles bridge. What a wonderful thing to consider an achievement in this lifetime!!!

Prague to me was pure magic - especially when it was quiet.

Until next time,
Na zdraví!!

Sowmya CJ

Posted by Ceej 11:31 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged prague town red old morning wine sticks tourists hot roofs thousand spires wenceslas smoked postcard most ham selfie kurlov trdelnik karluv wencelas Comments (6)

A little town of breathtaking views HALLSTATT

sunny 5 °C

Situated in the heart of the Austrian lake country, Hallstatt is the crown jewel of the Salzkammergut area and is home to the view that adorns every calendar or postcard featuring the Austrian Alps. Most people who visit Hallstatt make it a day trip from Salzburg as it is easily accessible by both the bus and the train. The buses take you directly to the village (after a change in Bad Ischl) whereas, the trains drops you off at the Hallstatt railway station, from where you can catch one of the the frequent ferries to the village.

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This remote village with its 7000 year old history dates back to a time in the past when salt was the most important of commodities, due to its use as a preservative and has an entire era dedicated to it in Austrian history. Its a small village nestled between the Austrian alps and the lakes and takes approximately 15 minutes to cover from one end to the other on foot, but can take a lifetime if you stop to explore its alleys and pathways that it has hidden within itself over many a millennium. When it is bathed in sunlight, Hallstatt resembles the elven cities described in "The Lord of the Rings" (or rather how they have been imagined within the confines of my imagination while reading "The Lord of the Rings").

On a beautiful warm sunny day - like the one I chose to pay a visit, the blue sky seems to perfectly compliment the cleanest blue lake imaginable. The air was a joy to breathe and I could almost feel my health being enhanced with each breath. The lake is filled with noisy ducks and a few elegant (but hungry) swans that keep you company and entertain you while you sit by the lake.

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The view from the water is something that can be only experienced and I don't think I'll do justice by even attempting to frame sentences to describe the experience. However, I highly recommend that you hire a boat and get on the lake by yourself for a bit for a fantastic opportunity to enjoy the perfect panorama view of the lake, the mountains and the village. There are electric or paddle boats for hire all around the place, that cost approximately 14 euros per hour.

You can pay a visit to the salt mine that involves almost an hour and a half of hiking up a hill and walking through tunnels. You can slide down a 60 meter wooden slide in a manner by which blocks of ice were transported through the ages once you finish the tour. I am slightly claustrophobic and decided to give this entire experience a pass.

There seemed to be thousands of people about when I paid a visit in the later part of September, that it came as a shock when I learnt that the original population of this town is less than a 1000. It gets tricky to walk around or even take photographs because of the tourists taking pictures everywhere and of everything or brandishing those repulsive selfie sticks. If it was this crowded in the early part of fall, I cannot imagine the volume of the crowd thronging these narrow streets during the summer months of June, July and August.

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All that walking helped build a world class appetite and I paid a visit to a lakeside restaurant to try the local fare. The salmon caught from the lake was fantastic and it was served with some baked and buttered potatoes on the side - a perfect meal for when the temperatures dips below 5 degrees celsius. Also tried the traditional potato soup which came in a super-sized bowl but was a bit too salty for my liking.

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The last of the ferries and the tour buses leave the village by 5:30 in the evening and Hallstatt emerges in all of its original splendor, as it falls back into its quiet and breathtaking ways. My taxi driver who also is an inn owner mentioned that even though she has lived here her entire life, she wouldn't live any place else.

Attended the morning service at church and while leaving noticed what a happy place they've made the final resting place of many. With flowers and names engraved beautifully on tombstones, the cemetery makes for a wonderful space for people to visit the final resting place of a loved one. The Ossuary of Hallstatt stores the skulls and bones of the departed inhabitants of this lovely little town. Because the cemetery was too small, the old graves are reopened and old bones exhumed to make way for the new ones. These bones are placed in the Ossuary, where they are painted with their names to mark their identity. The painted skulls were done beautifully, and it makes for a pretty unusual site.

There is a square in middle of the town area complete with a fountain in the middle and a waterfall in the background. The old quaint buildings surrounding the square are adorned with flowers on the balconies, each building different from the next. There are many cafes, restaurants, shops and hotels on this square, so during the day it's packed with people and gets quite busy.

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As I made my way back to the edge of the lake, I impulsively gave in to the temptation of getting on the lake again. Spent hours on the lake making pictures all the time wondering if all of this was a dream or did I just get that lucky.

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I am writing this sitting on a pier with my toes touching the lake water and I almost feel like I'm leaving my heart back here. A visit here has turned out to be many parts fantasy intermingled with some small parts of reality.

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So long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, good night.
I hate to go and leave this pretty sight. Good Bye.

- Sowmya CJ

Posted by Ceej 02:50 Archived in Austria Tagged night salzburg hallstatt austria ducks swans halstatt Comments (2)

Geneva

Home to the gorgeous Lac Leman

sunny 15 °C

Lake Geneva has got to be one of the most happy places in all of Europe.

The Jet d'Eau is the focal point of the lake but the setting of the lake flanked by picturesque hills makes the entire scene breathtaking. It looks like a postcard when the sun is shining with Mont Blanc in the background and swans and ducks glide about providing constant entertainment.

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Interesting bit of information - apparently the Germans and the English call it Lake Geneva and the Swiss and French people are very protective about the lake’s name and insist on it being called Lac Leman.

Please Note : Most of the hotels in Geneva offer you a transport card for the duration of stay with them. Using which you can get around the city for free using the trams, buses and even the yellow ferries to see the Jet d'eau up close. Switzerland is easily one of the most expensive countries to travel to and staying in Geneva is not exactly friendly on the pocket, so a free travel pass goes a long way.

The first time I crossed the Mont Blanc bridge I remembered a long forgotten fact about this bustling city - Geneva is headquarters to the largest number of international organisations because of its central position on the European map and more importantly due to its neutral standpoint on global issues. I almost passed out when I stood in front of the the United Nations office and saw the office of Red Cross. Countless banks, luxury watch makers and even the WTO and CERN are headquartered in this city!

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There are Dragon Boat races that are organised at the Lac de Joux in August and September and is a perfectly lovely way to spend the weekend with some friends while barbecuing and lazing on the grass by the lake. Another brilliant way to spend time if you find yourself in Geneva on a sunny weekend, is by paying a visit any of the flea markets along the lake-shore, because I don't know a better way to soak up some fresh air, encounter the locals and indulge my eyes on thousands of bits and baubles. Some seem to sell just food and produce(I've seen one such in the heart of Athens), others sell second hand baby clothes or used jewellery or antique photo frames, or other unique finds. I brought back a gorgeous swan and 3 little ducks for 2 euros and they occupy prime space on my desk today and a pretty necklace for 1 Euro sold by an elderly lady who was clearing out her daughters closet since she got married and moved to the US.

One of my favourite places to spend the evening in this city is around the Place du Molard , just walking in this street felt like I was walking on the star strewn sky. There are hundreds of glass cobblestones ingrained with greetings in various different languages that are lit from below. I heard from a friend that there was a NAMASTE in there somewhere and search as much as I did on two occasions, I couldn't find it.

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But the absolute perfect place to hang out with friends and enjoy some fun conversations around a fondue pot are one of those lovely restaurants along the shoreline of the lake, watching the water ebb and flow with enough strength to generate that beautiful relaxing sound that can only be produced by a large body of water.

Until next time,
Safe Travels.

Posted by Ceej 23:23 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

Sri Lanka

An account of a week long road trip covering 1400 kilometers - through rolling hills and pristine beaches.

sunny 35 °C

If you thought that a week long trip to Sri Lanka can just be about the sun, the sea, and the beaches - THINK AGAIN. You can squeeze in mountains, tea plantations, culture and the opportunity to interact with the local people - all while indulging in delicious but spicy Sri Lankan cuisine.

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Lets start at the very beginning - We landed at the airport in Colombo early in the morning. After a quick stopover for breakfast and three interesting hours on the road without encountering traffic later we were driving through the hills of Kandy. Sitting atop a hill in a bunglow with a 270 degree view of KANDY, sipping an evening cup of tea and watching the onset of the South-West monsoon was an experience like no other. But a quick recap to the time of the day leading up to this magical evening saw me pay a visit to the renowned SACRED TOOTH RELIC TEMPLE. The heavily guarded room where the tooth of Buddha is housed is open to devotees and tourists. However, you don’t actually get to see the tooth and I heard that there is a festival once in 6 years when the tooth is displayed. Little known fact: Sri Lanka is predominantly a Buddhist country. I heard from a guide that since its official introduction in the 2nd century BC, Buddhism is followed by close to 70% of the total population of Sri Lanka.

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I would definitely suggest getting away from the bustle of KANDY and retiring to one of the bunglows on the hills. The bunglows are full of old world charm - spacious rooms, lovely large beds, bathrooms with old-time bath fittings, cozy family rooms, rolling lawns, fabulous views of the green expanse and home cooked sumptuous Sri Lankan food. There is little more to do here in the evenings apart from going for long walks and spending evenings in the company of other travellers over a drink around the campfire. It helps to carry a stole or a light sweater, it gets quite nippy in the evenings.

A long drive along winding roads brought us to our next destination – Tea Country – NUWARA ELIYA. The drive to get there is a bit challenging, especially for people like me who succumb to motion sickness. Once you are here, do take a tour of a Tea Factory. It is an experience by itself to walk between rows to Ceylon tea plants in a plantation and walk out of the factory with bags to tea, knowing exactly how that tea got into the bag. Unfortunately, once you visit the tea plantations and take a tour of the tea factory, there isn't much to see and do in Nuwara Eliya. I heard wonderful things about a Strawberry Farm but due to some political rally, the road leading up to this place was cordoned off on the day we were here.

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Along the drive from Nuwara Eliya to Bandarawale we stopped at the SITA TEMPLE which according to some locals has gained popularity in recent years, especially among Hindus since they are specifically making it a point to pay a visit when they are in this part of the country. The atmosphere made me transition to the days of my childhood listening to my mother telling my brother and me tales from the Ramayan. I saw with my eyes all the elements from a mythological story that I had heard her describe - the beautiful Ashok Vatika where Sita was held captive by Raavan, a stream flowing next to it where she performed her puja - the temple almost brings to life the story. I understand that everyone is entitled to believe what they choose to but, to a practising Hindu girl finding a connection to one of the greatest literary works of ancient India composed approximately during the 5th century BCE, is pretty mind-boggling. Fun Fact : The temple is overrun with monkeys.

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UDAWALAWE is home to a wonderful National Park which according to the information listed on Google spans 119 square miles. I didn't see a leopard here, but I did see plenty of elephants and other forms of wildlife - especially birds. The highlight of the safari was when we reached the river bank hoping to see a few animals quenching their thirst and saw no form of life for miles around. Just when we turned our jeep around, we saw 2 groups of elephants approaching from opposite directions, greeting each other like old friends and getting into the water together with a splash. I heard an elephant trumpet and it made me feel like as if it was saying goodbye.

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From the hills we drove straight to the beaches. The first day was spent lounging on the sands of Tangalle. The beach is gorgeous but a bit isolated so, didn’t venture out much. Next day we drove to Beruwala and spent as much time as possible on the beach which was lovely to wander along and even though not crowded, had enough people to make you not feel isolated. I noticed that the sea here was brown which I later figured was due to the sea churning up the sand constantly. The beach is full of shacks selling batik print clothes, local cuisine and things-you-would-catch-yourself-buying-only-when-you-are-on-a-beach-vacation.

BENTOTA.

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Bentota has a number of TURTLE FARMS which provide a unique insight into the turtle conservation project. You must see it to believe what an incredible sight baby turtles are as they benignly swim around in these tanks. I would highly recommend picking them up for a minute (if the caretakers allow it). The tour is fairly short but informative. I heard later that if you visit late in the night, you can watch baby turtles that are hardly 3 days old make their way down the beach and disappear into the ocean, hopefully to swim in the ocean for a few centuries.

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I am not one to sit by the pool all day but, in Bentota I was mesmerised by the dramatic landscape and the endless crashing of the waves against beautifully natural formed rocks that I stayed put in the same spot for hours. I distictly remember thinking in that moment that I will never have my fill of that view. The sound of the ocean rocking you to sleep is something I wish I could experience every single day. Without further gushing about the experience, I will just say this and then hold my peace - Bentota is one of those phenomenal places that you very rarely come across, and that you quite simply never want to leave.

But leave we eventually did, in order to spend a few delightful hours wandering around the inspiring gardens and estate of Geoffrey Bawa. A walk through the property lets you see the foresight with which these gardens were laid out by this genius architect. There is a gorgeous colonial style house on the property too which I heard from the guide was available for visitors to stay. The place filled me with endless ideas about designing my vacation home ;)

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A quick drive later I found myself back in Colombo where I spent the afternoon shopping until it was time to head to the airport and fly back home.

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Ayu Bowan. Until next time.
Sowmya CJ

Posted by Ceej 23:48 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (1)

Santorini

....... the perfect setting for a nautical adventure

sunny 10 °C

Summer hadn't quite arrived when we did late April and it wasn't 'high season' so not everything was available or open on the island. As it turned out, it was just PERFECT for us. We stayed at Imerovigli as against choosing Oia or Fira. Imerovigli is rightfully called “The Balcony to Santorini” for wherever you are on this part of the island, there is no escaping that view. The entire island is dotted with houses that have whitewashed walls and beautiful blue doors that overlook the Aegean and every single time you open your eyes and look out over the Caldera it never fails to bring on a smile.

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You know you are living a dream when the door to your suite opens up to one of the most breathtaking natural views in the world - a volcano outside your front door in the middle of the Mediterranean for goodness sake! I've not come to terms with that memory yet. During sunset its a common ritual for people to gather on their balconies or terraces all over the island with a glass of wine to take in one of the most magnificent sunsets in the entire world.

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When you are not lazing around and drinking in the endless view I recommend you try and explore the island a bit. We particularly enjoyed the cliff top walk to Fira one morning, which took approximately 2 hours. Fira is a port town, where all the cruise ships come in to dock and it gets very busy when they do. In my opinion - Fira, although interesting and fun to visit felt more touristy with a lot more hustle and bustle and way too many people to squeeze past in the busy narrow streets. I guess it all depends on what each person is seeking while on a holiday. Fira is a great place to explore with loads of pedestrianised alleys, lots of nice shops and taverns. I met an Australian artist who lives and paints in Santorini for 300 days in a year and goes back to Australia to exhibit her work once a year.

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NOTE OF INTEREST : Wear a pair of good walking shoes or sandals, the paths are often cobbled with very uneven steps and steep paths. Santorini is not a good destination for anyone with mobility issues.

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Spend a day on a boat trip which will take you the volcano and the hotsprings. A visit to the excavations at Akrotiri is a must as so is a visit to the beach at Perissa . You can even scuba dive off the cliffs and most hotels can set you up with diving instructors.

As I turned my head around to breathe in the view one last time during my trip, I remember thinking that this is definitely not going to be my last trip to Santorni. I would return here in a heartbeat and recommend that if you get the chance, you should do so too :)

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Catch the wind in your sails :)
- Sowmya CJ

Posted by Ceej 12:32 Archived in Greece Tagged sunset santorini fira caldera imerovigli Comments (0)

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