• Panna

    Burning bright again

    Tigers are back in Panna, and how! (Published in the special Wildlife issue of Outlook Traveller in October. Click on the image to read the story in pdf form. Photographs

    Read more »
  • Brick Lane

    The East Enders

    “Now this is the site where the body of Jack the Ripper’s fifth victim was found,” declares Emily, my guide at the Eating London food tour. That gets our complete

    Read more »
  • Poppies

    Remains of the day

    Among the stories at the ‘Voices of the First World War’ exhibition at the Brighton Museum, is that of Subedar Manta Singh, who served with the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs. Manta,

    Read more »
  • Temple

    Ringing in the new

    On any given Friday evening, Mylapore is at its festive best. Men dressed in white dhotis (unstitched cotton garments knotted at the waist and allowed to fall free), with thick

    Read more »
  • Hanging on

    Losing the fear of flying

    I had never thought I would find myself 65 metres above the ground, hanging on for dear life. And doing this of my own volition. I am not the particularly

    Read more »
  • Remarkable Rocks

    Roos of the game

    I so want the life Tim Williams has. He drives people around Kangaroo Island, showing them the local colour that comes in the shape of kangaroos and koalas, seals and

    Read more »
  • The Lunchbox1

    Food for thought

    “Food is music to the body; music is food to the heart,” Gregory David Roberts wrote in Shantaram, his 2003 novel commended by many for its vivid portrayal of life

    Read more »
  • Yodelers

    The Swiss Sound of Music

    Matthias Ammann puts his hands into his pockets, smiles at us, and yodels effortlessly. Of course he would. He has been yodeling since the age other children learn to gurgle

    Read more »
  • Tiramisu

    Roman banquet

    My food walk in Rome begins with a near death-by-dessert experience. It is a balmy summer morning and our small group has met in front of a bar in Testaccio.

    Read more »
  • Ghent3

    Footloose in Flanders

    If Eat, Pray, Love was a town, it would be Bruges. So pretty, so picture postcard that some guidebooks have described it as touristy and a tad fake. Our guide

    Read more »

A new Facebook page

So, what’s new on Itchy Feet? A brand new Facebook page, that’s what – https://www.facebook.com/travelswithcharu

Facebook

After years of resisting – how many places in social media can I manage – I finally succumbed to the pressure and set up this page. And now to find interesting content for it on a regular basis (apart from just my own writings, yawn). And more importantly, find people to “like” the page (right now, it feels like an orphan).

And here, dear friends and kind readers, is where you come in. Have you seen the page yet? If you have been a longtime reader of this blog, or just an occasional lurker, or even a one-time visitor who has strayed here through a keyword search, do check out the page and show your liking for it.

Please head there now and make the page a much-liked one, before I lose heart and decide to shut it down. Thank you!

A bit of trivia on the mysteries of social media: I obviously wanted to call my page ‘Itchy Feet’ to maintain consistency across my social media spaces – but Facebook refused it as being inappropriate. Ah, well.

A French facelift

Bordeaux is a bit worried that nobody looks beyond its wines. It is not complaining, mind you, just fretting. After all, the city did not win the title of ‘best European destination of the year’ on the strength of its luscious reds alone.

Just a decade ago, Bordeaux had slipped into near obscurity, become Europe’s Sleeping Beauty (La Belle Endormie, for the linguists among us).

I was unable to associate that name with the youthful, vibrant city I was seeing around me. Every café was bursting at the seams with locals chugging beer and enjoying the spring sunshine. All the premium stores and boutiques on Rue Sainte Catherine – the longest shopping street in Europe – were doing brisk business, even in the absence of “Sale Sale” signs.

Alfresco

It seemed far removed from a time when the city suffered from congested roads, buildings covered in soot and derelict warehouses near the river. One man, the mayor and former Prime Minister, Alain Juppé is responsible for Bordeaux’s transformation into its current avatar. Over a decade ago, he set about the process of injecting life into his city, pedestrianising the elegant boulevards in the heart of Bordeaux, cleaning up the neglected 18th century buildings and introducing spiffy trams. And the trams themselves: silent and futuristic, using power from underground cables so that ungainly electric wires do not crisscross overhead, marring the gorgeous skyline.

The makeover, which started in the late 1990s, really took an upswing around the turn of the millennium. In that sense, the city was not a Sleeping Beauty but a Cinderella, only in reverse. In a few years, the city was so spruced up that more than half of Bordeaux found its way into the UNESCO list, making it the largest urban heritage site in the world.

Architecture1

Architecture2

I was staying at the Grand Hotel, right opposite the Opera House, known as the Grand Theatre. And there really was no point feeling sceptical about the recurrence of the word grand, for these buildings are nothing but. The first thing that struck me when drove into the city was the magnificence of the neoclassical buildings – somewhat like Paris but on a smaller, more intimate scale. In fact, it is said that the stately buildings of Paris had derived inspiration from Bordeaux’s.

OperaHouse

Bordeaux is extremely charming, unpredictable; as I stepped out of the hotel, right in the middle of the bustling Place de la Comedie, I came face to face with The Face, a contemporary street installation by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa. This uber-modern artwork looked on to the streets passively, an antithesis to all the grandeur surrounding it, and completely unperturbed by that fact. Yet it did not strike a jarring note on the old-world allure of the square. That is the soul of Bordeaux, the new in harmony with the old, making it easy for locals (and visitors) to embrace both.

Face

On an exploratory walk, I found Bordeaux a classic European town: cobblestoned streets, al fresco cafés and wrought iron balconies jutting out of buildings like curious children. The limestone facades in the old town glowed a burnished gold in the early evening sunshine. And everyone on the streets seemed young, carefree and just happy to be there. So was I – happy to be in Bordeaux, I mean.

And like all great cities, a river ran right through its centre – the Garonne – inviting people to rendezvous there at all times of the day. The riverside also owes its facelift to Juppé, who made it a welcoming place, perfect for both solitary walks and social chatter. The avant-garde water mirror there – le miroir d’eau – is a shallow pool on a granite square on the broad pavement.

Initially it stayed perfectly still, reflecting the splendid, symmetrical buildings of the Place de la Bourse, the royal square dating back to the 18th century. Fittingly, the water mirror has been called the most beautiful puddle in Europe. It is the kind of puddle that makes you want to roll up your trousers and wade right in, and later blame it on your inner child.

WaterMirror

WaterMirror1

It had just stopped drizzling, the sun still playing hide and seek with the clouds. A couple with bright red umbrellas walked on the water (no Jesuvian miracle here; this pool is just a flat strip of water, designed to be a mirror), breaking the general air of greyness, especially in the reflections.

The fountain jets in the middle of the pool suddenly sent up fine, cooling mists, making it seem like the clouds had descended upon us that afternoon. These sprays were created with summer days in mind; other cities have public swimming pools, Bordeaux has a set of fountains. This was possibly my favourite place in the city, a spot I returned to at different times in the day to see the magic of sunlight upon it.

Sitting there, watching children and adults splash about in the water, I thought back to something I heard earlier in the day. Nathalie Escuredo, an expert wine grower (one of the emerging women champions in the region) had said, “Here in Bordeaux, many of life’s problems are solved over lunch and dinner. When we meet friends, we drink coffee for two minutes and talk for two hours.”

Truly, in Bordeaux, there was a pleasant sense that time is but a wispy concept and not to be given much importance. And I believe that is just how things ought to be everywhere.

Oh, and all that I said in the beginning about Bordeaux being more than just wine? That does not mean that the city does not take its wines seriously. After all, the Aquitaine region of France, where Bordeaux is located, has close to 8000 chateaux producing world-class wine.

Vineyards

Nor does it mean that I went away without tasting them. I spent an entire morning at the Ecole du Vin (wine school) sipping, swirling and spitting with a small group of wine novices, as Escuredo introduced us to the wonder that is Bordeaux wine. And on the ground floor of the school was the Maison du Vin bar, serving the best local wines, along with nibbles.

When Her Majesty, the Queen of England visited Bordeaux, she described it as “the very essence of elegance.” This was way back in 1992, before Bordeaux assumed a fresh lease of life. I can only wonder what she would call it, if she were to visit again today.

THE INFORMATION

Getting there

Fly to Paris direct from Mumbai or connecting via Mumbai from Delhi on Jet Airways (Rs. 41,000) and take a fast train to Bordeaux, a journey of just over three hours.

Where to stay

The Grand Hotel De Bordeaux and Spa guarantees a luxury stay in a heritage hotel, whose neoclassical façade was originally created by architect Victor Louis in 1776 (Superior Room with Breakfast from €375 / Rs. 26,000). For a mid-range budget option, stay at the Quality Hotel Bordeaux Centre, a no-frills but popular hotel (Classic double rooms from €99 / Rs. 7000).

What to see and do

Take a walk in Bordeaux’s Golden Triangle, an area littered with beautiful neoclassical buildings and bounded by three fine boulevards, Cours Clemenceau, Cours de l’Intendance, Allées de Tourny. And then head to Place de Bourse, opposite the river and the water mirror, for more majestic buildings. Back at the Place de la Comedie, catch a concert or ballet at the Grand Theatre.

Join one of the beginner or advanced wine appreciation workshops at the L’Ecole Du Vin.

***
A slightly edited version of this was published in Outlook Traveller, August 2015 issue.

Christchurch: back on its feet and dancing

It’s a balmy evening in Christchurch and I am dancing on the street to a Spice Girls song.

On a free walking tour of Christchurch, our guide Michael Borren has led us to an open square with what looks like a painted washing machine in the middle. He plugs his phone in to it, inserts $2 into a slot and voila! The washing machine is now a mean jukebox. That is how I end up channeling my inner Mithun Chakraborty and boogying under the disco lights strung up overhead. And it’s not only us who have danced to its tunes; in 2012, when on the Royal Jubilee tour of the Commonwealth, Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla boogeyed to it too.

Meet the Dance-o-mat, one of Christchurch’s unique delights. Designed by an urban regeneration group called The Gap Filler, it is meant to be response to the lack of lively public spaces post the earthquake in 2011 that left Christchurch devastated. Quirky, sure, but the city seems to understand that when you gotta dance, you gotta dance.

Dance

The earthquake– measuring 6.3 on the scale – struck the South Island’s largest city in February 2011. Four years later, remains of the destruction are visible everywhere. Our taxi driver takes over an hour to cover a distance of five kilometres, stumped by construction materials and bulldozers on every road. Almost all my interactions with locals are punctuated with references to those terrible days when hundreds lost their lives, homes and possessions.

Yet, as I wander around the city, I also find distinct signs of revival and even optimism. I am delighted to discover cheerful wall art everywhere, even dilapidated buildings sporting abstract images amidst the dust and debris. According to Michael, this is a recent phenomenon, another endeavour to boost public morale.

Art1

Art2

Art3

When my husband and I set out from our hotel in the morning, we stop for a coffee at Coffee Traders. Housed in a handful of shipping containers, Coffee Traders is just one of the city’s many eating and shopping establishments that has found a home – perhaps permanently – among bright shipping containers.

Coffee

At lunch, we head to one of the most innovative projects to use such containers, the Re:Start mall, a cluster of boutiques, gift shops and eateries selling kiwi and international stuff. The mall is packed with locals and tourists basking under the warm autumn sun at the alfresco cafés and food stalls. Re:Start is a place we keep going back to, not to shop or eat, but to just enjoy the vibe.

Restart1

Restart2

My favourite initiative though, is the cardboard cathedral, known locally as the transitional cathedral. This marvellous structure sprung up in place of the damaged 19th century Christchurch cathedral. The architect Shigeru Ban came with considerable experience in reviving broken structures and constructing new ones in disaster zones. He used his preferred material, strong cardboard tubes, tried and tested earlier in Japan and Haiti, in this building.

Cathedral
(Source: wikimedia commons)

The people have embraced this church – also using it as a space for community events – and see it as a symbol of moving on.

That afternoon, we take a lazy stroll in Hagley Park, where the trees are a blaze of yellow and orange. This verdant urban space, spread over 400 acres, seems untouched by the chaos on the streets. The only noises are the occasional birdsong and muted whispers of walkers.

Hagley

And later in the evening, we make our way to the Isaac Theatre Royal to catch a local Kiwi production of The Phantom of the Opera (excellent, by the way). Waiting in the foyer before the show, I eavesdrop on several conversations that centre on the recent restoration and reopening of this iconic theatre. By then, I know that this is common discourse among Christchurchers: what is the latest to come (back) to life?

The fact that Christchurch was listed by Lonely Planet among the top ten cities to visit in 2013 – just two years after the earthquake – is a testament to the way the city has risen from the rubble and carried on.

Amidst all this, Christchurch has not forgotten its dead. A street installation of 185 white chairs, empty and evocative, stands in memory of the lives lost. As we stand at the site – which includes wheelchairs and baby chairs – it is impossible not to be moved.

Chairs
(Source: wikimedia commons)

And it is impossible not to love a city so rooted to its past, while marching ahead resolutely.

***
A slightly different version of this was published in Mint Lounge on July 25, 2015

6 reasons to love Ladakh

You cannot visit Ladakh just once – the pull is so strong that if you have been once, you will want to go again. And again. perhaps every year.

I have been to Ladakh twice, and every year in season, I think about going again.

Ladakh is remote, bleak, for sure – but there is also a stunning beauty, an otherworldliness about it.

There are a million reasons to love this land and people find their own – culture and festivals, gorgeous homestays and guesthouses, trekking and rafting, local food…

These are mine, presented as a photoessay, since images do speak better than words in case of Ladakh.

1. The landscapes

I don’t think I have seen any land with more diverse landscapes, with all the stunning colours and dramatic settings to go with it. Mountains are a constant presence, menacing and protective at the same time.

sangam

I call this image chocolate chip ice cream…

chocolate

green

2. The journey

Although I have heard that the drive from Manali to Leh is one one of the best road journeys in the world, I have never gone that route, flying into Leh both times.

It has its own charm, an unmatched view of these mountains from the top. Some times you see blue skies and pristine snow, and sometimes only swirling clouds and grey mountaintops…

snow

clouds

3. The people

Ladakhis are some of the most cheerful, friendliest people I have seen, always ready with a smile and a Juley! The children are especially a delight to photograph, as are sometimes the shy women who open up slowly to the camera.

mother

grandfather

shy

4. The lakes

Less famous than Pangong lake, but Tso Moriri is still a marvel, stretching on for ever and ever, in the deepest shades of blue known to mankind.

Moriri

What can I say about Pangong that has not already been said a thousand times – inviting; blue, bluer, bluest; 3 idiots; tents.

Pangong

And the road to Pangong, that passes through the high and mighty (in a good way) Khardungla pass…

Changla

5. The monasteries

After the friendliness of the people, it is the allure of these monasteries that makes Ladakh so special to me. Some of the more popular ones are easily accessible from Leh, while others are well hidden – and some like Lamayuru here are set in dramatic backdrops.

Lamayuru

These wall murals featuring Buddhist themes are a common feature of Ladakh monasteries – I usually have a local guide to explain these motifs, which seem so startling at first sight.

mural

A visit to any of these monasteries is always a soothing experience, especially during prayer time, like here in Thiksey – or when the monks are engaged in other spiritual activities, like the time we came across four of them silently making a mandala, working at it for hours without losing focus.

prayer

mandala

Above all, they are home to some of the most delightful little monks, who live up to the fact that they are in fact, onlylittle boys, despite the severity of their robes and surroundings.

monks

6. The art of zen

And not being the adventure seeking types, I am happy to just practise the art of chilling when I travel, and there is no better place for this than Ladakh. Walking up and the down the Leh market road, sitting for hours at German Bakery chatting with other travellers, people watching at the village squares…

market

Buddhist

1 2 3 99