• 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

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  • 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

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  • 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,

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  • 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

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  • 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

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  • 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

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  • 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

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  • 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

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  • 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.

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  • 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

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Loving Ljubljana

Ljubljana at night

A few hours into Ljubljana, I find myself coining a new phrase about my experience: treja vu. That feeling that I have seen this all during my earlier travels. To be fair, as the world gets smaller and smaller, there is often a sense of familiarity that afflicts chronic travellers. But Ljubljana — the capital of Slovenia and pronounced “lyoob-lya-nah” — feels so much like other European cities I have visited that I wonder what it holds for me.

For one, there is the river flowing through its heart, the Ljubljanica, with al fresco cafés scattered by its banks. There is even a bridge over it, on which hundreds of locals and tourists have attached locks on the railings (think Pont des Arts in Paris and Ponte Vecchio in Florence). And the architecture is striking and stately, as befits a European capital.

Speaking of buildings, not all of Ljubljana’s are architectural delights. Walking through Miklosiceva Street, just off the city centre, I initially see no sign that I am in a corner of the former Communist Yugoslavia. Then I spot them: the squat, standard issue government buildings dating back to those days. But they are squashed between the stunning, candy coloured renaissance, baroque and art nouveau facades. One of Ljubljana’s heroes is architect Joze Plecnik, who spiffed up the medieval town (working around the ugly buildings) with his signature mix of classicism and modernism.

architecture1

architecture2

But it is only when I stop at Preseren Square that Ljubljana’s charm slowly sinks in. It is a balmy summer day and locals are out in full force to catch up over coffee and gossip. Like me, other tourists have gathered to watch the street artists serenading passersby with their guitars and drums.

Just behind me is the salmon pink Franciscan Church of the Annunciation, with a statue of France Prešeren in front of it. This square is named after Slovenia’s most loved poet, whose lyrics were adopted as the country’s national anthem. Along with him is his muse and great unrequited love, Julija Primic. How can I not love a city that honours at its very core, not a political, military or religious leader, but a poet?

Preseren square

locksI find Prešeren Square the perfect place for people watching and I sit down with a cone of gelato — Italy is practically next door — to look at the throng of tourists walking on the Triple Bridge, away from the Square into the old town. This three-pronged bridge also owes its unique design to Plecnik, who modified the stone bridge existing from 1842. Down the Ljubljanica that meanders lazily through the city is this city’s bridge of locks, called the Butcher’s Bridge. Unlike the other bridges in Ljubljana, this one is freshly minted. Upon its opening in 2010, this bridge immediately found itself besieged by lovers seeking a bit of luck. Everyday, dozens of hopefuls attach padlocks to its railings and throw the keys into the river. However, I find nothing even remotely charming about this glass and steel structure, with a name that does not lend itself readily to romance.

What is charming, though, is the Dragon Bridge further on, known locally as Mother-in-law Bridge. It just goes to prove that sometimes, humour is universal. This bridge sits with four green dragons bookending it, holding the myth that they wag their tails each time a virgin walks by. That may or may not be true, but as dragons go, these are utterly lovable and have become this city’s most recognised emblems.

dragons

One morning, I cross this bridge over to the old town, all the time keeping a wary eye on the dragons. I am headed to the funicular that will take me up to the 15th century castle. This fortress, sitting pretty on top of a hill, keeps a benevolent eye on the city. Up at the castle, I overhear a tour guide tell his flock that fortifications have existed here since Roman times. Today, not much remains of the old ramparts, but it has been converted into a hub for social and cultural events, with Sundays reserved for weddings.

Most visitors are cooling off with a drink at the café, before the brave-hearted among them head off to climb 100 steps up the viewing tower. That sounds like too much work, especially when I can enjoy sweeping views of the town right from the courtyard. And when I look closely enough, beyond the gleaming spires and russet roofs, I can see one of the dragons winking at me.

shoesDown in the old town area, tour groups are walking around, stopping for photographs at Robba’s fountain in front of the Town Hall. This Baroque fountain from 1751 is named after its sculptor, Francesco Robba, who took eight years to complete it. Walking around aimlessly here, I am drawn to a rather startling spectacle on one of the narrow cobblestoned lanes: several pairs of shoes are hanging from a wire running between two buildings. Perhaps more talismans for everlasting love?

old town

Later on, I go on a cruise on the Ljubljanica and find myself gliding past the grand buildings of the old town, beneath the lovely bridges, into the newer suburbs. It is a beehive of activity out there, with cyclists tracing languid paths and kids playing Frisbee on the riverbanks. An hour later, I step out and sit with a cappuccino in one of the cafés lining the river. I remember reading somewhere that Ljubljana is not a place to see but a place to just be. I agree.

Slovenia was one of the first countries to break away from the Yugoslav bloc and the story of its independence unfolded over a war that lasted for exactly ten days. As the capital of one of Europe’s most recent democracies, Ljubljana has been a city, in the modern sense of the word, for just over two decades. But it packs in several millennia of history and culture. Just last year, Ljubljana celebrated 2,000 years since its initial foundation as a Roman settlement. With a population of less than 300,000, of whom 10 per cent are students, this city hums with a youthful vibe.

Everyone here seems friendly, willing to stop and give detailed directions when I find myself lost, or just suggestions about the best place for hot chocolate (Café Zvezda, if you must know). At the open air fresh food and crafts market between the Triple bridge and Dragon bridge, vendors call out with samples of local soups and stews, while artists smile indulgently when I browse through their wares, announcing that I am “just looking” and not actually shopping. This comes as a refreshing change after the brusqueness of Western Europe; it is only one of the many ways in which Ljubljana feels “same-same, but different” from other places on the continent.

Just as Prague was hailed as the new Paris about a decade ago, Ljubljana is now being feted as the new Prague. I don’t know about that, but it is hard not to fall in love with Ljubljana for itself. Not surprising for a city whose name translates to ‘beloved’ in the local language.

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This was published in Khaleej Times on April 24, 2015

Friday photo: Reflections

It is almost impossible to choose one favourite among the dozens of stunning landscape images I have from New Zealand. But for now, a pic of an unexpectedly beautiful spot we came across near the Franz Josef glacier. There were several hikes near the glacier, of varying lengths and difficulty levels – and of course, we chose one of the easiest initially. This route led us to Peter’s Pool…

Peters Pool

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Also see: Friday photo series

5 reasons why New Zealand is great for road trips

I have just returned from a two week holiday in New Zealand, a whistle-stop tour of both the North and South Islands. For most of this trip, we had a rental car to get around from from one stunning place to another. My husband drove all of it, and though we were on the road for anywhere between 3 – 6 hours almost everyday, he ended each day with a smile, if not a big grin.

True. New Zealand is the ideal destination for road trips. And here are a few reasons why you should think of a self-drive car when you visit the country.

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1. The roads are practically empty

Come on, this is a country with a population of a staggering 4.4 million, so how many people are you likely to find on the roads? Of the entire population, almost a third lives in Auckland in the North Island, so the highways on scenic routes are devoid of any traffic. On some days, on some routes, we went for miles without seeing another car. In some ways (oh my god, what if this car suddenly stops), it is a little scary but it also makes for super easy driving.

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2. Everyone follows road rules

If you are a traveller from India, you will know what a surprising and pleasant experience this can be: right of ways, speed limits, no honking… sheer bliss! You get to drive comfortably in the knowledge that some car (or worse, pedestrian, autorickshaw or cow) is not going to appear on the scene at great speed from a side lane. Although most of the country roads are narrow and single lane, it is easy to navigate them at a decent speed, since everyone keeps to their lanes, without tryingovertake as if in a great rush to get somewhere. So, it follows that driving in New Zealand is not stressful or tiring as it can be in some Asian countries.

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3. The roads are super smooth

I don’t mean just the condition of the roads but also the way in which authorities make life happier for drivers. The roads are clearly marked, with excellent banking, so that curves are easy to tackle. Apart from the standard speed limits – 100 kmph on highways and 50 kmph inside towns – we found that every single curve on the winding mountain roads (and they are everywhere in the country – I mean everywhere) had yellow reflective signs and specific speed suggestions, making sure that we were driving at the safest and smoothest speed. And you do not need an SUV or large, fancy car to get around – there are enough budget rental options that will work just as well.

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4. Driving is the easiest way to get around

Road trips are the quickest and most convenient way of travelling within this country, especially given that bus and train connections are not that frequent or regular. Of course, there are inter-city buses like Kiwi Bus and scenic trains like the Tranz Alpine, but these may not always match your schedules. So, get into a car and start driving. The added bonus is that you get to stop and explore a dozen new places along the route every day, instead of just getting from Point A to Point B. After all, that is the fun of a road trip, and New Zealand has enough easy walks, seaside attractions, forest paths and crystal clear lakes to entice you.

5. The landscape changes every half hour

And finally, what is perhaps the most interesting thing about driving in New Zealand – no stretch along the road is like others you have seen earlier. Several times in an hour, you will find that the scenery looks different. And this is despite the fact that most of the country (especially in the South Island) is filled with hills and lakes of all sizes and shapes. One minute you are driving on a windy hill road and the next, you find yourself right next to the sea that gives you company for the next hour or so. And then the cattle – hundreds of cows and thousands of sheep grazing in lush green patches right by the roads… heck, we even saw ostriches once – Believe me, you will never get bored or tired in a “been there, seen it” kind of way. The flip side to this is the temptation for the drive to look at the stunning landscape or stop at random to take photos. But hey, that’s why there are all those stopping bays and lookout points everywhere.

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So, if you ever find yourself in New Zealand or even planning a trip, make sure to include a few days of self drive in your itinerary. Who knows, this may turn out to be your most favourite experience in the country?

7 must dos in Cologne

1. Marvel at the Cologne Cathedral

domThe Cathedral, or Dom, is the single biggest attraction of Cologne – and rightly so. It is an imposing structure that dominates the skyline, starting from the minute you step off the railway station. Although the foundation stone for this imposing cathedral was laid in 1248, it was finally completed – to the shape we see it in today – only in 1880. The stained glass windows inside are stunning, especially the modern interpretation towards the left side of the altar.

The Dom was also destroyed during World War II bombings and had to be extensively restored.

Cathedral

2. Ramble by the Rhine

One of the best things you can do in Cologne is take long walks by the river. In the evenings, the pubs and cafes by the side start to fill up and the whole area comes to life, with both locals and tourists heading here. That apart, the riverside is a pleasant walk, with lots of trees and old buildings lining one side of the promenade. In certain seasons, it is also possible to do boat rides on the river.

Rhine1

Rhine2

3. Explore the old city

The old city, known as Aldstadt, is the area behind the Dom and the Rhine walking path – it is a maze of narrow, cobble-stones lanes filled with charming houses and pubs. The best way is to start from the Cathedral and make your way without a map or a plan. During World War II, almost 75% of the old town was destroyed and what you see now has been rebuilt and restored with great care. If possible, go on a guided walking tour of the area, to get into its rich history, especially from the Roman times.

aldstadt1

aldstadt2

4. Visit the museums

For such a small city, Cologne has a wealth of museums – start with the one that this city is known for, Eau de Cologne. The Farina fragrance museum takes you through the history of this evergreen perfume, through guided tours. Museum Ludwig is another great place to spend a few hours, with its wide collection of modern art mainly from the 20th century. The museum, houses in a quirkily shaped building near the Dom, has the largest collection of pop art outside the USA. Another favourite among visitors is the Chocolate Museum on one end of the Rhine promenade. It is fascinating tour into the history of chocolate, and includes tasting tours.

Farina

museum

5. Drink Kolsch beer

kolschYou cannot leave Cologne without a few glasses of Kolsch, the local beer. The words Kolsch itself means “Of Cologne” or refers to the local dialect. It is a pale brew with a mild taste, served in tall, thin glasses. For the best experience, it is to be had in one of the original Brauhaus (brewhouses) in the city. I had mine at the centuries old Peters Brauhaus, with its ancient wood panelling and dark interiors.

In Cologne, the tradition is that the waiters keep coming up with refills the minute your glass is empty. When you are finally done for the evening, and cannot take in one more sip, you place the coaster on top of the glass.

brauhaus

6. Shop for cologne

colognePick up some Eau de Cologne (which literally means “the water of Cologne”) to take back home as gifts (and for yourself). Many shops sell this perfume in many forms, but you are better off buying the original Farina Cologne at the Farina House (museum), which also has a small retail area. The other popular brand is 4711, to be bought at the 4711 House close to the Opera House.

If you are looking for small boutiques and designer stores, then head to the shopping area of Schildergasse, a pedestrianised street that attracts thousands of shoppers each day.

7. Make merry in the Carnival

Finally, the most anticipated event of every year – the Cologne Carnival (read my earlier posts on the Carnival: 1, 2). Although the Carnival season officially starts in November, the one week before the starting of Lent is the most boisterous. This is the time for costumed parades with music and dance, and candy and flowers thrown out to spectators. These are known as the Crazy Days, with specific days set aside for women, children, local associations and so on.

carnival

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