Photoessay on Livraria Lello, Portugal’s most beautiful bookshop

It was a dull and rainy day in Porto when I walked into Livraria Lello. And my world was instantly filled with glorious sunshine. Even before I landed in Portugal, this bookshop featured on my must do list, especially thanks to its association with JK Rowling.

In her brief time in Porto as an impoverished writer in the 1990s, Rowling is believed to have frequented this store – and there are even wild theories that it was the inspiration behind the Harry Porter books. Whether that is true or not, it is not tough to believe that the interiors of Livraria Lello made her conceptualise Hogwarts the way she did.

Portugal itself seems to be a land of books, with a cute bookshop on practically every street, and even a whole city of literature. But the crowning glory is easily Livraria Lello, opened in 1906.

As soon as I entered, it was the grand architecture that first caught my attention, especially the stunning Art Nouveau spiral staircase at the heart of the store, that seems to have been created for photography. Then there is the stained glass ceiling and the rich wood panelling that makes it seem more like an ancient church than a contemporary bookstore.

In fact, the whole shop is a selfie-taker’s delight, every single corner offering some kind of unique and attractive frame.

The store has an eclectic collection of both English and Portuguese books, a wide range from popular fiction (including, of course, the Harry Porter series) to books on fine wines and quirky street art.

On that rainy afternoon, I also chanced upon Alice and the Mad Hatter chatting with each other in one corner of the upper floor, inviting kids and adults alike to their tea party.

This bookstore has become such a popular tourist attraction that it now charges 5.50 euros just for entry (redeemable against purchase of books). Despite that, there was a long queue outside the door when I reached; having bought the tickets online earlier, I could march right up to the entrance and make a quick entry.

Perhaps I will be fortunate enough to visit it once again in future, at a time when it is less crowded and it is actually possible to see more books than people!

Song of the marble rocks

It was only during my seventh or eighth visit to the heart of India – remember that catchy ad ‘Hindustan ka dil dekho’ – that I discovered its heart. Or at the very least, its lifeline. The river Narmada. Flowing softly between the Satpuras and Vindhyas, the Narmada becomes a stunning spectacle near Jabalpur, as it winds between towering limestone cliffs.

This is Bhedaghat, one of Madhya Pradesh’s lesser known gems.

The first time I saw Bhedaghat was as a child, through photos my parents had taken when they visited as newlyweds. I am not sure whether it was the mesmeric quality of the water, or the unmatched charm of black and white, but I remember being fascinated.

Many years later, I came upon more images of Bhedaghat – this time in colour – on a popular photography networking site. A couple of young boys were standing on the cliffs, poised to dive into the water to pick up coins thrown by pilgrims (in the hope, I am guessing, of having their sins washed away).

It took me a while to make the connection between these vignettes and those black and white images from my past. But when the penny finally dropped, I knew that it was time for me to go there. I got my chance a few months ago, when I made a detour to Bhedaghat on my way back home from Kanha National Forest, via Jabalpur.

Winter was approaching, and even in the bright warmth of the afternoon, there was a nip in the air as we approached the ghats. The moment we entered the Bhedaghat area, it became obvious that we were in marble territory; from five feet tall images of gods and goddesses to miniature Taj Mahals, there were rows of shops lining the main road and the narrow steps going down to the river. I resolutely ignored all offers to have my name engraved in marble or buy carved candle stands to take back home as souvenirs.

It was utter chaos by the banks, as large groups of holidaymakers shouted their way to the best bargain rates on the boats waiting to ferry them around. We finally managed to get a boat for just the three of us for what we were assured was a reasonable fare. The boatman went so far as to suggest that we would be so delighted by the end that we would offer more money on our own.

Given that kind of promise, it was difficult not to be excited.

The boatman kept up a steady stream of commentary in verse form through the ride, pointing out interesting shapes on the rocks and boasting of the various Hindi movies shot there. From Jis Desh Me Ganga Behti Hai to Ashoka, this location seemed to have captured the imagination of filmmakers.

He also kept up a steady stream of jokes on diverse topics from the wonders of nature to the travails of married life. This was interspersed with snippets of information about the geography of the place. One of the unverified stories about Bhedaghat is that once upon a time, these marble hillocks were close to each other, slowly drifting apart as the Narmada cut her way through.

Through the ride, we saw the shape shifting rocks through his eyes – human faces, elephants, Ganesha and much more. Most stunning were the colours of the marble, mixed with volcanic rocks that created a range from sparkling white to various shades of pink and yellow.

By the time we turned back, the sun had descended from high up in the sky, and in the muted sunlight everything seemed different, including the shapes and hues of the rocks.

Much later, when I was back home, I read explorer Captain Forsythe’s words on this marvel of nature. Upon sighting these rocks for the first time, he had waxed eloquent in his book ‘Highlands of Central India’, “The eye never wearies of the effect produced by the broken and reflected sunlight, now glancing from a pinnacle of snow-white marble reared against the deep blue of the sky… Here and there, the white saccharine limestone is seamed by veins of dark green or black volcanic rock; a contrast which only enhances, like a setting of jet, the purity of the surrounding marble.”

From there, we walked towards Dhuandhar Falls, literally meaning “misty”, a name it lives up to completely. We trudged up to the viewing platform for the most spectacular views, enjoying the cool spray of water on our faces and the thundering roar of the falls. After all, the Narmada takes a dive here from a height of 98 feet.

My mind kept going back to the marble rocks, and the fact that there are special boat rides on full moon nights, when the marbles shine like pearls. Given how stunning the experience was during the day, that was something I immediately put on my travel list (which only keeps growing). Next time, perhaps.

INFORMATION

Getting there

The nearest airport Jet Airways flies to is Bhopal, from where Bhedaghat is 280 km (5½ hours drive) away.

Accommodation

While most people make Bhedaghat a day trip from Jabalpur, staying overnight provides a better experience. Choose from the MPSTDC run Motel Marble Rocks or the slightly more upmarket Vrindavan Gopala Resort that offers great views of Dhuandhar Falls.

Travel Tips

~ Plan your trip around the cooler months after the monsoons, when the rivers are in full flow and the days are not scorching hot.

~ It is best to club Bhedaghat with a visit to Bandhavgarh or Kahna National Park, or the lush hill station of Pachmahri.

~ At Bhedaghat, make time for the 10th century Chausath Yogini temple on a hill close to Dhuandhar Falls.

Friday photo: seaside village

I left a bit of my heart behind in Portugal – on a recent two week road trip through the south of Spain and Portugal. Spain was lovely, but we knew what we were in for. But Portugal, so unexpectedly delightful! Gorgeous views, friendly people, soulful fado music, and oh, that stunning Azulejo tile art…

So, this Friday, a view of Azenhas Do Mar, a seaside village close to Lisbon – and if this does not make you want to pack your bags for Portugal right away, I don’t know what will…

It’s always soup o’clock in Myanmar

Soup for breakfast? Yes please!

It was a pleasant winter morning in Nyaung Shwe, the small town in the Shan region in eastern Myanmar. Even at that early hour, there were people milling around on the narrow lanes. Many of them were travellers, on their way to Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s most popular tourist destinations.

The others, locals all, were either sitting on wobbly plastic chairs clustered around plastic tables inside small shacks. Or they were walking purposefully towards one such shack.

These roadside cafés were not just makeshift breakfast joints but also served a serious purpose as social hubs for the local population. Here was where they caught up with news – either in the form of the printed word or in the form of gossip – over their morning soups.

I was also headed to one of those, following my guide Aye, who assured me that it was the most popular. I had eschewed the usual bland fare served at my resort, for a local breakfast of the Tohu Nuway soup that was special to the Shan region.

When I had first read the description for Shan Tohu Nuway, it was not the most promising, I assure you. A soup with tofu? Blah, even if it is Burmese tofu. But these blogs from seasoned travellers had said it was a must have, and who was I to protest?

And then, it was also a vegetarian dish, a blessing I would usually grab with both hands and warm words of thanks. Myanmar, I discovered, has a wide repertoire of vegetarian dishes, perhaps because it is culturally closer to South Asia (think Nepalese lentil curries and Sri Lankan coconut gravies) than South East.

The main meals had been easy thus far, with Myanmar’s incredible range of salads, from the very quirky and tasty fermented tea leaf salad to the more sedate ones like those with green tomato or avocado. But I was a bit unsure about this breakfast soup.

In any case, the Tohu Nuway soup turned out to be absolutely delicious, the tofu here made of mashed chickpea and served as a warm gloop as a topping. The texture of this tofu was creamy and silky, very unlike the crumbly soy tofu that I tended to steer clear of.

My first spoonful was tentative, suspicious; but after that, it was all over in a quick and undignified flash of slurps. It was a sublime marriage of tastes and textures.

The tohu paste, I discovered, is kept warm, and poured on to a liquidy soup of flash-boiled noodles. It is then further topped with all manners of delicious and crunchy things, including roasted garlic, pounded peanuts, toasted sesame, cabbage and parsley.

But it was that last addition, a crunchy chilli paste, that really made my blasé sub-continental palate sing. And go back for it the next morning.

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