The sound of Salzburg

SoM

The Sound of Music is the kind of film that defies both superlative and age. Starring the inimitable Julie Andrews, the movie won five Academy Awards back in 1966, and to this day, remains the third highest grosser in Hollywood. It turns 50 this year, and clearly, nobody is immune from its charm, not even Lady Gaga, whose medley of four songs from the movie stole the show at the Academy Awards this year.

Every year, over 300,000 tourists head to Salzburg, where the film was shot, just to follow its trail. Locals say they have never understood what the fuss was all about, but, they have learnt to take it in their stride, some of them even making a living out of it, with conducted tours, cute memorabilia and stage performances.

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Exactly 50 years after The Sound of Music the the silver screen, its charm remains undiminished. In honour of this anniversary, I wrote a piece for Conde Nast Traveller India. Read the rest of the story here

Once upon a time in Copenhagen

I had written about one of the world’s most popular storytellers, Hans Christian Andersen, his life in Copenhagen and works for the Economic Times Sunday Magazine recently: Once upon a time in Copenhagen. He was a fascinating character, his life full of contradictions,and above all, he was a man after my own heart – see this line from his autobiography: “To roam the roads of lands remote, to travel is to live.”

Copenhagen

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A walk tracing the life and times of Hans Christian Andersen in Copenhagen is fascinating for many reasons. Among them is the fact that many places still look the way they did over 150 years ago, when the writer of some of the world’s most loved fairy tales, lived there.

We meet for the walk one pleasant summer afternoon in front of the town hall – to be precise, in front of the statue of Hans Christian Andersen right by its side. I can barely see the statue, which is photographed endlessly by the hordes of Chinese tourists, who cannot seem to get enough of it. After all, Andersen is one of Denmark’s most famous sons, and Copenhagen’s key attractions even today.

One of the first stops on the walk is a glimpse of the guesthouse – our guide claims that the space was then so crowded that people were forced to sleep standing up – where Andersen spent his first few nights in the city. The most interesting halt on this walk is in front of a tiny window at the basement of the courthouse, once housing the town prison. Andersen was perhaps inspired to write one of his rare happy stories ‘The Tinderbox,’ by the idea of a prisoner gazing out of that window on to a free world.

Born in Odense in Denmark in 1805, Andersen made his way to Copenhagen seeking a better life when he was 14, armed with just 12 kroner and big dreams. His ambition was to shine in the performing arts: the theatre, the ballet or the opera. He trained his eyes on the Royal Danish Theatre, trying his hand at many things, including singing and dancing. With his squeaky voice and gangly looks, he was rather unsuccessful in all his attempts.

Det kongelige teater

Following those youthful pursuits, he became a fairy tale writer purely by chance. It was only in 1835 – a full 16 years after he arrived in Copenhagen – that he published his first collection of fairy tales, which was received warmly. Over the course of his life, he wrote a total of 168 fairy tales, including The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Princess and The Pea.

Over the walk, we learn that Andersen was a man of great contradictions. He was a bit of a grouch, not always getting along with people; yet he constantly managed to find benevolent patrons for his work. He was known to be stingy and cheap but was always clad in elegant and expensive clothes. And most significantly, this teller of tales for children never married and himself had no children.

HCA

Perhaps due to the mild underlining of sorrow in his personal life, his fairy tales were never really the cheerful sort, unlike those of the Brothers Grimm from the neighbouring country of Germany, who contrary to their name, wrote the “happily ever after” kind of stories. Whether his stories – with their tinge of dark humour and irony – can be called fairy tales or not, they stay relevant even today, and have been translated into over 150 languages.

The city is littered with monuments to Andersen’s work. For instance, one his most popular tales ‘The Little Mermaid’ is commemorated in Copenhagen in the form of a statue at the city harbour. Much like the Mannekin Pis in Brussels, this small, unassuming statue – blink and you miss it – is much adored and much photographed by visitors. The Little Mermaid who sits sad, despondent, just like the mermaid from the story, was a gift to the city from brewer Carl Jacobsen, and created by sculptor Edvard Eriksen in 1913. Legend has it that Jacobsen was enchanted by a ballet on the mermaid, performed at the Royal Danish Theatre, and wanted to immortalise the character.

The Little Mermaid

Another of Andersen’s haunts that we visit later is the bustling Nyhavn area by the canal, lined with hotels and restaurants with colourful facades. During his time, these buildings were all houses and he lived for over 20 years in this area, moving from one to the other. Today, along with my Andersen pilgrimage, I find it a great place for an evening of beer swigging and people watching.

Nyhavn

It is believed that Andersen was shaped by his keen observations of everyday life in Copenhagen and his extensive travels within Europe. Indeed, his passion for travel shines through, in these lines in his autobiography: “To roam the roads of lands remote, to travel is to live.”

Fittingly, my day ends with a spin through his world, with a joy ride called the Flying Trunk at Tivoli Gardens, one of the world’s first entertainment parks. The seven-minute jaunt recreates some of his well-known stories, making me aware that his stories are still capable of delighting not just children, but also adults.

Of poets and pints: a literary pub crawl in Dublin

Let me start this story with a couple of “bet you didn’t know” bits of trivia: author and playwright Oscar Wilde played boxing for his alma mater, Trinity College. And Oliver Goldsmith, of The Vicar of Wakefield fame, also wrote the popular nursery rhymes Jack & Jill and Hickory Dickory Dock.

I know these interesting tidbits because of an evening in Dublin spent on a pub crawl, punctuated by not just pit stops for beer but also generous amounts of information about the city’s poets and authors. The Dublin literary pub crawl is the perfect mix of everything the city has to offer: history, architecture, green open spaces and literature, all of it washed down by pint after pint of glorious beer.

Actors

After all, Dublin has produced four Nobel Prize winners for literature (William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney). And it has been home to literary greats like James Joyce, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. In a nod to this rich heritage, Dublin is a designated UNESCO city of literature.

And on the other hand, Dublin is also home to over 850 pubs. As the joke goes, “How do you cross the city without passing a pub?” The answer, credited to James Joyce, “Go into every one of them.” Pubs were, and still are, to Dublin what coffee houses were to Vienna – social and cultural hubs. And for many writers, their favourite watering hole was a haven and sometimes even a muse.

We cannot, of course, go into every one of them this evening, but the aim is to get us into atleast a few pubs with literary associations. I reach The Duke at 7 pm sharp, all ready to start crawling my way through Dublin’s pubs. Colm Quilligan, the brains behind this literary pub crawl says, “At the end, you won’t be too drunk, but you won’t be too sober either.” And on that promising note, the pub crawl begins.

The group – about ten of us, mostly Americans – meet in the “snug” on the first floor of The Duke, a room that is just as small and cozy as the name suggests. Every pub has a snug, although the idea is redundant now. Till the middle of the 20th century, women were barred from entering pubs, a rule supported by the Roman Catholic Church to “prevent the spread of vice.” It was only when the men went away to war – in the 1940s – that women were grudgingly allowed into these hallowed premises, and even then only in a small, segregated area called the snug.

The Duke

Colm and his colleague Frank get the audience to loosen up a bit with their rendition of the Waxie’s Dargle, a traditional Irish folk song about local candle-makers. Then they don black bowler hats and enact a scene from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, ending with a quote from a London reviewer at the time it was first performed, “The only play ever seen in which nothing happens – twice.”

While the Irish take great pride in their famous literary works, they are not beyond laughing at them too. The duo then act out a bar brawl from Ulysses, claiming that this is the most familiar scene from this quintessential Irish novel, “since it is in the first chapter, and few people get beyond it.”

Performance

From The Duke, we head out as a motley procession towards Trinity College, which Colm calls “a cultural stop without a drink.” Standing in the front courtyard facing the grand buildings, he talks about its illustrious students, including Oscar Wilde. The writer hated the college, referring to his classmates as a “dreadful lot” and dropped out to study at Oxford instead. But during his days at the college, he refined his drinking skills, following in the footsteps of others like Oliver Goldsmith and Samuel Beckett before him.

Trinity College

Our next stop, which Colm declares a “drinking stop without culture,” is O’Neills, housed in a beautiful Victorian building. This bar is filled with locals and tourists, drinking away after a hard day’s work. The vibe is warm and friendly, and the pub itself is a warren of several tiny rooms and nooks (including, of course, a snug). There has been a pub in some form at this same spot for over 300 years, with a reputation for serving some of the best beer in the city. Another of Colm’s colleagues, Jessica, joins us here.

By the time we leave O’Neills, a few pints of Guinness have gone down among the group, and while we are not actually crawling yet, we are walking very slowly. Although the origin of the term “pub crawl” is from another university town, Cambridge, Colm says, “There have always been pub crawls in Dublin, even way back in the 17th century, when Trinity students went rampaging through the city’s taverns, narrating from the works of classical Greek and Latin poets.”

ONeills

Colm should know, given that he founded this modern version of the pub crawl over 20 years ago. This one comes off as a great experience since the guides are all professional actors, with a passion for literature. Not surprisingly, this literary pub crawl is one of the most popular activities for any visitor to the city, and ranked high on the Sunday Times’ list of the world’s 50 best walks.

From O’Neills, we walk across to the Protestant St. Andrews Church, built in 1665 but closed in the 1980s thanks to dwindling patronage. Today, it serves as the Dublin Tourism Office, still providing guidance to the masses, although not of a spiritual nature. On the pavement outside the erstwhile church, Colm and Jessica perform a hilarious scene from Strumpet City, James Plunkett’s story about a massive industrial strike in the early 20th century, known simply as the Lockout.

The scene is about a dialogue between two of the strikers, Toucher Hennessy and Rashers Tierney, both begging on the street for a spot of beer money. Rashers gives Toucher a quick lesson on spotting the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant, so he could customise his appeal. Colm and Jessica live the parts with their gestures and accents, taking us back to a time of great strife in Dublin.

Toucher

Following that is another halt for more beer and more stories at The Old Stand, once a haunt for political activists and now favoured by professionals in finance and law. Our final stop for the night is at Davy Byrnes, a trendy bar now, known for being featured in several scenes in Ulysses. Its other claim to fame is that Samuel Beckett lived in a room above it during his student days at Trinity. However, I like Davy Byrnes best as the pub where novelist Brendan Behan uttered his famous line about him being a “drinker with a writing problem.”

Through the walk and the pub stops, Colm has been throwing pop quiz questions at us (including the ones about Wilde’s university sport and Goldsmith’s nursery rhymes). Finally, in front of Davy Byrnes, the winners get coveted Dublin Pub Crawl T-shirts as prizes. Of course, most of us stay back for that one last pint at Davy Byrnes and exchange of notes about the experience. It has been a long – and entertaining – walk and I am glad to rest my feet. But I cannot complain; Colm had warned us that the whole thing takes over two hours “depending on how fast you walk and how slow you drink.”

Davy Byrnes

QUICK FACTS

Getting there: Fly to Dublin on Jet Airways, connecting via Abu Dhabi with partner airline Etihad.

Accommodation: Stay at The Fitzwilliam, located close to the main shopping areas. The cozy Brooks Hotel is another popular choice, also ideally situated for shopping and eating options.

For more information: log on to http://www.dublinpubcrawl.com

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This was published in the July issue of Jet Wings International – see it in pdf form here

High up in Heidiland

As I peel off a jacket and then a sweater on my hike up from Maienfeld village towards Heididorf, I am reminded of an initial scene from the book. Heidi is clambering up the Alps behind her aunt Dete, and as it gets warmer and warmer, off comes one layer of clothing after another. I must have read the book nearly three decades ago, yet I remember that scene vividly. And I remember rooting for the impish, rebellious little orphan that moment on.

Me, I am not rebelling; I am just not clad for the warm weather. The last few days had been unseasonably wet and cold for August, and I had fully expected more of the same.

Hike up to Heidiland

The signs for Heididorf – Heidi’s village where her home has been recreated for her fans – start as soon as you get off at Maienfeld’s railway station. And why not? It is one of the region’s star attractions, drawing visitors from as far as Japan. But more on that later.

Heididorf is an easy hour’s walk from the station, through the pretty village of Maienfeld and up hilly roads lined with vineyards. A dozen photo stops, a bit of huffing and a lot of puffing later, I pull up at tiny Heididorf.

Maienfeld

So, here’s the thing. In Heidiland, it is easy to forget that Heidi is a fictional character. There is a museum dedicated to her life; to author Johanna Spyri really, and the innumerable Heidi adaptations. It comes with a souvenir shop that sells, yes, Heidi-themed things from chocolates to fridge magnets, school bags and water bottles. Close to it is a model of Heidi’s home, the one she would have shared with her grumpy grandpa.

Heidi's home

Heidi and Peter

I am ambivalent about this experience, when I overhear someone say in a breathless voice, “This is a dream come true for me.” When I mention this later to Tabhitha Forrer from Heidiland Tourism, she says this is a common sentiment expressed by Heididorf visitors.

What makes Heidi, written in 1880 by an unknown Swiss, so popular even today? It remains one of the largest selling books in the world, translated into over 50 languages. There are five known movie versions, including a blockbuster with Shirley Temple, of golden locks and puppy eyes fame. Spyri, in her book, of course, describes Heidi as having short, black curly hair, but that’s Hollywood for you.

And it has been televised in several languages, from Arabic to Japanese. And friends tell me that Heidi is still as fascinating as Doraemon (or is it Pokemon – forgive my ignorance) is to young viewers of animated television. According to Tabitha, Swiss children who had stopped reading – as did children of successive video game and iPad generations all over the world – rediscovered Heidi with these translated animation series.

Japanese men and women (especially the latter, I suspect) of a certain age, who grew up watching the 1974 anime Heidi, Girl of the Alps make up a large proportion of visitors of Heididorf. Every year, half a dozen Japanese couples make their way to the village to get married. Surely enough, there is a Japanese wedding planning website called Heidiwedding.com and this is what I can make out from Google’s quirky translation: Take your wedding vows in the Heidi Alps, in a world you have dreamed of as a child.

Heidiwedding

I have to admit, even without the Heidi motif, it is a beautiful spot to get hitched in. The lulling sound of cowbells. The crisp mountain air. The uninterrupted views of distant mountain peaks.

Later at lunch, I meet Hitsch Möhr, ex-Mayor of Maienfeld. His claim to fame in my eyes is that he featured in a local production of the movie in 1953. It is initially difficult to imagine this charming, bald man as a ten-year-old on the sets. Then he grins as he talks about going for auditions just to get a day off from school, and the years fall away. Hobnobbing with a film star (almost) over some melt-in-the-mouth nusstorte, the region’s special nut pastry, is the ideal end to my Heidi morning.

nusstorte

That afternoon, I am let into a Swiss secret, and it has nothing to do with bank accounts. In the neighbouring village of Malans, I meet fifth generation wine-maker Martin Donatsch, who has trained in Australia, South Africa, France and Spain. Martin – whose mother’s name is Heidi – has been winning awards for his Pinot Noir. But what wins me over during the tasting session, is the intense Completer, a grape unique to Switzerland.

Swiss vineyards

Martin Donatsch

And then I wonder what other secrets the Swiss hold close to their hearts.

Things to do

Maienfeld in the Graubünden Canton in Eastern Switzerland is a two-hour train ride from Zurich. While in Graubünden, hike and ski in Flumserberg and Pizol, or indulge in a thermal spa treatment at Bad Ragaz. Also go sightseeing at Chur, Switzerland’s oldest town, which also calls itself The Alpine City.

More information on Heididorf

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This story, based on a recent Switzerland trip, was published in Mumbai Mirror on November 10, 2013 as Rooting for Heidi

The Zomato Guide to eating out in Bangalore

ZomatoI recently got a review copy of the Zomato Connoisseur’s Guide to eating out in Bangalore, 2013 edition. I have occasionally used Zomato to check out restaurant reviews (altough Burrp comes up first in most online searches and I haven’t yet been able to spot a marked difference between the two).

What I liked

Compared to the Kingfisher Good Food Guide – which is the only other food guide I have read – in this one, the reviews are written by Zomato members – who are regularly active on the website, classified as Super Foodies or Connoisseur. So I am happy to know that the reviews are by real foodies – as opposed to professional food writers or reviewers who might have an agenda.

There is a lot of useful information like: whether you need a reservation, whether there is home delivery, what not to be missed and so on.

The ratings are classified as – out of 5 – good (3.1 – 3.5), very good (3.6 – 4), excellent (4.1 – 4.5) and legendary (4.6 – 5). And only restaurants that have a minimum rating of 3.1 on their website have been included here in the book. So hopefully, that means none of them is going to be disappointing. (But I didn’t find any ‘legendary’ restaurants in the book – did I miss anything:?)

The index is interesting – it is not only based on cuisine, as is usual in such guides but also on the basis of occasion – so there is: Catching up, Formal dining, Family dining and so on, which I think is useful.

What could be better

Re. the indexing, I wish I knew why some of them have been listed under certain heads. Take, for example, family dining – why are these places best for families – are there any special activities for children? is the ambiance more suited for families? Why is Mainland China under ‘Family Dining’ and not ‘Asian and Oriental’?

Also, because of this indexing – occasion + cuisine – many restaurants have appeared in two places and that seems unnecessary and somewhat annoying. E.g. The Egg Factory comes under ‘Breakfast’ and ‘Casual Dining’.

Somewhat mystifyingly, popular (or what I think are popular and good) restaurants have not found a place in the book – can immediately think of a few like Spaghetti Kitchen, On the edge, Aromas of China… And I see on the website that they have a 3.1+ rating there.

All the rest I can overlook – but what I absolutely hate about this book is the lack of any kind of editing. They do say at the beginning that they have “edited the excerpt very minimally to retain the original ‘speak and feel’ of user comments.” Sure – but at the cost of lucid, good writing?

Let me give you some examples:
“I did the task with all dedication and divinity” – divinity? really? in eating at a restaurant?
“…authentic state delicacies with zero hullaboo” – is hullaboo some new youth slang that I am unaware of?

Spelling mistakes, too many “awesomes” and “too goods” – I am not entirely sure I would trust the recommendation of someone who writes like (and perhaps is) a teenager.

Le Jardin at The Oberoi, MG Road is classified under’ Italian and European’ and the information also clearly states that the cuisine is ‘Continental, Italian’ – but the entire review is about an Indian dinner buffet that that reviewer had there – he writes about kababs and biryani. This, I think is not just poor editing – it is utter disregard for content. How could the curators / editors let such a glaring mistake seep in?

The last word

I think it is an interesting idea – having reviews written by actual foodies who are active on the Zomato website. I even like the idea of keeping user speak intact. But please, please, give some thought and time to editing in the future – sloppiness is forgivable on the internet, not in a printed book.

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