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.

My Spafari experience in South Africa

This is how it works at the Karkloof Safari Spa. They stop you at the main gate to verify your credentials and then phone the reception to expect you. You drive on further on the mud track and reach the reception area. After those last fifteen bumpy minutes on a gravel path, those cold towels feel just perfect.

No complicated check in process: just one signature here please. Someone then smiles broadly and tells you all about the facilities at the safari spa, named after the Karkloof valley it is located in. You smile back at them, only half listening, and get on to the jeeps waiting to transfer you to your villas.

And then you almost fall off your seats. Just outside the reception area, a couple of white rhinoceros are lounging in the shade of a tree (no, not acacia, even if we are in Africa).

Rhino
(image courtesy: Karkloof)

When I enter the Karkloof Safari Spa, I know I am not going to spot any of the big cats. You see, I have gone through their website with increasing wonder and anticipation for days before I finally get there. But I certainly don’t expect a welcoming committee of the other wildlife that this safari lodge meets spa heaven promises.

For a minute, I cynically wonder if the call from the main gate is some sort of code for “visitors ahead, let the rhinos out” but another look at these behemoths kills that thought. So I sit back and take a few hundred photographs. Imagine the abundance of wildlife here when I say that by the time I leave I am blasé about these big guys. Oh ok, one more rhino.

The drive to the villas, through the green and golden bush, is a taste of what is to come. And the dozens of pools, that seemed to be the preferred rendezvous for the local birdlife. By the time we reach the accommodation area, we have spotted zebras, warthogs and the native antelope, nyala (what a fascinating sound; I cannot stop saying the word aloud. Go on, try it yourself.)

nyala

It is a lovely walk from the main lodge to the villas, linked to each other by stone walkways and wooden bridges, with streams gurgling underneath. Esther shows me to my villa, where I make a quick mental note of the espresso machine and the small selection of South African wines.

The villa is a spacious affair with a bedroom, a sitting area and a bathroom that opens out to a cozy rear garden. Up front is a verandah that tempts me to put my feet up and wait for a nyala – there, I use the word again for its sheer melody (it could just as easily be a wildebeest) – to stop by my doorstep. With the bush all around and the expanse of the valley far ahead, it is no wonder they call it a viewing deck.

Villa

View
(images courtesy: karkloof)

The game reserve itself is spread over 8600 acres of land where the animals roam free. And to allow that, it is deliberately devoid of big game, the predators. But I have no time for Karkloof’s fauna to find the time to pay a house call. The spa awaits. In a land strewn with hundreds of national parks and game reserves, a safari lodge that is also a destination spa is a rare delight.

So, the spa. This paean to pampering is set in a space that is as large as the lodge itself. Karkloof takes great pride in the fact that the spa has been built to blend seamlessly into the environment. The nifty buggy gets me straight to the spa and within minutes, I am officially open for a whole day of spadom. One of the best things about this spa is, not having to go through the agony of making hard decisions based on time and money. I have eleven hours of spa treatments to indulge in, breaking off only for a bite of organic food at the spa café or a leisurely game drive to wave at a few giraffe.

All this is part of Karkloof’s concept of “timeless stay”: flexible check in and check out schedules, meal times of your making, game drives at your convenience and the luxury of staying at the spa all day. Uplifting facials? Detoxifying scrubs? Aroma Thai massages? Bring them on.

Spa
(image courtesy: Karkloof)

The star attraction of the spa is the hydrotherapy treatments – a floatation pool, the open area Jacuzzi and the Kniepp pools, among other things. The last is a system devised to boost your blood circulation by making you alternate between hot and cold pools. If you survive the shock to the system, that is. Obviously, I skip it.

In keeping with the eco-friendly theme, the hydrotherapy area boasts of “living roofs” of thatch and grass, where animals wander in to graze. The treatment rooms, also reached through wooden walkways, are spread around the core zone and overlook the wild bush. I almost expect curious zebras to peep in through the large picture windows and suffer mild trauma upon seeing humans with gooey face packs on.

My therapist is a petite Thai lady who silently works magic with her fingers. Towards the end, she tries to give me a few health tips to keep my skin glowing. I wonder sleepily if I can’t take her back home with me instead.

After being spa’d so much, I can barely keep my eyes open at the dinner table. Much of the food choices here are of the raw, healthy variety; I had a choice of falling asleep on the bowl of roasted vine tomato soup (cooked) or the pear, melon and rocket soup (raw).

That bit about game drives being at my own convenience? I had fully intended to make use of it to not wake up at an ungodly hour to go wildlife viewing. But fate has other plans. Our safari guides Kenny and Lovemore hint gently that early mornings are ideal for drives inside the reserve but of course, I could sleep in if I choose to.

ostrich

And so we go on a safari at the crack of dawn. The Karkloof birds – over 300 species within the property – are just coming to life. A couple of hippos are raising their heads hesitantly from inside a large pond. A group of ostriches is going on a disciplined march, even as wild buffalos engage in mock fights nearby. And just about everywhere, zebras and giraffe stay close to each other, grazing, content. The long and short of it, I think, looking at them.

Giraffe
(image courtesy: Karkloof)

zebra

Despite my rhino sighting of the previous day, I am excited at the thought of seeing more of them. Thanks to a white rhino-breeding programme, there are nearly twenty of them in the reserve and a solitary, endangered black rhino. The rhino we spot is right by the side of the road. He ignores us with a steadfast dedication to his breakfast. Seeing him framed against the golden glow of that morning sunlight, there is a moment of affectionate silence in the jeep. Then he looks up and the spell is broken.

Kenny and Lovemore, Zimbabweans both, are remarkably informed and passionate about the reserve and the birds and animals within. They drive us to a “special place” for breakfast. And like everything else I have experienced at Karkloof so far, breakfast too is special, in the bush, on top of a cliff, overlooking the valley.

breakfast

breakfast1

All too soon, it is time to leave. I wonder if I have the time to sneak in one more spa treatment; this kind of thing is rather addictive. But the call of the real world outside these gates is getting sharper.

The Karkloof Safari Spa calls itself Africa’s best kept secret. I come away believing it.

THE INFORMATION

How to get there

Fly Jet Airways (Rs. 51,000) or South African Airways (Rs. 53,000) from Mumbai to Durban via Johannesburg. From Durban’s King Shaka International Airport, the Karkloof Safari Spa is less than a two-hour drive. The nearest big town is Pietermaritzburg, 24 km away.

Visa

Apply for a short-term visitor visa (no fee for Indian nationals) at the VFS in Mumbai or Delhi and allow for a minimum processing time of five working days. A service charge of Rs. 1350 is to be paid in cash at the time of submission of the visa application.

Stay

There are 16 private villas at the Karkloof Safari Spa, with tariff 9900 ZAR per person, per night. The rate is inclusive of all meals, beverages, game drives, outdoor activities and spa treatments. Check in is allowed from 8 am and check out the next evening at 8 pm, which means that for one night, you get two days at the property.

Since the spa has 17 treatment rooms, there is no need to book in advance. And the stay policy also means that you can potentially get up to 22 hours of spa treatments.

Activities

Apart from the wildlife and the spa, the property is home to the Karkloof river and the 340-feet high Karkloof waterfall, reached by a mild hike. And for those so inclined, activities like fishing, birding, mountain biking and yoga sessions are offered.

Hotels I love: Chamba Camp TUTC

There are those who, when they go camping, want to leave it all behind. And then there are those who want to take it all with them. And want to have it all when they get there.

I belong to the latter group. Love and fresh air may be enough for some; I look for fast wi-fi and cappuccino on call.

Enter glamping.

Chamba Camp at Thiksey in Ladakh is the new kid on the glamping block. This flagship property of The Ultimate Travelling Camp (TUTC) has thrown open its gates to guests for the first time this season. Yet, there is not a single misstep in the two days I spend here.

tutc

When I arrive at Chamba Camp, a small welcome team is waiting outside the reception marquee. Warm smiles, introductions, cold towels and sweet herbal tea are passed around. And then someone casually asks if I would like the camp doctor to check my oxygen levels. They are very serious about the acclimatisation process here, advising guests to take it easy on their first day at this altitude.

flowers

Niki — who will be my Jeeves during my stay — walks me to my tent. It comes with a four-poster bed, antique tea chest and comfortable camp-style sofa chairs. And there is a remarkable feel of solidity about the tent; think Baroque chandelier above the bed and gleaming copper sink in the bathroom.

tent

But it is the view that is the showstopper. As soon as I settle down in my chair on the narrow deck outside the tent, I know that I will have no problem with the whole ‘go easy’ advice. Even if I have already spent a couple of days in Ladakh, and am breathing deep and steady by now. My tent faces the Stok range, with a direct view of the snowcapped Stok Kangri, which keeps playing hide and seek with the clouds.

stok

restaurant

If the allure of a hotel or resort partly lies in the location, then Chamba Camp comes up trumps. The campsite sits in the shadow of the picturesque Thiksey monastery, a mishmash of squat ascetic structures cascading down the hill.

The monastery is a constant presence around the campsite, visible from various spots. One set of tents — including the presidential suites meant for families — opens out to this dramatic view. And if that is not enough, there are the dozens of chortens lining the property, towards the direction of the monastery. Chortens are powerful structures in Tibetan Buddhism, often containing sacred relics and artefacts. The ones near the campsite are old and crumbling, but I think they radiate a sense of peace, especially in the muted moonlight.

Thiksey

However, Chamba Camp is not just about the location and the views; this is a property with a purpose. I am curious about how the influential Thiksey monastery has allowed a camp to be set up on its land. Our photographer Sridhar, a Ladakh veteran, wonders if the chortens have been moved — just a little distance — to keep the campsite clean and pretty. Salil Pradhan, who oversees the tours organised by the camp, is shocked at the very idea; after all, they are the interlopers here on the monastery’s territory. Native alfalfa grass is allowed to sprout in profusion inside the campsite and locals are welcome to let their cattle graze on it.

While the monastery did lay down some conditions, Salil says that the TUTC promoters — a few from the armed forces — were always intent on giving back to the local community. The drivers, guides and the security staff here are all Ladakhi. The women tending to the flowers outside my tent are from the neighbouring village and always have a cheery “Juley” ready.

smiles

The monastery, in turn, has given the camp its blessings, with the Rinpoche taking a keen personal interest in the project. And although they don’t advertise this fact, a few senior monks drop in occasionally to consecrate the central prayer flag and have tea with guests.

Salil and his team keep coming up with suggestions on where to go and what to do. Me, I am happy to just read my trashy thriller (turns out the butler didn’t do it) and smile vacantly into the distance. They finally manage to drag me out for a village walk in the evening. And we head with our guide Dorje to his family home for a taste of Ladakhi hospitality marked by salty butter tea and juicy apricots.

It is only later that I learn that for guests like me — who like the active taken out of activity — the campsite itself provides enough distractions. There is a small archery zone, where I see chef Simarpal Virdi in active contest with the valets. Guests are welcome to join in or to head out to watch a vigorous polo match in the vast open space below Stakna monastery. There is enough adventure on offer — rafting, mountain biking, trekking — to suit all levels of fitness and interest. No? Then, perhaps an hour with the spirits at a séance with the village oracle. Or a cultural tour of old Leh, taking in the ruins of the once magnificent palace.

There is something I don’t want to miss. So we head out at daybreak, shivering slightly in the crisp mountain air, to Thiksey for the morning prayer. This is one of my favourite Ladakh experiences: the sonorous chants of the senior monks offset by the giggles of young monks (I call them ‘monklets’) bustling around with kettles filled with butter tea.

monks

prayer

pavbhajiBreakfast is a picnic by the Indus, a picture postcard pretty location chosen by Chamba Camp for birding. We begin with the usual suspects like fresh fruit, cold cuts and baked goodies. Just when I expect this to be followed by eggs, they offer pav bhaji. Even at that early hour, buttery pav bhaji on the banks of a gurgling river is a sublime experience. And I say this as a connoisseur of Mumbai’s roadside pav bhaji, plenty of heat and dust included.

breakfast

Chamba Camp is a far cry from the spate of new guest houses and hotels that dot Leh, with their golden dragon wall motifs and multi-cuisine restaurants. This is understated, tasteful luxury at its best. Sure, the meals are multi-cuisine but it is because chef Simarpal chats with guests to know what they want to eat next. From asparagus risotto topped with intense blue cheese to pan-seared duck breast served with pineapple pilaf, a surprise is whipped up each time. Just ask.

The wi-fi is a bit slow but then we are at an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet. And there is always cappuccino, served with jeera cookies and a smile (oh, the smiles everywhere).

The Ultimate Travelling Camp at Ladakh is open only for a few months during summer, after which the marquees are dismantled and sent to storage in Delhi. The action then shifts to Kohima in Nagaland, in time for the Hornbill Festival. Also in the pipeline are Kotwara near Lucknow, and Dudhwa along the Nepal border.

I like the thought that come winter, when Chamba Camp stays shut, the Thiksey monastery will still keep a benevolent eye over the empty campsite.

THE INFORMATION

Getting there

There are several daily flights from Delhi to Leh (from Rs 8,000 return); from the airport, Chamba Camp is a 30-minute drive.

Tariff

Packages from Rs 1,47,213 for 3 nights/4 days per person on twin sharing basis in a luxury tent (includes transfers from and to Leh airport, all meals and specific guided excursions).

***
The Ultimate Travelling Camp at Thiksey is open only for a few months a year – from June 15 – September 30 this year. Head there for a super luxury experience right in the shadow of the Thiksey monastery.

I had reviewed Chamba Camp at Thiksey for Outlook Traveller Luxe – click here for the published review.

Photographs on this blog were taken by me.

No rhyme or reason

I had not been in Limerick for an hour before someone mentioned Angela’s Ashes. The most famous book to come out of this city is the depressing story of a poor, dank, Catholic Limerick from the 1940s. And I had gone there, fully expecting to feel as dejected as I did when I first read it as an unsuspecting teenager.

Instead what I found on its streets was this signboard:

The Limerick is furtive and mean;
You must keep her in close quarantine,
Or she sneaks up to the slums,
And promptly becomes,
Disorderly, drunk and obscene.

This could easily be a description of the current mood of the city too: fun, boisterous, and ready to become drunk and disorderly at the wee drop of a Guinness. Add to it the words young and prosperous, and you will know why I was happy to be there that spring evening.

This is Limerick’s year in the limelight, chosen to be Ireland’s first homegrown Capital of Culture. And from everything I have seen in the past, European Capital of Culture cities preen endlessly and go on public relations rampages.

Limerick, on the other hand, sits quietly, refusing to take any of it seriously. And I mean it in the best possible way. At an informal press meet, CEO of this project Mike Fitzpatrick was asked about how Limerick was chosen. And Mike, also director of the Limerick School of Art and Design – cue long hair and twinkling eyes – said, “Oh, there was some talk of an Irish Capital of Culture and we put our hands up, and here we are.”

For all that nonchalance, they have their eyes set firmly on the larger target: European Capital of Culture for 2020. Mike and his team have put together hundreds of events and exhibitions through the year, some extending into the next. In early September, the Royal de Luxe came to Limerick for a three day-and-night romp through the streets. The world’s largest street theatre company arrived with a float – The Giant’s Journey – telling the story of an Irish Grandmother Giant.

The Giants Journey
(image courtesy: Limerick City of Culture website)

My favourite event though, which happened over the weekend I spent in the city, was the Culture and Chips Carnival. You tell me, how can you not adore a city that equates fried potatoes with culture? And creates an event around it during what is possibly one of the most significant years in its modern history.

So the Salon Perdu, a massive circus style European mirror tent (Spiegeltent) was set up in the heart of Limerick. For almost a century now, these tents have been used as travelling dance and entertainment halls. Marlene Dietrich has performed there and Marilyn Monroe loved it. And history may – or more likely, may not – say that I have eaten there. For, that evening, I joined a few hundred other people at a formal dinner hosted at the Spiegeltent. Think beet chips with goat cheese, beef chips and mushroom toast, crafts beers and local wines. The dinner ended with music provided by local rock bands, which lasted into the wee hours of the morning.

Salon Perdu

Spiegeltent

Over that weekend, Lema Murphy emerged chip champ at the World Chip Championships, with her triple cooked chips with a baked bean and bacon sauce, served with a deep fried egg yolk on the side. And judges spoke of seeking participants with a passion for the potato. As I said, my kind of place.

But the Capital of Culture project is not just about food. There is a lot of investment in art, on the streets and in the city museums. The EVA International Project, Ireland’s Biennale of contemporary art, has this time around been brought under the umbrella of the Capital of Culture. The theme, not surprising for Ireland perhaps, given its recent violent history, is Agitationism. There are installations everywhere, in traditional venues such as the Limerick City Gallery of Art and in quirky spaces such as a former milk plant.

So there was total cultural immersion, walking among these installations, in a somewhat bemused manner (modern art being modern art). Then we were taken on a whirlwind tour through the fabulous Hunt Museum, one of Ireland’s largest private collections of art and antiques. And at St. John’s Castle, I amused myself posing for photographs behind heavy duty armour suits – hail fellow, helmet – and playing interactive video games, all in the name of understanding 800 years of Limerick’s dramatic past. Before you judge me, remember, there is only so much culture anyone can imbibe in one morning.

Later that afternoon, there was the incident of what came to be known in our group as Twice Backwards On The Shannon. This Limerick story practically wrote itself as I stepped out of the Shannon river, adrenalin pumping, fingers shaking, bodysuit dripping. My maiden kayaking adventure and I found myself going backwards on the rapids (ok, in hindsight, they were not that rapid but hey) not once but twice. The second time was when I saw that my fellow kayakers, bloody showoffs who had likely been doing this all their lives, had smoothly got themselves to the shore. And I let down my guard, happy in the thought that one more box in my long list called ‘adventure activities’ was marked, never to have to be repeated.

Just when I started paddling towards the bank – and the inviting warmth of our team leader Dave’s van parked there – I felt myself being pulled back by the strong currents. Not a good time to remember everything we had discussed earlier in the day: that the Shannon is Ireland’s longest river, not far from the Atlantic Ocean and that at low tide, the currents get rather rough. To cut a long story short, Dave had to pull me ashore and to my acute embarrassment, has documented it all on his nifty camera.

Kayaking

This is not to say I hated it all. After the initial ten minutes of sheer terror, I found myself relaxing and waving a cheery hullo to the swans gliding by my kayak, perhaps attracted by the bright green colour. I even seem to remember a brief spell of time when I was fearless enough to let Dave – bless his patient heart – out of my sight. And co-kayakers say (although like Aamir Khan in Ghajini, I have no memory of it now, since there exist no tattoos, or photos of the moment), I even let go of my paddle and played a ball game with the gang once.

There is something to be said about seeing a city from the water; not from the comfort of a cushioned seat, as a guide drones on about the buildings you cross but wedged tight in a canoe, paddling on for dear life. Medieval castles and bridges loom large in the horizon, making you feel very small and strangely excited.

St Johns Castle

However, of all the Capital of Culture events, the one I cherished was the choral festival called Limerick Sings at St. Mary’s Cathedral. The 12th century Cathedral is the oldest living building in town, used for both daily church service and community events such as this choir festival. During my quick visit earlier in the day, it was a quiet and dignified place of worship with stunning stained glass windows and ornate chandeliers.

Come evening, as locals and tourists together headed there, the Cathedral turned into a spectacular venue, with the chandeliers lit up and the voices of the choir singers soaring into the tall ceilings. And you know the best part? Beginning with the devout Lassus Scholars, soon joined by spiritual musician Nóirín Ní Riain, who glided in through the aisles playing what seemed like a small Indian harmonium, and then the choir groups all the way from Minnesota, they all seemed like they were having great fun.

Cathedral

Limerick Sings
(image courtesy: Tourism Ireland)

Limerick today is a big University town and there are crowds of young people everywhere – on the streets, in the outdoor cafés and in the pubs. And as you would expect from any young self-respecting Irish person, they are drinking beer. There’s nothing left of the impoverished, miserable city that McCourt wrote of; Angela’s ashes have long been scattered into the wind. And there is no better time to be in Limerick.

Limerick

THE INFORMATION

Getting there: Fly Jet Airways or Etihad out of Mumbai (Rs. 33,000) or Delhi (Rs. 35,000) to Dublin via Abu Dhabi. You can take a coach from Dublin Airport to Limerick (more frequent services from downtown; 3hrs; about 200km; from €10; dublincoach.ie), or take the frequent 747 bus to Heuston Station to board a train to the Limerick Junction (from €14.99; irishrail.ie).

Visa: Visa for travel to The Republic of Ireland is processed in seven working days (Rs. 5,000 for single entry and Rs. 8,300 for multiple entry; 022-67866033, vfs-ireland.co.in). Holders of a valid short term visa for UK don’t need a separate visa for travel to Ireland although the Irish Short Stay Visa Waiver Programme requires they travel first to the UK for immigration check. This programme doesn’t amount to a common UK and Irish visa regime (and the possession of an Irish visa does not allow travellers to enter the UK). Travel to Northern Ireland is governed by additional regulations. The British- Irish Visa Scheme, expected to become effective from December 2014, will allow visitors from China and India to travel to Ireland and UK on a single visa, though they would have to travel first to the country that issued the visa.

Stay: The Savoy is Limerick’s best address, located in the middle of the shopping district and within walking distance of all attractions; rooms from €109.

Trivia: The name Limerick has nothing to do with the poem with the format AABBA but derives from the Gaelic word Luimneach meaning ‘bare ground.’ However, there is a theory that the poetry form got its name due to its popularity in Irish bars and public houses many centuries ago.

***
An edited version of this story was published in the November issue of Outlook Traveller – read it online here

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