Fifty shades of white

Provence, of course, I knew well – I had driven around the villages in the footsteps of Peter Mayle, whose sardonic, yet affectionate look at life in those parts had left me wanting to worship at his feet. And the hillslopes of Tuscany, with their quaint villages, had come to be my secret “when I retire” place, thanks to Frances Mayes’ book ‘Under the Tuscan Sun,’ which is about finding home where the heart is.

So, why had no one told me about Spain’s pretty Pueblos Blancos, the White Villages dotted through the pretty Andalusian landscape? These villages get their collective name from the limewash paint used on the outer walls of homes to keep them cool in the scorching summers. I discovered this charming region in the south of Spain very recently on a road trip with the husband.

Ronda was the first major stop in this circuit, and after battling with the touristy hordes who insisted on photobombing my every image at Cordoba and Granada earlier, it was a welcome relief to see Ronda almost devoid of visitors.

This village is home to the Plaza de Toros, Spain’s second oldest bullring that has been immortalized in several of Hemingway’s books. And that is where we headed first, on the off-chance of watching an actual bullfight that evening. The season, however, did not start till after Easter, and so we had to settle for a tour of the bullring and the museum with its collection of fascinating objects that added a dash of romance to this otherwise gory sport.

Ronda’s other big attraction is the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) high over the floor of the canyon, connecting La Cuidad, the heritage part of town with El Mercadillo, the modern market quarter. We got a sense of this town’s history only when we learned that the “new bridge”- offering stunning views of the countryside for miles on end – was built in 1788. But more than anything else, the village itself was a stunning sight, clinging proudly and precariously to a clifftop, the shiny whites of its buildings a perfect foil to the deep browns of the land.

It was only the next morning, when we headed out of Ronda towards Seville, with the vague plan to “stop at a white village or two on the way,” that we realized how much time and attention this part of Spain deserved. The friendly tourism officer at Grazalema was shocked when we told him our plans; only two hours in his gorgeous village? he shook his head in despair before proceeding to mark out the most significant attractions on the map.

He then went a step further, plotting the rest of our day for us. Clearly, every single village was worth a detailed exploration but how were we ever going to manage that? Grazalema itself was a charmer, every corner throwing up a new vista of the lush limestone hills of the Parque Natural de Sierra de Grazalema that surrounds this village. Add to that an ornate cathedral here, a bustling square there, each and demanding attention like a particularly eager child

Spring was in the air, with clumps of wild flowers along the roads and homes sporting earthen pots of cheerful flowers on their tiny balconies. Every narrow alleyway held the promise of new and exciting finds – such labyrinths are characteristic of this region – a throwback to the time when it was under Moorish rule, giving it the name Al-Andalus.

After this, Arcos de la Frontera and Medina Sidonia – both boasting a checkered mix of Roman, Moorish and Christian origins – went by in a bleached blur. We stopped for lunch at the former, where preparations for Easter were on in full swing at the beautiful Basilica of Santa Maria de la Ascension, rising tall amidst squat white buildings. Unfortunately, we reached Medina Sidonia when the village was enjoying siesta time and not a leaf stirred on its streets.

Another unexpected delight – we had read about it only a couple of days ago in our trusty guidebook – was Setenil de las Bodegas just before Ronda. Setenil turned out to be a unique detour, with its modern structure seeming to be hewn into the craggy rocks, or sprout from its ancient cave dwellings, depending on where you see it from.

Every whitewashed café and shop along the narrow lane I walked on, had an overhanging cave for a roof, keeping it cool even on that muggy afternoon. The ‘bodega’ in the name suggests that these caves were probably once used to store the local wines in moderate temperatures.

I could not think of a more fitting end to this drive than a pitcher of the regional Tinto (red wine). We settled down at an uncrowded bar to watch the sun go down on this ancient village, wondering what living there would be like.

Friday photo: Lucerne

In a country that is dotted with blockbuster landscapes and picturesque cities, I found myself falling in love with Lucerne very easily and rapidly. Its location at the banks of Lake Lucerne and River Reuss, surrounded by the majestic mountains; the Kapellbrucke covered wooden bridge across the river; and then the medieval buildings with their prettily painted facades…

Today’s postcard is one such building from Lucerne’s Aldstadt (Old Town), a restaurant painted with cheery images of Fritschi, believed to be the founding father of the annual carnival that takes place just before Lent.

Flight of the angels

One minute I see it, the next I can’t. At the Victoria Falls in Zambia, the spray is so strong that it covers the entire landscape in a thick, impenetrable blanket. It begins as a gentle mist that caresses my face at the first viewing platform, and by the time I finish a round of the marked vantage points, it has turned into a shower. The poncho and raincoat rented from the vendor doing brisk business near the entrance may have been not there, for all the difference they make.

Clearly, Victoria Falls is determined to live up to its local name of Mosi Oa Tunya – the smoke that thunders. Indeed, the spray looks like a plume of smoke rising way up into the sky, mingling with the low, dark clouds. Our local guide Sims takes us from viewpoint to viewpoint, each of them offering just a tantalizing glimpse of the waterfall.

At the first stop, the view of the falls is framed by lush green trees and the Zambezi river from where the plummet into an invisible gorge way down below begins. This is only a teaser of what is to come, every point opening up just a little more of the vista. We gingerly make our way across the wet Knife Edge Bridge leading up to the dramatically named Danger Point, that gives the closest as well as the most expansive view of the Vic (as I have begun to think of it fondly).

Of course, given that the falls stretch over 1.7 kilometres, it is impossible to see more than a tiny slice of it from any place. It finds a place in the UNESCO world heritage sites list. And along with worthies like Mount Everest, the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon, Victoria Falls is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. As I watch the curtain of water play hide and seek with the mist, there is no doubt in my mind that it is every bit as spectacular as this status indicates.

The gorge creates a natural international border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, with each country proudly claiming the best views. And in modern days, there is the Victoria Falls Bridge that connects the two neighbours, also attracting adrenalin junkies for a bungee jumping experience that has them plummeting head-first towards the Zambezi.

Soaked to the skin – but not bothered a bit – I make my way back, heading to the upstream area from where the Vic begins its descent. On the Knife Edge Bridge, a group of young boys is having a rollicking time, taking selfies and pushing each other in jest on that slippery surface. Families are out in full force, mothers carrying their babies on a back sling. The slightly bigger tots are walking on their own, completely submerged under their wet ponchos. I carry on with a huge smile on my face; in this special place, where there is a rainbow at every corner, it is impossible not to smile all the time.

One of the stories that Zambians are proud of sharing is about their favourite Scottish missionary David Livingstone. The first European to see the falls in 1855 – earlier unknown to the world outside the local tribes – he rhapsodized that “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

These words ringing in my ears, I clamber into the tiny microlight flight later that day for a bird’s eye view of the Vic. While this activity is not as challenging as some others possible in this area like bungee-jumping or whitewater rafting, it does require nerves of steel. From a distance, my microlight flight looks like a large auto-rickshaw about to take to the skies.

On this two seater plane, I am right next to the pilot, the quiet but friendly Pascal from Zimbabwe. Why do you want to hold on, he says in reply to my nervous question about the handrail. I wear my headphones and settle in to relax and enjoy as ordered. Pascal starts chatting from the minute he turns on the engine for that short taxi before takeoff. And he keeps up a steady commentary through the fifteen minutes of our flight, partly to make sure I did not miss anything and partly to keep me calm.

We fly towards the thick veil of vapour visible ahead, and within seconds, are cruising over the hero of this story. Pascal flies on towards the Zimbabwe side for a full loop around the falls, before flying over the Zambezi, which looks perfectly still and gentle from up above, with no indication of how forceful its plunge really is. There are two more loops over the Vic, adorned by multiple rainbows that glitter in the winter afternoon sun.

All too soon, we move away from the main canyon and when we land at the base, it feels like the wind is still caressing my cheeks and the roar of water is still echoing in my ears.

TRAVEL INFORMATION

How to reach

Fly to Lusaka from Mumbai on Kenya Airways or Ethiopian Airlines, connecting on a domestic flight to Livingstone, the nearest airport to Victoria Falls.

Where to stay

The Avani Victoria Falls Resort and The Royal Livingstone Hotel are both luxury properties, within walking distance of the falls.

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.

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