Tag Archives: Travel

Rolling with the stones in Hampi

The lotus is India’s national flower but it doesn’t always enjoy a good rep. Last month, over three days at Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace in the town of Kamalapurs, four kilometres from Hampi, I learned to appreciate the flower beyond its edible roots and party affiliations.

At the resort, the flower isn’t used as decoration but finds new applications. It is in air fresheners and body care products. It also inspires the shape of lampshades dotting the ceilings. The fragrance follows me everywhere, like a shadow, pleasant but excessive. Where the flower shows its true splendour is the Lotus Mahal. This two-storey pink palace houses an Ayurvedic spa, a reading room, a restaurant and a souvenir shop. A replica of the actual Lotus Mahal in Hampi, the archways and the domes are meant to resemble a half-opened lotus, with the towers resembling petals. All lit up at night, the Lotus Mahal gives a sense of the grandeur that defined the queen’s summer place of yore.

Stoned on History

The lotus may be the symbolic theme of the Kamalapura Palace but its architectural theme is Hampi, in all its stone-laden glory.

The resort is a fortress, situated in the centre of a 27-acre property, surrounded by cultivated greenery. I drive through the entrance with rounded fortifications reminiscent of Islamic architecture, inspired by the principal fort of the nearby village Anegundi. A long stone driveway—much like the paved boulevards of Hampi’s old temples—leads me to the main palace.

As I walk around the place in the evening, Joydeep Banerjee, the Area General Manager for the South, points out the connections we may have missed—the contemporary recreations of old paintings, the boundary walls modelled after the stone walls that provided the fortifications to the city, and the taps shaped like aqueducts. Everything here is local and customised, keeping Hampi in mind.

It’s not just about employing local staff and artistes; even their food seeks inspiration from the land. Tuluva, with its infinity pool and fake elephant tusks, gets its name from the Hindu dynasty that ruled the Vijayanagara Empire. Here, I sample among other Indian dishes, Vijayanagara cuisine that’s heavy on curries and liberal with spices. There’s gongura mamsam (spicy lamb curry), chepala pulusu (tangy fish curry) and enagayi (eggplant cooked in coconut). I scarf these down with bowls upon bowls of the fragrant and delicately flavoured pulihora (tamarind rice). History might have swallowed whole emperors, but it had thankfully spared their cuisine.

Mind at Rest

Hampi city is shaped by multiple histories. I spend my mornings visiting a fraction of its 300 temples and ruins. There’s the Hemakuta hillock, which leads down to the Virupaksha Temple. There we find the stone chariot, one of the most photographed structures in Hampi. My guide is Nagendra, who tells me to observe the little things we miss in our haste to get that perfect shot for social media. “The lotus shape indicates progress of life, and feminity,” he says, pointing out the swans and dancing figures painted on the ceiling. I visit the Zenana Enclosure, a citadel complex that once housed a palace, the Lotus Mahal, four watchtowers and beyond, the elephant stables.

I return to the resort, marvelling at the inspiration it has sought from this city. My room is the Jal Mahal, a stunning place inspired by the Water Palace of the Zenana Enclosure. It has separate dining, living and sleeping areas, and a luxurious bath with an open courtyard. This is surrounded by a moat in the front, and behind, a private deck with a mandapa overlooks a private pool.

Jal-Mahal-Bedroom

Jal Mahal suite. Photo courtesy: Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace

As impressive as the resort looks in the daytime, it turns resplendent at night. The sun sets behind the palace, bathing the sky in hues of scarlet, orange and purple. As it sinks, the small lamps in the grounds of the property come on. The sound of crickets is overshadowed by a gentle singing. This is the hotel’s annual evening ritual—the staff move about behind a flautist, carrying incense and lights to all the rooms, while the tune of the flute lends the dusk a haunting background melody. After this procession, the flautist proceeds to the open courtyard where he sits and performs an evening raga.

I welcome our evenings in different ways. One time, I lounge in the pool till sunset; another time, I spend a few hours looking up Hampi’s history in the library at the Reading Lounge. On the last night, I sit by our moat, sipping chai and watching workers tending the garden. At dusk, I head to the Deep Mahal for a storytelling session. An entire room is lit up with just diyas. For the next half hour, I sip wine and listen, fascinated, as my guide talks about the downfall of the Vijayanagara Empire.

—————-

Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace is in Kamalapura town, 4 km away from Hampi. There are four types of suites—Nivasa, Nilaya, Zenana and the Jal Mahal—with rates starting from Rs36,000 up to Rs52,000.

From Bengaluru airport, the resort lies 350 km northwest. There are also direct flights from Hyderabad to Vidyanagar airport, 30 km away.

 

[This story first appeared in National Geographic Traveller India: Rolling with the stones, on Jan 11, 2018]

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A taste of Bavaria

Think Adelaide and open parklands, indigenous art, understated beauty, good weather, and live music come to mind. You certainly don’t picture an old German village where beer jostles for shelf space with wine, where brick houses with sloping roofs reveal antique stores and craft breweries, and where you can find sausages and pretzels at every corner.  

This is Hahndorf, a state listed heritage town, about 25 minutes away from Adelaide. It is Australia’s oldest surviving German settlement.

It was in 1839 that Captain Dirk Meinertz Hahn brought 200 German-Lutheran migrants, fleeing religious persecution in Prussia (north-eastern Germany), to Adelaide Hills where they made their home. Today, 189 years later, though Hahndorf (Hahn’s village) has seen much change, it remains at heart a German town.

“It’s old world charm very popular with tourists. History apart, they are very serious about their food and wine here,” says David Sly, a food and wine journalist from Adelaide.

I spend a day in Hahndorf and David’s words ring true at every place I visit.

I begin my day strolling through the Beerenberg Strawberry Farm picking dew-dusted strawberries. It is 9am and the farm, a few minutes outside the town, has just opened for business. It’s a calming experience, walking through neatly segregated rows of strawberry plants, digging through the leaves to find the fruit nestled within. I take my slim pickings to the Beerenberg Family Farm shop to be weighed and packed, and meet Monique Lomax, a staffer who doubles up as a guide. “The founders, the Paech family, are among Hahndorf’s first settlers. They started with dairy but soon decided to try branch out. Now we grow chillies gherkins, cherries, plums, Satsuma, and Lincoln roses,” she says. Everything finds its way into marinades, jams, chutney and dipping sauces. I sample a few of these, and am instantly impressed with the smooth and fragrant rose petal jelly, and the tart mango and Mandarin curd named after Monique (staffers above five years get products named after them).

Beerenberg, which means berry hill, is in its 50th year of strawberry picking and needless to say, strawberry jam is a best-seller. People generally queue up here for the freshly churned strawberry ice cream, delicate swirls of creamy goodness piled high in a cone. Over 80 percent of their products are gluten free and they do collaborations with locals like Cooper Ale and Gaucho sauces.

Ice cream in hand, I stroll down the picturesque main street. This historic street is lined with 100 year old elm trees, and shows off timber and German-style stone or brick houses with their steep, sloping roofs and cosy verandahs. Here I find boutiques, German pubs, restaurants and cellar doors, cafés, gourmet bakeries and delicatessens, and sweet shops. On sale is Aboriginal art and puppets, German clocks, and candles – the 3 Wishes Candle Barn that allows you to create your own.  

A life-size yellow cow with a milk pail underneath welcomes me to my next destination, Udder Delights. The word cheese is written in bold letters for those confused about the offerings at the place. Run by the husband and wife team of Saul and Sheree Sullivan, Udder Delights’ Cheese Cellar sells goat’s and cow’s milk cheese, hosts fondue and cheesemaking classes and is best known for their cheese wedding cakes. I opt for a cheese tasting. The goats curd is tangy with a smooth finish and the cow’s milk brie is velvety and has a sharp earthy flavour. My favourite is the Heysen Blue, a firm and moist cheddar-like rich cheese.   

Udder Delights

Fresh cheese is difficult to carry back homes so I regretfully leave the store and set out in search of something more travel-friendly. David takes me to an ‘iconic place’. The MenzFruChoc Shop is known for their FruChocs – milk chocolate covered apricot or peach. A happy accident, the Menz family developed these in 1948 to use up excess fruit. Today, the product is a South Australian icon. I happily snack on honeycomb and coconut variants thinking that this sweet treat really deserves a FruChocs Appreciation Day (celebrated on the last Friday of August).

Another place chock-a-block with history is the Hahndorf Inn. Built in 1853, it is owned by the Holmes family, whose German descendants arrived at Port Adelaide in 1847 to settle in the Barossa Valley. The food here is traditional Bavarian – big portions of schnitzels, sausages, beef and pork ribs, pork knuckle, and hot dogs. These come accompanied by steamed greens, mash or fries. I try the Hänchen Schnitzel, crumbed chicken breast cooked to perfection and paired with a cream mushroom sauce. Dessert is the German apple strudel (Apfelstrudel), which we learned to make (assemble) at a strudel class earlier.

I end the day at Prancing Pony Brewery, a boutique brewery located a short drive out of Hahndorf. Here, they use the traditional method of fire brewing, resulting in beer that has caramel and toffee like malt flavours. I sip on their India Red Pale Ale, which was the 2016 supreme champion in the International Beer Challenge, London. The strong caramel notes and intense hop bitterness is mellowed down by hints of tropical fruit, making for a refreshing drink.  

A day in Hahndorf and I realise, they do take food, wine and beer very seriously.

 

 

[A version of this story was published in BL Ink: Bits of Bavaria, on April 13, 2018]

Czech out of Prague

In Czech Republic, it is possible to actually jab at a map of the country and say, ‘Let’s go here’. That’s because every small city, village or town in the country is worthy of a visit. They are full of history, beauty, charming landscapes, and friendly people. Each place has something unique to offer – hot springs, a bone church, thermal springs, underground dungeons, breweries, underground limestone caverns and a renaissance-style castle.

The beauty of these towns and cities is they are easily accessible, especially from the capital city, Prague.

Telč

Go for: A picturesque old town square chance and a chance to live in a Renaissance house

The southern Moravian town of Telč (pronounced Telchh) is filled with babbling brooks, verdant woods, cobblestoned pathways, and painted wooden houses. Visitors, though, come here for its centerpiece, the old town square or Náměstí Zachariáše z Hradce.

This UNESCO heritage site, which completed 25 years of its inclusion in the World Heritage List, is easily the prettiest in the country. The long, ‘rectangular’ square is flanked by wooden Renaissance and Baroque burgher buildings, painted in pastel shades of blues, greens and blues.  

The houses, church and town hall of the city were destroyed in a fire in the 1500s. Zachariaš of Hradec, who gives the square his name, brought in Italian architects to rebuild the place. They gave it a magnificent Renaissance makeover. This is best experienced in the castle. Here, guided tours showcase the armory in Knights’ Hall, the trophies in the African Hall, the rooms of the chateau and the Chapel of St George, which holds the remains of the nobleman. 

The houses were furnished with gables and vaulted arcades in the front, creating a covered walkway that is now home to tourist traps: restaurants, shops and stores. Some are even open to tourists, giving them a chance to live in a piece of history. It is the façades of these homes, each unique from the rest, that bears closer scrutiny. Some have fresco paintings or sgraffito, while others feature the leaders of Old Testament.

Other places to discover include the Church of the Nativity and Assumption, whose tower holds the oldest Telč bell (1515), the Marian (or Plague) column, a spacious park with two fish ponds filled with ducks, and even a bar with slot machines.     

Read more, here.

Olomouc

Go for: An astronomical clock to rival Prague’s Orloj, and discover six fountains  

Olomouc (pronounced Olomotts) is home to the second largest and second oldest historic preservation it was once the capital of Moravia (before ceding it to Brno) and is the fifth-largest city in the country. Legend has it that the town was founded by Julius Caesar though he never visited. The city, though, began as a Roman military camp named Julii Mons (Julius’ Hill), which got corrupted to the present Olomouc.

The old town is an intriguing mix of architectural styles, from Renaissance, baroque, gothic and even modernist. The most stunning piece of architecture here is the UNESCO World Heritage Holy Trinity Column, which was built in the first half of the 18th century at the end of plague. The arrest column in Europe was built by locals and features saints important to the city. It has a tiny chapel within with a small altar and faded paintings on the ceiling.

A close rival is the Astronomical Clock, which some consider to be better than the one in Prague. Built in the 15th century, it was destroyed at the end of World War II and then reconstructed in 1947. The clock has rebuilt by Soviets at the beginning of the Communist regime and the Socialist Realist theme means it reflects proletarians (scientists, sportspeople and labourers) instead of saints.

Other places to visit include six baroque Roman-themed fountains including Caesar riding a horse, and Hercules fighting Hydra; the second oldest university in the country (Palacky University); and a little distance away, St Wenceslas Cathedral. The three-tower cathedral is an important part of the city skyline and has the tallest church tower in Moravia.

Karlovy Vary

Go for: Thermal springs and the chance to follow (‘soak’) in the footsteps of Beethoven, Tolstoy and Marx

In the abundance that is Czech Republic’s spa towns, Karlovy Vary – Vary to the locals or Carlsbad – stands out for being the prettiest of them all.

Karlovy Vary owes its name to Charles IV, King of Bohemia who founded the city in 1370; it literally translates to Charles’ Bath. He was the first ‘patient’ and supposedly used the water from the hot springs to heal his wounds.

Today, the city has evolved and is known for its thermal and mineral springs, spa treatments and its whimsical architecture. In the 18th century it was a popular tourist destination, seeing guests of the likes of Beethoven, Tsar Peter the Great, Emperor Franz Josef I, Brahms, Wagner, Tolstoy, and Marx. World War I destroyed the city’s tourism and after WWII, Czech settlers came in. Look closely and it is possible to find signs of German heritage.

Take the funicular up, or walk through a verdant spa forest to reach Diana Lookout Tower. The 547 meter tower was built in1914 and affords a spectacular view of the city. Stroll by the impressive colonnades – Park, Mill, Market, Castle and Hot Spring – are located close to each other. The most impressive of these is the Mill Colonnade with its walls of allegorical reliefs, statues representing months of the year and even an orchestra stage.

No visit here is complete without trying out the traditional herbal liqueur Becherovka, produced only here, and consumed either chilled or with tonic. The bittersweet herbal liquor was first sold as stomach medicine. The recipe is a closely guarded secret; so close, that apparently only two families have it. To learn more about this mysterious drink, visit the Becherovka exhibition, in the historic building where the liquor was manufactured for 150 years.

Other places to explore include Lazne I – a spa building housing Franz Josef’s baths; the Karl Marz monument, the Karlovy Vary Museum, and Church of St. Peter & St. Paul. The latter was built in the 1800s and sports five golden domes and paintings and icons gifted by wealthy Russians. Look out for the relief representing Russian Tsar Peter the Great.

 

[The story appeared in Jetwings International in February, 2018]

 

 

Unusual museums in Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe abounds in such unusual museums. A region that’s rich in history and culture, it has many a splendoured space dedicated to both. During my visits there, I’ve toured horrific Nazi prisons in Warsaw, studied the life of the tortured genius at the Chopin museum in Vienna, and learned about the history of sex machines at the Museum of Sex in Prague. 50 instruments of grey?

Here then, are my picks of some of the most interesting and innovative museums to visit.

Bunker 10-Z

As museums go, Bunker 10-Z isn’t a typical one. The Cold War remnant is a chilling (literally) tribute to its origins, that of a nuclear fallout shelter. Now a hotel, it makes for an interesting exhibition space, with a diesel generator engine room, an air filtration room, an emergency telephone exchange, a decontamination room and a milk bar. The best way though to absorb this museum is by living in it.

10 Z was built by the Germans during WWII as a civil defense (Luftschutz) shelter from American and Soviet bombardment of Brno. After the war it served as a wine store for awhile before being confiscated by the Communists. The nuclear fallout shelter was completed in 1959 and intended protect 500 of the city’s political representatives, for three days. It opened to the public last year as hotel, with 18 rooms.

Nothing prepares you for the fallout of a nuclear war more than sleeping in a deathly quiet, pitch dark, underground space surrounded by gas masks, medicine boxes, maps, old motorbikes, telephones, typewriters and other items that would come in handy in case of a nuclear war.

There are guided tours. I do one on my own, armed with a map. There’s a diesel generator engine room, battery room, air filtration room, emergency telephone exchange and a decontamination room – all of which form the technical part of the shelter. Atop ventilators and electrical machinery, tiny televisions screen short videos and documentaries of the people who built and took shelter in bunker during WWII. There’s one that screens advertisements from Communist times. 

I end my tour at the milk bar, run by Chef Marcel Ihnačak, which serves ‘Stalinist and wartime specialties’ such as salads, open sandwiches, bread spreads, sundaes and custard cream. Russian Egg (35 Kč), Sweet Crêpes (45 Kč), washed down with cider (35 Kč) and beer (25 Kč).

Bunker 10-Z is located at Husova ulice. Daily excursions happen between 11.30 am to 6.15 pm; tickets without guide are 130 Kč. The milk bar is open from noon to 7 pm (except Mondays). 

[Read more about Brno’s underground spaces, here]

Time machines

Vienna’s Clocks Museum is an informative journey though time. Housed in one of the oldest houses in Veinna, Harfenhaus (Harpist’s House), it has over 700 clocks on display.

My knowledge of timepieces is limited to simple watches and clocks. At the museum, I learned about early chronometers, tower clock, pillar clocks, clock organs, lantern clocks, pendant and pocket watches studded with diamonds and miniature paintings, mantel clocks with pendulums, and Viennese flute clocks that played music. There were clocks bigger than me, and some smaller than a thimble.

Austria was once one of the leading clockmakers in the world and the museum showcases some of this history through exquisite pieces – an astronomical bracket clock from 1653, a tower clock from St Stephen’s Cathedral, and the oldest object in the museum, a watchman’s clock with ceramic figures dating back to the early 15th century.

All the timepieces had notes displaying their age and history, and many were in functioning order. My favourite section was the picture clocks, which were made in Austria in 1780. These stunning pictures usually features landscapes and historical events painted on metal sheets and hiding tiny dials. The most unusual piece was an astronomical clock designed by a priest. The altarpiece with wings it showed planetary constellations, and calendars of different cultures and faiths.

The timepieces are arranged in chronological order offering a good time machine into the history of clocks and watches, going back to the 15th century.   

The Vienna Museum of Clocks and Watches is located at Schulhof 2, Vienna, 1010. Entry is 7 Euros. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 10 am to 6 pm. 

Memories of a breakup

I walked into the Museum of Broken Relationships for a lark, wondering what catharsis the lovelorn could find in sending in mementos of relationships gone bad. An hour later, I walked out much sobered and realising that love can leave behind emotional and physical baggage. The museum was a repository of the latter.

The physical representation of broken relationships could not have a more apt, or beautiful setting: a baroque Kulmer palace in Zagreb’s historical Upper Town. The space is all white and has three main sections – the shop, the exhibit space, and a café. 

Each object had a synopsis, a story if you may, about its value. There were the usual stuffed animals, toys, books, letters, and drawings. The entries were anonymous so it was up to me to decipher the gender, the age and the person who has sent in that note. I read every story, and though much of it was lost in translation, the sense of loss was easy to understand.

MOBR mother, Mare Milin

A tribute to a mother lost to cancer. Photo courtesy: Mare Milin.

In the family section, a small nook had a dress, shoes and a handbag. Sent in by a grieving woman from Warsaw, they told a story about a family fighting cancer. Another story was of a supportive man who turned out to be a sexual predator. The story was from a survivor of child sexual abuse. An audio-visual section told the story of a young girl who fell in love with a soldier who never returned.

It wasn’t all sadness and despair. Some stories made me laugh. A hamburger toy, sent in from Luxembourg in 2011 had the note: ‘His dog left more traces behind than he did’. A router, sent in from San Francisco in 2008, had the neatest story: We tried. Not Compatible. An axe, called the ex-axe, told the story about a jilted person who took the instrument and destroyed all the furniture belonging to her lover. The cutest one was a list of 10 Reasons to stay. It was sent in by someone from London, and dedicated to a woman he knew for three weeks and who was leaving for Australia. Among the reasons were this gem: lately I’ve been finding lots more money on the streets of London.

The museum was started as an art project by Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić in 2006, a former couple who decided to celebrate the mementoes that made up their relationship. What started as a travelling exhibition found a permanent home in Zagreb in 2010.  

The museum has a Brokenships Museum Café for those looking for a pick-me-up but, I found the shop more exciting. Abundant in puns on break-ups, my favourite were chocolates with the message, hope your ass gets bigger.  

The Museum of Broken Relationships is located at Ćirilometodska 2, 10000. It is open from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m (June 1st – September 30th), and 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m (October 1st – May 31st). Entry: 30 kuna.

Let’s go LEGO

It felt like we were in the middle of the LEGO movie. The LEGO Museum (Museum of Bricks) is the world’s biggest and expectedly, is designed to astonish and delight.

Every brick had purpose. They found their way into over 2,500 exhibits, divided into 20 themes. There was a mini city, complete with little houses with gardens, police stations and post offices and constructions sites; railway sets; F1 racing cars; and characters from comics, movies or books. Think Batman, Captain Jack Sparrow, Indiana Jones and even Barbie and Ken sharing one roof.

The corners and alcoves were reserved for standalone heritage structures – the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Kremlin, among others. An impressive and pristine white Taj Mahal, we found out, was the biggest factory set LEGO ever made, with 5,922 bricks. 

The museum’s top floor was for those seeking to pay homage to that cult space saga, Star Wars. Characters, battleships, props from the movies were stacked, from floor to ceiling. A section was dedicated to that JK Rowling series, Harry Potter, was uninspiring. The giant spiders looked cute, Hagrid didn’t seem giant enough, Quidditch was indicated by just three hoops and the characters looked bored.   

The home city also found adequate representation. An entire alcove was dedicated to the Charles Bridge – a five meter monument filled with 1,000 figurines, which made for a fun game of guessing which characters were on the bridge.

The museum is located at Praha, Národní 362/31; it is open from 10 am to 8 pm; the nearest tram stop and metro station is Narodni Trida; ticket rates start at 100 Kč. 

 

[The story was first published in Deccan Herald as Diversity in Display on January 6, 2018.]  

Chopin’s Warsaw

Last year, for three cold, wintry days, I found myself stalking a man. I couldn’t help it; his presence was everywhere – on benches, in the park, museums and in the churches.  

It is expected when you are a genius. A beautiful city, Poland’s capital is not as compelling or historically relevant as Krakow. But, it has Fryderyk Chopin.

The city’s most famous son wasn’t born here but his genius was discovered and nurtured in the Warsaw’s salons, churches and concert halls. It was here that he learned to play the piano, and gave his first concert when just eight. He spent the first half of his life in the city and his heart lies here, quite literally.

Today, it is possible to walk in the footsteps of the composer. Armed with a guide book and an app, I set out to discover the genius in the city that was once his home.

The churches

I stumbled onto one of Chopin’s resting places by accident. Walking along the beautiful Krakowskie Przedmieście, I take a pit stop at the Holy Cross Church. In the early 19th century, this baroque church was the largest Catholic place of worship in Warsaw.

 It was packed with tourists, who weren’t there to pray but to pay homage. They were busy admiring the church’s plain white pillars, one of which had Chopin’s heart interred within it. The pillar is simple, with a carved bust of the composer and two cherubs. The church was significant to the Chopin family – Fryderyk’s sisters, Izabella and Emilia, were baptised in it. Although the composer’s remains are in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, his heart lies in Warsaw.

Chopin played in the choir for masses held at Visitationist Church.

A little down the road is another church of importance. The 17th century Visitationist Church was built for French nuns and has survived World War II with majority of its original furnishings, including a rococo boat-shaped pulpit. It was here that Chopin played the organ – which is still intact – as a pupil of the Warsaw Lyceum. A plaque outside confirms this fact. My guidebook tells me that it was while playing in this church that he met his first love, Konstancja, who sang at mass. Needless to say, he made sure Sunday mass was quite the experience. 

Musical signposts

As I leave the church, Chopin’s Largo in E Flat Major fills the evening air, mellowing out the sounds of traffic and chatter. The source for this is a smooth cast iron black stone bench. These benches – 15 in all – are spread through the city and act as musical signposts to signify important sites in his life. There are 15 of them are spread across the city. Designed by Professor Jerzy Porębski, these benches come with a button, which plays music for 30 seconds; a route map and an explanation (in English and Polish) about the site’s relevance.

The coolest part though is that the benches have photo codes, which gave me access to an instant audio and visual Chopin guide, and other melodies. 

Saxon palace/garden

If Chopin grew up performing at the Holy Cross Church, he probably played games and took walks in the Saxon Garden; the family lived near the park. The city’s oldest public garden, it gets its name from the Saxon figures that lead up to Warsaw’s first city fountain, and a marble sundial.  

In those days, the Saxon Palace complex housed the school Warsaw Lyceum. Fryderyk’s father was a French language teacher, and the family lived in the staff quarters. It was here that Chopin composed his first pieces, with the aid of his father and teacher. The Saxon Palace was completely destroyed during WW II, only the triple arch remained. Today, the remains of the palace hold the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dedicated to the unknown soldiers who have given their lives for Poland.

Fryderyk Chopin Museum

The Chopin museum is a four-floor structure in the Ostrogski Palace. The museum opened in 2010 and houses the largest collection of Chopin memorabilia in the world. 

Here, I get a comprehensive and interactive look into the musical genius’ life, from birth to death. The museum is multimedia – there are e-books, audio-visuals, and touchscreen options. There are games too – on one floor is a musical version of Twister, which has me jumping from one spot to another creating my own compositions. Microphones hanging from the ceiling recorded exclamations, sounds of laughter or music depending on the exhibit. Another section allows me to open drawers, which display a sheet of music while speakers play its musical notes. I spent the most time learning about the women in his life – there were many – through photos, letters, sketches and notes.  

The museum is based on the family’s collection of mementos – letters, autograph music manuscripts, books. Some of the weirder exhibits include his school exercise books, a lock of dark brown hair, a gold watch he received from an admiring singer, a gold barrel-shaped pendant with his monogram, and dried flowers from his deathbed. There is also a detailed recreation of his Paris drawing room, with the Pleyel grand paino, which he played in the final two years of his life.

Łazienki Royal Park

The Łazienki Royal Park is a stunning palace and garden complex, built in the 17th century as the summer residence of the last king of Poland. A vast expanse of trees and shaded paths reveal places of interest: a baroque bathing pavilion (which gives the park its name), the Palace on the Isle, a little White House, a water tower and an old guardhouse, among others.  

Chopin monument

Wacław Szymanowski’s monument of Chopin.

The park is home to Warsaw’s most iconic and visited structures, sculptor Wacław Szymanowski’s monument of Chopin. It shows him sitting beneath a stylised willow tree, with a Polish eagle’s head at the corner. The sculpture was erected in 1926 before being one of the first structures demolished by the Nazis. After the war, it was rebuilt thanks to an original mould, and placed on a red sandstone pedestal and basin.

Every year, concerts are held at the foot of the monument. When I visit, it is filled with tourists sunning themselves on the manicured lawns. It is easy to imagine pianists filling the park with sweet melodies in front of a captive audience, while Chopin watches benevolently from above.  

Log on to www.chopin.warsawtour.pl

 

[A version of this story appeared in the Indian Express: My heart beats for Warsaw, on January 7, 2018.]

Travel talk with Twinkle Khanna

If Twinkle Khanna had her own travel show, it would be a series of episodes dedicated to her many misadventures. The Time I Went Looking for Eggs and Ended up Fighting with my Family in a Supermarket;  The Search for French Food in a Russian Restaurant; The Worst Seven Minutes of my Life in an Opera House in Prague; and How Acting as a Human Shield for My Sister nearly gave me Swine Flu.

Khanna had a to-do list for everything in her life, except her holidays. She enjoys holidays with no agenda because they leave her with the best memories and the funniest stories, snippets of which end up in her weekly columns under the name Mrs Funnybones. “I don’t know if I seek out things or adventure seeks me out,” she says.

Your recent trip to Paris has been splashed all over the news. You used an AirBnB while there. Walk us through your holiday.

This was the first time I used an AirBnB in Paris. I went with a really close friend and we stayed at this quaint apartment at Rue de Vaugirard.  

I’m terrible at French and she doesn’t speak the language. As a result, we had a lot of misadventures and unexpected bonuses. Once, we decided to do a spa day. We went to this really fancy place but, the massages were horrid. So, we sought out a Thai place. Our host recommended this dodgy place down the street. My first thought on looking at it was ‘there’s no way this can be good’. It was a nail salon and they had this dungeon below for the massages. I couldn’t understand what the masseuse was saying. There I was, lying down on my stomach and suddenly, I felt two hands and then four hands on me. I looked up to see that she is sitting on my back, like a crab, just like Vikram and Betaal! I didn’t know how to react. It turned out to be the best massage I ever had; my bones were singing her praises.  

This wasn’t your first home-stay experience. When travelling, do you seek out hotels or prefer renting a home?

I like a mix of both. We [the family] just went on a holiday to La Môle in France near St Tropez. We rented this really beautiful home – there were just mountains on one side, wild boars running around, and vineyards everywhere. We had our own chef and the meals were Michelin star level. I walked around a lot and the place was really beautiful. But, there’s a bit of a hit and miss. My husband was fooling around and tried jumping over me on the bed and fell down on the floor because the bed was so small.

This would not happen in a hotel because there you know what you’re going to expect; there aren’t any surprises. I like those surprises; so, I prefer homes and renting out a place. My husband prefers a slightly more standard sort of holiday.

On the same trip, in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, we rented a house. What I didn’t realise was that the house was a little outside the village. My son is a teenager and didn’t know what to do because there was no one of his age. One day, we gave him a cycle and told him to go play paintball at this place in the village. He reached late and had to wait. The place he was waiting at, a few splinters went into his bottom. Then he got hit during paintball. When he had to cycle back, he couldn’t really sit on it because of the splinters and then dogs started chasing him. When he returned, he was hysterical and said he hated the place and the village and wanted to leave. Everyone in my family hated that holiday. I thought it was my best holiday.

When travelling, how important is the place? Would you rather find yourself in a destination that is iconic or one that is off-beat?

 It’s not the place that matters but what happens there. You have four people doing exactly the same things with different perspectives. For me, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence was the village where Vincent Van Gogh was put in a mental asylum but he still ended up painting some of his best work. We visited another village nearby, Les Baux-de-Provence. They had this event called Carrieres de Lumieres. On the walls of limestone caves were projected the greatest art in the world – Rembrandt and Rafael among them – with classical music playing in the background. I thought it was the most amazing experience. After half an hour, the family got bored and asked, ‘can we leave’?

In this small European town, Prague, I took my husband to the opera at the Prague Opera House because I read that it was beautiful. We left the place in seven minutes because it was the worst thing we had ever seen. He kept cursing me about my fetish for seeing this side of life. The thing is, when you are the one who is planning all this, you’ve to put on this stoic face for some time because you can’t show you don’t like it.

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Paragliding in Gstaad.

When travelling, you are thrown into circumstances which are alien to you. These help you grow. You discover things about the city and while doing that, also discover things about yourself.

As the ‘tourist traps’ increase in number, does it become difficult to find an ‘authentic’ experience?

I think the notion of the authentic experience is dubious because wherever you go you are taking yourself and you are corrupting your surroundings. So, you are the inauthentic thing in that pea soup. The only way to have an authentic experience is if you go and live somewhere for a year. These holidays are just ways of seeing different places briefly and I’m not worried about it being an authentic experience, it would be foolish to expect that.

I’m looking at an experience, I like thing are spontaneous. The holidays I remember are the ones where things may have gone wrong at the time but, I really look back and laugh. I will never forget Saint-Rémy-de-Provence even though we had a fight in the supermarket because we couldn’t find eggs. For me, that was my best holiday.

You mentioned this wasn’t your first visit to France. How often do you go there?

I go to France almost every year, in summer. If we go to London or Dubai, it becomes difficult for my husband to walk around anonymously and do exactly what he pleases. We look for places where he can roam around in his shorts and nobody will bother him. And I return to France in the hope that one day, I’ll be able to learn to speak French.

Before heading to Paris, you mentioned trying to learn a little French. Do you do this when travelling to other countries too?

I just do it before I go to France because I’ve studied French for five years in school and yet, can barely speak the language. I had this French teacher called Mrs D’Souza who taught me to pronounce Alps as Allepeys, so that was bad. All I remember from those French lessons was that she had terrible bunions.

I try to learn French before each trip using this podcast, Learn French with Marie. It teaches me rubbish things I don’t need to use like ‘can you find me a doctor’. I persist; I keep walking in this garden and listening to it. I listen for a bit and then I dump her; and every couple of years I start over. 

I d intend to learn French, though. Not for anything else but because I’ve learned its one way to actually combat Alzheimer’s – I have this fear of getting the disease. Learning a language, I heard, through another podcast, is a good for the brain. 

You went to Paris with a friend. How different is it when travelling with family.

My holidays with family are all different. When I travel with my sister [Rinke Khanna], though we are squabbling, there’s always something going on. My sister has specific rituals on the plane – she doesn’t touch anything because of germs – so i end up opening doors and handling trolleys for her.  Recently, we were going to London for our friend’s birthday. On the flight, we sat next to this man who was constantly sneezing and blowing his nose. My sister refused to sit next to him so she used me as a human shield. I was fine when I reached London. The next day, I was sneezing and had a fever and thought I had swine flu. I even ran into the man at the hotel. He saw me and waved. In my head, I was screaming at him for making me fall sick. I had this terrible flu because my sister used me as a shield.

When I go with my family, it’s like I am wrapped in three layers in a box with thermocol and cardboard. I am very safe.

The kids have adapted to our travel lifestyle even if they don’t always like it. My son hates museums. I took him to the Picasso museum in Antibes and told him about the great artist. He spent a lot of time peering at the art and then asks me, ‘Did he do this when he was young?’ I told him this was at the peak of his career. He says, ‘I can also do this…’ What does one you say to that?

Have you ever travelled solo?

I haven’t for a few years now. About ten years back, I went to Barcelona for a trade fair. My husband claims I just kept calling him saying I was at XYZ bus stop. He felt very sorry for me. In my head, I was very proud of myself. I was all alone and was taking buses everywhere and visiting casinos by myself in the evening. I thought I was having a wonderful holiday but, I obviously cut a sorry figure.

What was it like travelling as an actor? Now that you’re a writer, do you travel differently?

I don’t think my interests have changed dramatically even if my profession has.

I’ve been a bookworm my whole life so I’ve always gone to bookstores. Recently in Paris, I walked into Shakespeare and Sons and bought a guide book on Paris. In La Môle, I walked into this tiny bookstore and bought antique and very smelly French editions of Enid Blyton’s stories. I realised that was the same village where the author of the book, The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry had grown up. He is my favourite author and that book is my favourite book. I was determined to have a look at his chateau even if it was from a distance. 

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At Hotel du Cap

When we went to Antibe, we stayed at Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc. I later realised it was the place F. Scott Fitzgerald had immortalised as Hôtel des Etrangers in Tender Is the Night. He wrote about the history of the place and fictionalised the owners’ stories. The hotel was outstanding but, the history that was fascinating. Yet again, this wasn’t planned but something I discovered by accident.  

Is it safe to assume your suitcase always has books?  

Yes. I always carry books with me. Recently, I was chaperoning my son and his friends and we went for one night to Aamby Valley. I packed one change of clothes and two books but, only managed to read one story from Murakami’s new book, Men without Women. In fact, I carry fewer books now than when I used to be an actress. Now, it’s easy to download a story on my iPad if I run out of books. Back in the day, I remember packing eight books for a 20-day scheduled shoot in Canada as I was worried I would run out. When you’re shooting, you have all the time to read because you’re just waiting.

I read every night before I go to sleep. I can’t sleep otherwise so, at least a couple of pages. That’s the way I put myself to sleep. That’s my nightcap.

Are there other things you can’t live without when you travel?

There’s nothing I can’t live without except a hot water bottle. I’ve realised in certain places it is difficult to find. I’ve had quite the adventure looking for a hot water bag. I went looking for one in France and I was desperate. My neck was hurting and it’s the only thing that fixes it. I went to the supermarket and tried explaining to people what I wanted, in my broken French, but they had no idea what I was saying. Then I saw this cosmopolitan-looking young couple and tried to explain to them, in French, what I wanted. After a 15 minute conversation, he looks at me and says, ‘hot water bottle’? I was so relieved, and requested him to tell the supermarket people in French that I wanted one. He says, ‘We are British, we don’t speak French’!

So, I always carry a hot water bottle. I always carry books, sun block because I burn in a second, and socks.  

Has Instagram changed the way you travel?

I like taking pictures because my memory is not as sharp as it should be. I always feel like there are blank spaces and I can look at the photos and remember it. I had put up a picture of this beautiful lake with the sun in the background and I couldn’t remember if it was sunset or sunrise. That’s what Instagram has done to our brains; it’s made us forget the experience.

It can be a great tool, your photo album that you can flip through and relive memories. But, there are some people who become so obsessive; they’re not really living in the moment. There has to be a balance.

In your columns, you do talk about travel a little. Have your thought about writing about your travels or turning them into a book?

My next book has an element something that influenced me while I was travelling. I’m always watching people and looking at behaviour and I have a keen ear for dialogue. I take copious notes hen travelling. Wherever you go, whatever you do, it comes through in your writing.

I did do a travel book for my family for our wedding anniversary last year. I wrote about our adventures and put in pictures of our best holidays and did illustrations. I have a whole treasure chest of things that are absolutely precious to me – things our parents left us. I dug out letters we had written to each other 18 years ago, and letters his mom had written him and put it in the book.  It was professionally done and there are only five copies in existence. Unfortunately, nobody seems to like the book apart from me. They said they liked it but I have never seen anyone flipping through it or reading it. I think I’m just the nerd in this family and I appreciate these things.

In April last year, you tweeted, ‘As I get older, I travel more’. Why is that?

I definitely do travel more now. I look forward to travelling much more than I used to. I wrote about it recently: I can probably hear the silent call of mortality right now. I need to see everything before I reach the finishing line. But, you can’t be on a holiday for too long because then it stops being one. Every time I am flagging, I travel because it is a way of rebooting myself, getting a new perspective before coming back and diving into this world.

This interview was done for National Geographic Traveller India; link is here

Brno: To the market

This is the second story in a three-part series about Brno’s underground wonders. Read the first one here: Bone Season 

The Labyrinth underneath the Vegetable Market

There’s a legend related to the tunnels under the vegetable market that I discovered in the book, The Czech Republic – The Most Haunted Country in the world? It says that the beautiful Countess Amalia murdered her lovers – 13 in all – and hid their bodies underground. She still roams the tunnels, ensuring the bodies remained hidden. If true, she is doing a good job, because during my one hour tour of the tunnels, I didn’t spot any bodies.

The Labyrinth underneath Zelný trh (Vegetable Market) is located about eight metres, and 200 steps below one of the oldest squares in the city. The individual cellars, I’m told, were discovered in the last decade. In 2009, they were reinforced and connected via passageways.

I join a Spanish tour group, lurking in the back with my English audio guide, which though informative, is boring. Luckily, the tour is fascinating.

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The Alchemist’s lab.

The guided tour is actually an exhibition offering insight into the different uses of the cellars. In the early 13th century, the cellars under the Horní trh (Upper Market) were used for storage of food, wine, and beer. My audio guide points out the barrels of wine and beer, which were ‘refrigerated’ by placing them on wooden grates. An alchemist’s lab shows us how medieval doctors functioned, and a wine cellar and tavern are reminders of the local tradition of winemaking. We learn about the different sources of light used back then, from the first torches to oil lamps. Our guide allows us to reference our cavemen ancestors, by trying to start a fire using two stones. She isn’t disappointed when few of us can.  

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The wine tavern.

The most chilling section is saved for last. Here, we are shown replicas of torturing devices and punishments used on dishonest people. In a corner, by itself, is the much-publicised cage of fools. In the olden days, the small iron cage was stuffed with people – the unusual height meant you couldn’t sit or stand in it. A few braver members of the group attempt squatting uncomfortably but give up after a few seconds.

 

At the exit, I ask the guide about the legend of the Countess. She dismisses me with a wry smile.

Information: Located at Zelný trh 21, 65878. Closed on Monday; 9 am to 6 pm (Tuesday to Sunday). Cost: 80 Kč to 160 Kč

These wonderful photos are courtesy Michal Růžička, TIC Brno