Hiking through the Cinque Terre

This was a special hike. A solo climb along the Ligurian Sea that took my breath with the views and literally too with the hike that threatened to send my heart jumping out of my body. It started a few summers ago when we met up with a young cousin of my husband’s, a brilliant chap who had backpacked through the villages in the Liguria region in Italy. I was hooked by his stories. I had seen tantalising shots of the rugged landscape of the portion of the Italian Riviera which is the Cinque Terre (pronounced as Chink-weh Tay-rreh).

Cinque is ‘Five’ and Terre means ‘Lands’ in Italian, referring to the five villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. They are part of the province of La Spezia.

Before my acquaintance with the Cinque Terre happened, I could barely manage to remember even the first half of Monterosso. Now, my friend, I can rattle off the names of the medieval villages – without a stutter. Cutting a trail through the stunning little hamlets is bound to imprint them into the grey cells.

At the start of this year’s spring, I sat on an intercity train from Milan for Monterosso al Mare, the oldest of the villages that was founded by hill dwellers in an effort to escape the invading Visigoths in AD 643. It was a long three-hour journey and in the company of two jocks and a trio of women in the train compartment, I slept in fits and starts. But my eyes shot open once the blue waters of the Ligurian Sea cropped up on the right and became a constant feature, only to be interspersed by ochre-hued Italian villas and multi-tiered brick red roofs.

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Spiaggia di Fegina, Monterosso.
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Orchards terraced into the hills. On the Blue Trail.

The train passed by the city of La Spezia, capital of the eponymous province. I looked out with great longing. It seemed enticing even with just a glimpse and I quietly vowed to return to La Spezia in the summer months.

Stretching out my cramped legs at the small station in Monterosso, I figured from a map that I was in the westernmost (and largest village) of the Cinque Terre. My plan was to set out on the Sentiero Azzurro (Blue Trail) and hike my way from village to village. The five villages, deemed as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, lie within the Parco Nazionale delle Cinque Terre (National Park of the Cinque Terre).

This Blue Trail hugs craggy cliffs that skirt the coast line and is a paid-for hike but for some reason hikers could go free at the time. Before I started my hike, I stood on a pedestrian promenade facing the sandy stretch of Spiaggia di Fegina (beach of Fegina), part of the new town of Monterosso. Nibbling into a slice of warm spinach quiche, I questioned the reality of it all – the waters sparkling away like a million tiny diamonds in the morning sun, determined to hypnotise the onlooker.

Next I found myself in a dilemma. Did I have to turn left or take the path on my right hand side? I am terrible with directions (left alone in a desert or a forest with just a compass, I am positive I would never find my way back to civilisation) and even the GPS at moments fills me with misgivings.

A loquacious Italian led me to believe that there could only be one direction for the trail. I was indeed walking in the opposite direction. An about turn made, I set off in the direction of a medieval castle and a Capuchin monastery that are positioned above a cliff called San Cristoforo. Standing sentinel over the coast line, rather dramatically, is the statue of Neptune, or the Giant, as he is known by locals.

A gaggle of chirpy houses was clustered up charmingly, on my left, and sail boats tethered to the right, the sea immediately beyond. I was soon on the pedestrian path that led up to a hotel, which was my landmark for the beginning of the 11-km long Sentiero Azzurro.

The trail started off with gentle steps cutting a path through vineyards and orchards of lemon trees – oh yes, fat yellow lemons that called out to be culled (no, I did not dare give into the urge because my nerves, I fear, could not have taken on the wrath of a farmer if he caught me scrumping). Next came steep steps which must have numbered between 600 and 700. Even with my gymming genes in place, I was gasping for breath, my heart fit to explode. I stopped every five minutes. An own inner voice urged me, ‘Abandon this crazy scheme. Just take the train to the next village, will you?’

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A gorgeous hike from Monterosso to Vernazza. The toughest hike on the Blue Trail.
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Passing by small cottages and orange juice sellers.
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Leaving Monterosso behind.

Soon came my way elderly couples who chirped out sunny ‘Buongiornos’ – must have been the fact that they were making their way downhill. I managed to gasp out my bit of goodwill and persevered in my uphill endeavour, seeing in my mind’s eye, giant cones of gelato waiting at the end of the trail. You have got to have some perspective in life.

The path became severely narrow and apparently would have been tread by mules and goats in the past. The trail took me through the heart of a beautiful landscape, past terraces cut into the cliffs, dotted with orchards, woods, tiny waterfalls, stone bridges and gushing brooks, in phases. I felt like George (you know sulky Georgina of our childhood Famous Five tales), except I was without my Timmy.

Often I would pass by farmers working on their crops, a cottage or two on the slopes with cheerful green and blue-hued doors, a lone old man standing with a pile of juicy oranges and selling fresh juice by the wayside, and even ‘orphan’ cats who had their own little homes and bowls and could do with some donation, thank you.

It took about an hour and fifteen minutes before I came upon a sight that is splashed all over postcards from the Cinque Terre. Lo and behold, the village of Vernazza, with its stack of tall and narrow pastel-hued houses, was nestled amongst the astonishingly jewel-like turquoise waters below. Edging past a group of extremely enthusiastic Oriental individuals who were frozen in various poses for photo and selfie sessions, I got my personal postcard shots. It was a bit of a self-congratulatory moment – for not turning my back on the hike and losing out on such undiluted moments of, natural and manmade, beauty.

Of all the five fishing villages of the Cinque Terre, my heart was captured by Vernazza. Charm lurks around its corners. The 12th century Chiesa di Santa Margherita d’Antiochia (Church of Santa Margherita), the fishermen’s cottages that hug each other and wind up and down narrow alleys, the harbour coloured up with fishermen’s boats and the 16th century tower that stands guard over the village (it once used to be a lookout for pirates) – these aspects of Vernazza fall together in place so naturally.

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Picture-perfect Vernazza
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The fishing village of Vernazza is the most picturesque of them all.

Life in Vernazza runs just as it would have in the old times, with the exception of the tourists trooping in. Fishermen still go about their business, clothes dry on lines spanning the facades of houses, piles of fishing nets dry in corners and century-old traditions of olive and lemon farming along with wine making continue undeterred.

Lunch in Vernazza, for me, was a humongous cone of gelato. I sat dangling my legs from the natural harbour and gave into the parade of colour around. The turquoise of the sea gave way to the vibrant yellow, orange and blue boats bobbing on the waves in the harbour. Pink, terracotta, yellow and beige shaded house fronts sported green window shutters. Colourful clothes on clotheslines fluttered in the wind. I had a most satisfying view as I walloped the gelato with relish. The kind of relish that can come only after a-few-painful-wheezes-and-then-some-more kind of a hike.

I could imagine the fortified Vernazza of the 1000s when it was supposed to have been a maritime base because of its natural harbour. It was ruled by the Italian noble family of Obertenghis and must have been a well-off village given the surviving architectural elements of arched loggias and arcades. The piazza I had walked through would not have been there in those times and neither would have been the breakwater that sits in the harbour today. Instead waves from the Ligurian Sea would have dashed against the houses on the rocks and boats would have been chained to the rocks.

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Vernazza’s church
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The harbour in Vernazza.
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Vernazza
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In Vernazza, I had this massive portion of gelato by the harbour. My lunch that noon.
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The coastal train line that takes you to the various villages of the Cinque Terre. This is the part of it in Vernazza.
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Villages that will have your heart.
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Panoramic shot of Vernazza
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A view of the hills from where I had hiked down to Vernazza.
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Colour and Vernazza
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A quick stop on the Blue Trail from Vernazza to Corniglia. That is Vernazza behind me.
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Along the Blue Trail. Vernazza to Corniglia.
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Lemon trees and Vernazza.

A fair share of daydreaming and it was time for me to set off for the next leg of my hike to the village of Corniglia. Steep stone steps cut through houses and led to the woods. I was back on the Blue Trail. I had another stunning view of Vernazza as I looked back. Lush olive groves and lemon trees paved my way with the occasional Madonna staring back at me from a stone alcove in the woods.

The initial part of the hike was made up of a lot of steps and panting, my hat flying off in the wind, and the like till it became fairly easy. Soon I found myself staring at the colourful houses of Corniglia sticking out atop a green promontory which sits upon a cerulean sea. The village itself is populated by houses that climb up in tiers and are surrounded by vineyards and terraces.

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That, my friends, is Corniglia.
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Corniglia
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Church of St. Peter in upper part of Corniglia.
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Corniglia and its quiet charm.
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Lanes of Corniglia.
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The lush orchards around Corniglia.
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The incredible number of steps that lead to the station at Corniglia for the next few villages.

From a terrace in Corniglia, I could see the two villages of Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza one side and the two villages of Manarola and Riomaggiore on the other.

All the climbing meant that I was completely dehydrated even though I had finished bottles of water. I walked into a small café and amidst the loud Italian chatter of several locals managed to order a glass of lemon juice. The first sip I took made me jump. The lady at the bar had not added any sugar. She had also, rather generously, squeezed in the juice of a massive lemon. “These leeemons arre so sourrr,” she added with a grimace. She added more water to it but beyond a few more sips, I could not carry on.

After a quick look at the 14th century Church of St Peter that was commissioned by the noble Fieschi family of Corniglia and a bit of rambling around the alleys, I decided to take the train to Manarola.

Not a wise decision because the train station turned out to be down a monstrous set of stairs down. Those 380 odd steps down are called the Lardarina and my already trembling legs had a tough task cut out for them. It also meant that I would not be making my way up again in case the train options delayed me. My plan went haywire and I had to wait an hour before the next train was due. I had already bought the tickets, plus I was loath to climb the arduous Lardarina back to take the Blue Trail.

Time was suddenly spare because I had to return to Monterosso to catch the train back to Milan. That is how I ended up skipping Manarola and getting on the train to the southernmost village of Riomaggiore. The hike trails between Corniglia and Manarola and that from Manarola to Riomaggiore are pretty easy so I was missing out on the relatively smooth part of the hike.

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Manarola

The train wound through tunnels and took a stunning coastal route into Riomaggiore that is the first village of the Cinque Terre if you are travelling north from La Spezia. Dating back to the 13th century, Riomaggiore is a beautiful assortment of pastel coloured houses piled on top of one another and stand above a deep ravine. Below lies a small wharf and a rocky beach.

Perched upon the Mediterranean Gulf of Genoa, I found it the quietest of the villages I had walked through and it was perfect that I got to spend sunset in its serene beauty.

The houses in Riomaggiore have an interesting history. They are mostly four or three storeys in height and have two entrances because when they were initially built, their occupants wanted an easy way out in case they were attacked by the Saracens. Many artists have been inspired by Riomaggiore. One of them was from Florence and he had a street in the village named after him while another artist has put up a huge mosaic mural up near the railway station that depicts the hard life of the local farmers.

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Via Colombo in Riomaggiore, the main thoroughfare of the easternmost village of the Cinque Terre
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Mural at the Riomaggiore train station.
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Peeling pastel houses of Riomaggiore
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The village of Riomaggiore has inspired many artists.
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The simple life in Riomaggiore

If you are not too enthusiastic about hiking, take the pass for the coastal train that charts a 19th-century railway line through the five villages.

I insist however that you cannot feel the elation of discovering each village unless you have felt the heart thud audibly, and then (because there is always a shining beacon at the end of it all) post the thudding and the huffing and the puffing, a big bad cone of gelato awaits you. Apart from multi-million dollar views.

Only then would you know this, my friend, that you have earned it.

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A Medieval Walled Town in Lombardy

There is something so charming about medieval walled towns. If you are a history buff, you can immediately imagine a well-to-do town which would have required protection from marauders. In the posh region of Lombardy, a throwaway distance from Milan, is the medieval walled city of Bergamo. It is a place oft overlooked in by most in their zeal to discover some of northern Italy’s other destinations.

At the edge of the Alps, Bergamo with its enviable perched-up position, is the perfect place to while away time in a deliciously idyllic manner.

I had landed at the airport near Bergamo and taken the bus to Milan. It wound through the beautifully lit up city at night and piqued my curiosity.

On another spring morning, a swift train ride from Milan and I found myself in the two-tiered city that is Bergamo.

Its name was derived from the word ‘berg-heim’ meaning hill-town. Julius Caesar is said to have granted it the status of Municipium (Latin for town or city) in 49 BC and Bergamo was home to Roman military forces for some time.

But the Roman town plan of Bergamo was overridden by the Venetians when they made it a part of the Venetian State in 1428. For over three centuries, Bergamo was a part of the Serenissima (Most Serene) Republic of Venice. The Venetians left behind a legacy that till today gives Bergamo an ancient atmosphere. They constructed the Cinta Muraria di Bergamo, megalithic walls, in the 16th century to defend the city – yet ironically enough the walls were never used for military purposes, just for romantic strolls.

A funicular links the lower and upper parts of Bergamo during summer. But it was the fag end of winter and I had to make my way to Città Alta (meaning Upper City where ‘città’ is pronounced as cheetah with an emphasis on the ‘t’) on foot along the winding axial road of Viale Vittorio Emanuele II. The moustachioed presence of Victor Emmanuel II is all over northern Italy. He was the first king of a united Italy since the 6th century.

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Città Bassa
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Church of St Mary of the Graces, Citta Bassa.
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Porta Nuova

While still in Città Bassa (Lower City), I passed the Porta Nuova (‘New Gate’). If it were the old days and I was carrying goods, there would have been a tax to pay before the erstwhile iron gates would have opened up for me. The gate was erected within the defensive walls that ran through lower town as well and was built in 1837 to mark the occasion of the grand entrance of Ferdinand I, emperor of Austria, to the city. It was subsequently torn down when it stopped serving its purpose as customs border.

Ahead of me lay a charming tableau from a postcard – a hill crowned by domes, campaniles, palaces and towers. In the early 20th century, an architect had purposefully kept the height of the buildings in Città Bassa low. The Città Alta had to stand tall proudly above.

Walking along the Venetian walls, I entered Città Alta through one of its four Venetian gates, the Porta di Sant’Agostino. From atop it, a winged lion known as the Lion of St. Mark and carved in sandstone, proclaimed that the Venetians were here. The ascending road unfolded a town below that was nestled into a valley networked with sloping velvet greens, orchards and a gaggle of villas. In the backdrop were the Bergamasque Alps or the Orobian Alps which are part of the Central Eastern Alps.

In the heart of medieval Bergamo, I got conned by my rumbling stomach into an expensive lunch of soup in a café. Thereafter, all kinds of delectable, baked goodies and polenta sweets mocked at me from bakery windows. In a rueful state of mind, I found myself in Piazza Mercato delle Scarpe (Shoe Market Square), an old square that was supposed to be the city’s market during Roman times. Through it ran Via Gombito, the main road in the centre of the upper city.

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Porta di Sant’ Agostino

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Torre del Gombito
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The bastions and old Venetian walls

A tall tower, that you can climb in a matter of 180 steps – the 12th-13th century Torre del Gombito/ Gombito Tower – stood by Via Gombito declaring its exalted status. During the medieval ages such towers implied power. The bird’s eye view of the city that Torre del Gombito offers is not exclusive to it – the Torre Civica/Civic Tower and a castle too promise spectacular views over the city. Not feeling particularly well (if I were in my elements, I would have climbed all three), I dragged myself up a steep ascent to the castle. The Funicolare San Vigilio takes you to straight to the Castello di San Vigilio, but it was not in operation. Yet when I stood atop the ruins of the castle – the views of the vineyards, villas clinging to the hills, a golden statue on a grey dome down in Città Alta glinting in the evening rays of the sun – it drove away all cares from my mind.

Now, the nerve centre of Bergamo is Piazza Vecchia. In pre-Venetian days, the piazza used to host a grain and fodder market but the Venetians brought down the medieval structures and supplanted them with their own architectural vision.

Piazzas always overwhelm me, in terms of the fact that I never can decide which building should receive the first sigh of appreciation. The Piazza Vecchia is, however, dominated by Torre Civica (Civic Tower) which snags the onlooker’s attention by the virtue of its campanile (bell tower). At the centre of the square stood a fountain that was donated to the city by a podesta (high officials in Italian cities from the late Middle Ages onwards) in 1780. Next to the campanile was the 12th century Palazzo della Ragione, the city’s seat of administration in times past. On the palazzo’s façade, I met our old winged friend, the lion of St. Mark, all over again, but this was only a 20th century replica of the original 15th century carving which was destroyed when Napoleon invaded the city.

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Piazza Vecchia with Torre Civica rising above it
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Cappella Colleoni

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The steep climb to Castello di San Vigilio
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The views on the way to the castle are your reward
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The sweeping vista of Bergamo from the castle

Directly opposite stood the white porticos of the Palazzo Nuovo/Biblioteca Angelo Mai, which was a town hall in earlier times and a library since the 1870s while northwest of the square was an impressive frescoed building, the Palazzo del Podestà, home traditionally to the Venetian Podesta.

This was definitely a piazza to confound the senses with the amount of buildings it offered up for the senses.

My vote went to a chapel, the façade of which seemed to be almost woven richly in white and red Italian marble. The Cappella Colleoni (Colleoni Chapel) is a masterwork of Renaissance architecture. It houses the tombs of the condottiere (military leader) Bartolomeo Colleoni, captain-general of the Republic of Venice during the 1400s, and his daughter Medea. I could quite forgive Colleoni for bringing down the sacristy that had stood at the spot where he built his mausoleum.

The highlight of my trip was walking the narrow alleys of Bergamo, flanked by houses with slatted windows, at the end of which almost always stood out the dome of the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, a campanile or the spire of a church. From the beautiful boutiques and shops in Bergamo, it is easy to figure out that it is a town with taste. And taste can sometimes come at a hefty price. Bergamo does require deep pockets.

Post my wanderings in Città Alta, I climbed higher above Bergamo and entered a village, clustered with beautiful old villas and a church at the end of the road. It was quiet village with a few people wandering out from a trattoria after clearly a good meal. Food can do wonders at any given time.

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Spot the kitty
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Quiet churches in equally quiet villages above Bergamo
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Rich chocolate pastries
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Venetian gates and Roman aqueducts

A day of exploring the ancient walled town demanded a rich chocolate pastry and tea, after which I made my way back to lower Bergamo, past the old Roman aqueduct. The area around the aqueduct is said to be scattered with caves, secret passages and underground cisterns. A bit of mystery and romance was added to it all when I heard locals speak of the possibility of stashes of the Venetians’ treasure buried somewhere in the caves. Point to ponder. Should I have stayed behind to lay my hands on those hoards?

 

A Once-in-a-Lifetime Hike

Now that is not because the hike I am going to talk about promises staggering heights like the Himalayas. But because of the staggering beauty that lies at the end of the hike. A beauty that is not fenced in. The Norwegians are not paranoid about safety, you see. They like to leave their natural environment as pristine as possible.

My husband had first seen a shot of Preikestolen in a coffee table book in his teens. One evening, sitting in a hotel room in Berlin, he could find tickets to nowhere for a bank holiday weekend except to Stavanger. That is how some trips are meant to be, and the universe just conspires to make them happen.

For our hike to Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), we had made our base in the oil-boom town called Stavanger. It is a small town on the North Sea coast of Norway and an erstwhile fishing port dedicated to sardines and herrings. Eighteenth century wooden houses, cobbled lanes and an atmospheric harbour flanked by lively pubs housed in old warehouses, make up Stavanger.

It is a pretty lively town too. On Friday nights partygoers make a go for the pubs in town with some gusto. Our hotel window had to be kept open at night because the hotel, Scandic Park, did not offer air conditioning – all night long, I was half awake listening to cars with loud music racing outside on the roads and the hum of people talking as made their way to the harbour.

Stavanger has two pretty quarters. The eastern part of the harbour houses a colourful street, Øvre Holmegate. Conceptualised by a hairdresser in consultation with an artist, the buildings on Øvre Holmegate have been painted in fresh colours and they pop out at you all in a row with a cutting-edge, bohemian vibe.

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The pavilion by Lake Breiavatnet
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Lake Breiavatnet

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Sverd i Fjell. The Three Swords Monument when translated. On the edge of Hafrsfjord, it commemorates the Battle of Hafrsfjord in 872 after which King Harald Fair Hair united the three districts of Norway into one kingdom.
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Man in Iron. Part of the project ‘Broken Column’.

The other part is Gamle Stavanger, on the west side of Vågen, the harbour at the heart of Stavanger with its busy little sailing boats and ferries, where often a hunkering cruise ship rolls in. The day we were to leave Stavanger, the Caribbean Princess came into Vågen, standing athwart the city’s skyline like a giant surveying its kingdom. You could see the cruise ship from everywhere in town.

The oldest part in town is Gamle Stavanger, a residential area. At any time only a handful of tourists can be found to saunter through its cobbled alleys. The idyllic beauty of white wooden cottages stringed together in a row is a result of the conservation of its traditional 18th century cottages post WWII. Rose-trellised doors, baskets of black petunias, vibrant hydrangeas and weeping willows add a charming touch to the neighbourhood. Meanwhile the fishing heritage of the town is preserved in a canning museum that sits quietly among the winding lanes of the quarter.

With its lake Breiavatnet fringed by wooden houses and parks, the adjoining old cathedral, the artistic iron sculptures (a project called Broken Column by a London-based sculptor in which men in iron project upwards from the ground), its waterfront bars and a stylishly dressed populace, Stavanger is quite the kind of town I could see myself living in.

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Øvre Holmegate
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Going B&W in the colourful street of Øvre Holmegate
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The pop colours of Øvre Holmegate
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The Norwegian troll is not to be put in a corner.
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Traditional Norwegian dresses

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Quriky decor of modern eateries in town.
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Stavanger’s colourful harbour
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The harbour
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Norwegian design boutiques
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When a cruise ship came into Stavanger and you could see it from everywhere in town.

On a sunny day, we cruised into Lysefjord on a boat. The sun played peekaboo and a wickedly icy wind whipped my hair and the red, white and indigo blue Scandinavian cross of the Norwegian flag that fluttered on a pole at the tail of the boat. Large wads of clouds rolled into the sky and we puttered by the occasional tiny lighthouse on a boulder, white and red wooden cottages scattered on green patches populated by tall evergreens.

The real drama picked up when we came upon the granite cliffs of Ryfylke. They tower 3000 feet above the fjord and it is the light colour of these cliffs that gives the fjord its name which means ‘light fjord’. Make no mistake. This was a wild fjord, 40-odd km in length, carved out by the glaciers during the Ice Age as it wound its way through pristine Norwegian countryside. Only two villages lay along its length, Forsand and Lysebotn, both of which are lightly populated.

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On the cruise on the Lysefjord
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Lysefjord
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Windswept and chilled beyond relief it seemed at the time.
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A stunning landscape on Lysefjord.
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Cliffs and the man
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Panorama of the cliffs on Lysefjord.
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Brooding
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The glassy perfection of a fjord
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Tau

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At one point, we looked up and spied the flat mouth of Preikestolen hanging out. It looked nothing more than a tiny slab of rock and beneath it was a sheer fall into jagged cliffs. So, if you did fall, it would not be death by water. A few turns about the sharp, uneven edges of the cliff, and then counting in a big Might, you might enter the fjord.

We were dropped off at the village of Tau for the hike. Stavanger’s local iconic beer, Tou, used to be brewed at Tau in the mid-19th century before the brewery was moved to Stavanger. A bus took us to the point from where the hike started and we got a peep at the Riksvei 13 (National Road 13), a 280-mile long Norwegian tourist route that runs north-south through a few counties skirting fjords, islands and islets, farmlands and vertiginous cliffs.

The hike itself is arduous. It took us about two hours of walking, climbing up boulders and gingerly making our way down them, tripping across brooks and slipping on the occasional slimy rock before we were anywhere near Pulpit Rock. When the legs start tiring out, it is worthwhile to make brief stops, turn around and take in the landscape of the misty fjord and islets looming yonder. The way to Pulpit Rock is punctuated by scenic lakes, light woods and trails that open into ravines and cliffs populated by evergreen forests. It is quite in sync with the Norwegian motto ‘Ut på tur, aldri sur’ (‘Out on a hike, never gripe’).

Ahead of us a scene played out that would have made it to Fifty Ways to Kill Your Mammy (an adventure series on British telky about the experiences of a 70-year-old Irish mother and her intrepid son). A portly British mum was toiling away while her teenage son kept up with her questions, which ran along the lines of “Where is the lift?” with a straight face and chiding tone, “Well, you asked for Norway. This is It, mum!”

The cheeky son and troubled mother team in tow, we suddenly came upon the Pulpit Rock. The one prize that had us all huffing and puffing our way up.

So, the local lore of Preikestolen prophesies that the rock shall fall off the mountain into the fjord the day seven brothers marry seven sisters from the area around it. What are the chances of that happening, eh?

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The start of the hike is on flat boulders, till…
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…you hit the steep rocks and boulders.
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Various stages of the hike
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How long more do we have to go on?
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The British mother and her enthusiastic son.
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The views, every time you turn back during the hike, is breathtaking.

Surrounded by young mothers with babies strapped onto them, wee boys with fathers, dogs panting alongside their masters, teenage hikers and gutsy old women and men armed with walking poles, I was finding it all surreal. My partner and I had almost decided against the trip. The weather forecast for the weekend was pouring rain. And, I am a fair weather hiker, thank you. Yet we decided to do as the Nordic do. Wing it. They say there that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.

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I loved the sight of that little pool right at the bottom and the vastness of the wild Norwegian outdoors.
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This particular photograph is a favourite because that man and his dog there are one with their surroundings.

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When we came upon the Pulpit Rock, we found a steep cliff that true to its name juts out squarely like a pulpit, about 82 by 82 feet to be precise, above the fjord.

Around me, Brave men and women – trust me on this – walked right up to the edge of the rock, sat down and flashed toothy grins for their shutterbug friends. Then there was the category of the Very Brave – they stood at the edge and clicked a few dozen selfies.

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The couple who posed for us just like that as they sat on the edge of Pulpit Rock. I could feel their glee from a distance.
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Lysefjord from atop Pulpit Rock
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Catching a breath on Pulpit Rock before beginning the descent.
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Oops that would be a not so pretty fall 😉

The occasion demanded an attempt at bravery. Hmmm, so adrenalin pumping, I walked right up to the edge. Stopped. Sat down. My left foot dangling off the edge of the ledge, I took a peek down and my right foot never got the chance to be as brave as its counterpart.

Perched upon the very fringe of that rocky outcrop in the heart of Norway’s Rogaland county, my nerves were taut. As taut as they can get when they contemplate upon a tumble into the dark (and possibly hypothermia inducing) fjord.

This is what had transpired a few minutes before. “But I want to sit at the very edge, my legs dangling, like I would at the dining table,” I negotiated terms with a grim partner. He looked down at the glassy waters of the fjord below, looked up and said simply, “And I want my wife.”

I was halfway on the road to bravery.

Blame it all on the right foot.

Nothing prepares you for the thrill of Preikestolen. No amount of photographs or videos can approximate those moments of sheer exhilaration, of having made it to the flat outcrop, of drinking in the dreamy beauty of the fjord with hungry eyes, and reflecting that it is the kind of place that makes people lose their common sense.

 

 

 

A Chunk of South West Wales

In the midst of all our European jaunts, we had left behind the strong love that my husband and I nurse for our English country holidays. If anybody claims that there is nothing that compares to the countryside in Britain, that would be me. My husband would nod vigorously in assent.

On a Friday noon, we booked a cottage and drove through the cool evening, four hours away from home. It was late at night when we rolled into the pebbled driveway of the cottage, tucked into a quiet hamlet in the Carmarthenshire county of Wales. A small tablet on the front door announced it as Penrhiw (pronounced as pen-ru, it means ‘head of the street’).

We were directly shown by the landlady, Naomi, into a compact annexe at the rear of the house that overlooked a vast network of fields. Outside our door stood a pair of wooden chairs, a small slatted table and a portable fire-pit. The husband immediately started having visions of jacket potatoes and butter.

There was no wifi, no mobile network. Suited me just fine. Technology is too much with us anyway.

A thought that dawns upon you when you look up at the open country sky on a dark night, see the stars grow brighter, more popping up by and by; herds of cuddly sheep that materialise, when morning dawns, to stare at you warily, cows that chomp away contentedly in herds and horses which trot up to meet you from their patches of green.

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Carmarthenshire
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The road that led to our cottage in the county
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The cottage we stayed in

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The kind of view we had from our part of the cottage
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The woody bit adjoining the cottage which lead to where the piglets live.
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The adorable twosome and Naomi
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Curious cows
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The two beauties we came across
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The next day we looked high and low for them but our two friends were missing.

Day 1

The morning started with a meeting. With Naomi’s two new piglets. Off the driveway was a glade of white and lilac summer flowers and tall trees and walking down its muddy track, we came upon a pen from which emerged a pair of squealing and grunting piglets. After my fair share of cooing at the pink packages of delight and noticing that one of them had differently coloured eyes – one eye was blue and the other brown – we started our drive for the rugged coastline in the adjoining county of Pembrokeshire.

Tenby: Its Welsh name, Dinbych-y-pysgod, sounds something like ‘dinbeekhapusgod’ and means ‘fortlet of the fish’. Derived from the nature of the town’s original trade. When we walked in through its Five Arches Gate, which are part of the remnants of the castled town, we discovered a bustling, colourful Welsh town. Pastel coloured house fronts spoke of Victorian revival architecture – the town was a picture of abandonment and decay after the English Civil War and a plague in the mid-1600s till the Victorians turned their attention to Tenby. There was an increasing emphasis in Victorian England on bathing holidays in English towns because the Napoleonic wars of the time made it difficult for the posh crowd to frequent European spa resorts.

The man who became associated with reviving Tenby was merchant banker and politician Sir William Paxton. He bought a house in Tenby in 1802 and decided to design it into a “fashionable bathing establishment suitable for the highest society”.

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The harbour of Tenby
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St. Catherine’s Fort on that limestone outcrop.
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Ruins of the castle can be spotted in the background.

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Pub grub at Three Mariners.
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All creamy goodies
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Look who was spotted knocking back tipples at the Three Mariners.
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The owl who puts up with her owner because she realises that hers is the hand that feeds her.
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Strawberry and clotted cream ice creams are the full-fat (and therefore great delights) of these British villages.

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Lawn bowling

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Only some walls and a tower of the castle remain of the once medieval walled town of Tenby. Outside one of these walls, by the harbour, an old man with no teeth but a wide smile on a sorrowful face played an accordion.

The afternoon demanded a good tuck-in at a pub and it was followed by dollops of heavenly ice cream from a small shop. The continuous pealing of church bells as the sonorous background music, we surveyed charming cottages, in vivid colours dominate the harbour of Tenby that hugs the Celtic Sea. Henry VII escaped in a boat from this harbour to Brittany during the War of the Roses.

A fort stands high above a tidal island off Tenby, mysteriously aloof on a limestone outcrop facing the sandy beaches of Tenby. It is St. Catherine’s Fort that was built in 1867 to fortify the British empire against attacks from the French.

Your ears would probably perk up if I told you that a couple of years ago Tenby was vying with beaches in Portugal, Croatia and Italy for the most-beautiful-beach-town-in-Europe tag.

Carew Castle: In the industrial town of Milford Haven stands Carew Castle. The castle and its tidal mill overlook a tidal estuary.

This is a castle that has a family home kind of a touch to it unlike its neighbour, Pembroke Castle, which is austere and typically Welsh.

I was transfixed by stories narrated by the woman who walked us though it in a small group. Its cellars, dark kitchens and chapels, and garderobe (cloakroom) came alive with tales of people who lived there. She was a good storyteller, that woman.

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The chapel inside which must once have been furnished with rich, luxurious fabrics

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Hunting grounds in the background of the castle.
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The tidal mill in the distance.

The story that got me was that of Princess Nest of Deheubarth (regional name for the realms of south Wales). Nest was born around 1085 to Rhys ap Tewdwr, king of the Deheubarth. Her famed beauty got her the nickname, ‘Helen of Wales’, and a highly eventful life. She became Henry I’s mistress and then the same Henry I married her off to Gerald de Windsor, an Anglo-Norman baron. She was later abducted by a Welsh prince called Owain who is said to have been her cousin and very much in love with her.

Nest had borne 21 children in her lifetime and lived into her 50s (a ripe old age in those days). “Though she is spoken of in a cavalier manner, I believe Nest was a survivor. In those days, women had to marry to be safe and give birth to seal in their security. She must have been quite intelligent to survive the difficult years she was born into,” our guide pointed out.

Carew Castle was part of Nest’s dowry when she married Gerald, a man who was 40 to her tender 14 years. It was their son, William who adopted the name ‘de Carew’.

As for Nest, she left behind her legacy with the Tudor and Stuart monarchs of England as well as Princess Diana and US President John F. Kennedy.

Skirting past the darkened interiors of the castle, which are home to bats and owls, we heard so many more stories – the ghastly tale of a cruel man called Rhys ap Thomas who took over the castle when the de Carews went broke. Rhys ap Thomas betrayed his friend and backed Henry Tudor when he came back to England to claim the throne. He was rewarded generously when Henry became the king. This Thomas kept a vicious barbary ape in the castle and mistreated it.

At the end of it, the ape ripped his throat apart one stormy night and died in the chamber too.

The castle is said to be haunted by that ape. A visitor to the castle had apparently caught the ape staring down at him from one of the windows. In that very apartment where the ape killed his master, I was deemed a ‘snail murderer’. A loud crunch beneath my boot-clad feet and to my dismay I discovered the remains of a hapless snail.

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The Elizabethan wing
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The drama of Carew

Do look out for the Elizabethan wing which were built by the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir John Perrot. He had acquired the castle after its last owner, Rhys’ grandson, was executed by Henry VIII for treason.

Barafundle Bay: Limestone cliffs and dramatic red sandstone cliffs stand guard over the sandy beaches and jewel coloured waters of Barafundle Bay. It is a part of an old grand home, Stackpole Estate, that is located between the villages of Stackpole and Bosherston near Pembroke. The estate with its property of farmland, lakes, woodland and beaches is now part of the National Trust. It was owned by the Cawdor family, descendants of Thane of Cawdor who is celebrated in Macbeth – Macbeth was made Thane of Cawdor by Duncan in the play.

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The gorgeous bay

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We could not help but be mesmerised by the waters here, the collapsed caves in the bay and the various cliff-y walks that always lead to breathtaking views. We only saw a handful of people exploring Barafundle and that made us feel that we had the bay all to ourselves.

St Ishmael:  If you are passing through St Ishmaels, a village in Pembrokeshire, and you see traffic halted on a narrow country road, you shall know that the miscreants are two adorable hunting dogs, running ahead of the cars. A woman is probably running after them trying to get them into the car so that she can hand them over to the Pembrokeshire County Council as abandoned dogs.

That is how we ended up chasing Holly. We were the second car in the line-up and the thought of dogs having been abandoned was awful enough to get us off the car and try to help out the above-mentioned woman.

Both were beagles, one a pure-bred, and the other a mix. The pure-bred beagle pretty easily allowed the woman to pick him up (why walk and run when you can get a ride, right?). The hybrid beagle on the other hand kept on running ahead and even growled at the woman.

After about two miles of jogging behind her – in which time the woman decided to go drop off the first dog at the council – I was stunned to see the dog leap into the arms of an old man. It turned out that, Holly the hybrid beagle, and her friend the pure beagle, have a penchant to run off. They are hunting dogs, so when they catch a scent in the air, off they go.

“They are my daughter’s dogs. She left them with me because she had to move to Cardiff,” said the man with a suitably harassed expression. Quite understandable when you find someone chasing two dogs every other day.

Marloes: After ravishing a bar of Bournville – because chasing a dog is hungry business – we reached Marloes Peninsula. It is a world made up of silence – because you are pretty much two of the four people out there – and prickly yellow gorse bushes and sprays of wild flowers. Jagged cliffs drop off into miles of sandy beaches. A few miles away stands a white 17th century lighthouse which used to be run on coal, funded by the toll charges paid up by ships that passed by.

We walked on that windy peninsula, admiring the various strata of sandstone marking the cliffs and glowing golden in the setting sun. We sat and admired the mine of geological treasures that Marloes is. Why, one of those formations even resembled a shoe. My father studied geology and I could understand his fascination with the subject, seated on the heather of that peninsula as we saw in front of us fractured stacks, folds of volcanic rocks and sea caves.

Across us, over miles of blue ocean waters and headlands that claw their way into the ocean, stood the islands of Gateholm, Grassholm and Skomer, known for their colonies of puffins, choughs and seals.

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On the climb to Marloes

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The walk to Marloes which is a part of ‘Little England beyond Wales’, an area in Wales. The name is a reference to the fact that it has been English in character for centuries despite its geographical distance from England.

 

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Marloes. A peninsula on the western edge of Pembrokeshire.
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Doesn’t that rock formation look like a boot?
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Sunset at Marloes
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Chicken tikka barbecue

When we reached our cottage, we spent the evening barbecuing chicken tikka over charcoal and warming ourselves on that chilly evening by a blazing fire. We smelled thoroughly smoky by the end of that evening, but as we sipped on a rosé wine and snacked on those delicious charred morsels of meat, we were in our own little heaven under a sky bejewelled with stars.

 

DAY 2

St. David’s: We were in Britain’s smallest city – in terms of size and population. In it, Wales’ patron saint, St David is said to have established a monastery and church in the 6th century. That church is no longer there but in its place is the spectacular St. David’s Cathedral. This cathedral goes back to the times of the Normans, before which stood another cathedral that was plundered by Vikings and burnt down.

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St. David’s Cathedral

 

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The stream that runs by the cathedral
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There has always been a church on the site since the 6th century but the cathedral itself dates back to 1181.
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The simple yet beautiful nave of St. David’s Cathedral
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River Alun that flows through St. David’s
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Ruins of the medieval Bishop’s Palace. The palace is said to have been built by a series of ‘builder bishops’ during the late 13th and 14th centuries.

Looking at its grand visage, I could imagine why this cathedral was a much-hailed pilgrimage in the early days when starting with William the Conqueror, many kings and queens had paid it a visit. St. David’s Cathedral is beautiful not because it is bombastic. In fact, it is austere in its wooden interiors which are reminiscent of its medieval past. You cannot help but gawk at the ceilings and floor tiles that crop up inside. Do look out for the remains of St. David which are kept inside the cathedral.

If you have time, spend some time in the city which houses a cute assortment of houses and boutiques. And do fall prey to the crunchy onion rings at The Sound Café. It is worth its batter.

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The charming city of St. David’s
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In Britain’s smallest city (in terms of size and population).
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A lovely café in St. David’s.
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Those onion rings *shuts her eyes and smacks her lips
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Gammon and chips

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And then we met award winner, gentle Alfie, at a horse and dog show in St. David’s. All he wanted to do was catch a snooze before which he accepted Polo.
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Meet Mr. Bojangles. He was a stud. It  also seemed that he knew it.

Brecon Beacons

Walks and drives in the heather-clad mountains (or hills) of the Brecon Beacons National Park are just serene and filled with natural beauty. Once in a while, the tiniest of hamlets pop up along with pubs, but for the most part it is filled with miles and miles of green pastures dotted with sheep. There are more sheep than men out there. I promise.

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In to the Brecon Beacons National Park
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Motorbikers, bikers and hikers are quintessential to the landscape of the Brecon Beacons
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As of course are these beautiful posers who are woven into the fabric of the rural vista.
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Every year I read about a few soldiers dying in the Brecon Beacons. It is a favoured training ground for the British armed forces.
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Hamlets crop up once in a while within the park.
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But my favourite thing is about meeting these cuddly timid creatures.
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The Brecon Beacons are one of four ranges of mountains and hills in South Wales
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The kind of views you come across within this Welsh national park

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Roads that snake past reservoirs
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A reservoir within the Brecon Beacons

There are plenty of trails and drives to choose from within the park. We took the A4069 Black Mountain Road that took us on sinuous, curved roads through the park and led us to the Usk Reservoir. The other route we drove down was the Abergavenny-Penderyn route.

There are six peaks within the park that is supposed to have been named after an ancient practice of lighting beacons on the mountains to warn of invaders attacking.

I am quite ready to relive the magic of south west Wales, all over again. For how often do you have a holiday spending time with curious horses, friendly cows, naughty hunting dogs and charming piggies?

 

 

Sublimely Yours, Sintra

Two centuries before I trudged up the densely wooded hills of Serra de Sintra, that is the mountains of Sintra, the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Lord Byron had spent time falling in love with its ‘variegated maze of mount and glen’.

My arrival in the foothills of Portugal’s resort town and former royal haunt of Sintra was not a mistake as the Romantic Poet’s was. Byron had set sail for Malta, missed the boat and had taken off for Lisbon instead. A mistake that he does not seem to have rued because he found himself in “Cintra’s glorious Eden”. He was enchanted by Sintra’s “palaces and gardens rising in the midst of rocks, cataracts and precipices; convents on stupendous heights”.

His voice laced with horror at the thought, a local in Lisbon had insisted that “why you cannot be in Lisbon and Not go to Sintra”. The Portuguese adore the town that lies a mere 20 miles west of the Portuguese capital. Even their royals in the past coveted Sintra so that they transformed it into their summer retreat. This obsession with Sintra is explained perfectly by Portuguese writer Eça de Queirós who found it to be a “nest of lovers [where, in] the romantic foliage, the nobles abandoned themselves in the hands of the poets”.

After a few goof-ups (a constant feature in each trip) – in this case paying twice over for the ticket – I heaved a sigh of relief at making it to dreamy Sintra, of the palaces and castles. The train pulled into the station and I noticed the grey mist hanging atop the panoply of trees that formed a backdrop for colourful and aged buildings.

I could already smell the promise of faded glory in the air.

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Sintra’s flamboyant and Disney-esque town hall
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Moorish architecture
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Peeling houses and Sintra
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Fountains where people fill up cans of drinking water
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Lush Sintra

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At that old train station, made more picturesque by intricate carvings in wrought iron, its white and brick red façade decorated with vivid tiles, I spent time warding off a tout advertising all the reasons why I should be on electric car tour. The words, “I do not drive,” finally did the required magic and sent the tout packing off to greener pastures. The possibility of a walking tour was bleak. The information window stated boldly that it would open more than a couple of hours later – I could only sigh heavily because the prospect of information too seemed bleak. I was in the land of people who believe in the concept of prolonged lunches and pay unequivocal attention to what is on their plates.

The onus of discovering Sintra was on me.

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The old railway station of Sintra.

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Pampilhos. A confection typical to the Central-West region of Santarém in Portugal. It is a thinly rolled sponge cake filled with egg yolk cream called ‘Ovos-moles’ (soft eggs).

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The 18-century mansion turned boutique hotel was once the residence of Lord Byron when he visited Sintra.
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Castelos dos Mouros crowns the hills above the centre of Sintra.
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A café popular with the swish crowd in Sintra.

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In Sintra’s town centre.
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Steps that lead up and up to the Moorish Castle from the town centre.
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Sintra’s town centre
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The Mourisca Fountains meant to dignify the much appreciated water of Sintra.
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Castelos dos Mouros looms above the town

In the heart of the old town, a pair of unconventional conical chimneys stick out above a rambling white palace. Those chimneys lend that something extra to the Palacio Nacional de Sintra (National Palace of Sintra), or you could easily dismiss it as just a big but plain summer retreat for the Portuguese royal family since the 14th century. Hans Christian Anderson, the Danish author, described those quirky chimneys best – as giant champagne bottles.

There is a distinct Moorish touch to the palace.

It was stamped on me that the Moors were in Sintra from the moment that I beheld the Castelos dos Mouros, located strategically, high above town and clinging dramatically to the ridges.

Apart from the Moorish style of architecture reflected heavily in most monuments in Portugal, there is another distinctive style of architecture which is the Manueline school of design. It is a late Portuguese Gothic style, a mix of Spanish, Italian, Flemish and Moorish styles and named after the reigning king Manuel I of the 16th century. I could see the Manueline influence in the design of the National Palace and kept thinking how fascinating it is that it was heavily influenced by the Age of Discovery (which included voyages of the notable Portuguese seafarers, Vasco da Gama and Pedro Álvares Cabral). The proceeds from Portugal’s spice trade with India and Africa financed the construction of churches and monasteries in the Manueline style.

Right opposite the National Palace is a maze of restaurants, cafés, shops and boutiques, arranged along narrow alleys that climb up steeply. They offer the eyes a visual display of geometric azulejos (hand-painted tiles typical to Portuguese architecture) and Ginjinha/Ginja (Portuguese liqueur made with an infusion of Ginja berries or Morello cherries). At one of the kiosks, for a measly buck, I had a shot of Ginjinha in an edible chocolate cup. I clutched the first cup too hard, crushed it, and expressed such consternation that the lady behind the counter offered a second cup, without charging a dime extra. That cherry liqueur shot is one of the best memories I carry from Portugal apart from the flavourful Bacalhau or salted cod dishes.

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The first day on which I reached Sintra and climbed the steep ascent to the Castle of the Moors through a foggy forest
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It was straight out of the books. That forest climb.
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The devotee at the door of the church.
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Steps lead down to chalet-like cottages

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Palace of Sintra
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The conical chimneys of the palace are a unique sight to Sintra.
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The vintage air of Sintra
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Azulejos

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Hans Christian Andersen’s villa in pink

Negotiating stairs that snaked their way through beautiful old buildings, I found walls decorated with azulejos, wrought iron doors and the odd cupid statue playing the Portuguese guitar. Strains of soulful Fado wafted from the interiors of a restaurant. The Fado is a music genre that is beloved of the Portuguese with the predominant sentiments of fatefulness and melancholia pervading the songs. It is how I came upon a cobbled road that led the way up to the Castelos dos Mouros.

On the way, it was impossible not to catch my breath in more ways than one as I beheld pastel, faded red rooftops of villas and palaces below. Imagine my thrill when I walked past a certain yellowed old Santa Maria Church to chance upon a pale pink, dilapidated casa with a marble plaque that had the name of Hans Christian Andersen inscribed upon it. The writer of ‘The Little Mermaid’ fame had lived his bit of fairy-tale in Sintra in 1866 when he visited Portugal.

A few more minutes of hiking and I reached mossy stone stairs leading up to the castle that dates back to the 9th century. It was a military fort, built by the Moors who occupied the Iberian Peninsula at the time. The mist thickened into fog and grew so dense that I could not see the town I had left below. And even though it was not raining, there was a steady pitter-patter of water that must have been draining off the thick foliage and canopy of tall trees surrounding me. Yet not a drop touched me.

I had to myself the run of that forest terrain, thick with boulders sheathed in moss, lichens and ferns. It was a Harry Potter-esque forest except no centaur or giant spiders ran out to greet me.

My brilliance lies in the fact that after climbing all the way to the top I figured out that it was not the day to walk the ramparts. I decided to return another day.

Yet I cannot forget the mysterious charm that Sintra exuded, mired in veils of thick fog.

“Do you know how rare it is for Sintra to get blue skies?” said a Lisbon cabbie to me during my days of rambling about the Capital. Considering which, I struck lucky when I returned to Sintra on a sunny day, large swathes of cloud hanging above me in a blue, blue sky. I opted for a hop-on hop-off bus that promised to show me the westernmost point of the country too.

The bus wound its way through woods, giving me views above town, revealing beautiful mansions such as the Chalet Biester to my curious eyes. Built by a Portuguese journalist-playwright of German origin in the late 1800s, it explains the reason why with its turquoise-trimmed black roof and black turrets look distinctly German. It is where Roman Polanski shot his thriller ‘The Ninth Gate’ starring Johnny Depp. The chalet fascinated me with its neo-Gothic and neo-Romantic style that gave it the look of a chalet with dark and yet fairy-tale aspirations.

When we ascended all the way to the top, I walked the ramparts of Castelos dos Mouros. The scene that unfolded before me was spectacular, standing as I was 1,300 feet above sea level, staring down from ivy-clad battlements at the woods and the old town below. I could have been a medieval figure, standing on a fantasy fortress, gazing at the azure waters of the Atlantic on the horizon and scanning it for invaders.

As I followed the course of the rampart, I was rewarded by the sight of a remarkable palace, made up of pink towers, yellow towers and turrets and golden dome, against the backdrop of massive white clouds. It was the 19th century Pena Palace, a product of the imagination of Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha who conceived it in cohorts with his German architect, Baron Von Eschwage. Ferdinand was a nephew of mad Ludwig, the one who built the most eccentric Bavarian castles. I always find myself taken in by such unbridled craziness.

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Walking the ramparts of the Castelos dos Mouros. The quirky Pena Palace shows up in the background.
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Shy kitty in Castelos dos Mouros.

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Chalet Biester with its turrets below. Seen from the ramparts of Castelos dos Mouros.

Further along the woodland paths beneath the granite massifs of the Sintra mountains, past tiled fountains and giant redwoods, are more romantic pieces of architecture such as the chalet that Ferdinand had built for his opera singer mistress and the neo-classical palaces of Seteais and Monserrate. Their ornate beauty takes you back to another time and place just as the Quinta da Regaleira does. It is unlike any other mansion I have laid my eyes upon. A Brazilian coffee tycoon, António Carvalho Monteiro, owned it and had it designed by an Italian opera set designer. That should tell you about the fantastic nature of the 20th-century neo-Manueline mansion which seems enchanted with its turrets and finials, drooping willows and wisteria and its gardens that reveal secret follies, grottoes, fountains and lakes.

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Quinta da Regaleira

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The 18th century Seteais Palace

Towards afternoon I boarded the hop-on hop-off to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in mainland Portugal and Europe. We passed by pristine sandy beaches and wine-growing villages like Colares, known for the ruby-coloured wine it yields. The Colares vines survived a 19th century grape pest blight that destroyed vineyards across Europe because of the unusual growing conditions of its sandy soil.

When we arrived at Cabo da Roca, the driver gave us about 30 minutes to have a go at the high rocky point, with its red and white lighthouse staring straight into the Atlantic. A landmark cross stood on the cliff with the inscription by Portuguese poet Luis de Camões stating: “Land ends and the sea begins”. I sauntered along to the furthest end of the cliff where it fell into the ocean and revealed a beautiful deserted beach below that opened out into turquoise blue waters. On my way back to the bus – I had 10 minutes at hand – a trio of tourists wanted me to click snaps of them beneath the cross. Now being the kind soul I am, I clicked more than a few options, then decided that the bus was of some importance in the scheme of things. I made my way to it. But just as I crossed the lighthouse, I spied the red top of the bus moving away at considerable speed.

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Beaches before we hit Cabo da Roca
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Dramatic landscapes
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Ribbon-ing roads
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Cabo da Roca and the landmark cross
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The lighthouse at Cabo da Roca
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“Land ends and the sea begins”
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The mesmerising waters around the cape
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In the minutes before the bus sped away and the expression on my face was quite not the same

The cheek of the driver. I frothed in righteous indignation and checked my watch. I had five whole minutes to spare. A couple who were on the bus with me were also left behind. They spoke no English, nodded substantially and smiled at everything I said. The only way back to civilization was to get on to the local bus, as it happened it was the last one for the evening. They too followed suit. A cogent thought given that the only two things on Cabo da Roca were a souvenir shop-cum-café and a visitor centre.

But what is a trip without a few adventures, eh? Though at the time I would not have felt so magnanimous, every aspect of a trip acquires a rosy hue on retrospect. Especially when you reach a place like Sintra where manors in faded pastel colours are tucked into verdant hills rolling down into the ocean, where the Celts worshipped their moon god, the Moors built their vertiginous castle and Portuguese royals lived their summers in dreamy elegance.

No place does ‘fairy-tale’ as sublimely as Sintra does.