Here was an artist who did the Charleston jig. All in a bid to tell us how her Pointer got his name. The Pointer is a dog, lest you are in the dark, and a hunting hound that gets its name from its inclination to point its muzzle towards the game. Now imagine if you will this beloved mistress of Charleston, a grown-up woman imitating him, lifting her chin up and arms pointed into the air in a stance that looked like she was about to release an invisible arrow off an equally invisible bow. All of which was enacted to emphasise upon the stance of a Pointer.
That is how I knew we had landed a prize here, Els and her Pointer, Charleston. I don’t know how well Charleston does the Charleston but he has a name to live up to. And he has a mistress who is quite capable of teaching him the dance.
We had Els’ cottage to ourselves for four days. That red cottage with Homlagarden painted on its entrance, as you see in the lead photo, is stationed strategically by the fjords of western Norway in a village called Norheimsund.
This was our big Norwegian holiday after our weekend stint in Stavanger when we hiked our way to Pulpit Rock. My aim was to get our behinds to Trolltunga and sit on the troll’s tongue dangling our legs into the fjord below. But that was not to be because just as in Stavanger we struck lucky with the weather, even though the forecast was for thunder and showers, our second Norwegian break was made up of enough mist and clouds and drizzle and downpour to make our hiking shoes hang their heads in shame.
What is life if our best-laid plans are not to be, right?
We reached Bergen on a fine day in August last year, the clouds conspiring to create a fleecy white backdrop to our glee at stepping out of the airport to the sight of bright blue skies. A blue sky is such an elixir on any given day and billowing clouds are just the proverbial cherry.
Soon we were puttering down in our rented hatchback towards the cottage that was about an hour and a half away from the airport. We drove through tunnels cutting the length of incredibly lush hills, passed a herd of sheep serenely trotting down the roads and possibly out for their morning stroll – you will see in a later post that the Norwegian sheep are remarkably self-confident unlike their English counterparts, and left behind the occasional church nestled in valleys along with colourful black, red and yellow cottages dotting the landscape or tucked in beside placid lakes.
It made me rather musical. To trill out ‘My Day in the Hills’ ala Julie Andrews and trill I did till Adi asked me to switch to the phone playlist please. I harumphed and sat sulking. But it is difficult to hold on to a sulk in the face of such pristine beauty, the lakes glowing an emerald green in the shadow of those hills and putting me in mind of a mysterious mermaid about to emerge from those waters.
This is how we found ourselves in Norheimsund, bleary-eyed after our early morning flight but the view of the fjord from our cottage driving our cares away in an instant.
It was the quintessential Norwegian cottage on an organic farm where clutches of hen and plump turkeys strutted around a red coop of their own, mini tractors stood with blue hues of the fjord and hills merging into the background, patches of snow showing up in the distance and Els’ yellow cottage facing ours. Inside the red cottage, the entrance was marked by paintings by Els, the ground level housing her workshop along with a carpentry shop. Warm wooden interiors, a well-kitted kitchen with all manners of pots and pans that would make a gourmet cook smile like a shark, windows that looked out into the fjords and made us sigh. This was the perfect start to a Norwegian fjord hopping holiday. Along with the presence of Els, Charleston and his mother, Kaisa.
To Book the Cottage: Get onto Airbnb and type in Hordaland and Els. However Els does not always let out her cottage (because it is not quite that commercial) so book in advance.
How to Get There: Bag tickets for as less as £39 on BA and Norwegian Airlines to Bergen. From the airport, it is best to hire a car for your stay because it is easier and economic to drive around the county of Hordaland.
It is a gloriously nippy day because we have driven up north to Yorkshire for the weekend. A walk in the green, green dales can only do us good, right? We drove last night for about four hours and passed through Derbyshire. Descending the hilly roads in the county, a crooked spire much like the twisty hat of a witch loomed up ahead. For me, the market town of Chesterfield has become synonymous with its crooked spire.
One Samuel Bromley even wrote a few lines for it in the mid-19th century.
“Its ponderous steeple, pillared in the sky,
Rises with twist in pyramidal form,
And threatens danger to the timid eye
That climbs in wonder.”
I don’t know about ‘danger to the timid eye’ but it certainly challenges the mind to come up with stories or go with legends that come with it. St Mary and All Saints is a late-13th century parish church upon the spire of which Satan is supposed to have landed while flying from Nottingham to Sheffield. He must have been a great sneezer that Satan – because the entire burden of the twisting of the spire is laid upon one sneeze.
There is another story that goes with the church – a stunning bride with great virtue entered the church and inspired the spire to bow. It froze in that posture clearly.
The power of satan or the power of great beauty? Well, the more non-ludicrous and staid reason is probably that the spire built straight could not bear the weight of 32 tonnes of lead tiles placed atop it. The herringbone pattern of the spire cements the twisted look.
As we left the lights of these towns behind and made our way through the dark country, we took a few minutes to get off on the grassy knolls, shiver and throw our heads back to stare at an upturned, inky bowl shimmering with stars.
None of the magic of it could but compare with the lardy and wrinkled nude back of an old woman in a hotel room. After midnight, we reached the hotel bleary-eyed, collected the room card, crawled to the room and inserted the card. Adi opened the door and to my astonishment I heard voices issuing out of the room. The telly is on it seems, I thought, and before I could get any further with commenting on the oddness of it, Adi looked scarred and a disgruntled man appeared at the door simultaneously. “But there seems to be a mistake, this is supposed to be our room too,” he said. Since they were comfortably settled in – the lady of the room had even decided to discard this modern inconvenience of clothes – it was only fair that we rushed back to the reception where the gentle, bald man was startled enough that he did not know how to react. It also meant that at that moment when Adi looked appropriately grave and annoyed (the best way to get extra hotel points for occasions when the hotel goofs up), I was shaking and vibrating. You know how it happens when you try and repress peals of laughter. The large desktop computer on the till in front of me was my refuge or so I thought. Adi assured me it was not.
We did get another room (thunk god) whereupon we threw ourselves upon the bed, laughed till our stomachs ached and then just passed out.
How is your weekend going? If you have any nude, old ladies and crooked spires featuring in them, we might be in the same part of town.
Chiselled by the winds stand the sand dunes of Sam. They are an overwhelming sight. All those sandy yellow waves and nothing thereafter for miles. It is a sight that can make you feel like a speck in an ocean of sand. Once in a while, a row of camels can be spotted, swaying their lazy behinds and walking off into the horizon with human loads on their humps.
I have sat on a camel twice now. Two occasions when I somehow clung on to the camel as it decided to make rude noises and threaten to throw me off its back. I would not blame it on hindsight. We humans are rather annoying in our attempt to get onto the back of every four-legged creature we can get our hands on.
I have made my peace with it. No more camel rides for this human is in the offing any time soon, unless I am thrown into the deserts of Arabia with no option but to get on to the back of one or perish. We all have keen survival instincts at the end of the day.
Now, the deserts always remind me of my wee days when my father drove my mother and me through the deserts of Salalah. When once I laid my eyes upon the strange sight of an upturned camel. I have never stopped wondering since if that is how camels pass on to nothingness or onto the next realm, if there is one that is. If you do know the answer to this, I would be grateful for the assuaging of this strange and stupid query that has always been a part of my growing up years.
On another note, have you ever seen the branding of a camel? It is not a pretty affair. Those poor mammals have no option but be branded. They are held down by the heavily moustachioed Rajasthani men, their feet often bare, their bright turbans always snagging the eye with vivacious colours that contrast sharply with the white of their kurta-and-dhoti attire, and how can one miss thosesignificantly sized gold earrings dangling off their ear lobes – they were certainly bigger than mine. The poker glows red hot, held upon a rough fire pit made on the sand, and then when it looks decidedly hot enough, bam it is stamped onto the body of the protesting camel.
To say that it is merely disturbing is not doing your feelings justice. I remember the intense vehemence that swept over me and with it the violent urge to inflict that very branding exercise upon those men who were busy with their regular activity. But you realise then that you are but just an onlooker with no power. So you turn your eyes away with immense sadness in your heart and the thought running in your head that it is just the way it is. After all, not everything in life is the way it should be, is it?
Yet there is something mystical about the desert. The golden beauty of your surroundings, the spectacular sunset and the massive white disc of the moon that rises after. It reminds you of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s words in The Little Prince: “One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…”
A strangely incongruous title, eh? But in the heart of Chelan County in Washington is a city called Leavenworth that whisks you into the heart of Bavaria, even though it lies at the foothills of the North Cascades. When we entered Leavenworth, we were witness to a town that had centered itself around a sawmill industry, but left bereft when the industry died away and when the Great Northern Railway Company was re-routed around the city. It was on the verge of an utter breakdown.
That is when enterprising minds in the early ’60s got together and hatched a plan to transform it into a village with an alpine look. Baskets of bright petunias hang from eaves of cottages which are built distinctly in a Bavarian Alpine style of architecture and horse-drawn carriages trot through town.
You know that bit about making the most of a journey to any place? I think that drive through from Seattle to Leavenworth was just divine. Our brother-in-law drove chirpy five fellow passengers, his family and the two of us, through evergreens that framed the mountain passes in the Cascades. We wound past emerald-hued creeks and rivers with distinctly Native American names. Even though Stevens Pass that is hugely popular with skiers was chanced upon by a non-native man called John Frank Stevens. We passed by railroad towns called Skykomish.
My favourite part of that drive was when we stopped at an espresso stand with a dramatic backdrop. Espresso Chalet sits on Route 2 with the stunning Mount Index in its backyard. Its three pointed spires were like three mysterious damsels, smoky blue and mired in mist. That was a view I could have sat in front of and stared at for a long, long time.
The line-up of espressos was mind boggling. And the sizes had me. The mug which my brother-in-law chose was the biggest and tallest I had ever laid my eyes on. If clichés are clichés for a reason, then it stands true that in America everything comes in a jumbo size. Cars, trucks, supermarket packs, burgers, coffee mugs…the works. Apart from the espressos and Mount Index, Espresso Chalet is littered with references to the mythical Bigfoot and a sulky statement that announces to the world: “BIGFOOT doesn’t believe in you either.”
Below are some snaps from the drive:
Look at the largest size
When I say it had options, I am not exaggerating
Then we were finally in Leavenworth where I started off the jaunt on a different note.
Despite tucking into hot and spicy dishes through my entire holiday — the Americans even grade the level of chillies in their food — I had the most excruciating save-my-soul-and-call-the-firemen experience in a specialty store in Leavenworth. Its name was A Matter of Taste and it was there that my brother-in-law called my attention to a particular red sauce. Next, he saw me dipping a pretzel into it with great gusto. Just as he warned me, I had greedily popped it in.
The whole world came crashing down around my ears. My husband followed suit. There we were, the two of us – fire in our mouths, fire streaming out of our ears, fire in our bellies.
Fortunately, there was wine at hand. A wine-tasting noon went by in a blur, us nodding vigorously at fine words of appreciation from an eager wine-seller and quaffing glasses of wine to douse our screaming insides.
While my husband felt better in a while, the story did not end for me there. After some time, a series of cramps seized my stomach, so bad that I had to double over to tide over it. The only way out for me was double scoops of maple syrup and pecan ice cream. That was bliss in the most intense way possible.
And inspite of my love for fiery food, that steered me away from any more chilli-ridden foods for the rest of our holiday. You know, once burnt and all that.
Then to wind up an evening in Leavenworth, we sat in Mongolian Grill, a restaurant which had the most picture-perfect view of the village. It started pouring as if on cue, the sun shone on making those rain drops look unreal and a rainbow appeared in quick succession to all our delight. Pints of beers in our hand, we looked on, trying to convince ourselves that such beauty can be real.
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.
Cinque Terre’s only sandy beach is in Monterosso.
Lovers’ Locks, Monterosso.
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?’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Derbyshire is quirky. Church spires are crooked. Lanes are marked Unthank and pubs are often dedicated to ‘tickled trout’. Auto rickshaws sit atop porches. Old men sell copper kettles in antique shops and tell tales of men filling kettles with water to hurl them at wives in days gone by. Pet rabbits feast on iced cakes. These are just a few signs to go by.
So, it has been an extremely dull few weeks in England. Insipid and dreary are a couple of adjectives that come to mind but there could be a dozen more. But weather be darned, to get out on the road is the story of our lives, and on a ho-hum day, we set out for the Peak District National Park, England’s first national park designated so in 1951.
Just like the Cotswolds, the Peak District spans a substantial area of English counties. From northern Derbyshire to parts of Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Staffordshire and Yorkshire. They lie in the southernmost Pennines.
Small settlements of stone villages pop out among vast stretches of wild moors, caves lurk in rocky outcrops, escarpments and gorges mark the region, and once in a while mansions loom on the horizon. It is a charming area for cyclists and trekkers.
The park is divided into the Dark Peak and the White Peak portions. We could see both in one day. The Dark Peak justifies its name with stretches of black peat moors, dark granite and gritstone plateau. The landscape is complemented by stories that often add to the atmosphere of such remote places. A few military aircrafts crashed in the area during bad weather and hikers claim to have seen ghost planes – usually wartime propeller-driven planes. Meanwhile, the White Peak is about limestone dales and a lush green landscape.
The drive into Derbyshire perked up when the crooked spire of the St Mary and All Saints church of Chesterfield showed up. The medieval church (from the 13th century) is famous for just that – its spire that leans and twists visibly.
The folklore behind it concerns a virgin who was getting married in the above-mentioned and the church was so surprised that its spire turned for a look at the bride. And that if another virgin gets married in the church, the spire shall right itself again.
It speaks volumes, I suppose, of the imagination that can invent such stories.
But it is said that the 32 tons of lead tiles on the spire led to expansion and contraction of the lead and thus the spire is facing the brunt of it.
Now, however dull the day, the lush green of the British countryside never fails to make the heart sigh with pleasure. We passed through the bunting-clad stone villages of Hope, Hathersage and Barlow and arrived at Castleton that is wedged between the Dark and the White Peaks.
Peakshole Water, a tributary of the River Noe, rushes through the middle of the village of Castleton. It is a beautiful little place capped by the 11th century Peveril Castle, a Norman castle that belonged to William the Conqueror’s bastard son, William de Peverel.
We lunched at a 17th century coaching inn called the Ye Old Cheshire Cheese Inn. It was a traditional dark pub with low beams and timbered interiors. A list of the former landlords of the inn were scrawled on the beams of the pub. It was so atmospheric, that dark old pub, as we sat and tucked into crunchy beer-battered onion rings, fat chips, gammon and a local brew called Moonshine. Not the hooch that is commonly known but the Moonshine I am talking about is a kind of pale, straw-coloured craft beer that is brewed at the Abbeydale Brewery in Castleton.
We walked off the torpor induced by the Moonshine with walks around Castleton. At a small antique shop which appeared to be set in another day and age and tightly stacked with decrepit collectibles, we fell prey to the charms of copper kettles. We bought one of those dented copper kettles that show their age and what came free with the service was the humour of the old man who cackled as he wrapped it up for us. “Now don’t you go boiling water for tea in this kettle,” he waggled his finger in our noses. “With all the austerity talk and recession, I have been hearing of people using these kettles to boil water for tea,” he said. After several assurances that we would restrain ourselves, he let us go.
Past a huddle of houses, clustered around the gushing waters of the Peakshole Water, we reached the subterranean chambers of the Peak Cavern. There are three more caverns in the village – Treak Cliff Cavern, Speedwell Cavern and Blue John Cavern. Two of them, Treak Cliff and Blue John caverns, are encrusted with Blue John, a semi-precious mineral, and the mining of it means that the local high street is flush with Blue John studded jewellery.
My mister at the Treak Cliff Cavern
A cavernous affair
Yet it was a grim day for exploring dark chambers, so we spent some time at a farm with a few fat sheep and their lambs, cuddly rabbits whom someone had had the bright idea of feeding buttercream cake and a trio of friendly goats.
Next on our schedule was Winnats Pass, a dramatic, winding stretch through a cleft that is flanked by towering pinnacles of limestone, but one that ignites the imagination to the possibility of various traditions of storytelling.
In the mid-1700s, a young runaway couple were eloping to get married and riding through Castleton where they stopped at an inn. A group of lead miners observed the bag of money they had on them, and as the couple set off into Winnats Pass, they were robbed and murdered by the miners. One of the miners is supposed to have broken his neck at the pass, another crushed by stones and a third miner is said to have killed himself. Once the sun sets, the ghosts of the ill-fated couple apparently ask for help. Those of the miners lurk too around the entrance to the pass.
We, I am glad to say, did not meet the couple or the miners.
It seems a lifetime ago that I was in the rainforests of Borneo. My husband and I had a big and beautiful Indian wedding (about five years ago). If you have been a part of an Indian wedding, you know you need a few tall drinks and a tropical getaway promptly after.
Sabah, Malaysia’s easternmost state on the island of Borneo, was our perfectly planned escape. Borneo is divided into three or four parts – the Sultanate of Brunei, the Indonesian state of Kalimantan and the two East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.
Untamed tropical forests spread out beneath us like swathes of wild green carpet, as we peered down from the flight. Sabah has a nickname. It is called ‘The Land Below the Wind’. It is how seamen from the past used to describe places south of the typhoon belt.
We landed in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, and my hair decided to cast a frizzy verdict upon it. The humidity was unbearable and we were in the middle of December. My husband dubbed me Monica (ref: the frizzy hair episode in ‘Friends’).
We had to take a ferry from Jesselton Point, a quaint looking waterfront that is a legacy of Kota Kinabalu’s colonial past when it was known as Jesselton. Once known as North Borneo, Sabah was a British colony between the late 19th century and the early 20th century.
As it always happens when you are tired – and cannot wait to take up on the promise of a luxurious bed – things will go wrong, in a Murphy-esque way. We missed the ferry to the luxurious resort in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park where we had booked a couple of nights stay. With two hours to while away, we decided upon local grub at Nasi Padang Ibu, an Indonesian restaurant on Jesselton Point. Its bland rendangs did nothing for our mood, till I chanced upon glorious caramel popcorn in a large cone. That perfect blend of toasty caramel and butter, washed down with beer, made up for the disappointment of our first meal in Sabah.
When the ferry finally arrived, it took us past a cluster of islands to the biggest of the islands, Pulau Gaya (‘Pulau’ is Malay for island). The Gayana Eco Resort enchanted us straightaway. In the middle of a lagoon, among the startlingly blue waters of the South China Sea, stood a posse of stilted huts. It was a scene out of a postcard.
Those huts, once we walked into our appointed one, turned out to be villas. My chosen part was the deck and our own little pier. Breakfast arrived everyday by a motorboat. A fascinating spread would be laid out on the deck and we would sit watching the emerald green waters and nibble away at pancakes, freshly baked bread and sausages. If we peeked down into the shallow waters around our hut, lazy-as-lazy-gets Long Tom (that is needlefish) could always be seen to be floating around. We were as lazy as them.
The resort had a marine park centre on the island whose main residents were stone fish, sea cucumber, kingfish, clown fish and puffer fish. One of the centre helpers insisted I touch a few of them. I did, just to indulge his enthusiasm. Shudder.
Nearby, within the waters of the marine park which is named after Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, were the islands of Sapi, Manukan, Mamutik and Sulug where one can snorkel and indulge in deep sea diving. We spent time in Malohom Bay bonding with ocean creatures. An abundance of seafood featured on the menu and if you wanted a speckled grouper on your plate, why you had to pay a ransom. It is a delicacy in this part of the world.
It was romantic on Gayana – they serenaded me the first evening that we reached – yet there was hardly anybody on the island apart from us. And I always like social contact on a holiday. I am a people’s person. It made me crave civilization, and by the end of our stay, Gayana was a sharp pinch on the pocket.
I was quite ready for the next leg of our honeymoon.
The most entertaining part of our holiday was spent on the Pantai Dalit beach in Tuaran, a town near Kota Kinabalu. We whooped with joy at the sight of long stretch of soft, white sands which were part of the private beach of Shangri-La Rasa Ria, one of the best properties we have stayed in. The warm reception at the five-star property was soothing and so very Asian in its hospitality. We were upgraded to a suite with a Jacuzzi. For a newly-wed, it is bliss.
We played beach football during the evenings, splashed about in the sea and at night had a cabana to ourselves with Continental-style dinners laid out beneath the stars.
We made the most of a Japanese teppanyaki restaurant in the hotel that rustled up mean fish dishes and offered an interactive time with the chef while dining. My husband indulged in a bit of balancing-the-egg-act and had a pleasurable time cooking with the chef.
Now, for the rainforests of Sabah which are home to orangutans. In the vicinity of the beach a path led into the tropical forests. There live some orangutan orphans, protected by Rasa Ria Nature Reserve that offers them a home in their natural habitat.
Orangutans are a protected species because they are dying out.
We had to wait for them beneath a heavy canopy. The tropical rainforests are charming. They barely allow sunlight to filter in, and in those humid climes, it is a welcome respite from the heat. We had to peel our eyes out for them before we spied three orangutans swinging through the branches and making their way towards us with great alacrity. In a while I realized that they were actually making a beeline for the buckets of fruits that had been laid out on a raised platform in the trees. They came closer and we saw three long-limbed females. Their names were Wulan, Katie and Ten Ten.
Swinging around the slender branches of the gigantic trees, they did a few acrobatic feats. Then they decided that they wanted a potshot or two at the gaping crowd below with broken-off bits of branches. So they chucked a few branches down.
Their aim was off the mark. And we came out unscathed.
Sessions with the Japanese chef
A romantic evening in a cabana.
Sabah is not only about such naughty-playful encounters with orangutans. It is made up of virgin rainforests, emerald green rivers, coral reefs and remote tribes, deep caves, and it is home to Mount Kota Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia.
We rounded off our bonding-with-nature kinda holiday with exploring the city of Kota Kinabalu. My sister-in-law had gifted us a stay at a hotel which overlooked the bustling waterfront of Kota Kinabalu. I fell in love with the view from the hotel, the colourful barges and fishing vessels floating in the midst of the South China Sea and the local market adjacent the dock.
Sea horses in Kota Kinabalu’s food market
We indulged in some mall ratting during the day and at night, strolled through the night market that came to life outside the hotel. The overwhelming, almost putrid odour of dried fish had us gagging, but it did not stop us from browsing through the smelly array of dried sea food and worms and sea horses. Colourful sea horses (which look almost unreal) are a speciality in this part of the world. Locals bung them into their soups. Kiosks sell snacks or ‘pusas’ and shopkeepers try to sell you fake versions of designer bags. It is the kind of chaos and life that you see only in the East.
We had a few days in Kuala Lumpur too which made it the perfect happy conclusion to the honeymoon.
KL malls are glitzy
The iconic Petronas Twin Towers
The best bit of a holiday in Borneo is that the budget goes a long way there. It is one of the few tropical paradises that does not break the bank.
I am hardly blue on any trip. Even if I am making a go of it alone. On an evening out with a friend, over a few pints of beer, I was asked recently, “How do you travel alone? Do you really enjoy it?” The friend had travelled solo once and did not have much to say for it. It is a matter of habit I suppose when you keep travelling on your own and start savouring the experience. The fact, however, remains that I miss my husband intensely everywhere I travel on my own.
Stresa, a resort and former spa town for the rich and glitzy from the Belle Epoque era, was the only place in all my solo trips where I was worked up. Waiting out six hours (for a train) in a town that is as dead as a quiet village with only four people in it is a tedious affair.
Before I wade into the whys and hows of my blue state, let me go back to an early morning in March when I took the train from Milan to Stresa. The surroundings changed as the train rolled into Stresa, passing by country cottages in woods populated by tall, bare trees and enveloped in thick snow. The thrill of that transition from sunny to snowy climes – ah, it was special.
On the walk from the railway station to town, I was told by a woman walking her furry four-legged companion that it was unusual for Stresa to see snow at that time of the year. She was referring to its mild Mediterranean climate which is responsible for the lush tropical vegetation around it. With directions, I ambled down to the shores of Lake Maggiore, the second largest lake in Italy that spans the Italian regions of Piedmont and Lombardy. At its northern edges, the lake extends into the Swiss canton of Ticino.
When Lake Maggiore loomed up, so did a hotel with a large garden and a distinct neo-classical style of architecture show up on my left. It was at this Regina Palace Hotel that George Bernard Shaw had put up during his time in town. I do not know about you, but I find myself charmed by the thought of my favourite authors and poets preceding me in my rambles.
Hemingway stayed in Stresa and described Lake Maggiore as ‘one of the most beautiful of the Italian Lakes’. Lake Maggiore does have this sublime beauty that surpasses that of Lake Como, which to my mind appeared to be the commercial big brother of the two. In 1918, after he had left his reporting job in the American Midwest and enrolled as an ambulance driver with the Italian Red Cross, Hemingway had been wounded extensively during duty – he was delivering chocolates and cigarettes to soldiers serving at the front.
To convalesce Hemingway arrived at the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees in Stresa. He spent 10 days there as he rowed on the lake, played billiards with a fellow hotel guest, a 99- year-old count, took a trip to Mottarone from where he had a view of the seven Italian lakes and had declared, ‘This beats paradise all to hell’. Yet he was in love with a nurse from Milan and cut his trip to Stresa short to get back to her. Which must remind you of A Farewell to Arms where the hero is Frederic Henry, a Red Cross ambulance driver, just like the author, and who also ends up falling in love with a nurse at a hospital in Milan. Lake Maggiore was featured by Hemingway as the lake which Frederic Henry and his nurse crossed in a rowing boat to escape the Carabinieri. Even the count made an appearance in the novel as Count Greffi.
The amusing bit is that though Hemingway had only a platonic relationship with his nurse, Frederic Henry had a steamy time with his. So much so that the magazine, which was publishing the novel in serial form, was banned in Boston from being put out on newsstands.
At Piazza Marconi, the docks from where boats take the enthusiastic for excursions to tiny islands that emerge out of the shimmering waters of Lake Maggiore, I watched the morning rays light up the snowy Alps with an ethereal grandeur. In the immediate neighbourhood of Stresa are three islands called Isola Bella, Isola Pescatori and Isola Madre. They are the Borromean islands, named after the Milanese aristocracy that ruled the town. In medieval times, the lords of Castello and Visconti held the reins of Stresa but the Borromeos left their mark on Stresa with their beautiful architectural legacies.
Now there are three reasons why you should not travel before summer to Stresa. One, they shut one of the two Borromean islands; two, another island lies almost unoccupied and uninhabited; and third would be the way Stresa looks towards the end of winter. Which is almost fantastically desolate. Unless you go with a friend or your beloved, it tends to be a lonely experience.
With just about six people including me, the boat chugged on to Isola dei Pescatori (pronounced Pesha-tori). The island of fishermen. This was my favourite of the two islands that I got to lay my feet on. Because on Isola dei Pescatori, life carries on as it did before, as an old fishing community that is home to barely a handful of fifty. A promenade runs around the houses that are built on a higher level and the doors strategically positioned on the inner streets to take care of the flooding that is a common phenomenon there. Narrow alleys are nestled between traditional buildings with arches and cobbled lanes while fishermen’s brightly coloured orange and blue nets hang off walls and the occasional fisherman docks in at the tiny harbour to bring in his haul of fresh catch.
I was wearing neon orange sneakers that caught the eyes of one of the fishermen. He gave me a broad grin and then drawled away in Italian. The plus side of the fact – that there were hardly any visitors on the island – was that I could feel the slow pulse of life on it. The spire of the Church of San Vittore (Victor the Moor) towered over the island and revealed a simple but beautiful ancient chapel that was to a martyr called Saint Gandolfo. It takes about just about all of 15 minutes to make a round of the island – that is how small Pescatori is. I had so much time at hand that I spent about an hour, munching on a slice of pizza on the waterfront, staring at a Virgin Mary standing at the end of the pier. I suppose her presence is of comfort to humans who eke their livelihood from the sea.
A few minutes by boat and I was dropped off at Isola Bella, which when translated means The Beautiful Island. A grand baroque palace, gleaming golden and white, stands on the edge of the island and is filled with treasures of the Borromeos – tapestries woven in silk and gold, medieval frescoes and sprawling gardens. None of which I got to see. The palace was shut for renovations. Count Carlo Borromeo had built the four-storey palace in the 16th century for his wife, Isabella, in the Lombard Baroque style of design. Prior to that Isola Bella was an island of fisherman. What a transformation it must have been. And so very romantic because of the natural grottos that must add a hint of mystery to the gardens that are referred to as Giardino dell’Amore or ‘Garden of Love’.
I saw only four to six people on the island, sitting around sunning themselves or behind the counter of the odd expensive looking boutique. The other inhabitants of the island were a solitary cat and a trio of ducks who insisted on following me around. I have a feeling that tourists feed those ducks enough for the quacking four-legged beings to get excited when they find a two-legged one walking around unsuspectingly. So, I was stalked by ducks.
In between Isola dei Pescatori and Isola Bella, I spotted the Islet of Malghera which is known as Lovers’ Island and stands out of the lake as a small outcrop swathed in dark vegetation. Its beach, I am sure would be the perfect spot for some sunbathing and skinny dipping. But the boat does not make a stop there. As also it did not make a trip to Isola Madre because of the season I had chosen to visit Lake Maggiore in. And I had really fixated on the gorgeous Renaissance palace that looms over Isola Madre even as I had spied it from Stresa. It is supposed to be quite the paradise-on-earth kind of an island.
Within about an hour and a half I was back in Stresa. With six hours at hand before I could catch the train back to Milan. I spent time mooching around the promenade with its surreal view over Lake Maggiore and the majestic Alps. I sat and read on stone benches by the promenade and I daydreamed about how it must have beguiled Dickens and Lord Byron with its beauty. Had they sat on the same spot as me?
The town acquired the tag of a tourist destination for the wealthy during the 19th century when grand villas came up on it. The Simplon Tunnel opening up and passing through Stresa in 1906 certainly did the rest. The beautiful people of the Belle Époque adopted Stresa as their own favourite spa town and it never looked back as a haunt of the rich and the famous.
I spent time lunching for a lengthy couple of hours at a café by the promenade and then, later, when I could not stand sitting on the promenade any more, I decided to walk up to Mount Mottarone. As soon as I reached the main road leading up to the mountain, I was the recipient of honks and suspicious looks from Carabinieri passing by. The road was flanked by snow piled high on the sides. A hike to Mottarone was beyond the realms of possibility and the cable car to it not plying at the time – with a huge sigh I gave up on dreams of seeing the seven Italian lakes from atop the Mottarone and scurried back into town.
My last hours in Stresa were spent shivering on the promenade. Oh, it was unaccountably freezing, that evening. I did take refuge in a café for a long, long time over a few cups of coffee and pastries. The only people who sat as long in the café were a trio of women. When they were about to leave, the oldest of them – a dame with white hair, wrinkled skin and the kindest smile – turned to me and chattered away in Italian. From what I could figure out, the middle-aged women were her two bambinas (little girls). With arrivederci and sweet smiles, she left me to my own device.
Thus it was that I finally got on the train from Stresa to Milan. My nerves thoroughly undone.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?