Woodstock on the Ottauquechee

Last winter when we were in Woodstock – a few miles away from Winston Churchill’s family seat of Blenheim Palace in good ol’Blighty – sauntering down a quiet lane past a gaggle of Georgian cottages with their white-trimmed windows, limestone churches, Norman doorways and period buildings latticed with tangled ivy, I did not picture us in another Woodstock roughly a year later. A vastly different namesake.

But the passage of time is wonderful in that introduces change, an unsettling feeling which takes time to be slowly washed away by time itself, and along the way it also opens your eyes to places you would have not dreamt of seeing. As we found ourselves in this other Woodstock, I scoured google. It turned that there are 34 Woodstocks in the world if you will believe that, 22 of them in America alone. How utterly odd that people in 33 places around the world had the same brainwave – apart from the fact that these might have been settlers who possibly wanted a slice of home in new lands. I wondered if they had been enamoured of the old Woodstock. If they had found themselves warmed to the cockles of their heart on a cold, grey noon as they sat in an ancient pub there with a fire going in its equally ancient fireplace bordered by duck-egg blue walls, food procured locally and prepared with an expert touch.

If you are thinking of the Woodstock where the sixties peaked with the famous music festival that was the epitome of hippie grooviness, I have to quickly point out that we were not in That Woodstock in upstate New York.

We were in the Woodstock in Vermont that sits on the Ottauquechee river and was named after the Oxfordshire Woodstock as homage to one of Churchill’s ancestors, the 4th Duke of Marlborough.

At a glance it was obvious. Woodstock in Vermont has the patina of old money. It is written large over its central square designated the Green, the historic inn built by the Rockefellers where people tend to take many selfies, in its antique shops and leafy streets bordered by houses reflecting a mix of old styles of architecture. Late Georgian, masonic temples with Greek columns…The air of wealth arrived with industry in the 1760s when the first settlers set up a gristmill and a sawmill. They made scythes and axes, wool processing machines and woollens, guns and furniture and carriages and leather – leaving behind a legacy of industriousness. After all, wealth does not come about from sitting on one’s haunches.

There we had brunch in an old-style cafe, omelettes fattened with feta and veggies, fluffy pancakes and black coffee served by women who looked like they had been put on a permanent diet of pancakes. We overheard little girls sing birthday songs for themselves, friends exchange travel notes, a man telling the staff that he used to live there years and years before, possibly twenty years ago, which reminded me of that wonderful O.Henry story ‘After Twenty Years’. Then we set about town, peering at the old library and county house, stoked by signages that pointed the way to genteel ski resorts like Suicide Six where they say skiing started in the country. And then those covered bridges, ah. They stood upon the river that the Abenaki called the Ottauqueechee, ‘place of mushy land’, combining romance and functionality within their covered timber frames with such ease.

But the most interesting part of the day, as it is with any traveller, was a leisurely natter with a local. An elderly owner of an antique shop where we examined many vintage objects, Victorian wicker doll buggies, antique Dutch book presses, a gym dandy, grinding mills, old China ware…you know the kind of antiquated things that lie forgotten in those stores, waiting to be owned and loved all over again.

It was an unusual conversation. For the first time I met a woman who spoke differently of her country’s leader, that ‘my grandma would have turned over in her grave if she had heard the kind of disrespect people show to their own president’; that she dressed in black for Lady Di’s funeral; of lines drawn in the sand, the Sykes-Picot line and her brother, a director of Broadway plays, who’s been travelling to Israel for years seeking truth, the kind of truth that is hardly disseminated among the public, and of his screenwriter who has fixed notions and refuses to be budged by his view of the truth. A flow that bespoke stream of consciousness thoughts but you know how thoughts mingle – and when they mingle how they reveal fascinating aspects of people and their lives.

And there it lay – the crux of what travelling does for me. Introducing me to different ways of thinking, different lives, different stories, different characters, the ability to observe and distance the self from an obvious predilection towards judgment – it feels somewhat like reading a hundred different books at the same time.

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Taftsville Covered Bridge, built in 1836, lies on Route 4.
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The comparatively newer Middle Bridge located by the Green in Woodstock.
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Homesteads in Woodstock
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Congregational churches built in the 19th century
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The kind of stores where you can lay your (greedy) hands on precious junk.

 

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Adi, chuffed by the sight of Suicide Six. 
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English muffin, omelette and fried potatoes
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Reminded me of Bettys tearoom in Harrogate
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Signages that tell stories

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Masonic temple
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A house upon the Ottauqueechee
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A gym dandy
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Dutch book press
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What kind of grinding mill could this be?
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Victorian doll buggy

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Teagle’s Landing named for a printer called Frank Teagle who lived in Woodstock, one who it is said took care of those overlooked and worked to make things better. 

 

Tra-la-la the Road Took Us to Hoosick

There is something exclusive about a road trip. The informality of it itself is just too comforting. It is like stopping at that street stall or the food market for a bite to eat as opposed to being seated in a formal affair of a restaurant. Now there is nothing wrong with dressing up and hitting the fancy spots in town once awhile, but casual places – they appeal to your innie hippie. Nobody gives a hoot about anything except for no-nonsense good nosh. Road trips mark a similar note of freedom – from the harassing dictates of air travel. Take off your belt sir, those shoes ma’am, that watch please and where are you prancing off in the jacket? That has to come off too, you nitwit.

So we embarked on a road trip. Paul Theroux deems it to be the ‘better way, a truer way, the old way’. In our first road trip since we moved to the US, we set off from our quiet quarter in New Jersey for the wholesome mountains in the north-east of the country. We had our eyes on Vermont which I had gushed over as maple country earlier – I know the affront I cause you Canadians. I also appreciate that you can hold a hand over your heart and bear it with interjections of incredulity. Blame it upon the Abenakis, the Native American tribes in that part of the country. They hit upon it with the random strike of a tomahawk into a sugar maple tree trunk. So the story goes. Warmed by the spring sun the tree yielded sap from the cut and of course a clever chief wife gathered it in a birch bark container. She poured it over food cooking away in a pot and found a veneer of sweet stickiness later. The result? The chief’s wife was putty in its fluid hands – just like I am.

In those days, there were no seaports near Vermont to import sugar.  These tribes had to depend upon the yield of the land and there it was – liquid gold waiting to be tapped out. From there onto our breakfast plates at greasy diners. Now how can anyone complain? The arteries might but today’s not their day.

We carried on down the open highway beneath skies that were grey. Gradually they acquired a clear blue tone, broad brush strokes of white streaming across them as in a painting. Past us sped by gangs of hurly burly Harley motorcyclists, mountain ranges melted into each other in a symphony of green in the Catskills, the broad Hudson snaked by cities modern and old in upstate New York, Saratoga Springs, Albany, Troy, Schenectady. Semi-dried up creeks. Rivers with Native American names added an old-world touch. Yes even before the ‘Old World’ must have chanced upon what they deemed as the ‘New’. Rustic barns and silos showed up. I find myself particularly charmed by the iconic American Gambrel barn. I can picture life within its walls. Lofty ceiling. Cosy, quaint vibes. Lace curtains and old teapots. Piles of scones and cucumber sandwiches with pitchers of iced tea. Grubby hands and happy faces.

Then just before we entered Vermont, we hit gold. The last town within the precincts of Rensselaer County in New York is a small town called Hoosick. By the Hoosic River. Once there would have been the Mahicans here in the 17th century. It is a land replete with memories, awash with history, stories of Mahicans who were the Eastern Algonquian tribes, the Iroquois who fought with the Mahicans and their French allies for control over the beaver fur trade, of battles between British and American forces at the Walloomsac river, and so many more that I do not know of.

Hoosick is a capsule of Americana. There stands an antique store at the crossroads of the town that looks as aged as the old couple who own it. White hair, rosy cheeks, frail bodies and keen minds. That store induced nostalgia. Old China sets pegged at throwaway prices, vintage model train engines and railroads, bunches of sepia-toned photos lying in baskets…they make you wonder about the people who owned them. Their lives, ambitions, dreams. So many stories tucked into those objects. And then a voice asking me not to dawdle. ‘Just get out already. I want to reach Manchester soon.’ My beloved. I stayed inside dawdling even more thoroughly if one can do that. And I grumbled to the old man. At which he warned Adi, ‘Now you do not want to be doing that. There will be burnt toast tomorrow.’ Adi sighed. ‘If only you knew, I get no toast.’

I did bag a coffee table book on Norman Rockwell that had a few names scrawled inside in blue ink. Four girls had gifted it to Gert in January 1974 for his birthday. Happy as a clam I pranced out of the shop after a chat with the old man about New Jersey – I confess, he talked about old roads and things that we had no idea about – and after salivating over a cornucopia of marshmallow treats, fat round cookies, Amish goodies and black bear figurines declaring, why they are just fluffy, not fat, we were geared up to be taken over by the immense green beauty called Vermont.

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Gambrel barns by the highway
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Gangs of Hoboken
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Fresh apples, anyone?
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More traditional barns
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The Hudson
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Green fields and barns criss-crossed above by bulky networks of cables and electrical wiring

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Farms and silos
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Hoot hoot, you are in Hoosick
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For a healthy dose of Americana

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There’s no dragging him away from bears. Now when a real one turns up…

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When a village offers you the promise of giant ice cream cones, you do not scoff at it, yeah right, you simply scoff it.
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The Eberly brothers are the celebrities of Hoosick. Below is a clip of Bob Eberly, if you can lend yourself to those dulcet tones – let yourself be swept to a different era.
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Vintage draws
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Sheepish posers. The moose and I.

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References to the Battle of Bennington which was a turning point in the American Revolution.

P.S.: Do drop by at Lumber Jack’s for a taste of their maple latte and maple drizzled fried-egg-bacon-cheese-muffins. The battle of the senses over which wins it – sweet or salty – will surely trump every other thought for the moment. You might find yourself happier than a possum digging into a sweet potato.

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Back Home from Maple Country

Come autumn – which by the way is in the air in green mountain country for clusters of trees, large and small, have started turning shades of rust and gold – and Vermont shall be aflame with brilliant oranges, golds and vermillion that should make the mouth hang open in sheer surprise. Here I go by my reaction, yours can be more muted or elegant depending upon your personality. I am also going by the photos I have seen of that colour-drenched landscape so far, yet I can imagine, and imagination is the bedrock of true pleasure. Those trees laden with colour and promises of what is to come showed up in fits and starts as we wound up and down, turned corners and crawled around the countryside in Vermont in our car.  It was cold, around 12-14ºC, and we were shivering in the late evenings because a jacket can do only so much for you in mountainous climes.

When the seasons change everything seems to fall in place so effortlessly. It is amazing how our moods are tempered by the advent of beauteous spring and autumn. That hint of softness in the sunshine, the trees responding in their own ways, wearing leaves or shedding them by and by, the pleasant nip in the air, … it is just the time for hatching plans.

We made plans too. For the trip. Three days and two nights are not a lot but one whole day at your command? You know what difference it can make. But what do you know, ‘the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men’ will go ‘aft agley’, so with precision ours went awry. Plans of hiking and making acquaintances with the boys of the forest fell through spectacularly. The second day of the trip, designated as hiking day, turned out to be trapped-in-a-washing-machine kind of a day. We were caught inside our car, and it came down relentlessly, that rain. We ran in and out of country stores in the small villages to soak up the warmth of cafes and antiques.

The mountains however showed up in that avataar which you can admire if you have a romantic buried deep inside you. Mist curling along the ridges of the smoky green hills, trails of it floating along the middle, rivers rippling with water that looked steely cold, the solitary man fly fishing in those waters in the dark grey evening, …it was like we had been whisked into another world.

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Mist
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Soggy but charming sights
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Green and grey
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The man fly fishing in a river somewhere around the village of Stowe
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Drenched
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In country stores in Stowe…
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…we met some bow-tie sporting bears who have a weakness for tartans and some casual tee loving ones too please.
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The sombre one. They were for sale FYI.  I was thrilled till I learnt the price for the smallest bear. Just some $250. My husband would not obviously countenance such ridiculous demands so I had to let it go, a tad ungracefully.
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Bliss

Then we tasted the land. In generous lashings of maple syrup upon buttermilk pancakes, the fluffiest and best I have had in a long time at American diners which specialise in breakfasts. I could see why everyone in the diners and cafes were larger than life. They appreciate the goodness of pancakes and maple syrup laden with vanilla cream and butter. It came back to me then, Javon’s ultimatum, that I would slowly grow thicker around the edges. One day I would wake up and see a big reflection in the mirror. Thus it was that I got to impose a measure of self-control.

Now we have come back home with treasures from maple country. A bottle of maple syrup that is so flavourful that I can vouch for it with every fibre in my being, a small cookbook that doles out recipes on how to bake and cook maple-laden goodies, books acquired off shelves of antique stores, preserves and chilli butters and gourmet crackers and it seems just right that we are home now. To take a break from a weekend of going berserk and to plan more such weekends.

 

Black Bear Country Dilemma

Nothing is set in stone, says the plaque carved out in stone. Irony is everything. So you will quite imagine my reaction when my bear-lovin’ husband refused flat out to go hiking in the impossibly verdant mountains of Vermont before falling into a deep snooze.

I should also ideally sleep because I had absolutely zilch of it last night in all the excitement of setting out on our first American road trip after the move. It is all so bloody exciting that I cannot begin to express it in words. I feel that to communicate it thoroughly I should do a wonky jig and then OD on maple candies like Ross. But all I have at the moment is a bottle of organic maple syrup that I bought in a tiny pretty town which I shall tell you about later. Meanwhile it is pouring outside – the pitter patter is hypnotic but I could do without it – and tomorrow is supposed to be a washout. Old men are doling out advise to the young that they should go fishing. We are yet to decide what we shall do. What we therefore have been planning is a hike the day after.

As we were planning our thoughts over succulent Thai curries and sticky rice, washed down by appropriate amounts of red wine and beer, Adi decided that I would be a nightmare even if I were armed with bear spray.

He: ‘You would be scrounging around in your bag to find it first and then declare 10 times over how there are too many things in it.’

I: ‘I would not.’

He: ‘Oh yes you would and then you would possibly ask the bear to pause awhile before you could fish it out.’

I: ‘You would be surprised. There are other ways. The most famous one: Slap the bear.’

He: ‘And how do you propose to do that? Bears are tall. Would you ask him to bend for you?’

I: ‘I have ways that you know not of. I will leave him a meal of ghost chilli pepper wings’ (I think ghost chilli peppers are popular in America – for I detected bottles of them today in a fresh market at a services stop. I knew Americans are a bit odd – now now, don’t get your panties in a twist!).

I did my research a while ago. It seems that in a decade the black bear population in Vermont has shot up from 50 to a rough count of above 200. As a result the smaller-than-the-grizzly but generally not too friendly black boys have been visiting their human neighbours. Like the guy who was in his kitchen doing some kitchen work (of course) when he thought someone was at the door. There was someone there alright. A big furry bundle in black weighing about 400 pounds, that’s all.

Once the rural folk of this green mountain state had hunted down their large population of bears to woeful numbers, sometime in the 1800s, and it was controlled. Subsequently ended up wiping them out almost. And now here we are. More bears than humans in the forest. I am not complaining for I love all cuddly animals, though I will gladly exhange a bear for a Newfie or Leonberger anyday, everyday.

The point of this long, bleary-eyed prattling is that, we could do with some bear country wisdom from you out there. I know of a blogger but he is out hiking for months I believe.

So my good folks, SOS. That is because I am an optimist. Just about the hike. Not about Adi doling out bear hugs despite his wariness about meeting those big bumbling boys of the forests.

To Gibralfaro

Moorish Spain is enchanting. You who have wandered through the grand gardens of the Alhambra and the steep cobbled alleys of Albaicín in Granada, the Alcázar in Seville or even the Aljaferiá in Zaragoza, would know what I am banging on about. For one, the Moors knew how to pick on the best views of the city – for them though it was a matter of survival so they chose the locations of their fortresses for their defensive positions. But I would like to believe that the hedonists in them marvelled at the sight of what they had accomplished. Those great gardens of pleasure, water trickling off pretty fountains wrought in marble, intricate columns that look like they have been punched out of geometric patterns with precision and passion…for some reason they remind me of the ‘stately pleasure-dome’ decreed by Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. You know, those ‘gardens bright with sinuous rills,/ Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree’. But then you might argue, ‘You daft creature, Kubla was a Mongol and his palace was in Xanadu, in another continent altogether.’ I merely refer to the lushness of the description concocted by Coleridge in his opium-induced dreams.

One of the Moors’ famed castles sits atop the hills of Málaga, surrounded by dense forests of eucalyptus and pine. My mission one noon was to walk up to Castillo de Gibralfaro before I took the train for Madrid with my husband and his colleague that evening. Of all the many unwise decisions I have taken during my solo travels – I have to confess there are many – Gibralfaro possibly topped it.

There is a route through the Alcazaba that takes you to the castle. I could not figure it out and naturally I took the longer trail after I got out of the Alcazaba. The plus point was that I got to make a pitstop at Plaza de la Merced, a square that was home to Pablo Picasso for the first three years of his life. The 20th century artist was born in a house here and took his first baby steps in this part of the world, so I had to go gawk at it even though the guard rattled out ‘no puedes entrar’ blended with sign language to inform me that it was shut for the day.

I passed through avenues of trees with silver barks, swishing in the gentle breeze that alleviated the heat of the noon, past old churches and villas that put me in mind of lavish courtyards, pitchers of iced teas and slowly rotating fans in cool, dark rooms, and trudged up a steep ascent. Small villages studded with white villas cropped up across the winding roads, and after what seemed like eternity, I arrived at Gibralfaro. During the entire duration of which I was passed by a dozen taxis and a couple of buses full of tourists as I huffed and puffed uphill, bullied by an unrelenting sun.

The views from the castle are spectacular beneath the midday sun, the pale shimmering waters of the Mediterranean holding you in its spell like an enchantress, loathe to release you. I walked its solid ramparts which towered above the port city and thought of what the Phoenician lighthouse might have looked like. For a lighthouse stood there before the Caliph of Cordoba built the castle sometime during the 10th century on that very site. Its name – derived from Gebel-faro orrock of the lighthouse’ – attests to it.  But the time that I spent in the castle ended on a whimper. Midway through it I looked at the watch and remembered I had a train to catch in an hour and a half. That and the husband’s wide collection of scowls made me whiz through the castle at remarkable speed before I made my way back to the hotel at an equally frantic pace – it somehow happened that I could not catch a bus during my way to the castle or on the way back.

At the end of it all, the palm-fringed beach near the hotel and a bottle of beer helped soothe my high-strung chattering when I met a startled Adi and his colleague. But the relief was this that I did get on the train to Madrid.

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Plaza de la Merced
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Picasso’s childhood home

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Gibralfaro
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From the ramparts of the fortress

 

 

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The drink that relieved my overwrought senses
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Train to Madrid

Vignettes of Málaga

A whirligig of architectural styles. Baroque, Rococo, Renaissance and Neo-Mudejar schools of design coming together under one umbrella and as you gape at them, the many Christian temples that fall on your way as you saunter through the alleys of the city, you realise that these are not mere names to forget in a jiffy. These are the artistic movements that had Europe in its clutches at the time. They permeated almost all aspects of life.

La Manquita, the One-Armed Lady, as the gigantic cathedral is known among the malagueños. You stand beneath it gaping for some time at the lofty stature of the tower that shoots up, up into the blue sky above, but there is that south tower that is missing. A long time ago it seems the parish used its funds to help the American independence efforts. The cathedral remained unfinished but it helped an entire nation get on its feet. A cause as worthy as any.

Frequent stops in cafes for a bite to eat and drink because that heat saps the strength out of you. The solitary woman sitting in a corner of a cafe and sketching away. Of course you wanted to strike up a conversation but she looked so comfortable in her own little world that you let her be. Sometimes there is solace to be found in silent camaraderie, even with strangers.

The shoppers in various departmental stores, the random teteria decorated with those entrancing, intricate jaalis and people nursing glasses of chilled wines and beers on the sidewalks. You find yourself wandering aimlessly through the many alleys, a church at every corner, a man with the taqiyah on his head selling peanuts, the quiet courtyard with its traditional wooden beams and solid doors, the lanes where sheltered from the intense heat a man with long locks strums the guitar.

The old Roman amphitheatre above which stand guard the rambling walls of the Alcazaba of the moors with its rows of orange trees and clumps of flamboyant Bougainvillea growing inside, a hint at the beauty that must have flourished inside when the moors ruled over the land, a view of the sea from the walls because it was built as a defence against pirates during the day, the bullring in the distance and the towers of concrete painted up in the Mediterranean colour palette.

A wonderful jumble of impressions guaranteed to make you dizzy.

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Iglesia de San Juan Bautista

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Iglesia de los Santos Mártires (Church of the Holy Martyrs) is dedicated to Ciriaco and Paula. Christian saints who were stoned to death by Roman emperors who wanted them to bow their heads to the Roman deities.

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The Roman amphitheatre above which looms the Alcazaba
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Inside the Alcazaba
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An archway in the Alcazaba
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View of the city’s town hall and the sea beyond from the Alcazaba

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La Manquita
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Episcopal Palace
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The cathedral

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In Málaga…

Keeping in theme with the tone of the guest post on Seville by Sophie, I thought of my Andalusian adventures that kicked off from Málaga, the Andalusian port city of Spain, that lies across the tip of Africa. It was February and yet the heat, oh it was blistering. Ir ran along the lines of an Indian summer that tends to sear the mind and the soul. The day we landed in Málaga, the city was enveloped in a haze that was a curious shade of jaundice yellow. It is a common feature there in Málaga –  the desert wind, Calima, blows in from the great Sahara Desert bringing with it poor visibility and high temperatures. During the course of the next few days, the haze gradually lifted but the heat, boy it was a stunner.

Now Málaga is the underrated cousin of the Spanish biggies, Madrid and Barcelona, and I do not know why because it has infallible charm. Walking in the shadow of the grandiose Alcazaba, the towering cathedral and the baños (Arab baths), the imagination tends to be overwhelmed by tales of the Moors, that mixed race of Berbers and Arabs who crossed over from North Africa and occupied Andalucia for seven centuries. But ancient Iberians, Phoenicians and the Romans were here too and you see the strange confluence of cultures in its many alleys.

My first impression of Málaga was formed by the sight of the many palms that line one of its main avenues. Those trees bring upon me a wave of nostalgia for things left far behind in the past – hazy memories of the desert city that I was born in. A glorious park, the Parque de la Alameda, was my refuge from the heat of the morning with its green surroundings filled with exotic plants procured from five continents. It was but a paean to man’s potential for creating beauty from zilch. You see, the park was created on reclaimed land.

Sauntering down one of Málaga’s busy streets, I chanced upon an imposing horseshoe archway. The Ataranzas. A market for fresh produce and paella. Ah, now I could not leave it alone, could I?  There is something alluring about the mercados of Spain. Be it in Madrid, Barcelona, Málaga or even a small place like Zaragoza. Is it an old-world charm, you wonder, with vendors and customers exchanging notes over fresh meat, seafood, vegetable and fruits? A plethora of colour for as far as the eye can see beneath the warm lighting of the market hall. My nose led me into a massive hall that was once a shipyard (in Arabic it is Ataranzas) with seven grand arches. Only one of those arches remain and it was the one that had lured me in.

A shipyard in the middle of the city, you might ask dubiously? Things were different till around the 18th century. The sea reached till where I was walking a while ago – on the streets around the present-day market. Once fishermen would have sat along the walls of the former shipyard and trawled the waters for the catch of the day. Apart from housing a shipyard, the Ataranzas had many avataars. Convent, military fort, hospital and subsequently a medical school. So many stories, so many memories, all embedded within its walls. Now only if those walls could speak, the tales that might tumble out.

This was just the start to my extensive rambles around the city, and lest I lull you into a sound sleep, I shall retire till my next post on Málaga.

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The view from the hotel room was made up of water the hue of emerald, the blue shimmering sea beyond the blocks of concrete and then these pretty palm trees.
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The Alcazaba in profile
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Town hall
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A section of the Alcazaba shows up between the old bank and town hall
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Banco de España. If you are a fan of architecture, you will find yourself riveted by its neoclassical look.
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Palacio de la Aduana. The new customs house for the port city.
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Parque de la Alameda
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Parque de la Alameda
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Parque de la Alameda
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A quick change of pace in the busy city
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Ataranzas
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Oh hello there…

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Ataranzas
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The stained glass window in the Ataranzas that are fit to grace a cathedral

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