Friday, September 16, 2005

A long weekend and a short trip in Europe - Part 2

I guess all the margaritas of the previous evening had taken their toll because when we got up on Sunday morning, it was nearly afternoon. We decided to have a very late breakfast at a French cafe and then go cycling. Breakfast was a plain omelette for me (and despite his lack of English, the waiter kept asking if I really wanted it plain - no fromage? no champignons? no jambon? no tomatoes? It took a few firm "NO"s and many negative head shakes before he accepted the inevitable) and two cups of their wonderful coffee.

Oh, I have to say this about the coffee in Europe (at least in the few countries I've visited) - it's FABULOUS!!! Even the motorway service area shops serve the most amazing coffee... my favourite was at "Star Mart" shops in Belgium. Not only was the coffee dispenser state-of-the-art interactive, but the coffee itself was the best I've had - possibly ever. I done drink coffee anywhere in the UK because not even the top-priced outlets - Costa Lotta... I mean, Costa Coffee, Coffee Primo, Ritazza, even Starbucks - manage anything that I find palatable. But at Star Mart I didnt even need sugar in my coffee - it was THAT good! I cant praise it enough.

And I dont need to go on about Belgian chocolates, do I? Even their "off-the-rack" ones seem classy. I found one that was utter bliss - dark chocolate with whole hazelnuts... I'm not crazy about chocolate but if I could have taken home a few hundred bars of that particular confection, I would definitely have done it!

Back to Luxembourg. I have absolutely no idea where we went (didnt have a map) - we just followed our noses, so to speak. But some things did stay in my memory... backed up, of course, with photographs. The Grand Duchesse Charlotte bridge was humongous - each of its "legs" is wider around than one of those luxury tourist buses. Ok, not the best comparison and not the best photograph either, but I couldnt fit it all into my little camera or into the little area of my brain that forms similes. You can see the building down in the valley here, which probably gives a better idea of just how big the bridge is. It felt almost like a hallucination.

We didnt go over the bridge; rather, we rode up the side to reach the Centre Europeen District, which has a lot of embassies and important European Union buildings. The street that we chose had the American Embassy in it - fortified in the extreme. We were watched all the way up by a squat, belligerent looking, fully armed guard in the embassy's guardhouse. He looked so like an escapee troll from Discworld that I mentally christened him Chrysoprase. I would have taken a photo but I was rather worried that he might consider that a security threat to the embassy, Bush and American democracy, and go into "shoot-to-kill" mode. He certainly was armed for it.

There was another bridge (name unknown to me) that we rode across just for the heck of it - and what a good idea it was, because the views of the valley from there were lovely. Like
this one and this. The bridge was different enough that I wanted a photo of it - and here's Pete posing on it. And me.

We also rode down to a particularly lovely park that I think is called Plaza de la Constitution... I had read that it was built in the middle of a former bastion halfway down the Casemate wall. I dont know if that was it, but I certainly saw some solid old stone walls while riding down. (By the way, the Casemates are the massive stone walls that surround the city.)

Pete also took a photo of a bridge that he saw from the top of park (I'd gone way down the path by then, as you can see in this
photo, but I've no idea what the bridge is called. There are quite a few bridges, and lack of a guidebook didnt help identify the ones we saw!

I have to confess that we didnt take our cycles all the way to the bottom of the park - the long climb back to civilisation simply didnt appeal to me, although Pete seemed game enough. So when I noticed the path branching off to a set of steep steps that led to the main road at the top, I was all for going up it. Until I tried to climb them steps while carrying my cycle. Apparently my cycle didnt approve, for it whacked my ankle with the pedal. That was painful, so I tried to adjust my grip on it to prevent it happening - and the handlebar whacked my forehead.

Pete was already halfway up but when he saw that I wasnt making much progress, he came back down, hefted up my cycle on one shoulder and his cycle on the other, and climbed up the steps all at one go. I just about managed a photo of him going up the steps. Awww... my

After that we pedalled through all kinds of side streets - nobody seemed to be around and what shops and business establishments we saw were closed. Well, it was Sunday, after all. So we headed back to the city centre and the cafes. It was pretty hot, so I personally was very happy to take possession of my extra large glass of a citron margarita, complete with salted rim. Nothing that tastes better... unless it be a strawberry margarita!

I did manage to take a photo of this
snoring beauty, though. I could practically see up his nose (and down his throat to his uvula) when I closed in for a macro, but an extra large snort from him kind of startled me - I thought he'd woken up! So I settled for a regular shot instead. I have to say he looked very comfortable...

One last
bridge shot (again, name unknown) and we wandered back to our hotel for a reasonably early night. All that cycling was fun but tiring!


Here's a tip - dont bother stopping at Lille, France. That was a bad choice on my part. We had to get back to France on the Monday so that we'd be in good time to catch the ferry in Calais on Tuesday. Since most of the places I wanted to see in France were too long a drive away, Lille seemed the best choice in terms of being on the route to Calais and being a reasonably big city.

I have to say I was pretty disappointed when we got into the city... there didnt seem to be any pretty parts to it. It all looked uniformly grungy and built-up - rather like Birmingham, actually. The actual city centre square - what the Lilleians called the "Grand Place" - was the only bit that looked passable, with a few open-air cafes. The hotel we stopped at was very close to the Grand Place but the street was really grotty and dirty - enough to make me regret wanting to stop here, and certainly enough that I didnt bother with the camera.

However, dogged as ever, we set off on our cycles to explore what we could of Lille. The one abiding impression I have of the city is that of smelly drains - on the main roads, in the side roads, everywhere we got whiffs of hot stinking sewers. Very reminiscent of the Cooum in Madras, I must say! Their drainage system leaves a lot to be desired - and I suppose the heat and humidity didnt help. Eventually we found our way to a big park by the river that looked promisingly green. It wasnt bad, but as we were to discover, we werent destined to escape the smelly drains - there were pools of stagnant water well inside the wooded areas of the park, although they didnt seem to bother the dozens of joggers.

Anyway, after cycling through what seemed like miles of mushy, muddy park, we eventually reached the back end of a fair. It had some interesting rides, so we went to look at them. I have to say I wasnt tempted to ride any - mainly because I didnt want to go by myself, Pete having excused himself firmly from them all. Cant quite blame him, most of the rides looked pretty vicious! :)

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a creperie that advertised "English spoken here" - a blatant lie because nobody spoke English except Pete and me. I guess the only thing they learnt to say in English was a whopping untruth! But our waitress was a friendly, smiley little thing who looked about 14, and we were happy enough - Pete with his coffee and me with an icecream sundae which I couldnt finish because it was so huge.


Tuesday morning, and I was pretty happy to leave Lille. As a matter of fact I was quite surprised that the cycles were still on their rack on the car - our hotel didnt have its own parking, so we'd parked on the street... and what I'd seen of the street didnt give rise to confidence regarding security. But since the cycles were untouched, I guess I've maligned the Lilleians, for which I apologise.

En route to Calais, we made a short detour to Dunkirk where we went to see the war memorial. Didnt like to take any photos, so we wandered around the huge cemetery looking at the various gravestones and wondering about the people who were buried there - Indians, Belgians, French, Germans, English... so many people who died so young and so far away from home. It was quite sobering.

Just before we went to the port to catch our ferry, Pete decided to take advantage of the cheap prices in Calais and fill the boot with wine and assorted alcohol bought at a big wine wholesaler and retailer. He went looking for wines and I wandered around picking out exotic-sounding liqueurs. At the end of 30 minutes, we'd managed to fill a supermarket trolley with our purchases. That, for Pete, was the perfect ending to a nice short break.

And here endeth this travelogue. Until the next holiday, then.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A long weekend and a short trip in Europe - Part 1

For a while now, I've been thinking that the ideal holiday would be to drive through a country (whichever one) at a leisurely pace, stopping wherever and whenever, based on a travel plan which specifies only the final destination. Vague but workable, and the long weekend of Aug 27-29 - Monday Aug 29 being the last bank holiday of the year before Christmas - seemed ideal to test my theory. Since I'd wangled Tuesday off from work, it added up to a decent 4 days for a short trip.

Ireland could have been on the cards, but I had Calais on my mind. So we headed France-wards on the ferry to Calais, with the car parked in the bowels of the ferry and our cycles (a fortunate afterthought on Pete's part) parked on the car. I was particularly thrilled about going to Calais because the ferry left from Dover - the famous white cliffs of which I had wanted to see. And now I can say that I've seen the
white cliffs of Dover. They are quite white, actually, but not particularly high. That said, I wouldnt be making that comment about the height if I had been at the top of the cliffs, rather than at the bottom.

I could certainly imagine the feelings of the seamen on British ships during WW2, when they got their first glimpse of home in the white cliffs of Dover as their ships sailed into the harbour. I mean, I used to get the same "I'm home" feeling when I saw my first PTC bus after a trip away from Madras!

Anyway... back to Calais. The ferry trip from Dover to Calais was uneventful, the most remarkable thing being that it started as scheduled at 3.45 a.m. Pete managed to snatch a few winks but as ever, sleeping while sitting upright is not an option for me. So I spent my time memorising (not intentionally, no) the Formula 1 statistics and odd facts that were printed on the walls (why Formula 1 factoids on a ferry? who knows!). Interesting things like: the wear and tear on the brakes of a Formula 1 car in ONE race is the equivalent of 10 years worth on a normal car used normally; From a normal seating position, with all seat belts fastened, and whilst wearing his usual driving equipment, a driver must be able to remove the steering wheel and get out of the car within five seconds and then replace the steering wheel within a total of 10 seconds.

I have more such useless information cluttering my brain but I will refrain from doing the same to this post, out of consideration for the few readers I have - do I hear sighs of relief?

The ferry docked at
Calais port bright and early at around 5.30am. I had thought we would base ourselves there and drive to nearby places, but Pete decided he wanted to drive onward. We were somewhat hampered by the fact that the car was by now running on petrol fumes, so we drove around looking rather desperately for a petrol station. Finally found a tiny one in the middle of Calais that would open at 6 a.m.

Since we had 15 minutes to kill, I took the opportunity to wander around and found the
Town Hall - a colourful building that reminded me of wedding cake. Its imposing belfry looked like it was made of iron, in surprising contrast to the rest of the building.

In front of the Town Hall was the famous
Six Burghers of Calais statue made (sculpted? created?) by Rodin, to commemorate the 6 brave citizens who were ready to give up their lives in return for the safety of the rest of Calais' population when they surrendered to England's Edward III after a year-long siege. (Phew. Talk about history encapsulated. Take the time for a few deep breaths before going on to the next sentence!).

The only thing I found annoying was that I couldnt take a photo of just the statue - the Town Hall building kept getting in the background. On the other hand, I managed to take a photo of a
butterfly that landed on one of the statues' head - taking a rest before targeting the flowers, I suppose. Anyway, it's my one puny effort at Nature photography, haha.

garden around the statue was beautiful - the flower arrangements were exotic (compared to what I see in Shrewsbury) and very, very colourful, a real feast for the eyes.

Even better was a traffic circle which had a bush shaped to look like a
peacock's long neck - and the colourful spread of its feathers was duplicated by multicoloured flowers. I tried my best to get a photo of it as a whole, but again, trees/buildings/power lines/lamp-posts kept popping up no matter what angle I tried. It was the loveliest flower arrangement I've seen on the ground, and the photo does it no justice at all. Especially as it was taken in the early morning light (which wasnt enough).

A few dozen photos later (of which only a few were worthwhile, actually), the car replete with petrol by then, we were on our way again. Our destination was Luxembourg, that little country stuck between France, Germany and Holland. I had been there before and loved the place, although I had not seen enough of it in the short time I spent there. And since Pete had not been there at all, it seemed like a good place to (re)visit.

From Calais, it's a very short driving distance to the Belgian border (or the Dutch one, for that matter). Even if I hadnt seen the big notice that announced "Belgie", I would have known I was on Belgian roads because of the lunatic traffic. Imagine, if you will, the inconsiderate, undisciplined, discourteous Indian drivers - then imagine that sort of driving ethic at speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour (about 130kmph), and you have a pretty accurate idea of Belgian drivers.

It was nerve-wracking to see vehicles muscling in with barely enough space between our car and the one in front, without even a blink to indicate the sudden changing of lanes - and almost the very next moment, the vehicle would move back to the original lane. And I'm talking about those enormous 18-wheeler container trucks playing "tag" with each other in fast-moving traffic. My first impression of Belgian traffic as being terrible was set in reinforced concrete this time around. No wonder you hear police/ambulance sirens ALL the time in this country!

To think Brussels, with its hazardous drivers, is the seat of the EU, the place from which all rules - from traffic to work laws - are handed out to the UK and sought to be enforced. I think Brussels should look to its laws being followed by Belgians before it sets its sights elsewhere!

it was a relief to bypass Brussels and get onto the motorway to Luxembourg. The drive is pleasant in more ways than one - for one thing, the views are spectacular... forests, mountains, valleys, rivers. It was unspoilt and beautiful, at least on the surface.

We reached Luxembourg at about midday. After a drive around the city centre, trying to find a hotel that didnt look like it would charge a year's income for a night's stay, Pete finally decided on one called Le Royal (good decision - it only charged half a year's income, hah). No complaints about the service, the room, the atmosphere - they were all luxurious almost to a fault.

We watched the car disappear into the bowels of the parking lot, escorted by a valet. Then, after a shower, we set off on our cycles. Luxembourg is a lovely city, set in the mountains, so that you get spectacular views off bridges (and there are many) that have been built over the Rivers Petrusse and Alzette.

The old town is in the bowels of the valley, and the buildings there are beautiful - especially viewed from above, they look like
toy models. The modern part of the city is almost as pretty, and neater than any place I've ever been to. Although there were lots of dogs being walked (or carried), there wasnt any poo.

Our cycles really came into their own in the town centre. Had we been in the car, we would have had trouble finding a place to park. And of course, we would have had to curtail our alcohol consumption keeping in mind the driving back part. That is, Pete would have had that problem. But as things were, we cycled merrily around, following road rules and keeping to the cycle paths where possible - but more often than not, riding down footpaths on the wrong side of the road, not even worrying about one-ways.

For the first hour or so, we rode around getting familiar with the city centre, checking out the monuments and shops. A lot of the shops were shut, it being a weekend, but the cafes were all open. The Place Guillaume (I bet my spelling is wrong - bloody French words), the big square with cafes all around, and a stage in the centre, was THE place to be, so we settled there. At Chi-chi, a Mexican eatery and outdoor cafe, on my insistence. Well why not? At least they werent offering up snails for our gastronomic pleasure! And I like Mexican food.

Anyway, the cafe was a perfect choice - we had a VERY good looking
waiter. Unfortunately I dont have a good photo (Pete kindly took this one because I didnt want make my admiration obvious to the waiter!) but it gives a general idea. Whatsisname didnt speak much - any - English but he had a killer smile and understood just fine when we pointed at items on the menu, so all went very well.

It was a nice relaxed evening spent in the shade of an umbrella, watching various kinds of people (some unidentifiable as to gender) walking around, surreptitiously admiring the waiter (Pete declined to join me in this), and slowly drinking a large jugful of wonderful
strawberry margarita. Pete opted for sangria, but margaritas are my special joy.

At the end of the evening, after the band playing live music at the square had gone home and the cafes were closing, we wobbled around town some more on our cycles,l taking some very bad (all mine) night photographs before heading back to the hotel. I think the
national library looks beautiful despite my best efforts!

All in all, it had been such a lovely relaxing day, and we'd still seen so little of the city that we decided to stay all of Sunday as well, and leave on Monday.


Part 2 to follow.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Back to the Highlands

I always find it exciting to drive up to the Highlands for a whole lot of reasons, not the least being that Pete and I start from home at an unearthly hour of the morning. It's about the only way I'll get up at 3 a.m - willingly. (Done more than my share of early-morning rising in Singapore, waking up at 2.30 a.m to start work at 4 a.m!).

Anyhow, this trip didnt even warrant getting up early - because I didnt get to bed at all the previous night! Neither did Pete (he was working on his software, I was packing & etc), but he deals a lot better with lack of sleep than I do. So we set off at 3 a.m Friday (or very late Thursday night, to look at it another way), intending to arrive at Crubenmore by midday at the latest. Driving at ungodly hours has its advantages - there's hardly any traffic, and Pete could belt along at 120 miles per hour. We got there at 11 a.m or thereabouts, including a 2-hour halt for some much needed sleep. Some 400 miles in 6 hours... not bad going!

The Crubenbeg holiday cottages at Crubenmore, where we normally stay, are the self-catering type, really cosy, with fantastic views all around. They're run by two very nice ladies - an Irishwoman and a Swiss. The cottages are beautifully isolated in the hills, yet it's only a 5-minute drive to the main road. The nearest village (with a shop) is Newtonmore, about 8 miles away. It was a pleasure to wake up in the morning and drive down to Newtonmore to pick up fresh bread, rolls, butter, etc and go back to the cottage for a nice leisurely breakfast, looking out of the window at the towering hills and watching the odd pheasant or quail scamper across the lawn outside.

Pete spent most of the days working at the shop in Laggan (a tiny village about 11 miles away), so I had a lot of time for solo walks. Plus our cottage had loads of books to read, and I'd taken my embroidery along. The weather was gorgeous - bright and sunny, but with no real warmth from the sunshine.

Could there be anything better than taking a few snacks and an interesting book to the Truim Falls (5-minute walk down the path from our cottage), then sit on a convenient rock beneath the bridge, reading? I dont think so! It was absolutely peaceful and relaxing. The Truim Falls are supposed to be famous for salmon that make their way upstream, but I didnt see any this time - or, indeed, any of the previous times. Perhaps spring is the wrong season... or daytime the wrong time to look for leaping salmon. Who knows!

On Sunday, Pete took some time off for a short circular walk (about a mile, I guess) by the Trium Falls and, later, a drive into the woody hills. I drove for a while - and my goodness, the forest track was a bouncy jouncy ride, allright. And once we reached the really terrible ruts (made during the winter, I presume, by whatever wide-tread machinery was used to cut down the trees), the Range Rover fought me like it had a life of its own, so Pete had to take over. We would have followed the track up to Trium Woods Viewpoint, but halfway up, the path was blocked by a huge tree across the track, uprooted whole by the wind. So that was the end of that.

As always, it was a wrench when we had to leave the Highlands to come back to Shrewsbury... they mountains are so beautiful, so rugged and peaceful, there is so little pollution. It feels like life would be perfect if we could only live there permanently. But I guess I wouldnt love it quite so much in the winter months, because the scenery would be very bleak - none of the cheerful bright greenery that appears in late spring and summer... and there would be every chance of the electricity lines going down, being snowed in and cut off from civilisation, etc. Still, I can dream...

More pics here

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The pond in The Dingle

View of the Dingle (a pretty landscaped garden with a serene pond) set in the middle of the Quarry, which is a big open green, with River Severn running through it, in the middle of the town.

Path to nowhere, but so pretty

A pretty, landscaped pathway inside the Dingle

The Dingle again

A wider view of the Dingle, which is set in a depression within the Quarry grounds. The brown hedge at the top runs right around the Dingle. The paths wind around flower beds, which are wildly colourful in the summer, but right now are just green and grassy.

Dumb duck!

Bah, the mallard twisted its neck around to rootle in its feathers - JUST as I clicked! Till then it was posing nicely, showing off the iridiscent green feathers that I wanted to catch on camera.

Weeping willows in winter

Graceful trees, these - and beautifully green in the summer. Still pretty now, though.

Unknown beautiful flowers

If only I could capture the fragrance of these flowers... they bloom only in winter and they smell heavenly! The rest of the year, they have dull green, sharp-edged leaves that scratch unwary passers-by who get too close to it. (I discovered both these facts myself - by hands-on experience, shall we say). Dunno what the plant is called.

The Riverside Pub (or some such thing)

All I know is, it's picturesque

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Quiet place by River Severn - watercolour

I wanted to put up a few photos of places around Shrewsbury but the albums appear to be hiding... so pending the discovery of those photos, I decided to post a photo of a water-colour that I did last year (while learning the basics of water-colour painting).

Anyway, this is my favourite place by the river in the park/play area/open grounds called The Quarry, in Shrewsbury. The exercise of artistic licence has removed any traces of benches by the riverbank, and also of people sitting there! :) I like my favourite place to be peaceful and without pesky kids fooling around - if only in my imagination.

PS. Anybody at all genuinely artistic - please reserve your comments! I'm aware of my limitations as a painter! Cover Up
(Princess, this goes ESPECIALLY for you, you multi-talented multi-faceted multi-personality! ;) )

Sunday, January 30, 2005

COVENT GARDEN merry-go-round

The lovely, beautifully lit-up, old-fashioned merry-go-round at Covent Garden square...

Romanian Church

An old Romanian Church on Fleet Street, sandwiched between newer buildings

Wooden hand-painted panels inside the church

This beautiful wooden structure with the hand-painted scenes took up a section of one wall inside the church... absolutely gorgeous, and what colours! My camera wasnt powerful/fundoo enough to get it right...

The Natural History museum

The Natural History Museum... lovely building!

Seen through a mesh of branches

Same building, different view

St.Paul's Cathedral

St Paul's Cathedral in the afternoon sun, already sinking in the West. Well, it is winter, after all!

St Paul's after sunset

Here, cabbie!

A new "old-fashioned" London cab

The temple that the tsunami didnt hit...

The miracle quotient of the Murugan temple at Tiruchendur must have gone up sky-high after the tsunami declined to ravage it as it ravaged other places up and down the coast. However, when we (me, my mother, brother and sister) went there about 10 days back, there didnt seem to be anything out of the ordinary. Except that the postcard and souvenir touts had some special photos, apparently taken when the sea had receded. (Somebody must have been mighty enterprising - not to mention ready and present with a camera!)

Unfortunately my mother has the photo, so I can only describe it - the sea-bed was clearly revealed, with pebbles and dunes and seaweed and pools of water here and there... but then again, I've not seen the sea there at low tide, so I dunno how authentic the photo was. Still, I guess the evidence of the tsunami NOT hitting the area is right there... after all, the temple is standing in all its glory!

The temple wasnt especially crowded (so my mother says) because I guess it wasnt a specially holy day. But there were enough people to make it stuffy and crowded inside, all the same. Inviting and dark though it looked, the temple wasnt cool in the least... especially considering a lot of it is below sea level. The reason why I dislike going to pilgrimage spots is all the devotees. They're supposedly religious but they behave like animals - actually, worse than animals, in their frenzy to get to the prasadam or the teertham.

The well that's near the temple was a case in point. Our priest had asked us to go there and wash our hands and feet. Seemed a simple enough task. There were two queues leading down to the well - one for men, one for women. So far so good. But both queues ended up at the same spot where people could get at the holy water with the mugs provided there.

All that was required was a splash of water... but no! There were men and women who were actually having a BATH there despite the pressing crowds of people waiting their turn. And these religious bathers would not let anybody get at the mugs, instead calling more family members and friends to join in the frenzy. The scuffling and yelling, not to mention flying elbows and stomping feet was not in the least conducive to a calm, peaceful state of mind, I can tell you. I was in a filthy temper by the time we got out of there - not exactly the best mood prior to a multiple-archanai pooja in the innards of a dark, crowded, HOT temple!

What is it about temples and festivals that turns devotees into mindless maniacs, all intent on grabbing for themselves whatever is on offer - whether it's kumkum/vibhuti, tulasi, or whatever - and never mind the others? Why do they all have to scrabble and fight for everything? I would say "I hate temples" but that isnt true... the smaller ones, which arent famous for any particular thing (other than sculpture or age) have a certain serenity that is very appealing. Put devotees in there, however, and everything is ruined.

Well, enough ranting... at least the scenery on the way from Tirunelveli to Tiruchendur was surprisingly - and very pleasingly - green. It was very refreshing to see plants that werent dusty or drought-stricken and that didnt look straggly and pathetic (what comes to mind at this point are the plants beneath the Cathedral Road flyover, and at the Alwarpet junction... pathetic doesnt begin to describe them, the poor things).

Anyway, we didnt stop anywhere on the way back from Tiruchendur, so all the photos I took were from the moving car. Pretty good, if I say so myself :) They're also in chronological order, so you can scroll through naturally from top to bottom!

Rooftop view of Tiruchendur Murugan temple

Fourth-floor view from Shiva Murugan Lodge of the Tiruchendur temple.

Tiruchendur Murugan Temple entrance

Main entrance to Tiruchendur Murugan temple... doesnt the dark doorway seem like an inviting respite from the sunshine? Only SEEMS, mind you. It was hot and sweaty inside!

Bright and white in the sun

More of the temple on view.

Seashore temple

Temple by the sea... at one point it was so bright that the sea and the horizon blended into one. This was taken before the sun became blinding!

Just the gopuram

The gopuram...funny how you dont really notice electricity cables till they actually show up in the photo!

The entrance is shaped like the gopuram itself!

The temple entrance, much closer-up

Yow, it was really bright in the sunshine!

The covered walkway with the colourful little shops selling cheap trinkets

So much plastic on sale!

Close-up of trinket shops

Phew, it's much more pleasant in the shade

The walkway from the inside... and the lady with the blue bag is my amma!

Hanuman revealing all...

Hanuman rending his chest to show who lives within... just HAD to take this one!

Countryside view

View of a swampy sort of lake on the way to/from Tirunelveli to Tiruchendur

A bit blurred... but still green!

Oh how green it is... what a refreshing sight this was!

I like this photo rather...

Fenced-off greenery

Banananana plantations (forgot where to stop!) ;)

Banana plantations... and more green.

My favourite photo

Is this a rustic scene or what? I'm really rather proud of this photo - especially as it was taken from a moving cab on a bumpy road!

Nice scenery

I liked the palm trees in the middle of the field...

Buncha trees

I liked the natural composition of this group of trees, with the little hut/house hiding behind the clump.

Splash of colour

Liked this for the colour, and the fence...

At Tirunelveli station

The Nellai Express waiting to take us back to Chennai...

Shadow play

Shadows on Tirunelveli Rly Station platform 5... from left, Gopal, Amma and Radha. :)

Cow drinking water

A moo-cow drinking water that's dripping from a leaky tap... too bad you cant see the water, but take it from me, that's what the cow was doing!

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Harrods doesnt have it all

Let me start by telling you where NOT to go in London on the first weekday after New Year’s – Harrods, the ultra-chic, ultra-expensive, ultra-sophisticated departmental store. Why? Because that, apparently, is the first day of their “greatest sale” every January, as advertised on practically every London bus. My husband knew why not to go, but he knew equally well that we (him included) WOULD be going to Harrods all the same. It seemed to be the touristy way to start the day and a half that we had before my sis and I flew to Chennai. Kitsch and corny, I know, but it HAD to be done.

Anyway, when we got on the Underground train, it was jam-packed. At the station for Harrods, there was an exit devoted entirely to people going there. The resulting crowd, reminiscent of Singapore’s malls at lunchtime, was even MORE of a mob because every train that stopped there (every 2-3 minutes) disgorged hundreds of passengers, all headed for Harrods. In fact, we were lucky to get into Harrods when we did – by the time we came out, an hour or so later, there were long queues of people at EVERY entrance to the store, waiting to get in! Some of them had Harrods bags, which led me to conclude that they actually WANTED to go back inside into the madness. I guess it takes all kinds…

Harrods the store itself is pretty big – you can apparently get anything from a toothpick to a Hummer, as long as you have the money to pay for it. But that day, honestly, it didn’t look like anything more than the village rummage or jumble sale, although on a rather larger scale. There were signs everywhere, people milling around grabbing at shirts and trousers and throwing the wrong sizes back higgledy-piggledy. Garments were piled up on tables, hanging from temporary movable racks, all mixed up, lying on the floor. Shoes were not in their right size racks and many of them were missing partners. I wanted very much to check out the “luxury bathrooms”, but on seeing the constant lines of women waiting to go in, I decided not to. It might not have smelt luxurious by then!

On all the floors, there were plenty of store employees hanging around to provide help – but more likely to make sure that not too many light-fingered shoppers got away with their kleptomaniac instinct. I came to that conclusion because I got directed from floor to floor when I asked for information about where I could buy ponchos. None of the store employees I asked had the exact information, but all of them had plenty of directions to give. None of which, by the way, led to the poncho section.

I had to finally accept that there were NO ponchos to be had for love or money at Harrods. So much for the UK’s most famous snob-value store…
I can say it now, and with perfect honesty: I went to Harrods and they didn’t have what I was looking for! How many celebrities can say THAT?

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Covent Garden, paradise of kitsch

My newest favourite area in London is Covent Garden. I’ve been to London a few times, but because of circumstances (mostly visitors), I ended up seeing the same tourist spots every time – the Tower, the London Eye, Madame Tussaud’s, St Paul’s, etc. Not that these were or are boring or unimpressive even on the umpteenth viewing – far from it. I mean, listening to an organ recital at St Paul’s is wonderful. The acoustics of the great hall, the sheer volume of sound that is generated in the massive organ pipes is awesome. It sent shivers down my spine. How much more impressive it would have been a couple of hundred years ago, that clarity and strength of sound, without any of the high-tech electronics that goes into public sound systems today.

But as always, I digress. I was going to write about Covent Garden, and that is what I shall do now. A little (VERY little!) history first. The Covent Garden area is famous for theatre, the oldest one being the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane (and that about exhausts what I remember from BA Eng Lit classes oh so long ago!). The square itself used to be the country’s biggest fruit and veg market, and it (the market) was relocated only in 1973. The main building in the piazza (Italian for square, and it’s not an insulting term either! *wink*) was built in 1830 by Charles Fowler, but the high glass roof was erected in the 1870s.

My very first glimpse of the modern version of Covent Garden was electric… there are all kinds of high-street shops on the periphery of the square, all having new year’s sales at this time of year and therefore all teeming with shoppers carrying bulging multi-coloured bags. That wasn’t what took my attention, though. What attracted me like a magnet were the dozens of madly colourful little stalls selling all kinds of antiques, junk, old books and magazines, hand-made jewellery, t-shirts, scarves, and all kinds of odds and ends. And the best part was that most of the things were dirt-cheap (in UK terms, that is).

There were items from Victorian times, quite likely from the attics of old houses and homes – tiny, beautifully patterned miniature tea-sets in delicate china, little china figurines of crinolined and crimped girls and women in flowing ribboned bonnets, men with big sideburns wearing top hats and tails, adorable little dogs and foxes and hedgehogs and birds… but I must say my favourites were the little china teacups and saucers. Adorable isn’t a good enough term for them! Never have Enid Blyton’s descriptions of fairy tea parties come so close to looking like being based on reality…

There are other attractions as well – buskers, street performers, men (mostly) covered with silver paint, pretending to be statues or robots or royalty, standing absolutely still on their pedestals until someone throws them a coin. Then they suddenly come to life in a most realistic manner (considering that they’re already alive!), sometimes startling little kids. I could have watched them all day.

There was also a beautiful, wildly colourful, old-fashioned merry-go-round with horses and ponies on poles that went up and down gently to the accompaniment of old-fashioned music. Modern amusement park rides are thrilling and I mostly prefer them, but this working relic of a gentler, less speed-fixated age was definitely something to experience, allright. We didn’t have the time to go on it because of the crowds. Also, I suspect it would not have been very edifying to watch two adults elbow little kids out of the way to get onto a mechanical horse! So we stayed as admiring spectators.

And then, as the sun went down, we made our reluctant way back to the Underground, with our brains imprinted with the throbbing images of colour, life and liveliness… and with our feet imprinted with the throbbing pain of a day spent walking over relentlessly hard cobbles and tarmac. It was worth every cobble and every throb.