Postcard pretty Appenzell

In a country that is littered with jaw-droppingly, breathtakingly beautiful natural scenery – just think Interlaken, Jungfraujoch and Zermatt – Appenzell stopped me short. No towering mountains here, all that snow sprawled on top like it belongs there. No icy blue waters or Bollywood heavyweights (although Yash Chopra is mentioned ever so often in hushed, revered tones ever so often).

No sir. This village, in the picturesque north-east of Switzerland, remains far away from the tourist trail. In some ways, it feels nice to have those narrow lanes and stone benches to yourself. Yet, it’s a pity more people don’t know about it.

Appenzell

Appenzell marches to its own drummer, this region even speaking its own version of Swiss German (unfamiliar to “normal” Swiss German speakers). It is what the Swiss proudly call the repository of living traditions. And even to my cynical eye, it never felt that Appenzell was putting on a performance for the benefit of tourists.

In early autumn, for instance, the alpine herdsmen make their way down from the mountain pastures in a ceremonial descent, wearing colourful attire, which includes tight yellow pants, richly embroidered red waistcoats and hats decorated with flowers. Think our own Bollywood’s Govinda clothes but on extremely fit and handsome Swiss men.

Herdsmen(pic courtesy: myswitzerland.com)

Come festivals and weddings, women take out their traditional costumes, and locals would rather carry the secret of their special Appenzeller cheese to the grave than share it with outsiders. There are advertisements about it and local nudge-nudge-wink-wink jokes that I can never hope to understand. But never mind, the cheese is the important thing, not its recipe.

BetrufAnd much to my amazement, they love their music: the yodelling, which seems to be made for the mountains. And the very special Betruf, which is an evening prayer. Sang through a wooden funnel, it is haunting and moving, a call to the gods to protect and bless their loved Alps and cattle. As I listened to it, I realised that it can be a lonely life out there in the high mountains, when the cold sets in and darkness falls in the middle of the day.

It was in August last year that I visited Switzerland for the first time. I skipped the usual suspects and made my way to Appenzell, changing a couple of trains – which, unsurprisingly, ran like clockwork.

The only annoyance in an otherwise perfect three days was that it rained almost continuously in my time there – and this was in the end of August. I had gone there expecting a nice, summery time and instead found myself shivering in the wet, miserable cold – and those burnt out, dull sky in the photographs, every one of them. Ah, well.

HeidiBeing in Appenzell is a bit like being inside a fairytale. Narrow lanes perfect for aimless strolls, 16th century houses with brilliantly painted facades, shop windows with absolutely twee yet alluring souvenirs. Cows are an integral part of their lives and the cow motif is everywhere – from shiny cowbells to smiling moo faces on soap boxes. And I am not joking when I say that in the Appenzell canton, there are more cows than people. They take their bovine friends very seriously indeed.

The Heidi story is also immensely popular around this region and finds its way into most of the souvenirs displayed in the shops – at prices that made me want to weep and laugh at the same time.

There isn’t much to do in Appenzell village – there is a museum that showcases the crafts and culture of this canton. The best thing is to walk up and down the main shopping street, admiring the buildings, choosing your favourite and looking up at the painted windows.

Then, there are the ‘tafeen’ – from the word tavern – unique metal signboards hanging over commercial establishments, that clearly indicate the nature of the business.

Tafeen1

Tafeen2

A tiny church bang in the middle of the village – the Heiligkreuzkapelle with its stunning stained glass. This was my absolute favourite among all the things I saw in Switzerland on this trip. Unassuming and unique, unlike any stained glass work I have ever seen.

Stained Glass

And towards the end of the main road, the Church of St Maurice with its gilded and imposing interiors, more stained glass windows – opening out at the back to a churchyard lovingly tended by locals and surrounded by mountains.

Church

Postcard

I stayed at the cozy Hotel Santis (don’t miss the ‘Romantik’ in front of the name), with its fiery red exteriors with wooden floors and beams inside.

Village

Santis

You can see why I didn’t want to leave, can’t you?

***

Read my other stories from this trip:

~ The Swiss sound of music – published in The Hindu as Notes on a mountain
~ High up in Heidiland – published in Mumbai Mirror as Rooting for Heid

Friday photo: Windows

As Bangalore reels under the vicious attack of an early summer, my thoughts are in the cool, cool hills. Sikkim, Ladakh, Himachal, anywhere at all in the Himalayas is where I would rather be right now.

So this Friday, a photo from Sikkim: a young girl looking out of the window at Pemayangtse monastery at West Sikkim.

Yellow

Not quite an image of the hills, but Sikkim was as much about its lovely people and unforgettable food (not to forget the heady chang), as it was about the snow-peaked mountains.

Read about our quest for a glimpse of the Kanchenjunga

And lots more Sikkim stories here

Also see: Friday photo series

Are you a travel addict?

Or should I even be asking this question, considering you are reading a travel blog? For traveholics? Named ‘Itchy Feet’? On a week day?

I came across 21 signs you are a travel addict and they had me at No. 1. “Your travel bucket list is 4 pages long.” Other people count down from 100 when they can’t get to sleep. Me, I spell out the countries I want to visit, drawing up detailed travel itineraries in my mind at 3 a.m. Sometimes I reach out for my smartphone to check for cheap fares but that’s not a detail I’m particularly proud of sharing.

That apart, my surest sign is that I am always planning my next trip when I am currently travelling. I often get angry looks for handing out small change in unrecognisable currency – Croatian kuna anyone? And I seriously judge people (there, I said it) who don’t travel (yes, yes, I know – money, kids, work, health, ho hum, yawn).

Now, if I can figure out how to fit my life into a giant backpack, I am all set.

Anyway. Much as some of would love to be on the move all the time, we cannot. Vagabondish helpfully suggests Six Ways to Prolong the Joy of Travel – so get cracking on these right away.

Lock your hearts and throw the keys away

I have been seeing love padlocks on bridges everywhere I go, especially in Europe. Of course, Paris is the most famous for these love locks but I spotted them recently in Ljubljana and Venice (anyone seen any in India?)

Ljubljana

Venice

Prague

So couples affix locks to railings on bridges – I think they write their names on them – and throw away the key. And voila! undying love.

I can’t find anything definite on when and how this custom came into being. This story in the WSJ says that it grew in popularity in the wake of the 2006 Italian novel ‘I Want You’ featuring two Roman lovers who immortalized their bond on a bridge in the Eternal City and threw the key in the Tiber.

Turns out though, not everyone is a fan. If Rome trod carefully around this phenomenon, Florence tried to get them removed from Ponte Vecchio a few years ago. Parisians thought of these locks as nothing better than graffiti and sought to have them removed (they made their way back quickly though) while Chicago had a cutting response.

Me, I like them – they make for great photographs and I am going to keep my eyes open every place I visit.

Thoughts on being a tourist

And the tourist versus traveller debate rages on…

Of my favourite types of travellers to dislike (and there are many such) is the one who takes immense pride in being an untourist. Sure, I am all for spending enough time in every place I visit, taking in the experience and not ticking off boxes of must sees and dos. But some people taker it to the other extreme.

I came across this defence of the tourist trail on Lonely Planet recently; the writer says, “In a Cairo hostel, I met a girl who announced that she’d been in the city for three months and had yet to see the Pyramids. Her tone suggested she was waiting to be awarded a medal for most subversive traveller.” Definitely read this very insightful piece on how it is not wrong to do the things everyone does (and how going off the beaten path is in itself a myth).

There are many ways of being a better traveller than the average “if it is Tuesday, then it must be Paris” person. Here are some of my suggestions to make your travels more experiential:

See the sights

By all means, see the main sights – they are after all, what primarily define a place (think Taj Mahal). Can you really say you have seen Cambodia till you have spent time gazing at Angkor Wat and Bayon in awe? It is also a good way to gauge the mood of the country – in Sri Lanka a coupe of years ago, I found local tourists at every site I visited and that told me about the country’s slow limp towards peace more than any other visible sign.

Eat where the locals do

foodAnd try local food. Avoid the restaurants and cafes around the main attractions (especially those where waiters stand outside and recite the menu in English to lure you inside) and explore the lanes and residential areas of a city. Any place that is crowded with locals is the place to eat at.

The best thing would of course be to have a meal at a local’s house and while that may be possible in some parts of Asia, is not really an option in most countries. At the least, ask a local – your guide, your hotel manager or B & B host, a stranger at a pub – for suggestions. Little holes in the wall, family run trattorias, street dining options – go forth with an iron stomach and conquer.

Stay in an apartment

While hotels are usually the average traveller’s first choice, give B & B places a whirl. That way, you get to interact with a family from the town who can fill in a lot of knowledge gaps. Even better, try a short stay apartment – websites like VRBO and Airbnb are your best choices (but beware of the latter since it seems to get into some controversy or the other regularly – that said, I have used it and never had a bad experience so far). Get out of your comfort zone, say hello to other building residents in the lift, and cook occasional meals.

Visit a local market

marketsEspecially if you want to cook. Or even if you just want an authentic local experience. I don’t mean shopping for ridiculously priced souvenirs here. I mean a supermarket (I can spend hours checking out local brands) or a fresh food market where people living in the area go to regularly to stock up their refrigerators (or in some places like Provence and Tuscany, buy fresh every day). So if in Bangkok, do shop at the glittery malls and make a trip to the floating market, but also head to places where locals get their everyday bargains, if only for the experience.

Travel off peak season

Choose the shoulder months (since the really off season months can be a bummer sometimes if it rains or is just too hot to venture out) – for instance, April or October for Europe. The weather is usually just right, hotels and flights are usually cheaper, and there are infinitely less people around. It is an excellent way to take in a city at your own pace without being jostled around.

Use public transport

By all means, walk your shoes out and take cabs when you are just too tired to move. But get on to the metro (my husband and I make it a point in every place we visit where there is metro available – from Tokyo to Cairo), take a local bus or a short ride on a tram wherever possible. It’s great for people watching.

Hang out at a park or pub or cafe

parksI found the parks the most charming things about Paris, in Amsterdam I nursed a beer at five different places just to get a feel of the city and pretty much everywhere, I try to find a small cafe with wifi where I can kick back and relax for a while.

These are places where residents come and go, hang out, play chess or meet friends. And what better way is there to absorb the local vibe?

So my point really? By all means, be a traveller but please don’t be a travel snob – and don’t sneer at those who rush from one spot to another. Perhaps, their resources – time and money – are limited, or they just enjoy travelling that way. This tourist versus traveller distinction is all in the mind – yours.

Memories of river cruises and boat rides

It must be one of the best things to do ever – sitting on a boat, book in hand (or not), feeling the cool breeze on your cheeks, watching life on the banks, watching the sun set in the horizon, watching the birds head back home… It’s definitely one of my favourite things to do ever. And here are some of my fondest such memories.

Bosphorus

Bosphorus absolutely tops the list here – you float past grand mosques, ruined fortresses, seafood restaurants and pretty houses by the water (each of which I desperately want to own). You can float all the way to Anadolu Kavagi, a fishing village close to the Black sea or get off at some point mid way and make your way back to Ortokoy. The latter I recommend especially on a Sunday it is where you can sip on a hot chocolate, tuck into a plump kumpir (jacket potato) and then graze through the Sunday flea market.

Read my story on a Bosphorus cruise – One river, two continents

“It is of this experience that Orhan Pamuk has written, “To travel along the Bosphorus — be it in a ferry, a motor launch or a rowing boat — is to see the city house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood, and also from afar, as a silhouette, an ever-mutating mirage”. The Bosphorus is a strait between the Black Sea and the Marmera and runs through the heart of the city, dividing it into two – Rumelia and Anatolia. For a moment out there, you are straddling two continents. The Bosphorus is everywhere in Istanbul; in many ways it defines the dualism of this city: European and Asian, traditional and modern.”

Bosphorus1

Bosphorus21

Nile

The grandest of them all, the Nile and the cruise we took was for four days, all the way from Luxor to Aswan, from where we made a day trip to Abu Simbel. The Nile cruise is an utterly fascinating experience, punctuated as it is by regular stops and excursions to temples and ruins all along the way. At Aswan, we also got into a smaller boat and floated along for an hour late in the evening. Definitely one of my favourite holiday memories.

Nile1

Nile2

Seine

What is not to love about a spring evening in Paris? After walking around the city all day, we eagerly looked forward to sitting down and giving our tired feet a break. We again chose a late evening cruise (surely one of the best time to be on water) and watched the lights of Paris twinkle and wave to us as we crossed bridge after beautiful bridge. Especially watch out for the illuminated Eiffel Tower.

Seine1

Seine2

Ganga

Nothing to beat an early morning ride on the Ganga – this is the time the ghats come to life and people begin to dip their feet tentatively into the cold water and then immerse themselves totally, getting up with hands folded in supplication. The flower sellers make their way around the devotees, the pandas get busy with their business development activities, local boys nose dive into the river and everyone manages to wear a purposeful look on their faces. This is what I have written about Varanasi – Shortcut to Salvation.

Ganga1

Ganga2

And then, there are those boat rides, not exactly on rivers but wonderful experiences nevertheless:

- an excursion into the floating village on the Tonle Sap lake near Siem Reap – Shifting Shapes

Cambodia1

- cruising on the good old backwaters of Kerala, all the way from Alleppey to Kumarakom…

Kerala

- punting, or rather, being punted on the Cam in Cambridge, past those glorious college buildings and the lucky, lucky young men and women who study there. My first ever published story was on this experience – Apunting we go on the Cam

Cambridge

And finally, a ride on the canals of Amsterdam, easily of my favourite cities in the world – I could easily live there for the rest of my life!

Amsterdam

Inside a bhunga

After portraits from Kutch, some glimpses into their home, the round huts known as bhunga. These huts built of mud are beautifully decorated on the outside and inside, and look like living museums. In fact, some villages have taken to making a model bhunga towards the entrance to their village, just as a showcase of their way of life. And in Hudko, I learnt that a few of the villagers had gone to a crafts festival in Leipzig, Germany and recreated a bhunga there.

And why not? Traditional bhungas, built with the knowledge passed down over centuries, are now considered engineering wonders, given that they keep the home cool in summers and warm in winters. They are also designed to protect against desert storms, earthquakes and anything else that nature might throw their way.

SO, ladies and gentlemen, the bhunga…

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Notice how beautifully the walls have been embellished and how all their earthly possessions have been stacked to showcase them in the best possible way…

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mirror

Bhungas are almost always clean white from outside and painted with bright and cheerful colours – although this one had rare aqua blues, they are usually in reds, oranges and shades of browns…

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2012: my year in images

Lots of travel for Itchy Feet this year. A quick round-up in images…

Egypt – a week in February covering Cairo, a cruise from Luxor to Aswan and the magnificent Abu Simbel

Egypt

Australia – Melbourne and Kangaroo Island in March – loved, loved the country and cannot wait to go back to see Sydney and Uluru

Australia

Mumbai – to interview and shoot for my story on dabbawalas for the Singapore Airlines’ magazine Silverkris – also visited Dhobi Ghat and Crawford market – in April

Bombay

Japan – perhaps the most fascinating country I have visited – a few days in June

Japan

Mandu and Maheshwar – Mandu has been on my wishlist for ages now – finally managed a few days with friends, in August

Mandu

Maheshwar

Italy – what a country! got to see Milan, Naples, Florence, Pisa and Rome – in September

Italy

Chettinadu – for a story – magnificent mansions, great food, friendly people – what is not to like?

Chettinad

Belur Halebidu – a weekend visit to the Hoysala temples early December

Belur

Halebidu

Kutch – ending the year with a week in Kutch during the Rann Utsav, with a quick stop at Ahmedabad, including a visit to the Modhera sun temple and the Adalaj stepwell

Ahmedabad

Kutch

So, what were your favourite travel moments and memories from 2012? Do share them here. And have a wonderful, peaceful, wanderful new year :)

When George and Gary came a-calling

I’ve been wanting to write this for so long now. The Masterchef Australia judges were in town a few weeks ago and I got invited for a lunch with them at Caperberry. The restaurant, of course, had pulled out all stops for the two of them and served a most excellent lunch. (All photos on cameraphone and sadly blurred).

At the end of it all, I shamelessly asked for a photo with the two of them and put it up on facebook, to the envy of many many many. People I hadn’t heard from in years called to ask where I had met them and could I get an autograph for their children? I had no idea Masterchef Australia was so popular in India. Apparently, neither did George and Gary. At an event in Mumbai, they found that over a thousand people had turned up just to see them – not meet, say hullo types – just see them.

Gary and George?: Very warm and friendly, in a way that perhaps only Aussies can be. One reason their show is so popular is that they are not harshly critical of the contestants. Not like the bile spewed by other “reality shows” – this should be a lesson that good stuff also gets good TRP; TV need not be controversial and loud. They loved talking about contestants from previous seasons and how they mentored some of them. And the two of them were as friendly with the kids who trooped in for autographs (the moms wanted their own pics with G and G more than the kids did!) as they are on the show.

The conversation?: Everything, from a couple of journalists conducting impromptu interviews even as we all ate and chatted about other things. The show, their best experiences, their take on Indian food – what they liked and didn’t like so much, shopping for jewellery, the story of Gary’s engagement ring (from long long ago). Then the food they had tasted in Delhi and Mumbai, including chaat and dosa. The realization that Indian food is more than a red spicy curry. Advice on good South Indian food and where to taste the best in Bangalore. I ran into Gary at the ITC Dakshin the next day – he had taken our advice and trooped there for his Sunday lunch – and loved it all. And oh, they also mentioned the lack of good Indian restaurants in Australia (here’s the cue for all of you who have dreamed of opening a restaurant).

The food? The chef Abhijit Saha had designed a lovely multicourse meal – a separate menu for vegetarians – each of them light and with subtle flavours (I brought one of the menu cards home with me). The dessert was a choice between Jalebi, which Gary had declared he loved and a New Age Tiramisu (though I didn’t choose to see how new age a classic as Tiramisu could get). My favourite was the Mango & Basil Popsicle in the middle of the meal – what a playful, quirky thing to serve at a formal lunch!

In all, a superb meal and a fantastic experience.