Category Archives: Travel

Slovenia, oh Slovenia… a ‘fairytale’ road trip

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“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to drive up to that furthest church,” I say, pointing with childlike enthusiasm to a steeple piercing the Slovene sky. It’s a cool, but sunny October morning and we’re not far from the outskirts of Ljubljana. The steeple is one of many that announces every small town. They’re invariably nestled in valleys or standing tall on sugar loaf mountains amongst pastoral landscapes. “It’s beautiful, like a fairy-tale,” I enthuse with genuine delight.

Slovenia may not necessarily be on your travel itinerary, but perhaps it should be. Sharing borders with Italy, Croatia, Austria and Hungary, it is easy to travel to; for us, a pleasant three-hour train journey from Trieste in northern Italy. It’s a compact country, which at the crossroads of Europe has seen the ebb and flow of mighty empires and dynastic struggles. Its people are friendly, clearly in love with life, and how could I not admire them when they are so passionate about accordions (says this amateur player), pretty window flower boxes, and meticulous wood piles!

Barely half-an-hour out of Lubijana, where our son and his girlfriend live, it’s clear we’ll be treated to an intimate perspective of this small country. We’ve already fallen in love with ‘Lubi’ and now very unusual for us, we have no set itinerary. Yes, a rough plan of course, but not one hotel booked for our three-day excursion. It turns out to be the best thing we could have done – serendipity can find a way of rewarding you, if you let it.

We don’t make it to that church on that high promontory that I longed to see, indeed we’ll come across many more, and we soon find ourselves having morning coffee against the backdrop of the medieval stone walls of Skofja Loka. The name roughly translates to ‘the bishop’s marsh’ and in 973 the bishopric was granted by Emperor Otto II.

For the next one thousand years the town was tied to that distant ecclesiastical principality, a tower and castle constructed for defence purposes and by 1248, Skofja Loka was granted rights as a market town. Only locals were permitted to trade inside its fortressed walls and now… if only the walls could talk. Yet they do, with faded frescoes still relating its long history and interestingly, I discover that one of the town’s early commodities was frogs. We stroll the streets, locating the ‘frog trail’ winding down to the serene river where one presumes the toads were trapped. Crimson leaves are tangling their way across stone and mortar, weaving in splendid harmony in these deepening days of autumn.

It is a gorgeous setting, seemingly the backdrop of your most beloved fairy tale. Yet despite the tranquil setting, townspeople have known much grief through the centuries: attacks and burnings from marauding Dukes and from the Ottomans, plagues, fires, peasant revolts and earthquakes.

Climbing the hill to the church, we dangle our legs over the aged stone parapet and gaze over rooftops to the castle occupying the wooded hill on the north edge of town. The serrated peaks of the Julian Alps are hazy in distant violet pastels, framing the lush-green hilltops beyond Skofje Loka. The peaks mark the border with Austria and I’m reminded of even more heartache in the story of this enchanted place. I had read its war stories – citizens arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Serbia, mass graves of prisoners of war around the castle and in neighbouring sites. As is often the case when I’m in Europe, the echoes of two world wars seem never far from the surface. Their brutal and bloody secrets seem still to shadow the present. We should never forget the suffering of the past, but in this moment I allow the tranquility of this beautiful place to warm me.

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Back on the road, the scenery is coloured with snowy-white sheep, rosy crab apples and rusty-orange pumpkins – plump and offered for sale at the edge of farmers’ driveways. The narrow highway wends and climbs until we come upon Slovenia’s pride and joy. Lake Bled emerges like a mirage with the much photographed Bled Island and its late 17th century pilgrimage church. Certainly this is part of the storybook I’m creating in my mind, this enchanted setting must be where the heroine lives happily every after?!

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Lake Bled, photo credit Trixie Pacis

It is a vision of ethereal beauty and as we stroll the perimeter of the lake, we notice the pletnas, gondola-style flat bottomed boats. In 1740, twenty-two local families were granted exclusive rights to ferry religious pilgrims to the small church on the island. Still today the role of an oarsmen is exclusive. Most are descended from the original families and whether ferrying pilgrims, visitors for pleasure or wedding parties, the long-standing tradition is part of Lake Bled’s heritage.

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We find a lake-side restaurant for an early dinner and I happen to meet a charming modern-day rower. Jani Klemenčič is a retired Slovenian Olympic rower, now at the helm of the restaurant Špica, a local institution with a stunning backdrop of the lake, the castle and the beguiling island.

As I admire the racing scull boat fashioned into a long bar table, Jani takes the time to chat. He grew up here. “I did a lot of rowing on this lake, always rowing,” he explains. Jani mentions that Lake Bled hosted the World Rowing Championships in 1966, 79, 89 and then 2011. “I medalled in the World’s in 01 in Lucerne,” he says rather humbly. I can’t help but imagine how special it would have been had he won on these home waters.

A display nearby pays homage to many of Jani’s fellow Slovene Olympians. Surely representing your country in four consecutive summer Olympics, as he did, conveys a certain heroic status upon him. “1992 was the year I medalled,” he clarifies, but it less his victories than his fondness for Lake Bled that shines through. “It’s an amazing, safe place.”

We find a simple hotel for that evening and bid farewell to the serene setting the next morning. Driving north west, we aim our sights for the winter resort town of Kranjska Gora in the Julian Alps. I’m immediately smitten by its quaint townscape that harkens back to the 11th century. The town’s Gothic church dominates its ‘skyline’, competing with the mountains and the Alps.

We’re recommended to have lunch, ‘for the famous Kranjska Gora mushroom soup’ at Gostilna Pri Martinu. The traditional restaurant is near the end of what seems to be main street and it is quintessentially Slovene; profuse window boxes, a traditional fireplace with old skis propped nearby and artfully stacked wood piles. Yes, I do have a slight obsession about wood piles and the Sloevenes have mastered the art of stacking. Throughout the town, the wood piles are so perfect, so uniform, even creative, that I send a few pics to our son who happens to be at our home in Canada chopping wood for the coming winter months. “Can you try this one? Or this?” I’m sure he thought I was slightly mad!

But I digress. The soup? The mushroom soup lives up to its reputation and after lunch I happen to chat with the owner, Daria. As well as hotelier, she is also a busy ski-mom. “My daughter has been on the podium for Slovenia,” she tells me proudly. As with Jani, living in an area that hosts sporting events, fosters champions. In this area, its the Alpine Ski World Cup and events at Planica, the ski-jumping hill.

When I comment on the beauty of her country, Daria confesses that years ago, she and her husband had almost immigrated to Canada. “I couldn’t do it,” she admits. “We have it all here. Close to so many countries. We like a simple life and there’s beauty. We’re a country of only two million. We’re a little good at things.”

She and her family’s three businesses, along with notable sports acumen attest to just that. I mention that we’re ‘on the road,’ yet suddenly have a visceral notion to spend some time here. I’ve noticed in Slovenia that restaurants often have small inns above their establishment and Daria takes me upstairs to entice me to where we might stay for the evening. The chalet-style windows are flung open to old wooden farmhouses and I feel that I can almost reach out and touch the Julian Alps beyond. Although it’s only early afternoon, I decide we’re calling it a day!

“We’ve found our place for tonight,” I tell the others back downstairs who are slightly bemused with my decision to not drive any further today. Daria hands me the keys. “No worries, you can register and pay later.”

There are times when travelling that you know when you need to… stay, spend some time in a place that you didn’t expect to, get to the essence of it…

And so we did and while the others jaunted off for a hike in the direction of the Alps, here I was in Slovenia! Having seen much of Europe, I was still pinching myself that I was exploring a new country. First stop… the museum.

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Sylvester Mirtic greets me warmly in the old farm house. Kransjka Gora still has many of these large farm/barn settlements where animals, hay and equipment share the space below the living quarters. Upstairs is expansive. A wooden bench wraps around the main room’s handcrafted table, the all-important ceramic stove warms the room and I’m shown lovingly and creatively painted beds and dowry chests.

“Notice the carnations that have such special meaning to us,” Sylvester points out. I deduce that this is one of the reasons for the prolific flower boxes in Slovene windows.  He also ensures that I see the Black Kitchen where cooking, baking and meat smoking occurred. It’s a separate room not of wood, but of tiny cobble stones to prevent fire. Generation after generation lived together in these rambling buildings and Sylvester adds interestingly that the language can change from valley to valley, often a reflection of people’s roots.

“I have Bavarian, Austrian and Italian roots,” he mentions and when I tell Sylvester that I was able to use a little Italian over at Daria’s establishment, he’s not surprised. “We feel like a nation, but we’re diverse.”

In fact, what you must know in a nutshell about Slovenia is this. It was once part of the Roman, Byzantine and Carolingian Empire. Then came the Habsburg Monarchy, the Republic of Venice, the provinces under Napoleon, the Austrian Empire and Austria-Hungary. A lot of empires, before exercising self-determination by co-founding the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. In 1918, they merged with the Kingdom of Serbia, later named Yugoslavia in 1929.

Then came occupation in WW II, annex by Germany, Italy and Hungary and eventually independence in 1991 when Slovenia split from the disintegrating Yugoslavia. With such a turbulent past, it isn’t surprising that as with Jani, Dari and Sylvester, I sense an acute sense of pride that people have for their country’s eclectic story.

After thanking Sylvester for the tour, I wander the quiet, picturesque streets. Yet more blooming carnations, interesting wood piles and the heavenly scent of wood fires now drift in the chilled air. The chiseled alps take on an alpenglow. And then I happily meet Ivanka.

She is just about to close up her small shop. It’s stuffed with wooden ‘this and that’, curios, wicker and brooms. Her effervescent personality bubbles through despite the language barrier and when I mention ‘Canada’ she breaks out in smile. I hear ‘bambino’ often and know she’s speaking of her grandchildren. Ivanka cradles my chin in her hand and says something with affection. Then she is entirely delighted when I ask to take her photograph. When I show her the result, she is pleased.

“Bella, bella, beautiful, beautiful,” she affirms with a laugh and again grabs my chin and cradles it gently. Like Slovenia itself, I’m immediately drawn to this warm, lovely woman. My gut reaction to spend time in this small town has given me an intimate insight into the Slovene culture and its people. It’s been a day of perfection.

Yet there’s one more stop this road trip is pointing us to – the Slovenian wine region. The next morning we drive through the majestic mountain pass and we’re rewarded with more stunning scenery and pretty small towns. When we reach our destination, the sprawling vineyards strike me as perhaps just as lovely as those of Tuscany.

In Brda, the westernmost wine region, we taste at the grand Vipolze Villa. We stroll amongst roadside vines just before sunset. We make our way to Smartno and finish the day in its walled medieval village. More excellent Slovene wine, the chatter of locals and yes, surely this is how this most excellent, fairytale road trip should finish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Italy, with love… a few unsent postcards

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As with previous years, January finds me dreamily perusing last year’s photos and notebooks. There isn’t always time to write while I’m travelling, so in the chill of midwinter, I gladly relive a few of those interesting vignettes. All three of the settings were first-time visits. Oh the joy of unanticipated discoveries! So today, let’s wander back to Italy…

 

Bologna… of porticoes, tall towers and gastronomy

I can’t think why Bologna hadn’t been on my list of Italian cities to visit. It is now perhaps in the top five of my treasured collection.

Why Bologna? It’s quite simple… the towers, the porticoes, and the food.

Let’s begin with the setting – an architectural feast of light and shadows created by kilometre after kilometre of arched walkways. In fact the over thirty-eight kilometres of porticoes (harking back to the porticus of Roman times) which through their varied construction tell stories spanning the ages – from medieval wooden to frescoed renaissance to the austere functionality of post world war II.

They are simply beautiful. Deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I found them entrancing, and useful as the rain dampened the streets late one afternoon. Through their evocative and protecting arch ways, we ‘mazed’ our way to another of the cities’ well-known landmarks, the tallest leaning medieval tower in the world. At over 97 meters tall, the Asinelli Tower tops that of Pisa – I know, it gets all the attention – but with its little sis, Garisenda nestled beside it, these two are excellent examples of tower homes.

Becoming prominent from the pre-Renaissance period, wealthy, feuding families in the 12th and 13th centuries attempted to outbuild each other, for the purpose of defensive and sheer rivalry. Often taking as long as ten years to construct, as many as 180 of these laboriously built ‘homes’ once dotted Bologna’s skyline. By the end of the 1200’s many had collapsed or been dismantled, making these two ‘sister’s that much more valuable. I admit that despite their enduring presence, they don’t quite have the same allure as the leaning tower in Pisa. Yet, their imposing silhouettes surely transport us to a vision of Bologna’s once-soaring skyline.

Bologna understands both old… and modern vibrancy. The city boasts the world’s oldest university, rendered new by the young and edgy vibe of student life. Students gather and commune in the squares, under and near the porticoes, and most definitely in the Quadrilatero. This compact area is teeming day and night with market stalls, lavish gourmet deli shops and packed cafes.

After all, Bologna is known as La Grassa, the fat one. To say that it is renowned for its food would be an understatement to the Bolognesi. This is where ragu or bolognese originated. Where delicate pouches of ravioli melt in your mouth. Where the Palazzo della Mercanzia keeps the recipes of Bologna’s world famous dishes under ‘lock and key’. Yes, they are that precious.

So Bologna? An amazing display of porticoes and lively streets – a blend of many centuries. And a veritable feast for both the gastronome and the architectural connoisseur!

 

A Lunch Date in Cinque Terre...

There we were, eight of us on a day trip from our writer’s retreat in Tuscany – let loose in the Cinque Terre (five lands). For many visitors these once isolated villages, strung along the Mediterranean Sea, are a destination for hiking from village to village. We do no such thing.

We jump on the 9:30 train from Aulla, to La Spezia. Then onto the ‘Cinque Terre train’ where we cram toe to toe with day-trippers in sun hats, safari hats, hiking boots and backpacks. Yes, many are doing ‘the hike’ a pilgrimage of sorts, but we were definitely the ‘merry writers on excursion’. As the crowded train whisks through the countryside, we catch brief glimpses of tall cypresses against country villas, castles clinging to hilltops, and then finally, of the dazzling Mediterranean. It was official – we had arrived at the Italian Riviera.

We alight at Monterosso and soon cozy-up at an outdoor cafe. Soaking in the shimmering sea, we order our first espressos of the day. We watch loungers and bathers claim their spots under paint-box-orange and Italian-green umbrellas. We, on the other hand, wander. A hat for all is in order and carefully chosen. Then we embark upon a slow, picturesque stroll along an ancient via. It meanders, and along with prickly pears and milky-green olive trees, it clings precariously to the hillside. The emerald-green-turquoise-saphire-blue water fans out below us like a rich, shimmering fabric. Being writers, we ponder… surely there must be a word for such a brilliant colour. None is conjured!

We hop onto a short ferry ride to Vernazza, which despite swarms of tourists and cruise ship passengers, still feels authentic and genuine. It’s an old sea-faring town with car-free, narrow lanes snaking upwards, fringed with mountainside vineyards just beyond the small settlement.

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We join the fray in the busy piazza. It is seemingly laundry day, townfolk’s washing hanging from tall, peeling and faded pastel homes. As in Venice, the port’s water once lapped against the houses themselves, but now this main square folds down to the water; a beach, an impromptu soccer field, a place for passiagetta, the evening ritual of strolling.

It’s time for a late lunch and Roberto, our favourite Italian guy and in our group, manages to secure us a table at a restaurant with a view, Ristorante Gambio Rosso. It is ideally located on the square… allowing us to gaze out to the small inlet, to the crowds and up to the floating laundry. Now Roberto, our ‘gentleman on tour’, becomes our unofficial translator as we navigate the menu. We then dine in sheer pleasure. It is the scrumptious food, refreshing local wine and glorious company over a luxurious long lunch. Allore, it was surely a mix of the right place and the excellent company of ‘merry writers’.

The Cinque Terre –  and especially Vernazza – claimed a little of our hearts that day.

 

Trieste… of the grand, of light on pastel 

Trieste? Yet another unexpected delight hints that there will be yet more to find. Head north, past Venice, 150km onwards, to the very eastern top of Italy’s ‘boot’. Nestled at the foot of the mountains, on the Gulf of Trieste, this once prosperous seaport was one of the oldest cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today, it feels a little like Vienna, or Salzburg with stately opulent buildings, many that harken back to the days of mighty shipping companies.

We explore endlessly, we eat often, and sometimes we hide in neighbourhood bars from that wind – the north-easterly bora – racing briskly up the Adriatic. In one, I taste the sweetest, thickest, most delicious hot chocolate I already know I’ll ever savour. It’s barely noon, but the bar is busy. A place where wine and beer already flows and where the daily paper is ritually digested.

When the sun comes out, Trieste is full of light dancing on pastel-hued buildings. Its grand square is simply resplendent. I’m taken aback at how ‘unItalian’ it feels. But then this storied city has always been at the crossroads of Latin, Slavic and Germanic cultures.

We also explore the coast in a little Fiat, grand castles and hillside villages dotted along this narrow ribbon of land between mountain ridge and the azure sea.

Our stay is brief; in fact, we’re on our way to Slovenia to visit our son and his girlfriend. So Trieste… what can I say. Simply splendid that we happened to be passing through!

 

 

 

 

 

Poster-perfect Banff… a century of allure in the Canadian Rockies

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Still vibrant, these classic posters leap out, drawing you into their spectacular mountain scenes and alluring pastimes; skating, skiing, hiking, or just feeling glorious as a pampered world traveller… and all in the splendour of the great Canadian outdoors. These advertisements weren’t created by happenstance. They spoke of the promise of luxury travel to the Canadian West and no place better epitomised this than Banff in the Canadian Rockies.

I admit that a few years ago, I found it impossible to resist acquiring a limited reproduction of one of these treasured posters. They evoke a distinctive time and place, and also represent one of the best advertising campaigns of the late 19th and 20th centuries – Canadian Pacific Railway decided who their market was, and captured it well. The exacting quality and style that they sought, often called for prominent artists, creating posters by the thousands in different languages, to be distributed globally. They portrayed a dream, a lifestyle and on a recent trip to Banff, I wanted to get a little more ‘into the ink of it all’. How did it come about? How did this once obscure settlement, once known as ‘Siding 29’ with little more than a house and a small log store, become world renowned Banff?

It’s quite simple. Without the Canadian Pacific Railway, there would have been no unified Canada and, without the railway, Banff would never have achieved renown, nor would that splendid ‘castle in the mountains’, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, exist. The railroad helped catapult Banff from obscurity and it all began with one man’s vision.

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His name was Cornelius Van Horne and he had a flair for railway ventures. Under his leadership, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was completed in 1885 and Canada had achieved its dream of becoming a united country; connected from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The Government of Canada was a mere eighteen years old. How would the CPR recover the enormous costs of building this ribbon of steel across thousands of acres of wilderness? They now had a railway and 25 million acres of land, an area larger than Ireland, granted to them by the government. Beyond the myriad small settlements that sprouted up close to the newly laid rails and the few burgeoning settlements such as Vancouver and Calgary, the vast tract of land was largely unsettled. But Van Horne soon realised there was an opportunity to attract tourists to Canada’s western frontier. In a moment of inspiration, he was reported to have exclaimed:

“Since we can’t export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists.”

Van Horne realised the potential of tourism and he executed the next phase. The CPR began building luxury lodgings such as the Banff Springs Hotel, the Empress Hotel in Victoria, the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. They would cater to wealthy visitors from Europe and the United States and the posters would become Canada’s ‘calling cards,’… but mostly for the privileged few.

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Banff had it all from the outset. Health-giving natural hot springs, spectacular scenery, legendary mountains, all rooted along and backdropped by the Bow River. Older than the mountains themselves, the Bow is a place where as long as 11,000 years ago, the First Nations people gathered wood for their bows along the banks… hence the name. They camped and fished the rivers, replete in trout: brook, cutthroat, and Dolly Varden. They lived in what could be a harsh, but spiritual environment which they deeply revered. It was a place of seven-hundred year Douglas Firs, a landscape shared with grizzly and black bears, bison, moose, lynx, cougars and wolves.

Few Europeans had yet passed through the region: Simpson from the Hudson’s Bay Company, a few military detachments, one Reverend T. Rundle in 1847 and explorer J. Hector in 1858. But in the autumn of 1883, the first tracks made steady progress up the Bow Valley passing and in 1886, through what would become Banff. This pristine wilderness was now part of the important link in the nation’s transportation and commercial corridor. Railway workers had noticed a natural hot springs and eventually Van Horne would convince the Government to reserve 26 square kilometres of land around the springs – the beginning of Canada’s national park system.

 

We spend our few days in Banff feeling as if we’re tourists. I’ve been coming here since ‘forever’, but this time we’re hosting family from The Netherlands and we savour the experience as a small holiday. We stay in a woodsy lodge where a roaring fireplace and a  colossal stuffed bison head presides over the grand room watching tourists from around the world come and go. We stroll the streets of the small town, the prominent Cascade Mountain aligned perfectly on the axis of the bustling Banff Avenue. We admire a cluster of small cabins, some of the first homes of the original settlers, now part of the excellent Whyte Museum. People like David MacIntosh White, who in 1886 followed the adage to ‘Go West, Young Man’ first working for the CPR before becoming one of Banff’s founding businessmen. More brothers followed David from Eastern Canada and the White (later Whyte) family would become naturalists, poets, painters, park wardens, mountain guides, ski adventurers; they and the mountain community thrived.

Enthusiasm abounded and by the end of 1887, settlers had applied for almost 180 lots, both for home ownership and for businesses. There were six hotels, nine stores, two churches, a school and a post office. Along came a log railway station, roads were built. An impressive new hotel was under construction and, anticipating what would follow, access to the Cave and Basin and the Upper Hot Springs was improved.

We luxuriate in those same Upper Hot Springs one evening. It’s -5 degrees below outside and under a waxing gibbous moon, steeped in curative minerals, vapours steaming around us through the frigid mountain air, it is nothing short of breathtaking. In that idyllic setting, we all understand the long-attraction of these health giving waters. We return to our lodge room and gather around a crackling fire – it’s a winter getaway to perfection!

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The next day, I’m determined to explore a little more of Van Horne’s iconic creation. Van Horne himself, occupies a commanding position near the entrance to his Banff Springs Hotel, his statue presiding over the arrivals and departures of guests. Testament that  without his vision of bringing the people to the mountains, none of this might be here. When the hotel opened in 1888, its architect Bruce Price of New York, described it as a ‘bastion of luxury’. And bastion it was – with 250 rooms that opened seasonally from mid May 15 to early October. CPR’s advertising strategies soon paid off and they continued building their chateau inspired masterpieces. Even as round-the-world tours began in  association with P&O, CPR also acquired their own steamships, bringing the international set from afar to the Canadian Rockies.

The increasing popularity of the hotel as an international mountain destination (assisted by a fire) cried out for the need to replace the original wooden structure. Soon an eleven storey tower was added, then more wings, and in 1928 new styling was unveiled ‘in the spirt of a Scottish baronial castle’. Little expense appears to have been spared as stone-cutters from Italy and masons from Scotland were brought in to render this masterpiece!

As I wander through the sprawling hotel, it is rich with carvings, tartan carpets, soaring fireplaces, ballrooms that seem to beg for bagpipes, and million-dollar views. I easily imagine global travellers arriving at the station and being whisked to the ‘castle’ in a ‘tally-ho’s, the original Brewster carriages. Many arrived for their four-month stay, with stacks of luggage and a $50,000 letter of credit in hand to see them through the season. Their’s was a life of luxury… just as the evocative posters had promised.

 

 

I peer out to the Bow River beyond. It’s always been a multi-use kind of river – perhaps a curling sheet, a hockey rink, a backdrop for one of Marilyn Monroe’s movies, or a royal visit by King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Theodore Roosevelt and William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Yet as I gaze a little longer, I’m also reminded of those who laboured to bring the tracks to this setting. Those like the legendary Swedes, who they say handled the railway ties as though they were mere toothpicks. And the mixes of other ethnicities who contributed to unifying this country; Italians, Norwegians, Irish, Germans, Japanese, Chinese, British, Americans and Canadians. Most suffered hardship, many lost their lives, some stayed to settle this vast land. Their perseverance enabled more than two million settlers from Europe and the United States to pour into the west between 1886 and 1914 – the first and greatest wave of immigration in Canadian history. By 1901, this new country would have a population of five million, some 700,000 born overseas. Many would acquire plots from the CPR, choosing to homestead, our first farmers and ranchers. All of them welcomed, and needed in the new cultural mosaic of Canada.

For me, Banff is much more than the opulence of a beautiful hotel, the lure of stupendous scenery or world-class ski hills. It is about the stories that still echo around these grand peaks.

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If you go, allow me my suggestions:

Stay at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge, besides the lobby, fireplaces are also in individual rooms.

Stop, or stay, at the Fairmont Banff Springs. Take the stairs to the second level and wander!

Be sure to luxuriate at the Upper Hot Springs. Eat at the casual and fun Magpie and Stump. Don’t miss the iconic Hudson’s Bay store on Banff Avenue. Visit the Whyte Museum. Stop on your way, or afterwards in nearby Canmore, stroll the shops and the the beautiful scenery along the river.

 

 

 

An olive harvest in Italy… sharing in a family ritual

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“Let’s be silent,” I implore my fellow olive pickers. “Just five minutes. Let’s take in the sounds of the valley.”

We’ve talked endlessly, wonderfully, hour after hour as tree after olive-laden tree, steadily yield their bounty.

I want to savour the sounds of this Italian scene. The vista from Carolyn and Paolo’s slice of paradise is spectacular and speaks for itself. Vineyards run straight and tidy, rows of Soave-valley grapes, nestled in low hills. Colourful small towns, and hamlets, also inhabit the scene; their terracotta tiled roofs dotted between the greens of cypress, olive and vine. Church steeples pierce the sky and I am drawn to their melodic tunes, a familiar signature of the small-town Italy that I love.

It is late on a Sunday morning and as we suspend our conversation for a quiet interlude, church bells peal lyrically across the valley, drifting up to our perch on the hillside. Weaving with birdsong, they are the soundtrack to this weekend’s olive harvest.

Carolyn, a Washingtonian, long-happily settled in her husband’s homeland, had kept me updated on which weekend the olive harvest would take place.

“It’s now the 13th and 14th,” she had written while we were in Italy last month. “The olives will be ready then.” And indeed, that was the date set for all of the surrounding community… the olive harvesting weekend had been declared!

Carolyn, Paolo, their son Leo, and Fly the basset hound, had arrived the day before from their main residence in the South Tyrol, close to the Austrian border. This country home offers a gracious, pastoral counterpoint to their home in the Italian Alps.

“The first time we looked at the centuries-old farm house we knew it was special,” Paolo told me the evening before as we chatted over a drink at our hotel, just a picturesque meander along a small windy road from their casa.

“You’ll see tomorrow,” he had said, “our house is on the end of a row, so we have a view. But it needed work, everyone told us to walk away. And we did, for a year.”

The fondness Carolyn also feels for her country place was clear to see. “A year later, we revisited it and the owner was clever. He implored us to stay overnight and that was it. I fell in love with the bedroom!”

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This morning, before we start our day of harvesting, Carolyn tours me through their home and I understand it all perfectly. The old stone, wood and bright colours, blend to a cozy mix of rustic and modern. And yes, the bedroom is a haven. The shutters are flung open… to the sky and to the gorgeous vista, and to a pomegranate tree. All… just there, a live mural, as beautiful as my favourite Boticelli or Michelangelo. Oh yes, I could easily imagine waking up to this living canvas.

But allore, it is time to start picking and with bags tied with rope around our waists, we happily join the family harvest. We pluck and gently glide the olives off their branches. We reach high and low, between and around, sometimes kneeling and then on our tip-toes, low on the ground and high above. Eight year-old Leo is still light and nimble enough to perch himself on the more stable branches… perfect for those elusive olea europaeas.

Time after time as our waist-cinched bags become laden with the colourful drupes (pitted fruit), Leo ferries each trove to the crates. They are laid out along the aged stones at the back entry of the home and slowly fill up, hour by hour. Neighbours, Roberta and Diana, are also busy on their plot of land just above us. Their home is also a country retreat and has been in the family for generations. Like our hosts, their passion for harvesting is evident, as is their fondness for Carolyn and Paolo.

“We’re so happy this family is our neighbours,” they reveal gladly. I notice Roberta is wearing a t-shirt that reads… If you can’t get where you’re going – you may be there. The adage mirrors the inspiring signs that Carolyn has dotted around the property. They too play their part in the charming setting; as do the hammocks, Leo’s tree house, the roses and the profuse persimmon tree.

The scenes, the sounds, the scents suffuse into one; affirming my love of travelling, the wonder and joy of it, each experience a fond gem that I tuck away in my treasure chest of travel. So too, is this opportunity to spend quality time with a friend in a unique setting – sharing and discussing our future plans as we move from tree to tree. It is also the chance to be an actor in Italian life, to be part of an annual ritual rather than the habitual spectator as a traveller. When I notice Paolo and Bruce laying on their backs, cocooned under the silvery branches ensuring not one precious olive is left lonely on the trees, I know this too is bringing sheer satisfaction to my travel companion – and also the chance to work off some pasta-fed calories, a result of our indulgent pleasures over the weeks-long meandering trip.

But Paolo ensures that this day won’t be any different and has hung up his picker’s ‘basket’ to don his chef’s apron. His weekend culinary hobby is far removed from the demands of his doctor’s responsibilities, and we’re soon called into the house for a delicious late lunch. I contribute a bottle of excellent Slovenian wine that I had squirrelled away just for this occasion and with the door wide open to the occasional tolling of bells, we sit down to:

Feast a la Paolo~ Primo: Spagehetti alle vongole. Secondo: Polenta, funghi, e formaggio Asiago. And a side dish (Contorno) of a Melanzane alla pizzaiola… all of it simply delizioso!

Over this perfect Italian style lunch, I ask the family why the olive harvest is so special.

“It’s the expectation, the hope, that you helped something thrive. With no chemicals, its personal and kind of soothing,” Paolo explains.

“It’s so satisfying to put something on your table that you grew, something so healthy,” Carolyn adds. “It’s like honesty in a bottle.”

“I love that, very fitting. It’s so wonderful to be part of this day,” I say dreamily, savouring the food, the wine, the setting, the conversation… divine, all of it!

Yet, so busy is this olive harvesting time that we can’t luxuriate too long as the ‘sacred’ appointment for pressing the olives is near. ‘Don’t be late, but don’t be early,’ seemed to be the key and we realized it was almost the optimal time for departure. But with ten minutes still, before we leave for the pressing, Paolo and Bruce once again set upon an olive tree that had not quite been picked clean. They go about their task with renewed vigour, eager to boost the yield by a few precious kilos, knowing that what remained on the trees would wither on the branch.

My mind wanders just for a second… Yes, I can imagine our very own Italian getaway, with olives, maybe a small vineyard, even a dog, and…

“You’re going to love this next phase,” Carolyn is telling me. I’m pulled away from my daydream. It is time for the main event!

From the hilltop of Castelcerino, every road leads downward and with our precious loads of olives safely stowed, our small procession of cars wend along the narrow hillside roads, down through olive groves and vineyards to the little town of Cazzano di Tramigna.

The Frantoio per Olive, the olive pressing factory, was unimposing and familial, a pastel-shaded building set just off the main street alongside a stream and small lagoon. Bruce and I, novices to this process, allow ourselves to be guided by the others who despite having done this many times before, seem to have a sense of excitement and occasion.

The weighing arrangements for their respective loads is discussed with Roberta and Diana, then we all watch with anticipation as Paolo and Carolyn’s pallet container is forklifted onto the scale. Paolo looks pleased – it’s tanto, much! Twice the yield of past years and we’re secretly delighted that we had a hand in this record haul.

Roberta and Diana have even greater cause for celebration – arm-scratched, weary yet elated from four arduous days of harvesting, they’ve reaped over half a tonne of olives, testament to their pruning and nurturing over the past year.

The pressing equipment is neat and economical, clean and freshly painted in an appropriate shade of hunter’s green. We watch in fascination as the olives are tipped into the hopper, first the wash and separation of stray leaves and grit, green olives and black, all sizes and varieties mingling in the process before disappearing into the mulcher. Olives and pits are macerated, resulting in a brown mush that ultimately joins the growing mound outside of the building.

We follow the grapes from beginning to end, savouring the already olivine odours infusing the small, but bustling factory. There is anticipation in the air as we watch the Fattoio operatives expertly moving around the equipment, sure in the knowledge of whose olives were where in the process, small cards with the family name of the olives perch on one of the machines as reminders. No drama or fuss, they work with a well-practiced rhythm amongst the noise, and with the olive patrons literally waiting for the ‘fruit of their labour’… in liquid form, of course.

In fact, the factory rather resembles a waiting room, complete with that particular shade of green and a row of metal chairs. But the collection of family containers awaiting this year’s harvest sets it apart. Bulbous glass demijohns, tall stainless-steel jugs and common plastic vessels all await their turn – the family name clearly indicated.

We’re nearing the two-hour mark. We’ve had a delightful peek around the town. We’ve stopped to admire the old, traditional olive press. We’ve enjoyed a glass of celebratory vino overlooking the gentle lagoon, a hilltop castle peering down on us all.

Now, finally, it’s our turn. We take our front-row seats opposite the crusher in time for ‘our’ olive oil to pour forth into the containers; it’s luminous green, forming an artful gush from the stainless-steel spout, about 120 litres of cold pressed, organic extra-virgin olive oil from the hills of Castelcerino. Looks of satisfaction are worn by all; they’ve waited all year for this.

Bruce and I marvel that such a seemingly simple process of picking and packing and pressing can feel so rewarding and fulfilling; and we’ve only helped. We understand the sheer satisfaction of how it must feel to our friends, but then again, it isn’t that surprising – it’s all about communing with each other, with the land, with a treasured Italian ritual.

Yes, Carolyn had mentioned this too while we lunched. “Watching Leo grow into this, to give him this ritual is wonderful. He’s taking ownership. It’s his land too.”

As we load the hefty loads of olive oil into the cars, Leo has the final word.

“I just like the picking,” he says with a ring of innocence and delightful exuberance.

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Thirteen hours in Pisa… my passion for Italy

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Pisa Airport, named for Galileo Galilei, greets me like a fond friend. Just as it did six years ago, that very first time I arrived to attend a writer’s retreat, the long narrow concourse has a happy vibe to it. It makes perfect sense considering that it is one of the main gateways to Tuscany – to sunshine and stunning vistas, to that laid-back Tuscan way of living. I notice the abundance of sandals, summer dresses and sun-kissed smiles, both satisfied and expectant.

The Machiavelli leather shop is bustling and I remember how immediately enticing it was on my first visit; soft muted colours of the supplest leather beckoning the newly arrived. Leather is my particular weakness here – every imaginable shade and design, but this time I know to leave the browsing to the many leather shops in Pisa itself.

So, I do the Italian thing and head straight to the espresso cafe with its long, curved marble bar. For most it’s a fleeting visit – we ‘locals’ know it costs more to sit, so one stands, for maybe three minutes at most, tipping back steaming double-thimbles of espresso. Then a swift farewell and a few coins for the server – Ciao, arrividerci!

I linger a little, taking in the chatter amid the clatter of cups and saucers, breathing in the sharp wafts of rich espresso, taking in the comings and goings of locals and tourists. Exiting the airport to hail a taxi, the balmy Tuscan air and terracotta pots of soft pink oleanders greet me. I’m ebullient, I’m ‘home.’

Many people have that one cherished place they return to, that special place of relaxation, refuge and rejuvenation – for me, it’s Italy. This may be my eighth visit, but I’m no longer counting and even before I leave, I’m already plotting my return. What do I love about it? Actually, just about everything.

I love how the Tuscan sun plays on ochre stone walls and on the fortress-like Renaissance tower houses… look up, high up, and you’ll see frescoes telling their stories still, evoking a rich historical past. I’m awed by the weight of history along and under Rome’s ancient streets, the romantic waterways of Venice, the grandeur of Vienna-like Trieste in the north and its dazzling position on the Italian Riviera, the evocative Cinque Terre…

And I adore the trattorias, rustic neighbourhood restaurants with their checkered table cloths, delicious pasta and wines from local vineyards that never make it into a corked bottle; perhaps just a well-worn, wicker encased carafe. Perfect for long lunches with friends.

I’m captivated by the constant parade of shutters in every possible shade of green. I wait for the bells that peal throughout the day, giving even the smallest of towns their lyrical backdrop for everyday life. The tolling of bells has traditionally not only been for their rhythmic serenade, but also to call locals to church, to beckon town folk from slumber, to remind to return to work in the fields, even to warn of intruders or impending disasters.

In Italy, I love unhurried train journeys wending through glorious countryside, the sensuous lyrical language, terracotta pots arrayed on aged flagstone, and the gentle rhythm of Italy’s rural life.

On this visit, my month-long trip begins with the writer’s retreat where I’ll be ensconced for six days with old and new friends. But first, I have thirteen glorious hours in Pisa… a rendezvous, an opportunity to reconnect.

I stay just a long stone’s throw from that tower that leans. It is late afternoon and after a journey that was much longer than it should have been (including three static hours on the Montreal tarmac in a faulty plane), I now throw open the tall window sashes of my inn, once an old tower home, and, as if on cue, I’m greeted with ringing bells. I know they’re from the nearby campanile and as always they are music to my ears. Surely, they’re calling out a welcome for my return!

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After a quick shower to wash away the jet lag, I walk barely two blocks through the tall, ivy sprawled stone gate of Pisa’s imposing old city walls. The familiar scene I know and love unfolds before me. The Piazza dei Miracoli, Square of Miracles, is considered one of the finest architectural complexes in the world; the Pisa Cathedral and Baptistry, and of course that tower that has ever such a tilt. The Leaning Tower is the campanile, the bell tower and naturally, it was never meant to lean.

In fact, due to inadequate foundation, the tower began subsiding during its IMG_9066construction in the 1100’s. Building of the flawed design was halted for a century while the Republic of Pisa engaged in battles with Genoa, Florence and Lucca. The lean increased over its decades-long construction and despite many attempts to right it, the Romanesque-style tower with its seven hefty bells, still leans at an angle of almost 4 degrees.

I admire the tower along with a multitude of tourists, but it’s really the side streets of Pisa that draw me. Strolling from the Piazza along the ‘main street’ of Santa Maria, I instinctively look up. I’m less interested in the scenes on the street level where people are dining, enjoying a glass of wine or yes shopping in those fabulous stores brimming with leather. No, it’s the view above eye level that reveal their vivid tales. I wander street after street, veering away from the tourist haunts, delighting in navigating this labyrinth of history.

The tall tower houses, artistic and architectural jewels, were the homes of noble families, mostly built during the middle ages. The torre case were built inside the city walls for defensive purposes, those soaring higher marking the more affluent and influential families. It was not only Pisa where these towers inscribed the Tuscan skies, but also Florence, Sienna, Lucca, and my personal favourite, San Gimignano.

Along with the towers, grand palazzos and trattorias, I pass small long-standing businesses so essential to the Tuscan way of life. And do their names not roll off the tongue like a wonderful symphony – spaghetteria, yogurteria, pasticceria, paineria, gelateria, Liberia, and the essential vineria.

The evening sun is glinting beautifully on the Piazza Dei Cavalieri, or Knight’s Square, as I amble to this quiet landmark. I know that this was once the political center of medieval Pisa, and later the headquarters of the Knights of St. Stephen. In 1558, the square was rebuilt in Renaissance style by Vasari, the talented architect of the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo I de’ Medici. Medici’s statue looks over the square, framed by two magnificent Palazzos and the charming church of Saint Sebastian.

I’m distracted by strains of music that draw me to the steps of the church. I meet two university students, Oswaldo and Alexandra, as they serenade the evening strollers. This evening ritual of passeggiata is quintessentially Italian – a gentle, languid stroll through the piazzas, the vias, in the countryside, or along the sea-front. A pastime enjoyed by all ages – some fresh air, the chance to see and be seen, perhaps a stop at the gelateria or vineria.

I perch myself on the church steps beside the two musicians  savouring their Spanish love song, delighting in the fading sun dancing on fine Italian marble. I take in the strollers, the buildings and all that I love.

Allore, it was the perfect beginning to this month in Italy, and prelude to a planned visit to Slovenia. But that’s a story for a time soon…

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From the ‘notes’ archives… Bangkok, my early beginnings

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The shimmering palaces were showing off, bidding me a fond farewell, perhaps sensing that I might not soon return to this ‘city of angels.’ As the river boat cruised along Bangkok’s murky Chao Phrya River, magnificent wats dazzled in the humid evening air. It was the last day of my visit and surely this was an architectural parade – a parade of  ornate, timeless treasures. It transported me back to the beginning of it all.

A world away from the small Canadian town of my childhood, I marvelled silently that Bangkok is entwined with some of my life’s defining moments.

My first visit here as a wide-eyed twenty-one year old was my first to the Far East. Here, I fell in love with everything Asian; exotic palm trees, sensual orchids, pungent aromas of street side kitchens pervading the sultry air that corkscrewed my wayward hair. Yet, nothing hinted that a few short years later, I would embark on a lifelong adventure of travelling and living overseas.

I couldn’t have known that one day I’d live just a short flight away in India, but I’m sure the thought would have thrilled me. This rich and varied world had long staked a claim on my wanderlust soul.

As a teenager in our small home, the living room’s burnt-orange, shag carpet was a comfortable place to lounge — to leaf through National Geographic magazines and hefty encyclopaedias that fuelled my imagination. Often I would have waited, not-so-patiently, for the next volume to arrive. Long before the internet, we received these treasured books on a monthly instalment plan… a long wait for ‘T’ to read about Tibet or Thailand!

When I was seventeen, a high school trip to Italy introduced me to that world and conspired to change the course of my life. More precisely, it was Michelangelo’s statue of David that was the true culprit. When I stood in awe, in front of his imposing marbled presence in Florence, it ignited something deep inside. I wanted that beauty, that history and the rich cultures of the world to be part of my future. I was captivated.

After college, my first step was a move to the ‘big city’. With my ’77 Camaro stuffed to capacity, I drove out of town late one Sunday morning, through a landscape of honey-hued wheat and yellow canola fields, the Rockies framing the vista. Three hours north, shimmering in the August haze, the skyscrapers of downtown Calgary came into view. I had arrived to… well, the rest of my life.

IMG_4059With a job already secured, my mom had arranged for me to live with the daughter of a friend of hers. They had curled together for some 25 years and surely we would also get along? That first image of Carol’s apartment is etched in memory. Cushions from faraway Asian on the sofa, Lonely Planet travel guides on a pretty wicker shelf, backpack stowed away in a corner. Carol was my good fortune – not only was she a traveller, she was also a jewellery and clothes importer. And her buying trips were to none other than Bangkok. Naturally, it wasn’t long before I eagerly accompanied her on one of these excursions.

Now, thirty years on, Carol and I were here again. Still an importer, she visits yearly for buying trips and earlier this year before the launch of Monday Morning Emails, I decided to meet her in Bangkok. It was a quick jaunt from Bangalore and knowing she was there was too much to resist. We were excited to peek into our past and rekindle a little of our youthful wonder of old Siam.

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From the Archives

In the ’80’s, Thailand and Nepal were a must on the backpacking route… today it’s more often Vietnam and Cambodia. Carol and I both knew that much of Bangkok had been transformed, propelled forward and wrapped in modernity. An efficient metro now traverses the city, skimming past gleaming high-rise buildings and gorgeous shopping malls. We wandered through them in animated conversation but, by the third day, I pleaded that I needed to see ‘real’ Bangkok. The Bangkok of royal palaces and temples, of back-packers’ alleys and cheap elephant-print harem pants, of roadside phad thai stalls, of long-tail river taxis and three-wheeled tuk-tuks. And yes, even of our old ‘haunt’ the Royal Hotel.

So we made our way to a river taxi halt along a klong. The klang, klang of a metal spatula on a family-sized wok rang out from a humble diner on the water-side station. The waft of sizzling noodles mingled with the diesel fumes of the river boats. Yes, this was the Bangkok of old.

’Board, board,” a conductor rushed us onto the longboat as it skimmed the gangplank in a momentary whistle-stop. At once we were gliding through narrow canals. Humble homes perched on stilts. Rickety walkways joined close-knit communities. Sarongs hung to dry. Songbirds chirped from dainty bamboo cages. Potted orchids and frangipanis splashed colour against aged wooden framed homes. Modern-day Bangkok was gone in a flash, happily left behind in the wash of our boat’s propellor.

As the waves splashed over the edge of the long wooden boat, Carol and I smiled knowingly. Weaving through canals and along the river is how Thais traditionally travelled. From the King to the common person, these waterways are the true heart, the essence of the city.

We hopped off and ventured to a wat, into temple grounds, tiled and cooling, to architecture calming and spectacular; hues of green and red, and glittering gold. The temple was quiet, save for a saffron-robed Buddhist monk offering a homily against a murmuring backdrop of dreamlike incantations.  My senses are awakened and charmed, I embraced the temple’s ambiance as a cherished friend.

We played with a young toddler, on loan from his nanny. We laughed as we channeled our inner child. We reminisced.

And we were transported to simpler times – when there was little steel and glass beyond those walls, only the bustle and exuberance of 1980’s street scenes.

More poignant memories awaited at the iconic Royal Hotel. Carol and I walked the last few blocks along the wide boulevard that is Ratchadamnoen Avenue. Translating to ‘royal procession’, it was commissioned by King Chulalongkorn in 1897. It has the feel of a Champs-Elysees, grand and wide, designed for the pomp of royal parades.

When the Royal Hotel came into sight I was taken aback. Where it once looked so imposing and luxurious, its art-deco facade, although charming was surely diminished? I remembered it being so distinctive, so exotic. This hotel had been the first to welcome me to Asia, but now the scene that had played in my memory through the years was altered in an instant. I wondered if perhaps some things are best left to the treasured memory?

One of the last ‘old-style’ lodgings situated close to the Democracy monument, The Royal had been notorious as a shelter for political demonstrators and a first aid station during conflicts. But most of all, it was a haven for more discerning travellers and now as Carol and I perched across the avenue to take it all in, the change seems complete. It’s now on the mass tourist circuit.

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We watched busloads of tourists stream in and out. In those halcyon days it was for travellers with a little money, perhaps a respite before the next low-budget sojourn. A few nights break from the backpackers alleys, the grubby sheets and the too-thin walls.

Once inside, the lobby looked forlorn. Where were those rapturous bouquets of orchids in their delicate Thai pottery. Where was the buzz of travellers sharing stories and jotting down notes? The imposing carved wooden desk was still there, where it had always been.

“I can still picture the young lady who worked there. It was the travel desk,” Carol said wistfully. I too remembered that our overnight bus trip to Surat Thani was booked here – and our stay at a beach hut in Koh Samui. In the days before internet, one used the travel desk and after a day out, your tickets would be waiting for you when you returned.

“Miss Carol, Miss Terry Anneee. Tickets ready. S a w a d e e  k a,” I can almost hear her welcoming, lyrical voice.

The same wooden key drop is still at the front desk as is the post box from where we posted our letters home. In fact, it’s here that my love affair with stationary began. The hotel’s pretty purple letterhead enticed me to start collecting and I’ve done so ever since.

We peeked through the property noting the charming retro architectural features, a little Thai, a little European – all conspiring to its erstwhile grandness.

 

 

We ventured up the spiral staircase and outside to the swimming pool. This is where we would have luxuriated after a day of traipsing, sightseeing, and plying the city markets.

“Ah it was fun. It was amazing,” we both conceded with faraway gazes. Maybe it didn’t ‘sparkle’ quite as my memory had conjured, but the pool at the Royal is also where I spent the day, five years later, before I went to the airport to pick up my mother. I had not seen her for almost a year and I was thrilled to welcome her to Bangkok. At that point, a six month backpacking trip had elapsed and I was living in Japan. I was excited to confide to her that I was about to become engaged. Yes, for this is also where a certain young Scotsman had joined me to travel before that backpacking trip.

“Carol, this is where I was when he arrived,” I said, pointing to a lounger. “Just here I think.” Allowing a backward daydream of Bruce arriving, leather backpack thrown over his strong swimmer’s shoulders, I remembered that moment when he had indeed shown up to travel despite our relationship still rather ‘undefined’. A period of dating had ensued nine months previous. He had arrived in Calgary after having worked in Africa, his plan to travel through North America slightly derailed. Working and meeting that person that just might be the one of your dreams can do that – our young romance blossomed, yet my goal was still to travel.

I had been saving for years for this backpacking adventure. Then with the money finally in place,  I had given up my job, my apartment and bought a one-way ticket to Asia. With my hopes and dreams stuffed into a 55 litre backpack, Bruce persisted.

“Can I meet you in Bangkok, travel with you for a few months?” he had asked a few months prior to me leaving.

I had said yes. It was meant to be for just two months – we’re still travelling today.

Carol and I bid farewell to the Royal, convinced it would be the last time we saw it. We wandered through back streets where simple, daily life was in full swing. Dogs lazed and recycling was collected. Foot massages were offered along the canal-side, animated conversations spiced the outdoor cafes. In these streets, the Thai smile was still given with warmth and ease, genuine and welcoming.

 

 

 

 

We tuk-tuked it to nearby Khao San Road. The backpacker’s haven has been spruced but still alive with the vibrant coming and going of travellers; seeking an adventure, an experience, maybe an escape from the ordinary… just as I had eagerly done.

Carol and I ordered a tall Singha. “Cheers! To the past, to the future, to friendship.” We clinked our glasses. We talked. We people watched. Wonderfully, some things never change.

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The breathtaking Bugaboos… a welcome home to a ‘cathedral in the sky’

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I’m now in Canada, dear readers, and I apologise for my absence from these pages. Through my last blogs, you’ll know we left our Indian home of two years. We travelled through Greece, Scotland and England, then a two-month stay in The Netherlands, before finally, beautiful British Columbia greeted us. It was as if our dear mountain home sighed with relief, “Ah, you’ve finally returned.’ It had been nine months.

So, we’re home, perhaps to live (to be decided) but nonetheless, the transition of almost thirty years overseas and now having one address is ongoing. You can read more at Monday Morning Musings.

IMG_8897Call it a welcome home or an initiation back to Canada, recently I was enticed into an overnight hike. Really, it was into a wonderland of chiselled granite at 2230 meters, into a rapture of beauty. It was a profound privilege, yet, it had to be earned.

The world acclaimed Bugaboos are at our doorstep, a range within the great Purcell Mountains – the Rockies are just across the valley. We joined many others who journey from around the world to hike and take on some serious climbing. My hiking partners promised that I would manage the ascent, but as is often the case, I’m the weakest link… the little engine that ‘hopefully can’.

The hike’s end point was to a hut that has seemingly been dropped from the heavens onto a granite outcrop. Flanked by a glacier and granite spires piercing the clouds, the Conrad Kain hut will take us about four hours to reach. A little nervous, I comfort myself with my badge of honour; that eleven-day hike back in the day to the base camp of Annapurna in the Himalayas. There have been many hikes since, but gazing up to this ‘hut in the sky,’ it seems a little formidable.

It begins easily enough, a gentle meander through aged forest and feathery ferns, past dainty wildflowers and lush meadows. That pleasant amble gives no indication of what will soon be asked of us. To tread carefully along steep granite steps and narrow edges. To grip chains for safety and ladder up a boulder. To climb higher and higher, the small green dot of the Kain hut ever-looming in the distance to encourage our progress.

We break in much needed shade for lunch, a carpet of pine needles and knobbly tree roots our bench. We chat with other hikers and guides who encourage their charges up the mountain.

Our unofficial guide is friend and neighbour, John Parker. John exudes calm encouragement, yet there is a task at hand and there isn’t time for idle dallying. But then, this was John’s work and his passion, the commitment to his lifelong career shows as he leads a steady way. “You’re doing great,” “Take small steps on the steep ascents”, he encourages me. By the fourth hour of the hike, I need all the inspiration I can muster.

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My legs are seizing up. My back is aching. Thankfully, my breathing isn’t as bad as I feared, but I am now w i l l i n g each step, hoping for the end. And then, as if nature senses that it’s time, one of the most glorious views reveals itself. A meadow of wild flowers opens up, a crystal-clear melt-water torrent rushes from the glacier, and we cross a simple metal bridge to the final climb to the Conrad Kain hut. Without a doubt, it is one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. Anywhere.

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Perched on a granite prominence, the hut with its green arched roof contrasts with its backdrop of glaciers, vast fields of ice, rugged and cracked, harbouring crevasses of the deepest cobalt blue. The hut and the enveloping landscape beckons me as I trudge up the final metres. It seems to say, “You’ve made it, welcome!”

The four of us unburden ourselves of our packs, add our climbing poles to the collection already outside the hut, and hug each other. “Well done, Terry Anne. You’ve achieved this,” John congratulates me. Sonya and Bruce do as well, and I admit to feeling like a school girl who has gained some respect from her teacher. Later that evening, I’ll hear more about John’s students and his career, but first we take in the buzz of the hut.

We’ll join about thirty other people who will spend the night on mattresses lined edge to edge over two upper floors. Sleeping bags claim their spots. But it won’t be a quiet night, what with the snores of exhausted climbers or 2 am alarms set for pre-sunrise departures for distant climbs. Head lamps light the way, for many early trekkers, the hut a staging point for serious climbers. Ropes are wound, helmets wait at the ready, crampons packed, quick-draws checked and counted, ice picks hang nearby.

The communal dining room, with its million-dollar view, is a place for sharing climbing stories and discussing routes, for reading and games, and replenishing weary bodies with freeze dried food. Though wonderfully, Bruce and Sonya on cooking duty would out do themselves – our dinner and breakfast warmed in the hut’s vast kitchen was just what my weary body needed.

Happily, it’s happy-hour, Sonya and I retreat to the side of the hut, exhausted but gleeful. A tin of glacier-chilled wine is our reward… and of course, that view. Surely, Conrad Kain would approve of his eponymous mountain abode. They say that Kain brought glamour and imagination into the sport of mountaineering as few guides had before him.

For nearly thirty years, the Austrian born guide, saw peaks as the personification of  beauty, as living entities to climb – firstly in Europe, then New Zealand and Canada. With his short, stocky stature, the climber achieved more than sixty first ascents, including the Bugaboo Spire in 1916 which now presides over us and the lesser spires like a grand citadel.

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We exhilarate in this cathedral of nature, and while Bruce and John hike upwards to the Applebee camp for a closer view of the ‘citadel’, Sonya and I stay put, entranced by the view. I recall what I had read of Conrad Kain. He eventually settled nearby, largely earning his living as a trapper, a hunting guide and an outfitter. His passion for communing with nature was steadfast. Kain once wrote, “Life is so short, and I think one should make a good time of it if one can. The only thing I enjoy now is Nature, especially spring in the mountains, and letters from friends. Sometimes I think I have seen too much for a poor man.”

Apparently Kain’s principles kept him poorer than he might have been and despite his achievements he sought no fame. With a grateful look across a beautiful alpine scene, he was known to have remarked, “It occurred to me that after all I was a rich man, even if I had no money.”

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I feel that now. The sheer beauty of this view is truly priceless. And somehow, it’s all that much more special because of the effort invested in reaching it. As I watch climbers trek off to the campground, a rainbow of tents pitched on a natural rock plateau, and as others ready their gear, I understand this world a little more. I now appreciate why one of our sons and his girlfriend are passionate about hiking and climbing. I more easily see why, when my husband and another son came back from trekking in Nepal a number of months ago, Bruce remarked, “It’s the sheer uplift of the soul… being part of primal wilderness.”

A few hours later we linger over our well-earned dinner that we had packed up the mountain. I ask John more about his career, surely a celebration of the great outdoors, as he helped design the curriculum for Outdoor Education Ontario, in his particular school. It offered high school students the opportunity to grow, to learn self-reliance, to move out of their comfort zone through outdoor pursuits.

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John Parker

“It might have been rock climbing, hiking, wayfinding, canoeing, winter camping or Nordic skiing. They learned confidence and independence. But I had hoops they had to jump through to earn their place on these trips; they were real achievements.”

John relates the life-changing impact the program had on students, the passion he still feels as a retiree is clear. “Years later, I’ve had calls from former students wanting me to know that I inspired them to become teachers themselves. They’ve told me how the program turned their life around. You really bond when you’re in the wilderness, barriers drop and kids confide in you. And I made them journal their experiences for self-reflection.”

As we listen to John reflect, I can’t imagine there isn’t one of us that doesn’t wish our children had been part of an outdoor education program. Our sons were avid sportsmen and yes, we were often outdoors, but studies show there is something intrinsic and vital about the connection, the challenges, and the healing of nature.

It’s still light outside at 2200 meters and as much I’d love to stay awake to watch the moon rise over the whites of the glacier and the grand citadel, it’s difficult to keep my eyes open. It’s only 9 pm.

The door opens and in bursts a climber, “Ah you’re back,” someone at the table exclaims in a German accent.

“It was awesome, been out for 25 hours straight,” the climber says. He’s draped with ropes and his tired but satisfied smile speaks volumes.

I say goodnight to my own climbing buddies, but realize I have just one more question for John.

“Did your students call you Mr. Parker on these trips, in those outdoor classrooms?”

John answered me in his usual charming, warm tone. “No, I was usually J.P.”

“Ok, J.P, thanks for the day and leading the way… just amazing!”

I don’t yet know, that descending tomorrow will be even worse than the climb. That I’ll take a tumble and that once I’m down the mountain I’ll gaze back up at it in awe. Already missing its serene and hallowed place.

But for now, my aching legs climb the ladder to the loft and slip into the cocoon of my sleeping bag, joining the long rows of sated guests. But still no sight of the moon – only a glacier and a glorious granite spire to lull me to sleep. It takes about two minutes.

Like those students of J.P’s, I feel a sense of achievement and fulfilment. Even though I had stepped out of my comfort zone, through this hike I have re-discovered what it means to be… home.

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*Where The Clouds Can Go, by Conrad Kain, first published in 1935, is meant to be a very good read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An ancient Greek meander… Ode to Hydra, part two

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Dearest Hydra,

You enticed me first with your short ferry cruise from Athens… and curiously, the mention of mules on your small island. No cars, only mules, and of course the promise of an island haven on which to repose, to relax.

What I couldn’t have known until I was ensconced in your soulful presence, is that your beauty is partly due to the quiet – the absence of engines, of horns, even of the tinkle of bicycle bells.

Except for sharp hoof strikes on polished cobbles, goods carried along narrow tidy lanes, the dissonant soundtrack of daily life is soon a distant memory. A feeling of tranquility and joy seems to pervade me, to pervade everything.

Straining against a heavy load, a porter breaks the silence, taut muscles in practiced manoeuvres, smiling new arrivals walking expectantly beside the laden cart. His gentle exertions fill the ancient lanes with purpose, echoes of your long continuous existence. I marvel that even the colours of these indespensible ‘vehicles’ blend prettily with your hues, Hydra.

Indeed your island is a perfect paint-by-number of myriad soft colours against a backdrop of dazzling whitewash. My favourite palette of blues and greens, gracing doors and shutters, even those wagons which often mirror the establishment they’re parked alongside. Brilliant splashes of bouganvilea complete the picture… as do ‘pops’ of plump lemons, milky greens of olive trees, and soft pinks of oleanders.

“Torrents of colour,” is how I believe Nikos Ghika, the Greek painter, referred to your charming, colourful canvas.

 

Ghika is one of many artists who spent inspired years in your embrace, as did some of his creative friends: Craxton, Leigh Fermor and Henry Miller. From the 1930’s, those years of visiting and living in your embrace were undeniably their muse, “…the courtyards, the gardens, one above the other… the long and narrow walls which followed and embraced rocky land beyond, the prickly pears, and the wild greens and the thorns. The fig trees like chandeliers. The almond trees like thin scarecrows,” Ghika wrote fondly.

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Most certainly, your tranquil beauty beckoned from far and wide, including Canadian songwriter and singer Leonard Cohen, who penned his beloved ‘Bird on a Wire’ from the window of his island villa. Like many artists in the ’60’s and 70’s, he claimed your bohemian paradise as home. Didn’t he once endearingly quip, “There is nowhere in the world where you can live like you can in Hydra… and that includes Hydra.”

Like Ghika’s home, Cohen’s abode became a retreat for creatives and still today people arrive to your island – to write, to paint, or like us, to seek a tranquil interlude.

A repose found often in the shade of the majestically old tree in our preferred spot at the Xeri Elia. The storied restaurant and taverna welcomed Cohen often and we’re told his melodies filled the restaurant’s charming square. Photographs inside recall those happy times.

Even Sophia Loren smiles from the taverna’s lively photo gallery. Her ’50’s portrayal of a brash, beautiful Hydriot sponge-diver, propelled your island onto the international stage. I know that sponge farming put bread on the tables for your islanders in those post war years, your sea-given harvest reaching the far corners of the earth. Your merchant fleet had answered the call and turned its expertise from trade to war – it was sponges that then kept your maritime economy afloat.

Yet now dear Hydra as we lunch in the languid afternoon stillness, despite the import of tourism, we sense the intimacy of the island. Children pass through the square, a  confluence of narrow lanes – a dutiful kiss for a grandfather lunching with a friend. Tethering his mule, a porter breaks for refreshment, delivering the day’s happenings from the harbour. Children clutch precious art work, mothers converge, chatting briefly before streaming off to their familiar lanes.

Pushing my open journal across the table, I revelled and relaxed in the dreamlike silence as my partner’s pen captured the scene.

” We lazed in the heat of the day, cat-contented in the dappled vine-shaded square, half-heard music washing over the flagstone courtyard, gently lapping against white-washed walls, doors and windows picked out in cobalt blues and hunting green. The noise itself seemed hushed and chastened by the midday sun radiating from your cloudless Hydra sky. We sit dream-like in this noon idyll, words half-heard, music and muffled chatter, weaving  the fabric of our day.”  

You captivated us both dearest Hydra. And oh, how I’d love my fedora to hang here for a tranquil season of writing, a celebration of your treasured stillness and your inspiration… until we meet again!

Fondly, Terry Anne

 

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An ancient Greek meander… in the footsteps of a father, part one

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I had loved Rome, Paris and Istanbul… but Athens! It is profoundly special and awe-inspiring in its expanse of history and graceful beauty.

It was the perfect choice for our brief interlude. Keeping in mind that we would be laden with a pile of suitcases as we moved from India, we wanted somewhere en route to our destination, ideally warm, and a contrast to Asia. Greece was the perfect choice… and there was another poignant reason.

My husband’s father had been a classical scholar, a longtime philhellenic; a professed lover of all things Greek. George Greenaway Wilson was a didactic dad who took great joy in sharing his love of literature and military history, his bookshelves crammed with the works of Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Euripides. He notably earned a Doctorate in Classics in his later years, studying the Ancient Greek language in parallel to better read the texts. Visiting Greece often with Bruce’s mother, Isabella, they had mostly forgone the tourist streets in cities such as Athens, Heraklion and Kalamata, preferring the clubs and haunts of local Greeks.

“He would unleash his Ancient Greek to the bemusement and delight of patrons in back-street tavernas and working men’s clubs,” Bruce recalled fondly, visualizing the scene with amusement.

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I had heard some of these stories through the years yet now being here, I could more easily imagine George as he transformed into Georgios during his visits. Bruce’s mother was very much a willing accomplice to the twice-yearly forays to Greece and Turkey.

“I can see why your mom loved it here so much,” I proclaimed on the first afternoon as we lingered over a languid lunch of Greek salad, spanakopita, bread, olives and a carafe of local white wine. “And how could you not, the food is enough to never want to leave!”

We were sitting in an outdoor taverna, Scholarkheio, a family run restaurant since 1935 situated in the quaint streets of Plaka. It became our local ‘go-to’ and from that first long indulgent lunch, the stress of the move from the past few months was lifted; a sense of recovery from the planning, packing and heartfelt farewells of India.

 

“Mom loved it here,” Bruce confirmed, as we imagined them walking these streets. “The sun and the heat. And the very drinkable cheap wine of course! There was never a problem with Dad luring her along with him,” he said, refilling our tumblers with local wine.

I understood this immediately. Athens is alive with colour, great food, wandering minstrels, and of course even arrays of Greek sandals to choose from! And wonderfully, it is a very approachable and walkable city. At its heart are the magnificent buildings of the Acropolis, overlooking the ancient settlement since 450 BC or so. Life radiates gently below – the charming streets of old Plaka, for dining, browsing and shopping. The ancient Forums and Libraries, the most excellent Acropolis Museum, and parks where grand sculptures rest amongst silvery oaks, fragrant olive and eucalyptus trees – I was quickly beguiled and in the city’s thrall.

 

Yet Athens is not a trivial holiday experience, it is humbling if one sets the span of a life against its timeless presence. It speaks of the founding of democracy and art, poets and scholars, and theatre of the great odeums where orators and actors guided and chided the world into independent thinking, towards democracy itself .

We stayed in the shadow of the Acropolis. The breathtaking view of the Parthenon held us spellbound as we lingered over drinks that first evening on the rooftop bar of the Herodion Hotel – feeling close enough to reach out and touch its aged, elegant marble. Its Ionic columns still evoking the power and refinement of ancient Greece. But life then, as now, plays out on the stage beneath its glorious prominence, fanning out over the plains and hills of old Attica.

After climbing the limestone crag of the Acropolis (literally ‘highest point of the city’), the magnificent ruins stood before us. While there is evidence that the hill was inhabited as far back as the fourth millennium BC, it was the astute and forward-thinking statesman Pericles (495 – 429 BC) who coordinated the construction of some of the site’s most important structures and others that followed: the delicate Temple of Athena Nike, the grand entrance of the Propylaia, the Erectheion with its maidens columns – all stunning even in the fractured mosaic of their sun-bleached remnants.

I thrilled in the ruins, content for them to hint at the once glorious past. My engineer partner suggested that he would rather see the Parthenon fully reconstructed and on that point I had to protest. I loved imagining it in my mind. Like all Greek temples, it was richly ornamented in vivid natural colours of blues, reds and golds. Statues honouring Greek mythology posed dramatically – Apollo and Athena Nike the goddess of victory,  Zeus, Hercules and the messenger god Hermes. I can imagine the beautifully adorned women in their flowing tunics, the chiton or the sleeveless peplos, maybe a himation (cloak) for cooler winter months. Perhaps their exquisite gold jewellery glinted in the sun as they strolled the temples with offerings of incense and honey-dripped sheafs of wheat.

We had visited the excellent Acropolis Museum before the site itself, its trove of treasures depicting everyday life, allowing ones imagination to easily meander to that time. In fact I learned that meander, one of my favourite words, comes from the Greek meandros, the ancient Meander River which was exceptionally winding and twisty. The meander design was a common theme, replicated on pottery, clothes and jewellery. As one of the most important symbols of Ancient Greece, its connotation of unity and infinity in continuous interlocking lines represents eternity, an unbroken flow of things, like the meandering of life. And to this day it permeates Greek design.

The Parthenon is the crowning glory of classical Greece ethos and standing in the midst of it, we understood George’s deep appreciation of Greek philosophy and its role in the dawning of democracy.DSCF5838

“I wish he was here to share his knowledge, bring it to life for us,” Bruce said with a tinge of regret. “He always thought he was better suited to this time. Perhaps it was the philosopher-warrior in him, the deep thinker and the stoic.” His maxim might have been a quote from his favourite general, Thucydides, subject of his doctorate, who said that ‘The State that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools.’ Having once been a soldier himself, this resonated.

“I wish I had asked him more questions while he was alive,” I lamented and Bruce agreed. “I feel the same, but he’d be pleased to know we are now trying to understand his Greece.”

From the high outcrop, it’s possible to understand how Athens became the dominant power of the numerous Greek States, though nearby Sparta was long its rival as were the Persians and even the Venetians, to name a few.

But beyond the impressive and dominant Acropolis, the daily life of ancient Athens played out on the gentle hills and plains below; in the temples and agoras where people gathered to trade goods and ideas, and in the odea where orators spoke and playwrights provoked their audience into thought. These impressive outdoor auditoriums were often set into natural bowls in hillsides. The Theatre of Dionysus was created in 530 BC, believed to be where ‘drama’ and ‘theatre’ was first presented, where Thespis (yes where the word thespian derives) was likely the first to perform in a play. The impressive Herodeion is a later structure, from 161 AD. It’s stone-chiseled seats could accommodate 6000 spectators and still hosts events during the Athens Festival.

“Oh to have been here to see Luciano Pavarotti, Elton John, even the Foo Fighters,” I commented to Bruce, remembering this is also a backdrop for world class performers… the Greek god drama and theatre, Dionysos, must indeed be smiling!

 

Our last day finds us meandering through the Roman Agora, the Tower of the Winds, and past Hadrian’s library of 132 AD, complete with music and lecture halls. I sit happily on a bench and contemplate… Athens is a lot to take in.

IMG_5587I muse over the people I’ve met and how they all showed me something of their kind nature. The lovely mother I happened to chat with as I appreciated her daughter’s May Day laurel that her father had crafted. And the waiter at Scholarkheio who found one of my camera memory cards and tracked me down to return it. Or the shopkeeper I met as I perused modern day chitons. We connected immediately.

“Do you feel like you’ve been here before?” She asked, as if she could sense how connected I felt, how I was claiming Athens as my own, even to having my own chiton.

Taking out one of George’s books that I had thought to pack at the last moment, I read quotes from the great poet and playwright Euripedes who lived around 400 BC. How fresh, how poignant his words are still today. And I think of George who was always one to ponder…

Nothing is hopeless, we must hope for everything.

It is a good thing to be rich and strong, but it is a better thing to be loved.

There is just one life for each of us: our own.

Experience travel – these are an education in themselves.

Yes, the last one particularly rings true to me and as much as Athens has thrilled me, it’s time to meander to the small island of Hydra… to be continued

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘India 101’… Spirituality and the conflicted in timeless Varanasi, part one

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I had hoped it would be as magical, as compelling as it had been that first time. During the two-month Indian leg of our backpacking trip in 1989, we had saved Varanasi for last. Positioned on the sacred Ganges River and considered to be one of India’s holiest sites, it was now the first destination of our ‘India 101′ trip with our sons and their girlfriends. It had been a difficult decision. Though we live in Southern India, should we venture north to travel this iconic route – Varanasi, Agra, and Dehli – or stay in the more gentle South. We decided on the former.

You want to get it right when your loved ones have traveled from afar, when you only have six days together ‘on the road.’ And I had been reluctant to revisit some of these treasured sites from our young traveller’s days. I wanted to remember them in that somewhat magical hue of days gone by, of simpler times. We had revisited Jaipur this past July and were pleased that we had. I had broken my ‘rule’ then of not revisiting… maybe it was alright to do so again?

After a brilliant Christmas at home in Bangalore, we strapped on our packs and flew north. Of the holy site of the Ganges, a quote from my old journal reads, “How fitting that this city of the faithful and holy should be our last stop. For to have experienced it early in the trip would have been too difficult to appreciate. Instead, it was the missing piece to completing the puzzle of India.”

Now, on reflection, had this visit been my first I might have been less convinced. Varanasi, or Benares, is said to be older than time itself. Ever wry, in 1897 Mark Twain wrote, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

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And indeed, it is. Several thousand years old, Benares is the holiest of India’s seven sacred cities. Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism claim all, or part of their origin here. At nearby Sarnath, Siddhartha Gautama is believed to have founded Buddhism in 528 BC. In the 8th Century, the worship of Shiva was established as an official sect of Varanasi and further, Hindus believe that cremation along the sacred Ganges River will bring moksha – liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. It still feels as if one is stepping into a vintage National Geographic article. Holy men – sages and swamis, babas and sadhus – meditate, pray and wander in vivid shades of orange, tangerine and saffron. The more temporal – barbers, hawkers, soothsayers and snake charmers – also fill their days along the ghats. All eighty-eight of them.

These stone stepped embankments, some dating from the 1700’s, lead down to the edge of the Ganges providing access for pilgrims and locals to perform ritual ablutions. “My mother has bathed daily in these holy waters. Maybe for thirty years,” our guide imparted. For most Westerners this is mostly unfathomable. The sacred Ganges is full – of human and toxic waste, of dead cows, human ash and bodies, of bone remnants that defied cremation – the ribs of men, the hips of women.

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The Aarti, before sunrise, is how Benares comes to life on the ghats. The air is chilled, the Ganges still swaddled in a misty shroud as we make our way to Assi Ghat. Brahmin students are lined in a row on a raised platform facing east to the river, where the sun will soon rise. The chanting of mantras ring through the air – the slow, steady beat of a gong accompanies the Sanskrit verses. The scent of camphor and sandalwood drifts around us. The young priests in training are precise, in perfect sync with their prayerful motions – the Aarti awakens the holy Ganges. Each day, each year, century upon century.

A separate prayer circle is close by, arms stretched out over a small fire. Not for warmth, but for the blessing of one’s body and soul. A priest sprinkles the devotees with petals. Ghee and grain are offered. Shanti, for peace is chanted. “It’s a bright example of reverence and living with less,” our guide offers solemnly. It is now 6:30 am.

We walk a few ghats upriver where a boatman is waiting. We seven huddle for warmth in his wide rowboat, one of hundreds that will soon float gently along the murky water. As his oars slice, soft and rhythmic through the water, seagulls call and circle. Boat wallahs beckon, piercing the calm morning air. Their wares are arranged prettily: prayer items, lacquerware, incense and Hindu prayer beads.

As the sun rises on the eastern horizon, ghat after ghat reveals itself. Each one serves a different purpose with distinct origins. A late King of Nepal built a temple on Lalita Ghat. Jain temples can be seen on the Bachraj Gat. The Maharajah of Jaipur claimed a ghat in 1770. The Dashashwameth ghat celebrates the Agni each evening – a worship to fire. It is also where dutiful prayers ease the Ganges to rest at the end of the day.

Perhaps the two most intriguing are the cremation ghats. Smoke is rising from the Harishchandra ghat as we row past in a respectful hush, a number of cremations in progress. Women are nowhere to be seen; it is believed their tears may prevent the soul from departing. The larger, busier Manikarnika ghat is further up river. Roughly one-hundred and twenty bodies are cremated daily. Wrapped in simple cloth, the face is left exposed, the body infused with ghee (clarified butter) so the body will burn as expected – usually up to three hours. The eldest son traditionally lights the funeral pyre, circling once for each of the five elements. He ignites by touching a taper, kindled from the eternal flame watched over by its guardians in a temple above the ghat, “Here, longer than anyone knows,” we’re told. Eventually the remaining bones will be laid to rest in the water by the cremation keepers. From the lowest caste, the untouchables, theirs is a job passed on through the centuries.

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Those who are not cremated – children of a young age, priests, pregnant woman, and others who are already considered holy – will be rowed out into the water. Weighted and given over to it, they too will have have attained moskha, fortunate to have died in Benares or to have been transported here. What may your beliefs be, to witness the Benares ghats at sunrise is a poetry of daily rituals – the first bathe of the day, the slap of laundry against aged stones, the suns first rays on chiseled temples, the rainbow array of boats, the first kite zigzagging the sky, the hues of vivid oranges glinting in the sun, ashen sadhus re-dabbing their spindly bodies, the murmurs of first prayers – the circle of life in raw, intriguing motion.

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As the morning unfolded we meandered through the back streets that radiate from the ghats. Needling our way through crowded narrow lanes, again I felt the weight of Varanasi’s history. A story told in trade – of fine muslin cloth and silk, of ivory works and sculpture – punctuated by cultural revival under Akbar, the Mughal Emperor in the 16th century. The enlightened Akbar built two large temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, just a few of the thousands that dot Varanasi. We squeeze past worshipers waiting to visit one of the most sacred, barefoot and prayer items in hand, hundreds upon hundreds wait in line. Shopkeepers have sold the devotees prayer items, provided storage for their footwear, and served up morning dosas. We are forced to step aside a number of times. Pressing our backs against aged walls, we watch silently as families pass, their deceased loved ones hoisted high on stretchers as they manoeuve to the ghats.

IMG_2683We see few foreigners in these narrow passages despite tourism playing a significant part in today’s Varanasi. Yet I know that many come to this city to bathe in its spirituality, to elevate and open their consciousness. They follow in the steps of many prominent Indian philosophers, poets, writers and musicians who have also sought enlightenment in this holy place… some do not leave.

We make our way back to the five kilometre long ghats, along a street of many outstretched, imploring hands. Begging is a reality in India and sadly, syndicates operate here openly. Time and time again we are besieged by young women, listless babies in their arms, some reportedly opium sedated. A little digging will tell you these precious children have either been kidnapped or rented out by their mothers for a small sum. With a filthy baby bottle in hand, the mothers plead for milk for their child. Should you yield to their pleas, know that it will be sold back to the shopkeeper, some of your rupees then lining the pockets of the syndicate. Even with this knowledge, it is wrenching to walk away, time and again. Also heartbreaking is knowing that some of the beggars are limbless or deformed, perhaps purposely maimed.

Our youngest son, on his first trip to India, has a difficult time reconciling it and accepting that this is an aspect of India – even that it occupies a place in humanity. He wonders how we manage to live in a country with such injustices, such crushing poverty. Our inadequate answer is that one has to find a way to rationalise, to mentally detach and perhaps find joy in other aspects of India. Should that joy prove elusive or the culture shock too intense, it can be difficult to manage. We find solace and purpose in our active support of an independent school, making a difference in young children’s lives… it has helped us reconcile the many inequities of this society.

Moved and impacted by the scenes of the morning, we try in the afternoon to appreciate other facets of life on the Ganges edge as we wander back to our ‘home’ ghat. Up close, we witness the deep reverence of those bathing in their sacred river and even the holy cows taking their turn. We speak to artists and babas. We delight in Andrew joining a cricket game on one of the less busy ghats. He hits a ‘home run’, a moment with local kids, a common thread, a semblance of normality. Yet so much of our time is spent deflecting the begging and the predictable scams. Eventually we retreat to a roof top restaurant for a long relaxing, yet animated brunch. From this viewpoint, the temples reach up to the clear blue sky and children dart their kites above Benares’ ancient vista. Here all is peaceful and serene. But that evening our curiosity exposes us again to conflicting emotions.

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Five of us make our way to the large cremation ghat. Twenty or so bodies are in various stages of cremation, sparks leaping through the smokey sky, up to the heavens. The air is thick, filled with the scented smoke of mango, sandalwood and banyan. It is a scene that challenges description and I struggle to recapture the spiritual experience of that first time. It is so busy, so many bodies, so overwhelming. We are immediately approached by a personable young man. He encourages us to follow him for a tour. “I’ll explain everything,” he tells us, “but no pictures, no photos. And just give what you want at the end.” A few of us are skeptical, a few of us more trusting. We go along.

We hear and see more. We meet a mourner, head shaved, as is the eldest son’s duty. We are taken up to the sacred flame. After about twenty minutes, my eyes are burning, breathing is difficult and as if on cue, the tour is pronounced to be over. The young man then leads us further behind the ghats where the light of the pyres doesn’t penetrate, to the dark mounds of stacked wood. We’re told in mournful detail how much wood is needed to cremate one body, many cannot afford it, but we can help and contribute. How many kilos would we like to buy to donate? Now we’re led further to a small shrine. An older lady is perched on a platform beside it, dark kohled eyes peering from her sari wrapped body. “You’ll be blessed by this sister. How much wood will you pay for?” The tone and manner of the guide has changed. A few of us go along with the ‘blessing’. One of our sons refuses. We nod to each other knowingly – yes surely it’s a scam – but are there more accomplices waiting in the shadows in case we don’t comply. It feels ominous. We venture a modest payment.

Eagerly making our way in the dark through a zigzag of lanes to the direction of a main street, we ignore propositions to buy drugs, dodge cows blocking our path, notice glances that feel less friendly. We find our way out to the main street, just as our ‘guide’ from the ghat cruises past on a motorbike – yes, his job is finished for the day. No doubt he has paid off the ‘sister’ who ‘blessed’ us and perhaps the ‘mourner’ who repeatedly shook our hands – maybe a little too profusely. Their day of ‘work’ is finished for them all.

We ride back to Assi ghat debating what we had witnessed, incredulous that death, especially in this city, could be a way to deceive, to devalue sacred rituals. At a rooftop bar with the soothing sounds of an Indian ensemble in the background, we talk and process the experiences of the day, rationalising it as part of traveling, part of the experience, part of India. I mention that not once in my almost two years of living in South India have I felt compromised in the same way I’ve felt here – I missed ‘home’.

I notice that I’m still wearing my shanti beads. Bought earlier that day on the ghats, they are considered divine, tears of Lord Shiva. Their rudra seeds go through blessings – washed in a mixture of holy cow’s dung and urine, milk and ghee. “For enlightenment and self-empowerment,” the baba had told me as he draped them around my neck. How I wish that for the many millions of women and children in India who are in need of this and the release of poverty.

The next morning, we bid farewell to Varanasi, I know it will be my last visit. I dig out my old diary where many happy memories are recorded of upcoming Agra and Dehli. This ‘India 101‘ journey continues for our family and we anticipate more compelling sites and, without doubt, more thought-provoking experiences. We’ll experience it together…  to be continued

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A calm moment in Varanasi, with Shanti beads

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At Sarnath, home of Buddhism