Month: July 2017

Travels 2 –Seville :: Of Game of Thrones, white villages, pig cheeks and blood sport

It’s often said that even the best of mothers have a favorite child, for us, Seville was the favorite child- The best city of our trip. The place where we truly experienced Spain and Andalucía.

First a bit of history (Yes with me history is obvious) Seville was once the most important city in Spain. Ships from here would facilitate trade between Europe and the entire new world of Americas. As its river silted up, access to the ocean dried up and better port cities opened up Seville went into a slowdown- But its culture and enterprise still thrived. But even before this there were interesting events in Seville. Most of Spain was under Muslim rule and called as Al Andalus ( thus the name Andalucía) for many centuries leaving their imprint which is visible even today. (It is said that this was a golden age of enlightenment where scientific knowledge and tolerance co-existed- Barrack Obama too referred to the same during his historic speech in Cairo) However, the catholic kings slowly over the course of many centuries defeated the Muslim Arab rulers and finally united all of Spain only in 1492.

timeline

Everyone travels for different reasons—luxury, de-stressing, history, adventure and more. But at a very simple dumbed down level the travels that we enjoy the most are the ones that make us feel something. Something special, something memorable. Seville was exactly that. Made us feel special. It charmed us with its streets, caressed our taste buds, delighted us with its small quaint villages and impressed us with its historical monuments.

So let me start recounting the days in Seville and around.

Kuch Meetha Ho Jaye ( lets have something sweet) That’s how Indians celebrate and that’s how our trip in Seville began ( well before that we had an early morning flight, a pleasant drive and meeting our wonderful host – the most friendly  among all our AirBnB hosts – Susanna )

The beginning was the Spanish specialty of Churros and Chocolate. These are fluffy and lightly flavored fried dough sticks had by dipping in thick rick chocolate.

Churros

Churros

We had these at the cafe at the Hotel Puerta de Sevillea a historic boutique hotel. But the Churros were made not by the hotel but by a local guy who comes and sets up shop there. We noticed a bunch of locals enjoying as well as packing churros after their Sunday morning mass. Generally, a place where locals visit is a great spot.

Churros done we proceeded to WALK. Yes, the best way to explore small cities and towns is to just walk these quaint roads and soak it all in. And Seville has many of them..….  Small cobblestoned streets –no vehicles and interspersed with cafes and souvenir shops. As you walk on these pretty parts you are transported to medieval ages—you can imagine, knights, common folk walking, conspiracies being hatched, succession wars.  Getting lost here is part of the fun.

Streets of Seville

Charged up with coffee we continued towards the central square to come across this historic fountain. From there we moved to one of the prettiest parts of town—The Jewish quarter.  Almost all Spanish cities and more so in Andalucía have the three things a church/ cathedral, an Alcazar (or fort/palace) and a Jewish Quarter. The Jewish quarter here was quaint and pretty— again small streets but really well decorated with really friendly people. (In Spain people really really love their floral decorations) what struck me here is how these streets remain so clean and pretty despite so many restaurants. It’s one thing to build clean cities like Singapore, Dubai but doing so in a place which is 500+ years old is surprising.

friendlysevilians

Friendly People of Seville

Done with the Jewish quarter walk we went into the cathedral and what a cathedral it was – The world’s 3rd largest cathedral and the largest Gothic one in the world! You walk in and see the stunning nave and altar.

As with many cathedrals in Spain, this was originally a mosque, which was first chrisitianized ( by installing an altar and changing the orientation ) and then destroyed and converted into a cathedral. But in Seville , they didn’t want to build just another cathedral– In their words “Lets build a church so beautiful that those who see it, think we were mad”. No wonder it took them more than 100 years to make.

Facets of the Cathedral

Among the other important delights here – The tomb of Christopher Columbus – the man who discovered America. Apparently, his body traveled as much as he did till finally resting in the city where his ambitious plan to find a sea route to India was approved. Other important things here are brilliant pieces of art such as and in the treasury a jewelry box from Gujarat, India.

Monuments done we move to a unique Spanish experience- A Blood Sport- Bull Fighting

Indeed, Bull fighting is very very controversial – Animals are used for entertaining slaughter, it’s barbaric and possibly medieval. But Spain is also one of the only 3 countries where it still happens and is very popular here. So we just had to experience it.  The pageantry, the pomp was brilliant. In a moderately big stadium with an evening sun –it did feel like a roman arena. In the course of a typical bull fight, 6 bulls fight one by one with different types of matadors with the chief ones finally killing it off leaving behind blood and gore on the ground. I wouldn’t go into the details of the kills and the sport. The sight of locals enjoying an evening of sport and admiring with rousing applause flourishes in style, deft moves and the final plunge of the sword– It was surreal. It is practically like you being in Lords and giving a gently clapping to an elegant flick for a boundary, only here with a flick the matador dodges a multi ton beast trying to save himself…. Majestuosobullfight

Day 2 began with a trip out of Seville into the countryside for what is called the white villages. This was the only “guided tour” we took and were a bit disappointed- My advice avoid guided tours where possible. In this tour, we covered 2 white villages (Zahara de la Sierra and Guadalquivir), views of a stunning lake and finally the historic Ronda

The villages are the small ones with populations of around 7 to 10k. But are completely white washed and decorated with flowers everywhere.  No monuments to see but just experience the views, stroll the pretty streets, sample local delights like a peculiar goat cheese and pastries and pause and reflect….

The final stop Ronda, an old village city occupied since roman times is famous for its iconic bridge( actually there are 2-3 of them-built by romans, then Arabs and then Christians). It was great to go search for this old bridge through narrow winding medieval stairs. In the process, we also discovered the age old Arab Baths of Ronda

Also on the trip, we stopped at a dilapidated castle. As with most castles this too was purely for military reasons, however, this was not to guard a territory but to secure the underground natural water reservoir. The ramparts tempt you to act as archer protecting this arid region’s gold—its precious water.

It’s time to go to the “Pig Cheeks” mentioned in the title—that is time for gastronomy which was incredible here. Now is a time to give a shoutout to one of my favorite food bloggers Kalyan ( http://www.finelychopped.net/2013/02/in-shawn-hennesseys-seville.html ) whose blogs helped me zero in on some great dining options in Seville. His blog also led me to another one due to which I discovered Los Galondrinas 2 (http://azahar-sevilla.com/sevilletapas/2008/02/las-golondrinas-ii/ ) where I had the aforementioned pig cheeks. Also an exquisite squid.

This highly recommended restaurant is frequented by locals enjoying their evening tapas and drinks. (The concept of Tapas are just small portions, ideal for doing bar walks – a drink, a small meal conversations and then off to the next stop.) This restaurant is located in Triana a lovely suburb of Seville famous for its ceramic tiles which are used all over Seville to decorate streets to royal houses. To reach Triana one has to cross a pretty bridge over the local river.

Bridgeto Triana

Bridge to Triana

Coming back to the food despite sounding weird, it did taste good –soft and flavorful meat carved from the cheeks obviously.

Other great gastronomy delights were a light and lovely pig stew at La Teresa paired with Spanish champagne. Great seafood at  Café Gusto—we had an intense black pasta, roast chicken, and lobster pasta too. A special mention for the flavorful oxtail at Vineria San Telmo. The first day we were too late to this restaurant—it shuts at midnight on weekdays ( How un-Spanish ) So we made it a point to be on time the next day and we were not disappointed—Succulent meat in filo pastries and we also sampled that piece of forbidden heaven known as Foie Gras. Simply Brilliant. But still, the oxtail was the winner of the night.

It was also in Seville that I sampled for the first time the Tinto Verrano – this refreshing Spanish wine based cocktail. The Spanish, unlike the French, are not in uptight about their wine and love to play with it enhancing it to another level much more suited to its relaxed vibe and weather.

The only major major disappointment we somehow missed out on food pics (we compensated in other cities) and thus no food porn pics

Enough of gastronomy- let’s look at our final day with the most important of places in Seville – Its royal fort and palace known as Alcazar. Also, the place where Dorne of Game of Thrones is shot.

Having the same view as the royals of House Martell

The Alcazar also has the royal quarters where the current royal family stays when they visit Seville. The quarters make for an amazing 45 minute tour. But make sure that you book it in advance as you can never just walk in and get the ticket. Though highly controlled with no photography allowed, it was good to get a close look at how the royals of the past lived, the changes in furnishing which went in sync with their political condition and beliefs.

Parts of the Alcazar

Once the royal tour was done we started with seeing the different amazing parts of the Alcazar and its fabulous gardens.

It was here that we saw the hall where Queen Isabella agreed to fund Christopher Columbus’ journey and a replica of Columbus’ ships that discovered America. Also the medieval palaces and wonderful rooms at times ostentatious at times functional never boring.

We then moved to the beautiful open public space of La Esapana and Maria Lucia Park. But not before watching talented street performers enthralling us with a rendition of the famous flamenco dance.

La Espana was a pavilion built for an expo in the 1920s. The pavilion –just like our very own Pragati Maidan.

It highlights the different architectural styles of Seville from the Islamic Mudejar to the gothic and interspersed with the famous ceramic.

Plaza

Plaza de Espana

Adjoining it is the lovely gardens of Maria Lucia —

Cool green park with fountains and occasional animals makes for a wonderful place for picnic or cycle rides or just romantics walks…

park

To conclude our sevillian sojourn we had a nice walk in the main tourist district and admired the cathedral and its tower one last time—this time at night.

nightcathedral2

Seville will forever remain with me. In school, I had read a phrase—Like a perfume so hard to describe so easy to recognize. That’s what Seville’s charm for us was.

Bye bye Seville

Advertisements

As Shakespeare said to bias or not to bias

Sunday morning – I woke up with a strong desire to overcome my laziness and finish my part 2 Travel blog. But as they say the best laid plans of men and mice…. I came upon this brilliant piece of journalism on the famous Kanwar yatra in Hindustan Times (http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/shiva-s-band-of-men-into-the-world-of-the-kanwariyas/story-4Z6ocbSPL2PoaSshyl1KwN.html )

A bit of a background- The Kanwar yatra is a famous religious pilgrimage in North India wherein devotees walk all the way to Gangotri to collect water from the Ganga which is then poured on the shivlings in their villages. Of late as with many large religious gatherings the scale of the yatra has increased and it has become more socio cultural in nature

But the article promises an in-depth coverage but instead gives out prejudiced opinion Here I deconstruct some brilliant lines from this piece. Snippets from the article are in Italics.

“Thousands of young men taking over every inch of public space to do what they think is their right – walking, running, driving, dancing, dressing, undressing, bathing, sleeping…”

Oh my God, these uncouth people how the hell do they have a right to walk, run and drive in the space shared with us.

And bathing like this….. How dare they offend us with their bodies?

Bathing

(Above Picture from the said article)

Can’t they be more stylish and enjoy themselves in an appropriate fashion like below. “Zara ke dukaan kam pad gaye kya”

Bieberfan
(The above picture is from an article from rediff  ( https://goo.gl/nS9H9V ) of stylish fans in a Justin Bieber concert. )

Kanwariyas make headlines for coming in the way of law and order. This season alone, Kanwariyas have been in the news for falling off trains, being electrocuted on a street, being hit by a bus…”

These morons – how dare they break the law& order by being hit by a bus?

“But who are these young men taking over the streets in much of north India and why is everyone afraid of them? For one, they are armed with hockey sticks.”

Oh my God! They are armed with hockey sticks in this peaceful city with absolutely no road rage.

“All of these men were born in the same village, belong to the same caste – Mali (OBC) “

Yes, let me run them down by mentioning the caste and then just to complete the job mention OBC in parentheses. For a supposedly detailed article let me not bother to get a holistic profile. Ideally, caste should have been avoided but if it had to be mentioned it should have been worded like this —that the only group I met among 20 million pilgrims were from this particular community.

“He is a small man with dark skin, high cheekbones and sunken eyes. “

Shee Shee. He is small and has sunken eyes… Caste run down done, appearance rundown done now let’s move to economic run down……

He and his friends make up the first generation of men in their families to work outside the fields; only one of them has gone to high school. Naresh himself dropped out in fifth grade to support his family. A vegetable vendor, Naresh makes Rs 15,000 a month and saves at least Rs 7,000 through the year to put in the Kanwar kitty. “Why spend the saving on Kanwar?” I ask him.

  • Chalo economic rundown doe.
  • School dropout, vegetable vendor, and 15k a month—The contempt just drips…
  • Why save and follow your passion for a few days in the year. How dare they dream of a road trip? Who the hell do they think they are – Do they think they are cool bikers on their Harleys, Triumphs, Ducatis, And Bullets ( middle class wannabes are also OK ) going to Ladakh

“A vast majority of Kanwariyas are young men from low-income families in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan who are themselves hanging on to the edges of the informal economy as drivers, laborers and security guards. The four words – Bhole has called me – are uttered less in devotion and more as a code for escape from the uncertainties of their daily lives, from chances of earning fixed wages to chances of finding a good wife. The Kanwar Yatra is their one chance to prove their talents – physical strength, resourcefulness, wit – without being faced with market realities.”

How dare they have escapist fantasies? Don’t they realize that they are poor help who can dream of such things? They are so disgusting that they can’t earn properly or get good partners and they dare to dream. Anyways what do they have in real life: strength, resourcefulness wit—useless skills.

“Apparently, only a man can understand what a Kanwar yatra means to another man. Married for four years, Naresh has never brought his wife along on a Kanwar trip.”

These uncouth people—they can have no concept of male bonding –who the hell do they think they are—characters from Zindagi Naa Milegi Dobara that they can do a male bonding trip. (And no its not harassment when you sing — ‘Mujhko baahon mein tum ghero Samjhi Na senorita’. They are not classless poor people-they can buy Birkins)

“Delhi this is when Naresh and his friends come face to face with an urban middle class they only provide their services to otherwise. “

Finally, these louts are in Delhi—don’t they realize in this city they can only serve as cheap laborers as I have previously mentioned and not enjoy like us.

And create traffic—who the hell do they think they are? Are they a fashionable marriage party?

DelhiTraffic

From the HT archive. But middle class celebrations do not cause any inconvenience

“To have a good time with friends. To have fun,” he says, sharing on Facebook a selfie he has just taken with me.

On a serious note, that is the one line that touched me. Ultimately some (unlike the ‘journalist’ I can’t generalize and I agree that there are some bad elements in every gathering thus I use the word some) of these young men are just like us. Want some fun.

Not for once am I suggesting that the Kanwar yatra is all pristine and innocent. As per the journalists own figure 20 million people take part—even a fraction of these people being unpleasant elements will have a large impact. What I am against is the outright condescending and prejudiced article that reeks of arrogance.

Most of the so called sins of the Kanwars have been committed by practically each and every rock concert. Recently Justin Bieber had a 3 hour concert in Mumbai and it left the city in a chaos with people struggling on the road for hours, the venue was left incredibly dirty with the educated, ‘class-wale’ log strewing food and beverages everywhere. So many of us have either gone drunk or smuggled alcohol or other contra band into concerts. Two years back I was in Ahmedabad and attended an Arijit Concert- the new city with barely any traffic was choked up and the lesser said the better about the behavior inside the venue. It was so surprising then that my own class mates from Ahmedabad were complaining about the Kanwars. Forget concerts, even the few IPL matches held in Mumbai cause the same problems. The lane behind Taj is invariably jam packed after the match with people boozing up at Gokul and having kebabs at Bademiyan.

And it’s not just the Kanwars and this journalist–whenever there are mass gatherings of people who are not like us we upper classes invariably react this way. Obviously, the number of people who gather in such event will be more, much more than those at a rupees 10k, 3 hour concert and thus the impact may seem different. But the basic principles are the same.

Biebermess

A sample of what happens whenever crowds gather

 

One of my friends pointed out to me that it is natural to be prejudiced, however, a relative put it more colloquially in Bengali—Loosely translated – Your own farts don’t stink.

Maybe we can try to be more compassionate towards others, towards those who are not as fortunate as us—who can’t live the way we do. It doesn’t mean that we should condone all activities and encourage litter and congestion. But it also means that we should tolerate public celebration during Ganpati Visarjan and not abuse them for dancing on the streets of their own country while we dream of having our own Mardi gras or Tomatina.

I for one support and encourage occasional public celebration irrespective of class or religion. I am all for concerts and religious processions. I believe the authorities both police and civic should manage these events better (they largely do so). The over worked cops managing traffic should get extra wages ideally from the organizers. They can rope in organizers to ensure that people are educated on civic behavior so that neither Kanwars cause a mess on Delhi streets nor do Beliebers strew food all over the venue.

We may be an imperfect nation but we are a nation of equals. We all have our own problems which are hard very hard but as the young Kanwar, Vikram said—sometimes we just want to have fun and click a selfie with friends while grooving to a techno version of har har mahadev or shape of you or better both.

 

 

 

Travels……..

Why do we write about our travels?  In today’s era where great cameras, software, and filters can make even amateur photographers look like champions, where goggle earth lets you take 360 degree tours, where talented bloggers pour poetry into monuments—why should I write about my experiences.

Is it because we want to pen down how we feel, Is it because we have more to say than FB check ins/ posts, is it because we are all today in need of public gratification equated to likes, is it because we want to write down small details before we forget, is it because it will serve as a reminder to future self about what we liked/ did not like. For me, it appears as a mix of all these reasons and a few more. Thus here goes my travelogue about Spain. I shall write this in 3 or 4 pieces covering the cities we visited and the experiences we had.

But first a bit of introduction

Spain – Why Spain?

Spain is one of the world’s most visited destinations but strangely figures low on the priority list for Indian travelers who generally look at France, Switzerland, UK, Italy, Netherlands, Greece, Germany and even Eastern Europe. Frankly, you can take a map of Europe and throw a pin and you will find beauty, art, culture, and history. What piqued my interest were some discussions with friends who have previously visited, basic googling. Also, other factors played a role—We wanted to complete the trip by June, didn’t want too cold a place thus ruling out eastern parts of Europe, some budget restrictions, some members of our family had already visited France, Italy Netherlands. Thus we zeroed in on Spain. Members—Yes, both my wife and I wanted to take our parents (who haven’t travelled much out of Asia) to a big tour of Europe (bucket list maybe?) And thus our trip was now a big family vacation.

Sometime I may write on how once can budget, plan and execute an ideal vacation. But for now, let me talk about our first city–Barcelona.

A teacher once told me that Calcutta is the only city in India which has a soul- I don’t know about the ‘soulless-ness’ of other Indian cities but I am very sure that Barcelona indeed has a soul and its architecture goes a long way in contributing to that. Impressive, different, thought provoking, not beholden to ancient norms the architecture in Barcelona is a reflection of the city itself. One that has a strong streak of independent thinking evident in the strong sentiment of Catalonia. Locals here prefer you speak in Catalan and not Spanish, houses still display the Catalonian flag- people of Barcelona are proud of their autonomous heritage and status.

Going back to architecture–Antoni Gaudi was the leading contributor to its architecture.  Basically, what Sachin Tendulkar is to cricket in India, Gaudi was to architecture in Barcelona in the late 19th and early 20th century. Modernista Architecture came into global reckoning and Gaudi was one of the leading proponents. His flagship creation (still being created though) is the incredible Sagrada Familia Church (Holy Family Church) which we visited as among our first sites in Barcelona on a sunny yet cool morning.

One can see the exterior as one steps out from the metro and it stuns you with visual delight. But it’s the interior, the massive towers, the carvings— basically what the church as a whole does to you, is what’s important. It stuns you and compels you to bow your head in devotion. And that’s exactly what Gaudi intended. A masterpiece with a vision.

(The front or nativity facade, the ceiling and the layout of the alter)

When Gaudi started work on the project he knew it would never be completed in his lifetime and thus famously said “My Client (God) has no scarcity of time” and is still being constructed (for more than 100 years hoping to complete it in 2026- the centenary of Gaudi’s death yes ‘hoping’) In fact today architects are leading the construction using some of his diagrams and their interpretation (as most of the sketches were lost during the Spanish Civil war)

Gaudi was inspired a lot by nature and thus the interior of the church appears like a rain forest with stunning stained glass windows that plays with sunlight enhancing it and bathing the church indifferent hues. He even uses sunlight to showcase God as light right above the altar with the stunning suspended Christ looking up to it. Quite Pagan If I may say so. But expected from Gaudi. He did say the sun is the best painter.

DSCN0212

( Painting by the sun– natural light used for different hues)

We did go up the towers but that was a complete disappointment. Frankly, most of the tower climbing anywhere is gimmicky and touristy unless you can go seriously high.

After this experience, we moved on to Park Guell. The true mark of a genius is often measured by how ‘before time’ his or her ideas were. And the true pioneering ideas invariably fail! And Park Guell is exactly that- A big failure! More than 100 years ago a rich man Guell proposed a radical idea – An exclusive gated community of grand houses on a hill top amidst greenery overlooking the city designed by one of the world’s best architects- Gaudi something like the Hamptons in New York.  And the rich felt we can’t leave the squalor of the city behind and move to luxury villas-They rejected the idea with no houses being built ( barring the guard’s quarters only grand pavilions, amphitheaters, walkways ) Alas Guell only had the genius of Gaudi with him and not that of Unitechs/ Ansals and thus he went bankrupt. So this gated community is now a paid park for tourists to enjoy.

One of the few completed buildings –

DSCN0258(The Guard or manager tower. Basically watchman uncle’s hut!!)

Similarly, other Gaudi buildings evoke different feelings from amazement at Casa Batillo with its lack of straight edges to the impressive Palau Guell.

But I dont want this to be an architecture lesson , so lets got to the beach-clean blue Barcelona beaches….. Barcelona beaches are said to be the best city beaches in the world. Dotted with walkways, sitting, play zones, the beach is truly pleasant for a stroll and a dip in the deep blue waters (unlike the grey seas here).

beach

We ended the day with the magical magic fountain. Something about grand massive structures really enthralls me. And it rarely gets grander than this — a massive fountain in front of the Grand National Arts plaza. Barcelona was one brilliant day

If day one was about the brilliance of modernism and Gaudi, day 2 took us back a few centuries. We walked on the centuries old gothic quarters absorbing delights like a 12th century Church (Church of Santa Anna) which was at the same time beautiful and eerie—One can imagine a reboot of Omen to be shot there J. But first we began the day with a lovely ice cream (yes we can have ice cream as a second breakfast- we shouldn’t be Nazis about when to have ice cream) at the Planelles Donat delighting their customers with ice cream since 1850 ( yes centuries old that is a running theme across Spain or most of Europe ).  Strolling through the Plaza Catalunya, one understands how cities can marry modernity, antiquity, and tourism.

( A 12th century church flanked by modern buildings)

Enjoying the walk we ended up in front of a massive cathedral. Our guide books told us that this was the Barcelona Cathedral—we were wondering whether we should shell out the entry fee as we had many cathedrals lined up. But we did…and was I glad that we did. The interior is stunning. One look and we were blown away. Very very different from the modernist Sagrada Familia but equally stunning. Standing in front of the altar you feel transported to a period film—you can practically imagine The Knights Templar or other orders marching by and grand ceremonies.

Image borrowed from a super talented photographer friend and colleague Babul Bhatt ( http://www.babulbhatt.com/ )

18767947_10155356453888630_3135668082417563350_n

We followed the church visit with some of the key touristic things like a walk in the gothic quarter, looking at the brilliant street architecture of gargoyles and arched balconies, the buzzing street La Ramblas and finally a monument dedicated to Columbus. In all this, we also covered the famous market – not for faint hearted vegetarians with lots and lots of sea food being sold there. The day ended with a walk through Arc de Triomphe and Park, The Park was great with its central waterfall however after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris this one was a tad bit disappointing.

DSCN0424

Our packed schedule in Barcelona didn’t give us much time to enjoy gastronomical delights but we did find a brilliant paella place and tried the famous black squid ink paella. Our only regret was not allocating good time to explore great eats. But we made up for that in the next few cities…….

With this, I end my tales of Barcelona and leave you with this delightful song…