SOON ON AMAZON INDIA & FLIPKART
Babar’s ears flapping in the wind as he sticks his neck out the car’s window
I, telling Sandeep that I am closing my eyes as we descend down a steep road without a divider
I, breaking two teacups
The sun, huge and bright and near as we drive in between and under a canopy of trees in a forest reserve
The red, red soil everywhere around us, and inside the car on Babar’s paw
And then the sight of water finally
The flickering lights on the diyas neatly arranged on the pathway in the front yard of our hotel
The bright fragmented reflection of the sun on the gentle waves
And Babar running towards Sandeep on the shallow part of the sea
A mother absentmindedly walking towards the shore until the water touches her feet
Her toddler stumbling behind her
I, enjoying my spinach and mushroom omelet, a large bowl of fruit and cappuccino
on the beach
The sound of laughter, faint, distant, dream like
A dead starfish by my feet
Duvet covers stained with red soil
Hippies in a holistic restaurant
Hippies on a scooter
A snake on the road towards Palolem beach
A middle age woman in a pink satin Sunday dress gripping a bible on her chest
An old church I will not enter
Are the only memories I have of our trip to Agonda beach in Goa two years ago.
The beauty of Jispa Valley was a welcome sight after a harrowing day that started at Manali and escalated at Rothang Pass. As I swung my legs off the bike, I wondered how we managed to reach this place in one piece. The route we took before we descended to the valley were interspersed with breathtaking sceneries and horrific road conditions where my death flashed before my eyes a thousand ways; hurled to the bottom of the cliff, crushed under a truck, dragged by a raging stream and all other horrors my mind could conjure.
My nerves were soothed momentarily as I gaped at the splendour before me though when I closed my eyes to sleep all the horrors of the day came back to me scrambling on top of each other giving me a panic attack. My heart raced, and I felt the onset of altitude sickness, good that we packed all the recommended medicine. Sandeep gave me a pill, and I went into a dreamless slumber.
I woke up to a beautiful morning in the valley, feeling refreshed and optimistic. The worst must be over. Or so I hoped.
After tea and breakfast, Sandeep, Nadeem and I walked towards the stream at the foot of the majestic mountains barricading the vale. There it dawned on me how incredibly beautiful this world is, how exquisite these hidden gems were.
Nadeen then told us it was time for our acclimatisation exercise, an activity essential to our survival once we drive higher later on towards Leh. So we scaled one of the pretty hills in the valley. I lagged behind as usual. Sandeep tried to motivate me as much as he could, but I often get distracted with the breathtaking view below us.
It was a pity that we could not stay longer in Jispa; this beauty was just one of the pitstops to our final destination, so before the morning was over we continued our journey towards our next stopping place, Pang La. But I was glad that we also stopped for a while in a pretty village in Darcha though it was just 7 kilometres away from Jispa.
I enjoyed the hot lemon tea in the dhaba where we took a break. It was a nice change from the usual Indian tea with milk. The locals, I noticed, seemed to look more like myself than my Indian companions.
As we leave Jispa Valley behind, the feeling of terror mixed with amazement I felt on the way there was multiplied a thousand times on our way to Pang La. Still unaware of the perils that lay before us, I felt ecstatic as I ride behind Sandeep, enjoying the crisp cold wind on my face, and the sight before me which was indescribable in its awesomeness and magnificence.
“Remember guys, the world’s best gelato is at Gelateria Dondoli. I repeat, Gelateria Dondoli. The gelateria across them claims that they have the “the world’s best gelato”, but Dandoli had won the title back to back since 2006. Also, Dandoli has been making homemade gelato with the freshest ingredients for generations and is the favourite of the locals, so make sure you get your gelato from them.” Alice, one of the tour guides, was saying over the megaphone as our tour bus was approaching the parking lot in San Gimignano. A little later, while we were leisurely licking our gelato from Gelateria Dondoli , we saw a couple walking towards that gelateria from across the street, the one Alice said was falsely claiming they sell the best gelato in the world. The couple looked confused and unsure. The gelateria also had a sign that says, “ The World’s Best Gelato” on their door. After the couple read the sign, they entered the shop and ordered a gelato.
“Look at who didn’t get the memo,” I remarked. Sandeep chuckled and nearly choked on his gelato.
Earlier, after having our breakfast at the Machiavelli Palace, where we were staying in Florence, we proceeded towards Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station to meet with our tour organizer. It was drizzling a little when we went out of the hotel, but fortunately, it was just a short walk (340 meters) to the train station. The other tourists that belong to our group were already there. After sticking blue stickers on our tops, and a blue flag on his backpack, the tour organizer, led our group towards our bus. Our double-decker tour bus was scheduled to leave Florence at 8 am and then return at 8 pm.
The sight of the parked trains as we walked past it on our way to the bus parking lot evoked the thrill of adventure in me. I thought of all exotic and exciting places it could take me. I skipped a little to catch up with Sandeep and held his hand. He looked at me, squeezed my hand and smiled. He understood. My heartbeat accelerated at the realisation that I was finally going to see the Tuscan countryside! A life long dream.
And I was not disappointed. Our seats at the top of the double-decker bus gave us a great vantage point of the rolling hillside as we traversed the winding roads towards San Gimignano. I felt like I was inside an Italian oil painting with yellow glazing. It was autumn then, so the trees had pastel yellow leaves. And yes, I could see Tuscan villas atop the hills flanked by cypress trees, surrounded by sprawling olive orchards. I marvelled at the rows and rows of olive trees carpeting the small hills with gentle slopes that extend a long way into the distance. I’ve must have eaten thousands of olives by now, but it was the first time I saw an olive tree. The sunlight itself that hits the foliage has a natural filter that turns everything golden. The images of Tuscany I saw from photographs and painting, it seems, do not look that way because of a camera filter nor because of an Impressionist interpretation, the whole place glows golden naturally especially a few minutes before sunset.
I remarked to Sandeep over and over how soft the sunlight in Europe is, and wondered how there are no harsh shadows captured in the photos. Sandeep then explained to me how Europe is angled away from the Sun slightly, thus casting subtler rays as opposed to Asia and the Middle East, where the sun rays fall directly with intense fury. Sandeep loves to do physical demonstrations while he is explaining something and he loved for me to listen attentively. He made two balls with his fist to illustrate the sun and the earth, and their movements. I nodded hurriedly as not to miss any scenery from my bus window. Though, I was half-listening also as a quiz might be imminent after the lecture.
We disembarked from the bus once it was adequately parked at San Gimignano. I saw one modern supermarket near the parking lot, which was looking a bit out of place in that medieval-themed town.
Before we entered the fortified medieval town of San Gimignano, Alice reminded us where our meeting place was and at what time we have to come back.
“There are public restrooms inside, but better use the toilets in the cafes. You have to order something though before they will let you use the washroom.” Alice advised.
I began to wonder how much commission Alice gets from this “helpful advisory”.
Sandeep and I are fond of Alice, though. She was pleasant and charming in her black flower printed summer dress, which kept billowing in the wind. She did look flustered as she tied a black puffer jacket around her waist to prevent the wind from lifting her skirt, and exposing herself to us. She disappeared while we were getting off the bus then the next time we saw her she was already wearing a black stocking under the dress. She stopped fussing over her skirt after that.
Once we entered San Gimignano, we were transported in time. Save for the modern shops along the streets the town looked properly medieval, with its cobbled stone streets, brick walls and terracotta rooftops. In between the shops were romantic looking cafes, with ornate street lamps, outdoor sitting areas and tables covered in a damask tablecloth. Pinocchio seems to be the town mascot probably because the author of The Adventures of Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi, was from Florence. I saw little Pinocchio souvenirs in most of the shops. One shop was especially stern, warning curious tourists with a sign that says, “Do not take photos if you are not buying anything.” The lavender dolls inside the shop were quite cute though, but the sign intimidated me so much that I was scared to even check them out.
We climbed uphill to reach the town centre, passing by the church and the towers. A mass was being held in the church and tourists were only welcome to go inside if they are going to attend the mass.
I remembered how scared I felt inside an old church in Vigan where lots of people died because of an epidemic. I could feel the darkness in there even before I knew what happened there, which I learned later. While inside that church, I suddenly felt I could not breathe, and I had panic attacks. I started to feel the same dread as I looked at what I thought was a guillotine. My mind started wondering how many people would have died there.
Sandeep approached the structure and laughed once he saw what it was. He waved for me to come. I hesitated, then I looked. Well, it was only a medieval well. That’s what I get for watching too many violent medieval films. Did they even use a guillotine in Italy? Wrong country, wrong century.
The “Historic Centre of San Gimignano” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also where Dandoli gelateria is located. Sandeep and I decided that finally, it was time to taste the real world-class gelato. I fought my way in to get inside the gelateria where the other tourists from our groups were ordering on top of each other heaps of gelato.
My one regret was that I did not experiment with the choices of gelato. I was intimidated with how exotic the ice cream looked. The names as well were mostly in Italian, I was not sure what I would be getting so I got the safest choice; a tiramisu for Sandeep and I. The gelato did taste divine, so much better than the gelato we had in Florence.
After licking the last drop of the delectable creamy goodness on my lips we went on exploring the rest of the area until we reached an archway, that seems to be the exit of the walled town. Sandeep was especially awed by a group of elderly gentlemen chatting idly on a bench nearby. Sandeep remarked how well dressed they were in their caps, jackets and suits.
There was still some time to kill before our appointed meeting time, so we wandered inside a souvenir shop on our way back. The store was manned by a Geppetto look-alike, who blushed profusely when I asked if I could take a photo of him.
Sandeep got a miniature yellow tractor, and I got a vintage-styled olive oil cruet. Happy with our loot we stopped by for a cappuccino in one of the cafes.
We almost missed a lookout with the most scenic panoramic viewpoint in the world had we not seen the sign in a narrow alleyway that says ” the most beautiful panoramic viewpoint in the world this way”. The four-story building that Alice mentioned earlier on the bus was alongside it. Alice mentioned before that in these homes, the kitchen often caught fire, so the kitchen was eventually placed on top of the building to prevent the whole house from burning down.
The panoramic view of the Tuscan countryside viewed from that lookout point was postcard perfect. Exactly how one expects Tuscany would look like. I think I have seen that scenery in a variety of images before, the villa, the cypress trees, and the olive orchards but to see them in life is an image I will cherish for the rest of my life.
first wash of watercolour
Indigo ink outlines
This watercolour illustration is inspired by our hike in a small village in Sangla, Himachal Pradesh.
first wash background
painting the shadows
“Babar’s been playing the lifeguard, honey,” Sandeep called out to me as I walked towards them. He sounded worried.
“He’s been running towards the sea every time someone would dip their heads under the water. He thinks they are drowning and he keeps trying to rescue them.”
Babar greeted me cheerfully with his wagging tail as I came near him. He was completely drenched.
“He did the same thing with me when we were in Goa. Whenever I go underwater, Babar would swim towards me to rescue me. I am anxious these strong waves would carry him to the middle of the sea, and he might not be able to swim back to shore.” Sandeep added.
I looked at the waves. It did look extra violent that evening.
“Let’s walk further away from these people,” Sandeep suggested. I saw a group of five people half-submerged in the water, holding hands to brace themselves from the onslaught of the thundering waves. It seemed to thrill them each time the waves assaulted them. A little girl kept shrieking whenever the waves hit them. In turn, we kept urging Babar to move on when we see him turning his head towards them every time she screams.
It was then our second evening in Pondicherry, well in Tamil Nadu technically, since the pet-friendly resort where we were staying at was located almost outside the border of Pondicherry.
We were staying in an eco-resort and spa of sorts. That was our second time there. We chose to stay in this place again because they allow dogs in their property and they have a nice enough private beach. It is located about 20 km away from the main town of Pondicherry though.
The sprawling property is vast; we have to take a short ride in their resort cab to reach our cottage. The cottages are expensive during peak season at 7500 rupees per night for nature cooled bamboo hut but drops to 5000 rupees on the lean season. The air-conditioned private bungalows could be as costly as 15000 rupees to 30000 rupees per night. If you feel like splurging, you can book the most expensive ones with private swimming pools. The most popular accommodation is the tower suite which offers gorgeous panoramic views of the sea. Breakfast buffet is included in the room rates. ( Be sure to read reviews from travel websites like Tripadvisors or Booking.com before booking your rooms to have realistic expectations of your accommodation and browse travelers photos instead of the professional ones taken by the resorts themselves.)
The resort ambiance is quaint in its rural village appeal. It has glimpses of some artistic concept, but overall, the grounds lack proper maintenance. The landscaping looks too wild, unkempt, semi-desert, semi-tropical beach-inspired. Towering coconut trees lining the pathways and giant cactuses serving as fences in between bamboo bungalows. While roaming around, I felt like a castaway in an abandoned resort where wilderness crept in and swallowed it.
It is the nearest beach from Bangalore and the only resort allowing dogs we did not have many choices if we want to go on a quick drive to a coastal town. And the city of Pondicherry is always lovely to visit especially the French town area, though parking is often a problem. We spent our Christmas holiday there thinking that, Pondicherry is a former French colony, the Christians in Pondicherry would be celebrating the Christmas festival more earnestly that they would in Bangalore. I saw a couple of churches with some Christmas lanterns on them, but there was none of the Christmas cheer I was expecting. The resort itself did not have any Christmas decorations. There was a magician who performed in the resort restaurant on Christmas eve, but that was it.
Ten kilometers away from the resort, we discovered a nice pizzeria serving delicious woodfired pizzas at a reasonable price. They allowed Babar to sit with us on their outdoor table, so that was a plus.
One good thing about Babar in this kind of trips, he’ll be so exhausted playing outdoors and would snooze away while we have our meal. We never have to worry about him bothering anybody. Before coming in with Babar in any restaurant, I would always ask the owner’s permission. Babar usually slept so quietly that the manager or owner would often ask me where is the dog that came with us. They would laugh upon seeing him sleeping so sedately under the table.
The restaurant in the resort prohibited us from taking Babar there while we eat. Sandeep and I have to eat separately, one at a time. One has to stay with Babar in the cottage while the other eats at the restaurant. It’s not an unusual practice for us whenever we visit in places offering breakfast buffet meals. In our six years of travelling with Babar, we have developed an efficient routine in reducing the chances of Babar being a nuisance to other holidayers.
In the balcony of the cottage we rented for this Christmas weekend, a fraction of the sea was visible framed by overgrown hibiscus and bougainvillaea shrubs. From a distance, the whiteness of the surf merges with the sky. If not for the movement of the waves, you would not be able to tell where the sky and sea meet.
It made me sad to see a bit of debris on the beach. It would be nice if they can keep the place litter-free. Although the sea itself does the job of cleaning the shores each push, the waves as it come and go keep the coast clean. The rubbish retreats to where the water could not reach it. It was a pity since it is a lovely beach.
On our last day on the beach Babar, the self-appointed lifeguard of Kalapet beach, suddenly needed some rescuing himself but not from the tumultous waves. Aside from playing in the water, Babar’s enjoyment comes from meeting other dogs. The resort has a couple of resident dogs, and Babar has wanted to meet them. Sandeep, thinking the dogs were friendly, let Babar approached them. One of the dogs started growling, menacingly, as he came nearer then lunged towards Babar’s leg all of a sudden. Sandeep bolted to where they were to rescue Babar from getting bitten. Babar let out a pained whine. He felt hurt that his friendly gesture was reciprocated with violence. We examined his body thoroughly. Thankfully we did not find any bite wounds, only wounded pride.
I was glad the unfortunate incident did not dampen Babar’s happiness. He forgot about the mean dog as soon as he started playing in the water again, flirting with the waves as it advanced and retreated.
Sandeep’s disappointment was palpable as we ascended the steep cobbled street towards Montmartre. It was my idea to check out the place. Sandeep had been to Paris several times but has not been to Montmartre even once. I insisted that we visit because it used to be the hub of some of our favourite artists, like Van Gogh, Modigliani and Lutrec. I thought it would be a shame not to walk on the streets they use to tread.
Upon alighting from the taxi, I understood right away Sandeep’s reservation in going there. The moment we stepped out of the car, we were mobbed by ‘artists’ asking to draw our portraits for a few euros. They were incredibly persistent and hounded us for several minutes until they spotted a new prey. Sandeep is passionate about art and has little patience for posers; Montmartre seemed to be teeming with them. A bohemian hang-out turned tourist trap.
But despite all this, I still found the place charming. In my mind, I stripped down the current touristy ambience of the area and tried to imagine how it would have been back then; the cafes, the pubs and the artists. I imagine it would have been quite scintillating with those colourful artists, writers and musicians swarming the place.
Before exploring the village entirely, we decided to have some lunch. We were eyeing an outdoor eating area but chose to eat in a proper restaurant where there’s an option to use the washroom. Upon entering the place, I had an eerie feeling that we made a poor choice as there were very few people eating there. In spite of the swarm of tourists outside, the restaurant looked strangely deserted.
A waiter who looked like the living caricature of Woody Allen came to take our order once we sat down. I stifled my laughter as he scribbled our orders on his notepad. He was very much the embodiment of the ‘French-Waiter’ cliche. Though the scowl on his face dampened the cartoonish hilarity of his waiter uniform, he still looked pretty comical in his cerulean tilted beret with matching cerulean striped apron.
There was nothing funny, though, in the dishes that he laid down on our table after a few minutes. In fact, the duck confit and the side dish of potatoes and veggies looked quite sad and ill-humoured.
I wanted to kick myself for choosing that place when after roaming around, I could see more restaurants that seemed to offer better food. Strolling in between the cafes lining the slightly elevated roads made me feel like I am really walking in a small French village. And the aroma wafting from their kitchens smelt divine and ambrosial. It was just how I imagined a European village would be.
We kept walking aimlessly but eventually reached the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. From the steps in front of the church, despite the huge crowd, you’ll be able to behold a breathtaking panoramic view of the city of Paris.
Paris looks gorgeous from up there, and no amount of hawkers and posers or bad food could diminish the romance and charisma of Montmartre.