Author Archives: C.C.
Author Archives: C.C.
I have barely left the airport and II we’ve already taken the sharp II right turn, down a dusty side II road that we could have nearly II missed seeing. As the wrought II iron gates that lie before me m creak open to reveal a definitively Portuguese edifice, I feel a sense of nostalgia for the future: I’d rather like to own a house like this. Matieu greets me with the effortless charm that only the French can muster. How was my flight? Anything for lunch? How about the Caprese salad? Bon appetite. An air of tranquility sweeps its way through the inner courtyard, welcome as an afternoon zephyr. As I sat out on a breezy terrace, watching the Zuari River ebb and flow away, so too does the babble of modem day life.
This, I realise, is what they mean by susegad. Formerly known as Villa Morgado, Casa da Graca is a passion project between owner and dreamer, Simran Kaur, architectural visionary Alex Von Moltke, and the indispensible contractor Abbas Sheikh. Working tirelessly together, it took almost three years for this inexorable triumvirate to transform the unloved former home of the de Siqueira Nazare family, back to its current splendour. Over a century old, there are hints to the property’s grand past: the family crest greets guests as they enter, traditional blue and white Portuguese murals adorn the walls of the bathroom. An oasis like swimming pool in the courtyard is a welcome modem addition.
Far from the maddening crowds of Goa’s northern beaches, Casa da Graca is located in the fabled ‘real’ Goa. That’s right it’s not lost, it’s just hiding. Just a short drive from colourfully tiled Latin quarter of Fontainhas, with its independent boutiques and local cafes, and the church-lined streets of Old Goa, few travellers bother to visit this comer of India’s smallest state. And that’s exactly why you should go there.
Peace, small but perfectly formed, is the only room with views of the River Zuari, from its own private garden terrace; while Compassion and Devotion overlook the pool. My room, The Creation Suite, was palatial. Not misinformed travel-website ‘palatial.’ No, getting something from the other side is to embark on your very own Camino de Santiago, palatial. While in the bathroom there was a bathtub so enormous it probably warranted an on-duty lifeguard. Goodness, I thought, deciding phone battery was not essential and I’d probably be safer with a shower; they must have had staff for this in those days. And they do. Matieu runs a small team like a family unit.
In fact the property retains the feel of a well-run family home—like you’re staying with that wealthy, eccentric aunt you don’t have. He admits to not being a chef by profession, hut he shouldn’t, because the food is delectable. Kingfish steamed in banana leaf with fragrant jasmine and seafood linguine are their signature dishes. Romancing couples coo across candle-lit tables overlooking the pool while even the most ardent epicure will feast their eyes on the breakfast. Fresh yoghurt set the night before accompanied by homemade granola and crepe Suzettes so delicate they could have been flambeed by Henri Charpentier himself. As much as possible is either made in house or locally sourced, and everything is fresh and of the best possible quality. Mon dieu, I’m glad the French are such snobs about their food.
Casa da Graca’s melange of styles and flavours is an immaculate reflection of the influence of Goa’s colonies over the years; executed with all the attention to detail of a labour of love. Its walls whisper the message susegad where guests are lulled into a sense of blissful indolence, often garnered with proximity to the sea. And is that not, after all, what we are all in search of in the sunshine state?
At daybreak, the sun was already scorching as I coasted into the Tuscan village of Spergolaia on a rusty silver cruiser. I passed cream-coloured stucco buildings, stables, and cattle chutes before arriving at a dirt lot where an athletic-looking Italian man in his 30s, dressed in a pristine tan gilet, a white shirt, and dark riding breeches, was bending over to put on a pair of leather boots. He looked quizzically at me and my bike. “Buongiorno,” he said.
“Buongiomo,” I replied, and asked if a horseback ride with the butteri was scheduled for that morning. He nodded. As this would be my first time, I asked him how difficult it would be. “Impegnativo” he said. Challenging. I’ve been riding since I was a little girl, but I’m no pro. Still, there was no way I would be deterred from riding with Italy’s very own cowboys, which I’d been dying to do since learning about them when I lived in Rome, two decades ago.
The butteri are the cattle breeders and horsemen of the Maremma, a rugged coastal region that stretches across southern Tuscany and northern Lazio from the coast to the plains. Their way of life dates back to the spread of agriculture during Etruscan times. But beyond Italy, few are aware that among the celebrated vineyards, hotels, and restaurants that now dot the countryside between Florence and Rome, a vibrant cowboy culture has existed for thousands of years—and is today struggling to survive.
The man in the lot directed me across the road to the main stable of the Tenutadi Alberese, a state-owned, 10,000-acre ranch six miles from the Maremma coast. There I met Stefano Pavin, a 51-year-old buttero with golden hair and sun-bronzed skin who was placing military-style scafarda saddles on a row of Maremmano horses, a bay-coloured breed indigenous to the region. Pavin wore a stylishly simple outfit—straw hat, olive-green cotton work shirt, khaki pants, dark brown riding boots—typical of the butteri, whose sartorial preferences have inspired fashion designer s like Dolce & Gabbana. A pair of Italian visitors and l would spend the next four hours helping him and two other men check fences and move a herd of is foals from a hilly pasture to the salt flats on the other side of the ranch.
Because of the low wages and physical demands of their work, the butteri have been in steady decline, a trend accelerated by Italy’s economic downturn. Fewer than 50 are thought to remain in the Maremma. Most earn a living raising livestock, making wine, and producing organic grains, olive oil, and meats for Slow Food purveyors. Pavin is one of two full-time cowboys at the Tenutadi Alberese, where he cares for 70 horses and 450 cows. “Being a buttero is away of life, not a fashion style,” he said as he rode beside me. “It’s not easy. There’s the extreme heat and the cold, and getting thrown on the ground and stomped on. The weak go away.”
There are about two dozen associations in Italy dedicated to preserving butteri culture. In spring and summer, several stage spettacoli, in which horsemen demonstrate their gallantry before a paying audience by performing elaborate dressage routines and cattle drives in traditional costume. Working farms have also adapted to modern times by embracing tourism. The Tenutadi Alberese now offers farm stays, some in historic buildings like the Villa Fattoria Granducale, built as a fortress by the Knights of Malta in the 15th century. For US$65, the ranch also invites experienced riders to show up in Spergolaia on any workday at 7 am, as I had done, to accompany the butteri as they go about their morning chores.
We cantered across the fields, making sure the rough-hewn chestnut fences were still intact. We visited a watering hole for the horses, passing a herd of robust gray-and-white Maremmana longhorns, before continuing along rocky switchbacks, through a grove of olive trees and into a meadow where the reddish-brown foals were grazing. This terrain was inhospitable marsh, rife with malaria, until Mussolini drained it in the 1930s. Today, it is still fierce. “I wear a straw hat to protect myself from the sun and a long shirt to protect myself from the horseflies,” Pavin said. He swung his uncino, a hand-carved wooden stick with a hook on one end that he uses to open gates, herd cattle, and train horses.
There was a rumbling of hooves as the foals dashed up the hill. Pavin spun his horse around in pursuit, his uncino resting casually on his shoulder. I followed gleefully at a full gallop, crouched low in the saddle, holding the reins in one hand. After falling behind, I caught up with the group at the gate to Maremma Regional Park, a protected 25,000-acre nature reserve. Inside, we followed a meandering dirt path through Mediterranean pines, grassy meadows, and the occasional cow pasture—a landscape that felt untouched by time.
We posted speedily, passing the Tower of Collelungo, a crumbling 13th-century stone lookout. The path gave way to sand dunes, which we crossed to reach our final destination, the Spiaggiadi Collelungo, a pristine gray-sand beach that was completely deserted. I followed the butteri into the emerald waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. As the horses splashed in the shoals, we gazed at the islands of Giglio and Elba and the Monte Argentario Peninsula on the horizon. Even with all that’s changed for the modern butteri, the view was as breathtaking as it must have been for their ancestors when they roamed the Maremma so many centuries ago.
Driving through the state of Madhya Pradesh, in the heart of Indian tiger country, it was difficult to reconcile the tranquil scenes flashing past my window with nonstop reports about the animal’s slide toward extinction. Tigers, it seemed, were the topic of the moment. As I set off from New Delhi on a six-day safari, global specialists were converging to discuss how many of the world’s largest felines are left, and how best to save them. With so many vested interests resting on the creature’s survival (it’s estimated that just six of India’s tiger reserves are worth US$1.2 billion to the Indian economy), it’s hard to know whose version of reality to believe.
On the one hand, the World Wildlife Fund and Global Tiger Forum claim the worldwide population has risen by 22 per cent since 2010, to 3,890. On the other, in spite of investment of about US$500 million since the start of former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi’s Project Tiger in 1973—when nine tiger reserves were created and dozens of camps built—global tiger populations have plummeted. Since 1993, numbers worldwide have halved, and in the past 80 years, three of the nine subspecies have become extinct from habitats including Indonesia and Central Asia.
In India, where two-thirds—or about 2,200— of the world’s tigers live, in and around 49 reserves, there is grounds for cautious optimism, with one study recording an increase of 30 per cent in numbers between 2010 and 2014. Having been on five tiger safaris in India in the past decade, I wanted to see if there was any perceptible improvement in terms of the numbers that were visible and the protection they were being given. Along the road from Madhya Pradesh’s Jabalpur Airport to Bandhavgarh National Park, where more than 60 cats roam through 1,11,000 acres of forest, it was clear the species is a big part of local identity. I noticed their image everywhere: on a packet of cookies bought at a stall, sculpted on an arch, painted on a village temple. I was also informed of a discouraging report stating that 19 tiger deaths had been recorded in Madhya Pradesh in the first half of 2016 (almost half of all Indian tiger deaths in that period).
As I’ve learned over the years, there’s nothing straightforward about conservation in India, and with so much conflicting information in my head, I was relieved to arrive at Samode Safari Lodge, on Bandhavgarh National Park’s periphery. Built by descendants of the royal family of Samode, the camp’s colonial-style interiors are reminiscent of an African safari camp, with whirring bamboo fans and elegant tea-planter’s chairs. My room was designed in the style of local farmhouses: roughly rendered in mud and decorated with naive, nature-inspired bas-reliefs and murals. Outside, there was a tub for starlit baths and, on lamplit communal patios, trays laid with spicy fried okra, flame-grilled prawns, and fresh coal-baked roti.
There wasn’t much time to sit around feasting, though. Bandhavgarh park authorities allow visitors to take three- and four-hour safaris twice a day, starting around 5.45 am and 2.30 pm. While that does leave a little time for a midday massage or a swim, I spent most of my days in a safari jeep in the company of my guide, Anshuman Shah. He warned me right at the start of our first drive that not every guest sees a tiger. “Most people staying three nights should see one,” he said as we made our way to the park gates. “A group from Canada recently saw eleven in four days. It’s a question of luck: being in the right place at the right time.”
A decade ago, Bandhavgarh’s roads used to be clogged with cars full of colourfully-clad passengers who would spill out, often yelling into their cell phones. Today, only a limited number of registered 4 x4s are allowed into each zone, radios and phones are banned, and a park guide has to accompany every vehicle. The experience is far more peaceful and organised—not dissimilar to a safari in a popular park in Africa— even if visitors all still want the same thing “Just tiger, tiger, tiger,” as Ramkripal Ram, our park guide, put it. But cat sightings that day weren’t good. After spending four hours in the morning and three that evening listening, watching, and tracking, we returned, slightly dispirited, to camp.
The next day, I was assured, we would have more time, since the hotel had secured one of only five 12-hour, US$750 permits issued every day: a popular move by Bandhavgarh’s authorities. “You will see a tiger before you leave, I am sure,” Shah told me. In fact, I saw not just one magnificent cat on my full-day safari, but two. When, mid-morning, we ascended a hill to find a male cub lying languidly on a shaded sandstone rock, I was so thrilled my eyes welled up. Banbayi, a handsome 18-month-old, is seen regularly in this area, Shah said. From his supine position, the cub occasionally looked up at us as we examined him through binoculars, trying to memorise every detail: the long white whiskers; the striped tail that flicked every now and then to dislodge a fly; the muscles that rippled beneath his taut, light-orange hide as he slowly padded off into the long grass to the accompaniment of hooting langurs.
Our second sighting evoked a different emotion. After lunch, we spotted an eight-year-old tigress, Pattya, slinking into a bamboo thicket to rest. Keen to see her properly, we decided to sit and wait for her to re-emerge. By the time she padded out, two hours later, another 18 safari vehicles had lined up beside us, as well as two open-topped buses of schoolchildren. Thanks to the presence of park officials, the crowd was remarkably quiet. Nonetheless, the scene was more zoo than safari, and the striped star of the show was clearly aware of her audience. After performing a quick turn—drinking delicately from a water hole, rolling like a kitten in the sand— she took a final look at the crowd and vanished. And with the evening performance over, the cat paparazzi dispersed in clouds of dust, leaving us to make our way back to camp, as the red ball of the sun sank below the tree line.
It’s a sad truth that, were the tiger a less beautiful creature, its future might be more secure. But the glorious Shere Khan archetype of The Jungle Book is in the unenviable position of being not only the beast that most tourists want to photograph, but the one poachers most want to capture for use in Chinese medicine. It is wanted both dead and alive. The fact that there are any still in existence is in part thanks to Project Tiger, and in part thanks to a handful of enlightened state leaders, said hotelier Jaisal Singh. Singh, a co-founder of Sujan Luxury, a chain of high-end Indian camps and hotels, spent much of his life studying tigers with his uncle, the well-known conservationist Valmik Thapar.
He told me that in states such as Maharashtra and Rajasthan, chief ministers have diligently implemented conservation policies. These have included programmes to turn poachers into gamekeepers, the launch of responsible-tourism organisations that link public and private companies (a pilot project of privately-run nature reserves is underway in Maharashtra), and schemes to compensate villagers if they or their livestock are harmed by a tiger. What they are up against, though, is an exploding human population that increasingly encroaches on forests, creating man-animal conflicts. “India has one and a quarter billion people, with goodness knows how many cows and goats that need land to feed on,” Singh said. Another problem is that forests are run by individual states—whose local bureaucrats make their own rules.
The central government spent US$57 million on the issue in 2015 but, according to Singh, “no matter how much money is pumped into tiger conservation, it gets sucked up by bureaucracy. Until you have a national strategy, nothing will happen.” Most conservationists agree that, under current prime minister Narendra Modi, there is little sign of positive change at a national level. Last year, Modi’s government not only cut funding for the environment by 25 per cent, and support for tiger protection by 15 per cent, but fast-tracked projects that could have disastrous environmental consequences.
These include a river diversion that will submerge nearly a third of the Panna Tiger Reserve and the expansion of a country road along the Pench Tiger Reserve into a four-lane highway. And despite signing an international agreement promising to protect tigers and their dwindling environment, the country currently loses an average of 333 acres of forest a day, which partially explains why the creatures now occupy just 7 per cent of their original habitat. As Julian Matthews from Travel Operators for Tigers explains: “Now less than two per cent of India is protected, far less than is needed for the tiger’s ecological security. Forests are being decimated for pasture and charcoal. So tigers are increasingly forced to live off cattle, which further worsens man-animal conflict.”
When we set off on our four-day trek in Ladakh, through the Hemis National Park, our itinerary included night stays in homes in different villages. Little did we know that the homes would spring a series of surprises. During our trek in Uttarakhand, we had stayed in rest houses that offered great views and a mountain of warm but itchy quilts. We slept in candlelit rooms. On one unforgettable trek, we had taken shelter in a shepherd’s stone hut through along, rainy deluge, with smoke pouring in from the kitchen and water rushing in rivulets through the walls.
As we made our way we hoped our homestays would be better. A room in a hut, though dimly lit, would still be homely. But would it be cold? Damp? Noisy? Time would tell. Rumbak village—when we first caught sight of it— gleamed white and brown in the distance. Like an oasis in a desert I thought, for we had been walking through mostly treeless, arid landscape that belied the gurgling ribbon of a river that ran some metres below. These must be the houses of the village chiefs; I wondered where the huts could be.
SURPRISE NO 1 – HOUSES, NOT HUTS – At the village, our guide set out to make enquiries. The villagers offered homestays by rotation, and he needed to know which house would host us. Looking at the village before me, I felt a sense of surprise, tinged with frank admiration. All the houses on the sloping terrain were built of sturdy brick that was plastered over. Large windows ensured ample natural light, and I could see terraces and sloping roofs. Wooden fretwork details, typical of the Ladakh region ran along the exteriors. The impression I got was of a clean village with house-proud inhabitants. We climbed a steep run of stone steps that led into the courtyard of the home which would shelter us for the night.
SURPRISE NO 2 – OUR ROOM – Colourful curtains, on a metal curtain rod, hung at the window, and the floor was covered with a dhurrie, on which four thin single mattresses were arranged along the walls. A pile of synthetic blankets and tables made up the rest of the room’s contents. It was warm, welcoming, and offered a wonderful view. Solar panels ensured ample light. In Rumbak village, as we put down our bags, Sonam Palmo, our smiling hostess, came in with a tray of tea. Her smile made me feel genuinely welcome. Allaying my fears about communication, she spoke in faultless Hindi. One thought, however nagged at my mind. The room had no toilet. And I have the city-dweller’s horror of hole-in-the-ground toilets. But when you have to go, you have to go, and finally the vital question was put forward.
SURPRISE NO 3 – THE TOILET – I looked at the steep stairs that had been pointed out, and climbed hesitantly. A tower revealed itself, with a tiny wooden door, held closed by a twist of rope. I confess my heartbeat faster from the fear of what I would find within than from the exertion of the short climb. The Ladakhis have perhaps the cleanest dry toilets I have ever seen in my travels. The height ensures the pit is far below, and generous additions of hay and mud prevent all unpleasantness.
SURPRISE NO 4 – THE FOOD – Sonam served us large chapattis for dinner, for which the wheat, along with other household requirements, came from Leh, laden on the back of ponies. The village fields only yield peas and barley. Hot dal and a lightly spiced vegetable made the meal the ultimate comfort food. Breakfast was a real winner. Chapattis served marvellously, with jam and processed butter, eggs, and a tin of cheese! Our packed lunch boxes contained a boiled egg, boiled potatoes, a chocolate bar and chapattis.
SURPRISE NO 5 – NO YOUNG MEN! – I was intrigued to see very few young men during our stay in the village. Through our trek, all our hostesses were young women. So, where were all the men? Sonam told us her husband was an army man, posted elsewhere, and her sons were studying in Leh. Her parents lived with her, and her father would leave every morning to graze the donkeys (who had woken us with their braying). Similarly, in Shingo village, our slim, young hostess had two children, both under three, and her husband was away with his donkeys as they carried goods to and from Leh. Her grandparents lived with her, helped in looking after the kids, tend the field, and graze the yak that gave milk. I learnt that most young men prefer to live, study, and earn in the city, coming home occasionally, while women managed the homes and homestays.
SURPRISE NO 6 – HOMESTAYS EMPOWER! – In a unique programme, The J&K Wildlife Protection Department supports the homestays, ensuring the extra money helps make up for livestock losses they may suffer if the snow leopard should carry away their animals. Ten per cent of the money earned is given to the department, which also guides the villagers on service standards to maintain. It is a practical plan, and works as much for trekkers as it does for the villagers. I, for one, can happily forget the rest houses in other places that gifted me itchy bug bites. I also get to keep in memory the smiling faces of the Ladakhi hostesses in their humble homes. Self sufficient women, with few wants, these are housewives who have turned into entrepreneurs tending their home and children as they work.
There are two ways that you could attempt the Cabot Trail—clockwise or anti-clockwise. Both impress with scenic vistas of Cape Breton, the Gulf of St Lawrence, the Atlantic Ocean, and lush landscapes, particularly spectacular in fall. While most people choose to go clockwise, the direction you choose will depend on whether you want to be on the ‘inner’ lane to avoid steep drops, or you enjoy thrilling curves along the coast. Driving anti-clockwise can be a bit daunting for those scared of heights. If you choose to go clockwise, you get to climb Cape Smokey more gradually from Ingonish Ferry.
Hikers will enjoy the Skyline Trail and the Franey Trail in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. You can even jump into the refreshing waters of Black Brook Beach, try fly fishing for Atlantic salmon on the Margaree River, and sail on the lovely Bras d’Or Lake. Eat fresh oysters at Hide Away Campground & Oyster Market, and try delicious butter tarts and cinnamon buns in Cheticamp at the La Boulangerie Aucoin Bakery. Sample beers at the Big Spruce Brewing in Nyanza and stop by Doryman Pub & Grill for great food and Acadian music. End your journey at the little village of Baddeck, in the heart of Cape Breton Island and indulge in delicious crustaceans at Baddeck Lobster Suppers.
This inimitable journey begins at Deer Lake and takes you to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Gros Morne National Park. Here, you can enjoy the stunning views of freshwater fjords formed by glacial erosion. Onward to the ancient site of L’Anse aux Meadows; it wall interest you to know that this is where the Vikings first landed in North America more than 1,000 years ago, and is now the only authenticated Viking settlement in this continent.
The journey highlights the presence of Basque and aboriginal inhabitants as well. The five-hour trip ends at the windswept west coast to the south of Labrador. L’Anse au Clair, established by early French settlers, has nice, sandy beaches as well as scenic walking trails along the shore. Do take the ferry from L’Anse au Clair to Battle Harbour with Labrador Ferry Service (cars are permitted) across the Strait of Belle Isle.
With the glistening St Lawrence River on one side and mountains on the other, this route is dotted with quaint towns and picturesque villages such as Les Eboulements and Saint-Irenee. Take a break at Mont-Saint-Anne, a ski resort just about 40 kilometres from Quebec City. This mountain resort year-round also offers hiking, mountain biking, and golf. If you want to keep the journey short while sticking to the St Lawrence Route, start at Baie-Saint-Paul and drive 50 kilometres to La Malbaeie nestled in the Charlevoix hills. While Baie-Saint-Paulis home to the largest number of art galleries in Canada, La Malbaie has the luxurious Manoir Riehelieu, one of Canada’s historic railway hotels, perched on a cliff overlooking the St Lawrence River and the Laurentian Mountains.
However, if you continue further, treat yourself at Fromagerie Saint-Fidele famous for its cheddar and lactose-free Swiss cheese. The final leg goes from Saint Simeon to the Saguenay fjord beyond Tadossac, where you can go whale watching. The observation boat AML Grand Flueve, boasts of a grand whale watching experience from the glassed-in decks, terraces, and observation platform. Do keep half a day for this thrilling activity.
The Sea to Sky Highway is the most popular section of Highway 99, a beautiful two-hour drive from Vancouver to Whistler traversing the varied climatic zones of British Columbia. There is so much to do within this short distance that you should plan to stretch it over a weekend. Stop by the Whytecliff Park along Horseshoe Bay to enjoy the views of the ocean and the Strait of Georgia. A 15-minute drive from here will lead you to Lions Bay, a quaint village with good hiking trails nearby.
Britarmia Beach is a must after this, where you can visit the Britannia Mine Museum that offers guided mine tours, gold panning, and other exhibits. A few kilometers north, after crossing the Shannon Falls Provincial Park on the north-east shore of the Howe Sound, yon arrive in Squamish. Equidistant from Vancouver and Whistler, it is known for the huge cliff-faced granite massif, Stawamus Chief. It has over 300 climbing routes and lots of steep trails for hikers around the back of the Chief to access the three peaks that make up the massif. You’ll get panoramic views of the waters of Howe Sound (the southern-most fjord in North America), snow capped peaks, waterfalls, and canyons.
Continue northwards and park at one of the many designated trail heads at Garibaldi Provincial Park to enjoy a hike among crystal-clear lakes, surrounded by mountain vistas and strewn with alpine wildflowers. Finally, you arrive at the final destination— Whistler. Although it is famous for the Whistler Blaekcomb, one of the largest ski resorts in North America, there are plenty of other hotels and even in summer, you’ll be spoilt for choice with options including spa, golfing, bungee jumping, ziplining, and rafting.
From scenic alpine peaks to a beautiful coastline, from the mysterious Karst plateau riddled with underground caves to charming walled towns—Slovenia is a delightful discovery in this part of Europe. The country, which lies on the sunny side of the Alps, also has a vibrant folk culture and plenty of adventure activities. Here’s what you can do.
NATURAL RETREATS – Slovenia is one of the world’s most sustainable tourist destinations. Take a tour of the Triglav National Park and get a good view of the 2,864 metre limestone peak, Triglav, believed to be home to the three-headed local deity. Get mesmerised by the bizarre, jaw-dropping structures formed by stalagmites and stalactites at Postojna Caves or Skocjan Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you’re lucky, you might get to see baby dragons’ that live in underground pools inside these caves. Slovenia has plenty of emerald green lakes, an unspoiled coastline, and sparkling waterfalls to refresh you.
MEDIEVAL AND MODERN – Visit the Predjama Castle nestled at the mouth of a giant cave or get a view of the only island of Slovenia from the top of the Bled Castle. Piran is a picturesque old town on the Slovenian coast and boasts of several Venice-inspired Gothic architectural gems. If you are feeling lucky, try your hand at one of the gaming tables or slot machines at a casino in the coastal city of Portoroz or dance away at a nightclub in capital Ljubljana.
THRILLS & SPILLS – Slovenia is the perfect destination for thrill-seekers. The world renowned Kranjska Gora ski resort boasts 18 different ski slopes. Head to Bovec, surrounded by the Julian Alps, River Soca, and the Triglav National Park, to indulge in river rafting, paddle-boarding and kayaking. Enjoy the breathtaking scenery around lakes Jasna, Zelenci, and Bohinj as you swim, or take a boat ride. You can also go surfing, sailing, or kite surfing on the Adriatic Sea in Koper and Piran.
MELANIA TRUMP TOURS – The American First Lady Melania Trump, born Melanija Knavs in Slovenia, has given tourism in her quaint little hometown a boost. Now there are several Melania-themed First Lady tours conducted in Sevnica, that include visits to her childhood home, her elementary school and the factory where her mother made children’s clothes. You can dig in to a First Lady apple pie or the Melanija tortes served at a local cafe or buy White House slippers at the local shoe store.
A GASTRONOMIC DESTINATION – With a selection of sausages, cheese, mushrooms, and oils, Slovenia is emerging as an exciting culinary destination. Chef Ana Ros of Hisa Franko put Slovenia on the gastronomic map of the world when she was named the World’s Best Female Chef for the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards, 2017. Take a wine tasting tour in the Vipava valley and dig into potica, a traditional dessert that comes with at least so different fillings. You can also try Zlikrofi, pasta dumplings from Idrija and the sinful Gibanica, a multi-layer cake. The Open Kitchen Market, that runs every Friday in Ljubljana, is a must-visit for foodies who like local street food. A vegetarian meal is not that difficult to find, and Indians craving for home food can head to Namaste, the country’s longest running Indian restaurant in Ljubljana
VOLCANIC SPA – Slovenia is blessed with thermal and mineral springs where you can unwind and also pamper your skin with volcanic mud. The country is a front runner in cultivation of bees and has a host of wellness treatments ranging from honey massages to api-therapy (inhaling beehive air for respiratory problems), to eating pollen candies for essential vitamins. You can indulge in thalassotherapy at one of the many salt pans in and around Piran.
If you could touch and walk around heaven, what would it be like? I picture it as a house atop a hillock, surrounded by white snow peaks, with the warmth of the mountain sun. And this summer I got the closest I could to this reverie. In Uttarakhand’s tiny hamlet of Talwari, about 24s kilometres from Dehradun, I walk on the forest trails and across apple orchards to arrive at the charming Tridiva by Saffron Stays. ‘Tridiva’ loosely translates to ‘heaven’ in Sanskrit, and this three-bedroom villa does justice to the name.
Uninterrupted green landscapes help create a sense of tranquility at this homestay. Tall, manicured deodar trees and terraces growing mustard and other local vegetables surround the area I sit in the balcony to get a magnificient view of the Trishul massif- three Himalayan mountain peaks which take the shape of a trident. And this, my host and caretaker of Tridiva, Pradeep Rawat, tells me, is a matter of chance as weather in the mountains can be really unpredictable. The Trishul massif is usually hidden behind the clouds during monsoon, but on a regular day, one can see the mountain range for hours.
As panoramic windows fill the room with warm light, I walk into the house and run my hands on the Vaishnava chants written on the wall. From the earthen pot at the Main door, making my way to the wooden tables and the artistic swing, I admire the dark wood panel with carvings of Radha-Krishna over the stone fireplace.
The kitchen is a storehouse of local produce and stories. Pradeep introduces me to the (fresh and) local cuisine of Garhwal. While pahadi rajma and white rajma from the highlands of Garhwal, were a revelation, the madua (finger millet) roti and lentil cooked with local seeds like jaghiya were more homely and suited my palate. I spent mornings sipping tea while chatting with Pradeep about local beliefs, customs and stories. The people here are believers of Goddess Parvati, also known as NandaDevi. Every year the NandaDevi Jaat, a religious procession, is taken out in the months of June, July or August. It attracts hundreds ofbelievers from neighbouring villages. It is believed that the goddess returns to Mount Kailash after being away for six months.
The procession takes a bigger form every 12 years (Nanda Devi Raj Jaat) when palanquins from different parts of Kumaon and Garhwal scale up to Homkund, which lies at an altitude of 37SS metres. Pradeep was a part of the last Nanda Devi Raj Jaat—an experience that he says has reaffirmed his religious beliefs and spiritual inclination. During my stay, I met Khilaf Singh, a neighbour of Tridiva’s. An elderly gentleman, Khilaf tells me in detail his moment of faith during’ a visit to the hill shrine of Badrinath.
His face lights up as he recalls his journey to the shrine of Lord Narayana, where he managed to stay put in the temple for more than an hour, when everyone else struggle to offer their prayers for even few seconds. In my quest to identify with Khilaf’s beliefs, I hiked up to Badhangari- a popular devotional spot among locals. A day visit from Tridiva, the temple is situated at a height of 2,286 metres and dates back to the eighth century. It is dedicated to Goddess Parvati, and the locals believe that the goddess herself once stayed here.
I walk the steep and concrete path to the old temple on the hilltop. As I sit to catch my breath, I try to spot my homestay. A small white house appears amidst the green groves and other tiny blue Kumaoni houses – all dappling in the sunshine. Admiring the panorama, it occurs to me why it is called Dev Bhoomi, the land of gods. And how Tridiva completes this frame.