Tuesday, August 1, 2017

A land of romance and fairy tales

I am a sucker for romance. No, really, I am. Regardless of what my other half or my offspring would like to portray me as, alternating between the screaming banshee and the crazy lady on the warpath, deep down, I believe in knights in shining armour, of princes, of princesses, and castles and turrets and living happily ever after. Which would explain, why, when in my aimless Pinteresting I chanced upon images of Prague, I was smitten. It was love at first sight! With its iconic red tiled roofs, images of the Charles Bridge at sunset and sunrise, and its church spires, it had me at Dobrý den - that's Hello in Czech, for the uninitiated!

My first introduction to something outside of what I thought of as mainstream Europe, Prague, did not disappoint. It was everything I had imagined it to be and then some! From its fairy tale like architecture to its cobbled stone paths to its soaring castle turrets, it was my version of romance come alive.

The view from the old tower
Walking across Charles Bridge

With just 3 nights in this gorgeous city to spare, we got right down to it. From the first foray into tracing an illustrious individual's path, a la  Einstein, at Café Louvre, to my final walk about across Charles Bridge - this city made me pause time and time again, to reflect on its architecture, its history, and you know it, the feeling of romance and chivalry.  But, like everything, let us start at the beginning.

Landing in Prague, we made our way to the Augustine - a Luxury Collection hotel. Converted from a monastery and still housing a faction of the Augustine monks, this provided us the refuge we sought after a hard day of sightseeing. With their attentive staff who always chatted with us, regardless of their language barriers, to thoughtful touches like slippers beside your bed, and chocolates on your pillows, this hotel certainly lives upto its expectations as part of Starwood's luxury collection. And, I would like to thank the Partners, Associate Partners, Senior Managers, hard nosed clients, my mom, my dad, my brother, my husband, and my little guy, for allowing me to travel for work and stay in hotels and collect hotel points so that in time I could cash them in for some amazing stays. {Cue Music....}

Chocolates on our pillows

We started off grabbing a snack at the Café Louvre, where Einstein is believed to have visited; before making our way to the Jewish quarter. Would I recommend Café Louvre? Only if you have an Einstein fanatic - like I do! Otherwise, skip it and make your way to one of the other numerous eateries around the Bridge.

The Jewish quarter, holds a charm of its own - dating back to the 13th century. Here you will find vendors selling their wares from stalls, history seeped into every nook and cranny of synagogues to the most delicious Golem cookies. Amongst the most interesting sights were the intersection of religion as observed in the alleyway where the Star of David from the Spanish synagogue was seen in direct line of sight of a quaint Catholic church.

 When religions intersect

Before we could call it a day, I enticed my travel companions back out to explore the Charles Bridge and the surrounding area. We stopped to savour some traditional Czech treats - the Trdlo. Something that resemebles a chimney and whose batter is grilled and then stuffed with all sorts of mouth watering yumminess, like vanilla, or nutella, or strawberries or all of the above :-)

To walk off the Trdlo and to avoid the wrath of my personal trainer back home, I climbed up the steps to the lookout from the Old Tower Bridge. This was absolutely worth it - the old tower had beautiful stained glass inside and the most jaw dropping views on the outside. Tell me, wasn't the climb up the rickety old wooden steps to ccatch this worth its weight in Trdlos?

Day 2 started early for me - at the crack of dawn. I fought jet lag and the urge to snuggle into the comfort of the bed and explored sunrise over the Charles Bridge - solo! I wasn't too far from the madding crowds though; despite last night's bachelor party still going strong, a bride and groom adding to their wedding album and a model adding to her portfolio, I was still able to carve out a space for myself. This, I highly recommend - catching the beauty of the sunrise over the Charles Bridge - and if this is something you are able to do solo - even better! There is a lot to be said for the solitude that only having yourself for company provides.

Sunrise over Charles Bridge
The day continued with an exploration of the Prague Castle. Get there before noon to catch the changing of the guards and to avoid the hordes of tourists. The changing of the guards happens at noon - if you get there by 11am, that should give you enough time to explore the grounds. If you want to explore St Vitus Cathedral or any of the other buildings get there even earlier. We timed it just right, so that we had enough of an opportunity to walk around the massive castle grounds, and then turn into one of the cobblestone streets for lunch.

The day ended with us a catching a show at the Black Light theater - an intriguing 90 minute show, particularly, if you are travelling with little people. After the show we wandered back up into the Old Town, grabbed a pint of their best, and people watched. And watched the sky changing colour with the setting sun. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Every sunset brings with it the promise of a new dawn". This is a shot of the building across from the Astronomical Clock tower (which was unfortunately closed for renovation) - and no, while I did not spot a prince or a knight hiding amongst the turrets, my very own knight in shining armour shot this.

Day 3 provided us a dilemma of sorts. Should we take the whole day to go up to Cesky Krumlov or split the day up by visiting Terezin Concentration Camp and then head to Karlovy Vary before heading back? The overwhelming desire to see firsthand how one man's mania impacted the lives of millions won - and we rented a car to drive to Terezin (about 45 minutes from the city). Yes, it is a bit of a somber setting - but, life isn't always about the Trudlos, right? Walking around this camp, gave us an appreciation for what we have and what we need to preserve. Of how important it is that we not let mania like that sweep the world again. Of how important it is to safeguard the freedom that so many of us have and that so many of us aspire to. Warning: some of the pictures below may be unsettling, feel free to scroll past it to read further.

After the morning at Terezin, in an attempt to shake off the cobwebs of unpleasantness, we made our way to Karlovy Vary - the geothermal town that is said to resemble St Petersburg. The glamour quotient of this town is upped by the fact the quintessentially suave James Bond, featuring Daniel Craig, filmed Casino Royale in the Hotel Grand Pupp. Spend an afternoon wandering around this mildly upscale town, having lunch in one of the many bistros, before you head back to the city for your final night in the city of bohemian romance.

Until next time, Praha, you have my heart!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Hills are Alive...

...With the sound of music
With songs they have sung
For a thousand years...

No - I am not Julie Andrews or Maria - though, if you ask others, they may say that I am a "problem like Maria." And, really, how does one solve a problem like Maria? Regardless, don't this lyrics evoke images of picturesque, rolling, hills? Of lush meadows and babbling brooks? Of something like this?

The hills from the Sound of Music

 Today's blog post does take us to hills and lush meadows and babbling brooks - but, not in Austria. We are off to visit Notting Hill Homestay in Coorg, India.

The exterior of Notting Hill Homestay

I came across Notting Hill Homestay owned by the husband and wife team of Krish and Netra Ganapathy Krishna on a FaceBook shopping group I frequent (no surprise re the shopping group, right?!). I was so intrigued by the name (and being a hopeless romantic!) I immediately reached out to Netra to find out more about the cottage - and mentally filed this away in the list of places to visit when in India next!

Sit down with a brew of your choice and let yourself be transported to, perhaps, your next vacation getaway?

Over to Netra!

Chotta Sa Ghar (CSG): Tell us a little bit about yourself and what made you want to start Notting Hill homestay? And, why the name? :)
Netra Ganapathy Krishna (NGK):I am from Coorg and my husband and myself own this quaint cottage on Stuart Hill in Madikeri , Coorg. As I was not willing to rent out the place, the idea of running it as a Homestay seemed ideal as I could access the place anytime. 
Krish and myself are very romantic and our all time favorite movie is 'Notting Hill' featuring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. When I suggested the name, Krish just loved it. It's been Notting Hill ever since.
CSG: Where is Notting Hill Homestay located? And what is the easiest way to get there from major Indian cities?
NGK: The Homestay is located in a place called Madikeri, in Coorg district of Karnataka. It is a home to many coffee plantations and 'Coorg Coffee' is one of the best known Coffee brands in the country. The district is nestled in the Western Ghats and is often referred to as the 'Scotland of the East'. 
CSG: And, what is the easiest way to get there from major Indian cities?
NGK: There are airports in Bangalore, Mangalore and Mysore. Bengaluru International Airport offers best connections for International travellers. The airport at Mangalore offers good connections on the domestic and Middle East Network.  Travel time from Bangalore to Madikeri  is about five hours by road and from Mysore and Mangalore is about two hours by road. Mysore is the closest Rail head and offers convenient connections to Bangalore and other places.
CSG: What makes Notting Hill unique?
NGK: Notting Hill is unique because of its location, service and the hospitality provided. We offer our guests a personal touch from the time of booking and extending beyond check out. 
Comfortable rooms
CSG: What can guests expect from a typical stay? Do you offer experiences unique to Coorg?
NGK: Guests can expect a beautiful cottage built in a typical Coorg Colonial style. Top notch Coorg hospitality, great view and awesome food. We serve Coorg cuisine to our guests on request. Many guests come to our homestay to enjoy our signature Coorg dish 'Pandhi curry' (pork curry). Like all old Coorg houses , we have red oxide flooring and wooden ceiling. It is a unique
experience for many.
Interior hallway featuring traditional red oxide flooring
Quaintly stencilled walls
CSG: What are some of your favourite corners of the homestay?
NGK: I love sitting in the verandah or under the mango tree with a book. The cool breeze blowing always puts me off to sleep. Sitting on the verandah with a hot cuppa or a drink, watching the evening  view of the lit town is even better. Watching the  sunrise, the lashing rains and the evening fog engulfing the town during the winter are some of the special moments I cherish.
The verandah to sit and do nothing!

I will leave you with a few more lasting images, do drop by and check out Notting Hill (who knows Hugh may just be around the corner! ;)) - I'd love to know if you end up visiting and some photos of your experience!
Images Courtesy: Netra Ganapathy Krishna

Monday, February 16, 2015

Viva Barcelona!

We did a week along Disney Mediterranean cruise a few years ago - and the port of departure was Barcelona. We got there a few days earlier to soak in some Spanish culture before the cruise - when you think of Barcelona, Gaudi comes to mind - but there are these hidden gems in and around the city that makes you want to come back for more! As soon as we landed from Toronto on the red eye, we were famished - and we were determined to find a local tapas joint. On the way to Taller de Tapas, we were caught some of the gorgeous architecture that Barcelona is so known for.

The sights of Barcelona
The next item that HAD to be ticked off the list was Parc Guell. This park is a public park that contains some of the finest works of Gaudi. The actual park itself is on top of a hill, allowing amazing views once you make the trek - making the trek is the hard bit! But, don't worry there are tons of little cafes and gelato shops along the way to give you the much needed energy boost. It can get crowded, but really the people watching is part of the charm of heading out to this little park.

 Classic Gaudi - the architecture reminded me of real life gingerbread houses!
We were tired out from the excursions of the day and the trans Atlantic flight - so decided to call it a day and start afresh to visit Sagrada Familia - another Gaudi landmark. The church was undergoing extensive renovation - and though the church was open to the public, we decided to skip the long line up and instead spend more time people watching along the Ramblas.

Sagrada Familia
My favourite spot in Barcelona was the Gothic Quarter which is old Barcelona. The Barcelona Cathedral is in this area and it has gorgeous stained glass windows. In the area, there are also quiet courtyards and old bookstores which can provide a convenient venue to get lost in :-)

No trip to Barcelona can be considered complete without a pitcher of sangria and a bowl of olives at hotel Murmuri. This is a chic boutique hotel - best known for their décor and oh-so-yum sangria. It is a little bit hard to locate - but locate it we did.

What made the stay in Barcelona that much yummier was the fabulous W - I will admit I am a bit of a hotel snob - and one of the items on my bucket list is to stay in every W in the world - that is going to make for some interesting travel budgeting :). W Hotels are trendy and fresh and really a nice place to come "home" to after a day of hard sightseeing :)
Viva Barcelona!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

And then there was Tavira...

Doesn't the name Tavira evoke romance? Maybe a pretty girl enveloped in a sense of mystery? Perhaps someone yearning for a long lost love?

It maybe so there is a girl named Tavira somewhere - maybe she is running a gelato shop, a flowershop, a blog, or a Fortune 500 company - but that remains to be seen!

The Tavira that I am referring to is a quaint little village just outside of Albufeira, in the Algarve in Portugal. We stopped over and spent a little bit of time in Tavira - exploring the ruins of the old castle, eating gelato, drinking Sagres, and people watching.

Tavira is a village that is easy to miss - perhaps you are your way to Seville and you really want to get there before siesta. But, take a detour and savour the sights, sounds, and smells of a little Portuguese village and you'd be glad you did.

The whitewashed buildings and the wrought iron railings have eons of stories to share. As does the castle that is crumbling down - where the grounds are surprisingly well maintained - and the view from the top is well worth the hike.

Look through the below and tell me it doesn't whisper to you to slow down and spend some time in this town?


The town of Tavira

 The castle grounds

View from the top
Happy and smiling!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Magical Lisbon - and an even more magical Alfama!

Lisboa in Portugal is a treat for the senses. As the capital of Portugal, it truly lives upto its expectations. The best part about Lisbon is the various little districts that make up Lisbon. We didn't have a ton of time in Lisbon, since it was our final stop in Portugal - so we decided to maximize what we hand in the districts of Alfama, Belem, and Chiado - and let me tell you Alfama - by far will leave you mesmerized! Lisbon is a relatively small city and we familiarized ourselves with the Metro system pretty quickly.

In the heart of the town, there is an enormous arch that welcomes visitors from the port into the downtown core - this pretty much serves as the entry point into the city

Lisbon Gate
This area is serviced very frequently by the yellow trams that criss cross Lisbon. These are as quintessential to Lisbon as are the famous streetcars in San Francisco.
Iconic yellow trams
Hopping onto one of these trams took us to Alfama nestled between the banks of the Tejo river and the San Jorge castle. Spending an afternoon in the Alfama truly introduces you to old Lisbon! Its iconic red tiled roofs, quaint balconies with bird cages and potted plants, and Fado buskers leave you yearning for more! Fado is a type of soulful Portuguese music perhaps with roots in Sufi music! In the district of Alfama, you will find street performers with steel drums playing Fado and folks - both tourists and locals alike breaking into a dance! My little guy, who was 4 at that time, certainly didn't seem to mind that his Fado dancing was more closely resembling a herd of wild animals prancing than actual dancing per se :-)

 The streets of Alfama

 Aah! To be that young again!

A typical balcony in Alfama
The other attraction in Alfama - apart from the people watching and the Fado is Castelo de Sao Jorge. This is an old castle on top of a hill - which gives you a fantastic birds eye view of Alfama. Lining up the climb to the castle are little souvenir shops and gelato places - of which I made ample use of :)
Castelo de Sao Jorge

I will leave you with the below! Some brave soul had climbed up the statue in the town square in Alfama and decided that this gentleman looked incomplete without a bottle of Sagres ;)
I hope this inspires you if you are planning a trip to Portugal - which can be somewhat neglected, but another hidden gem!