Our failed Northern Lights sojourn!

The Northern Lights are a crazed phenomenon. If you live in Europe or in North America, you’d be a hermit not to come across travel propaganda which didn’t try to sell you a trip up to the North Pole or near-abouts to catch a glimpse of the green lights in the winter black sky. People call it a trip of a lifetime, armed with cameras and selfie sticks, jumping onto snowmobiles and or reindeer sledges to capture those moments for Facebook and Instagram and to remember them for the rest of their lives.

Here’s what I learned when we attempted out very own Northern Lights sojourn in the very peak of winter, chasing the lights way up in Lapland, supposedly where Father Christmas calls home!

  1. Never, I mean this very seriously, make a trip up north during your Christmas break. It’s definitely appealing to make wise use of the 2 week holiday period, but if the Aurora Borealis is on your bucket list, Father Christmas and the weather has colluded to keep them away. The best season to view the Northern Lights is the 6 week window between 1 February and 10 March.IMG_9291
  2. We are extremely independent travellers, having always made our own choices on location, itinerary, flights and hotels for pretty much all out travels. But when visiting Lapland, this is something I would advise against. The Northern Lights are visible at the farthest tip of the Northern Hemisphere – the extreme Northern end of the Nordic region, northern parts of Russia and of course Iceland. These regions are remote, with limited public infrastructure, limited language options and a select few hotels most of which are booked out way ahead by tour operators. Coupled with these factors and the difficulty in getting regular flights to take you up north, the most convenient option is to research the tour operators who provide tailored journeys during the Northern Lights season and book yourself in with one of them. There aren’t too many of them either, so the choice isn’t difficult. IMG_9281
  3. It is bitterly cold out there. I mean cold enough to die. So do take Mother Nature seriously. Our normal London every day winter wear is peanuts in this weather. You would need thermal underwear, balaclava, thick down parka, woolen socks, snow suits, thermal boots, a whole host of clothing, which if you set about to buy would actually end up costing more than your entire trip itself! Hence another advantage of booking a tour is that all tour operators have joined with the Finnish Tourist Board to provide you with snow suits and snow boots for the duration of your stay. You would still need to ensure that you had adequate warm clothing, underwear and socks to wear underneath your snow suits. I would recommend a> a layer of thermal underwear b> a layer of knitwear c> a pliable jacket where you can move your arms freely  d> two pairs of socks to be worn underneath the snow boots e> a balaclava and most importantly f> thick heavy leather gloves with a woolen interior. If you have the option to wear contact lenses and not your glasses, do exercise that option. Breathing through the balaclava can mist up your glasses, interrupting your view too often. We learnt the hard way. IMG_9305
  4. Us intrepid travel love to venture out into the unknown. We love our little alleys and tucked away cafe in Paris, Barcelona, New York, Cairo, Beirut, New Delhi, London, Zürich or even the smaller villages dotting Europe, North America and Asia and Africa. Not Lapland. Yes we did venture out, but the most we walked was a hundred metres down the road in front of our hotel. The small town of Hetta had just one large department store and a church and a few hotels. Anything beyond that was sheer wilderness. If you strayed more than a few metres on either side of the main road, you literally ventured into the Arctic wilderness. Walking down the main road, and keeping the lights of the hotels and the department stores or cafes in sight is possibly the way to be, as if you venture too further out into the wilderness you may find yourself unable to make your way back. A week before we visited the Finnish Lapland in Enontekio, a rare murder had happened in that area and the murderer was forced to turn himself into the police when he saw their snowmobiles because he couldn’t survive anymore in the wilderness as his own snowmobile had broken down and he was almost frozen and in agony from the chilling winds. So the warmth of the jailhouse was more favorable than the wilderness!  IMG_9323
  5. Possibly the biggest downside of visiting Enontekio was the complete and utter lack of restaurants and cafes to explore. You are left to the mercy of whatever is prepared in your hotel kitchen. If food is a major element of your travel, visiting Lapland will make you severely disappointed. The Nordic region isnt majorly known for their gastronomic conquests and the further north you go, the more basic it becomes. In a strange way, the Sami people (who make up the majority of the population in Lapland), are people of the land, tending to their reindeer flocks in winter or reaping the summer crop and food for them is nourishment and not pleasure. So you would get hearty and hot meals, but don’t count on the appearance or the taste and gourmet factor! And a first for me – you get a selection of pickled fish for breakfast! Whoever would want that!IMG_9287
  6. Whilst the knee deep snow and complete darkness in Lapland in winter is a big draw for tourism, an opportunity to experience the life of the local Sami people and understand how man co-exists with the beautiful but harsh winters is available through the many adventures planned as part of the tour. Top of the list is definitely the Northern Lights sojourn late into the night. Ours started at 9 pm and by the time we returned back to our hotel room it was past 3 am! Disappointed though we were, the freedom to drive my own snowmobile (albeit you need a valid EU driver’s licence or an International Driving Permit) through absolute pitch black wilderness was one of the highlights. Driving own huskies dog sled through the Arctic wilderness was possibly the most surreal experience of all, but for the people of that land, that is their primary mode of transport! We came across a young lad from Leeds, Yorkshire, who had given up his desk job in Leeds to come and live with the Huskies in Lapland all in the hope of owning his own tribe one day. A long conversation with him left me perplexed and analysing my own life and my day job! Taken with NightCap ProIMG_9411
  7. And finally some of the miscellaneous! In order to survive the 4-5 days that you might have willingly put yourself into this extreme wilderness, it is highly recommended that you carry your own stash of dry food e.g. biscuits and cookies as dinner is served and wrapped up by 7 pm. Venturing out to see the Northern Lights can bring you back to extreme pangs of hunger and nothing to appease it for the next 4-5 hours! If you enjoy your fizzy drinks and cigarettes, make sure your carry own supply. They are prohibitively expensive in the lodge that you may be put up at. Alcohol and beer are equally expensive, so decide whether you need to carry them with you (keeping within your airline weight limits) or whether you can survive without them or possibly spend something closer to 10 quid for a small glass of chardonnay. Your choice. Carry your own stash of toiletries and bathroom electronics as what you would get at these remote hotels wouldn’t be sufficient.

The Arctic Wilderness is wild, crazy and dares you to be different. If travel is in your blood, a voyage to the northern tip of the world is something dreams are made of. Complete darkness for close to 20 hours, wading through knee-deep soft snow, snowboarding through the small hillocks, temperature hovering around the minus 20 degrees, intermittent sharp snow showers, wandering off in your snowmobiles in search of the northern lights into the complete wilderness, reindeer sledge rides through an open frozen lake, the absolutely adorable huskies pulling you through the snow laden forests, and so much more awaits you at the land which Father Christmas calls home.

IMG_9331

 

‘Tis not the Nobel Prize for curry….

What do two adults decide to do on an enlightened Saturday in November? Book tickets for the next weekend to Stockholm. Yes, a weekend trip. The Lilliputian nature of this trip was justified by the abject lack of interest in the general travel media about Stockholm as a tourist destination. Coupled with several work trips the husband had made in the last few years to Gothenburg, Sweden definitely didn’t feature on our bucket list. On the other hand, what definitely featured in my list is snow, lots of it. Living in a miserably rainy city like London, devoid of any white winter beauty, where people jump for joy at even the tiniest flicker of the white stuff, I can be forgiven for my absolute crazy love affair with snow. Hence this trip into Stockholm was just one of the many journeys up north of the continent to take in the sheer beauty of a winter wonderland.

So began our weekend trip, flying out on a late Friday evening. I was on one of the rare flights, where the pilot decided to remind us of the bright lights of London which we would be giving up for the dreary snow of Stockholm, something which possibly the Swedish SAS pilot himself wanted to escape. Little did he know, I was of the contrary opinion to him; rather looking forward to the white stuff, I nevertheless took every opportunity take in this wonderful cityscape of London!

IMG_8669
The cityscape of London down below.

Having seen the eerie view of the white stuff whilst landing, taking the train from Stockholm-Arlanda airport, we arrived at the Stockholm Centraal and walked the last few minutes through a thick layer of snow to our hotel. Being the quintessential European capital city, the train station was strategically located in the centre of the city and surrounded by the myriad hotels. When arriving in these cities on a cold winter’s night, opting for a centrally located hotel always saves on one’s commute into strange, not so central location.

With less than 48 hours to experience the white stuff, I didn’t need an alarm to get me out of bed. A rushed morning routine and out I walked out from our hotel to these glorious glorious views below!

IMG_8676
A very different walk in search for breakfast on a Saturday morning!
IMG_8681
A sight rarely seen in London, a snow clad street.

IMG_8675

IMG_8682
Ammunition for a snowball fight!

A relatively small city (especially compared to the behemoth of the city that is London), we were surprised that the Royal Palace at Gamla Stan was in fact quite close to our hotel, and hence not too far from the Centraal Station. For reasons unknown then, the direct access to the Palace grounds was closed off and there was a sizeable police presence there. Much later we came across a demonstration by Syrian migrants not far from the Palace grounds which led us to believe that could have been a possible reason for the shutdown.

Being an archipelago (Stockholm is a city of 14 islands connected by 57 bridges), the best way to understand the geography of the city is to take a river cruise. Several cruise companies also take you way out into the outer islands of the city the river. Some stunning topography was captured through my lenses whilst out on this cruise.

IMG_8684
One of the several bridges connecting Gamla Stan to the mainland.
IMG_8687
An archipelago, Stockholm is surrounded by water in pretty much all directions.
IMG_8710
Of the many islands surrounding Stockholm, almost eerily quiet and empty. Apparently people actually live here!
IMG_8719
A prawn cocktail soup, unlike any I’ve ever had in London.

Before noon, back in the city, we wandered into the old town to observe the changing of the guards, walk through the narrow alleys of Gamla Stan, stopping for coffee at an extremely tiny and crowded coffee shop, where I had to pay 1€ to use the toilet! Coffee or for that matter any other drink was immediately off the menu for the rest of the day! Apparently, the Swedes can get by without having to answer nature’s call forever. Oh, how the British would sympathise with me and my bodily woes! Rarely would you find a cafe in London which charges you to use their loo! A cherry on top of our afternoon walks was a surprise sighting of the Nobel Museum! Didn’t make it in this lifetime. Wonder when they will institute a Nobel Prize for Social Media Presence!

Evening heralded us walking down the main shopping district of Stockholm, meticulously finding my way, despite severe protests from the husband, to Nordiska Kompaniet, better known as NK, the eternally elegant department store that remains one of Stockholm’s most treasured institutions. A gigantic Christmas Tree suspended from above greeted us and the four storey retail behemoth reminded me our enduring grand old lady of Oxford Street, Selfridges, albeit with a much smaller footprint!

IMG_8818
Preparing for the Changing of the Guards ceremony.
IMG_8819
The Royal Guards Ceremony at the Royal Palace of Stockholm lasts about 40 minutes.
IMG_8846
A picture is worth a thousand words!
IMG_8739
Inside the hallowed portals of Nordiska Kompaniet.

Too soon it was Sunday and with a scheduled flight later in the evening, we set out for the piece de resistance for visiting Stockholm – the ABBA Museum. You cannot visit this city and not venture into this dreamland place where you’d be transported to the lives of Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid. I wasn’t surprised at the huge crowds which had gathered on a bitterly cold winter’s morning, a Sunday morning as well, to indulge in their ABBA fascination. What I was surprised of where a large number of American tourists, some even with the atypical Texan drawl, who had weathered the snow to come down for ABBA. Even after four decades, ABBA has held their own against the likes of Beyonce and Adele. I for one, born after the ABBA wave, know more of their songs than I do of Beyonce! It was only the looming threat of missing our flight which finally managed to get us to that building.

IMG_8791IMG_8787

IMG_8801
The ABBA Museum is quite an unobtrusive building from the outside!

Taking a train back from the Centraal Station, realisation sunk in that I’d possibly spent my last 48 hours rushing through a land which is commonly dismissed as cold and emotionless. Yes, there were instances where I missed the extremely polite Brits uttering a sorry at the drop of a hat when we were stuck on the crowded metro train, or when I went hunting for a decent curry house and couldn’t find any in the vicinity of our hotel which stayed open late on a Saturday night; in spite of those minor glitches, the beauty of this land is unmissable. It lies in its cold weather, its diligent and industrious people, it’s breathtaking architecture, and surprisingly it fresh and unblemished food! Whilst much of their food is imported, the Swedes possibly have most of the most efficient supply chain for its food as the freshest ingredients made for some of the most amazing meals I’d had in this winter wonderland!

IMG_8778

IMG_8850

IMG_9102
Likewise, a pocket pinching but delicious Omelette!

Definitely one of the downsides of Sweden is its high cost of living. Yes, the country is definitely a pocket pincher, Stockholm more so than other parts of the country, but the city is small enough to warrant a quick whirlwind trip, so keeping within your budget shouldn’t be difficult. What we didn’t explore was the countryside, which locals would definitely say is best seen by hiring a car. But we need to leave something for later, something which will bring me back to this land!

There is something in the air in the Nordics which keeps pulling us back. After Tromso, this was our second official holiday into the Nordic zone, discounting the work trip. With climate change a reality, I have the unsurpassable urge to see more of this white wonderland before it all disappears some day. Unless we come together to preserve it, it may disappear someday.

The unwanted fame of Oświęcim

Europe has little gems hidden away off the beaten tourist path. For most visitors planning a European holiday, the majority make it to the halo-ed streets of Paris, Rome or Zurich. But scratch the surface a little deeper and smaller less glamorous destinations will actually take your breath away. Krakow was a surprise for us. A city known mostly in the London corporate circles as the nearshore outsourcing destination for IT and BPO services, I didn’t know any colleagues or friends who had attempted a holiday in this city. To be honest, I couldn’t remember why we thought of making the trip either. The city was always singing its tune at the back of my head for more than 10 years – a remnant of my utter reverence for Schlinder’s List and the lasting craving it left in me to retrace the steps of the victims of Auschwitz and of Oskar Schindler. Having exhausted the typical ‘touristy’ cities of Europe, we embarked upon our journey to this unconventional destination.

So it was on a cold Easter’s Friday afternoon that we found ourselves taking a flight from Heathrow to Krakow with a stop-over at Schipol. By the time we arrived in Krakow, it was freezing cold and quite late into the night. A small airport coupled with a long taxi ride through deserted roads surrounded by construction sites didn’t do much to raise my hopes of a wonderful city waiting for me to explore. Having coaxed my mind not to jump to hasty conclusions, my first impression of our hotel, carefully chosen by me for its strategic location in the city centre, was an old baroque style building in the middle of a cobbled street surrounded by similar grand buildings. And this was just the beginning of a love affair with possibly one of the most amazing cities in Europe.

IMG_6219
The entrance to the hotel is quite unobtrusive and one can easily miss it walking down the Royal Way.
IMG_5999
This was possibly just a quarter of the massive breakfast spread on display in the basement breakfast zone.
IMG_5996
The original walls of the building were preserved. This image shows the way to the basement breakfast area.
IMG_6647
The staircase of the original house has been preserved
IMG_6639
The facade by night

The three days we had in Krakow were a revelation of the sheer vibrancy and beauty of the city, the architecture, hidden (literally) pathways and tunnels, its extremely polite and friendly and helpful citizens and definitely the most important of all – its history!

A trip to the salt mines was ethereal. One of the first Unesco World Heritage sites ever, the Polish people take immense pride in that honour. The Wieliczka Salt Mines, in operation for more than 8 centuries, has been converted into an immensely popular museum since the last salt was mined in 2007. The sheer size of the mines could house the city of Krakow in its midst. The massive cavernous halls have hosted several concerts and weddings and it’s hard to imagine you are in the depth of the earth’s core after having descended so many hundreds possibly thousands of steps into the mine.

IMG_6071
The long winding tunnels of the Salt Mines
IMG_6101
The central hall which reminded me a little bit of the Grand Central station arcade in New York
IMG_6120
The green water lake inside the Salt Mines

 

The centre of Krakow was frankly quite typical of a European city. A huge central square dotted with restaurants and cafes along its sides. What wasn’t so typical was massive ‘souq’ in that square. Yes, a middle eastern style Souq. I guess this was where the middle eastern influence from the days of the Ottoman empire neighbouring the Austro-Hungarian empire, exerted its influence over the eastern European towns and cities. The Wavel Castle and the myriad broad tree-lined pathways crisscrossing the city provided a glimpse of the royals who built this city to its grandeur evidenced through our eyes.

IMG_6782
Wavel Castle
IMG_6785
Wavel Castle
IMG_6788
Wavel Castle

 

IMG_6706
The trams of Krakow
IMG_6685
The streets of the city
IMG_6392
The Souk
IMG_6363
The restaurants dotting the central square
IMG_6234
The outside of the Souk
IMG_6290
St. Mary’s Basilica in the Town Square

 

Going back to my original wish to visit Krakow, we set off early for Oświęcim. The city of the famed Auschwitz concentration camp was and still, is called Oświęcim. The Germans named this town Auschwitz and the camp has carried on with that name in order to never forget the German influence upon this town which carved its unwanted place in the history of the Second World War. It was an eerie and sombre mood with which we entered the camp with our guide and the rest of our group. There were Americans, Europeans and even Japanese men and women in our midst and of course, us of Indian origin. The sheer diversity of the group reminded me of the fact that there wasn’t a soul in this world who hasn’t been touched by the history of Nazism and the sad truth of the concentration camps. The city of Oświęcim was chosen by the Nazis for establishing the largest camp for a strategic reason. The image below speaks louder than words and hence I leave it as such.

IMG_6493

 

 

Two miles away from Auschwitz is Birkeneau. This is where Auschwitz II–Birkenau was established. A camp whose images have been etched in our memories from the many films and history books, it was a sick feeling which engulfed me when I first laid eyes on the watchtowers and the railway line of Birkenau. Here was that reality which we had just read in history books and seen in films right in front of our eyes. It was a sobering moment and moment to reflect on the millions of people who had lost their lives in these camps. And a moment to be thankful for that such catastrophic acts of human atrocities are addressed immediately by the international justice system. The Second World War was a watershed war in the history of mankind which changed the course of events forever and has given rise to so many institutions and communities of harmony which we take for granted today.  My fascination with the Second World War, the Auschwitz and other concentration camps and the ultimate triumph of good over evil deserve a complete post in itself.

IMG_6558IMG_6561

Possibly one last thought on Auschwitz was the sheer love and pain with which the people of Poland have preserved this camp for posterity. ‘One must never forget’ was the constant rhetoric of our guide as the survivors of the Holocaust are drawing to a natural end of their lives. We took several photographs which are too disturbing to publicise. But this museum will exist for centuries to come to remind the young that atrocities were committed in the name of religion and supremacy. I have lived in Germany and never once associate them immediately with Nazism. This trip to Auschwitz reminded me of the horrors and the darkness of the crimes committed by the German Nazis. Maybe that is the reason why, today, Germany is the one country to have opened its doors and its arms to the Syrian refugees. Assuaging a sense of guilt of the Second World War.

Returning to Krakow, determined to leave behind our sombre mood, we explored the food scene of Poland. A trip into Hard Rock Cafe, a must in every city we visit was uneventful. Although I kept my eyes open for any potential disturbance, conscious that I was in an American bar, a hotbed attraction for terrorist attacks in Europe, having the Paris attacks at the top of my mind. I guess I wasn’t yet able to shake off the sombre mood of Auschwitz. A dinner to sample the not very well advertised Polish cuisine turned out to be quite a grand affair in a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Wavel Castle. A combination of roasted goat’s leg and a baked salmon with a very green crust coupled with some strange sounding drinks did manage to leave an impression, albeit a limited one for a restaurant hardened London-er!

 

The next two days were spent exploring the city through maps, our favourite pastime even if we have GPS! The Jewish quarter, sampling Indian food, again a must in every European city we visit, and lazing around in the cafes and restaurants of the city.

IMG_6722

 

 

IMG_6627

 

 

Fast approaching the end of this wonderful journey in possibly the most surprising of tourist destinations, we couldn’t leave without the fulfilling the original purpose of the visiting Krakow – Schindler. Not aware that the museum was closed for renovations, we headed off after having checked out of our hotel, with just a few hours left for our departure from this city. Sorely disappointed at not being able to enter the building, I devoured what little information was available outside the building on the Schindler Jews and the man himself, Oskar Schindler. Content that I had managed a glimpse of the man who defined humanity in the face of extreme adversity, we prepared for our journey back to London, living a life which has been gifted to us because of the sacrifices of men such as Oskar Schindler. God bless you where ever you are.

IMG_6734
Schindler’s Factory – It is a museum today

 

The Last Frontier to the North Pole

When a friend of mine moved to Norway to become a professor at Tromso University, my reaction was ‘Tromso who/where??”. Exactly the reaction a lot of people have if they haven’t explicitly researched the North Pole or wanted to see the Northern Lights. My connection to Tromso began with Tromso University before research enlightened me that Tromso was the top destination for people wanting to see the Northern Lights.

Having missed the bus to the Northern Lights season because of poor planning, we were determined to see the Midnight Sun. And of course, see our friends as well. So come June, we set off for our Northern holiday well in time to catch the Summer Solstice.

Tromso is a little slice of heaven, a small Nordic island city, nestled right at the north-west corner of Norway and holds the distinctive badge of being the northern most university town in the world! It’s a small island off the main coast of Norway, connected to the mainland through an iconic bridge which usually forms the backdrop of most images you will find of the city on Google. Here are a few of mine.

IMG_4214IMG_4215

IMG_3921
A close-up of the bridge of Tromso

Whilst it is not on the travel destinations for most individuals, it is an undiscovered jewel in the Arctic ocean, especially if you get a clear day in the summer. Our stay in June was unusual as it was cold, rainy and dreary for a typical Tromso summer where temperatures can reach twenty degrees celsius. The most we managed to experience was 8 degrees on a good day. But when the sun did shine briefly, the flowers bloomed and the greenery sprouted in happiness. It was a heavenly environment in a quiet sleepy little town with the University students mostly in absentia due to exams or pre-summer holidays or maybe a combination of both.

IMG_3936

IMG_4273

And the best part was, of course, the Midnight Sun! Imagine pubs and restaurants open in the centre of the town, people streaming in and loud music, all at 1:30 am in the morning! It was magical. Friday and Saturday nights were the most vibrant as people were up and about enjoying their weekend. Imagine the below view of dying sunlight at 11 pm in the night!

IMG_4282

The city comes alive after ‘dark’ during the summer months. Because the sun doesn’t completely set, it’s easy to forego sleep altogether and trick your body into staying awake for  24 hours. That’s what most people do over the summer weekends, possibly to compensate for the dreary dark winters, making use of the 24 hours of daylight. It was no surprise to us to find our hotel room equipped with a thick black curtain to keep out the sun. Having returned to our room at 2 am the first day we had arrived in Tromso, we kept our curtains open to admire the view and the sheer wonder of the planetary system and the earth’s revolution and rotation around the sun and its axis. Come 4:00 am and we were still wide awake, with nary a shred of tiredness! We decided it was enough and we wouldn’t get sleep and ventured out at 5:00 am. Mind you, there were people up and about at that hour! Most were young people stumbling home after a ‘night’ well spent at the local pub. Come 8 am and our bodies gave up. It refused to be tricked any longer and so we somehow crawled into bed for some well-deserved sleep. We had learned our lesson! The next night, albeit around 2 am, we made use of the black curtains and ensured we got our sleep. Hence, please remember, get your sleep in the Arctic lands during summer solstice! Here are some of the images of the town taken during our walks post midnight.

IMG_4301
A pub in Tromso circa 1 am!

Having spent two days wandering the streets of the town, we decided to broaden our horizons and explore the Nordic countryside and more importantly, fulfil my childhood dream of seeing the fjords. Having studied geography in college, the fjords were definitely on my bucket list. And oh yes, they definitely did not disappoint! The views were breathtaking and reminded of those amazing coloured pictures of my school and college textbooks as we drove under them, over them and around them, stopping wherever and whenever we wished to drink in the sheer beauty of that rugged landscape.

Now comes the interesting bit. Imagine traversing three countries in a matter of hours. If you lead a consulting life, many people have actually done that. Flown in and out for breakfast, lunch or possibly dinner meetings. I happen to know a few such consultant myself. Some miles away from Tromso, are the borders of Finland and Sweden. Traversing down the E8, in a few hours you would reach Kilpisjarvi, a sleepy village with an even sleepier border post which signals your entry into Finland. Some more miles down the road (almost a 100 miles!) is Karesuando, the northernmost town in Sweden. I am gutted that I didn’t take too many pictures of this part of the journey and fingers crossed, I’ll be back someday! And with that, we turned back to make the almost 200-mile journey back to Tromso in the still bright light of the night!

IMG_4407.jpg
In no-man’s land – The border between Norway and Finland just before entering Kilpisjarvi

The summer solstice spent in Norway in 2015 created an unknown quest within us to explore more of the cold barren lands which constitute the Arctic lands. The quest for more rugged landscapes, ice-laden mountains, narrow mountain paths, desolate countryside, mountain lakes surrounded by log cabins and the off-beat foods (e.g. whale meat!) are going to be just some of the few elements which will pull us back to the Arctic lands hopefully soon.Hence stay tuned for the next post folks – Iceland or Greenland, here we come!

IMG_4398
Whale meat!

P.S. We had a full Indian dinner at our friends’ place on our last night in Tromso. They live in this lovely upside down house, with the bedrooms on the ground floor and the living accommodation upstairs, I imagine to make the use of the lovely view of the sea!

Dutch Way of Nourishment

Amsterdam has always been a stopover destination for me. Flying to Dubai, stopover at Schipol. Looking for cheap flights to New York? Fly through Schipol. Friends in the US always, always fly through Schipol on the way back to India for vacations. You get the drift. It was never a city to be visited. And especially when you are a management consultant, you may just end up working Monday to Thursday in Amsterdam or even worse, fly transit through Schipol in extreme cases of flight unavailability for your European work destination.

So when S suggested a weekend away in that city of De Wallen, my reaction was suspect! With nothing much to do on a bank holiday weekend, astronomical prices for any other destination in more exotic locales, we booked ourselves in for 3-day rendezvous in Amsterdam.

And oh what a treat it was! It was 3-day food fest in the midst of ambling through the narrow alleys of the city and traversing through the numerous bridges across the canals, possibly the paramount symbol of the city. Meal times were ignored and we just followed our noses and sights to whatever caught our fancy. Especially when one is bombarded by stores with names as such (see images below), the entire quirkiness of it made it one of the most ‘calorific’ holidays that I’ve ever embarked on.

Macaron parlours are a dime a dozen along the beautifully cobbled alleys of the city. The only comparison of the popularity of this sweet delicacy which comes to my Indian mind is that with the rosogolla’s (a sweet ball of pressed curd dipped in sugar syrup) craziness in Kolkata. Celebrations in Kolkata are incomplete without the ‘rosogolla’ and every cornet sweet worth their weight will sell this delicacy. Likewise for macarons in Amsterdam. Whilst this is a French pastry, I haven’t seen as many blatantly ‘macaron’  stores in Paris as I did in Amsterdam. Over the 3 days of my visit, the count of these delicacies devoured by us was immeasurable.

 

 

Being an ardent shopaholic, Espirit is a brand I’m familiar with. For apparel, handbags, accessories and sometimes even shoes. So when a restaurant screamed ‘Espirit’, S and I literally rushed in through the door at 11 am for brunch, lest the Sunday morning crowd filled up the small cafe and we are denied freshly cooked eggs (a must-have every Sunday morning!).  The Omelette didn’t disappoint! It was at least made of 4 eggs, spicy and had onions and herbs in it – a definite take on the Indian omelette. The burger was standard. I think my  GBK burgers here in London are still the best, so I’ll pass the next time I am in Espirit cafe.

IMG_3049

Brunch – Variation of Indian Omlett

IMG_3050
Brunch – The usual fries and burger

 

Right, so onto the Bagel Tapas. I must admit this was a first for me. Never tried something like this before, and wasn’t disappointed either. A bagel basket of different types of miniature bagels and the array of filings. The filings were delectable, varies across flavours like hummus, cream cheese, olives, guacamole, and so much more. You just walk up to the board and choose your desired filling and voila, the pretty picture below reaches your table in less than 10 minutes! Something to definitely check out when you are in that city.

IMG_2987

Bagel Tapas

The coffee in Amsterdam was mild. After coffee in Milan, Amsterdam is the next best for me. Unlike most coffee drinkers, my Indian heritage means I like my coffee to be mild, a single shot with lots of hot milk. London, unfortunately, hasn’t given me a single cafe which can make it my way. At most paces, I usually end up asking for a single shot of coffee to tone down the strength, but one shot alone can pull a punch! Possibly the only place which has come close with its single shot latte for me is Cafe Manon in Fleet Street near my place of work. But then again, I’m a minority; most people prefer their coffee to be strong and bitter. So it was a nice surprise that the single shot lattes in Amsterdam were mild enough to temper down the taste for me.

 

You can not have hot waffles and ice cream when you are in Amsterdam. Being neighbours to the Belgians, whilst they haven’t perfected the waffle, there are myriad cafes and temporary food carts which sell these – a definite must have! Cheese, egg pancakes, pancakes, apple strudel, Rookworst (a variation of the Bavarian sausage), the list was never-ending! Unfortunately, in the utterly salivating moments of devouring these foods, photographs were sometimes not the priority! When remembered, they were saved for this blog!

 

The food quest was endless, but definitely on the list was sampling some Indian curry in Amsterdam. Given my Indian heritage, I never leave a city without sampling the ‘desi’ (Hindi word for Indian) fare!

IMG_3001

My predictions for the ‘desi’ fare were spot on for Amsterdam as well! The curry we had was bland, non-spicy and quite unimpressive. It was a dark narrow dimly lit Indian restaurant. Why, oh why do Indian restaurants in continental Europe seem to enjoy the darkness? When serving Indian food, spread the joy, spread the light that is the country of India. Somehow most curry houses I’ve been to in continental Europe have been dark and small. And the fare is usually put together for the uninitiated, folks who have not tasted the sheer audacity of taste and flavours of the curry that London can offer. Unfortunately, no city, absolutely no city in Europe can do the curry like the British. And the sheer availability of the curry is something I cherish from the bottom of my heart. I cannot comprehend my life without my corner curry house and the option to head into Central London for a good night of Michelin starred curry or fast food curry or pub night curry. The list is endless!

So ending this Amsterdam food post with the usual conclusion on my hunt for the perfect curry – London is king when it comes to curry!

Living in Hope

We all live in Hope. Hope of a better life, a better house, a better job, a better payslip, or hope of life just being the way we want it to be. I too exude the human emotion of ‘hope’. But when that emotion metamorphoses into a microcosm of all of the above elements of a ‘better life’, you have literally arrived in a place which can be take on the ‘heaven on earth’ locution!

Hope is the name of a small cove on the shores of the English Channel and the small community of people who live in that cost of South Devon have christened this little piece of heaven Hope Cove. A field of vision, as far as the eyes can travel, will take in the turquoise blue sea and the vision of what Guernsey would look like, if you could see that island landmass direct across from the coast of South Devon.

IMG_3838
The turquoise blue waters of the English Channel

After several hours of driving through narrow country lanes with local drivers dogging our bumper clearly irritated by the city gal at the wheel being extra cautious in fear of bouncing off the lanes, the first indication that the narrow tree laden dark lanes are coming to an end is the smell of the sea, a divine smell reminiscent of my many childhood holidays in Puri, in the state of Orissa in India. And the village unfolds in front of your eyes as you slowly descend the not so steep slopes downhill towards the sea.

IMG_3859
Enter a caption

IMG_3638

The images above are just some of the many hundreds of images we captured through out iPhone and our DSLR on our way downhill towards the village. It was a breathtaking view and frozen images do not do it the full justice. On a mild summer’s afternoon, the shimmering turquoise of the English channel reminded me of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five heading off to the sea on their tiny boat to George’s island!

The British Isles are an underrated tourist destination in Europe. While London is a destination of choice for most, the countryside far outweighs the busy nightlife and historical prowess of London. Cope Hove is one such shining example of a hidden gem, a pearl in the crown, a small village of breathtaking beauty and sheer delight. Staying at one of the beachfront hotels, waking up to the sounds of the gentle waves crashing on the sun kissed shallow beaches, the chilly summer morning sea air, the long hikes down the coastal path all culminate to make a journey of Hope. And the pièce de résistance should definitely be the many stories of smuggling days of Hope Cove. Whilst the mainstay of the local people was fishing, its proximity to France and Spain pushed it into the forefront of the smuggling empire. Salt, an everyday ingredient in our kitchens today, made its way into Hope Cove from France before it reached the bigger cities and towns in Britain.

One of the wonders of this country which never fails to amaze me is the sheer diversity and availability of Indian food in almost every nook and cranny of every city, town, village and teeny village! We discovered a little piece of Keralan heaven in the town of Kingsbridge with a menu so different from the typical Indian curry houses, which left me quite amazed. We quite often drove over to Kingsbridge, the nearest large town to Hope Cove. But those visits were brief and hurried, over the week we stayed at Hope, always a rush to get back to brilliant blue sea and the pebbly beaches of Hope!

The sit down dinners at the hotel were reminiscent of the good old British way of life which I am slowly imbibing into my lifestyle. All guests, including large families of 3 or even more generations dressed in their evening finery ventured down to the dining room sharp at 7 pm for a lavishing laid out dinner, watching the setting sun while having their desserts.

No matter where we go in Hope, in whichever direction, the English channel was our constant companion. Fresh sea air, good wine and food, Indian and British, made it perfect week long getaway from London. Till I am back again!