Eating like a Londoner

On my recent visit to London I was overwhelmed by the amount of food that was on sale. Every second store in central London seemed to be a ready-to-eat food store. One could find the same stores repeated every 100 yards or so. Definitely more food than people! The stores, each with a catchy by-line that stood out in number are EAT. ( Food worth Sharing), Itsu ( Eat Beautiful), Garfunkel’s, M&S ( Simply Food ) …the last one being the retail giant Marks & Spencer’s foray into food. These apart from the regular Tesco outlets, Burger Kings, Star Bucks and the small diners and beautiful english pubs. And then there was one which seemed to be on a mission to devour every inch of food-retail space and to out-do every other store. This was the always full, always busy Pret-A-Manger ( handmade, natural food).

It is impossible to ignore the phenomenon that is Pret-A-Manger. You see one and then you turn around casually and there is another one. Before you can say Queen Victoria, there is yet another one. Each one more busier than the other. Full of the “suits” types during lunches and all odd-shapes rest of the time. Pronouncing its name was a bit of a mystery and it took me a bit of surfing on the free wifi at the hotel to figure it was a take on the french term Pret-A-Porter ( ready to wear) and is pronounced Pret – A – Mahnzhay ( ready to Eat).

I definitely had to try it.

The first time I entered Pret store was more out of lack of choice and time trying to find lunch for the hungry daughter during a brief stop in the city of Bath. I went in expecting cold sandwiches, but was surprised to find hot-wraps and a coffee-choice that instantly found my approval – Flat White! ( after many years of telling Starbucks – “no foam please”, this was great). They also won over my heart with the small, perfect sized bottles of healthy smoothies – Mango, Beetroot & ginger, Spinach with something else. That is us devouring our first Pret meal.

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My interest was piqued big-time about these little stores. Further reading revealed this on their website:

Pret opened in London in 1986. College friends, Sinclair and Julian, made proper sandwiches avoiding the obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives common to so much of the ‘prepared’ and ‘fast’ food on the market today. The two of them had woefully little experience in the world of business. They created the sort of food they craved but couldn’t find anywhere else.

Because Pret is private we don’t face the same pressure to grow that a public company does. We will develop slowly, one shop at a time. There are about 335 Pret shops worldwide at the moment. Most of them are in the UK and between them we turn over roughly 450 million pounds a year.

They don’t mention that they also make a profit close to 90 million pounds!

So what makes Pret different?

My next few visits revealed more. Their hearts seem to be in the right places or atleast thats what all the branding in the stores screamed in your face. The food also seemed to be so healthy, fresh and inviting. Racks of fruits calling out to you under “Good stuff”, options of breakfast cups of my fav Bircher Muesli topped with pomegranate seeds and raisins, lots of greens in all sandwiches. All this comes with friendly, smiling staff and very clean and functional spaces ( lots of plugs for your electronics, long tables for social mingling etc). Yes you are charged a bit extra if you sit and eat at the store.

Here are some examples that will give you the correct picture of their food and their values:

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So one goes in feeling good, eats and leaves with a sort of halo around one’s head having eaten a healthy meal and done something good for the earth. But i have my own doubts about how much of the food can really be called “fresh” as it ought to be. Yes, they are baking fresh croissants and cakes and brownies. Perhaps they are also making fresh bread and eggs as well. The leaves are fresh yes. But the meats – part of most of the offerings is still processed, it comes to them from the farms processed ready to be made into sandwiches or wraps. There is an element of excess salts, seasonings and taste-makers. I had the Duck-Hoisin wrap for instance, which was full of a sweet sauce which i am very sure add on the calories.

Is it expensive? Whilst you cannot say it is over-the-top expensive, it is also not cheap either. You are essentially paying that little bit extra for healthier food ( which then, it should be). For example, at the italian diner across my hotel i could get a full english breakfast ( sausages, fried eggs, beans, mushrooms, bacon, toast and coffee) for 5 GBP. If i would step into Pret to eat healthy, i would end up picking up a Smoothie, a Muesli cup, a small sandwich with eggs & bacon and coffee coughing up close to 8 GBP. Those 3 Pounds of mine and countless others are all adding up to that tidy profit they make every year!

I have seen cities obsessing about their favourite comfort-food suppliers – from the Darshinis of Bangalore to the Starbucks cafes in Manhattan, but Central London’s love-affair with Pret takes the (organic, handmade) cake! Most certainly, you cant be in London and remain immune to the entity that is Pret-A-Manger. Next time give it a try and let me know what you think.

( They are also opening up / opened up in New York and Paris)

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Quirkiest of them all?

The very first time I ever booked a true “boutique” or a “designer hotel” was about 6 years back. The name of the hotel was The 3.14. Yes three point one four – at the French Riviera – Cannes. My client was a 28 year old Indian millionaire with a lot of style, class and pizazz. He paid approx. 800 Eu a night to stay in a prestige Suite that was located on the floor representing the universe of “creative and luminous” African continent. Each floor was “a universe” dedicated to one of the continents. The room was decorated in eclectic colours of forest neon greens interspersed with magentas and browns. I could not fathom why he would’nt take my advice and stay at the sea-front swanky The Martinez where all the film-stars stayed when they sashayed down the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival.

Later that year, I visited both The Martinez as well as The 3.14. Whilst the Martinez ( nice hotel, they serve us Champagne every year at the ILTM official party, God Bless them!) was stylish, beautifully located right on the Croisette, you could say it was a grand hotel which falls into a cookie-cut style of its kind.  3.14 on the other hand, took your breath away when you entered it. The lobby had every colour possible, bright, shiny – in your face. An antique mirror-work wooden door very familiarly from Rajasthan jostled for space with antiques from Morocco and other exotic places. Like it or hate it, but you couldn’t ignore it.

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For yet another client, I booked the Murano Urban Resort in Paris complete with stark white rooms that changed character with the colour of light – you could dim and alter the colours, fill up the Jacuzzi in the middle of your room that came replete with electronics of the space-ship kind. This client paid upward of 1200 Eu per night for a junior suite at this hotel.

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I needed to stay in one of these to better understand “designer hotels” and my new market-segment that was demanding something I was not familiar with. Very soon, I had an opportunity. My first was “The Roomers” in Frankfurt where I stayed for 3 nights some years back. The major colour all over was black. Pure and jet-black! On the walls, on the floor and just about everywhere. The black corridors were lit from the floor side that throw eerie shadows on your faces as you tick-tocked your way to your black room at night. This black was offset by bright reds at places in the lobby that made you stop and fired your senses. Amenities included a full “naughty set” and in-room reading was suggestively “Playboy” ( or similar if I remember right). I had arrived into the world of “hip”, the new young world of “blatant chic”!

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As the tourism industry slowly woke up from the aftermaths of the post 9/11 recession, it realised that something new and exciting had to be done to cater to the world of this uber-hip generation that was fast demanding something more exciting than the factory-like, predictable hotel rooms. Independent hotels were the first to take the lead as they were not tied to chain-syndrome of “sameness”. Bright, enterprising hoteliers started taking up old warehouses, boat-building yards, libraries, jailhouses and turning them into beautiful, creative works of art. (Ian Schragher of the Morgans Group is often credited to be the perpetrator of this change). Their friends from the same generation started filling them up as guests and clients. A new revolution had started. Some clever associations brought some of these stand-alone hotels together – one such being the Design Hotels (– one of the few hotel marketing associations that I feel has stayed true to its ethos and not compromised for the sake of adding numbers). These umbrella brands were soon becoming a force to reckon with.

The major chain-hotels watched the trend and they had to react! Soon. The Starwood group with familiar brands like Le Meridien and The Sheratons was able to take the lead first with the launch of the W brand. The W website describes its hotels as:

Escape to where iconic design and contemporary luxury set the stage for exclusive and extraordinary experiences at W Hotels® Worldwide.Retreat to surprising, sensory environments where amplified entertainment, vibrant lounges, modern guestrooms and innovative cocktails and cuisine create more than just a hotel experience, but a luxury lifestyle destination.

They now already have over 30 thriving and pulsating hotels.

Other chains took off soon as well. The Hyatt answered with The Andaz hotels and Edition by the Marriott group. Our very own home-bred Taj Hotels launched the Vivanta Hotels and re-branded some of their tired-hotels ( read Taj Garden Retreats)  into happening party places. The transformation is slow but steady ( for instance Taj Vivanta,MG Road Bangalore isn’t that Vivanta! Yet!).

The latest entrant into this trendy party is the so far staid French group – the Sofitel. They have launched their first fashionable hotel called “So” quietly in Mauritius and with a great pomp and show at Bangkok. The one in Singapore, ostentatiously is being designed by not one but five hip designers!

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It will be interesting to see where this race will take us in the next 5 years. All of these brands compete with each other for being the most connected to fashion, music icons, concerts, contemporary art and all things current ( see their websites to see how they almost fuse into one another). After the neon colours have merged and the unusual has become the usual, will it all be a question of Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who is the quirkiest of them all?

The Central Park loved me!!

Some places beckon and call you to them, with some you start a love-affair the moment you see them…and then, yet, very strangely, some of them refuse to get out of your mind and they just stay there becoming more and  more closer to your heart for no apparent reason.

New York beckoned last December. Excited research and bookings began. The weather was not going to be at its best, but all the same, tickets for a Broadway show were bought, good seats to see the Radio City rockettes were reserved and tours were booked. Since I always like to get under the skin of a new place and I think a walking tour with a local is always the best thing to achieve this, I booked a 6 hour intensive New York walking tour. It was to take me from the meeting point on Times Square to Columbus Circle, into the Central Park…and then it came to the interesting parts – Little Italy, China Town, Tribeca, 26/11 Memorial, Greenwich and Wall Street amongst other things. I couldn’t wait for the first part with the Central Park to get over! I am not one for parks and nature.

We stood in our little touristy group at Columbus Circle listening with attention to our guide. From there he led us up Central Park west road to the Trump Hotel letting us in on the exploits of Mr Trump and his empire. Gradually, we turned right and we were in ‘the” Central Park. If you know your park well, you would know that this part of the park – the south of it is mostly open fields and you have a view of the brown mid-town buildings from here. The air was cold and nippy and my brain was getting frozen. I put my head down and walked on with the group till we crossed half the breadth of the park until the Centre Drive and on to the Mall. ( this is a picture of me looking unhappy at this point)

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I lifted my head and looked at the tree-lined Mall. Something within me changed at that magical moment. I will never know why it happened. Perhaps it was the calmness of the bare branched statuesque trees, or was it the lovely copper yellow leaves on the side or was it the absolutely soul-stirring music that wafted out  of this man’s Saxophone. It was a conspiracy for sure. I suddenly became aware of all the colours and the sounds around me as I stopped to admire this little resident of Central Park.

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Central Park is the largest metropolitan park in the world with almost 3.4 sq kms spread. A group of wealthy merchants and businessmen – way back in 1853 – gave seed to the idea of this park. While India fought its first battle of independence in 1857, a competition was announced to select an architect-designer who could give a beautiful shape to this vast piece of lowlands-marshes and otherwise shanty-land. The team comprising of Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux won the competition with their plan which they called the Greenstead. And thus began the immense, laborious work on the Central Park to convert their dream into reality. Not only was the terrain hard to tend but there were other problems such as evacuation of settlements of immigrant villages. By the late fifties-early sixties, the park started to receive visitors. And to this day, the ever-changing face of Central Park has been welcoming residents of New York, concert-goers, tourists, cyclists, skiers, skaters, walkers, joggers and people like me who come and fall in love with it.

We walked on, under the trees in the Mall until we reached the Bandshell and then the Bethesda Terrace. I am not going into the design and the history of these two constructions but the atmosphere was so full of life. There were musicians playing, having an impromptu concert and I even saw a home-recording of a dance audition for a popular TV show. Everyone was just, so “at home” like they had a time-share ownership of that patch for that hour.

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We then turned left towards the Bow Bridge. I just could not get enough of it. I took pictures of it, I went on it, off it and all the while I couldn’t take my eyes off it. (No wonder then, that, when 6 months later, Emirates Airlines ran their “Guess the City” campaign and featured the Bow Bridge for New York, I just jumped for joy almost like they had featured my best friend). There was again, something about the frozen lake behind it, the ash-whiteness of the bridge, its gentle curves and the colours all around it that held me spell-bound and the imagery has stuck with me.

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The walk from the Bow Bridge to the Strawberry Fields was one of sheer delight of discovery of the Central Park benches. I learnt how one could donate and dedicate a bench in someone’s memory or just for love. It was absolutely lovely to read some of the emotional, funny, abstract, sentimental messages on the benches. I have some for you:

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And then, we arrived at Strawberry Fields. Perhaps I was the most poorly informed resident of this planet but I admit I did not know that the memorial to John Lennon was in Central Park and was called Strawberry Fields. As you stand there, you can see the 5 storey Dakota Apartments across to the left. The top corner apartment is where John Lenon and Yoko Ono lived. It was while entering this apartment from the ground floor, that, Lenon was shot dead in December 1980. Yoko Ono wanted a “living” memorial for Lennon and she chose this tear-drop shaped patch of land that was named Strawberry-Fields after the famous Beatles song. There are plants and flowers donated by many countries that are grown here and right at the centre there is a beautiful mosaic arrangement with the words “Imagine”. You can see many of Lenon’s fans leave flowers and wreaths for him over this mosaic. The silence and the peace of the place and its beauty is indeed a very rich tribute to the peace-activist that Lennon had become in his later years.

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From here, we went on and out of the Park towards the Dakota Apartments and then down below to be swallowed up by the New York Metro. But I left a piece of my heart behind, somewhere between the Mall, the Bow Bridge and the Strawberry Fields. After I came back home, I have been consumed by this patch of 843 acres to be precise. I have dug up its history, I have downloaded and read bulky PDFs, I have stared at picture albums…and slowly made it a big part of me. I was also surprised to see from the map that I actually covered a very small part of the Park and yet it left such an impact on me.

Now, I have stopped questioning the attraction. Some places do this to you. The beauty and the soul of that place resonate with yours. It opens its arms and welcomes you. it calls out to you and falls in love with you. You can feel it. Yes, I know it in me – Central Park loved me.

The Camp Nou Experience – FCB Barcelona

Messi, Manchester United, UEFA, Bend it like Beckham,Diego Maradona and Mohan Bagan. There ! That is almost my entire knowledge about Football ; or is it soccer? But i do know that there exists a part of humanity that is totally crazy about the sport and it is like a religion for them. I can respect that having grown up in a country that worships all things cricket. To open my limited horizons and with a hope that perhaps some of the magic may rub off on me, I agreed to experience the FCB – Camp Nou for its innumerable fans.

Camp Nou lies in the north-west part of Barcelona very near the Royal Palace. One can reach it from Las Ramblas either in the tourist buses that spin around the city or on the metro lines and get off at the University or the Palace stations. If you have a debit card ( or a credit card for which you remember your pass code which i never do for mine!) you can get your tickets ( 23 Eu per adult and 17 Eu per child…kids below 5 are free) at the electronic vending machines and avoid the long queue at the cash windows. You will see very endearing sites of fathers holding tiny hands of starry eyed kids who cannot wait to get in and can be seen peeking in thru the cracks into whatever little they can see inside. Needless to say that 90% of these kids are already wearing the FCB T-shirts. If you are going to Camp Nou, its always better to check timings because they change on Match days

There didnt seem to be many restrictions on what you could carry inside though there is a security check. You walk the passageways from the entrance building into the main stadium. The passageway is suitably adorned with large pictures of the FCB players – i kept my mouth shut and did not utter a word to say that apart from the name Messi i didn’t really recognize or recall any other name, forget faces. I still think that if the whole team was to walk past me at FCB, i would have given them the special dumb smile that tourists reserve for each other.

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One enters a darkish large hall that comprises of all the history paraphernalia of the Club. There are innumerable Trophies which obviously had a lot of meaning for a lot of people because they ooh-ed and aah-ed over them and also posed for pictures with them. There were old pictures – of teams and players. One section I devoted myself to .. and that section was dedicated to Kubala. I spent my time learning about him and his glory. I read that he was a legend of sorts and that he was of Hungarian origin. His old contract that he signed with FCB is also on display. I think i did pretty well for myself. Read about Kubala’s golden age

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From the other side of the Hallway, one exited into the “restricted area – entry allowed only for authorised personnel and players”…and really, that kind of thing sort of juices you up a bit as you go in. You are led into the players Dressing room. This is the Visiting-team’s dressing room. We were lucky to find some remnant announcements from yesterdays match – ” Line up 5.55 Pm, kick off 6 PM etc”. Apart from the large jacuzzi, the big massage beds seemed welcoming.

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Out of the dressing room and one enters the area that is called the “Players Tunnel” that eventually takes you out and into the roaring stadium. You can imagine the hearts that would have beat here a million thumps before going on the green. And in case you dont understand the seriousness of the business – there is a small chapel that opens off the first right door. Now does that drive home the point??

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Even though its silent, the huge 100,000 seater monstrosity does move you! ….as you marvel at the architecture because of the sheer number of seats and how close it all seems to the ground you take in the words that give the club its spirit : MES QUE UN CLUB  ( More than a club) painted in large fonts across the seats.

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Whilst everyone else took in the stadium view, I was highly distracted, i must mention, by the cleaning guy with a gigantic Vacuum cleaner. This was the opposite-vaccuum – like a blower. The rows were filled with spoils of yesterdays match – popcorn covers, coke bottles, papers, banners and other such things. This man just blew it neatly through the rows and i thought it was a great, great idea.

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One is allowed access to the Dug-outs ( are they called Dug-outs also at Soccer?) and to the club presidents enclosure. Must say the seats looked ultra comfortable! One can just sit there and imagine the noise and the excitement when an important match is being played.

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Then one makes their way upwards thru the top of the stadium and inside – up 2-3 floors. All the while, i couldnt help but admire the fact on how orderly it all seemed even on the inside. In my estimation, there was one large exit-way for every 100-150 seats or so. The inside corridors were large and very well marked.

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The area above opened into the Media and Commentary View Stand.  Super glass front views and they said on an important match day one could find approx 200-500 media people here. Here is a view from the commentary box:

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You are also allowed access to the media rooms where one imagines all the boisterous press-meets are held after a win and tears are wept after a major loss. And well, yes, attractions are not attractions if you cannot get your pictures taken, so here you can pose with an imaginary player of your choice ( photomagic!) and the trophy with the backdrop of the club logos. There is also a multi-media gallery which i thought was more a show of electronic gadgetry than a FCB show. ( the only thing i liked there were to put on some of the hanging headphones and putting them on to hear the recorded  roar of the fans during a match) Later, again like all attractions you will walk out of the other pathway and end up at the FCB Botega ( boutique? shop?) where you can indulge in souvenir shopping.

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If you are a Soccer Fan, you can indulge yourself in worshiping your legends. If you are not, like me, you can do some people watching. See them with eyes wide open at the players dressing rooms as they shyly touch the massage beds or gush out in glee louder than the jacuzzi in it. You can get amazed at the reverent quality of silence that suddenly overcomes all your fellow groups members when they enter the players tunnel – you cant decide which reason is more true – That they are in a imagining the tension that their heros go thru when they stand at that spot or because they have suddenly got access to a holy shrine and cannot believe their luck!

Madrid – The Jamon Capitol of the world

I am a big breakfast person. When i wake up in a good hotel, the thought that gets me out of bed on a winter morning is the thought of loading up on a good breakfast. The vision of a long breakfast buffet spread for me is one of the closest thing to heaven as it gets. In that buffet, when i get past the fresh juices and the fresh fruit – my favourite part comes up – Bacon, sausages, cold meats and eggs. I have always loved the thin slices of salty ham in various buffets around the world but I must admit that the one I first had in Madrid ( Hotel Presiados – this buffet breakfast gets a 5 star rating from me!) had me hooked on immediately!

The spanish Jamon is coveted thru the world and is almost the national food of the country. There are mainly two types of Jamon – the one that comes from the mountains called the Jamon Serrano and the other one which comes from the South & South west of Spain – called the Jamon Iberico. The Iberico version comes from the black pigs which are fed exclusively on a diet of acorns during their last days and is far more expensive than the Serrano variety.

The Jamon is basically the hind legs of the pigs which are cured after slaughter. Sea-salt is used to cure the meat initially for about a week or two. After that it is rinsed and again left to dry – some even upto 2 years. These are then packed and sold all over Spain and also exported.

There are now eateries and museums dedicated to this delicious food – the Jamon. If you are in Madrid, visit any of the Museo De Jamon eateries spread around the city. There is one at the Plaza Mayor ( watch an amateur Video)

Ofcourse, if you are a connoisseur, dont let anyone deter you from spending your well earned money at the very stylish Mercado de San Miguel – which once almost fell to rust and desolation – is now a thriving, catchy looking glass & wrought iron structure that houses many boutique food stores. In the evening it turns into a rows of beer drinking  & Tapas eating crowds. You can find the freshest sea- food, the best tapas and ofcourse the best Jamon here. Walk thru Mercado de San Miguel with Anthony Bourdain. And here is my amateur picture of the Mercado:

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Break-time for the Chef 🙂

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If you are not visiting Madrid and only going to Barcelona or are also visiting Barcelona, get your fill of looking at Jamon in the beautiful indoor fruit and food market on Las Ramblas – La Bouqueria. Pick up one of the amazing 1 Eu fresh juice concoctions and feast your eyes on the rows of beautiful Jamon being sold just as i did…..

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The Walk of Love – Via Dell Amore at Cinque Terra, Italy

Even if your Italian is really poor and you dont know what Via dell Amore means, the Logo for this spectacular sea-side walkway will speak for itself!

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The general area of Cinque Terra leaves you awe-struck with its raw beauty and earthiness. The colours are so vivid and so stark that you keep needing to remind yourself to breathe to stay alive. There are so many adventurous treks that one can do all around the 5 villages and if you are like me – one who believes in no activity more strenuous than carrying a day back-pack on your holiday – feels pretty left-out after seeing all those active ones climbing up steep hill sides.

I think Via dell Amore was made for the likes of us. Those who want to claim – yes, we walked between the villages without having to sweat our beautiful brows. You reach the 4th and the 5th Villages ( or the 1st and the 2nd depending on whether you start East to west or vice-versa) and you can walk this walk-way which is just over 1 km in length. Its not a surprise that it is called the Walk of Love because it is so pretty, sunny, spectacular and amazing that one needs to almost resist the urge to hug and  kiss perfect strangers.

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There is a history to it. Before the railroads were made, these 5 villages are very cut off from each other and it was very difficult for the boys and girls from neighbouring villages to meet each other. That is when this walk way was cut along the cliff side. some part of it is tunneled and some is open pathways.

Half-way thru the walk, there is also a small cafe which has the best views of the sea. All along the walk, you see names and statues of the angels of love. Lovers from all over the world have etched their names on the walls of this walk-way. There is also a tradition of buying a lock together and putting it up here with a promise of keeping the love alive forever.

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The best things in life are sometimes not free! you need to buy a ticket worth 5 Eu per adult to walk because it runs thru a national park.  It may well be the best 5 Euros you spend in the Riviera….( if you dont count the ones you paid for the salted Caperberries…or perhaps for that awesome cone of gellatto? 😉 )

The Art of Making Fire – by the men of Masaai Mara

The rawness of their existence has taught the Masaai people a lot of survival arts. One among them that they themselves rate very high is the Art of Making Fire which comes in handy when they have to run after their cattle that has strayed into the forests and they have to end up staying the night there.

The two essentials are a round stick and another piece of wood which has been fashioned into a flat shape. It has holes in it, the size of the round stick.

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The Masai never leave without their short sword knife which normally sticks with them. Over this knife, they keep the flat piece of wood and then the stick is swizzled around vigorously.

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The friction gives rise to some smoke and embers that are quickly put into a bunch of straw….and blown into….and…

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Viola, you have fire!

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For more such experiences also read :  A very Masai Affair

A very Masai Affair!

There are 52 tribes in Kenya. But beyond doubt, the best known are the Masai people. They have been the most photographed and it helps, perhaps that the best known wildlife plains are named Masai Mara. Whilst, their typical red garb and the starkness of it against the barren backdrops is enough to hold your interest, the Masai people and their culture get more intriguing as you get closer to them.

They are usually willing and open to welcoming you to their small villages and homes. Not the most hygienic of places to visit but if you are in the discovery mode, you will jump at the chance. I was lucky to experience this visit to a Masai Village just outside the Mara borders.

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The Masai always have been cattle-rearing nomadic people. Their one and only God – Engai – asked them to look after his cattle on earth. Their social standing and importance depends on how much cattle – mainly goats and cows- they own.

A Masai Village is made up of very small houses each for one mother ( a visiting father)  and her children. These houses are constructed by the women themselves and are extremely small by our standards. I would put the size at about 2 or 3 metres by 3-4 meters. I could barely stand straight and that was the height of all the huts. Within this was the kitchen, a large slab for the couple to sleep in and some space for the children. Made of mud, cow dung, tree branches, straw they seemed impermanent in nature. One thing that stood out for me was the extreme lack of sunlight – there was only a small window at the top of the hut which couldn’t have measured more than 1 foot X 1 foot. My own deduction has been that this was due to the fear of wild animals.

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The huts stand close to each other and a collection of 8-10 such huts constitute a village. The whole village is surrounded by a fence which is made of the acacia thorn shrubs. There are 1-2 gates in the fence which are open during the day. At night, all the cattle is rounded up and brought inside and the fence is dutifully ‘closed’ by the menfolk of the village. The entire central clearing therefore was full of cattle dung and this attracted a lot of flies, mosquitoes and such like. I did wonder why they wouldn’t want to clear this out but I am sure there must be some Masai understanding about this.

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Most of the men are engaged in cattle rearing and that’s what they do all day. That involves a lot of standing and walking and they always have a sturdy stick with them. This stick is meant to provide recourse for atleast one leg when they are very tired. Apart from the time period that immediately follows the ceremony of compulsory circumcision when they must wear black, the Masai are very fond of the colour red.  They usually wear one large shawl called the Shuka draped around them. You can also buy yourself a lovely Shuka if you wish at any of the touristy souvenir shops. They often wear cow-hide sandals which have lately been modified and have soles made of tyre-strips.

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The Masai people are given to dancing and singing a lot. They do this when they are celebrating occasions like the “coming of age’ ceremonies for boys. Raw Blood is mixed with raw milk and drunk towards good health and happiness. They don’t have to kill the cattle for it, usually a jugular vein is punctured neatly and the blood is drawn out. The most popular of dances amongst the Masai men is the Adumu or the jumping dance. The men stand in a semi-circle and there is usually a group chant which is followed by rhythmic grunts.  Then one by one, they step. Watch Video.

It is a humbling experience to learn to be happy with meagre needs and the smiles of the Masai teaches you just that.

Also read :  The Art of Making Fire – by the Masaai

Cooking Pasta in a Tuscan Country Home – Florence

Whenever I travel to far off places, I very often feel this sudden urge to enter homes there…just to be a fly on the wall and see whats going on. Just see the locals going on about their home doing their everyday things that they do. I want to go sit with them and ask them what their fears are today and what gave them joy. What do they treasure in their homes and what do they wish to change.  Unless you have really good friends in strange lands, you rarely get a chance to actually enter homes. That is why i will always value all the opportunities I have had to go visit a typical home.

This wasn’t a friendly home visit. It was a paid-for one but yet i will cherish this one because it was not touristy at all. I met Majla in Florence when she came to pick us up in her very “homely” car. We drove out north from Florence towards the Tuscan countryside with Majla giving us proud descriptions of the trees and the villages. It was December already so these arent the best colours that Tuscany normally has to offer but i am going to resist putting up any pictures that are not taken by me. I am sure, the colours are so much more brilliant in the summers.

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Majla lived with her husband, Marco and 3 children in this most beautiful fairytale like house with a big turret tower. The house had only the living room and the kitchen on the ground floor and all the rest were actually spread in different levels all atop each other in the turret. Majla gave us a very nice tour of the house which was not kept ready for tourists if you know what i mean. The children had left for school and some of their clothes were still strewn on the beds :).

We carried a glass of wine each and went up on top of the turret and admired the countryside all around the house. It did seem to be the centre of the village. Hearing the church bells suddenly give out their lingering tolls, Majla explained that it is a typical ring which is tolled when someone dies.

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We came down into the house and Marco had thoughtfully put on some lively Italian music that set the mood. We soon rolled up our sleeves and got down to the serious business of kneading, rolling and cutting the Pasta.  It was tough work for an hour.

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Marco cooked us a fabulous meal and some of it with the fresh pasta that we had rolled! The poached pears were to die for!

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We went for a walk afterwards with Majla to pick up her daughter from her mother’s house – also closeby and then drive back to Florence.

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If you think about it, it is perhaps nothing out of the ordinary but it will always stay with me. Was it the Italian music? Was it the old German house with the old fireplace? Was it the way the children had kept their books? or was it just very simply the Italian white wine??

How to Hold it all up….at Pisa

Most times when we visit important monuments around the world, for some reason we become all serious and get into this mode of ” I shall imbibe all the knowledge there is, so what i am not actually enjoying it”.. Ofcourse, it is good to know and feel the history, but hey, loosen up! It wont be the end of the world if you missed the year it was built or who exactly the king was. There is always wikipedia for that. Get a good perspective, see if you can place it right within your frame of history timeline…be friends with your guide and if he/she is really good you will enjoy the learning. If you get stuck with a really bad one – ours was exceptionally bad when we visited Pisa; apart from the heavy accent, she had clearly not bathed or washed her hair in about 2 months – then you can always choose to people-watch! Of all the people you can watch, tourists – esp those visiting a famous monument are in a class of their own. They try and strike the most striking, often cliched, poses and try and shoot with the most novel angles. I love watching them!

Here is how I spent my afternoon with a bad guide in Pisa:

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It will truly fall if we don’t hold it up diligently!

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Bending over backwards with the effort!

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Family effort!

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Just with my left arm baby!

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You and me, together darling!

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Some inspirations!

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I shall try an angle and a position which no one else has tried….

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No, No….That’s all wrong! not hold against it, hold it UP!

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….and it went on and on. I can truthfully say that I really enjoyed my tour of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. And in case you want to know more on the monument – Read here :  Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia – on The Leaning Tower of Pisa  😉

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