Friday, 5 January 2018

Be Charmed - Estonia is enchanting!

Sometimes, just looking at maps or the globe helps in deciding your travels. I was browsing and enjoying looking at the North of our world. It was sheer curiosity that led me to Tallinn. A huge fan of waterways, I checked on the map that Tallinn was just two hours away from Helsinki by boat.

Magnificent choice of ships to Tallinn

So when my trip to Finland was finalised, I decided that Tallinn was a must. It was two hours definitely but not by a ‘boat’ it was a majestic ship!! So it was a cold windy morning when I left my hotel, the Radisson Blu Seaside ( overlooked Terminal 1. The night earlier, from my room that faced the seaside, I could see some ships.  The next morning, I had to go to Terminal 2 to embark on my voyage to Tallinn.

One can take the Tallink Silja Line ships, Viking or the Eckero ships to Tallinn.
 Just this year in February, Helsinki-Tallinn route’s Tallink – opened up a new terminal building at Helsinki West Harbour. I made sure I was well in time, as one needs to check-in (can be done online too), the T2 building is swank, new and once I checked in, I got a ticket with a code. I proceeded to the escalator, scanned my ticket and the waiting area was huge with two restaurants and seating. Being off-season in November, there were not too many passengers but it did get comfortably full at 10 am. The new LNG powered ship Megastar, glided in so smoothly for the 10.30 am voyage to Tallinn.

Once all the passengers Tallin disembarked and we began to walk towards the majestic ship to board. Totally in awe, I stared at the sheer size. Passengers are taken directly to deck 8.

Comfort Class of Megastar

I was booked into the Comfort Class. A pretty lady ushered me in after checking my ticket. I thought I was in some fancy restaurant, only that I was in the Baltic Sea! I walked to the nose of the ship the sea stretched ahead of me. Seating was on comfortable grey chairs with dining tables and if you needed privacy, there were enclosures too. I made myself comfortable and headed to the food counter. Chips, peanuts, biscuits, cinnamon buns, fresh cucumber, cauliflower with dips were complimentary!! Drinks included a variety of coffees, teas and soft drinks. Luxury!! For those who wanted a heavier snack, one could buy a Hessburger (hamburger from Helsinki) and also hard drinks.
At sharp 10.30 am the ship left, smoothly. Since it was a rainy day, it was grey all around. I decided to explore the ship. Walking out of the ‘comfort’ class, I checked the lifts – 8a was business lounge and 8b was comfort lounge. Opposite this class was the regular sitting area, followed by a huge duty-free shopping area like an airport. I went and checked out jewellery, cosmetics, perfumes, clothes, bags .

Then a floor lower was the liquor, the best!! Couples, families with children were shopping to kill time and stuffing their bags with chocolates, wines and snacks. Within no time, we arrived in Tallinn.

Tallinn in two days

Since it was my first time in Estonia, I decided to have a local guide. Maarja Laiapea and Jüri Pokk of Saku Travel (www.sakutravel.eewere both waiting for me. What a warm welcome!! Since it was drizzling, it was great to have a vehicle and warm hosts. We drove out in the comfortable Mercedes van. Maarja was soft-spoken and knew the country really well as she was born here, studied in a town away from Tallinn and then settled in Tallinn. She mentioned that summers in Tallinn are really busy, so for five months they have tourists from all over the world, she even guided some Indian families. Tallinn is a favourite with tourists who are on the cruise liners that come from St. Petersburg. Once the ship docks, hordes of tourists descend on Tallinn and see it in a day.  
Juri drove us to Kalamaja district first and it was just five minutes away. I tried to peep at the city through the rain. Tallinn is bang on the Baltic sea, and the city has a long coastline. Kalamaja is quiet little neighbourhood just outside the Old Town and is eye-catching for its colourful wooden buildings. During earlier centuries, Kalamaja served as the town’s main fishing harbour and was considered as a suburb. The word Kalamaja means fish house. It was in 1870 that Tallinn got connected by train to St. Petersburg and it became industrial and there was a huge influx of workers. After a few years, this area fell out of favour, and it was almost abandoned. With Tallinn’s improved economy in the 21st century, the middle-class began favouring this district and it led to it being revived. Most of the homes have retained their original flavour making it a historical district.

Since I had heard about the Telliskivi Creative city, I had requested Maarja for a quick look. Set up in the old railway area, it is a collection of factory buildings that retain their characteristic flavour. What is innovative are the wonderful restaurants, stores, art shops and when the weather is good there are food festivals too. A must visit is the La Muu, a tiny independent company making their own ice cream from fresh and local produce.
I chanced upon some amazing stores that had leather goods, paperworks, restaurants.

The Sea plane harbour and a bit of Russian history

A short drive on the coast and Maarja pointed out the garages of the Russians, gray with bright-red doors. It was a concept the Russians introduced in Tallinn to have a covered ‘house’ for one’s car. We drove to the Seaplane harbour (even though it is closed till 2018) but I chanced upon one of the oldest ice-breakers!! This ship is called Suur Tõll icebreaker is at the docking port, near the Seaplane Harbour. It is one of the steam-powered icebreakers from the early 20th century and was built in 1914 in Poland.

The main museum is housed in a strange looking building in dull grey with three domes. Very close is the formidable sea-fortress prison all on the shore of the Baltic sea.
We left and proceeded to check out some royalty. Since Estonia was under the Russian rule for many centuries, the Russian royalty had some favourite locales and Kadriog was one of the much loved places. Kadriorg is famous for its small but beautiful Baroque palace. Russian Tsar Peter the great built the palace for his wife Catherine the first. The palace has a well-manicured garden and the gardener lived in a charming cottage outside the palace, surrounded by the woods.
After a brief glance at the Museum of Modern Art, a truly modern structure, we drove out to the famous Song Festival Grounds at Lauluvaljak. The structure is unique and magnificent. It was the first modern post-war construction in the city, that was completed in 1960.
Song Festival and it’s fabulous stage
In 1869, Johann Jannsen established the Estonian Song festival, aimed at bringing about a national awakening. The first stage was built by Karl Burman and had space for 15,000 performers.
Later, a bigger stage was designed by Alar Kotli, Henno Sepmann and Uno Tölpus, the slope was used wonderfully, where people would be seated. Today, the Song Festival Grounds are a popular venue for events. It is best known as the place where every 5 years the Song Festival is held, in which nearly 25,000 singers take part, attracting an audience of nearly 100,000. 

On top of the natural limestone slope sits a bronze monument to Gustav Ernesaks, Estonian composer and 'father of song'. His statue, that is almost 10 feet in height, is placed as if he is listening to the concert. It’s a great place to click a photo and a memory of Tallinn.
We moved from the famous song grounds stage to St. Bridgets’ Convent. It is a deserted site with beautiful ruins, a medieval convent destroyed in 1577. History goes back to 1407, when it was built as part of a Swedish religious order. It was the largest convent then and today the modern building of the St. Bridgettine Order makes a stark contrast to the ruins.

The Old Town of Toompea and Steven - the local celebrity

Driving along the coast, we entered the Old Town in a few minutes. And the only way to explore the Town is on foot. It’s best to wear comfortable walking shoes as the pavements are in cobblestone.
Juri dropped us off at the Toompea castle. A short walk down takes one to a huge gallery that looked down at the old town with red roof tops, modern structures on the right and the Baltic sea in the distance. Known as the Kohtuotsa viewing platform, most tourists love to stand here and relax. One side was the modern Tallinn. Tourists from the cruise liners were all around. And as I tried to get my share of space on the gallery, amidst umbrellas and people. Besides the fantastic view, even though it was a rainy day, I chanced upon a celebrity!!

A Seagull!. It seems, later I found out, is called Steven. He wasn’t frightened at all. In fact, he was posing for the camera. Grey and white, with a yellow beak, he kept moving on the ledge, extremely comfortable with the crowds.
Just below the viewing gallery is the Danish King´s Garden. As we walked up, unfortunately for me, St Mary’s cathedral was closed on Monday. But a little away is the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, an eye-catching structure, opposite the Parliament. No photography is allowed inside but the structure is so beautiful even from the outside that I didn’t mind. Inside, beautiful portraits in gold, the ‘onion’ towers that house huge bells made this building a memory to cherish.
Tiny souvenir shops with Russian dolls and Estonian handicrafts made out of wood dot the entire Old Town. Maarja particularly pointed out to one called the Little Red House Full of Bright Ideas.
We walked down to the Great Guild Hall where a permanent exhibition, entitled 'Spirit of Survival', covers 11,000 years of Estonia's history with interactive displays and text in Estonian and English.
 It was time for an early dinner. Maarja made a reservation for me at the Von Krahli Aed. A small but very charming restaurant with a great host who helped me choose. I settled for the vegetarian meat loaf, that came plated beautifully.
I stepped out and took a taxi to my hotel the Radisson Olumpia ( . I was given a voucher for my welcome drink and checked into my room on the ninth floor – it said business class and it was sheer luxury!! A welcome snack awaited me – humus with crispy bread and chips! The bathroom was super in white with a lovely tub and large countertop. The bed was so comfortable that I slept a deep sleep in Tallinn.

Kalev Marzipan Room and shopping in Tallinn
Next morning, I decided to explore the rest of the town and do some retail therapy too.
Next morning, post an amazing breakfast, I decided to explore the sauna and swimming pool located on the 23rd floor. The view was breathtaking more so it was a bright sunny day!

My touring started with the Kalev Marzipan Room. An charming store that sells marzipan, it also houses a cafe and a museum, and the mascot of Kalev who had a makeover over the years. Check for workshops if you want to see how the marzipan is painted and do it yourself.
I visited the Town Council´s Pharmacy that exists from 1422 and is now a great stop for all tourists. It has some interesting exhibits and stories on how ‘folk medicine’ was made. A short walk took me to the  Viru gates and I also had a look a few typical medieval merchant´s houses.
I took a quick look at the Börsi Passage where Estonia's history is set in the stone path.
I decided to visit Stockmanns to check out the collections and it was time to bid goodbye to Tallinn, but not before I visited the new departmental store Nautica at the quay. A spanking new mall, it has some amazing stores and coffee shops. Make sure you reach the harbour at least three hours early so that you can do full justice to the stylish stores housed in Nautica.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Ethiopian trail - a visit to Lalibela - an ethereal experience

Ethiopian Marvel

Lalibela - time stands still at the rock hewn churches in Ethiopia

I was introduced to Ethiopia while flying to South Africa. It was an adventure as I flew Ethiopian Airlines for the first time. I was told that if the connecting flight takes off, before I reach Addis Ababa, I would be offered a stay in the capital with sight seeing thrown in, all for free. I became a fan of Ethiopian Airlines - the aircrafts are new, offer great connections and have wonderful soft-spoken crew.
When I flew to South Africa for the second time - again on Ethiopian - curiosity creeped in. The meal on the connecting flight to Johannesburg was ethnic – offering injera, the spicy chicken wot, veggies, lentil wot all to be washed down with the famous Ethiopian coffee. Ethiopia seemed like a country waiting to be explored. 
A little bit of browsing threw up the cross-shaped church at Lalibela that was built out of one massive mountain called the St. George's church. It was like a magnet.
I visited Lalibela soon! It was nothing short of a miracle to be invited to see the country. 

Lalibela – the new Jerusalem

About an hour’s flight from the capital, Lalibela is a quiet town situated 1200 metres above sea level, with a stark landscape that has it’s own charm. It was a beautiful drive from the airport to the churches. I purchased some Lalibela crosses from some humble shepherd’s wives. Later our vehicle climbed up the winding roads, we came across a populated village and our guide informed us that these were families who have been relocated from the church premises. Lalibela was named after the king who ruled in the 12th century and he was responsible for building the churches.

My visit to the churches
It is difficult to even imagine the sheer magnitude of the churches as we enter the UNESCO world heritage site. The complex is protected under a mammoth metal canopy, a few metres away, the panorama unfolds. A gigantic structure is visible, below the hill!
Eager to explore, I walk down the rough steps watching my feet as it’s tricky and just look up at the church that stands inside the caved in mountain. Huge pillars hold up the roof and small windows were cut into the thick walls of stone to let in light. I walk around the structure and ss our guide Asefa explained the long history associated with orthodox Christianity in Lalibela, we listened and I asked him if we could enter the church. Yes, we can but we have to remove our footwear, hats or caps and make sure that we are decently dressed.

Dark, a bit musty it seemed like time had come to a standstill. We remove our shoes to enter the holy space; it’s dark, quiet and musty. Huge carpets are strewn over the floors and long curtains adorn the altar. A priest in white robes bows his head down in prayer. We are lucky as our guide tells us that he will bless us with the Lalibela Cross if we like, and we can photograph him too. The cross is quite big, elaborately decorated, with a circular design. It seems that the circular style of the cross was a common design during the 13 th Century and the name stuck as "Lalibela crosses".
I learn that Lalibela was built to resemble New Jerusalem for the benefit of Africans who couldn’t travel to faraway Israel in the 10th century, not that they didn’t try, they died while crossing the desert and the Muslim invaders under the Aksum empire stopped them from visiting the Holy Land.
The massive soft pink pillars that have turned brown over the centuries, crumbled but were re-created as they crumbled during the vagaries of nature. The large stone pieces stand next to the church, mute spectators of tourists.
Without any engineering knowledge, the craftsmen and ‘builders’ made sure the site was a sloping one so that the rain water would flow into a channel.  King Lalibela built these churches under the ground level to protect them from the crusaders, who were on a rampage to destroy catholic churches all over Europe and Africa.
Today the locals living in the area have been relocated to shanties a few kilometres from the protected area. They used to live in very unique yet picturesque round houses with a thatched roof built with local red stone called Lasta Tukuls, the houses had an internal staircase.
Till date Sunday services are held inside the churches. As we walk out, we walk through trenches, moats, courtyards, all connected to each other by a maze of tunnels, making it seem like a walk back into centuries. The complex is vast and there are a couple of smaller churches and a good 500 metre walk takes visitors to the most famous and most photographed church of St. George. It has a cross-shaped roof that is visible at the road level and one needs to walk down at least 20 feet to access the church.

Totally amazed, I am dazed at the beauty of the churches and how they have stood the test of time over centuries. We walk back to our vehicle, visiting a tiny stall that sells rough clay reproductions of the St. George’s church and some cute clay hens that are handmade.
As we leave Lalibela the next morning, I feel totally blessed at having visited this sacred site. 

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

In awe of Amsterdam

Amsterdam was a revelation!

Centraal Station
What was a revelation was the crisp, efficient transport, the fantastic Centraal Station, the joie de vivre of everyone around, so much so, that when I asked for directions to reach my hotel, no one seemed to know where I had to go (most people are tourists in Amsterdam) and I managed to see half the city on foot and my suitcase before I found my fantastic hotel - the Hampshire Hotel - it was tucked in a lane, yet in the heart of the and extremely helpful staff. My room was beautiful with a view of the skyline and a balcony to enjoy it in! But all errors were forgiven once I breathed in the evening air of this beautiful capital full of canals and bicycles and so much history, courage and the windmills. Major repair works on the tramlines, with men and their machines battling the canal waters and the constant flow of trams, but all this did not mar the spirit of the workers and left the city undeterred.
Since I had just a night to myself, I decided to hire a taxi and Ali my chauffeur for the evening was a local (though originally from Morocco) since he was five years old, and he knew the city like the back of his hand.
So after my dinner at LUCIUS a great sea food restaurant, where the decor is simple, nothing grand as the food, but you just can't enter the place without a reservation (speaks volumes about its 41 year old reputation), it was almost full when I entered. Couples and groups of families were indulging in the the three-tier trays of oysters on ice, shellfish and crustaceans while I decided to try the Dutch shrimps and Lobster bisque with Cognac cream. Post dinner, Ali was waiting for me, it was cold and we began our whirlwind tour of the city beginning with the Dam square; the main square of the city where once upon a time the dam was built on the Amsel river. Now it has a monument that towers into the sky built to honour the those who lost their lives in the World War II. A couple of photos of the tower and myself, Ali pointed out that the Royal Castle was right there.
The famous red light area was on my mind, but since it is a pedestrian area, I would have had to walk there, so Ali dropped me as close as he could and I tried walking but the place was too crowded as I guess the curiosity of every tourist gets the better of them. A bit fazed by the jolly crowds, I decided to give it a miss. But Ali made sure my curiosity was quenched by showing me a smaller red light area for discreet clients and also told me about another one in the South of the city.

Bicycles and waterways

With the biggest tourist attraction behind me, I proceeded to the Rijks Museum and in the dark of the night I could see that it was huge! Very close to Rijks is the Van Gogh Museum - both are the most visited museums of the city and another landmark is the Anne Frank House. As we drove through the city, it seemed peaceful and the canals meet you at every turn, some of them with boats parked during the night. Cyclists too, who are all over the place, during the night seem scarce, making it serene. Ali educated me about the city at every point, and I was in awe of Amsterdam. The canals were built in addition to the main canal of Amsterdam to house the influx of people who came to work here when ship building and industry was flourishing in the 16th century.

Rijks Museum

As we are almost done with our quick tour of the city, I realise that Amsterdam deserves more than just a night so I make a note, I will be back.
Sailor's biscuits 
The next morning, breakfast at the Cafe Americain - the spacious restaurant at The Hampshire, is a feast - The Sailor's biscuits for the brave seamen as they explored the world - were on offer besides the numerous breads, meats, cheese, eggs and lots more. After a coffee, I leave for the station as the vibrant city is just waking up to another busy day.  

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Cloud Nine on Ethiopian

On Cloud Nine

The gentle air-hostess of Ethiopian Airlines asked me, as I woke up from my deep sleep, in Cloud Nine, "Would you like a spinach and cream cheese fritatta or a pancake?" Ravenous, I decided to go for the former since I preferred a savoury dish for breakfast - the pancakes would be served with jam so I decided to avoid it first thing in the morning.
Spacious seats, with a flat bed, the business class of Ethiopian Airlines is referred to as Cloud Nine. Three colours dominate the menu card, the pouches and the linen - red, yellow and green. Soft and fragrant, the yellow and green quilt lulls you into a deep slumber as we fly over the middle-east.
I looked out and it was 7.15 am in Addis Ababa and we were flying over a desert - a brown contoured land that was uninhabited for miles and miles. The flight map showed that the Equator passes through Nairobi, a little below Ethiopia and far below the southern tip of India. Muddy rivers flowed looking like rivulets from the plane, the landscape started becoming green and we were above Ogaden and Hargisa.
As we were nearing Addis Ababa, the clouds went above us and the hills seemed nearer. A smooth landing and it was time to rush to the connecting flight for Johannesburg. Escorted by friendly staff, we were told to board a coach that took us from the tarmac to our onward plane. The second leg of the journey was super smooth too and it began with a serving of assorted wines and Kolo (crunchy mix of roasted barley grains and peppered chick peas. The mid-day meal included Ethiopian national dishes like Doro Wot (spicy chicken stew); Minchet Abish (minced beef stew); Aterkik Alicha (stewed peas); Atakilt Wot (fried mixed vegetables) and Tibs Firfir (stewed beef) - all dishes were served with Injera - typical Ethiopian bread made from a grain called Teff - flat bread with a spongy texture - rolled and served with gravies. You could have the Cape Malay chicken curry, or braised lamb with Provencale sauce, pasta or cannelloni too. I preferred Ethiopian!
Coffee, not many know, is indigenous to Ethiopia and grows wild in the forests of the south-western highlands.
As the plane flew over Central Africa, I watched a French movie and indulged myself enjoying every bit of the 'New spirit of Africa' by Ethiopian!