Monday, April 18, 2011

Costa del Sol

Ashok and I made a pact when we got married that we would always be together for our wedding anniversary irrespective of work or any other commitments, given that we had a long distance relationship. This year it was on a wednesday, and it made no sense to take the day off and get back to work the next day, so we came up with the brilliant plan of taking the whole week off :D !

After having fallen in love with Spain and more specifically, Andalucia...

....we decided that we would visit the Costa del Sol before we cross Spain off our list. Costa del Sol has everything for everyone - beaches, mountains, historical places and a rarity - great weather throughout the year and good food.

We had chosen a resort by the beach in Mijas Costa and the nearest town was Fuengirola, separated from our resort by a row of charming villages.

Although the town shows unmistakable signs of growing urbanisation, the narrow streets, the Castillo de Sohail (a Roman fortress converted to an Arab fortress), the open parks and all a stone's throw away from the sea make it worth visiting. Another town close by is Marbella, also known for its Plaza de Torros.

We are not the spend-the-whole-day-lying-around-in-the-sun kind of people given that we have done it willingly and unwillingly for more than 20 years in India before coming to Europe. Fortunately for us, Mijas Costa is suitably located close to the highways leading to many major tourist attractions.

This is the capital of Andalucia and according to us, one of three important historical cities in Andalucia, the other two being Granada and Cordoba. To describe Seville in a few words, I need to quote a friend of mine who said 'The city has character'!

Seville is also renowned for its bull fights (even though the birth place is Ronda). The Plaze de Toros is one of the oldest bullrings and is definitely worth seeing. Although I am curious to learn what the bull fighting is all about and see it happen, I am never sure I can sit through it, so I was not all that disappointed to learn that the bull fights happen only in certain months (most commonly between April and June) and there wasn't one scheduled when we were there.

The Alcazar in Seville is like the twin sister of the Alhambra in Granada and serves to be one of the best examples of Mudejar architechture. The construction began in12th century and it has been through many invasions and renovations. Patio de las Muñecas (Court of the Dolls - shown in the photo below), Patio del Yesso (Court of Stucco) and the Patio de las Doncellas (Courtyard of the maidens) are simply breath-taking and you keep walking around, craning your neck with eyes devouring all you can while listening to the audio guide and never once thinking about the time !

The Seville Cathedral is massive and is beautiful in its own way. What I loved was a tilted mirror placed in a vantage position on the floor through which you see the cathedral upside down and focus on the ceilings.

Nerja is known for its caves and the balcony of Europe. We didn't even know this place existed until we saw a travel brochure. When we got there, we were in for a real treat !

The caves stretch for almost 5km even though only a small part is open for tourists. I can solemnly say that I have never seen such huge and magnificent stalactites and stalagmites in my entire life. Can you spot the guy behind the metal railing in the left of the picture shown above ?That should give you a perspective of how huge this formation is !!

Inside the caves, these formations form a natural amphitheatre where concerts and shows are regularly held. The best thing to do would be to catch a flamenco show and watch the colors flow and the feet tap with the imposing background !

The balcony of Europe (one view is shown in the pic below) is a short drive from the caves and completely lives up to its name !

Be prepared to be speechless for a while when the view first comes into view ! There is a beautiful promenade that leads to the sea and when I stood there and watched the sunset, I had this feeling of serenity and a strange calm wash over me and I was completely absorbed in it and silent (if you know me, you would understand why it is a big deal :D) for a few moments (oh..well, how long did you think that would last !?)

The best way to explore Malage is by a horse-driven carriage :D ! There is something incredibly romantic about the clop-clop sound (am wondering if it comes from girls liking knights and traditionally there are no knights without horses !) especially when you are leaning on your loved one's shoulder and riding through a picturesque street.

Malaga is a huge city and after having visited Moorish villages and towns, this urban place does not hold one's interest for long which is why a 1.5 hr quick guided tour (and doing it in style never hurts, does it :D?) helps you get a good glimpse of all the important places and choose what to want to visit.


Benalmadena is a town known for its boating trips - tourists are taken fishing and are given fresh sea food (obviously not interesting for herbivores like us) and the beautiful promenade along the sea. One can spend hours walking here and having occasional breaks either by shopping or sipping Italian espresso.

The aquarium in Benalmadena could be interesting if you can appreciate a wickedly large star fish, spider (or is it a tarantula ?) and a glass walkway with sharks (which you tell yourself are harmless and you try not to think about Jaws) swimming above your head !

Algeciras is a historic Mediterranean port. It is also a city of Churches, Monastries and above all, a beautiful square in the centre of the town that comes alive with festivities. All around the square are small cafes and restaurants where the locals enjoy tapas.

We could have made another day trip to Gibraltar if not for a teeny tiny thing called a 'visa' and an immigration officer who is unlikely to forget me for quite some time !

- I saw so many oranges in one day than I have seen in my entire life !

- I did not have to get up early to watch the beautiful sun rise (this was at 8:30 am :D)

- Famous metadors apparently get paid like football stars !

- There were nearly 200 Indian restaurants in Costa del Sol although we never saw any desi tourists (not that I am complaining since Spanish cuisine is not really vegetarian friendly)
How/Why ? God bless the English tourists who love Indian food and who flock there regularly !

- Groceries were ridiculously overpriced everywhere (everything was almost twice as expensive as Munich and Munich is one of the most expensive places in W.Europe!)
How/Why? Recession and economic instability leading to inflation ?!

On another note, the trip to Costa del Sol did not let us cross Spain off our list, in fact we are going back again...rolling eyes.....

Friday, April 8, 2011

I kill plants....

....I don't know why or how (or may be I do...) but I have never been successful in rearing a plant life.

In my defense, I have lived in a city in an apartment all my life without as much as a glimpse of gardening...well, if you don't count the potted Thulasi that amma had (and obviously amma took care of) and yes, I did occasionally water it and did the mandatory pradakshinam and namaskaram whenever amma asked me to but now that I think about it, I don't even know where she got it from or how often she changed the mud !

Trial 1: Year 1996
We had this inter-St.Johns' (there are 4 branches) competition where each school had to do their own mini-projects and exhibit them for the others. Since my engineering skills are way better than my artistic skills, I was assigned the ''technical'' tasks but a friend falling sick at an inopportune moment meant that I had to prepare one of the ''fields'' in her place for an irrigation project. It was nothing fancy (or at least that's what I thought...I was naive back then), I was to sow some wheat or kezhvaragu in a tray and allow it to grow for 3-4 days and bring it to the school (just like we create or rather amma creates a park for Golu). I duly took the seeds from amma and a green tray (with amma saying ada kadavule, adhu vethalapakku kudukara thattu di!), found some mud with the help of our watchman, carefully planted and watered them.

Day one - Nada
Day two - Null, I kept it in the mottamadi for a couple of hours after wondering if it was getting enough sunlight in our balcony
Day three - still nothing, by now I was really getting worried because I was to take it to the school the next day. I was so desperate that I actually sat and talked to the tray for a couple of minutes (seriously!) since I had heard somewhere (most likely vayalum vazhvum) that talking to plants and treating them as beings with feelings help their growth !
Day four - tray looked like green eminems hidden in the mud, took it to school, got a wrathful look from the teacher, who somehow managed to include it as a ''just-budding'' field in the project.

Trial 2: Year 2003
It was my first birthday in Germany. A few friends had come over for dinner and one of them got me a small potted plant that apparently blooms beautifully in the spring (and I thought to myself, if it makes it to the spring!). She gave me instructions on how to take care of it, I diligently took a note of them and created outlook reminders. Seeing the first bloom was as exciting as seeing the first snow !! Not to mention that I took a zillion pictures of it !

One became many and at one point, I actually had 37 small blossoms (and yes, I counted). I proudly showed it off to a friend who pointed out to me that the plant was getting bigger for the pot and I should shift it to a bigger one.

I asked around, went to a store, bought a pot, some mud (and after getting over the initial reluctance of paying for mud!) and then shifted the plant to the bigger pot....and 3 days later, it died ! I cursed the friend who suggested shifting the plant to another pot and told my friends ''No more plants, please!''

Trial 3: Year 2006
A plant-crazy colleague of mine was telling me about how she had requested her mom to come and water her 50 potted plants (yes, 50) when she travels for work. I told her about my jinx factor w.r.t plants and she was shocked. She gave me a plant (, not again...) that belongs to the cactus family and told me that it required no care whatsoever. I took it home with some trepidation and gradually realised that she was right, it hardly required any water and the sunlight in the window sill was more than enough. After two years, I was really glad that I had beaten the jinx factor.

In 2008, I had a travel marathon and was away for 5 weeks and when I came home, the plant had breathed its last !

Trial 4: Year 2011
My new apartment has a huge balcony. Now that spring is here, I went outside and stood on the balcony enjoying my morning coffee. As I looked around, I noticed that all my neighbours's balconies were suitably decorated - hanging flower pots, pots on the ground, creepers on the sill and to add insult to injury, the lady in the opposite apartment came into her balcony with her gardening gloves and started planting new ones !! In the interest of not being the only apt with a lacklustre balcony, I am going to try my hand at this again and all I can say is.....May God save the plants ! Amen !

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Curiosities of Budapest

Hungarian Parliament, BudapestFor a tourist, both Buda and Pest (two parts of Budapest on either side of the Danube) have a lot to offer and you can easily spend a 3-day long weekend without being bored even for a minute.

Buda Castle district
You can either take the funicular or walk up the hill to reach the Buda Castle District. Either way you get to see some beautiful views of the city before you start exploring the district. There is an imposing building of museum and after passing through what looks like a village with shops and hotels, the beautiful Mathias church comes into view.

The fisherman’s bastion was my favorite in the district, to me it was a magnificent terrace of the Buda Castle and offered beautiful views of the Hungarian Parliament and the rest of the city.

The Buda Castle also houses the Hilton hotel and the very famous Faust wine cellar. If you are a wine-lover, it is definitely worthwhile to spend some time tasting different wines from Hungary while sampling some delicious scones and cheese along with it. The sommerlier is very friendly and explains all about the wine while allowing you plenty of time to sample it.

Saint Istvan
Although the cathedral had an impressive façade and offered views from the top, I was enamored with exquisite interior with designs that had a touch of the Oriental about them.

Hungarian Parliament
To me, it was like the Sphinx in Cairo, impressive in pictures and from afar but lacking lustre up-close. Guided tours have long queues and did not seem worth the money.

Opera house
The best way to see the opera house is to catch a concert there (obviously you have to plan ahead) since the opera guided tour is overpriced. The building looks like any other from the outside and this adds to the ‘awwwww’ factor once you see the inside….really beautiful.

Jewish District
We saw people clothed in black robes and matching hats and no one needed to tell us it was the Jewish district. My hands were itching to take pictures of them but it was Saturday (Sabbat) and Ashok told me that he wouldn't come to my rescue if I got beaten up for sacrilege! The synagogue came into view with the 2 minarets shining in the sunlight. After we took a walk in the block, we decided to come back again for the guided tour on Sunday.

Ashok is fascinated by Jews and more specifically Hungarian Jews (a small but extremely talented group of people) and so I couldn't help smile when he was given a cap soon after we entered the Synagogue.

The tour was very informative and the guide, really friendly. I learnt a lot during the tour and here are some of the key points:
- This is the largest Synagogue in Europe and second largest in the world (weirdly, the largest one is in New York)
- The interior of the Synagogue was fashioned like a Cathedral (unlike in other Syngaogues where the altar is in the middle and the audience sit around it in concentric circles) out of respect to the Christian community
- More than 2000 people who died during the holocaust are buried in the Synagogue (and not in the Jewish cemetry) since they were killed while taking shelter in the Synagogue and there was no way to dispose the bodies.
- More than 80% of the Hungarian Jews live in Budapest.

The museum in the Synagogue was very interesting too but I would probably need a separate post to describe it.

No visit to Budapest is complete without doing what the locals have been doing for hundreds of years - a visit to one of the legendary baths. Even cab drivers will recommend this as one of the must-do things. Yes, weekends are crowded and its better to take your own towels but the experience is new and refreshing on various levels because of the openness of the baths and the beautiful architecture. I have a good mind to go back for a spa weekend since each of these baths offer a wide variety of treatments and massages. Tip: Buy tickets from your hotel or travel office to avoid the long queues at the bath.

Holocaust memorial centre
As the name suggests, it is not exactly a ‘fun thing’ one does during a vacation but it is a historically important place offering a lot of information and insight into the sad past. My visit to the Dachau concentration camp left me completely drained both physically (since I chose a severely cold day to go there) and emotionally, so if you have not read much about the holocaust, then you should brace yourself for this visit.

Danube night cruise
A night cruise after a visit to the holocaust memorial is a good way to remind yourself that whatever happens life goes on and that one must not dwell on the past but learn from it and move on. The area around the Danube river is a UNESCO world heritage site and you will see why. It is indeed a sight to see the historical monuments (castle district, museum etc.) along the river glowing against the dark sky while you cruise through it sipping champagne (I would not opt for the dinner cruise since I find it overpriced and eating will distract you from the beautiful sights). Tip: Choose to sit on the upper deck – the views are better and you can go out of the cabin for taking some great pictures.

Govinda to the rescue
My biggest concern in traveling to Eastern Europe has always been the ability to find vegetarian food and my past experience in Marienbad did not help. Google pleasantly surprised me with Govinda, a vegetarian restaurant in Budapest run by Hare Krishna. All my doubts about the chef’s capability vanished when I tasted the lentil soup they had, it was this ratatouille moment when I almost smelt home ! They had a wide variety of menus and a surprisingly low price. Add to it the convenient location (a few 100m from the Saint Istvan Cathedral), it was the perfect place for us.

Other tips
- Exploring the city on foot is a great option when the weather is good
- Transport to and from the airport is possible only by means of a taxi or airport shuttle (there are number of private companies doing this, google to find the best option)
- Although we did not have any issues, the locals warn you against visiting certain districts to avoid your pockets being picked.
- Get Hungarian forints from your home town or use an ATM since the exchange rates offered at the Budapest airport are very poor.

Budapest made complete justice to its reputation as one of the most beautiful cities of Europe. It was a weekend of feasts – a feast for the eyes, the mind and the stomach.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Talking with Amma...

...about frivolous things like a poor-man's version of a complicated recipe or reliving her past like how she felt when Appa came for the penn-parkum ceremony was always something I enjoyed mainly because these occasions were rare and precious. Amma is/was working and was never a housewife. So with both of our schedules and with the menfolk constantly wanting our attention (while amma takes care of appa and Raghav, my job was mainly fighting with either of them either over a topic or over the remote :D), the only time this would happen was just before going to bed. Amma would bring me mango complan (yeah, that's right) to bed and while I sip slowly, the talking would begin.

After I moved to the hostel, these moments became scarce and almost disappeared when I came to Germany. I called/call home once a week, mostly on a sunday, since saturday became a working day for Amma few years ago. The call was always along the same lines, discussing the weather, my health and after marriage, Ashok's health and finally, discussing the likelihood of me becoming a mother in the recent future (read, she bugs me and I pretend to listen).

Today morning I was blissfully sleeping at 9:30 (I made a solemn vow to never wake up before 10am on a saturday unless there was a Rajini movie playing at 11am in the city centre) when the persistent ringing of the phone woke me up. I hurried to pick it up when I saw it was Amma and in spite of all the phones having caller id and me starting with ''solluma'', amma will always begin the call saying ''chowmee, amma pesaren''...and it always makes me grin.

She said she was at work and it was very quiet today since everyone stayed home to watch TV ( why would that be :D ??) and she felt like talking to me. I was surprised, I began in a sleepy voice and slowly we talked about a lot, laughed, reminisced and finally when I hung up, I was plastered with a wide grin....we ''talked'' again like good old days, now the only question remaining is how I would satisfy my craving for mango complan now....?!!
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