The harmony of Colmar

The trip to Strasbourg was a relief. While Paris was blanketed in gray smoke, Strasbourg came out as a surprise with occasional fluffy, white clouds, patches of clear, blue sky, and sunbursts interspersed with rainbows. It was precisely this which made me extend my stay in Strasbourg. The feeling of sitting leisurely, outside the splendid cathedral, sipping the Alsatian beer, and a sort of solace that makes you stay and stick your neck out to take detours. And to breathe in more of Alsatian moments, I decided to make a day trip to Colmar, the oldest and the most Alsatian of the towns in the region. And if this wasn’t enough, a little reading on Colmar educated me of the Grunewald altarpiece in the Unterlinden Museum, in Colmar. I have spent a good amount of time strolling through the galleries of Northern European Renaissance paintings, the scintillating beauty of these have somewhere permanently itched in my heart. A thought of being able to see Grunewald, could have been a reason enough to set for another journey. And when the journey is only of 45 minutes on a secondary railroad line, with the panoramic views of the southern segment of the Alsatian route, decision taking becomes a breeze.

Colmar is the oldest and the most Alsatian of the towns in the region, with a unique character.
In the streets of Colmar

The next morning, I was at Colmar. I did an early morning trip to make the most of the town. As the train crisscrossed the diminutives vines, with the Vosges Mountains standing as crown, and a romantic spectacle of ruins of century old castles, my mind wandered in search of the folklores of Alsatian knights, and the muse of life that grew here independent of politics of Paris. In the distance were small towns that are now named after the vintages – Kaysersberg, for example. In the golden hue of the morning, the distant fields looked like sacred fires, preserving the unique character of this land.

The Alsace region has had its own share of political history. It has been passed back and forth between France and Germany over the years, as the rivalry between the nations grew. The Colmar was conquered by the French in 1673, and by 1870s the entire region became the German territory. It stayed German until after World War I, and was then again temporarily occupied as Germany expanded its territories during World War II. After the collapse of the Nazi empire, Colmar became a French territory again, but the German touch in the city architecture is hard to miss.

The best place to look at the French and German influence in the architecture is the Little Venice area.
After the collapse of Nazi, Colmar came under France, but the German influence in building is hard to miss

I was warned well of Colmar’s charm by my couch-surfing host in Strasbourg, and supplied with a list of places to visit and things to do. And, as always I decided to give the list a miss. There’s no fun in exploring if you don’t lose your path, and discover new places. Serendipity is a gift for travelers. Colmar could easily fit your imagination of a fairy-tale town, with adorable old town, museums and architectural landmarks. And to enjoy the age old charm of the town, head to Little Venice. Wandering through the little Venice and the adjoining Fishmonger’s district is charming, with its winding roads, cafes lined against the canal, enchanting colored houses, and buildings holding a share of history. The Alsace region has developed in autonomous fashion, independent of French and German politics and plutocracy. The independence and reverie of the region is easily seen in Colmar. Try this, the Alsatian have their language which is widely spoken in the region, the medieval and Renaissance houses are lovingly preserved, and the shops are still marked with elaborate wrought-iron signs. Fact is Alsatian have preserved their heritage, and Colmar is exquisite example of Alsatian culture, and conviviality. And did I forget to mention gastronomy here.

Wandering through the little Venice and the adjoining Fishmonger’s district is charming

Colmar is a foodie’s delight, and the covered market by the Fishmonger’s district is probably the best place to try out culinary appeal of the region. Alsatian gastronomy is world famous: Foie gras and choucroute originated in the region. And in case you don’t have purse large enough to bear burden of the daintiness of Foie gras, the caviar, terrine, and truffles are a good exception to take on some guilt of a calorie rich sinful eating. Colmar plays host to a multitude of Michelin star restaurants. Do try the Marché couvert de Colmar, high quality local produce, and an enviable view of the canal from the charming terrace. Even the Alsaco is good; humble café with offer of a spectacular view of the Koïfhus. And while on the look-out, do stop by at some classic restaurants with stained glass windows, butlers in folklore costumes, brightly painted outsides and ceilings these echo the pro-French wave at the turn of the century. Quite a dash from history, uniquely surviving as legend in the contemporary.

One of the most attractive buildings, the Unterlinden museum hosts fine collection of decorative objects, in addition to the Grunewald’s work.

After taking a full round of the town, with customary snack breaks, I headed towards a discovery of one of the most prized Renaissance relics, and one of the reasons for me being in Colmar. The Unterlinden Museum, housed in a restored medieval convent, was my next stop. I deliberately went there towards the afternoon, to avoid the morning rush. One of the most attractive buildings, the museum hosts fine collection of decorative objects, in addition to the Grunewald’s work. The Gothic hall is lined with exhibits, and in the center, stands the bewildering Grunewald’s work. Much bigger and brighter than I assumed, the painting is the principal treasure of the museum. There would probably be a handful of pieces of art that can portray human suffering as the painting with crucifixion, with the two Marys and two Johns in attendance, does. The entire hall has a mystic appeal, as if each piece was individualized, and crafted with perfection.

And the Grunewald masterpiece

The paintings were commissioned by the Order of St. Anthony for their monastery at Issenheim, about 20 miles south of Colmar, and are often referred to as Issenheim altarpiece. Between 1512 and 1516, the artists Niclaus of Haguenau (for the sculpted portion) and Grünewald (for the painted panels) created this celebrated altarpiece. Little by little, Issenheim commissioned and acquired a rich collection of art works by famous artists of that era. In 1852 the rich collection was transferred to the chapel of the former Dominican convent known as the Unterlinden in Colmar, which became the principal collector, and since then hasn’t failed to enthrall the visitors and art lovers. 

Matching the exquisiteness these must visits, are the normal houses of Colmar, which are often lavishly decorated. In among the houses are boutique shops selling local produce like chocolate and wine, as well as art and antiques. The houses carry such an air of the medieval world, that one can spend an entire day poking around the neighborhoods in a click frenzy mood.

One of the interesting things of Colmar is the lavishly decorated houses.
Old houses in the Fishmonger’s district – look at the unique German touch, so ubiquitous in the Alsatian region than anywhere in France
Colmar is known for its Christmas markets

It’s incredible how such a small town of just 80,000 individuals can pack so much of history and culture, and provide innumerable chances to bump into amazing things defying the conformity of European standards, present an eclectic mix of French-German taste and beliefs, has romantic canals and streets, sumptuous cuisines and wines, and even a dialect unique to the town.

To get: Colmar is located on the border of France and Germany, near Switzerland. The nearest big city is Strasbourg, from where it takes just 40 minutes on train to reach Colmar. Colmar is in the heart of the French region called Alsace, famously known for its vineyards and wonderful wines. The region is pioneer in wine tourism.

The unique architectural style in Colmar

Freiburg: Germany’s huge eco-gem

Freiburg was a completely uncharted travel. It was after arriving in Europe that I learned of an old friend who had settled in Freiburg. And that prompted me to take a detour to Freiburg. Sitting at the foot of the Black forests wooded slopes, Freiburg is a sunny, cheerful town, adorned with cobblestone paths, and café rimmed plazas. The whiff of medieval charm, cheerful city under the shadows of Black forests, and delicious food could be a reason enough to pencil in some time to feel the warmth of Freiburg.

At the bus stop, Claudia waited for me with open arms. A cheerful, warm hug, accompanied by a hospitable ‘Welcome to my city’. A never-ending smile stretched on her face. Claudia had recently shifted from Strasbourg to Freiburg, which basically means shifting from France to Germany, though Germans still count Strasbourg as their own (a long story taking you back to the Nazi era).

Freiburg was a completely uncharted travel.

“I recently shifted to Freiburg, this place has more business prospects,” She told as she took me in a half hug. And that intrigued me, Claudia is an eco-designer, and more business for her, clearly means some fruitful discussion. But then these are discussions best left for the evening coffee.

It was rather a time to grab a coffee and then set off for an enchanting journey to the old town.

Completed in 1330, the Freiberg Cathedral, is a tell-tale of art and sculpture.
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Bruges: A fairy-tale sojourn

Romantic cobble stoned streets, dreamy canals, crooked bridges, comfy sidewalk cafes, houses looking like made of gingerbread, charming market square, and an eclectic melange of art, culture, and history, sure no city can get more lovey-dovey than this. Bruges has for long been pulling visitors with its medieval world charm. And all one needs is a leisurely stroll to enjoy this Belgian city. Bruges is so small, and packed with heritage, that there is absolutely no need to rush or get stressed to see everything. Bruges feels a museum, seamlessly alluring one with its splendid church spires, and the old fairy-tale, regal French touch.

Cobbled pathways of Bruges
Bruges has for long been pulling visitors with its medieval world charm

As I was told, Bruges jumped to top the travelers’ chart after the release of a dark comedy about two Irish hit men ‘In Bruges’. The character of Collin Farrell concluded in the closing scene “Maybe that’s what hell is: the entire rest of eternity spent in Bruges”. In reality, though, Bruges is different from this description. It is tranquil but never fails to show a side of ambition with young chefs with refined tastes exhibiting a medley of European cultures, chocolatiers setting sweeter targets with their culinary finesse, and local beer pubs stocked with meticulously curated selections of rare Belgian beers, giving Bruges a contemporary charm. And the cobble-stoned narrow streets, the historic churches, and the whistles and taps of the horse carriages taking tourists around, add to the fairy-tale beauty of this town.

To see the prettiest parts of the town, wander along the Dijver canal, snaking through the town.
To see the prettiest parts of the town, wander along the Dijver canal, snaking through the town.

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Heidelberg: Town that inspires artists

Ever wondered that artists, authors, composers, and painters would come, see, and get inspired by a ruined castle by the river. And this would set German art and literature to take new wings. This is an inspiring tale of Heidelberg. Heidelberg is a quintessential German town nestled in the Black forest, with half-timbered, and Baroque houses lined on cobblestone streets, an old red sandstone bridge on River Neckar which passes through it, and a ruined castle overlooking the town as some angelic guardian.

Heidelberg city from the castle that looks down as some angelic guardian
Heidelberg city from the castle that looks down as some angelic guardian

I’ll accept, I am partial to good views. And so my first stop was the castle that overlooks the town. And one look of Heidelberg from the top, explains how the town has inspired and is inspiring so many artists. Germany’s beloved writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was charmed with Heidelberg and wrote the town had “something ideal” about it. William Turner, the influential British landscape artist, stayed here and explored his artistic interests, and created some of his masterpieces in Heidelberg. The Huckleberry Finn creator Mark Twain was especially fond of the town and stayed here for several months, and even called Heidelberg, “the last possibility of the beautiful”. Twain began his European travels with a three-month stay in Heidelberg and recounted his observations of the town in A Tramp Abroad (1880). Given Heidelberg’s literary and artistic lineage, along with its contemporary scene, UNESCO named it UNESCO City of Literature in 2014.

No doubt Heidelberg is overrun by new-age travelers, and the town sees a traveler footfall of 11.8 million visitors every year.

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Going cuckoo for a magical charm of Ghent

Ghent might be less renowned than its classy neighbor Bruges, but it is still bags full of history and culture. Being a university town, it is buzzier and looks less Disneyfied than Bruges. Across its canals, are endless opportunities to lose oneself in its narrow lanes, that take you to fascinating squares with splendid churches, magnificent castles, and comfortable cafes and bars. In the Middle Ages, Ghent grew both in reputation and riches on cloth and wool and was the second-biggest town in Europe, after Paris. Today the medieval heritage still lives, on an old merchants’ street that runs along the bank of the Leie River. The street is steeped with Gothic guild houses with stepped roofs and ornately carved facades. And a little east of this street, are two of Ghent’s great monuments, St. Nicholas church and St. Bavo Cathedral, a splendid display of riches, and dexterity in craftsmanship Ghent has seen.

The old churches of Ghent, Belgium
Ghent is bags full of history and culture
Graslei on the river Leie in Ghent, Belgium
The old churches of Ghent
Across its canals, are endless opportunities to lose oneself in its narrow lanes, which take you to fascinating squares with splendid churches, magnificent castles, and comfortable cafes and bars.
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To the heritage villages of Himachal Pradesh

Pragpur, a quaint little village in Himachal Pradesh’s scenic Kangra Valley, became the first village in India to be branded a heritage village. Pragpur was founded in the late 16th century by the Kuthiala Soods in memory of Princess Prag Dei of the Jaswan royal family. With its winding lanes, wooden slate-roofed houses, the village looks nothing less than a miniature painting set on an aisle. As the story goes, in the early 19th century the prosperous Kuthiala Sood community arrived and settled here. These merchants who were well exposed to architecture and arts outside the area, returned to Pragpur to build buildings, chateaus and mansions in architectural styles they observed outside. With their efforts, Pragpur gradually transformed into a grand display of immaculate beauty and spectacular architecture that evolved as a perfect blend of Portuguese, Rajput and British styles. This reminded me of the unique way in which Shekhawati architecture of the havelis, cenotaphs, and stepwells has evolved, with designs taken from different cultures the traders got exposed to.  

To experience the charm of Pragpur, take a walk through the village. The square shaped water pond, in the middle of the village, will lure you to spend some time around it. A village walk introduces you to the architectural beauty strewn across Pragpur. Built before 1868, the Taal is in the center of the village and is surrounded by several old community structures like the Nehar Bhawan, Naun, and Dhunichand Bhardial Serai. The village market by the pond is a bustling place and has an unlikely charm missing from most villages. At a stone throw away distance is the Lala Rerumal’s haveli, with elements of Mughal-styled architecture, and has a large water reservoir. Ancient temples, courtyards, even age-old windows and doors with intricate carvings, leave an everlasting impression on the travelers. Most of these houses exhibit fancy tile-work, ornamental towers, and stained glass windows. It’s like a world merged with old Himachali architecture, where you see an overuse of wood and pillars. Interestingly, the rooftops of these buildings have gables and slanted slopes, which is quite unique considering it seldom snows in the Himalayan foothills. The slanted slopes is a ubiquitous feature in the uphill Kangra and Kullu valley. The village committee is entrusted with restoring and conserving these architectural marvels.

Built before 1868, the Taal is in the center of the Pragpur village
Built before 1868, the Taal is in the center of the village
Old heritage buildings in Pragpur
Old heritage buildings in Pragpur
Heritage mansion in Pragpur
Heritage mansion in Pragpur
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Spiti: The untouched land

Five days on and Spiti had been a promised traveler’s delight. These had been days full of explorations, welcoming smiles, giggles, and developing a bond with Spiti. The hospitality of Kaza had taken me over. All you need to do is to break the ice with a smile, say ‘Juley’ (greetings and respect), and engage in a conversation with a local, or best a monk in a monastery. From religion, local lore to culture and history, you can crack up any topic with monks. Kaza is a cultural potpourri for Spiti valley. Every morning village folks from Langza, Mud, Kibber, and Cheecham, come in the morning bus, to do their daily business in Kaza. The same bus leaves in the evening. This is how normal days go. Being close to the bus station, I was witness to these shades, day begins early here and continues till late.  

Spiti river in Kaza
Roads taking you from one paradise to the other. This shot near the village Losar on way to lake Chandratal

On this day, I had decided to take the route heading towards Langza, the fossil village; Hikkim, with the unique distinction of hosting Himachal Pradesh’s highest polling station as well as the world’s highest post office; and Komic, world’s highest village connected with a motorable road. The journey to the villages is short, but not without its own challenges. Even though, the scenery weans away all pain of the journey, the benign neglect of the development of road infrastructure is hard to ignore. Half the journey is covered on dirt tracks, but in Spiti, there can be no better inspiration to travel than the scenery. I had decided to go to Langza, and then trek from there to Komic and then downhill to Hikkim. The open spaces along the way promise an endless supply of solitude, and the concoction of solitude, serenity, and the feeling of being with oneself lures travelers like nothing else.

Signs of life in Langza

When you drive towards Rangrik from Kaza there comes a bifurcation, one road takes you to Key and Kibber, and the other goes to Langza – Komic – Hikkim. Langza is unique in its own way. Popularly known as the fossil village, Langza is for science buffs looking for signs of early life, and the great geological event of a collision of tectonic plates of India and Eurasia, which gave rise to the mighty Himalayas. The circular rings like fossils are signs of prehistoric marine life, of a time when this land was a sea. Due to tectonic movements, the India plate shifted and thus the Himalayas arose. But even if you aren’t looking for fossils, the mesmerizing scenery at Langza wouldn’t fail to captivate you.

The weather, with the clouds almost descended upon us, made the journey all the more prosaic.

Even before entering the village, the grand Buddha statue overlooking the village captures your attention. The sight of Lord Buddha sitting in the lap of mighty Himalayas all around is a sight to behold. You starting enjoying Langza from the moment you take a steep turn to reach it. The road ascends fast, and from your window, you could watch valley getting deeper, slopes getting steeper and the peaks growing shorter as your altitude begins to match theirs.  And then gradually, the peaks turn to flat plateau, absurdly green for the barren brown landscape, that had accompanied all along the journey. The terrain looked like a verdant carpet of green, a piece of heaven, tended by elves, for the gods who would descend here on some bright, starry night. And from the edge of this green carpet, arise a piece of earth, a near flat, vertical wall, with snow-covered crown, dominating everything around. This is the Chau Chau Kang Nilda peak (the literal meaning of the name of this peak is “Blue moon in the sky”).

In the lap of this 6500m peak (highest in Spiti region) peacefully sits the village of Langza, a hamlet of some 50 houses skirted with lush green fields. In such a beatific setting, moments are never rare. Even though I spent nothing more than an hour in the scenic village, I felt a huge calling here.

The highest nest, Komic

I made a move from Langza towards the highest motorable village of Komic. A short two-three hours of trek take you to Komic. Alternatively, you can always take the road. Perched at 4500m, it is among the highest inhabited villages in the Himalayas. A board saying, ‘welcome to the highest homestay’ welcomes you to the village. On one side stands the Komic monastery overlooking the lush green fields. Opposite to the monastery is tucked a cute café (ah, world’s highest café) like some fairytale romance. From the monastery, I looked at the village. A total of 10 houses. Upon inquiry, I came to know some 60 people live in the village.

World’s highest village connected with motorable roads – Komic

Legend has it that due to a long drought, the monks of Komic decided to shift the monastery to the nearby low lying Hikkim village. But the grand statue of Mahakal couldn’t be moved. The entire monastery was moved, but the statue of Mahakal remained adamant, with all but one monk. In 1975, a massive earthquake struck Spiti which completely destroyed the new monastery set in Hikkim. The monastery at Komic didn’t suffer much damage. Thereafter all the monks returned to the Komic monastery.

The landscape of Komic village

The road from Kaza leading to Komic is a steep winding uphill climb. It is both a seasoned dream and a rookie’s nightmare, as the lack of oxygen and change in weather becomes palpable. First-time travelers need to be cautious, and it is always advisable to keep Komic towards the end of the itinerary. The village is housed in a bowl-shaped depression, distinctly split into two parts, the lower with a small cluster of houses and upper with a cluster of larger houses. A hillock above is housed the Komic monastery, painted in beautiful bright colors.

When in komic, take a detour around, it’s not difficult to find fossil rocks. Pencil in some time to be at the world’s highest café, don’t forget to order Spiti sandwiches. The service is quick, and taste, just like the scenery, beyond expectations.

Though there may not be a huge list of to-do in these villages, their seclusion is enchanting. And a thought on life at these heights and so off the road villages is inspiring. I broke into a small talk with a local, who took me to his mud-house, offered Spiti’s butter tea, and started telling me about life in the village. Summers is the month to work and save, while in winters, one can only be indoors, enjoying the reserves of the summers. Still, winters are something the villagers await for. There could be a surreal, romantic charm in temperatures, dipping below -20 degrees. There should be, and probably a prosaic feeling in the white splendor of snow, one that can only leave us to shudder, but becomes the sole companions of these villagers. I could only smile at the thought, life shapes up in different ways and people have evolved to live in these extremes.

On a postcard pilgrimage to Hikkim

Taking leave from Komic, one can go downhill to Hikkim, the highest post-office. Fortunately, I had got a lift from there to Kaza. Yes, such plans work in Spiti. The walk to Hikkim wasn’t tough, but it went steeply downhill. The Hikkim post office was opened on November 5, 1983, and Rinchen Chhering—has been the branch postmaster here since inception. This conspicuous Spitian landmark is also his home, and in a place with no communication channels, works as the only means to communicate with the other world. It is this place, where monks from Komik monastery receive their letters from other spiritual centers, some as far as Tibet and Bhutan, where farmers open their savings account, and tourists like me send postcards, to hold by as a memory from the Spitian highs.

The journey of the post from here is as interesting as the place itself. Every morning, two runners take turns in delivering mail on foot from Hikkim to Kaza. From Kaza, the emails are taken by bus to Reckong Peo, onward to Shimla, further by train to Kalka, and then loaded on a bus to Delhi, from where it is further distributed. Following the long-held tradition, I too sent myself two postcards from Hikkim. And as I write this piece, I can look at those two tokens of love, sent from the land, every shade of which, leaves you enchanted.

On way to Komic and Hikkim village

It felt there that the azure blue skies and empty expanse around had joined hands to deliver an inviting feeling of seclusion. There are subtle signs of authenticity and rusticity in life at these heights. The age-old ways of farming, the plain mud and stone houses, painted white on the exteriors and beatifically adorned with colored flags, and a life seemingly frozen in time: simple, and in inviting synergy with the habitat. With every step, I felt myself closer to this land and was unraveling the deeper meanings of life, hidden in the vast barrens of Spiti. And nothing was more loud and clear than living in synergy with nature.  I made my way back to Kaza, having grown richer in the philosophy of life, memories, and pictures that would form the décor of my walls to teach me how big and beautiful life is, and how less have I explored it. As we returned, we halted to have a look at the old monastery, destroyed during the earthquake. I searched in the mountains to look at the Komic monastery one more time. A story a time leaves in the midst of a puzzle called faith and belief. Who to believe, and what to take as real? In the land called ‘lands of God’ by Mark Twain, everything seems real. Perhaps its only faith that can make you a part of this vastness.

Roads leading to Spiti valley
Stopped at Chacha-Chachi Dhaba on way back from Spiti valley
A halt at Pagal nadi while returning from Spiti

Read more about my Spiti travels: 1) Kalpa and the Kinnaur sojourn 2) Dhankar, the beautiful monastery perched in the highs, 3) Tabo, the oldest monastery, and 4) Key monastery and Kibber village

Spiti: The hill of temples

This was my fourth day in Spiti valley, and with every turn, I was getting more acclimatized and acquainted with this middle land. I didn’t have to spend hours to learn that this cold desert, a heady mix of barren mountains, unexpected bursts of green fields, and deep gorges formed by the fierce Spiti River, is also a melting pot of cultures. My visit to Tabo and Dhankar, had made me intelligent of what to look for. The signs of Hinduism in Kinnaur, had been gracefully replaced by those of Buddhism, and wouldn’t be found till Keylong. I knew my way from Kaza, the last stop on my Spiti journey, and also the administrative capital of Spiti. I were to spend three days here, hoping from one village to the other, looking for my cultural murals, one monastery to the other, one story to the story.

The weather, with the clouds almost descended upon us, made the journey all the more prosaic.
On the desolate roads of Spiti

I reached Kaza, from Dhankar, a one hour journey, bringing you from a village perched on the top of a mountain to one by the river. The weather, with the clouds almost descended upon us, made the journey all the more prosaic. The proximity of Spiti to Tibet, has ensured this martian landscape to be dotted with Gumpas and monasteries, the sheer beauty of which, never fails to amaze you. It won’t be hard to find one in the middle of the road, and vehicles taking a full circle of it in reverence. For the next three days I was to be in Kaza to cover some of the most secluded and prettiest villages. And some crowned with their tags of the ‘highest’ and the ‘largest’.

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Dhankar: Somewhere perched high

By the time I reached Tabo, I had promised myself to completely ditch the word ‘planning’. There was no need of it, I was in Spiti, and I wanted to remain spell-bound by this ‘time wrap’. And in the course of staying a little long in Tabo to enjoy the morning sun and my host’s famous pancakes, I happened to miss the only bus to Kaza. But Spiti is a land of hope against all the hardships; and in hope to get a hitch-hike to Schichlling, I took the road. Spiti is unpredictable, and travelling here can’t be a time-table job. Thankfully I was travelling light, keeping enough space in my backpack to pack memories back home.

The view was mesmerizing; craggy brown hills providing a backdrop to two rivers merging with each other in the foothill.

In such a hospitable place, hitch-hiking is quite possible, and even waiting or walking a few kilometers doesn’t hurt. The pace of life here is slow, and people warm and hospitable. After walking for a few kilometers, passing villages with a population board stating “50 souls”, I got a ride to Schichlling. Next on my Spiti trail was Dhankar monastery, and a trek to the Dhankar Lake perched high in the mountain. I reached Schichlling in about half an hour. From there my journey was another ten kilometers uphill to the Dhankar village. From downhill, Dhankar looked like a village created by stacking some matchboxes, on a craggy brown hill, and two rivers merging with each other in the foothill. The 1000-year-old Dhankar, perched precariously on jutting rocks on a mountaintop. The Dhankar monastery is listed among the 100 most endangered monuments in the world by the World Monuments Fund. The old monastery is on a constant fight with the elements of nature. While it’s still in good terms with snow, and an unimaginable amount of it, it is losing battle against increasing and disturbing patterns of rainfall, a fall-out of global reality of climate change. The signs of heavy rain, the day before, were evident everywhere in washed away roads, and wet mountains.

Dhankar village as captured from far
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Tabo: About a life untouched

An eight hour journey, on the world’s most dangerous roads, can be both tiring and exhilarating. But the views of the craggy peaks whooshing past the window, the spectacle of a turquoise ribbon of river cutting through the valley, hundreds of falls and streams merging into the river, and the bends taking you from one slice of paradise to the other, are a prize worth the madness of being on the world’s deadliest roads. And while the bus past these, nicely framed picture perfect frames, my mind weaved a story of a land of Buddhist Gompas doubling up as landmarks, prayer flags fluttering, mummies sitting still in monasteries, azure blue skies and stars dancing in galaxies at night, and above all the cultural mysteries it has held over time. I wanted to know how local people live their life here, holding natural and mystical mysteries for centuries. A land that wasn’t open for people till 1970s, a land tucked between the Himalayas and the Tibet, a land that has been called ‘world within a world’ by Mark Twain; I wondered how that land would be.

The village of Tabo as seen from the cave monastery
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Kalpa: A cultural osmosis

Below flows the roaring Satluj river, snaking its way through the valley, above stands the mighty Kinnaur Kailash as a royal guard, and tucked between these two forces of nature, is the small hamlet of Kalpa. No sooner the bus brakes mooned, wheels screeched, and I got down and framed the first frame of this tucked away paradise, than I fell for its idyllic setting. No doubt the petrifying valleys and heart-warming culture had been a calling of many a travelers. A short, inviting walk through the main road, is enough to warm your heart. Studded with wooden houses, and apple orchards on sides, and uncountable smiles to greet you, Kalpa seems a village taken out of Nora Roberts novel.

Kalpa_life

Never thought a village so small that it can fit in one wide frame of camera lens, can have so many eternal bounties to offer

The first image from the village, that is bound to find a special corner in your heart, is of the Shivling peak (Kinnaur kailash) that rises over 20,000 feet. The peak stands as a royal guard to the village. This idyllic setting of the village, makes one feel that one is sitting in the lap of the holy mountains. Continue reading

Slow it down at LaRiSa, Manali

What is it waking up in the middle of an apple orchard overlooking snow clad mountains, and a little distance away is the Beas, a tributary of the Indus, its roar filling your ears and its thump echoing in your heart? The beauty of Manali can never be put in some prosaic forms, and I had chosen to miss the hustle-bustle of the town, and settle in some secluded corner to live the rawness of the Himachal. I could feel a sense of adventure as I arrived in the quaint little village of Haripur, heading to the LaRiSa Mountain resort.  Perched in the middle of an apple orchard, spread out to endless horizons, overlooking the electric green fields, with stone and wood cottages seamlessly fitting in this beatific landscape, LaRiSa sent a strong cue. A connection was made the moment I stepped in the resort. And to make things livelier, rain gods played merry. And as the clouds danced in gay abandon, the greens and yellows of the valleys and the strikes of white on the mountain top, came out in their pompous best. And the resort seemed like a magical pot placed in the middle of this heavenly landscape.

LaRiSa Resort_Manali

Perched in the middle of an apple orchard, with stone and wood cottages, LaRiSa sent a strong cue.

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Rokeby Manor – A colonial charm

Cradled by the Shivaliks, encircled by snowy Himalayan peaks, cleaved by silent trails, and interrupted only by sudden gushes of crisp mountain air, a little over three kilometers from Mussourie, uphill, lies a hidden paradise, Landour, a town with an inescapable colonial aura, carpeted with Himalayan flora, and carrying an enticing fragrance of wilderness. As we drove through the circular bridled paths, called the ‘Gol Chakkar’ to reach our destination the ‘Rokeby Manor’, I could feel like turning back the pages of history. The expansive views of the Himalayas, quaint colonial bungalows, a surreal charm in the air, and deserted wooded paths calling for long walks and friendly chats, have made Landour an artists’ getaway. Rokeby manor – an English retreat, dating back to the 1840s, is a prominent landmark, in this hilltop oasis. The manor stands as a symbol of the vintage colonial charm of Landour and still holds the glory of that bygone era profoundly in every nook and corner. The stoned walls, tall arches, thatched roofs, an endearing garden overlooking the Doon valley, fireplaces, wooden staircases, furniture wearing that old, colonial look, and aesthetically designed bookshelves, impart Rokeby the quintessential heritage look.

Rokeby Manor_common room

The common room

Rokeby Manor_Landour_room

A small intimate door leads you to the great room, doubled up as reception, and a resting place, with its log fire and extravagant furnishings, is reminiscent of its colonial legacy, while the rest of the manor draws on contemporary trends. Rokeby stands in perfect harmony with its surroundings, be the interiors of the room or the common room by the reception, it conveys the typical hillside touch. The rooms are set within a wooded landscape, fusing rustic luxe with contemporary design, designed to give an earthy touch through the use of natural materials and harmonious architectural style.

Make history your companion

A property dating back to 1840s is meant to be steeped in history and tales. Rokeby was a house built by a certain Captain GN Cauthy on a two-acre plot of land in 1840 and named after one of Sir Walter Scott’s poems, which mentions the Rokeby castle in England.

“I saw his melancholy smile,
When, full opposed in front, he knew,
Where Rokeby’s kindred banner flew…” – Wilter Scott

Rokeby has passed many hands before coming to Mr. Sanjay Narang, who moved to Landour and came across Rokeby in 2011, and began working on restoring the property to its original design, extracting the history, and almost creating a tale to fall in love with. But beyond the façade of old world, Rokeby has all the amenities of the contemporary world, with an addition of mountain bikes and scooter rentals to set off and explore the dramatic landscape of Landour, which the British fondly called ‘Hamlet in the hills’.

Landour_on Gol Chakkar

Breakfast at Emily’s

The wooden stairs take you to one of the most celebrated places to eat in Landour – Emily’s café, named after one of Landour’s most famous literary affair with Emily Aden, sister of Governor-General Lord George Eden, who wrote extensively on British racist attitude towards Indians. The intimately decored Emily kitchen brings back the tea love of the British. The interiors are reminiscent of a ski chalet with fireplaces, cozy corners, brightly colored walls, lanterns, and a lot of literature. The breakfast spread is welcoming and homely, relish on their tea collection, that’s surely a steal. And one look out of the windows, at the cedar covered hills, and it’s clear this place is a prize. The witty quotes on the walls are unmissable, they make you halt, read, and ponder.

Rokeby is for book-lovers, and Wilson’s chamber where the breakfast is spread would notably the favourite corner of any bibliophile. One can spread hours going through the collection of books, you can comfortably read there or take to your room. This love is reflected in the wide spread of magazines in the common room, and is exemplary of the literary affair Landour is known for.

Emily's kitchen in Rokeby Manor_Landour

Breakfast at Emily’s

Emily's Kitchen_Landour

Taken at Emily’s kitchen in Rokeby Manor

Landour Bakehouse

At a stone throw away distance, is tucked another gem, the Landour Bakehouse, nestled among the pines at the edge of a winding road as it slopes downhill. The green paneled door transport you back to 1940s to the world of the elites of Landour, who would meet every week to discuss social affairs, do proceedings of their reading club, and exchange age old recipes. That goodness still remains. The recipes used here are taken from Landour Cookbook curated by Ruskin Bond. A small and charming place housing some of the best baking secrets, doles of cake, some gooey chocolate goodness, and a hot sipping coffee, doubled up with a great view to furnish a happy touch to your vacation. Though the place only opened a couple of years ago, but its vintage look, antique portraits, and some old Landour culinary secrets, makes you believe that the place has been existing forever. One of the boards here say “We Do Not Have Wi-Fi….Talk To Each Other. Pretend it’s 1895’’. It doesn’t seem so difficult in the Landour Bakehouse.

Landour Bakehouse

Dishing the goodness of the age-old recipes of Landour

Inside Clock Tower cafe

Clock Tower Cafe

The special moments

Being a boutique property, Rokeby is a choice for an eclectic traveler. Small, cozy, and uniquely located, Rokeby ticks all checkboxes of a luxury hotel, but it is the special moments staying in the manor that makes you reconstruct the definition of luxury. While Rokeby may not offer you creature comforts, what it does is offer you unforgettable moments. These are moments of doing absolutely nothing, lost in thoughts, just sipping your tea and looking down the valley, breathing in the moments, letting the chill mountain air embrace you, enjoying the unique experiences Rokeby Manor lets you soak in. These experiences emanate from the tales Landour unpacks for the travelers. Rokeby seems like an attempt to make your vacations more personal, and just perfect.

Spa in Rokeby Manor

The Spa moments

Rokeby Manor_spa

The secret miracles of Landour

Sunlight glinted on the hill-tops, and valleys were half dark and half lighted. Trees yawned as morning hue woke them from their slumber. The still breeze carried an indescribable purity and sweetness, laden with an aroma from the virgin forests. At a distance was this comfortable looking little town extending uphill and eastward. A steep four-five kilometers drive from Mussourie brought us to Landour, a British raj relic, a town, draped by an old fashioned aura, numerous colonial-era bungalows with slanting roofs, brick arches and stone walls, and silence that was interrupted only by the gusts of invigorating cold breezes. We glided over the shining track, going past the little houses with red thatched roofs and backyard, waving to the welcoming villagers who were off to collect the firewood, school kids and the typical heavily built, bush bearded, leather-jacketed Harley Davidson guys to reach the smiling Landour.

Landour_on Gol Chakkar

Life seemed to be taking a deep breath in the town; the natural beauty topped with reds and greens of roofs, extending a colonial reminiscence. We were passing through narrow roads that could barely fit two cars at a time. The driver was delicately maneuvering the car through these needle hole sized turns. Occasionally I had my head peering out of the car window to sap in the pure, cool breeze. There hung a certain, zeal in the breeze, flowing in gay abandon, like a harbinger of good times.

Taking another turn through Landour’s old bridle path, passing interesting sights and the famous St. Paul’s Church, with the endless stretches of pines and willows and the mountain sun filtering through the threshold of trees to accompany us; we reached one of the landmarks of the town, Rokeby Manor, our haunt for the next three days. And the property was everything that could have been expected; colonial touch taking you back to the era of 1840s when it was built, lovingly renovated rooms with stone walls and wooden floors, and cutely tucked gardens overlooking the valley. Continue reading

A syllable of love

You stirred my chaos,

With the trick of your smile,

Where I lost myself;

With the flick of your hair,

That brushed my face

With the strain in your eyes,

And the clamor of your soul.

I need those earnest lies,

Your eyes played on me,

To live the nightmares, that felt a bliss;

And long for your gaze,

To explore me; unravel me,

Piece by piece, thought by thought;

And turn this cauldron of thoughts,

Into an object real,

An artifact of your liking,

A match to your perfection,

Into a thought profound,

A feeling resurrected,

A syllable of love;

Shaped in the little space,

Where two hearts merge,

Emotions boil,

And dreams turn to reality.