Thursday, January 27, 2011

Country Retreat – 21-23 January 2011

A country hotel winter break conjures up thoughts of cosy fires, comfortable lounge chairs, and plenty of good food. We treated ourselves to such a weekend (but sadly no fires) in the Chilterns, at Burnham Beeches, a hotel with an interesting history.
This hotel was originally a hunting lodge and, as part of the Windsor Great Park, was used as a rest spot during Royal hunts. Then in the 18th century it was owned by the uncle of the poet Thomas Gray, and it was here that he wrote his famous poem 'Elegy in a Country Churchyard'. As we enjoyed our beautifully restored bedroom, it was interesting to wonder who used it during those times.

The churchyard that inspired Gray, is nearby at Stokes Poges. We paid it a visit on Saturday, I guess it hasn't changed at all, apart from the large monument in honour of the poet.

To counteract all the eating we planned for the remainder of the weekend, we enjoyed a country walk on Saturday afternoon, before returning to burn a few extra calories as we enjoyed the leisure centre at the hotel.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Winter ice - 15 January 2011

The early winter snows have melted and the temperatures have been quite balmy, not conducive conditions for the annual Ice Festival at Canary Wharf, but how were the organisers to know? En-route to view the ice sculptures we got off the Jubilee line at London Bridge and visited the Old Operating Theatre. This is a fascinating relic from the past of medical history. The theatre is the oldest surviving theatre in Europe, and exists in the roof space of St Thomas Church. The theatre was entered from the women's ward in Guys hospital, and was built into the garret of the church next door. It was ideal as the trauma sounds didn't carry into the ward, in the days before anaesthesia. Today it is entered via a narrow spiral staircase. The original theatre has been restored, alongside the herb garret.

After an interesting walk around a part of London which is probably not known to many tourists, we continued on the see the results of this year's Ice Festival. The theme was 'Love London' and we thought the best entry was the pedestrian crossing representing the safety of London, inspired by the iconic image Beatles crossing Abbey Road.

Another excellent entry was inspired by the London Underground map, linking various iconic images in London.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Jurassic Coast – 9 January 2011

The UNESCO listed Jurassic Coast is just southwest of Bournemouth, and we decided to revisit this lovely spot. This was our first trip away from London, when we bought our first car in the UK in January 2002. Nothing appears to have changed in the past nine years, but it was worth another visit. We did a circular tour from Wareham, passing through interesting towns and villages. One prominent ruin is Corfe Castle, next to the very pretty town of the same name, then it was down to the coast at West Lulworth. The soft chalk coastline is eroded into bays and a natural arch called Durdle Door. The cliffs are full of fossils, which is why it has a protected status.

After completing the tour, we set off for the motorway back to London, via a circuitous route. This also took in interesting villages in Hampshire We took a lunch break in Sixpenny Handley, where the pub was the base of a notorious smuggling gang in the 18th century (the gang leader was married to the landlord's daughter). Sadly the town was mainly destroyed by a fire in 1892, so the pub today is a featureless building.

Of interest too was the ruin of a Norman Church at Knowlton. The church sits in the centre of a 2500BC circular earthwork and ditch construction, with a burial barrow nearby. Today it is a beautiful remnant of it's ancient pasts.

Bournemouth – 8 January 2011

It's easy to see why Bournemouth is such a popular summer destination, with its real golden sand and surf. It could be a New Zealand scene when looking out to sea, except for the very British pier and of course the continuous row of multi-coloured beach huts.

After a dreary wet week, the weekend promised to be fine and mild, so we booked a hotel near Bournemouth's beachfront. Despite winter chills, the surf had attracted dozens of wet suit clad surfers, to enjoy the waves. We were able to walk out along the pier and watch them ride the waves just a few metres away.

From the pier, we walked to the town centre through the 19th century Grade II Listed Pleasure Gardens. These were lovely, but would be more colourful in summer.

There were plenty of people out enjoying the sunshine on the coastal path, and some had even opened up their beach huts to enjoy refreshments while watching the world go by.

Thanks to Lonely Planet, we discovered a highlight in Bournemouth, the Russell Cotes Gallery. This stunning cliff side home of Sir Merton & Lady Russell-Cotes, is now a museum of their extensive art collection. Many of the paintings were from the pre-Raphalite era, including a very distinctive Rossettei. The house itself is as fascinating as the collection, and must have been a wonderful place to live and entertain.

We had enough time to enjoy a swim and soak in the inviting hotel spa pool, before heading back to town for a 3D viewing of the Narnia tale – Voyage of the Dawn Treader. By the time we returned to the Hotel Collingwood, we were ready to enjoy their well cooked four course dinner.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Back to Delhi -2 January 2011

A traditional bullock cart ride took us from the Nimaj Palace Hotel to begin our last coach trip of this holiday. Returning the way we had come we set off for Ajmer and after the lunch break said goodbye to our driver and his assistant and were ferried into the Ajmer Railway Station in a fleet of tiny Tata cars. Our driver appeared to be very fond of the sound of his horn as he seemed to use it at random times for no discernible reason. A count of the number of times the horn was used in the 12km drive would have been interesting.

The railway station was all that we expected it to be with its sights and smells as we waited to board the Shatabadi Express to Delhi. There had been some discussion about whether the train trip would eventuate as the political protest that had blocked the road earlier had threatened to block the rails as well. However the incoming service had made it through from Delhi to Ajmer so our guide was confident that the return trip would not be hampered and the backup plan of a flight was, much to our delight, retired.

According to many, a trip on the Indian Railways is not to be missed and so we boarded our "Air-Conditioned Chair Class" carriage after our luggage had been stowed in the overhead racks by the porters.

Immediately after pulling out of the station we were served afternoon tea, airline style:
A hot samosa; a bag of spicy nibbles; an interesting “cake” that tasted like powdered gingernut biscuit and milkpowder mixed and served dry in a plastic pot; a jug of hot water and tea bags; and a couple of toffee sweets. The service by the smartly liveried stewards wearing disposable plastic gloves was most efficient.

After a stop in Jaipur and Alwar we were served a delicious Indian dinner of spicy tomato soup followed by two curries, rice, large roti and yoghurt.
The down side of the train experience was the cockroaches walking past our feet and even across the armrest, and the state of the toilets.

Everyone was relieved to reach Delhi.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Jodhpur – 1 January 2011

Because of last evening's late-night festivities our tour guide graciously granted us all a lie-in this morning and then after the worst breakfast we have had so far in India we set off on the 2-hour trip to Jodhpur. Most of the distance was though a flat, featureless, semi-desert landscape of obviously poor quality soil as there was little evidence of any viable agriculture and very few villages or towns along the way.

After making our way through Jodhpur we stopped at Jaswant Thada, a marble mausoleum on the road up to the fort. After this beautiful building was erected here, the local royal family have used this area for their individual memorials following their cremations. The marble used in the walls is of such quality that on a day like today the sunlight makes the walls translucent.

A little further up the hill is the Mehrangarh Fort, begun in 1459 it is still the official residence of the Rathores of Marwar-Jodhpur although now it is in trust and significant areas are open to the public as a museum. We were given a most enthusiastic introduction to the audio-guides by a gentleman who has obviously missed his calling as a salesman: His over-the-top sales-pitch for something we had already purchased was a delight to witness.

Calling this place a 'fort' really does it an injustice; a 'castle' or 'palace' would better convey the sumptuous interiors and intricate stonework exteriors of this royal residence. Clearly, though, it is a defensive fort situated on top of a rock outcrop and one that has successfully repelled all attackers.

One fascinating snippet was the story of a local who agreed to be buried alive in the foundations to ensure peace and prosperity after a prediction was made that, given the history of the place, building a fort there would not be auspicious. Given the subsequent success of the fort, this man's sacrifice has cemented an enduring bond between his descendants and the royal owners.

Jodpur itself contains the 'Blue City', all the buildings are blue, and was the area lived in by the brahmans. They believed the colour kept the city cool and repelled mosquitos.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Pushkar – 31 December 2010

On the way through Jaipur this morning we made a short detour for a photo stop outside the Palace of the Four Winds, supposedly the second most iconic sight in India after the Taj Mahal.

This imposing edifice is just a facade one room deep and was built in 1799 to provide 800 windows, on various levels, for the women from the palace to sit and watch parades that passed without being seen by the general public.

Pushkar was about 23km off the route we were taking between Jaipur and Nimaj, but it was a convenient location to break the trip and have lunch. Pushkar is one of the holy sites in India as it has the only temple to the number one Hindu God, Bhrama. It also had a holy lake that is completely surrounded by steps down to the water, called Ghat, where the faithful go to bathe in the water.

The coach left us just outside the town and we walked through the bazaar to the temple. At this point we had divest ourselves of handbags, cameras, cellphones, etc, etc and, naturally, our shoes, so that we could join the throngs circulating through the temple.

After retrieving all from our patient Tour Manager,we walked the length of the main street bazaar to the hotel where lunch was available. After visiting the roof top restaurant for a great view over the lake we decided to forego easting and instead spend the time exploring the town a little more leisurely.

Whether the holy vibes rub off on the populace or not I don't know but the bazaar is fairly laid back in terms of the vendor-hassle factor. The most persistent people in the area are those attempting to press a flower into your hand the minute you make any move towards the lake. We never discovered their end-game as we were well warned by our guide to simply ignore them. Undoubtedly the acceptance of a flower to throw into the lake to bring good fortune to your family would not come without some monetary compensation.

We still had another 150km to cover to our hotel for the night in Nimaj and this was not without interest as we waited for trains at level crossings. One, in the country, was fairly civilized with only a few queue jumpers on the hard shoulder. The second one in a town was much more exciting with the queue jumpers driving down the wrong side of the road thereby creating a traffic jam when the opposing traffic was allowed across the rails.

In the UK this would, no doubt, have resulted in road rage and violence but in India it is all dealt with quite calmly and, surprisingly, quietly. As it was explained to us earlier, the rules are largely ignored so no one gets upset when someone breaks them and thus our driver was totally sanguine about a bullock cart meeting us in the fast lane of a dual-carriageway, likewise the car, the motorbike and the tuk-tuk, all of which we have seen so far. Similarly, yesterday morning at a busy roundabout in the middle of some roadworks in Jaipur, no seemed the slightest bit bothered by the commuter bus going against the flow on our left-hand side.

Over-taking, under-taking, fitting four lanes of traffic happily into a three lane road are particular Indian art-forms and if there is a designated slow/fast lane arrangement, it was decidedly hard to deduce, even on a three-lane motorway. Anything goes; even a fully ladened bicycle with its rider holding on to a equally loaded motorbike using a three lane expressway.

With all the traffic hold-ups it was a 12-hour day by the time we disembarked from our coach at the Nimaj Palace Hotel. This property has been in the same family since 1426 and is now a heritage hotel. Once again our suite was palatial in size with a bedroom , bathroom and an ante-room where the fan-whallah used to sit, pulling the rope to move the fan above the bed. The hole in the wall and wooden pulley are still in-situ.
The structure is obviously designed to keep the occupants cool in the hot Indian summers and the next morning our entire party complained about how cold they had been overnight as the area was apparently experiencing record low temperatures for this time of the year, something that we had hoped to leave behind in the UK. Given the effort that has gone into converting this property into a hotel it is a real shame that they did not put a bit more efforts into the the food as it is the easiest and cheapest way to make a guest happy.

Because we were so late arriving we only had time for a quick freshen-up before the New Year's Eve entertainment began. Indian dancing girls, and Indian bagpiper and what could be described as Indian Morris dancers entertained us until dinner was served. Then there was an Indian disco to occupy us until fireworks marked the change of year. Fortunately one of our party had an Ipod with some more familiar music that could be interfaced to the sound system so that we Westerners could also enjoy the disco.