Sunday, May 25, 2008

Switzerland - Bern and Zurich

I had the opportunity to visit Bern in Switzerland a couple of weeks back. It was a work related trip. Having traveled to Berlin and Munich in Germany 3 years back, I was excited to be visiting Europe again.

My first impression of Bern, the capital of Switzerland, was of the airport. It is easily the smallest airport for any capital city I have been to! The airstrip looks very small - I doubt if long range jets can land there. And the airport was not much larger than a big shed!

My 6 day stay at Bern just reinforced that first impression. Bern is a small town. The population of just over 100,00 would make it smaller than most suburbs of Mumbai! And the centre - the old town of Alstadt as it is called can be covered on foot in 15 - 20 minutes! The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it has been preserved as it must have been from medieval times. The buildings are made of sandstone since the earlier wood buildings burnt down in a big fire centuries ago. Covered walkways make walking in the old town a pleasant experience.

There are a few sights to see around Bern. The Munster or Cathedral in the centre of the old town is worth seeing, for the tall stained glass windows and the tall spire that one can climb for great views of the town. There are over 600 steps, so it is hard work to get to the top! Work meant that I could not take time off to visit the fames Swiss Alps which are just 90 minutes away from Bern. But the long hours of sunshine at this time of the year meant that I could see some places even after getting free from work at 6 pm. On one such evening, we visited Gurten - a hill top park a few kilometres south west of the city from where we had fantastic views over Bern, the surrounding towns, and the Alps in the distance.

On the way back from Bern, we stayed in Zurich for a day. With over 300,000 inhabitants, Zurich is a much larger city than Bern. While Bern has the river Aare flowing through it, Zurich has a lake. We enjoyed our day in Zurich, walking around, seeing the churches, and just sitting down on a bench by the side of the lake.

We were lucky to enjoy great weather during our week on Switzerland. It was sunny throughout, with pleasant temperatures in the early 20's (Celsius). I was also pleasantly surprised by the quality of food we got to eat. There were good vegetarian options at all the places we went to, and some innovative vegetarian dishes. It helps that Switzerland borders Italy, so Italian food was widespread. But the food was tasty, and most definitely not bland!

All in all, a pleasant trip.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Murud - Janjira

We visited the coastal town of Murud last weekend. The town is famous for the sea fort of Janjira, but there is definitely more to the place than just that!

It was 8:30 AM when we started our drive. After breakfast at the Kamaths' at Karnala, we took the Alibag route towards Murud. We took a detour near Alibag to check out Tropican Resort. We were not impressed by the place to pay the high rates they were charging, and moved on. We reached Murud at 1 PM after a leisurely drive. The place is not more than 3 hours by road from Mumbai. After checking in at the Golden Swan Beach Resort, we headed for lunch to the famous Patil Khanaval. Tables are setp up on the sandy grounds beneath coconut palms. The setting is basic, but the food is delicious! Do try the fish here.

After lunch, we headed for the jetty to go to Janjira fort. The sailboat to Janjira was a new experience. Thankfully, it was not very hot, and we enjoyed the boat ride. Janjira fort is fascinating. It has a long history, beginning with Abyssinian rulers called Siddis, more than 800 years ago. These rulers continued ruling the fort till independence, never being conquered by the Marathas. The boatman doubled up as our guide, and did a good job of it!

Evenings and mornings were spent on Murud Beach. The beach is wide, gently sloping, but the tide timings were such that it was low tide at these times. Hence, the waterline was quite far off. But the water was very clear and clean.

The next day, we traveled inland from Murud, trying to find Kuda caves. We missed the turn off to lead to the caves, and had to take a wide detour. But this has unexpected benefits. We saw a flock of 18 vultures, the first time I am seeing vultures since my childhood. As you would know, vultures have dwindled significantly over the past decade or so, so the heart warmed at the sight of these birds. It was interesting to note that while one could observe these birds comfortably from the car, the moment one of us stepped out of the car, the birds would gracefully float away!

When we finally found the caves, the drive was worth it. The caves have a scenic location, on the side of a hill, overlooking the sea. Some of the caves were residences of the monks, while a few had stupas within. The main cave had some nice carvings. These caves are nearly 2,000 years old, one more reminder of the ancient history of India.

We started back for Mumbai on the third day, after 2 comfortable days at the resort. On the way back, we visited Nandgaon Ganapati temple, and the lighthouse and fort at Korlai. The fort is completely in ruins, but the views from the top are very atmospheric.

All in all, the trip was a fantastic reminder of the varied and ancient history of our magnificient country.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Satara, Ajinkyatara, Thoseghar and Sajjangad

New Years Eve saw us headed out to Satara, on road. We left Mumbai at 3:30 PM, crossed Pune around 7 PM, and were in Satara town by 8:30 PM. We checked in at Hotel Maharaja Residency, and had dinner at their in house restaurant. We strongly recommend this hotel as a comfortable place to stay when visiting Satara, but do remember to book in advance!

Satara is a small town about a 90 kms to the south of Pune, enroute to Kolhapur. The high ranges of the Western ghats are just about 20 kms to the west, which is one of the reasons for visiting this place.After breakfast, we left for Ajinkyatara fort, which overlooks Satara. The hill on top of which sits the fort was suprisingly green. Also surprising was the complete lack of people at the top, even though it was a Sunday. The entrance to the fort is through an old gate, but unfortunately, nothing much remains of this fort. There is a modern looking temple to Lord Hanuman inside the fort, and some great views of the countryside around, but nothing much more.

We then proceeded to Thoseghar waterfalls. Credit where it is due - the road leading to it was in a good condition, with clear sign boards. The authorities have also created decent parking space off the main road. From the parking space, the waterfalls are a few minutes walk, again through well wooded countryside. While the amount of water passing through the falls was not heavy, the setting was quite awesome. The falls are situated in a steep U shaped valley, with the main falls at the apex of the 'U', with smaller falls on one side of the 'U'. On the other side, a viewing platform has been created for observers to enjoy this wonderful display of nature. I can only imagine the sensation if one were to observe these falls at the peak of the monsoon season.

Along the way, we took a diversion to view one of the many windmill farms in this region. It was great to see the effort being invested in this green source of energy, and one can only hope that this investment brings in worthwhile returns for the entrepreneur.

We had a typical local lunch at the restaurant beside the parking lot, and headed for Sajjangad fort. This fort assumes significance for being the residence and samadhi of Swami Samarth Ramdas, Shivajis' guru. As such, it is a well frequented place. The entrance is through a steep series of steps. Once inside, there are a few old structures, which includes Swamijis' residence and a couple of temples. Once again, being on top of a steep hill, there are fantastic views of the surrounding Western ghats. We were fortunate to view a beautiful sunset from the ramparts of the fort.

Thus ended a fruitful day of sight seeing around Satara.