Saturday, November 8, 2014

Cinque Terre - CHEENK-Ka-TeRRe- five lands

Have you ever fallen in love with a photograph?

I have.

Twice.

Once, about twenty- two years ago. It was a group photo and I thought I'd spotted my soul mate in that picture. I was young and naive and full of Indian movies' notion of romance.

And the second time was in June this year when I was trying to figure out our Italian road trip. This time, it was a shot of a village in the Cinque Terre region of Italy. 

This was our last port of call after leaving Siena and before getting back home.

We made Levanto, a seaside town just outside the Cinque Terre region, our base. Levanto is a great place to spend a few nights. This is a friendly little town. The pace of life is perfect. We went exploring after midnight on a Wednesday night and the entire town was buzzing with young families playing in the park, a local band was playing tunes and the seniors were waltzing in beautiful shoes. Groups of teenagers were hanging out and restaurants were packed with customers. Levanto buzzed happily.

We stayed at Villa Margherita which has a gorgeous garden. 



The train from Levanto took us to our choice of village every morning. We started our exploration with Vernazza, our first Cinque Terre village.

Getting on the train felt like entering a 'night club'...WHY? Because, I was surrounded by young back packers - in their late teens or  in their early twenties. It felt, only for a few minutes, that I was gate crashing a beach party. But soon the intoxicating energy of the train packed with people and the heart stopping beauty of this place made me feel right at home. 

The train journey felt like the ones I used to take with my parents (when I was a wee kid) from Dehradun to Haridwar...where everyone on board is chattering away and you establish eye contact, smile, ask about the plans for the day. It almost felt like the happy train journey from the film 'Tanu weds Manu' when all on board break into a song. Suffice to say, this was not one of those cold and strictly no eye contact train journeys I've been on in some other parts of Europe. I loved it. 

I'll stop babbling and let you soak in Vernazza's beauty.











We decided to climb up to eat at a 'recommended' restaurant called 'La Torre', but it was full. So we continued climbing and found a little place carved out of rocks, hugging the hills and decided to eat there.


The views were stunning. The food was a bit heavy for my liking but the wine made it all taste better:) We watched the sun go down ...

 








The next day, I decided to lure the family into a hike. I had read about a trek called Via dell'amore or 'the lovers' lane' or 'the road of love' connecting Manarola and Riomaggiore which is supposed to be gentle and fun. Some sites even suggest that one can take a  baby in a stroller on this path. My secret plan was to take the train to Riomaggiore (the furthest village for us) and then hike all the way back. Ha!

After a light snack of fluffy fried calamari (yum), I led my troop- onwards and upwards!

Sadly, the lover's lane was closed off but another 'path' to Manarola was open. Just as we were getting ready to start, we saw a very fit looking couple descending the steps we were about to take to climb up.

'How is the trek?' I enquired.

'It's really hard,' huffed the extremely fit looking twenty year old. 'Coming down is very tricky', she said, wiping her hot cheeks with her sweaty hands.

'How long did it take?'

'An hour and twenty minutes'.

I could sense the resistance building up around me. What hope did we have of completing this hike? We weren't kitted out- we'd come for a stroll in the village not to go on a hazardous hike!

To go or not to go...was the question. I decided 'to go'. The husband had to oblige! And the teenagers followed dragging their feet and muttering under their breath.


I tried everything to make it pleasant; even a bit of clowning but all my efforts were met by the usual rolling of the eyes and the expression that says, 'Really? Mum! Are you being serious!'

At times like these, yoga comes to the rescue and I focus on my breathing and carry on. Everything sorts itself out eventually.


 I found a door just as we started our climb.



The steep climb propelled us to take frequent breaks. This meant that we could enjoy the views for much longer than usual as we waited for whoever was lagging behind and then some more...to get our breath back.

Most of the grape vines were growing in people's yards and gardens, which we passed by.









At about this point in our climb, we met a group of twenty somethings who had climbed up from Manarola and were making their way to Riomaggiore. They looked shattered. But they stopped and gave us a big 'well done' for doing the hike as a family. I think I earned a few brownie points with my children. There was much less whining after that! In fact, I recall a pleasant banter:)





Unknown to the family, a snake slithered across the path just in front of me. I kept mum till we were back in Doha:) Let's hope the teenagers forget about it by the time our next walking holiday season starts!

Floral treasures...




We knew we were coming to the end of our descend as the sea level seemed closer. We had done the trek in an hour and twenty minutes! It felt good. I think the children were quite impressed.

We did alright:)

The Village of Manarola...






In an ideal world, I would happily live out the rest of my days here. How perfect is this?


All that hard work meant a guilt free treat time...



And that my lovelies is the very last of our Italian adventure.

Wishing you all a happy and sunny weekend. Make sweet memories and see you soon:) xx

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A storm of comments!

Hi there my lovely readers- as some of you may know that I've been struggling with the mystery of the 'vanishing comments' from my posts recently. A few friends pointed it out and it got me all worked up. So much so that I spent the last couple of days trying to fix the problem. Obviously, this meant that I haven't read anything enjoyable for most of the week!

'STOP this foolishness'- chastised the little voice inside my head.

 I paused.

And read a few lines from my go to book -'The Sage's Tao Te Ching' by William Martin.

Here are  a few lines I wrote when I realised that chasing comments was not the reason I started blogging in the first place. I was supposed be on a journey of self discovery!

EUREKA!

Today I'm in the mood for something simple.
I feel all churned up inside
and I don't know why.
There's nothing wrong with the
routine of life-
same  job
same  traffic jams
same 'what's for dinner' query
same time to set the alarm
same old
same old.

But
Simple
is what I crave-
from you my love
a simple cuddle-
without any agenda of where it might lead to.

a Simple meal
of daal and rice
with a simple
tadka
of cumin and ghee.

a Simple scene-
you and I
sitting side by side-
connecting
without words.

Serenity.
Soulful solitude-
is what I seek
today.

a Sabbatical
from the mundane
just for a short while.

Safe in your arms
my love
a simple hug
is all I crave
without any agenda of where it might lead to.

"Sit still and watch for a moment.
Perfection will be built
from all that is imperfect."
says 'The Sage's Tao Te Ching'

And today I
will
sit still
or perhaps
lie in
Shavasana
and simply
breathe in
and breathe out.

While my
soul
soaks up the warm sun of sense
and I get ready
to
live again
simply.

xxxxx

There...I feel refreshed already!

I don't know how the comment storm will play out. I hope I can keep the connection with you all via facebook or mail if I can't fix it because I love reading your comments. But for now, I'm going back to what I love to do with my time- read, write and share with you all:)

Let's continue this post with a few visuals.

Why? You ask.

Well, as my last post got too long, I took out the 'where we stayed in Siena' bit and today when I was pouring my feelings on the keyboard, I realised that the pictures I had fit perfectly with this post.

Strange are the ways of the Universe, but it all makes sense in the end.

Here are a few pictures of simplicity and serenity from our summer holiday. The place is called San Giovanni in Poggio. It's an agriturismo (or a farmhouse) in Monteroni D'Arbia, Siena.

A tripadvisor comment,  'if you've found this place, look no further as this is paradise.' compelled me to book and I loved every minute of our stay there. I'd like to write more about the place and its people sometime soon. But till then, here are some shots:

The view from the porch...






This is where I used to sit and sip my morning cuppa.

Imagine hearing a faint tinkling of bells as you take your first sip and with each sip the tinkling gets louder. By the time you've had a quarter of your drink, you can see small specks of white on the hill which gradually change into fluffy white clouds on legs by the time the last sip is slurped. Holding the dregs of my drink, I would watch the sheep being guided down the hill and the tinkling would melt into the silence of the hills.

Every morning it was the same- the bliss of solitude.


Art and light...





Rooms- simply decorated. Serene.



This window was in the bedroom closet... can you imagine how much longer it would take to get changed here?





We discovered this pergola while we were exploring the area around the farmhouse. How fabulous would it be to enjoy a meal here?


Here's the link to the property:

http://www.sangiovanniinpoggio.com/it_index.html

p.s. There are some lovely shots of the sheep on the hills on the link above:)


I'll end this post with a couple of lines from William Martin's ' The Sage's....',
"Let each inhalation bring you peace 
and each exhalation dispel your fears."

Enjoy a simply peaceful day everyone :) xx

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Once upon a time in Siena.

We were lucky to be in Siena to witness the magic of the Palio this year.The Palio is a horse race that is held in Siena on the 2nd of July and the 16th of August every year.

How did it all start? Here is a short children's story inspired by what I saw. It's in the style of a legend and completely a figment of my imagination.

I would love for you to read it aloud to your children:)

How the Palio came to Siena?

Once upon a time in the beautiful land of Siena, all the horses gathered in the city centre for an emergency meeting.

 A crisis was upon them.



Just the previous day, the humans had proclaimed
that they were the new lords and masters of the land.
The humans had declared with their drums and their trumpets,
"We shall rule over the land of Siena and all the animals will serve us starting from the sunrise of the
First day of July."

This announcement sent shock waves through Siena. How could the humans do such a thing?
Humans and animals had lived together as equals since time began. Nature had decreed all creatures to be equal and the Earth belonged to all. All the creatures enjoyed the bounty of this blessed land and cared for it with love and a sense of duty.

The horses weren't too happy about this 'take-over'. They took the lead and met by the Tower in Piazza del Campo on the Last day of June to find a solution to this problem. All the other animals of Siena came too. They were the Eagle, the Snail, the Panther, the Tortoise, the little Owl, the Unicorn, the Ram, the Caterpillar, the Dragon, the Giraffe, the Porcupine, the She-wolf and the Goose.

The oldest of the horses was called Palio. He was very wise. He told all the animals gathered by the Tower that if they tried to resist, the humans might punish them with whips or worse.

'True. True.' cried the Eagle who had spotted a human whipping a horse in another land a few moons ago.

A murmur of concern turned into a clamouring of panic as none of the animals gathered by the Tower had ever heard of humans being cruel to any animal before.

'My friends,' breathed the Dragon, 'In my 108 years, I have seen humans in other lands being cruel and mean. They hit and kick and torture animals for food, fun and sport. I decided to settle in Siena and retire here because I thought that the humans here would always treat us as equals.

The animals debated and discussed.

Plans were panned out.

NOTHING.

Nothing seemed foolproof.

All their lives, the Caterpillar and the Snail had observed the humans closely and knew just how clever they were.

Their plan had to be cleverer.

Their plan had to feel as soft as the Goose's down but act as sharp as the Porcupine's quills.



The Sun would be setting soon. The animals still hadn't reached a decision. There wasn't much time left as the humans' decree would come into play with the next sunrise.

'I have an idea', neighed Palio with a serious face, but his wise old years could not hide the smile that had started to spread across his wrinkles.

When the animals heard what Palio's idea was, an instant cheer broke out-
'Hurray! Hurray!' shouted the animals.

The Ram trotted a fox trot and the Giraffe shook his booty. The poor Caterpillar was about to do the caterpillar when-

the little Owl hooted, 'Quuuuuieeeeetooo hoo everyone! Or the humans will get suspicious.'

Loud cackling simmered down to soft giggles.

The idea developed into a plan.

The animals had to work quickly. Their plan had to hit the target like a Ram's horns-
 strong and precise.

They split into teams and started working.

The Panther and the Eagle sped to the Forest and told him about Palio's plan.
The Forest was impressed.

The Tortoise and the Goose called all their friends to pass on the plan to their friend,
 the Wave (daughter of Ocean) to help the animals, too.

The plan had to be executed that very night before sunrise.

The she-wolf watched the moon and kept time, while the Unicorn raced towards the horizon to calculate how much time the animals had before the sun would rise.
The Giraffe kept watch- this was a human-free zone.

There was no time to lose and no scope for second chances.

Will the plan work? Will they turn into humans' slaves with the next sunrise or enjoy the freedom of the blessed land of Siena like Mother Nature had intended?

What do you think?
and
What was their plan?

Well, it was a simple plan.

Palio had suggested that the animals deliver a message to the humans in their dreams.
You see, when humans dream, they can understand the language of the animals- they become one with Nature and her creatures and they listen. But when they wake up and get busy with making money, they forget how to listen to Mother Nature and can no longer understand the animals or their own Universe.
Palio knew this when he thought of his clever plan.

Each animal had chosen a human and it was this animal's job to make sure that his human received Palio's message in their dream so that when they woke up the next morning they would remember the message but not the dream itself.

The Forest sang a beautiful lullaby for all the humans to sleep that night.
Each leaf rustled a magical tune to help the humans slumber into sound sleep.

The next morning, the First morning of July, the Wave used her friend, the Seashell,to send out a siren of wake-up calls full of the magic of the Ocean so that the humans would wake up
fresh and happy-
forgetting the dream, but remembering the message.

But, what was this message?

What do you think happened that night?

No one knows for sure but the animals of Siena live happily with their humans to this day.

The humans act like their protectors instead of their masters.

You don't believe me. Do you?

Come visit Siena and you will see how much the humans of Siena love all these animals.
Yes, even the Unicorn.

They even organise a race to honour the horses and their friends every year and guess what the race is called?

Il Palio or the Palio.

When you visit Siena, you will see that the entire city is decorated with flags showing all the animal friends of the horses- the Eagle, the Snail, the Panther, the Tortoise, the little Owl, the Unicorn, the Ram, the Caterpillar, the Dragon, the Giraffe, the Porcupine, the She-wolf and the Goose. Even the Tower, the Forest, the Wave and the Seashell have their own flags.

These flags represent a 'contrade' or an area of the city. The humans who live in these 'contrades' are extremely passionate about their flags, the colours of their flags and the horse who represents their 'contrade' in the race.
So much so, that the humans of these 'contrades' can think of nothing else but the Palio (the race)  all year round- in fact all their lives.

The horses run the race but do you know that a horse can win a race even without its rider?

Not only that, the horses do as they wish. They sometimes don't even finish the race. They run backwards. They throw their jockeys off. They get up to all sorts of mischief and yet all the humans cheer for them and clap for them and when one race is over, they start preparing for the next race.

One can almost see the horses giggling their hind legs off; having the last 'neigh'!

What do you think that message in the dream was?

While you think, let me share some evidence I collected when I visited Siena in July this year- evidence to prove that the plan worked.

The flags of the Contrades...

the Wave




the Forest



I don't know what this flag represents. I clicked it as it was fluttering:)


the Giraffe






The She-Wolf Scarves





And this is how the Palio came to Siena.

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The Palio is indeed an experience of a lifetime. We hadn't planned to be there as I hadn't heard of the Palio before we landed in Itlay. Our trip was fluid and based on finding the most interesting route around Tuscany. As luck would have it, we ended up in Siena around Palio day.

Piazza del Campo


We happened to be in Piazza del Campo when the police started putting up barricades and the many restaurants serving food outdoors started packing up their tables and chairs. We realised that by staying on we would be able to watch the rehearsal. It was stunning. The race was over in less than 4 seconds as most of the horses finished the race without their jockeys. Scary. I have never witnessed anything quite like it- EVER!


The energy of the people throbs the city. To draw a comparison with my Indian upbringing- it's the kind of energy one feels in a parade ground on Dusshera day or while visiting Pandals during Durga Pooja. You have to be there to feel it. The cobblestone streets of Siena vibrate with the  baritone and bass singing of the supporters.  The colours of the contrades and the passion of the people sweeps you into a frenzy with a gusto even when you are just a visitor.



These men burst into an impromptu singing session because a couple of people (perhaps unsuspecting tourists) passing by were wearing the 'other' contrade colours. This had a knock on effect and other groups soon joined in. It was barely lunch time...a good five hours before the rehearsal!



The next day, I was able to convince my husband (not the kids who stayed back) to visit the Piazza for the last rehearsal before the Palio. So this was the evening of the 1st of July 2014. The Piazza was already heaving and at 5 feet 1 and a 1/2 inches, I could only see the tops of people's heads.


So, I decide to venture away from the action and walk the empty streets of Siena. This is what I found: Contrades dressed up for street parties to be held after the race. It felt like I had won a back stage pass to a West End show:)









 





Just imagine the scene when the party gets going. 

The window in this shop was getting ready with the jockeys ...on your marks....get set....



As usual, my eyes were drawn to windows and doors and the camera followed...






We finished our walk with the best Espresso Macchiato served by the kindest folk in Siena- at Nannini's. I was blown away by how welcoming the staff behind the counters were despite being super busy. To top it all, while we stood holding our macchiatos, they served free snacks to all the people squashed inside watching the race on the screen.
It must've been my lucky day. I saw the city and didn't miss the race. Yipee!



As this post has become unusually long, I'll share some other useful details about Siena in my next post.

Let me end with a few links that will give you the TRUE reasons for why the Palio is held in Siena:-

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palio_di_Siena

Let me know what your children thought of the story.

Hope to see you soon. xx