June 28, 2014

Rome, Italy

Aug 2006

Rome captured my imagination at several levels: from French comic writer Rene Goscinny’s “Asterix” to English historian Edward Gibbon’s “The rise and fall of Roman Empire”.  Rome was the epitome of civilization; and yet Rome was also the epitome of decadence.

The best place to start Rome is “outside” Italy.  Yes, Rome is a city that has an independent country as one of its suburbs:  Vatican!

St Peter’s Basilica is the cynosure for Catholics worldwide; is the largest church in the world; is the burial site of Apostle St Peter; and was designed by Renaissance artist Michelangelo.  Michelangelo does know how to impress.  Part of the trick to ensure grandeur is to provide a huge public square (that can house 60,000 people) surrounded by tall colonnades in front of the Church isolating its beautiful dome from the clutter of the skyline in the neighborhood.  The evening sun of a summer day and the cobblestones in the square create magic in the air.

St Peter's Basilica (from St Peter Square), late evening on a summer day

Getting into St Peter’s requires faith, hope and patience!  As soon as you enter, the beauty of Michelangelo’s Pieta strikes you.  As kids we were shocked to hear in 1972 a vandal throwing his hammer at this sculpture.  We were told of how the sculpture was restored by carving out a part of the Carrara marble from the back and use it to fix the broken nose of Virgin Mary.  No wonder, these days, Virgin Mary and the Christ on her laps are protected by bullet proof glass and visitors are kept more than a hammer’s throw away.

Michelangelo's Pieta

Can you imagine what millions of faithful hands touching it can do to a statue?  St Peter statue has no toes in the feet; all eroded by the touch of a million fingers over several hundred years.

Take the stairs and climb your winding way up to the top of the Dome.  You would get rewarded with a wonderful view of the square and the skyline of Rome in the distance. 

View of the Square, Vatican and Rome from atop St Peter's dome

 Vatican’s museum houses a rich collection.  As with all museums, some were gifts given with affection and some were taken away from their rightful owners with an even greater affection!

Vatican Museum

Start your tour of Rome where Rome started:  Foro Romano, the main plaza of ancient Rome, now in ruins.  The forum is awesome.  One can easily imagine Julius Caesar in triumphal procession through the plaza or wise Augustus issuing an inspiring speech on one of its platforms.

Foro Romano

Curia Julia, house of the Roman senate sits at one end of Foro Romano. 

Curia Julia, the Roman Senate Hall

The Arch of Constantine sits at the other end.  The Roman habit of celebrating military victories with imposing arches was soon adapted by several countries.

Arch of Constantine

 The Colosseum at the end of Foro Romano, is 1900 years old and in its days could seat 80,000 spectators!  The amphitheater is both an architectural marvel and an engineering marvel.  Under the floor, there are a series of tunnels and hydraulic elevators to move Emperors, Vestal virgins, Gladiators and caged animals to the right spot quickly!


The Trevi Fountain is a signature icon of Rome; all done in Travertine marble.  It is a tad smaller than what I had imagined from "La Dolce Vita" or "Roman holiday"; yet quite impressive.   Yes, we saw countless people take a coin in their right hand and throw it over their left shoulder into the fountain.  Let us hope their girl friends, bankers, and potential employers said “yes”.

Trevi Fountain, collects Euro 3,000 a day in small coins

 The Vittoriano is another signature icon of Rome.  Some hate it for changing so much at Capitoline.  Some like it for its modern architecture.  The locals call it, what else, “typewriter”.

Il Vittoriano, the national monument ("Typewriter" to locals)

Then you get to the Capitoline.  As you climb up the hills, an imposing statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius welcomes you.  His book “Meditations” was read by more people in 1992 (after the then new President Bill Clinton described it as his favorite bed time reading) than in the days when it was written. 

Emperor Marcus Auerlius (last of the five good emperors and author of "Meditations")

Two wise folks:  Marcus Aurelius and my daughter!

 The star attraction in Capitoline is Spinario, the sculpture of a boy extracting a thorn from the sole of his foot.

Spinario, the Hellenistic bronze of a boy who is flawless from head to toe, save the thorn he is extracting!

There is more to see:  Circus Maximus, Appia Antica, the Catacombs etc.   After you do all that, treat yourself to a nice authentic deep pan thick crust Pizza at Piazza Novono.

Piazza Novono

June 16, 2014

Tallinn, Estonia

Jun 2011

When I was a teenager, the Soviet Union was a big deal.  Reagan labelled it as an evil empire.  Countless James Bond movies were about young Bond fighting against one evil scheme or another of the Soviets.  Pakistan found a good business model in positioning itself as a frontline state against the Soviet Union.  

In 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed.  Several of its vassal states suddenly became free.  Can you imagine a few million people joining hands and forming a line, border to border, and singing their way to independence?  People of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia did!  The newspapers proclaimed this as “Singing revolution” in those days.  

Of these, Estonia had a chequered history that can be briefly summarised in four sentences:  First the Danes occupied and ruled it.  Then the Swedes occupied and ruled it.  Then the Russians occupied and ruled it.  Then the Soviet Union annexed it as a state.

In spite of such affection from aliens for its land, the Estonians kept a few things going for centuries.  They kept their ethnic identity.  They kept their language.  They kept their religious fervor.  The Estonian nation survived nicely (despite a significant part of the population being deported to cool resorts in Siberia by the Soviets).

When we visited Tallinn, we were expecting to see another Prague, a city of dusty unimaginative cuboids of buildings with the newly liberated youth adding graffiti everywhere. 

We were surprised.  Since 1989, Estonia has grown quite rapidly to be a success story.  It leads the world in e-governance.  Tallinn is the one of the most digitised cities in the world.  Tallinn is claiming its place as the silicon valley of Northern Europe.  (Skype came out of Tallinn).

We took a day trip cruise to Tallinn from Helsinki.  Tallinn’s skyline told us half the story:  a combination of the domes and spires of Hanseatic League era and skyscrapers of the Information Technology era. 

Talinn Skyline from Cruise ship

After berthing in the terminal, we walked through Kadriorg Park to the palace of Peter the Great.

Palace of Peter, the Great

A local girl, bedecked in flowers, was advocating a political cause we did not understand.  We supported it because she seemed innocent and was beautiful!

Estonian activist, near Amphitheater

We went to Toompea (German, for Cathedral Hill) where the Parliament and (what else, of course) the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral are located.

Aleksander Nevski Cathedral (under renovation)

From Toompea it was a nice descent into the Old Town (one of the most beautiful old towns in the world; an accredited world heritage center). 

Old Town, an accredited World Heritage Center
Luhike Jalg, a street with stairs through Old Town

The Old Town has a “Viewing Platform” that provides a panoramic view.

Panoramic view of Old Town from Viewing Platform

When you climb down fully, you reach Raekoja Plats, a very spacious town square lorded over by the city hall in one corner.  (The square sports an Indian restaurant too!)

Raekoja Plats, the town square
Raekoda City Hall

The street adjacent to the City hall takes us, if you don’t pause at the restaurants with their inviting aroma or get distracted by the Pedal-o-pub, to the Freedom Square and the Freedom monument. 

Dunkri Street

Kullaseppa Street

Freedom Monument

Explore the side streets to see a few sights including the landmark Oleviste Kirik. 

Old Town from down below
Oleviste Kirik

Your trip will not be complete unless you take a bite at one of the road side restaurants of Pikk Street or Katarina Kaik.

Pikk Street

At the end of the day, as your board your cruise back to Helsinki, you realise that if Karl Marx ever needed an argument challenging his precepts, he can find one in Tallinn!

June 14, 2014

Fort Yukon, Alaska, USA

Jun 2007

The Hertz girl was concerned:  “Did you say you want to hire the car at Anchorage and drop off at Fairbanks up north?  It is a lonely road.  People normally fly to Fairbanks”.   We said “Yes”.  For good measure, we added that our real destination is even more north at Fort Yukon inside the Arctic Circle.  She asked us to have fun and gave us the car.

The girl knew her land.  There was hardly any traffic between Anchorage and Fairbanks.  We could drive without care and with lots of time to stand and stare!

Alaska Road from Anchorage to Fairbanks

Life without care, time to stand and stare

Our first stop was at Talkeetna, the base camp for Denali (earlier Mt McKinley).  We did not climb the way the adventurous ones did.  We took the easy way out and flew in a small aircraft.  The ride in the thin air around the summit was turbulent; but the scene was picturesque!

The Denali Summit (highest point in North America) was in typical American spirit only slightly taller than the other peaks around. 

Denali (earlier known as Mount McKinley)

The glaciers on the mountains were long, huge, pure white and bore a silent testimony to the millions of years they took to form and to the infinitesimally slow journey down.
Glacier, several million years in the making.  Infinitesimally slow glide down.
Confluence of two glaciers

The drive from Talkeetna to Fairbanks through the Denali valley was full of picturesque spots.  We took our time to get to Fairbanks. 

The air taxi that was supposed to take us from Fairbanks to Fort Yukon (inside the Arctic Circle) was waiting for us. 

Due to some quirk in the “line of balance” algorithm (remember your Levin & Kirkpatrick stuff?), the heavier one had to sit next to the pilot.  Otherwise the dad who pays always gets the back seat right next to the cargo bay.  It was fun to pretend to fly the aircraft and keep turning back to check how the accommodation next to the cargo bay was!

Seat in the cockit thanks to weight factor

In spite of peak summer time, the ambient light on the way to the Arctic Circle was “dull” and “omnipresent” casting no sharp shadows.  Rainbows kept appearing at unexpected spots. 

Rainbow seen from flight: Fairbanks to Fort Yukon

The airstrip at Fort Yukon was very lonely.  No air traffic controllers.  No human beings.  The pilot and our family were the only species of homo sapiens homo sapiens. 

Fort Yukon International Airport Terminal 1!
Fort Yukon, Alaska

The return trip from Fairbanks to Anchorage was by Denali Express, one of the best train journeys in the world.  The glass top train has picture windows and observation decks and a lovely restaurant.  The trip takes all of a day and takes you through some of the scenic spots of Alaska.

Denali Express:  Fairbanks to Anchorage
View from Denali Express

We saw the same glacier from ground level.

View from Denali Express

We saw a moose crossing the river.

Moose crosses river

That single moose accounted for more clicks of DSLRs than all the snowcapped mountains and motionless glaciers that dotted Denali valley.  Perhaps, a single life is more fun to watch than a million rocks.

June 13, 2014

Salzburg, Austria

Jun 2010

Remember these kids?  A teenager who politely asks whether she can have her first champagne (only to be said no); a lad who thinks he is grown up but is still afraid of thunderstorms; a girl who plays pranks on unsuspecting maids; a prim and proper boy who wants to learn the Laendler dance; an even younger girl with a book in her hand all the time; a seven year old who loves pink; and the tiny tot who wonders why she is always the last. 
We all grew up with Liesl, Friedrich, Louisa, Kurt, Brigitta, Marta and Gretl.  More importantly we all grew up with the songs they were singing.  And then our children grew up with them. 
One would have thought the whole of the world and the wives would be familiar with “Sound of Music”.
Not the cab drivers of Salzburg.  Most of them have not heard of the movie.  Those who did were annoyed that their precious town is popular for wrong reasons.  (“A few English speaking people, especially old ones, alone rave about this movie.  Most Germans and Austrians come to this town for Mozart and the music festival”).
Despite being dismissed as uncivilized, we relentlessly pursued and located one cab driver who loved the movie and was enthusiastic about taking us to all the places we have seen a hundred times on flat screens.
One has to start where the children start enthralling us: at the Mirabel gardens where they bicycle and understand that “When you know the notes to sing, you can sing almost anything”.  
Mirabel Gardens
Do you remember the young Captain discovering a few urchins up in the trees singing “Doe a deer, a female deer” and then discovering with shock that they are his disciplined children left in the custody of a seemingly indisciplined new governess?  That too was at Mirabel gardens.
Mirabel Gardens
We wanted to see the von Trapp home.  We had to visit several places to put it all together in our mind. 
Schloss Frohnburg provided the frontage where Maria “tumbles in” with her Spanish guitar and a recommendation letter from the Abbey who saw the recommendation as a way out after wondering aloud “How to solve a problem like Maria”.
Schloss Frohnburg
Leopoldskron provided   the terrace overlooking the lake where the children row and sing an out of tune “Doe, a deer, a female deer” and get wet in their playclothes made out of discarded drapes under the tutelage of an irresponsible Maria.
Leopoldskron from the Lake
Leopoldskron terrace overlooking the lake
Schloss Mirabel provided the backyard.
Schloss Mirabel
Schloss Mirabel
Schloss Hellbrunn had the glass pavilion where Liesl celebrates her first love (“Darling sixteen, going on seventeen….)
Schloss Hellbrunn Glass Pavilion
 We had to see the Nonnberg Abbey where the children rush to persuade Maria to come back.
Nonnberg Abbey
However, the cab drivers were right.  Salzburg is a lot more than “Sound of Music”.   Salzburg was right at the edge of two fault lines:  One, Bavarian and Austrian culture.  Two, Catholic and Protestant faiths.
It was the religious divide that triggered the first exodus of the town’s residents.  Archbishop Firmian issued an edict in early XVIII century to Salzburg citizens seeking them to recant protestant faith or quit the town.  About 20,000 of the town’s residents left town refusing to convert to Catholic faith.
Political divide triggered the next and more famous exodus of von Trapps when Nazis occupied Salsburg (and Austria).
The Old Town preserves its heritage with nice looking buildings around narrow pedestrian streets all overlooked by Getreidegasse church and Hohensalzburg castle.
Old Town
Getreidegasse Church
Hohensalzburg Castle
The town center, though a few centuries old, is impressive with the Glockenspiel Residenz Square giving the space to admire the beauty of the Salzburg Cathedral.
Glockenspiel Residenz Square
Square seen from inside Salzburg Cathedral
Salzburg may have given Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to the World.  I would still remember it for silly little stuff like "raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens, brown paper packages tied up with strings and a few of my other favorite things!"