Halò Alba! a.k.a Hello Scotland!

William Wallace, and his image of bravery, leadership, sacrifice, patriotism made me want to visit the land that bore such a person. So ever since Braveheart, Scotland was on my list of places to visit. At the tail end of a work trip in April 2013, I decided to take the train up to Edinburgh and drive around Scotland as part of a bus tour, 5 days in the land of mountains, lakes and castles.

I arrived in the early evening and put my bags away at Castle Rock Hostel. Its a nice place, right below the Edinburgh Castle and close to a lot of restaurants and pubs. I walked around the area and found a nice restaurant to have dinner, and spent the rest of the evening curled up on a really comfortable chair in the lounge reading a book.

The next morning, I found a free walking tour that would cover old Edinburgh. I had gone on a Sanderman's walking tour in Southern Europe and found the quality to be quite good. The Edinburgh guide didn't disappoint either, the tour was quite informative and entertaining and I was introduced to Bobby, whose loyalty towards his master earned him a hero's status in the town and later on a statue . The rest of the day was spent walking around other parts of Old Town and visiting the shop at Camera Obscura. A delightful place that specializes in items that can trick the eyes.

The next day morning, I joined my tour bus as it started from Edinburgh. The first day was spent on the banks of Loch Lomond, which is quite a brilliant way to start your visit, watching ducks in the foreground and rolling hills in the background.

Our next order of business was some history, really old history. We visited the Stone circles in Kilmartin Glen. These are rumored to be close to 5000 years old. The place also has a couple of burial cairns that are about a 1000 years younger than the circles they are surrounded by. The main thing that I noticed in this place was the absolute silence. The morning fog added to the dampening of the sound. The evening stop was Oban, a quaint port town on the western coast of Scotland. The view from my room looked out over the water at an island and the sunset was extremely relaxing. After a nice dinner at a nearby restaurant, I took a stroll around town and settled down for the night.

The next day was a busy one, with lots to see. It included a number of broken castles, the William Wallace monument, a drive past Ben Nevis (Britain's tallest peak) and a visit to Glen Coe, the site for filming of Harry Potter. This was topped off with a drive along the coast to the Isle of Skye and The White Heather hotel. The evening promised beautiful views of a out across a small patch of water called the Atlantic Ocean.

A bridge to the Winged Isle

A perfect blue sunset and dinner at local Scottish pub wrapped up a power packed day. We had two days on the Winged Isle to explore this fabled island. Day 1 started with an amazing breakfast prepared to order by the lovely hosts. We set out to explore some of the natural beauty the Isle had to offer starting with a road trip up to Quiraing and the Kilt Rock. You are transported back to a land that has seen no crowds or extreme modernization. The silence of the whole place, brought a sense of peace and quiet. It also gave you a sense of awe, of how people survived out here for thousands of years and what kind of inner strength they would need to flourish in this barren landscape.

Day 2 included a visit to Dunvegan Castle, the home of the Macleod clan's Chiefs for 800 years. This castle was featured in the Highlander and sits on the banks of a lake. The gardens are pretty well maintained and a pleasure to roam around. The next stop was a nice little roadside shop that sold old curios, almost like a yard sale of the island, near which there was also an artist's studio where I saw some of the most amazing paintings.

Old Coca Cola advertisement!

Lunch was at Portree, the largest town on the island at nice restaurant off the main square. This was followed by a leisurely walk around town where you get to see these amazing multi-colored sets of houses, not to mention shops of the most expensive wool that I have ever seen. 

The island is also home to the Talisker distillery. Single malt fans will be happy to know there is also a tour, with tasting available. During fairer weather than we saw, you can take a boat tour out to the outer isles and see a lot of sea and winged life. 

We however, experienced most of the Isle of Skye, like it is most of the year - rainy, dark and cold. A drive back across the bridge took us along some beautiful coastline and view of amazing houses and colonies built at water's edge, isolated from the rest of the world, except by boat.

The evening drive on the way to our stop for the night included a visit to the Eilean Donan Castle. Touted as the most beautiful castle in Scotland, its location certainly does merit that kind of a mention. It sits on a small rocky outcropping, connected via bridge to the rest of the world. It sits on the banks of 3 connected lakes and enjoys a commanding view out over the water. It is also one of the locations used in Scotland for Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, among other Bollywood films.

Our evening stop was at the town of Drumnodrochit a nice town near Loch Ness. There is one specialty of this town though; Fiddler's which is a local pub/restaurant that has one of the most extensive collections of Scotch in the world. They have a whole page of their menu dedicated to listing this. The decor is brilliant with old and new bottles of Scotch lining most walls. A must visit for Single malt fans who want to taste some rare finds and meet locals who can regale you with tales of Nessie!

The next morning we drove to Urquhart Castle on the banks of Loch Ness and explored a little more of Scotland's often violent history. No visit is of course complete without an attempt to spot Nessie (Loch Ness monster). A boat cruise along the lake is a nice way to spend an hour that takes you across the waters and shows you the sights. Back on the banks, not having seen Nessie, we started making our way back to Edinburgh.

We had two more important stops along the way. The first was the site of one of the biggest battles in Scottish history, The Battle of Culloden. It marked the end of a brutal religious civil war in the mid 1700s. Its a very peaceful place, where we also reenacted the various battle charges used during the time by the Scots. The place has headstones marking the sites of several mass graves where the vanquished Jacobites were buried. In today's world, this might be refereed to as religious persecution. I was chilled by the seemingly peaceful look of a place where thousands perished in the span of an hour or two. It is however, an important stop to make since you can't really understand a people/culture, until you learn about the nice and brutal parts of their history.

To settle us down after what can only be described as a deeply moving visit, we decided to stop at a distillery on our drive back. Dalwhinnie is a 120 year old distillery that is also one of the highest (altitude wise) in Scotland. We were in time to get a tour of the place. The making is not nearly as nice as the end product, half the place has a terrible smell due to the fermentation process required to make whisky. To top it off though was a tasting of 3 of their Single malts, paired with the perfect chocolate cubes that go with them. It was one of the those amazing combinations that just make sense. I am not a fan of whisky in general but the tasting was mind blowing.

After this we made our way back to Edinburgh and said our goodbyes. This was the end of a pretty decent trip around the Scottish highlands. You can see the rest of the photos from my trip here.



Bhutan - Punakha and Dochu-La

Punakha Dzong at night

108 Chortens of Dochula on one fine misty morning

Getting to Punakha Valley from Thimphu takes you to one of the most famous passes in Bhutan - Dochula. It's one of the places, I visited, where you can stand and see a long and majestic line of mountains guarding the northern border of Bhutan. However, it is also the site of a war memorial, 108 chortens built to commemorate the soldiers who fell trying to quash a rebellion. Also at the crest is an important temple, The Druk Wangyal Lhakhang. 

We went there early morning and happened to run into one of the members of the royal family paying her respects at the temple. There was none of the pomp and show usually associated with royalty worldwide. She had come in a sedan and was accompanied by a jeep with a few guards. Now I am not sure, if more were hidden from us by the mist.

The peace and quiet of the place will immediately make you forget the rest of the world as you soak in the atmosphere of the place. We were loath to leave this place, but hunger dragged us onward to a restaurant nearby that also offered stunning views of the countryside and not to mention, hot food in the middle of nowhere.

It was early afternoon by the time we reached the Punakha Valley. There were three main sites, we planned to visit and had two days to do this.

The first was a monastery with a fascinating history due to the especially unorthodox works of the person who blessed it. Chimi Lhakhang, is famous for blessing couples who visit with fertility. Drupka Kinley, nick named the Divine Madman, was famous for his unique way of teaching Buddhism which included singing, humour and, let's just say sexual overtures that would get a person arrested today. He is also credited with introducing the phallus as a symbol on houses to ward against the evil eye and malicious gossip. Keeping to the tradition of the phallus. Blessings at Chimi Lhakhang are given by the head monk striking 10 inch long ivory, wood and bone phallus. Given its modest size, its also a good place to observe young wards at work in the monastery. 

Collecting Red Chili set out on the roof for drying, while also horsing around like all children usually do

The visit to the monastery, ended with a mad dash for the car as the heavens opened up on us and our not so waterproof cameras. Indians are quite commonly visible in this area because of the work going on to build Hydro-electric plants, which provide Bhutan a much needed source of income. They even have their own little town.

The next visit was to an extremely picturesque place. Punakha Dzong, situated at the union of two rivers, it is the seat of the district administration. While I could probably spend days just trying to get photographs from all the different angles, we decided to wait in a single spot for the magic minutes that appear every evening, between sunset and dusk. 

Punakha Dzong looking truly magical

The next morning we had one last place to visit before we headed back to Thimphu. We went to attend the first part of the Wangdue Tsechu. A Tsechu are annual religious festivals in all the districts of Bhutan. Its a time for people from all over the district, remote villages included to get together, bond and celebrate. Traditionally performed on the grounds attached to the district dzong, this one was performed on the local army base ground, since the local Dzong had caught fire recently (June 2012) and was in the process of being rebuilt.

Dancers take the stage to perform as part of the opening Tsechu

While Tsechu itself lasts 3 whole days, the dances on the first day are often performed with a member of the royal family in attendance. In this particular case, it was the current king and queen of Bhutan. Here again, their simplicity and connection to their people showed clearly, as they walked around during a break in the performances and talked to people. Of particular interest to them, was how the visitors (us included) were finding their country and if we had any suggestions that could make it easier for tourists. Here again, we were surprised, the king recognized our guide from his time serving on the staff of the royal family. Our guide was indeed a well known man.

Alas, it was time for us to head back to Thimphu to attend a part of the Thimphu Tsechu as well. You can find more pictures from my Bhutan trip @ Google+





Kingdom of Bhutan's Capital - Thimphu

Thimpu Dzong

The capital of the Kingdom of Bhutan, is located in a valley surrounded by hills on all sides. It continues to grow along several of the slopes. It also has a lot of places where you can immerse yourself in the culture of the country. It is also relatively more modern looking than Paro.

The drive in from Paro was quite scenic, most of the way along rivers. We stopped and took a break at Chuzzom, the confluence of 2 major rivers.

After just over an hour we reached Thimphu, and headed over to Archery grounds to watch several masters practice their art. While people have adopted modern graphite bows, they have also upgraded the challenge by putting targets farther away. Its quite a spectacle to watch, both teams taunt each other, celebrate successful hits on target with little dances. 

Short video of archers celebrating a successful round.

After checking into the hotel, we spent some time strolling around the city. I also had the opportunity to visit a very old bookshop and get a called Treasures of the Thunder Dragon book written by a member of the Royal Family about their country, its unique history and culture. Dinner was at a pizza joint called the Seasons. They also have amazing desert. 

The next day we had two major places to visit, Thimphu Dzong and the Thimphu Market. The market is a wonderful place to see the local handicrafts and is a photographer's dream.

Our visit to the Thimphu Dzong was well timed, as we got to witness the daily flag hoisting ceremony and meet the Abbot of Thimphu region. The flag hoisting is always preceded by prayers and blessing of the flag, after which the guard march the flag out and hoist it at the entrance to the Dzong.

Honour guard walking the flag out for hoisting

Another place to visit in Thimphu is the Memorial Chorten. It was built to commemorate the Third King of Bhutan, who wanted a symbol that represents the mind of Buddha.

Memorial Chorten through a looking glass

An outer building at the Memorial Chorten, Thimphu

There are a lot of other things to see and do in Thimphu, you can also see more of my pictures of Bhutan at Google+



Kingdom of Bhutan - Druk Yul - Paro

Paro Valley - Visible are Rinpung Dzong, the National Museum, the Airport and Paro city

The Kingdom of Bhutan holds many wonders for the city dweller. Even avid travelers will find it to be quite different from most other places. 

My first view of Druk-Yul (Land of Dragon) was from the window of my plane and it reminded me of what I love about nature. Our adventure was about to begin with landing at Paro airport, which has one of the most challenging approaches in the world.

After the fastest immigration and customs process in the world, I found my way to the hotel, a picturesque lodge nestled among people's houses on the side of a hill. After an evening getting to know what turned out to be my small tour group, I turned in for an early night. 

The next day after a quick breakfast we were off to visit one of the oldest sites in Bhutan - Kyichu Lhakhang. 

Fair warning, being a hilly country, flat roads are rare and broad roads non-existent. Do NOT attempt to drive yourself. The locals have perfected driving on these roads (its like an art form) and you will go crazy (NO even driving in India doesn't come close). Also why not just enjoy the serene countryside that you will see out the window.

Paro Valley

We spent a good hour and half walking the grounds of the Kyichu Lhakhang, meeting locals and the docile (or lazy) dogs who live there. The peace and quiet of the place is broken only by the sound of prayer wheels or the wind. This place holds a lot of historic importance and is considered one of their holiest temples. After having visited many Hindu temples across South India, this was a drastically different experience. This Buddhist monastery is definitely a good way to start your trip.

The next order of business was lunch. Meals in Bhutan are an adventure of their own. For a country whose biggest industry is tourism, it shockingly lacks a lot of food options outside hotels/resorts. The best restaurant in Paro has a very selective menu and their timings are notoriously random. Calling ahead and ordering in advance is a very good idea. Try the Ema Datshi (Chili and Cheese), its a national dish and extremely tasty for those that can handle a little spice. Its best eaten with rice.

After lunch we drove up to the National museum of Bhutan. The museum is a wonderful place to learn a little bit about the colorful history and culture of Bhutan. Its also a good place to relax post lunch while continuing to immerse yourself into the country.

Walking distance from there is the Rinpung Dzong, seat of the district government. One thing you will notice about Dzongs throughout Bhutan are they serve a dual purpose, Buddhist monastery and administrative offices for the government. This is a core part of the way Bhutan's governance is structured, religion and the democratic government work in tandem.

The bridge leading to it and the Rinpung Dzong (National Museum also visible at the back)

That was the end of an exciting Day 1. The next day we needed to leave really early to visit one of the most iconic monasteries in the world - Paro Taktsang (aka The Tiger's Nest). Its a bit of a drive and climb to get there but once you get close, the view is totally worth it.

Paro Taktsang (aka The Tiger's Nest)

We also learned an interesting fact about our guide/driver Dawa-ji at this monastery. He used to serve the royal family of Bhutan! We met one of the members of the royal family there, who on seeing that we were with him assured us we were in extremely good hands and offered us tea and biscuits. Its not often that you run into royalty, without a large cordon of security. Its even more rare that you meet royalty who remember and acknowledge a person who used to drive them around over a decade ago.

Evening was fast approaching and we had to head back after just a couple of hours spent at this wonderful cliff side monastery, but the journey was well worth the walk and I would love to do it again. 

This was the end of our stay at Paro. The next stop on my trip to the Land of the Dragon was Thimpu, the National Capital.

You can find more photos of my visit to Paro and the rest of Bhutan in my Google+ album. Stay tuned for more from the rest of my journey.







Roma, Italia - The relatively modern parts

There is a lot to see in Rome, including an infinite number of museums and churches. I however, just visited one. The Musei Capitolini, is walking distance from Foro Romano and actually has a view point behind it that provides an extremely good view of the Colosseum, Palantine Hill and Foro Romano. I spent half a day exploring the magnificent artwork and sculptures on display at this museum. Its definitely worth a visit. 

There are other sights in Rome that interested me far more than its museums or churches. Those are the fountains, gardens and of course the food. The main places worth visiting for me were Piazza Navona, Fontana di Trevi and of course the place with all the eateries Trastevere

Piazza Navona offers several different things to see. This place has 3 beautiful fountains, a church and a whole of lot of people and pigeons. There was also a special building with some beautiful flora growing on its walls on my walk towards Piazza Navona.

Hotel Raphael enroute to Piazza Navona

Fontana di Trevi is always packed with people, but is also big enough that you don't really need to get that close to appreciate its beauty and the artist's skill. You do need to muscle your way through though if you want to drop your wish coin in the fountain :-). 

This was a slow day at Fontana di Trevi...

If you want to get away from all the hustle and bustle of the city for a quiet afternoon or a picnic lunch, like I did, Villa Borghese Gardens are a wonderful place where you can escape to. The gardens are so vast that you can actually forget you are inside Italy's largest city!

I wanted to taste some authentic Italian food and Trastevere came highly recommended, online and from locals, because of the extremely large number of choices for places to eat. We went there almost every night for dinner and even for lunch on a couple of days. We hardly scratched the surface of that area. Always keep a track of where you are, with the narrow streets its easy to lose your way, especially at night where everything looks the same.

Rome has a lot to offer and I could write several more blog posts on everything I did during my stay there, but the joy is in experiencing it first hand. If you want to see more pictures of Rome, the works of art in Musei Capitolini or the pigeons of Rome, you can find them on Google+: Rome and Birds,