Tag Archives: church

‘Forbidden Porcelain’ at the Prinsenhof Museum, Delft

My first experience of Delft was a gloriously sunny Saturday in May, spent walking around the town square; with some serious efforts invested in climbing the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk, the second tallest church tower in the Netherlands.

On my second trip to Delft, I spent the day at the Prinsenhof Museum, browsing through the ‘Forbidden Porcelain: Exclusively for the Emperor’ exhibition.

This exhibition centers around the exquisite porcelain that was made specially for Chinese emperors by the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen, but which was later discarded and destroyed, as it did not meet the high standards expected of royal wares. I was very fortunate to have the company of the museum’s Curator of Decorative Arts, Ms. Suzanne Kluver, who shared her in-depth knowledge of the subject.

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The opening panel of the ‘Forbidden Porcelain: Exclusively for the Emperor’ exhibition

It is the first time that these reassembled porcelain wares, originally made for Chinese emperors, are being seen outside Asia. Several of the artefacts in this exhibition are on loan from the Archaeological Institute, Jingdezhen, China.

In an article for the Jul-Aug’17 issue of PASSAGE, the bimonthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore, I share about my visit to the Prinsenhof Museum, and briefly explore the centuries-old connection between Chinese porcelain and Delftware.

Please click on the image below to view the PDF of this article.

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(Reproduced with the permission of the Editor.)

So if you happen to be in Delft (or in the vicinity), do consider visiting the ‘Forbidden Porcelain’ exhibition at the Prinsenhof Museum. The exhibition runs until 9th July 3rd September 2017.

Here are some pictures from the Prinsenhof Museum that could not be included in the print article….

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Entrance of the Prinsenhof Museum

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Bullet holes from the 1584 assassination of William I, preserved in a wall of the Prinsenhof

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Sunlight streaming through a window in the basement of the museum

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Loved the look of this window!

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A lamp post adorned with the trademark blue & white delftware designs, on the premises of the museum

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A seat in the Prinsenhof garden embellished with beautiful pieces of delftware

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Delighted in Delft!

To say I’m enamoured by Delft, would be an understatement! Since our move to Amsterdam 3 months ago, I’ve made 2 day trips to Delft, and my fascination for the town has grown exponentially with each visit.

The town’s name is said to have its roots in the word delf (meaning canal), which in turn came from the word delven (meaning digging). The name Delft is probably in reference to the digging of the Oude Delft, the canal around which the town developed in the 12th century.

On my first visit to Delft, I had the pleasure of darling hubby’s company, who of course, wanted to do something adventurous. So we resolutely climbed 376 steps in an ancient, spiral staircase, to reach the top of the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) tower, for some spectacular views of the town. Of course, there was lots of huffing and puffing involved, along with several short breaks.

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At a height of almost 109m, the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk is the second tallest church tower in the Netherlands

What made it even more interesting was that the staircase was just about wide enough to accommodate one normal sized person. So the experience of squeezing past people of all sizes going in the opposite direction from you, without losing your footing, was an adventure in itself. Definitely not for the claustrophobic or clumsy, I tell you!

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On the way to the top…

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On the way down…

But the view from the top was well worth the effort!

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View of the Delft Town Hall (the erstwhile Stadhuis) & the Markt (market square) from the tower of the Niewe Kerk

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View of Delft town from the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk

The ‘Father of the Fatherland’, William of Orange is buried in the Nieuwe Kerk. He was a key leader in the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule, enabling the formation of the Dutch Republic. In 1584, he was assassinated in his home, now the location of the Prinsenhof Museum. The bullet holes from the assassination are well preserved in the museum.

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The mausoleum of William of Orange, in the Nieuwe Kerk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The preserved bullet holes in the wall of the Princenhof Museum, where William of Orange was assassinated in 1584

Nieuwe Kerk may seem a bit of a misnomer today given that its original construction began in 1381! But back in the day, there was already a church in town, St. Bartholomew’s Church, now referred to as the Oude Kerk (Old Church). The Oude Kerk’s 75m tower tilts slightly, earning it the nickname ‘Leaning Tower of Delft’. Famous Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer is buried in the Oude Kerk, though we did not manage to spot his gravestone amidst the several Dutch luminaries buried there.

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View of the Oude Kerk from the Nieuwe Kerk tower. The lean of the Oude Kerk tower is not very apparent from this angle.

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A street image of the Oude Kerk, with the visible lean in the tower

Delft’s historical position as one of the main ports of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) has had an undeniable influence on this quaint town. The Chinese blue & white porcelain imported into Delft by the VOC in the 17th century led to the creation of a local adaptation, now famous worldwide in its own right as ‘Delftware’ or ‘Delft blue’. Many stores around the market square, sell Delftware souveniers, in every conceivable shape and form.

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An artisan paints a souvenier plate in one of the Delftwares stores. When the plate is fired in a kiln, the black paint will change to a bright blue.

On my second visit to Delft, I spent a considerable amount of time at the Prinsenhof Museum, browsing through their permanent collection as well as visiting the ‘Forbidden Porcelain‘ exhibition, which is on till 9th July. More about that and Delftware in a subsequent blog post.

For now, I leave with you with a few more pictures of this absolutely delightful Dutch town….

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Vasai Fort: Remnants of a Forgotten Empire

A white peacock dances in all its ethereal glory. Sadhus (holy men) in their flowing, orange robes float across the screen. Beyoncé is dressed in resplendent Indian (more like Bollywood) attire. This is the opening sequence of Coldplay’s ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ video, filmed at the imposing Vasai Fort, on the outskirts of Mumbai (Bombay), India.

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Entry to the Gonsalo Garcia Dominican Church, established in 1583. This one of the 7 churches in the Vasai Fort complex.

My fascination with Vasai Fort goes back a long way. I spent my childhood and early adult years, not too far from this magnificent edifice but it is only more recently that I began digging into its history. Here’s my attempt at crunching 500 years of its history into a quick read.

After 11 perilous months at sea, Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama landed on the shores of Calicut in southwest India on 20th May 1498, thus pioneering the highly sought after sea route to India. But even before this momentous discovery, the city of Vasai (on the west coast of India, to the north of Calicut and Bombay) was a thriving port, frequented by traders from the Middle East and Europe, including the famous Venetian merchant, Marco Polo.

Early navigational maps, like the India Orientalis (1579) by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius, mention Baçaim (the Portuguese name for Vasai). Such was its prominence in those days.

On 23rd December 1534, the city of Vasai was ceded by its then ruler Sultan Bahadur Shah of Gujarat to the Portuguese. The Portuguese went on to build a massive fort, Fortaleza de São Sebastião de Baçaim (Fort of St. Sebastian of Vasai), with an entire town enveloped within the fort walls. Vasai Fort served as the capital of the powerful northern Portuguese province (Corte da Norte) and until it was lost to the Marathas in 1739. After multiple battles between the Marathas and the British for control of the fort and surrounding areas, they came to a mutually convenient arrangement in 1802. The British however, preferred the neighbouring island of Mombaim (Bombay), which became a key centre for the East India Company; and in due course, Vasai lost its significance. Presently, the fort is managed by the Archaeological Survey of India.

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The inside view of one section of Vasai Fort

On our recent visit to Vasai Fort, we only had a couple to hours to spare. This was barely enough time to walk through even one small section of this 110-acre fort complex. But even in this very short span of time, it was not hard to imagine the grandeur of the fort in its hey days.

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An art student sketches a part of the Vasai Fort

So if you happen to be in Mumbai and are looking to do a fun day trip, consider the Vasai Fort. It is best visited with tour companies like No Footprints, who organize bespoke Mumbai experiences. If you are local, you know how to get here.

I leave you with some of my pictures taken in and around the fort.

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The Church of Our Lady of Life (Nossa Senhora da Vida), established in 1536

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A grazing cow accompanied by a Cattle Egret, walks around the fort

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An uncommon sighting of a Bengal monitor lizard at the fort

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A Rose-ringed Parakeet enjoys the morning sun

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A golawala (‘gola’ means ball, ‘wala’ means seller) readies his cart for business, outside the fort. He sells shaved ice balls, served in a variety of flavours.

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A local friend shares the front seat with the rickshaw driver, on the ride from Vasai Railway Station to the fort

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Salt pans spotted en route to Vasai by train

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In the land of Barbecue & Rum – Puerto Rico

The drinking world is divided into those that absolutely love piña colada and those that absolutely dislike it! It’s a bit too sweet for my taste but its popularity is undeniable. This delectable mix of white rum, coconut cream and pineapple juice; is after all, the national cocktail of Puerto Rico.

Did you know that nearly 70% of the rum sold in America comes from Puerto Rico? The island prides itself as the ‘rum capital of the world’, with Bacardi being one of the largest rum producers on the island. No surprises then, that Bacardi’s distillery in the town of Cataño is known as the ‘Cathedral of Rum’. Nearby is Casa Bacardi, a museum unlike any other museum you know! It offers exciting tours of the distillery, a heady rum tasting session as well as a mixology class, among other fun activities. http://www.visitcasabacardi.com

At the entrance of the Bacardi Distillery in Cataño, Puerto Rico

At the entrance of the Bacardi Distillery in Cataño, Puerto Rico

Nothing like starting the day with a spicy rum punch! At the Bacardi Distillery in Cataño, Puerto Rico

Nothing like starting the day with a spicy rum punch! At the Bacardi Distillery in Cataño, Puerto Rico

During Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the New World in 1493, he reached the shores of the island we know today as Puerto Rico and named it San Juan Bautista, after St John the Baptist. The capital of the island, founded in 1521, was called Ciudad de Puerto Rico, which translated into English means the ‘rich port city’, alluding to all the gold that was found in its rivers. In a strange twist of history, the capital city came to be later known as San Juan while the entire island was referred to as Puerto Rico.

Statue of Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colon in Spanish) in Plaza de Colon in Old San Juan

Statue of Christopher Columbus (Cristóbal Colón in Spanish) at the Plaza de Colón in Old San Juan

The indigenous people of Puerto Rico (and the larger Caribbean region) are the Taino Indians. They were the first people that Christopher Columbus encountered when he arrived in the New World in 1492.

You’d be interested to know that the word ‘barbeque’ comes to us from the Taino people. While this cooking technique has been around since prehistoric times, the Taino used the word barbicu to refer to a wooden rack built above the ground for smoking food. Spanish conquistadors took the word back to Spain and by the 18th century, English speakers were using the word ‘barbecue’ to refer to a late afternoon social gathering where the highlight was the grilling of meat.

In fact, several commonly used English words come to us from the Taino people. Hammock, potato, hurricane, canoe, potato, cassava and maize are just a few examples.

Spain surrendered Puerto Rico to the US in 1898. While it is officially known today as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, it is an unincorporated US territory.

There is so much to experience in Puerto Rico – it’s luscious coffee, the El Yunque National Forest, the Arecibo Observatory (the world’s largest single aperture telescope, featured in the James Bond movie Golden Eye), its stunning beaches (it’s an island after all!), its many underwater treasures. For now, I leave you with these snapshots of Puerto Rico….

Mofongo (a traditional Puerto Rican dish of fried and mashed green plantains) with shrimp

Mofongo (a traditional Puerto Rican dish of fried and mashed green plantains) with shrimp at Raices, a local restaurant

Red snapper ceviche with tostones (fried plantain) at Marmalade, Puerto Rico

Red snapper ceviche with tostones (fried plantain) at Marmalade, a fine dining restaurant in San Juan

Ending the meal with a divine chocolate mousse topped with raspberry ice cream at Marmalade, San Juan

Ending the meal with a divine chocolate mousse topped with raspberry ice cream at Marmalade, San Juan

The Paseo del Morro trail along the 16th century citadel that guarded Old San Juan

The Paseo del Morro trail along the 16th century citadel that guarded Old San Juan

Another view of the Paseo del Morro trail

Another view of the Paseo del Morro trail

The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in Old San Juan - the oldest church in the US (original building dates back to 1540)

The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in Old San Juan – the oldest church in the US (original building dates back to 1540)

The narrow streets of Old San Juan

The narrow streets of Old San Juan

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Viva Goa!

Golden sand beaches, pot-smoking hippies, the freshest seafood, vibrant markets…. these are some of the things that come to mind when you think of Goa today. But what most people don’t realise is that nearly 500 years ago, Goa played a crucial role in shaping Asia’s future.

In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut in south-western India. He was the first European to reach India by sea and this sea route was followed by several other Portuguese fleets. By 1510, Goa had become the headquarters of the Portuguese empire in Asia and Africa; making Portugal the first colonial power to establish itself in Asia. The Spanish, the Dutch and the British followed. And the rest, as they say, is history!

A 1579 map of India by Flemish cartographer, Abraham Cortelius, showing Goa (indicated by a red arrow). Currently on display at the National Library, Singapore

A 1579 map of India by Flemish cartographer, Abraham Ortelius, showing Goa (indicated by the red arrow). Currently on display at the National Library, Singapore

Goa remained a Portuguese colony for 450 years (until 1961) and the influence runs deep. Ruins of the once imposing forts, hundreds (if not thousands) of churches and chapels, brightly painted houses, the lively music and most importantly, the cuisine. Who among us hasn’t drooled over pictures of spicy sorpotel or tangy vindaloo?

The lighthouse at Fort Aguada (a fairly well-preserved 17th century Portuguese fort on Sinquerim beach, North Goa)

The lighthouse at Fort Aguada (a fairly well-preserved 17th century Portuguese fort on Sinquerim beach, North Goa)

The Goans, as the friendly locals are known, have a susegad (meaning relaxed or laid-back) outlook to life; akin to the ‘island pace’ you experience in the Seychelles or Maldives.

For me, growing up in Bombay (now Mumbai), Goa was the closest holiday destination and ‘the’ place to visit in summer.

The Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church (built in 1609) in Panjim, the capital of Goa

Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church (built in 1609) in Panjim, the capital of Goa

While Goa has so much to offer the curious tourist, it can be explored without a set itinerary. If you have any time left after sunbathing, eating and sleeping, you could just ramble around the nearby scenic towns and villages. They are all charming in their own right.

Here are a few of my favourite things to do in Goa:

1) Walk around Old Goa

Old Goa was the capital of Portuguese India from the 16th – 18th century and is today a UNSECO World Heritage Site.

The 400 year old, Basilica of Bom Jesus houses the undecayed body of St. Francis Xavier, who died in 1552. The relics are put on public display every 10 years, with the last exposition held in 2014.

Well worth a visit for the Baroque architecture, gold-gilded alters and the striking marble flooring.

The entrance to the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa

The entrance to the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa

The gold-gilded altar of the Basilica of Bom Jesus,

The elaborate, gold-gilded altar of the Basilica of Bom Jesus

The silver casket that holds the relics of St. Francis Xavier

The silver casket that holds the relics of St. Francis Xavier

2) Visit some of the exquisite, Indo-Portuguese mansions

Goa has several carefully preserved homes dating back to the 1700s, many of which have been passed down the generations. These colonial era homes display the finest European décor (including chandeliers, tapestries and mirrors) and house delicate Chinese porcelain collections; all indicative of the wealth and status of their owners. My personal favourite is the Figueiredo Museum, where the spirited owner, Maria Lourdes regales you with stories from her family’s glorious past.

Figueiredo Museum - Loutulim, Goa, India

The rustic environs of Loutulim

The beautiful exteriors of the Figueiredo mansion

The Indo-Portuguese architecture of the Figueiredo mansion

3) Eat at the many beachside restaurants

Goa’s 105km coastline is dotted with seaside restaurants. Most are humble beach shacks but some like Britto’s in Baga or Martin’s Corner in Betalbatim have established quite a reputation for themselves. But let me warn you, if you suffer from agoraphobia (fear of crowded places), these eateries are not for you.

Try the more inland restaurants like Fisherman’s Wharf or Mum’s Kitchen (both in Panaji) for a quiet and authentic Goan food experience.

Rawa (semolina) coated fried fish - a local delicacy

Rawa (semolina) coated fried fish – a local delicacy

I can’t do any justice to Goan food in one blogpost but for the moment, suffice to say that it is a tantalizing fusion of Portuguese and South Indian influences. The vinegar (as in the vindaloo dishes) comes from the Portuguese while the coconut and spices (as in xacutis and curries) comes from India.

Only the freshest seafood in Goa!

Only the freshest seafood in Goa!

Wash the food down with beer or for the adventurous – feni, a locally brewed liquor. In the 16th century, the Portuguese brought with them, the cashew plant from Brazil. Before long, the cashew apples were being crushed, fermented and distilled to produce feni. A must-try!

When in Goa, eat and drink like the Goans. Rest assured, you will leave a few kilos heavier 🙂

4) Browse the many markets

Can’t talk about Goa without mentioning the hippies. Several years ago, they started the flea market near Anjuna beach. Today, the Wednesday market at Anjuna is a tourist staple.

The Friday markets at Mapusa and Banastarim are where the locals go to shop. While visiting these markets, remember to pick-up Goa sausages – similar to the chouricos of Portugal, only spicier!

Also add bebinca to the list. This is a divine layer cake made of flour, jaggery (traditional cane sugar), eggs and coconut milk.

5) Most importantly, just do nothing! Sunbathe – eat – sleep – repeat 🙂

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A tribute to ‘Aamchi Mumbai’

‘Aamchi’ is the most commonly used epithet for Mumbai. In Marathi (the local language), it means ‘our’.

And Mumbai (or Bombay, as it was known when I was growing up) is exactly that. OURS. It embraces migrants from all over India (and now the world) and weaves them into her colourful fabric.

I was born in Mumbai and have lived a majority of my life there. This city teaches you so many things – to be tolerant, to have a ‘can-do’ attitude, to speak your neighbours’ language (I am fluent in 4 Indian languages and can wing my way through a few more), to expertly navigate the insane traffic… the list is endless.

Having lived away from India for the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to return to the city as a visitor several times. Each time, I get to appreciate its beauty with a fresh pair of eyes. Yet, I’m acutely aware, that no blog post (or for that matter even book) can ever do justice to this glorious, city of contrasts.

Your first experience of Mumbai will be when you land at the swanky new airport. No matter how tired you are from your flight, the bold colours and sheer variety of the Indian artworks on display, will perk you up. The airport is home to India’s largest public arts program called ‘Jaya He’, with over 7,000 pieces of art from all over India.

So if you have just 3 days in Mumbai, here’s what I would recommend:

Day 1 – In South Mumbai

– Enjoy the Colaba skyline from a boat off Apollo Bunder. You could choose a luxury yatch or a down home local ferry, but the iconic Gateway of India and the legendary Taj Mahal Hotel are there for all to see.

View of the Gateway of India and Taj Mahal Hotel from the sea

View of the Taj Mahal Hotel and Gateway of India from the Arabian Sea

– Follow that up with a visit to Elephanta Island’s part-Hindu, part-Buddhist rock-cut caves from 5th/6th century CE. The caves were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Believe me when I say, it’s good workout just getting there! 😉

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The entrance to Elephanta Caves

– Hungry? Eat the best pulao in Mumbai at Britania’s, an old Parsi haunt in Ballard Estate. The restaurant looks like it’s crumbling but the berry pulao served there is made with love. And that by far, is the best ingredient in any dish! But make a note, its only open for lunch.

Britania Restaurant - tucked in a leafy lane of Ballard Estate

Britania Restaurant – tucked away in a bylane of Ballard Estate

Britania's crowd-pleaser, the delectable berry pulao

Britania’s crowd-pleaser, the delectable berry pulao

You won't get these drinks anywhere else!

You won’t get these drinks anywhere else!

– Walk around the Fort and Colaba areas and observe this bustling city as it goes about its daily business.

Built in 1830, this magnificent Town Hall houses the Asiatic Society of Bombay

Built in 1830, this magnificent Town Hall in the Fort area, houses the Asiatic Society of Bombay

One long forgotten place in the heart of Colaba is the serene Afghan Church. It’s an Anglican Church completed in 1858 and was built to commemorate the dead from the First Afghan War (1838). I particularly enjoy the history and the stories associated with this church.

The gothic architecture of the Afghan Church

The peaceful environs of the Afghan Church

The nave of this 150 years old church

The nave of this 150 year old church

This where British soldiers would park their muskets during mass

This where British soldiers would rest their muskets during mass

– Visit the Pearl of the Orient, a one-of-a-kind revolving restaurant at the Ambassador Hotel. I can’t say much about the food but it does offer spectacular views of Marine Drive (also known as the Queen’s necklace), especially at night.

360 degree views of Mumbai from the Pearl of the Orient restaurant, Ambassador Hotel

360 degree views of Mumbai from the Pearl of the Orient restaurant

– Wrap up the long day with a drink, or two, at Cafe Mondegar (or Mondy’s as it is known to generations of frequenters) and admire Mario Miranda‘s trademark cartoons on its walls. This popular establishment has been open since the 1930s and has entertained generations of Mumbai’s youth as well as many a tourist. Did I mention they have a jukebox too? 🙂

Mario Miranda's iconic cartoons have looked down on decades of visitors at Cafe Mondegars

Mario Miranda’s delightful wall murals have looked down on over 2 decades of Mondy’s visitors

Well, that’s a lot to do for one day in South Mumbai.

My post, Bollywood & Bhel in Mumbai explores the suburbs of this vibrant city in 2 days.

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Pilgrimage in the Pyrenees

Paulo Coelho – one of the most prolific writers in the world (and one of my absolute favourites), spends half his time in the south of France only to be close to one place – the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes.

July 2011. We were already in Toulouse. Lourdes was just a couple of hours away. We decided to pay a visit. An idyllic town, Lourdes is nestled at the foothill of the Pyrenees.

It is believed that in 1858, a poor peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous, saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary, in a cave by the Gave de Pau river that flows through Lourdes. This incident repeated itself on 18 different occasions and soon, people from nearby villages began to flock to the town with their prayers and petitions.

These days, over 5 million pilgrims of every religion and nationality, come to Lourdes every year. To meet the ever-increasing flow of people, this little town has nearly 300 hotels – the second highest density of hotels in France, second only to Paris.

We set out in the early hours of morning and the drive past rural pastures and green open spaces, was very refreshing. As we approached Lourdes, the majestic Pyrenees began to loom on the horizon.

Pyrenees - Lourdes, France

Approaching Lourdes, at the foothill of the scenic Pyrenees

We parked at a distance from the shrine and walked there.

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The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

It was deeply moving to watch the old and the sick make their way to the Sanctuary with their chaperones. With their unwavering faith, they had come from far away lands, in the hope of a miracle, a panacea for their pain, in the waters of Lourdes.

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The sick and old in their wheelchairs headed to the Sanctuary

We walked around the Sanctuary that includes 3 basilicas, 2 churches, 2 chapels and several other places of worship. Here are a few pictures from our time there:

A view of Rosary Square and the town, from the Upper Basilica. Lourdes Fort is on the horizon.

A view of Rosary Square and the town, from the Upper Basilica. The medieval Lourdes Fort is in the background.

The Virgin Mother handing a Rosary to St. Dominic, depicted in marble at the entrance of the Rosary Basilica

The Virgin Mary handing a rosary to St. Dominic, depicted in marble above the entrance to the Rosary Basilica

Inside view of the dome of the Rosary Basilica, built in Byzantine style

The 15 Mysteries of the Rosary depicted in mosaic on the walls of the Rosary Basilica

The 15 Mysteries of the Rosary are depicted in mosaic on the walls of the Rosary Basilica (circa 1900)

Masabielle - the grotto where St. Bernadette saw a vision of the Virgin Mary

Masabielle – the grotto where St. Bernadette saw visions of the Virgin Mary. The water that springs from this grotto is believed to have miraculous, healing properties.

The Upper Basilica seems to emerge from the Masabielle rock

The Upper Basilica seems to emerge from the Masabielle rock

The faithful in prayer, outside the grotto

The faithful in prayer outside the grotto. The Gave de Pau flows alongside.

We spent the day visiting the various places of worship in the Sanctuary and paying our respects. Soon it was time to head back to Toulouse.

I was told, Paulo Coelho, lives in a nearby town, about 10-15 miles from Lourdes. Maybe a detour was in order. That would have been a pilgrimage of another kind 🙂

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Searching for sunflower fields

I first came across Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This was when I lived in the ‘city of brotherly love’. The year – 2005.

The Sunflowers series was partly inspired by the sunflower fields Van Gogh saw around Arles, a city in southern France. He lived there for a couple of years before his death.

Ever since I laid eyes on the Sunflowers in Philadelphia, I’ve dreamt of driving through the French countryside in the hope of seeing the flaming sunflower fields for myself.

July 2011. Toulouse. We decided to drive out and do some sightseeing around Toulouse. Our first stop was Albi, an ancient town with origins in the Bronze age (3000-600 BC).

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Albi’s daily market in the town centre

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The solemn, fortified exterior of the Albi Cathedral (constructed over 200 years from 1287), a UNESCO World Heritage Site

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The ornate interiors of the Albi Cathedral

Albi is also home to the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, which houses over 1000 pieces of work by the bohemian artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He became famous for his posters of the then newly opened Moulin Rouge, a cabaret in Paris (circa 1889). He was born in Albi and after his death in 1901, his mother generously donated his works to the museum.

It was almost lunch time when we finished touring the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum. At a charming cafe close by, hubby (always game to try something new) ordered the local speciality, tripe – a dish made from the cow’s stomach. It is most definitely an acquired taste but as always, he ate it with gusto.

Albi, France

After a leisurely lunch, we drove to the fortified town of Cordes-sur-Ciel, about 25km away. The town’s name (Cordes in the sky) reflects its location at the top of a hill and above the clouds. It was not an easy climb to the top of the citadel (going there right after lunch was not such a good idea!) but the views were memorable.

Cordes-sur-Ciel, France

The steep and winding cobblestone roads that lead to the top of Cordes-sur-Ciel (built 1222 )

Cordes-sur-Ciel, France

The gorgeous view of the countryside from the ramparts of Cordes-sur-Ciel

We walked around the bastide and browsed the quaint souvenir shops.

Cordes-sur-Ciel, France

An armour suit peeking from a store window in Cordes-sur-Ciel

Next, we headed to the picturesque St Antonin Noble Val, a 30 minute drive away. ‘Charlotte Gray’, a period film starring Cate Blanchett and the soon to be released ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey’, have been filmed in this romantic town.

St. Antonin Noble Val, France

The view as you drive into St. Antonin Noble Val

St. Antonin Noble Val, France

The Aveyron river that flows through St. Antonin Noble Val

St. Antonin Noble Val, France

Residents of St. Antonin Noble Val preparing for a feast

Our last stop for the day was the tiny, fortified village of Bruniquel. Unfortunately, we had reached the imposing Château de Bruniquel past closing time and didn’t get a chance to tour the grand exhibits and gardens inside. According to folklore, the castle was founded in the 6th century.

Bruniquel, France

The view of the valley around Château de Bruniquel

Bruniquel, France

The entrance to the Château de Bruniquel

The day had started in the hope of sunflower fields. The French countryside did not disappoint us. It was ablaze with sunflowers all along the way. Tired and contented, we headed back to Toulouse.

Sunflower fields - Toulouse, France

One of the many sunflower fields along the drive

Sunflowers everywhere!

Sunflowers everywhere!

The picturesque town of Lourdes is a comfortable 2 hour drive from Toulouse. For more on Lourdes, check out my post, Pilgrimage in the Pyrenees.

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Ma belle Toulouse!

Charming French windows, ornate street lamps, medieval red brick buildings – unmistakably Toulouse!

Street lamps - Toulouse, France

Carousel - Toulouse, France

La ville rose (or ‘the pink city’ as it is called) is located on the banks of the Garonne river. The lifeline of Toulouse, this river springs from a source in the Pyrenees, flows right through the city and ultimately, joins the Atlantic Ocean.

La Grave - Toulouse, France

The La Grave hospital complex (built in the 1600s) on the banks of the Garonne river

A key landmark of Toulouse is the Canal du Midi (a UNESCO World heritage site) which connects Toulouse to the Mediterranean Sea. This 240km long canal built in the 17th century, facilitated trade between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Today, the Canal du Midi is a popular waterway for cruises and sightseeing.

Canal du Midi - Toulouse, France

The tree-lined banks of the Canal du Midi

Toulouse is a city with character and soul. The poetry in the air is palpable. Here, ancient cathedrals co-exist harmoniously with the headquarters of the European aerospace industry.

Basilica of St. Sernin - Toulouse, France

The Basilica of St. Sernin, a UNESCO World Heritage site – a key stop on the Way of St. James (Santiago de Compostela), built from the 11th to the 14th century

Concorde - Toulouse, France

Retired Air France Concorde F-BVFC on display at the Toulouse-Blagnac airport

Cite de l'Espace - Toulouse, France

A full scale model of the Ariane 5 rocket at the Cite de l’espace (City of Space) theme park

Toulouse’s recorded history goes way back to 2BC. Its magnificent churches are silent witnesses to all that has transpired over the ages.

St. Etienne's Cathedral - Toulouse, France

St. Etienne’s Cathedral, built from the 13th to the 17th century

Jacobins Convent - Toulouse, France

The stunning ‘palm tree’ architecture of the Jacobins Convent (built in the 13th/14th century)

Modern day Toulousians are a friendly bunch, enjoying a relaxed pace of life. Their favorite food includes gourmet specialties like the Toulouse cassoulet, Margret de canard and duck confit along with some of the finest local wines.

Canard - Toulouse, France

Margret de canard (duck breast)

No discussion about Toulouse is complete without a mention of its colorful markets.

Market, Place du Capitole - Toulouse, France

The clothing & accessories market at the Place du Capitole square

Market, St. George's - Toulouse, France

Fresh produce market near Place St. Georges

The highlight of our time in Toulouse was spotting this rainbow crowning the 16th century Capitole building.

Place du Capitole - Toulouse, France

(Rainbow spotting has now become a regular feature with us. Remember the double rainbow in Seychelles?)

The south of France has inspired so many legendary painters (including Cezanne, Van Gogh, Renoir, Matisse and more recently, Picasso). After my visit to Toulouse and the surrounding countryside, I finally understood why!

Adieu ma chère Toulouse! À bientôt!

Must buy: The soaps, perfumes, bonbons and other confectionaries made with touches of the violet flower. The delicate violet is the official flower of Toulouse.

For places to visit around Toulouse, check out my posts, Searching for sunflower fields & Pilgrimage in the Pyrenees.

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