I am often asked: what is the most under-rated destination that you have been to. My reply would be Sri Lanka with its stellar combination of World Heritage sites, wildlife, history, rich culture, terrific hotels, friendly people and a friendlier currency.


I was in Queensland, Australia after many, many years and it was truly a wonderful experience filled with new friends, good wine and food and exciting travel.


Everyone’s talking about China...There is great interest in China as a travel destination .


I am often asked: what is the most under-rated destination that you have been to. My reply would be Sri Lanka with its stellar combination of World Heritage sites, wildlife, history, rich culture, terrific hotels, friendly people and a friendlier currency.


I was in Queensland, Australia after many, many years and it was truly a wonderful experience filled with new friends, good wine and food and exciting travel.

Of Flash mobs and Antwerp...

There’s so much talk about flash mobs and viral videos now- the best flash mob to date was the one I saw on 'You tube' some time ago, set in Antwerp Station.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


As we drove through the imposing gates into the expansive estate, passing a glassy lake, I could not help thinking that it was a perfect setting for staging murder mysteries or exploring the paranormal. In the hands of the Leslie family (who can trace their lineage to Attila the Hun) since the 1600s, Castle Leslie in Glaslough village, in Northern Ireland, sprawls over a thousand acres.

When we entered the castle we were handed an antique key to our rooms, and led through the hallways. The decor was quirky and filled with tapestries, paintings and a lot of family history.
We got the grand tour that night from Sir John Leslie, the 93 year old eccentric owner of the castle who has lived here since 1994. Sammy Leslie, Sir John’s niece is the person responsible for turning the castle into a viable proposition.

Sir John Leslie

The family has famous connections. Sir John talked casually about the Duke of Wellington who was a first cousin and Sir Winston Churchill who was a close friend of the family. He played a Chopin piece effortlessly on the piano for us.
Sir Winston Churchill's christening gown

Desmond's Room

Each of the rooms was named after a member of the Leslie family and decorated in an eclectic pastiche of styles. My room was called Desmond’s room named after Desmond, Sammy’s father, a dashing pilot, who wrote several books.

The Blue Room- a living room 

Castle Leslie like many other castles has a plethora of ghost stories. Bells ring on their own, a monk shuffles past guests and shadowy figures disappear around the corner...Norman’s Room was named after Norman, a member of the family who was destined to inherit the castle but was killed prematurely in the war. Apparently his ghost (reputed to be a friendly one like Casper) still inhabits his room and is known to levitate the bed.
The Royal throne?
The Red Room was Sir John’s mother’s room- there is an ornate four poster bed, but it’s the bathroom which had us stunned: a unique wood panelled throne toilet with even the coat of arms and the first plumbing bath to be installed in Ireland.  That must be why we say ‘sitting on the throne’! We hear that a ghost who shuffles paper is often been sighted here!

Memorabilia on display

War medals, a quill pen used by a former Pope, a bullet extracted from the thigh of Tom Leslie who was injured in the Battle of the Light Brigade, Sir Winston Churchill’s christening dress and old letters were on display in the living room.

The family coat of arms

In the hallway is the coat of arms bearing the family motto “Gripp fast” indicating the clan’s never-say-die attitude perhaps? The Scottish member of the clan, Bartholomew Leslie was rescuing Queen Margaret of Scotland and fording a river.  He was riding the horse sitting behind her and when the horse almost sank in the river he shouted,” Grip fast, my buckle”. She held on to his buckle and was saved. And that became their motto.

The dining room

We walked through the haunted gallery where people have seen a lady in a long dress walk even in broad daylight... Come evening, the members of our group were anxious to sleep in their friend’s rooms and imagined footsteps in the corridor.. It was a night which we would remember for a long time! I slept with the lights on, just in case some ghosts decided to make their appearance...

Saturday, March 17, 2012


A Roman city in the Middle East? Really, visit Jerash in Jordan and you may think you are in the Roman Forum...

Jerash is an hour’s drive from the capital city, Amman. It used to be called Gerasa, two thousand years ago and was part of a confederation of ten cities of the Roman Empire called the Decapolis. Jerash was buried under the sand and rubble for centuries after some devastating earthquakes (till it was discovered by a German traveler in 1806) and that accounts for how well preserved it seems today.  


We went through a plaza with vendors selling a paraphernalia of souvenirs !What catches my eye is exquisite sand art- different landscapes with camels and sand dunes inside bottles of varied shapes and colours.

Hadrian's Arch

Our entry to Jerash was through this magnificent arch called Hadrian’s Arch (Jerash was a favourite city of Roman Emperor Hadrian). We walk to the Hippodrome where chariot races used to be held. Today you can watch a re-enactment of  a seven lap chariot race by Jordanians in costumes.

The Hippodrome

I was awed by the majestic Oval Plaza or the Forum, the centre of life in ancient times ringed by a host of pillars. It leads to the Colonnaded Street that runs the length of the city for more than a mile (known as the Cardo). Imagine the people of yesteryears shopping, walking and gossiping here... We saw the marks of the chariots deeply etched on the cobblestones from centuries of use...

The Oval Plaza

What is fascinating about Jerash is how history and the present go hand in hand. We saw goats grazing, boys playing football and Bedouins walk through the ruins nonchalantly!

 We come now to the Macellum- an octagonal courtyard built around a fountain. This would have been the ancient food market with smaller shops surrounding it. What I loved here were some ancient slabs fashioned like animals- it was the butcher’s shop and even bears marks from the cutting of meat!
The Macellum- the ancient food market

Slabs to cut meat

Large Corinthian pillars and marble slabs which used to have large pools with water flowing out of carved lion’s heads- this was the Nymphaeum a monument to the water Nymphs.

The Nymphaeum

The Artemis columns with ancient earthquake proofing!

Eleven columns of the Artemis temple still stand, despite several devastating earthquakes. Our guide inserted a long stick between the gargantuan column and the pedestal. It moved up and down demonstrating how they were designed to sway gently!

The North Theatre

I clambered up to the North Theatre which is remarkably well-preserved. This structure is steep and as we caught our breath reaching the top tier of seats, we saw two Bedouin boys with their herd of goats peer at us from beyond the walls.   
The South theatre

  The ancient South Theatre has amazing acoustics-someone speaking from the centre of the stage can be heard throughout the auditorium. We saw some Jordanian soldiers playing bagpipes here..Maybe an influence of the Scottish regiments who served here..        
Jerash was really a journey back in to time. A visit to a Roman city without the hordes.. 

Bagpipers at the South Theatre

Thursday, March 15, 2012


 One of my most adventurous trips to date was to Finnish Lapland. Lapland is a vast region spanning northern parts of Finland, Russia, Sweden and Norway inside the Arctic Circle. The landscape here is too flat to be dramatic but it’s a beauteous barren, monochrome tundra expanse.

There are more reindeer than people in Lapland!

 We arrived in Rovaniemi, the unofficial capital of Finnish Lapland, 800 km from Helsinki. The Second World War devastated this city as the Germans razed it to the ground as part of their ‘scorched earth’ policy. It was re-built by Alvar Aalto, a famous architect of Finland to resemble a reindeer’s head and antlers.

A white on white world

To really enjoy the extreme temperatures here, you have to be in the right gear...Our local tour company, A la carte Lapland and Jari, our local host, dressed us up in Arctic gear- thermal zip-up overalls, thick socks, sturdy snow boots, balaclava, muffler and padded gloves. We felt like men on the moon, initially but soon got used to it!

The Artikum
We visited The Artikum, a modernistic, arched glass atrium housing a science centre and museum built into the banks of the Ounasjoli River. We learned a lot about how the early settlers survived in these harsh climates with few amenities, by fishing, building, and floating logs on the river.

Reindeer ready for a ride

 That evening, we met a  traditional Sami reindeer herder dressed in his red and royal blue tunic called Gatki, with embroidered designs, hat with streamers and reindeer boots. He took us inside a traditional tepee called the Kota, open to the sky, with a fire to keep us snug and tells us about Sami customs and beliefs. 
A traditional Sami

The reindeer ride was of course not in the sky like Santa... but over terra firma! We tried to vainly control these active creatures as they sped ahead.

On a Squidoo

For some activity, we went on snowmobiles called squidoos, which look like lawnmowers on ice with powerful and noisy engines. I opted to be a pillion rider with a tough Lappi and that was a bad idea as he raced past the others through the barren landscape with me clinging for dear life.

We tried our hand at ice fishing and tobogganing and also visited an amethyst mine under the snow covered ground. Even got to dig for my own piece of amethyst...
Drilling a hole for ice fishing

A visit to a husky farm is mandatory in Lapland. To me they looked more like wolves from whom they have evolved. We met Marek, their trainer who told us that they eat a kilo of food every day! A husky driven sled ride was on the cards... I choose the easy option to sit protected by reindeer pelts, and my partner has to stand behind balancing on runners, controlling all the dog power!
Marek with his husky

Santa Claus Village

Retail therapy

The Santa Claus village, 8 km north of Rovaniemi, has tourist arrivals round the year from Britain..and it’s a great tourist draw card. An affable, portly Santa with a twinkle in his eye greeted us with a, “Namaste!” We even had our photos taken with him. There were many attractive shops in an arcade for some retail therapy-fleece rugs and a cheesy reindeer mobile was what I succumbed to.

Elf at the Post Office

The piece de résistance of the Santa Claus village was the Post Office where all the letters sent by kids to addresses like North Pole, Arctic Circle, etc are directed! Enthusiastic red and green costumed elves sort out the letters diligently and reply to those with return addresses.

Inside the log cabin
 Last on the list was the traditional log wood smoke sauna experience - a huge stove with large amounts of burning hot rocks on top where water is sprinkled often to increase the humidity!  The scene of action- a 150 year old rustic lumberjack’s cabin in the middle of the wilderness.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


It was a wintery evening in Krakow, the medieval Polish city. Strains of ethereal music wafted in the air ..the moonlight sonata? I was bewitched. Street musicians are an integral part of the European experience. I have seen many talented, few less-than talented musicians play a variety of instruments and enchant the audience, over the years.

Most are self taught, I presume. These simple musical moments and free concerts linger in my memory for ages. Europe is a lot about the culture and ambience of the cities and the evocative music is a large part of this. Linger on the streets with a cup of coffee and take in a performance..

A Mexican style band on a bridge in Ljubljana, the capital of pint sized Slovenia
A showman in Munich- Marienplatz

The sheer variety in the range of instruments is mind boggling.. Many sell CDs of their work for a modest 10 euros or so.

Some strange instruments that I have seen..

That was a ventriloquist musician on Charles Bridge!

Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic is  probably the capital of street music too! I have seen this performer on many visits in the Old Town Square.

This band on the Charles Bridge look really professional!
My personal favourite was this charismatic wine glass musician!
This came as a bit of a surprise- a full band playing on  a Sunday morning in the Town Square.
Another talented band  playing near the Town Square

Maybe the charm of these musicians is that they are real people- not some inaccessible celebrities up on the stage... and they play their heart out!

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