Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Highland Serendipity I

Serendipity precludes repetition. I cannot think of a word that can replace serendipity, weather repetition, and still maintain that wonderful element of surprise. Maybe I don't need to. Such a state does not exist. Or does it?
I arrived in Scotland with no expectations. No anticipation. Just the belief that it can't be bad at all. The idea of a road trip had germinated in my mind a long time back. That was before I had to face the prospect of actually going broke. And jobless. When I did agree to join some others for that road trip, I wasn't so sure. But I couldn't have given it a pass - old habits certainly are like secret fears, they never completely die.
I did not have a driving licence. Procastination. So I did the next best thing, navigate. With hindsight however, I can say, it was the best thing.
Three days, two nights. Edinburgh - Inverness and back. A few lovely detours and exploratory drives.
Which brings me back to the topic of discussion. Serendipity.
I had to plan the trip in one night. Not a difficult proposition normally, but I also had to conclude my master thesis the same night. So I was a bit rushed. A small entry in the Lonely Planet mentioned the village of Balquhidder (pronounced Bal-wh-idder) where you could find Rob Roy's grave. I really don't get too many moments in my life that I can label evocative, so for lack of choice I shall select this as one. It immediately brought back old memories of a torn book that had been in my collection for a long time. My early teen attention span had never accommodated it. And then on a bored afternoon, I found myself looking grudgingly at that book with a deep blue and black cover. An adapted version of Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott. I turned the page. And was hooked.
Years later, I didn't recollect the story. Just the feeling it had evoked. And that was strong enough to make me want to go look for Rob Roy's grave.
I was with a group of people who were open to do anything - so I had no problems convincing all but one of them as to why we were driving to an obscure village to look for the grave of a person they couldn't really care a lot about. The one exception was my daughter, who really did not mind the detour, but wanted to know why people would want to visit the grave of anyone. She popped this question to me after she had observed me run around the tiny village of Balquhidder, trying to pinpoint the grave in question. Telling her I have no idea was too honest for my liking. So I did what I usually do with her. I digressed. As we walked towards the Balquhidder church, I gave her the spiel about how I had felt, as a little boy, when I had read the book. And how I just could not let this opprtunity pass by. And how you can never be sure what you discover when you set out to do something like that. Showing a patience that only she can, she just walked along and enjoyed the moment. And then we were there.
Well, it was just a grave. Even if it was Robert Roy MacGregor's. The stone said 'MacGregor Despite Them' and I could not explain to her why. I tried to make the moment as solemn as I could and then we were back in the car. The next stop was just to the place where the village road rejoined the highway we were on. Lonely Planet recommended a bar there called the 'Rob Roy Bar' as a "nice place to stop for a quick guinness" or words to that effect. So that is exactly what we did.
We were lucky to reach there just before the place opened, considering that they were closed most of the time during the holiday season. We were settling ourselves in the cosy bar with our drinks when I observed a couple of books hung with strings on the wall next to a laminated newspaper clipping. The clipping had a picture of a familiar looking elderly man holding up a book next to a young woman. It was a report about a local hotelier who had written two books for kids. He had just penned down a story revolving around their pet hound, which he used to narrate to his daughter at bedtime. Now the little girl was a yound woman, and the story was into the second book, part of an intended trilogy. And the man in the picture, I realised, was the same one who had just poured me my guinness.
Excited, I called my daughter over, and she immediately settled down to read the book, which was left there for just that purpose. The story was set in these parts of the highlands and it involved the lore of Rob Roy. It even had a sketch of Rob Roy's grave done by the author, my daughter pointed out excitedly. As I sipped my drink and glanced at my little girl, immersed in her reading, the import of the moment hit me. Rob Roy was captivating her in exactly the same way that he had captured the imagination of a young boy many years back. The warmth of the fire place filled me up as I felt like I had just discovered El Dorado, or Utopia...or both.

Highland Serendipity II

Hungry as we were, late afternoon on the second day of our trip, we didn't stop at just any place. We wanted to eat some place that was local, very Scottish. On the road from Drumnadrochit to Inverness, we drove past this place, and then something made us take a U-turn. Thank God!

The small little joint was absolutely amazing. Run by a couple, the wife is the chef and the husband serves, the place had cosy interiors and a great feel about it.

And the food was absolutely delicious!

As we were leaving, extremely pleased at our find, I mentioned to the chef how we did not stop any place else as we wanted to eat at a traditional Scottish place. With a smile, and just a tinge of pride, she told me that we were really lucky as this was the only original Scottish restaurant in the entire highlands. When I calculated the odds, the only word that came to my mind was 'Serendipity'! But then, for the traveller who travels with an open mind, every moment is serendipitous. And thus, repetitive, for one who travels a lot and yet manages to keep an open mind. That brings me back to my original question - is there another word?

Friday, 16 November 2007

Paris in December

I have decided that I shall add to this blog whatever I end up writing every once in a while. What follows is an adaptation of what I wrote to a friend who asked for pointers on travelling France in December. Since I was in fact in Paris last December, I allowed myself to re-live the moment...

Paris in December. The clichéd city of romance obviously earned its reputation all year through - but it was hardened in gold in the month of December. The gentle chill in the air, the playful sun, the fantastic lights and the enthralling beauty of the city conspire to make you want to fall in love. Ah! I forgot the Wine!! It puts a song in your heart and a spring in your step. You cant but help reach out and hold someone tight against you. And believe me, at that moment you never want to let go...So be careful whom you travel with!

Stay near the Montmarte - some very cheap and interesting accomodation there, overlooked by the majestic Basilique du Sacré-Cœur. This is my favourite part of Paris. I was there with a dear friend and we both wanted to stay in this lovely part of Paris. So we reached there as the sun was setting, armed with our lonely planet. We tried a number of cheap hostels and found them surprisingly full. Paris is busy all year through, we were to discover... The charm of backpacking is to land up in a city with no place to go. No reservations, no plans. Just a whim - we have to stay in Montmarte! Finally, after a lot of cheerful but negative encounters with hostel clerks we found ourselves in Hotel Saint Pierre, very close to Metro Anvers. A very old man was at the desk of a very old looking hotel. Family run, said the Lonely Planet. My friend spoke excellent french, which took the suspicious old man completely by surprise - especially since I had 'outsider' written all over me! He had no chance - the shock combined with the charm attack that my friend subjected him to, had him completely infatuated. Not only did we get a room but we got it for cheaper than all the cheap hostels we had visited earlier! We dumped our bags and rushed to climb the mount of Sacré-Cœur. At night, you miss the crowds and also get a spectacular view of the city lights. Remember to be there at the start of the hour - because at every hour the Eiffel Tower starts shimmering, as if being hit by a meteor shower of sparkling diamonds. Amazing!

Explore the various streets around Sacré-Cœur- have breakfast at a classic cafe run by a Daliesque eccentric gentleman whose one morning was ruined by me spilling water all over his clean floor. You can buy croissants from a nearby boulangerie and get into this cafe and order a heavenly cup of coffee and spend time admiring the various funny curios on his walls and shelfs. Regulars will stream in, nodding a good morning, and activating a talking fish curio on the window sill! Later as we were exploring the streets, we found ourselves besides the same cafe, and on it's wall was a list of celebrities that have patronised the place. It was also a place where some movie was shot...I forget which.

Dont forget to visit a small vineyard behind the Sacré-Cœur - the only vineyard in the heart of Paris!! Much later I actually met a woman who had tried the wine - she knew a family that owned just two bushes in the yard and they get a complimentary bottle or two every year- and she says it is pretty good. :)

Walk the Latin Quarters - the initial streets you encounter are the tourist trap - go beyond that - and you are in another magical part of Paris. Spend a late afternoon in one of the small squares, sitting on the terrace- sipping wine- allowing it to get dark. Then you shall see the christmas lights emerge like stars - lovely! Pretend to be a wine connoisseur and strike a conversation with one of the ladies in the many wine shops. Tell her how bored of Bordeaux you are - and see her light up- and revel in her accent as she lets her passion flow...

Well - that's Paris, just a little off the main touristy track, but I feel the first time visitor has to do all the touristy things too - which are not to be missed - make no mistake!

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Norge III: Route 55

Lom is a pretty town, set in the picturesque Ottadalen valley, with a raging river running through the centre. We stopped there for some coffee and cinnamon buns. We walked around a bit to take in the stave church, one of the few original ones surviving in Norway. The one we'd seen the day earlier was a restored church.

Lom is the gateway to the Jotunheimen, a mountainous area which forms part of the larger Scandinavian Mountain range. The name literally means the abode of giants, extremely apt, considering that 26 of the highest mountain peaks in Norway are found here. Route 55 starts at Lom and then goes through another adjacent valley which climbs gently till it meets the high peaks of the Jotunheimen. Thereafter, the road cuts across the mountains and then descends dramatically towards the Sognefjord. Superlatives abound for describing this route - Norway's first national scenic route, the highest mountain pass in Northern Europe, the most beautiful bike ride in the world etc. Well, let me tell you, none of them is even a wee bit off the mark and even though I was not on a bike - the beauty was still intact.

We drove along a river in a valley for sometime before coming to a halt near a huge column. The Sagasøyla or the Saga Column, standing 108 feet above the ground level is a memorial celebrating the Norwegian Constitution. It was initially intended to be placed by the Parliament in Oslo. Interrupted by the Second World War and later political disagreements the memorial languished in storage, incomplete and without a place to show off its magnificence. The matter was only resolved a couple of decades later when a gentleman named Elvesæter managed to set it up in its preset location with the same name. This name had a connection with my travel partner too as she informed me that their surname was derived from this name and they trace their roots to this area.

We resumed driving and a little ahead at a place called Galdesanden, turned off the road to take the narrow asphalt road that would take us to within 5 kilometers of Galdhøpiggen, the highest peak in Northern Europe (2469m). We drove for about 14 km into the mountain range till we reached the Juvasshytta Lodge, a summer ski resort as well as the base for scaling the Galdhøpiggen. At 1850m, this was the highest point that we were going to reach on this trip.

We returned to route 55 and continued our drive, through some of the most breath taking landscapes. We stopped for coffee, taking pictures and snowfights along the way and crossed Fantesteinen, at 1434m, the highest pass. The snow was packed high on both sides of the road even in peak summer!

After driving along the most undulating road ever, we started the descent to Sogn og Fjordane – the fjord country!! Route 55 ends at Gaupne, in Luster municipality. What was incredible was that in just a matter of hours I would be moving from an active ski resort and wading in a fjord in the glorious Scandinavian summer!

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Norge II: The Road to Inspiration

Finally the day arrived to begin the part of the trip I was most excited about. The road trip to Sognefjorden! We took the E6, that runs from the absolute north of Norway through Trondheim to the south-west of Sweden till Malmo, and headed south. The route plan was to continue on the E6 till a place called Otta, turn right onto Route 15 till a place called Lom and then get onto the awe inspiring Route 55. Though it is not publicised as such, the journey till Lom turned out to be a great introduction to Norwegian literature for me! Soon as we left Trondheim we were to cross the Dovrefjell or the Dovre mountain range. This brought us into the Gudbrandsdalen valley. We were driving through really breathtaking landscape consisting of undulating grasslands fringed with snow covered mountains. My friend told me that this was the area where Peer Gynt the eponymous hero of the Henrik Ibsen play had his (mis)adventures with the mythical trolls. Ibsen had been inspired by his travels on the very route we were taking, and it wasn’t hard to imagine why. The importance of trolls in Norse folklore was evident in the numerous statues, dolls and paintings that one saw everywhere. The region is a protected wildlife sanctuary which boasts of herds of Reindeer and Muskus, the Musk Oxen, roaming freely there. We stopped at a small museum depicting a Sami settlement. The Samis are the indigenous people inhabiting the north of Scandinavia across Norway and Sweden. There I saw a reindeer, which was good, because I was not to see any in the wild.
At Sel, we went off the road to go to the Jørundgard Medieval Center, a reconstruction of a medieval farm which has a special literary significance. It was the setting for the Nobel prize winning author (1928) Sigrid Undset’s novel ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’. There was a festive air about the place and we realized that there was some event on. On enquiry, we found out that there was to be a stage performance of one of Undset’s works later in the evening. My friend was pretty excited as she spotted quite a few film and theatre celebrities in the crowd. Since the performance was only later in the evening we decided to give it a miss and move on.
We took frequent breaks to just step out and breathe in the crisp mountain air. I had to regularly take deep breaths to just come to term with the fact that I was in Norway, and the view around me was for real. It just felt so unreal, so beautiful. To be surrounded by vast expanses of nature at its brilliant best, wow!
We left the E6 behind at a place called Otta, claiming to be the city with the lowest population in the world! That’s one record India is not going to claim in a hurry! Now we were on the road less travelled. Not that the E6 was very crowded, but this was even less used. Bliss! Had we continued straight on the E6 we would have passed near the village of Kvikne, the birthplace of Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, another Nobel prize winning author (1903). Like Tagore did for India, he is celebrated for writing the lyrics of the Norwegian national anthem. But we turned into Route 15 and hit the birth place of another Nobel laureate! How can a region so small, produce and inspire so many great writers? That was all I could ask myself as I looked around myself in amazement. We were halting for the night at a place called Vågå, the birthplace of Knut Hamsun, the winner in 1920. If Ibsen is regarded as the ‘father of modern drama’, Hamsun is widely considered to be the ‘father of modern literature’. This trip was turning out to be truly inspirational. I decided that someday I will do this again, with my daughter.
We dumped our stuff at the camping ground that we were staying in and walked into town for supper. On the way we visited the old wooded ‘Stave Church’ dating back to 1150 AD. The influence of the seafaring Vikings was clearly evident in the architecture of the church, with the roof designed something like a ship’s prow.
The next day we set out early towards Lom. Short of the town we stopped to visit the cottage where Knut Hamsun had spent his childhood. It was under renovation and was striking only by the fact that it was really small! Not small enough to reign in his imagination evidently. Hamsun had a weird position in Norwegian history. Though celebrated before the Second World War, he lost a lot of popularity during the war as he was a German supporter and a strong critic of British Imperialism. With the painful memories of the German occupation slowly receding in public memory, there seems to be a gradual revival in his popularity. After spending some time chatting with the lady responsible for the cottage, her grandson and their dog, we headed for Lom. That’s where we were to hit Route 55, the highest road in Northern Europe “high in the mountains among glaciers and sharp peaks”.

Norge I: Uppsala to Trondheim

So here I was in Uppsala, my semester there was over and most of my friends had already left. It was the beginning of summer and after spending the winter there I decided that I deserved to spend some time in the awesome Scandinavian summer. The ostentatious motive was to use the excellent university library housed in the beautiful Carlolina Redviva building and work on my master thesis. However I found myself stricken by a twin attack of writer's block and wanderlust. Not many have survived that. I was no exception. That is how I found myself Norway bound.
The plan was to catch a train to Trondheim to meet a friend. She had a car, which we were to use to drive south on the amazing Route 55 to the village Sogndal on the banks of Sognefjorden, the second largest fjord in the world. The largest is somewhere in Greenland. Thereafter I was on my own, and had to somehow find my way to Oslo and then return to Uppsala via Stockholm. I hadn't quite decided how I would do that.

For the first leg of my journey I caught a train to Sundsvall, in central Sweden, a city with a habit of burning down regularly. Apparently it has been rebuilt four times already. I had a couple of hours there before I caught a connection to Trondheim via Östersund. I spent that walking around the city centre. I was quite amused to find various sculptures of what appeared to be a flying dragon scattered all along the city centre. Apparently the work of some local artist. (See http://maxmagnusnorman.com/artist_blog/art_day_338.shtml ) I later learnt that their basketball team is called the Sundsvall Dragons, don't know if there is a connection!

The journey from Sundsvall to Trondheim literally takes you through hell. Well, that's what a railway station in Norway is called - Hell! The views though remind you of paradise. Especially as you near Trondheim and get your first glimpse of the fjords. Breathtaking! I reached Trondheim in the evening, but it was still bright. I had to remind myself that I was in the heart of the land of the midnight sun. My friend was there to receive me at the station and looked approvingly at my small backpack. I realised why when I saw the car she was driving, it was one of those miniature electric 'smartcars'! We would use a bigger car for the road trip she assured me.

Trondheim is a beautiful city in central Norway. My friend lived across the old town bridge on a small hill overlooking the city. This hill also has the distinction of having the only bicycle lift in the world! Known as the Trampe (tramp) bicycle lift, it can be operated by a keycard to go uphill with your bicycle. You have to stay mounted on your bike, keep your left foot on the pedal and your right foot rests on a footplate at the start point. The footplate moves along a railing and as a result pushes you and your bike up the hill. It took me a couple of attempts to master the art of hanging on when I tried it out. Keycards can be rented by tourists like me to get a feel of how the students commute in Trondheim. It costs about a 100 kroners.

The imposing Nidaros Cathedral dominates the city. Built in the Romanesque and Gothic styles it is considered the most important cathedral in Norway. I was particularly impressed by the church organs there. One can see the thousands of pipes housed in the high reaches of the cathedral. Luckily for us there was an organ concert on when we visited the cathedral and the acoustics were just spellbinding.

Spent two days walking around in Trondheim, which my friend informed me was more than enough. I managed to visit a brewpub called the Trondhjem Mikrobryggeri (Trondheim Microbrewery) where I tried out their seven different brews served in 100ml sampling glasses. Yum! Missed going into another great pub called the Den Gode Nabo (The Good Neighbour), though it was actually very close to my friends place near the old town bridge. Apparently they stock the Nøgne Ø, which I would go crazy searching for in Oslo. But that is another story...