Are you fired up for lively, lovable and laid-back Lisbon?

Feel the vivacious vibe of Portugal’s capital…

If you’re arriving in Lisbon from South Portugal by coach like us, you will probably be riding the cable-stayed 17 km long Vasco Da Gama bridge straddling the Tagus River. While you make a mental note of the fact that you’re on the longest bridge in Europe, are you unconsciously cooking up an image of Portugal’s capital? Don’t do it…let it reveal itself in all its glory!

One of Europe’s most under-hyped destinations will exceed your expectations by far. Bonus: what you see is what you get. Lisbon is an open book. Whether you stay a day or a week, you’ll go back with the same first impression. Large public squares, hidden back-alleys or Alfama’s delightful maze, the city’s inimitable character manifests itself unrestrained everywhere. You will stumble upon it through dark crevices of buildings and you will stare at on sunny patios open to the blue skies. One word says it all. Unpretentious.

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Lisbon is lively

An uninhibited and expressive persona reflects in the cheerful colors of her elegant residential buildings. Sky’s the limit with dusky pink, sunflower yellow, sage green, blush peach, aqua blue, apricot orange. French windows and delicate iron-grille balconies to complete the look. An inexplicable harmony, despite the seemingly adhoc mix-match. Which facade is your favorite?

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More color inspiration? Unleash yourself in the mosaic of the city with an Azulejo (glazed tiles) hunt. Walls, floors and steps, street signs, house numbers, and store names are adorned with an unimaginable array of intricate patterns and symbols celebrating life, nature, religion and history, in 2-D and 3-D. Don’t forget to take home a souvenir of this 15th century import of the Moors, now a sophisticated art form and an iconic part of Lisbon’s culture.

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The walls may be gorgeous, but don’t forget to look down for one more Lisbon treasure…its stunning stone carpets (Calcada). Squares, sidewalks and miradouros (viewpoints) are embellished with beautiful patchwork of limestone (white) and basalt (black). Trace out marine motifs like caravels, compass, shells, fish, ocean waves and ships apart from flowers, stars and other Moorish geometric patters. Starting with the São Jorge Castle and the Rossio Square in the early 19th-century, Calcada spread to other parts of the country and even to Portuguese colonies like Brazil, Macau, Malacca, Malaysia and India. Sadly, its now a dying art form since it is very laborious, rare and expensive, and the surface gets slippery when it rains. No deterrent for the local ladies in stilettos. Just saying…

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Lisbon is lovable 

You see it in the bonhomie of people on the streets. Stopping on the sidewalk to exchange friendly pleasantries. Greeting you with a cheerful smile as you pass by. Calling out to advertise their roasted chestnuts or umbrellas. Conversing unabashedly in loud voices. Joyously cheering for a solo street performer. Making place for you to squeeze into the crowded Tram 28. Giving you a warm, genuine compliment. Feel like a local already?

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Lisbon is laid-back

Relaxed, casual and informal, irrespective of oodles of grandeur. Extraordinary examples of Manueline architecture. Ornate monuments glorifying historical discoverers. A massive 11-century hilltop Moorish castle with commanding views over the city. Huge public squares with elaborate statues and fountains. Majestic arcaded corridors that go on and on. And unbelievably ostentatious gold-laden cathedrals that would make you wear shades.

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The city is glamorous, but in a gritty kind of way. Resplendent, but with hints of rustic. Graceful and grimy at the same time…if you know what I mean. The grand buildings exude an element of magnum opus. Lisbon lacks the sleekness and sophistication, polish and élan so characteristic of a European city like Berlin, Paris, Geneva or Amsterdam. A handful of abandoned, crumbling buildings, a few cracked glass windows, a tattered curtain or two, chipped paint, exposed brickwork. Okay, okay, its not immaculate, but that’s its unique brand of charm. Imperfectly perfect!

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You need to risk a dangerous road for this ethereal vision. Game?

One of India’s highest glacial lakes…

From your tiny window on the plane, peer out far in the distance; till your vision hits that wall of white…the mighty Himalayas clad in snow…across the entire horizon as far as you can see. Somewhere in this 2400 km long ‘Abode of Snow’ is the Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak…try spotting it. 

Courtesy: Wikipedia

Siliguri city is a missable airport stop, but once you start the ascent into the Eastern Himalayan range towards Gangtok, try peeling your eyes off the landscape. The tree cover gets taller and thicker along the gently winding uphill road that affords unceasing views of peaks and valleys. River Teesta transforms from a gentle, gurgling stream to a wide, foamy river as she freely leaps over rocks and boulders on the way. Vivid wildflowers, 200-feet tall bamboos, huge ferns and palms, drooping cypresses, tree trunks adorned with soft moss…its a green paradise. Open the window of your car, let the cool breeze mess up your hair and try not to blink…you don’t want to miss even a second of the three-hour journey. 

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Arriving at Gangtok (meaning flat hill), you realize how aptly it has been named. Any other urbanised town, with modern amenities, restaurants and cafes, sans the traditional prettiness of a hill station. For now, head straight for your hotel…lovelier sights await.

Next day, after basking in the glory of a spectacular 5 am sunrise and a leisurely breakfast in the lap of nature, depart for a day trip to Tsamgo Lake, one of the highest glacial lakes in India. Located 12500 ft above sea level, its just 35 kilometers away, yet it takes over three hours of expert driving. The greenery of the flora adding freshness to the quiet majesty of the mountains. Tiny cars in the distance on the narrow road ahead, emerging from the thick foliage, then disappearing around the bend. Makeshift steps leading to a modest roadside temple, where multi-colored Buddhist prayer flags flutter. Army barracks, bunkers and military posts with green tin roofs that blend in with the environs. Peaky mountain silhouettes all around…so lofty, that you’re overcome by a deep sense of humility. 

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Narrower roads and steeper bends now. Zigzagging roads up hairpin bends, dizzying and steepest possible cliff edges. Buckle up! And have faith in the skills of your driver. Focus on the spellbinding sights instead, as the car climbs feet after feet. Feel the chill in the air and get dreamy-eyed as the floating clouds block your vision of the dark rocky mountains. At one stretch for a few kilometres, the road takes on a treacherous complexion. It is barely 10 feet wide here, with the open end uneven and rocky, mud and slush from the rains make you clutch your door handle. You’re hoping no car is coming from the opposite direction. A trail of loose boulders…reminders of a few recent landslides. Road repairs on the way, rescue bulldozers of the Border Road Organization, a stranded car or two. And then, first glimpses of snow!

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Finally, the last bad stretch is behind you, you can breathe again. You’ve arrived! Tsamgo Lake, pristine and still, blue as blue can be. Limpid and translucent, almost ripple-free. Surrounded entirely by snow-clad mountains standing silent and splendid since centuries, their reflection mirrored in the lake below. Untouched and pure, silent and royal, beckoning and inaccessible. Don’t walk up to it just yet. Just stand there and pinch yourself. It really is real! 

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Frolic in the snow, take an awkward walk, make fat snowmen, throw snowballs. If you lose your balance and fall, take advantage of it…lie there for a few minutes on the cold carpet that spreads out for miles and miles. Pure and dazzling white. Hear the sound of your own heartbeat, because there is not even a chirping of birds to break the peace. Just a lazybones yak, who refuses to budge or blink. Contemplate the serene beauty of the environs. Freeze the memories to survive your return to city life.

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That adorable, offbeat Tuscan town you need to see

One wall, 100 churches and countless brick homes…

A short 30-minutes train ride from touristy Pisa lies a lesser-known, surprising little Tuscan town. An important Latin settlement since 180 BC. Remarkably well-preserved. Dripping with atmosphere. Quietly redefining picturesque. Entirely car-free. And just 90,000 locals. Love Lucca. There’s no way not to!

One wall

You see it as you walk across from the train station, but you don’t realise the gigantic proportions even after you’re on it. Only an aerial view can do it complete justice. A massive 16th-century brick wall designed by Leonardo Da Vinci, four kilometres in perimeter, 12 metres high, 60-feet wide, circling an entire medieval city, seven grand gates and eleven impressive bastions at regular intervals. Hold on…this is no ordinary fortified wall guarding the city. In its new 19th-century avatar, its a massive park!

Lucca walls

Under the benevolent shade of rows of centuries-old plane, lime, ilex and chestnut trees, smiling bikers, fitness freaks, book readers, dog walkers and doting couples all find their own spot of heaven. Stroll along and take in the sublime views of the city below. Through the simple symphony of the crunching leaves, the delicate breeze blowing your hair across your eyes, and lungfuls of fresh Tuscan air, marvel at the irony of it all. A leftover of turbulent times…now a haven of tranquillity! War to peace, they’ve conquered all.

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100 churches

Its a feast for the eyes…this ‘city of a hundred churches”, as it is tagged because of many ornate Romanesque churches built to proclaim its wealth and importance during the 12th-13th century. Maybe not 100, but I strongly urge you to visit the three most striking ones, all of which have attached brick bell towers. The 14-century Lucca Cathedral (Duomo di San Martino), in the main Piazza San Martino is a marvel of stone and marble with its triple arched exterior and lace-bordered scallops on the upper balconies. Inside, study the many works of art, including the treasured Volto Santo, an ancient cedar crucifix and Christ, the midnight blue-starry frescoed ceiling and the ornate, gilded octagonal temple.

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A ceiling to look up to

The second one, also in dazzling white is the Saint Michael’s Church, which dominates the wide open Piazza San Michele. Intricate lacy scallops again. This 16th-century wonder has a huge statue of the archangel Michael crowning the gable. Zoom in to see his blue eyes. And the third one you mustn’t miss is Frediano’s Church, dedicated to an Irish pilgrim monk. The most modest facade of the three, but an impressive feature of its own…a large, glittering gold-and-blue mosaic of Christ. Notice the angels with the twelve apostles in a row underneath.

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Source: Wikipedia
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Glorious mosaic artwork
And countless brick homes

Cycle away to your heart’s content or just exercise those legs of yours along the delightful streets of Lucca, staring at every inch until your eyes give up on you. World-class artwork, jaw-dropping monuments…nope. Authentic Gothic-Renaissance styled historical buildings, pretty churches, romantic piazzas, lovely museums and everyday exotic…yes, yes, and yes. Despite a grid plan of cardo (narrow streets from north to south) and decumano (wider streets from west to east), the city is a veritable maze. Wander. Get lost. And go berserk taking endless perfect Tuscan pictures. This is the home of composer Giacomo Puccini…don’t you feel your heart singing?

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Aim for aimlessness
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Quintessentially Lucca
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Feeling the urge to bike yet?
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Vino, anyone?
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Charming arched corridors
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A not-so-plain bedroom view

Find the two iconic stone-and-brick medieval towers. The first is the 44.25 metres high Torre Guinigi, sporting a hanging garden on its crown. This used to be part of a group of mansions and four towers belonging to the most important family of the city, the Guinigi. Climb for the gorgeous views. The other is Torre delle Ore, the 50 meter high clock tower from the middle ages. Still works. Like clockwork.

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Towering heights
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Steps to the skies?

And finally, to the most delightful spot in town… Piazza Anfiteatro. A small oval piazza with arched entrances in four directions, lined with flower-laden cafes and shaded bars, quaint boutiques, walled in by surrounding houses. Brace yourself…this was once a two-level Roman amphitheatre that accommodated as many as 10,000 spectators. And now, Lucca’s prime property (the houses don’t look that glamorous). Gladiators have given way to international concerts. Now that’s a makeover story.

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Amphitheatre no more
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Less affordable than you imagine

When you’ve explored to your heart’s content, make your way to the main street, Via Fillungo. Sample ‘Buccellato’, the typical local cake or shop for or buy that local specialty, Biscotti di Prato…sweet, crunchy and almondy, yummy. Grab a chair on the sunny pavement of a traditional cafe. Order Italian coffee, a sandwich and a luscious dessert. Drown in the soft chatter. Drink the atmosphere. Send a mail to your boss that you’re giving up your job and moving to Lucca. Tell me that thought didn’t cross your mind.

Lunch in the sun

Soak in the most stunning Austrian countryside ever

And also relive your ‘Sound of Music’ memories…

Your inspiration for visiting Salzburg may not be ‘Sound of Music’ (one of the world’s best-loved movies shot in and around here). But you can’t resist total recall, because all over this picturesque Austrian town, there are posters of ‘Sound of Music’ excursions that will appeal to the ‘classic movie’ lover in you. All this hype is more than justified…after all, the blockbuster grossed more money than any musical in history and even bagged five Oscars! Not only is it a fun opportunity to relive scenes and locations of the song-and-dance sequences starring Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and seven chirpy children…but a fabulous way to soak in the stunning Austrian countryside. So, are you in?

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