Why you need to get to the adorable German town of Heidelberg!

Blend into the old square of Heidelberg…

You’ve started on a high note. Peak high. A ride on one of the most scenic train journeys in Europe stretching from Cologne to Heidelberg. Your mind is resonating with the sensory explosion, courtesy the Rhine river valley panorama. Little towns with tiny German houses, pointy old churches and broken medieval stone fortresses from Roman times. Hills rich with lush foliage, rolling vineyards, landscaped terraces and curvy roads kissing the gushing river that sparkles with the rays of sun. And you’re contemplating a strange paradox. In the birthplace of cuckoo clocks where keeping time is everything, how does time manage to stand so still? As if the journey wasn’t magical enough, you land in one of Deutschland’s most adorable towns…Heidelberg. Three million tourists a year. But why should statistics give anyone nightmares?

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First, find a hideout

Someplace quiet, someplace nice, someplace pretty, don’t think twice. Check into Hotel Villa Marstall….its a a small boutique hotel with 18 rooms and minimal staff. Views of the Neckar river adorned with its quaint old wooden arched bridge from some windows. Few minutes walk from the old town. And breakfast in stone cellars. Jackpot! Lights out at the front desk when the clock strikes 8 pm. No reason to panic…its not a dorm. The main entrance locks up early, but you can let yourself in with the room swipe card. How’s that for a touch of home?

Head for Marktplatz

Barely five minutes of walk and you’re setting foot on the cobblestones of Marketplatz, the pulse of Heidelberg’s historical city center, Altstadt. The display boards tell all…the square layout, its landmarks and their historical significance. This has been the town’s hub since Middle Ages, not just for markets, but for all public proceedings…good, bad, and ugly, including beheadings, tortures and witch burnings. But that was then. Gory has now given way to glory, but the ancient tradition of people gathering continues. Before you even realise it, you’ve blended in seamlessly. As if you were always part of its throbbing canvas of life. Feel it.

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Savour sweetness

Pretty old buildings in soft lemon, cream, peach and teal colours line the square on three sides. The tall and narrow facades with gabled roofs are evenly and tightly packed together, their windows cheerfully brightened with colourful petunias and geraniums. At floor level, an array of cafes or shops sell local produce, candles, clothing, beer mugs and decorations. Stroll in and out of the inviting doorways, walking into an odd art gallery or a music shop. Pick up something local…like a dozen assorted schneeballen (they last up to a few weeks)…large tennis-ball shaped pastry, deep-fried and dusted with powdered sugar, chocolate, cinnamon, nuts, caramel and even champagne. (Know more about the schneeballen) Does the store owner stay in the quaint house above…and had it been his family home since centuries, you muse while he packs your purchase into a crunchy white paper bag. It feels inconveniently sized and hard…how on earth do you bite into one of these? Only one way to find out!

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Trace eternity

Stop at one of the most photographed buildings in the square and step back in time. The iconic Ritter Hotel is the only original 17th century house that exists in the town today. It had even served as a temporary town hall when the Town Hall was destroyed in 1693. Talk about survival! While taking several pictures of the brown sandstone facade, renaissance-era columns and the carved figures, notice the inscription on the front “Persta invicta, Venus” (Remain Forever Unconquered, Beauty). Indeed, the elegant building constructed by a French cloth dealer had retained its charm over centuries.

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Shop at the Church

The limelight of the square? Clearly the odd-shaped, 600-year old Gothic-styled Heiliggeistkirche (Church of the Holy Spirit). You need to take a circle around its almost 60 meters long and 20 meters wide perimeter to familiarise yourself with the unique structure of this red sandstone building. That baroque roof was added later to replace the one that burned down…can you believe it? Soak in the salmon coloured interior, tall columns, high ceilings, and pretty patterned windows. Wonder about the wall that once split the space into two halves – Catholic and Protestant. Unusual is the word for it. The 15th-century tomb of the church’s founder, King Ruprecht I, and his wife, Elizabeth, their carved likenesses still distinct, are preserved inside. But the strangest element is the circle of tented stalls outside the church walls, sandwiched cosily between its buttresses, selling everything but religious souvenirs! Indulge yourself…go shopping at the Church. 

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Debate life sentences

At the left end of the Marketplatz, near the 18th century baroque style Town Hall (Rathaus) with its bell tower, balconies, dormer windows, arched entryways and a colourful coat of arms, is another interesting structure. The large Hercules fountain statue is a favorite resting place for people to catch their breath. Now chew on this. In medieval times, criminals were chained here and left to take their last breaths! How ironical is that?

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Munch on lunch

Despite the astounding buzz of activity, there’s something utterly enjoyable about Heidelberg’s Marktplatz. Intelligently designed layout, maybe? Because you never have a full view of the whole square from any angle. Lunch on your mind? Grab the last free outdoor table at a busy corner bistro before hunger pangs get the better of you. German meals can wait for later. Large helpings of hearty tomato soup, garnished with big dollops of cream? Thinnest, crunchiest pizza served on a rustic wood plate? Sure! Sounds of the organ waft from the Church, chimes sound from the Town Hall bell tower and a street musician strums Bach on his violin. Music is all around and you heart is singing. If your instinct tells you that Heidelberg will go down your memory lane as one of the loveliest places you have visited, believe it. Fuel up and get ready to conquer the map. You’ve barely scratched the surface. The whole town is waiting to be discovered. Including the Heidelberg castle on the hill with views to kill for.

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To be continued…

 

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Blend into the old square of Heidelberg, one of the most adorable towns in Germany #germany #medieval town #german town #heidelberg

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What I really gained in my second year of travel blogging

Making Year 2 of travel blogging a breeze…

January 2018 was devoted to positive plans. March 2018 was centred around picky possibilities. But by May 2018, as the countdown to my second blogeversary (and coincidentally my 100th blog post) started, I was slipping into a whirlpool of diabolic doubts. Four and a half months to go, and all I had to my credit were ‘minor milestones’ (ok, not so minor brand collaborations). I could feel a sense of urgency haunting me night and day. How was my Year 2 of travel blogging going to be bigger, bolder, brighter than Year 1?

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Conspiracy theory

All was not lost. June-July delivered a series of pleasant surprises. A Sunshine Blogger Award dropped into my inbox. My blog was listed in the IndianTopBlogs. Massive viral-like traffic came from unexpected sources, pushing my current 6-months stats higher than the entire last-year total! Incredible India shared some of my posts on social media and published my article on Meghalaya on their newly revamped website. And just a week short of my second blogeversary, AirVistara carried my article on Salzburg in their in-flight magazine. Phew!

Was the universe conspiring to create happy twists and turns in my favour. Was it the result of my extra vigil for any possible opportunity and persistent follow-ups on every connect? Or a mix of both? Either way, all the gifts that had got delayed in the mail were being delivered one after another. I was finally listing a chain of ‘major milestones’ that had been eluding me. Can you feel vindicated, excited, relieved and ecstatic at the same time? Yes, yes, yes and yes. Suddenly…an epiphany! No undermining the ‘major milestones’, but there was something more intrinsic that had pushed Year 2 higher than Year 1. Much like the first year of trial-and-error, year 2 was packed with conscious choices and priceless learnings. Introspection time then. Three takeaways…

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1. BIGGER by choosing to say more of ‘no’: Year 1 is all about gluttony, isn’t it? You’re grabbing every promotion thread you can lay your eyes on, working compulsively for 10 hours daily, 7 days a week, pouncing like a hungry lion at every social media window that dares to cross your line of vision. Chasing every beep, tracking each notification. Crazy routine and never-ending flood of interactions, all justified in your adrenaline-pumped blogger psyche as necessary evils to contend with, till your eyes pop out of their sockets at the end of yet another luminosity-screened day. By Year 2, you’ve slogged enough to be able to afford more of ‘no’. You make choices. To sift the essential from the excesses. To allocate specific days and time slots for promotion. And to ban them from creeping into your writing schedule. You say ‘No’ to the green-eyed greedy monster.

No prizes for guessing the results. Actual blog writing gets the bigger share of the pie. Working smarter makes time for more writing, more quality writing and more peace of mind for quality writing. And the traffic? Unaffected. With the right choices you lose nothing. Except the garbage.

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2. BOLDER by choosing to know what to say: The more you read other people’s travel stories, the more you get influenced by them. Correction! The more you read other people’s travel stories, the more you become sure of how to position your own content. Like my niece’s fave quote…“No one ever made a difference by being like someone else”. My game plan? Using an extra day (or two) to arrive at the central idea of each blog post. With an added bonus…more blog loving. Comparing Klimt with Mucha or exploring the hidden blueprint behind Hindu temple architecture spiked up my right-brain way longer than a traffic spike could. 

Expert travel bloggers advice you to find a niche to stand out from amongst millions of travel blogs. Translation…get bolder, unafraid. How exactly? Quit looking for guide books, tips and tutorials, because no one has your answer, except you. Now I know why they recommend you to ‘write for yourself’. Preferably using the tone and expressions that make you ‘you’.

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3. BRIGHTER by choosing to write first, edit later: The mantra of every writing wizard. And now mine too: ’Write first, edit later’. Yeah right, if only it were that simple. Actually…it is! Its a lot like living in the moment. Enjoying the raw, bumpy ride of the words filling up the screen, instead of visualising the last sentence. Forgetting the language, ignoring the expression, skipping the perfect synonym. Expressing the essence of the thoughts that are brimming in your mind. Sketching out that first rough skeleton. Undone. Incomplete. No one is watching you while you type in the first draft, so how does it matter if its not immaculately worded? Chances are you’re not a fan of it yet. But keep your inner editor nazi at bay, no matter how strong the itch to interfere is. Save the fancy trimming for later. (Preamble: It is important be master of Point 1 first.)

Rewriting the second draft is a cakewalk and the third will probably take a few minutes. Effectively, it calls for practice in wearing two separate hats, one at a time…writer first, editor later. Guaranteed to lead time by half. 

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Chalking out my own unique

What’s a breeze for one, may be a lull for another. My secret formula during my second year of travel blogging has been to decide my own tempo, goals and milestones and to stop being pressured by trends. Travel blogging is as personal as my thoughts. And that’s how my path has to be. Unique. One-of-a-kind.

 

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Making Year 2 of travel blogging can be a breeze with the right choices based on one's own tempo, goals and milestones. #travelblogging #travelwriting #blogeversary #travelbloggingtips #travelbloggingadvice

Why you need to decode the celebrated Sun Temple of Modhera?

Amateur guide to deconstructing Hindu temples…

The common denominating factor binding ancient civilisations of Egyptians, Mayans, Greeks, Romans, Chinese and Indians? Temples! But beyond the structural ingenuity and fine craftsmanship of temple architecture lies a deeper science (read common blueprint) alien to the amateur eye. Especially in Hindu temples…where astronomy, astrology, mathematics and metaphysics come together in an enigmatic formula. Know one and you will know all. Ready to break the code?

Its a baffling array of choices across the Indian sub-continent, so go easy on yourself and pick a region first. Recommendation? The west coast, specifically Gujarat…culturally and architecturally the richest, thanks to a spate of foreign invasions. Fine tuning then. Seek authentic Indian, pre-Mughal. Zoom in on the Solanki period for the most outstanding specimens of Indo-Aryan architecture. The object of affection? Sun Temple of Modhera, an 11th-century creation of Solanki King Bhimdev of the Patan empire. Sun-worshipper? But of course!

Coming to name etymology…Modhera is said to named after the Modh community of Brahmins who helped Lord Rama perform a yagna here. Or would you would rather believe the eerie theory that Modhera translates to ‘mound of the dead’ (multiple layers of civilization)? The Sun Temple of Modhera is a two hours (100km) drive from Gujarat’s capital city, Ahmedabad. Easy-peasy. As far as sun temples go, this one is as good as it gets. Much more impressive than its celebrity counterpart at Konark…and two centuries senior too. Archetypal Solanki, right from the intricately carved stone material to all the structural elements. A time-weathered golden brown stone edifice to stun you into a wide-eyed silence, numb you into a zombie-like stupor. But senses on full alert…tons of decoding ahead!

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Design decoder: Location, location, location

First things first. It all about a sweet spot…banks of a waterbody, a hilltop, a verdant valley or a green grove, even an island…any icon of earthly paradise. Preferred direction? Always east facing or east to west. To face the rising sun. Isn’t it obvious?

So, here’s how Modhera, being a sun temple, fits the mould. For starters, the main entrance of the temple faces east. But there’s more. It sits right on the Tropic of Cancer that passes through India. Lost? Ok, this is how it pans out. On the days of equinoxes, the Tropic of Cancer receives the strongest, direct rays of the sun. Wait, it gets better. The temple is built in a away that the sunlight travels through the entrance arches at such an angle that it hits the main idol in the dark inner shrine far inside, illuminating it with the power of a thousand lightbulbs. 11th-century genius without support of modern astronomical gadgets. Modhera’s homage to the sun continues through the inverted lotus plinth design. Hint: lotus blooms only in the sun. Head nod? 

Design decoder: Concept of cosmos

Pray, worship, serve. Right. But did you know that in its purest sense, the Hindu temple is more than just an abode for the Gods? In the past, it was literally the fulcrum of intellectual, social and artistic life. Part museum, part congregation hall, part learning institution for the community…practically a centre for all-round personal growth. Impressed? That’s not all. As a symbol of the universe, the temple reflected all cosmic elements celebrated in Hinduism, including fire (lighting of oil lamps), water (sprinkled for purity) nature, deities and human life cycle (depicted through sculptures) eternal nothingness (signified by empty space in the shrine) and universality (use of repetitive patterns). 

Modhera is no exception to the rule. Get close enough and each stone, each engraving, each pillar, each ledge will start a conversation. Algorithms will emerge from each inch of the marvellous monument. Study the innumerable stone carvings of exquisite celestial beauties, rejoicing figures, rows of elephants and processions of people celebrating life in all its phases, including birth, war, and death. Discover the nuances trapped in the captivating details…12 different Sun idols for 12 months and 52 intricately carved pillars for each week of the solar year. Look out for repetitive, never-ending themes. Towers surrounded by smaller towers, surrounded by still smaller towers for eight or more levels, each part a miniature image of the whole. Observe the geometric patten leading to the massive Surya Kund (stepwell). Consider its symbolism…every part of the cosmos contains all information about the whole cosmos. Reflect on the mountain-like pyramid-shape of the temple’s Shikhar (spire)…an upward movement towards enlightenment? Cross-eyed, no more.

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Design decoder: Science of building

Whims and fancies don’t stand a chance, considering that traditional Hindu architecture is based on Vastu Shastra (literally ‘science of architecture’) developed way back between 6,000 and 3,000 BC! A human figure sitting inside a square is used as the model for proportions, much like the 15th-century Vitruvian Man of Leonardo de Vinci. The Vastu-based building employs two shapes for design…squares (for order or space) and circles (for time/movement). Further, influence of sun, magnetic fields and gravitational forces are combined to syncing vibrations of individual with built spaces and the universe. Result? Spiritual strength, peace, bliss. No secret sauce, pure science! 

 

Translate this into each of the three distinct parts of Modhera temple. The Surya Kund (stepwell for purification and salutation) is a perfect square. So is the ‘Garbhgriha’ (sanctum sanctorum that once housed the idol made of pure gold and diamonds. Ditto for the clockwise circumambulation path around the shrine and outer wall. On to each pillar and every portico…suits perfectly. What about the octagonal Sabha Mandap (congregation hall)? Look again, isn’t the octagon a variant of the square too?

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Design decoder: Sense of whole

When you’re exhausted from all the heavy analytics, its time to soak in the full splendour of Modhera from an ideal vantage point. Not somewhere high up, but deep into the recesses of the earth. But where? Take the zigzag descent to the bottom of the Surya Kund from any of the four identical sides. Watch the light dance over the shimmering green water. Slip through the shadows of the shrines dedicated to the pantheon of gods. Take a position opposite the pillared portico of the temple and immerse in the stillness. The grandeur is as overwhelming as it is calming. The temple is the entire universe and you have melted into non-existence. Devotees once dipped into these waters before proceeding to the shrine above. Close your eyes and give into the vision…a deep bed of gold coins, a gold and diamond deity of the Sun God, and a brilliant equinox. Suddenly a pigeon flaps past. Ah…rude return to reality!

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Astronomy, astrology, mathematics and metaphysics come together to create an enigmatic formula underlying Indian temples. Sun Temple of Modhera in Gujarat is an outstanding example.

Obidos is one of the most photogenic towns you have ever seen

Obidos, Portugal’s most picturesque town…

Surprise! The wide arch through which you enter the parking lot of Obidos turns out to be part of a 3-km long stone-mortar aqueduct. The rough queue of inverted U’s that make up the ancient structure seem to shorten in height as they stretch far into the distance, farther than your eye can see. You raise an eyebrow and purse your lips, impressed by the impeccable condition of the 16th-century marvel built to transport water to the town.

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These Versailles secrets will make you want to go now!

Getting under the skin of Versailles Palace…

Just 16 kms southwest from Paris, lies possibly one of the most popular, most visited and grandest of all sites in France. Versailles. You’re shaking your head at the prospect of someplace over-crowded and touristy. Well, so is the Vatican. Is that your best reason to skip it altogether? You may say a palace is a palace is a palace. That’s BEFORE you get under its skin. BEFORE you dive deep into its soul. BEFORE you know all the fascinating secrets that make Versailles, Versailles!

Leaving the crazy morning traffic behind, the forested expanse that starts from the outskirts of the French capital will hold you in its embrace all the way till you disembark at the main gates of the Palace at Versailles. The gleaming 24-karat trimmed facade blinds you and the over-the-top extravagant facade dwarfs you into non-existence. Can you believe that this was a simple hunting lodge that Louis XIV, the Sun King had fallen in love with as a young boy. A love intense enough for him to invest 25 years in expanding, embellishing and transforming it into this monumental creation that spreads over 15 acres.

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Your worst nightmares may surface as you move from one crowded room to the other, overflowing with heavy ornamentation, oversized paintings, frescoed ceilings and delicate sculptures. You’re struggling in queues to take pictures. Straining to hear your guide over the noise. But refocus and you’ll be fine. You’re privy to some of the 2,300 rooms where 3,000 to 10,000 courtiers used to be housed and entertained daily. Think rigid etiquette, power play, high intrigue, conspiracies and murder plots. Think sky-high coiffures, priceless jewels, lavish gowns. Think endless card-parties, banquets, and masquerades. Crowd-jostling? Pales in comparison, doesn’t it?

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Unthinkable that a palace as resplendent as Versailles, once used to stink! Blame it on the myth of waterborne diseases. Hundreds of silk-clothed courtiers packed into Versailles doused perfume instead of bathing regularly. All over the palace, several bowls were placed filled with flower petals to sweeten the air; and perfume was sprayed onto furniture. Even the fountain’s water was scented with perfume. The French court was known as the Perfumed Court. If Nina Ricci, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, or Coco Chanel had been supplying perfume bottles to the court, what kind of inventories they would have had?

The most celebrated section of the palace is the Hall of Mirrors where seventeen mirror arches face seventeen huge windows overlooking the park. What a wondrous space it would have been during the balls…20,000 candles and glittering chandeliers transforming it into a 240 feet-long corridor of light. Marvel at the brilliant workmanship of the Venetian glassmakers and think of the scandal shrouding them. Apparently, the French convinced some Venetian artisans to defect and make the mirrors for the great hall. Later, the Venetian government ordered the assassination of the treacherous artisans. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the ugliest of them all??

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Brace yourself for the best part that awaits outside the Palace. The massive Versailles gardens actually need weeks to explore, but stuff in what you can, while you can. Thousands of men, even whole regiments got together to bring the dream of Louis XIV to reality over 40 years. 200,000 trees, 50 fountains, over 200,00 flowers are still planted annually to keep it magnificence intact. The sheer scale of the gardens is jaw-dropping, let alone the beauty of its perfection. Enormous manicured lawns, structured forests, sculptured hedges and topiary cones fill the vision. There are miles of labyrinthine complexity everywhere, punctuated by statues and fountains. Stand facing the grand vista of the sweeping slope down to the mile-long Grand Canal. The stunning Fountain of Apollo glistens in all its gilded splendour.

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On a bright sunny day like today, in the 16th-17th centuries, courtiers would have spilled out on the grounds, mingling and conducting their business dressed in their silk tights, velvet gowns, powdered wigs and high heels. (Men of status sported high heels to look taller). Louis XIV himself was a shoe collector and trend setter and wore his trademark red heels to look taller than his five feet, four inches. In the Grand Canal, Venetian gondoliers would have glided by in gondolas and nobles would have rowed along in boats. Naval demonstrations perhaps? If the King was strolling in the gardens, the fountains would be turned on for his enjoyment as he approached, and switched off when he passed (since there was not enough water for all fountains to work at the same time). Times of royal extravaganza!

Stroll down the long shady avenue to the Grand Trianon, a smaller palace that Louis XIV had built for his mistress Madame de Montespan to escape the pomp and rigid formality of court life. The pink marble facade of the elegantly proportioned, single-storey palace is inviting. Its Italian influenced architecture blends in naturally with the geometrical French-style gardens. Apparently, Napoleon Bonaparte had the palace restored and lived here too, on many occasions with his second wife, the Austria-born Empress Marie-Louise. Can you feel their presence?

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A short walk away, is the Petit Trianon and its park, the personal sanctuary of Queen Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI. Between its artificially created landscapes like the Rock, Snail Mountain and the Grotto, pines, larches, fir trees and junipers, she escaped the rigours of court etiquette. What a life she had, the 14 year-old child empress, once the beloved style icon of France, surrounded by myths and scandals all her life, which ended brutally at a public guillotine. Stare out of her bedroom window at the Temple of the Love with its Corinthian capitals and Cupid statue. No life is ever perfect, is it?

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Move on to the nearby Hamlet, where she re-created charms of country life. Amble along the farm houses, the mill and the big lake, where she enjoyed languorous boat rides and fishing trips with her companions. Peek into the rustic farm houses where she lived with her guests. Vegetable gardens, banisters, wooden staircases, balconies adorned with earthenware flower pots, curved benches and cherry trees…it is still as idyllic as she enjoyed it, then.

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After the French Revolution, when the palace was deserted, many of its furnishings were sold to help pay for the subsequent Revolutionary Wars. Napoleon restored Versailles’ glory when he decided to make it his residence. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Versailles curators converted many of the museum areas back into palace space, trying to show how they looked before the French Revolution. But today, even with millions of visitors annually, the revenue is not enough to cover maintenance costs. They say that Louis XIV built Versailles, Louis XV enjoyed it and Louis XVI paid for it dearly. Beyond the glamour and grandeur, is a palace with a legacy few palaces have. Enamoured enough?

 

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Getting under the skin of Versailles Palace #versailles #Versaillespalace #versaillesfrance

100cobbledroads wins Sunshine Blogger Award!

Pass on the encouragement baton…

Another peer recognition award for 100cobbledroads! Jessica Palmer of TravelwithJess has nominated me for the Sunshine Blogger Award. This award is given to bloggers who are spreading cheer through their inspiring, positive and creative. So thank you, Jessica, for this mid-year, feel-good factor. Your blog on family travel is a great example for all those parents who hesitate to venture beyond tried-and-tested waters.

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Why this Munich palace is a unique treasure trove?

Touring the Residenz in Bavaria’s capital…

Standing at the site of the infamous fatal gun battle site of historic Odeonsplatz in Munich, you would never imagine that 71 allied bombings had razed this whole city to the ground. There are no traces of the tragedy left. German history lives on through its impeccably restored monuments. And that is one of the many good reasons to not skip Munich or treat it as a pitstop for the castles tour down the Romantic Road. Another good reason is the Residenz. Germany’s largest inner city castle and one of the most important castle museums in Europe, gives you the chance to gawk at some of the most mind-boggling treasures of the Bavarian empire. Recommended for fans of extravagance and history buffs alike.

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