Why you will fall madly in love with Meghalaya?

Wild romance with nature…

The love affair begins in the flight to Guwahati as your gaze is transfixed at the snowy outline of the Himalayan peaks in the far distance. You ignore the silent protest your neck makes from being subject to a weirdly obtuse angle. Its the only way you can successfully trace the entire length and width of that unbelievably massive waterbody miles below you. No, being called a river just doesn’t do her justice, you conclude decisively. Brahmaputra is in a different league altogether.

The rose-colored lenses don’t come off for a moment of the 4-hour drive to Shillong. A light drizzle, an idyllic mountain road, a comfortably wide, four-lane curving smoothly through generously packed forestry all the way. Stop keeping count of the flora and fauna…there are hundreds. As a huge cantonment area and stream of traffic approaches, you know the city is near. Focus on its inimitable character…profusion of purple bougainvillaea, quaint houses with slanting roofs, hedged front gardens and pine-tree lined roads. Meghalaya’s capital has some lovely elements, but more than that, its your base for exploring the vast and verdant East Khasi hills. So tee off into the greens without further ado!

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Row a boat

Roll down your car windows and let your hair get impossibly entangled in that pure, fresh mountain breeze. Draw deep breaths, fill your lungs. It’s an addiction…you can’t take your eyes off the shroud of vibrant green that enveloping you. Miles of surprisingly impeccable roads snaking along vast, flat plains, undulating valleys, deep canyons and broad plateaus, the drive is rife with variety. Catch the quiet villages as they slip by, watching locals sit in companionable silence. Notice the randomly scattered monoliths…symbols of tribute to the dead. Observe the tombstones and crosses on tops of small hillock and locate old churches somewhere nearby. 

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Crossing dozens of seemingly deserted villages hidden in the thick forest cover, the now-narrow road affords enticing peeks of the Umngot River and the Bangladesh plain. Halt at the little town of Dawki, where enthusiastic boat-hawkers gang up, offering their best deals. Here a suspension bridge over Umngot river connects India and Bangladesh. You can’t take your eyes off the turquoise-emerald shimmering waters dotted with slim fishing boats, even as you gingerly negotiate the rocky, makeshift path down to the shore. Step onto one of the boats, grab an oar. Float ethereally over that stunning, transparent water, allow yourself to be amazed by those colors. Glide past the gigantic rocks glistening with delicate trickles, the smooth stones gleaming under the river’s surface and the sun dancing on the waves. And just be. Three-hour drive? Worth every micro-second.

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Walk over roots

At Riwai village, trek a rocky terrain through the thick forest in search of a fascinating natural wonder…a living root bridge! Locals have indigenously moulded aerial roots of this rubber tree such that they have grown to form a bridge over the stream flowing underneath. Hundreds of intricately entwined and tangled roots! No rope, just mud and stones inserted into gaps for sturdiness. Messy, but good enough to hold upto 50 people. Click away, but no touching please! A lovely waterfall gurgles over flat rock-slabs studded with natural cavities…like stone flooring in a man-made pool. Linger. Hear the sounds of the water. Envy the villagers’ natural habitat.

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2 kilometers away, be a guest at Asia’s cleanest village, Mawlynnong. No ‘show village’, its for real! With just 90 families and a flood of visitors. Revel in the simplicity of the image…traditional bamboo-wooden houses, paved walkways, even a picturesque church. Pretty gardens overflowing with flowers, butterflies and birds. meticulous plant arrangements, trimmed hedges, neat backyards, conical bamboo waste baskets at every few meters. Chat with friendly, smiling locals…know how the high cleanliness standards started after an outbreak of cholera more than a century ago, and turned into an enduring lifestyle. Sample authentic food at one of the dozens of eateries or explore a home stay. Buy a straw souvenir.

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Kiss clouds

In the height of the monsoons, one would expect to get drenched in the wettest place on earth at any time of the year. But in Sohra, more popularly Cherrapunji (‘land of oranges’), rains are becoming less debilitating and waterfalls scantier due to deforestation. Not all is lost, though. You can still gloat over the region’s eye-candy. Lush, green meadows, interspersed with rocky, stone terrain. Squeaky clean landscape, laundered by constant spells of rain. Sleepy villages dotting endless farmlands. Tin-roofed houses tinged with colorful wildflowers in purple, pink, red and yellow. Lazily grazing sheep and cows and  children playing with mini bullock carts. Think about the matri-linear society of the region as you see a group of sarong-clad Khasi women walk by.

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And did I mention the ‘all-the-time, anytime’ clouds that Meghalaya (abode of the clouds) is loved for? How can you resist an inevitable walk in the clouds? Feel the coolness in the air and the caress on your cheeks? Dreamy mode on…this is as true as it gets! Before you head to the crowning glory of Cherrapunji, Nohkalikai Falls, India’s tallest plunge waterfall. Disappointed by the thick cover of mist and clouds? Have patience…it will clear in minutes, as unpredictably as it appears, slowly revealing her in all her majesty. Dropping from a sheer cliff 1115 feet high, the falls foam softly into a clear turquoise pool, before flowing on into a gentle stream far below. Thrill, awe, love, wonder…and a myriad other uplifting emotions will run through your veins, despite the tragic legend about a local woman who jumped off the cliff, that give the falls its name.

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Smell pine

Mandatory stop at Barapani or Umiam Lake. A large, clear blue lake, dotted with small grassy islands, and bordered by pine-covered hillocks, is an easy 20 kilometers short of Shillong. Opt for a boat ride or a walk along the banks. But better still, check into Ri Kinjai, a 45-acre resort, your passport to ‘serenity by the lake’. The cottages are inspired by Khasi architecture and rooms have balconies with views you can only imagine. Interiors styled with bamboo and thatch straw, indigenous musical instruments, local artefacts, plates of pine cones, natural wood branches and local wall hangings will add to the calm. Witness a surreal sunrise over Umiam Lake at 4.00 am, let your camera capture the ever-changing blues, mauves, greys, pinks of the sky and the lake. Chase the clouds…fluffy, floating, misty clouds that traverse the mountains in the distance and transform the hues of the glassy waters. 

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Then, invest your morning in a nature trail. Catch the reflection of tree branches in rain water puddles. Ponder on the delicacy of dewdrops on leaves. Stroll through the pine forest. Gather fallen pine cones to take back home. Smell the fragrance, inhale the freshness. Feel the softness of the sun bless your skin. And breathe!

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As you leave Meghalaya, the one image that will stick in your mind like a screensaver, will be of intense green fed by water. And an acute awareness that water is the driving force of this region, and indeed the lives of its people, in more ways than one, in its multiple avatars…wilful falls, sparkling rivers, gurgling streams, placid lakes, mystic mist and of course, the all-pervasive clouds. 

Itchy feet, yes?

 

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Explore the lush natural beauty of Meghalaya, India

Stroll in a cemetery that is worth a thousand pictures

Zagreb’s most surprising architectural gem…

Lovingly encased within seven acres of lush landscaped gardens, Miragoj Cemetery figures as one the top 20 must-visit places in the Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. The final resting place of 300,000 souls from diverse religions, created by architect Hermann Bollé, is one of Europe’s most beautiful cemeteries. 

A mere 10-minute bus journey from Kaptol in Zagreb’s Upper Town will take you conveniently to this remarkable landmark. The ogling will commence even as you roll along that endless, monumental brick wall draped with green-red ivy leaves. And as you cross the street towards the entrance, you will have to peel your eyes away from the 20 gorgeous onion-shaped lime-green onion cupolas crowning the wall. Be careful not to stub your toe on the sidewalk or knock over a dustbin. Indulge your eyes with the sight of the central dome of the Church of Christ the King that dominates the entryway. More drama waits to unfold inside.

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Beyond the gate, for nearly a half a mile to the left and right, lies a stunning Neo-Renaissance arcade. Pause at the elegant archway visible through the thick clumps of ivy carpeting the wall and let your eyes travel all the way to the end of the arcade. Your feet will guide you further. Impossible to resist a closer look at those decorative tiled floors, fine cast-iron lanterns, carved columns and graceful statues….all classic reminders of a museum! Pinch yourself as a reminder…this is a cemetery!

As you step outside to admire the entire structure yet again, consider the miracle…all this survived the massive earthquake of 1880, when more than 1700 houses in the neighbourhood were heavily damaged!

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But the real treasure of Miragoj lies in its sprawling gardens. What a stroke of genius that the city council not only acquired this stunning property from Ljudevit Gaj (Croatian reformer and poet), for use as a cemetery in 1872, but also retained and expanded the green expanses. 

Stroll along the numerous walking paths of this magnificent park to experience it in all its glory. Trace the shadows as the sun plays hide-and-seek under the tall chestnut, lime, maple and spruce trees. Find the birds that chirrup from among the dense bunches of leaves and feel the gentle breeze that ruffles your hair.

Chapels and mausoleums lie scattered around. Scan the lanes and lanes of graves, big and small, some enclosed within decorative grills, some with steps leading up, some mentioning multiple names of family members. Some graced with candles and flowers left by loving family and friends. Others as if they had been unvisited since years. You may identify tombstones of Franjo Tuđman, the first president of the Republic of Croatia, basketball player Drazen Petrovic. Many prominent citizens including poets, scientists, writers and politicians, are also buried here. 

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Depending on how you look at it, the walk is calming or disturbing. You certainly cannot ignore the fact that its a burial ground. Thousands and thousands of graves, spread over acres of lovely gardens. You wonder if visitors ever get lost in here…there don’t seem to be many directions or signboards. 

When you finally exit the Cemetery gate, maybe you will encounter a hearse arriving quietly, accompanied by a procession of solemn faces. The guard at the gate will ring a rope-bell to announce their arrival. You wait for them to pass through and the overriding thought in your mind is this. Miragoj is peaceful, artistic and graceful…like the rest of the city. And why not? The deceased deserve it!

 

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Miragoj Cemetery, as one the top 20 must-visit places in the Croatia’s capital, Zagreb

 

The curious case of the immortal European square

Six sides of the square…

What’s the single-most universal impression you carry home from European cities? For me, it has to be timelessness. Translated: continuity. And one of the best examples is reflected is the enigmatic town square. 

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Get arty at Piazza della Signoria, Florence

The European square offers the most scintillating peep into the fascinating big picture connecting the past with the present. Starting with the 6th-century Agora of Greece, public spaces have spread across the continent as everlasting symbols of the past. The Forum or Piazza (Italy), Markt (Netherlands), Place (France) Praça (Portugal), Platz (Germany), Námesti (Czech), Rynek (Poland) or Trg (Croatia), may be identified by different names, but their essence binds them together. Have you noticed the six common recurring themes that I have mapped out?

Of the heart and soul

The one common place that dominates the map of any city or town in Europe is the Old Town. And at the nerve centre of the Old Town, you’re sure to pin down the biggest draw…the inevitable town square, reverberating with original character. Traditional architecture, historic cafes, local specialities, explosion of arts-crafts and culture overload, all in a fully-pedestrian zone. Its literally like walking into a time capsule. Follow that human stream if you lose your way… 

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Outstanding Flemish architecture in Burg Square, Bruges  
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Savour lunch in the shadow of the Heiliggeistkirche Cathedral at Marktplatz, Heidelberg
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A ride into the past at Grote Markt, Antwerp
Designed for drama

There’s always the surprise element. Narrow, winding cobbled streets that end in a small entry, often an archway. Cross the threshold, and boom….you’re in a sunny, airy, wide open courtyard enclosed with medieval buildings on all sides. Walled in on four directions, with the sky as a ceiling, this sudden contrast of spaces can take a while to adjust to. But you love it, don’t you? What’s not to love?  

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Window to the world of Nazare’s main square
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Peek into Piazza Umberto I, Capri
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Generously proportioned Praça do Comércio, Lisbon
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Be seen at the celebrated Piazza San Marco, Venice
Star attraction

Look around for a unique feature, or an emblem from the past. You can’t miss it. Often, its a grand monument like a cathedral and a town hall (mostly both), a towering memorial, a fountain, or statue. Most of these squares, after all, have lineage in the medieval age, nearly 2000 years ago, when these were the central areas for religious, political, social and commercial gatherings. Even coronations and executions! 

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Age-old legacy

Public squares of the yesteryears continue to retain their glory as chosen sites for annual festivals, national celebrations, art performances and political protests in their cities even today. It is truly incredible how age-old traditions and rituals have not just survived, but also thrived through these squares scattered all over Europe. Nearly every event happens in a legendary square. They’re almost earmarked for this purpose. 

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Social hotspot, then to now

Squares have always been hubs for people to commune, gather, converse, collaborate, feel part of a social milieu. Ubiquitous canopied cafes line the sides. People bask in the sun, converse, drink and dine in the peaceful traffic-free zone, sheltered from the bustling web of streets around. Cutlery clinks, children feed pigeons, band of performers engage the crowds, outdoor exhibits liven up the area. Its one massive living room and you’re part of the guest list! Amid carousels and wedding shoots… 

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Square, you said?

The shape of a ‘square’ is defined by the buildings that surround it. Despite being rectangular, circular, oval, hexagon or even completely irregular, it still magically remains a square! Find a vantage point high above for observation, ideally the tower of a cathedral. There’s bound to be one in the vicinity, if not in the square itself.  

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Get over the fact that its oval. Lucca’s Piazza dell’Anfiteatro was once a colosseum
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Grandeur oozes from every pillar of the colonnades at the semi-circular St. Peter’s Square, Vatican

Modest or grandiose, hidden or legendary, blink-and-miss or monumental, in Europe, you would have to think twice before concluding that a square is a square is a square. It was here yesterday, is here today, and will certainly be here tomorrow too! 

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Why Granada is the best moorish palace to see

A magical day at the Alhambra

Moorish mystique on your mind? Then pick Granada…the last Muslim kingdom of Spain, which survived even after surrender of major cities like Cordoba, Seville, and Toledo to invasions during the Reconquista. Thanks to a treaty with the Christian kingdoms (gold in exchange for independence) and the exceptional strategic position of the Granada fort, Alhambra, the Nasr emirs had held on till 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella claimed the city. In 1502, Islam was officially outlawed in Granada and by early 1600s, not a single Muslim was left in all of Spain.

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Get drenched in the stunning beauty of the Calanques cliffs

An unmissable experience off the coast of Marseille

Cut to 600 BC. Greek settlers from Phocaea step onto newly discovered shores, founding France’s oldest city and centuries of maritime activity. ‘Massalia’ goes on to attract a whopping 18,000 merchant ships each year.

Cut to today. A stunning U-shaped promenade, a pretty marina with yachts, sailboats, speedboats, fishing boats, and a terminal for tourist boat excursions. A nautical vision in blue and white surrounded by elegant, lemon and sand-colored mansions and rows of cafes. To the left, a gentle hill, crowned by a magnificent basilica and up ahead, two sprawling forts at the gaping mouth of the bay, which opens up into the vast sea. Massalia morphs into Marseille. Have you added the most unique city of Southern France to your itinerary?

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Warning! These two villages will make you go Dutch! 

Find your slice of quintessential Holland

Dreaming Dutch? Enterprising merchants, labouring engineers, seafaring sailors and slogging farmers in wooden clogs? Fine ships sailing the high seas? Black-and-white bovines grazing on lush grasses in a windmill-studded countryside? Make the dream a reality,  just 20 minutes away from bustling, cosmopolitan Amsterdam. Impressionist master Claude Monet’s Blue House masterpiece derived inspiration right here. Dare you to miss the opportunity!

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Five perfectly crafted sweet delights and how to savour them

Rediscover sweet street treats from across Europe

Ever considered how food habits, like humans, have traversed boundaries, influenced, transformed and evolved in unthinkable ways? But from honey-candied fruits and nuts of the ancients to the culinary molecular gastronomy of today’s Michellins, sweet-toothed foodies have always been one community…united across time and space by a divine love for sugar. Yes?

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