Three lost cities of Sri Lanka you need to find now!

Amazing ancient kingdoms of Sri Lanka…

Timelines like these. 200 million years ago, Sri Lanka, India, Madagascar, Australia and Antarctica were connected in one land pmass, the Gondwana. Sri Lankan Tamils (Indians by origin) have occupied Ceylon since 3000 years. And the country has been a bastion of Buddhism since the 3rd-century, when Mahinda, son of the Indian Emperor Ashoka, introduced a new religion to the island. Flashbacking inspirations? Go, seek the spectacles of Sr Lanka’s Cultural Triangle.

Dock in Jetwing Blue, Negombo where lake-facing suites pamper you with balcony jacuzzis, handmade soaps, casually-parked beach boats, and a lavish spread in a palm-shaded breakfast space. Indulge in a heavenly 3-hour drive through lush green countrywide overflowing with mangroves and palms, coconut bunches, dangling jackfruit, paddy fields, lotus ponds, colourful cottages, mountains, mist and sun sparkle, till you reach the first of the fascinating ancient capitals. What? Already?

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Sigiriya: Fortress on a rock

Puncturing the green of the deep, dense jungles, stands a steep 656-foot monolithic rock doubling as a monumental 5th-century lion-shaped stronghold. A terraced city sprawls at its feet and a palace crowns its summit. Machu Picchu fan base alert! Dare you to miss Sigiriya.

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Know the story: King Kashyapa relocated the capital from Anuradhapura to Sigiriya, driven by throne paranoia and divinity delusions. After his defeat in 495, the citadel fell into ruin. Palace to pilgrimage to UNESCO World Heritage site…its journey has been anything but exciting.

Find the favorite feature: Sigiriya is an engineering feat and example of miraculous ancient urban planning. Flaunt-worthy are Asia’s oldest surviving landscape garden and a sophisticated pumping system located in the complex.

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Stock up on artistry: The oldest and best-preserved examples of Sinhalese wall graffiti half-way up the rock, on a polished wall enough to be deserve the name  Mirror Wall. Think divine maidens decked with jewellery and flowers in complexions of red, yellow and green, painted more than 1,000 years back!

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Go deeper, immerse: Climb 1,200 steps up a stone stairway through the lion’s giant paws, mouth and throat to mount a plateau of ruined palaces and pools overlooking a sprawl of wild jungles. Breathe. Gasp. Wonder. Alternatively, for an offbeat adventure, hire a tuk-tuk and score high on 360-degree Sigiriya through the surrounding jungles, stopping at vantage points with different angles to gape at the hardened magma of the extinct and long-eroded volcano, with near-vertical walls reaching for the skies.

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Polonnaruwa: Sprawling lost city

Its an ancient garden city filled with palaces, pleasure gardens, Buddhist monuments and Hindu temples, sheltered in a serene 4-km woodland, enclosed by three concentric walls, on the east shore of a centuries-old 2100-hectare artificial lake. Ruin-lovers, pin Polonnaruwa on your travel map.

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Know the story: King Parakramabahu’s 12-century majestic capital replaced Sri Lanka’s long-standing power centre, Anuradhapura…and with such aplomb! Sadly, the city’s golden era was short-lived, courtesy a Kalinga king of North India. Classic plunder-and-rule. End of story.

Find the favorite feature: Eye-popping structures are scattered all over, but the piece-de-resistance is the Rankoth Vehera Dagoba. A stunning 55-fit brick masterpiece that resembles an over-sized bell is simple and unadorned, except for four engraving-rich altars at the centrepiece. Jaw-dropping continues at Gal Vihara, where four colossal Buddha carvings deck a granite boulder…including a 46-feet reclining figure.

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Stock up on artistry: Swoon over the best preserved moonstone (Sandakadapahana) that adorns the northern entrance to the upper terrace of the Vatadage. A conventionalised half-lotus dominates the centre and is enclosed by concentric bands, decorated with processions of lions, horses, elephants and bulls. Contemplate its deep symbolism of shunning worldly temptations and striving for nirvana.

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Go deeper, immerse: Walk or cycle all over the royal palace complex and the cluster of religious buildings (Sacred Quadrangle), gloating over the finest ancient architecture in all of Sri Lanka. Buddhist monasteries rub shoulders with Hindu temple. Look for the horizontal level decorative sculptures in dancing positions, inspired by the classical Indian dance form, Bharata Natyam. Culture cauldron.

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Yapahuwa: Staircase to heaven

An isolated corner of Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle, enveloped by secluded countryside calm hides a temple carved halfway up a 100-ft high rock, protected by double ramparts and a 10-km long moat. Cambodian fantasy-seekers, Yapahuwa is a dream come true.

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Know the story: King Buvenekabahu set up a a rock-fortress capital here in the late 13th-century to safeguard the Sacred Tooth Relic. Years of flourishing followed, replete with close diplomatic ties with countries including China. After his death, a sweeping famine and Pandyan invasion, the Tooth Relic and other treasures were looted. In the mid-16th century, the Portuguese struck the last blow and destruction was complete.

Find the favorite feature: Three sets of narrow, precipice-steep flights of steps up an ornamental stone stairway. First two are functional and the final one is embellished with exquisite art with distinct South Indian influence…exultant dancers, joyful musicians, playful dwarfs, mythical animals. Two magnificent lions guard what was Lanka’s most precious possession in grim silence, the only ones of its kind in the country.

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Stock up on artistry: The elaborate doorway is flanked by heavy stone walls and two empty frames occupy what used to be two intricately carved windows, greco-style columns and extravagant sculptures. This is the Foundation of the Temple of the Tooth. Or the crumbling, proud remains of its glorious past.

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Go deeper, immerse: Stand at the threshold of the stony doorway, trying to reconstruct remains of its elegance and grandeur. Visualise devoted believers ascending the steps. Study the minute details carved in stone. Feel the quiet. Be. Then scale the summit of the Yapahuwa rock by a rough path leading off from the left of the temple to witness more ruins and remains. Feel the rambling jungle, rolling hills and sunbathed rocks below. Invincible much?

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Amazing ancient kingdoms of Sri Lanka

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The most astounding wildlife adventure in Sri Lanka

Wild elephant adventures in Habarana, Sri Lanka

Deep in the north-central jungles of Sri Lanka, at the shores of an ancient reservoir built by King Mahasen more than 1,700 years ago, a centuries-old communal ‘Gathering’ tradition lives on. Each dry season (June to September), hundreds travel here from all across the region for the world’s biggest pool party. The place: Minneriya National Park. The species: herds of elephants. The spectacle: pure magic. Naturally, we are stoked at the prospect.

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

Jetwing Lake, Dambulla makes a perfect base for our wild elephant adventure in the heart of the cultural triangle. The expansively-designed hotel in the midst of the verdant nature with lake-facing rooms, large window-less ground floor restaurant, and benches hidden under a leafy corner of vast gardens…sets the right tone for the wildlife experience that would be the highpoint of our trip.

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Rains drenching the Minneriya-Kaudulla forest reserve means herding would be a no-show. But how could we give up that easy? The nearby (and drier) Habarana-Hurulu Forest Reserve, home to another few hundred elephants, becomes an obvious choice. A rainy breakfast does nothing to rise our optimism levels, but we book the afternoon safari slot anyway…maybe the weather will turn. And it does! Cloudy but drop-free skies by the time we stop outside the ‘Hurulu Eco Park’ signboard, just a few metres away from the Habarana railway station. Do we want to pay an additional $25 dollars for a Park Guide to accompany us in our 4X4? Of course…anything to increase chances of spotting wildlife. He would know which dirt-track to take, he would be able to smell out the elephant trail. Would we see any elephants? Keeping my hopes low. Please, please, give us at least one!

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Barely a few minutes into the Park and our convoy of jeeps is winding its way down a tire-tracked sandy path through the dense shrubbery, 10-feet wild-grass and thick tree cover. We stand on the seats of our open-roofed vehicle, clutching the front handrails, all prepped for the best views, ducking low branches that claim the space uninhibited. Parrots chirp, hawk eagles scan the surroundings for dinner, and rare birds play hide-and-seek through leaves. In the distance, rocky terrains loom large. We throw hopeful, questioning glances at the guide. He grins confidently. Camera strap check. Zoom lens check. All senses full alert.

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Just over few kilometres in, and we spot a bunch of jeeps parked up ahead. “Elephant”…our guide announces triumphantly. What, already…wow! We near up with speed, maintaining respectable distance. Hush!! Silence, except for noisy engines and clicking cameras. Should have been noiseless jeeps…won’t they run away? Apparently not. Large patches of pigmented brown start moving through the tall wild grass…wait there’re two! Oh, a third and a fourth around the bend. They’re not that tall. Our guide explains that the Sri Lankan elephant is much smaller than the African one. An average male adult is 11 feet in shoulder height and females are much smaller. Two youngsters trot across the path, eyes half closed, and they all disappear into the bushes, oblivious to our presence. Episode one and I already have a satisfied smile pasted on my face. My gut says this is just a start. And it is!

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The jerky off-roading continues…as do the multiple episodes with multiple herds, ranging from 5-15 elephants, always led by the oldest female, the matriarch. A playful two-month old calf slides over a mound close where the jeeps wait, and two protective adults quickly huddle it away to safety. No adult males in the herds…they move away as soon as they are 4 years old. Females, on the other hand, reach maturity at 8-10 years, give birth every 4-6 years (with a gestation period of 18-20 months) and have 6-7 offspring in their lifetime. Interestingly, 6 females, including aunts and grandmas, share feeding responsibilities for each calf. Girl gang rules to live by.

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200 females and just 20 males in the Eco Park…and that’s a good balance for their species, we are told. We practice recognising the differences between males (with well-rounded tapered backs) and females (straight backs). We spot 2 of the 8-9 male tuskers that live in the area. We play guessing games about their age, using their height and size as clues. The older ones have heavier pinkish pigmentation around the ears, face and trunk, looser skin and wrinkled ears. An average life expectancy of 65-70 years…just like humans. What happens when an elephant dies?? It is abandoned by the herd…but it is gratifying to know that the forest department plans a burial site here in the future.

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Further ahead, a lone male rips up a long stemmed bunch of leaves with his trunk, but rejects it even before putting it in his mouth. Decided it was too thick to bite and digest? Then he vigorously shakes the dry mud off a trunk-full grass and chomps it down with full gusto. His trunk has two finger-like protrusions, unlike the African cousin’s, which has one. These gentle giants consume 100-150 kilograms of herbivorous food daily, and wash it down with 100 litres of water. Funny part is that they can digest only half of it, the rest passed through undigested. Such poor metabolism, despite the fact that they sleep only 4 hours and walk 20-25 km a day?

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Its a relief that in general, the elephants ignore us and don’t seem bothered by our presence. Then one of the jeep drivers gets too close to comfort. One male loses his temper…maybe his first time alone from the herd or he’s an aggressive sort. He raises his trunk and throws out a loud growl like a bear, approaches the jeep and forces it to retreat. He gathers some loose mud and scatters it on his head and body to cool off. He then celebrates his victory with a powerful roar…or was it a call for backup…in case the vehicle returned?

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Over three hours, we cover 5000 hectares of the total 25000 hectares in the Eco Park, seeing as many as 50 elephants in all! When the jeeps approach a high rocky outpost with a sturdy observation hut, we know the safari is concluding. The view of the Habarana-Hurulu Eco Park is panoramic in the soft glow of the early evening sun. As the cool breeze ruffles my hair, I flashback to the 19th century, when over 19,500 wild elephants roamed this stunning tear-drop island. We encroached their space and they were forced to seek solace in ours. Thankfully, the 2,000 that remain are protected under the Sri Lankan law and killing an endangered member of the tribe carries death penalty. About time we understood the importance of visiting wild animals in their natural habitat like guests. From a distance. No fun, no games, no play, no rides, no teasing, no torture. Just respect. One creature to another.

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More picturesque areas in Salzburg you need to see!

Walking treasures of Salzburg, Austria…

The historic town of Salzburg, Austria, bore the brunt of a massive plague epidemic and two world wars. Nearly half of its magnificent buildings were destroyed, but miraculously, much of the famous Baroque architecture remained unscathed. The town of today, as we see it, is its second avatar….almost rebuilt from scratch. More picturesque areas in Salzburg you need to see include the Dom Quartier and the Hohensalzburg fortress. (Read the first part of this story here). 

Dazzle your eyes at the DomQuartier

If the tightly-woven streets were a hide-and-seek delight, the expansive DomQuartier is a luxurious feast. The town’s former power centre is the epitome of scale and baroque grandeur. Take in the magnificence of Residenzplatz, where a splendid forecourt showcases the Salzburg Cathedral, St. Peter’s Abbey and residences of the prince-archbishops, who ruled the city until the 1800s. The monumental central baroque fountain, Residenzbrunnen flaunts fine details…four sea horses at the base surround a central rock, over which four men held up a bowl on top of which stood three dolphins carrying another bowl, where Triton was holding the shell of a snail at the top. Fine veils of water spew from the top and the mouth of the sea horses, make calming, splashing sounds.

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Venture through one of the arcade arches leading into Kapitelplatz (Chapter Square) to find a surprising show-stopper…Sphaera, a 2007 sculpture by German artist Stephan Balkenhol. The gleaming nine-metre-high gold orb is crowned by the statue of an ordinary man in a white shirt and black trousers…completely expressionless, staring into the distance. At its base, is a giant chessboard painted onto the ground. Go on, challenge yourself to a game of strategy with the knee-high pawns.

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Head to the huge 17th-century church with its twin green domes and delicate carved pristine exterior. Does it look like it was completed in just 14 years? Entering the three bronze entrance portals representing faith, love and hope, stand inside the magnificent edifice with a capacity of over 10,000. Washed in glorious white and sepia tones, vertical whites accented with darker lines…like a period movie. Stucco-rich marble columns, ornate frescoes and elaborate murals, baroque scrolls, dancing cupids and gold leaf…the opulence and harmony of the 330-feet long and 230-feet tall cathedral can be deeply moving. Sitting in the pews, study the five organs, including one with 4000 pipes…possibly the greatest organ-power of any church in Europe. The mighty frescoed dome designed by Florentine Mascagni is overhead, Mozart is playing the organ, and the glorious surround-sound is reverberating through your ears. Wake up, its only a daydream!

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Hide, huddle, hang out in Hohensalzburg

Salzburg’s acropolis, the Hohensalzburg fortress-castle towering grimly from 400 feet on the Festungsberg cliff top is visible from almost everywhere. Since it was opened to the public in the 1860s by Emperor Franz Josef, one of Europe’s mightiest castles continues to be the star attraction of Salzburg. Riding up in the 110-year old funicular, you realise how steep the incline is. No wonder the largest preserved medieval fortress in Central Europe founded way back in 1077, has always stayed a siege-proof haven. No one even attempted an attack on the town for a thousand years, until Napoleon stopped by…that’s when Salzburg wisely surrendered without a fight. Inside the protective plain white Romanesque walls, its like an authentic medieval village. Blacksmiths and breweries, knights and tradesmen occupied this stony area once…they’re long gone, but the ancient lime trees still rustle in the peaceful silence.

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Negotiate the dark staircases and dank hallways where fire-torches would have guided the way. The rugged, brooding exterior gives no clue to the unexpected lavishness inside. Gothic-style rooms with intricate wood paneling and elaborate door frames. A glittering Golden Room with its wooden beams and gold star-studded deep blue ceiling. A smaller Golden Chamber, even more richly decorated with carved benches depicting vines, grapes, and animal figures. And the Marionette Museum, with exquisite crafted displays and stage settings of traditional puppets with tiny movable hands and detailed costumes. Some dangle from strings, others are stuck on walls…all stared blankly into space…solemn, grim, fearful, ominous. Fit your face into the life-size cutouts, attempt some amateur puppetry.

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Climb 100 tiny steps to a gorgeous lookout post and lap up commanding views of the town dominated by the Salzburg Dom with its green dome and green capped towers, the curving Salzach river, the Northern Alps beyond and vast unending plains in the south. Archers would have stood at these ledges and fired arrows at approaching invaders. Turret shadows, canyon outlines and slivers of light stream through criss-cross iron bars of a formidable medieval window. There’s a strange sense of security within the sturdy confines of the mighty castle. Do you feel it?

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A population of 1,50,000 and over eight million sightseers prowl these cobbled lanes each year…touristy as it gets, yet utterly enjoyable. Enjoying the new and old of this musical mecca with its magnificent scenery, and rich history, Salzburg is a symphony and you will hum its music fondly forever!

 

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The most picturesque areas in Salzburg you need to see!

Walking treasures in Salzburg, Austria…

The 3-hour train ride from Vienna may prep you with enough eye-candy, but  that first view of Salzburg, Austria’s fourth-largest city…still a killer. Beyond a meditative river straddled by several bridges, lies a charming old town filled with splendid Baroque spires and domes, under the shadow of one of Europe’s largest medieval fortresses looming large on a gentle hill. Centuries ago, when the Salzach river was an important salt transportation route, butchers and other food processors would unceremoniously dump wastes into it flowing waters. And look now…the entire city is precious UNESCO heritage. River shaming to Love Lock Bridge…that’s some serious headway! Navigating the compact 65-square kilometre town could take you a few hours to a few days, depending on how deep your heart wills you to dig. So, here’s my choice of the most picturesque areas you need to see in this delightful destination synonymous with that evergreen musical from the yesteryears, ‘Sound of Music’. (Read my post on the ‘Sound of Music’ tour experience).

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Go gaga over guild signs at Getreidegasse

Getreidegasse, Salzburg’s most famous shopping lane evolved from a major Roman road, to a main road leading to Bavaria to a magnet for rich merchants, doctors, and craftsmen. And now? A prestigious address for jewellery stores, traditional costume shops, high street brands, antiques, leather goods, perfumes and delicatessen. Charming narrow, high houses adorned with pretty portals and decorative windows stand tightly nestled together on both sides. Countless romantic courtyards, covered galleries and vaulted passages link adjoining buildings. Stucco ornaments, medieval murals, pebbled street borders, hanging lamps, elegant columns, moulded cornices, marble balustrades and pretty pergolas make every inch a photographer’s delight.

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Intricate ornate wrought guild signs from the 1400s, jut out from doorways of restaurants, shops and workshops. More than anything else, the street is a artistic, colourful medley of dainty patterns, flowers, curving tendrils, animals, stars, birds and much more. Even high-street fashion brands fall in line with carved, elaborate ironwork signs advertising their wares. Potter around the open stalls and booths under large umbrellas. Pick up a some local bric-a-brac, a cheerful-looking puppet or some dried flower ornaments to brighten your kitchen shelf. Lunch at atmospheric trattoria in a hidden courtyard…inevitable, utterly romantic and unforgettable.

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Melt into musical memories at Mozart’s House

In the footsteps of millions of other die-hard classical music fans, visit the cramped Geburtshaus apartment, Mozart’s Birthplace in the Old Town, where he learned to play piano and violin and composed his first boy-genius works. House No. 9, now Mozart Museum is distinctive…a canary yellow facade and glass windows with broad white borders reflecting the clear blue sky. Exhibits include historic instruments like his childhood violin, clavichord and harpsichord, documents and letters from the family, memorabilia and many portraits. Contemplate the legend of the musical prodigy, an incredibly skilled pianist at age three, who was dragged across Europe by his father to perform for empresses and kings for 10 long years…(a third of his entire life, since he died at 35). How ironic that the musician who made hearts pound, turned cheeks pink, and inspired people to life large, himself had such a melancholic life!

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Outside, in a corner of the sun-washed Mozartplatz, an elderly man works his hands melodiously on a much-loved old accordion. Posters announce church concerts at store windows. You can feel that classical music is everywhere…it flows like blood in the veins of this town, much like art on the streets of Florence. The first Salzburg Festival of 1920 that made the Salzburg a fashionable place continues to make waves worldwide. But it all started with the genius of artists like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. His wigged face and red costume are stamped all over town…on ‘Mozartkugeln’ chocolates, ‘Mostly Mozart’ festival posters and hundreds of souvenirs including CDs, books, T-shirts, stationery, pads, posters, coins and postcards. Can you resist taking a playful memory back with you?

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Allow yourself sinful temptations at AlterMarkt

AlterMarkt (old market) square appears cordoned off by the row of stately burgher houses in pink, peach, soft green and mocha cream. The central St. Florian fountain is enclosed behind a fence of decorative metalwork depicting horseback riders, animals, plants and coats of arms. The large marble basin around the fountain has a statue of patron saint St Florian atop a pillar. In older days, residents actually believed he would save them from fire! Fire to fountain…makes sense. The ancient dairy, herb and vegetables market is long gone, but up ahead, at the lovely open-air flower stalls, people still get attracted to other kinds of colours and fragrances instead. 

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When it comes to picturesque areas in Salzburg, temptations are never far away. You’re drawn towards the beautiful Rococo façade of the  ‘Fürsterzbischöfliche Apotheke’, the former court pharmacy, now the main outlet of chocolatier ‘Fürst’, the inventor of the famed Mozartkugel. Austria’s iconic chocolate treat is still hand-made, hand-wrapped and hand-sold at this store. 31 euro for 25 pieces is certainly not affordable, but which indulgence is? Browsing through the luscious assorted chocolates and truffle specialities will stoke your hunger and tingle your sweet tooth. An inspired stop at the legendary Cafe Tomaselli is  predestined, (read another of my posts here), so save yourself the trouble of indecision. Just give in!

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Sink into the past at Sigmund Haffner Gasse

Trace your steps along the enchanting Sigmund Haffner Gasse, one of Salzburg’s oldest streets dating back to 1140. Gaze at the black painted water pipes dropping vertically from all the way from the roofs of the six-storied apartment buildings lining both sides. Cleverly and unobtrusively, their thick bold lines demarcate the subtle colours of the buildings. Between the snazzy boutiques and elegant restaurants on their ground floors, spot the 700-year old Elefant Hotel. Its beautiful black-and-gold wrought floral design iron signboard with the elephant illustration makes an arresting statement. And when you turn back to survey the length of the street behind, the rococo facade of the Old Town Hall’s clock tower gleams in pristine-white with its yellow-orange dial and green topped bell tower, watching you silently, until you disappear from its gaze at the next corner. At Buchhandlung Hollrigl, the oldest bookshop in Austria dating back to 1492, bury yourself in the treasure trove of rare books, maps, music sheets, paper napkins, stationery. If nothing else, pick up some very interesting postcards.

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When the day ends and you’re savouring a meal of delectable salmon trout at a cozy outdoor table of a small Salzburg tavern, digest this. You’re occupying two square feet of space in a city discovered by Romans way back in 15 BC! Salzburg’s modesty belies its stature as the oldest and most significant spiritual and cultural centre of Austria. Would you disagree?

(To be continued in Part 2 next week)

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Walking treasures in the town of Salzburg, Austria

The most soulful note in the sweet symphony of the French Riviera

Marseille on the Côte d’Azur…

Its colourful image owes credit to a fascinating population mix of Italians, Corsicans, Russians, North Africans, Armenians, Vietnamese, Algerians, Greek and Americans. And a sensational drugs-and-crime reputation isolates it from its polished, glamorous cousins. But don’t believe what they say…go sift fact from fiction. Say ‘Bonjour’ to France’s second biggest city, its largest commercial port and capital of the scenic Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. You will discover that Marseille is the most soulful note in the sweet symphony of the French Riviera. Only one prerequisite…you must listen with your heart.

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This is the most incredible medieval skyscraper city of all

12th-century Bologna was a high-rise metropolis…

It is recognized by many terms of endearment…‘La Rossa’ (The Red One) for its vibrant brick architecture, ‘La Dotta’, for its first University of the western world, ‘La Grassa’ for its traditional dishes like tortellini, mortadella, lasagne, tagliatelle with meat sauce and ‘La Turrita’, for its more than 180 towers from an illustrious medieval past. Many nicknames…much love. It’s been labelled with many official names too…4th-century name Felsina of its founding Etruscans to the Bononia of the Romans (meaning ‘fortified place’) to Bologna. Solid history, deep foundations. So quit thinking of reasons to skip the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, the authentic hotbed of Italian gastronomy. There just aren’t any!

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Why Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam is the ultimate retreat?

This royal haven is Germany’s largest world heritage site

If you’re racking your brains for a day-trip idea from Berlin, look no further than Potsdam, an oasis of lakes, lush fields, thick forests and unique cultural landmarks along the Havel River. Boasting of the largest World Heritage Site in Germany, Sanssouci, as its centrepiece, Potsdam is to Germany what Versailles is to France and Windsor to England. And its just a 45-minute drive from the buzzing German capital. So, die-hard lovers of sumptuous palaces and extravagant gardens, zip away on that Autobahn now!

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