Soak in the splendour of the Royal Palace of Madrid

Inside Madrid’s Royal Palace…

You turn a final corner and there it is in front of you…the grand 18th-century Palacio Real de Madrid (Royal Palace of Madrid). Protecting the largest royal palace in Western Europe is an elegant, gilded decorative iron fencing in bold black and gold, offsetting the purist white of the magnificent structure beyond.

Polished gilt-tipped arrows gleam on the main gates and the emblem of royal arms communicate to you wordlessly. You tread on the greys and creams of the vast courtyard of the Plaza de la Armeriàa, never dropping your gaze from the architectural delight of granite from the Sierra de Guadarrama and white Colmenar stone. The commanding square-shaped facade of the four-floor high palace is studded proportionately with small square windows. Graceful galleries, Ionic columns and Doric pilasters add to the symmetry, while white stone statues of Spanish kings poised gracefully on the roof balustrade, complete the picture.

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Clearly, Bernini’s sketches for the construction of the Louvre in Paris inspired the design…a few degrees less opulent, but an exquisite tribute, nonetheless! 3,000 ornately decorated rooms, 870 windows, 240 balconies, 44 sets of stairs, 110 doors, and a floor space of 1.5 million square feet. We all see the immaculate perfection and take it for granted, never thinking of the tireless effort that goes in to keep it that way.

No chance for a glimpse of Prince Felipe, the reigning monarch of Spain, waving at cheering crowds from his balcony…he and his Royal Family prefer the modest seclusion of the Palacio de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of Madrid. Unlike his ancestors, who had their fill of the sumptuous interiors from 1765 to 1931. In fact, the site goes way back in history…here, at the highest point of the city, the Moors had established the 10th-century Alcázar overlooking the Manzanares river (Al-Magrit or source of water). Manzanares…the source of Madrid itself!

The long walk in the summer heat is exhausting, and the ticket queues are long. But your tiredness melts away the moment you step inside the entrance doors. Ahead is an imposing, double staircase designed by Sabatini…one flight of steps for the king and one for the queen, dare you presume? You stare up at the high, vaulted ceiling adorned by an 18th century fresco by Corrado Giaquinto, “The Triumph of Religion and the Church”, as you ascend the 70-odd steps to the main floor. Light streams in through circular glass windows above, enhancing the flowery gold-braided borders and soft colours of the gigantic rectangular fresco. You feel like nobility…alighted from a carriage and being escorted upstairs to attend a grand dinner, in the presence of His Majesty. Hold your head up snootily, put on your haughtiest expression. From the top landing, survey the tourists standing below. Your are Queen, albeit for a few moments. Did each of the 900,000 visitors ascending this sweeping stairway every year feel the same?…you muse, shaking yourself out of your reverie.

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The ornate late-baroque style of Italian architects is evident in the impressive hallways and the luxurious state rooms. Wander through salons overflowing with art treasures, antique furniture and lush tapestries. There’s gilt and bronze sculptures, chandeliers, rococo decoratives, jewelled clocks, delicate porcelain, damask, mosaics, stucco and frescos by Tiépolo, Velázquez, Goya, Giordano and Mengs. An unending, proud display of riches and power! Some rooms are large enough to house a tennis court! Here are my four favourite stops inside the Royal Palace of Madrid.

1. Throne Room: Unashamed luxury at its best. Velvet-draped walls weaving an unbelievable story of intricacy. An elaborate Rococco ceiling fresco, a tribute to the old monarchy and glories of Olympus. Massive mirrors from the Royal Glass Factory of La Granja and rock crystal chandeliers from Venice screaming grandeur. A gold-coated ceremonial throne with four Roman bronze lions fitted at its steps…its opulence heightened by the fact that it is no longer a utilitarian piece of furniture for the king and queen.

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2. Gala Dining Room: Made for a royal wedding back in 1879, now the venue for stunning state ceremonies and formal receptions. Entrancing with its fabulous Chinese vases in the window recesses and glorious chandeliers. An elaborate ceiling fresco depicting Christopher Columbus down on his knees, presenting exotic souvenirs to the royal couple, Ferdinand and Isabel. And the highlight…the glossy dining table, which can seat 140 people along its bowling-lane length. Two chairs, reserved for the king and queen, slightly higher than the rest…the first and second among equals.

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3. Private apartments: Pure extravagance is the word for the private apartments of the palace’s first resident, Charles III. The dressing room, the Gasparini Room, overflowing with mosaics and rococo stuccoes, art treasures and antiques, chandeliers, paintings and hand-embroidered wallpaper with real gold and silver embroidery climbing up the walls to the ceiling’s plaster-sculpture of a canopy. The small but gorgeous Porcelain Room, covered entirely in porcelain relief walls. And the collection of antique musical instruments by Antonio Stradivari including two violins, two cellos, and a viola (‘The Spanish Quartet’) valued at more than 100 million euros.

4. Armoury Room: Displays over 2000 pieces of weapons and armoury worn by the royal families since the 13th century. Life size statues in ceremonial armour taking you back to the centuries when knights wooed ladies with tournaments and macho contests. A rewind into yesterday…when the powerful reign of Spain was at the height of its glory. A lifestyle that is long gone, leaving behind stories as fresh and absorbing as ever. A fitting end to a palace trail.

If its a Wednesday, witness the Changing of the Guard. Then head for the wonderful green trails of the palace gardens, Campo del Moro, if you have the energy. Else, move on towards the square on the west. The European aura of the Plaza de Oriente is unmistakable…an imposing re-creation of Felipe IV on horseback and a Royal Theatre, flowerbeds packed with box hedges, cypress, yew and magnolia of small size, and rows of limestone statues of Spanish kings bounding the gardens.

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Madrid has the largest population of trees of any major European metropolitan city…large parks, small parks, pretty parks, majestic parks…lots of parks. People are resting, children playing. It is a sanctuary. The roads are relatively emptier now and smaller stores are closed…is the national siesta time a reality, you wonder. Plonk down on the grass for a brief shut-eye. Its tradition. When in Spain, do as the Spaniards do!

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Inside Madrid’s Royal Palace #royalpalace #spain #madrid #history

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Escape to the joy of simple pleasures in Kasauli

Charming hill getaway from Delhi

Hazy outline of towering hills and a wide open highway. Loaded fuel tank and overdose of healthy munchies. Chirpy laughter and five light hearts. Road-trip, mini-getaway and squad goals. Kasauli calling!

Panchkula to Dharampur on the National Highway 22 is a breezy hour-and-half. Just started, and almost there, already! Never mind the missed road that GPS suggested, it will have to be an alternate route. The hills are circular, Aashish reassures…we’ll reach anyhow. Down a deserted, narrow, winding road, its just our starry-eyed selves and the first row of graceful pines. Wrong turn, yet so right! Oh, its Sanawar Hill, the guys realise, as we approach the entry gates of Lawrence School (Sanawar), one of the oldest co-educational boarding institutes in the world, established for British soldiers’ orphans in 1847. Mandatory park-and-roam. Discussing every thoroughbred alum we can think of. Swooning over fluffy white clouds crocheting the crisp blue skies. Sighing at the delicate beauty of the upturned spindly pines. Wandering off to identify strange purple flowers. Or clambering precariously near the edge to get close to pomegranate trees. Giving every simple pleasure a new chance…like its the first time.

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Slip into a time warp

Valley views, curvy roads and the pines are now a constant companion, but Kasauli town arrives too soon. Traffic snarl ahead…and sadly, people too. Mall Road, roadside souvenir stalls and a much-coveted parking spot. Marching on a meal mission to Ros Common…squeezing between long lanes of inching cars. Half an hour into the hills, and we’re already hating vehicles with a vengeance. Vikas is keeping his camera busy, curiously inspecting picket fences and gates of private villas owned by retired army-wallahs, politicians, cricketers, doctors, artists and intellectuals, including a lane leading to Khushwant Singh’s house.

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More trudging. Some skepticism about the direction. Anvi looks like she’s ready to drop. Finally we see it…the charming old bungalow converted into a comfortable six-room hotel by HPTDC. An outdoor table under the shadowy trees overlooking the valley. Anardana chicken, Himachali pulao and comfortable conversations on cushioned, wrought-iron chairs. Post-lunch session on staring into space, the Aditi way. Cool wind, rustling leaves and enveloping peace. This. Here. Now.

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Back on the Lower Mall road, a necessary pitstop for fruit beer and juice at the Daily Needs shop (circa 1920s). Invisible footprints of the many famous and not-so-famous Sanawarians who gobbled countless ham sandwich and hamburgers perched on the wooden bench outside the store. Their faded profiles advertise the timeless reputation of the Sharma & Bros studio next door. Think Farookh Sheikh, Sanjay Dutt, Maneka Gandhi, Pooja Bedi and even a Bhutanese princess. Few steps ahead, the the door of Grand Maurice Lodge still sports the old British spelling of the town (Kussowlie). This charming wooden building probably hasn’t changed much since 1862. Except for the legendary dance shows, hot scones and views of falling snow! Days gone by…

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On to the most recognised icon of town…the Gothic-style Christ Church, shyly concealed behind a curtain of tall, thick chestnut and fir trees in varying hues of green. A testament to passage of time…clad in simple stone and a slanting green roof, it hides lovely interiors, including a delicate chandelier, exquisite stained glass windows, a piano from 1909 and a solid dark wood-slatted ceiling. An old photo on the wall serves as a reminder that the British acquired Kasauli from the Gurkhas and established it as a cantonment town back in the mid-1800s. Occasion to pause and ponder.

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A short stroll along old buildings with wooden facades leads to the Heritage Market, where a surprising ‘cobbled road’ is lined with local shops selling woollies and wood souvenirs. Time flits by choosing wind-chimes, lounging at Cafe Mantra and sharing bun samosa at Narinder Sweets (of Varanasi lineage), where Omar Abdullah and other famous Sanawarians once hung out. The outrageous ‘Paan’ heist by a mischievous monkey will go down memory lane as the most thrilling adventure of the day. Life is so uncomplicated up here.

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Hide, retreat, seclude

The 6 km drive through a wooded path to our ‘home-away-from-home’ spells the start of indulgence. ‘Divine Valley’ reads a discrete sign outside a gated residential area of private villas…careful not to intrude.

Blown away by the interiors of Seclude. Classy meets cozy in the spacious living room, made welcoming with comfy sofas, book-lined library corner, dangling beady lamps and a real fireplace. French windows open into a small grassy garden, decked with cheerful flower beds, casually placed log stumps, a small badminton court and even an Enid-Blyton-ish ivy wall. Rustic dining room, wooden staircases, elegant art pieces and individually designed bedrooms spell impeccable attention to detail. Delicious dinner of our choice, served at the terrace table, with wind chimes keeping melodious background score. As for the perfect nightcap, there’s a pitch-dark sky studded with a million tiny diamonds.

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At 5 am the next day, nature takes the stage with a majestic show across the widest canvas of all. A hypnotic drama unfolds slowly, with the changing complexion of the cloudy skies, darkening outline of mountains and mellow light adding blush to purple-pink bunches of hydrangeas. The mood is heightened by a leisurely walk listening to the sounds of silence, scavenging for fallen pine cones and eavesdropping into neighbouring villas guarded by stern guards. Slight drizzle and a fresh coat of green on leaves adds cherry on top. Is it a momentary addiction or will those dreams of buying a house in the hills last, we wonder over a hearty breakfast of piping hot alu parathas, frothy cold coffees and freshly plucked plums. A lazy morning melts into midday and we’re still in our pyjamas. Feels like home…

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Unfinished business

“Mujhe ghar nahi jaana” (I don’t want to go home) wails Anvi, as we say goodbye to the sleepy hill getaway with ‘nothing-to-do’. Thank God there’s no fast-food joint, lake boating or pony ride in these 658 wooded acres spread over a long ridge of the Outer Himalayas. No agenda or itinerary. Except to slow down, smell fresh wood, spot colourful birds, find exotic flowers, walk in the mist, collect pine-cones and just breathe. Maybe visit Monkey/Manki point (legendary resting place of Lord Hanuman while he was looking for the life-restoring herb, Sanjeevni). Sink into solitude at Sunset Point. Enjoy drinks at the colonial Kasauli Club. Relive romance of the Gilbert Trail. Buy fresh fruit from a roadside fruit stall. Or fill your heart with childlike ecstasy chasing double rainbows after the rains. Isn’t that enough?

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Charming hill getaway from Delhi #offbeatindia #hillgetaway #mountaingetaway #himachal #shorttrip #kasauli #homestay #seclude

 

Five peaceful spots in Cesky Krumlov that you need to see

Cesky Krumlov, the offbeat way

Gawking over the iconic sights in a fairytale town like Cesky Krumlov is a given. Who can escape the attraction of the dreamiest of settings…medieval castle overlooking a time-warped, red-roof huddle of houses, and a gushing river wrapping it like a satiny ribbon. But there’s another Cesky Krumlov, hidden, and off-the-beaten path. Tempting you to wander into nooks where few others are venturing. All you need is your incorrigible curiosity to lead the way. The rewards? Unanticipated discoveries. Here are my favourite five solitude-filled spots to swoon over, in the cutest town of the Czech Republic.

1. Relax by the riverside

Through a hidden alley, where red colored wall pedestals display quirky sculptures and a pile of trash cans doubles up as a pin-up board. Through a stony archway framing Czech houses sporting dark slanting roofs and attic rooms. To the cutest of bookend-like benches and giant pink coral-hued chairs facing dark water, gushing at full speed. A couple strolls by. A couple of friends perch on the smooth rocks lining the borders of the sloping embankments.

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On roofs of traditional houses converted into B&Bs or home-style restaurants, diners find quiet spots to enjoy the peace. Find a riverside eatery. Order some vegetarian crepes and seekh (tofu tikka) on rustic benches, with blankets draping your knees. Its chilly out here. Followed by the popular carp filet or whole trout, maybe? Gaze at mellow sunlight kissing the tops of rust roofs and adding a warm glow to russet treetops. Follow the ducks that quack and paddle around. Look at the wooden rafts and canoes glide by. Laze over the leisurely lunch. What’s the rush?

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2. Moon over the monasteries

A large complex of medieval monasteries echoing peaceful perfection. Vast grounds with golden-red autumn trees. Crunchy fallen leaves that make you sigh. Outline of a red brick tiled roof against a soft blue sky. A stone paved path through green grassy gardens. A cathedral with a baroque steeple and pretty, delicate, yet ornate chandeliers. Not a soul around to interrupt the quiet. An empty bench to daydream on. And a fascinating tour of the living quarters of the Sisters of St. Clare for a peek into their monastic lifestyle.

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And my favourite memory…coins stuck on the cobbled road at the pink-and-white exit gate of the monastery grounds. No, you can’t pick the coins. Make a note of the Pizzeria Nona Gina outside. Scrumptious, authentic pizza…highly recommended. Grab a seat in the open-air or squeeze into a tiny table inside.

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3. Seek solace at Siroka Ulice

Spend a couple of hours admiring world-class modern art at the Egon Schiel Art Centre. There is a permanent exhibit about Egon Schiele’s life and a wide range of his works from nudes to Cesky Krumlov landscapes to his own photographs. Get a fascinating glimpse into the town life during the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Temporary exhibits include artists in the league of Dali, Chagall, Picasso. Wonder why the place is so underrated. Pick up souvenir from the gift shop…a poster, postcard or a T-shirt? Sip a coffee in the cafe, while the drizzle stops.

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Enjoy a slow amble on the broadest street in town under the shade of a dripping umbrella. Find leftovers of medieval architecture, gaze at decorated portals of gabled houses, admire pretty relief work and elaborate stucco. Stumble upon street art by an unknown artist in an empty back alley. Or browse in the many quirky shops for an unusual hand-blown Bohemian glass memento. Buy a locally hand-crafted wood piece for your home. Hours drift by. Wander into by-lanes and find small wooden bridges to cross.

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4. Linger along the Latran

The long curving street connecting the wooden Lazebnický Bridge and Budějovická Gate is not really a secret, but is still relatively quiet most of the time. Endless moments pass joyfully gazing at medieval burger houses packed into the cutest of spaces, some flaunting lovely Gothic and Renaissance features. Flower bunches adorning windows add colour to pastel buildings. Tiny tables with patterned tablecloths showcase pretty cafes. Ornate wrought guild signs dangle from shop doorways, making each signboard a showpiece.

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Stop at the offbeat Marionette Museum…appreciate finely crafted old Czech marionettes and complete puppet theatres including stage designs and curtains from the latter half of the 19th century to modern gems. The waxworks are so real, you’ll be waiting for them to blink. Buy an original marionette crafted by contemporary puppeteers and wood-carvers from the Museum gallery. Or potter around in the stores on the street outside for an overwhelming choice of more affordable versions. A quaint spectacled puppet in a red chequered dress sounds perfect to remind you of the trip to Cesky Krumlov.

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5. Lose yourself in Left bank

As you cross the Dr. Edvard Beneš Bridge, you will find yourself comparing the dark river waters to the dark roof the church above. The setting is lovely like the rest of the town…clumps of yellows, oranges and reds in offsetting pointy-roof houses lined up along the water front. Despite the slight drizzle and cloudy grey skies, its as pretty a picture as ever. 

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Explore the lovely Renaissance houses of the Plešivec neighbourhood. You can feel the serenity more deeply up here, there’s hardly a soul on the streets for company. Bonus…you will stumble upon a fabulous view of the town. Eyecandy? Or town planner’s artwork? A stop to catch photography enthusiasts’ fancy…the Seidel Photographic Studio Museum. The Nouveau-Romanesque Jewish Synagogue is another hidden delight with its eight-sided tower and rounded colourful windows decorated with the Star of David, built to face in the direction of Jerusalem.

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Another day flits by, but you haven’t had your fill of Cesky Krumlov. Tasting Bohemia can be addictive. 

 

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Cesky Krumlov, the offbeat way #ceskykrumlov #czechrepublic #autumndestination #offbeattravel #medievaltown #offthebeatenpath #peacefulspots #beatingcrowds

Have you been to the fascinating fairytale town of Cesky Krumlov?

Cesky Krumlov, the iconic way…

Imagine green-yellow hues of the pastoral countryside of southern Czech Republic. Leading to an enchanting cobbled town cozily hidden within gently sloping hills. And a towering castle straight out of a Bohemian fairytale. Cynic or romantic…Český Krumlov can lure anyone into an endearing 16th-century time warp.

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How these lucky places can make your wishes come true

Seven lucky landmarks in Europe…

Shooting stars, wood knocks, horseshoes, wishing wells, finger crossings, wishbones, tooth fairies…everyone can count at least one happy, hope-inducing, harmless superstition that they have always believed in. The fascination for lucky charms is eternal and crowds will continue to gather at places where wishes are said to come true. So, queue up and call out to good fortune at these seven marked spots…whether for faith or for fun. Who knows, you may just strike gold, lucky devil!

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My first impressions of the lovely French city of Lyon

Lyon, France’s second city, is my first choice…

Taking a train from Provence through the peaceful countryside into the bustling train station of Gare de Lyon Part Dieu can be a jolt of sorts. There’s a buzz in the country’s second-largest metropolitan area, home to over 1.6 million people…and you can feel it even as you hail a cab. At 7.30, people are already on the roads, driving to work, waiting at bus stops, opening their boulangeries and coffee shops. The laid back, relaxed atmosphere of Southern France is behind you…this is city life, busy and bustling…after all, you’re closer to Paris. Ready up to discover the country’s gastronomic capital.

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Why you need to head to Madikeri to reconnect with nature

Make a nest in Madikeri, Coorg…

Have you ever dodged heavy doses of strongly discouraging feedback about an oncoming trip? Just days short of your travel plans? When anticipation levels are headed north? Pay no heed, because you, dear traveler, have your own agenda of discovery. Follow the advise of the old Chinese proverb…“Don’t listen to what they say. Go see”. Better still, draw strength from our true story. We kept our spirits high, stuck to our plans, went to Coorg and returned celebrating the precision of our instincts.

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