Pretend to be a noble at a French châteaux in the Loire Valley

France will have you fantasizing…

Just two hours southwest of Paris, lies the Loire Valley, an enchanting countryside ablaze with colours of green and gold, filled with vineyards, farmlands, hunting forests and ancient towns. Christened Loire after France’s longest river, which was a highway for transporting food and building materials in flat boats during the Greco-Roman age. An exceptionally fertile land that enticed 15th-century French royals and nobles to hire Italian architects and artists to build hundreds of palatial Renaissance-style chateaux.

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All 300 kilometres of this lush region that dazzled poets and novelists for ages is now a UNESCO-protected national park. The Valley of a Thousand Châteaux has a mind-boggling range of regal residences to explore: stately homes, mansions, castles, fortresses, even palaces. Save yourself some heartburn, go with my top three recommendations.

Chambord: Flamboyance gone overboard

Driving through a seemingly unending lush park filled with wild deer and boar, you’re forced to question what you know about Chambord. Chateau or town? Put your doubts to rest as you alight in the massive parking lot, facing an elegant castle as large as a palace. Can you believe that this royal weekend retreat was originally a simple hunting lodge, rebuilt during the 16th-century by French monarch François I, using an army of 1,800 workmen over 15 years!

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

Talk about flamboyance…this castle has 440 rooms, 365 fireplaces, 85 staircases, stables for 1200 horses, and a park surrounded by a 22-mile long wall. An address befitting all the kings who made it their home, even Louis XIV. While away a couple of hours exploring the theatrical interiors…second-floor vaulted ceilings, enormous corner towers, and a 100-foot tall lantern supported by flying buttresses. Forbidding dungeons too? Chances are.

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Surprise highlight? The huge double-helix staircase designed by Leonardo da Vinci, himself! So they say. Two staircases winding around a central illuminated well, twisting up to the roof. Two of you can test out the mystery construction (or optical illusion) by going up the two staircases simultaneously…you’ll be visible to each other only in glimpses through tiny windows. On the rooftop, surrounded by countless spires, chimneys, turrets, domes and balustrades, send a silent message to Gaudi. Its his kind of quirky, well almost.

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Peer down onto the expansive green grounds, imagining your men hunting deer in the woods ahead. And is that your horse carriage there? Nah. As you drive away, keep your eyes hooked on the majestic castle and its empty grounds till the grey silhouette disappears. The brooding, timeless beauty will stay etched in your memory for a long time.

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Chenonceau: Feminine grace meets war intrigue

Slow down as you walk through the half-mile long canopied avenue of immensely tall plane trees, over a crunchy carpet of gold-red autumn leaves towards the symmetrical French gardens. Serenity, yes? Feel your eyebrows raise as you get closer to the exquisite chateau stretching across the river Cher, its 60-meter long gallery built over a series of arches, reflecting in the languid waters. Close your eyes and recreate the scene…house guests in fluffy gowns and top hats paddling canoes for entertainment. And hey, that’s you…as Catherine of Medici, Regent of France, hosting one of your infamous parties! Have a ball!

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

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Something tells you this residence was designed by women…the splendidly furnished rooms, airy chambers, fine paintings, tapestries, book-lined libraries and gorgeous views from the terraces, all have a distinctly feminine feel. Wonder if they had even more unusual and elaborate flower arrangements on the fireplaces and consoles back then. 

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Notice with sadness, how the pattern and colour of the floor tiles have been worn away by hundreds of visitors. And chew on this….Chenonceau marked the border between free and Nazi France in World War II and dramatic prisoner swaps possibly took place here. Somewhat inappropriate for such a fairytale location. Huh?

Cheverny: A matter of family pride

Familiar? This 17th-century stately hunting palace was the inspiration for Herge’s famous castle of Moulinsart in the Adventures of Tintin. The most sumptuous of all Loire chateaux has been with the same family for nearly seven centuries and they still live on the property, while one section is open for public viewing. Family pride shows in the flawless preservation and the intimate feel. The chess table in the sitting room, children’s room with its oakwood cot and miniature velvet high back chairs, book-lined library with a grand piano, ornate furniture upholstered with floral needlework, damask and gilt-panelled walls and portraits of aristocrats adorning them…all speak of a highly formal lifestyle. A time and place for everything in this home. Do they ever put up their stockinged feet on these exquisite sofas and relax?

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Pause at a lady’s bedroom, where a headless mannequin stands poised in the centre. It is fitted with an elegant ivory brocade gown, with a wide scoop neck, long sleeves with gathers at the shoulders, an embroidered yoke, tiny buttons all the way down the back and full fluffed skirt with a small waist…maybe 24-25 inches. On the wall behind, is a family portrait of (her?) four children, twin girls in white taffeta frocks, their younger brother in a formal brown two-piece and bow tie, and the youngest sister in a pale teal frock holding up a white lace umbrella.

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Suddenly, the mannequin comes to life and its you. Surrounded by 3-4 maids doing up the tiny buttons on your gown, putting flowers in your hair and sprinkling floral eau de toilette, before you join your family in the sun-washed breakfast room. Brief ceremonial greetings, followed by dignified clinking of silver, and children proceeding for their horse-riding lessons, while you move to the study to finalise the guest list for the ball you are planning later that month. (Got carried away there, didn’t you?)

Outside, follow the trail to the kennel of 70 carefully-bred hunting hounds, where  a signboard cautions, “Priere de ne pas exciter les chines” (please do not excite the dogs). They’re preening and posing for pictures, and barking in sync for their next meal. Excitement enough.

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Finally, before exiting the grounds, relax on one of the delightful benches on the satin-smooth grassy grounds, scanning the picture-perfect chateau grounds one last time. Can’t get enough of it. Wait, didn’t that curtain just move?

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3 must-see French chateaux in the Loire Valley

These fascinating paintings will make you redefine Amsterdam

The Dutch capital will fuel your appetite for art. No, seriously!

Which city de-criminalized homosexuality as early as the 1800s and celebrated the first legal same-sex marriage in 2001? Where do hundreds of ‘coffee shops’ offer a menu of cannabis products openly? Where does one find a famed red-light district with legit sex shops, theatres, peep shows and even tours for those who are game? On a lighter note, for the less risky traveller, which city allows the thrill of bicycling without helmets? That’s illegal too!!

Full marks for guessing. But labelling the original ‘Sin City’ as a frivolous hippie destination is not fair play. Amsterdam’s controversial liberal policies owe credit to a centuries-old culture of tolerance and assimilation. Maybe that’s how it ended up with such a prolific art scene. So, retune that radar and get ready ogling of a different kind.

Where it all started

The Dutch National Museum, Rijksmuseum, delivers matchless masterstrokes from the Middle Ages to the present. The spectacular brickwork facade and quaint towers announce the glory that lies inside. Over 8,000 paintings and objets d’art spread over 100 galleries over four floors. There’s a Royal Collection, 14th to 17th centuries Flemish art, luxury inlaid furniture, brilliant Delftware, pristine porcelain, extraordinary 17th-century dolls’ houses, and even finds from a 16th-century Dutch ship stranded on a Russian island. Now, don’t be greedy, make your choices.

Recommended must-do: Trace the blossoming of Dutch art during the 17th-century Golden Age. Find the common theme through these Baroque artworks. One, a sense of richness and grandeur. Two, dramatic use of emotion. Reason? Catholic versus Protestant struggle for survival in 17th-century Europe. Catholic artists used all forms of art to drive home their message…and with such elan! Masters of Flemish Baroque like Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, Jan Steen, Paulus Potter and Frans Hals encouraged countless painters to produce a rich heritage of 5-10 million artworks (portrait art, still life and landscapes) for middle class homes. Objects for embellishment and investment, free of encumbrances of spirituality and religion. A wave of unforgettable images in a photographically realistic style, where the stars were ordinary people…merchants, professionals, wives, servants, children, soldiers, clerks, tradesmen, living in ordinary households and going about their ordinary lives. Unassuming, unpretentious. Staring at these masterpieces of average people immortalised as fine art, you feel uplifted.

The terrific trio

Johannes Vermeer, master of tranquility and stillness thrills you with four rare paintings. Gazing at the small canvas of ‘The Milkmaid’, you can almost hear the trickle of the pouring milk. The work of Jan Steen offers a delightful slice of 17th-century Dutch life. Think of it as light entertainment sprinkled with folk wisdom. Children teaching a cat to dance. Merrymaking at a family gathering. Seemingly insignificant subjects that would have evoked contempt from many a conventional artist of the time.

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Vermeer, Milkmaid. 1657. Courtesy: Wikipedia
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Vermeer’s iconic, Pearl Earring. 1665 (displayed at Mauritshuis, Hague) Courtesy: Wikipedia
Jan Steen - Cat
Jan Steen, The Dancing Lesson. 1679. Courtesy: Wikipedia
Jan Steen-Dancing Couple
Jan Steen, Dancing Couple. 1663. Courtesy: Wikipedia

But, it is the Rembrandt collection that really takes your breath away. And you know why this Dutch genius is considered one of the greatest visual artists of all times. The paintings have a photo-like ‘realness’. His uncanny ability to capture the wrinkle of the skin and the twinkle of light, fill you with silenced awe. Hushed whispers and stunned gazes from the audience speak volumes about the impact of his craft. Refer to the audio guides for a succinct, yet apt gist of each framed beauty on the walls. Broad thick brushstrokes, layers of glazes for extra gravity, restrained colour palette dominated by dark earth tones and golden highlights, brilliant lights and heavy shadows to illumine faces, jewels and rich fabrics and rich, dark, transparent backgrounds will have you transfixed.

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Rembrandt, Three Singers. 1625. Courtesy: Wikipedia
Parable of the rich man, by Rembrandt
Rembrandt, Parable of the rich fool. 1626. Courtesy: Wikipedia

As you scan the paintings for little details that the audio guide describes, feel yourself nodding in understanding. The mini-tutorial on Rembrandt’s art style and life is revealing…and the fact he that actually went bankrupt towards the latter part of his life, will shock you. How would he react if he knew that one of paintings sold for a record $180 million USD million at Christie’s recently!

Rembrandt, Marten Soolmans & Oopjen Coppit
Rembrandt, Marten Soolmans & Oopjen Coppit. 1634. Courtesy: Wikipedia

Close by, is the Van Gogh Museum, home to the largest collection of one of the Netherlands’ most famous artists. Take a coffee break first, and neutralise your senses because Van Gogh is a complete departure from the realist Dutch Baroque style. His creations are the perfect example of symbolism, truly characteristic of the Post-Impressionist era. 

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Van Gogh, Self portrait. 1887. Courtesy: Wikipedia

200 paintings and 400 works on paper adorn its crisp modern walls, including The Bedroom, Irises, Wheat field with Crows and a number of self-portraits. Dramatic, imaginative, rhythmic, and emotional canvases with dense, sharp, swirling brushstrokes in a bright, opulent palette convey his frenzied thoughts and make inanimate objects pulse with life.

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Van Gogh, Bedroom in Arles. 1888. Courtesy: Wikipedia
Van Gogh Irises
Van Gogh, Irises. Courtesy: Wikipedia
Van Gogh-Wheatfield with crows
Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows. 1890. Courtesy: Wikipedia

In the Sunflower series, a wide spectrum of hues express the entire lifespan of the flowers, from the full bloom in bright yellow to the wilting and dying blossoms rendered in melancholy ochre. The brightness of the Provencal summer sun and the artist’s mindset appear in perfect sync. His ecstasy alternates with depression, from the sun-drenched colors and brilliant blue sky of South France to one of his last works, where the dark canvas shows with roads leading nowhere, and ominous black crows taking flight. Hadn’t he walked into a field like this one…and shot himself?

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Van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1889. Courtesy: Wikipedia
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Van Gogh, Six Sunflowers. 1945. Courtesy: Wikipedia

Art appetite satiated, stun your taste buds with some characteristic fusion food that the city flaunts with abandon. More works of art…on your plate this time. Between the gourmet bites, snatch a peek at the skinny gabled merchant houses and delicate church towers lining the charming canal waterways outside the windows. Moment of truth…Amsterdam and art seem synonymous with each other. Creativity flows like blood through the veins of Europe’s best-preserved 17th-century city. Quaint and jarring, traditional and contemporary, relaxed and inviting, delightful and adventurous. Unique. Individualistic. So comfortable in its own skin. Isn’t that what art is all about?

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Discover the arty side of Amsterdam

Flashback to the gilded age of beautiful Budapest

Still as glamorous and grand…

Life seems uneventful along the peaceful road winding up to Gellért Hill, lined with posh residences and embassies. But one look at the Habsburg Citadel and the Budapest Statue of Liberty commemorating defeat of Nazis…and you can sense the reverberations of an unsettling past. From this vantage point, resist the urge to proclaim aloud…“A river runs through it”. Practically the entire map of Budapest stretches across your vision. Bridges over the great Danube stitch Buda on the left river bank, atop leafy hills hiding natural cave systems and hot springs with Pest on the right, crowned with a scene-stealing Gothic Parliament building. Timeless splendour of a timeless city. Best viewing mode: Sepia. So, dive right in.

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Drown in all the colors of the rainbow at Porto

Don’t you dare overlook Portugal’s second city…


This 4th-century port and commercial centre founded by the Romans at the mouth of the river Duoro, actually lent its name to its country, and rightly so. Look deeper and you know how Porto (or Oporto) is the very essence of Portugal. Its a hilly town sans the elan of European cities. It gives the impression of being old and neglected. But its magnificent mansions, opulent churches and a picture-perfect riverside captures the heart. Old Portuguese women cheerfully advertise roasted chestnuts outside colourful building facades, classic tramlines run through broad hilly boulevards and iconic black-white mosaic calcada (flooring) adorns streets and there’s ornamental tile-work everywhere you look. So how about a colour theme to explore this quintessentially vibrant Portuguese city?

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Why Rothenburg is the epitome of German romanticism?

Dollhouse town in Germany…

Factoid: Germany’s second largest city in the middle ages, with 6,000 residents (mammoth for those times) was reduced to poverty during the 30 years war, and virtually faded into oblivion. But life comes full circle. Today it has regained its glory as Germany’s best preserved medieval walled town. Rothenburg ob der Tauber seems like the perfect name for this fairytale place until you translate it into English…red fort on the River Tauber). Mmmm…something less practical, maybe?

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Cocktail of opulence and tragedy at the Habsburg Palace

Vienna’s imperial palace will overwhelm you…

Even as you survey the facade of ornate Habsburg Palace, the winter residence of the Austrian imperials since the 13th-century, you sense fulfilment. The very essence of Vienna’s cityscape is embodied within these walls…several squares and gardens, 18 groups of buildings, 19 courtyards, and 2,600 rooms spread over a massive 60 acres…a mini city in itself!

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Sweet dreams are made of picturesque Positano

Dream destination on the Amalfi Coast…

The entire horizon is covered end-to-end by the Amalfi Coast. The tiny image of a colourful little town carved into the stony hills of the Sorrentine peninsula grows larger and clearer as our ferry draws close. I scan the scene eagerly to identify the famous yellow-tiled dome of the cathedral. This is it…Positano!

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