One fine day in the city of three cultures

Go to Spain’s original capital, Toledo…

Best day trip from Madrid? Definitely Toledo. You’re still counting the toro (bull) signs along the lush landscapes framed by grand mountains, when you realise that the 70 km have whizzed past. So freeze frame as you approach the Tagus river, because the first view of Spain’s former capital will be etched in your memory forever. 2,500 years of history are crammed into this magical town made up of sand-colored stone buildings and walls, perched on a rocky outpost protected on three sides by a natural moat. ‘Holy Toledo!’ these words WILL tumble out. Guaranteed.

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

Wide pan as you troop over the historic bridge from the main bus parking. Smooth slide 100 meters up in zigzag escalators, from ground level to the gate of the city walls, where Toledo’s coat of arms is proudly displayed. Modern technology merging seamlessly into the medieval heritage. This is where you enter the narrow cobblestone streets of one of Spain’s largest historic centres and a UNESCO World Heritage site boasting of over 100 monuments including churches, synagogues, mosques and fortresses…twisting streets, irregular terrain. Thankfully, colorful signs help you navigate.

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

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Overhead, suspended canvas canopies with elaborate emblems and crests offer respite from the hot summer sun. Let your curiosity get the better of you. Pop in and out of shops. Disappear into tight pebbly alleyways. Trace your fingers over the ancient surfaces of the gold-brown brick buildings. Follow the shadows of the hanging potted plants. Make invisible outlines of the elegantly Juliet-balconies and the ceramic-tiled roofs. Think about why streets are too narrow for even the sun to break in…a natural cooling architectural feature, perhaps.

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Indulge in some old-fashioned flashback to the times when Toledo was known as the ‘City of the Three Cultures’ and Christianity-Jewish-Muslim religions co-existed unrestricted. From the Romans in 192 BC to the Visigoths during the mid-6th century and the Arabs (Moors) in the 8th century, invaders were careful not to destroy hallowed ground, as Toledo was considered the holiest city in Spain in the Catholic faith. Thanks to that, the three distinct architectural styles of Moorish, Jewish and Christian Gothic, are still scattered all over these ancient streets. Lap it all up, every glorious corner you can sneak into. Interestingly, Spain’s largest Jewish population once flourished in this ‘Second Jerusalem’. Their remaining homes, museums and shopping lanes are big draws. Don’t miss the two former synagogues in the Jewish Quarter, dating from pre-Inquisition days. Lovely arches and intricate stone tracery to keep you busy for a couple of hours.

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Take a low-down on the famous Greek-born artist, El Greco (‘The Greek’) or Domenikos Theotocopoulos, who had found employment in Toledo. Familiar with his unique painting style? Icon-like faces from his Greek homeland, bold colour and twisting, elongated bodily poses inspired by Italy, and mystical spirituality from Catholic Spain. Witness the purity of his art in his most famous work, ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgaz’ at the moorish Chapel of Santo Tome. Salute his brilliance.

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

Make time to halt at Plaza del Ayuntamiento, a small square in the old center where a fountain gurgles to your right, the City Hall is behind you, and right ahead is the highlight of the town, rising high above the cramped medieval clutter. Toledo Cathedral is possibly the most Gothic and most Spanish of all cathedrals in the country. Inside, it is laden with elaborate wrought-iron work, lavish wood carvings, colourful 500-year-old stained glass windows, carved silver and wooden sculptures, gleaming gold, marble, and alabaster, and numerous chapels filled with religious art and the tombs of cardinals. You can’t help whispering ‘wow’ as you drift among the pillars, imagining a time when the light bulbs were candles, the tourists were pilgrims, and the windows provided spiritual and physical light, not photo opportunities. The spectacular altar of real gold on wood is a magnificent Gothic artwork. The sacristy is full of masterpieces by the likes of Goya, Titian, Rubens, Velázquez, Caravaggio, and Bellini, not to mention 18 El Grecos, including his masterpiece ‘The Disrobing of Christ’. Swoon.

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Courtesy: Wikipedia
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Souvenir time? Stop for a tasty Moorish treat, made of sugar, honey and almond mazapán. Choose from different designs, shapes and fruity flavors, including small watermelons and banana shapes. Heavy and filling…but who counts calories on vacation. Aiming for something heavier? Toledo used to be world-renowned for high-quality steel, weapons and swords and various armies, including the Roman legion, used the Toledo swords. There are still some shops, like Mariano Zamorano Swords and Toledo Sword Shop, where craftsmen make swords. Too heavy for you?

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

On your way back, from the bus, watch the sunset cast its orange glow on the Alcázar Fortress towering above the tiers of colorful Spanish buildings. Royal residence of Carlos V’s, Europe’s most powerful king, turned into state prison, turned into Army Museum. The still waters of the Tagus River wrapped around the picturesque hill are flowing under the medieval bridges. The sky has darkened and yellow lights are starting to twinkle among the hundreds of buildings creating a brilliant, silent setting. There’s an old Spanish saying…“Until you’ve seen Toledo, you have not seen Spain.” Don’t you agree?

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

 

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Toledo, the ancient city of the three cultures, is the best day trip from Madrid, Spain

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Intoxicated by the most beautiful villages in Provence

Find life in the French countryside…

Beyond the artistic allure of Paris and the ritzy glamour of the Riviera, lies an offbeat France. Where old-world romance lives in the maze of cobbled medieval streets of centuries-old hilltop stone villages. Where the pace of life is slow and simple pleasures still count. Where the aroma of fresh baguettes wafts from age-old bakeries, locals linger at tiny home-run cafes on warm afternoons, fountains tinkle away in sleepy corners, and crumbling manors silent spell aristocracy of their owners.

Its the quintessential French rural landscape, overflowing with the best of produce including veggies, fruits, herbs, wines, olives and truffle. With scenic roads winding through rocky outcrops under eternal blue skies. And endless lavender fields to make you go weak at the knees. So, surrender to the rustic charms of the Luberon valley. Pick three of the 160 villages rated as ‘the most beautiful’ by the Plus Beaux Villages de France Association.

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Menerbes: Life is beautiful 

The dreamy view gets clearly as you roll closer along that enchanting Provencal path to paradise. A sun-bathed cluster of stone dwellings perched high up on a grassy hill, surrounded by magnificent unbroken views of the Luberon mountain and miles of vineyards and open countryside. Park in the square below and walk up the streets leading to the village of Menerbes. The large brass alphabets embossed on a stone wall of a little shop, “La Vie Est Belle” (life is beautiful) say it all. Could it be a more gorgeous day? Wander through the empty narrow streets with small cafés and hand-painted shop-signs, carefully restored medieval houses and quiet corners.

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Explore the clock tower in the small open square, the miniature 16th century Citadelle, cemetery and the Chateau du Castellet. Practice time telling with the ancient sundial. Ogle at the impossibly perfect views and drown with envy. Or float on clouds…because you’re part of the scenery now. Poke your nose into the prettiest of stone houses. But be careful, trespasser…as you sneak into the enclosed garden of a large, exclusive looking private villa. Whoa! Instead of shooing you away, the owner graciously invites you inside, right to the exotic back garden complete with its sky-view swimming pool! That’s Lady Luck with one of her broadest smiles.

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Roussillon: Red is the colour of love

The winding hill roads of the National Park du Luberon are drenched in an ochre-infused landscape. Any wonder its called the French Colorado? Destination next: the red village of Roussillon, situated in the heart of one of the biggest ochre deposits in the world. All around is a blaze of red cliffs and quarries, perfectly set against the blue Provencal sky and the lush green pine trees. A picturesque maze of streets and squares, with houses showing off their technicolor glory…yellow, peachy pinks, bright orange to darkest red. Flamboyant, cheerful facades highlighted even more with brightly painted shutters and doors. A photo opportunity at every step, every doorway.

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With the fragrance and flavour of lavender flavoured gelato to transport you into heaven, debate upon this old legend of the region. A young girl was married to the lord of Roussillon fell in love with a local musician, who was killed by the husband in a fit of jealousy. The ill-fated romance turned immortal as she jumped into the valley. They say that the earth went red with her blood, and that’s how it is till today. Believe it or not, it does add to the drama of the scene.   

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Gordes: Save the best for last

The most photographed and the most visited of all the villages in the region is built out of a high rock. Gordes with its narrow, steep cobbled streets flanked by tall, ancient purple ivy-covered houses, shuttered windows, church and 12th century castle will win your heart. Despite the sprinkle of luxury shops and restaurants around the village square, it appears medieval and untouched. You half expect a horse carriage to emerge out of some corner, and a lady in a flowing gown stepping out, clutching her billowing skirts, high coiffure and even higher hat announcing her lineage. But its just wide-eyed you for now. In the time-weathered stone streets, quiet squares, peeping inside the traditional workshops of the artisans.

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As you exit the town, consider the unending rows of stone boundary walls hiding luxurious villas…unthinkably high price-tagged real estate where celebrities, artists and wealthy jet setters keep exclusive residences. A few minutes down the craggy hills of Luberon is the 12th-century L’Abbey of Senanque, founded by Cistercian monks, their home and place of worship till today. Imagine the fragrance everywhere, when lavender is in season! That most famous lavender shot of Provence is shot here, so take back one of your own. Besides lavender oils, essences, perfumes, soaps, lotions which the monks make and sell on the abbey grounds. Tough competition, L’Occitaine! A lifetime of monkhood, a lifetime of lavender, maybe not such a bad bargain after all…

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As your head hits the pillow that night, you’re thinking…they have glorious weather. Plus unmatched natural beauty. Plus unspoilt villages. Why don’t more people come to Provence? Maybe its for the best 🙂

 

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Intrigued by the most beautiful buildings in Prague?

Interpret the language of Art Nouveau…

Some of us love cities with a past. For their narrow, wobbly cobbled roads and oil-lamp pedestals. For their charming places of worship, old wooden bridges, royal retreats and dark dungeons. For their imperfect half-timbered houses, impeccable tasteful mansions, vibrant tiled courtyards and rough red-brick tiled roofs. Because there’s more to brick, mortar and stone than mere eye candy. If you let them, buildings will whisper sweet-nothings in your ear. The wavelength needs a little more adjusting in a buzzing city like Prague, but you can still tune in to the fascinating narratives. As you trace the evolution of the ‘Mother of Cities’ from 9th-century Romanesque to 14th-century Gothic to 19th-century Art Nouveau and Cubist eras, you may find one of these styles particularly intriguing, as I did.

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 Down with the ugly

But first, flashback to late 1880s to early 1890s. Rapid industrialization and mass production of cheap goods. Depressing times for artists, designers, and architects. But the creative spirit always manages to break free. Revolution of the ‘We-Hate-Uglies’. And rise of Art Nouveau (French for ‘new art’). Craftsmanship and art push back with a sweet vengeance. This time, wiping out the boundaries between elite and public consumption. Whipping up a new fervour for all things beautiful and refined. Art seeps into everyday life, for the first time.

Taking huge inspiration from nature, Art Nouveau unfolds as the first real modern style ever. With themes revolving around elements like leaves, vines, flowers, birds, animals and insects. Asymmetrical shapes, elegant arches, graceful curves, colourful mosaics, dainty stained glass and Japanese motifs become central to design. Decorative and functional emerge as the twin mantras. Curiosity piqued yet? Wait for it…

Much ado about Mucha

Brilliant designer and prominent Czech artist Alphonse Mucha rises to fame, turning Prague into a centre for Art Nouveau. He adorns some of Prague’s finest buildings, including a painted ceiling in the Art Nouveau masterpiece, the Municipal House and the stained glass window of the majestic St. Vitus Cathedral. Mucha’s work is fresh, sinuous and elegant…each composition overflowing with delicate tendrils, swirling lines and gorgeous, bejewelled, flower-decked women in luxuriant gowns. Pale pastels and vibrant accents. Unrestricted celebration of femininity in a overtly masculine world. From textile, paintings, jewellery, clothing and promotional posters to architectural elements like grills, stairways, doors, tiles, window glass, wallpaper and furniture…everything acquires a new status. Anything can evolve into art! The demand for Art Nouveau mushrooms. And Prague neighbourhoods refine. Into eye candy. Go seek. And you shall find!

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On the treasure hunt

The streets of Prague are a visual delight. Identifying Art Nouveau Baroque from among the plethora of Gothic, Neo-Classical, Neo-Renaissance, Cubist or Art Deco structures is a strain for the amateur eye, but the clues are fairly simple. The first and most obvious one is the trio of colours that define Art Nouveau…usually yellow, green and gold. Next look for the delicate, floral motifs and vine trails inspired by nature. Or the extravagant painted frescoes. Then train your eyes to spot the elements that are functional plus aesthetic. Like the iron statuettes supporting a balcony. But the real proof lies in the camouflaged ‘branding’. A snake motif on the doors of a chemist store, an ancient symbol of healing and medicine. Or a ship logo on the roof of a merchant trading house. Or a literary inscription on the front of a book store. Getting the drift?

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Kickstart your Art Nouveau course with the inimitable Prague ‘Pasaz’ experience. Wander through the woven network of ornamental, arcaded passageways belonging to the 20th-century. The epitome of the unconventional, indulgent, prosperous trading city that Prague once was. These temperature-resistant sheltered spaces or welcoming walkways are lined with snazzy shops, cute cafes and often house a Diavolo (theatre) and a fine restaurant or two. Treat yourself…discover a new route, stumble upon a delightful courtyard hideaway, take a break from the bustle of the rushed street outside in these hidden spaces. Or just admire the ornate glass ceilings, unusual sculptures and exquisite floor designs.

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Enrol in the ultimate ‘tutorial’ at the Municipal House, the most spectacular icon of Art Nouveau in the city of a hundred spires. Setting the stage for a grand entry is an imposing green-copper dome, filigree metalwork and flamboyant reliefs representing history, literature, painting, music and architecture. Certainly, nothing less majestic would have fit the bill for its former avatar as the Royal Court from 1383 to 1483. Inside is abundant proof of a fabulous 20th-century revival…vivid coloured glasswork, stylised light scone fittings, gilded decorations, gorgeous ceramics and super-sized murals. The Mucha stamp too…but of course! Leave supremely educated. Come back for a sumptuous evening…a classical concert at Smetana Hall, Prague’s biggest concert hall beneath an exquisite glass dome or a fine meal at one of the formal restaurants, maybe.

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Craving more? Challenge yourself with a refresher module, hunting for the endless jewels scattered all over the Old Town and Wenceslas Square. Venture into Vinohrady, a posh residential neighbourhood with an artsy, hip vibe where leafy tree-lined streets, lined with graceful villas embody the essence of Art Nouveau. No less impressive is the 13-century old Jewish Quarter, where a crumbling cemetery crowded with 10,000 tombs and six stunning synagogues fight for attention with hundreds of splendid specimens of Art Nouveau.

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Once you get a hang of it, you’ll be hooked, so stop keeping count. A giant flower medallion studded on a wall, pillars wrapped up with leafy creepers, elaborately framed windows, gold painted frescoes, curvy iron grill balconies and a plethora of symbolic emblems. You know you’ve reached breaking point when you start hallucinating…no, those are not vine trails, its your sauerkraut!

 

We explored Prague’s modern architectural wonders on a fabulous ‘Art Nouveau and Modernism’ tour with Riccardo Cacciotti of Context Travel. They deliver what they promise: ‘Tours for the intellectually curious’. All opinions are my own.

 

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Learn how to identify Art Nouveau architecture. The clues are fairly simple.

The most famous castles of Germany hide dark secrets

Inside Ludwig’s mind and his residences… 

Shy, imaginative, moody teen madly obsessed with classical music composer. Grows to be an eccentric recluse, elusive bachelor and a deeply indulgent patron of the same classical music composer. Harmless. Until you know the full story. That he’s a unwilling regent, hailing from the Wittelbach dynasty, Europe’s longest ruling dynasty. So indifferent to politics, that he ultimately eats into his empire’s financial foundations to fund his larger-than-life castle building projects. Dedicated to his opera god. Richard Wagner. No surprise then, that Ludwig II, (Mad King Ludwig, as he’s nicknamed), takes the crown for being Bavaria’s most controversial historical figure. Ironical, considering his head was perennially uneasy wearing a crown!

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Do you know why Antwerp is timeless like its diamonds?

Sparkling like a diamond, forever…

Two hours by bus from Brussels will land you in Antwerp, Europe’s second largest port. Fascinating records of legacy. 12th-century centre for tapestry wool import-export. Napoleon’s favoured base for easy access to attack England. Commercial capital of the world with a humungous population of 100,000. And home to the world’s first stock market. Beat those!

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A breathtaking hike in the Bohemian Switzerland to amaze you

Spectacular bounties of nature in Czech Republic…

There are travellers who thrive on hiking and trekking. Me…I’m not in that league. Yet, a trip to Bohemian Switzerland National Park was topping the ‘this-we-have-to-do’ list, while we drew up our Czech Republic itinerary. Just what was I thinking? I don’t know. A comfy coach that conveniently drops us off to ridiculously high vantage points for insta-worthy photo-opps, maybe. I’m aerially-challenged. And vertigo-prone. And exercise-averse. And plain lazy. (Nose wrinkle). But obsessively fascinated by that Youtube clipping on my laptop.

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How to have a perfect (rainy) day at Lake Como

Loving Bellagio and Varenna, despite the rain…

Early morning, last day of Italy trip. Bed stumble, groggy walk, window peek, cringe. Wet roads…not on Lake Como day! But if you travel shoulder season to Europe, like us, a frequent drizzle will be a constant companion, so its best to make your peace with the clouds. You can’t change the weather, but you can certainly change the shape of your facial muscles. Brave the rains with a smile!

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