Get drenched in the stunning beauty of the Calanques cliffs

An unmissable experience off the coast of Marseille

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

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

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Marseille demands at least three days of your trip, if not more. The first experience that I recommend is exploring the Calanques National Park, Europe’s first land-based, aquatic and peri-urban park. If driving/hiking is not your preference, then queue up for a cruise…there’s one every afternoon.

Grab an authentic Moroccan meal as you wait…its even more popular than crepes. Consider La Kabena, a popular Moroccan restaurant on the port. Admire the Tunisian decor till your authentically aromatic couscous is delivered to your table. Since 1976, this eatery has been a favourite for a medley of nationalities who have only one thing in common…the love of exotic food! Join the gang and dig in.

The Calanques cruise takes you along a 20km stretch of high, rocky limestone cliffs over a four-hour trip. So when you’re aboard by 2.30, hurry to choose a good spot in the sun. Like us, maybe you will settle for the side helm, if its too hot to be on the open deck and too dull inside. Did you notice how the boat skims across the harbour, and within minutes you are in the open seas? Or were you staring transfixed at the colour of the water, that royal blue, so sharp, so intense, so Mediterranean? Memories of Greece?

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In the deeper seas, you may have the urge to be as close to the blue as possible. Like me, will you choose the floor, sitting with your back against the wall, knees bent so that your feet rest on side railing in front? You will have to make way for people walking past, but you won’t want to budge from that perfect vantage point. Gaze at the waters, sometimes shutting out the intense blue just to feel the wind and the water sprays on your face. Your hair will be all tangled up with the wind…wild and dishevelled…but that won’t matter. The glorious, sunny day and the unbelievable blue of the sea will captivate all your senses. Record every millisecond in your mind forever.

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The first encounter with the Calanques hits you about 2 miles into the sea. So like the the majestic Fjords, but so unlike them too, the Calanques (from Corsican ‘calanca’ meaning ‘creek’ or ‘inlet’) have been formed by rivers running through fault lines in the mountains. Words escape you. That stunning coastline of white limestone rock cliffs and the utter rawness of nature leaves you staring in silence.

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The boat slows down and closer to the coves, the water changes to a brilliant green, so transparent, you can spot weeds and rocks under the surface. The pristine white rocky walls offsets the crystal clear turquoise waters perfectly. This is home to 140 land species and 60 aquatic species. No wonder the Calanques is a such a precious retreat for the locals and ranks as one of the most touted sights in the country with 1.3 million tourists annually!

Gaze wondrously at the coves of pale sandy beaches in between the cliffs filled with swimmers, sunbathers, picnickers and hikers. Try capturing the changing hues of the water in your cameras, but which picture can do justice? This is a nature lover’s paradise… flora and fauna on the seemingly barren rocks and the pine trees. Slowly, as you glide past underground caves, some over 20,000 yrs old, remind yourself that these are home to prehistoric cave art. Colourful fishing villages and villas nestle into peaceful creeks, tiny islands, squealing seabirds dive into the azure waters, the rays of the afternoon sun gleam on the surface of the water like precious jewels. ‘Gorgeous’ is an understatement.

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Feel your senses heightening in this haven of calm…time seems to stand still. Wonder about the Calanques that have a strange slant to them, as if over millions of years, they had been slipping into the sea. What if some fast-track video could record the slow sliding action! Before you realise it, you are near Cassis, and the last of the Calanques, the one in red stone, from where the boat turns back.

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So far out in the sea, the waves get rough, choppy, high…and on both sides, the brilliant blue continues to hypnotise. A magnetic force draws you to the front helm of the boat in the greed for an even more magnificent view. You throw caution to the winds…and to the captain’s cautionary announcement about high waves (blah, blah, blah). Holding onto the railings, the seat and your camera, you persist…enjoying the sudden sprinkles until they turned into splashes, drenching you completely. The boat rides dangerously on the crashing waves. Thrill no more. Enough adventure on high seas. Putting all your balancing skills into play, retreat into the warm safety inside, averting possible disaster.

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Later, ensconced in the warmth of the underground cabin, as you stroke your matted hair into some semblance of order, reflect on the risk-ridden experience that could have taken a nasty turn. And nearer the harbour, marvel at the contrast, the rough sea now gently rocks the boat, like a lullaby, a tranquility, a peace, soothing ruffled nerves. Nature…so wild, so wonderful, so wilful.

Back on the port, in the late evening, stroll the promenade leisurely, relishing a takeaway sandwich meal, soaking in the night scene, watching the twinkling night lights and the hundreds of docked sailboats with their tall upright masts. Gone are the tourists and the buzz of activity around the stalls. Shopkeepers have folded up their stalls and carried away their goods. The water is pitch dark, a million lights are dancing lightly on the surface. In the darkness, the city is resting. Waterfront cafes are overflowing with the light chatter of diners. From the hill above, the gold-leafed statue of the Notre Dame shines in the darkness, watching over the city below. Eternity is an emotion and its here, now.

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Courtesy: Wikipedia

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Warning! These two villages will make you go Dutch! 

Find your slice of quintessential Holland

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

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Windmills and cheese at Zaanse Schans

Even as you disembark at the bus parking of Zaanse Schans (ZAHN-ze skhahns), you know why the whimsical, quaint town attracts over a million visitors every year. Old-style barns, tradesmen’s workshops and intriguing little crafts shops line the tree-shaded cobbled streets. Picturesque hump-backed bridges adorn tiny canals outside charming gardens where fat chickens cluck. Enchanting Dutch wood houses in green/blue paint sport spotless white window frames and bright terracotta roofs. And a bunch of historic windmills flank the river. Its all real in this working village…yes, actual families live behind those dainty lace-curtain windows!

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There’s every element that a village would need…pewter foundry set in a charming 18th century tea house, a clock museum, a grocer’s shop and a wealthy merchant’s house selling traditional costumes. Also, a cheese farm and a wooden shoe shop as bonus. An authentic open-air museum of traditional Dutch life, you would contemplate. Yet nothing seems the least contrived.

Of the 600 active windmills in the entire Zaan region, 10 working windmills are located here, including a sawmill, a paint mill, an oil mill a and mustard mill. Study the mighty wooden spokes and the rotund bell structure, before heading inside, up a smallish ladder, past huge creaking wooden cogs to the roof. Photo-opp aside, its an occasion to ponder about Holland’s 10,000 windmills that flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries…powering industries, pumping water, grinding grain or draining fields, even constructing fleets, making it an important player in the world trade. Powerhouses of the past…tourist-tickers today.

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Later, partake in a 2000-year old Dutch cheese-making demonstration at the nearby Catherina Hoeve cheese factory. Imbibe the pearls of information, if you can control your growling stomach and distract yourself from the amazing aromas. Cheese ageing varies from 4 weeks for mild taste to over a year for extra aged…the younger the cheese, the creamier the texture; as it gets older, it becomes hard, crumblier and sharper in taste. Holland produces 30 million pounds of cheese per week, including the popular Gouda (mild, almost sweet), Edam, Leidse kanas (dotted with cumin seeds) and Maasdamer (full of holes). What’s your poison?

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If time permits, visit the town of Gouda, where cheese makers and farmers still bring cheese for weighing and selling in the city’s square on Thursday mornings in summer. Otherwise, fulfil your heart’s desire by strolling through the cheese farm counters filled with cheese wheels and overwhelming variants from plain to flavoured with various herbs and spices such as cumin, pepper, fenugreek or chilli pepper. And say cheese!

Village with a view: Volendam

Close by lies Volendam, take the opportunity to explore another delightful little village. Does anyone live here at all, you ask yourself, or is it just all part of a lifelike exhibit? Pretty winding backstreets, weeping willow tree curtains, neatly laid foliage…its a stunning setting! Narrow canals crossed by cantilever bridges lead to rows of coquettish wooden houses with sloped red brick roofs. Each of them equally spaced, as if planned and built the very same day.

Take a leisurely walk through the village, admiring the lovely country homes. Feel the local atmosphere. A window with soft white lace curtains. Adorable curios and collectibles displayed on sills. A cozy armchair with a half-read book. Coffee mugs left on the dining table. A wheelbarrow lying lazily in the backyard. A pair of orange wooden shoes hanging on house entrance wall like a planter with white flowers spilling out. Bikes casually leaning out front. A tiny wooden balcony with a single rattan chair. Unreal, everyday beauty that inspired artists like Renoir and Picasso.

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A sudden left turn brings you to the harbour-fronted High Street, all abuzz with bars, cafes, restaurants, cheese factories, souvenir shops, fish stalls selling herring and smoked eel. This village was created out of a ‘filled dam’ (Dutch for Volendam)…and the top is of the protecting dyke is where you are now. This is where all the action is! Drop your guard, get touristy. Stop at a traditional costume shop, pay to dress up and take photos. Or have a meal at one of the cafes dripping with ambience.

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Old fishermen’s boats pose for effect, eye-catching sailboats bob playfully and a few cruise ships dock lazily. People dot the benches, immersed in the sights of the wave-ridden waters and the unceasing sounds of the cawing seagulls. Bulky-built bronzed fishermen in baggy rough breeches converse in unfamiliar language about the catch of the day. Women in vermilion, yellow and green Dutch costumes sporting high, pointed black bonnets sell pickled herrings from baskets.

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You are submerged in the characteristic beauty of Holland. Its still-fresh appearance belies its 14th-century roots. A lively canvas is spread out before you. And you are a tiny figure immersed inside this gorgeous painting. Blend in. Fade out. Its inevitable.

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Five perfectly crafted sweet delights and how to savour them

Rediscover sweet street treats from across Europe

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

Some of us may take offence to the word, ‘dessert’ (from French desservir or un-serve). Because, we can gorge on these tantalising temptations not just as a grand finale to a fine meal, but often indulge purely for sweetness sake. So, tastebud alert, people! Dig deeper into dessert layers. Rediscover sweet street treats from Europe.

Scheenballen: Scrumptiousness to a whole new level

The signature dish of the charming German town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, looks like a deeply wrinkled tennis-ball and has the cutest nickname ever (Franconian snowball). This traditional sweet made of deep-fried shortcrust dough comes in over 20 varieties of divine dipping and fillings, beside the classical sugar-dusted ones…including chocolate, nuts, marzipan, cinnamon, caramel, hazelnut, lemon, strawberry, even champagne truffle! It can be stored for eight weeks without refrigeration, so rethink your souvenir list.

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Blast from the past: Roots as old as the 17th century, when Schneeballen were one of the essential food supplies for soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War in Europe. Over time, they evolved into wedding celebration treats! Fairness in love and war…

Know the rules: You know you’re sampling a good one, if its crunchy, crispy and chewy. Don’t try to bite into it like an apple, it will just crack up and fall. Instead, break it up inside the brown paper bag in which it is delivered. And eat the more manageable smaller pieces. ‘Easy as pie’!

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Quest for best: Raise the bar with the leaders…venture to Diller de Schneeballenknig store in Heidelberg or Rothenberg.

Pastéis de nata: Pure perfection in pastry

Portugal has bestowed an exquisite gift to the world…a iconic olden-yellow tartlet filled with deliciously rich, creamy, baked egg custard. Food heaven? This is it.

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Blast from the past: 17th century Catholic monks of Lisbon’s Jeronimos Monastery created an egg tart pastry from yolk leftovers used for starching of clothes and clearing of wines. And we are eternally grateful!

Know the rules: If the pastry on the bottom and side is flaky, crispy, delicately buttery, the custard filling is creamy, smooth and slightly wobbly and the cinnamon dust is feather-light, you’ve hit bullseye. No flavours of lemon or vanilla, please. Look for a crowded pastelaria. Enjoy at all times of the day. Do NOT ask for a spoon. Just bite. And have a support handy…in case you start swaying with bliss.

Quest for best: The Pasteis de Belem bakery has been holding onto a closely guarded secret since 1937…the original pastéis de nata recipe, which is handed down only to ‘specially initiated master confectioners’ who handcraft 20,000 pastries a day. Join that queue, even if it means 30-40 minutes. Merely the warm fragrance of these freshly baked goodies wafting in the air would be motivation enough. I promise.

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Waffles: World of wonderful yumminess

Creativity was not a criteria when they named it Waffle (it means ‘honeycomb of bee’). But who cares when you’re lost in the delectable sensations of savouring a square-shaped Brussels waffle with its airy batter, or the oval Liège counterpart with caramelized sugar chunks inside and a gooey, rich, sticky texture!

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Blast from the past: A chef of the Prince-Bishops of Liège had a surge of innovation by adding vanilla to dough, and soon the recipe was over the Kingdom of Belgium. In the Middle Ages, waffles were sold as street-side snacks outside Churches. By the early 19th century, many Brussels families jumped into business with modest window counters in their homes or fancier tea salons. Since then, Belgium’s reputation as a waffle craft master has never ebbed.

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Know the rules: Let your nose guide you…a deep, toasty smell is a good indicator. You want a crisp, airy, fluffy golden brown crust, light on the inside, baked individually in a specialized cast iron press. Eat by hand, piping hot, off a paper plate. Its not a breakfast food, but an afternoon treat. The king is the waffle itself, not oodles of overpowering toppings.

Quest for the best: Get yours hands sticky with the ultimate sampler, head to 1829-dated Maison Dandoy, located Rue Charles Buls (a short walk from the Grand Place).

Macarons: Melt-in-your-mouth delicacy

These famous French desserts are colorful, delicately flavoured, with a thin crust, a layer of moist almond meringue and a silky smooth filling. They come in all kinds of flavors, from classic salted caramel to raspberry, pistachio, chestnut, basil lime, rose, white chocolate, lavender, even fig. Surprise…the French celebrate ‘Macaron Day’ on 20th March.

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Blast from the past: Macaron comes from the Italian maccherone meaning “fine dough”. The first macarons appeared in Venetian monasteries in the 8th century. Catherine di Medici imported it to France in the 16th century. But the dessert went public when two Carmelite nuns started baking and selling simple cookies made of ground almonds, egg whites, and sugar.

Know the rules: A smooth, firm, light, non-sticky filling, a shell that crackles with the first bite and a smooth, thin cookie surface. Sweetness shouldn’t take over in a macaron, the flavors should seep through easily.

Quest for the best: In 1900s, Parisian pastry shop and café Ladurée combined two cookies and filled them with ganache. Ladurée changed the rules of the macaron and that’s why it still rules the macaron world. Try for yourself and see how.

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Gelato: Glorious goodness for all seasons

Gelato (meaning ‘frozen’ in Italian), is a wholesome frozen dessert, much like ice cream, but with half the fat and with less air whipped into it, making it much denser.

Blast from the past: 12,000 years ago, ice and snow were used to cool drinks served during royal banquets and religious ceremonies in Mesopotamia. Cut to the 11th century and Arabs developed shrb, “sugar syrup”…this eventually became the predecessor of sorbet in Sicily and sherbet in India. In the 1600s, Florentine architect and artist Bountalenti invented the first gelato and soon enough, sorbetti carts were the talk of the town.

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Know the rules: Find a gelateria with personality, maybe Italian signage, local customers and and a long queue. Ensure they have covered, metal round containers, not artificially whipped mounds. Natural, seasonal fruit ingredients, muted colors is the key to authentic taste. Like the locals, make gelato your pastime, anytime, even breakfast is not out of bounds.

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Quest for the best: Seek the ‘The world’s best gelato’ at Gelateria Dondoli in the quaint medieval town of San Gimignano, near Siena. They’ve won a ‘Gelato World Cup’ several times!

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. So, count the memories and not the calories. Crave on!!

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Are you fired up for lively, lovable and laid-back Lisbon?

Feel the vivacious vibe of Portugal’s capital…

If you’re arriving in Lisbon from South Portugal by coach like us, you will probably be riding the cable-stayed 17 km long Vasco Da Gama bridge straddling the Tagus River. While you make a mental note of the fact that you’re on the longest bridge in Europe, are you unconsciously cooking up an image of Portugal’s capital? Don’t do it…let it reveal itself in all its glory!

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That adorable, offbeat Tuscan town you need to see

One wall, 100 churches and countless brick homes…

A short 30-minutes train ride from touristy Pisa lies a lesser-known, surprising little Tuscan town. An important Latin settlement since 180 BC. Remarkably well-preserved. Dripping with atmosphere. Quietly redefining picturesque. Entirely car-free. And just 90,000 locals. Love Lucca. There’s no way not to!

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Soak in the most stunning Austrian countryside ever

And also relive your ‘Sound of Music’ memories…

Your inspiration for visiting Salzburg may not be ‘Sound of Music’ (one of the world’s best-loved movies shot in and around here). But you can’t resist total recall, because all over this picturesque Austrian town, there are posters of ‘Sound of Music’ excursions that will appeal to the ‘classic movie’ lover in you. All this hype is more than justified…after all, the blockbuster grossed more money than any musical in history and even bagged five Oscars! Not only is it a fun opportunity to relive scenes and locations of the song-and-dance sequences starring Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and seven chirpy children…but a fabulous way to soak in the stunning Austrian countryside. So, are you in?

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Which is the most charming promenade in Europe?

Riva in Split is my all-time favourite…

If you’ve taken the bus from Zagreb to Split, you will literally descend upon the city from high above the curving mountainous road basking in the birds eye view. Habitat springs up as if out of nowhere. An average looking semi-modern city, no spectacle so far. But hold on. You haven’t reached old Split yet. Nearer the shore, older mansions and stone buildings take over…and then, like a curtain rising to reveal the stage, the road gives way to a vast vision of the the sparkling blue Adriatic waters, hugging a busy port filled with dozens of Jadrolinija cruise ships and boats. Buses moving in and out, cars inching along, travellers alighting from and board all forms of land and sea transport…widespread, yet organised chaos! Don’t get disheartened just yet.

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