One surreal day in the achingly beautiful town of Bruges

Bruges is the loveliest canal town…

A labyrinth of meandering canals, cobbled streets and centuries of history. Nicknamed Venice of the North. UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to a fifth of the city’s 105,000 residents.  And just hour-and-half by bus from Belgium’s capital. Compelled to witness the aching beauty of Bruges?

Set the mood right with a stroll in the Minnewater Park, the beautiful green lungs of the city. Cross the Lovers Bridge over the Lake of Love to ensure eternal togetherness. Slow down near the 30 white-painted gabled houses built around a central green courtyard dotted with tall trees. That’s the Beguinage, a convent-like shelter established in 1250 for single and widowed women. Benedictine nuns still live here, so technically, you’re an intruder. Careful with those crisp leaves crunching beneath your feet. Shhhh!

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A second canal bridge and little gabled houses indicate that the Old Town is near. At the corner of Wijngaardstraatm, the famous Christmas decorations store, Kathe Wohlfahrt greets you with festive flair. The aroma of waffles and Belgian fries floats up from windows counters and pushcarts. People throng outside boutique hotels, fine restaurants, attractive bistros, hip creperies and cafes under green striped awnings. Tables overflow with mussels served in big metal pots and creamy fish stew. Linger over a mouth-watering meal under the warm sun.

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Quit the main walkways where you have to avoid stepping onto others’ toes. Head for the cobblestoned alleyways lined with vintage shops and minuscule chapels. Listen to the sound of your footsteps echoing in solitude. Peek into the tiny window-fronts of lace shops showcasing home decor items made of the famed Bruges bobbin lace. Testimony to the history of a painstaking, local skill dating back to the early Renaissance era, when Emperor Charles V decreed that lace-making should be a compulsory skill for all girls in convents and beguinages throughout Flanders.

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Wearing lace was a status symbol then and the lace trade reached its peak in the 18th century. Flanders linen was considered most superior in all Europe in the Middle Ages and Bruges was the most important outlet for textile and lace. When the Zwin channel silted up and Bruges lost out as a transportation hub, Bruges lace and cloth industries saved the city from financial ruin. Sadly, today, Belgium’s entire lace weaving industry comprises of just 1,000 weavers who produce everything manually. Some pieces are so intricate that they require the use of over 200 bobbins. Study the delicate reminders of those times…doilies, tablecloths, table napkins, cushion covers, wedding veils, handkerchiefs, using filigree-style ribbons and chains…from affordable machine-made copies and to genuine and expensive vintage articles. Take home an exquisite reminder.

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Bruges is nirvana for chocolate lovers, with over 50 expert chocolatiers within 50 square miles. This chocolate capital of Belgium even has its own official chocolate – the Bruges Swan. Think superior ingredients and obsessive adherence to old world manufacturing techniques. At Wollestraat, the city’s chocolate hotspot, shops are packed shoulder to shoulder on both sides. Each enticing display of pralines, figurines and slabs is quicksand of sweet temptation. Delicious variety lines the glass shelves…classic milk to almond praline to pure liqueur filled gourmet delights…countless types from the simple to the intricate… each with their own sophisticated flavours and heavenly textures. Traditional flavours to wildly experimental ones including black olive, tomato, wasabi, fried onion, bacon, curry, basil. Prices for chocolates are generally between 50 cents and 1 euro each and chocolate is sold by weight, starting with 100-grams. Apparently, locals buy fresh chocolate like others pastry or bread. Stock up! 

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The broad street opens onto the Markt. Enjoy a float, watch jugglers, listen to street musicians and stare at the medieval architecture. The large, ornate, neo-Gothic Provincial Courthouse, (a 19th-century construction), harmonizes perfectly with the older medieval structures. On one side, quintessentially Dutch, gabled red brick buildings cordon off the space. Old stone slabs, which traders would have used to cut and sell meat or cloth, are still preserved. Tiny figures soak in amazing views from the Belfort (Belfry), a 13th century bell tower looming above everything else at 83 meters. You’re inside a postcard…web of canals, little roof terraces and a flat landscape towards distant wind farms.

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On another side of the square, restaurants with outdoor tables are filled with hungry patrons enjoying the afternoon sun, sipping Belgian beers, digging into luscious steaks and indulging in that evergreen European pastime…people watching. The hypnotic clops of horses’ hooves and the regular quarterly chimes of the manually operated 47-bell carillon of the square’s belfry is like music to the ears. Detour to explore the tallest structure and the second tallest brickwork tower in the world, the 122 meter high Church of Our Lady, graced with Michelangelo’s famous Madonna and Child…in black.

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Picturesque canals shimmer as they flow under arched stone footbridges, white swans skim gracefully over the waterways, flower-draped, quaint cobblestone streets curve past turreted manor houses with gabled roofs and and shops overflow with antique treasures. Romance exudes from every nook and cranny. Eager-eyed tourists take leisurely canal cruises along the Reien, hooked to local anecdotes while gazing at delightful views of Bruges’ weathered facades. Could anyone tire of these historic buildings, bridges and vines draped down to touch the water? While away lazy moments and drink in the tranquil beauty. Bruges has taken centuries in the making…savour every vista with languor.

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Canal houses face the water, their stepped gables on steeply pitched roofs capped with slate or stone for easy access. The stunning Flemish brickwork facades blaze in the sunlight. Houses flaunt wooden medieval doors, stone gargoyles, circular and teardrop-shaped windows with diamond-cut traditional crown glass, intricate lace curtains and reliefs on walls showing apprentices at work. Indulge in the medieval fantasy.

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As the curtain goes down on a brilliant day in the prettiest town of Belgium, chew on this. Thanks to transportation on these waterways, brewing and textiles had reached their zenith in the 14th-century, laying the foundations for a magnificent city, where agriculture could not be the mainstay. And look now, the canals still run the town…not with textiles and beer, but tourism.

 

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An ode to the most eternal of Paris experiences (Part 2)

Classic experiences on the Right Bank of Paris…

Its the pulsing heart of art, culture and fashion, where the creme de la creme has lived for decades. The buzzing commercial center of the city, and home to a majority of big businesses and banks. Overflowing with grand boulevards, manicured gardens, symmetrical squares and majestic monuments. Also too many people and too many cars. How can anyone resist the sparkling vitality, exuberance and indomitable spirit of the Right Bank of Paris? Dive right in with these all-time favourite experiences…

1. Dissolve into a panorama

A bright sunny morning is ideal for a visit to the lively, youthful neighbourhood of Montmartre. It belies the origin of its name, ‘mountain of the martyr’ Saint Denis, the bishop of Paris, who was decapitated on the hill in 250 AD. Head straight to the white dome of Roman Catholic Basilica Sacre-Coeur, perched at the summit of the 430-feet Montmartre grassy hill. Below is the surrounding 18th arrondissement, famous for its Place Pigalle night clubs and the Moulin Rouge, Paris’ most famous cabaret with its trademark windmill. Find an empty spot on the steps filled with hundreds and blend in with the chaos. Bask in the sun and enjoy the view of one of the most elegant cities in the world.

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At the nearby Place du Tertre, dozes of artists dab paint on their easels, creating tourist subjects or live portraits, others display their portfolio and smile invitingly at passersby. Merge with the crowds and find street art taking shape under deft, seasoned hands…a reminder of Montmarte’s past. From the mid to late 1800s, struggling artists, writers and performers lived here in cheap lodgings amidst its working windmills and narrow, winding streets. People crowd at food stalls selling local fromage (cheese), glaces (icecreams), crepes, jambon (ham) and biscuits. Finally, escape from the crammed square, its busy souvenir shops and spattering of cafes, and retreat into the quieter back streets of the hill village. In little houses like these, Pissarro, Degas, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir and Picasso had once lived and worked…long before they became legends. Find remnants of the arty past.

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2. Rub shoulders with upper crust

The most famous theatre in the world stand cramped between surrounding buildings and encircled by rows and rows of vehicles in the heart of the city. The resplendent Opera (Palais Garnier) certainly deserves a more generous expanse. Study the lavish facade, 16 monolithic columns and frieze-decorated arches, the great green copper dome with the gold statue of the Greek God of the Arts, Apollo, playing his lyre. Flash back in time. Flashback to times of ‘Phantom of the Opera’. When affluent ladies dressed in their sumptuous gowns and exquisite jewels would walk up the imposing Grand Staircase (its shallow steps were designed so that even their ankles didn’t show!). “Oooh la la!” For some reason, you are acutely conscious of all the banks…in those days, they would have stayed open till late hours so that jewels could be replaced into the vaults after curtains fell. Back to now…gone are the gowns, jewels and the aristocrats…opera is as much for you and me.

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Under the green outdoor canopies of the luxurious Cafe de La Paix of the Intercontinental Hotel located across from the Palais Garnier, people sit facing the chaos of cars, sipping their 11 euro cafe cremes. A coffee is a coffee is a coffee? Not here! Cafe de la Paix is no less than an institution by itself, and why not…Oscar Wilde and Georges Clemenceau used to frequent it once upon a time. Go on, indulge!

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2. Retail it up

Walk on till you reach the Boulevard Haussmann, home to the legendary Grands Magasins (literally, big stores or department stores). The huge, block-long Printemps and Galleries Lafayette, actually merit a place in the list of Paris’ must-see places because of their lavish architecture and also how the way they revolutionized the art of retail in France. In the early 20th century, Printemps was known for its Art Nouveau facade, its grand 42-meter high domed hall, a huge spiral staircase, floral-inspired mosaic tiles and impressive facade. With its sprawling staircases, Art Nouveau balconies, and glittering dome, Galleries Lafayette is a 5-storey mecca for the latest fashion. Today, a flagship of French style, the world’s largest departmental store houses 70,000 m² over 3 buildings and contains 14 restaurants offering world cuisine. A few hours of rigorous shopping are in order.

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When exhaustion and hunger pangs call, stroll across to Lafayette Gourmet. An area spanning 3,500m² across 2 floors and no room for disappointment. The food hall is a feast for the eyes and the taste buds, mouth-watering delicatessen and a foodie’s paradise. Cuisines and flavours from all over the globe are displayed at tasting bars (Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Lebanese), including foie gras, truffles, an oyster bar, seafood platters, charcuteries, caviar and unending variety of desserts from high-end patisseries, chocolatiers and gelatiers. Go with my recommendation…pick the Greek stall for a delicious meal of stuffed peppers, lamb koftas, tomato-zucchini salsa and bulgur wheat couscous. Wow…you could eat here everyday!

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4. Submerge in an art deluge

Stop to admire a street band performing classical strains in a square. Passion and concentration reflect equally on the face of a 60-something violinist and a 20-something cello-player. A group gathers around in a circle, some of them squat on the ground, intending to stay on till the end of the performance. “Encore!” When the band packs up, there is a handful of euro coins in front of them. Many more stops in many more squares lie ahead.

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But first…the world’s largest museum, home to one of the most impressive art collections in history. Even if you have online tickets to beat the humungous queues, you will still have to walk behind 100 people to get inside the Louvre. Da Vinci code revisited. In the vast courtyard, surrounded on three sides by the magnificent, baroque palace, and the contrasting modern Inverted Pyramid on the man-made pond, look ahead through the gates of the Jardin Tulleries along the straight road that leads through Place de la Concorde and Champs de Elysees. Marvellous vision and town planning. “Parfait!”

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It is impossible to see the total area of 652,300 square feet filled with works spanning the 6th century B.C. to the 19th century A.D., including Egyptian antiques, ancient Greek-Roman sculptures, Islamic Art, paintings by the Old Masters, crown jewels and artefacts from French nobles, so don’t bother trying that feat. It helps to have the touchscreen Nintendo’s 3DS audio guide console, with 700 audio commentaries and high-definition photos of the Louvre’s collection, and a detailed mapping function to identify your exact location. But it is a task to juggle the audio information, the visual deluge and the jostling of the crazy crowds. The Greek Roman sculptures and the French royal artefacts are particularly fascinating. Don’t miss the chance to compare Jacques-Louis David’s ‘The Coronation of Napoleon’ with the other version you may have seen at Versailles. Talking of unmissables…there’s  Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa,’, that small painting (21 by 30 inches) covered with bullet-proof glass and flanked by the most guards. It is a challenge to get a square inch of space close enough with hundreds thronging all around the rope barriers. Try. After all, its the most recognizable painting on the planet.

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From the Louvre, head for the stylish Rue de Rivoli, running roughly parallel to the  river, facing the Jardin Tulleries. The long gallery of arcades is filled with trendy boutiques and overpriced souvenir shops. Essential pitstop? Angelina’s window displaying a delectable array of pastries. Circa 1903…in you go! The interiors are huge, romantic and royal, its gold painted walls scream elegance. If it was good enough for Coco Chanel’s daily hot chocolate, it’s good enough for you. Pore over the display counters filled with delightful little French pastries, decadent cakes, delicate cream-custard-fruit confections, popular desserts like chocolate mousse, crème brulee, flaky choux pastries like profiteroles, éclairs, tartlets, cake-like cookie madeleines, clafoutis, macarons, gateaux, mocha pots, opera cake. Make a choice and savour with childish delight…you will miss French desserts back home.

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5. Tread a celebrated avenue

Spend the evening ambling around the world’s most famous avenue, Champs de Elysees, (pronounced shahn-zay-lee-zay), derived from “Elysian Fields” (resting place of Greek gods and other blessed figures). This is the ultimate parade ground for all Paris cultural celebrations and military parades. Even the Tour de France ends here, amongst euphoria of cheering crowds and a glorious awards ceremony. Almost two kilometers long and seventy meters wide, the Champs-Elysées draws a perfectly straight line from the Louvre, through the Tuilerie Gardens and the Place de la Concorde, ending at the towering Arc de Triomphe, Napoleon’s triumphant antique arch.

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Along the luxuriously sprawling 70-foot pedestrian sidewalks, bordered by elegant buildings and rows of shady plane trees, are several cinemas, theatres, cafés and luxury shops (including a four-storey flagship store of French fashion giant Louis Vuitton built in 1914) and the legendary brightly-lit Lido Cabaret. Until the 1960s, Champs de Elysees was the epitome of pure elegance, Parisians actually dressed up to stroll here…and then the the invasion of fast food, pop culture and music megastores happened. Look now, even McDonald’s has an aristocratic address, on the most expensive strip of real estate in Europe where rents are as high as $1.2 million a year for 1,000 square feet of space. Not far stands Ladurée, a classic 19th-century tea salon with elegant interiors right out of the 1860s. Inhale the aroma of perfect cappuccinos and fine perfume, and breathe in the history and the grandeur. Its Paris and you’re in esteemed company!

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An ode to the most eternal of Paris experiences

Classic experiences on the Left Bank of Paris…

Roman-founded Lutetia Parisiorum (mud town of the Parisii or Celt settlers) to epitome of all things classy…the antithesis is complete. And how! The French capital of today is a symbol of urban sophisticate…larger-than-life grandeur laced with old-world charm. Illuminated by the pure glow of intellectual and artistic heritage. And wrapped in a timeless enigma. First visit or not, some eternal Paris experiences will never lose their appeal for the romantic at heart. So, flag-off with the Left Bank of the Seine…

1. Drench in the cafe culture

There’s a parallel Paris this side of the Seine that’s artsy, bohemian and literary…the Latin Quartier. Boulevard St. Germain and Boulevard St. Michel run like two main arteries through the area. Uniformly distanced Hausmann-styled buildings create a perfect harmony in architectural detail. Hundreds of crooked medieval alleys lead off in different directions, filled with pizzerias and pubs, crêperies and cafes, classy home décor shops, upper-crest fashion boutiques, gourmet food stores and trendy chains. Pick A traditional café near the Sorbonne University, sink into a rattan chair, order your coffee and pretend you’re in esteemed company of Jean Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway and Simone de Beauvoir. Its no crime!

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Explore the area till your legs complain. The baroque fountain at Place St. Michel of St. Michel killing a demon is no frivolous design element. This earlier site of protests and social uprisings used to be filled with hippies, artists, writers, poets, dancers, musicians and art students at one time! Breathe in the hangover of history, before heading to the famous bookstore Shakespeare & Co. Potter around the English-only floor to ceiling bookshelves. Wonder if there were any young writers still staying above the shop, making small beginnings for bestsellers of tomorrow. Browse for second hand books, vintage postcards and poster at the green-painted makeshift bookstalls lining the river banks. Spot the Pont de l’Archêveché (‘love bridge’) and you seek the answer to a rhetorical question. Can love be tied down with locks and bolts?

The twin-towered Notre Dame Cathedral calls from across the Seine. Nothing should deter you from entering this masterpiece of French Gothic architecture…especially not the queues. Use the time to study the flying buttresses on the roof, gargoyles, fantastic birds and hybrid beasts. They peer down the balustrade of the 850-year old great landmark of Paris, as if keeping count of today’s batch making up the astounding 4 million visitors every year. Inside, the delicate stained-glass windows, brilliant colours and dainty roses make you stare longer than necessary. A location befitting the 1804 coronation ceremony of Napoleon. Deserving of your unbroken attention.

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2. Undertake an art odyssey

In Paris, culture calls from every corner…its museums and artwork overload. But if you have to pick one, make it Musée d’Orsay. Its 8 million euros makeover (from a former train station to a world-class museum), over two years has put it on the world map. At the entrance esplanade, a large long pedestal displays six allegorical statues of women representing the six continents. Perfect symbol to celebrate world art. Orsay draws three million visitors a year. Go see what the fuss is all about.

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Past the elaborate security check, stop at the central sculpture gallery topped by the museum’s huge semi-circular tunnel-shaped glass roof. At one end, high above, is a gorgeous monumental clock, a brilliantly decorative timepiece with lovely golden tones. Take your time in the galleries spread over five floors…its a vast collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces, including Van Gogh’s Bedroom and Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass. The museum itself is worthy of wordless stares. Its an exuberant showplace, with state-of-the-art lighting, spunky red, purple, deep blue and dark green wall colors and warm wood-covered floors reflecting contemporary Parisian chic. A famous ‘waterfall’ bench, commissioned from glass artist Tokujin Yoshioka, stands in one of the galleries. Consider perching on its delicate rippled surface…its perfectly legit. 

Venture into the crowded fifth-floor French Art Nouveau styled Café Campana. Not for a snack, but also for the hazy views of the rain-soaked Paris from the huge windows behind the giant clock face. Orsay is not just another museum, it is an art odyssey with a modern twist. You can thank Paris later.

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3. Feel the power play

The gold cupola of the Invalides was inspiration for the United States Capitol building…and that’s something! Massive fortifications of the monument speak volumes about the military prowess of French kings of the bygone era. The row of giant copper cannons behind a wide moat, still seem poised to attack and protect. You can feel yourself walking in the footsteps of royalty on the broad cobbled path leading up to the main entrance of the complex that Louis IV had built in the 1670s to house 4000 disabled war veterans. Rows of smartly uniformed soldiers of the royal guard would have gracefully led disciplined horses here…halting only to salute Napoleon himself. Ironically, in the distance behind, is the Place de la Concorde, where King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette and thousands of others were guillotined during the French Revolution, after Parisian rioters raided Invalides, seized arms and stormed the Bastille. Take your fill of French military history in the museums inside.

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The long walk to the Dome Church at the far end of the complex is worth it. Napoleon I’s extravagant tomb rests here, down a marble banister that circles the room, directly under the dome, under rays of sunlight from the heavens. Twelve giant marble statues of angels with solemn expressions stand in a circular corridor surrounding the huge tomb of the great hero. Pay homage the beloved emperor.

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4. Resign to romance

7 million people visit the iconic Eiffel Tower every year. Its the most photographed monument in the whole world. Why should you care how cliched it is? Get a thousand pictures from every street and from every rooftop and every direction and with every backdrop possible. You can’t get over how elegant it is, so don’t waste time trying. Ironical that thousands had protested to tear down what is today Paris’ most beloved landmark, labelling it as a ridiculous giant piece of metal. Thank God Gustave Eiffel’s genius creation, symbol of the centennial of the French Revolution and France’s industrial prowess, survived the controversy.

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Up close and personal, the Iron Lady is even more glorious…all 1,063 feet of her, all 10,000 tons of her. Lie on the expansive grass lawns, marvelling at the incredible engineering prowess. Or take the elevator up to the second platform, 376 feet up above the city, for an incredible view of Seine winding through the exquisitely laid out French capital, its 16 arrondissements displayed like a map, its historical landmarks standing out in quiet grace. Its a city was like no other. 

5. Float without a care

Make magic happen with an evening cruise along the Seine in the Bateaux-Mouche. Trace the restaurants, discos and cafes lining the riverbanks. Watch locals sitting on benches, enjoying the view with wine, bread and cheese. Note the water marks on the quay from past floods, and giant iron rings to tie river barges to the docks. Observe the odd iron gate or doorway leading to an underground passage, an ancient sewer system, a metro portal and an unknown catacomb. Bridge after bridge, gawk at all the familiar landmarks in a new light, until you reach the most wondrous of them all. The Eiffel has shifted to ultra-glam mode with 5 billion diamond-sparkly lights. The moment is special. You’re holding hands. And time is standing still. When your head touches the pillow that night, the vision of the City of Lights will still be in your eyes, promising to stay as an indelible print in your mind forever. To be continued…

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Brilliant blues will tempt you in the island of Capri

Idyllic island in Italy’s Gulf of Naples…

Keep your eyes glued to the window as the shuttle from Naples airport weaves slowly through the narrow streets of the city’s Greco-Roman historic centre. Past alley labyrinths and literary cafès. Past church steeples, Baroque facades, Renaissance statues and frescoed fountains. Past leftovers of the ancient Agora and Forum. To the buzzing port guarded by the turreted Castle Nuovo. Where the shadow of Vesuvius looming in the distance triggers a thought…maybe Pompeii just a bad dream. Long ticket queues to multiple islands, but the wait is short, because Capri ferries depart every 45 minutes. So sit back on the plush seats and enjoy the smooth sail over the Tyrrhenian Sea. Because here on, its stinging electric blue all the way.

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These popular Awadhi dishes have a fascinating history

Digging into Lucknow’s culinary past…

Tripping India? Then deep diving into dozens of delectable dishes is inevitable and predestined, even mandatory! And how could it not be…considering that the rich and diverse cuisine of the subcontinent has always held pride of place as one of the most evolved in world gastronomy. Seek curries and spice and all things nice across the length and breadth of the country. But when it comes to delicate flavours, refined techniques and palate perfection…bookmark Awadhi cuisine.

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How to celebrate art in these great European capitals

Art odyssey in Madrid and Berlin…

All great capitals have their art scenes well chalked out. You dial Paris for Louvre and Florence for the Uffizi Gallery. You go to London for Tate Modern and New York for the MET. But did you know that the capitals of Spain and Germany hold rank among cities with top museum landscapes? Boasting not one or two, but hundreds of museums for your art-craving soul. If you’re hard-pressed for time, this whirlwind download will set you back just by a day in each city. So add these iconic art-meccas to your dream list now!

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Just how enchanting is the historic quarter of Brussels?

Belgium’s capital old town is enchanting…

Its second language is French. A river called Senne flows through. The older part of the city is graced with classic Haussmann-style architecture. An unmistakable French influence is in the air. You’re having a good feeling about Brussels. And you haven’t even set foot into the historic quarter yet!

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