Friday, February 15, 2008

Blog camp-----Barcamp hyderabad

What are your plans for this saturday(16th Feb 2008).Barcamphyderabad 5 the fifth in the serise of barcamps being held at Hyderabad is on 16th Feb 2008. This time the camp is being sponsered by Google and will be held at the Googles latest office in Hyderabad.

If you are a blogger or want to be one this is a chance you don't want to miss to meet up popular bloggers and know more about blogging .
Did i forget to tell you Amit Agarwal of Digital Inspiration is comming too.I'm really exicted and looking forward to meeting him.

See you at the barcamp.

For registration and other details visit:

Friday, January 11, 2008

Medieval skyscrapers

Necessitated by lack of space, the structures built in the 11th century at San Gimignano were unique in the medieval world.
Photos: Janardhan Roye

Grandeur in stone: The towers of San Gimignano and the Tuscan countryside (top left).
The black Alfa Romeo hugged the winding road as we whipped past misty grey-blue hills, meadows ablaze with yellow flowers, and clusters of grapes from rows and rows of espaliered vines. Olive groves, trees clothed in silver leaves and brimming with luscious fruit whizzed by. A delicate scent of pine and cypress lingered in the air. Around us trees formed lines on the horizon like tall, dark sentinels — very Tuscan, very Italian.

In the midst of so much beauty, a sound like a gunshot pierced the warm September morning stillness.

We were heading in the direction of San Gimignano (pronounced, “san jimmi-nan-o”) from Pisa, on a route that went back to Paleolithic times. In medieval times, it was a well-traversed pilgrim route connecting the mighty Rome at one end and holy Canterbury in the North. The crossroad that we had passed was where the Tuscan heartland connects with the bustling maritime city of Pisa and the Adriatic Sea coast.

In the Middle Ages, the route, known as Via Francigena or Via Roma, saw pious men undertaking the long journey by foot, and some, on donkeys. The bigger rush though was on the road westward where traders and farmers on animal-drawn carts took the local produce — olives, maize, wine, and saffron — to ship them to lucrative overseas markets.

Interrupting the thought was a second shot. It was gunfire from somewhere down below in the valley. Was someone trying to warn us? Were we in danger?

For, in times past, the area was notorious for bandits, rough terrain, feral creatures, sword of barbarians, and the crossfire of feuding factions. So much so that travellers in medieval times generally performed a series of rituals before setting out — clearing debts, preparing wills, obtaining consent from priests, asking forgiveness of anyone whom they might have offended before bidding ciao! to family and neighbours.

Little has changed

Today the Tuscan countryside does not pose such challenges to life and limb even though life has changed little over many hundreds of years. The ancient art of cultivating saffron, for instance, continues even if it is on a modest scale. Connoisseurs painstakingly and lovingly hand-fertilize the flowers to gather the precious stigmas.

The mainstay of the local economy is the ancient white grape, Renaissance Vernaccia. Organic flowers, grapes, wheat, cereals, beans, saffron, figs, sunflower, olive, herbs, cheese, and Chianina meat are other items that contribute to the region’s prosperity.

In earlier times, residents flush with money from this merchandise gave generously to community projects. This spurred a flurry of development activities — aqua ducts and fountains, elaborately paved squares and city streets, magnificent churches, exquisite buildings, and a walled city.

As we neared San Gimignano, one such sight on a hill left us breathless. Where we actually seeing skyscrapers? If it amazed us now, we wondered how the sight must have affected ancient visitors and passers-by. For sure, at that time there was nothing like it elsewhere in the region or for that matter anywhere in the world.

Noble families of the 11th century helped in ushering this feat of engineering and ingenuity. Pressed by a space constraint, business families set up palazzos designed by leading architects of the day. The boom in trade necessitated larger vertical warehousing and storage spaces in the walled city. This set in motion a competitive spirit. Each family tried to outshine their neighbour with taller, bigger towers — resulting in what writer D.H. Lawrence referred to as “an angry porcupine” on the hill.

The high-rises are remarkable for their elaborate style, elegant brickwork and pointed windows. The architecture — civil, religious and military — carried the distinct style and influence of the surrounding areas: exuberant Pisan Romanesque, Florentine early Renaissance, and medieval Sienese Gothic.

Clearly, the phalanx of medieval towers is the precursor of today’s Manhattan. At the height of San Gimignano’s glory, there were 70 of them. Today, with the passage of time and slipping fortune — the Black Death of 1348, Renaissance warfare and turmoil — only 13 towers remain. Their reduced numbers however doesn’t for a minute detract from their grandeur. A long line of princes, poets, painters, Popes and visitors has waxed eloquent on this cityscape. The Tuscan town may be tiny but it invariably floors the most sophisticated of tourists. The UNESCO has declared it a part of World’s Architectural Heritage

Inside the fortress city, there is a maze of medieval cobbled streets and granite structures. The main thoroughfare has restaurants, art galleries, patisseries that retain traditional pastry, panforte, cantucci, nocini and such in their pristine glory, hand-painted pottery kiosks, up-market food shops such as La Buca with its trademark stuffed wild boar at the entrance, and fashion boutiques. At the top of the street, in the main square, is a charming hangout named after a well in its central point, Piazza della Cisterna.

Residents and visitors sit beside the well, enjoying the sun with a gelato made as per local tradition, or in pavement cafes, raising a salut with a glass of the famed Vernaccia. The wine, experts say is “powerful and full-bodied, with a rich, heady bouquet and a crisp clean taste that lingers long on the palate, a golden-hued wine that both warms and inspires”.

Nearby is the main cathedral, Piazza del Duomo with its exquisite frescoes, statues and sculptures. Of the towers, three stand out: Palazzo del Popolo, Torre Grossa, the tallest tower and open to the public, and Torre della Rognosa, the oldest tower. From the ramparts of the fortress, there are awesome views of the towers and the surrounding hills and valleys, made more spectacular by sunrise and sunset.

Mystery solved

At the end of our first day in Tuscany, at dinner, the mystery of the morning gunshots was resolved. Our charming hostess, Cledy, said that residents shoot wild boar that raid their vegetable patches and maize fields. That game meat, in turn, becomes central to many Tuscan dishes. “Chingiale, for one, is prepared with white wine, chopped garlic, sage leaves and olive oil”, she explained with a gleam in her eye. Our fears of locals taking pot-shots at pesky visitors put to rest, we enjoyed our exquisite meal beginning with the antipasti.

The tiny place and its exquisite offerings have legions of admirers from Percy Bysshe Shelley and E.M. Forster to generations of moviemakers, artists, writers, and visitors. Everyone, it seems, comes under the Tuscan spell at San Gimignano.

Fact file

Getting there: Public buses or rental cars from Florence or Pisa take 45-minutes via Poggibonsi. Daily trains run between Rome and Florence/Pisa.

The Tourist Information centre at Piazza del Duomo offers free maps, accommodation bookings in nearby castles such as Fortessa del Cortessi, farmhouses and other B&B services, information on restaurants and wine tasting trails, transport, and other services. Two-hour audio guides cost €5. A walk tour starts daily from March to October at 3 p.m. except on Sundays, for €15.


ROUNDABOUT Town of painted legends

Stein am Rhein, with its medieval ambience and architecture, is like a woodcut from a book of bedtime stories.
Photo: Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

Out of a fairy tale: Stein am Rhein.
We stepped off the boat and into a fairy tale called Stein am Rhein.

A round stone tower rose near the landing. It looked the sort of strange place where cruel despots locked up fair maidens like The Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel of the long, golden, hair fame. “What’s that?” we asked our guide, the elegant Verena Merz.

“That was a prison,” she said, confirming our presumption. “The entrance was on the third floor so no one could escape till they were hauled up again!”

Clearly, the worst crime was not paying your taxes to the hereditary Bailiffs, who ruled from a hill-top castle. Or to the Bishop who lived in a sprawling monastery at the other end of the town. Then, presumably, when a wretched prisoner was released, he made a bee-line for the Bath House. There, bathers stood on wooden gratings above heated stones while attendants sluiced them down with water, forming clouds of steam. It must have been an exhausting encounter with hygiene!

Enchanting sights

But if the realities of medieval life were rather grim and grimy, the visual appeal of their hamlets was enchanting. Beyond the tower and the Bath House, a quaint little cobbled street wound into the heart of the old town. It was like a woodcut from a thick-leafed book of bedtime stories. Half-timbered houses hemmed in both sides of the winding street. Often the upper floors thrust out over the ground floors. “When families grew,” Verena explained, “they added more rooms, making the first and second floors larger than the ones below.”

We walked past an overhanging old house into the main street and stopped, amazed by what we saw. Most houses, their jig-saw of wooden frames picked out in red or mauve, had intricate frescoes painted on their facades. Window boxes cascaded with flowers. And every so often, the faces of the painted buildings were embellished by beautiful oriel windows that jutted out over the street. William Shakespeare could have staged any of his lighter plays here without altering the setting one bit.

We stepped into the austerely unostentatious Museum Lindwurm. The last owners were two unmarried siblings. When they died they willed their mansion to the town and also gave a grant to be invested and used to help the people of Stein um Rhein maintain the character of their old buildings. Their own dwelling has been converted into a museum recapturing the life and times of their days. The street-level floor was the functional and service area: the wine-cellar with its huge barrels, the larder, kitchen, laundry; all with life-size models of servants at work. This led to the back court with pens for pigs and poultry, stalls for horses, a hayrick and a cart, and the servants’ quarters above. The first floor in front was the social and domestic one: an ante-room for visitors, a drawing and dining room with a table set for a meal, functional bedrooms. A 21st century family would have been delighted with such a town house, with a few modern modifications, of course.

Our walk down the street, when we left the museum, was a stroll through a bright gallery of legends. Water from a natural spring flowed into a stone fountain for pack horses and mules, a relic of the days when Stein am Rhein was the transshipment stage for cargo around the shallow stretch of the Rhein. The town’s prosperity had grown around this transportation activity.

Often transportation takes one far. We stopped at a mansion carrying an unusual mural. It depicted a rich man, shaded by a turbaned umbrella carrier, riding in his carriage drawn by four horses with postillion riders. Verena told us the story. As a boy the man had been captured by the Turks. He had made good use of his captivity by learning Turkish and the German spoken in Austria. He had been ransomed and asked to serve as a negotiator between the European powers and the Turks during a period of impending hostilities. His mission was so successful that he managed to defuse the crisis and was appointed as a Turkish Ambassador. He retired to this mansion and donated a golden chalice to the town. To this day, when people get married in Stein am Rhein, the Mayor can permit them to drink wine out of this historic cup as Verena and her husband had.

Mayors do, however, tend to be conscious of their own status. When a hotel owner asked the Mayor for permission to build an oriel window in his hotel, the Mayor refused. And oriel window, in those distant days, was a sign of elevated status and the Mayor did not consider a hotelier of sufficient stature to boast such a symbol. While the battle between the Mayor and the hotelier was raging, another person went ahead and built an oriel window on his own house. When the mayor saw it, he liked it so much that he lifted the ban on oriel windows. The watershed window still stands. Its corbels, or supports, show two people laughing with their tongues sticking out in hilarity. A German proverb says: “When two people fight, others laugh!” An excellent dictum for the self-inflicted wounds of coalition politics!

Happily ever after

And then, at the end of our tour, we paused at a house close to the Mayoral Mansion. Its façade was covered in murals showing people in various situations many of which were so medieval, embellished with mythical creatures that they made no sense to us. One, however, depicted a couple tied back to back on a stake, about to be burnt. They were star-crossed lovers, we were told, who had been condemned by their arrogant families. A perennially tragic tale that has serious echoes even in our own times. But, like all good fairy tales, it had a happy ending.

They were reconciled with their relatives and, as might be expected in a fairy tale town like Stein am Rhein, they lived happily ever after

Quick facts

Getting There: Swiss Rail from Zurich.


Hotel Chlosterhof.


Can also be a day excursion from Zurich.

Cradle of the Renaissance

With its museums, churches and cultural heritage, just being in Florence is an education in itself.

You will find delightful musical recitals that take place quite regularly in the evenings.

Photo: Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha

Amazing ambience: Florence.
Aglass of Chianti Classico wine in my hand, I am sitting by the window of my apartment on the fourth floor of an old building off the Borgo San Lorenzo. The rays of the setting sun are falling gently on the dome of the Duomo and the rooftops as I ga ze out on the view framed in my window — making me realise how lucky I am to be alive, at this particular place and moment in time.

It is indeed my good fortune to be visiting this aristocratic city which witnessed the end of Europe’s dark Ages and the birth of the Renaissance — where European artists rediscovered the beauty of the human body and created the first naked statues since Roman times. This is the city that is home to some of the greatest works of art, from Michelangelo’s beautiful sculpture of David to Boticelli’s ethereal painting of Venus — masterpieces that still evoke gasps of admiration from visitors.

Many firsts

It was here that Dante (whose home I can presumptuously claim to have visited last evening) wrote his amazing works of literature — and it was here that cheques were written for the first time, letters of credit first began to be utilised and banking as we know it came into being.

Visiting Florence is an education in itself, because many of the world’s most famous monuments and paintings are found here. You can spend time marvelling at the fabulous works of art in the Uffizi Gallery, admiring the intricately carved, 700-year-old churches or simply strolling along the narrow flagstoned streets and car-free piazzas with a cornetto of gelato in your hand just imbibing the unique atmosphere of this amazing place.

Make sure that you visit the Uffizi, one of the best art museums in the world, and the Medici family church of San Lorenzo with its beautifully designed family tombs, as well as the Piazza del Duomo complex with its striking cathedral, bell tower and baptistery constructed of green, white and pink marble. Don’t forget to join the thousands of tourists who go to the Galleria dell’ Academia to pay their respects to Michelangelo’s exquisite statue of David — or walk to the Piazza della Signoria to join the hordes of tourists viewing what is really an amazing open air museum of monumental sculpture.

But I would suggest that you remember to take time off, as I did, to get off the hackneyed tourist trail. If you care to look for them you will find delightful musical recitals that take place quite regularly in the evenings — in charming old churches like the Chiesa Santa Maria de Ricci in Via del Corso or in more modern venues like the Teatro Verdi in Via Ghibellina. Take the No. 13 bus to the Piazzale Michelangiolo and experience an evening church service with melodious Gregorian chants by the monks in a candlelit, 11th-century chapel at the Church of San Miniato del Monte. Sit at one of the numerous roadside trattoria in the mornings, sip a coffee or glass of Tuscany’s famous Chianti wine and watch the well-dressed world go by. In the evening, have dinner at a ristorante in one of the numerous piazzas and listen — or even dance to — the live music provided by the singer and pianist.

The pealing of the campanile bells reminds me that this is not a dream. I am still in Florence, experiencing the amazing ambience of this city. I only wish that I could stay longer.

Not to be missed

Sandro Botticelli: Birth of Venus (1485). How beautifully he conveys the impression of the graceful Venus being gently wafted to shore by the sea breeze. At the Uffizi Gallery.

Michelangelo: Tondo Doni (The Holy Family) (1504). The only painting by Michelangelo in the Uffizi, its vibrant colours and fine lines give it the appearance of a modern digital photograph.

Titian: Venus of Urbino (1538). Languid and sensual, unashamedly naked and aesthetically erotic, this is one of the best known nudes in Western art. At the Uffizi Gallery.

Michelangelo: David (1504).This sculpture conveys strength, poise, confidence and epitomises all that is beautiful in the human form. At the Galleria dell’Academia

Filippo Brunelleschi: Dome of the cathedral (c 1430). This miracle of medieval engineering was the largest and highest dome of its time. Still dominating the skyline of Florence, it has become an emblem of the city.

When in Rome...

The ruins of Palatine Hill leave one gasping at the grandeur of the Roman Civilisation.
Photos: Hema Narayanan

Grandeur of the past: The pillars of the library
If History fascinates you and the ruins of a place make you go wistful, then the Palatine Hill in Rome is a must-see. The Palatine Hill is one of the seven hills of Rome, which still has the remains of some of the first settlements dating back to the 10th century B.C. Only the ruins of its former grandeur remain today, and you really need to be an archaeologist to decipher what you see. Yet, after you witness the vast and elegant layout of the intricately-built structures, you would not regret not knowing archaeology. Simply because by then the sight would have touched your senses and left enchanting marks on you about the true grandeur of Roman civilisation.

You need a healthy imagination to turn what are now dusty chunks of pediments, crumbling arches, wiped-out palaces and a few shakily re-erected columns, into structures — the way they looked in yesteryears. These speak volumes about the glory of Ancient Rome.

When thou art at Rome, do as they do at Rome. Roman warriors are who we decided to be like and hence covered the place on feet; without the Roman sandals, of course. “Rome-by-walk” gives one candid glimpses, usually hidden, of the place. You should plan to pack a picnic lunch to eat on the Hill, as there are no eateries for miles, inside the Palatine area.

The ruling elite

Our walk through the overwhelming ruins began with a facts-based commentary from the tour guide. It is said that Palatine Hill is where Rome began as a tiny village. Emperors and aristocrats of ancient Rome have lived here since the first century B.C. According Roman mythology, Romulus and Remus, the traditional founders of Rome, were raised by the she-wolf on the hill. They were also the twin sons of the God of Wars. The hill grew to be the preferred quarter for the ruling elite. And soon, the hill was gobbled up by the imperial palaces of the Roman emperors. Even today, the aura of the power this place must have professed can be felt.

What stood in front us, as we moved amidst the ruins, took us by utter admiration. It was hard to believe our eyes when we saw the “oldest column” dating back to the second century BC. Being discovered in a recent excavation, this architectural wonder stood with elegance, displaying labyrinthine carvings. It seemed as if this column was undeterred by the flow of Time. Many recent excavations have unravelled such marvels and shown that people have lived there since 1,000 BC.

Breathless after walking five to six hours through the Hill, we felt we had not seen to our heart’s content. Maybe it was due to the systematic intimacy we developed with the ruins. We absorbed so much, but it seemed so less!

The Roman Forum

Slung between the Capitoline and Palatine Hill lies the Roman Forum, which was the heart and soul of the city life during those days. Being the glorious cradle of the Roman republic, it became the epicentre of the ancient world. The area around the Forum was home to many markets, a hive of social activity and botanical gardens. Famous in days of yore for being the first botanical gardens in Europe, its current state of being dug up and carted away can make you disconsolate. In spite of that, as you enter from the Forum, you feel as if you have entered a beautiful horticultural theatre filled with grand and multi-tiered layers of ornamental plants or orchards.

A street-side Italian café

We walked on to see some standing ranks of columns here and there that marked the sites of once-important temples and buildings. Their names wouldn’t mean much if you aren’t an ancient history buff. A structure which merits a mention is the remains of the handsome Roman library. Though the pillars are badly damaged, it stood at such an angle and accuracy that it wouldn’t fall fully for years to come. And my guess is that, it may take centuries for them to crumble to dust.

Up above the Hill

Most visitors don’t climb the Hill. Even if the past does not interest you, the panoramic view you can get from up there, of the Imperial forums, Capitoline Hill and Colosseum, is worth the climb. The view can make for a romantic, scenic escape from the crowds. You can wander across the floors and peer down the gated-off passageways that were once the homes of the rich and the famous.

Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. It brings in order to chaos, along with structure, meaning and continuity to life. From its evolution to its destruction, the passage of Time in the Hill has spanned centuries. And today, the Palatine ruins are a testimony to the above fact and the Roman’s engineering workmanship in building such structures of art.

The remains of a royal place.

Though history is everywhere, Rome is not a city that lives in the past. Italian cafes are quaint and are around most corners. Not wanting to miss out on an aromatic sip of hot cappuccino, we stepped out to a nearby cafe, even as scooters zipped down medieval cobblestone streets. We noticed the classical architecture used for each building — each one was akin to a masterpiece. As Augustus Caesar had said, “I found Rome brick, I left it marble”. Shades and shadows of what Caesar said are visible till date.

Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning. Someone once said it would take a lifetime to see Rome in its entirety; I’d wager 100 lifetimes wouldn’t be enough. It was time for us to leave the Palatine Hill. Yet, we did not forget to toss a coin into the famous “Trevi Fountain” on our way back, since legend has it that if you do, you are guaranteed to return someday.

Fact file

Getting there: Flights available to Rome from most parts of the world. International flights arrive into the Leonardo da Vinci airport in Rome, also known as Fiumicino.

Once you have reached Rome, these are your options for transport:

By Train: Fast rail link (direct non-stop train service) is available at half-hour durations, from the airport to the main train station, Roma Termini. Alternatively, the Metropolitan FM1 train service available at 15 minute durations from the airport takes you to Roma Tiburtina train station.

By Taxi: Take the yellow or white licensed taxis and not any other, available on the terminal forecourt.

Best Time to travel: April to June; Mid September to October — temperatures are mild and the crowds are less. Avoid the month of August, as it is hot, crowded and the entire country goes on vacation.

Places to stay: Consider Hotel Columbia, Via del Viminale 15 (newest, comfortable property), La Residenza, Via Emilia 22-24 (good price on a homey, spacious guest room), or Hotel delle Muse, Via Tommaso Salvini 18 (one of Rome’s best bargain hotels and rated three star).

Getting Around Rome: Walking is the best way to explore Rome, as you come across many sites of interest. Alternatively, you can take the subway, The Metropolitana, or Metro: the fastest means of transportation, available from 5.30 a.m. to 11.30 p.m. Tickets are available from tabacchi (tobacco shops, with a sign of white T), newsstands, and vending machines at all stations.

Or you can take the bus or tram: operated by an organisation known as ATAC, you can ride most parts of Rome. You can hop on and off buses and trams, using the same ticket. Tickets are available at tabacchi or bus terminals.

Sensual surprise

A slice of Italy in Switzerland, Lugano bubbles with Italian ebullience. GUSTASP and JEROO IRANI
Photo: Gustasp and Jeroo Irani

Idyllic setting: Morcote, once fishing village, now resort.
In India, the ineffable charm of Lugano remains unsung. Located in the southern, Italian-speaking canton of Ticino in Switzerland, only one Bollywood movie has been shot in this sylvan lakeshore resort while the honey pots of Zurich, Interlaken, Luce rne et al draw Indian movie moguls in droves.

These very Swiss getaways are swathed in beauty tempered with a touch of Swiss reserve; Lugano, however, bubbles with Italian ebullience. As soon as we stepped into our hotel on our first evening, we were greeted by olive-skinned beauties at the reception and a flurry of buon giornos. Swarthy-complexioned men spoke with passion, gesticulating with typical Italian verve as we sat at a café, on top of Monte San Salvatore (912 m) which rises steeply from the lake shore. (The hilltop is reached by a glass-topped funicular.) Fragments of Italian love songs wafted on the crisp evening air while around us, in the distance, rose the blinding white fastness of the Swiss and Savoy Alps.

Not typically Swiss

Below us, Lake Lugano, on whose northern edge the resort sprawls, shimmered like a jewel. Hills rose from its edge and the lower slopes were studded with sleepy villages that seemed to tumble down to the lake’s edge. Just beyond the mountains lies Italy (Milan is about 40 minutes away) which is perhaps why Lugano has an aura of sensual surprise. Here, Italian style pizzas and gelato stalls and flowering piazzas where portly mamas and babies relax under soaring palm trees meld with the sense of order and safety of a typical Swiss town.

While it is Switzerland’s third most important financial centre, there is something very Italian and languid about its chic cafes, sultry night clubs and yawning squares. We strolled in the web of lanes behind the Piazza della Riforma where in a local market, brimming with sun-fresh vegetables and fruits, spicy salami, cheese, products of local farms etc, we felt the frisson of local life lived on Lugano time. Christa Branchi, our guide, told us about how much of the market is owned by the Gabbani family who started business from a small stall in the area. As was the custom then, they would hang large chunks of salami and sausages outside their store to advise their wares. One night a hungry miscreant stole their entire display. Twenty-five years later, a man turned up and confessed his crime to the patriarch. The Swiss-Italian gent rose to his full height and pumped the man’s hand effusively. “Thank you, thank you,” he boomed with Italian-style effervescence. “You can take anything you want from my store …choicest wine, cheese, salami … Thanks to you, I got free publicity on TV and in the papers, and my business flourished as a result.”

Yes, Lugano springs surprises like these with a certain insouciance.

We did not stumble on Swiss chalets here, nor mooing cows, yoddlers and alp horns in its rural heart; instead there were lush vineyards that produce the region’s famous red and white Merlot wine. In Lugano’s historic town centre, the tangle of cobblestone streets are lined with buildings in Italianate style while in parks blazing with colour, camellias and magnolias nod next to sub-tropical plants. There is the Via Nassa, a street lined with high-end stores, museums and churches galore.

Another surprise

The next day, we took in one of the more uncomplicated pleasures of the town — a cruise on its amoeba-shaped lake. The cruise boat tooted past the car-free fishing village of Gandria and as it cleaved the water languorously, we stumbled on another charming anomaly — Campione d’Italia, a village that is a part of Italy but surrounded by Switzerland which sprawls on an arm of the lake. Its casino with unlimited stakes draws people from Lugano after dark while Italian police drive around in Swiss registered cars, use Swiss currency and there is very little passport control. Opposite this swash-buckling gaming paradise is a promontory, Capo San Martino, where Italian convicts used to be hanged. Now a restaurant stands on the blood-spattered spot!

We disembarked at Morcote, a former fishing village that has morphed into a lakeshore resort. It sprawls sensuously by the lake and is studded with cafes and shops under stone arcades and colourful Mediterranean style homes with slatted windows. As we sat at a café and sipped coffee, birds flew by, wing beats slicing the silence of the village which had just woken up. We climbed up a series of steps which meandered around red-tiled roof homes that snoozed under tall cypress trees. The path led to the church of Santa Maria del Sasso, enveloped in silence and the serene spirituality that comes from an isolated location. From a terrace, we gazed at the lake, changing colour under a mercurial sun, and the purple-blue hills beyond, which made us wish we were poets or painters.

Delectable cuisine

Back in Lugano, the sun had set in a soft lingering manner as though reluctant to call it a day. We drove into the rural heart of the region to a rustic restaurant called the Grotto del Cavicc, a yellow cottage in a green forested area. We dined al fresco and sat at a wooden table with benches. Within, it was all wood-beamed with stuffed stag heads and copper pots and pans adorning the walls. We were served by the owners — the smiling mother, father and son were on duty, offering us choice wines, with a platter of delectable cold cuts and cheese. We drank the wine from a tazzino, a small bowl, like the locals do; slurped some thick minestrone soup, enjoyed a risotto, a brazzato which is a kind of stew, a typical Italian style polenta with locally picked mushrooms and rounded it off with a delectable chocolate cake.

Watching the locals and fellow tourists was part of the fun — folks holding hands, couples whispering sweet nothings to each other, a group of tourists reminiscing about the day… the atmosphere was dreamlike and the air perfumed with wild flowers. It was an unforgettable escape, pure and simple.

Fact file

Getting there: Swiss International Airlines has direct connections between India and Zurich. Lugano, a year round resort, is a three-hour train ride from Zurich. The panoramic Bernina Express connects Lugano with St. Moritz.

Lugano is a great place to explore on foot while the funiculars up to Monte Bre and to Monte San Salvatore command spectacular views.

A fun attraction is the Swiss Miniature Village in Melide close by. There are great opportunities here for trekking, hiking, mountain biking and relaxing.

For more information contact Switzerland Tourism, Mumbai Tel: 022-22828251, 22851698.




Dance of the auroras K.V. KRISHNAN
In a world that goes without light for months, the auroras come as a dazzling relief.

Dazzling colour: An aurora over the Arctic Circle.
Oversized mosquitoes were slowly eating me alive as I flailed my arms in an attempt to escape their incessant stings. At well over 35 degrees Celsius, the sun beat down mercilessly that sweltering August afternoon. I was surrounded by a few small bui ldings — a school on stilts, a liquor store, a rundown post office. Across the street a few snowmobiles lay scattered in disrepair.

Where were those smiling Eskimos clad in sealskin boots, commandeering dog-sleds through blizzards impregnable? Whither those womenfolk with smiling babies huddled in baskets patiently cutting up reindeer meat with their keen ulus? Nor were there any signs of those unimaginably tiny igloos snuggling with large families.

Isn’t this what our school textbooks had us believe life was like above the Arctic Circle? The reality of it all soon dawned on me. After all, these were today’s human communities in contact with the Western world since the late 16th Century.

It had all started with the Westerners’ quest for the Northwest Passage — a route that would cut down a voyage to Asia by over 5,000 miles, chipping through barriers of ice and snow along the polar caps. When obstinate walls of ice made this impossible, “civilised” Man stumbled upon another Arctic secret — its marine life. A ruthless hunt for whales and walruses, seals and narwhals then began in frenzy. When plastic and petroleum eventually replaced the need for whale baleen and seal oil, the intruders’ greed shifted to mining and drilling, unleashing plunder and pillage on a community steeped in innocent tradition.

The conquest of pristine Arctic lands and its peoples was inevitable.

Stark beauty

We had taken an hour-long flight from the Alaskan town of Fairbanks to the village of Fort Yukon above the Arctic Circle. Our twin-engine Piper Navajo chopped above the vast tundra — a stubbly yawn of green mountains, stunted spruce and sparkling streams. Mottled white upon those ridges below grazed herds of tenacious Dall sheep. Just as in the last few months, the sun wouldn’t set today — it would just dip shyly to soon rise again, heralding yet another morning.

Our guide who welcomed us at the airstrip, Richard Carroll, was an Athabascan Native American who spoke impeccable English. One of the oldest settlements in these parts, Fort Yukon is the largest Athabascan village in all of Alaska. The village was established in 1847 as a Canadian outpost in what was then Russian territory. Contact with Christian missionaries had started with the Russian occupation of Alaska before the land was sold to the United States for a mere eight million dollars.

The priests had then set out on their mission with zealous frenzy, relegating the Eskimo shamans and traditions as savage beliefs. The lore of the Bible and the advancements of technology had to be grasped but with English — their Gwich’in tongue was systematically banished over the decades.

A typical bush village surrounded by swaths of water and wilderness, Fort Yukon is inaccessible by road — airplane and barge are the only means to get there. Satellite TVs and that rare Internet are their windows to the world outside. Joblessness here is a way of life, even with the exodus of the younger generation to promised lands beyond. Groceries are too expensive to fly in. I noticed that basic necessities of life cost over three times more than what it does in the rest of the United States.

The cheaper option

During those mercilessly harsh winters, subsistence living is a cheaper option. A hunting expedition rather than a trip to the grocery store may precede dinnertime, for, wilderness is only too close by; Bears go raiding these villagers’ cabins as far as 180 miles away across the Porcupine River to where a boat ride is the only option. Ancient tribes knew no boundaries. In today’s world of international lines and permits, Richard would have to pick his hunting grounds based on territorial treaties and international borders.

As our plane chugged the hour-long trip back to Fairbanks. I looked below at a humble settlement of 500. Had the march of modernisation stifled a tribe that should have been best left alone, steeped in its ancient traditions?

The sun would soon sink into torpid slumber as winter would bury this village in months of secret darkness. However, there was hope — the cheerful auroras would return, dazzling the nights in their ancient dance of light and colour. Graceful caribou herds would roam the plains again even as the winds howl along the tundra, clothing evergreens in white robes.

With those indelible smudges of oil spills and pay dirt, ulus and igloos may soon disappear from our textbooks. However, Nature’s wondrous sway will last forever here in a very different world — in the Land of the Midnight Sun.

Fact file

There are but a few small Eskimo villages above the Arctic Circle that are visitor friendly. There are several tour operators that fly to these villages — though typically each operator is affiliated with a particular village.

The Alaskan city of Fairbanks is a good base to take these tours from. Fairbanks is best accessed by flight from Minneapolis or Denver. Fort Yukon is located 140 air miles northeast of Fairbanks and eight miles north of the Arctic Circle, at the confluence of the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers.

Fort Yukon and Bettles are popular Arctic destinations as is Point Barrow at the top of Alaska facing the Arctic Ocean. Though Barrow has accommodation facilities, Fort Yukon and Bettles are typically done as day trips, though cabins are available in Fort Yukon for a night’s stay.

Costs range from $299 to $450 per head round-trip depending on distance and overnight stay options. The daytrip includes transportation, guided tours and snacks at the destination.