Friday, May 27, 2016

Jaipur, India: A city in the “Pink”

The facade of the Palace of the Winds in Jaipur where the women of the harem could look out to the street  (Taylor)
JAIPUR, INDIA Like most of India, Jaipur is both confounding and mystical. It is a mixture of overwhelming history that gasps for breath under the weight of its massive sea of humanity.

With a population of more than 3-million, Jaipur is the capital and largest city in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Founded in 1727, what is most remarkable about this pre-modern metropolis, other than its impressive fortresses and palaces, is its unusually wide streets (111 feet) which are laid out in six orderly sectors.
Typical street in Jaipur  (Taylor)

Despite that, readers of Conde Nast Traveler consistently rate Jaipur among the Top Ten Destinations to visit in Asia. With no less than ten massive forts and monuments, five temples, three gardens and two UNESCO World Heritage sites, it’s little wonder that Jaipur has earned its ranking.

Jaipur did not just spring up overnight in the 18th century. The city was carefully planned according to Indian Vastu Shastra with streets running East to West and North to South. There are three gates facing East, West and North as well as numerous gates that face to the South.

The Eastern gate is called Sun Pol, the Western gate is the Moon Pol and the Northern gate faces the ancestral capital of Amber.
The amazing astronomical park features the world's largest sundial  (wikipedia)

 In addition to it architectural treasures and monuments, Jaipur has long been a hub for native arts and crafts which make the city a shopper’s paradise. Major crafts include block printing, stone carving, jewelry, miniature paintings, blue pottery, ivory carving and leather-ware among others.

Situated roughly 180 miles from New Delhi and Agra, Jaipur comprises the third leg of India’s Golden Triangle. It is known as the “Pink City” thanks to the color of its distinctive sandstone and the façade of the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds, a sprawling royal residence which faces the main street of the city.
Main street in Jaipur  (Taylor)

The original purpose of the five-story exterior of the Hawa Mahal was to allow the royal ladies of the harem to observe everyday life in the street below through the honeycomb of 953 small windows. The latticework was designed to allow cool air to waft through the openings which “air conditioned” the space during the hot Indian summers.

The women of the harem were not allowed to be seen and were strictly required to cover their faces with veils.  

Because the front of the Palace of the Winds is little more than a façade, the entrance to the Hawa Mahal is located on a side road near the rear of the building. In case you haven’t already figured it out, a mahal means “palace” in India.

Arguably the two most memorable sites in Jaipur are the Jantar Mantar with its collection of nineteen architectural astronomical instruments and the Amber Fort, a massive palace that rests atop the Cheel ka Teela (Hill of Eagles).
The Amber Fort sits high on The Hill of Eagles  (Taylor)
Another palace, Jaigarth Fort, located beside the Amber Fort, is connected to its sister by a subterranean escape passage. As such, the complex is regarded as a single structure, giving the impression that the entire hill is dominated by an opulent architectural masterpiece.
Elephants are a popular way to visit
the Amber Fort  (wikipedia)

Amber Fort is comprised of red sandstone and marble laid out on four levels of which each contains its own courtyard.

The favorite way to visit the fort is by riding an elephant as it lumbers up the hill. Though motion pictures have a way of making transportation aboard the four-legged behemoths appear to be “exotic”, the sheer size of the animals combined with the swaying of the passenger seat is anything but comfortable.
Intricate artwork is a hallmark of many Indian palaces and fortresses, like the Amber Fort  (wikipedia)
India is a country of palaces, but the Jantar Mantar monument is one of a kind in the world. This fabulous collection of amazing astronomical instruments was completed in 1738 and features the world’s largest stone sundial. Built by Rajput King Sawai Jai Singh, the UNESCO World Heritage site incorporates ancient Hindu and Sanskrit texts that create instruments which allow people to observe astronomical positions with the naked eye.
The sundial at Jantar Mantar is accurate within 20 seconds  (Taylor)
Among the most amazing elements of the collection is the accuracy of the stone sundial with which a trained observer can tell the time within 20 seconds of the actual time.

Like most of the Indian palaces, the astronomical devices are also prodigious in their own way.
Carvings feature animals and
Kama Sutra  (Taylor)

Indian temples are usually adorned with sculpted depictions of animals and/or the sexual positions of the Kama Sutra.

Though part of the Golden Triangle, Jaipur may be the least familiar of the trio of destinations when compared to Delhi and Agra with its Taj Mahal. But Jaipur’s vast collection of architectural treasures combined with its rich, colorful history make it a traveler’s delight.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Looking for an undiscovered treasure? Try Lombok, Indonesia

Bali can be seen in the distance as the sun sets in Lombok, Indonesia  (Taylor)
LOMBOK, INDONESIA When it comes to travel destinations Lombok, Indonesia doesn’t exactly  roll off the tongue like many more familiar places. On the other hand, for travelers who enjoy being on the cutting edge of new travel destinations Lombok may just be the place.

In fact, for people who want to visit paradise on the cheap, Lombok IS the place.

Add in Lombok’s growing reputation as one of the best surfing destinations in the world and it’s a tough combination to beat.
Deserted beach on Lombok   (Taylor)

Situated across the Lombok Strait roughly 25 miles from Bali, Lombok benefits as a secondary destination for visitors to its bigger sister. Today, however, it is coming into its own as a popular place to get away from it all without spending an arm and a leg to do it.

Lombok is roughly circular shaped with a tail. Imagine an oversized sting ray.

Other than Mount Rinjani, the second largest volcano in Indonesia, there is not much to see in Lombok except magnficent beaches, superb local crafts and an abundance of sunshine.

For the moment, prices are inexpensive. A seaview room at the Sheraton in Sengigi goes for about $80 per night. Gradually new boutique resorts are popping up throughout the island as travelers are “discovering” Lombok as a destination in its own right.
One of three infinity pools at Quinci Villas in Lombok  (Taylor)
Food ranges from international to Indonesian to Mediterranean, but it is also easy to find European dishes as well. An excellent meal including drinks may cost $30 tops.
Lombok limos are a favorite way to get around  (Taylor)

Lombok markets itself, if you can call it marketing, as an “unspoiled alternative to Bali.” Though the term “unspoiled” is accurate, “roughing it” in Lombok is not exactly a Robinson Crusoe experience. Beaches are uncrowded and plentiful.

So far, other than snorkeling and surfing, the myriad of water sports that have invaded other resort areas in the world have not yet reached Lombok. Rather, this is a place to “chill” in the sun.

Most of the better resorts have excellent spa facilities where a 90-minute Balinesian massage costs about $40.

Lombok has two golf courses, but it is hardly St. Andrews, so links lovers would do better to leave the clubs at home unless schlepping your bag is something you just cannot escape.

A car with driver and guide will take you around the island for approximately $40 per person. Keep in mind that driving is on the left side of the road, and while there is not a lot of traffic on Lombok compared to Bali, the mopeds and other vehicles can be a challenge. Better to “leave the driving to them.”
Local artisan weaves intricate patterns into cloth -- Weaving, wood carvings are inexpensive souvenirs  (Taylor) 
Lombok, like Bali, is a shopper’s paradise. Cloth weaving, Batik, wood carvings and basket weaving are high quality, especially if you have a good guide who knows where to go. Be prepared to barter. That’s the name of the game.
Peasants still work the fields just as they did centuries ago  (Taylor)

Indonesia is primarily Muslim, which means that Lombok is subject to early morning and late evening calls to prayer that can be annoying for travelers who like to sleep in.

In many ways, Lombok is like stepping back in time where peasants still work the rice fields just as they have for centuries and local transportation in most villages is by horse drawn “carriages” known as “Lombok limousines.”

Typical thatched roof hut on a "busy" street in Lombok  (Taylor)
Given that Lombok is still new to tourism, wi-fi can be tricky at times, but it is available and, besides, what else are you going to do all day?

English is readily spoken and ATMs are easily accessible though the conversion rate may trip you up at first since 1,300,000 Indonesian rupiah is about $100.
Cock fighting is illegal but still popular  (Wikipedia) 

Do not travel with friends from PETA because cock-fighting, though illegal, is a popular sport in many villages.

Little is known about the history of Lombok before the 17th century. Until that time, the island was comprised of small warring states each of which was ruled by a Sasak prince. Today the 3.1 million inhabitants of Lombok are 85% Sasak whose ancestors are believed to have migrated from Java in the first millennium BC.

Rebellious millennials hoping to seek refuge in paradise should know that a top job in one of the resorts only pays about $8 a day. Talk about “minimum” wage.

Another day ends in Lombok where serenity is the national pastime  (Taylor)
For now, most visitors arrive from Australia and the UK partly because the distance for Americans is considerable. On the other hand, U.S. travelers seeking a truly comfortable, relaxing, inexpensive destination may want to consider Lombok.

After all, the biggest decision you will have to make after breakfast is whether to swim in the pool or the Indian Ocean.

Just take a short flight from Bali and look for a giant sting ray.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Berthillon: Home of the best ice cream in Paris

Once you sample the all natural ice cream at Berthillon in Paris, you will know why there is always a line  (wikipedia)
PARIS Years ago, when a fellow traveler learned of my immoral habit of taking an ice cream break in the afternoon when I am away from home, she told me about a place to check out in Paris. I did and I’ve never looked back. Never again do I need to search for the best ice cream in Paris.

Some say Berthillon is the “best ice cream in the world.” Others claim it to be merely the “best ice cream in Paris.” I truly don’t know. Nor do I care, because no other ice cream will ever have a chance to find out.

Berthillon is the Orient Express of ice cream. Not just because it tastes so good, but also because of the story behind it, which makes it all the better.

Though Berthillon ice cream has been around since 1954, it wasn’t until the famous, and influential, French restaurant guide known as Gault Millau recommended “this astonishing ice cream shop hidden in a bistro on the Ile Saint-Louis” that it gained worldwide recognition in the 1960s.
Berthillon is just behind Notre Dame  (wikipedia)

If “healthy” ice cream is your cup of tea, then Berthillon is the place. Situated at 20-31 rue saint Louis on the island of Saint Louis, Berthillon’s original tea room is the place to go. There are other locations on the island and throughout Paris where Berthillon ice cream is available, but part of the fun is getting it from the source where it was first created.

Ile Saint-Louis is one of two small islands in the River Seine. It is tucked away and connected by a small footbridge behind the Cathedral of Notre Dame which means that, logistically, it is not difficult to figure out where to begin.

After crossing the bridge, take the main street in the center of the island and walk down the narrow road until you see a line of people on your right eagerly awaiting a chance to sample their favorite cool creamy confection.
Stroll across the small bridge to Ile St Louis and walk down the main street a few blocks...a treasure awaits  (wikipedia)
Don’t be put off by the line. Patience is a virtue. It is well worth the wait. The tea room inside is small, so most people purchase their ice cream out on the street and move on to the great adventure in their itinerary.

There are some 70 all-natural, chemical-free flavors. Each is created from the freshest dairy products available which are usually purchased just before an individual flavor is created. Hence the term “healthy” ice cream, or, at least, as “healthy” as ice cream can get.
Berthillon may not be as well known as the Eiffel Tower, but it gets high marks just the same  (Taylor)
If you have a personal favorite, do not be surprised if it is not available. Berthillon does not produce each of its 70 choices every day. That said, you will discover fruit sorbets like blackcurrant and pink grapefruit, or the more traditional, and richer offerings made from fresh milk and eggs, such as salted caramel, candied chestnut and, even, gingerbread.

Of course, there are also those traditional “vanilla” flavors that used to define ice cream which are far less adventurous. (They are certainly no less tasty, however.) For example, how about a chocolate “affogato” which is a ball of vanilla ice cream served in a white porcelain mug and topped off with hot chocolate before being covered with praline cream.

Now you’re getting the idea.
Ile St Louis is filled with sidewalk cafes  (wikipedia)

Raymond Berthillon, who began creating his delightful desserts in the 1950s, died in August of 2014, but his legendary gift to the world of confectionary delights lives on.

For those wishing to read more, the Berthillon website is available, but it requires fluency in reading and/or speaking French.

There are a couple of other quirks as well, which are important so that you are not disappointed. Berthillon is closed on Christmas and New Years and it also shuts down in mid-April until the first part of May. Also, forget about satisfying your taste buds during the heat of summer. Berthillon is very French, so it closes toward the end of July until early September.
For the best Berthillon experience, go to the original shop (wikipedia)
They are also closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. If all of that sounds like too much work to satisfy your ice cream addiction, just remember Berthillon is well worth the effort and the wait.

Berthillon is accessible by Metro at Point Marie (line 7), Saint Paul (line 1) and Cardinal Lemoine (lines 9 and 10). You can also get there on bus lines 24, 63, 67, 86 and 87.

While it does take a little effort, Berthillon is not really hard to find if you persevere. And besides, when you actually do discover it, you are guaranteed to get your “just desserts.”

And that’s this week’s travel “scoop.”.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Petra: Jordan’s incredible ancient “rose red” city

The Treasury at Petra is probably most familiar to fans of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade  (wikipedia)

PETRAJORDAN -- Traveling to Petra  (video) is a journey through a canyon of towering rocks into a land that seems forever sequestered in the past.

The wind gently whistles across ever-changing shades of sandstone while colors adjust to the movement of the sun as it makes its way across the ancient Jordanian sky.

Here the unseen hand of nature has sculpted the rock into an awesome, breathtaking adventure.
Centuries of rushing water flowed through the soft rock, penetrating ever downward through the earth’s crust as though it had some strange, mysterious purpose.

Whispering sands blow through a majestic canyon carved by wind and rain, caressing the stone into wild, fantastic shapes and vast chasms.

The Bible called it Sela. The ancient Nabataean tribe who built the city called it Rekmu or Rekem.

Petra is filled with ancient tombs carved from the rock  (wikipedia)

Today, we know it as Petra; a monumental rock-cut civilization that expands the imagination far beyond the scope of modern technology and knowledge.

Petra traces its beginnings six centuries before Christ.  When translated, it means “the rock,” and truly it is a rock of ages.

The once hidden Nabataean city is located in southern Jordan.  To reach the grandiose setting you must travel on foot or by horseback through an ever-narrowing mile long canyon.

Weathered rock rounded by time leads the way into another world; a valley dominated by sheer cliffs that reach higher and higher the further you penetrate into the heart of the mountain.  It is a ravine that does Indiana Jones proud; a living monument to rival Hollywood’s wildest imagination.  So much so that Petra was, indeed, used as a backdrop in the 1989 movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Petra’s entrance alone is a journey to the center of the earth.  A fantasy ride into reality.  A magical, mystical experience of time travel on horseback where twists and turns lead to the majestic façade of the edifice known as “the treasury.”
Ancient facades which served as dwelling or tombs remain hidden within the walls of Petra  (wikipedia)
At first you are dazzled; awed by brilliant colors where a massive carving rises from a vertical rock-face into a perfectly proportioned sculpture.  Bullet holes serve as a permanent reminder of numerous attempts to release the treasure which local legend claims is still hidden within the recesses of the cave.

Sheltered from the damaging effects of wind and rain that could weather the sandstone, the treasury is the best preserved, and most spectacular monument, within the ancient city.

Petra was rediscovered in 1812 by Anglo-Swiss explorer Johann L. Burckhardt who disguised himself as a Bedouin and talked his way into the site by pretending to make a holy pilgrimage.  Until then, the city had been “lost.” It was the stuff of legends, existing only as a fable handed down by Bedouins who lived within the region.

The site at Petra is vast  (wikipedia)

The Nabataeans were one of many nomadic northern Arabian tribes.  For 500 years, Petra flourished under their control, becoming rich and powerful by invading the caravan routes which carried trade between Arabia and Egypt.

Typical of Nabataean civilization, Petra was so well protected by its massive canyon entrance that a handful of men could hold off an entire army.  Operating from an impregnable base and utilizing adept control of camels as their means of transportation, the Nabataeans dominated a vast area of the region that caused great concern for the Roman Empire.

It was not until the Roman Emperor Trajan manipulated the water supply to the city in 106 CE that Nabataean society declined, allowing the Romans to gain control.

Today, Petra is one of the great natural and man-made wonders of the world, yet it remains relatively undiscovered by large numbers of travelers. 

Many tombs are still occupied, though a significant number have raided by vandals and treasure seekers throughout the centuries.  Even now, the cliffs echo with the sound of goats and sheep that live within; a perpetual, eternal reminder of life as it was lived more than 2,000 years ago.

The movie set that was an actual destination can be found within the 400 ft canyon walls of Petra  (wikipedia)
In the evening, campfires dot the darkness while breezes whisper through the valley and across the rock, following the same natural path carved by water, wind and the sands of time.

The glory of Petra is now but a memory of a fabled and mighty hidden city that was lost and almost forgotten; a place of wonderment and awe.

Petra is truly one of the great achievements of mankind, rivaling the likes of Machu Picchu, Stonehenge and the pyramids.

Today, Petra lives once again in southern Jordan veiled by giant red mountains and weathered stone.

This is the story of a departed race whose legacy yet lingers in the 21st century as a place of inspiration and awe. 

Petra is a symbol carved in stone where time stands still and whispering sands tell tales of Arabian nights.