Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Mallorca - our Mediterranean paradise

     The continent of Europe lies in the temperate climate zone, which means around the end of October, it is difficult to find a warm, sunny place within 2 hours of flying time from London. The trees were bringing out their golden wardrobe, the sun was beginning to doze off around 4pm and autumn was making its presence felt. Winter with its short, cold rainy days and long, colder nights was around the corner and a week in the sun was what we needed. A group of islands to the east of Spain caught our attention. While living in California, I had come across brightly colored Majorca ceramics and that was all I knew about Majorca, Spain. The weather forecast predicted average highs in the high 60s (Fahrenheit) and pictures of the idyllic blue green waters of the Mediterranean sealed the deal. We were going to Mallorca!

     Mallorca is the largest of the Baleariac islands in the Mediterranean Sea. It is a popular tourist destination with a modern international airport at its capital city, Palma de Mallorca. Going to a country where English is not the official language always excites me as it is an immersive experience in a language like no other. Over the years, I have tried, unsuccessfully, to learn Spanish but have only managed to know enough to read my way through signs, instructions and brochures. It was therefore very surprising see that at the airport, the signs were in English, German(!), Spanish and more Spanish, though not exactly. It was only later, at the hotel when I asked the receptionist about it, that I found out that Germans make up the majority of tourists in Mallorca and Spanish is not the official language. It is Catalan, specifically a dialect known as Mallorquin which sounds like Spanish but is not quite Spanish. 
     Palma  is the hub of tourist activity in Mallorca. It is a big city like any other with impressive infrastructure and facilities. But we were in Mallorca to to get away from it all. So we picked up the rental car and headed for  Cala D'or, a sleepy village on the island's east coast. 
     Highway MA-19 winds through the central plain or Es Pla as it is locally known. It is a scraggly almost arid landscape; not what one expects on an island. There was no verdant shrubbery, palm trees frolicking in the wind or the salty smell of sea air. Instead, gnarled, knobbly and stout olive trees stood betweens acres of reluctant grape vines in front of rocky hills jutting out of the ground as far as the eye could see, under a bright clear blue sky. As we were got closer to the coast, we drove through sleepy villages-it was siesta time after all- with modest white-washed houses with green shutters, red tiles and delightful names like Felantx and Santanyi. Here the landscape was agricultural with narrow roads flanked by large orange and lemon orchards. 
     Cala d'or was exactly I was hoping it would be. The town center is a maze of cobblestone streets with stores and cafes serving olives, iberico and serrano ham, pa amb oli with Mallorcan cheese and fresh seafood and padron peppers! We settled on paella for dinner and called it a night.

You don't need much when the water is warm, you are a short drive away from a fine sandy beach and the beach is not over run by people. To the sound of crashing waves and giggling children, add the call of the local fruit vendor selling pineapples and coconuts to the amused foreigners and the smell of fried sardines wafting from nearby cafes - it is a picture perfect postcard! However, there is always land to be explored and on one of the days, we took out the car and the maps and headed out to explore the rest of the island.

Driving west, we left Palma behind and climbed up and down the rugged mountain range of  Serra de Tramuntana. The entire mountain range is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, owing to its importance in the cultural and agricultural life of its settlers. Our first stop was  Port D'Andratx. Lore has it that this natural port was raided frequently by Turkish pirates and to preserve their town, the locals moved it inland to Andratx. Whether at the water or inland, this lovely town is surrounded by fortifications and boasts an impoing Gothic parish church.

             Driving further along the jagged northwestern coast of the island, the majestic blue green waters of the Mediterranean lie at the bottom of rugged formidable cliffs shaded by pine trees. This is not an easy landscape to conquer which makes it quite impressive to see fields of grapes, almonds and citrus here. The mountainous landscape is latticed with a network of dense dry stone walls known as paret seca made of irregular stones, diving the land into parcels. It is not uncommon to see these walls creep up along the cliff faces and carve out terraces on which the locals farm and tend to livestock like their ancestors used to. The Moors who came to this island in 902 AD are thought to have brought this knowledge with them from their native arid Africa. The technique is still in use here leading to agriculture being a vital part of the economy alongside tourism. This is unspoilt Mallorca at its best. Delightful towns of Estellencs and Banyalbufar and further north, Valdemossa beg you to stop your wanderings and take in the sprawling vistas, inhale the fresh air and leave your worries behind.

A couple more days of glorious sloth on the beach ensued and the day before we had to head back to reality, we decided to venture out into Palma. After walking the narrow lanes of the old town, we reached the star attraction, the Cathedral of Palma.
     The cathedral of Santa Maria de Palma or La Seu as it is commonly known is a Gothic Roman Catholic cathedral towering over the bay of Palma. Work on this cathedral began in 1229 AD under King James I of Aragon and was finished in 1601. However, work continued into the present century when the famed Catalan, Antonio Gaudi took up the work of restoring this behemoth of sandstone held together by arches and flying buttresses. The cathedral is adorned with Gothic style elements like gargoyles, railings and spires and the preference of horizontal lines over vertical. It is believed that 15 generations of architects worked on this cathedral, to make it the masterpiece it currently is. 

      Stained glass windows occupy the place of pride in any chapel, church, or cathedral. However, the Rose window on the eastern wall of this cathedral, 12 m across and studded with 1236 pieces of stained glass, is the largest and most majestic sight to behold.

Our time at Mallorca had come to an end. One week is not enough time to appreciate this island's people, culture and Nature. We bid adeu (goodbye in Mallorquin) to our Mediterranean pardise that has inspired the likes of Sands, Borges and Agatha Christie and promised we will be back, soon.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Hiking in Surrey - Gomshall Mill Pub & North Downs

There is no dearth of quaint buildings in Surrey. So far, the quaintest of them all has been the Gomshall Mill Pub. A 17th century riverside mill with original beams and floor boards, there is a tiny river that still runs through this building! Starting the hike up to North Downs on a misty December morning, the air was fresh, crisp and heady with petrichor (which means the pleasant smell when rain falls on dry soil - latest addition to my vocabulary; courtesy of my 12 year old son). The dried leaves were rustling underfoot, the moss shone a brilliant green. And at the end of a grueling 6 mile hike, a festive, cozy little pub awaited the muddy boots and sweaty shirts. The picture of the telephone booth outside the pub and that of the cozy interior was taken by my friend Amanda of the AWS Country hikes, who has been foremost in introducing me to this beautiful landscape of Surrey.



Hiking in Surrey - Windsor & Eton

     Windsor, a lovely town on River Thames, in south east England is home to Windsor Castle, a residence of the British Royal Family. It is also across the river from the town of Eton, which is home to Eton College. An independent boarding school for boys aged 13-18, Eton College was established in 1440 by King Henry VI and is one of ten 'public schools' in England. It has educated British Prime Ministers, aristocrats and scores of fictional characters including Bertie Wooster, Captain Hook and Mark Darcy. Walking along the Thames in a loop going from the Windsor castle, and along the various buildings that form the Eton College, I did see scores of fresh faced boys in coat tails rushing about with an air of purpose; whether genuine or forced upon them, I couldn't tell. We were constantly reminded not to take pictures which would show the faces of these boys. You never know which billionaire, President or King is paying the meagre £37000 and change per year to educate their sons here, to take over the world. I did, however take lots of pictures of the Crooked house, delightful pubs, swans frolicking on the river and pastoral landscapes that soothe the soul.
The Crooked House of Windsor, built around 1687, stands on an 'outrageous  slant' and is still in use.

The Windsor Castle

Do you know the way to...


What's in a name?....

....this describes it well.

Nothing else matters.

Hiking in Surrey - RHS Garden Wisley

Wisley, one of four gardens run by the Royal Horticultura Society (RHS) was founded by a Victorian businessman George Fergus Wilson in 1878. From a site of 60 acres, it has now grown into a large and diverse garden covering almost 240 acres. The diversity of the plants and associated gardens makes it impossible to appreciate everything in one visit. I will surely be going back a couple of times at least especially in Spring.

Roses, Dahlias, Sunflowers, giant Hydrangeas and so many more flowers....


Productive and pretty apple and pear trees, trained to grow in restricted spaces, so as to be suitable for small gardens.


Hiking in Surrey - Denbies Vineyard

A vineyard in the south east of England? Sure,why not? And if 265 acres of grape vines on the gentle slopes of the hills around you are not a good enough view, why not climb the said hill!

And be sure to say "Hiya" to some sturdy Galloways and resting sheep as you take in the magnificent view.

Hiking in Surrey - Box Hill

     'Leafy Surrey' as it is known in England is an area of rolling chalk downs, ancient woodlands, canals, rivers and impeccably landscaped gardens. With woodlands covering over a fifth of its area, Surrey has the honor of being the most wooded county in England. Hence, this is the ideal place to indulge in one of the great English past times - all weather Walking. Whether by themselves, in groups or with their furry four-legged companions. the English love to walk. The hikers, the Ramblers and even the runners - this beautiful countryside beckons them all. 

Box Hill and Stepping Stones Pub walk
     Box Hill is a summit in the North Downs, with a maximum elevation of 735 feet. Lying within the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), these chalk slopes support over 40 species of trees and wildlife. If you are brave enough to climb the hill, which featured in the 2012 Summer Olympics cycling road race events, you will be rewarded with panoramic views of the English country side that you could only have imagined, as a teenager, reading Thomas Hardy.  

The quaint little pub at the end of the walk is no small consolation either.