Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Scandinavia trip part 1 : Sweden

I have had many friends from Scandinavia and I have always found them to be amazing people. So deciding to go to Sweden and Norway was easy (Well to be honest, Sweden was more because of the chance to see the mighty brown bears in its natural habitat !!)

The itinerary that we planned on was pretty basic - with the help of trip-advisor and friends, we kind of decided the things that we wanted to see. Idea was to fly into Stockholm from Dubai and fly out of Oslo back to Dubai. We wanted to take the Oslo Bergen train given its regarded by many as one of the most awesome train route to travel in. I wanted to see Brown Bears in Sweden.

In this first part, I look back at the time at Sweden. Essentially we spent 4 days in Stockholm before taking a train to Bollnas villas at the border of the taiga forests. As Sandhya and Aarav rested in a nice hotel in the village, I went on a guided trek into the amazing coniferous forest in search of European Brown Bear.

In Stockholm, we did all the things tourists are supposed to do.

Gamla Stan : Its the old town part of Stockholm with amazingly cute housing with narrow winding roads where you can get lost. It is quite romantic in some ways. And you can also get some nice shots over the waters.

Stockholm palace : Situated in Gamla stan, the palace is something which you cannot miss even from the new town side. It is massive but not the kind of architecture that I truly love. It kind of looked nice but I'd any day prefer the quaint old buildings.

Parliament house

I liked it a bit more than the palace and from some angles it does look an interesting building.

Drottningholm Palace

One can take a boat from city hall to this amazing palace which I'd classify as a must visit. Even the boat ride itself is quite a nice way to spend a lazy summer day.

City hall

One of the more photographic buildings in Stockholm, it overlooks the bay. Pretty close to everything from boat loading area to central station to the hotel we were staying. So we went there more than once. This is also where the Nobel banquet happens in December every year.

Gripsholm Castle

Located in Mariefred, a picturesque town on lake Malaren, this is indeed a good boat ride away. Its quite a long boat ride but if one is armed with some nice Swedish brew which the boat stocks up. It could get pretty windy and cool even in summer so having some warm cloths if you are sitting outside is advised.

The castle itself is nice with some good photo ops especially from its grounds

Personally for me a huge highlight was the Photography museum where I saw Nick Brandt's Inheriting the dust project. Of course Nick was marvellous as usual. We also went to Djurgarden where we walked around a lot and enjoyed the trees and the greenery as we ended our time in this nice city. Not my favourite by any yardstick but not too boring either.

We left Stockholm and took a train from the central station to Bollnas. We checked into a hotel in the village centre, had some nice lunch from a nearby cafe. Sandy and Aarav would be alone for the rest of the day and the next day since I was trekking into the coniferous taiga forests in search of its magnificent beast - the brown bear.

I had booked with Wild Sweden at Hakan Vargas's amazing forest lodge - Vargas Wilderness lodge. In line with all reviews, Hakan and Eva  were amazing hosts. After debrief (first in Swedish since I was the lone English speaker) and then privately for me in English. We had some nice lunch and lot of amazing coffee before we started our short silent trek into the forest. We reached hide in about half an hour of pretty easy trek. And the wait started for the predator to come !

After waiting for many hours in absolute silence, late in the night, as the midnight approached we could faintly see a form rushing through the forest towards us. With bated breath we saw a largish male brown bear. It would flit in and out of undergrowth and hence in the middle of night the photography was pretty difficult.

Pics did not come out too good since I shot at pretty low speeds. In hindsight, I should have taken my 300 2.8 prime and also pushed up the ISO what with the 6 D performing admirably well in high ISO scenarios. Anyways, I had seen my first brown bear and that would suffice !

Thus ended a memorable week in lovely Sweden ! High point for me indeed was the brown bear experience ! Something for which I won't mind coming back !

Friday, June 17, 2016

Rhodes, Greece : Beaches, ancient ruins, medieval palaces, walled city !

End of May, beginning of June, 2016 we had a chance to hop over to Greece. Specifically the island of Rhodes (Rodos in Greek). It has good beaches but for us the chief attraction was the medieval walled city, Mandraki harbor with their ancient windmills, acropolis in Lindos and the archaeological sites. The medieval city is indeed a cute throwback to the old. Once can almost feel the "ancientness" as one walks in the night through the city or sit down to eat at one of its multitudes of restaurants.

We covered Rhodes (including couple of beaches and the walled old city), Kamiros, Filerimos and Lindos (with its famous acropolis). Sandhya took time out to go visit some more archaeological ruins at Kamiros. Ancient Kamiros along with Lindos and Ialissos forms Rhodes and is one of the oldest Greek cities. While Lindos is on SE side of the island and hence in Mediterranean sea, the western cities are all overlooking the Aegean sea whose eastern limit is the Rhodes island. 

Sharing some stories via images. (All shot with my new FF Canon 6D and 17-40 L)


Rhodes is less than 20 NM from Turkey. We stayed at the Sheraton and from the balconies one can see the Turkish landfall pretty clear on most days. One of the main attraction there is the medieval harbour which is now called Mandraki port. Supposedly, this is where the Colossus of Rhodes once stood. (Regarded as one of the 7 wonders of the world.
Mandraki port with walls of the old town visible
Sea view out to Aegean coast from within the old city walls
Old windmills that were once used to ground grains brought into the port
View of walls of medieval Rhodesian town during sunset
Palace of Grand master of Knights of Rhodes
History of the above palace is very interesting. Initially, when Knight Hospitallers took over Rhodes this was made palace of their Grandmaster. After the island was captured by the Ottoman Empire, the palace was used as a command centre and fortress. later it was converted into a holiday home for Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, whose name can still be seen on a large plaque near the entrance. But it seems he never set his foot upon the palace.


Kamiros was one of the three large Doric cities of the island, which united with Ialyssos and Lindos in the 5th century B.C. to create the powerful city - state of Rhodes. 
(All pics by Sandhya)

Kamiros archaeological site


The Monastery of Panagia Filerimos is located on a hill above Ialyssos, about 10 km from Rhodes Town. The monastery is dedicated to Virgin Mary 
(All pics by Sandhya)

Side walls of Monastery

For me, one of the most breathtaking parts of the Island is the Lindos village and the associated Acropolis with amazing ancient ruins overlooking the Mediterranean sea. 
Village of Lindos

Lindos Acropolis

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

100 hours in Tblisi, Georgia

Bridge of Peace, Tblisi

Got a chance to spend a few days in the capital of Georgia this winter. The idea was born out of a plan of a bunch of us friends to go on a boys only trip. The specifications were quite simple - should be relatively cheap, weather must be good, must have decent night life especially availability of good quality wine and beer ! Above all, visa should be quick or on arrival even for Indian passport holders ! Now these might appear to be relatively straight forward needs from a vacation but still its not so easy to find such a spot, given the mighty desi passport ! Luckily, a friend had recently gone to Georgia and mentioned that the visa is on arrival if you have GCC residency. We quickly decided on Tblisi - thankfully we knew nothing about the city and hence decided to take it as it comes. This does add to adventure ! Unlike my solo trips where I prefer to plan most things to a detail that makes others go nuts !

Quickly booked tickets through fly dubai and the nights at holiday inn. Upon reaching the terminal, we were told that though visa is on arrival, you still need to show some bank account details to ensure you can afford hotels there and that you will not stay put. Would be interesting to know who would want to stay put in Tblisi. Anyways an ATM slip was enough as proof that we have enough moolah to get us into Tblisi and back and still spare change for hotel and food. Once that was done, the flight was short, sweet and uneventful.

The 100 odd hours we spend there was all a blur. We covered quite a bit - Jvari, old cathedrals, longest wine cellar there including wine tasting, purchased Georgian special wines, had Indian food (with an appetite that made the owner think we are seldom given food back home!) and gorged on Georgian food like Katchapuri - especially the beans filled one which was oh so tasty ! The weather was great - around 10, but with no significant rain. We did get a few drizzles every now and then which also made us miss some fantastic sights from afar at Mtshketa but overall for an unplanned vacation, it was par for the course.

Fom a view point in Mtshketa

Georgian food and drinks 

So if you are limited on time and want to do the Top-3 things in Tblisi, in my view you should do the following.

1. Mtshketa 
Definitely do the 20 odd Km trip to Mtshketa. On a good sunny day you can see afar from near the old Jvari monastery there. It is a sixth century Georgian orthodox monastery which is listed as a World heritage site by Unesco. At Mtshketa, one can also view the Sveti tshkoveli Cathedral. Both of these are brilliant to spend some time at.
View from Mtshketa
Georgian monastery, Mtsheketa

Tshkoveli cathedral
 Sveti Tshkoveli Cathedral's magical lights

2. Sulphur baths 
These baths are pretty much at the old city centre. If you are OK being naked in front of many other people or in privacy in front of your exclusive massage man (or woman if you are lady), then you can get all the dirt accumulated over decades off your skin in 30 minutes. I did opt for a private bath without the massage but did come out fresh and slightly dizzy. Must be the sulphur plus the steam. It was not the most hygienic thing I've done in life but hey it takes all kinds to make a vacation memorable. And sulphur bath in Tblisi is one memorable experience for sure. There is even an interesting legend regarding founding of Tblisi The legend about foundation of Tbilisi: one day the Georgian king Vakhtang Gorgasali was hunting in the environs of Tbilisi. His falcon caught a pheasant, but soon both disappeared, only after some time King Vakhtang found his bird. Both fell into a sulphur spring and were boiled. As the sulphur spring was warm, king decided to call this place Tbilisi. tbili means "warm” in Georgian and according to his will the capital of Georgia changed from Mtskheta to Tbilisi. There is even a sculpture marking the poor Falcon boiled and mummified in Sulphur spring. 

Sample sulphur bath area

The falcon of the King which is legend entwined with Tbilisi name, domes of the Sulphur bath behind

3. Narikala fortress : It is almost omnipresent from any part of the city. Worth the climb and definitely worth the views of the city from up top. You should be reasonably fit to trek up to the Mother of Georgia statue - but you could also take a cable car if you chicken out from a relatively moderate trail. 

Fort ruins 
View from fort
Mother of Georgia statue
One other thing if you are a wine lover - Khareba's wine cellar at Kvareli : Driving to one of the longest underground cellar is a reasonably boring one. However, once you are in the underground cellar (keep adequate warm cloths since it could be very cold even in summer), you forget all about it as you get to taste some nice wine apart from learning Georgian way of making wine. You could also buy the home wines. 

I might not revisit Georgia or Tblisi since its really not my kind of vacation but nevertheless worth a visit - helps you get to snow fast, still has a bunch of lovely cathedrals and fort ruins and nature.