Lao Chai to Ta Van

img_2763-copy

The village of Lao Chai is just 30mins drive or 6km away from Sapa town where we were based.

img_2771-copy

Lao Chai is nestled at the beginning of the Muong Hoa Valley with over 100 ethnic Black H’mong families in the village living on subsistence farming & tourist dollars.

img_2774-copy

The Floating Homestay is a rustic & interesting place, strategically located & looking into the Muong Hoa Valley.

img_2776-copy

The majestic  Hoang Lien Son Mountains is an eastern extension of the Himalayas & the inhabitants at the foot of the range include  ethnic minorities like the H’mong , Dzao, Zay, Tay & Red Zao.

img_2784-copy

The padi season is  over & all the sheaths have been harvested so the rice terraces look a little empty but the ducks are pecking & cows grazing, perhaps still finding something to eat.

img_2786-copy

The Indigo plant (Strobilanthes cusia nee kuntze) is a leafy shrub that grows no taller than 1 metre  bearing violet-coloured flowers. They thrive best at altitudes of between 500-1600m above sea-level under natural conditions.  Indigo has been used since ancient times for medicinal purposes & as a natural dye for textiles. The leaves are processed by soaking in water & later fermented, releasing the Indican which can be hydrolysed & oxidised to indigo-blue with the addition of lye. The precipitate is the dried & pressed into cakes or powdered.

img_2787-copy

Lao Chai is currently positioned as the rest stop for trekkers going to other villages like Ta Van & is inhabited by mainly Black Hmong families who offer genuine homestay experiences & Batik making workshops. What better way to immerse yourself in Hmong culture than to live amongst them.

img_2789-copy

The Muong Hoa River flows through this area where several villages starting with Cat Cat, Lao Chai, Ta Van & Giang Ta Chai gradually fanning out to  many others. This river  feeds the rice terraces that are so beautifully crafted in the valley.

img_2796-copy

Soaking in the awesome view at Lao Chai & the Muong Hoa Valley.

img_2797-copy

This Hemp plant (Cannabis sativa) is what the Black Hmong process & weave into fabric which is fashioned into  clothing & a wide variety of items. In recorded history, the Cannabis sativa has been cultivated as a source for industrial fibre, hempseed oil, food, recreation (marijuana, hashish), spiritual rituals & medicine. Each part of the plant is harvested differently dependant on the purpose of its use.

img_2801-copy

We stopped briefly at a small rest house by the  idyllic Muong Hoa River for a swig of Coke…the DRINK & some local ice cream which I sadly did not enjoy!

img_2806-copy

We crossed this narrow Red bridge tagged Lao Chai quickly as it was only wide enough for one car to pass & a truck was rumbling along.

img_2809-copy

Without a guide or map, we happily embarked on the trek but these friendly  women from the Black Hmong tribe came alongside right from the start, at the top of the hill. They speak a little English  & tried their best to engage us in conversation which I did not particularly mind but soon realised that they were actually street vendors touting their embroidered items.

img_2810-copy

A colourful convenience store in Lao Chai where fruits & vegetables are not the only things on sale; we may be in a remote area in the mountainous region of North Vietnam but staying connected to the world via telecommunications is big here judging by the 4 advertisements posted.

img_2813-copy

The valley is dominated by rice terraces but the higher reaches of the mountain sides are usually where other  agricultural crops like corn, sweet potato & cassava is cultivated.

img_2814-copy

A provision shop that is well stocked with fresh produce, poultry, pork & sundries in Lao Chai.

img_2815-copy

H’mong village houses in Lao Chai near  Sapa.

img_2816-copy

We are in Ta Van territory but I honestly do not know where the delineation between Lao Chai & Ta Van really is. Could it be this bridge crossing is the start of Ta Van Village?

img_2817-copy

Ta Van was formerly a quiet village with a mix of Dao, H’mong & Giay minorities populating it but tourism has brought tremendous changes & the people have experienced economic growth & adapted. It is hoped that rapid changes would not affect the urban layout,  have negative impact on the people & erode their unique culture.

img_2818-copy

Pretty blooming violet flowers of the  aquatic Water Hyacinth plant (Eichhornia crassipes).

img_2822-copy

Picture perfect  Ta Van – complete with green vegetable patches, cascading rice terraces, the imposing Hoang Lien Son mountain range & the  illumination of by  blue skies. A snapshot which I treasure & have kept in my heart.

img_2826-copy

We see stalks of corn being hung up to dry in the sun before the kernels are extracted from the cob & laid on the ground for further drying. It would be used to feed their livestock like cattle, poultry, buffalo & hogs. On the left side of the porch are joss sticks laid out to dry.

img_2828-copy

Cottage industry where the  Giay women folk  manufacture  Joss sticks & pellets of Sandalwood incense. Giay women wear blouses like this one with splits at the sides & buttoned on the right side paired with dark indigo trousers & their hair wrapped around their head with a scarf. The older women usually don blouses of darker shades & in their costume we see  Vietnamese & Western elements blended together.

img_2830-copy

A pair of ducks sunbathing & contemplating their world – Ta Van, Vietnam.

img_2834-copy

Our 3 hour long slow & easy trek ended as we exited Ta Van crossing this bridge.  Child labour is an issue Vietnam  contends  with but  I sincerely hope that these young girls will have a chance to get an  education & secure themselves  a brighter future.

The journey from Hanoi to Lao Cai takes a gruelling 8 hours & though the train’s air-conditioned sleeping  berths were reasonably comfortable, it could not make up for the noisy & bumpy ride which kept me awake through the night though I was dead tired. On arrival at Lao Cai Station, you have to take a bus or van ride for about an hour with  a fair bit  of winding mountain roads before reaching Sapa town proper.

My wish is that the Train system would be overhauled & high-speed trains would be running when I next visit Sapa.  Despite the rough journey,  I must say Sapa & the surrounding areas around Fansiṕan Mountain are the highlights of my trip to Northern Vietnam & I love this place!

Indochina’s Rooftop

img_2502-copy

We took a 15min taxi ride to Sapa Station which is about 3km South-west of Sapa Town to where the Fansiṕan Legend commenced.

img_2503-copy

Directly opposite the Sapa Station entrance is Bao An Thien Tu or Bao An Pagoda which not only is located in beautiful surroundings but stands at an impressive  altitude of 1,604m.

img_2505-copy

The Fansiṕan Legend newly opened in Feb 2016 is a suspended cable car system that is the highest, longest & most modern suspended cable car system in Asia as well as the world. Adult Tickets are priced at VND600,000 approximately US$33 which is a little steep but state of the art as promised.

img_2506-copy

The 15min ride  was very smooth & quiet, fitted with comfortable seats that can easily accommodate up to 20 people each trip. Fansiṕan Legend was awarded a Guinness World Record for the feat in transporting 2000 guests in an hour.

img_2507-copy

Fansiṕan is about 9km away from Sapa town & a round trip hike would take  about 3 days for anyone in good shape.

img_2512-copy

Muong Hoa Valley is carved with an intricate maze of rice terraces that look interesting even when barren after the Autumn harvest. The best time to catch the verdant valley is around July-August; during April-May, the rice fields would look like huge sparkling mirrors as water cover the surfaces. From September-October, a golden sea signals harvest time.

img_2520-copy

The Sun Group employees did a good job braving the weather & working on the rough terrain to get this first class cable car system in place.

img_2523-copy

As we ascended higher into the Hoàng Liên Son Mountain range, we were engulfed in swirling clouds.

img_2584-copy

Cổng Tam Quan or Tam Quan Gate shrouded & celestial – the first flight of steps to conquer after exiting Sapa Station.

img_2536-copy

The  signboard missing a “G” detailing  what you can expect to see as you head towards the crown of Fansiṕan. However, a few of them are still under construction at this time.

img_2537-copy

No. 7 on the map. On the steps of Chùa Hạ – Bích Vân Thiền Tự Temple which is 3,037m above sea-level. Believed to be where Heaven & Earth blend harmoniously converging Yin & Yang, & where all sorrows dissipate leaving only peace in one’s soul.  The architecture in the spiritual landmarks reflect the style of the Ly-Tran Dynasty.

img_2581-copy

No. 9 on the map. The Vọng Lĩnh Cao Đai Buddhist Great Bell.

img_2543-copy

I did not keep count but there are supposedly over 600 steps from Fansiṕan Station to the summit of the mountain.

img_2546-copy

Point No 11 on the map. Slowly taking shape is the unfinished iron structure of the  Great Buddha Statue seated on a giant lotus throne. The Lotus flower symbolises fortune in Buddhism, as it rises & blooms above the  muddy waters to achieve enlightenment. It also speaks of purification of the spirit that is born into murkiness & a world of suffering & finally it is an inference to faithfulness, as those who seek to rise above the muddy waters need to be faithful followers.

img_2548-copy

Point No. 18  on the map. The final station of the Funicular is still under construction which was why we had to climb about 600 steps to get to the crest of Fansiṕan. Some workers seen carrying construction materials uphill  are catching a breather here.

img_2549-copy

No. 17 on the map – Cột Cờ, the Flag pole. It was nice to finally reach the peak of Fansiṕan. The exertion & perhaps thinner air, meant I had to take  short breaks in between climbing but I certainly enjoyed the cold weather & wind with temperatures  hovering around 10°C.

img_2568-copy

No 19 on the map – Dĩnh Fansiṕan, the zenith of Fansiṕan Mountain & the Rooftop of Indochina stands at the elevation of 3,143m (10,371.9ft)

img_2577-copy

It was time to make tracks as it was getting dark;  my hair was dripping wet from walking in the clouds as I did not have a hat.

img_2585-copy

Return leg from Fansiṕan Station to Sapa Station which would cover a  non-stop distance of 6,292.5m on this sophisticated  3-rope cable car system.

img_2590-copy

This breathtaking scenery coupled with the feeling of soaring through the clouds is nothing short of amazing. We passed Hoàng Liên National Park, Muong Hoa Valley & the impressive peaks of the Hoàng Liên Son Mountain range.

img_2591-copy

The vast open skies, a canvas painted with the colours from the palette of a beautiful sunset.

img_2593-copy

How magnificent  is the Creator’s handiwork & what an awesome privilege to be there to capture this  incredible moment.

Rüstem Pasha Mosque

img_7224-copy

The mosque sits atop a high terrace over a complex of vaulted shops whose rents were used to finance & administrate the mosque complex. It now houses a religious school. The honeycomb framed niche or Mihrab indicates the direction of Mecca which Muslims face when praying.

img_7219-copy

Rüstem Pasha Mosque is a 16th century  Ottoman structure located at  Hasırcılar Çarşışı (Strawmat Weavers Market) in Fatih District of the city of Istanbul, Turkey. It was dedicated to the memory  of Rüstem Pasha(c.1500-1561)  by his wife Ottoman princess Mihrimah Sultan(1522-1578), who wielded great power in the empire.

img_7220-copy

The mosque has double porches which  consist of five domed bays which project a deep, low roof supported by a row of columns. Here is the outer porch with marble floorings and columns.

img_7207-copy

Muslims practice  ritual purification or ablution(wudu) before prayers & to observe cleanliness within the mosque, we left our shoes at the racks at the  entrance. We filed passed this inner porch before we got to the central prayer hall( Musallah).

img_7204-copy

Rüstem Pasha Mosque is lesser known compared to the  Blue Mosque & Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul but this smallish place of worship contains a large quantity of beautiful Iznik tiles that makes it a gem.

img_7209-copy

The interior  is extensively covered in ceramic  Iznik tiles & the Mihrab, the semicircular niche in the  qibla  wall as seen here is elaborately decorated.  The Mihrab  indicates the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca & it is the focal point in  prayer rituals. On the right are steps leading to the Minbar where the Imam stands to deliver sermons or addresses the congregation.

img_7213-copy

Rüstem Pasha served as the Grand Vizier of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent from 1544-1553 & 1555-1561. He married  Mihrimah Sultan, the daughter of  Suleiman the Magnificent & his  wife Hürrem Sultan in 1539. This mosque was built between 1561-1563 after Pasha’s death  was designed by Mimar Sinan the genius architect & civil engineer of the Ottoman Empire.

img_7206-copy

Sinan only realised his dream late in life when he was appointed Chief Royal Architect when he was about 50 years old. He left a copious amount of works which include 92 mosques, 52 small mosques(mescit), 55 Theological schools(medrese), 7 Koran reciter schools(darülkurra), 20 mausoleums,17 public kitchens, 3 hospitals, 6 aqueducts, 10 bridges, 20 caravanserais, 36 palaces & mansions, 8 vaults & 48 baths.

img_7214-copy

The plan of the mosque has some Byzantine  influence;  an octagon inscribed in a rectangle with a large central  dome resting on four semi-domes. Seen here is one of four special octagonal pillars where the arches of the dome rest & the southern gallery on the left.

img_7218-copy

Iznik is a town in Anatolia which became the established centre in the last quarter of the 15th century for the production of simple but high quality earthenware pottery & tiles with an underglaze decoration of Cobalt Blue.

img_7202-copy

The combination of traditional Ottoman arabesque patterns & the influence of Chinese elements was probably due to the patronage of the Ottoman court in Istanbul who greatly valued Chinese Blue & White porcelain. We see in this tile a Coral or Tomato Red colouring which was derived from an Iron-rich red earth called bole found in Armenia. It produces a slightly raised texture & a brilliant red colouring termed as Iznik Red.

img_7223-copy

This gorgeous panel is found on the wall of the Outer porch. There is no representation of humans or fauna in Islamic art as they believe that God alone is the unique creator of all living forms.

img_5972-copy

The ancient town of Scardona  has over 2000 years of history & is the gateway to Krka National Park. It is now known as Skradin & since 1968 has become  a protected cultural monument, besides being a popular culinary & yachting destination. Forbes magazine cited how Bill Gates & his family enjoyed  the summer of 2010 exploring this tiny Mediterranean town of Skradin filled with  narrow paved streets, passages & steep  hillsides.

img_5973-copy

This is the birthplace of Rüstem Pasha who was of Croatian or Serbian descent. He was taken to Istanbul as a child where he  built his military & bureaucratic career. Skradin  is a small town with a population presently of about 4000 people in the Šibenik-Knin County of Croatia. It  sits at the entrance of Krka National Park near the Krka River & is about 17km from Šibenik & 100km from Split.

img_5975-copy

This 391m long concrete arch bridge opened in 2005 is called Krka Bridge. It spans the karst Krka River Canyon & rises over 65m & is situated between the Skradin & Šibenik interchanges in Croatia on the A1 Motorway.

img_5961-copy

Beautiful reflections on Prokljan Lake(Prokljansko jezero) in the region of Dalmatia. It covers an area of 11.1sq km & is the 2nd largest lake in the whole of Croatia. This lake is connected to Šibenik Harbour  by a narrow channel & it eventually meets the Adriatic Sea.

img_5985-copy

Watching from the rest area south of Krka Bridge, I am mesmerised by this breathtaking sunset as I appreciate the glorious handiwork of my infinite creator.

Nippon’s Miniature Niagara

img_1686-copy

This is the Parking area for 六角堂 Rokkakudou which is a hexagonal-shaped shrine just by Fukiware Falls.

img_1632-copy

吹割ノ滝 Fukiware-no-taki is situated in Okkai, Tone-machi, Numata-City of Gunma Prefecture in Japan. Ukishima Bridge(Right) & Fukiware Bridge(Left) in full view.

img_1636-copy

We stayed overnight at Oigami Onsen which is a hot spring resort in the mountains of Gunma Prefecture bordering Numata City. It is about 4km up river from Fukiware Falls & took about 10mins drive to get to. We parked across the road outside a restaurant & walked through an underpass before descending  about 2-3 flight of stairs  to get to the water’s edge.

A Festival  procession to offer prayers for safe water levels  after the thawing  of winter frost swell the Katashina  River &  also for the safety of visitors who come to Fukiware Falls. This Rogation day usually falls on April 18th every Spring.

img_1645-copy

Over a million visitors come yearly to see these spectacular falls which have become  a national treasure of sorts & it is especially beautiful during Autumn when the  surrounding foliage or 紅葉 Kouyou  are at their stunning & blazing best. When the winds are strong you can feel the spray of mist churned up from the mighty 7m splash.

img_1663-copy

Fukiware-no-taki is a horseshoe-shaped waterfall that spans 30m & drops 7m into the granite riverbed below. The sight & sound of the rapid gushing vortex of water hitting the river bottom is a mesmerising & powerful impression.

img_1644-copy

吹割ノ滝 Fukiware-no-taki  Fukiware Waterfalls.

img_1646-copy

The 片品渓谷 Katashina  Keikoku – Katashina Ravine stretches over 1.5km  & the elements & river continue to change the landscape over time & carve out rocks of unusual & interesting shapes.

img_1648-copy

This is a calmer section where we get to appreciate  the crystalline waters & granite cliffs more closely.

img_1649-copy

A cave lies around the corner & the deeper section of the river appears an attractive  emerald green.

img_1650-copy

Continue along the concrete footpath that skirts the ravine 吹割渓谷 Fukiware Keikoku & river, then turn around & have a look  at the colourful rugged rock face; a natural phenomena  that is worth more than a second look.

img_1651-copy

We approached a second granite  plateau before another  waterfall  greeted us.

img_1652-copy

The downstream flow of water gathers speed & form a swirling mass before plunging into the section below.

img_1654-copy

A multi-coloured composition of rocks with traces of mineral deposits & the bright orange parts hinting of either an iron or non-metallic sulfide.

img_1657-copy

We reached the lower section of the ravine & got to 鱒飛ノ滝 Masutobi-no-taki  which drops a further 15m before we turned  back.

img_1664-copy

浮島橋 Ukishima Bridge spans 150m & crosses to  浮島 Ukishima Island where 浮島神社 Ukishima Kannon Temple is located.

img_1665-copy

Looking upstream at Katashina River from Ukishima Bridge.

img_1671-copy

Ukishima Bridge sans hordes of tourists.

img_1673-copy

Ukishima Kannon Temple is a Buddhist temple dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy. It also houses the work of legendary Japanese sculptor, artist & carpenter  Jingoro Hidari who lived during the Edo Period circa 1596-1644. It is believed that he created many deity sculptures throughout Japan including his famous 眠り猫 Nemuri-Neko Sleeping Cat & 三匹ノ猿 Sanbiki no saru Three Wise Monkeys.

img_1085-copy

眠り猫 Nemuri-neko Sleeping Cat at the Kuguri-mon Gate at Nikko’s 日光東照宮 Toshogu Shrine.

img_1055-copy

三匹ノ猿 Sanbiki no saru Three Wise Monkeys at 日光東照宮 Toshogu Shrine in Nikko.

This  kind gentleman from the Ukishima Kannon Temple offered me a drink of fermented sweet rice wine.

img_1672-copy

Condiments of pickled radish (daikon) to go with the Amazake, a traditional sweet low alcohol Japanese drink made from  koji (fermented rice) & the koji mold Aspergillus oryzae which is commonly served at shrines during festivals.

img_1675-copy

Fukiware Bridge  which is 140m in length offers splendid views of the Katashina Gorge below.

img_1676-copy

View from 吹割橋 Fukiware Bridge with 浮島 Ukishima Island on the left.

img_1683-copy

A parking area & a rest-stop to catch a breather before we retrace our steps  back to our car & head to Kusatsu Onzen.

img_1682-copy

A tourist map near the parking area & rest-stop that highlights the walking trails & spots of interest.

Fukiware Waterfalls was a pleasant surprise & it certainly exceeded my expectations. Though it is more convenient to get there by driving compared to public transport,  I deem it worthy of a visit & I thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere, the walk & the interaction  with the local folks.

Dolmabaćhe Palace

IMG_7633 copy

The school children are waiting patiently as their teachers give them instructions before entering the Palace gates. It is Remembrance Day for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk & though it is not a public holiday, the Turks all over the country observe a moment of silence. A testament of patriotic fervour  in the city of Istanbul is the  Atatürk badges worn & little Turkish flags borne in his honour.

IMG_7635 copy

The imposing & impressive Gate of the Sultan (Saltanat Kapısı) welcomes you into Dolmabahçe Palace(Dolmabahçe Sarayı)  located in the Beşiktaş district of Istanbul, Turkey.

IMG_7642 copy

A second gate & high walls surround the palatial grounds.  Dolmabahçe Palace served as the administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1887 & 1909 go 1922. The layout & decoration throughout the palace reflects European influences but it interestingly also retains elements of traditional Ottoman palace life & features of Turkish homes.

IMG_7645 copy

Walking through neatly manicured  Selamlık Garden.The site of Dolmabahçe Palace used to be a bay on the Bosphorous that the Ottoman fleet anchored. It was reclaimed during the 18th century & served as an imperial garden which the Ottoman Sultans enjoyed. Construction of various summer palaces & wooden pavilions were gradually added forming the palace complex by the 19th century.That was how the Palace’s name was derived at; “Dolma” means filled & “bahçe” – garden.

IMG_7649 copy

Entrance to the Selamlık. This massive 45,000sq.m mono block was ordered by the Ottoman Empire’s 31st Sultan, Abdülmecid I & construction took place between 1843 & 1856 the project was handled by Armenian architects Garabed Balyan, his son Nigoğos Balyan & Evanis Kalfa.

IMG_7656 copy

By the Gate to the Bosphorus is this big  video screen continuously  showing excerpts from historical moments recorded  in Atatürk’s life.

IMG_7671 copy

Looking through the Gate to the Bosphorus, a battleship is moored especially to mark Atatürk Remembrance Day.

IMG_7664 copy

Seed pod of the Magnolia acuminata or  common name  ‘Cucumber tree’ which is one of the largest & cold hardiest of the Magnolia trees. It bears none showy, small yellow-green flowers & its unripe fruit looks like a small cucumber. Upon maturing it turns a dark striking reddish-orange colour.

img_7665-copy

The matured pod is about 6-8cm long & 4cm broad; the individual carpels split open & release bright red seeds like these. There are 10-60 seeds per fruit.

IMG_7673 copy

This palace  is an eclectic hotchpotch of Baroque, Rococo & Neoclassical styles blended with traditional Ottoman architecture & it comprises 3 parts. The Imperial Mabeyn, the Imperial Harem & the Crown Prince Pavilion. The Imperial Harem & the Grand Ceremonial Hall (Muayede Salon) come under a single roof of the main structure.

IMG_7686 copy

Within the Imperial Harem, where the Sultan’s private apartment is found. This is the largest palace in Turkey with 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 baths (ham am) & 68 toilets. Most of the palace carpets were manufactured by the Hereke Imperial Factory.

IMG_7688 copy

Beautiful balustrades, elegant stairways & ornate ceiling decorations that have a “wow” factor that seemingly  whisk  you  to  magical  Disney palace set!

IMG_7694 copy

The grandeur of this palace is probably unsurpassed by another other: 14 tonnes of gold were used to gild the ceilings & the largest collection of Bohemian & Baccarat crystal chandeliers in the world is housed here.

IMG_7700 copy

The Blue Hall was the central ceremonial hall where the Sultan met the public. It was situated in the centre of the Sultan’s harem & featured  blue coloured ornaments, decorations & marble.

IMG_7704 copy

The construction cost of Dolmabahçe Palace was a mind-blowing 5 million Ottoman gold lira or 35 tonnes of gold which placed an enormous strain on the deteriorating fiscal position of the Ottoman empire, which ultimately led to a default on its public debt in Oct 1875.

IMG_7705 copy

Dolmabahçe Palace was fashioned in a contemporary style, luxurious & comfortable compared to medieval  Tokapı Palace. Abdülmecid I wanted a palace that was comparable to those of the European monarchs.

IMG_7709 copy

This was Atatürk’s Study room which he used from 1927 to 1938. Some of the European furniture & paintings,  European & Far-eastern porcelain & glasses & Hereke carpets that fill the Palace are seen here as well.

IMG_7711 copy 2

This is the very room where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk spent his last days before passing away on 10th Nov 1938.  This bedroom in the former Harem section of the palace is festooned with bouquets & memorabilia from visitors. A nugget of trivia… the clock in the room is stopped at 9:05am the time of Atatürk’s death.

IMG_7714 copy

Ornate floral ceiling decorations that are so detailed & symmetrical & a marvel to behold. The individual  rooms are tastefully furnished & exude such elegance & warmth.

IMG_7717 copy 2

This Central Hall or the Pink Hall is situated in t he Sultan’s Mother’s (Sultan Valide)  private apartments & form part of the Imperial Harem. This lofty room of spectacular opulence  is  beautifully embellished  with vintage furniture, paintings, gilded mirrors & a gigantic carpet  that some  fitting ballroom dancing could liven things up!

IMG_7729 copy

Outside the Painting Museum which was closed for renovations at the time of my visit.

IMG_7732 copy

‘Mallard Conference’ – The drake sports a glossy green head with grey feathers on its wings & belly, whilst the female hens have mainly brown-speckled plumage. Both have an area of white-bordered black speculum feathers with iridescent blue feathers.  Mallards live in wetlands, feeding on  water plants & small animals & being social animals prefer congregating in flocks of various sizes.

IMG_7738 copy

‘The Princess’ – Demure feline presence.

IMG_7740 copy

‘The Grouch’ –  What are you looking at? Just leave me alone OK!

IMG_7741 copy

“Could’nt Be Bothered” – Just chill, huh!

IMG_7755 copy

Another inner garden with a fountain in the extensive grounds of Dolmabahçe Palace.

IMG_7763 copy

Gate of the Treasury (Hazine-i-Hassa Kapısı)

IMG_7773 copy

The main entrance to the Palace & the facade of the Selamlık which was quarters reserved for the men & where the public representation rooms are housed.

IMG_7777 copy

Water fountain in Selamlık Garden.

IMG_7277 copy

On the European coastline of the Bosphorus Strait in the Beşiktaş district of Istanbul, Turkey is the lavish Dolmabahçe Palace.

IMG_7260 copy

Took a cruise tour of the Bosphorus Strait the day before  & we passed Dolmabahçe Palace along the way.

IMG_7449 copy

The F241 Frigate – TCG Turgutreis  was moored by the Gate of the Bosphorus possibly in salutation to Atatürk?

Dolmabaçhe Palace is an exquisite Turkish treasure & museum that is worth a visit. You will be awed by the gorgeous rooms, decorations, furnishing & beautiful chandeliers that befits a grand palace. If you are lucky  like me who unknowingly  visited  on Atatürk Remembrance Day which falls on 10th Nov; entrance is completely  free. General admission is 30Lira & with the Harem visit an additional 10Lira.

Little Edo

IMG_0937 copy

Kawagoe is a small city in Saitama Prefecture situated in central Kanto, Japan. It is known as “Little Edo” because it still has many intact historical buildings & was a supplier of commodities to Tokyo (Ed0) during the Edo Period (1603-1867). In December 1999 the old core of Kawagoe was designated a Historic Preservation District. Walking around  Kawagoe’s Warehouse District (Kurazukuri no Machinami) is like going back in time.

IMG_0934 copy

Hozenji Temple is a Buddhist temple situated on Saiwaicho in Kawagoe. If you can spare the time, you might want to visit  the  Semba Toshogu Shrine built in 1633 on the south side of Kita-in Temple.  During 1616,  a 4-day Buddhist memorial service was held by High priest Tenkai Sojyo at Kita-in Temple,  when the remains of the 1st Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu  passed through Kawagoe  en route  from Shizuoka to Nikko Mountain.

IMG_0933 copy

Japanese made items  like socks, cotton towels, snacks, handkerchiefs & zori  make attractive gifts. Japanese sandals (Zori) used to be made of rice straw or other plant fibres, cloth, lacquered wood, leather, rubber & increasingly… synthetic materials. Zori like flip-flops are commonly worn in summer & the  choice of what kimono or zori to wear is affected by the formality of the occasion. For formal wear the white tabi socks is worn with the zori.

IMG_0938 copy

Prior to the Great Kawagoe Fire of 1893, most buildings were constructed of wood making them vulnerable. The wealthy merchants in Kawagoe could afford it & decided to  build fire resistant houses & warehouses in “Kurazukuri-style” with multiple-layered  18cm thick walls & black plaster roofs.

IMG_0936 copy

Traditional  shop along the main street  which sells all kinds of preserved white radish (Daikon) products.  It is the most popular vegetable in Japan & both the root & leaves of the daikon are eaten throughout the year in various ways;  raw, pickled, as sprouts, dried & simmered…& most commonly grated (daikon oroshi) as a condiment to meat & fish dishes &  also as a refreshing addition to tempura sauce & soba noodle soups. This practice started in the Edo Period (1603-1868) as it was thought to aid digestion. It turns out that Daikon is indeed an excellent source of digestive enzymes diatase, amylase & esterase which  is best absorbed when the Daikon is grated.

IMG_0940 copy

Kawagoe  is  also known as the City of Sweet Potatoes (Imo) & from a long time ago, they were roasted & eaten as a snack by the common people. During & after the war when food was scarce, the sweet potato became an important staple. Nowadays, the humble sweet potato has undergone an evolution & various potato kaiseki dishes, potato soba noodles, potato udon noodles & potato desserts are available. My cheery model holds up a box of sweet potato confectionery.

IMG_0941 copy

If you are going to Candy Alley(Kashiya Yokocho) keep walking down the lane when you see these signboards. You can perhaps guess what businesses the shops down the alley are doing at a glance.

IMG_0953 copy

Walking westwards from Koedo Yokocho, we come to this junction where there is a whole row of dignified warehouse-like shops like this one. Candy Alley is very close by.

IMG_0958 copy

Many houses in Japan share the same addresses; so to help the postman deliver mail to the correct persons, new house owners would usually have a name plate (Hyousatsu) placed strategically at the gate post or front door. This one here says ‘West’ – Nishi in Kanji & I love the Pieris japonica or Japanese andromeda plant that adorns  front of this house.

IMG_0954 copy

Penny Candy Alley (Kashiya Yokocho) is a famous alley lined with 22 traditional-style Japanese candy shops &  the whiff of sweets in the making  is sure to bring  nostalgia & delight to both the  young & old.  Unfortunately,  we got there late & they were  all closed by 5pm.

IMG_0955 copy

Kashiya Yokocho had it’s early beginnings during the Meiji Period when a man named Suzuki Tozaemon started making candy in front of Yojuin Temple. After the Great Kanto Earthquake that damaged Tokyo in 1923, Kawagoe became the main producer & supplier of confectionery.

IMG_0946 copy

A sweet arrangement of Violas in 2 shades,  Purple Osteospermums & Tulips – floral greetings at the door!

IMG_0945 copy

At the Fudano tsuji junction we were greeted by beautiful, clear blue skies  which was a welcome  change after a week of gloomy weather in Okinawa. The Kurazukuri Zone stretches along Chuo Dori Street from the junction of Nakacho to Fudano tsuji.

IMG_0942 copy

Kinbue (Fueki Shoyu Kawagoe) is a historic artisan soy sauce manufacturer  in Kawagoe set in a stunning  Kurazukuri house. They sell a great variety of soy sauces that are paired with different Japanese cuisine & finding the right sauce for your sashimi can up the gastronomic adventure  by leaps & bounds.

IMG_0951 copy

The Bell Tower (Toki no Kane) is a landmark & symbol of Kawagoe. It tells time & chimes 4 times daily at 6am, 12pm noon, 3pm & 6pm in the evening.  This tower rebuilt in 1894 after the Great Kawagoe Fire of 1893 is now under renovation, so you will not be able to hear the bells ringing for a bit.

IMG_0947 copy

Miniature Chirimen (Crepe fabric) crafted rocking toys that enthralled the child in me!

IMG_0948 copy

Simplicity, elegance, good craftsmanship  & tidy displays high on aesthetics that makes you want to part with some  of your moolah!

IMG_0949 copy

A range of Chirimen (Crepe fabric) figurines catered for the Children’s Day celebrations (Kodomo no Hi) which is a National holiday on May 5 & also the 5th day of the Golden Week holidays in Japan. It was designed a national holiday by the Japanese government in 1948 to celebrate children’s personalities & their happiness. On this day, families raise carp-shaped Koinobori flags (legend venerates how a carp swimming upstream turned into a dragon). The Black carp (Magoi) represents the father, the Red Carp (Higoi) the mother & the Blue carp typically the son. Additional carps are added for each subsequent child with colours & positions denoting their relative age.

IMG_0950 copy

Each Kurazukuri construction is unique in look from the others & is fireproof, theft-proof & apparently earthquake-proof too; as these centuries-old buildings  have proven &  withstood the test of time & the elements.

IMG_0960 copy

Freshly handmade Rice crackers “Okaki” which is made from dried mochi  (pounded glutinous rice)  which is roasted  on a hot flat iron grill to a perfect crunch & seasoned with soy sauce or other flavours like seaweed, chilli etc. I took the challenge & had a fiery, chilli pepper one which was nice & hot (karai) but I would not recommend it for just about anyone unless you consume hot peppers  everyday like I do.

IMG_0961 copy

We decided on having an early dinner at this little restaurant along the  Kurazukuri stretch before continuing on our drive to Nikko where we were spending the next 2 nights.

IMG_0964 copy

My Teishoku (set meal) of Smoked Salmon with Sweet Potatoes on the rice, Braised Bamboo shoots, Carrots & Konnyaku (Konjac),  Preserved Red Cabbage & Daikon, 2 delicious Matcha Mochi with Red bean (Azuki bean) fillings, a tiny cup of  chilled Green tea & Miso soup. They love their sweet potatoes in Kawagoe!

IMG_0968 copy

This is a vegan Udon (Thick wheat flour noodle) meal with braised carrots, bamboo shoots & mock pork slices in a tasty Shoyu (Soy based) soup. Our dinner was made more memorable  by the  friendly staff & we chatted  in spite of my limited Japanese proficiency.

My Kawagoe experience was a good one & though there was not sufficient time to do & see more on the “To Do List” in Little Edo;  I am sure a repeat visit in future would be highly probable as Kawagoe is only  a stone’s throw away from Tokyo & if you are driving it is easily reached within an hour  or 30mins by train.

 

City of Hearts

IMG_5772 copy

Zagreb the capital city of Croatia  is clearly divided into Upper & Lower Town by the long Sava River. The city is largely centred in the North with the Medvednica Mountain range in the background. It is also the most populated city in Croatia with about 790,000 residents.

IMG_5709 copy

Kaptol which is part of the Upper Town ( Gornji Grad) & Medveščak city district is probably the most photographed square in Zagreb, Croatia.

IMG_5811 copy

Facing the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary is the Column of St. Mary along Kaptol ulica.

IMG_5784 copy

Roman Catholic Zagreb Cathedral or the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is situated in Kaptol. At the base of the Column of St Mary is a fountain with 4 angels which was built in 1873 by Austrian sculptor Anton Dominick Ritter von Fernkorn (1813-1878).

IMG_5791 copy

The main nave collapsed & the tower was damaged beyond repair in the earthquake of 1880; as a result two prominent spires rising 108m (354ft) on the western side were added in the restoration works.

IMG_5788 copy

An impressive entrance portal to this monolith which was built mid-13th century in Gothic style whilst the cathedral was  reconstructed during the 19th century in Neo-Gothic, led by architect Hermann Bollé.

IMG_5789 copy

King Ladislaus (1040-1095) founded the Zagreb Diocese in 1094 & under his auspices the Cathedral’s construction began shortly after his death & was completed in 1217. This sacral Gothic monument was dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, King St Stephen & St Ladislaus.

IMG_5796 copy

Interior of Zagreb Cathedral with the high nave, altar & beautiful stained glass windows. I sat in the pews to bask in this beauteous sanctuary  & to allow the tranquillity to saturate my soul.

IMG_5803 copy

Interesting  ceramic floor tiles in romanesque designs.

IMG_5775 copy

Dolac Market is the most well known farmer’s market in Zagreb. It is a traditional  open market where farmers from surrounding villages come & sell their produce & handicrafts since 1926. Freshest fruit, flowers, vegetables, nuts, dried fruit, honey, lace craft etc. I enjoyed a whole punnet of raspberries for €2

IMG_5773 copy

Within the sheltered area is the Fish (Ribarnica) market & butchers. Dolac Market is located right behind the town’s main square, Ban Jelačić Square & is open every day except on Mondays.

IMG_5781 copy

Autumn’s offerings –  My late mother recounted that she craved chestnuts when she was pregnant with me in her 3rd trimester & would send my Dad out to buy them late in the night. Little wonder then…that I am born in November!

IMG_5776

Licitars magnets-  Licitars are colourfully decorated biscuits made of sweet honey dough & shaped like hearts which are a cultural heritage & symbol of Zagreb. It takes about a month to make a one & it is used as an ornamental gift & is given out at celebrations such as weddings & St Valentine’s Day. At Christmas time the city & the Christmas tree in the town square  would be festooned with thousands of licitars. UNESCO listed it in 2010 as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Croatian culture.

IMG_5713 copy

Walking down slope through narrow Skalinska ulica, we chanced upon Trattoria Leonardo where I had a satisfying Quattro Formaggi Gnocchi for lunch.

IMG_5714 copy

Fabergé inspired perhaps? The four seasons of Croatia have been painted on this egg-citing sculpture.

IMG_5715 copy

An irresistble  invitation to Tea in Zagreb, Croatia.

IMG_5777 copy

Along ulica Ivana Tkalčića are many trendy bars & restaurants to hang out & people-watch.

IMG_5847 copy

Austo-Hungarian architecture

IMG_5718 copy

Walking uphill along  cobbledstone streets -Radiceva ulica in the Old Town of Zagreb is a lovely experience as you get to see the well preserved façades  of Austro-Hungarian  architecture.

IMG_5722 copy

Elegant arch-porches & signages in Zagreb’s Old Town.

IMG_5721 copy

Croat mercenaries wore coloured scarves around their necks when they went to Paris to fight against protesters in the Thirty Years War. The French found it more practical than the lace ones they used & soon this new fad took Europe by a storm. Croatia takes pride in being the originators of the Kravata or necktie & tourists can pick up an  silk tie for an  authentic souvenir.

IMG_5728 copy

Continuing along Radićeva ulica we soon reached Kamenita ulica & was greeted by this statue  sculpted by Winder & Kompatscher in 1906. It depicts St George in a meditative state, seated on a horse with a dead monster beneath its legs. The saint has been cast in bronze & the monster sculpted from red breccia stone.

IMG_5740 copy

Stone Gate (Kamenita vrata) existed since 1266 &  was part of the city’s  wall fortifications. It  has survived damages sustained in 4 different fires dating 1645, 1674, 1706 & 1731 when most of the wooden houses in the city  were gutted.

IMG_5734 copy

In the last fire of 1731 only the painting of Virgin Mary with baby Jesus remained intact. The owner of the painting, a widow named Modlar built this chapel inside Stone Gate guarded by this Baroque fence in 1778. Countless prayers were answered & the many grateful devotees & citizens in Zagreb engraved plaques as a testament to this sacred site.

IMG_5743 copy

Parliament Palace is where the Croatian Parliament (Sabor Republike Hrvatske) meets. It is the unicameral representative body of the citizens of the Republic of Croatia with 151 seats, since the constitutional amendment of 2001.

IMG_5844 copy

Outside the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Croatia (Ustavni sud Republike Hrvatske) which is the judicial  watch-dog of the Croatian Constitution where conformity to law,  the protection of human rights & the freedom of citizens is monitored.

IMG_5830 copy

Ban’s Court (Banski dvori) standing on the west side of St Mark’s Square is the historical official residence of the Croatian viceroys (Bans) currently occupied by the Croatian government.

IMG_5835 copy

Love is in the air – Church of St Mark (Crkva svetog Marka) is a Parish church in Zagreb which was completed during the 13th century with Late Gothic & Romanesque features.

IMG_5840 copy

St Mark’s Square (Trg svetog Marka)  is dominated by Church of St Mark  (Crkva svetog Marka) which has an attractive & outstanding roof depicting the Coat of arms of Zagreb (White castle on Red background) & the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia & Dalmatia. This is the site of  Presidential inaugurations & the last was in 2015 when Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic swore in as President of the Republic of Croatia.

IMG_5836 copy

The South Portal is one of the most valuable in South Central Europe with 15 effigies placed in 11 shallow niches, believed to be sculpted by the Parler family from Prague at the end of 14th century. The top 2 statues are of Joseph & Mary with baby Jesus, below them is St Mark with the Lion & the surrounding figures are of the 12 Apostles.

IMG_5827 copy

Window to the world outside – taken along Ćirilometodska ulica, Zagreb.

IMG_5748 copy

Greek Catholic Co-Cathedral of St Cyril & Methodius (Sveti Ćiril i Metod) opened since 1886 was for the believers from the Žumberak Mountains , Uskoks & clerics living around Zagreb. There are 3 bells in the 50m belfry; the largest weighing 782kg is dedicated to St Cyril & Methodius, the medium bell 395kg is dedicated to Mother of God & the small bell weighing 230kg to Basil of Ostrog.

IMG_5749 copy

Greek Catholic Cathedral of St Cyril & Methodius along Ćirilomethodska ulica has a connecting seminary,  parish office  & a hall with sacristy.

IMG_5751 copy

Church of St Catherine (Akademska Crkva svetog Katarine) is a Roman Catholic church  built during the 17th century when the Jesuits arrived in Zagreb. Originally the site of a Dominican church this Baroque structure was refurbished twice in 1645 & 1674 with the help of Croatian nobles when fires destroyed the interior.

IMG_5756 copy

View of the  greater part of Zagreb from the vantage picture spot at Strossmayerovo šetalište.

IMG_5763 copy

Lotrščak Tower (Kula Lotrščak) is a fortified tower in the Old part of town called Gradec or Gornji grad (Upper Town) which dates from the 13th century. It guarded the southern gate of the Gradec town wall.

IMG_5765 copy

I took this more than 100 years old Funicular at Uspinjača back to Lower Town but you can choose to walk the long stairways down too. A bell was hung in Lotrščak Tower in 1646 & it was sounded to signal the closing of the city gates. The Grič Cannon (Kula Lotrščak i Grički top)  was installed on 1st Jan 1877 & it is found on the 4th level of the tower which was fired at mid-day in the days of yore as a signal  to the bell-ringers of the city’s churches. Don’t be alarmed, as you can still hear it fired at noon daily!

IMG_5767 copy

The first electric tram track was opened on 18th Aug 1910 & these latest TMK 2200K Tram running along IIica came into service since 30th Jun 2010. They are air-conditioned  with cameras installed inside & outside, low-floored with redesigned seat layout; have wider passages & run at a maximum speed of 70km/h.

IMG_5768 copy

Main thoroughfare & shopping street in Old Town of  Zagreb – llica

IMG_5771 copy

Ban Jelačić Square (Trg bana Josipa Jelačića) is part of the pedestrian zone & this central square is also the most common meeting place for people in Zagreb. The colourful façades here are of different architectural styles ranging from classicism,secession & modernism.

IMG_5820 copy

A large statue of Ban Josip Jelačić on horseback created by Austrian sculptor Anton Dominik Fernkorn was installed on 19th Oct 1866. It was removed by the Yugoslav Communist regime in 1947 as Jelačić was denounced  as a ‘servant of foreign interests’ only to be returned a hero  on 11th Oct 1990 after the breakup of Yugoslavia & the elections in Croatia.

IMG_5814 copy

In 1987  whilst the city square was repaved with stone blocks, the workmen uncovered  the underground Medveščak stream & Manduševac Fountain buried in 1898  on the eastern part of Ban Jelačić Square. At Christmas tide this square is adorned with Christmas trees & lights.

IMG_5848 copy

When the sunsets… darkness engulf  the city but the hope of a new dawn awaits!

Zagreb lies in the northwest of the Republic of Croatia along the Sava River at the southern slopes of the Medvednica mountain. This capital city is rich with history dating from the Roman times & though it is not the tourism cash cow of Croatia; the  warm atmosphere in this city of hearts & the  wide range of museums & galleries to enough to  pique anyone’s interest.