Archive | November 2013

Milan – The In Crowd

As well as being famous for being a city where fashion leaps from the catwalk to the clothes rail, Milan is steeped in history and that certain quintessentially Italian way of life.

Milan

According to the Roman historian Livy, a Celtic village was first founded in this area in the sixth century BC. Conquered by Roman legions in 222 BC, “Mediolanum” attempted to rebel, becoming an ally of Carthage, Rome’s enemy. But the Romans won and, towards the end of the first century BC, Milan became a part of the state of the Caesars.

Fast forward to the present day, the tiny but geo-politically important town has become the centre of all matters to do with media, fashion, publishing and finance in Italy. It’s also a fantastic place to get out and about and soak up la dolce vita.

Where to begin:

Most of the main attractions in Milan are located in the city centre and there is plenty to see. Amongst the many sights not to be missed is the simply enormous Milan Duomo – the third-largest cathedral in the world, taking some four centuries to finish; the Castello Sforzeco – a fortress built in 1368 that later became an elegant and stunning Renaissance residence; the Teatro alla Scala Opera House – completed in 1776 and hosting some superb theatrical productions; and Santa Maria delle Grazie – an elaborate church dating back to 1463, where Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting ‘The Last Supper’ is on display.

There are also numerous art galleries and museums in Milan, such as the Pinacoteca di Brera Gallery – housing one of Italy’s most important art collections; the Villa Reale and Civica Galleria d’Arte Moderna – featuring masterpieces by famous artists, such as Grassi, Matisse and Picasso; the Palazzo Bagatti-Valsecchi – considered to be one of the finest museums in the whole of Europe, with many outstanding displays and collections; and the Civic Archaeological Museum – where you will discover the world’s oldest wooden plough still in existence, dating back around 4,000 years.

Shop till you drop:

One of the most famous streets in Milan is Via Montenapoleone, where many of the worlds’ leading Italian and international fashion designers are concentrated. Throughout the year there are numerous exciting and important fashion shows in the city, where the latest collections go on show. There are also many other popular celebrations both in and around Milan, including the Gran Premio di Monza – the Grand Prix of Italy held at nearby Monzo, Carnevale Amrosiano – the longest carnival in the world, and the Fieri di Chiaravalle – a famous fair in the bell tower of the Chiaravalle Cistercian abbey.

Not to be missed are the many splendid and unforgettable lakes nearby Milan, offering superb facilities for visitors, with shops, restaurants and cafés lining the lake fronts. Some of the most popular lakes in this region include Lake Maggiore, Lake Como and Lake Garda, the three largest lakes in Italy. Shopping central No Milan city break is complete without shopping in the world-famous Quadrilatero d’Oro (‘golden quadrilateral’), a fashion square around Via Montenapoleone (‘Montenapo’), home to Armani and Versace. Brera, north of the Duomo (the cathedral), is popular for its boutiques and elegant art galleries. Browse clothes and fabrics at the Viale Papiniano street market, south of the centre, and find trinkets at the Fiera di Senigallia flea market along the wharf. Pick up antiques at canalside Naviglio Grande, southwest of the centre.

Gastronomic treats:

Rustic trattorias, designer restaurants and canal-side bars, Milan is a food and drink Mecca. Specialities include costolette Milanese (veal cutlets) and saffron-flavoured risotto alla Milanese. Trendy Brera, north of Duomo, serves everything from pizza to sushi. The southern Navigli and Ticinese canal quarters are packed with romantic restaurants while Milan’s Chinatown, tucked between the Porta Romana and Bocconi University quarter, dishes up ethnic cuisine. Afternoons are for espresso sipping in Zucca’s mosaic-decorated cafe on Piazza Duomo.

Nightlife:

The Brera district and canalside Navigli and Porta Ticinese are buzzing with great meeting places. Evenings start with a passegiatta (stroll) before heading to jazz clubs in the Navigli quarter or clubs like the chandelier-adorned Il Gattopardo Cafe, north-west of the centre and set in a deconsecrated church.

Lake Como:

Como is the ideal starting place to explore the picturesque towns and villages dotted about the shores of the lake. You can get to them by road taking the Strada Regina – an old Roman road – which borders the western shore of the lake, sometimes at the water’s edge, or in more comfortable style on a boat.

The gentler scenery and luxuriant vegetation of the west side of the lake, with the town of Como at its bottom tip, contrast with the more rugged landscapes of the Lecco arm. But both offer villages of Roman origin, medieval towns, ruins of imposing castles perched on panoramic outcrops, and splendid villas and gardens to visit.

Oman Air flies four times a week between Muscat and Milan.

Giving her wings – The story of Raiya Al Habsi

Raiya Al Habsi is the first Arab woman to compete in Britain’s world famous 611 mile offshore Fastnet Race.

Raiya Al Habsi

As one of the pioneering sponsors of Oman Sail since 2008, Oman Air has shared in many of the successes this national initiative has achieved. Surely one of the key highlights of the partnership is the iconic image of Raiya Al Habsi with arms victoriously stretched out against the soaring sails of Oman’s flagship MOD70 Oman Air-Musandam as she crossed the finish line of the 2013 Rolex Fastnet Race.

It is the classic triumphal pose of many great circumnavigators returning to port. Having the honour of victory as crew aboard the 2013 handicap winner of the race’s MOCRA multihull class featuring some of the biggest, fastest and most radical yachts on the planet, gives her a unique distinction of her own.

It is a defining moment the 25 year old Omani will cherish forever but perhaps no less so than another just two years previously that decided the course that led her there. That earlier moment Raiya describes as a “whim”. It was simply “on a whim” she says, that she wandered down to the beach in response to an Oman Sail poster inviting women to try sailing at a one-day taster session. At the time she was a customer services assistant at Bank Muscat happily spending her free time at drama classes and making handicrafts. Boats were what her father and brothers went fishing on.

But the sport of sailing so utterly captivated her that by day’s end she had enrolled with the inaugural Oman Sail Women’s Programme and was soon among the country’s first 21 women to successfully complete an instructors sailing course accredited by the International Sailing Federation (ISAF). She is now a proud member of the country’s first ever national women’s racing team and even though she knows it is just the beginning, she is humbled and overjoyed to be part of the exhilarating journey that has fast tracked her to the pinnacle of sailing in Oman.

The rare honour of racing aboard such a high performance “flying machine” as Oman Air- Musandam in a premier event like the Rolex Fastnet Race so early in her sailing career does not escape her: “I didn’t get much sleep the night before the race because I was so excited and nervous in equal measure. My family watched every minute of the live coverage back in Muscat and I think they were even more nervous than me.”

Held every second year, the start of the Rolex Fastnet Race is signalled by the deafening blast of the Royal Yacht Squadron cannon in the heart of Cowes, the famed home of sailing on Britain’s Isle of Wight. And while the magnificent sight of the massive flotilla of this year’s record 342 yachts would stir the emotions of even the most hardened sailors it is not surprising that Wayne Pearce, chief executive officer of Oman Air, the 2013 new sponsors of yacht Musandam, was also bursting with pride to see Oman’s hope leading the fleet into the Solent on Sunday 11 August. The national airline of the Sultanate of Oman has been a long-time partner of Oman Sail having previously sponsored Oman’s highly successful Extreme 40 campaign, and as has become customary, Pearce avidly followed Oman Air-Musandam’s progress from start to finish.

“The Fastnet has a classic course past the legendary Needles into the English Channel to Lands End and on across the Irish Sea to the infamous Fastnet Rock off the coast of Ireland. It then returns past the Scilly Isles to the finish off Plymouth. Skipper Sidney Gavignet and his eight-member mixed crew of European and Omani professionals can be proud. They sailed a textbook race!

“It was heart stopping stuff when Oman Air-Musandam briefly led the giant multihulls Sprindrift 2 and Banque Populaire which are almost double the size of our 70 foot trimaran. In fact it is remarkable that they finished only 83 minutes behind them in the early hours of Tuesday morning and a great honour that they won their class of 11 entries on corrected time,” said Pearce.

Gavignet was full of praise for Raiya who he described as tough, willing to learn and impressive in the way she handled the pressure of top level racing alongside the biggest boats – and names – in international yacht racing. If she was ever cold or nervous she never showed it. “This was the biggest challenge I have ever faced. I am used to sailing comparatively slow mono hull yachts less than half the size of these trimarans which are really big and very fast. It was something completely new and different for me. It was a little bit hard when we had some bad waves and the motion was quite violent but the guys were amazing – they took good care of me and taught me a lot. It felt good to be part of such a successful team,” said the diminutive Raiya. She says sharing her experiences and inspiring fellow sailors back home is easier than trying to explain it to family and friends who remain mystified as to why she might want to spend almost two days cold and wet sailing to a rock in the middle of the ocean.

“They think I am crazy but they are very supportive,” says Raiya, who has 11 brothers and sisters. “My parents are always encouraging me to try new things though I think they might have been a bit concerned. Many of my friends don’t fully understand – they think racing is like cruising or fishing – so I have to tell them how complicated it is and how I must always think about techniques and about the wind, always using my mind and my muscles.

“I tell everyone how amazing Oman Air-Musandam is – it is crazy going so fast on that boat. And I tell them about going around the Rock too. The Fastnet Rock is a tiny little island and looking back to see the rest of the fleet of over 300 boats going around that little rock was amazing.

Southern Stars!

The Republic of India is the second-most populous country in the world with over 1.241 billion people; the largest country in South-East Asia and the most populous democracy in the world. Reasons enough to stick to just South India now!

For a nation that speaks over 1,863 different languages and well over 6,000 diverse dialects, India does not have one official language! To understand and appreciate a country this cosmic, it would be wise to assimilate it in manageable portions. For that same reason, we shall stay here with South India’s three largest state capitals that Oman Air flies to – Chennai in Tamil Nadu, Bangalore in Karnataka and Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh.

Chennai Central Station (Google Images)

Chennai: This multicultural state capital city of Tamil Nadu is a major commercial, cultural, economic and educational centre of South India. Known by its erstwhile colonial name ‘Madras’, Chennai is located on India’s south-eastern Coromandel Coast off the Bay of Bengal. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Gateway to South India’, Chennai is equally well-known as the ‘City of Temples’ and the seat of Dravidian arts and culture. Chennai also happens to be a major auto hub of Asia, producing 2 cars every minute, earning it the nickname ‘Detroit of India’. This city came into focus with the arrival of the British East India Company and the establishment of Fort St. George, the legislative and administrative seat of the state, way back in the year 1639. Today, a bustling metropolis with an estimated population of over 8 million residents, Chennai’s economy has a broad industrial base spread across the automobile, computer, technology, hardware manufacturing and healthcare sectors. The city is India’s second largest exporter of information technology (IT) and business process outsourcing (BPO) services to the world. Chennai is an important centre for Carnatic music and hosts the annual ‘Madras Music Season’, a large cultural event which includes live stage performances by hundreds of artistes. The city has a diverse theatre scene and is one of the important centres for ‘Bharata Natyam’, a classical dance form. The Tamil film industry, colloquially known as ‘Kollywood’, is also based here.

To see – Being a coastal city, Chennai has several well known beaches. Topping the list has to be ‘Marina Beach’. 2 kms long and width up to 300 m (985 ft) of sandy foreshore, this beach is the second longest urban beach in the world. Along the shore, there are many buildings built during the British era like the Madras University, the Senate House and the Chepauk Palace. A visit to the ‘Edward Elliot’s Beach’ a.k.a. the ‘Besant Nagar Beach’ with good roads, pavements and walking track illuminated sands makes for a good outing. Spread along the coast down south from Marina, it is also the night beach for the local youth. ‘Covelong Beach’ located 40 km (25 mi) away from Chennai en route to Mahabalipuram, is another popular beach. The coastline of Chennai stretches even further south, where there are many hidden, untouched and uncommercialised beaches, particularly off the East Coast Road. Besides the many beaches, Chennai has a number of world famous churches, ancient temples, majestic mosques, many memorials, monuments, museums, art galleries, parks and more.

 Glass House Bangalore (Google Images)

 Bangalore: This state capital city of Karnataka and the ‘Garden City of India’ sits on the Deccan Plateau on the south-eastern region of Karnataka. It was renamed in recent times as ‘Bengaluru’, the city’s native name in Kannada, the local language. Bangalore grew into ‘India’s Silicon Valley’ in the 1990s given its leadership position as the country’s top information technology exporter. The city is home to the operations of more than 1,000 high-tech companies, including the likes of IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems. Bangalore is also where Indian information technology giants like ‘Infosys Technologies’ and ‘Wipro Technologies’ are based. Besides the above private sector global giants, Bangalore also holds a clutch of some of the finest public sector organisations such as Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL), Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL), Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML) and HMT (formerly Hindustan Machine Tools). The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was established under the Department of Space and is headquartered in Bangalore. Paradise lost India’s third largest city, after Delhi and Hyderabad, Bangalore was once called as the ‘Pensioner’s Paradise’. But in the recent past, due to rapid expansion and urbanisation Bangalore has unwittingly morphed into a very cosmopolitan city, playing host to migrants from different regions of India, as well as a sizeable number of foreigners who have come for job opportunities.

To see – Notable attractions of ‘India’s most developed city’ and ‘one of the world’s fastest growing urban areas’ include the famous ‘Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens’ and the 300-acre ‘Cubbon Park’, which provide the much needed green lungs for the city. Bangalore, however, is not one of those typical ‘touristy’ cities. The city has its fair share of landmarks such as the ‘Vidhan Soudha’, the legislative assembly of the state, the ‘Bangalore Palace’, built by the erstwhile Maharajas of Mysore, and the ‘Tipu Sultan’s Palace’ built in 1790. Besides these, Bangalore has numerous temples, churches, libraries, theatres, modern shopping malls, global fast-food bands and lots more to keep the visitors well engaged.

 Hyderabad (Google Images)

 Hyderabad: Situated in the north-western part of Andhra Pradesh in south-eastern India, Hyderabad lies on the banks of the Musi River, in the northern part of the Deccan Plateau. This 400-year old city has numerous lakes referred to as ‘sagar’ meaning ‘sea’. ‘Hussain Sagar’, built in 1562, ‘Osman Sagar’ and ‘Himayat Sagar’, which are artificial lakes created by the dams on the Musi are some examples. The ‘Hussain Sagar Lake’, locally known as the ‘Tank Bund’ is a major attraction. The city has over 150 lakes and 900 water tanks. Hyderabad however is not famous for this. It is often referred to as the ‘City of Pearls’, the ‘City of Nawabs’, the ‘Biryani City’ and because of its high-tech draw, as also ‘Cyberabad’. Hyderabad can be broadly divided into the Old City, Secunderabad and the New City. In many sense, Hyderabad is the meeting ground between North and South India. The city has a unique culture that is distinct from the rest of Andhra Pradesh, showing strong Islamic influences and a courtly presence imparted from its period as the capital of the Nizamate. This is more evident in the old city.  Secunderabad is more cosmopolitan. Like Bangalore, Hyderabad too has had a mega transformation of sorts while keeping pace with the changing times, which have collectively had a strong impact for the better, as well as for the worse.

To see – The ‘Old City’ is a must visit when in Hyderabad. Filled with historical landmarks, some notable ones are the ‘Charminar’ (literally meaning four minarets) has long been the icon of Hyderabad. The towers rise to a height of 48.7 m above the ground and have 140 steps. There is a mosque located inside in the upper storeys while at the very bottom of one of the minar is a Hindu temple! Built in 1617, the ‘Mecca Masjid’ is one of the oldest mosques in the city and easily the biggest. The mosque is a granite giant with awe-inspiring innards. The main hall of the mosque is 75 feet high, 220 feet wide and 180 feet long, big enough to accommodate ten thousand worshippers at a time. It is believed that the mosque’s bricks have been mixed with the soil brought from Mecca, which explains its name. The ‘Chowmahalla Palace’, the ‘Falaknuma Palace’ and the ‘Golconda Fort’ are other notable altercations. Ancient tombs like the ‘Qutb Shahi Tombs’, ‘Paigah Tombs,’, ‘Raymond Tomb’ are famous local landmarks. The two most famous museums to be found in Hyderabad are the ‘H.E.H The Nizam’s Museum’ and the ‘Salar Jung Museum’. Most modern attractions include the ubiquitous shopping malls, flashy entertainment arcades, children’s theme parks and a multitude of dining and outdoor leisure options.

Lesser Known Treasure of Oman

Scuba

When one hears the word ‘Oman’, the most common images that invariably conjure in most people’s minds are the spotlessly clean cities, the bustling souqs, the beautiful mosques, the majestic mountains, the undulating deserts and of course, the vast stretches of sandy and breathtaking beaches, with their almost still turquoise waters.

While all of these are some of the better-known facets of this beautiful Sultanate, little is known of one of Oman’s most exclusive specialties … its unique seashells. Barring a bunch of world-renowned conchologists and malacologists, not many are even aware of the hidden treasures of the Omani seas and its shores.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, the terms mollusk and seashells refer to two parts of one and the same underwater sea creature. Mollusk is the soft-bodied animal that lives inside its hard exterior, which is the seashell. The two are of course inseparable. In a sense, a seashell can be thought of as a mollusk’s external skeleton. 80% of all seashells are less than two inches in adult size. And fewer than five percent ever exceed three inches! Of the different varieties of seashells that are found in Oman, over 500 types of marine mollusks and seashells have been identified and classified to be uniquely Omani – not to be found anywhere else in the world. Quite interestingly, in honour of its finders, five of the 12 new species of shellfish discovered in Oman have even been named by their binomial biological nomenclature, after them – Conus boschi, Ancilla boschi, Cymatium boschi, Acteon eloiseae and Bursa boschdavidi ! The country’s natural and varied marine habitat stretches along its 3,165 kms long coastline from high mountains up in the north closer to the Strait of Hormuz and plunges deeply into the balmy Sea of Oman and the warm Arabian Sea that cover parts of Oman’s rest of the shoreline.

According to geological experts, the Arabian land plate broke away from the continent of Africa after a mammoth earth-shift some twelve million (12,000,000) years ago. The coastline of Oman too was formed around that same time, which is why the topography is so different and varied. A closer look at the coastal map of Oman would reveal many hidden coves and islands which provide an ideal habitat for a wealth of mollusk fauna. Typically, sections of the shoreline of the Sultanate have distinct kinds, types and varieties of seashells. Particularly, the Musandam Peninsula, the Batinah Coast, Sohar, Barka, Seeb, Muscat, Muttrah, Qurayat, Sur, Ras Al Hadd, Masirah, the Kuriya Muriya islands, Hasik, Mirbat, Salalah and Raysut have some of Oman’s most colourful and unique seashells. Serious conchologists who flock to the Sultanate from all over the world regularly discover several new varieties of seashells in these waters.

The seashell fauna of this part of the world is amazingly diverse and it is in these rich and varying habitats that the distinctive Omani mollusks thrive. For example, the sand-dwelling Bivalves, Olives and Moon Shells get miles and miles of sandy substrate to live in. Rock-dwelling Cowries and Nerites get enough of the underwater rocks and corals required for them to survive. Places where rocks and sand mingle are a great hunting ground for the molluskan fauna. Beyond these factors, many other reasons contribute to the rich molluskan life such as the temperature of the sea; light and humidity; wave movement and action; underwater currents; salinity and such.

While beachcombing anywhere in Oman one can find seashells of a bewildering variety, in many different shapes, sizes and colours washed up on the beaches or picked up from their many hiding places offshore. The best time to go looking for seashells is during nights, at low tide, when these mollusks come foraging to the surface for plankton food. Usually they tend to avoid the harsh daylight. A word of caution though; in Oman, collecting live seashells, abalones, corals, crayfish and turtle eggs is strictly prohibited. This has been in effect to primarily protect these natural resources from being pushed towards extinction by wanton pilferage and destruction. If you intend to do some beachcombing in search of fine specimens of seashells across Oman’s vast and varied coastline, kindly bear in mind that the mollusks, like all other living creatures are part of a community which inhabits certain ecological areas. And many species are dependent upon others for their survival. So dear shell collector, please do not disturb the environment. Leave the shore just like you found it. Do not disturb the stones and the rocks. Juvenile seashells and eggs should not be touched. Kindly replace a live mollusk back to where you picked it up from, after taking photographs. Carry with you only those seashells that you find washed ashore, for they are already dead. A visit to the Natural History Museum in Muscat would reveal a breathtaking collection of the more colourful and exquisite species of mollusk and Omani seashells that are kept on display. Incidentally, an active National Shell Collection Group is involved with the identification of many more new species of seashells that keeps the list of unique Omani seashells and mollusks ever expanding.

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