Archive | March 2014

Spice of Life – Kochi

The one time burial place of famous Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, and an ancient trading centre, Kochi, in Kerala, southern India, is a colourful city where past and present exists side by side.

Kochi

Kochi, in south-western India on the Malabar Coast, stirs the senses. As with most cities in India, Kochi’s roots reach back far into the past. Recorded history reveals that after severe flooding of the river Periyar in 1340AD, which destroyed the trading city of Cranganore, the forces of nature carved out a new natural harbour at Kochi. The city quickly became the epicentre for a lucrative spice route, including cardamom, cloves and cinnamon, among other spices. Many different cultures based their trading operations in Kochi, including the Arabs and Chinese, then later the British, Portuguese and Italians. Each at one time governed the city, resulting in a cultural melting pot of architectural and culinary influences. Each culture found something to remind them of home there, to the extent that the British called Kochi “Mini England”, the Portuguese called it “Mini Lisbon” and the Dutch called it “Homely Holland”.

Indeed, such was the prominence of Kochi that one explorer, the Italian Nicolas Conti, wrote that, “If China is the place to make your money, then Kochi is the place to spend it.” So where can you spend your money in modern-day Kochi? From touring flea markets and taking boat trips on the backwaters, to visiting numerous sites of historical and cultural significance, there really is something for everyone in this charming town. Bearing in mind that the whole region has been visited over the millenia by traders from countless countries, it makes sense that cuisine reflects a very diverse range of cultures. This is a land famous for its spice production and Kochi earned international fame because of the production and export of these precious spices.

Today the city occupies an important place in the global spice market. It is worth taking a trip round the city to visit the various spice markets. You will quickly notice the pungent aromas of different spices as you wander through the streets of Kochi, and it is an oddly comforting feeling when you realise that these same smells permeated the nostrils of people who lived and worked here hundreds of years ago.

Out and about

Kick off your shoes and feel the sand between your toes in a stroll along the beach. Sunset is a magical time, and be sure to look out for the Chinese fishing nets and boats against a sunlit horizon. Many European-style bungalows have been built along the shoreline. After a brisk walk, you are bound to be hungry so be sure to visit one of the numerous stalls which sell mouth-watering traditional fish dishes. A stroll along the long tree-lined coastal pathway that lines the backwater is also a good way to pass a morning or afternoon. Cherai Beach is ideal for swimming, and is situated at the north end of Vypeen island. The beach is lined by coconut groves and paddy fields. Vypeen is one of the numerous small islands which can be reached by boat. A boat ride through the backwaters is a great day out. Be sure to take in Bolghatty Palace on Bolghatty Island. The island also has a small golf course and superb views of the port and the bay.

Inspiring art and culture

A great way to pass a morning and an afternoon is to soak up some local history and culture. A good place to start is at the Mattancherry Palace, which was built by the Portuguese, and then converted by the Dutch in the 17th century. Many Rajas of Kochi held their coronations here. The palace has a fine collection of mural paintings depicting scenes from the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. The palace is located in Mattancherry. When you are done touring there, take a trip to the 19th-century Hill Palace in Tripunithura, 16km east of Kochi. It was built by the Raja of Kochi and indeed served as the seat of the Raja of the Kochi province. The palace was later converted into a museum housing an impressive collection of archaeological findings and art.

For a fun, educational and entertaining afternoon, it is worthwhile visiting Kalamassery, and spending some time browsing through the Museum of Kerala History, which has fun audio-visual exhibits depicting the history and culture of Kerala. Another beautiful museum which affords a glimpse into the grandeur of yesteryear is the Parikshith Thampuran Museum, which has a large collection of old coins, sculptures, oil paintings and murals.

Day trips

Once you are done learning all about the history and culture, now it is time to take in the natural beauty of this exotic destination! Situated 48km north-east of Kochi, on the banks of the river Poorna, Kalady is the birthplace of Sri Adi Sankaracharya, the eighth-century Hindu philosopher. The shrine is a must-see for visitors. Elephant Kodanad is 30km north-east of Kochi situated on the lower ranges of the Western Ghats on the banks of the river Periyar. The wildlife reserve is famous for the elephants and the largest elephant training centre is situated here. The reserve also features a mini zoo. If you are keen to keep your children amused, then make sure you set aside some time for South India’s largest amusement park, situated just 14km from Kochi. Veega Land has many fun attractions, such as mini-castles, water parks, Ferris wheel, rides, slides, shows and fountains.

Etched in eternity

The mausoleum of Bibi Maryam in Qalhat is one of the fantastic vestiges of Oman’s history.

Bibi tumb

With the opening of the Quriyat-Sur dual carriageway, important sights that fall along the route are now easily accessible. With an alignment that touches scenic spots and a major heritage sight, the new highway is expected to add considerably to the tourism potential. One such sight is the town of Qalhat. The town, 25 kms north-east of Sur, is steeped in history and traditions. Throughout history, the town had economic significance which has been documented in the books written by celebrated international travellers. The town’s prosperity was at its peak during the 12th century AD and continued through the 14th and 15th century.

The town of Qalhat is now more identified with the mausoleum of Bibi Maryam which stands on a desolated hillock overlooking the town and the Arabian Sea. The tomb can be seen from a distance if one is travelling on the Quriyat-Sur dual carriageway. The tomb may have been built by the ruler of Qalhat for his wife around 1311 AD. Today, the historically important monument, in a dilapidated state, bears unmistakable testimony to the significance of Qalhat in the past. Even today, after a span of hundreds of years, the structure retains its architectural features which employed the most refined skills of that era. To create awareness about the rich heritage of Oman and to educate the children about the importance of preserving and appreciating our heritage, efforts are being made to preserve the edifice.

Bibi Maryam mausoleum was built on a raised platform of coral and stone bonded together and embedded in mortar, with the original coatings of plaster still in existence in larger part of the edifice. There is a crypt below the floor and the building was topped by a pointed dome, which has mostly collapsed due to the vagaries of nature. Part of the drum and the few segments of the dome that remain give indications in identifying the shape and design. The four facades are decorated with niches and blind arches, reflecting the style adopted in India and Iran. The use of poly lobed arches was typical of Mughal style of architecture, while the inner corners wall with its squinches and mihrab were ornamented with a motif of muqarnos. It is assumed that the interior would have originally been embellished with glazed tiles, the remains of which can be seen as vague design motifs but nevertheless giving a clear indication of the skills and talents of the craftsmen and artisans of those times.

In 1507, the town came under heavy destruction with the exception of the mausoleum of Bibi Maryam. This may be due to the reason that the name Maryam was sacred to all the concerned warring parties. Ibn Battuta, noted traveller, was very impressed by Qalhat and the mausoleum of Bibi Maryam. He wrote: “having fine bazaars and an exceedingly beautiful mosque, the walls of which are decorated with elaborate enameled tile work and which occupies a lofty situation overlooking the town and harbour.”

The destruction of the town is vividly described by later visitors, like Wellsted who landed in Qalhat in 1835. He writes that the town was reduced to an extensive ruin field with a lovely structure, the roofless Bibi Maryam mausoleum standing amidst the ruins. Poala M. Costa, a noted archaeologist, describes the mausoleum in ‘Historic mosques and shrines of Oman’ thus: “The mausoleum is rectangular in plan, and was originally covered by a dome now almost missing.” He further writes:“Entrance is on the east side: through an arched opening surmounted by a motif of elongated fluted petals.”

There is little doubt that the splendid mausoleum of Bibi Maryam has been witness to many a tale and continues to enchant visitors with its beauty and historical significance. The tomb of Bibi Maryam is priceless and ought to be conserved and handed over intact to future generations.

Google Map co-ordinates – 22.696658,59.373422

Bandar Al Khayran

Bandar Al Khayran

If you are looking for fresh air and unadulterated nature which can rejuvenate your body and soul head straight to Bandar Al Khayran, a picturesque spot within easy reach if you happen to live in Muscat. 25 kms southeast of Muscat, Bandar Al Khayran is a haven of tidal creeks and sheltered bays fringed in places by dense growth of mangroves. Green environs, complemented by placid water and framed by copper-coloured mountain, make for a delightful experience. Yeti and Sifah, both scenic coastal villages, fall on the route if you are coming from Hamriya roundabout and thus you can combine this trip with two other exciting places.

Most visitors to Bandar Al Khayran are awestruck by its serene charm and the slow pace of life. If you are lucky you will spot spinner dolphins which are found between Fahal Island and Bandar Khayran. People from far off places, and especially from the Muscat Governorate regularly visit Bandar Al Khayran for camping, diving and snorklling. What soothes one’s eyes is the calmness of the area. No sound pollution, no vehicle pollution, no traffic jams… you feel you are in a different world where serenity reigns.

It is the largest semi-enclosed bay, surrounded by steep rocky hills and cliffs, on the western coast of Oman with an area of approximately 4 sq kms. This island separates the western side from the open sea forming two narrow channels serving as the main inlets to the bay. The maximum depth of the bay is around 16 mtrs. Besides serving as a rich habitat for mangroves, fish and corals, it is also home to turtles and nesting birds such as the whitecheeked tern, osprey and heron. More than 200 fish species, most of which are coral fish, and about 40 coral genera live in the bay. Local fishermen will provide boat rides for those interested in venturing into the calm waters of Bandar Al Khayran. It is a place where you can commune with nature.

How to go:

Bandar Khayran can be reached both by boat and by road. It lies beyond Yiti and Al Sifah. From Hamriya roundabout take the Yeti road and reach Al Sifah. Further down after Al Sifah a small bay that cuts deep into the coastline unfolds before you. And you arrive in Bandar Al Khayran. The new road built from Barr Al Jissah roundabout to go to Yeti, further reduces time.

What to do:

Camping, boating, snorkelling, scuba diving, picnicking.

Grand Germany

Germany has a vibe all of its own, and wherever you go, you can experience the pulsating life of its bustling cities, calming boulevards, the art galleries, at the flea markets, or in the city’s innumerable entertainment arenas.

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Impeccable credentials

Located in Central Europe, with Denmark bordering to the North, Poland and the Czech Republic to the East, Austria and Switzerland to the South, France and Luxembourg to the Southwest, and Belgium and the Netherlands to the Northwest, Germany is a major economic and political powerhouse in the European continent and has been a leader in numerous theoretical and technical arenas since time immemorial.

The most populous member of the European Union – a political and economic union of 28 different member states – with a population of 80.5 million Germany is a country consisting of 16 states, spread across a land mass of 357,1021 km2, with Berlin being its largest and capital city.

Germany has been the home of many influential philosophers, music composers, scientists and inventors, and is known for its rich cultural and political history. Tracing their origin, the Germanic tribes are thought to date from the Nordic Bronze Age, or the Pre-Roman Iron Age periods.

And now

One of the largest economies in the world, Germany offers the highest standards of living for its residents, including a very comprehensive social security system and perhaps the world’s oldest universal health care system dating as far back as 1883. Enabled largely by its position in the world as following an open social market economy system and manned efficiently by a highly skilled labour force, and supported by a large capital stock, with a low level of corruption, and a high level of innovation, Germany is grand indeed in so many ways. Germany’s achievements in the sciences too have been significant and continuous research and development efforts form an integral part of the economy. In fact, for most of the 20th century, German laureates had accumulated more awards than those of any other nation, especially in the sciences (physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine). Some well-known global brands bearing the prestigious ‘Made in Germany’ seal of proven quality are Mercedes-Benz, BMW, SAP, Siemens, Volkswagen, Adidas, Audi, Allianz, Porsche, Bayer, Bosch, and Nivea to name a few. Not surprisingly, Germany also has the largest and most powerful national economy in all of Europe. Given its pivotal position in the continent of Europe, Germany is an essential transport hub, reflected in its dense and modern train transport networks. So advanced is this network, Germany’s famous motorway ranks as the world’s fourth largest in length and is known for its lack of a general speed limit. Connecting places within the country and some destination in the neighbouring countries is the ‘InterCityExpress’ zipping at speeds of up to 300 kmph (186 mph).

When it comes to flying, Germany’s largest as well as the busiest airports are the Frankfurt Airport and the Munich Airport, both hubs are connected by Oman Air. Culturally very comfortably placed and can be considered as wealthy in many ways, Germany has been called as ‘Das Land der Dichter und Denker’ (“the land of poets and thinkers”).

During a recent count it has been officially listed that there are over hundreds of subsidized theatres, symphonic orchestras, thousands of museums and almost 11,000 libraries spread all across Germany. These cultural opportunities are enjoyed by the culture vultures visiting and domiciled in the country. There are over 106 million German museum visits every year. And as of 2013, the UNESCO inscribed 38 properties in Germany on the World Heritage List. Germany stands head and shoulders above many other nations in the world in music, arts, sports, architecture, literature, philosophy, science, technology and much else.

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Cityscape

Germany is a country of thousands of medium-sized towns and cities. Four cities, Berlin, Hamburg, München (Munich) and Cologne (Köln), are Millionenstädte – cities where more than one million people live. Another nine German cities have a population of more than 500,000 people. The population of Germany’s 300 largest cities amounts to more than 37 million, or 46 per cent of all people living in the country. Oman Air flies to two of these cities, namely, ‘The City of Arts’, Frankfurt, and ‘The City of Lifestyles’, Munich.

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Arty City

Frankfurt has gained the reputation of a premier cultural destination that also offers an equally wide range of recreational activities. Whether art, nature, culture, shopping or any other form and kind of entertainment, Frankfurt has them all. Frankfurt and its neighborhoods offer excellent quality of life. For nature lovers, this is paradise. Countless city parks, the Frankfurt City Forest, the Rhine and Main River with the neighboring mountains provide ample scope for unlimited relaxation. Notably, the Frankfurt Rhine-Main Regional Park with the Frankfurt Green Belt has a 63 km circular cycle path and a 65 km hiking path. Along these paths are spectacular picnic and barbecue areas, shelters and lush apple tree tracks. Frankfurt is a city which exudes a cosmopolitan flair and inimitable style of its own. The impressive skyline, characterised by the unmistakable Messeturm and numerous banking skyscrapers, has become “Mainhattan’s” unofficial city symbol. Today, Frankfurt is home to the German Stock Exchange, the European Central Bank, the Deutsche Bundesbank and around 260 financial institutions from around the world, making the 1200-year-old trade and commerce city one of Europe´s foremost finance centres.

Frankfurt, has in fact managed to retain much of its charm, serenity and old-town flair, especially the time-honoured going-out district of ‘Sachsenhausen’. And as a city of contrasts, Frankfurt continues to prove to one and all that there is ample space and opportunity for indulging oneself in art and culture. Frankfurt offers everything expected of a cosmopolitan city. Historical buildings, a renowned museum landscape, superb exhibition venues and countless sightseeing attractions, combined with numerous cultural highlights, international sporting events, superb nightlife locations and excellent shopping opportunities.

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Magic Munich

In all the simple things that make a place liveable, Munich excels. It is clean. It is safe. The public transport system is exceptionally efficient. Distances are short. The skies are blue (quite often anyway). And the food is comforting. With the Oktoberfest and opera, Hofbräuhaus beer hall and Pinakothek art galleries, BMW and Bayern Munich, the city of Munich manages to marry old Bavarian traditions with vibrant modern living. A city sight-seeing tour by bicycle is a great way to see Munich’s highlights. Also, a walk through Munich’s historic centre will help visit its most important churches and see the carillon at Marienplatz. A visit to the fascinating Pinakothek Modern, followed by a musical evening at the Deutsches Theater would provide for some typical local entertainment.

The Nymphenburg Palace with its famous Gallery of Beauties and the porcelain factory is another great attraction for visitors. The ‘Allianz Arena’, Munich’s temple to football is a must see for all sporting aficionados. A not to be missed place to see is the Deutsches Museum, the largest museum of science and technology in the world. While in Munich, go on a breath taking Climbing Tour on the tent roof of the Olympic Stadium which could be followed by a trip to Lake Starnberg for a boat ride to the Buchheim Museum in Bernried, with its outstanding collection of German expressionists.

Oman Air flies six times a week between Muscat – Frankfurt and four times a week between Muscat – Munich.

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