India’s Golden Triangle Proves a Great Introduction to a Rich and Ancient Culture

Turbans displayed for sale in Jaipur.

Turbans displayed for sale in Jaipur.

By Jean and Peter Richards

India’s Golden Triangle unfolds in layers as intricate as the colorful costumes of its women.

Its cities abound in economic contradictions; its suburbs burst with banal expansion, but in the landscapes of its fertile, furrowed fields, the India of vivid image comes to life.

New Delhi, Jaipur and Agra provided the classic tourist taste of a country as complicated as its condiments.

It teems with exotic sights and sounds, yet is familiar as the voices of the call support centers now known world-wide.

Elephants carry some tourists up to the fort in Jaipur.

Elephants carry some tourists up to the fort in Jaipur.

People we know seem to love or fear India. The well-traveled often advised, “Don’t go. You won’t be able to deal with the poverty.”

“Be careful. There’s crime on the streets and corruption everywhere.”

“Don’t drink the water.”

Ours was a limited taste of Delhi, new and old; Jaipur, Fatephur Sikri and Agra on a private tour for two arranged by Abercrombie and Kent (A & K). It was fabulous and whetted our appetites for more.

There is poverty. You see it in the people who live on the streets on Delhi and camping out in front of the walls of the enclaves of the privileged. You surmise it in the clusters of the un-Westernized sectors where the glorious colors of native costume brighten dusty markets and you suddenly realize that here is where people smile more. Poverty is not an assault on the senses as so many expect, it is a fact of existence.

Crime and corruption were factors in our choice of how to see India in the Fall of 2013. Reports of vicious attacks against women had spread and impacted tourism.

Woman checks her shopping list at Agra market.

Woman checks her shopping list at market.

As older, independent travelers, we had twice been stymied in attempts to plan a trip with some surety of arrangements. When A & K emailed a Fall Savings special, we leapt at the chance and for the first time in a half century of travel to nearly 40 countries on five continents booked a 10 day tour — albeit a flexible private itinerary with set dates and pricing for two complete with driver, guides and five-star accommodations. At $2,230 per person, exclusive of international airfare and travel document fees, it was a great choice.

At hotels along the way we met other Westerners exhausted from long days of luxury group journeys by rattling bus, irritated by fellow travelers and exasperated by the number of stops where tourists were encouraged so the driver could get a commission. We experienced none of that, but rather a splendid spree with informative guides, a skilled driver and pleasant lodging, particularly at the Jai Mahal Palace in Jaipur.

Both of us were recovering from modest injuries to limbs which slowed our pace but not our enthusiasm for Delhi, the nation’s capital, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

Qutub Minar complex, home to India’s first mosque.

Qutub Minar complex, home to India’s first mosque.

Amidst the cacophony of Delhi lies the serenity of the magnificent remains of the 12th century Qutub Minar complex, home to India’s first mosque. We walked and idled amongst its arches, towers and green gardens as Mehesh Ramnani, our able guide, instructed in its Mughal history.

Proportion is essential to successful design. Humayan’s 16th century double-domed tomb is said to have inspired the perfection that is evident in the Taj Mahal at Agra. A more recent success is the Bahai Lotus Temple in which 27 marble petals unfold in a magnificent modern homage to the flower, a symbol of purity. The house of worship, surrounded by nine pools and set amidst expansive gardens, is open to all. Lines of visitors seem interminable but move with remarkable swiftness and respect for the site.

A drive around New Delhi’s British Colonial cream colored government centers, India Gate and leafy diplomatic enclaves was contrasted with the earthiness of Old Delhi’s spartan 17th century red sandstone fort, an early seat of Mughal power and later the place where the first flag of independence from British rule was raised in 1947.

Humayan’s tomb, said to be the model for the Taj Mahal.

Humayan’s tomb, said to be the model for the Taj Mahal.

Rickshaws aren’t the most comfortable mode of transportation, but they provide an easy way to traverse the narrow alleys of Delhi’s markets and reach its open air Jama Masjid mosque.

Gandhi Samriti, the house in New Delhi where the Mahatma spent his final months and was, was a serendipitous addition to our itinerary. His few worldly possessions are displayed in spartan rooms, but we were captivated by the series of dioramas made by craftsmen to commemorate the points of his life. They are charming, informative and appropriate in their simplicity.

One of the dioramas at Mahatma Gandhi's house.

One of the dioramas at Mahatma Gandhi’s house.

Only the National Museum in Delhi disappointed with a paucity of offerings and surprising shabbiness. We had hoped to see more of the fabulous miniatures, ceramics and other decorative arts remembered from an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 1991, but came to accept that Indians were quite sincere when they told us, “The British took all the best even down to scraping the gold off the walls and ceilings of the 14th century fort at Agra.” Old British India hands, of course, counter that the natives did the looting themselves. The truth is likely somewhere between.

At the Red Fort in Delhi.

At the Red Fort in Delhi.

The massive Amber Fort that looms in the hills over the pink city of Jaipur delights with the intimacy of halls, mirrored chamber, gardens and temple. We declined the opportunity to bounce up to its inner reaches on an elephant, sat back in the car and enjoyed the view across the valleys and city from on high.

The intensity with which Indian people look to the stars for guidance is evident at the sculpturally modernistic and functional 18th century astronomical instruments which comprise the Jantar Mantar. The neighboring City Palace museum has a splendid collection of royal costumes and intricately worked textiles and famously large silver urns made to carry sacred Ganges water to London for a Maharaja’s use during a visit in Victorian times.

Hall of the Winds in Jaipur.

Hall of the Winds in Jaipur.

The elaborate facade known as the Hall of the Wind is a stand out, but the palace which has become the 100 room Jai Mahal hotel is an 18th century Rajasthani gem is justly referred to as a “masterpiece in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture.” Its grounds sprawl over 18 acres. Fires on its terraces cast a warm glow on a cool night as 600 revelers gathered in flower strewn pavilions below for a sumptuous wedding event said to cost as much as $50,000, possibly not including its video drone and camera crew.

Jai Mahal Palace Hotel.

Jai Mahal Palace Hotel.

In the mezzanine restaurant called Cinnamon, we found a young chef is making a mark worthy of the palace’s heritage. Niranjan Nayak’s food bears no relation to the dishes we have tried and dismissed in Western Indian restaurants. His have depth and finesse and changed our perception of Indian food. (See accompanying review.) So enthusiastic is this charming young man that next day he sent a bowl of his dal to our lunch. Its subtle and rich taste lingers in memory as does his smile.

An unexpected highlight of our tour was the drive from Jaipur to Agra. Along the way we glimpsed the India of legend — women doing field work in bright and beautiful saris, thatched open air shops, donkey carts laden with bricks fresh from kilns whose chimneys rose like stelae beyond the fields. That which looks so beautiful and bucolic can be backbreaking to person and beast.

Alongside the highway, fastidiously groomed camels ornamented with decorative necklaces were being led by men in fresh white garments walking them to the annual fair at Pushkar hundreds of kilometers yon as helmeted and cell phone carrying women on motorbikes zipped past with the colorful tails of their regional dress fluttering in the wind.

Manu Pathek checks out the apples at the Agra market.

Manu Pathak at the Agra market.

At Fatehpur Sikri, Manu Pathak, a pioneering female guide, waited to show us the hauntingly beautiful and ephemeral 16th century red sandstone capital abandoned possibly for lack of sustainable water almost as quickly as it was built.

We couldn’t resist a stop at lively market outside of Agra where a festival appeared to be in the making. Musicians in sparkling blue uniforms gathered around trucks decorated to a fare-thee-well ready to transport grooms to brides on wedding days. There seemed a brisk business in marigold flowers in stall after stall. Women were carefully selecting long stalks of sugar cane. “The Devuthan Festival,”  Manu explained, is a time when offerings are made to the Hindu gods in hopes of being favored with an auspicious wedding day. It was joyous, it was colorful and it was a glimpse of daily life which makes a trip memorable.

Women select sugar cane to help get a good day for a wedding.

Women select sugar cane, hoping to get a good day for a wedding.

We took Manu’s advice and did not go for the sunrise at the Taj Mahal when, she said, the lines would be long, the press of the crowd possibly tight, and haze would obscure the view. We arrived about 8 a.m. when the haze was just lifting. There were no lines. Security was so tight that a piece of candy was confiscated. Only water, tissue, wallets and a small camera were allowed in our pockets.

The Taj, like an increasing number of tourist sites world-wide, has a two tier payment system: 750 Rupees for foreigners and 50 for natives when we were there. An increase has been proposed.

The site of the beautifully proportioned white marble domed 17th century mausoleum built for a beloved queen now also teems with those seeking to emulate a princess – visitors queue to pose on the bench that Britain’s Diana made famous in a memorable  photograph.

It appeared that a photo on "Diana's bend" was the highlight of the trip.

It appeared that a photo on “Diana’s bench” was the highlight of the trip.

Much as we enjoyed the Taj and the 14th century Agra Fort, we equally enjoyed the company of our guide, Manu, whose knowledge of history and willingness to discuss Indian culture immeasurably enriched our experience. She didn’t blanche when we elected not to return to the monument at sunset for what sounded like a ghastly and expensive sound and light show designed just for tourists. Instead, we asked to be taken to a local market.

Preparing snacks at Agra market.

Preparing snacks at Agra market.

We found it far more interesting to see the people, the fresh produce, the peanuts roasting in sand in a wok, the making of sweets and the preparation of paan, a beetle nut and other flavorings folded in a leaf. Indians take great delight chewing this concoction. Flies buzzed, cows wandered, dogs foraged, rickshaw drivers sat at the ready and the kids smiled, waved and said, “Hi.”

Women were gaily dressed in saris. Inexpensive ones with five meters or more of cloth could be had for a few hundred rupees; better ones cost anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000  ($80 – $800) as a rule, Manu said.

We learned that women shop daily and cook fresh food at each meal. They would never make something in the morning to eat at night, she said. At the end of the day she will prepare two dishes to share with her husband and seven-year-old son —a meat dish and a vegetable dish. Men generally don’t cook.

Buying apples at Agra market.

Buying apples at Agra market.

We asked to see a supermarket, but Manu said the big store in a nearby shopping mall had closed for lack of business. “People prefer to shop locally. They know that small businesses are important to the Indian way of life and economy,” she said.

Though Manu comes from a family of guides officially licensed by the Indian government, she is a pioneer who endured experiences familiar the world over to women breaking into male purviews. She succeeds with intelligence, grace and style. We were sorry to leave her at Agra.

Everything and everyone in India has a story – even the water. Himalayan, our preferred bottled brand, comes with all the statistics of its mineral composition and its biography:

“I was born in the Sivalik range of the Himalayas. In a place most of you visit only in an Atlas. In a time that wasn’t measured by cuckoos that sprang out of clocks. In a silence that was sometimes punctuated by howling winds and gushing streams. In a world that had nothing to do with yours. Seems like enough reason to be here.”

Not a bad story for any traveler in India.

B'hai temple in New Delhi.

B’hai temple in New Delhi.

Copyright © 2014 Jean and Peter Richards

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A Chef in Jaipur Transforms Our Attitude Towards Indian Food

Fried pappadam with a mango sauce for the sliced vegetables.

Fried pappadam with a mango sauce for the sliced vegetables.

By Jean and Peter Richards

Indian was never on our list of favorite cuisines until we met the talented young chef at Cinnamon in Jaipur. Niranjan Nayak transformed our impression of his country’s food.

Nayak applies his considerable talents at Cinnamon, a 34-seat restaurant tucked away on the mezzanine of the sprawling and beautiful 18th century Jai Mahal Palace hotel.

From the moment a selection of pickles was set before us to be scooped with crisp roasted pappadam we knew this Indian experience would be different. Garlic clove pickle burst with flavor, papaya with well-tempered sweetness and mint perfectly balanced coriander in a classic green chutney.

Fried pappadam accompanied a mango dipping sauce for beet, cucumber and carrot sticks sliced thickly so that each could hold its own for flavor against the fruit.

The richness of a chicken broth was offset with just the right measure of spice.

We never did order entrées that evening because two appetizers were more than enough –

Royal Hara Bahara

Royal Hara Bahara

Royal Hara Bahara, four dense, pan fried patties of spinach and green peas with roasted gram flour, yogurt and almonds (650 INR) and Sikandari Raan, an ancient roasted lamb dish served with a creamy and garlicky sauce (1100 INR), was as complex in ingredient as in flavor. Together, they constituted a feast.

We were savoring slices of a frozen dessert called kulfi and  a scoop of cinnamon ice cream when Chef Nayak appeared at our table. He is 24, from the East Coast state of  Orissa, has been cooking for nine years, has a radiant smile, a gentle voice and he beams when appreciated. It was almost hard to believe that a man so young could cook with such finesse.

Sikandari Raan

Sikandari Raan

That night’s bill, including a glass of a fresh and pleasant local sauvignon blanc, Sula, was 4061 INR or about $65.

We promptly made a reservation for the next evening.

Chef had carefully considered the options he proposed: marinated and grilled tiger prawn (1350 INR) followed by spiced and grilled chunks of sole (1100 INR). Each was beautifully prepared and light on the palate.

Cinnamon-5

For the entrées, Chef divided plates with a spicy traditional melt-in-the-mouth lamb Laal Maas (750 INR) and a lighter and contrasting Dhaniya Murgh (750 INR), a nugget of chicken in a creamy coriander-onion sauce enlivened with cashew, ginger and garlic paste. Both were superb.

Subtle saffron milk dumplings rounded out this fine meal for which the bill with wine and water was 7000 INR or $112 for a meal worthy of a top table in any current culinary capital.

Laal Maas

Laal Maas

Cinnamon presents itself as “inspired by the two spheres of cooking — Punjab and the Moghul India, connected by what is called the cinnamon-saffron link” and claims to re-define Indian food using “only the freshest ingredients and authentic herbs and spices to provide a modern twist to traditional Indian cuisine.”

After decades of eating around the world, the words “modern twist” would be enough to cause us to flee most restaurants. We still don’t know enough about Indian food to know how Chef Nayak may have modernized traditional dishes. We will not be surprised to hear wonderful things of him in years to come. It will be a pleasure to say, “Ah, but we knew him when he was young and transformed our appreciation of Indian food.”

Copyright © 2014 Jean and Peter Richards

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A Better Tour of India Because We Used Abercrombie & Kent

Agra market we would not have seen if it were not for our guide, Manu Pathak.

Agra market we would not have seen if it were not for our guide, Manu Pathak.

By Jean and Peter Richards

We don’t herd well, but Abercrombie & Kent may have tamed us.

For half a century we have traveled by planning hundreds of our own trips, making arrangements directly and wandering about on our own in nearly 40 countries on five continents.

India stumped us. Twice, well into planning, we abandoned a trip as too daunting — especially after we learned that the independent traveler could find confirmed bookings unavailable, accurate information unobtainable and communication unsatisfactory.

An email from  Abercrombie & Kent changed all that. India was on sale — a 10 day private tour of the Golden Triangle – Delhi, Jaipur, Fatehpur Sikri and Agra – in November 2013, complete with personal guides, driver and top tier accommodation at $2,230 per person double occupancy, exclusive of international air fair and travel document fees. We opted out of an insurance fee.

Our first thought, even given A & K’s fine reputation, was how bad can this kind of tour be? We had visions of being hauled out at dawn, herded through sites and hounded to shop, but those were the concessions to be made to comfort and ease. We knew people who took tours, but we didn’t do that. Well, now we have and there were no meaningful concessions to make.

It’s difficult to conceive of a travel company with a higher standard than A & K. The attention to detail was extraordinary.

Little did we know that Tej Kapoor — dapper in the signature A & K  blue blazer, grey slacks and yellow striped tie — who greeted us at Indira Gandhi International Airport was no mere host but the negotiator of the intricacies that make one feel in good hands from check in to final send off. He was superb.

Our guides, licensed by the government of India, were independent contractors who frequently work with A & K. In Delhi, Mahesh Ramnani’s breadth and ability to adjust to the clients’ interests was remarkable. His was not a recitation, but a cultural survey adjusted to our speed. Vivrendra (Viru) Singh seemed to know every other guide in Jaipur since he was a leader of their association. His patter was more perfunctory, but no less knowledgeable. And then there was Manu Pathak, a pioneer amongst females who endured the clichéd hijinks and sometimes hostility known to women world-wide breaking into male bastions. Her experience as a former teacher of history and English served us well: her grace, substance and flexibility enhanced our experiences in Agra immeasurably.

Guides often get a commission when clients make purchases. None of these guides took it amiss that we bought practically nothing.

Rajinder Singh Bala was with us for a week. We couldn’t have asked for a better driver. With confidence and steady foot on the pedal, he negotiated our comfortable van through incredible traffic and around cow, water buffalo, rickshaw, festive parade, barrow and bike through the whole trip. Whenever we exited a sight, he was right there waiting for us.

Manu looks after an Old Maine Traveler.

Manu looks after an Old Maine Traveler.

Good accommodations are part of the A & K experience. The Taj Palace in Delhi was a refuge from its teeming streets. The Jai Mahal in Jaipur was as much a destination as the pink city itself. The ITC Mughal, a Starwood Hotel, is showing signs of wear and its buffet dining room left much to be desired. When we complained about the poor quality of a dinner, a manager graciously removed it from our bill. The Crowne Plaza in Delhi offered a spacious and comfortable final stay.

But for breakfast and one lunch we forewent, we were left to forage on our own for evening meals. A little research and the occasional tip from a guide yielded spectacular results at Blue Ginger, a Vietnamese pan-Asian restaurant at the Taj Palace, at Cinnamon, the wonderful Indian restaurant at The Jai Mahal where we wanted to take the chef home and at Charcoal Chimney across the street from the ITC Mughal in Agra. (A review of Cinnamon appears separately.)

Jai Mahal Palace.

Jai Mahal Palace.

The highest compliment we can pay Abercrombie and Kent is to say that we would not hesitate to travel with them again under the same circumstances. Unfortunately, we later learned that A & K seldom offers this sort of personalized program at such a reasonable price.

Copyright © 2014 Jean and Peter Richards

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Tallinn’s Medieval Town Center Survives and Deserves a Visit

View of lower town from Toompea

View of lower town from Toompea

By Jean and Peter Richards

In an era of theme parks promoting fantasy, Tallinn, Estonia, is the real thing — a fairy tale city of the Middle Ages.

The oldest capital in Northern Europe, once a thriving center of the Hanseatic League, now trades on its past and does it with style.

Tourism is largely centered within the relatively small upper and lower towns of the old Baltic seaside city; the community dedicates itself to it with myriad museums, cafés, eateries, souvenir shops and public spaces. The buildings wear pastel on their stone; the sometimes traditionally costumed people wear gaily decorated dirndls and vests.

Town gates

Town gates

Bright colors — red, yellow, the intense tangerine — lend warmth to signs on stone buildings rising on steeply cobbled streets layered with views across tile rooftops and turrets.

The warmth of a May day in this cold climate was as welcome as the new sign at the airport promoting it as “the world’s coziest airport.” It may not be a boast. Where else is the waiting area a “living room” with comfy sofas, club chairs, cheery end tables and a lending library with hundreds of book donated by locals?

The “cozy” campaign sets a tone appropriate to a place determined to make people welcome. Cheerfulness is evident in this 12th century enclave which has survived centuries of incursion by sheer perseverance. Aggression, from Viking raids to Soviet rule, has a long history in Estonia where current independence was only achieved in 1991 and European Union membership in 2004.

Old Thomas sits atop Town Hall

Old Thomas at the City Museum

For the tourist, aggression manifests itself only meekly now as restaurant workers try to lure customers in on the lively, competitive town square where kindly “Old Thomas” sits high above the gothic windowed, slenderly steepled 15th century town hall. The weathervane is a guardian of charm and symbol of the spirit of Tallinn. It is said to have been created in the likeness of a 16th century peasant who excelled at a shooting contest, but was denied the prize because of his low status. Instead, he was educated and made permanent guardian of the town — a job fulfilled with honor and generosity. He became a beloved figure of the children to whom he gave candy. When he died, legend holds, his admirers raised the first weathervane so that children would always know he would be watching over them.

Town Hall

Town Hall on Town Square

An earlier likeness sits in the very interesting Tallinn City Museum (Linnamuuseum) in a 14th century merchant’s house at 9 Vene, just down from the very comfortable, pleasant   and convenient Telegraaf Hotel.

The clarity and continuity achieved on four floors tracing the history of Tallinn from pre-historic times to rule by Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Germany and the Soviet Union to recent independence is remarkable. This museum contrasts with the jumble that is the Estonian History Museum in Great Guild Hall which may have some of the worst designed exhibits anywhere.

On the second floor of the Linnamuuseum is a most unusual and wonderful display in which a cabinet is given over to the artifacts of Tallinn’s history with a shelf dedicated to each of  the 11th to the 21st centuries. Shards of pottery and stone on the bottom shelf transit upward to the beautiful ceramics of the 18th century and finally to the ubiquitous trash of the 21st — a Coke can, a plastic food tub. It is history in a cabinet told in artifacts.

A grave marker

A grave marker

Tallinn’s old city also has another fine museum: the 13th century St.Nicholas Church, destroyed by bombs in 1944, was resurrected as the Niguliste Museum, a beautiful venue for intimate concerts and exhibitions of art. Just inside the entrance to “Ars Moriendi” (The Art of Dying) exhibition is a superb 1653 stone grave marker for Alexander von Essen dressed in chiseled finery.

The exhibit, drawing on Roman Catholic and Lutheran rituals, is devoted to the art of preparing for the afterlife. It includes a medieval treatise on how to do it with an amusing list of manners for funerals: toll the bell, follow the funeral director’s instructions, don’t act above your status and, above all, make sure the person is dead before the coffin lid is closed.

A realistic St. Christopher from the workshop of Tobias Heintze in 1634 is a sculptural highlight.

Social status in death is seldom more macabrely presented than in Bernt Notke’s 15th century Danse Macabre in 13 surviving panels and presumed to be a comment on plague which devastated Tallinn on several occasions.

St. Christopher

St. Christopher

One of the few modern notes in old Tallinn is a beautifully conceived stone monument to Estonian writer and Tsarist critic Eduard Vilde on an approach to the museum.

English speakers will have no problem communicating in Tallinn. Few visitors speak the Estonian Finno-Urgic tongue. A minority of Estonians are of Russian heritage and speak that language.

One of Peter I's shoes shown at the cottage

One of Peter I’s shoes shown at the cottage

Russian heritage, however, has not been forgotten. Less than three kilometers from the old town, Kadriog draws locals and visitors to its sprawling park and cultural complex which includes the delightful little cottage Peter the Great built for his visits to Tallinn and the 18th century palace he had built for Catherine, now an art museum. The Estonian president’s elegant residence is within sight of a banal, but vast new contemporary cultural center at one end of the park.

Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral

Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral

The Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Church on Toompea, the upper level of the old town, is an exuberant confection and stands in stark contrast to Toompea’s spartan Lutheran Church. Pleasant as its streets are to wander, the real reason to make the steep and cobbled climb to the top is for the splendid view of the lower town and the bay.

The Russian legacy is also manifest in some of the town’s best food offerings at the very pleasant Telegraaf Hotel restaurant, Tchaikovsky,  where the napkins are folded in the shape of swans and a trio often plays the composer’s works. The buckwheat imperial blini with white fish roe is superb as is the borscht. With a nod to the legendary ballerina, the Tchaikovsky offers its own sweet version of that decadent Australian meringue-based dessert, Pavlova.

Pavlova at Tchaikovsky

Pavlova at Tchaikovsky

Herring with sour cream

Herring with sour cream

“Grandmother’s place” was recommended for its authentic Estonian fare. It took two tries to get a table at the popular Restoran Vanaema Juures at 10 Rataskaevu in the lower town. The meal was lovingly prepared, but little to our taste. Herring in sour cream was very good,  but duck breast and wild boar roasted to a fare-thee-well and surrounded by all manner of winter root vegetables missed its mark with us. We abjured the traditional dessert of a porridge made from rye, oat, barley, pea flour and sour milk.

Beetroot soup

Beetroot soup

We’ve often found that our antiques dealer colleagues world-wide like to eat well and share recommendations. One in Tallinn led us to Kuldse Notlsa Korts on Dunkei Street where we sat outside and were pleasantly surprised when lunch turned to be very good: beef liver paté wrapped in butter and served with dark bread, a light and refreshing beetroot soup, roast pork with roast potatoes and mild sauerkraut with shredded carrot, creamy sauce and a dollop of very sharp mustard. With coffees, the bill for two came to 36€, an inexpensive meal in Tallinn.

At Josephine’s on Vene, we succumbed to the sweet temptation of over-the-top slices of cake and a crumbly cheese curd concoction taken on the terrace with coffee and a view of busloads of tourists flocking to the main sights.

Tallinn may be a distant capital in Europe, but it is memorable — for its preservation, perseverance and pleasant people, not to mention that it was Estonian software developers who made communication by Skype possible.

We eased out of port with pleasant recollections on the Tallink ferry for the two hour trip across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki.

Town Square

Town Square

Copyright © 2013 Jean and Peter Richards

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More than Marimekko in May — Helsinki

Eliel Saarinen's Art Nouveau Train Station in Helsinki completed in 1919

Eliel Saarinen’s Art Nouveau Train Station in Helsinki completed in 1919

By Jean and Peter Richards

Helsinki, Finland, may not be one of Europe’s most interesting capital cities, but it has its charms. A two hour ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland, Helsinki stands a cool contrast to the warm colors and people of medieval Tallinn, Estonia.

Salmon is ubiquitous at the food stalls in Market Square

Salmon is ubiquitous at the food stalls in Market Square

The water’s edge is a good place to start in Helsinki with its lively daily market of food, wooden and wooly crafts and eateries featuring grilled salmon, tiny white herring, curries and the Finnish take on paella. Moored nearby are the boats which ply the inner harbor in regular hour-and-a-half tours (22€) which weave through and around Helsinki’s islands of summer colonies, palatial residences and the town zoo. One of the highlights is passing the sturdy built ice breaker ships home from their winter’s work.

The Tourist Office, diagonally across from the scenic boat port, produces first rate information in English, including the “See Helsinki on Foot” booklet of five walking tours, One of the few bargains in this sometimes shockingly expensive city is the one hour around the city ride on the green and yellow 3B/3T tram which costs 2.80€ if purchased from the driver and comes with a little booklet alerting the rider to 37 sights. If riding with a travel card which can had at the tourist office, the visitor can hop on and off.

Church of the Rock

Church of the Rock

We stopped to see the spaceship-like Church built into a rock in the Töölö neighborhood designed by architects and brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and opened in 1969. It is light and bright, but left us cold.

House on an island in the harbor

House on an island in the harbor

Helsinki is monument to Functionalism, design for purpose rather than pleasure. It’s a style that suits the reserved Finns and evokes memories of the mid-20th century when cutting edge was a pared down chunky tea pot, stackable tables and a formless Marimekko dress with bold stripes.

Alvar Aalto, a famous Finnish architect, is improbably best known for a sinuous, difficult- to-use vase he designed in the 1930’s for the city’s tony Savoy restaurant. It is still manufactured by Iittala of Arabia-ware fame and popularized in New York by MOMA.

His main mark on Helsinki is the city’s 1960‘s white, marble mass of a convention and concert hall called Finlandia; but more interesting, perhaps, were his sterile furnishing designs for sanitaria when tuberculosis was a scourge earlier in the century. Many of these pieces can be seen in the comprehensive design museum, Korkeavuorenkatu, housed in, of all places, a Victorian school building.

The well organized and explicated museum is a walk through many a person’s youth with the molded chairs, Kaj Franck glassware and functional melamine kitchen and dining ware that became sought after and copied world wide.

Row of apartment houses showing styles frequently seen in Helsinki

Row of apartment houses showing styles frequently seen in Helsinki

The Museum of Finnish Architecture at 24 Kasarmikatu housed in a neo-classical building directly behind the design museum has a small, but informative exhibit on the history of Helsinki’s urban architecture. Surrounding  streets offer an interesting, walkable tour of architectural evolution from Neo-classical through Art Nouveau, Deco and Modernism.

A star of the city center is its railway station designed by Eliel Saarinen, father of Eero. Four giant granite sculptures light the entrance to the pre-Functionalist pink granite building functioning still as a hub of Helsinki.

Schmoozing at Kappeli

Schmoozing at Kappeli

Nearby is the new contemporary art museum, Kiasma, a name as pretentious as the American-designed building is banal. In early May, Helsinki’s cultural life was most evident in the huge tented venue for an African Film Festival situated between Kiasmu and the new concert hall. We found Finlandia closed, but throughly enjoyed the National Museum of Helsinki’s art, furnishings and ethnological artifacts.

Kappeli, at the port end of the Espanade, became our daily afternoon coffee place. The beautiful 1867 café lured us not for its food but for its ambiance — an ideal spot for watching Finns on parade. We understood why Jean Sibelius and other Finnish intellectuals made it their hangout.

Kappeli, a favorite place

Kappeli, a favorite place

We dined with mixed results near our Haven’s Hotel and the port. The FishMarket Restaurant produced a very good fresh Dover sole meunière and fried fresh water perch with fennel and dill.

It’s neighbor, Sasso, has Northern Italian pretensions and so-so international food. One entrée at Sundman’s Krog was inedibly conceived and sent back: braised lamb with Bearnaise on top of another dark, but indistinct sauce. Carême would have turned in his grave.

The  Sea Horse at 11 Kapteeninkatu did better. It’s old-fashioned cooking and it’s good: cream of wild mushroom soup, breaded sweetbreads with a proper Bearnaise, calve’s liver with onions in a spectacular lingonberry sauce and pancakes with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, strawberry jam and fresh strawberries With wine and beer 80.80€, an inexpensive dinner for Helsinki.

Pleasant as it was, Helsinki would not be our first choice for another trip. For us, it had limited places of interest and was very expensive.

The prices for good beef at one of the markets astonished us

The prices for good beef at one of the markets astonished us

Copyright © 2013 Jean and Peter Richards

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A Leisurely Drive Through the Middle Ages in Spain

One of Spain's most important pieces of funerary sculpture at the Cathedral in Sigüenza: the page of Isabel the Catholic

One of Spain’s most important pieces of funerary sculpture. Sigüenza Cathedral: the page of Isabella the Catholic

By Jean and Peter Richards

A leisurely drive through rural Spain became a week-long trip through the Middles Ages with modern amenities.

We were easily seduced to rest in historic castles, convents and palaces, sip drinks in courtyards and savor the sweets of the cloistered religious after days driving on sunlit plains, within deep gorges and over the twisting roads of the hills.

On the roads less traveled, from aristocratic Lerma to the cliff-side Cuenca, ancient rocks glinted in the sun and loomed under the moon. Spring blossomed in April abundance in fruit orchards as shepherds drove sheared herds along grazing routes granted by right centuries ago.

Would Don Quixote  have been confused or wold he have charged?

Would Don Quixote have been confused or would he have charged?

Don Quixote’s ferocious giants morphed into sleek white wind farms in La Mancha – a rare reminder of modernity in a land that values its traditions and history.

Preserved stone villages perched on precipices often seemed deserted on arrival, but a welcome waited inside assadores, tavernas and bars where even the recipes for some offerings harkened back hundreds of years.

It was a journey marked by recognition of an extraordinary continuity of efforts in Castille-Leon, Castille-La Mancha and Aragon to preserve the architectural remains of a past riven by invasion, plague and all manner of upheaval by re-invigorating them as villages made viable by historical significance.

Parador at Lerma in ducal palace

Parador at Lerma in ducal palace

We began at the Parador de Lerma, a 17th century palace built by the local duke for the pleasure of his king and transformed into a state-run hotel a decade ago. The palace dominates the town and draws its people toward it for its courtyard lounge, market in its plaza and adjoining arcades of shops and cafes.

With clocks advanced to summer time, an early evening arrival left plenty of daylight to amble the streets and enjoy the architectural sights. We bought tasty bonbons and Easter almonds at the turn table window concealing the cloistered Poor Clares.  darkness fell.

Spain dines later than most of Europe. Some of the 93 Paradores have very good restaurants, but we prefer assadores where grilling is practiced with skill.

Delectable sweetbraeds at Casa Anton, Lerma

Delectable sweetbreads at Casa Anton, Lerma

Parador receptionist Arturo Yubera pointed us in the direction of Asador Casa Anton at Calle Vera, 5. He called ahead and said Anton would be opening at 9:10, not at 9 and only had lamb chops and sweetbreads that night. We were the first into this charmingly rustic, high ceilinged little room seating not more than two dozen at checkered cloth covered tables and on narrow benches along walls adorned with photographs of his customers. Anton swiftly placed a plate of shaved Queso Manchego drizzled with olive oil and a basket of bread on the table with a bottle of light red wine and disappeared into the kitchen. Soon a platter of a dozen grilled lamb chops was brought with a soup bowl of salad greens in a sharp vinaigrette. The first bite of the suckling lamb chop was fresh, sweet and wonderful. Then we asked for molejas – nuggets of sweetbreads cooked quickly so that they were sweet and soft in the center and bordering crunchy on the outside.

You don’t have to be a chef to cook great food,” Peter said as he tucked into the sweetbreads. There was no frill here, just perfectly cooked fresh food prepared by a semi-balding master in mid-life. We ate more than we should have and enjoyed every bit including the Nestlé ice cream stick offered for dessert.

Out for a stroll in Covarrubias

Out for a stroll in Covarrubias

No morning in Spain should start without freshly squeezed orange juice to which Spaniards often add sugar. We like it plain with coffees and a sweet bread. Thus fortified, we took Señor Yubera’s other suggestion and headed for Covarrubias, a beautifully compact medieval town of 640 inhabitants about 23 kilometers from Lerma in the juniper laden valley of the Arlanza river. Covarrubias rightfully prizes its Castilian architecture. It’s also a designated zone of protection for vultures, but we saw only storks on their mansion-sized nest.

Covarrubias, like other places we visited on this trip, demands visitors leave their vehicles beyond the town walls; a demand enforced notably in larger cities like Valladolid where traffic police patrol with determined dedication and tow trucks sit ready.

St. Onophrius

St. Onophrius

Valladolid may have charms which eluded us, but just to see the elegant portal of Collegio San Gregorio and the important museum of 13th to 20th century religious sculpture within was worth the detour. Saint Onophrius in hairy glory, Saint Peter in silken riches and the prone Marques de Villa Franca del Bierzo were memorable in this well explicated collection of unusual continuity and breadth. The double arcaded cloister is magnificent as are some of the coffered ceilings. Thanks to a tip from a museum employe, we had a fine lunch of Castilian cocido at Las Brasas de San Gregorio just across the way and down the street with wine, water, bread and dessert for an unbelievable 10€ each.

The Parador at Tordesillas, a mansion in a park-like setting outside of town, is showing some signs of the economic downturn visible throughout our journey, particularly on roads. We hardly saw a vehicle en route to Penafiel, drawn not by its castle but the restaurant in its shadow – Asados Mauro (Travesía de Atarazanas, 6) recommended on the often interesting Via Michelin travel website.

The best lamb chops ever — from month-old sucklilngs

The best lamb chops ever — from month-old sucklilngs

We were the first for lunch well after 2 p.m. and people kept coming until 4 p.m. This is a family run place renowned for its sucking lamb roasts and chops, a cheerful granddaughter told us in English. The chops of a one month old suckling were, hands down, the best we have ever eaten. Had we not been driving, we might have sampled from the serious wine list, but not the sought after Vega Sicilia, modestly priced at 900 €.

Spring unfolded along the SO145 and CM110 where Zubaran and Valasquez would have recognized the contrasts of threatening cloud and bright light in the sky.

We passed through Aranda de Duero — one minute coursing carefully through a flooded road (no policed hysteria here, just the assumption that drivers are intelligent enough to manage) – and not long after we were high on an arid plain, a plain that seems endless until an enormous lake appeared at Linares del Arroyo where a lone fisherman cast his line.

Parador at Sigüenza

Parador at Sigüenza

The coppery canyon at Sierra de Pela was a grand sight as we wound toward Sigüenza to spend the night in its spectacular Parador, a 12th century Arab fortress built on Roman foundations, destroyed by fire during the Civil War and re-built on orders of Franco as an hotel. Sigüenza’s knights are long gone, but their shining armor stands sentry at an entry level salon. Next to Room 239 is a little iron door through which a balcony view of the Romanesque chapel can be seen, but only by those thin enough to get through the door.

Cloister, Sigüenza Cathedral

Cloister, Sigüenza Cathedral

Sigüenza is steep and not for the feeble. It’s main sight, the cathedral, is an easy walk down from the fortress. The road up can be a trial, but not as serious as the one suffered by Isabella the Catholic’s page who died in 1486 during the conquest of Granada. He lies in sculptured splendor in a chapel of the cathedral. The effigy can be seen on the 4€ tour. The sacristry by Covarrubias has a fabulous ceiling filled with hundreds of uniquely carved heads, cherubim and florets.

Sigüenza provided the opportune setting in which to sample the fabled Medieval migas – bread crumbs, crisply fried and seasoned with what is available: herbs, bits of vegetable, meat, spices and olive oil. This dish, which can be quite tasty, has sustained generations of Spaniards in times troubled and good.

So-called hanging house sat Cuenca

So-called hanging houses at Cuenca

Cuenca is famous for its hanging houses. The cliffside houses don’t really hang over the gorge; a few porches do. The parador in a 16th century convent has the best view. The town, reached to by way of a trussed walkway above a small river and a steep climb, is worth a brief stop for the cathedral flooded with natural light.

Nearby Alarçon, Visigothic Alaric’s town, is a site worth its stars. Should we ever have reason to retreat to tranquility, the 14-room Parador in a 8th century fortress would be an ideal refuge. Three agricultural experts apparently thought so, too. We found them hunched over computers in a corner of the bar’s dining area on arrival for lunch. They were working on a poultry problem; we were just hungry for the local perspective and lunch. “It’s bad, very bad,” one of the experts, a woman, said when we inquired about the economy. People, she said, survive by “working black.”

On the route between Alarçon and Teruel

On the route between Alarçon and Teruel

She wasn’t optimistic that things would change soon. They worked through while we worked on an 11th century favorite, morteruelo, a hearty pate of pork liver and other meats pounded by mortar into a paste; hot almond soup blended into fluffily whipped cream and a classic partridge marinated in vinegar, spices and herbs. A selection of sorbets surrounded by freshly cut fruit was a refreshing dessert. We were given a welcome reminder that guests at any Parador can receive a discount if they lunch at another the next day; the modest bill for this elegant repast was presented with a 15 percent reduction bringing it down to 69€. Even with the dollar at 1.30 to the Euro, lunch was a bargain.

The effort to keep non-residents from parking on streets in Teruel was so confusing that we forewent the city’s entombed legendary lovers, spent the night at the near-empty Mudejar style Parador on the outskirts of town and left the next morning. The 30 kilometer route to Albarracin was dotted with coppery sedimentary formations which conjured wonderful images of mushrooms, a Japanese teahouse and Superman.

The rock solid comic book hero was one of the only human forms seen as we passed towns, settlements and public works projects with no one in view. Many businesses were fenced off, devoid of employe vehicles and bursting with weed. It was a stark contrast to the heady days of the early 1990s when Spain’s ascendancy was robust and wonderful to behold.

Cathedral at Albarracin

Cathedral at Albarracin

Albarracin may be the most perfect Medieval village in a country whose provinces lay claim to many. We owe a debt to Penelope Casa who in Discovering Spain alerted us to this Moorish redoubt which she wrote “casts a spell.” Indeed, it does from the first view of its towers and long, semi-circular walls to its rough stone and half-timbered buildings and plaza views of the rushing Guadalaviar. It was pleasant to walk its narrow streets and lunch at the simple Taberna on the Plaza Mayor where the tapas and even the cakes are house made. Albarracin was a fitting coda to a seven-day journey through the Middle Ages, all within three hours drive of Madrid.

Processional sculpture at National Museum of Sculpture in Valladolid

Processional sculpture at National Museum of Sculpture in Valladolid

Copyright © 2013 by Jean and Peter Richards

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Three Memorable Medieval Towns in the Heart of Spain

Over a small hill, this stunning vista of Alarçon looms

Over a small hill, this stunning vista of Alarçon looms

By Peter and Jean Richards

Our recent trip through Castile and Aragon in Spain left us with particularly vivid memories of three wonderfully preserved medieval towns. In retrospect, they merged in our minds as the visual trinity of the trip.

The street that greets you at Covarrubias' main gate

The street that greets you at Covarrubias’ main gate

Covarrubias is on the Arlanza River, just a bit more than 23 kilometers (14½  miles) on a fairly straight road from Lerma, where we had just spent the night in ducal splendor at the extraordinary Parador there. The desk clerk asked if we had planned a side trip to Covarrubias. Truth to tell, we had never heard of it. He suggested it was well worth the time. We are grateful to him for that.

The town, a designated conservation area since 1985, was one of the first to be reconquered from the Moors in the late 9th century. It has 640 residents, but obviously there are many houses that are second homes. We saw here what we observed in a few other locations in high elevations: make-shift boards or fitted metal inserts on the front door, about two-feet high, to keep the heavy winter snow at bay.

The Doña Sancha house, oldest in Covarrubias

The Doña Sancha house, oldest in Covarrubias

The town is extraordinarily well kept, neat and orderly. There are a large numbers of early timbered buildings. Overall, it has a pleasing visual continuity and reflects the pride of its residents and property owners.

We spent a pleasant two hours wandering around, seeing most of the sights suggested to us by a very helpful young woman at the tourist office located right inside the main gate next to which there is a small parking area.

A lovely corner of Covarrubias

A lovely corner of Covarrubias

Alarçon, even more diminutive, has only 182 permanent residents (less, according to some sources). Set on a little promontory above the Júcar River, it is one of the most tranquil sites we have visited in our travels. It was captured by Christian forces in 1177 from the Almohads.

Entrance to Alarçon parador

Entrance to Alarçon parador

Our route here was advised by Penelope Casas, whose excellent book Discovering Spain is almost flawlessly reliable despite being two decades old. She said, “You are not likely to find a more sensational setting, nor a place that reflects a greater peace.” We were leaving Cuenca on the way to Teruel, and Alarçon was an easy diversion from that route (about 83 kilometers or 52 miles from Cuenca)

Marinated partridge

Marinated partridge

At the top of the town is the castle, dating from the 8th century, transformed with transcendent taste into one of the smallest Paradors in the national chain. It has just 14 rooms and very good kitchen. We had a finely prepared luncheon of local specialties including morteruelo and marinated partridge.

View  of fortifications over the rooftops of Albarracin

View of fortifications over the rooftops of Albarracin

Albarracin, in Aragon, was, if possible, even more alluring. With easy access from Teruel, we headed there one our way to Soria. The town is 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the Teruel parador, mostly along a somewhat quirky tertiary road, the A-1512.

Stairs lead of a steep street in Albarracin

Stairs lead up a steep street in Albarracin

Declared a Monumento Nacional in 1961, the town of 1075 surrounded by stony hills, sits in a natural amphitheater in the Sierra de Albarracin. It is perched on a steep outcropping above the Guadalaviar River, and, like many small historic places now, automobile access is restricted to residents. We went past the town, under an overpass, and turned sharply right and upwards into a parking area that gave us easy access to the town.

This was another gift from Casas, who in a lyrical description to the town, describes its “enchantment.”

“Albarracin has a Moorish flavor that casts a spell. Crudely cobbled streets are dim and winding, and there is a hush broken only by the sound of rushing water. High walls and tightly grouped houses envelope you in the medieval atmosphere of a fortified town.’ she writes.

Twisted beam on house in Albarracin

Twisted beam on house in Albarracin

Besides soaking up the rugged beauty and authentic atmosphere, we also found a nice shop with locally made sausage at fair prices (El Andador, calle La Catedral, 4) and a welcoming place for lunch (La Taberna at Plaza Mayor, 6.) where we enjoyed the best sopa ajo I have ever had, superior tapas (tortilla, setas, crispy pork rinds) and a really good chocolate cake.

View of Albarracin

View of Albarracin

© Copyright 2013 by Peter and Jean Richards

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