Saturday 27 October 2018

Dubai beyond kids

Now that visitor season is starting in Dubai, I've been thinking about what recommendations to make to friends and family, so that they can make the most out of their Dubai trip. I've already covered indoors and outdoors activities for kids, in two separate posts, as well as provided a detailed description of the desert safari. But visiting a place is more than just sight seeing and entertaining kids, no?

There's also just plain walking or hanging around, preferably in places where one can observe locals and their way of life. I personally always like to visit the supermarkets, particularly the food sections to check out what's on offer for the locals. It's interesting to see the various flavours Lays chips have in different parts of the world, isn't it? And shopping! Though I am not enthusiastic about buying stuff, I love to visit the markets just to see what is selling.

So I thought I should do a post which covers some of this stuff.

Eating in Dubai is a pleasure. You find cuisines from all over the world. Indians of course have no dirth of options. I like Maharaja Bhog for their thali for vegetarian Rajasthani/Gujarati food and Gazebo for North Indian non-vegetarian food. Good lebanese food is to be had almost everywhere. My favourite is the family-run Bait Maryam at JLT and I also like Ayam Elezz at The Mall near Kite Beach. The decor is cute and the food is really good and not very expensive. There are few restaurants that serve local Emirati food as well, I've heard good reviews of Al Fanar at Festival City from friends. Serious foodies may consider splurging on a food tour called 'Frying Pan Adventures" run by Arwa Ahmad, a food journalist and critic who writes about food in many publications. It's fairly expensive, so go only if you're really into this sort of a thing. Al Reef Lebanese bakery is a well-known basic joint in Karama, which has very good shwarmas.

If you're in a mood to experiment, try Filipino and/or Sri Lankan cuisines. After Indians, the next largest population group in Dubai is the Filipinos, so they do have a lot of restaurants catering to this community as well. If you want to really, really splurge for a special occasion, visit Tresind at Hotel Nassima Royale on SZR for their weekday set menu lunch. This fancy place offers fusion food, Indian cuisine with western twists, jazzed up by molecular gastronomic touches. It is quite a performance and the food is really good too.

It's a good idea to go to Global Village, so you can combine some shopping for knick-knacks and eating, and if you're lucky, a good show or two, and fireworks. My idea of a good time is to graze on small portions at stalls of various countries till I'm full, rather than sit down at one restaurant for a full meal.

Dubai is a horrendously expensive place to shop. I really wouldn't shop here unless there's a sale with deep discounts. But if you want to pick up souvenirs or small things representative of Dubai or rather the middle East, I'd rather hit the food sections of hypermarkets like Carrefour, Lulu or Union Co-op. Here you can buy dates (you'll be surprised by how many varieties are there), olive oil from Syria or Jordan, olives with different stuffings, harissa paste, bottles of tahini, halawa, various white cheeses that are used in the Middle East, date products like date vinegar, date syrup (a decent substitute for maple syrup on pan cakes) and date jam, pomegranate molasses, saffron from Iran, Arabica coffee beans, middle eastern spices like zatar and sumac from the roastery section, boxes of baklava, some exotic stuff like camel-milk ice cream, and there's even caviar.

When touring the Bastakiya districts and the Spice souq, I'd maybe buy lavender petals to make into sachets or pot pourri, or some saffron flavoured tea. But Bastakiya is more for feasting the eyes rather than exercising the wallet. Camel milk soap is very expensive, I've never had the courage to buy it.

'Sheesha', or what we know as 'hukkah' in India, is very popular and many Dubai restaurants offer it. I went to a place where the locals hang out and it was thick with smoke, but also had some board games that are local to the MENA region. Though personally I always steer clear of the smoke. Another thing that is popular as an experience is a 'Moroccan hammam'. This is a beauty treatment that entails you lying on a heated marble slab while a therapist scours your body clean with a black-coloured Moroccan soap and a glove. Bear in mind that soap and the glove are uber-abrasive to clear off all your dead skin and that this treatment is not for the delicate and the faint-hearted. Women have been known to come out of this with sore backs and wondering, what is wrong with Moroccan women?

Incidentally, you can buy this Moroccan soap and glove at the supermarkets if you want to do a DIY Moroccan bath at home. Bear in mind that the soap smells evil, even if it is good for exfoliation. Another local beauty product you may want to try is a colouring shampoo called 'Henna Speedy', a shampoo which colours your hair. There are many shades available and I am told it does work.

I visited the Iranian mosque for the pictures, and it turned out to be a cultural immersion experience. The mosque staff was so happy to see us, that they invited us to be a part of their celebrations for the birthday of Fatima, the prophet's daughter. I recommend going to this mosque, even though it is small, for the beautiful mosaics and for the friendliness of the staff. If religion is your thing, you can also visit the Hindu temple at Burdubai and the gurudwara at Discovery Gardens.

Hanging around in the parks is a good way to observe the locals. At first I used to find it strange to see huge Emirati families, carrying a good deal of paraphernalia, such as mats, chairs and huge metal pots of biryani! Now I feel a lot of affection at their love of life, togetherness and un-self-consciousness. Another place where you see locals in actions is at the sales, the ones frequented by the locals, such as the CBBC Big Brands, which are organised at the World Trade Centre. You'll see ladies with carts piled up with perfumes, cosmetics and other things, as if they're buying groceries.

Hope that this gives you a deeper sense of Dubai than the guidebooks and helps you experience it in a more authentic way. Enjoy your visit.

Sunday 7 January 2018

Fire dance at desert safari


Desert safari is a touristy thing to do in Dubai. It has become extremely commercial and mass-produced but still forms an inevitable part of most visitors' itinerary. You drive for about forty minutes out of Dubai, south ( I asked my husband which direction we were heading in and he sarcastically replied that it could only be south since if we drove north we would end up in the Persian Gulf) towards the Oman border in a Land cruiser or some other four wheel drive vehicle and then move into the sandy desert. First, the driver will stop to remove some air from the tires for safety and then start dune-bashing, which is nothing but going up and down and sideways on the sand dunes at a high speed. It's good for some adrenalin rush, I suppose, to those who are into such things.

Then you are taken to an open-air camp site in the desert where there is a majlis-like seating in the centre surrounded by stalls on the periphery- for sheesha, henna tattoos, a spot of shopping and after you have partaken of these and other activities like camel ride and sand boarding outside the camp, there is some god-awful buffet dinner, for which you have to stand in a long line. I kid you not, the food is so bad that I carried a sandwich while accompanying my guests. Oh and I forgot to add, a  falcon, which is either tied to the falconer's wrist or has a drum tied to its feet to prevent it from flying away, is kept on display. Some people take selfies with the poor bird, I feel like calling the PETA.

Through and after dinner there are 'cultural' performances. Note the quotation marks. Generally there are two: tanoura and belly dancing. Tanoura is performed by a man- who wears a strange costume with a long, flared, heavy skirt, carries a strange contraption and whirls round and round with it, like a sufi dervish. Round and round he keeps on going, till you feel worried for him and finally dizzy on his behalf. His skirt, which is studded with light bulbs (remember Amitabh Bachan's jacket in that old song, sara zamana haseenon ka deewana?) flies up like Marilyn Monroe's (fortunately he is wearing pants underneath) and in some time, the bulbs light up to create a visual pyrotechnic display and you wonder if it's static electricity at work or the dancer has thrown some switch. Some research on Wikipedia informed me that 'tanoura' is what the skirt is called, this dance is in fact related to Sufi tradition (minus the lights) and that the weight of the skirt helps the poor dancer to retain his balance. Of course, none of this is explained in the announcements, that would be too intellectual and high-brow, wouldn't it?

Belly dancing is fairly self explanatory. This remains popular among the men I would assume, partly because of the low cut costumes of the women dancers and partly because of the titillatory dance, pun intended.

So while there are some middle eastern affiliations for these two, even though their current form in the desert safari has probably morphed far beyond their original avatars and probably beyond recognition for the local Emiratis (if any were to drop in- which of course they don't), this time we were confronted by a third performance, which I've seen for the first time- thereby meriting a full post. We thought it was time to go home after the belly dance and tanura, but then there was more music, an announcement, a spotlight in the centre and a tall, dark, handsome man walked into the centre stage. He was carrying a lit up wooden torch in his hand and started dancing with it. Impressive. After some time, he took his shirt off. Much more impressive! It was surprisingly considerate of the desert safari organisers to be so egalitarian, to organise some eye candy for the women as well, after giving the men a sweet treat.

This fire dancer took his job really seriously. He went on and on, performing some fairly dangerous stunts, like  drinking up petrol and spouting a huge flame from his mouth! Yikes. There would be a break in the music and you'd think it's over and then the dancer would again jump into a fire or some other crazy thing. After some time, watching this dance started feeling like being a part of an exploitation ring. What did this dangerous stunt (there's no other word for it) have to do with Middle Eastern culture and tradition (My wiki research informs me that this is Polyneisan in origin)? Although the young man's skill and courage were praiseworthy, I found myself hoping that the performance would end soon because I really had no interest in watching someone risk his life for my entertainment. Could the people who banned the child jockeys on the camel races please sit up and take notice?

Have you been to the desert safari? What did you like or dislike about it? What did you think of the fire dance, if you have seen it?

Monday 18 December 2017

Dubai indoors (kids)

Here's a list for entertaining kids indoors in Dubai. I really recommend however, to resort to these in summer months. In winters, please soak up the outdoors.

Ski Dubai: There's something ironic about frolicking in the snow in the middle of the desert, no? Ski Dubai has a couple of rides, and you can see penguins. For a handsome price, you can have a close encounter with the penguins as well. For me, the best part is warming up with a hot chocolate afterwards.

Aquarium at Atlantis: Pretty big, lots of fish. Easily kills 2-3 hours time. If you want to make a day of it, combine it with the Aquaventure water park and dolphin experience.

Aquarium at Dubai mall: Do either the one above or this.

Kidzania at Dubai mall: For 4 years and above. You can easily spend half a day here.

Ice skating at Dubai mall: There is a rink and you can hire skates, or even a lesson.

Hysteria Haunted house at Dubai Mall: I haven't been here but it sounds interesting for older kids.

Orbi: It's just more screen time really but in a high-tech educational way. Kids will see 5 D short films on nature and wild life. Some good special effects.

Flip Out: If your kids need to burn off some energy, this trampoline park may be fun.

Green planet: it's a kind of tropical jungle indoors with some animals. I guess it is educational in a way.

Dubai Creek park children's centre: This is one of the few inexpensive things to do with kids in Dubai. It has a science centre and a planetarium. Good for few hours of entertainment.

Dolphinarium: This is also at Creek park so can be combined with above. You can see dolphins and seals put up a show for you. You can also get up close to the dolphins, for a price.

IMG: Dubai has many amusement parks but this one is touted to be the biggest in the world. You could probably spend the entire day here.

Ferrari world: another amusement park, it's in Abu dhabi. Has a few good rides.  If going to Abu Dhabi for this, you might want to visit Zayed mosque.

Louvre: Also in Abu dhabi, this museum, a branch of the Paris one, has opened recently. It's very pretty, some of the photographs I have seen are astoundingly beautiful. There is a section for children.

Hub Zero: Rides and games. Many games involve screen, so not my favourite.

Adventure HQ: A climbing wall and high ropes course. Good for an hour or so, for getting kids some exercise and keeping away from screen.

Al Fahadi museum: Near the Bastakiya district, this museum gives a glimpse of Dubai's past and chronicles the story of its development from a fishing and pearling village to its present avatar. Kids may not find it very interesting.

Breakfast/lunch at SMCCU: Sheikh Mohammed centre for cultural understanding is an institution that attempts to demystify Arab culture and customs for the curious. You can buy a ticket to a group traditional breakfast experience, following which, the locals will answer any questions you have about Emirati/Aran society, culture and customs. Haven't been but heard good reviews. Good for older kids and adults.

Jam jar: if your little ones insists on painting, you can take them to Jam jar in Al quoz. For a price, they will get three canvases and there is a supply of painting paraphernalia. Good for a couple of hours.

Various Fun city/Chuck E Cheese outlets around the city: For mindless, predominantly screen based gaming, kids can be taken here.

I-fly: This is something most kids enjoy. The chance to fly in a powerful wind tunnel is thrilling to most kids except the very young ones. It is quite expensive though.

New things added since last year:

Qasr-al-watan: More for adults really. Fancy palace. Gives an insight into the lives of the royal family.

Dubai Frame: When travelling north on Sheikh Zayed Road, somewhere near Zabeel Park you notice a structure that looks like a really tall picture farme. This is the Dubai Frame. You go up by an elevator to enjoy a panoramic view of Dubai and on one side you see old Dubai and on the other, the new Dubai. There's a museum on top which has photographs of the evolution of Dubai.

Oli Oli: A children's play area/zone which is said to be interesting.

Warner Brothers amusement park: This is in Abu Dhabi. Requires a full day trip.

Rain Room: Located at Sharjah Arts Foundation, this is a different experience, where the rain doesn't hit you because of the sensors. Prior booking of tickets is a must, many people have rued being turned away otherwise.

Museum of Illusions: Located at Al Seef, a new waterfront area which has been developed in the local architectural style, this is small but has received good reviews.

Jameel Art Centre: Only for kids seriously inclined towards arts.

Tashkeel Art Centre: They do a kids art camp in summer, worth checking out.

Sunday 17 December 2017

Dubai in winter

Since the cooler climes are here in Dubai, it makes sense to soak up as much of the outdoors as possible, given that one is cooped up indoors eight months of the year. Here is a list of outdoor activities, divided into the things I have done and the things I have not.

Things I have done:

1) Flamingo watching at Ras-al-khor: This is a bit of a drive, but well worth it. Incidentally this is one of the few free things you can do in this very expensive city. Ras-al-khor is a creek that is home to many flamingoes, and these can be watched through a 'hide' built for this purpose. Go at the feeding times. It's lovely and the photos and videos you get are National-geographic worthy.

2) Kite beach: This is a nice beach near Burj-Al-Arab. It does tend to get crowded. You can hire a kayak, banana boat or a stand up paddle board if you're in the mood for more than just lazing around. The main draw for my kids is the Wire world high ropes and zip line, which opens in the evening.

3) Aventura at Mushrif park: Also a bit of a drive, but if your kids are crazy about high ropes and zip lining, it's worth it. There are three courses, with lots of high ropes and zip lines. To go through the whole thing takes three hours. Tickets are expensive, so only go if you plan to spend the full three hours.

4) Global village: An evening here can be a pleasant outing. Global village is a bigger, fancier version of Delhi Haat, with pavilions of countries rather than states. There are plenty of rides for children, you can get some regional food and buy some regional trinkets. If you are lucky, some famous singer or band may be having an outdoor performance, which is included in the price of the tickets! They also do good fireworks on some days.

5) Glow garden at Zabeel park: Glow garden has two parts- one has models of dinosaurs which move a bit and bellow. The other part is just clever lighting of models of fruits, flowers, trees etc. It looks quite pretty in the night. There are rides for kids. They have added an ice sculpture display which I am looking forward to see this year.

6) Al Mamzar park, Sharjah: So technically, this is not Dubai, but so what? Al Mamzar park is worth a visit. Lovely to hang around and has a nice beach with clear waters.

7) Al Ain zoo: Again, technically not Dubai. It's about an hour away. Lovely zoo, you can easily spend the whole day in it, better to hire a golf cart to get around. For a price, kids can feed giraffes.

8) Emirates Zoo: If Al Ain is too far and too big for you, an abbreviated zoo version can be had at Emirates Zoo. It's much smaller and has far fewer animals. But you can feed the giraffes. Also, smaller kids tend to appreciate it as things are at their eye level, you don't need to hoist them up.

9) The ubiquitous desert safari: You can't come to Dubai and not go dune-bashing, can you? There are tonnes of companies which organise desert safaris. They will pick you up from wherever you are located and drop you back. The four wheel drive vehicles drive you out into the desert and then veer off the road and start driving in the sand, up and down the dunes. It's good for adrenalin rush, though personally I detest it. Kids seem to love it. After about 15 minutes of this, you are driven to a camp in the desert, where you can partake in some activities like sand-boarding, camel riding. You can get a henna tattoo, but beware, health hazards have been linked to the use of black henna, so I'd skip it. The evening culminates with a below-average tasting buffet dinner and a cheesy cultural performance. It's very touristy, but good for one time experience.

10) Miracle garden: My least favourite in this list, this garden is a testimony to Dubai's will power to make an oasis in the desert. Huge displays of flowers in various shapes- aeroplane etc. One does admire the tremendous effort that must go into the landscaping and gardening on a daily basis. If you are very fond of flowers, go.

11) Dolphin experience at Atlantis: this is normally a package deal with the aquarium at Atlantis and the Aqua venture water park. For a handsome price, you can get close up with the dolphins, kiss them or swim with them. Too commercial for my taste, but if you have kids who are dying to get close to dolphins, consider it.

12) Bastakiya walk, abra ride, Gold souq and spice souk: The side of Dubai that is not so often seen is the one at Bastakiya district. This is the old, traditional side of the city. Walking around here is a welcome break from the skyscrapers and the modern buildings. The gold souq has some jaw-dropping displays of jewellery. An afternoon at Bastakiya is hands down my favourite thing to do in Dubai, but kids may get bored.

13) Legoland: Dubai is chockfull of amusement parks, but since most of the rides of Legoland are outdoors, I'm told, it makes more sense to hit them in the winter.

14) Burj Khalifa and the musical fountains: One of the few things that's free in Dubai, is the musical fountain show at Burj Khalifa. Want to see water jets shooting high and swaying to the tune of various Arabic and Bollywood numbers? Head here. What is not free is the ticket to go to the top of Burj Khalifa and see Dubai from there. You can find discounted tickets on Groupon or Cobone.

15) Motiongate: An amusement park that is partly indoors, partly outdoors. It is inspired by cinema, and has as it themes various kids films. Incidentally, Legoland and Motiongate are a part of the same complex of parks but each requires a day in itself, so don't even think of buying a ticket that allows you to all parks in one day.

16) Sky-diving: This one is of course, not for kids. I am sure it's very thrilling and all, but I just don't see myself doing this, ever. Is fairly expensive, as expected.

17) La Mer: developed in 2018, this is a complex of restaurants in a beach side location. There is a play area for kids.

18) Al Seef: Newly developed near the creek, the restaurants and establishments here have a traditional Arab architecture. It put up a good show of fireworks during Diwali. Personally, I prefer this to La Mer as it has more character.

I am sure that there are many biking trails for biking enthusiasts, but since I am not a biker, I don't know anything about those. Most of the parks are good for walks, the one we frequent most often is Al Barsha. Jumeirah beach road has a good boardwalk for those who want to walk near the sea, as does Marina and Atlantis Palm.

Mleiha- Of all the excursions I've done in Dubai this year, Mleiha is hands down the best. We got lucky with the weather. It was windy and slightly cold and overcast. The desert was absolutely beautiful. The dune buggy ride to the ancient fossil rocks was super fun and the museum was interesting. The coffee shop at the Meliha Archaelogical centre was to die for. I can't wait for the weather to cool down, so I can go again and this time, I will make an overnight trip so I can star gaze in the desert.

Things I have not done, but intend to check out:

Camel fair/race: these are held on the highway going to Al Ain. As children, we heard horror stories of children being tied to the camels for races. It appears that nowadays, the camels are ridden by robots as jockeys. I need to visit to find out if this is fact or fiction.

Dubai safari: Did not hear very good reviews from the people who went last year, mainly to the tune of, 'too hot, disorganised, not too many animals'. Hopefully, they will have got their act together now that they've been around for one season.

The Quranic park: from the point of view of learning more about Islam

Turtle feeding at Madinat Jumeirah

Happy outdoors!

Saturday 9 December 2017

Beautiful Baku

When the long weekend loomed ahead at the end of November, we made a last minute decision to travel to Baku and in less than 24 hours, we were on the flight. Not many people have heard of Azerbaijan. I had first heard of it when in the early 2000s, I chanced upon a book called 'Ali and Nino' in a library. I was intrigued by the description on the jacket copy, 'Ali and Nino is one of literature's foundlings'. Foundling because the identity of the author is unclear and remains debated till date. It was published in 1940. So the book was a love story set in Baku, and that was the first time I heard of this little country which was located on the Caspian sea, and how it was plagued into turmoil because of the interest of Russia and England in its oil. Now after many years, I was travelling to the land of Ali and Nino.

Having travelled to neighbouring Georgia, I was a bit fearful that Azerbaijan might also be a poor country, with old people begging. I needn't have worried. Baku, at least, appears quite rich. Like Dubai. It is also extremely cosmopolitan. It is more European in appearance and character than Muslim, even though the majority population is Muslim. However, it appears to be one of the most secular countries in the Muslim world. Neither men, nor women, wear the hijabs and xxx that people in the middle east wear. They do not observe Friday as the weekly holiday. and I never heard any public calls for prayers as I do in Dubai.

In fact, I was strongly reminded of Paris by the buildings. Baku is, in fact, called the 'Paris of the East'. Dominating the skycape are the Flame towers- a trip of buildings that together look like flames. In the night, these are lit up like flickering flames on their LED facade. They are clearly meant to impress. As is the Haider Aliyev centre, which is built to resemble a rising sea wave. This building has the distinction of not having any straight lines!

But the modern is not what is most charming about Baku. The old city is charming. It's a fairly spread out, enclosed between impressive walls on three sides and Caspian sea on the fourth. The tallest structure here is a seventh century tower called 'Maiden tower'. It is austere and military-like in appearance. It's raison d'être is not definitely known- it was probably used for multiple purposes. Inside is a narrow stair case through which you can climb up to the top, from which you get great panoramic views of the city.

Outside the Maiden Tower is a small outdoor museum which has some intricately craved tombstones. You can trek up to the Shirvanshah palace and take a tour inside. There are some charming restaurants serving Azerbaijani cuisine inside the old city and lots of shops to pick up souvenirs and knick-knacks.

You can head out of Baku to a place called Gobustan. This is famous for mud volcanoes- tiny volcanoes that spew mud. They are not dangerous, at least the ones where the tourists are taken are not. Unlike what issues forth from geysers, the mud is cold. The volcanoes are gentle and quite fun. They sometimes emit a gentle rumbling noise, quite like the ones that come from your stomach. It's fun to watch for the bubbling mud that trickles through at regular intervals. Mud volcanoes are rare, they're found only in places that are rich in oil and gas, and 40% of the world's mud volcanoes are located right here in Azerbaijan, so they are a must see on your itinerary.

The other thing to see in Gobustan is a pre-historic settlement. This dates from 15000 to 40000 years ago, so we're really talking cavemen here. These are these rock formations which have been used as shelter by ancient humans and they have left some drawings carved on the rocks as souvenirs for us. The drawings are of a boat carrying people, which the guide explained is a funeral scene- dead bodies being taken out for burial at the sea, and of animals- bulls in particular. Quite fascinating.

There is also a museum full of artefacts at Gobustan.

Azerbaijan is not very expensive. Uber taxis, in fact, are shockingly cheap. Talking of taxis, beware that normal taxis plying on the road have to be bargained with and can cheat you, so if data permits, stick to Uber. The local food is tasty, and the fish is fresh. As Indians, we were always greeted with 'Raj Kapoor? Amitabh Bacchan?'. Old bollywood cinema certainly had a connect with people in Russi and CIS countries, new Bollywood needs to up its game to establish a connect like this.

To my delight, Ali and Nino do live on in Azerbaijan. There are famous cafes and bookshops with their names.

Baku is a must-visit for anyone living in Dubai.


Remember how we used to play Name, place, animal, thing in school and how getting the letter ‘z’ was such a pain because of very few places starting with this letter? Now, thanks to my Croatia trip, I know one more place that starts with ‘z’- Zagreb- the capital of Croatia.

Zagreb was a great start to our holiday because of the cooler climes. The maximum temperature was a very pleasant 25 degrees. When you are arriving from Dubai, that means a lot. Another reason I liked this charming town was that it was not overcrowded. Although it's very much like other European cities, in terms of architecture, full of pretty buildings, I noticed some interesting sculptures built into some of the buildings- like bas-relief, which gave them a quirky touch.

Another thing that grabbed my attention was a 3 D map of the old town which brought to mind the credit images of the mega-popular HBO series Game of Thrones- unsurprising, as Croatia is GoT country.

Incidentally, Zagreb has some interestingly named museums- Museum of broken relationships, Museum of Illusions and incredibly- Museum of Torture! Needless to say- with the kids along, we didn't visit any of these.

Croatia should be called Castelly-Croatia. There are so many castles and forts, that my boys invented a new verb- 'forting'. From our second day till the last, seeing the castles and forts always involved walking and climbing, which resulted in us clocking in a full 58.5 kms in the ten days of our trip, according to my iPhone pedometer. The first few days we climbed gamely and after that the boys felt the need to invent the verb so they could say 'we don't want to go forting anymore '.

Trakoscan castle outside Zagreb was beautifully preserved- with all furnishings and décor intact, to give an idea of the rich lived. Reaching here involved driving past pumpkin patches in the green countryside.

The next stop, Plitvic Lakes/National park was a highly anticipated destination for us. But the enthusiasm palled somewhat when, upon reaching, we found out that there were three different trails- of which the shortest was 5 kms! We took the shortest one but ended up walking 7 kms anyway because of a wrong turn we took. Plitvic is made up of lakes which are interconnected and cascade into each other through waterfalls. The waters are extraordinarily clear and a brilliant turquoise blue. It is a very picturesque place. What is lacking is a diversity of fauna. Hardly any birds and only a few varieties of fish could be seen.

We drove south and the weather kept getting warmer. After a long drive down twisting and turning hilly roads, past a lovely green countryside, we reached the Dalmatian coastal city of Split. This was overrun with tourists and way more expensive than Zagreb.

Split has many beaches- which are pretty enough but lack the loads of lovely, soft, walkable sands which make a beach, a great beach, for me, at least. Dalmatian beaches are either pebbly or have smallish amounts of clayey sand. And they're crowded. But on the positive side, you see women of all shapes and sizes sun bathing in two piece costumes on them- yay for positive body imaging. The water of the Adriatic sea is extraordinarily clean and blue- given the crowds. And the seafood is good, I'm told.

The first fortress we visited in this region was Klis, which has served as the filming location of Mereen- where Dany practises her queening skills.

The temperature was over 30 degrees in Split, which made it that much harder to tramp around Diocletian palace- incredibly well preserved for its age. This was built by a Roman emperor who decided to retire here, in the fourth century AD, instead of his home country. Italy is just across the Adriatic sea, which explains why there is a strong influence of Italian cuisine on Croatia. All the restaurants invariably feature pizza, pasta and risotto on the menu, and they’re good. Stay away from the gelato, though. It is decidedly fake. Diocletian palace is where Dany locked her dragons in the dungeons in GoT when they got naughty.

Do not however think that fortresses is all this region has to offer. You can always cool off by taking boat tours, island hopping and for the adrenalin junkies, there is snorkeling, and diving off cliffs into the sea. There are no corals but you can see fish and other underwater life forms. It would be advisable to wear rubber sandals to avoid getting your feet cut on the sharp pebbles on the island beaches though.

Hvar is an island we drove to from Split, taking ferry part of the way. It's supposed to be the party town of Croatia, and obviously that aspect was completely irrelevant to us, so we left quickly.

After many hours of driving, we finally reached our last destination- Dubrovnik. Interestingly, you have to enter Bosnia and drive through it for fifteen minutes en route to Dubrovnik. Fortunately, no separate visa is required and the passport control at  the border is short and simple.

The highlight of Dubrovnik is the old town, where the majority of the King’s Landing scenes in GoT have been shot. For die hard Game of Thrones fans, the old town is an absolute must -visit, but even if you belong to the minority who has no clue about GoT, the old town will not disappoint you- it is that gorgeous.

The old town deserves to be seen from three vantage points-first is by walking inside in it, secondly from the sea, by entering the harbour by boat and thirdly- from the top of the castle walls. All three views have their own charm. Climbing up the castle walls and circum-ambulating them is arduous but the views from the top make it totally worth it.

Bear in mind, that while you will be able to identify the locations of GoT filming, it will take a bit of work, because there are computer-generated images superimposed on the shots we see on the screen. Best to take a guided tour or do a thorough homework on internet, if the GoT pilgrimage is your chief reason for going.

After this, we drove long and hard along a lovely coastal road back to Zagreb to catch our flight back home. Goodbye Croatia. You were tiring but absolutely worth it.

Thursday 13 April 2017


Driving from airport to the city, one is struck by the resemblance to India. Unattractive, ill-maintained  apartment blocks, with clothes hanging out to dry in the balcony.

Entering the Old Tbilisi, with its old-style buildings and a castle on top of the hill overlooking the city, you feel relieved that now it has started resembling Europe. Not Western Europe though. Nowhere as posh.

Beware of air B&B in  Old Tbilisi. The apartment we stayed in was  in a street so dodgy and a building so ramshackle, we almost refused to go inside, thinking it was a mistake.

But even the ramshackle buildings, if they are painted, have a kind of antique charm.

Lots of resemblance to the old, old shawls of kotachi wadi, Mumbai.

The peace bridge looks like a metal hat which has been thrown across to straddle the two banks of Mtkavari river. It's modern look is in stark contrast to the quaint, antique heritage look of the buildings of old Tbilisi.

There is a scenic cable car ride which takes you up to a Fortress called Narikala, on top of a hill. You can get great views of Tbilisi from this hill top.

First time I ever saw a commercial establishment (operating out of a van) selling karak chai along side vodka (cha cha- the Georgian vodka made of grape skin.)

You can walk along the fortress to the statue of a formidable lady who holds a cup of wine in one hand to welcome friendly visitors and a sword to discourage enemies. This is the Mother of Georgia.

The local public transport consists of yellow coloured buses called Matrushkas.

Georgia is much cheaper than Dubai in almost all respects. feel happy.

You know it's a poor country by the number of old people who come up begging for money. That is something you have got unused to, after living in Dubai for some time. Makes you feel sad.

The main street is called Rustaveli, after a poet of yore. It has some pretty buildings, especially the Opera House, which is beautiful, symmetrical and well-maintained.

Expect to see many churches and monasteries as tourist spots. This is a very Christian country.

Food, thank heavens, is not as bland as continental European cuisine. But you will get tired of eating the very fattening khacapuri- manakeesh to you and me.

Interesting to see khinkali- savoury modaks filled with meat.

Most of the people wear black. They seem to like black.

The churches are pretty but old and austere compared to those in Western Europe. Think Sophia Hagia rather than Notre Dame.

There is a lovely street market called Dry Bazaar which is filled with the prettiest glass and ceramic ware, jewellery and Soviet memorabilia.

People speak some English but Russians speakers are better off.

Bollywood, as always, remains the bridge through which people try to connect to us Indians. here, we had an old lady saying, 'Mud ke na dekh, mud, mud ke'. Another old lady cried out, 'Rishi Kapoor, Dimple Kapadia'.

Driving outside Tbilisi, the countryside is pretty. There are trees which resemble cherry trees, with clouds of pink or white blossoms. These are plum trees, and the plums are used in Georgian cooking.

Two hours away, up in the mountains, is Gudauri- a ski resort. Here you can hire an instructor to teach you skiing for 50 Lari (that is 65 dirhams an hour).

There is a cable car/ski lift to take you high up in the mountains for some stunning snow views.

Snow boarding is much, much more difficult than sand boarding. Don't hire a snow board without also hiring an instructor.

If you are not skiing or snowboarding, there's nothing much to do in Gudauri and you may get bored.

You can hire a car and drive unto Kazbegi, if you are willing to spend the money.

The duty-free at the airport is nothing special.

Georgian wines and cha cha are apparently famous, if you want to buy souvenirs.

All in all, it's an interesting place to spend a few days.