Tag Archives: Architecture

Garli: Mansions in the Mountains

Standard

Amid gabled roofs, Gothic windows and English weathervanes, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go walkabout in the surreal heritage village of Garli in the Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh

Shiva Shambhu at Garli-IMG_4496_Anurag Mallick

A Shiva Shambhu or wandering minstrel in a red and black turban adorned with feathers walked in sounding his bell just as we were being ushered into Chateau Garli with drumbeats, tilaks and a shower of flower petals. For a moment no one was sure whether the itinerant was part of the arriving group or the welcoming party. And then as suddenly, like a mirage, he vanished into the afternoon haze.

Though the harsh sun had obscured the surrounding Dhauladhar range, Garli’s presence here seemed equally surprising and incongruous. We looked around in disbelief at the European style mansions with gabled roofs, Gothic windows and ornate weathervanes wondering how such a place could exist deep in the heart of Himachal Pradesh. It was only after the refreshing mint cooler went down our parched throats and the drumbeats stopped we knew it was real.

IMG_4502_Anurag Mallick

In a dark sunless room, with the only light emanating from a red chandelier, our host Yatish Sud and his friend Atul Lal retraced the story of Garli. The mint had been replaced by hops but we swear the surreal setting made Yatish seem like a character in a Quentin Tarantino flick narrating a fantastic tale. The story went like this…

The 52 clans of the hill community of Soods, who find a mention in the Rig Veda with reference to a sacred fire, were driven out of Rajasthan after successive Muslim invasions. They escaped with a band of professionals – cobblers, carpenters, blacksmiths, craftsmen – and settled around the hamlets of Garli and its twin town Pragpur 4km away and set up a trading town. The location was protected as well as auspicious – surrounded by mountains and the snowy Dhauladhar range on three sides with the Beas river on the fourth and at the tri-junction of three powerful Shakti peetha shrines –Jwalamukhi, Chintpurni and Brajeshwari.

Garli-IMG_4562_Anurag Mallick

Over time, the entrepreneurial Soods became treasurers to the Kangra royal family and as contractors, helped the British build Shimla. The great fortunes they amassed was put back into their hometown and the buildings drew heavily on colonial influences, a touch of Rajasthan and all the finer things that money could buy – Belgian glass, Japanese tiles, fancy chandeliers. Ummm, but haven’t we heard that story before!

In a pattern uncannily similar to the opulent havelis of Shekhawati (set up the mercantile community of Marwaris) and Chettinad (the bastion of the Chettiars), Garli too prospered in the same timeframe. Between 1820 and 1920, the construction frenzy reached its peak, spurring an unstated rivalry to outbuild thy neighbour. And then, by the 1950’s it was all gone.

Garli-IMG_4594_Anurag Mallick

“How?”, we chimed. “We’ll continue that on the evening walk”, winked Yatish and led us to the dining area where hot lunch awaited us. After a terrific North Indian meal, we were ushered to our heritage room where we lay down with the looming danger of missing our tryst with the evening. The four poster bed, the paintings on the wall, the colourful embroidered bedspreads, the vibrant windowpanes and antique furniture really transported us to another era. Each of the 19 rooms in the mansion was unique and distinctive. But sleep be damned, we couldn’t wait till evening for the rest of the tale…

A quick round of masala tea and we were ready for our heritage walk through town. Scattered amidst living dwellings with heaving clotheslines and aam papad drying on charpoys were empty majestic homes that held steadfast against time. Some withering edifices lay forlorn and besieged by neglect. In the snaking alleys, one could sense an eerie silence emanating from the empty halls and corridors of run-down mansions.

Garli-IMG_4609_Anurag Mallick

“That one with the murals is Rayeeson wali kothi, the one with the uniformed soldiers is Santri wali Kothi and that’s Nalke wali kothi! “Why?” “Oh that’s ‘cause it’s got a public tap in front of it!” There are nearly a hundred mansions marked out on the illustrated map so you could go gallivanting on your own. In market lanes, we discovered the progressive town-planning, water and drainage system that the early Soods had incorporated nearly a hundred years ago!

They established a school for boys in 1918 and a specialized women’s hospital in 1921 (the girl’s school didn’t come up until 1955)! The foundation stone for the Garli Water Works was laid on 8th February 1928 and a new road was built for the Governor of Punjab to come for the inauguration. The water works used imported copper pipes from London and wonder of wonders, it still worked!

DSC05744_Priya Ganapathy

We stopped by at one of the earliest bakeries where home-style cookies were being fired in a coal oven. Pots of water were left at every few paces thoughtfully for the public to help combat heat and thirst. Before the advent of electricity, niches in the wall exteriors held lamps to illuminate the path for the pedestrian.

The humanitarian spirit and thoughtfulness was apparent even at Chateau Garli where the compound wall actually curved around a well. In 1920, when Yatish’s grandfather Seth Melaram Sud struck water while building the house, he decided that the natural resource was public property and moved his walls so that the village folk could fill their pots freely! The practice continues to this day. So how did it all go bust?

DSC05752_Priya Ganapathy

The story goes that in the bygone days, the licentious ones left their families back in Shimla and snuck away to Garli for a secret rendezvous with their paramour or another man’s wife. Some say it was the curse of a wronged woman that brought about Garli’s downfall. By the 1950s, the whole place was abandoned and left to ruin.

“Even our haveli was not too different. My grandfather was orphaned very early in life and was taken care of by Atul’s father. I was the first to come back and then Atul followed. It took years of restoration. The annexe in front of the swimming pool was once a cowshed. We built it like the older structure.” The result was spectacular and seamless…

Beas offroad drive-IMG_4681_Anurag Mallick

Yatish then bundled us into his open jeep for a crazy off-road drive. Recklessly ignoring concerned locals crying “Agey raasta nahin hai…(There is no road ahead)”, we drove down a steep incline, bounced along unpredictably before rolling into the vast expanse of weathered boulders covering the banks of the River Beas. We made it in time to watch the big red sun take its final bow for the day from the horizon.

After a quick stop at the ancient Kaleshwar Mahadev temple we went for a cuppa at Naurang Yatri Nivas, a rustic style country lodge restored by Atul and his wife Ira. The elaborate brick structure was built by Rai Bahadur Mohan Lal for the stay of the Lt Governor of Punjab so he could attend his daughter’s wedding.

Garli-IMG_4906_Anurag Mallick

Subsequently it became an accommodation for travellers and merchants who came to Garli for trade. In disuse for almost a quarter of a century, it took 30,000 litres of water, 250 kg of washing powder, 75 iron brushes, 18 people and 15 months to restore it to its former glory.

Returning to the luxury of Chateau Garli, we nibbled on juicy grilled meat and snacks followed by butter naans dunked in mutton gravy. The next day after breakfast local ice-cream man Satpal Sharma ji tinkled his bells to sell his family’s best kept secret – Malai barf! The creamy kulfi-like dessert with an unchanged 40-year old recipe was served on a sal leaf and priced at only 30 bucks a serving. To Yatish, it was “the taste of nostalgia”.

Pong Dam-IMG_4757_Anurag Mallick

Thus fortified, we set off for Pong Dam to witness the massive swathe of wetlands. In the distance, herds of bovines grazed and wallowed in the slush. In winter, thousands of migratory birds come visiting from Central Asia, making it a birding haven.

The Dada Sibba temple nearby has a rich treasure of 200-year-old mural art on the walls. Unusual images of Krishna, Shiva and Parvati made us linger and absorb the genius of unnamed artists who helped evolve and define the Kangra style of painting.

IMG_4812_Anurag Mallick

We drove to the famous 8th century monolithic Masrur rock-cut temples where architectural virtuosity was on full display. Despite being weather worn, the delicate carvings, motifs and expressions were unmistakable. Our guide, like many we had met earlier in other towns and villages across India, claimed that the temples were ‘built overnight by the Pandavas’.

It was too hot for Kangra Fort so we headed back for a swim in Sud’s tempting pool, which boasted a funky underwater sound system! The party was on… and didn’t stop. Around midnight, Yatish mischievous asked, “Ok, who wants to come for an open jeep ride into the wilderness. Last week, we spotted a leopard, right on the road!” We dove right in and the adventure continued. Onion-like, the little town of Garli peels away its layers one by one, to reveal its many hidden secrets.

DSC05823_Priya Ganapathy

Discover This
Garli is best discovered on foot. Start your heritage walk from Seth Melaram Sud’s residence, formerly UCO bank and presently Chateau Garli towards the Beas. Walk by the taal (lake) past spectacular buildings – Kanya pathshala, Mohan Nivas, Govt Girls’ High School, the tall gates of Saraswati Vidhya Mandir and the green gabled roof of the Civil Hospital to Naurang Sarai. While returning, take the left from the Govt Hospital and the right from Kanya Pathshala for scenic viewpoints.

Continue on the main road past Bhagwan Niwas and Peerewalan to the market. To its right lies the Garli Water Works while a left turn from Minerva School leads to Bishnu Nivas and the ‘House with the brick jali’. And for those who are interested, there’s also The Hidden House and a Mystery House, besides several ruins!

Garli-IMG_4951_Anurag Mallick

NAVIGATOR

How to Reach
By Road: Located 4km from its twin heritage village Pragpur, Garli is 60km from Hoshiarpur, 70km from Dharamsala and 186km/4hr drive from Chandigarh via Ropar, Anandpur Sahib and Nangal.

By Air: The nearest airport is 47km away at Gaggal in Dharamsala or Bhuntar (85km) near Kullu.

By Train: The nearest railway station is Amb, 25km away though one can travel to Una or Hoshiarpur, which have more train connections. From Delhi, one can take the Kalka Shatabdi to Chandigarh and drive to Garli.

IMG_4745_Anurag Mallick

Where to Stay

Chateau Garli
Mohan Niwas, VPO Garli, Dist Kangra
Ph 94180 62002, 98104 35554 www.chateaugarli.com
Rs.5000 onwards

Naurang Yatri Nivas
Opp Senior Secondary School, Village Nahan Nagrota, VPO Garli, Tehsil Rakkar, Dist Kangra
Ph 01970-245096 http://www.nyngarli.com

Banta House homestay
Near Garli entrance, VPO Garli, Dist Kangra
Ph 8459220851

DSC05751_Priya Ganapathy

When to go:
Garli is great all year round, though summers can get pretty hot. Time your visit to catch a local festival like Hola Mohalla at Mairi, 15km away or the century old wrestling festival and 3-day fair Maidan ka Mela at Garli in September.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April 2017 issue of Discover India magazine. 

Advertisements

Garli: Chateau Charisma

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover old world romance and architectural gems in a heritage village in Himachal Pradesh

DSC05957_Priya Ganapathy

If it wasn’t for the summer heat and pahadi drumbeats heralding our arrival, we could have been in a faraway village in Germany or Switzerland. We stood under the painted oriel window of Chateau Garli with blues skies broken by white clouds and gyrating weathervanes, utterly besotted and bewildered by its beauty. The arterial road running through the pahadi town was lined by heritage buildings on either side though the summer haze obscured the snow-capped Dhauladhar range.

Garli in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra Valley wears its European influences with an air of nostalgic élan. In the 16th century, the area came under the rule of the Jaswan kingdom. The brave princess Prag Dei put up a stiff resistance against a band of marauders terrorising the valley and Pragpur was established in her honour. Its sister town Garli is peopled by the 52 hill clans of the Sood community, who originally lived in Rajasthan but were driven out by the Mughals.

IMG_4744_Anurag Mallick

Around 19th century they settled around the hamlets of Garli and its more famous architectural twin town Pragpur four kilometres away. The site was chosen carefully at the tri-junction of three Shakti temples – Chintpurni, Jwalamukhi and Brajeshwari in Kangra to receive auspicious astral influences. They came here with cobblers, carpenters, craftsmen and other professionals to set up a trading township.

As treasurers of the Kangra royals and contractors who helped the British establish Shimla, the Soods amassed great fortunes and love for European style is so evident in Garli. The town is a haven of sprawling ancestral homes showcasing jaw-dropping architectural styles. Today, most are however in need of care and renovation. Some of the houses seem to be in a state of decay and the sleepy town does wear a tattered cloak of neglect and abandonment.

IMG_4925_Anurag Mallick

Giving credence to this is a legend of a young bride who was wrongly accused of adultery by the villagers years ago. Angry at the slur to her reputation, the helpless girl cursed the entire village to eternal ruin. Surprisingly enough, over the years people started moving out and by the 1950s, apparently most of the houses in the once thriving village were abandoned. Thankfully, a few, like Chateau Garli, which lay unoccupied for 20 years, have now been protected.

Our host Yatish Sud and his son Amish have painstakingly restored their mansion, constructed in 1921 by his grandfather Lala Mela Ram Sud, into a boutique heritage stay. Each of its 19 rooms holds memories of another time – colonial furniture, mellow lights and crystal chandeliers contrasting sunlit coloured panes spilling rainbow reflections onto the floor.

IMG_4886_Anurag Mallick

Our room in the old main building had a lovely balcony overlooking the large swimming pool. The ceiling artwork and gilded motifs framing the doorways, walls and windows were hand-painted by Amish’s sister Tarini, adding a classy, personal touch to the interiors. The acute gabled roofs, long windows and pillared verandahs of the main building flowed seamlessly to the annexe, which used to be a cattle shed.

Overlooking the pool and rustic kitchen counter, the annexe with its colourful windows transforms into fairytale castle at dusk. Each of the rooms are dressed with antique furniture like four poster beds and baby cribs, which accentuate its old world charm. Beside the pool, a mud-plastered counter was lined with brass pots and a traditional chulha (earthen oven) where food was prepared by local staff.

IMG_4492_Anurag Mallick

Lunch was a lovely Kangra dhaam (meal) featuring a fixed menu of traditional Himachali delicacies like mhani, a preparation of black chana with jaggery and amchoor, siddu, the local steamed bread, mah ki dal, khatta (tangy curry) and meetha (sweet). After washing it down with some Kangra tea, we went on a guided walk around Garli.

Meandering cobbled alleys were lined by copper-toned mud-plastered homes, brick houses with slate roofs and lovely balconies, wooden balustrades, carved doors, wall murals and Rajasthani arches. Rayeeson wali kothi, the first mansion built in Garli, had murals and Rajasthani motifs on the walls, Santri wali kothi was dominated by two turbaned plaster sentries on the parapet wall while Nalke wali kothi had a public tap in front.

IMG_4582_Anurag Mallick

We stopped by at one of the earliest bakeries in town where home-style cookies were being fired in a coal oven. On the town’s eastern end on the road to the Beas stood Naurang Yatri Nivas, a charming rustic style country lodge renovated by Yatish’s friend Atul Lal. In market lanes we discovered the progressive town planning, water and drainage system incorporated nearly a century ago.

The Soods established a boys’ school in 1918, a special women’s hospital in 1921 and a girl’s school by 1955. All of these, along with Garli Water Works, which used imported copper pipes from London, are still operational! The waterworks was inaugurated by Sir Malcolm Hailey, the Governor of Punjab on 8th February 1928 and a special road was built for the purpose. At a time when the rest of India was largely underdeveloped, the infrastructure of this tiny outpost was leagues ahead.

DSC05748_Priya Ganapathy

Homes had wall niches for lamps to illumine the path for pedestrians in the old days. Pots of water were left thoughtfully for people to help combat heat and thirst. Such generosity of spirit was apparent even at Chateau Garli. When Yatish’s grandfather struck water while building the house, he adjusted his compound walls so that the well came outside his boundary and village folk could fill their pots. The practice continues to this day.

As Yatish drove us around local sights like Pong Dam, Dada Siba temple with Kangra paintings and 8th century Masroor rock-cut temples, we realized hospitality was not new to the Suds, it was an age old tradition.

IMG_4840_Anurag Mallick

VITALS

Accommodation
Chateau Garli has 19 heritage rooms and suites between its main house and the annexe and serves robust, home-style meals including Indian, Chinese and local Kangra fare. Each room comes with AC, coffee maker and wi-fi besides a common swimming pool with underwater speakers!

Chateau Garli
Ph +91-1970-246246, 94180 62003
http://www.chateaugarli.com
Tariff Rs.5000 onwards).

Getting There
Garli is 4km/10 min east of its twin village Pragpur in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra district. It is 45km/1 hr southeast of Dharamsala, 186km/3 hrs from Chandigarh and 425km/7 hrs north of New Delhi. The closest airport is Gaggal in Dharamsala which has flights from Delhi. The nearest railway station is Amb, 16km/20 min away, connected by Himachal Express from Delhi, which reaches at 8am. Regular buses ply to Garli from many cities in Himachal like Pathankot (120km), Kullu (180km) and Simla (180km).

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller magazine: http://www.natgeotraveller.in/mountain-stay-chateau-garli-for-himachal-heritage-and-kangra-khana/

Wonderful Wernigerode

Standard

PRIYA GANAPATHY goes for a walk in a beautiful painted German town in the Harz region to discover its captivating history, architecture and legends

img_9061_wernigerode-priya-ganapathy

On a chilly winter morning I stepped out of HKK Wernigerode Hotel to explore the town of old brick buildings, stone-grey churches and half-timbered houses painted in myriad colours. Time had almost stood still in this town in Germany’s Harz district, renowned for its ancient Christmas markets and witch festivals. At the Marktplatz (Marketplace), I was treated to the loveliest homes and hotels I’d ever laid my eyes on. Wernigerode is defined by its idiosyncratic architectural style. Poet Hermann Lӧns called it “Bunte Stadt am Harz” or “the colourful painted town in the Harz foothills”.

Apparently, places in Germany suffixed with ‘rode’ indicate forests cleared of trees for tilling. The old city of Wernigerode was founded during the Great Clearings, nearly 1100 years ago by monks from a neighbouring district. They set up a chapel and a small castle to spread the faith in the Harz region. Locals claim the city was named after the Prior of the monastery. With abundant wood and rich mineral ores like gold, silver, copper and iron, the region saw quick growth in craft and trade. Most houses in Wernigerode have a half-timbered style and Wernigerode Public Gardens has a miniature section called “Little Harz” with a collection of 50 prominent landmarks in the Harz.

img_8594_wernigerode-priya-ganapathy

The canary-coloured Bimmelbahn, named after the tinkling ‘bimmeln’ sound made by the toy train, trundled cheerily along the narrow cobbled street, ascending to Wernigerode Schloss, the town’s most popular sight. Looming above the city, the castle is a 1.5km hike from the marketplace. The only other access is by foot or horse-drawn carriages, adding to its old world charm.

The fairytale castle blends neo-Baroque and neo-Gothic styles. Fronted by a sprawling garden, it commands a fabulous cityscape of red-roofed buildings punctuated by arrowheads of church spires. In the inner courtyard stone sculptures of griffins and fierce gothic animals guarded wide steps and stone walls riddled with creepers and vines.

img_8598_wernigerode-priya-ganapathy

A model of the original 12th Century castle, a former hunting lodge for German royals, is on display. The lavish interiors flaunt exquisite red and blue silk damask wall panels, monogrammed motifs, parquet floors, hunting trophies and gilded portraits. The grand Festaal (banquet hall) decorated with the stag crest of the House of Stolberg-Wernigerode spells out the opulence enjoyed by Kaisers and Dukes.

We noticed a raised deck with a special door. Back in the day, guests had to wear a special hat and thick cape called the ‘smoking jacket’ before entering the smoking lounge. This ensured they didn’t stink up the place with the odour of tobacco smoke clinging to their clothes. In 1950, the castle was refurbished into a museum and opened to public. Its unusual treasures include gifts, silverware, traditional dishes, recipes, menus and a book compiled by the French chef of the Stolberg family.

img_8248_wernigerode-priya-ganapathy

Wernigerode’s fascinating history came alive during the guided city walk with the genial Werner Kropf. Goethe, who wrote the classic “Faust” came here in 1777 at the age of 28 to study mining in the Harz. Mining’s loss was music’s gain! Till 1870 it was a small town of 6000 inhabitants and after the foundation of the German Reich, it saw great development. One of the factories that opened in the 1800s was Hasserӧder, the largest and most famous brewery in Germany, which still exists. They produce beer that Germans swear by – about 1million litres per day! In 1899, the railway network through 140km of the Harz mountains to the highest point Brocken, was completed.

Despite several fires, few Baroque style homes managed to survive and are comparatively prettier than the simpler new homes. But what the latter miss out in ornamentation, is made up for in colour. Perhaps the cutest house was Kleinstes Haus, Wernigerode’s smallest house which belonged to postal worker Mr Nettelmann. Wedged between two houses (they skipped building the side walls!), the home built in 1792 is just 3m wide with two rooms, a small hall and kitchen! In 1900, it still managed to house a family of ten. Today the heritage house has been converted into a museum.

img_8746_wernigerode-priya-ganapathy

Many houses are over 500 years old and retain remnants of Renaissance period artwork and woodwork with large overhangs, paintings and carvings. We saw a wonky house with a clever signboard in German nailed to its wall “There are not so many days in the year as there the number of years of this house!” Dating back to 1597, it stood crooked because the foundation was damaged by the flooding rains. Art, humour and beauty came together in these lanes.

We halted at the unusual Museum Schiefes Haus, formerly a water-powered mill built in Baroque style in 1680. It was built straight but today leans forward, earning fame as the Crooked Mill in town. Apparently its foundations too, eroded over the centuries as the little brook flowing alongside sometimes swelled into a flood. Today, it inclines 130cm, making it more tilted than the Leaning Tower of Pisa! It features models of mills inside. Its slope is so sharp it’s difficult to balance, like you would on a ship in the high seas. A landscaped Floral Watch designed in 1974 stands nearby.

img_8584_wernigerode-priya-ganapathy

Wernigerode’s historic Rathaus or Town Hall in the heart of town was originally built in 1277 as a Spielhaus (playhouse). People gathered here to meet and have beer, play cards every evening, watch theatre or celebrate a wedding. When Wernigerode became a town, they declared it a Marktplatz.

As it prospered, the administration decided on a makeover for the Rathaus in 1936. They invited a young 27-year-old architect brimming with new ideas from his wanderings around Germany to decorate the building. He moved the oriels lying around in a corner for centuries to the roof and added two oriel towers.

img_9038_wernigerode-priya-ganapathy

This stunning highlight became a signature of Wernigerode. Sitting pretty in shades of burnt orange, its Mayor Oriel windows (the Mayor’s office lies behind it) frilled by garden plants, the Rathaus is touted as the most beautiful Town Hall between the Atlantic Sea and the Ural Mountains. The inside story is that the administration short-changed the architect on his fee. So, he avenged it by ordering his craftsman to chisel images in the likeness of the administrators to publicly lampoon them. Enraged, they didn’t give him another project!

The building’s façade is beautiful with sculptural embellishments and the figures details even their costume and expression! One figure highlighted the typical attire of a farmer’s wife, another depicted a lumberjack with his axe. A row of wooden sculptures highlight the professions of the time – butcher, farmer, baker, miner, sweeper, the sixth was the artist himself, a carpenter, metalsmith, builder, potter, painter and a gunsmith.

img_9045_wernigerode-priya-ganapathy

The centrepiece is the gilded and tiered Benefactor’s Fountain, built in honour of those who rendered exemplary service and contributed to local welfare. Many of the town’s buildings have been renovated into restaurants. The magnificent Gothic Haus built in 1440 was converted into a heritage hotel and restaurant in mid 19th century and was transformed into a 4-star hotel in 1992.

Another timbered heritage hotel Weisser Hirsch or The White Deer, stands opposite the fountain. With 70 restaurants, hotels and cafés, the town is a popular holiday spot. Though Wernigerode is relatively small, it receives an astonishing 3 million visitors a year, of which a million stay at least one night!

img_9092_wernigerode-priya-ganapathy

Dampfladen (Steam Shop) stocks steam train souvenirs. The quirky 135-year-old bookshop Juttner’s Buchhandlung has 18 heavy bells hanging outside that chime everyday at five minutes past 12, 3 and 5pm in traditional folk tunes! Nearby, a metal sculpture of an owl and a hanging book highlight it as treasure-trove of wisdom.

Café Wein on Breite Strasse, the long pedestrian-only street, has a chocolate façade laced with pink flowers in its windows that made it look good enough to eat! Built in 1583 as a Renaissance style building, it has been run as a Viennese style café since 1898. The present owner Mrs Zeigermont is a gracious octogenarian who welcomes all her visitors personally. Her cakes are to die for!

img_9064_wernigerode-priya-ganapathy

The second marketplace of Wernigerode was also a venue for Walpurgisnacht, the night dedicated to the Witches of Brocken. Every year between 30th April and 1st May, thousands gather here dressed like witches and wizards. Marked by binge drinking, all night dancing and loud music, the festival marks the end of winter and celebrates the onset of spring. We could almost hear the Witches of Brocken Hill cackling and cheering us on for a cold night of revelry.

img_8618_wernigerode-priya-ganapathy

FACT FILE

Getting there: Fly to Hanover (130km) and take a train to Wernigerode (2.5 hrs) by the German Federal Railways (Deutsche Bahn) and ‘Veolia’ Transport trains.

When to Go: Wernigerode has a busy calendar with the Town Hall Festival in mid-June and a Wine Festival in June end. The Chocolate Festival began two years ago and takes place in end October. The centuries old Christmas Market begins on 1st December and goes on till Christmas.

For more details, visit www.wernigerode-tourismus.com/ and www.germany.travel

img_8251_wernigerode-priya-ganapathy

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November 2016 issue of Imperia magazine.

Bad Ragaz: Heidi-ho from Heidiland

Standard

PRIYA GANAPATHY visits the medieval spa town of Bad Ragaz, riding in horse-carriages past quaint Swiss villages and alpine meadows, a setting that inspired the literary character Heidi

img_7697_priya-ganapathy

Zurich from the skies was a muddle of green tree clumps and brown gabled rooftops broken by tall clock towers and a river running through. I landed not to explore this global hub of finance and banking but to romp in the hills where ‘Heidi’ roamed. Boarding the 7.43am train to Bad Ragaz, a spa village frequented by the rich and famous since Baroque times, I was treated to Switzerland’s many moods gliding across my window.

The steep craggy mountains possessed a frightening beauty that suddenly slipped into childlike innocence in its rolling meadows and valleys where curious cows wore tinkling bells and ducks floated along the shimmery lakes of Zurichsee and Walensee. Now and then, a waterfall slithered down like a white snake in the misty grey landscape as sailboats bobbed gently by the pier. In this dream state, wispy ribbons of clouds cut low across hills and swept past rambling barns and a tumble of wooden chalets festooned with fiery blooms in baskets and ivy riddled walls.

img_6965_priya-ganapathy

The train soon pulled into Bad Ragaz station, set in the foothills of the Pizol Mountains in the Canton of St Gallen. The Rhine Valley spa town presented a sublime welcome – its encircling lofty peaks were dusted by the season’s first snowfall while the town was wet and aglow after a sun shower. Home to only about 7000 people, the historic town totes an 800-year old legacy of healing in its soothing thermal waters.

It is believed that the hot springs emerging from the cavernous tracts of Tamina Gorge were discovered in 13th century by two hunters from the Benedictine Abbey in the Pfӓfers mountains. The abbots decided to tap its curative powers and built the earliest bathhouse at the source, accessible only by strapping and lowering people using ropes. Pilgrims flocked in, willing to risk everything for their health and well-being; some were left there for an entire week to heal!

img_6872_priya-ganapathy

The trend gained momentum after noted physician Paracelsus von Hohenheim validated the purity of the waters in 1535. Since then, Tamina’s 36.5˚C waters have healed czars and commoners alike. It wasn’t until the Grand Resort Bad Ragaz was built in the 1840s that Bad Ragaz gained recognition as a spa destination. Little did the abbots realize how they seeded the concept of modern spa tourism. Even the invalid little Clara in Johanna Spyri’s children’s classic “Heidi” published in 1881, came to these waters to cure her paralysis.

Last year marked the 175th anniversary of channelling the Tamina waters to the Grand Resort Bad Ragaz where guests enjoy its abundant curative powers on tap or in its waterfalls, pools, saunas and steam chambers. Knitting its heritage, luxe modernity and hi-tech medical facilities seamlessly, its two hotels Grand Hotel Quellenhoff & Spa Suites and Grand Hotel Hoff Ragaz draw the elite with world-class health and well-being treatments.

img_6869_priya-ganapathy

The resort was walkable from the station but we hopped into our van, not wanting to lug our bags all the way. It was a bright day that seemed perfect for a tour of the sprawling resort and its premises, which extends over 500 acres into the valley. Unlike other spa towns, the resort was really the core identity of the place as the town grew around it. Yet, with no formidable walls, it melted seamlessly into the town in a welcoming embrace. Perhaps the very nature of its design and the promise of its founders to be open to the public, make it unique. While large spaces are open to public, certain zones are exclusively meant for guests, ensuring complete privacy.

Our host Kathrin Boerger-Bechtold said that in the old days, those who knew the value of therapeutic waters, hazarded an arduous journey to take advantage of this ‘blue gold’. Outside, the valley glittered in the sunshine and the encircling mountaintops wore a snowy marbled texture. The resort’s media manager Martin Leiter ushered us towards a fantastic luncheon of seafood, cheesy delights, fine desserts and great wine. Of the eight restaurants, the Michelin-starred Abestube had been recently relaunched as ‘Igniv’, Swiss chef Andreas Caminada’s gourmet nook!

img_6894_priya-ganapathy

A few hours of rest and we were ready for supper at Zollstube, the traditional Swiss restaurant with all-wood interior, antler lamps and hunting trophies. We huddled together for excellent Zurich-style veal and hay soup (yes, a delicious concoction made with hay!) Inspired by the décor, I ordered game meat – sautéed deer escalopes, yellow mushrooms, red cabbage and Brussel sprouts.

Another special offering from restaurant manager and ace sommelier Sondra Klutz, was the aptly named Quelle 36.5 (quelle means spring water). Dressed in a red, black and white dirndl (traditional Swiss dress), Sondra told us how this in-house craft beer was created using Tamina thermal water! Dessert was a delicious glass of Toblerone mousse and marinated strawberries.

img_6911_priya-ganapathy

The next morning, after an aqua fit lesson and a low-cal Cuisine Equilibreé  menu – a 3-course 600-calorie meal, we strolled to the town square to board the sunny Schluchtenbus to the famed Tamina Gorge. Like other fabulous discoveries by monks – from champagne to coffee – Tamina’s hot water springs too were discovered in 1240 by Benedictine monks. The narrow road leading to the historic gorge is accessible by foot, bus or horse-drawn carriages. No other vehicle is permitted here, so many prefer to walk up.

“I’m Heidi from Heidiland”, our storyteller guide introduced herself, adding that it really was her Christian name, a common choice of parents in these parts! She narrated Tamina’s history as we trod down the 450 m tunnel to the fountainhead with the thundering waters of the Tamina River roaring in our ears.

img_6963_priya-ganapathy

We entered the Altes Bad Pfӓfers (old thermal spa), a Baroque building built between 1704-1716 to see how things were done for nearly two centuries. It was a virtual museum with old relics and even a baroque kitchen that once served 500 guests. Today, it also houses an excellent restaurant and has a small renovated chapel with ancient wall tracery, dedicated to St Maria Magdalena, patron saint of the sick.

Heidi whispered conspiratorially, “The monks carried the paralyzed people all the way through the rocky crevasses and finally lowered the patients down using ropes to a platform from where they again carried them through a natural tunnel right up to the spring itself, where they left them for days in the water. Nice and cosy, all the time at 36.5 degrees! That was the basic cure. The monks even brought food and wine from the cultivated blue burgundy vineyards in neighbouring Malans.”

img_7067_priya-ganapathy

The journey was deeply mystical for it reminded us of how grim things would have been in the past with poor access to this remote locale. We walked along the sunless pathway past jagged rock faces swept into the thundering soundscape of water that tumbled into a stream below, before reaching the site where it all began – the sacred grotto of Tamina behind a sheet of glass, bubbling and gurgling out 7000 litres of thermal water per minute. After a quick visit to the museum, we hiked back to the resort along the narrow road.

Channelling the waters from a spring deep in a grotto, the resort was a grand aqua haven comprising the colonnaded Helenabad, the Sportbad and open Garden pool besides the public Tamina Therme, replete with an outdoor rocky waterfall and panoramic views of snowy peaks. Carrying forward the vision of its founding architect Bernhard Simon, the place retains much of its historic architecture but reinvents its ambience and infrastructure to complement modern demands of luxury. In-house designer boutiques, two golf courses, a casino, ski safaris, outdoor activities, Harley Davidson bikes and low-slung sports cars to zip around the countryside besides a dog-friendly code; all add up to its lavish appeal.

img_7519_priya-ganapathy

It was tough to tear ourselves away from the relaxing massages, luxuriating soaks and sumptuous meals but the carefree Alpine hills which inspired the book “Heidi” beckoned us to Maienfeld for a true taste of Heidiland. En route, we stopped at a local flea market and the Fromm vineyard in Malans to try the signature Pinot Noir with Francesco Benvenuto, the resort’s passionate Italian sommelier. However, the guided tour with founder Georg Fromm, regarded among Switzerland’s finest wine makers, was a bonus. We clip-clopped in a quaint horse-carriage down the narrow lanes of Grison canton past vineyards, torkels (wine bars), wooden chalets and meadows where herds of cows gawked with odd curiosity before we reached Heididorf.

It was a return to innocence as scenes from “Heidi”, the book I won in a school elocution contest came flashing back. We trudged up to Heidihaus, the 19th century homestead regarded as Heidi’s original house, a souvenir shop and a museum replete with statues, models and props that brought the book to life… Just a little further down was Switzerland’s smallest post office, perfect to mail a ‘Wish You Were Here’ postcard to the world.

img_7735_priya-ganapathy

FACT FILE

Getting there: Swiss Air flies direct from Mumbai and Delhi to Zurich (8 hr 55 min). A train from Zurich Airport to Zurich HB connects to Chur via Bad Ragaz, a 1½ hour journey.

Stay: Grand Resort Bad Ragaz www.resortragaz.ch/en.html

For more info, visit www.myswitzerland.com

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 11 Sep 2016 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

The Wooden Road: Germany’s Half Timbered House Trail

Standard

While autobahn is great for speed enthusiasts, ANURAG MALLICK enjoys slow travel on a driving holiday across Swabia in Baden-Württemberg, taking the southern Red Route of the German Timber Frame Road through medieval towns with half-timbered houses and vineyards        

Bleubauren-Blautopf IMG_0587_Anurag Mallick

Having caught the last flight to Stuttgart in the group, I had the least amount of time to do justice to the extensive spread at Restaurant Trollinger at the Mövenpick Hotel just outside Stuttgart Airport, let alone shower and change. But it was a taste of what lay ahead. Patience, I said to myself, as we got ready to take on the Deutsche Fachwerke Strasse.

The historic German Timber Frame Road runs 3,000km north to south through medieval towns with cobbled streets and half-timbered houses, heritage walks by guides in period costume and Swabian cuisine dished out at cellars, weinstube (wine restaurants) and biergartens (beer gardens). We were covering the 772km-long southern Red Route, a dramatic landscape where both history and geography had been shaped by the course of rivers and receding ice after the last Ice Age.

Bietigheim-Half-timbered house IMG_9837_Anurag Mallick

It was a short drive from Stuttgart to the charming little town of Bietigheim-Bissingen (actually two, for the price one). In 1975, Bietigheim and Bissingen, 3km apart, became twin towns. Locals fondly call them Bi-Bi! Anette Hochmuth from the German Framework Road greeted us near the town square and led us through the Unteres Tor (Lower Gate), the last surviving original gate.

Quirky art was typical of Bietigheim with sculptures like Kuhriousum (a cow on a milk can), Die Schwätzer (The Gossipers) and the outré Villa Visconti or House of Heads sporting a façade with heads of celebrities. We walked to the Marktplatz, the medieval town centre lined with spectacular buildings like the Rathaus (town hall). It was built in 1507 in the Black Forest region, dismantled and brought on rafts down the Enz River and reassembled here. Near the Old Latin School, Hornmoldhaus was one of the best-preserved Renaissance houses in South Germany with exquisite woodwork and painted interiors. It housed the Stadtmuseum (City Museum) and a miniature model of the town.

Bietigheim-Kuhriosum sculpture IMG_9812_Anurag Mallick

The reason they were called half-timbered houses was because of the wood-saving skeleton with self-supporting timber and curtain walls that had a filling of clay, mud, hay or brick. The method was both ecological and aesthetic. Stone was the privilege of the elite, which gave rise to the German expression steinreich or ‘stone rich’.

We continued to the wine village of Besigheim, surrounded by the Neckar and Enz rivers. Dominating the market square was the Town Hall built in 1359 and the charming Dreigabelhaus or Three-gabled house. The traditional Restaurant Ratsstüble is a great place to try Swabian delicacies. Swabia, a historic region in present day Baden-Württemberg, boasts its own distinct culture and cuisine. Our visit co-incided with Spargelzeit or Asparagus Season and the local favourite white asparagus was on the menu. Also on offer was Maultaschen, pasta stuffed with minced meat, spinach, onions and breadcrumbs. And thereby hangs a tale.

Schwabian cuisine-Maultaschen at Restaurant Ente Blaubeuren IMG_0712_Anurag Mallick

During Lent, ‘good’ Christians usually refrained from meat, but the cheeky Cistercian monks of Maulbronn Abbey were unwilling to do so. They hid the meat inside the pasta so God would not be able to see it! Since it looked like a tasche (bag) and came from Maulbronn, it was called Maultaschen. Nicknamed ‘Swindlers of the Almighty’, the coarser Swabian dialect was less charitable – the tongue twister Herrgottsbescheißerle means ‘God’s little bullshitters’!

Next up was Schorndorf, a 12th-century medieval town famous as the birthplace of Gottlieb Daimler, born here in 1834. His house and birthplace display his drawings, memorabilia and photos, tracing his transformation from a baker’s son to the inventor of the first small, high-speed petrol engine. The Galleries for Art & Technology had several of his inventions, automobiles and the first motorised bike. Daimler was working on an electric engine long before there was running water and electricity.

Schorndorf-Gottlieb Daimler birthplace IMG_0157_Anurag Mallick

In 1350, when Schorndorf’s fortifications were expanded to encircle the burgeoning town with new walls, people appropriated the old city walls to save money. One such specimen was a crooked house on Rommelgasse simply known as The House on the Wall. The houses were so close together one wonders if they could have built a common wall and reduced costs. But a small alleyway separated the houses, to prevent fires from spreading rapidly.

Rather more poignant were the cobblestone-sized memorials we literally stumbled upon. Started in 1996 by Gunter Demnig, these Stolpersteine or stumbling stones were created to commemorate victims of the Holocaust, put outside the house where they were last seen before being deported to concentration camps. Like Schorndorf, nearly 50,000 Stolpersteine can be seen across 18 countries in Europe, making it the world’s largest memorial.

Schorndorf-Stolperstein or stumbling stones IMG_0076_Anurag Mallick

In under an hour, we reached Esslingen, an old town with 1,200 years of architecture, criss-crossed by cobbled alleys, and the Burg (castle), with vineyards draping its slopes like a royal cloak, lording over town. One had to climb 300 steps for a view of Esslingen from the summit. For now the only fortification we were interested in was of the liquid kind as we ambled into Sektkellerei Kessler—Germany’s oldest producer of sparkling wine. After learning the secret of champagne in France, Georg Christian Kessler returned to set up his own company in 1826. Within the 1,000-year-old walls of the keller (cellar) they produced 1.5 million bottles annually.

Our eloquent guide Mr Roe took us on a tour of the inner city. “German history is too complicated with kings and kaisers fighting for power. After a glass of sekt you forget everything in any case,” he announced. And, thus, we set off to see the most important of the 800 monuments in the Altstadt (Old Town). Schelztor, the square gate tower, had a quirky installation of a man balancing on a pole. The Skywalker, designed by artist Van der Goetze in 1994, symbolised the medieval maxim that if you could support yourself for one year and one day, you became a free citizen.

Esslingen am Neckar-Town square IMG_0189_Anurag Mallick

Esslingen was the most important European town in the 13th century, superseding even Rome. It lay on the Route 66 of the Middle Ages, connecting Antwerp in the north to Venice in the south, crossing the Neckar River. Esslingen am Neckar prospered due to the two bridges that levied a high toll tax offering safe passage to merchants, thus developing as a trading location. It was the oldest, longest and widest stone bridge in Germany. Esslingen also had the oldest continuous timber-frame front with nearly 200 half-timbered houses.

The Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall), with large doors for easy passage of wine barrels, was the best example of Swabian Allemanic architecture. The Rathaus served as a covered market where the baker, candlestick maker and other craftsmen exhibited their goods. Occasionally a death sentence would be carried out in the top window. The new Town Hall built in 1422 was an architectural marvel with nine bells that played over 200 melodies. Each day was represented by a different statue of the ruling planet, which changed daily thanks to a rotary device.

Bleubauren-Blautopf statue of Schönen Lau IMG_0599_Anurag Mallick

After an early dinner at the cosy Weinkeller Einhorn with its recurrent unicorn motif, we continued to scenic Blaubeuren, tucked amidst wooded slopes and rocky outcrops in the valley of the Danube. Being springtime, there was enough daylight to squeeze in a Segway tour to Blautopf (Blue Pool), source of the Blau, Germany’s most beautiful karst spring. Coursing through a 12km-long network of limestone caves and caverns, it emerges from the base of the Swabian Jura (Alps) ending in a 22m deep funnel-shaped pool. The spire of the Benedictine monastery and the water mill mirrored in its blue waters is heart-achingly beautiful.

Blaubeuren’s historic town centre was one of the best-preserved in Germany with lovely lanes to stroll around dotted with shops, cafés and inns. We stopped by at Urgeschichtliches or Prehistoric Museum to see its most prized object. It looked like a dressed chicken, but the 6cm sculpture was a remnant of the last Ice Age—a 40,000-year-old figurine of Venus carved from mammoth ivory. Excavated from the Hohle Fels cavern, 4km southwest, it is counted among the world’s oldest sculptures and is the oldest representation of a female figure.

Biberach-Medieval walk with wife of a master weaver IMG_0813_Anurag Mallick

At Biberach, another interesting female figure waiting for us. Dressed in a medieval style gown and her hair covered in a scarf (back then if you let your hair loose, you were a loose woman), the ‘wife of the master weaver’ welcomed us to the year 1533. “Watch out for the horseman,” she cautioned, as a motorcar passed close by. It was an entertaining city walk to Weberberg, the medieval craftsmen’s settlement.

In 16th century, around 400 looms were located along the lane and a quarter of the population lived off the weaving trade. Fustian, a cloth made of flax and cotton, was a big hit in the Middle Ages and the source of Biberach’s wealth. Since the flax had to be kept damp, weavers worked in the dank environment of the cellar, often developing chronic coughs. We continued our walk to the stunning Marktplatz (market square) dominated by the Stadtpfarrkirche or St Martin’s Church.

Biberach-Marktplatz or town square IMG_0781_Anurag Mallick

Dinner was at Weinstube Goldener Rebstock where we had been granted the community table. Usually anyone walking into the restaurant could occupy a free seat there and successive people bought the next round. For this, the table came with a bell with the word ‘stammtisch’, which we were told not to ring, unless we wanted to buy the whole restaurant a round of beer. We were happy with our steamed potatoes with cheese platter and *seele (literally, ‘soul’) German footlong with ham.

The next day we came to Pfullendorf, between the river Danube and Lake Constance, where a ‘robber from the 1820s’ took us on a tour. Starting from the northernmost and highest point, Obertor (Upper Gate), the robber decoded secret signs marked on wealthy houses and how money was hidden on wooden beams. The Altes Haus (Old House), built in 1317, was one of the oldest townhouses in Southern Germany with a museum tracing the town’s history. We ended the tour at the subterranean restaurant Felsenkeller with a meal of mashed potatoes and ham baked inside a whole loaf of bread.

Pfullendorf-Heritage walk with medieval era robber IMG_1025_Anurag Mallick

Any more food and we would have rolled down the steep vineyard slopes all the way to Meersburg. It was located on the northern shore of Bodensee or Lake Constance, the largest lake in Germany. Our guide Jutta said the lake freezes once every century (the last time was 1963), an event celebrated with a procession of St John’s statue. Literally, the Castle on the Lake, Meersburg’s baroque skyline was shaped by wealthy prince bishops who employed the famous baroque architect Balthasar Neumann. The Alte Burg (Old Castle) is said to be the oldest in Germany that’s still inhabited.

We explored the chapel in the baroque palace Neues Schloss (New Castle), the Rathaus (Town Hall) and the oldest medieval inn Zum Baren (The Bear) dating back to 1250. Staatsweingut Meersburg is the best place to learn about the region’s wine. Descending sharply to the lakeshore, the vineyards have southern exposure and limestone rich soil originating in the Ice Age, unique to German viticulture. With lovely views of boats and yachts on the lake, lined by pretty hotels and restaurants, Meersburg was the prettiest wine village in Germany. Ironically, the best view of the vineyards does not belong to Meersburg, but to Constance.

Meersburg-Vineyards by the lake IMG_1491_Anurag Mallick

Legend has it that on the manor Haltnau Wendelgard, all the vineyards belonged to a not-so-pretty lady, her face disfigured by a harelip. She longed for love and wrote a letter to the Mayor of Meersburg that if he or a member of his town council took her out for dinner every Sunday, and gave her a long kiss, all the vineyards would become part of Meersburg.

She must have been rather unsightly as the proposal was unanimously rejected. She then wrote the same letter to the Mayor of Constance. Our guide, Frau Jutta remarked, “We don’t know whether the men of Constance were blinder, greedier or less sensitive, but ever since, the vineyards have belonged to Constance and not to Meersburg.” It was time to swig one for the road.

Meersburg-Lake Constance IMG_1502_Anurag Mallick

FACT FILE

Good to Know
Deutsche Fachwerke Strasse or The German Timber Frame Road is a 3,000 km tourism trail that starts from the fishing town of Stade at the mouth of the Elbe River in north Germany and ends at Meersburg on Lake Constance in the south. Divided into six colour-coded regional lines, the route connects nearly 100 towns with half-timbered houses, historical sites and diverse geographic zones – Elbe River to Harz Mountains in Lower Saxony (Blue Route), Harz to Thuringian Forest (Orange Route), Weser Hills via North Hesse to Vogelsberg and Spessart Uplands (Brown Route), Lahn Valley and Rheingau (Yellow Route), the confluence of Rhine and Main into Odenwald (Purple Route) and Neckar Valley, Black Forest and Lake Constance region (Red Route).

Getting there
By Air: Fly to Frankfurt Airport and take a connecting flight to Stuttgart, capital of the in Baden-Württemberg region.

Getting Around
From the airport, depart by private coach on the Red Route (772 km), starting with Bietigheim-Bissingen, 25 km north of Stuttgart and Besigheim, 8km north of the twin towns. Ludwigsburg, 15 km south of Besigheim has more hotels and is a good overnight stop. Bypass Stuttgart town and drive 35 km to Schorndorf and another 35 km to Esslingen. Continue 76 km southwest to Blaubeuren for an overnight stop. Cover Biberach, 41 km south, and Pfullendorf (53 km further away) en route to Meersburg, 37 km on the northern bank of Lake Constance. Meersburg to Stuttgart is 186 km.

Pfullendorf-Distance marker IMG_1114_Anurag Mallick

Stay
Romantik Hotel Friedrich von Schiller, Bietigheim
Hotel Blauzeit, Friedrichstrasse, Ludwigsburg www.blauzeit.com
Hotel Ochsen, Marktstrasse, Blaubeuren www.ochsen-blaubeuren.de
Flair Hotel zum Schiff, Bismarckplatz, Meersburg www.hotelzumschiff.de

Eat & Drink
Try Swabian delicacies like pancake soup, spätzle (local noodles), maultaschen (stuffed pasta), seele (long baguette) and white asparagus. Wash it down with Apfelschorle (apple soda) or wine schorle (wine with soda), Kessler sparkling wine cellar at Esslingen, regional wines like Lemberger, Blaufränkisch, Dornfelder, Riesling, Kerner, Müller-Thurgau and Trollinger, besides German beer like Dinkelacker and Holgenbrau.

Pfullendorf-Felsenkeller dining in a cellar IMG_1219_Anurag Mallick

Restaurant Trollinger, Mövenpick Hotel, Stuttgart Airport www.trollingerstubn.de
Must try: German buffet spreads

Restaurant Ratsstüble, Besigheim http://www.ratsstueble-besigheim.de
Must try: Asparagus soup, maultaschen, spätzle

Felsenkeller, Heiligenberger Straße 20, Pfullendorf www.felsenkeller-pfullendorf.de
Must try: German beer, ham baked inside a whole loaf of bread, Swabian mashed potatoes

Weinkeller Einhorn, Esslingen http://www.weinkellereinhorn.de
Must try: Roast beef, German style pork chops, with cellar dating back to 729

Restaurant Golden Ente, Biberach www.zur-ente.de
Must try: Duck liver, leg and breast of duck, rump steak with roasted onions & spätzle

Restaurant Goldener Rebstock, Biberach www.goldenerrebstock.de
Must try: Seele, Potato cheese platter, German beer and excellent whiskey collection

Schwabian cuisine-Duck breast at Restaurant Ente Blaubeuren IMG_0709_Anurag Mallick

Sektkellerei Kessler, Esslingen http://www.kessler-sekt.de
Must try: Germany’s oldest sparkling wine maker of Hochgewächs, Jägergrün, Cabinet & Rosé and Kessler Creations like Riesling and Weissburgunder

Brennerei Rossle, Blaubeuren-Seissen http://www.brennereiroessle.de
Must try: Schnapps and liquors in exotic flavours like apple, peach, orange, ginger and vanilla

Staatsweingut Meersburg http://www.staatsweingut-meersburg.de
Must try: Secco white sparkling wine pairs well with cheese, the dry Meersburger Lerchenberg Muller-Thurgau is excellent with asparagus, the slightly almondy and buttery Hohentwieler Olgaberg Weissburgunder goes with everything, the Meersburger Jungfernstieg Spatburgunder Blanc de Noirs is ideal with white meat whereas those who love spicy, hot, Indian food might prefer the special Rosé Gutswein Spatburgunder Weissherbst.

Meersburg-Staatswine IMG_1441_Anurag Mallick

See
Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart documents over 125 years of auto industry history in a single continuous timeline www.mercedes-benz.com
Gottlieb Daimler Gebursthaus (Birthplace) in Schorndorf www.daimler.com

When to go
Christmas markets in winter at Stuttgart (one of the oldest and biggest in Europe, started in 1692) and Baroque style medieval Christmas market in Esslingen are held in Nov-Dec

Bietigheim-Horse sculpture IMG_9949_Anurag Mallick

Guided Tours
A 2 hr guided walking tour from the old own centre of Bietigheim-Bissingen is offered every Sunday at 10:30 am from Easter to October. www.bietigheim-bissingen.de www.3b-tourismus.de

The Tourist Information at Markplatz in Pfullendorf organizes free town tours every Friday 10 am between May to October, covering the old town, the Rathaus, Steinscheuer (a granary converted into a library) and other half-timbered houses. http://www.pfullendorf.de

Meersburg’s Tourist Information on Kirchstraße 4 offers 1½ hr guided walks at 10:30 am on Tues/Thurs of the historic Old town, past the fortress, on the terrace of the New Castle, into the Castle Chapel and the Wine Museum. It is free for Lake Constance Experience Ticket holders or € 5.00 per person. www.meersburg.de

For more info, www.germany.travel

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the August 2015 issue of Outlook Traveller. Read the story on OT at http://www.outlooktraveller.com/trips/on-a-ride-through-swabia-driving-in-germany-1007936

It’s the time to Fresco: Painted Havelis of Shekhawati

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore a region north of Jaipur often described as the ‘largest open air gallery of Rajasthan’

Mahansar Fort heritage hotel owner IMG_0328Anurag Priya

Origin of Shekhawati and its havelis
The haveli was to the baniya (merchant) what the gadh (fort) was to the Rajput. In 15th century, Rao Shekhaji (1433-88), baron of the Shekhawat sub-clan of the Kachhwaha dynasty conquered a vast region north of Amber, which was called Shekhawati. Over time, his descendants set up smaller thikanas (fiefdoms). However, the birth of the haveli (palatial home) can be traced to the rise of the Marwaris. After the decline of the Silk Route, this merchant community migrated from the desert region of Marwar around 1820 to the ports of Calcutta and Bombay, amassing huge fortunes. Though Marwaris ventured far for business, they always returned for three things – weddings, religious ceremonies and buildings. Strewn across 13,784 sq km, hundreds of painted havelis vied to outdo the other, making Shekhawati the largest open-air gallery in Rajasthan.

Bagar Piramal Haveli renovated by Neemrana into a hotel IMG_0125_Anurag Priya

The land of millionaires
As per oral folklore, Shekhawati once had 22 crorepatis. Some of India’s biggest business houses have their roots here – Oswal, Mittal, Ruia, Lohia, Birla, Dalmia, Goenka, Singhania, Agarwal, Khetan, Modi, Kothari, Jalan, Poddar, Morarka, Jhunjhunuwala, Piramal… Built in 1928, The Piramal Haveli in Bagar was the home of Seth Piramal Chaturbhuj Makhania who made a fortune in Bombay, trading in cotton, silver and opium. Renovated by Neemrana and the closest Shekhawati hotel from Delhi, the haveli has a large garden and two pillared courtyards with colourful wall tiles and kitsch frescoes of flying angels and gods in motorcars. Presence of the British in Jaipur since 1803 finds ample reflection in the murals. Ph 01592 221220-21, 9310630386 http://www.neemranahotels.com

Ramgarh frescos - even undersides of domed chhatris serve as a canvas IMG_0630_Anurag Priya

Myriad themes
Mural painting was an elaborate process that involved application of different materials and techniques in multiple layers. The laborious task of grinding sandela or kara, a smooth paste was left for women or boys. Scenes depicted cover ten broad themes – decorative designs, daily life, religion, raga mala, folk mythology, historical events or personalities, flora and fauna, erotica, maps or places and the British and their contraptions. Most chhatris or domes include a rasamandala in the ceiling – a dancing circle in which Krishna miraculously replicates himself so each Gopi finds him dancing next to her.

Mahansar IMG_0214_Anurag Priya

Tales of romance
Besides popular love stories like Laila-Majnu and Heer-Ranjha, Shekhawati’s murals have a recurrent theme of a couple astride a camel portraying Rajasthan’s most popular romantic tale – Dhola-Maru. Married off as kids, Dhola returns as an adolescent to fetch his wife. En route they encounter bandits Umra-Sumra and like a true Rajput wife, Maru repels the attackers while Dhola urges his camel onward. Paintings also represent lesser-known folk tales of Binjo-Sorath; Binjo mesmerizes his young aunt Sorath with his veena as she dances to his tunes. Sassi-Punu recounts the legend of Punu, a prince who weds Sassi, an abandoned princess raised among washermen. Tragically, Punu is kidnapped and Sassi dies in search of him in the desert…

Nawalgarh-Rajasthanis in a steamer IMG_2011_Anurag Priya

United Colours of Shekhawati
Long before 19th century natural colours like lampblack and red, green and yellow ochres were in use. Lime was a substitute for white and to lighten other hues, while indigo, ultramarine, vermilion, verdigris, gold and silver were reserved for puja rooms and bedrooms. Indian Yellow, made from gomutra or urine collected from cows fed on mango leaves, was rarely used. In 1860, German chemical pigments like artificial ultramarine, chrome red and emerald green reached India and remained popular till World War I, until supplies were hit. Inspired by ‘Made in Germany’ paint tins, many painters randomly emblazoned the word “Germany” to depict anything English! Maroon was popular between 1820-65, red and blue held sway between 1860-1910 while multi-coloured paintings using cheap European paints dominated 1900-50.

Dundlod-Fort interiors IMG_1585Anurag Priya

Dundlod: The Far Pavilions
In 1750, Thakur Kesri Singhji chose the site for Shivgarh Fort at the behest of local saint Dundlu Maharaj and named the village Dundlod. The beautiful diwankhana (assembly hall) has paintings of maharajas astride famous horses. Current owner Kanwar Raghavendra Singh (Bonnie Bana), who sourced 25 Marwari horses for the 1978 TV series The Far Pavilions, ended up buying them after the shoot! With partner Francesca Kelly, he runs Royal Equestrian & Polo Centre, organizing riding holidays across Rajasthan. The old well Sethon ka Kua and town square doubled up as a Partition era market in Pinjar. JP Dutta’s film Ghulami too was shot here and in Fatehpur, where most recently Salman Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan was filmed. Ph 9829212176, 9414208518 http://www.dundlod.com

Dundlod Seth Arjun Das Goenka Haveli Museum IMG_1457_Anurag Priya

Mansions with museums
Seth Arjundas Goenka Haveli Museum in Dundlod is a beautifully restored 1875 haveli showcasing merchant life in 19th century displaying old artefacts in 20 rooms. The richly carved fortified gate leads to the mardana (men’s quarter), an outer courtyard for visitors. Life-size clay figures depict the merchant, customers and punkha-walla, who manually swung the cloth ceiling fans. He was usually deaf and mute to ensure that business dealings remained secret. The inner courtyard or zenana recreates household scenes with large vessels, ladies at the chakki (stone wheel), cooks rolling out chapatis in the rasoi (kitchen) and earthen pitchers in a paniyada (narrow water storage room). Ph 9884053841 Mohan Goenka (Caretaker)

Nawalgarh Roop Niwas Kothi horse safaris IMG_1745_Anurag Priya

Far from the madding crowd
Founded by Thakur Nawal Singhji in 1737, Nawalgarh stands on an erstwhile grazing ground for horses, but is among the most modern towns in Shekhawati. Wrapped by a parkota (high wall), the town is marked by four pols (gates) – Bawadi, Mandi, Agoona and Nansa Darwajas. When the town outgrew these confines, Roop Niwas Kothi or ‘Rawal sab ki Kothi’ an old country house on a 100-acre patch became the family’s favoured retreat. The heritage resort has an impressive stable of Marwari horses and is owned by Bhanwar Devendra Singh who runs Royal Riding Holidays. Ph 01594-222008 http://www.roopniwaskothi.com

Nawalgarh-Dr Ramnath A Poddar Haveli Museum IMG_1977Anurag Priya

The art of haveli restoration
Nawalgarh’s Morarka Haveli was built by Jairam Dasji Morarka in the latter half of 18th century. After years of disuse, its renovation began in 2004 under conservation expert Dr Hotchand. Instead of cement, limestone, lal mitti (red mud) and river sand were used to strengthen surfaces. Marble dust and slaked lime replaced synthetic resins to reinforce plaster. Over 700 frescoes and 160 sculpted doors and windows, charred by smoke, dust and dirt were restored using traditional methods. Another renovated mansion nearby, Uttara Haveli was built in 1890 by Kesardev Morarka. Since the family did not dwell here long, it was opened for transiting relatives during functions. It was dubbed Uttaron ki Haveli (house of those who come and go), which morphed into Uttara Haveli. Ph 9649578317 http://www.morarkahavelimuseum.com

Nawalgarh-Dr Ramnath A Poddar Haveli Museum IMG_1940_Anurag Priya

Dr Ramnath A Podar Haveli Museum, a window to Rajasthan
Philanthropist Anandilal Podar built the haveli in 1902, which was converted into a museum and a centre for art, culture and heritage by his grandson Kantikumar R Podar. Restoring 750 frescoes spread over 11,200 sq m, he named the museum in memory of his father Ramnath A Podar. It has several interesting galleries on Rajasthani lifestyle, musical instruments, festivals, jewellery, miniature paintings, handicrafts, forts, palaces, bridal costumes, artworks in stone, wood and marble, besides turbans! Ph 01594-225446, 223138 http://www.podarhavelimuseum.org

Ramgarh Freco Hotel IMG_0665Anurag Priya

There are Ramgarhs, and there’s Ramgarh Sethan
Excessive taxation by Bikaner state led to the decline of Churu and the formation of Ramgarh. To protest the harsh taxes imposed by Thakur Sheo Singh of Churu, the Agrawal community of Podars left his territory in 1791 and founded a new town 16km south, with help from the Rao Raja of Sikar. In order to differentiate it from other Ramgarhs, they called it Ramgarh Sethan or Sethon ka Ramgarh (Ramgarh of wealthy merchants), vowing to outshine their former home. True to their word, Ramgarh reflects the wealth they amassed and spent to beautify their havelis. Today, Ramgarh holds the largest number of frescoes in Shekhawati. The Khandelwal family renovated the century old Khemka Haveli into the Ramgarh Fresco Hotel and organizes walking tours around the painted town. Ph 9971133230 http://www.ramgarhfresco.com

Ramgarh Shani Mandir IMG_0496Anurag Priya

Mirror mirror on the wall
Ironically, Ramgarh’s biggest mansion Sawalka Haveli was built in defiance of the Podars. Being old settlers, the Podars didn’t allow the Sawalkas into their territory, so Motilal Sawalika built a magnificent abode just outside the city gates! A short walk away is the Shani temple built by Gurudayal Khemka in 1840. The porch ceiling depicts mythological themes while mirror work on the interior walls is done using glass brought from Belgium and Persia around 1850.

Mahansar fresco-train IMG_0274_Anurag Priya

Weird contraptions of the Western world
The earliest depictions of Europeans in the frescoes are as army officers and troops. By mid 19th century their strange machines began to appear – paddle steamers and cargo boats that plied along the Ganga. While the railway was introduced in India in the 1850s, the first mural featuring a locomotive dates to 1872. Being the perfect frieze to divide a wall horizontally, the train fad caught on, sometimes even showing erotica in the carriages! By end 19th century, modern age contraptions shared wall space with camels and elephants – bicycles, cars, manned balloons and aeroplanes, locally called cheel-gadi (eagle craft). Western women were depicted listening to gramophones or playing netball.

Alsisar-Jhunjhunu wala ki Haveli  IMG_2163Anurag Priya

The Golden Room of Mahansar
The lofty Narain Niwas Castle in Mahansar was built in 1768 by Nawalgarh’s founder Thakur Nawal Singh for his second son Thakur Nahar Singh. Thakur Maheshwar Singh, the eighth generation scion, runs it as a simple heritage hotel with great sunset views from the terrace. Nearby, is one of the best painted havelis in Shekhawati – Sone Chandi ki Dukan or Golden Room built in 1846 inside a Podar haveli. Named after the gold and silver leaf used to decorate its walls, the vibrant frescoes show intricately rendered scenes from the Ramayana, the life of Krishna and incarnations of Vishnu. Ph 01595-264761, 99282 76998 http://www.mahansarfort.com

Castle Mandawa hall IMG_7193_Anurag Priya

Mandawa, the heart of trade
Being an old trading outpost on the Delhi-Bikaner route, Mandawa prospered greatly; its 175 havelis are ample proof. Perhaps the best specimens are Gulab Rai Ladia Haveli and Murmuria Haveli with its bizarre East-meets-West theme. Thakur Nawal Singh built Castle Mandawa in 1755 and rooms in its zenana display antique murals to objects in marble with antique armour and family portraits showcased in the diwankhana (drawing room). Ph 0141-2374112 http://www.mandawahotels.com

Fatehpur-Haveli Nadine le Prince IMG_0798Anurag Priya

Fatehpur’s French connection
Originally built in 1802 by the Devras, the richest family of silk traders at the court of the local ruler, the Nandlal Devra Haveli was purchased in 1998 by artist Nadine le Prince, a descendant of French painter Jean-Baptiste le Prince. Nadine restored its frescoes using local artists and opened a cultural center that exhibits her artwork alongside French and Indian modern artists covering contemporary to tribal art. Next door the 200-year old Saraf Haveli has original paintings with Belgian glass inlay but marred by a provision store run by the caretaker inside! Jwala Prasad Bhartia Haveli built in 1925 displays stunning wall murals and exquisite teak doorways chiseled by jangids or traditional wood carvers. Ph 01571-233024 http://www.cultural-centre.com

Alsisar Mahal IMG_2114Anurag Priya

Alsisar: Thirst for honour
Alsisar recounts the legend of two sisters Alsi and Malsi. Unable to bear a taunt faced by his sisters who went to draw water from the village well at lunch, Nawal Singh abandoned his field and vowed to consume water and food only after digging his own well. The Bhan siblings dug through the night until they struck water. Alsi settled down at this sar (water source) which was called Alsisar, while Malsi moved to a nearby place, thus named Malsisar. Besides Alsisar Mahal, site of the Magnetic Fields festival, the town has numerous temples, wells, cenotaphs, dharamsalas and mansions like Indra Vilas, a 100-room haveli set in a ten-acre compound built by Indrachand Kejriwal in 1595. Jhunjhunuwala ki haveli, built by Seth Kasturimal 170 years ago has two rooms with inimitable mural paintings. Ph 0141-2364652 http://www.alsisarmahal.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 19 May 2015 in Conde Nast Traveller online. Read the story on CNT at www.cntraveller.in/story/inside-painted-havelis-shekhawati