Thursday, July 28, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XVI (Spain and Portugal-I)

On my first visit to Gibraltar in 1993, I had the opportunity of visiting parts of Spain. After completing sight seeing of Gibraltar, my sister suggested that I should visit the historic mosque of Cordoba. She called Angel Carreras, the driver who had picked me up from the Malaga airport and asked him to take me on a day's trip to see the mosque of Cordoba. We started early in the morning and crossed into Spain at the check point.
Usually there are long queues of cars crossing from Spain into Gibraltar and vice versa. There are a large number of workers going either way. We were lucky to get a quick crossing. The road goes along the Spanish coast till Marbella. There are many villas on the Spanish coast owned by people from all over the world. My sister too has a villa on the coast. Marbella is a big beach resort and apart from sunny beaches it has many golf courses. We had a round of Marbella and stopped for some tea in a restaurant. I was surprised to know that Marbella alone has over 80,000 tourist beds! Entire Kashmir valley has less than one fourth of this number! For Spain tourism is really a big industry and the number of tourists is more than 50 million! From Marbella, the road turns north towards the city of Cordoba.
Sometimes the road passes through some mountains and the scenery is excellent. The Great Mosque of Cordoba has interesting history. Initially, it was a Christian Visigoth Church of Saint Vincent part of which was converted into a mosque by the Muslim conquerors of Spain. Thus the Church was divided between Christians and Muslims. After the reconquest of Spain it was again converted into a church in 1236 by King Ferdinand III of Castille. Dr.Muhammad Iqbal, who is considered as one of the founding fathers of Pakistan and its national poet, visited Cordoba and saw the Mosque during his European trip of 1931-32. He requested the authorities to offer Azan at the mosque. Iqbal was greatly moved by the magnificence and solemnity of the Mosque and the deep emotional responses its awe-inspiring sight evoked in him found expression in the immortal poem called "The Mosque of Cordoba". Muslims all over Spain have been campaigning since 2000 for permission to pray but the Vatican has not acceded to their request. However, in spite of the Christian refusal to Muslims to allow prayers in the mosque, to local inhabitants it is still known as Mosque-Cathedral! In April 2010, there was some violence by visiting Muslims who were prevented by guards from offering prayers.
On our return journey we stopped at Angel Carreras house near Marbella. He offered me some Spanish food. It was quite enjoyable. During our travel, I noticed that every time we stopped for some tea etc. Angel would take out his stereo from the car. On my asking him the reason, he said it would be stolen. Such thefts were common in Spain especially in all tourist areas. Mass Tourism apart from giving an economic boost also creates many problems such as commercialisation and criminalisation. Compared to this the problems faced by tourists in Kashmir appear too minor! This was revealed to me during my next trip into Spain. I was advised by my sister to take a trip to Seville which is a very historic and heritage city of Spain. There is a regular daylong coach tour from Gibraltar to Seville. I booked my seat and next morning we started around 7. We took almost half an hour to clear the check point at the Gibraltar-Spanish border. It was a 15-seater coach and we had an English speaking guide. Just after entering Spain we passed through endless vineyards.
There are massive vineyards on both sides of the road. Spain produces lot of wine for export all over the world. Spain has two kinds of roads. First there are normal roads moving through various townships and villages and then there are expressways taking one directly from one important city to the other. Travelling on expressways costs money which has to be paid as road toll. Travelling on normal roads is free! Most of the people prefer to travel on normal roads. There is very less traffic on the expressways. Our coach travelled on normal roads to afford us a means to see the rural life. The guide was giving us description of places on the way. Apart from vineyards, the other most frequent visuals were the huge sign boards announcing bull fights. Bull fight is a national pastime. These reminded me about Ernest Hemingway's novels about Spain. We were passing through the country so aptly and minutely described by him in his books. Just before reaching Seville, our guide made a special announcement. He said that we would be soon reaching Seville and the coach would drop us at the Plaza Espana. We would be free to move round for sight seeing and the coach would pick us up again at the same spot in the afternoon. After this he warned us to be careful while moving in Seville. He told us not to walk on the edge of the foot path as motor cycle borne thieves could snatch the purses. He asked us not to open our purses and take out money in a shop or in public. For this he advised us to visit a public convenience and take out money from the purse inside. There were many other warnings. After listening to him, I felt too scared to move around in Seville. Well, we do not have such a scary situation here in spite of the last two decades of turmoil!
Seville has many places of tourist interest. The Cathedral, one of the biggest in the world, was built on the site of Muslim Seville's main mosque between 1401 and 1507. One highlight of the cathedral's lavish interior is Christopher Columbus' supposed tomb inside the south door. The tower which adjoins the Cathedral is La Giralda. It was the mosque's minaret and dates from the 12th century. One can have panoramic views from it. Alcazar is a fortress from the Muslim-era (dates from AD 913) which served as a hideout of Muslim and Christian royalty for many centuries. Plaza de Espana is one of the country's most spectacular plazas with fountains and mini-canals. Parque de María Luisa which is only a 10 minute walk east of the Cathedral is a nice break from the rush of the town. After finishing our sight seeing we again assembled in the Plaza de Espana and waited for the coach. The return journey was uneventful. In fact, due to heat we started dozing. The south of Spain is quite hot during the day. We reached Gibraltar in the evening around 8 and thus ended my short trip to south of Spain. During my visit to Gibraltar in 1998, I took a trip to Portugal which I will describe in the next episode.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XV (Gibraltar)

After my initial exploratory trip to Europe in 1975, I got a number of opportunities to re-visit some countries and also discover new ones both on official and private visits. One of the most interesting trips had been to Gibraltar, a small country situated around the famous Rock of Gibraltar. The visits to this place which also enabled me to see parts of Spain and Portugal were purely private. According to Wikipedia, "Gibraltar is a British overseas territory located on the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula at the entrance of the Mediterranean. A peninsula with an area of 6.843 square kilometres, it has a northern border with Andalusia, Spain. The Rock of Gibraltar is the major landmark of the region.
At its foot is the densely populated city area, home to almost 30,000 Gibraltarians and other nationalities. The sovereignty of Gibraltar is a major point of contention in Anglo-Spanish relations as Spain asserts a claim to the territory. Gibraltarians resoundingly rejected proposals for Spanish sovereignty in referenda held in 1967 and 2002. Under its 2006 constitution Gibraltar governs its own affairs, though some powers, such as defence and foreign relations, remain the responsibility of the UK Government". The 426 meter high Rock of Gibraltar, which is supposed to be one of the Pillars of Hercules is the most famous landmark. The Rock is also known as Jebel Tariq in Arabic. The Rock is home to 250 Barbary Macaques and a number of caves which are a big tourist attraction. In Islamic history, Gibraltar is very significant. It was the point through which General Tariq launched the campaign to conquer Spain. It is said that after General Tariq landed on the coast of Spain at Gibraltar, he ordered burning of his ships. After this he addressed his troops saying that there was no retreat for them. They had no means of return and had to move ahead and live there! Saudis have now built a beautiful mosque near the spot where General Tariq had landed. On the actual spot there used to be a mosque which has been converted into a shrine of the Lady of Europe by Christians. Incidentally, the Pakistani operation of infiltration of 16 AK Force personnel as "freedom fighters" in 1965 under the overall command of Major General Akhtar Hussain Malik into Kashmir was also named "Operation Gibraltar!"
My connection to Gibraltar has been my sister's family. She and her husband are both doctors working in Gibraltar. My first trip to the place was through Spain. I had been invited in 1993 to Les Diablerets in Switzerland to accept the Merite Alpin award for my role in Himalayan Mountain Rescue. After the function was over, I decided to visit my sister in Gibraltar. There was a direct flight from Geneva to Malaga in Spain which was about two to three hours drive from Gibraltar. My take off from Geneva was not very comfortable. Sylvain Saudan drove me from Chamonix to Geneva Airport. It was heavily raining. At the Airport having knowledge of flight problems in Kashmir, I asked Sylvain if the flight will take off. He smiled and said it was not Srinagar.
Flights in Europe hardly ever get cancelled due to bad weather unless there is a blizzard or something! My Swiss Air plane took off in time and I could see the snowflakes through the plane window. I had never seen a plane take off in falling snow! Just after ten minutes we were above clouds and it was bright and sunny. We were served an excellent lunch during the flight. The plane landed at Malaga Airport around 3 in the afternoon.
My sister had phoned me and informed that they would be sending a car to pick me up from the Airport. The exit from immigration and customs was smooth and quick. As soon as I stepped out, an elder looking Spanish approached me and asked if I was Ashraf. On my confirming, he told me that his name was Angel Carreras and was a taxi owner who had been sent by my sister to pick me up and take me to Gibraltar. Malaga is a very touristy town. This is the entry to the famous beaches of Spain. Most of the time the drive was along the Mediterranean coast. There were very beautiful houses along the road right up to Gibraltar. The Spanish countryside is quite green dotted with small villages. Almost all the houses are white! On the way, Angel showed me the palatial house with a mosque built by the Saudi King for his personal use!
We reached Gibraltar in the evening around six or so. The entry at the border was also very quick and smooth. I wish we too had similar quick entries on Indo-Pak border! My sister and her husband were eagerly waiting for me and were very happy to see me in Gibraltar. Next day I was taken on a sight seeing trip. The first thing is to drive up the rock. It is a winding drive. In some places it is steep. Rock has caves and plenty of monkeys.
The Rock had been a fortification of the British against Spanish incursions. There are miles of tunnels called siege tunnels going all round inside the rock. There are observation posts and also openings for firing canons. The Saint Michael caves are very interesting natural formation.
Many attempt to scale the caves. There is also a Moorish Castle which is a big attraction. One very rewarding experience is to visit Alameda Botanical Garden. I was also taken to a crystal glass factory which is making crystal glass in various shapes. There is an interesting story about the 250 monkeys on the Rock. It is said that they saved the British from a night incursion by the Spanish. When the Spanish invasion took place during night, the monkeys made a lot of noise and alerted the British troops! There is a local saying that when the monkeys leave, the British will also leave. There are about 3,000 Moroccans working in Gibraltar. Morocco is just across and the nearest point is Tangier which reached by ferries. A very popular trip is to visit Casablanca.
Another experience which most of the tourists undertake is a Dolphin Safari. There is a boat tour which takes one into the sea to watch flying Dolphins! Apart from Moroccans, there are many Jews. There are also about 2,000 Indians in Gibraltar. They are mostly involved in business. They own most of the provision and cloth shops. A unique feature of Gibraltar is its Airport. The runway extends into sea and the main road crosses the runway. It is interesting to watch the vehicular traffic being stopped to allow a plan to land! This was my first contact with Gibraltar. I visited the place again in 1996 and 1998 and got an opportunity to visit parts of Spain and Portugal which I will describe in next episodes.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XIV (Turin and Rome-II)

On my way back to Rome, I decided to spend three nights there before flying home. This would be a compensation for missing the Tourism Course. I straightaway checked in the YMCA Hostel in Rome. It was quite cheap and rooms were neat and tidy. Food was also good. At the end of every meal I would take a peach as dessert. The peaches were huge but very tasty and would cost almost a pound each! After having settled myself, I started exploring the possible sight seeing places. The best mode was through buses which were quite cheap and easily available.
First of all, I took a walk through the back streets of Rome. The stone paved streets and the heritage houses virtually transport one into the days of ancient Rome. One feels as if one is walking through the most famous ancient city sometime in the past! The people have kept the exterior of their houses in the traditional style with stone walls. Inside they have all the modern luxuries. It shows how much the Romans of the present day adore their history and tradition. I wish, we too were so much conscious of our tradition and history! On the contrary we are experts at destroying everything of historical significance, be it a bridge, a building or any other monument. We are experts in dismantling and rebuilding our monuments! Next item on my agenda was to locate a friend Colonel Durante whom I had met in Kashmir in mid sixties. He used to fly the UN aircraft attached with the UN Observer group in Kashmir. I had his home address and took a bus to the particular street. After some effort I located the place but did not find him there. It was almost after ten years I was looking for him. It was a shock to know from one of his neighbours that he had passed away a year back. He was killed in an air crash. He had become a Major General in the Italian Air Force prior to his death. It was sad that after having come to Italy, I could not meet my friend!
The most important site in Rome is the Vatican City or Vatican City State, which is a landlocked sovereign city-state whose territory consists of a walled enclave within the city of Rome. It has an area of approximately 44 hectares (110 acres), and a population of just over 800. Vatican City was established in 1929. Vatican City is ruled by the Bishop of Rome—the Pope. The highest state functionaries are all Catholic clergymen of various national origins. It is the location of the Pope's residence. Vatican City is home to some of the most famous art in the world. St. Peter's Basilica, whose successive architects include Bramante, Michelangelo, Giacomo Della Porta, Maderno and Bernini is a renowned work of Renaissance architecture. The Papal Basilica of Saint Peter, commonly known as St. Peter's Basilica, is a Late Renaissance church located within the Vatican City. St. Peter's Basilica has the largest interior of any Christian church in the world. It is regarded as one of the holiest Catholic sites. St. Peter's is famous as a place of pilgrimage, for its liturgical functions and for its historical associations. I spent almost a day at the Vatican City and still I was not able to see all. I took a bus which dropped me just before the Vatican City.
First I took a round of the whole area and then entered the Basilica. The artwork inside especially on the main dome is awe inspiring. It must be the best artwork in the world! The inside of the church is very impressive and there is a sombre and serene atmosphere everywhere. There is a lift to the top of the dome. It goes in two stages. I took both the stages. On top there is an opening to go out and move around a gallery from where one can have a panoramic view of Rome. What was most surprising for me was to see some Italians smoking cigarettes on top of the holiest church!
There are many other historical sites in Rome. However, the one which many friends recommended to me and which I had seen in a movie is the Fontana de Trevi. There is a famous song, “Three coins in the fountain”. I went to see the place late in the evening with a local whom I met in Vatican City. It is a very charming place, full of tourists. There are many eating places around. Almost all tourists come here to throw coins in the fountain to make one’s wishes come true! The whole area is well lit and the fountain seems to be virtually in daylight. It was very cool here in spite of it being the hottest month of August. The other famous sights in Rome are the Coliseum, the Spanish Steps, the Mouth of Truth, the Pantheon, the Roman Forum, and the Parliament Building. The Mouth of Truth or the Bocca della Verita has a legend that the hands of a liar would be bitten off if placed inside the mouth of the statue! One can go on visiting the ancient landmarks and other historical places. However, as I had limited time and money, so I had to contend with few sites only. In any case, visiting Rome in spite of my failure to enrol in the tourism course in Turin was a great trip. After three days of sight seeing I flew back to India. Thus ended my first trip to Europe which was the longest I have ever had. Subsequently I did visit a number of European countries but the trips did not last more than a month or so. In the first trip I had spent almost five months in Europe and visited over a dozen ski resorts in France and Austria. Among all the places, the Tyrolean landscape in Austria had impressed me the most as I found it closest to Kashmir landscape!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XIII (Turin and Rome-I)

Before leaving for Europe, I had received intimation from the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India that I had been nominated for an advance course in Tourism at the Institute run by the International Union of Official Tourism Organisations (IUOTO), the precursor of the present World Tourism Organisation, in Turin. The training was to start from August 1, 1975. The duration of the course was about two months. Earlier I had completed an Advance Course of nine months in Tourism Studies through the same organisation by correspondence for which I had obtained excellent proficiency. During my rather longish visit to Europe, I had been mentally prepared to conclude the same by attending the course in Turin. It would have given me practical insight into the working of Tourism Organisations. Accordingly, after returning to London from my second visit to France and other countries, I made preparations for my departure via Rome.
My flight was from Paris to Rome and as such I first took a flight to Paris from London. I spent couple of days there saying good bye to my French friends. The flight to Rome was uneventful and I landed there around noon. July and August are very hot in Rome! I took transport from the airport direct to the main Railway Station in Rome. There was an evening train to Turin which would reach early in the morning. I went to the ticket counter and asked for a reservation on the train. The man sitting there gave me a window seat and charged about 150 lira, the Italian currency which was about ten rupees or so.
I thought the fare was somewhat cheap. I could not make out the details as no body spoke English there! After leaving my suit case in the railway cloak-room, I went out to have a stroll and take a meal. It was very hot and humid in the streets. I saw something similar to Srinagar on the roads. There were carts selling slices of water melon as is usual in Kashmir on hot days! There were also some people selling pieces of fresh coconut soaked in water. There were many shops selling cold drinks. I sat in a roadside café and had some snacks and then a couple of slices of water melon. Most of the people especially the young men were roaming with upper shirt buttons open. Many people took me to be an Italian and were speaking to me in Italian. I too unbuttoned my shirt and took a long walk in the market and the side lanes. Rome is an ancient city and the Romans have tried to maintain its heritage character in many places. I decided to spend a couple of days in Rome after returning from Turin.
The train journey was in a typical Indian style. The train was quite slow and overcrowded. I was lucky to have reserved a seat! Around mid-night the ticket checker came. He examined my reservation and then asked to pay about 1400 lira. That was the actual ticket. I had only reserved my seat and not bought the ticket. Fortunately, I had enough Italian money with me. We reached Turin in the morning and I took a taxi straight to the IUOTO office. Most of the people had already arrived and the course was set to start from the next day. However, it was a great shock and surprise to me when the Secretary General informed me that my nomination had been withdrawn by Government of India and a colleague of mine had been nominated instead. However, even he had not turned up! The Secretary General was quite sympathetic and he asked me to wait for few days and he would inform Delhi that I was already there and my substitute had not turned up and as such I should be allowed to attend the course. He very kindly allowed me to stay in their hostel. I waited almost for a week but there was no answer from Delhi.
The course had already gone ahead and I was unnecessarily spending my own money. Thus, after a week I thanked the Secretary General and decided to return home via Rome. Incidentally, the IUOTO has now become UNWTO, United Nations World Tourism Organisation with headquarters in Madrid, Spain. I had another brush with the organisation during my tenure in the Tourism Department. The Union Ministry of Tourism nominated me for an important position of Tourism Advisor on Planning in UNWTO. I was fulfilling the qualifications prescribed by the organisation and with the backing of the Ministry of Tourism; I could have easily got the position. However, another colleague, this time from Delhi who was already in the Organisation, scuttled the move in spite of the fact that the then Secretary General of the Organisation was keen to have me. Well, that is how things happen in our part of the world!
In Turin, I had the opportunity of meeting the members of the Italian Alpine Club. I was also invited by some members of Irish Tourist Board who were attending the course to a dinner on a hill top restaurant. One can have panoramic views of Turin from this place which is a popular retreat. Turin is most famous throughout the world for the “Shroud of Jesus Christ”. According to Wikipedia, “The Shroud of Turin or Turin Shroud is a linen cloth bearing the image of a man who appears to have suffered physical trauma in a manner consistent with crucifixion. It is kept in the royal chapel of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin. The image on the shroud is commonly associated with Jesus Christ, his crucifixion and burial. The shroud is rectangular, measuring approximately 4.4 × 1.1 m (14.3 × 3.7 ft). The cloth is woven in three-to-one herringbone twill composed of flax fibrils. Its most distinctive characteristic is the faint, yellowish image of a front and back view of a naked man with his hands folded across his groin. The two views are aligned along the mid-plane of the body and point in opposite directions. The front and back views of the head nearly meet at the middle of the cloth.
Reddish brown stains that have been said to include whole blood are found on the cloth, showing various wounds that, according to proponents, correlate with the yellowish image, the patho-physiology of crucifixion, and the Biblical description of the death of Jesus. The Shroud has been subjected to many tests and lot of research has been conducted on its origin. In 1958 Pope Pius XII approved of the image in association with the devotion to the Holy Face of Jesus, and declared its feast to be celebrated every year the day before Ash Wednesday. Following the approval by Pope Pius XII, Catholic devotions to the Holy Face of Jesus have been almost exclusively associated with the image on the shroud”.