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Viva Cuenca!

Ecuador day eight


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Cuenca

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The "new" cathedral

When we first decided to visit Ecuador, Cuenca was high on my list of must-sees. This beautiful colonial city in the south of the country has it all – lovely architecture, a temperate climate, friendly atmosphere, and some of the best restaurants in the country. The old colonial centre, where we stayed and where we spent most of our time, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for good reason. At its heart is the main square, the Parque Calderón, with two cathedrals (old and new), and in the surrounding streets are more churches, attractive old houses, interesting museums and some great bars and cafés for the essential activity of people-watching.

We were fortunate enough to be here at a weekend when two festivals were taking place – the nationally-celebrated Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) and the local celebrations that mark the anniversary of the city’s independence from Spain on 3rd November 1820. The city was in party mood and the various celebrations added to our enjoyment of it.

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Taking off from Quito

We came to Cuenca by air (with Ecuadorean airline TAME) from Quito where we had been spending the first part of our Ecuador trip. The flight left pretty early in the morning so we had to be at the airport by around 6.15 but already it was really busy, with a long queue at the TAME desk for the several flights leaving that morning. I was even a bit concerned that we could miss ours, as they were not prioritising those with the earliest flights, but I soon saw that the staff were really efficient and the queue moving quickly.

The flight was also quick at just forty minutes, and was mainly full of local businessmen, who must commute regularly between the two cities and many of whom seemed to know each other as lots of friendly greetings were thrown around on boarding. Flying south from Quito the route at first follows the line of the Avenue of the Volcanoes, and great views are to be had on either side. I was lucky enough to be on the left-hand side from where Cotopaxi could be seen, although unfortunately didn’t have a window seat. The man next to me however kindly let me lean over to take some photos of the majestic volcano poking up through the clouds. He even offered to swap seats (presumably he makes the journey very regularly) but I declined the offer as it was such a short flight and I didn’t like to put him to the bother. Besides, I had already seen the views and taken my photos, thanks to his obliging nature.

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Cotopaxi from the air

We were soon landing in Cuenca, where the weather was bright and warmer than Quito, being a little lower at 2,500 metres above sea level. Our pre-booked transfer meant that we were soon being driven through the city to our hotel on the edge of the colonial area. Our eagerly anticipated visit to Cuenca could begin!

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Hotel Victoria

When we arrived at the Hotel Victoria it was only 9.00 am, so we weren’t able to check in but could only register and leave our bags. Our first impressions were favourable – the lobby was attractive and the hotel well located on the southern edge of the colonial part of the city. We went off to explore confident that we had made a good choice.

The Coffee Tree

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Our first priority though was breakfast, and in particular, coffee. The first likely place we saw was this European-style café on a street corner just a few metres from our hotel. It was a bright sunny morning, warmer than we had been having in Quito, and the pavement tables and chairs looked very inviting. We managed to secure one of these spots and were soon checking the menu for breakfast options.

Chris decided to try a local dish that our transfer driver, Claudia, had mentioned – bolon. This is a ball of mashed plantain shaped around a cheesy filling and fried, here served with a cappuccino as a breakfast. I stuck to the more conventional muesli, which in fact was granola served with fresh fruit (pineapple, strawberry, kiwi and melon), yoghurt and honey (a very large portion and delicious) and also had a much-needed double espresso.

La Merced

Once we had enjoyed a good breakfast we were ready to start our sightseeing in Cuenca. Right next door to the café was the church of La Merced, so this was as good a place to start as any!

The church is an attractive one, set back a little from the road on a small semi-circular plaza. An inscription above the door reads “Ave Maria, Redemptrix Captivorum” – Hail Mary, saviour of captives. The door itself is beautifully carved – I loved the slightly grumpy lion on one panel in particular.

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La Merced

This church was built here in response to a request by the people of Cuenca, following the construction of the church of the same name in Quito. I was surprised when we entered to find that photography was allowed as in Quito the first sight that greeted us on entering many of the churches was one forbidding the use of any camera. So I was happy to be able to take some photos (without flash, naturally) as we looked around. I was especially taken by some excellent examples of the local tendency towards the gory in any representations of biblical events, which is often attributed to indigenous artists finding in their art an opportunity to draw attention to the blood spilt in the Spanish conquest of their lands.

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In La Merced

I read only after our visit of the painting here of the Sleeping Virgin, a representation of a miracle said to have occurred near Baños where it is believed her image appeared carved in a rock, so we didn’t seek that out. I also read too late that it holds the tomb of Julio Matovelle, local poet and priest, who founded the Congregación de Padres Oblatos and is best known for promoting the construction of the Basilica del Voto Nacional in Quito, which we had visited a few days before with friends Betty and Marcello.

After our visit to the church we made our way through some of the streets of the old colonial town towards the plaza that lies at its heart, the Parque Calderón. The colonial heart of the city is of course only a small part of the whole, but it is where we, like most tourists, spent the majority of our time. It has retained much of its character and sense of history, arguably more so even than Quito, although like the country’s capital it is very much a working city rather than museum piece. Many streets are cobbled, adding to the sense of the past as you explore. A few ugly 20th century buildings mar the whole, but for the most part you both sense and see the history around you.

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Colourful doors, a Cuenca trademark

The Cuenca that exists today was founded by the Spanish in 1557, and its population and importance grew steadily during the colonial era, reaching the peak of its importance in the first years of Ecuador’s independence when it became the capital of one of the three provinces that made up the emerging republic, alongside Guayaquil and Quito. But its history goes back much further. It was originally settled by the indigenous Cañari around 500 AD and was called by them Guapondeleg – the “land as big as heaven.” It had been conquered by the Incas less than half a century before the Spanish conquistadors landed, and renamed Tomebamba (the name still held by its river). Soon after the defeat of the Cañari, the Inca commander, Tupac Yupanqui, ordered the construction of a new grand city to be known as Pumapungo, “the door of the Puma”. The magnificence of this new city was to challenge that of the Inca capital of Cuzco. When the Spanish arrived however, there remained only ruins, although the indigenous people told stories of golden temples and other such wonders. To this day, it is unclear what happened to the fabled splendour and riches of the second Inca capital.

Parque Calderón

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Parque Calderón

At the heart of Cuenca, as with all Spanish colonial towns and cities, is its grand plaza, here called Parque Calderón after Abdón Calderón whose statue stands in the centre. Calderón was born in Cuenca in 1804 and became a hero of Ecuador’s fight for independence when only young. His death in the Battle of Pichincha at age just 18 ensured his conversion from hero to legend. According to accounts of the battle he stood immovable in the line of fire even after receiving 14 bullet wounds, and ensured that his battalion held firm. He died of his wounds and of dysentery five days later in Quito. His story is still told to young children in Ecuador and his statue here, which depicts the wounded hero holding firm to the flag of independence, was a focus for the city’s celebrations of its own independence day on the weekend of our visit.

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Monument to Abdón Calderón

Around the square are several of Cuenca’s most notable buildings including the cathedral, and the old cathedral which stand respectively in its south west and south east corners. Other less eminent but equally historic buildings add to the overall impression. The square is a focus for both tourists and locals and has plenty of benches and shady corners where you can relax and take a break from sightseeing which indulging in some quality people-watching.

Viva Cuenca!

As we were here on a holiday weekend the Parque Calderón was especially lively, with a variety of entertainments laid on for the local families who had flocked here to join the celebrations – stilt walkers, musicians, photographers with props (you could have your photo taken as a cowboy sitting on a model pony, for instance) and people selling all sorts of food and drink as well as cheap toys.

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Stilt walker and musician

But why the celebrations? On 2nd November each year Cuenca, like the rest of Ecuador, celebrates the Feast of All Souls or Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), and a day later on the 3rd it marks the anniversary of its independence from Spain. The two events form one merged celebration, Viva Cuenca!, and when, as in 2012, they fall at a weekend, the city really takes on party mood. We arrived here on Thursday 1st to find the Parque Calderón full of locals watching the All Saints Day procession which wound slowly round two sides of the square. We hadn’t at that point learned of the independence festivities so were a little puzzled by the floats that seemed to depict periods in the city’s history, but when we picked up a leaflet called “Viva Cuenca!” later in the day, all became clear.

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Floats in the parade

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Locals watching the parade

We hadn’t planned it, but we were lucky to be in the city at this special time and to be able to join in some of the fun. Later in the weekend we were to come across other elements of the celebrations – traditional dancing, live music – all adding to our impressions of a colourful and welcoming city.

Raymipampa

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Light fitting

By now we were in need of more refreshment and luckily help was close at hand! We were slightly wary that a restaurant situated in this prime location on the west side of Parque Calderón, right next to the cathedral, might be a tourist rip-off, but Raymipampa was anything but! We found it busy and bustling with a really mixed clientele – local families enjoying a meal together while attending the holiday weekend festivities, young women in town on a shopping spree, tourists of all ages, and even a group of young men and women in army uniform who had I think been taking part in the parade.

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In Raymipampa

The décor here is eclectic and in places eye-catching – in how many restaurants are pieces of old cutlery and broken crockery used to make light-fittings?! More conventionally, there are some interesting historic photos of Cuenca on the walls, and the building itself is old and full of character.

On this occasion (we were to visit again later in the weekend) we were just looking for a cold drink, having been standing in the sun watching a procession wind its way round the Parque Calderón. There were lots of fruit juices to choose from, and I opted for pineapple while Chris had passionfruit – both really refreshing. We had been given a table by the window so could watch the holiday crowds outside as we drank, and despite the fact that it was very busy and we weren’t eating a meal, we didn’t feel hurried but could relax and enjoy our drinks.

Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción

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Refreshed, we continued our sightseeing. The west side of the Parque Calderón is dominated by the city’s “new” cathedral. This was built when the older cathedral (which still stands opposite but is no longer consecrated) became too small to hold the city’s entire population. Its distinctive blue domes have become a symbol of the city. You see them everywhere – on tourist publicity leaflets, on restaurant menus, on hotel websites and more. Ironically, you don’t see them very well when in front of the cathedral itself, as they are set back a little – the best views are from nearby Plaza San Francisco from where my photo on the right was taken.

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Main facade facing the Parque Calderón

This is the largest structure in the colonial part of Cuenca. The domes are almost 50 metres high and its towers should have been even taller than they are had the architect not made an error in his calculations and failed to dig foundations strong and deep enough to support the planned weight. But even with its truncated towers it is still an impressive sight. Started in 1885, its construction continued over the next century, and the result is a blend of neo-gothic and Romanesque. The imposing west front that faces the Parque Calderón is alabaster and local red marble, while pink marble imported from Carrara in Italy covers the floor. The domes owe their sky-blue hue to tiles from Czechoslovakia.

The inside is equally imposing in size, having been designed to hold the city’s then population of 10,000. It is somewhat austere but has some striking stained glass windows and an imposing marble altar decorated with gold leaf, a copy of one in St Peter’s in Rome. This interior was only completed in 1967, more than 80 years after the first foundations were laid.

I wasn’t sure whether photos were allowed inside so I only took one quick one of one of the windows that I especially liked. It is a great example of how local artists blended traditional biblical imagery with motifs from their own surroundings. See how the people who kneel at the feet of Jesus are dressed, not in the costume of first century Palestine, but in that of the Andes region.

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Stained glass in the cathedral

Plazoleta del Carmen

From here we started to turn our steps back towards the hotel, but there was a lot to see on the way. Although actually, we didn’t see a lot of the diminutive Plazoleta del Carmen, or Plaza des Flores as it is often called, as it was packed with the stalls of the daily flower market. As well as being a pretty and interesting sight in its own right, the market forms a colourful foreground for photos of the new cathedral on its north side and of the church right here on the plaza, the Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion. It’s also a good spot for people watching as there’s lots of activity among not only the flower shoppers but also those coming to pray at the church. Be respectful, naturally, and keep a low profile if you want to take people shots.

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Flower market

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Cathedral from the flower market

Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion

Finding the church open we popped inside for a look. The monastery here dates back to 1682 but the church that stands next to it is more recent, having been built in the 18th century, around 1730. The white marble facade features a carved image of the Virgin and the shield of the order of the Assumption. Inside, the Baroque interior has a stunning altar piece, again with an image of the Virgin of the Assumption, surrounded by angels, a very ornate pulpit, several other ornate altars and a ceiling beautifully painted in rather surprisingly delicate colours. Photography is allowed (without flash) and admission is free, but I have read that it is rarely open to the public so we must have struck lucky – maybe it was open for the holiday weekend?

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Main altar, pulpit and side altar

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We walked back in the direction of the hotel, along Padre Aguirre, which runs down the west side of the Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion past the Plaza San Francisco and the church of the same name. Here there were a number of stalls set out, all selling more or less the same things. The following day was, as I mentioned earlier, the Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, which is commemorated in Ecuador as in many South and Central American countries, although not to the same extent as in Mexico perhaps.

Its observance is strongest among the native people, the Kichwa, and especially so here in Cuenca. The stalls here were selling the typical decorations in white and purple which people were buying to decorate the graves of their relatives when they visited them for the celebrations. It is the custom to pay these relatives a visit on this day, much as you would if they were still alive – take them a gift, enjoy a meal (usually a family picnic on or next to the grave) and maybe play some favourite music while reminiscing about days gone by.

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Día de los Muertos decorations

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As with all my street / people photos, these were taken with a long zoom and I hope respectfully, but certainly anyone who saw my camera made no objections to my photography, for which I was grateful.

As in other parts of the country, many of the women were wearing traditional dress and again, as at Otavalo, we could see how this varies from place to place. One of these differences is in how the women here wear their hair – in two plaits instead of the single thick one of Quito or the unplaited pony tail of Otavalo. Hats here are made of straw, rather than felt, and skirts are not the sombre black of Otavalo but brightly coloured, often in velvet, and edged with colourful, even sparkling embroidery using sequins and metallic threads. We saw some of these skirts for sale in the shops – their shape is simple, just a tube of fabric, with several rows of gathers at the top and a ribbon to tie them on. They are also shorter than we saw elsewhere, being mostly worn knee length.

Many were in the traditional straw hat and double plait, but otherwise in quite modern clothing, but (perhaps because of the festivities) others were in the full traditional dress, as were the little girls we had seen at the parade in the Parque Calderón (above).

By now it was well past midday and we could go back to the hotel to check in. But I’m conscious that this entry is getting rather long, so let’s save that and our afternoon explorations for the next …

Posted by ToonSarah 19:23 Archived in Ecuador Tagged churches people market cathedral cotopaxi customs cuenca street_photography Comments (6)

City shopping and dining

Ecuador day eighteen


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Quito

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In Tianguez

On our last full day in Ecuador we had made plans to meet up again with Betty and Marcello, the parents of a London friend whose company we had enjoyed earlier in the trip. They texted in the morning to say they had a small bit of business to attend to first, so we decided to use the time to pay a visit to our favourite café, Tianguez in the Plaza San Francisco.

After coffee we went into the attached shop to hunt for souvenirs, which occupies several of the arched spaces beneath the San Francisco monastery. It sells a wide range of high-quality crafts from all over Ecuador. Prices are not low, but everything is guaranteed fair-trade so you can be confident that the people who made the objects are getting a reasonable reward for their work.

And the selection is excellent – so-called Panama hats to Amazonian blow-pipes, Pre-Colombian ceramics, tapestries and Tigua paintings. We had already bought all the souvenirs we wanted (and more!) as we travelled around, but I still wanted to find good quality coffee and chocolate as gifts for my family, and I knew I would find it here. And I wasn’t disappointed! There was a lot to choose from too, and I didn’t want to keep Betty and Marcello waiting, so I had to decide quite quickly. In the end, I purchased a selection of different chocolate bars, including one flavoured with rose petals and another with crystallised orange; some small boxes of chocolate covered fruits (such as pineapple) and coffee beans, and a jar of jam made by women in a local cooperative. I spent almost $50 here – a lot of money but I bought a lot of things :)

Then we headed back to the hotel to meet up with our friends. Their suggestion for our first visit of the morning was to another good Quito viewpoint.

Parque Itchimbia

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View of the city from Parque Itchimbia

Parque Itchimbia is one of several city parks in Quito, all of which seemed to me to be well-maintained and well-loved by locals. It is located on the hill of the same name and has quite recently (2004) been renovated, with new facilities added. These include the cultural centre in my main photo, which was reconstructed from the old glass and steel structure of the Santa Clara Market which lay on the other side of the city and had been imported from Hamburg during the government of Eloy Alfaro in 1889. The building now hosts exhibitions and trade shows – when we were there a modern furniture show was being dismantled, so we couldn’t go inside unfortunately.

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Cultural centre in the park

But we had come here mainly to check out the views, which were great, and as it was morning the sky was still blue and the weather warm and sunny. In particular, we had a super view of the Basilica del Voto Nacional, which stands opposite and just below the park, and of the mountains and volcanoes of the range to the west of the city, including Pichincha.

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Basilica del Voto Nacional from Itchimbia

Mercado Artesanal Metropolitano

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In the market

After spending some time in the park Betty proposed a visit to this large covered market. It reminded me a little of a Middle Eastern souk, with its narrow passages threaded between stalls piled high with colourful crafts etc. I was surprised to see quite a lot of locals shopping here, as the goods seemed to be mainly aimed at the tourist market – textiles (scarves, table coverings, hats and other clothing); pictures (some reasonably good Guayasamin reproductions, Tigua paintings and other rather tackier souvenirs); ornaments of various kinds; leather-work and speciality food-stuffs such as coffee and chocolate.

We had already done most of our souvenir shopping by this stage (or so we thought!) so we didn’t buy a lot, but we did enjoy wandering around and taking in all the activity. The one thing that we did buy was some ground coffee ($6.50 for a large bag) as that was one typically Ecuadorean souvenir that we hadn’t yet bought for ourselves – and very good it was too! Betty bought a small traditional mask for Marcello to take as a gift to friends in Venezuela whom he was to visit the next week and also bought us a bar of passion-fruit flavoured chocolate – delicious!

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Betty and Marcello choosing their mask

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Mural near the market

As we had enjoyed the market Betty suggested that they show us one of their favourite shops for traditional crafts. We weren’t particularly planning to shop, having already bought a lot on this trip (by our standards – we’re not usually big shoppers on holiday), but we agreed to check it out as it sounded interesting. And it was – interesting, lovely and rather expensive, at least when compared with the markets!

Galeria Latina

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In the Galeria Latina

This shop specialises in crafts from all over Latin America, not just Ecuador, and they seem only to have the best of everything. Nothing here was tacky, nothing badly made or uninteresting. There were musical instruments, textiles, beautiful silver jewellery, wall-hangings, paintings, wood-carvings, tagua nut carvings and even some very good antiques.

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Our coasters

As I have said, we had no plans to shop so just browsed around while Betty picked out a pair of silver earrings as a gift for her daughter in London, which we were to deliver on her behalf. But my eye was caught by a table full of very attractive wooden coasters, all different and in a range of colours. We asked about them and were told they were from Peru – so not much good as a souvenir of Ecuador then! We walked away ... and then returned. They really would go in our room, and we really did need new coasters ;) So we decided to buy a set. They were being sold on the basis that you could pick out any six that you wanted for the price of $35, so we went through and selected some that would best match our décor while also appealing to us – see what you think of our choices in my photo.

La Choza

After shopping it was time for lunch. On our previous day out we had treated them; this time they wanted to return the favour and brought us to this smart-looking restaurant on a busy street in modern Quito, Avenida 12 de Octubre. In appearance it is the antithesis of cosy Mama Clorinda where we had eaten with them previously, being a large open dining room with a bustling atmosphere and some beautiful traditional art and decorative touches. But like Mama Clorinda it focuses on Ecuadorean cooking and is very well-established in the city, having been run by three generations of the same family for forty years.

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In La Choza

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Llapingachos con fritada

I opted for the llapingachos con fritada – my favourite potato patties here served with fried pork. I loved the patties as I had elsewhere, the egg was nicely fried, and the peanut sauce that came with the dish was good. But I found the pork a little dry and thought the meat had been over-cooked, not for the first time in Ecuador. Chris felt the same about the pork in his traditional platter, which he otherwise enjoyed, but Marcello had the same dish and enthused about the meat, so I am guessing that it must be local taste to serve it so dry, rather than poor cooking skills! Betty’s corvina (sea bass) in coconut sauce looked lovely, as she said it was, and I found myself wishing I’d ordered that ;) I drank a delicious guanabana juice (another of my favourite Ecuadorean tastes). As our hosts paid I don’t know what the final bill came to, but it struck me as quite expensive for Quito. Overall I enjoyed the meal, and loved the décor here, but I’m not sure it’s worth the higher prices when there’s so much good value food in the city.

We had sat for quite a while chatting over lunch, so afterwards we decided to head back to our hotel – we had packing to do and we also felt that our hosts had given up more than enough of their time. So Marcello drove back through the heavy Quito traffic and we said our farewells, promising to meet again when/if they came to visit their daughter in London (which so far unfortunately hasn’t happened).

Back to the Vista Hermosa

For our final dinner in the city we decided to go back to one of the restaurants we had enjoyed earlier in the trip, the Vista Hermosa, as we thought it would be nice to end the trip with another look at this great view. Unfortunately we weren’t quite so lucky and our table was one row back from the windows, but we could still enjoy the city lights from where we sat. We skipped the starters as we had eaten a large lunch, and again shared a pizza – this time the vegetarian one, which I preferred to the ham and mushroom one we’d had previously. Chris had two Club beers, I also had one, and after the meal had an excellent Brandy Alexander to round off our farewell dinner.

But there would still be time to see a little more of the city tomorrow morning …

Posted by ToonSarah 03:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged market restaurants quito ecuador crafts Comments (0)

A river runs through it

Japan day eleven


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Heron by the Miyagawa

Takayama is a mountain town, and the river that runs through it, the Miyagawa, is a clear mountain one. Trout and carp flourish here, ducks bob on the water, and we also saw a heron waiting patiently for the chance to catch a fish, no doubt. The heron, because of its habit of staying motionless like this, is regarded as a symbol of Buddhist meditation, so how special and appropriate it was to see one so clearly in what was one of my favourite Japanese places.

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Children feeding the fish and ducks

Morning market

As well as being a pleasant place to walk at any time of day, the river bank is the location for one of Takayama’s famous morning markets. After breakfast at our hotel (which offered a choice of Japanese or Western style – we copped out and opted for Western, having had very traditional Japanese ones the previous two mornings in Kyoto) we joined Andrew and some others from the group for a visit to the market.

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Stallholder at the market

There are in fact two markets held every morning in Takayama – the one we went is held on the banks of the Miyagawa in the old town. I have seen this reviewed as a ‘tourist trap’ but I have to disagree. Yes, tourists come, but it was also clear to me that locals were here too, shopping for (mostly) fruit and vegetables and enjoying a gossip with friends whom they met along the way. I loved our time here!

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Candle-maker

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Stall-holders

I always enjoy visiting a good colourful market anywhere I travel, as it is usually a great place to take photos and mix with the local people. This one was especially enjoyable because of the Japanese willingness to be photographed. I took so many photos of characterful faces, interesting food products and local crafts – several that I took here were among the best of the whole trip, I felt.

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Produce on sale

Of course, being a market, it’s also good place to shop! I bought some delicious sesame crunch sweets at one stall which modestly advertised its wares as being nothing much to look at but worth tasting with a sign that read:
‘Also the wife, the husband and confectionery which are NOT chosen by appearance.’

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Sign at a sweet stall

This is also a great place for snacking. Lots of the stalls sell little treats such as soy bean dumplings and sweets of all kinds. There’s a tea stall if you need warming up on what might be a chilly morning (remember, this is a mountain town) and the local Hida apples are huge and justifiably famous for their flavour.

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A bite to eat

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Tea stall

The morning market is a long-held tradition here, and there has been one on this spot for sixty years, although records show that the morning market was originally held close to the Takayama Betsuin Shourenji temple and started in the Edo Period. At its peak it is said to have had over 300 stalls but today it is usually between 50 and 70 – still plenty to keep any visitor interested.

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Calligraphy

After spending some time in the market Chris and I met up again with some of our group and Andrew proposed a visit to a nearby museum, dedicated to Takayama’s Festival Floats.

Matsuri Yatai Kaikan

Takayama is famous throughout Japan for its two annual festivals, in the spring and autumn, known as matsuri – the first celebrating the planting season, and the second the harvest. Unfortunately we missed the harvest matsuri by just a day (accounting in part for the large crowds milling around the old town on the day of our arrival) but at least we were able to get a good sense of what is involved by visiting this excellent museum.

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Main exhibit hall, Matsuri Yatai Kaikan

The focal point of both festivals is a parade of richly decorated floats known as yatai, 23 in total (12 for the spring festival, 11 for the autumn), some of which are 500 years old. Each is the responsibility, and pride, of one of the city’s communities. Originally they would have been carried on many shoulders, but today they have wheels. Nevertheless, manoeuvring these tall, unwieldy floats through Takayama’s narrow streets must be quite a challenge. On the first evening of the festival, they are illuminated with hundreds of paper lanterns and are hauled through the town by ropes, accompanied by wailing flutes and thundering drums. For the remainder of the festival they stand proudly at their allotted spot, attended by costumed locals.

For the rest of the year the yatai are kept hidden away, each in its own tall storehouse in the old town, and we saw several of these while walking around today. They are very tall, narrow and plain, and painted white in contrast to the dark wood of the old houses that surround them. Only during the four days of festival (two in the spring, two in the autumn) are the yatai wheeled out to be paraded around the town and exhibited in all their glory. If the festival is hit by bad weather they will remain in these storehouses instead, but with the large doors flung open so all can see them. At any other time visitors must be content with examining the photo that is displayed outside alongside some information about the float within.

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Yatai storehouse on the banks of the Miyagawa

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Another storehouse

But a few yatai are exhibited here in the Yatai Kaikan, on a rotating basis. The museum consists mainly of a single large hall, big enough to take these impressive constructions. They are displayed with mannequins modelling the various historical costumes worn in the parades etc., and a walkway winds round the central area, ascending gently, so that by the time you are on the fourth side you are almost level with the top of the floats. Which ones you will see depends on the cycle of rotation, but I believe the oldest one, which still has the old yokes (rather than wheels) and is no longer used, remains here all the time. All are beautifully carved, painted and lacquered. Many carry karakuri ningyo, mechanical dolls that can move and dance – more about those later in this entry.

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Float detail

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Float details

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A karakuri ningyo on a float

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Historical costume

A small room off this walkway is marked as a study room; I was glad I bothered to check this out as it shows an interesting ten minute video on a loop that gives a good idea of how the floats look in action at the festivals. If ever I get to come back to Takayama I will try very hard to ensure my visit coincides with one of these.

Sakurayama Nikko Kan

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Model of Toshugo at Sakurayama Nikko Kan

The admission fee to the Yatai Kaikan museum also includes the smaller one next door, Sakurayama-Nikko-kan, which holds a model of a World Heritage Site, the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. It may seem odd (well, it did to me!) that one city should devote a museum to the wonders of another fairly distant city, but the reason became clear later when I read that this exhibit is both demonstration of, and tribute to, the wood-working skills of Takayama's craftsmen, who are famed throughout Japan for their carpentry. These 28 models of temple buildings contain 100,000 individual miniature pieces and took 33 sculptors 15 years to complete. What an achievement!

As you stroll around and peer at the 1/10 scale models the light in the hall will dim and you get to see how Toshogu looks by night as well as by day. As we were to visit Nikko later in our trip we didn’t spend as long here as we might otherwise have done, but the detail on the carvings is exquisite and you could be here for an hour or more and still be marvelling at the workmanship.

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Model of the temple buildings by day ...

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... and by night

Once we had seen all we wanted to here, we said goodbye to the rest of the group, who were going to the Hida Folk Museum. I would have liked to have seen this too, but we had decided it was more of a priority for us to see more of this lovely small city. So we set off to explore further by ourselves, and our next destination was a nearby shrine.

Sakurayama Hachimangu

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Sakurayama Hachimangu

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Lion dog

This Shinto shrine is in a lovely setting on the northern edge of the town, just beyond the Yatai Kaikan. It is the focal point for Takayama’s autumn festival. There are thousands of these Hachiman Shrines in Japan; they are dedicated to Hachiman, the kami (god or spirit) of war, who used to be popular among the leading military clans of the past. The origins of this particular shrine date back to the time of the Emperor Nintoku (313-399) who sent Prince Takefurukuma-no-mikoto to subjugate the monster Sukuna, a beast with two heads, four arms and four legs. Before undertaking this task, the warrior enshrined his father, the Emperor Ohjin, as the deity of this shrine and prayed for the success of his mission.

The shrine was enlarged in 1683 and established as the official protective shrine of the town. It has a pair of stone Komainu or ‘lion dogs’ guarding the entrance to the inner shrine, a large purification trough with dragons’ head fountains, a pool with large carp and a number of smaller buildings dotted around the grounds either side of the shrine. Among these (on the left as you face the main shrine) is an auxiliary shrine, an Inari Shrine, dedicated to the kami of the harvest and of industry. This shrine is guarded by a pair of foxes, regarded as the messengers of this god.

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Dragon fountain

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Inari Shrine, and prayers for good fortune

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Fox guarding the Inari Shrine

While we were here we were fortunate to witness a local celebration. On arrival we found the steps up to the shrine blocked by a family posing for formal photos. We stopped to see what was happening and a passing guide escorting another couple around (local and with excellent English) kindly stopped to explain to us that it is traditional here in Takayama to bring your new-born baby to this shrine to be blessed around the 40th day after the birth. This first visit to a shrine is known as Hatsu Miyamairi or more commonly Omiyamairi. In the past, this would be scheduled very precisely, and according to the baby’s gender, e.g. 31 days old for a baby boy and 32 days for a baby girl. The exact timing depends on the region – here in Takayama our informant indicated that 40 days is traditional. But nowadays it has become a common practice for babies (regardless of gender) to have their Omiyamairi at any time between 30 to 100 days after their birth. Many parents choose to go after their baby’s first month health check, and it may also depend on the availability of a priest and of family members.

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Family group at Sakurayama Hachimangu
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A baby's blessing

Traditionally, the mother and grandmother wear formal kimono, and their babies will be adorned in colourful robes or wraps. But the family we saw were in smart Western-style clothing. The purpose of the Omiyamairi is to show gratitude to the gods for the safe delivery and ask the local deity of the shrine to bless the baby, purify him/her and to accept the baby as part of the local worshipping community. The baby is introduced to the local deity by calling out his/her name and birth information, and the god is asked to purify, protect and bless the baby with happiness and health. No photos can be taken during the ceremony itself, but afterwards of course the proud new parents like to pose before the shrine with their offspring and other relatives, just as we saw here. To me it was very reminiscent of wedding photography, with the photographer arranging different combinations of the party in turn – the parents and baby, all the women, the whole group and so on. It was a lovely thing to witness and added to our appreciation of the shrine and its pretty setting.

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Torii gate at Sakuramaya Hachimangu

After taking our own photos and exploring the various buildings here we were in need of refreshment. As we strolled south from the shrine we kept our eyes open for somewhere we might find something to tempt us, and when we spotted a café in a traditional old building on Shimo-Ninomachi advertising cappuccinos, we knew we had found our place!

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Exterior of the café

Stepping inside we found ourselves in a fascinating old building with antiques and knickknacks around the walls and a few large wooden tables. We sat at one end of one of these and were handed menus by the friendly lady who was serving but explained we would just like coffees – a cappuccino for Chris and a mocha for me. She passed our order to the man making the drinks and we waited a while, thinking that he seemed to be taking extra care over them. When Chris’s, the first to arrive, was brought we saw why – an image of two little bears carefully ‘drawn’ in the foam. My mocha was equally decorative but very different, with lovely feathering. A Canadian guy sitting at the same table heard our exclamations and came over to look. When he saw the designs he asked permission to take a photo (of course we were already snapping away!) and explained that a friend of his, a professional photographer, was working on a book of ‘coffee art’ and would be jealous that he had come across such great examples! Oh, and fortunately the coffee was as good as it looked, and we thoroughly enjoyed our drinks.

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Cappuccino

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Mocha

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The 'artist' at work

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Inside the café, with our Canadian companion

Once we had finished our coffee and our chat, we were ready to carry on sightseeing.

Shishi-Kaikan: the Lion Dance Ceremony Exhibition Hall

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Sign in the Shishi-Kaikan

As the name suggests, the Lion Dance Ceremony Exhibition Hall has a collection of artefacts related to the famous lion dance performed at Japanese festivals. There are over 200 lion masks, as well as Edo-Period screens, ceramics, scrolls, coins, samurai armour, and swords. But although interesting, it was not these that had drawn us here, but the regular (every half hour) 15 minute demonstrations of the karakuri (automated dolls) which decorate many of the floats in Takayama's spring and autumn festivals.

We arrived just as one of these demonstrations was starting and were hurried inside to take our seats so we didn’t miss anything. Several karakuri ningyo, to give them their full name, were put through their paces as a woman gave explanations, a small part of which she translated into English (but enough only to give us a fairly vague idea of what was happening and how).

These karakuri ningyo are often described as the ancestors of Japanese robot technology. But their main purpose was not to show off technological possibilities but to conceal them and to create a sense of wonder and magic. The word karakuri means a ‘mechanical device to tease, trick, or take a person by surprise’. The aim in creating them was that the doll should be as lifelike as possible and not look like the machine it was.

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Dashi karakuri

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Another dashi karakuri, and the tea-serving doll

There are several types of karakuri. Most of those demonstrated here are dashi karakuri, which is the name given to those used on festival floats to re-enact scenes from plays, usually myths and legends. But we also saw a typical zashiki karakuri – the type of karakuri developed for amusement at home, a luxury item in the Edo period in Japan. One of the most popular of these, and the type that we saw, was the tea-serving doll. Like most of the dashi karakuri, it works by clockwork. When a cup is placed in its hands the robot moves forwards; when the cup is lifted it stops; and when the cup is again placed in its hands it turns and goes back where it started. You can imagine what a novelty that would have been in a rich Edo household – and indeed what a novelty it seemed to us! We also saw one that could write which went down especially well with the children in the audience, one of whom was given the finished paper.

If I’ve got you intrigued by these devices, there’s an excellent website about them, Karakuri Info, which is worth digging around in. Once we’d watched the demonstration we walked around the rest of the exhibits. There was no restriction on photography so as well as taking some photos of the karakuri and lion masks I was also able to make a short video of a couple of the former in action during the demonstration.

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Lion masks

By now it was lunch time and we retraced our steps towards a restaurant we had spotted earlier. Rakuda proved to be a great lunch stop. We loved the quirky decor which had rather a kitsch feel, with old 1970s posters and an odd assortment of objects displayed (which continued into the toilet, by the way – do check it out if you come here!) The music played was mostly from the same era, so it’s evidently a passion of the owners. The service was friendly and there was a helpful English-language menu.

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In Rakuda

I had a really tasty sandwich - thick slices of toast with an omelette filling, loads of vegetables (courgette, tomatoes, edame beans, aubergine etc.) and salad in a delicious dressing. Chris had the white pizza which had a very thin base (more like a quesadilla) but a delicious topping of two types of cheese with walnuts. Our drinks were equally as good – mine a home-made ginger ale and Chris's a soda with fresh fruits. And the prices were low - my huge sandwich was just 600¥ and our total bill not much over 2,000¥. What’s not to like?!!

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Rakuda exterior, and soda with fresh fruit

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My sandwich

Refreshed and very happy with our lunch break we headed to our next sight.

Yoshijima-ke

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In Yoshijima-ke

During the Edo period Takayama was largely a merchant, rather than a samurai, town, and its architecture reflects that fact. The streets of the old town are lined with houses of a style that accommodated both family and business life, and on Ninomachi in the northern part of the town are two of the finest examples, side by side, and both open to the public. The northernmost is Yoshijima-ke, built in 1907 to be both home and factory for the Yoshijima family, well-to-do brewers of sake. It is considered one of finest examples of rural Japanese buildings, and I absolutely loved it! The light inside was beautiful, and the contrast of the heavy dark beams, the lighter lacquered wood used for door frames, pillars etc., and the translucent paper screens was captivating – I couldn’t stop taking photos!

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In Yoshijima-ke

The house has two floors and two inner gardens which some of the rooms overlook. We paid 500¥ for admission and were given a small information leaflet (available in English). We were then free to wander at will, having of course removed our shoes before stepping on to the tatami matting that covers the floor of all the more formal rooms. There is minimal decoration, apart from some beautiful screens, carved wood panels and a few paintings by Japanese artist Shinoda Toko. The beauty is all in the arrangement of the spaces and the contrast of light and dark.

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In Yoshijima-ke

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If you’re interested there’s a plan of the house on this website about Oriental architecture, and also lots of photos, which together give a really comprehensive feel for this lovely building.

The sign outside had a lovely quotation which I think could apply to any old and well-loved home:
‘The completion of the house was only the beginning of its beautiful history. The activity inside the house brought it to life and added to the finishing touches. I think that this kind of beauty could only be created and ensue because of the loving hearts that supported it and lived in it. This struck when gazing through the high window on a moonlit night as white clouds drifted by.’
Teiji Ito (architectural historian)

After spending some time here, we moved to the house next door.

Kusakabe mingei-kan

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Daidokoro with irori, Kusakabe mingei-kan

This house belonged to the Kusakabe family, successful Takayama merchants who thrived in the late Edo and early Meiji periods. It was built in 1879 to replace an earlier home and business lost in a fire. It is generally more solid feeling than the neighbouring Yoshijima house, with darker wood. I have seen this described as the more masculine house and Yoshijima as more feminine, which sort of makes sense when you see them.

Like Yoshijima, this is a two storey structure. Its foot-square cypress timbers are as perfectly fitted as cabinet work, as might be expected from builders of this Hida region (famous throughout the country for their skills in woodwork and carpentry). Its most noticeable feature is perhaps the fireplace – a sunken hearth made of iron known as an irori and above it a huge adjustable hook for hanging a pot or kettle, known as a jizai-kagi. This is the heart of the daidokoro or family room, a large room but one which is even taller than it is wide.

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The jizai-kagi

Unlike Yoshijima, the Kusakabe house is furnished with some antiques – dark wood cabinets, low tables, a few ornaments. And in its storerooms (on the upper floor and to the rear of the building) are various exhibits of household items (cabinets, pots etc) that would have been traded by this merchant family.

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An inner garden

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Silk kimono on display

As with the Yoshijima, there’s a plan of the house on the Oriental architecture website, and again lots of photos. The official website also has some good photos and an interesting detailed history of the house.

Admission here too was 500¥. This included a cup of green tea and rice cake which was served in the rear courtyard between house and warehouse.

Tatami

As we left I spotted a tatami mat workshop on the opposite side of the road. I had already become intrigued with the tatami mats I had encountered on our travels in Japan, so I wandered over to check it out. Unfortunately there was no one here actually making the mats, but nevertheless it was interesting to see the weaving frames and tools used for this process.

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Tatami in the making

Tatami is the traditional Japanese floor covering and its distinctive appearance, texture and scent will linger long in my memories of the country. The scent in particular, because when you sleep in a tatami room you do so on futons, lying very close to the floor and fall asleep with that straw smell as a perfumed ‘lullaby’.

Tatami is still used a lot in Japan, and not only in traditional houses, as many modern homes and flats have at least one tatami-floored traditional room. The tatami mats are always made in standard sizes, which varies a bit with the region, but is usually around 1.80 metres long by 90 centimetres wide, and always with a ratio of 2:1. Because of this, rooms in Japan are also made in standard sizes and are measured and described as multiples of tatami mats (for example, a tea room is often 4½ mats and a shop usually 5½ mats).

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Tools of the tatami-making trade

Traditional tatami mats are made with an inner core of rice straw and a covering of woven rushes, bound at the edges with decorative cloth or brocade. The covering is known as the tatami omote; it is made of a soft reed and each mat needs about 4,000 to 5,000 rushes, which are woven together with hemp or cotton string. To make the tatami goto, as the straw core is known, 40 centimetres of straw is crushed to just five centimetres deep. Finally the edging or tatami beri is bound over the long edges.

There are some rules (this is Japan, there are always rules!) about the most auspicious arrangement for tatami mats. You will never see a room with tatami arranged in a simple grid pattern; the borders should not create a cross shape, because that would mean that you had joined four mats in that spot and the number four is considered unlucky in Japan because it is pronounced like the word used for death: shi. It is also considered unlucky to step on the cloth-bound border of a tatami mat, although avoiding them is easier said than done and I’m sure I stepped on many during our stay!

We strolled along the nearby streets some more and found ourselves back near the small gallery we had visited the previous day. Somehow we found ourselves popping back in for another look at that limited edition woodblock print, and before we knew it, we had bought it! We took the risk of buying it framed as the price was reasonable compared with what we would have paid to have it framed back home and, luckily, we liked the simple frame. The picture, by an artist called Ken Mozumi, cost us 13,700¥ or about £80 ($130) which for such a lovely and relatively unique souvenir seemed well worth paying. It is now hanging in our hall to be admired daily and remind us of our holiday.

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In the gallery

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Our print

After buying this this we headed back to the hotel with our purchase, to freshen up for dinner.

Center4 Hamburgers

Chris and I had both loved the Hida beef that Andrew had introduced us to on the previous evening, so we decided to try one of the other restaurants he recommended here in Takayama, a place known as Center4 Hamburgers. It sounded like a great place to get a change from Japanese food while still making the most of the high quality local ingredients.

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Center4 Hamburgers

The restaurant is run by a local couple who are clearly enamoured of all things American, as the burgers are served to a background of Johnny Cash music and many of the antiques that spill into the restaurant from the shop in front of it are from the US (though many others are from countries all over the world, as well as from Japan itself). There are just a handful of tables but on the week night we visited there was never more than one other table occupied – surprising perhaps when you consider its reputation.

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In Center4 Hamburgers

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Antiques spill into the restaurant

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My Hida beef burger

Less surprising is the menu, which is dominated by burgers, though there are a few other options. The Hida beef burger comes unadorned, as is only right given the quality of the meat, but you can also get burgers made with regular beef and with all the usual toppings such as cheese, bacon, chilli, egg. You pay considerably more for the Hida beef burger of course, though that does include fries and a tasty salsa. I know the salsa is tasty because I chose to splash out on that dish, and I was so pleased I did – it was amazing, and well worth the extra cost. Chris wanted blue cheese on his burger however so opted for the regular beef, but that too was pretty great. We accompanied our burgers with a large draft beer each (Kirin Ichiban) and had a second beer each afterwards as we were enjoying the atmosphere too much to want to hurry away.

We left eventually of course, and had a pleasant walk back through Takayama’s quiet night time streets, stopping off at the convenience store next to the hotel for some sake to enjoy as a night cap in our room, as the hotel’s bar seemed to be permanently closed. A very nice way to end what had been far too brief a stay in this charming town.

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Old town at night

Posted by ToonSarah 03:58 Archived in Japan Tagged art food architecture japan culture temple history market shopping restaurants houses museum shrine customs takayama street_photography Comments (4)

Manic traffic, atrocious pollution, endlessly captivating

Day one India


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Delhi traffic

By any measure Delhi is an assault on the senses. The sound of car horns and auto-rickshaw bells fill the air; these vehicles weave endlessly in a manic dance; people ebb and flow between and all around them. The air is at times fragrant with the smells of spices; at other times choking with fumes. The heat beats down …

After a long overnight flight from London it really seemed as if we had landed on a different planet, not just a different continent. And I loved it! The energy, the colours, the constant buzz. And when we returned to Delhi at the end of our trip, and to the same hotel, it almost felt like coming home.
Delhi is India’s capital, its second largest city (by population) and had a rich history. At its heart is Old Delhi, founded by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1639 and known originally as Shahjahanabad – the last of seven ancient cities in this immediate area. These include Qila Rai Pithora (the first to be recorded, in the 10th century AD), and Mehrauli, built by the first Muslim sultan, Qutubuddin, in the early part of the 13th century, whose Qutb Minar still stands and was one of the highlights of our brief visit.

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Our base here was the comfortable Suryaa Hotel, located in the New Friends Colony area of the city, not far from the Lotus Temple. We stayed here for the first few nights of our tour with Transindus, and again on our last night, and were impressed with their choice. The large marble lobby gave us a good first impression, which extended to our comfortable fourth floor room with a good-sized bed, lots of space, efficient A/C, a flat screen TV, bottled water, tea and coffee-making stuff, mini-bar, safe and plenty of storage. The bathroom had a bath with shower over, a good selection of toiletries and a hairdryer. All the staff we encountered or had dealings with were welcoming, helpful and courteous.

The hotel has a number of places to eat and drink – a buffet restaurant and bar downstairs, and an upmarket pan-Asian restaurant and cocktail bar on the top floor, plus a coffee shop in the lobby where we enjoyed a coffee and cake soon after arriving. The choice at breakfast is amazing - cereals, pastries, exotic juices, fruits, eggs cooked to order, ditto pancakes and waffles, all the regular hot items (bacon, sausage, tomatoes etc.) plus Indian dahls and curries and even Japanese miso soup, and loads more.

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Our room, and breakfast buffet

The hotel has a pool which we didn’t use but could see from our bedroom window – it looked a good size for a city hotel pool and seemed well kept. There’s also a gym and spa but I didn’t see those so can’t comment.

Even if you don't visit the top floor restaurant or bar it's worth going up there for the views, though it was very hazy when we did so. You don't see many famous sights (the aforementioned Lotus Temple is the main one) but you do get a good look at the circling eagles. A barman told us that these nest on the roof of the hotel, as do owls which can be seen here at night. We didn't get around to eating here but did have a nice dinner one evening in the downstairs bar (murgh malai kebab and tandoori vegetable platter) where the friendly barman let us have the Happy Hour "two for one" deal on our beers despite having arrived in the bar some 15 minutes after the offer period.

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From the hotel roof

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Veda

On arriving in Delhi we learned that dinner on the first night of our tour was included in the cost so that evening we met up with our guide, Rajesh, and driver, Mehar, to go to Connaught Place for a meal at Veda, one of a small (I think) chain of restaurants in India. Well, it may be a chain, but we were certainly impressed by the food here, as well as by the somewhat exotic décor - dark, rich reds, lots of gilt mirrors and ornate light fittings, plus a hammered metal ceiling reflecting the candles on the tables.

The website describes the cuisine as “a contemporary interpretation of classic Indian cooking”. We had a set meal and everything was delicious. The first course was two vegetable appetisers - fried spinach leaves topped with tiny noodles and cheese (a Veda speciality), and cauliflowers fritters. Then two meat appetisers - small pieces of mutton kebab and chicken tikka. The main event was a selection of dishes served with rice and chappattis. There was a chicken curry cooked with spring onion, a lamb curry, paneer (Indian cottage cheese) in a spicy tomato sauce, a black lentil dahl and another Veda special, crispy fried strips of okra (a sort of fusion of that classic Indian ingredient with the Chinese way of serving seaweed). Finally there was kulfi, the rich Indian ice cream. As I said, everything was delicious, but if I had to pick favourites it would be the cauliflower fritters, the fried okra and the paneer - all excellent.

Exploring the city

Although we only had a day in which to see something of Delhi we managed to pack in a fair amount, thanks in part to our excellent guide Rajesh and star driver Mehar.

Jama Masjid

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Steps up to the mosque

We started our explorations at the massive Jama Masjid mosque. This is one of the largest (some sources, and our guide, say the largest) mosques in India. It was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (most famous for another building, the Taj Mahal) between 1644 and 1656. It is said to have taken 5,000 workers and cost a million rupees to build, which must have been a huge sum in those days. It is certainly on an impressively grand scale. The huge courtyard can accommodate more than 25,000 worshippers. Its surrounding walls are pierced by three great gates (most visitors enter through the north gate) and on the west side is the main mosque structure, built of red sandstone and white marble, with three white marble domes and two 40 metre high minarets.

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Entry is free but there is a fee of 300 IR per camera to take photos and you'll be charged for every camera you are carrying, including smartphones, even if you don't plan to use them all. All visitors, including non-Muslims, are allowed inside as well as out, and photos can be taken everywhere, but the mosque is closed to non-Muslims at prayer time. And don’t even consider a visit here if you aren’t able to climb steps, as the mosque sits on an elevated sandstone platform and there are 39 steps up to the northern gate. You must leave your shoes at this main entrance so wear socks you don't mind getting grubby or borrow a pair of the slippers available. Women in trousers or with short sleeves are also asked to put on a gown.

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Tourists in slippers, and me in my gown (with Rajesh)

Once inside, take your time to wander round the courtyard, which is a buzz of both tourist and worshipper activity. We were advised not to photograph Muslim women but told that otherwise no one would mind, and in fact that seemed to extend to some of the women too. Bowls are set out to feed the many pigeons, and the seed they spill is carefully swept up. Locals and tourists mill around and it could be any city square, until you approach the prayer hall where a more respectful and devout atmosphere prevails. Even here though, a man sitting reading the Koran in one corner saw my camera and beckoned me over with a “welcome to take photos” gesture. So do pay that camera fee, as you will surely get some memorable shots here.

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Chandni Chowk

The mosque lies in Old Delhi, surrounded by the vibrant streets of Chandni Chowk market. The name Chandni Chowk is used for a specific street in Old Delhi, but also for the maze of alleys that surround it. This is the market place for Old Delhi, dating back to the 17th century when it was, so it is said, designed by the daughter of Shah Jahan with a canal (long since covered over) running the length of the street which reflected the moonlight. But if the mention of moonlight suggests peace and tranquillity, think again. Today’s Chandni Chowk is a complete assault on the senses – narrow lanes strung with electric cables, a cacophony of sound from horns (as everywhere in Delhi), a riot of colour, the scents of perfumes and spices in the air. On the pavements are people washing, cooking, cutting hair. Each narrow alleyway is lined with small shops specialising in certain goods - wedding saris in one, fruit and vegetables in another. Nai Sarak specialises in text books and calendars, Chawri in paper and stationery and Dariba Kalan in jewellery.

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We took a cycle rickshaw ride which is possibly the best way to see the madness close-up but without being totally sucked into it. Our driver pointed out some of the more interesting goods on sale, a small Jain temple tucked in an alleyway, even at one point monkeys (macaques) on a roof above us. Make sure you hold on to your possessions as you ride, and keep arms and hands inside the frame of the rickshaw - it's a bumpy ride and your driver will squeeze through the narrowest of spaces. Despite the bumps however, and the need to hang on, I did manage to shoot a few snippets of video that I hope give just a little flavour of the experience.

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Presidential Palace complex

From Old Delhi we drove to the Presidential Palace, where we stopped briefly to admire the architecture and the views (very hazy) all the way down the Rajpath (the King’s Way) to the India Gate two kilometres away.

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Presidential Palace

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The palace is the work of Edwin Lutyens, whose original plans were for a classically European building (he had little respect for the local architectural traditions which he once dismissed as “Moghul tosh”). Fortunately he was over-ruled and added features such as Rajasthani-inspired sandstone window grilles (known as jaalis), statues of elephants and cobras. He also lost an argument about the placing of the Palace, which he had intended to sit at the edge of Raisina Hill, and had to move it back to accommodate the buildings that now flank it on either side. This means it is not visible from the foot of the hill – something he considered a fault but which I felt gave the building an interesting element of surprise as you crest the hill and see the scale of the complex of buildings that greet you.

You approach along a wide avenue, Rajpath (the King’s Way), which links the palace to the India Gate two kilometres away. Either side of this avenue are the north and south buildings of the Secretariat, designed by Herbert Baker. It was these structures that caused Lutyen’s design for the plateau to be modified and the palace moved back from the edge. Today they house various government offices and ministries including Finance and Foreign Affairs.

Since 1950, when the first President of a now independent India took up residence here, it was renamed as the President’s Palace or Rashtrapati Bhavan. In area this was the largest residence of a Head of State in the world until the Presidential Complex of Turkey was opened on 29th October 2014. It has 340 rooms spread over four floors and covers 200,000 square feet (19,000 square metres).

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Dominion Column

Like the Palace, Baker’s designs for the Secretariat buildings include Indian elements and are made from the same cream and red sandstone. The columns in front of these are known as Dominion Columns and were gifts from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. At the time it was expected that India would, like these countries, soon become a British Dominion, but instead it was to win independence within 18 years from the date of the buildings’ completion.

Although we didn’t have time to visit the museum inside the palace, this made an interesting photo stop, and came with a bonus. Although Chris has never owned or ridden a motorbike himself, his father was great biker and Chris has inherited something of his affection for the great makes such as BSA and Royal Enfield – the latter being originally a British company but made in India since the 1950s and exclusively there since 1971. He was very happy when the owner of a classic Royal Enfield bike, parked in front of the Presidential Palace, let him pose with it for some photos – and no, this wasn’t a “pose in return for payment” staged photo opp! We were also interested to learn that the beautiful ornamental iron gates in front of the palace were copied by Lutyens from some he saw in Chiswick, very near our London home.

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India Gate

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At the opposite end of the Rajpath to the Presidential Palace, and two kilometres away, is the India Gate. This was built in the 1920s as a war memorial to commemorate the soldiers of the British Indian Army who died in the First World War and in the Third Anglo-Afghan War. In all, more than 13,300 names are inscribed on the gate. Like the Presidential Palace it was designed by Edwin Lutyens (who also designed London’s Cenotaph and 65 other war memorials in Europe on behalf of the Imperial War Graves Commission which also commissioned this) and has the appearance more of a victory or triumphal arch than a memorial.

The gate is 42 metres in height and has a shallow bowl at the top which was intended to be filled with burning oil on anniversaries although this is rarely done. Near the top on each side is inscribed “INDIA” and beneath that, all in capitals,

“TO THE DEAD OF THE INDIAN ARMIES WHO FELL HONOURED IN FRANCE AND FLANDERS MESOPOTAMIA AND PERSIA EAST AFRICA GALLIPOLI AND ELSEWHERE IN THE NEAR AND THE FAR-EAST AND IN SACRED MEMORY ALSO OF THOSE WHOSE NAMES ARE RECORDED AND WHO FELL IN INDIA OR THE NORTH-WEST FRONTIER AND DURING THE THIRD AFGHAN WAR”

Beneath the arch (added in 1971) is a small black marble plinth with a rifle capped by a war helmet, and bounded by four eternal flames, which serves as India’s tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

In my photos you can also see the canopy that stands some 150 metres further east, which was also designed by Lutyens and once covered a statue of George V in his coronation robes. This was moved in the 1960s to Coronation Park. The canopy has since stood empty, although there was talk at one point of installing a statue here of Mahatma Gandhi. This never happened, and it seems to me unlikely now that in will, given the ambivalent attitude that we were told now prevails in India towards the once universally acclaimed hero.

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By day and by night

Raj Ghat

After our brief photo stop at the India Gate, we drove to Raj Ghat, the site of the cremation of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948, which serves as a permanent memorial to him. A black marble plinth marks the actual spot of the cremation, at one end of which burns an eternal flame. It is set in peaceful gardens with paths that allow visitors to walk past and pay their respects, although when we were there the peace was somewhat disrupted by the several groups of boisterous schoolchildren visiting the site. Several other memorials to prominent figures are located nearby, including former Prime Ministers Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, but we only visited this one.

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Indian visitor, and souvenir stall

We were somewhat surprised to learn from our guide that Gandhi is not so much respected among Indians these days. Many feel that his policy of non-violence was too restrained and they admire more active revolutionaries such as Rani Laxmi Bai, Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose. But from what I observed, many more Indians than foreigners seemed to be visiting this shrine and doing so with great respect, so it seems opinion may be divided on this, as on so many political matters.

With so much to see on our packed day out in Delhi it makes sense to continue in a second entry ...

Posted by ToonSarah 10:13 Archived in India Tagged buildings people mosque market city tomb delhi street_photography Comments (5)

A few hours in the Blue City

India day nine


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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The blue houses of Jodhpur, seen from Mehrangarh Fort

On the edge of the Thar Desert lies Rajasthan’s second city, Jodhpur. Often known as the Blue City, because of its many blue painted houses, it is also, due to the desert heat, the Sun City.

We only spent a few hours here, en route between Dechu and Narlai. It was enough for a good visit to the fort and a short walk in the markets of the old city. The briefness of this visit may account in part for why this was not my favourite of the cities we visited in Rajasthan, as may the less good than usual guiding. Nevertheless, we were glad we had visited the Blue City.

Mehrangarh Fort

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We started our explorations (and spent most of our time) at the Mehrangarh Fort which towers above the city of Jodhpur. The oldest part dates from around 1460 when it was founded here by Rao Jodha, the fifteenth ruler of Rathore, who moved his capital here from Mandore, nine kilometres to the north. It is from him that the city takes its name. Jodha’s chosen site for his fort and palace was this hill known as Bhaurcheeria, the “mountain of birds” or Cheeriatunk, “the Bird's Beak”. According to a legend, in order to build here he had to evict the hill’s only resident, a hermit known as Cheeria Nathji, the Lord of the Birds. The hermit cursed Jodha and his fort: “May your citadel forever suffer a scarcity of water!” Rao Jodha managed to appease the hermit by building a house for him in the city, and a temple in the fort near his cave, but this was only partially successful, as even today the area is plagued by a drought every few years.

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Jai Pol

Jodha also buried a man, Rajiya Bambi, alive in the fort’s foundations as a form of sacrifice to ensure the gods would look kindly on his endeavours! In return Rajiya’s family were promised that they would be forever looked after and protected by the rulers of Rathore – a promise that has apparently been kept to this day. Some even say that up to four men were entombed alive, one in each corner of the fort. Of these, one was supposed to have been Rajiya's own son and another a Brahmin named Mehran. The story of the three additional men is however disputed, as it seems unlikely that Jodha would pick two men from the same family, while a Hindu king sacrificing a Brahmin, i.e. a priest, seems equally implausible. Those who believe the legend point to the name of the fort, Mehrangarh, to prove its likelihood, while those who dispute it argue that the fort is named for the sun, known as “mehr” in Rajasthani.

Over the centuries that followed the Rathore family grew in power and as they did so they further developed and expanded their fort. Its battlements were strengthened by Rao Maldev (1532-1562), during whose reign they were at the height of their power. The main gates, Fateh Pol and Jai Pol, were each built to celebrate a great victory – against the Mughals in 1707, and against the army of Jaipur a hundred years later. Much of the palace that we see today is from the period of Maharaja Jaswant Singh (1638-1678). And perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the Rathores in all of this is that Mehrangarh Fort has never once been successfully captured in a siege, standing firm through every onslaught.

Incidentally, while Jodhpur is now part of the State of Rajasthan there is still a maharaja, although his title is mostly just decorative. He has a shiny new (well, early 20th century) palace in another part of the city, and his own website: www.maharajajodhpur.com/. But the Mehrangarh Fort still belongs to the family and is administered as a trust, established by the maharaja, Gaj Singh II, in 1972. The trust looks after the fort and the museum within it.

Our visit started as we passed through the Jai Pol (Victory Gate). This was built by Maharaja Man Singh in 1806 to commemorate victories over the armies of Jaipur and Bikaner. On the outside of this gate are some interesting paintings depicting these battles.

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Jai Pol battle scenes

Beyond this point you have a choice – a steep climb uphill through several more gates or, for a small additional fee (35 IR in 2015), taking the lift which has been cleverly cut into the rock. This had been prepaid for us by TransIndus and I wasn’t sorry to take advantage of it, but after our visit we walked down so we did get to see the other gates.

The lift deposited us in the Shrinagar Chowk or Anointment Courtyard. This was used for royal ceremonies such as the anointing of maharajas and you can see a throne used for the crowning of the current Maharaja Gaj Singh II. A board nearby has photos of that event.

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Shrinagar Chowk

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Throne and coronation scenes

From Shrinagar Chowk you get wonderful views of the city below.

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We lingered a while in the courtyard as a dance performance was taking place, part of the Jodhpur RIFF. This is the Rajasthan International Folk Festival, and it was something of a bonus for us that it was happening while we were here, as our tour of the fort was punctuated with music and dance performances. There is a week-long programme of staged performances, in the Mehrangarh Fort and elsewhere in the city, featuring Rajasthani, Indian and some international performers – I spotted Scottish folk, reggae (with musicians from Ghana, Iran, Germany and Bolivia), Brazilian Latin and Spanish flamenco among others. We didn’t get a chance to attend any of these, as we were only here for a few hours, but we did benefit from the several semi-impromptu performances that were taking place in different parts of the fort. These are described in the programme as “Fort Festivities” and are held on the first three whole days of the event (we were here on the second). The programme website in 2015 (www.jodhpurriff.org/) described these as follows:

“As you wander through the Mehrangarh Museum in the fort, taste the myriad flavours of a variety of traditional dance forms reflecting the distinctive root traditions of Rajasthan – some known and some not so well known. Various forms including Terahtaali, a devotional dance form of Kamad community honouring their folk hero Baba Ramdev; Kalbeliya, probably amongst the best internationally known of Rajasthan's nomadic communities, easily claiming to be the state's resident experts on snakes; Gair, the martial looking visual spectacle from Marwar”

I especially enjoyed the first performance we watched, in the Shrinagar Chowk, and made a little video of the dancers. I also found a good video on YouTube of another Gair dance performance and one of the Terahtaali.

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RIFF performers

Mehrangarh Fort: museum exhibits

Unlike many of the other forts we visited, much of Mehrangarh is devoted to museum-style exhibits rather than restored rooms – in fact, there are fourteen display rooms and just four “period rooms”. While this made a change, on the whole I preferred seeing the old furniture etc. in a room setting. It’s possible too that my experience of visiting these displays was adversely affected by our guide who, although informative, seemed much of the time to be in a bit of a rush, and in particular irritated us by several times by insisting that Indian visitors move aside to let us look in a display case. We would have been more than happy to take our turn, or to look at something else instead while we waited.

Having said all that, there was lots to enjoy and admire here. I was especially fascinated by the howdahs and palanquins displayed in the rooms around the Shrinagar Chowk, and our guide was helpful in pointing out the different constructions and designs. The howdahs were made of wood, and many were beautifully decorated in silver or gold. They were used by maharajas for travel or hunting (hence the lion that appears on many of them) and all have an additional smaller seat for a servant to sit and fan the important passenger.

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Howdahs

The palanquins could be used by men or women, and the design differs accordingly, with those for ladies having screens or curtains for privacy and little peepholes so they could look out.

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In the Palanquin Gallery

Other collections are dotted throughout the complex. Among those we saw were the paintings (in the regional Marwar style – very rich and colourful), various weapons (many of them intricately worked but of less appeal for me) and various treasures and textiles.

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Another of the exhibits

Mehrangarh Fort: state rooms

Although there are some wonderful treasures in the museum collections, and I liked a lot of what we saw, the best part of the fort for me were the four period or state rooms. I loved the richness of these rooms which are on the whole in very good condition – perhaps in part because you are not able to enter any but have to look in from a doorway.

Palace of Flowers / Phool Mahal

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This, possibly the grandest of the state rooms, was created by Maharaja Abhaya Singh (1724-1749) and decorated with gold seized in Gujarat as war booty. It is thought to have been the maharaja’s pleasure palace, where he would sit on his throne and be entertained by dancing girls, music etc. It was also used for private celebrations, such as birthdays. It was modified in the mid 19th century and the paintings around the cornice date from that time, although the wall and column painting is original.

Hall of Mirrors / Sheesh Mahal

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This is in the Raiput style, different from the Mughal Sheesh Mahals we had seen elsewhere (such as the Amber Fort) in having larger, more evenly shaped pieces of mirror rather than small mosaic fragments. Also, there are paintings superimposed on the mirror work in places and these show religious figures (among them Brahma, Shiva, Krishna and Ganesh all sit enthroned; while elsewhere Krishna plays the flute and Rama and Sita confer with Hanuman). These paintings have led to the conclusion that this palace was used not for the rather decadent pleasures enjoyed in such richly adorned rooms elsewhere but for worship or, as our guide suggested, meditation.

Takhat Vilas

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This colourful room was built by Maharaja Takhat Singh (1843-1873), the last of Jodhpur's rulers to live in the Mehrangarh Fort. It blends traditional styles with some more recent influences. Takhat clearly liked colour, as the glass balls hanging from the ceiling like giant Christmas ornaments show. There are also beautiful paintings on the walls and on the wooden ceiling beams, showing various scenes – some religious, some from folk tales and even a favourite sport of the Rathores, pig-sticking. The floor here is painted to look like a carpet.

Pearl Palace / Moti Mahal

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This is the largest and I believe the oldest of the period rooms at Mehrangarh, having been built by Raja Sur Singh (1595-1619). It was used as a hall of private audience, where the maharaja could discuss matters of state with his closest advisors. It is located within the Zenana or ladies’ section of the complex and has five alcoves which lead to hidden balconies where, it is thought, the queen and most favoured ladies of the court could listen in on the discussions and later their views sought by the maharaja. If this is so, he must have been somewhat ahead of his time in recognising the value of female advice!

Some more images from Mehrangarh Fort

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Visitors to the fort

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Museum guards

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Interior, and old doorway

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Leaving the fort

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At the Gadisar Lake in Jaisalmer we had seen the memorials to the wives who had committed sati (self-immolation) following the death of their husband, as was the custom in this part of the world at one time among the upper castes. We were to be reminded of that again here at Mehrangarh Fort. After our visit, as we descended the path down through the various gates, we saw by the Loha Pol (Iron Gate) these handprints on the wall. There are 31 on this side (the right as you go down) and five on the other. They commemorate the royal queens who immolated themselves on the death of their husbands, the maharajas. Among them were the six queens said to have immolated themselves on Ajit Singh’s funeral pyre in 1724 (as did 58 concubines though I don’t know if they were accorded any memorial).

The old city

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Ghanta Ghar and market

After our visit to the fort we went into the heart of the old city where bustling Sardar Market lies in the shadow of the old clock tower, Ghanta Ghar. The tower was built by Maharaja Sardar Singh (1880-1911), after whom the market is named. Our guide pointed out that it looked very English, but we thought it looked more Indian!

The market is, as are most markets, a great place for photography. Although there are tourists here aplenty, and also plenty of the items tourists love to buy (bangles, textiles etc.) it is very much a local market too, with streets selling all sorts of everyday foods and practical items. We walked through an area where most stalls had fruits or vegetables or herbs – one selling nothing but apples, another only shallots and yet another with mounds of fragrant coriander.

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Market stalls

In the surrounding streets we found small shops with a wider variety of goods, tiny temples tucked among them, and a few houses and hotels painted in the traditional Brahmin blue. And everywhere something else to photograph!

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Old town street scenes

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Jodhpur is often referred to as the Blue City, and with good reason. Many houses in the old city are washed in a soft shade of blue. Traditionally this colour was used only by Brahmins and is still most noticeable on the north side of town, known as Brahmpuri, where many of them live. There are two commonly cited reasons. One is practical – the colour is made by adding copper sulphate to the lime wash, because the copper is thought to repel the termites that live in this desert region. In the past this copper was expensive, so only the upper castes, the Brahmins, could afford it. The other reason sometimes given is one of status, as blue is a royal colour and the Brahmins wanted to associate themselves with royalty.

Today though, we were told, this blue shade one of the cheapest colour washes to buy, and people of all castes use it. We were also to find that it is not exclusive to Jodhpur as we saw many such blue houses in Bundi, among other places. Disappointingly we didn’t have time to walk the streets of Brahmpuri but we did find some beautiful blue-washed houses dotted around the market area of the old city.

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And, as everywhere we went in India, I found myself taking almost as many photos of the local people as I did of the sights. Characterful faces, colourful clothing and a way of life rather different from ours in England made for endless fascination. We passed one shop where the owner was hard at work giving it a new coat of paint ready for the festival season, and what a bright, cheerful colour he had chosen.

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Later our guide persuaded us to visit a shop selling what I had to admit were very lovely fabrics, but I resisted the urge to buy and instead sat back and enjoyed the patter of the rather flamboyant young man trying to persuade me to part with my money. You can see him below, modelling a shawl in a design he claimed was created especially for Donna Karan – or was this one for Hermes or some other famous designer???

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I know there was much in Jodhpur that we didn’t get to see, notably those blue Brahmin houses of Brahmpuri, but we still had some miles to cover to get to our destination for that night, Narlai …

Posted by ToonSarah 03:21 Archived in India Tagged people history india colour fort market music festival jodhpur rajasthan Comments (4)

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