Category Archives: travel

Santorini is Stunningly Splendid in Every Way

Towering Cliffs, White Washed Buildings and Turquoise Blue Waters

My wife and I embarked on our fifth cruise recently. We chose a Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) ship, the Norwegian Star for the seven-night cruise to the exotic Greek Islands.

How many of us know that Greece has actually 1200 to 6000 islands depending on the minimum size one takes into account? Of this huge number, only about 160 plus islands are inhabited.

We also went on a shore excursion in Kotor, Montenegro at the start of the cruise and another shore excursion in Dubrovnik, Croatia on the last leg of the cruise. ‘Kotor’ in Bahasa Malaysia means dirty. I was, as such, intrigued by the name.

Montenegro is one of the six republics that made up the former Yugoslavia under one of the Non-Aligned Movement’s (NAM) strongman named Tito.

Montenegro Was a Disappointment

Kotor was not dirty but it was drab looking. It was a real waste of time because it took about an hour’s drive to get to our first destination through a bleak and dreary countryside with no redeeming or outstanding features. The ancient city of Budva was a little better and it is kissed by the open Adriatic Sea. It had some interesting buildings.

However, the people of Montenegro did not seem friendly to the throngs of people visiting the area. In addition and this is a big point, whilst they desperately want the tourists, they have yet to provide proper and easily accessible clean toilets. This is a major drawback. Many in our group found this absence of proper and accessible toilets a real turn off.

Dubrovnik Is a Beautiful City

A day before we returned to Venice, Italy we made a stopover in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

We had heard rave reviews about Dubrovnik and many commented that it is a beautiful city.  In fact, we know of a couple, friends of ours from Canberra, Australia, who spent four weeks on vacation in Dubrovnik two years ago. They liked the city a lot. And so it was a great relief that all these reviews and commentaries were actually spot on.

Dubrovnik is certainly a beautiful and well laid out city with a charm of its own. We chose to go on the Croatian Riviera and Dubrovnik tour. It turned out to be a great choice. The drive through the picturesque villages was most enjoyable and we got to see cattle and goats grazing in the fields against the backdrop of the beautiful mountains.

Cascading Waters of Ljuta River

The highlight of the tour through the fertile Konavle Valley for us was the stop for a light snack at a restaurant located in an old mill next to the cascading waters of the Ljuta River. The setting was simply ideal and one could see and hear the rush of crystal clean water from the nearby mountain as one contemplated the unbelievably scenic and peaceful surroundings.

The delightful light snack consisted of local specialities such as Croatian smoked ham, cheese, homemade bread and a glass of local wine. The charming waitresses dressed in their colourful national costumes offered us a choice of red or white wine.

Corfu Captivates the Visitor

During our cruise, we had a chance to make three other shore excursions to the following Greek islands: Mykonos, Corfu and Santorini. Of these, Santorini really impressed me a lot.

In Corfu, we chose to go on the Achilleion Palace and Corfu Town tour. We drove through the lovely countryside dotted with lemon and olive trees to reach the charming village of Gastouri where the majestic Achilleion Palace stands. While driving throughout Greece we noticed that the roads are in good condition and well maintained. The palace has beautiful gardens full of exotic flowers surrounding the building.

We also enjoyed our walk from the tree-lined main square to the Old Town. Here we saw historical sites such as the Venetian quarters, the Town Hall and the Church of St. Spyridon, patron saint of Corfu. The shops and sights of the Old Town were quite interesting and my wife did some shopping here. We also had time for a light snack in one of the many breezy cafes.

Santorini: Breathtaking in its Beauty

As we got into the tender from our cruise ship which had anchored some distance from the port and headed out to the island of Santorini, I was struck by its imposing sight. The island has an incredible majesty about it as one approaches.

The island formed as a result of a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago is a sight to behold with its rugged and craggy face. According to experts that volcanic eruption was ten times more powerful than the one from Krakatova, Indonesia in 1883!

The city of 15,000 inhabitants is situated on an island in the Southern Aegean Sea. It certainly has highly acclaimed and dramatic views and stunning sunsets. And to make matters really dramatic, Santorini is perched on the rim of a massive active volcano.

White Washed Buildings & Towering Cliffs

White washed buildings are a regular and most pleasant feature in Greece. If your building/house faces the sea, then you are only allowed to paint your wooden window frames in the colour blue. If your house faces the hillside, then you can paint the window frames in brown. All houses must be white-washed. This decree by a dictator many years ago still remains in force.

Dancing to Zorba the Greek

We had our lunch in a modern, well-built Greek restaurant named Pyrgos Tavern situated in one of the oldest settlements and the highest village on the island. We enjoyed traditional Greek food, music, wine and dances. The food was very good but I thought they should have included lamb, octopus and squid in the buffet menu.

The fun part was the Greek style celebration – OPA! A couple of dances were performed by four Greek lasses in traditional costumes and this was followed by a livelier version of dancing much like in the movie, Zorba the Greek starring Anthony Quinn. This time, a male dancer joined in and he was equal to the task and gave a spirited display of his prowess in this field. Then the lasses and the male dancer approached the diners and invited them on to the dance floor. Soon the place was throbbing to the sounds of good music and lively dancing.

Finally, all present had a smashing time breaking plates with much joy and gusto. I must mention here that throughout our trip to the Greek islands, there was easy availability of clean and well-maintained toilets. For some of them, one has to pay a small fee to use.

Some Interesting Facts about Santorini

Here are some interesting facts about Santorini.

  1. The seas around Santorini are a shimmering turquoise blue. Really beautiful to behold. The only other place where I have seen the seas so beautiful is in the Caribbean island of Barbados.
  2. There are more churches on the island than homes. These small churches were built by grateful sailors in honour of the saints who saved them from a watery grave while at sea.
  3. The export of pumice stones is a big business on the island.
  4. There are more than 100 varieties of grapes on Santorini. The island produces good quality wine and more than 89% is white wine.
  5. There are more donkeys than men on the islands. Donkeys are used to carry goods and the luggage of tourists up the steep, winding slopes and steps all around the islands.

How Did We Get to the Top of the Island?

We travelled up to the mountain top in a comfortable bus driven by a very experienced and capable driver. He needed to be experienced to be able to drive with some degree of sure-footedness up the very narrow winding road. At some points, it was quite scary to look out at the scenes below us but it was not a white-knuckle drive all the way. We enjoyed the breathtaking scenery as the bus slowly snaked its way up the narrow mountain roads.

We had three options for descending from the mountain. One was by slowly trekking down the 500 plus steps to the bottom. The other was to hitch a bumpy and smelly donkey ride down. We all opted for the third option and that was to take the cable car down in just a few minutes. Incidentally, the cable car system was built and donated by a rich and well-established family on the island as its community service contribution.

One Final Thought

If I have the opportunity and the time, I would certainly like to re-visit both Santorini and Dubrovnik. There is so much more to know, experience and enjoy about these two amazing places. One needs to spend at least a week in each place to soak in the atmosphere and explore the hidden nooks and corners of these exotic places. And this time around, I will certainly be a traveller and not a tourist.

#travel #Dubrovnik #Santorini #Corfu #Montenegro

Going on a sea or river cruise

A one of a kind experience

 

In a 1996 Harper’s magazine essay initially titled  Shipping Out  celebrated novelist, short story writer and essayist, the late David Foster Wallace was critical of cruising as a holiday option. David was also a professor of English and creative writing. This article of his appeared in the magazine with the revised title ‘ A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again.’  That was David Wallace’s opinion.

However, there are literally thousands who are regular cruisers who beg to differ. Some have gone on five cruises; others have been on more than 12 cruises!

There is even one senior widow with means to match, who rather than stay in an upmarket retirement home, chooses to go on cruise after cruise in the same ship. She likes the way she is treated by the crew, all the cleaning is taken care of in a professional manner and the meals are excellent. There is nothing more she could ask for.

My wife and I embarked on our very first cruise some years ago when we went on a  Royal Caribbean International cruise from Shanghai, China to Fukuoka and Kobe in Japan and then to Seoul and Jeju in South Korea before returning to Shanghai. It was a short cruise lasting a mere seven days. It was a unique and joyful experience.

Many Intriguing Stories

We had heard many intriguing stories about cruises… both good and bad and were, therefore, somewhat apprehensive.  However, we both really wanted to experience this holiday option for ourselves.

We also took the necessary precautions and brought along some special pills to take to prevent sea sickness. We were joined on this cruise by a couple from Australia. The husband happened to be a schoolmate of mine from St John’s Institution in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Both my wife and I took the special pills as a precaution before the ship sailed from the port of Shanghai. My friend and I enjoyed the experience but both our wives were initially affected by the cruise. It was not all that plain sailing for them.

They felt seasick, wanted to throw up and decided to retire to their cabins to lie down. By the way, cabins on cruise ships are given grand names i.e. stateroom. However, I must say that both recovered soon enough to enjoy the rest of the cruise.

Rough Seas and Stabiliser Fins

Crossing the seas to get to the Japanese port cities proved to be quite an experience as the seas were quite rough. However, modern cruise ships are equipped with huge stabiliser fins on either side of the ship. When conditions warrant it, like in this case, these fins were deployed and that helped a lot. I must also add that the rest of the cruise was plain sailing and enjoyable all the way.

Major Benefits of Cruising

We have gone on two other sea cruises since then and recently we experienced our very first river cruise. That is a whole different experience altogether.

So what are the benefits of cruising?

1.It is a very relaxed and enjoyable way of having a holiday

Yes, as you might have suspected most of the passengers are retired senior citizens…  some in their seventies, others in the late eighties and a few in their nineties too! Quite a few are with their walking sticks and a some get around in their comfortable, high-tech motorised wheelchairs.

2.There is a wide variety of good food in the various dining locations on board the luxury cruise ships

Passengers can choose to dine in a formal setting for breakfast, lunch and dinner or they can choose to go for the informal, buffet options. We chose the formal settings because in the Royal Caribbean International cruise ships, you are assigned a particular table for all your meals. You are also assigned a particular waiter to serve you during the meals. In addition, there is no pushing and shoving especially by some uncouth passengers in the buffet locations. In the buffet locations too, you can also invariably witness a few passengers displaying their ugly side by piling food on their plates!

In addition, food is available at no extra charge throughout the day and even late at night, if you are still hungry. However, you will need to pay for beer, wine and martinis if those are your preferred poisons!

3.We were able to keep up with our exercise regimen throughout the cruise

We went for brisk walks on certain decks and were able to walk all around the huge ship. We normally aimed to complete three rounds. This was certainly a most pleasant way to exercise while taking in the lovely scenery and at the same time watching the ship sail majestically through the calm waters. At times, in the morning and also at sunset, the views were simply breathtaking.

4. The Eagerly Awaited Shore Excursions

We were able to make brief visits to interesting places when we docked at the ports of certain cities. These excursions were quite enjoyable but I must confess that these were often fairly rushed visits and somewhat overpriced. The best part, however, is that they are properly organised and comfortable transport is provided. The onus is on the ship’s crew to see to it that we return to the ship in proper time and before the ship sets sail again.

We are also advised by the ship’s crew in charge of the shore excursions on the difficulty level of each shore excursion. They even recommend the type of shoe to be worn for certain walking tours. In a few cases, even bicycle tours are arranged for the more athletic types!

There are cases of individuals who decide to go on their own to explore the city and in some unfortunate instances get lost or arrive late at the port. The ship does not wait for such passengers. It is their responsibility then to get to the next port of call in order to rejoin the cruise! Hopefully, it is a lesson well learnt.

5. Pack – Unpack – Repack

Unlike well conducted and escorted tours of cities with reputable travel and tour companies like Trafalgar and Insight in the United Kingdom, there was no need to pack, unpack and re-pack at each port of call. This was a real hassle during escorted tours. Here your stateroom travels with you and it gets properly cleaned and maintained twice a day by the housekeeping staff.

6.  Entertaining Shows Every Night

Every night there are two shows that one is able to watch in the ship’s large, grand and comfortable theatre. If you decide to go for an early dinner, then you can opt to catch the second show for the night. Those who decide to go for a later dinner are able to catch the first show.

These daily shows last for about an hour plus and feature mostly talented crew members. Occasionally, some of the entertainers come on board at certain ports. Though these are not great shows, they are nevertheless quite entertaining. There is a different show each night. While the show is on, waiters and waitresses walk up and down the aisle taking your orders for drinks.

7. Other Facilities and Services

For those who love to gamble, all these cruise ships have casinos which only operate while we are in the open seas. The casinos are closed while the ship is in port. We gave this activity a miss because it is not our cup of tea! There were many who we noticed making a beeline for the casino when the ship was at sea. We chose instead to spend time in the comfortable library which was most conducive for some light reading. At other times, we joined a few passengers and played deck games.

8. Shop till you drop

And for those who like to shop, these big cruise ships have shops where you can shop till you drop. There are shops selling watches, pens, clothes, liquor, sweaters and shawls etc.

9. Swimming pools

There is also a decent sized gym on board and usually at least two swimming pools within the ship.

10. Personal care

In addition, these ships also have a beauty parlour for the ladies and a spa for those who wish to be pampered with a variety of massage options.

11. Delightful Champagne Jazz Brunch

Finally, for those looking for that extra oomph, there are usually a few speciality restaurants on board each cruise ship. One has to pay a fee of between US 10 to US 25 per head to dine in these restaurants. We felt the food was good enough on board the ship and so did not opt for this extra.

However, on one of our cruises, we opted for a promotion i.e. A Champagne Jazz Brunch for which we paid a mere US 10. It was well worth the price because the brunch and drinks were delightful and the jazz music by the 7 piece band was simply wonderful.

River Cruises Are Also Interesting

In addition to that first cruise, we also went on a Baltic cruise with RCI and a Mediterranean cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line. Of the three cruises, I rate the Mediterranean Cruise the best thus far.

It was simply very relaxing, the seas were super calm and delightful and the seas seemed to shimmer with a beautiful shade of blue and green. By the way, NCL is partly owned by a Malaysian gaming company that is based in Genting Highlands in Pahang, Malaysia.  Cruising with NCL offers one the opportunity to enjoy their version of it, minus the formality of other cruise lines. They refer to theirs as “ Free Style Cruising ‘. They do not assign you a table, nor a particular waiter throughout your cruise. You are free to choose your table. In addition, there is less formality on board.

Cruising On The River Rhine

In September 2016, we went on our first river cruise with another company called Ama Waterways. This is a fairly established company and they offer cruises not just in Europe but also in Asia and Africa.

We decided that we wanted to experience a different type of cruising. We also thought that the majestic River Rhine would be a great way to enjoy this new experience. Our 7 night The Enchanting Rhine cruise began at Amsterdam and took us on a leisurely trip initially to explore the legendary canals of Amsterdam.

After that, the cruise proceeded to Cologne, where we were able to catch a city tour and view the imposing Cologne Cathedral. From Cologne, we moved on to Koblenz where we had the pleasure of a pleasant evening walking tour of the small city. From here we moved on to the impressive Rhine Gorge. We saw many quaint medieval castles here as the ship sailed slowly past them.

We had two options to choose from when we arrived at another ancient city called Rudesheim: either a Wine Tasting session or a Gondola ride. We chose the gondola ride and we were surprised when what was on offer was a ride up to a hillside in a cable car!

Well, I guess, the choice of terminology can sometimes give you a wrong impression.  The ride up the hillside was exhilarating, to say the least, and the weather was just perfect for such an outing.

We continued on to other interesting towns like Heidelberg, Speyer and Strasbourg in France before returning to Breisach. The last leg of our journey was to Basel in Switzerland.

Differences between These Two Types of Cruising Options

In a sea cruise with the more established cruise lines like RCI, NCL and Holland America , it is quite common to have as many as 2,200 plus passengers on the ship together with a crew of 1,200. However, on a river cruise, the ship is much smaller and can accommodate only about 130 plus passengers with a crew of around 60.

The river cruise is much more sedate. There are no rough seas to deal with. There are, however, locks to contend with. So from time to time, we have had to patiently wait to go through locks before proceeding to the next destination. This marvellous engineering option allowed the ship to travel both upstream as well as downstream.

The staterooms are about the same size and like in sea cruises are thoroughly cleaned twice a day. On our ship, there was a tiny swimming pool, an even tinier gym where at the most only two people could exercise at the same time and a hair salon plus a spa.

All the meals were served in the main dining room which was small compared to the ones on sea going vessels. Those who did not wish to have a proper lunch or dinner could go to another part of the ship for a light meal. I must add that there was a free flow of wine and beer during lunch and dinner at no extra charge. At other times, one had to pay for a beer or a glass of wine.  Water, coffee, tea and biscuits were always available for hungry passengers in the common and comfortable lounge.

As you can see, cruising is gaining in popularity and they even have cruises for young adults who wish to have a more rugged and less costly experience. In addition, to further differentiate, there are also cruises for the more well-heeled passengers …. these are more like 6 or 7-star cruises, with a much smaller passenger load and with loads of extras thrown in.

So do consider taking the plunge and go on a cruise. My advice is to opt for a relatively enjoyable and safe cruise especially in the Mediterranean, the Baltic region or even the Greek islands. Then go for a river cruise to experience the difference. And finally, if you are prepared to brave the seas and the unexpected, go for an ocean cruise.

Vilnius, Lithuania reveals her many charms

Civic Pride and Cleanliness Reign

 

Recently my wife and I had another incredible opportunity to spend 12 nights in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. This came about because we had received an invitation from a close relative to come and discover the city. This relative has a smart, up-market two room furnished apartment right in the heart of the city and alongside the main road i.e. Gedimino Avenue.

We accepted the invitation and soon discovered many interesting and unusual facts about the city.

Where is Vilnius, Lithuania?

But first, where exactly is this country called Lithuania? It is a small country in Europe with a population of some three million people. The capital, Vilnius, has a population of 250,000 inhabitants, eighty per cent of whom are ethnic Lithuanians, eight per cent are Russian and another seven percent are Polish.

Lithuania is bordered by the Baltic Sea, another small country called Latvia and also Poland. It also has the unusual Russian enclave of Kaliningrad! It is one of the safest countries to visit in the whole of Europe. We can attest to that because we felt very safe and secure throughout our stay in Vilnius.

Early History and Growth of Vilnius

Vilnius is amazingly attractive and alluring with its labyrinthine Old Town cobblestone lanes and courtyards. It has its very own distinctive ambiance that is both charming as well as endearing. With proper shoes, walking on the well laid cobblestones can be quite a lot of fun.

Its first period of growth took place south of Cathedral Square right in the heart of Old Town. Standing majestically here is the imposing Cathedral – Basilica of St Stanislaus and St. Ladislaus. It remains to this day, the most important Catholic building in Lithuania. It was first built way back in 1251! It was partly destroyed and rebuilt a number of times.

Many people, I believe, visit the city of Vilnius to marvel at the interesting and unusual mix of Baroque, Gothic, Neoclassical and Renaissance architectural styles.

Next to it is Vilnius Cathedral Belfry… and it became a belfry only in the 16th century. Seeing it first hand, I was astounded to learn that the belfry is 57 metres high and quite wide at the bottom. No mere description can do justice to this building.

Dazzling Architectural Styles

Old Town in Vilnius achieved UNESCO world heritage status sometime in the early nineties. After walking through the Old Town on many occasions during my brief stay in the city, I can well understand why it earned this highly coveted status.  Many people, I believe, visit the city of Vilnius to marvel at the interesting and unusual mix of Baroque, Gothic, Neoclassical and Renaissance architectural styles.

It was such a pleasure to walk leisurely to Old Town and to take in the sights, sounds and feel of this wonderful, well preserved place. To me and my wife the whole city is clean but I later revised my opinion when I had a chance conversation with a senior gentleman from the Netherlands. To him, and I must stress here that this was his 5th visit to the city, he said that the city was not just clean but very clean!

Civic Pride and Cleanliness

He remarked that compared to the streets of Amsterdam which he said were quite dirty, Vilnius was exceptional. I had to agree with him because I have been to some major European cities and generally the streets are quite dirty because, in part, many of these cities have very many tourists on a regular basis. This was not the case with Vilnius. It has, I believe, yet to be discovered by hordes of tourists.

My wife and I did a lot of walking around to get a real feel for the city. We walked all over New Town as well as Old Town. We however liked Old Town better because of its unique charms and buildings.

No Cigarettes Butts on the Streets!

Walking was made that much easier because the pavements for pedestrians are wide enough and not crowded like most busy European capitals. There were thrash bins placed at strategic intervals and people actually used them. And nobody threw cigarette butts on the streets! Amazing self control or is this just a matter of civic pride?

It was also pleasant weather for the most part and the people of Vilnius did stop and help us out when we asked for directions……………….each and every time. Best of all, the people of Vilnius, not just the university students but also the middle aged and the not so young individuals all spoke and understood English. Let me add though that outside the capital of Vilnius, English is neither widely spoken nor understood.

Vilnius City Fiesta

It was just our good fortune that the day after we arrived in Vilnius, the city began three days of celebration. Titled Vilnius City Fiesta – 2 to 4 September, it was held on the avenue for about a mile just below my relative’s apartment building. How convenient for us!

There were properly erected, sturdy stalls set up the day before the event on Gedimino Avenue.  There were stalls selling cooked food – Lithuanian food is mainly hardy fare of meat and potatoes. Nothing was too exciting but solid stuff for the masses. There were also stalls selling grilled sausages of all types, cheese, biscuits, cookies etc. There were also stalls selling jewelleries, furniture, art works and paintings. Some stalls sold clothes, hats, caps etc.

For me, the best part of the City Fiesta was the  element of music …there was enough variety for all ages and groups. Two huge stages were set up at both ends of the avenue. From these stages, rock groups belted out popular numbers and I could see people moving and occasionally dancing to the beat. Families with young children were all over the fiesta grounds having a really good time.

People in Vilnius are more than willing to provide help and assistance when asked. In other major cities, they do not have the time for you. They are not prepared to stop and assist.

It was all good, heady stuff and I enjoyed the shows. Further down the avenue, we heard a jazz quintet playing beautiful music. As we walked along the avenue, we also heard buskers belting out numbers to a vey appreciate crowd. It was simply good clean fun…there was no rowdiness, fights or drunken displays by anyone in the crowd.

On day 4 when we came down from our apartment, we noticed that all the stalls had been dismantled and removed and the place cleaned up and restored to the way it was before the event. Such discipline is to be admired.

Other Strange Facts and Information 

  1. In addition to the city being very clean, I also noticed very little graffiti in the city. Most major cities of the world have the scourge of graffiti plastered all over the city. Vilnius is spared this scourge to some decent degree. Once again, I think it is civic pride that is so ingrained in the people.
  2. People in Vilnius are more than willing to provide help and assistance when asked. In other major cities, they do not have the time for you. They are not prepared to stop and assist.
  3. English is widely spoken and understood. Where this is not the case in a restaurant or department store, they will immediately summon someone who can assist us.
  4. There are no cigarette butts, cigarette packets or plastic wrappers carelessly thrown away and littering the streets!
  5. The country has a very small population of Sunni Muslims, about 7000 who, I have been informed, have integrated well with the rest of the population. These Muslims are very supportive of the government.
  6. Believe it or not. …………the first Lithuanians came to the country thousands of years ago from India!
  7. This information was conveyed to me by our guide who said he is also an amateur historian, during our brief visit to the resort town of Trakai. He said the Lithuanian language and Sanskrit are very similar. In addition, I would like to add that Sanskrit has been very important in the origin and development of comparative Indo-European linguistics.
  8. Cost of living in Vilnius is really low. Three racks of meat on the bone cost 3 Euro. A can of beer ( larger than normal ) 42 cents and I purchased a bottle of fairly good wine ( Merlot ) for about 3 Euro.
  9. There is a wide variety of good restaurants including those that cater for the Asian palate i.e. Thai, Chinese, Indian and Japanese.
  10. All statues of prominent Russian personalities and heroes i.e. Stalin, Lenin etc have been removed from the capital and relocated to a small town 120 kilometres away.
  11. Unfortunately, Vilnius too has its share of rogue taxi drivers. The taxi ride from the airport to our apartment was a whopping 15 Euro by a truly dishonest young taxi driver. However, our trip to the airport for the return journey home by a middle aged taxi driver cost us only 5 Euro. Even the tourist brochures warn us to be careful about this matter.

Trakai: Picture Postcard Perfect

Towards the end of our stay in Vilnius we decided to visit the resort town of Trakai. It is just a 45 minute drive to the town in a comfortable, medium sized Mercedes Benz bus. Trakai only has a population of about 7,500 residents. It has all the other facilities of a modern town, complete with hotels, restaurants, post offices, hospitals, pharmacies etc. However, the one drawback is the lack of sufficient and decent toilet facilities for the crowds of tourists.

My first impression of Trakai is of a picture perfect postcard setting. I marvelled at how tranquil the place seemed. Trakai boasts thirteen beautiful and charming lakes within and around the town! We stopped at the regular rest area which happened to be directly opposite the only remaining castle. Even this castle was only partly ancient, the bottom part and partly modern….which made it look rather incongruous!

There were two other castles there in the past but these were destroyed during the occupation.

The rest area was dotted with a succession of souvenir shops, bars and restaurants and we stopped at a restaurant for a local meal. We had a local version of curry puff but there was no curry in it…… it was just meat, potatoes and cheese. It was more like a pasty… a convenience food. A pasty is actually a baked pastry.

I noticed many sturdy wooden houses here. Some seemed old and weather beaten while others looked fairly new and impressive. It gave the town a different feel and seemed to fit in well with the town’s image as a tourist draw.

Go For the Path Less Travelled

If you are tired of the packaged tours and the usual countries to visit in Europe, then do give a thought to visiting Vilnius. It has much to offer and you do not need to book any tours or need a guide. Cost wise, it can be a dream vacation and from a safety angle, it is a place that is relatively free of crime. Here you can choose to be a real traveller rather than a tourist.

Some of my friends just came back from a holiday to Italy and another to France. Both said these countries had very interesting sights to see and marvel at. However, they felt unsafe, especially from pickpockets in some places. One friend also grumbled about racist shopkeepers, the huge crowd of tourists and unfriendly sections of the population. This is the price one has to pay to visit the popular countries. In that sense, Vilnius will be a complete change and it will also be easier on the pocket.

Connecting the Lights

Facts, Mysteries and Eurasians

Two weeks ago, I received an email notification of a very interesting and fascinating Sunday afternoon programme at a leading hotel in Penang. After carefully perusing the attached flyer, I decided to make a trip up north and to attend the programme which incidentally featured a distinguished panel of speakers.

What does the average Malaysian know about Francis Light and Colonel William Light?

Now what was this programme, ‘ Connecting The Lights “ all about? It was about Sir Captain Francis Light, the founder of Penang, his son Colonel William Light and his wife and William’s mother, Lady Martina Rozzels.

What does the average Malaysian know about Francis Light and Colonel William Light? Who was that elusive and highly attractive Eurasian Lady, Martina Rozzels? So little is written or captured about her in the various historical documents.

Penang Continues to Fascinate

I must confess that I have always been fascinated with the island. Part of the reason could be that I spent a good two years on that island during my younger days at the small teacher training college, St Joseph’s Training College, meant to prepare La Salle Brothers to be teachers.

The La Salle Brothers also took in a few lay students, like me, who after training taught alongside the La Salle Brothers in the many mission schools throughout Malaysia. My college hostel was in Burmah Road and right in the heart of Pulau Tikus and next to the Eurasian Village ( Kampong Serani ).

Cultural Melting Pot

In addition, the whole island was and still is a cultural melting pot. I could see on a daily basis a procession of young Thai girls, dressed stylishly in jeans of all hues walking past our hostel. They were on their way to the local commercial institute in the area to be trained in typewriting, shorthand and secretarial skills.

In addition, when we attended local parties on some weekends, there was always a good mix of guests: Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians and even Australians. The Royal Australian Air Force had a base in Penang and its personnel mixed very well with the locals.

Even then, Penang was an established culinary paradise. It had such an array of local dishes and one only needed to know where to go for a particular dish. For me then, it was Gurney Drive for char kueh teow and Dato Keramat for Leng Chee Kiang and / or Lobak! There were other places to go to for Nasi Kandar,  Assam Laksa and Cendol.

Distinguished Panel of Speakers

The organisers of the event, George Town Festival, had invited the following individuals: Marcus Langdon, a Penang-based author; Datuk Wira Mohd Shariff, a Kedah historian and a former district officer in Kedah; Kelly Henderson, a social activist and Parklands advocate from Adelaide; and Dato Dr. Anthony Sibert, Eurasian historian.

One of the collaborators in the event was The Royale Bintang Penang, a 4-star hotel which is housed in a heritage building built in the 1890s which belonged to Boustead & Company. This event was also to mark and celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Penang Heritage Trust.

Marcus Langdon’s Contribution

Marcus Langdon was given the honour of making the first presentation.

Marcus has extensive knowledge of Penang’s early history because he has spent many years and much time researching the matter. He himself has a connection to Penang because one of his great, great grandfathers was the principal of Penang Free School!

In addition, Marcus has published two major books: Penang – The Fourth Presidency of India 1803 to 1830 Volume 1 ( Ships, Men and Mansions ) and Volume 2 ( Fire, Spice and Edifice ).

Some Facts about Francis Light

We were informed by Marcus that Francis Light enlisted in the Royal Navy at the tender age of thirteen! We were also told that he was a linguist. Francis Light could speak Bahasa Malaysia / Indonesia very well. He was also conversant with the local customs and traditions and was able to get along well with both the Sultan of Kedah as well as the Thai King. He also served for a brief period in Aceh, Indonesia. Believe or not, he was able to even read and write Jawi.

He could not only speak the Thai language quite well but he had taken the trouble to master the refined form of the Thai language used in the Royal Court. This must have surely impressed the royal families in both Kedah and Thailand.

What this indicates quite clearly is that Francis Light was a self-made man who believed in the concept of life-long education.

In addition, we were informed that Francis Light was a man of impressive diplomatic skills. Furthermore, he was equally adept in negotiations and was considered a superb negotiator.

Keep in mind that this was a man who had enlisted in the Royal Navy at the age of thirteen. What this indicates quite clearly is that Francis Light was a self-made man who believed in the concept of life-long education. All these remarkable qualities and abilities of his must have impressed his ultimate bosses in the East India Company ( EIC ) in Calcutta, India.

Enigmatic Lady Martina Rozzels

Lady Martina Rozzels remains to this day an enigma! What we do know is that she somehow managed to capture the heart of Francis Light. She had two children with Francis Light… a son, Colonel William Light and a daughter.

William Light, like his illustrious father, also joined the Royal Navy initially but later on, he became an army officer rising to the exalted rank of colonel. Part of the reason for his rapid rise in the military may have been due to his birthplace being given as Suffolk, England. He was thus seen and accepted as an Englishman. Was this for strategic and career reasons?  In actual fact, he was born in Penang and is a bona fide Eurasian.

One of the speakers at the event, Datuk Wira Mohd Shariff made a fairly startling claim. According to him, a Kedah princess named Siti Zubaidah had taken on the identity of Martina Rozzels in order to marry Francis Light. She had used this Portuguese name to assume that identity. This revelation, for what it is worth, only deepens the mystery of who actually is Lady Martina Rozzels.

There are other accounts that state Lady Martina Rozzels moved from Phuket to Penang with a number of other Eurasian family members because of war and unrest in the Thai island at that time. She is to be credited, in part, for opening the doors for the La Salle Brothers coming to Penang. St Xavier’s Institution was the first La Salle school to be established in Malaysia.

Contributions from the Other Speakers

The other speakers, Datuk Wira Mohd Shariff and Kelly Henderson also gave brief presentations. Datuk Wira touched on the Kedah connections in general while Kelly Henderson talked about William Light’s role in the founding of Adelaide.

William Light admired his father’s role in the founding of Penang and wanted to leave a similar mark. As such, just as Francis Light has a statue in his honour in Penang, William Light too has a statue in his honour in Adelaide. Like father, like son!

Like his father, William Light too was a noted linguist. His plans for the city of Adelaide are considered priceless, especially his efforts at surveying for the ideal spot to locate the city. It is readily acknowledged that his decision to locate the city in that particular part was simply brilliant.

Dato Dr. Anthony Sibert however, did not turn up due to unavoidable circumstances. His contribution was nevertheless presented very briefly by one of the organisers.

Kudos to Joe Sidek

Credit should be given to a remarkable person i.e. Joe Sidek for the success of the event. As festival director for the George Town Festival for many years, he has managed to make it a successful annual happening.

It should be borne in mind that the George Town Festival started out as a celebration of George Town’s heritage status. The fact that it has since evolved into an international showcase of arts, culture and music is a great tribute to Joe Sidek, his team and the enthusiastic volunteers who lend valuable support for its various activities.

Rustic Charms of Larut Hills : Suggestions to Make It a More Enjoyable Experience

In early July, my party of four friends made a long awaited trip up Larut Hills in Taiping. Larut Hills was formerly known as Maxwell Hills. It is not as well known in Malaysia as Cameron Highlands or even Fraser’s Hill.

Taiping is a choice destination for retirees in Malaysia who prefer its ideal, laid back location.

It was developed during the time of British colonial rule as a cool retreat for British civil servants. Taiping is the second biggest town in the state of Perak in Malaysia and it also has the distinction of being the wettest town because it receives the most rainfall in a year.

Taiping is a choice destination for retirees in Malaysia who prefer its ideal, laid back location. It is less than an hour’s drive from Ipoh, the capital of the state. It has a peaceful and tranquil atmosphere and the town is lovingly embraced by the graceful Larut Hills. Taiping also has the most beautiful Lake Gardens in all of Malaysia.

Second Attempt To Ascend

On an earlier trip to Taiping, I had made an effort to go up this lesser known hill but without any success. Although my wife and I went to the government office at the foot of the hill to purchase tickets for the ride up the hill in a Land Rover early that morning, we were informed that all tickets for that day were sold out.

The department in charge of offering the rides only has a few Land Rovers, some capable of sitting four passengers and others capable of sitting six passengers. Each trip up the hill takes about thirty minutes and after about an hour and a half, the return journey is made. The return journey takes about the same time.

Luck Smiles On Us

On this attempt in July, luck was on our side. We managed to get tickets up the hill on the very first ride up at about 9.00 am. The tickets were priced at RM 3.00 one way and this meant that for the return journey we only had to fork out RM 6.00 per person. This is an unusually low fare for what it actually entails. If this service is being offered by a private operator, I am sure that the fare will be much higher.

We set out for the journey with an experienced, friendly and talkative driver who incidentally makes about five trips a day during the peak season. On slow days, he makes about three trips. According to him this is an interesting job without any stress and moreover he gets to meet and interact with both local and foreign tourists.

Drive On The Wild Side

The drive up the very narrow and steep road to the hill was an unforgettable and enjoyable experience. Do remember that this narrow trail… not really a road was first constructed more than one hundred and fifty years ago!

The brochure advertising the drive up the hill stated that there are 78 curves to navigate and that 72 of these were sharp curves!

It remains basically the same and looks very rugged and challenging to navigate. Only government Land Rovers and four wheel drive vehicles are permitted up the hill. No one can simply drive up the hill. He has to take a drive up on a Land Rover operated by that government department.

72 Sharp Curves To Negotiate

The Land Rover we had was an old but powerful one which was able to meet the challenge of going up the steep gradient with relative ease. The drive, however, was a different story because we could feel all the bumps and jolts. The brochure advertising the drive up the hill stated that there are 78 curves to navigate and that 72 of these were sharp curves!

Along the way, we often came perilously close, sometime just inches, to rock outcrops as the Land Rover made its way up the muddy trail. If one cared to look out, he could easily see that there are occasionally also steep ravines to one side. It all made for one heck of a pulsating adventure, drive wise. I could see that my knuckles were turning white from the effort to hold on to the side of the door while the vehicle made its way up.

The Summit and its Surrounds

Just as it had been advertised, we arrived at the summit in about 30 minutes. There are about five bungalows on the hill, all of which I was told could be rented. We were also shown a big bungalow that was used by royals when they went up the hill in the past.

We also noticed a small café at the summit but discovered that it had ceased operations some time ago. This would have been a nice place to relax, take in the sights and have tea and scones or even a light meal.

The view of Taiping way down below was simply breathtaking. It was also much cooler and simply lovely to walk about in such a climate and lucky for us, it did not rain on that morning. We had also brought along some mineral water and biscuits but it would have been nice to have had a place to go for drinks and some bites.

There are also toilet facilities at the summit for both men and women. These were relatively clean. In the women’s toilet, however, I was informed that the lights were not working and the place was dark.

Some Suggestions For Improvement

  • Safety Of Passengers: I would like to suggest that it be a mandatory requirement for all passengers in the Land Rover to use seat belts, including the driver. I cannot remember if the Land Rover was fitted with seat belts. I found it strange that the driver said there was no need for seat belts. Passenger safety, especially for such ‘ extreme drives ‘ must be given paramount consideration.
  • Toilets Need To Be Regularly Maintained: The public toilets need to be cleaned and maintained at regular intervals. If there is a need to impose a small fee, by all means do so.
  • Overhead Safety Straps: There is also a need for the Land Rover to be equipped with overhead safety straps, especially for those in the back of the vehicle. It will be very helpful for passengers to hold on to these for support during the rough drive. Otherwise, there is a real possibility of being thrown out during one of the sharp turns!
  • A Café Is Needed: A café or two is needed on the summit. Passengers need to get a warm drink and maybe a bite or two. There should also be provision for light lunch. And maybe provision also for Afternoon English Tea.
  • Bring a Picnic Basket: As there is no café or restaurant on the hill at present, it will be a good idea to bring along a picnic basket. Pack some delicious sandwiches, hot dogs, curry puffs, nonya cakes and maybe some packets of nasi lemak. Alternatively, you can also bring along some hot chicken curry and string hoppers or fried noodles. Do remember to bring along some hot and cold drinks too. There are some park benches around … not many though.

These are just some suggestions so that all Malaysians and tourists who make the trip up Larut Hills get to fully enjoy the hill, the fabulous view and the facilities.

Larut Hills has a lot of potential and it is hoped that in the not too distant future, it can be further developed and made more attractive.