Saturday, July 23, 2011

Vamsee's list of Must-See Places in the World - Valley of Temples, Agrigento, Italy

There are many reasons why people travel - to see new sights, to experience different cultures, to take a break from work, to taste different cuisines, to write / photograph and sometimes just for the heck of it. Whatever be the reason for my travel, I always find myself looking for that one experience, that one view or that one place that totally takes my breath away. That one place that is so incredibly beautiful that it leaves you speechless. That one unforgettable experience that is so extraordinary that you can't stop talking about it or that one fabulous view that is etched in your brain forever. That one "WOW, THIS IS AMAZING" is why I am addicted to travel. I am not saying that this place should be one of the best sights in the world, just that you should really love it at that time. A trip without such moments is always incomplete for me. I guess this is true in everyday life too. You don't have to win a lottery or get a promotion every day, but it makes your day when something exciting happens - a great meeting, a nice movie, a good book, tasty meal, fun with the family - anything that breaks the routine and makes you smile.

On our trip to Italy last summer, I had plenty of such nice moments. Having done the Rome/Florence/Venice tours in a previous trip, a group of friends decided to go off the beaten track to Sicily. Sicily, the small island in Southern Italy packs quite a punch. Stunning seascapes, volcanic islands, tall mountains and historic sites from Greek and Roman periods - all nicely wound into one compact island. This post is about Agrigento, a city in the southern coast of Sicily. It is the home of the famous Valle dei Templi - Valley of Temples. A world heritage site, this place boasts of some of the most well preserved Greek ruins.

We reached Agrigento after a long drive from Mt. Etna. We stayed at Villa Diana, a beautiful farmhouse. Our room was giant with a huge balcony overlooking their olive farm. I loved the sunny yellow color Italian colors in the room so much so that I decided I would have similar tiles if I ever build my own home. The picture on the side is from their website. Dario, the host was a sweet man who directed us to Restaurant Kokalos where we had one of the best meals in Sicily. I ordered a pizza made of mozzarella di bufala and it was divine. Mozzarella di bufala is a speciality of Southern Italy and is considered to be of higher quality than cow mozzarella. Purists swear that once you have Buffalo mozarella, you can never go back to cow cheese. I am no connoisseur and all I can tell is that Buffalo or cow, every order of cheese we had in Italy smelt and tasted amazing. Breakfast next morning included a tasting of farm fresh olive oil. Toast a piece of bread add some warm olive oil and salt and pepper. If the olive oil is of good quality, this simple dish can be yummy!

Ruins are not my thing. I love historic sites, but ruins are a bit too much or to be more precise, they are too less. I need a full intact structure to appreciate. Don't give me a piece of pottery and ask me to marvel at a civilization that produced them. My imagination is just not that good. For that reason, I have never wanted to go to Athens to see the Acropolis. Coliseum was nice , but I did not spend more than an hour in it. I spent even less time at the Palatine hill and the Roman Forum. Given that, I was a little worried if I would be bored at the Greek ruins. But I am constantly amazed at how travel changes my views and interests. Years ago, I used to think birding was boring. 'Nature is not my thing anymore.....I declared one year'. Earlier in the trip, I told friends that I am not big on sculptures, but I was blown away by what I saw at the Galleria Borghese in Rome. This time too, I was pleasantly surprised by how I felt.

The archaeological site of Valle dei Templi contains the remains of seven temples from the 5th century BC. I walked around while the audio guide narrated the violent history of Agrigento. The city changed hands from Greeks to Romans to Arabs to Normans. Every invasion would destroy the city but it managed to re-built itself multiple times over the centuries. Proximity to North Africa made it an important city for trade. Agrigento went through its most prosperous period in the 5th century when the temples were commissioned. The site is located on the hill with views of the Mediterranean sea to one side and city to the other side. The temples were built in the Doric style of Greek architecture and all faced east so that god's statues could be illuminated by the rays of the rising sun. First few temples were burnt down during wars and were in ruins, but the most impressive site was the temple of Concordia. It was the best preserved temple in the valley and WHAT a sight it was!!.

A classic Greek structure with tall symmetrical columns, it withstood the vicissitudes of man and nature. This was truly a 'wow' moment. I could not help but wonder about the technology in 5th century BC that allowed them to build such amazing structures. How did they transport such heavy material, how did they place these stones on top of each other and most important of all - how they build them so strong to last thousands and thousands of years. We spent several hours in the complex and the entire time, I was in awe of the monuments.

If you look carefully, you will notice that the pillars are narrower at the top to make the structure taller. There are many more optical illusion tricks that the architects used to ensure that the visitor sees a straight image even when he is at a distance.

Practical Information

Best time to visit : April-Oct. Summer is the best time although it can get very hot in July and August.

How to get there: There are a lot of cheap flights within Europe these days. Flight time is about 2 hours from Rome to Palermo or Catania. You will need to rent a car or take public transportation to get there. Sicily has a much better bus network than a rail network.

Getting Around: Renting a car is the easiest way.

If you have a car like we did, stay at Villa Diana, a beautiful farmhouse. Ristorante Kokalos has wonderful Sicilian food with a backdrop of the illuminated valley of temples.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Vamsee's list of Must-See Places in the World - Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, Utah, USA

It was 1996 and my very first road trip in the US. With a few friends who were studying in Arizona State University, we planned a road trip. Pheonix - Grand Canyon - Sedona - Bryce Canyon - Las Vegas - Pheonix. Lots of energy, lots of driving (sometimes on the wrong side of the road), and very little money. We stayed up some nights (It is a punishable offence to sleep at night in Vegas) and drove all night sometimes to save on hotel money. One such evening, we drove by Bryce Canyon National Park. I was too tired and sleepy to get out of the car, but my friend dragged me out " You have to see this view. It is one of the most beautiful sights in the US", he said. It was sunset time and light was very poor. We parked the car and literally ran to the view point to see it before the sun went down. I remember standing there in awe!!! The view was like an amphitheater of hoodoos or limestone spires, arches and domes of varying shapes and sizes in colors that possibly covered the entire spectrum from pink to orange to red. The setting sun accentuated the orange hues, adding a very dramatic effect to the grand spectacle. Five minutes later, it was all dark and we had to pinch ourselves to make sure we were not hallucinating. None of us had cameras those days!!

Many years later (gosh...this is making me sound like a grandmother!) we were planning a trip for the Memorial Day long weekend (May 2004) and looking for places to drive from Vegas. Zion and Bryce Canyon National Park were the obvious choices. Two hundred million years of raging storms, changing weather patterns and erosion carved these monolithic sandstone monuments. The parks boast of deep orange canyons, mesas, stone formations, limestone spires and many more natural wonders.

Zion Canyon National Park - This is maybe the only canyon park in Utah that has so much greenery. Virgin River flows through the park cutting through gigantic rocks. One of the best hikes in the park is called "The Narrows" where you actually walk on the Virgin river bed. Saru and I walked a mile on it, but turned back because we were not dressed for hiking in waist deep water. Some streches of the hike are so harrow that you have to squeeze between 1000 ft towering peaks!!.Our friends did the entire hike and said it was one of their best experiences.

Bryce Canyon National Park
- As fate would have it, we reached Bryce Canyon National Park just when sun was setting. I did not remember the viewpoint I so loved from my trip in 1996, so we drove through the entire length of the road. I would run out, see the point, come back shaking my head until we reached "Sunset Point". One look and I recognized the place immediately. It was more stunning than what I remembered. The next day, we decided to hike to the bottom of the canyon. It was a small 2 mile hike, but quite steep going down and coming back up. I am not exaggerating when I say that almost every minute, one of us (we were 4 friends) would say "WOW". At the end of the trail we were sick of saying 'wow' - that is how 'WOW' it was. I don't know if it is the orange of the canyon that makes the sky look so blue, but I have not seen such blue skies anywhere in the US. The blazing afternoon sun made the orange look brighter and the cloudless sky as blue as it can be. Without doubt this hike is one of my Top 5 hikes.

Side trips on the way

Pink Sands State Park

Cedar Breaks National Monument

Practical Information

Best time to visit : April-July, Sept-Oct. Winter has a completely different look with snow on the canyons. It can get quite cold in winter and very hot in peak summer.

How to get there: There are a lot of cheap flights from the Continental US to Las Vegas. Flight time is about 2 hours from California. Zion is about 3-4 hours drive from there. Bryce is another 2 hours from Zion.

Getting Around: Renting a car is the only way to get around in most US states.

Lodging: Both Zion and Bryce have lots of hotels and lodges close to the park entrance.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Vamsee's list of Must-See Places in the World - Austrian Alps

I ran out of peanut butter this morning, so was looking in the refrigerator for some jam when I saw a small bottle in the back of the side rack. It was 'Elder Flower' jam that I bought in Austria. Intensely fragrant, it took me back to last summer when Saru and I were on a road trip in the Austrian Alps. We rented a car in Venice and drove through the Dolomites and Alps to Salzburg. This was one of the most beautiful roads I have ever been on and is a MUST-SEE.

Here is a tip when you are on a road trip in the Alps. DO NOT pre-plan your trip. Go where the road takes you, stop where you feel like and THAT is the most fun part. Practically speaking, you will not cover the distance you planned because the road is SO scenic. You will want to stop every few minutes to take pictures, do side hikes and in my case, take an afternoon nap. There is nothing like napping with a view. When we were hiking in the Valley of Flowers, I made the guide look around for 15 minutes to find me a spot to eat and nap with a view. The guide rolled his eyes in disbelief at my silly request, but it is great to wake up to an awesome view.

The only thing to remember is to get to a tourist office before 5:00 PM. Tell them your needs and price range and they will find you a place to stay in minutes. That is exactly how we found Alpenrose, a bed & breakfast in Iselsberg, a town that I did not even know existed. In a small community of 20-30 homes and with some grand views of the mountains, it was nice beautiful room for 50E per night.

Breakfast was a spread of artisan breads and farm fresh cheese and a menu of jams.

"What Jam is this?" I asked the German lady. It was pink in color and I knew the smell, but could not quite place it with any jam I ever had. It was ROSE PETAL jam!! The next one, had a light-honey color with a very intense flowery fragrance. When I asked the lady about that, she stared at the wall, scratched her head and walked away to the next room before coming back with aGerman-English dictionary and pointing out "Elder Flower". It was yum. There was one more mystery jam which tasted weird and felt a little grainy on the tongue. That one, the land lady struggled to explain. Finally, she walked into the garden and came back with a piece of Christmas tree leaf and said - "THIS". She had made jam with Christmas Tree leaves - Can you believe it!!! She went on to give the recipe in broken English and some very violent gestures - Add lots of sugar and small pieces of the leaves and stir and stir and stir until your arms falls off:):)

The drive from Iselsberg to Heigenblut was beautiful with green rolling hills, wild flowers and small communities, each with its own little church. After visiting Italy where they compete with one another to build large churches, these were small structures with pointy roofs.

The Großglockner High Alpine Road

This toll road that runs about 50 kilometers is one of the most scenic highways in Austria. With 35 hairpin bends and a 2500m gain in altitude, this road has panoramic views of the highest peak in Austria, The Großglockner (3798m). We were there in June, but it had snowed a few days back leaving beautiful vistas of snow peaked mountains. As is the case in mountains, clouds would come and go, so it was hard to get good pictures with blue skies.

I tried taking some videos, but it was very windy, so the videos are a little shaky. But here they are anyway.

Practical Information

Best time to visit
: The Großglockner high alpine road is only open in summer from May to November. August can get very hot and crowded because of school holidays

How to get there: There are a lot of cheap flights in Europe these days. We took a Flight to Venice and drove from there. Salzburg is another big city close to the road

Getting Around: Renting a car is the only way to get around the mountains. There are coach tours from Salzburg, but these have fixed stops and might not be that much fun

Lodging: There are no big hotels in the regions, just pensions and B&B's.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Vamsee's List of Must-See Places in the World - Big Island, Hawaii, USA

A very happy new year to all my readers. This New Year, I have decided to start a new series on my blog titled "Vamsee's List of Must-See Places in the World". Over the last decade I had the good fortune of seeing some of the most beautiful places in the World and I would like to share images and stories from those trips. This will be a bi-weekly series with more photos and less text.

Hawaii, Big Island, USA

I screamed as hard as I could. My head was underwater and I knew there was no point screaming, but I did. How could I not? This giant 10ft creature was coming directly at me with its mouth wide open. Saru, who was right next to me, heard me, popped his head out of the water and burst out laughing. "No need to worry. You are not its food" he said.
"It is easy for you to say that, it didn't come at you" I said. He laughed again as we went back under water. This time, he held my hand to reassure that we were safe. We were in the company of many night divers and snorkelers who were all there to see some of the most spectacular sea creatures - Manta Rays. The tour operators take you in a boat in the evening to Keauhou Bay near the Kona airport and setup while you watch a glorious sunset (sunsets in Hawaii are always mind blowing!!). When night falls, divers go down to the sea bed and switch on their powerful torches. Light attracts plankton (tiny brine shrimp) and Manta Rays come to feed on them.
Saru and I got into body suits (water is quite cool) and jumped into the water. One glance into the underwater world and we were astounded!! There were a little fishes/sea creatures floating in the water. Snorkeling in the night is very different. You can't tell the colors of the fish, but just the numbers blow you away. Loud gasps from people around us announced the arrival of the chief guest - the gigantic Manta Ray and it was not alone. A troupe of 14 rays showed up for the party and boy what a spectacle it was!! These rays can be as large as 6-14 feet across and weigh as much as 5000 pounds, but seem as light as a batman's cape. The Manta rays come swooping by with their mouth wide open scooping up thousands of little shrimp. For more than an hour, we watched the feeding frenzy of these fascinating creatures. Their dinner time was grand theatre for us and I have to give full five stars to their performance. Manta means blanket and they did look like black and white blankets swishing and swooping around the area with great elegance and aplomb. Their acrobatics can put Cirque du Soleil to shame. We were the last to get out of the water and I remember shaking with excitement. This experience rates as one of the top 10 adventures I had in my life. Watch this video I found on youtube . It is heavily edited and not as exciting as the dive itself, but gives a good look at the rays. Watch out for the snorkeler at the surface and how close the rays get to her. I could have easily been her.

If I had to rate one place as my most favorite in the entire, it will have to be the Hawaii Islands. Over the years we made three trips to the islands and loved it every single time and why not. These islands have EVERYTHING in one place - Rain forests, snow peaked mountains, stunning beaches, lava fields, active volcano and some of the most beautiful coral reefs. Added to all this, they have many charming hotels, Bed & Breakfasts and excellent food. For some reason, Big Island has a ton of Thai restaurants and we just loved them. Don't forget to sample "Donkey Balls". They are delicious!!.

Top 5 Experiences in the Big Island:
  1. Manta Ray Night Dive
  2. Hike to see an active volcano in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
  3. Kayak in the Kealakekua Bay and snorkel at Captain Cook
  4. Watch a sunset
  5. Go to a Lu'au for a grand dinner and Hula dance performances

You can read detailed travelogues about this trip in my old posts (Hawaii - Got Balls? , Hot Lava from a Live Volcano) Here are some pictures from our trips. Please note that these pictures were taken in 2003, 2005 and 2008 when we had a normal camera.

Ocean Vistas to die for!!

Turtles at Punalu'u Black Sand Beach

Past Volcanic Activity

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - Hike to see the lava flow into the Ocean

Waterfalls in Hilo

Hula Dancers at a Lua'u

Every sunset is a postcard picture

Practical Information

Best time to visit
: Any time of the year. It is crowded and expensive during all major holidays and school breaks.

How to get there: There are a lot of cheap flights from the Continental US to all Hawaiian Islands. Flight time is about 6 hours from California.

Getting Around: Renting a car is the only way to get around the island. 4-wheel drive is necessary only if you plan to go off-road.

Lodging: Big hotels have good deals, but I love bed & breakfasts in Hawaii. Of all the places we stayed, Areca Palms in the Captain Cook area is my favorite.The hostess makes ginormous breakfasts.

Coming up next:
  • Alaska - The land of the midnight Sun
  • Monument Valley, Utah, USA
  • Rome, Italy
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park, California, USA
  • Munnar, Kerala, India