Mediterranean Blues

I always knew food would be a problem throughout my long trip down south in France, but I realise it even more now, when my taste buds have been finally satisfied with some good rasam after nearly three weeks. Onto more interesting things…

Starter

It began with a weekend stay in Nice. This city in the southern coast of France is blessed with great weather, rocky beaches and great accessibility to all the cities on the coastline. In fact, in one day, you can visit three countries – France, Monaco and Italy. That’s nearly what I did, but not in one day. The castle hill (Montée du Château) offers some breathtaking views of the beaches below. It’s worth taking a trip up there; it is also accessible by an elevator.

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The first meal at Nice Life International Cafe was quite good. We had some tortilla and salad with olives, tomatoes and cheese – typical Mediterranean fare. My second trip to this place didn’t leave me very happy though. Happycow (guide to vegan/vegetarian food all over the world) almost completely let me down during this trip. The exception was Menton.

Menton, about half an hour from Nice, is known for its Lemon Festival and fittingly, we were greeted at the station by some orange trees weighing down with oranges. A walk along the promenade is highly recommended here as well. This place is relatively quiet compared to Nice or Monaco but no less beautiful. The main attraction here was Musée Jean Cocteau or Museum of Jean Cocteau. Jean Cocteau, who lived in the previous century, was a complete artist – painter, designer, poet, playwright, film director. Most of his works struck me as bizarre. One interesting play/movie was ‘La voix humaine’ or ‘The Human Voice’ which has only one character – a lady talking on the phone to her lover who is leaving her. Original handwritten versions of this work were on display in the museum.

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If not for anything else, I wouldn’t mind going to Menton again just to eat at Loving Hut. That was in fact one of my motivators to visit this place. Having been a Loving Hut loyal in Leuven for the last couple of years, I was curious to try out a new Loving Hut and was I satisfied or what! This one was much bigger than the one in Leuven and offered local flavours in their food. I had ‘Crostini with sun-filled tomatoes’, ‘Rainbow Rice’ and ‘Pancake with a scoop of lemon icecream’. This was to be my last good meal for days to come. The only other vegetarian restaurant which I have enjoyed even more than this in Europe was ‘Ginko’ at Graz, Austria, which offers mostly Italian and Indian cuisine.

Ventimiglia is a small town in Italy just an hour away from Nice by train. My TER train experience was really good throughout this trip – punctual, frequent connections even during weekends and the tickets were much cheaper compared to Belgium. You could buy a ticket starting from the origin to the final destination and stop over at any of the intermediate places within the day. Ventimiglia is surrounded by hills and they offer more breathtaking views of the coastline. The narrow lanes of the old town here reminded me so much of the narrow paths in highly populated residential areas that we often find in Chennai especially in places like Triplicane and Mylapore. The old town of Nice also looks very similar. The weather plays such an important role in the lifestyle. Throughout this region, it almost never snows. The first big difference I experienced in Europe in this aspect was at Graz where buildings typically have large courtyards in the middle and the staircases are out in the open, which is not at all uncommon in India but impossible in Northern Europe because of the cold weather. Aspects like these were only highlighted even more during this trip – people hanging clothes out for drying, riding scooters and in general being livelier.

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Monaco was different from most other European cities (countries). This land of the richest was densely populated with multi-storey buildings with elaborate roof gardens, roads teeming with luxurious cars and was also very clean. The cactus garden ‘Jardin Exotique’ offered good views of the whole city (country) and I enjoyed seeing the stalactite/stalagmite caves again. It was extremely hot that day and we didn’t have much time since we had to set off to the summer school. Salad lunch started that day and did not stop for the next ten days.

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Main Course

The route from Nice to Peyresq, where I was going to attend a summer school, was very scenic. We were mostly driving along the course of the river.

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Peyresq, located on the French Alps, was a medieval village. Life was hard there and it was home to atmost 250 people till the French revolution. That’s when the people were driven away from there since most men had died in the war and the village was abandoned to the forces of nature. It was rediscovered in the 1950s by a Belgian professor and he initiated the process to reconstruct this place and turned it into a place that will exclusively hold scientific meetings and will be open only during summer. There are only two people who live permanently there to take care of the day-to-day requirements. Food has to be sourced from the nearest town, which is about half an hour drive away. Apples grow locally though. I had to live mostly on salad and bread throughout the duration of the school. It was a true experience of the harsh mountain life in a way.

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The best part of this place is the view of the mountains and valleys it offers. The ephemeral nature of these scenes, especially when there were clouds around, was awe-inspiring. I spent many an evening listening to Pachchai Nirame gazing into the lush green pine trees stacked up on the sides of the mountains.

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If not for the beauty of the landscape and the intense and engaging lectures we had, it would have been hard to survive the school. The idea of having an isolated place to hold events like this worked though. The camaraderie we had by the end of the two weeks wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Nevertheless, I was glad to have finished the main course of the stay and be back amongst people once again.

Dessert

The last leg of the trip starting at Nice again offered more cloudy views of Côte d’Azur (The Azure Coast). I felt like I couldn’t tire of walking along the beach. The azure blues changed to grays following the clouds overhead. The perfect weather of warm and cloudy but not rainy continued throughout the weekend.

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Cannes was the next stop. I was pretty disappointed firstly by the railway station. I thought it would be similar to Monaco but it was quite the opposite. I thought the Film Festival was held in some historic building, but it just looked like a normal modern glass-panelled building. The only highlight was the short boat ride that we could take to two nearby islands. We went to Ile-St-Marguerite and soaked in more of the blues.

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Grasse was a change from all the other cities we visited. It is inland on the hills and is famous for its perfumeries. We visited Parfumerie Fragonard, which exists since the 19th century. The guided tour left me a little dizzy though. It requires months of processing and tonnes of flowers just to produce a small bottle of perfume. Perfumes apparently come with three notes of smells – the softer one originates from citrus fruits like lemon and orange for example, the middle one from flowers like lavender, rose and jasmine, and the hard note, which is what lingers on for a long time even when the perfumed person leaves the place, from musk or other such substances. This perfumery continues to produce new perfumes with the help of their ‘noses’. These are people who have to train for 9 years before they can smell different perfumes and come up with new formulae. Institutes for training ‘noses’ exist only in a few places in the world like Grasse and Paris. Fragonard also manufactures soaps in different flavours like rose, lavender, jasmine, orange and lemon. Fragonard seemed to own most of the main shopping street. They also have their own fabrics, garments and accessories. We also visited a well-displayed Jewellery and Costume Museum displaying collections from the 19th century. A couple of interesting things I found there – some of the floral designs on cottons were inspired from India and the tradition of giving the key-chain of the household to the new daughter-in-law existed there! It went a step further. When the husband dies, the wife throws the keychain into the grave symbolically to signify the loss of her ‘power’ in the household. Anyway, this practice resulted in having elaborately-decorated keychains that you could tie around the waist and had curious objects such as scissors hanging from them.

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Back in Nice, dinner at the vegan place called ‘Le Speakeasy’ was a complete disappointment. The food was tasteless, the place untidy and the requirement to eat something for at least 7 euros was a bit too much to ask for. The thoughts of eating at a vegetarian place remained forgotten for the rest of the trip.

Monaco beckoned us once more and we witnessed the very popular tourist attraction of ‘changing of the palace guards’ at 11.55 AM sharp. It was quite underwhelming to me and was nothing but a few guards marching away from the palace and being replaced by another set. We visited the palace which still continues to function. Lavishly decorated walls and paintings were all over the place. I particularly liked the silk draperies, marble busts of various princes and princesses and some of the paintings. The very modern painting from the 1980s felt quite out of place and only served to enhance the beauty of the older paintings.

We took some customary pictures outside the Casino. We made full use of the 1-day bus pass and also went to the Monte Carlo district of Monaco. The tennis fan in me particularly wanted to see the Monte Carlo Country Club, where the Masters 1000 tournament (won by Nadal 8 consecutive times) is held every spring. I was not disappointed and had a glimpse of the clay courts.

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That almost brings us to the end of the trip. Nice airport is also located on the coast and from the gate area, you can see flights taking off and landing in the background of the sea. The airport is quite small and there wasn’t enough place for everybody to sit especially at busy times like Sunday evenings. I missed the views of the full range of Alps during both flights but on the whole, I couldn’t ask for a better vacation and summer school. Côte d’Azur is truly a beautiful place to visit at most times of the year. Back to Belgium and to cooking! The Rasam beckons…

Caves of Han-Sur-Lesse

From the time I saw Pangaea’s (the international meeting centre of KULeuven) announcement for a trip to Ardennes (the range of mountains in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium) covering the caves of Han-Sur-Lesse (with a beautiful picture of stalactites and stalagmites) also, I really wanted to visit this place. After having missed that due to a planned hike on that day (which finally was postponed to another date), I decided that I should definitely visit it this year and that finally happened last Sunday. From a topic discussed on TripAdvisor, I found out how to reach this place by public transport. The nearest railway station to Han-Sur-Lesse is Jemelle. All train schedules within Belgium can be accessed and tickets can be booked on: http://www.b-rail.be/main/E/

I left at 8 AM from my home and cycled to Leuven Station. I took the 8:28 train to Ottignies (9:08), from where I took a train (09:15) to Jemelle (10:20). Then, I boarded the TEC bus no. 29 at 10:34. The schedule is available on TEC website, where you can search for number 29, direction Grupont. The ticket, which is 2.40 EUR one way, can be bought on the bus. The bus driver asked me to get down at ‘Han-Sur-Lesse Eglise’ bus stop. I reached there at 10:48. The trip to the caves starts from the visitor centre, which is located at about 100 m from the bus stop. It is right across the church, at one side of which the bus stop is located.

 

The first visit for the day was only at 11:30. I went inside the visitor centre to enquire about the trip. I had bought a combination ticket  online for 20 EUR, which is valid for visiting the caves, Safari in the wildlife reserve, museum and a 3D game. The same ticket is priced at 22.50 EUR at the ticket counter there. I was asked to take the Safari first, which would last 1 hour 15 min. There were 4 options starting at 11:30, 13:00, 14:30 and 16:00 (this varies depending on the season and the latest schedule can be accessed in the website). Taking the Safari first, I would also be back in time for the visit to the caves starting at 13:00 (the same 4 options were available for the caves also). The visit to the caves takes slightly longer – 1 hour 30 min to 1 hour 45 min.

Han-Sur-Lesse is a small village, which has become famous thanks to the caves, which are probably the oldest and biggest such caves in Europe. I walked along the main road and found only restaurants and a couple of small shops. The visitor centre also had a shop selling gifts – some typical Belgian style dolls, postcards, pieces of minerals, diaries and T-shirts.

At 11:25, I boarded the vehicle, which was open on the sides to have a good view during the Safari, along with 10 others. The Safari was good on the whole, but a bit long. It was also quite cold that day. We saw wild cats, European bisons, reindeers, lynxes, an owl,  two brown bears and other animals from the horse family and cattle. The bear looked much bigger than I thought it would be. The animals live in a 15-acre reserve specially created for them, sometime in the 1970s. There were a few stops in between. One of them was to get a panoramic view of the valley and another one, to see the river Lesse flowing into the hills.

 

At 12:45, we were back at the visitor centre. After a sandwich lunch, I started the visit to the caves at 13:00. We were taken to the entrance of the cave by a short ride on a tram. After asking for everybody’s language preference, the guide decided to give explanations in both Dutch and English. He began by telling us about the history of how the caves were discovered. The caves have been in existence for about hundred thousand years. The caves are inside a hill, on top of which we can only see a forest. There are evidences of people from the Neolithic Age having lived here. But they only lived in the regions close to the outside world and hence, much of the caves remained undiscovered till the 18th century. In the 1770s, the first explorations started. About 14 kilometres of caves full of natural formations of stalactites and stalagmites have been discovered till date, over several years. Only 2 kilometres of this are open to the public. The rest is only available for research purposes. The caves were opened to the public for the first time in 1820s. At that time, since there was no electricity, lamps or torches were used to guide the visitors through the caves, and therefore, some of the stalactites and stalagmites have acquired a shade of black. Now, the caves are well lit with lights at suitable positions to enhance the beauty of the structures. The lights are switched on only during visits, in order to protect the structures. Photographing is allowed without flash. But many people were still taking pictures with the flash on.

Millions of years ago, when the sea level was much higher, this region was part of the sea bed. There are some stretches in which fossils of corals and shells can be clearly seen on the walls. These corals and shells are rich in calcites.

Once the sea level had gone down and this part became a hill, rain water and water from the melting of snow started seeping into the hills. Also, the river Lesse flowed through the hill. The river water, which was acidic, easily dissolved the basic calcites in the corals and shells. The water seeping through the ceiling and the water dripping on to the ground of the caves, started the formation of stalactites (the ones that grow from the ceiling) and stalagmites (the ones that grow from the floor), by depositing limestone. A 4-centimetre-long piece of stalactite/stalagmite takes 100 years to form. All the stalactites and stalagmites continue to grow and we can see water still seeping through. The caves are pretty damp. The formation of these structures would only stop during an Ice Age, when water can no more seep into the hill.

The oldest stalagmite is 6 m high and 21 m wide. It is more than a 100000 years old. This one (especially because of the shining white colour) and many others reminded me of huge tall cakes with different levels with icecream flowing down from them. Another prominent stalagmite is 12000 years old.

Another very beautiful structure of the stalactites are the draperies/curtains. These can be found where the roof of the cave is slanting. When the water flows along such a region, the stalactites start forming like sheets of draperies. They are also found in different colours, depending on the presence of other elements like iron (red) and lead or manganese (grey). Some of these draperies were translucent and they looked like perfect, beautiful marble sculptures. Yes, they were sculptures too, though not by a human hand.

There are 3 levels in the caves. River Lesse used to flow through the topmost level years ago. It doesn’t flow through this level anymore. During the dry periods of the year, it only flows through the lowest level. But when there are heavy rains or after the snow, the second level is also fully submerged under water. This happens 5-6 times during the year. The caves are closed during winter for this reason. Last Sunday was in fact, the last day of this year when the caves were open to the public. We could get a glimpse of the river from the second level itself. The only other place in Europe where a river can be seen flowing through the stalactite/stalagmite caves is located in Slovenia.

In one of the two biggest caves, there was a short 5-minute light-sound show. From there, we could also see the river. The lighting effect was spectacular, making you notice innumerable details in the structures. The music went well with the whole show. I was reminded of Chandralekha song from Thiruda Thiruda and thought that that would go well with that show too. These biggest caves were possibly formed as a result of huge earthquakes. Boulders chipped off can still be seen lying around the cave.

We walked along the Lesse during the last stretch. It was in this region near the exit where the people in Neolithic Age lived. Many artefacts found by archaelogists are kept for display in a museum close to the visitor centre, but it was closed that day. During war times, people used to take refuge in these regions. Till the second world war, visitors were taken inside the caves by boat through this region, which was actually the exit for us. A cannon used to be fired before the visit began to keep away evil spirits. This tradition is being kept up even now, except that it was done at the end of the visit. We were also asked to tip the guide at the end, since a major part of his salary comes from tips. He has been a guide in the caves for 47 years now and seemed quite knowledgeable. The exit of the caves was 300 m away from the visitor centre.

I reached the visitor centre by 14:50. I skipped the 3D game also, which was on the way, since I was not sure if it was open and also, nobody else seemed to be going inside that place. After buying 2 small dolls, which were on sale with 50% discount at the visitor centre, I took the same bus no. 29 at 15:17 (direction – Jemelle) to the Jemelle station (15:31). Taking the same route by train, from Jemelle (15:39) to Ottignies (16:44) and Ottignies (16:52) to Leuven (17:32), with the second train delayed by 7 minutes, I reached Leuven and then home by 6 PM.

I highly recommend this place for a one-day trip within Belgium if you are interested in seeing beautiful natural formations of stalactites and stalagmites. The full set of pictures can be accessed here.