The Masterpiece – a second book of short stories

Blogging is a latest passion of mine, but my love of the written word began with books at an impressionable age and continues to remain so. Story-telling has been a weakness, the need to get beyond mere outward appearances, to delve into the soul of a passer-by and think and feel his emotions is more a wont than a need. My stories are born of imagination, when I’ve seen a story happen and a seemingly hidden drama unfold. My collection of short stories ‘Whispers at Twilight’(first published in 2008) and ‘The Masterpiece’(published in 2016) , and everything else I’ve written or will be writing, are all born of such situations. Stories from every day life intrigue and inspire me.

My ‘the Masterpiece’ is the latest addition to my published works besides my first book and stories and poems that have appeared in various anthologies.

Do read it and kindly leave behind your feedback so that I’ll know how you liked it. Thanks!

The Masterpiece – by Mini Menon available on Amazon Kindle

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Short stories are brief and entertaining narratives of a certain world or people. However, this collection of short stories by Mini Menon is not just a narrative but also a journey into the variety of day-to-day situations and events that have shaped the author’s life and thinking.

Be it a story of how an artist shocks her never-ceasing-to-denounce-her sister into complete silence, a story about a young prince whose toys were inspiration to a war winning strategy, or the story of a film buff’s strange interaction with a fellow movie-goer, one thing is for certain. Nothing will be as expected.

A Masterpiece is what awaits you….

 

 

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My Inimitable ‘Bai’s

There are many women who have enabled me to become who I am today. Topping the list is my mother. Then my friends who have often motivated me when I was down, given me reasons to smile for when there were none and kept me going when I would have given up. The fine line between relative and friend has often disappeared until a friend became family, and a cousin or sister-in-law became a bestie.

Then there is the ‘bai’, be she your old-time nine-yard sari donning maid-servant or otherwise – yup, she be the one! Whether you are a hard-working office-going mother-of-two, a busy soccer mum or someone who works part-time, juggling home and a job, for an average woman who dwells in India, this person is as necessary a part of the household as the pressure cooker or the refrigerator. Your ‘bai’ may come for a few hours every day, or maybe an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, or she may be in your house the whole day. But one thing is certain, she would have made your life so much easier in that time.

Blessed be this breed, and it is a fast disappearing one, of women! They rise early because before they cook and clean other people’s homes, they have to do the same in their own. Then they catch buses and trains to reach the homes of their employers. People trust them with keys to their houses. I’ve trusted a few in my time and it was a relief to know that the food would be cooked, the house would be cleaned, even when I was away on some important work, or perhaps having lunch with friends. In fact there were times when I’ve had to travel alone, leaving the family behind, knowing the house would be taken care of, even in my absence.

Whenever I sit to paint or write, I remember to thank these women. In all probability, I would have still dedicated some time to these two passions of mine, but it wouldn’t have been this easy. When I was a new wife, when my children were smaller – these women have been my support. If they were older, I have even turned to them for advice. Like a series of images from a movie reel, their faces run through my mind, even as I remember them – the middle-aged bai in her nine-yard saree who was akin to a family member, the cook who was so good with my children that there was a time when she knew better than me what they liked to eat, the person my husband nick-named ‘tornado’ because she arrived, did her work and left with that kind of speed.

These women do other people’s housework because they are financially weak. Yet they carry themselves with grace and dignity. They have difficult situations at home. They have minimal support for their efforts. Yet they brought up sons and daughters equally , educated them and tried to ensure that they had better jobs and better lives.

So thank you, dear ‘bai’, for being the person who made it easy for me to pursue my dreams!

 

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Cambodia, 1997

Not counting the trips I made to Kuwait as an Non-resident Indian, a round trip made by my husband and me to Bangkok, Phnom Penn, Siem Reap, Singapore, Kulim and Hong Kong was my first trip abroad as a tourist. The excitement of course was palpable. I had never been to these places. I had basically never seen any place beyond a few destinations in India, and of course Kuwait, having lived there as an expatriate. Siem Reap was an afterthought. The holiday plan had been chalked out by  a friend who was a travel agent, but the idea to visit Angkor Wat had happened quite by accident. It was while looking at the map that my husband noticed how ridiculously close it was to Bangkok. And of course, if it wasn’t for Rip Kirby*, we’d probably not even have considered a visit to Cambodia.

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A view of the town

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Like with all such reliefs, the engravings depict the life and times of the people those days

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I know now that my spouse is very spontaneous. Our decision to visit Siem Reap was of that nature, sudden and unexpected. It also means we weren’t wholly prepared to visit the place. We had no clue where we were going to stay. As the whim garnered intensity, we knew we would fly to Phnom Penn and from there we would take another flight to Siem Reap. Suddenly the rest of our holiday itinerary didn’t seem as exciting anymore. And Cambodia those days wasn’t exactly a tourist hotspot, neither was it considered the safest of places.

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The damage that time has wrought

Eventually the travel plan was tweaked, our days in Bangkok were shortened to include two days in Cambodia. One morning in the middle of sightseeing and window shopping in Bangkok, we took off  to the comparatively laid back town of Phohm Penn. At the airport we were approached by this young Cambodian man who insisted on helping us plan our visit to Siem Reap. He said his brother would help us find a place to stay and also get someone to show us around the important landmarks. We decided to trust our instincts and this stranger.

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When the treasury began to run dry, the ruler was forced to abort the construction of temples like this one…

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Sights like these are common, where whole trees have grown around little shrines…

The aircraft that took us from Phnom Penn to Siem Reap was small, it shook a lot because of the altitude and I had my first sinus-related headache that made me think my head was going to burst.  The man from the airport had been true to his word. His ‘brother’ was waiting for us and had been probably given a description. He approached us with a wide smile. He took us to a not-so-fancy hotel. Our room, large enough to fit a bed with a television fixed high up on a corner stand on the wall and an attached bathroom just about managed to meet our bare necessities. Food could be ordered in an open restaurant on the ground level. An amusing anecdote we love to recount is when the waiter misunderstood us when we asked for ‘snacks’ with our tea.

‘No snacks,’ he said, shaking his head vigorously and probably taking a step back.

How can the people there not have any special snacks, we wondered and rephrased our question making the waiter even more anxious. That until my husband realised that the waiter thought we were asking for ‘snakes’. I think we did finally manage to get some ‘snakes’ with our tea, and if I recollect correctly they were ripe banana fritters.

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Guarded by the divine…

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These giant Buddha sculptures  at Bayon are believed to be made in the likeness of the then ruler

Meanwhile our guide, an erstwhile Red Cross worker, arrived to take us around, revealing to us the marvel that was Angkor Wat. Without getting into the details which you will find enough of on online portals on tourism and blogs of more recent visitors, the sights that met our eyes just took our breath away. Amusing as it was to hear words like ‘Apsara’, ‘Hamuman’ and ‘Garuda’, the sculptures and carvings left us in open-mouthed wonder and absolutely spell bound. You could also see huge trees growing off walls, or standing tall and proud atop shrines that still bravely withstood the weight of a whole full grown tree.

But what was even more beautiful were the little children who would come crowding to you, selling memorablia and such other trinkets. At one particular point where these frightfully steep steps led up to a certain attraction, a little boy accosted tourists to buy a bottle of water from him. Since we didn’t feel the need to drink any water just then, we refused him politely. He communicated to us that he was willing to follow us up the steps so that we could buy the water bottle on reaching the top. Impressive salesmanship we thought from a salesman who was barely  a couple of feet off the ground.

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When we asked the children who sell trinkets and memorabilia to pose for a picture, most of them turned shy and moved away, while these two obliged us…

Red Cross trucks still plied the roads while we were visiting Angkor Wat. Mines that still lay hidden were a huge threat and as tourists we were warned against leaving the oft-trodden path. All in all, it was an amazing experience, a trip I’m glad we made. A few months after we visited, there was some turmoil and we were once again reminded of the risky decision we had taken. Needless to say Siem Reap and Angkor Watt is a popular destination these days. But for us, it was a risk taken that had worked in our favour.

*The eponymous Rip Kirby from a popular comic series by Alex Raymond is a private detective and in one of his many fictitious adventures, he visits  the ruins of Angkor Wat. This is how my husband first heard about the place…

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Ten Destinations that are worth a revisit

These specific blog posts have been hand-picked and put together as personal favourites, but there have been other beautiful locations I’ve visited too before I started blogging. I hope one day I will be able to sit down, remember the events of the journey as they happened and write them down. While putting together the ten destinations, I have left out our visit to Wynaad and Binsar although these places were also fabulous.

  1. This was our second visit to Kabini. The earlier one as well as this were made during road trips and needless to say, both were enjoyable. In recent years though, the place has changed drastically. For one, Kabini as a destination has become more popular. So more people, means possibility of being stuck with holiday makers and not wild life aficionados during the safari. On this particular trip, we were lucky to see leopards, dancing peacocks and even wild dogs making a kill. Summer is a better time to visit if you are indeed hoping to sight more wildlife.

Stories from the Jungle

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  1. Coorg has always been a favourite destination. Inevitably while booking via time share, we mostly end up getting days there. And we are always happy to go back to Coorg. The laid back hills, the different species of birds, the coffee plantations…and ahhhh, the coffee itself – there is nothing not to like about this gorgeous place.

It isn’t just about the Coorg coffee

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  1. Trichur, my home town, is the cultural capital of the southern state of Kerala. Apart from art and music, the busy town abounds in temples. In fact, the name Trichur itself is a corrupted version of ‘Trishivaperur’, the town with three Shiva temples. The latter half of the narrative delves on the Isha Ashram in Coimbatore. For the ultimate experience in spirituality and mysticism, this is where we choose to go. Founded by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, the place offers ways to rejuvenate and energise the body, mind and spirit.

Two destinations – my hometown in Trichur & the Isha Ashram in Coimbatore

Panchavadyam - local percussionists

  1. I still look upon our visit to Aanavilasam as a dream-come-true. To live amidst green cardamom fields, being pampered with good food and all good things that make living life a luxury, even if it is for a short while – I’ve never felt closer to Nature like I did on this trip.

Abode of the Elephants

  1. It is common knowledge that the backwaters of Kerala are one of the hottest holiday destinations among tourists, both Indians and non-Indians. A ride down the Vembanaad Lake in a boat was enough to prove why.

Backwaters of the South

The rains didn't keep people at home as you can see

  1. Half a day exploring Kochi was just not enough. I’ve always loved the busy town, when as a child, I used to visit my cousins who lived there. The perfect place to shop, eat, sight-see, Kochi has everything. On my bucket-list, three to four days spent in doing all these things.

Quaint Kochi

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The shops in Jew Town

  1. Apart from a disastrous trip to New Delhi many years ago, I had never been to the north before this. My first trip, therefore, to Himachal Pradesh just took my breath away. Not only are the mountains breath-takingly beautiful, but the people here are gentle and kind. I would give every place we visited in HP a ten out of ten. But our visit to Kalpa was the best yet.

Heaven in Himachal Pradesh

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Sky show

  1. Sangla Valley was the second best, and that too by a teeny tiny margin. The powder blue waters of the lake, the golden mountains at dawn, the clouds floating by close to the ground – there is definitely something magical about the mountains.

Sangla Valley

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Sutlej River

  1. I’m glad we visited Kashmir when we did. I wish peace is restored there soon and that the beautiful people of the valley live normal lives. When we were chalking out the itinerary, someone told us to spend a day in Pahalgam instead of making a day trip. I am glad we listened.

Lullaby on the River Lidder

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  1. A mind-blowing experience of staying along the Dal Lake, taking rides in shikaras and imbibing the beauty in huge handfuls, Kashmir to this day is as stunning as it is exotic.

Evening on the Dal Lake

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When in Spain – Day 10 -All good things have to end

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In our quest to see a little more than the old town, we decided to step out and look around for places of interest nearby. We first had coffee and croissants in a quaint looking cafe on our way. There are plenty of shops on the way to the Amphitheatre which we were eager to explore. When we finally arrived at the Amphitheatre, we were a little disappointed. It is mostly a commercial space and the part that belonged to the original structure is just a little section of a much larger newer structure. So this was where condemned men were publicly executed.

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Section of the Amphitheatre which we believe is the original structure

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However on our way to the Amphitheatre, we passed what looked like ancient temple ruins.  After that we hurried back to our room and began to pack so that we could leave our luggage with the hotel concierge and step out for a quick bite. We were back at Victoria Mercado where we stopped by our favourite Crazy Potatoes.

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Ruins of an old temple

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Another old structure amidst newer buildings

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An arty shop in the old town

We took taxis to the station and boarded our trains. Arriving at Madrid, we were told by another tourist, an American, that if we had a Renfe ticket then we were eligible to free tickets to the airport. All we had to do was scan our tickets from Cordoba to Madrid on the machine. We were very excited to hear this. After we bid our friends good-bye as they would be staying back for a few days in Madrid, we took a train to the Airport.

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Sights from the train

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Later shopping at the duty free shop and waiting in the departure lounge having grabbed a coffee and sandwiches at a Starbucks outlet, there was a sense of deja vu. It seemed  like just the other day when we arrived, excited about seeing a whole new place. Our moments in this great country had been outstanding, remarkable and spell-binding. There were times when we had to put up with a little rude and patronizing attitude to mar an otherwise perfect holiday and we felt it best to ignore that.  But, yes – Spain had given us one of our best holidays ever.

 

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When in Spain – Day 9 – Temples and Shrines

We took a train, Renfe, travelling from Seville to Cordoba that morning. Arriving at the hotel before check-in time, we left the luggage at the hotel and went to explore the old city. The old city was just across the place we were staying at. The fortified citadel is straight out of a fairy tale book. There are few vehicles plying the tiny streets that  is lined with quaint little shops and eateries. The roads are a maze and you can easily get lost going round in circles even though the area is small. We finally arrived at the Mezquita Cathedral and was struck by the magnificence.

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The magnificent Mosque-Cathedral from the outside

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The Organ and the Organ Man

Within the cathedral is the mind-blowing story of how two cultures met and combined to form a beautiful temple for two different faiths. The cathedral within the mezquita is outstanding and two different worlds blend and combine beautifully. We were lucky enough to be able to listen to the organ being played. We took a short break from exploring, sitting before the altar and drinking in the moment, the organ playing dramatically in the background. These are the kind of awesome memories you like to carry back from a holiday.

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Ceiling it with cupids

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Lunch was a very passable paella at a nearby eatery. Our experiments with vegetarian versions of Spanish food was done with that.

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It was 6.30 by the time we stepped out again. For the four of us, our trip would be over the next day while our friends would carry forward to see Madrid. An amazing holiday was pretty much over but not finished yet. The better-half and I went to see the Roman Bridge and Puerta del Puenta as the group broke up, with some even choosing to remain in the room while the rest did some shopping.

A little away from our hotel was the Victoria market, a bustling food court where you can eat most anything. We located a place called Crazy Potatoes and went all crazy about the made-to-order potatoes.

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Oranges for the taking

 

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Officially it was our last night in this country of bull-fighters, flamenco dancers and amazing artists.

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When in Spain – Day 8 – Ole!!!

During our walking tour the previous morning we had walked past the river and seen the bridge towards Triana and had included it in our agenda of must-explore. So the next morning, after a sleep in and  late breakfast, we set out for a leisurely walk upto the river. By the banks of the river, my friend and I even got silly dressing up as Senoritas and then having our pictures taken.

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Following lunch we visited the Cathedral and climbed up La Giralda, the Bell Tower that is over 340 feet in height. It’s  a steep climb but worth every effort as you get an awesome bird’s eye view of Seville.

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Pic : the Better Half

Tomb of Christopher Columbus

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View from above

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Within the Bell Tower

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We were booked to watch a Flamenco performance for late afternoon. Coming down the tower (and as they say, the climb downhill is always more tricky), we managed to arrive at the venue during the introduction. A mind blowing show – feet a-tapping accompanied by the soulful rendering of the guitarist and the female vocalist while two Flamenco dancers  swayed and sashayed across the floor-  an hour went by and we didn’t even realise it had been that long!

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In the evening, we crossed over to  Triana and explored the area. The flea market was  closed unfortunately, and as we realised a little late in the day, because it was Sunday. Thereafter we returned  to Seville. There always seems to be something happening around Seville and a group of skateboarders were trying to outdo each other on the sidewalk. We stood by and watched them for a while.

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IMG_20160516_241141839The day had turned out to be better than the previous one. We were off to Cordoba the next morning. But we still had the evening to walk around Seville, having dinner in the outdoors, sipping on Sangria and enjoying it one last time.

 

PS:

We made a good decision to watch the Flamenco dance in Seville at Museo del Baile Flamenco (The Flamenco Museum). It was an outstanding performance and worth every second.

During the conducted walking tour, we also went past the Plaza de Toros where you can take tours and catch a bull fight if interested.

Do enquire with the hotel staff for tips and advice on shows and tickets. We were able to skip the long line outside the Cathedral only because we were told where to collect passes from another location. Also we had done advance booking for the Flamenco show through the hotel. So although we did get slightly delayed, we all found seats in separate corners. Hence it may make sense to be there a few minutes early.

 

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When in Spain – Day 7 – Intriguing Seville

First we had  a hearty breakfast at the hotel. Then we headed out for the walking tour of Seville. Here too, like in Madrid, the hotel had thrown in a complimentary Feel the City tour and our guide was Enrique. Enrique walked us through the beautiful city, pointing out landmarks and enthralled us with the intriguing history, captivating lore and interesting anecdotes.

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Triana across the river

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Tower of Gold

We decided to sign up for a tour of the Alcazar post lunch and headed for a quick bite of Italian fare at Pomodoro, one of the many interesting looking restaurants lining the cobblestoned pathways. Later within the Alcazar, a true story of love, intrigue and revenge unfolded. ‘Game of Throne’ fans  were also in for a pleasant surprise when they are told that portions of the series were shot within the premises. Our tour concluded amidst fountains and flora in the sprawling garden.

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Within the Alcazar

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Getting floored by the floor!

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Looking up at the ceiling

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There is so much happening on the way as you explore beautiful Seville. You’ll find performers and musicians everywhere, apart from ongoing tableau such as one that depicted Lucifer himself hanging in thin air, a band of headless musicians and a harried waiter who was frozen in time even  as he fell to the ground. Our favourite though were three clown heads on a table with one of them enticing us ever so endearingly to  go closer. If you fell for it, then you were in for the shock of your life. Of course, there were not so funny sights like a sad old man quietly playing the violin on the street side. And a guitarist with a  beautiful voice serenaded us at dinner time and having done that, went around hoping to be tipped for his soulfully rendered music. Yet it is fun to just stroll down the streets and take in the sights and sounds.

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Outside the cathedral

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Flamenco performer on the street side

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Seville is even more beautiful at night. We took a walk down the same roads that looked so different in daylight. Dinner was at El Rincon de Beirut that served delicious Lebanese fare. Once again there was enough and more for the vegetarian palate and eight satisfied souls walked out of there, heading to the hotel after a day packed with excitement.

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When in Spain – Day 6 – From Barcelona to Seville

We had time until evening before we caught a flight to Seville. We started off with breakfast at an Enrich outlet. Enrich has several outlets through out the city and there was one across the street where we went as well. Having tucked into melt-in-the-mouth croissants and coffee to wash that down, we proceeded to a huge El Corte Inglis store that we’d seen on our bus rides.

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Drool-worthy stationery

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Lunch stop

Initially we’d planned to visit Pablo Espanyol, but realising there probably would not be enough time, we dropped the idea. The highlight of the day for me was a visit to a little shop Paperalia Libreria where I found some amazing art stuff. The sweet little bespectacled salewoman was very helpful and was quick to coax me to look around some more when I complimented her on the amazing range of art stuff and stationery.

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Bye-bye, Barcelona

In no time we were headed for the airport. Through the airplane window, you could see the lights around coastal Spain looking like a star spangled reflection of the night sky. Seville airport is a tiny one. Amidst the passengers were a large group of noisy revellers who made no effort to hide the fact that they were there to have fun.

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Magical Seville

Driving from the airport to our hotel, we turned into a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone road that was large enough to take a single car or carriage at a time. All around us were structures that looked like the perfect setting for a fairy tale to unravel. An apt description, as my friend liked to put it, was that this was indeed a fairy land for grown ups.

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When in Spain – Day 5 -Spellbinding La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

The La Sagrada Familia, looming large and glorious and still under construction is a sight that takes your breath away. The birth and life of Jesus depicted through beautiful  carvings on the walls in the front, the steeples that seem to touch the sky and look more like the castles that you saw in your fairy tale books —you can spend hours admiring the vision.

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The three wise men

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Gaudi’s dream project is a must-see in Barcelona. Once inside, you’ll find it peaceful even amidst the huge number of visitors. We opted for an audio guide that took us through the church in a systematic way and leaves nothing out. Do make time to sit for a while and admire the beautiful stained glass windows.

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You exit from the opposite side and the sculptures here are harsher and depict  the events leading up to the crucifixion.

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The tour of the church had made us hungry, so when we stepped out an hour or more later, we began to search for a place to eat. Finally we found a restaurant called Pikako and luckily they served a vegetarian version of paella for those of us who didn’t eat meat. For the children, there was pizza.

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 Outside Park Guell

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Straight out of a Fairy tale book this

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A peek inside Gaudi’s home…now a museum

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Made for comfort by Gaudi. This was one among many such thoughtfully made furniture on display

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Miniature version of La Sagrada Familia

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Art on the ceiling

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The genius himself – a bust of the inimitable Gaudi

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The crowded Park Guell

Our next halt was Park Guell. We had tickets this time for the Gaudi Museum. The structure that houses the museum was home to the renowned architect himself. A fascinating peek into the life and living spaces of a man who was indeed a genius! We skipped the park itself and set out on a shopping spree visiting Spain’s very own Zara and other places.

Dinner was at 100 Montadittos.

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When in Spain – Day 4 – All you need to Nou about football

Starting off late that day, by the time we set out it was closer to noon. Not wanting to lose any more time, we decided to visit La Sagrada Familia. Taking taxis from outside our hotel we reached the magnificent church but were told that the tickets for the day were sold out.

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The magnificent La Sagrada Familia

We had no go but to change our plans and we decided to visit the next popular location. Park Guell it was and we went all the way climbing on an uphill but not impossible walk. Another unpleasant surprise was in store for us when we were told that the tickets for Park Guell would be sold only after four. We decided not to wait and took a bus to Camp Nou, changing once on the way.

Tickets had been booked online for four from the group, all children aged between 13 and 17 for a guided tour of the Barca Stadium. While the parents waited outside, the four youngsters went in and had a euphoric  visit of Camp Nou.

We planned to spend the latter part of the day at Las Rambla. After Camp Nou, we went back to the hotel and then again took buses to Port Vell. Taking our time to explore the place, we enjoyed the sea breeze and the accompanying views, then took a leisurely stroll down the famous Las Ramblas where you get to see anything and everything  from theatres, eateries, shops selling most everything and then the other side of urbanization…the poverty stricken face of the city.

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Port Vell

Later we had a delicious Chinese dinner at Wok to Walk, and yes, the vegetarians weren’t going hungry this time.

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Note:

When in Barcelona, book all your tickets to the more popular places well in advance. Having learnt our lesson, we booked tickets at least one day earlier from here on. Barcelona is a large city  and the major attractions are spread across it, so it may also help to plan on what you want to see and what you don’t before you set out sight-seeing.

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