Otranto is Italy’s most easterly town and its position on the Adriatic coast has long made it strategically important in defending the narrow Strait of Otranto between Italy and Albania. The massive perimeter walls and tall, sturdy towers, an imposing sight by today’s standards, were constructed after the town was liberated from the Turks in the 15th century.
Today a number of wide promenades iced with cafe tables run along the top the walls that stretch high from the turquoise-clear waters of the Adriatic below. Narrow alleys dive up into the old town, cutting through vast turrets and stone-flat walls. In amongst the passageways and the hidden piazzas, small restaurants offer pizzas and fresh fish and pasta before breaking through to the main gates of the castle.
It is only a short distance through the shaded streets of the old town, lined with small shops selling classy cloths, local jewellery and the usual tourist tat, to reach the small piazzas at the heart of the old town. From the walls a large marina is revealed and at the other end of town a sandy beach provides opportunities for swimming and sun lounging.
One piazza is home to the 11th century duomo.
Inside two features stand out. One is a magnificent mosaic floor depicting hell.
The other is a collection of 100s of human skulls that are kept behind a sheet of glass. In 1480 the town was attacked by the Turks. The locals held out for two weeks but were eventually overcome. 800 took refuge in the cathedral. The Turks promised to let them go free if they renounced their faith but none did so and they were all taken out and beheaded. In 1771 a papal decree beatified them as martyrs and their skulls retrieved and displayed here.
Leaving Gangtok today, I head for the border and leave the Kingdom of Sikkim. The road winds it way up the side of the mountain, crosses the ridge & winds its way down to the next boulder strewn river. The bus follows the Ranipul valley to the border.
My last afternoon back in West Bengal is spent in the scruffy boder town of Kalimpong stuck to the side of a mountain at 1,800 metres. The town was a frontier trading post for wool merchants coming from Tibet. It is a hotch potch of little narrow streets in the shadow of tall tatty buildings with busy people trading & going about their business from small stalls or workshops. In the people’s faces there is evidence dozens of cultures & religions. A spagetti of electricity wires & telephone cables tangle their way around the roads & streets. See what you think.
So tomorrow I enter Bhutan. I have no idea what to expect but am so excited. There may be Wi-Fi, there may not. You may hear from me. You may not 😉 😕😢.
It is another long day’s drive along mountain roads to reach Gangtok. The least said the better although needless to say the rear suspension on the bus found it all too tough & gave up the ghost with a loud clunk. The driver got down to making emergency repairs, squatting underneath the rear axle, while the passengers exercised their posteriors and gained a short relief from the Brocking Bronko fairground ride.
Today is the anniversary of Rama & Sita’s wedding. The Hindu celebrations started in the streets with bells, symbols & chants. It all happens at the temple & is over by midmorning. However it did get me up on the roof for dawn. The sky was clear and, yes, I saw sunrise over the Himalaya (the correct name for the whole range without an ‘s’) and over Gamtok. It was worth the wait. This is Kanchenjunga at 8,586m.
Gamtok is the present day capital of Sikkim. Here are some images of the town centre (apologies, for the two that are a bit wonky because taken out of the front window) and some of the side streets.
Rumtek Monastery was built in the 1960s and is the headquarters of the Kagyupa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It an awesome building, its colourful facades towering over monks & novices & visitors & tourists. This is a bit of a Where’s Wally -find the single monk and find the group down the alley & try and work out what is going on.
Drodul Chorten is a monastery and a stupa and it has 108 prayer wheels around the central chorten. It was built to commemorate the victory of good over evil. Chants, drums & bells could be heard from the prayer hall. Visitors could only listen from outside – only the Buddhist monks were taking part including these guys from Bhutan. Check out their robe gear – their’s is very David Beckham!
Today is a chance to explore, in the bus & on foot, in & around the town of Pelling. The haze lifts for a bit and the sun warms the valleys & hillsides. The first stop is a village that dots its houses, shops & barns along the winding road.
The next stop is a chance to walk around Kecheopelri or the Wishing Lake. A small cafe, a tatty gift shed, a tiny Buddhist prayer wheel & monastry huddle at the top of the path that leads to the lake itself – considered the most holy lake in Sikkim and a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists & Hindus alike.
Pemayangtse Monastery is the second oldest and is one of the 60 still active in the kingdom. As well as the male monkss, young boys age 7 to 13 attend for up to 3 years. Its members are devotees of a mystical type of Tantric Buddhism characterised by the red caps they wear.
Well, it started off fine. This was a 140 km drive north from Darjeeling to Pelling in Sikkim. The bus left at 8 in the morning in warm sunshine and it arrived in Pelling at 6 o’clock in the evening in the middle of a thunder & lighting storm. You do the maths – with an hour off for stops it took 9 hours. The average speed was 14 km per hour!!! The driver never got out of third the whole way.
The first part took me through tall broad leaf forests with dappled sunlight through high foliage onto grasses, ferns, mosses, bamboos. The road snaked its way through the forest. At one point teak trees appeared. It took a fair while as the bus was old & lacked any acceleration and the road was a single & a half carriage way,which meant vehicles had to slow right down to pass each other. But the scenery was wonderful and the road relatively smooth.
Then when the bus dropped down through the trees to the border to enter Sikkim it all went very wrong and the real problems started. I will let the images tell the story. Needless to say, it can be summed up as the ‘rocky horror journey’ along pitted, unmade up roads where dust & shakes & rolls & grinding gears & exhaust fumes & horns hit the senses at every stage of this journey from Mad Max 3. I’ll let you use your imagination!!!
At 4am a convoy of 100 or so Jeeps race up the narrow streets and lanes to Tiger Hill at 2,590 metres (that’s over 8,000 feet!) to watch the sun rise & to see its rays illuminate the west facing peaks of the Himalayas. Sadly the haze sploit the occasion. This what we were supposed to see:
And here we all are not seeing it.
After breakfast I set out to explore this town of 140,000 mostly Mongol origin people. Darjeeling is so near Tibet & Nepal & China that it i easy to forget that we are very much in India. I share the first part of my walk up the main street & along an open road with the joggers & speed walkers. The haze is really disconcerting because there is never a clear view down the hills (I’m going to start calling them mountains because that’s what they are) so the views out & between houses are simply blankets of grey.
Being so near Nepal the locals are mostly Buddhist. There is a wonderful temple hidden in a grove of trees with a huge flutter of a thousand prayer flags, a clanginging of prayer bells & a haze of smell – smoke from hundreds of incense sticks.
Darjeeling is a really busy place. The houses are multistoried as space is such a premium. Their frontages are in need of a good sand down and a bit of exterior emulsion applied. Streets are very narrow and wind through the buildings, the deep descents and steep slopes of the mountain sides. The most amazing sight is that of a handful of porters who climb these steep slopes with enormous weights on their backs and a strap attached around their foreheads. The most amazing was one with 3 large gas containers.
Hundreds of Jeeps scurry through the maze of streets honking constantly to no avail as parked vehicles, pedestrians, huge potholes that could swallow a small car, market stalls (I saw a market being held on the railway line!!) or one of the many water lorries cause an obstruction & everything stops for 5 mins, the problem is sorted & the traffic moves on to the next obstruction a few hundred metres further on. The streets of the old town are full of stalls & bustling traders & tributaries &streams of busy shoppers who manage to snag up the vehicles that are also sharing the flow. Great fun buy everything is on the mountain so you know if you go down and some point it is a long slope or a steep climb back up.
At this altitude the temperature has drops to a chilly 12 or so degrees so it’s goodbye to shorts & out with the fleece. Day & night the locals go about well wrapped up in coats, blankets & heavy woollen hats.
Tea plantations were visible through the mist in the distance but it is
still hard to believe that this place is the source of some the world’s best tea. Tomorrow I move onto Spelling in the former Kingdom of Sikkim. Am hoping Wi-Fi is available!!
The luscious green paddy fields of Bangladesh are at their best in the early morning haze. Driving through the manicured patchwork of luscious emerald fields it feels like Shangri-La. This makes the coming contrast even more marked. Today is the day I head for the border with India. Once all formalities have been completed by over zealous bureaucrats on both side, golly – paperwork in triplicate, I cross into West Bengal and within a few kilometres all has changed. All that clean gas & pedal power is replaced by Mr Tata’s diesel driven cars & lorries & buses, old rusty tuk tuk favourites, all still honking before passing the vehicle in front, with louder alpine horns I have to say. Air pollution is back on the agenda. The landscape loses all its order & colour and is replaced by dusty, rather scruffy fields of potatoes & skinny grazing cattle. The towns & villages are full of groups of men hanging about while the women are out in the fields doing all the work. Religion has changed from Muslim to Hindu. The overwhelming friendliness of Bangladesh is replaced by a general apathy to the presence of Westerners.
All is flat & dry for an hour or so and then, all of a sudden the bus starts a slow climb. No warning, it has been flat and now the hills start, simple. It takes several hours to climb from 150 metres above sea level up to Darjeeling at over 2,100 metres. Up & up the bus meanders through the sunlit mist as if entering a hidden kingdom up in the skies.
Shortly the railway track of the narrow guage railway that bought the Brits up from the sweltering plain, appears from a small engine shed on the side of the road & hugs the now narrow road as they both make their tedious way together through shabby houses & shops to the top.Vehicles have become small lorries & lines of beeping Jeeps acting as buses & taxis chug or beetle up & down the hills.
And then the bus drives through the little main square of Darjeeling. It is nothing like I imagine it to be. The buildings are tall and scruffy; they cling on to the side of the tall hills & look like they might almost peel of the walls. Yet the place has a real charm. The weather has changed at this altitude – fresh, even chilly at night. What I thought was romantic cloud is pollution from the towns below. The people are descended from Mongul tribes coming down from Tibet. To find out more I take the Toy Train to Ghoom, a slow 1 hour journey out of Darjeeling.