Tag Archive | food

Viva Thailand 2: Bangkok – Forever Festive

1a(Display at a shop near Piazza del Duomo, Firenze)

Cute bunnies and chocolate eggs announce Easter time – the most holy festival in the Christian year. Three weeks prior to Easter, we were toying with the idea of a charming and fulfilling Holy Week in Rome followed by a few days in Lugano, Switzerland’s third most important financial centre with parks, villas and sacred buildings. At that juncture, a pleasing stimulus was our reminiscence of the chance we had last year to witness the Scoppio del Carro (ref my post of October 25, 2012: Viva Italia 3: Scoppio del Carro, Florence) at the Piazza del Duomo of Firenze.

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Someone once wrote: Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans. What could have been a swell time in Rome attending the solemn Easter ceremonies at St. Peter’s Basilica led by Papa Francesco might have turned into a parade in winter clothes owing to the chilly temperatures and scattered showers in Italy.

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Having given up our earlier flirtation with the idea of Italy, we had shifted the venue to the bright tropical sunshine of Bangkok. Incidentally, just prior to our departure before Palm Sunday, Andrea ate something funny that didn’t agree with her stomach which culminated in cancellation of our trip though, thankfully, she has since got better.

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Here in Cochin, the schools and colleges had closed just in time for “Holi” – the festival of colour and joy (formerly Holika). Holi denotes triumph of truth over evil and proclaims the message of universal brotherhood, although originally it was celebrated for good harvest and fertility of the land.

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Rooted in Hindu mythology, the legend of Radha-Krishna has it that the dark-skinned Krishna having been jealous of the fair-skinned Radha, pestered his mother Yashoda about the inferiority of his skin tone. Fed up, she advised him to douse Radha’s fair skin in colours so that she will also sport dark hue like him. Yet another legend, one of the several legends and stories behind Holi, remembers it for the sacrifice of Holika who burned herself in fire on that day.

6 a commons.wikimedia.org Radha and Krishna

To commemorate this, each spring the Holi celebrators (preferably dressed in white kurtas or saris or shalwar kameez for maximum effect) enjoyed high moments by spraying gulal (colour) powder and vibrant coloured water of red, pink, yellow, magenta, green, etc at each other in festive merrymaking. The vibrant hues epitomize life, energy, joy and the beginning of spring. One of my friends in Delhi, a lovely warm person, once summarized the colours concisely: Green being healthy, blue lucky, red meaning wealth and pink pleasant anticipation. Caught up in commercial exploitation, Gulal powders are now available with glittering effect, perfumed, skin/echo friendly, non-toxic, easy to remove, even organic or herbal (made from natural Maize starch).

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At the wake of Holi came Easter. Being in Cochin for Easter offered us a rather happening atmosphere amongst the close ones and the inviting ambiance of our home. The mailing-list was fished out and the traditional greeting cards were all sent. The local market readily smartened up offering exciting wares, fare and fun – especially the newly opened Lulu Shopping Mall, the largest in India.

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(A window display in Aachen, Germany)

The Easter hampers in wicker baskets on display were fun – the latest craze was the Chocolate hampers of tasty treats such as edible decoupage eggs, handmade biscuits, sweeties, bunnies, Chocolate-topped hot cross buns, etc – all the Easter goodies were in there – excluding the bottle of Champagne!

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(A display in Central World Plaza, Bangkok)

Tradition is a guide that draws attention to our roots that stretch to our spiritual and blood ancestors. Numerous books and periodicals have traced the roots and facts about Easter traditions of the world. The custom of exchanging eggs goes back to the Egyptian and the Roman times when eggs were exchanged at spring festivals as a token of renewed life. Christianity adopted the eggs as an emblem of the Resurrection of Christ.

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(A window display in Firenze, Italy)

The Cocoa Easter bunnies came to be identified as the essence of life and the resurrection of Jesus Christ – an integral part of Easter tradition ever since they originated in Germany, the country of birth of Carina!

The hot cross buns possibly developed from small wheat cakes eaten at the spring festivals in honour of Astárte, the Phoenician goddess of fertility, sexuality and war, though the cross on it is of Christian origin.

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(Statues adoring the Battistero di San Giovanni, Firenze, Italy)

It all dated to a past I could know of only by reading about it initially in the Reader’s Digest and The Illustrated Weekly of India (now defunct) while I was a Seventies teenager.

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The choice of Bangkok to spend Easter time there was quite natural. For us, Bangkok is not just a place for city sights or major landmarks or friends; it is also special due to one of our favourite churches, The Assumption Cathedral which has interwoven itself into our lives over the years ever since we first went there back in 2002.

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Situated at Oriental Avenue in the Bang Rak district within 100 meters from the famous Mandarin Oriental Bangkok Hotel, this principal Roman Catholic church of Thailand has its origins in Father Pasquale Gallo, a French missionary who sought permission to build it in 1809 as per design of an architect from his country. It was completed with imported materials from France and Italy in 1821 during the reign of King Rama II (1809-1824), the second monarch of the House of Chakri.

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Named Assumption Cathedral to honour the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heavenly glory, the church was rebuilt in the Romanesque style as a tall and rectangular structure with red brick exterior between 1909 and 1918.

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However, it underwent extensive restoration following serious damage in 1942 during World War II bombings. The layout of the building is in the form of a cross though the two hands of the cross used as sanctuaries are not wide and their lengths shorter in proportion to the length of the building. Although the exterior of the building looks very simple, the interior has a very luxurious and dignified appearance.

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The church is undergoing extensive renovations until December 2014, but even so, worship service is held there on special occasions. I can still feel the tranquility and stillness of its interior when I had sat on one of the polished wooden pews on numerous occasions and said quiet prayers or just meditated.

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Those were rare moments in which we were left with our thoughts in silence. Living in cities, seldom do we come face to face with a silent moment in our daily lives. To borrow a quote from Mother Teresa “See how nature – trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence… We need silence to be able to touch souls.” It would explain why is it that many of the renowned vacation resorts are situated on secluded coasts, isolated mountains, sweeping oceans or on tranquil lakes.

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Easter, Christmas or New Years are not the only attractions for us in relation to the major events and festivals of Bangkok. Following Easter, the Chakri Day is celebrated on April 6 to commemorate the founding of the present Chakri Dynasty in 1782 by King Rama I (Phra Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke).

Earlier, on February 10, the Bangkokians had joined millions across the world to celebrate the Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) which is the most important event in the Chinese calendar.

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In Bangkok, the whole of Yaowarat Road in the historic Chinatown is decorated with colourful flags, lanterns, strings but was closed as thousands thronged there to taste the authentic Chinese food and partake in the street fanfare.

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People danced as the grandiose and colourful Chinese lion and dragon processions coursed through to the sound of drums and explosions of firecrackers.

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I have seen rows and rows of gastronomic display of shark’s fin soup, duck and pork noodle soup, steamed Chinese buns, dim sum, Chinese silky rice noodles, suckling pig, Peking duck, and fresh seafood at hotspot eateries just waiting to be plated into hot clay pots – although none of which I tasted since I had to meet someone later at the Jameson’s Irish Pub at Silom Road (Bang Rak).

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That evening at the Jameson’s, I was served a readily dressed Crab Salad in Vinaigrette. It’s a delicious salad with ingredients such as Cornichons (continental gherkins), capers, fresh coriander leaves, grated zest, fresh lime juice, shallot, white wine, olive oil, Tabasco sauce, milled black pepper, few crisp salad leaves to garnish and served with buttered brown bread.

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In other parts of Bangkok, restaurants (especially Chinese Thai owned) and shopping malls lured customers with promotions ranging from discounts to special offers to free feng-shui advice. To set the tone for the launch of the New Year, families of Chinese Thais sat together at their home to enjoy sumptuous Chinese banquets and to indulge in conversations that is fairly predictable.

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Following the banquet, the children were gifted with red envelopes (ang-pao) stuffed with pocket money as New Year gift. (Thais generally give money in envelopes as gifts rather than a present for weddings, a custom still practiced by many in my part of the world.)

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Shortly after Easter, the Thais welcome their traditional New Year called “Songkran” (April 12-16, 2013). But unlike the Chinese New Year Festival, Songkran is celebrated throughout the country, especially in Bangkok, Pattaya, Chiang Mai, with rituals (like sprinkling water on sacred Buddha statues, making food offerings at temples, etc), parades, beauty pageants, oyster shelling competitions and merriment.

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In the scalding hot weather of April, the festival has an added fun for the fun-loving Thais since an integral part is friendly water splashing/hurling at each other, which includes locals and tourists, as a ‘gesture to give and request a blessing”. It also symbolizes the washing off all misfortunes of the past year and welcoming the New Year.

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Water has a special meaning in Asia. It represents life, prosperity and, of course, a new beginning.

However, to restrict drenching battles carried out by people on the back of trucks and to reduce possible fatalities, this year the authorities have banned all vehicles from carrying water on trucks for the duration of the Songkran festival.

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On a few occasions we were also not spared by the frolicking Thais from being miserably drenched by splashing perfumed water for coming within the hurling range.

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One takes it all in the stride since the majority of the Thais are friendly and often smile back at you pleasantly in return to your smile. This is a phenomenon you can notice amongst the Thais themselves who display a really warm community spirit by getting along a whole lot better with each other than people from other countries do.

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Being the most popular holiday, city life in Bangkok comes to a standstill during Songkran as masses of Thais travel back to their provinces for family reunions since the majority of Bangkokians hail from the countryside.

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It’s a time for them to revisit their home-grounds where they have grown up playing in paddy fields with water buffaloes.

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After the festival, they will be back in Bangkok like books finding its right place back on the shelf, carrying country grown fruits and vegetables, fermented fish, etc, their relatives had packed for them.

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On May 5, once again the nation joins the Royal Family to celebrate the Coronation Day to mark the day when Prince Bhumibol Adulyadej is crowned King (Rama IX), the ninth king of the Chakri Dynasty in 1950.

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We have not been in Bangkok on this day nor during the ancient Brahmanic ritual called The Ploughing Ceremony held in May at Sanam Luang, the big park next to the Palace.

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This ceremony was re-introduced in 1960 by H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the longest reigning king in Thai history, to commemorate the beginning of the rice-growing season and to bless the farmers with bumper harvests during the year. I remember, we too once had such an event in Kerala, and practises such as sowing the seeds from north to south across the land to obtain best crops.

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Bangkok is a rapidly modernizing city. But best of all, the Thais are conscientious enough to do not severe the threads of their past. On the full moon day of May, the Visakha Puja (May 24) is held. It is one of the most important holy days for the Theravada Buddhists. This day commemorates the birth, Enlightenment and death of Buddha.

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When Bangkok experiences rain during June to October, except for the unrelenting tropical heat which is breezed with occasional coolness, the energy and vibrancy and the intense traffic jams still prevail.

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Its Golden temples, serpentine canals, cacophony of street vendors and markets, Chinatown, are all still active and busy.

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People still strolled in Lumpini Park, made their wishes at Erawan Shrine, visited the Thewet Flower Market (Talaat Taywait), cruised downriver on rented motor launches (rua mai) or toured the Jim Thompson House or their showrooms.

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If you happen to be in Bangkok by mid-September, you could watch the International Swan Boat Races which take place under the Rama IX Bridge on the Chao Phraya River (River of Kings) which divides Bangkok into twin cities – Bangkok and Thonburi, but governed by the same municipality.

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The nightlife, lively as ever, would still be glaring, mainly in the stretch of nightclubs on Silom, Phat Phong, Sukhumvit, and Ratchadapisek (Royal City Avenue or RCA) Roads. Here is where the sanuk (fun and enjoyment) is – the fun-drenched possibilities, the world of delight hanging there like ripe golden fruit for whoever could leap high enough to take it.

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Though we were not on time to attend the 85th birthday celebrations of His Majesty the King on December 5 of last year, at one time our visit coincided with that event when huge crowds gathered on the evenings of 4th and 5th to celebrate the event at different locations in Bangkok. The city sported beautiful decorations and the excitement in the air was almost tangible. The decorative altars (Khrueang ratchasakkara) honouring the king and the queen were elegantly beautified.

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Apart from the existing decorative arches spanning the wide avenues, new temporary celebratory arches were erected. Possibly replicas derived from the Chinese “pai lou” or inspired by the earlier triumphal arches of Europe, these arches are called “sum chalerm phrakiat”, and come in various sizes and shapes featuring moulded garudas, nagas, angels, elephants, etc, in variant hues dominated by gold and blue. (In earlier days we had watered down versions of such arches erected across less wider roads in Cochin which has eventually evolved into plain arches that feature advertisements for events or commercials or traffic indications.)

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That year also provided us with the chance to see the regal pageantry of the Trooping of the Colours held on December 3 when the King reviewed the elite Royal Guards as they marched past the members of the Royal Family.

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The Thai calendar is dotted with many other interesting events and regional festivals such as the annual Thai Traditional Boat Races, Phimai Festival (performing arts, art and culture) of Nakhon Ratchasima province, Chiang Mai Flower Festival, Chiang Mai Yi Peng Festival, to name a few.

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While we were in Bangkok last year, December 12 was treated by many as an auspicious day due to the three twelves’ “12-12-12” involved in it (which only happens once every hundred years). Given that Thailand loves to celebrate auspicious dates, the seasonal mood was one of high romance. I read somewhere that Bangkok’s Bang Rak district (literally the “village of love” which is always a hotspot for marriage registration), and districts in Chiang Mai, etc were much sought after by loving couples to register for their marriage on that auspicious day.

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Reports have indicated that, in spite of the economic difficulties of Europe and the United States, the tourism performance of Thailand for 2012 turned out quite impressive. Likewise, with their projections for 2013’s tourism prospects pointing in the same direction, many events to promote tourism have been scheduled – one of which is the Bangkok Bike 2013 during May 2-5 this year co-organized by the Tourism Authority of Thailand to promote the use of bicycles for both recreational and regular use and to popularise the existing cycling tours for local and foreign visitors.

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The country’s accommodations industry has shown improvement as hotels in major tourism destinations registered bookings of 85-90 per cent in 2012 compared to the 70-75 per cent of 2011 even though many hotels have raised their room rates by 5 to 10 per cent to cover higher operating costs.

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One aspect in favour of the flourish in tourism is the strong Asian economy, which is encouraging people to travel. Keeping an eye on this development, the Thai Tourism Department has been allotted Bt.4.3 billion in 2014 which is substantially higher than 2012 and this year, to continue improving tourism sites nationwide to attract more foreign visitors and to encourage longer stays. In addition to the Visa on arrival facility which allows for certain number of days stay in Thailand based on different nationalities, should you require an extension, the Immigration Office in Bangkok currently provides visa extension for a further period up to seven days for deserving cases. The formalities for such services are simplified and made tourist-friendly so that the extension can be availed within an hour.

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Thailand has long been ranked as one of the world’s best tourist destinations. According to media reports, the Thai Government is calling on all Thais, who are generally very tolerant of foreigners, to lend a hand to look after the tourists in their neighbourhood since on few occasions tourists are victims of scams and crimes including rape and assault. As in every touristy country, if you are aware of the ground you walk and keep an eye on your back, you can enjoy a wonderful time without coming across any sleaze.

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One of the activities I indulge in any city is to visit the local antique/second hand book shops of which a few can be found in Bangkok.  Even though Thailand has a rich literary tradition, and libraries containing religious books and ancient texts in palm leaves were part of many Buddhist temples, the reading habit is rather poor compared to its neighbours.

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Now that Bangkok has been awarded the World Book Capital of 2013 by UN cultural organization UNESCO, Thailand is encouraging its citizens to “read for life” and acquire better understanding of the political, legal and economic functions of adult society, and the social and moral awareness to thrive in it.

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It is much to their credit that, with sheer dedication and effort, Thailand has finally entered the Huffington Post’s list of top 20 destinations for New Year celebrations. The Christmas and New Year season is a good example of how the country as a whole rose up to encourage tourism. It was an all-out effort of which even the students lend a hand in support. In order to celebrate the festive season and promote tourism, the students of a school in Ayutthaya province dressed as Santa Claus and posed with elephants on Christmas Eve of every year.

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(At Hotel Amari Atrium, Bangkok)

Throughout the world late December has always been a time for celebration. Last year, we were sufficiently early in Bangkok for the Christmas and the New Year season.

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We could enjoy a vast array of display of beautiful Christmas trees put up in Bangkok including those forming part of decorations at Shangri-La Hotel, Gaysorn Plaza  (pic above) and of course, Mandarin Oriental Bangkok (pic below).

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How wonderful it is to realize that all this is part of that wonderful Victorian Christmas created by Charles Dickens and Prince Albert – “Christmas Carol” by Dickens while Prince Albert had popularised the Christmas tree.

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Free from problems like the political unrest and floods of the last couple of years, the Bangkokians appeared keen to join in the celebrations with shopping and dining experiences – buying gifts for others, merit-making and parties with relatives and friends – the same thing they did during last year’s season.

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(Inside Central World Plaza, Bangkok)

As usual, the stores slashed prices and put up festive promotions and discount offers of the season, trade fairs and exhibitions in the run up to Christmas, in a last ditch attempt to get people through their doors – as if reminding them to have a terrific clear-out of their wardrobes or let their love of beautiful and luxurious things grab them.

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Apart from the original brands of international fashionistas, you could also find the fakes at lesser price. Only the discerning could distinguish the counterfeit brands and cheap copies that are abound in the market.

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SF Cinema came up with a movie gift pack of 10 tickets for Bt1,300/- (about US$45/-) to welcome the new year.

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Just as in Singapore, the year-end spending for the Thais was not confined to merely Christmas and New Year, but also intended for the Chinese New Year which falls during February.

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New Year’s party is everyone’s birthday party. Thousands turned up for the “New Year countdown to 2013” at locations such as Siam Square, Asiatique the Riverfront, Khao San Road (the backpacker ghetto and unofficial gateway to Southeast Asia), Bangkok Countdown Novotel, etc, while the biggest party with dazzling fireworks and stage entertainments was again at the Rajprasong intersection, with a huge stage set up in front of the Central World Plaza that showcased the theme: “Big Hug Big Fun.”

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The long stretch from Four Seasons Bangkok to Gaysorn Plaza to Central World was lit up with thousands of fairy lights. Groups of celebrators flocked to national parks to enjoy a festive tipple though they are urged not to use cooking stoves inside their tents.

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The New Year’s Eve party beckoned at many star hotels – the choice belonged to us. For a change from the beaten track, there is the famous Mandarin Oriental Bangkok. An innate sense of comfort, combined with a feel for history, luxury and location epitomise that hotel.

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For the affluent and society doyennes, the answer to all their pampering needs awaited in that pioneering place, the lawns of which came alive with fun and gaiety in a party called “Mama Mia” featuring sumptuous food, music, dance, entertainment and fireworks.

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To some participants from Britain and Europe, the cooking fire at live gastronomic-stations at the party helped to defuse the superstitious belief that prevailed in their countries that considered it bad luck to let fire go out on New Year’s Eve.

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I heard that some went to the banks of Chao Phraya River to watch the midnight fireworks go off on both sides of the river while some couples went to Rama VIII Bridge for an inspiring and illuminated New Year kiss as the clock struck midnight.

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A wonderful sight also to be seen occasionally is pre-wedding pictures being taken of happy couples kissing on this breezy bridge while a fleet of every kind of boats – from klong boats to deep-sea fishing trawlers, ornamental tourist junks to long-tailed boats, or even dragon racers to the revived magnificent Royal Barges, passed under the bridge.

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Love – that thing between a man and woman is beautiful – the most natural thing in the world.

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As for our New Year lunch, it was served to us at The Veranda of Mandarin Oriental. I had a Seared Black eye Tuna in Almond and Pistachio Crust with South American Quinoa, diced vegetables, couscous medley, green asparagus, butter and a soy sauce emulsion for main course.

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Carina went for Khaw Phad Oriental – the Oriental fried rice with Chicken, pork and prawns topped with fried eggs with assorted satays as accompaniment. The bottles of wine and strains of romantic music were another perfect accompaniment.

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However, as much as Rome and Bangkok inspired us and how wonderful it was to be away, there are always those little homely pleasures that tug at your heart strings to return home, sweet home.

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Someone has remarked that you should be careful what you wish for because you might end up getting it. Easter at home was our final wish for Easter.

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Ours is a family home and we like it to be lived in. Spending Easter in our house in Cochin amongst close ones was ample proof that wherever you are, the greatest fun in any festivity is the presence of your loved ones and the joy that you feel when you see the glow of happiness in their eyes. Then you realize that there is a feeling of renewal in the air. It is life’s enrichments rather than the riches of life that bring us true contentment. Hold that thought. Until next time. Ciao, Jo

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a)  Exact dates for festivals vary from year to year since many are based on the lunar cycle.

b)  The paintings of “Holi being played in the courtyard” and “Radha-Krishna” are from Wikipedia: Public domain;

c)   Reproduction of pictures credited to “Thailand Authority of Tourism” appearing in this post was made possible through the permission of International Public Relations Division, TAT, Bangkok;

d)  Photos of “Mama Mia!” New Year party provided by Ms. Somsri (Susie) Hansirisawasdi, Director of Public Relations, Mandarin Oriental Bangkok;

e)  All Photos, except those credited on them, © Joseph Sebastine-Carina Simeon/Manningtree Archive.

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Viva Italia – 4: Amore Piazza San Marco, Venezia – Com’ era, dov’ era

It breaks my heart when I think about the recent floods in Venezia which submerged the stone pavements of one of the greatest urban spaces in Europe, Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) and gushed into the Basilica di San Marco (Basilica of St. Mark). With water levels reportedly rising to a critical level of 59 inches above normal, they say it was the “sixth-highest level since records began in 1872”. Even though floods are no stranger to Venezia since this phenomenon occurs almost annually as a consequence of eustasy (rising sea level) and subsidence (lowering of the land), the frequency of the floods are rising. It not only brings about great inconvenience to the Venetians but also inflicts immeasurable damage to the Piazza, to the bell tower, the underground passages and all around instability to an area that was once proven as the best part of the Rialtine islands due to its harder soil.

 

Although, other tourist destinations of Italy like Firenze and Roma definitely registered better in flow of the tourists owing to the floods, I believe shops like Carlo Pazolini (Via Sestiere, San Marco) must have done brisk business in sale of waterproof footwear. Moving pictures of tourists wading through the water with plastic bags covering their legs and carrying suitcases on their shoulders flashed on televisions across the world. Whilst the rain hammered over the canals, the landscape had become dreary and you could see numerous traghetti (Ferries) and vaporetto (steamers) plying in a dull pace through the misty Canale Grande.

The gondoliers who normally look quite cheerful standing up (its second nature to them) on their black Triton looked wet and sullen. It should come as no surprise to find those who do not fancy walking around hours in wellingtons or over makeshift wooden walkways rather prefer the other non-waterlogged Campos of Venezia, off the beaten path, or walk around through the numerous alleyways with Italianized street names (the English names of artists and writers were changed during World War II), exploring whatever they are interested in.

 

With its intricate network of big and small canals, countless bridges, there is a mystic quality in Venezia that draws you there, at least more than once.  Whenever we are in Italy, especially in Padova, we would hop the short distance to Venezia to spend a day or two at this once principal gateway between the West and the East on which their commerce and wealth was raised.

 

According to tradition, Venezia was founded by Italian refugees fleeing the mainland for the safety of the islands occupying the Venetian lagoons when the Lombards attacked their cities in the late 6th century. They built houses on the muddy patches of land and made most of the abundance of fish and salt of the lagoons. It was in 697 AD that an alliance was finally formed by the communities scattered throughout the islands and elected their first doge – the ruler. By 12th century, Venezia had become a thriving city rooted on maritime trade and the city’s symbol would become a statue of the winged lion of San Marco, booty from the sacking of Constantinople.

 

Presently, there are two Venezias: one of the canals and the other of the streets, which I had explored numerous times. I had had an early breakfast that day before going for a morning stroll through the beautiful streets to the busy fish market, one of the city’s heritage sites, at the foot of the Rialto Bridge where fish was being sold for more than 1,000 years. This market was scenes of protests during last year when it was under threat of shifting for expanding the docks for the cruise ships. As I passed the market workers coffee stalls, I could hear a Veneziano greet his friend in Venetian dialect: Come, let us go have a glass!.

Hither and thither, your eyes could catch charming bits of ancient architecture, patches of brilliant colours, little shops and shrines. Though some of these alleyways are rather obstructed by scaffoldings supporting the rundown structures, here you could come across many bàcari, simple stand-up bars, that offer modest selection of wine and cicheti, traditional snacks made of local meat and fish: polpette: fried meatballs with a mixture of veal, potatoes and spices, or fried calamari or boiled octopus, etc. You could squeeze in next to the locals as they ate cold slices of polenta topped with mortadella or pickled fish, or halves of Mozzarella di Bufala with cherry tomatoes, basil and olive oil. During mornings, you could enjoy an Ombra or Ombretta which is the Venetian custom of having a small glass of wine in the morning. I tried that at the seafood Trattoria “Alla Scala” located at Corte Lucatello between Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco.

 

Having spent half hour at Chiesa di San Giuliano (dedicated to San Zulian/Julian who was martyred with his wife Basilissa in 304 in Alexandria) with its beautiful interior designed by sculptor/architect Jacopo d’Antonio Sansovino (1486-1570), I would finally decide to give my legs further rest at Caffé Florian at Piazza San Marco, the only piazza in Venezia since all the others are called “Campo”.

As I stepped into the Piazza now inundated with tourists, the ornate Basilica di San Marco stood at the Eastern side like an opulent backdrop to it. Sometimes called “Chiesa d’Oro” (Church of Gold), this place of historical association and worship for Venetians is the repository of the remains of San Marco, the second Evangelist and traditional author of the Gospel of Mark, secreted out of Alexandria (Egypt) in 828 and brought to Venezia hidden in salted pork to hoodwink the Muslim guards though it is believed that the head of the saint remained in Alexandria. Looking at the basilica from the Western side, I could see Palazzo Ducale to its right – both the edifices richly decorated with vermilion, blue and gold.

To my left, on the Northern side is the 152 meter long Pietro Lombardo’s Procuratie Vecchie (Old Procuratie) with Torre dell’Orologio (Clock Tower) situated at its end. Legend has it that the men who made that famous clock were blinded to prevent them from making another one for somebody else.

Procuratie Vecchie’s ground floor now houses the shops while offices occupy the upper floors. On the Southern side starting from the Campanile down is Procuratie Nuove (New Procuratie) designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi which appears weaker compared to Sansovino’s (yes, the one who designed Chiesa di San Giuliano mentioned above) better design for Piazzetta’s Libreria Vecchia. Construction of Procuratie Nuove began in 1583 and completed in 1640 after removal of Hospice Orseolo and some other buildings, setting the Piazza San Marco to its present boundary. You can see some of the demolished buildings in the painting “Procession in Piazza San Marco” by Bellini posted here.

This structure was the Royal palace during the Kingdom of Italy under the rule of the House of Savoy in 1861. Presently, the upper floors are occupied by the Museo Correr which features the art and history of Venezia. On its ground floor is where Caffé Florian is located, my present destination. Lining the Western side, where I am standing, is I’Ala Napoleonica (Napoleonic Wing) built on the site of one of the oldest churches of Venezia, the Church of San Giminiano, to extend the Royal Palace.

 

The highest structure in the Piazza is the Campanile (Bell Tower) of about 99 meters (320 feet) height – the eyes of the city watching over the lagoons. The construction of this tower is said to have begun in 912 opposite the Porta della Carta of Palazzo Ducale, but that structure was lost on the morning of July 14, 1902 when the tower gently collapsed, destroying the Loggetta and the Northern side of the Libreria Vecchia though, by the Grace of San Marco, as Venetians believe, not a single person was hurt except, I was told, a caretaker’s cat who was actually rescued to safety but ran back to retrieve something – maybe its nine lives were up. The Basilica di San Marco and Palazzo Ducale (which is not built on piles but rests on a stratum of stiff clay) situated few feet away were only breezed with the onrush of debris and dust which made the Venetians claim that “San Marco has been a good fellow”. The construction of the present bell tower upon the same foundation that was found to be strong enough, had started immediately and completed by 1912.

  

I have often seen large queues of tourists waiting to pay Euro:8 for the ticket at the entrance of the Campanile to go up the giant brick square shaft through the lift or a spiral ramp. There, you can experiment your photographic genius on fabulous views of Venezia, the stripped dome of the 17th century baroque church of Santa Maria della Salute  built in gratitude for surviving the plague, located at the entrance to the Canale Grande or look north to the Alps, or at the Adriatic in the south. At the apex of the bell tower which now houses only the largest among the 5 five bells, is the golden statue of Archangel Gabriel fixed on a rotating weathervane that moves to the direction of the wind. When the tower collapsed, the angel had fallen right in front of the Basilica, miraculously without so much of damage. Except for Marangona (named after carpenters), the other four bells were destroyed when the historic tower collapsed. In earlier times, each of the bells had a special purpose, of which Maleficio (Renghiera), the bell of evil omen, tolled for the execution of criminals.

During the days of war, the Venetian kept vigil on the sea from its bell chamber, at times gaping at burning ships or just looking at the masses of red-tiled roofs, chimneys to the mainland and beyond. It was from here that some of the powers that be of Venezia watched Niccolò and Matteo (Maffeo) Polo set out on a journey to the East in 1260 and again with Niccolò’s son Marco Polo and two missionaries in 1271. If the writings of 16th century travel writer Giovanni Battista Ramusio (1485-1557) is true, they had also watched Marco Polo command a galley against Lamba D’Oria (1245-1323), captain of the Geonese fleet when he arrived with 70 galleys to attack Venezia at the naval Battle of Curzola near the island of Korčula (now in Croatia), on September 9, 1298 in which Polo was captured. During our time, tourists used to carry a glass of wine to the center of the Piazza and stare at the magnificent Basilica while la Marangona bell of the Campanile struck the midnight hour – perhaps there is another tradition behind that….

The 320-foot Piazza represents the central place of the city life of Venezia.

 

We had spent countless hours walking around there amongst the throngs of people of many tongues in different costumes, the children enjoying the thrills of the massive number of fluttering pigeons, feeding them, laughing at the possibility of getting smeared by their droppings.

 

Once upon a time known as Broglio or Garden, this area was a grassy field consisting of a third of today’s space. I understand that a large elder tree stood on the site of the Campanile beyond which a river ran to the Canale Grande. In 1176, that area was filled up by the orders of Doge Sebastiano Ziani (1172-78) who also demolished the fortifications that existed there and paved the Piazza westward to the present boundary. As I stated above, the church of San Giminiano which existed at the South-West end would be demolished only during Napoleon I’s era.

 

No doubt, the hand of commercialism has now taken its grip on the Piazza.  Over the last many years, I have noted a sort of deterioration in its cleanliness. I had also noted a certain curiosity in the tourists that populated the Piazza, its corridor alleyways and the outdoor seatings of the cafés.

 

By now I have joined with my wife Carina at “Caffé Florian” where she had reached a couple of minutes earlier while, with Bianca’s interest in artistic works, it would take a bit longer for her to be back from the Basilica. Many a times we have sat at the outdoor tables of one of those expensive cafés lining the sides of the Piazza, more often at “Caffé Florian” as we are doing now, enjoying coffee or glasses of red wine and hors d’oeuvres, listening to the bells of the Campanile. I could see a boy sitting with his parents at the adjoining table enjoying a delicious looking tiramisu. Desserts are elegantly served in the northern part of Italy while, in comparison, the Southern versions are more sweeter. The boy was wearing a Venetian style black and gold Baroque half-mask which reached till the tip of his nose.

How wonderful it felt to sit there and have a cup of steaming hot coffee, take loads of pictures or enjoy watching people from different nations mill around amidst legions of pigeons barely parting for their feet. Some indulged in taking pictures, posing for cameras, their faces gleaming with happiness just for being there. Limiting my thoughts to the Square, I also find some in thoughtful concern, possibly fussed over the damage those protected pigeons inflict to the buildings that surround the piazza, a primitive, quite beauty brimming with history.

 

What’s more, those pigeons strutting about the feet are also historically connected to Venezia through Doge Enrico Dandolo who, we are informed, sent news to Venezia through a carrier pigeon about his victory over Constantinople. Or else, maybe they are unhappy at Venezia for having allowed those huge advertising hoarding of modern beauty products to obstruct the wonderful views of ancient architecture and works of art lining the Piazza. Or perhaps, knowing of the past splendor and prosperity of Venezia, they may be thinking of how wonderfully brilliant those buildings must have once looked and how much they are now in need of occasional cleaning/restoration. But then again, some may even be sad that all this didn’t rise up to their expectations. I turn back to my coffee.

It is the Venetian merchant Pietro della Valle (1586-1652) who introduced the coffee beans to Venezia. He is documented as the person who first imported the ancestors of the Persian cat into Italy in 1626. The most renowned of the coffeehouses that sprouted in Venezia is the famous Caffé Florian founded in 1720 by Floriano Francesconi who shortened his name to Florian as Venetians do. Located in the Procuratie Nuove of the Piazza, it had gained supremacy due to its position to the Molo (the main landing stone quay by the Piazzetta that was once the official landing spot) where sacks of coffee beans arrived together with silk, etc transported by the Venetian galleys.

The decorations in the interiors of many residences, hotels, and restaurants (including Caffé Florian) that feature silk fabrics is the tradition that goes back to the times when luxurious and precious textiles for display at spiritual services were brought from the East by Venetian traders and pilgrims. It had ever since played an important part in the development of design and style in the Romanesque art. Spiraling into a symbol of the city and a stage for social communication, Caffé Florian became part of the cosmopolitan Venetian lifestyle, a place populated by aristocrats, merchants, artists, the famous, and later ….

Of the many famous patrons who enjoyed its interiors furnished in purple satin, painted panels, mirrors, etc, I could easily think of Giacomo Girdamo Casanova sitting there enjoying biscotti and liqueur in female company. After some search, I came up with some of its famous patrons, except my name: George Gordon, the English poet, Lord Byron, Antonio Canova, the sculptor, Alfred de Musset and his lover George Sand (Aurore Dupin), Goldoni, the Venetian playwright, Goethe, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Marcel Proust, Pirandello, Rousseau, Stravinsky, Modigliani, Wagner, etc. When Wagner regularly visited Florian during breaks from writing the second act of “Tristan and Isolde”, the band would suddenly switch to his music. Silvio Pellico and Daniele Manin used to sit there and discuss politics when Manin played a major role in the history of Venezia during the Austrians military siege in 1849 when Venezia suffered bombardment from guns though the Austrians’ attempt to use a fleet of large balloon bombs did not work out. Fortunately, the Piazza was left undamaged from cannonballs as it was out of range of the Austrian guns. The Piazza also witnessed the assault on the Campanile by armed Venetian separatists to proclaim “independence of Veneto” in the night of May 8/9, 1997.

 

Fast forwarding to 20th century and the list becomes endless…. And through it all, I could picture Aristotle Onassis sitting there in early summer of 1957 after having met Maria Callas at that year’s party of Elsa Maxwell. Years later in early 1970s, Christina Onassis and friends would be there. Some time in 1955, Katherine Hepburn met Rossano Brazzi there in David Lean’s Summertime. Ernest (Papa) Hemingway was there…Prince Charles and Diana might have been there when they visited Venezia in 1985… My mind now drifted to the outdoor band playing Louis Armstrong’s “What a wonderful world”.

 

Facing Caffé Florian is Gran Caffé Quadri, the haunt of the Austrians during their rule of Venezia in the 19th century. Originally known as Il Rimedio in 1638, it switched to the present name when Giogio Quadri purchased it by late 1700s. After changing hands in 1830, I heard, it went to the Alajmo family playing host to personalities such as Lord Byron, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac, Wagner, etc. We had had a sumptuous dinner there last night when Carina preferred Fegato alla Veneziana and polenta while Bianca had Bigoli col Tocio. I was happy with Isogliole in Crema di Gamberi. We had had dinner here last year when Andrea was here. All these main courses were served on Murano plates we enjoyed to the joy of charming service and delightful music of the 121 San Marco Band. I forgot the name of the wine. Italians are wonderful people – the wine they offered last night had tasted just fine for the occasion.

Thinking of all those illustrious personalities brings to my mind the picture of the bustling Piazza of those days: populated by a pageant of signorine in gorgeous costumes, signore in regular suits from which the vendors stuck out like sour thumbs, fashionable youth, the horse or mule-carts, sentry marches, bull-baitings, band performances, the beautiful solemnity of candle-lit processions, the constant religious activities in front of the Basilica and Palazzo Ducale, the aristocrats and wealthy traders socializing at the Caffé Florian. During summer nights, the Piazza would become livelier – a great deal of repetition ….

 

Being the main hub for tourists, the shops and the restaurants in its vicinity have been indulging in ways to turn a handsome profit on that fact with decoys such as outdoor seating with bandstands and quartets playing during April-October. However, the outside concert has a tradition that goes back to more than hundred years. In olden days, there were wine sellers situated at the base of the Campanile and they used to move their carts keeping up with the shadow of the Campanile when they sell cool wine during hot summer months.

 

The best time to browse through the shops lining the Piazza is in the morning just after the opening time when the Piazza is fairly devoid of many tourists. Then you can conveniently feast your eyes on the wide variety of touristy artifacts intermixed with Chinese reproductions. In between all this, especially on the further left side of the piazza near to Torre dell’Orologio, there are good displays of genuine Murano glass works that could give your heart a break. Besides the Basilica, the other places of interest in the vicinity are the Palazzo Ducale, the Correr Museum, etc. If you care to explore the side streets, there are some small shops dealing in antique crafts, old books, paintings, amongst clean cafés catering at reasonable price.

 

The waiter of Caffé Florian was charming and chatty as he noted our selections for the lunch. Insalata Mista with cheese Gnocchi ordered by Carina, I believe, would be preferred by Bianca as well. As for me, I decided on Triglie all’Orientale, Red mullet in Eastern style. Veneto being the land of great wines, we had a Schiopetto Podere dei Blumeri Rosso 2006.

 

San Marco Square can be a bit stuffy at times, but today there are fewer tourists. During the course of the history, the Piazza San Marco has gained an iconic status as the place that symbolizes Venezia in the eyes of the world. It was here in the Piazza where the helicopter landed with the statue of Our Lady of Fatima in 1959 as part of its triumphal march, encircled by the radiant escort of doves, throughout the Italian peninsula leading to Italy’s solemn consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

 

I was not born when that happened. I was not there when the emperors and kings, dukes and marquesses, knights, burgesses, counts and such people of authority were there.

I was not there when artists such as Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, or the Doges such as Enrico Dandolo or Lorenzo Tiepolo, lived there. I was not there when Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn romanced there in Roman Holiday, nor was I there when Daniel Craig ran around looking for Eva Green in Casino Royale. I was not there when the Romeos and Juliets from Bollywood like Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone of Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008) performed wiggles and shakes to rhythmic beats. I was not there last Wednesday November 21 to eat a bowl of “Castradina” soup made of smoked mutton and cabbage when it was served in restaurants around the Piazza to mark the celebration of the Festa della Salute  in remembrance of the plague of early 16th century. But I was there when the pictures you see here were taken. I was there when the outdoor band played Laura Pausini’s La Solitudine and Luciano Pavarotti’s version of O sole mio bringing sadness into my heart. And I wish to be there many more times….. for my children to be there with their children and so on…..

 

 

On November 1, I wrote about Castelo de São Jorge in Lisbon which miraculously withstood destruction from devastating earthquakes that destroyed the city around it. Proving how wonderful citizens of this world can be, Lisbon was rebuilt with great effort from generous handshakes of help that reached to it from all parts of the world. Here I draw your attention to another catastrophe that was waiting to happen about which all of us are well aware of and expert action is being taken by groups like Consorzio Venezia Nuova to protect historic Venezia. What is important here, compared to Lisbon, is that in the case of Venezia, there will not be any land to rebuild it. Some of the columns and doorways once on ground level are already submerged. Experts have located few older pavements beneath the present pavement of the Piazza.

 

Venezia is not neglected since works that have been going on for some years to fix moveable barriers that would rise from the sea and protect Venezia from high tides is expected to be operational by 2014. However, taking into account the research report of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography of University of California, San Diego that the city is sinking at a rate of 2mm a year, our help should not require a necessary pre-condition: disaster! Symbolically speaking, a handful of sand from each one of this world could solve that….

 

Venezia has given us hundreds of years of history and art. The Venezia that we love must exist for the future generations, too. As the Venetians say: “Com’ era, dov’ era” (as it was and where it was), We must all strive to find ways and means to save La Serenissima (the most serene) from her misery. That is our dream and I truly believe that dreams do come true – one day. Viva VeneziaViva San Marco…. Till next time. Ciao, Jo

 

 

(All Photos: © JS-CS-Bianca Celine Diane-Andrea Lalis Sebastine/Manningtree Archive.)

(Paintings of: “San Marco” by Jusepe Leonardo (1601-53);  “Procession in Piazza San Marco” (1496- aka: Procession of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco) by Gentile Bellini (c. 1429-1507);  and  “Piazza San Marco with the Basilica” and “Piazza San Marco in Venice” by  Giovanni Antonio Canal (il Canaletto – 1697-1768) – Wikipedia – Public domain)