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Matera

Arrived here after roughly a three hour drive from Sorrento. We were met as scheduled by Mario, the son of the apartment owner, who then showed us where to park our car and brought us to our apartment in the Caveosa Sassi. There are two main sections of Sassi, or stone houses, and luckily, we are staying in the center of Caveoso on a main, but still narrow street. Opposite us, is a very recognizable church carved out of a high piece of rock overlooking the ravine. This makes our place relatively easy to find.

Main street near our apartment
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Rock church, top right, in front of our apartment with ravine in background
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Looking back over Caveoso Sassi from top of rock church
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Matera, at least the old parts, which date back some 7000 years, is built out of the stones and caves that surround a deep ravine which is literally just opposite our apartment. These cave and stone dwellings ascend to the top of the hill where there is a square towered church, the Duomo, now closed for renovation. The city of about 50,000 feels like medieval fantasy, as many of the stone buildings date from that period of time. No matter which way you look there are incredible vistas of the multi-textured stone, narrow, serpentine lanes with ascending cobblestone steps, ancient churches with ornate stone carvings, and longer views over the deep ravine with cave dwellings on the opposite side as well. Many of the nicest houses have been renovated, although there are still an equal number that have not.

Looking up at the Duomo
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Basilica at the edge of ravine
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Cobblestone alley at edge of ravine with cave dwellings on opposite side
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Alley's about town. Nanette on right
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There are workman everywhere, getting the town ready for 2019, when it will be the site of a European-wide cultural festival. To add to the fantasy, it has been used as the set for a number of movies, including Pasolini's Gospel According to Matthew, and more recently Mel Gibson's version of The Passion of Christ. Right now, practically just outside our glass front door, they are filming a new version of Ben Hur with Morgan Freeman. We have yet to see him, but we have seen many film extras standing around in Roman peasant garb, and a number of the film crew. Obviously Hollywood has discovered Matera, although there are few tourists here at this time of year. Temps are cool, upper 40's to around 50, and although we had some sun yesterday, today is drizzly and overcast.

Rock church opposite our apartment lit up at night for movie set
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Okay, it's not Morgan Freeman
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A number of the restaurants and trattorias are closed, though not all, and we had a great lunch in a renovated and beautiful cave restaurant located on a tiny alley, somewhere in Sassi Balsano. Not at all sure we could find it again.

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Yesterday, we wandered into a church San Angelino de Baptisti, and viewed the old frescoes, further inside the stone building. A kind of church within a church, as it were.

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We asked when or if there was any music being played on the organ, but when we returned at the appointed time, 8 PM, the place was shut tight. A woman in a pizzeria across the street told us to come back at 8 AM, which we did, but once again the placed was locked. Perhaps no one goes to church any more. We did find a small osteria/cum beer hall nearby, where we stopped for expresso and cake, and noticed that they had a jazz group performing there tonight. So we will try and make our way back here once again. There was also an asian looking,though Italian, young man there,who spoke relatively good English, a seeming rarity in these parts, where even our Spanish doesn't work very well. He told us that he was an opera singer, and apparently will be giving some kind of recital in a church near to our apartment in a few days. We will try to make it there was well.

At night, with the houses and cave dwellings lit up, the place has an eerie, other worldly feel, especially in the mist and fog.

A bit blurry, but you get the idea
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Matera is as unique a place, as I have seen. From the little I have read, its history is also quite unique, as it is possilby one of the oldest settlements in Europe. However in the 40's and 50's it was very poor, and overpopulated,and Malaria and sanitation problems were widespread. Sometime in the late 50's, early 60's, the government finally noticed, and new housing was constructed in nearby villages, and the worse sanitation issues were addressed. On the other hand, just as in Cuba, the poverty and neglect may be partly responsible for the magnificence that we see today. Otherwise, probably most of the sassi would simply have been torn down. Ironically, though it still feels somewhat off the beaten track, Matera is now the leading tourist destination in the province of Basilicata, in the boot of Italy.

Though I fondly remember my time wandering around the back alleys of Venice, this place is even more unusual, and unlike Venice, it is still a working city, and not solely a tourist destination. This could certainly change, especially after the cultural fiesta of 2019.

We have continued to dodge the raindrops as we discovered more parts of this mysterious and unique city.

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Though on a few days we had sun.

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We found a small lane immediately behind the church in front of us, that runs directly adjacent to the ravine. Along this path there were vegetable gardens and even a very local outdoor shop selling figs and dates and other veggies. We walked along and stepped into a few abandoned cave dwellings. Some of the others were still in use as storage places, or had been renovated for cave dwelling B and B's. Eventually we found ourselves in the newer part of town and stopped in a local place for cappuccino and croissants. It seemed like an Italian version of Stewart's, a coffee and convenience store near our house, where old retired guys hang out to chat, but it was also a bar, as are many of the coffee places in Italy. Walking further down the street we discovered a couple of excellent fruit and veggie shops with very fresh produce. We purchased stuff for a lunch time salad.

Another day we hiked down into the ravine on a steep, albeit short trail not far from the rock church. It was a wild place, but the river was too deep and too fast for us to cross over to the other side. We did get some great views looking back towards town.

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We decided to try our luck driving to the other side of the ravine to check out other caves and the very large park on that side of the river. However, moving the car and finding the route to the other side was an adventure unto itself. No doubt we would never have found the way, were it not for a nice young man, who happened to be standing around in a restaurant when I went in to ask for directions. At first he tried to explain how to get there,but given the number of turns, as well as his halting English, he realized that we would never make it. Instead, he got into his car, and told us to follow him, and took us to a point where we could get there on our own.

The far side of the ravine had a network of dirt roads that led up to the edge of the ravine, but we stopped before that point and walked. There were many caves here, and it had a wild and windswept feeling. It also offered views of the Sassi on the other side.

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Selfie from across the ravine
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After a nice walk, the rain moved in once again, and incredibly, we managed to find our way back to town, with some help from Google Maps, to a point very near our old parking spot. This was taken, but we did manage to park nearby, and then it was about a ten minute walk back to the Sassi Caveosa ,and our apartment. We are now safely ensconced in our little duplex of stone and wood.

Posted by jonshapiro 08:49 Archived in Italy Tagged churches photography tourist_sites living_abroad buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (4)

Cienfuegos

Left Habana yesterday with our amiga from Nicaragua, in a private taxi arranged by our current hosts Zunilda y Raya. Cienfuegos is a laid back place, about three hours or so by car from Habana. It has a wide paseo, with covered walkway and many old columned buildings, a cross between French and Spanish architecture, as it was originally a French outpost. It is probably best known as the home of Benny More, a famous singer in the 40's and 50's.

We are staying in a delightful casa, just outside town on Punta Gordo. We have our own terrace overlooking the bay. Zunilda and Raya are muy amable, and cook up what is arguably, the best food in Cienfuegos, and possibly all Cuba. There are several other casas here, as well as the larger and rather ugly Hotel Jagua. Said to have been built by Meyer Lansky, with help from Batista, it is right on the grounds of the magnificent Palacio de Valle, which looks like a moorish castle. The idea was to turn the palacio into a casino, similar to Monte Carlo.

Palacio from our terrace. Construction garbage detracts, but is not noticeable from the street
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At the end of the Punta, there is a small park with several gazebos selling rum and sandwiches, kids frolicking around, a local hangout. Arriving in mid-afternoon, we spent a couple of hours there.

In the morning we walked around the main part of town to Plaza Marti, perhaps a mile away. Looking quite Spanish, it has a number of old edificios, and a couple of interesting art galleries. Nanette later went back and purchased a print from Annia Alonzo. We had another cup of coffee under the colonnades of one of these buildings, and listened to One Guantanamera sung by live musicians. This seems to be a ubiquitous song in Cuba, at least for tourists, although I know it from the Pete Seeger version.

Paseo, on the way to Plaza Marti
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Old opera house, Plaza Marti
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Bomberos (firemen) staying in shape on Plaza Marti
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Nanette and Terry
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Church near Plaza
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Taxi servcie
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After a while, it began to get hot and we strolled back to our casa where we spent the better part of the afternoon on our terrace looking out over the bay, drinking rum and cerveza. What could be more relajando?

Your's truely on the terrace
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Views looking out from terrace
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On another day, Terry and I took the 45 minute ferry ride to the Castillo de Jagua, at the entrance to the Bay of Cienfuegos, It was erected by King Philip V of Spain (1683-1746) in 1742 to protect the bay from pirates who prowled the Caribbean coast in those days.

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View from fort looking out at the entrance to the Bay of Cienfuegos
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Posted by jonshapiro 07:02 Archived in Cuba Tagged photography buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (0)

Habana Continued

I spent another 4 days mostly walking my tail off after moving to Maribel's casa in Vedado, a newer section of Habana. This was much closer to Nanette's hotel and also near the Hotel Nacional. The latter is probably the classiest place in town, modeled after the Breakers in Palm Beach, and built in 1930's. It was also a favorite hangout of Lucky Luciano, Myer Lansky, and other mafioso who more or less controlled Havana during Batista's time. We had a drink and a sandwich in the outdoor bar, facing the Malecon and La Mer.

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Malecon from the top of tourbus. Hotel Nacional is further down
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Maribel's was fine, if a bit noisy, but no one could be friendlier than Alejandro. Her apartment was on the fourth floor of an old building on a main thoroughfare in Vedado, which generally is less interesting than Habana Vieja. After the first night the key broke, and for the remainder of my stay I would have to shout up to Maribel, and she was would lower the only remaining key in a basket. Apparently getting another key made was not that easy to do. Our friend Terry arrived from Nicaragua and she was also staying just a few blocks away. She kept me company while Nanette continued on with her art group.

Outside of main Havana cemetery
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Street musicians
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I made several attempts to see rumba, some of the original music of Cuba, at the Palacio de Rumba in Centro Habana. This is a very local place that Alejandro recommended. The first night, Nanette and Terry came with me, as well as our other friend, Natalie, also touring with the art group, though she is not an artist. Alas however, there was a terrific downpour and we were told the musicians did not show up for that reason. We did however manage a decent paella in a nearby palador, that I'm sure sees few tourists because of its location. The waiter, an x ray tech in his day job, was quite well educated, and confirmed that the only way to make real money in Cuba was in the tourist industry.

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The following day, we wandered toward the far side of the Malecon, and due to a cold front, the waves were pounding and sloshing over the sea wall. There was little traffic, many decrepit buildings, some interesting, some not, and then a couple of very fancy hotels. Eventually we got to the river and came to an old house,1830, now a boutique hotel. We were told it once belonged to a Spanish bank president. In the lobby, was a picture of a very young looking Che and Fidel, strolling together in their army fatigues. Just outside, and the reason we stopped, was a fantastical looking series of man made grottos and bridges overlooking the sea and constructed of coral and shells. Attached to this was a Moorish looking domed tower. We learned that most of this had been constructed by some wealthy Japanese, who apparently bought the place after the bank president. Eventually, we took a taxi collectivo back to our casas, and finally got to ride in one of the ancient US cars. I think it was a Buick. These collectivos ply certain routes, and will pick up anyone along the avenida who pays a few cuban pesos to sit with the other passengers going their way.

Terry and Nanette both decided they needed a break, and I, in a determined attempt to hear rumba, made another visit to the Palacio. I got there at 4:15, after being told that the music started at that time. About 5:30, the music finally did begin. Cuban time I guess, but to my chagrin, it was anything but rumba. Actually it was more like karaoke, though it was professional singers, but still singing to canned music. They weren't bad, but certainly not what I was hoping for. I felt a little like I was in a senior citizen center, as most of the people were older, or at least looked older than me. Some of them sure could dance though. After a half hour or so, I gave up, and walked back to my casa. Unfortunately, as in Spain, most of the music venues here do not really get started until after 11 PM, my usual bedtime. I should have known that 4 or 5 PM was an unlikely time for rumba.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:45 Archived in Cuba Tagged skylines buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (1)

Srinagar, Kashmir

After saying good-bye to Nanette in Mumbai, I left the next morning for Srinagar, where Tashi met me at the airport. A good thing since a policemen accompanied me outside since I couldn't tell him where I was staying. Tashi had already found me a place, aboard a rather funky houseboat, Young Ambassador.

My houseboat was smaller one on the left
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Whatever fantasies I may have had about Dal Lake were quickly dispatched as Farooz paddled us out to his boat.

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Despite the beauty of the lake, a sewage smell was noticeable and thick algae blooms were everywhere. I guess its been a long time since the British Raj.

A rare moment of sun
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We dropped my backpack, and spent the day wondering around the city in the chilly, rainy weather. It was in total contrast to the weather in the south. This was one of these, be careful what you wish for deals. I noticed that many of the men were still wearing their winter coats, long woolen things, very baggy, so they can keep a charcoal brazier underneath to stay warm. In the evening Tashi dropped me, and went off to stay at an even cheaper place.

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While Farooz made a simple dinner, he talked incessantly about his various family and financial problems. Perhaps this was an attempt to get more money from me? Nabu showed up shortly thereafter, wanting to show me his jewelry. By then, I didn't have the energy to simply chase him away, and foolishly picked out a few pieces that looked marginally interesting. I said I wasn't buying that night, and that he should come back in two days, hoping that I wouldn't still be there.

Sunset from Young Ambassador
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The next day unfortunately, was equally cold and rainy. We hiked up to a Hindu temple on a hill overlooking town,

View of the city from the temple
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and then took a tuk-tuk back to the the tulip gardens, a famous Srinagar site. But then the rain picked up and so we nixed that idea, and sat outside eating ramen noodles in a dhaba, trying to stay warm and dry underneath a plastic tarp. It wasn't easy, but there was nothing else around. Actually, this was a harbinger of things to come, though I didn't know it then. We soon gave up and went back to spend a few hours eating in a somewhat warmer restaurant. After seven years, we had a lot of catching up to do. Finally, when the rain let up, we walked down to the main market. Tashi is still struggling with his trekking business, which I later learned he more or less fell into after hearing about the internet from David and I, some 17 years earlier. He had help from a Swiss guy, who he also met on a trek, who said Tashi could his personal email and password until he eventually learned how to set up one on his own. He would spend hours practicing on a computer in an internet cafe in Jammu, which then cost 60 rupees an hour, a lot of money for him at the time.

Next day saw a big improvement in the weather and we hired a taxi to take us to Gulmarg, India's largest ski area.

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This has been a very cold and snowy winter for them, as it was for us in upstate New York. The 14,000 foot peak was still covered with snow, some of which was fresh. Even the gondola was still running and the place was packed with Indian tourists coming up to see and touch snow, perhaps for the first time. We passed on the gondola and walked up to mid-station in the tracks of old wooden sleds that were being used to give tourists a ride and make a buck.

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An hour and a half got us there, but not before we passed two elderly Israeli couples, also walking. A bit of a surprise this. Mid-station was a large flat area, just at tree line, and lots of people were cavorting in the snow, though no skiers, which should have told us something.

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A number of dhabas had set up shop on one side, and we stopped for some overpriced chicken and dhal. A cloud moved in and some grappel fell, even as the sun shone.

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Tashi and talked about taking another day and renting skis since there was still so much snow. Although the mountain was officially closed, we were told we could ride up and down on the gondola to mid-station, and then hike even higher if we chose.

So next day, also good weather, we went back out even earlier, and met the guy who said he had alpine touring skis. Turns out what he had was 190's, way too long and not in good shape. He took us to another shop, where we eventually rented shorter ones, also in poor condition. I ended up adjusting the bindings myself, since the shop guys obviously had no idea how to do it. After two hours of this, we finally made it onto the gondola and back to mid-station.

You wouldn't know the day was mostly fair from this shot
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Rather than hike up we decided to take an easy run back down, but easy was still difficult in the heavily rutted track left by the sleds from the day before. Tashi struggled with the uneven snow, not really ever having learned to ski on modern equipment.

We had these beautiful open woods to ourselves
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When we tried to reboard the gondola, but we were told that this was not allowed. Tashi tried to speak to someone he knew at the resort, who said he would intervene on our behalf, but it did no good The guy running the the gondola refused to budge. Once again it seems as though this crazy country is determined to enforce stupid rules, rather than say, traffic regulations, where someone's life might actually be at stake. Hiking up, with the equipment we rented did not seem like an option, and so after another hour of hassling we finally gave up and returned the skis, but not before taking a few pics of Tashi pretending to ski in front of the shop. The day's frustration only increased, when I discovered that I left my new and expensive rain jacket in another taxi that I somehow thought was ours.

Tashi
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Pretending to ski
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All in all, despite years of trying to get here, Srinagar was a disappointment. Just another large and dirty Indian city. The surrounding area is stunningly beautiful, as was Gulmarg. Generally it is lush and green, although this spring more white. I'm sure there are some great treks, but this is certainly true in many areas of India that are less dangerous.

Posted by jonshapiro 05:17 Archived in India Tagged snow photography cities_postcards Comments (5)

Pondicherry

Taken over by the French in 1674, and briefly occupied by both the Dutch and the British, Pondy was not formally reunited with India until 1962. We stayed in the old French quarter near the sea, which has many old houses, a number of which have been renovated, but with the rest in various states of disrepair. Nonetheless the whole area has a certain charm, and a vaguely French air about it. There were even several French restaurants as well as Italian and Vietnamese, but we opted to stay with Indian food.

Our street sign in Tamil, English, and French
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Our Street, partially renovated
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Another street, this one in even better shape
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The restaurant scene
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In the evening, Nanette and I walked on the promenade facing the sea, and stopped for mushroom dosas in a very local place. In addition to the promenade, the adjoining road was closed to traffic on Saturday night, and there was an endless parade of Indians of all ages, strolling along the wide boulevard. In the middle was a large statue of Gandhi, which kids were using as a kind of slide. It seemed to us that Gandhi, looking very much like Ben Kingsley, was smiling down on the scene below. It was a great place to rollerblade, and no sooner had I said this, then two kids showed up who were doing exactly that. We walked back to our guesthouse accompanied by the sounds of a police band sitting opposite Gandhi, and dressed to look like French gendarmes.

Promenade in the morning
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In the morning we had breakfast at our guesthouse, Les Hibiscus,

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and got started talking to Monia, a French traveler in her 30's, who has been teaching in India for the last four years. She was actually born and raised in Belgium, and didn't move to Paris until she was about 18. Her parents, if you can call them that, more or less abdicated all responsibility for both her and her younger, autistic brother. As a result she was in charge at a very early age. Her parents hardly worked, content to reap the benefits of the Belgium social services system. Luckily that system provided well for her brother, and he is now living in a program for adult,severely autistic persons. Monia was an excellent student, and for a while was training to be a neurosurgeon and paying for it herself. In the end, she was forced to drop out because of having to earn money to take care of her brother. She did manage to finish her undergraduate degree in psychology. Unable to get a job in that field, she found an IT position in a bank ,where she worked for several years. She didn't like it, and eventually moved to Kerala to take a job as a French teacher. She has also managed to travel extensively in South America and other places. In a few months she is moving back to Mumbai, where she has a much better job.

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She came with us on a visit to Auroville, the communalistic community based on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, and the Mother, a French woman who helped to start the place in 1968. The only place they really let us see, and that only from the outside, was a large gold dome, that is their meditation hall.

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The residents houses, gardens, and schools, which we were more interested in, were more or less off limits to visitors. To some degree this is understandable, though I can't think of any reason why they should tell you this in advance.

Returning in the heat of mid-day, we showered and then went off to a veg meal in what, thankfully, turned out to be an air conditioned restaurant. Afterwords we went to sample the pastry and coffee at Baker Street, Indian owned and run, but French trained despite the British name. By far the best pastry, well really the only pastry since the start of our trip, but it really was excellent, and there was ac to boot. We spent most of the afternoon talking to our new travel bud, before returning once again for one of our many daily showers. Later we went out to LeClub with Monia for beer and pizza. The day passed by too quickly, and we said our goodbyes the next morning before heading out to our next destination.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:57 Archived in India Tagged people buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (0)

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