Nothing stays the same – even in Ancient Varanasi

Over our eleven years visiting Varanasi we’ve talked about change…slow, subtle changes in the ancient city and its people. Changes also that may be merely our own shifting perception. But this year, change is tangible and undeniable. At first impression the lanes and ghats were less crowded and cleaner. Tourism is down. Hotel managers and restaurant owners tell us business has declined by as much as 60%.

In addition to people, there’s far less cows and stray dogs in the lanes, meaning they’re cleaner. When we asked friends, they told us the animals were rounded up last fall and hauled out of the city. It’s part of Prime Minister Modi’s ‘clean up Varanasi’ campaign. Maybe the next initiative will include eliminating the speeding motorcycles with their ear-piercing horns, in the narrow lanes? The disappearance of the water buffalo on the ghat is also obvious. We’re told that most of them were owned by the Moslems.

There have been repairs made on the ghat, the first time in our memory. But most unsettling is the destruction around the Golden Temple; 340 buildings have already been torn down. Modi wants to clear space around the temple and make a corridor leading to the Burning Ghat. From our perspective the scheme is flawed from the start. Why take the oldest living city in the world and tear it apart? The lanes are now blocked from one end of the old city to the river by the bulldozing.

With Narenda Modi’s re-election as Prime Minister, he appears in his actions to be emboldened and particularly toward minorities. Gerard has asked numerous people for their opinion of not only the destruction around the Golden Temple, but Modi’s policies in general. The vast majority support the Prime Minister, and think it’s time to take a hard line on the troublemakers, namely, the Moslems. We have no idea if this is the national sentiment, but it appears to be here in Varanasi, Modi’s adopted city. Some of Central Government’s tactics in this, the largest democracy in the world, we find disturbing.

The day we arrived, we went over to visit our friend Santosh, who runs a restaurant and met up with our long time French friends there. I was just in time to accompany Santosh and family on a customary afternoon walk. Along the ghat there were frequent stops for chai, pizza and other treats, even though the food in his restaurant is the best in town! A few days later, we took an early morning walk up the ghat and back through the old city – or what’s left of it. Santosh treated us to a traditional winter drink – bright yellow and fragrant, the sweetened milk is whipped into a frothy concoction and served in clay pots

Our time here coincided with Shivratri (Shiva’s birthday) and Dhrupad Mela, a classical Indian music festival which goes into the early morning hours. Gerard attended all three nights but didn’t make it beyond midnight. I joined him twice and even though I couldn’t hear all the music, enjoyed the ambience.

On the last night, rain was forecast. Sure enough, the music had hardly begun when a sudden downpour caused everyone to move toward the stage and into the center away from the leaking edges of the tent. The sound system and lights sputtered but the musicians continued playing without interruption. Fortunately the tent held up better than a few years earlier, when a similar downpour drove away all but the most dedicated in the audience.

Again, we’ve met up with old friends and made a few new ones. Peter who we first met in HP visited with his partner Veronique for a few days. Tired of traveling, Peter has now settled in Auroville.

A surprise meeting was with Darcy, introduced to us by mutual friends from back home. Darcy came to Varanasi to practice yoga with a group. She lives just outside Boston and we enjoyed making the new connection.

Darcy finding us at Dhrupad Mela

Gerard enjoys sitting in the foyer of our hotel to chat with Sanjiv, a friend since he first became hotel manager nine years ago (we’ve been coming here longer). While there, he invariably meets other guests including an interesting young woman from Serbia coming here alone to practice her photography. Tomorrow, our friends Sandhya and Premgit, from the edge of Dartmoor, are arriving.

Caves — but not as many as we thought

Our carefree month at the beach ended with a momentary downturn: the night before we left Gokarna Gerard came down with what must have been food poisoning. Alone, I said goodbye to our friends at breakfast the next morning and we set off for the short train ride to Madgaon. Gerard slept the remainder of the day away while I found a pure veg restaurant with remarkably good masala chai. We’d decided to fly to make the long trip to Aurangabad less arduous. However, this is India. The trains rarely run on schedule; why would we think domestic flights would be any different? Two short flights on twin engine props, but a long tedious day of delayed connecting flights and more time sitting in airports than on planes.

Aurangabad was named after the infamous Mogul Emperor, Aurangzeb, one of whose cruelest act was to imprison his father, Shah Jahan, in full sight of the Taj Mahal he (Jahan) had built in honor of his wife. In captivity, Jahan was forced daily to look out on his creation. Another busy Indian city, the only reason for coming here was because of its proximity to the caves of Ellora and Ajanta. Nine years ago, we were so impressed, we decided to make another visit this year.

Our first day, Gerard had recuperated enough to visit nearby Ellora. We shared a taxi with a jovial Frenchman, our age, who spoke virtually no English. The taxi dropped us at the caves early in the morning and waited until the evening to bring us back. Once again, we were awestruck at the long line of caves carved into the cliff.

Over 600 years, between the 5th and 11th Cs AD, both Hindus and Buddhists carved a total of 34 caves out of the rock face. Sitting close to one another, they illustrate the religious harmony that existed in ancient India. One wishes that was still true today.

Most impressive is a massive complex: Kailasha is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. It’s said to have taken ten generations to complete and includes a large pillared hall, antechambers, and gigantic sculptures of Hindu deities. Wall panels depict Hindu mythologies: in particular, the two major epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Though the stone sculptures and decorations have worn away over the centuries, they are still impressive.

Most of the Buddhist caves are multi-story monasteries with massive carved Buddhas. The largest is the three-story ‘Vishvakarma or ‘Carpenter’s Cave’ so-called because the rock has been given a finish that looks like wooden beams.

You enter a facade decorated with meditating monks, then up a flight of steps to a cathedral-like prayer hall. Its vaulted roof is carved with wooden like ribs. At the far end, a colossal fifteen-foot Buddha sitting in preaching pose took my breath away. The Buddha’s presence was tangible.

Either side are Bodhisattvas and Buddhist goddesses seated on lotus thrones. Seeing all this antiquity in its original location can’t compare to visiting a museum assembled with similar artifacts. Here, you are immersed in what was a great period in history. As we looked at these ancient works of art, the term ‘carved in stone’ came to mind, but even stone is subject to decay.

The following day, we were looking forward to returning to Ajanta where the design and decoration of the Buddhist caves are even more amazing than that of Ellora. Normally, a three-hour bus ride away from the city, we were warned that the road is torn up under reconstruction and the ride could be now close to five hours. Gerard, still not fully recovered, the thought of the bumpy ride on a crowded local bus would be too much. So reluctantly, we canceled our plans, reassuring ourselves that, God willing, we can return next year to visit Ajanta. when the new road should be completed.

What to do instead? Aurangabad offers little of historic interest, except a mini Taj Mahal built in 1660.

Commissioned by Aurangzeb in memory of his own wife, the Bibi Ka Maqbara, is smaller and much less imposing than the Taj Mahal, but still bears some resemblance with its once formal gardens and waterways. No surprise, the same architect was commissioned to design both.

Our next stop had less impact except for its surroundings. The Soneri Mahal sits on the outskirts of the city. The ‘palace’ was decorated in gold giving its present name; Soneri meaning cloth of gold. Today, it is a cream-painted nondescript looking building with a mediocre museum of pottery, sculptures and kitchen utensils. But sitting in open countryside, against a backdrop of hills it was a pleasant place for a short visit. Away from the hubbub, we immediately felt refreshed by the tranquility.

The following day, we took our last domestic flight to Varanasi on time and with no problem. From now on, we’re back to traveling via trains and buses.

Lots of Friends and Longer walks

Our friend Odella, arrived four days ago, fresh from NYC. She didn’t take long to adjust. Tall and poised, she towers over the short South Indians. Finding her own way around and uninhibited in asking people what they were eating, where she could find a good cup of coffee, is there a good yoga class etc. she quickly showed her independence. She’s been to India a couple of times before but not traveled extensively. Our connection with her is through Lewis, her husband and old friend ours. A jazz musician and professor at Rutgers University, we only see them when Lewis gets a music gig in Boston.

Our German friends, Marion and Jorgen, love to walk and persuaded us to visit the neighboring beach, Kudle. A pleasant walk through the jungle. The beach is picturesque and reminded Gerard of Greece in the late ’60s.

A few days later, we were enticed to take a more adventurous hike to Half Moon Beach and beyond. It was more strenuous but a beautiful walk through the jungle. Half Moon Beach is only accessible by foot, keeping it an unspoiled and secluded cove. Hot and sweaty we dove immediately in the water, followed by chai at a single chai shop.

Moving on to the second destination, Paradise Beach, was nothing short of treacherous. Climbing over the jagged rocks along the water’s edge made Gerard nervous. I focused on where I placed each foot, I made it without incident. Good for the attention! Paradise Beach did not live up to its name – a scruffy beach with coarse sand, a hangout of modern-day, young hippies. Exhausted from our rock climbing we collapsed on the sand and were soon joined by stray dogs.

The long walk was not finished; we still had to get to the neighboring town through more jungle and rice paddies to catch the next bus to Gorkana. On the ride back, Marion asked, if we had known what the route had in store, would we have agreed to come. Gerard admitted he wouldn’t have minded missing the climb over the rocks to Paradise Beach, but loved Half Moon Beach.

After such a long and treacherous hike we should have known better, but we agreed to hike with them again, down to the end of the beach and take a bus back.

For the first time since we arrived in Gokarna, the sun was hidden behind clouds. The few beach huts and restaurants dwindled until all we could see at the edge of the beach was palm trees and tropical undergrowth. Passing fishermen preparing their boats, we suddenly came across a beautiful young Indian bride being photographed. No sign of the groom!

The beach was a good 6 km long and then we had to weave our way through lanes and beside fields to the bus stop – another couple of km.

A week ago, our Swiss friend, ‘six meter ‘ Peter and his Polish wife, arrived from Goa to visit us for three days. Peter is a professional violinist and has spent the winters in a rented house in Agonda for many years, practicing most of the day and performing at night gigs up and down the coast of Goa. He decided not to bring his violin to Gokarna but is clearly lost without it. At breakfast, his restless fingers repetitively drum the table. We’ll see him again in August when he attends a summer course at Berkeley.

A couple from Australia that we met in Darjeeling seven years ago are back in India, traveling for a year. Last night, they caught up with us here in Gokarna before we move on. We hope to see them again in the mountains.

One of the many things we find attractive about Gokarna is, there’s a significant older population here. Generally, they are people who’ve been traveling for decades, so we have a lot in common. We can spend too much time reminiscing what the world was like back in the ’60s, but it’s still more interesting than talking about Trump and Modi. The oldest we’ve met is an 86 year old woman from Scotland who is staying on the ground floor of our guesthouse. She’s beautiful and walks to the beach each day with a stick. Young and old, there’s always interesting people to meet: a young Frenchman using only analog camera equipment; a young girl who illustrates her own postcards and on hearing that I was from Totnes in Devon, leapt up and hugged me (her family live there); and Bernard from Geneva who likes Miles Davis!

As mentioned before, Gokarna is a temple town. This weekend is one of many Hindu festivals. Which one? Who could keep track? The town is swarming with men wearing white cotton lungis and carrying offerings to the temple. One night leading up to the festival there was chanting, first by women, then by men, all night long. The din vibrates in my head. making hearing even harder. But if it wasn’t for the temples, the town would be overrun by beachgoers.

On the beach in Karnataka

For nine years, Agonda in Goa was my beach destination. I loved it and even when the experience began to sour, I denied the undesirable changes and clung to what remained positive (the beach and the friends we’d made there). I don’t always know when to let go.

But now, we’ve found another beach with a long stretch of fine sand and clear water. The big plus for us is that Gokarna is not a tourist destination in the Goa style. There are the regulars that have been coming here for years, older hippie types, and of course, there’s the young Russians. They’re not looking for disco bars and karaoke. The other group of tourists are young Indians who flock here on weekends and don’t venture far up the beach. Huts and small restaurants border the sea front but don’t overwhelm it.

Quintessentially South Indian, Gokarna is a temple town, where pilgrims visit regularly. At the temple entrance, local women sell flowers for offerings.

Our guest house is at the upper end of the main street, where women sell vegetables in the early morning.

It can take twenty minutes to walk through the back lanes and fields but we don’t mind. It’s a good room, comfortable and colorfully painted, and stays cool. It also has a balcony among tall palm trees, just wide enough for my yoga practice (although the lure of the beach often outweighs yoga.)

By chance, I picked up a book left in the guesthouse, called Finding Yourself in the Kitchen, written by an American Buddhist nun. She encourages you to use the kitchen to practice mindfulness and reality acceptance. Right now, I’m enjoying being out of the kitchen, but I file it away to practice when I return. She writes with a levity and lack of self righteousness that encourages me to read what she has to say.

Friends, Marina and Rajiv

We’ve already met up with two couples we first befriended a few years ago in the foothills of the Himalayas. Most mornings we join them for breakfast. Another friend, Oliver, a Belgian living in Devon, England is our senior and has been coming to India for many years. Also an artist, specializing in finely detailed pen and ink drawings. He has not bothered to join the digital revolution not having a cell phone or a computer. When we are back in Boston, he sends us beautiful handwritten letters. It’s amazing that he gets around India without being online.

One morning we met an interesting fellow who was born in Auroville, the community built on the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry. He left when he was seven, and after forty years, he’s now decided to move back. Over numerous cups of chai, he gave us his insight of the history of Auroville and the community today. We are particularly interested in his story because two good friends of ours now live there. He admitted that Auroville is turning into a retirement community. I was frustrated to miss out on most of what he said, but Gerard filled me in afterward. Still struggling with my hearing loss in crowded restaurants where ceiling fans, clattering dishes and echoing conversation are norms, but I’m still glad to be here.

Gerard had a surprise yesterday. The landlady met him on the stair with a severe look. What have I done now? Then her face broke into a broad smile and she said, Happy Birthday! Later over morning chai I couldn’t help telling our friends it was his birthday, and more well wishes.

In the evening, as we were about to leave for dinner, the landlady presented Gerard with eggless birthday cake.

Our landlady, Anand, and her husband

We sat with her husband and ate a slice. Later, after masala dosas for dinner, our friends treated Gerard to large scoops of rainbow colored ice cream. Not a bad way to celebrate 73. As Gerard has said, in spite of Modi/Trump/Iran/etc, life can be good.

Why India….yet again?

This year we had to renew our ten year visas and, like most things Indian, dealing with the Embassy’s service bureau ‘Cocks and Kings’, was not straight forward. Discussing the frustrating process of completing the online application with a friend who will join us this year, she said, “If you can’t navigate Cocks and Kings’ lack of a straight line from A to B, then it’s better that you don’t go at all.”

Just before we left, a friend from Boston attended her daughter’s wedding in India. On her return, she asked us how we could tolerate all the dirt, crowds and noise. Gerard gave an answer but didn’t give it a lot of thought. On our flight over, he tried to go into it more deeply, asking my thoughts. We agreed: the country is overcrowded, the air can be terribly polluted and trash is a constant problem, but still we’re drawn here.

A couple of days later in India, we passed a woman sitting on her bed looking out of the doorway from her very basic adobe, tiled-roof house. She gave us a warm smile as we passed. Not knowing what was behind the smile, we felt her readiness to greet strangers so warmly was due to a lack of fear. The less one has that can be stolen, the less there is to fear? Her smiling face brought into focus some of the less obvious reasons why we are still coming back to India.

Gerard commented, even though the subcontinent is racing headlong toward modernity, the old ways can still be seen and inspire, if one looks for them.”

Do we want to change places with the woman? Not really. Yet, her smile helps to explain what has been lost in our modern society and makes us want to reach back and catch hold of what might be worth saving of those old ways. Certainly, the big cities of India have become not so different from their western counterparts. But out in the country, along our way, we can still see the old ways intact. And this is one of the reasons why we return: to witness our lost history still alive to be seen, here and there, in India.

I asked Gerard for an example of these ‘old ways’? He replied, “Certainly one is, human contact. There’s a constant interplay with people even if it’s as simple as buying a cup of chai, soap to wash clothes, or negotiating with the rickshaw driver. Whole Foods decision to install self check-out, further emphasizes the depersonalization of our Western society. With most of India carrying smartphones, means it is happening here as well. Still, there is plenty of social activity on the street, in the market and in the chai shop.”

On the plane over, I saw a short video advertising ‘Exotic India’. And of course it is — the Rajput palaces, the camel fair in Pushkar, the Taj Mahal–but for me it’s more about Endearing than Exotic.

A Cochlear on the Horizon

The beginning of July marked the first anniversary of my sudden hearing loss. A psychiatrist, who’s also deaf, cautioned it could take two years to fully adjust. She may well be right, and on a good day I feel I’m halfway there. Supportive friends encourage me to turn my misfortune into a positive, the challenges into opportunities. Good advice, but just how do you go about that?

My hearing loss has changed the way I try to communicate. Now that it takes more effort and I don’t have the luxury of idle chit chat, my conversations are more directed. They’re also more selective. I can no longer participate in my women’s group meeting in a cafe once a week, but instead I may meet individually from time to time. In actual fact, one-on-one conversations are usually more in depth than in the group setting.

With less hearing, my life might be simplified, but it’s not. People tell me I’m not missing anything. It’s easy for them to say. When I go into a store and can’t hear the shop attendant, that’s not easier. Going out for a meal with friends and being unable to participate in the conversation in the restaurant is discouraging. The few people I still have an ongoing relationship with are more valued because they have adapted to my new circumstance.

Periods of quiet are welcome and I enjoy my own company in a new way. I miss going to jazz and Indian music concerts with Gerard…though I must admit, sometimes, I wasn’t so engaged in the music and it was more of an endurance test to stay to the end! I’d like to say I’m less concerned with FOMO (fear of missing out), reminding myself it’s an illusion. There may be little to miss that is truly worthwhile.

I still have a way to go – constantly vigilant against the insistent roaring in my head goading me to rush; impatient when I can’t hear because there’s ambient noise and the other person doesn’t speak clearly, directly to my face. I get frustrated when I can’t hear what Gerard’s saying to me and he gets equally frustrated. But he still loves me. Always clumsy and accident prone, I’m now even worse. I still speed around on my bike. How can I be so careless when it’s so much more critical for me to be careful? As the neurologist told me, “There’s nothing wrong with your brain, you just need to pay attention!”

Reading is still my sanctuary and even more so now because it doesn’t require the effort of listening. Similarly, at the beach, I can still hear the waves and experience the same sense of focus the ocean’s always brought me. More important, a loss that I can do nothing to change has given me a new gratitude for my husband’s love, the beautiful house he’s created, the relatively easy life we have, and our health and wealth. Things I tended to take for granted.

Of course, I can still easily get derailed. Anticipating a scheduled appointment with a new specialist for a second opinion, I expected to get greater clarification, a new approach to my condition…perhaps even hope? Instead, I got the opposite. A new hearing test revealed I’d lost yet more hearing in one ear. Shocking news because girlfriends tell me my hearing seems better – but Gerard was not surprised. The loss continues in the lower frequencies. More blood clots in the small veins of my inner ear? The hearing specialist recommended a cochlear implant but I wasn’t prepared to make a decision. The next day we left for NYC to visit a good friend with terminal cancer. This helped put things back in perspective.

It took a couple of weeks for me to finally decide to go ahead with the implant. It’s quite different from a hearing aid. Electrodes are implanted right into the cochlea and directly stimulate the auditory nerve to provide ‘a sense of sound’. The receiver, looks like a hearing aid, sitting behind my ear. A totally implanted device is in the works, but not in time for me, sadly.

Success rates for cochlears have supposedly increased from 50% to 80% today. I have talked with/heard of several that have been successful. They say success depends a lot on expectation – you can’t hope for too much. The biggest risk for me is that my tinnitus will increase. In some cases, it’s reported to diminish, in other cases it becomes worse. You also lose whatever natural hearing you have in that ear, but since I only have 12% hearing on my left side, we’ve decided it’s worth all these risks. It may take up to three months to get used to the artificial hearing – voices can sound like quacking ducks at first! But it holds the promise of better word clarity and hearing music again. First step is an evaluation and then surgery will be scheduled. So, for now I must be patient.

Meanwhile, an interesting side development: alerted by a concerned friend, I found a press release online of a study sponsored by Yale, linking a common gut bacteria, roseburia intestinale, with my autoimmune disease, Antiphospholipid Syndrome. Research demonstrated that the normally healthy bacteria has gone berserk and triggered the antibodies that form an irritation in small vessels/veins, causing blood clots and, in my case, responsible for my hearing loss. Until now, no one knew what caused the antibodies. This study is the first real research into the disease and makes me feel no longer neglected by the medical world. Excited, I printed out the article and took it to my regular doctor. He just shrugged and said, “Early days…stay tuned.” Of course, he’s right; this kind of research can take years before it becomes accepted and used to create a cure. The only treatment for APS today is blood thinners which address the symptom and the not the disease itself.

We’re beginning to plan for India next January, but whether I’ll have a cochlear before or after the trip is still uncertain. Either way, I’m less apprehensive than a year ago, and looking forward to another adventure. With all its extremes, India still pulls but is always challenging. With a cochlear implant I may be able to hear again the unique sounds of India – its music, mosque calls, Buddhist chants…perhaps even barking dogs (which I didn’t miss last year!)

Prague, Twenty Years Later

After a tedious journey from Delhi via Istanbul (a total of 38 hours of airports and airplanes), we arrived in Prague to visit Karel and Kryztyna. Karel was waiting at the airport and drove us straight to his house, only 20 minutes from Charles Bridge, but far removed from all the tourist hubbub.

Karel’s grandfather was given the large apartment building as dowery for his wife. A beer hall and theater occupied the ground level. The Communists took over ownership of the building during the 1950s. In 1968, Karel was visiting relatives in Yugoslavia when the Russians invaded. He had no intention of returning during the Occupation. Living in Munich, he became part of a group of Czech exiles, doing whatever they could to destabilize the Communist government. He published books in Czech language and contributed culture programming for Radio Free Europe. When Karel returned after the fall of the Communists, his father, who had reclaimed the Prague apartment building, gave it to Karel. He started the long ongoing process of renovation. Today, he and Kryztyna now occupy, below are five tenants, and two commercial units on the ground floor. As we enter the building with it’s high ceilinged front hallway, and ascend the large stone staircase winding up to the floors above…very Kafkaesque!

Krzytyna, was an active member of the Polish Solidarity movement during the 1980s, accompanying Lec Walesa in meetings. After the Roundtable (discussions between the Polish government and Solidarity) was established, Kryztyna was sent to Prague to help establish the Polish/Czech Solidarity movement, the only member who could speak in Czech. She remained active in Polish and Czech politics until the fall of Communism. Then she joined the Polish diplomatic core, as a cultural attache in the new Czech Republic. After a few years, she turned her attention to film making a number of historical documentaries about the Underground Movement. One she showed us, with English subtitles, was the story of Vaclav Havel, the first president of Czechoslovakia after Communism. She and Karel have immersed us in their stories of Czechoslovakia and Poland during the Communist era.

Spring is in full bloom, flowering bushes bordering the riverside. But it’s quite different from our first visit, almost twenty years ago, and so aren’t we. The city has grown exponentially; we can no longer see the beyond the outskirts. Fortunately the beautiful old buildings are protected by zoning, but walking around we see far more color.

Where grey dominated, today buildings are painted in an array of different hues. The streets are clean and orderly, and despite the crowds of tourists, it all seems so quiet – no barking dogs, no car horns blowing, and a tram system so efficient that few people drive into the city. Although we’d been warned we still weren’t prepared for the influx of tourism. There’s now apparently more coming here than visiting Paris.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with Russians, Chinese etc. in the Square to see the famous old Clock chime, and then weaving our way through the crowds over the Charles Bridge with its many statues. A plaque commemorating a martyred priest. Questioned by the king on what the queen had confessed, he refused. His torture led to being thrown off the bridge.

Our hosts left no stone unturned to give us a wonderful time, walking us through the hidden backstreets, accompanied by a narrative. Both of us woefully ignorant of the former Communist bloc history, Karel brought it alive. There’s so many stories of Prague’s history; we’ve only heard a few. The ones that most resonate are about the Nazi occupation and following Communist rule. The king’s crown still sits in the Castle. Karl told us Nazi General Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s would-be successor, insisted on placing it on his head, ignoring the curse that anyone not a king who wore the crown would die. Five days later he was assassinated. Several thousand Czechs were murdered in retribution.

Representing the oppression of the Communist era, lean stone figures solemnly climb a staircase. Close by, are the remains of a monument of Stalin which was completed in 1956, just as Khrushchev denounced Stalin. The statue was immediately torn down and replaced by a large red metronome symbolizing the passing of time.

After four days in Prague, Karel took us to his country house, an hour’s drive away in South Bohemia. Again, the towns we pass through are so clean and orderly. Neat rows of flowering horse chestnut trees alongside the road, huge fields of dazzling yellow rapeseed that are reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting.

The cottage sits in a little village near Pisek. The only sounds (that I can hear) are the birds and passing rain showers.

The weather turned cold and unsettled, but Karel drove us around the countryside, visiting several small towns and old picturesque castles.

When Karel told us he was taking us to the ‘Magic City’, we had no idea what to expect. An hour and a half drive and suddenly we were in the midst of a wonderfully preserved open air museum. Likened to a small version of Prague, Český Krumlov is bisected by the Vltava River. Narrow streets wind through clusters of decorative Renaissance and baroque houses, leading up to a magnificent Castle with panoramic views of the town and river below.

The last few days, we continued to grow our relationship with Karel and Krystyna. The four of us sat around the dinner table for hours sharing stories. The memory of the beautiful city, the idyllic countryside and our most generous hosts will stay clear in our minds.