THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain

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Another day in Florence

Our B&B is agreeably like staying in someone's home. We had a simple breakfast on the terrace in the morning sunshine before setting out, dressed in our lightest clothes, to face another 30℃ day. The queues at the Uffizi Gallery were an hour long, so we bought tickets in advance for the afternoon and headed to the Duomo. The queue there was around the block too, but seemed to be moving quickly so we took our place at the back. Forty-five minutes later we were by the door when a German guide leading a group of tourists barged them all in ahead of us. There is no hope for a united Europe if we cannot even harmonise basic politeness! 

It was a minor frustration and soon we were inside. Given the magnificence of the exterior, the inside of the cathedral is surprisingly plain - at least by the standards of Catholicism. It's elegant and beautiful though and we paid the fee to enter the museum in the crypts too, where excavations have revealed parts of the foundations from different periods. Our museum ticket also entitled us to climb to the viewing platform around the Dome but, rather to my relief, that was fully booked until next week. We contented ourselves by visiting the Baptistery instead  

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What can I tell you about the Uffizi? Just as Hamlet is, to moderns, a play full of familiar quotes, so the Uffizi Gallery is full of paintings and sculptures you know on sight. For Europeans, they are a part of our cultural subconscious, even if we may only have seen them on book or album covers rather than in the flesh, It was an exhausting exercise, in our enthusiasm, to try to stand in front of every one - even so briefly as to rather insult the master who made it.

I was so tired as we headed for our hotel that we decided to eat early and head back to our rest rather than change and come back out again for dinner.

Tomorrow we have a longish drive (more than five hours) to our home for the week in the South of France. We have no deeds to do when we get there however so can take our time and look out for a pleasant place to break the journey for a long lunch!


Florence

I am back in my favourite city and Mrs Paine II is enjoying its delights for the first time. After yesterday's stress, we had only a two hour run to Florence, so took a leisurely breakfast and sauntered automotively to the autostrada. South of Modena a convoy of three Ferraris overtook us at speed and we made a fourth for a few exciting kilometres until they decided to comply more narrowly with the speed limits and we left them behind. 

The first of two challenges was exiting the toll road. Our ticket was rejected for some reason the help desk lacked the English to explain. In the end the machine issued a "pay later" ticket and the barrier lifted. We still don't know what the problem was (and the "pay later" toll seems high) but no matter. The second was finding our quaint city B&B in an old apartment building on a roundabout outside the city's southern gate. After circling the block a couple of times we eventually found it. We parked in the careless Italian style we'd seen others adopt, and unloaded. Our hostess directed me to a quaint little garage nearby where Speranza was given a place of honour for the next two days. 

Then we headed out to find some lunch and begin our exploration. This is my third visit and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed my wife’s reaction to catching sight of the Piazza della Signoria for the first time. There’s a known psychological phenomenon that makes us want to share a great movie or book with our loved ones and it probably accounts for the pleasure I felt in seeing a familiar favourite place through her eyes. 

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As always our travels are recorded on the "Track my Tour" app and the map can be found here


A mad rush to Mantua

We set ourselves too hard a task today. This is meant to be fun and relaxing. Mostly it was, but a couple of delays in leaving Switzerland due to accidents ahead of us meant that we fell behind. As much of our journey was on Swiss roads, we couldn't make it up with a bit of judicious speeding or as I call it "broad compliance" with local laws. A French friend who lived many years in Geneva told me years ago never to speed there as "every Swiss is a policeman" paid or not!

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We had hoped to stop for a relaxing lunch near Lake Como but pressed on instead, pausing only for fuel, using the time to keep our appointment with Silvia of the Automobile Club Mantova. She holds the keys to the Museo Tazio Nuvolari and had kindly agreed to open it up at 3pm for our visit. Mrs P2 enjoyed the beautiful Swiss scenery through the car windows, apart from during one spell of rain so heavy it removed the screen kill! We encountered more traffic while circumventing Milan, but that was to be expected. Eventually we were out on the autostrada, where speed limits are similar to Switzerland, but more loosely observed. We arrived with time to spare and, having parked near the museum, found a cafe to rest and recover.

Silvia was on time and I was soon enjoying all the great man's trophies and mementoes. News that the museum was open spread and soon Silvia was taking money from Italians who sat and watched the few rare films of "the flying Mantuan" in action. 

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We then explored the charming, undeveloped little town. Artificial lakes were constructed on three sides of it in the 12th Century to defend the stronghold of the Gonzaga family, later Dukes of Mantua. This constrained its expansion and made it a modern backwater. Its inhabitants economic loss is to some extent our gain — if we like old buildings. Its historical centre is a UNESCO world heritage site and it has been both Italy’s capital of culture and Europe’s capital of gastronomy. My interest in motorsports — indulged my my lovely wife — has brought us to a little gem of a place.

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Tomorrow we make a more leisurely journey to my favourite Italian city, Florence, where we stay for two nights before heading on to our borrowed holiday home (the use of which is a wedding gift from kindly friends) in the South of France. 


To Lucerne via Saarschleife and Strasbourg

A Ferrari factory tour and the Tazio Nuvolari Museum in Mantua seem romantic enough destinations to me but one of our friends last night suggested a nature ramble might be a more appropriate honeymoon activity. So after breakfast this morning we set off to the BaumWipfelPfad or "Treetop Walk" at Saarschleife. We had a short, pleasant walk from the visitor centre on a high level wooden walkway in the canopy of a forest to a spiral overlook structure above the banks of the River Saar at a point where it makes a horseshoe-shaped meander. It was "wunderschön”

The photograph of the viewing platform will give you some idea of the amount of serious engineering Germans are prepared to put into improving their view of a beauty spot!

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One of our friends, now a naturalised Luxembourgoise, was born in Strasbourg. On her advice we abandoned our previous plan to visit the European Parliament building in her home city. Instead she recommended a restaurant where they specialise in a healthy, fish-based version of the usual, meaty Choucroute Strasbourgoise. So we headed off through Germany (where we got Speranza up to 225kph on a short stretch of unrestricted autobahn) and then France to sample that. It was excellent.

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We then walked around the outside of the amazing Gothic cathedral in the blistering heat (32 degrees C) before heading back to the car and driving to Lucerne.

It was a great drive, though mostly through France so lacking in high speed opportunities. We found our way through the pedestrianised old town (as advised by the hotel and assisted by a police woman who gave us directions) under the disapproving gaze of hundreds of passing Swiss. It's a beautiful country but the locals love their rules so much that I never quite feel comfortable around them. I always feel they are looking for an opportunity to call the police!

After unloading our bags in the narrow alley outside the hotel, I left Mrs P2 to check us in and arrange for the luggage to be taken to our room, while I drove Speranza away to a modern car park across the river where vehicles are allowed.

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On my return we took a short walk around Lucerne, photographed the famous bridge and forewent dinner to have ice cream instead. This cooled me down to my optimum operating temperature and was a rare treat under my new dietary regime.

Tomorrow we head for Mantua and the museum of my hero Nuvolari, the great racing driver. 


Luxembourg

Perhaps it’s not an obvious destination for a European road trip but we have friends living in the Grand Duchy and wanted to visit them. So after breakfasting on Belgian waffles in the main square in Bruges we hit the road south. Our first problem was that an inconsiderate hotel guest  had parked his SUV next to Speranza at a jaunty angle, blocking access to the driver’s door. Mrs P came up with the solution of lowering the roof from the passenger side so I could climb in and we were soon on our way. Apart from some traffic jams on the Brussels ring road, we had a splendid journey south in beautiful sunshine.

Belgium has good infrastructure but you can tell when you’ve arrived in Luxembourg by the quality of the roads on the approaches. The charm of the eponymous small city is only marred for the moment by enormous construction works to install new tramways to provide eco transport for a population planned to double.

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The Grand Duchy was an industrial economy when it joined the European Coal and Steel Community that was the precursor of the EU. It has since exploited its membership to provide a corporate haven to allow its neighbours’ citizens to mitigate the costs of business in their highly-taxed homelands. It has a smug sheen of wealth but has not become a nowhere place like Monaco because it’s not a tax haven for individuals. The wealthy keep their corporate vehicles and some of their money there (and visit them) but otherwise leave the country to the locals. They have opportunities to work alongside the foreign bankers, lawyers and other professionals servicing the foreign money or join the highly-paid and lavishly-housed civil service. It works well for them.

Our local friend, a former client of mine when he was with a German bank doing business in my old stamping grounds of Eastern Europe, gave us the guided tour of the city after hosting us to lunch at his club. Then he picked up his lady friend and led us out to the German border for a wine tasting. The modern winery had a terrace from which we could see Germany and France on the other bank of the Mosel, separated by a bridge. The Schengen accords that removed most  internal EU border controls were signed nearby and the winery celebrates this with one special wine made from the grapes of the three countries.

We then drove through France (for a few yards) into Germany and to our nearby hotel where we hosted our friends to dinner on another terrace with leafy views of wine country. Over an agreeable meal we inadvertently gave Mrs P II insights into the dynamics of the relationships (and the inaccuracies - or otherwise - of the stereotypes) between the European nations represented at table! Now onward to Switzerland.


On the road again — on honeymoon

After only four months, Mrs Paine II (an Indian citizen) has finally obtained her Schengen visa and this morning we set out in Speranza on our European road trip honeymoon. We crossed the Channel on the Eurotunnel train this morning and were in Bruges in time to take a boat tour of its canals before lunch. 

Mrs PII has never been to Continental Europe before and, with her detached perspective, offered an observation that — for all its evident truth — had never occurred to me before. “If it weren’t for the road signs and driving on the other side of the road” she said “I wouldn’t know we weren’t in England.”  We near-neighbours focus on our differences to such an extent that we fail to notice that in most everyday respects we’re just the same!

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After lunch we explored this beautiful little town in the pleasant sunshine before retiring to our hotel and resting before dinner. We found a delightful little restaurant on a side street near our hotel and passed our first evening on the road chatting happily with each other and our Belgian neighbours at the next table. 

Tomorrow we’re heading to Luxembourg where an old friend will show us around before he and his lady join us at our hotel across the border in Germany for dinner. Speranza and I are  hoping for some unrestricted autobahn en route

As usual, I’m using the excellent Track My Tour app to create an online map of the tour using geodata from uploaded progress photos. If you’re interested, you can follow along here


A road trip to Northern Ireland

I returned yesterday from an impulsively-organised road trip to Northern Ireland. For those of us who grew up during the Troubles, it's not an obvious tourist destination. The names of its towns and villages meant nothing to me but violence and – Giant's Causeway apart – I had never seen a reason to go. However, the future Mrs P the Second's sister was visiting Ireland and is a fan of "Game of Thrones."  The series was mostly filmed in a studio on the Belfast Docks and on location around Northern Ireland so we decided to meet her there and visit some of those locations.

It was a frivolous idea but it led to some good fun. Mrs P2-elect and I crossed from Birkenhead to Belfast on the 1030 sailing on Friday. I wasn't too happy that Speranza travelled on an outside deck, exposed to weather and spray, but the passage was calm and agreeable enough, if a little boring. We landed on Friday evening at 1830 and were safely at our modern hotel near the docks by 1900. Within minutes we were changed and in a taxi to a splendid restaurant recommended by my cousin in the catering trade. She had told me that the chef was on the cusp of his first Michelin "macaron" and after our experience there, I can believe it.

We met my fiancee's sister's train from Dublin at the railway station on Saturday morning and set off on our (as it proved) over-ambitious tour. Our first stop was Cairncastle, where the scene in which Ned Stark lived up to his motto that "the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword" was filmed. The photo below shows Speranza near the place.
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A nearby hotel features one of the "Doors of Thrones". These are made from wood from trees at the Dark Hedges (itself a GoT location – see below) felled by Storm Gertrude in 2016. Local tourism promoters turned damage to one tourist attraction into ten new ones – all at pubs or hotels near to a location used in series six. All the locations can be found here

From there we drove to the Cushenden Caves at Ballymena. They are open to the public but the locals didn't seem keen for us to find them. There are no signs until you have actually arrived. We persisted however and duly saw where the Red Priestess gave birth to the shadow creature. We lunched at a pub across the road before striking out, this time with the roof down, for Murlough Bay

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This location stands in for the region of Westeros (the fictional continent where most of Game of Thrones is set) known as Pyke. Inevitably, as GoT is set in an alternate medieval reality, there's little to see but windswept hills and ocean but our tour was getting us out into some beautiful scenery and involving us in lots of healthy outdoor exercise. The roads to this remote spot were not (unlike the winding B roads we enjoyed for most of the trip) ideally suited to Speranza but she coped.

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From here we drove to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge which features in GoT as the scene of the killing of Balon Greyjoy. 

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We arrived too late to buy a ticket to cross the bridge, which was a disappointment, but made the walk there and back anyway to take a look and make some pictures. By this time night was falling and it was too late to go to our main destination for the day the famous Giant's Causeway. As we drove back to our hotel in Belfast however, we came up with a plan to return the next day.

We also had the chance on our way back from the rope bridge to park up near the Dark Hedges. My camera can shoot at very high ISO and so I was able to get one of my favourite shots of the weekend in near-darkness. Had we arrived in daylight it would have been crammed with tourists spilling off the coaches that were leaving as we arrived. As it was, it took me seconds to Photoshop away the few stragglers that remained.

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After breakfast on Sunday morning, we drove directly to the Giant's Causeway. On well-maintained and (by English standards) lightly-used motorways and A roads it was a different experience from Saturday. The miles ticked away quickly and we arrived within 50 minutes or so despite a refuelling pit stop. The attraction is natural and free, but the National Trust is in charge and determined to rake in the cash. Essentially it charges £11.50 per person to park and kindly allow access to their gift shop and cafe where its polite and helpful staff can relieve you of more cash. The "visitor centre" is modern and magnificent and we did plan to spend some time there so as the NT is a charity and mostly (despite its political correctness and priggishness) does a useful job we decided to pay up with a smile. If you were minded to be more frugal you could drop your passengers at the entrance to the car park and they could walk for free to the Causeway. If you wanted to be really frugal, you could park the car down the road and walk in. There's nothing in the gift shop or cafe that you couldn't get online or nearby from some private business or other.

After exploiting the NT facilities we had paid so handsomely to use,  we set off for nearby Dunluce Castle, a ruin that stands in for Castle Greyjoy in GoT, but is an interesting enough attraction in its own right. The owners clearly think so as, despite the constant GoT chatter of their visitors, they make nothing of the connection to the show. 

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We then had a late lunch in the nearby town of Portrush, before heading south again towards Belfast. We had hoped to visit another GoT location, Shane's Castle, on the way back but it is part of a working agricultural estate and is only open to the public for special events. So we called an end to our GoT tour and returned to town to visit the famous Crown Bar and then the cafe of the Europa Hotel (bombed 36 times during the Troubles but a pleasant enough place to pass an hour these days).

From there we dropped our guest at the station to return to Dublin and we set off to wait for our ferry home and a good night's rest at sea before a pleasant drive home to London. Given our early start – disembarking at 0630 – and a single pit stop to refuel at a motorway service station, we were home  before 11am.


New Delhi / Old Delhi

My hotel in New Delhi is in the leafy diplomatic district of Chanakyapuri. Some of that extensive foliage nearly took me out today when a tree fell in front of my Uber on the way to visit the Red Fort. Effete Westerner that I am, I thought the driver would turn around and find another route. However, he got out first to check on the welfare of a gardener who had barely managed to jump clear. Then he helped him, along with various auto-rickshaw drivers whose way was also blocked, to pull the large tree to the side of the road so that traffic could pass. For a wiry bunch who looked none too well-fed, I have to say those Delhi-ites were strong chaps.

There was a big police presence outside the US Embassy compound as we continued our journey. Perhaps that was something to do with the attack on the Embassy in Beijing an hour or so before? It didn't add too much to the already dense traffic in my way.

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The Red Fort is a disappointing, poorly maintained and rather shabby affair compared to the splendours of the Amber Fort. It's still a military complex and has heavy security. It was a bit disconcerting to see sentries standing in metal cabins with guns poking through firing slots. It needs some imagination to picture its former glories, whether as home to Mughal emperors or as a garrison for the British Army. 

It's certainly large enough. There's a lot of grassy open space which was, after recent heavy rains, an implausibly deep green. At the entrance to the complex, after separate pat-downs and metal detector screenings for men and women, you arrive in the covered bazaar which used to cater to the ladies of the Emperor's Court by selling jewellery and clothing. Now its tenants aggressively sell souvenirs to the masses of tourists who pass through every day. Some of the handicrafts were not bad and I might have bought more than I did if I had not developed a serious aversion to the pushy tactics of Indian shopkeepers. Given time to browse and a little attention to what I was actually looking for, I would have opened my heart and my wallet. As it was, it wasn't long before I was repressing a powerful urge to bark Anglo-Saxon and leave empty-handed.

I am glad that I have seen the Red Fort but, having checked it off the list, will not be making any special efforts to return. I enjoyed rather more my transfer by auto-rickshaw to Connaught Place for lunch and a bit of light shopping. Having watched the drivers of these nimble vehicles tootle in and out of traffic comprised of heavier, stronger cars, buses and trucks,  I was curious to see how it felt for their passengers. It felt like a fairground ride! My long legs didn't easily fit but I soon found a way to get them entirely onboard after nearly being kneecapped by a passing Delhi bus! The bus drivers are apparently notoriously aggressive even in a driving culture where everyone appears homicidal, suicidal or both!

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After lunch in a hipster cafe (which served a decent paneer tikka) I took a stroll to get in some exercise and headed back to the hotel to relax and prepare for my final dinner in India on this trip.

It's a fascinating country and, d.v., I shall return. I've seen a lot of interesting stuff during my short visit, but there's an entire sub-continent to explore! Next time I will come in Winter though and be less hesitant even then about sacrificing sartorial propriety to comfort! I shall also practice the polite, arm-at-45 degrees, palm open toward the offender gesture that I saw Indians use politely to warn off hawkers, beggars and (genuine or fake) tourist guides touting for business. Getting annoyed only amuses them. Expressing that annoyance only lowers you in the eyes of passing members of the majority of polite and friendly Indians who find them just as annoying as you do.

As for the various scams I encountered, it seems churlish to worry about them after taking into account the excellent value offered by the hotels, restaurants, guides and taxi companies who took such excellent care of me. In any case the total losses amounted to less than the rip-off perpetrated by a currency exchange desk at Heathrow Airport. Next time I shall also order my rupees well in advance!


Chand Baori and the Taj Mahal

Today I travelled to New Delhi from Jaipur via Agra. My friend and I wanted to visit the thousand-year old step well called Chand Baori and – of course – the Taj Mahal. After breakfast we checked out from the hotel at Jaipur and headed out front to meet the car and driver we had hired. We set off at 10 am and arrived at Chand Baori at about 1145 am. First we visited the Harshshat Mata temple in the same village and then headed to the step well. 

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Up until today, I had not been much troubled by people hassling me in the street. That was probably because we had a professional guide with us in Jaipur and he had waved them off. At the step well we declined the services of a pleasant young chap outside and headed straight in. A wilier older "guide" simply started to provide the service unbidden. He wasn't very good at it, but I reasoned that the economy of refusing to pay his modest fee was not worth the grief of getting rid of him. I concentrated on my photography and he spoke mostly with my friend. When we were done, we paid him a modest sum and headed back to the car – where once we were underway my friend realised that her iPhone was missing. 

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We tried calling it in case she had dropped it in our car somewhere, but it had already been switched off – presumably to prevent the use of the "Find my iPhone" location feature. She set it to wipe its data on next connecting to the internet and cancelled her SIM. She recalled that our "guide" had bumped into her clumsily at one point and we realised that it must have been him who had stolen it. It was an old and damaged phone she'd just been using for India. Her brand new Pixel was safe so, sadder, wiser and determined to be less generous with beggars and service pests, we continued to Agra. 

I reckon the first time I heard there was a place called India was when, as a boy, my grandmother produced an old Viewmaster 3D viewer with slides of famous monuments from around the world. The Eiffel Tower for France, the tower of Big Ben for England and – of course – the Taj Mahal for India. We've all seen it many times in photographs and films and I was braced for disappointment. As a photographer I was also apprehensive that I wouldn't be able to find an interesting new perspective on one of the most pictured monuments in the world. 

The fact is, it's just as magnificent as every cliché says. The general shape cannot surprise anyone now but the context is attractive, the other buildings in the complex are appealing and the architectural details of the Taj itself are elegant. If you haven't been, I can't spare you the expense by telling you it's not worth it. It just is. Sorry.

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We spent a happy couple of hours wandering around the exterior before returning to our car and continuing to New Delhi where we will spend our last day tomorrow before I fly back to London on Friday


The Amber Fort

This morning I set out again with my guide and our driver. Our destination was the fort in the village of Amer called either the Amer Fort or the Amber Fort. As the official website uses the latter, so do I. On the way, we visited one of the "step wells" that were built to provide access to deep-lying ground water in the Rajasthan desert. This particular example is called Panna Meena ka Kund and dates from the 16th Century. It is in Amer, below the fort. 


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Tourists who arrive early at the Amber Fort and are prepared for a long, tedious haggle can take an elephant ride around the complex. It begins and ends at a platform (ele-pad?) on the entrance side of the huge parade ground.

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I wondered why there were so many forts close together and asked if they were remnants of local warfare but my guide said it was simply the policy of the Maharajahs of Jaipur to build a fort on a nearby hill to protect each and every one of their palaces. They built many to accommodate their wives or simply to suit the local seasons. Temperatures range from 1 to 49 degrees between Winter and Summer and the monsoon season has its own requirements. 

 

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It rained steadily as we toured the complex, which didn't seem to relieve the intense humidity, I was as wet from perspiration as I was from large, warm raindrops. The architecture of the fort features both Hindu and Muslim motifs. The Maharajas were Hindus but married into the families of Moghul emperors. The fort contains private quarters for each of the Maharajah's wives as well as a common area (overseen by his own quarters) where they could socialise. There are also receiving halls for his public audiences visible from behind discreet screens in the ladies' quarters. 

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From the fort we drove to Gaitor to visit the Chattris or cenotaphs. These are elaborate marble crematorium platforms; one for each of the late maharajahs of Jaipur. The most recent one dates from the death of the present Maharajah's father in 2011. They are not where each was actually burned however. They are monuments used for commemorations on the anniversaries of their deaths. As you might expect they are magnificently carved and decorated. 

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We had planned to visit more forts, but the humidity was getting to me and I asked to head back for an early shower. We made one final stop on the way to view the Jal Mahal or water palace on the Man Sagur lake. This is currently in course of restoration and its future use is uncertain. 

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I had a restful late afternoon working on my photographs and writing this and the previous post. This evening I am returning to what is now one of my favourite restaurants in the world.