Chandigarh: Rock Garden is a sur-real gem

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I adored the Nek Chand Rock Garden as will any seeker of quirk. It is a delightful sculpture park built entirely out of junk and one man’s idiosyncratic vision. nek-chand-ticket-p1060098This contemporary-sounding project began as long ago as 1957, and has an interesting back-story.

Nek Chand was a lowly transport official when Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab and Haryana, was being built. He started collecting rubbish from the villages that were being pulled down to make way for the new city. He used pebbles, rocks and other materials to make a small garden for himself in the forest. As the project grew, he worked secretly at night to hide his activities from the authorities. Meanwhile, goose-img_3969new construction methods involving reinforced concrete were being used to build the centre of Chandigarh and Nek Chand drew on them to create his own structures, spaces and humorously quirky sculptures. It was ten whole years before inspectors finally discovered the secret kingdom he was making!

At first they wanted to destroy it, but soon they had a change of heart and gave him not only the site, but also some labourers and even a salary so he could carry on with the work. Nek Chand eventually became a national hero, and his Rock Garden one of the most visited tourist sites in India. He died in 2015.

The gardens are a wonderful contrast to Chandigarh itself, which was designed by Le Corbusier to have wide streets and a regular grid pattern. In Nek-Chand-Land, everything is labyrinthine, with narrow, twisty paths, surprising views and hidden-away areas to discover. Doorways are tiny, making people stoop. And water-features appear everywhere. During my visit, signs telling people to duck their heads were in French, due to the recent visit of Francois Hollande. British PM Theresa May was expected next.

Most engaging of all are the thousands of statues made from junk: dancing girls made from old bangles; young boys made from broken plates and pots. Whole walls are constructed out of broken sockets or oil drums or pipes. The theme appears to be – well, all aspects of life…childhood, commerce, soldiering, physical labour, sex, child-rearing, fantasy, spirituality. Shakespeare would have felt well at home.

The pathways, as you explore this 25-acre site, are also lined with the animals and birds that live among us, and some imaginary ones that don’t. This is ‘folk art’ at its best – poignant, mischievous, insightful and surreal. There’s surely something in this garden to delight absolutely everyone. Me, I liked the monkeys best!

Nek Chand Rock Garden, Sector no-1, Chandigarh, Punjab. Open daily, Apr-Sept 9am–7.30pm; Oct-Mar 9am-6pm http://nekchand.com/welcome

Scrapbooktraveller.wordpress.com helps fund a school in Mohali, near Chandigarh to educate children from a slum area. Any donations go straight into books, materials and school expenses – no overheads. If you can give just a little, it really counts for a lot. Help lift kids out of poverty: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/scrapbooktraveller

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Kosovo: Bears in rehab near Prishtina

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A short drive east from Prishtina brings you to the Four Paws Bear Sanctuary. Here, staff are quietly getting on with the highly unusual task of rescuing brown bears. Many of them were so-called ‘restaurant bears’ kept in cages to be visitor attractions, or else they are bears previously owned as ‘pets’. It seems extraordinary in this day and age, that these amazing animals are still enduring years of trauma, chained or held in cages that are far too small for them to move around. Sometimes the mother is killed so the cubs can be snatched at an early age. As cubs need their mother’s training to enable them to forage and survive, the effect on them is life long. They will never go back to the wild, in any sense.

Here are some caged bear cubs we saw a year ago, outside a hotel in Albania. We were horrified. The cage was situated on a hot jetty, with no shade. They were chewing each

'Restaurant bears' near Divjake, Albania

‘Restaurant bears’ near Divjake, Albania

other’s ears in a strange, obsessive way and making a weird mewling noise.

So thank goodness there are places like Four Paws. Here, newly rescued animals are introduced into larger spaces, and then into reserves similar to a bear’s natural habitat with water holes and shady cover. The staff told us they find various ways to stimulate the bears, such as hiding the food from some of the more established ones, to get them to forage and rediscover their natural instincts. The work also includes seeking out bears still in need of rescue, mostly from surrounding countries, as all the bears from Kosovo have, happily, been recovered.

If you visit the sanctuary you’ll see more than sixteen rescued bears all at various stages of rehabilitation. A panel near the entrance shows just how much it costs to feed one bear for a year: a whopping 3539 euros! Their diet includes fruit, veg, dog pellets, chestnuts and – yay! – honey.  The good news is that the staff were able to trace those Albanian cubs. They have already been rescued, earlier in 2016, by a similar sanctuary in Greece called Arcturos. Hurrah!

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The Bear Sanctuary Prishtina is open April- Oct 10.00-19.00hrs; Nov – March 10.00-16.00 hrs. Adults: 1.50 euro; children 0.50 euro. Donate and more at http://www.four-paws.org.uk

Albania: to Kruja, and a little brush with history

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IMG_2477Kruja sits on a hilltop, not far from Tirana. We went there on impulse, booking a room as we set off. We were thrilled when the ordinary-sounding ‘Bar Restaurant Merlika’ turned out to be right inside the scruffy, rambling walls of Kruja citadel. In the afternoon heat we climbed the steep cobbled streets, through the likeable handicraft bazaar and past the museum designed by Hoxha’s daughter and her husband. (Enver Hoxha was the communist leader of Albania from 1944-85, who ruled with an iron fist.)

Beside the castle tower on the skyline, is the Ottoman home of Artur Merlika and his young family. Their restaurant, on the shady terrace, has the most amazing views over the plains to the ‘Accursed’ mountains in the north, and across to the coast. Our simple but comfortable room looked out over this terrace. Inside the main house we lingered in the beautiful traditional rooms created for entertaining – with their separate spaces for men and woman. Everything in them was handmade, from the woven carpets to the skillfully made heavy-lace curtains depicting the Albanian two-headed eagle and an image of Skanderbeg on his horse.

Artur Merlika was a charming host. As the day visitors departed back to Tirana in their coaches, he organised sunset drinks for us with that stunning view. Later he came and chatted about life under the variousIMG_2486 regimes that have ruled and misruled Albania. We heard that the house was built by his great-grandfather and, like many other homes, it was taken away from the family by the communists. It was only returned to them years later.  Artur was particularly proud of his grandfather, an intellectual who, he discreetly said, had ‘served’ Albania. Later, after we left, we googled his grandfather’s  name and found that Mustafa Merlika-Kruja had been Albania’s Prime Minister just before Hoxha, from 1941-43.

Comfortable rooms at Bar Restaurant Merlika, Rruga Kala Kruje are available through http://www.booking.com or by phoning direct +355692131 162

Albania: Komani ferry trip – into the wild

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The ferry journey from Komani to Fierza in northern Albania was billed in the guide books as ‘world class’ and ‘spectacular’ – and so it was. For a start, the ride from Shkodra had a touch of the James Bond about it. The town minibus collected us from our lodgings with a knock on our door in the early hours. After a long slow wind uphill, we were waved on by some kalashnikov-wielding guards outside a hydro-electric plant. The minibus sped into a low dark tunnel under a mountain, just wide enough for one vehicle. Happily, nothing came the other way.

We emerged onto a chaotic little quay, crammed with minibuses, people and goods. We bought our tickets and found some floor space on the top deck of the tiny car ferry. The locals stayed indoors below, but we and the other foreigners on board all wanted to see the views. Most of us were going on to hike in the Albanian Alps. For an ordinary ferry ride, there was a glorious sense of ‘into the wild’ about this trip.

Lake Komani is a vast flooded gorge that feels like a fjord. As the boat set off through the dark-turquoise waters, the tree-scattered hillsides gave way to soaring limestone cliffs. The sky was a happy postcard blue, but the mountains that towered around us kept their sense of aloofness. There were no roads. On gentler slopes, we saw the occasional distant dwelling, farmed terraces, a mule. Who could live out here, so far from roads or shops? Yet people do. The boat zig-zagged through the calm waters, stopping off at tiny landing stages where someone would disembark and tramp away with their bags, to some hidden homestead, hidden life…

Minibus leaves Shkodra 6-6.30am, takes 2 hrs, cost 5 euro; Passenger and car ferries depart from Komani to Fierza 9-9.30, takes 3.5 hrs, cost 5 euro; Transfer by bus or taxi to Valbona, takes 1 hr, cost 3-5 euro.