"Crash, clang, ding-ding, BANG!"
The incessant din, hurtling up from the road below our mountainside homestay, bounced off the eaves into the bedroom, waking me from a deep sleep. Jamie and I dragged our sluggish bodies downstairs for breakfast.
Darjeeling, like most places in the Himalaya, is a Buddhist community. And like the rest of India there is a parade, festival or celebration nearly every week. Today a colourful banner declared, “2600 years of the enlightenment of Lord Buddha".
We gobbled up our toast and drained cups of sweet masala tea before heading out to join the procession.
Orchestral manoeuvres in the alleys
Maroon and orange-clad monks banged drums and cymbals with devoted concentration, or blew as hard as possible on a variety of horns, without varying the note. One instrument was around ten feet long: the business end held by the 'blower' (to call him a musician would be a stretch too far), while at the other end a second man supported two of these gigantic musical pipes under his arms.
As one band receded with its crowd of followers, the next little group arrived. The percussion sections beat out an impressive rhythm, but I tried in vain to identify a melody among the single-layered notes blasting out from the wind sections. To add to the cacophony a few high-spirited young men set off deafening fire crackers down dark, side alleys.
Not all blessings are disguised
Some of the monks carried ornate and colourful statues of Buddha in palanquins. Arranged across two parallel bars they held Him on their shoulders. Devotees, with serious expressions or a surreptitious smile, lowered their heads and threaded their way underneath the icons between the monks.
Towards the end we broke through the throng and joined the worshippers. It was a happy occasion, and away from the bands people walked in silence or chatted quietly as they slowly followed behind the monks. We walked side by side with tiny, ancient crones in tribal dress; young mothers in tight western clothes, holding babies; groups of schoolgirls; bent grandfathers; brightly coloured, swaddled toddlers; and wiry mountain men.
Some devotees carried rectangular prayer boxes brought from the temples. with which they blessed the crowd by touching the boxes to bowed heads. I was blessed, but to the amusement of my neighbours the sharp wooden corners crashing onto my crown made me yelp. Someone was listening because my prayers to not end up bleeding and bruised were answered.
Sweet smelling smoke
The procession lasted until lunchtime and took us on a thorough tour of the eastern 'Queen of Hills'. At small stations along the route we were offered water and orange juice to keep up our strength.
We passed quietly along steep, narrow passages in the town centre where women in open windows, or standing on balconies, gently fanned plumes of incense through clothes lines strung with washing. Snatches of music drifted towards us.
The fragrant smoke filtered downwards in the chilly mountain air, mingling with the damp, earthy smell of this magical autumnal day.
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Darjeeling. Take a jeep from New Jalpaiguri station in West Bengal. Expect to pay around 150 to 200 INR per seat, but the space allocated for a 'seat' is tiny. Buy two seats per person, better still rent the whole bench seat behind the driver (the equivalent of four seats).
You could take Unesco World Heritage 'Toy' Train all the way, but it's a long, slow boot. Better to take an excursion on the train from Darjeeling to Ghoom for a morning.
Il Monastero is an apartment in an ancient Monastery in a hill top town in Le Marche, a great budget accommodation for a couple wishing to explore the area. Sant'Angelo has 2 restaurants in the lovely cobbled streets, and amazing views of the Sibillini Mountains. Its easy to get to the historic towns of art and culture from here, Marche is rich in Benedictine abbeys, well-endowed churches and monasteries and works of art. A particular joy of the area is to be able to look at works of art in churches and galleries in small cities where it is unlikely that there will be any other visitors.
The Byzantine monastery of Virgin Mary Chozoviotissa is one of the top attractions of Amorgos island.
It was built in 1088 on a rock 100ft over the sea, and is a typical monument of Byzantine architecture.
Located near to Chora.
The Monastery of Panormitis is well known to all islanders of the Dodecanese. It is a good idea for a day trip there if you stay in Symi town or from Rhodes with excursion boat. The monastery is one of the many places of interest that the small beautiful island of Symi has, like ancient ruins, the castles of the Byzantines the Knights of St John.
This is the centrepiece of Yaroslavl, a 16th century monastery which as well as an impressive cathedral and bell-tower also now houses a museum of local history. They also give impressive bell ringing demonstrations, the bells are hung from a free standing frame and worked by an impossible looking set of strings.
25, Bogoyavlenskaya square
2 kms down river at Meelick lock is where the 3 provinces of the Republic meet: Leinster, Munster and Connaught.
14 kms away are Birr town with its famed telescope (formerly the largest in the world) and castle gardens.
10 kms away are the ancient and the well-preserved ruins of Clonmacnoise monastery (founded by St. Ciarain in 6th century) and its excellent museum, surrounded on one side by the river Shannon and callowlands and on the other side by boglands - Mongan Bog (post-glacially unharvested, 10 thousand years old - a rarity in Europe) can be seen by climbing the local eskers. Pope John Paul II said mass here in 1979.
Driving from Dublin go off main road at Kilbeggan (after stopping off at the whiskey museum) to Tullamore town. Go right through the town and stay on main road to Birr - Banagher is 12kms on the road adjacent to the entrance of the huge Birr castle grounds.
Monserrate Palace and Park, one of the most romantic sights in Portugal, a beautiful Victorian mansion rising out of vast botanical gardens.
Great meandering paths take you through the woods, rich in a variety of magnificent trees, past waterfalls, stepping stones and the chapel ruins coming out on to a vast hill of grass leading up to the palace.
A magnificent building recently restored, with a mix of Moorish and Italian decoration. There is a fantastic walk from here to the Capuchos Monastery, also known as Santa Cruz or the Cork Monastery, a quiet and tranquil place - a small monastery built in the rock. The tiny rooms lined with cork are a telling example of the humble and austere existance of the Franciscan friars who lived here.
Well worth a visit.
This is the first of many monastries which Saint Teresa founded. It contains well preserved relics and personal memorabilia pertaining to her life. The most macabre attraction is the coffin which she slept in.
C/Duque de Alba
Entry fee is 1 euro.
Opening hours: Daily 10am-1pm & 4-7pm (summer), 10am-1pm & 3-6pm (winter)
This Benedictine Monk retreat makes for an amazing break from the bustle of Barcelona. You can get a combined ticket from the station which includes the cable car.
The views from the top are stunning. Inside you can visit the Holy Grotto and listen to the world renowned Montserrat Boys Choir. Time your visit so you are there before 13:00 when the choir sing.
A monastery where you can avoid the usual hustle and hippies of McLeod, cheap clean accommodation, monks chanting- it's a working monastery. Really friendly and quiet- until the morning Puja kicks off at 6AM. I stayed for 6 months, so it must be good.
388 steps down from McLeod, past OM hotel. You can get a taxi from the bus stand, if you're lazy.
Excellent beer (first brewed at the monastery in 1455) and traditional Bavarian food in magnificent surroundings. You can even roam around the local countryside (including the nearby Amersee lake) to work off the extra calories.
A short trip on the S5 train south from Munich to Herrsching and then a walk (or bus/taxi) up to the monastery.
The rubbish district has to be seen to be believed. It lies at the foot of the Muqqatam hill behind the Islamic city and is home to Cairo's rag pickers who are mostly Christians originally from Middle Egypt. They have built an amazing monastery with an amphitheatre dug into the rock of the Muqqatam. The contrast between the order of the monastery and the filth of the rubbish is something.
Get an ordinary taxi rather than one of the fancy hotel ones to get to the place as the car's suspension gets tested by the narrow alleys in the district.
It's one of the few places in Cairo you'll see pigs.
Between the Islamic city and the Muqqatam hill.
The uncrowded beach is shaded by tamarisk trees and there is a taverna and a restaurant a short distance from the water's edge.
The monastery, which can be reached on foot by way of an ancient pilgrim's way, is a functioning spiritual centre of the Greek Orthodox church. Its collection of treasures, well worth seeing.
In the Dodecanese islands by boat from Kos, Leros or the north.
The 11th-century Byzantine Monastery of the Theotokos Eleusa, set above the village of Veljusa, is a sublime retreat amidst gardens and sloping lawns, decorated with centuries-old frescoes.
Follow the road leading up through Veljusa village, only a few minutes by car from Strumica.
There are three fantastic sights in this area - Torre de Belem, Monument to the Discoveries and for me the best was Mosteiro dos Jeronimos.
Get the 15 tram from Praca de Figueira and get off after Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. You need to walk up aways and take the footbridge over the road to get to the Torre de Belem, and the Monument to the Discoveries.
Bucovina is well known throughout the world for its painted monasteries. The churches were founded, in most cases, as family burial places of princes and high nobles. Each painter, although following the canonical iconographic program, interpreted the scenes in a slightly different way. The scenes were first painted on the interior walls, and then extended to the exterior ones. The reasons for such vast scenes were both religious and didactic: to promote Orthodoxy and to educate the illiterate.
The most interesting monasteries and churches in the Bucovina area are: Probota, St. John the New, St. Demetrius and St. Elijah in Suceava, Dragomirna, Patrauti, Parhauti, Slatina, Rasca, Baia, Dolhestii Mari, Sucevita, Arbore, Putna, Balinesti, Humor, Voronet and Moldovita.
Most of these churches have frescoes covering both their facades and their interior walls, and several of them have been included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
See pictures, maps and detailed information about each monastery: www.romanianmonasteries.org/allchurches.html
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