This is the fourth post in the Travel Highlights series sharing some of the most enduring highlights of all our travels.

Our nomadic journey began in Italy in September 2011. After stops in Cinque Terre, and Tuscany, we arrived in Venice in mid October. Cinque Terre and Tuscany both were pure joy but Venice. Oh Venice. It’s like the city is romancing you with beauty and charm and a unique enchanted embrace that can’t be named. If you don’t fall in love with Venice how can you possibly fall in love with life? A city whose back lanes are this

and this

should charm the pants of everyone. And that’s part of the problem, and one of the good things to come from Covid-19. Since Venice was completely emptied out because of the pandemic the city is rethinking tourism. For a start cruise ships are no longer allowed into the inner harbour.

But pre-pandemic a tired hotel clerk explains “there are 45,000 of us and one million of you”. I am so glad we went to Venice at the very end of the season. For the most part it wasn’t desperately crowded and I didn’t see any cruise ships though Don did.

We took one of Venice’s famous vaporettos, a water bus, to Piazza San Marco, crowded with tourists – both the vaporetto and the piazza. It was busy everywhere until we headed away from main attractions and the Grand Canal.

For hours we wandered the smaller back streets where Venetians live. There were almost no tourists there.

Why is it that most visitors to Venice, or any place for that matter, don’t go beyond the big attractions? There’s so much more to see. We found the same in Gamla Stan (the old town) in Stockholm. All the visitors were crowded onto the few main streets, and just five minutes walk away were many utterly charming empty streets to explore.

Wherever we walked we always found our way back to the Grand Canal, Venice’s only major highway, that curves like an S bisecting the main island, and is lined with venerable palazzo.

Of course we hired a gondolier

to explore the back “lanes”.

He tells us the real Venice is in the small canals away from the main tourist sights. The gondola glides along in silence. It is so silent. There are no cars, and on the smaller canals no motor boats, just silence. He describes it as a museum city. The whole of Venice is a museum that can only truly be seen if you get into the labyrinth of small canals and narrow streets.

We take ferries to several of the other islands in the lagoon, including vibrant multi-coloured Burano.

Venice is amazing. Magical. It’s hard to believe real people live in such a place. They should be made of fairy dust or something. Perhaps they are. And yet here they are, ordinary Venetians, going about living their lives, and so easy to spot because they are dressed so much better than the rest of us, an unmistakable elegance.

Like Cinque Terre, it’s hard to believe such a place exists. I barely have words for it, but spend all my time enraptured and in awe, looking around me wide-eyed, and being constantly thrilled.

I wrote in a post about Cairo: Somehow the people of Cairo manage to make it work despite the dirt and the over-crowding. It’s a vibrant ever-evolving tapestry, a whole that seems to be greater than the sum of its parts. If you’re willing, Cairo will beguile you into loving it.

In this small city built on the water no beguiling was necessary. Miraculous Venice, drenched in old world charm, you had me at hello.

Our first foray into India consisted of three months in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu. I loved our time there but let’s be honest, Tiru’s a dusty dirty Indian town with pretty much nothing to recommend it. We lived there for the first three months of 2012. Later when people asked why we never went exploring around Tiru – to Kerala, by all accounts one of the more prosperous and interesting states, or to the hill stations to get away from the heat – Don confessed that he knew that if he ever left Tiru he’d never go back. And why were we there? For Ramana Maharshi’s ashrams and the sacred Mt Arunachala. We didn’t go for Tiru, we went on a spiritual quest.

And then we went to Bali.

I don’t think either of us can ever adequately put into words the relief we felt to be in Bali after India. Bali has an elegance of mind and heart and soul that India could only dream of. Don’t get me wrong, I love India. It’s one of my favourite countries and I miss it, but India is not easy. Bali is easy. And quiet. And peaceful. And we had a spacious hotel room in Ubud opening onto a rice field with all that vibrant green nourishing our souls.

It felt like heaven. Instantly.

We were in Bali for a month, and played tourist going to the local market,

the monkey forest, and riding an elephant. We went to galleries and a batik demonstration. One of the best things we did was climb Mt Batur for sunrise. We went snorkelling a couple of times, and of course went to the beach. Three different beaches actually. It’s the quintessential Bali activity I suppose.

We melted into the bold green of the rice terraces, stopping to eat lunch wrapped in this soft lush embrace,

returning finally at sunset.

And there were several traditional performances that had us spellbound – the Kecak Dance, the Legong Dance, and the Barong Dance, which depicts the eternal struggle between order and chaos and had us transfixed with joy and wonder.

But we were there long enough and curious enough to look a little deeper. What could we discover of this unique and enigmatic island?

This from Don: I love seeing all the women who go around the streets of Ubud carrying trays of offerings to the gods, and put down individual offerings with reverence on the sidewalks. It is a striking example of the spirituality that pervades life here in Ubud.

The best thing in Bali for us was a connection with the spiritual life of the people. It began by stumbling in our wanderings upon the preparations for what was called a Family Ceremony. In true Balinese fashion we were invited to attend. It turned out to be the ancient ritual of tooth filing, a two-day affair that we were welcomed into like family.

And then a glimpse of a wedding.

We were blessed with our guide Ketut, who on many days drove us all over the island, but especially to Batur Temple and encouraged us to enter where we were immediately reduced to tears, and seeing our tenderness invited us to participate with him and his wife as they attended their annual pilgrimage to Besakih, the mother temple.

The devotion was so palpable it transmitted itself to us, and we were swept up in it.

The difference from western spiritual practice, it seems to me, is that there is a great sense of community here, and a light-heartedness that I’ve never come across elsewhere. Everyone seemed committed to their pilgrimage and their religion, but at the same time were very relaxed – it was a holiday and Holy Day both, and families wandered around chatting and smiling, while others knelt and took part in the ritual offering and blessing. It felt sacred and like a party both at the same time.

Ketut also took us to a funeral ceremony and cremation, and showed us the ogoh-ogohs created for the Nyepi festival to ward off evil.

The Balinese do their religion and ceremony on a grand scale, big and colourful, giving it life and power. There is acceptance of the existence of the opposing forces of good and evil, and that through daily prayer and ritual, and less frequent major ceremonies like Nyepi they seem committed to doing all they can to emphasize and encourage the positive aspects of being. We got to see how committed they are. And how lighthearted.

Gentle Bali. Held in a spirituality that at once envelops and uplifts you, you too had me at hello.

Don swore he’d never go back to India, but seven months after leaving Bali we returned to India. What got us back? The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel! And this trip led us to a third place on our list of highlights, our list of all-time favourites: Varanasi. After a five-week trip around India we arrived in Varanasi and were completely gobsmacked.

Venice and Bali may have had me at hello, but you Varanasi, surreal ancient Varanasi, you had me at OMG!

Varanasi, among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is regarded as a holy city. Situated on the banks of the Ganges, a river that is worshipped as a goddess,

it feels steeped in a sense of devotion. There’s a regular chaotic Indian city, but to get to old Varanasi, primeval Varanasi, you have to walk for fifteen minutes.

On and on we went through narrow alleys, past the cows and cow poop, people, dogs and motor bikes, twisting and turning, heading down some stairs, ducking low in places, until finally we could see the river, and a kind of dirt shelf with more cows, and just a few steps lower, our hotel.

It was a unique welcome to a truly unique city.

The old town, the original city down by the river, is something else: a maze of narrow twisting alleyways that grew organically over the centuries with no thought of transportation other than by foot or donkey.

There’s a veneer of modernity – cell phones, the internet, motorbikes – but Varanasi continues in much the same way it has for thousands of years. Laundry is done by hand, food is cooked over open fires, curd is made in the same way over fires in a tiny space inside a building that has existed for hundreds of years.

All of life happens on the ghats, those concrete steps and platforms that lead down to the river. It is an endless colourful carnival filling the senses: fascinating, exciting and exotic. Praying and meditating, buying and selling, bathing bodies and washing clothes,

sacred spiritual rituals that left us with a kind of gaping puzzlement,

people just hanging out or taking an afternoon nap, families playing together, boatloads of people coming and going, goats, cows, cats, dogs, and chickens roaming freely, and the buffalo man washing his herd daily.

Sadhus, holy men, live on the ghats, in the open, studying spiritual texts, meditating, waiting to be released from the cycle of reincarnation. Each has his own spot that is his home.

Every evening a ritual is held to honour and give thanks to the goddess that came down from the sky. It is called Ganga Aarti and is such a vibrant uplifting ritual that we went three times, warmly embraced by all the Indian families gathered to witness and participate.

It is a prayer and devotion to the goddess, to the Mother Ganga, highly stylized and choreographed, like any religious ceremony that has been performed throughout the ages. Incense and candles are burned and moved in the air in stylized patterns, there is continuous live chanting and music, and bells are rung throughout.

We found the Brown Bread Bakery, which has a fabulous rooftop restaurant, and lower down a lounge where they have live music every night. We went there many times: sitting amongst the cushions on the floor listening to the best live sarod and tabla music, while eating ice-cream with chocolate sauce. All is right with the world.

The dead are burned in Varanasi. On Manikarnika Ghat. The bodies are burned in wood fires in the open for all to see. This, above all, is Varanasi’s raison d’être.

It is believed that if you die and are cremated at Manikarnika you will escape the cycle of reincarnation and go straight to Nirvana.

You are confronted with the reality of death here. There is no escaping it. I stopped many times and watched, taking in the truth of it. It was a pageant to behold, and a sacred ceremony, both at the same time.

Varanasi is extraordinary. We couldn’t have imagined it. We couldn’t have imagined what a fabulous time we would have there; every day an adventure into new sights, sounds, joyous connection, and wide-eyed wonder that such a place exists. It is India definitely, but it is also just itself, a sacred place that draws many people seeking freedom, release, and the end of suffering. That alone brings a special energy that you cannot help but be affected by.

And for us Westerners we found great food and some of the best sitar, sarod, and tabla music to be found anywhere. Varanasi you are everything!

Don and I have since been back to India twice more and have both fallen in love with it. Would we go back? In a heartbeat. Venice? Probably not. Bali? Possibly, but there are always places we’ve not been to yet that have a louder voice.

If you want a deeper dive into any of these places:
there is a post about Venice here.
Four posts about Bali.
Two posts about Varanasi.

Next post: Birds of a feather – the over-wintering flocks of Snow Geese out in the Fraser River delta. Thousands of them!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2021.