Travel

Is this the most perfect love story?

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By the medieval Old Town of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, I sat in the sun, sipping a beer on a cafe’s terrace. Behind me, a young woman sat at a small, round, white-marble table, the kind you see in European cafes, except this one was inlaid with a brown marble chessboard. She pushed around a few left-behind pieces, and then looked up. She had extraordinary blue eyes like polished gems, long jet-black hair falling in waves. I started silently figuring out how to say in French, “Would you like to play a game of chess?”

The time was June 1975, and I was hitchhiking around Switzerland and France the summer before grad school in Chicago. I had ended up in Neuchâtel that day by chance; the ride I caught was going there. The youth hostel was somewhere up the hill, but I was hot and thirsty, so I plopped down on the terrace of Café Pam-Pam.

Finally I spoke to her, asking as best I could in French if she’d like to play, pointing at the chessboard. She responded in French, “Pardon?” I tried to carefully repeat my question. She responded in English, “Perhaps we should speak English.”

Maïf, short for Marie-France, was 19 and had lived in Neuchâtel all her life. She was at the cafe, her regular after-school hangout, for a coffee, cigarette and game of pinball. She’d just finished a day of Baccalaureate exams to graduate from high school.

Over the next two days, Maïf showed me her town. We walked along cobblestone streets up to the 12th-Century castle where she’d played as a young girl with her German shepherd, Kathy. We sprawled on the grass by the lake, the white Alps in the distance. We stayed out until dawn at a low-key club where she gave me a coin for the jukebox and asked me to punch in G5 for her favourite song by George Benson. We were joined for a while by a suave older guy she knew. He clearly disliked that she was with me.

During those two days together, we never even kissed. I was smitten, but she had a boyfriend in Canada, and would soon be joining him at university to study English. I was too shy to tell her how I felt.

So I left. I stuck out my thumb again and caught rides to… somewhere that I’ve completely forgotten. Then, after a few days, I gave in and went back to Neuchâtel, back to Café Pam-Pam. Before long, here came Maïf on her little black scooter, putt-putting up the hill. After a coffee, she took me to her house around the corner, where her grandmother made us an omelette for lunch. I’d never had an omelette for lunch. We ate in the kitchen at a table that’s still there.

I stayed one more night in Neuchâtel. I still had more exploring to do before flying back to the US, and it was too painful to stay longer. We said goodbye in front of her house, and there we finally kissed, but just on each cheek as Europeans do with friends. As I turned and walked away, Maïf let out a low groaning sound. Any idiot would have turned around and gone back to her forever.

By September, I was living in Chicago, going to grad school, and Maïf was in Ontario at university. We wrote each other once. Her boyfriend had gotten otherwise involved. I called her and she said maybe she could come to Chicago soon. But when I called again a couple of weeks later, she told me she’d met someone. We lost contact. For 32 years.

After grad school, I bounced around New Zealand and Australia for a year and a half, and then moved back to Hawaii where my family had lived for three years in the ’60s.

Sometimes I would think of Maïf.

Enter the Internet and the first of a few small miracles. We found each other again only because, at about the same time, she in Geneva and I in Hawaii had both given in to persistent colleagues and reluctantly signed up for LinkedIn. When I googled her in 2007, only her LinkedIn address showed up. I sent her a message through my LinkedIn account and voilà, there we were, suddenly in touch again.

Maïf wrote me that several weeks earlier, she’d had a dream: A mysterious hooded woman was walking down a road away from her. Maïf asked where she was going. “I’m going back to Akron,” said the woman. Maïf asked, “What’s in Akron?” The woman didn’t answer.

In real life, I’d been living in Akron, Ohio, when Maïf and I met in 1975.

We learned that we were both long since divorced; that we both loved Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Vic Chesnutt; that we must see each other again

We began emailing daily, and soon Skyping. We learned that we were both long since divorced; that she had three grown children – I none; that she was in the end-stage of an eight-year relationship; that we both loved Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Vic Chesnutt; that we both liked to be teased; that we must see each other again.

She came to Hawaii for a couple of weeks. The next year I went to Geneva for three months, living with Maïf and her grown son Daniel. By then, she and I were astonished to find that not only had we found each other again after 32 years, but that we still really liked each other, liked who we had become and liked falling in love now. We agreed we’d probably have screwed it up if we’d got together when we were young. But we worried whether we might be partly falling in love with our story, and that we might be swept away by it, only to end in grey regret.

Eventually we forced ourselves to confront the truth.

We’ve been married for seven years. About six years ago, at our cottage in farmland above Neuchâtel, we received a parcel in the mail from some dear old friends of mine in Ohio. Inside was a postcard framed in glass so you could see both sides – a touristy photo of Montreux on the front and my note to them on the back.

I’d sent the card to Larry and Sandy after Neuchâtel, so maybe Montreux was where I had gone right after leaving Maïf. Thirty-four years later, Sandy had spied the card when she’d been throwing out old papers. She saw my scribbled note about my travels so far. It included this:

If I hadn’t left when I did, there would have been very difficult problems of love to solve

Marie-France, a 19 yr. old beauty with whom I spent three easy wonderful days in Neuchâtel – she’s lived in that town all her life, speaks very good English – and if I hadn’t left when I did, there would have been very difficult problems of love to solve. I know I could have fallen in love with her for a long, long time.

Of course, Maïf and I have been back to Café Pam-Pam. The first time, we saw a marble table inlaid with a chessboard. The owner said it’s the only one that’s been there. The table now sits on our terrace outside Neuchâtel, as do we, in utter amazement.

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A colossal secret in the Black Hills

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Dirty patches of snow dotted the roadside as we drove the winding route through the evergreen forests of south-western South Dakota, the van rattling despite the sedate pace. A late afternoon chill travelled through me as we reached the top, stepping out of the van and into mud that sloshed beneath our feet.

“I believe in first impressions,” my guide, Matt, said, “so don’t turn around until we get out to the wrist.”

We walked on. Around me, mountains rose and hills rolled in the afternoon light. The dense pine forest extended for miles, set against a cerulean sky that peeked out from behind slate-coloured clouds.

“Okay,” he said, “turn around.”

I turned and looked up, higher and higher, at the 87.5ft-tall face of 19th-Century Lakota leader Crazy Horse emerging from the granite slope of the mountain. His gaze extended past where I stood – on the protruding ledge that will one day become his arm – and out over the rugged Black Hills.

Both sculptures remain unfinished, but only one stands to be completed

In the Black Hills of South Dakota lie two impressive monuments to great men in American history: Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the Crazy Horse Memorial, located 17 miles apart. Both sculptures remain unfinished, but only one stands to be completed.

When Korczak Ziolkowski first arrived in South Dakota in 1939 to help carve Mount Rushmore, he had no idea that his family’s legacy would in fact unfold just a few miles away.

For years, Lakota chief Henry Standing Bear had been on a mission to see a monument to American Indians erected in the Black Hills ‒ land that the Lakota considered sacred and wrongfully taken from them. When workers began sculpting Mount Rushmore in 1927, it spurred the Lakota elders to pursue a mountain carving of their own.

“My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes also,” Standing Bear wrote to Ziolkowski at the turn of the 1940s.

The hero Standing Bear had in mind was his cousin Crazy Horse, the Oglala Lakota leader who had fought in the Great Sioux War against the US government over ownership of the Black Hills. Crazy Horse had helped defeat US Army General George Custer and his cavalry in 1876 at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in southern Montana – a battle that went down in history as Custer’s Last Stand.

Though the project resonated with Ziolkowski, he did not immediately commit. He instead returned home to Connecticut before volunteering for service in World War II, eventually participating in the invasion of Normandy and landing on Omaha Beach.

But when the war ended, Ziolkowski turned down offers to build war memorials in Europe, returning instead to the Black Hills on 3 May 1947 to begin what would be his last sculpture: that of Crazy Horse.

Standing 563ft high, the sculpture will be the largest mountain carving in the world

Standing on the outcropping that is slowly becoming an arm, I zoomed in on the granite horseshoe-shaped pupil of Crazy Horse’s left eye and snapped another photo. So far, only his face has fully materialised, but when completed, the gigantic sculpture will depict Crazy Horse, his hair streaming in the wind as he sits atop his horse pointing out over his lands. Standing 563ft high, the sculpture will be the largest mountain carving in the world. By comparison, the heads of Mount Rushmore each measure 60ft tall.

“So, how did you find us?” Matt asked.

“I came here to see this,” I replied.

“Really?” he said. “You’d be surprised how many people have no idea we’re here. They see us from the road on their way to Mount Rushmore and stop.”

I wasn’t surprised. The Crazy Horse Memorial receives roughly one third the visitors each year that Mount Rushmore does. Some of the disparity is likely due to the cost of admittance ‒ up to $28 per car as opposed to $10 parking fee at Mount Rushmore. To avoid the fate of Mount Rushmore, which was never completed after government funding dried up, Ziolkowski decided that the Crazy Horse Memorial would be privately funded by admissions and donations.

More than one person I had spoken to in diners and at rest stops en route from California had been amazed to learn of the mere existence of the enormous memorial. If anything surprised me, it was that something so immense could remain a secret.

Korczak decided that if he was going to give his life doing this, it might as well be something big

“[Korczak] decided that if [he was] going to give [his] life doing this, it might as well be something big,” explained Mike Morgan, the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation’s vice president of media, marketing and public relations, and a 40-year veteran of the project.

But the concept of ‘big’ at the Crazy Horse Memorial goes far beyond the size of the carving. It extends to the vision that Ziolkowski had from the outset.

The ever-expanding complex is home to the Indian Museum of North America, the Native American Educational & Cultural Center and the Indian University of North America. “The mountain, Dad said, was the smallest part of the whole project,” said Ziolkowski’s youngest daughter, Monique, in a televised interview last year.

Ziolkowski gave his life for the mountain, breaking bones, undergoing numerous back surgeries and suffering multiple heart attacks. He remained in charge until he died in 1982. He never saw Crazy Horse’s face emerge from the rock.

Some wondered if his passing would mark the end of the memorial, but his wife, Ruth Ziolkowski, picked up the mantle. Under her leadership, focus shifted to completing the sculpture’s face to mark the 50th anniversary of beginning the carving. Her plan succeeded; the face was unveiled in 1998.

All the Ziolkowskis’ 10 children worked on the Crazy Horse Memorial in their youth: the girls helped their mother in the visitor complex, while the boys worked on the mountain with their father. Seven of the children made the memorial their profession, and today, a third generation of Ziolkowskis keeps the family legacy bright.

After descending from the memorial, I stood in the parking lot and took one last, long look at the sculpture. I imagined a young Ziolkowski surveying the mountain beside Standing Bear. I imagined him hanging from a rope without a harness, a single can of paint in one hand, outlining the horse’s head. I imagined him walking up the 741 stairs he built to the top of the mountain in that first year, and though it never happened the way I pictured it, in my imagination his children and grandchildren followed closely behind.

The people working on Crazy Horse… they see the vision and they’re interested in being involved with something that’s bigger than themselves

“This place defies explanation,” Morgan said. “The people working on Crazy Horse… they see the vision and they’re interested in being involved with something that’s bigger than themselves.”

Towards the end of our conversation Morgan’s voice grew a shade quieter, a touch more nostalgic. “I don’t think I’ll see it completed,” he said, pausing for a moment as if to let the words settle. “But you might.”

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A bubbly more esteemed than Champagne?

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The first thing I noticed when I visited the Italian region of Franciacorta was the dense fog that enveloped its vineyards. I could barely make out the medieval crypt just a few metres away where people were gathered to taste the niche sparkling wine produced here. I kept asking myself: how can all this dampness and fog make such a great fizzy wine?

But that’s precisely why.

Franciacorta is Italy’s most unspoiled, elite wine paradise. Forget overrated, mass-produced Prosecco – and even Champagne. This heavenly patch of fertile land, 30km northwest of Brescia, makes a bubbly that’s perhaps even more prestigious than the iconic French drop.

In Franciacorta, the grapes are hand-picked, and there’s a higher concentration of them in each bottle. Even the yeast ageing takes longer than for Champagne, a minimum 18 months for non-vintage bottles (versus Champagne’s 15 months) to a minimum of five years (versus Champagne’s three years) for vintage bottles called Riserva, the ones you keep for very special occasions.

This heavenly patch of fertile land makes a bubbly that’s perhaps even more prestigious than the iconic French drop

But the secret of those tiny, driest bubbles of brut, of the silky white satèn (a term exclusive to Franciacorta bubbly) or of the region’s sweeter rosé, lies in the prehistoric origin of the soil.

The vineyards grow inside a fertile, amphitheatre-shaped valley that’s closed in by the Alps on one side and by Lake Iseo on the other. A silicious, extinct glacier once covered the whole area, out of which precious minerals are still abundant. When the glacier retreated during the last Ice Age, it left behind huge balls of peat and rock debris, fossilized over millennia, that resemble shards of fallen meteorites.

As I crossed Le Torbiere, a beautiful wetland area near the lake, I could see glacier fossil remains. Trying to keep my feet out of the muddy swamp, I looked up and saw Monte Orfano (Orphan Mount), a solitary mountain jutting out of the plain that’s shaped like a huge Panettone cake. It stands like a sentinel overlooking the vineyards, acting as a natural shield from the bitter winds blowing from the 3,000m-tall Alps and keeping the temperatures above freezing. This environment allows the grapes to ‘breathe’, ultimately enhancing the aroma of the sparkling wines. The tamed breeze – along with the accompanying fog and mist – helps nourish the vines.

Inhaling the pristine air, I descended into the underground world where Franciacorta’s bubbly is made and nurtured. Today, around 116 wine makers, united in a consortium that guarantees production standards, stack their bottles down here, where the cool temperature acts as a natural refrigerator.

Marco Pellizzari, a local hotelier and wine cellar owner, guided me through the subterranean rooms of his hotel, which was once a 16th-Century convent. A deep, ancient well, once used by nuns to collect water, has been turned into a vertical wine cellar that houses his collection of more than 800 bottles. Above my head were the ruins of an ancient Roman temple.

The Romans were the first to plant rudimental vineyards in the region in the 1st Century, but the real craft of growing grapes and producing elite wine was passed down by monks, through generations, to local aristocrats, middle class families and farmers alike.

The monks had come from France, where there was already a strong wine-making tradition, and descended into this Italian valley along with Charlemagne. They drained the marsh in Franciacorta, planted vineyards across the region and taught locals how to handpick the grapes with care. In exchange for their hard work transforming the swamp into agricultural use, the monks were granted tax breaks by Brescia’s church authorities. This is where Franciacorta’s ancient name stems from: Franzia Curta, a free-tax monastic court.

Local wine makers would supply their sparkling wines – then considered the best in Italy – to the courts of Renaissance lords who ruled over Italy’s many city-states. In the 15th and 16th Centuries, Franciacorta’s most desired drops were the ‘Ruby of Corte Franca’, a sparkling red produced in the town of Paratico, and the ‘Mordace’, which translates as ‘ready to bite’ due to its tingling bubbles that made it ideal for a post-dinner digestif.

Dante Alighieri was also drawn to these famous wines. When the great Italian poet was exiled in 1311 from his beloved Florence for taking sides in the war between opposing pro-Pope factions, he roamed across Italy for 10 years, seeking patronage and hospitality at the courts of different Renaissance lords. His travels eventually took him to Franciacorta, where he became a guest of the Lantieri earls at Paratico Castle, now a ruin.

“Far away from home, all he had was our good wine to cheer him up and quench the thirst of his imaginative wisdom,” said Fabio Lantieri, a descendant of Dante’s hosts, who still runs the old aristocratic wine estate and likes to treat guests to a glass of his bubbly.

Whenever you sip a glass of Franciacorta, you’ll be doing more than just drinking a sparkling wine

Here, Dante passed the time meditating on his life, walking amid the vines and taking in the views of Lake Iseo with its solitary island, Montisola, jutting out of the dark waters like the hill of Purgatory. The foggy, nine-terraced vineyards of the estate inspired the nine concentric circles of hell and nine spheres of paradise in the poet’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy.

It seems that the sparkling wine not only served to make Dante’s exile more endurable, but flowed into his blood and nourished his art. Because whenever you sip a glass of Franciacorta, you’ll be doing more than just drinking a sparkling wine ­– you’ll be savouring the essence of the argillaceous earth itself.

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If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

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A secret bubbly better than Champagne?

E4y.net

The first thing I noticed when I visited the Italian region of Franciacorta was the dense fog that enveloped its vineyards. I could barely make out the medieval crypt just a few metres away where people were gathered to taste the niche sparkling wine produced here. I kept asking myself: how can all this dampness and fog make such a great fizzy wine?

But that’s precisely why.

Franciacorta is Italy’s most unspoiled, elite wine paradise. Forget overrated, mass-produced Prosecco – and even Champagne. This heavenly patch of fertile land, 30km northwest of Brescia, makes a bubbly that’s perhaps even more prestigious than the iconic French drop.

In Franciacorta, the grapes are hand-picked, and there’s a higher concentration of them in each bottle. Even the yeast ageing takes longer than for Champagne, a minimum 18 months for non-vintage bottles (versus Champagne’s 15 months) to a minimum of five years (versus Champagne’s three years) for vintage bottles called Riserva, the ones you keep for very special occasions.

This heavenly patch of fertile land makes a bubbly that’s perhaps even more prestigious than the iconic French drop

But the secret of those tiny, driest bubbles of brut, of the silky white satèn (a term exclusive to Franciacorta bubbly) or of the region’s sweeter rosé, lies in the prehistoric origin of the soil.

The vineyards grow inside a fertile, amphitheatre-shaped valley that’s closed in by the Alps on one side and by Lake Iseo on the other. A silicious, extinct glacier once covered the whole area, out of which precious minerals are still abundant. When the glacier retreated during the last Ice Age, it left behind huge balls of peat and rock debris, fossilized over millennia, that resemble shards of fallen meteorites.

As I crossed Le Torbiere, a beautiful wetland area near the lake, I could see glacier fossil remains. Trying to keep my feet out of the muddy swamp, I looked up and saw Monte Orfano (Orphan Mount), a solitary mountain jutting out of the plain that’s shaped like a huge Panettone cake. It stands like a sentinel overlooking the vineyards, acting as a natural shield from the bitter winds blowing from the 3,000m-tall Alps and keeping the temperatures above freezing. This environment allows the grapes to ‘breathe’, ultimately enhancing the aroma of the sparkling wines. The tamed breeze – along with the accompanying fog and mist – helps nourish the vines.

Inhaling the pristine air, I descended into the underground world where Franciacorta’s bubbly is made and nurtured. Today, around 116 wine makers, united in a consortium that guarantees production standards, stack their bottles down here, where the cool temperature acts as a natural refrigerator.

Marco Pellizzari, a local hotelier and wine cellar owner, guided me through the subterranean rooms of his hotel, which was once a 16th-Century convent. A deep, ancient well, once used by nuns to collect water, has been turned into a vertical wine cellar that houses his collection of more than 800 bottles. Above my head were the ruins of an ancient Roman temple.

The Romans were the first to plant rudimental vineyards in the region in the 1st Century, but the real craft of growing grapes and producing elite wine was passed down by monks, through generations, to local aristocrats, middle class families and farmers alike.

The monks had come from France, where there was already a strong wine-making tradition, and descended into this Italian valley along with Charlemagne. They drained the marsh in Franciacorta, planted vineyards across the region and taught locals how to handpick the grapes with care. In exchange for their hard work transforming the swamp into agricultural use, the monks were granted tax breaks by Brescia’s church authorities. This is where Franciacorta’s ancient name stems from: Franzia Curta, a free-tax monastic court.

Local wine makers would supply their sparkling wines – then considered the best in Italy – to the courts of Renaissance lords who ruled over Italy’s many city-states. In the 15th and 16th Centuries, Franciacorta’s most desired drops were the ‘Ruby of Corte Franca’, a sparkling red produced in the town of Paratico, and the ‘Mordace’, which translates as ‘ready to bite’ due to its tingling bubbles that made it ideal for a post-dinner digestif.

Dante Alighieri was also drawn to these famous wines. When the great Italian poet was exiled in 1311 from his beloved Florence for taking sides in the war between opposing pro-Pope factions, he roamed across Italy for 10 years, seeking patronage and hospitality at the courts of different Renaissance lords. His travels eventually took him to Franciacorta, where he became a guest of the Lantieri earls at Paratico Castle, now a ruin.

“Far away from home, all he had was our good wine to cheer him up and quench the thirst of his imaginative wisdom,” said Fabio Lantieri, a descendant of Dante’s hosts, who still runs the old aristocratic wine estate and likes to treat guests to a glass of his bubbly.

Whenever you sip a glass of Franciacorta, you’ll be doing more than just drinking a sparkling wine

Here, Dante passed the time meditating on his life, walking amid the vines and taking in the views of Lake Iseo with its solitary island, Montisola, jutting out of the dark waters like the hill of Purgatory. The foggy, nine-terraced vineyards of the estate inspired the nine concentric circles of hell and nine spheres of paradise in the poet’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy.

It seems that the sparkling wine not only served to make Dante’s exile more endurable, but flowed into his blood and nourished his art. Because whenever you sip a glass of Franciacorta, you’ll be doing more than just drinking a sparkling wine ­– you’ll be savouring the essence of the argillaceous earth itself.

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If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

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A village with a curious addiction

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The green paint on the walls of Marottichal’s village teashop had started to flake, like coin scrapings on a scratch card, exposing a light blue tone of a bygone era. Perhaps this was once a rowdy bar or beer shop. But not anymore.

Mr Unnikrishnan, the teashop’s owner, sat opposite me at one of the wooden tables, his dark eyes fixated on the chequered board that lay between us with an intimidating intensity.

A callous hand rose and elegantly gripped the white bishop, sliding it gently into the black knight and toppling it over.

“He’s got you now,” said the spectating Baby John, slurping his chai to suppress a grin.

I surveyed the bleak scene unfolding before me. My few remaining pieces were backed into a corner, eager to surrender.

Around the teashop’s four other tables similar intense battles of wits were being fought, while a dust-coated Videocon television set languished on a shelf at the back of the room, unplugged and ignored.

Resorting to distraction, I poked a petrified pawn one square forward and asked Unnikrishnan why this game resonates so much with the people of Marottichal, a remote forest village in northern Kerala.

On a chess board you are fighting, as we are also fighting the hardships in our daily life

“Chess helps us overcome difficulties and sufferings,” said Unnikrishnan, taking my queen. “On a chess board you are fighting, as we are also fighting the hardships in our daily life.”

With a feigned bravado I took one of Unnikrishnan’s isolated pawns.

“And is it really that popular?” I asked.

Unnikrishnan shot me a wry smile. “Come, you can see for yourself,” he said, rising from the table.

I looked down to find my king cowering, surrounded by a murderous mob of white plastic pieces.

I guessed that was checkmate.

It was mid-morning and Marottichal’s tree-lined main street was busy, yet oddly quiet. The forest breeze didn’t carry the vexatious shrill of traffic horns – the deafening symphony of most Indian towns – but instead silently stirred the strips of bright bunting zigzagging overhead.

The bus stop opposite Unnikrishnan’s teashop was full of people, but no-one seemed to be going anywhere. Instead, the gathered crowd were squatted on their haunches, watching an intense chess match play out between two greying gentlemen. The men sat cross-legged and barefoot, their lungis (sarongs) taut across their thighs.

I soon spotted the bus a short distance away, though it carried no passengers; the engine was off, and the driver had turned from the wheel to contest a quick chess match with the conductor before the start of their next shift.

Friends on pavements, spouses on benches, colleagues over shop countertops; the black-and-white board perforated every scene. Around the corner from the teashop on the veranda of Unnikrishnan’s own home, reportedly one of the village’s most popular gaming spots, no fewer than three matches were taking place.

“In other Indian villages perhaps the maximum number of people that know chess is less than 50,” said Baby John, president of the Chess Association of Marottichal. “Here 4,000 of the 6,000 population are playing chess, almost daily.”

“And it is all thanks to this wonderful man,” he added, gesturing to Unnikrishnan.

Fifty years ago, Marottichal was a very different place. Like many villages in northern Kerala, alcoholism and illicit gambling were rife among its small population. Having developed a zeal for chess while living in the nearby town of Kallur, Unnikrishnan moved back to his afflicted hometown and opened his teashop, where he began teaching customers to play chess as a healthier way to pass the time.

Here 4,000 of the 6,000 population are playing chess, almost daily

Miraculously, the game’s popularity flourished while drinking and gambling declined. The village’s enthusiasm for the ancient pastime, which is believed to have originated in India in the 6th Century, has now become so great that Unnikrishnan estimates one person in every Marottichal household knows how to play.

“Luckily for us chess is more addictive than alcohol,” Baby John said.

Not only did the archaic game scupper alcoholism and supersede clandestine card games, but it has engrained itself into Marottichal’s identity, and, according to Baby John, it continues to protect the town’s residents from modern pitfalls.

“Chess improves concentration, builds character and creates community,” he said. “We don’t watch television here; we play chess and talk to each other.”

Chess improves concentration, builds character and creates community

“Even the kids?” I asked.

Unnikrishnan shot me another wry smile.

It was lunchtime when we arrived at Marottichal Primary School, a cluster of blue walls and orange-tiled roofs, to find the dusty courtyard awash with frenzied children, like a startled flock of pigeons in a public square.

But through the fray of bodies, I could see a row of children seated serenely at a line of tables.

We approached the nearest pair, who were perched at a discoloured bench with a chess board between them. Vithun and Eldho, both 12 years old, sported matching tufts of black hair and shared a tangible enthusiasm for chess – with a fervid admiration for one piece in particular.

“The knight is the best,” Vithun said.

“Definitely,” Eldho replied.

“It’s the most powerful.”

“You can move it in any direction!”

In a country undergoing rapid digitalisation, fanning wide-spread fears about Indian youth becoming disconnected from their country and culture, it was strange to hear two children talk so enthusiastically about a 1,000-year-old board game that’s interwoven into India’s history. Surely they would prefer to be watching television, I wondered out loud.

“Chess is best!” shouted Eldho as he sprung from his seat, almost toppling the board. Vithum scowled at him.

“Last year we came to the school with 15 chess boards and invited the children to learn chess,” Baby John explained as we fought our way back through the courtyard. “The following week we went back and all the children in the classroom had bought chess boards of their own.”

The positive response from the students, paired with their belief in the sanative qualities of the game, has led the Chess Association of Marottichal to request that the authorities include chess as part of the official school syllabus. This, they believe, will aid their vision of living in a village where everyone plays chess.

“Only then can we truly call ourselves a chess village,” Baby John concluded, explaining that he believes the title will cement Marottichal’s association to the much-loved sport and its edifying principles.

The wholesome lifestyle promoted by the village is seemingly attractive to Keralites, indicated by the remote area’s growing population despite relatively high land prices. The village has also lured visitors from as far away as Germany and the US keen to learn the game or hone their skills.

But despite this, as we trudged back to the teashop a lingering doubt gnawed at me: would a community centred on an ancient board game be able to withstand the rapid wave of modernisation sweeping across the Indian subcontinent?

My fears were heightened when we neared a group of teenagers tapping away on their smartphones, a sight that prompted me to voice these concerns to Unnikrishnan and Baby John.

But as we drew closer, the three of us could see what was commanding the group’s undivided attention: they were all playing chess online.

Unnikrishnan gave me one last smile.

I guessed that was checkmate.

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The ultimate culinary showdown

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The series RSVP Abroad drops our host in a foreign city with nothing (and no one) to help her complete her challenge: Throw an authentic, intimate dinner party that even the fussiest of locals will deem cool. Through a combination of social media suggestions and local tips from, well, anyone that will help her, our host must source authentic dishes, drinks, music, decor, a dinner table – and, of course, new friends to fill it.

(Video credit: Above York)

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Asia’s most multicultural city?

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With its 26 million people, Delhi has been described as a microcosm of India, with trappings from the country’s many cultures, religions and traditions. Centuries of global trade, conquest and colonisation have made the city one of the world’s most multicultural. And residents who adapt to this ever-changing culture are embraced as fellow ‘Dilliwalas’ – the term residents often call themselves, originating from the phase ‘Dillwalo ki Dilli’, the place where the people with big hearts live.

This diversity makes it easy to find your own niche. “Delhi’s vibes are a lot like the aroma of a nice coffee shop,” said Nishchal Dua from New Delhi, a territory within larger Delhi and capital of India. “You can smell multiple things the moment you enter and it’s entirely up you to pick the one you like.”

Delhi’s vibes are a lot like the aroma of a nice coffee shop – you can smell multiple things the moment you enter and it’s entirely up you to pick the one you like

The city is the country’s political and fashion capital, giving it a vibe that evokes a blend of New York City with Washington DC, according to Anjhula Mya Singh Bais who lived in New Delhi for six years. That does mean it can be a little harder to assimilate in than in other Indian cities though. “Delhi is more about who you are, where you come from, what you are wearing or driving, so it takes time to break in,” she said.

Despite its diversity, Delhiites young and old unite over one thing: the love of a good party. Weddings here last from five to 10 days and can have as many as 1,000 guests attending the events, parties and traditional ceremonies. While weddings around the country tend to be multi-day affairs, Delhi has gained a reputation for having as many as 60,000 weddings on a single auspicious date. And weddings have grown so extravagant that lawmakers have even put forward bills to curb excessive spending. “It’s not unusual to see the groom coming to the wedding in a helicopter on D-Day,” Dua said. “I’m not kidding, my father is a pilot.”

With more than a million weddings in the city every year, these extravagant and loud parties make up a huge part of residents’ social life, but a younger, more Western scene also exists in the many clubs and restaurants. The city has a longstanding foodie culture, with diverse flavours and new spots opening up all the time. Bais suggests The Social in Hauz Khas Village, a collaborative workspace complete with cocktails; prohibition-style bar Public Affair; or European-inspired Civil House restaurant in Khan Market.

Where do you want to live?

Expats tend to congregate in the southern side of Delhi, especially in the neighbouring city of Gurgaon (30km south-west of New Delhi), where many of the multinational businesses are located.

South Delhi, a large district within Delhi, is also considered a higher end place to live. Vasant Vihar is home to many embassies, while Golf Links (next to the Delhi Golf Club) and nearby Lodhi Road are also all considered prestigious parts of the neighbourhood.

“If you’re not one of the lucky people with an office right next to where you want to spend your free time, decide whether you want to be stuck in traffic every day to get to the office, or in the evenings and weekends getting to social activities,” advised Linn Back, an InterNations Ambassador originally from a small town in Sweden. “I choose the latter, which is why I live in Gurgaon about 15 to 40 minutes away from my office depending on traffic, but means I’ll be stuck in traffic for at least an hour to get to a Friday night party.”

Where can you travel?

Delhi is so large it is well worth exploring on its own merits. Old Delhi in particular has retained much of its history, including 350-year-old Chandni Chowk market. “Walking to the oldest markets, mosque and temples, you experience how Delhi was 100 years back,” said Komal Darira, a Delhi native and local guide for Intrepid Travel.

Walking to the oldest markets, mosque and temples, you experience how Delhi was 100 years back

While the Taj Mahal is 240km south of Delhi, the same architect’s work can be seen in Old Delhi’s Red Fort, constructed in 1639 as the residence of the Mughal dynasty emperors. Delhi also has a number of green spaces and impressive temples, like the 90-acre Lodhi Gardens and the 100-acre Akshardham complex, with a 42m-high mandir (a Hindu temple) at its centre.

The state of Rajasthan is 300km to the south-west, for those looking to explore the ‘Pink City’ of Jaipur (named for its pastel-painted avenues) or Udaipur’s extravagant, lakeside palaces. The state of Himachal Pradesh, gateway to the Himalayas, is 300km to the north. The resort town of Manali is a popular jumping-off point for skiing, climbing and rafting.

Flights to other Indian cities are frequent and affordable. Mumbai, Delhi’s ‘rival’ city, is a two-hour flight to the south-west, and coastal Goa is just a bit further for those looking for nature and beaches.

The rest of Asia is also easily accessible. “Asia is quite a distance from Sweden, but all of a sudden Hong Kong, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur are places I can go over the weekend,” Back said.

Is it affordable?

Recently ranked 124 of 133 cities in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Cost of Living index, Delhi is much more affordable than most major cities. Housing is about 80% cheaper than a similar place in New York City, according to price comparison site Expatistan.com, while transportation and entertainment are also about 70% less expensive in Delhi.

That said, real estate can be much more expensive than other Indian cities, with rent in Delhi as much as 50% higher than a similar place in Hyderabad or Kolkata, according to Expatistan. Expenses tend to vary by lifestyle, with expats often spending nearly twice as much per month as locals, which can include hiring drivers and other domestic help.

But it’s easy to save elsewhere. “Cooking at home is inexpensive, and eating out at local places is cheap too,” said Pravin Tamang, general manager of Intrepid Travel in India and 16-year resident of the city, adding that the city offers food, fashion and lifestyle perks to keep up with every taste and need. “Delhi caters to everyone,” he said.

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The lady who finds beauty in weeds

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If you were walking past her, you would think Frédérique Soulard was scrawling random words on the pavement. On closer inspection, her use of a little white arrow gives the game away.

The words she writes are the names of the little scrawny plants or weeds growing out of the cracks in the ground, the ones that most of us ignore, even step on. It is a way for her to combine her love of words and storytelling with her herbalist knowledge and upbringing – and her desire to keep history and the seemingly insignificant alive.

“Giving a name to things makes them exist,” Soulard said.

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Soulard traverses the streets of the French city of Nantes (and other neighbouring cities), a jar of her special paint in hand and a group of budding botanists in tow. She is theatrical and eclectic, pulling faces and dancing with the zeal of someone three times younger. Her free show, Belles de Bitume, which translates to ‘beauties of the tarmac’, is part guided tour, part performance art.

Giving a name to things makes them exist.

She stops and points at an unassuming green and yellow sprig emerging from the crevice between a wall and the pavement. After she announces its name in French, her followers bend down and paint the word on the ground. She slowly spells the name for the followers who aren’t native French speakers.

“Some words keep the same meaning in each country, others don’t,” she explained. “The dandelion ‒ pissenlit or dent de lion in French ‒ is well named, in reference of its indented leaves that remind us of lions’ teeth. It has the same name in Spanish: diente de león. In English, it’s called a dandelion, so it’s a translation of the music of the word, not its meaning.”

Born in Paris, Soulard moved to Nantes with her two sisters when she was 25 to work in her grandmother’s herb shop. When her grandmother died in 1998, Soulard left to study theatre in Paris. But her interest in botany never waned.

When she returned to Nantes in 2001, Soulard wanted to find a way to combine her love of storytelling with her interest in plant life. “I saw all these little plants, and I thought, ‘I should write the name’,” she explained.

It took more than a decade for Soulard to craft her artistic proposal and receive approval from the Nantes government. When she launched Belles de Bitume in 2014, photos of her neat handwriting quickly went viral.

Today, Soulard is somewhat of a local celebrity, but her goal has not changed. “I would like to make the audience happy and curious to know more about plants,” she said.

So next time you see tufts of green emerging from cracks in the pavement, think of Soulard – and take a closer look.

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