• Panna

    Burning bright again

    Tigers are back in Panna, and how! (Published in the special Wildlife issue of Outlook Traveller in October. Click on the image to read the story in pdf form. Photographs

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  • Brick Lane

    The East Enders

    “Now this is the site where the body of Jack the Ripper’s fifth victim was found,” declares Emily, my guide at the Eating London food tour. That gets our complete

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  • Poppies

    Remains of the day

    Among the stories at the ‘Voices of the First World War’ exhibition at the Brighton Museum, is that of Subedar Manta Singh, who served with the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs. Manta,

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  • Temple

    Ringing in the new

    On any given Friday evening, Mylapore is at its festive best. Men dressed in white dhotis (unstitched cotton garments knotted at the waist and allowed to fall free), with thick

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  • Hanging on

    Losing the fear of flying

    I had never thought I would find myself 65 metres above the ground, hanging on for dear life. And doing this of my own volition. I am not the particularly

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  • Remarkable Rocks

    Roos of the game

    I so want the life Tim Williams has. He drives people around Kangaroo Island, showing them the local colour that comes in the shape of kangaroos and koalas, seals and

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  • The Lunchbox1

    Food for thought

    “Food is music to the body; music is food to the heart,” Gregory David Roberts wrote in Shantaram, his 2003 novel commended by many for its vivid portrayal of life

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  • Yodelers

    The Swiss Sound of Music

    Matthias Ammann puts his hands into his pockets, smiles at us, and yodels effortlessly. Of course he would. He has been yodeling since the age other children learn to gurgle

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  • Tiramisu

    Roman banquet

    My food walk in Rome begins with a near death-by-dessert experience. It is a balmy summer morning and our small group has met in front of a bar in Testaccio.

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  • Ghent3

    Footloose in Flanders

    If Eat, Pray, Love was a town, it would be Bruges. So pretty, so picture postcard that some guidebooks have described it as touristy and a tad fake. Our guide

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7 must dos in Cologne

1. Spend time at the Cologne Cathedral

domThe Cathedral, or Dom, is the single biggest attraction of Cologne – and rightly so. It is an imposing structure that dominates the skyline, starting from the minute you step off the railway station. Although the foundation stone for this imposing cathedral was laid in 1248, it was finally completed – to the shape we see it in today – only in 1880. The stained glass windows inside are stunning, especially the modern interpretation towards the left side of the altar.

The Dom was also destroyed during World War II bombings and had to be extensively restored.

Cathedral

2. Ramble by the Rhine

One of the best things you can do in Cologne is take long walks by the river. In the evenings, the pubs and cafes by the side start to fill up and the whole area comes to life, with both locals and tourists heading here. That apart, the riverside is a pleasant walk, with lots of trees and old buildings lining one side of the promenade. In certain seasons, it is also possible to do boat rides on the river.

Rhine1

Rhine2

3. Explore the old city

The old city, known as Aldstadt, is the area behind the Dom and the Rhine walking path – it is a maze of narrow, cobble-stones lanes filled with charming houses and pubs. The best way is to start from the Cathedral and make your way without a map or a plan. During World War II, almost 75% of the old town was destroyed and what you see now has been rebuilt and restored with great care. If possible, go on a guided walking tour of the area, to get into its rich history, especially from the Roman times.

aldstadt1

aldstadt2

4. Visit the museums

For such a small city, Cologne has a wealth of museums – start with the one that this city is known for, Eau de Cologne. The Farina fragrance museum takes you through the history of this evergreen perfume, through guided tours. Museum Ludwig is another great place to spend a few hours, with its wide collection of modern art mainly from the 20th century. The museum, houses in a quirkily shaped building near the Dom, has the largest collection of pop art outside the USA. Another favourite among visitors is the Chocolate Museum on one end of the Rhine promenade. It is fascinating tour into the history of chocolate, and includes tasting tours.

Farina

museum

5. Drink Kolsch beer

kolschYou cannot leave Cologne without a few glasses of Kolsch, the local beer. The words Kolsch itself means “Of Cologne” or refers to the local dialect. It is a pale brew with a mild taste, served in tall, thin glasses. For the best experience, it is to be had in one of the original Brauhaus (brewhouses) in the city. I had mine at the centuries old Peters Brauhaus, with its ancient wood panelling and dark interiors.

In Cologne, the tradition is that the waiters keep coming up with refills the minute your glass is empty. When you are finally done for the evening, and cannot take in one more sip, you place the coaster on top of the glass.

brauhaus

6. Shop for cologne

colognePick up some Eau de Cologne (which literally means “the water of Cologne”) to take back home as gifts (and for yourself). Many shops sell this perfume in many forms, but you are better off buying the original Farina Cologne at the Farina House (museum), which also has a small retail area. The other popular brand is 4711, to be bought at the 4711 House close to the Opera House.

If you are looking for small boutiques and designer stores, then head to the shopping area of Schildergasse, a pedestrianised street that attracts thousands of shoppers each day.

7. Participate in the Carnival

Finally, the most anticipated event of every year – the Cologne Carnival (read my earlier posts on the Carnival: 1, 2). Although the Carnival season officially starts in November, the one week before the starting of Lent is the most boisterous. This is the time for costumed parades with music and dance, and candy and flowers thrown out to spectators. These are known as the Crazy Days, with specific days set aside for women, children, local associations and so on.

carnival

Call of the wild

Sitting on the terrace of the homestay in Corbett, shivering slightly in the crisp Kumaoni air, we glanced through the photographs from our evening in the forest. I realised then that I had shot an entire series on the tiger cub, which was the highlight of that safari, perhaps the whole trip. One of the images caught our attention: the cub licking his lips, a pensive glint in his eye.

At that moment, I recalled a joke from a long time ago. Question: “What did the tiger cub say when it saw us on the jeep?” Answer: “Meals on wheels.”

tigercub

It was all very well to joke about it then, as I warmed my hands in the bonfire, far away from the dark depths of the forest. Cut to a few hours earlier in the evening. As the tiger cub kept advancing towards our jeep, it was all I could do to keep my hold on the camera. Don’t think for a minute that cub meant a small, helpless animal. This tiger kid, less than 18 months old, was almost as big as his mother.

Shaky fingers. Dry throat. A frisson of fear mixed with the excitement.

This tiger sighting came after a long, tiring ride in the forest, where we saw more jeeps than animals. At one point, our driver Jalees, with his experience of over twelve years in this forest, stopped on a path where he sensed tiger movement. Within minutes, a dozen other jeeps had pulled up next to ours – the jungle drum system of communication is very efficient – in a buzz of eager eyes, animated whispers and cameras with bazooka lenses.

As if to herald her presence in the area, the tigress roared, the sound reverberating in an air already thick with anticipation. A rustle in the dry bushes, a flash of tawny stripes and she was gone. This was the elusive Sharmilee, recent mother of two and queen of Corbett’s Bijrani Zone. True to her name, Sharmilee played hide and seek with us for a while, and finally bored of it all, vanished into the wilderness.

Apart from a few sporadic alarm calls from the deer, Bijrani stayed silent for the rest of the evening. The big sighting came without any warning – no alarm calls of sambar deer, no pug marks – on our way out of the forest. We turned a bend and there he was, Sharmilee’s son, walking towards us. My mind could not process this at first: wow, is that a really large deer?

The cub stopped in front of our jeep with a thoughtful look (possibly the aforementioned joke running through his mind). And so we stood, facing each other for over ten minutes. Here is when I learned, there is no winning a staring contest with a tiger. In fact, there is just no meeting eyes with a tiger. Yellow, cold, menacing. But I am not complaining; this was my best tiger sighting in all my forays into Indian forests.

tiger

Corbett is India’s first National Park, set up in 1936, and initially named after the local Governor Malcolm Hailey. It was renamed later in honour of Jim Corbett, fearless slayer of man-eaters and ardent conservationist (called “Carpet Sahib” by locals). Corbett’s other claim to fame is that it was the first tiger reserve to be brought under Project Tiger in 1973.

Although not considered the best place for tiger spotting (punters who equate wildlife with tigers are better off at Ranthambhore or Bandhavgarh), Corbett compensates with a large population of tuskers and hundreds of avian species. With the Ramganga river flowing through the National Park and the striking grasslands which often grow tall enough to hide the elephants, it is also one of the most beautiful forest landscapes in India.

landscape

fauna

We were staying at The Ranger’s Lodge, a quiet homestay between the Bijrani and Jhirna zones, right along the periphery of the forest. Our host, Imran Khan, is a dedicated naturalist and a Corbett veteran, who accompanied us on every safari. I am forever grateful to Imran for introducing me to the joys of bird watching. It started right from my first morning at his home, where dozens of birds gathered for a summit meeting in his garden, each on his preferred perch.

By my second safari, the morning after the up close and personal encounter with the big cat, I had begun to keep my sights trained on the trees and not the ground. Of course, I was still privately calling them “small yellow bird” and “ugly fat thingy” but Imran was supremely patient and pointed out the details that would help me identify them (hopefully, some day): white eyebrows, red throat, curved beak and so on.

birds

The morning was bone-numbingly cold, the mist swirling above the tall grass and rendering the forest grey and languid. The only excitement came in the form of a large herd of elephants crossing the road right in front of us, the babies scrambling behind the adults in a purposeful (and slightly frightened) manner. After that, for a long time, the forest stayed still, all forms of life waiting for the chill to abate.

elephants

Slowly, as the sun peeked out, all the usual suspects emerged – chital, sambar, langur, peacocks – and some of the not so usual too, including wild boar and jackals. And I loved the way bird names rolled off my tongue: brahminy starling, white-throated bushchat, great Indian hornbill, coppersmith barbet. Of course, I was repeating the names after Imran, but by then I was well hooked into this birding business.

If our Corbett safaris began with a rendezvous with a tiger, they ended with a confrontation with a tusker. It was my first (and not a happy one, I can assure you) incident of being almost assaulted by an elephant. “Mock charge,” Imran said smugly. “He is trying to scare us away.” Oh well, he succeeded. We waited in a patient “leave or let leave” policy but this rogue had decided to block our path and kept charging at an alarming pace each time we tried to move ahead. I don’t think Jalees, in all his years of driving inside Corbett National Park, had reversed at such speed.

tusker

And so we spent a good half hour playing mind games with a wily elephant. Again, after getting out of it safe and sane, I could boast about it being a fascinating experience. Back at Imran’s home, my husband and I felt like heroes returning from a gruelling battle, relating tales of our wild conquests (with the camera) to an enthralled audience.

Exploring Agra with Padhaaro

A few months ago, I was invited by the people at Padhaaro to enjoy a local experience with them in any of the cities they offer their travel experiences in. Padhaaro is an interesting enterprise, offering customised and offbeat tours in different cities, seen through the eyes of a local (expert). This way, you get to see the side of a city that you may otherwise miss, or not even be aware of.

Right now, they have local “greeters” in 18 Indian cities. And I chose Agra during my December trip. In Agra, there is a choice of activities, from viewing the Taj Mahal along with a local, to exploring Agra on a bicycle, to food tours. We had the unique and extremely fun experience of exploring old Agra in a battery powered rickshaw. Our guide was Amit Sisodia, who came with years of experience in the travel trade in Agra.

libraryAnd so we set off, on Sunday morning, in the super dense fog. We took the rickshaw to a main spot and then walked our way through the crowded markets and narrow lanes. Agra, to most travellers, is about the Taj Mahal. And to the more adventurous, or those with more time on their hands, it is also about the lesser monuments like Agra Fort and Itimad Ud Daula. But on this tour, I came to discover the rich multicultural history of Agra, starting with Dara Shikoh’s library from the mid 17th century. This red sandstone building used to be a centre for scholarship and studies during Shah Jahan’s time, under the patronage of Aurangzeb’s brother.

We then went on to wander through the old markets of Agra and had a pitstop at Jami Masjid. I really enjoyed the fact that I was able to interact with locals and find some great photo ops. We stopped to admire old, exquisite buildings all along the way, with interesting inputs from Amit.

Masjid

people

buildings

We then found ourselves at some old churches – the most fascinating of them called Akbar’s Church. After that, a Roman Catholic Cemetery, filled with memories and whispers from centuries ago.

church

cemetery

puriAmit then took us to a small eatery for a brunch of the Agra special bhedei aloo and jalebi, before dropping us back to the hotel. In all, it was a great morning, with an experience of Agra that my husband and I will cherish. Although I knew in a vague manner that there was a thriving old part of the city, I would have never been able to discover it on my own. So I am thankful to Padhaaro for helping me discover this.

The next time you are in any of these cities, go ahead and given yourself an unforgettable Padhaaro experience.

Friday photo: Kathakali

Kathakali means a story (katha) told in the form of a play (kali). A mix of classical and folk dance forms, Kathakali is originally from the Malabar region of Kerala and goes back to the seventeenth century. Everything in Kathakali is exaggerated and larger-than-life – the music, the make up and the gestures – and the desired effect is sheer drama.

Read more about this fascinating arts form here – A story in dance (especially the bit about make up)

kathakali

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Also see: Fridy photo series

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