• 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

    Read more »
  • 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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Vote on Kerala Blog Express

So, if you have been reading this blog all along (and if not, why not?)… Or if you have just wandered here after a chance search on google… Here is the perfect chance to show some blog love.

I am participating in the Kerala Blog Express contest, where 25 bloggers from all over the world get to go to Kerala for two weeks. If I go, I will fill this blog with words and images of god’s own greens and blues. Think about it.

You just need to click on this link to vote. I know you will do it. So, thank you in anticipation!

KeralaExpress

The link will also stay up on the sidebar for the next few weeks. Now is the time for all good men and women to come to my support.

This winter, take a walk

This winter, discover India on foot: lose yourself in its narrow lanes, bargain at local markets, drink chai at street stalls and talk to locals.

Customised walking tours are now a major attraction in many big cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Varanasi and Bengaluru. And, these are no random strolls around the old town but are carefully planned around specific themes, ranging from jewellery to history to street food. Here are some of our top picks:

HYDERABAD

1. Geology tour
What: Rock Walks
Who: Society to Save Rocks

The Deccan Plateau consists of spectacular grey granite rocks, which geologists believe go back 2,500 million years, when Earth’s crust first solidified. Go on a rock walk to understand the stories and structures behind the formations that dot Hyderabad’s landscape. These take place on the third Sunday of every month.

SaveRocks

2. Biryani trail
What: Biryani Detour
Who: Detours India

Once considered a dish only for the Nizams, the cornerstone of Hyderabadi cuisine has assimilated a variety of regional and foreign influences over time. On The Biryani Detour, explore the hidden hubs of this historic dish and find out what makes Hyderabadi biryani different from other versions. Make no plans for later, because you’ll be too full to do anything but nap.

Also consider: The Arts and Crafts Detour, which takes you into the sumptuous world of the Old City’s gold, pearls and diamonds.

BENGALURU

1. Nature trail
What: Green Heritage Walk
Who: Bangalore Walks

Bengaluru is commonly known as the garden city of India, with parks such as Lalbagh and Cubbon Park contributing greatly to its green heritage. The Green Heritage Walk is a lovely Sunday morning stroll through Lalbagh Botanical Gardens with historian and naturalist Vijay Thiruvady. Lalbagh is home to ancient trees and over 50 species of migratory birds. The walk begins at 7.30am and ends with breakfast at MTR, another Bengaluru institution.

2. Neighbourhood stroll
What: Parichay Walks
Who: INTACH Bangalore

Bengaluru remains a small city at heart, made up of several cloistered neighbourhoods such as Malleswaram, Jayanagar, Basavangudi and Shivaji Nagar. Each of these used to be home to a specific regional or religious community, and still has a unique character. The Parichay walks by the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage are a great way to get to know these areas and what makes them special. From flower markets to forts and palaces, temples to mosques and churches, they help you discover the city.

CHENNAI

1. Jewellery jaunt
What: Jewellery Trail
Who: Story Trails

Gems and jewellery have always been close to Indian hearts, and Chennai is known for producing exquisite ornaments. The Jewellery Trail takes you through the lanes of Mylapore, one of Chennai’s oldest neighbourhoods, into the workshops where these beautiful pieces are handcrafted. Understand the history of gold and precious gemstones, listen to legends and myths about jewellery on this dazzling tour.

Also consider: Mystic Trail, which decodes the mysticism and superstition that are woven into the fabric of everyday Indian life.

Jewellery Trail

2. Photography walk
Who: Chennai Photowalk

Stroll through the streets with likeminded photographers who exchange notes about their experience of the walk and the shooting process. The Sunday Photowalk happens twice every month on Sunday mornings and is conducted by a group leader. The route changes as per the theme, which could be anything: history, food, architecture, gardens and so on.

KOLKATA

1. Culture trail
What: Confluence of Cultures
Who: Calcutta Walks

Kolkata is a city of many cultures, indelibly influenced by the various communities, including the Chinese, Parsis, Armenians, Anglo Indians and Marwaris, once calling it home. Peek into the lifestyles, art, architecture and cuisine of these communities with Confluence of Cultures, and learn what makes the city a real melting pot.

Also consider: Bringing the Goddess to Earth, a walk centred on Kolkata’s lifeline, the Hooghly River. See what life is like for those who depend on this river, from the fresh flower-sellers to the clay idol-makers of Kumartuli.

Confluence of Cultures

2. Ramble through the Raj
What: Dalhousie Square
Who: Let’s Meet Up Tours

With this Heritage Walk, you can follow in the footsteps of the British, starting from the ‘White Town’ developed by the East India Company. This walk combines an exploration of stately Raj-era buildings with a boat ride on the Hooghly.

DELHI

1. Purani Dilli
What: Jama Masjid and lanes of Old Delhi
Who: Delhi Heritage Walks

The imposing monuments that tell a thousand stories, the rich aromas of sizzling jalebis and parathas—Old Delhi lends itself remarkably to detailed exploration. Do the Jama Masjid and the Lanes of Old Delhi: walk down the narrow lanes around the 17th-century mosque and climb up the towers for excellent views of the old city. Make sure you stop regularly for the deep-fried good stuff.

Also consider: Hauz Khas, a maze of gorgeous ruins that was once a reservoir for the royals.

Delhi heritage walk

2. Wedding walk
What: Wedding market tour
Who: Masterji Kee Haveli

Created in the 17th century by Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahan Ara, Chandni Chowk is still the capital’s go-to shopping zone during wedding season, with everything you need available, from card-printing to jewellery to bridal lehengas. With the Wedding Market Tour, you can explore the bustling lanes of Kinari Bazaar and Dariba Kalan, and see what it takes to create that beautiful traditional wedding.

Masterji kee haveli

MUMBAI

1. Book tour
What: Bookworming
Who: Beyond Bombay

Mumbai has been the backdrop for some of the greatest literature about India, and for good reason: the city is populated with some of the most colourful characters you can hope to meet. With Bookworming, explore the city as Maximum City writer Suketu Mehta did, by following in the footsteps of a character from the book, Babbanji Bihari, a Bihari immigrant who moves to Mumbai in search of a better life. Or you could do a Shantaram tour, based on Gregory David Roberts’s bestselling novel, which will take you through the hidden lanes of this charming, chaotic city.

Also consider: Thali Tripping, an eating tour that includes classic Irani cafés and hole-in-the-wall idli joints (Mumbai has them all!). And, if you have the stomach space, also take in legends such as Chetana and Golden Star serving Gujarati thalis, complete with aamras in season.

Thali tripping

2. Art beat
What: Art Walk at Kala Ghoda
Who: Mumbai Magic

The stately buildings of South Mumbai are among the British Raj’s greatest legacies, and the area is littered with cultural hotspots and lovely art galleries and shops. Join the Art Walk at Kala Ghoda and enjoy a peaceful stroll through the art precinct of Kala Ghoda, named after the black horse of King Edward VII. This is a great introduction to Indian art, past and present.

VARANASI

1. By the Ganga
What: Varanasi Ganges Walk
Who: Vedic Walks

In Varanasi, there is no getting away from the Ganga; the river is at the centre of all aspects of life. With the Varanasi Ganges Walk, feel like a local as you chance upon hidden corners of the city. Tread through the bylanes and ghats, chat with local boatmen and watch the daily aarti on the banks of the river. And save time to buy some stunning Benarasi saris.

Vedic walks

2. Walk through tradition
What: Northern bazaars and hidden alleys
Who: Varanasi Walks

You’ll feel like you’re walking into another time in this ancient, holy city that is still deeply rooted in its past. Escape the chaos of the central ghats with the Northern Bazaars and Hidden Alleys tour, and explore secret passageways to the city’s holiest and oldest sites.

Also consider: Walking the Bengali Tola, which takes you around the streets inhabited by the Bengali community and their cultural landmarks.

***
Published in Conde Nast Traveller on December 03, 2014 – read it online here… (all images attributed to the respective walk organiser)

Hotels I love: Kanha Earth Lodge

I recently had a chance to spend a few days in Kanha, where I stayed at the Kanha Earth Lodge. Think of a small boutique resort right in the middle of a forest. Add to it the comfort of a home away from home. Throw in warm service, smiling faces and great food. And there you have Kanha Earth Lodge.

This is one of the nicest places I have ever stayed in during my travels. Here are my ten reasons why you should choose Kanha Earth Lodge when you go to Kanha National Park.

1. Getting to the lodge

Your Kanha adventure begins from the time you turned off the main highway from Jabalpur into the forest road towards the resort. It is an unforgettable experience, driving through the thickets, with barely some signs of civilisation on the way. You drive on and on inside what seems like a forest in itself, then a sudden sharp turn, and there you are.

2. Being part of the environment

The lodge is part of Pugdundee Safaris and has won several awards for its eco-friendliness and unique stone architecture. One quick tour of the property and it is easy to see why. There are only twelve cottages in all, six set on either side of the main common area, in a mild curve. The of the lodge is entirely in harmony with the environment, and feels seamlessly connected to the wilderness around. Don’t be surprised if you see a snake on your way to the cottage or hear the cries of a wild animal from far away. They also work closely with locals, training and employing them at the lodge or procuring food supplies from them when possible.

way to cottage

3. Eco-friendly cottages

Each cottage is warm and beautiful in its simplicity. I loved the smart use of earth and wood, offset by the warm reds and oranges of the furnishings. The outside is brought into the room in many ways: the verandah at the back that opens out to the bushes, the shower area with a skylight and just the general sense of being surrounded by greenery.

By the bed

Lounge

Reading nook

4. Friendly staff

Here, there are smiling faces all around, from the first welcome with a cold drink and hot towels, to the help in planning your stay so you get the best experience. And then there are the little thoughtful touches like hot water bottles in bed and in the jeep for morning safaris, that really enhance the “home away from home” feeling.

5. Warm and inviting common spaces

This is possibly one of my favourite things about the lodge and one reason I would strongly recommend it. The common spaces are beautifully designed and furnished, with several interesting curios with a local theme, and several indoor activities for adults and kids. When I was not out on a safari or walk, I was torn between sitting in my room with a book and heading to the common area to find people to talk to.

Common dining space

Social space

Bonfire

6. A chance to make friends

The common spaces are created in a way that encourages (and sometimes, subtly forces) socialising with other guests. For instance, the dining are has a long table where all guests set together at mealtimes. Here the conversation flows easily, travel stories are shared, common interests and acquaintances are discovered. Then there is the bonfire at night, where guests meet and swap their wildlife tales from the day. I made a few friends here and enjoyed sharing my jeep with them during my safaris into the forest. Kanha Earth Lodge is a great place to meet likeminded people, especially keen photographers and travel enthusiasts.

7. Superb, sinful meals

EggsactlyThe food here is absolutely delicious, the kind that will make you forget all about diets (but hey, you are on holiday). It starts at breakfast (assuming you have not headed out to the jungle really early), with a wide spread, from alu parathas and achar, homemade peanut butter and fresh muesli. Apart from the taste, the lovely thing is the way dinners are served at different locations each evening – right in the middle of the bush, by the pool and on the morning of my departure, in the open verandah under the mild early winter sunlight.

Breakfast

8. The perfect base for safaris

The area around the lodge is part of the buffer zone of the Kanha forest and offers plenty of opportunities for excellent birdwatching and chance animal sightings. Naturalists from the lodge take you on exploratory walks or birding rambles into the buffer zone.

9. A slice of village life

I went for a local mela and walked into village homes to see their traditional way of life. This was the annual Kartik Purnima mela, held a few kilometres from the lodge, across the river, which I crossed on foot. Otherwise, there are regular weekly markets that make for great excursions, especially if you want a break from the forest drives.

10. Leave your urban worries behind

You don’t have a choice: you leave behind all thoughts of mobile phone signals and internet connections at the highway. And when work, in its own annoying way, interrupted even this wilderness experience, I managed to find a phone connection (tip: if you plan to travel into the interiors of India, go BSNL) and quick email access at the main office.

No rhyme or reason

I had not been in Limerick for an hour before someone mentioned Angela’s Ashes. The most famous book to come out of this city is the depressing story of a poor, dank, Catholic Limerick from the 1940s. And I had gone there, fully expecting to feel as dejected as I did when I first read it as an unsuspecting teenager.

Instead what I found on its streets was this signboard:

The Limerick is furtive and mean;
You must keep her in close quarantine,
Or she sneaks up to the slums,
And promptly becomes,
Disorderly, drunk and obscene.

This could easily be a description of the current mood of the city too: fun, boisterous, and ready to become drunk and disorderly at the wee drop of a Guinness. Add to it the words young and prosperous, and you will know why I was happy to be there that spring evening.

This is Limerick’s year in the limelight, chosen to be Ireland’s first homegrown Capital of Culture. And from everything I have seen in the past, European Capital of Culture cities preen endlessly and go on public relations rampages.

Limerick, on the other hand, sits quietly, refusing to take any of it seriously. And I mean it in the best possible way. At an informal press meet, CEO of this project Mike Fitzpatrick was asked about how Limerick was chosen. And Mike, also director of the Limerick School of Art and Design – cue long hair and twinkling eyes – said, “Oh, there was some talk of an Irish Capital of Culture and we put our hands up, and here we are.”

For all that nonchalance, they have their eyes set firmly on the larger target: European Capital of Culture for 2020. Mike and his team have put together hundreds of events and exhibitions through the year, some extending into the next. In early September, the Royal de Luxe came to Limerick for a three day-and-night romp through the streets. The world’s largest street theatre company arrived with a float – The Giant’s Journey – telling the story of an Irish Grandmother Giant.

The Giants Journey
(image courtesy: Limerick City of Culture website)

My favourite event though, which happened over the weekend I spent in the city, was the Culture and Chips Carnival. You tell me, how can you not adore a city that equates fried potatoes with culture? And creates an event around it during what is possibly one of the most significant years in its modern history.

So the Salon Perdu, a massive circus style European mirror tent (Spiegeltent) was set up in the heart of Limerick. For almost a century now, these tents have been used as travelling dance and entertainment halls. Marlene Dietrich has performed there and Marilyn Monroe loved it. And history may – or more likely, may not – say that I have eaten there. For, that evening, I joined a few hundred other people at a formal dinner hosted at the Spiegeltent. Think beet chips with goat cheese, beef chips and mushroom toast, crafts beers and local wines. The dinner ended with music provided by local rock bands, which lasted into the wee hours of the morning.

Salon Perdu

Spiegeltent

Over that weekend, Lema Murphy emerged chip champ at the World Chip Championships, with her triple cooked chips with a baked bean and bacon sauce, served with a deep fried egg yolk on the side. And judges spoke of seeking participants with a passion for the potato. As I said, my kind of place.

But the Capital of Culture project is not just about food. There is a lot of investment in art, on the streets and in the city museums. The EVA International Project, Ireland’s Biennale of contemporary art, has this time around been brought under the umbrella of the Capital of Culture. The theme, not surprising for Ireland perhaps, given its recent violent history, is Agitationism. There are installations everywhere, in traditional venues such as the Limerick City Gallery of Art and in quirky spaces such as a former milk plant.

So there was total cultural immersion, walking among these installations, in a somewhat bemused manner (modern art being modern art). Then we were taken on a whirlwind tour through the fabulous Hunt Museum, one of Ireland’s largest private collections of art and antiques. And at St. John’s Castle, I amused myself posing for photographs behind heavy duty armour suits – hail fellow, helmet – and playing interactive video games, all in the name of understanding 800 years of Limerick’s dramatic past. Before you judge me, remember, there is only so much culture anyone can imbibe in one morning.

Later that afternoon, there was the incident of what came to be known in our group as Twice Backwards On The Shannon. This Limerick story practically wrote itself as I stepped out of the Shannon river, adrenalin pumping, fingers shaking, bodysuit dripping. My maiden kayaking adventure and I found myself going backwards on the rapids (ok, in hindsight, they were not that rapid but hey) not once but twice. The second time was when I saw that my fellow kayakers, bloody showoffs who had likely been doing this all their lives, had smoothly got themselves to the shore. And I let down my guard, happy in the thought that one more box in my long list called ‘adventure activities’ was marked, never to have to be repeated.

Just when I started paddling towards the bank – and the inviting warmth of our team leader Dave’s van parked there – I felt myself being pulled back by the strong currents. Not a good time to remember everything we had discussed earlier in the day: that the Shannon is Ireland’s longest river, not far from the Atlantic Ocean and that at low tide, the currents get rather rough. To cut a long story short, Dave had to pull me ashore and to my acute embarrassment, has documented it all on his nifty camera.

Kayaking

This is not to say I hated it all. After the initial ten minutes of sheer terror, I found myself relaxing and waving a cheery hullo to the swans gliding by my kayak, perhaps attracted by the bright green colour. I even seem to remember a brief spell of time when I was fearless enough to let Dave – bless his patient heart – out of my sight. And co-kayakers say (although like Aamir Khan in Ghajini, I have no memory of it now, since there exist no tattoos, or photos of the moment), I even let go of my paddle and played a ball game with the gang once.

There is something to be said about seeing a city from the water; not from the comfort of a cushioned seat, as a guide drones on about the buildings you cross but wedged tight in a canoe, paddling on for dear life. Medieval castles and bridges loom large in the horizon, making you feel very small and strangely excited.

St Johns Castle

However, of all the Capital of Culture events, the one I cherished was the choral festival called Limerick Sings at St. Mary’s Cathedral. The 12th century Cathedral is the oldest living building in town, used for both daily church service and community events such as this choir festival. During my quick visit earlier in the day, it was a quiet and dignified place of worship with stunning stained glass windows and ornate chandeliers.

Come evening, as locals and tourists together headed there, the Cathedral turned into a spectacular venue, with the chandeliers lit up and the voices of the choir singers soaring into the tall ceilings. And you know the best part? Beginning with the devout Lassus Scholars, soon joined by spiritual musician Nóirín Ní Riain, who glided in through the aisles playing what seemed like a small Indian harmonium, and then the choir groups all the way from Minnesota, they all seemed like they were having great fun.

Cathedral

Limerick Sings
(image courtesy: Tourism Ireland)

Limerick today is a big University town and there are crowds of young people everywhere – on the streets, in the outdoor cafés and in the pubs. And as you would expect from any young self-respecting Irish person, they are drinking beer. There’s nothing left of the impoverished, miserable city that McCourt wrote of; Angela’s ashes have long been scattered into the wind. And there is no better time to be in Limerick.

Limerick

THE INFORMATION

Getting there: Fly Jet Airways or Etihad out of Mumbai (Rs. 33,000) or Delhi (Rs. 35,000) to Dublin via Abu Dhabi. You can take a coach from Dublin Airport to Limerick (more frequent services from downtown; 3hrs; about 200km; from €10; dublincoach.ie), or take the frequent 747 bus to Heuston Station to board a train to the Limerick Junction (from €14.99; irishrail.ie).

Visa: Visa for travel to The Republic of Ireland is processed in seven working days (Rs. 5,000 for single entry and Rs. 8,300 for multiple entry; 022-67866033, vfs-ireland.co.in). Holders of a valid short term visa for UK don’t need a separate visa for travel to Ireland although the Irish Short Stay Visa Waiver Programme requires they travel first to the UK for immigration check. This programme doesn’t amount to a common UK and Irish visa regime (and the possession of an Irish visa does not allow travellers to enter the UK). Travel to Northern Ireland is governed by additional regulations. The British- Irish Visa Scheme, expected to become effective from December 2014, will allow visitors from China and India to travel to Ireland and UK on a single visa, though they would have to travel first to the country that issued the visa.

Stay: The Savoy is Limerick’s best address, located in the middle of the shopping district and within walking distance of all attractions; rooms from €109.

Trivia: The name Limerick has nothing to do with the poem with the format AABBA but derives from the Gaelic word Luimneach meaning ‘bare ground.’ However, there is a theory that the poetry form got its name due to its popularity in Irish bars and public houses many centuries ago.

***
An edited version of this story was published in the November issue of Outlook Traveller – read it online here

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