A new Facebook page

So, what’s new on Itchy Feet? A brand new Facebook page, that’s what – https://www.facebook.com/travelswithcharu

Facebook

After years of resisting – how many places in social media can I manage – I finally succumbed to the pressure and set up this page. And now to find interesting content for it on a regular basis (apart from just my own writings, yawn). And more importantly, find people to “like” the page (right now, it feels like an orphan).

And here, dear friends and kind readers, is where you come in. Have you seen the page yet? If you have been a longtime reader of this blog, or just an occasional lurker, or even a one-time visitor who has strayed here through a keyword search, do check out the page and show your liking for it.

Please head there now and make the page a much-liked one, before I lose heart and decide to shut it down. Thank you!

A bit of trivia on the mysteries of social media: I obviously wanted to call my page ‘Itchy Feet’ to maintain consistency across my social media spaces – but Facebook refused it as being inappropriate. Ah, well.

Kaziranga Chronicles

Woken up at an ungodly hour in the morning by a shrieking alarm clock, I shivered in the icy winter air of Northeast India. My mind entirely focused on the warm bed that stretched out invitingly, I wondered aloud why were we going out into the cold morning in search of the rhinoceros, of all things. And then I remembered – was reminded by the husband actually – that we had travelled across the country, all the way to Kaziranga in Assam, just for a glimpse of these animals in the wild.

The one-horned rhinoceros once thrived across the flat plains of north and northeast India, but uncontrolled poaching has left it endangered, almost at the brink of extinction. Today, the best (and possibly only) place in the country to spot the Indian rhino is the Kaziranga National Park, just a few hours drive from Guwahati.

This forest had been on our travel list for years, but somehow every time we planned a wildlife holiday, it was the siren song of the tiger in the Indian heartlands that prevailed. This holiday, we had set aside sufficient time for this pursuit, after which we were to make our way across other parts of the state. Funnily enough, this forest is also officially known as the Kaziranga Tiger Reserve, although the hero here is undoubtedly these thick-skinned mammals that have survived several rounds of evolution that eliminated other weaker species.

A grey mist hung low in the air as we drove up to the Bagori Gate of the Western Range in the semi darkness. There was already a large crowd waiting at the watch tower from where the elephant safari begins; a scene of utter noise and chaos despite everyone holding prior bookings for a specified time. “I hope we don’t end up sharing this safari with people who think it is fun to play music in the forest and yelp at the sight of animals,” I muttered wearily, thinking of the bane of wildlife enthusiasts who go out regularly into the Indian jungles.

Fortunately for us, we had a quiet morning in the forest, with birdsong as the only background noise. Kaziranga is not really a dense forest in the way of those of central India, but almost entirely flat. While the grasslands make it the perfect habitat for the rhino, it also sometimes grows tall enough to hide the entire animal. Luckily, the grass was still short and dry in parts when we visited, making it easy to spot the animal even from a distance. And we were anyway on elephant back, which meant both a vantage point of view as well as access into the grasses and marshes where jeeps cannot go.

Crossing the shallow stretch of water a few minutes into the safari, I turned back to capture a picture postcard moment; half a dozen elephants silhouetted against the golden rising sun. Up ahead, there was a minor commotion, with all the mahouts guiding their elephants towards the cluster of bushes, a sure sign that a rhino had been spotted.

As it turned out, it was not one but three rhinos grazing peacefully, ignoring the admiring crowds with great aplomb. Eager tourists around us were urging their mahouts to get closer and closer, but nothing seemed to faze the trio. There was a tree in full bloom right behind them, and for a moment, framed against the pretty pink flowers, it was almost possible to think of the rhinos as beautiful animals. And then one of them turned around to show his back to us, and the spell was broken.

The rest of the safari was a vain search for more of these mammoths, with the mahout claiming that we had been lucky, since sightings had been low this season. By the end of it, I was lulled into sleep by the gently rocking motion of the elephant. Unlike the thrill of the tiger chase, where every moment holds a possibility, and every animal noise sounds like an alarm call of the deer, this safari was a mellow and slow affair, with enough time to admire the stunning landscape, bounded by the mighty Brahmaputra river.

It was only on the way back to the guesthouse that I noticed how the roads were lined with lush tea estates, from where Assam tea was possibly exported to the world. The sun was up and workers had already begun their tasks for the day, wicker baskets hanging on their backs, into which the tea leaves went steadily. The plan was to head to the village of Panbari, a few kilometres away, for a glimpse into rural life in this part of the country.

On the way, we stopped for a quick look into the CWRC (Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation) campus to see the way injured animals, including elephants and rhinos, are given medical care. Over the last 14 years, CWRC has treated over 3500 cases of animals (over 230 species, they say) in various kinds of distress. The sight of a baby rhino being given milk through a feeding bottle was particularly endearing, one that left me smiling for the rest of the morning.

After lunch at a local home in Panbari, we headed back to the forest for an afternoon safari, this time on a jeep from the Central Gate at Kohora. This ride was an exercise in bounty, where we spotted over 25 rhinos in the course of two hours. “This rarely happens,” our driver Uttam exclaimed, adding, “sometimes tourists have even asked me for a refund because we did not come across any rhinos!”

In our case, we saw them solitary and in small groups all along the route, resting, grazing, taking a dip in the cool water. And right at the end, when the sun was about to set, and I had put away my camera, we had our best sighting for the day; a mother and kid rhino frolicking together in the grass, the adult making mock charges with the horn pointing at the little one. “Madam, this is a lucky day for me also,” Uttam smiled warmly, as he dropped us back at the main gate.

Kaziranga has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1985, one of the seven natural sites in India, the continued status of which is dependent on the conservation activity in the park. This forest has an interesting history, from the time Mary Curzon, wife of the then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, returned disappointed from the Kaziranga area without sighting a single rhino in 1904. As a result, she urged her husband towards rhino conservation, thus leading to the formal creation of this forest spread over 232 square kilometres in 1905.

It was only seven decades later, in 1974 that it was extended to cover 430 square kilometers, and given protected National Park status. It somehow feels fitting that over a century after Lady Curzon’s visit, British Royalty, in the form of Prince William and Princess Kate chose to visit the far-flung forest of Kaziranga, listening to stories of wildlife conservation efforts in the area.

Whenever we head to the forests, the husband and I keep our eyes peeled for not just the big fauna but also the smaller ones that form a significant part of the ecosystem, and the birds. This time, however, the attention was all on the one-horned rhino, which graced us with its presence several times in the day. May its tribe increase!

***
Published in the Weekend supplement of Khaleej Times in May as ‘In search of the one-horned rhinoceros’

5 best traditional breakfast places in Bangalore

Unlike many other Indian cities where breakfast is a grab and run affair, Bangalore has made it an art form. Meet up with friends, sit down together, order a crisp dosa and begin the important business of discussing the world. Wash it all down with piping hot filter kapi. That is what Bangalore breakfast is al about.

And here are my suggestions on the best places in Bangalore to do this:

MTR

This is most definitely the first among equals in Bangalore, more an institution than a restaurant, in business since 1924. There is a whisper in the air that most people go for a morning walk in Lalbagh gardens purely for the pleasure of being able to have breakfast later at the MTR opposite its main gates. MTR (Mavalli Tiffin Rooms) is also credited with inventing the now famous rava idli during wartime, when rice was a scarce commodity. When in Bangalore, make it a point to visit the original or one of its many branches scattered across the city.

Must have: khara bhath, a unique Bangalore twist to the upma and masala dosa, crisp, soaked in ghee and folded into a neat triangle.

Vidyarthi Bhavan

Another old Bangalore favourite, Vidyarthi Bhavan is the king of masala dosa since 1943. Go there on a Saturday morning after an exploration of Gandhi Bazaar (where it is located), for slice of local life in Bangalore. It was initially meant as a mess for students and bachelors living in that old part of Bangalore, and even now radiates that laidback vibe. Waiters whizz around with plates of masala dosa (it is assumed this is what you are ordering, although other options like upma and idli are available) stacked up on their hand, like so many flying saucers. Dip into the coconut chutney (no sambhar here please) and tuck into this brown goodness. There are those who will argue that the masala dosa at CTR (Central Tiffin Room) in Malleswaram is better. And this battle is one that will never end in Bangalore.

Must have: Definitely the masala dosa

Airlines Hotel

Bangalore’s version of the adda, Airlines is a small open-air restaurant (for want of a better word) just off Lavelle Road, in the heart of town. And what other city is better suited for al fresco dining in India anyway? This place is busy at any time of the day, and especially so on weekends and weekday evenings. There is a ‘No Smoking’ notice hidden away in one corner, but locals insouciantly puff on its face. Like many Bangalore institutions, getting the attention of waiters here too is an art form. But, again like the others, who goes there only to eat?

Must have: upma (the original white rava upma, unlike the more famous tangy khara bhath)

New Krishna Bhavan

NKB, as it is known, is tucked away in a quiet street near Mantri Mall and is where the uncles of Malleswaram meet every morning for an unhurried gossip session. In existence since 1954, NKB is famous for its “Unusuals” listed on the blackboard daily, like the green masala idlis; ignore the startling green colour and tuck into these mildly spiced capsicum masala mini idlis. NKB also serves delectable Karnataka specials like neer dosa and ragi dosa – and it is one of the few Bangalore places that has got its sambhar right.

Must have: green masala idli, Udupi bun, ragi dosa

Koshy’s

Everyone in Bangalore has been to Koshy’s at least once, various assorted websites call it the ‘pride of Bangalore’, youtube videos sing its praises and Wikipedia claims that dignitaries like Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Nikita Khrushchev and Queen Elizabeth II have dined there. Koshy’s is a popular restaurant and hangout on St Mark’s Road, Bangalore, which has long been a meeting point for journalists, artists, theatre persons, students and foreigners. Founded in 1940, it retains an old-world charm with huge pillars and large fans. Koshy’s is where first time visitors are taken when they want to be shown the real Bangalore, it is also where locals head when they want to catch up over a cuppa and appams with stew on a Sunday morning.

Must have: bacon / mutton omelette, various types of toast

Liechtenstein: a photoessay from one of the world’s tiniest and prettiest capital cities

Lonely Planet calls it a pipsqueak of a country. I don’t think Liechtenstein is the sort of country that would take offence. It it super tiny, it is super rich, and it is picturesque beyond belief, nestled (some would say hidden) right in the middle of Switzerland and Austria.

In fact, this country is so small that is it is easy to miss it on a map or even on a road trip through that part of Europe – you can drive from one end to the other in an hour and so, and not realise that you have drive through another country. The scenery still remains utterly Swiss – clean, green and alpine – with a few medieval castles perched whimsically on top of mountains and edge of cliffs.

Liechtenstein was – and has never been – on my radar, even when I was right next to it, in Switzerland. It just happened that I had a free evening in the old town of Chur and Vaduz came up as a place to visit. And why not? Not just a new city – but a whole new country in a single evening! So, after a couple of bus changes and a journey through postcard pretty landscape, we were in Vaduz, the landlocked capital of Liechtenstein.

True to its reputation for tininess, there is one main road – we walked up and down that high street lined with cute boutiques, kitschy souvenir shops and al fresco cafes several times and finally fetched up in front of the tourism office.

There is one thing – no, two things really – to be said for this city: the utter cheekiness and quirkiness on display all around (see the pictures below), and the fact for such an itty-bitty town, there were half a dozen museums catering to all kinds of interests.

Unfortunately, the museums were shut as was the main castle (or on the verge of closing) by the time we reached. And anyway, I was not in the mood for culture – more like gelato on that hot summer afternoon, and so after some creamy stracciatella ice cream and a fridge magnet for a souvenir, we made our way back to Chur.

A note about the magnet: I fell in love with this country a bit more after seeing the self-effacing humour on the magnet – who wouldn’t? I have to admit that I didn’t know how to spell or pronounce the country’s name till I actually visited it (and I am still not sure I can do it without sneakily checking it online).

And locals are probably aware that this is true for almost every single visitor, and have decided to take it in their stride, and even make a tourist souvenir out of it, tongue firmly in cheek.

A new and thoroughly delightful country discovered. What can be a better way to spend a spare evening in Europe?

Read more about Liechtenstein on their official tourism site

In love with Lucerne

It is still bright and sunny when I head out for an early dinner at seven in the evening. My handy phone map shows the restaurant is just around the corner from where I am staying in Lucerne. So I stroll out of the doors of my charming ‘Romantik’ hotel – as many of the country’s old, boutique properties are known – with just enough time to get there. Big mistake.

The sight of Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) bathed in the warm glow of the Lucerne evening is spellbinding, stopping me in my tracks. It is certainly not the first time I am seeing this picturesque covered wooden bridge – Europe’s oldest, built in 1365 – across the River Reuss. With the octagonal Wasserturm (Water Tower) seeming to prop it up towards one end, the Kapellbrücke is indeed one of Lucerne’s landmarks, quietly connecting the new and old parts of town.

But as I said, this time is special: the mellow spring sunshine makes the wild flowers everywhere seem cheerier, the swans gliding by on the river more content, the clang of church bells from somewhere far away full of hope, and above all, the tourists (like me) fall in love with Lucerne just a bit more.

There can be no doubt that in a country filled with blockbuster vistas and experiences, Lucerne is a quiet charmer.

With all those photo stops, I arrive a few minutes late for dinner, but despite being sticklers for punctuality themselves, the Swiss are a friendly and forgiving lot. Sitting by the water at the Des Balances restaurant, housed in a 13th century building in the AltStadt (Old Town), I watch dusk fall slowly upon Lucerne, sweeping its ancient buildings in a stunning palette of oranges and purples.

Even as the town hovers between day and night, it continues to buzz with an incredible energy that is impossible to resist. The liveliest places at this time of the day are the plazas in the Altstadt, each of them throbbing with al fresco cafés and bars located between the older buildings with their brightly painted façades, and the numerous water fountains that once acted as social hubs for the local women.

Not surprisingly, Lucerne (also Luzern) is still referred to as the ‘city of light,’ a rough translation of its old name of Luciaria (dating back to the mid 9th century). Thanks to its location in central Switzerland, right on Lake Lucerne and River Reuss, and its proximity to tourist attractions like Mount Pilatus and Mount Titlis, Lucerne remains a perennial favourite among visitors.

The next morning, I set out for an excursion to the “dragon mountain” of Pilatus, so known for its many local legends of fire-breathing dragons that once roamed these craggy peaks. Being in proud possession of a first-class Swiss Travel Pass, I decide to go for the complete experience, which begins with a cruise from Lucerne to the tiny village of Alpnachstad.

For an hour, we float pass postcard pretty villages and low hills covered in mist, finally pulling up at the place where the jaunt on the world’s steepest cogwheel train begins. The journey here on this train ride up to Mount Pilatus is truly as much fun as the destination, as the gentle, green slopes fall behind, and rugged cliffs with dark tunnels take their place.

The top of Mount Pilatus – on the northernmost branch of the Alps – is shrouded in a thick layer of cloud when I reach, the sun playing hide and seek for the next couple of hours. In those rare moments when it does manage to make a bid for freedom, I can barely make out the fuzzy outlines of a couple of neighbouring mountains (over 70 alpine peaks are visible on a clear day), and down the valley on one side, with Lake Lucerne glimmering at a distance.

The sound of an alphorn suddenly breaks into the peaceful silence. This music is as primeval and profound as the mountains themselves, and the old man playing it is as much of a tourist attraction as the viewpoints on top.

The return to Lucerne is by a different route and mode; first the aerial cableway to Fräkmüntegg and then the panorama gondola down to the village of Kriens, from where I take the bus for the last leg of the journey back into town. In the winter months, when the cogwheel railway is not functional, this is the only access to Pilatus.

Back in the Lucerne twilight, I pick up a gelato and settle down for a spot of people-watching by the lake. A sudden flash of light in the horizon catches my eye; is it a bolt of lightning, or are the dragons up and about for the evening? In Lucerne, it is impossible to tell.

TRAVEL

Fly SWISS from Mumbai into Zurich, from where Lucerne is an hour away by train. Buy the Swiss Travel Pass that allows unlimited access on trains and buses, as well as free entry to museums.

STAY

The Wilden Mann is a charming and friendly midtown hotel, located in a 500 year old building.

Friday photo: Israeli cuisine

I am just back from a week in Israel, having travelled through Haifa, Akko and Tiberias in the north, Jerusalem a its very heart and Tel Aviv on the West Coast and briefly floated on the Dead Sea. It is easily on the most fascinating countries I have ever encountered – the proverbial melting pot of cultures and religions…

And as a vegetarian, the food was to swoon over – hummus, falalfel, tahina, tabouleh, bourkea, shahshuka, baklava and halva… Of course, most of it has origins elsewhere in the region and has now been enfolded into Israeli cuisine, which is what makes the food so interesting and inclusive.

In fact, Israeli cuisine seems to be the flavour of the season, as these two stories in Mic and BBC seem to indicate – read them at your leisure…

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