The sound of Salzburg

SoM

The Sound of Music is the kind of film that defies both superlative and age. Starring the inimitable Julie Andrews, the movie won five Academy Awards back in 1966, and to this day, remains the third highest grosser in Hollywood. It turns 50 this year, and clearly, nobody is immune from its charm, not even Lady Gaga, whose medley of four songs from the movie stole the show at the Academy Awards this year.

Every year, over 300,000 tourists head to Salzburg, where the film was shot, just to follow its trail. Locals say they have never understood what the fuss was all about, but, they have learnt to take it in their stride, some of them even making a living out of it, with conducted tours, cute memorabilia and stage performances.

SoM1

Exactly 50 years after The Sound of Music the the silver screen, its charm remains undiminished. In honour of this anniversary, I wrote a piece for Conde Nast Traveller India. Read the rest of the story here

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.

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

The perfect Sikkim itinerary

The small northeastern state of Sikkim was once rightly dubbed ‘the hidden kingdom’ after a book (1971) by the same name by Alice Kandell. The mighty Kanchenjunga, considered a benevolent protector, dominates the region, making itself visible from various points within the state. Take a tour around the highlights of Sikkim.

Begin at Gangtok

What to do

Walk up and down the pedestrian-only MG Road, stopping for hot momos and chowmein at one of the various cafés on the street.

MG Road

Make a day trip to Tsomgo lake (called Changu by locals), located in the middle of snow-covered mountains. Here, you can ride on a docile yak or pose for photographs next to one. From there, head on to Nathu La pass (open to Indian visitors only on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday), on the Indo-Chinese border to play in snow and wave at Chinese soldiers on the other side.

At Tsomgo lake

Pay a visit to the monasteries in and around Gangtok, in particular, the stunning Enchey and Rumtek.

Rumtek monastery

Take a ropeway ride (8.00 am – 4.30 pm) up to the highest point in Gangtok for fabulous views of the town and the surrounding valley.

Where to stay

The Mayfair Gangtok comes with a spa and a casino and is set amidst lush greenery away from the bustle of the town. The Oriental is another popular hotel in the heart of Gangtok.

Go West: Pelling

What to do

Pelling is really not for active vacationers since there is nothing much to do here but take long walks on shaded mountain roads and gaze in awe at the Kanchenjunga. The views are spectacular especially after the monsoon, between the months of October and February.

A must-visit in this region is the Pemayangtse monastery, one of the oldest in Sikkim, founded in 1705. If you are lucky and the skies are clear, the Kanchenjunga may be visible clearly from here.

Visit the Khecheopari Lake, also known as the ‘wishing lake’ and considered sacred by the Sikkimese. Indeed, this is a place of worship for both local Hindus and Buddhists, and surprisingly clear of tourist traps. The path to the lake is studded with prayer wheels on either side while colourful prayer flags whirl in the wind closer to the water.

Khecheopalri lake

If you happen to be there on a weekend, look out for local haats (markets) where farmers from the area bring in their produce for sale; it makes for a lively and colourful morning

For those really bitten by the travel bug, a trip to Yuksam village (38 km away), the starting point for the tough trek into the Kanchenjunga National Park is recommended. Spend your day ambling down the narrow main road, snacking on chilli-cheese toast and tea at Guptaji’s small café, and watching the clouds play hide and seek with the mountains surrounding you.

Where to stay

In Pelling, stay at the Elgin Mount Pandim Hotel, close to the Pemayangtse monastery. It also comes with a spa in case you want to soothe those aching muscles after long drives on the mountain roads.

Go North: Yumthang Valley and Gurudongmar Lake

What to do

This is the most popular circuit among visitors to Sikkim, Gangtok to Yumthang Valley and Gurudongmar Lake in the north.

The first morning, wake up early and head to Gurudongmar lake situated at a (literally) breathtaking 17000 feet. Most vehicles take a compulsory halt for an hour at Thangu village at 14,000 feet for breakfast, and more importantly, to get you acclimatised to the altitude. Enjoy the ride thereon through a surreal moonscape path, which affords plenty of photo-ops. Go prepared with layers and layers of woolies and the idea that you will feel disoriented at that height and for perhaps a couple of hours after you descend.

Gurudongmar lake

The next morning, make your way to Yumthang, a mere 24 kilometres from Lachung and at a (relatively) more comfortable altitude of 12,000 feet. The road leading to Yumthang, known as the ‘valley of flowers’ is well laid and lined with rhododendron trees on either side. This area comes under the protected Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary (home to over 24 species of this flower) and is especially pretty during the summer months when the ground is covered with flowers of all colours. Yumthang is the stuff of picture postcards, with snow-capped mountains on all sides, with the crystal clear Yumthang river flowing through the meadow.

Yumthang valley

Where to stay

Lachung and Lachen villages are the base for Yumthang valley and Gurudongmar lake respectively. The Fortuna is one of the most popular and comfortable hotels in this area. Accommodation otherwise is mostly basic and not very luxurious there – discuss your options with your tour operator before you leave. The friendliness of the locals, the pure mountain air and the fresh water springs all around more than make up for any mild discomfort you may experience.

Note: You cannot rent or drive your own vehicle in Sikkim since many places require special permits. Therefore you need to arrange for excursions through an authorized tour operator in Gangtok. For North Sikkim, it is best to take a package that includes your travel, stay and food from one of the authorised tour operators who line MG Road.

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~ Originally published on the Conde Nast Traveller website on May 07, 2013
~ Read my earlier Sikkim stories here

48 hours in Amsterdam

There is something special about Amsterdam in springtime. The Keukenhof gardens are open for a couple of months, as the tulips paint the landscape in brilliant colours. The city is on party mode all through April in anticipation of Holland’s biggest holiday – Queen’s Day, on the last day of the month.

If you are in Amsterdam for only a couple of days, here is how to get the best of it. First, buy the 48 hour IAmsterdam Card, which allows free public transport and entrance to key attractions, discounts at some restaurants and even on bike rentals. Pick it up at the main tourist office opposite the Amsterdam Centraal railway station. Also pick up a guide to Keukenhof gardens. Or, since Amsterdam is cyclist heaven, hire a bicycle for the duration of your stay—choose from one of these options recommended by the authorities.

Biker heaven

Once you’re set, here’s how you can make the most of your two days in the city.

DAY ONE

9am: Start your day with a leisurely breakfast at an open air café on the Leidseplein (translated, Leiden Square), watching the city slowly come to life.

10am: Head to one of the many fabulous museums in Amsterdam for a morning of high culture. Choose from the Van Gogh Museum or the newly renovated Rijksmuseum. The two are located close to each other, so you can quickly take in the highlights of both.

1pm: Have lunch at one of the Indonesian restaurants that the city is known for. Order the Rijsttafel (Dutch for ‘rice table’), which is a meal of several, tiny side-dishes accompanied by rice.

3pm: Pose for photographs on the iconic IAmsterdam installation (some tourists try to climb on top of the letters for that quirky photo) and then make your way to the sprawling Vondelpark for a walk in the spring sunshine. If you are feeling particularly sporty, join in a raucous game of football that is sure to be on at several places in the park.

4pm: Walk or bike your way along the main canals of Amsterdam that form a ring in the inner city—the Prinsengracht, Keijzersgracht, Herengracht and Jordaan. The canal ring is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites and celebrates its 400th year in 2013. There are beautiful old buildings lining both sides of these narrow streets and several canal-side cafés to nip into for a quick coffee.

6pm: Take an open boat ride on the canals, which comes with a guide and usually lasts for an hour. This is a great way to see the city and know a bit of its history.

7pm: Devote the evening to beer quaffing at a pub of your choice; you can never go wrong with beer in Amsterdam. Our recommendations are the ‘t Smalle, a distillery set up way back in 1780 near a picturesque canal (Egelantiersgracht 12), and In De Wildeman (Kolksteeg 3) famous for its Dutch and Belgian beers. And if you must, then take a stroll around Amsterdam’s (in)famous red light area, De Wallen. It is in Amsterdam’s old side, in the vicinity of the Oude Kerk (Old Church). Be sure not to point your camera at people or shops there since it is frowned upon.

IAmsterdam

Canal cruise

DAY TWO

8am: Grab a quick croissant and coffee on the run and make an early start to the Keukenhof gardens. Devote the entire morning to tulips and all the other attractions of Keukenhof.

1pm: Try some local specialties like Bitterballen—minced beef fried with a coating of bread crumbs at a brown café, so called for its darkwood panelling (and not because of the ‘substances’ they deal in, as some people think).

2pm: Take a lazy saunter through the floating flower market on Singel canal and the Albert Cuyp street market.

4pm: This is a must-do for any visitor to Amsterdam, the Anne Frank House. It is a grim reminder of the city’s Nazi history. Note that entry here is not included in the IAmsterdam card and that it may not be suited for small children. Buy your tickets online to avoid the long queues.

5pm: Pick up a helping of poffertjes (Dutch pancakes) and patat (fries) and sit at Dam Square watching buskers ply their trade. Or, walk around the shopping haven of Negen Straatjes or “nine streets” around the canal area, filled with pretty boutiques, art galleries and vintage stores

7 pm: Have a quiet dinner at Hap-Hmm for Dutch food “like grandma used to make” and at prices that make you hum with happiness. The restaurant is justly popular among both locals and tourists.

Game in progress

Windmill at Keukenhof

More on tulips

Tulips in bloomNo visit to Amsterdam in spring is complete without a trip to Keukenhof gardens just outside the city. The garden is open from 8am to 7.30pm (till May 20 this year) and it is best to arrive early to beat the crowds and get the most of your morning. Buy tickets for a boat ride around the gardens as soon as you arrive, since these are very popular and tend to get booked fast. Apart from the thousands of tulips in myriad colours, Keukenhof has other attractions like rows of daffodils and hyacinths, greenhouses for orchids, play areas for children and cafés dotted throughout. There are buses to Keukenhof from Schipol airport (easily reached from the centre of the city by bus or train) and it is best to buy a combination ticket online before you go.

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Originally published on the Conde Nast Traveller website on April 30, 2013

Also read: It’s tulips time in Amsterdam

Where to eat on your Roman holiday

When in Rome, eat like a Roman. And to know how and where, read on. This appeared on the Conde Nast Traveller website last month – where to eat on your Roman holiday

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When in Rome, eat like the Romans do. Your safest bets are usually any of the places where locals eat. Even at the major tourist spots, stay off the restaurants and al fresco cafes just around them and wander into the bylanes to discover some gems. Apart from that, areas like Testaccio and Trastevere have some great family run trattorias and pizzerias. So put on your walking shoes, pick up a map and go fooding in Rome. And here are some tips from us to help you on your way:

pizzaWhen there is any mention of Italian food, pizza, of course, tops the charts. Unlike the pizza that many in India are used to, the toppings are not generous and crowded but they are all guaranteed to be fresh and melt in the mouth. Also remember that for Italians, pizza is a dinner dish, and so many pizzerias are open only in the evenings.

Pizzeria Da Remo always figures in lists of the best places to have pizza in Rome. Be ready to wait for a table but the buzz around the place will alert you to the fact that the wait is worth it. Try their scrocchiarella – crispy, thin crust Roman-style pizza with toppings of your choice.
Piazza Santa Maria della Liberatrice 44

Pizzerium, right outside Metro Cipro at the Vatican is another favourite with tourists. The toppings there can surprise you but they rarely disappoint – think prosciutto, ham, beetroot, onion, peas. Ask for pizza al taglio, i.e. by slice, as Romans like to eat.
Via Della Maloria 43, Metro Cipro, Vatican

For the best pizza bianca (white), just sprinkled with sea salt and rosemary, head to Forno Campo De’ Fiori. Or if your taste runs to tangy, then get the pizza rossa, topped with fresh tomato.
Campo De’Fiori 22

pizzeria

And now for pasta. Hostaria La Botticella in the Trastevere area has some local specialties, including the formidable rigatoni alla pajata – pasta with calf’s intenstines! But fear not, there are other excellent pastas including a spaghetti all’amatriciana with cured pork, pecorino cheese and fresh tomato.
Vicolo del Leopardo 39/a, Trastevere

Then there is Trattoria Da Danilo, known to be one of the best family-run trattorias in town and voted as having the best Carbonara – sauce made of eggs, cheese, black pepper, and if you wish, bacon – in Rome.
Via Petraca 13, Esquilino

If you wish to try another Roman specialty, then order suppli – fried croquettes with rice, cheese and meat – at L’Arcangelo. Their pastas are good but the suppli antipasti is said to be sublime. There is also a tradition of gnocchi (in amatriciana sauce) Thursdays, so look out for that if you happen to visit on that day of the week.
Via Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli 59/61, Vatican

And now for that perfect way to end the meal; gelato, creamy and delectable as you can find only in Italy. Most gelaterie offer you a choice of two or three flavours in the same cup, depending on your preferred size of the gelato. Ask for recommendations of which flavours go well together.

Romans can never agree on the best gelato in their city, but Gelateria Ciampini is generally acknowledged as one of the best. They are known for their chocolate, hazelnut and the rather unusual candied chestnut flavors.
Piazza de San Lorenzo, Lucina 29, between the Pantheon and the Spanish Stepsgelato

If you are a fan of ‘Eat Pray Love’, then go no further than San Crispino near the Trevi Fountain. There is another outlet at Piazza della Maddalena opposite the Pantheon. The subtle honey flavor and the light pistachio flavor will make sure that you never want to eat icecream anywhere else again.
Via Panetteria 42, near the Trevi Fountain

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