Melbourne must-dos

About a decade or so earlier, Melbourne woke up and decided that it had had enough of playing second fiddle to Sydney. In the constant Melbourne-Sydney rivalry, somewhat like that between Mumbai and Delhi, Melbourne kept coming up a poor second. This city did not have anything attention-grabbing, not an Opera House and spectacular harbour, nor was it blessed with proximity to the Great Barrier Reef.

So, like the famous Avis ad of the 1960s, which said (in relation to Hertz): “We are only No. 2, so we try harder”, Melbourne tried harder. And last year, it was voted the most livable city in the world in the Economist Intelligence Unit survey (with stiff competition from Vienna and Vancouver). While it may not have any iconic landmarks, it does have oodles of charm that makes you slowly fall in love with the city.

Head to Melbourne to make the most of early winter weather. As a local friend remarked, “Melbourne does winter very well.”

So, my list of Melbourne must-dos here –

1. Pay homage at the Melbourne Cricket Ground

If you are Indian, then this is the first thing you should do. Or probably will want to do. The venue of several legendary matches has guided tours for visitors when you can go and pay your respects on these hallowed grounds (say a salaam to the Rod Laver arena next door while you are at it). The tour takes you inside the areas normally closed to the public, including glimpses into the dressing rooms of the cricketers. It is only when you walk through the MCG that you realize that cricket is only one of the many games this ground has supported and nurtured over the years; information about sporting legends and their achievements are strewn all over the place. End the tour at the MCG museum, a superb collection of sporting trivia and memorabilia.

2. Take a walking tour

Melbourne is a city made for walking in, especially the central part which has a very European feel about it. Cobbled lanes, narrow arcades, cozy boutiques, outdoor cafes – the works. The Hidden Secrets Tour is highly recommended for not just the route they take you through but also the fact that the tour offers a lot of information about the history of this city. Their guides are knowledgeable and witty and the three hours pass in a jiffy. In particular, their Lanes and Arcades Tour shows a normally hidden side of the inner city, its small shops and cafes that tourists may not ever find on their own, including a shop selling magic and witchcraft items! (Tour cost: 115 AUD, with lunch).

Or devise your own coffee and chocolate tour – yes, Melbourne is proud of its coffee, chocolate and cupcakes. There are little Belgian chocolate shops dotted all over the central district, their window displays winking at you even if you determinedly try ignoring them. If you would rather do this in a more organized manner (remember this is chocolate we are talking about, so give it the respect it deserves), go on a Chocolate Tour – you can choose from a variety of them, indulging and perhaps shopping as you go along.

3. Go Harley Davidsoning

John Karmouche, the man who runs the Harley Davidson Tours in Melbourne says a rather dubious thing on his website: “I have come to understand the term ‘Pleasure Experience’. That is what we are committed to doing – giving pleasure.” You know that HD owners take their bikes very seriously and have a somewhat deep relationship with it, so take that statement at face value. John means that he cannot think of anything more pleasurable than riding around his city on an HD. It is a unique way of seeing the city, the wind on your cheeks and constant commentary from the front.

Their most popular (and deservedly so) tour is the Great Ocean Drive tour, which takes you down the, well, Great Ocean Road to see the Twelve Apostles, the large limestone rocks jutting out of the sea. Or head to a winery in the Yarra Valley and spend an afternoon tasting different wines and listening to stories about them. Even if you are HD-inclined, do not leave Melbourne without going on the Great Ocean Drive – hire a car or take a bus tour but make sure you take in one of the most stunning drives in the world.

4. See the skyline on Eureka Skydeck 88

See the city skyline stretching out in front of and below you from the Skydeck on the 88th floor of the Eureka building. Early morning and late evening are the best times to visit, though there is a different experience to be had at any time of the day. You can walk around the Skydeck for views of the sea on one side and the city on the other. If you are feeling very brave, then buy an additional ticket for The Edge, a glass cube that projects 3 metres out from the building, so that you are suspended in mid air, 300 metres above the ground.

5. Spend a day at the Mornington Peninsula

The Mornington Peninsula is the stuff that tourism authorities’ dreams are made of: it has something for everyone. Adventure, nature, thermal spa, winery, beach activities – you name it, you got it. This is a great place for a day tour for the entire family. Children have a lot of activities to keep them happy. Take them strawberry picking – you buy a container and pick and eat as much as you can fill in that. Or go into a lavender farm (try the lavender honey and jams available in the gift shop), which also doubles up as an offbeat venue for weddings once in a while. When the weather is fine, go dolphin-watching into the ocean or horse-riding on the back lanes of the area.

Back in Melbourne, go bar-hopping in the evenings, take a river cruise on the Yarra or simply sit at Federation Square across the road from Flinders Street Station and watch the world pass by. And come away feeling charmed by this city, as I did.

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Originally published here

Meenakshi on my mind

Temple

Malayadhwaja Pandiya must have been a sad king. Fate had played a cruel trick on him. After years of being childless and spending days and nights in prayer, and pouring countless kilos of pure ghee in the sacrificial fire, he had been blessed with a daughter. Alas! A daughter who was a freak; she was born with three breasts. Just as the royal couple was torn between joy and despair, a voice from the heavens informed them that her flaw would disappear as soon as she met her consort. The girl Meenakshi — the fish-eyed one — grew up into a beautiful princess who was finally won over by Lord Shiva and married him.

Wedding

Or so goes the story.

The Meenakshi temple in Madurai is considered to be the site of the wedding of Shiva and Parvati, with Vishnu giving the bride away here. The town of Madurai grew around the temple, flourishing first under the Pandya dynasty and then the Vijayanagara kings, followed by the Nayaks. The present glorious state of the temple is attributed to the Nayak king Thirumalai Nayakar, who took over the refurbishment of the temple sometime in the early 17th century.

The town of Madurai, just as the temple, is entirely about Meenakshi. From a great distance, the tall towers, or gopuras with their elaborate and colourful statues of gods and demons, warriors and princes, are visible and lead me unerringly towards the temple. Ardent devotees and astute shoppers jostle past me as I make my way carefully through the crowded streets surrounding the temple. I am told to enter the temple and first visit the sanctum of the goddess and then move on to the altar of Shiva known here as Sundareshwara.

Reflection

Meditation

Woman power lives on in Madurai, and not just here at the temple in this form. Madurai’s other famous, if not favourite, daughter is Kannagi. Legend has it that fiery Kannagi sought justice from the court of the Pandya king Nedunchezhiyan when her husband Kovalan was unfairly accused of stealing the queen’s anklets. And when justice was denied, she burnt down Madurai in a violent rage against the king and the city he ruled over.

Madurai is held to be one of the ancient cities of India, flourishing as a centre for trade and culture, long before Kannagi and the temple gave it its present fame. It finds a mention in the notes of Greek ambassador and traveller Megasthenes and historians believe that he visited the city in the 3rd century BC.

My favourite spot inside the Meenakshi temple is not the long corridors where people sit for hours, staring at the lotus pond or the imposing towers. Nor is it under the stunning paintings of the gods and goddesses — a million stories including the divine wedding on the walls of the corridors. It is not in the narrow lanes leading out of the temple, tiny shops on either side selling authentic kunkumam and turmeric and photographs of temple idols. It is not even near the altars of Sundareshwarar; or Meenakshi; or further in, the garba griha – the sanctum sanctorum.

I love all of these, just as I love the temple itself for the teeming life in and around it at all times. However, each time I visit the temple, I pass through all these, and head to the Hanuman statue on the wall in one obscure corner of the temple. Like all South Indian temples, the Meenakshi temple sends you on a sensory over-drive. And in this space, as sacred for many as the other main sanctum, it is smell that is the overwhelming sense.

A devotee stands in front of the statue, eyes closed deep in prayer, as another shows a karpura (camphor) arati — the smell of burning camphor, strong by itself, mingles with other smells in the air. The immediate bouquet is of the camphor, kumkum and the coats of fresh butter that worshipers have smeared on the statue. Between this, there is the whiff of jasmine, the malligaipoo that Madurai is famous for, hanging from the braided well-oiled hair of women as well as resting on the several puja plates being carried around. From a distance, the smell of a hundred lamps just about to go out wafts through; at the shrine of the navagraha, the nine planets, believers have lit tiny lamps, cotton wicks bathing in pungent sesame oil.

Devotion

Sunlight

I sit there and take all this in. And the light from the skies flows in, washing over the entire scene and filling up the space. It finally settles on the faces of the people who have found their peace there.

Trip Planner

Madurai has an airport with daily flights from Chennai (fares begin roughly from Rs 2,400). There are also regular trains to Madurai from all major cities in Tamil Nadu.

The city is hot for most of the year – the best months are from December to February. Be sure to visit the thousand pillar hall inside the temple complex for its glorious paintings, and the Tirumalai Nayakar palace, less than two kilometres away. If possible, plan your trip around the Sankranti festival (mid-Januray, known locally as Pongal): don’t miss the jallikattu, the local bull-taming sport popular at this time.

Stay at the Gateway Hotel Pasumalai for excellent and consistent Taj service (rate for standard double rooms begin from Rs 3,800). For a more resorty experience, check into Heritage Madurai in the center of the city — rates here vary according to season, so it is best to contact the hotel directly.

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This story was published in FirstPost as part of my travel column on Nov 22, 2011. Read it online here – Finding the still heart in Madurai’s madness

Heaven in a pita pocket

That is what I had called my piece on the falafel. I wrote a gushing tribute to it recently – a slightly different version of this piece was finally published.

“Yeh kya pakode hain?” my fellow journalist crinkled her nose at lunch at Falafel House in Istanbul. And I swear she looked around for tomato sauce to go with the falafels. But then, she thought hummus tasteless and the glorious Hagia Sophia boring, so I am not saying anything more.

Cut to Paris.

“Fine, go taste it for yourself” he said, giving me a raised-eyebrow look that added, “your fate.” This is shop 1, the L’As Du Fafafel, acknowledged generally by food bloggers as the best falafel joint in Paris. But I am all for the underdog. So I head to Mi-Va-Mi just across the road. I have no idea what it means but really, that lilting rhythmic sound of the name – who can resist it?

It would have been very easy to miss these stalls had I not gone looking for them. Tucked away in a narrow lane (Rue des Rosiers) in the hip Marais area in Paris, these two tiny outlets compete for business every single day. “Hmm mmm, the best in the world,” Mi-Va-Mi’s grinning chef tells me as he leads me by the hand inside his shop. Lunch time is far away and the crowds have not started pouring in, so waiters from both are standing out on the street, entertaining themselves by calling out to passers-by and trading insults.

So husband and I stuff our faces (literally, if you have seen the size that a fully loaded falafel sandwich can assume) at Mi-Va-Mi and then head to L’As to try theirs. My verdict? The underdog deserves better press – falafel at Mi-Va-Mi had just that extra tanginess that makes all the difference – and loads of grilled eggplant which appealed to the baingan-loving Telugu man that my husband is (really, what is it about baingan that can evoke such delight?) However, in terms of the vibe, it is L’As all the way. I was floored even before we placed our order, when the waiter who had serenaded us earlier unbuttoned his shirt to reveal his black T-shirt which read ‘I (red heart) L’as du Falafel’.

Both places have seating inside but the right thing to do – take it away, walk to a shaded open space and dig into it (ignoring the looks from people around you as they watch you lick that tahini from your chin). Then walk to the nearest bakery for dessert – or if you are in Paris, to the Berthillon ice-cream parlour on I’le Saint-Louis which sells, you guessed it, the best ice-cream in the world. Trust the Parisians to believe they have the best of everything. But in the case of the falafels, and only in that case, I agree with them.

I can understand why the falafel should appeal to my Indian sensibilities – it came cheap (6 euros), saved my starving vegetarian self and was sold by incredibly friendly people (walk around Paris for three days braving the surly waiters and you’ll know). In fact, it has so much going for it that it should appeal to any Indian. It does not pinch your pocket (even as you furiously make that rupee-euro conversion in your head), it has sinful fried stuff, it can be made spicy and it is best enjoyed messy. And any self-respecting mangophile will attest, messy is directly proportional to tasty. Spicy? Well, the word falafel is supposed to have come from the Arabic ‘filfil’ or even further back to the Sanskrit ‘pippali’, meaning pepper – so just go full tilt on the dressing.

But what is it about it that makes even die-hard carnivores nod in approval? There are serious arguments among Parisian bloggers who otherwise write in smooth, snooty tones about the wonders of their city – they wax eloquent when it comes to the falafel. Words like flawless, crunchy, velvety, creamy, crisp, juicy – and surprise, surprise, that word the world uses so rarely – amazing! flow without restraint. And it is not just Paris. Which is the most-loved street food all the way across in the USA? Not the hot dog. It is the unassuming falafel (it won both the people’s choice and judges’ choice awards at the Vendy’s last year, the ultimate award for street food).

Yeah, so, falafel. The word traditionally refers to the crisp fried but soft inside chickpea fritters (please, anything but pakoda) but now also means the pita bread sandwich in which it is served most often. And that sandwich is an art of work in itself – the falafel balls, creamy hummus, salted fresh and grilled veggies, tahini, mint sauce… all stuffed into a pita pocket that oozes rapturous goodness with every bite.

If you don’t want the mess (really? why?), you can get these separately too on a plate – all the ingredients with pita bread on the side. But anyone who has eaten panipuri served at your table on plates with a tiny cup of pani by the side will know what an unsatisfying experience that can be.

The falafel is believed to have originated in Egypt – where they make the fritter with fava beans – and rapidly made its way along the Middle East. At some point, Israel appropriated it as their national dish. And Palestine protested. And the rest, as they say, is history. No, not really but there is a sustained food fight going on the region (mostly on the internet) over falafel.

In India, the best ones are available at the Falafel Veg Hummus House in Mumbai (various locations), Ta’am Falafel Restaurant in Bangalore (Koramangala) and Alaturka Doner Kebab and Falafel in Delhi (Select City Walk mall).