The complete guide to Shillong

The small capital city of Shillong, tucked away in the north east of India, is an absolute study in contrasts. While some of the most stylish young men and women in the country (think coloured hair and calf length boots) can be spotted on its streets, the region is also home to the Khasi tribal group, with their traditional Jainsem robes.

Shillong came into its own under the British as a garrison town, and retains a laidback colonial charm, with its cathedrals and cottages dating from that era. Although at first glance, it feels like any other noisy, overcrowded Indian town, all it needs is a gentle scratch under the surface to see its innate beauty. And if the commotion gets too much to handle, there are plenty of easy getaways from town, from day trips to weekend vacations.

Here are a few of my suggestions on what to see and do in Shillong to get the best out of this city:

Go on a Dylan pilgrimage

Shillong is aptly known as the rock capital of India, boasting of even an annual Bob Dylan festival on the legendary musician’s birthday in May. The city is a great place to pay homage to this artist, beginning from the newly opened Dylan Café in the busy Laitumkhrah neighbourhood, an ode to the rockstar. Complete this experience with a live concert at night by Lou Majaw, known as Shillong’s Bob Dylan; he usually performs at Café Shillong or the Cloud 9 Restolounge.

Window shop at Bara Bazaar

From fresh meat to a few dozen varieties of chillies, punctuated with stalls selling colourful winter wear and quilts, Bara Bazaar promises a sensory overload. The best time to visit this local market is in the morning, around 9 am, just when the bustle is at its peak. Apart from window-shopping, this is a great place for street photography and people watching, especially the animated interactions between the locals.

Visit the Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous Cultures

For a clear understanding of the history and culture of the north eastern states, collectively known as the Seven Sisters (along with one brother Sikkim), there is no better place than the Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous Cultures. Spread over seven floors of interesting and instructive exhibits, this museum presents glimpses into this fairly unexplored part of the country. From agricultural practices to natural resources, from handicrafts to musical instruments, there is a wealth of information in these rooms.

Enjoy a bird’s eye view

It is an easy drive out of the city through the towering evergreen trees of Upper Shillong towards Shillong Peak. Visit early in the evening for panoramic views of the city in the distance, just as the twinkling lights of shops and homes get switched on. Before this, make sure to turn off at the road leading to the Air Force Museum, and go further on to the popular Elephant Falls to see how lush Meghalaya really is. Fuel up with coffee and sandwiches at the ML05 café on the way, cleverly themed around bikes and cars. Or carry a picnic basket to indulge in from the quiet environs of Shillong Peak.

Watch an archery lottery

In this unique and fascinating local sport called Teer or Siat Khnam, groups of archers who are members of the local Khasi Archery Association gather at the Polo Grounds every evening around 3.30 pm. At a signal from the leader, the archers let fly dozens of arrows towards the cylindrical bamboo target in the middle. The shooting stops in four minutes, and the arrows are counted; the last two digits of the number of arrows is the winning number for the day. Stay back after the match to watch the process of counting and announcing the results.

Head out to Umiam Lake

In the heart of Shillong is the picturesque Ward’s Lake, a favourite evening rendezvous spot for locals and tourists alike. With small fountains and flowering trees everywhere, this is a quiet oasis in the midst of all the urban chaos. For an even more pleasant experience, make your way to Umiam Lake, a quick 45 minute drive away on the road to Guwahati. Sprawling over 200 square kilometres, the soothing blue waters of this lake lend themselves to a range of activities, from kayaking to angling.

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Stay

Royal Heritage Tripura Castle is the converted summer palace of the erstwhile royal family of Tripura, and one of the best luxury stay options within the city. For a calmer experience by the waterfront, stay at the Ri Kynjai Resort right on the banks of Umiam Lake.

Eat

Café Shillong always has a youthful buzz, along with food for the soul and live music on weekends. Dylan’s Café also has an interesting vibe and great food, along with dozens of Dylan memorabilia, from rare posters to cheery wall paintings. For Indian food, the restaurant at Tripura Castle is one of the best options.

Shop

Glory’s Plaza at Police Bazaar is the shopping hub of Shillong, where all the local fashionistas go for the latest trends. Pick up shawls and scarves in typical north-eastern designs and cheerful colours, or local bamboo and wicker handicrafts from the Meghalaya Handloom and Handicrafts Development Emporium or any of the smaller shops in the area.

5 reasons why New Zealand is great for road trips

I have just returned from a two week holiday in New Zealand, a whistle-stop tour of both the North and South Islands. For most of this trip, we had a rental car to get around from from one stunning place to another. My husband drove all of it, and though we were on the road for anywhere between 3 – 6 hours almost everyday, he ended each day with a smile, if not a big grin.

True. New Zealand is the ideal destination for road trips. And here are a few reasons why you should think of a self-drive car when you visit the country.

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1. The roads are practically empty

Come on, this is a country with a population of a staggering 4.4 million, so how many people are you likely to find on the roads? Of the entire population, almost a third lives in Auckland in the North Island, so the highways on scenic routes are devoid of any traffic. On some days, on some routes, we went for miles without seeing another car. In some ways (oh my god, what if this car suddenly stops), it is a little scary but it also makes for super easy driving.

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2. Everyone follows road rules

If you are a traveller from India, you will know what a surprising and pleasant experience this can be: right of ways, speed limits, no honking… sheer bliss! You get to drive comfortably in the knowledge that some car (or worse, pedestrian, autorickshaw or cow) is not going to appear on the scene at great speed from a side lane. Although most of the country roads are narrow and single lane, it is easy to navigate them at a decent speed, since everyone keeps to their lanes, without tryingovertake as if in a great rush to get somewhere. So, it follows that driving in New Zealand is not stressful or tiring as it can be in some Asian countries.

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3. The roads are super smooth

I don’t mean just the condition of the roads but also the way in which authorities make life happier for drivers. The roads are clearly marked, with excellent banking, so that curves are easy to tackle. Apart from the standard speed limits – 100 kmph on highways and 50 kmph inside towns – we found that every single curve on the winding mountain roads (and they are everywhere in the country – I mean everywhere) had yellow reflective signs and specific speed suggestions, making sure that we were driving at the safest and smoothest speed. And you do not need an SUV or large, fancy car to get around – there are enough budget rental options that will work just as well.

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4. Driving is the easiest way to get around

Road trips are the quickest and most convenient way of travelling within this country, especially given that bus and train connections are not that frequent or regular. Of course, there are inter-city buses like Kiwi Bus and scenic trains like the Tranz Alpine, but these may not always match your schedules. So, get into a car and start driving. The added bonus is that you get to stop and explore a dozen new places along the route every day, instead of just getting from Point A to Point B. After all, that is the fun of a road trip, and New Zealand has enough easy walks, seaside attractions, forest paths and crystal clear lakes to entice you.

5. The landscape changes every half hour

And finally, what is perhaps the most interesting thing about driving in New Zealand – no stretch along the road is like others you have seen earlier. Several times in an hour, you will find that the scenery looks different. And this is despite the fact that most of the country (especially in the South Island) is filled with hills and lakes of all sizes and shapes. One minute you are driving on a windy hill road and the next, you find yourself right next to the sea that gives you company for the next hour or so. And then the cattle – hundreds of cows and thousands of sheep grazing in lush green patches right by the roads… heck, we even saw ostriches once – Believe me, you will never get bored or tired in a “been there, seen it” kind of way. The flip side to this is the temptation for the drive to look at the stunning landscape or stop at random to take photos. But hey, that’s why there are all those stopping bays and lookout points everywhere.

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So, if you ever find yourself in New Zealand or even planning a trip, make sure to include a few days of self drive in your itinerary. Who knows, this may turn out to be your most favourite experience in the country?

7 must dos in Cologne

1. Marvel 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. Make merry 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

First time to Europe? 10 travel questions answered

It’s Europe time again (read: 5 reasons to visit Europe in spring) and for the next four months, all roads are going to be leading to Rome (or Paris or Barcelona or Amsterdam). Readers of this blog will know that I am an absolute Europe devotee. Vibrant cities, gorgeous countryside, picturesque villages, stunning churches, a cornucopia of museums, the food… what is not to like?

But while Europe is a great choice for a holiday for any kind of traveller – families with kids, couples seeking some together time, backpackers, groups of friends or solo travellers – planning a trip to Europe can be a daunting task. Especially if this is your first visit.

Schengen visa, flight deals, hotel bookings, strange languages, the quest for familiar food, constant Euro to Rupee mental conversion…

Here is my guide to getting the best out of Europe, all the way from planning your trip to seeing the sights.

1. How do I get a Schengen visa?

The Schengen visa covers a large number of countries in both Western and Eastern Europe, with new countries coming into the fold every year – the latest addition is Croatia in 2013. Once you have a Schengen visa, you can travel easily between Schengen countries without the hassle of border checks.

If you are travelling to more than 2-3 countries, be smart about the Schengen visa (but do check on the Consulate / VFS website with your travel agent since these rules keep changing all the time). Apply for a visa at the Consulate of the country which is your point of entry or exit. Or at the country where you intend to spend the maximum number of days. This will work in your favour since some embassies are super quick in processing your visa while some take up to 15 working days.

Apart from your bank and tax statements, you need to also submit flight tickets and hotel bookings. Make sure to make refundable bookings in case of your hotel; once you have the visa in hand, you can switch to your choice of accommodation.

2. What kind of flight fares will I get?

I constantly look for cheap fare deals on websites like kayak.com and have had some pleasant surprises. While looking for flights to Europe, don’t look for direct flights alone. Consider airlines like Turkish which often offer fares which are much cheaper than many of the usual suspects. Who knows, you may be able to squeeze in a couple of days at Istanbul on you way in. In general, the earlier you book your tickets, the better the fare.

3. Where should I stay?

While it feels the safest to book yourself into a hotel, consider other options when you go to Europe. I always prefer to stay in small B&Bs or family run guesthouses. Several reasons for this. They come much cheaper than the large hotels (and in Europe, even the small hotels can be expensive) and you usually end up with a sunny room with a large breakfast thrown in. Having stayed in cheerful B&Bs and guesthouses, now the thought of spending nights in a characterless hotel room feels depressing to me.

Salzburg

Then there is the fun of staying with locals – for me, the more important consideration. In my experience, B&B owners are a friendly bunch and willing to share with you secrets about their city. Ask for recommendations especially on shopping and eating.

Hostels are also a great way of saving money and meeting other travellers, a perfect choice if you are a solo traveller. And if you are travelling as a group of more than 3-4 people, think about renting an apartment

4. Where should I go?

While travelling to Europe, the temptation to cram in as many countries as possible is very high. And it is perfectly valid. After all, with the conversion rates and the hassle of all the travel arrangements, it is not a destination you can visit again and again in a short period, and so you would want to see it all and do it all.

Pick one absolute must-go country and build a smart itinerary around it, including one or two neighbours. In any trip, my advice is not not pack in more than three countries, since there is so much to explore in every destination you could choose. For instance, if you want to go to France, why not add in Belgium and Holland? Or Switzerland?

And why not consider Eastern Europe? Sure, if you have not seen Europe at all, then your heart is probably set on Paris and Rome. But here is my take on this – Paris and Rome will always be around, and just as expensive. Why not go to Ljubljana or Budapest, which are much cheaper than Western European cities and are equally enchanting?

Slovenia

Also, do step out of the big cities into the smaller towns and villages. You get to see the lush countryside this way and get a glimpse into life away from the noise and crowds (if you are lucky).

Austria

5. What do I carry?

First time travellers from India to Europe always end up making the mistake of carrying an oversized suitcase. Be warned: most buildings in Europe are very old and even large hotels sometimes do not have lifts. Railway stations do not have porters and at many airports, you will have to pay to use a luggage trolley (only 1-2 Euros, but why pay that?).

You will end up lugging your stuff up and down several flights of stairs everywhere. And dragging it on cobblestone lanes that look oh, so pretty but are a killer on the back and knees when you have a massive suitcase with you.

Having said that, be absolutely sure to pack these: a sturdy pair of walking shoes, a light jacket that is rainproof and your personal cosmetics. All European hotels are not generous with their soaps and shampoos as we are used to in India and most parts of Asia.

6. How do I get around?

The best way to explore Europe thoroughly is use every means to travel – think trains, trams, metro, buses. Get the appropriate travel card as soon as you reach the city – they go from a few hours all the way to a week and allow you travel on most local transport means. Some of them also come with bargains and discounts stacked on, so look out for those.

Don’t rush out to buy a Eurail pass as soon as you decide on a holiday in Europe. Spend some time on the internet to evaluate single ticket options. I have found them almost always cheaper, unless you plan to travel between cities on every day of your holiday.

Antwerp

Also consider self drive holidays. There are great deals on rental cars available on the internet. The European countryside is a joy to drive through and this gives you the flexibility to turn off the beaten track and explore those tiny places which look inviting. A valid Indian driver’s licence is enough for most countries that you are likely to visit on a Schengen visa.

There is a lot of walking to be done, wherever you are. So be ready for that and pack accordingly.

7. Where do I get information?

As soon as you step into a European city, hit the local tourist information kiosk – they are present at railway stations, airports and at several key places inside the city. These kiosks are the best way to arm yourself with a map and a list of things to see and do in your time there. Even if you have done a lot of research prior to your trip, you get the latest event listings, restaurant and shopping options here.

Another strong recommendation is to join a walking tour on your first day in any new city – there are plenty of options to suit all kinds of interests, from a general overview tour to specialist history or food tours. These give you a good orientation of the city and you can mark out places which seem interesting, where you want to go back and explore at leisure.

Milan

Ask for suggestions from your hotel staff or your host at the guesthouse, chat with locals and fellow travellers at pubs and browse through local markets for a real feel of the place you are in.

Amsterdam

I have got to experience some lovely local food and music just by chatting with cafe owners over a meal or with other travellers at my place of stay (read: thoughts on being a tourist).

8. What should I see?

In Europe, you will be spoilt for choice on things to see, do and experience. Churches and museums top the list for those culturally oriented but even if you are not the “museum types” try spending an hour at one of them to just be awed by how efficiently and reverently Europeans treat their history and heritage.

Paris

In peak season, the line for entry into popular museums can be quite a bit, so see if you can book them in advance over the internet. That way, you save the time of standing in line for tickets and some places also have separate (shorter) queues for those with advance passes.

9. What can I eat?

Most of Europe (especially the West and increasingly the East too) has enough familiar and comfortable options for the Indian traveller – from the ever-dependable pizza and pasta to drippingly yummy falafels to exotic meats and grills. If you are vegetarian, it will help to learn to say “no meat or fish” in the local language or at least say “I am vegetarian” – although some people may not even understand the concept (get more tips in A vegetarian’s guide to Prague).

pasta

If you are open to experimentation, there is enough to make sure you will not go hungry – even though Scandinavian countries, Spain, Germany and some far Eastern European countries may pose a problem you will always find soups, salads and sandwiches to get by on.

Mushroom soup

10. How do I stay safe?

Finally, the question of safety. Some European countries are notorious for pickpockets and petty thieves and everyone we know has a story of how someone they know lost their bag containing their passport and all their money while in Spain or Italy. In most places, it is not necessary for you to carry your passport around, as long as you have a copy of it with you and some valid form of identification.

Keep your money, credit cards and important documents (if you happen to be carrying them around) close to your person and don’t let that bag out of sight even if you are seated at a cafe or a seemingly safe place.

Europe is otherwise safe, even for solo women travellers. Stay close to the main areas after dark and always keep someone informed about your plans.

That’s my Europe planning guide in a nutshell for you. Go forth and enjoy!

5 reasons to visit Europe in spring

‘Tis the beginning of that most glorious of seasons – spring. And also that most glorious of times to travel to my favourite content – Europe. Why spring? Why not wait for another two months and go when the rest of the world goes to Europe? Ah, that’s one of the reasons actually to go now and not between June and September.

Think of this as a five for five post – my list of why you should pack your bags and head to Europe NOW, and my recommendation on which city just touches the spot on each of these:

1. Beat the crowds

Taking off from where I started, go before the thousands of tour groups, vacationing families and backpackers (ok, not so much – backpackers travel through the year – there is no getting away from them) descend upon those tiny medieval cities that are made for a few hundred people. Explore the narrow cobblestone lanes, linger over coffee at those alfresco cafes and sound hours gazing at the stained glass windows at your favourite churches without having to rub elbows (to put it mildly) with the multitude. Why, you might even get to stand close to the Mona Lisa (and feel that twinge of disappointment, but never mind) at the Louvre!

Where: Venice

Venice

And to help you get the best out of Venice, here’s The Telegraph’s list of the best that the town has to offer this spring…

2. Smell the flowers

For these three months, there are flowers everywhere in Europe, as if to mark the end of a long, gloomy winter. Hanging out of windows in tiny pots, blooming in tidy rows from the ground, sold in colourful brilliant bunches in markets. Go, if for nothing else, to see the tulips in bloom (for all too brief a spell) at the Keukenhof gardens outside Amsterdam. This year, the Keukenhof gardens are open from March 20 till May 18. If you need to be convinced further, read my story on the original party city Amsterdam and its tulip connection.

Where: Amsterdam

Amsterdam

3. Celebrate Easter

Like the Christmas markets, the Easter markets of Europe are great for days of fun, food and shopping. Look out for local wines, hand painted Easter eggs, stunning handicrafts and music performances. My pick for Easter markets is Prague – there are two, at the Old City Square and at the Wenceslas Square. The entire city wears a festive look and the town squares are buzzing late, late into the night. Read about how Prague welcomes Easter – just be sure to stop for regular trdelnik breaks in the midst of all the shopping and singing.

Where: Prague

Prague

4. Pick up bargains

Everything is cheaper – from your hotel (or B&B) rooms to the shopping you are tempted to do, and even perhaps local travel like car rentals and train tickets. Shoulder season means bargain rates on your accommodation, while end of winter means great discount sales at most major outlets. Make use of this to travel to the normally expensive destinations – while Scandinavia (which generally tops this list within Europe) may still be too cold, why not consider Britain? When you tire of shopping on Oxford Street, head to the Lake District or even further up North to Scotland (if the weather gods smile on you) for some unretail therapy.

Where: London

London

5. Feel the romance

It is finally time to shake off the winter chills and feel the smiles in the air, along with the balmy sunshine. And every single European city does this very well during this season. Think Paris in springtime. Also think Bruges, Salzburg, Ljubljana… Just head to the nearest park and find a bench to park yourself on. And let the magic of a European spring work itself on you.

Where: Paris

Paris

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