Leaping Tiger, Rearing Merlion: New experiences in Singapore

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There’s always something new to experience in this warm tropical paradise, discovers ANURAG MALLICK

Haw Par Villa IMG_0388_Anurag Mallick

The emblem of the leaping tiger on the gate looked oddly familiar… yet, the connection eluded me like the sighting of a big cat on a South Indian wildlife safari. I ran through all the wild felines in my head – it wasn’t the logo of a tiger park and enough Tiger Beer had been consumed in the past to know this was different. My itinerary, titled ‘Cultured Leopard, Rising Tiger: Finding Your Tao in Haw Par Villa’, didn’t reveal much either. I had turned up for a new walk curated by The Original Singapore Walks company without the faintest idea. And then it struck me…

A distant memory from a trek, a faded label, the smell of camphor, yellow ointment stains on the clothes; I’d be damned if it wasn’t the tiger from Tiger Balm! The guide Geraldine welcomed the group and led us up the slope as she outlined the tale of the two Aw brothers Boon Haw and Boon Par (called the ‘Tiger’ and ‘Leopard’) who transformed their father’s homegrown business that was set up in 1860, into an empire. “So what’s Tiger Balm for?,” enquired an Aussie visitor. Geraldine seemed aghast by his ignorance. “Shoulder rub, neck pull, backache, pain, sprain, congested chest, mosquito bite, anything and everything under the sun”!

Haw Par Villa IMG_0399_Anurag Mallick

On our walk, we learnt that Tiger Balm was originally white and labourers often complained that it was too gentle. One day, Boon Haw noticed that the jar of ointment at home was stained red. He learnt that his wife had been chewing seere (betel leaf), which stained her lips and fingers red. Her constant use had turned the balm ochre! In his eureka moment, the Tiger added a yellow pigment, the workers loved the new ‘stronger’ balm and the rest is history.

In 1921, Haw made Singapore the headquarters of the Tiger Balm business and built a sea-facing villa in 1937. Since the restricted entry to non-Europeans in Shanghai’s Huangpu Park was making waves at the time, the Tiger set up an elaborate garden and threw it open to all. The sculptures mirrored Chinese mythology, Taoist folklore and legends – from Madam White Snake, the Eight Immortals and the Ten Courts of Hell to Commissioner Lin who played a key role in the Opium Wars. It was moral science meets tacky sculpture.

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There was cool stuff as well – the 1925 Buick Californian Hardtop modified into a ‘Tiger Car’ with a horn like a tiger’s roar and the idol of Kwanon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy after whom the camera company Canon was named. Sadly, Haw Par Villa was destroyed after World War II and the family business eventually sold. However, Tiger Balm is still a legend.

Besides this freaky tour, there was a new historical Battlebox tour at Fort Canning. Built in the late 1930s, the bombproof chamber 9m underground served as the headquarters of the Malaya Command during World War II. It was here on 15 February 1942 that the decision to surrender Singapore to the Japanese was made by the British, often described as ‘the worst and largest capitulation in British military history’.

Fort Siloso SkyWalk IMG_1396_Anurag Mallick

For history and war buffs, the new Fort Siloso Walkway is a great way to explore Singapore’s only preserved coastal fort. At the western edge of Sentosa Island just a stone’s throw from Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort, the lift transports you 36.3m to a viewing deck. The 200m long walkway snakes above the canopy with stunning views of the sea and harbor ending at the first of many gun placements. While entry to the lift and fort is free, the 90-minute guided tour for S$20 is worth every cent. Staying at the beach-facing Rasa Sentosa gets you a complimentary coupon!

When Stamford Raffles came to Singapore in 1819, he found its location ideal for a trading settlement. It was at the crossroads of the monsoon wind and sailing ships could arrive here with ease. The early fortifications – Fort Canning, Palmer and Fulerton – protected the trading hub by the Singapore river. But the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 led to a direct trade route from Europe to Asia Pacific. Since the Singapore river was too shallow to accommodate the new steam ships, trade operations moved to the deep waters of Sentosa.

Fort Siloso SkyWalk view IMG_1455_Anurag Mallick

Sentosa was once tagged Bulao Panjang, Malay for ‘Long Island’ and Pulao Blakang Maki or ‘Island of Death’, after the bodies of sailors killed by pirates that washed ashore. When the British first came here, many died and the island was hurriedly abandoned. What was regarded as the ‘Asian curse’ turned out to be malaria. But the need for newer forts made the British blast the mountaintop of Mount Siloso to erect a coastal fort in the west, Fort Serapong in the center of the island (now a golf course) and Fort Connaught in the east (which made way for Sentosa Cove). Giant pulleys hauled cannons up the steep inclines over a bed of logs, aided by Chinese coolies. Since the Chinese didn’t have a problem cooking beef or pork they also ended up being cooks! At the barracks, life-size models depict the soldiers’ life among cooks, tailors and dhobis.

During World War II, while the British expected a naval assault from Sentosa or Changi, the Japanese attacked through the Malayan peninsula, taking them by surprise. The cannons had to be turned towards land but the hull-piercing shells meant for ships didn’t cause much damage. The Japanese took control of the water supply and pushed for an unconditional surrender.

Fort Siloso Surrender Chamber IMG_1509_Anurag Mallick

The WWII Surrender Chambers recreate the scene of capitulation and show their clever psychological warfare tactics. Despite being fewer in number with supplies for only two days, the Japanese turned up in big numbers and in full military regalia to give the impression of a large force. The three years of occupation were the darkest days in Singapore’s history with mass executions on beaches.

It was only after a complete rebranding exercise that the island was christened Sentosa, after the Sanskrit santosha, meaning peace and fulfilment. With tourist attractions like Universal Studios and its amazing 4D Transformer and Battlestar Galactica rides, Madame Tussauds, S.E.A. Aquarium, Skyline Luge, MegaZip, i-Fly and Resorts World, Sentosa has become an essential stopover in everyone’s Singapore itinerary. You could spend a week here without getting bored!

Indian Heritage Centre exhibit IMG_0045_Anurag Mallick

Back in town, the Indian Heritage Centre had moved out of Little India Arcade to a new four-storey building. Inspired by the Indian baoli (stepwell) and mirroring the hexagonal design of the paved street, the glass-fronted building gives the impression of a jewel by day and a glowing lantern by night. The galleries span two millennia of cultural transfusion in Southeast Asia caused by waves of migration between 1st century CE to the 21st century.

Hindu-Buddhist icons, motifs from the Ramayana-Mahabharata, arduous sea journeys undertaken by migrants to distant port towns during the establishment of the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore (1786-1824), their culture and contributions to Singapore form the broad theme. Armed with a tab and aided by Augmented Reality, it’s story-telling taken to another level. The headgear section actually encourages visitors to choose a pagri or topi for a selfie.

National Gallery Singapore guided tour IMG_7480_Anurag Mallick

The National Gallery Singapore which opened last November is spread over 6,90,000 sq ft and is the largest museum and visual arts venue in Singapore. With 8,000 artworks, it is also the largest public collection of Singapore and Southeast Asian art in the world. The self-portraits of Georgette Chen, Liu Kang’s Life by the River, the wildlife themes of Indonesian artist Raden Saleh, art installations like Matthew Ngui’s Chair are stunning, while Cheong Soo Pieng’s Drying Salted Fish, featured on the back of the Singaporean $50 bill, lets visitors click pictures against a 3D version of the same.

The gallery is housed in two national monuments – the former Supreme Court Building and City Hall. Beautifully restored with an award-winning glass and metal façade that seamlessly conjoins the two buildings in a make-believe bamboo lattice, it’s a delight to the explore the prison cells, Rotunda (round library) and chambers. The terrace deck overlooks the padang (ground) and the Singapore skyline. It was in the City Hall that Admiral Lord Mountbatten accepted the Japanese surrender on 12 September 1945.

National Gallery Singapore IMG_7556_Anurag Mallick

Adding to Singapore’s impressive roster of museums – the Philately Museum, Peranakan Museum, Changi Museum, Malay Heritage Centre, ArtScience Museum and National Museum of Singapore – is the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. Part of Sir Stamford Raffles’ museum of Southeast Asian biodiversity started in 1849, it forms the current Heritage Gallery section with taxidermy kits, stuffed birds and Cabinets of Curiosity housing collectibles that survived World War II.

Tracing the history of life on earth, the twenty zones across two floors have over 500,000 Southeast Asian animal and plant specimens ranging from the microscopic to the enormous. Highlights include the world’s largest crab (Japanese Spider Crab) and the smallest (Coral Spider Crab), trilobite fossils, three dinosaurs from America (Prince, Apollonia and Twinky) and a 10.6m female sperm whale ‘Jubi Lee’ that washed ashore in Singapore in 2015 and was unveiled in March 2016. All day long, the dinosaur zone runs a Light Show every half-hour.

Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum Singapore IMG_9980_Anurag Mallick

Singaporeans love their laser shows, be it Wings of Time (S$18, 7:40pm, 8:40pm) at Sentosa, WonderFull (8pm, 9:30pm) at Marina Bay Sands or Garden Rhapsody (7:45pm, 8:45pm) at the SuperTree grove in Gardens by the Bay; both free to public. A great perch to see the city by night is the Singapore Flyer, which at 165m was the world’s tallest Ferris wheel until the High Roller of Las Vegas upstaged it in 2014.

While at the Flyer, try the new 737-800 flight simulator and sit in the captain’s seat of the world’s most popular jet airliner. Learn to take-off, cruise and land the plane at an airport of your choice in an immersive experience with real-size cockpits and fully-functional aircraft controls. The Flyer also lets you reserve a pod for a private 3-course dinner. But if you’re not into ‘slow travel’ or ‘slow food’, hop on to the new Gourmet Bus to take your taste buds for a ride. Singapore always has a new trick up its sleeve…

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FACT FILE

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies direct to Singapore from Bengaluru, Chennai and other cities taking 4 hrs for the flight to Changi Airport, located in the eastern part of the city. www.singaporeair.com

Where to Stay

Oasia Hotel Downtown Ph +65 6664 0333 www.stayfareast.com
Great location, this new hotel in the CBD is close to attractions

Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Ph +65 6275 0100 www.shangri-la.com
Top beach resort at the western end of Sentosa overlooking the Fort Siloso walkway

Crowne Plaza Changi www.ihg.com
5-star hotel at Changi voted as the World’s Best Airport Hotel in 2016 by London-based Skytrax, with top multi-cuisine restaurant Azur.

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What to Do

Experience Changi
Changi Airport is a destination by itself with art installations, recreational facilities and the world’s tallest slide in an airport. There’s a Cactus Garden, Orchid Garden, Sunflower Garden, Butterfly Garden and an Enchanted Garden. The airport outlet of the Long Bar by Raffles at T3’s DFS (Duty Free Store) serves a great Singapore Sling besides awesome deals! Changi also organises a free city tour for transit passengers with a long layover (over 6 hrs).
https://in.changiairport.com

The Original Singapore Walks
D/Centennial Building, 100 Lorong 23 Geylang Ph +65 6325 1631 www.journeys.com.sg
Timings 9:30am, 2:30pm Guided tour S$38 Adults, S$18 children 

National Gallery Singapore
1 St Andrew’s Rd Ph +65 6271 7000 www.nationalgallery.sg
Timings 10am-7pm (till 10 pm on Fri/Sat) Entry S$20 adults, S$15 children
Daily free guided art/architecture tours (20 slots) in English from Visitor Services Counter.

Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM)
2 Conservatory Drive, National University of Singapore Ph +65 6601 3333 nhmvisit@nus.edu.sg
Timings 10am-7pm Entry S$21 adults, S$13 children 

Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum Singapore IMG_9991_Anurag Mallick

Indian Heritage Centre, Little India
5 Campbell Lane Ph +65 6291 1601 www.indianheritage.org.sg
Timings 10am-7pm Monday closed Entry S$4

Flight Experience, Singapore Flyer
30 Raffles Avenue Ph +65 6339 2737, 1800 737 0800 www.flightexperience.com.sg
Timings 10am-10pm Entry S$175

Fort Siloso, Sentosa
Ph 1800 736 8672 www.sentosa.com.sg
Timings 10am-6pm Entry free, 90 min Guided Tour S$20 adults, S$14 children

Universal Studios, Sentosa
8 Sentosa Gateway, Resorts World Ph +65 6577 8888 www.rwsentosa.com
Timings 10am-7pm Entry S$74 adults, S$56 children, VIP Tour Unlimited Access S$298

For more info, visit www.yoursingapore.com

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the March 2017 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

Beautifully Bespoke: Unique experiences in India

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From desert camps, mountain abodes, rainforest retreats to beachside bungalows, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY curate bespoke indulgences across the country

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Suryagarh, Jaisalmer (Rajasthan)
The welcome is grand. An open jeep with flags aflutter leads guests to the fort-like entrance where a pair of camels leads you up the driveway to the porch. A Manganiyar troupe welcomes you with song, Panditji applies a tilak on your forehead as a flower petals rain from above. At the foyer, an attendant hands a towel, another plies you with cool beverage before ushering you to the room. A manganiyar seated in a jharokha of the central courtyard welcomes you to the world of Suryagarh. Few hotels match the art of hospitality and pampering of Suryagarh. Its diverse dining experiences are beautifully curated – Breakfast with Peacocks, Halwayi Breakfast in the courtyard or Dining on the Dunes, at Fossil Hill or lakeside.

Its bespoke Desert Remembers trails present the Thar desert’s lesser known history – Bhil settlements, ruins of caravanserais, rainwater harvesting techniques of Paliwal Brahmins who prospered from the Silk Route, cenotaphs of merchants and travellers, ancient stepwells and the sweet water wells of Mundari. Retrace old trade routes on camel safaris or go on a midnight Chudail (Witches) Trail at Kuldhara. The hotel’s design elements are inspired by its surroundings – the jharokhas mirror Jaisalmer’s havelis, windows and friezes from Khaba Fort and stone walls and ceiling from Kuldhara. Suryagarh’s Residences, exclusive private havelis and suites handcrafted from sandstone, are reminiscent of Paliwal villages. They even have your photos printed and placed in customized frames in your room as a personal touch. Each day, halwai chef Gatta Ram sends a mithai platter with descriptive historical nuggets on scrolls. Surrender to specially designed therapies at Rait Spa that uses locally sourced Thar sand and Luni river salt.

Ph +91-02992-269269, 7827151151
www.suryagarh.com
Tariff 14,000-1,00,000/night

Coco Shambhala_2

Coco Shambhala, Nerul (Goa)
No matter whether you’re in Bangalore or Burkina Faso, a friendly phone call one day prior to your arrival at Coco Shambhala notes your dietary preferences in detail. Spread over an acre near Coco Beach, the secluded villas – named Bharani, Aslesha, Ashwini and Rohini – come with two rooms, treetop living room, private plunge pool, open showers, equipped kitchen and complimentary mini-bar stocked with beers, wine and champagne. The Panchvati style interiors by Belgian designer Lou Lou Isla Maria Van Damme uses colonial furniture in a tropical jungle style garden with ethnic accents. There’s no separate restaurant but signature dishes like Prawn & Chorizo Bruschetta, Basil Prawns with Lemon and Namibian Chicken are served in the comfort of your villa.

Relaxing treatments of 2 Heavens Spa can also be arranged in your room. Meals are ordered a day in advance so only fresh produce is bought and used. Savour the exclusive menu and gustatory experiences curated by India’s top wine and food specialist Shagun Mehra. The stunning pool uses chlorine-free well water. Guests are handed a cellphone pre-fed with staff details, including a complimentary cab and driver for excursions, with free pick up and drop to the airport. Sounds too good? No wonder Coco Shambhala was ranked among the Top 25 Beach Villas in the World by Condé Nast Traveller and recently bagged Outlook Traveller’s Best Boutique Hotel Award 2016.

Ph +91 9372267182
www.shambhalavillas.com
Tariff 30,000-42,000/villa, incl. breakfast

reception - viewing deck

 

The Ibnii, Madikeri, Coorg (Karnataka)
Opened in Feb 2016 after an extensive 10-year development project, The Ibnii (literally ‘Dew’) offers true-to-nature holidays. The check-in is paperless and a welcome drink of bellath (jaggery) coffee is served at The Kaadu, a wooden machaan overlooking the 120-acre property. The Ibnii takes great pride in having no phone network or room service (though wi-fi is available). Ten Balinese wooden cottages on stilts overlook a rainwater harvesting lake and 22 private pool villas called Kopi Luwak come with Jacuzzi and outdoor pool.

Guests are encouraged to walk to Pattola Palame (meaning ‘collection of silk strands’) to dine at the multi-cuisine Fig, veg restaurant Ballele (banana leaf), outdoor barbecue Masikande (charcoal) and Kaldi Kaapee coffee house where the Bean-to-Cup coffee tour culminates. Duck feeding, responsible fishing, nature trails, interactive kitchen with baking classes at the Boulangerie; there’s plenty to do here. Try the signature coffee and sugar scrub, besides Ayurvedic and Western spa treatments at Manja Spa named after the healing ‘turmeric’.

Ph +91 88849 90000 www.ibnii.com
Tariff Rs.35,000, incl. all meals

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Chamba Camp & The Grand Dragon Ladakh (J&K)
Could a high altitude cold desert like Ladakh offer comfort you’ve never imagined? Experience ‘Glamping’ or glamour camping at Chamba Camp Thiksey, part of Cox & Kings’ The Ultimate Travelling Camp (TUTC). Individually designed luxury tents come with en-suite bathrooms, colonial furniture, a private deck and personal butler. Experienced guides accompany you on personalized cultural trips to monasteries and oracles, regaling you with folk tales by campfire. Watch a game of polo, raft down the Indus River and enjoy lavish picnic lunches. In 2015, it won Robb Report’s 27th Annual International Best of Best Awards, the connoisseur’s guide to the world’s finest things. The only hitch? Just a 4-month season.

Thankfully, The Grand Dragon Ladakh, Leh’s plushest hotel is open all year round offering great winter packages besides swanky new suites. Centrally heated with impressive views of the Stok Kangri range, it serves terrific food and traditional Ladakhi cuisine. Move over from momothukpa and discover skiu (wheat pasta stew), timstuk (wheat strips and black gram soup), nang (Ladakhi sausage), shapta (meat curry), phingsha (keema with phing or glass noodles), taint (Ladakhi spinach) and tingmo (Tibetan steamed buns). Unique cultural experiences like learning calligraphy, a session with a Ladakhi oracle, tea by the Indus and Zanskar rivers and witnessing prayer sessions in monasteries make your stay special.

Ph 1800 123 0508
www.coxandkings.com
Tariff Rs.2,45,355/person for 6 days, 5 nights

Ph +91 9906986782, 9622997222
www.thegranddragonladakh.com
Tariff Rs.10,670-43,000

Rokeby Manor_Pine Tree Lodge - Dining

 

 

Rokeby Manor, Landour (Uttarakhand)
A colonial era boutique hotel between the Shivaliks and the Himalayas, Rokeby Manor was built at Landour in 1840 by Captain GN Cauthy and named after the writings of Sir Walter Scott. With stone walls, wooden floors and quaint niches and nooks, the renovated rooms overlook the valley or the Tea Garden. The restaurant Emily’s serves gourmet cuisine and house specials like Mustard Chicken. While the second oldest villa in the erstwhile British cantonment is special, wait till you discover the cluster of 19th century colonial cottages called Rokeby Residences!

Offering stand-alone experiences, every mountain retreat has 2-3 bedrooms and its own Mr. Jeeves. Shamrock Cottage, built in the 1800’s, has a spacious garden. Bothwell Bank is a stone-clad log cabin with knotty pine wood décor, original fireplaces, kitchen, barbecue and outdoor Jacuzzi. Tabor Lodge has a private deck lined with herbs in outsized cups. Pine Tree Lodge displays Scandinavian architecture with patchwork stools, vintage lamps and Finnish artwork. Whatever your choice, exclusivity is guaranteed, with the Swiss-style Stubli Café, Ale House English pub and Little Shed Salon & Spa bound to keep you occupied.

Ph 0135-2635604/05/06, 9634443666
www.rokebymanor.com
Tariff Rs.10,000-70,000

 

 

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the Q4 2016 issue of Audi magazine.

When the twain met: Germany Reunited

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PRIYA GANAPATHY travels to Brocken and the remote borderlands of erstwhile East & West Germany to bring back real life stories and anecdotes of the Cold War, 25 years after the German Reunification

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It was unbelievable, standing between two former Border police officers for a picture at the very border in Bad Helmstedt that once separated them. Decades ago, the now balding Helmut Maushake from East Germany and the grey-haired Lothar Engler from West Germany eyeballed each other in hostility; today they clasped hands like long lost friends.

Each held a piece of Germany’s post-war history and memories of a wired wall that was more than just a geographical demarcation. My weeklong trip took me to Germany’s borderlands, where locals narrated stories of an Orwellian past. A period that saw the clash of two different ideologies – capitalism and socialism, sparking off a Cold War between neighbours for forty odd years. Ironically, the Iron Curtain is now a Green Strip, with many of these stretches developed into national parks and historic trails.

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We stood at the wall’s western side marked by remnants of concrete that separated Bad Helmstedt from Beendorf. Once stretching for 1400km, it divided the Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany controlled by UK, France and the US from the Soviet Occupation Zone of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Germany. As things got strained, the wall became impermeable, affecting the lives of thousands. Pointing to the information panel, they showed us the uniforms used while patrolling the border, recalling how a mere step across the wires could set off an alarm and result in death.

On a November winter morning, we were invited for the launch of Grenlehrpfad information trail to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall and 25 years of German Unification. Today, the former border area near Elm-Lappwald Nature Park is a popular walking and cycling site. We trudged along a path carpeted by autumn leaves past a lake with ducks paddling around.

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Behind us, a board captured the ironic humour of the Bad Helmstedt townsfolk with the words emblazoned across the German black, red and gold tricolour – “40 jahre am arsch der welt, jetzt mitten un Deutschland” meaning “Forty years in the world’s ass, now in the middle of Germany!” We laughed and thumped our glasses of beer and scooped into bowls of hot goulash.

The contrast between East and West was palpable. Easterners seemed more wary and guarded while talking of their grim past. West Germans, like our guide Jens Becker, were light-hearted and open. A frequent traveller to East Berlin, Jens elaborated how one needed ‘day visas’ and ‘transit visas’ for the highways. “The visa was given in the East and once you reached West Berlin, you returned it at the border.

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Back then, they even checked how long was your drive from one point to another. If you took longer, they suspected you were up to something. So no stopping to admire the scenery, getting lost or whimsical detours!” he revealed. Helmstedt was a key border point to reach West Berlin and Becker pointed out three famous checkpoints – Alpha, Bravo and Charlie.

Driving past fields and beautiful brick homes to Grenzdenkmal, we met local guide Hans Gunter Apun at what looked like a bus stop; it was a shelter near the inner German border in the former Soviet Zone. “The demarcation line that later became the border reminds us of a period that started in 1945 and ended in 1989, when the wall came down”, he explained. Hans lived 3km away in the British Occupation Zone. In 1945, the border was marked by a barrier of barbed wires. People tried to cross it at night using the cover of bushes.

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Before the war ended, the victorious Allied powers and anti-Hitler coalition of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin decided that Germany would lose the eastern territories, be divided into four occupational zones, with France invited to occupy parts of Germany. Berlin, the capital of the Third Reich, was also divided into four sectors. In Berlin, you still see sideboards – Former American or British Sector. After the war was over in 1945, everybody was euphoric. At first the four powers unanimously administered Germany as a whole – socially, economically, politically. But that did not last long.

“Things changed in 1946-47 because of ideological differences”, Apun explained. “The Western allies had a different vision from the Soviet Union’s Eastern zone on how to organize public life. And that caused all the problems, friction and confrontations in the following forty years. The more the two sides disagreed, the more the East reinforced its border. They built walls near villages, towns, any habitation. But never on the Western side!”

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“We were allowed as close to the border as we wished,” Apun chuckled. “The West German Border Police warned us, ‘Sir don’t put your foot there – it may cause diplomatic problems!’ People on the other side were not allowed to even go near the border.” By 1961, obstacles prevented cars from crossing. The entire 1400km border had a strip of land 10m wide, which was always ploughed and raked, to detect footprints of potential refugees!” Apun remembers.

At Sorge, in the restricted zone of the former German inner border (also the smallest town in the county with just 86 people), we met the lovely Mayor Inge Winkel. She ran a small museum to keep the past alive, replete with a model of the region, original signboards, warnings, black-and-white pictures of border posts with a collection of tickets, permits and passes issued to people. A 13km stretch of the wall was retained as a reminder why history must not repeat itself. The town’s name, Sorge, meant ‘worry’ or ‘preoccupation’.

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Sharing glimpses of her life in the GDR, Inge rued how a special 5km stretch called Sperrgebeit was a Closed Zone where everyone was prohibited. It was cleared of vegetation and one needed a special permit if you lived there. Another 500m near the border was closed to all. Minefields were planted with danger signs cautioning people not to venture further. She remembers how some young people made a dramatic escape from east to west before the walls were reinforced. “We had a very hard winter and were hit by snow as high as the fences, so people with skiing skills managed to escape to the other side!”

A short drive past a railway track led to the entrance of the open-air museum showcasing Sorge’s actual border. The razor straight pathway cutting through tall trees could pass of as a scenic walking trail if it wasn’t for the strange stray relics around – wired fences, dog runs for patrols, and a perforated concrete cylinder that allowed water to flow but prevented anyone from swimming through canals and escaping! Further down the path was a watchtower called B-Tower.

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The trickiest part was that the high security border lay deep in the Eastern side and people coming from the freer Western side didn’t actually realise they had reached Eastern territory, for which they could be shot! The ground near the fence was always bare, often poisoned so nothing could grow and officers could check for footprints. We posed for pictures at the border fence that once emanated frissions of shock.

In the lovely half-timbered town of Wernigerode, the famous heritage train Brockenbahn took us to the highest hill in the Harz mountains. Being the best vantage to survey the region, Brocken used to be a high security area. A watchtower intercepted radio signals and an old domed listening post at Urian was used for Stasi surveillance. The TV tower and museum display old espionage and communication equipment besides geological history. Over 50 shows of the famous rock opera ‘Faust’ have been performed on the summit.

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The Brockenbahn chugged past fir forests. The foliage had begun to turn in late fall and we saw how the Cold War had left several tracts along the border undisturbed for decades. Nature takes over where man is scarce. The transformation of a virtual Death Zone into a place brimming with life was inspirational. Fauna that had long disappeared, now returned.

Today people walk their hounds, hike, cycle, picnic and enjoy peace and tranquillity that now pervades the region. Twenty five years on, the changes were more than geographical or political; the old border had transformed the emotional, ecological and cultural fabric of Germany.

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FACT FILE
Getting there:

Fly to Hannover and drive 122km to Wernigerode in Saxony Anhalt, from where Bad Helmstedt, Grenzdenkmal and Sorge are short drives away. From Wernigerode, the heritage steam train Brockenbahn takes you on the Harz Narrow Gauge Railway to Brocken in the Harz mountains. www.hsb.wr.de

Stay:
HKK Hotel Wernigerode +49 (0) 39439410 www.hkk-wr.de

For more info, www.germany.travel

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 15 January 2017 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Under the Goan sun

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Fun, food and festive fervour, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY find new reasons to come back to Goa

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The Goan sun may have lost its burn after heavyweight music festivals like Sunburn and Supersonic shifted to Pune last year end, but that can only mean good news to Goa lovers. There’s plenty of elbow room to party for Christmas and New Year! Crank up the volume with the Krank Goa Boutique Party Experience (27-30 Dec) at Chronicle, have the ‘Craziest New Year’s Eve party’ at Banyan Tree with legendary techno artist Goa Gil or try the Yoga Retreat Fest at Mandrem (28 Nov-3 Dec).

However, there’s more to cheer about this season. Starwood’s swanky W Hotels opens in Vagator this December. An old soda factory at Baddem has been reinvented into Soro, a rustic New York-style pub with colourful tiles and retro posters. After wowing Hauz Khas hipsters in Delhi, Gunpowder is scorching Goan taste-buds with its eclectic Peninsular cuisine. Sharing space with PeopleTree design studio in Assagao near the new Fabindia outlet, Gunpowder has a new trendy bar designed by ace mixologist Evgenya Pradznik.

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Not enough? There’s hot air ballooning (Rs.9900/person) at Assolda in South Goa and Duck Boat Safaris in Panjim, making Goa the first state in India to introduce it. Like Dublin or Dubai, you can take a terrestrial-aquatic tour of the architectural precinct of Old Goa followed by a boat ride on the Mandovi. Surely an upgrade from those sunset cruises with ‘live Goan music and dance’!

GTDC Managing Director Nikhil Desai is upbeat about new tourism initiatives. “We have launched cycling tours and birding trails. You can hire a yacht or go on boat tours to Chorao and Divar islands. Plans are afoot to convert Mayem Lake into a recreational spot. Hop-On, Hop-Off bus tours like Singapore and London are in the pipeline. Apart from beach tourism, the focus is on the rich hinterland, unique festivals and Goa as a gourmet destination.”

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Gourmet Goa

Having savoured Goa’s diverse repertoire, we had to agree. Be it Bomras’ Burmese cuisine like lah pet toke (pickled tea leaf salad) in Candolim, souvlakis, tzatziki and Greek fare at Thalassa in Anjuna or Indo-French fine dining at Gregory Bazire’s Le Poisson Rouge at Baga, Goa is for gourmands. Dig into river crab and fresh turmeric tortellini with a curry leaf emulsion at Le Poisson Rouge or hop across to Matsya Freestyle Kitchen at Samata Retreat Centre in Arambol to try out Israeli chef Gome Galily’s excellent tuna tataki and red snapper ceviche.

Chef Chris Saleem, the man behind Sublime in Morjim is now manning Elevar, a seaside restaurant in Ashvem. A large deck with casual seating overlooks the surf as well-plated dishes like Seabass Carpaccio and Tandoori prawns over saffron and fenugreek risotto are served. We took a ferry across to Fort Tiracol to dine at Tavern restaurant where Chris’s signature menu blends Portuguese, Goan and Indian flavours into petiscos (tapas). Overlooking Keri Beach from the fort ramparts, we tucked into spaghetti with Tiracol clams, Vitello Tonnato (stewed beef filets) and Peixe caldeirada (Portuguese fisherman stew) with a view as terrific as the food.

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Forget Italian and Asian, there’s even Bengali cuisine in Goa! Latika Khosla’s gorgeous home store Freedom Tree in a sea green and white Portuguese villa in Sangolda had enough room for a restaurant. Her friends Shilpa Sharma and Poonam Singh found inspiration in the Franco-Bengali love for mustard and roped in food historian Pritha Sen to meld subtle flavours of East Bengal with French cuisine. Over Cucumber Latte and tamarind-based Tentul Joler Sherbet, Pritha deconstructed Eastern Indian cuisine.

“When the British built the railways to expand the trade in tea and Burma teak, steamers ferried goods, passengers, forest rangers, British officials and zamindars from the railhead. Mogs, a Burmese hill tribe from Arakan, were ace cooks who picked up European flavours aboard Portuguese pirate ships. Unlike Hindu or Muslim cooks, Mogs were Buddhist and had no qualms preparing pork or beef, so the British employed them on these steamers. Over time, this ‘steamer cuisine’ crept into the Raj clubs of Calcutta.” Pritha tracked down the last living mog in Kolkata and coaxing recipes and techniques from his assistant, introduced a limited menu here. The highlight is smoked fish, made the traditional way by charring puffed rice, jaggery and husk.

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Museum of Goa

MoG was the flavour of the season! The smoky taste still on our lips, we breezed past the blue roadside mermaids scattered between Porvorim and Candolim to MoG or Museum of Goa in Pernem Industrial Estate. Mog is Konkani for ‘heart’ so when the museum opened last November, locals wondered what scandalous affair would unfold at the lonely hilltop. But the museum of contemporary art wows every visitor.

Spread across four floors amid landscaped sculpture gardens, MoG is the largest private art space in India. Set up by local ‘sea artist’ Subodh Kerkar (his muse is the sea), it chronicles Goa’s various cultural histories by local artists. Spanning a time frame from Parashurama to the Portuguese and 450 years of colonial rule, the museum is a tribute to Goa. Ceramic and pottery workshops by local artist Mayank Jain, art classes, book launches, lectures, film screenings, concerts; MoG is a hub where many art forms collide. The lores behind the themes were as interesting as the exhibits.

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The artists creatively interpreted Portuguese imports to India – from pepper and chili to gulmohar (brought from Madagascar and locally called kombyache zhad or ‘tree of the rooster’ owing to its crest-like flower). Subodh created installations using green mussels, sawn boats, porcelain plates submerged in the sea for months, even a fish vendor’s chopping block!

A large wooden horseshoe titled ‘Al Khamsar’ retraced Goa’s trading history as the centre of horse trade during medieval times. Nearly half of Goa’s revenue came from the sale of Arabian horses, in high demand by Indian royalty. The Vijayanagar kings were the biggest buyers with exclusive rights to all horses brought by the Portuguese. They also paid for horses that perished on the sea voyage, provided they could furnish the tail!

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Exploring Panjim

The gallery’s in-house Om Made Café served organic fare, but we were so famished, we could’ve eaten a horse! At Ritz Classic on 18th June Road in Panjim, patrons stalk diners for a free table, so we checked out their spacious new outlet in Patto. After a plate of chonak (Giant Sea Perch) fry, we concurred the taste was as spot on as the grilled pearlspot.

Panjim’s alleys are dotted with great eateries – Viva Panjim, Casa Bhosle (amazing tisrya sukkem or clams) and Confeitaria 31 de Janeiro that offers a daily rotating menu. Chicken cafreal on Monday, beef stew on Tuesday, feijoado (beef-pork-bean stew) on Wednesday, xacuti on Thursday and any dish on Friday. Bhatti Village in Nerul goes one better – an unfixed menu based on Patrick’s wife’s whims!

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Besides gastronomy, it was heartening to see Goa finally do justice to Mario Miranda’s legacy. The Reis Magos fort, named after the Biblical three wise men, was renovated by architect Gerard da Cunha, INTACH and the UK-based Helen Hamlyn Trust. The Craft Centre outlines the restoration process while two halls showcase Mario’s work, though one has been recently converted into a freedom fighters’ gallery!

Most visitors miss the first-of-its-kind Indian Custom & Central Excise Museum opposite Panaji jetty. Located in the 416-year-old Captain of Ports Building, it was renamed the Blue Building after a repaint in 2001 as tribute to the indigo trade. A chapel near the entrance is dedicated to St Anthony, patron saint of the lost-and-found. Among the highlights are dioramas of old trading settlements, Goan ports, a rare manuscript of Ain-i-Akbari, a Narcotics Gallery and a Battle of Wits Gallery where smuggled goods were seized in hollow shoe soles, cane sticks, commodes and car engines!

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In Panjim, take a guided walk through the old Portuguese quarter of Fontainhas. Walking past lovely vivendas (homes) and pousadas (guest houses) with oyster shells windowpanes, we reached the fonte (spring) after which the settlement was named. Artist Subodh Kerkar too leads heritage walks and we joined him on an early morning jaunt to ‘any place within a short drive.’

At a time when we normally return from a rave, we set out to explore the heritage village of Moira. Beyond architect Charles Correa’s ancestral house, we strolled to the Moira riverfront guarded by the pre-Aryan folk deity Rastoli Brahman Prasann. At the sluice gates, fish was left to dry and fresh hatchlings in perforated plastic jars hung half submerged in the waters. ‘It’s to keep the bait fresh! On each walk I learn something new,” said Subodh.

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Having done enough rounds of Anjuna’s flea market, we browsed Mapusa’s Friday Market for local produce, clothes, furniture, terracotta artefacts and round Salcette sausages we had tried at the Pattoleochem Fest in Socorro village. They looked more like rudraksha beads (rosaries). “Child, they’re so tasty, you’ll come back for more”, one lady said. Indeed, we will! You can never have your fill of Goa…

FACT FILE

Getting there: Jet Airways flies to Dabolim airport in Goa.

When to go
Besides IFFI in November and Christmas/New Year in December, look out for local fests every month – Grape Escapade in Jan, Carnival in Feb around Lent, Shigmo (Holi) in March, Mango festival in May, Sao Joao (well jumping) and Ponsachem (Jackfruit) Fest in June, Touxeachem (Cucumber) Fest in July at Talaulim and Pattoleochem Fest in Aug at Socorro.

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Where to Stay

Birdsong, Moira
Ph 9987962519, 9810307012, 9587508222
www.birdsonggoa.com

Coco Shambhala, Nerul
Ph 9372267182
www.cocoshambhala.com

Ahilya by the Sea, Nerul
Ph 011-41551575
www.ahilyabythesea.com

Aashyana Lakhanpal, Candolim
Ph 0832-2489276, 2489225, 9822488672
www.aashyanalakhanpal.com

Panjim Inn, Panjim
Ph 0832-2226523, 2228136
www.panjiminn.com

W Hotels, Vagator
Ph 0832-6718888
www.starwoodhotels.com

Turiya Spa, Canacona
Ph 0832-2644172, 2643077, 9821594004
www.turiyavilla.com

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Where to Eat & Drink

Casa Bhonsle
Cunha Rivara Road, Near National Theater, Panjim
Ph: 0832-2222260

Ritz Classic
‪Patto Plaza, Gera Imperium II, Near Kadamba Bus Stand, Panjim
Ph: 0832-2970298

Elevar Beach Bar & Restaurant
Leela Seaside Cottages, Ashvem
Ph: 9130352188

Soro The Village Pub
Baddem Junction, Siolim-Assagao Road
Ph: 9881934440, 9881904449

Gunpowder
People Tree, Assagao
Ph: 0832-2268228

Mustard Restaurant
Freedom Tree, Sangolda
Ph: 98234 36120 

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What to See/Do 

Indian Custom & Central Excise Museum, Panaji
Ph: 0832-2420620 Email goamuseum2009@gmail.com
Timings: 9.30am-5pm (Tues-Sun)
Entry: Rs.50 Audio Guided tour tablet

Museum of Goa, Pilerne
Director: Dr Subodh Kerkar Ph: +91 9326119324 www.museumofgoa.com
Timings: 10am to 6pm
Entry fee: Rs.100 Indians; Rs.300 foreign nationals, Rs.50 students and children.

Reis Magos Fort, Verem
Ph: 0832-2904649 Email reismagosfort@gmail.com
Timings: 9.30am to sunset (Tues-Sun)

Houses of Goa Museum, Torda, Porvorim
Ph: 0832-2410711 www.archgoa.org

For local tours, contact GTDC
Ph: 0832-2437132, 2437728, 8805727230
www.goa-tourism.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the December 2016 issue of JetWings International magazine.

Marvellous Melbourne: 10 reasons to visit

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Local markets, eclectic architecture, cool cafes, global cuisine, graffiti splattered walls and much more, ANURAG MALLICK finds out 10 cool reasons to visit Melbourne

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A planned city laid out around a central grid north of the Yarra river, Melbourne is a vibrant, multi-cultural place known for its love of art, culture, music and food. In this buzzing metropolis the old and the new meet in a delicious blend of architecture ranging from the classical to the whimsical. Bylanes are abuzz with the chatter of bars, restaurants, shops and theatres. With regular events and exhibitions at National Gallery Victoria, Victorian Art Centre and Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the city’s cultural calendar is packed. There’s lots to love about Melbourne and here’s what makes the city so cool.

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In CBD, the trams are free
The best thing about the Central Business District is that tram rides are free. When you are about to leave the Free Tram Zone, there’s a voice alert! Walking around the streets and bylanes is a delight as lovely ornate buildings dot the entire CBD area. In the rectangular grid, every street has an immediate equivalent lane from north to south – Flinder’s Street, Flinder’s Lane, Collins Street, Collins Lane, and so on.

From the western end, you have Spencer street named after the influential Spencer family to which Winston Churchill and Lady Diana belong. There’s King Street named after King William, Elizabeth Street after Queen Elizabeth and so on… As the local adage goes, if you get lost, all you have to do is think about the old dead monarchs of England.

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Laneway Dining
It’s a bit of a Melbourne thing to have bars and restaurants tucked away in alleyways, often without any prominent shop front or signage. Bar Americano is a tiny joint at Presgrave Place that serves good cocktails and seats only ten people at a time. Melbourne’s best Spanish fare can be found at Frank Camorra’s MoVida restaurant in the graffiti-splattered Hosier Lane.

Pastuso, the Peruvian grill and bar serving ceviche and pisco is tucked away on ACDC Lane. Adam DySilva’s Tonka presents Indian cuisine with a twist in a back alley at Duckboard Place off Flinders Lane. What they save on real estate goes on to your plate! Duck into any laneway and you’ll stumble onto something exciting…

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Street Art
Wherever you go in Melbourne, the streets are alive with art as if the entire city is one giant canvas. Corporation Lane was renamed ACDC Lane as tribute to the legendary Aussie rockers who hail from the city. Lined with funky artwork, fans painted the band’s trademark lightning bolt over the street sign because the city officials refused to change the nomenclature format.

Rather than chase kids spraying walls with aerosol cans, an entire lane was given to them in 2008 as a graffiti mentoring project. Union Lane, tucked away between David Jones & Book Building, is a great place to see local street art, besides Hosier Lane and Presgrave Place, which is known for its funky three-dimensional installations.

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The buskers of Bourke Street Mall
If you’re a busker, your ultimate platform is Bourke Street Mall. The popular location, thronged by the young and restless, has been running the sonic gauntlet for years and is Melbourne’s premiere spot for busking. But you can’t just land up here with your regular busker license and plonk your gear on the sidewalk.

Buskers must go to Melbourne Town Hall where they are screened, almost like Australia’s Got Talent or Australian Idol. The scene is very well managed and they can’t play all at once. There are three major points – off Elizabeth Street, Swanson Street and right in the middle. Unlike other street corners terrorized by wannabe musicians clanging away at pots and pans, the musical talent here is topnotch.

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Rooftop honey
One of the coolest things about Melbourne is its Rooftop Honey. All over the city 80 swarms of honeybee colonies have been ‘re-homed’ at unused roofs, balconies and gardens. Located at hotels, restaurants and coffee shops, the bees were resettled after their unwanted colonies elsewhere were saved from extermination. Being an agriculture driven country, Australia understands the importance of honey bees for a sustainable food supply chain as they pollinate agricultural and horticultural crops.

The reason why urban bee farming took off is the diverse flora growing in the city in comparison to the countryside which often has mono cropping. The result – truly ‘local’ produce of delicious honey unique to each site – Melbourne CBD, North of the Yarra to South of the Yarra. Buy test tubes or small jars for $14.95. www.rooftophoney.com.au

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Local sayings inspired by streets and buildings
Melburnians find a lot of inspiration for their aphorisms and adages from their cityscape. If you get out of a car or a tram onto a bustling street, people often remark “It’s busier than Bourke Street.” If you met ‘under the clock’, it was outside Flinders Street Railway Station. In the 1870’s it was fashionable to traipse down Collins Street in your glad rags and this fad was called ‘doing the Block’. When a shopping complex was built there in 1892, it was called Block Arcade.

Then there’s the building Buckley & Nunn, which gives rise to the phrase ‘Buckley’s chance (or none)’, rhyming slang for no chance at all. One of the biggest names in retail, (Sydney) Myer came in 1900 as a young Russian Jewish refugee who began by renting a small shop and within 18 years, he bought over everything. The 7-storey tall Myers runs all the way across Little Bourke Street to Lonsdale Street. If you are talking about someone who is too full of himself, they say “That guy has more front than Myer.”

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Reclaiming old buildings
One of the most charming aspects of Melbourne is the ability to take pre-existing unused spaces and reinvent them into hip venues. Like the switchboard room of the Manchester Unity Building where the controls were housed has been transformed into the tiny Switchboard Café. Postal Lane, an alleyway between Meyer and the General Post Office, was where delivery trucks took their mail in and out for 150 odd years.

When the Post Office shut down, some enterprising people started a few European style restaurants. Walk past the cast iron gates and dine next to signs that say ‘Beware of Motor Cars’ and ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted.’ Center Place, between Majorca building and Center House, used to be a rundown laneway where hawkers sold stamps, coins and knickknacks until it was converted into a warm intimate European style, lamp-lit alley. Today, it features in all publicity material of Melbourne!

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Exploring Vic Market
Established in 1878, the Queen Victoria Market is the largest market in Australia and the oldest Victorian era market in the southern hemisphere. Spread over 7 hectares in the heart of the CBD, its façade bears the figures of the Melbourne coat of arms – fleece, bull, ship and whale, representing the four major activities on which Melbourne’s economy was founded – wool, livestock, shipping and whaling.

Take a 2-hour guided Hunt and Gather Tour for $49 through The Meat Hall the oldest building with lively butchers and fishmongers who have been around for four generations. As the sign at Jago’s proclaims “We don’t yell to sell”. Walk through the Art Deco Dairy Hall and Deli for tribal flavors of kangaroo meat, fresh oysters, local cheese, handmade chocolate at Koko Black, Greek stuffed olives and more. Closed Mondays and Wednesdays. Ph (03) 9320 5835 www.qvm.com.au/tours

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Irreverent architecture
From the modern interpretation of Federation Square with shards to the slender spire of the Victorian Art Centre dubbed the ‘mock Eiffel Tower’ (it’s actually shaped like a ballerina’s tutu), Melbourne’s architecture is rich and diverse. All the wealth from the gold rush triggered a construction frenzy and in the 1870s, the city was hailed as ‘Marvellous Melbourne’.

Perhaps the most irreverent piece is the large clam shaped ladies’ purse made out of locally sourced pink granite and stainless steel by local artist Simon Perry. Created from contributions of the public purse, it’s a bit of an artistic joke that the installation is called the Public Purse. Pose for a selfie here or wait for a tram.

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Coffee culture
Melbourne is easily Australia’s coffee capital. While Pellegrini’s on Bourke Street started in 1912, is one of the earliest cafes to open in town, Melbourne’s coffee craze dates back to mid 20th century. After the second world war, several Italians and Greeks moved to Australia and Melbourne in particular. Aided by the timely invention of the piston-driven espresso machine by Achille Gaggia in 1945, the Italians brought the café culture to the city and Melbourne took it to another level.

With its laid back vibe, multi-cultural air, small independent roasters and love for the beverage, the stage was set for a coffee obsession that was only fuelled by the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Today, you could try The League of Honest Coffee for their single origin brews, the same blend of Vittoria beans served for the last 60 years at Pellegrini’s, grab a quick cuppa at Market Lane Coffee or try Manchester Press, Everyday Coffee, Proud Mary or Brother Baba Budan. As the sign at 1932 Café in the Manchester Unity Building states ‘More Espresso, Less Depresso.’

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Singapore Airlines flies from India to Melbourne (13½ hrs) via Singapore – 4½ hrs to Changi Airport and 7½ hrs to Melbourne. www.singaporeair.com

Stay
Melbourne has great accommodation options – Citadines on Bourke Street is a great hotel centrally located in the CBD. www.citadines.com

Eat
There’s excellent global cuisine on offer in Melbourne – Italian fare at Grossi and Florentino, American Diner and CBD’s biggest beer garden at Trunk, Indian cuisine with a twist at Tonka, Hellenic ‘filthy food’ at Gazi and great breakfast platters at Heirloom Japanese restaurant in Citadines Hotel.

For more info, visit www.tourism.vic.gov.au

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the January 2017 issue of JetWings magazine.

Assam: Chasing the Brahmaputra

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Assam has much more to offer than tea plantations, the one-horned rhino and the Brahmaputra; ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover slow travel while following the course of India’s only male river

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Named after the Ahom kings who ruled the land of the mighty Brahmaputra, Assam is a region of astonishing diversity – ancient temples, UNESCO World Heritage sites, rich wildlife, vibrant culture, delectable cuisine and tea estates that stretch till eternity. Its bustling capital Guwahati, once a haat (marketplace) for gua (arecanut), hence the name, acts as a gateway to North East India.

Like most visitors, our first stop was the Kamakhya Temple atop Nilachal Hill in the western part of the city. Seat of an ancient fertility cult, the temple is a revered Shakti pitha where a cleft in a rock is worshipped as the place where Goddess Sati’s yoni fell. In the rains, when the Brahmaputra is in spate, the rivulet flowing over the stone shrine turns turbid and red, symbolizing the menstruation of goddess Kamakhya.

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The sanctum sanctorum is closed for three days and reopens only after the goddess is purified with a ritual bath. Devotees collect holy spring water and shreds of the angabastra (stained red cloth) as prasad. The week-long fertility festival Ambubachi Mela is attended by mystics and tantriks.

Guwahati’s Kalakshetra, a tribute to Assam’s medieval poet-playwright Srimanta Shankardev, is the perfect primer into Assamese culture. Inside the sprawling campus, housed in ethnic buildings, is a treasure trove of traditional articles – murals, masks, silk saris, jaapi (traditional conical hat) and the red and white cloth gamosa traditionally used to cover the Bhagavad Purana, a holy scripture recited every evening in most households.

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Guests are usually welcomed with a gamosa and tamul (betel nut), often served in a xorai or ornamental bell-metal offering tray, considered a cultural symbol of Assam. An open-air theatre serves as performance space for colourful dances like bihu while the Bhupen Hazarika Museum showcases 4000 objects owned by the maestro.

We stopped by to savour local cuisine at restaurants like Parampara (excellent Assamese thalis) and Khorika, where a choice of chargrilled meats – fish, pork, chicken – is served in khorika or bamboo skewers with piquant mustard chutney. After a quick visit to the Navagraha temple, we caught the sunset on the Brahmaputra as it silently slithered in a wide swathe. Umananda, the tiniest river island in the world stood silhouetted in the fading light. The world’s biggest river island Majuli was also located on the Brahmaputra further upstream.

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A quick halt at the silk-weaving center of Sualkuchi and the pilgrim centre of Hajo to see the Hayagriva Madhava Mandir, and we set off on the Assam Trunk Road following the course of the river. The Brahmaputra is at its narrowest at Hajo (just 1km) but swelled up as we drove along. We marveled at the sight when our driver corrected us, “Ye nadi nahi, nad hai!” In a country where rivers are largely feminine (Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Cauvery), Brahmaputra or the Son of Brahma stands out as a rare male river.

As per mythology, Sage Shantanu’s wife Amogha had a child by Lord Brahma. The child took the form of water and Shantanu placed him in the middle of four great mountains — Kailash, Gandhamadana, Jarudhi and Sambwartakka. He grew into a great lake called Brahmakunda. Meanwhile, Sage Parashurama had committed the terrible sin of killing his mother on the instruction of his father Jamdagni. So grave was the offence that the blood-stained axe got stuck to his hand! After visiting several holy places, Parashurama came to Brahmakunda where he axed down the mountainside to release the waters for the benefit of locals. Lo and behold, Parashurama’s axe came loose and the blood was washed off, leaving a reddish tinge in the river, which was called Brahmaputra or ‘Luit’ in Assamese (from the Sanskrit word for blood).

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The history of Assam seemed to be written in blood as we reached Tezpur. Its ancient name Sonitpur too meant ‘The City of Blood’. Here, Lord Krishna battled Lord Shiva and his ardent disciple Asura king Banasura, to rescue his imprisoned grandson Aniruddha who loved Banasura’s daughter Usha. There was so much carnage, entire rivers of blood were spilt and the whole place was stained red.

While not much remains of the Agnigarh fort, Tezpur is a good Launchpad for Nameri Wildlife Park nearby. Amid impeccable tea gardens, we were based in the 1875 angling bungalow Wild Mahseer Lodge at Balipara for our explorations along the Jia Bhoroli river for the prized White-winged Wood Duck.

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But the jewel in Assam’s crown is Kaziranga. Spread over 430 sq km and often compared to African parks for its wide open tracts and quality of wildlife viewing, Kaziranga is the Land of Giants. Home to the Big 5 – elephants, tigers, Asiatic water buffalos, swamp deer and the world’s largest population of the great one-horned rhinoceros, Kaziranga harbours 15 threatened mammal species. We checked into Wild Grass Lodge, one of the pioneering jungle lodges in the region.

For two full days, we explored the park’s three ranges on jeep drives, elephant safaris, wildlife sightings from machaans (observation towers) and birdwatching trails in buffer zones and tea estates. A magical river cruise on the Brahmaputra revealed Gangetic dolphins, before we continued our road trip to Jorhat. Our base was the heritage tea estate bungalow Thengal Manor, ideal for forays to Hoolock Gibbon Sanctuary, where animated hoots announced the presence of India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon.

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In 1794, Ahom King Gaurinath Singha shifted his capital from Sibsagar to Jorhat but a series of Burmese invasions from 1817 destroyed the commercial metropolis. 1823 heralded the arrival of the British and it was Scottish adventurer Robert Bruce who introduced the Assam tea bush to Europe. While trading in the region he found the bush growing wild and noticed local Singhpo tribesmen brewing tea from its leaves. The British East India Company took over the region from the Ahom kings in 1826 and after leaves from the Assam tea bush were examined in the botanical gardens in Calcutta, the first English tea garden was established at Chabua in Upper Assam in 1837.

From Jorhat to Dibrugarh and Margherita, this is Upper Assam’s premier tea county. Local conditions are ideal for growing tea. The low lying floodplains in the valley of the Brahmaputra river has clayey soil rich in nutrients. The climate varies between a cool, arid winter and a hot, humid rainy season with the lengthy growing season and generous rainfall making Assam one of the most prolific tea-producing regions in the world. Each year, Assam’s tea estates produce nearly 6.8 billion kg of tea!

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An assuming town, Jorhat was the first town in Upper and Central Assam to have electricity in 1923. The first aeroplane landed on north-eastern soil in Jorhat in 1928. Jorhat Gymkhana Club is the oldest golf course in Asia and third oldest in the world. And the world’s oldest and largest Tea Experimental Station Tocklai is located in Jorhat. We enjoyed the life of a retired planter at the Burra Sahib Bungalow and learnt the nuances of tea tasting at Sangsua Tea Factory, before continuing to Nemati Ghat for the ferry to Majuli.

Packed to the rafters with passengers, cycles, motorbikes and cars, the ferry disgorged us at Kamalabari Ghat from where a van deposited us at Garamur. Staying in French-designed huts of bamboo and thatch, we savoured the rustic hospitality of a Mishing family and explored Majuli on a hired bike. Many of the centuries-old satras (Vaishnava monasteries) were established by Shankardev and his followers.

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Each satra was devoted to a particular art or craft – Chamaguri specialized in masks while at Auniati we witnessed apsara nritya and other dances. Our visit during the annual Raas Leela in November was perfect to witness night-long theatrical performances. Sadly, each year the Brahmaputra relentlessly devours the island bit by bit, making it a fragile vanishing ecosystem. The blazing sunsets on Luit Ghat seared on our minds, we reluctantly bid adieu to Majuli and stopped at the ancient Ahom capital Sibsagar with its lakes and temples.

The next morning, it was with a sense of achievement we sipped our full-bodied Assam tea at the Mancotta Chang bungalow in Dibrugarh. It was shockingly late for breakfast but then, tea gardens in Assam do not follow the Indian Standard Time. Bearing in mind the early sunrise in this part of the country, the British introduced a system called Tea Garden or Bagan Time that was an hour ahead of the IST! The moments stretched like the unending tea gardens and our sips were long and languorous. This indeed was slow travel or ‘laahe laahe’ (no hurry) in the local lingo. After all, this was Bagantime.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Guwahati is connected by direct flights to Kolkata, Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai and Bengaluru. Kaziranga National Park is 215km (5 ½ hour drive) from Guwahati

Where to Stay

Prabhakar Homestay, Guwahati
Ph 0361-2650053, 9435033221/2
www.prabhakar-homestay.com   

Hacienda, Guwahati
Banyan Grove & Burra Sahib’s Bungalow, Jorhat
Thengal Manor, Jalukonibari
Ph 0376-2304267/673, 9954451548
www.heritagetourismindia.com 

Wild Mahseer Lodge, Balipara
Ph 03714-234354/79, 98336 31377
www.wildmahseer.com

Nameri Eco Camp
Ph 9435145563, 9435250025, 9854019932
E ecocampnameri@gmail.com

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Wild Grass Lodge, Kaziranga
Ph 0361-2630465, 03776-262085, 9954416945
E wildgrasskaziranga@gmail.com

Diphlu River Lodge, Kaziranga
Bansbari Lodge, Manas
Ph 0361-2602223, 2602186, 2540995
www.assambengalnavigation.com 

Chang Bungalows, Dibrugarh
Ph 0373 2301120, 2300035
www.assamteatourism.com

La Maison D’Ananda, Majuli
Ph 9957186356
E danny002in@yahoo.com

For more info, contact
Assam Tourism
Ph 0361-2633654
http://www.assamtourismonline.com
http://www.assamtourism.gov.in

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the Oct-Nov 2016 issue of India Now magazine.

 

Peru: Paradise in Paracas

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There’s more to Peru than Machu Pichhu and Cusco, discovers PRIYA GANAPATHY

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Our van blazed down Peru’s historic Pan-American Highway, the southern part of the world’s longest motorable road connecting mainland America to Chile and Argentina. But I was heading south of Lima to Paracas, a secret paradise in the desert in the Ica region, a mecca for eco-tourism. Half an hour from Lima, our guide Pablo pointed out green swathes breaking the dull arid surroundings. Pantonas de Villa or the Villa’s Swamps in Chorillos is a 263-hectare wetland home to several migratory birds.

We passed the sacred pre-Incan archaeological site of Pachacamac dedicated to Pacha Kamaq, the god of creation and earthquakes, though the pyramids were barely visible. Further on was Chilca, known for therapeutic mud spas, UFO sightings and E.T. ice-creams! Paracas’ bright sunshine and peaceful coastline attracted the rich to build expensive summer homes and condos in the beach village of Asia.

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Soon, we pulled into La Hacienda Bahia Paracas resort, a virtual oasis of peace and luxury. With Spanish tiles in the courtyard and red bougainvillea vines on its walls, its rooms overlooked the glassy Paracas Bay. I would have savoured it longer but for the morning boat ride to the famous Ballestas Islands, pegged as the Galapagos of Peru. At the private jetty, Ronald the naturalist hollered, “Before Islas Ballestas, we stop at a geoglyph called El Candelabro of the Andes, because of its design. People don’t really know where, when or why it came into existence.”

Paracas Bay teems with rich marine life, birds and sea animals. Three of the six varieties of flamingos are found in Peru while Paracas in particular is home to the Common Flamingo. Four of the world’s seven sea turtles live here, besides otters and the endangered Humboldt penguin. “It’s one of the 17 varieties of penguins that live in Peru and Chile”, Ronald rattled on. The Paracas Natural Reserve is unique because it’s the only one that protects the ocean and the desert landscape. In 10 minutes we were face to face with what looked like a sand dune mountain with a gigantic cactus-like candlestand on it. This was the Paracas Candelabro.

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The ancient Pre-Incan Paracas culture existed around 600BC-600AD. Excavations at the Paracas Cavernas and Necropolis, the 2500-year-old mass burial clusters revealed mindboggling and morbid truths. Known for their exquisite pottery and tradition of mummifying the dead with delicate handwoven textiles using alpaca wool, the Paracas were among the earliest people of the world to experiment with trepanation, a form of brain surgery!

Trepanation involved drilling holes into the brain and covering it with a gold plate or deforming and elongating the brain as a form of medical treatment besides religious rites and ceremonies. “They couldn’t give Pisco to knock out their patients,” Ronald quipped “so they used hallucinogenic herbs, coca and a unique native Andean cactus to anaesthetise them. It is believed that the Candelabro design that faces the sky represents the San Pedro Cactus (named after Saint Peter who holds the keys to heaven) used in trepanation.”

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Another theory is that 17th century pirates, sailors and cartographers regarded the Candelabro as a navigational tool since it pointed south. Others believe they were created by aliens. But it is possible to create these designs, Ronald mused, “using scales, sticks and chords”. Documentaries like Ancient Aliens by Erich von Daniken spin fascinating theories about the possibility of ancient astronauts and extraterrestrial interventions. But Maria Reiche Newman, considered the Guardian of the Nazca Lines researched the Candelabro for six months and proposed that it was a representation of the Southern Cross constellation visible in this region.

Much older than the Nazca Lines, the Candelabro is closely linked to the Independence Age. When General José de San Martin landed here on 8 Sep 1820 with 4000 soldiers to liberate Peru from the Spanish Empire, the first headquarters of the Independence Army was in Pisco nearby. As he rested under a palm tree by Paracas Bay, he awoke from a dream to see flamingos in the sky and decided to put its colours – red and white on the Peruvian flag.

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This prehistoric geoglyph on the dune’s north face has been so well preserved due to the peculiar climatic conditions of Paracas. The cold Humboldt Ocean current that Peru shares with Chile ensures a lush marine life full of seaweed, plankton, fish and penguins. Because of the irregular water cycle, the water remains cold. There is no evaporation and no condensation so no rain. Only half an hour drizzle in the entire year. The wind blows sand from the desert from south to north…from behind the figure, thus ensuring that sand passes over it! Paracas literally means “rain of sand” in Quechua.

We continued to the triad of Ballestas Islands (Southern, Central and Northern). The picturesque cliffs with caves, arches and rugged rock shaped by wind and water were awash with curdled bird droppings. We circled closer and the panoramic cliffs seemed to pulsate with life. Against a soundscape of lashing waves, fluttering wings and myriad bird calls was the unstoppable dance of feeding, flying, feather-cleaning, fighting and fondling. I had never seen such a swarm of winged creatures in one place. The sky was patterned by avian constellations.

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Thousands of Guanay Cormorants, worshipped in these parts, blackened the entire cliff side. Guanay is the Spanish word for guano. “This is the no. 1 poopmaker, 90% of guano is from them,” Ronald cried over the din. In the 19th century, this natural fertilizer triggered a flourishing economy and became a popular Peruvian export to France and England who literally spent “shitloads of money”.

Giving the Guanay Cormorants company were flocks of large-billed Pelicans, Red-legged Cormorants, Neotropic Cormorants, rare Oyestercatchers, Inca terns, besides nesting Peruvian Boobies, another guano producer. Apparently they are called ‘booby’ because of their dummy gait! I spotted a rookery of Humboldt Penguins camouflaged against the dappled landscape. They were shockingly small but waddled down like old heavy-bosomed matrons. Anticipating our exit, they dawdled before diving into the fish-filled waters for breakfast.

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The wet rocks had other inhabitants too. Red crabs scuttled in crevasses while heaps of sea lions huddled and lolled in the sun, napping like beach bums. A few ‘energetic’ ones grunted, honked, yawned and moaned tiredly from the effort of hauling themselves from the water and lumbering over slippery rocks. There was even a beach for sea lions called the Maternity Beach where they breed between December and March. We spotted a small group of fisherman. Since fishing nets are banned in this protected area, they could only dive and pick their crabs, squids and octopus by hand or spear. One man waved a giant octopus at us… his prize catch of the day!

That lasting image of the big octopus dictated my choice for lunch at El Coral, the hotel’s restaurant – Pulpito Candelabro (grilled baby octopus). After trying the famous ceviche, I had my sirloin’s share of Loma Saltado Montado, along with another local favourite – the saccharine Inca Cola. The diversity in taste and fresh ingredients make Peruvian cuisine a big hit across the world.

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But a full stomach is a dumbass idea before a dune bashing ride in the Paracas desert. For one, the dunes are practically like mountains and secondly, a Dakar rallyist like Davide does not make it easy for you. No sooner had we careered off the highway in a 4×4, Davide suddenly swooped up and down and round on a sea of sandy tidal waves, spraying jets of silken sand on every turn. The nonchalance with which he tackled improbable drops and climbs revealed his prowess at the wheel.

We stopped to catch our breath and rearrange our body parts on the rim of a gigantic dune. Davide pulled out a surf board and asked, “Sandboarding?” “From here?” I squawked, looking at the incredulous incline and declined. No way I could haul myself up the slope in time for sunset. The whole Ica Desert turned into gold dust as the sun sank and an inky blue twilight took over the sky.

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We drove deeper into the desert to a tent in a sandy bowl in the middle of nowhere. In this romantic Bedouin setting, a romantic lamplit dinner had been set with champagne, skewered meat and prawn, traditional potato snacks with dips, guacamole, salsa huancaina and green ocopa sauce and gourmet dessert. El Condor Pasa, the lilting Peruvian classic filled the air as a full moon rose over the dunes. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

Paracas is the ideal base to set off to Pisco airport for the 1½ hour flight over the mysterious Nazca lines. The UNESCO World Heritage Site has bewildered everyone for centuries by their presence, purpose, location and precision. The fact that each iconic image can be perceived only from the sky adds more intrigue. For years people had been driving right over them and didn’t notice anything. The Pan American highway built in 1938 cut the image of the Lizard in half because of this ignorance! Glued to my window seat behind the pilot in Aerodiana’s low flying 12-seater Cessna Grand Caravan we droned bumblebee-like 3000ft above the sandy canvas of the desert.

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With a cheat sheet of 13 diagrams to compare with the original line drawings, I scanned the landscape. For the first 40 minutes, the incomprehensible vastness of the Pampas de Jumana desert between Nazca and Palpa stretched like an enormous snake moulting its scaly skin, interrupted by a few green patches of farmland. “We are now approaching Nazca Lines.”

The lines of the Whale went under the wing before I fathomed its design. I focussed harder for the next. My heart skipped a beat as I spotted the distinct lines of the 310ft Hummingbird! Then the Parrot, the mighty Condor, the goggle-eyed Astronaut or Owlman, the 890ft Monkey with its coiled tail that inspired the Peru logo, the spider, the tree and bizarre waving hands…

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Was this the work of mere mortals or some divine or alien hand? How did they conceive it, let alone execute it? Nothing explains the purpose of scratching 30cm deep furrows on the earth’s surface in a maze of geometric lines and designs! But theories and conspiracies abound. Were these 300 odd drawings covering 450 sq km an intergalactic code or airbase for spaceships? Did E.T. go home?

First recorded in 1553 by Pedro Cieza de Leon who mistook them for trail markers, Peruvian archaeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe documented the open scrapbook of biomorphs (bird and animal figures) in 1927 while on a hike. Maria Reiche zealously guarded them for half a century and concluded they were a calendar of solstice markers.

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Another find was Vina Tacama, South America’s oldest vineyard established in the 1540s. I stood there imagining how workers danced and sang as they crushed the grapes underfoot for the ‘first press’ of juice leaving the ‘second press’ extraction of the skin by horses. Deep in the Ica valley, set in a Suffolk pink hacienda, the historic winery was established by Francisco de Carabantes with a vine brought from the Canary Islands, to supply wine to the different religious orders established in Lima. From 1821 to 1889 it was run by nuns from the Order of St. Augustine. Even today, the 250-hectare vineyard is watered by its 15th century canal Achirana del Inca, built by Inca Pachacutec and immortalised by Peruvian author Ricardo Palma.

About a hundred years before the arrival of the Spaniards, this region was earmarked to grow the sacred coca leaf for the Inca and the surrounding Andean mountains were the limit of the property! Over time the estate changed several hands as did the crop. Tacama enjoys 476 years of antiquity and grows 23 varieties of grapes. With guided tours by in-house experts, learn what goes into making awarding winning wines and how the wine-making culture spread from Peru to Chile and Argentina. The Ica region is adapted to produce wines under exceptional conditions because of its climatic and soil characteristics, giving its wines a distinctly rich terroir.

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After browsing through the collection of old amphoras, barrels and distillery equipment, I asked Pablo why Peruvians contest the Chilean claim over Pisco, the famous grape brandy used to make the popular cocktail Pisco Sour. “Our best Pisco buyers are Chileans, so that should tell you who knows how to make it!” Touché. “Besides, our distillation technique is better. Its alcohol content is more, so it’s really fire in your mouth and you can taste the fresh grape on your tongue. Chilean pisco is light brown or amber coloured.”

The in-house restaurant boasts Peruvian classics, fine estate wines, pisco and lively entertainment every weekend. No wonder, Tacama is a favourite getaway for locals and international travellers. After a glass of chicha morada (purple corn drink), I scooped into sunny yellow Causa (Quechua-style potato mash) and a hearty meal of Arroz con pollo o aji de gallina (Chicken and rice served with a spicy sauce) between sips of wine.

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Spanish guitar strains added a festive mood as we watched the graceful romantic Spanish marinera dance paired with the gentle gait of a Peruvian step horse on the lawns. Apparently, the horse (Caballo de Paso Peruano) evolved from the first Arabian horses brought to Peru by Spanish conquistadores in the 16th Century, which were crossed with Peruvian paso horses. “Having one is like owning a Rolls Royce,” explained Pablo. Peru is indeed a living goldmine of unexpected treasures to be patiently experienced, one wonder at a time.

FACT FILE

Getting There: Several international flights operate to Peru’s capital Lima via Paris, Amsterdam, London, Madrid and Miami. Jorge Chavez International airport, 12km west of Lima in the suburbs, lies in the port city of El Callao. Paracas is 261km south of Lima (4-hour drive) and 22km south of Pisco along the Pan-American Highway. Exclusive yachts also leave from Lima to Paracas.

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What to Do:
Fly over Nazca – The airport at Pisco operates flight trips to the Nazca Lines. Aerodiana organizes 20 flights on shifts per day. The Pisco-Nazca flight (1hr 30 min) covers 13 geoglyphs. Tickets $150

Boat trip to Ballestas Islands and Marine Reserve and the Candelabro of the Andes, a national treasure. There are regular boats excursions from Paracas Port.

Wine tours at Vina Tacama – A heritage Spanish hacienda with dances, parades and a great restaurant. www.tacama.com

Dune bashing at Paracas – 4X4 drives, sandboarding and dinner on the dunes in the heart of the Ica Desert

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Where to Stay
La Hacienda Bahia Paracas
Peruvian décor with stunning oceanic views, boat trips, relaxing spa treatments with an excellent restaurant El Coral www.hoteleslahacienda.com

For more information visit www.peru.travel  or www.facebook.com/visitperu

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the December 2016 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.