Hatta Boy: Dubai escape

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY escape the lures of Dubai to explore the weekend getaway of Hatta in the Al Hajar mountains on the Omani border

Ripe Market IMG_2115

Beyond the mandatory list of things to do – visiting landmarks that flaunt engineering genius and luxury, aerial views of Palm Jumeirah, the laser and light spectacle on the 830m Burj Khalifa, hop-on-hop-off city tours, Ski Dubai, desert safaris with dune-bashing and belly-dancing in Bedouin tents, the marvels of mall crawls and Dubai Mall, a one-stop entertainment destination replete with designer stores, underwater zoos, ginormous aquariums and dancing fountains.

Besides a plethora of museums (from coffee to Islamic culture), water and marine parks like Atlantis, there is a lot more that Dubai offers. New attractions like The Frame, Ripe Market, The Green Planet and Bollywood Parks have the crowds coming in, though there are still places where one still gets a whiff of old Arabia.

IMG_4916

In the port area of Deira, the oldest corner where the story of Dubai as a pearling industry and trade centre began, one can haggle over Turkish plates, Moorish lamps, hookahs, spices, saffron, perfumes and oud (agarwood) essential oil, aptly called ‘liquid gold’. Take an abra (boat) ride to Bur Dubai for just 1 AED while watching gulls swirling over Dubai Creek (Khor Dubai).

Or stroll down the coffee and spice scented lanes of Al Fahidi or Al Bastakiya, the historical mid-19th century quarter that was restored as recently as 2008 with graffiti walls, art galleries and hipster cafes, a fabulous coffee museum, a chic Arabian teahouse, boutique stays and good old Emirati hospitality over cups of qahwa, juicy dates and delicious luquaimat (sweet flour dumplings). Yet, each visit to Dubai unveils a newer facet of the good life.

IMG_5147

We set off for Hatta, 134km southeast of Dubai on the Oman border. Images of the swanky city faded off on the hour-long drive making way for red sand dunes and a dry brown monochromatic landscape of the rugged Al Hajar Mountains. “Hatta” announces itself loudly in a Hollywood-sign style, across a hill. Formerly called Hajarain, Hatta is an enclave of Dubai that has become a popular weekend getaway amidst nature and a restored heritage village.

With tombstones dating to 3000BC besides two 18th century military towers and an old Juma Masjid serving as remnants of its history, Hatta was an oasis town of date palms and orange trees. Somewhere in the 1980s, it slowly transformed into a veritable adventure zone. With tracks and trails for biking and hiking in the mountains and boating and kayaking at the dam’s reservoir, Hatta is the ideal choice for families, expats and corporate groups alike.

IMG_5003

We drove up a sharp incline past the mural of UAE’s founding fathers – the late Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and the late Shaikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, painted on the spillway of Hatta Dam. Famous German street artist Case MacLain from Frankfurt was commissioned for this artwork, which is among the world’s largest murals measuring 80m in height and 10m across. It took him two weeks of intense abseiling up and down the spillway with high pigment weather resistant paints to complete the work!

Surrounded by endless rows of barren mountains with the glittering teal green waters of the reservoir below, it was obvious why Hatta was such a hit. We picked our tickets and lifejackets at Hatta Kayak, and sank into our canary coloured boat to pedal away watching cormorants swoop in for a dip and emerge with a treat of fish. Fishing and swimming is banned in these waters, so visitors go pedal boating or exhibit their kayaking skills in the calm waters.

IMG_5022

A new Explore Hatta trail takes visitors to a heritage village, honey factory, ancient tombs, duck lake and a camel farm! With ambitious plans of ecotourism and glamping, lux resorts and mountain lodges besides projects to boost culture and crafts of the region, Hatta is on to something big.

Set right near the main roundabout in town, JA Hatta Fort Hotel is literally a sanctuary in the desert. Landscaped with surprisingly lush green lawns and shrubbery alive with chirruping birds and peacocks preening in the garden, the hotel is a great place to drop anchor. Its tranquil ambience, good food, activities and games are an added bonus. Time and weather didn’t permit us to go on a mountain bike trail of 52km, so we opted for a delightful round of archery and air rifle shooting.

IMG_5099

It took a while to get the hang of archery as we aimed at the target 25 m away, but being crack shots in the shooting range, we floored our Nepali trainer with an all-bull’s-eye record that left him shaking his head in disbelief! At Café Gazebo we grabbed the Chef’s Special ‘Hajar Mixed Grill’ overlooking the pool and the jagged Al Hajar range as we dined on lamb cutlet, kofta, shish taouk and arayes (pita stuffed with meat).

We were lucky to catch a few days of the famous Dubai Food Festival. The 17-day annual food gala has become part of the global gastronomy festival calendar featuring cuisines from across the world. From peacock blue ice candy to pink burgers and charcoal activated ice-cream (with local musicians and cool street magicians thrown in), DFF was rocking. The festival witnesses the involvement of Dubai’s top restaurants, artisanal cafes and numerous kiosks including a food truck alley and a carnival atmosphere at public venues like Swyp Beach Canteen.

IMG_4948

As part of Restaurant Week, we got a private Meat Masterclass at The Meat Co. with Chef Andrew Owczarek and tried limited edition tasting menus at the post-modern Indian restaurant Carnival by Tresind and Japanese fine dine restaurant Morimoto. The Top 10 Hidden Gems in the city showcased eateries that push the boundaries by offering one-of-a-kind menus and dishes in a unique atmosphere.

It was nice to see Asian and South Asian eateries dominate the local food scene, besides Yemeni and Lebanese restaurants, though we were pleasantly surprised to see Karnataka’s very own MTR 1924 voted to the list!

IMG_5346

FACT FILE

Getting there
Direct flights from India to Dubai take about 3½ hrs. Hatta is 134km southeast of Dubai near the Oman border. www.emirates.com

Where to Stay

JA Hatta Fort Hotel
Hatta-Oman Road, Hatta Roundabout
Ph +971 4 809 9333
www.jaresortshotels.com

InterContinental Dubai-Festival City
Dubai Festival City
Ph +971 4 701 1111
www.ihg.com

IMG_5109

Things to Do

Hatta Adventures
Ph +971 54 998 8789
www.hattaadventures.com

Kayaking, hiking through farms/mountains, biking
Entry Adults AED 50 to AED 130 depending on activity/package
Entry Adults 200 AED, Kids 100 AED

The Green Planet
www.thegreenplanetdubai.com/en
Entry Adults AED 95, Kids AED 70

Dubai Parks & Resorts
www.dubaiparksandresorts.com
Entry MotionGate AED 235, VIP AED 595, 11am-10pm

Bollywood Parks Dubai
www.bollywoodparksdubai.com
Entry Q-Fast AED 100 onwards, 4pm-12

Ripe Organic Food & Craft Market
www.ripeme.com

Dubai Aquarium & Underwater Zoo
Ground & Level 2, The Dubai Mall
www.thedubaiaquarium.com

Ski Dubai
Mall of the Emirates
www.malloftheemirates.com

IMG_4909

Where to Eat

The Meat Co.
Souk Madinat Jumeirah, Jumeirah, Promenade Area
Ph +971 4 368 6040 www.themeatco.com

Choix-Patisserie & Restaurant
Ph +971 4 701 1136
InterContinental Dubai-Festival City

Carnival by Tresind
Level POD, Burj Daman, DIFC
Ph +971 4 421 8665 www.carnivalbytresind.com

Morimoto
Renaissance Downtown Hotel, Dubai
Ph +971 4 512 5577 www.morimotodubai.com

For more info, visit www.dubaicalendar.ae, www.visitdubai.com, www.visithatta.com

IMG_4995

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in Deccan Herald newspaper on 17 Sep, 2019.

Go Local: 9 Cool Destinations

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY scout offbeat, immersive experiences in cool destinations around the globe  

Can you really say you’ve been to Zurich if you haven’t grabbed a piadina (Italian flatbread), walked up the narrow Tritlli-gasse and visited Cabaret Voltaire, the birthplace of Dadaism? Is a trip to Singapore complete without the fiery taste of Singapore chili crab on your lips, slaked with a cool Tiger or Singapore Sling as you go bar hopping from Clarke Quay to Ann Siang Hill? And is Melbourne the same unless you’ve zipped in trams and trawled CBD’s graffiti-lined bylanes to pay your respect at AC/DC Lane? Beyond the touristy clichés, each city comes with its unique set of quintessential experiences and traditions. We hung out with locals on our globetrotting travels to unearth some cool haunts…

IMG_5947

Heidelberg (Germany)
A pretty medieval university town on the Neckar river, Heidelberg is undoubtedly the seat of German Romanticism. Picture-postcard alleys, Gothic architecture and cobbled pathways lead to a maze of museums and galleries. Hike up or take a funicular to Heidelberg Castle rising above the roofs of the Old Town, a survivor of wars, fires and lightning. Walk through sprawling gardens to a scenic lookout and visit the Apothecary Museum and wine cellar with the largest wooden barrel in the world!

Change trains at Molkenkur to ride in wooden boxcars of Germany’s oldest funicular railway up the local mountain Königstuhl (568 m) for a fantastic view of the Rhine plain. The main street Haupstrasse, one of the longest pedestrian zones in Europe, is lined with churches, shops, restaurants and cafes. The boutique Hip Hotel is the perfect base; each of its 27 themed rooms are different and styled after cities – Havana has bat wing doors, Cuban cigar wrappers on the ceiling and a Che Guevara pic on the semi-plastered brick wall.

IMG_5513

Stroll through Germany’s oldest University with the historic Studentenkarzer (students’ prison) where errant pupils were interned. More a shrine than a detention centre, it bears the scrawls of entire generations. The city’s signature treat Heidelberger Studentenkuss (Student Kiss) is a chocolate invented at Café Konditorei Knosel. Grab a meal at Zum Goldenen Hecht or Palmbräu Gasse and hang out at cool bars on Untergasse like Weinloch (Wine Hole), Betreutes Trinken (literally, Supervised Drinking), Destille and Pop – visited by Santana in the 70’s.

Take a leisurely cruise on the Neckar aboard the solar-powered boat Neckarsonne. In the evening, cross the Old Bridge lined with buskers and tourists to Schlangenweg (Serpentine Path) that zig-zags up to the famous ‘Philosopher’s Walk’. For centuries, this scenic walkway overseeing a magical view of Heidelberg has inspired poets, authors and artists from Goethe to Mark Twain.

Insider Tip: At the old Karl Theodor Bridge is a bronze sculpture of Heidelberg’s Bruckenaffe (bridge monkey); the original one in 15th century held up a mirror as a warning to passersby. With fingers shaped like a horned hand and a hollow head where visitors pop in for a pic, the monkey is a good luck charm. Rubbing the mirror will bring money; rubbing the little bronze mice will bless you with kids and rubbing his fingers means you will return to Heidelberg!

Getting there: Fly Emirates via Dubai to Frankfurt, from where Heidelberg is a 1 hr drive away
Where to Stay: Hip Hotel www.hip-hotel.de
Contact: Heidelberg walks with Dino Quass www.heidelberg-marketing.de, Tour Guide Dirk Slawetzki www.visit.ruhr

For more info, www.germany.travel

Cathedral of St Sava IMG_0823

Belgrade (Serbia)
The Serbian capital is a charming city packed with history. Seen from across the river, Belgrade’s stone fortress shimmers white, hence the name ‘Beo grad’ (White City). Pose against Pobednik, the Victor statue but don’t miss the ornate Ružica (‘Little Rose’) Church with an ornate chandelier made up of bullets! At the Kalemegdan ground outside the fortress, buy a 1993-era inflationary currency note from Olga the octogenarian vendor.

The abandoned trenches, once inhabited by gypsies; is today’s hip Bohemian quarter of Skadarlija with cool kafanas (coffee houses/taverns), breweries and restaurants like Dva Jelena (Two Deer), where musicians belt out starogradska (Old Town Music) on trumpets and accordions. Walk down Knez Mihailova, described as ‘the most beautiful pedestrian zone in southeast Europe’. Drop by at Hotel Moskva for its trademark šnit (cake) and gulp water like a local from Delijska ćesma, an ornate public well.

Prince Mihailo monument IMG_8866_Anurag Mallick

At the beautiful Republic Square, sit on the steps of the bronze equestrian statue of national hero Prince Mihailo Obrenović, who liberated Serbia from Turkish rule in 1867. Visit the Cathedral of St Sava, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world and The House of Flowers, the mausoleum of former Yugoslav statesman Josip Broz Tito.

Catch the live science experiment every evening at the Nikolai Tesla Museum and pop into the Museum of Contemporary Art – the first contemporary art museum in Europe. Belgrade’s nightlife is best experienced at clubs and splavs (party barges) moored by the riverside. The longest stretch of the Danube is in Serbia and the perfect ending to a boat cruise is a quayside dinner at the old suburb of Zemun.

Insider Tip: Have a coffee or a shot of rakija (fruit brandy) at the oldest kafana in Belgrade – ‘?’ or Znak pitanja (Question Mark). Story goes that in 1892 the management wished to change the name to Kod Saborne crkve (By the Saborna Church) but it was opposed by the Serbian Orthodox church. The owner temporarily put a question mark on the door, which became its identity and remains so till date!

Getting there: Fly via Moscow or Istanbul to Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade.
Where to Stay: Metropol Palace Ph +381 11 3333100 www.metropolpalace.com
Hotel Moskva Ph +381 113642069 www.hotelmoskva.rs
Contact: Novi Sad/Belgrade Tour with Luka Relic Ph +381 65 9890305 relic.luka@gmail.com, Offroad Serbia tour with Balkan Adriatic Ph +381 11 3625036 www.balkan-adriatic.com

For more info, visit www.serbia.travel

IMG_2546 (1)

Kigali (Rwanda)
A direct flight from Mumbai by Rwand Air makes Kigali a truly convenient getaway. Drive past the town’s key landmark the Kigali Convention Centre as you explore the undulating Rwandan capital. Zip around in local bike taxis (Goa style) to sights like Kandt House Museum and the somber Kigali Genocide Memorial. Try ‘Question Coffee’ from a women’s co-operative and relish a Rwandan meal of ugali (cassava porridge) and goat curry at Tamu Tamu.

Kigali Marriott Hotel in the central diplomatic enclave of Kiyovu is the best address in town. Get a Dead Sea mud therapy at the spa and try out international and local cuisine at Soko and fried sambaza (fish) from Lake Kivu at Iriba Bar. Book a city tour with Go Kigali – their little boutique at the hotel stocks handmade products from all over Africa. Start your exploration with Mount Kigali for a panoramic view before trawling milk bars, bakeries and cafes.

IMG_2526

At Kimironko market, learn how to eat tree tomato like a local as you marvel at multi-coloured beans of every size and hue. Shop for agasake (hand-woven peace baskets) and traditional Rwandan handicrafts at Ikaze boutique. The suburb of Nyamirambo, established by Belgian colonists in the 1920s for Swahili traders, is the city’s Muslim Quarter. Masjid al-Fatah, or the Green Mosque, is the oldest in town while Gaddafi Mosque is home to the Islamic Centre.

With a busy nightlife and hip hangouts, Nyamirambo is today hailed as Kigali’s coolest neighbourhood. Catch Kigali’s nightlife at Fuchsia, Riders, Coco Bean, Envy, K Club and Bougainvilla. Rwanda is a small country and it’s easy to get around to Lake Kivu, gorilla trekking at Volcanoes National Park, tracking Colobus, Golden and mountain monkeys at Nyungwe National Park and spotting the Big 5 at Akagera National Park.

IMG_2181

Insider Tip: Drop by at Kigali’s iconic hotel, Hôtel des Mille Collines, named after the Belgian nickname for Rwanda during colonial rule – ‘Pays des Mille Collines’ (Land of a Thousand Hills). It became famous during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide when 1,268 people were sheltered here by its manager Paul Rusesabagina, a story made into the film ‘Hotel Rwanda’.

Getting there: National carrier Rwand Air flies direct from Mumbai to Kigali (7 hrs) four times a week (Mon, Wed, Fri, Sat). www.rwandair.com
Where to Stay: Kigali Marriott Hotel www.marriott.com
Kigali Serena Hotel www.serenahotels.com
Hôtel des Milles Collines www.millecollines.rw
Ubumwe Grande Hotel www.ubumwegrandehotel.com
Contact: Wildlife Tours Rwanda www.wildlifetours-rwanda.com, Go Kigali Tours $60/person 9:30am-1pm, 2-6pm Ph +250 788316607 http://gokigalitours.com/

For more info, www.visitrwanda.com

IMG_7640

Belfast (Ireland)
Boney M wrote a song about it, Van Morrison found lyrical inspiration here and it is the famous birthplace of The Titanic. Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland sparkles with wit and wisdom, political street art and numerous interesting trails. Get a primer on the city’s past as ‘Linenopolis’ and a ship-building centre at the Titanic Belfast museum and catch the exhibition at Belfast City Hall, which narrates the story of its people, culture and heritage. The historic Linenhall Library, founded in 1788, has a phenomenal collection of priceless books including a rare treasure of books on C Scott Lewis.

To the east of the city, follow the footsteps of CS Lewis to places that inspired his fantasy world of ‘Narnia’. Stop by at Queen’s University where Nobel Prize Winner Seamus Heaney studied and Belfast Hills where Jonathan Swift found inspiration for Gulliver’s Travels. In 2017, Northern Ireland celebrated Swift’s 350th birth anniversary. Grab a pint o’ Guinness at John Hewitt, the pub named after local poet and catch a bite at Mourne Seafood Bar and Muddlers Club.

IMG_6713

Every Saturday, St Georges Market is abuzz with local foods, crafts, art and live music while the Sunday Brunch at Bert’s Jazz Bar promises live jazz. Have a ‘craic (Irish for ‘a good time’) at Whites Tavern, the oldest in Belfast, Kelly’s Cellars and the old-world The Crown Liquor Saloon. Lovers of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre can head out to County Down chasing tales of the Bronte sisters Charlotte and Emily and make a pitstop at FE McWilliams Gallery for scones, cakes, Irish coffee and ongoing exhibitions.

Go on a guided tour of the Seamus Heaney HomePlace around Heaney Country, where the poet and Nobel Laureate grew up. Guide Eugene Kielt conducts bespoke literary tours and runs Laurel Villa in Magherafelt, a boutique homestay themed around Heaney and other Ulster poets like Patrick Kavanagh, Michael Longley, Louis MacNeice with poetry reading evenings. Continue on the literary trail to Armagh Library, which houses the first edition of Gulliver’s Travels dated October 1726, carrying amendments in Swift’s own handwriting!

Insider Tip: Mystic of the East, the Van Morrison Trail, dedicated to one of Belfast’s most famous sons, revisits the locations made famous by his songs – from Cyprus Avenue, On Hyndford Street to Orangefield. A special phone app activates a QR code that plays bits of his songs at each locale!

Getting there: Fly to London and catch an Aer Lingus flight to Belfast.
Where to Stay: Bullitt Belfast Ph +44 28 9590 0600 https://bullitthotel.com
Fitzwilliam Hotel Ph +44 28 9044 2080 www.fitzwilliamhotelbelfast.com
Europa Hotel Ph +44 28 9027 1066 www.hastingshotels.com/europa-belfast
Contact: Ken McElroy Ph +44 7801541600 www.kmtgs.co.uk

For more info, www.belfastcity.gov.uk, www.tourismni.com, www.discovernorthernireland.com

IMG_2855

Flores (Indonesia)
When the Portuguese landed in a nook of the Lesser Sunda Islands in eastern Indonesia a few centuries ago, they were amazed by the flowering Delonix regia (Flame trees) and profusion of corals in the crystal clear waters. They named the cluster of islands Cabo de Flores (Cape of Flowers). Even today, these forests and dive sites continue to fascinate offbeat travellers who fly in from Bali to the adventure hub of Labuan Bajo in West Manggarai district.

Head to Batu Cermin or Mirror Rock, a cave system 4 km from town with stalactite formations and cool down with a chilled Bintang while catching the sunset over the harbour at Paradise Café. Visit the local fish market and enjoy an elaborate seafood spread at Treetop restaurant amid funky artwork and signs like ‘Reality is an illusion caused by lack of alcohol.’

IMG_3211

Go on a boat trip to Komodo Island to watch perpetually drooling venomous Komodo dragons up close and pick up shell handicrafts near the jetty. Go snorkelling at the unique Pink Beach (caused by red algae on white sand) or head on hikes to crater lakes in the region. Grab some local coffee and palm sugar, prepared by locals the traditional way. Flores also hosts a 661km gruelling cycle race called Tour de Flores.

Insider Tip: Drive 20km on the Trans-Flores Highway to Ruteng to witness the Caci dance, a ritual whip fight that’s a fascinating cultural tradition of the Manggarai people. Donning leather masks and armed with rattan whips and bamboo shields, the blood shed by the male warriors was considered an offering for a better harvest!

Getting there: Fly to Bali and onward to Labuan Bajo, from where boat trips are available to Komodo Island and Pink Beach.
Where to Stay: Ayana Komodo Resort, Luwansa Beach Resort, The Jayakarta Suites Komodo Flores

For more info, www.indonesia.travel

IMG_6015

Lalibela (Ethiopia)
As a seat of the Orthodox Christian faith, Ethiopia draws pilgrims and travellers from all over the world. After Jerusalem was captured by the Muslim army of Saladin in 1187, Ethiopian king Gebre Mesqel Lalibela decided to build a holy city symbolic of Jerusalem. Following the theme, the local river is called Jordan and the hill Mount of Olives. It took 23 years to carve these rock-cut churches into the hillside, aided by divine help – angels are believed to have toiled at night to complete twice the day’s work done by men!

The city was called Lalibela in honour of the saint-king and UNESCO recognised it as a world heritage site in 1978. Walk on pink volcanic rock through cavernous tunnels to a complex of churches. A cloth-draped pillar in the Church of Golgotha is marked as the Tomb of King Lalibela. Continue in the north western group to Bet Medhane Alem, the largest monolithic church in the world, connected to Bet Maryam, possibly the oldest of the churches.

IMG_6137

The unusual cruciform Bete Georgis, dedicated to St George, was cut top down into the rock. Rent a white and blue bajaji (our Indian Bajaj auto) to get around, but watch out for pesky flies and over-friendly kids pestering you to buy ‘books or football’. Bargain for various styles of Ethiopian crosses, silver jewelry and sacred relics.

Try the staple injera (spongy flatbread), tej (honey wine) and Ethiopian fare at Kana, Hotel Lalibela and Seven Olives Hotel besides local music and dance at Torpido Tejbet. Tour company ETT can craft an Ethiopian itinerary from Lalibela to Axum, Gondar, Bahir Dar, Addis Ababa and trips to Danakil Depression, Simien Mountains and Omo Valley.

Insider Tip: Perched on a clifftop with architecture right out of Burning Man (described as ‘Gaudi meets Mad Max’), Ben Abeba dishes out the most experimental food in Ethiopia. Run by Scottish lady Susan and her partner Habtamu, ‘Ben’ means mountain in Gaelic and ‘Abeba’ is Amharic for flower. They even offer blankets on the outdoor terraces when it gets chilly.

Getting there: Fly Ethiopian Airlines to Addis Ababa and take a connecting flight to Lalibela. www.ethiopianairlines.com
Where to Stay: Lalibela Hotel
Contact: Ethio Travel & Tours (ETT) Ph +251 911213177, 929214110, 940373737 www.ethiotravelandtours.com

IMG_9163

Tel Aviv-Yafo (Israel)
There’s a saying in Israel, “While Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays”. There are many exciting ways to explore the vibrant seaside city – a SEGO Segway tour along the Sea Shore Promenade to the port and local farmer’s market, an architecture tour through the White City with its unique Bauhaus architecture, a street art tour in Florentin to find the best graffiti, a food tour through Tel Aviv’s only Arabic style shuk (market) at Carmel or a night tour of Rothschild Boulevard to hipster clubs like Kuli Alma and Sputnik.

Walk down Nahalat Binyamin Pedestrian Mall with its Arts and Crafts Bazaar and explore reinterpreted spaces like Manshiya, a reconstructed old train station and Neve Tzedek. A heritage walk through the cobbled bylanes of Tel Aviv’s twin town Jaffa is ideal as you explore quaint cafes, the mosque and Ilana Goor Museum. Feast on mansaf (ground beef with rice) and majadra (wild rice) at Pua restaurant, which sources furniture from the Jaffa Flea Market – every item here is for sale! Check out the local craft beer at Beer Bazaar and Israel’s first microbrewery The Dancing Camel. Tel Aviv even boasts a pop-up hotel in a lifeguard hut on Frishman Beach!

IMG_9516

Insider Tip: Spot the early 20th century shutter stoppers called menchalach (Hebrew for ‘little human figures’) in areas like Neve Tzedek. Meant to stop windows from banging, it had a man’s head when put up and a woman’s face in its downward position. Local lore says it carried a secret code; a woman with a lover put up the man’s face if someone was home and the woman’s face if she was free and ready for action!

Getting there: Israel’s national carrier El-Al flies from Mumbai to Tel Aviv thrice a week (8 hrs) while Air India flies thrice a week from Delhi. Turkish Airlines flies via Istanbul and Ethiopian Air via Addis Ababa (12 hrs).
Where to Stay: Carlton Hotel Ph +972 3 5201818 www.carlton.co.il, Poli House/Brown Hotels www.brownhotels.com
Contact: Ofer Moghadam Tours Ph +972 587833799 www.ofermog.com, SEGO Segway Tours Ph +972 528551932 www.sego.co.il

For more info, https://israel.travel/

DSC03034 The painted houses of Nyhavn, a fairytale setting by day or twilight

Copenhagen (Denmark)
There’s good reason why Copenhagen is rated one of the happiest cities in the world. It’s a land of bicycles, bodegas, chic design, parks, floating cafes, fairytales and a dollop of good ol’ hygge, the Danish concept of cosy comfort. The journey from trading in amber, gold, silver, furs and slaves to becoming a leading manufacturing nation and welfare state, Denmark has ample reason to gloat, but doesn’t. Locals love a cool dip in Amager Strandpark beach, kayak polo by the harbourfront and several recreational baths like Islands Brygge, a winter bathing hotspot and one of the cleanest harbors in the world.

Get on a GoBoat for an eco-friendly ride from Islands Brygge drifting down canals past some of the oldest specimens of Danish architecture – Christiansborg Castle, Holmens Church and Børson, the Old Stock Exchange with its dragon spires. Take a canal tour around Christianshavn and Nyhavn port or join locals and tourists dining at its amazing restaurants, quaffing away at old bodegas, listening to jazz. Walk around the marvelous bridges and canals bordered by vibrantly painted homes and hotels.

DSC03058-Ornate entry of City Hall

The historic Tivoli Gardens in the city centre is the second oldest amusement park in the world and inspired Walt Disney’s Disneyland. Don’t miss the Hans Christian Andersen-inspired dark ride called The Flying Trunk. Take an HC Andersen heritage walk with raconteur Richard Karpen and unravel the city’s hidden stories in everyday landmarks. Hop across to the 150-year-old Nytorv restaurant, the city’s popular hangout specializing in Danish cuisine and try delicious smørrebrød and Danish Schnapps or akvavit, a sweet alcoholic drink flavoured with herbs and spices ‘designed to make men feel strong and women feel weak’!

If you’re up for something edgy, don’t miss the offbeat trail around the graffiti-rich freetown of Christiania, locally called ‘staden’ is full of art galleries, music venues, restaurants and quirky homes. Pedal down Nørrebro and Christianshavn in the world’s bicycle capital with Cycling Copenhagen or in an iconic vintage Christiana bike, tackle the canals with Kayak Republic or take a walking food trail in the hip Vesterbro district. Savour a community Danish dinner at Absalon, an old church reimagined into a public space or try the unique family-style specially curated long-table meal at Gro Spiseri, set behind the OsterGRO rooftop farm in the heart of town. For retail therapy or window shopping, Strøget, one of Europe’s longest car-free pedestrian streets, is the place to be.

Insider Tip: If you’re done with the Little Mermaid, look up high above Richs building at the corner of Vesterbrogade to a gilded sculpture of the rotating Weather Girls – one astride a bicycle and the other holding an umbrella and walking her dog. It sums up the typical scene in Copenhagen – omnipresent bicycles and rain! Locals swear that these are the only two women in Copenhagen one can trust.

Getting there: Fly to Copenhagen via Dubai, Frankfurt or London (12 hrs).
Where to Stay: Avenue Hotel Ph 0045 35373111
Hotel Danmark Ph 0045 33114806 www.brochner-hotels.com/hotel-danmark

For more info, www.visitcopenhagen.com

DSC08428

Lima (Peru)
Peru is hailed as “the next great global foodie destination”, ranking among the Top 5 cuisines in the world. Capital Lima is also considered ‘the gastronomic capital of the Americas’ and hosts Mistura, the annual food festival in Oct-Nov that draws gourmands from across the world. Imagine a country with 3800 variety of potatoes, 300 kinds of chilli and over 55 types of corn and beans. But there’s more to Lima than beans!

As the erstwhile bastion of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzaro, Lima has a lot of history. Head to the pretty Spanish colonial quarter where museums and churches, promenades and palaces beg to be explored around the famous UNESCO Heritage Site Plaza San Martin and the old town square Plaza de Armas. Walk around the upmarket Milaflores, known for its casinos, nightlife, shopping and its Gaudi-inspired Parque del Amor. In the Bohemian district of Barranco discover extraordinary street art, architecture and quaint landmarks like Peunte de los Suspires (The Bridge of Sighs).

DSC07337

Dine at the archaeological complex of Huaca Pucllana overlooking the magnificent 15-acre pre-Inca ruins. At Maido, Chef Mitsuharu Tsumara’s speciality Nikkei cuisine fuses Peruvian with Japanese flavours, first created by Japanese immigrants who arrived in the 1900s to work on sugarcane farms. Try the legendary local brew Pisco Sour, street food like picarones (Peruvian donuts), churros filled with manjar blanco (vanilla cream) and cancha (corn) in all its forms – tamaleto chicha, fried corn to ceviche.

Insider’s tip: Museo Larco is a privately owned museum of Pre-Columbian Art set in an 18th century viceroyal building in Pueblo Libre district. Founded by art collector Rafael Larco Hoyle in 1926, it has a unique gallery housing the world’s largest and most fascinating collection of erotic ceramics, pottery and everyday objects illustrating various sexual acts! The adjacent creeper-riddled Museo Larco Café serves superb Peruvian delicacies.

Getting there: Fly via Paris, Amsterdam, London or Madrid to Peru’s capital Lima. Jorge Chavez Airport is 12km west in the suburbs, in the port city of El Callao.
Where to Stay: La Hacienda Milaflores www.hotelslahacienda.com

For more information visit www.peru.travel

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 30 August, 2019 as the cover story in the Getaway Issue ‘The Road Less Travelled’ in Indulge, the Friday supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.  

Binsar: A burst of buransh

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY base themselves at Club Mahindra Binsar Valley to explore the Kumaoni mountain retreat and wildlife sanctuary

IMG_6077

From Kathgodam railway station, the winding mountain road took us via the pristine lakeside retreat of Bhimtal and further onto Kainchi Dham and Almora to the pine-scented air of Binsar. A heavy drizzle cleaned up the tarmac and the feathery branches of conifers shivered in the breeze, infusing a piney aroma with hints of earthy dampness. At Club Mahindra Binsar Valley Resort, a traditional welcome awaited us along with a cool glass of buransh or rhododendron juice!

General Manager Himanshu Mathpal led us to the cottages explaining how “The design is based on Katyuri architecture with two-levels, the upper level being a little inset.” In the garden stood beautiful aadu (apricot) and badam (almond) trees laden with pale white blossoms. After high tea and snacks on a grassy perch, we hiked 20 minutes to Club Mahindra’s annexe Manipur Villa, a cluster of wooden cottages on stilts set on a hilltop. It was the mystical night of the Super Moon perfect for a lavish dinner by a blazing bonfire, sharing stories about leopard encounters around Binsar wildlife sanctuary. Thankfully, we opted out of trudging back in the dark and hopped into a jeep instead.

IMG_4167

We set off early next morning to catch the sunrise at Zero Point on the summit of Jhandi Dhar hills. Entering through the forest department checkpost, we noticed that buransh (rhododendron) – Uttarakhand’s state flower – was in full bloom. Soon, the entire hillside would be carpeted in a lusty explosion of red. Parking near the KMVN guesthouse, we hiked along a 2km trail to Zero Point past patches of snow, where a stone watchtower offered an uninterrupted view of Himalayan peaks. Stretching over a 300 km range stood Kedarnath, Chaukhamba, Shivling, Trisul, Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot and Panchachuli. Some movement in the bushes alarmed a group of Bengali tourists but disappointingly it turned out to be a furtive troupe of macaques.

As strips of mist rose and sunrays slowly gilded the panorama of distant peaks, it was easy to see why the Katyuri and Chand kings of Kumaon chose Binsar as their summer capital. Drawn by its exquisite beauty, Sir Henry Ramsay, the commissioner of Kumaon (1856-1884) based in Almora, moved the administration 23 km to the cooler climes of Binsar during summer. Binsar’s bracing climate and green forests attracted colonial officers to establish retreats in these hills; many are run as private resorts today.

IMG_4237

The name ‘Binsar’ was a British corruption of its older name Bineshwar, a manifestation of Lord Shiva. These forests have been sacred since the time of the Saptarishis (seven great sages) who meditated here, hence its ancient name Satkhol. Even today, pilgrims trek through the forest to pay homage to Bineshwar Mahadev, whose temple is located at the exact centre of a mystical cross, with Shiva and Shakti shrines 14 km north, south, east and west of it.

We returned for a leisurely breakfast at the restaurant Bird Song, aptly named, as we dined to a chatter of Oriental White-eyes, tits and thrushes. It was a short drive to the temple town of Jageshwar, 34 km from Almora, considered as one of the twelve Jyotirlingas. Nestled in a beautiful valley ringed by lofty deodars or Himalayan cedar (from deo-daru, literally ‘wood of the gods’), the dense thicket cut off the sun as we tiptoed across the cold stone floor of the temple complex.

IMG_4319

There are nearly 125 shrines big and small, built by the Katyuri (7-10th century AD) and Chand (11-18th century AD) dynasties, dedicated to Lord Shiva’s various forms – Baleshwar, Kedareshwar, Mrityunjaya, Lakulish and Yogeshwar, which got corrupted to Jageshwar. Priests sat on mats chanting or conversing while newly married Kumaoni couples came for darshan and selfies.

In a shaded grove by a stream we enjoyed our packed Gourmet Express lunch of kati rolls and sandwiches. On our return we stopped at another ancient shrine Chitai Golu Devta temple, believed to be over a thousand years old. Revered as ‘nyay ka devta’ or the arbiter of justice, ‘Golu devta’ was allegedly a fair Katyuri king of Kumaon who was venerated as a deity. We entered what seemed like a long tunnel of bells of every size tacked with heaps of paper sheets. Devotees scribble prayers on notes, even stamp papers and agreements to seek divine assistance in court cases and offer bells when their wish comes true. The priest smiled before adding “This is nothing, there’s much more in the godown!”

IMG_4342

At Almora, we stopped to pick up some singaudi (khoa in cones made of screwpine leaves) and the legendary ‘bal mithai’ – a sticky caramel sweet studded with tiny sugar balls. A quick halt at organic store with a fabulous array of Kumaoni produce had us walking out with a big haul of flavoured honey, homemade pickles, exotic rhododendron juice and nettle salad dressing besides deliciously packaged nature-based cosmetics, soaps and handcrafted woollens.

Back at the resort, the information panel at the reception caught our eye. It flashed a list of ‘must try’ menu specialties at Club Mahindra’s various other properties in the region – steamed chicken roll at Kanatal, kapa ka tandoori chicken at Naukuchiatal, Murg Ghunghat at Mussoorie and chaandi bater musallam in Corbett – slow cooked quail spiced with cardamom, saffron and dry fruits! Interestingly, Binsar had Bhaang Murg and we couldn’t wait to try it out…

IMG_4381

A lovely surprise awaited us that evening as we were led to an elevated patch. ‘Gaon ka chulha’ was a special theme dinner with a traditional Kumaoni meal prepared on wood fire. Seated on stools hand-painted by the talented staff and snug inside a kitchen-in-a-tent setting, the show began. Out came the much anticipated bhang murg – chicken marinated with hemp seed paste (looked like pudina chicken, but tasted more herby and nutty) and bichhu booti ki chutney made of tender leaves of stinging nettle.

On a traditional kansa platter that was differently shaped for men and women, was a royal feast – gahat ki dal (horsegram), arbi ke gutke (colocasia wedges), bhang ki jholi (kadhi), bhat ka jola (black soya bean), palak ka kaapa (smoked spinach gravy), jangora (unpolished red rice), madua ki roti (ragi or finger millet), bhaang ki chutney and lapsi (flour porridge).

IMG_4067

Stuffed to the point of imbalance, we heaved ourselves out of the rustic feasting chamber, aware of the danger of rolling down the hillside and stopping only at Kathgodam! Binsar’s charms lie in its hospitable warm hearted pahadi folk and its bountiful nature.

Every season ushers something new – March to May the forests are aflame with buransh, in summers the cool mountain air brings respite from the heat of the plains, the monsoon months are misty with dramatic sunsets, autumn promises crisp air and unparalleled views while in winters, the slopes are carpeted with snow. We were indeed lucky to get all of Binsar’s shades in one trip…

IMG_4074

FACT FILE 

Getting there
Binsar is 33 km north of Almora town in Uttarakhand. From Delhi, take a train to Kathgodam, from where it’s a 120km/3½ hr drive to Binsar via Kainchi Dham, Bhimtal and Almora.

Where to stay
Club Mahindra Binsar Valley
Almora-Takula-Bageshwar Road, Bhainsori Post, Almora Dist
Ph 083929 10583 www.clubmahindra.com

What to Eat
Almora’s famous bal mithai and singauri (khoa wrapped in leaf cones), besides bichchu booti ki chutney, bhaang murg and Kumaoni delicacies at Club Mahindra Binsar Valley

For more info, visit https://uttarakhandtourism.gov.in/

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article was published in the April 2019 issue of Travel 360, the in-flight magazine of Air Asia.   

Kumarakom: Backwaters and beyond

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover wellness at Niraamaya Retreats by the serene Vembanad Lake at Kumarakom in Kerala

IMG_4754

A strong gust of wind sent ripples across the surface of Lake Vembanad. Spread across three districts, it was Kerala’s largest lake and the longest in the country. We were at its widest point, Kumarakom, where the lake measured 6km across. There was a steady stream of boats down the National Waterway (the aquatic version of a highway). As we squinted into the distance to see its far shore, it seemed as vast as the sea and we wondered why it was tagged as a lake!

Kumarakom owed its existence to Henry Baker, a missionary from Essex who came here in 1818. His son, Alfred George Baker bought 500 acres from the Maharaja of Travancore, reclaimed the backwaters, developed canals and cultivated a coconut farm. Ingenious dykes prevented seawater from flowing in, which led to paddy cultivation on the reclaimed land. Fed by lakes and rivers, this riverine nook of Kuttanad transformed into the Rice Bowl of Kerala.

IMG_4503

In the following years, Baker’s 130-year-old colonial bungalow was assimilated into the Kerala Agriculture University and Taj Kumarakom Resort and Spa. The luxurious villas and heritage rooms overlook lotus pools, gardens and a lagoon, blending Kerala style with Edwardian and modern décor. Baker’s rubber plantation was converted into Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, a habitat for aquatic birds and fruit bats. But it was the convalescence of PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his ‘Musings from Kumarakom’ that drew the attention of domestic travelers to its therapeutic charms.

We were staying at Niraamaya Retreats Backwaters and Beyond, a swank new wellness retreat that afforded the longest lakefront view from its 27 villas – some by the water front, some with private pools on the ground floor and others on the first floor with panoramic waterscapes to gaze at. The rooms were named after local rivers and birds. Our perch, named after the river Chalakudy, presented a stunning view of the sunset from a wide Kerala-style balcony.

IMG_4492

Hailing from the legacy of Surya Samudra in Kovalam and Cardamom Club in Thekkady, the resort was a real spot of luxury. After the lighting of the lamp by HH Shweta Rathore of Ranbanka Palace Jodhpur, CEO Manu Rishi Guptha elaborated on Niraamaya’s vision as we experienced their holistic healing with mindfulness coach Dr Shahir and yoga classes by Lalitha Damodaran.

With a golden sunset on Lake Vembanad as a backdrop, we watched Bengaluru band Chronic Blues Circus perform at the official launch. Seeing Mukut Chakravarti, the resort’s GM for Sales & Marketing double up as a keyboard player who put the swing into the evening took us completely by surprise.

IMG_4636

The next morning, after an early breakfast at the restaurant decorated with vibrant theyyam (ritualistic folk dance of North Kerala) masks, we set off to explore Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, the largest heronry in Kerala. A 2km trail over culverts and overgrown roots led past trees laden with giant fruit bats.

Two watchtowers rose above a 5-acre swamp in the core of the sanctuary that was the breeding site for Darters and Black headed Ibis. Apart from all four cormorant species, Kumarakom harbours 88 avian species, including White-breasted Waterhen, Purple Heron, Night Heron and Marsh Harrier.

IMG_4683

We lounged in the garden benches set in a clearing, watching a houseboat dock across the bird sanctuary at Coconut Lagoon, CGH Earth’s resort. Tharavad homes (heritage bungalows) had been transplanted in a 22-acre coconut plantation fringed by an 8-acre paddy farm. Guests enjoy an elaborate Kuttanad style curry meal on banana leaf with mashed kappa (tapioca), fish curry, fish fry and duck, besides Ayurvedic rejuvenation based on ancient marma techniques and luxurious Spice Coast Cruises.

Just across the lake, but invisible to the naked eye, was Purity by Vembanad, the new boutique hotel run by Malabar Escapes. Winner of the World Luxury Hotel Awards in 2017, this Relais & Chateaux property won the best designed hotel in Outlook Traveller’s Boutique Hotel Awards 2018. Strewn with contemporary art, it offered wellness treatments at its Purespa Ayurveda and boat tours aboard Discovery, their stylized solar-powered houseboat complete with sundecks!

IMG_4723

We headed back to Niraamaya for a relaxing massage and Kerala sadya (veg meal usually served during Onam) on banana leaf, before heading out on a boat cruise around Vembanad Lake. A tightly bunched squadron of neer kaka (literally ‘water crows’) or cormorants flew low above the water’s surface like fighter jets avoiding detection by radar. Pond herons hopped between clumps of hyacinth, which bobbed and drifted with the current.

Small country boats better suited to explore the narrow canals offered a glimpse into Kuttanad’s riverine culture – fishing, coir making, duck farming, toddy tapping, cultivating rice, coconut, banana and tapioca besides unnamed kallu shaaps (local bar) serving kappa-meen. It’s not hard to see why Arundhati Roy chose this idyll setting as the backdrop for her book ‘God of Small Things’. The famed village of Ayemenem was just a stone’s throw away.

IMG_4583

Vembanad is a fabulous eco-system. During monsoons, as water levels rise, the locks of Thaneermukkam Bund (literally ‘mouth of the water’) are opened to regulate the water level, making the lake saline. But the roots of mangrove trees absorb the salinity, making the water fresh again.

We crossed the private MRF Villa – there was indeed a lot of rubber from the plantations available locally and the embankment was lined with strips of old tyres. The boatman pointed out a lush stretch of paddy fields called 900-acres and R-Block, a 3000-acre patch lower than the sea level. It was once owned by the Marickans, hailed as the Kings of the Backwaters who named it after one of their daughters, Rani.

IMG_4730

It was the same uncanny Malayali sense of enterprise that transformed war canoes into chundan vallams (snake boats) for races and humble rice boats or grain barges into plush kettu vallams (house boats). Rest and recreation in these parts was not new. The King of Kochi traditionally made an overnight halt at Pathiramanal or Island of Midnight Sand on his journey to south Kerala.

The 19.6-hectare island supposedly surfaced from the lake after an earthquake, though locals say it was formed when a devout Brahmin Sri Narayan Gurudev, dived in to perform his ritual evening bath and the waters of the Vembanad magically parted. A paved path led to the far end of the island and by evening Pathiramanal became the feeding-ground for birds from Kumarakom sanctuary nearby. The sun dipped over the waters, turning it into liquid gold and the sounds of a flute from a passing houseboat caught the wind…

IMG_4758

FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly to Nedumbassery airport at Kochi and drive 100km (1hr 30 min) to Kumarakom. Cabs can be hired from Alappuzha or Cochin from Travel Cart Ph 0484 2669933/44 www.travelcartindia.com

Getting around
Boats ply on Lake Vembanad from the jetty at Muhamma or Kavanatinkara boat landing, 10 km from Kottayam. Spice Coast Tours operate houseboats from the private jetty at Puthenangad, 45 km from Kochi. Choose from short 2-hr Kettuvallam Cruise, Sunset Cruise, 6-hour Day Cruise that includes on-board lunch and evening snacks/tea or Overnight Cruise with full board.

When to Go
The main tourist season is from October to March, though the monsoon months of June-August offer quiet romantic holidays.

IMG_4760

Where to Stay

Niraamaya Retreat
Ph 0481-2527700, 080-45104510
www.niraamaya.in

Coconut Lagoon
Ph 0481 2525834-6, 2523572-4
www.cghearth.com

Purity by Lake Vembanad
Ph 0484-2704600
www.purityresort.com

Taj Kumarakom Resort & Spa
Ph 0481-2525711-18
www.tajhotels.com

The Zuri Kumarakom
Ph 9620335599
www.thezurihotels.com

Kumarakom Lake Resort
Ph 1800 4255030
www.kumarakomlakeresort.in

IMG_4546

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the April 2019 issue of Travel 360, the in-flight magazine of Air Asia. 

India’s Hottest Destinations

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY pick ten upcoming destinations across India to visit this year. Go now, before it gets really hot! 

A spurt of new attractions and airports across the country has turned the spotlight to atypical places hitherto off the tourist grid. Some places are reinventing themselves with unique sights or through experiential hospitality ventures, thus witnessing a surge of visitors.

IMG_6157

Statue of Unity
Everybody seems to be making a beeline to see the world’s tallest statue, Gujarat’s hot new attraction. Sardar Sarovar Dam was hardly a tourist destination, but the 182m tall Sardar Patel statue constructed on a small river island Sadhu Bet changed all that. Built at around 3000 crores by L&T in a world record time of 33 months, it was unveiled on 31st October 2018 on Sardar Patel’s 143rd birth anniversary. From the parking lot and ticket counter at Kevadiya, visitors are transported to the dam site in a shuttle bus. A wide walkway lined with travelators and a series of escalators leads to Sardar Patel’s feet with an Exhibition Hall and Gallery at the base.

Designed by Padma Bhushan artist Shri Ram V Sutar, the sculpture of Sardar Patel’s face in the hall is an exact replica of the main statue in the scale of 1:5. A museum catalogues Patel’s life and contribution to the freedom movement, besides the making of the statue. An audio-visual gallery screens a 15-minute show on Patel and the state’s tribal legacy. The concrete towers shooting up the statue’s legs have two high-speed elevators that transport visitors to the 153 m (502 ft) high viewing gallery in just 30 seconds. One can stay at the two Tent Cities overlooking the Sardar Sarovar Dam run by Gujarat Tourism. With direct flights to Baroda and Surat (a 2 hr drive), plenty of good hotels and a hovercraft project in the pipeline, the Statue of Unity is truly a big attraction.

Getting there: Fly to Baroda and drive 100 km to Kevadiya, from where buses transport you to SoU.
Timings: 9am-5pm, Monday closed  Entry: Viewing Gallery Adults Rs.350, Children Rs.200, Bus Rs.30 www.soutickets.in (2-hr visit slots available online)
Stay: Grand Mercure Surya Palace in Baroda www.grandmercure.com

DSC_0083

Jhalana
Bera near Jawai Dam in western Rajasthan has gained a lot of attention for its leopard population and charming stays like Jawai Leopard Camp, Leopards Lair, Castle Bera and Varawal Leopard Camp. Jeep safaris across its boulder-ridden landscape provide sightings from a distance but require a big lens to photograph the big cats. Jhalana, on the other hand, is a relatively new destination and its easy access (just 6km from Jaipur’s city centre) is a big advantage. Spread over 20 sq km, Jhalana Leopard Safari Park is home to around 16 leopards, of which 6-7 leopards have their territory in the tourism zone of the park. Started as recently as December 2016, two safari routes are currently open for visitors and sightings have been great.

Getting there: Fly to Jaipur and drive 6km to Jhalana.

IMG_8123_Anurag Mallick

Ahmedabad
Acclaimed by UNESCO as India’s first heritage city in 2017, Ahmedabad serves as the perfect introduction to Gujarat. Hiding in its historic lanes are exquisite mosques, ornate stepwells, quaint pols (walled neighbourhoods) and a wealth of history and architecture. Go on a guided heritage walk with Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) or an unusual night walk of the Old City around Mangaldas ni Haveli while staying at The House of MG. The historic hotel showcases the textile traditions of various communities in Gujarat with a family archive of saris and shawls. The new textile gallery collection has three exhibitions titled ‘The Art of the Loom’, ‘Painting with Threads’ and ‘The Colours of White’.

The new lifestyle Renaissance Hotel is inspired by the city’s textile, culinary and festive heritage with kite-like patterns and other architectural motifs. It also has a specialty Japanese and Asian restaurant called Kuro to cater to the many corporate travelers from Japan! Its well-informed Navigators are like custodians of the city who take guests on specially curated local experiences – a tour of Sabarmati Ashram led by a Gandhian, meals at Agashiye rooftop restaurant at The House of MG to chasing wild asses in the Little Rann of Kutch (2hrs from Ahmedabad) while staying at Rann Riders ethnic resort.

Getting there: Fly to Ahmedabad and drive 2 hrs to the Little Rann of Kutch at Dasada
Stay: The House of MG & Mangaldas ni Haveli https://houseofmg.com/
Renaissance Ahmedabad Hotel http://renaissance-hotels.marriott.com/

IMG_6824

Sindhudurg
With commercial flight operations set to commence and the most luxurious resort on Maharashtra’s Konkan coast, tourism in Sindhudurg is set to boom. After rave reviews of their villas in Goa, Coco Shambhala’s Sindhudurg property won the best debut boutique hotel award in 2017 and was ranked by Conde Nast Traveller among the ‘25 Best Beach Villas in the World.’ Its recognition is well deserved. Overlooking a large swathe of the Arabian Sea and a short walk from Bhogwe beach, Coco Shambhala is nothing short of a tropical oasis.

An old village door opens to a flight of laterite steps that lead to four sea facing luxury villas at different levels. Each of them – Arka, Amaresha, Inaya and Varenya – come with two rooms, an open dining-cum-living space and private plunge pool. Dine on delectable international cuisine and Konkan fare in the comfort of your villa, spot birds from the balcony and pamper yourself at the spa. Excursions are organized to Bhogwe Beach, Kile Nivti fort ruins, boat ride and water sports at Tarkarli and Sindhudurg Fort, the only sea fort built by Chhatrapati Shivaji.

Getting there: Fly to Dabolim Airport in Goa and drive 3½ hrs north to Bhogwe in Sindhudurg district via Kudal.
Stay: Coco Shambhala Ph 8550985232, 9372267182 https://cocoshambhala.com/

IMG_2940

Bikaner
With direct flights now from Delhi and Jaipur, Bikaner is emerging as Rajasthan’s top destination packed with attractions. Explore Bikaji ki Tekri where the town was founded, the massive Junagadh Fort, Ganga Golden Jubilee Museum, the royal cenotaphs at Devi Kund Sagar, the opulent Laxmi Niwas Palace (a meal here is a must) and the 15th century Bhandasar Temple, the oldest and largest of Bikaner’s 27 Jain shrines. Its foundation was built using ghee instead of water – an indignant response from the merchant when someone taunted him for wasting water in an arid region. The city’s most Instagram’ed location is the cluster of seven Rampuria havelis built by a prosperous Marwari family of Oswal Jains. Red sandstone mansions with exquisite jalis (lattice work) and contrasting turquoise doors and windows line the narrow lane. Bhanwar Niwas, the grandest of these mansions, is run as a heritage hotel by Sunil Rampuria and his son Prashant and boasts a stunning Blue Drawing Room and gilded Dining Hall featuring the work of local usta (gold painting) artists.

Sunil’s newer property Gaj Kesri is a beautiful art hotel set amidst sprawling gardens and adorned with stunning art pieces. Go on a delightful horse carriage ride through the bylanes of Bikaner, visit the Camel Breeding Farm and Karni Mata’s ‘Rat Temple’ and peep into the Bhikaji factory to see how the legendary Bikaneri Bhujia is made. Narendra Bhawan, residence of the last maharaja of Bikaner, was recently renovated into a whimsical boutique hotel inspired by his eclectic personality and travels. The rooms represent Narendra Singh ji’s transition across the ages – flamboyant Princes rooms, Regimental rooms inspired by his military life, India rooms with khadi décor and avant garde Republic rooms. Be wowed by specially curated culinary experiences like Reveille at Ratadi Talai, Sundowners at the Pastures and Picnic at Ganga Sagar Canal, besides Merchant and Royal Exploration tours of the city.

Getting there: Fly to Bikaner from Delhi and Jaipur
Stay: Narendra Bhawan www.narendrabhawan.com
Gaj Kesri www.gajkesri.com Bhanwar Niwas www.bhanwarniwas.com

IMG_6407

Kurumgad
What used to be a rustic island retreat called The Great Outdoors off the coast of Karwar is now a hot new island getaway. The Little Earth Group, which runs the famous Destiny Farmstay, Sherlock and King’s Cliff in Ooty, has transformed this turtle-shaped isle of Kurumgad into the plush and private Cintacor Island Resort. Stay in ocean-themed rooms and enjoy the day’s fresh catch at Captain Nemo’s Deck at the highest point of the island. Go on trails around the isle – the Half Mile Trail, the East & West Mile Way and the Temple Trail to the old Narasimha temple linked to many legends. Discover charming nooks like Terrapin Pond, Cozy Canopy formed naturally by old roots and branches and Secret Cove, ideal for swimming, sunbathing, kayaking and fishing.

Indulge in water sports activities like jet skiing, kayaking, tubing and banana boat rides or simply watch the sun go down at ‘On the Rocks’ beach bar. Choose from various boat trips – Sunrise cruise (6:30 am), Sunset cruise (5:30 pm), Dolphin cruise (9am-6pm), River Cruise (9am-6pm) upstream along the river Kali or Lighthouse Tour (3pm) with a picnic hamper at Oyster Rock Lighthouse on Devgad island. If you like to take it easy, just go fishing, snorkeling, stargazing or pop by at the seafacing Kurumasana Spa (11am-9pm) that offers Swedish & Thai massages, wraps and signature therapies like the Stress Buster massage. So get on a boat (pick up/drop from Karwar jetty included) and drop anchor at 14.7 N, 74.1 E.

Getting there: Fly to Dabolim airport and drive 2 hrs to Karwar, from where Kurumgad is a 7km/30 min by boat.
Stay: Cintacor Island Resort Ph 9487533640 www.cintacorislandresort.com  

IMG_6892

Bengaluru
There’s a lot happening in Bengaluru, which makes Karnataka’s capital the flavour of the season. While the new terminal is still underway, the KIAL airport has been swanked up with a new F&B precinct outside called The Quad that everyone seems to love. There’s shopping and dining outlets in an alfresco environment and the city’s best craft beer from Windmills, Geist and Barley & Grape. With over 70 microbreweries, the city has firmly established itself as the Microbrewery capital of India. New joints like Fox in the Field, Shakesbierre, Aurum, Bier Library, XooX and Byg Brewski on Hennur Road (which, at 65,000 sq ft, is the largest craft brewery in India and one of the largest in Asia) have added to the ever-expanding pub culture and Bangalore nightlife.

Upping the oomph factor is a clutch of new hotels that wow visitors with unique concepts in hospitality – like the spanking upscale Four Seasons at Embassy ONE. Renaissance Hotel Race Course Road is a lifestyle hotel with an unusual derby theme inspired by the adjoining racetrack and curates authentic local experiences for guests. The stylish Sheraton Grand Bangalore in Whitefield is well kitted for business and leisure travelers alike with light fixtures and paper art from Auroville, Czech chandeliers by Lasvit and kinetic installations at the Convention Centre. Get a detox at Shine Spa and enjoy a range of cuisine choices at the restaurants – Inazia for pan-Asian and Grills and BBQs at Upper Cut.

Getting there: Fly direct to Kempegowda International Airport
Stay: Renaissance Hotel Race Course Road http://renaissance-hotels.marriott.com/
Sheraton Grand Bangalore Convention Centre www.sheraton.com
Four Seasons www.fourseasons.com

IMG_2109

Puducherry
Set up in 1968, Auroville recently completed 50 years of existence and has opened itself to visitors interested in a more immersive experience than a mere look at the Matri Mandir. While shops and eateries at the Visitor Centre happily snare tourists with some hankering for a visit inside the ‘Golden Globe’, true travelers could get a behind-the-scenes look at Auroville, led by an Aurovillean. Aura Journeys organize walks, tours and workshops to explore various communities – from agri farming to handmade paper, indigo dyeing, waste upcycling to artisanal chocolate and more, ending with a meal at the Solar Kitchen, making a great half day tour.

In Puducherry (Pondicherry), there’s a new Police Museum near our Lady of Angels Church with interesting headgear of gendarmes over the years. The Raj Nivas or Governor’s House is now open to visitors Mon-Sat 12pm to 1:30 pm, after registering online. Discover ‘Pondy By Cycle’ and choose a Wake Up Pondy Tour (7am-9am) with breakfast included or an Afternoon Photo Tour (3pm-7pm) with tea. Try scuba diving with Temple Adventures, go for guided walks with SITA on the French Connections Trail, Pondy Gourmet Walks and culture workshops. Take a ‘Life of Pi’ cycle rickshaw tour from Maison Perumal in the Tamil Quarter and a dose of Ayurveda and marma chikitsa at Palais de Mahe, as you experience modern Indian cuisine at their windy terrace restaurant. Get a dose of wellness with wat-su (water shiatsu) treatments and visit the Deepak Chopra Healing Centre at Dune Eco Village & Spa, which also runs the Hotel de L’Orient in the French Quarter.

Getting there: Fly to Chennai and drive 3 hrs to Pondy or take a train to Villupuram and drive an hour.

Stay: Dune Wellness Group https://dunewellnessgroup.com/
Maison Perumal and Palais de Mahe www.cghearth.com  

IMG_7968

Kannur
With the opening of Kannur International Airport, tourism is growing in Malabar, the northern tract of Kerala. Located a 45-minute drive east of Kannur town, the airport is perfectly positioned to explore the coastal towns of Bekal, Kannur and Thalassery and even destinations like Coorg and Wayanad. Being an ancient port, Kannur formerly Cannanore, was a centre of spice trade for the Portuguese, the Dutch and later a strategic British base on the west coast. Not many know that baking, circus and cricket were introduced to India in this coastal nook. Malabar has Kerala’s most pristine stretch of backwaters at Valiyaparamba with houseboat cruises sans the crowds of Alapuzha.

Visit beedi making units, coir factories and handloom weaving workshops and explore Bekal Fort, St Angelo’s Fort, Arakkal Kettu museum, Overbury’s Folly, old mosques, lighthouses and beaches like Payyambalam, Thottada and the drive-in Muzhappilangad. The region is known for its dramatic oracular ritual form – theyyam – an elaborate costumed spectacle that often lasts all night. While in Kannur, don’t miss the fish meals at Hotel Odhen’s or the Thalassery biryani at Paris Restaurant. Stay at beachside homestays like Kannur Beach House and Costa Malabari. For a culinary masterclass head to Ayisha Manzil where owner Faiza conducts demo-workshops on Mapilah cuisine, with informative walks to the local fish and vegetable market with her husband and host, Moosa.

Getting there: Fly to Kannur airport and drive 30 km to Kannur and 21 km south to Thalassery.

Stay: Ayisha Manzil www.ayishamanzil.com
Kannur Beach House Ph 098471 86330 www.kannurbeachhouse.com

IMG_8513

Rajkot
Easily one of the best new museums in India, Mahatma Gandhi’s alma mater has been converted into a hi-tech museum that opened on 30 September, 2018. Founded in 1875 as ‘Kattywar’ High School by the Nawab of Junagadh to mark The Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to India in 1870, Alfred High School was the first English School in Saurashtra. Mahatma Gandhi studied here between 1880-87 and it was renamed Mohandas Gandhi Vidyalaya in 1971.

The school’s 39 classrooms spread across two floors of the handsome stone building now serve as inspiring galleries, which pay a befitting tribute to the man who led India’s Freedom Struggle. With world-class technology and presentation – touch screens, interactive installations and recorded speeches – the museum illustrates the Mahatma’s life events and philosophy. Museum tickets are valid for Sound & Light show (7pm-7:20pm). While in town, also visit Mahatma Gandhi’s childhood home Kaba Gandhi no Delo, Watson Museum and the quirky Rotary Dolls Museum.

Gandhi Museum Timings: 10am-7pm
Entry: Rs.25 Adults, Rs.10 Children, Rs.400 Foreigners

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. An abridged version of this article was carried on 8 June, 2019 in the Travel supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper. 

Maldives: Romancing the Blues

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY fly GoAir to Malé and discover an isle of bliss in the Indian Ocean – Mövenpick Resort Kuredhivaru at Noonu Atoll in the Maldives

IMG_6929

Who could have imagined that in under two hours, a direct GoAir flight from Bengaluru would literally deposit us on a dreamy island cluster in the middle of the Indian Ocean? We were on the seasonal winter flight (return fares to Malé from Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai start at just Rs.9,999, available till January end). According to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, GoAir topped the On-Time-Performance Chart for 15 months in a row till November last year! However, December was festive season and Malé sure had a lot of air traffic. The captain’s voice crackled on the PA system “I expect to be floating around for another 35 minutes until I receive air clearance to land. Sincere apologies for the inconvenience… but this situation is beyond our control.”

So we hovered over the clouds, taking in the spectacular birds’ eye view. Malé, the island capital looked like a long strip of land, populated by mosques, markets and colourful clusters of tall buildings neatly arranged like a LEGO set. The bustling mercantile city is ringed by a coral reef and waters spangled with boats. The urban mood here contrasts the laidback setting of the islets and atolls around.

562bb2b6-efbb-4eea-a04d-b11a393c3b6f

It was pretty apparent why Maldives remains one of the top honeymoon destinations in the world – it fits every definition of a tropical paradise with crystal clear waters in every shade of blue, hotels and resorts to suit every budget and private island resorts luring one to venture further to the faraway atolls for privacy, comfort and the perfect ambience for romance. Its proximity made it a top choice for Indians in particular. Many on the flight were newlyweds; the fresh mehendi, sindoor and lac bangles on the young girls were a dead giveaway.

Travelling Business Class on GoAir brought all the perks of seat choice with more leg room, pillows and blankets for a restful ride. With friendly staff, hot meals and priority baggage, the on-board experience and landing procedure was literally a breeze. After immigration check at Velana International airport, we collected our bags and were whisked to the Trans Maldivian Airways (TMA) VIP lounge for coffee and snacks where we awaited our seaplane to Kuredhivaru.

IMG_6642

With just 10-12 seats, these were the most convenient modes of transport to access the luxury resorts set on remote islands and atolls. The nearby islands had ferries and motorboats and we noticed several folks queuing up outside the airport. Our address, the Mövenpick Resort Kuredhivaru was located in the tranquil northern part of Maldives in Noonu Atoll, a 55-minute flight away.

Being a hopping flight, we watched guests disembark onto a deck mid-ocean – not your everyday landing spot! Their motorboat was on its way but they looked positively marooned as we took off. A while later, we were in for the same adventure! At dusk we landed by a bobbing deck, disembarked and clung to the railings as waves and gusty winds bounced all around us. In the distance, the yellow lights of Movenpick Kuredhivaru, our address for a few days, glimmered seductively as we heard the whirr of a speedboat coming towards us.

IMG_6840

Greeted by the staff at the end of a long jetty that snaked like a ramp towards the hotel reception and lobby, we cat-walked down its lit-up length, cautiously glancing at the waters below. Downing the welcome drink and after a brief check-in, we were carted off to our exclusive Overwater Pool Villa. Designed to floor guests the moment they enter, each villa has a glass-floored foyer. The thrill of watching parrot fish and manta rays swimming right under our feet is inexplicable.

Our bedroom had a spacious dresser on one side and a plushy bath on the other, fitted with a gorgeous bathtub overlooking the sea, separate shower and WC cubicles, twin wash basins and driftwood framed mirrors besides large outdoor tanning decks with a plunge pool. The minimalist décor lauds the unspoiled splendor of uninterrupted ocean views with large ceiling to floor glass doors. Another wow factor was the creative use of 3.5 million coconut shell tips, cut into small neat squares that cladded the sliding doors, headboards and amenities’ counters in the rooms.

IMG_7053

Dinner was an elaborate affair at Onu Marché, the main waterfront all-day dining restaurant serving global cuisine and international buffets. Set on the beach overlooking the Dive Centre, it flaunted a high, acutely sloped bamboo roof with indoor and outdoor seating. Onu Marché translates to ‘bamboo marketplace’ in Divehi, the Maldivian language. With signature chef specialties for a Mediterranean themed night, a laden buffet counter and tapas section besides live cooking stations, we were spoilt for choice.

Sipping tropical cocktails and wine, we sampled amazing seafood paella besides wholesome slices of cheesy grilled pizza topped with aubergine and peppers and Swiss-style gourmet grilled cheese raclette, enjoying live music under its breezy market-style setting. The dessert counter at the far end, rounded off the evening with delectable double scoops of Mövenpick ice-cream and chocolate. Needless to say we were back here for a beachside breakfast the next morning.

IMG_7297

The following day way we took a tour around the resort, exploring its sun-dappled pathways and spacious villas and suites nestled in the woods with easy access to the beach. The 3-bedroom Beach Spa Pool Residence was a luxurious option, ideal for a large group or family of six adults or four adults with kids. Packed with amenities, a lavish living and dining area, spacious baths, even a private double spa treatment room with a 1-hr daily massage thrown in, it wore the perfect vibe for a private beach party with no one else around!

Lunch at Latitude 5.5 was an Asian experience with delicious prawn laksa and Singapore noodles tossed with stir fried pork and prawns. The beach and dazzling blue waters by the restaurant was gorgeous, enticing several guests to take a dip, float in the sea or lounge on their beach towels for a mandatory tan; though some were sunburnt to a lobster red!

IMG_7399

After we turned a happy umber, we lumbered back to soak ourselves in our plunge pool over the house reef. Being a family friendly resort, we watched parents encouraging their kids to indulge in water sports activities. The Little Birds Club was a convenient addition with engaging activities for kids – arts and crafts, nature walks, outdoor games and storytelling, dance, music, a kid’s pool, etc.

The two days went by in a blur – borrowing fins and equipment from the Dive Centre for some self guided exploration of the house reef, snorkeling and turtle spotting at Kendhikulhudhoo Island – a 30-minute boat ride away, luxuriating in the signature Raahlu (literally ‘ocean wave’) therapy at Sun Spa by Esthederm, the daily ritual of the Chocolate Hour at 4:30pm and dining on the day’s catch at Bodumas, the overwater seafood restaurant. Soon, it was time to say goodbye…

IMG_7504

Our last dinner with the wonderful Mövenpick team (James Kiragu, Vaibhav, Jamila with Beral, Mohit and Khae attending to us) was truly special – a jungle theme dining experience by the beach with fire torches and lanterns featuring delicious traditional Indian cuisine. Led from the front by their General Manager Maciej Gruszecki (Matt), the whole team epitomized what Swiss precision and warm Maldivian hospitality was all about. Their personal attention ensured that all their guests have a memorable holiday and often return. A big thank to you all and Ankita and Shirali from GoAir and Amisha of Accor Hotels for a beautiful Maldivian experience.

On the flight back from Malé to Bangalore, we met Capt. Anup Ghosh and the GoAir team whose impeccable onboard service guaranteed a comfortable and restful business-class experience. Getting to Maldives has never been easier. However, saying Dhanee (‘goodbye’ in Dhivehi) was probably the hardest thing to do.

f2b5693f-4397-4038-82b6-ca1c8b5fddc3

FACT FILE

Getting there:
Fly direct to Velana International Airport, Malé from Bangalore, Mumbai or Delhi (2 hrs). Choose from national carriers Air India or Air Maldives, or low cost airlines like GoAir. www.goair.com

Getting around:
Head to the Trans Maldivian Airways (TMA) lounge from where seaplanes fly you to your island resort (20 mins to 1 hr). www.transmaldivian.com

Where to Stay:
Mövenpick Kuredhivaru Resort
Ph +960 656 3000
www.movenpick.com

IMG_7129

Theme Dinners at Onu Marché
Monday – Barbeque
Tuesday – International
Wednesday – Maharaja
Thursday – Spanish
Friday – Arabic
Saturday – Fisherman Night with local cuisine
Sunday – Mediterranean

For more info, www.visitmaldives.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article was written exclusively for the blog, courtesy GoAir and Mövenpick Kuredhivaru Resort Maldives/Accor Hotels.

‘Tis the Season: Europe’s Best Christmas Markets

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take in the colours, aroma and treats of the merriest Christmas markets in Europe  

Prague xmas mkt

Christmas is easily the most eagerly anticipated season for millions around the world. Come December and you cannot escape the refrain of Christmas carols, the warm scent of roasting almonds and chestnuts on the streets and the wintry air scented with the spicy aroma of cinnamon and warm mulled wine. Dusted with snow and silvery tinsel, soaring Christmas trees shimmer like towers of light, angels and elves grace rooftops and shop windows, streams of light rain down old timbered homes, as you are wrapped in the magical realm of Christmas markets.

Every town interprets the traditional Advent Calendar, with surprises and treats unveiled each day. The unique calendar created in 1851, is symbolic of the 24 days prior to Christmas, with each date or window highlighting a stunning artwork or special treat as a countdown to Christmas. Homes, shops and restaurants come alive with three-dimensional designs. Local craftsmen set up stalls around medieval Town Halls selling knitted woollen clothes, nutcrackers, stars, bells, candles, toys, besides objects made of wood, glass, stone and ceramic. The festive season is at its glorious best all across Europe and here’s a guide to the very best.

6863

Germany
When it comes to Christmas markets, Germany truly takes the stollen (cake). With a tradition dating back to 1393, every city has multiple markets, each with a particular theme and special local treats. In the Harz region at Wernigerode a quaint medieval town of half-timbered houses near Hannover, the Mayor cuts a giant stollen to declare the market open. Known for a special kartoffelklösse (potato dumpling), a special Christmas train chugs through the snow-covered landscape to Brocken. Dresden’s Striezelmarkt dates back to 1434 and is named after hefestriezel, a sweet delicacy better known as Dresden Christstollen (German Christmas Cake). The highlight is the world’s tallest Christmas pyramid and biggest nutcracker. The traditional St Nicholas Christmas market around the Old City Hall of Cologne ladles out traditional gluhwein (mulled wine) and reibekuchen (fried potato pancake with apple sauce) near the Cathedral with hundreds of stage performances throughout the festival. Nuremberg’s famous Christkindlesmarkt is lined with Bavarian stalls that dish out Nuremberger sausages, lebkuchen and zwetcshgenmännle or ‘Nuremberg Plum People’– doll-shaped plum treats!

The Christmas market at Leipzig dates back to 1767 and is among the largest and most beautiful in Germany, with a medieval market, a fairytale forest and the largest freestanding Advent calendar in the world. Munich sparkles with its 14th century Nicholaus market at Marienplatz with Nativity scenes showcased at the Kripperlmarkt and Christkindlmarkt. With the stunning Gendarmenmarkt Square and WeihnachtsZauber market, Berlin is one of the biggest Christmas party destinations in East Germany. In Hamburg, the Christmas market at the Rathaus witnesses Christmas-themed parades and circus performers every Saturday. Hundreds of decorated stalls at Stuttgart’s Weihnachtsmarkt compete to win the award for the ‘most beautiful stall’.

Zurich Sechselaeutenplatz_02

Zurich, Switzerland
At Basel, the Christmas market is split into two sections – Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz. But if you can’t get there, central Zurich is a good place to catch the Yuletide spirit. The Hauptbahnhof or Main Train Station hosts the Christkindlimarkt with a 49 ft tall Christmas tree sparkling with thousands of Swarovski crystals. Lined with stalls, it is one of the largest indoor Christmas markets in Europe.

Wienachtsdorf, Zurich’s oldest and largest Christmas market is held in front of the Opera House in the picturesque Old Town. The whole season is packed with events – Advent concerts, Lichterschwimmen or candle-floating event and a spectacular New Year’s Eve fireworks display hosted by Zurich hoteliers. Don’t forget to grab Swiss delights like raclette and fondue.

Budapest Christmas

Budapest, Hungary
Budapest Christmas Fair and Winter Festival is the oldest market in the Hungarian capital and takes place at Vörösmarty Square. The city center wears a festive air with light shows, folk dancing, live music and over a hundred stalls selling Christmas gifts, traditional Hungarian food and freshly grilled flódni, the Hungarian chimney cake. The exterior of the famous Gerbeaud Coffee House is converted into a giant advent calendar, with a new window display opening every day.

The Advent Feast, the open-air festive-season market, takes place in Szent István Square at St. Stephen’s Basilica, Hungary’s largest church dedicated to Stephen, the country’s first king. Lined with vendors and an ice skating rink for children, it has folk dance shows on weekends. Try lencseleves or lentil soup, traditionally eaten on New Year’s Day as a symbol of prosperity for the coming year.

Belgrade christmas market tree

Belgrade, Serbia
Serbia is Orthodox Christian and Christmas is aligned to the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian one, so festivities are centered around 7 January rather than 25 December. However, celebrations are in full swing for a month. Belgrade’s main square, Trg Republike, is transformed into the Open Heart Street with colourful wooden huts selling Christmas delicacies and drinks. The two-week long New Year fair features an indoor amusement park, a skating rink, concerts and shows, a beer festival and souvenir stalls.

At the annual Santa Race thousands dress up as Deda Mraz (literally ‘Grandpa Frost’ as Santa is known as Serbia) or Mrs Claus, and run through the capital for charity. As per Serbian tradition, badnjak or an oak branch is symbolically burned in homes on Christmas Eve and a public lighting is held at St Sava Temple. The centrepiece of the feast is pecenica (roast pork), typical winter treats like sarma, mince and rice wrapped and slow cooked in cabbage leaves besides cesnica, a bread with a coin hidden inside. Whoever gets the portion with the coin will receive good fortune in the year ahead.

Krakow xmas market

Krakow, Poland
During Christmas, the old Polish capital of Krakow (Cracow) in the south comes alive and the tantalizing smoky aroma of grilled meat and cheese hangs heavy in the winter air. The city’s main Christmas market is held in Rynek Glowny, the huge main square in the middle of the Old Town. With a stunning backdrop of the Renaissance Cloth Hall and St. Mary’s Basilica, rows of wooden stalls sell hand-painted Christmas baubles, spiced nuts, boiled candies and Christmas goodies.

Taste traditional Polish dishes on a Krakow Christmas Market Food Tour – Polish dumplings, special sausages, oscypek (smoked cheese) served with cranberry jelly and smalec, a traditional spicy spread made of lard and served over hot slices of bread. Don’t miss the procession of the Krakow Christmas Crib Contest.

Copenhagen Tivoli Garden

Copenhagen, Denmark
In the Danish capital of Copenhagen, all the Yuletide action revolves around the Tivoli Gardens, which is bedecked with more than 500,000 fairy lights. Three different light shows are held in the park, a traditional Pixie Band plays festive songs at various points and firework displays dazzle the skies on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Don’t miss Danish treats like aebleskiver, small pancake puffs topped with powdered sugar or honninghjerter, dense honey cake often filled with jam and buttercream and topped with a chocolate glaze.

Estonia xmas mkts

Tallinn, Estonia
In a recent poll, Tallinn the beautiful Estonian capital was chosen as the #1 European Christmas Destination 2019. Beautiful location by the Baltic Sea, a well-preserved walled, cobblestoned Old Town and a rich Christmas tradition give medieval Tallinn an unbeatable appeal. The Town Hall Square Christmas tree, which has been set up since 1441 and was one of the first to be displayed in Europe. There’s also a winter grotto, performances by choirs, poets and dance troupes. rows of huts, where you can pick up traditional handmade gifts and try out Estonian cuisine like black pudding and sour cabbage.

Strasbourg-christmas-market

Strasbourg, France
The Strasbourg Christkindelsmärik is the oldest Christmas market in France, dating back to 1570. Set up in the heart of the UNESCO world heritage site Grande Île, the market radiates from the city centre around Cathedral square and Place Broglie. At Place Kleber, you’ll find the Grand Sapin (Great Christmas Tree) lit up with 7km of lights. Earlier, people used to put presents for the poor under the tree. Today, it hosts the ‘Village of Sharing’ where charity stalls sell souvenirs and food for a cause.

There are numerous markets all over Strasbourg’s beautiful squares reachable through quaint narrow alleyways. For Alsatian tastes and flavours visit the stalls by local growers at Place des Meuniers while Place du Marché-aux-poissons, around the Palais Rohan has a Christmas treats market with beer, wine, vin chaud (mulled wine) and local eats like bretzel (French version of the German pretzel) and choucroute or grated cabbage pickled in wine, accompanied by sausages and slow-cooked pork.

Zurich’s Wienachtsdorf

Zagreb, Croatia
Having been voted the best Christmas Market in Europe three years in a row means that Zagreb can no longer compete but that takes away little of its charm. In the Croatian capital, all the action takes place around Jelačić Square, which dons the air of a carnival. An ice park at King Tomislav Square, live Nativity scene at Zagreb Cathedral, ice sculpture carvings, pop-up bars, street food stands, outdoor music stages; there’s even an area dedicated to fuliranje (fooling around) at Strossmayer where revelers can dance in the street and eat and drink to their heart’s content. Try local fare like orahnjača (walnut roll) and kiflice (vanilla half moon biscuits). Ride the Jolly Christmas Tram through the city center accompanied by Santa and his elves.

Vienna-Wiener Weihnachtstraum

Vienna, Austria
The first Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market) was held in 1298 and today the Austrian capital has over 20 events to choose from – from the Museums Quarter to Belvedere Palace, an Art & Craft market at Karlsplatz in front of the Karlskirche or even a Vegan Advent Market! For the perfect introduction, head straight to the Viennese Christmas Market at Rathausplatz in front of the City Hall.

Nearly 150 stalls dish out sausages, kiachl (doughnuts from Tyrol served with cranberry jam), Schilcher glühwein (mulled wine from Styria) and Raclette Brot (bread with warm Alps cheese). The highlight is the huge ice skating rink, reindeer rides for kids and a classic nativity scene. Vienna is good to visit all year round but in Christmas it becomes a winter wonderland with video projections on facades of historic buildings.

Prague christmas markets

Prague, Czech Republic
The two main Christmas markets in Prague are held at the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, literally a five minute walk from each other! Catch the day’s festivities at Wenceslas with some Czech beers like Pilsner Urquell, Budvar and Staropramen in the afternoon, then hang around the Old Town Square for the main tree to be lit up. For a truly local experience head to Peace Square in Vinohrady! Wooden huts dish out Christmas treats like svarák (Czech mulled wine), vanočka (braided cake), klobása (Czech sausage) and trdelník, barbecued pork pastry rolled in cinnamon and sugar and cooked over a grill.

Zurich Sechselaeutenplatz

Brussels, Belgium
Brussels’s Winter Wonders is more a party than a Christmas Market, with over 200 wooden chalets serving glühwein, Belgian beers and waffles. The event is spread out across multiple locations – the Bourse (stock exchange), Place de la Monnaie, Place Sainte Catherine, Marche aux Poissons and Grand-Place with a light and sound show projected onto it. Other attractions include a covered ice rink, a huge Christmas tree and a giant Ferris wheel.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 23 December, 2018 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.  

 

Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary: A river runs through

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore the once dreaded Chambal ravines to see how conservation has transformed its wild past to unparalleled wildlife and a river teeming with crocs, skimmers and other secrets

Chambal camels transporting firewood IMG_3623

Carved by the river and eroded by flood and rain, the Chambal ravines run in a 2-6 km wide network of mud cliffs and scrub forest on either side of the Chambal River. For centuries, Chambal’s beehad (wilderness) has been the perfect hideout for those wanting to go off the grid – Rajput soldiers escaping Muslim persecution after the fall of Kannauj and Delhi, freedom fighters and rebel sepoys during the 1857 war of independence, villagers absconding after property and caste disputes to renegades, castaways and bandits. Could there be a better hiding spot for those on the run than this riverine maze at the tri-junction of three states – Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh?

The Mahabharata and Kalidasa’s Meghadootam identify the ancient Chambal river as Charmanyavati or the ‘River of Hides’ (çarman in Sanskrit means ‘hide’), on whose banks leather was dried. According to legend, the river allegedly originated from the blood of thousands of animals sacrificed by Aryan king Rantideva of Dasapura (now Mandsaur). It was on the banks of the Chambal, believed to be part of Shakuni’s kingdom, that the infamous game of dice between the Kauravas and Pandavas took place. When Draupadi was nearly disrobed after being wagered in the game of dice, she cursed the river for silently witnessing her humiliation and cried “Henceforth, anyone who drinks from its waters would be filled with an unquenchable thirst for vengeance.”

Chambal crocs IMG_3446

The legend seemed to ring true as long as bands of dacoits roamed the ravines seeking retribution. After most of them were killed and the others surrendered or joined politics, the pristine riverine tract was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1979 to help revive populations of gharial and marsh crocodiles. It was time for muggers of another kind to take over… The Chambal is one of the few large unpolluted rivers in North India before it meets the Yamuna, which drains into the Ganga.

Spread over 5400 sq km, the reserve is jointly administered by Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The sanctuary begins downstream of the Kota barrage in Rajasthan with its lower boundary near Panchnada, 5km after its confluence with the Yamuna at Bhareh. National Chambal Sanctuary is among the last surviving habitats of the highly endangered Gangetic River Dolphin (75 as per last census) and harbours over 1255 endemic fish-eating gharials (Gavialis gangeticus), 562 muggers or marsh crocodiles, eight species of turtles, smooth-coated otters and nearly 330 bird species at last count.

Chambal river safari IMG_3230

From our base, Chambal Safari Lodge, we set off on a jeep ride past Bah to Nadgavan Ghat boat jetty. We watched in amazement as camel herders guided a retinue of camels loaded with firewood across the Chambal. One could go on camel safaris along the ravines, but we opted for a boat cruise down the river. Turtles basked on the edge, large open jawed crocs sunned themselves and baby gharials peeped from tiny burrows in the river bank. The distinct ghara or pot-shaped snouts gives them the name gharial. Nearly 200-300 nests are produced each year, resulting in around 8000 hatchlings, of which only 2-3% survive!

Chambal is one of the best places to see large populations of Indian Skimmers, besides Black-bellied Tern, Thickknee and Pratincole. We spotted a large flock of skimmers, their curved orange beaks gleaming in the sun. As our boat approached they took off in their signature lop-sided flight, putting on a synchronized airshow with their wings literally skimming the water’s edge. Our naturalist trained his binocs to spot Black Ibis, Black-necked Storks, shags and Greater cormorants on sandy islets or the odd Gangetic dolphin breaking the surface. A sudden movement in the dry scrub shifted our focus to a lone wild fox, camouflaged perfectly; he stared at us warily before skulking away.

Ater Fort IMG_3099

Across the northern bank, a 2km hike led us to the fort of Ater, earlier known as Devagiri (Mountain of the Gods). Overlooking a key spot over the ravines, its lonely turrets and bastions are a great perch for raptors, especially Cinerous Vultures. Built in mid 17th century by Bhadoria Rajput chiefs Badan Singh Judeo and Maha Singh, the fort is accessed from the western gate with the entrance bearing traces of wall art, floral motifs and geometric designs. There are seventeen bastions and four entrances including Khooni Darwaza (Bloody Gate) and Hathiaphor and remnants of palace complexes with pavilions and balconies offering great views.

We returned to Chambal Safari Lodge at Jarar, set in a 120-acre farm run by Ram Pratap Singh and his wife Anu, an environment scientist. Jarar was the main seat of RP’s family since 1472 and the 1890s lodge served as a field camp for the mela (cattle fair) held twice a year, hence the name Mela Kothi. Ethnic cottages were set in blocks among thickets of vibrant bougainvillea and named after local trees and birds – Gharial was a heritage room in Mela Kothi, Dolphin and Sarus in the guest wing Imli Serai, Hans and Surkhab in Bougan Serai, Koel, Thickknee, Hornbill and Spoonbill in Neem Serai and Ibis, Tern, Skimmer and Barbet in Shisham Serai.

IMG_3683

Thanks to its low carbon footprint, the eco-lodge was voted among the world’s Top 10 eco lodges in 2010 and won the INTACH Heritage Tourism Award in 2011, besides a clutch of responsible tourism awards. Camel rides, jeep safaris, village walks, river cruises; all activities involve the local community including camel herders, woodcutters and boatmen. Much of the kitchen produce and milk is sourced from the farm or local farmers and we enjoyed the fresh home-cooked buffets in the renovated late 18th century stable, surrounded by old trees and gardens.

After a jeep safari around the countryside to spot blackbuck, Indian coursers and the Sarus crane, we drove to Bateshwar, 9km away. As part of an eco-tourism project undertaken by the Chambal Conservation Foundation, Chambal Safari Lodge has renovated the family’s riverside retreat The Kunj. Located on a scenic curve of the Yamuna River with a private jetty and ghat, we admired the sweeping crescent of Bateshwar’s temples from the rooftop.

Bateshwar Ghats

Perched on a raised platform with ghats leading down to the river, the complex once had 108 Shiva temples built by kings, traders and devotees. Sadly, only 40 remain, thanks to the Yamuna’s shifting course. From The Kunj, one can take boat rides and a guided tour of the temples, ending with a brief prayer performed by the priest.

The name Bateshwar is derived from the main shrine of Bateshwarnath Mahadev, dedicated to Batuknath, Lord Shiva’s young ascetic form as he rested under a vat or bat vriksh; an old banyan tree still shelters the shrine. The whitewashed temples are dedicated to various forms of Shiva – the five-faced Sri Panchmukheshwar Mahadev, the underground Pataleshwar temple and Gowrishankar or Lord Shiva with his family. Just across the temple complex are mud caves and teelas (hillocks) inhabited by sadhus.

Ater Fort view IMG_3127

Every purnima (full moon night), Bateshwar’s ghats come alive in a grand maha aarti. Thousands congregate on Karthik Purnima for a cleansing dip in the river. Around Diwali a big month-long cattle fair is held on the floodplains of the Yamuna. Believed to be the oldest mela in the country, the Bateshwar Fair is the second largest animal fair in India after Sonepur Mela in Bihar.

After 10 days of hectic animal trading – camels, horses, elephants, donkeys, oxen, cows and goats – there’s a brief lull of a few days before the religious fair kicks in, bringing on a colourful pageantry of rural India. And then, just like that, the riverbed empties and the river flows through silently, the stillness occasionally broken by the gentle ‘plop’ of a turtle diving in…

Chambal river IMG_3216

FACT FILE

Getting there
By Road: Access points are Bah (65 km from Agra via Fatehabad) and Dholpur (46km from Agra/Gwalior, 252 km from Delhi via NH3).
By Air: The nearest airport is Agra (63km).
By Train: The nearest railhead Bah has limited connectivity. The nearest major railway stations are Etawah 50km away or Agra, 65km away.

Where to Stay
Chambal Safari Lodge
Mela Kothi, Village Jarar, Tehsil Bah, District Agra, Uttar Pradesh 238104
Ph +91-9997066002, 9837415512, 9719501517 www.chambalsafari.com
Tariff Rs.6,000-9,500+tax

What to do
River Safari (3hr) from boat jetty at Nadgavan Ghat, 25km/35 min from the lodge via Jarar, Badagaon and Jaitpur. Jeep safaris (Blackbuck and Sarus Trails) and Camel Rides to Ater Fort (Rs.2,500/person) also arranged, besides Guided Walking Tour (Rs.1500/person) at Bateshwar.
Ph 9997066002, 9837415512 www.bateshwar.co.uk

MP eco-tourism boating on Chambal at Dholpur Bridge
Indians, Rs.1500/boat, Foreigners Rs.3000/boat (1 hr, max 6 people), Rs.150 guide, Rs.25/person Forest Dept entry fee, Camera Rs.50.

When to go
The best time to go is October to April. The month-long Bateshwar fair is held in Oct-Nov. Autumn and winter are ideal for birdwatching, when altitude migrants from the upper Himalayas and the Arctic are present.

Contact
DCF National Chambal Sanctuary, Mau Road, Agra, UP Ph 0562 2530091
DFO Morena, Madhya Pradesh, Ph 07532-234742
CCF Gwalior Ph 0751-2340050

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in May 2019 in Shubh Yatra magazine. 

Offbeat Heritage: It’s Monumental

Standard

On the occasion of The International Day for Monuments and Sites (18 April) or World Heritage Day, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY uncover lesser known places of heritage in India

IMG_7854

We stared wide-eyed at Mahabat Maqbara. Never in our wildest dreams had we imagined stumbling upon a monument as grand as this in dusty Junagadh. Built in 1892 for Nawab Mahabat Khan II (1851-1882), the mausoleum was a unique blend of European and Indo-Islamic architecture.

French windows stretched from floor to lintel and Gothic columns shared space alongside Islamic arches and ornate flourishes. Adjacent, and similar in grandeur, stood the florid mausoleum of the Vizier Sheikh Mohamed Bahauddinbhai Hasambhai surrounded by four minarets with elaborate spiral stairways.

IMG_7858

The historic town in southern Gujarat had its share of monuments – from Ashokan edicts to Buddhist caves of Uperkot Fort, the sacred Girnar Hill dotted with shrines and mind numbing murals of the Darbargadh at the old capital of Sihor. It’s hard to stand out in a country with a plethora of UNESCO World Heritage heavyweights…

The Taj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, the monuments of Delhi, forts and palaces of Rajasthan, the temples of Khajuraho-Orchha, Buddhist caves of Ajanta-Ellora and the Kailasanatha temple, the Sanchi stupa, churches of Old Goa, ruins of the Vijayanagara Empire at Hampi, stunning Hoysala temples at Belur-Halebid to Chalukyan architecture at Badami-Aihole-Pattadakal and the Great Living Chola temples of Thanjavur, Darasuram and Gangaikondacholapuram…

IMG_4556

Yet, on our journeys through Gujarat, we came across a wealth of lesser-known treasures – from stepwells, gateways to monuments. UNESCO World Heritage site Champaner-Pavagadh is a vast archeological park near Baroda spread over 2500 acres with monuments stretching from Pavagadh Hill, an early Hindu citadel extending to Champaner, the 15th century capital of Sultan Mahmud Begda (1458-1511) of Gujarat.

Now reclaimed by bramble, the old mosques flanked by minarets with arched entrances and jharokhas take the breath away of any visitor. Shaher ki Masjid was built for the royal family and nobles, the Nagina, Khajuri and Kevda Masjids were named after the shape of the dome and the Jami Masjid was counted among the finest mosques in Gujarat.

IMG_4874

A drive to the Statue of Unity from Baroda, passes through Dabhoi, an ancient fortified town known for its old fort and exquisitely carved gateways. The main entrance is the intricate Hira Bhagol (Gate), extending to the Gadh Bhavani Kalika Mandir. The spectacular gateway harks to the legend of its architect Hiradhar, who was buried here alive because the king feared that he would replicate a similar masterpiece for someone else. Some say Hira ran short of stones, thereby incurring the king’s wrath.

A hidden gem and one of Surat’s most important historical monuments are the European tombs of merchants and functionaries of the East India Company who worked in the factories at Surat. The English Cemetery has the impressive grave of the Oxenden brothers while the most majestic structure in the Dutch cemetery is the octagonal tomb of Baron Hendrik Adrian van Rheede. The adjacent Armenian cemetery has no superstructure, only elaborately inscribed tombstones.

IMG_5110

In neighbouring Rajasthan, an oft-overlooked destination is Bikaner, with its Rampuria havelis, Junagadh Fort, Laxmi Niwas Palace and Narendra Bhawan, the erstwhile residence of Bikaner’s last maharaja which has been recently renovated with rooms and décor inspired by his life and times.

Stay at Bhanwar Nivas or Gaj Kesri while going on tonga rides through the Old City or do the specially curated Merchants Trail. Mandawa in Shekhawati used to be an important stopover en route to Bikaner but the region is worthy of deeper exploration.

IMG_6196

In 15th century, Rao Shekhaji (1433-88), scion of the Shekhawat clan of the Kachhwaha dynasty conquered a vast area north of Amber. Over time, his descendants set up smaller thikanas (fiefdoms), raising new villages, forts and palaces, which attracted Marwari traders.

Using riches amassed through trade, the merchants built flamboyant painted havelis, often vying to outdo the other. Located at the junction of Churu, Sikar and Jhunjhunu the 13,784 sq km area called Shekhawati is thus described as ‘the largest open-air gallery in Rajasthan’.

IMG_6396

Nawalgarh, founded by Thakur Nawal Singh, has stunning mansions like the late 18th century Morarka Haveli and Dr Ramnath A Podar Haveli Museum. The Narain Niwas Castle in Mahansar was built in 1768 by Nawal Singh ji for his second son Thakur Nahar Singh. Nearby, is one of the best painted havelis in Shekhawati – Sone Chandi ki Dukan or Golden Room built in 1846 inside a Podar haveli. Ramgarh holds the largest number of frescoes in Shekhawati with the biggest mansion being Sawalka Haveli. The Khandelwal family renovated the century old Khemka Haveli into the Ramgarh Fresco Hotel and organizes walking tours around the painted town.

In Himachal, we found another heritage town called Garli. It is said that the 52 clans of the hill Sood community were driven out of Rajasthan by marauding Mughals and came to the Kangra Valley. Here, they became treasurers of the Kangra royals and as contractors, helped the British built Shimla. Settled around the hamlets of Garli and its twin town Pragpur 4km away, they used their riches to set up palatial homes showcasing jaw-dropping architectural styles. Many are crumbling but few like Chateau Garli and Naurang Yatri Nivas have been painstakingly restored and thrown open to visitors.

DSC05748_Priya Ganapathy

A heritage walk through the cobbled meandering alleys is the best way to explore the town. The Spiti Left Bank Trek takes you to high altitude villages like Komic, the highest in Asia with a stunning old monastery, and Dhankar, the site of a crumbling gompa that was the first to be built in Spiti and as per legend will be the last to fall.

Another relatively undiscovered architectural treasure is Burhanpur in Central India. Between 1600 and 1720, it served as a secondary Mughal capital and finishing centre where princes and princesses were groomed. Akbar, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb, Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana all served as governors for over three decades each. Burhanpur has a staggering 126 monuments – the most after Delhi – including 35 key sights. Here, Sanskrit shared space alongside Arabic in Adil Shah’s two mosques Jama Masjid in Burhanpur and the lofty citadel of Asirgarh.

IMG_6446

The riverside palace complex Shahi Kila was expanded into Mughalbagh by the Mughals who overthrew the Farookis. Here, Shah Jahan built a grand hamam for Mumtaz Mahal suffused with paintings and inlaid with precious stones to reflect the lamp light. The entire ceiling is redolent with intricate paintings and a closer look reveals how some of the iconic motifs seem to be inspired by royal turbans and accessories worn by Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Begum.

Not many know that Mumtaz died in Burhanpur while giving birth to her fourteenth child and was laid to rest at her beloved Ahukhana, a hunting ground turned rose garden. Jehangir built a dar-ul-shifa (hospital) and a mardana underground Turkish bath where 125 men could bathe at a time; it lay hidden under a mound of earth until excavated 25 years ago.

IMG_5814

There’s no dearth of architectural wonders in Burhanpur. The Black Taj Mahal is the tomb of warrior Shah Nawaz Khan, Khan-i-khana’s son murdered by Aurangzeb. Begum Shah Shuja ka Makbara (tomb of Bilkis Jahan), wife of Shah Jahan’s fourth son Shah Shuja, is a simple yet marvelous monument with exquisite murals that is kept under lock and key to prevent vandalism. The caretaker will happily open it for visitors who wish to see the interior wall niches that are studded with jewel-like paintings, thankfully still intact in portions.

Some sites remain imprinted in our minds vividly because of the sheer impact, be it the massive rock cut Jain statues on Gopachal Parvat while climbing up to Gwalior Fort or the gigantic Buddhist figurines of Kanheri caves in Borivali, Mumbai. From the blue and gold motifs of Raja Man Singh’s fort in Gwalior to the sight of the tomb of Bahmani sultans at Ashtur struck by lightning or the soaring madrasa of Mahmud Gawan in Gulbarga (now Kalaburagi)…

Banavasi Madhukeshwara Temple IMG_2614

Be it the glazed finesse of the pillars and carvings at the Madhukeshwara temple in Banavasi, the old capital of the Kadambas or the symmetry of the twin temples of Mosale near Hassan; we tried to go beyond the known to the lesser known. If the terracotta temples of Bishnupur and West Bengal are overdone, try the terracotta temple complex of Maluti in Jharkhand.

In Chhattisgarh, the ruins at Tala on the banks of the Maniari river is a fascinating site. Built out of red sandstone by two Sarabhpuriya queens in the 6th century, the twin Shiva shrines of Devrani (Young Sister-in-law)-Jethani (Elder Sister-in-law). Exquisite carvings lie strewn like a jigsaw puzzle – remains of an elephant-drawn chariot, majestic pillars with four lion heads and outré bharvahak ganas (weight-bearing gargoyles).

Image

Beside an ornate doorway, the 8.8 ft tall sculpture of Rudra Shiva glared in stony silence from a grilled enclosure, with the goat-headed figure of Daksha bowed in reverence. The statue of Mahakal Rudra weighs 9 tonnes and is intriguing as it’s believed to represent the signs of the zodiac – coiled snakes for matted locks, two fish instead of a moustache, round chin shaped like a crab, stomach in the form of a kumbh (pot), two lion heads for knee caps and waist marked by the faces of four maidens. In the past, Tala was a prominent seat of Tantric worship.

There are many places in India that bear traces of colonial trade. While Pondicherry (Puducherry) is well known for its French heritage, Chandannagar further up the East coast 37km from Kolkata is relatively undiscovered French outpost. Taking the Grand Trunk Road to the Liberty gate emblazoned with the French motto, you are drawn into an old world of French colonialism and Bengali aristocracy.

IMG_4708

Mansions like Nundy-bari, Kanhai Seth’er Bari, Nritya Gopal Smriti Mandir, Patal Bari and Sri Nandadulal temple coexist alongside St Joseph’s Convent, the 1878 Hotel de Paris (now Sub-divisional court), 1887 Thai Shola hotel (presently Chandannagar college) and erstwhile residence of Governor Francois Dupleix, now the Institut de Chandernagor museum.

‘Trankebar’ on the Coromandel Coast was the only Danish outpost in India. The Danes leased the coastal village of Tharangambadi (literally, Land of the Dancing Waves) from the Maharaja of Thanjavur, fortified it and after 250 years of trade, eventually sold it to the British. The arched Landsporten or Town Gate beckons you in like a portal as you walk down Kongensgade or King’s Street lined by stately buildings.

Image

Zion Church, the oldest Protestant Church in India, consecrated in 1701, New Jerusalem Church of 1718, a fusion of Indo-German architecture, the Governor’s Bungalow, now a museum, Commander’s House and Neemrana’s Bungalow on the Beach – it’s like a walk through time as you reach Dansborg Fort, a rare specimen of Scandinavian defense architecture in India.

While in Tamil Nadu, a state weighed down by enviable temples and the architectural treasure of Chettinad, lesser known sights still manage to startle you. Narthamalai is a cluster of nine hills with the longest edicts and oldest rock-cut cave temples in South India. At the hillock of Melamalai, we were drawn by the spire of the Vijayalayacholeswaran Temple.

IMG_8642 Vijayalayacholeswaran Shiva temple atop Melamalai in Narthamalai-Anurag Mallick_Priya Ganapathy

Built by Vijayalaya Chola, it served as a prototype for the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur. Much smaller, the likeness was uncanny! Thirumerkoil, a cave temple on a platform decorated with elephants, makaras and yalis, held a dozen bas-relief sculptures of Vishnu standing on lotus pedestals. In the adjacent cave shrine of Pazhiyileeswaram, a nandi and dwarapalas (gatekeepers) guarded a massive linga.

At the quiet hillock of Kadambarmalai, rainwater had collected in natural stone cavities and the 1400-year-old temple hewn into the hillock had inscriptions of Rajaraja I and Rajendra II etched on the hillside. There was not a soul in sight as we watched wild birds hop around, sipping and bathing undisturbed in the natural tank, where ancient boulders scripted stories of a past we knew little about. No matter how far or offbeat we ventured into this vast country of ours, we were humbly reminded how we were only scratching the surface…

IMG_7224

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 21 April 2019 as the cover story in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper. 

Sweet taste of India: Traditional desserts

Standard

ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY traverse the length and breadth of the country to decode the wonderful world of traditional Indian sweets and the stories behind them  

IMG_1467

The story of Indian sweets is as old as its gods. In the Dwapara yuga, the people of Brajbhoomi offered lavish meals to appease Lord Indra for good rainfall. Deeming it a burden on poor farmers, a skeptical Lord Krishna convinced people to stop the practice. This angered Lord Indra who wreaked heavy rains and threatened to destroy the village.

Lord Krishna lifted the Govardhan mountain on his finger for seven days and provided safe shelter to the villagers. Since Krishna used to eat 8 meals a day and this incident left him hungry for a week, as a token of gratitude the villagers prepared 56 types of food (8 for each of the 7 days) for Lord Krishna. Thus the concept of ‘Chappan Bhog’ (56 special items) emerged.

IMG_3464

If chhappan bhog is loved by Lord Krishna, the modak is dear to Lord Ganesha. During Ganesh Chaturthi it is a staple in Maharashtrian households along with puran poli or holige (sweet flatbread with filling of coconut or lentil). Each festival has its typical sweetmeats – kheer during Diwali, gujiya and malpua in Holi, til (sesame) and gud (jaggery) sweets during Sankranti, the disc-shaped ghevar during Teej, thekua for Chhatth puja, kalkals and plum cake during Christmas and sevai and phirni for Eid.

At home, mothers would deftly rustle up sweets during festivals or for sudden guests. Laddus in the north or unde down south, depending on which side of the Vindhyas you stayed, would be fashioned out of besan (gram flour), rava (semolina), ragi (finger millet), peanuts, pori or murmura (puffed rice) and coconut. Halvas would be made out of gajar, moong or suji while kheer or payasa would be stirred out of rice, vermicelli or makhana (puffed lotus seeds). The joy of pilfering sweets on the sly was undeniable, especially during weddings, when sweets were mass-produced in-house.

IMG_4252

India has always been the proverbial land of milk and honey where milk is painstakingly reduced to khoa/mawa or curdled into chhena, the base for most Indian sweets. Whether simmered as rabri or basundi, scraped off in layers as khurchan, shaped into barfis and pedas, frozen as kulfi or made into rasmalai, milk is the bedrock of Indian sweets.

Every season brings to the table its own flavours – from gajak, pinni and hot gajar (carrot) or moong dal halwa in winter across North India to patali gur rosogolla and nolen gur’er sandesh in East India made from palm jaggery. From Mathura and Banaras ka peda to Agra ka petha (made of white pumpkin), each region has its own typical sweets.

IMG_1695

Eastern delights

At Puri’s Jagannath temple in Odisha an elaborate mahaprasad of 56 food items is offered to the Lord. Every day, six sets of offerings are made, spanning different meal hours, including several sukhila (dry sweets). Perhaps Odisha’s most famous export is the rasgulla, with a 700-year-old tradition of being served as bhog to Lakshmi at the Jagannath temple.

As per legend, when Lord Jagannath goes on his annual 9-day sojourn Rath Yatra without her consent, Lakshmi locks the temple gate Jai Vijay Dwar and prevents his convoy from re-entering the sanctum sanctorum. To appease Lakshmi, Jagannath offers her khira mohana, a precursor to the rasgulla.

Gud rasgulla IMG_6337

At Pahala, a stretch of around 50 shops midway between Cuttack and Bhubaneshwar you find stacks of containers full of cream-hued rasgullas and chhena gaja or deep-fried cottage cheese squares soaked in sugar syrup. Chhena poda, literally ‘burnt cottage cheese’ is a classic Odiya sweet from Nayagarh. It is made of soft chhena with dry fruits dipped in sugar syrup and baked till brown. The chhena jhili from Nimapada is a delightful version of the gulab jamun, Sambalpur’s kalakand is legendary and so is Bikalananda Kar’s rasgulla at Salepur near Cuttack.

Odiya cooks from Puri were much sought after all over East India for their ability to cook food as per Hindu scriptures and norms of purity. Many were employed in Bengal during 19th century and as a result took several dishes with them, including the rasgulla and eventually its Bengali appropriation. The spongy white rasgulla was popularized in present-day West Bengal in 1868 by Kolkata-based confectioner Nobin Chandra Das. In 1930, his son Krishna Chandra Das introduced vacuum packing and canned rasgullas, which took it beyond Kolkata and India. Variants include the slightly larger rajbhog (kesar rasgulla with stuffing of dry fruits and khoa) and kamalabhog (orange flavoured rasgulla).

IMG_9608

In Bengal, mishti or sweets were traditionally prepared by confectioner families called Modaks or Moiras who received wide patronage from zamindars and aristocrats. Often, news of good tidings were accompanied by a platter of sweets, hence the origin of the sandesh, literally ‘message’. Pantua, a Bengali variant of the gulab jamun, was reincarnated by master confectioner Bhim Chandra Nag to commemorate the birthday of Countess Charlotte Canning, wife of Governor-General Charles Canning. It was thus after ‘Lady Canning’ that the ‘ledikeni’ (sic) was named. Many sweets have fascinating origins.

Local folklore contends that a princess from the Krishnanagar royal family was married to a scion of the Burdwan royal family. When she became pregnant, she lost her appetite and refused to eat any food, craving for a particular sweet made in her maternal home instead. She didn’t know its name except that it was made by a lyangcha or ‘lame’ confectioner!

Bengali sweets IMG_9860

The said sweet maker was located and sent from Krishnanagar to Burdwan, where he was given lands and settled so he could prepare delicacies for the royal family happily ever after. And thus Saktigarh in Burdwan district emerged as the hub for the lyangcha, an elongated gulab jamun. Another story credits a lame gora sahib who fell in love with the fried sweet of Khudiram Dutta, who named his shop ‘Lyangcha’ Mahal in his honour.

Once a daughter of the prominent Banerjee family of Telenipara in Bhadreswar was married into another zamindar family of Baidyabati. After a month of marriage, it was customary for the groom to visit his in-laws. Wanting to pull his leg, the zamindar called upon famous confectioner Surya Kumar Modak to create a sweetmeat that would befool the groom.

Jolbhora IMG_4788

Modak filled a talsansh (common Bengali dry sweet) with rosewater. When the unsuspecting groom took a bite believing it to be a dry sweet, the rose water dribbled onto his kurta. The ecstatic zamindar named this new sweet jolbhora or ‘filled with water’. Even today, Surya Kumar Modak’s shop in Chandannagar serves the iconic sweet but in delicious variants like choco jolbhora.

In another incident the zamindar told his Moira to create a special sweet. The sweetmaker created a sandesh with rose water and cardamom. When his master did not return by the appointed hour, to prevent the sandesh from getting spoilt, he dunked it in sugar syrup. When the zamindar came back and tried it, he loved the sweet and dubbed it monohora or ‘one that captures the heart’.

Sweet-Launglata IMG_6505

Bihar too has its share of iconic sweets – the peda of Kopariya Ghat, the tilkut from Devghar made of hand-pounded til (sesame), jaggery and khoa, the khaja from Rajgir to balushahi and lavanglata (stapled with a lavanga or clove). Anarsa, made of soaked rice paste and sesame, has regional variations from the arasu pitha of Odisha to the kajaya of Karnataka.

What is gujiya or pidukiya to Biharis is karjikayi to the Kannadigas. In what seems a case of misheard lyrics, balushahi is known down south as badushah and shakarpare as shankar palya. Imarti, the jalebi’s fatter cousin, is locally called Jahangir.

Laddus IMG_4788

Northern frontiers

Delhi is the perfect place in North India to set off on a sweet tooth tour through its galis (alleys) – from Old Famous Jalebiwala at Dariba Kalan in Chandni Chowk to Hazarilal Jain Khurchan wale, moong dal halwa at Chaina Ram at Fatehpuri Chowk, the softest gulab jamuns at Kanwarji’s in Parathewale gali and shahi tukda, kheer, phirni and rabri at Kallan Sweets near Jama Masjid. In winter, trays of pinni or atta laddus and gond ke laddu made of edible gum provide delicious fortification against cold weather.

A traditional Punjabi winter delicacy is panjri or dabra, made of dry fruits, whole wheat flour, sugar, edible gum, poppy seeds and fennel. Amritsar’s makhkhan te pede di lassi is no less than a dessert, enriched with pedas of white butter, topped with a crust of malai and served in tall tumblers at Ahuja Milk Bhandaar at Lohagadh Gate and Gyan di lassi near Regent Cinema. Kanhaiya Sweets at Phullonwala Chowk is known for its halwa-pinni and Gurdas Ram Jalebiyan-wale serves the most scrumptious jalebis at Katra Ahluwalia.

Jalebi IMG_4823

Kashmir has its modur polav or sweet Kashmiri pulao with fried dry fruits and nuts, bakerkhani (layered sweet bread) and gigantic maida puri served with halwa. While driving to the hills of Uttarakhand, travelers stop at Gajraula for ‘thandi kheer’ at Bhajan Tadka dhaba. Further up, Almora is famous for its unusual bal mithai, a brown chocolate-like fudge, made with roasted khoa, coated with white sugar balls. Another Kumaoni delicacy is the singori or singauri, sweetened khoa served in leaf cones of the Malu creeper (Bauhinia vahlii).

In Rajasthan, if Alwar is known for its milk cake and Jodhpur for mawa kachori and makhaniya lassi (best at Mishrilal at Ghanta Ghar), then Jaisalmer is synonymous with Dhanraj Ranmal Bhatia’s panchdhari laddu. Yet, most food discoveries begin in Jaipur – from boondi laddus at Nathulal Mahaveer Prashad to rabdi at Ramchandra Kulfi Bhandar and lassis at Lassiwala and Lakshmi Misthan Bhandar (LMB). Go on a Bazaar & Food Trail with Virasat Experiences to savour the city’s delights like ghewar and imarti. Jaipur Ramdev Restaurant run by Brijmohan serves mithais like rajbhog and kesar bati to disco jamun/rasgulla!

Jodhpur Mawa Kachori IMG_9465

The churma laddu is a shared legacy with adjoining Gujarat whose signature sweet is the mohanthal (granular besan fudge), a must on all Gujarati thalis. Surati ghari, made of mawa, ghee, sugar, refined flour, gram flour and enriched with dry fruits, is said to have been invented by Devshankar Shukla for Tatya Tope during the 1857 mutiny to energise Indian mutineers. In Kutch, the mawa of Bhirandiyara is made from the milk of buffalos that graze in the Banni grasslands.

In the Hindi heartland of Allahabad and Varanasi, locals love their kalakand and lal peda. Like most pedas, it is made from reduced milk but allowed to brown, giving it its trademark reddish appearance. Loaded with ghee, shaped by hand and dusted with castor sugar and pistachios, it is best enjoyed at Rajbandhu in Kachori gali or near Sankatmochan Temple. Lucknow’s Awadhi cuisine boasts exquisite desserts like nimish (light set cream pudding) and makkhan malai.

IMG_4635

In Madhya Pradesh, the foodie city of Indore has a unique dessert drink called shikanji, a sweet milkshake concocted by Nagori Mishthan Bhandar in Bada Sarafa and popularized by Madhuram Sweets. Since it’s a blend of various ingredients – reduced milk and mattha (buttermilk) enriched with dry fruits and spices like saffron, cardamom, mace and nutmeg, it’s called shikanji (literally, mixture). In Gwalior, Bahadura at Naya Bazar is the place for jalebi and gulab jamun while Shankerlal Halwai’s laddus were made famous by former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Gajak (sesame brittle) is a winter specialty from Morena made of roasted sesame or sometimes peanuts and cashew, with jaggery and ghee. Pick up a pack or two from Ratiram Gajak or Morena Gajak Bhandar. Badkul, Jabalpur’s version of a jalebi, is made of khoya and arrowroot batter. The dark coloured sweet with a spongy texture was invented in 1889 by Harprasad Badkul, after whom it’s named.

Gajak IMG_5195

Similar in texture is the thick and chewy Burhanpur jalebi, made of mawa, sometimes bulked up with arrowroot, served hot at Burhanpur Jalebi Centre. Another delicacy from Burhanpur is daraba, made of sugar, semolina and ghee whipped into a fluffy sweet. Sold at Milan Sweets, it is relished during the annual Balaji ka Mela held on the banks of the Tapti.

IMG_6364

Down south

Migration was a key reason behind the dispersal of many sweets across India. In Tamil Nadu, the Tirunelveli Halwa was first prepared by Rajput cooks hired by the zamindar of Chokkampatti, who had tasted something similar in Kashi. Jegan Singh moved to Tirunelveli where he opened a shop and named it Lakshmi Vilas after a relative who sold the halwa on the town’s streets.

Made from wheat milk, sugar and ghee, the halwa has a translucent, light brown appearance. Santhi Sweets at the Central Bus Stand is the best place to buy it. Nearby, a dozen shops bear the same name, but the time-tested way to recognize it is by the crowds! Another local legend is iruttu kadai or ‘dark shop’, named after its dark interiors because of no electricity.

North Karnataka-Dharwad Peda-IMG_4686

In early 19th century, when Uttar Pradesh was under the grips of a deadly plague, a few Thakur families moved in search of better prospects from Unnao to Dharwad in North Karnataka. To make ends meet, Ram Ratan Singh Thakur started making pedhas. His grandson Babu Singh Thakur opened a shop that attracted such queues that the area was called ‘Line Bazaar’. Unlike its flat cousins from the north, the Dharwad peda is an irregular round with a grainy texture and a veneer of castor sugar.

While Thakur Peda gave it name, Mishra Peda gave it fame by branching out of Dharwad and making it a household commodity. Belgaum kunda, made from milk, sugar and khowa, was introduced by purohits (Rajasthani cooks) who had migrated from Marwar. Once Gajanan Mithaiwala, better known as Jakku Marwadi, was boiling milk in his kitchen but forgot to switch off the stove. When he returned, the milk had coagulated to which he added khoa and created Belgaum Kunda. Buy this treat from his old shop in Vitthal Dev Galli or Camp Purohit.

Hyd Karn Gulbarga-Malpuri-IMG_5660

Karnataka has a wealth of signature sweets – the iconic Mysore Pak, Bellary’s ‘cycle’ khova, Gulbarga’s malpuri, karadantu (dry fruit snack enriched with edible gum) from Amingad and Gokak besides godi (wheat) halwa from Bhatkal. Chiroti or peni, a crisp flaky layered puri dusted with castor sugar, is eaten with badam milk.

Belgaum or Belagavi is also known for its mandige or mande, a flaky crepe with a thin filling of ghee, castor sugar and khoa, prepared on an upturned tava and folded like a dosa. Krishnamurti Saralaya in Konwal Gali carries on the legacy of this rare delicacy. Another crepe like sweet dish is the pootharekulu, a traditional sweet from Atreyapuram in East Godavari district. Pootha is ‘coating’ in Telugu and rekulu means ‘sheets’. Wafer thin rice crepes are cooked with ghee, liberally dusted with castor sugar, folded and cut into delectable pieces.

IMG_4256

Neighbouring Kerala is famous for Kozhikode Halwa, a glutinous sweet made of flour, molasses and oil. SM Street is lined with shops selling large multi-coloured stacks with flavours ranging from fig and date to banana. On the streets one also finds dweep unde from Lakshadweep, made from coconut and jaggery and wrapped in leaf. Kerala’s most popular dessert is the rich and caramelized ada pradhaman made from rice, jaggery and coconut milk. Chakka pradhaman is a jackfruit variant while mola ari payasam is a sweet porridge made of bamboo rice, jaggery and coconut milk.

Kerala’s northern tract of Malabar has it own set of sweets, mostly fashioned out of locally available bananas and coconut. Pazham nerchadu are ripe bananas stuffed with coconut and jaggery and fried while the spindle-shaped unnakaya, named after the similar looking silk cotton pod, is mashed bananas with a stuffing of coconut, sugar and raisin, deep-fried till golden brown. Mutta mala (egg garland) is a unique Moplah egg dessert where the whites are steamed into a cardamom-scented cake and the yolk is drizzled into sugar syrup to form lacy necklaces!

IMG_3476

Ramzan feast

In Mumbai, the mile-long stretch of Mohammed Ali Road from Bohri Mohalla to Minara Masjid teems with food stalls during Ramzan selling malpua, phirni, bhandoli (a yellowish malpua with egg) and special sweets. Sutarfeni from Gujarat is a thread-like sweet mixed with milk and eaten at sehri, the pre-dawn meal.

The steamed Kutchi Memon sweet saandal, made of fermented rice, sugar, coconut milk and mawa, looks like sanas and is as soft as cotton. At JJ Jalebi, started in 1947 by Haji Chhote Khan of Kanpur at the JJ Hospital corner, attendants squeeze out dough from a muslin cloth like calligraphy artists to fry dark brown mawa jalebis.

Burhanpur jalebis IMG_0300

The whole precinct is dotted with famous sweet shops. Fakhri Sweets was started 75 years ago by Mansoor Ali Dosaji Mithaiwala, who invented the salam pak, a sweet made of gond (gum), mawa and ghee. The shop is still famous for mawa samosa and malai khaja, available in fruit flavours. Suleiman Usman Mithaiwala, who started Zam Zam Sweets as a bakery in 1936, invented the aflatoon with mawa and other secret ingredients. Today his fourth generation has diversified into barfis made of fig, apricot and dry fruits.

Tawakkal Sweets, another fourth-gen shop started by Ismailji Alibhai Mithaiwala has expanded its repertoire beyond boondi and jalebi to contemporary sweets like mango malai and black currant mithai. Maharashtra is also known for orange barfi from Nagpur, mango-flavoured amba barfi and kandi peda from Satara. Modi Sweets and Ladkar’s, started by Mohan Babu Rao Ladkar in 1940, have both been awarded the President’s Medal.

Imarti or Jahangir IMG_8658

Inventiveness and adaptability have been twin mantras for any confectioner. And India has readily absorbed all foreign flavours – the ghee-laden sohan halwa made its way across the northwest frontier courtesy the Mughals. Shahi tukda too is Mughal in origin. With the availability of double roti (bread) from bakeries, it evolved into the Hyderabadi double ka meetha.

The ubiquitous kaju katli was created only after the Portuguese introduced the cashew to India, as was the bebinca in Goa. Chettiar traders picked up kavuni arisi from the sticky rice pudding in Myanmar (Burma). Yet, all these flavours have melded into the cultural cauldron to create the sweet taste of India!

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the cover story on 17 March, 2019 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.