Category Archives: Beyond India

Hatta Boy: Dubai escape

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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

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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

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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

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

Go Local: 9 Cool Destinations

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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…

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.’

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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

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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.

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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

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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!

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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.

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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

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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).

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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.  

Maldives: Romancing the Blues

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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…

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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.

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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

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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

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

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  

 

Singapore: Bicentennial Fun

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY give a round up of this year’s Bicentennial celebrations in Singapore for Explorers, Foodies, Socialisers and Action Seekers 

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In India’s Best Awards 2018, readers of T+L India & South Asia voted in big numbers for Singapore and its attractions. Not only did the country clinch the title of the Best International Family Destination, but Changi Airport also won the Best International Airport, Singapore Airlines was adjudged Best International Airline and Universal Studios Singapore and Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) grabbed trophies for the best Amusement Park and Integrated Resort respectively.

Long favoured by travellers from India, Singapore constantly evolves and reinvents itself for travellers of all ages and tastes. So whether you are an explorer or a foodie, an action seeker or a social butterfly, 2019 is the year to visit Singapore with mega events lined up to commemorate its bicentennial milestone.

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Explorers

Despite its diminutive size, there’s lots to explore in Singapore. Navigate through Changi Airport and discover why it is repeatedly voted the world’s best airport, with its delightful zones, Butterfly Garden, Orchid Garden and Cactus Garden. Feel like an adventurer at the Botanical Gardens, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Zoo, River Safari (Asia’s first river-themed wildlife park) as you go on the world’s first Night Safari.

Take a heritage walk of Chinatown, Little India, Kampong Glam and Fort Canning or hike off the beaten path and do a canopy walk above trees at MacRitchie Reservoir. Discover hidden gems and vibrant street art as you explore charming neighbourhoods – Bugis-Bras Basah, the colourful shophouses in Haji Lane and Peranakan houses. At the Indian Heritage Centre trace the cultural transfusion in Southeast Asia through waves of migration between 1st-21st centuries.

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A new experiential showcase at Fort Canning tells the stories of Singapore’s early settlers and communities through historic trails with projection installations at Telok Ayer Street and augmented reality trails of the Singapore River and Fort Canning Park. Take a Battlebox tour of the 1930s underground bombproof chamber, the headquarters of the Malaya Command during World War II.

On 15 February, 1942 the decision to surrender Singapore to the Japanese was taken here by the British. Continue on the history trail to Fort Siloso, Singapore’s only preserved coastal fort. A lift rises 36.3m high to a viewing deck and the 200m long walkway snakes above the canopy with stunning views of the sea, ending at gun placements and the WWII Surrender Chamber.

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For the explorer in you, Singapore has several museums –Philately Museum, Peranakan Museum, Changi Museum, Malay Heritage Centre, ArtScience Museum, Asian Civilizations Museum, National Museum of Singapore, Singapore City Gallery and the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

Trace the history of life on earth across 500,000 animal and plant specimens ranging from the world’s largest crab (Japanese Spider Crab) to the smallest (Coral Spider Crab), three dinosaurs from America (Prince, Apollonia and Twinky) and a 10.6m female sperm whale ‘Jubi Lee’ that washed ashore in Singapore in 2015. The dinosaur zone runs a Light Show every half-hour all day. And something new to look forward to each month…

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i Light Singapore – March
The bright lights of Singapore get brighter with the bicentennial edition of the sustainable light art festival and the theme ‘Bridges of Time’. Every evening in March, stroll down Singapore’s iconic riverfront, Marina Bay, the Civic District and Fort Canning to appreciate interactive installations by local and international artists.

Singapore Festival of Fun – 8-18 March
10-day festival with dining and entertainment experiences, besides stand up acts at the old bustling port Clarke Quay, now a hip lifestyle district

Indian Culture Fiesta – April
Celebrate the diversity of Indian culture at Indian Cultural Fiesta – a showcase of traditions, rituals and arts of 16 ethnic associations from different parts of India.

Hari Raya light up – June
Marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan is the festival of Eid or Hari Raya Aidilfitri. Watch the streets of Geylang Serai, Singapore’s largest Malay enclave light up with displays inspired by Malay art and cultural icons.

Rainforest Lumina – June-Dec
As part of Singapore Zoo’s 45th anniversary celebrations, take a walk on the wild side. Uncover stories and sensory treasures of nature with a first-of-its-kind show in Southeast Asia – audio-visual experience at 10 interactive zones, 7:30 pm onwards.

Singapore Night Festival – Aug
For two weekends in August, SNF transforms the Bugis-Bras Basah heritage precinct into a themed midsummer celebration with interactive light installations and events at art and cultural institutions.

Mid-Autumn Light up – Sep
Marking the end of the autumn harvest, the thanksgiving festival sees beautiful lanterns bedecking Chinatown. Sample mooncakes and teas at the street bazaars, watch night performances and take part in lantern-painting competitions.

Deepavali – Nov
A major cultural highlight, join the Silver Chariot Procession held twice in the lead-up to Diwali from Chinatown to Little India. Visit the Indian Heritage Centre building inspired by the Indian baoli (stepwell) where tabs and Augmented Reality take story-telling to another level. Choose a pagri/topi for a selfie at the headgear section.

Christmas on a Great Street – Dec
The annual Christmas Wonderland at Gardens by the Bay is a highlight of Singapore’s exciting year-end celebrations, with carnival games and rides. Go shopping at Orchard Road, skate under the stars and watch gardens come alive with large-scale illuminations at night.

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FACT FILE

What to Explore

The Original Singapore Walks
Ph +65 6325 1631 www.journeys.com.sg
Timings 9:30am, 2:30pm Guided tour S$38 Adults, S$18 children

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

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

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

Fort Siloso, Sentosa
Ph 1800 736 8672 www.sentosa.com.sg
Timings 10am-6pm Entry free, 90 min Guided Tour S$20 adults, S$14 children
Stay at the beach-facing Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort and get a complimentary coupon!

The Battlebox, Fort Canning
Ph +65 6338 6133 www.battlebox.com.sg
Timings 9:45am-5pm Entry S$18-32

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Foodies

For the serious foodie, there’s no better place than Singapore! Ten of the Top 50 restaurants in Asia can be found here. This is the birthplace of the Singapore chilli crab and the iconic Singapore Sling, a gin-based cocktail infused with Grenadine invented in 1912 at the Raffles Hotel. When the Americans came here after World War II, someone stuffed country sandwich bread with meat and eggs to create an Asian version of the Philly Cheese Steak sandwich – called Roti John! Ingenuity is in Singapore’s genes. Here, temperamental celebrity chefs meet their match with ordinary vendors in Street Food Challenges.

With limited space available, Singapore loves to repurpose the old and reinvent itself. Lau Pa Sat, once a Victorian era wet market, transforms into a pedestrian-only street food centre by evening. The erstwhile British cantonment Dempsey Hill is now a plush entertainment and F&B quarter. Ann Siang Hill, earlier a nutmeg and mace plantation, is now a vibrant precinct with rooftop bars and restaurants. CHIJMES, the 1841 Church of Infant Jesus was renovated from a religious complex to a modern restaurant complex and renamed after the peal of the church bells.

Reinterpreted Spaces-Lau Pa Sat open air food stalls IMG_7256_Anurag Mallick

From legendary hawker centres to Michelin star restaurants, the sheer diversity of dining locations in Singapore is tantalizing. Discover the ‘City in a Garden’ as you dine at IndoChine in a SuperTree at Gardens by the Bay, enjoy the breezy outdoors at Satay by the Bay or opt for a 7-course degustation menu at Pollen inside the Flower Dome in a plush indoor setting. The 34-seater Gourmet Bus combines gourmet dining with sightseeing.

Changi ranks second after Hong Kong as the world’s best airport for dining with Singapore’s top street food icons found right inside. Straits Food Village, a 24 hr food court awarded Airport Food Court of the Year at the Airport Food and Beverage (FAB) Awards 2016 captures the classic hawker experience. This year, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, hailed as ‘the Oscars of global gastronomy’ will be held in Singapore in a year packed with events.

Long Bar Raffles Hotel-Singapore Sling IMG_7657_Anurag Mallick

World Gourmet Summit (WGS) – 2-4 April
Gourmet fare, fine wines and wonderful dining experiences mark Asia’s premier haute cuisine festival. The 23rd edition features top masterchefs and local culinary talents serving dinners, brunches, masterclasses and more.

Asia’s 50 Best Bars – May
An exciting showcase of the superlative and most innovative in the drinks industry, where foodies can sample bold award-winning concoctions and bar food. Check out cutting edge bars like Operation Dagger and Oxwell and Co at Ann Siang Hill, Dempsey Hill and Holland village.

The World’s 50 Best Restaurants – June
Hosted in Asia for the first time, the gala awards celebrate culinary innovation and diversity through bespoke dinners, interactive masterclasses and live discussions. Breeze through restaurants at Clarke Quay, CHJIMES and Orchard.

Hari Raya Light up – June
Spectacular light installations with traditional Malay icons all month long as a lead up to Hari Raya Aidilfitri. The atmospheric Geylang Serai bazaar is lined with hundreds of shops selling decorations, clothing and food, ranging from traditional to modern Muslim cuisine, cookies, cakes, deep-fried snacks and spicy meals.

Singapore Food Festival – July
The best of local cuisine and live music, explore the city through its traditional and contemporary food, with cultural tours, workshops and events across the island. SFF’s signature event STREAT is a weekend pop-up restaurant with Singapore’s top chefs serving a specially curated menu of modern Singaporean cuisine.

Deepavali – Oct
The annual Hindu festival of light is a good time to head to Little India to see locals dress up in new clothes to enjoy the bright lights. Foodies can try festive delicacies like murukku (savoury twists), athirasam (sweet doughnuts), laddus and Diwali sweets at the Deepavali Festival Village.

Wine Fiesta 2019 – Oct
Pair wine tasting with gourmet treats prepared by renowned chefs while sampling top wines from across the world in different styles, with expert classes by winemakers.

Singapore River Festival – Nov
A two-day extravaganza across Boat Quay, Robertson Quay and Clarke Quay; dine at discounted prices at eateries along the riverside. From smoky tandoori meats to seafood and funked up local fare like Chicken Rice Arancini with Sambal Aioli, nibble around in a festive atmosphere with lights, outdoor dance floors and art installations.

Christmas – Dec
All the action moves to Orchard Road with Yuletide delicacies at the Christmas Village, food pop-ups and seasonal Christmas delights.

National Gallery-Posing with 3D masterpieces_Anurag Mallick

Socialisers

Singapore’s heady world of bars, clubs and galleries is just the place for people who love to socialize. Brush shoulders with celebrity figures at Madame Tussauds and pop by at the National Gallery, the largest museum and visual arts venue in Singapore. With 8,000 artworks spread over 6,90,000 sq ft, it is the largest public collection of Singapore and Southeast Asian art in the world.

It is housed in two national monuments – the former Supreme Court Building and City Hall where Admiral Lord Mountbatten accepted the Japanese surrender on 12 September 1945. Beautifully restored with an award-winning glass-metal façade, explore its prison cells and Rotunda (round library) and survey the cityscape and historic padang (ground) from the terrace deck.

Garden City-Padang or ground with trees IMG_7559_Anurag Mallick

Rooftop bars, underground clubs, whiskey bars, hip speakeasies; you’ll find them all in Singapore at vibrant nightlife hotspots like Ann Siang Hill, Orchard, Dempsey Hill, Clarke Quay and Boat Quay. Try out cutting edge cocktails and ingenuity in mixology as you go club hopping from Attica to Altitude, the world’s highest alfresco bar on the 63rd floor of 1 Raffles Place.

At Bar Stories in Haji Lane, try Miss Joaquim, a cocktail inspired by Singapore’s national flower, the Vanda Miss Joaquim, made from ingredients of Chinatown where the flower was first propagated. At Ah Sam Cold Drink Stall, relish cocktails using distinctly Singaporean and Asian ingredients such as laksa leaves (savoury herb), coconut milk and gula melaka (palm sugar).

Reinterpreted Spaces-Underground bunker now hip bar Operation Dropout-IMG_0628-Anurag Mallick

Live it up while staying at the most iconic hotels from Chinatown to Downtown – soak in the old world heritage of Fullerton or Raffles Hotel and relax in the world’s largest rooftop pool while looking over Singapore’s skyline at Marina Bay Sands.

From beach parties, outdoor concerts to festivals that celebrate diverse genres like club culture, Formula 1 racing, mixed martial arts, e-sports to Japanese anime, it’s a dizzying calendar building up to a crescendo in December.

Reinterpreted Spaces-Ann Siang Hill IMG_0623-Anurag Mallick

Singapore International Jazz Festival – March
The perfect venue to immerse in a music-filled weekend with world-class music from classical jazz to legendary blues performances.

Singapore Cocktail Festival – May
Asia’s largest celebration of cocktails and an opportunity to interact with an international line-up of mixologists and savour artisanal spirits.

The Asia’s 50 Best Bars – May
Showcases and honours the best and most innovative talents in the drinks industry with a chance to sample their award-winning concoctions.

Ultra Singapore – June
An EDM festival over two days featuring top electronic, house and techno acts. Buzzing festival atmosphere, unparalleled stage design, top-notch production and a tribe of partygoers ready to groove from dusk to dawn.

The F1 Singapore Grand Prix – 13-22 Sep
Undoubtedly, the crown jewel of Singapore’s event calendar, the iconic FORMULA 1 night race revs up for its twelfth edition in 2019. Catch the best of Singapore’s vibrant lifestyle experiences – bigger parties, special menus and exciting retail promotions.

Wine Fiesta – Oct
Taste fine wines from across the world, expert-led classes and knowledge sharing by winemakers. Wine tastings are paired with specially curated gourmet fare.

Singapore River Festival – Oct
An immersive extravaganza along Boat Quay, Robertson Quay and Clarke Quay, appreciate numerous light and art installations, go party hopping while enjoying F&B promotions and outdoor discotheques.

C3 Anime Festival Asia – Dec
The eleventh edition promises to be the biggest, boldest Japanese pop culture event showcasing exciting Japanese anime, iconic characters, interesting comics, games and more. Dress up as your favourite anime character and mingle with fellow otakus (anime and manga geeks)

Zouk Out – 1-2 Dec
With 16 hours of epic EDM tunes, 30,000 guests and the world’s tops DJs, Asia’s largest dance music festival is back at Siloso beach. Organised by homegrown club Zouk, the 19th edition boasts international DJs as stages, bars and food stalls spread across the sprawling festival grounds. Get wowed by laser shows, pyrotechnics, back-to-back DJ sets and a cool Mambo Jambo beach party.

Marina Bay Singapore Countdown – Dec
Ring in the New Year at the iconic carnival in the heart of the city from early evening into the night. The Countdown party has an electric atmosphere with stunning visual displays and fireworks. Catch light projection shows at The Merlion statue, Fullerton Hotel and ArtScience Museum besides a Food Truck Fest.

IMG_7299_The Club Hotel Singapore-Anurag Mallick

FACT FILE
Where to Stay

Marina Bay Sands Hotel
Ph +65 6688 8888 www.marinabaysands.com

Oasia Hotel Downtown
Ph +65 6664 0333 www.stayfareast.com

Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa
Ph +65 6275 0100 www.shangri-la.com

Crowne Plaza Changi
Ph +65 6823 5300 www.ihg.com

Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza Hotel, Orchard Road
Ph +65 6735 5800 www.marriott.com

Raffles Hotel
Ph +65 6337 1886 www.rafflessingapore.com/

The Fullerton Hotel Singapore
Ph +65 6733 8388 www.fullertonhotels.com

Sofitel So Singapore
Ph +65 6701 6800 www.sofitel-so-singapore.com/

Swissôtel Merchant Court
Ph +65 6239 1848 www.swissotel.com

Night life-Fire dancers at Night Safari IMG_9674_Anurag Mallick

Action-seekers

Singapore is a small dynamo buzzing with activities and adventures for any action seeker. Right at Changi Airport, whizz down 4 storeys of The Slide@T3, Singapore’s tallest slide and the world’s tallest slide in an airport. At Universal Studios, scream your lungs out and feel the rush of adrenalin at the hair-raising 4D Transformer, Battlestar Galactica and movie-inspired rides and roller coasters.

Get splashed at Adventure Cove waterpark, go on Segway rides, get face to face with marine creatures at S.E.A. Aquarium – the largest in the world, take the Skyline Luge – the first in South East Asia, tackle obstacle courses at Mega Adventure and zip down a 450m long zipline, experience the rush of indoor skydiving in the world’s first themed wind tunnel at i -Fly, try wave riding at Wave House Sentosa, brave spills and thrills at Sentosa 4D Adventureland, go gaming at Resorts World and enjoy the view from the revolving Tiger Sky Tower. Pause to catch your breath, for this is just Sentosa!

Sentosa-Luge IMG_1212_Anurag Mallick

A great perch to see the city by night is the Singapore Flyer, which at 165m was the world’s tallest Ferris wheel until the High Roller of Las Vegas upstaged it in 2014. It’s still the largest observation wheel in Asia! While at the Flyer, try the new 737-800 flight simulator and sit in the captain’s seat of the world’s most popular jet airliner. Learn to take-off, cruise and land the plane at an airport of your choice in an immersive experience with real-size cockpits and aircraft controls. At the Flyer you could also reserve a pod for a private 3-course dinner.

Action seekers will love the various laser shows in Singapore – from Wings of Time (S$18, 7:40pm, 8:40pm) at Sentosa, WonderFull (8pm, 9:30pm) at Marina Bay Sands or Garden Rhapsody (7:45pm, 8:45pm) at the SuperTree grove in Gardens by the Bay; the latter two being free to public. From top-notch rugby and football to UFC fight nights and Grand Prix races, each event comes with its own entertainment package. So no matter when you choose to visit Singapore, there’s always some action at hand…

Night life-Clarke Quay IMG_7888-Anurag Mallick

HSBC Singapore Rugby Sevens – 13-14 April
Watch the world’s best rugby teams tackle each other in an adrenalin-pumping encounter and a non-stop carnival atmosphere at Singapore Sports Hub

JSSL Singapore Professional Academy 7s 2019 – 19-21 April
Showcases top level football with football experts offering insights at the JSSL Singapore Football Coaching Convention.

UFC Fight Night Singapore – June
Witness top mixed martial arts athletes compete in the world’s most intimidating arena, the Octagon©. In the lead up to UFC Fight Night, activities like Open Workout will be held for the growing MMA fan base in the region.

International Champions Cup – July
A golden opportunity for football fans to catch their favourite clubs and players in action. Top teams from around the world play against each another in Singapore during the pre-season resulting in world-class football matches.

2019 Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix – 20-22 Sep
Experience full-throttle high adrenaline action that comes in a gust of wind and speed. The twelfth edition of the iconic FORMULA 1 night race brings out the best of Singapore’s vibrant lifestyle experiences – wilder parties, special menus, retail discounts and performances by Fatboy Slim and Toots & the Maytals.

PVP eSports Championship – Oct
Online gaming fans and action seekers will enjoy the thrilling e-sports competition as teams from Singapore and the region compete for a prize pool of US$300,000.

Standard Chartered Marathon – Dec
The marquee running event on Singapore’s sporting calendar where thousands run past iconic landmarks. Explore the city and its pretty landscape while testing your endurance in a tropical climate.

Reinterpreted Spaces-Ann Siang Hill once a spice plantation IMG_0636_Anurag Mallick

FACT FILE

Getting there:
Singapore Airlines flies direct (around 4 hrs) from Bengaluru, Chennai and other cities to Changi Airport www.singaporeair.com

Changi Airport
https://in.changiairport.com

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

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

Singapore Grand Prix
Ph +65 6738 6738 www.singaporegp.sg

For more info, visit www.yoursingapore.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as part of a special feature in the March 2019 issue of Travel + Leisure India magazine.

Thun: A Swiss love affair

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY explore Thun, one of the most beautiful medieval towns in Switzerland and the gateway to the scenic Bernese Oberland

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Switzerland… the very name invokes images of romantic holidays in cozy wooden chalets and ski resorts, wildflowers bobbing in alpine meadows, warm fondue and raclette on wintry evenings and cows grazing in idyllic pastures, their bells tinkling softly, as farm fresh milk is crafted into fine chocolate and 450 varieties of cheese.

For years, Switzerland has been the gold standard for what a mountain destination should be, with hill stations around the world claiming the epithet ‘The Switzerland of ___’. Only when you visit Switzerland do you realize that every cliché – picture postcard homes, snowy peaks and placid lakes the colour of copper sulphate – is actually true…

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It’s not hard to see why artists, poets and writers have always been enchanted by Switzerland. Johanna Spyri set the tales of Heidi in the Swiss countryside. The glaciers, lakes and mountains inspired Swiss painters like Caspar Wolf, Ferdinanad Hodler and Giovanni Giacometti, poet Lord Byron and writers like Mark Twain. Composer Goethe wrote his poem “Song of the Spirits over the waters” after seeing the Staubbach Falls in 1779 while JRR Tolkein based his Lord of the Rings saga of ‘Rivendell’ after a trip to Lauterbrunnen Valley.

India’s love affair with Switzerland is largely credited to director Yash Chopra who spent his honeymoon there in 1970. Captivated by the heavenly natural beauty, he featured the Swiss meadows and mountains for the first time in his 1985 film Faasle. The saga continued with his 1989 film Chandni and DDLJ in 1995. Millions were captivated by the landscapes, cobbled streets and pretty bridges of the Swiss countryside, a signature backdrop for Yash Raj Films. Lauenensee, a lake in Canton Bern that served as a prominent locale, was dubbed ‘Yash Chopra Lake’.

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For promoting Brand Switzerland, Chopra was given the honorary title ‘Ambassador of Interlaken’ on 8 April 2011 and in May 2016, a bronze statue was installed off Interlaken’s main street Hoheweg near Casino Kursal with a silver plaque dedicated to him. Jungfrau Railways named a train after him; the only other person to share this honour is the man who founded Jungfraubahn railway, Adolf Guyer-Zeller himself (Train 211)! The Victoria Jungfrau hotel in Interlaken has a special deluxe cinema-themed suite named after him (CHF 2250) decorated with Veer Zaara posters.

While Jungfraujoch continues to be the top Swiss destination, there are several pretty nooks overlooked by most vacationers. One such place is the medieval town of Thun. Located on the western edge of Thunersee (Lake Thun) where the Aare river flows out, it was the traditional gateway to the Bernese Alps. With the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau gleaming with eternal snow across the lake, the picturesque town is crisscrossed with bridges where couples walk hand in hand past pretty hanging flower baskets as weeping willows cascade into crystal clear waters.

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“Thun is to the Jungfrau region what the overture is to the opera,” exclaimed our guide Elisabeth Mettler at the Bahnhof (train station). “We open the door to the Bernese Oberland and one can reach the best places to ski and hike – Wengen, Murren and Grindelwald – in just an hour.” Unlike the financial capital Zurich, the Canton of Bern is known for its unhurried approach to life. People love to take things slow and enjoy a small coffee or beer at the cafes by the Aare. Stores in the old town often close for lunch and a leisurely heritage walk is the best way to explore town.

We walked from the station down Othmar-Schoeck Weg, named after a Swiss composer; just across the riverbank lay Brahms Quay, named after another famous composer. Many roads and alleys are named after eminent personalities who spent weeks holidaying in Thun. Constant floods led the city folk to divert the river through a dry moat creating the island of Bälliz, today the main shopping district.

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Five bridges connect Bälliz to the medieval city center and we took the quaint Untere Schleuse (upper flood gate), a covered wooden bridge originally built in 1724. Together with the lower sluice, they regulate the water flow of the Aare river. If all 20 gates are opened, it will lower the lake’s level by 20 cm in a day, explained our guide.

The spot where the water gushed out of the sluices was the city’s Surf Point where surfboarders practiced against roiling waves. In July-Aug, the city’s youngsters line the riverfront in beachwear, often jumping into the waters to cool off and Thun resembles Rio or Hawaii than a typical Swiss town.

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Around the scenic lake you’ll find the oldest sailing school of Switzerland and the largest garrison. In the 1830s, the Knechtenhofer brothers laid the foundation for boat excursions on Lake Thun. They ordered an iron steamboat ‘Bellevue’ from Paris for their hotel De Bains le Vielle Viel, the first in Thun with tapped water in the rooms. The steamer had an organ that played God Save the Queen!

Grand Hotel Thunerhof, built in 1875, was once the most luxurious address in the Bernese Oberland that hosted kings, emperors and czars. Now converted into town offices, the ground floor houses the Kunstmuseum dedicated to contemporary art with a small coffee shop next door.

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Our hotel Freienhof was one of the earliest inns in Thun overlooking the Sinnebrucke Bridge, the oldest river crossing between Bern and Interlaken. Another former hotel Beau Rivage today has the best Italian restaurant in town, Da Domenico Beau Rivage. Thun is a beautiful old town with charming monuments.

We walked past a reddish building – the narrowest in Switzerland, and the Knechtenhofer House where Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte stayed. At the heart of town is Mill Square where yellow outlines mark the spot where the mill once stood. Now it’s a leisure spot perfect in summer to quaff beer; in winter time, the chairs are draped in wool, fur and blankets for people to snugly enjoy coffee and hot chocolate.

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Thun’s town square is one of the most beautiful in Switzerland. The Rathaus (Town Hall) dates back to 1500. Back then, there were no banks and money was kept in the stadt kirche (city church). A theft led to a treasury tower being added in 1585. Former guild houses of bakers and butchers now double up as hotels and restaurants.

Walking down Obere Hauptgasse (Upper Main Street), we marveled at the boutiques along the unique raised pavements in Altstadt (Old Town), peculiar to Thun. Be it herb shops like Secret Nature or Catlovers, the only dedicated cat shop in Switzerland, there’s a surprise lurking at every corner. At the east end of the cobbled street, a long flight of stairs called Kirchtreppe led up to Thun Schloss (castle).

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Lording over town on Castle Hill, the medieval Thun Schloss was built around 1190 by Duke Bertold V of Zähringen. We trudged up, pausing for a breath at a pavilion with lovely murals on the ceiling. This ‘fortified hill’, dunum in Celtic, gave the town its name. The majestic donjon or keep capping the citadel is the city’s famous landmark and the knight’s hall, one of the best preserved and largest surviving Swiss banquet halls of the High Middle Ages.

In 1888, a Historical Museum was opened in the castle and for a while the jailer was also the ticket seller and guard for the museum! The medieval castle also houses a restaurant, prison, court and well with the corner turrets offering 360-degree views over town.

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Staying at Hotel Freienhof entitled us to the PanoramaCard (similar to the Zurich Card). Besides the free Thun city tour, we got complimentary bus rides. At Oberhofen, the lakeside Schloss (castle) was set in a landscaped park with its picturesque lake turret jutting out of the waters. Our visit coincided with the annual Castle Day and locals in period costumes livened up the proceedings.

A hat rack had various period headgear for visitors to try on! A tour of the castle, plush chambers and 19th century servants’ quarters revealed how nobility and their domestic staff lived. The medieval keep with an oriental smoking lounge was stunning. We headed next to Spiez, with its scenic marina, vineyards and castle with a Romanesque church on a beautiful peninsula by the lake.

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But the highlight was the romantic boat cruise on Lake Thun with BLS Navigation. With special fondue dinners and wine sourced from the vineyards of Spiez, it was a lovely ride past little towns and mountains like the ‘Swiss Pyramid’ Mount Niesen and Stockhorn.

We clinked our glasses and gazed at the fiery sunset with the Swiss flag of our vessel ‘Stadt Thun’ fluttering the breeze. We half expected credits to roll or a director’s voice to shout ‘Cut’.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly Swiss www.swiss.com from Mumbai to Zürich International Airport (8 hr 55 min). Board an SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) train www.SwissTravelSystem.com via Bern (1hr 20 min) to Thun. BLS Navigation www.bls.ch runs nine boats on lakes Thun and Brienz.

Berner Oberland Bahn (BOB) from Interlaken Ost station provides the first stage of mountain railway routes like Wengernalpbahn (WAB) and Jungfraubahn (JB) to Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, Wengen, Kleine Scheidegg and Europe’s highest station at Jungfraujoch. A 3-day Jungfrau VIP pass with unlimited travel costs CHF 235 (available from 1 May-26 Oct at all stations). www.jungfrau.ch

PanoramaCard
While staying overnight in one of the participating hotels in the Lake Thun region you receive a complimentary PanoramaCard that offers free rides on city buses and trams no matter where you stay between Thun and Interlaken, with discounted admission to public pools, castles, museums, nature parks and a free guided city tour in Thun.

When to Go
Every Wed and Sat, farmers markets are held in the Bälliz, flea markets on every first Sat of the month on Mühleplatz and an artisan market every fourth Sat of the month at Waisenhausplatz. Thunfest in early August is the largest city open-air festival in Switzerland. Thun’s Fulehung Folk festival is held on the last weekend in Sep and marked with colourful street parades. In Nov-Dec, the town centre is decked up with Advent and Christmas markets while local hunters sell their fox furs and showcase their trophies in the annual fur market (second Sat in Feb) near Hotel Freienhof.

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STAY

Thun
Hotel Freienhof
Freienhofgasse 3
Ph +41 33 2275050
www.freienhof.ch
After the original hotel was burnt down, a newer one was built in 1958 and renovated in 2006. Great location by the river in the city center close to the station with complimentary breakfast. You’ll find the room numbers on the ceiling!

Hotel Krone
Obere Hauptgasse 2
Ph +41 33 227 88 88
www.krone-thun.ch
Located in the main square, the 15th century guild house of the bakers became an inn in 1821 and has been privately owned since 1852. Today it’s a charming 4-star hotel on the historic Rathausplatz.

Interlaken
Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa
Höheweg 41
Ph +41 33 828 28 28
www.victoria-jungfrau.ch
Overlooking the large central park Höhematte and Jungfrau in the distance, it is easily the best address in town (doubles CHF 438-588) with a fine Italian restaurant and the award-winning Nescens spa.

Hotel Carlton-Europe
Höheweg 94
Ph +41 33 826 01 60
www.carltoneurope.ch
An Art Nouveau hotel with over a century of hospitality (doubles CHF 158); from 1 Jan 2019 it is the first Swiss ‘adults only hotel’ that accommodates only guests over 16 years.

Zurich
Hotel Ni-Mo
Seefeldstrasse 16
Ph +41 44 370 30 30
www.hotel-nimo.ch
Cool boutique hotel in downtown Zurich’s Seefeld district, walking distance from Lake Zurich’s promenade, Opera House and famous shopping mile Bahnhofstrasse. Rooms are named after the sights they overlook, with amazing self-service breakfast.

For more info, visit www.thunersee.ch and www.myswitzerland.com

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the February 2019 issue of Travel + Leisure magazine.

Rwanda: Planet of the Apes

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take part in Rwanda’s annual naming ceremony of young mountain gorillas and explore the wildlife reserves of this dime-sized country 

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Think Africa and herds of big game roaming the plains and grasslands of a vast continent come to mind. Wedged between mighty Kenya, Tanzania and DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), one wonders what a dime-sized country like Rwanda can offer. Yet, it stands tall in wildlife circles as one of the few places in the world where you can see mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. Thanks to an invite to attend the gorilla-naming ceremony Kwita Izina, we found ourselves on a direct Rwand Air flight from Mumbai to Kigali.

It was an early morning touchdown, yet Jullesse, the cheery representative from Rwanda Development Board was there to greet us and whisk us away to our hotel. En route we got a crash course on the cultural significance of Rwanda’s biggest wildlife and conservation event. Virunga Massif, a dramatic volcano-ridden landscape of 160 sq km at the tri-junction of DRC, Uganda and Rwanda is the last refuge of the mountain gorilla.

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Strife, poaching and encroachment in the region had led to a rapid decline in their population to an all-time low of 242 in 1981. Conservation efforts spearheaded by American primatologist Dian Fossey (‘Gorillas in the Mist’ fame) and tirelessly monitoring of gorilla families up the steep slopes all year round led to a slow revival.

For centuries, newborn children in Rwanda have been named in a ceremony called Kwita Izina. Taking the idea forward, Rwanda Development Board adopted a unique conservation initiative to celebrate the birth of baby mountain gorillas born in the wild. Since 2005, the annual naming ceremony has involved local communities and a galaxy of statesmen and conservationists from around the world chosen as celebrity namers. With few days to go for the official ceremony, we had the perfect opportunity to explore the capital city.

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Our base was the swish Kigali Marriott Hotel, one of the first international hotel chains to open in Rwanda. Located in the diplomatic enclave of Kiyovu in the posh CBD (Central Business District), it overlooked the high-security presidential quarters. We walked past the Gorilla Statue near the Town Hall to Kandt House Museum, the first brick building in town. It was the home of German explorer and administrator Richard Kandt, Kigali’s founder and the country’s first Resident.

His statue stood in the front of the building, which earlier housed the Museum of Natural History. A small collection of snakes like the Black Mamba and Gabon viper in a small enclosure at the back, a baby crocodile in a pond and a gorilla in a glass case are the only remnants of the former museum, which currently showcases Rwanda’s cultural, geographic and colonial past.

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Back at the hotel at Iriba Bar & Terrace, we grabbed some local ‘Question Coffee’ sourced from a women’s co-operative and fried sambaza (local fish) and brochettes or skewered meat cubes with roasted ibirayi (Irish potatoes). After a relaxing Dead Sea mud therapy at the spa and evening happy hours at the Executive Lounge, we dined at Soko restaurant, with traditional woven agasake baskets lining the walls. The hotel had a Go Kigali outlet where we booked a local city tour the next day.

Led by our friendly guide Colombe, we headed to Mount Kigali for a panoramic view over town. The pine forests were serene except for a troupe of furtive blue-balled Vervet monkeys. We trawled local milk bars, mural walks, Gaddafi Mosque and the Muslim quarter of Nyamirambo, Kigali’s hip neighbourhood. At Kimironko market we marveled at the varieties of multi-hued beans and tasted Rwandan produce like tree tomato and passion fruit. Our tour ended at a local eatery Tamu Tamu where we tried the Rwandan staple ugali (cassava porridge), stewed cassava leaves, fried fish and goat curry.IMG_2518

The next morning we left early for Volcanoes National Park for our first brush with gorillas. Women dressed in colourful kitenge carried headloads of sweet potato, banana and cassava to reach local markets by dawn while men pedaled furiously balancing bundles of sugarcane or stacks of carrots and charcoal.

The mist covered volcanoes towered above the hilly landscape. Five of the eight volcanoes – Muhabura, Gahinga, Sabyinyo, Bisoke and Karisimbi – were in Rwanda. Had we known that fifteen minutes later we would be assigned to Karisimbi, the tallest of them at 4500m, we wouldn’t have been smiling!

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Soon, we disembarked at the busy park headquarters at Kinigi near Musanze. Only twelve gorilla trekking routes were open to tourists and each trekking group had eight members. We got the tough Isimbi trail led by the petite young guide Jolie. Briefing us on gorilla behaviour and language, she explained the various grunts, calls and gestures, warning us to approach them submissively.

“Crouch low and repeat ‘Mae-mmhh’, which means ‘we come in peace.’ We practiced obediently like kindergarten children. Gaiters (leg guards), rain jackets and gloves were offered on hire, but we smugly looked at our Decathlon-acquired shoes and rain jackets and politely declined.

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Driving an hour past bustling markets, small villages and waving kids we reached the edge of a forest where porters in blue uniforms awaited us with walking sticks carved with gorilla figures. The wise among us took porters for their backpacks and camera equipment. Little did we know what awaited us on the Umusumba Trekking Trail.

The hike got progressively tougher as we started to climb – a slippery path of bamboo leaves, a tangle of vines to ensnare you, bamboo stumps waiting to trip you, squelchy pathways, dense undergrowth and steep inclines lined with stinging nettle. Ah, that’s why the gloves, we winced and cursed! After plodding for nearly two hours, we reached our trackers and made a final insane climb.

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Lolling on a bed of nettles in a clearing was the Isimbi family. Watching over the ten juveniles and eight females was mighty Muturengere, a 200 kg 1.9m tall Silverback – adult males get a distinct silvery band on the back on maturity. The furry little gorillas played around with wild fruits, before ambling towards us in curiosity.

We bleated our pacifist calls repeatedly until Muturengere grunted his approval. An hour elapsed in the blink of an eye. All of a sudden, Muturengere got up, walked past us meters away, raised his head and disappeared into the bush. The mist rolled in and we descended the lower slopes of Karisimbi where we spotted a Golden Monkey.

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Rwanda is a small hilly country and it is easy to move around. We drove south on our primate tour to Nyungwe National Park to track Colobus monkeys. They get their names not after the explorer but from the Greek word kolobos, meaning handicapped as they do not have a thumb. Thanks to its long cloak of black hair with white shoulder streaks, it is also called Judge Monkey!

On the hike to the Kamiranzovu waterfall we spotted a dark coated L’Hoest Monkey or mountain monkey furtively scurry on all fours through the dense undergrowth. From Uwinka Overlook we took the Igishigishigi Trail, named after the giant tree fern, to the Canopy Walkway, the first in East Africa. Built in three sections with the longest one stretching 90m and 57m above the forest floor, it’s narrow and shaky but gives unmatched views.

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We didn’t have time for the longer Chimpanzee hike and returned to Kinigi in time for Kwita Izina 2018, where 23 gorillas born in the past year were being named. The massive gathering at the base of Volcanoes National Park wore a festive air with locals and volunteers waving Rwandan flags, dancing and cheering on.

Against a stunning backdrop of the volcanoes was a giant gorilla frame made of bamboo with an infant riding on its back. Headlining the event was South African pop duo Mafikizolo, who were also part of the celebrity namers that included sportsmen, ambassadors, businessmen and environmentalists.

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Life came full circle as the unnamed newborns from the Isimbi family we spotted earlier got beautiful names in the Kinyarwanda dialect – Umuseke (dawn) and Izahabu (gold), named by female Arsenal star Alexandra Virina Scott. Fellow Arsenal legend and Cameroonian footballer Laureno Bisan Etamé-Mayer named his li’l gorilla from the Kwitonda family Ikipe (team).

Pop icon Akon couldn’t make it but his business partner and Malian philanthropist Samba Bathily named his newborn gorilla from the Igisha family Ineza (mercy), which he believed was needed for Africa and the world. Senegalese NBA star Amadou Gallo Fall had launched junior NBA in Kigali and his focus was on using the power of sport and values of the game. He named his baby gorilla from Musilikare family Kwiyongera (to increase).

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Each namer had a personal angle. Dr Noeline Raondry Rakotoarisa, program chief at UNESCO, had been visiting Rwanda for the last 11 years and confessed each time she saw a new Rwanda because it was moving so fast! The geographic area of 686 biosphere reserves in 122 countries was home to over 256 million people, so her name for the Igisha family newborn was Imbaga (crowd). UN Special Envoy, President and CEO of the Asia Society and ex-Vice Chairman of the World Economic Forum Josette Sheeran named her baby gorilla from the Pablo family Umuryango (family).

English celebrity chef, food writer and eco campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, also VP of Flora & Fauna International UK had met the newborn of the Hirwa family just a week earlier and decided to name it Amatungo (plentiful livestock), the bedrock of Rwandan culture.

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Peter Riedel, President and COO of electronics group Rhode Schwarz International, on his first trip to Africa, named his newborn Umusaruro (harvest). The final namer Madame Graca Machel, former First Lady of South Africa and Mozambique, named her Kwitonda newborn Urugori (crown).

The ceremony gave way to a moving environment-themed performance by a dance troupe. As world leaders applauded and the world cheered on, it was amazing to see how a tiny country was leading the way as a beacon for conservation. The genius of Rwanda was that it had created an international event out of a domestic population census! We headed to Serena Hotels at Lake Kivu for a lavish lakeside gala dinner with a private performance by Mafikizolo humming songs of Africa.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
The national carrier Rwand Air flies direct from Mumbai to Kigali in 7 hrs four times a week (Mon, Wed, Fri, Sat). www.rwandair.com

Where to Stay
Kigali Marriott Hotel www.marriott.com
Serena Hotel Kigali & Lake Kivu www.serenahotels.com
One & Only Nyungwe House www.oneandonlyresorts.com
Gorillas Volcanoes Hotel, Ruhengeri

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Entry
Only 96 permits are issued per day with each permit costing $1500. Visa on arrival costs $30. An East African combined visa covering Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania costs $100.

Must Do
Wildlife Tours Rwanda www.wildlifetours-rwanda.com
Gorilla trekking at Volcanoes National Park www.volcanoesnationalparkrwanda.com
Track Colobus, Golden and mountain monkeys at Nyungwe National Park
Spot the Big 5 at Akagera National Park
Kigali city tour with Go Kigali Tours, $60/person 9:30am-1pm, 2-6pm
Try the local ‘Question’ Coffee and Rwandan tea; eat local at Tamu Tamu
Shop for souvenirs like agasake (peace baskets)

For more info, www.visitrwanda.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 13 January, 2019 in Deccan Herald newspaper.

 

Garut: Sweet Taste of Indonesia

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Blessed with a serene natural ambience, Garut, the Switzerland of Indonesia, holds the charm of a land meant for indolent lotus eaters, says PRIYA GANAPATHY

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With Javanese love songs lulling us to sleep on the drive from Bandung to Garut, we reached the gorgeous Kampung Sumber Alam, an exclusive hot springs spa resort. The ‘Garden of Water’ was a virtual floating island of wooden cottages in a lotus-riddled aquatic Eden. A fine example of Sundanese architecture, the roofing was done with the hairy aren palm and shaped like a birdwing! Under a moonlit starry night, it didn’t take us long to immerse ourselves in the thermal swimming pool partly covered by a large sail-like marquee.

Garut’s high altitude ensures year-round cold weather and its gorgeous misty natural surroundings have earned it the tag ‘Switzerland of Java’. The presence of healing thermal baths offering rejuvenative spa treatments give it the air of a European spa town. The chill weather contrasts the novelty of the pools that remain permanently hot with water channelled directly from the volcanic Mount Guntur nearby.

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The thermal waters are also piped directly to your bathtub, so you can soak in the personal comfort of your own room. At the private deck I put my feet up, watching lotuses bloom and river reeds sway in the breeze. Blessed with a serene natural ambience, Garut holds the charm of a land meant for indolent lotus-eaters.

There’s much to see and do here. Our young guide Dede Sunandar recounted how the Papandayan volcano was West Java’s biggest draw besides the Cipanas hot springs and the 8th century Shaivite shrine of Candi Cangkuan. Adventure seekers head to the mountainous tracts of Papandayan, Haruman and Guntur for trekking trails.

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The Papandayan volcano has the largest caldera in South East Asia after Bromo, which along with Tangkuban Perahu are counted amont the most famous volcanoes in Java. The numerous craters in Papandayan are fascinating. Some spit out hot mud, some are hissing noisy gas craters, there are golden craters that resemble gold… its rocks covered in golden yellow sulphurous emissions.

With a population of almost 3 million, most people in Garut Regency practice farming. “People say that the population is high because the weather is so cold. Couples are forced to keep themselves warm in this climate, hence the baby boom,” Dede winked.

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Jawa Barat (West Java) was once a Portuguese trading outpost and Garut has a charming colonial legacy called Delman. The quaint horse wagons, locally called dokarandong or sado, are named after a Dutchman called Dellemann, who introduced this cart to the people. Over time, his name got corrupted to Delman and became a popular, fun means of transport!

We drove past the river Chi Aren which empties into the sea. Our guide revealed that another popular local tradition is ram fights, organised in the villages on holidays. “So popular is this sport, you think the men look after their rams better than their wives and children,” he quipped.

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Beautiful batik

Batik is an Indonesian heritage, designated by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. And Garut is a great place to learn more about it. Garut’s batik has been world famous since the time of Dutch rule. Characterized by earthy hues like white in combination with purple, dark blue, brown and other colors, the technique of resist painting uses wax on the fabric.

Part of the fabric is covered with malam (beeswax) and a bamboo spout or nib called canting is used to ‘paint’ hot wax with lines or dots onto the cloth which creates a resist pattern. The other method is to use a designed copper block or dye stamp called “cap” and “print” the resist on the fabric. The fabric is then coloured in various shades using this method and the portions with the wax can be melted off by dipping in hot water.

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At Pajagan Rasya Batik Garutan, a batik expert was busy at work, dipping her bamboo canting, blowing it gently and drawing flawless designs on a large ream of cloth. Inside the workshop, we saw them dunk and dye the cloth and boil it to melt the wax before letting it dry in the open. At the shop, we all ended up buying the lovely batik items on display – shawls and stoles, shirts and tunics, even fabric to stitch later! The hand-painted ones were pricier but the printed ones were very reasonable. 

The Batik Museum in Yogyakarta outlines how various cultures have influenced Batik designs. The status of batik grew in 17th century when Sultan Agung of Mataram chose to dress in batik clothes and accorded it importance in ceremonial use. Traditional batik used a lot of browns, yellows and reds or dark earthy hues. Whereas, batik in the coast especially North Java has more vibrant, brighter, tropical colours. A framed panel displayed how every design motif and colour was attributed to a distinct region or theme!

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Leather is the other trademark in Garut, and Sukaregang is the place to pick up the finest leather products. Rows of shops and boutiques display a wide range of leather goods made from the soft hide of local sheep.

From wallets and bracelets to handbags, satchels and jackets in every shade, the exclusive designs sell at outrageous prices in fashion capitals. A prominent silk-producing area, Garut is also known for traditional Ikat weaving where strands of dyed weft and warp threads are handwoven on a loom. 

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Garut’s Good ol’ Dodol

Indonesians have a sweet tooth and you get a taste of it at the sprawling Picnic factory in Garut. Dodol, a brown chewy caramel sweet, is Indonesia’s signature confection, and the brand Picnic has been synonymous with it for decades. For generations, dodol was prepared in homes, but Iton Damiri began manufacturing Dodol in 1949 on a commercial scale.

When Damiri tried to sell his homemade dodol under its original name Halima and later Fatimah at a popular elite store named Picnic in Bandung, the owner wasn’t interested. Damiri rebranded his product as Picnic to woo the shop owner and the rest is history! In 1979, the Picnic Dodol factory was established with only five people. Right now, they have 250 workers who churn out four to six tons of Dodol per day! 

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The main ingredient is sticky or glutinous rice (badvas katang) or rice powder which is used in combination with brown sugar, coconut milk and grated coconut. It takes 9-10 hours to cook with constant stirring before it is cooled and allowed to set for a couple of hours. Initially, dodol had only one flavour, but market innovation and the need to keep up with changing trends, has seen dodol acquire a range of assorted flavours. Today there are fruit-based and nut-based dodol along with flavours like chocolate or coffee, garnishes like sesame and dodol brownies, pies and cookies. 

After a quick guided tour around the factory and a short historical film on Dodol, we headed straight to the shop to tuck in, literally like kids in a candy store! They don’t export it… so we picked up assorted flavours as sweet Indonesian food souvenirs called ‘olah oleh’! We returned to Bandung and picked up some bamboo souvenirs and angklungs, the sweet taste of dodol still on our lips.

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FACT FILE

Getting there: Fly from Bangalore via Kuala Lumpur to Bandung on Malindo Air. From Bandung, drive 130km south/4hrs to Garut.

Where to Stay
Sumber Alam, Garden of Water
Jln. Raya Cipanas 122 Garut, Jawa Barat, Indonesia
Ph: +0262 237700 W: www.sumberalamresort.com 

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What to buy

Batik – Rasya Batik in Garut
JI, Otto Iskandardinata, Komplek PLN No. 1, Garut, Jawa Barat
Ph: 0262 232824 email: rasya.batik@yahoo.com

Dodol – Picnic Dodol Garut Factory
JI, Pasundan 102, Garut 1, Garut Kota, Jawa Barat
Ph: 0262 240717 W: www.picnicdodolgarut.com

Bamboo souvenirs & angklungs – Saung Angklung Udjo
Jl. Padasuka No.118, Cibeunying Kidul, Kota Bandung, Jawa Barat, Indonesia
Ph: 0262 227271714 W: http://www.angklung-udjo.co.id

For more info, visit https://www.indonesia.travel/

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 4 January, 2019 in Indulge, the Friday supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

The Jungfrau region: An artistic refuge

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Few know how the epic landscapes of Switzerland’s Jungfrau region inspired the literary legacy of Goethe and Tolkien, besides the spirit of adventure, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY

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For a country of hills and vales typified through the folkloric tales of William Tell and Heidi, it might come as a surprise to many that Switzerland is also the inspiration behind JRR Tolkein’s ‘Rivendell’. While New Zealand may have served as the shooting locale for the Lord of the Rings saga, it was the Swiss Alps in the Bernese Oberland (highlands of Bern Canton) that provided literary stimulus. In a letter written to his son in the 1950’s, Tolkien acknowledged that the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins’ journey to the other side of the ‘Misty Mountains’ was based on his own Swiss adventures in 1911.

As part of a group of 12, with his brother Hillary and friends, a 19-year-old Tolkien travelled on foot from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen by mountain paths to the head of the valley, eastward over the two high passes Kleine and Grosse Scheidegge to Grindelwald and eventually Merringen. They continued over the Grimsel Pass through Upper Valais to Brig, the Aletsch Glacier and finished up in Zermatt and the Matterhorn. A new walking tour ‘There and Back Again’, retraces the 290km walking route, though we were content to follow most of the journey by train.

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The Bernese Oberland was the first place of mass tourism in Switzerland. British schoolboys came here for a break in the 1830s after finishing school. Before getting the world to travel, the first trip Thomas Cook ever took was to Interlaken in 1863. German composers Wagner and Mendelssohn, Mark Twain, Ted Roosevelt and a host of climbers came here. In 1874, the Bodeli Railway carried the first travelers from across the world to the Custom House, as Interlaken Ost was then called. With the opening of the Bernese Oberland Railway in 1890 and a ship jetty in 1891, tourism boomed.

After watching Deep Purple and local hero Gola at the Snowpenair Concert at Kleine Scheidegg few years ago courtesy Jungfrau Railways, we were here for another spectacular event. Golfing sensation and Omega brand ambassador Rory McIlroy was teeing off at the 22 km long Aletsch Glacier, the longest glacier in the Alps which ran to a depth of one mile, at Jungfraujoch, the Top of Europe.

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We reached Interlaken Ost and took a connecting train to our base Grindelwald where we checked into Sunstar Hotels. Cradled at the base of the jagged north face of the Eiger, it overlooked the Snowpark Grindelwald First. Gondolas transported tourists to Schreckfeld and First for the thrill of ziplining down the First Flyer and First Glider, the new Cliff Walk by Tissot and the hour’s hike to the pristine mountain lake Bachalpsee, besides other adventures like Mountain Cart and Trotti Bikes.

It was the annual festival day so Grindelwald’s main avenue had been blocked with makeshift stalls selling handicrafts, local wines, winter wear and food. We grabbed a bratwurst and some churros before boarding a train to Wilderswil, from where the Schynige Platte Bahn took us on a steep 7.2 km ride on a cogwheel-railway track climbing 1400m to the famous alpine wildflower gardens of Schynige Platte. Built in 1893, this mountain railway completed 125 years this year.

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Man and machine seemed in harmony with nature as the locomotives bore names of alpine flowers. We were riding No.19 ‘Fluhblume’. Visitors can see nearly 600 species of plants and two thirds of all the flowers in the Alps on a circuit that’s only a kilometer long. Sometimes jet-black, sometimes silver in the evening sun after a thunderstorm, the plates of slate gleam from afar, giving Schynige Platte its name.

The train halted at Breitlauenen and we admired the view at Ferdinand Hodler lookout point, where one of the best-known Swiss painters of the nineteenth century sat to paint. His piece ‘The Woodcutter’ featured on the 50 Swiss Franc note. We were lucky to get some fresh feathery snowfall on the train ride winding through tunnels and a landscape blanketed in white.

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Two huge picture frames encourage visitors to capture the trio of mountains but the clouds masked the majestic view of the Jungfrau, Eiger and Monch. At Berghotel Schynige Platte we enjoyed a typical Swiss meal of goulash, Wilderer rosti with venison and Alpler rosti or hash browns with pan fried sausage and onion sauce.

Over 200 years ago, as the first visitors travelled to the Bernese Oberland, the Schynige Platte was already a favourite among the wealthy upper class. People thronged grand hotels in Interlaken besides inns and guesthouses in villages and valleys, driven by the maxim ‘up into the mountains, to the summits’. The hike from Schynige Platte to the Faulhorn and Grosse Scheidegg was a classic, done by day or moonlight. Back then, the train ‘saved four to five hours of walk and a cost of 20 to 25 francs for beasts of burden.’

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Early travel journals noted how the Jungfrau always seemed inaccessible and untouchable, hence its name Jungfrau (the maiden or virgin). In 1811 Jungfrau was scaled and the golden age of Alpine mountaineering culminated in the ascent of Eiger’s north face in 1933. But like people, even the trains had learned to climb. Adolf Guyer-Zeller envisioned the historic Jungfrau Railways, tunneling 7.2km through the Eiger and Monch to reach Europe’s highest railway station Jungfraujoch.

In 2001, the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn region became the first area of outstanding natural beauty in Switzerland together with the Alpine region to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Today, one million visitors flock to the Top of Europe to delight in its snowy pleasures.

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From Alpine Sensation, Ice Palace, Sphinx observatory (reached by the fastest lift in Switzerland) to Swiss Chocolate Heaven by chocolatier Lindt, there’s lots to explore. Braving winds for a selfie with the Swiss flag at the Plateau, tourists shriek in delight as they go sledding or whooshing down the 250-m long zipline. The year-round accessibility only adds to the destination’s popularity.

Yet, the Jungfrau region is dotted with smaller villages that retain their rustic charm. From Kleine Scheidegg, we took the Wengernalp Bahn past the ‘pedestrian only’ village of Wengen to Lauterbrunnen, dubbed as the Valley with 72 glacial waterfalls. Well-fed Swiss cows munched on sweet-smelling Alpine grass, their tinkling bells forming a constant soundtrack. As the train took the final turn across the bridge, we got a magical view of the church and Staubbach Falls.

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The earliest travel guide to the Lauterbrunnen valley was published in 1768 by Bernese publisher Abraham Wager featuring illustrations by Swiss painter Caspar Wolf. It was a 45min walk from the train station to the base of the fall past pretty chalets and Horner ‘the best pub in town because we are the only one’. The cataract plummeted from a lofty 297 m in a misty spray – it was first measured on 28 July 1776. Like us, many painters, writers and travelers were captivated by its beauty.

Poet and composer Johann Wolfgang Goethe toured the Lauterbrunnen valley in 1779 with Duke Karl August von Weimar. The sight of Staubbach Falls delighted him so much that he called it a ‘most wonderful thing’ and wrote his poem “Song of the Spirits over the waters”. In his travel diary dated Sep 1816, Lord Byron noted how the sun made a rainbow in the waterfall. “I have never seen anything like it. It looked just like a rainbow, which came down for a visit, and was so near that one could just step into it.”

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One look at the scenery and Tolkien’s description of Rivendell came to life. Cascading waterfalls and a loud river that overlooked the three ‘Misty Mountain Peaks’ were no doubt based on Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger. The mines of Moria were inspired by the construction of the Jungfraubahn, which was being finished when Tolkien visited in 1911.

We learnt ‘Orc’ is a local name for a demon and how a picture postcard of a painting Der Berggeist (the mountain spirit) by German artist J Madlener depicting an old man with a white flowing beard wearing a wide brimmed hat and a long cloak, was the origin of Gandalf. We couldn’t agree more with Tolkien’s words – “I left the view of the Jungfrau with great regret – eternal snow etched as it seems against eternal sunshine.”

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Fly Swiss from Mumbai to Zürich International Airport (8 hr 55 min). Board an SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) train to Bern (1 hr 20 min) and take the connecting train to Interlaken Ost (54 min). www.swiss.com www.SwissTravelSystem.com

Getting Around
Berner Oberland Bahn (BOB) from Interlaken Ost to Grindelwald station provides the first stage of mountain railway routes. Wengernalpbahn (WAB) and Jungfraubahn (JB) to, Lauterbrunnen, Wengen, Kleine Scheidegg and Europe’s highest station at Jungfraujoch. A 3-day Jungfrau VIP pass with unlimited travel costs CHF 235 (available from 1 May-26 Oct at all stations). www.jungfrau.ch

Where to Stay
Carlton Europa, Interlaken
Sunstar Hotels, Grindelwald
Berghotel Schynige Platte
Oberland, Lauterbrunnen

Things to Do
Jungfraubahn to Jungfraujoch Top of Europe
First Flyer, First Glider, Tissot Cliff Walk, Mountain Cart
Alpine Garden at Schynige Platte
Hike from First to Bachalpsee
Walk to Staubbach waterfall in Lauterbrunnen
Harderbahn Funicular from Interlaken to Harder Kulm
BLS boat cruise on Lake Thun and Lake Brienz

For more info, visit www.myswitzerland.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 30 Nov, 2018 in Indulge, the Friday lifestyle supplement of The New Indian Express newspaper.

 

Kigali: In the Land of a Thousand Hills

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With direct flights by RwandAir from Mumbai to Kigali, Rwanda’s vibrant capital has never seemed so attractive; ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY take a Go Kigali city tour to experience its local sights, markets and cuisine 

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We flew out on Rwand Air and discovered that it takes less time to get to the Rwandan capital Kigali from Mumbai than driving to Ratnagiri. With a direct connection four times a week, more travellers are discovering the wonders of this tiny yet remarkable country in East Africa.

Rwanda is one of the world’s last refuges of the mountain gorilla and the invitation to Kwita Izina 2018, a naming ceremony for baby gorillas born the previous year, was irresistible. We made the most of our time in Kigali before the official program. Jullesse, the Rwandan Development Board representative greeted us warmly at the airport and highlighted the city’s landmarks en route to our hotel.

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“That building decked up in colourful lights is the Kigali Convention Centre, often lit up in the colours of the visiting head of state.” When Indian PM Modi visited Rwanda in July this year, it wore the hues of the Indian tricolour. Modi also donated 200 cows to villagers at Rweru under President Paul Kagame’s Girinka program (literally ‘May you have a cow’ in the local Kinyarwanda dialect) where every poor family receives one cow for sustenance. In a country where cows are held in high regard, this gesture won lots of Rwandan hearts.

We soon reached the swanky Kigali Marriott Hotel, which opened two years ago, one of the first international chains with a presence in Rwanda. Inside the massive executive suite, a personalized note, macaroons and a dry fruit platter awaited us. The view from the balcony was stupendous.

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A ‘no photography’ sign on the glass door was bewildering. The steward quickly explained that the hotel faced the high-security presidential quarters! On the other side were a line of embassies, leaving us chuffed to be staying in the posh diplomatic enclave of Kiyovu in the CBD (Central Business District).

Sauntering downstairs to Soko restaurant (literally ‘market’), we admired the entire wall decorated with traditional woven agasake baskets. Besides a massive spread we were intrigued to find faratas and chickpeas in their dedicated African breakfast corner! Rwanda has many Indian settlers who influenced the local cuisine. We tried the local staple kaunga (steamed corn stew) and matoke (green banana and beef stew).

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It was surprising to learn that Kigali was founded only as recently as 1907 by German explorer and administrator Richard Kandt. His house, now a museum, was just a short walk away. Strolling past the local moto taxi stand (bike taxis like Goa) and the gorilla statue opposite Kigali City Hall, we reached what was the first European-style house in the city.

In the colonial ‘Scramble for Africa’ in late 19th century, Germany established a presence in Rwanda by forming an alliance with King Yuhi V Musinga in 1897. Kandt arrived in 1899 while exploring Lake Kivu in search of the source of the river Nile. In 1907 Germany separated the administration of Rwanda-Burundi and Kandt was appointed the country’s first resident. He moved the administrative headquarters from the King’s Palace in Nyanza to a more central location. Reaching this large hilly tract, he called it Kigali, literally ‘expansive’. The name rang true as we looked at the city stretching around a chain of hills!

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Kandt built the first brick house in town at Nyarugenge, which had great weather and afforded good views. It became a Museum of Natural History but all the exhibits had been moved out except the lone baby crocodile in a pool and a collection of snakes in a small enclosure at the back.

The building presently serves as the Kandt House Museum outlining Rwanda’s colonial history and culture. It was Kandt who first allowed the entry of Indian and Swahili traders into the country in 1908. During this period, Kigali had a population of 2000 with 420 foreigners, mostly Arabs and Indians, besides 9 Germans!

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During World War I, Belgium took control of Rwanda-Burundi in 1916 and it wasn’t until 1962 that Kigali became the capital upon Rwandan independence. In April 1994, President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down near Kigali Airport, triggering the Rwandan genocide, where nearly a million people, mostly Tutsi and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered in premeditated attacks by the interim government.

The Kigali Genocide Memorial is a moving reminder of Rwanda’s tragic past, where locals often come to be reunited with their loved ones. Rwanda celebrates the 25th anniversary of the genocide in 2019 and April 7 is observed by the United Nations as the Day of Remembrance of the victims.

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We stopped by at Kigali’s iconic hotel, Hôtel des Mille Collines, named after the Belgian appellation for Rwanda during colonial rule – ‘Pays des Mille Collines’ (Land of a Thousand Hills). It became famous after 1,268 people took refuge here during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. The story of the hotel and its manager Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) was immortalized in the film Hotel Rwanda.

It was unbelievable that the country had emerged from the Dark Ages in the late-90s into what is its Golden Age of development. It is a gritty story of healing, forgiveness and coming to terms with their past to build a better future. Today, Rwanda is one of the cleanest countries in Africa and Kigali is so clean, you could literally eat off the wide pavement-lined avenues!

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The last Saturday of every month is dedicated to community service work called Umuganda when the whole society comes together to clean or rebuild. Rwanda is also the safest country in Africa for women and the ease of doing business has been streamlined by merging all nodal agencies into RDB (Rwanda Development Board). You can open a business within 24 hours of landing here!

Back at Kigali Marriott we grabbed some ‘Question Coffee’ from a women’s co-operative at the Iriba Bar & Terrace and fried sambaza (local fish) sourced from Lake Kivu and brochettes (skewered meat cubes with roasted ibirayi or Irish potatoes). Interestingly, German soldiers and Belgian missionaries brought the potato to Rwanda in early 20th century and ibirayi is derived from uburayi meaning ‘that which comes from Europe’! After a relaxing Dead Sea mud therapy at the spa we whiled away the evening happy hours at the posh Executive Lounge.

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The hotel has special Indian, Asian and African theme nights, besides wine tastings and live jazz but we savoured some gnocchi and baked captain fish at their Italian restaurant Cucina. Our friend from an earlier trip to Zambia, Davidson Mugisha of Wildlife Tours Rwanda dropped by to show us a bit of Kigali’s legendary nightlife, as we barhopped from Riders at Kigali Heights to Fuchsia Lounge.

Kigali Marriott has an outlet of Go Kigali, which organizes local city tours and we set off on a half-day excursion the next day. The small boutique also stocks lovely handmade products sourced from all over Africa. Led by our friendly guide Colombe, we headed to Mount Kigali for a panoramic view over town. The pine forests were serene except for a troupe of furtive blue-balled Vervet monkeys.

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Our next stop was the Gaddafi Mosque, home to the Islamic Centre and a place of refuge during the genocide. Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi was a popular figure here and roads, mosques and bakeries were named after him. Southwest of CBD, the suburb of Nyamirambo was the second part of the city to be settled. Belgian colonists established it in the 1920s for civil servants and Muslim Swahili traders.

Though most of the country follows Christianity, Nyamirambo is the Muslim Quarter. Masjid al-Fatah, better known as the Green Mosque, is the oldest mosque in town, dating back to the 1930s. With its busy nightlife and hip hangouts, Nyamirambo is hailed as the coolest neighbourhood in Kigali.

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We trawled local milk bars, cafes, mural walks and markets like Kimironko where Colombe taught us how to eat tree tomato and passion fruit like locals as we marveled at the rows of baskets heaped with rainbow-hued beans. We ended our tour with a traditional meal at Tamu Tamu – ugali (cassava porridge), stewed cassava leaves, goat curry, fish and aubergine curry, beef pilao, avocado and beans.

That evening we dropped by at Ikaze, a boutique for traditional Rwandan handicrafts and discovered little treasures to take home. We bought some more agasake peace baskets; symbolic of this tiny nation driven by the philosophy of ubumuntu or ‘greatness of heart’, teaching the world about the values of forgiveness, humanity and compassion.

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FACT FILE 

Getting there
The national carrier Rwand Air flies direct from Mumbai to Kigali in 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/

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Must Do
City tour with Go Kigali Tours, $60/person 9:30am-1pm, 2-6pm
Pay your respect at Kigali Genocide Memorial
Try the local ‘Question’ Coffee and Rwandan tea, besides local beers like Mutzig, Primus and Virunga
Feast on Rwandan cuisine at Tamu Tamu restaurant
Shop for agasake and souvenirs at Ikaze & Kimironko Market
Clubbing at Riders, Fuchsia, Coco Bean, Envy, K Club, Bougainvilla
Gorilla trekking with Wildlife Tours Rwanda www.wildlifetours-rwanda.com

For more info, www.visitrwanda.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This is the unabridged version of the article that appeared on 3 Nov, 2018 in HT City, Hindustan Times newspaper.