Sightseeing in Italy: To reserve or not to reserve

Italy has several historical monuments and a humongous quantity of art to boast about. It sees millions of visitors in many of its cities every year, and as a result, to get inside to see any famous piece of art or architecture can be stressful with long lines that get worse in the sweltering heat of summers. There are however a few planning tips to help you skip those snaking lines and saving precious time and energy to enjoy!

The second line at the Vatican Museums

The second line at the Vatican Museums

The most common way of skipping a few lines is using a sight-seeing passes. Rome has a sightseeing pass called as Roma pass that will let holders skip the line, see two destinations without paying separately and provide discounted tickets at other places at a cost of €36. It will also provide transport without having to purchase tickets…All this for a validity of three days.  Again, you need to evaluate how slowly or how fast you want to see places, compare the cost of the pass with the individual ticket prices for places you will see in three days and if you will be using public transport often. If you don’t think the pass is worth it, you can separately make reservations for popular destinations as well.  Similarly Florence has a Firenze Pass. Venice and Milan have their city passes as well.

Here is my take on the places you need to reserve at Rome and Florence and what we did –

  1. Rome – Colosseum – The Colosseum is Rome and Italy’s most famous sight and ticket lines can be long. Although you need not reserve in advance for the off-peak season, you may want to book ahead to skip the line in peak season.  Well, that is the advice which most people will give you, but in September, we actually went on the first Sunday of the month without reservation and got in pretty quickly…for FREE! That was because we got reached at about 8 a.m. when it just about opens. But lines can be long all day.  You can either reserve tickets to just see the Colosseum, or go through one of the several guided tours offered.
  2. Rome – Vatican Museums –The Vatican museums which are supposed to be one of the world’s largest museums include the famous Sistine Chapel and is the other most popular place flocked by tourists. If you go in the morning, there are long lines to get. But afternoon can see no line at all! We had pre-booked the Vatican tickets and were able to skip the line for the Vatican museums, although I think we could have done without the pre-booking.
  3. Rome – Gallery Borghese is particularly famous for the marble sculptures of Bernini and is a popular museum in Rome. It is a must to pre-book and they don’t let you in without a pre-booking. You can call up and make a reservation for a given date and time and you need to be present to pick up the tickets at the appointed time.
  4. Florence – Uffizi galleries – The Uffizi gallery is one of Italy’s most visited museums and holds important works of Renaissance by the masters including Leonardo Da Vinci, Botticelli, Michaelangelo, Caravaggio and Raphael. It is a must to make reservations to visit the Uffizi since they only let in a specific number of people at a time and the lines are really long! You can either book online or call on phone (39-055-294-883) during regular working hours there on weekdays. It is important to note that there are several sites where you can book tickets online, but many have a large premium on the tickets. Go through the official site only to book cheaper tickets.
  5. Florence – Accademia gallery is where Michaelangelo’s famous statue of David is housed. Again, go through only the official site to book the tickets at the correct rates.

Some more references in here – Roma Pass, Rome and Vatican Pass, Vatican Museums  and more on reservations

Categories: Europe, Italy | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Planning a trip to Italy

There are two types of travelers- First are the ones who plan and execute it all on their own and the second are the ones who outsource the planning and execution and go with a travel operator on a well planned trip.  Both have their pros and cons – While it is time consuming to plan your own travel arrangements, itinerary and accommodation, it offers far more flexibility and you can spend your time the way you like it. However a planned tour by an agency will take care of all your needs but you need to stick by their rules, schedules and itineraries.  We belong to the first category of travelers. We decide what we want to see, do all our planning, book our tickets, figure out where we want to stay, use a map to figure out where to find anything, and enjoy  exploring on our own! I am going to give you a few pointers on everything that needs to be planned through in this space.



Italy being a part of the European Union requires a Schengen Visa for Indian citizens which needs to be given atleast 15 days of processing time before one can fly. The Visa list simplifies what needs to be get done – Airtickets, Insurance, accommodation and internal travel arrangements and having your finances in order is what is required. You can find the complete list of documents required here.  The process of submitting a visa application is fairly simple and one need not go through any travel agent. Just take all the required documents with two copies of everything, fill up the forms also available on the online, visit the VFS office that manages Schengen applications and submit the documents. It should not take more than two hours to do that. Once the visa is stamped, you can collect it from the same place. In Mumbai, there is no need for any appointment for a Schengen Visa and one can just go directly walk into the VFS office in BKC to submit the documents.

Booking flights – I expect we could have found sweeter deals in our flight booking had we booked earlier, but well, we didn’t plan well. But if you are reading this, and would like to plan a trip to Italy, watch out for International discount days at major carriers from three months in advance and you may just land a deal as sweet as Rs 25-30K return fares as did some co-travelers.

Accommodations – Here is the thing about Europe where lodging is concerned..As compared to India where decent hotels can get astonishingly expensive at not less than Rs 8K a night, in Europe there is a vast range of places one can book for all sorts of budgets. From hostel accommodations for the solo intrepid travelers, to lavish suites at 5-stars and the mid-range hotels ranging from Rs 3K-8K, it is easier to find a place in the heart of the city. One just needs to look out for the right place. And it is not just hotels and hostels. A vast segment of tourists prefer to rent a home for a few days through sites such as airbnb or This further increases the options around the sort of neighborhood you would like to live in and the kind of amenities you can have and one can experience life the locals lead. With a one year old in tow, we had little choice but go for homes that had kitchens we could use for our little picky eater (though we are pickier about what she eats!).

Travelling within the country: This is again that requires a good deal of research. Having zeroed on the destinations you would like to visit, the next step is to check on the cheapest and the fastest ways to get there. Be it a rail pass, cheap airlines, or high-speed trains. All or none may require pre-bookings. Italy has its railway Trenitalia which we used for booking our tickets in advance before we left. Train fares in Italy are not fixed and can fluctuate based on demand and supply. It is best to reserve train tickets in advance or be prepared to pay much higher amounts later. We preferred the high-speed trains to all our destinations that took almost half the time that regular trains did.  If you are thinking about purchasing a train pass, make sure you compare the prices with single leg ticket journetys. In Italy reservations are required on the high speed trains and EuroCity/International trains, and therefore the hop on-hop off convenience is not really there. For more on train reservations read here

Sightseeing and reservations: Italy is a destination that sees millions of tourists every year. All the major tourist places are inundated with these hordes of tourists and you will encounter long lines to get inside anywhere. But some pre-planning can help avoid these long lines.  What needs to be done is make reservations early on or buy the City Tourist Passes. Since there are a lot of options and a lot of places where you may need reservations, I am going to keep this for another post, you will be soon able to read.


Finally, only our packing remained and this is the most important piece of all. Whatever you do, travel light! Pack few clothes and do your laundry and well, shop in Italy! If you however need those four pairs of shoes to match your outfit, be prepared to lug your suitcases on the roads and through stairways in places such as Venice which has no cars.

Next – About Passes and reservations

Categories: Europe, Italy | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

An Italian Holiday

Italy in three words is Art, Food and Touristy!  As I look back on my recently concluded trip at the beautiful country of Italy, so many images flash by – Pizza at the Piazzas, religion in Renaissance, art with architecture, hordes of tourists, leisurely outdoor lunches, chilling out with Gelatos, the symphony of the bands playing at the square, the grandeur of the Colosseum, my one year old daughter SSS chasing fluttering pigeons..

Through this blog I am going to take you through our trip right from how we planned it out and how we should have planned it out!

Why did we choose to go to Italy?

Italy was a dream travel destination for many a year for me. Three reasons finally saw us zeroing on Italy – Good weather, Amazing art and Culture and great Food! And thus.. Italy fit all our expectations and we locked down our air tickets about a month in advance.


Deciding what to see

Once our return flights were booked, the next step was deciding the places we wanted to see in Italy and book our accommodation accordingly. Italy is a country with points of interest for varied tastes. One may want to see every major Art gallery there is in places such as Rome and Florence, or visit quaint towns in the country such as Lucca or Pisa, or do a wine tour at Tuscany or click a photo of the Coliseum and move on to the next tourist destination or hike in the scenic coastal town of Cinque Terre. There is much for everyone and it is quite necessary to prioritize based on what one likes!

What did we finally see?

With a baby in tow, we decided to stick to the tourist trail and not the off-beat trail. We also decided to take it easy and enjoy the vacation instead of simply hopping from one site to another. Italian cities have a lot of history and culture in them and we finally decided to visit Rome, Florence and Venice as our key destinations. If at all we had time, we could make day-trips around these places to places such as Pisa, Lucca or a trip to the famed Tuscany countryside.

Next blog – Planning the trip to Italy

Categories: Europe, Italy | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments

Mount Abu – Keeping cool in Rajasthan (Part 2)

This is a two part series on Mount Abu. This post includes some more sight-seeing places at Mount Abu and tips for travelers. See my earlier post on Mount Abu here.

We continued with our leisurely excursions of Mount Abu on Day three.

Like every hill station in India, there were ‘points’ that offered panoramic views. These included the ubiquitous ‘Sunset point’, the ‘honeymoon point’, and Guru Shikhar. I must warn you that though the Sunset point though offered lovely views, was extremely crowded and dirty with people eating and dumping their garbage right where they stood.

Views from the Honeymoon point

Views from the Honeymoon point

Other points of interest include the Mount Abu wildlife sanctuary, a fort ‘Achalgarh’, and the ‘Achleshwar temple’. The Achleshwar Shiva temple built in the 9th century has an idol of the Nandi that is made of five metals and weighs 4 tons. Near the temple is a lake which has the idols of 3 buffaloes which were supposed to be demons in disguise. Legend goes that the lake was once filled with ghee <although I have no clue how that is possible!>

The Buffalo trio near the Achaleshwar temple

The Buffalo trio near the Achaleshwar temple

The Four Ton Nandi at the Achaleshwar Temple

The Four Ton Nandi at the Achaleshwar Temple

Mount Abu is also the headquarters of the Brahmakumaris spiritual university, an organization that teaches spirituality and meditation. The Brahmakumaris have several centers at Mount Abu that host visitors from all over the world in their residential programs. They also have a fabulous garden with an exquisite display of roses and other flora.

A Brahmakumaris center

A Brahmakumaris center

Mount Abu also has a little known museum with several artifacts and sculptures in it not far from the Nakki Lake. However the condition of this museum was not very good. Most of the artifacts were carelessly kept without proper labeling or descriptions. We were the only ones in the museum for quite a while and the caretaker had to literally switch on the lights when we reached there. Inner rooms of the museum (that were open) revealed what must have been ancient artifacts dumped and dust laden.  The sheer callousness was apparent in the whole upkeep of the museum and it was quite sad.

Artifacts at the Mount Abu museum

Dumped artifacts at Mount Abu museum

Dumped artifacts at Mount Abu museum

Other information

Mount Abu certainly makes for a weekend or an extended weekend excursion. With convenient modes of transport cheaply available to Mount Abu and for local transportation, and hotels to suit all pockets, Mount Abu can certainly be included in a budget travel destination list.

Accommodation – Most resorts and hotels are around the Nakki Lake. For those looking out for boating activities or prefer to be near the market, restaurants etc., there are a large number of hotel options around the lake that would suit all pockets right from Rs 1000 a night to Rs 10,000 a night.  We stayed at Hotel Hilltone, which was an excellent resort with good facilities of a garden, game room, swimming pool, and good restaurants. Rooms in several formats were available and the service was quite good. I would highly recommend this resort to families.

Food – Being a tourist destination, most eateries offer a pan India cuisine from South Indian to Punjabi and even Indochinese. However, it was nicer to eat some of the traditional Rajasthani fare of Dal Baati and Churma which was much less unhealthy than the rest. ‘Baatis’ are baked/roasted tandoor balls of wheat flour dough that are broken up to eat and dipped in warm ghee (clarified butter) with the spicy dal or lentil soup. Churma comprises of broken baatis mixed with ghee and jaggery to make for a simple but delicious dessert. It was funny that the eatery owners on the way called out to us to grace their restaurants exactly when we were out to have our dinner and ceased to call us when we had finished! Another couple of things Mount Abu claimed were famous there was the ‘Rabdi’ (thickened flavored milk) and the Softy ice-cream. The Softy ice-cream easily available in the market at Mount Abu came in all flavors and toppings and was quite a delight!

Traditional Gujarathi meal

Traditional Gujarathi meal

Getting around – Tourist taxis are available for about Rs 1,000-1,500 to be rented for a day and they typically show you everything that is to be seen. These taxis can also be shared.  There are options of bus tours and jeeps that are quite easy on the pocket too. Bikes can be rented for about Rs 100-500 depending on how much time you want them and the make of the bike. Getting to Abu road station from the top can set you back by Rs 500 in a private taxi or one can opt for the much cheaper shared jeeps that stuff them with passengers for a much smaller amount.

Tourist Information – A Rajasthan tourist information office is situated next to the hotel Hilltone and the police station. One can get information on what to do at Mount Abu, get maps and other information.

Reservations -A train reservation office is also present in the same building as the tourist information office. We booked our return tickets in a Tatkal booking so this office was God-sent to us with the train booking IRCTC site always super slow or down! There are also several tourist offices near the market that can make reservations and transport arrangements for all modes of transport.

To read my first post on the primary two attractions of Mount Abu -click here.

Categories: India, Rajasthan | Tags: , , | 20 Comments

Mount Abu – Keeping cool in Rajasthan

Leaves droop, dogs lie languidly in the middle of roads, birds come by the flowerpot in the balcony attempting to siphon off the few drops of water that haven’t yet evaporated, Taxiwallahs sigh as they use their napkins to wipe off that unending stream of perspiration, and the only happy person that seems to be quite happy with the oppressive heat is the ice-cream vendor where a  steady stream of people make their way to at all times during the day.

A few days away from this sweltering heat is what I wanted!  With a few holidays in sight, we explored options to go to near Mumbai for an extended weekend to a nearby hill station other than Matheran, Mahabaleshwar and the other usual suspects of Lonavala-Khandala that have become as bustling as Mumbai itself during summer. I also longed to go somewhere clean, green and a place that had good roads. After much procrastination, we finally zeroed on the hill station of Mount Abu in the state of Rajasthan which seemed to offer peace, fresh cool air and relief from the sweaty dirty megapolis. Mount Abu is the highest point in the Aravalli mountain range at about 1220m above sea level making it a cool getaway from the searing summer heat in Rajasthan, nearby Gujarat and Mumbai!

Getting to Mount Abu

Mount Abu is accessible by excellent roads, trains and is about 3 hours away from the nearest airport at Udaipur. Mount Abu is conveniently located at about 750 kms from Mumbai (11 hours by train or road), and at about 230kms from Ahmedabad and 170kms from Udaipur. One can have their pick of mode of transport of trains, driving down, taxis and buses from major cities.

Mumbai to Abu - courtsey Google Maps

Mumbai to Mt. Abu – courtesy Google Maps

After a hasty tatkal booking, we were finally on our way to Mount Abu one evening.  The next morning the train chugged along to Abu Road station which seemed to be quite a busy station with several tourists like us getting off and on.  On getting out, taxiwallahs immediately hounded us to take us up the hill station. A few minutes later, we grouped up with a family going the same way and we were on our way for Rs 500 for the taxi.

A few curvy roads later, we reached our hotel and were content in whiling away our time for the rest of the day at the peaceful resort in the very pleasant weather.

A leisurely stroll down the road took us to one of Mount Abu’s main attraction, the Nakki Lake. The market near Nakki Lake is a bustling hub of activity where one can get everything from traditional jewellery, garments, bedsheets, artifacts and souvenirs at good prices.  Plenty of restaurants dot the little market and all seem to do brisk business!

The market side of the lake is in no way tranquil or peaceful with hordes of tourists, eateries, hawkers and boatmen creating plenty of noise. However, a walk around the lake brought us to several peaceful perches from where we could smile at the hullaballoo on the side of the twinkling lights of the market place. For suggested walking and trekking routes/maps visit the Tourist office nearby.

Our day ended in the hotel sitting outside in the evening without the ubiquitous mosquitoes bothering us and enjoying the cool breeze. The holiday was just as it was meant to be – relaxing and cool!

Peace at Nakki Lake

Peace at Nakki Lake

Catch me if you can - by Nakki Lake

Catch me if you can – by Nakki Lake

Fun at Nakki Lake

Fun at Nakki Lake

The next day, after a morning of lazing around, we decided to venture out to see what was touted to be even more beautiful than the Taj in its interiors – The Dilwara Jain temples. These breathtaking temples were ‘paisa vasool’ for the whole trip! On the outside, they seemed to be like any other, but once we entered the sanctum, we were awestruck by the magnificence of the artwork.  I have never seen such intricate workmanship ever before. Such finesse, such grandeur and such beauty carved in marble.

The Dilwara temples were built between the 11th and 13th centuries and consist of five major sections or temples devoted to the five tirthankaras of Jainism. Each temple is decorated with intricate marble carvings of Jain saints, flowers, petals and designs on ceilings, pillars and temple walls. One can get quite a crick in the neck staring up at those gorgeous chandelier designs on the ceilings! Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the temple and you have to be content with memories and bad quality picture postcards.

Here are a few glimpses of the Dilwara temples courtesy Wikimedia commons.

Door at Dilwara

A door opening into the inner sanctum of a deity, Dilwara


The gorgeous Dilwara temple

Ceiling on Dilwara

More on the other places at Mount Abu and tips for travelers in the next post of this two-part series. To read click here.

Categories: India, Rajasthan | Tags: , , | 13 Comments

Mighty Chittorgarh and Blasphemous Indians

Massive, Mighty and Magnificent.  I loved Chittorgarh fort.
Morons, Miserable, Miscreants – Those Indians who desecrated its walls.
I speak of the Sunils who love the Nehas and are joined by that cupids arrow through the heart on the Ramayana etching, Chandraketus who visited the monument on July 7, 2009, Swapnils, Pankajs, and Rahuls who found it fun to use a permanent marker to scribe their names and present their autographs to the grim 1000 year statues. I speak of the Rams and Mohans who left their legacy on Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb.
I speak of the mother who instructed her kid to throw away the pepsi bottle in a corner of the monument and not carry it out to throw in the many dustbins stationed. I speak of the vile pan chewer who spit on most marvelous engraving in the fort.  I speak of the snacks vendor at the Rana Pratap memorial who discarded his trash outside his window on a hill which he thought was not visible to tourists. I speak of the literate but uneducated girl who did not think twice before throwing out tissue paper out of her car on the road after seeing the monument.
Can we even remotely call ours a civilized society?  We harp about the ‘Mahaanta’ of Bharat and the rich culture and heritage and in the next instant trash it with our waste.  I am so indignant and disgusted at this apathy and this lack of reverence.
I had trekked earlier this year to a wonder of the world named Macchu Picchu to see some ruins which I have described in an earlier blog.  Those ruins, mere walls of stone, have been preserved with utmost care by Peruvians.  Peruvians who are from a similar poor country, are proud of their heritage and have not taken it for granted as Indians have.  In eras older than the Inca empire of the Peruvians, our emperors and kings were far advanced in their art forms and built structures which withstood not just battles and attacks but the test of time.  I could go right upto the Victory tower and I could only gaze in wonder at the art forms in the masonry and sculptures that were not valuable enough for the British to plunder.  But can we say that we have preserved them well enough? Sure, the Architectural Survey of India (ASI) has done a great job in digging out similar structures and maintaining them.  But what about the vast majority of the people who do not understand how privileged they are to be able to see them?
I almost feel India and Indians are not worthy of this rich heritage.  All these beautiful ancient monuments and gorgeous art forms would have been preserved far better in countries such as USA or in Europe where people admire, appreciate and respect them.
Merely studying history is not enough.  Can we inculcate enough pride in our heritage so as to only be able to at least very mildly respect the wonderful history that still stands today and not desecrate it? If this cannot be imbibed, can more punitive action be taken against the cowardly sociopaths who carry out their ‘rebellious’ pranks covertly? Perhaps a fine of Rs 500 to be enforced by a wiry thin watchman standing at the entrance may not be the right way.  Can the government have CCTVs which are monitored and enforce more stringent action, say a non bailable imprisonment?  Is there anything we citizens who love and value our country can do more than turning away indifferently for fear of getting into arguments and then tsking tsking behind their backs? In this blog I speak of only our tourist places, but on a broader level, I question, why is it that the very same Indians who break all rules in their home country are able to even pick their dogs shit with their hands to throw it in the dustbin in another country? If only, everyone respected in their own country what they did in foreign lands, India could come somewhere near being called a civilized society.
A few glimpses of the magnificent Chittorgarh fort below –
Vijay Stambha (Victory Tower)
Hanuman ‘Pol’ (Gate)
Carvings in Victory Tower
Carvings in Victory Tower
Kumbha Shyam Temple
Padmini Palace
Jain Temple of Mahaveer
Meera Temple
Picturesque view near Gaumukhs Reservoir
Categories: India, Rajasthan | 28 Comments

Kolkata Kaleidoscope

Thriving markets, speeding metro trains, boating on the Hoogly, calming Ganges, ferrying to Howrah, marveling at Howrah Bridge, colonial Victorian architecture, picking up trinkets at New Market, eating out at Park street, whimpering beggars, clamoring at vegetable markets, congested streets, sights and smells at the flower and fish markets, yummy roshogullas, Maa Kali fervour, art and literature, dusty roads, crumbling dilapidated buildings, annoying languor…….were my first thoughts as I reflected on the so called city of Joy, Kolkata that I recently visited.
When I sought to experience this East Indian city that the East India Company chose as its headquarters to leave a huge legacy after, I was not expecting much.  Though the city has its merits, this is one blog where I will not be raving only about the place! Though I hadn’t much time to explore the city while I was there, however, from whatever I could glean in the few days that I was there, I just felt, the city just needed to get going.  It was completely mired in the old age and is where it was all those decades ago.  It started the metro, and well, it hardly progressed beyond that.  It built that awesome engineering bridge, the Howrah Bridge, but couldn’t repair its dilapidated buildings.
During Pujo
Victorial Memorial
Racing on at the great big Maidan
When I first ventured out in the city, I found myself looking for a city as I traveled from Salt Lake! Well, I continued to look for it in vain.  Seriously, the whole place felt like a great big village with some urban trappings.  Perhaps I associate a large metro with large buildings, which were few and far between (some one told me, it was because of the silty nature of the soil that didn’t permit tall buildings),  good roads which large cities are supposed to have and Kolkata lacked, and a fast pace which the city did not have.  There were also few avenues of entertainment apart from those at Park Street.

Well, there certainly seems to be a lot more room for improvement where infrastructure and facilities are concerned. To add to the woes of the city, there apparently are constant bandhs and strikes that reinforced the lackadaisical image of Kolkata.  Why, in the week that I was there, there were 2 holidays declared, one for some puja, which was fine, and the other because a politician died at the age of 95.  Another thing I noticed while I was there, I could be wrong, but I really missed seeing young faces that I see at Mumbai.  I mean, has the young population of the state been forced to move for lack of better options of studying and employment?

Well, enough of the criticism.  I ‘ll come on to my more pleasant experiences now.
I saw the Kali ghat temple which is quite famous.  In Kolkata, the religious fervour of the people for Maa Kali and Durga is well known.  I wish I had the chance to visit during the  ‘Pujo’ days, where the city would become a grand spectacle, with pandals and the festivities everywhere. The Kali temple was like any other religious place that I have been to, with the rows of shops arraying their religious paraphernalia of photos, models, cds, cassettes, flowers, sweets etc, the throng of people and the chaos.  I have put two snaps, one in Maharashtra at Mahur and one at the Kalighat..see the resemblance, you’ ll see what I mean.  The similarity continued when the numerous touts hounded me offering me easy access to the deity and proceeded with putting the tilak on my forehead and demanding a cool 200 bucks for doing so..which I ran off from of course. J  Though crowded, it was an interesting experience all the same.
I enjoyed using the public transport too at Kolkata.  Though old, the metro was quite efficient and fast as compared to using the road and the expensive cabbies and I knew where I was as compared to using the roads that had a complete absence of signboards giving directions.  It was funny to see the trams that probably moved slower than I walked.  I was surprised to see the hand drawn rickshaws , which I had thought were obsolete.  Despite all this progress in the world, it was rather sad to see human beings acting no better than mules drawing heavy loads.  
The map at the metro station
The old world Tram
The ferry to Howrah was also a pleasant ride, though I thought the boat would sink when a huge throng of people who I had seen marching in a morcha or something to that tune, all jumped on to the same boat!  The river Hoogly, was as expected extremely dirty, after journeying its way from the Himalayas, through UP, Bihar and Bengal, it had enough waste dumped into it.  I wonder how the people who were bathing in the river, expected it to clean them even if they were using soap!  The old Howrah bridge was quite picturesque with its several trusses and old world charm.
The old Howrah bridge
The new Howrah Bridge
Shopping at Calcutta and eating out at Park Street was a pleasure.  Everything there was half the price that is at Mumbai and there was a phenomenal variety in the trinkets and accessories at all the local markets.  I absolutely splurged at New Market, Garia Haat and Shobha Bazaar.

Where eating is concerned, oh Man….Mishti Doi was absolutely yummy as were the unique Rasgullas or rather Roshogullas made of jaggery.  Folks back home savoured the different varieties of shondhesh which have funny names such as Bhimnag sandesh and Kheer Kadam.  Mishti Doi incidently that sounds very easy to prepare, well isn’t.  Very simply, its essentially made by using milk evaporated to half added to caramalised sugar and converted to dahi by adding some yoghurt to it in an earthern pot for that amazing earthy flavour.

After all that gorging and shopping, I reckon, it isn’t a bad place after all!  IT companies and manufacturing companies have already started making a beeline for this eastern city, and things are looking up. With so much great history and culture behind it, with so many intellectuals from this place, be it artists or revered writers such as Rabindranath Tagore and newer Bengali writers such as Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anurag Basu etc, I am sure, the people of Bengal will not have their beloved city languish. Hopefully, things will improve and this place will catch up with the rest of India!


Categories: India, West Bengal | 7 Comments

Royal Rajasthan – Udaipur

Rajasthan – a state that was truly royal.  A trip to Udaipur and Jaipur left me feeling proud of the heritage we have and increased my wanderlust in exploring more of India.
Udaipur  – a charming city with shimmering lakes, ancient architecture, grand mansions and plenty of folklore.  We got off the airport and were able to promptly avail taxi services at the airport.  Our taxi driver and guide Rais Khan started our trip with taking us to the famous Nath Dwara mandir which is a temple of Krishna and more popularly Srinathji in those parts.  We had around two hours to kill before the gates were opened to the hordes of devotees.  The area was like any other religious area really.  Rows of shops with artifacts to be used for worshipping, plenty of silverware, idols, marble besides the paraphernalia of the photos of Srinathji ofcourse, along with religious dvds etc.  We had the most wonderful chai that we have ever had at a little chai tapri there.  The chai vendor’s secret ingredient was Mint leaves!  I tried it back home immediately, and I highly recommend it! Well, we waited and waited, with the throng of devotees, right upto 15 minutes before the gates opened.. and then, much to Sandeep’s chagrin, I freaked out from the charging crowd, and I actually backed out! Oh well, I tried My Lord!  I hope we still have his blessings!
Near Nathdwara temple 
Near Nathdwara temple
Battle of Haldighati site
Udaipur and Jaipur, we found were cities replete with plenty of stories.  We were told stories of grandeur of the existing royalty of the family owning whole huge palaces, dozens of vintage cars, private jets, and even private airports! We heard stories of how Kokilaben built an entire town around a new temple she built adjacent to the Srinathji building, stories of the many filmstars weddings that now favor the grand Udaipur palaces for venues.  Particularly interesting was the tale of the two royal princes of Udaipur in which we were told that the elder heir to throne had been thwarted in ascending the ‘throne’ and hardly received anything from his ancestor whereas the younger brother got all the wealth and title of King.  Our driver told us how the people of Udaipur still stood by the wronged elder brother and respected him as King even though he had not received all that his brother had.  In Jaipur, the story was of that of the young teenage King whose princess mother had married a driver or commoner, and hence, her King dad, passed on everything not to her and her husband, but to the little prince.  These stories were all set in the modern day.  Besides these were the stories behind each building, each mansion, and each structure in the forts around these cities.  Where Rana Pratap and his loyal horse Chetak, were the subject of stories, memorials, and statues in Udaipur, it was Sawai Mansingh and Jaisingh who left their legacy at Jaipur.
Rana Pratap Memorial at Haldighati
City Palace
Palace near Lake Picchola
Dudh Talai near Lake Picchola
We boated on Lake Picchola and marveled at the gorgeous landscape with grand palaces, mostly now heritage hotels, in all directions. Particularly spectacular was the lighted up Taj hotel in the shimmering waters of Lake Picchola.  Being monsoon, the lakes were full, and it was surprising to note that the desert state of India was probably more verdant than Kerela!
Taj Lake Palace
Bagori ki Haveli dance
We proceeded the next day to visit the City Palace, still owned by the Maharaja of Udaipur.  After a tour of the mansion, we banked for a bit on the shores of lake Fatehsaagar which was close to our hotel, had more chai, and then went to Bagori ki haveil to see some folk dances.  As a pointer to future tourists, the show is from 7 pm to 8 pm and is certainly worth a visit!  Our last stop at Udaipur was the lofty fort of Chittorgarh which I shall keep for a separate blog.  In very few words though, Chittorgarh was one of the most impressive forts I have ever seen. On the downside, it was disconcerting to see the number of cows  on most of roads left stray by their owners to fend for themselves in order that they did not have to waste precious space on them.  Apparently if the cows got rounded off, the owners were happier since the expensive cattle feed got taken care of at the shelter.  Thus, sadly the government stopped catching the cows, and the owners had their own way.  It is little wonder that foreigners have this pathetic image of India with cows sitting all major road junctions without batting an eyelid! On visiting Udaipur, I finally see why!
Rolls Royce at the Vintage Car Museum
For pointers on where to eat, our driver unfortunately did not take us to the kind of places we would have liked, but the one place I would recommend is the lunch with a vintage touch at the vintage car museum.  The Rajasthani thali was delicious and the vintage car collection incredible!  We also had an animated guide who quizzed us on Vintage car trivia and made our experience fun! All in all, a wonderful trip, and we left for Jaipur in the convenient night train with memories of the shimmering palaces around the tranquil lake Picchola.
Categories: India, Rajasthan | Tags: , , , | 33 Comments

The Nizam city of Hyderabad – What to see in 2-4 hours

The Nizam’s city of Hyderabad is famous for many things. Biryani, Chandrababu Naidu, Satyam, the Charminar and the Golconda fort. I have visited Hyderabad several times for a day’s trip to the corporate Hitech city so aptly named for all the major IT firms that are housed there.  However, I never had the opportunity to stay for more than a day at work.

The past week however, I got a chance to go around seeing this buzzing metropolis of Hyderabad and getting a feel of what it was even if it was for just a few hours in the wee morning.  Hyderabad is divided into five parts – east, west, north, south and the central zone. The picturesque Hussain Sagar lake with its tall misty fountains and the Buddha statue in the middle is at the center of the city. Most affluent neighborhoods such as the Banjara hills, Jubilee hills etc. lie around the lake in the central zone. The old city of Hyderabad lies at the south of the Musi river and is vastly different from the cleaner Hitech city, Banjara hills, and cantonment part of Secunderabad.

The tranquil Buddha in the Hussain Sagar lake

For the couple of hours I had, and with the couple of foreign visitors accompanying me, I decided to go to the Charminar, the Birla temple and the Hussain Sagar lake. Charminar is much touted as the symbol of Hyderabad and is displayed magnificently on travel posters at the airport and outside. Quite honestly, as I neared it, I was totally not impressed. Apart from creating a hype about it the Andhra Pradesh government has done nothing to maintain it the way it should be. This ancient structure which was built by Sultan Qutb Shah more than 400 years ago is in the sorriest part of the town. From the outside, its walls look crumbling and dilapidated and a tiny not-very-old temple is built right adjacent to it and sadly is the cause for many riots.  The market is not clean, and hawkers, and beggars throng the streets jeering at and harassing tourists.  The day after my visit, there apparently were even riots and police firing happened around there.  It is a pity that such a highly touted tourist spot is in such a sensitive area to scare away any tourists and is simply not secured or preserved well enough. Even taking photos wasn’t as simple as it should have been with the milling traffic and crowd.

A romanticized photo of Charminar

A romanticized photo of Charminar

The market nearby, the ‘Laad Bazaar’ was just opening up when I went and I hear there are lots of bangle shops, pearl shops and in season, kite-maker shops.

The old mosque, the Mecca masjid near the Charminar looked much more ancient and charming than the Charminar itself, but again, we could not go in because of much scaffolding and maintenance work going on there.

Charminar amidst the morning chaos

Charminar amidst the morning chaos

Our next stop at the Birla temple was much nicer.  The Birla temple in Hyderabad was built of lovely pristine white marble. The temple on a hill offered panaromic views of the city in several directions, and one could see how the city of Hyderabad had grown in size over the years.

Birla Mandir courtsy wikimedia commons

We took a final round of the city around the peaceful Hussain sagar lake before we returned to the hi-tech city.

This is what I did in the 3 hours I had at Hyderabad. If you have the same time constraints if you visit, I suggest you visit a few alternate places

  • The Golconda fort – check the lights and sound show in the evening which is supposed to be quite good (and really as told by other tourists and not just as advertised).  The fort will take a minimum of 2 hours to see.
  • The Chowmahalla palace in the old city is a great place to see and I had many recommendations to visit this.
  • If you are a museum fan, the Salar Jung museum, one of the biggest museums in India is the place to go to.
  • For a whole days visit, the Ramoji film studio is a fun theme park to hang out and see different film sets from different eras. Guided tours can be booked right from the airport.

Eating options – Being a modern city, Hyderabad has plenty of places to eat for all palates. Hyderabadi Biryani is particularly very famous. To eat the best biryani, do go to the immensely popular ‘Paradise Biryani’ at Secunderabad where they even pack the biryani in special packages for travelers! Don’t forget to pack baked goodies, particularly dry-fruit biscuits from the 60 year old Karachi bakery to share back home. On the way back, I particularly enjoyed the ‘idlis’ of Idli Factory at the airport with all their accompaniments of different ‘chutneys’.

Idlis of Idli Factory

Overall, I was quite impressed with most areas I went around in. The Hi-tech city, with all its IT software parks, beautiful roads, hardly felt like the dusty, grimy India that is better known!  The Banjara hills and the Jubilee hills are a verdant mass of foliage and beautiful houses.   I wasn’t exactly wowed by the 2-3 touristy places I went to, but I liked the overall feel of the city to want to visit again.

Categories: Andhra Pradesh, India | Tags: , , , | 12 Comments

Disney Magic

Cinderellas Caslte

What kind of superheroes will an Indian a la Disneyland have, I wondered, when I visited Disneyland in Orlando, Florida.  Some friends of mine instantly recalled our very own Chacha Chaudhari and Sabu.  Instead of the simulated launch on to Mars in the ‘Mission Space’, we could go to Jupiter ofcourse after traversing the planets that come in between. We could have a 3D movie with Sabu throwing off evil villains off peaks.

Or how about a Rajani ride…It would ofcourse include rides which would flout all laws by Newton, Einstein or any scientist!  If Disney had an Epcot World Showcase, our Bollypark could have all the locales which SRK spread out his arms and sang to his heroines. That would pretty much cover all the gorgeous places there are in the world.
Instead of delving into the fairy tales of Snow White, Cinderella, we can always dig into our treasure trove of popular mythological characters like Ganesh, Hanuman, Bhim, Ram, Krishna who have already been animated too.

Anyway, I guess, there is no point in me speculating about what can be, when I have just returned from a trip to this truly magic kingdom…a kingdom for the kids actually.  It was fun walking through the Main Street, Adventure Land, Frontierland, Fantasyland, Liberty Square, Mickeys Toontown and Tomorrowland in this fairyland.  It certainly made me wish I was back there as a kid.  However as an adult, I did enjoy the two Parades, the one in the day time and the electric parade at night, which were fabulous and I enjoyed watching them and calling out to my favorite characters swinging by me.  The electric parade was a dazzling display of illuminated floats and wonderful lighted up costumed dancers and characters.  The shows ended with a spectacular display of fireworks with the backdrop of Cinderella’s castle. Unforgettable. Amongst the rides and shows, I did enjoy the 3D movie with the popular Disney characters, the jungle cruise on the boat, and the Space Mountain rollercoaster ride.

But as an unfortunate adult in the world dominated by kids in this magical land,  most of the rides such as Winnie the Pooh, the Magic Alladin carpets, Peterpan, Snow-Whites adventure etc, were for ages 2-8.(we read to  our consternation after enjoying them earlier!). The lines were long and winding and the waits were intolerable 30-80 minutes for each ride.  Though after the first crazy wait, we discovered using our ‘Fastpass’ to beat the lines. And this was supposedly in the off-peak season.  I reckon, the lines would be even worse in the vacations and summers.
Epcot was the other Disney Park I visited, and though the Rain Gods spitefully tried to dampen our spirits and us all day, we still managed to have a great time, especially as the crowds thinned and there were no lines as compared to those in the Magic Kingdom!  Epcot was certainly one targeted to adults and teens and was an educational as well as a fun experience that helped kids and adults alike learn about a variety of burning issues.  It taught environmental consciousness through the ‘Circle of Life’ short film through the eyes of Simba, Timon and Pumba. Another show explained power and energy sources with the Ellen DeGeneres dream that took us through a journey from the Dinosaur jungles to the nuclear age today in a vast moving theater. The fun rides were the space mission ride to Mars, the fast paced drive on Test Track, the entertaining 3D video by the King of Pop Michael Jackson as Captain EO and the Soarin’ ride to California. However, the best part about Epcot was the World Showcase with its miniature country pavilions.  Dining at an Aztec temple in Mexico, riding a Norse boat in Norway, seeing miniatures of the Teracotta warriors, and learning about the various other cultures of France, Germany, Itay, Japan, Morocco, France, UK and Canada through short films in huge theaters were highlights.  I particularly enjoyed the China video that was very well done and was projected in a 360 degrees absolutely humongous theater. All in all, a wonderful experience for people of all ages.
How I wish I were back there as a child! Some snapshots of my trip here.

Walt Disney- The Man behind it all.
And the fun started with the Parade!
The Genie to grant wishes with Alladin
Dancing with the stars
Lighting up the day at night!
Dazzling lights and illuminating memories
Hola! At an Aztec Temple
A German Square
A Japanese Pagoda
A spectacular show at the Magic Kingdom
The Epcot dome
Categories: Americas, United States | Tags: , , , | 21 Comments

Architecture at Muscat, Oman

Buildings and architecture are a part of every visit to a city. The charm of a city is in a way defined by the beautiful buildings it has. If New York is remembered by its towering buildings, Chicago is all the more beautiful in its stately but tall buildings.  Victorian architecture is well recognized in many countries where the British ruled. Europe is renowned for its distinctive Greek/Roman and several other forms of architecture which make its towns and cities such a visual treat indeed.

The Middle-eastern countries have their own flavor of Muslim architecture which sets it apart from the rest of the world. Muscat, in the Sultanate of Oman showed me examples of some lovely architecture in its fine mosques, homes, forts and office buildings.

I am no expert on this topic, but the simplicity in fine lines, arches and curves defined elegance for me in all its buildings. Fortunately, His Majesty, Sultan Qaboos, the ruler of Oman, apparently was not in favor of the high rises that abound the neighboring prosperous UAE.  With a few high-rises only in the city, one never feels cramped as compared to being in modern day glass and cement cities. The shorter buildings here are not just square brick structures, but a medley of arches, and graceful straight lines at the right places. What also helps is the fact that surroundings are sparkling clean adding to the aura of the buildings.

The Grand Mosque in Muscat that was built after a competition for its design is one of the most popular destinations for worshippers and tourists alike.  However, my favorite mosque in Muscat, was the one I saw frequently by the main road. A gleaming off-white color, the Zawawi mosque in Al-Khuwair with its gardens around was a treat to see in the day and delightfully illuminated by night.  Some pictures are below.

Zawawi Mosque, Muscat

The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat

A quick walk in the neighborhood left me spellbound as I saw the homes around me, each more beautiful than the other.

Local residence, Muscat


Local Residence, Muscat

Local Residence, Muscat

Another notable point was the uniformity in coloring of the buildings. As compared to the peeling reds , greens, blues and yellows found rampantly in the buildings in most Indian cities, most of the colors used were pale –with shades of white or sand being the most common. Perhaps it is the hot climate of the city which is the deciding factor. I wish such uniformity were present in Indian cities too.  There was no graffiti in the city and walls were spotless clean. A few rules (that were obeyed) such as not drying clothes where they would be visible to outsiders was a balm to eyes used to seeing garments of all forms in India!

If you get a chance to visit Muscat, and love seeing buildings, do try and visit some of the famous landmarks such as the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the old area of Corniche, old forts – the Sohar fort is my favorite and one of Muscat’s neighborhoods (preferably near the sea, that is where I went!). I am sure you will delight in the various forms of buildings you see.

Categories: Asia, Oman | Tags: , , , | 21 Comments

Local Tourists at Maximum Mumbai

Busy days, late hours and horrid traffic left me and hubby SS exhausted on the Friday evening. Thus came many pleasurable and contented ways of spending our weekend. That of ‘relaxing at home’, ‘chilling out with a dvd’ and getting chores done.  With the onset of winter and chill in the air, we finally decided to finally get out of our contented monotonous chilling at home and explore what was closest to us – the city of Mumbai. What first came to our head was the symbol most popularly associated with Mumbai City – The Gateway of India and and decided to start with areas around it.
The Taj and the Gateway from the Sea

Colaba Causeway

It was walk down memory lane for me as I passed the legendary Regal theatre and the Alibaba Restaurant that was adjacent to an office where I once worked right after my engineering on the way to the Gateway. It was wonderful to walk on Colaba Causeway and hear the vendors speak expertly in English and French and still see them target only the white tourist population and almost ignore the brown skinned locals!  The array of gaudy necklaces, trinkets, scarves, marble and wooden showpieces that have not changed for a long time now continued to be there and continued to fascinate me. Only most of them were pretty pricey targeting a dollar audience dollars and not for local Indians!
The Taj Hotel
Right across the Gateway of India, The Taj has stood like a shining beacon of lovely architecture in Mumbai city and a balm to eyes tired of filth, peeling paint, slums and box like buildings with matchbox apartments. From the Gateway it looked grand as always and a testimony to what Mumbai has withstood, repaired though not healed. The luxury hotel has attracted distinguished visitors in Mumbai and it was always a pleasure to enter its luxurious, and rich interiors even if it was for just a cup of late night coffee or for a conference in one of its grand ballrooms.
Wah Taj!

The Gateway of India
Coming back to the Gateway of India, my earliest memories as a kid were walking right under the Gateway and buying puzzles, tricks and such paraphernalia from a thriving market of encroachments even back then.  Now, amidst security concerns, there is a large police barricade and siege with elaborate screening, constant security vigil and a heightened awareness although it was fortunately pervaded by much laughter and photographers asking couples to make various funny poses to hold the Taj and the Gateway.
The Gateway of India

The Gateway of India was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Bombay back in 1911, a 100 years back from the approaching March 11, 2011. The last of British troops to leave India also passed through the Gateway in 1948. In earlier times, the Gateway was the first glimpse of Bombay that visitors arriving by Bombay would get.  The architecture of the Gateway is Indo-Gothic representing the cosmopolitan culture of the city of Mumbai even today.

Elephanta Caves and the Ferry ride
Our next destination was the famous Elephanta caves, which are on an island across Bombay, reachable by a ferry ride in the sea from the Gateway. It is funny how most locals including us have never seen these caves despite residing in Mumbai for so many years. It never helped that that those who had visited only disparaged the place saying there were just a few broken idols and little else to see. Well, but look at it this way, it really is fun to be a tourist in your own city and see things from a new perspective, understand history and see where the roots of your city indeed lie. The Gateway is one part of understanding the city, the Taj another and the Elephanta caves set in an era long bygone adding yet another dimension to this huge city.

Cruising in the Arabian Sea on an hour long ferry ride, fanned by a cool zephyr, watching the Mumbai skyline recede and trying to make out major landmarks in the city all added to our really touristy experience.
We reached the Elephanta Island by boat and clambered on a toy train which really ran the distance of a 5 minute walk but was again, a part of the experience! We then had piping hot tea from the ubiquitous tea stalls and then proceeded to clamber the many steps up the hill that led to the caves. As usual, the entrance all along the steps was lined by a huge market of souvenirs that sold everything that can be found at any souvenir market in India I suppose. We saw rows and rows of endless ‘handicrafts’ that we had bought foolishly in Rajasthan at high prices  as something unique and refused to buy more ‘unique items’.

Toy Train to Elephanta Caves

We finally reached the caves and found a guide (unauthorized guy since there were no official guides!) to tell us the history of the place instead of us looking blankly at the statues. We learned that the Elephanta Island as it was now known is known originally and referred to by locals as the Gharapuri Island which means literally island of caves. The island consists of Hindu and Buddhist caves with the Hindu caves depicting tales from the life of Shiva.

The Portuguese called the island Elephanta on seeing its huge gigantic statue of an Elephant at the entrance. The Statue is now placed in the garden outside the Jijamata Udyan at Byculla in Mumbai. This cave was renovated in the 1970s after years of neglect, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 to preserve the artwork and is currently maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. If the Portuguese used the sculptures for target practice blowing them up for most part, Indian ruffians scribbled and carved their names and declared undying love to their beloveds and desecrated the statues. ASI has done a good job however in cleaning up a majority of these names, though on close scrutiny, one can still make out English letters in the haze.
The guide told us several interesting stories about the sculptures most of which could be confirmed by the guidebook or Wikipedia. The ones I liked are Ravan lifting Shiva and Parvati on Mount Kailash, Wedding of Shiva, Shiva slaying a demon named Andhaka, and the most famous one, the Trimurti. The Trimurti is a 20 ft rock sculpture that depicts a three headed Shiva manifesting creation, preservation and destruction and thus the three important deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva respectively.

The Trimurti Idol

It took us around 2 hours to go around the entire place, take photos and listen to stories besides indulging in chai, and look at knick-knacks in the souvenir market. The ferry service starts early in the morning and continues till around 5:00 pm in the evening in winters. I suppose this time gets extended in summers.

The ride back thrilled us again as sea gulls swept up and down, and in circles with their cries over the lapping waters. We disembarked at the Gateway and headed back into the chaos of the city. With a few hours left to kill on that perfect weekend, we ate pav bhaji at one of the tiny restaurants at Colaba Causeway, ate a really yummy looking pan and watched a movie at the historic Regal theater.
I would definitely recommend this trip to anyone who wants to become a tourist at Mumbai. Go Out Mumbaikars and take that ferry ride!
A Glorious Sunset

This post was re-posted from my other blog Richland Talk

Categories: India, Mumbai | 18 Comments

Eating out at Indore

I recently visited Indore, the commercial capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh. Indore is possibly the food capital too. Of all the highlights of the visit, eating blurs out all other memories!  Indians are overly fond of snacks and sweets and at Indore more so.

I had taken the Duronto Express train from Mumbai to Indore. The cheerful looking colorful train set the mood for a fun visit and I was not disappointed. I reached Indore at about 11 a.m and was welcomed by family with steaming chai,warm jalebis and ‘Alu Kachoris’ and Poha.  After this heavy meal, I was surprisingly hungry in about a couple of hours again and ready to eat!

I am told the ‘Indore ki hawa’ or atmosphere at Indore is naturally stimulating to eat more and food gets digested faster! Well, I don’t think I disagree as I almost always had room for more for each of the meals and the variety of food I had.

One of the highlights and must-do’s of Indore is a visit to Sarafa. Sarafa is an area in the old town on Indore near the Rajwada or palace of the Holkars. Originally a market of jewelers, Sarafa is now known as the foodie bazaar. Late in the evening at 9 p.m when businesses start closing down, jewelers down their shutters, Sarafa starts getting festive. Smells of gulab jamun, and hot frying oil start wafting and appetites are aroused.   Traditional ‘Chaat’ houses open and sweet sellers sit with their huge assortments of freshly made gulab jamuns, rabdi, kalakand and malpuas.  One can see people gorging on ‘Kachoris’, ‘Samosas’ and ‘Tikkis’. Along side the traditional chaat places, a slew of cuisines have set up shop in the form of Indo chinese stalls, Sandwiches and Pizza stalls.

For the uninitiated, NRIs or foreigners, it is hard to actually explain what ‘Chaat’ is. Well, Chaat is a variety of food that encompasses a range of savories that are usually sold at roadside stalls.  Most savories also have a motley of ingredients in them with a variety of spicy sauces.  Some popular ‘Chaat’ varieties in Indore are –

  • ‘Samosa’ chaat – Samosas are dough stuffed with a spicy potato filling in triangular shapes and fried. Accompanied by a chick pea gravy, onions, coriander and tomatoes, makes it a ‘chaat’!
  • Dahi vadas – Vadas are fried savories that can be made of many varieties of flours. Fried and then dunked into yoghurt sprinkled with chilli ‘chutney’ and tamarind chutney makes for delicious dahi vadas
  • Pani puri – Known by various names in different parts of the country, Pani puri is one of the most popular dishes found at the roadside stall. Thin hollow dough crispies are stuffed slightly with a potato or boiled chick pea filling and dunked in sweet and sour spicy water, one at a time. Each individual stuffed puri is eaten whole at a time.
  • Alu Tikkis – Potatoes are a favorite ingredient for all chats. Mashed potatoes roled into balls or chopped potatoes, are deepfried, sprinkled with spices and served hot.
  • Papdi chaat – Dough crispies, this time flat, are know as papdi or puri again. Loaded with potatoes, onions, puffed rice and some sauces and ‘sev’ make for a papdi chat.
  • Kachori -Kachoris are round dough balls stuffed with ‘masalas’ and some base ingredient of mashed peas or lentils or potatoes. Kachoris can be eaten dry or with the usual chat accompaniments of onions, tomatoes, coriander, ‘sev’ and chutneys.

Bustle at ‘Samosa’ chaat house

Frying Kachoris

Namkeen Sev

Well, chaat is ubiquitous in all of India, but Indore certainly had a fabulous ambiance that made us want bite into sweet and spicy savories.

Apart from the chat and the roadside stalls, Indore is also very famous for its ‘Namkeen’. Namkeen is a term given to long lasting savories made of flour and subtly flavored with cloves, garlic and several spices.

Even more tantalizing at Sarafa were the sweets that were sold openly. Mostly made in pure ‘desi’ ghee, even looking at them was a feast to the eyes.  You can get notably jalebis, imartis, gulab jamuns, malpuas, rabdi, kulfi, kalakand, and cold or hot drinks made of milk. A unique drink was known as ‘Shikanji’ which was a veritable mix of all the goodness in milky form there can be! Shikanji is made of evaporated milk, rabdi, shrikhand, and dry fruits making it very delicious.  With the advent of winter, a host of other goodies such as mattar or pea kachoris, ‘gajaks’ and hot milk products are also available and must-eats!

Delicious Gulab Jamuns in Sarafa Bazaar

Milky goodness – Rabdi and Kalakand

Moong Dal Halwa in Desi Ghee

My favorite! – Piping hot Malpuas dripping with ghee

Apart from Sarafa, another popular hang out  for youngsters in Indore is ‘Chappan Bazaar’ which originally consisted of chappan or fifty six shops.  Although the variety of food was similar to that of Sarafa, the feel of the place was new and less charming as compared to Sarafa.

One would think we would end up with upset stomachs at the end of all that feasting, but thankfully, we all returned well satiated. I am keeping my fingers crossed that I soon have a chance to go back again just for those steaming hot kachoris and melting-in-the-mouth malpuas.

If you were to visit Indore, some suggested places and food are –

At Sarafa –

  • Alu Patis at Vijay Chat
  • Dal Kachori near Vijay Chat
  • Rabdi at Bhairavnath
  • Jalebi and Malpua near the end of Sarafa near Bhairavnath

Some non Sarafa and Chappan Bazaar places are

  • Aspee on Racecourse road for ‘Mirchina’ a local drink not unlike a spiced up Coke but milder and Icecream Soda
  • Hira Lassi – near Shri Krishna Talkies
  • Ravi’s Aloo Kachori – Anand Bazaar
  • Damu Anna’s Kachori at Sikh Muhalla

My advice if you are planning a trip to Indore is to be that glutton you always wanted to be and have a feast!

Categories: India, Madhya Pradesh | Tags: , , , , | 32 Comments

Inca Land Explorations – The Classic Inca Trail Trek

Now for the final part of my blog on the Inca adventure and the highlight of our trip, I chronicle the much looked forward to or dreaded trek which was called the Classic 4 day Inca trail or Pilgrimage that we had booked way back in February.

Map of trail: courtsey
Off we go!
The first day, we were still happy and had smiley faces in our photographs, as we started out from Ollantaytambo on the Inca trail. Here are some pictures from the first day of our trekking. It is certainly amazing what nature presents when out in the open outside of the din of the city. These photographs are certainly barely representative of the sights we did see there. Mountains, rivers, Inca ruins, Clouds and forests live in a 360 degree view is really quite difficult to capture on a lens. But well, this is what we have to do with once we get back to the city! We tasted Chef Caramello’s food for the first time starting with lunch which was an elaborate affair starting with an avocado starter, going onto a soup and entree of Pasta, Creamy Potatoes and Rice followed by some chocolate pudding for dessert. We certainly didn’t want to hike after that sensory meal! We fortunately did get a few moments of rest though after that before we started off again rejuvenated.
Day 1
Llactapata ruins
During the course of our trip, we got to know our fellow trekkers who were fortunately a wonderful bunch of people including Americans, Australians and other Indians! For 12 of us trekkers, there were 17 porters, one chef and two tour guides. I must say they all did a wonderful job despite how difficult it really must be. In fact, things like food which are a luxury during camping, actually became a highlight as we received full elaborately prepared three course lunches and dinners as well as breakfast and snacks. All we had to do was really, just climb, as all our food was cooked for us, stuff carried up for us! Even that was not easy I must say. Especially, since I conveniently missed the step of training in the gym forever before that! It was quite incredible, that while we climbed up, the porters cleaned up our lunch, washed up, scurried up with the tents and all those other hundred things, set the tents all up, cooked our dinner and we arrived only much later.

Porters scurrying up

The second day was the toughest part of the trek having to climb to a high elevation of 4.200M to the Dead Woman’s pass as it is called. Was that the high point otherwise for me? Well, honestly, it was the most difficult thing I must have ever done physically! I had to break after every 10 steps when I was some 100 steps away from it! The air being pretty thin at this altitude affected many of us in the group attacking us with migraines, nausea, sickness and the like. But well, we still grinned when the photo was clicked! :)

Dead woman’s pass

What goes up has to come down, and the next phase of the trekking was just down down and more down till lunch! Even that was tiring! And to think, while climbing up all we wanted was to go down! Going up is more work, but coming down is scary and makes all those muscles really ache! I had almost given up hope of ever making it through the day after which we not only made it to the camp for lunch but revived by Chef Caramello’s food, we hiked up the mountain for another 3 hours before we finally could celebrate the end of the toughest part of the trek with coca tea, popcorn and crackers!
Ruins at Phuyupatamarca – Don’t I love the names!
The third day of the Inca trail was personally my favorite, since there was less climbing up, and less steep steps although there was a lot of climbing down. We went through a lot of verdant jungles and took in breathtaking vistas every few steps. But then, it started raining. And rain it did, …it rained right till the moment and possibly beyond the day I took my taxi to the Cusco airport to depart Peru! The positive side of the rain however was the fact that everything looked far more mystical and magical with the floating clouds as we traversed through the hills and vales. We almost felt in the middle of an Avatar movie or an Indiana Jones movie amidst all that beauty. We reached the campsite early in the day and in time to visit a beautiful Inca site known as Winaywayna. Our chef made a special farewell cake for dinner as it was the third dinner together. Well, he certainly kept his high standards of food right till the last meal at the camp!
Runkurakay ruins
Mystic clouds
Rain Trek
Flowers on the way
Winaywayna Inca site
Happy travels to Machu Picchu!
On the last day, we had a short trek to our final destination Machu Picchu. Unfortunately it was still raining, and there was little hope of really seeing sunrise. But we all started off at 4:30 am to beat other hikers at the gate that opened at 530 am. Wasn’t an easy hike again as was expected. Plenty of climbing, and a lot more urgency to make it to the lost city soon. We crossed the Sun Gate, and there it was… Machu Picchu, in all its glory. The clouds that enveloped it, made it all the more ethereal, and we were enchanted.
Machu Picchu
Morning Haze
The lost city – Machu Picchu
The lost city nestled in clouds
Machu Picchu was indeed much bigger and far more different than the other Inca sites. It looked royal and awe-inspiring. There was an ancient aura about the place and amidst all the clamor of the tourists and the photo snapping din, it felt peaceful. Machu Picchu was surrounded by
mountains on all sides, and watching the clouds play hide and seek with it took our breath away.
Thus ended the highlight of our trip there, and we left with exalted minds thinking about all those who lived and fled there wondering how it must have been back then. I wonder, would it have been any different had the Spanish not forced them to flee? If they could create all these wonders in just a century, I wish I could imagine, the marvels the great Incas would have created had they ruled for longer. On a closing note, here are some beautiful words from a poem by Pablo Neruda that I read somewhere in Cuzco –
“Then on the ladder of the earth I climbed through the
lost jungle’s tortured thicket upto you, Machu Picchu.
High city of laddered stones,
at last the dwelling of what earth
never covered in vestments of sleep
Mother of stone, spume of condors
High reef of the human dawn
Spade lost in primal sand
This was the dwelling
this was the place
here the broad grains of maize rose up
and fell again like red hail
Here gold threads came off the vicuna
to clothe the lovers, the mothers
the king, the prayers the warriors.”
To read more about the Incas and Cusco, their capital city, do have a look at my previous two blogs.
To read more about Machu Picchu, here is a wikipedia link
Categories: Americas, Peru | Tags: , , | 27 Comments

Inca Land Explorations – Cusco

I continue on my exploration of the Inca-world, in the second part of my Inca adventure blog, and this time for real and not through the million articles I waded through, the books I read and the documentaries I watched!
Why did I really choose Peru as a country to visit you may ask?  When I was in grade 8, I hated studying history said my mum.  But now that I am older and wiser (hopefully), I have actually developed an interest in our ancient world.  This, coupled with an interest in exploring a whole new country and wanting to step onto a new continent, made me pick Peru, the land of the great Incas for my trip.
Our trip started off rather well and having a consultant husband really helped in getting us upgraded to the Business class in the flight and hotel points got us to a five star hotel. Well, it was certainly getting pampered before our ordeal began!  By ordeal I mean, the 4 day arduous trek that we had decided to undertake in our week there!
Cathedral at Main square
On a bright sunny day, we arrived at Cusco. Cusco that I have spoken about already, back then was the capital of the Incas, and in the modern world is a teeming tourist town with vestiges of Inca Pride.   Cuzco is at an altitude of 3,400 meters above sea level and is the base location for several places of interest including the starting point of several important hiking trails. This city retains many colonial buildings, plazas and streets, Inca walls and ruins, which led to it being declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO
Main Square
Old Inca Palace walls
We undertook a trip to Sacred Valley of the Incas first where we saw our first Inca ruins at Pisac.  There is also a wonderful Sunday fair at Pisac where the local people come together to sell their handicrafts.   Everywhere in Cuzco too, we came across wonderful shops selling Llama wool rugs, woven cloth goods, purses of all sizes, symbolic souvenirs and super knick knacks.  I must say my husband had a really hard time pulling me away from buying everything possible in the shops there!  I certainly was far more interested in the fair rather than the ruins! We must have exchanged our dollars for Peruvian ‘Soles’ at least 10 times in 10 days at the many money exchanges at every turn, each time spending more than we anticipated!
Sacred Valley
Local shop
Pisac ruins
After Pisac, we went to Ollantaytambo which like I had described in my story earlier, had been established as a stronghold of the Incas and a raging battle took place there.  Ollantaytambo (don’t I just love the Quechua names!), was a gorgeous Inca site with walls so finely built and without the use of mortar that not even a knife could pass through them (as you can see in the picture). In 1950, an earthquake had occurred in Cuzco, during which a lot of modern structures including colonial structures came down.  However these Inca walls stood mighty and strong standing testimony to the engineering prowess of the Incas. This site also had well built terraces and granaries.   All the terraces were also wonderfully engineered with varying temperatures at different levels for different crops.  Irrigation was also done using a fine system of canals and aqueducts.  Our guide told us, that the holes seen in the mountain across from where we were were burial chambers for the Inca dead.
Fine Inca wall with niches
Ollantaytambo terraces

Man holding mountain and burial holes in there
Near Cusco, we also visited the South valley to see more sites.  We stopped at Piquilacta or the ‘town of flies’ which was a pre Inca site. I do wonder why it was called so, it certainly would not attract many people to stay there, if it really were full of disgusting flies! This town was a large town, and what remained today were the huge walls they built around the city and the houses.  There even were entry gates to this city and everyone coming in and going out was monitored.  We also visited a few churches around Cusco.  Although, honestly they did not interest me as much as the old Inca structures did, for the sake of memory, we visited the Chinchero and the Andahuaylillas church which is called the” Sistine Chapel of South America.
Piquilacta ruins
Gates at Piquilacta
We began on the next part of our trip, the four day Classic Inca trail, but I will chronicle our journey there in another blog.  When we returned from our trek, tired and with exalted minds more fun was in store for us without our knowing it!  1911 being the year Machu Picchu was discovered, 2011 was the centennial year of its discovery, and we were perfectly in time to be a part of the festivities. We were able to witness a grand spectacle of a military parade and a cultural celebration.  The whole square and streets were full of mirthful dancers and musicians in their eloquent costumes of lions, clowns, traditional Peruvian, colorful flumes of birds, elegant Spanish dancers and masked jesters who swirled about gracefully around us in a parade.  Ah! I can almost hear their lilting melodies and the beat of the music they danced to.
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Before I conclude this post on the picturesque town of Cusco however, I would certainly like to make a special mention of our tour agency Llama Path who had made all the bookings for us and were our trek operators.  I have certainly never ever seen the exceptional level of service that they provided at the trek and outside of it.  They did goof up on not booking our hotel, but certainly made up for it by going the extra mile and we had no grouse whatsoever.  At the trek of course, the service was indeed superlative.  Every day, we even had hot water and soap in front of our tents to clean up, tea served on our waking to our tents, warmed plates to eat from and our every need tended to. The guides and porters were courteous and knowledgeable and the chef Caramello’s food couldn’t have been finer in taste or presentation.  I almost feel sorry for our guide Jose, who accompanied us and patiently encouraged the battered miserable us in difficult moments with ‘My champions – you can do it!’ even though we were taking breaks after every 5 minutes, after everyone else in the group were at the top of the mountain already! Llama path certainly was a very commendable and enterprising tour company and I would certainly endorse it to anyone who would be interested.
Like all good things come to an end, our trip did to and it was with a heavy heart that we walked away from the welcoming city with warm people and back into the world of work and humdrum existence.
If I haven’t tired you enough already, do stay tuned for the next blog on the exciting four day trek that we undertook from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu. The pictures will certainly not disappoint you!
This post is re-published from my other blog Richland Talk.
Categories: Americas, Peru | Tags: , , , | 16 Comments

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