Category Archives: Travel

‘Water of life’- Whisky trails in Scotland

Golden Water of Life- WHISK(E)Y
Mark Twain once famously said-
“Too much of anything is bad,
but too much of good whiskey is barely enough.”
This quote has inspired me to write about exploring the famed distilleries of Scotland

whiskey

“Oh, the summer time is coming, And the trees are blooming, And the wild mountain thyme, grows around the blooming heather.Will you go, lassie, will you go?” I can’t think of a more beautiful place to visit and explore in summer than Scotland

During our restaurant years in Singapore( 2007-2011) we were lucky to get introduced to a gem of a Scotsman- Andrew (Skene) who  introduced us to Single Malts and helped put together the ‘Scotch Corner’ in our restaurant( called ‘the Clay Oven & Scotch Corner’)
Thus began our love for the dram- from pairing whiskies with kebabs and curries to hosting whisky tasting festivals & musical concerts ( notably with the Scottish band- ‘Red Hot Chilli Piper’)
Our love affair with Whisky is sealed for life!

Hopefully on reading this piece, you’ll be inspired to book your air tickets to visit the famed distilleries of Scotland. For the not so lucky, I’m hoping  you can stop drinking the highly marketed Black Label or Glenfiddich and be adventurous enough to try single malts from  smaller and highly reputed distilleries

What is whisky?
Whisky refers to any distillate made from grain, yeast & water, that matures in wooden casks for a certain period of time resulting in a strong alcoholic spirit that is called Whisky

Whiskey or whisky? What’s in the spelling?
In Ireland and United states, Whiskey is spelled with an ‘e’.
Scotland, Canada & Japan omit the ‘e’- so it’s ‘Whisky’
but really neither spellings should matter!

Oak barrels containing  distilled whisky
Oak barrels containing
distilled whisky

Scotch Whisky definition
For a whisky to be classified a Scotch, it has to be produced in a Scottish distillery and made from malted barley or another type of grain that has been mashed with water.
Scotch whisky should be matured in a wooden( oak)  cask in Scotland and must contain 40% alcohol at the time of bottling but not to exceed 94.8% alchohol by volume( ABV)

What is a Single Malt?
A single malt must exclusively consist of malt whiskey and has to be distilled at a single distillery. Single malts can also be blended- that is bottled from different casks- each which vary according to alcoholic strength and maturation periods. This popular practice is called vatting. If whiskies of different ages are blended, then the maturation of the youngest whisky must be stated on the label.
Single Malt is not exclusively associated with Scotland. India and Japan in fact produce excellent Single Malts whiskies.

Inside a distillery
Inside a distillery

3 holy elements of whisky are…
Grain, Water and Yeast

Copper stills used in distillation
Copper stills used in distillation

BIRTHPLACE OF  WHISKY: SCOTLAND

 

Whisky map of Scotland
Whisky map of Scotland

Scotland is the world’s foremost producer of whisky, in fact there are more distilleries in Scotland than in the rest of the world combined! The history and Scots passion and love for whisky has triumphed.  The distilleries are classified into 4 major regions namely:
1) Lowlands & Campbeltown
2) Islay
3) Speyside
4) Highlands

SCOTLAND’S WHISKY REGIONS

LOWLANDS & CAMPBELTOWN: are at the extreme south of Scotland bordering England. Very few distilleries remain and whiskies of the Lowland region are characterized by a light, dry and ‘oily’ finish, usually devoid of any ‘peaty’ notes

Noteworthy distilleries are:
Springbank ( 85 Longrow PA28 6EX Campbeltown, Argyll
Phone: +44 (0) 1586 552085) 
It is the only distillery left in Scotland in which all whisky production processes are manually carried out- including bottling, The whisky is considered to be the most traditional malt in Scotland. Tours are priced from £6.50  per person

Springbank
Inside the Springbank distillery


Also visit/ try-
Glen Kinchie– ” Light and spicy with more complex flavours than are typical of Lowland whiskies”
Auchentoshan “light and dry taste typical of a Lowland whisky “

ISLAY( pronounced “Eye-la” )
Holds a special place in the world of whisky. Whiskies from the Islay region are characterized by a typical smoky, “Peaty” finish.

Every summer, Islay hosts a weeklong whisky festival, which includes ceilidhs(traditional Scottish storytelling evenings), Celtic music concerts, distillery tours, golf competition, cooking-with-whisky evenings and a sponsored charity “barrel push” across Islay. The festivities culminate in a carnival on Port Ellen Green.
More details: Islay Whisky Festival E-mail: islayfestival@lineone.net

The noteworthy Islay distilleries  to visit are:
Talisker( Isle of Skye, Carbost, Skye, Phone: +44 1478614308)
Has a stunning setting beside a west Skye sea loch. Visitors can taste their whiskies in a vaulted barrel room, surrounded by handsome oak containers holding whisky which will sit for decades before it’s enjoyed

Tasting notes ” Highly complex & unconventional whisky. Peppery flavour adds to its warming spiciness,  it explodes on the palate”

Talisker Distillery
Talisker Distillery

Bruichladdich( Isle of Islay, Argyll, Phone: + 44 1496850190 )
Considered to be one of the most innovative of Islay distilleries constantly playing with casks, producing some of Islays’s most complex and peaty whiskies

Bruichladdich distellery
Bruichladdich distellery

Lagavulin( Port Ellen, Islay, Phone- +44 1496 302749)
Situated on the picturesque Lagavulin bay, its unique pear shaped stills make it worth a visit
Tasting notes- ” smoky, peaty & highly sophisticated”

Lagavulin Distillery
Lagavulin Distillery

Also visit/ try:
Caol Ila-
“strong note of peat smoke on nose, complemented on the palate by sweet notes of sherry”
Highland Park( Isle of Orkney)– “An all rounder with hints of smoke, sherry, full flavour on the palate where honey & peat develop”
Ardberg- “One of the smokiest, peatiest of all whiskies”,
Bowmore- “complex on the palate, notes of sherry, seaweed, heather & spices”

SPEYSIDE 
Spreading out from the River Spey it is one of the principal whisky producing regions of Scotland and one of the most prettiest places.  With the maximum number of distilleries located in this part of Scotland- it’s best to hire a car for the day and make your way through the distilleries, do ensure that you entrust at teetotaler as the designated driver though!

Glenfarclas
( Ballindalloch, Speyside, Banffshire, Tel: +44 1807500257)
Glenfarclas was one of the first distilleries in Scotland to open a dedicated visitor center in 1973. Glenfarclas, the `Glen of the Green Grassland’, is situated at the foot of the majestic Ben Rinnes, produces . Glenfarclas Single Malts are highly regarded, full bodied, smooth, full of flavour, and superb as an after-dinner malt

Inside the Glenfarclas distillery
Inside the Glenfarclas distillery

Glenlivet
( Ballindalloch, Banffshire AB37 9DB, Phone: +44 1340 821 720)
This highly reputed and well regarded distillery is a must visit in Speyside. Try their  ‘Spirit Of The Malt Tour’ priced at £30 per person( 2-3 hours duration), which includes a visit to Josie’s Well, a distillery tour, a tutored nosing of 7 different expressions of The Glenlivet and a dram drawn straight from one of their aged casks in their traditional dunnage warehouse

Our friends- Jayant and Ragani outside the  Glenlivet distillery
Our friends- Jayant and Ragani outside the Glenlivet distillery
Cellar at the Glenlivet
Cellar at the Glenlivet- picture courtesy Jayant Rohatgi

Macallan
( Easter Elchies, Craigellachie, Aberlour, Moray,  Phone:44 (1340) 872280)  
One of the most recognized distilleries. Its whiskies are sought after by whisky collectors & aficionados around the world. In the last 4 decades, it has acquired the best reputation for quality malt whisky.
Macallan distillery recently launched the ‘Six pillars tour’  limited to groups of no more than 10 people to ensure a luxurious, personal experience. A friendly guide will explain the creation of Macallan’s rich spirit in a working still house. Visitors can learn of how their unparalleled investment in the finest casks contributes to the natural colours, aromas and flavours that set The Macallan apart. Visitors then experience a nosing and tasting of four ‘The Macallan whiskies’ The tour last 2 hours and is priced at  £15/ person.

Macallan cask
Macallan cask

Aberlour
(High Street Aberlour AB38 9PJ, Phone: +44 (0)1340 881249)
Located in the heart of Speyside, this distillery offers relaxed and informal tours of the distillery, it is followed up with a tasting of 6 whiskies from Aberlour. Priced at  £15/ person, the tour lasts 2 hours.

Tasting session at Aberlour- Image courtesy Jayant Rohatgi
Tasting session at Aberlour- Image courtesy Jayant Rohatgi

Speyside CooperageDufftown Road, Craigellachie, Banffshire, Aberlour, Moray AB38 9RS, Phone: +44 1340 871108)
In the heart of Scotland’s rolling hills lies Speyside Cooperage, the only working cooperage in the UK where you can experience the ancient art of coopering. Since 1947, the family owned Speyside Cooperage has produced the finest casks from the best American Oak. Today the cooperage continues to work and produce the age-old product, still using traditional methods and tools. Although shipped across the world, many of the casks remain in Scotland, providing a vital ingredient in Scotland’s whisky making process

Putting together casks made of american oak at Speyside Cooperage- Image courtesy Jayant Rohatgi
Putting together casks made of American oak at Speyside Cooperage- Image courtesy Jayant Rohatgi

 

NORTHERN HIGHLANDS:
The whiskies in this region are delicate, light bodied whiskies with complex aromas. The finish can range from dry to spicy with a hint of salt.
Noteworthy distilleries to visit are:
Glenmorangie
Cadboll, Fearn Ross-Shir, Tain. Phone:+ 44 1862 871671) 
Crafting the taste of Glenmorangie is entrusted to the care of 16 people known as the “Sixteen Men of Tain”–some have names that are fitting to the jobs in the alcohol business, such as warehouseman Jocky Stout. Visitors can learn about the entire distillation process, as well as the selection of the barrels, which come from oak trees in the Ozarks. The barrels are then loaned to the Heaven Hill Bourbon distillery until reclaimed by Glenmorangie. The on-site inn, Glenmorangie House, is also worth a stop. From the outside, it looks like a typical Highlands mansion, but inside the atmosphere is warm and relaxed.  Entry-£ 5 per person
Tasting notes: ” Smooth malt with a gentle salty note, complemented by fruits and spices”

Glenmorangie Distillery
Glenmorangie Distillery, image courtesy: Glenmorangie website

Dalwhinnie
( Dalwhinnie Distillery, Dalwhinnie, Inverness-shire,
Telephone: +44 1540 672219) 

Dalwhinnie is the highest distillery in Scotland; and clear, crisp spring water and peat are abundant. On the 45-minute tour, you can see the people at work making sure everything in the distillery goes to plan – whisky production is a precise process where small changes of problems can affect the taste of a whole batch. The tour with  3 tastings of their 15 year old, Distiller’s edition and single cask is priced at £12.99 per person

Dalwhinnie Distillery visitor center
Dalwhinnie Distillery visitor center

Also visit/ try:
Oban
” slightly peaty, it has a smooth texture with notes of spices, fruit and a mild finish”
Old Pulteney- ” salty and fresh, with a whiff of ocean air and seaweed”

PLACES TO STAY

HIGHLANDER INN
( Victoria St, Craigellachie, Banffshire AB38 9SR, United Kingdom
Phone: +44 1340 881446) 
Highlander Inn is a traditional Whisky Tavern with rooms. Its location in the heart of Speyside- Craigellachhie, makes it a good place for a base. Rooms are simple and comfortable . Recognized as Scotland’s best village inn’s, its whisky bar stocks an amazing range of Single Malts

THE LODGE ISLAY
(83 Frederick Crescent, Port Ellen, Islay PA42 7BG, United Kingdom
Phone: +44 7776 193140)
Located in Port Ellen, the Lodge forms the perfect base to explore distilleries in the Islay region.

WHEN IN SCOTLAND DO TRY……

SHEEP DIP:

 

Sheep Dip
Sheep Dip

Was once one of the best selling whiskies in Harrods in the 1980’s. Don’t be fooled by its whimsical name. This award winning whisky by Spencerfield Spirit Company  is created by  blending over 16 different single malts aged between 8-20 years creating a complex blend.
Jim Murray of the Whisky Bible describes Sheep Dip as “Young and sprightly like a new-born lamb a fresh, mouthwatering grassy style with a touch of spice. Maligned by some, but to me a clever accomplished vatting of alluring complexity”

BRUADAR (WHISKY LIQUEUR)

Bruadar
Bruadar

An absolutely irresistible combination of whisky, honey & sloe berries create a much cherished liqueur. I can’t think of a more delicious way of ending  whisky tasting sessions on this sweet note!  “Bruadar” is the Scottish Gaelic word for “a dream”

HAGGIS NEEPS AND TATTIES

Haggis neeps and tatties
Haggis neeps and tatties

An absolute must have for Burn’s supper, this iconic Scottish dish is a must try if you’re visitng Scotland!
Haggis is a savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs); minced with onionoatmealsuet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach and simmered for approximately three hours. 
“Neeps and tatties”refer to turnips and potatoes in Scottish and form a perfect accompaniment to the Haggis!

 

 

 

Inside London: explored through locals

London will always occupy a special place in my heart- I can never forget my first solo holiday in London in 2004- I immediately fell in love with its history, diversity, arts, culture, food and parks- so much so that I decided to live and work in London for a year.  I lived in a small semi detached house in East Putney and have some of the best memories of South London( one that requires another blog!) I am lucky to still have friends living there, and am always keen to get their updates on ‘the places to eat & drink’ on FB

So last week I decided to try something new: Explore one of the greatest cities of the world through the locals that live there. I approached three friends, who live and work in London- they are unknown to each other, work in different industries & have different personalities. While reviewing their replies, I got three different perspectives of London. In the process we have unravelled hidden gems and great finds. So I hope you find this article interesting 🙂

Note: pictures used in this article have been collected through the internet and are not taken by me, photo credits have been provided where necessary 😉

Poulomi
POULOMI BASU
is an award winning documentary photographer who is based in London and New Delhi. When not travelling on international assignments, Poulomi loves interacting with fellow photographers in London’s hip watering holes

Shefali

SHEFALI GUPTA GERA, or ‘Shef” as she’s known to friends,  was born in the UK and has lived in London for almost half of her life. A true ‘Londoner’ she works in strategy for an American investment bank.  Shef enjoys exploring London’s gastronomic scene and travelling off to exotic destinations

NEHA GOENKA SMITH is a professional who’s lived in London for 6 years, Neha currently works with the UK Government to address GHG emission

 

1) YOUR FAVORITE NEIGHBORHOOD FOR BREAKFAST OR A FUN SUNDAY BRUNCH?
Poulomi:  Dalston Superstore,( 117 Kingsland High SE8 2PB, London) Time Out London describes it as“a New York-styled ersatz dive bar upstairs (clad in cement, brick and steel vents) is the perfect place for a chat ‘n’ carouse”

Dalston Superstore
Dalston Superstore

Shefali:  there are so many interesting places, but if I’d have to narrow it down my favourites are-
CLERKENWELL : Smith of Smithsfied or SOS (67-77 Charterhouse St, London EC1M 6HJ)
A reviewer in Squaremeal London calls it a “cavernous, sandblasted rocker starts the day quite quietly as a breakfast and brunch destination serving up posh bacon butties, porridge and French toast to Smithfield early birds”
and Modern Pantry(47-48 St John’s Square, London EC1V 4JJ) Time Out London  says “chef Anna Hansen has form in creating enticing fusion dishes that make the most of unusual ingredients sourced from around the globe – we guarantee even the most devoted foodie will be bamboozled by a couple of items on the menu”

The Modern Pantry
The Modern Pantry

SHOREDITCH:
Breakfast Club2-4 Rufus Street, London N1 6PE)

Breakfast at the Breakfast Club, Shoreditch
Breakfast at the Breakfast Club, Shoreditch

and Caravan, Emyr Thomas of Bon vivant saysCaravan offers a weekend brunch menu to rival any in London in a relaxed and effortlessly cool setting on Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell…The open plan layout and double facing glassed front make this an ideal location for enjoying a vibrant part of London”

Caravan, Shoreditch
The modern industrial setting at Caravan, Shoreditch


MAIDA VALE:  Raoul’s(13 Clifton Road, London W9 1S)

NehaSunday’s are spent near our home in Beckenham and my choice is Fee& Brown(50 High Street, Beckenham)  Blogger- The Faerital Foodie calls it one of her favourite coffee shops

Fee & Brown Beckenham
Fee & Brown Beckenham

 

2)FAVORITE  PLACE/ PARK/ SQUARE FOR A PICNIC?
Poulomi– London fields Victoria Park( Vicky Park) Visit London says “Victoria Park in London’s Tower Hamlets is a large park with canals, ponds, a pavilion, tennis courts and a sports ground. Open air pop and rock concerts are held in the park during the summer

Victoria Park, Londonfields
Victoria Park, Londonfields

Shefali Regent’s Park. Spread over 395 acres it is one of the largest parks in Central London. The park also houses the Open Air Theatre, London Zoo, Primrose Hill, the country’s largest free to access waterfowl collection and 100 species of wild bird. The Broke Londoner says “ Primrose Hill is located a few minutes away from the north side of Regent’s Park – just across the London zoo. From Camden Town, it’s a pleasant 10 – 15 minute walk along Regent’s canal. When in the park, the slope is steep, but climbing is worth the effort, since from its 78-metre height Primrose Hill offers a clear view over Central London”

Regents Park
Regents Park

NehaAlways the Hyde Park especially by the Serpentine Lake

Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park
Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park

 

3) MY FAVOURITE VIEW OF LONDON……
Poulomi: Parliament Hill, Hampstead. Time Out London says “Famous for its iconic views over London, Parliament Hill is capable of reviving even the most jaded Londoner, and on a clear day, you’ll have to tiptoe over tourists and locals lounging on the grass and admiring landmarks (The Gherkin, St Paul’s) among the numerous tower blocks”

Best views of London from Parliament Hill
Best views of London from Parliament Hill

Shefali: The Aquashard bar at the Shard ( Level 31, 32 London Bridge Street London SE1 9SG)

View from the Shard Photo credit: Paul Winch-Furness
View from the Shard
Photo credit: Paul Winch-Furness

Neha: The views from Shard are great but I prefer the view from Paramount bar on the 32nd Floor of Centrepoint tower (Paramount, Centre Point, 101-103 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1DD)

View from Paramount in Centrepoint building
View from Paramount in Centrepoint building

 

4) BEST NEIGHBOURHOOD TO EXPLORE INDEPENDENT MUSIC GIGS & UPCOMING ARTISTS
Poulomi: DALSTON
Servant’s Jazz Quarter(10A Bradbury St, London N16 8JN) Londontown.com describes it as “Despite the name, Servant Jazz Quarters is not strictly a jazz club. Instead you’ll find music from many genres at this Dalston music venue which supports innovative artists from all backgrounds, and particularly those from the Hackney area”

 Cafe Otto(18-22 Ashwin St, London E8 3DL)

Vortex(11 Gillett St, London N16 8AZ) Time Out London says “The Vortex has developed a strong profile on London’s improv jazz scene and is now well known for its consistently exciting programming. Mopomoso is the improv club night to catch here”

The Vortex, Dalston
The Vortex, Dalston

Shefali: CAMDEN ( Here’s an interesting link on how to get to alternative music gigs in CamdenThe Forge (3-7 Delancey Street, Camden, London NW1 7NL)  “ is an award-winning venue, home to London’s most diverse musical talent. Its amazingly flexible building is reflected in the great breadth of the programme, which ranges from informal jazz and comedy on a Monday to high-class concerts in mid-week and pulsating live music club nights at the weekend
Shoreditch/ Hoxton are great for live gigs too

Live acts at The Forge, Camden
Live acts at The Forge, Camden

NehaSHOREDITCH/ HOXTON
Elephantdrums.co.uk explores musical venues in the Shoreditch & Hoxton neighbourhoods,

Standard.co.uk has an interesting article on East London guide: music venues

 


5) YOUR FAVOURITE  ENGLISH PUB
Poulomi–  The Narrow Boat (the Narrow Boat Pub, 119 St Peters Street, Islington London N1 8PZ) is a hidden gem of a pub situated directly on Regents Canal in Islington

Shefali Not so much English pub as Gastropub and so many to choose from
The Garrison (99 Bermondsey St, London SE1 3XB) is an award winning pub near the Borough market. Great little place calls it a gastropub

The Builders Arms(1 Kensington Ct Pl, London W8 5BJ) Time out London describes it as “Less well known than many Kensington pubs because of its location – hidden among the maze of avenues behind the High Street – this establishment has a great local feel”

The Cadogan Arms(298 King’s Rd, London SW3 5UG) in Chelsea is a well known pub, here’s what blogger Jeanne Horak-Druiff of Cooksister has to say of Cadogan Arms in her blog.

NehaFreemason arms(  32 Downshire Hill, London NW3 1N) in Hampstead heath will always remain my favourite. Its pretty interiors and massive beer garden make it a popular draw year round. Here’s what blogger Sunny in London has to say about Freemason Arms and other pubs in Hampstead Heath

Freemason's Arms in Hampstead heath
Freemason’s Arms in Hampstead heath

 


6) THE BEST FISH AND CHIPS  IN LONDON
Poulomi: RiverFront BFI (BFI Southbank, London, SE18XT)  “their lightly battered pollock, chips, tartar sauce & minted peas” is a killer

Shefali:  Sea Shell of Lisson Grove (49-51 Lisson Grove, Marylebone, London NW1 6UHM) Top table says “Marylebone restaurant The Seashell of Lisson Grove promises to fulfill the fish and chips dreams of any discerning London diner. This fabulous kitchen, according to food critic Alain Ducasse serves up ‘the best fish and chips in London”

Fish and chips at Seashell of Lisson grove
Fish and chips at Seashell of Lisson grove

Neha:  sadly, not my thing!


7) FAVOURITE FRESH FOOD MARKET:
Poulomi:  Broadway market in Hackney, East London(Broadway Market, London E8 4PH)

Spotted by Locals says “Broadway Market on a Saturday is a snapshot of what life in Hackney is all about. A true mix of styles and cultures, young and old, traditional and new. It is a microcosm of what living in a truly global city is all about and I love it”

The Londoner describes it as “ jam packed with delicious food, beautiful jewelry stands, vintage clothes, old vinyl records, buskers & street performers, local produce & more fresh fruit & veg than you can shake a stick at”

Broadway Market Photo credit: Andrew Sidford
“Meaty Goodies on sale’  at Broadway Market
Photo credit: Andrew Sidford

Shefali:  Borough Market(8 Southwark St, London SE1 1TL)
Time Out London describes it as “London’s oldest market – dating back to the thirteenth century – is also the busiest, and the most popular for gourmet goodies. Traders satisfy the city’s insatiable appetite for artisan cheeses and ham from acorn-fed pigs. If food is your thing, then Borough, with its abundance of beautifully displayed organic fruit and veg, cakes, bread, olive oil, fish, meat and booze, is the place to go”

Neha: Borough Market for its great selection of local British Cheese, fruits and vegetables.

'Cheese for sale' at the historic Borough market
‘Cheese for sale’ at the historic Borough market

Here’s what the Gastronogeek’s guide to London has to say about Borough market
The London Eater covers a day out in Borough market
The Borough market blog is an interesting blog written by fellow Borough market stall owners & chefs featuring interesting shops and eateries to visit within the market
 

8) Best place for Traditional Afternoon tea
Poulomi:  Peggy Porschen in Belgravia(116 Ebury St, London SW1W 9QQ)  London Town says “For excellent cakes and pastries Peggy Porschen’s shop in Belgravia is the place to go – it’s where many A-listers including Elton John, Stella McCartney and Sir Anthony Hopkins place an order when they’ve got something to celebrate

Peggy Porschen cake shop
Peggy Porschen cake shop in Belgravia

Shefali:  Tough one but based on experience it would have to be Charlotte Street Hotel  (15-17 Charlotte St, London W1T 1RJ) for its “Very cool vibe and great food” and The Palm Court at the Ritz Hotel (150 Piccadilly, London W1J 9BR) for its “old school glamour and service!”

High tea at the Ritz
High tea at the Ritz

NehaDiamond Jubilee Tea Salon at Fortnum and Mason offers a great high tea experience. The Afternoon tea club  says “Located on the store’s fourth floor and decorated throughout in calming pastel hues, this pretty tea room is the image of refinement, with clean white tablecloths and comfortable leather armchairs completing the look, whilst also adding a touch of luxury for good measure”

9) Best neighbourhood for shopping/ Favourite Department store?
Poulomi: King’s Road & Sloane square. The Street sensation says “The curved facade of Peter Jones department store marks the start of the King’s Road at Sloane Square. Nearby, on the opposite side of the road is the Duke of York pedestrian precinct and the Saatchi art gallery. The further away from Sloane Square you walk, the greater the number of smaller, independent clothes and shoe shops there are, plus a good selection of contemporary furnishing stores

The posh stores at Sloane square
The posh stores at Sloane square

Westfield Stratford(2 Stratford Place, Montifichet Road, Olympic Park, London E20 1EJ) – there are more than 250 shops and 70 restaurants in this mini shopping city!

Shefali: Fenwicks on Bond Street(63 New Bond Street, London W1S 1RQ) for its bespoke collection for ladies

Fenwick on Bond Street
Fenwick on Bond Street

 Selfridges (400 Oxford Street, Marylebone, London W1U 1AB) Urbanpath describes it as “the famous Oxford Street department store continues to keep its finger on the retail pulse as it approaches its centenary. As well as six floors of fashion, Selfridges has an ever-popular food hall, famous window displays and on-going series of exhibitions and events

11) Best high end restaurant deal?
Shefali– There are many dining deals to be found on www.toptable.co.uk

 12) Favourite place for chilled out drinking?
Poulomi–  The Owl and Pussycat(34 Redchurch Street London E2 7DP) Time Out London says “ The gentrification of trendy Redchurch Street continues as this former east-end boozer returns in a familiar gastro pub guise. Fashionably mismatched Chesterfields, stripped tables and antique fittings furnish the lilac-coated main bar, which serves pints of Peroni and Heineken, a selection of four rotating ales, and wines by the glass

Shefali:  Most hotel bars, but I particularly like the Oscar Bar at Charlotte Street Hotel (15-17 Charlotte St, London W1T 1RJ) MrandMrsSmith say “The buzzy Oscar bar is popular with Bloomsbury’s media crowd for after-work cocktails and sharing plates. Perch atop a multicolor humbug-striped stool and sip an Oscar Limeade (Grey Goose vodka and apricot brandy muddled with fresh lime) with a tapas platter of chorizo, manchego and octopus, or knock back rock oysters with a glass of fizz

Coburg Bar at the Connaught hotel(16 Carlos Pl, London W1K 2AL) Time Out London gives it a 5 star rating “The cocktail list focuses on classics, which it introduces with a brief history. Execution is flawless; two manhattans, one a ‘perfect’ version and one sweet, were the best we’ve ever had in London”

The Coburg bar at the Connaught
The Coburg bar at the Connaught

13) Favourite time of the year in London and why?
Poulomi: May through October – between Summer & Autumn

Summer in London on Primrose Hill
Summer in London on Primrose Hill

Shefali: Winter – love the coziness of wrapping up and eating amazing comfort food 🙂

Winter in London
Winter in London

Neha: Summer- if its not a wash out, plenty of time to be spent indulging in picnics at the park!

 

FURTHER REFERENCES & READINGS

Spotted by Locals– a great guide to London created and written by locals

The Londonist is similar to Time Out only that they now have a cult following amongst Londoners They describe themselves as “We provide everything you need to know about the capital, as well as celebrating the quirks, eccentricities, hidden and surprising bits that make up the alternative side of the city”

The Lost Londoner is an interesting alternative guide to London

I know this Great little place  “is a collection of thoughts on the best in London’s unexpected special little venues and activities”

The Telegraph online edition has a plethora of interesting articles covering London’s Arts and Culture, Food & Drinks scene

Beach Diaries: Susegad Goa

Laid back people, feni, coconut palms, shacks, siesta and endless stretches of beach. This just about describes Goa! Its no wonder that this tiny union territory has been receiving so many visitors for more than 4 decades.

Goa has been infamously known for its topless beaches & hippie havens. All that is in the past, however full moon parties  and casino cruise ships continue to attract the young, reckless and rich

Small enough to explore with relative ease, Goa is rich in culture and tradition as is reflected in the Portuguese inspired food & architecture, this can best be enjoyed by exploring the Latin quarters of Panjim  known as” Fontainhas”. Driving past sleepy villages where residents still observe the siesta( NOTE: most shops and offices remain closed between 1.30-3.30pm everyday) and whitewashed 16th-18th century churches, one almost gets a feeling of stepping back in time. For beach bums- there is no dearth for powdery sand and blue waters. Foodies are spoiled for choice with a almost every cuisine served up in a plethora of beach shacks, restaurants and upscale bistros. Yoga is now synonymous with Goa, the village of Assagao in North Goa is fast becoming a major hub for yoga shalas and retreats.

So here’s my guide to Goa. I’m excluding the usual tourist traps which have been covered by many travel magazines- the overrated beaches of Baga and Calangute, the crowded casinos on Mandovi River & the grungy hippie havens of Anjuna/Vagator.

BEACH BUM PARADISE- SOUTH GOA
South Goa is known for long stretches of white sands and gentle blue waters. The beaches here are relatively devoid of annoying vendors & beach shacks, so its perfect for people looking at getting away from it all. South Goa in the recent years has become a haven for luxury 5 star hotels such as the Park Hyatt or Leela and apart from the Taxi-mafia, this part is of Goa is perfect for beach bums looking to soak in all the sun and sand

Agonda Beach- I’m starting with this beach, because you should visit it now before it gets commercially exploited. Devoid of beach shacks & annoying vendors, this beach remains uncrowded for most part of the day. Surrounded by palms this 3km long crescent shaped beach makes for a perfect day trip getaway

HOW TO GET HERE- Agonda is at the southernmost part of Goa, about 75 kms away from Panjim BUT only 10-15 minutes away from Palolem beach

STAY- there aren’t too many comfortable options here, given that its relatively unexploited( READ:basic) Fern Gardenia resort is equidistant to both Agonda and Palolem beaches and offers eco logwood cabins set in a beautiful location on a quiet road with a hill as the backdrop

Agonda Beach
Agonda Beach

 Palolem Beach– undoubtedly the best and most popular of all South Goa beaches, this crescent shape beach is surrounded by pretty palms; so gentle are the waters that you’ll feel like you’re swimming in a pool! There has been a huge inflow of visitors to the beach and there are signs of exploitation everywhere (crammed beach shacks and vendors) but the gentle waters make it worth the visit. I recommend following it up with having a meal or tipple at CIARAN’S just off the beach

HOW TO GET HERE: Palolem is approximately 80 kms away from Panjim and around 2 hours away from the Dabolim airport.

STAY- There are many options for accommodation in Palolem, prices range from basic to mid-range. Ciaran’s offers the best in terms of value- stylized wood log cabins with most creature comforts. Another option a few kilometers away from the beach is the Fern Gardenia Resort which has eco log cabins and landscaped gardens with the stunning backdrop of a hill

Palolem beach
Palolem beach

Varca Beach- is best known for its pristine white sands, this relatively large beach spans 7 kms making it amongst the longest of South Goa beaches. Varca is very long and considered a private beach (there are many 5 star hotels that have private entrances from their immaculately pruned gardens)so it remains devoid of large crowds, I found the swimming in the waters fun, with occasional playful waves tipping you over!! Sunset walks on the beach were sublime as the beach seemed to stretch forever. There aren’t too many beach shacks on Varca and food served here is mediocre- so I would recommend sticking to a beer. For dining I recommend Joecons Garden Restaurant in the nearby Benaulim- their fresh seafood selection is vast and live band churning out 80’s hits makes for a great dinner spot.
HOW TO GET HERE: Varca is approximately a 1 hour drive away  from Dabolim Airport
STAY there are plenty of five star luxury resorts along the beach such as Zuri White Sands, we stayed at the Club Mahindra which was right on the beach

Morning walks on the endless Varca beach
Morning walks on the endless Varca beach

Majorda beach- we stumbled into this beach in January and fell in love almost immediately!! Lined with just the right number of beach shacks, Majorda beach’s clear waters and clean golden sands are a hit with travelers visiting from all corners of the world. As you enter the beach from the main parking lot, there’s a shallow stream through which you walk across to get to the beach.
HOW TO GET HERE: Majorda is approximately 18kms away from Dabolim airport or half an hour’s drive away
STAY- Vivenda Dos Palhacos in Utorda( 10 minutes drive away) is a lovingly restored Portuguese mansion centered around the beautiful pool. Owners Charlotte and Simon Hayward(brother-sister) have done a great job in adding a touch of warmth to the service and interiors

Hidden find- not too far from the Palolem and Agonda beaches is the derelict fort of Cabo De Rama. Not much remains inside the fort but the stunning vistas of the surrounding beaches is worth the drive

View atop Cabo de Rama Fort
View atop Cabo de Rama Fort

SLICE OF PORTUGUESE HISTORY- PANJIM and OLD GOA

Old buildings in Panjim
Old buildings in Panjim


Nestled between the Mandovi and Zuari river is the tiny lovable capital of Goa- Panaji or Panjim! The impressive river promenade is lined with elegantly restored Portuguese historical buildings on the left. The Mandovi river on right has a festive air- lined with casino cruise ships and river facing food pavilions. Step into the heart of Panjim- the Latin quarters or “Fontainhas” to find it lined with Portuguese mansions housing galleries and art spaces. My favourite part of Panjim was driving up to the posh Altinho quarters( the Chief Minister’s official residence and former Archbishops home are on this hill) to Sunaparanta( meaning “Golden Goa” in Konkani) Housed in a beautifully restored palacial Portuguese home,this place has become a center for promoting upcoming artists in Goa. I recommend visiting their café Bodega overlooking a pretty courtyard

Another example of Portuguese buildings
Another example of Portuguese  architecture as seen in public buildings in Panjim

A half an hour’s drive away from Panjim city will take you to the religious capital of Goa. It is said that there were more churches in Goa than in any other city in the world and hence was dubbed the ‘Vatican of the East’. There are churches dating as far back to the 16th and 17th centuries, the most notable being the churches of Saint Francis Assisi, Basilica of Bom Jesus and ruins of the monastery of Augustine(which evokes the lines of  Shelley’s famous poem  “Ozymandias of Egypt”)

Bom Jesus church
Bom Jesus church in Old Goa

STAY- Panjim Inn & Panjim Pousada are the best for soaking in the rich culture and heritage of this part of Goa. Panjim Inn retains the air of an Old Portuguese home and Panjim Pousada was formerly a Saraswat Brahmin home. Rooms are moderately priced, the owner Ajit Sukhija and his son Jack are passionate about sharing the history of Panjim and Goa with residents. They also operate the Gallery Gitanjali located just across the Inn.

SHOP- Velha Goa( beside Panjim Inn) is the place to visit for old “Azulejos” Goa tiles and traditional Portuguese ceramic pottery. The Gallery also has a small collection of Mario Miranda prints and wall hangings. Gallery Attic( Alfran Plaza, Panjim) has a good selection of restored antiques and furniture

The attractive entrance to Velha Goa in Fontainhas
The attractive entrance to Velha Goa in Fontainhas

EAT- one can never go hungry in Panjim! There are many restaurants serving up traditional Goan food( think: Vindaloo, Xacuti, Xec Xec, Balchao) Mum’s Kitchen is an award winning restaurant just next to Miramar beach serving up the best Goan food.
A relatively new restaurant creating ripples in Panjim’s food scene is- Black Sheep Bistro(BSB)( Swami Vivekanada Road, Panjim) a hip new place housed in an old building, BSB offers a modern twist to old Goan classics- I particularly liked the Goan sausage( chorizo) on pau with shavings of dark chocolate, young owner Prahlad Sukhtankar is passionate about wine, hence an interesting and affordable wine list!
Ritz Classic is an institution- frequented by locals, Ritz serves up the freshest of seafood drawing influence from the Konkan coast, their fish curry thali is very popular and be prepared to queue up  for a table at this popular eatery

Goan delights at Ritz Panjim
Seafood delights at Ritz Classic Panjim

VIBRANT NIGHTLIFE- CANDOLIM
As you head north of Panjim you reach the tourist hub of Candolim. Candolim was relatively sleepy up until early 2000 which saw an explosion in construction along the beach. Beach shacks, restaurants, guest houses, hostels and a few 4 star hotels jostle for space along the beach- Candolim has come a long way. The Beach isn’t much to write about and over the past few years, I find the presence of vendors and beach sports( jet skis & banana boats) rather annoying.  However, the endless restaurants and bars add to the vibrant and lively air and thus it is best for a night or two.

Candolim Bomras
Bomras in Candolim

Bomras ( Taj Fort Aguada Road) is the toast of the town. The garden setting offers a relaxed dining option with Burmese chef Bomra Jap rustling up modern twists to Burmese food. I particularly liked the Char grilled catch of the day, wash it down with the interesting Lemongrass & Ginger mojito.
Soumyens( Opposite the Candolim Jambaleshwar temple) you wouldn’t think much of the place when you enter the rather unimaginative outdoor seating area, but the food will blow you away- Chef Soumyen’s steaks are a must try as are his desserts- the Chocolate soufflé and Cointreau infused dark chocolate mousse are a must try! Bob’s Inn( beside Novotel Hotel Candolim) – is the place to visit for an affordable tipple, be sure to try the local Feni and be warned that it can mae you very tipsy!

YOGASHALAS AND WELLNESS HAVEN- ASSAGAO
20 minutes away from the bustling and noisy tourist traps of Baga and Calangute, takes you to the village of Assagao. Known for its wealthy residents living in beautifully restored Portuguese bungalows, Assagao is fast emerging as a wellness destination. The notable yoga schools such as Purple Valley and Swan Retreat offer 14 day teacher training programs drawing in people from all over the world. Sushumna Yoga Studio( one of the oldest studios in Goa) recently relocated here and  offers interesting classes in Vinyasa Flow. Assagao has slowly developed into a posh village with upscale galleries and restaurants.

The Villa Goa
The Villa Goa

EAT- Villa Blanche( Badem Church Road, Socolwaddo) run by Yogini is the toast of town, her Sunday brunch is a must. Set admist a shaded pretty garden, the buffet table is laid out in a homely style- on a dining table. There are many treats on offer- Quiches, Seafood Paella, Savoury Pumpkin mousse,  Sweet potato fritters with horse radish, cous cous, hummus, and German potato salad and the desserts are a must try!

Pretty outdoor seating area in Villa blanche
Pretty outdoor seating area in Villa blanche


Gunpowder( 6 Saunto Vaddo, next to People’s tree) is another must go to, serving up South Indian fare, this place has become a hit with tourists and locals alike. Its outdoor setting in atop a small hill gives it an outdoorsy feel
Ciao Bella( Assagao Badem Road) serves up Italian food, much has been said of their fresh pasta and ravioli and their picturesque restaurant is well visited

STAY- accommodation is mainly limited to  newly renovated/ restored Portuguese mansions with luxurious trappings. The Villa Goa is a great choice-note villas are booked on a weekly basis and suitable for a family of 4-6 persons. Another great choice is Villa Sunbeam– owned  by the flamboyant  Delhi socialite Jivi Sethi, the landscaping and pool gives a super plush feeling to this place

SHOP- Cheshire Cat Gallery- run by Karen Peace and Van Andlen, this jewellery store has a unique collection of jewellery set on sterling silver and 22k gold with semi precious stones. Drawing influences from India, England( Victorian era) & South East Asia, each piece is different and beautiful.  They also have a clothing section which stocks Aurobelle and other independent designers.
People Tree– this well known Delhi studio for cool clothing has set up shop in Assagao. Housed in an old bungalow, this is a must visit

THE VILLAGE LIFE- SIOLIM
Its difficult to miss the beautiful Siolim church as one drives in from Assagao. Siolim is recommended for people looking to experience the quiet village life. Not too far from Siolim is the Chapora River and Fort( around 4-5 kms) which makes for a delightful stop for sunset.

The beautifully restored Siolim House
The beautifully restored Siolim House

STAY- Nothing more majestic and historic than the Siolim House, started by Varun Sood and his French wife, this beautifully restored Portuguese mansion is for those looking into to soak a bit of history! A litte further into the lane is Neemrana’s Ishavilas, part of the Neemrana Noble homes- this whimsical and over the top villa is crammed with baroque Thai and Rajasthani pieces- you may love it or hate it.  One things for sure- the two Villa Caretakers from Himachal and manager Anthony are fantastic. On an advance notice of 4-5 hours a special Goan fast can be arranged for Rs 750/ person- their chef will rustle up a delicious home style Goan feast, finger licking good!!

The Neemrana's whimsical property- Ishavilas
The Neemrana’s whimsical property- Ishavilas

DRINK– Teso Waterfront is undoubtably the place to head to for a sundowner. This uber chic outdoor venue offers sweeping views of the Chapora River. Do be warned that food is average.  

The view from Teso Waterfront
Bistro with a view- Teso Waterfront

BEST BEACH NORTH GOA- ASHVEM/MANDREM
Undoubtedly my favourite beach! We only discovered this beach in January this year and came back in March. What great about Ashvem and Mandrem beaches are that they are relatively flat and therefore its relatively easy for long strolls, the grayish sands are dotted with rocks and the gentle waters are a delight to swim in, there are plenty of upscale restaurants and bars which make this beach delightful. Its not odd to spot small groups of people practicing yoga on the beach.

Ashvem beach
The Serene Ashvem Beach

STAY- Aquatica Goa offers relatively reasonable cottages in lush landscaped gardens, its located just across the road from La Plage restaurant, so the beach is no more than 5 minutes away.

Cottages overlooking the lotus pond- Aquatica Ashvem
Cottages overlooking the lotus pond- Aquatica Ashvem

La Cabana Resort is also another moderately priced situated on the beach- the accommodation is in comfortable wooden log cabins and their bar Palasha offers great views of the beach. Another interesting choice is Ashiyana Yoga Retreat and Spa is a great choice for people looking at getting a mix of yoga and the beach. The entire resort is designed in an eco friendly way embracing the elements of the earth,  their yogashala has a fantastic line up of respected visiting teachers from all across the globe

EAT/ DRINK- La Plage is undoubtedly the place to head to for food. Just off the beach, this upscale beach bistro is creating ripples in the Goa food scene. The Grilled sardines and Tuna tartar with wasabi are a must try. Service is notoriously laidback and sometimes downright rude- service staff couldn’t be bothered with you, but the food more than makes up for it, so sit tight! Bardo is the newest uber trendy beach venue to head to for sundowners- they have a good line up of international deejays, so put on those branded sunglasses and head their way to shake a leg.
If you can’t afford to stay at Sur La Mer– I recommend you head there for a romantic dinner. The beautiful hotel and restaurant is centered around the long swimming pool- their Blue Cheese stuffed naan and grilled catch of the day is a must!

Grilled Sardines at La Plage
Grilled Sardines at La Plage
Sundowners at Bardo
Sundowners at the hip Bardo

HOW TO GET HERE- Ashvem and Madrem beaches are around 2 hours drive away from Dabolim airport, the nearest village is Siolim which is around 15-20 minutes away

I’m leaving you with a few images of food and places to visit

Blue cheese naan at Sur La Mer
Blue cheese naan at Sur La Mer
Grilled catch of the day at Sur la Mer, Ashvem
Grilled catch of the day at Sur la Mer, Ashvem
Fresh catch at Fisherman's wharf near Mobor beach in South Goa
Fresh catch at Fisherman’s wharf near Mobor beach in South Goa
The famous restaurant where Charles Sobhraj was caught is also the inventer of the Cafreal- must visit O Coquiero in Porvorim
The famous restaurant where Charles Sobhraj was caught is also the inventer of the Cafreal- must visit O Coquiero  restaurant in Porvorim
Jade Jagger Shop in Ashvem
Jade Jagger Shop in Ashvem
Gallery Gitanjali in Panjim
Gallery Gitanjali in Panjim

Island of Serendipity: Sri Lanka

kalkudah beach-deserted and quiet
A deserted and pristine beach in the East coast-  Kalkudah beach

A thick blanket of clouds seemed to cover the island on our descent from the skies. The monsoons had just arrived over a week ago leading to turbulent weather, a shaky landing with little visibility made our touchdown to Colombo rather “memorable”- only in a not-so-nice-way! Thankfully all gloomy thoughts were dispelled on stepping out of the aircraft, replaced with an energy to explore each and every corner of this small nation that many call the Island of Serendipity

A male tusker in Minneriya National Park
A male tusker in Minneriya National Park

No stranger to us Indians, Sri Lanka has only recently emerged, in 2009, from an ugly war that lasted many decades (With the LTTE- Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam demanding a separate country/state for Tamils)Sri Lanka gained independence from the British empire in 1948. The late 1960’s & 1970’s saw a revival in the free market economy. Many artists, architects, philanthropists and writers from Europe flocked to this island nation only to flee the civil war in the 1980’s that divided the country for nearly 3 decades. It is estimated that over 100,000 Tamils & Sinhalese lost their lives in the war, including the assassination of the Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. The last phase of the war was particularly gruesome & many war crime atrocities being committed.  Fast forward to 2013, I am happy to report that all seems well ( at least on the surface) in this country that is gearing up to be the “next big thing” in Tourism in South Asia. Not surprising why- Stunning natural coastlines on the east & west coast; Ancient Buddhist relics and temples dating back to the 3rd century BC; Diverse wildlife and national parks committed to protecting them; Historical buildings & forts that are a testament to the colonial influence of the Portuguese, Dutch & British; friendly laid back largely Buddhist citizens and finally delicious food. Sri Lanka seems to have all the tick(ed) marks for a winning holiday destination

Frescoes dating back to the 3rd century BC in Lion rock Sigiriya
Frescoes dating back to the 3rd century BC in Lion rock Sigiriya

If you are planning to visit Sri Lanka, may I recommend that you spend at least 10 days, of which a good 3 days are lost to road travel. Roads although good (by this I mean free of potholes), getting around from the east to west coast is an arduous task, mainly because there exists very few highways.  The strict implementation of speed limits and two lane highways means that you will cover a distance of 50km in 1.5-2 hours. So a distance of 300 kms can take anywhere between 8-10 hours depending on traffic and cops! Do keep this is mind, when getting an itinerary together for your trip.

My recommendations on places to visit in Sri Lanka are based out of the fact that I visited when monsoons were in full swing in the east and south coast. If you have done your homework, you will clearly see that I missed the following: the Dutch fortress town of Galle, the beaches of Unawatuna & Mirissa, Yala National Park & Arugam bay. That’s what’s going to tempt me to come back for in my next holiday (which I foresee will happen in March 2014) Sri Lanka has dazzled me much in the same way as Bali, I’m yearning to go back and explore the east and south coast

BENTOTA & HIKKADUWA

Bentota beach in the afternoon
Bentota beach on a rainy afternoon
Sunset in Bentota beach
The clouds lift out to reveal a beautiful sunset in Bentota beach

My sister in law’s 50th birthday brought us to Sri Lanka in June, the main celebrations being centered in Bentota. We stayed at the charming Amal Villas-owned by a German and Sri Lankan couple. Having booked out all the villas we were happy to be chilling by the infinity swimming pool which made it feel like we are wading through paddy fields. Their restaurant is undoubtedly the best in Bentota and is just across the road.  To get to the beach you needed to cross a railway track, which was scary but fun! Bentota beach was lovely, however there was no question of swimming out due to strong currents, we were happy to spend our evenings watching the sun go down in a deserted beach (being the off peak season) A short stop at the Bentota Sea- Turtle Rehabilitation center ( 15 minutes away from Amal Villas) is a must especially for those with children- you can take a peek at the endangered olive ridley turtles amongst others such as the odd green turtle that lost its flap

The pool at Amal Villas Bentota
The pool at Amal Villas Bentota

STAY- Amal Villas (http://amal-villa.com/en/hotel-sri-lanka.html) Rooms start from Rs 6500 onwards. Its sister property Club Villas(http://club-villa.com/)  is a chic and upscale alternative, rooms start from Rs 9000+ taxes

The turtle rehabilitation center in Bentota is a must visit
The sea turtle rehabilitation center in Bentota is a must visit
The gentle waves in Hikkaduwa Beach
The gentle waves in Hikkaduwa Beach

A day trip to the lively Hikkaduwa beach is a must. Hikkaduwa was famous for its coral reef which was destroyed thanks to the 2004 tsunami. Its calm and turquoise waters make it an absolute delight to swim in. Hikkaduwa boasts of a lively nightlife with many beach shacks/ pubs playing live music and serving good seafood. STAY- Chhaya Tranz Hikkaduwa(http://www.chaayahotels.com/chaayatranz.htm) Rooms start from Rs 8000 onwards

The view from the sundeck in Chhaya Tranz Hikkaduwa
The view from the sundeck in Chhaya Tranz Hikkaduwa

NUWARAELIYA

Gentle green hills laden with tea bushes seem to stretch out as far as the eye can see. Old colonial buildings, the botanic gardens, streets with English names, large roundabouts & quaint cottages, have deservedly earned this town the rightful title of “New England”  Did you know that Sri Lanka is now the world’s third largest exporter of tea? This is all mainly accounted by tea produced in this region. One can’t help but fall in love with the “old world charm” of this town. We stayed a little further out at the Heritance Tea factory( which I recommend seeing putting aside the nightmare of check out with rude and arrogant managers)  the hotel in itself is an institution- a working tea factory surrounded by nothing but tea estates.

Tea gardens in full view at Nuwara Eliya
Tea gardens in full view at Nuwara Eliya

STAY- Grand hotel(http://www.grand-hotel-nuwara-eliya-sri-lanka.lakpura.com/)  in the heart of  Nuwara Eliya town retaining its stately British colonial ambience, rooms are simple and cosy. Rates start from Rs 8000 onwards. The Langdale by Amaya(http://langdalebyamaya.com/ )is also highly recommended . Room rates start from Rs 9000 onwards
NOTE- do carry along a light sweater as evenings can get cold. If you aren’t carrying anything, fear not, there are many shops near the main bus/train terminus that sell “export surplus” woolen clothes!

PASSIKUDDAH

A panoramic shot of Passikuddah Beach
A panoramic shot of Passikuddah Beach
The pool at Centara Passikuddah
The pool at Centara Passikuddah

A back breaking 300km or 10 hour journey bought us to a tiny village in the east coast of Sri Lanka. Up until 2009, Passikudah was in the hands of the Tamil Tiger rebels having been completely cut off from the rest of the world. Today Passikudah is tipped as being Sri Lanka’s answer to the upscale Nusa Dua with luxury  5 star properties already dotting the beach which many (including me) consider to be one of the best in Sri Lanka. Powdery white sands, gentle turquoise waters allowing you to swim up to a kilometer in & fantastic coral reef( destroyed closer to shore unfortunately) makes this a top draw. Visit now before it also gets commercially exploited. There is no nightlife to speak off so dinners are mainly restricted to the resorts

Snorkelling in Passikuddah
Snorkelling in Passikuddah

STAY- We stayed at the Centara Passikuddah, a Thai luxury chain and newest entrant to the 5 star hotel scene dominating the beach. Rooms are large & spacious with the usual impersonal 5 star décor you can get in any hotel across the globe. We got a sweet deal on a pre-opening rate which was Rs 6500/ night making it also the cheapest in Passikuddah!( http://www.centarahotelsresorts.com/cps/cps_default.asp) If you’re looking for a resort with individuality stay at Maalu Maalu offering luxury accommodation in stilts and thatched roofs(http://www.maalumaalu.com/) Room prices start from Rs 9000 onwards
The restaurant at Uga Bay Resort next to Maalu Maalu is a must eat- their grilled king prawns are to die for!

The inviting pool at Maalu Maalu Passikudah
The inviting pool at Maalu Maalu resort in Passikudah

HABARANA- MINNERIYA NATIONAL PARK & POLONNARUWA

Panoramic shot of a herd of elephants in Minneriya National Park
Panoramic shot of a herd of elephants in Minneriya National Park
An elephant swimming in the lake
An elephant swimming in the lake

This town formed our base to explore the elephant sanctuary in Minneriya National Park & the ancient city of Pollonaruwa. Minneriya National Park is known across the country as having the highest number of elephants in the wild, it is said that in the dry months of August and September, visitors have seen herds of over 200 elephants gather in the lake at dusk. I considered myself lucky to a) spot a male tusker, usually very shy and hardly seen b) to see an elephant descend into the lake and splash itself with water and c) See two herds of 20 something elephants. All this in a month which received very heavy rainfall is truly lucky. Elephants aside, the park has a diverse eco system- migratory cranes, wild bison, wild geese, peacocks, langurs all made our safari worthwhile. To soak in nature’s abundance is the best feeling ever. A safari with pick up from hotel in Habarana is Sri Lankan Rs 5000, park entry fees is INR Rs 500/ person.

   
   

  

Panorama of Cinnamon Lodge lake

An evening visit to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa is a must. This is Sri Lanka’s second oldest city( after Anuradhapura) created during the reign of King Parikrambahu in the 12th century. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site as it still contains near- intact ancient buildings set in a grid like layout of what was once a glorious city.

Ancient Ruins of Pollonaruwa
Ancient Ruins of Pollonaruwa

STAY- Cinnamon Lodge (http://www.cinnamonhotels.com/hotel.php?hotel=3253) all the way! From its stunning grounds comprising of a lake filled with migratory birds to the monkeys sitting on our verandah, the Cinnamon Lodge really gave us the feeling of being next to wildlife. The spacious and comfortable rooms & restaurant makes it my recommendation. Rooms start from Rs 8,000 onward

SIGIRIYA AND DAMBULLA

No visit to Sri Lanka is complete without a visit to the “Lion Rock” Sigiriya and Cave temple of Dambulla that form part of the cultural triangle. Indian nationals get a 50% discount on tickets (around Rs 500/person) It is advisable to wear comfortable walking shoes as the climb up ( especially Lion Rock) can be unforgiving. It is thus advisable to visit before 9am.

The “Lion Rock” in Sigiriya

Sigiriya was the glorious capital of King Cassapa, who meticulously planned his impregnable palace at the foot of a 370 metre granite rock. Visitors wanting to head up the final stairwell and palace are greeted by the daunting sight of a Lion’s paw carved onto the rock. It is said that with growing time and fear of invasion he moved his palace to the top of the rock. Sigirya was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site forming the best example of ancient urban planning. The frescoes in the caves of the rock date back to the 3rd century BC were said to have been inhabited and painted by monks.

The stunning view from the palace on top of the rock
The stunning view from the palace on top of the rock

Dambulla is famous for its cave temples carved beneath a massive hanging rock. The rock standing tall at 150m is said to be a place of worship dating back to 1st century BC( when the frescoes were painted) The shrines within the temple are a classic example of 18th century art from SriLanka, Kandy.

The Dambulla Cave Temple
The Dambulla Cave Temple

STAY- Amaya Lake on the banks of Lake Kandalama is 8km away from Dambulla. Room rates start from Rs 5000 and up

SRI LANKAN FOOD

A traditional Sri Lankan meal cooked in clayware
A traditional Sri Lankan meal cooked in clayware
Sri Lankan Lamprais an absolute delight
Sri Lankan Lamprais an absolute delight

Sri lankan buffet for breakfast
Sri lankan meal condiments- pickles
Sri lankan meal condiments- pickles

Sri Lankan Lagoon Crab Curry    Coconut water as served in all restaurants

HOW TO GET HERE

The best way to get into Sri Lanka is flying into Colombo International airport- which has several connections with Chennai( India), Kuala Lumpur( Malaysia),
Bangkok( Thailand) and Singapore. The airfare from Chennai airport cost us Rs 11,000 nett return( 1 hour 15 minutes flight time). So my advice is book at least 3 months ahead to avail of good deals. The great part about connections from South East Asia is that most budget airlines such as Tiger Airways & Air Asia offer good deals sometime as low as SGD 150 return( nett)

GETTING AROUND:

The most sensible thing to do if you’re looking to explore Sri Lanka in 10 days is hire a car( which comes with a driver) Almost everybody seems to be doing that. Fact is, it is very expensive hiring a car for point to point services( as they charge you for coming back) Car hire charges for a large van which can accommodate up to 6 people is $ 38( USD) a day or 100 km( whichever is higher) smaller cars will be between $25-30( USD) a day or 100 km( whichever is higher) We used an agency Sri Lanka Exclusive Tours( Email: sle.tours@live.com) Manager name Sampat ( Telephone no:+94 75 4773100) Their driver Buddika ( Phone: +94 772244684) was pleasant, un- intrusive, well informed & our informal tour guide for the 11 days. Most hotels have provision for providing accommodation & food for drivers but do budget around Sri Lankan Rs 200/ day for food in places where they don’t offer the same

THINGS TO KNOW:

1) HOTEL BOOKINGS: All hotel room prices quoted here are in INR(unless stated otherwise) most hotels have additional taxes varying from 15-25%, this needs to be added to the final room price. Booking.com and agoda.com constantly have deals but do keep in mind that their rates are excluding taxes, most hotels in Sri Lanka require a pre-payment so in all likelihood your credit card may be charged at the time of booking

2) CURRENCY: The Sri Lankan rupee is roughly half of the Indian rupee. Although accommodation is expensive( equivalent to India) eating and drinking out is relatively cheap with a fancy meal costing you anywhere between INR 800-1500/ person( inclusive of taxes+ bottle of wine) Otherwise budget around INR Rs 500-800/meal at a beach shack

3) SHOPPING:
Stones:  Sri Lanka is famous for its rubies and sapphires, its important that if you are keen to shop, ditch your driver! Most driver’s get a commission from taking their clients to these stores, the commission can vary from 20-30%, which will be accounted for in the prices they quote you. If you are really keen to purchase sapphire do note the price for a single carat can go upwards of USD $300, depending on the cut, colour and clarity. It is advisable to purchase the stone and do the setting in your own country. Stone quality used in silver settings are poor. Always ask for a certificate- most good jewellers will ensure they give you this. Finally don’t be ashamed to bargain, big jewelers are also willing to cut their prices by at least 30%!
Clothing: Sri Lanka is also famous for its cotton and export surplus for all the big brands such as FCUK, Zara & H&M etc Cotton Collection and Odel in Colombo are worth visiting.
Home accessories  If you are looking for home accessories, head to Paradise road in Colombo/Bentota which is an absolute delight!
Sri Lankan masks: are a must buy, each mask having a particular function/meaning, some are made to ward off evil spirits, others are for good health and prosperity

Masks for sale
Masks for sale
Mask maker busy at work
Mask maker busy at work

Noritake: In India, Noritake dinnerware is synonymous with luxury, it’s a sign that  you have finally arrived and I hadn’t quite figured out the Indian obsession with the Japanese dinnerware maker, till I visited their factory outlet in Colombo. The attention to detail and dinnerware is truly remarkable. What’s even more remarkable is their prices- at least 40-50% cheaper than the retail price.  Address of FACTORY OUTLET: Warakamura, Matale   94-66-224432 / 2244127 / 30 and FACTORY OUTLET 2: No: 280; High-level Road; Colombo 06.  94-11-2816363

Noritake Factory outlet outside Kandy in Matale
Noritake Factory outlet outside Kandy in Matale

Makan time:Street food Singapore

In a follow up to my recent blog about eating out in Singapore, I thought I would come up with an easy guide on what to eat in terms of street food.  Its ironic that my initial impression of Singapore turned out to be a lasting ( hopefully accurate) impression of the general South Asian attitude to food- “there must be food in every corner, plenty of food, for thou shall eat!”  It seems that anytime is a good time for Makan( when roughly translated from Malay, it means “eat”)
It’s hard not to escape sampling or nibbling an odd bite or two, especially when every office building, shopping mall & high street is crammed to full capacity with food courts catering to a gamut of cuisines, reflecting the cultural diversity of a city island nation that is made up of so many immigrants from all over Asia.

So I thought I’d come up with a guide of what to try when here..

GETTING STARTED WITH BREAKFAST
The best place to sample the local breakfast is in a Kopitiam in a food court. Other satisfying options are bigger chains such as Ya Kun Kaya Toast and the Toast box that offer a standardized selection of breakfast staples

Nothing better than a Kopi O and Kaya toast to get you started for the day
Nothing better than a Kopi O and Kaya toast to get you started for the day

Kopi O – I can never get over its caffeine kick! Kopi O is strong bitter black coffee said to be traditionally roasted with lard, thankfully that’s all in the past & I am to believe that the roasting process typically omits the lard

Kopi C- is nothing but Kopi O with the addition of sweetened condensed milk. It still gives you a good kick thanks to the high caffeine and sugar content

Teh Tarik- inspired by our Indian masala chai and filter coffee foam, Teh Tarik uses a strong brew tea with evaporated/condensed milk. It is then poured “pulled” back and forth two cups to give an attractive foam on the top

Kaya toast
– “Kaya” refers to a spread made with coconut cream, pandan, eggs & sugar. This delicious spread is applied on freshly toasted thick bread with generous helping of butter and makes for a delicious accompaniment to your Kopi

Rice Porridge-similar to a congee, here bits of meat or seafood are added to a porridge base of rice usually topped with spring onions, fried shallots & garlic bits and sometimes chilli padi. A very popular Asian breakfast choice for people who prefer savory to sweet

SINGAPOREAN CHINESE
This unique cuisine was born when the first wave of Chinese immigrations arrived from many different provinces. The provinces of Cantonese, Hainan, Hokkien & Sichuan have the most dominant influence on food.

Char Kway Teow- stir fried thick rice flour noodles in dark soya sauce ( sweet) with prawns, seafood, leafy Chinese spinach & bean sprouts. Traditionally it was considered a fatty dish for laborers as it incorporated using pork lard, thankfully that’s all in past as healthier cooking oils are used

Singapore's favorite Char Kway Teow
Singapore’s favorite Char Kway Teow

Carrot Cake- a rather misleading name in my opinion, as it contains nothing next to a carrot but is delicious nonetheless. Steamed rice flour and radish cakes are diced to be stir fried with garlic, egg, prawns and sometimes dark soya sauce( sweet) or regular light soya sauce.  Carrot cake is usually garnished with a generous dose of spring onions.

Hokkien ( Prawn) Mee- popularly known as “prawn mee” noodles is derived from stir frying egg noodles and rice vermicelli( bee hoon) in pork lard and adding eggs, prawns, seafood,  bean sprouts & soy sauce. It is almost always served with a Sambal sauce and lime.

Mee rebus– Boiled yellow noodles ( Hokkien) are put in a bowl with a thick curry like gravy. It is usually garnished with a boiled egg, limes, spring onions, green chillies, shallots, beansprouts & tofu

Mee Rebus
Mee Rebus

Bak kut Teh-a dark colored delicious pork rib soup rich in flavors due to the addition of star anise, fennel seeds, cloves and cinnamon in the broth

Heartwarming Bakutteh
Heartwarming Bakutteh


Chicken Rice-
derived from Hainan, this delicate dish is made by serving steamed chicken( usually cut into small pieces) over fragrant rice with a chilli paste. It is usually almost always accompanied with a light chicken soup, sliced cucumbers & Kailan( baby spinach)

The famous Hainanese Chicken rice
The famous Hainanese Chicken rice

Char Siew Rice- “Char Siew” refers to diced pieces of boneless barbequed Chinese pork ( Cantonese origins) It is commonly found in Chicken rice/ Roast duck stalls and served over steamed rice topped with dark “sweet” soy sauce & diced cucumbers

Yong Tau fu-
traditional preparation where tofu is stuffed with a prawn/ pork paste. Now it broadly encompasses a variety of vegetables stuffed with the prawn/pork paste such as eggplant, okra/ladies finger, bitter gourd & mushroom

Mapu Tofu– a traditional dish of the Sichuan province. Extremely spicy yet delicious, it is typically composed of tofu with ground pork, fermented black beans and Sichuan peppers.

The spicy Mapu Tofu
The spicy Mapu Tofu

Chilli Crab – You cannot come to Singapore & not try a Chilli or Black Pepper crab! The red tangy sauce is flavored with notes of garlic & vinegar. The sauce is then thickened by adding flour & egg. This is best enjoyed with a bun to soak up the delicious sauce. The Black Pepper crab is equally popular

Singapore's national dish the- Chilli Crab
Singapore’s national dish- the Chilli Crab

Bak Hwa- is the Cantonese version of Barbequed Pork with a unique sweet salty flavor profile. Bak Hwa is commonly added to most rice and noodle preparations

A busy Bakhwa store in Chinatown
A busy Bakhwa store in Chinatown

SINGAPOREAN-MALAYSIAN

Popiah- the Malay version of a fresh spring roll usually served on the side with a hoisin or peanut sauce. The base is typically a paper thin wheat pancake with bean sprouts, lettuce leaves,  grated carrots & turnips & finely chopped peanuts

Laksa- This classic Peranakan dish is said to have its roots in Penang, where the ethnic Chinese settled down to create a unique cuisine incorporating local ingredients. Laksa refers to a thick coconut based noodle soup to which assorted seafood is added with beansprouts, chilli padi & sambal sauce as a garnish

The Singapore Laksa
The Singapore Laksa

Fish Otak Otak- a classic Peranakan dish is prepared my mixing the fish with garlic, lemongrass, coconut milk & chilli padi paste. This mashed fish is then wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed before being placed on an open fire grill rendering a smoky taste to the final preparation

Nasi Lemak– Traditionally eaten by the Malays during breakfast, Nasi Lemak refers to a rice cooked in coconut milk. Pandan leaves are usually added to enhance the flavours.

Rojak- when literally translated means “Wild mix” in Malay. This refers to a preparation where bean sprouts, Chinese greens, cucumber, fried tofu & fried pineapple are tossed together with chopped peanuts and a spicy prawn paste

Satay- the quintessential Malay street food favorite remains as ever so popular here in Singapore. Served in bunches of 10 with a sweet peanut dipping sauce, Satay consists of pieces of meat placed on skewer sticks and grilled over an open flame with generous doses of oil and peanut sauce slathered to give it a lovely brown glaze.

A perfect accompaniment to your chilled tiger beer- Satay
A perfect accompaniment to your chilled tiger beer- Satay

SINGAPOREAN- INDIAN
A unique cuisine created by the first wave of Indian settlers in Malaysia, today Singaporean “Indian” food is extremely popular and can be best sampled in institutions such as- Samy’s Curry or Muthu’s Curry. I’m always amused by how Singaporeans excitedly exclaim “ I love Indian food especially your Roti Prata and Fish head curry!” to which I always say this is virtually unheard off in India! ( Except maybe in Bengal and Kerala!)

Fish Head curry-
A spicy and sour stew like dish comprising of the head of a Red snapper fish cooked in various Indian masalas with assorted vegetables and tamarind rendering the dish the loved ‘sour’ taste

Another Singapore favorite- Fish Head curry
Another Singapore favorite- Fish Head curry

Roti Parata( pronounced “Praaaataa”)- similar to our Indian paratha( or flat bread cooked in a pan) only slightly more softer and stringy. Its usually served with a flavorful curry but now we find interesting variations such as Ice cream, cheese and even durians!

Comfort food Roti Prata
Comfort food Roti Prata

SINGAPOREAN- INDONESIAN
Nasi Goreng- The Indonesian version of a fried rice. Steamed rice is tossed with greens, seafood/chicken, shallots, garlic and a generous dose of sweet soy sauce also called “Kecap Manis”. Usually served with fried egg as a garnish and satay too.

Nasi Goreng
Nasi Goreng- served with satays

Nasi Padang – originated from the Padang province in Indonesia. This refers to an Indonesian buffet which typically consists of steamed rice- yellow & white, served with many choices of meat and vegetarian preparations.

A typical Nasi Padang stall in a food court
A typical Nasi Padang stall in a food court

Rendang- diced pieces of beef are marinated with a spicy paste consisting of lemongrass, garlic, shallots, ginger, turmeric & galangal; it is then slowly cooked with coconut milk for at least 3-4 hours giving the meat a divinely rich taste!

Rendang curry

DESSERTS
I must admit I’m not a big fan of South East Asian desserts which usually incorporate red beans and fruits. Having said that this is my personal choice, so I would recommend that you be adventurous and try some of these interesting concoctions

Iced Kachang- grated ice is packed into ice balls and served with sweet red beans, jelly, corn & finally topped with assortment of colored and flavored sugar syrups

Cendol- said to have its roots in Penang, Malaysia, this iconic dessert has been modified to suit Singaporean tastes. Cendol consists of a coconut milk base to which thin green noodles, glutinous rice, red beans, jelly and ice shavings are added, the flavor is sweetened with the addition of palm sugar

Cendol
Cendol

King of all fruits, the smelly sweet Durian: visitors have been forewarned off the tales of the stinky smelly Durian. Singapore’s favorite fruit has been written about by food lovers across the globe, the fact that there are signs all over the MRT stations banning travelers from carrying durian on train, makes it all the more compelling to try! You could either love it or hate it. So my advice is  put aside the “toiletty, stale cheese” smell and be surprised by its delicious “custardy” texture and sweet taste

The iconic durian
The iconic durian


So to all my readers headed to Singapore for a short city break, I hope you find this blog informative. Remember, always make time to sample the diverse food and tickle your taste buds…if you discover something delicious along the way( excluding BUBBLE TEA) feel free to share the same with me 🙂

Note to readers: Some images in this post have been sourced from the internet,  special credit to Rasa Malaysia &  Seriouseats.com

Pondicherry: A little piece of France in Southern India

Sunlight streams through the tall majestic tree lined boulevards; I walk past ochre colored stately colonial mansions, glorious old churches and pretty cafés; it is only until I hear the familiar honk of a passing auto & feel the humidity( note-sweat)  that I’m reminded I am indeed in Pondicherry and not a French coastal village.  This quaint little town tucked away in the Southern part of Eastern India oozes French charm and a distinct joie de vivre reminding visitors that it is a former French settlement. Pondicherry, was decreed a Union territory of India in 1962, thankfully many decades later, I am pleased to note that the town still maintains its distinct French character- streets bear French names, heritage buildings have been lovingly restored to their former glory, tiny bakeries flourish reviving the French pastry making traditions & French still remains the second language to many of the locals living here. It’s easy to see why most Indian visitors will fall in love with this place instantly- giving us a chance to experience what the tourism officials proudly call the “French Riviera of India” without actually stepping out of India…

A restored colonial building
A restored colonial building

Those who expect the Pondicherry experience to mirror that of Goa will be left disappointed- there isn’t any of that to be found here. Noisy bars & nightclubs are conspicuous by their absence and tourism infrastructure in Pondicherry is relatively basic. Pondi appeals to those who have a lazy, laid back approach to their holidays.  Soaking up the history by walking through the White town( or French Quarters), meditating at the Auroville Ashram 15kms away, reading a book at a quiet café, taking an afternoon nap under a shaded tree in Auroville, shopping in interesting galleries and pottery studios & finally tucking into a delicious Creole meal for dinner at L’Orient by Neemrana          

Here are my top picks of what to do while you are here

1)     Visit and stay at the historical French quarters

The attractive entrance to a hotel in French quarters
The attractive entrance to a hotel in French quarters

2)     Spend the day in the Auroville commune

Freshly baked bread@ Auro bakery
Freshly baked bread@ Auro bakery

3)    Shop and visit the Tamil Quarters

Inside Maison Tamoule- a classic example of architecture in the Tamil quarters
Inside Maison Tamoule- a classic example of architecture in the Tamil quarters

4)    Sample traditional French pastries in Baker Street@ Rue Bussy or Auroville Bakery

Reviving the French pastry making traditions at Baker st
Reviving the French pastry making traditions at Baker st

FRENCH QUARTERS OR  “WHITE TOWN” 

Circe de Pondicherry
Circe de Pondicherry

Visitors are immediately transported back to a time where clocks ticked slowly and glorious colonial mansions existed. This small part of town retains a distinct European vibe, no surprises also that it receives the maximum number of tourists (which is actually nothing compared to the hordes of tourists that visit Goa).  The affluent locals with the help of tourism authorities and French historians have lovingly restored many of the historical building here. The roads retain the original French grid layout and their French names. A perfect way to start exploring the streets is by foot. You may begin your walk from Bharati Park on to Rue Mahe de Labourdonnais, turn left into Rue Romain Rolland and walk the entire length of the street, at the end make a left into the parallel street Rue Dumas & finally turning right into Goubert Avenue or the beach facing Promenade. There are many interesting buildings, galleries, shops & cafes to visit along these streets.

Palais de Mahe- Pondicherry's newest hotel
Palais de Mahe- Pondicherry’s newest hotel in the French quarters

The Promenade/ Beach Road/Goubert Avenue- this 1.5 km beachfront stretch running alongside the French quarters, is considered to be the pride of Pondicherry. Every evening after 5pm, the road is made closed to traffic and named a pedestrian only zone, making it a popular spot for evening walks amongst locals. The Promende hotel and Lighthouse makes for an interesting stop, the former being very popular for sundowners.

Passing renovated buildings in the French Quarters
Passing renovated buildings in the French Quarters

Bharati Park-a beautiful tree lined park in the heart of French town, offering visitors and locals a respite from the sweltering heat of summers. This park adds to the French character of the historical quarter

Aurobindo Ashram(Rue St Gilles/ Rue de la Marine)
– Founded by Shri Aurobindo in 1926 & developed over many years by the Mother ( Mira Alfassa), the Ashram is one of the top tourist draws in the French Quarters. Many come here seeking solace and respite from the stressful life in the city. The quiet and cool environs of the Ashram make it a perfect place to meditate or to practice yoga.

La Maison Rose( # 8 Romaine Rolland)- An interesting boutique housed in an attractive colonial mansion, features the works of several designers dealing in clothing, children’s wear, accessories as well as Indian fashion, home furnishing and antiques. Their al fresco café is a must visit when the sun goes down

The inviting courtyard at La Maison Rose
The inviting courtyard at La Maison Rose

Curio Centre( #40 Romaine Rolland)- an intriguing antique shop sells massive four poster beds, traditional wooden pillars, Yallas or wooden carvings, Tanjore paintings, Carved wooden doors and much more

Artifacts and stone carvings as seen at the entrance to Curio centre at Rue Romaine Rolland
Artifacts and stone carvings as seen at the entrance to Curio centre at Rue Romaine Rolland

Notre Dame Anges( # Rue Dumas)- a delicious pink and cream color draws you closer for a look. The church built in 1858 and is an architectural and visual treat

Notre Dam de Anges
Notre Dam des Anges

TAMIL QUARTERS OR “BLACK TOWN”
Running to the left of the main arterial shopping street, known as Mission St, are a parallel grid of roads that give us a glimpse of the old traditional houses belonging to the once- affluent Tamil merchants and Brahmins. Most of these building are giving away to gawdy Jewelers show rooms but thanks to the efforts of a few sensible locals, some effort is being made to preserve its heritage

Maison Tamoule( Vysial St/ Rue Calve Supraya Chettiyar)-A Neemrana property( hotel) situated in the heart of the Tamil Quarters, this unique Tamil house also has distinct French elements. Do visit even if you’re not about to stay, their friendly staff are only to happy to show you around

Inside Maison Tamoule- a classic example of architecture in the Tamil quarters
Inside Maison Tamoule- a classic example of architecture in the Tamil quarters

Aquarelles Gallery( Vysial St)- situated opposite Maison Tamoule, this art gallery stocks the works of 3 water colour artists, most notable of whom is Raj Kumar Stabathy(a genius in my opinion), his use of light and intricate detailing make him a master! The other two talented artists- Ejoumale and Abel also have noteworthy paintings

Artist Raj Kumar Stabathy's works on display@ Galerie Aquarelles
Artist Raj Kumar Stabathy’s works on display@ Galerie Aquarelles

Maison Perumal( Rue Perumal Koil)- a CGH property( hotel)- another classic example of Franco-Tamil design, this hotel also deserves a visit. Stained glass windows are paired with majestic wooden pillars creating a surprising synergy that is evident of the Franco –Tamil style

Maison Tamoule-Room
Maison Tamoule-Room

AUROVILLE
It’s impossible to come to Pondicherry and not visit Auroville. Known across India and the globe for producing high quality natural incense sticks, essential oils and exquisite handmade paper, the likes of which are retailed throughout India (and at the Auro & Kalki boutiques in town) The Auroville commune founded in 1968, is the brain child of the Mother (Mira Alfassa- of Egyptian-Turkish descent) who aimed to create a free thinking society/nation made up of people from different countries creating cultural harmony. Initially formed with around 60 people, its population has slowly crept up to over 2000 residents. It’s hard to tell when driving around, in what seemed like a forested area, that this was a barren wasteland allocated to the Aurovilians who carefully nurtured it to its current “green” state. Most residents that are part of the commune, have given up their life savings, to start afresh on a new slate- contributing to the development of the commune and nature. I have been told that citizenship is extremely selective. Consumption of alcohol and drug substances is highly discouraged. Meditation, deep thoughts & open communication are encouraged. Off course, like any other organization, Auroville is plagued with bureaucracy and internal scandals- thankfully none of this is apparent immediately to wide-eyed visitors!  Most of the futuristic designs of the principal buildings of the commune can be credited to Robert Anger.

Matri Mandir-
this futurist dome represents the Soul and Spirit of the Auroville community, in line with that visitors aren’t allowed to carry cell phones & cameras into the main shrine area. Children below 10 years of age aren’t allowed to visit too. There is a huge impressive amphitheatre made with red sandstone before the entrance. Inside the Inner chamber or dome, we find the world’s largest optically perfect glass globe. The entire architecture encourages you to sit down and meditate.

Matri mandir
Matri mandir


Auroville Visitors Centre-
is a collection of futuristic buildings that houses a restaurant, café, Boutique d’Auroville( great for their pottery, Library and bookshop and Gallery. I found their boutique a great place to stock up on massage oils, essential oils, pottery & incense sticks.

Mantra pottery ( Kottakarai, Auroville)- a charming pottery studio 5 minutes away from the Visitor’s Center. The brainchild of Aurovilian Angad Vohra, the unit started production in 1994 and has evolved over the years! All the pottery here is handmade and local villagers are employed and trained in this field

Mantra pottery studio
Mantra pottery studio

La Ferme Cheese- Started as a humble establishment in 1988 by a Dutchman Benny Ernst with the simple aim to provide cheese to residents of Auroville. Little did Benny know that this would spurn off such a huge demand across India that his cheese can be found in upscale restaurants and hotels! The milk used for producing the cheese is sourced from Auroville farms and local villages, pasteurized and finally vegetable enzymes( note no Rennet) are used to create a 100% vegetarian, artisanal cheese.  No preservatives or emulsifiers are used in the process. Their fresh cheese Mozzarella, Feta & Ricotta are worth sampling as are the seasoned cheese such as Lofabu, Jeera cheese, Gruyere and Auroblochon( a 6 month old piquant cheese)

Auroville bakery- spurned by the need to provide Europeans with their bread and pastry, the bakery started as a modest establishment and today remains so. But don’t let that put you off, step in and drool over their delicious quiches, pain au Chocolat and Chocolate moelleux. La Boulangerie, located just down to road also makes for an interesting stomach pleasing stop

Auro bakery   Freshly baked bread@ Auro bakery

SHOPPING:
Ok so I don’t usually propagate shopping as an essential part of your holiday itinerary, but it’s hard to resist when you’re in Pondicherry and (a bargain hunter). Most shops are along the stretch of Mission Street &  within a couple of 100 yards of each other.

Kalki ( # 134 Mission Street)- showcases all products from Maroma-an Auroville venture specializing in incense sticks, essential oils, massage & aroma therapy oils, natural soaps & bath works, pottery, hand painted home accessories &  paper lamps

Titanic( # 33 Rue Ambalatadayar Madam)- Looking for a Massimo Dutti linen shirt for under Rs 1,000( $20)? this is the place to head to. Known for stocking export surpluses or rejects from leading Fashion houses, this is the place to head to if you’re looking a bargain- do note that being an export reject their could be faults with the stitching or labels but you’ll eventually end up finding something!

Hidesign Factory outlet( # 69 Jawaharlal Nehru Street)-
synonymous in India for bespoke leather handbags and accessories, Hidesign is an iconic Indian brand that now manufactures for the house of LV. There are deep discounts at factory outlet (at least 25-40%) on previous season’s designs

Casablanca( # 165 Mission Street) -Pondicherry’s first department store, Their home section of the 3rd floor is worth visiting- you may get a deal or two with clearances sales

EATING
Over to matters of the stomach, here’s my picks on places to eat and drink
Le Club ( # 38 Rue Dumas)- possibly the only place t remind you of a beach side shack, easy laid back vibes and comfy al fresco section makes this a perfect place to head to for drinks. Do order a calamari fritto to go with your chilled drink

The laid back beachshack feel at Le Club
The laid back beachshack feel at Le Club

La Maison Rose (# 8 Rue Romaine Rolland) – cosy courtyard setting with oodles of charm. The European fare here is a must try.  Please avoid the thai tofu curry (tad bit too sour) Lunch reminded us of sitting in a packed café in Provence with the unmistakable French accents

Delicious Juicy burger @La Maison Rose
Delicious Juicy burger @La Maison Rose

Le O’rient by Neemrana(#17 Rue Romain Rolland)- this courtyard restaurant is the only restaurant I can think of in India to serve up Creole cuisine- French food heavily influenced by the Indian culture. Don’t give their Creole food a miss

The inviting courtyard@ Neemrana
The inviting courtyard@ Neemrana

Villa Shanti( # 14 Rue Suffren)– I’ve been told this is THE place to head to for cocktails. Too bad we missed giving it a try!

The attractive entrance to Villa shanti
The attractive entrance to Villa shanti

Le Dupleix (# 5 Rue de la Caserne) – heartwarming European fare in an uber cool airconditioned setting- a relief for the sultry evenings. There is a courtyard too, for those who love the outdoors

Grilled poulet( chicken) at Le Dupleix
Grilled poulet( chicken) at Le Dupleix
Thosai Suzette at Le Dupleix
Thosai Suzette at Le Dupleix

Baker street (Rue de Bussy-Lal Bahadur Sashtri St) don’t let  the rather  standard & non descript façade put you off, for once you step in you are transported to a Parisian patisserie. Focusing only on French pastry- their chocolate éclairs and Chocolate mouilleaux( cake) are sinful!

French pastries on display@ Baker Street
French pastries on display@ Baker Street

Tantos( Auroville road)- I’ve you’re craving Italian this is the place to head too which packs up for both lunch and dinner. Another inexpensive grab and go option is Café Ecstasy on Mission Street( no really a place to charm you over but the pizzas are good hands down!

STAYING

Hotel Du Parc( #5 Jawarharlal Nehru Street)- our favourite budget place! For under INR 3,500you get spacious clean rooms with a touch of history;  its proximity to the Aurobindo Ashram and Mission Street are a definite plus. Manager Ravi and staff are ever attentive to guests needs

Le Dupleix( # 5 Rue de la Caserne)-a Hidesign venture  managed by the Sarovar group of hotels, we were bowled over by the hospitality of the staff and chic rooms- effortlessly blending the old with the new. Their breakfast is delicious and café food heartwarming. I highly recommend staying here. Room prices start from INR 4,000

And effortless blend of contemporary and old at Le Dupleix
And effortless blend of contemporary and old at Le Dupleix
Le Dupleix Deluxe Room
Le Dupleix Deluxe Room

L’Orient by Neemrana Hotels( # 17 Rue Romain Rolland)- a big disappointment from our check-in to the lackadaisical attitude of staff. What put us off even more were their musty rooms that smelt of old sheets & damp walls. It was only at our adamant insistence that they offered to change our rooms. If you’re able to put that aside, there’s plenty of history inside the hotel and rooms each of which have been named after a colony. Suites are priced at INR 6,500 and room start from INR 3,000 upwards. Stay at Karaikal suite which boast of a massive 4 poster bed and private terrace overlooking their pretty courtyard below

A standard room at L'Orient by Neemrana
A standard room oozing with history at L’Orient by Neemrana
Antique furniture@ L'Orient by Neemrana
Antique furniture@ L’Orient by Neemrana

Palais de Mahe-a CGH property( # 4 Rue de Bussy)– we stepped into this property and were blown away by the design. Room prices are slightly on the high side and start from INR 8,000 upwards

Mango Hill( Old Auroville road)– the only hotel which boasts of a pool situated just outside the Auroville commune. Rooms are spacious, simple and comfortable. Makes a good choice if you are looking to stay near Auroville. Room prices start from INR 4,500

Mango Hill outside Auroville
Mango Hill outside Auroville

INTERESTING ARTICLES AND LINKS TO  PONDICHERRY
http://travel.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?264545

http://www.auroville.org/health/food/laferme.htm

http://www.cntraveller.in/content/puducherry

http://www.cntraveller.com/recommended/cities/24-hours-in-pondicherry/what-to-see-in-pondicherry

http://www.intachpondicherry.org/English/home.aspx

BEACH DIARIES: Far from the madding crowd in North Kerala

For those of you who are acquainted with India’s top tourist destinations,  the names that will instantly pop into your head are: Rajasthan( magnificent desert fortresses and colorful people), Agra (iconic 7th Wonder of the world- Taj Mahal), Goa (beaches and laid back Portuguese vibes) and last but not the least- Kerala( advertised as ‘God’ own country)

Ever since we moved back to India in 2010, we made it a point to visit Kerala at least once every year and I have been lucky to explore pretty much most of what I’d like to call affectionately- Coconut Country! From the spice trading Dutch styled town of Kochi to the tea laden hills of Munnar, from the backwaters in Ashtamudi to the half moon shaped beach of Varkala, from the  super crowded beaches of Kovalam to the wildlife sanctuary in Thekkady. In all of our visits we encountered hoards of tourists both from India & different corners of the globe to experience what our tourism board call’s – God’ own country. Most left happy but many like me couldn’t help feel that everything had an “overly” touristy feel- from the endless blocks of hotels & restaurants, shopkeepers selling their wares on the beaches, touts offering a relaxing massage( wink wink!), taxi drivers charging exorbitant rates for sightseeing!

The tiny fishing village and unspoilt beach nestled beneath Bekal fort, North Kerala
The tiny fishing village and unspoilt beach nestled beneath Bekal fort, North Kerala

A surprise win at a Silent Auction charity dinner in November saw us win a 2 night stay at Vivanta by Taj in Bekal, North Kerala. The first thing that popped to our mind was- where is Bekal and how do we get there? A quick search on the internet gave us somewhat of a clear idea on what to expect and quite honestly we weren’t expecting much. How glad I was to discover that we were totally wrong.  We flew into Mangalore ( the nearest airport to Bekal) mid morning and a 1.5hr hair raising, back bone breaking car journey (80 kms) passing through picturesque sleepy towns and villages & many burqa clad women and children. The North of Kerala is dominated by a substantial Muslim population but let that not put you off- the people are warm, friendly and blissfully unaware of how beautifully unspoiled their coastline is. The first thing that struck us along our drive was the absence of tourism boards and advertisement display boards one usually finds along the main highway. In fact, there was hardly any indication for a good 60 kms that we were heading to Bekal. Discreet signs by the Taj guided our taxi driver finally to the gates of paradise (Vivanta by Taj- our hotel and home for 3 days)

Designed by renowned Australian architect- Nick Juniper, this sprawling 26 acre property draws inspiration from the Kettuvallam house boats of Kerala. A closer look would reveal that they have clearly drawn inspiration from Bali. Nonetheless, the result is visually attractive. Each spacious room, retains a sense of privacy with a private courtyard replete with Spanish styled tiled deck chairs & Balinese swing  looking out to the calm lagoon & for the lucky few staying in the villas- a  private swimming pool.

Snapshots of the Vivanta by Taj
The stunning water landscaping renders a Baliesque feel to the entire property

    

Vivanta-Entrance to private villa   

  

Inside the expansive Jiva Grande Spa
Inside the expansive Jiva Grande Spa

   

       A short 5 minute walk through serene landscaping took us to the deserted Kappil beach, where we were delighted to enjoy the sunset all by ourselves.

 

 In pursuit of pleasure, we found ourselves relaxing by the pool or kayaking in the calm waters of the lagoon. The resort has many bicycles available on hire( free of charge for hotel guests), so we found ourselves riding out of the hotel premises to explore the quiet surroundings. We passed  many a traditional house and soaked in the rustic rural setting. Locals going about their daily chores, seemed oblivious to the coastal beauty that surrounded them. Kappil beach is truly unspoiled in the sense that there were hardly any visitors at any point of time of the day ( Note: due to the uneven sea floor it is not advised to swim on the beach, it however makes for a great setting for sunrise/sunset where you can soak up unending views of the Arabian Sea) This also meant that the beach was clean and free of any touts or annoying people niggling you to buy their wares or services…

Bekal fort as seen from the beach below

A fun 20 minute auto ride takes you to the Bekal fort ( where scenes from the iconic Bollywood movie ‘Bombay’ were shot) Bekal fort is considered to be one of the largest forts in Kerala. The fort by itself has been robbed of all its treasures but offers panoramic views of the coastline below.

The view atop Bekal fort
Seagulls take flight in the deserted Bekal fort beach
Seagulls take flight in the deserted Bekal fort beach

Here are 3 reasons why you should head to Bekal before its too late:

1) To get a feel of the ‘real’ Kerala minus all the tourist trapping

2) Great beaches which you can enjoy all to yourself

3) Warm and friendly locals who are only too happy to help you discover their local treasures

WHERE TO STAY

The Vivanta by Taj, Bekal is your best choice for place of stay in Bekal. Another alternative is the Lalit, Bekal. Room rates start from INR 8,000 onwards for a double.
Food at both resorts are alright- not great ( many items weren’t available on the menu) but they cook up delicious local Keralan food- be sure to try the Syrian Roast Chicken or Appams with Chicken stew

HOW TO GET HERE

By flight- Mangalore airport which is 80 kms or 1.5 hours away by drive( expect a bumpy stomach churning ride!)
By train- Kasaragod station which is connected to the Konkan railways

I’ll leave you with a picture taken from the lagoon at sunset

lagoon stretching out to the sea-Bekal
Lagoon stretching out to the sea-Bekal

Echoes of a Moorish past: GRANADA

I have been nursing a Spanish hangover for the past 2 months, I’ve been day dreaming, taking far too many siestas during the week, eating at a sloth’s pace & drinking far too much wine. It’s hard to believe that around 3 months ago, I was exploring sunny little towns in Andalusia, blissfully unaware of time: Andalusia is exactly what guide books tell you about, only you need to keep pinching yourself to remind yourself that you’re not dreaming!

Spain had a far reaching impact on us than we initially expected. A week into our arrival back to India we couldn’t stop peppering our speech with tiny bits of Spanish, with the enthusiasm of school children “Hola! Senor/ Senora!”  Our attempt at scouring the liquor stores ( on our first weekend back in India) in search of Sherry was futile- there wasn’t any to be found, a rude reminder that in a country so accustomed to (read: hard) spirits, there is very little room for wine let alone sherry!

Visualize the following: Majestic snow capped (Sierra Nevada) mountains, the irresistible scent of jasmine drooping over the boundary walls of homes, trees bursting with blood red pomegranates, the distant sounds of a gypsy entertainer strumming his guitar, steeply curved  streets lined with whitewashed homes- rendering you breathless at every corner, cats sunning themselves on terraces, a spectacular Moorish castle towering over the town- this is Granada.

Granada is the fabled town nestled on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where memories of the great Moorish civilization and gypsies (now long gone) haunt the streets. Easily explorable by foot, Granada is unfortunately often overshadowed by Seville. I’d like to share with you some of Granada’s top 5 attractions. We based ourselves at the modest Hotel Navas on the Calle Navas street ( famous  for the lively Tapas bars lining the streets, giving you the chance to try a zillion Andalusian or Alpujarran delicacies) Our convenient location meant that we were a mere 5 minute walk away from the town center- Plaza Nuevo & the Cathedral

The Al Hambra lit up in the evening

Above: the Magical Al Hambra leaves us spellbound in sunset. Picture taken from Mirador de San Nicolas

1) AL HAMBRA: a masterpiece that is a true testament to the greatness of the Moorish civilization  Built in the 8th century by the rulers of the Nasrid Dynasty, they created a magnificent castle  with modest materials and maximized its greatness through use of  water, light, space & greenery. Given the sheer size of the castle and its exquisite gardens, I would recommend spending a whole day soaking in all the artistry and history at a leisurely pace.( Note: please buy tickets well in advance at the Al Hambra webpage, so you don’t get disappointed. There is a quota system restricting the number of visitors into the main fort at any given time)

Inside the Al Hambra

Patio de los Leones- the famous lion fountain Inside the Al Hambra

 Exquisite gardens  Al Hambra at day

2) ALBAICIN has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and its easy to see why. The labyrinth of  streets, offer an insight into the unique Andalusian homes called Carmens- opening up to a square of exquisite garden bursting with scented jasmine creepers, pomegranates & oranges. The houses have a very Moorish touch ( given the fact that this town was the seat of the Nasrid empire)

A typical entrance to a Andalusian home called "Carmen"

One of the many streets of  One of the many narrow streets in the Albaicin   Sunny terraces and streets

3) CARRERA DEL DARRO: This is a picturesque road or ancient street running along the Darro river leading past crumbling bridges and ancient buildings at the foot of the Al Hambra fort hill. Most of the buildings have thankfully been restored or in the process of restoration. At the start of this street, do stop to admire the stately Renaissance facade of the Real Chancelleria and the Church of Santa Ana built in the 16th century

One of the many restored building in Carrera del Darro

4) SACRAMONTE: the old gypsy quarters lined with steep streets, pathways and viewpoints. Many many decades ago, travellers would come here to witness the Flamenco performances by gypsies. The gypsies are now mostly gone but there are still some authentic bars that give you the true Flamenco feel

Whitewashed houses in Gypsy quarters- Sacramonte

5) MIRADOR SAN NICOLAS: the unrelenting walk uphill to Mirador San Nicolas will not leave you disappointed,for it is from here that you can get a panoramic view of the Al Hambra, the Sierra Nevada Mountains and town( one of the best viewing points) I would recommend going there closer to sunset, simply because it is less hot & the views will leave you spellbound for years to come. The walk by itself takes you past the Albaicin and Sacramonte quarters and you can take many “fueling” stops on the way at bars serving a glass of cold sherry!

Cats sunning themselves on a terrace in Mirador San Nicolas  A street gypsy performer

Paris uncovered on foot

Paris is one of the few cities in the world, which can capture history, culture, art, food, fashion and modernism effortlessly with a style and flair that will leave you yearning for more

On my memorable first visit to this dynamic city last month, I was faced with the near impossible task of digesting all of the above in an unbelievable 3 nights( bearing in mind that we arrived from India in the afternoon on what was classified as Day 1!) It seemed rather unjust to devote such little time to one of the world’s greatest cities, but given that we had precisely 24 days to divide between two great countries France and Spain- our nights were precisely allotted in such a way that we got to explore towns and cities without feeling too rushed. That having being said- we need a holiday to get over this holiday!

A word of advice to those looking to do the same when flying in from India- get plenty of sleep/rest in your flight, you will need all the energy in exploring and absorbing the sights and sounds of Paris!

I am a firm believer of the fact that the best way to explore a city is through foot, giving you enough time to pace yourself and take in the little nuances of a new place.  Somehow the idea of getting on to a Hop On/Hop off bus seemed to put me off as I hate the idea of being looked at by locals as- “Here goes the tourists in their flashy red buses, tour guides and digital cameras!” I was soon to discover, however, that due to my limited French conversational skills and obviously large digital SLR, I would be labeled a tourist anyway- so much for trying to mingle with the locals!
Having said that I feel better knowing that I explored the city in my own time & way ( which may have possibly been harder) and in the process exploring cafes and patisseries’ frequented by locals( there’s nothing better than steering away from the tourist traps highly recommended by tour guides!) I would like to point out that when I say that we explored the city on foot- we did so the smart way, by taking a metro or bus to the nearest landmark and picking our way from there…. Central Paris is pretty easy to explore and most of the attractions centered along either side of the Seine- the Right bank & Left bank.

DAY 1:
We arrived a little over noon at Charles de Gaulle, we lost a good one hour with immigration and baggage retrieval and by the time we reached our hotel in Place D’Italie it was early evening( 4pm!) It didn’t help that the weather wasn’t any good-a typical Parisian afternoon in September- cloudy and drizzly! But wanting to make the most of our limited time, we freshened up and head out to explore our first sight- the legendary museum of Louvre, containing some of the most important art collections in the world. It makes for an excellent choice on a rainy day as you can spend countless hours marveling at the endless art and sculptures dating back several centuries.
Our hotel room was the size of a matchbox (typical of a hotel in central Paris) however for 70 Euros a night we couldn’t have asked for a better location- a short bus ride lasting up to 10 minutes, passing through up market neighborhoods  on the Left bank of the Seine-Pantheon, Luxemburg gardens and St Michelle(filled lively cafes and shops) The bus makes its final stop on the Pont or bridge where the majestic glass pyramid of the Louvre commands you to enter. People spend days and weeks together at a stretch exploring the massive labyrinth that is Louvre and still not have enough. Unfortunately we did not have the luxury of time and resorted to looking at some of the main attractions in the museum: Venus De Milo, The Seated Scribe(dating back to 2350 BC Egypt),Nike of Samothrace(200BC) Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, Medieval Moats (original base of the Louvre which was a built as a fortress in 1190to protect Paris from the Vikings) Do be sure to collect a map at the entrance as you could get lost easily, moreover the map lists all the main attractions in each wing. A good 3 hours whizzed by and before we knew it was time for dinner.

        

             

Walking over to the St Michelle neighborhood across the Seine, passing well dressed couples canoodling along the bridge, the lit up Louvre & historical buildings flanking both sides of the Seine, gave the city an unmistakable romantic touch; From across the bridge the Eiffel Tower twinkled- it finally sunk in that we were in Paris!  At a local café we tucked into our first meal of L’escargot (Snails with butter and bread) and a hearty French onion soup, this is best accompanied with carafe of Cote de Bruilly Beaujolais . We called it an early night- the jet lag finally got to us and we made our way back to the hotel knowing that we had to have an early start with many more sights to see…..

DAY 2:

The delicious smell of freshly baked pastries and coffee wafted upwards to our room from the tiny Pâtisserie   beneath our hotel. Feeling completely rested after an eight hours of sound sleep we tucked into a  Pain au chocolat (Chocolate croissant) and espresso we made our way to the metro station to Eiffel Tower( Metro stop: Bir Hakeim) On alighting at Bir Hakkeim, a 10 minute stroll leads you  through a row of tall trees and before you know it- one of Paris’ greatest monuments tower over you. At a height of 324m, the gigantic size and structure of the Eiffel truly takes your breath away!

Built in 1889 by Gustave Eiffel for the famous Paris Exhibition, this was meant to be a temporary addition to the skyline of Paris. As a departure from traditional architectural norms, it was highly criticized by 19th century aesthetes. Today it is an internationally loved monument and symbol of France.  Put off by the long lines of tourists waiting to take the elevators to the third level( for those of you willing to wait for around 2 hours in a Que you will be rewarded with stunning views of Paris, on a clear day it is said that you can see upto 72 kms!), we decided to walk on and settle for another view(better in our opinion from Pont Alexander) Crossing over Pont d’Ilena we made our way to Place du Varsovie, at the center of which are the grand Trocadero Fountains flanked by Jardins du Trocadero(25 acres of beautifully landscaped gardens with a large rectangular ornamental pool) We continued along the right bank towards Pont de Alexander III( Paris’s prettiest bridge offering fabulous views of the Seine and Eiffel tower, see picture below)

Taking a left at Pont Alexander (Avenue Winston Churchill) and going past the Grand Palais( Built in 1897,this elaborate exhibition hall with a glass dome is used for major commercial exhibitions) & Petit Palais( art collections pertaining to Paris are housed here) we finally reached the iconic Avenue Des Champs Elysées lined with legendary design houses, upscale boutiques, trendy brasseries and high street clothing stores. This exciting build up led to the world’s most recognizable arch- the Arc De Triomphe. Built for Napoléon after his victory at Battle of Austerlitz, Napoléon promised his men that they would go home beneath triumphal arches. The Arch is encrusted with reliefs & shields.  I was truly amazed at the orderly flow of traffic around Arc de Triomphe, which kind of becomes the central roundabout where 12 avenues converge (impossibly implemented by the vision of Baron Haussmann, who was responsible for the modernization of Paris)

      

We made our way back through Avenue Champs Elysées and towards Place De La Concorde, one of Europe’s most historical squares. This square became the centre of the bloody French revolution; it was here in Place de la Concorde that Louis VI, Marie Antoinette were beheaded, the guillotine nicknamed the Black Widow.  A few decades after the Revolution ended, a 3200 year old obelisk from Luxor was presented to King Louis-Phillipe by the Viceroy of Egypt. Across the Place de la Concorde at Pont De la Concorde you can see the stately national parliamentary buildings of Assemble Nationale( left bank of Seine) Place de La Concorde is at the end( or starting point, depending on how you look at it) of  the magnificent Jardins Tuileries. We decided to take a lunch break and headed for posh Rue de Rivoli street which runs along the Jardin Tuileries, our hidden find was the tiny quaint café Ruby, tucked away in a quiet street off Rivoli, it was here that we found boisterous locals playing the accordion and drinking wine! Our satisfying and budget pleasing meal comprised of Andouilette sausages with lentils and pomme puree( mashed potatoes)  It was the sort of café  where after a couple of glasses of wine, fellow diners become mates and even share their precious wine ( yes this happened to us, our 70 something diner left us with half a bottle of spicy Cotes du Provence wine)

    

Giddy with excitement and wine, we made our way into the beautiful neo classical designed gardens of Tuileries and onto Musée de L’Orangerie which houses Claude Monet’s stunning panoramic water lilies.But hold on there’s more in the lower level: an impressive selection of works that form part of notable 21st century art collector Paul Guillaume’s collection. This selection includes works by Renoir, Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Manet and Rousseau.Having our art fill for the day spent the rest of the afternoon admiring the perfectly manicured gardens of Jardin Touileries. Refreshed and recharged we proceeded to walk beneath Arc de Triumphe du Carousel( once again created to celebrate Napoleon’s victory) and glass pyramid of Louvre, another 15 minutes at a leisurely pace took us towards Les Halles where another iconic Parisian instituition Centre Pompidou is located.  The massive building looks like its inside out, with aircon/heating shafts and water ducts all outside! Built in 1977 this building was crucial towards the culmination of the modernization of Paris. Inside the museum is an impressive collection of works from different artistic eras- from Cubism, Fauvism, Surrealism. There are notable works by Matisse, Picasso, Miro & Pollock amongst others. We were happy to admire the building from the outside as we were done with absorbing all the art from Louvre and Orangerie( seriously, you need to take it slow so you can take in beauty of the masterpieces, too much and you can get a headache) 10 minutes away from Pompidou is another Parisian landmark- the Notre Dame Cathedral, a symbol and testament to the history of Paris. Commissioned in 1160 by Bishop of Sully, the cathedral took nearly two hundred years to build. It has witnessed great events in French history such as the coronation of Henry VI and Napoleon Bonaparte.  The cathedral’s menacing gargoyles stare down at you from the outer ledge, rendering a very medieval sinister look to the surrounding area! It was 7pm and we were ready to hop on board one of the many famous Seine river cruises ( a 10 minute walk away from the Cathedral at Pont De Neuf) This seemed like a perfect way to end an exhausting day on foot. Our 1 hour cruise took us through most of the attractions we saw in the course of the day, but it gave us a fresh perspective and time to relax

      

Day 3:

On the morning of our last day, we set about having our usual morning fix- an enormous pain au chocolate with two double espressos. A short metro ride took us to Place D’Opera( Metro: Opera or Galeries Lafayette) at the steps of yet another landmark of Paris-Opera National de Paris Garnier, a grand opera house built in 1875, step inside and be overawed by the grand staircase made of white carrera marble and massive chandelier. The elaborate ceiling  is painted by renowned artist Chagall. A few minutes walking distance away is La Madeleine– a church created in the 1800’s to replicate a greek temple with large Corinthian columns( La Madeleine is visible from Place de la Concorde)

No visit to Paris is complete without visiting the famed shopping institutions, so tracing our steps back to the Opera, we made our way to the Galeries Lafayette, located just behind the Opera. It is Paris’s upscale answer to Harrods (as if Harrods wasn’t for the rich!) Located in Baron Haussman avenue and sprawled in over 5 buildings each catering to the latest designer collections, jewelry, accessories, cosmetics, home decor,  food, high street fashion and much more. Other Parisian institutes on the same street are Le Printemps (featuring the latest trends to hit the runway)and Le Bon Marche, a department store like the former two BUT uniquely distinguished for its epic  food section- Le grand Epicerie de Paris, having over a 1000 handcrafted food items from across the world. We disappointingly discovered (yet again)that all of Europe stays closed on a Sunday and there was no exception to this rule with the likes of Galeries Lafayette/ Le Printemps/ Le Bon Marche, so we had to settle with window shopping, much to my husband’s delight( see image below)

Walking slightly north of Baron Haussman avenue, passing Gare St Lazare we reach the famed artistic districtMonmarte( a 25 minute brisk uphill walk) The steep hill of Monmarte has been associated with artists for many centuries, today however street artists flourish thanks to the tourists and Monmarte has become a thriving neighborhood with quaint little cafes and bars and upscale residential houses( similar to Notting Hill, London) We began our tour from Blvd de Clichy, with the famous Moulin Rouge– a dance hall in the 1900’s considered to be the home of the can-can dance immortalized in artist Henry Toulouse Lautrec’s colorful paintings. Walking further uphill takes you past the Cimetierie Monmarte, the historical cemetery containing graves of many luminaries of the creative and artistic world. We slowly made our way to the Sacre Coeur, passing quaint cobble stoned squares with cafés and street artists rendering a villagey feel to the neighborhood. The Sacre Coeur is a neo-Romanesque church completed in 1914 and contains many treasures of religious significance. We were interested in seeing the much talked about panoramic view of Paris’s skyline just outside the stately church. The sounds of the church bells ringing and crowds gathering inside the church reminded us that it was a late Sunday morning- time for mass!

  

  

After a light lunch of Quiche Lorraine, accompanied with a glass of rose, we made our way down the pretty hill with its historical houses and quiet parks, passing couples whispering sweet nothings. With wobbly knees( it was a steep walk down) we made our way to the metro( Blanche) to reach another of Paris’s famous museums-Musée d’orsay ( Metro: Solferino) The museum was actually a Railway Station called Orléans  this was pointed out to us during our Seine river cruise) The iconic turn of the century building had been designed in a grand majestic style and we were happy to note that, on becoming a museum much of the old character of the building has been retained. Today it presents an inexhaustible collection of visual arts, sculptures, objects d’art from 1848 to 1914.  The star collections are on the top floors of the building detailing the most comprehensive account of works from the Impressionist  & Post Impressionist period- Monet, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Cezzane, Manet , Seurat, Matisse and so many more. The central aisle of the building is filled with sculptures from the likes of Rodin and Daumier amongst others. The lower/ entry level of the buildings have works dating back before 1870.

It took us a good 3 hours to go through the collection and by the time we exited it was time for beer, what better a place than the trendy( and expensive) St-Germain district ( behind Musée d’orsay) This famous street lined with upscale brasseries frequented by politicians, intellectuals, actors, musicians and writers. It also a place where people gather to enjoy a favorite Parisian pastime- people watching! This,we noted can last for anything up to a couple of hours, many a time with just a single glass of wine or beer!  It was nearly time for sunset and we made our way to the iconic river Seine, walking along the historical embankments, enjoying the cool slightly chilly autumn breeze. A couple of our Parisian friends suggested we catch up got drinks at a hidden place frequented by the locals- Place des Vosges( next to Place de Bastille) This historical square is centered around a pretty park surrounded on all 4 sides with old residential buildings and grand arcades. It was said that Dominic Strauss Kahn( The shamed IMF chief) had an apartment here. After a round of drinks at the popular Café Hugo, we moved on to another charming square not too far- Place St Katherine, also filled with lively bars and brasseries. A memorable dinner with friends was the perfect end to our short stay in Paris.  We made the most of our time here and enjoyed exploring the sights by foot. At times it did seem to be exhausting but fret not! Just take a break at one of the numerous cafes and bars that will leave you recharged and ready to head to your next sight. It was pouring by the time we finished dinner, almost as if the city was begging us not to leave. I do have a feeling that I will be back here sooner than later ( Paris tops the list as my favorite European city, sorry London!)

I’m going to leave you with a memorable picture taken of a macaroon tart- reminding us of that Paris is a city of where everything is presented with a touch of elegance and refinement and that the French love the good things in life

Photojournal: Provence


The 2000 year old remains of Roman aqueduct-Pont Du Gard,the greatest testimony to the Roman empire. The aqueduct was said to carry water from the springs of Uzes to Nimes( a distance of around 50km) It is believed that the aqueduct was in use for over 400 years

Gordes: this pretty town perched atop the hills, undoubtedly wins the award for the most picturesque Provencal town! Stonewalled medieval streets offer attractive views of the countryside below

   

Above Right: The town of Rousillon, aptly named for the ochre colour it derives from the surrounding hills(unfortunately we reached on a very rainy afternoon and this picture doesn’t do much to highlight the beauty of this famed town!)

    

Above Left: Triumphal Arc in Orange  built in 20AD, elaborately decorated with battle scenes and roman inscription
Above Right: Built in the reign of Emperor Augustus of the Roman era, this amphitheater is still in use today!

Above: The view of the Roman amphitheater in Arles

The famed town of Arles on the banks of the Rhone river is filled with charming finds dating back to Roman empire and medieval times: the Roman amphitheater, Roman baths, ruins of the Roman Theater, Notre Dame Cathedral and Espace Van Gogh(hospital where Van Gogh was treated in ) are a must see

Below: The riverfront, Arles

Above: Pont St Benezet leading to the Palais du Papes in Avignon
Avignon, is the medieval town locked by massive stone walls. The 12th century Pont St Benezet which was partially destroyed by floods in the 1600’s
The highly foritified, Palace of Popes was built in the reign of Pope Clementine V when he moved the papal court to Avignon in 1308. The palace, alas, is bereft of all its furnishings as it was ransacked over the course of the many following centuries.

    
   

BELOW: Wine tasting @ Skalli, a  Southern France wine making family that produces excellent wines of a GSM blend- Grenache, Shiraz & Mourverde

                                                   

   

Above Left and Right: The wines of Provence- a light and refreshing Rose and the famed red wines of Chateauneuf du Pape

Below: the scenic wine growing villages beneath the Chateauneuf du Pape

    

ABOVE LEFT: Pastis and Rose- summertime’s thirst quenchers
ABOVE RIGHT:  Quiche and Provencial Puff pastry- perfect for a light lunch

HOW TO GET HERE:
It would be best to make Avignon your base for at least 3 nights/4 days. From here you can take day trips to the towns of . We signed up with Provence Reservation(http://www.provencereservation.com/) for two tours of 4-5 hours duration each the first of which took us to Orange and Chateauneuf du Pape( followed with an informative wine tasting session) and the second which took us to the mountain villages of Gordes, Rousillon, Les Beaux de Provence & Pont du Gard

Arles is a 10 minute train ride from Provence and the small town is can be easily explored in around 4-5 hours