Sunday, July 3, 2016

Into the Woods - Wild Woods Spa & Resort

It’s now the hot summer months when all you feel like doing is getting away. Truth be told, Goa offers exemplary hospitality, but all of it comes at a higher price when compared to other parts of the country. It’s the pinch that comes with being a top tourist destination. So how about going a bit further and discovering a real hideaway? Wild Woods Spa and Resort in Karnataka is the perfect spot.
This is what a nature resort truly looks like – none of your small herb gardens and tiny tree clusters scattered on parched lawns. Wild Woods Spa and Resort is almost a jungle hideaway. Guests are so tied in with nature that it feels almost like it’s just you and the Earth, yet with most luxuries thrown in – down to your private plunge pool.
There is something very down-to-earth and passionate about K P Shetty, the owner of Wild Woods Spa and Resort. Closely involved with everything that happens on site, he makes the 500km drive from where he lives in Bangalore to the hotel as nonchalantly as we would from Panaji to Margao. It is his immense love for nature – both flora and fauna – that is apparent throughout.
The villa

A narrow, tree-covered road awaits you as you leave the dust of Baindur town on the highway and head towards Toodalli village. The foliage is thick and almost impenetrable. It’s an excellent preview of the Wild Woods Spa and Resort.
The resort itself is hidden by a wooded blanket of dozens of varieties of trees, shrubs and plants that are home to an astounding variety of insects, birds and animals. The 20-odd acre property spills across the tiny village road, one side constructed earlier than the other. A recent flood did considerable damage to the older property, but Shetty has resurrected it to excellent condition with no tell-tale signs of damage whatsoever.

The Accommodation
In the old property, eight Bamboo and Stone Cottages are the two categories available for guests. From the outside, both are very reminiscent of Balinese architecture, built of mud, stone and local bamboo.
The former incorporate bamboo rafters, mud plaster and matted cane ceilings with adjoining flower gardens and individual riverside decks. The Stone Cottages too face the river and offer majestic views of the green village fields nearby and the hills in the distance.
The new property is more regal, featuring 15 luxury villas, including one sprawling four-bedroom residence. All are connected to a common walkway shaded from the weather by a carpet of Mysore trumpet vines, a dazzling red and yellow creeper flower that exudes sweet nectar each morning. Each features a backyard with a sturdy jhola overlooking a private plunge pool along with flowering plants and trees to create a luxurious home during the span of your stay.
To ensure you don’t leave behind the luxury of the city, there is hot and cold water, rain showers, LCD television with satellite network and four-poster beds that are almost impossible to get out of.

As nature resorts go, Wild Woods Spa and Resort takes its role of providing natural, wholesome meals quite seriously. With the price of food incorporated into the room rate, it’s a real steal. Baindur will offer the town’s specialties and spin-off versions of Continental food might be a rare find in the town, but living at Wild Woods will ensure you step no further than its Aroma Restaurant for all things delectable.
It specialises in the local and that’s the best way to enjoy your stay. The chefs are well-connected with the roots of local tradition, and harvest the best on offer from the village nearby and indeed, from the farm itself.
The variety of food is both tantalising and eye-opening to those unfamiliar with it. There’s everything from the usual chicken ghee roast, Mangalore fish curry and neer dosa, to jackfruit idli and dosa, wild mushroom curry, bamboo shoot curry and more. Meals include breakfast, lunch and dinner with tea and snacks in the evening. There’s not much more you can ask for.

Even though it seems hidden away from civilisation, there’s so much to do at Wild Woods Spa and Resort. For those not inclined to much physical activity, the resort arranges short trips to nearby beaches, each one with a more spectacular view than the one before.
There’s Malpe near Udupi, Someshwara, Maravanthe, Apsarakonda and the more popular Gokarna beach not too far off. A short distance away is also Murudeshwar beach with its giant statue of a meditative Shiva seated at the edge of the sea.
Bicycles are available for short runs through the serene villages nearby. The staff is also happy to provide you with fishing poles, should you wish to spend some time on the banks of the Kosalli river that encircles the resort. However, fishing is only permitted in certain zones to maintain the river’s ecological balance.
Soon after the monsoons, the river is an excellent place to hone your kayaking skills while enjoying the freshness of the air. A common pool gives you the option of wallowing in man-made luxury should you prefer that over the chill of the fresh river water. And the ever-willing staff will never tire of finding it in them to take you on nature walks or treks to the nearby waterfall.
Tranquility at a nearby beach

Spa & Sports
Wild Woods Spa & Resort is made for everyone who enjoys a connect with health and nature. It currently houses a cosy spa offering a variety of therapies, but is also working on a sprawling wellness centre that will help propel the property into a health resort as well.
Well-trained masseurs offer ancient ayurvedic treatment therapies that work wonders on the body and mind, enhanced by the tranquillity of the resort. Other than the abhyangam and shirodhara therapies, there are a host of other ayurvedic offerings. There’s the option of trying out the Thai treatments such as shiatsu and the Thai foot massage.
The day spa also offers Balinese body massages, aroma therapy, head massages, mud baths, hot stone therapies and a variety of salon treatments including manicures, pedicures and facials.
For those who’d like an invigorating start to their day, the club house – located on the floor above the reception – has a host of board and indoor games including darts, carom and chess, and even indoor archery.
Owner Shetty has extensive plans of adding a well-stocked library, audio-visual room for movies, gym and sauna to the works. The new spa centre is his latest focus, from hand-picking antique doors, columns and furniture to ensuring everything is as a guest would want it to be.
Natural fish spa!

The Experience
It started from the outset – the hospitality and warmth was brimming over. Owner K P Shetty was on hand throughout to offer an interesting story, point out a striking plant or bird and offer a bit of trivia. In fact, he is part of the experience of staying at Wild Woods Spa and Resort.
We arrived in the heat of the afternoon, to be welcomed by two revitalising glasses of delicious cucumber juice and sesame seed juice. Off-beat though they may seem, they set the tone for everything to follow at the resort – different but refreshingly enjoyable.
We were ushered to Villa 6, an expansive one-bedroom accommodation with separate living and dining area. A large four poster bed was filled with a very enticing mattress and pillows. The front and back porches and bedroom veranda offered cosy nooks from where to enjoy a book or simply soak in the sounds of nature.
Throughout the stay, food was unending and sumptuous. The preparations were local and completely devoid of city slick. Organic meat and veggies from the nearby village, herbs and fruit from the garden formed the dishes we ate every day. Shetty was on hand at every meal, explaining the ingredients and the stories behind the traditions. There was multi-vitamin chutney and green idlis steamed in rare hibiscus leaves grown on the property, juices from local plants and fruit, and a mind-boggling variety of goodness on every plate.
There were walks through the sprawling property, seeking out the hundreds of varieties of plants and trees he has brought in from around the world. An old yoga centre, lying covered in the tendrils of Mysore trumpet vines, seemed right out of a movie and the variety in the orchid and cactus gardens was a sight to behold.
To work off the delicious food, we went kayaking down the river and played a few games of badminton on the shady outdoor court. Day trips took us to see the beautiful beaches in the vicinity and marvel at the confluence of the Arabian Sea and Netravati river at Someshwara.

As the sun set, our feet took pleasure in the delightful nibbles of riverine fauna with the free-for-all fish pedicure, made picture perfect with a park bench in the clear shallow water as the forest accosted the river bank on the other side. And as if by magic, a pair of Malabar giant squirrels scampered noisily across the tree tops as if to entice us back once more. 

First published in VIVA GOA magazine in April 2016

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Up the creek with a paddle: Kayaking in Goa

It was 7am and the clear sky only bore the wisps of a few clouds. The sea was a rippling sheet of turbid saltiness, eight kayaks waiting on the shore to cleave through. 

We set off from Bambolim beach, not without a fairly wet start. A little rocking sends the kayak toppling over and it’s a fair feat for an eight-year-old to jump back in when his feet can’t touch the ocean floor.

Kayaking on flat(ish) water is easy enough when you get the strokes right and set yourself into a rhythm. The shore slowly begins receding and not long after comes the exciting but terrifying reality that the seabed is far below you and any number of marine creatures swim in between.

We headed inland, up the yawning mouth of the Zuari river. Ashwin Tombat, of Adventure Breaks, paddled alongside like it was a walk in the park, alternately whizzing up ahead to spot rocks and dropping behind to chat up the ones with kids in tow. Here and there, a dozen fishermen sat quietly in single manned canoes, dropping lines beneath the murky surface. There would be fresh fish for lunch in Bambolim village.

At what we imagined was a decent pace, we approached Siridao beach. The rocky outcrop with a dome-shaped chapel jutted into the river like a thorn in its side, the odd man-made plastering of the laterite hill-face a sore reminder of how far we have gone to deface Goa’s beauty.

A lone coconut tree stood sentinel at the edge of the outcrop. We sneaked past some rather dangerous-looking rocks with a few small eddys to emerge onto calmer water on the other side. Slowly, crevices formed by falling boulders made themselves visible along the shoreline. It was early and not a human was in sight – other than us of course.

The water appeared calm on the surface, but surely enough the tide was pulling us along. Trees and shrubs of all sorts hugged the rocky banks. All too often, tiny fish fled the looming shadows of our kayaks, skipping as high up above the water as they could to stay ‘out of sight’ of what they probably assumed was a very large fish.

Soon, we came upon the laterite ruins of some centuries-old pier. Was it possible that we were upon the site of the prosperous ancient Kadamba port of Govapuri? Suddenly, the scene changes. A bustling port emerges, with large wooden ships alongside, fishermen and soldiers knocking elbows in haste, children screaming as the chase each other barefoot.

The scene changes once more. Thunderous clouds gather in the sky. There is a clash of swords and shouts of commands as the Adilshahs of Bijapur take over the port now under the control of the Vijayanagara empire. The pier buckles and sinks to the sea floor, taking with it my day dream.

We are now five kilometres away from where we started, and beach our kayaks on a sandy stretch only accessible by water. It’s a short walk to the bend, around which lies the river heading up further inland towards civilisation. There is talk about rampant construction, birds, and fresh water crocodiles.

It’s time to turn back. It is harder to paddle now, against the tide, arms and shoulders straining against the river. As we turn around the bend at Siridao, I nearly fall off my kayak in excitement. There’s a puffing sound and the wash of disturbed water, the distinct signs of marine mammals nearby. A pod of dolphins is barely metres away! We sit in silence, pointing vigorously each time one of us spots them break the surface as they feed.

As the dolphins move on, so do we. Eight kayaks with eight hungry people head back to shore for a delicious brunch of omelettes and chouriço.

First published in The Navhind Times on February 06:

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The South Indian Adventures of Sweet Brown

We had no plan, just a goal to reach Kodaikanal and spend a few days there. Early one Monday morning, a black VW Polo with two and a boot full of randomness set a south-bound course. Destination 1 – Manipal.
The seven-hour drive was hot, flat and as it turned out fairly boring compared to what was to come. Over the next two days, the service apartment witnessed grilled cheese sandwiches, Pictionary and Taboo battles and a decent bit of lazing around. It was humid around Manipal Lake but quiet and relaxing. The Museum of Anatomy and Physiology (MAP) was quite the eye opener with its embalmed human body, baby Cyclops and strange but true disfigurations.
Over the next eight days, we picked our way across a small section of south India to places we never imagined we’d go. Each time we planted ourselves somewhere, we’d find a host of things to do that we mostly never ended up doing, but had fun anyway. The drive, however, was fantastic! 
Manipal to Kudremukh kicked off routes through forested area and miles upon miles of breath-taking views. We passed through Kudremukh National Park which is home to a number of species of wild animals, a horse-shaped mountain which gives the place its name, trekking routes and waterfalls.
Delicious pork and a campfire marked the night at Silent Valley Resort, and a trek uphill the following morning. We then drove just over a couple of hours to Chikmagalur. This time, the car wound its way through the Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary, part of Project Tiger, and the site of the sacred Baba Budan Giri Hill. There was no one else at Winter Green Resorts, so we got the pick of cabins at a discount and the largest bonfire we could manage.
The next morning, the Polo decided it was suffering from PMS – lights began blinking on the dashboard, and the music system involuntarily sent the volume rocketing to maximum. A trip to the town’s chaotic garage ended in a decision to switch the route from Coorg to Mysore, where there was a Volkswagen service centre.
It was a week before the famous Mysore Dussehra, which pulls in enormous crowds for the parade. The Royal Orchid was renovating its rooms and bumped us up from a standard to a deluxe, complete with bathtub, minibar and snacks. While Sweet Brown was getting her insides checked, we stole a trip to the Mysore Zoo, which houses a wonderful array of animals, birds, and reptiles over 157 acres.
Since the technicians said there was nothing they could do with Sweet Brown just then, we made our way through the Bandipur and Mudumalai National Parks to Kotagiri, driving along the Nilgiri Ghat Roads with 36 hairpin bends with a whole lot of ‘oohs’ at the view. It was meant to be a single night’s stay, but with a room looking across tea plantations, it was impossible not to change our minds. So stay on we did, taking morning walks through waist-high bushes of fragrant tea and breathing in lungfulls of fresh mountain air.
Then, a week after we’d left home, we hit the road to Kodaikanal. We stayed outside the commercially over run town in Vattakanal. Our cottage was a hike up muddy pathways on a steep hill with the most magnificent view we’d seen so far. Bisons often graze in the darkness, adding an element of thrill, the danger only slightly muted by the presence of the guest house’s friendly dogs.
We made a night visit to City View to see the twinkling lights of Kodaikanal, paused at the deplorably touristic Coakers’ Walk and stood on the edge of the cliff at Echo Point. There were beef momos, carrot cake, pear jam and muffins in town; sweet corn on the cob, Maggi noodles, baby carrots and boiled eggs in our cottage on the hill. The views made the trip more than worth it.

On the way home, we stopped in Bangalore for a few days, and took a short trip to the hill station of Yelagiri. Sweet Brown made it back home after two weeks on the trot with two happy faces and a boot still full of randomness. 

First published in The Navhind Times on November 21, 2015 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Italian Trail

I jolted awake. The train had stopped and it was dark outside. The Swiss Alps loomed around like the build up to a movie suspense scene. With my passport in the hands of a conductor somewhere (hopefully!) on the train, I tossed nervously in my bunk as we waited to chug into Italy.
The next few days opened my eyes to a peculiar similarity between Italy and India. Not everything went like clock-work, people were a bit loud and strangely familiar, and things weren’t really meant for dummies like in many popular European tourist-oriented places.
The destination was Pisa, but the train delay in Milan meant hopping onto a double-change route and an unfortunately invalid ticket that incurred a fine. I wasn’t off to a very good start here, and one generally hopes any vacation ends in a reverberating climax. But who knew the events to come?

Leaning Towers & Walking Bridges
Piazza dei Miracoli, Pisa
With my schedule thrown off by train delays, I had half a day to explore Pisa. Taking it easy, I walked across to a nearby café for a shot of espresso and a snack. It isn’t my cup of tea, this Italian espresso. Warm, swirling dark liquid in a cup the size of a play set, it came across as more of a shocking eye-opener than a beverage to be savoured.
The place was filled with the chatter of locals, and my rudimentary sign language was getting better by the minute. A small tuck later, I headed off to the Piazza del Duomo nearby. Also called the Piazza dei Miracoli, or Miracle Square, the cathedral, baptistry and tower that take centre stage here shine brilliantly in the sun.
The cathedral itself appeared more majestic than its renowned counterpart, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Again, the square felt like India – the mill of tourists around an ancient structure, the threat of pickpockets, hawkers selling everything from postcards to selfie sticks.
Built over a span of 200 years starting in the 12th century, the monument was constructed as a free-standing bell tower for the adjacent Pisa Cathedral. It is the most famous site in the city, nearly four metres off centre at the summit, with around 300 uneven steps to the top. Visitors line up for hours to climb to the balcony for a view of the square.
The cathedral is imposing, as is the round baptistery nearby, with beautiful frescoes, sculptures and carved bronze doors. Beyond the ancient walls of the square lies a daily market that is both vibrant and chaotic, filled with vendors from around the world selling cheap remakes and souvenirs. It is evident that a large number of Indian tourists pass through, as you will find one shopkeeper or other intermittently shouting ‘namaste’.
Cafés and restaurants nearby sell the ubiquitous pizza and doner kebabs, a Turkish sandwich filled with meat and pickles reminiscent of shawarma. The city - which has many universities and therefore by default dozens of pubs - is also famous for its very crunchy biscuits called biscotti.
The following day, I took the train to Florence an hour and a half away. It was cold and rainy, and the trip unplanned. After wasting money on a Hop On Hop Off bus ticket, I ended up walking around the city, discovering medieval architecture, contemporary fashion and delicious treats.
Exiting the station, I found myself looking upon the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella of the 13th century, filled with Gothic and Renaissance frescoes. As I traipsed aimlessly around the city’s cobbled streets, I passed dozens of tempting gelato stores. With less fat than regular ice cream, and a mind-boggling array of flavours, a double dollop of bacio – chocolate hazelnut –was definitely the new travel companion.
Ponte Vecchio, Florence
Even though nearby Milan is highly rated as a fashion capital, Florentines are not far behind in street fashion. The city presents tourists with a great blend of architecture and retail therapy. Luxury goods – bags, gloves, shoes, clothes, accessories – line shop shelves of renowned brands around the Ponte Vecchio, an arched stone bridge over the River Arno.  
Since its construction in Medieval times, the bridge has always been a bustling passageway of shops, initially a stinking mélange of butchers, fishmongers and tanners to the fancy displays of goldsmiths and jewellers in the late 1500s who continue to dominate the trade today.
After a spot of window shopping, I went by Giotto’s Bell Tower in the Piazza del Duomo on my way back. The free-standing tower is another elegant example of Gothic architecture, featuring hexagonal panels tracing the history of mankind beginning with the Bible’s Creation and on to various industries.
A short walk later, out of a cluster of buildings, rose a colourful monument at odds with its surroundings. The Russian Orthodox Church with its green onion-shaped domes provides a rock solid legacy left behind by Eastern influence. Florence has played host to a great many Russians, including author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, composer Peter Tchaikovsky, and film director Andrei Tarkovsky.

Pizza & The Pope
Too soon, I was on a train to Rome, fined once more by the same conductor over not having validated the ticket before getting onto the train. My inattentiveness was starting to cost me.
I was staying on Via Cavour in the heart of the city, offering opportunity to put Rome’s fame as a ‘Walking City’ into practice. In the country’s capital, the full scale of Italy’s resemblance with India emerged – persistent hawking, hard bargaining and unsettling passes by men of certain cultural origin.
Eating arancino in Trastevere, Rome
Checking in with New Rome Free Tours, our sizeable group was offered wonderful insights into ancient Rome as Max peeled away the layers of the city, exposing everything from its ancient communal toilets and propensity to throw garbage into the streets, to the fight for power between two of its architects Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini.
Starting from the Spanish Steps, we braved sporadic rain and shine to hear a Roman’s story about his city as he led us to not-so-famous buildings such as the Church of St Ignatius of Loyola with its trompe l’oeil ‘dome’ and the Basilica of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte housing Bernini’s Angels sculptures, as well as world renowned landmarks like the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain.
The Coliseum, Rome
In the night, lighting effects bring a new dimension to the ancient structures. There’s a hue of secrecy as you imagine the political shenanigans cooked up in the Forum, a touch of danger as the Coliseum rears up before you, a sense of awe as the National Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II throws perspective askew.
There are things to ponder as you enjoy a family’s delicious recipe of spinach-filled cannelloni and lasagne, alongside a glass of white wine. In the fun-filled, young district of Trastevere, pubs and cafés play music and offer happy hours, less-persuasive vendors sell boho items in a street market display, and the atmosphere is festive and bright. I picked a local store filled with navy men for my Roman pizza experience, enjoying the first but absolutely horrified by the saltiness of the anchovies in the second. To wash it down, I bought a ricotta cheese and chocolate chip slice, and a slab of homemade Parmesan to carry back with me.
Pope Francis I enters the Basilica of St Peter, Rome
Early on Sunday morning, pass in hand, I ran five kilometres to catch my place in an already snaking queue to enter the Basilica of St Peter for mass with Pope Francis. Inside, the basilica is awe-striking, rising high into an eternity painted prominently on its arched ceiling. Right on time, the head of the Catholic Church strode in, as sprightly as a rabbit, leading the thousands in the congregation into service.

The experience was singular, and even though I couldn’t understand a word he said – the sermon was in Italian – it left me feeling blessed in a way. Blessed particularly with the good fortune of being able to travel.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

France: Going solo in lovers' country

It is hard to escape the romantic charm of France, but being alone does not mean you’re missing out

I sit on the rough edge of the farm looking out onto acres upon acres of young vines reaching for sunlight. They are only just sprouting fruit and the harvest is months away. But I could sit here for eternity, a dusty addition to a postcard picture.
France is where the romantics go, holding hands as they walk down broad leafy pavements, kissing under the shadow of a church archway or sharing pastries in a café. What was I doing then, ambling along alone with my day pack for company?
There were just six days to sample a whole country that has been on my mind for years. It was impossible, but I simply had to try.

Back in time in the 21st century
The River Seine
Footing it around Paris is the cheapest, easiest way to get around. So I got off the metro at Châtelet and wandered off into three days of non-stop discovery.
The city was named by a Celtic tribe in the third century called the Parisii, but features exquisite architecture mostly from centuries much later. Amid the notorious French upper crust attitude, perennial stream of tourists and pavements splattered with dog poo, you find that beautiful juxtaposition of history and modernity that marks every ‘old city’ in the world.
The main sites are clustered along the River Seine making it easy for tourists to get from one place to the next. The Tour St Jacques stands inconspicuously, solitary remains of what was probably a majestic 16th century Gothic church destroyed during the French Revolution.
Fete du pain
Nearby is the Hôtel de Ville, which has been the City Hall since 1357. It survived a fire that ravaged the area 200 years ago and features hundreds of sculptures, and beautiful old lamps among the thousands that gave Paris its nomenclature ‘City of Lights’. As I moved on across the river, I became one of the last to see the colourful ‘love locks’ on the Pont des Arts. In June this year, the government removed the thousands of inscribed padlocks left clinging to the heritage bridge by couples as a sign of their love.
The smell of freshly baked bread hung low below the tall intimidating spire of the Cathèdrale Notre Dame de Paris on the tiny Île de la Cité in the centre of the Seine. Spread under a huge white tent in the shadow of France’s most famous church, local bakers showed off exquisite pastry and bread-making skills as hungry tourists devoured excellent samples of French pâtisserie at La Fête du Pain, or the Festival of Bread.
A medieval stairway leads to the Notre Dame tower that explodes into a panoramic view of Paris, the city’s changing scapes watched over by hideous-looking gargoyles and chimera. The gargoyles functioned as run-offs for water, while the chimera are thought to have served as guardians scaring off evil spirits. Inside, the cathedral is filled with awe-inspiring stained glass, carvings, statues and towering organs, the chief one having 7,374 pipes. Built over two centuries, it was the one of the first buildings in the world to use flying buttresses, and continues to remain one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture.
From the cathedral, a walk down the Seine brought me to the Louvre, a day tour in itself, with nearly 35,000 exhibits from around the world including paintings, sculptures, scripts, artefacts, jewellery, tapestries and more. Tourists and locals fill the expansive Jardin des Tuileries in the museum grounds, watched over by sculptures that lead you on towards the Champs Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe.
Model replica of the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris
A myriad other museums along the way bring you up to the Eiffel Tower which lives up to its fame, but only at night when the lights shine brightly and musicians create beautiful melodies beneath its halo. In the north of Paris, the century-old Moulin Rouge nightclub stands rather stifled among the buildings, its famous red windmill and décor possibly the only remnants of its seductive past. The roads nearby are filled with shops, selling everything from items of wild debauchery to chocolates and curios.
And up the steps of Montmartre, one arrives at the stately Basilica of Sacré-Cœur or Sacred Heart. Although a later construction – built in the late 1800s-early 1900s – the basilica stands tall on the highest point of the city, offering a commanding view of Paris. Faithful come in from around the world to participate in perpetual adoration of the consecrated host which has never stopped since 1885.

Vineyards & Villages
Then I left the city far behind, heading to Burgundy for a sampling of the vineyards and the produce that comes with it. As the wine capital of the district, Beaune felt understated, unrealistically peaceful and almost shy.
Wide, clear roads with medieval walls hidden at intervals, and cute dwellings with no one in sight make it an enticing place for an extended sojourn. I was fortunate to meet Marco Sparacino at the homestay, a young Italian sommelier full of life and bubbling with curiosity. Together, we explored the vineyards of the Cote d’Or, or the Golden Slope, the birthplace of some of the world’s finest wines.
The road south towards Chalon-sur-Saône passed through Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chagny, with acres upon acres of vines creeping along the slopes, hanging low to the ground on stem supports. Every so often, we’d pass through a village – a small smattering of stone houses where engaging vintners spoke excitedly about their products.
Marco enjoyed animated discussions on the complexity of viniculture, as I explored the producers’ wine caves – dark cellars stacked high with barrels ageing wines of various bouquets. Along the way, I learnt interesting tid bits about wine, saw clos or walled vineyards and had my breath taken away by a sea of cornflowers.
In the town of Beaune itself, there are historic sites including the old market of Les Halles, an ancient clock tower called Beffroi, and the 15th century Hospices de Beaune which hosts France’s main wine auction sometime after the end of summer.
Vineyards in the Cote d'Or
A day in the city of Dijon was most certainly called for, looking for La Chouette – the city’s lucky owl carving on the Notre Dame de Dijon cathedral walls, buying its famous mustard, and taking in the beautiful Ducal Palace and its in-house Musée des Beaux Arts which features a stunning array of medieval art.
Burgundy is the ideal place for some quiet time. It is chic in its strong sense of culture and offers pure experiences untouched by mainstream tourism. There are wine and cheese tours, and even truffle hunts, Michelin-starred restaurants and miles upon miles of tranquillity.

So what was I doing alone in the one of the world’s most romantic countries? I was falling in love, no doubt. With not a care in the world and not a thing to come home to, I was falling in love with living in the moment.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Of hidden history and black sand beaches - Java & Bali

Prambanan, Java
It was hot that day, and we had nowhere to lie away from the heat of the sun. We watched as happy tourists chowed their way through overpriced Continental comfort food. But it wasn’t hunger killing us. It was having so much to do, so little time and no money at all.
Borobudur, Java
Five days before this, we had landed in Yogyakarta in Java, Indonesia, excitement barely contained and pockets slowly emptying. We found our way to the Kampoeng Djawa hostel, doorposts struggling to find air through a thick foliage of creepers and trees of an Amazon-like garden.
The nearby Jalan Malioboro is a major tourist attraction with shops lining the streets selling quirky wares, delicious local fare and buskers singing for their supper. The next morning, after an early start to a vantage point to see the Merapi volcano hissing steam in the distance, we set off to discover two ninth century mega marvels that marked the patronage of Buddhism and Hinduism in the now Muslim-dominated Indonesia.
For centuries, the black stone stupas of the Mahayana Buddhist Temple of Borobudur lay ensconced in dense vegetation and volcanic ash, cut off by superstition and tales of bad luck. Following its rediscovery through the 1800s, the UNESCO Heritage Site has now become the single most visited tourist attraction in the country.
Nasi campur at a local warung
On the other side of Yogyakarta, Prambanan rises through the mist like a series of intricately carved monoliths. Like Borobudur, this too fell to ruin, collapsing after a major earthquake and then being rediscovered and restored in the 1900s. Originally, 240 smaller temples stood in the complex. Today, only two are renovated, with eight of the main temples reconstructed.
Both Borobudur and Prambanan are rich in sculpture and steeped in mysticism. They present mysterious windows into the past, with tales and culture so rich it could give any ardent history lover a case of goose bumps.
After two days of soaking in history, it was time to head to Bali, the country’s most famous island. And not without reason. It’s a heady mix of partying and rambunctious nightlife, coupled with thrilling adventure sports and relaxing days overlooking terraced rice fields or turquoise blue water.
We made our base in Ubud, Bali’s cultural centre, where a great many decorative wares can be found. The markets permeate a more global air compared to Yogyakarta’s Jalan Malioboro, with curios and knick knacks made and sold with the tourist in mind.
In Ubud, we met Nyoman Ardika, a friend, impromptu tour guide and driver. The young Indonesian lad was proud to show off his country, taking us through gorgeous green countryside to black sand beaches that marked a stark contrast to the sky blue sea.
It was here that we discovered a love for nasi campur – the delicious spread of rice, meat, vegetables and peanuts – and bakso, or meat balls in a hot soupy broth, and bumbu Bali, a delicious spiced fish recipe. We also chanced upon the Green School along the Ayung River, made of eco-friendly bamboo structures and other renewable materials.
Bali is a paradise for adventure seekers too, with pristine snorkelling and scuba diving sites, and great surfing. South west is where the non-stop party is, with Kuta reminiscent of our very own Calangute area – you either love it or hate it.

As time wound down, our pockets emptied at the scuba diving site in the north east of the island, we held on to the last of our chocolate stuffed Hong Kong pai baos and swore to each other to return once more.

Underwater paradise

 First published in the Navhind Times

8 days in England

I raced down Buckingham Palace Road, a 12kg backpack bouncing awkwardly behind me as the cold rain plastered my hair to my scalp. Holding onto the five extra kgs strapped to my front, I careened down the endless departures lounge at Victoria Coach Station, praying desperately that my Eurolines ticket out of London would still be valid.
Stomp, stomp, stomp... Squish squish squish

My soaked shoes announced my arrival and as the end of the line disappeared into the bus, I just about managed to change into dry footwear, dump my backpack in the hold and grab a seat. I caught my breath and looked back at the last week that had all but whizzed by in a flash of pubs, sloping grasslands, achingly polite language and a glimpse of some of the world's most iconic structures.

Tower Bridge, London

Chester – raspberries & races
Full English breakfast
My first experience of England was right out of the little handbook of stereotypes. Yoghurt and raspberries went down the hatch before fancy fasteners of feathers and ribbons were strapped on and heels clicked towards the race track in Chester, a town 270 kms north of London. We smiled, shook hands and sipped on beer, huddled under colourful umbrellas in the Dee Stand. 'There they come!' ...and there they went, horses thundering down the track, out of sight in barely a flash and lost in the overwhelming drama of the races.
It's a long drawn tradition that is more of a social event than a sport, women trying to outbest each other in surviving the longest with the least cover in 10 degrees C and everyone enjoying multiple tastings of the local brew. And yes, there’s betting. Generally anyone who wins buys the rest a beer, so in the end, everyone wins!
Chester, though a small town, is quite popular on race day. The main thoroughfare is alive with all kinds of shops, and buskers keep the central square bright and spirited. There are ruins of an old wall dating back to Roman times in 70AD designed to keep out invaders. The circuit around the city was completed in medieval times and forms a walkway peppered with interesting historical sites.

Wales – mountains & meadows
Chester beautifully complements the quiet, village life of Betws-y-Coed in Wales. Here, in the west of the United Kingdom, the resolutely tongue twisting words feel out of place in the simplicity of life. Satisfying full English breakfasts (complete with black pudding and bangers), steaming pots of tea, and crisp morning air are ideal energy boosters before a long trek along the River Llugwy and the Gwydyr Forest without a soul in sight.
House made with slate in Betws-y-Coed
Ardent hikers with a good sense of direction take a short bus ride to the nearby village of Llanberis at the foot of Mount Snowdon to climb the tallest peak in Wales. On cloudy days, it’s hard to see the path, so greenhorns – like me – opt for the train ride instead. There’s the National Slate Museum offering glimpses into the mining and production of Britain’s peculiar grey construction material.
A hot Cornish pasty and cup of jo keeps the heart from standing still when you see a man jauntily ride down the street on his horse wearing jeans and a t-shirt like it’s the height of summer in 1965.

Mount Snowdon
Liverpool – Beatles & Beer-battered fish
Fish and chips
Liverpool is starkly different. It resounds with modernisation and the whipping noise of the wind as you take the ferry across the River Mersey. You’re already singing ‘Penny Lane’ as you step off the dock and head straight for the Beatles museum.
Located at Albert Dock and Pier Head, the Beatles Story takes fans on a journey through the lives, times, culture and music of the Fab Four. With its replicas of famous pubs from the Beatles’ era, videos of fan hysteria, memorabilia, and recorded audio conversations of people closely connected with one of the most famous bands in music history, the museum – and its Fab 4D family entertainment video – brings the beat group to life for hardcore fans and regular tourists.
A greasy meal washed down with beer is ideal to warm you up against the chilly wind, but I will sadly admit that my first meal of fish and chips in England will be my last. Served traditionally in newsprint, this beer battered chunk of haddock or cod served with an enormous pile of thick chips and boiled peas was a long-standing stock meal among the masses. That is, until chicken tikka masala took over! As a Goan, it was glaringly evident that the meal would have had a more satisfying effect had it been one of our tastier local morsels, even bereft of any condiments. The chips, however, were delicious.

Diaries at Portobello Market
London – mementos & memories
Further south in London, a walk down the Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill is an adventure in shopping. Everything from cheap clothes to vintage fashion, farmers’ produce and gourmet cupcakes, overpriced curios and deliriously beautiful antiques lie wedged one among the other, eagerly waiting to be hunted out.
To be blessed with bright blue skies with about 16 hours of sunshine in England on an eight-day vacation is nothing short of a miracle. It’s only natural then to take a walk through London’s giant breaths of fresh air. All through Hyde Park – past Kensington Palace where the young royal couple and their two babies live – you discover how much wonderful weather means to the ordinary Brit.
Big Ben
Families and friends make it a picnic, there are games played, dogs walked and even horses trotted. Ducks and swans greedily snap up nibbles put down by warm-hearted tourists. Buckingham Palace and The Mall suddenly emerge on the other side, stately and prim. If you’re lucky, as I was, the Queen might zip by in her Land Rover as she arrives from Windsor Palace to Buckingham right before the changing of the guard.
Soon Westminster Abbey and Big Ben loom into view, and further down across the bridge, you see the overpriced but beautiful London Eye. Just there, we stopped for a drink of Pimm’s at the Udderbelly Festival, marked by a giant upside down purple cow and dozens upon dozens of picnic tables filled with sunshine and summer drink lovers.
We passed Shawn the Sheep statues, some of the 100 painted, each by a different artist to be auctioned at the end of summer. Ahead rose the 200 foot tall Tower Bridge, one of England’s most iconic symbols and an engineering marvel during its construction in the late 1800s.
Shawn the Sheep statue for charity
Other important structures include The Shard skyscraper, the Millennium Bridge known as the ‘Wobbly Bridge’ before its modifications, St Katharine Docks, the Tower of London, Shakespeare’s Globe Museum and the new Crossrail Roof Garden at Canary Wharf.
Rain might have marred the following day, but didn’t deter a visit to the Emirates Stadium in Holloway with a chance glimpse of Arsenal legend Charlie George, and a nip to the pub at Covent Garden to warm up and say cheers to a lovely time.

That night, as the bus rumbled towards the white cliffs of Dover to cross the English Channel towards France, I thought about all that had transpired over the past eight days. The UK was so much more than I imagined it would be, and if you played it right, not nearly as expensive at all.