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.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Hidden Gems of Goa

Just ‘cuz you haven’t HEARD of something doesn’t mean it aint AMAZING!
The season is beginning to wind down. You’ve experienced all the necessary evils, visited all the regular haunts, been there and done and are thinking, is that all there is? 
Happily, the answer to that question is a resounding, NO!
How ‘bout going off-road, down a barely lit trail and discovering things – right here at home – that have been staring you in the face but you haven’t quite noticed.
There is so much more to Goa than the beaches, restaurants and nightclubs that everyone and their mother flock to. These are experiences, places and services we need to hold dear, to encourage without spoiling. Here’s just a few of them.
Uncovering history at Chikhali Caves
Several years ago, four underground caves were discovered that proved the existence of prehistoric settlement in Goa. Pot shards, found at the caves in Mormugao taluka, prove that it is one of the oldest known sites of human habitation in the state. It is possible that these were once used as burial chambers, and as such can be considered holy in the eyes of history lovers. For a place that cries itself hoarse about eras that began with the arrival of Vasco da Gama, Goa certainly offers awe-inspiring eye-openers.

Luxury bazaar at Le Souk by Amarya
The Saturday Night Market is one of Goa’s big draws, being more of a fun experience than a shopping excursion. When the pockets are deeper and the shopaholic soul restless, a trip to Le Souk by Amarya in Ashvem might be a good idea. It’s a luxury bazaar that has all the aura of the fashion world cascading out of Middle Eastern-inspired décor. It includes Indo-French collections at The Shop by Nana Ki, contemporary home textiles and accessories at The Bohemian Project, apparel and home furnishings at Shades of India, whimsical Bollywood-inspired bags at Paris Goa, unique handcrafted luggage at Nappa Dori, fine jewellery at Van Andel & Peace, beauty and skin care offerings at Bottega di LungaVita, men’s wear at Jonas G, specialty haircuts by Guy Staumont at Le Studio Haircut and products by Royal Enfield and Leela Art Palace. There’s also Le Café for nibbles and juices, La Crêperie for delicious pancakes and Nespresso Bar for a caffeine fix.

Deluxe detox at The Beach House
This might be a rather indulgent way to begin Lent – or wind down the season of decadence – but it’s a good option to get all the holiday season toxins out of your body with minimal self-motivation. The retreat in Sernabatim, south Goa, is hidden away from the temptations of city life, and provides a sojourn of rest and relaxation. A number of treatments are available, with clients starting off on a screening process that assesses their physical, psychological and physiological systems which goes into developing a tailor-made programme for the length of their stay. The Beach House also mentors guests at the resort and after they return home to help maintain their new, healthy lifestyle.

Georgian artisanal cheese by Maia
Cheese platters are the ultimate classics at sunset events, where you want a bit of formality but couldn’t bother with rustling up a spread for guests at dinner. One can never have enough cheese but it isn’t always Camembert or Roquefort that steals the show. Thanks to the tourist influx, there’s a whole smörgåsbord of cheeses available in Goa. But way down south, in the sleepy breezy village of Palolem, Maia Donadze brings traditional Georgian cheese to Goa, made from Indian milk but using techniques learnt back in the Eastern European country she calls home. Maia Cheese offers a variety of products, including feta, cream cheese, quark, buffalo mozzarella, smoked mozzarella, blue and ‘bree’, and also does cheese tables at weddings and other occasions.

Eco e-waste with Group TenPlus
It’s the age of electronics and short attention spans. Combine the two and you have new gadgets making themselves at home in cars, rooms and pockets. What happens then to all the waste? While some of it can be palmed off via online classifieds portals such as Quickr and Olx, much of it needs to be binned. Group TenPlus in Saligao provides complete e-waste solutions from collection to disposal in Goa that is all recycled and kept out of landfills. The company does not put any of the electronics up for resale, and ensures that all equipment that could contain sensitive data – such as mobile phones and computers – is shredded.

Scrumptious Saraswat food at Suwadik
Even as a resident of the state, eating Goan food in a restaurant is most often restricted to fish curry rice, crumb fried fish and a host of Indo-Portuguese dishes. Places that serve satisfying pre-Portuguese inspired food is generally restricted to the ‘aunty’ in the two-bench chai shop who will churn out thali after thali of delicious lunch. In Panjim, Chef Keshav Nadkarni’s Suwadik restaurant serves the quintessential Saraswat Hindu cuisine in an environment where you don’t have to roll up your sleeves, swat off the flies or share your table with strangers. Accompanied by a Mario Miranda-style painting, diners relish tisryanche dangar (clam cutlets), fish thalis, mackerel pickle, bharlele bangde (stuffed mackerel), the ever popular sungtache lonche (prawn pickle), bangdyachi uddhemethi (mackerel curry) and sweets including kharvas (made from cow’s colostrum milk), tavsali (Goan cucumber cake) with vanilla ice cream and nachinyachem satv (red millet pudding).

Luxury yachting on board Lady M
Lay off the boring five-star dinners and turn it up several notches. Goa’s quiet backwaters, bordered by lush mangroves and teeming ecosystem are lying in wait. Captain Roberto Amaral, who owns Cancio’s guest house in Aldona, offers guests and walk-in visitors the chance to soak in Goa’s hinterland beauty on board his 42-foot yacht that he calls Lady M. The catamaran and its smaller speedboat cousin have been used in movies and advertisements and provide stunning visuals of tranquil village life in Goa. Lady M has a spacious forward deck for parties, a specially designed fly-bridge, ample aft deck lounging area, and offers everything from sunset cruises to overnight trips with food and beverages, and even a DJ! Want to make things extra special? Book a full moon cruise.

On and Off the Road
Goa’s hinterland roads have long been the haunt of riding and driving enthusiasts. The open tarmac, rich hues of vegetables growing in open fields, the rush of wind – and not to mention the hearty aroma of roadside snacks – make the state an easy, yet enjoyable ride. Since 1999, Blazing Trails Tours has been riding standard Royal Enfield Bullets across the length and breadth of the country. The group of carefree souls, who once had an office in Saligao, offers a number of tours in India and South Africa. If they’re out on tour, there are other options. Based in Assagao, Peter Paulo Dos Santos and his friends established the Classic Bike Adventure project with a fleet of more than 35 Enfield Bullets that offers over a dozen rides as well as custom tours. And if you feel like something dirtier, get your gear on and head down hundreds of kilometres of deserted forest tracks with John Pollard at his Off The Grid homestay in the Western Ghats.

Pimp Your Ride at Speed Accessories
Sometimes you don’t want a regular ride, and with the vehicles market virtually exploding in Goa, it’s almost certain you will be lost among the stampeding herd. To stand out a little without looking cheap, head to Speed Accessories in Caranzalem, Panjim, where enthusiast Kenneth Fernandes owns an exclusive little outfit that furnishes your ride with some of that swagger you always wanted. Opened in 2006, Speed Accessories does everything from chic bumpers, 3D floor mats and fancy new alloys to projector headlights, LED work and custom car wraps. Based on the client’s budget, Fernandes imports accessories from Singapore, Thailand, the UK, Germany or Italy. He accepts new clients only by appointment and never takes on more than two cars a day, ensuring quick, quality work you are bound to love. So sweeten your new car or doll up old Betsy; it pays to be different.

Village life at Olaulim Backyards
They have never advertised, and probably will never need to. This is the ideal that one usually holds standards against. It is quiet, eco-friendly, warm and very, very local. The homestay in Olaulim, Pomburpa, allows guests to soak in the kind of environment our forefathers grew up in, with a few modern flourishes such as an azure blue swimming pool, comfortable beds and convenient WCs. With just two cottages and a tree house to choose from, there’s never a crowd and one is rest assured that the environment is as taken care of as you are. From water and electricity conservation and composting, to recycling and natural furnishing, Savio and Pirrko at Olaulim Backyards certainly put their back into it. Locally sourced fresh seafood and vegetables are cooked on a traditional wood-fire and seasonal fruit are always on the table.