From many summers ago, a memory from Ranthambhore…
The small northeastern state of Sikkim was once rightly dubbed ‘the hidden kingdom’ after a book (1971) by the same name by Alice Kandell. The mighty Kanchenjunga, considered a benevolent protector, dominates the region, making itself visible from various points within the state. Take a tour around the highlights of Sikkim.
Begin at Gangtok
What to do
Walk up and down the pedestrian-only MG Road, stopping for hot momos and chowmein at one of the various cafés on the street.
Make a day trip to Tsomgo lake (called Changu by locals), located in the middle of snow-covered mountains. Here, you can ride on a docile yak or pose for photographs next to one. From there, head on to Nathu La pass (open to Indian visitors only on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday), on the Indo-Chinese border to play in snow and wave at Chinese soldiers on the other side.
Pay a visit to the monasteries in and around Gangtok, in particular, the stunning Enchey and Rumtek.
Take a ropeway ride (8.00 am – 4.30 pm) up to the highest point in Gangtok for fabulous views of the town and the surrounding valley.
Where to stay
Go West: Pelling
What to do
Pelling is really not for active vacationers since there is nothing much to do here but take long walks on shaded mountain roads and gaze in awe at the Kanchenjunga. The views are spectacular especially after the monsoon, between the months of October and February.
A must-visit in this region is the Pemayangtse monastery, one of the oldest in Sikkim, founded in 1705. If you are lucky and the skies are clear, the Kanchenjunga may be visible clearly from here.
Visit the Khecheopari Lake, also known as the ‘wishing lake’ and considered sacred by the Sikkimese. Indeed, this is a place of worship for both local Hindus and Buddhists, and surprisingly clear of tourist traps. The path to the lake is studded with prayer wheels on either side while colourful prayer flags whirl in the wind closer to the water.
If you happen to be there on a weekend, look out for local haats (markets) where farmers from the area bring in their produce for sale; it makes for a lively and colourful morning
For those really bitten by the travel bug, a trip to Yuksam village (38 km away), the starting point for the tough trek into the Kanchenjunga National Park is recommended. Spend your day ambling down the narrow main road, snacking on chilli-cheese toast and tea at Guptaji’s small café, and watching the clouds play hide and seek with the mountains surrounding you.
Where to stay
In Pelling, stay at the Elgin Mount Pandim Hotel, close to the Pemayangtse monastery. It also comes with a spa in case you want to soothe those aching muscles after long drives on the mountain roads.
Go North: Yumthang Valley and Gurudongmar Lake
What to do
This is the most popular circuit among visitors to Sikkim, Gangtok to Yumthang Valley and Gurudongmar Lake in the north.
The first morning, wake up early and head to Gurudongmar lake situated at a (literally) breathtaking 17000 feet. Most vehicles take a compulsory halt for an hour at Thangu village at 14,000 feet for breakfast, and more importantly, to get you acclimatised to the altitude. Enjoy the ride thereon through a surreal moonscape path, which affords plenty of photo-ops. Go prepared with layers and layers of woolies and the idea that you will feel disoriented at that height and for perhaps a couple of hours after you descend.
The next morning, make your way to Yumthang, a mere 24 kilometres from Lachung and at a (relatively) more comfortable altitude of 12,000 feet. The road leading to Yumthang, known as the ‘valley of flowers’ is well laid and lined with rhododendron trees on either side. This area comes under the protected Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary (home to over 24 species of this flower) and is especially pretty during the summer months when the ground is covered with flowers of all colours. Yumthang is the stuff of picture postcards, with snow-capped mountains on all sides, with the crystal clear Yumthang river flowing through the meadow.
Where to stay
Lachung and Lachen villages are the base for Yumthang valley and Gurudongmar lake respectively. The Fortuna is one of the most popular and comfortable hotels in this area. Accommodation otherwise is mostly basic and not very luxurious there – discuss your options with your tour operator before you leave. The friendliness of the locals, the pure mountain air and the fresh water springs all around more than make up for any mild discomfort you may experience.
Note: You cannot rent or drive your own vehicle in Sikkim since many places require special permits. Therefore you need to arrange for excursions through an authorized tour operator in Gangtok. For North Sikkim, it is best to take a package that includes your travel, stay and food from one of the authorised tour operators who line MG Road.
From a lazy evening in Aix-en-Provence…
Time moves very slowly in Provence. It is this part of the world that J.B. Priestley had in mind when he declared, “A good holiday is one that is spent among people whose notions of time are vaguer than yours.” This is not to say that Provençals never take the concept of time seriously. Come lunch hour and all the outdoor cafés fill up rapidly with locals even before the poor tourist has finished weighing his options. The point is: take it easy when you are in Provence and savour (or cultivate) that unfamiliar feeling that you have all the time in the world. It will help you deal with the locals, bless their friendly hearts.
From my story on Provence – Life in the slow lane
Also see: Friday photo series
There is something special about Amsterdam in springtime. The Keukenhof gardens are open for a couple of months, as the tulips paint the landscape in brilliant colours. The city is on party mode all through April in anticipation of Holland’s biggest holiday – Queen’s Day, on the last day of the month.
If you are in Amsterdam for only a couple of days, here is how to get the best of it. First, buy the 48 hour IAmsterdam Card, which allows free public transport and entrance to key attractions, discounts at some restaurants and even on bike rentals. Pick it up at the main tourist office opposite the Amsterdam Centraal railway station. Also pick up a guide to Keukenhof gardens. Or, since Amsterdam is cyclist heaven, hire a bicycle for the duration of your stay—choose from one of these options recommended by the authorities.
Once you’re set, here’s how you can make the most of your two days in the city.
9am: Start your day with a leisurely breakfast at an open air café on the Leidseplein (translated, Leiden Square), watching the city slowly come to life.
10am: Head to one of the many fabulous museums in Amsterdam for a morning of high culture. Choose from the Van Gogh Museum or the newly renovated Rijksmuseum. The two are located close to each other, so you can quickly take in the highlights of both.
1pm: Have lunch at one of the Indonesian restaurants that the city is known for. Order the Rijsttafel (Dutch for ‘rice table’), which is a meal of several, tiny side-dishes accompanied by rice.
3pm: Pose for photographs on the iconic IAmsterdam installation (some tourists try to climb on top of the letters for that quirky photo) and then make your way to the sprawling Vondelpark for a walk in the spring sunshine. If you are feeling particularly sporty, join in a raucous game of football that is sure to be on at several places in the park.
4pm: Walk or bike your way along the main canals of Amsterdam that form a ring in the inner city—the Prinsengracht, Keijzersgracht, Herengracht and Jordaan. The canal ring is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites and celebrates its 400th year in 2013. There are beautiful old buildings lining both sides of these narrow streets and several canal-side cafés to nip into for a quick coffee.
6pm: Take an open boat ride on the canals, which comes with a guide and usually lasts for an hour. This is a great way to see the city and know a bit of its history.
7pm: Devote the evening to beer quaffing at a pub of your choice; you can never go wrong with beer in Amsterdam. Our recommendations are the ‘t Smalle, a distillery set up way back in 1780 near a picturesque canal (Egelantiersgracht 12), and In De Wildeman (Kolksteeg 3) famous for its Dutch and Belgian beers. And if you must, then take a stroll around Amsterdam’s (in)famous red light area, De Wallen. It is in Amsterdam’s old side, in the vicinity of the Oude Kerk (Old Church). Be sure not to point your camera at people or shops there since it is frowned upon.
8am: Grab a quick croissant and coffee on the run and make an early start to the Keukenhof gardens. Devote the entire morning to tulips and all the other attractions of Keukenhof.
1pm: Try some local specialties like Bitterballen—minced beef fried with a coating of bread crumbs at a brown café, so called for its darkwood panelling (and not because of the ‘substances’ they deal in, as some people think).
2pm: Take a lazy saunter through the floating flower market on Singel canal and the Albert Cuyp street market.
4pm: This is a must-do for any visitor to Amsterdam, the Anne Frank House. It is a grim reminder of the city’s Nazi history. Note that entry here is not included in the IAmsterdam card and that it may not be suited for small children. Buy your tickets online to avoid the long queues.
5pm: Pick up a helping of poffertjes (Dutch pancakes) and patat (fries) and sit at Dam Square watching buskers ply their trade. Or, walk around the shopping haven of Negen Straatjes or “nine streets” around the canal area, filled with pretty boutiques, art galleries and vintage stores
7 pm: Have a quiet dinner at Hap-Hmm for Dutch food “like grandma used to make” and at prices that make you hum with happiness. The restaurant is justly popular among both locals and tourists.
More on tulips
No visit to Amsterdam in spring is complete without a trip to Keukenhof gardens just outside the city. The garden is open from 8am to 7.30pm (till May 20 this year) and it is best to arrive early to beat the crowds and get the most of your morning. Buy tickets for a boat ride around the gardens as soon as you arrive, since these are very popular and tend to get booked fast. Apart from the thousands of tulips in myriad colours, Keukenhof has other attractions like rows of daffodils and hyacinths, greenhouses for orchids, play areas for children and cafés dotted throughout. There are buses to Keukenhof from Schipol airport (easily reached from the centre of the city by bus or train) and it is best to buy a combination ticket online before you go.
Originally published on the Conde Nast Traveller website on April 30, 2013
Also read: It’s tulips time in Amsterdam
If there is one thing I learned in my short time in Flanders – the picturesque northern part of Belgium – then it is this. They cleverly programme their desserts to wink at you from shop windows and handcarts. Really. Here I am, walking innocently on a cobble-stoned street and the next minute, I am drawn into the vortex of the Bermuda triangle of a sweets shop. It is futile to resist.
Eat it. Breathe it. Or snort it. Visit a museum that is a paean to the pleasures of chocolate – the Choco Story in Bruges. For, if there is one thing you cannot escape in Belgium, it is chocolate. Belgians discovered chocolate in the 17th century when cocoa was first shipped from South America by their Spanish masters. Two centuries later, when they colonised Congo themselves, their access to cocoa was unlimited, and there began a great story.
Today, some of the world’s most loved chocolate brands come from Belgium – Godiva, Neuhaus, Côte d’Or, Leonidas, Guylian – and have outlets in all major towns. At Antwerp, step into the Tintin memorabilia shop right opposite the Cathedral of Our Lady for some Cachet chocolates with unique flavor combinations like Lemon and Pepper, Blackberry and Ginger, Orange and Almonds. Now, what do they say about sugar and spice and all things nice?
Among the other shops to definitely visit is The Chocolate Line, present in Bruges and Antwerp. Apart from a range of chocolates with interesting flavours like Cola, chilli, mint, olives, bacon and cannabis (acquired tastes, you will agree), chocolatier (or shock-a-latier, as he likes to call himself) Dominique Persoone is famous for inventing the ‘chocolate shooter.’ Enjoy the not unpleasant sensation of cocoa powder with raspberry or the stronger ginger flavour going straight up through your nose straight to your brain. Persoone is said to have created this specially for The Rolling Stones during their visit to Brussels a few years ago.
And if you are an incurable chocoholic, then buy some to apply on your lips and body. The Chocolate Line also sells cosmetic chocolate products including an edible chocolate massage cream and lipstick – no fear of lead here, only all the wholesome flavonoids.
Noses and hands to chomp on
Speaking of body parts, do not miss the local specialties: Ghent’s rode neuzen (red noses) and Antwerp’s handjes (hands).
The neuzen are small, conical (at a stretch, nose-shaped) soft sweets with a fruit jelly core and are the pride of Ghent. Pick them up from street carts whose friendly vendors will offer you a taste if you ask nicely. Or buy them at Temmerman’s candy shop (Kraanlei 79) where they are known by their official name, cuberdons.
The legend behind the handjes has to do with an evil giant who was vanquished by a local hero and had his hand chopped off and thrown into the river Scheldt. Don’t let this gory story deter you from trying these delightful hand-shaped chocolates and thin almond cookies. Some stretch the legend further to say that the name Antwerp (locally Antwerpen) comes from “hand-werpen” or hand-throwing.
A way with Waffles
Other than chocolate, the aroma of fresh waffles is in the air in Flanders. There are two main types – the Brussels version, the standard everywhere in the world for Belgian waffles, and the lesser known Liège version. The former is served with a variety of toppings, from dusted sugar to whipped cream to chocolate syrup and rum. Try one – or three – at the Max at Ghent; they call themselves the inventors of the Belgian waffle. Liège waffles are comparatively denser, sweeter and chewier, with a caramelised crust and without toppings. And the best are to be found at Belgaufra at several locations in Brussels, Antwerp and Liège or Vitalgaufre at 23-29 rue Neuve in Brussels.
Different from all other cookies you have known, specculaas (also known as specculoos) are spicy, with subtle flavours of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger and brown sugar. It is so popular in Belgium that it is now available as a spread (Nutella, be gone!) and in ice-creams. La Maison Dandoy at the Grand Place in Brussels has the freshest specculaas, in various shapes and forms.
Then, there are the thin and crunchy Florentines, said to originate from Florence. The Belgian version comes coated with nuts and chocolate (no surprise there) and just melt in the mouth. Be sure to pick up a box of Jules Destrooper Florentines on your way out at the airport duty-free shop. The brand is also known for their other thin cookies, including almond, apple and chocolate flavours.
So, while in Belgium, push away all thoughts of a healthy diet and give in to temptation. And anyway, who says chocolate is not healthy?
A slightly edited version of this was published in Mumbai Mirror, May 05, 2013.
If Madhya Pradesh is the “Heart of Incredible India”, then Orchha is its heart. Founded in the 16th century by the Bundela chief Maharaja Rudra Pratap, this town today lies well off the beaten track for most travellers. With its riches of palaces, temples and cenotaphs by the banks of the Betwa River, it is a fascinating study in sepia. When in Orchha, here’s what you can see, do and experience.
From a story I did for the Conde Nast Traveller website – ‘Exploring Orchha‘…
Also see: Friday photo series
There are Gujarati thalis and there are Gujarati thalis and then there is Agashiye. According to the website, Agashiye means ‘on the terrace’ – and so it is.
Part of the House of MG in old Ahmedabad, Agashiye has khatiya seating in an open terrace and more formal tables inside. It is a bright and colourful space, with painted wooden puppets hanging from the ceiling. There are stone urulis scattered around, filled with fragrant flowers and in the mild December sun, it seemed like the perfect place to be.
I have heard very good things about the House of MG – built in 1924 – but since we were not staying there, I was not able to look inside. But from what I could see on the way up to Agashiye – plenty of flowers, cheerful sunlight, lovely old stairs – it is a place I’d definitely like to stay at some time. We climbed up the three floors, admiring the clever use of glass bangles as lamp shades, and enter the terrace, to find a reclining Ganesha.
It was only when we walked out after the meal that I realized that like us, he must have stuffed himself silly at Agashiye and could barely move.
All Gujarati thali places are known to serve so much food that diners have to finally beg the waiters to stop feeding them any more. And that’s exactly what happened in Agashiye – except that the waiter who served us was super friendly and had a great sense of humour. And oh, he did laugh at the clear struggle between greed and prudence we were going through.
First came the fresh juice and a plate of mini kachoris stuffed with green peas. Then a plate with cups of pickles, slices of lemon, chunda and a whole cup of butter in the centre. And then the food – rotis and a variety of dals and sabji and an unending supply of hot jalebi (that I would never complain about). “Keep space for ice cream – it’s freshly made” – our waiter kept reminding us periodically, even as he ladled more food on to our plates.
For me, a meal that deserves five stars – not just for the quality of food but the service and the decor as well. A meal well worth looking forward to having again.
After the delightful charm of Bruges, Ghent was initially a disappointment – cloudy skies and construction material everywhere did not help. In the evening, we took a boat ride on the river Lys (Leie); the sun had come out by then and young people by the dozens were sitting by the river, enjoying that fine spring day. Here, an image from that evening…
Also see: Friday photo series
Istanbuls’ Grand Bazaar, or Kapalıçarşı (meaning ‘covered market’) speaks directly to every Indian’s heart. Over 550 years old, this market has over 3000 shops inside a large covered area. Everything that a tourist needs – or doesn’t really need but will buy anyway at great cost – is to be found here. Carpets, silver jewellery, tea, spices, lamps and kandeels, souvenirs, leather goods, and ceramics, among other things. And Indians, with their love for bargaining, will find themselves right at home here.
Competition is fierce among the sellers and they employ all kinds of techniques to woo customers. They make jokes – many of them inappropriate but it is difficult not to laugh with them because they have such a pleasing manner and enjoy their own jokes immensely. For example, the shops selling tea – many nudge-nudge, wink-wink references to the sexual prowess some of these teas are believed to impart. They proudly advertise their ‘Turkish Viagra’ and display signs for ‘genuine fake watches’. It is futile to resist those who are happy to laugh at themselves this way.
Like in other countries like Egypt, the minute they know you are Indian (and oh, believe me, they can identify us very easily), they launch into long discussions about our movies. And of late, Katrina Kaif in particular. They offer refreshment (oh, the apple tea!), discounts that seem attractive and lots of reasons why you must buy that item and from that shop alone. Listen to them patiently, banter with them and start from half the quoted price. They enjoy the bargaining and bantering more than you do and will probably be disappointed if you pay the asking price. If you are planning to buy something expensive, like a carpet, then it is best to do a bit of research before you enter the bazaar. Me, I stick to cheap souvenirs and tea – the varieties and fragrances of Turkish tea!
You can easily spend hours here, browsing, bargaining and buying – with stops for coffee and lunch in between at one of the numerous cafes inside the bazaar. Whether you want to buy that pair of lovely silver earrings or a set of six ceramic bowls with the whirling dervish motif, or even a belly dance costume as a souvenir to take back home, the grand bazar is the place to shop at in Istanbul. Hang on to your patience, sense of humour and your wallet (watch out for pickpockets) and you will have a great experience.
Although Brussels is not the most charming city in Belgium – there are far prettier towns in the northern region of Flanders – it won me over with its stunning wall art scattered carelessly through its heart. Brussels takes it comics very seriously – comic book shops in plenty, a comics cafe (more on it soon), even a comics museum. Georges Prosper Remi, pen name Hergé, was born in Brussels and wrote /illustrated his 23 Tintin books there. Fittingly, there is also a museum dedicated to the life and works of Hergé.
In the short time I spent exploring the city on foot, I came across these comic wall murals of exceptional quality. Here, take a walk with me in the comics city…
I had a tough time choosing my favourite, but I think this one wins. Each time I look at it, I find something new and amusing…