This small island, closer to Africa than Europe, is the southernmost tip of Italy. It has some of the prettiest and remote beaches in the Mediterranean, most of which are empty outside the months of July and August. Snorkel with manta rays, watch dolphins from a boat, or hire a bicycle and cover the island's 20 sq km in a day. Loggerhead turtles lay their eggs on the Isola dei Conigli (Rabbit Island), and the Riserva Naturale Isola di Lampedusa, a wildlife nature reserve, is an undiscovered land of walks and megalithic sites. If you visit, don't forget to pack Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's literary masterpiece "The Leopard", his grandfather used to own the island.
Kolkata’s South Park Street Cemetery, with its 18th and 19th century monolithic tombs, is full of the tales and tribulations of Britain’s earliest pioneers.
India was filled with danger for early settlers, and tropical disease was a common cause of death for many of them. Soldiers died in relentless skirmishes and shipwrecks took the lives of many mariners. Nevertheless, enough settlers thrived (or were replaced) to oversee the original three villages gradually turn into The British Raj’s great nineteenth century metropolis, Calcutta.
Built in 1767 for the early East India Company pioneers and their attendants, this latter day necropolis is packed with giant mausoleums, all vying for top billing: pyramids, colonnaded temples, oversized urns, obelisks, sarcophagi and stone cupolas. The cemetery is a roll-call of the soldiers, sailors, civil servants, merchants, women and children who succumbed to the rigours of an unfamiliar and disease-ridden life in the tropics.
I felt nostalgia for a time I had never known. One hundred and fourteen years before I arrived there, Sir William Wilson Hunter’s eloquent words summed up the oppression which descended on me as I walked between the tombs.
“Most mournful of graveyards are those walled-up ghastly settlements, desolate spaces of brick ruins, and blotched plaster, reproachful of forgetfulness and neglect. It was difficult to restrain some retrospective pity for the inmates of those squalid tenements — for their hard, hot lives more than a hundred years ago, solaced by none of the alleviations which have become necessaries of our modern Indian existence; with few airy verandahs or lofty ceilings, without punkahs, without ice, without possibilities of change to the hills, or respite to their exile by visits home.
The mental stagnation of a small society given to arrack and heavy dinners in the heat of the tropical day, and dependent for their news of the outer world on three or four shipments a year, produced a tedium vitae even harder to bear… If the world dealt hardly with them in life, it has made no amends to their memory. As I thought of how much they achieved, and how little they have been honoured, I found myself involuntarily composing an apologia for the dead.” (Sir William Wilson Hunter, ‘The Thackerays in India and some Calcutta graves’.)
There were not many visitors to the cemetery on the day my partner and I were there, but then you do have to make a particular effort to go, it is not a place that you pass on the way to anywhere else. We bumped into one other western tourist, a few Indian couples and a small group of Indian soldiers during the two hours we spent there. But we were never alone, the caw-cawing of a hundred flapping crows accompanied us over the whole eight acres.
Among the monoliths, the prosaic British names on the oversized tombs are a long way from home: Elizabeth Jane Barwell, James Addison Webster, Captain Dennis Bodkin, Harriet Chicheley Plowden, Major George Dowlie, Thomas Cotterell, Capt W Mackay.
Edward Wheler Esq, “In his political character which will be best learned from the Pages of History he was an upright, just, and honest Man. And as his disinterested conduct garnered the esteem of all Ranks of Men So in the Memory he is honored, beloved, lamented.”
Near the entrance, and smothered in the edible scent from a curry leaf tree, lies Hastings Impey Esq, “son of Sir Elijah Impey, Factor in the Service of the Eaft India Company who died in the 24th year of his Age February 4th 1805″. His father — the most prominent name on the stone, and former Chief Justice of Bengal — fared rather better than his son. He left India and became the parliamentary member for New Romney, before retiring to Brighton. In 1809 he died, and was buried in the family vault in Hammersmith.
Much of the cemetery was overgrown, and many of the tombs are decaying: inscriptions no longer legible, corners falling off and columns crumbling. Someone is keeping the jungle at bay, though, because the pathways were reasonably clear and at over 250 years old the tombs would have been swallowed up without some attention.
As you read each new story in the names, ages, dedications and tomb designs, you are reminded of the bravery and stoicism shown by these settlers. The journey alone would have been a hardship, and then to end up in such inhospitable and unknown terrain would have been an even greater trial, especially for women in their layers of clothes and corsetry. For all their jingoism and arrogance, you can't help but feel humbled by their intrepidness. We call ourselves travellers today, but catching a flight over to the other side of the world for a quick jaunt up to Machu Picchu, or a guided tour round a wildlife park, doesn’t compare to the terrifying adventure into the unknown these individuals must had endured for the sake of commerce.
Mother Teresa Sarani, Kolkata, India
Forget Italy's ancient history and immerse yourself in a little mid twentieth century nostalgia instead. Back in the 50s and 60s numero uno stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman left their yachts at anchor in Portofino's dreamy harbour, then took over the Hotel Splendido to indulge in a little of La Dolce Vita. The views from this old fishing village are still groovy, but the Splendido's little sister, the Splendido Mare, probably has the edge over its elder sibling these days. Prices for both are reassuringly stratospheric. Far out, baby.
If you're looking to relax and unwind after a hard day's trek along the vertical slopes round Darjeeling, then don't come here. Hasty Tasty is frenetic, hectic and loud. Packed from the minute it opens (9.30am) till it closes (around 8pm) this strictly vegetarian cafeteria delivers exactly what it promises, fast and delicious food.
Choose from the vast menu displayed above the long counter, pay (around a quid) for your meal, grab a piece of paper with a number scribbled on it, and see if you can bag a table by the window. As you wait for the waiter to call your number - and if it's a clear day - you can gaze at Kanchenjunga, India's highest mountain, the third highest peak in the world. If you've had enough of mountains (is that possible?) I recommend some simple people watching: a cavalcade of characters swiftly passes through, mainly very cold-looking domestic Indian tourists in idiosyncratic get-ups (the women in be-jewelled, kitten heeled sandals, the men in extravagant bobble hats and tight gilets).
We ate here several times, and a typical meal would include two enormous bowls of (veg) chow mein and two lassis for 120INR (around £1.50).
The kitchen is behind the counter, so you can watch all the food being prepared and cooked in front of you. It doesn't get much fresher.
Opening hours: 09:30 to 20:00
13, Nehru Road, Darjeeling
Google map: bit.ly/xbCQ9e
The largest memorial garden in the world is a beautiful backdrop for the oversized mausoleums and famous tombs packed together along its gravel and cobbled paths. But Père Lachaise is more than a repository for the crème de la crème. Throw the map away and wind aimlessly under the ancient chestnut trees of the well-tended park. Jim Morrison's grave is less interesting than the crowd round it, and the Holocaust and war memorials will give you pause.
Free maps are supplied at the gate
16, Rue de Repos, 20th Arrondisement, Paris
Métro: Père Lachaise Gambetta
Hours: 8:30am-6:00pm (last entry 15 minutes before closing)
Google map: bit.ly/KtQIFC
Walk through historic Le Marais, the most "branché" neighbourhood of Paris, to the supremely elegant Place des Vosges. Victor Hugo was inspired by what he saw from his window at number six, which is now a museum to the great author. The red bricks, natural stone and grey slate mansard roofs of the perfectly proportioned square are best appreciated from its pretty park. Picnic on baguettes by the fountains and trees, while the kids play in the sandpit. But don't sit on the lawns if the "pelouse au repos" signs are out.
Maison de Victor Hugo, 6 Place des Vosges, 75004 Paris
+33 1 42 72 10 16
Google map: bit.ly/L4Ikxt
The genteel half-timbered town of Rye combines cobblestones and crumpets, but it's a lucky tourist who nabs one of the elegant tables at Fletcher's House. Fiercely guarded by present-day Mapps and Lucias, this local institution is always jammed with Rye's movers and shakers. While Pete attends every whim front of house, Lee has them stifling cries of ecstasy at the confections displayed on his tiered cake stands. The gossip flows as the floral frocked cognoscenti nibble home-made fruit flans and sip Lady Grey tea from fine bone china. But beware the glint of a filigree butter knife among the patterned polyester as it silently slips into an absent neighbour's back.
If, Withnail-like, you demand the finest wines available to humanity to wash down your fluffy scones, don't worry, they have a wine menu too.
Easily accessible by ferry from the High Court jetty at the bottom of Banerji Road in Ernakulam (the tiny boat runs every half hour) this pretty island is often overlooked by visitors, but is worth seeking out. Turn left off the ferry for a short walk to the Bolgatty Palace Hotel, which has a nine hole golf course, a garden full of specimen trees, the oldest Dutch Palace in India, and the only marina in the country. If the restaurant has put on a buffet (most days) the typically spicy Keralan food is well worth trying (don't miss the spectacular fish curry), although don't expect razor-sharp service.
If you turn right off the ferry follow the chessboard of tiny roads through the village. Catch the flash of a kingfisher, butterflies the size of your hand and egrets daintily perching on buffalo under the shady tropical trees. You may feel like you are walking through people's gardens, but no-one will mind and they'll probably invite you in for a tea if you stop and chat. Under the bridge on the eastern shore of the island lives an extended family of Harijans (Untouchables) from Mysore. They make their meagre living by fishing from saucer-shaped woven coracles.
Vypeen Island is a long thin piece of land caught between the Arabian Sea and Kerala's inland waterways. Following the coast from Kochi northwards, it is laced with canals and lakes, groves of palm trees and colourful houses. The scenic bus ride to Cherai beach would be an engaging way of seeing a little further beyond Kochi if the drivers didn't feel it their duty to get you there faster than the speed of sound. Go there during the week when it is less likely to be rammed with tourists, or take an auto-rickshaw for the day and slowly make your way to much less crowded Kuzhippily beach.
Vypeen Island, Kochi, Kerala
Google map: bit.ly/LczYCh
Beloved by all photographers, Kerala's elephant temple festivals are world renowned. Thrissur has the granddaddy of them all in April/May, when the festival of Pooram is celebrated. Not a time to visit for the faint-hearted—you will need stamina and sunblock, and feel comfortable in loud sweaty crowds of excitable worshippers.
But Thrissur is an interesting day trip for anyone staying in Kochi at any time of the year. It's a pleasant introduction to Keralan town life: not too busy, dusty or crowded, and small enough to walk round in a day. The two hundred-year-old Shakthan Thampuran Palace is now an elegant archaeological museum set on a hill among painstakingly landscaped gardens. The building was closed for refurbishment at the time of my visit, scheduled to re-open 1st April 2012 (but don't hold your breath). Thrissur is also famous for its magnificent churches, their colourful stucco façades peeking over the town's roads in every direction.
Don't be afraid to join the workers for some roadside food. But watch the amount of sugar they add to the delicious fruit cocktails, Keralans have a sweet tooth.
Get there by train from Ernakulam Junction (any visit to India is not complete without a train journey) which lasts around one and half hours, and costs a mere 28 INR for a one-way ticket.
Shakthan Thampuran Palace, Stadium Road, Thrissur
Google map: bit.ly/LaGN4w
Alcohol is state controlled in Kerala and bars are kept strictly behind blacked out windows, or in international hotels. If you fancy a beer with the locals you'll have to head to one of the bars dotted around the city. Look for the big black and white diamond sign outside. The best of these is the Bar Oberoi on MG Road. It's not as dark and desperate as most of them, and is kept pretty clean (at least the rats and cockroaches are not visible). You'll be the only non-Indian in there, and if you're a woman you'll definitely be the only one. Between 5pm and 6pm most days the proprietor lights a series of incense sticks, each more smoky than the last, finishing with full-on frankincense that makes your eyes water, but smells nice. The food is average, freshly cooked, and has never made me ill.
MG Road, Ernakulam, 682035, Kerala
Google map: bit.ly/MAryGV
There are plenty of tourist restaurants in the chi-chi streets of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry, some listed in the guide books, all expensive (by Kochi standards) and most serving up pretty good food. It's fun to pick a fish from the Chinese nets and to have it cooked in front of you. But for a flavour of authentic local food, at a local price, go to the commercial district of Ernakulam. The Hotel Saravana Bhavan serves the best vegetable thali in the whole of Kochi. (Like many restaurants in India it is called a 'hotel' when all it does is serve food, which can be a bit misleading as the hotels are usually called hotels too.) The non A/C section is always packed with local workers. For less than £1 they'll serve your meal on an ela (Malayalam for banana leaf) and keep re-filling it until you burst. There's an A/C section for posh people who like a bit of space, and cutlery.
As with all restaurants in India, get there early so you can pick up the food while it's still fresh and before the best dishes run out.
Banerji Road, Ernakulam, Kerala, India
+91 484 237 0153
Google map: bit.ly/LuzwlQ
Packed with colonial buildings and pickled charm, Fort Cochin is a gentle way of easing yourself into the sometimes Medieval comforts of India. Strolling through the flower-bordered lanes and weatherboard houses, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Sussex. Vasco da Gama first arrived on India's Malabar coast in 1498, returning for the third time in 1524 to die on Christmas Eve. He was buried in St Francis Church. This refreshingly unfussy building—the first European church to be built in India—still stands amid the banyan trees and cricket fields (unlike Vasco da Gama whose remains were removed to Portugal). Rubbed to a smooth polish by centuries of fervent worship, the wide flagstone floor is cool under bare feet. A high timber-beamed ceiling and rope operated punkahs (fans) bring some welcome relief from the relentless tropical heat of steamy Kerala.
Google map: bit.ly/JiMWQ8
When those ancient traders sailed from the Arabian Sea into the hectic spice port of Fort Cochin, they were greeted by rows of shore-based Chinese fishing nets. Crowding along the estuary, these primitive machines—like gigantic alien sentries from a Ridley Scott sci-fi film—have been in use for hundreds of years, and are found throughout Kerala's famous backwaters. Legend has it they came from the court of Kublai Khan, but the precise date is not known. Still in use today, the cantilevered contraptions stand around ten meters high, and about twenty meters wide. The nets dip in and out of the water all day, staying down for only five minutes before being levered back up. Fort Cochin is the best place to see them up close. Choose a fish straight from the net then watch it being grilled in front of you for a tasty supper.
River Road, Nr Vypeen ferry terminal, Fort Cochin
Google map: bit.ly/Ldl7Hy
Although India is justifiably famous for its tea, Karnataka and Kerala are also renowned worldwide for the distinctive spicy coffee produced in the Western Ghats. Indians prefer to export this treasure to the world's enthusiasts, rather than drinking it themselves. But if you are prepared to hunt for the perfect present to take home, you'll find the beans in the commercial district of Ernakulam in Kochi. An unremarkable single-story building on Chittoor Road is home to Leela Coffee, where the thick chocolaty scent of roasted beans will draw you to the shop long before you see it. A counter stretches the width of the interior, and behind it looms an enormous grinder. They sell the beans by the kilo, or you can choose a vacuum-packed bag of ground deliciousness for 240 INR. However many bags you buy, you'll wish you bought more when you arrive home.
Leela coffee, Chittoor road, Valanjambalam +91(0)484 2375706
Like an ornate old world cathedral, this monumental representation of Gothic-revival architecture—complete with turrets, lancet windows, gables, high arches, elaborate porches, decorative corbels, and jutting gargoyles—stands aloof from its flock, cut off by six lanes of shrieking traffic. A superb example of British nineteenth-century design, the UNESCO-listed building rivals St. Pancras station and pays homage to Notre Dame. The Victoria Terminus (which took ten years to complete) was opened in 1887, Queen Victoria's golden jubilee year, when it was also given her name. It sheltered the delicate wives and daughters of the Raj as they passed through its porticoes, in buttoned-up layers of silk and guipure, on their way to the cool refuge of a mountain hill station. Today's elegant Mumbaiker women use the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus for their daily commute. Gliding by in exotic embroidered saris, acres of fine gold, glittering embellishment, and precious jewellery, they mirror the elaborate finish of the walls and columns that hold up this masterpiece.
Mumbai CST Area, DN Road, Mumbai, India
Google map: bit.ly/KDbfoi
At only 318ha, car-free Île de Bréhat is the largest island in this tiny archipelago of pink granite islets. Idle away the days by kayaking in the ebb and flow seascape, or walk the island's bird rich coves and coastal paths. In spring, while Bréhatins enjoy some pre-season peace, its Mediterranean flowers come into celebratory bloom. Marc Chagall visited in 1924 and painted "La fenêtre sur l'Ile de Bréhat".
Where better to pass the summer months than from a hand-painted luxury villa overlooking the Gulf of Naples? Start the day under a shady cypress tree in the garden, with a breakfast of olives, cheese, fruit and nuts, washed down with watery wine. Then cross your exquisite mosaic floor and glide down to the pristine beach. Later, refresh yourself in the company of other VIPS at the luxurious marble baths, and maybe take in a performance at the theatre together in the evening. Affluent Romans did just that until Herculaneum was completely submerged under a 16m-thick sea of mud in AD79, deposited there by Vesuvius. Enthusiasts and archaeologists have been excavating the site since 1709, but they still have a long way to go because the people of Ercolano live on top of it. Smaller than Pompeii, Herculaneum can be completed in a morning, with plenty of time for the kids to be back on the beach by the afternoon.
You need tenacity to get to the ancient Indus Valley city of Dholavira. Villages in the eastern badlands of Kutch are so remote you are required to obtain a permit to travel. You have to apply in person in Gandhidam, so expect to spend a day getting it organised if you have made Bhuj your base. Then it's a 250 kilometre hike along an increasingly lonely road from Bhuj towards the sensitive border with Pakistan. A bus will take seven hours to get you there, but with your own car and driver you can stop off along the way at any of the frontier villages, or bird-filled shallow lakes and really enjoy the journey. There is a long bridge from the mainland to the island over a scorched white desert of salt in the dry season, and the sea in the monsoon.
The 5000-year-old Harappan city of Dholavira lies in the northernmost reaches of the Great Rann of Kutch, on the floodplain island of Khadir. The Harappans were part of the spectacularly successful Indus Valley Civilization and possessed the same high intelligence as their better-known western counterparts in Egypt and Greece. Dholavira is one of the five most notable Indus Valley settlements, the best known being Mohenjodaro, a Unesco-listed site in Pakistan. Many of Dholavira's unique artefacts are in showcases at the National Museum in Delhi, but a few ancient seals, beads and other small items are on display in the small circular visitor centre and museum on site.
The excavation stretches over 100 hectares, most of it within a hillside fortification. Visitors are left without supervision to scramble through the citadel, cemetery, two stadia, many dwellings, several monumental gateways (including one with the first 'sign board' in the world above its entrance) and sturdy walls. To get to this unique city, which has stood for thousands of years, you must walk across a concrete bridge over one of the two rivers which flow round the hill in the monsoon. Built in the 1990s, the bridge is already crumbling.
The settlement was hewn from the rocky hill on which it sits and is unique among Harappan cities for its innovative engineering methods in collecting and conserving water: the site is dotted with dams, covered channels, perfectly preserved (and still working) reservoirs and storm water management systems. There are no guides, no touts and no-one there to sell you trinkets. If you persist you might be given a small pamphlet about the site, but it would be wise to bring your own information.
During my one-on-one tour with the caretaker, I asked him how many people he saw a year, “about 200” was the reply.
“What about foreign tourists?” I said.
He laughed, and indicated with a shrug that we were the first he had seen in a long time.
This is a shame, because the drive from Bhuj alone is an adventure, and worth a two day detour from the honeypot textile villages around Kutch's capital. The area is a naturalist's paradise. We saw flocks of demoiselle cranes and three species of ibis, as well as harriers, spoonbills, pelicans, storks, kites and countless other birds in the shallow waters which sprinkle the plain. This startling and unique habitat is also home to the nilgai, the largest antelope in Asia, of which we saw plenty.
There's nothing more relaxing than chug-a-lugging through the ancient Sussex landscape on a steam train. This Easter Sunday and Monday three special trips each day will include Easter eggs for children and hot cross buns for parents, all delivered by Little Bo Peep. There will also be a children’s entertainer on board. If you're lucky you might even see some bluebells and wave at some railway children. The first preserved standard gauge passenger line in the world has events running all year, so if you miss the Easter Special from Sheffield Park there will be plenty of other opportunities to ride on steam trains dating back to the nineteenth century.
The Bluebell Stepney Club for under eights dishes out badges, membership cards and other paraphernalia. If children turn into real enthusiasts they can graduate to the 9F Club, where they will be able to get involved in the preservation of this living piece of British history.
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