I've lived in Kochi for just under three years, but my home is on Mulavukad (Bolgatty) Island, closer to Ernakulam (Kochi's commercial centre) than the pretty tourist-beloved Fort Cochin. So when friends said they would be coming for Christmas and asked me to find them a homestay, I booked my partner and myself into Harry's place too. We wouldn't have to worry about getting the last ferry home or trying to find a rickshaw on new year's eve. It would be a holiday in our “home” town.
Sithara is not the prettiest, nor the best appointed homestay. It is set behind high walls and a metal gate, down an alley off the parade ground. There is no swimming pool. There are no smiling white-shirted waiters catering to your every whim, no lounging areas or bar. But Sithara has Harry and Mercy. And Harry and his lovely wife are what makes it such a special place. For Sithara is a REAL homestay, not a heritage home or bijou boutique hotel masquerading as a homestay. Sithara is where Harry and Mercy live.
The welcome is enthusiastic and real. Harry and Mercy want you to enjoy your stay and will do everything to make your trip a success. Harry knows everyone and can arrange anything you like. Booking Sithara by email was easy, Harry's answers were prompt and helpful.
There are four rooms: one downstairs, right next to where Harry and Mercy sleep, “specifically for western girls, singly or in pairs” so that they know Harry is right next door in case of an emergency (he told me this prior to the Delhi rape case); two double a/c rooms upstairs; and a non a/c (but the fans are enormous and all you need) double family room with two inter-connecting bedrooms, a balcony and a separate entrance. The immaculate garden (of which Harry is rightly proud) houses a bird cage containing some amiable, if loud, parakeets, mango trees, banana trees and plenty of exotic flowers. Food is extra, but Harry will cook whatever you like for breakfast and find you drinks and snacks throughout the day (I gorged myself on unsweetened fresh pineapple juice).
Don't use this lovely little place as just somewhere to sleep, sit under the shade of the balcony with Harry and get to know him and Mercy a bit before heading out to see the sights. If you are lucky, Mercy's sister "Baby" might join you too.
Just off Lilley Road in central Fort Cochin, the location is second to none.
If you want to share the home of a knowledgeable, upbeat and charming Keralan family, stay at Sithara.
Kerala is renowned for its food, and Fort Cochin is home to some smart and some simple places for its famous fish curry and other local specialities. Looking like the worst kind of tourist trap, the Hotel Cochin Fort (“Hotel” in this context meaning “restaurant”, as so often is the case in India) stands on a corner opposite posh Brunton Boatyard hotel. We had dropped in a few times for cups of tea and cold beers in the past and were always given fast and helpful service, so we took a chance and booked a table outside for new year's eve. We didn't expect much, just somewhere to stay up late with a few drinks and a place where our friends visiting us from the UK would be able to smoke. But it was so much better than that. The restaurant had quite a few foreign tourists, and I was interested to see some domestic tourists and even some Keralan families there too. Although Cochin Fort offers Italian and continental dishes, we played it safe with the local cuisine. Tiger prawns, seerfish (local name for Spanish Mackerel or Kingfish), chicken and vegetable dishes filled the table and were light, fresh and spicy. My Chemmeen Mango Curry (made with green mangoes) was scrumptious. The wine wasn't bad (Banyan Tree), the beer was cold and the seven of us chatted to the watchful waiters as the clock ticked towards 2013.
Then it all went a bit bonkers: one of the waiters had brought some tunes which he added to an mp3 player belonging to one of the guests and an instant party was born. The doors were barred and we had a lock-in until 2.30am. An impromptu Gangnam Style dancefest to a sound system was so distorted we each danced in the rain to our own rhythm (oh yes, it rained like the monsoon and we all thanked our own gods for bringing some sorely needed water to Kerala). The chef danced on the tables, the waiters and owner's family danced in the rain, my friends danced in the fountain and I danced with a chair on my head.
The next day we passed the guys and had a big hug. It seems that after seven years of being open they had never had a party before this new year's eve. Good times, and hopefully the first of many more.
Bellar Road, Fort Kochi, Cochin 682 001
We trekked 16km on Christmas Eve, along the Brahmagiri Hills, through jungle and open savannah to the boulder caves of Pakshipathalam. Here we climbed to the top, and at 1740m our home-made lunch was served on an "ela" (banana leaf). We ate with our hands, and washed down the coconut curry and tapioca curry bread with ice-cold water we'd collected from the mountain streams on our way up. Ashraf (our driver) carried lunch with him, and Manny (our local tribal guide) carried his machete (just in case some of the more frightening local wild inhabitants made an appearance). They both made the trip in flip flops, while I was still nursing my bruised toes a day later, despite being kitted out in waterproof walking boots.
To scratch the surface of what it is like to live in India, shun the eco-lodges and smart camps springing up in this remote district of Kerala, and plump for one of Wayanad's homestays instead. The people there are throwing open their houses to visitors, offering locally grown food, often from their own farms. Wayanad has some of the friendliest folk in the country: walk down the road and you'll be asked in for a cuppa or invited to join a game of badminton in the front garden. We stayed at the Varnam Homestay for five days over Christmas. It's remote, a three hour drive from Calicut along over 100km of winding mountain roads.
The family provided a car and driver, which we shared with some friends. It was good value and gave us the freedom to explore at our own pace. With wild elephant and tiger an ever-present threat to local communities at the moment, getting around on foot can be difficult and dangerous. A tiger had been spotted 300m from Varnum the previous week (they are a huge problem at the moment) and wild elephant came trampled the fields while we were there.
Varnum is run by Beena, who oversees the cooking, and her husband Varghese, by day a policeman. Their children were knowledgeable and friendly, going out of their way to get to know us. Young teenage daughter Varna took us on a tour of the garden and farm, pointing out ginger and fruit plantations, rubber and teak tree groves, coffee bushes and plenty more fruit trees, birds and wildlife. Dawn, their son, was at home from university for the Christmas holidays and spent all his free time talking to us. Just like their charming children, Varghese and Beena revel in meeting new people and are warm and genuine hosts.
A final word on the food. Possibly the best in India? After nearly three years of living in Kerala and travelling round the rest of the country, I am convinced you can't beat Keralan cooking. When it's cooked at home from the freshest possible ingredients by someone who really knows their stuff you know you're onto a winner.
Remote Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, in the Western Ghats of Kerala, borders Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and is part of the UNESCO trans-state Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Tholpetty has one of the two entrances into the sanctuary area (the other is in Muthanga). The ride in a closed Jeep allows for little visibility and is bumpy and uncomfortable. A breakneck tour of the forest along beaten tracks took just over an hour. We screeched to a halt to admire some langur monkeys, watched the colourful flash of exotic birds (but didn't stop to identify them) and gazed through the low, narrow windows at munching spotted deer as we sped past. Much better, were the leisurely drives in our hired car along public roads, from where we saw wild elephant and, on Christmas Day, a tiger. Tholpetty was a let-down, but Wayanad has to be one of the most beautiful and un-touched areas of India.
British Raj churches litter the lanes and streets of Kolkata, ancient cemeteries house gigantic mausoleums, and the fabulous crumbling mansions of the old empire's mandarins dot the city. In various stages of disrepair, these nostalgic reminders of an earlier time are squeezed between twentieth century concrete and glass houses, offices and shops. Overlooking the BBD Bagh, the ornate Writers Building, home to the Secretariat of West Bengal Government, is one of the city's best. It was built in 1790 to house the clerks of the ubiquitous East India Company; now its heroic red and cream façade dominates the area, and is the office of current day paper pushers.
Biplabi Trailakya Sarani, BBD Bagh, Kolkata
Google map: bit.ly/TaF5at
Conceived by Lord Curzon, and built long after the British had already moved their capital to Delhi, the Victoria Memorial was opened in 1921. Some describe it as India's modern day rival to the Taj Mahal. The interior is bland (if you want to see inside, avoid Mondays) but for two rupees you can walk round the formal grounds in which it stands. It's an imposing piece of late Victoriana in white marble, extremely well tended – not a crisp packet or plastic bottle in sight – and cleverly showcased among the gardens and lakes. Although impressive, its voluptuous curves don't quite match the splendour of the Taj Mahal.
Built by King Thirumalai Nayak circa 1636, outside holds little promise: bland walls showing signs of endless neglect, surround the complex. But once inside, a vast rectangular quad is ringed by monumental decorative colonnades of palest peach, vanilla, apricot, and cream. Restoration has begun on the smooth-stoned floors, and the decorative ceilings are elaborately painted with intricate designs. Pale creamy backgrounds are picked out in maroon, blue and emerald green. Further inside is the even larger Swarga Vilasa (celestial pavilion). With a dome rising to 25m at its centre, the palace is a perfect blend of Islamic and Italianate architecture and taste.
The Archaeological Survey of India started restoration work when the local courts finally vacated the building in 2009 and has declared the complex a protected site.
Opening times: 9.00 AM to 5.00 PM
Sound & Light Show Time: 6.45 PM to 7.35 PM in Tamil. 8.00 PM to 8.50 PM in English
The enormous temple, stretching over 45 acres, is a sixteenth century homage to Dravidian architecture in all its rumbustious colour and form. Fourteen gopurams (towers) – the tallest of which is about 170ft – dominate the city skyline. Made of granite, wood and stucco, every inch of each structure is covered in brightly painted multicoloured representations of gods and heavenly bodies.
Shoes and socks must be removed before entering the incense-filled interior, but the ancient stone floor is warm underfoot. As a non Hindu I was not allowed into the inner sanctums of the two golden domed shrines of Meenakshi and Shiva, but there are plenty of deities, carvings and columns in the labyrinth of corridors and chambers open to the public. Get there early to avoid the worst of the crowds, although during festivals it is heaving all day.
In 1959 The Dalai Lama fled to India and eighty thousand of his countrymen came with him. Many ended up in Darjeeling where they set up this self help centre. Although the Tibetan diaspora has spread throughout India, refugees still live and go to school in the complex, where they also sell carpets and other hand made goods.
Stretching the full length of the building, thick hardwood beams support the walls of the spinning room, and a bank of windows maximises natural light. Rows of swaddled Tibetan women quietly work on both sides, using spinning machines cannibalised from old bicycle wheels. Mounds of lanolin-rich sheep's wool dot the floor in rough woven sacks. Next door, the carpet weaving room contains four rows of enormous weaving frames, made from polished ancient hardwood. Ateliers surround the main courtyard: a few wizened men work hand sewing machines in the tailoring section, cigarettes clamped between jaws; a woman paints intricate flower designs onto greetings cards with fine paint brushes; and there is a room full of jaunty ladies knitting woollen bags, mitts and hats. A small photographic exhibition reminds visitor of the on-going troubles in Tibet.
65 Gandhi Road, Darjeeling
+91(354)225 2552 (Factory), +91(354)225 5938 (Office)
Google map: bit.ly/UOfdhW
Aka the “Mini Taj”, “Baby Taj” or “Jewellery Box”, this marble tomb was the forerunner of the Taj Mahal. It too lies on the banks of the Yamuna in Agra, but far fewer tourists bother to make the short taxi journey. Which is a shame, because the pietra dura of this translucent marble tomb is even more intricate, and the ornamentation even more ornate, than its better known cousin.
Noor Jahan, wife of Jehangir, built the tomb between 1622 and 1628 for her father, Mirza Ghiyath Beg, “Itmad-ud-daula” (Pillar of the Empire). It is smaller than the Taj, but in its own way just as impressive.
Opening: Daily from sunrise to sunset
Location: Yamuna river – east side, Agra
Price: Rs 110 foreign tourists
Akbar’s ‘City of Victory’ stands alone on a rocky plateau overlooking fields of dust and rocks. In 1569, Akbar built Fatehpur Sikri close to the residence of Shaikh Salim Chisti, the Sufi saint who helped him produce a male heir. It remained the capital of Akbar's Mughal Empire until 1585. Today women still tie a length of wool to the marble lattice windows of the saint’s tomb, in the hope that they too will fall pregnant with a boy child.
Sculpted from blood-red sandstone, the audience halls, palaces, astronomer’s kiosk and Panch Mahal were a powerful reminder to his subjects of Akbar's strength. As masculine as the Taj is feminine, Fatehpur Sikri is an exquisite and unique example of Mughal architecture and enterprise.
In 1948 'Bapu' was murdered at the Old Birla House. The beautiful building and gardens are now a museum and memorial to Gandhi. His spartan furniture is neatly displayed in his light-filled room. On the wall is a cabinet of his “worldly goods”, among them his specs and a spoon.
Following the concrete footsteps which trace the Mahatma's last walk is a moving experience. Before he reached his daily place of prayer he was shot, and today an unassuming memorial to the great man marks the exact spot.
Inside the house, his last days are documented by text and photography displayed on wall panels, including images from the great Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the last people to meet Gandhi before his death.
There is a multimedia museum on site, with plenty of exhibits to keep the children interested.
+91 11 2301 2843
Hours: Tues.-Sun., and 2nd Sat. of every month, 10-5
Google map: bit.ly/S9hxiK
The quality of service in this breezy rooftop restaurant is second to none. While every other householder in the village has slung up a bamboo roof on top of their building and declared themselves a restaurateur, the Franco-Indian couple who own "Le Yogi" really know their business: the waiter takes your order quickly, with no fuss; he brings your (cold) drink immediately; finally, he places in front of you the exact dishes you ordered, at the same time as those of your partner. The food is fresh and the atmosphere is laid back and informal. The decor, although similar to the de rigeur paper-lantern school of interiors beloved by exotic backpacker destinations, is just that little bit more chic and tasteful. With shelves full of books and games, you could easily spend all day here.
The only thing that lets it down is the rather basic squat lavatory with no flush system except a dripping tap.
They also run "La Pizzeria de Mama", on the opposite corner. But you can have your pizza delivered to "Le Yogi" if you can't be bothered to move away from this friendly, chilled place.
19, Othavadai St, Fishermen Colony, Mamallapuram, 603104, Tamil Nadu
Mamallapuram: surfer paradise, backpacker loungeville, and home to Unesco-listed 7th-8th century rock carvings.
The Arujuna Penance is set back from the road, unreachable to greasy, corroding tourist hands (a good thing when you consider that the Five Rathas and Shore Temples have become play parks for many tourists, and in the case of the furthest shore temple, a lavatory). You can stand and gaze at this terrific scene of gods and animals and make up your own stories for ages, or read the Archaeological Survey of India's website.
Although carved thirteen hundred years ago, the figures are still fresh, like naive art. I loved the monkeys sitting off to one side, as well as the cat lecturing his mice and the snake (gods?) falling through the Ganges. Ignore the touts and "guides' and just enjoy it for its own sake.
The other great thing? It's free.
Considering they were built over fourteen hundred years ago, and are situated on the shore of the feisty Bay of Bengal, it's an achievement that the temples are still here at all. (I wonder how many tsunamis have washed over them?) Ignore the moaning ninnies who go on about the carvings being indistinct and badly eroded: yes, they are to an extent, but they are still beautiful structures with a stunning backdrop.
The Shore Temples cost a non-Indian 250 rupees to visit (10 rupees to Indians), but this gets you into the Five Rathas too (make sure you go on the same day). The surrounding area is reasonably clean and free of litter, but why is the guard more concerned with people walking on the grass, than peeing in the shrine at the back of the furthest monument?
Go early to avoid the relentless heat and crowds.
One of Germany's most beautiful natural areas is only an hour and a half by train from Berlin's Hauptbahnhof. The Spree Forest is laced with lakes and canals channelled from the Spree River hundreds of years ago. There are barges with guides for a relaxing glide through the forest, or canoes for a more energetic exploration. The local dill, mustard and herb-flavoured gherkins taste good with locally smoked fish sandwiches. There are plenty of paths for walking and cycling, and there's hot-air ballooning if the weather is right. A glass of refreshing Lübbenauer Babbenbier is the traditional way to end the day before heading home.
Inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list in 1979, the cathedral is reckoned to be one of the finest pieces of Gothic architecture in the world. Work began in 1145, and although it is still in good condition, restoration is currently being undertaken. The stained-glass windows, for which it is most famous, were added in the 12th and 13th century and are worth the trip alone: jewel-like tones flood the interior during the day, adding colour and warmth to the sepulchral atmosphere. There's a light show in Chartres during the summer, with special attention paid to the cathedral.
If you've viewed the original (or the poster) and would like to see the real thing, then head out of Paris for a day to Claude Monet's house. The "Water Lilies" may not be flowering, but standing in the garden of the father of impressionism is like being inside one of his paintings: the Japanese foot bridge is right there in front of you. Painstakingly re-built, the house and garden have been restored to how they would have looked in Monet's day. A trip here beats watching the paint dry.
Breath some fresh air and shake off the city cynicism for a day. Just a hop and a skip from the middle of Paris there are 49,000 acres of ancient forest waiting to be explored. With numerous trails and paths running through this vast area, you can cycle or walk off the patisserie pounds in no time. If rock climbing and horse riding are more your thing, classes and tours can be arranged in Fontainebleau.
Locals and tourists to the area respect nature and enjoy the animals, but remember to steer clear of the wild boar, they're not always friendly.
Fontainebleau Tourisme, 4, Rue Royale - 77300 Fontainebleau
+33(0)160 749 999
Google map: bit.ly/PCD57Y
Train: From Gare de Lyon, the train journey takes 40 minutes. Trains run all day.
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