Tungabhadra river at Hampi

Weekend Getaways From Bangalore: Places to visit in 2 days

If you are looking for some places to visit near Bangalore (or Bengaluru if you insist) over the next long weekend that comes up, this post is for you! Here is a list of just 5 of the popular weekend getaways from Bangalore, as recommended by travel bloggers.

1. Munnar

One of the most preferred destinations among travellers for weekend getaways from Bangalore is Munnar. Munnar boasts an enticing landscape enveloped in carpets of tea plantations. It is till date the greenest place I’ve ever seen on this planet. Not only is it famous for its tea plantations but also has small yet scenic waterfalls amidst hills, and the highest peak in South India – the Anamudi Peak.

The best way to soak in the tranquillity of Munnar is to sit back, relax, and let the sprawling plantations work their magic. However, this resort town is much more than just plantations. Head to these places to see what more Munnar has to offer.

Mattupetty Dam: A deadly combination of mountains, forest, and water with blue sky and clouds like cotton balls is what I call the Mattupetty Dam. It is true that all dams look almost the same but this one comes along with a splendid view which makes it a photographer’s choice. You could opt for a boat ride, too.

Echo Point: Play a duet with nature – call out your names and let nature scream back to you. Works better when the crowd is less. It lies at the other end of the same Mattupetty Dam. Echo Point is a great 10 minutes stopover en route.
Top Station: Enjoy the panoramic views of Western Ghats from the highest point in Munnar. Lying on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, it almost feels like breathing the clouds. It is around 40 km from Munnar but the scenery it offers makes it totally worth a visit.

Attukad Waterfalls: I went to these waterfalls in the off-season and found I had the Attukad waterfalls all to myself. The trek to this waterfall is much more scenic than the waterfalls itself. It was a delight to walk through that path that leads to the waterfalls. Having Maggi next to the waterfalls made it worth every mile that I walked.

Anamudi Peak: A treat to the eye! On your way, spot a massive peak awarding mesmerizing views. Stop the car and take a glimpse at the highest peak of South India. The best part is that during monsoons you can see the waterfalls gushing out which makes it simply mystical.

View of Anamudi peak, the highest peak in the region
Anamudi peak as seen from Munnar

The most unique thing about Munnar is the Neelakurinji (blue-purplish flowers) that blooms once in every 12 years, and it is going to happen in 2018. It has already started blooming and by August the hills of Munnar would be bathing in shades of blue and purple. Top Station mentioned above has the best views of the Kurinji flower.

Munnar is an overnight journey from Bangalore by road. You could either drive or take a sleeper bus which is easily available online. Shut your eyes at night and the next morning you find yourself in the middle of heaven! This ease of getting there also makes it one of the most popular places to visit near Bangalore.

Neha blogs at TrippIndian and you can follow her on Instagram and Facebook

 

2. Belur and Halebid

Do you want to see the extraordinary architecture of the south Indian empire? Take a trip from Bangalore to Halebid and Belur temples in Karnataka. Famous to locals, but not known enough by foreigners, are the hidden gems worth a visit one of your next weekend getaways from Bangalore.

Belur and Halebid are located about 200 km from Bangalore and are popular places to visit near Bangalore. Both of the towns were once the capitals of the Hoysala Dynasty empire, that’s why they are rich in architecture from that period. Currently, they are proposed to be added to the UNESCO Heritage List.

A view of the stone cut temple of Belur
The ancient Belur temple

Halebid temple, the most important place in Halebidu town, was built in the 12th century and dedicated to the God Shiva. The detailed artwork and the friezes cover every wall and ceiling with every piece carved in the smooth soapstone, telling a different story. Since Halebid is a Shiva temple, there are two Nandi shrines on both sides of the building. Nandi is a name of the Shiva’s bull. The 6th and 7th biggest ones in India are located in Halebid.

The Belur temple is located 16 km away from Halebid, so it’s easy to visit both at the same time. Belur temple has a beautiful sanctum with a silver sculpture of Vishnu God. I especially liked the delicate and detailed carvings on the roof of the main building. The Belur temple is considered to be one of the most beautiful buildings of the Hoysala empire. It has a lot of details, and if you are patient, you can even find a few from 644 elephants located at the temple base. They are all different! Belur temple was initially built in the 12th century and its completion took 123 years. As the tradition says, you should always visit a temple in India in a clockwise direction, so remember that when going around the sacred buildings in Belur.

The closest city to Halebid and Belur is Hassan. It has good transport connections with Bangalore. You can take a train from Bangalore to Hassan and then a local bus to Belur and Halebid. There is also a possibility of arranging a private tour.
Both of the towns have several traditional shops and restaurants around, so you can grab a bite in between the sightseeing. There are not so many options for accommodation, however, you can find a few guesthouses around Belur. Alternatively, you can come back to Hassan, Bangalore or Mysore for the night. Hope this will inspire you to add Belur Halebid to your bucket list of weekend getaways from Bangalore!

Aga blogs at Worldering Around and you can follow her on Facebook and Instagram

 

3. Mysore

Mysore was one of the largest princely states during the British rule on India. It’s grand royal palace, planned roads and architecture makes it popular among places to visit near Bangalore. The royal family of Mysore still follows some age-old traditions and that makes them different from others royal families. Today Mysore of one of the most popular weekend getaways from Bangalore.

Places to visit in Mysore

Mysore Palace: My favourite place in Mysore is the Royal Palace, its beautiful Indo Saracen architecture makes it one of its kind in India. There are many valuable artefacts on display in the palace and the durbar hall is so beautifully ornate that you feel amazed at the workmanship. The Palace is illuminated with thousands of light bulbs on special occasions and holidays, it looks very nice with lights.

The Chamundeshwari Temple: Dedicated to goddess Chamundi, it is located on the Chamundi hill outside the main city of Mysore. This temple is one of the 12 Shakti Peeths of the Goddess. Also, visit the massive black colour monolithic statue of Nandi bull on the Chamundi hill.

Chamundeshwari Temple

Brindavan Gardens: These gardens are 20 km from Mysore city. It is a good place for a picnic or to spend an evening at leisure. The gardens are well designed and landscaped and there is a musical fountain show with special light effects every evening. This place gets crowded for this fountain show, so keep your belongings safe.

Cathedral of St. Joseph and St. Philomena: This is one of the tallest churches in Asia. This Neo-Gothic style church was designed by a Frenchman named Daly by taking inspiration from the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. The twin spires of the church are 175 feet tall and can be seen from a distance of 1 km. The inside of the church is beautifully designed with stained glass windows showing the last supper of Christ and other events of his life after the crucifixion.

Railway Museum: This is the second best museum of its kind in India after Delhi’s Rail museum. They have a good collection of vintage motor cars, the salon of Wadiyar royal family, a gallery with photographs and paintings displaying the growth of Indian Railways. A small toy train runs on the grounds for children.
GRS Fantasy Park: This is a place to visit if you are travelling with kids or like water parks. Though it is not as modern as some of the big parks in India, it is still an interesting place to spend some time with near and dear ones.

Food
The local food of Mysore is healthy and tasty. Eat at Vinayaka Mylari, Mahesh Prasad, Om Shanti, Hotel Parklane and Oyster bay for some good food.

How to travel from Bangalore to Mysore
The distance between two cities is 150 Km and takes about 2.5 hours. The road conditions are good, so driving is the best option if you are visiting Mysore on one of your weekend getaways from Bangalore. If you don’t want to drive than take a train, there are around 2 dozen trains between two cities. Both cities are well connected by bus service. KSRTC and private bus companies operate many buses throughout the day. If you want to go by taxi than Ola outstation is a good option. To travel in Mysore or nearby areas, auto rickshaws are available easily or you can also book Ola Cabs.

Sapna blogs at My Simple Sojourn and you can follow her on Instagram and Facebook

 

4. Chikmagalur

Are you looking for places to visit near Bangalore? You should consider the hill station Chikmagalur whose peace and tranquillity will give you the break you need from the city’s traffic and noise. The clean air is the perfect escape from the pollution. The nearest railway station is Bangalore and you can drive from there in four hours, or book a taxi. Chikmagalur is not accessible by public transport, unfortunately. Mangalore is the nearest airport and it is a three and a half hour to four-hour drive from there. Chikmagalur is famous for its home stays. There are even five star home stays which you may prefer if you are a luxury traveller. Chikmagalur is mainly a hub for nature sightseeing, hiking and treks so if you are a trekking enthusiast you should consider including Chikmagalur in your bucket list of weekend getaways from Bangalore.

You may want to spare an entire morning for a trek here. Mullayanagiri which is a 3km trek should be considered. This takes you to the highest peak in Karnataka at an altitude of 1950 metres. It is a 20 km long drive from Chikmagalur. There is another peak named Baba Budanagiri which is a 36 km drive from Chikmagalur or you can go here from Mullayanagiri as there is a trail that connects it to Baba Budanagiri. But it is a hard climb as it is a 12-kilometre trek. The other popular trekking trails from Baba Budanagiri are to Gallikere(4km), Manikyadara falls(7km), Attigudi Junction(6km).

A view of Mullayangiri from above
Mullayangiri

Non-trekking activities include a visit to the coffee plantations and a coffee museum which is located within the city. Kudremukh National Park which is located 96 km away from Chikmagalur can also be visited; there is a hill there shaped like a horse head hence the name Kudremukh (In Kannada kudre means horse and mukh means head).

The scenic manmade Hirekollake lake located 10km away from the city is a perfect picture clicking spot. If you decide to skip the trekking and have some time to spare, you must pay a visit to Bhadra Dam and Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary along which the river Tungabhadra flows.

Summer is not exactly the ideal time to visit Chikmagalur since it can get really hot and you may not enjoy certain activities like trekking. The weather is pleasant during the monsoon but the rain may spoil your day. The best time to visit Chikmagalur is winter between October and February. Do explore Chikmagalur as one of the possible weekend getaways from Bangalore!

Harini blogs at Miss Talking Feet; you can follow her on Instagram and Twitter

 

5. Hampi

The ancient Vijayanagar empire was once the richest and most important kingdom in this part of the world. Its capital was Hampi, and this town still bears witness to the striking architectural developments of the time. Hampi is a must-visit place for anyone who has an interest in history or architecture. The ruins of the temples, palaces and other structures here date mostly between the 14th and 16th centuries and offer a peek into the life of an earlier time. It can easily be visited during one of your weekend getaways from Bangalore.

The Virupaksha and Vijay Vitthala temples, as well as the Royal Enclosure, must not be missed while you are in Hampi. You can cover the main highlights of Hampi in two days although three would be even better; I strongly recommend adding Hampi to the top of any list of weekend getaways from Bangalore. Do read my detailed post on things to do in Hampi. 

The stone chariot at Vitthala temple in Hampi
Chariot at Vitthal Temple Hampi

Hampi is about a six-hour drive away from Bangalore, but you can also take an overnight train or bus from Bangalore to Hospet if you prefer not to drive. Hospet to Hampi is a brief auto rickshaw or bus ride away. Early in 2018 Trujet also started a flight connection from Bangalore to Vidyanagar airport, making it even more convenient to make weekend getaways from Bangalore to Hampi. Hampi is definitely one of the most culturally rich places to visit near Bangalore.

So there you have it, five ideas for weekend getaways from Bangalore for the next long weekend that comes up. The question is, where will you go first?

 

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The most beautiful places in Sardinia

Sardinia is often described as a small heaven in the heart of the Mediterranean. Its coasts and its candid beaches are the emblems of it, but there are numerous places and endless facets that are worth a visit. In this guest post, Italian blogger Simone would like to introduce you to the most beautiful places in Sardinia. All these places are ideal to visit both for couples or families, although some excursions could be fatiguing for young children.

Best places to visit in Sardinia

Here is a list of my preferred places in Sardinia –

Arbatax

Arbatax is something different, an alien place, dry, exotic and open as its sea. It seems that its name come from the Arab and means “14”, to point out the fourteen towers that dominate the promontories and that remind us the history of Sardinia, used by the main cultures of the Mediterranean, among them the Saracens.

After having crossed the inside land from Cagliari to the province of the Ogliastra, among dry and almost desert hills, the sea is what you’ll see once you arrive, a blue that loses itself to the horizon and that lays upon a coast of stones, great as the megaliths of the ancient civilizations, among palms and eucalyptuses.

Arbatax Park covers 60 hectares of Capo Bellavista, among small roads that climb and go down along the hill, a perfect walk between the white and the violet of the oleanders. The tall eucalyptuses pick up the wind and their leaves produce a rustle that you’ll hear all over the night when the sea breeze is stronger.

All it takes to reach the sea is a few footsteps; go down toward the beaches and the small inlets, where you can stay also in the warmest hours in the shade of a palm, watching the waves that slowly come from the open sea toward the rocks.

Best beaches in Sardinia

Gallura, north Sardinia

If I say Sardinia, what thought comes to your mind? To me, a fabulous sea that resembles a lot the ocean of the Caribbean islands, with the only and only difference that it is a little cold, but these are just details!

On a sunny day, I have departed for an excursion on a boat from the tourist village Marinedda, on the northwest coast of Sardinia, with destination the Red Tower harbour. Here I took a motorboat to discover the most beautiful beaches of the Gallura (some of which are visitable only by sea) to see the colours of the water that changes due to the clouds, to the backdrop, to the season.

The first beach that I have visited during the tour has been Cala Tinnari, a lonely and untouched place, and thereafter I continued to the best Sardinia beaches, Cala Serraina, Vignola, and Monti Russu. The word that unites those beaches is “wild”, in a positive sense. They are still unspoiled beaches where man has not destroyed anything.

I then continued up to the archipelago of the Maddalena! Among the most important islands of this archipelago, there are Maddalena, Budelli, Caprera and Saint Maria, that I warmly recommend you to visit. Each one has in store for you some unforgettable characteristics!

Here I have described an enchanting day articulated by the rhythm of the sea in a place surrounded by nature.

 

Things to do in Sardinia

I have spent one weekend in Sardinia and discovered that this big island is not only sea, even its hinterland has places rich in beauty that also deserve a visit. This is where the villages are surrounded by a veil perfumed of the past, where the pebbles of the roads have been stamped on by people who have made of their earth a source of life.

I have visited Aggius in the heart of the Gallura. It has a small inhabited centre, in which the houses are built with the granite rock. An important resource of the territory, it is specialized in the production and framework of carpets.

In the Museum Etnografico, the MEOC, there is the whole history of their traditions since 1600. Just with entering the building you seem to be catapulted in a new dimension, thanks to the perfume of the helichrysum in the air and the folklorist music of the place. You can see a “traditional house”, a representation with all the objects and the furniture, with the activities that had taken place during the day, like the preparation of wine, bread, and cheese.

Other things to see are the Nuraghe, a megalithic construction of conical form that goes back to the Bronze era (1700 B.C. around). Their main function was that of defense, but not only that, considering that during the excavations archaeologists have found utensils of daily use.

I have visited the Nuraghe Majori. Inside the building live a colony of bats that reach the nuraghe every April, where they give birth and then in October they go away again. The guide illuminated them for a quick instant, without frightening them: those little creatures made me feel really tender!

South Sardinia

To find white and untouched beaches you don’t need to go to the Caribbean! You just have to reach South Sardinia. This part of the island has, in fact, some of the most beautiful places in Sardinia.


Perhaps it is lesser known, but the southern part of Sardinia is as beautiful, even if slightly different in comparison to the zones in the north of the island, with breathtaking beaches of white sand. In the hinterland, the landscape is constituted of mountains covered by woods and cultivation.

Cagliari is the chief town of Sardinia and is an important destination of the Mediterranean routes. This city can boast the passage of the Phoenician around the IX century B.C. and of the Romans toward the end of the II century. You can visit innumerable historical monuments such as the Patrician’s Villas and the amphitheater that in the summer hosts different cultural demonstrations.

To the east of Cagliari (about 50 km through the beautiful coastal road) is  Villasimius, an old village of shepherds and fishermen, that has known significant tourist development during the 60’s. It offers a breathtaking panorama of white sand beaches and the crystalline sea. The city offers the tourists some of the most beautiful beaches in Sardinia as Porto Giunco, Punta Is Molentis, and Cala Caterina.


To the south of the Sardinian chief town, you will find Pula, a great agricultural and tourist village for all types of budgets, unlike the Coast Smeralda. Pula, other than a magnificent shore, offers also a series of attractions of cultural and archaeological interest. For example, Villa Santa Maria with its neoclassic style and the Archaeological Museum of Giovanni Patroni where are hosted some archaeological finds of the archaeological village of Nora.

Iglesias is deeply tied to the mining activity of Sardinia. The Carthaginian were the first ones to exploit these resources and subsequently, in the Middle Ages, Pisa. The city has preserved a medieval urban development, where you can visit the Cathedral of Santa Chiara, the church of San Francesco and for the interested ones, the Museum of Mineralogy and Paleontology where there are at least 8000 pieces of fossils and archaeological findings.

These are only some examples of thing you can see during your vacation in Sardinia: some sun, some sea and so many things to visit, here are the ingredients for your 2018 summer! Hope you enjoyed learning about some of the most beautiful places in Sardinia!

 

My name is Simone, I have a wife and two kids. I travel a lot, I like it and I like Italy. And I want to share it with you. Follow my website Lovinitaly and my Pinterest       

 

 

Hemkuta Hill Hampi

Temples, Coconuts and Ganesha: Hampi in Two Days

History buff that I am, visiting the ancient temples of Hampi had been on my to-do list for quite some time. I recently used a long weekend to make this trip from Delhi to Hampi in two days via Bangalore. If you enjoy history, architecture and nature then you will love Hampi. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in my opinion one of the most underrated places in India. Read on to discover more about the town’s history, the places to visit in Hampi in two days, and the nitty-gritty of planning a trip here.  

Hampi is a small, laid-back sort of town surrounded by paddy fields, coconut trees and banana plantations. The pace of life is much slower than what you’d typically be used to. In that sense, it felt like a mix of Kerala and Goa. There are homestays and small thali-serving “restaurants” everywhere. Coconut sellers place themselves strategically outside the various temple gates, offering them to you when you return from a visit, happy but dehydrated. Coconut water is great for rehydration by the way so drink away. I lost count of the amount of coconut water I got through during my two days in Hampi! 

The historic heart of the town i.e. Hampi Bazaar and its surroundings are considered sacred ground and you will not find any non-vegetarian food or alcohol being served here. To even find an ATM you will have to come out towards Kamalapur. The town survives mostly through income from tourism, as well as the neighbouring industrial belts. It is also a known centre for weaving. Cotton Ilkal saris from Hampi are famous, as are saris and textiles made out of the locally sourced banana-leaf fibre.

 

History of an Ancient Town – Kishkindha to Pampa to Hampi

Hampi derives its name from Pampa, the older name of the Tungabhadra river. The earliest archaeological records found here indicate that Hampi was inhabited by settlers as early as the 1st century AD. It is also believed to have been a part of the Mauryan Empire, and after that ruled by the Chalukyas and the Hoysalas. One can still see some surviving specimens of Hoysala temple architecture here.

The city really came into its own in the medieval times with the rise of the Vijayanagar Empire, the last great Hindu kingdom. The Empire was established in 1336, and Hampi as its capital city grew steadily and flourished as a centre for trade in gems, cotton, spices etc. Hampi was, in the 15th century, the second-largest city in the world (Beijing being the largest) and the richest city in India. It was a thriving metropolis, with a highly developed sense of art, architecture, agriculture and infrastructure. The society was multi-ethnic and multi-religious.

In the latter half of the 16th century, the Kingdom fell to the Deccan Sultans, and Hampi was destroyed, pillaged, and then abandoned. Today the ruins of Hampi consist of nearly 1600 monuments, are spread over an area of over 30 sq. km. Anybody who has seen the temples of Angkor Wat would be struck by the similarity in the layouts of the various groups of temples.

There is another mythological aspect to Hampi as well. It is believed that Hampi is, in fact, the Kishkindha kingdom mentioned in the Ramayana, where Rama and Laxmana met Sugreeva and Hanuman and stayed for some time before leaving for Lanka. In fact, Anegundi, located across the river from Hampi, has a Hanuman temple as well as a hill called Anjaneya Parvat where Hanuman is supposed to have been born.

Bali Sugreeva battle Hampi
Sculpture from a carved pillar showing the battle between Monkey Kings Bali and Sugreeva in Kishkindha

Places to see in Hampi

The ruins of Hampi are clustered into groups; the two main groups are – the temples and sacred monuments around the Hampi Bazaar and the royal enclosure near Kamalapur. The Vijay Vitthal temple stands in solitary grandeur about 2km away from the Hampi Bazaar. There are also various hilltops around Hampi with ruins scattered across.

If you have four or five days, you can visit every monument in detail and cover everything easily. However, given that most people only stay in Hampi for two or three days, I’m giving below a list of the most important places to visit in Hampi in two days.

 

Places to Visit in Hampi in Two Days

  1. Virupaksha Temple

This is one of the most important temples in the area and the only living temple. As you walk up the road to the temple, you will notice roofless stone pavilions along the entire side of the road. These are remains of the lively bazaar that used to exist outside this temple in the 15th century. The temple is dedicated to Virupaksha, a form of Shiva and the patron deity of the Vijayanagar Empire. The original temple was constructed in the 7th century i.e. much before the Vijayanagar kingdom came about. Time your visit to this temple for the early morning to avoid crowds. Also, if you visit in the morning you might get to watch an elephant getting a morning bath at the adjoining river-ghat.

 

Approaching the Virupaksha Temple from Hampi Bazaar
Approach to Virupaksha Temple

 

  1. Sasivekalu Ganesha

This is a monolithic statue of Ganesha, about 8 feet high. Walk around and look at it from the back, and you will see that the sculptor has tried to show Ganesha sitting in Parvati’s lap. “Sasivekalu” in Kannada apparently means mustard and the statue has been thus named because of the similarity of its belly to a mustard seed. Or so I was informed.

 

  1. Kadalekalu Ganesha

Located just a couple of minutes’ walk from the earlier Ganesha, this monolithic statue of Ganesha was damaged by the invaders. At 15 feet tall, it’s one of the tallest Ganesha statues I’ve ever seen. Its location is really great, a pillared porch on a rocky outcrop surrounded by hills. Quite scenic.

Kadlekalu Ganesha or Bengal Gram Ganesha statue in Hampi

 

  1. Laxmi Narasimha

Narasimha is considered an incarnation (avatar) of Vishnu. Laxmi Narasimha as seen in Hampi is also sometimes called Ugra (angry) Narasimha due to the statue’s facial expressions. There was originally a Laxmi statue present in Narasimha’s lap, but this was damaged during the invasion of Hampi. What remains is the Narasimha statue and just the hand of Lakshmi. This statue is the largest of all statues in Hampi.

 

The Laxmi Narasimha statue is the tallest statue in Hampi
Entering the Laxmi Narasimha Temple

 

  1. Badaviling Temple

Located just next to the Laxmi Narasimha, this is a 3-metre high Shivling, carved out of a single piece of rock. It is believed that it was made by a poor woman seeking to please the deity.

  1. Underground Shiva Temple

This Shiva temple was until recently partially under water. It is still getting excavated and cleaned up by the ASI but is worth a look if you visit.

  1. The Royal Enclosure

This was the heart of the daily life of the royal inhabitants of Hampi. The Royal Enclosure contained living quarters, water tanks, stables, durbar halls etc.

Elephant Stables – This is a set of 11 stables for the King’s favourite 11 elephants.

Lotus Mahal – This beautiful medley of Hindu and Islamic styles of architecture was a part of the Zenana complex, and used as a venue for recreation and meetings. It reminded me of structures I had seen at Fatehpur Sikri in Agra.

Hazara Rama Temple – This Rama temple was the only temple within the Royal Enclosure and was the location for all ceremonial rituals of the royal family. The bas-reliefs on its walls depict scenes from the Ramayana – and instantly reminded me of the bas-reliefs on the walls of Angkor Wat.

Mahanavmi Dibba – This 8m high platform probably exists in the same shape as it was made all those years ago. The King used to watch the Navami celebrations from here.

Queen’s Bath – This was an enclosed pool surrounded by corridors. The queen and her ladies used to go here for bathing and relaxation.

The Elephant Stables in the Royal Enclosures at Hampi
The Elephant Stables inside the Royal Enclosure

 

     8. Vijay Vitthal Temple

The Vitthal temple is as significant and well-known among the Hampi temples as is the Virupaksha temple. Avoid going here in the afternoon – visit early in the morning or in the evening. There is a dirt road about one km long that needs to be covered either on foot or by the shuttle bus, for which demand usually outruns supply. Vitthal temple is a Vishnu temple, and the highlights of this temple are the detailed carving, the various musical pillars (it is now forbidden to play music on these pillars to avoid damaging them further) and the huge stone chariot that is so intricately carved that it almost looks monolithic.

The Vijay Vitthal temple is one of the two most important temples in Hampi
The famous stone chariot of the Vijay Vitthal temple

9. Hemkuta Hill

Hemkuta Hill near the Sasivekalu Ganesha is a famous sunset point in Hampi. I had read about it and decided to give it a shot. It was a wonderful experience and I would recommend the sunset here to anybody. Get here at least half an hour before sunset to get a good place to sit, since it’s a very nice and peaceful place to relax. You get some amazing views of the surrounding hills. It’s a large enough hilltop to allow for a large number of people to gather without getting into each other’s space which is great.  

 

Other things to do in Hampi

Rock climbing: The rocky landscape with huge boulders attracts droves of rock climbing and bouldering aficionados to Hampi, with November and December being the peak period for this activity.

Wildlife watching: You can visit the Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary, the only such sanctuary for sloth bears in India. It is located just 15km away from Hampi.

Visit the Tungabhadra dam: Located just outside Hospet, this is the largest dam in Karnataka. There is a lighthouse here which offers great views of the surroundings. There is also a garden with a musical fountain, somewhat popular with visitors in the evenings.

Coracle ride: You can cross the Tungabhadra river by coracle (a traditional round boat) that are still used in Hampi to this today. Look for these near the Virupaksha temple ghats.

ASI Museum: This museum in Kamalapur houses the artefacts found during excavations here, and also explains Hampi’s history in detail. The museum remains closed on Mondays and public holidays.

Tungabhadra river at Hampi
Tungabhadra river and Hampi’s classic boulder-strewn landscape

 

How to reach Hampi

By train: The closest railway station is Hospet, a town located within 30 minutes’ driving distance from Hampi. If you take the overnight train Hampi Express from Bangalore (Bengaluru), this is where you will arrive. From Hospet, you can easily get to Hampi by local bus or by autorickshaw.

By bus: Hospet has bus connectivity with cities like Bangalore and Mysore. From here you can continue to Hampi by local buses or autorickshaws.

By air: Till March 2018, the closest airport for Hampi used to be Bangalore which is a drive of about six hours. Luckily, since then Trujet has introduced a Bangalore to Vidyanagar flight connection. The new airport at Vidyanagar (Bellary) is just about an hour’s drive from Hampi.  

By car: If you wish to drive yourself, you can also bring your own vehicle as the roads, for the most part, are in decent condition, except for a few bits in between. Take the route via Bellary. Hampi being a popular weekend destination, quite a few people drive down from Bangalore, Hyderabad, Goa and so on.

 

Where to stay in Hampi

Hampi has accommodation to suit all budgets and requirements. The local administration has recently shut down most homestays and guesthouses in the Hampi Bazaar area, so check before booking. Kamalapur in southern Hampi is not a bad place to stay. It’s not much in terms of ambience, but the location is great. It’s where the bus-stand and ASI Museum are. It also offers close access to the Royal Enclosure side of the ruins.  The hotel I stayed at (Clarks Inn) was more than satisfactory.

 

Best time to visit Hampi

Being located in southern India and in an extremely rocky terrain, Hampi has a dry and warm climate. Summers can be quite unbearable, so avoid visiting between April and July. If you are making a long and lazy trip and don’t mind a bit of rain, monsoon would be ideal. If a quick weekend is what you have in mind, then the cooler months of November to February are good.

 

Getting around Hampi

If you haven’t brought your own wheels, then you have quite a few options when it comes to local transportation. You could walk of course, but I would not recommend this. The Hampi ruins are spread over rather a large area and the hot weather can really sap your energy. If the weather and your fitness levels allow, you may hire bicycles from your hotel or one of the local bike-hire outfits. Some places also rent out scooters and motorcycles, but be careful to check that it’s a legit setup. The bike you hire must have a commercial licence plate or you may get into trouble with the police.

By far the most common and ubiquitous way of transport within Hampi is the autorickshaw. They are everywhere.  Drivers will usually negotiate a flat per-day rate with you to take you around the temples of Hampi. However, they are not guides, so if you want a guide in addition, that will cost you extra. If you prefer a hired car and driver, most Hampi hotels and guesthouses can arrange this as well.

 

Overlooking Virupaksha Temple from Hemkuta Hill at sundown in Hampi
Overlooking Virupaksha Temple from Hemkuta Hill at sundown

 

I’ve seen a lot of temples in India and found Hampi to be really unique. The ruins and their stories are fascinating, and the quality of workmanship in the sculptures is outstanding. I do wish the local administration would focus on infrastructure development here. Given proper maintenance, better roads, shuttle buses, trained guides, etc., Hampi can easily be India’s Angkor Wat. In fact, I didn’t get enough of Hampi in two days and know that I will be back soon enough. 

 

Have you ever visited Hampi? What was your favourite part of the trip? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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Two Traveling Texans

#Travel tips on what to see and do in two days in #Hampi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Bangalore in southern India

Isle of Skye offers scenic views

Travelogue: Day-Trip to the Isle of Skye

I had posted a little while ago about my trip to the Scottish Highlands and promised another post about the second part of the trip, my day-trip to the Isle of Skye. Here it is!

Driving across the Skye Bridge, we took a long day-trip to the Isle of Skye from our base in Stromeferry. We spent the entire day exploring different parts around Skye. The beauty of this island cannot be described in words, and even the pictures don’t really do it justice. I fell in love with this part of the world on that day. I still count the Isle of Skye amongst one of my favourite places in the world. Maybe someday I will revisit and explore it in greater detail.

Cuilin peaks on Skye

On this trip around the Isle of Skye we stopped to see the Cuillin Mountains; Portree which is the main town of Skye and rather quaint and lovely; the “Old Man of Storr” rock, etc. We spent an hour relaxing and admiring the views in Glenshiel (Fairy Glen). As per legends, this is the point where our world and that of the fairies meet. It did feel magical and beautiful high up there (I had climbed up to the top of the rock described as the fairy fort).

Old Man of Storr (L), Kilt Rock (R)

Tip: If you wish to pick up travel souvenirs or gifts while in Skye, try out the shops in Portree. You can buy interesting stoneware, pottery, trinkets and jewellery, things incorporating the local products like heather, and so on.

 

After passing Uig and catching some stunning sea views, we stopped at an unmarked point surrounded by cliffs and cliffside paths. Our guide took us on a walk along a trail which was, in hindsight, probably not the best idea for me with my propensity for accidents. However, the views at the end of the trail did make up for the nervous moments.

We ended the day with a visit to the Kilt Rock and its waterfall. From here, on a clear day, you can see right across the sea to the islands of Raasay and Rona. We were told that we were very lucky to have this view, since there are very few days with such good visibility here.

 

I was really tired by the time we drove back to Stromeferry. But this day-trip to the Isle of Skye was probably the most beautiful part of my days in Scotland. Just thinking about it now makes me want to go back!

The next morning we left Stromeferry and drove to Inverness, crossing the Glenelg Scenic Way. I was finally getting to visit Nessie!! Loch Ness is a huge, and I mean huge, expanse of water –  25 miles long, 1 mile wide, over 700 feet deep. Interestingly it’s a mix of salt and fresh water – salt water stays at the bottom and fresh water on top, with some kind of geothermal layer acting as a barrier. Not sure of the technicalities but interesting fact anyway. I looked around for Nessie but maybe she was sleeping in, it was a Sunday morning after all! It was grey and foggy and rather cold so we took some pictures, I picked up some pebbles that I’d promised to get for my sister, and then we drove on.

Loch Ness on a grey day

I’d been lucky with the weather so far; in all my time in Scotland there hadn’t been a drop of rain and I’d seen some glorious sunny days. Today that changed and the day was dark, gloomy, and windy with bouts of rain every now and then. Apparently, this is more what Scottish weather is supposed to be.

From Inverness, we went on to visit the Culloden battle site. This was a flat patch of moor where the Jacobites led by Bonnie Prince Charles fought a final battle against a much larger English army under the Duke of Cumberland in the mid 18th century. It was literally a massacre, over in less than an hour’s time for the most part. No prisoners were to be taken, so all survivors including the women and children were killed. Once the battle was over, the Duke set two trained butchers on the field to ensure that none of the dead would be recognisable in any way. As a result, all that marks the dead of this battle is one big common cairn in the middle. There are also numerous small stones scattered around, each bearing the name of a clan that fought and died here. It was a very sad place.

Culloden moor

At Culloden, I took a coffee break because I found myself really affected by the whole story of the battle and the brave Highlanders. In time we all got back, and soon a short drive brought us to Clava Cairns, a prehistoric burial site 3000 to 5000 years old. It is the best preserved Bronze Age burial site in Scotland. The cairns of stacked stones were constructed in such a way that on a solstice day the light of the sun would hit the inside wall of the cairn. Nobody knows exactly why the cairns were built, but it is supposed that they came up gradually over many years.

Clava Cairns

From Clava Cairns, we drove to a tiny little town called Aviemore, which is mostly a base for people going trekking/skiing/hiking in the mountains. Practically half the town was built around the one High Street. I will remember Aviemore for the awesome hot chocolate I had here!

Leaving Aviemore we went past Blair Atholl castle (the place after which the original Scottish owners had named what is now Wallwood Garden in Coonoor, India) to Pitlochry, a slightly bigger town. It was raining much too hard to look around though, and we continued in the driving rain towards Edinburgh.  At the Mile I said goodbye to the others and left for the bus station with two of the American girls from the group, as all three of us were taking the same night bus back to London.

Midnight saw me bringing in my birthday in a National Express Coach somewhere on the highway to London!!

Visiting the scenic Isle of Skye in Scotland covering places like Portree, Old Man of Storr, Glenshiel, Kilt Rock etc.

 

Two Traveling Texans
Pangong lake in the afternoon

Pangong Lake – The Most Popular Lake in Ladakh

My post today is more of a picture-post about Pangong Lake, the most popular lake in Ladakh. It is definitely one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. The original name of the lake is Pangong Tso, with “Tso” being the Tibetan word for a grassland lake. One-third of the lake lies in India, and the rest in China.

A very large section of the Indian population had not heard of Pangong lake till 2009. That’s the year when the popular Aamir Khan movie “3 Idiots” was released. This lake was where the final scene of the film was shot. Since then, the popularity of the lake has grown across the country and a visit to “the 3 Idiots lake” is a must-do for practically any Indian visiting Ladakh.

Pavilions alongside Pangong lake
Pavilions alongside Pangong lake

I’ve been lucky to see the lake both in summer as well as winter. In summer, the colour of the water in Pangong keeps changing according to the level of sunlight and clouds. In winter, the water freezes over and I had a great time walking (and slipping) on the frozen Pangong lake.

Some more images from the late summer visit

Clear waters at Pangong lake
The water is crystal clear, salty and brr cold!

 

Pangong lake around sunset
The lake at twilight

 

Pangong lake at sunrise
Watching the sun about to rise over the mountains

Increasing tourism in the region has brought its own challenges of infrastructure and ecological balance. I hope the local administration will continue to keep a control over the area, and not let it get over-touristed like so many other places in the country.

Getting to Pangong:  Pangong Tso lies about a 6-hour drive away from Leh, the capital of Ladakh and the only airport in the region. Leh is connected by flight to Delhi, Srinagar and Mumbai.
Cabs or bikes can be hired from Leh for a day-trip or overnight excursion to the lake.

Stay at Pangong: During summer (Mid May until about the end of September) you will find seasonal camps set up near the lake. These will be basic tents with toilets but no other mod-cons. If you are in reasonably good health, and happy to rough it out for unforgettable sunrise and sunset views, then you might want to stay overnight. Be prepared though – the area gets terribly windy at night. Also, the lake is at a much higher altitude (14,200 feet) than Leh (11,500 feet), so you will need to acclimatize in Leh first.

If you are travelling with children or older persons, I would recommend a day trip and return to Leh, to stay at the lower altitude.

Camp at Pangong lake
Typical camp at Pangong

Whether you visit for a day-trip or brave an overnight stay, Pangong lake is an unforgettable, unmissable part of a visit to Ladakh. Do remember though that you are in an ecologically sensitive area, and act like a responsible traveller.

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Pangong Lake is the most famous and popular lake in Ladakh

 

Two Traveling Texans

 

Travelogue: My Visit to the Scottish Highlands

One of my most memorable trips so far was the trip I took from Edinburgh to the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Skye. Even though it was a while ago, all I need to do is to close my eyes and remember, and I get transported to a happy place! I’ve decided to share my memories of that trip in two successive posts, starting today.

My great Scottish Highlands adventure started on a sunny June morning from Edinburgh, where I had already spent a few days exploring the city. I was travelling solo for the first time, didn’t know how to drive and wanted a cheap way to explore the Isle of Skye. Therefore, I had booked a three-day backpackers’ coach tour out of Edinburgh. There was a motley group of travellers on this tour – a mother and daughter from France, a couple from Argentina, female students from the US, a handful of Germans, two Russian brothers (one of them a Daniel Craig lookalike), a student from Taiwan, and me bringing in the Indian angle!

We left Edinburgh and drove out into the countryside towards the Highlands. A drive of about 90 minutes brought us to Bannockburn, the site of the famous 14th-century battle where Robert the Bruce had defeated the British. It was here that I realised that the movie “Braveheart” was not really as factually correct as I’d imagined it to be. Leaving Bannockburn we drove further west passing Stirling, with a brief halt to see Doune castle. We stopped for lunch at Callender, a small town with picture-book houses and pretty lanes lined with tiny cafes and shops. A single Main Street runs through the town, with most of the town businesses located on this street. I had a really delicious mint ice cream from one of the small shops here.

Just a little ahead of Callender we visited a personage called Hamish. Hamish is a Highland Cow (Hairy Coo!!) and something of a minor celebrity. Tourists flock to see this long-haired cow, feed him and take pictures of him. Everywhere we went in the Scottish Highlands, you couldn’t miss the souvenirs related to this animal. The Highland cow is a local VIP and an industry in itself!

As we drove further up into the Highlands I had my first glimpse of a Scottish Loch. We stopped at the rather beautiful Loch Lubnaig to stretch our legs and take some pictures of the spectacular scenery. Further up we stopped to see Glencoe, the valley (glen) where British troops had massacred the entire Macdonald clan. It seemed hard to associate this beautiful, peaceful place with so much bloodshed. Glencoe, by the way, is also where the set for Hagrid’s house was set up, for the movie Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

 

After Glencoe we drove on past long lake-shores (Loch Leven, freshwater, and Loch Lhinne, saltwater) to reach the midsized town of Fort William. It is the second largest town in the Scottish Highlands. This area is also the beginning of the 100km long Caledonian Canal, which links Scotland’s two sea-coasts along with the Lochs Lhinne, Lochy, Oich and Ness. The town is the starting base for treks and hikes up to the Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the British Isles. We passed the Ben and then went up past the Commando Memorial. This is where a British Commando unit was set up and trained during the Second World War.

Our last stop for the day was the Eileen Donan castle. I recognised this as the castle from the Patrick Dempsey movie Made of Honour. Unfortunately the light was failing and I couldn’t get a good picture here. The current castle is actually just about 90 years old. The original castle was used to store gunpowder during the Jacobite rebellions and ended up getting blown up by British cannon-fire.

We finally reached Stromeferry (population seventeen) at around 7.30 pm after a long day. We were staying at a lake-side house called the Stationmaster’s House, a small B&B. It had bunk beds and hot showers and was quite comfortable. After dinner was done and we had all helped to clear and wash up, everybody scattered to do their own thing – showers, naps, walks. I took the opportunity to go for a short walk around the incredibly quiet and scenic lake-side.

Stromeferry where we stayed while visiting the Scottish Islands and Isle of Skye

 

I got back to find that the ice had been broken; the group was playing card games and talking about themselves. I think everybody was a little surprised to see a female solo traveller from India. We were a rare breed then, not that there are tons of us around even now. (You can read some more of my posts on solo travel here)

Over the next two days we covered Skye and Inverness. You can read about that part of my Scottish Highlands trip in this post  🙂

A typical sight from a visit to the Scottish Highlands

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A visit to the Scottish Highlands including Callender, Glencoe, Fort William and scenic Lochs

 

Two Traveling Texans

 

Qutub Minar complex courtyard

Exploring Delhi: The Qutub Minar complex

A casual conversation at work a few days ago brought up an interesting realisation – people will go far and wide to see the world, but often neglect to see their own city. Now I am not originally from Delhi, but having lived in Delhi/Gurgaon for over 15 years now, I guess I can qualify as a resident. I was quite surprised that my Delhi-ite colleagues had never been to places like Qutub Minar and Red Fort. After a quick mental inventory I realised that though I might have seen these two, there are still a number of places in Delhi that I have not explored yet. Over the next few months, I will be trying to remedy that, and also hoping to encourage others living here to explore their surroundings. This post on Qutub Minar is therefore the first of my “Exploring Delhi” series.

I first visited Qutub Minar as a young trainee in a travel agency, escorting a group of school children on a sightseeing tour of the city. Even though I didn’t get a chance to spend much time there, I remember wondering at the expanse of the site and promising myself I’d return. I returned one February afternoon, camera in tow, and ended up spending hours just wandering around the entire complex.  It was beautiful.

Calligraphic inscriptions on the Qutub Minar
Calligraphic inscriptions on the Qutub Minar

Some historical background now, for those who are not familiar with Delhi’s history.  Delhi is said to have been built not once but seven times, at different periods in history. One of these seven cities was Mehrauli (now an area in south Delhi), capital of the Slave Dynasty. The first king of this Sultanate, Qutb ud din Aibak, started the construction of the Qutub Minar in 1199 AD. His successor Iltutmish finished the job some 25 odd years later. At 73m high, this was the tallest brick minaret in India. Depending on which theory you believe, the Minar was either a victory tower or a place for the muezzin to send out his call for prayers.

qutub minar

Today, the Qutub Minar complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Later rulers (including the British) added to it, making the complex quite a mix of influences. The original sandstone tower suffered damage on multiple occasions due to earthquakes and lightning strikes; in fact the two upper stories are later additions. Apart from the Qutub Minar, the complex also has the Quwwat ul Islam mosque (said to be the first mosque to be constructed in India), various tombs and arches, and the famous Iron Pillar.

Iron Pillar
Ancient inscriptions on the corrosion-resistant Iron Pillar

The Iron Pillar of the Qutub Minar complex was originally constructed in the 4th century by Chandragupta, one of the most famous kings of ancient India and the founder of the Gupta empire. Constructed of an iron-alloy mix, it’s highlight is that it has resisted corrosion for these thousands of years. A later king brought the pillar from Central India to Delhi, and it now stands near the Qutub Minar in an unusual juxtaposition.

You don’t need to hire a guide to visit the Qutub complex. Just pick up an audio guide from the ticket office and you’re set. You can wander around at your own pace and choose how much – or little – you want to know. The complex is open from sunrise to sunset, except on National holidays. If I were you I’d go in the morning or late in the afternoon, since that’s when the light is best for photography.

If you are ever in Delhi with a couple of hours to spare and have even a little interest in history, I would recommend a visit to this medieval remnant of the city’s past.

Getting there – if you are in South/Central Delhi or in Gurgaon, the Yellow Line of the Delhi Metro will take you to Qutub Minar. Alternatively you can take an Uber/Ola cab, or get someone to drive you over.

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Exploring the Qutub Minar in #Delhi

 

Soup in London

Foodie Friday: Of London, jet-lag and soup!

In today’s Foodie Friday post I want to tell you about the time I went to a Gordon Ramsay restaurant without knowing, and had the best soup I have probably ever tasted yet.

It was the first day of a work trip to London with my boss (we were attending a Trade Expo) and I was badly jet-lagged. We decided to get a bite to eat someplace nearby, as we didn’t have the energy to explore much.

So we basically just walked into the first nice-looking restaurant that we found close to our hotel. This happened to be The Narrow, a really cool riverside eatery that is part of the Gordon Ramsay group. I found out this bit later – at that point I just knew that it was a nice warm place where we could eat dinner and I could finally get to sleep! How’s that for serendipity?

We were seated quickly in the centre of the dining area. I remember seeing a glassed-in part of the restaurant which looked lovely. They call it the conservatory. I could see around me cheerful groups of people visibly having a great time.

Now I am not much of a soup person but since it was cold and there were not too many vegetarian options, I selected the roast butternut squash soup. Even in my jet-lagged hazy state I remember being blown away by the dish. It remains to this day one of the best soups I have ever tasted. Don’t ask me why, it was just right in every way. After the soup I declined a main and opted for dessert instead (naturally!). It was an apple crumble of some sort, and I enjoyed it immensely.

I wish I hadn’t been so exhausted and zoned out that day, because the place seemed really nice. Someday, whenever I am in London again, I must go to The Narrow again to experience it properly. If you are ever in London and anywhere close to the Docklands area, do give it a try!

 

 

Photo Challenge: Transformation in Ladakh

This is my first attempt at participating in one of the WordPress challenges I have been following lately. The subject of this week’s Weekly Photo Challenge is transformation.

This picture is of Pangong Tso, the most famous lake in the Ladakh region of India, popularised even more after it was used as a shoot location for a hit Bollywood movie.

In summer, the tourist season for Ladakh, the lake is known for its beautiful blue-green waters that keep changing in hue, depending on the time of the day and cloud cover. It is an incredibly beautiful lake, and offers gorgeous shots of sunrise and sunset amidst the surrounding mountains.

Fewer people have been lucky enough to see the transformation of this blue water to a frozen sheet of ice. Unlike the usual Pangong images, this picture shows the lake in its fully frozen state. The lake freezes over during winter and you can easily drive a car over the frozen waters to the other side. I shot the picture in late Feb, on a day when the temperature at Pangong was an incredible -30 degrees Centigrade. Apart from the four of us, there wasn’t another soul around except for a military post some distance away. Walking on the frozen lake was an awesome experience, although the ice was so slippery that it was less of walking and more a combination of sliding, falling and stumbling, much to the enjoyment of my companions.

Someday, I hope to revisit Pangong in winter. Till then, pictures keep the memories alive.

via Photo Challenge: Transformation

Rediscovering spirituality in Orchha

“Photo? Take my photo?” he says, walking after us as we stroll towards the bridge on the Betwa. I oblige, and the sadhu baba gives me a beatific smile. I wonder if money is now expected, realise I’m not carrying any cash to give him and say something to that effect. He smiles and says, “Beta I will never ask you for that.” I feel ashamed to have suggested it.

This small town has more than its share of saffron-clad men and women, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise because this is after all basically a temple town. Jhansi, the closest big city, is a mere 25 minute drive away – but the difference is dramatic. Orchha is small and still retains the innocence of a place untouched by the hectic nature of modern life. Oh sure you have the Tata Sky dishes and motorbikes and even – so I hear – a local radio station. The market has signboards advertising Italian cuisine, B&B’s and shops selling kitschy souvenirs. But the pace of life here is slower, gentler. The locals in the market all seem to know each other. Life revolves around the temples and the daily aartis. Nobody hurries, nobody has deadlines. Nearly everybody has a smile on the face.

A group of young boys watches as Christine and I walk across the bridge, get some shots of the Chattris , and walk back – just about managing to escape being pushed into the river by a truck that has rumbled too close past us. When we reach them, one of the boys shyly asks if we’d like to share a soft drink. We smilingly refuse and continue on our way.

Orchha is a medieval town, established in the early 16th century by a Bundela king . The palaces and temples of Orchha are reason enough to visit, especially if you are a history buff like me. The fort here has a number of palaces built during various periods of its history; Jahangir Mahal for example was built as a welcome gift for the Mughal emperor Jahangir when he visited. There is also a Sound and Light show held here every evening which acts as a good introduction to the history of the town, though a touch melodramatic.

There are many famous temples in Orchha but to me perhaps the best sight here were the cenotaphs (Chattris) standing in a row like brooding sentinels; these riverside memorials to former rulers are now in ruins and still starkly beautiful. I stand and watch the sun disappear behind them.

Cenotaphs (Chhattris) at Orchha
Cenotaphs (Chhattris) at Orchha

At night, the stars come out. Standing by the river I look up and try to identify constellations. I think I see Orion. I know for sure that it’s been a long time since I saw so many stars in the night sky. The night is quiet, peaceful and I could well be all alone – except for the half-full hotel just behind me.

We decide to attend morning Aarti before leaving Orchha. The Ram Raja temple is the only temple of its kind – Ram is worshipped here not as a deity but as a king. In deference to his royal status, a pair of cannons is posted at the entrance of the temple. Sentries are on guard duty outside and inside. We go in, a few minutes before the morning Aarti is to begin. The temple courtyard is full mostly of locals, who from the looks of it seem to be regulars here. There are of course also a few gawking tourists like us. I have a vague sense of unease, feeling like an intruder – I never visit temples if I can help it – but I soon start feeling better.  Finally the sanctum doors are opened and the Aarti begins; the devotional song being sung is one that I’ve never heard before, but the entire congregation seems to know it well. They sing loudly, un-selfconsciously, with all their hearts. A mother picks up her toddler son to allow the priest to touch his forehead in blessing. An old man is getting a wedding card blessed by Ram Raja. The hymn goes on, soothing yet cheering. I look around. I feel tears running down my face that I can’t stop. And finally, after years of declaring I don’t believe in prayers, I find myself saying one….

(Written in 2011 and published on an earlier blog. Migrated here now)
Edinburgh

Top ten things to do in Edinburgh

There is so much beauty and history in Edinburgh that you can spend days getting to know your favourite parts of it. Here’s my list of the Top 10 interesting things to do in Edinburgh if you are visiting Scotland for the first time:

1. Free Walking Tour: The tour starts from the Starbucks on the Mile and lasts about 3 hours. The guides pepper the facts with humour, making it overall a fun tour. They work for tips only. The tour will give you the general layout of the town, and also acquaint you with the legends and celebrities connected with the city. You would probably see the St Giles Church, the Elephant Café (where JK Rowling used to write before becoming JKR), the Heriot School (inspiration behind Hogwarts), the Writers Museum, Princess Street Gardens etc.

2. Ghost Tour: This one is usually a paid tour and full of drama and gory stories, as expected. You will also be taken to the cemetery and on to Calton Hill, from where you can get a lovely view of the city below as well as a Parthenon-style incomplete Monument.

3. Visit Edinburgh Castle: Located on top of Castle Hill, the 12th century castle is the result of years of building, rebuilding and renovation. I am glad I paid extra for the audio guide, it’s of a high quality and allowed me to explore at my own pace. You can easily spend an entire morning wandering around here. This is probably one of the most popular things to do in Edinburgh.

4. Climb Arthur’s Seat: If you have a reasonable level of fitness, climbing up to Arthur’s Seat can be a fun activity. It is an extinct volcano and Edinburgh’s highest hill, offering fantastic views. Early morning or evening would probably be the best time to go.

5. Walk the Royal Mile: The lower part of the Mile especially Canongate is a nicer area than the upper half, less crowded and touristy. You just have to veer off into any of the narrow lanes leading off the main road and you find yourself in beautiful little residential areas with gardens and flower-boxes in the windows and that kind of thing.

royal mile
The Royal Mile

6. Party at the Grassmarket: If you ask at your hostel or hotel about popular things to do in Edinburgh, this would probably be high up on the list. Grassmarket in the Old Town is a vibrant and lively area full of pubs and restaurants. You can choose to pub crawl, or have a casual dinner with friends, or sit in the central square and people-watch.

7. Try the local food: Popular Scottish dishes include Haggis (minced liver, heart and lungs of a sheep mixed with oatmeal, onion and spices) usually eaten along with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes). I was lucky enough to find a vegetarian version of the dish at The Last Drop pub. You can also try Black pudding, Leek and Tattie soup, Scotch pies, shortbread, sticky toffee pudding and the fabled deep fried Mars bars!

veggie haggis
Vegetarian haggis (!!) with neeps and tatties

8. Take a tour to the Highlands: I took a three-day backpacker’s coach tour to the Highlands and Skye from Edinburgh, and it was just amazing. If you prefer you can hire a car and drive yourself. The highlands are beyond scenic, and you will find some great photo ops everywhere you go. More detailed post on this part, to follow someday soon!

9. Visit a distillery: Lovers of Scotch whisky cannot miss this. A number of companies run tours from Edinburgh to various local distilleries, covering the history and process of whisky production with tastings thrown in.

10. Cultural immersion in New Town: New Town on the other side of the bridge can be termed the cultural hub of the city. It has some highly rated museums such as the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, etc. New Town also has The Edinburgh Playhouse, the largest working theatre in the UK, which routinely stages musical productions.

I hope this list will someday help someone out there who is planning a trip to beautiful Edinburgh. To me, it was a walk down memory lane just putting this together. More posts to follow soon, on my tour to the Highlands and the Isle of Skye!

Two Traveling Texans

Remembering my first solo trip: Scotland – Part One!

I love travelling solo. Why, you might ask. I have listed a few reasons here. This post though is about my first solo trip, which happened in the summer of 2010. I travelled to London, stayed with a friend for a couple of days and then took a week’s trip (alone) to Scotland. It turned out to be one of my most memorable trips ever.

How it began

Early on a June morning I took the morning train out of King’s Cross to Edinburgh. The journey takes about 4 hours, and the trains are very comfortable. The train was also a great way to see more of the countryside, which was truly beautiful. I realised that all the cliches I’d read about were true: rolling meadows, cows in peaceful pastures, picture-book cottages and houses with sloping shingled roofs.

Finally getting to Scotland was both exciting and scary. I didn’t know a single soul there, had never travelled alone this far from home, and had no idea what lay in store. So yeah, there were definitely some butterflies in my tummy as the train pulled into Waverley station. It was overcast and a drizzle started up almost immediately; luckily the hostel I had booked was just a 5 minute walk away.

Edinburgh the Medieval Beauty

My first evening in Edinburgh was also the day I fell in love with the city. Edinburgh’s medieval Old Town and the 18th century mostly Georgian New town are both World Heritage Sites, and one can spend days just exploring them. I stayed in the city for three days here and spent hours just walking everywhere.

On this first evening I was still too jet-lagged to do much, so I just took an exploratory walk up the Royal Mile.  The Royal Mile is a cobblestoned street connecting the Castle with the Holyrood Palace. It actually measures about a 100 yards more than a mile. The part of it closest to the castle is where you will find most of the souvenir shops, restaurants, T shirt sellers, and all the usual suspects. But it is still an interesting walk, with medieval buildings on both sides and dozens of narrow alleys (called Wynds or Closes) leading off from it. Go down any of these wynds and you never know what you might find. A part of the Mile is pedestrian-only.

Edinburgh solo trip image
Edinburgh – The National Gallery in the foreground

I also walked across Waverley bridge to the New Town side of things, and took a look at the Monument, the Royal Academy, the adjacent National Gallery, the Mound etc. Old Town and New Town used to be divided by the Nor Loch – the town’s water supply/sewage dump. This was eventually drained and converted into a beautiful green area called the Princes Street Gardens. It’s a great place to sit and people-watch. You also get great views of the Castle, and some decent ice cream!

By the time I finished my walk it was around 8pm, and it was still bright and sunny. To somebody used to night setting in by 7-7.30 pm in summer, it was strange at first to see dusk extending as late as 10pm here. It was a little disorienting, especially since all shops and cafes shut by 6pm.

My first day in Scotland turned out great. I managed the train connections safely, found myself in a beautiful city, and made friends with my hostel roommates, Amanda and Melissa. After three days exploring Edinburgh I continued into the Highlands and Skye. More on that, later! In the meantime, if you are planning to visit Edinburgh anytime soon, do check out this list of top things to do.

Getting there: Edinburgh is well connected by flight, train and National Express coach services

 

Picture Post: Andaman

Just a few of my favourite shots clicked over the last two or three years during multiple trips to the Andaman islands. More coming soon.

Andaman beach Havelock
Vijaynagar beach, Havelock
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Looking out at the North Bay lighthouse from a ferry near Port Blair
Laxmanpur_Neil_island_Andaman
Natural Rock Formation, Neil Island
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Bharatpur beach, Neil island

So, what’s to see in Phuket?

I’ve been meaning to write this post since my visit to Phuket over a year ago. When I visited I was with a group of friends and had no idea what to do or where to go – so I just went along with all the others! I now know a little bit more, and can share that little bit with those in a similar situation 🙂

Contrary to what the first-time visitor might imagine, there is a lot more to Phuket than the famous Patong beach and Phuket/Patong nightlife. Granted that the nightlife is a major draw for most visitors, but here are some other suggestions on things a visitor can also enjoy in Phuket:

  1. Boat trips – Tons of options are available for day trips on speedboats or larger cruise boats to neighbouring islands and beaches. If you are not planning to stay at Phi Phi, a boat trip to see Maya bay might interest you. If you only have time for one excursion, I would recommend the excursion to Pha Nga bay instead. The boat will take you to this impossibly scenic bay and the famous James Bond island, and later give you an opportunity for canoeing and swimming off a secluded beach. A good lunch is usually included.
Phuket
On a boat trip to James Bond island

2. Spas – Thailand is known for spas, and there are some really great ones in Phuket offering massages, scrubs, foot rubs etc. at really decent prices. After a hectic day out, a good foot and back massage can be just what you need, before a night of partying!

3. Beaches – Naturally, you cannot be in Phuket and not spend time at the beach. The most commonly known beach is Patong of course, but for the same reasons it can also be crowded. If you prefer a quieter, calmer beach experience then head to Kata or Karon beaches. I loved the sunset at Karon. Kamala and Nai Yang beaches are also recommended.

4. Street food – Try some of the local food being sold by roadside vendors. You will find delicious fruits, pancakes with a variety of fillings, soups, noodles, seafood and a host of other interesting dishes being sold very cheap. Be as adventurous as you like!

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5. Heritage tours – If you are the kind (like me) who likes to learn something about the history and culture of the place you are visiting, this one is for you. The Old Town of Phuket still has beautiful examples of Sino-Colonial architecture – buildings dating mostly from before the second World War. These include old merchant mansions, shops, gardens, hotels etc, and are best seen on a walking or bicycle tour of the Old Town.

6. Adventure – For those seeking an active holiday, there is no dearth of interesting options in Phuket. You could go white water rafting, scuba diving, take a bicycle or ATV ride into the countryside, try ziplining or even river canoeing.

Getting There: Phuket can be reached from Bangkok via flight (most convenient) or by bus (cheapest, but a 12-ish hour ride).

 

The best time to visit Shillong and Cherrapunji: Monsoon!

One part of India that I had not visited at all in my years of travelling, was the north-eastern states. I finally broke that jinx by visiting Meghalaya, the predominantly tribal state carved out of Assam in the 1970’s. After my wonderful trip to Meghalaya in the height of the rains, I am now convinced that the monsoon is the best time to visit Shillong and Cherrapunji, the two most important places to see in Meghalaya. It seemed right to be visiting the wettest place on earth, in the middle of the monsoon season! I’m now a huge fan of Meghalaya’s natural beauty,  and would love to share with you a little information about the places to visit in Shillong and Cherrapunji.

Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, is a busy little foothill town with the usual urban paraphernalia of shopping centres, cafes, schools, markets, even traffic jams. However, if you take the time, you will also find charming places of interest in Shillong that will show you what this town might have been like a few years ago before the spread of urbanisation. There are some very pretty churches in town, and a lake called Ward’s Lake where you can go for a stroll. The town also has a few very nice cafes that play great music, and I enjoyed chilling out at some of them. In the military cantonment area, you will also find a pretty waterfall called the Spread Eagle Falls.

Misty hills on the drive from Shillong to Cherrapunji

Outside Shillong, in the midst of nature, is where you will really see the true beauty of Meghalaya. “Meghalaya” means “abode of clouds” in Sanskrit; whoever coined the name must have visited during the monsoon! I found myself enveloped more than once in clouds of mist during the drive from Shillong to Cherrapunji and back. The distance from Shillong to Cherrapunji is only 50km but since it’s a hilly route the drive will take 2.5 to 3 hours one way. It is a really scenic route though, and you will enjoy the drive. Since there are limited options of hotels in Cherrapunji, most visitors cover Cherrapunji sightseeing in a day-trip from Shillong.

Aside from the fact that it was once the district with the highest recorded rainfall in the world (this position is now held by Mawsynram, also nearby), Cherrapunji or Sohra as it called locally, also offers amazing views of nature in all its grace. Places to visit in Cherrapunji include the Wah Kaba Falls, Dainthlen Falls, Eco Park, Nohkalikai Falls and the Seven Sisters Falls. I believe that the monsoon is the best time to visit Shillong and Cherrapunji because the highlight of this area – the waterfalls – are at their peak during the rains. The pictures do not do justice to the beauty that I was witness to.

 


Meghalaya also has a large number of limestone and sandstone caves; cavers from all over the world visit in order to explore them. One of the places to visit in Cherrapunji is Mawsmai, which has limestone caves that are open to tourists. The stalactites and stalagmites are indeed imposing to see. The world’s longest sandstone cave has also recently been discovered near here in Mawsynram.

Two other interesting places to see in Meghalaya are Mawlynnong and Dawki. You can either stay overnight at a homestay in Mawlynnong or take a day-trip from Shillong combining both places. Mawlynnong is known as the cleanest village in Asia, and after seeing the place I didn’t really doubt the title. From here you can easily get to the nearby Living Root Bridge in Riwai. Living root bridges are natural bridges found in a few places in Meghalaya and are one of the most important places to see in Cherrapunji and around. Locals would take the roots of Indian Rubber trees, and train and weave them into a mesh. They would then plaster the mesh with mud and stones to form a natural bridge, allowing people to cross over streams. Ingenious idea, and the bridges are still going strong. Be prepared for a hike up and down several steps though!

The Living root bridge near Mawlynnong

Dawki is about 100km from Shillong and you can easily combine a visit here with a Mawlynnong excursion. It offers scenic views of the Umngot river and the India-Bangladesh border. Outside the monsoon season, the river is very popular for boating. It is said that the water here is the clearest you will find anywhere in the country.

At Dawki overlooking Umgnot river and the India-Bangladesh border

 

Getting there:

Flights to Shillong are only available on Air India from Kolkata and tend to be very expensive. Instead, fly to Guwahati. Guwahati to Shillong is an easy 2-3 hour drive; you can either take a shared cab that will cost you around Rs. 300 per person and drop you at Police Bazaar, or hire a private taxi and have the comfort of stopping en route as you wish. I had hired a private cab for the duration of my trip.

Getting around Shillong and Cherrapunji:

Local cabs charge more or less flat fares for Shillong sightseeing and day-trips to Cherrapunji. A private cab would probably cost you Rs 1800-2000 for local sightseeing in Shillong, and Rs 2500-3000 for a day visit to Cherrapunji. Your hotel can also probably arrange transportation for you if you ask in advance.

Hotels in Shillong:

Shillong has hotels to suit nearly all budgets. However, I would recommend that you try and avoid staying in the Police Bazaar area unless you want to be stuck in traffic all day. It would be much better to stay in the Laitumkhrah area, which is what I did. One big plus of being there was that I was within walking distance of the famous Cafe Shillong! If budget allows, go for Ri Kyinjai which is a resort near Umiam lake and is considered one of the best hotels in Shillong. I was, unfortunately, on a more modest budget.

 

Meghalaya is a must-visit destination in India that offers natural beauty, offbeat experiences and an opportunity to get away from the concrete jungle. The people you meet here will, in general, be really warm and friendly, and you will feel welcome wherever you go. I know that I will be going back someday soon! If you’d like to learn more about the state, you should visit the official website of Meghalaya Tourism, it’s extremely detailed and helpful.

Visiting a green hilly destination during the rains makes it feel even more magical. I also believe that the monsoon is the best time to visit Shillong and Cherrapunji because unlike summer vacations when everything is over-run with tourists, this time there were relatively fewer crowds. Always a plus as far as I am concerned!

You might also like to read Top 7 Monsoon Getaways In India

 

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Top 7 Monsoon Getaways in India

Travel during the rainy season in India has its pros and cons. On a trip during this season one needs to be prepared for a more leisurely vacation, since sightseeing would become weather dependent. However there is a lot to be said in favour of quiet getaways where one can just kick back and relax, without the pressure of ticking off “must do’s”. Enjoy the weather and simple pleasures like walks in the rain, endless cups of tea and conversations with your loved ones. Here are some ideal places that can be picked for a quick monsoon getaway:

1. Kumarakom – The backwaters of Kerala are pretty all the year round, but the rain lends an added touch of solitude and romance. Take advantage of off-season rates at hotels, and book yourself into a lakeside resort for a couple of days of relaxation involving Ayurveda treatments, amazing local cuisine and gorgeous sunsets.

Closest airport: Cochin; closest railway station: Kottayam

2. Udaipur – The “City of Lakes” becomes greener and prettier during the rains, with the lakes looking their best ever. Enjoy breathtaking views from vantage points like the Monsoon Palace and City Palace, and take a relaxing boat ride on Lake Pichola.

Closest airport: Udaipur; closest railway station: Udaipur

3. Goa – Goa in the rains offers a distinctly different experience. Take long walks along rain-swept beaches, enjoy a drink at one of the many watering holes, and party the night away at a club. While many of the temporary shacks along the beaches close down during the monsoon, this also means fewer people around!

Closest airport: Goa; closest railway station: Madgaon

4. Kodaikanal – Kodaikanal in the rains looks really green and washed clean. The misty hills and gushing waterfalls offer a very scenic view during this season, if you are up to getting soaked now and then. Perfect weather for invigorating walks and steaming cups of tea!

Closest airport: Madurai; closest railway station: Kodai Road

5. Mahabaleshwar – If you want a quick break from chaotic urban life and are not too keen on running around sightseeing, a monsoon break in Mahabaleshwar might be just the right thing for you. The rain in these hills can be torrential, keeping the tourist hordes away, but offering beautiful landscapes and a peaceful stay.

Closest airport: Pune; closest railway station: Satara

6. Orchha – This sleepy little town on the banks of the Betwa river is full of old palaces and temples that you can explore at leisure. The monsoon brings cool temperatures and fewer crowds, always a plus. Do attend morning Aarti at the Ram Raja temple.

Closest airport: Gwalior; closest railway station: Jhansi

7. Ladakh – This is for those who wish to escape the monsoon downpour, since Ladakh typically sees dry weather during these months. You will enjoy the warm sunny days and cool evenings, and have the added advantage of being cut off from mobile networks once you get out of Leh town! Keep aside at least 5-6 days for the trip, since you would need some time to acclimatise to the altitude.

Closest airport: Leh

The monsoon is here. Time to get packing!