Streets of Spain coming to London

24 Apr

Streets of Spain La Boqueria Chef

As the weather here in London finally gets warmer, more and more of us will likely be frolicking out in the sunshine, stocking up on our vitamin D supplies after such a long winter.

And for the upcoming May bank holiday weekend, Londoners will be able to enjoy a few days off and indulge in a dose of Spain, without shunting to airports and listening to Ryanair advertisements for the plane ride.

Instead, to get some Spanish fever, I’ve found out you can head to South Bank from the 3 to 6 May and take in La Boqueria. The famous Barcelona food market will be sending its stallholders from Las Ramblas for the Streets of Spain festival in conjunction with Campo Viejo. I’m already drooling at the pleasurable prospect of tender tapas and flowing red wine.

Masterclasses will be held with Campo Viejo wine, who will also be running a pop-up restaurant with Michelin-starred Spanish chef, Angel Pascual.

I had a chance to speak to festival general manager Oscar Ubide to get some more details about the festival.

Here’s what he said:

Streets of Spain Oscar Uribe Director of La Boqueria 2Why have you decided now is the right time to bring the Spanish spirit to London by partnering with Streets of Spain?

 The UK is heading into spring and hopefully we can bring some Spanish sunshine with us. We are also really excited as this is the first time we are coming over to London on this scale. Some of the stall owners have made trips to the UK before and the visits have always been very successful. Now that times are quite difficult back at home, it is a great opportunity to see the appetite for Spanish produce outside of our country.

What are you most looking forward to about this festival?

We hope that the festival will be an explosion of feelings, food, wine and colours to represent true Spanish culture. I’m looking forward to passing our passion for good food and quality produce to Londoners.

Why is London a good place to host an event such as this?

For the last few years the knowledge of Spanish food and our market has been constantly growing across the UK. British people currently sit at third on the list of visitors to our website. We think that there’s a nice rapport between the UK and Barcelona but also Boqueria. We are very grateful to Campo Viejo for giving us the opportunity to make our dream of bringing the market over on this scale real.

Why should Londoners come to the event?

When I visit London I always go to the Borough Market to buy the best Black pudding and Haggis from my friend Peter from Sillfield Farm, as I can’t buy those products in my city. We want to do the same for Londoners by bringing our best goods to their city, hopefully making them a little happier.

What are some of the most interesting products people can look to try and sample at the event?

Without giving too much away, we’re bringing black leg ham, the best jamon of the world, Shepherd cheeses, dried fruits, Catalan cooked dishes, excellent olives and oil and Catalan chocolates. This is only a snapshot of why Londoners should visit the festival and we still have plenty of secrets to surprise visitors with.

For more information on the festival, events, masterclasses and the pop-up restaurant, visit: http://www.streetsofspain.com

Brancott Estate: Kiwi Finest

24 Mar

Brancott Estate Chosen Rows

When I first started drinking wine around the age of 19, I remember falling for those outside of the “norm” (ie: the old world) and heading straight to “New World wines”.

The first country to interest me was Australia and I recall a fine Shiraz Grenache that I drank on many an evening, which was appealing for both its richness from the Shiraz and the sweeter notes the Grenache grape provided.

Years later (and after a move to the UK from Canada) my palate has changed and so has my exposure to wine. Living over here I tend to now drink a lot of French and Italian wine, simply because of its availability in UK supermarkets (and due to trips to the continent from which the boy and I return with copious amounts of vino to stock our cupboards with).

But one wine-producing country I am still not that familiar with is New Zealand. I’m confident I’ve had a few bottles from there over the years but none has stood out enough to impress. Still, it has been a country I’ve been interested in for a while not least because a very close friend of the boy and I moved out there about 18 months ago and her comments on the country and all its goodness raise our jealousy levels constantly.

So, it was with a pre-built-in interest that I recently attended a wine lunch with Brancott Estate – a Marlborough based winery that has been in existence since the late 1970s. Up until recently, it was called Montana Wines, which may be more recognisable for those of you who are already familiar with Kiwi wines. The company decided to re-brand after it upped its exports to the US because it didn’t want people thinking that Montana Wine came from the state of Montana. The company is now called Brancott after the first estate that was planted by the Croatian family who started the vineyard nearly four decades ago.

Brancott Estate 3

At the lunch at airy and beautiful Clerkenwell restaurant The Modern Pantry, I joined other food writers and chief winemaker Patrick Materman, who has been with the company for 23 years. Materman studied horticulture and was originally intending to grow flowers but realised it would be more interesting to grow grapes and make wine instead. Logical, indeed, I thought.

The lunch was put on to launch the company’s latest special release: a 2010 Chosen Rows Sauvignon Blanc that has been made using hand-harvested grapes, wild fermentation and large format oak vats (from four to ten thousand litres) which Materman said creates “a savoury complexity rather than more toasted oak flavours; it is perhaps a bit more thought-provoking.”

As background, Materman told us the company’s founders planted the first Sauvignon Blanc grapes in New Zealand, which are now a part of the 33 thousand hectares of vineyards in the country. The grape is the company’s main focus with Pinot Noir coming in second.

Brancott Estate 2Before we tried the newest release, there was a sample of a sparkling Sauvignon Blanc Brut to come first. I enjoyed this as it was bursting with sharply acidic tropical fruit (pineapple, lemon, lime, clementime) with a slight soda dryness right at end that kept it from being overwhelmingly fruity. It was refreshing and sprightly.

Next up was the new release, which is available on a limited edition basis for around £35. This turned out to be my favourite of the day, but at the price tag won’t be one I’ll be purchasing regularly. Still, if you see it about and fancy trying a lovely example of a New Zealand wine, I highly recommend it. It had a lovely contrast between the flavours throughout the sip, starting with sweeter citrus notes (I thought of pink grapefruit with sugar sprinkled on top) and moving to an earthier heavy mouthfeel filled with grassy and mushroom notes, and finishing on a note of red apple peel. It had weight, intrigue and richness – all things I enjoy in a wine.

The project that saw the development of the wine was, said Materman, “less about commercial viability and more about what we’ve learned from this project.”

The lunch continued with a gorgeous, crunchy bit of sea bass on candied beetroot with pink peppercorns that paired wonderfully with the company’s Letter B series wine – also a Sauvignon Blanc. This was followed by a meaty bit of pork belly, with roasted potatoes and a delectable fig and red onion relish that I enjoyed thoroughly with the delicate blackcurrent back-boned Pinot Noir Terraces ‘T’ wine (my second favourite of the day).

What I found most interesting was the fact that Materman admitted New Zealand wines will never be massive in their reach (simply because the country is running out of spaces to grow grapes on) but that it means many producers can be slightly more creative and pay more attention to their vines. The entirety of New Zealand’s wine region is around the same size as Champagne and putting it in that perspective made me realise why I may not have tried the offerings so often.

But, tasting the complex, intriguing and thoroughly delicious wines (especially the Chosen Rows and Pinor Noir bottles) made me want to search for the pleasure of this wine region again in the near future. Or, travel to New Zealand to taste it in the flesh, something that is also now even more firmly on the ‘to-do’ list!

India Pt 9: A last lap to Fort Kochi and home

14 Mar
Kathakali in Kochi.

Kathakali in Kochi.

From the stage, a brightly dressed character slathered in canary yellow facepaint rolled his eyes from side to side, then up and down, before bugging them out and causing fits of laughter amongst the audience.

Between my giggles, I turned to the boy and saw awe and confusion writ large on his face. ‘What a strange end to our trip to India,’ I thought to myself.

The brightly painted man was part of a Kathakali troupe, a famous style of theatre which has been going on in Kerala since the 17th century. The actors onstage – who spend years training – use dramatic hand and eye movements to communicate the stories while a sharp-voiced singer keeps the chorus and drum beat going behind them. It was fabulously strange but also mesmerising.

Famous Chinese fishing nets in Kochi.

Famous Chinese fishing nets in Kochi.

It was our last night in India and the boy and I were exhausted. After leaving the luxury of Vaamika Island, we took a speedboat and taxi to our final hotel in Fort Kochi, the city we were due to fly from the following morning.

After a day wandering the dusty streets of the former Portuguese and Dutch town, taking in the crumbling colonial remnants such as St Francis Church (where explorer Vasco da Gama was once buried), the boy and I were officially ready to head back to our damp cool English home. A month on the road had officially taken its toll.

But knowing it was our last night, we also wanted to experience a few final bits of India and a Kathakali performance was one that had been recommended by many books and sites we’d researched.

Makeup in progress.

Makeup in progress.

We arrived in the hot theatre just in time to see the final stages of make-up being applied to each of the actors – a process which can take up to an hour for each show. The audience was then treated to an explanation in English of what the various moves meant – from a flick of the hand to an accentuated eye roll, Kathakali is one of the most expressive things I’ve ever witnessed.

Then, for 30 minutes we watched a few scenes from a story written by king Karthika Thirunal in the 18th century which focuses on the battle between Narakasura (a demon king) and Lord Krishna. A normal Kathakali play would be many hours long, so the shortened version gave us only an oversight but was fascinating the whole while.

An intense battle.

An intense battle.

Leaving the playhouse befuddled at what we had just seen, the boy and I proceeded to Malabar Junction in the top-end Malabar House Hotel to treat ourselves to a special final meal. Earlier in the day, we’d eaten at the fabulous Dal Roti (whose owner is slightly hyperactive and very friendly) so, ironically, we decided to skip a last traditional Indian meal and indulge in a more ‘modern’ choice – odd, I’m sure to hear given these were our last hours in India but after so many Indian meals, our limits were topped out.

The setting at Malabar House was beautiful – a classical music troupe entertained guests spread around an open courtyard and into the swish dining room, while tables were abuzz with the chatter of well-to-do locals out for a night of food and fun.

A final shot - looking much browner than we would a few months later.

A final shot – looking much browner than we would a few months later.

Over our final glass of wine and meal, we reflected on our time in India – from the highs to the very low, lows. It was a beautiful country but it was most definitely challenging and tiring.

We would leave India the next morning with the desire to sleep and recuperate for a week. And while the difficult moments stood out at the time in our minds, these few months later it is much easier to recall all those other times filled with pleasure, something I hope to do for many years to come.

India Pt 8: Into the land of luxury

7 Mar
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The outdoor pool at Marari Beach Resort

After our experiences in Alleppey and Kollam, I had given up slightly on finding peace and relaxation in Kerala again. When finally we found a place to lay our heads after our less than enjoyable day of canoeing around the backwaters, we were exhausted and even a cold beer did little to assuage that.

But as a new day dawned, I confess a bit of excitement was creeping in – we were off to one of the top resorts in the region for a hotel review I was doing and had two more to experience after it for pieces which will appear soon on The Arbuturian.

Now, I know it sounds terrible – after all, we were there to experience ‘proper’ India, not ‘posh’ India – but the desire to drink a cold drink without fear of poisoning myself on dirty ice cubes and the hope of using a public loo that was clean had overtaken my best efforts to find beauty in the chaos.

A welcoming arrival awaited us in our cottage.

A welcoming arrival awaited us in our cottage.

The boy and I left behind our backwater hotel (the quite nice but very buggy Palm Grove Lake Resort) in a tuk-tuk, to head thirty minutes north to the exclusive Marari Beach Resort. In retrospect, arriving at a gated hotel in a tuk-tuk is not the most logical of transport methods (we were asked four times by the guard if we were sure we were in the right place) but little could bring us down: paradise was close enough to taste.

A stunning butterfly in the gardens.

A stunning butterfly in the gardens.

With access to a white-sand beach and a large outdoor pool, the eco-Marari Beach Resort is all about keeping in tune with the environment. An organic garden supplies much of the produce for the kitchens while an on-site bio-gas plant recycles kitchen waste into energy to run the electricity. Goats and small cows roam the lawn to keep the land trim and a butterfly garden promotes conservation of rare species. Local school children are invited in to be taught about conservation as well.

The perfect lawn mower.

The perfect lawn mower.

After checking into our thatched-roof cottage and washing off days of dirt in our beautiful outdoor shower, the boy and I headed to the crystalline swimming pool to finally relax into the swing of life that the more privileged class lead. Relaxation, it seemed, is possible in Kerala – you just might have to pay for it. Finally we felt like were were on vacation.

The next day, we departed the seaside to head to the nearby Kumarakom Lake Resort, which sits on the edge of the expansive Vembanad Lake. Voted the top hotel in India in the World Travel Awards last year, the Kumarakom took luxury to a new level. Feeling slightly like trespassers with our big backpacks, the boy and I were awed as we accepted flower wreathed coconuts and leis on arrival, and saw the expansive green grounds and shimmering lake. After a day laying by our private pool, we took a boat trip around the lake to watch the sunset (something offered daily to guests) and shared a bottle of wine over a wonderful seafood dinner. It was – it seemed – becoming a lifestyle that the boy and I could adjust to.

The lake at Kumarakom.

The lake at Kumarakom.

After what felt like far too short a time span, we were off once again to head further north to the final review hotel – Vaamika Island Resort. I’d not heard much about this hotel beforehand so neither of us was sure what to expect. Unfortunately, we came into contact with a taxi strike, meaning the trip was doubled in length (and meant we had to go via Alleppey again) as our driver went all the way around the south side of the lake to avoid running into any of his colleagues who he knew would block his way since he was not on the picket line.

A tense, long and hot cab ride ensued but it was all worth it when we arrived at a dock to find a leather-lined Sun-Ray speedboat waiting to pick us up.

Sunset over the backwaters at Vaamika.

Sunset at Vaamika.

Vaamika Island Resort is situated on a private island in the backwaters near Kochi and was built by a slightly eccentric German named Klaus Schleusener who spent much of his working life teaching at universities in India. He sold the island to developers in 2011 and the company was in the midst of building more cottages during our stay.

Upon stepping off the speed boat, we were led to the largest villa I have ever seen – complete with private pool looking out to the lake, large patio and incredible carved wooden features. After dropping off our bags, we were handed a mobile phone. Confused, I asked what it was for. “That is for your private butler Nibin who will be looking after all of your needs.” To say it was all surreal is an underestimation.

The view from the pool at Vaamika.

The view from the pool at Vaamika.

Our next two days were spent lounging by the pool, ringing Nibin for beers and eating copious amounts of food (at least 10 dishes every meal) on our patio. It was a world unknown to the boy and I, and we were slightly perplexed by the idea that people can choose to live like this as a normal choice on vacation.

Ash pots in the museum on Vaamika Island.

Ash pots in the museum on Vaamika Island.

Interestingly, the island also features a private museum, which includes a collection of Kaavada (pronounced: cowardi) – stone or wood carved rectangular blocks that are worn on the shoulders of people taking pilgrimage (most often) to the Palani temple in Tamil Nadu. Pilgrims dance with these on their shoulders while making prayers to Hindu god Lord Subramanya. The collection also includes ash pots used for burying relatives’ remains, with some being 500 years old. Former-owner Klaus collected them all over the years, although he has never made a fuss about it and few art collectors/art historians even know it exists.

We finally had to depart the island for our final night in Kochi before our flight home to London. But it was with lead-heavy legs that we dragged ourselves away from it, knowing we’d be unlikely to experience these levels of luxury anytime soon.

And so, after four days of rest, the sheen of Kerala had returned. And while the relaxation was needed at the time, it is true the boy and I now talk about the hilariously unenjoyable times experienced in Alleppey and Kollam as much as the stunning beauty of these hotels. A bit of both, I suppose, can’t hurt during one’s travels.

In the final part, the boy and I wander the dusty streets of Kochi, take in a bizarre Kathakali performance and say goodbye to India.

India Pt 7: The murky backwaters of Kerala

19 Feb
A kettavullum - what I wanted to take on the backwaters.

A kettavullum – what I wanted to take on the backwaters.

“You’ll be so relaxed in Kerala!” said friends. “You’ll love it, it’s the most relaxing place ever!” said others.

That was just what the boy and I were hoping to hear as we’d booked Kerala to be the last port of call during out travels around India. We couldn’t wait to let the chilled out times take over. And that, luckily, was what we experienced during our first four days in Varkala – beauty, sunshine, heat, friendliness and just pure paradise.

But our relaxing times were not, as we learned, to continue. Instead, I found myself crying into a plate of soggy pasta, ruing our decision to leave Varkala’s shining shores. But more on that later.

You see, I’d had it in my head for months when planning the trip that we would take a Kettuvallam around the backwaters of Kerala. It was the one thing I’d been looking forward to most for the final part of our trip.

You see, a Kettuvallam is a traditional, large Keralan style houseboat with thatched roof and large deck for watching the day go by as you drift up the backwaters, which make up a huge area of the central part of this south western state. It sounded like just the thing to enjoy a day on and I’d built it up so much in my head that I couldn’t wait to leave Varkala (as much as we were in love with it) so that we could go and find one to rent.

I’d done a lot of research ahead of time and found that most guidebooks recommend showing up the day before you want to take a boat and negotiating with the agencies directly. So, we packed our bags, treated ourselves to a taxi journey from Varkala to Kollam and got ourselves dropped directly at the front door of the “highly recommended” District Tourism Promotion Council office, which was supposedly the best place to get a good deal.Lon

Unfortunately, our conversation with the tourism office did not go so well. It went more like this:

“Yes, we have a boat that you can take to Alleppey. It will include your captain, food, water and overnight stay.”

“Perfect – and how much would that be?”

“16,000 rupees.”

“How much?”

“16,000 rupees.”

“You mean, £200? Seriously? No, we’ve done our research and it’s definitely supposed to be around 8,000 rupees.”

This exchange continued for a while until I called them thieves and stormed out. The boy was not, I might add, impressed with my negotiating skills.

The next two hours proceeded to be similar in their frustrations, only we were carrying our heavy backpacks with us too to make things even more awkward. After trying our best, what cropped up was one of those spaces of time that, when you travel, almost inevitably crop up, the “I just want to be in my house where it’s clean and in my city where people are nice” kind of breakdowns. This led to the aforementioned crying into my noodles.

A Keralan bus (photo care of: learn-malayalam.com)

A Keralan bus (photo care of: learn-malayalam.com)

So, we decided we’d cut our losses in Kollam and find a way out of the town sharpish. Our only option was a bus. Which, by the way, turned out to be the best part of our transport travels in India.

You see, buses are large – very large. And ramshackle. And the drivers of these buses seem to have no care for the other vehicles on the road – being the largest things, they can zoom straight up the middle of the highway with no fear of anyone getting in their way. Which is exactly how our driver acted for the two hours we were in his company.

As we plowed our way up the highway, watching smaller trucks and cars swish past the holes in the bus where windows normally would be the boy and I couldn’t help but laugh, especially as everyone looked at us in puzzled form since we were the only foreigners in their midst. It was well worth the £1.50 we paid.

And so after two hours of chaotic driving we arrived into Alleppey. There we headed for what our guidebook suggested was a great little cheap hotel (the Palmy Residency, which people on TripAdvisor also seem to love) to bed down in. Cheap it was. Great it wasn’t. When I tried to explain that for our £5 we were going to need sheets that didn’t have blood on them and the man looked at us like we were demanding, I knew we weren’t going to be in for a good stay. But, we’d already lugged our backpacks down many a dirt road to get there and we couldn’t be bothered with looking elsewhere – so long as he changed the sheets (which he did).

We headed out pronto to try and find another houseboat carrier that would take us the next day. You see, there are dozens of Kettuvallam companies in Alleppey – far more than in Kollam – so we thought we had a good chance of negotiating.

Unfortunately, it was not to be our day. After speaking to a dozen agencies up and down the main drag, they all wanted to do their best to rip us off. We eventually settled on doing a backwater canal day trip on a smaller, hand rowed boat with Antony’s Tours and Travels and I let go of my dream of taking a Kettuvallam for good.

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By the time we’d worked our way through all the agencies, almost all the restaurants were closed. I’d only eaten a few bites of soggy noodles so was starving but despite the boy’s and my best efforts, a restaurant was not to be found. So, we settled on bags of crisps. Yep, that’s how desperate things got. And what’s worse? The fan in our musty room was barely working when we got back.

As we sat down on the bed in our pants, sweating and exhausted, eating crisps and drinking lukewarm beer, I luckily still managed to chuckle. As the boy put it: “At least you always tend to remember these types of moments and we can laugh about it later.”

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The next morning, things seemed to be looking up. The sun was bright and we arrived at Antony’s Tours and Travels with fresh hopes for the new day. But, once more, Alleppey disappointed.

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We’d been promised a great backwater tour with loads of journeys down little canals that the massive Kettuvallams couldn’t get to. What we actually got was one trip down one little canal to get dropped off on the bank where we were presented with coconuts and then (after consuming them) told we had to pay for them, before being badgered by the young tour guide constantly to buy him sweets and water (because he was sooooo hungry and soooo thirsty) and for me to please give him my backpack because he loved it. The young guide kept trying to give the boy and I (and the other guests: two Colombian girls and one French guy) alcohol before graphically flirting with the French guest and telling him some very rude things about what he wanted to do with him.

The boy being put to work.

The boy being put to work.

We then had lunch in a village house that was meant to be followed by a village tour but, instead, found ourselves stuck for two hours in the host’s house constantly being told we’d “move along in a little while” but never actually leaving. And the other guide kept getting the boy to row the boat because he was too tired!

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Okay – there were some good points: the backwaters (as you can see from the pictures) are beautiful and teeming with life.

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But, I can, most certainly, never, ever recommend Antony’s Tours and Travels – all we’d been promised was reneged on and I can’t imagine how that company’s managed to get so many good reviews on TripAdvisor!

And so, our time in Alleppey could not come to a close quick enough for me. We ended up staying at the Palm Grove Lake Resort (after a nightmare of a time trying to find a hotel as every one seemed to only have the most expensive rooms available) and that, at least, was serviceable (except for the army of ants that invaded our room).

All in all, Alleppey and the backwaters stand out for how awful they were. But, that, is sometimes what you get when you travel. Those promises of relaxation were not to be for all of Kerala. I can only hope that others among you have better experiences if you manage to get there!

In Part 8, the boy and I take in some luxury hotels and finally see how relaxing Kerala can be – if money were no option.

India Pt 6: To the paradise of ‘God’s Own Country’

4 Feb
The sun in paradise.

The sun in paradise.

There are few times in my life that I can recall having felt I had arrived in paradise. Last year, during a trip to Costa Rica, I fell head over heels for the rocky cliffed beach and village at Montezuma and that was as close to the characteristic ‘paradise’ as I felt I had been before, despite extensive travels. It is a heartily difficult thing to achieve and the term means something different to everyone, so it’s understandable that it had not appeared so frequently in the past.

So when the boy and I pulled up at 2am to our hotel in Varakala, Kerala in our pre-arranged taxi having traveled for 20 hours from the tip-top of India’s northeast to nearly its very southern point, I wasn’t in a mind-frame that was expecting paradise. I was just bloody tired.

The grounds at SeaShore Beach Resort.

The grounds at SeaShore Beach Resort.

After a solid sleep, we emerged from our room to inspect the place we were staying at – the SeaShore Beach Resort. Having arrived in the pitch black, it was still a mystery to us.

And there, in the searing neon yellow sunlight, we found paradise. Or, at least, what I consider to be paradise.

The view from the cliff edge at SeaShore.

The view from the cliff edge at SeaShore.

With an expansive lawn dotted with palm trees and pathways, the hotel’s modest grounds led straight out along what is known in Varkala as South Cliff, to the cliff’s edge where, a hundred feet below, golden sand stretched for miles. Having come from the chilly northeast, the heat quickly warmed our souls while the view mesmerised us.

Our stay at SeaShore was only one of the many highlights of our four-day adventure in Varkala but it was a big one. The fact the manager’s name is Shine and the fact he spends his every moment smiling, was an additional bonus.

As background, Varkala sits on the south western side of Kerala, which is India’s most southwestern state and which has the nickname of ‘God’s Own Country’. It used to be a quiet hideaway but in recent years has been gathering more and more publicity so that it now has a whole stretch along the sea front filled with buzzing cafes, restaurants, bars and shops. It has two ‘cliffs’ – the North and South Cliff, with the latter catering more to those wanting to be right in the midst of the action and the former for those wanting to stay in places that are a bit quieter. Given the South Cliff was only a 15 minute walk (max) to the main touristy area, the boy and I were more than happy to reside in a more relaxed neighbourhood. The town is known for its red sandstone cliffs, that make it stand out dramatically when one is on the golden beach below and also make it a more ‘active’ place to stay given one has to climb up the rickety stairs carved into the cliff-side.

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

We liked Varkala mostly because it managed to balance itself between being tourist-friendly without being super ‘touristy’. For the first time during our time in India, there were restaurants that specifically stated on their menus the use of bottled water for making ice cubes (which meant I could enjoy a cold drink without fear of Delhi relapse) and there was a buzzy, vibrant travellers’ atmosphere that made it friendly. Okay, I admit, it may sound like a bit of a cop-out to say we fell in love with a town that obviously catered to tourists when we were meant to be seeing ‘proper’ India. But, after two weeks of dusty, dirty, chaotic places where everyone stares, it was nice to just relax into things, to wander about (fairly) freely and to take things in. Sometimes, when traveling, one needs a bit of a balance.

Beer in a mug - that's what I like!

Beer in a mug – that’s what I like!

We spent our days meandering between South and North Cliff, swimming at the more private beach (to which the hotel has direct, private access to) and eating to our hearts’ content at various restaurants.

Varkala's stony, red cliffs.

Varkala’s stony, red cliffs.

Our favourite was the meal we had at Clafouti, which is at the far end of North Cliff. As there are dozens of places to dine on the sea front, we would simply walk up and down until we saw a place we liked. The host managed to lure the boy and I in one night with the promise of a large fresh fish (which we picked out from the table displaying dozens on ice), plus coconut rice and vegetables for 550r (or, £6.40). With a few beers each, our meal was maybe £9, the fish soft and flavoursome having been steamed in the tandoor and the atmosphere was amazing. We stayed until at least 1am, finally wandering back to South Cliff in a happy haze.

Another night, we stopped by the Rock ‘n Roll Cafe, a bit further down from Clafouti. It had a BOGO happy hour special and a surprising (but comforting) western style set-up with big comfy couches, great music and a perfect view of the sea. Around 30 minutes into our drinks, the whole sky suddenly became viciously dark as rebellious black clouds streamed in. And then the rain hit. For 25 minutes, the boy and I witnessed the most intense lightning and rain storm I have ever seen. The power went out at the cafe but, somehow, the music kept playing. As Amos Lee’s ‘Night Train’ flowed through the speakers and as we drank our icy cocktails, I couldn’t help but think: even in the most insane storm, Varkala is still paradise.

In Part 7, the boy and I  take a rebel bus north up the coast of Kerala, find frustration in Alleppey and finally, get scammed.

India Pt 5: Turtle trains & Ramshackle Chic Lodgings

28 Jan

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

I peered out the window of the moving train to see the oddest sight: a jeep filled with ten, terribly squished passengers speeding past, its occupants smiling and waving at us.

This was unusual mainly for the following reason: a jeep so laden down with body weight was still going faster than our train.

The boy and I had finally decided to say our goodbyes to Darjeeling, having had a wonderful three day break in the little town. But instead of taking the speedy route of a shared taxi down the hill 32km to Kurseong – our next stop – we opted for a lumbering and hilariously slow train journey instead.

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

At first, we thought it would be a quaint way to travel. It was to take three hours to cover the short distance but – with the turtle-slow traveling – we figured we’d get the chance to enjoy the views down the mountain in a wonderfully relaxed manner and all at the low price of around £3 each for “first class” tickets (this relating to the ancient, dusty seats covered in a carpet-like material that were an upgrade from the wooden benches in “second class”).

But, as soon as we boarded, we realised our mistake – we’d forgotten how much people in all parts of India love to use horns. While we’d only experienced this in cars, as it turned out, the same logic goes for trains.

That’s right – THREE hours of a blasting, blaring train horn.

So much for a laid-back journey!

One of the many shops one passes a few feet away from on the Darjeeling-Kurseong route.

One of the many shops one passes a few feet away from on the Darjeeling-Kurseong route.

But, regardless, the trip was incredibly memorable. The old diesel locomotive runs along a frighteningly narrow track that zig-zags back and forth across the main road. This seemed to be the primary reason why the conductor had to blast his horn constantly – to stop distracted drivers plowing into the side of the carriages. When the train wasn’t trailing over the roadway, it mainly traveled alongside it, giving us a good view of the inside of the jeeps that beeped their way past. As we lumbered our way downhill, villagers would come out of their houses to wave at us, while dogs howled at the horn. At times, we passed so close to shops and houses, we could have easily leaned out the window for a packet of crisps or a pair of pants off a laundry line. It was – quite possibly – the oddest journey I have ever taken.

"The most tourist friendly hill station in the world."

“The most tourist friendly hill railway in the world.”

When finally we arrived in Kurseong – which labels itself the “most tourist friendly hill railway in the world” for reasons unbeknownst to the boy and I – we were longing for some peace and quiet.

P1170437We’d made reservations at Cochrane Place - a hotel on the town’s outskirts. Since we weren’t spending the extra money on a trip up to Sikkim, we thought we’d treat ourselves to a couple of nights of more upscale lodging.

The hotel was formerly the home of British colonial Percy John Cochrane who acted as the area’s magistrate in the early 20th century. It has been restored to house a wide variety of individually decorated, slightly ramshackle rooms and has a restaurant on-site, which made for easy dining.

At the back of the first floor was our room – am expansive, two-floored deluxe space with lounge, bedroom and a balcony that overlooked nearby houses and mountains. We even had a teddy bear to greet us.

King Kong anyone? Odd decor at Cochrane Place.

King Kong anyone? Eccentric decor at Cochrane Place.

But despite the more upscale space and welcoming soft toy, everything about Cochrane Place felt slightly haunted – from the old abandoned games room, to the colonial pictures on the walls and strange antique dolls in cabinets.

And, while at the hotel I can honestly say I experienced something that will haunt me for years to come – a stick massage.

Billed by management as a local treatment, I expected a “stick massage” to use, well, sticks, that would likely be rolled up and down my spine or arms to help the masseuse work out tough knots. Given I’d had 10 days of lugging around a heavy backpack, it seemed like just the thing that would relax me.

But oh how I was wrong. A stick massage is – quite literally – a massage that uses different shaped wooden instruments that are hit against the skin in a tapping manner to stimulate the nerves. As I lay on the bed, fully clothed, and had sticks rattled against me like a drum for an hour, I realised it probably would have been best to confirm how this massage was done before agreeing to it.

I’ve never seen the boy look so happy to have missed out on something than when I regaled him with the tale of being rat-a-tat-tapped for 60 long minutes.

Local tea workers off for lunch.

Local tea workers off for lunch.

The bizarre nature of Cochrane Place was, however, one of its most charming aspects. We would dine each afternoon and evening with a different group of guests in the large dining room, chatting about our travels and asking them where they had been, while looking out towards the sparkling, lit up hills where thousands of strangers were likely eating their meals in their homes. In the daytime, we trekked around tea estates and up long, winding hills near the hotel.

Both it and the train journey will stick with the boy and I for years to come – and, sometimes, that’s what traveling is best for: experiencing the unexpected!

In Part 6, the boy and I head south for our last leg around Kerala and fall head over heels for Varkala.

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