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Chettinad – the heart of Tamil Nadu

Chettinad is kind of a holiday. Simple life, villages, small markets and great food. Chettinad cuisine is considered one of the finest in India, even tough it is not as well known as the Hyderabadi-, or North Indian cuisine. Fact is that the use of spices is nowhere as complex as here. Thats why we decided to put a big table into the kitchen so you can chat with the chefs directly, while enjoying your lunch. Just make sure you stay at Visalam.

Being here is taking a cycle and ride trough the quite village lanes, to visit small local handicrafts, where they show you how a Sari is woven, or at another place how floor tiles are made. Having a stroll trough the weekly market is another really happy experience. Chitchat with the banana seller and marvel at the variety of veggies at offer. Of course even here in Chettinad there is no escape from Shiva, but why would you, after all, he has so many forms. Here in the villages, he is worshipped at Ayyanar the protector of the fields. He rides a horse and not his Nandi bull as usual. And his temples are really worth a visit. The shrines are simple, and the entrance is kind of cute. Lines of funnily grinning terra cotta horses line the way to the shrine. They are offered by the communities each year as a thank you for a good harvest.

And of course if you come to stay with us at Visalam, we make sure that your experiences and excursions are guided by our local story tellers, because how else would you get that authentic flavour you are looking for?

In Chettinad stay at: http://www.cghearth.com/visalam

Things I love about Pondicherry

Haven’t really counted, but I am sure its more than 40 times that I have stopped at Pondicherry, that amazingly underrated city on the east coast, just three hours south of Chennai. Honestly I have no idea why this place has not turned into one of the prime attractions long ago.

I am not talking here about the two great exceptions, the Auroville and Aurobindo Pilgrims, once united and now a highly divided lot of “Peace on Earth” seekers. But those I do not really count as the curious culture travellers like myself.

Just imagine a place, so french in style that even the French rub their eyes in disbelieve. Hey and this quite little french riviera place is surrounded by a loud and lively Indian city. Where on Earth do you find a place like this?

Now there are a few places I think you just need to see.

Riksha ride

Take a Riksha in the Morning and see the city from the perspective of a Riksha driver. Its entirely their project and they are so proud to show you their city. Stopp at the tea stall and share a hot cup of typical Indian chai with you. For Information ask the front desk of Maison Perumal or Palais de Mahe Hotel.

Goubert Market

Wow, this is a place like no other! From the rather smelly fish section with the endless squabbling selling ladies. Last time I was there, I really had that very evil thought of understanding why those fishermen spend all their nights at sea, listening to nothing but the comforting sound of the waves and the wind.

If you manage to survive this noisy and fly invested hurdle, the veggie section seems like heaven. The voices reduce by half and the fragrance change is rather welcome. The array of veggies and fruits is just amazing. But this is not all, folks. If you pass from there towards the temple you will find yourself suddenly in the world of flowers. Rose and Queen of the night fragrances linger in the air. The stalls are turned into artists workshops and its amazing how fast those nimble fingers create works of art to be offered at temples or worn by bride and grooms at weddings.

Then there are tailors and textiles and a host of other shops, selling pulses, sugar and lots of other daily needs.

Last time I was there with a group. Gave them one and half an hour and at the end I had to drag them almost out of the place. Thats the magic of Goubert Market, my favourite place in the city.

Heritage walk

INTAC is a organisation that tries to protect the architecture and the cultural value of the city. They offer a walk trough the french town in the later afternoon. Its the great opposite of the Riksha tour in the morning. From the raw view of the man of the street you get now the intellectual inputs of an architect and the struggle to retain the cities charms. The contrast couldn’t be bigger. A walk not to be missed!

Evening at the temple

There is no better light to see a temple than in the evening, especially if its a living city temple, bustling with local families. The fading light of day and the candles turn these temples into an oasis of peace. Even the otherwise happily chatting kids become silent and their eyes lite up. The temple has another really nice touch in the evening – music. The ancient flutes and drums create that special ambiance of reverence and peace. More so, there no organised and pre fabricated rituals. Its a great reminder of this vast and feel-able difference between mythology and religion.

dscf0521Honestly, I am not too fond of the poor elephant standing outside the temple on this tiny platform, raising tirelessly his trunk and blessing people for a few coins. But then I am not fond of catholic priests sodomising boys either and both seem to get away with it since centuries. Religion is a funny thing that somehow turns a blind eye on injustice to animals and humans, as long the packaging promises relief from sorrow and pain.

The evening promenade 

If you have not taken a stroll in the evening along the sea promenade, its like you have not been to Pondicherry at all! This is another completely different take on life, nowhere else found in India. A street that is being blocked for traffic from the evening till the morning, so people can walk and children can play! And its not just a street, its the absolut main street of the city and this not just at some rare holiday.  No, its blocked everyday. Families, friends, guest, visitors all end up in the cool evening breeze, strolling up and down carefree along the sea. People come to read, chat, meditate and watch their children play. This promenade reflects the true identity of India, its lived and practised secularity. Just love the place.

Evening at PondicherryFood & Shopping

Pondicherry would not be Pondicherry without a Baguette and a good coffee. You find it in Baker street and other cosy corners of the city. Pondicherry really a good number of real nice restaurants and bars.

Restaurants, bars and shops are often run or influenced be the two large communities of Auroville and the Aurobindo Ashram. Both communities are involved in the creation of wonderful and eco friendly products like textiles, paper, furniture, Incense, fragrances and jewellery. There are many boutiques with really nice finds and of a otherwise not available quality. Pondicherry is definitely also worth a shopping stop.

You might wonder, why my list does not feature the famous Auroville or the Aurobindo Ashram. After all a large tribute for the upkeep of the city goes to these two societies. My take is that if you are not part of it, they are not more than visiting a museum. Both have very restricted policies towards visitors and Auroville is basically just a nice walk in the forest to the gold plated Globe (Matri Mandir) and back. If you stay longer in Pondicherry they are definitely worth a visit

If you are in Pondicherry I would like to recommend the following accommodation:

www.cghearth.com/palaisdemahe or www.cghearth.com/maison-perumal

Hey, please leave me your inputs. As a traveller I am always open to learn and experience new things. Please drop me a line.

First Impressions – Kathmandu Valley

Stupa with Quake shelters around it. A almost normal scene in Kathmandu these days.

Having travelled regularly for over the last 30 years to Nepal, I was very curious to see the country after the quake. After all the media had painted a very scary picture about the country. I was expecting collapsed houses all over the valley. After all the Media showed us only the worst. Now that I am here, the first impression is quite different from what the Media portrayed the reality to be.

Yes there is damage, yes there is suffering and yes there is even trauma among the people.

But NO there is no reason NOT to travel to Nepal. There is no reason to avoid the country. Sure, there are some monuments missing and there is still rubble in some places. There are houses marked unsafe and many problems and suffering for residents that lost house and home.

But for a visitor there is everything in tact. There are nice hotels ready to look after you, roads are intact and the monuments are open again. This is what I gathered from the valley within my first two days.

So if you want to support the country you should absolutely travel to Kathmandu. The hospitality is great and the people are looking forward to welcome you. Just be open to see a country that has suffered a huge natural calamity, not a war, but a natural phenomena that left its visible traces. At the moment Nepal is a country where the value of your spending is very precious and able to support and even change lives. So, don’t defer your travel to the Himalayas, on the contrary – do it now!