For all of us who thought that Bangalore was the ultimate pub city, London sure beats it hollow when it comes to the sheer numbers of pubs that the city has. Practically every street seems to have one, with many of them looking quite old and attractive. I confess that I simply looked into the Lonely Planet for this one, and didn’t really bother exploring the many options available. For one thing, we were walking around so much, that we didn’t really plan to do any late-night partying. Instead, all we wanted was a comfortable, preferably atmospheric place where we could rest our legs and try some local brew.

The very day we landed, we had a couple of hours to kill before our train to the Lake District. What better way to spend a rainy afternoon (with heavy backpacks down our backs..) than to enter into a pub pronto, and sample some of the tipples on offer. Thus it was, that we landed up, at the Lamb, recommended as it was by the book, and most importantly, close to our train station. The Lamb was apparently named after philanthropist William Lamb who brough fresh water to the locality!

null

The draught beer (ale) that we had was excellent – light and refreshing. The nicest thing about The Lamb is the extremely friendly service, so it is a really nice place to go to. The food is good ttoo, if not extremelly cheap. (about 7 pounds per main dish). Another interesting thing about the pub, is that due to its Victorian times’ design (in the 19th C.), it has these “snob screens”, screens at head-level which would have concealed a drinkers’ identity. Talk about some serious drinking!

Another interesting pub we visited, was the Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, which is reputed as one of “the” oldest pubs in London, a worthy achievement when you consider how old and preserved everything in London seems to be! Older versions of the pub apparently date back to the 16th C. Regulars included worthies such as Dr. Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens. We searched quite a bit for this pub, although it is just a hop and skip away from the St. Paul’s Cathedral from which we went here!

null

The search was well worth it though. This is not as comfortable a pub as The Lamb, but what it lacks in practicality, it makes up by oozing atmosphere. The pub has many levels, although right now only three are open. Dark, narrow corridors and stairs take you through, and when we finally had our beers in the dark vaults below, we truly felt as though we were in some ancient time! I also tried some apple cider, one of those things which you keep reading in English books but have no clue what it is. I am happy to report that it tasted excellent, light and fruity, with just enough alcoholic flavor to make you feel that its not a fruit juice, but not too much at all.

Strangely, a small room on the right, as soon as you enter the pub, is reserved for men, and even proclaims on the door, “Gentlemen only served in this bar”! Truly, a relic of another era…It was also interesting to see how few people were having any cocktails, or even any stronger alcohol at all. Most patrons seemed to be drinking beer. Quite a contrast to the pub scene here….

Note: Drinking in London is highly affordable, with alcohol pretty cheap. I think we paid about 2 pounds for a pint, which is not bad . It is the food that is terribly expensive, especially if you are eating in a restaurent. Take-aways and fast food is much cheaper, though more boring ofcourse.

And, an interestingly written piece on British pub etiquette. Even if you’re not a drinker, its highly entertaining!

Anyone who has been to London and on the London Eye knows that (on a good day), you get fantastic views of the city from up above, with sights including the Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, views of the Thames, and famous buildings including the Gherkin….

Well, we saw all of those, but also something else sort of unusual. Look at the photo below, and see if you can guess what the site was being used for? This was a photograph we took while we were well above, in one of the London Eye Capsules. Don’t cheat, don’t scroll down, and see if you can guess…(I’d love to know your guesses too..)

null

This is the grand looking County Hall where a Dali Universe exhibition was on when we went on the Eye. Now, go down to the next picture and see if your guess was correct!

null

Trampolining! These kids were having the time of their lives bouncing up and down. See how high up that girl really is! (I took this picture once we got down)

Apologies for the long absence! Art has ofcourse been active in my absence, and I hope readers were well entertained 🙂

The main reason for the absence ofcourse was the holiday in Europe. I returned in the first week of June, dirty, tired, broke, but totally exhilerated. It was a fantastic trip in every way, and I hope to share some of that here, starting with this one long post. (I warned you!)

One of the things this trip made me realise was how much of a role chance or luck has to play in travelling. In many of the places we stayed in, the bookings were all made on the internet, just by looking at websites. Many of them were such small B&Bs that they did not have any referrals or even mention on the big sites that rate hotels. In the event, we did amazingly well, and the kindness shown to us by some of our hosts amazed me. It went much beyond a simple commercial transaction, and made us feel truly at home, reinforcing my belief in homestays.

So where do I start? Well, if I begin with the beginning, I have to start with the Lake District, where we started our journey, after a train ride from London. Now, the Lake District is ofcourse one of the most frequented tourist areas in England, fair enough, considering how picture-postcard-pretty it really is. But even in the Lake District, I realized, that the bulk of the tourist traffic goes to the 2-3 key villages such as Grasmere, Windermere, Bowness or Ambleside. Here again, call it chance or whatever – because I had booked really late, I could not find a suitable place to stay in any of these places. Instead, we ended up based in a much quieter town, called Kendal, infact, at a farm 4 miles outside of Kendal, at a village called New Hutton. This turned out to be one of the best things we ever did! The house that we stayed in, was an old one built in the 1660s with modern plumbing and other amenities added, but otherwise pretty much structurally the same, with its low ceilings, cozy little rooms and wooden panelling. Our host Mrs.Knowles ,whose husband’s family has owned the place for some generations, was the warmest person, making us feel truly comfortable, enquiring after our comfort, helping us with local routes and telling us more about local news and issues.

The countryside really is the true beauty of the Lake District, with its rolling greens that seem to go on for ever, the stone walls and hedge rows that are such an intrinsic part of the scenery, the sheep and cattle on the country side, and walking along narrow winding roads for miles without seeing a soul. Until. Someone passes by in a car, or riding a cycle, or even a buggy along the sheep farms. And for no reason at all, gives you a broad smile and wishes you a good morning. Windermere has the largest lake, but in no way can it compete with this!

null
(Green stretches endlessly, on the way to Kendal)

null
(Occasionally bounded in by shrubs and trees)

null
(A large house on route, at a junction where 3 roads to the 3 towns in the neighbourhood, Sedbergh, Oxenholme and Kendal meet)

The fact that we were based in a village, without any transport of our own, meant that we had to necessarily walk up and down to Kendal everyday. (Taxis are notriously expensive). These walks were some of the moments we really savored, pausing to watch a particularly beautiful slope, or arrangement of walls, or the rise and fall of hills in the distance. Green is the dominant color, grass carpeting every inch of land, a treat for the eyes and for the sheep alike!

null

Kendal itself is a neat little town, with its old market square still intact. When the entire region was a major hub for the wool-trade and other industries like mining, it was a much busier place. Today it feels quiet, yet active at the same time. While chain stores like McDonalds are there, the town also seems to take much pride in its many independent stores, and has an open market day every wednesday, when the market square fills up with small traders and home made produce, laying out the stuff in temporary stalls. There is an excellent Museum of Lakeland Life, which explains the history of the region with many audio and visual guides.

Besides this, can any old English town not have its own castle to boast of? Sure enough, Kendal has one too, dating back to the 12th century, although in ruins. Built for one of the early baronets in the region, the castle ruins stand on a small hill with a path around that has some good views. The walk to the castle itself is lovely, going past the riverside and over some bridges that make one feel as though the medieval era is still not over. The Kent river, which flows through the town was apparently until recently, quite prone to flooding and causing damage to the nearby areas. While the castle itself is not grand or fantastic or even tremendously important in any way, its setting has a quietness to it that adds to the feeling of ‘time has stopped here’. (The castle’s one claim to fame is that Catherine Parr, the last wife of the much married Henry VIII came from the famly of the Parrs who were one of the early owners. The road that leads towards the castle is Parr Street.)

null
(Bridge over the river Kent)

null
(Ruins of Kendal Castle)

null
(The Castle cellars, dark and cool, to store meat and drink for long periods)

While few features of the castle remain intact, one of the towers maintained for the use of the barons to stay “in relative comfort” stands in quite good condition. This relative comfort included an indoor toilet, with the convenient system of squatting over a hole, such that the contents fell down into the moat below, to be washed away. Makes one appreciate the comforts of modern life, however interesting history may be!

null
(Royal Loos!)

Kendal also has a delightful place called The Chocolate House, whose claim to fame is that it dates back to 1657, and although not a chocolate shop for all of its history, has taken on many avatars including that of a bakery, a fashion store and antiques house, before resuming business as a chocolate store. Today its cafe serves up the a range of chocolate based desserts apart from a good selection of chocolate drinks that are a comfort to the weary traveller. I had something called The Dungeon, a dark concoction of bitter chocolate spiced up mysteriously.

Kendal is interesting not so much because of the things it has to do and see. Rather, it is interesting precisely because of its ordinariness. It is a lovely place to just walk around, sit at the square and see things going by. The daily life of the Lake District is on view here, apart from its tourist attractions. Ofcourse, having gone to the Lake District, we didn’t entirely miss out those, and set out on a day’s expedition to Grasmere and Windermere.

Grasmere is noted for the Dove Cottage, where the poet Wordsworth spent some of his best creative years. The tour at Dove Cottage was conducted by some students interning there to get a foothold into the musuem industry, which is apparently a very competitive one. It is really a worthwhile tour, giving a sense of the people who lived there, their daily lives and trials, the overcrowding, the noise. Since Wordsworth was already very famous in his lifetime, and a Poet Laureate, it meant that a lot of things used by him and given away to people, were returned to the museum, which is therefore, quite rich in exhibits from the poet’s life. The lake can be seen from Dove Cottage, though many other cottages have sprung up in front, whereas in Wordsworth’s time, he would have had a completely unhindered view.

null
(View from Dove Cottage)

Grasmere village itself is pretty, as is Windermere, though overflowing with hotels, B&Bs and consequently, people. Windermere infact reminded me of a prettier, much better maintained Ooty! The lake is so full of boats that the cruise, while it offers some beautiful views, doesn’t really compare with the beauty of the quieter parts of the Lake District. I guess that is one of the unresolvable dilemmas created by the tourism industry. Lovely places become popular, and then, so popular, that their loveliness ceases to become obvious any more. Still, the Lake District does a very good job of maintaining its natural beauty in the face of such onslaught.

null
(A lone roughfell sheep outside Grasmere Village)

null
(Ducks at Grasmere)

null
(A restaurent by a stream)

null
(View from Lake Windermere)

Appropriately enough, close friend Desigirl, with whom I stayed later in London, gifted me a copy of Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, where he says about the Lake District, “And yet, even at its worst, the Lake District remains more charming and less rapaciously commercialized than many famed beauty spots in more spacious countries. And away from the crowds – away from Bowness, Hawkshead and Keswick.. it retains pockets of sheer perfection”. I couldn’t say it better!

A bike ride away from Ahmedabad, about 70kms away, off the highway lies one of nature’s gems tucked away from crowds.

Nalasarovar is a big marshy lake, filled with tall grass. These attract a large variety of birds such as storks, spoonbills, pelicans,egrets, kingfishers and of course, flamingoes, also pink ones.

We borrowed Panditji’s ( our head cook) bike and drove down at around 5 am.

Obviously we looked like students( which is what we were) and did not have to bargain too much. For I think a hundred rupees, including the entry fee, we got a really knowledgeable boatman who spoke Hindi and even some English. His discourse was punctuated by silences as we drew near the birds. It is remarkable – the sounds of various birds in the quiet of the morning.

As we meandered through the marshes, we saw the sun rise, lots of birds one had only seen in the Salim Ali book and of course fish darting by the boat, in the water. Just as I was giving up hope of being able to see the flamingoes, there they were. A whole flock of them. We waited in anticipation for them to swoop up and display their pink and black wings and bodies in full splendor. They teased us as though they knew we were watching. Then all at once they rose in unison- like a crescendo. So exquisite. So majestic.

If you wish to go there, you could check out the Forest Guest House as well.

I did not have a digicam then, just an automatic Kodak which failed to zoom in on the glory of these birds.

But the memories are crystal clear, even after a decade.

Venice was in the news recently for the woman Gondolier from Germany who has been granted licence into a hitherto male domain.

After visiting the magnificent St Mark’s square, viewing an ad shoot with a woman running in a gorgeous scarlet gown among the pigeons, the imposing church and the captivating Murano factory of coloured glass works, we took the mandatory ride in the Gondolas- the special black coloured boats where singers serenade you as you navigate the canals.

We had an aging male Gondolier straight out of the movies. He sang as we went along but did not look very chirpy or even happy. However the gondolier next to ours was groovy and for once I wished we had been behind in the queue.

Do you know why the gondolas are painted black? They were expected to remain inconspicuous at night, as gentleman of the city carried on their affairs in them with others’ wives!

And here is another thing about Venice- you need not have perfect furniture. The city, mostly built on the logs of black forest, is constantly sinking. Houses constantly develop unpredictable ups and downs on their floors.

So this could be a good destination for the neighbourhood carpenter who ruined your new sofa!

Remember the nomad uncle, Travelling Matt, of Fraggle Rock? He would send a card back, towards the end of each episode to his nephew on how humans- ” silly creatures” behave. ( rechristened “muggles” after Harry Potter). He travelled alone always.

On the other hand there is Asterix. I am like him. No- not the height or the magic potion bit. And I have nothing against Romans. I am not a lone traveller. I prefer company. But there have been instances when I wished I did not have company.

Travel bugs and what I would like to tell them:
Window snatcher– in a non air-conditioned train/ bus- I like the breeze on my face as well, not to mention the view
Slow pokes – while one need not cram the agenda, there should be some bit of timeplan to a trip
Whiners– Forever complaining and comparing – Back home… – “Then you should have stayed home.”
Caffeine Addict– Stickler for coffee/ tea timings and quality while travelling- “get a flask”
Dirty Harry– trashes about- no excuses- “I do not know you.”
Kebabs mein haddis/ Tag alongs– While travelling with a conducted tour group, those who do not give a couple a few minutes of privacy
Money minder-” Don’t make me feel guilty”
Fanatics– I am X religion So I will not visit a Y religious centre- ” Get a life- enjoy the architecture”

Do you have any to add?

Pondicherry or should I say Pududcherry, is just a couple of hours by car from Chennai (150 Kms) . The road, East Coast Road ( ECR), is fantastic.

En route you could do Dakshin Chitra, which offers a glimpse at South Indian culture and then a little further Mahabalipuram. You will need 3 hours each to do enough justice to them. Lunch at The Wharf or at the buffet at GRT Temple Bay would be a good way to fuel yourself.

In Pondi, we stayed at the La Dupleix, a heritage hotel . The ambience is wonderful- an amalgam of French colonialism and Tamil Chettinadu sensibilities. Lovely wooden flooring, a cosy bathroom with a lot of red oxide and terracota flooring and old Thanajavur bommais, large jhoolahs, grandpa recliner chairs in teak, a courtyard with an ancient mango tree, on a quiet corner street. If you have a baby choose one of the ground floor rooms as there is no lift. The service is warm although a little slow.

We had taken Anush’s pram there so it was easy to go on long walks. You can also hire cycles.

You could also check out this Heritage hotel .

The typical must dos include:
Home to the Aurobindo Ashram, a French lady known as “Mother” managed it after Sri Aurobindo passed away. It is rumoured that a strong belief in the mother can help you rediscover lost things. Among Indians, Bengalis and Tamilians are big followers of The Mother. Babies are not allowed in here. It is a calm and pretty place enlived with flowers.
The Ganesha Mandir is pretty close by and has a resident elephant as well
Auroville is based on the interesting concept of international community living and the maithri mandir, which is forever undergoing renovation
The main rocky beach is nice to hang about and you can get a whiff of more than just the local flavor here
Chunnabar, has some lovely frangipani trees, boating and a children’s park. Also a run down aquarium and a tree house which seems to be closed most of the time. Still kids can have fun here.
You should look out for the local police- they have quaint head gear and a smart uniform!

Some must eats from a vegetarian perspective :
The Promenade ( Hidesign’s business hotel)- the roof top restaurant
La Dupleix itself for the continental delicacies
A little beach side shop that makes milk shakes, ice creams and burgers- forget the name though

The must buys are :
You can pick up interesting antiques in the small dingy looking shops
Pondicherry is gaining fame in the area of Montessori wooden toys which also you could buy at the factory.
Puducheri bommas make good souvenirs as do the incense sticks from Auroville
Motor Bikes are cheaper with a much lower sales tax vis a vis Tamil Nadu
Of course liquor if you are from Chennai but avoid carrying it out of the territory

And in case you did not know, Pondicherry has the largest number of French citizens outside of France. They even have their say in Presidentielle 2007!!