Rajasthan has got to be one of my favourite destinations. Part of it stems from spending two years of my adolescence in Jaisalmer. The other part stems from the fact that it is so gosh darn gorgeous – I can’t even!
Back in college I had always wanted to go to Neemrana after listening to countless accounts of how fun the zip-lining was. But slowly, that enthusiasm faded – Neemrana started to seem like a cliché picnic spot for every bored Dilliwalla.
My first ‘visit’ to the Neemrana Fort Palace in 2015 was with my family and it ended in an abrupt decision to go back home. The entry fee of 1,500 rupees (back then, now of course it costs more) multiplied by four people for just a few hours of wandering around just didn’t seem worth it.
So this time, I decided to get my money’s worth and actually stay there a night – as a young girl in Jaisalmer, I always wondered how it felt like living in the fort there, and I wasn’t going to give up a chance of doing so, with a friend in tow.
We got to Neemrana around 11 after stopping for some GREAT dhabaparanthas (with generous dollops of farm fresh butter!) and the BEST masala chai I have ever had – shoutout to Hotel Highway King (I feel like I just had to mention this here!).
The drive up is winding, almost like going up a mountain. And right at the end of the road lies a grand door – the entrance to the fort also called the Surya Pol or the Sun Gate. Notice the spikes on the door (like most forts from this period) which would act as the first barrier against an attack.
If you look up from the Surya Pol, you can just about make out some parts of the fort and it looks kinda small – don’t be fooled!
Upon entering, we were hit by a blast of bougainvillea – sprawling down from every vertical surface. Ah it was BEAUTIFUL. But nothing compared to what we were about to witness.
We left our bags at the reception, downloaded free audio-guides on our phones and set off to explore the fort – there was no time to waste!
Remember how I spoke of not being fooled by the seemingly small size of the fort from the entrance? Well, yeah that’s what we did and we got lost so many times – of course we didn’t mind. We were eager beavers lost in one gigantic 15th century fort, not unlike a maze. The audio-guide was helpful and we managed to retrace our steps back and forth to most of the important sites listed on it.
The Neemrana Fort was built in 1464 and was the third capital of Prithviraj Chauhan III’s descendants. During the Raj, the kingdom suffered and lands were given away to the realms of Alwar, Patiala and Nabha among others who would entertain the sahibs. Still, they managed to hold on to the little they hand.
Just before Independence in 1947, Neemrana’s Raja Rajinder Singh moved out and the crumbling Neemrana Fort Palace was left to the forces of nature, to obscurity.
Now this is where it gets interesting – the oldest caretaker there told us that the owners of the Neemrana group came across this crumbling relic and managed to acquire it in the 1980s for a paltry sum of INR 1,00,000 (disclaimer: I can’t confirm the veracity of this).
But there was a LOT to do. The fort was in such disrepair that the duo Aman Nath and Francis Wacziarg had to pump in lots of money to restore it to its former grandeur and convert it to a boutique resort. In 1991, they finally opened the doors with a modest 15 rooms.
The fort was expanded overtime and now they have a mix of 72 heritage suites and rooms along with hanging gardens, two swimming pools and a convention center!
There are a total of 8 wings at Neemrana Fort Palace, tiered one on top of another, each of which were made during different centuries starting from the 15th. Here’s a map:
We booked into one of the cheaper habitations, the 18th century Baag Mahal in Wing – I (the oldest) which quite frankly provided us enough adventure in itself.
A long room, it seemed like it was passage into a rampart where there is now a romantic octagonal seating. It opens out into a garden (which lends it its name).
What is most interesting about this room is its entrance which opens into the bathroom. It was a constant game of Marco Polo when one of us had to go to the bathroom. Also the stairs were REALLY steep, definitely not recommended for the elderly.
Of course there are lot of things to do here (read: zip lining, vintage car rides and camel tours) but we decided to make our way across to the 21st century with a map we really didn’t understand because that’s where the heated pool was waiting for us as were great views of the sunset.
We climbed higher and higher…
Ended the evening here, just as the fort lights were switched on:
(BTW, the dhaba just outside the Surya Pol is highly recommended. Didn’t want to spend a lot more money on food inside the fort. And the food here was so much tastier! Breakfast is included in the tariff as is the evening tea.)
After a swim and a quick dinner at the dhaba downstairs, we wandered around the lit fort and watched a traditional Rajasthani performance.
It was so romantic and other-worldly. We sat for a while at the red sandstone amphitheater and the hanging gardens before ‘lights out’ at 10 PM.
We woke up early and put on our shoes – can you believe there was still a lot more fort left to wander around? We decided to end our explorations at the dining room for a much deserved breakfast. On the way we came across many photos of the fort from back when it was acquired. And woah, it looks nothing like it does now.
And I only have this to say – kudos to the Neemrana people for preserving what would have been a pile of rubble, plastic packets and rubbish, cattle poo and condom wrappers on the side of the highway right now
Take my advice: don’t come here for the zip lining, stay here for the history.
Back in December, I was tagged on a Facebook post that called for reader’s articles to be featured in the Outlook Traveller. And the klutz that I am, I only saw it with the deadline three days away.
I wrote and I edited like a woman possessed.
And hard work paid off! Two days into the New Year and I got a mail from the Outlook guys saying my article had been selected!
As a freelance travel writer (amongst the various other freelancing outfits I have donned), recognition like this is SUCH a boost, even if it is a contest.
Sorry for the boast – you know what they say: if you have it, flaunt it.
Here’s a snapshot of my article in the Jan 2018 Outlook Traveller:
(I got a whole three pages too!)
And here’s a link to the article on St. Petersburg.
10 points if you guessed the play in the title.
Algo bueno sucedió con mí el mes pasado.
En diciembre, un amigo me mostró un post en Facebook de Outlook Traveller que estaba buscando unos artículos de viajes de sus lectores. Pero me di cuenta en el último momento. Inmediatamente, empecé a escribir con determinación. Pero no sabía si mi artículo podría ser seleccionado.
¡Y gracias adiós! Porque dos días después, en el nuevo año, recibí un email de Outlook. Dijo que mi artículo había sido seleccionado por su edición de enero 2018.
Algunas veces, el reconocimiento se siente bien, especialmente a freelancers como yo.
Aquí tiene el link de mi artículo sobre San Petersburgo, una gran ciudad de Rusia.
¡10 puntos por adivinar lo que significa el titulo!
My first trip to Pondicherry was with my family when I was a teenager. I don’t remember as well as I probably should but I do remember being in awe with Auroville (lol).
I remember driving past the sacred Matrimandir which was still being built at the time (back in 2007) and that I was proud of being able to take a clear picture of it through the fine mesh covering one of its gates. And I definitely remember making a mental note to come back again because I loved the peace and quiet in the green ‘jungle’ with its red sandy path.
So one morning, 9 years later, I found myself there, alone this time. My aunt was kind enough to ask her driver to drop me there and I was quite shocked because the one thing I seemed to have forgotten was how long it takes to get inside from the main road. Trust me, its not a walk, if that’s what you were planning on doing.
We passed through what looked like a sleepy little Tamilian road with little shops and B&Bs scattered everywhere. But instead of the usual scrawny brown kid being chased by a helpless mother, I noticed an increasing number of hippie goras, some of them proprietors of these roadsidey establishments. It was a little unsettling since I guess I am not used to it.
Well anyway, after what seemed like forever, we reached Auroville. The driver dropped me off with an awkward ‘I’ll see you at 1’ and left me standing in the dirt. I found the very nondescript entrance – in the shape of a small canopy of trees – and headed towards my destination.
The walk to the visitor’s center from the parking lot is short and seems to transport you to an oasis in the middle of a dusty desert. You seem to come out onto a vast expanse shaded with trees and small crowds of people going about their daily businesses while Indian tourists look around helplessly. It’s quite like walking into a contemporary Arabian bazaar.
Well I had heard that if I wanted to see the Matrimandir, I had to watch this compulsory free video and receive a free pass, so in I went to the small auditorium. I didn’t learn so much from the old scratchy film as I did from the pamphlets and informational boards outside and I can briefly explain a few things about Auroville.
Auroville is an ‘alternative’ township built not so long ago in 1968, on the ideologies of Mirra Alfassa, also known as The Mother, and the yogi/philosopher Sri Aurobindo. The township has been described as ‘an international community of dedicated to the ideal of human unity’ and is ‘an international community, dedicated to peace, sustainability and ‘divine consciousness’, where people from across the globe, ignoring creed, colour and nationality, work together to build a universal, cash-free, non-religious township’.
So there are about 2,500 residents spanning 52 nationalities there! Together they run projects like schools, sustainable farming, handicrafts and more.
After I finished watching the film, a bored guard outside the door handed me my free pass and told me if I wished to go inside the Matrimandir, I would have to book an appointment and come back the next day (which is kind of a pain really). But anyway, I decided to walk down to the temple for the time being.
Much like Auroville’s entrance, the path to the Matrimandir takes one through a beautiful half man-made half natural canopy of greenery with some goats interspersed at regular intervals. Cycles are available too, but I decided a walk would be better (plus my tights pants wouldn’t have let me sit on a bike. I blame the great south Indian food I was having).
The morning was too hot for a November day and I was just about to start cursing myself when I came across one of the biggest and widest banyan tree I have ever seen in my life.
Aurovilleans believe that this tree has been around for about one hundred years but I beg to differ. It is DEFINITELY way older than that. Its branches have grown far out from the trunk and into the ground like a eerie real-life version of the Hometree from Avataar.
Back in 1965 when The Mother and French architect Roger Anger (who designed Auroville) decided to build the township, he drove to a barren plateau and noticed the only form of life, this very tree which would later become the geographical center of Auroville.
In 1968, it was under the shade of this grand tree that the founders and a select delegates inaugurated this township.
A few meters from the tree is a path that leads down to the Matrimandir and the iconic golden dome seemed to peek out from amidst the branches as I walked towards it.
The ‘soul of the city’ is surrounded by an expanse of rolling gardens with trees bordering them. The gardens are divided into 12 individual parks each with different flora and have names like Harmony, Perfection, Gratitude and Bliss.
The golden globe (pun intended) seems to rise up from the earth, ‘symbolising the birth of a new consciousness’.
They generally don’t allow you to walk into the gardens I guess and that’s why I had to stand at this viewpoint and take this picture.
Those who are lucky (and/or patient) enough to come back another day and go inside know that the mandir has an inner chamber which is divided into two hemispheres, the upper one completely made of white marble. In the centre sits a crystal glass globe which receives light from an Pantheon-like opening in the dome and diffuses it to a small pond below the structure while lighting up the room itself.
I believe the ambience inside the dome is that of complete silence. Dare whisper or, God forbid, cough in there and be ready to squirm attract the ire of those in deep meditation. Definitely not for a clumsy fool like me then.
You don’t really need to spend much time at the viewpoint and so I started heading back to the visitor’s centre to buy me some stuff. The walk back was seemingly refreshing, maybe because I found me some inner peace at the Matrimandir!
I made my way to Kalki and the other boutiques to buy some handmade paper diaries (obsessed with stationery which I never use!) and my beloved scented candles and just about made it back to the parking on time after gulping down a necessary filter coffee, burning my tongue in the process.
The driver was waiting for me as if I had taken too long. With a hurried ‘sorry’ I got in the car and we drove off. I just about got a last glimpse of the Alibaba-ish canopy before it disappeared out of sight and I sank into a post-splurging melancholy of how I was supposed to lug all my Maroma candles on the flight back.
Sitting back at home in Delhi writing this, I think I’d be seeing myself back there soon, (inside the Mandir this time) especially since I am out of Auroville’s scented candles and handmade paper stuff.
Unlike most Indians’ favourite seaside (read: party) destination Goa, Pondicherry rarely features in domestic bucket lists. In fact, with an area under 500 sq. km., it is much smaller than its western rival; quite unknown as a party destination; not popular for naked beaches; and even less popular for its churches.
In all aspects, Pondicherry’s France rivals Goa’s Portugal.
Although the tide is stronger on this side of the coast and life seems slower, it is hard not to fall hopelessly in love with this beautiful city, even if you’re here just for a day.
If you look at the map of India, you’ll notice that Pondicherry (now Puducherry…*sigh* what is it with changing perfectly good names?) seems to be shaped like a ‘C’, bound by Tamil Nadu. In fact, you’ll notice that it is divided in two regions with a part of Tamil Nadu running in between. Lying about 155 km south of Chennai, this city is a Union Territory, which means it has laws different from other Indian states (and that the liquor is tax-free! In fact you’ll know when you enter Pondicherry when you hit the first liquor shop off the highway!).
A Brief History
The area we now know as Pondicherry was ruled by the south Indian Pallava Kingdom in the 4th century A.D.; much later from the 10th – 13th centuries, it came under Chola rule and subsequently under the grand Vijayanagar Empire in the 14th century.
In 1674, the French East India Company landed on Indian shores and established its HQ right here. The then Pondicherry was divided into the French and Indian Quarters, remnants of which can be seen until this day.
During the Anglo-French wars in the 18th century, the town became subject to change in rule often and in 1763 under the Treaty of Paris, the British ‘returned’ Pondicherry to the French only to take charge of it again during the French Revolution. But in the 1850s, the French were allowed to regain their settlements there.
Pondy was under French rule right up till 1954, long after India regained its Independence, a legacy the city hasn’t been able to shrug off what with the neatly-planned quiet streets, the colonial-style houses with bougainvillea pouring out, the aromatic French-Indian cuisine and designer wear, and the abundance of French speakers.
Some popular Pondy signs
Today it is a hot tourist spot for those visiting the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and nearby Auroville, or for those who simply want a weekend getaway.
Having been there thrice – twice in the past six months – I’d say that there are a lot more things to do than going to the beach – or partying – in the city the locals fondly call ‘Pondy’.
1. Sri Aurobindo Handmade Paper Mill: In case you didn’t know, Pondy is known for its handmade paper and if you don’t know how its made, you must step inside this mill (located right at the beginning of White Town) to see the process for free! No pictures allowed here. Don’t forget to pick up some nice paper products from the small shop inside (it’s cheap!). Please note that the mill is closed in the afternoons so I suggest you go there in the morning.
Once you walk in the nondescript blue gate, walk through this canopy to reach the mill
2. Pondicherry Museum: Pondy’s modest museum may not have much to show to its visitors but go there if you’d like to get a broad sense of how the city has developed overtime. Divided in two floors, the lower one showcases mostly prehistoric relics while the first floor houses artefacts from French-Indian homes during the pre-Independence period.
Don’t miss the coaches and other transport in the balcony. I sneaked some pics although you aren’t allowed!
Entry: 10 INR
Address: St. Louis Street, Near Raj Vyas, White Town
3.Governor’s House: Also called Raj Nivas, this grand building is located just around the corner from the museum. The present edifice which has influences of both French and Indian styles, has been erected on the foundations of the earlier Hotel de la Compagnie (the French trading company that earlier ruled Pondy from 1674 to 1769) constructed around 1733. The French governor Dupleix also inhabited it till 1761. It was destroyed by the British and rebuilt between 1766 to 1768 and since then has undergone several renovations and re-modifications.
Today it is home to Pondicherry’s Lieutenant Governor. Earlier visitors couldn’t go in except on certain occasions, but the present Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi has opened it to the public so you can venture inside.
Address: Rangapillai St, Pondicherry, India
4. Bharathi Park: After you are done taking photos at the Raj Nivas, walk over to the Bharati Park right opposite. The park seems to be White Town’s lungs. You will see small children run around the park while lovers talk under the shade of it’s many trees and the odd family spreads out its picnic.
The park has four entrances, the one facing Raj Nivas being the most prominent. At the centre lies an imposing Greco-Roman structure called Aayi Mandapam, named after a prostitute by the same name.
Legend has it that during the Vijayanagar Empire, a king was passing by when he saw a grand edifice. Mistaking it for a temple, he knelt down to pay his respect but after he found out it was the house of the prostitute Aayi, he was livid. The king ordered to tear her house down and sentenced her to be hanged. But after she begged him for mercy, he let her go on the promise that she demolish her house, which she did, and also built a large water pond for the town.
During a severe water crisis in the French era, this very pond was the only source of drinking water in the town. Later, Napoleon III heard this story and ordered the construct of the monument in the park as a thanks to Aayi, and it is perhaps India’s only monument dedicated to a prostitute.
Notice the Latin plaques on the base of the monument although if you are like me you won’t understand them!
Address: Compagnie St, Pondicherry, India
5. Immaculate Conception Cathedral: Pondy’s oldest church was built in 1791. It has an imposing facade of white with gold, much like most fancy-looking south Indian churches. The Jesuits, who came to the French colony in 1689, built a church here with financial aid from Louis XIV. But this church was destroyed by the Dutch a year later.
After being rebuilt and destroyed over many years, work was finally finished on its present structure in 1791. If you step inside, you will notice its resemblance to many churches in Italy.
This church also has the distinction of being visited by Mother Teresa!
Address: Mission Street, Near V.O.C School, Pondicherry
6. Sacred Heart Basilica: This red Gothic church was consecrated in 1907 and in 1908 a parish was built. The church has two towers and above the entrance is a biblical verse in Latin (2 Chronicles 7:16).
Notice the beautiful stained glass of 28 saints depicted in the devotion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus inside the church.
The church received its status as a basilica by the Holy See in 2011. Its first mass was held at the western wing of the present church by Mgr. Gandy on 17, December 1907 and the new parish surrounding this church has been established on 27, January 1908.
Address: M.G. Road, Pondicherry
7. Notre Dame des Agnes: This Greco-Roman church is a pink, stunted version of the Notre Dame and was built under Napoleon III in 1855. In fact, Napoleon even visited this church!
It is the only church in Pondy that offers mass in English, Tamil and French. The two bells have bells believed to have been bought from France but since the vibrations damaged the structure, the bells are not in use anymore.
The church looks out to the Bay of Bengal but past a statue of Joan of Arc on the opposite side of the road.
P.S. Beware of shoe thieves here!
Address: Dumas St., Pondicherry
j) Sri Manakula Vinayagar Temple: This temple has been in existence long before the French occupied Pondy. It is the city’s most famous temple because of the sweet elephant Laxmi that blesses pilgrims and tourists that meet her. Interestingly, the temple is dedicated to the elephant god Ganesh and has beautiful freizes. If you are lucky enough, you might see Laxmi walking down the streets in the evenings. Although I didn’t visit the temple on my last visit, I did manage to sneak a peak at Laxmi through the crowds one evening.
Address: Manakula Vinayagar Koil St., Pondicherry
k) Seafront on Goubert Ave: End your tour of White Town on this rocky seafront which comes to life in the evenings.
You can see the Gandhi statue here, the War Memorial on the opposite side of the road, dedicated to French soldiers in World War I, the yellow French Consulate, the famous Promenade Hotel, Sri Aurobindo Ashram and an 1870 statue of Governor-General Joseph Francois Dupleix.
Enjoy a gelato from the nearby Italian Gelateria Montecatini Terme GMT and take a long walk on the beach.
If you want to have the proper Pondicherry beach experience, I suggest you visit the government-run Ashok Beach Resort that allows visitors to access their private beach. Alternatively, visit the Auroville/Auro Beach situated off the ECR, opposite to the road leading to Auroville or the Serenity Beach about 20 minutes north of Pondy – it’s mostly a fisherman’s beach.
P.S. Be careful while venturing out into the sea here since the tide is WAY more stronger than you can imagine and the beaches, except for the Rock Beach, shut by 5.30-6.00 pm.
While you are in Pondicherry, you MUST visit Aurovilleand nearby Mamallapuram (Mahaballipuram), more of which will be in the next post.
It was a typical Sunday. We had finished a hearty breakfast – sandwiches, chocolate cake, vanilla latte, et al – at Sibang Bakery (it’s Korean) at Gurgaon’s South Point Mall – I tell you this understated mall has THE BEST treasures tucked away. (Try Izu, if you love Japanese. The portions are larger than most Jap restaurants in Delhi-NCR).
Anyway, so instead of going back home, we decided to walk around the mall in the hope that we stumble across another hidden egg. And lo and behold, there it was: the best bookstore ever!
Hidden in plain sight, Chapter 101 seems like a pretty nondescript shop from the outside. In fact, the name doesn’t exactly tell you anything except for maybe the almost invisible ‘curated and collected’ words written on its glass doors.
It’s when you open the door that you truly feel like you’ve stepped into the cupboard like little Lucy Pevensie. Or slipped down the rabbit hole like Alice. Or opened the door to the Department of Mysteries for the first time.
You are immediately transported into what Sherlock Holmes’ study probably looked like – huge armchairs, an exquisite wooden desk, bulky bookshelves, a (fake) fireplace, carpets and OH that smell of leather! (The only thing missing was that distinctive smell of pipe tobacco in the air…)
And of course there are books everywhere – and no Chetan Bhagats allowed! Sounds like Paradise, doesn’t it?
What is unique about Chapter 101 is that you probably won’t find the books here in any old regular store in Delhi-NCR’ – first editions, rare volumes, the lot!. Most of these have been acquired from bookstores and auctions around the world (like Barnes & Noble and the Franklin Library).
You’ll find limited and unique editions of your favourite classics like Little Women, Bram Stroker’s Dracula, Heidi, A Christmas Carol and my personal FAVE – old (but brand new) editions of ALL 90 of P.G. Wodehouse’s books! Spanning three whole shelves! I am just dizzy thinking about them.
And then they also have twists to classics like Tequila Mockingbird and Gone With the Gin!
The books aren’t cheap, mind you; prices start from 500 INR and go into lakhs of rupees – you’ll know why when you find gems like all 19 volumes of Ernest Hemingway, unique editions of Vanity Fair and Don Quixote (with artwork by Dali!)or a crumbling 1860 edition of the KJV Bible.
You know what I love about Chapter 101? It doesn’t seem to be the kind of bookstore where you absolutely have to buy a book or else endure dirty looks from the boy behind the desk. It is the kind of book heaven where you are welcome just to flip some pages, have *free* coffee as a soft jazz record plays, and sit for hours. It is the kind of bookstore only a book lover could have imagined and poured his soul into, not for any profit but his own personal collection for everyone to enjoy.
I wish there were many places like Chapter 101. But then, there would be too many Alices for my comfort!
The entry of Zoom Air into the Indian aviation sector is good news for those, like me, who often have to visit smaller towns on short notice but find it difficult to book because of the lack of options.
This airline claims to be “India’s Newest Full service commuter airlines ofering convenient daily connections between city pairs”. It boasts of free onboard meal, ‘premier’ class, low fares (around 3000 INR per way) and even departs from New Delhi’s fancy T3 Terminal. Some airports it services are Durgapur, Jorhat, Amritsar, Dharamsala, Udaipur and many more although right now flights are only on the Delhi-Kolkata-Durgapur-Delhi route. They should be rolling out on the other sectors soon so things should be smoother.
The airline had its first flight on February 15 and I was quite excited to be one of the first few people to board two days later.
I know I am writing this piece after more than a month since its first flight but hey, what the heck!
Here are a few things I would like to review after my first trip on this airline:
1. Making Bookings
Bookings can be made on their website only (or at an airport counter, I suppose). However, keep in mind that you will have to book a ‘hopping’ flight since (in my case) we first flew to Kolkata (more than 2 hours) and then to Durgapur (about 40 mins).
This also means that they will issue you two tickets – one to Kolkata and one to Durgapur – which doesn’t make sense. In my case, they had even changed my seat from Kolkata, as also for my fellow passengers – from Kolkata onwards which caused a lot of problems for those who boarded at Kolkata.
2. Seat Labelling
Yes, this is an actual problem. While on the ticket the norm of AC DF seats are correct (as is the standard naming procedure for aircraft with four column seating), the actual seats inside the plane are named wrong (as in AB CD) so you can imagine the confusion that ensued!
I highly recommend not to take a heavy carry-on since the cabin bins are tiny, probably enough just to fit a laptop. The good part is that the airline allows you to carry 15 kilos as check-in baggage so you should be set that way.
For a small aircraft, the seating is quite comfy along with a good amount of legspace. Although there is one problem: unlike in larger aircraft, the window is a little below the normal level which means you will inadvertently crane your neck to look out and that is not the most comfortable thing on a long flight.
One thing good about the aircraft is that it is pretty silent and doesn’t make the ‘zrrrmmmm’ sound at all.
The airline claims to offer the best ‘hot’ meal onboard but I must warn you that the food is not good at all. They offered me a leathery, oily wrap and an oily ‘sub’ with a choice of Catch Cola (Orange or Black) and no hot alternatives. So skip the meal if you can.
The toilets are TINY. So you can imagine if a small person like me found it tough to use, what that would do to taller people. Also there is only one toilet (which is probably going to be soiled by less-than civil people) so please pee before you board!
The staff are new, which will be evident by the fact that the crew members read the safety instructions from the book. But rest assured that you are in safe hands! Plus they are very cordial.
My flight back to Delhi from Durgapur (Durgapur to Delhi direct) was on Tuesday and on Monday night, I got a call from them saying they had cancelled the flight due to technical issues. Imagine my plight! The next flight would leave on Wednesday which meant I would reach Delhi in the afternoon, a whole day later than I was supposed to (I had to book a train back, and we all know how difficult that is!). This is where I advise caution. Although they did refund my money within seven days so its cool.
All in all, I would give Zoom Air 3/5 stars since they service smaller towns, but there are some teething problems they should solve soon.
(Sorry for the substandard photos, all taken by my phone!)
While the Hungarian capital will offer you a lot to see, you may not have all the time to explore each place. The three of us chicas had all of one and a half days to explore the exquisite city before we headed back to Italy.
If you are planning to visit Budapest on a tight schedule, here are the things that you absolutely must do. Especially if you, like us, are on a budget.
*The most important rule is to walk everywhere. Saves money, and damn do you get to take in Budapest! Also, have a map or your GPS in hand.*
1. Walk to the Hungarian Parliament
One of Europe’s oldest legislative buildings, the parliament, the seat of the National Assembly of Hungary is a giant structure that is hard to miss. Located on the Pest side of the city (traditionally the Buda castle hill side is called Buda and the side across it is called Pest), the neo-gothic, neo-baroque and partly Romanesque styled structure built in 1902, lies on the banks of the Danube and boasts of long spires with a red rotunda. Standing at an impressive height of 315 feet, it is Hungary’s tallest building.
The parliament has 691 rooms of which only 44 are open to visitors on guided tours. Visitors can also get a glimpse of Hungary’s first king, St. Stephen’s crown. Entry will cost you around 4000 HUF (€ 12).
Or you could just gaze at it from the outside.
At night, the building is lit up spectacularly so taking a nighttime stroll to see it won’t be such a bad idea either.
2. Offer a prayer at the St. Istvan Bazilika (St. Stephen’s Basilica)
Named after Stephen I (c. 975 – 1035) the first king of Hungary, St. Istvan Bazilika is a neoclassical cathedral and one of Budapest’s most famous churches.
It was completed in 1905 long after construction was interrupted when the dome collapsed in 1868, forcing labourers to rebuild it from scratch.
On the inside, the basilica is adorned with gold everywhere.
The cathedral also houses the right hand (the Holy Right) Stephen, which was restored to Hungary by the Hapsburg empress Maria Theresa in the 18th century.
Entry is free. Offerings are welcome.
3. Hike up the Buda Castle
The Buda castle is located on a hill across the Danube on what is known as the Buda side of the Hungarian capital. You can either take a boat, bus, tram or the funicular railway once you cross over.
Or you could walk across the bridge and up the hill by the Royal Steps, which take you up a winding path through some shrubbery. But is refreshing nonetheless.
The Castle Hill or Várhegy, a Unesco World Heritage Site and consists of two parts: the Old Town where commoners once lived, and the Royal Palace, the original site of the castle built in the 13th century.
As you emerge onto the hill, you notice buildings in the castle complex – administrative buildings – with bullet hole markings leftover from WWII during which Hungary fought on behalf of the Axis powers.
Walk some more and you will emerge near the Sandor Palota (Sandor Palace), the official residence of the Hungarian president. If you are lucky, you may even get to see the ceremonial changing of the guard – a tradition that was not part of communist Hungary but was revived much recently in 2003.
The changing of the guard at the Buda castle
Just a step away is the Buda castle itself. A walk down the Hapsburg steps will lead you to the castle.
The medieval, baroque and modernist styled castle first completed construction in 1265 under King Béla IV; subsequent monarchs later added to the construction.
When I say “first completed construction” I refer to the fact that the castle was razed to the ground and rebuilt a number of times between the 14th and 20th centuries (it was once even destroyed during the 1686 Battle of Buda between Christian forces and the Ottoman Empire). Thus the medieval, baroque, modernist styles.
Also called the Royal Palace, it was declared a World Heritage Site by the UN in 1987.
Feel free to roam around the complex and gulp in an amazing view of the Danube and Pest.
While entry into the complex is free, I think you may have to shell a few HUFs to enter the castle itself.
4. Get lost in Dracula’s Labyrinth
The Budavári Labirintus or the Labyrinth of the Buda Castle lies towards the Old Town once you leave the castle premises.
Follow the signs around the street and you will find yourself at a very inconspicuous entrance to a basement from where cold air emanates – mind you, the cold blast is not from solid air conditioning, but the caves’ natural ‘breeze’, if I may call it that. The temperature down here is about 20 °C so its a huge relief on a hot summer’s day.
This 1200m-long cave system is located some 16 meters under the Castle District. The prehistoric caves have survived generations of wars and conquests.
Five separate labyrinths encompass 10 halls here. The floors are damp owing to the fact that the caves are ‘thermal’, built out of limestone deposits by hot water springs millions of years ago.
Over time, the caves have served as home to the prehistoric man, as wine cellars, jails and torture chambers during the Middle Ages, as military shelters in the 1930s and also were Dracula’s very own personal prison.
Don’t miss a lamp-lit tour of the labyrinths. Tickets will cost around 2000 HUF. Or you can sneak a peek till the ticket barrier like we did. *wink wink*
5. Look over Budapest from the Fisherman’s Bastion
Further down the street lies what looks like a portion of white battlements. White turrets line the edge of the hill. The Fisherman’s Bastion looks onto the Danube and Pest.
Compared to the Castle itself, the battlements are fairly new, constructed by Hungarian architect Frigyes Schulek, in 1905. It serves no actual purpose other than as viewing platform but during the medieval times, fishermen defended the stretch of the wall which is where the bastion got its name from.
You can take pictures of the bastions and of the view before actually entering the structure itself. Saves some HUFs. Entry normally costs 700 HUF.
6. Witness a wedding at St. Matthias Church
Just about two meters from the Fisherman’s Bastion is the St. Matthias Church also built in 1015 AD. The facade resembles that of any Catholic Gothic/Romanesque church in Europe except for the turrets which look like colourful, pretty Lego blocks stacked in a geometric design.
The church was actually built by St. Stephen but destroyed by the Mongols in 1241. Much later in the 19th Century AD, the church was restored and named after the then king Matthias.
Though we couldn’t go in, we were lucky enough to witness a wedding from outside the church.
7. Eat gyros, guzzle beer, down some Palinka
If you don’t have the time to sit down in a restaurant, a great street food choice is eating gyros, which are interestingly not Hungarian but Greek, and can be found in abundance down the streets of Budapest. Bread wrapped with a mix of rotisserie meat and chunky veggies topped with some lipsmacking sauces, they are literally good to go and cost less than €1 or around 250 HUF. Accompanied with ice cold beer, a gyro can be the most delicious street food on a hot summer’s day.
Don’t forget to have some Palinka too while you are out drinking. The drink particular to the area is usually made out of apricots – a sort of fruit brandy. But beware, this baby is lethal with anywhere between 37% – 86% alcohol content. YIKES!
8. Get invited to a party on a boat
Though we did not go for one, we did get invited and it was an offer that truly was difficult to refuse. The parties are usually held on boats in the Danube; drinks, food, a great view of the sights and a good time are guaranteed!
If you can spare a night, do go!
9. Pose for a picture with a confused Columbo and his dog
If you happen to pass the Falk Miksa Street during your walk to the Széchenyi Chain Bridge (that links Buda and Pest), you might come across two bronze statues – a very confused man looking at his basset hound. The man is Columbo, a fictional American homicide detective portrayed by actor Peter Falk and his dog, well named Dog.
The statue is relatively new, being installed in 2014. The statutes cost a massive $63,000 but the odd thing is nobody really knows why the piece was installed. One theory is that Peter Falk may have been related to prominent 19th-century Hungarian political figure Miksa Falk. Peter is said to have Hungarian roots on one side of the family although no one really knows if he was actually related to Miksa.
10. See the Heros’ Square
The Heroes’ Square or Hősök tere is one of Budapest’s most iconic squares. It lies in the city’s Andrassy Avenue. It features seven chiefs of the native Magyar tribe along the columns and rulers like Stephen I, Bela IV, Matthias among others; it also houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Visitors can walk through the square and take pictures without any fee.
If you are lucky enough, you may see revelers drinking beer on Budapest’s famous pedal bars!
11. Unwind or go wild at the Szchenyi spas
The best experience in Budapest that money can buy. Visit the Szchenyi spas less than a kilometer from the Heroes’ Square for €15. The thermal spas and baths are Europe’s biggest and offer the traveler an unforgettable experience.
12. Walk past the House of Terror
The House of Terror is a museum home to exhibits during the fascist and communist regimes that 20th century Hungary was subjected to. If you don’t have time to go inside, walk around it to see portraits of victims of the regime.
On the sidewalk next to it are also huge displays of stories of those who fought and lost their lives for Hungary.
13. Party at a Ruin Pub
This is a night-life experience like no other. After numerous recommendations, we ended up in Szimpla Kert, one of the best ruin pubs in Budapest. Best part was that it was just behind our hostel so we didn’t need to worry much about getting lost.
What are ruin pubs? Well they are abandoned buildings around the city which were turned into clubs about a decade ago and thus began a new culture, somewhat of a ‘patented’ nightlife of the city.
Like most ruin pubs of its kind, Szimpla Kert looked like an old 19th century house falling into disrepair. Once inside, you would think otherwise; the interior looks like it has been put together using random household ‘junk’ – old chandeliers, paintings, bikes, TVs and more adorned the derelict walls.
On the right is the bar that offers all sorts of cheap booze and on the left is a staircase that leads into a seating area upstairs complete with mismatched furniture. Down below on the right is a small area cordoned off for gigs and right in front is the open courtyard with more seating. The whole place gives a chill vibe and is a great place to meet both locals and tourists alike.
(We saw many inscriptions left by visitors over the years and we discreetly left our mark too! Please do not follow this step though!)
14. Walk down to Margit Island
You may have noticed a small island in the middle of the Danube between Buda and Pest. Walk down the Margit Hid bridge to reach the Margit (Margaret) Island. The 2.5 kilometer island is perfect for a stroll or a run (on its famed 5.35 km rubber track).
The island is known to have the ruins of a Franciscan church and a Dominican church although we didn’t see them.
There are a few shops there that serve eats. So grab a cone and sit on one of the benches on the ‘shore’ and watch ferries and boats go down the Danube. Very peaceful!
15. Peek in at the Holocaust Memorial
This was a hurried stop before we left for the airport and we just managed to steal a peek while we were shopping for souvenirs in the area.
The Great Synagogue in the city’s Dohány Street is perhaps the largest Synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world. Built between 1854 and 1859 the site is now also home to the Jewish Museum.
You will be able to spot it easily by the enormous steel tree outside it – also known as the Emanuel Tree,the man-made weeping willow has the names of Hungarian Jews killed during the Holocaust on each of its leaves.
Another Jewish memorial to visit if you have the time is the Shoes on the Danube, a unique memorial commemorating Jews who were killed by fascists during World War II in Hungary. Unfortunately we had to miss this.