A visit to St. Thomas Mount!

 

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Well, don’t let the ‘mount’ in the name throw you off. St. Thomas Mount is actually a tiny little hillock at the heart of Chennai, overlooking the airport on one side. There’s a suburban train station with the same name, but I wonder how many locals have actually tried to explore this quaint place!

Being the sunset freak that I am, my primary motivation to visit this place had been to capture decent sunset shots over the landscape. Well that and the fact that I do really admire churches and the kind of tranquility that prevails around them. With that in mind, I wouldn’t suggest anybody to visit this on a Sunday evening unless you don’t mind the prayers and hymns blasting through the speakers wherever you go.

Getting here is easy enough, one could either drive all the way up. Or better, take the 135 steps to the top! Easy-peasy and you get to enjoy the scenery as well. The entry to the hill is open from 6 AM to 8 PM, so if you can make it I would heartily suggest making the trip either early in the morning or just when the Sun is setting.

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To give you a little history of the place, St. Thomas Mount is deemed to be a holy ground as this is where St. Thomas, one of the apostles, was martyred. They have some rare relics on display including a finger bone of the Saint himself. While the church itself is very unassuming, it is charming nevertheless and has some nice artwork. There’s a side chapel which has the Last Supper in bas-relief which I thought was pretty cool! I suppose the actual mass is undertaken outside in the pavilion as the church is indeed very small.

This place is something I would definitely suggest everybody to visit for a change of perspective. Chennai looks amazing from a height, and the vast plains of the airport runway to one side just sweeten the deal. The cherry on the cake is of course getting to catch the Sun like this. It’s like the sky is playing with a paint can, splashing these gorgeous swirls all around.

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A Trip to Varkala – Part 2

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In the beginning there was the sea,
Then there was a coconut tree,
And then a glass was placed in front of it,
And I thought it was good.

So, in the Part 1 of my travelogue, I told you how I made the trip from the east coast of India to the west to visit a charming little sea-side town called Varkala. Relatively unknown by the general populace, it makes for a fantastic getaway nevertheless. Be it for just a weekend, or months together. Varkala is one place where you can find time slipping by without notice as you lazily amble through the day. And like I said, it is one place I wouldn’t mind moving to for good if I could.

It is also obvious why the average see-all-the-things tourist might give this place a miss, because “technically” speaking, Varkala just has a beach (with a cliff, though), a temple and a handful of restaurants that serve good food. Just as well, because Varkala is not a place you come to to see things. It’s where you come to relax and rejuvenate yourself. Basking in the glorious sunsets everyday on an ever changing beach, letting the whiff of fresh air from the sea sweep over you, and taking in the splendid beauty of the coconut trees lined up pretty much everywhere – it’s an assault to the senses in the most pristine form.

And that is what you do best in Varkala. Nothing.

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A trip to Varkala – Part 1

There are some places that you get attached to so strongly that your heart never stops to linger over there even after you’ve left the place. Ooty had been one such place in my childhood. Maybe it’s because the first hill-station I’ve ever visited, but those hills and valleys haunted me for months after we’ve returned from that trip. And now, Varkala is doing the same to me. I’m still basking in the afterglow of the whole experience. Even now if I close my eyes, the first image that comes to mind is this:

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I dreamed of the cliff last night. That I was just taking a stroll on the deserted pathway, on a full-moon night, with a dog walking alongside me. The sea was illuminated by the moon, and the rumble of waves droned on in a soothing rhythm. What is strange is that I did not really see the cliff under full-moon so I have no idea how my mind conceived that image.

What is even strange is that Varkala is not exactly the best by any standard. You have definitely been to better beaches, have definitely eaten at better restaurants, have definitely seen better sunsets – but what Varkala does ever so successfully is to bring all of these in one spectacular package. With spell-binding views of the sea, a cliff-top that is lined with eclectic restaurants (all have free Wi-Fi) that serve everything from authentic English breakfast to Indian cuisine, friendly locals and waiter staff – it’s hard to not see why this place is such a hit with the tourists. And it brings something unique to the table too, being the only beach in India that is adjoining a cliff. And in case you haven’t notice before, cliffs are awesome! All of this leads to a place that’s almost irresistible to visit.

But you know what is even more strange? Varkala is relatively unknown to the Indian population. When I first told my friends of my visit, everyone – mind you – everyone were like, ‘Wut? Never heard of that.’ And this is of a place that TripAdvisor India rated as the Top 4th beach in the country! But if I’m being honest, I wish Varkala remains unknown. As it stands, it is a sleepy sea-side town with a healthy influx of foreign tourists and much lesser Indians. Which works perfectly because the last thing you want is thronging crowds in a place like this, especially the wonderful irresponsible crowd from my own country who don’t think twice before littering.

So anyway, my trip began Thursday morning with the arrival of the Trivandrum Mail at ‘Varkala Sivagiri‘ railway station. And I have to say that I was a little rattled throughout the train journey as the Weather app on my phone predicted that there would be ‘Light Rain’ throughout the days of my visit. I know of Kerala rains and how unpredictable they could be, and I knew that if there was anything that could spoil my trip, it would be the rains. But thankfully, it wasn’t as worse as I imagined at all. Sure, it had rained intermittently all along my trip, but it would only last for a couple of minutes and then there would be sunshine again. And anyway, I love overcast skies for crying out loud! So everything was just perfect; I got the clouds and the rains, and I got to go out as well!

Of accommodation and meeting fellow travelers:

Now this time, I decided to do something different. Usually when I go on solo trips, I always book a single room as that would give me my space and privacy. But this time I decided to book a backpacker’s hostel, just to see how it’d be. And turns out I did not make a bad decision at all. I never realized the kind of people you could potentially meet when you share a dorm room with them. Ours was a 6-bed dorm and I shared it with two amazing chaps from The Netherlands, one Tamil guy who is also from Chennai and incidentally works in the same company as mine, and then there was a young lady from the USA as well.

I found it surprising how easily the conversations flowed with all of them. I guess it was the mutual eagerness we had to learn about the other culture. Casimir, who is from Amsterdam, has been backpacking across South East Asia for 18 months now and he told me of all the places and experiences he’s had on his trip. I can only dream of pausing my career like that and traveling for years together. We were later joined by Simon from Norway, who’s been doing his Master’s field work in Calicut and was in Varkala for a week’s vacation before returning to Oslo.

All in all, I had to say that I had a pretty good time at the stay and it was delightful to meet new people, for a change. The best experience? Casimir making us (with a helping-hand from me, of course) the perfect scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast, which was apparently his dad’s recipe and was simply delicious.

In Part 2 of my post, I will write about the places we saw and the food we ate. Even though there’s not much to see, you will never get bored of seeing the same place again and again. And that is the magic of Varkala. Once you lap up the mysticism of the place, it’s very hard to let go of.

It is a place I wouldn’t mind settling in forever. And calling it home.

Varkalizing

WP_20150918_18_12_53_RichOkay I’m doing this over the pathetic app on my phone for the first time, so I’m not liable if this doesn’t turn out well! Just saying.

So I’m here in Varkala, you folks. And having one of the best holidays I’ve ever had! Everything’s so laid back and serene, man I never wanna return to the hustle and bustle of the city. Damn, I should be taking longer vacations than this!

I’m attaching a photo just to give you a taste of what I’m up against. 🙂

P.S I’m so sorry for not replying to any of your comments in the past couple of days! It’s so crappy to do that on my phone. Will remedy that ASAP!

What! I’ve only been to 2 out of Top 25 Indian beaches??

Well, it must be evident by now that I’m a Son of a Beach.

Hehe, really! I love beaches!

But you know what’s actually weird? My initial impressions of beaches were pretty colorless; I mean, I really thought – it’s just sea and waves and sand. You see it once, you’re done. What is so alluring about it that someone would want to return again and again? Oh how little did I know!

Up until then I’d always been going with a bunch of people, so the focus was more on the conversations outside. But then one particular morning I found myself alone on the beach, right at the time of sunrise. The weather was chilly, it had rained the previous night. And just sitting there by myself, soaking in nature’s beauty – I felt something shift in me. I was high, but not the kind of high you get when you’re wasted. It’s the kind of high one gets from listening to mind-blowing music, the kind of high you get when you’ve just finished a masterful book, or when you’ve written hundred lines of code and everything works the first time! (hasn’t happened yet, for the record)

And it that state, I saw my mind clear itself. None of the shitty stuff from the previous day competed for priority anymore. I was at will to choose whatever I want to paint the blank canvas with. It was then that I realized the beauty of a beach doesn’t just lie in how beautiful it is, but in what it does to your senses. And if you’re in the right place at the right time, how they give you ample opportunity to do some serious thinking. And come up with new ideas! Because hey, blank canvas! (If you have to know, much of the story of the book that is in planning stages now has taken shape on my trip to Mangalore earlier this year.)

And I haven’t stopped. Even today, there has to be a mandatory visit to the beach at least once a month. Or else, it feels like I’m slipping away from my sanity. Addicted? Maybe. I really need the “fix” as often as possible.

Anyway, just yesterday I was lazily browsing through TripAdvisor when my eyes lay upon their Travellers’ Choice awards for 2015. And me being me, pulled up the list of the Best Beaches in India. There were twenty five in all, and I realized that I’ve only been to two of them till now!!! That’s it.

  1. Dhanushkodi beach, Rameshwaram (A truly infinite beach, at the country’s farthest point. What’s amazing is that it’s a thin strip of land and you have Bay of Bengal on one side, the Indian Ocean on the other!)
  2. Kapu beach, Udupi (One of the cleanest and charming beaches I’ve been to. Rocks, mangroves, estuaries just complete the experience)

With the trip to Varkala (Kerala) coming up next weekend, I will cover four by the end of this year. But when am I ever gonna visit all the remaining ones! Well I guess the beaches in Andaman islands are pretty much out of bounds for now as that’s a long journey, something that I cannot afford at the moment but the rest of the ones should be pretty much doable. But what sucks is that most of them are on the west coast of the country while I’m on the east. All four states on the west – Kerala, Karnataka, Goa & Maharashtra have amazing beaches. Coming to the east, Tamil Nadu and Odisha are the only ones to feature with Andhra Pradesh taking a miss from the list. Quite understandable, I suppose.

As for the trip to Varkala, yes it’s happening next week! 🙂 I’m excited to be traveling again, and look forward to great times on this little sea-side town.  So expect a little non-activity on my blog until the 21st or so, as I’m gonna be busy planning and stuff! And I might also not carry my laptop with me this time around.

How many beaches have you been to? And which is your favourite? Let me know as I’d love to hear it.

A trip to Pondichéry – Part 2 – The Promenade and a French Breakfast!

In the Part 1 of my post, I have described about the French Quarters in Pondicherry with its brightly colored houses and quaint cafes that bring back a whiff of French flavor. You may wanna go and read that if you haven’t, because it really gives you a feel for the town and has some nice photographs too! 🙂

Anyway, today I’m gonna be talking about the one thing that can’t be missed when you’re in Pondi. And that’s the seaside Promenade.

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It’s nothing more than a thin strip of road and pavement abutting the coast, and it’s actually pretty short. You would be able to walk from one end to other in fifteen minutes tops. But it is this very strip of land that everyone, tourists and locals alike, flock to in the evening times to chill off in the cool sea breeze.

The beach in Pondicherry is not really a beach per se, as there is no sand that gently slopes into the water. Instead, what you get is a coast strewn with black rocks. I understand that they had to do this as the the sea is pretty deep near the coast and they need the rocks to break the waves. People are not advised to swim in the water here for the same reason. It’s quite a different experience, sitting on a rock, and watching and hearing the waves lash into more rocks below, the sprinkle from the clash sometimes rising up to six feet.

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In a stroke of brilliance, the local police authorities have banned traffic on the promenade from evening 6:30 PM to 7 AM the next day. So it is pretty cool to come here in the evenings and just soak up the air unadulterated by the noisy vehicles and the smoke. I was in the beach (and aimlessly traipsing through the French Quarters) till about 5:30 PM and then I heard that the Alliance Français at 58, Rue Rufren, screens French films for free every Sunday at 6 PM. So I’d gone (following directions is so easy there) and found myself in a little auditorium at a little after six. It was moderately filled, a lot of faces foreign. They played an animated movie  Les Triplettes de Belleville, and I was blown away by the grittiness and the surrealism of it. It was very complex for an animated movie and I was spellbound from the very start. Ninety minutes well spent. 

Here’s a gallery of some of the other shots of the Promenade.

So anyway, by 8 PM I was back in the Promenade. The traffic was cut off as expected and it was brimming with people everywhere. I couldn’t even find a proper place to sit down. But I spent a good one hour there and then went over to Pasta Bar Veneto for some…wait for it…Pasta! It was priced slightly higher but it was the best damned Pasta I’d ever eaten! They even heeded my request and made it more spicy than usual. That and a chilled beer and I was ready to turn in for the night.

Next morning, I was ready for some French food. There are a handful of cafes that server your basic French fare but I was told that if I wanted to try it all, then there was no place better to go than Baker Street on Rue De Bussy. It is a moderate joint that is famous for its French delicacies. They have a huge spread of sweet as well as savory items but my eyes instantly locked on to the croissants and the puff pastries. The Chocolatine, in particular, looked delicious! Just imagine a puff pastry with a chocolate sauce filling! I pointed it out to the lady over the counter and she asked “Would you like it warm, sir?” I squealed a little inside and replied “YES PLEASE!!” Imagine again, a warm puff pastry with warm chocolate sauce inside. Holy moly!

And this is what I finally settled down with, an Eclairs Vanille and a Chocolatine with a Sweet Lime juice on the side. 🙂 I could have this everyday!!

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Nom nom nom

After that delightful breakfast, I was up for some peaceful time so I visited the Romain Rollard Library that has a great collection of books, especially on the town’s history.

A couple of strolls after that, followed by lunch at The Indian Kafé Express, and it was time to start my return journey to Chennai again. I gave one wistful glance at the sea and the streets before I finally made my way to the bus stop. And then I come across this on the road –

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I couldn’t have agreed more.

A trip to Pondichéry – Part 1 – India’s French Connection

There is a cycle. Once every six months, my feet start to itch in a hunger for travel. And satiate it, I must. Travel is something I enjoy immensely, as it gives me a recharge like nothing else. I just hope I can keep this wanderlust intact till the end of times (or the zombie apocalypse, whichever comes first :P).

Considering that the last trip I’d been to has been in January, it was time for another adventure into the unknown and there I was at Pondicherry on a short two-day trip. There seems to be a lot going on everywhere in the city, in every nook and corner. I guess it’s gonna take me a lot more visits to completely cover this place. But at least, due to my well-planned itinerary I was able to visit most of the important stuff in my trip. I consider this time as more of an ice-breaker.

A little note on Pondicherry: Initially a French colony and now a Union Territory of India, Pondicherry (aka Puducherry) has the quintessential makings of a quaint European town. I don’t know if any other place in India can give off the same vibes. Always teeming with tourists (more foreign), Pondi feels ever lively and vibrant. One more reason for the vibrancy being the yellow (more like ochre) façade on a lot of buildings. I never realized what great a color this is, and it transported me into an other place and time. This definitely is not India.

Presenting: The French Quarters

Charming. Idyllic. Bright colored houses. French Street signs. Almost deserted roads. And quiet cafés. It feels as if the time has frozen amidst these narrow roads and elegant houses.

I mean, just look at this!

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Rue de Bussy

Pondicherry has a clear division between the Tamil Town and the French Town, a little sewer separating them both. The Tamil Town looks like any other Indian town and it’s hard to believe that only a handful of blocks later, the place completely transforms itself as you step into the French town. It is also closer to the seashore, which adds one more feather to its cap.

You can do a DIY stroll through the French Town beginning at the south-end of the beach and going in zig zag through the lanes that are arranged in a neat grid (which if you ask me is non-existent in the more organically grown Indian cities). You can end your walk at the imposing yellow building on the north-end of the beach which is the French Institute. I was simply awe-struck by this one.

What’s important is taking your time as you explore these parts, looking at those curiously curved iron grills, the big windows, the bright paints. And if you ever feel a little parched, step into the numerous little cafes at every turn that serve good coffee/tea and simple French food.

Oh, and one more curious thing that delighted me were the Street signs. Looks like the locals did not bother changing them when the French left (and just as well), so I had a lot of fun reading up all the names of the Rues (that’s roads in French). By the way, did I mention that I studied French for two years? 🙂 My spoken French is pretty bad but I can pretty much understand most of what is written. One more reason why I love this place.

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Because ‘Dumas Street’ is just too mainstream.

I’ve created a little gallery below with some photos of the streets (and the signs, I went absolutely crazy on them). Hope you enjoy it. Click on any photo to open gallery.

 

In a stroke of serendipity, today’s Photo 101 theme is Connect. 

Part 2 coming up soon with other explorations of mine!

All set for another solo vacay!!!

It’s the same pre-vacation panic again. I’ll be always out of something, this time it’s my sunscreen and face-wash. Oh no! And I realized this a little too late as I was packing my rucksack. But then I thought, wait a minute, I’m not going to the Himalayas or anything!!! It’s just Pondicherry, that’s three hours away from my place. Duh, just purchase them when you get there. 

Anyway, so Pondicherry it is! It’s a little town out of Chennai that was once a Portuguese and then a French colony. I’d heard all about how the quaint European culture and architecture has still been preserved well and I can’t wait to explore it! And I’ve got my trusty Lumia, so I’ll be hopefully back with some nice photographs!

I had spent the better portion of today to prepare my itinerary for the next two days (yes, I’m a big-time planner). I do it in Micorsoft OneNote and I like how it nicely syncs to my Windows Phone. And no, I don’t work for Microsoft (though a man can dream). And yes, I understand that you could do this in Google Keep, but it isn’t just as robust. Okay, I’ll stop now. Enough talk of the apps.

So my itinerary usually lists out details such as –

1) Attractions. Grouped by type.

2) Restaurants in town that I plan to eat in. Grouped according to how expensive they are. This time I’m planning to try out as much of the French Cuisine as possible. Croissants, here I come!

3) Localities that I need to check out. For Pondicherry, it’s the French Quarter that I’m interested in.

After this, I open up Google Maps and roughly plot out each location and the distance between them, so I’ll have a better idea and don’t have to waste my time fidgeting with my phone or asking the locals.

I’m not saying I don’t like unplanned trips or on-the-spur decisions. It’s just that when you’ve got less than two days to explore an entire town, best to be as much prepared as you could be!!

So there you go. Wish me a happy journey! 🙂 I dunno how much blogging I’ll get to do over the next two days, but I’ll at least always be connected to the internet through 3G on my phone. The hotel I booked has Wi-Fi that “allegedly” doesn’t work, but we’ll see about that.

Au revoir!!