What Not to do in Venice

Nothing ever seems straightforward in Venice, least of all its romances.

Roger Ebert probably intended these words for tourists like me who walk starry-eyed into this ‘City of Canals’, expecting to float about without the bustle of crowds clouding their view. All that I knew about Venice came from an old English chapter I had read in school, and a couple of movies that panned across pristine blue waters with a gondola gliding under ornate bridges.

Venice floats on tourism

Venice floats on tourism

While Venezia may not be everything you’ve seen on TV, it is worth a visit! This article does not aim to tell you what you can see and do here. Instead, to make sure you don’t fall into tourist traps or return unimpressed by this Gothic beauty, it tells you WHAT NOT TO DO IN VENICE:-

1.  Don’t let the gondoliers take you for a ride

Riding on a gondola will no doubt be numero uno on your list of things to do in Venice. But if you’re not careful, you might just end up spending 5 times the normal charge! I was in Venice a few years back, and every highly accented Italian gondolier quoted anywhere between 200 and 500 Euros for a ride that would last only a few minutes. A reasonable rate does not cross 150 Euros. If you’re a tourist on a budget, take the group rides on large gondolas and avoid the solo or couple rides.

Gondola rides are better enjoyed with music

Gondola rides are better enjoyed with music

Once you get in, make sure you sing along with the gondolier (yes, they all sing for you! ;-) ) and wave at all the jealous tourists who take your picture!

 2. Venetian masks are not diamonds. Don’t buy those for your girlfriend!

 In Venice, if anything sells more than a gondola-ride, it is the famous Venetian mask! The masks are all exquisite and you won’t mind paying a premium for bringing one back home. But remember that these are fragile. If you don’t know HOW you will pack and carry them across a thousand miles, do not spend your Euros on them. I know quite a few people who’ve returned with broken masks and dented wallets.

Even if you manage to transport a mask safely, think of WHAT you will do with it. It is unlikely you’ll have a masquerade party anytime soon. And if you do, you surely won’t risk losing your precious eye-mask in the dark! Most Venetian masks that make their way across the world, end up in glass-shelves or are forgotten in dusty attics.

 3. Don’t reach Venice at nightfall!

Maybe there isn't enough land for everyone here

Maybe there isn’t enough land for everyone here

Unless you’re a local with your own vaporetto, don’t play ‘risk-taking traveler’ and enter this city at night. Here’s why:

 The water-taxi or vaporetti service stops at 7PM and there’s no other public transport in this ‘City of Water’ to take you anywhere. This is one place where you can’t just flag a cab/catch a bus or hitchhike. If you arrive at night, you might just have to sleep at Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia. And with so many people crowding up the train-station, I don’t think you’ll find much space to stretch your feet. Venice also gets very dark in the evening and doesn’t have too many street-lights (wherever you find streets, that is).

4. Don’t eat by the famous canals

A date by the canal or in a secret alleyway? You decide!

A date by the canal or in a secret alleyway? You decide!

…unless you’re rich to begin with. The al fresco restaurants and cafes that dot the streets by the canals offer beautiful views of the deep green water (yes, green. All this water is unfortunately dirty), but they charge a bomb for largely ordinary food. If you must eat well, walk further inland and satiate your hunger at small restaurants there.

Also, Venice is no place for pizzas. The classic margherita here is just chewy bread with lots of tomato sauce slathered on top. You must, however, not forget to try some gelato. I’ve tasted the world’s best gelato in Venice!

5. Don’t dress like a backpacker

So, my travel-junkiness was limited to the waist -pouch. But I've dressed much worse, trust me!

So, my travel-junkiness was limited to the waist -pouch. But I’ve dressed much worse, trust me!

The ‘City of Bridges’ receives a lot of rainfall (of course, you must know that, what with all the water flowing about :-P ). But this is no excuse to forget you’re in the world’s most fashion-conscious country! Venice is no place to wear ugly windcheaters and romp about in clunky sneakers. This is where you must show off your exotic derby hats and flowy sundresses.

6. Don’t pose on the Rialto Bridge

...but I couldn't resist posing myself! :-P

…but I couldn’t resist posing myself! 😛

When I asked her for directions to the Rialto Bridge, the Venetian mask-seller looked at me aghast. “You don’t know Rialto! It is the world’s most famous bridge!” she exclaimed in broken English. (Does that put London Bridge on the 2nd position? :-P )

I knew Rialto when I saw it. It was choc a bloc with tourists jostling for space. I wondered what this bridge had that its poor country-cousins didn’t. I got clicked on the Rialto but I’d suggest you give it a miss and look for smaller bridges that are less crowded and therefore, much better for photographs.

* * *

Venice will never cease to delight visitors, even with all its quirks

Venice will never cease to delight visitors, even with all its quirks

I hope the list doesn’t scare you away from Venice. It is a city like no other. It is the land of water! It needs to be explored slowly and mostly on foot as you walk in small alleyways and discover Renaissance facades interspersed with Baroque palazzos. The fragile interconnected structure of the 118 islands has necessitated a ban on new construction, but this does not deter the constant flow of people into this perpetually flooded city. Venice can be discovered only when you lose the crowd and lose yourself in old buildings that still stand tall.

This article was first published on Videsi Traveller. For more pictures and stories, follow my Facebook page – Oindrila Goes Footloose.

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Buffet Spreads and How to Try Them

If you follow my blog posts, you will know that I am a foodie of sorts. I may not want to eat the same thing over and over again, but I do like to taste everything on offer. This is primarily why the buffet style of dining is the best for me! Buffet lunch spreads let you try everything on a blanket charge. And contrary to what most diners might think, opting for buffet over a la carte at a fine dining restaurant works out much cheaper.

Continental and Indian fare in a single helping!

Continental and Indian fare in a single helping!

The theme for today (as you clearly must have guessed) is buffet spreads. We will now explore all the wonderful cuisines you can try, all at once, if you are lucky! 😉 There are hundreds of buffet restaurants in Mumbai, and this is where I have done most of my food sampling. In this city, you will find almost every cuisine – South Indian, Maharashtrian, Malwani, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Gujarati, Tex-Mex, Italian, Greek, Thai, Chinese, Arabian… and the list seems endless. So much variety and quantity should not intimidate you if you are not a foodie. There are a few tricks to navigate a buffet spread and get the most bang for your buck.

A spicy buffet spread from the South

A spicy buffet spread from the South

First and foremost, pick buffet for lunch. Lunch is when most of us are at our hungriest best. If it is a lazy Sunday, most likely, you will have skipped breakfast. This naturally means you will have more appetite for your first meal of the day. The other advantage is that you always have the option of doing without dinner if you have eaten too much at the buffet lunch. A dinner buffet may sound more romantic and appealing on Friday and Saturday nights. But you might end up with a lot of discomfort while sleeping if you have been a glutton. Lunch buffets give you the time to walk off the excess calories through a simple round of shopping or walking about in the evening. This is even better if you have eaten at a fine dining place in mall and don’t intend to head back to your car immediately.

Say "moshi moshi" to Japanese food at Global Fusion

Say “moshi moshi” to Japanese food at Global Fusion

The next trick is to keep your servings small. The lesser you scoop up at each junction, the more variety you get to taste. Remember that buffet is not a system that encourages you to eat mouthfuls of your favourite dish. Instead, it introduces and urges you to try new preparations. Besides, taking a smaller helping means you won’t be wasting too much food in case you dislike a dish.

Try authentic Bengali preparations at Bijoli Grill

Try authentic Bengali preparations at Bijoli Grill

Most buffet restaurants in Mumbai serve multiple cuisines in a spread. This means, you get to try multiple varieties of the same course and learn the differences among the cuisines. Appetizers, for example, will have some Indian pickles, South East Asian noodles, Italian breads, Arabian dips and Mexican fries in the same zone. Be careful, however, in your enthusiasm of tasting it all, do not mix the items of one cuisine with another. Else, you end up with a mishmash of several items that lose their original flavours. A buffet lunch gives you the luxury of taking multiple helpings. Try one cuisine at a time. This will not overwhelm your palate, and help you remember the distinct taste of each dish or cuisine.

Texan and Mexican dishes are best had at Chili's

Texan and Mexican dishes are best had at Chili’s

All said, my final advice to you will be to forget all the rules I’ve stated above and have a fine time with your friends. Buffets should make you happier, regardless of what, how much and when you eat. They don’t call it “fine dining” for nothing!

Sula Vineyards: A Fine-Wine Story

The neat rows of grapevines glistered in the afternoon-sun as I slowly rose up the slope towards 4 gabled structures. I was delighted to see that the climbers, albeit only 4 feet in height, extended as far as my eyes could see. I couldn’t help but feel excited. This was, after all, my first trip to a vineyard!

The famed vineyard at the Sula estate

The famed vineyard at the Sula estate

I had picked an opportune time to visit the Sula Vineyards as I not only beat the tourist-rush of Jan-Mar (the harvest season), but also experienced the beauty of Nashik in the light chill of early December. Nashik is about 3 hours from Mumbai, and the cheapest way to get here is by train. There are plenty of buses and cabs too that ply. I stayed at Ginger Hotel which is only 20 minutes from the winery. Sula also has its own resort on the estate.

The bar/lounge at Sula

Entrance to the wine bar at Sula

It was late afternoon when I reached the Sula property and made my way to their exquisite Indian restaurant – Soma. I glanced through the wine list and ordered a Sula Seco with some appetizers. I took in the interiors as I waited for my first wine of the day. The place is elegantly furnished with wood and wrought iron, and Warli-artwork graces the walls.

Soma-The Indian restaurant

Soma-The Indian restaurant

My sparkling wine arrived with my choice of appetizers – cottage cheese balls and papad. This subtly sweet wine paired well with the spicy vegetable dish and tandoori rotis I ordered for the mains. With lunch behind me, I headed to the reception at the tasting room and bought my pass to the wine tour.

Liquid gold? :D

Liquid gold? 😀

A charming young lad sporting a black Sula-tee was our wine-tour-guide. He told us about the history of the vineyards and how the founder, Rajeev Samant, quit his job in Silicon Valley and started up the winery with some help from a Californian winemaker.

Before you decide to quit YOUR day-job and open your own winery, let me tell you some interesting wine-facts:-

  • The grapes used for producing wine are different from the regular grapes (table-grapes) we consume.
  • Contrary to popular belief, the colour of wine has little to do with the colour of grapes it is made from. This means, red wine can be made from green/white grapes, just as whites can be made from red/purple grapes. (Read ahead to find out how!)
  • Wines can be as young as 3 weeks and can also be aged for several decades! (Of course, the age makes A LOT OF difference to the quality of the wine and the price that it can command.)
Inside the tank-hall

Inside the tank-hall

Our tour began at the crushing pad where grape-juice is squeezed out of the harvested grapes. Grape-crushing has gone huge technological changes since the basket-press-days of yore. Popular activities like wine-stomping (with bare feet) have lead many to believe that’s an integral part of winemaking, but one can’t be further from the truth. If the thought of dirty, stinky feet romping about in a basket full of grapes makes you wretch at the wine you’re drinking, you can heave a sigh of relief! Most commercially produced wines have hardly any contact with the human-skin.

After extracting the grape-juice, your wine (to-be) is stabilized and filtered inside humongous stainless steel wine-tanks installed in a large, cool room called the tank hall. This is where you decide what wine you will produce! White wines are left as they are; for the reds, the grape-skin and twigs are added to the batch; and for rosé (pink wines), very little red wine is added to the white (mostly in 20-80 or 30-70 ratios) depending on the hue that is desired. Tank halls are also used for “blending” of two wines from different regions or grape-varieties (This is where a  Sauvignon Blanc combines with a Chenin Blanc to become a Chenin Sauvignon).

A wine for every barrel!

A wine for every barrel!

The next step is to “barrel” the wine for its storage. Barrels are just as important as the wines that they store. Sula imports its oak barrels for the wine-maturing process. This stage also helps in “clarifying” the wine so the tannins and other insoluble matter can settle at the bottom. The barrel-room is the last area your wine visits before it’s bottled and shipped to  you.

The tasting room

The tasting room

After giving us a wonderful tour of the winery and regaling us with the fascinating story of how a wine is born, our guide took us to the tasting room and handed us each a wine glass. We were taught the art of tasting a wine. Before one tastes wine, one must know the correct way to hold the glass (by the stem or base of the wine glass, and NOT the bowl) as this impacts your view of the colour and the temperature at which you finally taste it (holding the bowl of the glass heats up the wine and affects the flavour).

After you have your grip in place, you must look at the wine and its colour. The colour reveals a lot about the age of the wine. Young reds have a purplish or bluish tint whereas their mature cousins are deep red or orange. Likewise, new whites are green to light yellow, and they age towards a golden hue.

There's a wine for every occasion!

There’s a wine for every occasion!

After observing your wine, swirl it in the glass to let some air mix with it. Aerating the wine enhances its taste so much so that we now have mechanical and battery operated aerators that are used for pouring wines. After aerating, smell the aroma, take a sip and keep it in your mouth for a while for the flavours to reach you. The gulp that you take after doing “all of this”, will make you realize it is worth the effort. Most novices tend to drink their wine like they would their beer or whisky which is why first-timers rarely like their first wines. After you learn the art of drinking wine, you will concede that wine is a superior alcohol and quite deserving of its price-tag.

My wine-tasting ticket entitled me to taste a total of 8 wines:-

  1. Sula Sauvignon Blanc (white)
  2. Dindori Reserve Shiraz (red)
  3. Sula Zinfandel Rosé (rose)
  4. Sula Riesling (white)
  5. Sula Cabernet Shiraz (blended red)
  6. Sula Brut (sparkling)
  7. Sula Late Harvest Chenin Blanc (dessert wine)
  8. Satori Merlot (red)
The amphitheatre

The amphitheatre

The evening was turning dusky when we were done. I stealthily slipped out of the tasting room as the others soaked themselves in conversations, so I could walk over to the lush amphitheatre behind the buildings. This is where music concerts are held every February during the Sula Fest. After sundown, I explored their store and bought a Rasa Shiraz, their finest vintage red which I could take back to my hotel.

A red and a pink, I've got a pair to drink! ;-)

A red and a pink,
I’ve got a pair to drink! 😉

Dinner was an Italian affair at Little Italy, the first restaurant to open at an Indian vineyard. I downed two more wines with a mushroom starter and a plate of ravioli. People will tell you that the best thing about a food-trip is that you taste with your eyes AND your tastebuds. What you discover on your own is that the tasting first comes with your heart. Your sense organs merely act as tools.

* * *

The night sky of Nashik is markedly clear as it isn’t plagued by a metro’s light-pollution. I took this opportunity to indulge in some stargazing before I bid my goodbyes to Sula.

10 Things You MUST do in Pondicherry

This is the winning entry for the Prismma Holiday 2014 contest

(Fortnight of 10-23 March 2014)

In our fast-paced lives, we are always hard-pressed for time. Long vacations are a luxury that even money can’t buy. This is primarily why we must learn to “pack a lot in a little”. With this post, I flag off the 10-Things-Series for the benefit of those who wish to “do-it-all” in the limited time that they can prize out for a trip.

My 2-day trip to Pondy and Auroville seemed short while I was planning it, but turned out to be just right for all the things I set out to do. Here’s a list of things you MUST experience when you find yourself in Puducherry:-

1. Sample the French Cuisine:

Pondicherry isn’t called the ‘French Riviera of the East’ for nothing! There are cosy restaurants on every other lane and most eateries have French dishes on their menu. Ensure at least one meal you have here is unfailingly Français (pronounced fhaan-say). Though vegetarian options are limited (most French delicacies have at least one martyred animal), this cuisine can hold its own against most cuisines that have plenty to offer the herbivores. Here’s what yours truly ate:-

Ratatouille with bread

Ratatouille with bread

2. Sip on some Fine Wine:

When all the eating is done, can the drink be far behind? The French dining experience remains incomplete without wine. Although Puducherry is not the most famous wine-producing area in India, it imports good wines from across the country and the world. I had a glass of dry Shiraz Rose` which held its acidity boldly against the spicy rice dish that my companion ordered.

Some rose wine to wash down the food

Some rose wine to wash down the food

3. Walk on the Soft Sands: 

Pondy has a beautiful coastline which can be marvelled at from a number of beaches. The Bay of Bengal gleams like a bed of blue sapphires under the setting sun. Promenade Beach is among the better known beaches that skim the posh French side of this city. It is advisable to err on the conservative side while dressing for the waters as there are rarely any sunbathers on the beaches here.

By the Promenade Beach

By the Promenade Beach

4. Ride on a Rustic Rickshaw:

This city is so small that a pair of legs is all you need to travel from one end to the other. For those who’re not very fond of walking, there are bicycles and auto-rickshaws. There’s also the occasional yellow oh-so-French Vespa that zips by. But what makes Pondy so charming is the cycle-rickshaw! Taking this open-roof, doorless ‘green’ vehicle is an incredible way to savour this beautiful city.

Riding on a cycle-rickshaw

Riding on a cycle-rickshaw

5. Look out of a French Window:

The bungalows and buildings in Pondy are indulgent in the way they go all out to to appear French. Apart from the omnipresence of the colour yellow, it is the windows that are strikingly French in their appearance. It is highly recommended to have your afternoon tea by the window so you can appreciate how architecture can make time move slowly.

Let there be light!

Let there be light!

6. Visit a Nursery in Auroville:

Much has been written about the environmentally sustainable ways of Auroville, but to truly be one with nature, one must spend a few hours in the homes of young plants (a.k.a. nurseries). The oxygen I breathed here is one of the purest I’ve breathed in India. Of course, the purity comes not only from the plants but also the committed people that work towards building this universal township.

This nursery has a “green” sky!

7. Stay in a French Bungalow: 

Don’t miss the opportunity of staying at one of the few boutique hotels in White Town (French side of Pondicherry). I stayed at  Le Dupleix, but you can also consider The Promenade (a Hidesign hotel). Most of the residences are spacious, with wooden flooring and glass-walled bathrooms (perfect for honeymooners 😉 ). My hotel had tables laid out on the patio for open-air dining.

20130715_104451

View from my French castle

8. Eat Creole, Vietnamese and Italian:

You don’t have to do everything only the French-way! The restaurants in Pondy can serve up some mean spreads from several other cuisines that you’ll only be too glad to tuck into! Off the top of my head, I can tell you they offer Punjabi, Moghulai and South Indian fares. And, I have personally tried Creole (available only at Le Dupleix), Italian (there’s hardly a place that doesn’t serve Italiano! 😀 ) and Vietnamese (served only at Le Vietnam). Pondy is a gourmand’s paradise in every sense of the word!

Mmm... smells of Vietnam!

Mmm… smells of Vietnam!

9. Spend a Lazy Evening at a Cafe`:

The cafe scene is quite evolved in this Union Territory. The beachfront has a string of cafes that let one ‘do absolutely nothing’. Pondicherry is a place best enjoyed by doing nothing in particular while you let the sea-breeze stroke your face. Le Cafe is the most famous of all the cafes around. But don’t let that stop you from going off the beaten path to experience other little-known cafes.

Conical roofs of a quaint restaurant

Conical straw-roofs of a quaint cafe (Madam Shante’s)

10. Join the Local Activists:

I happened to come across a number of activists on the beach-promenade on St. Bastille’s Day. I gladly took this opportunity to create some awareness about vegetarianism and it benefits. To catch the jamboree and jollity of Bastille’s Day, plan your trip around 14th July.

Vegetarian is the way to go!

Vegetarian is the way to go!

And finally, when you have done all of the above, let me know if my advice was worth it! 🙂

Ville Blanche – Pondicherry’s French Kiss to India

I had been day-dreaming about the quaint little streets of Pondicherry for almost a year before I finally booked my tickets and decided to realise my fantasies.

Earth meets heaven

Where Earth meets Heaven

Puducherry is not just a union territory in India, it is a world of its own. The Franco-rule that lasted here for almost 300 years, has soaked this place in its colours and flavours. To savour the ultimate French experience of La Côte d’Azur de l’Est, I decided to stay at Le Dupleix.

The colonial interiors of the luxury boutique hotel (Le Dupleix)

The colonial interiors of the luxury boutique hotel (Le Dupleix)

I started my Pondy-trip with a hearty meal of milk and cornflakes, fruits, flax seeds and orange-juice. Then gorged on some dosa-chutney and sambar while I waited for my green tea to arrive. (My appetite doubles when I am on a trip!)

The Tamil-English breakfast

The Tamil-English breakfast

With my stomach full, I started walking through the grid-like rues (roads) that lead me to this mustard building…

The French Embassy

The French Consulate

And then, there was another. This one in memory of the French soldiers.

Foyer du Soldat

Foyer du Soldat

I entered the Pondicherry Museum, which housed everything – from stone-sculptures dating back to the 1st century AD to ancient carriages that lived to see me visit!

Vintage carriages

Vintage carriages

To pay some heed to my roused hunger, I halted in front of Le Vietnam, where I had my lunch of bún chả with a pair of chopsticks while I stared wide-eyed at an interesting looking nón lá (Vietnamese conical leaf hat).

Post lunch, I rushed to the nearest church, just in time to hear the mass in Tamil!

Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception cathedral

Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception cathedral

I reached the Promenade beach before sunset and walked the entire stretch. The locals told me I should stop to look at the Gandhi statue and the French war memorial, which I dutifully did.

When the sun dissolved into the waters of the Bay of Bengal, the street suddenly came alive! One could watch the Pondy-Police-Force play the trumpet, activists staging street plays, live music and dancing all along the way. The once empty road was now thronged by a sizable crowd, and the mood was that of a carnival. It was, in fact, a carnival as today was St. Bastille’s Day! I was just lucky to be at the right place at the right time.

Bastille Day festivities

Bastille Day festivities

After the noise-overdose, I had a quiet dinner at my hotel. I ordered Italian – the cuisine that makes me think of nothing else but what’s on my plate. I then proceeded to catch some sleep for my trip to Auroville the next day!

Ravioli con funghi (Ravioli with mushroom)

Ravioli con funghi (Ravioli with mushroom)