Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Monsoon magic in the desert - Suryagarh, Jaisalmer

Although I’m a Bombay girl, my roots lie in Jodhpur, so I have always found beauty in the stark barrenness of the desert land. And so, when I was invited to join a group of travel bloggers in Jaisalmer, my excitement was boundless, as I hadn’t visited the city yet.

A short flight to Jodhpur later, we began our road journey to the Golden City. Much to our surprise, the route was filled with greenery; instantly shattering our conventional image of the desert state that is Rajasthan. I suppose, monsoon magic had already begun. A pleasant five hours on roads worthy of a road trip and the grand Jaisalmer Fort was in sight. Standing tall at a height of 80 metres, this yellow sandstone structure was built somewhere in 15th century AD. While commercialisation hasn’t spared it, it still retains some old-world charm with some of its architecture still intact, like the jharokas and lattice work.

Welcome to Suryagarh
A few more kilometres and two rotund bastions commanded our attention. We had arrived at our destination, Suryagarh. Rajasthan is known for its gracious hospitality and its grand manner of celebration owing to its rich, royal history having been home to the maharajas of yore. And our welcome was nothing less than that fit for sheer royalty. We were greeted by soulful musicians belting the popular Rajasthani tune ‘padharo maare desh’, which roughly translates ‘welcome to my home’. As we ushered inside the lobby, rose petals were showered upon us. And I thought this only happened in the movies.

That evening, we retired with a glass of wine and a wide selection of gourmet cheese at the most wonderful location—in the middle of nowhere. Local musicians played the sarangi as conversations were abuzz about the innumerable clusters of stars we could see in the night sky. At one point, even the Gods joined us as they displayed a lyrical duet with lightning and thunder synchronised with the live music. Our day truly ended on a high note.

A royal feast
While I didn’t quite catch the sun rise the next morning, as I opened the door to take in my order of a steaming cup of masala chai, I was welcomed by a bed of fresh rose petals outside my room. The staff at Suryagarh sure knows how to make a girl happy :)

The room, which I only explored properly this morning, was seriously lavish. It opened to a seating area with a work desk and chair in the corner that led to the bedroom through artistically-decorated arches. The table had a personalised sealed letter informing me about the various facilities I could avail of at the property. For a quick snack, there was a tray of shot glasses that contained peanuts and chana among other savoury foods. For a dash of sweetness to follow the savouries, there was also a tray of mithai for me to sample. But my most favourite part of the room’s decor was the string of neon-coloured signs hanging on the door handle. Truly at par with today’s fashion-conscious world.

All this excitement got my appetite whirring and I headed straight to try their Halwai Breakfast. Bowlfuls of laddoos, spicy mirchi vadas, piping hot kachoris and masala chaat in martini glasses—for me, it felt like home. My feeble attempt at watching my calorie intake went for a complete toss as I gobbled up not just the mirchi vadas, but also the ghotna laddoos (made with besan) which are a Jaisalmer specialty. For those who aren’t too keen on sampling local delicacies, an American breakfast is also available. But I’d recommend you at least try the Halwai breakfast; simply for its accuracy of capturing local flavours and spices.

After that heavy meal, we met the young, enterprising owner of the palatial hotel, Mr Manvendra Singh Shekhawat. We quizzed him about the making of the property. Most of us assumed that Suryagarh was a former fort or possibly an ancestral home converted into a hotel. However, Manvendra shared that the hotel had been built from scratch to emulate the historic fortresses of the olden day. While the dabri stone (the local name for yellow sandstone) used to build the fort-like structure has been sourced from Jaisalmer itself, the canons at the entrance have been sourced from Jodhpur. The hotel, designed by Jaipur-based architect Ravi Gupta, also features tiles from Bikaner, makrana marble, and stamp papers and antiques from all over the state.

While the hotel in its architecture maintains an old-world charm, there are little touches of modernity with the slew of contemporary fittings it houses. Aside from the quaint spa, the billiards room and the swimming pool, I simply fell in love with the bright red couch that was placed in the lifts! It really made me feel like a little child who only wanted to go up and down in the lift to enjoy the ride. And what better way to enjoy it than to sit comfortably on a couch? Not surprisingly, I could ride along all day!

As departure time arrived, I realised that visiting Jaisalmer only strengthened my love for the sandy desert, even as it bloomed with patches of green grass and prickly cacti under the spell cast by the rain gods. Monsoon had been truly magical...

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Free things to do in London

Being one of the most expensive cities in the world, a trip to London is sure to burn a hole in your pocket so big you may just shed a tear. However, in a bid to ensure travellers don’t miss visiting this amazing city, all the backpackers in the world have combined forces to find free attractions and tours even in a place like London. Here are a few things you can do free of cost.

Seeing the Big Ben from outside is free. Don't miss it during night-time, it looks beautiful when lit up.

Hyde Park
If you enjoy walking, Hype Park is your best bet. One of the biggest parks in the city, it allows you to enjoy swimming, boating, cycling and skating, as well as sports like tennis courts, horse riding tracks and a children’s playground. Foodies can hang out at the two restaurants in the premises. And if you visit during winter, don’t miss Winter Wonderland, where the park is filled with Christmas tidings, replete with a Christmas market and an elaborate amusement park.

Changing of the guard
While it is certainly overrated, this ceremony has been a tradition since the 1500s, and a visit to London is considered incomplete without watching it. The ceremony is simple: Two guards outside the Buckingham Palace march down and make a switch with one another. While this takes place every day during summer, winter time sees this take place every other day.
The timings: 11 a.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. on Sundays

Watch a TV show recording

If you’re a TV show addict like me, this one will surely get you excited. Provided you’ve planned your trip well in advance, check out the BBC’s website here and apply for a free ticket to be in the audience of a show of your choice. You could opt for a radio or a TV show.

Enjoy choir singing at Westminster Abbey
Another British landmark, visiting Westminster Abbey does come a price. But if you make it for the choir singing that takes place every evening at 5:30p.m., you won’t have to pay anything. So be sure to get there on time!

National Gallery
For art geeks, the National Gallery—which is home to classics by Van Gogh, Renoir, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo—is a must visit. Located in the heart of London at Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery allows visitors to come in free on weekday mornings or on Wednesday evenings post 6 p.m.

Friday, 9 August 2013

TRAVEL TIDBITS: Dull and Boring day

If you thought things in this world just couldn't get quirkier, be sure to attend an official day to celebrate all things 'Boring' and 'Dull' in USA today, on August 9.

In a bid to increase tourism in Boring, a town located in Oregon, and Dull, a village in Scotland, both towns have come together to celebrate their alliance and of course, all things 'boring and dull'. The idea that was suggested by a Scottish biker who while cycling through Boring realised the value of this twinning. She bought the news of the town's existence to Dull and things went on forward from then on.

So, keep your calendars booked for the most 'boring' day of the year!

Oh, and there will be lots of FREE ICE CREAM!

For more information, click here.

Photo taken from the official Dull and Boring Facebook page