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Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Little Visited Treasures of South India

India is undoubtedly a beautiful country. It presents such an array of interesting scenes and stunning landscapes, taking pictures is irresistible. But this vast country also poses great challenges for photographers: there are so many people, such enormous sights, such a long, rich history – how do you portray this through a lens?

On my most recent trip in central South India, I was faced with such challenges. The journey I took – overland from Hyderabad, through Karnataka and on to Goa – was overflowing with photogenic moments and mind-boggling historical sights.

Once a Muslim stronghold in a predominantly Hindu country, this area of the Deccan plateau is littered with stunning mausoleums, mosques, minarets and forts whose stories simply cannot be communicated through images alone. There are tales of love, life, war and loss to discover through the architectural wonders here; if some believe a picture paints a thousand words, it must be said that in India it only tells half the story.

Here’s the story behind some of South India’s underrated places:

1. Hyderabad

Arriving in Hyderabad – the capital of India’s newest state, Telangana – on the weekend is perhaps one of the biggest culture shocks you can get in India. Hundreds of shoppers come out to browse and barter the Laad bazaar, where thousands of bangles twinkle on the wall displays in shops and on stalls. This is the view from Charminar – a quad of minarets connected by a balcony, built by the Qutb Shahi dynasty in 1591 to mark the city’s surviving of a plague. It’s a stunning piece of architecture to behold, but the prize is reaching the top of the minarets to look out over the city’s throbbing arteries.

2. Golconda

Once the capital of the Qutb Shahi empire, the impressive Golconda Fort sits 11km west of modern Hyderabad. Spread across four square kilometres, it’s a prime example of fourteenth-century Islamic architecture in central India, with stone arches, minarets and palaces to explore throughout. The panorama from the top provides an interesting view of the old-meets-new cityscape that’s so common throughout India.

The Qutb Shahi dynasty ruled what was known as the Golconda kingdom from 1512–1687 and during that time built a number of mausoleums, mosques and fortifications. Near Golconda fort lies a complex of enormous bulbous-domed tombs that hold the bodies of the dynasty’s most important kings and their families. This tomb houses one king’s favourite dancer and sits alongside a tomb for his favoured singer – an interesting insight into the politics within the dynasty.

Among the tombs scattered across the complex are a series of small mosques. This is the interior of The Great Mosque – a small but pretty structure with charming little frescoes around its vaulted ceilings.

3. Bidar

Sitting on Karnataka’s border with Telangana, the small town of Bidar sits firmly off the beaten track, but that’s what makes it such a fun place to wander around. Strolling along one of its main roads leads to all manner of interactions, as clothes shops spill out onto the street, selling everything from saris to jeans to underwear, and vendors brew sweet cups of milky chai and street snacks from their carts. This is pau bhaji – India’s answer to the UK’s chip butty: mashed potato mixed with spices and vegetables inside a soft, sweet, butter-slathered bun. It’s the ultimate Indian comfort food.

Built by the Bahamani Sultanate in 1424, Bidar fort spreads itself out northeast of the modern town and is still used today as a thoroughfare to a residential area. After rains, the grasses are a bright green contrast to the red stones structure, while the landscaped gardens inside make for a pleasant stroll – especially in the early morning when there are few visitors around.

4. Bijapur

Bijapur (also known as Vijayapura) is a pleasantly laidback city in the north of Karnataka, which sees few visitors stick around except to see its most famous monument: Golgumbaz. But spend a little more time here and you’ll discover gorgeous green spaces and this colourful bazaar, which is teeming with local shoppers by night. These are marigold necklaces, often used to decorate the Hindu gods and goddesses in temples or as a love charm at weddings.

The main draw for visitors to Bijapur, Gol Gumbaz is visible well before you even get there, its perfectly-shaped dome crowning over the horizon like a rising sun. Completed in 1656, it took 30 years to build and is now the mausoleum of Mohammed Adil Shah, a sultan of the ancient city. Its enormous dome houses the “whispering gallery”, which carries even the slightest of sounds all the way along its surface to the other side.

5. Badami

In contrast to many of Karnataka’s attractions, Badami’s main draw is a Hindu site: a trio of astonishing cave temples hewn out around 550 AD. Set on a sandstone hill, the interiors are decorated with reliefs depicting Hindu gods and statues – including the only 18-armed Shiva in the country.

From the caves you can see the town spread out westward, with ancient temples and mausoleums dotting the landscape.Badami’s old town makes for a pleasant walk in late afternoon. It’s a chance to see small-town living in India up close: modest, low-rise homes are tightly packed together along the edge of the reservoir, where locals go wash their dishes and clothes.

7 Great Ways to Explore Colombo for Free

 Colombo is more than just a gateway to the resorts and surf breaks of Sri Lanka’s south coast. Despite the noise and crowds, this is a city of vibrant colours and rich culture, offering fascinating insights into the national psyche of Sri Lanka.

Many people rush through Colombo and make straight for the beaches, but linger and you’ll find a city full of history, where stately British colonial buildings jostle for space with Sri Lankan dagobas (stupas), palm-shaded parks and Dutch colonial churches. Here are 10 great ways to explore this constantly evolving city for free.

Snake charmers charm at Viharamahadevi Park

Colombo is spoilt for choice when it comes to places to chill out, but beautifully maintained Viharamahadevi Park is a city favourite. The parades of palms and fig trees are spectacular, the lawns are dotted with statues and fountains, there are views of Colombo’s colonial-era Town Hall, and there’s always the chance of catching the odd snake charmer in action. Find a shady spot and you can people-watch for hours.

Join the locals on Colombo’s favourite promenade

Whilst it might not be quite as green as it once was, Galle Face Green is still frequented by locals in search of some relaxing downtime. There’s a tacky but loveable charm to this seafront park, which is animated by bubble-blowers, bouncing beach balls and vibrant kites swooping across the sky. It’s also a great spot for a snack – street food traders congregate on the waterfront at sunset, serving delicious Sri Lankan treats, including crispy egg hoppers and the island’s signature kottu, a griddle fry-up of chopped noodles, eggs and spices.

Dive into an open-air gallery at Kala Pola Art Market

On any non-rainy day of the week, you can catch a cohort of talented local artists as they transform the streets of Nelum Pokuna into an open-air gallery with their latest creations. The Kala Pola Art Market is the oldest art market in town, and traders have been holding court here for over a century. Some of the work on display is touristy and generic, but there are some gems to be unearthed here if you look beyond the clichéd depictions of elephants and tigers. If you feel like investing, paintings are usually on canvas and can be rolled up to carry away.

Engage with Sri Lankan contemporary art at Paradise Road Gallery

The Paradise Road Gallery (paradiseroad.lk) is a piece of art in itself. This upscale gallery is a beautiful space that exhibits contemporary Sri Lankan artists of high renown and is considered one of the most important art spaces in the country. The general ambience, decadent aesthetic and renowned Gallery Café add to its charm. With monthly rotating exhibitions, it’s definitely worth popping back again for a second visit before leaving the island.

Zen out and meditate at Bellanwila Temple

It’s a pretty tough job finding a temple in Colombo that doesn’t charge tourists nowadays, but for anyone venturing down south to Mount Lavinia, the Bellanwila Temple is a top detour. This is a real locals’ temple, where visitors can experience the authenticity of the Buddhist tradition without having to share it with camera-toting crowds. Unsurprisingly, it’s a great spot for meditation. The temple is famed for its bright and bold Buddhist statues and its revered bodhi-tree – one of thirty-two saplings taken from the sacred bodhi in Anuradhapura.

Love the sunset on Mount Lavinia Beach

Just a forty-minute bus ride from the centre, Mount Lavinia beach is the perfect refuge for travellers wanting to escape the city hustle. Whilst the main drag of Mount Lavinia beach is often dotted with litter, there are plenty of tucked away spots that remain unspoiled and the sunsets here are simply spectacular. As you make your way onto the golden sands, watch for locals taking the back route, walking fearlessly along the coastal railway tracks.

Graffiti in 3D at Diyatha Uyana

Colombo’s most happening public park, Diyatha Uyana, has become an outdoor hub of cultural activity. Created by unknown local artists, trompe l’oeil graffiti artworks that seem to burst into 3D are the latest addition to the park’s artistic legacy, creating dizzying optical illusions in front of the beautiful view over Lake Batturumullam. Make a day of it and explore the serene grounds, scan the vegetation for tropical birds or check out the Good Market held on Thursdays, selling healthy snacks and Sri Lankan crafts.

Best Place to Visit Iceland in Summer

 Iceland is famous for majestic glaciers and snow-covered houses, for the Northern Lights and blue-lit ice caves. Visit in summer, though, and it can feel like a different country.

While there are still plenty of icy natural wonders, you can also party with the locals at summer festivals, hike across flower-strewn moorland and soak in hot springs under the midnight sun. Here are our picks of the best places to experience summer in Iceland.

To get off the tourist trail: the West Fjords

Summer is the perfect time to hike through the stunning Icelandic scenery, and if you can camp, so much the better (and cheaper). Dynjandi is a particularly good spot to pitch up – the waterfall may not be as famous as Gullfoss, but it still attracts plenty of visitors. Stay the night and you may well get the thunderous falls, glittering in the early-morning sun, all to yourself.

For a more remote West Fjords experience head to Hornstrandir, right on the edge of the Arctic Circle and barely accessible out of summer. This peninsula in Iceland’s far northwest is entirely wild, its inhospitable but beautiful terrain preserved as a nature reserve.

It’s the perfect place to escape the crowds of the southern coast – though even in the middle of summer the weather is unpredictable, so hikers should take precautions to stay safe.

For wildlife: Vestmannaeyjar, the Westman Islands

One of Iceland’s biggest draws is its wildlife and the Westman Islands are the prime place to go for puffin spotting. Every year between April and August, the archipelago becomes the biggest puffin colony in the world. The friendly town of Vestmannaeyjar is located on the only inhabited island, Heimaey, and is the best base for seeing these cute orange-beaked birds.

Visit in early August and you might be lucky enough to witness a truly heart-warming event: local families collect lost baby puffins, or “pufflings”, who’ve found their way into the town by mistake, and bring them to the shore to safely release them.

The summer festival, Þjóðhátíð, is also held in early August; its popularity among Icelanders is reflected in the fact it’s known, quite simply, as “The Festival”.

 

For a rugged adventure: the Interior

The Interior (also known as the hálendið, or highlands) is generally only accessible in summer, and the window can be as short as a few weeks.

If you’re not keen on carrying a tent, try staying in one of the huts (sæluhús) which dot the highlands; book ahead, as Icelanders and visitors make the most of the short season.

However you choose to do it – day-hike, camping, staying in huts – if you’re a keen walker you shouldn’t miss the chance to explore the Interior on foot. It’s the archetype of Icelandic nature, with a bleak and otherworldly beauty you can find nowhere else: smooth glacial valleys; colourful, iron-streaked earth and milky sulphur springs.

Be sure to also take advantage of these warm rivers and hot springs for a traditional dip. Hveravellir is a good option, but perhaps the most isolated spot for outdoor bathing is Viti, a small crater lake in the Askja caldera. However, the volcano is still active; while this definitely adds a bit of extra excitement to your swim, it also adds some real danger.

To take a hike: Siglufjörður

In Iceland’s northwest is the small fishing town of Siglufjörður (or Sigló). This is the most northerly town in the country, and the road here – usable only in summer – is the highest in Iceland.

The town’s laidback, low-key feel and dramatic setting are reasons enough to visit – not to mention the freshly smoked kippers and summer Folk Music Festival. But it’s also a perfect base for hiking in the surrounding area.

Eyjafjörður, the fjord to the east of the town, is the best place to go to spot wildlife. Hrísey, the island at the mouth of the fjord, is renowned for its birdlife – and it’s not only twitchers who’ll be charmed by the sight of its famous ptarmigans casually wandering around town.

Alternatively, head to the villages of Ólafsfjörður and Dalvík for a whale-watching trip – some operators even run midnight sun tours.

Try to time your visit to coincide with the local summer festival, the Great Fish Day: a popular event that draws the whole community together for delicious (free) food and warm Icelandic hospitality.

For a festival: Reykjavík

Around Iceland National Day (also called Independence Day; June 17) there are parties throughout the country, but the biggest and best are in the centre of Iceland’s charming capital city. Expect parades, poetry readings and dancing all night long. After all, the sun hardly sets.

For some background on Iceland’s history, head to Reykjavík’s Árbæjarsafn (Open Air Museum). The big draw on Independence Day is that anyone wearing national dress gets in for free. So if you happen to own your own upphlutur you can save on the entry fee.

For a different kind of festival, book tickets for Secret Solstice, set up in 2014 with the rationale that the sunny nights of the Icelandic summer are perfect for a weekend-long party. The line-up is consistently brilliant, and every year they hold special events away from the main Reykjavík venues. Who doesn’t want to dance inside a glacier?

For bathing in the buff: Reykjadalur

Falling shortly after National Day, midsummer can get a bit overlooked in Iceland. However, there’s one tradition well worth trying out if you’re brave enough: bathing naked in a river at night.

The most convenient place to head – not far from the capital – is Reykjadalur (“Steam Valley”). The river running through this valley is warmed by a geothermal spring, making it a popular spot for an alfresco dip.

The Best Area to Stay in Amsterdam

 The Old Centre

If you choose to stay in the Old Centre, you’ll be a short walk from the main sights and the principal shopping and nightlife areas. Cheap hotels abound and this is the first place to start looking if money is tight, although some may find the proximity of the red light district off-putting.

On a budget: Flying Pig Downtown
This hostel is clean, large and well run by ex-travellers familiar with the needs of backpackers. It’s justifiably popular, and a very good deal, with mixed dorms, some of which have queen-sized bunks sleeping two.

No-limits luxury: Hotel de l’Europe
This elegant old-timer has plenty of fin-de-siècle charm and a central riverside location. The rooms are large and opulent, and there’s also a two-michelin-star restaurant, Bord’eau, a spa and the glamorous Freddy’s Bar.

Grachtengordel West

The canal-laced streets to the west of the old centre have a number of quiet waterside hotels, though the least expensive places are concentrated along Raadhuisstraat, one of Amsterdam’s busiest streets.

A snug stay: b&nb Herengracht
This oh-so-central bed (and no breakfast) has three double rooms: subterranean bolthole, canal view or garden view.

A hotel with style: The Dylan
Hip without being pretentious, The Dylan has earned itself many repeat guests. This stylish hotel is housed in a seventeenth-century building that centres on a beautiful courtyard and terrace, and there’s a michelin-star restaurant on site.

Grachtengordel South

Ideally positioned for the plethora of clubs, bars and restaurants on and around Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein, this area is on the rise: Waldorf Astoria decided to locate their new hotel here in 2014. There are plenty of options for those on a budget too, including a number of very appealing – and occasionally stylish – hotels along the surrounding canals.

The big name: Waldorf Astoria
Housed within a series of conjoined seventeenth-century canal houses in one of the city’s most prestigious neighbourhoods, the Waldorf Astoria has 93 rooms and suites in tasteful, calming neutral shades. It’s hard to fault, except for the eye-watering cost.

A great budget option: Prinsenhof
This small one-star has been offering bed and board since 1813. The 11 rooms are spacious and tastefully decorated, making it one of Amsterdam’s top budget options, but booking ahead is essential.

The Jordaan

Staying in the Jordaan puts you among the locals, well away from the prime tourist areas. There’s no shortage of bars and restaurants here either, and some of the city’s prettiest canals thread through the district, but you’ll be at least a 15-minute walk from the bright lights. Be aware when looking for a place to stay that Marnixstraat and Rozengracht are busy main roads.

Inventive design: De Hallen
There’s plenty of buzz surrounding the stunning conversion of this 1902 tram depot. Original features, such as rails in the dining-room floor, and the vaulted glass ceiling, have been kept intact, and the 55 rooms seem to be suspended within the structure.

Beautifully furnished boutique: Maison Rika
Housed in a former art gallery, this boutique option has two beautifully furnished queen-sized bedrooms on the second and third floors and is owned by fashion designer Ulrika Lundgren, who has a shop across the street.

The Old Jewish Quarter and Plantage

Not many tourists stay in this area as it’s largely residential, with very few bars or restaurants. So you’re pretty much guaranteed a quiet night’s sleep here, and you’re only a tram ride away from the leading sights.

A simple and welcoming stay: Adolesce
A popular and welcoming four-storey hotel (no lift) in an old canal house not far from Waterlooplein. There are ten neat, if a little dated, rooms and a communal seating area.

Modern style: Arena
A little way east of the centre, this hip four-star hotel has split-level rooms in tranquil grey or cream. There’s a lovely, relaxed vibe in the bar and the intimate restaurant with garden terrace, and a lively late-night club located within the former chapel.

The Eastern Docklands and Amsterdam Noord

These up-and-coming districts have some excellent, avant-garde accommodation options, and though their industrial architecture and open expanses might feel a world away from the old centre’s medieval lanes, they’re just a short hop away by ferry or tram.

An unusual conversion: Lloyd Hotel
Situated in the Oosterdok (eastern docklands) district, this former prison and refugee workers’ hostel has been renovated to become a “cultural embassy”, with an arts centre as well as an art library. The hotel serves all kinds of travellers, with rooms ranging from one-star affairs with a shared bathroom to five-star suites.