Author: C.C.

Green Hideaway At A Wildlife Sanctuary In Binsar

Parking our car in a clearing at the forest’s edge, we walked along a roughly paved cliff-hugging pathway to reach Binsar Forest Retreat. The homestay has an enviable location on a secluded ridge inside Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, in Uttarakhand’s Almora district. The property features a collection of wood and stone cottages with gently sloping slate roofs. All of them overlook a sweeping panorama of the Kumaon Himalayas that includes the perennially snow-capped peaks of Trishul, Nanda Devi, Sunanda Devi, Panchachuli, and Nanda Kot.

binsar

Because the retreat is built on land that belonged to a Major Edin during the Raj era, it is locally known as Edinpur. In all likelihood the area was his hunting ground as tigers roamed freely right until the 1920s. Now the forest is a protected reserve with a variety of flora, avian life, and a sizeable population of deer, wild boar, and fox. Preetam and Pallavi, who own the property with Delhi restaurateur Rajesh Ojha, are wildlife enthusiasts. They live on-site, imbuing the place with the warmth of home while ensuring it follows green practices. Besides the location, it was this emphasis on sustainability that appealed to me. The property runs entirely on electricity generated from solar panels. Geysers are solar powered, indoor lights are energy efficient LEDs, and solar lamps light outdoor paths. An added plus is that there are no transmission lines to mar the mountain views.

During my stay, my favourite spot at the property became its magnificent terrace. I sat there reading and basking in the sun, enjoying mid-afternoon G&Ts. In the evening, it was the perfect place to watch the sun go down. The sky transformed into a riot of colours, especially when there were clouds. Sometimes, a group of circling Himalayan griffon vultures added to the drama. Meals at the retreat are fresh and feature local produce. Breakfasts for instance included millet porridge, farm-fresh eggs, and home-baked bread. The daily all-vegetarian set menu, a mix of local Kumaoni cuisine and continental fare, is written out on a blackboard in the dining room.

binsar

I enjoyed hearty meals and memorable dishes like ragi pancakes, mushroom and corn casserole, local wild spinach with cottage cheese, and gakat kidal, alocai Kumaoni lentil stew. Many walking trails lead into Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. I loved the two-hour Ghoralkot Walk, an easy path suitable for all age groups and fitness levels. Though the trail includes a steady uphill slog for about 90 minutes, the sight of snow-capped views through oak and rhododendron forests more than makes up for it. At a viewing platform near the halfway mark, my eyes feasted on close-up views of stunning Himalayan peaks from Nanda Ghunti to Panchachuli.

Alush Assam Tea Estate: An Outstanding Wonder Of India

I arrive at Wild Mahseer at night, after a five-hour drive from Guwahati, en route to Arunachal Pradesh. Tired and dusty, I am glad to be driven straight to my cottage. Right away, a tray is brought in, laden with estate-grown tea, sandwiches, cupcakes, and the check-in register. Wild Mahseer feels like an ancestral family home—a self-contained and relaxing throwback to the lifestyle of Raj-era tea planters. The property is located on the outskirts of Tezpur, 40 minutes west of the Jia Bhoroli River, once abundant in prized golden mahseer. Set on 22 lush acres, the boutique hotel’s heritage bungalows were part of the Addabarie Tea Estate. Established by the British Assam Tea Company in 1864 for its supervisors and specialists, it has a blend of colonial and Assamese architecture with high ceilings, sloping roofs, chequered floors, and enclosed verandas.

Alush-Assam-Tea-Estate

Cottages and rooms are named for teas: Ambrosia, for instance, has two bedrooms, named Oolong and Orthodox Assam. Vintage cane and wooden furniture fills the spaces. I like that in my room, a wiring table overlooks a lawn and stacks of books on the region’s wildlife sit by my bedside. Delicate blue-and-white porcelain decor is a recurring theme, from the teacups I sip from, to fish-shaped plates on walls. My morning begins early, on the patio with a fresh brew, watching the rain. When the skies clear, I wander the adjacent tea estate, where the mist hangs low and there’s not a soul in sight.

Meals are served at First Flush, the high-roofed, glass-panelled dining space which is a converted tractor shed. At breakfast I enjoy a hearty spread choosing from a buffet of Indian and continental dishes. The daily set menu features wholesome Indian and typical Anglo-Indian dishes including colonial-era staples like planter’s goulash, potato chops, and mutton stew. Locally grown produce is used in homely spreads of roti, dal, chicken curry, and vegetables. I particularly enjoy the seasonal local saag and fragrant Assamese Joha rice.

Alush-Assam-Tea-Estate

Amidst sniffing, swirling, and sipping at a tea tasting session, I learn about the grades and taste of Assam’s black teas. There is neither TV nor Wi-Fi, instead activities like river rafting, bicycling, and safaris at Kaziranga and Nameri national parks can be organised. The Heritage Bungalow has a library with old angling paraphernalia and photos of planters with their catch, harking back to a time when the now overfished mahseer was abundant in local rivers. Recreational angling is banned in Assam but possible in the neighbouring state of Arunachal and can be organized by the management. Another long journey lies ahead for me, but the night is finally clear. I settle into my front lawn to feast my city-weary eyes on millions of stars.

Patiala: The Place That Will Give You The Whole Energy

The bite-sized city of Patiala has given its name to the generous Patiala Peg and the voluminous Patiala salwar. There’s nothing otherwise oversized about this old-fashioned city, so I conclude it must be because of the legendary Punjabi spirit Indeed, this is easy enough to spot in the hospitable people of Patiala—in the broad smiles, hearts’ greetings, and ever-open invitations to down a big brass tumbler of thick, frothy lassi. Patiala was established in 1763 as a military stronghold by Baba Ala Singh, its first maharaja; and the name literally means “land of Ala.”

The fledgling kingdom became one of India’s most powerful princely states, fending off repeated assaults by the warlords of Afghanistan, the Mughals, and the advancing Marathas. During the 20th century, Maharaja Yadavindra Singh, who ruled Patiala at the time of Independence, played a prominent role in the formation of the Union of India. Today, the city’s spruce polo field, parks, and cricket grounds exude gentility and wholesomeness. The quiet homes and peaceful, tree-lined neighbourhoods are resolutely serene in a fast-paced world.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

WALK DOWNTOWN – The State Tourism Department organises an excellent 1.5-hour heritage walk of the old Patiala area. It starts at the Royal Mausoleum or the Shahi Samadhi, and is led by a knowledgeable guide. I enjoyed listening to gripping tales from Patiala’s 300-year battle-scarred history as we wandered through 18th-century neighbourhoods and markets like Bajaja Bazaar and Bartan Bazaar. After passing through Darshini Deori, the ceremonial gateway from which commoners once watched royal processions, we arrived at the sprawling Patiala Fort or Qila Mubarak.

FIERCE FORTRESS – Patiala Fort, built by Baba Ala Singh in 1763, is divided into two precincts that are both hauntingly desolate. Enter through a majestic gate to visit the first, the vast Qila Mubarak (for receiving state guests), which includes the Lassi Khana (kitchen), Sard Khana (cool rooms), Ran Baas (guest quarters), and the Durbar Hall. A flight of stairs leads to the second precinct, the Qila Androon, which consists of a succession of interconnected gardens, courtyards, and palaces. Along the perimeter of this massive ten-acre fort are its lovely, tree-shaded grounds, from which the Persian and Rajput architectural elements of the walls and; harokhas can be admired. The once resplendent Durbar Hall has stunning chandeliers, and a museum with quaint, slightly dusty treasures: a solid silver carriage, a jade dagger that belonged to Guru Gobind Singh, and the sword of Persian emperor Nadir Shah who invaded India in 1739.

Patiala

ATMOSPHERIC ALLEYS – Atmospheric Haveliwala Mohalla, barely a kilometre from Patiala Fort, was once the city’s poshest neighbourhood. The now fading havelis with ornate doors and delicate lattice-work balconies were the homes of the court aristocracy. Though frayed at the edges, the haveIis still suggest their erstwhile stately aura. The quiet lanes are full of discoveries like Chhata Nanumal, a private archway built over a public road, where public hearings were conducted. Another unusual feature is the narrow Sappan Wali Gali or Snake Lane; jewellers intentionally designed the 1.5-kilometre street to be no more than two metres wide and zig-zag crazily, possibly to slow down any fleeing thieves.

The Surreal Flavours Of Gruyeres

I am in the midst of a torrid affair. Two days ago, it was a hunk of young Brie in the park, yesterday, a deliciously mature Cheddar captivated my attention after dinner, and this afternoon at lunch, I was reduced to a blubbering mess when I encountered gooey raclette. So when my friend Irma Delacombaz suggests we spend my last day in Switzerland exploring the town of Gruyeres, famous for its namesake cheese, all I could summon was a soft sigh.

La Maison du Gruyere

La Maison du Gruyere

Three days later, Irma and I are walking through the La Maison du Gruyere cheese factory, nibbling on sticks of cheese, and straining to hear the audio tour, narrated by a cow named Cerise. “Me and my girlfriends have three stomachs,” she says chirpily, mooing every now and then, “which is just one of the reasons we’re superior to humans.” I roll my eyes at Irma, but despite the cheesy narration, the walkabout is actually quite interesting. Through large panes of glass, we see uniformed cheesemakers turning vats of creamy milk into hunks of sweet, slightly salty Gruyere. At an installation nearby, we sniff the scents of Alpine wild flowers, their floral notes conjuring images of grassy mountainsides, despite the fact that we are in a sterile factory. Meanwhile, a giggly Cerise explains that cheese made in summer is sweeter because the cows eat wild flowers every day. Alter the diet, and the flavour and richness of the milk changes. Cheesemaking, I realise, is a craft that takes generations to master.

With a bag full of cheese and little tubs of double cream (another local speciality), Irma and I set off to explore the rest of Gruyeres. The medieval town, set within the Swiss district of Gruyere, is perched on a hill at the foot of Moleson mountain. There is only one main street, and it is car-free, paved with cobblestones, and lined with traditional Swiss chalets that are now cafes serving pots of fondue. Every time we walk past an open door, we are hit by the rich fragrance of molten cheese. I presume we’re going to the medieval castle, but a 20-minute walk later, the castle still looms in the distance. Instead, we halt outside what appears to be a modest museum, near a sculpture of a very naked, very emaciated, and incredibly bizarre-looking lady alien. A discreet signboard to her right welcomes us to the Museum HR Giger.

Moleson Mountain

At this point it occurs to me that I haven’t so much as googled Gruyeres before getting into Irma’s nifty little car. I imagined we’d visit the cheese factory, load up on wedges of Gruyere to take home, and maybe have a small picnic before I caught a train back to Zurich. I hadn’t considered that Gruyeres might have more to offer. Artisanal garden gnomes, perhaps—the Swiss are besotted with garden gnomes—but an entire museum dedicated to the fantastic artworks of H.R. Giger? Famous for creating the extraterrestrials for the movie Alien (1979), the Swiss artist is also worshipped in the sci-fi world for his surreal art which features creatures that are part-human, part-machine, and entirely unsettling. This museum is the largest repository of his works in the world. We walk through a charcoal-coloured room, dimly lit and lined with canvases, acclimatising ourselves to the dark, menacing womb of Giger’s imagination.

From the walls, hermaphrodite beings with spiralling horns and metallic tentacles seem to examine us. We see a row of disfigured babies that appear to be melting, and a painting of a magnificent battle sequence between extraterrestrial tanks and armoured soldiers. Most figures have the disproportionately oblong skulls we’ve come to associate with alien life forms, thanks to Giger and Hollywood. The artworks are explicit and deeply sexual in nature, but they’re also mesmerising. In another room with blood-red walls, I see paintings of female warriors being inseminated in ways that make my thighs clench. Giger’s depiction of the feminine seems particularly twisted, yet these beings do not seem subordinate, but fierce and powerful; willing participants in their subjugation. It makes me question my understanding of pleasure and pain, my opinions of right and wrong, and the thin line between fascination and revulsion. Irma wiggles her eyebrows at me and laughs: This is more than I ever expected of Gruyeres.

Gruyeres

Gruyeres

When we exit the museum, the sun seems too bright, the chalets too perfect A silly part of me wants to shake the obliviously happy tourists by their shoulders, so they know how rattled I feel. It’s the same urge I have when I finish a gut-wrenching book, and look up to see the world is still the same. “After that,” Irma says patting me on the back, “I think you need something a little calming, no?” She hands me apiece of chocolate. Sharing a boundary wall with the museum is another of Gruyeres’ better-kept secrets: the Tibet Museum, which houses over 300 Buddhist artefacts. Most of the pieces belong to a gentleman named Alain Bordier, a voracious traveller who acquired them in Tibet, Nepal, Myanmar, Kashmir, and northeast India Like a really exquisite souvenir collection, I think. Some of us bring back turquoise pendants from Ladakh, and some, priceless 15th-century thangka paintings.

The corridors are filled with forest sounds and piped music. Glass cases on either side contain bronze and brass sculptures of demons, yoginis, and avatars of the Buddha. Some are small enough to fit in the palm of my hand; others, larger than life. It takes me back to Leh, Spiti, Sikkim, Bir, Bylakuppe: all the Buddhist colonies I have visited back home in India. A familiar glimmer of Buddhist sanctity reverberates through this space. As if a building dedicated to Buddha weren’t odd enough in an Alpine town, the Tibet Museum is located in the renovated Christian chapel of St. Joseph.

The main chamber is particularly breathtaking, with its gleaming wooden floors, deep purple walls, and magnificent stained-glass panels of Jesus and Mary. Instead of church pews, there are tantric Buddhist figurines wrapped around each other, rich thangka paintings, and meditating Buddhas, deep in contemplation. Examining the thangkas, I’m suddenly overcome with fondness for Gruyeres. It looks like a cookie-cutter Swiss settlement, with its perfectly trimmed flower hedges and fondue chalets, but it’s actually a rather feisty and odd little town.

Chateau de Gruyeres

Chateau de Gruyeres

By the time we leave the museum it’s nearly sundown, so we skip the tour of the medieval castle of Chateau de Gruyeres, and take a leisurely walk instead. The tourist crowds have thinned, the temperature has dropped, and all I can hear is the crunch of snow underfoot and the occasional chirrup of birds. Irma finds a quiet spot near the Tibet Museum with a view of a church, a charming old cemetery, and the mountains. There we finally have the picnic of my imagination. With a spread of cheese, Swiss chocolate, and double cream, Irma and I spend the rest of the evening dissecting Giger, Guru Padmasambhava, and the flavours that make Gruyeres so addictive.

Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer Train Explores Beauty

The next step up Mount Norquay requires a lunge of faith. Looking over my sunglasses, slipping in sweat, I see I must now go left and out, across an outcrop of rock that juts some 200 feet above nothingness. I look at my red knuckles, gripping the tiny iron rungs bolted on the face of the cliff, and utter an expletive. (My mind knows I’m safely harnessed and tethered, but my body doesn’t believe a word of it.) I swing my left foot across the brittle rock, landing it on an inch-shallow ledge. I stay like that, hanging on, straddling a mountain face outside the town of Banff in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, as close to spread-eagle as my 47-year-old frame gets.

Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer Train

Wait, wasn’t I supposed to be on a train trip? It started that way. In three days, I got to Banff in Alberta, Canada from my home in Portland in Oregon, U.S.A.., partly by rail. It’s not only a gorgeous ride, cutting across the snow-capped Rockies and river gorges, but also a historic one. Sir John Macdonald, Canada’s beloved first prime minister, built the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in the 1880s to turn Canada into a unified, transcontinental nation. Eventually it spawned the country’s national park system, opened up the mountains to tourism, and led to the development of Canada’s first luxury hotels. The only way to traverse the historic railway’s most rugged stretches is the Rocky Mountaineer, a luxury excursion train from Seattle to Banff (with overnight stops in Vancouver and Kamloops in British Columbia). That gives plenty of opportunity to consider the essence of Canada Oh, yes, and dine on three-course meals while sipping Okanagan Valley wines.

U.S. AND CANADIAN flags stand on either side of the Rocky Mountaineer’s eight cars in Seattle, as I— and about 150 others—board the train. Soon the rails take us alongside the Puget Sound, where we pass stacks of crab pots on the water and barns labelled “APPLE” and “CIDER.” By the time we pass the “Peace Arch,” built on the two nations’ border, passengers have loosened up. When we chug toward Vancouver’s glittering glass skyline, a father of a family from Mumbai breaks into a lullaby. The 60-something couple from Boston across the aisle asks what it says. “It means, T love you, but don’t make me wait.’”

I CHECK INTO the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, then rush off to a downtown bar above a 7-Eleven. Opened as a members-only club for (male) Canadian Pacific railway workers in 1931, the Railway Club is now a music venue with wooden floors, a small stage area, a nook for darts, and a hidden lounge. It’s Friday, it’s busy. And not everyone is sober. I’m listening to an indie music band playing from the bar. “Did you know this is where pop star k.d. lang got her break?” a woman next to me asks. I didn’t. Samantha Kuryliak, an Ontario expat and off-duty bartender, says new bands begin here, and she loves it because all sorts of people come. “I have one regular who has come three times a week for 30 years. He’s 75.”

rocky-mountaineer

We have a full day to explore Vancouver, so in the morning, I hop on a free shuttle to the Capilano Suspension Bridge, Vancouver’s most popular attraction. It was built from hemp rope and cedar shortly after the railway reached town. First Nations groups called it the ‘laughing bridge” for the sounds the wind made whipping through its loose planks. It’s sturdier now, running 450 feet above a canyon and leading to elevated walkways between 250-year-old Douglas firs. Later, from the former CPR train station, a neoclassical building now serving as a Sea Bus ferry terminal, I cab it to Yaletown in downtown Vancouver. It’s there I find a 19th-eentury roundhouse, constructed to service trains.

It’s home to Engine 374, the first train to pull into town (in 1887). Inside, Craig McDowall, a grey-haired volunteer with a handlebar moustache, has been a train spotter since he was five. He played on the 374 as a kid when it was stationed in Kitsilano Park. Misreading me as a fellow train aficionado, McDowall calls up some steam engine videos on his laptop, then points me to the steps of the steam engine cab to pull the whistle. “Go on,” he says with a nod. I don’t think I have a choice, so I step forward, pull a cord, and reward myself—and a couple of Texan visitors loitering nearby—with a bellow that echoes across the brick floor.

The Most Amazing Railway Stations In India

Sawai Madhopur Junction, Rajasthan – When passengers alight at Sawai Madhopur station, gateway to Rajasthan’s Ranthambore National Park, they’re struck by the bright murals that adorn its walls. There is a giant painting of a banyan tree that covers the entire ceiling of a central hall. It is modelled after a real tree inside the national park, one of the largest in India. A number of forest dwellers inhabit its branches. Paintings of tigers, flocks of birds, and sloth bears cover platform walls and pillars of the small station, offering a colourful peek into life in the jungle. Painted by the artists from the Ranthambore School of Art, the spectacular murals capture the hearts of all who visit this National Tourism Award-winning station.

Autumn-railway

Royapuram, Tamil Nadu – The very first train to run in South India rolled out of Chennai’s Royapuram station in the monsoon of 1856 and travelled to the town of Arcot in Vellore district. Royapuram was southern India’s first station, in what was then known as the Madras Presidency. The original structure still stands today, making it the oldest functional railway station in the country. The simple red-and-white colonial building with grand Corinthian pillars is a heritage structure. The station underwent extensive restoration in 2005.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Maharashtra – Without a doubt CST is Mumbai city’s busiest railway station. But the metropolitan city’s transport hub is also a UNESCO World Heritage structure and one of the best examples of Gothic Revival architecture in India. Gargoyles jut out of the high walls of this 19th-century masterpiece; they often spout water from their mouths during the monsoon. A high-arched ceiling painted with golden stars covers the ticket counter, while statues and carvings of peacocks, tigers, and other wildlife cover walls and crevices. An octagonal ribbed dome atop the structure is its crowning glory. Known as Victoria Terminus until 1996, CST is an arterial city station, one which took almost a decade to build.

Charbagh Railway Station, Uttar Pradesh – The city of nawabs welcomes passengers in style at the splendid red-and-white Charbagh Railway Station. Built in 1914, the sprawling structure blends Mughal and Rajasthani architecture, and overlooks a huge garden located outside its front entrance. It was here, under the station’s cupola-studded structure, that Jawaharlal Nehru is said to have first met Mahatma Gandhi in 1916. In aerial views, the structure with its small and large domes resembles a chessboard laid out with pieces.

Charbagh Railway Station, Uttar Pradesh

Charbagh Railway Station, Uttar Pradesh

Howrah Junction, West Bengal – With a mindboggling 23 platforms, this is one of the busiest stations in India. A melee of bookshops, tea stalls, and fast-food stands provide succour to passengers. This is one of the oldest stations in India, and the first train from Howrah ran on 15 August 1854, to Hooghly. It was the proverbial feather in the cap for British engineers, representing a new era in the colonial dream of expansion. Located on the banks of the Hooghly River, with the Howrah bridge leading up to its cherry-red facade, the station has starred in many a poster shot promoting the state. Its architecture is a mix of Romanesque and traditional Bengali styles, very much in sync with its surroundings.

Discover The Portrait Of The Unforgettable Dublin

DUBLIN WRITERS MUSEUM – Letters, rare editions, portraits, and other memorabilia from the likes of Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett fill this 18th-century mansion. The Michelin-starred restaurant Chapter One occupies its basement level.

JAMES JOYCE CENTRE – Far from a stuffy memorial to the literary cult figure, the centre hosts weekly Joyce-themed walks, spearheads the annual Bloomsday festival, and welcomes guest readers as starry as Stephen Fry.

TRINITY COLLEGE – Take a student-guided walking tour around this prestigious 16th-century university, home to the largest library in Ireland and the illuminated ninth-century Gospel manuscript, the Book of Kells.

TRINITY COLLEGE

TRINITY COLLEGE

SWENY’S PHARMACY – Daily Joyce readings take place at this former pharmacy where Ulysses’ Leopold Bloom famously buys lemon-seen ted soap.

PATRICK’S – Dublin’s 13th-century cathedral, one of the city’s few remaining medieval buildings, is a pilgrimage spot for fans of satirist and poet Jonathan Swift, who was also a dean of the cathedra.

NATIONAL LIBRARY OF IRELAND – Its holdings include the largest collection of W. B. Yeats manuscripts in the world, donated by the Yeats family.

Kurseong: The Place Where Tea Experiments Make The Rules

The wispy trails rising from my cup carry the aroma of muscatel that is distinctive of Darjeeling tea. I sip the amber liquid. The tea has a smoky flavour punctuated by a second aroma: a fresh, woodsy smell coming from a thin strip of green at the bottom of the cup. On cue, a lanky young man strides towards me from a counter in the dining room. “It is lemongrass,” he explains. “The delicate essence always complements the strong notes of a pure Darjeeling second flush.”

I am at Cochrane Place, a 19th-century bungalow in Kurseong, in North Bengal, 30 kilometres south of its more glamorous neighbour, Darjeeling. The heritage stay is a charming mishmash of cosy wooden cabins, expensive art, and tea-themed whatnots. Laltu Purkait, the ponytailed man now animatedly explaining the nuances of Darjeeling tea to me, is the resident tea blender. From his tea salon behind the patio, he concocts exotic fusions—the pale golden first flush or the tawny second flush brewed to perfection from the finest leaves from local tea gardens, blended with an assortment of spices and fruits. Two of his special brews won him the Times Now Best Foodie Award in 2011.

Tea-Estate-kurseong

For me, visiting Kurseong—a 19th-century colonial hill station known for its tea and orchids—is a bit of a home coming as I cherish fond memories of the summer holidays I spent in my uncle’s house here. The pleasant walks through pine groves on St Mary’s Hill above the town, and the toy train rides past quaint homes and churches have remained much the same. And my early introduction to the world of “champagne” teas grown in the gardens of Makaibari, Castleton, and Ambootia, the region’s three most famous estates, has bloomed into a lifelong addiction.

Perched on a ridge, Cochrane Place seems to be stuck in time. Once the home of Sir Percy John Cochrane, a Raj-era magistrate, Cochrane Place has changed hands a few times since those days, including being owned by the royal family of Burdwan. Dhiraj Arora, a Kolkata businessman and current owner, has restored it to its former stone, log, and cast-iron splendour. In the evening, guests flock to Laltu’s salon. When I’m there, he’s serving up four tea fusion shots, in between rounds of masala chai for a group of visitors, and chocolate tea for the kids. A plate of cookies is kept as a palate cleanser. The first one is Laltu’s favourite—apple cinnamon tea. It’s expectedly fruity with two ultra-thin slices of apple floating on top. But the tell-tale flavour of a high quality second flush is unmistakable.

The second shot is a delicious blend of Darjeeling autumn brewed with crushed orange peel. The third cocktail, an Irish Tea redolent with the taste of fresh caramel disappoints me, because it overwhelms the subtle first flush used to make it. The fourth shot wins with its mature textures of second flush tea interwoven with intense notes of chopped betel leaf. The tastes of clove, cardamom, and fennel seeds linger on my palate long after the last swallow. I have always considered myself a puritan when it comes to tea. But the quirky blends made me consider this innovative way to contemporize the drink. “We have taken things a little forward here,” says Laltu, “keeping in mind a beautiful fact about tea: it absorbs the flavour of almost anything.”

Kurseong

Early next morning I set off towards the sprawling, mist-drenched terraces of Makaibari, the world’s first tea factory established in 1859- Since its inception until very recently, the gardens were owned by the Banerjee family. Rajah Banerjee, the present chairman, continues his family’s legacy with the biodynamic practices that he has introduced in order to grow top-quality organic tea. It is spring, and harvest season on the manicured emerald slopes. Women sporting headscarves or broad-brimmed hats roam the hillside, plucking two leaves and a bud, tossing them into the wicker baskets on their backs. I take a quick tour of the Makaibari factory where tea is withered, rolled, dried, sorted, and packaged. My guide Ravi Gurung, whose family has worked in the tea gardens for four generations, invites me to his home for a cuppa.

Ravi’s modest wooden hut has a battered bench under a flowering rhododendron tree. I sit there, looking across the valley to the grey outline of the hills, capped by the jumble of Kurseong’s buildings. Ravi hands me a porcelain cup. As I take my first sip, a sharp, tangy flavour invades my taste buds, but the pungent bitterness is soon overridden by the delicate floral strains of first flush tea. “This is a blend of passion fruit with the season’s first harvest,” Ravi answers my questioning glance. I am incredulous about how he has retained the flavour of the leaf, given the strong sweet-sour flavour of passion fruit. Clearly the chemistry of tea is complicated, and those who have mastered it, are able to create strange and interesting combinations.

Discover Entertainment In The Philippines

At this very moment, a good number of the 12 million people in Metro Manila are craving sour. Manilenos bite into a tart, crisp slice of green mango dabbed with fermented shrimp paste for an afternoon snack. They slurp a hearty bowl of tamarind soup at a Sunday after-church lunch. They crunch fried fish dipped in chilli-spiked palm vinegar at a cafeteria-style turo-turo, where customers simply point (turn) at their dish of choice. Sour appears on menus everywhere in the Philippines. Each dish has a distinct taste and degree of tanginess based on the region and the season.

In Manila, sour can be found both at a design-centric restaurant in the financial district of Makati and at a Baclaran carinderia, a food stall where jeepney and pedicab drivers sit on benches for a meal and a break from the city’s paralyzing traffic. When nature handed this Southeast Asian country lemons—and a tropical bounty of other acidic fruits—the Filipinos made lemonade. And ceviche. And sour fried chicken. That last dish appears on the menu at Kafe Batwan, in Makati. Chef J.P. Anglo pays homage to his roots on Negros, the fourth largest of the Philippines’ 7,107-plus islands, by featuring the native batwan, a hard fruit smaller than a lime. Anglo marinates the chicken in batwan juice, coconut vinegar, and lemon grass salt, then fries it crisp for a surprisingly delicious twist.

 Kafe Batwan

Kafe Batwan

The stairs leading up to a second-floor dining room showcase bottles of spicy homemade vinegar and Don Papa, a small-batch rum named after the shaman and revolutionary who in 1896 freed from the Spaniards the island of Negros, where this sugarcane product is distilled. “Sourness is the main flavour that distinguishes us from other Asian cuisines,” says Amy Besa, cookbook author and co-owner of Purple Yam in Manila’s buzzing retail district of Malate. Located in Besa’s ancestral home, the restaurant displays original artworks by acclaimed Filipino modernist Botong Francisco, Besa’s godfather.

Besa and her husband, chef Romy Dorotan, alternate between Manila and Brooklyn, where the original Purple Yam has drawn fans of the couple’s fresh and elegantly updated Filipino dishes since 2009 (and before that at their now shuttered SoHo restaurant, Cendrillon). “The holy trinity of native Filipino foods,” says Besa, is adobo, sinigang (a tamarind soup or stew), and kinilaw (a cured seafood dish similar to ceviche). “All three dishes are cooked and eaten by all classes of society from the very rich to the very poor,” she says. Dorotan’s recipe for chicken adobo—meat braised in rice vinegar, garlic, pepper, and coconut milk—is possibly the most published and shared of all Filipino adobos.

Many Filipinos believe that imbibing a steaming sour soup, such as sinigang, helps cool the body—and whet the appetite. Chefs Isaiah Ortega and Korinne Lirio-Ortega believe in the power of sour soup so much that they opened Sinigang restaurant in BF Homes Paranaque, a well-off Manila neighbourhood that has seen numerous restaurants open in the past year. Prior to the restaurant’s launch, Ortega read up on all things sinigang and travelled the provinces. He says he found “more than 20 different souring agents used for sinigang,” including pineapple, herbs, tree bark, and others he’d never heard of such as libas (hog plum), bignay (Chinese laurel), and katmon (elephant apple). The Ortegas had the sour fruits shipped to Manila in sacks.

Relaxing Holidays in Tropical Paradise.Philippines Island.

Relaxing Holidays in Tropical Paradise.Philippines Island.

Patrick Roa’s food awakening happened during his search for the best ceviche. “I can make you 50 kinds of ceviche, if you want,” Roa says. He and his wife, Pia Temporal Roa, opened Patricio’s Cevicheria in Fort Bonifacio to share his findings. The Roas also serve Hawaiian -poke and regional Filipino kinilaw. Their superstar dish: kinilaw de Oro, fresh tuna cured in coconut vinegar with fruits and roots indigenous to the region around Cagayan de Oro, where Patrick grew up.

Whether you’re dining at Harbour Square with a view of Manila Bay or meeting for lunch in the posh Rockwell Center area of Makati, it’s perfectly natural to ask the servers for some fish sauce (patis) to accompany your meal. This will come on a small plate with a sweet-sour calamansi (Philippine lime) and one little red hot pepper slit in the middle to let you temper the heat. “The ritual of sawsawan (dipping sauce) is an important part of meals,” says Pia Lim-Castillo, who teaches cooking at her home kitchen in Forbes Park, Makati. “By adjusting the sauce, the eater partakes in the cooking.”

Segovia’s Stone Behemoth: A Paradise Of History And Magic

As I set out of my hotel onto Segovia’s sunny streets, a Roman aqueduct looms ahead of me, making the signposts to it redundant. I walk alongside it, following the arches and touching the cool stones. I was expecting something grander. After all, this structure in central Spain was built by the ancient Romans, and I had imagined that their public works were on the same scale as the Colosseum, and the many temples, baths, and amphitheatres that still stand across Europe.

I turn right towards Segovia’s historic Old Town, and suddenly, I am not disappointed any more. The Old Town and the Aqueduct together are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Standing before me in the Plaza del Azoguejo is the “monumental” stretch of the Aqueduct: 128 stone pillars topped off by two tiers of arches, all built by stacking massive blocks of granite acquired from the nearby Guadarrama Mountains. The entire structure is built without mortar; only the equilibrium of forces holds the huge granite blocks together.

aqueduct-of-segovia

Many Roman aqueducts, designed to bring water from springs and rivers to cities and towns, still survive across the erstwhile Roman Empire. However, the Segovia Aqueduct is one of the few that still stands in all its glory; at its tallest, it measures 92 feet. Segovia is a tiny town, less than a hundred kilometres from Spain’s capital Madrid. Its charming terracotta and sandstone houses provide a picturesque backdrop to several historical monuments, such as the Alcazar or royal palace, the massive Gothic cathedral, and Romanesque churches of various  sizes. But the most stunning of its monuments is the remarkably preserved 17-kilometre-long Aqueduct.

Mariano, my guide for the day, tells me the Aqueduct was in use until the mid-19th century. The old quarter of Segovia which includes an 813-metre section of the Aqueduct was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. “The Aqueduct is a protected monument now, but as a child I remember seeing cars driving in and out of these arches,” Mariano laughs. The structure was likely built to tap water from the River Frio in the late 1st or early 2nd century AD., by Roman troops who were sent to conquer the area and eventually settled here. Local legend has its own version of the Aqueduct’s creation story, linked to Christianity. It talks of how a young Segovian water carrier who was tired of carrying her pitcher through the town’s steep streets, made a deal with the devil. He could take her soul if he could bring water to her home before daybreak. The devil began building the Aqueduct, but as the rooster crowed, he was just one stone short of completing the structure, and so was unable to take her soul. The holes visible on the stones are said to be the devil’s fingerprints.

Leaving the Aqueduct behind, Mariano and I walk northwest for about ten minutes to reach Plaza Mayor, the main square, dominated by the Cathedral of Segovia. This was the last Gothic cathedral to be built in Spain, in the mid-16th century. I’m awestruck by its size, and find it difficult to fit the entire structure in my camera frame. The bell tower soars to nearly 90 metres and there are numerous, intricately carved spires rising up from every conceivable corner. The relative austerity inside is surprising; I was expecting something more opulent. After a look around the cathedral’s museum, which houses a superb collection of paintings, tapestries and rare manuscripts, Mariano and I walk through the narrow alleys of Segovia to another of its crowning jewels—the Alcazar.

Cathedral of Segovia

Cathedral of Segovia

As we near the moat, the castle fortress comes into view, and I’m reminded of the Walt Disney logo. It turns out that the castle is said to be one of the inspirations for Cinderella’s castle at Walt Disney World, Florida. The fairytale palace stands on a rocky crag at the confluence of two rivers. It was built between the 12th and 13th centuries as a royal residence for Castilian kings. Its towers, turrets and sharp slate spires were built over different periods of time, giving the castle a part Romanesque, part Moorish feel. The fortress houses an artillery museum and opulently decorated rooms.

The Gallery Room with its ornate ceiling, shaped like an upside down ship’s hull catches my eye. So does the Monarehs’ Room, with its golden frieze depicting Spain’s kings and queens. I climb one of the towers and survey the Spanish countryside, feeling very much like Isabella I of Castile, who lived in the castle, and was one of the most influential queens in Spanish history. Later, I return to the Plaza del Azoguejo for a cup of coffee. The late afternoon sun casts a warm glow over the Aqueduct. I marvel at the skill of Roman engineers who knew exactly how to pile stones without mortar to build a magnificent structure that has withstood the ravages of time.