Wednesday, November 13, 2013

SOUTH INDIA


January 2013: Tamil Nadu and a taste of Kerala
We two big white guys were greeted warmly all over Tamil Nadu. I can’t think of another place where I felt so welcome. The temples will amaze you, the food is excellent, there’s some lovely palm tree/rice paddy landscape between the honking, squealing, vibrating towns and cities.
Our trip was 25 days. I tried to keep travel time between hotels under 3 hours, and stay at least 2 nights in each place. We traveled by public bus and private car with driver (never think of renting your own car). Bus fares are startlingly cheap—about 30 cents per hour of travel time. Private cars (we always looked for the old fashioned and comfortable Ambassadors) ranged from $10 to  $15/hour of driving time. Remember if you’re going one way, you must calculate the return expenses.
We began in Chennai, then on to Pondecherry, Chidambaram, Kombakonam, (morning drive to Gangakondaicholapuram) Tanjore, with stops at Swamamalai and Darasuram en route to Trichy. We splurged at the Bengala Hotel in Karaikudi (Chettinad region), spent 4 days in Madurai, then drove up a thousand curves to reach Kodaikanal, a hill station—the only place we didn’t like much on this trip. A 10-hour car trip (not recommended) got us to Kochi/Ernakulum from Kodaikanal, a soft landing in Kerala, our final stop in India. The Chennai to Madurai portion of this itinerary worked very well. Madurai is a big hub with good connections.
Finding hotels: We wanted flexibility, so we only made reservations for our late arrival in Chennai and at the Bengala (it fills up). Otherwise we’d just arrive and look for a place up to $60 a night, but we often spent half that. Hotels at all prices vary greatly—one can by a filthy sty, the next clean and simple. Always check out a few.
Visit temples after dark as well as in daylight—two very different worlds.
Anyplace you arrive in the mid-day sun will seem awful. Wait till sundown to pass judgment.
Chennai is a rough start for a pleasure trip. The center of town in mid-day heat is onerous, the noise and traffic require all your attention. After much research, I chose to stay in Mylapore, a quieter neighborhood in the south near the big Kapaleeshwarar temple.  We also liked the tranquil Ramkrishna Mutt Temple nearby.
We stayed at www.executivecomfort.com in Mylapore. The hotel was comfortable, if a bit bland—very helpful owners.
If you want to stay in the thick of downtown, the Galaxy Guest House was cheap and clean (21/9 Tippu Street, Mount Road (near Ellis Street).
www.storytrails.in  Storytrails offers a good tour of Mylapore.
We passed by Mamallapuram, south of Chennai, but many have recommended it. If you really didn’t want to deal with big city Chennai—you can skip it if your time is limited--you can get directly from the airport to Mamallapuram.
We took a comfortable bus (meaning separate seats, not benches) to Pondicherry (3 hours). Be sure you check bus schedule carefully—it appears there might be 2 stations, one for funkier buses.
Bus tip: avoid the end seat—half your butt gets pushed off.
Pondicherry was controlled by the French until the 1950’s and they left many colonial buildings near the beach that are slowly being turned into hotels, shops, restaurants, and homes for expats. It felt like a work in progress. Known as ‘la ville blanche’, it is pretty and quiet and has some lovely places to stay. We left after one night and moved to the grittier ‘ville noir’ which we enjoyed more. This is a good town for bike riding ($1 a day) and a visit to an Ayurvedic spa. We biked the coast road north a few miles and felt like we’d entered rural India. We were struck by the post-apocalyptic Botanical Garden—truly odd.
We stayed one night at the lovely Les Hibiscus, and 3 more at the Hotel Corbelli, in the midst of the lively downtown area.
We ate 3 times at Virundhi, Chetty Rd. 85, just off MG Road—a food highlight of our trip.
The bus to our next stop, Chidambaram, took about 2.5 hours in an uncomfortable vehicle. I decided my limit for bus travel (unless I could guarantee a real seat, not always available here) was three hours—for anything longer I’d spring for a car & driver.
Chidambaram is famous for the Nataraja Temple, devoted to Shiva the dancer. The 6pm puja ceremony was our first, unforgettable foray into Hindu ritual, where religion and theater mix so perfectly.
What I enjoyed most in Chidabaram was walking the streets of the residential areas outside the temple walls. It was where I first encountered the crazy contemporary houses I took so many photos of. https://picasaweb.google.com/104722146490116474060/ArchitectureTamilNadu
We stayed at the Hotel Saradharam, http://www.hotelsaradharam.co.in/ which is probably your best bet here. The shampoo was amazing!
Kumbakonam is funky but appealing, and boasts several impressive temples. We stayed at the Athityaa Hotel on the main road—not great, but we didn’t see many options here. We later found the Rayas Hotel, which looks like a better bet. http://www.hotelrayas.com/. Don’t neglect a walk around the neighborhoods beyond the temples.
We hired a driver for half a day, stopping at Darusaram and Swamimalai temples en route to Tanjore.
Tanjore (Thanjavur) was the only stop I did not much care for, although the massive Brihadishwara Temple is worth a visit (less so the Royal Palace, unless you’re a big Chola bronze fan). Stay at the Hotel Gnanam.
Trichy (Tiruchuchirippalli) is in two parts, about 5 miles apart. The guidebooks lead you to Trichy Junction where buses arrive—lots of hotels, but it’s an awful area. We stayed one night and moved to the old town. The Rock Fort (for the views), Sri Ranganathaswamy and Srirangam temples are the big sights here. But I fell for Trichy walking through small back alley neighborhoods. Big Bazaar Road between Rock Fort and Ghandi market has dozens of small roads leading off both ways—explore here. It was the highlight of the trip. Also visit Hazrat Nathervali Dargah (Muslim shrine)—another great area to walk around.
Hotels: if you’re stuck at Trichy Junction, stay at the Femina. We stayed at the Hotel Royal Sathyam in the old town, rooms a bit small, but good choice (there isn’t much), funny exterior.
Karaikudi (Chettinad region): I’d read about the unusual architecture here—thousands of mansions built by rich merchants about a century ago, now in varying states of neglect. Our splurge stay (bill came to about $200/day with everything) at The Bengala was worth it. Take the house tour with Mina and see where the hotel’s owner lives. It’s known for its food, which was very good, but I felt they must have toned it down for foreigners. Wandering around the residential streets behind the hotel was a highlight.
Madurai: Do not miss the Sri Meenakshi Temple—we went back 4 times, as it’s always a changing show. Be sure to go after dark!  We spent 5 nights in Madurai and walked a lot of the city, which I am happy to know but it can be grey. Best walking streets are east of the temple in the spice market area. Recommended excursion: Thirupparankundram  (Subramanya) temple is 8Km out of town.
Most of the inexpensive hotels are clustered in one area, and there are good restaurants here, too. I checked out 4 hotels from LP and Rough Guide and the Golden Park won out. A bit upscale choice would be the Madurai Residency or the Royal Court Madurai. Have drinks (but not food) on the rooftop bar of the Hotel Supreme, or the wacky basement sci-fi lounge.
Kodaikanal: A driver took us to this hill town. Beautiful views (lots of haze), but the town is a dump. Forget it.
One mistake: a 10-hour car ride (they told us 7) from Kodaikanal to Ernakulum. It was hard to figure out where to break up the trip. Next time I’d choose Munnar or Thrissur, or fly somewhere from Madurai.
Ernakulum / Ft. Kochin
Kerala felt like ‘India Light’ after Tamil Nadu. It’s calmer, quieter, cleaner, a bit less exciting and not so exuberantly friendly. The capital of Kerala is divided in parts strewn over a large bay connected by frequent ferry service. We spent 3 days in Ernakulum, the newer, less touristy side, and 3 days in Ft. Cochin, which has lots of boutique hotels, shops and restaurants.
In Ernakulum, We stayed at the Manak Lodge, cheap and central, on Shanmugham Road near the tourist office. We saw this nice homestay in a quiet residential area of Ernakulum—http://www.nyasaresidency.com which I would probably choose next time. The Abad Hotel on M.G. Road was recommended by fellow travellers who knew the town. www.abadhotels.com
Ernakulum has better Indian food, the excellent Kerala Folklore Museum, and a Kathakali dance theater. It’s not particularly beautiful, but it feels like a ‘real’ city as opposed to Ft. Kochin, which is pretty touristy, although charming. Through the tourist office here we arranged a backwaters tour in a small wooden pole boat (there were 4 other tourists on the boat, from Calcutta)—wonderful!
Good food at Ceylon Bake House on M.G.Road—we went twice. The Grand Hotel has a famous restaurant, but we were not overly impressed—except with the swanky crowd.
The sights in Ft. Kochin pale in comparison with those of Tamil Nadu (more Christian churches than Hindu temples here), but the place is charming and peaceful—another planet after Tamil Nadu. Be sure to rent a bike and ramble. Go shopping (block print fabric items) at Anokhi. .http://www.anokhi.com/.  You’ll find good bookstores here too.
Hotel in Kochin: Spencer Home (I didn’t stay here, but checked out several places and it looked best in the $40-60 range). There are several 5-star places in town.

IMPORTANT: The airport is an hour from Ft. Cochin, without traffic. —it’s closer to Ernakulum—so leave plenty of time to get there.

Links to our photos:  https://plus.google.com/photos/104722146490116474060/albums/5843173600112635313?banner=pwa&authkey=CPnD98rh5bDfzgE

and: https://picasaweb.google.com/104722146490116474060/ArchitectureTamilNadu





Sunday, November 10, 2013

MERIDA

The offer from Interjet airlines was too good to pass up--1200 pesos round trip to Merida.
(Sign up on their website www.interjet.com.mx to receive notifications of sales.)
I had visited once before, about 15 years ago, and had a so-so time--Nick was down with a
miserable cold, the weather was stifling, and the main square was full of bulldozers ripping the
place apart. This time was better.

Friends had offered us the use of their house, just three blocks from the main plaza. Over the past 10 years (mostly) foreigners have been buying up old, often abandoned, houses and fixing them up (see NYTimes article). Staying at their lovely home, with its 18-foot ceilings, tiled floors, beautiful old woodwork, and small pool was the highlight of the trip. You can find rentals on www.airbnb.com and www.VRBO.com. Get one with a pool--we jumped in every time we got home.

Walking around looking at old architecture is my favorite thing, and Merida has several lovely plazas to explore--don't miss Calle 64 between La Ermita and the St. Juan churches. There is a weekly house tour (it started the week after our trip!)--see link: http://www.meridaenglishlibrary.com/tours.htm.
Watch out for the traffic here--it felt more oppressive than Mexico City, as cars and buses speed through the narrow streets.

We went to the new Gran Museo del Mundo Maya--big disappointment. The building, inconveniently located in the far north of the city (cabs are expensive here) is impressive, but the collection is second-rate, at best, and the museum design is overbearing--lots of computer screens to touch and recorded voices in every room babbling on. I hated it. The Anthropology Museum (Paseo de Montejo and Calle 43) has a better (although small) collection of Mayan artifacts and the setting, in a old mansion, is impressive. See: http://www.yucatantoday.com/en/topics/museums-merida

Of course we went to the market, as we always do, on the first day. It's not far from the main square
(corner of calles 56A & 67). You'll find some intriguing Yucatecan antojitos here like colados (a creamy tamale), paunchos, and salutes. People are friendly.

Day trips: We rented a car (there are lots of agencies in the centro--500 pesos a day) and drove to Valladolid where we spent the night at the comfy old El Meson de Marques, right on the main plaza. It's pueblo magico, lovely if a bit dull. It's near Chichen Itzรก, another disappointment, due to the presence of trinket sellers everywhere--right up to the ruins themselves. We had a much better Mayan ruin experience at Ek Balam, about 30 minutes north of Valladolid. On our previous trip we had been to Uxmal, which I would recommend (unless they've trashed that one, too).

The other highlight was taking a refreshing dip in a cenote--there are many all over the Yucatan, just keep an eye out for signs.

Closer to Merida--less than one hour--is Izamal, a beautiful colonial town where every building is painted a rich yellow ochre.

Nick was working on this trip. His food tips will be on www.chowzter.com  soon.
I enjoyed the food at Chaya Maya (two branches--the one near Plaza Santa Lucia is in a pretty old house). By far the best meal I had was at Los Dos cooking school. We had a special invitation to lunch after class--not something the general public can do. But judging by what I had, and the happy reaction of the students I met, I would recommend taking a class here.
The high end restaurant Kuuk, was recommended but we ran out of time. Likewise Rosas y Xocholate.