I have been travelling to India for almost 25 years now, and it is fair to say that I have seen a few changes over the years. I have seen this country dynamically shift in some ways, and in other ways not. I mean India still has masses of terribly poor people eking out a living from day to day, and admittedly, the very-poor have always existed alongside the super-rich. If you go to any major city like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, or Chennai, you will see the slums and the skyscrapers together.
However, what is different now here in the 21st Century, is the emerging middle class, the young, ICT literate and upwardly mobile – that generation of Millennials that have reached adulthood. This was never more evidenced than when I was riding the Metro in Delhi last year. Smartly dressed young men and women absorbed with their smartphones, as interconnected and aware as the rest of us on planet earth.
Delhi’s Metro is ever expanding and easy to use. Colour coded footprints on the walkways help direct you to the right lines; it really is a thing of beauty and an enormous asset for all city dwellers. Sprawling out like a spider’s web across the nation’s capital it transports the young and beautiful, and the not so young and beautiful to wherever they so choose.
My friend Varun, from Varanasi but now living in Delhi with his family, remarked that once you’re inside the Metro system, it’s like being in the UK. However, the moment you emerge, you are back in India again. I knew exactly what he meant; the metro is relatively new and modern and yet when you come out it’s almost like you have been in a time warp, because you are back to the rickshaw wallahs, the roadside vendors, the noise, heat, and pollution. But this is always the way that India has been – rich and poor living side by side.
This is a vastly different story from when I first arrived in India back in November 1995. There was certainly no metro and the preferred method of transport was nearly always an auto-rickshaw, or an old ambassador taxi. But I guess now in this age of climate change, something had to give, because as you will know if you have ever visited Delhi, the smog there is fairly legendary. In fact, at times, it will bring the whole city to a halt because the visibility becomes so poor.
I always knew that air pollution was going to be a challenge for this emerging economic giant. The moment our 400 ton 747 landed with a heavy thud at Indira Gandhi International at Delhi, and its tyres screeched and smoked along the runway tarmac, I could smell the definite bitter, poisonous tang of heavy smog in the air. I cannot say that the air quality has massively improved since then, but with initiatives like greener, less polluting auto-rickshaws and the Delhi’s dazzling metro, things are sure to improve over time.
Rain, lots and lots of it. In fact, it was endless, and Sigra Road outside our hotel was rapidly becoming a river. It was September, and we were in Varanasi, North India, in the back end of the monsoon season. Clearly, all the locals were not bothered by it as everybody just carried on, even though by this time the street outside was under 1-2 feet of water.
Big, thick, deafening rain just kept falling out of the sky; heavily, incessantly, and persistently as we watched from the relative shelter of the Hotel Padmini, just around the corner from my friend’s house. I had never seen weather like it in the UK, and I was at once filled with excitement, awe and wonder at nature’s power to bring everything to a grinding halt.
The drainage along the road just could not cope. Too much water, too quickly with no let up. People were getting off motorbikes and pushing. Auto-rickshaws also could not withstand the deluge, and their beleaguered drivers had to dismount and physically force their vehicles through the dirty, brown water.
Cars broke down and again had to be propelled by human effort. But no one gave up, they just got out, got off and put their backs into it because that is what you do in this part of the world. You don’t let something simple like a massive weather system stop you from going about your daily business here.
Geneva, in Switzerland, is a short flight from Heathrow, and consequently, is easily accessible from the United Kingdom or anywhere in Europe. It was my first time exploring this beautiful country, and I was not disappointed at all. Geneva itself, hugging the shores of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), is a fairly cosmopolitan place by all accounts. But then, what would you expect from the city that is home to both the Red Cross and the United Nations? The Jura mountains provide a stunning backdrop to this lakeside metropolis, and the city itself is interesting enough with plenty of areas to explore.
Like in any city, street cafés abound where you can unreservedly indulge in a spot of people watching. Witness meetings between businessmen, couples enjoying each other’s company or maybe a pair of Swiss girls chatting excitedly in French in between cigarettes and food. To me, this is travel. It’s not just the places that you see but the people you meet.
Before you go anywhere though, pop into the Swiss tourism office in downtown Geneva. I found the staff, especially Anna who just paid a visit to London herself, very pleasant and helpful. Bulk up on useful local info about this city on a lake, grab yourself a city pass which will discount a number of activities for you, and of course a free map on which the staff will indicate key places though the useful application of a biro. Chris, my travel buddy, and I emerged ready to explore Geneva’s altogether lovely and engaging tourist offering.
OUT & ABOUT
Bus Tour: No city break would be complete without the ubiquitous bus tour. This particular bus tour was informative and interesting but sadly not open-topped. C’est la vie… can’t have it all I guess. The bus will whisk you around various points of interest, including of course the UN quarter of the city, home to various wings of this world-famous organisation: UNESCO, UNICEF, UNHCR and of course the UN building itself. The final part of the tour is conducted, rather uniquely, on a land train down some of the more narrow streets.
The Saleve: If you fancy something a little different, why not try a mini excursion up to The Saleve. A mini massif, just over the border in France, it affords amazing views across Lake Geneva and the city itself. Take a bus to the terminus, walk across the French border and ascend via a cable car to enjoy unparalleled views of the landscape below. It is well worth the effort indeed.
Boat Tour: No visit to Geneva is complete without taking a boat across, or around Lac Leman. It will certainly give you a different perspective on the city, and the boat tour I took was included in the price of the city pass.
Walking Tour of the Old City: This is also well worth doing. Old Geneva is fascinating, interesting and of course historic. You can wander around the old streets of Geneva, and in fact you should do – it’s immensely satisfying and relaxing. Strolling at your own pace, you can simply take in the sights and sounds of the old city. This is what holidaying is all about surely? We opted for the walking tour with an audio guide which was great. All the info you need right there in your hand and you can take things at your own pace. Perfect.
THE DAY WE WENT TO LAUSANNE
Well, it had to be done didn’t it? Hopped on a train we did and headed for that ultra-Swiss town of Lausanne. A train ride along the shores of sparkling Lac Leman on one side with row after row of vineyards on the other will bring you to this mini metropolis by the water. Like Geneva, Lausanne is interesting, historic and engaging. A climb up to the cathedral is well worth it (for the cathedral itself and the panoramic views across the city itself), so make sure that you include that in your tour, however brief.
We even found time for a jaunty boat ride across to Evian, the home of spring water, on the French side of the lake. We didn’t really have the time to disembark, but the journey was worthwhile nonetheless. As we headed back, Lausanne loomed large on the horizon. Soon enough we found ourselves sat outside café & bar drinking a local brew. Like I say, travelling is all about the people that you meet and soon enough we found ourselves chatting to Pete and his buddies.
Turns out that Pete was from Cardiff, but had found himself in Lausanne some twenty years ago, met a girl and never left. Well there’s a story that has been repeated a few times around the world I should imagine. Pete seemed quite content with his life as an English teacher who regularly topped up his wages by busking on the street. Well, Switzerland is an expensive country you know. Soon, we were joined by his friend Christine and I somehow managed to end up paying for her drink. A chance encounter with the locals (ex-pats included); now that is travel.
THEN WE WENT TO GSTAAD…
On the final day of our trip, we decided to leave the sparkling shores of Lake Geneva, and head on up to the majesty that is the Bernese Oberland. We skirted by Lausanne, heading purposefully for Montreux where we would change trains and start the long climb through the beautiful Alpine meadows that are so typical of this part of the world. One Swiss chalet after another seemed to float by, as the train carried us inexorably up and up towards our destination. Eventually we arrived in Gstaad which according to my learned friend was an uber-posh Ski resort. However, since it was early April, it was a deserted uber-posh ski resort.
After a quick visit to the tourist information centre, we were directed to the PostBus nearby that would transport us to the Aerial Cableway (very large cable car). The cable car runs every 20 minutes and takes approximately 15 minutes to reach the snowy peaks and ski runs of Glacier 3000. Halfway up, we stopped briefly only to be joined by a horde a skiers and snowboarders (unsurprisingly) and we were suddenly feeling very under-dressed.
Actually, as we emerged at the top of Glacier 3000 Snowpark, I definitely was under-dressed because I was, well, basically freezing. However, the views are simply stunning and literally take your breath away (sorry about the cliché). Prepared to be dazzled by an array of no less than 24 x 4000m peaks including the Eiger, the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. If you’re feeling daring and not afraid of heights, navigate the spectacular Peak Walk by Tissot between two summits – it is stunning. For more information on all this, check out the Swiss tourism website: https://www.myswitzerland.com/en-gb/destinations/glacier-3000/
No doubt there is much more you can do in this wonderful country, but I don’t think that is half bad as a starter for 10, don’t you? I invite you to come and explore Geneva, Lausanne, Lac Leman, Gstaad and the beautiful, stunning, incomparable Bernese Oberland. You’ll definitely be coming back for more!
Delhi, with a population of more than of 25 million, is one of the mega cities of South Asia. And if you haven’t been yet, then you really should go. I’ve flown into the nation’s capital more times than I can remember, and yet it still retains a certain magnetism for me. Delhi is an ideal place to start your exploration of India, because there are so many other places within relatively easy reach. However, before you start trekking the length and breadth of India, stay a few days in the city and see what it has to offer.
However, here’s my recommended ‘must see’ list. I hope you find it helpful
The Rashtrapati Bhavan, otherwise known as the Presidential House, was designed by the renowned British architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens in the early 20th century. Built originally for the Viceroy, it now houses the President of India. Built from red and cream sandstone, it is striking in it’s appearance and makes a good starting point for your tour. Bordered by government offices on either side of Rajpath, you can simply view the Rashtrapati Bhavan through the black iron gates, and the tall Jaipur Column that stands sentinel in the foreground. Or, you can arrange to explore the presidential buildings, grounds and gardens by visiting: https://presidentofindia.gov.in/rbvisit/rbvisit.aspx
The construction of this red sandstone tower was completed in 1193 by the Delhi’s first Muslim ruler, Qutb-ud-din Aibak. It was built to commemorate his military victories, and standing at 73 m it is definitely worth a look-see. Once upon a time you could actually go inside and climb to the top, but when a stampede killed 45 people inside the tower during a power failure in 1981, it was closed to the public. Continued fears for public safety have kept the interior closed to this day because of the sheer height of the tower.
But you can still experience it’s impressive dimensions, and marvel at this neck craning piece of ancient architecture at ground level. With some interesting ruins and delightful gardens to explore, it’s definitely worth asking your driver to apply the handbrake. Don’t forget to call into the government emporiums during your tour to pick up those all important quality souvenirs, although you will buy cheaper from street vendors.
Lal Qila, the Red Fort, was completed in 1648 by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, in what is now called Old Delhi. This same emperor commissioned the Taj Mahal at Agra in memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz. You cannot fail to be impressed by its lofty sandstone walls and battlements, which stand as mute testimony to the ruling Muslim dynasty across Northern India at that time. Accessible from Netaji Subhash Marg, the road running past the front entrance, the fort sits on the banks of the Yamuna River to the rear.
Worthy of your exploration, you can easily while away an hour or two roaming around the museums and fort grounds. Visit http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/231 for more info. Be aware that every tourist hot spot tends to attract a myriad of street sellers flogging every souvenir conceivable. If you are not interested, just say no or if you like, then barter!
The Lotus Temple
The Bahá’í House of worship is built in the shape of a lotus flower, and was opened in 1986. Whether you’re a follower of the Bahá’í faith or not, you will find the cool interior to be a restful haven of peace and quiet from the heat, noise and bustle of Delhi. The temple is set within manicured lawns and surrounded by nine serene pools of water. Be careful in the crowds outside temple though, as pickpockets can operate in the vicinity. Keep your hands on your bags and possessions to be safe.
Lodhi Garden, east of Nehru Park and located in the south of Delhi, is one of the green lungs of the city. If you want to get away from it all, and that’s only a matter of time, then this is the place to go. Romantic couples can be seen walking or sitting together on the grass, whilst others amble through and just enjoy the natural beauty around them. A wide bridge spans the lake there, and paved walkways invite you to delve deeper into this green oasis. The verdant seclusion in the heart of the city, provides peace and tranquillity and a welcome relief from the urban sprawl of Delhi. It’s very historic too as the gardens contain tombs dating back to the Sayyid and Lodhi Muslim dynasties of the 15th and 16th centuries, otherwise known as the Delhi Sultanate.
Built to commemorate the sacrifice that Indian troops made in WW1, it looks like an Asian version of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but on a smaller scale. Also designed and built by Lutyens, it is situated at the end of Rajpath and looks towards the Rashtrapati Bhavan at the far end. Flanked by the Children’s Park and the August Kranti Maidan on either side, it is a natural meeting point and a great place to gather socially. Here you will find Indian friends, couples and families coming to relax, chill out, get an ice cream or maybe indulge in some tasty street food. Again beware, as it tends to attract every street hawker imaginable, but it is a great photo opportunity and not to be missed.
Now we all like a bit of Shakespeare, don’t we? Well, what about some Shakespeare outside then? That is exactly what you’ll get if you turn up at Shakespeare’s birthplace in super Stratford-upon-Avon, and wander through to the enclosed garden and courtyard at the rear of the property. Just call out your favourite play by the legendary bard, and the two or three assembled Shakespearean actors, suitably attired in period costume, will enact a pithy scene for your listening and viewing pleasure.
These guys (and girls), are real pro’s. Making it look so effortless and easy, the impromptu audience are lavishly entertained with scenes from ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ ‘The Tempest,’ ‘Romeo and Juliet’ – and everything in between. To be quite honest, I could have sat there all day and lapped up this eloquent street theatre (or courtyard theatre if you want to be pedantic), and that would have constituted a perfectly acceptable day out, with time well spent.
Nestling on the western edge of the Cotswolds, Broadway is a must-visit destination if you are in the area. Why? Because it’s beautiful, and it simply oozes English village charm. In fact, it’s almost too perfect and too twee for its own good, but I just love it. It’s got lots of those lovely, unique kind of shops that magnetically draw you inside, inviting you to part with large sums of money for no real good reason at all – except for pure self-indulgence of course.
We came across a chocolate shop, a sweetie shop (selling a seemingly endless variety of sweets), and a lovely wine and gin store tucked away up a side street. A visit here was required of course, and after much chat with a chap called Dan around various drink related topics, we succumbed to the temptation to sample some of the shops wares. The whole experience proved to be immensely satisfying.
Broadway is a little gem, of that there is no doubt. One look inside the estate agent’s window will solidly conform this fact. So if you should find yourself meandering towards Stratford-upon-Avon, as we were, I would encourage you to pop in and have a jolly good look around. You are bound to find something that takes your fancy!
I am of course headed for delightful Stratford-upon-Avon, the home of Shakespeare. If you’re somewhat confused by the picture above, that is merely my geographical locator at this present time (Taunton Deane Services Northbound).
I was in Stratford less than three months ago, but I have to say that I am very pleased to be returning so soon. With me are three travelling companions, and I am sure we are going to have a blast. I’ll keep you posted!
Little Switzerland, well that’s what they call it anyway. I am of course referring to Lynton and Lynmouth, which sit happily on the North Devon Coast looking out towards the coast of South Wales. At somewhat of a loose end, I decided to park up in Lynton, and walk down the precipitous coast path to Lynmouth below. I have to say it is a fairly steep path all the way down (the ache in my thighs testify to this fact), but well worth it.
Lynmouth was buzzing as you would expect in the height of the summer break, with the August bank holiday just round the corner. I decided to make for the Rock House Hotel, accessed by a pedestrian bridge across the now united East and West Lyn Rivers. Here I was rewarded with a glass of chilled Elderflower Cider which was suitably refreshing in warm August sunshine.
There are in fact plenty of places in both Lynton and Lynmouth where you can not only enjoy something to eat and drink, but spectacular views of this dramatic coastline are virtually guaranteed. A word of warning though; the climb back up to Lynton is not for the fainthearted as it constitutes a good cardiovascular workout! If however, that all seems too much for you, then I would encourage you to take the cliff railway back up to the top. The single fare is £2.80 and worth every penny for the experience.
John Raby is on the Howrah Mail, one of India’s most iconic trains. During his six-hour train journey, he meets genial Ravi from Kolkata, attempts to order lunch from the Telegu-speaking pantry wallah and encounters a slightly annoying railway official…
I’m sat on a train going to Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh; the Howrah Mail to be precise. I boarded this morning and will get off in six hours time, but this train actually left Chennai yesterday and will ultimately travel the 1040 miles to Kolkata, arriving early tomorrow morning…