January is a good time to visit India as there are lots of celebrations for Hindu New Year. Hyderabad was heaving, literally hundreds of thousands of people crammed along narrow streets, vying with bikes and taxis for a tiny stretch of path to walk along. A lively, boisterous atmosphere as people jostled to visit hundreds of market stalls set up on the way to the Temple.
We were hemmed in at one point between pedestrians, motorbikes, taxis and 3 cows so only stayed for a short while as it was too difficult to move around. It is a fascinating mix of brilliant colours, noise and atmosphere (but not bad smells despite the animals wandering around). Tiny shops and stalls along the narrow streets are full of richly-coloured fabrics, very difficult to resist – maybe a silk scarf or two? As a mix of Hindu and Muslim people, it was fascinating to see them side-by-side, the women in full black burka chatting and laughing as they bought fabulous fabrics alongside Hindu women in their own traditional dress.
Outside the main cities, each village has its own celebrations and traditions - as we all do. We drove past a field at Changlara, and were lucky to spot the annual market selling pairs of oxen, all beautifully decorated to give a bit of competitive advantage. This was an unexpected chance to speak to local farmers who were all keen to be photographed, explaining that this market was specifically for the poorer farmers who needed the animals for work on the land. They were certainly magnificent beasts in their finery – quite alluring really.
Even in the big towns, animals are left to roam freely, ignoring people and traffic content in the knowledge that ultimately everyone will avoid colliding with them. You soon become blasé about the animals once the novelty has worn off.
Accommodation and food
We stayed at different hotels over our 10-day trip, 2 nights each at Hampi and Goa, so the full tour provided by Explore will include more nights’ accommodation. The earlier hotels were sometimes a bit basic, often noisy and in need of some renovation, but later ones were much better. The first hotel in Hyderabad, Quality Inn Residency, was comfortable with a very good choice at breakfast although rooms on the front were noisier due to the major road works outside.
The Krishna Heritage at Badami is a beautiful colonial-style set of buildings offering a large suite rather than just a room for each guest, and the next two nights at Krishna Palace in Hospet were also very comfortable. Our final two nights were in Goa at the Heritage Panjim Inn, excellent food and bar (few and far between in some areas we visited) and a wonderful 4-poster bed!
Breakfasts were a bit hit and miss, resorting to small square slices of sweet sliced bread toasted (almost) and some form of jam, though no butter, and omelette sometimes, but the better hotels offered a much better choice whatever your taste. Lunch was generally an interesting mix of dishes that we could all share and try something new. Clarks Inn in Badami is a vegetarian restaurant, as many are in India, serving lovely subtle flavoured food, not too hot but very tasty – I would certainly eat there again!
Goa was also a favourite for food. This was the old town of Goa rather than down on the coast so a fascinating mix of Indian and Portuguese food, style and architecture. We went to a small local restaurant for dinner, lots of tiled door frames and traditional features with a great atmosphere, friendly staff and excellent food. Wine is often in short supply, or extremely expensive, but beer is always available.
For our last day, lunch was at The Ritz Club in the town. A very dingy set of stairs up to the first floor – as Andy said, more Ritz cracker than Ritz Hotel! – to a waiting doorman leading us into a beautiful restaurant. Food was exceptional, the fish Thali going down very well with most of the group. I stuck to dry chicken tikka and shredded salad which was very tasty, and fresh pineapple juice was served in a pineapple-shaped glass jar with lid.
This restaurant is so popular with locals, they were queueing out of the door for at least half an hour to get a table. The whole point of the tour is to experience India as it really is, so restaurants were chosen because local people eat there. We relied on Indira to choose dishes that gave us a chance to experience lots of new tastes, and this worked out perfectly.
Typical thali dish
The next blog about the trip to India features Tombs & Temples