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. Everyone was very friendly and we were still amazed at how many people wanted their photograph taken with us. 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? Indira was great at guiding us through the streets and mass of people, so we always felt safe, and was so knowledgeable about the people and customs. 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, and are keen to explain them to visitors. As we drove past a field at Changlara, we were lucky to spot the annual market selling pairs of oxen, all beautifully decorated to give a bit of competitive advantage (according to an old farmer selling a pair of white oxen with ribbons and flowers around their horns). 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 are certainly magnificent beasts in their finery – quite alluring really.
Even in the big towns, animals are left to roam freely, totally 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 further 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 next evening in Bidar was our chance to meet up with the local representative of Explore for a very good dinner, lots of questions and interesting conversation!
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 chosen by Indira, our guide, so that we could all share and try something new. Clarks Inn in Badami, for instance, was excellent. 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. For instance, my tuna was thinly-sliced, grilled with squeezed lime juice and a tasty sauce to spoon over for an extra little “kick”. Wine is often in short supply, or extremely expensive, but beer is always available. There was a little additional excitement to the evening as Hannah spotted an “enormous” (well, big) spider near the window that promptly decided to dash towards the tables. The waiter tried to catch it, chasing it around walls, until another guest suggested that unless he stopped chasing it, he wouldn’t pay his bill. It disappeared into the woodwork.
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. Fresh pineapple juice was served in a pineapple-shaped glass jar with lid, but sadly Lottie wasn’t able to buy one from them to take home.
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.
In the next section, Part 4, we will look at all the marvelous places visited on this tour of The Real India, from tombs and temples to forts and stunning sunsets.