Rolling with the stones in Hampi

The lotus is India’s national flower but it doesn’t always enjoy a good rep. Last month, over three days at Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace in the town of Kamalapurs, four kilometres from Hampi, I learned to appreciate the flower beyond its edible roots and party affiliations.

At the resort, the flower isn’t used as decoration but finds new applications. It is in air fresheners and body care products. It also inspires the shape of lampshades dotting the ceilings. The fragrance follows me everywhere, like a shadow, pleasant but excessive. Where the flower shows its true splendour is the Lotus Mahal. This two-storey pink palace houses an Ayurvedic spa, a reading room, a restaurant and a souvenir shop. A replica of the actual Lotus Mahal in Hampi, the archways and the domes are meant to resemble a half-opened lotus, with the towers resembling petals. All lit up at night, the Lotus Mahal gives a sense of the grandeur that defined the queen’s summer place of yore.

Stoned on History

The lotus may be the symbolic theme of the Kamalapura Palace but its architectural theme is Hampi, in all its stone-laden glory.

The resort is a fortress, situated in the centre of a 27-acre property, surrounded by cultivated greenery. I drive through the entrance with rounded fortifications reminiscent of Islamic architecture, inspired by the principal fort of the nearby village Anegundi. A long stone driveway—much like the paved boulevards of Hampi’s old temples—leads me to the main palace.

As I walk around the place in the evening, Joydeep Banerjee, the Area General Manager for the South, points out the connections we may have missed—the contemporary recreations of old paintings, the boundary walls modelled after the stone walls that provided the fortifications to the city, and the taps shaped like aqueducts. Everything here is local and customised, keeping Hampi in mind.

It’s not just about employing local staff and artistes; even their food seeks inspiration from the land. Tuluva, with its infinity pool and fake elephant tusks, gets its name from the Hindu dynasty that ruled the Vijayanagara Empire. Here, I sample among other Indian dishes, Vijayanagara cuisine that’s heavy on curries and liberal with spices. There’s gongura mamsam (spicy lamb curry), chepala pulusu (tangy fish curry) and enagayi (eggplant cooked in coconut). I scarf these down with bowls upon bowls of the fragrant and delicately flavoured pulihora (tamarind rice). History might have swallowed whole emperors, but it had thankfully spared their cuisine.

Mind at Rest

Hampi city is shaped by multiple histories. I spend my mornings visiting a fraction of its 300 temples and ruins. There’s the Hemakuta hillock, which leads down to the Virupaksha Temple. There we find the stone chariot, one of the most photographed structures in Hampi. My guide is Nagendra, who tells me to observe the little things we miss in our haste to get that perfect shot for social media. “The lotus shape indicates progress of life, and feminity,” he says, pointing out the swans and dancing figures painted on the ceiling. I visit the Zenana Enclosure, a citadel complex that once housed a palace, the Lotus Mahal, four watchtowers and beyond, the elephant stables.

I return to the resort, marvelling at the inspiration it has sought from this city. My room is the Jal Mahal, a stunning place inspired by the Water Palace of the Zenana Enclosure. It has separate dining, living and sleeping areas, and a luxurious bath with an open courtyard. This is surrounded by a moat in the front, and behind, a private deck with a mandapa overlooks a private pool.

Jal-Mahal-Bedroom
Jal Mahal suite. Photo courtesy: Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace

As impressive as the resort looks in the daytime, it turns resplendent at night. The sun sets behind the palace, bathing the sky in hues of scarlet, orange and purple. As it sinks, the small lamps in the grounds of the property come on. The sound of crickets is overshadowed by a gentle singing. This is the hotel’s annual evening ritual—the staff move about behind a flautist, carrying incense and lights to all the rooms, while the tune of the flute lends the dusk a haunting background melody. After this procession, the flautist proceeds to the open courtyard where he sits and performs an evening raga.

I welcome our evenings in different ways. One time, I lounge in the pool till sunset; another time, I spend a few hours looking up Hampi’s history in the library at the Reading Lounge. On the last night, I sit by our moat, sipping chai and watching workers tending the garden. At dusk, I head to the Deep Mahal for a storytelling session. An entire room is lit up with just diyas. For the next half hour, I sip wine and listen, fascinated, as my guide talks about the downfall of the Vijayanagara Empire.

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Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace is in Kamalapura town, 4 km away from Hampi. There are four types of suites—Nivasa, Nilaya, Zenana and the Jal Mahal—with rates starting from Rs36,000 up to Rs52,000.

From Bengaluru airport, the resort lies 350 km northwest. There are also direct flights from Hyderabad to Vidyanagar airport, 30 km away.

 

[This story first appeared in National Geographic Traveller India: Rolling with the stones, on Jan 11, 2018]

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A taste of Bavaria

Think Adelaide and open parklands, indigenous art, understated beauty, good weather, and live music come to mind. You certainly don’t picture an old German village where beer jostles for shelf space with wine, where brick houses with sloping roofs reveal antique stores and craft breweries, and where you can find sausages and pretzels at every corner.  

This is Hahndorf, a state listed heritage town, about 25 minutes away from Adelaide. It is Australia’s oldest surviving German settlement.

It was in 1839 that Captain Dirk Meinertz Hahn brought 200 German-Lutheran migrants, fleeing religious persecution in Prussia (north-eastern Germany), to Adelaide Hills where they made their home. Today, 189 years later, though Hahndorf (Hahn’s village) has seen much change, it remains at heart a German town.

“It’s old world charm very popular with tourists. History apart, they are very serious about their food and wine here,” says David Sly, a food and wine journalist from Adelaide.

I spend a day in Hahndorf and David’s words ring true at every place I visit.

I begin my day strolling through the Beerenberg Strawberry Farm picking dew-dusted strawberries. It is 9am and the farm, a few minutes outside the town, has just opened for business. It’s a calming experience, walking through neatly segregated rows of strawberry plants, digging through the leaves to find the fruit nestled within. I take my slim pickings to the Beerenberg Family Farm shop to be weighed and packed, and meet Monique Lomax, a staffer who doubles up as a guide. “The founders, the Paech family, are among Hahndorf’s first settlers. They started with dairy but soon decided to try branch out. Now we grow chillies gherkins, cherries, plums, Satsuma, and Lincoln roses,” she says. Everything finds its way into marinades, jams, chutney and dipping sauces. I sample a few of these, and am instantly impressed with the smooth and fragrant rose petal jelly, and the tart mango and Mandarin curd named after Monique (staffers above five years get products named after them).

Beerenberg, which means berry hill, is in its 50th year of strawberry picking and needless to say, strawberry jam is a best-seller. People generally queue up here for the freshly churned strawberry ice cream, delicate swirls of creamy goodness piled high in a cone. Over 80 percent of their products are gluten free and they do collaborations with locals like Cooper Ale and Gaucho sauces.

Ice cream in hand, I stroll down the picturesque main street. This historic street is lined with 100 year old elm trees, and shows off timber and German-style stone or brick houses with their steep, sloping roofs and cosy verandahs. Here I find boutiques, German pubs, restaurants and cellar doors, cafés, gourmet bakeries and delicatessens, and sweet shops. On sale is Aboriginal art and puppets, German clocks, and candles – the 3 Wishes Candle Barn that allows you to create your own.  

A life-size yellow cow with a milk pail underneath welcomes me to my next destination, Udder Delights. The word cheese is written in bold letters for those confused about the offerings at the place. Run by the husband and wife team of Saul and Sheree Sullivan, Udder Delights’ Cheese Cellar sells goat’s and cow’s milk cheese, hosts fondue and cheesemaking classes and is best known for their cheese wedding cakes. I opt for a cheese tasting. The goats curd is tangy with a smooth finish and the cow’s milk brie is velvety and has a sharp earthy flavour. My favourite is the Heysen Blue, a firm and moist cheddar-like rich cheese.   

Udder Delights

Fresh cheese is difficult to carry back homes so I regretfully leave the store and set out in search of something more travel-friendly. David takes me to an ‘iconic place’. The MenzFruChoc Shop is known for their FruChocs – milk chocolate covered apricot or peach. A happy accident, the Menz family developed these in 1948 to use up excess fruit. Today, the product is a South Australian icon. I happily snack on honeycomb and coconut variants thinking that this sweet treat really deserves a FruChocs Appreciation Day (celebrated on the last Friday of August).

Another place chock-a-block with history is the Hahndorf Inn. Built in 1853, it is owned by the Holmes family, whose German descendants arrived at Port Adelaide in 1847 to settle in the Barossa Valley. The food here is traditional Bavarian – big portions of schnitzels, sausages, beef and pork ribs, pork knuckle, and hot dogs. These come accompanied by steamed greens, mash or fries. I try the Hänchen Schnitzel, crumbed chicken breast cooked to perfection and paired with a cream mushroom sauce. Dessert is the German apple strudel (Apfelstrudel), which we learned to make (assemble) at a strudel class earlier.

I end the day at Prancing Pony Brewery, a boutique brewery located a short drive out of Hahndorf. Here, they use the traditional method of fire brewing, resulting in beer that has caramel and toffee like malt flavours. I sip on their India Red Pale Ale, which was the 2016 supreme champion in the International Beer Challenge, London. The strong caramel notes and intense hop bitterness is mellowed down by hints of tropical fruit, making for a refreshing drink.  

A day in Hahndorf and I realise, they do take food, wine and beer very seriously.

 

 

[A version of this story was published in BL Ink: Bits of Bavaria, on April 13, 2018]

Czech out of Prague

In Czech Republic, it is possible to actually jab at a map of the country and say, ‘Let’s go here’. That’s because every small city, village or town in the country is worthy of a visit. They are full of history, beauty, charming landscapes, and friendly people. Each place has something unique to offer – hot springs, a bone church, thermal springs, underground dungeons, breweries, underground limestone caverns and a renaissance-style castle.

The beauty of these towns and cities is they are easily accessible, especially from the capital city, Prague.

Telč

Go for: A picturesque old town square chance and a chance to live in a Renaissance house

The southern Moravian town of Telč (pronounced Telchh) is filled with babbling brooks, verdant woods, cobblestoned pathways, and painted wooden houses. Visitors, though, come here for its centerpiece, the old town square or Náměstí Zachariáše z Hradce.

This UNESCO heritage site, which completed 25 years of its inclusion in the World Heritage List, is easily the prettiest in the country. The long, ‘rectangular’ square is flanked by wooden Renaissance and Baroque burgher buildings, painted in pastel shades of blues, greens and blues.  

The houses, church and town hall of the city were destroyed in a fire in the 1500s. Zachariaš of Hradec, who gives the square his name, brought in Italian architects to rebuild the place. They gave it a magnificent Renaissance makeover. This is best experienced in the castle. Here, guided tours showcase the armory in Knights’ Hall, the trophies in the African Hall, the rooms of the chateau and the Chapel of St George, which holds the remains of the nobleman. 

The houses were furnished with gables and vaulted arcades in the front, creating a covered walkway that is now home to tourist traps: restaurants, shops and stores. Some are even open to tourists, giving them a chance to live in a piece of history. It is the façades of these homes, each unique from the rest, that bears closer scrutiny. Some have fresco paintings or sgraffito, while others feature the leaders of Old Testament.

Other places to discover include the Church of the Nativity and Assumption, whose tower holds the oldest Telč bell (1515), the Marian (or Plague) column, a spacious park with two fish ponds filled with ducks, and even a bar with slot machines.     

Read more, here.

Olomouc

Go for: An astronomical clock to rival Prague’s Orloj, and discover six fountains  

Olomouc (pronounced Olomotts) is home to the second largest and second oldest historic preservation it was once the capital of Moravia (before ceding it to Brno) and is the fifth-largest city in the country. Legend has it that the town was founded by Julius Caesar though he never visited. The city, though, began as a Roman military camp named Julii Mons (Julius’ Hill), which got corrupted to the present Olomouc.

The old town is an intriguing mix of architectural styles, from Renaissance, baroque, gothic and even modernist. The most stunning piece of architecture here is the UNESCO World Heritage Holy Trinity Column, which was built in the first half of the 18th century at the end of plague. The arrest column in Europe was built by locals and features saints important to the city. It has a tiny chapel within with a small altar and faded paintings on the ceiling.

A close rival is the Astronomical Clock, which some consider to be better than the one in Prague. Built in the 15th century, it was destroyed at the end of World War II and then reconstructed in 1947. The clock has rebuilt by Soviets at the beginning of the Communist regime and the Socialist Realist theme means it reflects proletarians (scientists, sportspeople and labourers) instead of saints.

Other places to visit include six baroque Roman-themed fountains including Caesar riding a horse, and Hercules fighting Hydra; the second oldest university in the country (Palacky University); and a little distance away, St Wenceslas Cathedral. The three-tower cathedral is an important part of the city skyline and has the tallest church tower in Moravia.

Karlovy Vary

Go for: Thermal springs and the chance to follow (‘soak’) in the footsteps of Beethoven, Tolstoy and Marx

In the abundance that is Czech Republic’s spa towns, Karlovy Vary – Vary to the locals or Carlsbad – stands out for being the prettiest of them all.

Karlovy Vary owes its name to Charles IV, King of Bohemia who founded the city in 1370; it literally translates to Charles’ Bath. He was the first ‘patient’ and supposedly used the water from the hot springs to heal his wounds.

Today, the city has evolved and is known for its thermal and mineral springs, spa treatments and its whimsical architecture. In the 18th century it was a popular tourist destination, seeing guests of the likes of Beethoven, Tsar Peter the Great, Emperor Franz Josef I, Brahms, Wagner, Tolstoy, and Marx. World War I destroyed the city’s tourism and after WWII, Czech settlers came in. Look closely and it is possible to find signs of German heritage.

Take the funicular up, or walk through a verdant spa forest to reach Diana Lookout Tower. The 547 meter tower was built in1914 and affords a spectacular view of the city. Stroll by the impressive colonnades – Park, Mill, Market, Castle and Hot Spring – are located close to each other. The most impressive of these is the Mill Colonnade with its walls of allegorical reliefs, statues representing months of the year and even an orchestra stage.

No visit here is complete without trying out the traditional herbal liqueur Becherovka, produced only here, and consumed either chilled or with tonic. The bittersweet herbal liquor was first sold as stomach medicine. The recipe is a closely guarded secret; so close, that apparently only two families have it. To learn more about this mysterious drink, visit the Becherovka exhibition, in the historic building where the liquor was manufactured for 150 years.

Other places to explore include Lazne I – a spa building housing Franz Josef’s baths; the Karl Marz monument, the Karlovy Vary Museum, and Church of St. Peter & St. Paul. The latter was built in the 1800s and sports five golden domes and paintings and icons gifted by wealthy Russians. Look out for the relief representing Russian Tsar Peter the Great.

 

[The story appeared in Jetwings International in February, 2018]