MF portfolio realignment – my plan

If you are a regular reader of my blog you will know my 3 portfolio strategy for investment by now. I have portfolios in Debt, Stocks and MF. In the initial part of my working life I invested in mostly debt, the mid part was largely used to build up the stock portfolio and 2008 onward till now it has been largely MF. Of course, once I decided about giving up my regular corporate career in 2012, I boosted my debt portfolio significantly.

Over the years I have bought several MF schemes, initially with one time investments, thereafter with SIP and now back to investing at the right times. I have therefore collected a large number of MF schemes and in several of these the amounts invested are not very significant. The ones where I have done SIP obviously have some decent amounts, but even here there are several funds as my portfolio had changed over my 7 years of SIP.

In the past whenever the markets have gone up significantly, I have thought about cleaning up my MF portfolio. Somehow or the other it has never happened and I am stuck with a multitude of MF schemes, most of which I do not really want to keep. This weekend, I took a look at my MF portfolio after a long time and these were my observations.

  • I am currently investing in 4 MF schemes which are as follows. My plan is to continue investing in these for the future, at least till I have active income to do so:-
    • ICICI Focused Blue chip fund
    • ICICI Value Discovery Fund
    • HDFC Mid cap opportunities Fund
    • DSP BR Mid and small cap Fund
  • There are some other funds where I have significant investments but have dropped now. I will be keeping these for now but may want to sell them off during any annual review that I undertake. Future investments in these are unlikely:-
    • HDFC Top 200 Fund
    • IDFC Premier Equity Fund
    • Birla SunLife Frontline Equity Fund
    • DSP BR Equity Fund
    • Sundaram Select Mid cap Fund
    • Franklin India Blue Chip Fund
    • UTI Dividend yield Fund
  • There are some Close ended funds such as the ICICI Value Series Funds. I had invested in these as they give regular dividends which is useful to me. I will either continue with them or shift to other similar funds. To give readers an idea, ICICI Value Series 2 has given an XIRR of 30 % plus in the 3 year investment period.
  • Everything else, I want to get red of ASAP.

How do I plan to go about it? I have a feeling that next few weeks may be the best chance if Nifty once again goes to 10000 etc. Once the quarterly results  are through and the global geopolitical situation worsens, our markets are very likely to down to 9500 or even below that on the Nifty. Once I sell all my disposable MF, I will just be in cash and wait for the right opportunity.

What will I be buying with the cash I get? Well, one option is to invest in some of the stocks I had outlined in the earlier post. I am sure that if I buy these at Nifty levels of 9500 I will definitely see significant returns over the next 3 years etc. Another option will be to space out the stocks and invest in my 4 MF’s .

Unless the NIfty shows a rising trend due to a strong quarterly results, I am finally ready to pull the trigger on this. Even if it keeps rising, I will still sell when it reaches 10200, as I do not believe that is a value at which the Nifty can sustain itself.

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A Goan sojourn

Travel is really what keeps me going and my family likes it too. Of late, with college going children, it is somewhat difficult to plan family vacations but we do what we can. On the other hand, it does give Lipi and me enough flexibility to plan our travels. We have been going to Goa every year since 2014 and have just come back over the weekend from another trip which was both relaxing and rejuvenating.

Why do we go to Goa so often? Well, for starters, it is a great place for visits and we have a Timeshare with Karma Royal who have most of their resorts in Goa. Since 2014 an incremental motivation is our son Ronju being there for his college in BITS Pilani, Goa campus. It has made sense for us to take our week in Goa so that we get to meet him briefly as an added bonus. Karma has 4 resorts in Goa, so we can rotate these as desired.

This year, we went to Goa between 5th and 12th August. As is my wont, I planned the trip way back in February and this resulted in us getting a good unit in Royal Palms as well as getting air tickets at very decent rates. In fact our total air fare came to less than 9000 Rs. The unit was practically free, though we have to pay a great deal of maintenance on it for having this ownership. As Ronju would stay with us for a couple of days, we took a one bedroom unit this time. It was spacious with a separate sitting area, kitchen, bedroom and washroom, apart from the two balconies. The resort is near Benaulim beach and is landscaped quite well, with a nice swimming pool, restaurant and bar.

Coming back to the actual trip then – we started on 5th and spent some time in the Plaza Premium Lounge before boarding our flight. Our credit cards allow us to do this and it helps us to avoid having overpriced and often, not so good, meals at airports. In this instance we had a pretty decent late breakfast which was still being served there. The flight only took an hour and we were soon in Goa airport. We booked a pre-paid taxi, picked up Ronju who had come there and were soon on our way. It was a good ride and I always find the localities in Goa quite interesting, especially that most of them have a lot of greenery. The check in was smooth, us being members and all, and we settled into our unit which was to be our home for the next 7 days.

The first evening we went to the Benaulim beach which is our favourite haunt. The beach has two good restaurant, namely Johncy’s and Pedro’s. We normally prefer Johncy’s as it is closer to the beach and offers both great food and views. After an early dinner, we went to the local superstore to stock up provisions for breakfast etc. The final stop for me was a liquor shop, every locality of Goa is dotted with these. The rates are great there, was able to buy 500 Ml Kingfisher cans for 50 Rs and a bottle of Blenders Pride for 475 Rs.

Ronju was to go off on Sunday evening so we made a trip to Kolva beach on that day. Unlike Benaulim, where the crowd is less, Kolva is a pretty happening beach with multiple shops and water sports options. We were unable to catch the sunset courtesy the dark clouds but it was a good way to spend the evening. Later on we went for a longish walk towards Margao and had dinner at a local Goan Cafe. A great thing in Goa is that the food is almost universally good, whether you eat at a high end restaurants or in a beach shack. Also, almost any restaurant worth it’s ilk is automatically a bar too.

Once Lipi and I were on our own, life settled into a rhythm for the next 5 days. I would wake up early and go for a morning walk along the beach while Lipi luxuriated in the knowledge that there was no real need to get up if one did not want to !! I always find walking along the beach, listening to the sound of the relentless waves rather relaxing and there are few better ways to spend time. We would normally have breakfast in our unit though one day we broke the routine and went to Pedro’s for brunch. The Spanish omelette there with Ham, potatoes and onion is simply divine though their Hot Chocolate could do with a lot of improvement, greater quantities of chocolate being one of them.

After breakfast we normally went out for some sightseeing or just relaxed in the resort. One day we hired a car and went off to Agonda and Palolem beaches which are about 40 Kms from the resort. These are probably the best beaches in Goa, especially Palolem which extends over a large area. The restaurant called Silver Sands is placed quite strategically and we had great views of the sea while sampling Golden Fried prawns and Goan fish curry for lunch. Apart from the beaches, the journey itself was a memorable one, long winding roads through Goan villages, forests and some hilly terrain too. This was a case of both the journey and the destination being equally worthwhile.

Another day we went to the Bigfoot museum which is a must see for anyone visiting Goa. This is an open air museum having a model of a typical Goa village with life size statues. You get to see the various facets of their daily lives and the commentary is both crisp and lucid. We probably learnt more about life in Goa from the museum than we ever would by reading books etc. Most importantly, it is really something one can enjoy and completely challenges the drab way in which most of our museums are presented. The Old Portuguese Mansion, next to this museum is also worth seeing. You will get to know a great deal about how Portuguese noblemen lived in Goa. The distinction with how the Britishers  lived is quite evident. Interestingly, many such houses dotted all over Goa are still lying empty as their owners neither stay in them nor have they disposed off these. We rounded off our museum visit with lunch at Nostalgia, a speciality Goan restaurant.

Among other activities at the resort, I introduced Lipi to playing Pool one day. She acquitted herself rather well and will get better with practice !! The wi-fi in the resort was good so we could post all our pictures rather easily on Facebook and I also got to do some work. Lipi too was able to order some stocks when the market fell precipitously over the week we were there. At other times I may have got worked up about my portfolio declining badly, but when you are in Goa you tend to take a relatively laid back look at such things. I did manage to catch some cricket and the hyper debates on TV too.

All too soon, the week came to an end and we were to travel back to Hyderabad on Saturday. As our flight was only in the afternoon, we combined a trip to the Bogmalo beach and Naval Aviation museum with the airport drop. Bogmalo beach is relatively less known but quite nice, we saw it for the first time in this trip. We had Kingfisher strong, Watermelon juice accompanied by vegetable pakodas as we watched the sea for the last time in this trip. It could have been rather poignant but we will be back soon.

The Naval Aviation museum is one of it’s kind in Asia and outlines our Naval history in a great manner. The aircraft  shown are real ones and have a glorious history, especially with relevance to the 1971 war, where the Navy played a decisive role. If you are in Goa do not miss this and be sure to look at the photographs and the models too.

Our return was good and uneventful and we were back on a Saturday afternoon to Hyderabad. This was a really good trip with all the ingredients in a great cocktail of experience – family time, good food, great beaches, culture, history etc. We will now wait for the next travel.

Vizag & Araku valley – a journey less traversed

The beauty of travelling in India is you find hidden gems every once in a while and this is an absolute bliss for any seasoned traveller like me. I first came across Araku valley in the year 2004, courtesy an article I read about offbeat train journeys in India. At the time I could not take the Vizag – Kirandul passenger as it was booked fully and travelling with 2 young children without reservation was not practical. We did visit Jagdalpur, Araku Valley and Tyda by road but missing on the train journey was a regret.

Life, however, does give you a second chance often and when both children, now college going and young adults, were home for a couple of weeks at the same time, a rare occurrence by itself nowadays, I thought it would be a good idea to plan a short trip. Given the time constraints, we could only go for 4 days or so and I was thinking of where to go. A news item stating that an air-conditioned chair car coach in European style has been added to the Vizag-Kirandul passenger helped to make up my mind.

The plan itself was simple, given that there is nothing I love doing better than making travel plans. It gives me a great high to anticipate the travel in the future. In this case, as we had only 4 days due to my Consultancy work and Ronju’s internship, I decided to fly to Vizag. We got really good rates for the air tickets, around 12000 for the 4 of us. As we had to take 2 rooms for 3 nights, one in Vizag and 2 in Araku, that turned out to be quite expensive. Here too, I was happy to book the AP tourism property in Rushikonda beach, as last time we were not able to see the beach properly due to the Tsunami, which happened on the very day we were in Vizag.

On the starting day of the trip we reached Vizag early in the morning, both the flight and the journey to our resort with Uber being good ones. Vizag is one of the cleanest cities in India and is also blessed with a great location, the roads to our resort skirted the Bay of Bengal for quite a while. The AP tourism facility at Rushikonda beach has a great location too. The Deluxe rooms we had booked were at a higher level and the full length windows provided us with amazing views of the sea. If you have a plan to visit Vizag this is the place to be – you could literally sit on the sofa and look at the sea all day. Getting down to the actual beach proved to be a good exercise for all of us, Ronju showed that he is both the youngest and also the fittest in our family currently. The beach is nice with some activities for water sports available. We took a speed boat ride which was quite an exhilarating one and we did not really mind the fact that we got drenched a bit.

After a pretty good lunch at the restaurant and the customary rest that Lipi must have in the afternoon, we took an auto and went over to Kailashgiri hills. You can go up this place by a cable car and there are a lot of gardens, eating joints and most notably huge statues of Shiva and Parvathi there. While most people come from a devotional standpoint, the views of the Bay of Bengal from these hills are simply stunning. You will probably not get better views of the Bay than this and the myriad hues of the sea are all depicted in a brilliantly resplendent manner from the viewpoints here. Evenings are the best times to be here, we had some rather good snacks before getting back to the hotel. An early dinner was important as we were to travel to Araku the next morning.

The transport to the Vizag station next morning was an Auto and we got to see the city a bit more, along with some nice morning views of the sea reflecting the morning sun. At the station, our coach fulfilled all my expectations. It had great seating, large windows throughout for best viewing, good air conditioning and also nice catering to boot. The journey which followed is definitely unique in several ways, even for someone as well travelled as I am. The train chugged it’s way along the Eastern Ghats and at times through it, by way of the numerous tunnels that have been dug. The tunnels came in all sizes and were always having the element of surprise. In between we were treated to the exquisite natural beauty of the Eastern ghats, both the hills and the valleys being covered with a lot of greenery. On the way we crossed a few stations at great height, in fact one of them ,Shimhachalam, is the highest in India. The train has to go at moderate speeds due to the terrain and this gave people a lot of opportunities in clicking some nice photos.

The resort in Araku had very nice views of the surrounding hills too and our two rooms were side by side with fairly large terraces. One word of caution here – Araku is a small town and you will not have many food options. The resort only had a vegetarian thali option for lunch, though dinner was slightly better with Chicken dishes being available. In the late afternoon we went to see the Tribal museum that has several items dealing with how the different tribes in AP live. The models of the houses and other facets of their culture have been depicted really well. This place is a must see if you are in Araku. We also saw the Coffee Museum which captures the journey of Coffee from the planting to the brew that we consume in a nice manner. Of course, the restaurant there was an oasis in the otherwise limited options of food around !!

Next morning we visited the Chaparai water flow , a short ride away from our resort. This place has the water rushing through different levels which are not high enough to be called a waterfall. The flow of the water is strong and the sylvan settings make it a nice place for spending some time. Thereafter we went to the Padmanabha gardens which is also a must see location if you are in Araku. The sheer numbers of trees and flowers there are amazing and the maintenance is quite commendable. Lunch this day was humdrum again, though we managed to get some chicken fry in a local joint. For dinner, a hotel guy had arranged some Bamboo chicken for us. This is an unique preparation and speciality of this region. The chicken is marinated with spices and put into hollow of Bamboo stems, which is then put into an oven. The overall result is quite nice and we were glad that we tried it out.

The final day was hectic and long. We started from the resort after breakfast, visited Ananthagiri hills and the waterfalls there, travelled further to Borra caves and then made our way to Vizag and the airport. Borra caves with the stalactite and stalagmite formations are again a must see. You will need to have good fitness levels to reach all parts of the cave and I was happy to be able to do so.

Our wait at the airport was long but interesting as India put it across South Africa in the Champion’s trophy match. We reached Hyderabad past midnight, weary but very happy about how the trip had gone.

It was everything a great trip should be – travelling with the whole family which is a rarity nowadays, travel novelty such as going in the new coach commissioned to Araku, great natural beauty, a relatively offbeat location, new food samplings such as Bamboo chicken and significantly cooler climes.

Travel is an elixir for the weary soul with regular activities and even a short trip, if planned well, can rejuvenate the body and mind. The current one has been particularly good in that regard.

My experiences with e-filing of ITR 3

I have been using the Income tax e-filing site for a long time now and have been a tax payer since I started working in 1988. Of course, in those days all tax filing was manual and I used my offices to calculate taxes, pay them and also file the returns. Till 1998 or so this worked quite well as I had only my salary to work with as my source of income.

As the sources of income increased, the complexities also did and I got introduced to TDS from Fixed deposits etc and the need to pay extra taxes as Advanced tax. Even though the tax filing was still being done by my office people, I was able to calculate my tax liability with the help of Form 16 and Form 26 AS. With passing years, my sources of incomes were more – a house property, capital gains from equity/debt funds, consulting income, dividends, interests and so on. This was also the time when I engaged a CA to file my tax returns as the ITR 4 was quite involved. As a consultant, I had to show business income and the expenses needed to be maintained along with depreciation claims etc.

In the last budget the Finance minister did a great service to all professionals like us by saying that you can claim 50 % of all your gross receipts as expenses. So this time I decided to try filing the ITR 3 on my own. When I got the Excel utility first, my heart sank by seeing all the schedules, but on closer examination I realized that not too many of them had to be filled up by me. Before that though, I had to get all my information in order. This involved the following:-

  1. Looking at Form 26 AS to record both TDS by my Clients as well as the Advance tax paid by me in September 2016.
  2. As there was no TDS in Post Office MIS interest, I made a note of it separately.
  3. All my Debt investments were in ICICI Direct and I got the Capital gains statement from there.
  4. I went through all cash receipts in my 2 main bank accounts, ICICI and HDFC and divided those into the following categories for filling in ITR 3 later :-
    • Receipts from rental of my Chennai apartment.
    • Interest from the savings bank accounts.
    • Dividend from Equity MF and stocks.
    • Receipts from my Consulting income.
    • Receipts from redemption of my FMP investments.
    • Receipts from interest in Tax free bonds.

Once the above data was gathered it was just a case of putting these in the right places in the form. Not all schedules needed to be filled and even in the ones which did, not all fields were needed. For example, the P & L schedule that is surely the most complicated, I just had to fill up 3 lines as my income from profession was less than 50 lacs last year.

The good thing about the ITR forms is that you can fill up each sheet and validate them individually, before you proceed to the next one. After you calculate the tax, you can get the overall ITR 3 validated too. Once this is done the XML can be generated. This is where I had an issue. There is a schedule in ITR 3 where you are supposed to declare your assets if your income in the year is more than 50 lacs. I did not fill this up as my income in the FY was not greater than 50 lacs. However, as I had put some income from house property, the software was checking if the asset was declared in the schedule. It was good I could read XML and was therefore able to correct it.

After that it was easy going, the XML had to be uploaded and the acknowledgement had to be e-verified. As my Aadhaar number was already linked to my PAN it was pretty straightforward. The total time taken was about 5 hours – 4 to get all the data in place and only an hour to actually fill up ITR 3.

The most crucial part in filling up these forms is to understand how you can arrive at your taxable income. Note that even income that may not be taxable such as dividends or interest from tax free bonds needs to be recorded in the form.

I will do another post to clarify as to how you can take care of both these issues correctly.

Funding my daughter’s marriage

Now that my daughter Rinki is going to be 23 soon, it is time to start thinking that she will get married in a few years. Of course, given the fact that she is in the second year of her BM program at XLRI and will probably work a few years before getting married, I think we are still looking at another 4 years or so, maybe 5. However, given the kind of expenses it entails one must plan for it in advance.

As my regular readers will know well I do not have separate portfolios assigned to specific financial goals. I simply have 3 portfolios of Debt, Stocks and MF where I invest in and take out money from these as and when needed. So far this has really not been needed as I have always had enough to spend from my active income. This is true even in my current state of Financial independence but may not remain so at the point of time my daughter gets married. There is thus a need to plan for this.

In general, my idea always had been that I will pay for my children’s graduation, no matter how much it cost, and also a reasonable amount in their marriage. Post graduation was something I wanted my children to fund themselves, normally through a bank loan or even taking some money as a loan from me. I did not see much point in paying high interest rates to the banks. This will burden the child with high EMI and restrict his or her freedom to make the right choices.

Based on all of these, when Rinki got admitted to XLRI we took a 12 lacs loan even though the course fees were in the range of 22 lacs. The idea was that I will pay much of the first year fees and she would get it paid by the bank in the second year. Total costs for the first year was 10.5 lacs and we took only 50000 from the bank. This was needed to keep the loan valid. In the second year the fees to be paid are as follows – 4.71 lacs in June, 2.5 lacs in August and 2.5 lacs in November. Right now we have paid the first 4.71 lacs through our own resources – Rinki had some internship money from her Summer stint in GE, one of the FMP I had earlier done for her reached maturity and a FD I had done some years back matured now. Under ordinary circumstances I may have needed the money for my expenses but as my active income is going well in 2017 the flexibility is quite a lot more.

With the above backdrop and the assumption that Rinki is likely to get a job which will pay her at least the median salary in XLRI, I have worked out the following plan with her

  • We will try to restrict the bank loan to 4.5 lacs or so.
  • In the first year of her job, she will pay back the loan in full. Along with the interest this may come to 40000 per month.
  • Assuming that she gets a take home salary of 1.2 lacs per month and needs to spend about 40000 on regular expenses, she will still have 40000 left as surplus in year 1.
  • From year 2 the surplus is obviously a lot more.

What about the money I have paid for her PG education? It will amount to about 14 lacs and I do not want her to pay it back to me. I have asked her to invest it in a portfolio of 4-5 MF over the next 3 years @ 40000 per month. Over this period the amount of the corpus will be 17.4 lacs and in 4 years it will be about 20 lacs. This is the amount I plan to utilise for her marriage. Yes, the costs may be more and if so, I will fund the gap.

What if she decides not to get married at all or get married later. Well, in the first case the money is her’s to use in any manner she wants to. In the second case, the money will remain invested and we will be using it as and when she gets married.

For my son the issues will be simpler as the marriage expenses are likely to be lower. Also, like I did for myself, I am hoping he will be able to foot the bill to some extent, if not for all of it like I did. That is way down the future though, at least 8 years if not more.

An Italian odyssey

Writing this post is an anticipated event for me as, even before we left for our Italy trip, I got a lot of requests from several quarters to do this. I will directly start with the trip itself as I have already covered the planning of the trip as well as my thoughts and experiences with the tour operator Kesari in other recent posts.

We started off from Hyderabad on 5th May morning as we had to join the group for the night flight to Abu Dhabi and Rome. Though the wait in the Mumbai airport was somewhat long, we were quite impressed with the facilities, the only jarring point being the food costs. We connected with the Kesari representative on the appointed time, collected our hampers and checked in early. The tour leader welcomed us and wanted us to meet her before the transit from Abu Dhabi. The flights were largely uneventful, though tiring as usual. Breaking it up into two flights is a good idea as long as the layover is manageable. We reached Rome in the early morning. Immigration was a rather long process and freshening up in the airport with hordes of people wanting to do the same took it’s own time. We boarded the coach after that and the trip was well and truly underway.

We had a pretty comfortable coach which we would be using for the entire trip, the tour leader was articulate and knowledgeable and the visit to Pompeii was fulfilling a long time desire. The ruins of Pompeii are maintained rather well and we were lucky to have a good guide who spoke English very well. She explained the times of 2000 years back with a lot of imagination and some of the things such as the water pipe of those years, the stepping stones on the streets so that people could cross when they got waterlogged in the rainy season, the roadside eateries with ovens for cooking the food and a brothel with the services menu drawn on the walls were the highlights for me. As was Homer’s Odyssey drawn as fresco’s on the walls of an erstwhile commercial place.

In terms of sheer heritage, history and scale few places in the world will beat Pompeii. Our own Hampi is great too but it is not as old as this. Moreover only 25 % of the city has been excavated and that itself boggles the mind. A near perfect experience was made even better by an excellent 3 course lunch in a good restaurant.

Day 2 of our Italy trip was very different from the first. From history and heritage of Pompei we landed in Sorrento and Capri, with all it’s natural beauty of the sea and hills. The views all over were quite captivating and the sheer cliffs rising practically right from the sea. Much of Sorrento is perched atop these cliffs.

The highlight of the day was travelling to the highest point of the island in a chair lift. It is literally a chair hung from a cable. As we sat there, the mist rolling in from the sea quite engulfed us as the chair passed through some greenery with the sea to our right and the hills to the left. A surreal experience is probably not an exaggeration in this case. While I was sorry to miss the Blue Grotto, a cave with the blue reflection from the sea water, this was somewhat made up by the views from the highest point of the island – particularly, the myriad hues of the sea, I myself could count some six colours.

Day 3 of the Italy trip started with a whistle stop tour of the Naples square. Quite an impressive place with the Galleria and the Opera house, which was built way back in 1737.

Next stop was Rome and we spent the afternoon in Vatican City. I had always been interested in it and my keenness had grown over the years after I followed the Dan Brown novels. The Vatican museum was a treasure trove of Italian Renaissance creations and it was rather overwhelming in some sense. The Sistine chapel is definitely the crowning glory of Michaelangelo’s painting career and the vivid colours were remarkable just for their longevity as well as the artistic brilliance.

The Basilica is probably the most famous example of a Christian Church and the richness in terms of conception and execution is simply incomprehensible at first take. Finally, the square which finds mention in so many novels for the Papal conclave and election, the news of which is conveyed by the colour of the smoke through a chimney, was a fitting end.

Day 4 of the trip was dedicated to Rome. We saw the Trevi fountain in the morning and it was a great sight. It is maintained very clean, even though a lot of shops are around.

The Rome orientation done from the bus was rushed but we did get to know a lot of unknown stuff about the city. The Time elevator ride was a great experience and the show has been conceived very well.

The Piazza Venezia is a magnificent structure and I went and explored it on my own. Finally the Colloseum was a fitting finale to the day. Even with much of it being in ruins, it is easy to imagine the grandeur it had in the past and our guide was brilliant in conjuring up the visions of gladiators going at each other full tilt in a filled Colloseum with the spectators baying for blood.

Rome is truly a city where the past and the present live in complete harmony and we have been fortunate to witness it. Though I have posted pictures for each of the above and some of them are quite good, one will need to get a real experience to understand this.

Day 5 of the trip was spent in San Gimignano and Pisa, both of which were exceptional.

San Gimignano is a very well preserved medieval town and it got the award of an UNESCO heritage site in 1990. It is a living city but the structures of the past are all preserved. Walking through it you get the feeling of being transported to a long past age. Definitely worth a visit, even for the brilliant natural beauty of Tuscany surrounding it.

Pisa is of course known for the Leaning tower and seeing it in front of us was an amazing experience. The Square of Miracles has several other great structures such as the Baptistry and the Cathedral. As with most Italian structures these are very well maintained.

Day 6 of our trip was mostly dedicated to Florence with a worthwhile viewing of the Ferrari museum in the afternoon.

Florence is probably the best example of architecture and sculpture seen anywhere, though Italy and Europe will have close rivals. The Cathedral is undoubtedly the high point of the walking tour we had. The two domes and the Bronze door were just amazing. The main square with the replicas of David and Hercules will please any art lover. Finally, the Alexander point offers a great overview of the City landscape.

The Ferrari museum is a veritable feast for the eyes to any sports car lover. Just to see so many of these together is great and gives you a feeling of elation.

The 7th and final day of the trip was for Venice, aptly called the Queen of the Adriatic. The whole experience was great from the approach by the boat, the walk through the markets and over the bridges, the church of St Marks and finally the Gondola ride through the canals.

Venice is different from all other places because of it’s unique ecosystem and the way it has been preserved over the years. Yes, the motor boats have made it more noisy and a tad more polluted but, in today’s day and age, a place sans any surface transport is great by itself.

The memories of Venice will stay with us for long. In all ways it was a high point of our visit to Italy. I have been to several places over the years but for the sheer diversity of natural beauty, history and heritage this tour has been an unique one.

Coming back from such a trip is always laced with a tinge of sadness but the memories will last us a long time. The return journey was more tiring as we were not really looking forward to the Hyderabad heat after the salubrious climate of Italy.

For the interested reader, my recommendation will be to go through the pictures I have posted in Facebook. To be candid though, no picture can do justice to the real experience of seeing the statue of David, the waters of Capri or the Sistine chapel among many others. You really need to visit Italy if you love history, heritage and culture.

For me, it was the only major country in western Europe where I had never been and I will now be looking at Scandinavia, Africa and South America as possible next destinations for my travel.

My experiences with Tour operator Kesari

A lot of people have contacted me on my blog and Facebook and wanted to know more about my experiences with Kesari, the tour operator I had chosen for our Italy trip. Let me try and address all the queries in this post.

To begin with, this is the first time I was looking at an end-to-end tour operator. So far we had been to Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Netherlands, France and Australia and in all these travels we had booked the travel and the local tours mostly on our own. I am a firm believer that you should have a certain flexibility when you travel, for there may be things you want to do on your own and a group tour can be constraining in some ways. However, the reason we wanted to do this travel through a group tour was simple – it was difficult to cover all the places we wanted to see on our own within one week. If I was staying in Rome for 3 days I would definitely do it on my own but as we wanted to see Italy properly in the current trip a tour operator with a group tour was a better option. It also gives you the option of just enjoying the trip while the tour leader takes care of all the necessary arrangements.

Once we had identified the places we wanted to see, there was really only one tour that covered them all. It was Flavours of Italy by Kesari. When we contacted them with our queries, they were very prompt in their responses and we were quite satisfied with the inputs we received. The fact that they were covering all the meal costs and had local guides for the important tours was a definite plus point. As we were booking early there was a reasonably good discount that we got. Once we paid the 2.71 lacs as a one time fee we got into the process of arranging for the visa documents etc.

During the period between January and April we continued to interact with Kesari for purposes of visa documentation and application. They helped us with validating all the documents, taking appointment with VFS and keeping us updated about the reservations as well as the travel regulations that had come into vogue newly. The Tour leader sent us a WhatsApp message with details of how we had to meet in Mumbai and how things will proceed from that point. Kesari also provided us with the following for the travel :-

  • A stroller and a shoulder bag which were very useful during our travel.
  • A raincoat and a cap
  • A snacks hamper with Tea/coffee sachets
  • An Electric kettle
  • A power adaptor suited for Europe

From the time we checked in at Mumbai for our first leg of the flight to Abu Dhabi, our tour leader was in complete control of the situation. She got us to the transit flight in Abu Dhabi and once we were in Rome, guided us through immigration. Having travelled abroad frequently, these were no issues for me but there were many who were going out of India for the first time and were happy to get the kind of guidance she provided.

Over the next 7 days the tour leader was omnipresent in everything we did and she also let people do their own things if they so desired. The whole itinerary was managed very professionally – be it the hotel check-in’s, the meals, the transportation, the local guides and all the crises. For example when we went to Capri it was told to us that the Blue Grotto ( an underwater cave ) was not possible to visit due to the high tide in the seas. While many of us were disappointed at this, our tour leader took stock of the situation quickly and arranged an alternate activity of a chair lift ride, which we liked a lot. Through the long coach rides, she played the perfect hostess and got the group to know it’s members and to play games that were of common interest. She also had an plethora of stories, movies and music to keep people occupied.

So was it all good then? That rarely happens in real life and I would have liked to do some things had I done it on my own. For example, I would have definitely seen some museums in Rome and Florence. However, to be fair, that would have been impossible to squeeze into one week. On the whole, I think the itinerary planned out by Kesari was a really good one. Each day was an unique experience and if the objective was to give us the Flavours of Italy, I think the tour did achieve that.

The best part of the tour was definitely the tour leader and how everything was managed well. We could just focus on enjoying ourselves without worrying about any of the logistics. The worst part was we had to move as a group to see everything and sometimes that caused issues of timing and coordination.

Overall, I am happy to have taken the tour and may repeat it with the same operator in the future. If you have enough time and money along with an inclination to plan your own travel, you can definitely do so. However, most people do not have the above luxury and for those a group tour with a standard tour operator can be a great option.