A passage to Konkan coast

We are just back from our Konkan travel and, all things considered, it was probably one of the best vacations we had in recent times. It had been a long cherished desire of mine to view beaches of the Arabian sea from all States and, over the years, I had covered Kerala, Karnataka, Goa, Diu and Gujarat. As for Maharashtra, my forays were limited to the Mumbai beaches and I was very keen to visit beaches on the Konkan coast.

People who are interested in the travel planning can read about it here. Travel logistics are covered in this post. In the present post, I will cover the actual trip which started on 20th November early morning and ended on 25th November evening.

Our flight to Goa was at an unearthly hour of 5:40 AM, so we woke up at 2:30 AM and were in the car by 3 AM. In the morning hours drive on the ORR is a pleasure and we reached quite fast. Hyderabad airport was rather crowded even at that hour and it took us a fair time to get through security check. As is our practice nowadays, we headed to the airport lounge. It was way too early for breakfast but there were enough food items along with some decent coffee. Thankfully the flight was on time and we reached Goa in an uneventful manner, catching up on some lost sleep of the night before. Goa is like a second home to us, courtesy our Timeshare and our son Ronju studying there. This time we went to the Colva beach after picking up Ronju from BITS. Sitting at the beach shack, savouring some breakfast while watching the sea and catching up with Ronju was a great way to kick start the vacation.

Our train was from Madgaon at 12 noon but the winter timetable had changed it to 2:30 PM. Though it was a trifle bugging, as experienced travellers we take things in our stride and had a fairly interesting lunch in the station outlet Benjoes. The train ride was a short one, we reached Kudal at around 4:30 PM. Our first experience of the views from the train were quite favourable, especially the backwaters and the lush greenery of the western ghats. From Kudal the only viable option for Tarkarli travel is an auto rickshaw and having engaged one, we reached the MTDC resort around evening.

Tarkarli is a nice place, though a little desolate and the MTDC resort has great location. The Konkani cottage which we had booked, overlooked the sea and you could just take a 50 meter walk to reach it. Service at the resort is quite good and prompt, though the room could have done with better upkeep. The restaurant has been let out to a private party and we got friendly with the Chef there. Food was generally good to taste and the fish/prawns were great though a trifle on the dearer side. These places are all about experiences though and we had our fill of it in the 3 days we were there. Sitting in the Gazebo and having dinner while listening to the sea, wading through the sea waves along a long and isolated beach, lying on a hammock with the sea breeze rustling the tree leaves – you can take your pick, I liked all of these.

Tarkarli has two main activities and we did those in the two days we were there. First is seeing some nearby beaches and the Sindhudurg fort which you need to reach via a ferry. While the beaches were nice the fort was spectacular. I was glad of my fitness levels as it takes a fair bit to climb the fort walls, in order to get views of the sea. However, such efforts were greatly rewarded by the absolutely glorious views of the Sea which you get to see. Shivaji had great foresight with building this fort and it was one of the main reasons why the Marathas were able to hold on to their own against the naval threat from the colonial powers. There is also a beautiful Rock garden worth visiting, mainly due to the sea views again, though the landscaping here is brilliantly done too.

When in Tarkarli, one must do the boating in Karli river and see the notable points namely Dolphin point, sangam where the river meets the sea and Tsunami island. The ride through the river and the sea in a fairly rickety boat was quite an adventure and the sights of the villages and the various moods of the sea made the exercise worthwhile. We engaged in some water sports activities available in the Tsunami island. The speed boat and water scooter were predictable but the Bumper boat ride, where you sit on an inflated rubber sofa and are dragged at great speeds by a speed boat was definitely adrenaline pumping and hair raising. In the evening I also tried para motoring where a jeep pulls you hanging from a parachute. Quite an experience !!

Ganapatipule is about 200 Kms from Tarkarli and we hired a car to take us there. Even though this was a bit on the expensive side, the coastal route was replete with temples, beaches, backwater stretches and lush greenery. The combination is rather unique and I doubt whether we will have something similar elsewhere in India. We had our lunch in Ratnagiri – once again the ubiquitous fish thali, which we were getting rather used to. The drive from Ratnagiri to Ganapatipule is a very nice one with great sea views again from a height.

Ganapatipule beach is really the best beach I have seen. It is a white sand beach, stretching across a long way and as it can be only accessed easily from the MTDC resort, it also gives you a splendid sense of isolation. Lipi and I took long walks on the beach, watched two glorious sunsets and marvelled at the myriad hues of the sea. Our room was on the first floor and the balcony provided magnificent sea views. If you are too lazy for activities, just sitting on a chair and watching the sea waves will be an excellent idea. The in-house restaurant, Tarang, is run very well and has great food selections. 

Right next to the beach is the famous Ganesh temple, visited by countless devotees all over the year. If you are a religious person you will be deeply moved by the reverence showed by the worshippers there. Even otherwise, the location of the temple as well as the idol of the deity’s Mount makes it a very unique shrine. Do not miss out on the laddu which is given as prasadam here. In addition to the temple, an open air museum named Prachin Konkan, depicting how people lived in a typical Konkan village in early times is worth a visit. We also went to a new wax house, having some wax figures created by an American sculptor. It is a novel attempt though you can be excused if you think that the similarity to real life is not a great one. 

It is possible to visit the Jaigad fort and a couple of other beaches but with limited time at our disposal, we wanted to maximise our experience of the beach. Soon it was time to bid adieu to the place and, once again, the journey to the Ratnagiri station offered us great views of the Konkan coast. The vastness as well as the beauty of the Arabian sea has no better viewing point than this journey. We boarded the Jan Shatabdi train in the Vistadome coach – it is one having large windows and glass all around for maximum viewing surface. Despite the high cost of tickets, it is absolutely worth it and allows you to view the western ghats as no other mode of transport will do. Through this travel one can appreciate how tough it must have been to build Konkan Railway and how significant it has been for the lives of the people in this region.

All too soon, the train journey ended and we were back in Madgaon. A taxi ride to the Goa airport, an Air Asia flight to Hyderabad and finally another taxi ride saw us back home on Saturday evening. It was a matter of only 6 days but the experience was for a lifetime. Konkan coast can be addictive and I am sure we will be back in the near future, there is so much to see yet.

In the meantime, I will plan for other travels – it is the elixir of good living that keeps me motivated to carry on the other parts well. 

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Travel to the Konkan coast – the logistics

In the last post I had outlined the way I arrived at the plan and the route for our Konkan vacation. Once this phase is over, the next tasks are to look at the bookings. In general you will need to book for transportation and accommodation. Of course, there is the issue about local conveyance as well but we normally deal with that when we reach our destinations – it is easier this way as you have greater options.

As I said in the previous post we were fine with the dates and did not need a fixed itinerary. As such I started with the air bookings. Let me take you through a step by step process so that others would be able to follow it easily:-

  • I started by checking any 6 day range where the morning flight to Goa and an evening flight back to Hyderabad were reasonably priced. You can do this through many websites. http://www.makemytrip.com  and http://www.easemytrip.com are normally the ones I choose to look at.
  • In the first one you have a convenience fee of 300 Rs per ticket which is not there in the other one. However, the first App lets me get some cashback on the tickets as long as the charges are 6000 Rs plus.
  • In this case the cashback was not working out so I booked the EaseMyTrip deal.
  • We got a really early flight to Goa which will leave us enough time for reaching Madgaon station. Similarly, we got an evening flight from Goa.
  • Ideally one should book about 60 days in advance to get the best rates but we started plans a little late for this trip. Even then the overall cost for the two of us came to about 10000 Rs which was reasonable.

Before booking the ticket I had checked the accommodation availability for those dates – 3 nights in Tarkarli and 2 nights in Ganpatipule. I chose the Maharashtra tourism properties as they had the best location and normally these places are tourist friendly. You can do only booking at the Maharashtra tourism website. This proved to be quite a bit expensive based on what rooms we chose. Unfortunately, the GST rate reduction had not happened by then so that was a double whammy. The total accommodation costs came to about 16500 Rs. Of course there were cheaper options in these properties and you can also look at other staying alternatives. However, these places and the rooms were aligned well to what we were looking for in a vacation, so it was all right.

The final part was the train bookings. We booked a chair car from Madgaon to Kudal and a Vistadome coach seats from Ratnagiri to Madgaon. I had again checked the availability before the other bookings and had been relieved to see that there were enough seats. The First journey was 670 Rs but the other one was rather expensive at 2520 Rs. However, travelling by the Konkan railway has been a long cherished desire and we definitely wanted to try out the Vistadome coach.

What are the other costs that will be associated with the trip. There are quite a few, but the ones I can think of right now are as follows:-

  • Food – both of us love food and we are looking forward to sampling both Maharashtrian and Konkani cuisine. 
  • Transportation from home to airport, Goa airport to Madgaon station and back.
  • Local transportation from Kudal to Tarkarli, sightseeing in Tarkarli, travel to Ganapatipule, sightseeing in Ganpatipule / Ratnagiri etc.
  • Backwater and sea cruises + other water sports.
  • Buying some souvenirs from these places.

While I do not really know what will be the costs here it will be safe to assume a figure of 20000 Rs or so. That will bring the overall expenses to the trip at 50000 Rs or so. Is is a tad excessive? Well, it can be done a lot cheaper but that depends on you.

For me, this is an amount I am willing to spend and am looking forward to our trip with great anticipation. I’m almost definite it will be well worth it and will update the readers through a travelogue once we are done.

A travel plan for Konkan beaches – the conception

People who know me, either personally or through my blog, will be aware that I am an aficionado for travel. Seeing new places and the whole exercise of conceiving and planning for travel really gets me excited. The actual travel is rejuvenating but even the anticipation which starts with the plan is great. Many people have asked me as to how I plan for my travels and in this blog post let me talk about the trip we are planning to undertake in the near future.

While there are several great places to see in India, beaches have always held a great interest for me. India is blessed with a really long coastline, three glorious seas and countless beaches to choose from. Over the years we have covered a lot of beaches starting from Kanyakumari to Digha on the east coast and to Mandvi on the west coast. On the western coast we have done Kerala, Karnataka, Goa and even Diu/Gujarat beaches but not the ones on the Konkan coast. Maharashtra beaches are less visited but they are very highly talked about and I have wanted to go there for a long time. As our anniversary is in late November, it seemed as good a time as any to plan this out.

For making a travel plan, I first read up to gain knowledge about the area in order to decide on the places to visit as well as the activities to engage in. There were some good travel blogs available for Konkan travel as well as great websites with a wealth of information. The Konkan coast stretches from Mumbai to Goa and there are several great beaches along it. However, two major ones are Ganapatipule and Tarkarli and with the time at our disposal being a maximum of 5-6 days, I decided to stick to these two. Based on the blogs I viewed it seemed that 2 nights both in Tarkarli and Ganapatipule would be adequate to cover what we would want to see there.

One the broad plan is there, the next step is to figure out how to reach there and which route to follow. Here again, the blogs and the road maps of Maharashtra were a great help. As trains to those parts from Hyderabad are few and take too much time we were able to rule out that option. The bus was also rejected for the same reason as the journey to Kolhapur by an overnight bus would be an exhausting one. I was quite keen on going by our car as I like driving and we have not gone on a long drive for ages. However, my wife Lipi was not keen on a 9 hour drive to Kolhapur and further to the Konkan coast. It would take 2 days to get there and back and 2 nights stay in Kolhapur too. Also, I saw that the new Vistadome coach has started on Konkan railways and we were keen to try that out. We had a great experience recently in a similar coach when we went from Vizag to Araku valley. Read about the details in this post if you are interested.

For Tarkarli it is convenient to go through Goa, from where you can take a train or car. As the Vistadome was not available easily on the days we searched and the timing was not good, we finalised on the following route:-

  • Travel by air from Hyderabad to Goa on Day 1.
  • Take a train from Madgaon to Kudal on Day 1.
  • Reach Tarkarli from Kudal by car/auto on Day 1.
  • Stay at Tarkarli and do activities / excursions on Day 2 and Day 3.
  • Reach Ganapatipule through Ratnagiri on Day 4 afternoon.
  • Stay at Ganapatipule on Day 4 and Day 5 nights.
  • Travel between Ratnagiri and Madgaon on Day 6 morning in the Vistadome coach.
  • Catch the evening flight from Goa to Hyderabad on Day 6 evening.

The above plan would accomplish all that we had in mind, though it would be a little expensive due to air travel etc. However as it was not a priority issue for us we were able to fix on this plan. Note that the dates were not fixed as they would depend on the bookings etc. Fortunately, I am rather flexible with my time nowadays, so it does not really matter when we start the trip.

We had to take care of the actual travel logistics next in terms of the transport and hotel bookings. Let me write about it in the next post.

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.

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.