How the Hills Roll

We ended August by driving out to the Lake District, and from there onto Scotland, and got back last week. But as usual, it’s taken me longer to come back to this space. I quite enjoy keeping away from the laptop these days. As much as I enjoy coming back to catch up with those of you who are still here. I hope you’ve been well!

When we reached the Lake District and our little, whitewashed B&B in the village of Near Sawrey, I looked at the hills and realised that I’d forgotten to pack my watercolours. For this, I’m thankful. I could never have done justice to the light and the land, to the greens that were at once opaque and translucent, the ferns that were delicate and raucous, and the dew-soaked smell of wild things.

I could not have captured the trickle of the brook, the scores of tiny snails clinging onto half-eaten leaves, or the smile of the woman who invited us into her garden for freshly-picked runner beans.

I would not have known how to paint the din of the village pub, the warmth of strangers with whom we had many long conversations as we sat with our pints in the evening, nor the wisps of smoke that rose from our coil of Cumberland sausage. 
This was the same pub that Beatrix Potter had painted in her Peter Rabbit books a century-and-a-half ago. And much like the pub and her paintings, her hills haven’t changed. They speak straight to your soul, they slow down your thoughts, they inspire poems, and roll on as gently as they always have.

We walked up the hills and down, we met people who told us stories of how their great-grandfathers had built their houses, grown their gardens and died with a love of The Lakes in their heart. We stopped to pick blackberries. They’d been washed shiny from the rains of the night before. We ate the blackberries standing by the road. The bushes were prickly, the fruits sweet and tart. They stained our fingers the same shade as the sky at sunset, when the last light dipped behind the hills.


Blackberry-Picking
by Seamus Heaney

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.

Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

A Week in Pessoa’s City

Lisboa. Pessoa. They rhyme. They’re related too. Fernando Pessoa is Lisbon’s favourite son. A writer who lived, breathed and wrote the city. You will find bits of Pessoa everywhere you walk in Lisbon. The silhouette of his thin, sharp profile, hat on the head, is the face of the city – it’s on posters and tea-towels, on the canvases of roadside artists, on t-shirts and old trams.

Pessoa was born in a fourth-floor apartment in the area of Chiado in Lisbon. Our apartment, through no crafty planning, was also in Chiado; and on the fourth floor. We were obviously following the right footsteps.

The apartment’s long balcony looked down on Largo do Camoes, a patterned square that seems to frame life in the city. It’s where people sit with their morning newspapers or hurry across to their day jobs, it’s where Tram 28 curves on it’s way to neighbouring hoods, where students lounge on stairs, an old woman feeds pigeons and where we ate our breakfast every morning; a breakfast of coffee and warm Pastel de Natas. We did not have a choice really, not when the best little bakery in Lisbon, Manteigaria, sat beneath our apartment and woke us up with the smell of it’s famed tarts early in the morning.


Tram 28. It is an old, yellow, iconic box, trundling up and down Lisbon, on which we hop on after breakfast. It’s oozing people – people going to work, ladies with coiffured hair and tall umbrellas that get in the way, toddlers throwing tantrums, mothers saying shhh. It’s just right. Not a tram that’s been relegated to tourist entertainment, but one that runs like a vein through the heart of Lisbon, taking its people where they need to be.


Lisbon is a city full of sharp inclines, with steep streets that dip and rise. The tram winds up these narrow lanes and takes us to my favourite area of Lisbon. Alfama.

Alfama is Lisbon’s oldest quarter. A Moorish patch that sits on the hill looking out to sea. It’s the old city, it’s where Lisbon was born before it trickled down the hill and spread into the city it is today. Alfama with its old houses of thick walls was one of the few pieces of Lisbon that survived the great earthquake of 1755. And with it, survived its character, colour and soul. Once the neighbourhood of the poor, it is today full of artists and musicians – you can find a little shop tucked in the alleys where a lady called Maria sits and paints tiles with crushed minerals, you can browse the flea market of Feira de Ladra on a Tuesday or Saturday and walk past antique toys and handpainted ceramics, or you can step into one of Alfama’s little restaurants in the evening to listen to the haunting sounds of Fado where musicians sit by your table singing tales of life and lament.

When you climb down from Alfama, you walk back into that part of Lisbon at level with the waters next to which it sits; at the open mouth between two curves of land where the Atlantic flows in and forms the Tagus River. Here, by the river, the city throbs with a different rhythm. Young, modern. Broad pavements and promenades, the chic food market of Ribeira, shops and restaurants, tourists and tricksters.

There’s much to explore in Lisbon: Chiado, Baixo, Bairro Alto, and farther away, Belem with it’s formal gardens, mansions and monastery. You’ll have your favourite, just as we did.

Fernando Pessoa had an intrinsic similarity with the city he so loved. Pessoa was known as much for his poetry and existential musings as he was for a particular ‘quirk’ of his writing life: He did not write only as Fernando Pessoa, he created more than seventy versions of himself. He refused to call then pseudonyms – after all, a pseudonym is just a different name an author chooses to write under – Pessoa called his avatars heteronyms, for they were personalities in their own right. Each of these writers, which extended from Pessoa himself, were distinct in their character, appearance, even life and livelihood. In fact, his heteronyms often had views and opinions diametrically opposite to Pessoa’s own.

Just as Fernando Pessoa was many writers, Lisboa is many cities. And each part, each district, has a different voice. As you traverse the city on tram and foot, one of these voices will speak to you directly, and that will be the place where you sit down, sip a drink and watch the sun go down.

Places to eat

These were four of our favourites in Lisbon:

Mercado da Ribeira A food hall with a difference, where some of the top restaurants and chefs of the city come together. Modern, relaxed and with the most tempting, confusing array of stalls and choices.

Cantinho do Aziz This family-run Mozambique restaurant tucked away in the alleys of Alfama gave us one of the best meals of our stay. Portugal’s long liaison with Mozambique has given its food a unique richness and flavour that you won’t find anywhere else.

Ramiro You might’ve watched Anthony Bourdain digging into his seafood here. It lives up to every hype, and serves everyone from local groups of grannies to some of the top chefs in the city who come here to get their seafood fix.

Manteigaria Forget about going all the way to Belem for the best Pastel de Natas. It’s overrated. But what is not, is this little shop in Chiado, which rings a brass bell early in the morning when their first batch of Natas is baked. It’s perfect.

Following the Swallows

We’ve been away. Not very far – just a few hours’ flight across the continent – but when you live without phones, laptops and wi-fi passwords for a couple of weeks, you go farther away than the miles you travel, and take longer to come back. You switch off, become absent, but find yourself more present than before. Portugal is a country that rewards you for that; for being present, not just physically, but with all your senses undistracted and available. For this country is a feast for the eyes and ears and nose, for the touch and the taste.

In his novel ‘Blindness’ Portuguese writer and Nobel laureate José Saramago writes of an epidemic where people start going blind. Only, their blindness is not dark, but a stark, brilliant white. Towards the end of the novel, Saramago writes “I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.” He could have been writing about us, struck blind by the white glows of our screens, riders of another epidemic. Travel is my way of switching off and breathing, and only being in one place at a time.

All you need is a map, an instinct, and a few conversations. Strangers will show you the way, give you their time and their kindness, they will warn you of dangers, give little gifts to your child wherever she goes, they will point you to a tiny restaurant, barely a restaurant, where for ridiculously little money you will eat a meal you will not forget.

Our journey starts in Porto. A city crisscrossed with tramlines that weave their way around old balconied houses. From our high-ceilinged, sun-filled room, roads slope up and down walking us to the city’s oldest bookstore, quietest church, busiest streets and most famous pork-stuffed sandwiches. But what charms us about Porto are its people. They surprise us. It’s a big city with a small-town openness, a sense of generosity you don’t expect in such bustling streets. We walk into a shop that is about to close for the day, we buy something for Chotto-ma, the man wraps it up, crouches down and gives to her, then brushes away the money we hold out. “I gift her,” he says, “no pay.”

That’s how Portugal starts off, and continues.

 

From Porto, we take a train eastwards, deeper into the country, to a little town called Lamego. The train track often runs so close to the waters of the Duoro River we feel we’re afloat: we’re on a train, oh we’re on a boat, a train, a boat! says Chotto-ma.

When we reach Lamego, we find a town lazing in the afternoon sun, it’s benches busy with the gossip of town-elders, its fountains rimmed with children, and it’s backdrop rising in tiers of holy drama in the form of a 600-stair cathedral. We take our cue from the town and pass our time sitting in outdoor cafes, reading, watching life go by, and learning new Portuguese words from people we meet.

And we climb. The 600 stairs to the cathedral. My muscles scream. Our climb to each tier is relieved by fountains of sweet, quenching water, and the shade of camellia trees bursting pink with flowers. And finally, when we reach the top, the view is glorious. You look down on rooftops and mountains and clouds lying beneath like a painting.

In Lamego, we meet more wonderful people, Chotto-ma walks out of places holding more gifts, we eat one of our best meals in a restaurant filled with locals, where no one speaks English and we point to other tables to show them what we want. We talk with our hands and our smiles, and everyone understands each other perfectly.

 
From Lamego, we make our way to the midst of the Duoro Valley, to gentle, terraced hills, green from the rains, cut through by the Duoro River. It is breathtaking. As our car curves through the gates of the quinta which will be our home for the next few days, we know this is going to be something special.

A quinta is a traditional country house, and ours is so rich in history that every room has a story to tell. And no-one to tell it better than its owner Maria Manuel Cyrne, Viscountess of all she surveys, and a woman of warmth and spirit. As a young girl, Maria grew up in this house, surrounded by beautiful things, running free amongst vineyards and olive trees. But her family lost the house and land when Portugal rose in revolution. They moved out, though the memories stayed. Maria spent her youth and adult life dreaming of returning to the life she remembered.


Finally in her fifties, she bought the house back, though most of its rooms had been destroyed, and of the intricately carved ceilings, only one remained. After painstaking work, the quinta now stands beautifully restored; it is home to Maria’s immediate and extended family who live and work here. We had acres to explore, and crackling fires and sumptuous meals to come back to. And like in the rest of Portugal, for a price one cannot imagine anywhere else in Europe.

 

From the north, we take the train to the very rural south, to Alentejo, a region still without the smudges of tourism, where you can walk miles along a searing blue coastline without meeting a soul, and only occasionally the odd hiker. The landscape couldn’t be more different from the valleys of the north. Here, the eye roams over long, flat stretches of rugged bush scattered with cork oaks and pines and olive trees and a coastline with craggy ochre cliffs rising out of the wild froth of the sea. The cliffs cup tiny coves and the beaches are empty except for a local walking his dog or a lone surfer cresting a wave. Along a beach, you discover a small family-run restaurant looking out to the sea, serving fresh fish grilled to perfection.


In Alentejo, we stay in a rural quinta in the middle of fields of yellow flowers, its whitewashed walls bordered with the region’s traditional stripe of cobalt blue. A beautiful house originally built in 1826, inviting you in with old books, board games and hearty breakfasts; a restoring stop for hikers. We spend our days cycling for miles around, on rocky country roads lined with bush and sea, broken only by the sounds of cowbells and the chaotic chirping of nesting swallows. At midday, hot and hungry, we stop at the small town of Zambujeira Do Mar for a lunch of grilled dourada, or rice cooked with monkfish and shrimps, served with a pitcher of Alentejo’s wonderful wine.

From Alentejo we take the train to our last stop. Lisbon, or Lisboa, or ‘a boa-constrictor called Liz’ as Chotto-ma likes to think of it. And like a boa-constrictor, the city is not easily squeezed into a paragraph, so I’ll leave Lisboa for the next post. I hope you’ll come back; take a walk with me in one of the most interesting cities in Europe. Until then, here’s to birdsong, fields of yellow flowers, and to switching off!

Goa!

Warm sea rolls in. Each wave inhales and exhales like a yogi, swells up and out of the waters, stretches towards us in a powerful arch, then flattens itself at out feet in pliant froth. Chotto-ma shrieks with a glee that does not ebb, not even at the hundredth wave.

Our mornings in Goa always started like this. We woke up at dark, and walked out at dawn, out of the old Portuguese casa we were renting in Candolim. Bhupen, the casa’s gardener and Man Friday, always armed us with a long stick to keep stray dogs at bay.

Three days after landing in Kolkata, D, Chotto-ma and I took a flight to Goa with my parents in tow. My brother flew in from New York. And suddenly we were all together after a very long time. In a beautiful, whitewashed villa, spending days lazing in the pool, taking walks on the beach, eating seafood at the shacks with our toes in the sand, and ending our days with beers and cocktails in candlelight watching ships bob and twinkle in the inky Arabian.


Goa is not a place. It’s a way of life. It’s the patch of India that most knows how to live and let live. It’s a place D and I return to time and again. This time, for the first time, we had family with us. And a little girl who had to be introduced to a place we’ve loved for long. She was in her element in Goa: salty-haired, playing with the dogs who followed her faithfully, collecting shells, reading Harry Potter all afternoon, drinking tall glasses of watermelon juice, or begging for five minutes, just five more minutes, in the pool.

We traipsed around Panjim, we sat in empty, little-known churches with its cool, carved beauty arching around us into sun-dappled domes. We browsed markets and haggled over skirts cut out of old silk sarees. We watched fishermen stand by their boats in the early morning light, plucking off little silvery fish off their nets. We ate Xacuti, and chatted with the locals boys who worked in the beach shacks. We noticed how hard they worked, and how little tourists did to help them – leaving the sands strewn with empty bottles and cans and remnants of their night’s wildness. Each day at dawn, the boys would clean the beach with resigned patience, then smoothen the sand in painstaking strips with what looked like a wooden plough.


There’s much about Goa that has changed in the last decade. On the more popular beaches in North Goa, most shop-signs and restaurant menus are in Russian. Signs of how much we concede for commerce, flexing so far that we run the risk of losing ourselves. But for those who take the time to walk away from the madding crowd, there’s still the Goa of cashew trees, rickety bamboo bridges over thin rivers, calm sands, a single shack with good Goan food and moonlight falling like a beam of thick torchlight on black waters.

And there, you can sit in the dark, with nothing but sounds of the briny sea, and a sky screaming with stars.

***

Where To Stay
If you want an old Portuguese villa all to yourself, you can’t do better than Casa Maya, where we stayed. Gorgeous interiors, stone floors, white walls, dark wood and Andy Warhol prints. A gardener and cook. And a pool.


Where To Eat

Everyone has their favourites in Goa, ones they go back to, the shack on the beach they have breakfast in. These places are best found by yourself, traipsing aimlessly on foot or in your rented Vespa. But if you’re looking for a special restaurant for a really good meal, here are our top three.

Bomras in Candolim
The best Burmese food I’ve had in a while, and absolutely flawlessly done. Try the ‘Tea Leaf Salad’ for a starter. Each of us took a different main course, and not one failed. The desserts are seasonal, and pretty sensational – I had the ‘Coconut and Passion Fruit Pannacotta’.

La Plage in Ashvem
The most chic beach ‘shack’ you’ll find in Goa, and on an endless stretch of sand that is still unspoilt. It serves fresh French-Mediterranean food with a local touch, and had us going back and back.  (In fact, it was the only restaurant we repeated.)

Mum’s Kitchen in Panjim
Authentic, traditional Goan food in a beautiful, quiet area in Panjim. Fiery, coconut-y curries served with plump rice or sweet, fermented breads fresh out of the oven. Their desserts too are to die for. The restaurant’s garden has a fish pond with a little bridge to cross, which charmed Chotto-Ma.

***

And finally! After months, I managed to photograph something out of my kitchen. So, here’s a recipe for a very Goan dish (with a tiny twist), made with sausages (the Goan version of chorizo), that we brought back all the way to cold, grey England.


Goan Sausage, Fennel & Parsley Pilau

A bulb of fennel, chopped
1 white onion, chopped
A pack of Goan sausages (or chorizo if that’s what’s available)
1 tsp coarsely pounded black pepper
A generous cupful of chopped flat-leave parsley
Cooked rice (perfect if it’s a day old and out of the fridge)
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt

(Note: I haven’t given measurements for the sausage and rice because it’s better if you tweak that according to taste – the sausage has a strong flavour, so, if the flavour is too strong for you, add more rice. And if it’s a flavour you love, add more sausage.)

Start with the sausage: snip open the encasing skin and take the meat out. It’ll come out in coarsely cut chunks, which is perfect for the pilau. If you’re using chorizo, just chop up the sausage in uneven chunks and pound them a little bit using a mortar and pestle.

Heat the oil in a pan. Add the onion, fennel and black pepper in together. Stir on medium heat for a few seconds, then add the sausage. Stir for a minute or so – the sausage with let out oil and a lovely smell of garlic and spices. Add the rice, and salt. Mix well till the rice is evenly coloured with the sausages. Take it off the heat.
Add half of the parsley, mix and cover with a lid for a few minutes. Before serving, garnish with the rest of the parsley.

Enjoy!


A dark pint of Dublin

It’s a city of song; at every turn, buskers sing their souls into upturned hats. It’s a city of writers and poets. Of bridges over water, and history scribbled all over. It’s a city of men with boyish eyes and thick beards. Of quiet humour and a laidback energy. It’s a city that likes to brunch. Where food comes in hearty portions. Smiles too.

Dublin stands sure in its skin – old and modern and uncomplicated. Its parks very green, its art very edgy. Its buildings are often painted a deep red, a screaming pink, clover green, old-lady-purple.

There’s a certain New-Yorkness to this wee city, especially when you zoom in through the lens of a camera. Parts of it reminded me of Williamsburg in Brooklyn: the red-brown bricks and art-splattered streets, the large loft-like spaces converted into cafes, derelict buildings with funky shops, feet in clean canvas shoes.

With all it’s history hugged tightly to its chest, Dublin seems to have marched headlong into the Now. You could walk into a 12th-century pub for a glass of Guinness and some beef stew, or lunch at a restaurant where modern Irish cooking bends expectations, often blending fresh local ingredients with Middle-Eastern flavours.

And if you’re lucky (as we were), you could be sitting in an old, old pub with your dark, dark pint, when suddenly, a group in the corner takes out their guitars and breaks into unprepared song. Strong and clear. Their acoustics bouncing off the wood-lined walls. And everyone cheers and claps and they sing one more song, and then another. And you leave Dublin humming the city like a well-worn tune.

 ***

The Nitty Gritties: where we slept and ate and drank, and the places we loved in Dublin.

Where we stayed:
The Dean Hotel. Very retro-chic, complete with vinyls in the room. And a rooftop restaurant and bar that’s hard to beat.

Where we ate and drank:
We tried lots of lovely places, but there were some clear winners. I’ve put them together in one perfect day of eating and drinking.

Morning

The Fumbally. It was one of our favourite places in Dublin; try their fantastic brunch, and enjoy the gorgeously haphazard space!

Noon

O’Donaghue’s. A pint of Guinness at this pub, amidst that impromtu jam of guitar and song, was one of my best afternoons in Dublin, and one that I’ll remember for a long time.

The Pig’s Ear. Modern Irish cooking at it’s best, and a short walk from O’Donaghue’s. The restaurant also sits near the National Gallery of Ireland where we really enjoyed the Sean Scully exhibition.

Evening

Sophie’s at The Dean. That’s the rooftop restaurant I mentioned earlier. Have a cocktail by the wall of glass and look down at the city and the mountains beyond as the sun sets. You can’t do better. The pizzas are great, as is the rest of the food.

Coppinger Row. A Mediterranean restaurant in the hub of Dublin. Our meal here was faultless, fresh and full of flavour, and all whipped out of a busy, open kitchen. (Oh, Beyoncé and Jay Z dined here, if that counts!)


Dublin for kids:

Dublin is very child-friendly. People would bend down to have one-to-one conversations with Chotto-ma as if she were a solo traveller, and we weren’t there at all!

There are great galleries and museums to keep kids interested, to learn a bit about Ireland and the influences of other cultures that passed through this island country. Chotto-ma loved these –
The National Gallery of Ireland
The Chester Beatty Library
National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology

In good weather (which we amazingly had almost everyday of our stay) head to –
St Stephen’s Green is one of the loveliest city parks, with a duck-filled pond, fountains, gazebos and nooks and cranies to explore.

Merrion Square has a wonderful playground themed on The Selfish Giant. Chotto-ma had finished reading Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and Other Stories just before the holiday, and had loved The Selfish Giant, so she especially enjoyed this park. (It’s also very close to the National Gallery of Ireland).

***

(None of the places mentioned above have sponsored this post. They’re just mentions of things we enjoyed, so others might enjoy them too. I don’t do reviews on the blog.)

Provence: Driving into the Absurd

Provence turns anticlockwise, like the untwisting of a bottle cap. Like turning down the volume so you can hear the wind, or the nothing. It unwinds you; you have no choice in the matter. It laughs in the face of your plans and pending emails, it shames you with fields of crimson poppies. It pulls out a chair under a trellis of vines, pours you a glass of rosé and says, there, now spell ‘schedule’, define ‘purpose’. You can’t remember what those words look like; the sky is far too blue, everything is absurdly beautiful. You shrug, your mouth makes the little fart-like sound that’s French for ‘Who knows?’. You sit back and let the dappled sunshine untangle the muscles in your shoulder and try not to hum that John Denver song.

Life is better when it isn’t chased. People in these little villages in the Luberon – the hilly middle of Provence – get that. The locals look like tourists even as they go about the business of making a living, earning their bread and butter. Well, baguette and sea-salted Normandy butter, in this case. All the villages in the Luberon, seem to tumble slowly down hillsides onto newly sown rows of lavender, which will all be purple come July. We spend our days sitting on stone walls that drop many feet to the hills below. Sometimes, we take our little red, rented Fiat and drive through winding roads, exploring sleepy villages, stopping for no reason. We follow miles of dirt road to hidden restaurants set in acres of wild countryside singing with cicadas. And come home to a tiny apartment that stands near the local boulangerie in the most beautiful village in Provence, where I sit and write this post.

We’re in Lourmarin. A village of blue shuttered windows fringed with roses, shiny cobbled streets, pavement cafes and women in loose linens. Everyone has a dog, everyone knows everyone else, the dogs know each other. Bonjjouurrr, they sing. After the first week, everyone knows us too. They always stop to chat as we walk to the boulangerie for croissants in the morning – broken English meet broken French amidst hand gestures and big smiles. They all have a wicker basket on one arm filled with the day’s groceries, and tucked under the other arm, three fresh baguettes. Always three.

The village is scattered with old fountains swimming with fish. Chotto-ma talks to the fish as we sit in the village square with our morning coffee. She comes back and tells us their names, she tells us that each fish has a distinct personality. When she’s not talking to fish, she is following the little creek that runs down the alleys between the houses. We follow her, she leads us nowhere, we have nowhere to get to. When the sun gets too hot, we stop for a beer.

Albert Camus lived in Lourmarin, his house still stands in the village. When I was sixteen, I read ‘The Fall’ and my day shifted on its axis. His work shuts out the world with thick stone walls, it isolates you. At sixteen, isolation was the one thing I craved often. I read him and reread him for two years, till the need to read him left me as suddenly as it had come, much like Camus’ own life – a short, intense burst followed by sudden death. If someone had told me then, as I read his books in my humid Calcutta afternoon, that I’d rent an apartment in his village someday, stroll by his house and the grave where he lies, I’d have laughed. Absurd, I might’ve said. A word Camus would no doubt have approved of.


At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.





PS: I’ll try to put together a photo-list of our favourite villages and restaurants in Provence next. Till then!

What can I say – (Marrakech & beyond, Part II)

This part of the Morocco post was sitting in a corner, maturing like good wine – and even as I type out that sentence, I know it was doing no such thing. This post was just sitting in a corner half-written. I’ve mastered procrastination to a fine art. But procrastination suits Morocco well. It’s a place where everything happens when it happens.

Here it is now, the best bits. And I hope you’ll think it was worth the wait.

*Long post alert* Get a cushion, make yourself comfortable.

The Riad

In Marrakech, we stayed in a traditional Moroccan riad. A painstakingly restored 17th Century house buried in the maze of the Medina. The way to the riad is in itself an adventure – when we reached Marrakech, a car picked us up at the airport and drove us through the labyrinth of the city till we reached the fringes of the Medina. Here, the driver alighted and pointed us towards a little metal ‘cage’ on wheels, attached to a cycle. ‘Umm, what?‘, our looks said. Rapid hand gestures explained that the cage was not for us, but for our luggage. The Medina was a car-free zone, so the cage had been arranged by the riad so we wouldn’t have to lug our suitcases. We loaded our luggage and a little girl into the contraption, and off we went, following it through arteries of narrow lanes, dodging donkeys, mopeds and cyclists. After only a minute or so, we stopped in front of a small, nondescript door in a sliver of an alley.

But then, the door opened. And the world changed. Magic.

We walked into an oasis of contradiction. From the ochre smells and tangy walls of the city, into a white, marbled courtyard that smelled of roses and opened up to the sky, with a pool of water at its center. As green as the outside was not. There were bananas and oranges hanging off the trees, and the house growing around it. Cats lazed on large cushions, and turtles snoozed amidst the fronds. Stairs wound up to sunny terraces. And warm smiles greeted you, welcomed you in.

This is Riad Berbere, a flawlessly beautiful old home run by the charming Ingrid and her team of wonderfully kind local women, who went out of their way, every day, to make us feel at home. This was where Chotto-ma was in her elements – playing with the cats, running around the courtyard, chatting with the women in the kitchen. While D and I lounged by the fireplace chatting over a glass of local wine.

The food we had at the riad were some of the finest of our stay in Morocco. Everything on the table was made by the women in the riad –  the bread would be brought in straight from the oven every morning, along with fluffy pancakes served with homemade preserves, freshly-squeezed orange juice, bowls of fruits and mint tea. At night, a traditional Moroccan meal would be made with whatever was bought from the market on the day. One of our meals was a trio of warm salads, lamb slow-cooked with plums in a tagine, couscous and for dessert crisp-fried phyllo pastry layered with a light creme-anglais and strawberries.

A part of me wants to keep Riad Berbere a secret; keep it to myself. But here it is. If there’s one place you should rest your head in Marrakech, this is the one.

[You can also find wonderful reviews of Riad Berbere on Tripadvisor]

The Hike

On the day D turned a year older (and purportedly, wiser) we went on a hike to Ourika, to clamber up a brutally bouldered rock-face to a waterfall. My idea of a birthday gift; and knowing D, the perfect one too. The climb was steep, slippery with mountain streams, and a test in balance. We had a guide called Omar – the nicest person you can imagine – who took care of Chotto-ma every inch of the climb, while D and I concentrated on saving our bones and breath.

He swung her over sharp rock-faces, over gushing streams with wet logs for bridges, he picked her up and bounded up the bigger boulders, then stood her up in a safe spot while giving us a hand to pull us up. And Chotto-ma, boy, she did us proud that day – she walked and walked and walked, and never once changed her mind about making it to the end.

Reaching the waterfall feels like an achievement, a relief, an absolute joy. And then, you look down, and see the sheer rocky drop down, the boulders descending in utter tumble, and realise it’s the only way down.

We wouldn’t change a thing about that day. And we have the lovely people at Morocco Attractive Tours to thank for it. Abdul, who drove us through the valleys and to Ourika in a 4X4, spoke several languages, and made the trip come alive with anecdotes and facts about the land and its people we would never have known otherwise.

You can also book their tour through Viator, as we did.

A Few Good Meals

Apart from the food from the Riad’s kitchen, which made us wait excitedly for dinner, there were a few food experiences that stood out. 

{Jemaa-El-Fna}

This is the Morocco most photographed. Jemaa-El-Fna, the throbbing, beating center of Marrakech. Ancient, unchanged. Spilling over with dancers and snake-charmers and bowls of snail soup. Rows and rows of stalls cooking food, tossing them onto plates, sliding them down long tables to waiting mouths. Loud, hungry for business, persistent, cajoling. It often puts foreign tourists off; tourists who’re more used to a softer luring. To us though, it was like being back in India. We didn’t miss a beat, and nor did the boys at the stall. They walked up to us singing songs from Hindi films. We love India, they said, kissing a startled Chotto-ma on the head.

We ate at Stall 31, which is always full of locals. (While travelling, this is our simple guide to food – eat where the locals eat; it has never failed us). You start by copying the locals: first come plates of tomato sauce, a little like a salsa, which you mop up with chunks of bread. And then, you let yourself go crazy. What I would recommend are the merguez sausages – as many plates as you can eat. The marinated olives. And a spiced mash of greens, which I know not the name of, but which was good, good, good.

{The Berber Lunch}

On D’s birthday, we ate lunch in a Berber home, high up in the Atlas Mountains. A modest home, an almost barren home, but with a kitchen that simmered and smoked with food straight off the land. As far as birthday meals go, I dare say I nailed it.

We ate sitting on a terrace that looked out at the mountains from all sides. A lentil soup, homebaked bread, vegetable couscous with ladles of broth, a chicken and apple tagine. Oranges and mint tea.

Sitting there in the crisp mountain air, our muscles aching from the hike, we ate this warming food. Out of charred, earthen tagines. Soups in green, wonky bowls typical of Berber pottery. Meat falling off the bone. Fluffy couscous piled onto grateful plates.

{A Day in Amal}

Amal is many things –  a training center, a restaurant, a place to learn more about Moroccan culture, but most importantly, it’s a place that does good work. Amal helps disadvantaged women find their feet. Through food, and the art of cooking, it empowers local women to earn money, earn their independence. It’s a happy place, with women chatting and laughing as they work, bustling around it’s garden and corridors. Amal is supported by a small group of people strewn all over the world, and run by Hassan, the director of the center, a charming, witty man who left New York to come back home to Morocco to run this bit of hope.

D, Chotto-ma and I spent a day there, doing a cooking class (in between stirring, Chotto-ma also climbed every orange tree in their courtyard, but that’s another story).

It was our last day, we had a flight to catch, but if we hadn’t squeezed Amal in, we would’ve missed something very special, important even. Important because it gave us an insight into how simple homecooking can help make a powerful difference. And it brought me in touch with some lovely women, who smiled and gestured me into the art of couscous. Not the 10-minute couscous we quickly throw together before a meal here. But a couscous of patience, taking longer than lamb, steamed gently over a simmering pot of vegetable, then fluffed and steamed and fluffed and steamed and fluffed again. Till it billowed into a pile many times its original size. Shaped into a pyramid and layered with the vegetables that had been simmering, simmering, simmering.

For lunch, we ate what we had cooked – the couscous cooked with Fouzia and Jamila, who showed us how. I also tried my hand at phyllo making, to much encouraging applause – it’s a tricky combination of smearing watery dough on a scalding hot metal plate (with your bare hands), and rotating the plate at the same time, till a thin muslin-like layer is made. And then peeling it up like glue off your fingers.


Amal is a place you leave feeling good. Good for having known and been a day’s part of this wonderful venture. And for having met this group of good people. When we left Amal and were making our way to the airport, we realised that D had left his winter jacket behind, with important papers in its pockets. We turned our taxi back. But when we returned to Amal, Hassan told us that he had already sent a man with the jacket to the airport. Which was 45 minutes away from the center. When we made our way back to the airport, we found the man standing there with the black jacket and a big smile.

What can I say. We couldn’t have left Morocco better.

PS: If you missed Part I of the post, it’s here sunning itself.

PPS: This post was NOT sponsored by any of the establishments mentioned – they are all personal recommendations. 

Into my bones – (Marrakech & beyond, Part I)

We returned from Morocco days ago, but while we were there, the sun seeped into my bones and made me slow to return to daily things.  It felt good to be away from routine, packed lunches, and the internet. I need this – to be on my metaphorical island – with just D and Chotto-ma every once in a while. To cut-off of from everything, focus on nothing. Morocco, or Maroc, could be a metaphor for many things.

I wanted to give D a surprise for his birthday, so Chotto-ma and I crept around our crafty piece of planning for weeks. Choosing the place, booking tickets, looking for a place to stay, and impossibly, keeping mum. Finally, we had Morocco.
Of all the gin joints in the world, I had to choose the one that would be saddest to leave.
For anyone from India, Morocco, especially it’s cities, would feel instantly familiar. But look a little closer, and you see the little things that make it its very own person. It’s a country where you need to peer past cliches. As a local told us with a sad shake of his head – Marrakech is more famous than Morocco.
Yes, Morocco could be all about Marrakech’s souks and snake charmers, but if you stray away for a while, drive down emptier roads, the rewards are even richer. Hunker down for a conversation in a little village, talk to local women as they prepare lunch, or turn the other way and walk around the modern, residential areas of its cities where urban life unfolds in wide, leafy avenues.
The country then begins to piece together into a more complex, layered whole. Where the old and new change lanes seamlessly, crisscrossing each other without a crash. Much like the traffic on its street. Much like the way in which the locals shift smoothly from Arabic to French to English, switching tongue without thought.
We travelled from Marrakech to the valleys beyond. To villages that had been at the mercy of a ten-year drought, useless bridges arching over rivers that had dried into roads. When the rains finally fell, it grew from a trickle to a gush so great that the dry riverbeds filled up and bulged out, crashing through houses on its way, breaking walls, homes. On these roads, steep and sharp, rising through Berber villages and into the Atlas, life is hard. Physical and spartan, amidst the beauty of its red earth. But this is also where you find the resilience, and rosy-cheeked children, and an optimism that can curve mouths into wide smiles.
And as one day ended and another began, and we went from losing ourselves in the apricot-coloured alleyways of Marrakech, to wounding our way around mountains, to walking through miles of beautiful moonscaped valleys, we found something that made this journey stretch and linger: good people. They were everywhere we went – on empty red roads, little villages, and in the crazy circus of Marrakech’s Jemaa-el-Fna. They were there with kind smiles, big hugs and many kisses for Chotto-ma’s forehead. We’ve brought those back with us, along with bowls and tagines and bags of spices.
Apart from the people, there were some things that stood out, things that made our time in Morocco soar above every expectation we had had of it. Amongst them: The riad where we stayed; a home of such beauty it made us stand still. A hike that had me sore in places I didn’t know I had. And a few meals that I will never forget. I’ll leave those for my next post. Do come back.

Edged in sideways – Sicily, Part II

Look how long this took.

A few weeks ago, on the Sicily post, I promised you Part Two. Between that promise and this post, life edged in sideways, the sneaky thing. But here it is. Part Two, slow-roasted like little Sicilian tomatoes. Tell me if you can taste it.

 ………

Sicily – a photo journal

I’ll let the photographs do most of the talking this time, and I hope they’ll tell you little secrets, show you little nooks, take you away for a while. Happy weekend, my friends!

The House

A cottage out of a fairytale, hidden in the wild Madonie mountains, in Northern Sicily. We spent weeks searching for the perfect place – away from everything, without a frill, rustic and simple. We wanted birdsong and walks in the woods, and not much else. That was what Casa Bianca was in a nutshell.

For more information on Casa Bianca, you can get in touch with the lovely Pamela here.

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The Places

We loved the contrasts Northern Sicily threw up at every turn. I’m going to show you three places we loved. The old, cobbled alleys of Cefalu, a town tumbling into the Mediterranean. The fishing village of Scopello, with its glittering hamlet. Castelbuono, a beautiful commune hugging a medieval cathedral. And Palermo, a city I thought I wouldn’t like, but which I loved. We went to Palermo on a Monday morning when many of its shops are shut; it gave us a chance to see a different side of the city. Unhurried; with daily lives being led, crumbling balconies holding the sun, couples sitting under giant banyan trees.

{Cefalu}

 

 {Scopello}

{Castelbuono}

{Palermo}

 ………

The Food

Nothing I say about Sicilian food can do it justice, but there are a few things that you can’t leave the island without tasting.
Cannolo – a crisp tube of fried dough filled with sweet ricotta.
A no-fuss, grilled swordfish.
Spaghetti alle vongole – spaghetti with a simple tumble of clams.
Pasta alla norma – pasta with fried eggplant, ricotta salata, pine nuts, basil and garlic.
Pasta con le sarde – pasta with sardines, wild fennel, pine nuts, raisins and saffron.
Swordfish involtini.
Arancini.
The fish couscous, which made its way to Sicily from Northern Africa, and is a specialty in the Trapani area.
When in season, a pizza with artichokes, which I love.
And in between your meals: a cool, crunchy granita and glasses of fresh orange juice.

 ………
Cooking in Sicily

What can I say, I could go on with the food. So, before I go, I’ll leave you with a meal we cooked at home, with fresh ingredients from the market, and ate sitting at the table outside our cottage, in the midst of magic Sicilian mountains.

 ………

Can’t blow it wrong – Sicily, Part I

Just as I sit down to write this post, Chotto-ma starts playing the harmonica: blowing in, sucking out. The harmonica takes the air from her lungs, with all its haphazardness, and turns it into the music of a hundred breezes. And it makes me think that if Sicily were to be an instrument, this is what it would be. A harmonica. You can’t blow it wrong.

It sits in the cupped palm of the Mediterranean, its notes rising from low to high in one long breath. If you let your eyes travel to the very end, to the curved line of the horizon where the sea spoons the sky, everything is an unimaginable blue. As your sight travels closer, the colour lightens in calm strips – from aquamarine to turquoise to emerald to a pale jade, and finally swishing around your ankles as clear as truth.

Walk out of the shifting sand under the sea, onto the warm beach, and the land starts to rise. A wild, earthy road appears, overgrown with sun-crackled greens. The road begins to bend around, hugging the lift of the land. It curves and rises, curves and rises. Sand changes to mountains. The green changes too; deepens. Yellow houses appear, peeking through a shock of bougainvillea. Magenta bougainvillea, with that turquoise sea dropping behind it: it makes you shake your head, this impossible beauty.

As your car winds up farther, forests grow. Walls of wildflowers – yellow, pink, purple and white – begin to tunnel your way. Clouds appear. They come down, touch. Without warning, you come to a turn in the road. This is the turn you’re supposed to take. It leads to a tiny commune called Gibilmanna, high in the Madonie mountains. But this turn, as it turns out, is not really a turn at all. It is an almighty drop. Sheer. Nearly straight down. In the fading light, it is much like Alice’s rabbit hole. D inches the car in, Chotto-ma and I hang by our seatbelts – three perpendicular people. The road hurtles down and down, until it finally stops at a huge iron gate. Casa Bianca, the sign says.

That was our home for eight days. A cottage set in acres of land, which we had all to ourselves. The house sat in the middle of a woodland in the throes of its Sicilian spring – louder than any springtime I’ve ever seen – with an orchard in front and a stream running through. It had a wisteria-covered porch under which a bread-oven nestled in the wall. Around the house, bees buzzed drunk on purple snapdragons. Wild fennel grew. Shiny green lizards darted about the courtyard. Wherever we walked, the grass was smothered in little purple flowers. Not an inch empty. All living, breathing. Birds singing. Things blooming, bursting. Unfurling, curling you around its little finger.

There’s nothing quite like Sicily in May.

It gave us all it had – days of scorching sun, of mist and fog, a day of mountain-rain and a day that hovered in between. In the mornings, we ate outside, with the sun in our eyes and wine in our glasses. Pasta muddled on our plates, bowls of cherries the darkest red, cold melon wrapped in slivers of ham, swordfish fresh off the sea.

In the evening, D would chop wood, Chotto-ma would carry them in and we would light a fire. Our neighbours – a lovely German lady and her Italian husband – lent us two warm jumpers for the evenings. They also brought us fresh, warm eggs from their chickens when we woke up that first morning.

And for me, this is what set Sicily apart: its people. Over the years, we’ve come to know Italy well; I can now piece together some words in Italian for the most basic communication (almost all food-related). Yet, we’ve never been drenched with the kind of human warmth that Sicilians bring to even the smallest conversations. Gruff men with big hearts and a booming voice. Women who peeked from behind clotheslines to wave. People who stopped their chores to ruffle Chotto-ma’s hair – ciao bambini! We made friends – in eight short days; with people who stopped short of English, but not much else.

There was a lone restaurant (cum alimentari) in Gibilmanna called Spaccio Colombo run by three lovely old men and a dog called Margo. We would go there for coffee and cakes every evening, pizza on Sunday night. Chotto-ma would play with Margo, D and I would chat with the men (neither of whom knew English, so you can imagine our conversations). On the day before we left, they unlocked the restaurant just for us, even though they’re closed on Wednesdays. They invited us in for coffees, and refused to let us pay.

So many little things we won’t forget. So many things we will have to go back for. This was the first time, Chotto-ma cried when packing her suitcase – large, soundless tears; plop plop plop. Apart from her friend Margo, what she said she was sad to leave were the flowers that grew on the mountainside. So she brought back a flower pressed in the pages of her story book to remind us all of this island which we couldn’t fit into our suitcase.

[In the next post: I’ll show you the town and villages in Sicily that we visited and loved. And the food, the food, the food that we ate and ate and ate. Arrivederci!]