Monday, 17 October 2011

Festival Fun!

Dark Horse (Todd Solondz, 2011)
Where: London Film Festival: Vue West End
When: 16th October 2011

I was looking forward to this film, but at the same time a little sad that I could not also go and see the 3D samurai movie in the screening downstairs.  However, a dose of Todd has always worked wonders in the past.  Back then in my awkward, space filling teenage years a dose of Todd was a good excuse to see how quickly I could get my step mum to not watch the film I was seeing, a small rebellion of sorts and plenty of harmless fun.  So thank you Todd for those happy times with Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, truly fun moments spent laughing at my family over and over again.  So what did Dark Horse have in store for me?

I knew I was on to a winner from the credits, the blingy lettering for the titles, the reality TV talent show music, this was going to be my kind of comedy.  The credits cut to a Jewish wedding complete with wall to wall drunken dancing until we reach our protagonists table.  Our man Abe (Jordan Gelber) tries to chat up the woman sitting next to him Miranda (Selma Blair) (who we later find out is not much better off than Abe!), he tells her he doesn't dance (I know the feeling...) and then jumps straight in and asks her out.  All that was missing was a small pop up Charlie Brooker doing his Hannah Montana impression, "Awkward", "Loser."  We then cut to the end of the wedding and we see Abe pursing Miranda once more at the cloakroom and manages to extract her phone number from her using a mix of pity and persistence.  We then see Abe drive away in his bright yellow Hummer, music blaring.

We learn more about Abe, maybe we wish we hadn't.  His father has a  real estate business and Abe works for him (well, work is a loose definition - it's more like sit at his desk and then storm off the second he's asked to do any work).  Abe's life is surrounded by his possessions, his car, his action figures and his posters and he has Mum and Dad with him wherever he goes.  At work and at home it is his actual father Jackie (played by the excellent as ever Christopher Walken).  At work his mother is played by the secretary, Marie (Donna Murphy)  who does Abe's work for him and is part of Abe's mixed up fantasy world.  At home he plays and takes great pleasure in beating his real mother, Phyllis (Mia Farrow) at backgammon.

Moving on to Abe's first date with Miranda, again arranged with his own force of will and her inability to say no he drives off in his Hummer, music blaring as usual to her house.  He arrives with a bunch  petrol station flowers in his hand only to find Miranda's mother answers the door and has no knowledge of him arriving.  Instead of cutting his losses and going home he sits in his car and waits, complete with awkward gesturing to Miranda's mother until Miranda shows up loaded up groceries with not the faintest idea that he was coming over.  Miranda is set up well in the film so far.  We are initially made to think of her as a normal and attractive woman that is going through a hard time in her life who lives with her parents till she gets back on her feet.  However, we soon get the impression that she is much like Abe in many ways, especially when she tells Abe that she plans to stop being a writer and slitting her wrists and he asks for her hand in marriage despite them hardly knowing each other.  If ever you're feeling a little off kilter with the rest of the world there's one easy question to ask yourself to see how bad it really is.  Would I exist as a character in a Todd Solondz film?  You just better hope the answer is not yes!

Once again time passes, it feels like it may have been months, in fact it is only a week and Miranda has agreed to meet with Abe at the family home.  As Miranda doesn't drive she comes over with her parents and the adults have an enthralling conversation about the traffic and road works whilst the "kids" are talking together in the room. Miranda agrees to marry Abe as long as he doesn't mind about the hepatitis B (which Abe later looks up on You Tube) and her ex Mahmood from Dubai.  Abe is pretty happy at this point.  His ego fuelled by lust and diet coke gets into a fight with his father that any teenager would be proud of.  Abe quits his job after being criticised for not doing his work on time, although he his soon back at work only to be fired by his father and replaced by his cousin who "does what he's told".  The result is that Abe storms out of the office and drives off in his Hummer, tears in his eyes and rage in his heart.

We hear a crash and a screech of tires but Todd has a twist for us which is what helps make this a great film and not just an amusing story/commentary of the modern condition.  The use of repetition, both visually and one lovely song that plays out help confuse our sense of time.  We are not sure whether it is years, days or months that are passing us by.  Additionally Abe likes to fantasise about an affair with the Mia the secretary and the life he imagines she leads.  At times like this it feels like we are Abe and a little out of the loop, except perhaps during his trip to Toys R Us, but that one I wont spoil for you!  We next find Abe in the hospital waking up after a few months in a coma.  He says he feels like dancing, we know he's lost his legs. Miranda arrives and says she's been cured of her hepatitis  and she's expecting a child.  It's pretty obvious it is not Abe's child to everyone but Abe.  Since being cured of her hepatitis Miranda has found a new lease of life, she is now dating Abe's successful brother Richard (Justin Bartha) who Abe detests and his cousin Justin (Zachery Booth) who has replaced him at work now has the affection of Marie.  The next time we see Abe he's looking a rather yellow, "The chances of losing both legs in a car crash and contracting hepatitis are about a billion to one," he says.

Cruelty doesn't pass with Abe's passing.  At his funeral he is humiliated when Richard tells his Father that the date of Abe's death is wrong.  To which he replies that the detail is not important after Abe continually tells us throughout the film he has a thing for dates and numbers.  As we draw to a close Abe returns to his house where he looks at the lines on the wall where he and Richard were measured growing up, peeling back the wallpaper he finds his Dad has written that he was the dark horse of the family and in death he realises that perhaps he was wrong about everything after all.  We finish with our secretary day dreaming of the life Abe says he expected her to, ghastly wallpaper, music, stuffed animals and musicals, rather than the sex, fine art and Ferrari's we saw during the rest of the film.

Sadly it looks like Dark Horse may not get much of a release outside of the festival circuit which is a great shame as it is funny, topical and very well directed.  It was funny like a top notch Coen Brothers comedy and also very accessable.  I really hope this gets picked up so more people can experiance what a great film I got to see last night.  Apparently we can go nag the distributors on twitter and "like" the film on Facebook.  I'm sure Abe would if he were still alive.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Eating Edinburgh

A Search For Unforgettable Food

When: May 2011

Where: Edinburgh, Scotland

Call it luck, call it planning but on a recent trip to Edinburgh I really wanted to eat quality food in a nice environment. I know that shouldn't be hard but meal after meal of forgettable food in London for less than reasonable prices proved me wrong. I can count on one hand the amount of genuinely good meals out I've had in London during the last 18 months. This coupled with some poor planning on a trip to Hamburg made me determined to make the most of Edinburgh. So taking to the web and to the guidebooks it was time to do some serious research. Thanks to FlyerTalk, TripAdvisor and The Rough Guide to Scotland all was planned. I also linked the places up to where we were visiting at that time of the day for the best of both worlds. So here goes!

I'm writing this post as an antidote to all the forgettable food I've been eating in London over the last 18 months: for all the luke-warm service, bland menus, boring food and poor value for money I have been encountering lately. I can probably count only a couple of times when I have been surprised by the quality of the food/service I have had. This coupled with ending up at a McDonalds at Hamburg train station due to my poor dinner planning during a trip there made me determined not to do the same for this trip to Edinburgh. So this time I planned everything to the finest detail including the food. I was armed and dangerous and ready for good food.

Day 1 - Foodies at Holyrood (Ideal for Holyrood House and the Scottish Parliament)

I found Foodies in The Rough Guide to Scotland, it is located a five minute walk from the Scottish Parliament and is the perfect place to grab a light (or less light if you prefer) lunch. Clean, friendly and inexpensive. I had a jacket potato with cheese and beans, my partner had a Tuna Melt panini, both washed down with fruit juice and a decent cup of coffee. It was a perfect cheap lunch out after a long journey and with a long trek around Holyrood Park to come later on it set us up perfectly for the day.

Hadrian's Brasserie (Balmoral Hotel - Ideal for relaxing after an afternoon walking round Holyrood Park)

Having a package deal we had money to spend at the hotel which pretty much covered a three course meal with wine. Service was efficient and friendly (with the small exception of the slightly over eager lady trying to get us to spend extra on aperitif drinks). To drink we had a nice bottle of Côte du Rhône which helped to wash down the bread. We both had egg florentines for starters which were light and perfectly cooked and followed up with lamb for our mains which again was just right. I finished up with a Crème brûlée and my partner had the profiteroles. Good food, nice service and ambiance, though I will remember the hotel more than the meal.

Day 2: Wildfire (Perfect after visiting the National Galleries of Scotland)

Wildfire cross-referenced nicely on both TripAdvisor and FlyerTalk. It specialises in steak and seafood and it did not disappoint. It is a small restaurant located at the end of Rose Street. We went for the 2 course lunch menu for about £12 each and shared a large bottle of local beer between us. I had pâté to start (I seemed to be obsessed with having pâté as a starter) and this one was particularly good. My partner had a large pot of mussels which she was very pleased with, even finishing up most of the broth! Then came the mains, steak and chips, a simple dish and perfect if done right, how often more than likely it wont be. At Wildfire I had the best piece of steak I have ever eaten (and this was just the cheaper rump steak from the lunch menu). Soft on the inside and lubricated with delicious garlic butter, a perfect medium all the way through - this is now my benchmark for steak. I hope I don't have to go back to Wildfire again to have a better one, as Edinburgh's a long way away! Chips were thin and crunchy and just right. After that we were too stuffed to contemplate dessert, all the more so after knowing what was in store later on. Service was steady and polite.

Castle Terrace (Perfect for visiting after the Theatre, Edinburgh Filmhouse or Edinburgh Castle)

So I wanted somewhere special for an anniversary celebration. This was the choice I was most worried about and due to the cost it had to be pretty good. It almost lived up to the billing thanks to the excellent mains and desserts. Anyway, a short cab ride from our hotel, Castle Terrace is found close to the the Theatre district and Edinburgh's Filmhouse. It is an upmarket fine dining restaurant with ambition. The food is Modern European with a French influence and firmly Scottish ingredients through and through. Things started well, the restaurant acknowledged our anniversary, we had a nice table in the corner, with a little privacy away from some of the ever so slightly drunken office workers with their loud conversations. To start things off I had a glass of champagne and my partner had a Kir with white wine. The free appetisers included bread sticks with a twist. They were presented in the style of an incense holder and consisted of some squid ink pasta, bread sticks and some small cheese filled bites. Tasty and a good way to get started. To drink I had chosen a glass of Rioja and my partner had decided to go for a glass of Italian white wine. I had the rabbit ravioli and my partner had the scallops. The ravioli actually reminded me of a super refined version of the won ton soup I used to buy in a can (this was mostly a good thing); the scallops were apparently very good. Next was a small amuse bouche in the style of a cappuccino which was lovely and refreshing; complete with foam, tapenade and finely diced tomatoes. Then came the mains: this was where the fun began. I had the Beef which was a Hampe of Scotch beef, seared and served with potato millefeuille, tomatoes, curly endive and a beef jus. This was a huge plate of perfectly cooked sliced beef served on a bed of endives. The millefeuille consisted of wafer thin slices of potato with a puréed tomato filling. Very filling and very good, even after that steak at Wildfire for lunch. My partner had the rabbit which was Rabbit from Roxburghshire, wrapped in Ayrshire smoked bacon and served with crisp pastilla, carrots and a caper sauce. The whole dish was presented like a little rabbit garden with little carrots, a fence, a hole etc. Apparently it was very good though the bacon was a little overpowering and the design was a little creepy. Finally to wash it all down was a super dessert. For me it was one of the best I have ever had, a pistachio soufflé, light, fluffy and warm, there was no way a single bite of this was going to waste even though I was completely stuffed. My partner had the apples with ice cream which she enjoyed, though she found it a little bit too sweet (and she's normally one to love her sweetness!). Espressi were very much in need at this point. So what stopped this being a five star experience? It was the drinks... I think our sommelier or the barman was having an off night. Revisiting the website I saw a lovely cocktail menu for aperitifs which I dion't recall seeing at the restaurant, instead we were left with the regular menu. I would have much preferred to try one of the Martinis then a glass of champagne. Secondly the sommelier was slow to get to our drinks order and did not introduce himself as the sommelier, so by that time we had already chosen what we wanted. I'm sure our meal would have been that little bit better with some wine advice and the full menu. In all this was a good meal that could have been truly great, you could taste what you were paying for, the service (with the exception of the drinks) was first rate and again, I would like to go back and eat there again. It was then off into the cold night air for a refreshing walk back to the hotel.

Day 3: La Garrigue (Ideal for the Old Town and the many walking tours)

So we finished our time in Edinburgh with a French restaurant with a Scottish twist. La Garrigue got a lot of good press for being mentioned as one of Ramsay's best restaurants. It was also all over TripAdvisor and FlyerTalk etc and with a well priced lunch menu it was the perfect way to round off the trip. I had a warming leek and potato soup, my partner had the onion tart. For the mains I had some lamb with lentils and my partner had the sea bream with wild rice. For dessert we had Crème brûlée. The food was all excellent with the exception of the Crème brûlée which was not quite set, but the flavour was all there. The atmosphere in the restaurant was really great with a real mix of diners, including charming regulars. Service was polite, efficient and non-intrusive. We wanted a relaxing lunch after the previous night at Castle Terrace and we got just that.

In Conclusion

I can't believe how many amazing set lunch bargains there are in Edinburgh, and also how little the chains have set in compared to London (though maybe I need to spend the same amount of time researching the options for London as I did for Edinburgh). If you like to eat well with great service and value for money the above options give you some ideas but of course, we really just scratched the surface during our stay.

Further Reading

La Garrigue


Tuesday, 22 February 2011

I can't Hear from all the Screaming in the Gallery


When: 26/12/2010

Where: Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris

There are many ways to spend Boxing Day: lounging in front of the TV, filling up on leftovers, the sales etc. However, though I can do all of those things I'd much rather be expanding my mind and my experience of the world with an art exhibition, so here goes. It was a cold and icy day yet the queue for the gallery was stretching round the block a little but moving fast. Once in and warmed up it was time to start and thankfully although busy there was enough space for contemplation. The exhibition started with early works. If paintings played music, shouted and screamed then you were in heaven. For a moment you found yourself in early '80s New York, Hip Hop, noisy Subway trains, rubbish and people shouting and screaming. For me this was one of the best parts of the exhibition and I found it very stimulating.

The next section of the exhibition concentrated on diagrams, notes and plans. I found these complemented the main pieces extremely well. The notes and diagrams helped you to see the order and meticulous planning involved in the various pieces as well as pick up on the meaning behind the recurring themes. I spent a lot of time looking at all the details and found it incredibly worthwhile.

The final section of work consisted of some of Basquiat's final pieces including a collaboration with Andy Warhol. I did not enjoy any of the work in the final section. The noise had gone from the art and it had been replaced with the quiet of the gallery and the flatness of a magazine cover. Instead I could feel the clink of the champagne glasses. I just didn't get it anymore. Sadly Basquiat died young so we never got to see where he could have ended up with his work and talent which is a terrible shame.

In addition to the Basquiat exhibition there was also a short exhibition of Larry Clark's photos. Although the man has his critics the photos were on the whole very beautiful and still looked and felt as current as ever. Clark really catches the vulnerability of youth along with its confidence and innocence both in his films and photography and this exhibition was no different. It felt like looking through the glossy urban fashion magazines of my late teens and all the emotions that came with those times. In all I had a fantastic Boxing Day beating a combination of bad TV and the family walk many times over.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Closing Thoughts

An Amazing Time With A Little Regret

It seems like only yesterday that I was in a small boat on the Ganges under the moonlight, watching the world (and the odd firework) go slowly and slightly chaotically by. It's now three months after the we came back and the perfect time to write up my closing thoughts from this amazing trip.

First off I was pretty happy with the itinerary we planned. It was great to be able to move at our own pace with comfortable and convenient connection times. The downside was that we probably spent at least a day more than necessary both in Agra and Khajuraho, though Agra is always tricky due to the early start needed to visit the Taj Mahal.

Here are my highlights from each stage of the trip:

Delhi - Walking through the side streets of Old Delhi. It was an amazing experience of colour, sound and smell. Not only that, but we did not get hassled once by anyone. In all a great experience.
Agra - Of course the
Taj Mahal is a highlight but viewing it from the other side of the river in the tranquility of the Moonlight Gardens later that afternoon will be my lasting memory.
Orchha - Staying at the Bundlekhand Riverside after two tough nights in Agra was a unique experience, sometimes you just need to feel special and fill up on good food.
Khajuraho - The Western Temple Group and the great guided tour we had. Then coming back as the sun was setting and seeing them all over again and really appreciating their beauty.
Varanasi - Taking a moonlit boat ride on the Ganges during a Diwali celebration. This was possibly the highlight of my trip.
Delhi - Second time around it was living it up and having an amazing belated birthday meal at Punjabi by Nature.

And finally a few regrets...

I wish we had a video camera to record the excellent guided tours we had, now they are distant memories, I would have liked to have kept the detail.
If only I had managed to buy a bigger memory card for our camera, then perhaps we would not have had to swap them and maybe we would not have lost 3/4 of our photos.
It would have been great to have stayed in a better hotel in Agra, I would have loved to have done the
Taj Mahal in luxury.
I also think we spent too long in Agra and Orchha, it would have been nice to fit somewhere else in along the way.
And last but not least, not having another trip back to India on the horizon as I would love to go back and see more of this wonderful place.

Below are links to each stage of the trip:

Passage To India - How we got there

Dude Where's My Car...? - Around Delhi

Tickets and Touts - No sleep in Agra

For Relaxing Times, Make it Orchha Time

Running the Gauntlet: Gurus, Gods, Goods and Italian Food

A Moment of Beauty in the Surrounds of Smog and Sarnath

Stuffed, Soaked, Sick and Home

Please feel free to post any questions in the comments section.

Dinner For Ten - Delhi

Stuffed, Soaked, Sick and Home

We touched down in Delhi late and tired, waiting what seemed like an age for our bags. Thankfully things were soon looking up as we began the final leg of our trip. We headed out of arrivals to find our driver who took us over to his giant, brand new, gleaming-white Toyota which seemed a little excessive for the three of us but it made a welcome change from the tiny Tata cars we'd had to make do with till this point. After a quiet early evening drive along Delhi's nicer roads we ended up in a quiet gated neighbourhood in South Delhi where our hotel, the French owned Amarya Haveli was located. After the "basic" facilities at our last two destinations this was what we had been missing. We had the "White Room" and our friend had the "Red room". Shortly after checking in and enjoying our new surroundings we ordered drinks and dinner. We went up to the roof terrace to enjoy them (bringing back fond memories of Miami) but had to come down for our food as it had started to rain at this point. For dinner I had a curry with all the trimmings washed down with a cold beer. With the prospect of a good nights sleep and a properly plumbed bathroom things were on the up and up.

The next morning I woke up refreshed from a full nights sleep. We had a substantial breakfast at the hotel before heading out into South Delhi to change enough travellers cheques to see us through till the end our trip. For the afternoon we thought we'd visit the last few things we really wanted to see in Delhi: Humayun's Tomb, the mosque at Nizamuddin and the Lotus temple. After wandering round the block for what felt like the tenth time we finally found a reputable looking money changer. We then grabbed an auto-rickshaw to Humayun's Tomb which required some hard bargaining on the fare. Humayun's Tomb to the uneducated and unguided tourist that I decided to be that day is just like a mini Taj Mahal. We walked round for a bit before deciding to walk the short distance to Nizamuddin as apparently there is a very beautiful mosque there. However, as soon as we arrived at Nizamuddin the rain came down and when it rains it pours. To say that the inhabitants of the mosque welcomed outside visitors with open arms would be the understatement of the year. We shuffled round in our socks not enjoying the beauty of the building and came out to shelter under the roof of one of the stalls located just outside, at least happy to have out shoes on again.

Eventually we decided to make a dash for it and head for the Lotus Temple. We really wanted to see it, rain or otherwise. After refusing to be ripped off by the rickshaw drivers by the mosque we picked up the first guy on the street. The first price he offered was already half that of the first two guys we spoke to. It was quite relaxing being in the back of the rickshaw watching the rain come down. We arrive at the lotus temple and its as impressive as we thought it would be. We decide to brave the rain and start waking towards it. Unprepared for the rain that day we are now soaking wet but we keep going until we see the dreaded sign "no shoes". At this point we decided that it just wasn't meant to be and it was time to return to the hotel for some hot food and drink. Unfortunately the hotel's warning of being hard to find proved true and despite a map and address our driver and his "assistant" had no idea where they were taking us. Eventually we spotted a familiar landmark and got them to drop us off.

Back at the hotel and all dried off we had a light snack and hot drinks before resting up for the evening. We got the hotel to find us somewhere nice to eat which ended up being Punjabi by Nature which was mentioned in our guide book. If we had known what we were in store for we would have probably skipped lunch! We used the hotel's car service to take us to and from the restaurant which was a short drive from the hotel. The restaurant seemed nice and was largely full of locals taking their western business clients out for a good time. We ordered one main each with two portions of rice and two naan breads worrying that between the three of us we might go hungry. Our fears were unfounded. One leg of lamb, a whole tandoori fish and a huge pot of chicken curry later and we had over-estimated our appetites. The food was really great and was as well as being an overdue birthday celebration was a great way to bring our trip to a close. By UK standards the bill was pretty cheap especially as each of the main courses is easily enough for two people as is each bread and serving of rice. Stuffed and happy we got the car back to the hotel, packed our things and prepared to say farewell to India.

Our last morning meant an early start to beat the traffic, but with breakfast waiting for us it didn't seem so bad. The roads were quiet before rush hour and we actually made it with plenty of time to spare. At the airport we made sure to change our remaining rupees as it is illegal to take them out of India and then waited for check in to open. When it did it was chaos to say the least, one final taste of Indian efficiency as the desks were opened, closed and moved. All the lines got mixed together and we ended up in the business class line but that did not help our waiting time or with an upgrade... Check in mess aside T3 at Delhi was pretty straight forward. We picked up some last minute gifts and I found a book I'd been meaning to buy at a great price. It was then time to board the 777 to DXB.

Our connection at DXB was quite tight and the late departure of our flight was not encouraging. I can't remember now what I watched or ate but the flight was okay. Again, the 777 with its squashed seats is no match for the roomy A380, at least we would soon we would be home! We arrived in Dubai highlt worried about making our connecting flight to London. However, despite the best intentions of the ground staff to make us think we would miss our flight we had nothing to worry about as our plane was being held due to the even later arrival of another flight. We were soon up in the air in the economy comfort of the A380. Unfortunately we were unable to sit together on this flight but seeing as I spent almost the whole time watching films and eating, it wasn't a big issue. It wasn't long before we touched down at Heathrow Terminal 3. It was then on to baggage reclaim and the HEX. One thing we noticed by the time we hit Paddington was how cold it was in London. We said our good-byes and shuffled off to the tube for the warmth of home. A great trip had come to an end.

A Religious Experience - Varanasi

A Moment of Moonlit Beauty in the Surrounds of Smog & Sarnath

After relaxing in Orchha and Khajuraho it was on to Varanasi. We disembarked the plane and walked across to the brand new terminal building, picked up our luggage and found our driver. Varanasi is (in)famous for many things, we quickly experienced the first one, traffic. The airport was not that far from our guest house but with the traffic the journey by car felt longer than the flight! However being in the back of an air-conditioned Taxi it was fairly comfortable. Outside the pot holed roads filled with livestock and almost every kind of road transport imaginable looked like hell. Anyway, an hour or more later and we arrived at our lodgings, the Maruti Guest House. We were a little unsure at first if we had arrived at the right place due to the lack of signs but once through the gate we were warmly welcomed by the owner and his wife. We sat on the rooftop area with them as they explained to us about food, things to do etc. We given a nice hand drawn map detailing the main areas to visit, complete with recommended rickshaw/Taxi fares which was handy. We checked into our rooms which were "basic" but relatively clean. As our hosts often reminded us this was typical middle class India and the hosts did live in the guest house with their extended family. Anyway, the bed was rock hard again... the plumbing was interesting but I was getting used to not sleeping by now so it was OK!

That evening we took a walk to Assi Ghat by the Ganges to get a taste of the local area and take in some atmosphere. We were a five to ten minute walk away so our location was perfect. We sat on the Ghat for around half an hour watching the sunset. Feeling relaxed but a little tired we went to one the restaurants recommended to us, Haifa where we had a okay middle eastern platter which resulted in a cracked tooth for someone whilst eating the hummus! It may not have been the best place to spend my birthday but we more than made up for it on our last night in Delhi. We returned to Maruti and made an arrangement with some of the other hotel guests to hire a boat on the Ganges the following night for the Diwali celebration. Other than that I caught up reading the copy of The Economist that I picked up at Heathrow in the hope it would help me sleep. The intoxicating fumes of the mosquito coil and general tiredness gave me a good few hours at least.

The next day we started with breakfast at Maruti and met a few of the other guests, some arriving some departing. At breakfast we got our first taste of the middle class yoga hippie types. I had to stop myself from getting annoyed with them almost instantly, anyway, if they managed to find the enlightenment they were looking for, who am I to judge. Our plan for the day was to walk along the ghats and the back streets following the Ganges until we were tired. One of the things Varanasi is famous for are the burning ghats one with an eternal fire (that has been lit for hundreds of years) where cremations are carried out by the river side in full public view. Walking through these burning ghats with the smell of burning wood and logs piled high was hard to describe. I found it both uncomfortable and fascinating, much like many holy places for a non-religious person. Anyway, it is certainly something to be experienced. After visiting the Big Burning Ghat we decided to turn away from the river and catch a little shade. It was just after midday and pretty hot. We wondered through the backstreet markets which was much like a maze. I really enjoyed this as you can feel completely lost and at peace. We walked for a while and found a small restaurant for lunch serving good quality Indian food. The food was nice but it seemed to lose temperature quickly and I was worried about getting food poisoning. However, I felt no ill effects. I think this restaurant would have been perfect and by the sound of things horribly busy for dinner. I decided we should walk back along the roads rather than along the Ganges so we could see as much of Varanasi as possible. We continued along the back streets for a while, passing stalls and tiny temples before heading out on to the main road where there was a huge market. We then headed through the Islamic district and shortly before we were about to cave in and get a rickshaw we were back at the Maruti where we relaxed before our night time boat ride.

I was a little skeptical about this boat ride as we were paying way over the odds for a boat due to the festival, but actually this was one of the highlights of my time in India. We walked down to Assi Ghat where we met our oarsman. They had made the rather rickety looking boat nice for us "high spending" tourists and we set out with the current in our favour and headed out along the river towards the Big Burning ghat as the sun began to set. The light was beautiful and it was amazingly peaceful and romantic despite being with four other people as well as my partner. We tried to take as many shots as possible before the light faded. About three quarters of an hour or so later we stopped for a moment so our oarsman could rest before heading back, this time against the current. It was dark by now and the riverside was ablaze with light. The burning ghats burnt as bright as ever, there was dancing, ceremony and bystanders on the bank were releasing all manner of fireworks and oil lanterns that floated off towards the moon much like a dream image from a children's book. It was truly spectacular and before long it was all over. After the boat we went for food at Hayat, another Mediterranean restaurant. We sat outside only to find two of our boat party had chosen the same restaurant! We must have been a little late to eat as much of the food seemed to have run out. Everything here seemed to be cooked fresh and in the chefs own time judging by the time everyone seemed to wait for their food. However I had such a delicious okra curry it was worth every minute. It tasted like the food I like to cook myself but done with a perfection I have yet to reach. We looked over our photos from the boat trip and headed wearily back to Maruti to enjoy another sleepless night.

The next morning things started as they meant to go on. Other than the shock of the "prison room" in Agra everything had been going pretty well, but today was probably my worst day of the trip. We started with breakfast at Haifa which wasn't particularly nice. We then decided to get an auto-rickshaw to Sarnath to see the Buddhist temples and memorials in celebration of Buddha's early teachings. We found an enthusiastic man going by the name of Bully (Bulli?) who agreed to take us. We soon found out why he may have gone by this name. Most of the rickshaw drivers looked for the best route on the road, away from the pot holes. Bully had other ideas, he liked the thrill of the bumpy road, he reveled in tight maneuvers and shouting abuse at anyone on a bike between singling loudly to himself (we probably should have done a runner once we saw someone had written in his guest book that he was a "bit psychotic"). The other disadvantage of the auto-rickshaw is that when stuck in the continual traffic jam that is Varanasi you start to breathe in all the fumes from traffic and anything else that's passing by. My favourite moment was overtaking a guy on a cycle cart loaded with about 20 layers of eggs... though the consequences for photographing it were not worth while as we hit another pot hole and the camera and its pouch went flying, though luckily they survived. However as we found out later the memory card with almost all our photos on it was not so lucky and ended up somewhere on the streets of Varanasi never to be found (which explains the lack of photos on the the blog).

Eventually we arrived at Sarnath and walked round the area where the remains of the early Buddhist temples were. It sounded much better in the books and whilst I'm sure it was fascinating for those with a religious calling to me it was just like another set of roman ruins and having been to Rome this is not something I find exciting anymore. We then visited the different temples, Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan and had some lunch at a nice little restaurant we we had loads of good food for hardly any money. We then walked back to Bully to brave the ride back to Maruti both shaken and stirred from the ride and from losing almost all our holiday photos. We settled on eating at Maruti that evening and Tripti did not let us down with some amazing Indian vegetarian food. It was the kind of food you will rarely find in a restaurant and only eat if you make it yourself. Exhausted it was time for bed and for me to sleep. Tomorrow we would be heading back to Delhi for the final leg of our trip.

On our last morning we went out for a walk and realised we'd walked past the best place for breakfast every morning we'd been in Varanasi, The Open Hand Cafe and gallery. The Open Hand is a western style cafe and local craft shop, the kind I would probably avoid at home, but thanks to a lovely cooked breakfast and nice strong coffee all was forgiven. The rest of the morning we went visit some of the other temples in Varanasi on foot. After the day before we didn't feel much like an auto-rickshaw. I don't remember much of the rest of the day but we checked out of the hotel that afternoon and went by taxi to the airport to catch our flight with Spice Jet (The Indian Easy Jet) back to Delhi. Our flight was late with hardly any announcements. We also found that airport food can be expensive anywhere in the world, but somehow over-priced Pringles, Snickers and Coke never tasted so good. Anyway, soon enough we were called for boarding and we were up in the air and on our way to Delhi and the final phase of our trip.

Temple Watching - Khajuraho

Running the Gauntlet: Gurus, Gods, Goods and Italian Food

We arrived at the Hotel Zen in Khajuraho after dark following the drive from Orchha and although it didn't match the flowers at the Bundelkhand Riverside, Hotel Zen made a good first impression. Unfortunately it was downhill fairly quickly from there... To start with we had booked two different room types and the hotel staff did not seem able to tell us which was which, so after some swapping around we finally decided on our rooms. Both were flawed, but at least there was a nice outside area to sit and plan where to go for dinner which despite being a little dusty was comfortable enough. The rooms themselves were basic, which by now we had learnt to mean poorly maintained/finished with bad plumbing, rock hard beds and the chance of insects. Hotel Zen ticked all the above boxes, however for the price and location it was fine as we were close to the restaurants and to the main western temple complex.

After consulting our guide book we decided to try Mediterraneo, an Italian restaurant, for a bit of a break from the rich curries at the Bundelkhand in Orchha. Despite having a good write up in the guide the place was almost empty. We all had some lovely fresh pasta and I washed it down with a cold beer. The restaurant is on a roof top terrace overlooking the high street and we had a nice peaceful meal as good as any of the UK high street chains we were used to, though of course with an Indian style and price! Anyway we liked it enough to go back a few more times. After dinner we enjoyed the short walk back to the hotel to be greeted by a man who we thought may have been the hotel's owner/manager who offered us a night cap of rum which we politely postponed till later in our stay - more on this at the end for he was truly everywhere.

As we were here for three nights, which was at least one if not two night too many, we plotted out our next few days whilst watching TV. This was the first hotel with a TV in the room during the trip so we made the most of it, flicking through local news, movies and settling on a US sitcom that I can't recall and Quantum of Solace the following night. Around 11-12 it was time for bed and inevitably another sleepless night to enjoy in the tangle of nets, liners and bug spray. Those temples better be worth it!

The following morning after breakfast at Mediterraneo (with a very interesting interpretation of a croissant and decent jug of coffee) we were off to the western group of temples that make up the main attraction of Khajuraho. Now we began to see a little more of how things worked in town. We read in our guide book that Khajuraho was known for its touts and we felt well prepared after Agra. However as we found out Khajuraho is much smaller and many of the tourists are bussed in and out with all activities planned, tables booked and hotels arranged as well as the opportunities to buy all the souvenirs they could ever want. The result is that for the few people not part of a group you never have a moment' of peace. From the second you leave the hotel until you return you can guarantee you will be offered a rickshaw to cross the road, numerous shopping opportunities, a place to eat, sleep, a trip to the "waterfall" or to go and see a “local dance”. Unfortunately the persistence of the various people out trying to make a living by ripping off tourists makes you want to do absolutely nothing at all. It is the one thing that spoils Khajuraho and like many other tourist spots, hopefully other things can be done so people do not feel 100% reliant on tourist money to live.

Rant over! We arrived with our entourage at the temple gate, picked up our tickets and a guide and had a fantastic morning viewing the temples. Our guide was very knowledgeable and helped point out the more interesting statues that make up the temple walls, which to the untrained eye are very easy to miss. For example: a lady having a thorn removed from her foot, a lady with a scorpion on her thigh as well as the many depictions from the Kama Sutra that the Khajuraho temples are famous for. Apparently there is a number of reasons for the unusual sexual depictions on the temple. The one that remained with me was that the population at the time were spending too much time in the forest praying and meditating and needed help to fulfil their social duties. The King was afraid that he would not have a people to rule, so he built temples with sex scenes to entice them back to town. The main element of the temples is that everything works in fours: the temples are built in four sections, the main area in each temple is square and the four different parts of life are represented on the temple walls from top to bottom: Dharma (ethic), Artha (livehood, wealth = economic life), Kam (sensual pleasure = sexuality and physicality) and Moksa (liberation, spiritual freedom). As we talked to our guide we also found out the massive amount of study someone goes through to be an official government guide including the necessary exams covering all of India, not just one particular site. Our guide was a local and decided to return home to Khajuraho to work once completing his studies and exams in Mumbai.

After we had finally tired of temples, at least for the time being, we decided to have a bite to eat at the Raja Café. At this time of day the restaurant was fairly empty and made for a peaceful lunch. We did some reading and looked over our photos. By this time we felt too lazy to do much else so we put off seeing the rest of the temples till the following day. I had also decided that we would return to the Raja Café for dinner. Having been in India for over a week without having had some real tandoori food was unacceptable. I had no choice but to come back as Raja Café had a large tandoori oven that I saw being stoked for the evening ahead. We then had a slow walk back to the hotel window shopping as we went, which is easier said than done as you end up with quite a following by the time you get back to your hotel. Having no intention to shop, my "head down tone deaf" approach worked a little too well as I ended up at the hotel by myself for a while waiting for my companions to catch me up!

After a nice long rest it was time to see a "traditional" dance. The dance was at one of the shinier hotels just outside of the main town centre where they also have a big government run tourist emporium (which is basically the stuff you see elsewhere, just in a quiet, air-conditioned and hassle free environment but unfortunately at double the price). Anyway for all the artistry the dance was disappointing. It was not a local dance as such, but a touristy amalgamation of Indian dance and music. The equivalent would be an Indian tourist visiting Windsor Castle and witnessing a “British”dance show with morris dancing, the cancan, men in lederhosen slapping their thighs rounded off with the flamenco. Anyway... for dinner we returned to the Raja Café where I did indeed have some amazing tandoori chicken, again washed down with cold beer. I was also glad that some of the food I ordered did not turn up. I was full afterwards. It was a great meal and it thoroughly made up for the dancing. During this trip I did have some stand out meal time memories which I will share in my summary. After dinner it was a walk home in the cool night air followed by Bond and bed. The joys of another sleepless night...

Our second full day began with breakfast at the Raja Café, the fact they had real coffee was the big draw here. We then met up with our guide from the previous day, grabbed an auto rickshaw and off we went to see the rest of the temples of Khajuraho. Our guide was a Jain Buddhist, though not the kind who walks around naked, but the kind who doesn't hurt living things. He gave us a great deal of information at the eastern (mainly Jain) group of temples and explained why Khajuraho was such an important Jain site as well as a Hindu one. The Jain temples are a lot plainer than those of the Western group and some are still active. Around the temple complex there was basic accommodation for pilgrims.

After that we enjoyed a ride through the old village where you could see people going about their lives farming and making pots. At the final small southern group of temples we had a small group of beggars waiting for us but we quickly sidestepped them for the end of our tour. The temple here was in the same style as the western group. We were then offered the chance to see the “famous” Khajuraho waterfall by our rickshaw driver. Our guide told us that it was probably best not to visit the waterfall as it was more of a trickle outside the rainy season and there was little else to see there. He did offer us the opportunity to visit a shop that made jewellery and replicas of the statues from the temples. Although knowing it was probably one that paid a commission should we buy anything we thought we'd take a look at it anyway. Seeing the work on the statues only added to the awe of the temples we had just seen. The girls were more interested in the jewellery and the owner was just as eager for them to try it all on. We did nearly spend some money on a star ruby ring/pendant but decided against it in the end. Before parting ways he showed us the active temple at Khajuraho by the western complex. Now back in town we visited our guide's family shop to sign his book. Interestingly he did not try to sell us anything at all which was a nice change. The girls then went and brought some clothes and we had another nice Italian lunch at Bella Italia (nothing to do with the UK chain of restaurants, all the less likely as the food was actually nice).

Little did we know at the time but it was World Heritage Day so we could visit the Western Temples for free again. That afternoon we went back to the complex to take pictures of the temples as the sun set. This was a really great way to spend the late afternoon. It was then back to the hotel for a rest before dinner. Where else to spend our final night in Khajuraho but up on the roof at Mediterraneo for pizza. Nice relaxing times. The following day was my birthday and we were due to fly to Varanasi. However I do have one last story to tell...

Our hotel manager was an interesting character. With it being our last night we finally took him up on his offer of some industrial strength rum. The rum was served up with fresh guava and gulab jamun (a tasty Indian dessert!). After some negotiation on the bill due to a mix up with the rooms resulting in our friend being unwittingly overcharged for a better room than she requested, it was time for bed. The rum certainly helped me sleep that night! So after packing up and a final bite to eat the following morning at Mediterraneo (where else) it was off in the waiting taxi (much to the disgust of the waiting touts) and back to the airport. On arrival we were greeted, we had our bags taken and were guided through all the security with our personal attendants (oh the joy of Kingfisher, even in economy!). Anyway, to round off we thought we'd seen our hotel manager on a few occasions outside the hotel: when not busy being a guru or giving a guided tour he also seemed to run the air side snack shop at Khajuraho airport! Truly a special character we could not forget, much like Khajuraho itself.

Lounging Like a Lord - Orchha

For Relaxing Times, Make it Orchha Time

We all left Orchha with some fantastic memories, helped no doubt by giving ourselves time to take it all in, a comfortable place to stay and some really great food. After Agra it was just what the doctor ordered. Having thoroughly hated the hassle of fighting the drivers to get a taxi at Agra Cantt we decided to book a taxi via the hotel for the longish ride from Jhansi to Orchha. Orchha is not particularly accessible by train/bus so a cab was clearly the best option. After mistakenly thinking our driver and the hotel staff were touts (they were ready to meet us on the platform but forgot to show their sign so we tried to get rid of them!) we had an enjoyable ride talking about the differences between life in the UK and India and that we kept neither a car nor livestock...

Arriving after dark at the hotel we were greeted with flower garlands, a warm welcome and after a quick check in we were shown to our rooms. Wow, what a difference a day (and a decent hotel) makes. We were staying at the Bundelkhand Riverside and whilst it cost five times more than Hotel Sheela it felt like it was worth 100 times more! This hotel is a heritage hotel owned by the government and was a former Maharaja's retreat. We had a big bedroom with a small seating area to the side, a giant bathroom which was clean and hardly a hint of damp or rust to be found. There was also plenty of space to place all our things as well as a tray of complementary tea/coffee, fruit, drinks and biscuits. I could get used to this! After a short rest we headed for dinner. Again a marked improvement from anything we'd eaten so far. Unfortunately I cannot remember exactly what I ate but I do remember having my first taste of butter chicken washed down with a huge bottle of Kingfisher beer... in all it was like eating at your favourite local Indian restaurant both nights we were there.

Anyway, enough about the food and the hotel for now, the reason we came to Orchha was to see the beautiful old palaces and temples there and to see something a little less Mogul influenced. After an interesting breakfast in the morning we met our guide and visited the first set of temples which were actually royal residences one of which was only used for one night! The steep steps and hot sun made for a tiring start to the day but our guide was good. We also saw some of the active temples (you can tell by the flag) and some historic ones including a fascinating fresco of the locals fighting off the British. In the afternoon we saw the royal tombs which were quite interesting also.

The rest of our time in Orchha was spent at a leisurely pace, enjoying the good weather and walking along by the riverside where the locals wash their clothes out. it really was a beautiful place. Early evenings were spent on the hotel's roof terrace watching the world go by and talking to other guests at the hotel (who were ironically enough on the package tour we nearly booked). Suitably recharged after our stay it was time to take the car along the narrow bumpy roads to Khajuraho and its special temples. We left with many fond memories.