Saturday, November 3, 2012

Kolkata: some tips for the tourist

We visited some of the tourist sights mentioned. This post is not to describe any of those sights, as plenty of information is available on the internet. Yet, the tourist must be informed of some things that may not be available on an itinerary.

Timings: Most of the places that are listed are closed from 11.30 am to about 3.30 pm. So the best thing is to plan for lunch or shopping during the time.

Traffic jams: I thought Hyderabad was bad in managing traffic but thankfully we have only fixed hours when we expect a peak and can plan accordingly. But in Kolkata, as per our cab driver, traffic starts at around 7 am and continues till 8 pm or may be even beyond that. They still seem to follow the conventional office hours of 9-5 but even after 8, I didn't find it relenting.
Once we had to go from College Street to Ballygunge. We started at 2 pm and reached the restaurant at 3: 45 pm which is at a distance of less than 5 kms! So you need to really be prepared if you have a train or plane to catch. While our train was scheduled to leave at 11 pm. we left our hotel at 9:15 and reached the station by 9: 40 pm!. The traffic is THAT unpredictable!
I have got so used to the term 'phanka' while in Kolkata. When you ask the driver, all you get to hear is that, "if there is 'phanka' we can reach in half hour or else, it will take 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours". Sometimes we were late and couldn't complete what was planned or sometimes very early... like on our return journey, we were at the airport by 2:50 pm for the 5 pm domestic flight!

Weather: Visiting Kolkata during summer can be very miserable. Therefore, we selected the cooler airs of October to visit, but believe me, even in October, you cannot think of wearing your clothes twice without a wash.The clothes stick to your body when you step out from the AC wala  car. It's better that you carry thin clothes even during October.

Food: Like us, if you are vegetarians, you need to be double careful of the reviews on Burrp, if you plan to go by Burrp reviews. It looks like ONLY the non-veg part of the food is reviewed. Example, BBQ Nation, one of my favorite restaurant chains, doesn't have good reviews on Burrp, Kokata. We selected one which ranked very high on Burrp, Kolkata (Ivory kitchen on Camac Street) and was supposed to offer a HUGE buffet with a good balance of veg and non-veg food. We went in expecting a LOT! In the veg section, there were just about two simple salads, two starters and two of main course, some chat items and of course loads of sweets! For this buffet they charge 700 per head!  For the same price, Westin, Hyderabad, offers quality stuff four times this spread. Even Ohri's buffet has a much greater selection at half the price. Ivory Kitchen's buffet is not worth more than Rs.250-300 at the best.
Vegetarians do have a tough time as vegetarian food isn't available easily and the ones that we did find on the internet were at distances that intimidate us, given the traffic conditions...though none more than 5 kms away.

The Metro: We took a metro to save some time traveling and traveled from Park Street to New market. We had planned for a longer ride just to enjoy the metro ride but the jam-packed train with sweating bodies all around made us get off two stations away. The Metro, unlike our local train, doesn't come with a separate ladies coach.
One tourist sight that stands out in memory is the regal grandeur of St. Paul's Cathedral which is considered the oldest and called the mother church.

St. Paul's Cathedral
Belur Mutt and Dakshinewar are both 12-15 kms away from the main city. Given the uncertain tarffic conditions, we started at 1:30 pm itself to be able to reach there and finish our visit by 5:30 pm by which time the Mutt closes. When we were just about 1 km away, we decided that we could take some time for lunch without running the risk of seeing it closed.
What came as a very pleasant surprise was a vegetarian restaurant, Vegetarian Valley, we discovered on the way. The place is not great ambiance-wise and they make you wait for a while before the order is ready but the taste of the food makes the wait worth it. Not just the taste, but the wonderful courteousness and the pleasant smiles with which the food was served, the waiters keeping themselves at a distance so as not to intrude, yet at a distance from which they could observe when the plates are empty and serving is required. The price is quite decent too. For me, this restaurant was like a jewel discovered unexpectedly. I say this because who expects that kind of service, attention and courtesy from this teeny-weeny, seemingly dingy place?!

 For the more squeamish, there are the more renowned fast food joints at a stone's throw from here.