MALTA – SEPT. 2012

Having decided there would be no other holiday this year following a month travelling Nepal and India, the rain drenching Scotland all summer soon changed our minds!

Malta was put on the table and so long as it was hot, I didn’t mind where we went!

A comfortable 30+ degrees Celsius was the prefect temperature for swimming and snorkelling along Malta’s beautiful coast and a number of boat trips around Malta, Comino and Gozo.  The Azure window earns and derives it’s name from the bluest and most turquoise sea you will ever see.    One issue though, beware of trips to the blue lagoon!  It was covered in litter and full of very loud Italian tourists – much like Maya bay in Thailand – a beautiful place which without the high volume of people would be heaven.  Unfortunately the noisy Italian tourists are somewhat a recurring theme on the Maltese Islands and you are hard pushed to find an escape from them!

Valetta is the capital city and was designed and built to keep its citizens well protected and safe from attack.  Malta has unfortunately suffered a number of heavy sieges in the past due to its geographic location and huge strategic port.  It is characterised by its many ancient forts that all carry tales of old and have withstood attacks from the Turks, Ottoman’s and the Nazi’s in World War 2.  Malta’s history is well documented and there are plenty of sights of historical importance to visit.   ‘The Malta Experience’ next to St Elmo’s Fort in Valetta is an Audio Visual documentary of Malta’s history and worth watching prior to visits to all the sites.  Another worthwhile activity is a tour of the three harbours.  There are a number of boat tours leaving from Silema on a daily basis and the views from the boat are much better than being up close.

Valetta is well worth spending the time just walking through its narrow streets and appreciating the original and worn facades of the buildings and venturing in and out of the many small boutique’s around the city.  Inside, they are just as interesting and we had the pleasure to be shown around an old hotel which at some point was a brothel used by the many sailors visiting the city.  There is a trend to renovate these old buildings, but to maintain their character and charm and all over Malta and Gozo you can see a number of development projects where they are restoring the facades and building behind them to create fabulous buildings.

We stayed in Silema – a more modern area where they are building large luxury complexes and where there are lots of hotels and apartments to rent.  This area has a good choice of restaurants and bars and is close enough to St.Julians Bay and Pacheville – the tacky nightlife spot on Malta and only worth going to for the Shisha outside Plush – that is unless you’re in your late teens or in your early twenties – then its a hedonists dream.

The highlight though, was Gozo, the smaller and much less populated island.  Gozo offers a much slower pace, better beaches and great boat trips around the island and Comino.  It is also home to the Azure Window and the Inland sea, perfect for swimming and scuba diving.  Also the best region for wine in Malta, try the fish and wine at El Kartel in Marsalforn, a beautiful bay with stunning views and restaurants.

Although just a short trip, Malta offered the perfect balance between relaxation, good food and wine and abundant historical places of interest and is well recommended for a simple Mediteranean getaway.

India – Gets an unexpected grip on you!

Back to Edinburgh and back to the daily grind!  A week on and I have found the time to reflect on my trip to India now that it has fully taken grip.

If I’m being completely honest, I couldn’t wait to get back to Scotland and all my home comforts and luxuries, such as being understood and getting the things I ask for!  India, while you’re there, is a challenge and although, yes, they do speak English, we don’t understand each other.  In addition, I was slightly under the weather the whole time I was there and this in part was due to the pollution, so imagine my feeling the minute I stepped off the plane into the crisp, fresh Scottish air.  One of the most noticeable luxuries being home is the amount of open space and calmness in the streets.

India is crazy busy and you are constantly surrounded by noise.  I dont think we slept our first week in Kolkata due to our room facing the street and noise keeping us awake all night and into the morning.  The truth of this matter is that India, no matter where we went, was over populated!  I won’t even mention the mosque’s next to our hotels and the call to prayers at unGodly hours!  In keeping with this is the fact that as a tourist, you are unable to walk down a street without being hassled in one way or another, furthermore, being a foreign women, this hassle is times a hundred!  In India, there is a concerning phenomenon called ‘clicking’ which is the art of taking random photos of women on your mobile.  I am yet to discover the real purpose of this, but I can certainly pass judgement and say it is creepy, very weird and extremely rude!  In addition, I read one day in the India Times that India was the 4th most dangerous country for women, lagging only behind Afghanistan, The Congo and Pakistan.

Next is the amount of garbage on the streets of India, in particular the bigger cities and poorer areas.  It is shocking to go see the Taj Mahal in all it’s glory, only to step out into Agra and garbage up to your armpits:  you’d think they’d make more of an effort to impress the millions of tourists passing through year after year.  this is apparent across all of India and I can only imagine this is the result of overpopulation and lack of government spending on proper sanitation and waste disposal.  That said, Nepal was much cleaner, yet poorer and i have been to a number of other poorer countries and never experienced filth like this, so I am inclined to believe this is somewhat of a cultural disfunction.

India is also strangled by unnecessary bureaucracy that makes no sense and is sure to send even the calmest of us over the edge, I think in one hotel I had to fill in about 5 forms just to stay for one night!… And don’t get me started on buying a train ticket again…

Leaving India, I wasn’t sure if I’d go back, but on reflection having returned to the comfortable west, I can honestly say that I will definitely go back, because in spite of all its issues and idiosyncrasies, India is in fact an incredible place!  The people there for the most part are fun and friendly and its sad that the odd few bring them down.  They have a vast culture changing from region to region and many parts are incredibly beautiful.  Ican only say that when I do go back, I will hopefully use the knowledge gained from this trip and do things a bit differently next time round.

DELHI, MOTI MAHAL & GORDON RAMSAY

Final stop on our world tour of Nepal and India was Delhi.  In all honesty, neither of us were excited about going to Delhi, especially having witnessed the filth and stench of the other big cities we visited, including Kolkata, Jaipur and Agra.  Our only goals in Delhi were to visit the Red Fort and eat at a restaurant named Moti Mahal, as recommended by Gordon Ramsay and apparently the origins of famous UK curries such as Butter Chicken and Chicken Tikka Masala!  With these activities in mind, we booked accomodation at The Broadway Hotel located on the cusp of Old Delhi and New Delhi and just 5 minutes walk from the unimpressive Delhi Gate.

Hotel Broadway run special offers if you book online, we got a free bottle of Indian red wine, cookies, dinner and a free cycle rickshaw ride around the market in old Delhi and all for £80 a night.  We got all of these things, except the cycle rickshaw tour was a bit of a let down, basically they pay for the driver to drop you off qt the end of the road and you have to walk it from there, but they did offer to pay our return fare!  After a few weeks in India, you find yourself succumbing to the organised chaos, constant misunderstandings and realise that to enjoy yourself, you simply need to lower your expectations, or better yet, have none at all!  Moti Mahal is a good example of this.

Before our trip we watched Gordon Ramsays three part series of cooking in India and in part & he is taken to Moti Mahal by one of Indias top food critics.  Gordon praised the cooking and highly recommended you go there if in Delhi, so we did and despite the staff being nice, the food was mediocre and the restaurant itself falling apart with bits of the roof collapsing, dodgy toilets and it was a bit drab.  However, it wasnt the worst food weve eaten qnd probably worth visiting as its fairly cheap and very very famous!

The Red Fort is a must, but the Ghandi Memorial is somewhat understated with not much to see.  The old Delhi bazaar is definitely fun to walk around and there is a mass of everything you could ever need running along long streets and tucked into tiny backstreets and hidden alley ways, it is also just fun to watch the absolute craziness of everyday life there.

Moti Mahal, as recommended by Gordon Ramsay in "Gordon's Great Escape: India"

Links:

http://www.hotelbroadwaydelhi.com/

http://eoid.org/2007/04/07/the-original-moti-mahal/

http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/ShowUserReviews-g304551-d785296-r94502588-Moti_Mahal-New_Delhi_National_Capital_Territory_of_Delhi.html

RAJASTHAN – REFRESHING UDAIPUR

Following our train ticket debacle, we flew from Jodhpur to Udaipur, the home of the famous Taj Palace, most recognised as octopussy’s residence in the James Bond film. The Taj sits prettily in Lake Pichola and can be viewed from the many rooftop restaurants in Udaipur.
We are staying at Chunda Palace, not so expensive and stunning. Our room has a jaquzzi bath, 4 poster bed and the facilities include beautiful palace lounge rooms, indoor hamam and outdoor swimming pool, worth every penny.
Food here is reasonably priced and the shopping pretty good. Nice drinking hang out is Pushkars, a hippie haunt, but extremely chilled out with only a few creepy wee Indians drinking there!
Today we had a home cooking lesson from Spice India and I’m looking forward to David replicating the dishes when we get home.
Udaipur is by far the nicest and most relaxing place in Rajasthan and I’d definitely recommend making here a major stop on your travels along with Jodhpur.

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http://www.chundapalace.com/

http://www.spicebox.co.in/cooking-class/

http://www.tajhotels.com/Luxury/Cities/About-Udaipur.html

INDIA – TAKING THE TRAIN

Taking the train in India is an institution in it’s own right and is a must do for travellers, if only once! Buying a ticket is a trial and it is advised to book tickets online as far in advance as possible. Try http://www.clear trip.com although even this website will have you scratching your head in confusion. Buying a train ticket is not as easy at it is in most other countries, NO, it is unnecessarily complicated and unclear whether you have bought the ticket when you think you have indeed “bought the ticket”!
Your online ticket needs to be confirmed and you can only do this at the ticket office in the station, thus you still have to join the tourist queue, which still has Indians trying to push in and rub up behind you. We decided to buy our tickets as we went, Big Mistake! India railways hold back tickets called Tatkal, which are kept for emergency tickets, usually for foreigners, come at an additional cost and are non refundable, and you STILL need to get them confirmed at the office on the day of travel! Then there are waiting list tickets, again, coming with the need to confirm. You are told the train is full, made to queue for hours, then told you need a paper copy of your passport and the original isn’t accepted, so you have to go to the conveniently placed copy shop next door, fork out more and then rejoin the queue.
Your other option is to pay high hotel commission fees to sort it out. We did this once and it was still a hassle getting tickets confirmed!
We bought tickets and travelled twice in 3rd AC class. The train journey itself is fairly comfortable and the train no where near full either times. It seems India’s bureaucracy once again gets in the way of good sense, making the simplest of tasks near impossible.

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INDIA – TAJ MAHAL

From Kolkata, we flew to Delhi and then drove to Agra to see the India’s most famous attraction – The Taj Mahal, built by Shah Jahan in memory of his 3rd and favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Made from glistening white marble, with semi precious stones inserted to form decorative panels throughout, the Taj Mahal definitely lives up to expectations.

Agra is the town that houses the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. Shah Jahan’s son overthrew him, it is said due to his taste for beautiful things and spending money building intricate structures. Shah Jahan was imprisoned for years and could only admire the Taj Mahal from a window in the fort. These, along with Fatehpur Sikri, a deserted royal city 50 kilometres outside of Agra are all this town has to offer. Stunning as these are, Agra itself if a bit of a sesspit, with rubbish strewn everywhere. There are many hotels, but our experience was fairly negative. We first tried the Hotel Amar, who effectively wasted our time saying they had a room available, it was off the street and had a double bed, all of which was lies. We then tried the park plaza, who were also full, but arranged a room at the Jaypee Palace, a beautiful 5 star hotel kilometres outside of Agra’s dirty centre with 1 star service! The hotel itself and rooms are stunning, but the staff useless. It seems Jaypee’s idea of service is hiring a load of good looking, smartly dressed people to stand around all over the hotel saying hello and Namaste to guests, try to do anything like extend your stay, pay your bill or get advice and you’ll be struggling and frustrated as well as feeling ripped off!

We left Agra by train, travelling 3rd AC class, squeezing into our upper bunks in the carriage. Not as bad as you’d think though. We arrived in Jaipur on time to face the craziness of another Indian city!

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http://www.jaypeehotels.com/jp-page.php?id=jpWelcome

INDIA – JAIPUR TO JODHPUR

We are now in Jodhpur, the “blue city” which is by far my favourite place in India so far. Much smaller than the other places we have visited, Jodhpur packs a punch with its magnificent fort rising above all else. The restaurants and hotels have made great use of the sight and built rooftop restaurants, which are characteristic and very nice to sit and enjoy a beer in. Last night we checked out Indique, recommended by the Lonely Planet. Food was OK, but view over Jodhpur and the fort was well worth the visit.

Yesterday we tried out the Flying Fox, which is made up of 6 zip lines from the fort across Bastions, lakes and the Blue City. It was a bit hot, but lots of fun.

To get here, we took the train from Jaipur, again, 3rd class AC. Train journeys themselves are not so bad, but buying a ticket is highly frustrating and an experience that will leave you choosing to fly the next part of your trip!

Jaipur was my least favourite place. The sights were OK. the fort and palace were worth the trip, but the city itself is absolutely filthy and the people not very nice at all and only out to make money and rip you off. In my opinion, if you want to enjoy your trip to India, miss out Jaipur!!

In 30 minutes, we are flying to Udaipur for 3 days to hopefully relax before heading home to the real world.

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