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Lucire: Volante
india


Crossroads As with many major Indian cities, Kolkata boasts examples of outstanding architecture, including some buildings in the Indo–British style.

Oh, Kolkata! We never knew you

There is more to Kolkata than its British colonial history and Mother Teresa’s rich legacy would suggest, say Elyse Glickman and Leyla Messian

 

THOUGH THE OBEROI RESORTS and fabulous retreats my colleague Stanley Moss covered for Lucire offer elegance and luxury fit for a raj—or at least Aishwarya Rai—our recent trip to Rajasthan and Delhi on Stanley’s heels was driven by what connects us: a shared passion for luxurious textiles, great vegetarian food, bazaars and dramatic gold and silver jewellery (though not necessarily in the same order for each of us). After our satisfying exploration of the Golden Triangle, we made our way to Kolkata via Indigo, India’s quirky, fun and efficient budget airline, for a sort of vacation from our vacation.

While one of us (Leyla) is a veteran traveller to India, making regular stops to Kolkata and regarding it as a second home, the other of us (Elyse) was new to an Indian holiday but not Indian culture, thanks to regular visits to “little India” neighborhoods in Chicago (West Rogers Park) and Los Angeles (Artesia).

Though travellers often associate India with earthy, jewel tones found in the great historic sites, palaces and temples of India’s Golden Triangle, Calcutta, or Kolkata as it is now officially known, is awash in green. While much of the city’s foliage is a direct result of British colonialism personified in sprawling parks and gardens, most of it is a product of East Bengal’s natural tropical terrain.

In fact, when you leave the airport, the wide, palm tree lined boulevards and pastel-hued modern buildings evoke Miami. As you drive deeper into the city and closer to downtown through residential sections, New Orleans’ or Sydney’s residential areas come to mind, with the lacy verandas, terraces and quaint cafés lining the streets. Every spare space is filled with lush equatorial plant life.

However, there is also plenty to remind you that you are indeed in India, from Hindu temples to bustling bazaars and markets to stores and boutiques of all stripes showcasing vibrant local fashion, textiles and jewellery. Even the popular Chinese restaurants smell and taste wonderfully different from our favourite neighbourhood noodle shops in LA. And with all the culture, cuisine and style this city has to offer anybody seeking a compelling urban destination, it is indeed surprising that Kolkata is not as popular a tourist destination as one would think.

For starters, Kolkata is a foodie’s para­dise, from Indian–Jewish fusion pastries sold at local institu­tion Nahoum’s Bakery in New­market to the popular Swiss-owned hangout dessert empor­ium Flury’s to Halderam, a stand-alone food court that is a temple to India’s great street foods, sweets and snacks. On the higher end of the dining spectrum, the wonderful Oh! Calcutta and Sigree restaurants (www.speciality.co.in) are distinguished with regional menus with specialized dishes (for West Bengal and India’s far north, respectively) that will surprise Indian food fans and non-fans alike through subtle flavours and low-fat cooking preparations.

As one of India’s great draws is its status as one of the world’s most tolerant countries, a popular bus tour covering a variety of Hindu, Jain and other temples is recommended by locals often sold out. However, if you are fortun­ate enough to get tickets, be prepared for a full day of architec­tural feats and fascinat­ing history.

The elegant Victoria Memorial will also keep culture vultures busy for at least a morning, with its fascinating art and history exhibits reflecting its deep cultural connections with the British Empire and other European cultures bringing their influences into India via the busy trade routes of the 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. The expansive gardens surrounding the impressive 1905 structure provide a relaxing and fresh counterbalance.

The Indian Museum, one of the oldest museums in Asia founded in 1914, makes for an unusual academic experience, with a 4,000-year-old mummy, fossils, coins, stones, Gandhara art, meteors and botanica mounted in library-like settings, with displays and artifacts exhaustively labeled. The Academy of Fine Arts (2, Cathedral Road, Kolkata), meanwhile boasts an impressive collection of miniature paintings, Indian textiles and sculptures as well as contemporary Indian art exhibits. When it comes to people-watching and modern Indian culture, Dolly Soanes and her kids say they spend time at Fleury’s (a cute café opened by Swiss expats) and the Oxford Bookshop, with its own upstairs café with a view.

Though open markets are as busy in Kolkata as they are elsewhere in India, Kolkata is also home to several spotless enclosed malls like South City and the Forum, blending known European and American brands with chic Indian fashion chains. Ritu Kumar and Biba are our personal favourites. Department store Westside, meanwhile, is an excellent one-stop shopping spot for clothes, home décor and cosmetics.

There is also a large branch of FabIndia that will appeal to anybody who swears by stores like US chains Anthropologies and Urban Outfitters, with a range of nifty housewares, costume jewellery and comfy cotton Indian and Indo-European style travel clothing. Swabhumi Heritage Plaza, which features local craft vendors and an amphitheatre is also a fun visit and a great place to snap up high-quality, low-cost souvenirs for friends back home.

‘You really need to come back in December,’ our host Shelley Metha advised, ‘as there is so much more happening in Kolkata with the holiday season and winter festivals.’ The temptation to return is firmly embedded on our mental to-do list, but it’s combined with a belief that Kolkata is also figuratively one of the hottest cities on Earth. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world catches on. •

 

Kolkata is a foodie’s paradise, from Indian–Jewish fusion pastries sold at Nahoum’s Bakery in New­market to the popular Swiss-owned Flury’s, to Halderam, a stand-alone food court that is a temple to India’s great street foods, sweets and snacks

 

 

For general information on Kolkata and West Bengal, visit www.incredibleindia.org, www.kolkatahub.com and www.tourismindia.com. To book a customized trip, which can cover Jewish highlights, visit www.makemytrip.com, recommended by Dolly Soanes and Shelley Metha. New York-based TCI (1 917 353-0797) also offers custom India travel, including Jewish heritage itineraries.

 


Elyse Glickman is US west coast editor of Lucire.
Leyla Messian is a senior correspondent for
Lucire.

 
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