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What We Did on our 2017 Winter Break

Tom and I don’t get much opportunity to take time off during the British summer, as that’s the busiest time of year for Go Cotswolds. Instead, in what has now become something of an annual tradition, we try to take a month or two off work during the winter, and escape to somewhere sunny! 

Last year we spent an amazing 7 weeks road-tripping around the USA, but this year we headed east…to India! 

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Tom and I taking all the cheesy tourist photos at the incredible Taj Mahal, Agra. © Go Cotswolds

It’s fair to say that, for us, landing in New Delhi was something of a culture-shock. Leaving the relative peace and quiet of Stratford-upon-Avon behind, India’s capital city is, by contrast, a riot of sound and colour, bustling crowds, bonkers traffic, exotic flavours…and unusual smells!

We based ourselves in Delhi for three days, during which time we explored the vibrant markets, had our first tastes of spicy thalis, and immersed ourselves in the ancient history and beautiful architecture of the Mughal empire. I expected to be underwhelmed by our day trip to the famous Taj Mahal – it’s a big white building we’ve all seen on the TV, right? Yet, up close, this monument to a beloved queen was truly impressive. Our excellent guide Ali really brought it to life and it was definitely a highlight of the whole trip!

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Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. Hindu pilgrims visit these ghats at dawn to bathe in the River Ganges, and also burn their dead by its banks. © Go Cotswolds

From Delhi we flew to Varanasi. If we’d thought Delhi was bonkers, it seemed as tranquil as the Cotswolds (well, almost!) in comparison to this holy city! Thanks in part to its auspicious location on the banks of the holy River Ganges, Hindus believe that if you die in Varanasi, you will escape the cycle of reincarnation and go straight to Nirvana. Consequently, Varanasi has become something of a retirement home for elderly Hindus from all over India, and a pilgrimage site for everyone else. Each morning, at dawn, men and women can be found bathing at one of the ghats along the river, praying and performing religious rituals, while throughout the day the smell of woodsmoke constantly permeates the air as up to 80 dead bodies a day are burned on open pyres by the river. In the evening, devotional puja ceremonies culminate in the spectacular sight of hundreds of tiny offerings of flowers and candles being floated down the river. We highly recommend taking a tour with the excellent Varanasi Walks to help you make sense of this crazy place! Like us in the Cotswolds, these guys are experienced locals who are passionate about their home town. 

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After Varanasi, we made our own pilgrimage…to the “mecca of cricket”! This is us at Eden Gardens, Kolkata. © Go Cotswolds

From Varanasi we flew to Calcutta, the former capital of the British Raj in India. Here we absorbed the colonial history with a visit to Queen Victoria’s Memorial, and dinner at the enigmatic Calcutta Cricket and Football Club – with many thanks to our friend Martyn (from Stratford-upon-Avon!) and his Calcutta-born wife Tas! Much to Tom’s delight, we also enjoyed a day at Eden Gardens, the “mecca of cricket”, where we were treated to an English win over the home team in an England vs India one-day international! 

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We had a surprisingly comfortable night’s sleep aboard an overnight train to Siliguri! © Go Cotswolds

And then for a slight change of pace – and temperature! Leaving the heat of West Bengal’s capital behind, we took an overnight train to Siliguri, and from there a bumpy shared jeep to chilly Darjeeling, in the foothills of the Himalayas. This peaceful hillside city, famous of course for its tea plantations, also offered spectacular views of Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, and the Nepali and Tibetan food made a refreshing change to the spicy curries we had enjoyed elsewhere thus far!

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Tibetan prayer flags at Dorje Ling Monastery, atop Observatory Hill in Darjeeling. © Go Cotswolds

After a few days at altitude and two weeks of busy city-based sightseeing we were ready for relaxation, so we flew down to the very southern part of India: “God’s own country”, Kerala. Making our way to Alleppey, we enjoyed two blissful days of true rest and relaxation, cruising the Keralan backwaters aboard a private ‘rice barge’. No TV, no internet, nothing to do but sunbathe, admire the stunning palm-tree-lined beauty (see photo above), catch up on our reading, and enjoy delicious south Indian cuisine prepared for us by our very own chef! Back on dry land, we continued our peaceful sojourn for a few days more at the wonderful Marari Dreamz in Mararikulam, run by the lovely Allwyn and Jency who went above and beyond to make our stay amazing.

After another train journey, we took another rather bumpy bus ride into the hills of Kerala to spend a few days in the Wayanad Wildlife Reserve area. Here we not only took a jeep safari to see Asian elephants in the wild, and stumbled across a colourful tribal dance festival, but we also enjoyed a fascinating tour of the incredible organic farm at Varnam Homestay. Peppers, pineapples, papayas, cinnamon, cardamom and coffee – it seemed there was nothing they didn’t grow on this small plantation, and getting to sample some of the homegrown produce at breakfast, lunch and dinner each day was a real treat! 

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Spotting this fella was a highlight of our stay in the Wayanad Wildlife Reserve! © Go Cotswolds

Before reluctantly heading home, we spent our final few days in India in Goa – land of golden palm-tree fringed beaches and delicious seafood. We stayed on two different beaches – Talpona and Palolem – in Goa’s south, which is reportedly calmer and less “party” than the northern region, and that suited us just fine! Talpona was almost deserted, except for the turtle nests, and sipping on our coconuts we certainly enjoyed that ‘cast-away’ feeling! While busier and more touristy, the beach at Palolem is certainly among the prettiest beaches I’ve ever seen, and the warm waters of the Arabian sea were a delight to swim in. 

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Don’t mind us, we’re just chilling on a deserted tropical beach…© Go Cotswolds

All too soon it was time to fly back to cold and rainy Birmingham! But we’re not too sad – we feel rested and relaxed after our Indian adventure, and bookings for our tours of the Cotswolds have been coming in thick and fast, so we’re excited about the new season for Go Cotswolds – our third year in business and one that we hope will be our best yet! 

 

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