Our Southern Indian Odyssey begins in Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka. My first trip to India and one I’d been dreaming of for years. I met chef Meena Patak several times in London and she regaled me with amazing tales of beautiful scenery, friendly people, the aroma of spices in the air and the incredible and diverse cuisine.
On the other hand many friends and acquaintances had horror stories of poverty, desperation and terrible stomach issues. Only one thing for it, go and find out for ourselves. I really didn’t know what to expect.
We visited in December and January and it’s taken me a while to digest my incredible experiences. We travelled miles through diverse landscapes, visiting bustling cities and the most peaceful of plantations and mountains, waterways and beaches. And there were plenty of pleasant surprises along the way.
This all involved spending a lot of time in the car, so I fastidiously kept a journal, writing down my daily adventures in detail (don’t worry, I wasn’t driving)! I’ve only recently reread my notebookful of impressions and I’m ready to share. I’m doing it chronologically because if you are thinking of doing a similar trip (and I can’t recommend it highly enough), our itinerary was perfect. Well it did take me over three months to plan with the expert help of our travel agent.
First stop: bustling Bangalore
My journey from the airport (about 20km) took two hours through dense, slow-moving traffic that ignored any rules of the road I’ve ever encountered. I felt part of a noisy, amorphous mass in the mix of cars, taxis, tuktuks, scooters and bicycles. Communication was in the form of a constant cacophony of horns and progress slow. What a welcome to India!
With a population of over 10 million Bangalore (officially called Bengaluru) is a megacity and known as India’s Silicon Valley. It’s the third most populous city in India (after New Delhi and Mumbai). Mind blowingly only 30% of the country’s population is urban, so 70% live in the countryside. Okay, it is a huge country but it is hard to get your head around these stats when you’re surrounded by so many people in the third biggest city! And I live in London.
Luckily you can escape the mayhem with a visit to the Lalbagh Gardens.
Strolling through Lalbagh Gardens
Originally started by ruler Hyder Ali in 1760 as a private garden, these vast botanical gardens are now spread over 240 acres and provide a haven to escape to in the heart of this incredibly busy city. They are home to their famous glass house, which dates back to 1889 and hosts two annual flower shows, a Victorian bandstand, a lake and plenty of local art as well as having India’s largest collection of tropical plants.
You can also escape to a different type of frenetic energy at the fruit, veg and flower market.
Exploring the incredible produce market
I do love a good market and Bengaluru’s is superb. It’s vast and sells every type of fruit and veg you could possibly imagine. All beautifully laid out and colour coordinated – how I wished I could be stocking up on exotic goodies and going home to cook.
Discovering the delicious Masala Dosa
Our guide told us that Bengaluru means “the place of boiled peanuts”. Peanuts are grown here in abundance. Love a peanut, but the most exciting foodie discovery in the city for me was that it is the home of the Masala Dosa. A dosa is a thin, crispy South Indian savoury pancake and to become a Masala Dosa it’s stuffed with a spiced potato filling and served with sambar (a lentil-based kind of broth) and coconut chutney. I was told there are 99 versions of dosas…now that’s a list I wouldn’t mind tackling. One of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten – and I did my best to sample the widest range I could – more of which later.
Bengaluru was the perfect starting point, a fascinating city, if a little overwhelming. Time to head south.
The road to magnificent Mysore
It took us over an hour to get out of the city, and then we were on the road to Mysore, with no shortage of sights along the way. From transgenders parading at the traffic lights to teddy bear markets with bears in every colour and size, and vendors selling bunches of stunning lotuses. And the two guys sharing their scooter with two fluffy white goats. Seriously!
And then we arrived in beautiful Mysore and its main attraction – the staggeringly magnificent Mysore Palace. Yes it really is staggeringly magnificent – or possibly even more magnificent than that.
Absorbing the palatial splendour
Constructed between 1897 and 1912, the palace itself covers 11 acres and is set in 75 acres of ground. It’s the second most visited attraction in India after the Taj Mahal.
Inside there are chandeliers from Italy and Bohemia (Czech), rosewood doors inlaid with ivory from Burma, stunning floor tiles from England and gold leaf is abundant. The colours, mix of beautiful architectural styles and the sheer scale of the place are incredible. And we only saw a small part of it.
Mysore Palace took my breath away – and I’m not even that into palaces. Well, maybe I am now!
Discovering more in Mysore
Mysore is worth visiting for its palace alone. But you should also head up Chamundi Hill to the beautiful Chamundeshwari Temple – where you can sacrifice a coconut to the Goddess of Power and (hopefully) become more powerful. And visit the Bull Temple – a massive five-metre high bull carved from granite. You’ll also have amazing views across the city from on high.
Look out for the mischievous monkeys and the street cows, too. Street cows are a feature throughout Southern India and although they live on the streets they are fed and taken care of if they are ill. An unusual concept that I came to find really endearing. I took endless pictures of street cows – I just couldn’t help myself.
Explore the Mysore marketplace
Mysore also has a wonderful fruit, veg and flower market. Smaller and calmer than Bengaluru’s it was so colourful and aromatic.
The serenity of The Serai, Kabini
Our last stop in Karnataka. Having visited two cities it was now time to get back to nature as we drove along small countryside roads to Kabini past fields of maize, cotton, tapioca and rice and plentiful banana groves. It’s set on a lake in beautiful gardens, close to the Nagarhole Tiger Sanctuary.
The main purpose of visiting Kabini (chill-out time aside) was for some safari Indian-style. As someone who grew up in Zimbabwe and spends a lot of time in South Africa I’m totally spoiled on the safari front. There’s so much wildlife and I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen most of it – and many times. So my game-spotting expectations were low – I was looking forward to peace, lovely scenery and hopefully an elephant or two.
Searching for the elusive tiger
Our first venture into the Nagarhole Tiger Sanctuary was by jeep and pretty unproductive all round. A few deer, a glimpse of an elephant crossing a road, a mongoose and a bit of bird life. Not unexpected – though our guide was an excellent story teller.
In the afternoon we took to the water and were experiencing more of the same until someone on the boat shouted “Tiger”! And there he was emerging from the forest right in front of our eyes.
Even better, he wasn’t at all fazed by our presence and proceeded to prowl up and down the shoreline as we sat entranced. For over 20 minutes. I never expected I’d ever see a tiger in the wild – let along watch one for so long. Wow!
As if seeing a tiger wasn’t enough (and it totally was for me) our boat safari turned out to be great all round with wild boar, elephant and crocodile sightings. And a beautiful sunset to top it off.
Enjoying fabulous Karnatakan cuisine
High on our tiger sighting we excitedly returned to The Serai in expectation of a beautiful dinner and some evening entertainment. This was probably the best food of our trip – a sumptuous buffet spread with totally different dishes at every meal and all of them delectable. At night starters were served in the garden which was decorated and sparkled with fairy lights and lanterns. One night it was lit up in red with hanging hearts to add a bit of romance. A totally magical experience in so many ways.
Karnataka was a revelation for me. Vibrant and tranquil, filled with beautiful architecture, great food and stunning countryside. And of course our magnificent tiger. Yes there was poverty, but no worse than some I’ve encountered in Africa. Sadly this seems to be the nature of developing countries. Oh and our stomachs were doing great – no issues on that front.
The people couldn’t have been more welcoming or friendly and there seemed to be an underlying harmony all round. Such a great start to our Indian adventure.
We’re heading into the mountains to explore the tea and spice plantations of Kerala. Come back soon.
Our amazing Southern Indian Odyssey was organised by Eastravel in conjunction with Travel Spirit, who are based in Kerala.