6 years in India and never managed to travel to Kolkata. Shame-on-me. This weekend finally, I made up for this black spot in the company of my friends Tim & Dominique Butzmann and Marek Janetzke. Landing in Kolkata on Friday evening, we could figure already by the disorganized procedure of the prepaid airport-taxis that here, in the capital of West Bengal, “Old India” still held the upper hand. (All the pictures of the trip here on this Flickr-Set.)
Coming in downtown, driving past and through the chaos, entering Jawaharlal Nehru Street, the cab suddenly pulled left in front of an unassuming gate. We underwent a security check, from where we felt that we had landed on a different planet: The Oberoi Hotel. Its white colour, splendour and luxury became our witnesses of an foregone which had not just survived but re-invented itself throughout more than a century.
At its fine Thai restaurant Baan Thai, we enjoyed our first dinner.
The next morning we headed out for our first walk and were – right after the magic gate – intercepted by the most obnoxious, aggressive beggars and touts I had so far come across in India. We walked along the monumental India Museum, turned left into Park Street.
There further for breakfast at Flurys. Supposedly founded after a Swiss patisserie in 1927, this place today is purely living off its dividend from the past as well as hugely overrated. The poor food, terrible service in combination with high prices make it a location just to ignore.
Exactly the opposite has to be said about the Victoria Memorial, where already the walk through the large scale greenery with grazing horses along Queen’s Way is an experience in itself.
Not after too much time, the monumental white towers will gaze through the trees and provide the curious visitor a clear orientation which path to follow.
After buying the ticket of Rs. 150 (price for foreigners), you walk straight face up to the statue of Queen Victoria sitting quite broadly on here throne and then into the memorial which looks – to quote the Lonely Planet – like a mix between the Capitol in Washington D.C. and the Taj Mahal.
Food is great throughout India, but us four tall Germans acknowledged that we experienced a special culinary highlight at “Oh!Calcutta” in Forum Mall. Nice decoration, courteous service and especially phenomenal food. Bengali cuisine is known for its emphasis on Fish, especially the local “Bekti”.
The various ways of preparations in different ways and curries are simply out of this world and a visit to this restaurant with reasonable prices an absolute must!
After dinner we headed to Park Hotel to listen to the life-band in the bar whose name is seriously “Someplace Else”. The crowd tends to be a bit nerdy, 90 % of the guests male, likewise the four guys on stage, all in their forties appeared, except one, a bit as if they were still living with their mothers. Still, their Rock’n Roll in combination with a cold Heineken in hand was cool stuff to listen to.
Due to “Dry Day” on Independance Day on August 15th, everything closed already at 11.30 pm, hence we decided to take a 10 minutes-walk home when we ran into this guy making himself comfortable on the rear of his car.
Our further path was plastered with people sleeping on the sidewalk to an extent I haven’t yet come across in the centre of an Indian city. Yet amidst the undoubted poverty, small stars of mutual human respect are able to rise. A guy, falling asleep in his chair on the street, seeing us walking towards our 5 star-hotel, wished us a heartfelt “good night”. So I wished him back a sincere “good night to you as well”. Likewise, in all the unfortunate circumstance the ragpickers work, they still manage to smile at you during their work.
On Independence Day security with police and military had been intensified, however without problem for our tour by taxi to the huge Howrah Train Station.
We crossed back the heavy Howrah Bridge where, on a regular working day, around One million people cross on foot.
We continued to walk past the Christian Armenian Church, Holy Rosary Cathedral, the Moghan David Synagogue, St. Andrew’s Church, were impressed by the lake BBD Bagh on whose riverbank a graveyard for old police vans is emerging.
On further South to Raj Bhavan, looking at a beautiful old building still reasonable intact, …
… and from there through the Tram Terminal after our 2.5 hour tour, a last time back to our little oasis of the Oberoi Hotel.
Kolkata is clearly a must for the avid Indian traveller. The city exudes charm, catching flair, its people a pleasant dignity. At the same time, I would not recommend for a Westerner for his first time visit to India to begin with the capital of West Bengal. The poverty is striking and so are the contrast when morphing through the different worlds of “what a Westerner is used to” vs. “how the majority of Kolkatans live”. Nevertheless, a journey worth undertaking to see with own eyes what different shapes a human life can take.