India for Beginners – Visiting Bangalore (Bengaluru)
People who have never been to India before generally fall into two camps – those who think it will be too hot, too dirty and too crowded for them and those who think it will be colourful, other-worldly and exciting. The truth is probably somewhere in between and of course it depends where you go. I have visited India more often than anywhere else – it keeps calling me back – and despite over 25 visits, I still haven’t seen as much of it as I’d like. India is vast – just one state – Karnataka – is the size of England and travelling from place to place, even if flying, can take a long time. There is terrible poverty and parts of it are filthy, but it has some of the best hotels I have ever visited, the food is invariably superb and there are 100 multi-millionaires living in Bangalore; the cliché ‘city of contrasts’ could well apply to most cities in India.
Cosmopolitan Bangalore is the city I would suggest for a first introduction to India. It’s positioned in the south at 3,000 ft, so rarely gets uncomfortably hot. Being the IT capital, English is the international business language and widely spoken. All educated Indians learn English at school. Despite so many trees being felled in the name of progress and expansion, it still deserves its moniker of the ‘Garden City’. For a winter sun break – where you want to do a bit more than fly and flop but have some downtime too around the pool and in the spa, I would suggest it is perfect. The best time to visit is said to be the winter – before the summer heat and the monsoons. But if you go in May, you’ll be able to gorge on the most delicious mangoes you have ever tasted and the heavy rains later in the year have breaks of glorious sunshine in between. It’s not cold when it rains, in fact it’s quite refreshing. Hotels are cheaper in the summer, so bear that in mind when weighing up your options. Restaurants, hotels and most cars have air-conditioning – Indians like it really cold – so take a jacket, or if at a restaurant, sit outside.
There are numerous five star hotels from which to choose – all offering high standards of customer service and excellent housekeeping, at prices considerably lower than in Europe and the USA. All hotels have at least one excellent restaurant. Since the city is not on the tourist radar, hotel pools are rarely crowded, perhaps only on Sunday, when they run a lunch buffet for the ex-pats. Most of the time I’ve had the pool to myself. If you want a British take on things, the ITC Windsor is a compelling choice. Across a little bridge and set in High Grounds, it has a cosy, slightly old-fashioned feel. The Manor rooms on the second floor open out onto a secret garden (Lancelot Gardens) with seating and fragrant frangipane trees. An Irish pub and fun outdoor restaurant where you nibble at pieces of barbecued meat with your fingers (large checked aprons supplied) are added bonuses. The pool is a little noisy from passing traffic, but for me the hotel is pretty much perfect. If you want to push the boat out at reasonable prices, the Leela Palace hotel is superb. A pink fairy-tale castle set off the busy Old Airport Road, the public spaces are incredible. Soaring marble columns and oversized vases each containing three hundred flower heads greet you on arrival. The Library Bar is arranged like a gentleman’s club; the semi-open adjoining bar has cathedral candles and silk cushions set on teak furniture. The Zen and Jamavar restaurants – with indoor or outdoor space – are among the best in town. To one side of the immaculate nine acre garden is the large swimming pool, overlooked by a yoga studio. Finally, the Oberoi comes highly recommended. Each of its rooms overlooks the garden and ancient rain tree and each has an outdoor space. The impressive pool is quietly set in the large gardens. The Rim Naan semi-open restaurant here is one of my favourites. When booking your hotels online, do bear in mind that about 20% will be added to your final bill to cover taxes.
Hotel limousine cars have a uniformed driver and are the most expensive option, but it will still be affordable, compared to back home. Bangalore has too much traffic for the size of the population (11 million) and at times it is gridlocked. Avoid the morning and evening rush hour and learn to do everything in Indian time (ie eventually).
Bangalore now has many air-conditioned American style malls. Most of them contain international brands you would find anywhere, but there are a few Indian brands worth seeking out, such as Fab India and some contain food courts, that are often brilliant. For around a pound you can have your fill from a choice of cuisines with a drink. If you want souvenirs, the Cauvery in MG Road is the most well known, but personally I am not interested in silks and wooden carvings, so best avoid if that’s you as well. What is a good buy are the cotton goods and scarves, found around Commercial Street. Also here, you’ll find tailors happy to measure you up for a suit or dress and deliver it to your hotel the next day. Books, especially non-fiction are cheap here. Try Gangarams in MG Road. Your hotel will have a good spa for massages and facials but for salon services, it’s cheaper to find one outside. I liked Lakme near Trinity Circle (and the Oberoi) where I had a manicure, pedicure and foot massage for less than £20. And Mad Lillies (owned by a BA cabin crew member) in the Prestige Centre, Cunningham Road was similar. For a food treat, go to Foodhall, also at Trinity Circle. They sell 70 varieties of bread, including focaccia as well as Indian delicacies.
Visiting notable attractions can be tiring; fortunately, there are not too many in Bangalore. I’d suggest a stroll in Cubbon Park in the centre
(300 acres) and Lalbach Gardens, to the south, if only to enjoy some peace and quiet. Near Cubbon Park is St Mark’s Cathedral, built along the lines of St Paul’s in London but obviously much smaller. There is a wonderful organ, donated by the Cowdrey cricketing family and hand-made Italian stained glass windows, dating from the early 19th century. There are many temples to visit, but all are working places of worship and not smartened up for tourists. You often have to remove your shoes and the floors are not too clean, so avoid if this is likely to be a problem.
I’d recommend the direct flight to Bangalore with British Airways – booking five months ahead can cost as little as £400 return with luggage included – but breaking your journey may be even cheaper. Step out from the airport into the warm Indian morning, jump into your waiting hotel car, and just imagine your gentle Bangalore adventure is about to begin. Maybe like me, you’ll return again and again.
Food in Bangalore is generally good and it’s not all curry. The rising middle classes and visiting Europeans and Americans demand excellent Italian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese and other cuisines. Maybe only ten years ago, the best restaurants were in the five-star hotels. Now there are stand-alone ones too. In the centre of town near MG Road, try Church Street and the surrounding area for decent, inexpensive restaurants. Out of town east a bit, along Hundred Foot Road, you’ll find scores of restaurants and shops, all vying to have the brightest neon lighting, so it’s fun to visit at night. One of the oldest restaurants is MTR near Lalbach Gardens, serving delicious south Indian fare. Try a potato dosa and steaming hot coffee, served in a silver mug, for the price of a daily newspaper. Imported wines are expensive. Stick to excellent Indian beers or their own wines that have improved massively in recent years.
Walking in Bangalore is difficult as pavements are often uneven and pedestrian crossings are few and far between. For short distances, take an auto rick. They are everywhere putt-putting along. Negotiate the fare before you travel and make sure the guy knows where he is going. Taxis (usually air-conditioned) can be arranged by your hotel.