I recently took a 3 day trip to the holy city of Varanasi, on a whim really, and not sure of what to expect. Varanasi, Benaras (or Kashi) is one of the oldest living cities in the world – and legend has it, that it was here that Shiva and Parvati stood, at the beginning of time. A vibrant confluence of many things – myth, reality, culture, mystery, spirituality, knowledge and architecture, Varanasi is more than a destination to visit, it is an experience. With its narrow lanes, overcrowded at every nook at corner, the temples, the chaos, the Ghats, the people, this experience can be overwhelming and all-consuming.
“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.” – James Michener
Landing at Varanasi (10:00 am)
I land at the Varanasi airport and I am in for a surprise. The airport is extremely clean, not what I had expected. It’s a very comfortable ride from Delhi (just a 1 hour flight). We take a pre-paid cab to get to the city, which is about 20 km away.I get my first taste of Varanasi with an overzealous driver, who wants to push an itinerary down our throat, of things he thinks are “must do’s” . I was to soon realize that it is not just him, but basically every one you meet in Varanasi and there are 2 reasons for this. The first is that most locals have a huge sense of pride about their city and many of them do genuinely want the tourists to see the best sites. The second reason is that tourism forms a significant part of the city’s livelihood and the locals can literally smell you are a tourist, and will hound you(it doesn’t matter if you are not a foreigner).Be prepared to have everyone from a cab or auto driver to shop keepers trying to “guide” you or sell you stuff.
Check-in to Hotel Hindustan International – 11:15 am
We booked Hotel Hindustan International since it had decent reviews and we got a great deal online. The hotel was fairly good, 2 queen sized beds, very clean – regular facilities like a mini fridge, electric kettle, and TV etc. The hotel has a spa, swimming pool, bar (again surprise!).Food is average, but then it is tough to find great food in Varanasi. All in all, there is absolutely no reason to complain. If you fancy staying in a 5 star, check out the hotels in the Cantt area.
Banaras Hindu University -3:00 – 4:00 pm
One of the largest residential universities in Asia, a short drive around BHU is captivating. A sprawling campus, green and open – what was truly fascinating to see was the breadth of courses – I passes departments of not only the very famous IIT BHU Engineering courses, but languages such as German and French, disciplines such as Journalism and Mass Communication, Physical Education, Arts, History etc. BHU also is home to the Vishwanath temple, inside the campus if you want to pay a visit.
6:00 – 8:00 pm
We decide the check out Gadolia market, as that is apparently where all the shopping for brocades, silks etc is. Autos (three wheelers/thuk-thuks) are very easy to catch, but next to impossible to bargain with. And they are expensive. Like I said, tourism is a big thing for this city. To give you an idea, a 3 km ride cost us Rs 100.
We take an automated rickshaw to get the market – and it was literally the ride of my life. The “roads” are more like narrow streets, traffic is crazy, people honk and shout non-stop, speed and break in bursts – it is quite an experience!
Be prepared to walk a lot in Varanasi – so dress comfortable (and modest) with good walking shoes (I observed that there weren’t too many women out on the roads later in the evening).The autos will drop you only till the Gadolia chowk and after that, you need to walk around to explore more.
Our first stop was the very famous Kashi Chat Bhandaar – we tried the aloo tikki which was served with chole, dahi, chutney and saunth with mooli on top – tasty! (A deep fried potato cutlet, served with cooked chickpeas, curd, tamarind and mint chutney). To be honest, I did not have the heart to try any of the other stuff, since the place didn’t inspire too much confidence. Again, don’t mistake my opinion for a city born and bred- I am extremely experimental with street food but this just wasn’t my thing. The aloo tikki is fried so definitely safe, and I had no stomach upset the next day.
We roam around the market a bit more, and check out various shops for sarees, silk etc. There are just so many shops and varieties that it is impossible not to get lost. But you surely can pick up some amazing goodies. I also get to know that The Chowk is a better place for shopping for silks and decide to go there later.
8:00 – 10:00 pm – The Brown Bread Bakery
We are hungry again and decide to head to the Brown Bread Bakery near Dashashwamedh Ghat.The approach to the bakery is very fascinating – narrow winding lanes, with shops on both sides, selling anything and everything from bangles, bindis to puja and ritual items , breads, biscuits to scarves and trinkets. Add a lot of people, cows for company and you know it is doesn’t get better 🙂
We finally reach the bakery and the cafe is on the second floor with a roof top restaurant as well. The roof top looks great, with wooden tables and chairs plus candles. Unfortunately, we don’t get a table there so we decide to sit on the floor below – which is nothing but a big room , with no tables/chairs barring one(which is again occupied), and the rest of the sitting is on the floor. Big cushions, a small low wooden table, you get the drift? The mood is dense, yes, that is what I felt when I entered this room. Everyone looks up as we enter, even the owner – I don’t think they are used to getting too many Indian customers. There was no one that night except us.
The menu is extensive, with pastas, pizzas, salads, cold cuts, various varieties of tea and coffee (hot and cold) and desserts. But the best is definitely the freshly baked breads, white, brown, multi grain and many more, served with butter. There was a musician playing sitar and one playing tabla, which was nice. After the performance, the musician did try his best sales effort to go to each table and sell his cds.
All in All, the food is okay, the bread is great – the place has got a different vibe and the approach is fascinating. Not to forget, the food isn’t expensive. We ordered one pasta, one pizza, one garlic brown bread, one baked potato, 2 mint ice teas and ran a bill of Rs 750(the bread basket was complimentary)
We get out and walk till Gadolia chowk and catch an auto back to our hotel. Day 1 ends, time to hit the sack!
If you have been to Varanasi and have any experiences to share or have any comments about my post, I would love to hear those.