DON’T TAKE YOUR CAR TO THE KASBAH

“Even big trucks go through there!” said a small boy watching me try to reverse out of the kasbah in Nefta, the great date oasis in southern Tunisia.

I had long wanted to travel independently of a press group, and when the others left for London, I’d hired a car and headed inland. The coastal resorts were fine for a sun-and-sand type of holiday, but I wanted to see the djerid, the bizarre belt of oases and salt lakes strung along the roof of the Sahara.

Chott el-Djerid, south of Tozeur, is the largest salt pan in the Sahara

As a western woman, I felt it prudent to have a local with me and discreet enquiries in Tunis found an eighteen year old science student happy to come for his keep. He’d be useful in the event of a breakdown, I decided. Either the car, or my rusty French.

With Ali beside me, we set off for Dougga, the first destination on our 804 km (500 mile) round-trip of Tunisia. Fortunately Ali was not a chatterbox. On the twisting drive, he said little more than that he had six brothers and three sisters. And that none of them had ever been outside Tunis.

The soaring Capitol in the Roman city of Dougga dates from 166 CE

Ali found us a local hotel and I retired early to what would become a familiar chorus of barking dogs. My initial driving experience hadn’t been too frightening. Traffic was light although schoolchildren were a menace. When not straggling along the road, they were throwing stones across it.

From Dougga we crossed the tell, a barren region of undulating plains broken by further stunning Roman ruins in Sbeitla. I was relieved to find plenty of gas stations, but road-blocks were numerous and exceeding the 90kph speed limit in one spot, we were flagged down by police. My UK driving licence wasn’t valid because it didn’t have my photograph I was curtly informed.

Happily my Australian passport saved the situation but next time, said an officer, I would be fined four dinar ($10 at the time). And he waved us on our way.

We reached Nefta, a huge oasis sunk in a dung coloured crater studded with emerald date palms. Sounds drifted up —muezzins making the evening prayer call, dogs yapping, turkeys gobbling and a voice at my elbow urging me to take a picture of a desert fox.

The great date oasis of Nefta in southern Tunisia

When I did so for a small fee, other small boys appeared with more desert foxes and to avoid a confrontation, I drove into the kasbah.

Now this old, labyrinthine part of every Arab town is strictly for desultory strolls. At precisely ten minutes to sunset, I wedged the Renault in an alley wide enough only for a loaded donkey. I could go neither forward nor back and I did not appreciate a child’s assurance that “même les gros camions passent.”

Humiliated, I imagined spending the night outdoors, but Ali located a team of date pickers who lifted us bodily out and I drive to the ETAP, a big French-run tourist hotel overlooking the crater with a well stocked bar…

A farmer checking his date crop in Nefta oasis

Next morning we explored the oasis which counts some half million date palms. And to avoid tramping on the vegetable cultivation beneath the trees, we walked along shallow streams fed by hot and cold springs. At one point there was a fork where Ali turned left and I turned right and I came upon three Bedouin women lying in the warm waters with their black robes floating around them.

Leaving Nefta, we motored east across Chott Djerid, a huge salt lake on the edge of the Sahara whose eerie lunar-like landscape devoid of life was no place to break down.

A camel train heading home from Douz

Safely across, we reached Douz, a Beau Geste sort of town known for its weekly camel market. Judging from the lines of animals heading back to their desert camp-sites we must have just missed it. And I was amazed when Ali said it was the first time he had seen a camel, except on television.

Rugged road into Chenini, Berber village in the Tataouine district of Tunisia

Chenini, our final destination, deep in the heart of Tunisia, is inhabited by Berbers who live out of pace with the coastal towns: there is a school, yet camels still crush the olive harvest on ancient wooden presses as generations of camels have done before them.

A blindfolded camel pressing the olive harvest in Chenini

With Ali nervously cracking his knuckles, from Chenini I gunned the Renault over a rough track to Matmata, a rugged journey up to the roof of Tunisia and down again.

We found Matmata thronged with scantily clad tourists tramping being led through underground houses, past souvenir stands and its sub subterranean hotel and after a quick look we left them to it and headed north again.

Rather than repeat the coast road I had done with the press-group, I took the inland route via Zaghouan, a town set against grey crags whose freshwater springs once supplied Roman Carthage by way of an overhead aqueduct, 132 kms long (82 miles).

Ruins of a Roman aqueduct which once supplied spring water to Carthage

We had passed many hitch-hikers on our trip —farmers going to market and people waiting for a rural bus— however I had been reluctant to stop in case of an accident. Now something about an elderly Bedouin woman made me pull over.

Skirts rustling, silver bangles jangling and smelling of olives, she climbed into the back seat. She was going to Kairouan to sell her oil, she shouted at Ali in high-pitched Arabic. She had been waiting hours for a lift — God bless his wife for stopping.

Reaching Tunis again, the boy shot off leaving me wondering whether my driving had terrified him, but in London three months later, I received a Christmas card, written in wobbly English, thanking me for the best holiday of his life…

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CRUISING SLOWLY UP THE HOOGHLY

The era of cruising is upon us with more and more retirees booking holidays on gargantuan ocean liners. Competition is stiff as cruise companies try to outdo each other with waterslides, bowling alleys and robotic baristas to mix your coffee and cocktails. Such gimmicks do not appeal to me and the thought of 3000 passengers fills me with horror. Having sailed around the world on cargo ships in my younger days, my idea of a cruise is a small ship plying an inland waterway, mooring here and there to visit historic sites and observe village life. And scouring the internet I found the perfect one. A seven day cruise up the Hooghly River from Kolkata on the RV Rajmahal carrying 50 passengers accommodated in 18 twin and 4 single cabins. There was no single supplement – a bonus for the solo traveller – and as luck would have it, we were just a small group of seven accompanied by an excellent tour guide.

50 METRES LONG, THE  RV RAJMAHAL OPERATED BY ASSAM BENGAL NAVIGATION, BEGAN SERVICE ON THE HOOGHLY IN 2014.
OUR CAPTAIN AND FIRST OFFICER ON THE BRIDGE OF THE RV RAJAMAHAL
HERE WE ARE LEAVING KOLKATA WITH THE ICONIC HOWRAH BRIDGE SPANNING THE HOOGHLY. 100,000 VEHICLES AND 150,000 PEDESTRIANS CROSS IT DAILY
Tender from the Rajmahal moored in Barrackpore, Bengal
THE HOOGHLY IS SHALLOW NEAR THE RIVER BANK, SO WE TOWED A TENDER, HERE MOORED IN THE OLD BRITISH CANTONMENT OF BARRACKPORE.
OVER COCKTAILS EACH EVENING, WE HEARD OUR SIGHTSEEING ARRANGEMENTS FOR THE FOLLOWING DAY
Chandernagore, old French town on the Hooghly
A SCENE IN CHANDERNAGORE, A FORMER FRENCH POSSESSION WITH TRADITIONAL COLONIAL STYLE ARCHITECTURE AND AN 18TH CENTURY CATHOLIC CHURCH.
IN KALNA WE VISIT A UNIQUE SHIVA TEMPLE MADE UP OF 108 SHRINES. THE OUTER CIRCLE WHERE WE ARE SITTING HAS 74 AND THE INNER ONE A FURTHER 34.
IN THE VILLAGE OF MATIARI WORKERS BEAT OUT BRASS WATER POTS, TRAYS AND OTHER ITEMS USING METHODS LITTLE CHANGED FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS
VILLAGERS IN MATIARI HAVEN’T HEARD OF COAL OR WIND POWER. COW DUNG IS COLLECTED, DRIED THEN USED FOR COOKING AND WARMTH
BENGAL IS CHILLY ON WINTER MORNINGS AND SOME ANIMALS WEAR COATS. AMONG THIS GROUP WAITING FOR A DRINK WAS A SMALL BLACK GOAT WEARING A FROCK
A  RURAL WOMAN ROLLING BIDIS, THE CHEAP CIGARETTE SMOKED BY THE POOR MADE FROM TOBACCO FLAKES WRAPPED IN LEAVES FROM THE INDIAN EBONY
MINIATURE TERRACOTTA TEMPLE IN BARANAGAR CARVED WITH GODS FROM HINDU MYTHOLOGY AND SCENES OF LIFE IN THE MID-EIGHTEENTH CENTURY.
VILLAGERS CROWD ONTO A FERRY TO CROSS THE HOOGHLY AT ITS BROADEST POINT. THE RAJMAHAL IS VISIBLE THROUGH THE RIVER MIST.
EITHER SIDE OFTHE HOOGHLY ISCULTIVATED WITH DATE PALMS, TURMERIC AND MUSTARD. HERE FISHERMAN LAY NETS NEAR FARAKKA WHERE I DISEMBARKED AND CAUGHT A TRAIN BACK TO KOLKATA: 560 KILOMETRES.
ASSAM BENGAL NAVIGATION OFFERS THE 7 DAY CRUISE TO FARAKKA WHERE THE HOOGHLY JOINS THE GANGES, OR A 14 DAY VOYAGE ON TO PATNA IN THE STATE OF BIHAR.
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Simply the world’s best breakfast

My career as a travel writer has taken me to more than sixty countries where I have enjoyed many memorable meals and while I don’t know about you, breakfast for me is the best meal of the day. A hearty and healthy breakfast can set you up until dinner time, especially when you’re travelling.

Several breakfasts stand out from my experiences ‘on the hoof’ as it were.

Unforgettable was beluga caviar for breakfast in Babolsar, a Caspian Sea resort in Iran. But equally memorable was a simple plate of fried egg and paratha when I awoke starving, one morning in Baltistan, a mountainous agency in north east Pakistan. Another breakfast I enjoyed was one Christmas in Bruges when the hotel served smoked eels for Asian guests. And loving eel, I have to confess to scoffing the lot before they came downstairs. Though many years ago now, I recall a splendid petit-dejeuner in a belle-epoque hotel overlooking Lake Geneva. Then just recently I found my pick of global breakfasts at the Grand Hotel in Kolkata.

While I’d travelled all over India, I had never been to Kolkata and as much as I wanted to visit the dowager city, I wanted to stay at the Grand, pleasure dome of society during the British Raj and jewel in the crown of the Oberoi hotels chain.

The surprise of this  majestic old hotel with its splendid location and attentive staff was the awesome breakfast devised by its executive chef, Saurav Banerjee, who presides over Oberoi’s restaurants enjoying a reputation for the best cuisine in town.

THE OBEROI GRAND  ON JAWAHARLAL NEHRU ROAD, KOLKATA DATES FROM THE 1870s.
SAURAV BANERJEE, EXECUTIVE CHEF AND MASTERMIND BEHIND THE SCENES. HOTEL GUESTS ARE INVITED TO HIS DAILY DISCUSSION ON BENGALI CUISINE
MORE THAN FIFTY DIFFERENT ITEMS FEATURE ON THE HOT AND COLD BREAKFAST BUFFET TABLES IN THE GHARANA RESTAURANT AT THE OBEROI GRAND.
TROPICAL FRUIT JUICES ARE PRESSED DAILY. MANGO MILKSHAKE (BOTTOM RIGHT) WAS MY IDEAL WAY TO START A DAY IN KOLKATA.
LASSI, SMOOTHIES AND AN ABUNDANCE OF FRUITS INCLUDE PAPAYA, PINEAPPLE, GUAVA, DRAGON FRUIT, BANANAS, MUD APPLE AND WATERMELON.
DELICIOUS GRANOLA BARS, FLAVOURED YOGHURTS AND MISTI DOI, A SWEET CURD WIDELY EATEN BY BENGALIS ARE MADE USING CREAMY BUFFALO MILK.
WHAT TO CHOOSE FROM THIS INVITING SELECTION OF CROISSANTS, DOUGHNUTS, MUFFINS AND BANANA BREAD? ALL ARE BAKED IN-HOUSE.
SUCH A VAST SPREAD WAS SERVED ON NEW YEAR’S DAY THAT BREAKFAST MOVED UPSTAIRS TO THE  OBEROI BALLROOM.
TRADITIONAL BENGALI BREAKFAST DISHES INCLUDE IDLI (RICE-FLOUR DUMPLINGS) AND SABUDANA KITCHIDI ( SAGO COOKED WITH PEANUTS, GINGER AND OTHER SPICES).
MORE FAMILIAR THINGS SUCH AS OMELET OR BACON AND EGGS ARE PREPARED BY ONE OF THREE ATTENDANT CHEFS
HERE I AM ENJOYING  POORI BHAJI AND HASH BROWNS WITH A SAMBAL SIDE DIP. NOTE THE MANGO MILKSHAKE.
COMPLIMENTARY PASTRIES FOR ANYONE WHO SLEEPS IN AND MISSES BREAKFAST ARE A THOUGHTFUL TOUCH BY CHEF BANERJEE.

 

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