The Garden City of India

After a forty hour journey from hell I finally landed, pretty dazed and without luggage, in Bangalore airport. This city was to be my base camp, staying with one of my best friends, for the next three weeks and I had no idea what to expect. It’s often called the Garden City of India but I tried to reserve judgement until I’d been there a while. In the end I did find it green, full of oases, madly beautiful and pretty safe. I found it incredible for people watching and also especially for eating and being foodie – your options are literally endless. As for things to do, it surprised me that there was less than I thought, although it is a good base camp, because there are plenty of things in Karnataka that you can enjoy for a few days using this city to kick off from.

Me and Sri
“I made it!”

The area around the airport is sparse in anything, but still greener than I had anticipated and it soon starts to meld into the outskirts of the city. The first thing you notice about this city is that it’s a rather higgledy piggeldy, crammed in sort of madness, as though no planning went in to it but in this madness high rise buildings are towering right about shacks and chic bars appear next to temples. As soon as it hits you it’s loud. India is loud and excitable, in a wave of heat, bright colours and blaring horns you’re catapulted into a cosmopolitan craze, a late-night city (although not as 24/7 as English cities given that 24hour licensing laws certainly aren’t in play here), heady, over-crowded roads broken up with deep pockets of green . It’s a city of many levels, from the sky-high bars to the dogs that duck under the uneven pavement to run, I imagine, their own world beneath the city’s unguessing feet.

I notice as we drive that the birds here are bigger – Indian Kites roam the skies majestically, spreading their enormous wingspan and coming breathtakingly close, fighting with the huge crows and other more exotic creatures. I also notice almost instantly that the roads, to the untrained, un-Indian eye, are total chaos and, although seatbelts are only compulsory in the front seats in India, I opt to have mine on. Apart from the noise and the apparent lack of rules on the road, although in the city they move very slowly, there is so much colour, in every direction you look. Purple; Bangalore seems to be very purple, it seems to be the favourite colour for Saris, and gold too, all these multi-coloured, gold-embellished women, however rich or poor, bustling their way along the road, weaving in and out of traffic because it’s easier than navigating the pavements. Then there are the Autos (Auto-Rickshaw) in their garish green and yellow, honking their horns and rattling along between cars, horse drawn traps made of brightly painted wood occasionally pop up too. And the street sellers; the little stalls balanced precariously on the edge of the traffic nightmare, add colour with their fruit and vegetables, the ripening mangos, the large, ugly Jack Fruit, and their materials, spread like miniature rainbows. The trees themselves hang, richly green, over the dirty streets, bougainvillea is the only flower I can successfully name, adding to the purple tint of the whole scene and reminding me fondly of the Med.

 method in the madness
‘There’s method in the madness’ Amma tells me…

Auto

Journeying to the apartment in the evening I had spied a street sparkling like Christmas, glowing and bustling with people, coming out now either to avoid the heat or the rain during the day, it seemed to be lit with a million fairy lights. I later discovered these were some fairy lights some lights from shops merely reflecting the sparkle of the gold and the bejewelled materials within. This was where we made a beeline on the first day, after finally getting my suitcase back. My first ride in an auto was terrifying, no doubt. You feel very precarious as you squeeze three onto the bench in the back (later in the visit Autos felt completely normal) and rock your way through the streets, rolling alarmingly close to cars, buses, cows and narrowly avoid crushing people’s feet as the pass on bicycles and mopeds. Commercial Street is no less colourful during the day. It was packed, everyone shuffling along, squeezed in tightly trying to drag yourself out of the rainbow crowd of Saris and head scarves to get to a shop you actually want to look at. The first time I visited I was completely unprepared for the noise and the amount of people, the chaos of it all. I was far too overwhelmed to buy anything but totally enchanted by the shouting and the sea of people contrasting with the quiet interiors, disturbed only by the necessary whirring of fans, where you could eye swathes of rich materials in peace and wish you had unlimited luggage space. The second time I visited Commercial Street our timing was truly shocking. We hopped out of the Auto, navigated the manic road crossing and were sucked into the Commercial Street flow. About five minutes later the monsoon released its indiscriminate fury; a heavy, unrelenting, warm down pour that soaked everything in sight in an instant. People were crammed into shop doorways in large tight packs, until they had to move out, when running is entirely fruitless and you resign yourself to the drenching. We eventually had to do this, it was showing no sign of letting up. The gutters became fast flowing streams and not too long after transformed into full on rivers that took up half of the pavement and half of the road. We started walking along the middle of the road following everyone else’s lead, all traffic was coming to a complete stand still. I’d also picked that day to wear large, light purple palazzo pants – bad move! Holding my trousers above my knees I attempted to minimize the damage and pick my way through, until we had to cross one of these small rivers. We stepped in and almost instantly my flip flop was sucked off by the downhill current. Some squealing, chasing, and dropping my long trousers into the filthy water then ensued; I careered down after my escapee shoe. A kind man eventually stepped on it and fished it out of the murk, handing it back to me; it was one of the least glamorous moments of my life.

Auto in the rain

You can't escape the rain
You can’t escape the rain

Getting soaked

 

But this is exactly typical of how cities and even villages transform under the Monsoon onslaught. One minute people will be milling around, selling, shopping, perched outside their houses chatting and then the next moment will be anarchy. Some will swarm under whatever shelter can be found while other people will grab whatever is nearby to use as a makeshift hat, some will stay resolutely put or plod on, knowing being wet or dry makes no difference to their existence; people will pull over mopeds to avoid getting soaked and umbrella sellers will suddenly emerge from nowhere, spinning their rainbow umbrellas in all their glory, evening attempting to sell them to warm dry people in cars. Either way, for as long as it lasts, the rain is the full focus of every living being, cow, dog or human, on the streets at the time.

UB City glowing in the dark
UB City glowing in the dark
UB Tower in all its Glory
UB Tower

A must-visit in Bangalore, although it is strikingly Europeanised, is UB City; a large, sleek designer mall with a small street of up-market restaurants nestled at the back in a courtyard separate from the noisy streets. In the last week of my stay we popped back to UB city again to sample the macaroons (I know, I know) which were fabulous. Deserts, as it turns out, seem to be a very fashionable art form in modern Indian cities; both in Bangalore and Hyderabad I sampled so many beautiful, rich, colourful deserts from small modern joints. We stopped the first time, however, to eat at Cafe Noir – shamelessly European/French but one of my friend’s favourites so we gave it a shot – a romantic restaurant overlooking UB Tower, an enormous glass structure belonging to the owner of Kingfisher brand. This was the first time I noticed how cheap even an expensive night out could be. We both had delicious Sangria, humus and bread for starter and a meal, mine was a deliciously filling pumpkin risotto, for the equivalent of £8 each and that is quite a hefty price to pay here. I loved the delicate atmosphere and how people dressed differently here, an excuse for girls to get their legs out without getting undue attention and the gentle bubble of noise associated with quiet Italian dining streets in the late evening.

Cafe Noir
Dinner for Two at Cafe Noir

There are so many opportunities to be foodie here, I was seriously amazed. And opportunities to drink – I began to think that’s all the youth here (or at least a certain class of them) do, like home, but in far more style. On my second day we were feeling a tea stop so we pulled into, or rather climbed over some half finished road works and piles of sticky red earth to get to, Infinitea. Inside it’s tranquilly-tea itself, calm, cool and decorated with quotes and posters from all over the world extolling the virtues of tea. We opted for an Indian sourced Chai Tea with ginger. Before this trip I would neither have had Chai, nor would I have put ginger in my drink as I’m usually a fan of no-fuss, bog standard breakfast tea and little variation. But this was super scrumptious, and the tea pots were beautiful, the little cups making mugs at home look clumsy.

Chai Tea

Mad Hatter meets India
Mad Hatter meets India
Tea Time
Tea Time

We broke up the time between meals by spending the afternoon at the National Gallery of Modern Art, mainly to see a photography exhibition of shots taken by the great grandfather of a friend of the family I was staying with. That meant little to me, I was more interested in the sometimes grainy, sometimes blurred, black and white photography and portraiture that captured a unique picture of colonial India. Smiling in portraits was not in fashion then and candid shots often ended up out of focus, but I love to look at black and white photography and see how easy it is to recognise the colours, to try and squeeze my brain somehow back to the time as if I’m the photographer; mostly it’s unimaginable. The building is beautiful too but sadly no pictures were permitted inside. It’s a minimalist, low white building, very angular and with a lot more space than building, there’s plenty of outside to be found inside, in an enchanting way. It was especially beautiful as a shower was falling through the courtyards, bouncing of tiles and leaves in a serene, light movement. This was the first place I noticed the difference in price for locals versus tourists though…Indian Nationals 2 rupees entry (there abouts) and me 160 rupees, it’s still a damn good deal though.

Gallery in the Rain

Fountain at the NGMA
Fountain at the NGMA
National Gallery of Modern Art, Bangalore
National Gallery of Modern Art

Next stop on the trendy trail is a relatively new bar, apparently too packed to move at the weekend but pleasantly filled on a Tuesday; Social it’s called. Inside it reminded me of something I’d certainly find at home in Manchester, factory chic with funky urban art, low lighting and menus laid out like newspapers. The cocktails were also oozing cool – if a little expensive – you can drink from a barrel, a Game Of Thrones horn or have candy floss melt before your eyes as the alcohol hits the glass. It’s young and a bit showy and I loved it; the Biryani is an incredible choice but everything seems good there. The only downside was, we sat underneath a part of the aircon system that dripped increasingly on us, until we may as well have been outside but this is a classic ‘me’ move, something like that always happens. Apparently Ice And Spice is a Bangalore tradition, despite being a burger joint. Crammed on a crazier-than-average street this tiny venue served my friend’s dad while he was in school – the same waiter, greying, with crumpled looking skin and a slightly brusque manner, is even still serving there. We managed to squeeze into the outside seating, which I loved, a step back from the air conditioned interiors, outside where you can smell and here the traffic, the cows and the people all around. It certainly is popular here, I watched people stand around for more than half an hour for a spot but apparently it refuses to expand because it doesn’t want to destroy the vibe people enjoy here. The lamb burger was incredible, nothing fussy, fantastic taste and really reasonably priced and the deserts looked like heaven too. I would definitely say to search this out if you are in Bangalore, it’s a total gem.

We went out once or twice too. I’m not a huge fan of partying or drinking on holiday or while travelling because I prefer to see as much as possible and I’m seriously un-functional with a hangover. One party was pre-planned, a good friend’s birthday, and the other two were spontaneous but fun and not at all regretted, in spite of the late starts. There seem to be plenty of places to drink out in Bangalore, although everything shuts a little earlier than us Brits may be used to (I didn’t mind at all since it resulted in more sleep), and day drinking is also trendy with all-you-can-drink (and eat) brunches up for grabs at so many venues. We skipped the brunches and went for standard nights out; two in Sanctum and one starting at Smoke House and ending at a destination whose name I have forgotten completely. Sanctum is fine, it’s a very chic, up market bar where the dress code is Dress Up and drinks are expensive. Needless to say I sort of preferred my second venture there when the party had an open bar. A whole new experience for me is being dropped off directly at the venue doors by a driver and often picked up afterwards, with no bus or taxi fare to worry about and simply to be deposited back at the front door. This can be less chilled though since there are no seat belt rules, I suddenly felt catapulted back to the ninetees with five of us crammed in the back, only this time we were a lot bigger. Smoke House is another place that would fit right in in Manchester. The decor is all black and white, the walls are designed as if everything has been penned on with board marker, the cakes are simply divine too and they have an Unlimited Sangria offer, which is a terrible, terrible idea. All of these places are like entering a vacuum far apart from ‘real India’ which is blaring its raucous way along the road outside; you are sucked into a cool, sleek and occasionally sophisticated, occasionally anarchist, bubble where you could be in almost any country. I enjoyed it for what it was, being with friends and feeling very relaxed, but I didn’t feel like I was on another continent at all.

Bangalore is such a bright, contrastive city and I had such a wonderful time there I seriously hope I can go back. You feel at home there very easily. I did some more sightseeing there too, which will follow in later posts, this was just a taste of how Bangalore, well, tasted mostly, and how it introduced itself to me; the vibrant garden city of southern India.

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