I must admit, I have a bit of a soft spot for Kolkata...this was my second visit and the city has definitely charmed me. I think Kolkata has earned an unfair reputation amongst foreigners, or at least their perception of what its like is somewhat undeserved. Kolkata was once the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, their proudest achievement off their own shores. Sadly, it still seems to be recovering from the departure of the British, and the annexing of Bengal into Bangladesh, however there seemed to me to be a sense of hope and a pride.
After having spent at least a week in Rajasthan on this trip before heading to Kolkata, I had a much better sense of how different this city is compared to the other Indian cities we visited. The crumbling facades of the old city are leftovers of the British Empire, rather than crumbling Havelis, Forts and Palaces of Maharajas and the like.
One of many crumbling buildings I wanted to adopt
We stayed with friends while in Kolkata, but I believe that there is a Taj and an Oberoi in town if you are a devout sybarite, or a range of other options to suit most budgets. My other recommendations for a few days in Kolkata include...
Sightseeing & Shopping:
The Marble Palace - I have no photos as they are not allowed, but this is one of the most amazing 19th century Colonial buildings in all of India, let alone West Bengal. Our host in Kolkata knows the owners and arranged a private tour for us, so we were incredibly lucky to say the least. The house was built in 1835 by Raja Rajendra Mullick, a wealthy Bengali merchant who had a passion for collection European art. Part of the house is still used as a private residence by Mullick's descendants, hence the no photo policy. I can't begin to describe to you the surreal collection that is housed in this amazing mansion. Vast collections of ceramics, paintings (one by Rubens and two by Sir Joshua Reynolds amongst many others), clocks, rugs, furniture, the list goes on. The rooms are expansive, typical of the era it was built in, and its easy to imagine how opulent and luxurious they would have been in their heyday. Unfortunately as the home is still privately owned, and India seems to be a little slow to cotton on to historical preservation, the house has crumbled and faded a little, and it seems these magnificent artworks and treasure run the risk of deteriorating into oblivion. Even if you are only in Kolkata for just a day, you must visit this place. If for no other reason that you will never see photos of the inside.
The Victoria Memorial is another tribute to the British Empire. Built as a memorial to Queen Victoria, it now houses a museum with a collection of memorabilia of Queen Victoria, the British monarchy, and their presence in India. I visited the memorial on both visits to Kolkata, but did not go inside either visit. The building is impressive, and the gardens a nice location for a walk away from the hustle and bustle of Kolkata's streets.
If you are particularly interested in the history of Britain in India, and the founding of the East India Company, or you're a fan of colonial architecture then I would recommend a walk around the old city. Around BBD Bag you'll find the old GPO, St Andrews Church, Job Charnock's Tomb (he was the original British founder of what is now know as Kolkata), the Writer's Building, and many many more.
The Mallick Ghat Flower market is a one of the largest in Asia and a great way to see a whole lot of colour in a short space of time. But then, its not like India is short on colour...The market is just under the Howrah bridge and worth a look (see photos below.
If you're a bookworm like we are, then make the most of Kolkata's entrenched literary history and take a walk along College street which is lined with book vendors selling all manor of titles. I had read rumours that first editions could be picked up at a very low cost, but the day we were there it was mostly text books for university students. I did pick up a copy of an early 20th century book on Indian architecture and home design, titled "Modern Ideal Homes for India". Houses cost as little as $14,000 Rupees at the time of publishing...(equivalent to USD$310!). If you have the time, pop into the Ashutosh Museum, housed nearby within the grounds of Calcutta University, it specialises in East Indian Art. Unfortunately it was closed the day we tried to visit, along with the India Museum. I've heard that both are worth a visit.
As for shopaholics, you can get your fix at New Market, located directly behind the Oberoi Grand Hotel. A wide range of goods on sale, and lots of people watching to be done - its worth a wander around. And, if you're game, there is plenty of street food on offer (very delicious, we sample two different local dishes), and if you can find a Chai Wallah a delicious Masala chai will set you back as little as 3 rupees (about USD 6 cents) and that includes the hand turned ceramic cup its served in! They're normally discarded on the street, but we kept ours as souvenirs.
Kolkata's flower market - one of the largest in Asia
Eating: Apart from the street food - which I wouldn't normally recommend but we were feeling brave on our last day and had good experiences - there are a few other good local eateries.
Oh Calcutta! is hidden away in a mall but has a great range of traditional West Bengali dishes (typically more fish and less spicy than food from other regions of India). If you want something local style this is my recommendation. Otherwise, check the Taj and Oberoi in-house restaurants. I ate at "Baan Thai" the last time I was in town and the food was excellent.
Thanks for indulging me with my ongoing travelogue...back to normal programming soon!