Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Following the Swallows

We've been away. Not very far - just a few hours' flight across the continent - but when you live without phones, laptops and wi-fi passwords for a couple of weeks, you go farther away than the miles you travel, and take longer to come back. You switch off, become absent, but find yourself more present than before. Portugal is a country that rewards you for that; for being present, not just physically, but with all your senses undistracted and available. For this country is a feast for the eyes and ears and nose, for the touch and the taste.

In his novel 'Blindness' Portuguese writer and Nobel laureate José Saramago writes of an epidemic where people start going blind. Only, their blindness is not dark, but a stark, brilliant white. Towards the end of the novel, Saramago writes "I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see." He could have been writing about us, struck blind by the white glows of our screens, riders of another epidemic. Travel is my way of switching off and breathing, and only being in one place at a time.

All you need is a map, an instinct, and a few conversations. Strangers will show you the way, give you their time and their kindness, they will warn you of dangers, give little gifts to your child wherever she goes, they will point you to a tiny restaurant, barely a restaurant, where for ridiculously little money you will eat a meal you will not forget.


Our journey starts in Porto. A city crisscrossed with tramlines that weave their way around old balconied houses. From our high-ceilinged, sun-filled room, roads slope up and down walking us to the city's oldest bookstore, quietest church, busiest streets and most famous pork-stuffed sandwiches. But what charms us about Porto are its people. They surprise us. It's a big city with a small-town openness, a sense of generosity you don't expect in such bustling streets. We walk into a shop that is about to close for the day, we buy something for Chotto-ma, the man wraps it up, crouches down and gives to her, then brushes away the money we hold out. "I gift her," he says, "no pay."

That's how Portugal starts off, and continues.


From Porto, we take a train eastwards, deeper into the country, to a little town called Lamego. The train track often runs so close to the waters of the Duoro River we feel we're afloat: we're on a train, oh we're on a boat, a train, a boat! says Chotto-ma.

When we reach Lamego, we find a town lazing in the afternoon sun, it's benches busy with the gossip of town-elders, its fountains rimmed with children, and it's backdrop rising in tiers of holy drama in the form of a 600-stair cathedral. We take our cue from the town and pass our time sitting in outdoor cafes, reading, watching life go by, and learning new Portuguese words from people we meet.

And we climb. The 600 stairs to the cathedral. My muscles scream. Our climb to each tier is relieved by fountains of sweet, quenching water, and the shade of camellia trees bursting pink with flowers. And finally, when we reach the top, the view is glorious. You look down on rooftops and mountains and clouds lying beneath like a painting.

In Lamego, we meet more wonderful people, Chotto-ma walks out of places holding more gifts, we eat one of our best meals in a restaurant filled with locals, where no one speaks English and we point to other tables to show them what we want. We talk with our hands and our smiles, and everyone understand each other perfectly.

From Lamego, we make our way to the midst of the Duoro Valley, to gentle, terraced hills, green from the rains, cut through by the Duoro River. It is breathtaking. As our car curves through the gates of the quinta which will be our home for the next few days, we know this is going to be something special.

A quinta is a traditional country house, and ours is so rich in history that every room has a story to tell. And no-one to tell it better than its owner Maria Manuel Cyrne, Viscountess of all she surveys, and a woman of warmth and spirit. As a young girl, Maria grew up in this house, surrounded by beautiful things, running free amongst vineyards and olive trees. But her family lost the house and land when Portugal rose in revolution. They moved out, though the memories stayed. Maria spent her youth and adult life dreaming of returning to the life she remembered.

Finally in her fifties, she bought the house back, though most of its rooms had been destroyed, and of the intricately carved ceilings, only one remained. After painstaking work, the quinta now stands beautifully restored; it is home to Maria's immediate and extended family who live and work here. We had acres to explore, and crackling fires and sumptuous meals to come back to. And like in the rest of Portugal, for a price one cannot imagine anywhere else in Europe.


From the north, we take the train to the very rural south, to Alentejo, a region still without the smudges of tourism, where you can walk miles along a searing blue coastline without meeting a soul, and only occasionally the odd hiker. The landscape couldn't be more different from the valleys of the north. Here, the eye roams over long, flat stretches of rugged bush scattered with cork oaks and pines and olive trees and a coastline with craggy ochre cliffs rising out of the wild froth of the sea. The cliffs cup tiny coves and the beaches are empty except for a local walking his dog or a lone surfer cresting a wave. Along a beach, you discover a small family-run restaurant looking out to the sea, serving fresh fish grilled to perfection.

In Alentejo, we stay in a rural quinta in the middle of fields of yellow flowers, its whitewashed walls bordered with the region's traditional stripe of cobalt blue. A beautiful house originally built in 1826, inviting you in with old books, board games and hearty breakfasts; a restoring stop for hikers. We spend our days cycling for miles around, on rocky country roads lined with bush and sea, broken only by the sounds of cowbells and the chaotic chirping of nesting swallows. At midday, hot and hungry, we stop at the small town of Zambujeira Do Mar for a lunch of grilled dourada, or rice cooked with monkfish and shrimps, served with a pitcher of Alentejo's wonderful wine.

From Alentejo we take the train to our last stop. Lisbon, or Lisboa, or 'a boa-constrictor called Liz' as Chotto-ma likes to think of it. And like a boa-constrictor, the city is not easily squeezed into a paragraph, so I'll leave Lisboa for the next post. I hope you'll come back; take a walk with me in one of the most interesting cities in Europe. Until then, here's to birdsong, fields of yellow flowers, and to switching off!


Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Sing, ring, ping.

Spin, grin. Sip, gin. Nip. The words you can scramble out of the six alphabets of Spring seem to fit the season so perfectly.

I stare at this new blue sky and smile and take in a deep breath. Everything is birthing. Things are coming out of burrows, tearing out of buds. If I didn't hate ostentatious little phrases, I might've said they were leaving winter's womb. I've just said it though haven't I? Strange how you have to say something in order to say that you won't say it. Suddenly it exists simply because you thought it should not, and in thinking so, brought it into existence.

Sorry, the season does go to the head a little. The air smells raw, like new leaves.

I felt like drawing. This feeling always comes in spurts, and I go hunting for paper and paint. Drawing, like photography, helps my writing; even if it's only by letting me procrastinate better. It fills the space in between writing and not-writing. It takes me out of my comfort zone - I'm much less confident telling a story with a paintbrush than I am with a pen. Every time I draw, I'm like a child learning to walk, and that is liberating in many ways; I don't expect much from myself. There's nothing more beautiful than creating something without any purpose, without expectations.

I don't like the outlines on the finished leaves; I wish I'd left them blurred. But I can't change it now - I committed to the black ink as soon as I put it on paper. But I will, yet again, live and learn. And be reminded of how freeing writing is in that sense. You can rewrite a sentence till it's as sharp or as blurred as you want it to be.

We all tell stories in our own ways - we might paint them, write them, freeze them on photographs, tell them aloud in a room, sing them in the shower. If you had to choose one, which one would you choose?

Did I tell you I started working on my first novel? I'm two chapters in, into what looks like a five-year plan. Do give me a virtual kick on the backside now and then, remind me that it won't get written if I don't sit the hell down and write.

Love and springtime to you my friends,

Monday, 15 February 2016


Warm sea rolls in. Each wave inhales and exhales like a yogi, swells up and out of the waters, stretches towards us in a powerful arch, then flattens itself at out feet in pliant froth. Chotto-ma shrieks with a glee that does not ebb, not even at the hundredth wave.

Our mornings in Goa always started like this. We woke up at dark, and walked out at dawn, out of the old Portuguese casa we were renting in Candolim. Bhupen, the casa's gardener and Man Friday, always armed us with a long stick to keep stray dogs at bay.

Three days after landing in Kolkata, D, Chotto-ma and I took a flight to Goa with my parents in tow. My brother flew in from New York. And suddenly we were all together after a very long time. In a beautiful, whitewashed villa, spending days lazing in the pool, taking walks on the beach, eating seafood at the shacks with our toes in the sand, and ending our days with beers and cocktails in candlelight watching ships bob and twinkle in the inky Arabian.

Goa is not a place. It's a way of life. It's the patch of India that most knows how to live and let live. It's a place D and I return to time and again. This time, for the first time, we had family with us. And a little girl who had to be introduced to a place we've loved for long. She was in her element in Goa: salty-haired, playing with the dogs who followed her faithfully, collecting shells, reading Harry Potter all afternoon, drinking tall glasses of watermelon juice, or begging for five minutes, just five more minutes, in the pool.

We traipsed around Panjim, we sat in empty, little-known churches with its cool, carved beauty arching around us into sun-dappled domes. We browsed markets and haggled over skirts cut out of old silk sarees. We watched fishermen stand by their boats in the early morning light, plucking off little silvery fish off their nets. We ate Xacuti, and chatted with the locals boys who worked in the beach shacks. We noticed how hard they worked, and how little tourists did to help them - leaving the sands strewn with empty bottles and cans and remnants of their night's wildness. Each day at dawn, the boys would clean the beach with resigned patience, then smoothen the sand in painstaking strips with what looked like a wooden plough.

There's much about Goa that has changed in the last decade. On the more popular beaches in North Goa, most shop-signs and restaurant menus are in Russian. Signs of how much we concede for commerce, flexing so far that we run the risk of losing ourselves. But for those who take the time to walk away from the madding crowd, there's still the Goa of cashew trees, rickety bamboo bridges over thin rivers, calm sands, a single shack with good Goan food and moonlight falling like a beam of thick torchlight on black waters.

And there, you can sit in the dark, with nothing but sounds of the briny sea, and a sky screaming with stars.


Where To Stay
If you want an old Portuguese villa all to yourself, you can't do better than Casa Maya, where we stayed. Gorgeous interiors, stone floors, white walls, dark wood and Andy Warhol prints. A gardener and cook. And a pool.

Where To Eat

Everyone has their favourites in Goa, ones they go back to, the shack on the beach they have breakfast in. These places are best found by yourself, traipsing aimlessly on foot or in your rented Vespa. But if you're looking for a special restaurant for a really good meal, here are our top three.

Bomras in Candolim
The best Burmese food I've had in a while, and absolutely flawlessly done. Try the 'Tea Leaf Salad' for a starter. Each of us took a different main course, and not one failed. The desserts are seasonal, and pretty sensational - I had the 'Coconut and Passion Fruit Pannacotta'.

La Plage in Ashvem
The most chic beach 'shack' you'll find in Goa, and on an endless stretch of sand that is still unspoilt. It serves fresh French-Mediterranean food with a local touch, and had us going back and back.  (In fact, it was the only restaurant we repeated.)

Mum's Kitchen in Panjim
Authentic, traditional Goan food in a beautiful, quiet area in Panjim. Fiery, coconut-y curries served with plump rice or sweet, fermented breads fresh out of the oven. Their desserts too are to die for. The restaurant's garden has a fish pond with a little bridge to cross, which charmed Chotto-Ma.


And finally! After months, I managed to photograph something out of my kitchen. So, here's a recipe for a very Goan dish (with a tiny twist), made with sausages (the Goan version of chorizo), that we brought back all the way to cold, grey England.

Goan Sausage, Fennel & Parsley Pilau

A bulb of fennel, chopped
1 white onion, chopped
A pack of Goan sausages (or chorizo if that's what's available)
1 tsp coarsely pounded black pepper
A generous cupful of chopped flat-leave parsley
Cooked rice (perfect if it's a day old and out of the fridge)
2 tbsp olive oil

(Note: I haven't given measurements for the sausage and rice because it's better if you tweak that according to taste - the sausage has a strong flavour, so, if the flavour is too strong for you, add more rice. And if it's a flavour you love, add more sausage.)

Start with the sausage: snip open the encasing skin and take the meat out. It'll come out in coarsely cut chunks, which is perfect for the pilau. If you're using chorizo, just chop up the sausage in uneven chunks and pound them a little bit using a mortar and pestle.

Heat the oil in a pan. Add the onion, fennel and black pepper in together. Stir on medium heat for a few seconds, then add the sausage. Stir for a minute or so - the sausage with let out oil and a lovely smell of garlic and spices. Add the rice, and salt. Mix well till the rice is evenly coloured with the sausages. Take it off the heat.
Add half of the parsley, mix and cover with a lid for a few minutes. Before serving, garnish with the rest of the parsley.