2024 India – Part 2 – Kolkata

Embracing the chaos…

Having learned from my previous mistake I arrived at the train station one hour for departure. Last minute there was a platform change, something I had already expected as another train was parked at platform two. Still I made it in time, found my wagon and cabin without problems and settled for the 7 1/2 hour journey to Kolkata.

One of the world’s great cities, Kolkata, or Calcutta as it used to be known, has been through many incarnations. From an obscure village on the banks of the Hooghly river, it evolved into the capital of Great Britain’s Indian empire. Over the next 200 years, the city became a flourishing commercial centre with imposing Victorian Gothic buildings, churches, and boulevards.Today, this vibrant city with its distinct imperial flavour is the capital of the state of West Bengal.

Earlier I wrote that nothing can prepare you for arriving at whichever international airport in India. Well compared to arriving at  Howrah Train station the latter is a piece of cake. The traffic was chaotic and loud and formed an eternal traffic jam, people moved around like a nest of ants and during the taxiride to my hotel I saw more misery sleeping on the side of the street than ever before in India. The buildings looked extremely dirty and neglected. Welcome to Kolkata.

About 20 minutes later we arrived in a significantly better part of town, expensive shops, better dressed people, the contrast could not have been bigger.

The Moria B&B, which I had booked for the next four nights was in that area, a couple of streets away from the shop in a quiet area. When I saw the building I was blown away but then that faded when I saw the room. Large, cozy and luxurious. I could not have picked a better place than this.

During the next 3 days I explored this vibrant and intriguing city. I was ready to embrace the chaos. 

A good night sleep, breakfast with the family that was hosting me and I was good to go. 

What better place to start my city exploration at it’s most celebrated landmark, The Victoria Memorial Hall. This monument to imperial self-confidence was the brainchild of Lord Curzon (1859–1925), one of British India’s most flamboyant viceroys. I had been here before in 2018 but really wanted to see it once more.

Not far away was St. Paul’s Cathedral. This cathedral was built in 1847 to accommodate the growing European and Christian population in Kolkata. It looked wonderful with its lime stone facings, unfortunately no photography was allowed inside, something I had to respect.

I then took a Ambassador taxi to the Mother House. Kolkata is inextricably linked to Mother Teresa. The Missionaries of Charity was a new order she formed in 1950, with the Mother House as its headquarters. This simple building is today also her final resting place. Her grave, on the ground floor, has no ornamentation, only a Bible placed on it. It was an impressive place with a small museum next to the room where Mother Theresa’s tomb was. I was happy that I visited this place which is so important in Kolkata’s history.

Next stop was the Park Street South cemetery. A romantic, overgrown haven in the middle of the city, away from the heat and crowds, Park Street Cemetery was opened in 1767 to receive the body of John Wood, an official in the Custom House of the East India Company. From then until the first half of the 19th century, it served as the resting place of many important Europeans who died in Kolkata.

I continued my stroll along Park street, one of the more exclusive area’s in Kolkata and made a lunch stop at the Hard Rock Cafe. A life band was playing and I ordered a beer as well as a beef and bacon burger, a rare treat whilst in India.

I then took a taxi to Prinsep Ghat which was built in the year 1841, during the British Raj in India. It is located along the banks of the River Ganges and is a loved spots for couples and families to spend an afternoon till sunset.

As I wanted to get a good view of Howrah Bridge I continued to the Armenian Ferry Ghat in the hope for a glimpse. It was not what I expected as I ended up in as small slum on the banks of the river which continued all the way under the Howrah bridge. Vegetables and flowers were sold everywhere and there was a buzzing activity. People were living in huts behind their improvised shops and although being in a slum on my own I never felt insecure or unsafe. People left me alone and just continued with their everyday life. For me it was the prefect ending of a brilliant day.

The next day started with a short Uber ride to the New Market, built in 1874. Surmounted by a clock tower, shops here are placed along many interconnected corridors which formed a maze of alleys where I wandered around for an hour or so. There were mainly clothing and fabrics shops to be found in the area that I explored.

Next to it was the Old Market and when I entered I knew this was going to be far more interesting but also more confronting. I was greeted by hundreds of chickens which were kept in cages, waiting for their buyers and without it doubt unfortunate end. From the smell I could guess what was next… The meat market. The intense smell almost made me throw up whilst I was wading through peddles of blood. If there ever was a chance to become vegetarian this was it, but I knew what to expect so I put up a brave face and headed on.

Then I took the metro to the Dakshineswar Kali Temple which is located on the banks of the Hooghy River in the outskirts of Kolkata. It i s surrounded by lush greenery, creating a peaceful and serene atmosphere. I was allowed in on the condition I would leave my camera bag and phone behind. That is something I was not willing to do so I happily stayed outside.

Although I felt I had not done a lot yet time was passing by quickly. Travelling in Kolkata simply takes time. I was also getting tired which means time for a break and a beer or two. I happend to know the right place for that, the Hardrock Cafe.

The final thing for today was a food tour with Calcutta Capsule and in order to get to the meeting point I needed to go on another metro ride. On arrival I was greeted ny Soham and when the other two guests arrived we could start. In total we tried 6 different savouries and 4 different sweets. The best however were the stories Soham told and how he connected history to the places we visited and the food. It truly was a magical evening, something I was extremely glad I booked. At the end I was getting extremely tired though, it had been a long day. To make things easy I booked an Uber back to my hotel. The end of a glorious  day where I had discovered some of the true spirit of Kolkata. Not everybody’s piece of cake perhaps but I enjoyed every single minute of it.

It was the last day in Kolkata for me and although I was completely intrigued by the city I had decided to slow things down as it had also completely drained me.

My first stop was College Street, the heart of Bengali intellectual life. The pavements were crowded with stalls selling textbooks, exam guides, classics and second-hand books. Many of Kolkata’s best bookshops are also here. The place had a different feel, bookstores were grouped by topics, students from the neighbouring high schools and universities were looking for a bargain.

Next was Kolkata’s oldest pilgrimage site, the temple complex of Kalighat finds mention in numerous medieval poems and ballads and it is said that the city itself was named after the temple. The place was absolutely crowded. Hole men seemed to be more interested in begging for money than their religious duties and I was invited by a “priest” to take a shortcut to the holy shrine, all for a hefty fee which I refused to pay so I left him behind, disappointed and obsessed by greed.

It was then that I decided I had seen enough of Kolkata. I had seen less than half than I planned for end even less from what I wanted to see but the place had left an incredible impression.

I left the sightseeing for what it was and settled down for some divine Bengali-Fusion food in a trendy cafe that wears recommended by my host. I choose two dishes with a strong Italian Influence. 

First a ricotta, cream cheese & shitake Raviole du Dauphiné in sage Butter. Next was a Sjaak & Bandel Risotto, balsamic, Dheki & Laak Shaak. To finish of I choose a Makha Sondesh, strawberry, Rose Apple & Nolen Gur.

I did not know what to expect but each dish was surprising and a treat to my tastebuds. One of those moments I got goosebumps as soon as I experienced the flavours and the texture of the food. I Simply amazing, this is also Kolkata.

Whatever you might have heard about Kolkata is absolutely true. Chaotic, overcrowded, noisy but also absolutely brilliant.

At times it seemed more populated than an ants-nest and the cacophony of impressions bombarded me from any directions in any way possible.

Still I never felt unsafe or insecure, wherever I was. I embraced the city and it embraced me as one of its living creatures that inhabit it.

I loved every single moment of it but it was also an extremely overwhelming and tiring experience.

Tomorrow I will fly to New Delhi and meet some good friends, I cannot wait for the story to continue and the experiences to unfold.

Kolkata, you have very been stunning, what a magical place.

Continue to Part 3 – Delhi  – Meeting good friends…