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Joe’s Bengal & Odisha (Tour Code : IN/Pvt) – It is a private tour that can be joined either in Spring or Autumn on the date when it is operating. Joe Roberts is a travel writer who has travelled India extensively and has known it well since the publication of his first book, Three Quarters of A Footprint, in 1994. Abdul’s Taxi to Kalighat about Kolkata and a novel about Edward Lear’s visit to India, Bengal, The Cold Weather, 1873 are some of his other published works. Joe as a writer contributes to The Times, Condé Nast Traveller, National Geographic Traveler and many other magazines. Joe has been a teacher of Humanities at Bath Spa University and is working on a third Indian travel book about Lucknow. His interests include gastronomy (he is a contributor to The Oxford Companion to Food) and art history, but his real passion has always been India. Joe Roberts leads this private tour series to India. Joe’s Bengal & Odisha tour emphasises on Bengali culture and architecture. Kolkata or Calcutta is a fabulous city that has been disastrously misrepresented for a long time. We all remember the images of urban despair that came about in the Bangladesh War in the early 1970s. At that time refugees crowded into the city and the pavements were strewn with the dying and destitute. We also think of Mother Teresa, enormously publicised in the west, administering to the poorest of the poor. The point is, these images are misleading – the Bangladesh War was 45 years ago. The images of Mother Teresa don’t reflect the sophisticated metropolitan milieu that is just as true of the city as poverty. Of all the major cities in India, Kolkata is Joe’s favourite: its architecture, a fine mixture of European Classical, High Victorian and even Italianate, gave it the name The City of Palaces. Its proud history: Kolkata was the first place where Indians adopted Western education, as early as the 18th century, and that led in the 19th century to the Bengal Renaissance (a period of huge cultural, spiritual and political progress) leading in its turn to the Independence Movement. Its joie de vivre: the cool months are one continual series of pujas (festivals or feasts, a bit like Saints’ Days) for the various Hindu deities, with Eid and Christmas and the New Year all thrown into the mix. It would be perfectly possible to think Calcuttans never stop celebrating in the streets. All in all, Joe sees Kolkata as a joyful city, comparable to Havana or New Orleans. Also to top it all is Orissa or Odisha as they now call it. A state neighbouring West Bengal, but quite contrasting in its life and ancient temples. While Calcutta had evolved with French and British making it their stronghold places nearby in the Indian state of Odisha where we go were left almost untouched. This is a small private group trip comprising like-minded and interesting group of friends, striking plenty of conversation and conviviality all through. The tours include some very privileged experiences and hand-picked hotels that are an experience unto themselves and above all they include regular lectures and in-depth knowledge about each aspect of visits by Joe Roberts himself.
Day 01 : London / Kolkata
We arrive in Calcutta and will be met, assisted and transferred to our hotel. Thereafter have a quiet day, possibly going into town informally if you wish or unwinding at the hotel.
Today’s dinner is being hosted by Indian Frontiers & Joe Roberts with a short briefing session (venue for this dinner to be announced later). Overnight at the hotel in Kolkata.
Hotel Peerless Inn
Day 02 : In Kolkata
Breakfast will be served at the hotel and post breakfast we will enjoy a sightseeing tour including the Victoria Memorial.
In the afternoon the distinguished architectural historian and restoration expert Manish Chakraborti will show us the Marble Palace, huge Classical home of the merchant princes Mallick family. This is an eccentric, rambling palace where parakeets fly freely among the art treasures. We will also see the Beadon Street area: smaller family mansions, religious buildings and cobbled piazzas. North Kolkata has a lot in common with Italy. Back to hotel and overnight at the hotel in Kolkata.
Day 03 : In Kolkata
A very special morning awaits us today. We go for a morning midtown walk at Tiretta Bazaar for a Chinese breakfast with a local friend who is a journalist, raconteur and flaneur, Soumitra Das in the midtown area called, ‘Grey Town’. If the residential areas of the South were the White Town and the busier, more crowded residential areas of the North were the Black Town, the Grey Town is where many of the ethnic minorities of the city lived – Armenians, Iraqi Jews, Greeks, Chinese and even the Anglo-Indians (Eurasians). Soumitra will show us Chinese temples, the Armenian Church, the Synagogue, the various specialist markets.
In the afternoon we’ll go to Kalighat to look at the fantastic Bengali craft market and the famous Kali Temple which is the spiritual heart of the city. Back to the hotel and overnight at the hotel in Kolkata.
After breakfast today we visit various European trading points that were established in the 18th century. In Chandernagore, French is still spoken, as it is in Pondicherry, although it’s dying out. We’ll also visit Serampore, Hooghly and Bandel. Back in Kolkata in the evening.
This evening we attend a special home concert – Kolkata is a centre for Indian classical music, enjoy a melodious evening and return to the hotel. Overnight at the hotel in Kolkata.
Day 05 : Kolkata / Bishnupur
Early check-out from hotel in Kolkata and drive to Bishnupur (4 hrs drive).
Upon arrival check-in at the hotel in Bishnupur and post lunch enjoy the sightseeing at Bishnupur – a cluster of late medieval temples made of terracotta, uniquely Bengali and covered with Chaucerian models of village and temple life. Bengali temple architecture is unlike any other architecture. Overnight at the hotel in Bishnupur.
Day 06 : Bishnupur / Shantineketan
Post breakfast today we will drive from Bishnupur to Shantiniketan (3.5 hrs drive).
Shantineketan is Tagore’s abode of peace. We will look around Vishva-Barati, Rabindranath Tagore’s progressive university, where lessons were taken sitting under the great trees. Shantiniketan means ‘Abode of Peace’ and the whole community celebrates the kind of socially progressive idealism of Tagore and his followers. There is a museum dedicated to Tagore there. We will also travel a few miles outside the city to Kenduli where the 12th century Bengali poet Jayadeva was born and which is today a centre for the Bauls. Bauls are a uniquely Bengali phenomenon, mystical minstrels who wander from village to village singing hymns that are neither Hindu nor Muslim but appeal directly to the spirit. They wear orange and red patchwork clothes and still play the simple musical instruments they have played since medieval times. If there is time, we may end the day with a visit to the tantric temple at Tarapith, Tara is an aspect of the Mother Goddess and represents Shakti, female spiritual energy. A famous ‘mad saint’ Bamakhepa, revered by my many Bengalis, lived here in the 19th century healing the sick and distributing blessings.
Overnight at the hotel in Shantineketan.
Day 07 : Shantineketan / Murshidabad
This morning we spend touring Shantiniketan and absorbing its life. Post lunch we drive further to Murshidabad (3.5 hrs drive). Overnight at the hotel in Murshidabad.
Day 08 : In Murshidabad
Breakfast will be served at the hotel and all day visit Murshidabad. Murshidabad is the old Mughal capital of Bengal. Today it is remarkable for its 18th and 19th century mansions, gardens and tombs. It’s not a very big city but has a picturesque and melancholy beauty of its own. Overnight at the hotel in Murshidabad.
Day 09 : Murshidabad / Kolkata
After an early breakfast at the hotel we will drive from Murshidabad to Kolkata (6 hrs drive). Overnight at the hotel in Kolkata.
Hotel Peerless Inn
Day 10 : Kolkata
This morning we visit the giant covered New Market or we could visit the excellent Oxford Bookshop on Park Street or may be a walk through some of the old middle-class neighborhoods of Kolkata – 19th century homes now threatened by development.
In Evening we will later enjoy a architectural walk with Manish Chakraborty.
Day 11 : Kolkata / Bhubneshwar / Puri
Breakfast at the hotel in Kolkata and post breakfast check-out and transfer to Kolkata Domestic Airport in time to connect our flight to Bhubneshwar. Fly Kolkata to Bhubneshwar later drive to Puri (1.5 hrs drive).
En route visiting Dhauli Peace pagoda, Pipili Applique Village , Raghurajpur artisan village ( Heritage Village).
City of Puri is a mixture of 20th century Blackpool and Chaucer’s Canterbury. Puri is a major pilgrimage site and the home of Jaganath, the Lord of the World. His chariot – from which we get the word Juggernaut – is occasionally rolled out of the temple. It is more like a building on great stone wheels than a vehicle and in the past people threw themselves under the great wheels hoping for salvation. Although, as non-Hindus, we cannot enter the temple itself, there is a viewing platform from which we can overlook its great courtyard. The atmosphere in the surrounding streets is frenetic and there are stalls selling pilgrimage souvenirs.The other aspect of Puri is a seaside resort for Kolkata. It has a long pleasant beach with rather a rough sea. At night there is a charming bazaar on the beach itself selling Orissan crafts. Back to hotel and overnight at the hotel in Puri.
Hotel Hans Cocopalm
Day 12 : In Puri
In the morning we will visit the amazing Sun Chariot temple at Konark. This is a staggering piece of 13th century stone architecture, held together with magnets. It is visible from the sea and was known to sailors as the Black Pagoda. Apparently the magnets in its construction affected ships’ compasses.
Later visit to other temples and Colorful Bazaar.
Day 13 : Puri-Bhuwaneshwar
Post breakfast today drive to Bhuwaneshwar (1.5 hrs drive).
En-route visit the Udayagiri and Khandagiri caves. These are a complex of 33 caverns, some natural, some excavated, sacred to the Jain religion. Some are temples and shrines, some are covered with intricate inscriptions, some are actually inhabited by monks. Overnight at the hotel in Bhubneshwar.
Day 14 : Bhuwaneshwar
Post breakfast visit Bhubneshwar, basically a city of Hindu temples mainly built between the 10th and the 14th centuries. Overnight at hotel in Bhubneshwar.
Day 15 : Bhuwaneshwar/Kolkata
Early train to Calcutta. Arrive Kolkata in the afternoon, transfer to hotel in Kolkata (guests taking late evening flights will leave today, while guests on morning flights, stay overnight today, with an option to either relax at the hotel or venture out in the city for a bit more).
Hotel Peerless Inn
Day 16 : Kolkata – Home
With packed breakfast we check-out and transfer to international airport in time to connect international flight to London (Heathrow).