CARLO PIZZATI’S FAVE CHENNAI EXPERIENCES
TEMPLE HOPPING TO GREEN OASES
Yes, Chennai has a deserved reputation for being a boring, slow, provincial metropolitan area of eight million people. It’s not a city that immediately reveals its charms. Foreign travellers often inch to their hotel through ebullient slow traffic, drink up and enjoy the pool or the gym, until they feel the need to venture out. Then they might reach as far as Fort St. George or stroll on Marina Beach, perhaps, to then get stuck and get mad again at the worst traffic in India. But that’s not what the city is about: there is a secret Chennai you can discover if you live here, and enjoy its authentic flavour.
WAKE UP EARLY, BUT NOT TOO EARLY: Let’s say you should get to the neighbourhood of Besant Nagar by 8am. My favourite dive to have masala dosas and filter coffee is Vishranthi Hot Point. Don’t be put off by the somewhat humble demeanour (which I love, anyway). This is a place where workers and middle-class clerks alike grab their breakfast. Brimming with atmosphere, the food is some of the best in this area. You can walk off the extra calories by taking a stroll on Elliot’s Beach among ancient merry go-rounds and fishmongers.
NOT TOO FAR UP THE COAST, YOU REACH THE THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY: It is open to the public and it’s completely worth the small entrance fee and the time, even if you don’t care about the important spiritual legacy that goes from Annie Besant and Madam Blavatsky all the way up to Jiddu Krishnamurti, who planted a beautiful tree you can still see here, along with temples and holy shrines of all the religions in the world. It’s completely worth it also for the 260 acres of cacti gardens, the 450-year-old banyan tree, the meandering paths along the mysterious jungle by the Adyar river populated by migratory birds, giant fruit bats, snakes, jackals, wild cats, mongooses, hares and much more. My favourite daily walk in Chennai.
BY NOW YOU MAY BE READY TO HEAD FURTHER NORTH: You could either stop for lunch at Woodlands, and get a fantabulous thali which will put you into a hypnotic state until you’ve entirely digested it, or maybe head to the Mylapore temple. I prefer to get here a little later on in the afternoon, because it may be too hot in the mid-day hours. You can go inside the temple, walk around the reservoir, sit and rest in meditation, people-gaze, or shop for saris or lungis. But what you shouldn’t miss is a little snack at the restaurants around the temple and, afterwards, ask for the kiosk that sells glasses of rose milk.
NOW IT’S TIME TO DISCOVER A LITTLE SECRET NORTHERN INDIA IN THE HEART OF THE CITY: Sowcarpet, aka Mini- Rajasthan or Chhota Mumbai. It’s a casbah, and a charming one, with cows walking around some collapsed Indo-Saracenic-style building, dozens of shops of all kinds (turbans and sweets, for example) and just a flavour of a different India in all the alleys populated by Gujaratis and Rajasthanis.
YOU MIGHT BE A BIT TIRED, RIGHT NOW: If there’s nothing on at the Music Academy, which has great acoustics and pretty good quality of events, it might be time for a drink. I suggest you head to the stylish Library Bar at the Leela Palace Hotel, which has good cocktails and atmosphere. Then you can mosey on down to the good Chinese restaurant below, to end the day with delicious dumplings.
Extracted from Carlo Pizzati’s Mappillai: An Italian Son-in-Law in India (Simon & Schuster, INR 399)