Every time I visit Madras or Chennai as they call it today, I wonder if I am a tourist or a local. Even though I dont live there any more, I am there virtually every month.
But this time, I decided to step into the shoes of a tourist and explore the city. And to get into character as they say, I stayed in a hotel and not at home as always. I was in Chennai on invitation from Raintree Hotels – two very beautiful properties located right in the heart of the city. While one of them is located at St Mary’s Road in Chennai’s traditional but hip neighbourhood, the other is at Anna Salai, one of the key arteries of the city.
My first halt was at the Raintree, St Mary’s Road. One of the oldest parts of the city it has always been my favourite area since childhood. Its traditional and trendy, cultural and cool, arty and kitschy. There are boutiques galore that blend with the vibrant markets, the beaches and the parks beckon people in the evening with the sea breeze while the cafes serve everything from filter kaapi to cup cakes. The sabha culture originated from here while classical music and dance is taught in the many by lanes around the temples.
However I did not have to go too far to get the feel of Chennai. It was right in the heart of the hotel – the Raintree at St Mary’s Road, where the walls of the coffee shop came alive with a mosaic of the city. The hotel had been recently renovated and it seemed to mirror the very essence of the city in its installation. From traditional lamps to brass vessels , old davara tumblers to kolams, from scooters to autos, every image here is a symbol of the city. I liked the way they were arranged – almost like spices in the tradttional box called Anjarai Petti. And basking in the corner was the man Rajinikanth himself.
And yet, I was itching to get out into the city and explore markets, discover old book stores, visit temples, meet people and of course do a bit of birding.So, if you are looking at spending 48 hours in Chennai, well rather South Chennai , then follow my footsteps and we will discover nooks of the city.
Lunch at Chap Chay, Raintree Hotels, St Marys Road
The train from Bangalore brought me in famished and the first thing I did was to satiate my hunger. I could have gone in for something tradtional and predictable, but the good folks at Raintree took me to Chap Chay, that specialises in South East Asian, mainly Chinese cuisine It turned out to be , well, a seven course meal, starting with lemon cilantro soup followed by dim sums stuffed with asparagus, bokchoy and tofu. There was vegetable wantons on the table along with broccolli salad but my favourite was the chilli garlic lotus root that was absolutely delicious. And then came the main course. Chap Chay referred to a serving of vegetables or meat tossed together with rice or noodles and blended with sauces and spices. The restaurant whipped up 18 varieties of sauces and I selected kung pao sauce, mildly spicy and filled with my favorite cashewnuts. I ended the meal with fresh mango slices with sago tinged with a bit of blue berry.
Afternoon at the markets
Comfortably nestled in my room after the heavy meal, I took a quick afternoon nap and then as the sea breeze nudged the trees, I decided to step out. Most tourists visit the bustling markets of T Nagar but I liked the colourful markets of Mylapore and Luz. The streets around the temple are a world of their own and they come alive during festivals. Roam around and its a feast for your senses.
A torrent of life and colour, you get everything from Kanchipuram sarees to jewellery, especially for dancers, old classical music cassettes and CDs, terracotta idols of gods and goddesses, usually sold during Navratri to mouthwatering sweets and savouries. Walking around, I felt strangely at home and yet behaved like a trigger crazy tourist, clicking away.
Temple tour of Mylapore
An area named after peacocks, Thirumayilai or Mylapore is the oldest part of the city, an erstwhile port and was earlier known as Vedapuri . It is also home to one of the oldest temples in the city . As a child, I have visited the 1400 year old Kapaleeshwar temple during the Theppam or the float festival that takes place in the famous tank around the temple. Dedicated to Shiva and his consort, Karpagambal it is one of the 200 temples that have been built in the city. The Kapaleeshwar temple was originally built in Santhome where the Santhome Basilica stands today , built over the tomb of St Thomas. The temple was demolished by the Portuguese who invaded the region.
The portals of the temple were just about being opened as I walked towards it. The temple bells were ringing and the flower sellers were all eager to sell me their garlands. One old lady, Bhagyam gave me her toothless smile and said she has been sitting here for more than 40 years,
There are many other temples galore – the Adi Kesava Perumal temple and Srinivasa Temple dedicated to Vishnu, Hanuman and Ganesha temples and the Ramakrishna Mutt. There are many churches here as well but we will come to it later.
Evening at the Marina or drive a bit more to go to Elliots
The sea breeze had just started blowing and that was a cue for me to head to the Marina Beach – the landmark of the city. Most tourists and locals prefer the Elliots Beach at Besant Nagar but there is a charm about the Marina Beach that you cannot miss. The sea was calm but the breeze took me to another world. You can watch the waves endlessly and stare at the ghostly outlines of the ships in the horizon or go for a walk and count the innumerable statues. Several old buildings line up on the other side of the road – colleges, universities, offices but my favourite is the former Ice House,which is now the Vivekananda House where Swami Vivekananda stayed for a few days. I however walked up to the seashore, drenched my feet in the waves, ate my fill of “Thengai, Mangai, Pattani, Sundal” before heading back.
Dinner at Above Sea Level, Raintree Hotels, St Marys Road,
Chennai may not be the land of skyscrapers and yet, a ten storey building can showcase pictureque vistas of the city. Standing at the roof top and watching the sky change colours as the sea breeze blew through the dense canopy of green was a priceless moment. Even better was the dinner at the roof top, sipping a cocktail and digging into my platter. The menu here is both international and indian and the deserts are to die for – I ended my day with a delicious tiramisu. To me this was not just a restaurant, it was an experience.
Morning at The Broken Bridge for some bird watching
The Broken Bridge is a bridge to nowhere. Built in 1960s over the Adyar Estuary it collapsed in about ten years and was never rebuilt. It connected Santhome and Besant Nagar. If you like to do some bird watching , then you must visit the estuary and the bridge from the Besant Nagar side and you will see a side of Chennai that is only seen in movies. The birds come visiting here and during winters – the migratory season, the estuary is their favourite port of halt. Pallikarnai and OMR are other great haunts for bird watchers but then they are further away,
Breakfast at the coffee shop, The Colony
Perhaps it is a reminder of the colonial past, the coffee shop termed The Colony offers a great spread for breakfast – South Indian largely but multicuisine as well for the global travellers who are usually guests at the hotel. I was however taken in by the many artifacts, the brass items, the jars and utensils that takes you on a nostalgic trip. Another very interesting aspect is that there are no flowers on the table or anywhere in the hotel – just fresh paddy that adds a touch of green. I had a crisp masala dosa with some hot pongal and washed them down with strong filter coffee.
Visit the oldest church in Chennai
Take a tour down history and visit the oldest church in Chennai, dated 1516 called the “kaatu kovil” or the temple in the forest, Driving towards Luz Church Road, I visited the ancient church, surrounded by trees and gardens and listened to the legend around it. The story goes that eight Franciscan friars sailed to India from Lisbon in the early 16th century. While they initially stopped at Calicut and Cochin they sailed further south. On the way the sea turned rough but they were guided by a bright light, which led them towards the shores of Mylapore, where the old house of St Thomas was in ruins. The light then directed them towards a clearing in the forest where it finally disappeared. It is believed that this led the friars to build a small oratory on the spot. The church was referred to as Kaatu Koil or the temple in the forest by the locals but it is referred to as the Church of Lady of Light. The area is called “Luz” from its official name Nossa Senhora da Luz, Luz probably referring to light in Portuguese.
Lunch at Madras, Raintree Anna Salai
Giving a taste of the city in both design and cuisine is the restaurant Madras in Raintree Anna Salai. I was at first fascinated by the empty plates, with cartoons and caricatures of people but then the plates looked more appetizing when full. I opted for a full blown vegetarian thali which came with large helpings of local specialities like sambar, rasam, vetha kozhambu and vegetables. Besides rice, you get servings of appam, idiyappam, podi dosai and malabar paratha. The meal ended with the characteristic Jigar thanda , a a local favourite from Madurai. For the non vegetarians, there was a combination of meat and sea food thali as well.
Afternoon at the spa
What do you after a heavy meal ? You can either sleep or go in for a spa treatment . I obviously opted for the latter. There is an Oryza spa at the Raintree, Anna Salai and I drifted off gently to sleep while my therapist dug her delicate fingers into my tired muscles and pounded every one of them. I went in for a simple massage but they have several wraps and aroma oils for you to indulge in. Go ahead, get pampered.
A park and a book store
I had a train to catch but I could not resist heading to Nageshwara Park, one of my familiar haunts where I used to walk every evening.The idea was not to walk but to meet the man, Alwar, now well in his 90s who is passionate about books and runs a second hand book store on the pavements – a favourite with most residents (Well, this is the local in me talklng). The man I heard was not well but Mary who took care of his books took me to showcase some of the latest editions. From best sellers to classics, philosophy to travel books, it is a treasure out there. I bought a Readers Digest Select Edition of fiction and crime – my latest souvenir from the city and rushed to the station
Catch an evening concert or a dance performance
I had to head back to Bangalore, but if your evening is free, then catch a performance – classical music or dance in any of the sabha in and around Mylapore. Although the season is in December, the cultural scene in Chennai is alive throughout the year. You could also check out if there are any plays in the neighbourhood. This is where tradition and contemporary meet – so you will never find a dearth of events in the city. All you have to do is to look.
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