Saturday 23 February 2013

Oh! Calcutta

We were most impressed the wonderful city of Calcutta - possibly one of the most attractive central urban areas in the country in terms of architecture, wide, un-choked roads and cultural aspects.  But then again, it was designed by the British, so that stands to reason!

Two days was just enough time to get a good feel for this once leading city of India - there were so many historic, Raj-era buildings to see.  And I loved the fact that Calcutta is a sort of Indian New York - the boulevards filled with its famous yellow Ambassador taxis - honking and vying for business.

New Yorkish Yellow Ambassador Taxis Aplenty

Unlike in the centre of Mumbai (which I like to compare every other city to), there were few slum areas to be seen and hardly any pavement dwellers. Despite this, I understand that Calcutta (the capital of West Bengal and third most populous area in India) is actually one of the country's poorest cities. So I suspect that these areas are out of sight, further away from the centre. 

We stayed at a very convenient hotel near the heart of the city - Hotel Casa Fortuna - which although not much to look at from the outside and being right next to a major road artery - was actually very nice indeed.  Our (slightly small) room was nicely furnished, the staff were extremely pleasant and helpful and the 'strictly' vegetarian food at the in-house restaurant was amazing.  The service in the restaurant was also some of the best that we have experienced at any hotel in India. Highly recommended!

It was very easy to grab one of the fun Ambassador taxis from just outside of the hotel to any of the major sites.  And once in the centre we were able to walk around much of the city unhindered.  

Just after we arrived on the first day (after an Indigo flight direct from Mumbai) we went in search of food at the renowned and highly recommended Flury's on Park Street.  Unfortunately we were too late for one of their famous English breakfasts, so I ordered a lasagna and Mr Jules ate fish and chips.  Both were absolutely vile!  And the place was very faded and depressing that lunch time.  I am afraid I would not recommend Flury's for anything other than one of their famous breakfasts!

We then asked a taxi driver to take us to the magnificent Victoria Memorial - a marvel of British Architecture and kind of a cross between Marble Arch and St Paul's Cathedral.  We seemed to have run out of luck again, because when we got there, it was almost closing time and there was a massive queue of Indians trying to get in before the gates were shut.  There were none of the usual queue jumping mechanisms for foreigners, so we decided to give it a miss that day.  But as the Memorial would also be closed the next day - a Monday, we came back later that night for the Son-et-Lumiere display.   To be honest, the display was a bit lame which was a shame (ha! that rhymes!)  The boomingly loud slide show had evidently not been updated since the 1970s and the light display using the Memorial as a backdrop was not very inspiring.  I would love to give some of these Indian museum curators a lesson in making the best of their amazing buildings!

Victoria Memorial - "sits with an old world sobriety at the heart of a busy city"

The rest of the next one and a half days were spent wondering around - mostly on foot as the temperature was relatively cool.  After the disaster of Flury's, we had lunch at the fancy La Terrasse restaurant at the Oberoi and I had their very delicious Chicken Kiev.  Both evening meals were taken back at the hotel restaurant after exhausting ourselves walking everywhere.  

Here are the photos.  Parts of the city are so timeless that they lend themselves well to black and white or faded photography (plus I was inspired by a friend's recent visit to Calcutta where she took loads of fab B&W photos...thanks Amy!).

St Paul's Cathedral at sundown - the largest Cathedral in Calcutta was completed in 1847.  The original, before it was damaged by earthquakes in 1897 and 1934 was said to resemble Norwich Cathedral

There were loads and loads of street barbers in Calcutta!  A man, a box to sit on and a rusty razor.  Nice

The Writers Building which now houses the West Bengal Secretariat.  The red brick is very typical in Calcutta.

British/(Parisian?) style boulevards

St Andrew's Church - modelled on London's St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Above and below : vintage vignettes everywhere in central Calcutta

Ye Olde Watch Repairers

A reminder that we are still in India!

Inside St John's Church - one of Calcutta's oldest churches.  

Memorial to the 123 persons who perished in the Black Hole of Calcutta.   The story goes that 146 Englishmen were imprisoned overnight in a room measuring 5.5 by 4m on one of the hottest nights of the year.  With only two small windows for ventilation, all but 23 had perished by the morning.  No one knows where the Black Hole prison was actually located and it is possible that the story is a hoax. 

Passenger boat on the Hooghly - I just love the name - HOOGHLY!

Nahoum Confectioners inside the massive New Market - like stepping back in time

Rickshaw Wallah waiting for a fare outside the market

New York / Indian scene

PS.  The shopping scene in Calcutta is rubbish!  I found a couple of some of the best shops and they aren't worth a mention here.  Sorry Calcutta!


  1. I spent a week in Calcutta in October & really enjoyed my time there. Surprised you witnessed no poverty. It was less abject than I expected, though during a dawn walk, I discovered the people who run the stalls on Park Street selling T-shirts etc. sleeping on the tables with their goods and the men who operate the hand-pulled rickshaws sleeping in the rickshaws, and I also saw hundreds of other people who live on the streets bathing in public spigots and at the ghats. In contrast, I've never seen a homeless person in Mumbai!

    1. Hi Ann, thanks for tuning in! I definitely did not NOT see any poverty! But I was saying that unlike right in the centre of Bombay, there were no slums or pavement dwellers. This is right in your face in Bombay! In Calcutta, there is definitely a better sense of civic pride and all the old British buildings and public spaces are so beautifully kept. I too saw lots of market stall holders sleeping on their stalls. I like that you reference someone through your blog that also compared Calcutta to NYC! I thought it was just me!

  2. "It was very easy to grab one of the fun Ambassador taxis from just outside of the hotel to any of the major sites"
    Are you sure that you were in Kolkata? There have been numerous newspaper articles about the taxi-drivers refusing rides or demanding outrageous fares. (I often hear taxi drivers demanding 500 rupees from foreigners for going from central Kolkata to the airport--and this was before the recent fare-hike). Moreover, my wife and I have had numerous first-hand experiences like that.

    1. Hi Micky. No I didn't mention this aspect - as to be honest it seem to happen to us where-ever we go in India. White skin = rip off. We did find it easy to get a taxi but like you said - they refused to put on their meters and it would be a minimum 100 Rs just to go down the street (for a 15 Rs journey). One taxi driver - when we refused to pay him another 50 Rs, purposefully dropped us off in the wrong place when we asked to go to the Victoria Memorial - we had to cross a busy road and then walk about another 500m to the correct entrance - by which time it was almost closing! It's such a shame us 'tourists' have to receive this treatment. Everyone would be better off in the long run if we didn't have to get ripped off like this.

  3. I respect your views but just as every city has its pros and cons, Kolkata is no different. I am not sure what shopping you intended to do and where, but there are good shops where you can buy souvenirs or specialties. If you are a non-veg, you should have tried some varieties of fishes in a authentic Bengalli restaurant such as 'Bhojohori Manna' or '6 Ballygunge Place'.

    There are lot many thinks to see and experience in Kolkata, in case you wish to visit another time. Please check out my link below:

    1. Hello again. I was definitely going to go and try 6 Ballygunge Place but unfortunately I started taking malaria medication in readiness for our onward journey to Kaziranga and found it very hard to eat. We therefore decided to stay within the realms of our hotel which was such a shame! Hopefully we will revisit sometime as two days wasn't enough to appreciate the city - that is for sure. Thanks for visiting!

  4. 'But then again, it was designed by the British, so that stands to reason!'
    funny that you said that! I think that you should read this article here for a glimpse into the history of Bengal:



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