Road-Tripping During Durga Pujo

If you know a Bengali, most of them would vouch for the fact that they look forward to Durga Pujo every year. As we keep on harping, it is not entirely a religious occasion, but more of a cultural festival. In Bengal, people from every religion can visit the Durga Puja pandals and soak into the throbbing and gay ambience of the festival. There is food, adda, friends, family, cute love affairs that may or may not last long, and the sense of oneness with a huge crowd of people milling towards an inimitable goddess. Considering the promise of such fun and felicity, most of us feel awful when we can’t be at home for pujo.

I have been away from Calcutta for the last fourteen years. There have been multiple instances of a no-show during pujo and it has gradually become a norm that we spend this time elsewhere. I think our parents have accepted this by now and they wait for us to be back during longer holidays in Christmas. While they attend the Durga pujo closer to home, we have devised a better way to keep ourselves occupied. If we can’t be with our loved ones during pujo, then it’s better to go on a road trip!

“Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and enjoy the journey.” – Babs Hoffman

We have lived in different cities in the last decade of marriage and managed to make four superb road trips during Durga pujo. The imperative was travel, food and to relax. Pujo is all about gorging on delicious and exotic food for us. Each day has it’s own kind of food code. Of course, those can’t be maintained while we travel, so we concentrate on having any good food. Here’s a snapshot of all that we ate in those trips.

Hyderabad –> Pondicherry, 2012

2012 was our third Durga pujo post marriage after we had spent the previous pujo in Hyderabad as well. More or less explored the pandals around, had few snacks at food stalls, offered pushpanjali on Ashtami and I participated in Sindur khela on Dashami in 2011. All said, done and repeated, we decided to go for a trip to Pondicherry on Nabami, 2012. M was still fairly new driving our car, so we didn’t risk driving all the way. Boarded an overnight bus and reached Pondicherry in the morning.

Promenade, Pondicherry

Both of us had been there before as well, so we concentrated on visiting the churches, eating around at different restaurants and just strolling by the promenade. Of all the food we had, I clearly recall the lunch at a Chinese restaurant near our hotel; it was pretty good and fulfilling. I don’t have many photos from the trip, but there’s one of this lunch.

Schezwan Chicken Fried Rice and Roast Lamb

I loved loitering around the streets of the French Quarter in Pondicherry and picking up dainty pastries from the posh-looking bakeries around. In fact, I recall having an amazing dish of Chilli Fish at a Government-subsidised restaurant, the rooftop of which had a superb view of the sea. It was such a memorable trip.

Pune –> Mahabaleshwar, 2015

Having spent the Durga pujo in Pune in 2013, we weren’t much impressed. Barring the Khadki Kalibari pujo and one in Baner, the others weren’t much fun. So, in 2015, we decided to head off to Mahabaleshwar for a 3 days retreat. Now, quite a few people mentioned that three days in Mahabaleshwar would be boring and unnecessary. But we didn’t feel so and decided to give it a shot.

Elephant’s Head point, Mahabalaeshwar

We had taken the car this time, as the distance wasn’t much and it’s a lovely journey via Wai and Panchgani. We stopped at a quaint restaurant in Wai, without the promise of something great but it was beautifully rustic. There was this Mutton Thaali with two kinds of Rassa (gravy) – Tambda and Pandhara – characteristic of the region and so flavourful. The mutton was well cooked and very spicy, just the way we liked; the Bhakris were fresh and the Solkadi acted as the coolant. This is one of the best highway meals we’ve had and I’d like to go back someday.

Mutton Thaali

I kind of love hotel stays – sleeping on clean white beds, eating breakfasts and dinners with strangers, strutting around lawns and gardens and enjoying three days of no household chores. Our hotel in Mahabaleshwar was on the verge of a little forest and it was really beautiful though eerie at nights. They had a very pretty garden and cute wooden cottages where we stayed. We had dinners at the hotel dining room, simple chicken curries, parathas, chilli chicken et al. But a lunch of Chicken Sizzler at a restaurant in the main town almost topped the list. It was surprisingly very well done and a relief after visiting the various ‘points’ in the town.

Chicken Sizzler

I don’t regret a single moment spent in Mahabaleshwar, driving through the forests with our favourite music on, visiting the Mapro Garden in Panchgani and a very underrated waterfall called Lingmala somewhere in between.

Lingmala waterfall

Pune –> Goa, 2016

Ah, this one’s my favourite, because, who doesn’t love Goa! At least, we love Goa and this was the best excuse to escape for a pujo trip. By 2016, we had quite a hang of these trips and decided to drive from Pune to Goa. It took around ten hours with a mini stop at Belgaum for breakfast. The drive was stunning as the highways through Kolhapur district were a delight. Goa is one place where the food has never disappointed us since there’s so much variety. Our resort had its own restaurant and surprisingly, the continental items were pretty well to our taste. I recall this amazingly juicy Grilled King Fish (Surmai) in Lemon Garlic Sauce.

Grilled King Fish

We had Roast Beef in one of the food shacks at Palolem beach while watching the sea roar before us. It’s a surreal experience, I must say, if you haven’t had one. There were dinners with our feet dipped in the sand on the beach, with little candles on the tables and the waves rushing close by. Well, that’s Goa for you. There was a popular restaurant near our resort and we went for dinner on one of the rainy evenings. It was a little quirky one four years ago, I don’t know if it even exists now. But we ordered their best and those were really their best – Spiced Pork Ribs and Beef Chilli Fry. The meat were fragranced with spices and herbs Kerala style and I had never tried these before.

Pork Ribs and Beef Chilli Fry

I must mention two other things that we brought back from Goa to Pune for later consumption – Goan chorizo sausages and Bebinca/Bibik. Bebinca is the rare Portuguese dessert that you can find in Goa but I was so astonished that none of the better restaurants serve this one. It’s a shame and I feel that Bebinca should be marketed really well for tourists. The sausages were meaty and juicy but a little too sour for my taste. All in all, this is still the best road trip M and I have done so far.

Bebinca – a nine layered dessert of coconut, jaggery and flour.

Brussels –> Cologne, 2017

2017 was when we arrived in Brussels and a trip was must during pujo! We planned a day trip to Cologne, Germany which is just three hours by bus. The city is beautiful, right on the banks of river Rhine and the centre of attraction is the huge Cologne Cathedral. It is currently the tallest twin-spired church in the world and the second tallest church in Europe. The cathedral dates back to 1322 AD and is a must visit. We had to crane our necks to admire the interior, the ceilings, statues and stained glass windows. I absolutely love those windows as they have entire stories from Bible depicted through the painted scenes.

Interior, Cologne Cathedral

Our day was well spent walking inside the cathedral and on the cobbled streets outside, through the alleys and on the banks of the Rhine. It was more of a peaceful trip and we were energised at the end of the day. We had a quick lunch of Doner Kebab-Pita Bread and the famous Curry Wurst sausages of Germany. Trust me, they’re too filling and lasted us till dinner. We had a bus back to Brussels in the late evening, so dinner was on the main square of the city, right by the cathedral. It was Braised Beef with Almonds and a stunner again! We had returned to Brussels around midnight and went to visit the Durga pujo for the rest of the days.

The sad part is – we had planned another trip this year, possible to Cologne and Bonn again, but it had to be cancelled as there’s another lockdown now and all non-essential travel is restricted. No Durga pujo as well in Brussels this year, so all I can do is reminisce these amaze trips, look at the photos, drool over the food and cook something great at home.

Wishing a very happy Durga pujo, Navratri and Dusshera to everyone. Stay safe.

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