Stand in the middle of Moscow’s Red Square and in a 360-degree turn, the turbulent past and present of Russia is encapsulated in one fell swoop: flagships of Orthodox Christianity, Tsarist autocracy, communist dictatorship and rampant consumerism confront each other before your eyes.

Red Square, is, well, red-ish, but its name actually derives from an old Russian word for “beautiful”. It might no longer be undeniably so – its sometimes bloody history has put paid to that – but it continues to be Moscow’s main draw. In summer, postcard sellers jostle with photographers, keen to capture your image in front of one of the many iconic buildings; but in winter, you step back in time a few decades as Muscovites, in their ubiquitous shapki fur hats, negotiate their way through piles of snow, while the factory chimneys behind St Basil’s Cathedral churn out copious amounts of

It’s hard to avoid being drawn immediately to St Basil’s, its magnificent Mr Whippy domes the fitting final resting place of the eponymous holy fool. Should retail, rather than spiritual, therapy, be more your bag, try GUM, the elegant nineteenth-century shopping arcade, which now houses mainly western boutiques, way out of the pocket of the average Russian, but very decent for a spot of window-shopping or a coffee, or just to shelter from the elements outside. If you think that the presence of Versace and other beacons of capitalism would have Lenin spinning in his grave, you can check for yourself at the mausoleum opposite, where his wax-like torso still lies in state. Despite the overthrow of communism, surly guards are on hand to ensure proper respect is shown: no cameras or bags, no hands in pockets and certainly no laughing. Putin’s police officers are never far away, casting a wary eye over it all – perhaps having learned a thing or two from Lenin’s bedfellows and disciples (including Uncle Joe), who are lined up behind the mausoleum under the imposing walls of the Kremlin.

Red Square can be reached from Ploshchad Revolyutsii, Aleksandrovskiy Sad, Biblioteka Imeni Lenina and Borovitskaya metros.


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Imagine spending all day sightseeing, taking a shower and a nap, and then looking out of the window to see the sky as bright as midday. Your body kicks into overdrive, and the whole day seems to lie ahead of you. The streets throng with people toting guitars and bottles of champagne or vodka; naval cadets and their girlfriends walking arm in arm, and pensioners performing impromptu tea-dances on the riverbank. The smell of black tobacco mingles with the perfume of lilac in parks full of sunbathers. It’s eight o’clock in the evening, and St Petersburg is gearing up for another of its White Nights.

Freezing cold and dark for three months of the year, St Petersburg enjoys six weeks of sweltering heat when the sun barely dips below the horizon – its famous Byele Nochy, or White Nights. Children are banished to dachas in the countryside with grandparents, leaving parents free to enjoy themselves. Life becomes a sequence of tsusovki (gatherings), as people encounter long-lost friends strolling on Nevsky prospekt or feasting in the Summer Garden at midnight.

To avoid disrupting the daytime flow of traffic, the city’s bridges are raised from 2am onwards to allow a stream of ships to sail upriver into Russia’s vast interior. Although normally not a spectacle, during White Nights everyone converges on the River Neva embankments to watch, while bottles are passed from person to person, and strangers join impromptu singsongs around anyone with a guitar or harmonium – chorusing folk ballads or “thieves’ songs” from the Gulag. Those with money often hire a boat to cruise the canals that wend through the heart of the city.

The bridges are briefly lowered during the middle of the night, allowing queues of traffic fifteen minutes to race across. Keeping in lane is entirely ignored, with drivers jockeying for position as if it was a chariot race. By this time, people are stripping off and jumping into the Neva – those too prodigiously drunk to realize go swimming fully clothed.

The White Nights last from June 11 to July 2.


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Why party with the masses when you can steal away with others in-the-know at an underground speakeasy, or find yourself a key to the best secret bar in the city? We know them all, but luckily for you, we’re not very good at keeping secrets; here is a BarChick rundown of the best places for speakeasy-style drinking around the world:

001, Hong Kong

Near impossible to find behind the city’s wet market stalls, the unmarked black door which leads you down to this cosy little den of iniquity can only be found by those in the know. Leather and wood interiors make it dark and dingy, but with a hint of luxury. Drinks are expertly made and pack a hell of a punch. If you want a covert meeting place, this is most certainly it.

NOLA, London

Make your way through a pub, around a corner (look out for a small sign on the ceiling), up some stairs and bust in on London’s answer to New Orleans. Music and whisky are what that blessed city is known for, and NOLA has got both in full swing. Antique trombones hang from the walls and if you’re lucky enough to slope by on a Thursday or Friday, you can kick back to some live jazz and blues.

NOLA, London

Death and Company, NYC

Here you can sip creative twists on Prohibition cocktails – such as an old fashioned made with tequila and mescal – which are stirred fifty times while you sit at black granite tables under crystal chandeliers and gold flecked walls. Look for the unmarked brown door and the long line leading up to it. Explore New York City >

BYOC, Brighton

This underground speakeasy in Brighton does things a little differently. Book ahead and remember to bring a bottle of your favourite spirit – or whatever you could get your hands on at the off licence ­– then hand it over to the mixologist. Using ingredients from their antique drinks trolley, they’ll mix some damn fine cocktails right at your table. More quirky Brighton venues >

Door 74, Amsterdam

You could walk past Door 74 every day and have no idea that there is a bar in here; this place is the definition of hidden, focused on class, cocktails and character. If you’re planning on finding your way in on the weekend you’ll need to book ahead. Discover Amsterdam >

door 74 Amsterdam

Bramble, Edinburgh

Hidden down a dark staircase on a quiet Edinburgh backstreet, Bramble may take a bit of loitering to find, but once you’re in it’s worth it. The drinks, mixed using homemade ingredients, show flashes of genius. With cool bartenders and a crowd after fun vibes, this is one boozer you won’t want to leave – not just for fear of never finding it again. More of the best pubs in Edinburgh >

The Union & The Bureau, Copenhagen

Disguised as a townhouse on a residential street, this place has two great bars in one. First off you have to find classic speakeasy The Union – look for the big black door at no.16 – with its dim lighting and bare-brick walls. After you’re settled in and feeling confident, try to get invited to the exclusive Bureau upstairs; it’s the place to be for faultless cocktails and great company.

Little Red Door, Paris

The clue is in the title with this one. Hidden behind a little red door (oh and you’ll need to figure out how to get the key to get in) is one of Paris’s hottest little bars. Art instillations adorn the walls, there are beaten up armchairs to sink into and a killer booze selection to get whet your liquid-appetite. The bartenders are some of the best in the city so always go with their recommendations.

Little Branch, NYC

If it weren’t for the line of people outside you’d never stumble upon this little gem. Creep in behind an unmarked door in New York‘s West Village and descend down rickety stairs to discover a jazz-filled den where bartenders chip away at giant blocks of ice, creating absinthe cocktails that will knock your socks off. Go on an historic bar crawl in NYC >

El Bandito, Liverpool

From the street it looks like any old staircase, but ask the bouncers at Santo Chupitos and they’ll be able to nudge you in the right direction. This tiny bar is no bigger than your bedroom and is known for its killer tequila collection, along with the latest licence in the city (the drinks flow until 5am at weekends). You can be guaranteed it’s where the party is at most nights of the week too. More on Liverpool >

Bourbon & Branch, San Francisco

Prohibition lives on in this speakeasy so put your phone away (it’s a house rule), dress the part and order some of the best drinks in California. The fun doesn’t stop once you’ve found your way into this mysterious place though; there are three other secret bars hidden within Bourbon & Branch waiting to be found. Let the games begin! Explore San Francisco >

Bourbon and Branch, San Francisco

Bar Mutis, Barcelona

This speakeasy feels more like a private flat party than a cocktail bar, being hidden in an apartment block and all. Make sure you ring ahead if you want to party with the cool kids, and bring your credit card – it’s definitely not cheap but boy is it worth it. Discover more of Barcelona >


To the untrained eye it’s easy to think this tiny taco joint has nothing more to offer than Mexican food and hibiscus water, but you’d be oh-so-wrong. It sure isn’t a storage cupboard behind that little door: take a peek through and you’ll find yourself in a sexy candlelit cave. Explore Paris >

Evans and Peel, London

Only once you’ve passed the detective’s rigorous questioning about your “case” might you be allowed to enter through the secret bookcase that leads to this quirky watering hole. The atmosphere is buzzing and the Prohibition-style classic cocktails are mixed up by real pros. Channel your inner Sherlock, get your case together and get into the role-play at Evans and Peel. is a guide to the best bars in the world. Follow them on Twitter at @HotBarChick. You can book hostels for your trip with Rough Guides, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Just as you should arrive in Venice on a boat, it is best to arrive in Lisbon on a tram, from the point where many people leave it for good: at Prazeres, by the city’s picturesque main cemetery. Get a taxi to the suburban terminus of tram 28 for one of the most atmospheric public-transport rides in the world: a slow-motion roller coaster into the city’s historic heart.

Electric trams first served Lisbon in 1901, though the route 28 fleet are remodelled 1930s versions. The polished wood interiors are gems of craftsmanship, from the grooved wooden floors to the shiny seats and sliding window panels. And the operators don’t so much drive the trams as handle them like ancient caravels, adjusting pulleys and levers as the streetcar pitches and rolls across Lisbon’s wavy terrain. As tram 28 rumbles past the towering dome of the Estrela Basilica, remember the famous bottoms that have probably sat exactly where you are: the writers Pessoa and Saramago, the singer Mariza, footballers Figo and Eusebio.

You reach central Lisbon at the smart Chiado district, glimpses of the steely Tagus flashing into view between the terracotta roof tiles and church spires. Suddenly you pitch steeply downhill, the tram hissing and straining against the gradients of Rua Vitor Cordon, before veering into the historic downtown Baixa district. Shoppers pile in and it’s standing room only for newcomers, but those already seated can admire the row of traditional shops selling sequins and beads along Rua da Conceição through the open windows.

Now you climb past Lisbon’s ancient cathedral and skirt the hilltop castle, the vistas across the Tagus estuary below truly dazzling. The best bit of the ride is yet to come though, a weaving, grinding climb through the Alfama district, Lisbon’s village-within-a-city where most roads are too narrow for cars. Entering Rua das Escolas Gerais, the street is just over tram width, its shopfronts so close that you can almost lean out and take a tin of sardines off the shelves.

Tram 28 runs from roughly 6am to 11pm. Check for fares.


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On Lisbon’s Rua do Arsenal, whole window displays are lined with what looks like crinkly grey cardboard. The smell is far from alluring, but from these humble slabs of cod the Portuguese are able to conjure up an alleged 365 different recipes for bacalhau, one for each day of the year. Reassuringly, none of this mummified fish dates back to when it first became popular in the 1500s, when the Corte Real brothers sailed as far as Newfoundland for its rich cod banks. To preserve the fish for the journey back, the brothers salted and dried it – the result was an instant hit both with Portuguese landlubbers and navigators, who could safely store it for their long explorations of the new world.

Nowadays, bacalhau is the national dish, served in just about every restaurant in the country and every family home on Christmas Day. Even in Setúbal – where harbour restaurants are stacked with the fresh variety – salted cod appears on most menus, bathed in water for up to two days, and then its skin and bones pulled away from the swelled and softened flesh, before being boiled and strained into a fishy goo.

Some bacalhau dishes can be an acquired taste. My first experience was in a restaurant on the mosaic-paved old town of Cascais, where my stolid bacalhau com grau (boiled with chick peas) nearly put me off for life. But start with
rissóis de bacalhau (cod rissoles), commonly served as a bar snack, and you’ll soon be hooked. Then move on to bacalhau com natas (baked with cream) or bacalhau a brás (with fried potatos, olives and egg) and there’s no looking

With fourteen bacalhau options on its menu, Sabores a Bacalhau, in Lisbon’s Parque das Nações, is a good place to start. In a restaurant swathed in decorative azulejos tiles appropriately showing sea creatures, a waiter tells me, “Bacalhau is like the Kama Sutra. There may be hundreds of different variations, but you get to know the two or three types that are enjoyable!”. Only the Portuguese could compare bacalhau with sex, but you can’t argue that it is

Sabores a Bacalhau, Rua da Pimenta 47, Parque das Nações (+351 218 957 290; closed Tues).


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Twenty thousand revellers each year come to Boom, Europe’s greatest outdoor dance-music festival, which takes place for a week over the August full moon on a lakeside ranch about 60km from Lisbon. In true summer-of-love fashion it combines non-stop dance music with eco-idealism: here you’ll find sustainability workshops, recycling and composting bins, a permaculture garden and generators powered on vegetable oil and solar power. In the meantime dancing goes on throughout the days and nights – on a beach, in a forest where an ambient music stage is set, or in the world music area based around a huge campfire.

For people wilting under the heat, the shallow hilltop lake provides the perfect place to cool off (and acts as a glistening mirror when the full moon rises). By late morning it’s dotted with people lolling on inflatables or sitting half-submerged on deckchairs that they have sunk into the lake’s bed. Further relaxation is on offer at various tents and stalls selling a range of massage, yoga and other alternative therapies to restore tired bodies and minds.

And when the week-long party is finally over, there’s still the option of more to come – a three-day afterparty in the surrounding forested hills, where you can hike wooded paths or just lie back in the shade and wind down to ambient beats.

You won’t see many wellies at this festival, however. There’s little chance of it raining in Portugal in August, and even if it did people would be more likely to run out for a cool shower than hide in their tents. This is a party in the sun – and in this scorched part of Europe, that’s about as guaranteed as it gets.

For further info see; +351 277 208 138. Ticket prices vary depending upon when you buy, how long you come for and where you live. Shuttle buses to the festival run from Madrid, Lisbon and Porto; see website for details.


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With festival season in full swing, August offers no end of opportunities to party, from the off-the-wall Burning Man to the arty Edinburgh Festival; but there are plenty of options for chilled-out breaks too. Here are our tips for the best places to visit in August.

Bike the Black Forest, Germany

The Black Forest may be best known for its cuckoo clocks and stickily indulgent gâteaux, but this lush mountain region is also growing in popularity as a haven for bikers and hikers. Crisscrossed with trails, it’s a fabulous spot for a ride in high summer, through an idyllic landscape of sun-soaked vineyards, tranquil lakes and quaint chalets (with echoes of those cuckoo clocks). You could even bike your way along the Badische Weinstraße, a route leading through the wine-growing Baden region, timing your visit to coincide with one of the many summer wine festivals.

Chow down on New England lobster, Maine, USA

Maine is justly proud of its lobster. The cold-water crustacean has been farmed along the coast here for generations, thriving in the chilly, clean water. There’s no shortage of places to dine on prime specimens, from fancy restaurants to casual lobster shacks, where you can enjoy your juicy tails and claws in the salty open air. Lobsters are farmed year-round but a good time to visit is during the annual Lobster Festival at the end of August, an old-school celebration of all things lobster, with fun and games, a big parade – and the world’s biggest lobster steamer.

Assisi, Umbria, Italy

Escape the crowds in Umbria, Italy

In August, when all of Italy is on holiday, the locals flock to the mountains and coast – to be avoided, unless you enjoy crowds, queues and general chaos. The landlocked region of Umbria shares many of the attributes of its bigger, glitzier neighbour, Tuscany – picture-perfect hill towns, sun-dappled olive groves, great food and wine – but it’s cheaper, more down-to-earth and refreshingly quiet in August. Hole up in a hilltop villa or get back to nature at an agriturismo, and spend your days exploring gorgeous medieval towns such as Perugia, Assisi and Todi, chilling out at tranquil Lake Trasimeno or sampling the earthy local cuisine.

Get your dose of culture at the Edinburgh Festival, Scotland

The biggest arts festival on the planet, the Edinburgh Festival sees the city transformed into a hive of cultural activity, its hugely varied line-up a mix of fresh new talent and world-famous acts. The best approach is to dive straight in without too many fixed ideas – inevitably, it’s the act you’ve never heard of that blows you away. Accommodation and tickets for the big names are in high demand, so book ahead.

Namaqualand, South Africa

See the desert burst into bloom in Namaqualand, South Africa

For South Africans, the first glimpse of a Namaqualand daisy is a sure sign that spring has arrived. Four thousand floral species – a quarter of which are found nowhere else on earth – burst into bloom in South Africa’s Northern Cape in August, creating a dazzling flower-carpet in day-glo shades of pink, purple, orange, yellow and white, that stretches across the veld for hundreds of kilometres. The vast swathes of colourful flowers are a breathtaking sight – especially when you consider that they’ll give way to arid desert within just two months.

Kick back on west coast of Sweden

Within striking distance of cosmopolitan Gothenburg lies the Bohuslän coast, a rugged, 10,000-island archipelago that makes an ideal summer escape. The islands vary widely in character: some are completely barren, others harbour timewarp fishing villages, while a few boast chic spas or fine-dining restaurants. Unsurprisingly, seafood is a big deal here, and lobster safaris and fishing excursions form the bulk of the local activities – crayfish are a speciality in August.

Burning Man Festival, Nevada, USA

Go wild at the Burning Man Festival, Nevada, USA

Once a year in late August, fifty thousand people descend on a remote patch of desert in northwest Nevada to take part in the world’s ultimate counter-culture festival: Burning Man. With no big-name acts or programmed activities, the temporary residents of “Black Rock City” live by Burning Man rules: no commerce is allowed, and “Burners” must participate in the festivities in some way. Many construct huge, otherworldly sculptures, flashing with lights or flames, which contribute to the surreal atmosphere after dark, when the desert comes alive with all manner of surreal projections and anything-goes performances.

Go white-water rafting on the Soča River, Slovenia

Slovenia’s Soča River is world-renowned for its white-water rafting – the perfect way to cool off in the sweltering August heat. The so-called Emerald River lives up to its name: a dazzlingly bright green, it flows for 140km along the border with Italy through a craggy wooded valley. The river is suitable for all comers, from total beginners to hardcore rafters, as it offers both calm, easy stretches and fearsome, fast-flowing torrents.

The former French Concession in Puxi, Shanghai, is one of the city’s most beautiful areas. With many streets shrouded by overhanging trees it can seem like a world away from the manic bustle that characterizes rest of the place and its 22 million inhabitants.

Established in 1849 and handed over in 1943, many of the original French-style buildings survive, making the area a relaxing place for a breezy walk in the daytime. It has also become a fantastic nightspot, with some of the best bars in Shanghai offering more underground alternatives to the flashy riverside venues on the Bund or the enormous super-clubs.

You could spend a month exploring the bars in just this area, but in our Shanghai nightlife guide, we’ve chosen the top ten places you shouldn’t miss.

The Shelter

As far as nightclubs go The Shelter is somewhat unique, being based on the site of a disused bomb shelter (hence the name). It’s underground by nature as well as in the literal sense, having garnered a reputation strong enough to attract some of the global dance music scene’s most credible cult acts. The drinks are cheap, it’s always rammed at weekends and it’s open until the sun comes up, making it a must-visit location for night owls.

Address: 5 Yongfu Lu, near Fuxing Xi Lu


This small upstairs bar gets its name and vague decor theme from the retro video game emulator customers can play in the bar for free. But this is no nerd-fest: local hipsters flock to Arcade for its reasonably priced cocktails and air of relaxed cool (as well as its invariably pounding dance music), making it the perfect pre-club drinking haven.

Address: Second Floor, 57 Fuxing Xi Lu, near Yongfu Lu

Senator Saloon

The Senator is Shanghai’s answer to the American speakeasy bar. Head barman David Schroeder, an ex-US cop, has gained a reputation as making some of the finest cocktails in the area – his Old Fashioned will blow the ears off the side of your head. Despite the fine cocktails the place has become so popular with young locals that most nights it resembles an enjoyably raucous and friendly pub.

Address: 98 Wuyuan Lu, near Wulumuqi Zhong Lu 

The Chalet

There aren’t many frills to be found at The Chalet – a relaxed boozer loosely based on the decor of a Swiss mountain cottage. It feels more like a fun British bar though, with surprisingly good pub grub on offer, indie rock on the stereo and a fun mix of locals and expats getting drunk. Go there on a Tuesday night for the “happy hour” that runs until 3am, closing with most drinks around half price. The crowds it attracts make it feel like a Saturday.

Address: 385 Yongjia Lu, near Taiyuan Lu

DADA shanghai


Every city should have a DADA (in fact Beijing does – albeit a slightly more upscale branch). It’s a small, sticky-floored dive: there’s no cover charge and barely any security and never any queues despite the place always being busy at weekends. This all makes it the perfect location for after-hours debauchery. The music tends to be underground house, there’s table football, and you’ll only spend 25RMB (£2.50) for a bottle of Tiger beer. If you’re staying in the area, you’ll find yourself at DADA again and again – usually from about 2.30am.

Address: 115 Xingfu Lu, near Fahuazhen Lu


Helmed by the same owners as Arcade, Arkham is a medium-sized nightclub that borrows some of the same underground cool as The Shelter (being similarly subterranean) but in a much wider open space, making it more of a “hands-in-the-air” experience. Charmingly named promoters S.T.D. attract good international DJ names and an increasing amount of live bands, so check local listings sites to find out who’s appearing.

Address: 1 Wulumuqi Nan Lu, near Hengshan Lu

Tattoo Family

This place has got to be one of the most unusual bars in Shanghai: a working tattoo parlour that had a top-notch cocktail bar added to its downstairs area in October 2013. Harley Davidson motorcycles are often revved outside as the achingly hip local crowd sip great cocktails in the dingy but cool bar area, but there’s still an inclusive – you could even say “family” – vibe. The owner also promises not to tattoo you on the spot if you have a few too many drinks then demand an inking session, which is good of him.

Address: 260 Xiangyang Lu, near Yongkang Lu

El Coctel

There’s often a queue to get a seat in the swish and popular cocktail bar El Coctel, but it’s worth the wait. Some of the best cocktails in Puxi are on offer here, and at weekends it becomes one of the trendiest bars to people watch in as you sip creations such as the Spice Rum Treacle.

Address: Second Floor, 47 Yongfu Lu, near Fuxing Xi Lu

The Retreat

This minute café/bar on leafy Gao’an Road is so intimate it’s impossible not to acquire new friends here. Being owned by a Brit as well as his Chinese girlfriend, Union Jack flag cushions abound, along with paintings of Oxfordshire scenery. It’s a great place in the week for a pre-meal drink or, if you end up there in the early hours during the weekend, perfect for toasting new friendships until dawn.

Address: 101 Gao’an Lu, near Zhaojiabang Lu

Explore more of Shanghai and this vast country with the Rough Guide to China, book hostels for your trip and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

The seventeenth of May is just another day to most people, but in Oslo (and all across Norway for that matter) it’s an eagerly anticipated annual event: Norwegian National Day. A celebration of the signing of the Norwegian Constitution, National Day is a joyous and rather rambunctious affair. It has the usual parades, bands, street parties and food stalls you’d expect, plus a healthy dose of patriotic singing and flag waving. Children are allowed as much ice cream as they can ingest, and Oslo’s half a million inhabitants come out in their droves. But the twist in Norway is all in the togs.

Walk out of your door on the big day and you’ll feel as if you’ve accidentally stumbled onto the set of a historical costume drama, with everyone dressed head to toe in traditional dress. Women bustle about in floor-length woollen dresses in vibrant reds, greens, blues and purples, their laced-up bodices adorned with intricate embroidery. Little boys run around in plus fours and woollen waistcoats to match their fathers while teenagers, depending on their year in school, wear traditional fishermen’s overalls in fire-engine red and peacock blue. The effect is disconcerting at first and then, frankly, wonderful as everyone takes part and the city is completely transformed.

Don’t worry if you’ve not got the gear, and certainly don’t try to buy an outfit for the occasion as they cost hundreds (if not thousands) of euros and are passed down in Norwegian families from generation to generation. Just steer clear of jeans and wear something nice and you’ll blend right in. The best advice is to go with the flow: clap along with the packs of teenagers chanting traditional Norwegian songs; smile at the children strutting by, their faces scrubbed clean and hair done perfectly for the occasion; bow and nod to the waved greetings of the royal family from the balcony of the palace; and above all let yourself be dragged into the spontaneous and joyous revelry all around.

Oslo’s main tourist office is in the centre, behind the Rådhus at Fridtjof Nansens plass 5 (


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You can’t go anywhere in India without seeing men and women sipping on small cups of steaming Indian tea. From strong, black pure teas to spice-infused masala chai, Heidi Fuller-Love went to discover the best of Indian tea.

The silhouettes of Fort Cochin’s giant Chinese fishing nets – as menacing as monsters from a Hollywood horror – sink into the pewter horizon behind us and soon we’re en route to Munnar. As the road climbs higher, the shade cast by mighty blue gums grows longer and a refreshing breeze flutters the bright orange petals of marigolds in wayside shrines. It’s easy to see why planter families came to this hill station to escape Kerala’s heat and dust during the steamy summer months.

Chinese fishing nets, Kochin, Kerala, South India

I’m heading to Munnar, high in the UNESCO-listed Western Ghats, to learn more about India’s tea trade. Doped by the overseas image of the British as inveterate tea drinkers, I vaguely imagined that the famous leaf was first cultivated in the UK. It comes as a surprise to learn that tea was first grown by the Chinese and its consumption for medicinal purposes was widespread in India countless centuries before the first pot of Rosy Lea was ever brewed on British shores. In fact tea didn’t become popular in the UK until the mid-1800s after the British East India Company discovered tea bushes growing wild in Assam and decided to commercialise their finds.

I’m a fan of Earl Grey and I’ve sipped many a mug of PG Tips, so it’s a further blow to realise that I don’t even know what tea looks like. As we drive higher into the Ghats, chauffeur Shijo points out sloping fields planted with serried rows of bushes. Connected by a network of narrow passageways, these tea plantations look a bit like the maze at Hampton Court Palace, but lacking the surprise element because the tea bushes are only waist high.

Indian tea

As purple mist inks out the soft slopes of the Western Ghats that evening, we arrive at The Windermere Estate, a sprawling complex with gabled roofs, polished hardwood floors and hand-embroidered linen furnishings. A gloved butler leads me to the Planters Villa, a luxurious wooden-floored complex the size of three hotel rooms with incredible views of the tree-tousled hill ranges opposite. Sipping my pink gin on the terrace and watching the fan whiz above, it’s easy to imagine the privileged lives of the burra sahibs, the tea planters, who lived here during the British Raj.

The next morning we drive out of the estate past woolly rows of bushes where women in ruby, turquoise and emerald saris nimbly pluck the tea leaves, flicking them into net bags that hang from a band tied around their head. We stop to watch them and one giggling girl tries to teach me to snap the teashoots between thumb and forefinger, but gives up in despair when I repeatedly crush the tender twigs with my clumsy fingers.

Indian tea plantations

With its gentle slopes and pretty copses, the Kannan Devan Hills area is known locally as “India’s Scotland”. Parked outside the Kannan Devan Plantation Museum I watch schoolgirls in white shirts and blue pleated skirts playing hopscotch – it’s like a scene of British life from fifty years ago. Later, inside the museum, I learn it has been tea plantation policy to provide schooling, housing and other facilities for plantation workers ever since the days of the Raj.

We’re taken on a guided tour, from noisy airless rooms where fresh leaves tumble on conveyor belts until they wither and oxidise, to light-filled rooms full of large drums where leaves are baked to stop the oxidation process according to the type and strength of tea required. Most of the tea here is black, but with increasing awareness of health benefits green tea is now produced in large quantities.

At the end of the hour-long visit we’re given different teas to taste. The barely-oxidised white tea is fresh and fruity, the partly-oxidised green tea has a herbal zing and the 100-percent-oxidised black tea is dark and treacly.

Western Ghats, Indian tea, India

Back at The Windermere Estate that evening I head for the tea room, a luxuriously rustic hut surrounded by tea gardens and palm-sized cardamon fronds, where I’m treated to the estate’s tea ritual.

As dusk filters from blue to black and a silver slither of moon appears over the fuzzy-headed Ghats, waiters clad in coat-like sherwanis poke up charcoal on a long cooking range. When the charcoal glows brightly they hang samovars filled with spring water over the coals and throw in handfuls of tea leaves and sugar. Then, when the brew turns caramel brown, they add basil, ginger, milk and crushed cardamom, heating the aromatic blend until it boils.

Served with nuggets of deep fried vettu cake and avalose podi (coconut-flavoured rice snacks) the syrupy masala chai is rich and satisfying – and it sweetens the knowledge that tomorrow I’ll be back in steamy, summer-struck Cochin.

Time for tea tourism?

For more tea tourism in India, you can follow the Darjeeling tea trail from the Happy Valley Tea Estate, discover Assam’s rich brews on a tea tour with Greener Pastures, or get your fix of Tamil Nadu’s aromatic blends during the state’s colourful Tea Festival in Ooty.

You can explore more of India with the Rough Guide to India. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

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