Wednesday, 10 December 2014

In Ratnagiri: Of delicious food and breathtaking sights

We reached Ratnagiri in time for a sunset stroll on the beach, only,  all that we had been through during the  sixteen odd hours since we left Pune had drained us of every ounce of energy. On reaching our home stay, (we were staying at a quaint beach side homestay called Oceano Pearl) we headed straight for our room, downed a few swigs of rum and remained immobile for the next hour or so. We had lost a day of what was going to be a two-day sojourn in Ratnagiri and now we were too tired to make the most of the evening. Anxious we were not having enough fun we willed ourselves to leave our beds, get out of our room and head downstairs. The rum had begun taking effect, my frayed nerves were beginning to relax, but the throbbing pain around the back of my head wouldn't go.

By the time we stepped out it was pitch dark all around, not to mention the piercing silence that accentuated the darkness. We parked ourselves in the coconut orchard, 'A' precariously sprawled on a hammock and I on a wobbly chair. We were too tired to talk, so we sat their humming our favourite tunes, but soon we were singing at the top of our voice attracting some attention - what prodded us, if it was the rum or the exhaustion I do not know. I thought I could hear the sea too. How close were we? To the sea?

Dinner at the homestay was a delicious Konkani meal comprising rice, chapati, a spicy sol kadhi, sukkha chicken laced in a fiery mix of spices, and a subtly spiced rasa chicken, a runny chicken curry done the Konkan way. For desserts we were served modak, a soft rice flour shell stuffed with sweet coconut and dry fruit stuffing. The lanky lad waiting on us sets a bowl of clarified butter next to the modak that are warm. "Pour the ghee on the modak," he instructs. We add some of the deliciously aromatic ghee to out rice, and then order for more rice to have with more ghee. I was quite fond of the rasa too, and after hesitating a while, asked the woman who cooks at the homestay if she could share the recipe. She said she will, but later.

 I only hoped she would. I wasn't quite sure though.

Day 2

I had had a restless night and had only fallen asleep in the wee hours of the morning. So, when A woke me up asking if I'd like to join her in the beach, I mumbled something about joining her in a while and went right back to sleep. I woke up an hour later. A had not returned from the beach. I was still feeling tired, in fact, the throbbing ache at the back of my head had returned with a vengeance. May be I'll give the beach a miss, I thought, "why there would be so many beaches on the way around the place," I argued, but I was hardly convinced. I couldn't leave without a glimpse, at least, of the Ganeshgule beach.

Camera in hand I strolled down the path flanked by the coconut orchard we had spent the previous evening in. It was a bright sunny day, warm but pleasant. I wondered if the walk to the beach would be a long one. At the end of the orchard was a stone wall and in it a tiny gate, ajar. The moment I reached the gate I squealed in delight. I stepped onto the green foliage on the other side and in front of me the green gradually gave way to the white sandy beach and then the mind-blowing blue of the ocean. The ring of trees around the beach swayed merrily in the morning breeze. There was not a soul in sight.

I have hardly seen a beach so serene, so clean. Tiny crabs scampered to their retreats under the sand as I walked by. A few minutes later I spotted A, in the water, stooping over the surf, perhaps looking for a seashell. She loves sea shells and was perhaps looking to add to her collection. I wished we had more time in hand, a swim in the sea is hard to resist. Alas, we had no time. But that was keeping us out of the water. "Knee-deep is good we decided, though the sea had other plans," A ended up drenched, I managed to remain dry, but secretly wished the sea would unleash one of it antics on me. With me however the sea behaved! We chased crabs, and watched seagulls wade in the white surf, clicked a million photographs and obsessed over our own footprints on the sand. Simply sitting there watching distant boats bob on the blue waters was enough to rejuvenate our sodden souls.

Breakfast comprised simple sabudana khichdi and poha topped with grated fresh coconut ad loads of green chilies.With it came a sheet on paper with the hand written recipe of the previous night's chicken rasa. I was ecstatic. But wait, it was written in Marathi. A came to my rescue, she could read it for me she said. Relieved, I thanked the woman profusely. She smiled the sweetest smile.

Soon after we hit the road headed for the Purnagadh Fort. The short trek up a stone stairway to the Purnagadh fort was through a small village with quaint houses with stone fences and cactus hedges. Half way up I found my ankle throbbing with pain. A previous injury often decides to manifest at the most inopportune moments. I prompted A to carry on while I returned to wait in the car. I sat in the car, irked by my unfortunate situation. A returned a while later exclaiming, "It was only another 2 minute climb, you had almost made it." I was of course crestfallen, the photographs broke my heart." The Purnagadh fort, or what remains of it, has an intriguing character. The stone arches, the spectacular views of the ocean through the embrasures, the wild foliage and the atmosphere charged with history - Purnagadh is an experience I will regret missing.

Our next stop was the Ratnadurg Fort and this time I had decided, no matter what I was going to see the fort. However, we made a slight detour and headed for the Desai Bandhu Ambewale shop in the small village of Pawas. The Ratnagiri district is home to the fabled Alphonso mangoes and Desai is one of its biggest producers in the region. At their shop they have on offer a mind-boggling variety of Alphonso products like jams, relish, squash, pickles. Their canned aam ras is absolutely delightful and their most popular product. They also have a sizable assortment of jackfruit and kokum products- jackfruit wafers, kokum extract and juice etc as also special Malvani spices. One item in particular, the kokum oil, it comes in a solid form actually, caught my attention. We were told it is extremely beneficial for treating chapped skin during winter. After we had horded a truck load of mango products, this is the closest you can get to savouring fresh Alphonso in December, the products are made from frozen pulp of the fruit that is carefully preserved, we drained a couple of bottles of mango juice each, which of course did wonders to our spirits, and was soon back on the road, headed for Ratnadurg Fort.

Ratnadurg is a horse-shoe shaped fort built during the Bahamani reign and offers spectacular views of the Arabian sea. It is better maintained than the Purnagadh fort but lacks  its fantastic charm. It is more of a robust and functional structure without any trimming. In fact there is not much to see except the hoary stone ramparts and mighty bastions. But the views are mind-boggling. I stood for a while scanning the vast expanse of the Arabian sea. In the afternoon sunshine the water glistened, like molten gold. On the cliff across stands a lone lighthouse. A Brahmani kite was performing an aerial recital nearby. A seagull flapped its wings noisily as it  flew over my head. Otherwise there was silence. Soon a noisy group of tourists turned the corner, I heaved a sigh, I do not know why, and continued on my walk towards the exit of the fort, my mind cluttered with the silence of the deep blue sea. A silence that speaks a thousand words.

We take the road again, this time headed for the Ganapatiphule beach, the most popular beach in Ratnagiri. On the way we stop at the Aare Vare Beach, a quaint blue water beach on the Ganapatiphule coastal highway. But by now it was the drive that had as awestruck. The road coiled up the barren cliffs overlooking the sea, offering spectacular views that would remain etched in our memory for days to come.

By the time we reached Ganapatiphule it was almost 4 in the afternoon. In a couple of hours we would have to catch our train back. Besides we were extremely hungry, my stomach lurched and my mouth was bitter. I could think of nothing but food. The road leading up to the Ganapatiphule temple (we had decided to give the temple a miss, the crowd discouraged us)  is lined with tiny restaurants serving home cooked Malvani food. But at this hour they were all closed. Lunch hour was long over. After asking around for a while we finally found one place, a humble but clean roadside shack called Spicy and Tasty, that was ready to cook us a meal. And this meal was by far the best we had had in Ratnagiri.

The sol kadhi, with only a hint of spices was the most delightful version of the drink I had sampled on my trip. Then there was the crusty Surmai rawa fry - inside the crunchy semolina crust, it made a squelching noise when I bit into it,  the fish was beautifully laced in an aromatc mix of spices. The fish was flaky and juicy just one look and I was salivating shamelessly. Ahad opted for a pomfret, locally called pamlet, the gorgeous fish came with a similar crust and was done to perfection. On the side we were served a typical Malvani gravy, spicy but not hot, hence the layers of flavours were distinct and such a treat for the palate. We had a train to catch but for now we were in no hurry. The next half an hour or so was spent in silence, the only sounds being that of the squelching sound of biting into the crusty rawa fry and the clanking of bowls and plates. The memories of the meal still lingers on my tongue!

By the time we were done we had less than a hour and a 30 km drive to our train. We had tried to fit a two-day itinerary into a single day, in fact three quarters of a day. Naturally we had to be content with the breathtaking views of the Ganapatiphule beach, we had to give the stroll a miss. On the plus side, we enjoyed some pretty spectacular views from the train. The Konkan railway is famed for its picturesque routes, and even though for only a short while we feasted on the beauty on the Konkan coast as the train chugged homewards.

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