Calcutta Walking…

If you thought you’ve seen it all in the Vidya Balan starrer ‘Kahaani’ which takes you through the City of Joy and its many nuances, here’s our take of the city in a different light. When you hear the name Calcutta, it exudes a certain charm, history and culture. It reminds you of the bhadra lok, the rossogullas, Tagore songs, the Howrah Bridge, trams, Santiniketan…the works.

Even after being named Kolkata, the group called Calcutta Walks, strives to retain the essence and flavor of the city through customized Heritage Walks across the city. If you haven’t been on one, even though you’re an Indian, it’s time you do!

The next time you’re in the City of Joy, get in touch with Calcutta Walks to rediscover the beauty, heritage and history of Kolkata. We caught up with the team of Calcutta Walks who shared some valuable inputs about what they do and why they do.

How did it all begin?
Calcutta Walks is a part of a five year old V3 Travels and Tours and you can contact them through their website Calcutta Walks to plan out an itinerary for your trip to Kolkata. Designed and started by 30-year-old Iftekhar Ahsan – aka Ifte, Calcutta Walks constitutes a group of likeminded people who are into theater, history, architecture, law and homemaking. “It all started about four and a half years ago when we were taking some friends from Turkey around and we realized that we had a knack for showing the city and the fact that we loved it was infectious and they thoroughly enjoyed being with us; so we thought why not make it into a business,” quips Iftekhar.

Themes covered in Calcutta Walks
The various themes covered by Calcutta Walks are Colonial Calcutta, Bengali Calcutta, Mixed Communities of Calcutta, Life By The River, Entertainment Zone of Park Street, etc. Iftekar mentions, “The best time to explore is early mornings before the monster of a city wakes up. Cost INR 1500 per person per walk of around 3 hours.”

What makes Calcutta Walks unique?
“No idea. But I guess we call ourselves explorers and love to explore the city with other travelers. Plus we always keep stumbling upon newer nuggets of history or another quirk of the city; I guess our intrepid nature makes us fun to be with.”

Iftekar recounts an incident from one of their walks, “The other day, we were walking with a bunch of Literature enthusiasts and came to know that the first Indian English novel ‘Rajmohan’s Wife’ was written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee who gave us our national song Vande Mataram.”

Motorbikes, Cycling Tours and River Cruises

Calcutta Walks gives you an option to explore the city by foot, on a motorbike, a cycle or boat. So you can either choose to hop onto a Royal-Enfield and weave your way through the old town taking frequent breaks and seeping in all the culture and buzz of the city or cycle your way through to enjoy the peaceful early morning setting of the city.

  • Cycling Tours cost INR 2000 per person per tour of 3 hours with breakfast.
  • Motorbike Tours cost INR 3000 per person per tour of 3 to 4 hours with breakfast.

It gets more exciting if a bandh is called in the city, then out comes the good old faithful bicycle that lets you explore minus the traffic snarls.  Iftekar adds, “This is quite fun as the locals are rather amused at the sight of tourists exploring the city on cycles!”

Calcutta Walk’s River Cruises will take you on a journey through the Hooghly River. The River Cruises are divided into Sunset River Cruise, Greater Calcutta Cruise and Little Europe. These cruises include breakfast and lunch depending on the timing and duration of the trips.

  • INR 10,000 for a group for Sunset River Cruise.
  • INR 3,000 per person for Greater Calcutta Cruise.
  • INR 8,000 per person for an overnight Little Europe Cruise.

The Sunset River Cruise will help you get a glimpse of the Belur Math, the international headquarters of the Ramkrishna Mission and Dakshineswar, a unique Kali temple.

Greater Calcutta Cruise starts from 8am and heads to Belur Math that helps you grasp a deeper understanding of the establishment of Ramakrishna Mission. A visit to the Botanical Gardens, home of the famous Banyan Tree, the largest of its kind in this part of the world is also a part of the cruise.

Little Europe Cruise starts as early as 6 and takes you across different European colonies located around the Ganga. “We start with Barrackpore, once home to British army and site of the beginning of the 1857 revolt and end at Hooghly, once home to the earliest Portuguese settlement, now best remembered . Serampore, Chinsurah, Chandernagore and Hooghli. Doing the whole trip with an overnight a whole section on Bengal – its beauties, its peoples, its locales…take a cue from grassroutes and deshduniya santiniketan, murshidabad, kurseong, darjeeling, etc.,” adds Ifetekar.

Off Beat Tours
If you’re a bit of the adventurous kind, you could opt for a Graveyard Tour and get to know how the glamorous Park Street came to be known as the ‘Burial Ground Road’. Maybe a visit to the Weaver’s Village that will help you explore the richness of the hand woven embroidery, a visit to Santiniketan to see what Tagore had envisaged, the fairs and the university grounds are a must see and for the food lovers, there’s Bengali cooking lessons too!

Iftekar further mentions, “We have had plenty of people who come looking for their ancestral connections in Calcutta. They usually end up having a great time checking old records and trying to see if there is an existing link. We can charge extra fees to trace connections but is dependent on each assignment. “

If you’re wondering if there are any takers for Bengali cooking lessons, Ifktear adds, “Loads of people join us for the Bengali Cooking Lessons as they have a great time exploring the markets, then going back and rustling up a Bengali meal with the fresh procured ingredients. This is priced at INR 2000 per person including meals. “

Challenges faced
Iftekar mentions, that mostly foreign tourists prefer these kinds of tours, “It’s a matured concept in the West and has only started picking up pace here in the last few years. Also, there’s the price factor; Indians don’t want to pay for historical / cultural commentary as this is their country – their domain – they may be the most ignorant about it but it’s difficult to ask them to pay for a knowledge session of this sort. “

He further adds, “If you see the trend then you could get a dose of these things in terms of book launches, theatre shows, talks etc. which are all free; so why pay for walk. In fact once a Bengali came on a walk and left as he thought it was ridiculous to pay for walking in his own city, but several others (mostly NRI’s) have come and have thoroughly enjoyed the tours.”

He admits, “There’s always someone who knows much more on the subject and that becomes a challenge to handle, not because we are not confident about what we’re saying but because these guys come with their cups full. The other painful clientele are the rich industrialists with the attention spans of a small child, these are the kind of people very difficult to deal with, but 99% of the people we get are a pleasure to be with as they come with a genuine zeal to learn more about the place they’re visiting.”

The journey so far…
“Fabulous will be an understatement, we’ve received much better feedback as well as media coverage than we deserve. Praise the Lord, we’ve had several people exclaim after the tour that it’s the best tour they’ve had in the whole world and one guy said that he’d visited 80 countries but he was bowled one by our tour in Calcutta,” mentions Iftekar.

What’s your Story?
Do you conduct a similar Heritage Walk in your town or city? Write to us at [email protected] and we’ll be happy to cover it.

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