I’m not from Pune, but I’m living here for the next two years with my family. We’ve been exploring what’s on offer, so here’s how to spend 48 hours in Pune, says Lou Henderson.
Being near the equator it’s dark by 7pm, so you have to cram more in to the available daylight hours. First off you’re struck by the heat, different noises, smells and vibrant colours in India.
Constant beeping horns and traffic noise mix in with shrill parakeet calls, cockerels crowing, wolf whistling Mynah birds and tiny finch-like birds fluttering in the Banyan trees, whose roots extend down from the branches to the ground – not to mention the numerous stray dogs that roam the roads. At dusk you’ll see cat-sized low flying fruit bats, swooping and expertly landing upside down in trees.
In the north west of India, Pune is Mumbai’s quieter, more chilled out neighbour. This is some feat when you consider that Pune has a population of eight million people. It sits where the Mula and Mutha rivers meet and is four hours inland, along on a super busy highway cut into the rock.
Pune has attitude. The people, Punekars, have a sharp sarcastic sense of humour, shops shut in the middle of the day and there’s a laidback attitude to life here. Locals take an early morning stroll around their neighbourhood and catch up with friends on the numerous street corner benches. To start the day, you can practise yoga at many places in the city. I did a trial session at Two Good Café in Aundh and liked it so much I signed up to sessions three times a week. The cafe is busy in the evenings but the rooms above are an oasis of calm at 8am for Iyengar yoga. After a few weeks in I can feel the benefit under the expert guidance of my yogi. I’ve even tried the headstands, something I’ve not done since childhood.
This area has a colourful fruit and vegetable market with stalls that sell flower heads, honey, ghee and milk every Sunday evening. The markets move around the town and are in different places each day, areas are named after the day and the market.
Post yoga session and it’s time to head for some food in the East Street and Mahatma Gandhi Road (Mg Road) area. Take a ride in one of the many auto rikshaw and hold on tight, they can nip round quicker than a car. You either agree the price before you ride or pay the meter. Either way it’s inexpensive and quick. Walking here in the heat can sap your energy!
The old town has lots of places to eat, from veg thali to street sellers with chai tea. Opposite the 100-year old Edward Library the queue is out of the door at independent Kayani bakery on East Street, Camp. Here in the late 1950s three brothers from Iran settled in Pune and started a bakery. The sign proudly announces “we have no branches”; they shut in the middle of the day and all-day Sunday. The firewood ovens are lit overnight (filled with iron and salt) on the floor below the bakery building, the next morning bread is baked followed by biscuits. The handwritten list of food inside is mouth-watering and reasonably priced. The counters are glass with wooden frames, reminiscent of an old department store – you place your order and the assistant disappears into the back of a bank vault-like area to get your goodies. The smell is intoxicating! I tried the buttery lemon Shrewsbury biscuits, ginger biscuits, Mawa cake, soft Pav rolls and soup sticks for dipping in soup. The Shrewsbury biscuits were my favourite.
Making and fixing things is a strong theme here; they have the skills to fix stuff. A couple of examples: my sandals broke and there was a cobbler who could sew them back together; the pedal fell off the sturdy old bike I brought here from the UK, again I could find the spare part at a local bike shop.
On to a spot of clothes shopping still staying in the centre of Pune. There are many tailor shops where you can be measured and have a suit ready within a week. Rolls of cloth are dramatically thrown down on to the counter with a flourish, a look and a nod of the head for approval.
A ‘must visit’ place in the centre is the fortress Shaniwar Wada, built in 1732. A fire destroyed parts of the ornate palace in 1828, it was rebuilt and features on postcards of Pune and is a film location. You can take a walk around the high walls and peer down on to the busy streets below. In the evenings there’s a light and sound show at 7.15pm in English.
The Agakhan Palace is a huge building on the outskirts of the city. Built in the 1800s as a job creation scheme for unemployed local people, following a famine. It housed Gandhi, his private secretary and wife who were incarcerated here in 1942 by the British. This is a popular school trip destination where you can see the rooms where Gandhi was held, complete with his bed and personal effects.
On to lunch after all that sightseeing… Go for a busy stall where there’s a queue. Samosas are crispy on the edges and taste out of this world, nothing like the dry ones I’ve had in the UK. They are cooked in small batches on street corners in shallow pans then fished out with a flourish in a metal basket. It’s refreshing that the default food here is vegetarian. You have to ask if you want meat.
Another tasty speciality of Pune is vada pav (soft bread rolls) filled with fried potato and topped with red chilli powder in an over-sized foil lined muffin case. You can finish off with a freshly squeezed sweet lime juice from a juice stall. You can still pay in cash, but most shops and stalls ask you to scan a QR code, type in the bill amount and WhatsApp the payment to them.
From September to Christmas there’s always a festival on. Here for the next ten days it’s Ganesh Chaturthi; each neighbourhood has a temporary stage hung with white and orange cloth with a Ganesh elephant at the centre. People will eagerly show you a photo on their phone of their own clay Ganesh at home. There are prayers, singing, drumming and on the tenth day they process with the Ganesh figure down to the river where they immerse the figure and the clay dissolves.
The new Metro is worth checking out. The stations are state-of-the-art and being up above the streets affords you a bird’s eye view of Pune, hills and the green canopy of rainforest. There are a few stations that are central and there are two live train lines so far which take you out to the outer edges of the city. I’m nosey and I wanted to check out this huge structure that towers above where my son catches the bus to school. The part of the metro where we live is under construction and every day it grows bigger. Buying tickets is easy and done online, at the ticket office or through a machine and a return to the end of the line costs 60 rupees.
A couple of hours drive out of the city gets you to Fort Tikona, you’ll see breathtaking views and diverse wildlife on a hike up the hill. The traffic is slow as people go at the speed they want to. It’s common for trucks to occupy the outside lanes on long hills and be undertaken by cars and auto riks.
The scenery is outstanding. The Western Ghats range of mountains are volcanic in origin. The round and angular hills rise up from the lakes and paddy fields and unfold before you. In monsoon season the air is thick with mist that comes and goes revealing rolling hills and a lush green landscape below.
As Europeans we’ve been asked by friendly hikers “what country are you from?” and asked to pose for selfies. You may encounter huge butterflies, land crabs, cranes flying in formation, golden Oriole birds, kingfishers, massive birds of prey and family troops of monkeys swinging down through the trees to the snack stall. They pick through the undergrowth and break rank to raid the bin, only to be shooed away by the trader.
So, with four weeks experience in the area these would be my Pune highlights. Ask me in two years and I’m sure I will have discovered many more!
Lou Henderson is living in India, after working in the UK in sustainable transport for Sustrans and Cycling Projects, which combine her passion for cycling, urban design and teaching kids to ride bikes.