Rudyard Kipling described Calcutta as the “City of Dreadful Night”. Others have named it the City of Palaces for its array of cathedrals and mansions. The truth is that Kolkata (as it was renamed and is now largely known) is both these things: choked by pollution and poverty yet vibrantly colourful, with a grandeur reflecting the supreme Imperial confidence of the British.
But while its scale and sprawl rival those of London, a weekend pounding the pavements of this extraordinary city is enough to appreciate what writer Paul Scott called “the scent behind the smell”. By day you are dazzled by the vast colonial edifices and assaulted by a continuous onslaught of traffic – motorised, pedestrian and animal (cows, remember, are sacred, and often given right of way). By night, the heat subsides and you can indulge in the scented flavours of Bengali food before retreating to five-star comfort – newly abundant and gratifyingly varied in style.
Navigating this chaotic metropolis requires detective work, as most streets have, like the city itself, been renamed. Some, such as Ho Chi Minh Sarani and Lenin Sarani, reflect the political leanings of West Bengal’s government, the world’s longest-serving democratically elected communist administration. But everywhere both new and old names are used, making map-reading and taxi directions a tricky business.
Happily, most taxi drivers can get you to The Oberoi Grand. This splendid 130-year-old institution offers the city’s most opulent accommodation; a huge marble-lined lobby is a prelude to generously proportioned rooms and air-conditioned comfort. While newer than The Grand, the Taj Bengal Kolkata is another of the city’s best hotels, known for its superb service, with sparse but luxurious interiors and the added advantage of a location within walking distance of the Maidan – the huge expanse of parkland that helps the city to breathe.
Calcutta’s most celebrated colonial hotel is The Great Eastern, which once welcomed everyone from Queen Elizabeth II to Nikita Khrushchev. It is currently undergoing extensive restoration but remains the starting point of a fascinating walking tour by Calcutta Walks. Leading you on an exploration of the colonial splendour around Dalhousie Square (now BBD Bagh) and ending in the lush garden of St John’s Church, the guides are all dynamic, educated individuals who are passionate about the city’s architectural heritage.
And it is an extraordinary heritage, with magnificent structures such as the Victoria Memorial at the southern end of the Maidan, whose dome, when completed in 1921, was the world’s fifth largest. Then there’s India’s oldest High Court, an ornate Gothic structure whose Dickensian offices are still filled with mahogany cabinets and armies of clerks ploughing through mounds of paper.
The Tollygunge Club, with its 18-hole golf course and pristine lawns, is another colonial survival, but one with legs for the chic set who still frequent it. A gin and tonic in one of the club’s bars may conjure up images of the Raj at play, but it also puts you at the centre of the action.
Yet while the British architectural legacy is illustrious, its culinary one is far less so, as colonists strayed little beyond mutton cutlets and fish cakes. They were missing out: one of the great joys of Calcutta is Bengali cuisine, known for fragrant flavours, delicate vegetarian preparations and freshwater fish. Its street food is also superb, particularly the ubiquitous kathi rolls – best sampled at Nizam’s, a famous lunch spot near the New Market – and sweetmeats, including the classic rasgulla or ledikeni (commemorating the 19th-century governor general’s wife Lady Canning).
One of Calcutta’s best introductions to Bengali cusine is tucked down a tiny lane off Heysham Road. With a homespun interior and an eclectic collection of artwork, Kewpie’s Kitchen issues forth tiny terracotta bowls filled with everything from succulent jackfruit to aubergine in all kinds of subtle sauces.
Like many Bengali restaurants, Kewpie’s serves no alcohol. Round the corner, however, wine and beer is available at Oh! Calcutta. Here, aromatic dishes made from old recipes are served in an interior that, with wooden floors and subtle lighting, is a pleasant surprise given its location in a shopping centre.
Happily, air-conditioned malls have yet to penetrate the charming area around College Street. Its crumbling façades are home to universities and medical colleges – and, curiously, a collection of first-rate shops selling brass instruments along Mahatma Ghandi (MG) Road. Equally charming are the hundreds of tiny bookshops in the lanes behind MG Road. Their clients – from crusty professors to students in skinny jeans and hightops – convene at the Indian Coffee House, a marvellous institution reached via a set of dingy concrete stairs. Despite its inauspicious entrance, this historic establishment was once frequented by literary giants such as Rabindranath Tagore and political leaders such as Subhas Chandra Bose. Inside, waiters in white suits, green cummerbunds and fanned caps deliver the expertly prepared shots of caffeine that sustain the day’s intellectual debates.
Another Calcutta standby is Dolly’s Tea Shop, one of the more unusual of the city’s tea emporia. Ignore the grim shopping centre in which Dolly’s is located – this delightful space, little bigger than a shipping container, serves delicate brews such as Darjeeling First and Second Flush and Assam Orthodox Leaf at low tables made from tea chests.
While the shops around Dolly’s are uninspiring, the same cannot be said for fashion designer Anamika Khanna’s boutique on the other side of town. Her one-off pieces marry unexpected fabrics with embroidery, metal filigree work and elaborate beading. More of Khanna’s creations are found at 85 Lansdowne, where two floors of a town house display garments by India’s emerging fashion talent, such as Rabani & Rakha, who fuse contemporary lines with intricate detailing, and celebrated local designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee, known for his bohemian designs in hand-woven fabrics.
Haute couture aside, Calcutta also hosts several branches of Fabindia, the upmarket chain selling contemporary versions of traditional Indian garments, jewellery and housewares – technicolour silks and abundant beading. The original branch is worth visiting not only for its fabulous colours and prints but also for its location in Hindustan Park. This lush suburb, with wonderful art deco villas and colonial bungalows, is also home to lunch spot 6 Ballygunge Place, whose simple décor and richly scented dishes have earned it perennial-favourite status.
Meanwhile, a relatively new dining favourite is Dum Pukht, a restaurant in the ITC Sonar hotel, 30 minutes from the city centre. Alongside an excellent wine list, Dum Pukht serves superb Awadhi dishes, one of India’s most refined cuisines, many cooked over a slow flame in a heavy-bottomed pot. Indeed, for those undeterred by (or preferring) a less-than-central location, Sonar is the sleek, smart place to stay, with a huge pool and excellent spa.
Nor is it Calcutta’s only contemporary boutique accommodation: back in town is The Park Kolkata, which has no shortage of style – as is apparent on arrival at its black, purple and silver designer lobby – and a modern Asian restaurant, Zen, specialising in Japanese and Thai dishes. The Park benefits from a location at the heart of the city (request a room on the quiet side of the building) as well as close proximity to Flurys, a café founded in 1927 with excellent pastries.
Fortified by espresso and croissants, head to the nearby South Park Street Cemetery. Here, along leafy paths lined by moss-covered memorials, early colonial inhabitants are remembered in touching elegies. Similarly poignant is the Indian Museum; home to a remarkable collection of Buddhist and Hindu sculpture, and halls of dusty teak display cabinets – enchanting museums within a museum. Complete the trip into the past with afternoon tea on the terrace of the Fairlawn Hotel. Upstairs, amid Victorian-style salons crammed with photographs and knick-knacks, owner Violet Smith, now in her 80s, still holds court.
As at the Fairlawn, time moves slowly in this city. Yet this is part of Calcutta’s fascination: though long tainted by its association with the words “Black Hole”, its lively markets, spectacular architecture, bustling local eateries – and, increasingly, its unique take on contemporary Indian style – promise adventures and discoveries that few other cities on the subcontinent, or anywhere else, can match.