Rockin’ Strawberries…It is nostalgia making me re-post a 2019 Road trip from Pune to Panchgani, a hill station in Maharashtra for Friendly Friday Challenge..Road Trips.
Strawberries, introduced by the British in Mahableshwar, 18 miles from Panchgani, found its way to the surrounding hills and today Panchgani is a booming strawberry destination
‘We Will, We Will Rock You’… I hum as we whizz past flat farmlands towards rugged hills and frisky rivers visible through gaps in the crowning greenery. We were on a day out to Panchgani approximately 100 Kms from Pune. Watching the green-ness sway past I wonder if young Freddie Mercury, lead singer of rock band QUEEN was mesmerised by swaying Silver Oaks, Poinsettias and luscious juicy strawberries while in boarding school of this British era hill station.
Panchgani, snuggled amidst the five hills of the Sahyadri mountains or the Western Ghats, was a Colonial find by one John Chesson, a superintendent in charge of Panchgani in 1860s, who was deputed by the British to decide on a site for a health resort. Panchgani, with its year round salubrious climate, was an instantaneous choice and was developed into a popular summer retreat for serving and retired British personal. The Silver Oaks and Poinsettias were John Chesson’s gift to Panchgani.
We entered the city before noon and the crowded street showed how popular the place was with Britishers (past) and with domestic tourists (present) from Mumbai and neighbouring cities. It was natural that schools, hospitals and hotels would follow. One of the prominent institutions was/is Saint Peters High School and it was here that Freddie Mercury spent his young years (1953 to 1958). Born Farrokh Balsara to Parsi parents (Zoroastrians from Persia now Iran) settled in India and later British Zanzibar, he was sent to Panchgani to study. The young buck-toothed lad found an antidote for his shyness by fine tuning his vocals in the school corridors and the School Choir. The rest is history and as Freddie Mercury he straddled the world music stage.
The British had encouraged and allotted land below the main bazaar (market) to businesses turning the sleepy town into a booming colonial hill station. Vintage cottages, belonging to the British and to Indians who followed them, dot the landscape. The vacant cottages converted into schools, hospitals, hotels surviving the vagaries of time while others, dilapidated, lie exposed as symbols of nostalgia. By 1980s, Panchgani was almost entirely an educational centre and we were told to visit New Era School often used as a backdrop for Bollywood movies. (Indian movie industry).Many film stars and their children studied in Panchgani schools
On our radar was another ‘nostaligia’… ‘E.F Raoch’ the oldest bakery in town. This Parsi bakery was famous for its cream rolls, jam tarts and butter beans…pastry shaped like a bean with strawberry cream filled centre and topped with generous amount of chocolate cream. The present set up was not very tempting and we tried the cream-roll for ‘taste memory’. The shop is now a general store/bakery managed by mother and son.
A day is insufficient to appreciate the salubrious climate or the attractions of the town. We tried to cover the maximum driving around viewing the ‘famous’ educational institutions situated amidst the residential areas, from outside, and then walking the hilly lanes and alleys including the Main street crowded with stores, eating places, food carts selling roasted eatables including corn-on-the cob…a hill town staple for visitors.
Color Me Red: The fruit of romance and love was everywhere (January to March is strawberry season) and next on our itinerary was MAPRO strawberry garden and farms for its strawberry-themed gardens, chocolate factory, fish pond and flowers in bloom. Purchased fruit and strawberry jams, jellies and juices, chocolate Pan (beetle nut leave) and topped our stroll with strawberry ice cream.(Too engrossed to click a Selfie)
Second half of the day was devoted to prominent tourist attractions around Panchgani.
Sydney Point about 2 km from the town is situated on a hillock facing Krishna (River) Valley. It is the ideal point to watch the glistening, sinuous River meander towards the city of Wai, a prominent town of the Peshwa era, before entering the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh. A local Guide insisted on taking us around as “Very few people venture to this Point” and “This was a chance for him to share his knowledge of the place passed down generations in his family”. He did not take kindly to my saying that ‘information is available on Google’. Later I regretted my decision because the only information I could find was that Sydney Point is named after Sir Sydney Beckwarth, Commander-in-Chief and later Governor of Bombay in 1830. Sometimes it is better to listen to word of mouth. The scenic valley view is something to savour during monsoons, but with the afternoon sun blazing down on us we spent only few minutes admiring the view.
Parsi Point: Our second stop was the iconic Parsi Point named after eminent Parsi solicitor Pestonji Kanga. Pestonji bought an entire hill, known as Kanga Hill, between Kach Bawdi and Dulwich House and he and his friends would meet at a point, overlooking the Krishna Valley. This point was called ‘Pesi’s Point’. With popular usage the name changed to Parsi Point. One can have a panoramic view of the hills and valley through ‘paid’ binocular. There is an ice cream and soda shop and camel rides outside.
The blazing afternoon sun added to the fantasy of the last place on our list Table Land, again a popular tourist and film shoot spot. The drive up the hills capped by a volcanic plateau, the second highest in Asia after the Tibetan plateau and part of the Deccan Plateau (Central India) is an exercise in adaptability to weather changes. It was mid afternoon, still time for sun set and what we needed was refreshing cool drinks. Thank god there were a few stalls stocked with soft drinks.
Devil’s Kitchen cave, south of Table Land, has a mythological association with the Pandavas of Mahabharata epic, who supposedly stayed in the caves during their exile. There are ‘Pandava’s footprints’ marked by rock circles. The Pandavgar Caves in Wai, attributed to the Pandavas, lend credence to the legend. .
Rest of family ventured to the caves while I preferred to walk to the periphery of the ‘table’ past the waiting horses, to look down the valley below. If you stand for too long, focussing on the rocky outcrop, the afternoon sun can throw up visions of villains and heroes pushing each other down the cliffs.
An adventure enthusiast can try parasailing, horseback riding, hiking etc. It is best to come early mornings, winter or summer, to avoid the sun and tourists.
By now we were tired and left the other attractions for future visit. Sherbaug, a botanical delight with a huge cactus collection; Lake Venna (On Panchgani- Mahabaleshwar road) for boat rides and Bhilar village, between Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar. This is India’s first ‘books village’ with nearly 25 artistically decorated locations turned into reading spots. Currently the books available were only in Marathi, with English and Gujarati books to be added soon.
We call it a day and head back to Pune…. rocked (lulled) into ‘rhapsody’ by the ‘fruit of romance’ reposing in cartons in the trunk of the car.
*Bohemian Rhapsody a 2018 biographical film about Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the British rock band QUEEN. The film follows the singer’s life from just before he joins the band in 1970 to their 1985 Live Aid performance at the original Wembley Stadium, London. The film, directed by Bryan Singer with screenplay by Anthony McCarten and produced by Graham King and QUEEN manager Jim Beach. (Wikipedia)