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The best walking tours

Mark Ellwood
Mark Ellwood • 8 min read
The best walking tours
The best walking tours
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Puru Das, 49, owns and runs the New Delhi-based architecture and design firm DeMuro Das with his life and business partner Brian DeMuro. The pair’s latest project culminates two years of product development. They worked with India’s gem-crafting experts to develop a furniture collection wreathed in semi-precious stones, large-scale pieces that deploy intense craft.

Das flies around 50,000 miles each year, mostly shuttling among India, Europe and the US. He’s fond of Virgin Atlantic, which operates a regular service between New Delhi and London. Das cites its stellar service as “efficient and yet casual,” but would like to weigh in when the airline next overhauls its cabins. “The upper-class seat design could use a serious rework as it’s kind of baffling, compared to other business-class options.”

Puru Das (left) and his partner Brian DeMuro

Here are his travel tips.

Yes, you can go on safari outside sub-Saharan Africa. Here’s where to go in India.

See also: Leading luxury hospitality

A national park in Assam India

Safari in India is very different from Africa. We’ve been to South Africa, to the Kruger park, and done that. Here in India, it’s more hidden. You don’t have the parade of big five that you see over and over again, like you do in Africa. The vegetation is different, and it’s much quieter since the animals are scarcer, but it’s very beautiful. For both rhinos and tigers, Diphlu River Lodge in Kaziranga is pretty amazing. And for leopards, go to Sujan Jawai, about three hours from Udaipur in Rajasthan. Chambal Safari Lodge is about four hours from Delhi in the middle of the [Uttar Pradesh] Badlands. Traditionally the territory, with this river there, was considered inauspicious, so it hasn’t had any development along it. It’s extraordinary to find a river that’s actually clean and can support wildlife within four hours of Delhi, but this does. There are gharials—sort of related to alligators and crocodiles with a hump on their nose—and pink Gangetic dolphins. Also look at Banjaar Tola in Kanha, which is the forest preserve in Madhya Pradesh where Jungle Book was set. The lodge is the closest to the main gate of the Kanha [tiger] preserve, which makes it much easier for the game ride.

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If you’re travelling with teens, Das recommends this Italian city to keep them occupied.

Florence, Italy

I was at boarding school, very briefly, at Harrow in the UK because I didn’t really care for it. But it meant that the first trip I took without my parents was inter-railing through Europe for about 10 days. We went to Paris, Florence and St Moritz, where I realised I did not know how to ski. (You cannot, in fact, put on a pair of skis and just go down the slope.) Florence was probably my favourite, though, because it’s so accessible, as a teenager—the art, I mean. You’re not looking at a Basquiat but a Renaissance painting: the art is mostly figurative, which is a beauty you can understand as a teenager. That was pretty transformative, actually, as I was very resistant to being dragged around museums by my parents as a kid.

Sometimes the best person to meet somewhere isn’t a local but rather, a fellow foreigner who can act as a bridge to the culture.

Years ago, when I went to Bali, I met the [late] garden designer Made Wijaya. He was this Australian guy who had moved to Bali in the 1970s, changed his name, and lived out the rest of his life as a very successful garden designer and writer; he was also hugely influential in tropical modern hotel landscape design. It taught me that there’s something great about meeting someone who isn’t necessarily from the country you’re visiting but has committed to it. A localised foreigner like that tends to be more appreciative of a place and more aware of it, not taking it for granted.

This is how to score secret trips to off-limits homes when you’re on the road.

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We always research local architecture tours by checking in with architecture students or graduates. Find an architectural school in your destination and look to see if they have a student program that does tours. Usually, it’s graduates. These tours not only provide incredible access to historic architectural sites but also insight on how traditional architecture fits into the contemporary design aesthetic of each location; they usually have pretty strong opinions and, because of their connection to the university, they oftentimes have access to places that are otherwise closed. Ca'Foscari Tours is the official tour service of Ca'Foscari University. We did an amazing tour of private Palladian villas in the Veneto while visiting Venice, including one of those owned by the Volpi family that does the film festival there. The old count had died just two weeks before we arrived, and across the lawn there were all these very mournful-looking dachshunds. It was the most amazing sight.

Walking tours are what Das prefers—especially a little-known one in Venice.

Hidden Heritage Walks in Delhi offers tours of Delhi's Sultanate monuments, which are hidden within the increasingly crowded residential areas. And in Venice, there’s a private tour of St Mark’s Basilica where you can go at night, and it’s maybe just 10 other people and you in the entire place. When you go during the day, it’s a zoo: You’re shoved along and can’t see the mosaics in any substantive way. You don’t notice the detail without going on one of these tours.

Transit through this airport if you’re an aviation geek.

Geneva Airport, of all places, is the one that impressed me most. That business-class lounge is just the most serene business-class lounge I've ever been to. It's got binoculars for looking outside, which they'll provide you with. It’s one of those little details I really like.

The best view in Italy is from a building that no one wants to look at.

You know the big typewriter in Rome, that slightly unfortunate-looking building, the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument. Well, it has the best views in Rome from the top of it. You get this amazing view of the ancient Roman ruins, the Colosseum, and also the churches. It’s an amazing span of Western civilization, almost 2,000 years of it, all laid out in front of you. And being on top of this monument is a way to avoid seeing it.

The Vittorio Emanuele II Monument in Rome

Come to this alternative to Angkor Wat for a quieter, more contemplative experience.

The Aman hotel in Borobudur, Amanjiwo, is just spectacular. That place is like Angkor Wat, but not as touristy—one of the largest, fully complete temples in Indonesia. The hotel has amazing views of the site and mimics it in its architecture without being, like, a pastiche. And the service at the hotel was very present but also invisible. That’s one of the problems with a lot of Indian luxury hotels, is that you get really good service but it’s too present. There’s something nice about a place where you’re not always running into people.

Travelling in India? Here’s what Das recommends as a luxury traveller’s essentials to pack.

When we started travelling around India, unlike travelling in Europe or America, the hotels can sometimes be great and sometimes not so great. So we created a little packet of luxuries that we take everywhere. Music, for one, was key. In our small bag, we carry a Bang and Olufsen Beosound A1 speaker. It’s compact and not terribly expensive, so you can have a few of them if you want. We used it in Hampi last year, at this hotel called the Boulders. It is in this incredible lunar landscape of these giant boulders, and being able to sit on the terrace and look over the river with music playing was amazing. Then we also carry a French press, a Bodum Eileen Carafe, which is borosilicate glass, but the steel case helps protect it from bumps. And Blue Tokai coffee, an Indian brand. There has been a proliferation of smaller brands like this in India doing great things; coffee from south India is extremely good. We drink coffee like that, not tea, which is just maybe a hangover from having lived in New York for so long. And I carry a Hästens Soft Pillow, which is down-filled and really soft, so it will compress down for easy packing. When you’re travelling around India, these basic things go a really, really long way. If you’ve done it, you know.

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