There were roughly 6000 rooms in Manali, at last count; a number that continues to increase even as I write, at a pace, alarmingly, akin to that of the growth of population in the country. Yet, other than a few (make that a very few) properties worth the view, you will find yourself checking into concrete blocks cantilevered dangerously over the Beas. Some of these structures exist simply due to will power, nothing else. No wonder, then, that more and more travellers are opting for home stay experiences, that are not just comfortable and clean, they come with a personal touch usually associated with private homes. I came across just such an oasis, if I may, in the quieter part of Old Manali, as I stopped to admire a huge stone structure, apparently a memorial to a war hero, painted gaily with images of the Buddha.
As I backed away for a long shot, I happened to notice a large expanse of lawn with a children’s corner. Located further down was a lovely house backed by a dense deodhar forest, through which I could hear a stream gurgling down. Closer to the gate, where I stood, was a smaller structure bustling with activity. Ignoring a No Trespassing sign in the conscience, I walked in to find workers putting together a wooden signboard. It said Casa Bella Vista, Cottages and Spanish Cafe. Relieved to know I was not trespassing, I walked in to be greeted by a cherubic little girl, speaking a mix of a very recognizable Punjabi and an equally unfamiliar Spanish. Daughter of the owners, Martha and Girimer Mann, I was to learn later, as they joined her. The Café radiated a bouquet of aromas: freshly sawn wood, rain on earth, Italian coffee, and engulfing warmth. Unable to resist the coffee, I got talking with them over a hot cuppa, even as the rain beat down, completing the experience. The Café offered a selection of vegetarian cuisine from the Mediterranean region, organic salads being a speciality of the house. A quick glance down the menu revealed some of the most popular Spanish dishes listed there, all accompanied by Tapas and salad.
The list included the famed Gazpacho, a cold soup made with peppers, tomato, cucumber and garlic. Paella, a rice preparation with vegetables and saffron, cooked uncovered in a special pan. An egg dish called Huevos a la Riojana: baked in white sauce, topped with grilled cheese, along with a glass of white Rioja, I can tell you now, will bring you back to that hearth many-a-time. To walk off the effects of a Crema Catalana, I allowed myself a tour of the pretty cottages I had earlier admired. Complete with cheerful furnishings, fireplaces and picture windows large enough to allow the outside inside, the cottages make for a wonderful retreat for those looking for some quietude in cooler climes. Broken only by the sounds of nature, an intrusion truly welcome and yours for the taking, at the Home with a Beautiful View.
The couple have since added plenty to the menu, to the facilities and to their family as I found out on a visit to Manali this summer. After almost two weeks of stuffing our faces with daal-chawal, aloo parathas, momos and thupka, and terrible tea, we were yearning for a change. The Casa provided us just the right amount with its wood-fired pizzas, crunchy salads and dark, dark coffee; succeeding in rejuvenating very, very glum taste-buds.