There is many a small pocket along the Mumbai-Pune highway that serve as a perfect destination for a night’s stop over or a weekend’s worth of getting far from the madding crowd. You can either stop en route to a holiday or make a small vacation of this. Two such scenic spots we discovered were the Raigad Fort and the hills surrounding Chiplun. Most people have heard of the historic significance of the fort and the scenic beauty of the hills that wind around Chiplun. But not many have had the opportunity to visit. Since they say, “It’s about the journey, not just the destination”, we do just that.
From Mumbai, stick to NH17 – a busy, narrow and undivided, but well-metalled highway. Start early as the Vashi tollgate is choc-a-block with buses, pick-ups and trucks anytime after 7am. Next stop is Vadhkal Naka. You’ll know you’ve arrived here when you spot rows upon rows of white onions hanging in bunches. These slightly sweet onions are known for their medicinal properties. You’ll see a line of eateries on your left too.
Take the left towards Goa and head for Raigad Fort, about 90km ahead. Here, the stretch up to the Savitri River bridge toll is a busy one, with patches of construction work. But after that, it’s a motoring enthusiast’s dream come true. The road is a pleasure, winding smoothly through fields, brick kilns, ghats and plains.
There’s a turn-off for the Raigad Fort at Mangaon, but the 44km road that leads to the fort is badly surfaced, dusty, narrow and lacks road signs. It’s fun if you’re in an SUV, but your passengers may not enjoy the bumpy ride. The better alternative is to drive up to Mahad and take the 23km backroad towards the Fort. This would mean retracing your route, but the road is certainly easier on your car here.
Keep a lookout on your left as you near Mahad, and you’ll see the Pala Caves. There is no board marking the presence of these Buddhist structures dating back to 150-300 AD. However, you can’t miss the thick stone stairway leading up. There’re 31 caves in all, but the carvings and stupas within have not fared well with time. Still, the climb up is worth the panoramic view that greets you.
From here, continue your drive towards Mahad, keeping a lookout for the sign announcing the Raigad Fort route. The ghat road up is steep and winding, and we advise driving with extreme caution. You’ll soon pull up into an office where you can get tickets for the cable cars that take you to the summit, where the fort is located. The two-way ticket is Rs 180 per head, and it runs from 8am–5.30pm.
The Raigad Fort was made capital by Shivaji in 1674. Located in the Sahyadri mountain range, it rises 2,700ft above sea level. There are 1,737 steps leading up to it, but most visitors prefer to use the cable cars. It runs parallel to the steep, rocky mountainside and the ride up is nothing short of breathtaking! Makes you wonder how people in the 17th century scaled this unforgiving landscape on a daily basis.
History has it that the side of the fort where the cable cars’ entry is did not have a fort wall – the drop was considered protection enough. One day, Hirakani, a milkmaid from the village at the base, who’d come to sell her wares at the fort, found herself running late and locked behind the fort walls. She pleaded with the guards to let her through – she had an infant at home that needed to be nursed – but to no avail. Hirakani, desperate to reach home, climbed down the unwalled steep drop successfully. The next morning, she was at the fort door as usual with her can of milk. The surprised guard took her to Shivaji Maharaj. Impressed by her courage and determination, Shivaji ordered for a wall to be built at the unprotected vertical drop and named it ‘Hirakani Buruj’.
Of course, these gems you’d only find out about if you hire the services of a guide. Only a guide can tell you that what look like randomly placed low stones and platforms are actually bases of pillars and royal beds from a bygone era. Only he can give you a demo of how Shivaji’s Royal Darbar had been acoustically designed to effortlessly aid hearing from the doorway to the throne. Only he can point out to you the execution point across the Fort, called Takmak Tok, a cliff from which sentenced prisoners were thrown to their death. Only he can tell you that what is now a symmetrically divided area was once a bustling market. And he can magically summon a local woman carrying an earthen pot of delicious buttermilk, who’ll serve it to you at Rs 10 a glass to cool you off. So, get yourself a certified guide to show you around. The official rate for one at the ticket counter is Rs 150, but it works out to Rs 250 if you consider the tip.
To explore the entire fort takes at least three days, and MTDC has a comfortable resort at the summit. However, the heat up here can be very harsh, and there are very few shaded areas, so we suggest you make a day trip of it. A couple of hours are enough to get a feel of the place, along with excellent photos. Please note that the use of tripods for photography is prohibited here. Also, make sure you have some form of protection from the sun, and avoid carrying large, heavy bags. There is a lot of walking around to do, and you don’t want to tire out early.
There are plenty of restaurants offering typical Maharashtrian fare, such as zunka bhaakar, at the base. Stop here for lunch if you’ve taken too long at the Fort, or else drive back towards Mahad and continue towards NH17. As you near Chiplun, every twist and turn along the mountainside will throw at you a different view of the river flowing serenely alongside. And just past Khed, you’ll see a sign for ‘The Riverview Resort’ on your left. This is where we went in for a spot of lunch but ended up making a night’s stopover. And, on entering the property, you will know why too.
The Riverview Resort was once a Taj Hotels getaway property and bears the company’s signature feel of serenity and luxury. Nestled in the hills at around the halfway mark to Goa, it is ideal for simply switching off and allowing nature to take over. You can spend the time taking walks in the beautifully landscaped gardens, or in the quaint lobby, which offers indoor games like carrom, table tennis and foosball. There’s a splendid view of the valley below, along with the gently meandering Vashishti river. Post-sunset, take your car out for a spin towards the city of Chiplun. The drive down is picturesque, with every turn throwing up a scene you’d want to stop and click pictures of. You’ll find stalls selling tea and snacks along with way, with chairs set up by the cliff edge. Grab a chair, call for some tea and bhajias, and watch as the town starts lighting up bit by bit – it’s a mesmerising sight. You’ll occasionally spot a line of lights weaving along the river; that’s the trains going along the famed Konkan Railway. You might want to drive all the way down to the town for some dinner – there’s plenty of options offering vegetarian thalis, as well as the famed Konkan seafood.
Checking out of the Riverview Resort at 11am the next morning gives you plenty of time to take in the beautiful sunrise over the river from your room’s balcony, as well as to visit the ancient Parshuram temple, a short walk from the resort. The stone structures of the temple complex have recently been plastered and there’s bits of construction material strewn around, which takes away from the austerity of the place. However, do explore the complex. There’s a bathing tank that houses turtles, which might surface for a quick glimpse at you. You’ll also find roadside stalls selling kokum syrup, candied mango slices, sweetened tamarind balls and unusual remedies for joint pains. How unusual? Well, there’s an oil made of bat’s blood and droppings, for around Rs 140 a bottle.
Walk beyond the complex and you’ll find yourself facing narrow, staired lanes lined with huts and small temples. One of the small temples we spotted had a distinctly Moghul onion-dome and minaret structure atop. Many such temples in the region were disguised as mosques during the Moghul invasion, with a network of lanes leading to them kept purposely steep and narrow to slow down progressing invaders.
You now have three choices – to take a detour towards the Koyna Dam (45km from Chiplun), Maharashtra’s largest dam; to visit the scenic Ganpatipule beach (120km from Chiplun towards Goa) for a night’s stay; or to continue straight towards Goa, which is what we did. And 25km ahead was a surprise – the Walavalkar Shivaji Museum. The museum was completed in a period of 15 years at a cost of Rs 1 crore, and is today one of Chiplun’s major tourist attractions. It is a marvelous place to see and entry is free. Decorum needs to be maintained at all times and no photography is allowed, since the premises also hold the samadhi of the museum’s founder, the renowned late social worker Sitarambuva Walavalkar.
You’ll wonder at the artistry that depicts all events of historic significance in Shivaji’s life through pictures, life-size statues and two-dimensional murals.
Once you’re done with your visit here, you can carry on towards your way to Goa. There are many other such areas of interest that you can stop at en route, but that would mean making a proper driving holiday of it, with at least three-four days in hand.