When we travel, our days are packed with adventure but when shadows grow and darkness falls, we tend to slow down, curl up, call it a night. On your next holiday, sleep in. Sleep long so you can stay up late to explore the world after hours. Kayak through neon waters in Trinidad and Tobago, catch the Milky Way from the highest observatory in the world, or score a seat on a moonlit safari to learn the mysterious ways of the nocturnal jungle. For the urban soul, there are tales of manic night markets, glow-in-the-dark cycle rides, and haunted city tours that will make your skin crawl. The night is young.
Under an overcast, late-evening sky, the shadows cast by the flickering light of lanterns danced on dark walls. An eerie silence prevailed, broken only by the sound of footsteps on the cobblestones of a Zagreb street. Then a shrill shout pierced the night, apparently the town drunk was imploring the love of his life to come out. Against the backdrop of this unfolding drama, an actor quietly recounted a fascinating anecdote from Croatian author Marija Jurić Zagorka’s books, which are set in historic Zagreb.
The Secrets of Grič night walking tour, led by an actress dressed as Zagorka (who died in 1957) takes participants through the hilltop streets of Zagreb’s medieval Upper Town, while exploring its tumultuous history through her books. In Zagorka’s novels, which span the 13th to late-18th centuries, fictitious characters experience actual historical events. During the tour, costumed characters stationed at various points re-enact salient incidents, investing the nearly empty streets with an air of drama.
The tour began in the late evening, at the top of the Capuchin stairs that climb alongside a funicular to the heart of the old town. Joining about two dozen fellow tourists, I watched the lines between fantasy and reality blur with the evening’s first enactment. A golden-haired woman dressed in white and holding aloft a ball of light stood at the top of Lotrščak tower, evoking the legend about one of the city’s founders, whose ghost is said to help quarrelling brothers reconcile.
Every few steps, actors enacted a scene or tradition from the town’s history. On Kuševićeva Street, we met an actor playing the town’s lamplighter who lights the 200-odd gas lamps each evening, and turns them off the next morning—a tradition going back to medieval times. He reeled off a musical verse about the lamp keeping a watch on things that go on under its nose.
A short way ahead, on Ćirilometodska Street, our progress was barred by fierce nightwatchmen, who commanded us to leave before the town’s gates were shut for the night. On Vitezićeva Street, we watched love bloom between the unlikely pair of Countess Nera and Captain Siniša, characters in Zagorka’s seven-novel series, Grička vještica or “The Witch of Grič”. The story of love wove together the class and gender prejudices of the 18th century as well as the then prevalent practice of witch burning.
In this manner we saw the town’s most famous landmarks: the Zagreb Cathedral, St. Mark’s Church, St. Catherine’s Church, the town gate and the medieval tower. Most of the shops were shut and there were few pedestrians around, but the tour’s cast more than made up for the otherwise deserted streets. Along with the more fanciful recreations—ghosts, knights in armour, witches—we also crossed paths with actors portraying people we might have more likely encountered a few centuries ago, such as peasants, soldiers, and nobles. And yes, we even met the town drunk, standing under a balcony and calling up to his lover.
—Anita Rao Kashi
The Vitals The Secrets of Grič tour is conducted in Zagreb in English on Saturday evenings from May to September. It begins at 9 p.m. and lasts about an hour (tajnegrica.hr; +385-91-4615672;€20/₹1,420; includes a hot beverage, traditional snacks, and a souvenir).
The first time I witnessed the firefly mating season was three years ago, when I was with my brother in Sakleshpur, Karnataka. We’d spent the day trawling the hill station’s markets and exploring Tipu Sultan’s fort, but mostly bickering with the proficiency that comes from sharing a room for over a decade. By dusk, we were ready to tear each other’s hair out. Hoping the forest would provide salve, I retreated to the balcony of our cottage, nestled among cinnamon trees and coffee shrubs, to soak in the rising thrum of the cicadas. My brother went for a walk.
As night fell, I began to notice the fireflies, just a few at first, then some more, until it seemed like the entire forest was draped with strings of fairy lights. They hovered over little pools of water, lit up the barks of jackfruit trees, and settled on broad, green banana leaves, flashing on and off every few seconds. The Western Ghats, I later learned, are home to many varieties of these bioluminescent insects and only members of the same sub-species flash at the same time. The brighter the spark is, the higher the odds of the male scoring a female. “It’s like magic, no?” my brother whispered from a few feet behind me. I wrapped my shawl tighter around me, gently moving a glowing firefly that had parked on my knee. “It really is,” I replied gesturing at the empty chair a few feet from me. We sat there for well over an hour, bewitched by the tiny bugs, our squabbles silenced by their amorous display.
I’ve visited the Western Ghats every year since, and every time, I have returned to Mumbai filled with wonder for the natural world. At Purushwadi in Maharashtra, I camped with friends, wallowing in a shallow stream by day, and watching the fireflies light up the hillside at night. In Coorg, where I was a few weeks ago, I watched them yet again, and tried in vain to capture their magic on camera. Every place is different—the deeper the forest, the louder the background score—but the delicate spell these little pinpricks of light weave is just as potent.
The Vitals Grassroutes, a rural tourism initiative, organises Festival of a Million Fireflies in Maharashtra from May to July (88794 77437; grassroutes.co.in; from ₹1,990 per day, including shared accommodation and meals).
Experience the strokes and swirls of Impressionist Vincent van Gogh’s legendary painting, “The Starry Night”, on a kilometre-long bike ride near Eindhoven, just outside the city of Neunen in southwestern Netherlands, where the artist lived and worked between 1883 and 1885. To mark the 125th anniversary of van Gogh’s death, Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde has helped create a bike path which resembles the painting. It is lined with glow-in-the-dark stones and fitted with 50,000 LED lights that create a magical, shimmering path. The stretch is part of a larger, 334-kilometre van Gogh Cycle Route that is open to the public all year round (vangogheurope.eu/event/bicycle-route-by-van-gogh/).
Cities change dramatically by night, and can sometimes be intimidating to first-time visitors. Thankfully, most urban hotspots, from Cape Town to Moscow, have tours to help travellers make the most of their nights. In New York, guided walks take visitors to the city’s international icons, local legends, and vantage points like the Brooklyn waterfront, which affords a stunning view of the Manhattan skyline. In Kyoto, Japan, bus tours takes visitors to UNESCO World Heritage sites like the To-ji Temple and Nijo-jo Castle, for viewing in a different light. Around the U.S. capital Washington D.C., Monuments by Moonlight is a popular tour, while London is known for its themed night expeditions (several are free) that show sights both classic and quirky.
History Lesson In his book At Day’s Close: Night In Times Past, writer A. Roger Ekirch shares the results of his two-decade-long research into the “missing half of history”. He gives readers a rare glimpse into what Europeans were up to during the night-time in pre-industrial society (circa 1500-1750). The book has been acclaimed for its fascinating research into an unusual subject (W. W. Norton & Company, 2005).
At an altitude of almost 15,000 feet, The Indian Astronomical Observatory at Hanle, in the Changthang region of Ladakh, is one of the world’s highest observatories. Stargazing through their optical, infrared, and gamma-ray telescopes is a surreal experience. The few visitors it allows inside need prior permission; the institute does not entertain walk-ins. This almost-deserted region has clear skies most of the year, so stargazing without the observatory’s equipment is an option for travellers who do not mind camping out (www.iiap.res.in).
Sky Spotting Map out the night sky with digital skywatching software such as Starry Night Pro (available for Mac and Windows). Its Pro Plus edition lets you print sky charts and observe the universe from 99,999 B.C. to A.D. 99,999. Starry Night also offers images of constellations, planets, 65 million stars, and one million deep-sky objects (astronomy.starrynight.com; $150/₹9,500).
Stand up paddling is fun any time of day, but at night it takes on an ethereal dimension. Among the mangroves of Bon Accord Lagoon on the south Caribbean island of Tobago, each stroke of the paddle turns the water neon-green. The surreal sight is thanks to a species of bioluminescent plankton that are activated by movement. Duane Kenny at Stand Up Paddle is a patient teacher who will have you balancing on the board and paddling through the water with ease. His lessons begin with a 30-minute introductory lesson followed by a two-hour tour of Bon Accord Lagoon (www.standuppaddletobago.com/bioluminescence-tour; $60/₹3,850 per head).
A man hollers in my ear and, in an instant, gecko-shaped lights flash across my eyes. I think I’ve imagined it, but there he is, trying to sell me a beautiful ochre ceramic lamp with large, gecko-shaped cut-outs. Beyond him is the labyrinthine Angkor Night Market. Shoppers flit in and out of stalls, some feigning disinterest to get better bargains. I am, however, unable to take my eyes off the tartan-wearing Pinocchio marionette a lady is manipulating deftly before me.
By day, the ruins of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap are suffused with wonder, taking one’s breath and speech away. But nothing keeps the city quiet at night. It is difficult to imagine what Siem Reap must have been like before the Angkor Night Market unfurled its wares in 2007. Today, this maze of more than 250 shops brims with local eats and souvenirs.
I browse through Khmer art and jewellery, handicrafts, masks so grotesque that they’re gorgeous, beautifully carved knives, silk stoles and purses, apparel, ceramic kitchenware, lacquerware, and even plastic slip-on sandals adorned with yellow plastic ducks.
Over the years, the night market has spawned clones nearby, but none equal the buzz of the original. More often than not, shoppers end a spree with a visit to Island Bar, or Brick House, which has a good selection of beers. Or, you can do what I did and turn to a roadside foot massage establishment which swears, “Dr. Fish: Only Massage, No Piranha.”
— Kareena Gianani
The Vitals Angkor Night Market, near Sivatha Market, Siem Reap; daily 4 p.m.-12 a.m.; www.angkornightmarket.com.
Dine at London’s Dans le Noir where a “surprise menu” is served in a pitch-dark setting (london.danslenoir.com; £52/₹5,000). Based on the idea that deprivation of sight heightens the senses of taste and smell, several restaurants around the world are similarly themed. At Nox in Singapore, visually-challenged servers guide guests through three-course European meals and wine served in the dark. Diners are later asked to identify the ingredients (noxdineinthedark.com; S$88/₹4,247). Restaurant Nocti Vagus in Berlin treats patrons to comedy shows and jazz performances while they dine on a surprise menu, all in the dark, of course (www.noctivagus.com; €39-59/₹2,842-4,300).
The Western Ghats never cease to amaze me. Dubbed by UNESCO as one of the richest rainforests on the planet, the mountain belt is inhabited by a wealth of animals, but it’s the creepy-crawlies and the quaint flora that fascinate me. Walking through these hills, I’ve encountered carnivorous blooms, opulent snails, hairy caterpillars, and bugs so exquisite, it seems like each has been painted by hand.
Hiking in Goa’s Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary, I’m looking for a strain of bioluminescent fungi that allegedly appears after the monsoon. Until Nirmal Kulkarni, ace naturalist from the Wildernest Resort, told me about them, I was of the firm belief that psychedelic mushrooms could only be spotted on tie-and-dye T-shirts at Anjuna Flea market.
Plodding behind Kulkarni in the pouring rain as quietly as I possibly can, I pray the leeches don’t bite. He points out frogs, snakes, and birds, and then abruptly announces that we’ve arrived. I point my torch at the forest floor, examining trees and rocks on the ground for these fluorescent mushrooms, but I can’t see a thing. “I’d recommend turning the light off,” he says wryly. “And close your eyes.”
Thirty seconds later, I wipe the rain from my brows and try to master the darkness (and my racing heart). As my eyes adjust, shapes emerge. I can see the faint outline of a tree to my left, with a few leaves lit up by a shaft of moonlight. Staying still, I focus on the trunks and slowly, patches of bark begin to glow. A branch here, a bit of bark there, like ambiguous signs, they urge me to go farther and farther into the pitch-black forest. They’re pale at first, but they grow brighter until they’re proper neon green. It’s ethereal, bizarre, like the setting for an X-Files episode and I half expect a Steven Spielberg-style alien, spindly limbs and all, to emerge from the thick.
I learn that this type of bioluminescence, created by fungi in decaying wood, is called foxfire. This particular species, which looks like moss not mushrooms, is called mycena and emits light through a chemical reaction. The more oxygen in the air, the brighter it glows. Not for the first time, I’m amazed by the curiosities that thrive in the Western Ghats. Every trip yields new and fascinating sights, sounds, and stories.
Later, in the warmth of my room at Wildernest, I do a little more research. I read that there are over 500 sub-species of mycena, of which around 30 exhibit bioluminescence. I was also thrilled to note that they had in fact made an appearance on an X-Files episode, near a gently decomposing corpse found in the woods. Turns out, the truth really is out there.
The Vitals Wildernest organises walking tours for guests throughout the year (83232 66911; wildernest-goa.com; doubles from ₹6,000). The best time to see the bioluminescent fungi is in August and September.
Night safaris have become increasingly common, as they allow travellers to explore the intensity of wildlife after sunset. Singapore Zoo started these as far back as the 1980s, but now from Auckland, New Zealand, to Edinburgh, Scotland, many zoos around the world allow visitors to observe the nocturnal lives of animals. The kinds of tours vary greatly, and some like the San Diego Zoo even offer patrons a chance to go for guided night walks and then spend a night in the park in tents amidst the sounds of the wild.
Seeing Red Night safaris provide unique opportunities to observe wildlife after dusk, but the glare of torches is disruptive for animals. Yellow and white flashlights momentarily blind some creatures. To avoid disorienting them, attach a red filter to your flashlight. The red light does not affect the animals’ night vision (or yours) and is the responsible way to observe nocturnal creatures in the wild. Purchase a filter or do a quick DIY version using red cellophane.
Little prepares visitors for the awe that the rock-cut city of Petra evokes when it glows in the light of 1,800 candles. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday night, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, also referred to as Rose City, displays a haunting play of light and shadow as travellers walk from the Siq to the Khazneh along a candle-lit path. The charm is sealed with Bedouin music playing in the background (international.visitjordan.com/Wheretogo/Petra/FunAdventure.aspx).
“If you see a flame flickering in the distance, cough loudly,” our guide suggests. “And do not pick up any jewellery lying around. It vanishes, and you die.” Nights in the Thar Desert near Jaisalmer are inky black, and perfect for the kinds of desert explorations that Suryagarh hotel offers. The Chudail Trail for instance, takes guests on a walk across the ghost town of Kuldhara (legend says 82 villages were vacated overnight in the 12th century, the locals never to be found again), with burial grounds and cenotaphs that rise up in the darkness.
Eerily, the house of the chief of Kuldhara is largely intact, as is a mammoth cannon and a temple close by.
The Vitals In Jaisalmer, Suryagarh hotel organises haunted trails for guests (www.suryagarh.com).
Wales has more than its fair share of the paranormal. Its castles, fields, towns, even some hotels are steeped in legend. During the ghost walk at Bodelwyddan Castle in North Wales, a visitor can investigate otherworldly phenomena. Llandaff Ghost Walk in Cardiff village is one of the country’s most acclaimed ghost walks. Guides relate tales of war, tragedy, and Celtic spirits while looking out for mysterious lights and misty forms (www.visitwales.com).
Around South Africa, Namibia, and East Africa, nocturnal safaris that give travellers a chance to explore national parks after dark are increasingly common. It is an experience vastly different from what is visible in the daytime. With a good guide, these forays into the darkness are so much more than pairs of red eyes glowing in the dark— they are adventures revealing intriguing secrets and rhythms of the forest. In India’s Panna National Park, Ken River Lodge offers night safaris in the reserve forest from its Jhinna Safari Camp. In Corbett National Park, various outfits arrange nightly jeep safaris on the periphery and outskirts of the park.
Ice Age Apsley Cherry-Garrard was a member of the British Antarctic Expedition (1910-1913) led by Robert Falcon Scott. In his book The Worst Journey Of The World, the researcher recounts the fascinating but harrowing experience of trying to secure emperor penguin eggs during the Antarctic night. The team managed to collect three eggs to study the evolutionary links between reptiles and birds. The book is a thrilling account of grit and perseverance (Penguin Classics, 1922).
Our guide was the silent kind. He started walking into the pitch-dark forest without any introductions or instructions. Our group of six nervous hikers followed him quietly, allowing the sound of his footsteps to guide us while our eyes still adjusted to the darkness. Another forest guard marched at the rear of the group.
It was 10 p.m. and we were walking into the Periyar Tiger Reserve with two forest guards as our guides. One led the way, the other ensured no one got lost. They carried guns, and we were armed with leech guards and headlamps. The guards were out on serious business, to patrol the buffer zone of the forest, to keep a look out for poachers and smugglers. We were the tourists, in for the ride, to feel the thrill of a hike after dark.
Soon the guide turned on his dim torch, as did each of us. Surprisingly, eight torches barely offered much illumination—the darkness of the dense Thekkady forest was quite overpowering.
Our eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light, and our feet adjusted to the slow, rhythmic pace. A few minutes in, I heard the lead guard’s voice for the first time. He stopped in front of a bamboo bush and whispered: “Stay away from bamboo at night. Lots of snakes.” Noted. As our feet crunched through the forest bed, I started to pay attention to other sounds. The deep hoots of owls, shrill music from crickets, and a steady buzz I could not identify. We spotted some rabbits scurrying away from our lights, and a baby snake who swiftly slithered out of sight. I wished our guide would tell us what all the sounds were, what trees we were walking past, and what species of snake we’d seen.
An hour later, we climbed a little hill and stopped for a short break. “Turn the lights off,” he said. I nearly lost my balance because of the sudden darkness. Then I looked up. The sky had disappeared. In its place was a hypnotic carpet of diamonds.
My upward gaze was suddenly disturbed by a loud shuffling in the bushes and we all looked to our right. There it seemed, some of the sky’s diamonds had fallen to Earth in pairs. “Sambar,” he said. We could see nothing but pairs of shining eyes and we felt their piercing gaze. I imagined them wondering if we were a threat. After a few minutes of both sides playing a game of statue, the shining eyes relaxed and went about their business. “Shhhh,” the guard said. We listened carefully. Amidst the hoots and creaks was the trumpeting of wild elephants in the distance. Before we knew it, another hour sped by and it was time to turn back.
The night forest offered so many sounds but very few sights, but I was not disappointed. Suddenly it dawned on me that it didn’t matter whether I knew the names of the insects or not. It was the symphony of the night calls that was magical; the animals were letting us know that they were in this together. I began to see the forest through my ears that night. And think I understood why our guide was so silent.
The Vitals The night hike in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala is called Forest Scouts. It runs every night from 7-10 p.m., 10 p.m.-1 a.m., and 1-4 a.m. (04849-224571; www.periyartigerreserve.org; ₹750 per head).
Appeared in the June 2015 issue as “After Hours”.
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