Trichy: 325km (202 miles) from Chennai; 55km (34 miles) from Thanjavur; 90km (56 miles) from Chettinad

Tiruchirappalli, "City of the Three-Headed Demon," sprawls at the foot of colossal Rock Fort, where the Vijayanagar empire built its once-impregnable citadel when they wrested power from the Cholas in the 10th century. During the bitter Carnatic wars, French and British forces battled for control of the city, both keen to establish control of the looming hilltop fortress. Today a number of neo-Gothic Christian monuments remain as evidence of the British influence during the 18th and 19th centuries, when a cantonment was established here and when the present-day city was built, but it is the nearby temple town of Srirangam that draws visitors here. Another legacy of the mighty Vijayanagars, the holy town of Srirangam occupies an island in the Cauvery; with outer walls that are more than 3.2km (2 miles) long, is considered one of the most impressive temple towns in South India. It is awkward to include a visit here as a daytrip as the distances are long and you will need to set aside a good few hours to explore Srirangam (and preferably not in the middle of the day when the heat is most intense), so you will likely have to spend the night in unprepossessing Trichy if you intend to include this in your itinerary; alternatively push through in the early evening to Thanjavur (an hour away) and spend the night there, rising the following day to see the Brihadeshvara Temple, before heading to the rural delights of Chettinad.

Almost directly east of Tiruchirappalli (or Trichy, as you may refer to it if you can't master the tongue-twister), Thanjavur was once the capital of the Chola empire -- which included present-day Kerala, Sri Lanka, and parts of Indonesia. Today its 11th-century Brihadeshvara Temple, built by the Chola kings, is a World Heritage monument, and is (together with Mahabalipurum, Srirangam, and Madurai) one of the most important stops on Tamil Nadu's temple route. Having visited the Brihadeshvara Temple, plan to overnight in the Chettinad region, which lies around 1 1/2 hours south of Thanjavur. Known predominantly for its pungent, spicy cuisine, this little-known area, comprising some 75 villages centered around the town of Karaikudi, is enjoying a slow revival as visitors, keen to explore the palatial mansions built by the wealthy Nattukottai Chettiars, wander dusty lanes to admire the peeling facades and enjoy the peace of semi-deserted streetscapes. The place to stay is Kanadukathan, a tiny heritage village sprawled around the Chettinad Palace, with tranquil village scenes that form a wonderful contrast to the bohemian sophistication of Pondi and the chaotic temple towns of Trichy, Thanjavur, and Madurai.