The penultimate weekend of September was certainly panning out to be rather an exciting one. A cheeky supper in Bristol with friends on Friday, Ireland v Canada at the Millennium stadium on Saturday and a quick jaunt over to Rajasthan on Sunday (as you do).
I arrived in Jaipur after travelling for over 24 hours feeling somewhat jaded and thinking that maybe age was a slight impediment in overstretching myself nowadays. I was met at the airport, whisked off in my lovely car and taken to the gorgeous Rambagh Palace where a cold towel and glass of fizz was waiting for me. I suddenly felt an awful lot perkier.
After a good night’s sleep it was an early morning start to the bottom of Amber Fort for our sunrise hot air balloon ride. The sight of the balloons being inflated in the dusky, dawn light with the golden walls of Amber Fort bearing down over us was exquisite. After a safety briefing we were off.
Our balloon lifted gently but surprisingly swiftly up the sides of the Fort – the tips of the trees touching the bottom of the basket. In no time at all we were directly over the ramparts and looking down onto the top of the Hall of Mirrors – a truly incredible experience. The vast size of this ancient palace was suddenly so much more obvious and crenelated walls, buttresses, towers and courtyards all lay below our little balloon.
The flight lasted for about an hour, flying over gently awakening villages, agricultural fields and green trees with the sun rising over the horizon – utter heaven.
The landing was slightly less elegant with a bit of a bump in the middle of some scrubland but within a few minutes our jeeps were there to pick us up and take us to a nearby café for chai and snacks.
From here our incredibly well informed guide took us walking around the old tank (reservoir) from where the Maharajah used to shoot and to the Panna Meena Ka Kund step well – like something out of an Esher painting.
We also walked up to a local homestead and temple where we met the elderly guardians of the temple and their cows. Amazing to think we were so close to the city limits but not one other tourist was there. We then headed for Amer Village where they had amazingly got permission to take us into an ancient sun temple not normally open to the public and covered in beautiful carvings.
After a rest and lunch our next stop was City Palace the official residency of the current Maharajah. It’s a super palace with a fascinating history that I had visited a couple of times previously. I was quite surprised when we were quietly whisked away from the other tourists through a door marked “no unauthorised access”. We found ourselves in the private quarters of the royal family, being shown around by the ADC of the previous king. We visited the roof terraces with the most wonderful views of the palace courtyards (and all the “unauthorised” tourists below) as well as the beautiful gardens and temple and the Jantar Mantar (observatory). From here we were taken down to the King’s private dining room where we supped on fruit juice at a massive Lalique underlit dining table while royals, members of the elite political class and assorted celebrities gazed out from the numerous photographs – a very surreal experience.
So from the sublime to the ridiculous. We piled onto rickshaws and raced through the bonkers traffic of Jaipur, past the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) to the twisting, narrow lanes of the bazaars for a spot of shopping.
Jaipur is renowned for its gemstones but more delightful was a visit to one of the last remaining shellac bracelet makers – a bit of a legend amongst the locals – to watch him work his magic with a simple stick and gas fire.
In the evening we were taken about 30 minutes out of town to the thickly wooded Aravali Hills and Dera Amer. This is a wonderful place where rescued elephants and camels live in their natural environment. The evening began with one of the elephants being bathed and in true pantomime fashion, audience participation was expected and more than one of us ended up a little soaked. The Mahout brought out assorted herbal dyes and paints and I was then able to tick off one of my bucket list to do things – paint an elephant’s toe nails green. And very dashing she looked too…
As dusk gathered we climbed aboard the elephants for a trek around the 160 acre land – lit by flaming torches and with a rather natty “drive through bar” half way round where we were offered a variety of drinks as we strolled by aboard our pachyderms. The evening was rounded off with a delicious supper under a canvas.
Another early start took us all to Jaipur railway station for the 4 hour train ride to Jodhpur. It’s a really relaxing way to travel watching the Rajasthani countryside speed by and the hustle and bustle of the different stations.
On arrival a fleet of uniformed kulees (porters) took our bags to the waiting cars and off we went to Raas where we were staying the night.
In the late afternoon we went for a wander around Sadaar Bazaar before climbing into autorickshaw’s and zigzagging up the hill to the imposing and beautiful Mehrangarh Fort. This is without doubt my favourite fort in all of Rajasthan – an imposing yet stunning building. To be allowed in after it’s officially closed to the public and shown round by the curator was an incredibly special event.
After heading back down the hill (two of us in a disco rickshaw equipped with flashing lights and noisy techno) we enjoyed a cocktail on a terrace overlooking a hereto forgotten step well which is being renovated by the owners of Raas. A wonderful dinner was served for us at the roof restaurant of Raas and we even had Lord Grantham as company to entertain us.
From Jodhpur it’s an easy 6 hour transfer to Udaipur through the beautiful Aravali Hills. On arrival we climbed aboard our private launch and headed across Lake Pichola to the Lake Palace Hotel – where much of Octopussy was filmed.
The property is amazing – sumptuous, elegant and really quite quirky. My Maharani Suite had the most incredible views of the City Palace opposite made all the more magical by a full moon that evening.
Udaipur is a fabulous place and much smaller and more accessible than many other Indian cities so easy just to wander round in. The City Palace is fascinating as is the Garden of the Maidens and the shopping bazaars are also great.
For lunch we were taken to our guide’s house where his delightful wife showed us into the kitchen for a traditional cooking demonstration which we had great pleasure in lunching on. A really lovely insight into everyday lives of the local residents.
While I have spent a lot of time in India I have never been treated so well, been given the opportunity for such incredible and unusual experiences and really felt myself to be royalty. I still haven’t fully adjusted to coming home to do my own housework, cooking and shopping and am already planning my next escape back to the land of Maharanis.
My ‘royal’ visit was perfect, but for those of you who are budding book worms you might like to consider The 2016 Jaipur Literature Festival