India’s most romantic city? If you enjoy having the hackneyed Hollywood idea of romance shoved down your throat by every guide book, then yeah, I s’pose it’s romantic. We arrived there for our three day, two night stay on 14th February.
It’s certainly pretty: a wide stretch of shallow water (the lake) is surrounded by limestone and marble hotels and a Monte Carlo-esque palace. Decorative islands float in the middle. At night, with the soft orange lights from the surrounding buildings bouncing off the water, it is like something out of A Thousand and One Arabian nights. If comparisons with Italy must be made then it’s more like Lake Garda than the Lido. Of course, it’s impossible to get away from the James Bond island hysteria that surrounds the Taj Lake Palace Hotel (Jag Niwas island) on every page of every guide to Udaipur (it is where they filmed some of the scenes in Octopussy). It’s also where the nouveaux stay. And at £430 a night for the cheapest room (breakfast not included) or £6,200 for the Presidential suite, they’d better be riche as well. We decided not to stay there.
My choice of accommodation for Udaipur turned out to be a winner which I can happily recommend. We enjoyed an enviable 360° view across the city from the rooftop of the sixteenth century Anjani Hotel.
On the first day we were a little disheartened by the streets and lanes packed with touts and shops around the lake and palace. We felt like aliens in this wholly touristy area. Nevertheless, we shelved our reservations and joined the throng. Shunning the ‘antiques’, carpets, and tailoring being thrust at us, we enjoyed a leisurely walk around the main area and across a scenic bridge over Lake Pichola. Ending up at the end of a track by the water, right opposite the City Palace, we watched the sun go down over Udaipur from the best viewpoint in town, in the company of professional photographers and the homeless.
The next day we joined the queues at the fairytale City Palace. With its balconies, cupolas, ornate towers, palaces within palaces, opulent state rooms and extravagant private rooms (check out one of my favourites, the nursery), it is a fabulous museum of wealth and privilege. The corridors went on forever, and I wasn’t surprised to discover that it is Rajasthan’s largest palace. Built by Maharana Udai Singh II in 1559, it was extended over the next few hundred years. Although from different eras, the palace has retained an overall elegance and is a nice way to spend half a day.
We wanted to get out on the water, but there are very few ways of doing this. If you stay on Jag Niwas island, of course, your price includes the hotel’s own taxi service; for the rest of us transport options are limited. We bit the bullet and queued up for the Lake Boat Ride. At 300Rs (£4.20) each it is expensive by Indian standards. Excitedly we waited to be dropped off at Jag Niwas, but the boat circled the island and then carried on. Damn. It seems that you can’t visit the island because it is wholly owned by the hotel, and you can only go there if you are a guest (we know because we tried every way we could think of to blag an entry). Still, we headed over to the older Jagmandir island.
The palace here came to prominence when Maharana Karan Singh built a safe haven for the future Emperor Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz (of Taj Mahal fame). Although Karan’s ancestor had fled from Akbar, and his own father had been defeated in the endless battles between Mughals and Mewars, some believe Karan helped Shah Jahan (known as Khurram before he became emperor) because the Mughal’s wife was Hindu. Whatever the reason, it was a shrewd move: by keeping Khurram under Mewar protection during 1623–1624 he backed the right horse. When Khurran became 'Emperor Shah Jahan', he gave back six districts to the Mewar kingdom, and a nice fat ruby to Karan’s son, Jagat Singh. We didn’t get quite such a good deal. We were allowed to see about one third of the palace buildings, and a cup of tea cost 130Rs (£1.85). To put it into perspective, a cuppa in the station cost 2Rs.
Feeling disappointed with our boat trip, despite the prettiness of the palace, we decided to get off the beaten track, so out came the walking boots. This proved to be a wise decision. We found life-as-it-is-in-India going on in the shops, houses and workshops outside the expensive tourist area. What a breath of fresh air to find women doing all the work, as men sat around drinking tea in the back alleys and children pumped water from standpipes.
We walked northwards, towards the distant music we had heard all morning, which became louder until it nearly split our ear-drums. Distorted noise poured out of strategically placed giant speakers along narrow alleys: just as the pain began to subside you would be hit by a fresh onslaught of decibels at every turn. We had stumbled upon a Muslim festival, it was the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)’s birthday celebrations. Great vats and plates of food were being prepared for the afternoon’s revelry by men (yes, men for a change!) while the women stayed in the background looking after excitable children. Jamie and I were offered a kind of semolina to eat. It had raisins in it and was rather sweet, but very good. Presented on a small paper plate, the trick was to eat it with your (right) hand and then throw the empty plate on the ground. I found the throwing of the paper plate on the ground more uncomfortable than eating semolina with my hand.
As usual, I was glad that I had kept a scarf with me and was reasonably covered up with a long top and trousers: I was treated with respect and kindness by everyone.
Before we left Udaipur we were lucky enough to come across one of the best places we have eaten in India. The city has loads of hotels and restaurants, and many are recommended in the guide books and online (not always accurately). We struck out on our own and ended up at the Nayee Haveli. What a serendipitous discovery. The rooms -- there are only six of them -- are comfortable and full of character; and the three roof terraces have million dollar views. It’s the sort of place you can spend the day just relaxing and hanging out. Our lunch, served in the Moonlight Tandoori Restaurant on the roof, was exceptional. Cooked by Raju, who had been working in the hotel for three years, we ate the best vegetable jalfrezi of our lives. Admittedly it took a little while, but the whole meal, including chutneys, was made freshly for us.
If you want a really sour, hot and tasty chutney just mash together all of these: mint, garlic, ginger, coriander, lemon, fresh green mangoes, salt, pepper, cinnamon, all spice, oil. Make sure all the ingredients are fresh and don’t overdo the cinnamon.
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55, Gangaur Ghat, Udaipur, India
+91 9829511573 / 98296 43197 :
In the tiny village of Darap, Dara Goan Village Retreat is a small, hidden homestay run by Shiva Gurung and his wife Radha, with a little help from their children. Darap clings to the foothills of Sikkim's eastern Himalaya in the shadow of Kanchenjunga, and although just a few miles down the road on the way to sacred Kechopari Lake, it is a million miles from the concrete hotels of Pelling's main drag.
Radha showed me how to make momos and Shiva suggested plenty of activities like cultural sight-seeing, bird watching, trekking, fishing and walking. But what made it unique for us was getting to know the local Lepcha and Limboo people in and around Darap. Shiva arranged for Purna, a young local student, to take us on a trek off the beaten track. His parents still live high in the valley in a 200-year-old mud and bamboo hut. We drank butter and salt tea, millet beer, rakshi – hooch made from rhododendrons or maize, pronounced 'roxy' – and creamy milk straight from the cow.
To get to Shiva and Radha's Shangri-la you must get out of the car and do a little hiking: climb a winding, near vertical stone path, and cross a wooden bridge over an ice cool mountain stream into a wide terraced garden. We stayed in one of the two simply built wooden chalets, each with en-suite shower room and wide veranda (complete with heavy rocking chair). The family welcomed us into their home, where we ate home-cooked meals and talked about the state of tourism in Sikkim and the history of the mountain tribes.
Namboo Road, Darap Viz, Pelling, Namboo Road
West District, Sikkim India
+91 9733085322/ +919775415450
Pelling Tourist Development Association:
Stanfords is simply the best bookshop in the world for anyone with a love of travel. It's a London landmark to get the pulse racing of any would-be adventurer. Trading for over 150 years, it was from Edward Stanford Ltd that Sherlock Holmes bought a map in "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and both Dr Livingstone and Cecil Rhodes started their journeys. More recently Kenneth Williams trained as a map maker here — before going round the Horne and carrying on up the Khyber.
Today pick your way through three floors of books, maps and travel paraphernalia on offer in this Edwardian labyrinth. Sitting alongside big name guides like Lonely Planet, look out for specialist handbooks on climbing, caravanning, canals, caving, canoeing and kayaking. Thumb through a guide to battlefields or customs and etiquette in Turkey. For a real Anatolian adventure, don't miss Kate Clow's idiosyncratic "The Lycian Way" — one of the world's Top 10 walks — and while you are there pick up a novel by Turkey's Nobel Laureate, Orhan Pamuk. Farther afield wander into Tajikistan, Togo or Tuvalu.
Closer to home Stanfords stocks the full range of OS maps and has guides to every village, town and county in the UK.
There are flags, wall maps, street maps, atlases and globes. If choosing between a cuddly toy globe or chocolate globe is impossible — or you find yourself wrestling with the desire to own a hanging Christmas tree globe — stop for a break at the Sacred Café. You might discover that after a reviving cup of ayurvedic loose-leaf tea what you really want is a jacket from the new Bear Grylls range of clothing.
Before you leave grab a signed book from perky world girdler Michael Palin, or even stay for a travel lecture. Stanfords has it all.
12-14 Long Acre
City of London WC2E 9LP
+44(0)20 7836 1321
Nearest Underground: Leicester Square or Covent Garden
Open Mon-Tue 9am-7:30pm; Wed-Sat 9am-7pm; Sun 12pm-6pm
Google map: bit.ly/9Ax6Eg
Amid the elvish-named Gog Magog Hills of Cambridgeshire lies the enchanted world of Wandlebury, 110 acres of woodland paths and chalk grassland. As you walk the winding pathways of the shire's best kept secret look out for a 5th century BC Iron Age ring ditch and the Godolphin Arabian horse grave.
Wandlebury, tended and protected by Rangers and volunteers of the "Cambridge Past Present and Future" charity, has activities for young and old. Right now wade, ankle deep, through flame-coloured leaves in Jubilee Wood and Wormwood Hill, catch a glimpse of ripening blue sloes shimmering in the undergrowth and dodge overhanging boughs laden with berries and rose hips.
Among several events arranged over the next few weeks are a half day dedicated to the secret life of bees and a Hallowe'en storytelling. In November stride out with the Rangers for a moonlit guided walk through Middle Earth, but don't forget to pack your lembas bread.
Wandlebury is anything but a grim fairy tale: the stillness of a misty winter day, the colourful regeneration in spring and lazy abundance of summer make it a year-round spectacle for all ages.
Car Parking: £2.00 (Cambridge Past, Present & Future members FREE)
By car: off the A1307 Cambridge to Haverhill Road, 2.5 miles south of the Addenbrookes Hospital roundabout.
By bus: from Cambridge - Stagecoach Citiplus X13 and X13a service between Cambridge & Haverhill.
Wandlebury Ring, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire CB22 3AE
Google map: bit.ly/cYS966
If you drink down at the pub today
You're sure to find something new.
If you drink down at the pub today
You'd better try more than a few.
For every cider ever there was
Is on the bar for certain because
The Rising Sun's the place to find the best cider!
After soaking up a little of Britain's heritage, by taking a walk along the towpath of the 18th century Grand Junction Canal in Berkhamsted, reward yourself with a fine beverage in a proper old fashioned English pub. "The Riser" has just had a cider festival, but since they have lots of festivals throughout the year, go to the next one. Why wait, though? With over a dozen or so ciders year round - and a generous selection of real ales - this cosy local pub, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of townie life, is worth a closer look any time.
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