No self-respecting travel PR could believably pitch an editor the riches of Rajasthan.
Fate was just too kind to be true when it came to dishing out the goods to the northwestern Indian state which – according to a popular local saying – boasts more history than the rest of the country put together.
“The Land of Kings” has attracted curious travellers for generations, entranced by fairytale visions of majestic forts, windswept desert plains and mighty maharajas. But the real PR coup is the way each of its key cities has been neatly colour-coded by the annals of time, like a bygone theme park map. And so it was that I chose to round out a month backpacking the length of India with stops in the “White City” of Udaipur, the “Blue City” Jodhpur, and the “Pink City” of Jaipur.
Travelling south-to-north I begin in Udaipur (some travellers instead head west-to-east, beginning close to the Pakistan border at the “Golden City”, Jaisalmer). My preconceptions were largely limited to knowledge that much of sub-vintage Bond caper Octopussy was filmed amidst the town’s characteristic chalk-white palaces.
It’s a claim to fame the locals are in no hurry to forget – we spotted perhaps a dozen restaurants and guesthouses advertising evening screenings of the 1983 movie. Yet it marked a bittersweet moment when our waiter confessed he’d been exposed to Roger Moore’s antics every night since 2003.
But as is so rarely the case, the real thing was actually better than the movies. The historic town is split in two by the picture postcard Lake Pichola. At night the bright, white palaces of Jagniwas and Jagmandir islands, and the City Palace on the eastern bank, are all artfully lit in soft amber hues. The effect casts spellbinding reflections across the water’s surface, a view best enjoyed from the excellent lakeside restaurant Ambrai, or any one of the casual rooftop eateries on the western bank, Hanuman Gat.
Around a six hour bus ride north lies the “Blue City” of Jodhpur – and boy, it really is blue. The old city is set around the magnificent Mehrangarh, a huge 15th century fort jutting from a rocky outcrop, some 120-metres above the city skyline. Stacked playfully below is a tangled mish-mash of weather-worn three and four-storey buildings, a maze of cobbled streets winding inside the old city walls. Traditionally, a wash of blue paint marked the home of a Brahmin (Hindu caste), but these days everyone is in on the act – the effect is an intoxicating stream of buzzing, bright cartoon-blue alleyways.
Another seven hours East lies Jaipur, the state capital which is known to multitudes more travellers than either previous destination, as a point on the classic “Golden Triangle”, between Delhi and Agra’s Taj Mahal.
Arriving from any direction, it’s hard not to feel underwhelmed by Jaipur. For starters, it’s not really pink. Moreover, the popularity means tourists are likely to encounter everything one might fear from a trip to India – inflated prices, rude touts and beggars.
But there’s one reason a visit to Jaipur remains compulsory: the majestic Amber Fort, an imposing hilltop outpost, sitting some seven miles from the city. Built in the 16th century, and reached by climbing a series of serpentine staircases, the towering, honey-hewed structure is more grand, formidable and golden than any Photoshopped postcard could ever capture. This is the romantic land of the maharajas so many travel to India to see.
Originally published in Travel Weekly, December 2016