Our private Rajasthan
Four foreign ladies on the road in India
“Four foreign ladies would like to come to dinner,” our obliging host shouts into the phone. That would be four foreign lady members of a small Adelaide Hills book club, on tour in Rajasthan in a big white van driven by the unflappable Pawan, with his ever-alert sidekick Narendra riding shotgun.
Our genial host at the Jas Vilas haveli in Jaipur is booking a table at Bar Palladio Jaipur, the smartest restaurant in town. We’re meant to be in Varanasi but a peasouper blanketing much of north India grounds flights in that direction so ace Abercrombie & Kent fixer Tej Kapoor hits the phone and rejigs the itinerary on the spot at Delhi airport. Where we would have been without him is hard to say, but probably dossing in a horrid hotel on the airport road crying into our duty-free gin. Instead, here we are in Jaipur. There’s Margie with her selfie stick, almost confiscated at the Taj Mahal, and oversized suitcase with retractable handle jammed in the extended position, causing much consternation for Narendra when packing the van. There’s old India hand Trudy, travelling with several tons of clothing for an orphanage where she spends part of the year, and Jacinta, who works a salwar kameez with aplomb but has packed no sensible shoes.
It’s a whistlestop tour but we want to see as much as possible so opt to travel by road, staying in family-run guesthouses and small palace hotels. The neatly turned out and always obliging Pawan and Narendra are on standby 24/7 and arrive promptly to deliver us to Bar Palladio Jaipur in time for lemongrass martinis in a garden dotted with braziers and gorgeous canopied love seats. The brainchild of New York-based fashion designer Marie-Anne Oudejans, the interiors of this belvedereturned-restaurant are sublime with deep blue walls, lush frescoes and custom-made cushions and tableware.
It’s a tour highlight along with the Amber Fort and the City Palace, where the official pigeon scarer, armed with a red flag and displaying very few teeth, makes a tidy profit posing for photographs with tourists (be sure to check out the palace’s lovely on-site boutique). We have a pot of Assam in the Polo Bar at the stately Rambagh Palace, where the waiters wear jodhpurs and tweed jackets, and, abandoning the selfie stick for a moment, pose for a grainy photograph snapped by Tikam Chand near the Jalebi Chowk gate using the 150-year-old wooden Carl Zeiss camera once owned by his grandfather, photographer to the maharajah.
And yes, there is some shopping, in great fabric warehouses where quilts and cushions are stacked floor to rafter like colourful skyscrapers, and a tireless team of retailers is on hand to unfurl dusty bolts of fabric and proffer small cups of sweet tea.
We split our time between the pretty Jas Vilas and the next door Hotel Meghniwas, owned by Colonel Fateh Singh and his wife Indu. In a tiny reception office, lined with old-fashioned pigeonholes stuffed with big brass key rings, the dignified Indu, swathed in the finest camelcoloured silk, inscribes our names in a large ledger. The 1948 mansion features handsome marble staircases and handpainted friezes and in the pretty guestrooms, with their stylish bedspreads and quilts and a measure of restraint, we feel Indu’s elegant hand at work. The beds are hard and the hot water unpredictable but it’s utterly charming, and we quickly fall under the Singhs’ Best Exotic Marigold Hotel spell.
Every morning large pails of milk, cream and yoghurt arrive on the early bus from Pushkar where the Singhs’ son runs a tented camp and organic farm. While breakfast is being prepared, the immaculately attired colonel performs a puja-and-exercise combo in the pretty garden. The Singhs spend their days sitting on the lawn with their spaniel Benji listening to the transistor radio.
In the evening the braziers are lit and drinks served by the pool, before a generous curry buffet is dispensed from great copper pots.
We hate to leave Jaipur but look forward to our daylong drive to Jodhpur. The kitchen kindly packs boiled eggs and crackers and we stop for tea at a busy roadside cafe, carefully selecting from a dizzying array of blends, at various price points depending on the exoticness of the brew, only to discover they are all dispensed from the same urn.
Jodhpur is an imposing sight from the road, a walled medieval city huddled beneath a massive fort.
Pawan drops us on the edge of the old town (the lanes are far too narrow for the big white van) and we pile all our luggage and shopping into two auto rickshaws, before dipping and weaving through dark and crowded streets pungent with a musky perfume of mingled cow dung, spices and rotting vegetables. Our hotel, Pal Haveli, is an ancient palace with the family still in residence, screened from the hustle and bustle of the old town by thick but intricately carved stone screens, so that when we sit in our beds at dawn drinking tea with powdered milk we feel we could well be in purdah.
Guestrooms are secured with sliding bolts and enormous locks and the list of hotel rules, sitting on the dressing table, must have been drafted in the 1960s; it forbids all manner of long-forgotten infractions, including the “storing of cinema films or any other articles of a combustible nature”.
The bar is stuffed with trophies and leopard skins, lamps are fashioned from rifles and bar stools from saddles. The rooftop restaurant, serving an excellent vegetarian thali, offers incredible views of the city and 1459built Mehrangarh Fort, beautifully lit at night, an astonishing edifice Kipling dubbed a work of giants and angels. Ditto at Pal Haveli, where the steps to the restaurant are so steep and widely spaced only a giant could climb them with anything approaching ease.
A visit to Jodhpur’s hilltop fort is a highlight of any visit to Rajasthan (the audio tour is outstanding). Be sure to find the “Meditation Room” where a raga master performs beneath an ornately carved canopy.
The drive to Udaipur highlights the contradictions and contrasts of a rapidly developing India, from brand spanking new six-lane motorways, largely empty but for the occasional cow or camel or a chap strolling along with
The view from Mehrangarh Fort to Jodhpur, the Blue City of Rajasthan, top; Bar Palladio Jaipur, above