Sunday, December 4, 2011

Udaipur – City of Romance

Our "jharokha" in our room overlooking the lake
Touted as the most romantic city in India, Udaipur enjoys a marvelous location on the edge of a manmade lake (another Maharajah project) surrounded by the ancient Aravalli hills.  With a sparkling white Lake Palace that “floats” in the middle of the lake (the James Bond movie, “Octopussy” was filmed here).  Our hotel room was a stunner with a “jharokha,” a fancy, cushioned window seat jutting out over the water that Anne immediately fell in love with.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, we need to tell you about a stop we made on the way to Udaipur at Chittorgarh Fort.  The guidebooks call it the greatest fort in Rajasthan (Rajasthan is the largest province in India), even though it was sacked three times.  Each time all the men died in battle, and the women self-immolated themselves “to avoid losing their purity,” making this place more tragic than great in our minds.  
Padmini's floating palace at Chittorgarh Fort

The fort included the ruins of the palace complex (sacked, according to our guide, by “the Arab fanatics”), an artificial lake where the royal ladies once swam (accessible by a private passageway), a temple with some more erotic sculpture, and an interesting 37 m. victory tower that is actually wider in the middle that at either end.  Plus, another floating palace where the beautiful Maharini Padmini (try saying that 5 times fast) once drove a Sultan crazy with desire for her love.  This Sultan was obsessed by stories he had heard about her beauty, so finally Padmini agreed to let him have a glimpse of her reflection in a mirror, hoping that would satisfy him.  However, the sight of her only inflamed him more, and the Sultan captured the fort and killed all the men.  Of course, he never did get his hands on Padmimi -- she self-immolated herself too, along with the other women of the palace.
Our guide at Chittorgarh was a lovely young Indian woman by the name of Parvati, and we ate lunch at her family’s “haveli” (bed and breakfast) along with a French couple who were also touring the fort.  The French couple were very friendly, and we were thrilled to practice speaking some of our “rusty” French with them.  But the real story about this lunch is a tale we like to call “Parvati’s Meeta” (meeta is the Hindu word for sweets).
Lunch at Parvati's B&B.  Note her naked son
with the infamous "meeta."

Lunch was a simple affair, but the real pleasure was the experience of being a guest in Parvati’s home.  We met her little boy who was running around naked, wearing nothing other than a narrow leather cord tied around his waist (typical of little Indian boys).  Remember the Jains – the extreme religious group that even gave up wearing clothes? When her little boy first appeared, Parvati quipped, “He’s like the Jains!”

Her son carried a box of “meeta” (sweets) – 2 cruller-like pastries and 2 candy rolls – and he was fingering the treats (and himself as little boys do).  We just figured they were his box of goodies.  Imagine our surprise when the exact same box of sweets appeared on our luncheon table for dessert.  Anne looked over at the French couple (she couldn’t risk looking at Frank), but no one said a word.  And NO ONE touched the “meeta!”

The beautiful lake at Udaipur

As lovely as it was, Udaipur was a difficult place for us because Frank was sick with the “Delhi belly,” and Anne was heartsick over her Dad, who we just learned had died several days before.  As a result, we took it easy with more down time than usual.  However, we did take some prearranged tours beginning with the City Palace.
The City Palace is Rajasthan’s largest palace, built over time by 20 some Maharanas .  The terms are confusing but here in Udaipur they prefer the title Maharana which means warrior king (supposedly even better than Maharajah).  The palace was made up of colorful, sumptuous rooms (in typical Maharana fashion).  We even bumped into the current Maharana as we exited an elevator there in the palace!  We didn’t recognize him but knew something was up because our guide looked like he was going to faint when he doubled over into a major bow.  We saw an official portrait of the Maharana later, and verified that it was definitely him.  The glory days of the Maharanas may be over, but these guys still get tremendous respect.
Garden at the City Palace
Anne’s favorite palace sights were the mosaic peacocks, each one made from 3,000 pieces of glass, and the Crystal Gallery.  This gallery displayed the never-used crystal furniture purchased by a Maharani in 1877 from the renowned English cut glass manufacturer F & C Osler.  The Maharani died before the stuff arrived, and it was never even removed from the packing boxes for 110 years.  What a decadent display this was (unfortunately no photography allowed) – sofas and chairs (all with crystal frames and deep red cushions), a foot stool that looked like a giant prism, and a bed with an amazing crystal headboard.
Making chapati at our cooking class
Another highlight of our stay was a cooking class at “The Spice Box.”  Shakti, the owner and teacher, spoke decent English, had a good sense of humor, and did a remarkable job of instructing the class.  This class was only partially hands-on, but each of us got to do some of the cooking.  Shakti clearly explained each step, especially the preparation of the spices that required boiling the spices in oil and water until the water evaporated.  Spices are the key to Indian cooking and superheating the spices enriches the flavor.  Our only problem with Shakti was that he also operates a spice shop, and naturally, we all needed to buy a bunch of overpriced spices from him at the end of class.
Grungy backstreet complete with streaming sewage
and rats in Udaipur
One of the things we missed most in India was the ability to wander around.  As you know, we are accustomed to walking 6-8 miles a day when we travel, and in India, we were lucky to get in 3 miles per day!  So, we decided to take a walk through the backstreets of Udaipur.  Well, as lovely as Udaipur looks down by the lake, the rest of the city is typical India.  Raw sewage was running through water channels in the backstreets, and several rats ran across our path.  We walked only about 3 blocks, and that was enough of a walk for us! 
Anne gets her palm read
Anne had her palm read by our guide, and she is still trying to figure out if it was worthwhile or just a hoax.  Some of the comments were insightful, but others were just plain wrong.  Like everything in India, nothing is clear.
View of our hotel from across the lake
On the last night of our stay in Udaipur, we ate our best meal of the trip at “Ambrai,” a wonderful restaurant on the far side of the lake where we had an incredible view of our hotel, the City Palace, and the “floating” Lake Palace.  Unfortunately, Frank was still on the bland food diet, but Anne ate a fabulous meal of paneer (condensed cottage cheese cubes) served in three different sauces.  We even drank a small bottle of Sula Sauvignon Blanc, the leading (and probably only) name in Indian wine; of course, we drank multiple toasts to the man of the hour, Anne’s recently deceased dad, Harold Gross.
India's sole beer

A few notes on booze in India.  As stated, much to our chagrin, there is only one wine brand name that we ever saw.  That is a wine called “Sulu”, which thankfully seems to come in both white and red.  If you like choices, we think you need to visit a different country.  But also, the same is true for beer.  There is but one beer in this country that we were able to uncover; it is “Kingfisher” beer.  It’s a lager beer, and not bad at all, but no other options.  This was a bit surprising to us since some research turned up the fact that India is the 3rd largest user of liquor in the world, right behind the United States and Russia.  Go figure (?).

Faces of India:

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