The butter-smooth highways of Rajasthan make zipping past its sandy landscape a delight for anyone with a penchant for driving. Having practically driven across the length of Rajasthan, covering a distance of 800km from Sri Ganganagar and going through Bikaner, Pushkar, Ajmer and Jodhpur, we finally made our way to Udaipur well past sundown. The cool, calm breeze and a light drizzle was a welcome change to the sweltering heat that had kept us company during our 12-hour drive, rendering the car’s air conditioning ineffective. We rolled down the windows and let the earthy scent fill us with an instant sense of repose. Bone-tired from the long journey, we headed straight to our accommodation and crashed in for the night.
Udaipur – Of Palaces and Havelis
When we woke up early next morning, the rain had still not abated and the pleasant breeze set the tone for our day-long explorations perfectly. Gorging on our omelette, toast and coffee, we asked the staff and other fellow travellers for recommendations and decided to begin from the heart of Udaipur – the City Palace and Lake Pichola. Our first stop was the Crystal Gallery museum that offers a dazzling, almost blinding with glare, look back at the illustrious history of Udaipur and the Mewar kingdom. While the larger than life chandeliers glistening in amber hues are the first to catch your attention, it is the finer details of this crystal collection that will truly blow your mind over. Decanters with lids shaped like intricate flowers, miniature ittar bottles, honey bottles, candle stands, coasters, the place presents an enchanting mishmash of what is one of most exquisite crystal collections in the world.
This was followed by a tour of the City Palace. Exploring this grand structure on foot involves a great deal of walking and climbing up and down several flights of stairs. If you are not wearing the right shoes, the tour can turn out be more of an exhausting experience than a pleasant trip down the lanes of history. The narrow alleys, constricted stairways, rows of small rooms that virtually empty now is quite an antithesis to its grand, opulent outer structure. Halfway through our tour of the Zenana Mahal, which served as the abode of the royal ladies of House of Mewar, the sameness of it all and the lack of grandeur that one associates with palaces made us call it quits. On our way out, we descended on a large porch that divides the Zenana Mahal from the Mardana Mahal or King’s Palace. Dotted with ancient armours used by erstwhile kings in the battlefield, swords, shields, spears, utensils made of brass and silver and an exotic buggy made of pure silver had us gaping in awe once again.
The Vintage Car Museum right outside the city palace complex also warrants a visit. Even though the museum has a limited collection of 20-odd cars, each of them is a rare gem in its own right. From Cadillacs to MG-TC Convertible, Rolls-Royce’s, Ford-A Convertible, Vauxhall-12 and antique solar rickshaws, the vintage cars here are every automobile lover’s delight.
From here, it was time for a boat ride on Lake Pichola which led us to Jagmandir – a palace island in the Lake Pichola now converted into a luxury hotel. I had heard great things about the place, especially the Lal Maas served at their in-house restaurant, and was looking forward to the visit. Even though the architecture is impressive and peering over the expansive Lake Pichola from the opening flanked by gigantic elephants it makes for an immersive experience, Jagmandir turned out to be disappointment all in all mainly due to the condescending attitude of the staff managing the place. We waited for 45 minutes to even have a waiter walk over to our table. When they did, they turned down our order saying Lal Maas takes a long time to prepare and the chefs were catering to a packed house at the time. Advising us to rethink our order, the waiter left and did not return. Hungry and grumpy from the experience, we headed back to the boat, reached the City Palace once again and made our way to market right opposite the palace in search of food.
A quick Google search led us to Savage Garden restaurant, set in a 250-year-old haveli somewhere in the narrow lanes of the market area near the famous Ekling Ji temple. Awash with hues of white and blue, the place had a serene, cool vibe to it despite the unpleasant humidity brought on by bright sunshine after prolonged rainfall. We made our way up to the first floor and settled by a large glass window to be able to watch the bustling bazaar as we gorged on our food. A pasta Alfredo, sausages and coleslaw sandwich, stuffed parantha and cold coffees – we were all set for a major hog. I had gone there primarily for their Italian food, but the pasta was just about all right minus any mind-blowing pop of flavours or even an underlying hint of it. The rest of the food was fairly decent too. I’d recommend Savage Garden for its warm setting and friendly staff, as long as you are prepared to lower the bar in terms of taste.
After a short nap, we were back on the streets, this time headed for Bagore ki Haveli on Gangori Ghat. The place was under restoration at the time of our visit, which meant we got to see its raw insides, almost like embellished ruins. Think canons, guns, silken dohars and curtains against the backdrop of crumbling walls and squeaky stairways.
As we waited for the light and sound show to begin, we stepped into Cafe Edelweiss, situated right opposite the haveli gates, where I discovered the most heavenly dates and walnut pie to go with my coffee. Oh, the thought of that perfectly crumbling base with a crunchy and soft mix of walnuts and dates makes my taste buds dance with delight even today.
Dinner at Ambrai
Our hair still standing at its ends from the awe-inspiring light and sound show, we headed for dinner at Ambrai restaurant. Set in an old haveli on the western bank of the Lake Pichola, the restaurant has a great vantage point, offering a panoramic view of the Udaipur’s greatest architectural marvels and its lifeline the Lake Pichola. The structures all awash with bright yellow lights and reflection of tinkering lights lending amber hues to the water beneath makes for a breathtaking view. The alfresco dining here is a perfect setting for a romantic evening. It was at Ambrai that we finally tasted the succulent Lal Maas, our senses drowning in the heady mix of its flavour and aroma. Don’t judge me for saying this: screw Jagmandir, Ambrai is the place to be.
Early the next morning we headed out to explore a hidden gem on the outskirts of Udaipur. Located 48 km from the city, this is the second largest manmade lake in all of Asia. Expansive blue waters for as far as the eye can see flanked by an ancient dam built of sandstone and embellished with life-size elephant structures, the place has ‘breathtaking’ written all over it. A ferry ride takes you around the lake or to the island resort situated deep into the lake. Tiny islands, lush green from the recent rains, cool breeze and constant drizzle enhanced the beauty of this already hypnotic destination. Since we were already an hour away from Udaipur, we decided to head to the resort for lunch. The property is a shambles, reeking of mould and fraught with seepage. The place was so empty it almost felt ghostly. A lone waiter ushered us into the restaurant, where we helped ourselves to humble dal, chawal, mixed vegetable and rotis from the buffet. It was like eating dhaba food, only dhabas prepare it a lot better. The condition of the resort or even its presence is inconsequential.
A visit to Jaisamand must feature on your Udaipur itinerary for the sheer beauty and peace of this place. My absolute favourite bit was small palace-like structures on three hilltops surrounding the lake, which the locals told us served as the queens’ summer residences back in the day.
Later that evening, we headed for Fateh Sagar, another popular lake in Udaipur’s cityscape. The place is thronged by locals and tourists for a quiet evening stroll. Though there isn’t much to explore here in terms of touristic attractions, you must visit for sampling some delectable street food. The entire road on one side of the lake is dotted with kiosks selling street snacks like gol gappas, chaat, fruit juices and shakes, chow mein, momos and more. We settled for a plate of steaming hot momos and some cold coffee to go with it, and binged to our heart’s content, sitting on a parapet by the lake.
With that, it was a wrap on your Udaipur explorations. The city grows on you and makes you want to go back and soak up its regal charm all over again.