Octopussies

There is nothing quite like coming upon a glittering lake set in one of the prettiest cities in India, after many hours and a day traveling through a desert. Udaipur is the glistening gem in the crown jewels of India. Steep alley ways wind down the hill towards Lake Pichola, lined with shops spilling their gorgeous textiles, antiques, embroideries, jewels and every objet trouve for the curious eye. Walls along the way are painted with scenes from the Ramayana or bright yellow Indian tigers. The whole town is enclosed in the craggy arms of the Arvali Mountains and atop the eastern shore sits the gleaming City Palace where the Maharaja of Udaipur and his family still reside. From behind the walls of his private gardens, mustachioed guards – and occasionally his personal band – will emerge for a brief drum roll.

But it’s the Taj Lake Palace we are enamoured by. Ben in particular, has always been obsessed with it ever since it was put on the map by that James Bond film Octopussy. How I wish too I could play on the cushioned swing inside the Maharani’s suite… We spend long hours on the rooftop of our hotel, admiring the mysterious and alluring Lake Palace from afar, watching small boats ferrying those few lucky guests who can afford to stay there.

Ben has surprised me with the Pink Room in the beautiful Kankara Hotel. Settled into our day bed window seat with scalloped carved arches we look our to the scene of beauty unfolding in front of us.

Days are filled with boat rides, visits to the Maharaja’s Vintage car collection, escapes to the bazaar and delicious dinners atop our favorite restaurant. As we watch the dip-dyed sky blink with stars and the buildings opposite us turn from a burnt rose to silhouettes like paper cutouts, we say goodbye to this beautiful place and head to the train station for the overnight express to Bombay.

 

Desert Escape

The desert enraptures me. The low lying hills fading to the horizon, sand-tinted mud dwellings beside hand-thatched cylindrical grass huts, are almost camouflaged were it not for the handsome villagers in enormous fluoro turbans and gold pirate earrings and the ladies in neon twinkling saris. Some are sitting in neat little courtyards tending their fires as we steal by. At night we are spell bound by the Milky Way and strange un-earthly noises echoing through the darkness.

Rajasthan is laden with hidden palaces, forts and ruins. Some have been restored to their former glory like the Samode Palace, others are now museums and when traipsing the shiny halls of the Amber Fort or exploring the alcoves of the Wind Palace, I imagine the countless stories these walls must hold.

Paloma loves the tiny shuttered ‘eye of the camel’ doors, perfect size for a girl her age. And there are windows here small enough for spying on lovers and friends. Inspiration is found in every painted wall, each manicured geometrical garden, every old iron lock and handcrafted surface.

The rusty white Ambassador taxis of Rajasthan look a little like our 1954 Chrysler Plymouth back in Sydney that we log ago named ‘Coco’. It’s no surprise then Paloma calls out ‘Coco!’ at the top of her voice whenever she sees one pass. Much to her joy, we take our very own Indian ‘Coco’ bumping along the dusty roads towards Pushkar. Even in the deserts of this country, boredom is never an option. There’s always some theatre going on outside the window, and a game of eye-spy can last forever.

Sitting beside placid waters of Pushkar Lake sipping fresh lime soda, we watch pilgrims bathe and pray. Dreadlocked travelers stumble past, high on bhang lassis. Magicians and sadhus wander by too, and cows chew their cud as the sun sets on this wonderful little town that still evokes the vibe of the hippie trail. Patchwork quilts, embroideries and fur from Kashmir, jewellery from the Kutch and Raj antiques are all rather enticing, adding to the allure.

Pushkar certainly is a place one can get lost in for days and we soak it up. As for Paloma, India is a child’s dream, a riot of colour and noise, not to mention the menagerie of animals climbing the walls, traipsing through the alleys or sleeping smack bang in the middle of main roads. The camels of our caravan through the surrounding desert are resplendent in beaded fringe, carpets, bells and humps. And we see not a soul but for the turbaned musicians who sing for us alone in the dunes.

Heavenly Heritage

Hand carved stone vessels, filled to the brim with scented waters and decorated with flower mandalas, have been placed auspiciously to guide our journey through ancient sandstone halls. I dip my head under carved arches and enter a courtyard of rambling bougainvillea in bloom ascending balconies of shuttered windows. I’m in the centre of a giant treasure chest. Climbing stairs to the grand entrance, I turn and survey what I’ve left behind; a spectacle of preserved history, secrets held in rooms and walls, mirrors striated with patina holding memories of ages and faces long gone.

Lilting and melodic Rajasthani music is playing in the main courtyard. We linger here only for a moment before we are swept into a private alcove and refreshed with lime soda and presented with the heavy brass key to the Maharajas Suite, an upgrade, courtesy of the owner, the Maharaja of Samode himself, His Royal Highness Yadavendra Singh with whom we’re conducting an interview. It’s also an excuse, of course, to taste the fabulous life of Maharajas!

There are no lifts in this stunning heritage hotel, and the porters carry our luggage on their heads up narrow stone stairwells, higher and higher, until we are settled in our magnificent room overlooking the dusky, sun drenched Aravalli Range. Eagles circle high above us, and flocks of rock pigeons swoop in formation around the grounds before settling back on the roof above our room at the highest point Samode Palace.

I stare out to the shimmering desert below, the silence, the solitude, the bliss of it all has captured my spirit. This is where I can dream for hours. A pattering of little feet is heard. A squeal of delight, ‘Look Mummy a bath in the middle of the room!’ In front of our four-poster bed is a huge bathtub with shiny old-fashioned taps and plenty of bubble bath that we enjoy immensely later in the night. Our suite also has a lovely dinner table for eight, a sofa you can snuggle on, a walnut-coloured desk at which one can pen letters or type engaging travel blogs.

The palace was home to Indian royalty less than a century ago, and we still feel taken into the welcome fold of a certain humble luxury by the wonderful staff, most coming from the local medieval village of Samode surrounding the ramparts. Every want and need is catered for and a there is a certain romantic magic that is subtly created here. It truly feels like you have come to visit a long lost friend in their house, albeit one of the grandest in India, rather than an anonymous guest at some five star hotel.

Exploring the Palace, we are startled to find immaculately preserved rooms of hand-painted glory depicting Krishna and his consorts in various stages of frivolity and elegant poise. The Mughal Mahal has secret windows and tiny rooms with walls are covered with scalloped cut mirrors, in our opinion the jewel in the crown of Samode Palace. And down in the lavish Dubar Hall, magnificent chandeliers quiver as they await the next imperial reception, a glorious example of Mughal design and architecture.

In the shine of the late desert sun, we sit beneath trees on striped towels, occasionally taking a dip in the marble mosaic swimming pool and later in the private infinity pool on a high up terrace.

Paloma is in heaven, playing with doves in the cool waters, watching out for cheeky long-tailed monkeys on the rooftops of the village below.

Later, under a little crescent moon we feast on delicious Rajasthani cuisine. Paloma is entertained by a traditional spangled puppet show and leaves clutching a pretty Maharani doll. Entering our suite, the covers on our bed have been folded back, music is playing and the lights are dim. Martini’s await Ben and I and we sip them looking out to a starry sky and muse on the goings on here of Rajputs of the past, dreaming of where our future adventures will take us.