A journal by Ann Potts ( Jane’s little sister)
Fort Cochin, Kerala
We are staying at The Eighth Bastion, a small hotel decorated in a simple Dutch style, all white walls, white linen and dark wood. Johnny the manager welcomes us. Our lovely room is set at the back with distant sea views. The staff are very attentive and the food local and tasty. As a newcomer to India I am pleasantly surprised how easy it is to walk out to the beach promenade and the old streets without feeling threatened. The Southern Indians are very friendly and curious, without being ‘in your face’.
After a delicious breakfast, I have a masala dosa, a south Indian speciality that consists of a large rice pancake filled with potato curry and served with a coconut chutney eaten on the terrace, washed down with tasty south Indian coffee, normally served with milk.
They have a cappuccino machine, which they are keen for us to try, but we prefer the local brew.
We take a Tuk Tuk (20p a journey!) to see the Portuguese Church where the famous Vasco de Gomez was buried before they shipped him back to Portugal. There is a real sense of history here with the gravestones recording the sad demise of young children and adults, both Portuguese and Dutch. We also visited The Ginger Market and Spice shops, all of which gave Kerala it’s wealth in the 16th Century.
A short drive through clogged traffic to a landing stage to take a Hotel Launch to Coconut Lagoon. I feel like Royalty, being welcomed by a group of staff! The hotel is surrounded by the backwaters and a large lake, very natural and peaceful. We have a sweet bungalow with a Veranda and it is so blissful and quiet. A small breed of Indian cow the Vechur are tethered on the lawns as peaceful lawnmowers. They are put to bed at night in the small farm on the property, which has a bio mass converter to convert their poo into cooking gas!
I attended an early morning Yoga lesson in a Pavilion overlooking the Paddy Fields with the chanting from the Hindu Temple floating across. I also went for the Full Monty Ayurvedic treatment, with an interview from a Dr Blossom (honest!) and a full body massage from a dainty lady in a beautiful organza sari who had fingers of steel!
Waved farewell to the lovely group of staff and chugged off at a gentle pace in a converted rice barge. We are spending the night, each of us has a cabin with shower and there is a sitting/dining area and a lounging platform at the prow of the boat where you can watch all the back water life without appearing intrusive. I loved the bright green/pink/orange houses and the School bus boat, the only decent way to get around is by boat! The crew stopped to buy fresh Crayfish and they work as a good team, one driving up front, one cooking, one waiting, absolute professional and serving loads of delicious mainly vegetarian food. We moored up to a quay belonging to the Company for the night and watched the sun set reflecting over the lagoon.
Met our lovely driver, Jess, who has a spacious air conditioned vehicle, very useful on these long journeys. We were going to a Home Stay in the Western Ghats which is a new concept for me.
Dewalokham has an Organic Farm and the owners have built a huge house next to their own huge house with Verandahs all around, so impressive. It feels much more personal than a hotel and the owner showed us around the farm where they grow everything from peppercorns to papaya. I had a cooling swim in a huge pool overlooking a clear fast flowing river. We had G&Ts on the Verandah with the charming owner, whose young son was introduced – he has been learning English and I didn’t like to tell them he had a real South London accent! You do share a dining table with other guests and so need to be able to accept this, but as they were so fascinating and we could discuss where they had been, it was fine.
Delhi then Rajasthan
Flying off to Delhi – 2 ½ hours direct flight. Sad to say goodbye to South India, but adventure awaits! No sign of the slums I was expecting on the way into Delhi. My sister says they have all been moved – I wonder where?
Big surprise treat, we are staying at The Imperial Hotel in New Delhi, one of the best hotels in the world! I was bowled over by the opulence and beautiful decor, marble floors and high mahogany doors. The hotel was built in 1911 and they have kept the unique feel. Our room is exquisite, all polished antiques and silk rugs. There is an immense pool and a huge jacuzzi in the gardens – like I was in a Harem! There is a Gin menu, superb food and now am officially ruined!
We did manage some culture, firstly visiting the Government buildings designed by Lutyens at the turn of the century, vast red sandstone buildings built in commanding Empire style.
Nearby is the home of Mr Nehru, the first prime minister of India. Following independence in 1947, the commanding Palladian mansion was formerly the British governor’s residence. The story of Independence was explained on story boards around the rooms (I felt embarrassed by our autocratic behaviour). Mr Nehru’s study was the most interesting, here he worked long into the night, a photo of Edwina Mountbatten on the side.
Then onto Gandhi’s house nearby, another mansion, very simple inside, he only lived here for a short time, the awful spot where he was assassinated is marked in the gardens. The visitors to both these properties were entirely Indians, no tourists, a shame as the houses are both fascinating and very relevant to modern Indian history.
Off to Agra by road, bit of a contrast, it has been sadly ruined by us the tourists, staying one night only in a modern functional hotel. Our guide, Rohit was very knowledgeable, dignified and gentle, taking us around the Agra Fort at sunset, it is huge, hot and Red! The best bit was the elegant white marble Harem quarters with a delicate marble lattice screen where they could view the world. I can’t believe it is over 400 years old!
Up at 6.00 to see The Taj Mahal which was worth the hassle, lots of queueing and it was already quite hot. So simple yet intricate, a humbling thought that it was built 400 years ago as a tomb for a favourite wife who died in childbirth having her 14th child at 38 years old.
Off to Bharatpur to stay in The Maharaja’s Palace, half way to Jaipur. They have built a new palace right next door to the old one and it is very flash, all grand arches and beautiful painted walls. We are staying in the old palace which has a bit more character, but feels a bit lifeless, maybe due to the 90 degree heat! The pool is great so thankfully we stay by it and eat toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches, bit sick of curry!
Off to see The Bird Sanctuary, being taken around by a bicycle Rickshaw as you are not allowed off on your own. I felt like someone from Jewel in the Crown off to see Margery at the Club!
Up early to see Bharatpur Fort, looks like a English castle from the outside, huge battlements. Inside there are THREE palaces, but they have only been able to afford to restore the 16th Century one. The Hamman is so pretty, the painted walls look like a Liberty print and the White marble is so delicate.
Four hour drive to Karauli, due to a diversion via a railway crossing where every bus, car, Tuk Tuk, Camel, tractor were trying to cross at once! We are really heading off to deepest country, through some really shabby towns, goats, pigs and cows sifting through the rubbish, but the people look happy.
We are staying at The Maharaja of Karauli’s Palace, built in 1930, it is a time warp, full of furniture from that age and stuffed tigers. We have a lovely suite of rooms surrounded by a veranda, so atmospheric! There was a great vegetarian lunch served in the 20 seat dining room, huge Billiard room next door, only friendly staff for company. We wandered the gardens to find a row of numbered garages all with classic cars including a 1940 Buick, a 1950’s car with fins and the Maharaja’s crest, a Charabanc and a Willis jeep. There is an Organic farm with dairy cows and Mawari Horses with funny pointy ears. My sister was allowed to ride one in the morning and was in heaven!
We left the stables at 6.30 for a lovely ride through the countryside, I felt very spoilt having my horse tacked up in her rather splendid kit.
Off to see Old 14c Palace that the Royal family left in 1930’s when present Palace was built.
The only residents now are the monkeys, who our guide tells us have gone off for breakfast at the local market!
It is such a privilege to be totally alone, you can almost see the ghosts. We were shown all the way up to the roof, the 16th Century Women’s Quarters were covered with intricate wall paintings and the Honeymoon suite was encrusted with breath taking iridescent mosaics. The women may have lived in Purdah but it was a beautiful gilded cage.
Heat stoking up so after lunch sat in the covered veranda on a hilarious suite of 1960’s chairs. Anyone who is a fan of Retro furnishings would be going nuts here!
Had a swim in the very old fashioned pool in the walled garden, feeling a bit guilty about the water shortage here, but they filled it up for guests so we should use it.
Walking the gardens, emailing (great to have WiFi!), then a great bustle as The Maharaja and Maharani were coming from Jaipur. All the staff have put on their smart uniforms and berets with a crest. We were kindly invited to dine with them and their son who is in his 20’s. We has a good talk about the organic farming methods they use and their efforts to educate the villagers to save water. The Monsoon Rains have been inadequate for the last few years and it is becoming a problem. Their son is trying to market the property on the internet as he does not have the huge marketing budget of the larger hotels.
3 hours to Jaipur, the traffic is a huge shock, they are building a new Metro in the centre which is causing huge congestion. The old red walled city has tiny roads and everyone is cramming down them at once! At least there is always something to look at when stuck in traffic and not many beggars to pester you.
Our hotel, The Alsisar Haveli is a little gem, an old town house of a Maharaja, it is a calm oasis with little courtyards and a very Arabic feel to it.
We went to an amazing Jewellery shop down a scruffy back street that my Sister recommends. I had great fun choosing some beautiful Aquamarine earrings, pendant and ring to mark my 25th wedding anniversary! The staff are not at all pushy and let you look at loads of eye popping jewels!
Decided we have had enough Culture so off shopping to Fab India and bought some stuff. They have great Salwar Kameez, I bought three in their Cochin branch and have lived in them, so cool and you need to cover up here to avoid offending their culture and also they are gorgeous!
In the evening off to the countryside for an Elephant ride and dinner. The elephants are really well looked after by a rather dishy Rajput chap called Reggie who has about 10 elephants and Mahouts. So much better than the Touristy elephant rides in Jaipur up to the Fort, where they now have better welfare and restricted working hours I am pleased to hear. We went off into the warm scented dusk and it was like being on a boat, halfway round some chaps appeared by an old temple and offered us some delicious Indian Sauvignon blanc, shame to refuse!
Note the elephant safaris no longer happen.
Then drinks and dinner in an open air restaurant, all very Out of Africa and quite unforgettable.
Back through the awful Jaipur traffic, it is Gandhi’s Birthday, so an official holiday. Everyone is going out, saw a lot of ladies in glittering saris perched on the back of a motorbike with helmets on!
Lazy morning by the pool, then a bad idea to go to The Jowani Bazzaar in the Old Town, maximum hassle and a load of old tat, fled to Anouki, a good Indian/European shop with a cafe. Lovely bedspreads and napkins, but the clothes make me look like an old hippy!
Last dinner at an Italian restaurant Palladio at another Maharaja’s Palace, The Narian Niwas, two a penny round here! So good not to eat curry!
Fly off to Delhi from Jaipur, and then home!
Imperial Hotel, Delhi
Nehru’s and Gandhi’s Houses in Delhi
Kerala- especially the backwaters.
Feeling of safety – probably due to excellence of drivers, Prakesh and Yashvinder.
Good manners of most Indians
Hot spicy curries in Jaipur
Head waggling and shrugging at the same time by some reception staff in Rajasthan when you wanted an answer!
Pi (street) Dogs, very sad.
Heat, need to go in October to Feb when it cools down a bit. We went in September
To answer my initial question, India has improved immensely and although there is still rubbish about the place, Mr Modi is wielding a broom to encourage everyone to tidy up and not just expect the untouchables to do it. I loved my holiday and would like to go back to Southern India and visit Mysore and Pondicherry.