A royal welcome to Udaipur
It was raining cats and dogs. Even as the wipers worked overtime, all one could make out was vast stretches of green fields and hills and the occasional dhaba that went by in a blur. We thanked our lucky stars that this was one of the best maintained highways in India with roads that could compare easily with some of the better ones in Asia.
Best from: Udaipur
You need: 3 days
And then, almost as if on demand, the rain stopped. Just like that. A weak sun shone through and before us unravelled the most beautiful picture postcard scene we’d seen in a while: a lush green meadow with a solitary shack standing on top of the adjacent hill - protected on either side by two giant trees. Nothing else for miles. Just an empty highway and a continuous stretch of green valleys and hills. We knew then that if this was the path to is, the destination must be a stunner. And Udaipur did not fail us.
In normal circumstances, one would presumably visit Udaipur during a holiday in Rajasthan. But we were in Ahmedabad on work and friends told us that this royal town was closer from the capital of Gujarat than any other major city. So early on a windy and wet June morning, three of us started off in our compact family car for the four- hour drive to Udaipur, past Himmat Nagar and bypassing Dungarpur on the National hingway (NH) 8.
The rain hit us halfway through and cleared up as we neared Udaipur. Two huge gates, perhaps set up by an erstwhile Maharana of Mewar, welcomed us to the royal town. After finding our way past the majestic Fateh Sagar Lake and through a few twists and turns, seeking directions from locals, we arrived at our hotel, the awe-inspiring Oberoi Udaivilas.
Just a year back in 2011, it had been ranked the best hotel in Asia and fifth in world by a reputed international travel magazine. We were suitably impressed. Situated right on the banks of Lake Pichola, the Udaivilas is palatial and has everything from a spa to a great view of the lake.
After a relaxed lunch (expensive but yummy) and forty winks, we set out for a quick survey of the area. The Lake Palace, originally a summer palace of the Maharajas and now a Taj property, stands like a colossal in the middle of the lake on an island. When water levels are low, there is a walking track that leads up to the hotel but when it pours and water levels rise, a boat takes visitors to the palace.
No wonder, we realised, Udaipur was often referred to as the Venice of the East or the Lake city. With the Fateh Sagar Lake, Udai Sagar and Swaroop Sagar giving the Pichola company, just a visit to the lakes can easily take up a couple of days in Udaipur.
As the sun set and it started to drizzle again, we wondered whether we would be stuck inside the hotel every time it rained. Our souls rebelled. So umbrella in hand, we set out in search of dinner. Past the city centre and up a narrow lane, we first stumbled upon several small shops, some carved out of the walls, selling local wares and trinkets.
Then as the road widened, we came across a restaurant that looked inviting enough. They did have Chinese, but we were in Rajasthan! So Dal Baati, Lal Maans and Churma it was! It cost a fraction of what a five- star meal would, but was just as delicious. So we figured an ice- cream each was something we could afford.
The next morning we set out on a palace tour but soon ended up at the Gulab Bagh Zoo - a rose garden laid out by Maharaja Sajjan Singh near the palace on the east side of Lake Pichola. We were told that the library in the garden has a collection of ancient handwritten manuscripts and books. But what intrigued us was the presence of a magnificent zoo within the garden. It boasted of tigers, leopards, gazelle, birds, and many wild animals. We spotted kids enjoying a ride on a mini train, being taken around the zoo as they squealed in delight; almost made us wish we were 10 again.
In the evening, we walked up to the Fateh Sagar Lake and were promptly cornered by half a dozen bhuttawalas selling us roasted corn. Bhutta in hand we took a quick boat ride on the lake, promptly got wet in the drizzle and ended up splashing around in puddles much like pre-teens who have suddenly got a whiff of freedom.
Then, I guess we felt a bit homesick. Nothing else can explain why we landed up at PVR (Udaipur also has an Inox and a Fun Cinema apart from half a dozen other multiplexes and a dozen malls) to catch a film. What we watched wasn’t important. The fact that we laughed most of the time at the hero’s antics, was the highlight of the evening.
Back at the hotel we debated whether to head to Udaimahal, the specialty Indian restaurant at the Oberoi or the multicuisine Suryamahal, before plumping for the open-air courtyard Chandni, where we ordered a bottle of wine and a light dinner - choosing to feast on the beautiful moonlit lake instead as music played in the background.
The joint aches from the long drive, the tryst with sheets of rain - all thoughts of pain perished as we laid back to enjoy the reflection of the moon on Lake Pichola. The royal city had given us a royal welcome.
Make it happen
Getting there: Daily direct flights connect Mumbai and Delhi to Udaipur. We drove down from Ahmedabad (250 km) and it took us a little over four hours.
Where to stay: The Oberoi Udaivilas, The Leela Palace and the Taj are luxury properties. The Raj Niwas on Fatehsagar Lake and the Jaiwana Haveli are both fantastic hotels too at much less than five star price.
Best time to visit: November to January is peak season. But it’s also crowded. It rains heavily in July-August but Udaipur in the rains is fun.
what else to see/do: Take a boat ride on Fateh Sagar or Lake Pichola; visit the beautiful Bagore Ki Haveli and of course the magnificient Mewar City Palace.