Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Umaid Bhawan of Jodhpur, A Taste of Royalty

It was our first time to India, and although my husband and I consulted with many people who had been there, nothing could have prepared us for the experience: from the sublime to the catastrophic, the agony and the ecstasy; but one of the absolute highlights of the trip was our extraordinary stay at the Umaid Bhawan Hotel of Jodhpur.

Our journey to Jodhpur was one of the last legs on the trip, so we felt we had the hang of things by then. The flight was quick and easy and we saw the dramatic approach to Jodhpur from the air, the sandy brown architecture mirroring the dessert landscape, highlighted by monumental buildings marking the city’s past grandeur: the imposing fort high on the hilltop, and an impressively large palace crowned by an elegant dome. We had done our homework on all our destinations, but we couldn’t remember what that domed building was, so we pledged to do some investigating.

We arrived at the airport and got through baggage claim to look for our airport transfer, only to find it had not been dispatched. The hotel concierge apologized profusely and offered to have a car to us in 10 minutes; but it was hot, we were tired and I was already annoyed; so the prospect of waiting did not appeal. I told the concierge that instead of waiting, we would simply get a taxi and be there in 10 minutes.

So my husband and I hired a taxi from among the mob of available drivers, and wedged ourselves into the “vehicle” that can best be described as a tin can on 4 wheels, (my husband being 6’4, this was no easy feat); and away we went to the hotel, feeling every bump in the unpaved road along the way.

As the driver tried to sell us his services for the coming days – have I mentioned it’s 1,000 degrees and my husband is doubled in 2 in the car? – we noticed that he took a left up a hill, towards that beautiful building with the dome. Hmm. Maybe we’re in the same area. That would be nice.

We putt, putt, putted along a bit further, and took another turn towards the ever-expanding dome. We couldn’t be heading there could we? Impossible. That would be the craziest hotel ever.

Still further, and the taxi turned onto a drive unmistakably leading directly and exclusively to this mammoth building. We pulled up the crescent driveway in our little go-cart, dwarfed and comical against the size and majesty of the structure, to the grand entrance of the palace; complete with a covered drive; a grand stairwell leading up through a vaulted archway; a red carpet – yes, red carpet; – and no fewer than 12 uniformed hoteliers to greet us: 2 doormen, 2 musicians, and 8 others with miscellaneous responsibilities. As we tumbled out of the tin can, the doorman signaled for the music, and the musicians began to play one of those wandering, melodic Indian songs that string you along with endless twists and turns.

I was whisked away towards the red carpet and led under a canopy held aloft by 4 men. As I passed under it – music still playing -- they shook the canopy causing a shower of rose petals all around me. I turned to look at my husband who was trying in vain to pay for the cab, but the doorman would not allow it. He ushered my husband to my side – more rose petals – and I yelled to him over the music – do you think they have us confused with somebody else?

Once through to the other side of the canopy, we were greeted by a woman who placed a necklace of the most fragrant flowers over our heads. Just beyond her, another rubbed her finger in colorful turmeric powder and pressed it to our foreheads, an Indian tradition of welcome. After this, still another with cool wash cloths to refresh our hands; and yet another offering a bottle of freezing cold water.

At this point, we’ve made it to just within the entrance of the hotel and are finally greeted by Swaroop, our personal, and extremely attentive, concierge. Never in my life have I ever been to a hotel without first presenting myself at the registration desk, but the Umaid Bhawan doesn’t really have one, per se. Swaroop informed us that our room was ready and asked us if we wanted to go there directly or have a tour of the palace first. We opted to go straight to the room where he presented our registrations papers and did the necessary paperwork for check-in, followed by the grand tour of the room.

We had clearly had an upgrade. The room was a sprawling suite with an elegantly columned bedroom impeccably decorated with traditional Rajasthani miniature paintings and extravagantly lavish local textiles. The bedroom space was flanked by the living space, complete with oversized flat screen tv, couch, tables, and all the other necessary accoutrements. Beyond this was a vast changing room, ½ the size of my pretty sizeable bedroom at home, that separated the living area from the bath; and the bathroom in fabulous period art deco, triple the size of any that I’ve ever seen in any hotel. Finally, the piece de la resistance, the balcony spanned the length of the room and overlooked the hotel gardens, with an uninterrupted view of the Maharaja’s Fort high on the cliff and the city of Jodhpur at our feet.

When Swaroop finally left, my husband looked at me like a child just off the merry-go-round, and said, “Let’s go out and do it again!”

This of course was the first of many extraordinary moments in Jodhpur, aided and provided by the Umaid Bhawan’s incredible staff, who did everything in their power to make certain our trip to Jodhpur was perfect. I couldn’t even count the numbers of staff members in the building at all times with no other goal but the fulfillment of our every whim.

Later that evening, Swaroop gave us that tour of the hotel he had promised. The Umaid Bhawan was the Maharaja’s palace, built in the 1920’s to provide a public works project in order to help the citizens through an economic depression. It is one of many examples in India where a palace has been converted into a 5-star hotel; but here, the Maharaja still retains and occupies one of the wings.

And in the grand tradition of palaces, the Umaid Bhawan does not disappoint: from the sand-colored stone shimmering in the sunlight and stately dome high above the city, to every inch of the interior: the entry hall with its grand, convex double stairwell; the ball rooms with balustraded balconies for live music (this was the spot for Elizabeth Hurley’s wedding reception, Swaroop was proud to inform us); the art deco indoor pool and spa on the lower level; and the ultra-modern outdoor pool amid the gardens; restaurants catering to every taste; the outdoor breakfast space with live music and a view of the city; and a way beyond state-of-the-art gym with equipment I have never seen before. The hotel also offers special in-room amenities, like a drawn bath with milk or flower petals; as well as once-in-a-lifetime extras such as a private event on the covered dais in the gardens where you can plan a traditional dinner for guests complete with music, dancers, and fireworks; or reserve it for an indulgently romantic dinner for two.

The city of Jodhpur is just as much of a delight, with a bustling marketplace alive with colorful dresses; lush fruits and vegetables; heaps of grains; and shops with a dizzying array of hand-woven textiles, antiques, and works by local artisans. The elegantly latticed local architecture, colored with indigo to protect against the sun’s heat, gives Jodhpur its appropriately evocative title: the blue city. And the Maharaja’s Fort on the hill is one of the best preserved structures in all of India, with its intricately carved d├ęcor, and lush inner rooms leading you from one dazzlingly opulent setting to another.

The experience of Jodhpur and the Umaid Bhawan was among the greatest in my travels. As for hotels, the bar has been raised. I will let you know if we ever top it.

Tip: The Taj Hotel chain, which runs the Umaid Bhawan, has properties throughout India, many of which are converted palaces or other historic structures. It is not only an impressive chain with excellent accommodations up to world-class standards, but the properties are well connected, with information systems that signal your stays in multiple locations, thereby allowing them to provide room upgrades or other special services to frequent guests.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Sometimes the best laid plans are no plans at all…

My husband is clearly descended from nomads. No matter where in the world we plan a trip, his first thought is where else we can get to from there. This usually results in a lot of time spent wandering long, scenic drives on an endless quest for the undiscovered. (Maybe he’s descended from Magellan too – it’s all very confusing).

On one particular trip to northern Italy, graced by its sublime placement at the foot of the Alps, we decide to see where the road will take us… Asti, a small town known in the States for an unfortunate spumante, but actually a destination rich in culture, and in fact, a source of some truly great wine.

One of Italy’s foremost medieval strongholds, Asti was a thriving center of activity in its day and has the landmarks to show for it: the prerequisite Roman walls, the countless medieval churches, and the coveted historic palaces. But my husband and I happen upon it on a Monday when, as anyone who’s ever visited Italy knows, sites and museums are closed. So we content ourselves with meandering through the winding streets and graceful inclines of this noble city, when as if seeing an oasis rise in the desert, we come upon a towering structure with dated stone walls and an inviting open archway, leading to an even more inviting inner garden.

Upon further investigation, we see a placard that identifies this place as the medieval home of a nobleman, now converted to the city’s historic archives. It’s not open to the public today, but the door’s open and we’re beyond curious – so we go in; after all, we’re explorers. The perfect solace of the garden leads to an obstacle: an imposing and decidedly closed doorway. Perhaps the faint of heart would be turned away, but not us; we have to knock and see if anyone will let us in.

A meek, young woman opens the door and reiterates that they are officially closed, but then instructs us to come inside as she goes to find the director to make an exception. We’re ushered in like traveling emissaries and are left to our own devices in the impressive entry hall, lined with period tables and chairs, and decorated with historic maps, antique paintings and inestimably important artifacts.

While we wait, my husband and I start to rethink our plan. As bold as we are, we are torn between the great luck to have gotten this far inside, and the regret of causing a disturbance for the director for no other reason than our gluttonous curiosity. We decide it’s best to thank them graciously and quickly go on our way. At that very moment, the director arrives in a flurry of harried activity. She is small in stature, but makes a huge impression with her long, blond, completely disheveled, yet utterly fabulous hair that moves with her as she flies into the room. Clearly she’s a busy woman, so I explain in my most courtly Italian that it was never our intention to disturb her – we were merely lovers of history who were irresistibly drawn to this place.

The Signora Direttrice, part Italian supermodel and part nutty professor, immediately explains that she is far too busy and couldn’t possibly attend to visitors today. In fact, she points out, all visitors are seen by appointment only. With that, she turns and beckons us to follow, dashing through the main reception room. My husband and I strive to keep up with her as she describes the organization: a resource center for scholars, historians, and restorers to research historic texts and preserve priceless antiques from the city’s esteemed history. The Signora Direttrice turns once again and leads us to the next room. My husband and I look at each other in a moment of confusion – do we follow or is this our cue to leave – but she’s still talking; so we follow, hoping she doesn’t come out of her trance to find us still there.

The Signora then proceeds to lead us from room to room on an all-access, grand tour -- all the while telling us she has no time for it – as she points out the priceless treasures of the collection: ancient maps (my husband’s obsession, probably another indication of his nomadic heritage); historic documents and seals of the city; original furniture, impeccably maintained; the restoration room with its secret tricks for resurrecting what is lost; and finally, she talks of the prized possession of the collection: the Codex – a medieval manuscript with illuminated text and pictures, chronicling Asti’s long, revered history. It is the holy grail of artifacts, but the Signora explains she is just too busy to show us. In the same breath she takes a key from her skirt pocket, unlocks an armoire, and pulls out the heavy, rich, but unassuming old box containing the Codex, along with a smaller, simpler box from which she pulls a pair of white gloves; it is only with these that she can handle the manuscript.

As she describes the history of the Codex, she begins paging through the stately old book, indicating points of interest: important moments in Asti’s long past, written in the elegant letters of a millennium ago; a description of the ancient skills of bookmaking and the pains of preservation; and the most interesting of all: the recent discovery that 3 separate and distinctive artists collaborated on the book’s decoration. She meticulously points out the details of their individual styles: richer colors here, stronger lines there, and still more stylized forms in another. The text had just been returned from being on loan at an exhibit, where thousands of enthusiasts lined up to see it on display, opened to one page, behind thick, protective glass; and here we are, leaning inches from the book as we study page after page, relishing in each and every succulent detail. The more questions we ask the more time she spends on the work that is obviously her life’s passion. Each time we thank her and remind her that she really doesn’t need to spend so much time with us, she states again that she is indeed too busy, and goes back to the subject of the book, showing us more. My husband and I look at each other, wondering if we’re in a collective dream.

When the Direttrice finally drags herself, and us, away from the Codex, she does so with regret for breaking the spell. Downstairs, in the main reception area, she seems to want to console us for our recent loss and makes gifts of every keepsake she can find: postcards with pictures from the Codex and reproductions of historic posters of the city, which we have since framed and which now hang in our house; leaving us blissful memories of that exceptional day, and forever grateful for her extraordinary hospitality.

The moral of the story is that sometimes, it pays to have no plan at all and to wander into an area you may not know anything about -- just to see what treasures lay there. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, like the Sunday afternoon in Locarno with nothing to do but shop in a second rate flea market with old cassette tapes of oom-pah bands, but that’s another story. Usually, the smaller the town, the more appreciative the locals are of outside visitors, and the more willing they are to share their passions. I’d like to think that the director of the archives found kindred spirits that day and was as delighted by our attentions as we were by her city. Sometimes Magellan, and yes even my husband, are right to explore (but don’t let them know I told you).