The breathtaking Taj Mahal has a ‘cool luminescence at dawn’ (Image: Getty)
It’s just a glorious kaleidoscope of colour – like the whole of our whistle-stop tour around India’s Golden Triangle. In just four days I’ve experienced the heat and cacophony of Delhi and its Red Fort and then the cool luminescence of the Taj Mahal at dawn. And now I’m in Rajasthan, bathing in the glow of its famous Pink City.
The Golden Triangle is the classic India-for-beginners route because it’s easy to see the highlights in just a few days as Delhi, Agra and Jaipur are so well connected by rail and road.
And if, like me, your backpacking days are over, you can do so in “responsible luxury” by staying at three of the eco-friendly hotels in the ITC chain.
We’d flown into Mumbai and, after a day’s sightseeing in the commercial capital, taken another flight to Delhi – the dirty, frenetic, fascinating heart of India.
This teeming metropolis is home to 19 million people and, yes, the levels of poverty and pollution are horrific.
But Delhi is far more vibrant and exciting than I’d imagined.
A stroll through the bustling bazaars of Chandni Chowk is like stepping back in time to the 17th century.
PROUD HERITAGE… Guards at the City Palace peacock gate (Image: Getty)
Every product and profession is there – sari makers, poppadom sellers and a surgeon who does minor operations in his “consulting room” under a tree.
Visiting the massive Jama Masjid (the Great Mosque built in the 1650s), male visitors must don sarongs to hide their pasty legs, while women get voluminous fluorescent robes.
Close by is the Red Fort – residence of the emperors of the Mughal dynasty for nearly 200 years – with its pristine lawns, lofty audience halls and doors large enough for elephants to pass through.
And you must see the fabulous Qutub Minar – at 239ft high it’s the tallest brick minaret in the world, completed in 1368.
To the south, British-built New Delhi is a fascinating contrast with its grand monuments, broad Imperial boulevards and the Rajpath mall leading to Lutyen’s mighty 1920s India Gate.
Exhausted, we returned to the cool, perfumed comfort of our hotel the ITC Maurya – set in lovely grounds in the Diplomatic Quarter.
And, after a swim and spa we were ready to try Dum Pukht – the traditional, slow-cooked cuisine favoured by northern royalty.
It was a revelation – mouthwatering, fragrant dishes like murgh khushk prudah (a chicken puff pastry pie), kulfi badshah pasand (ice cream with gold leaf) and a delicious, but weird, kebab made of finely minced lamb invented for an emperor with no teeth.
The next point on the triangle was Agra, and our second ITC hotel, the Mughal.
The three hour drive through rural Uttar Pradesh was fascinating – if occasionally hair-raising. But our excellent driver Suki circumvented both sacred cows asleep in the middle of the road and trucks driving the wrong way down the carriageway.
Agra is, of course, home to one of the world’s most famous and photographed buildings – the Taj Mahal.
We went at dawn but it was already packed with pushy tourists holding phones aloft and trying to get a shot of their loved one on the ‘Diana bench’.
But we found some tranquil spots to gaze in wonder at the glistening, marble temple to lost love.
And no photo can ever capture its breathtaking beauty.
While in Agra you must also visit the “ghost city” of Fatehpur Sikri, a Unesco World Heritage Site.
It was built in 1571 as the capital of the Mughal Empire but deserted just 14 years later.
Now the red sandstone palaces and audience halls are eerily still, but prove a fascinating insight into early Mughal life.
Finally, it was on to our final stop.
Another long drive took us into Rajhistan and the vibrant, visually-stunning city of Jaipur, and a stay at the sumptuous, oh-so-welcoming red-brick ITC Rajputana.
In 1876 when Albert, Prince of Wales was stopping by, Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II, decided to do the place up to impress him and had every building painted in his wife’s favourite colour – a sort of terracotta.
But when the Times of India correspondent, Stanley Reed, visited he dubbed it the “Pink City” and the name stuck.
And the Sunday Express correspondent was certainly in the pink there – I loved the place.
As the morning sun hits those pink buildings the city starts to glow and as the day heats up the colours change, through purple, orange and red.
TOP SPOT…. Amber Fort stands proud on a hill overlooking Maota Lake (Image: Getty)
We started our day’s sightseeing at the staggering Jantar Mantar.
It’s the Jaipur version of Greenwich Observatory, a collection of 19 huge astronomical instruments built by king Sawai Jai Singh II in 1734
It features the world’s largest stone sundial and other architectural devices for measuring time, predicting eclipses, tracking location of major stars, constellations and planets.
Then we headed for the famous Amber Palace set on a hill top six miles outside the city.
It is possible to visit to ride up to the huge fortress on elephants – and animal welfare group allegations of mistreatment are soundly refuted by tourism bosses.
But we chose to go up by jeep and arrived at the massive Chand Pol gate which leads into the main courtyard, where returning armies used to display their plunder to the people.
There are four main sections, including the King’s quarters and the “zenana” where the women lived.
But the highlight for me was the gleaming hall of mirrors, decorated with beautiful paintings and inlaid with precious stones, known as the Sheesh Mahal.
Which happens to be the name of the restaurant in my home town where I first had a curry.
Jaipur has seven gates within the walls of its old town (Image: Getty)
Stunning views…Amber Fort reflects onto a river in Jaipur (Image: GlowImages)
You could spend the whole day at the fort but, again, a good guide will whiz you round…and stop you getting ripped off by souvenir sellers.
Returning to the city we stopped for a photo op at the Jal Mahal Water Palace, in the middle of a huge lake with the Nahargarh, or Tiger Abode hills behind.
And, back in central Jaipur, I was blown away by the glorious five-storey Palace of the Winds – the Hawa Mahal.
It’s actually a facade on one side of City Palace, with 953 latticework windows from which royal ladies could enjoy the street view and a cooling breeze, without breaking purdah.
The palace complex itself is equally gob-smacking and has a display of ancient robes worn by the rulers. Check out the clobber made for the 7ft tall, 40st ‘Fat King’!
And by the time we got to that inner courtyard with the four decorated doorways I was almost suffering from visual overload.
A tour of the Golden Triangle taught me the true meaning of a sight for sore eyes.
And I can’t blinkin’ wait to go back.