I visited Udaipur for the second time at the end of March for a good friend’s wedding. The timing (selfishly) couldn’t have been better – the celebrations ended at the beginning to a long weekend and I was excited to linger on for a few days to explore the city with Sharnita. Until then, my only experiences in Udaipur were confined to the perfectly manicured properties of its palatial 5-star hotels. I couldn’t wait to venture out and uncover the “real” city.
Practically nicknamed the City of Lakes and exaggeratedly referred to as Venice of the East, Udaipur is often regarded as India’s most romantic city. However, during the auto rickshaw ride from the Trident, where we stayed for the wedding, to our hotel in the traveler-friendly area of Lal Ghat, I couldn’t fathom how this was possible. While our driver skillfully maneuvered around a barrage of cows and motorbikes in the serpentine lanes of the Old City, I couldn’t help but be taken aback by the crumbling buildings, suffocating pollution and relentless traffic that surrounded us. Small travel agencies, restaurants, souvenir shops and hotels were all I could see no matter how far I stretched my neck. Could Udaipur’s romantic reputation have been left behind in the same 5-star hotels I was so eager to leave? I hoped not.
When we reached Lal Ghat we were relieved to discover that our hotel was tucked away at the end of the lane – central but away from the chaos and incessant honking of the main road. Our hotel, Raj Niwas or Raj Palace, was a pleasant surprise as well – it had just three rooms (one per floor), each one spacious and in great condition. The stained glass and mirror-work on the walls gave us a taste of the haveli life for a reasonable price (Rs. 3,500 per night) and the elevated mattress with cushions was a great touch as well.
Jassu, the soft-spoken caretaker of the hotel, offered us an upgrade to the Maharaja Suite for Rs. 1,000, which we accepted in a heartbeat after picturing ourselves sitting out on the private balcony looking over Lake Pichola.
Famished, we made our way across Daiji Footbridge to the Lake Pichola Hotel, which Jassu claimed served some of the best laal maas (a spicy mutton curry) in the city. Laal maas is a famous Rajasthani dish and I was dying to have some after sticking to a predominantly vegetarian diet the past few days. The mutton was indeed tender but the oil and spice was a bit too much to handle on a hot pre-monsoon afternoon. Thankfully Sharnita’s safed murgh (chicken in white gravy) helped temper the heat within. These two dishes and a couple of rotis set us back about Rs. 800. While we went to the Lake Pichola Hotel for lunch, I would recommend going to its rooftop restaurant, Upre, for dinner when it’s lit up beautifully.
After lunch, Sharnita and I wandered the small, winding lanes that were flanked by colorful local homes. The haveli architecture in Udaipur’s Old City is charming, especially if you enjoy taking photographs. Rajput- and Mughal-inspired murals cover the walls, arches welcome you into buildings, and no two doors are ever alike. The nuances are aplenty, especially if you look up from time to time – window shutters and ornate balconies ooze character as well.
Wandering aimlessly, we found ourselves on Hanuman Ghat and walked towards the water to stop for cold coffee at a small lakeside café called The Little Prince Restaurant. I’d recommend the place for the quality of its coffee and its location by the lake but if you’re looking for friendly service, then head elsewhere – when I asked the waiter what the Special Cold Coffee was he merely shook his head and looked away. I guess I wasn’t special enough for a proper answer, let alone the coffee! We spent an hour or so here taking in the view and watching old men play cards along the bank. It was peaceful and we enjoyed listening to other tourists exchange tips and travel stories.
Sharnita and I have a little tradition of gifting each other small keepsakes whenever we travel together. And so, after The Little Prince Restaurant we set off to the main shopping area near Jagdish Temple to find something for us to remember Udaipur by. We poked our heads into shop after shop, realizing quickly that each one sold pretty much the same souvenirs as the one before it – miniature paintings, leather handicrafts, silver jewelry and statues of Hindu gods. Nonetheless, I really liked the leather-covered books and the miniature paintings. Unfortunately, the obnoxious honking made for a really poor shopping soundtrack and we decided to postpone gift hunting so that we could find a place to watch the sunset.
Bang opposite our hotel was a family-run rooftop eatery called Rainbow Restaurant that served potent shots of espresso and cold beer with unhindered views of Lake Pichola. I knew I’d like it as soon as we reached upstairs. Along the walls were raised cushioned mattresses with low tables – perfect for sketching, reading or catching up on your own travelogue – and the waiter was all smiles all the time. We ended up staying for an hour sipping tea and photographing the sun sink into the horizon.
Due to the lack of a real nightlife, Udaipur’s rooftop restaurants often screen films to entertain those travelers who wish to stay out past 10:30pm. The most popular film by far is naturally Octopussy, the 1983 James Bond film that’s partly set in Udaipur. Signs for screenings are painted just about everywhere – honestly, I probably saw more signs for p**** in Udaipur’s Old City than in Bangkok’s Patpong!
Sharnita and I half-watched half the film over dinner at Black Pepper, the #2-ranked restaurant in the city according to TripAdvisor. After tasting the food, however, we couldn’t believe that it was so highly rated – my chicken noodles were overcooked and clumpy and Sharnita’s omelet was so flat that it made a roti look fluffy. While the food didn’t taste terrible, it was indeed forgettable and definitely not worth the plethora of positive reviews. Our bill came to around Rs. 400 with a Kingfisher.
If there’s one word to describe our first day in Udaipur, it would have to be “recalibration”. Sharnita and I ventured into the Old City with lofty expectations of being swept off our feet by a beautiful city that had an identity that didn’t overtly revolve around tourism. Instead, we found many of the same growing pains that plague other popular Indian destinations. Progress had undoubtedly changed this city and we had to adjust our expectations accordingly. Maybe we were decades, if not centuries, late and were in fact in search of the Udaipur that was once ruled by Maharana Uday Singh or infiltrated by James Bond. But if Udaipur’s real splendor existed in its history, then we had no choice but to go back in time – tomorrow we would tour the 16th century City Palace.
My post on our second day in Udaipur will be up soon. In the meantime, please leave your comments or questions below. I’d appreciate any constructive feedback on my first blog post!
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