Plenty of Palaces in India's Most Romantic City

Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers.

Rajasthan, this country's arid northwestern state bordering Pakistan, gained its "land of the kings" name for having been the historic home of legendary Rajput warrior-princes noted for their dauntless defiance of Delhi's Mogul rulers, determined to die rather than submit to that alien rule.

Indeed, on three occasions the fateful jauhar was ordered, during which Rajput women and children threw themselves upon sacrificial pyres as the men put on their saffron robes, flung open the gates of the old capital of Chittor near here and charged from their citadel in a fight to the death.

During the 16th Century the maharajah was finally driven from Chittor and founded this city beside a lovely lake backed by green hills west of his old stronghold.

Udaipur is still noted for its verdant surroundings, in marked contrast to the desert-fortress appearance of many Rajastani towns. It is further distinguished for innumerable palaces, each standing majestically at lakeside or on islands rising from the water, most replete with colorful mosaics, inlaid tile and marble, courtyards of quiet fountains and brilliant flowers.

The plethora of palaces, bustling streets, exotic bazaars and the radiant hues of women's saris and shawls make Udaipur no less colorful than its setting, so much so that it has often been called India's most romantic city.

Here to there: British Airways flies you nonstop to London, then on to Delhi; Lufthansa and KLM also fly to Delhi, with one home-country stop. Pan Am makes it with three. Indian Airlines will fly you here from Delhi in about one hour. Udaipur, along with Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Agra with its Taj Mahal are all along the route of India's Palace on Wheels train that leaves New Delhi weekly from October through March. Board it anywhere along the route, or for the entire seven-day journey in one of the antique railway cars made for maharajahs. See below.

How long/how much? Give it all of the best of two days, more if you want to explore around all three lakes of the town. Lodging costs run from moderate to inexpensive, excellent Indian food a real bargain in any corner of the country.

A few fast facts: The dollar recently bought 13 Indian rupees, making each worth .077. Coolest months are October-March, mid-summers devastating, July-September monsoon time when the water is relentless. But when the rains end the palaces sparkle, and palaces are what this town is all about.

Getting settled in: Laxmi Vilas Palace (Fateh Sagar Road; $40 double, $21 without air conditioning) is the first of several former palaces of Udaipur's maharajahs converted into hotels, this one with a distinct 19th-Century flavor inside and out. Huge tiger and leopard skins on walls of the old-fashioned bar, red velvet lounge chairs giving it a certain dated elegance. Rooms are huge, gardens overlooking Lake Fateh Sagar, large pool on terrace below with same glorious view.

A step away and considerably less regal you'll find Hotel Anand Bhawan (Fateh Sagar Road; $18.50 double), this one a former hunting lodge of the maharajah. More huge rooms, many with views of the lake, but the furnishings are basic at best, the same for public areas and dining room.

Lake Palace (on island in Lake Pichola; $54 to $70 double) is the town showplace, a royal retreat in white marble built for the maharajah in 1628. There's a distinct feeling of being in Venice here, from the three-minute boat ride out to the palace pier, to bedrooms with stained-glass windows, formal patios and courtyards woven throughout the four acres of hotel and grounds.

Rooms and more expensive royal suites are nothing less than fantasies, with precious artifacts from the maharajah's collection here and there, filigreed-marble screens looking out on lotus pools and fountains, a masterwork of serenity and superb architecture. Evening concerts of Rajastani music and folk dancing, the Neel Kamal restaurant mentioned below.

Palace Shivniwas (in City Palace; $39 double) began as part of the maharajah's main residence in 1559, was converted into a guest house for foreign visitors and finally turned into a hotel of unbridled luxury. Eight rooms at the above price, plus 16 suites costing from $116 to $231, surround an enormous inner garden-courtyard of blinding white marble where you may laze beside the pool or sip something cool beneath a mango tree.

Suites here tax the word exquisite to the limit. "Common amenities" include a Crystal Room with walls and ceilings decorated in hand-cut glass, chairs, tables and occasional furniture in Belgian cut glass. Splendor can indeed come cheap at the Shivniwas Palace.

Regional food and drink: Makki ka soweta, or soyata, is a Rajasthani dish of lamb cooked with sweet corn in a highly spiced sauce, lal maas another version of lamb, this one curried to or beyond the piquant level. Yet another is gosht sula mewari, bits of lamb grilled or cooked in a tandoor.

Chicken finds its way into and out of the tandoor in many forms, one of the best being murgh tandoori, marinaded in yogurt, garlic, ginger and other spices before roasting. Fish is also given the earthenware-oven treatment, as is the vegetarian favorite of paneer, a fresh cheese usually dipped in a batter before going over the flames.

It takes about one day for most visitors to develop a craving for one or more types of Indian bread. Naan seems to be the staple, delicious either straight from the oven, flavored with garlic or stuffed with a thin layer of vegetables or meat. Pick and choose from the naans, parathas, rotis, puris, chapatis and dosas, the last always a breakfast choice for us as was masala dosa, a wafer-thin crust filled with spiced vegetables and potato, served with a bowl of spicy masala.

Once beyond breakfast, Indian beer goes well with just about anything on your plate. Thums Up and Campa are the favored colas, several kinds of lemon and lime sodas. Otherwise, be sure to stick to bottled water.

Moderate-cost dining: With just about anything on the menu going for less than $5, have one or more meals in the Neel Kamal dining room of Lake Palace Hotel. The mid-lake setting couldn't be more romantic, dining room decor absolutely lovely and menu extensive with local specialties, plus such continental fare as lamb provencal flavored with fresh rosemary, basil, garlic and red wine. The mulligatawny soup of curried lentils is marvelous, a specialty of southern India, with heavy overtones of British raj days. Lunch here, as in many Indian hotels and restaurants, offers a bountiful buffet of local dishes.

Palace Shivniwas Hotel has a menu equally extensive, views of the lake and city from every window. Prices are about the same as Lake Palace, but the latter seemed a bit more relaxed and with friendlier service. Berry's at town center is Indian to the core, with 20 kinds of lamb and mutton, lots of tandoori and vegetarian dishes. Settle in for a substantial meal here and pick up a tab of about $2.

On your own: Start with the City Palace, Rajasthan's largest and 400 years abuilding. Zillions of stairs to climb, but the views of lakes and Udaipur below border on the fantastic. Take a boat ride on Pichola Lake for a close-up of Jag Mandir Palace, built in 1615, and Jag Niwas, now the Lake Palace Hotel.

Now visit the town's Folklore Museum for a collection of artifacts, masks and puppets from all over the world. You sit on the floor for a short but enjoyable puppet show. And at sunset take a boat out to the tea pavilion on a small island in Lake Fateh Sagar. The sky slowly turns mauve, cranes fly by in the fading light and, as night falls, the Nehru Garden and fountains are illuminated. A very peaceful setting for a spot of tea.

For more information: Call the Indian Tourist Office at (213) 380-8855, or write (3550 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90010) for a colorful brochure on Rajasthan including Udaipur, another on Indian food, a map of all India, plus information on the Palace on Wheels train. Ask for the Udaipur Package.

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