WHERE better to renew our marriage vows, on our 30th anniversary, than at, arguably, the most romantic place on Earth — the Taj Mahal, India?
I didn’t want a holiday of the three ‘S’s — sun, sea and sand — but rather the three ‘E’s — education, enlightenment and enrichment. It didn’t disappoint.
We usually book our own flights, travel arrangements and accommodation. But there are destinations where it’s wiser, more cost-effective and safer to travel with a group. India is such a country. We decided to go with The Travel Department.
We had travelled to China with this company and were impressed. The tour was the Splendours of India, a 12-day guided trip that took in five cities: Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur. The itinerary, of cities, sights, and accommodation, which was half-board in all five-star hotels, and the cost, ticked all the boxes. The timing was perfect — we travelled in March, to coincide with our anniversary, and the weather was perfect, a balmy 32C – 37C.
We flew Aer Lingus from Cork to Heathrow and then a connecting flight with British Airways to Delhi. On arrival, we were met by our guide and the 12 other holiday-makers of our group. We travelled to five cities in ten days and the drill was the same. During check-in, we sat in the lobby, with a nice, cool drink, while our guide arranged for our luggage to be brought to our rooms.
First impressions of Delhi — the heat, touching 32C; high-density smog; multiple lanes of congested traffic, constant horn-blowing, throngs of people, utter commotion and such a culture shock. Yes, we had arrived.
Taking in the sights of Old Delhi included a rickshaw ride through a market, with small shops selling wonderfully coloured saris, marble, spices and trinkets. A visit to the Humayun Tomb, Delhi’s first Mughal mausoleum, a precursor to the Taj Mahal, was an impressive introduction to the magnificent temples, forts and palaces of India. Done for the day, it was such a pleasure to relax by the hotel pool, enjoy a cool beer and reflect on our first few hours in Delhi.
The next morning, we sampled more of the sights of New Delhi, including the tranquility of the memorial site to Mahatma Ghandi.
From Delhi to Agra, we travelled on the recently completed Yamuna Expressway, with a visit to the Agra Fort en route — a formidable fort, built from the stunningly rich, red sandstone used in many of India’s forts and palaces.
We arrived in Agra, a rather unassuming, dusty city, not what I was expecting from a place that held in its palm the most romantic tomb in the world and the epitome of what India signifies to most people.
The story of the Taj is well-known. It was built by the Mughal emperor, Shan Jahan, in the early 17th century, as a mausoleum for his beloved empress, Arjumand Bann Begum, or better known as Mumtaz Mahal.
Even the entrance leading up to the Taj Mahal was average. But, then, all was revealed. The rectangular, lengthy pond in front of the mausoleum reflects the image of the Taj magnificently — symmetrically perfect from all sides, with great attention to detail, from relief carvings to marble screens decorated with precious stones. A sight to behold.
To quote former US President, Bill Clinton: “There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who have seen the Taj Mahal and love it, and those who have not seen the Taj and love it.” I consider myself lucky to be part of the former cohort.
We visited the Taj when it wasn’t crowded or too hot, so we strolled comfortably around.
It was peaceful in this romantic testament to love. As we took in the surroundings my mind wandered, I reflected on an eventful 30 years of marriage. There were ups and downs, but, fortunately, mostly ups. Our family are now grown up and both have left the nest. Happily, we’re not suffering empty nest syndrome. Instead, we’re appreciating the extra we time we have to pursue our own interests at leisure, whether it’s planning a holiday or playing golf, often poorly, but enjoyably.
The following day, we had a pretty long journey, as we headed by coach for Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan.
En route, we visited Fathepur Sikri, a hauntingly deserted city built by Emperor Akbar and only occupied for approximately 20 years, due to the lack of water in its environs.
If the Taj impressed, then I was in awe of the mystical beauty of the Hawa Mahal, the Palace of Winds. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Other memorable places visited were the Amber Fort, City Palace Museum and Jantar Mantar, an open-air construct of 18, huge, stone astronomical measuring devices.
Following on from Jaipur, we headed for Jodphur, where we encountered one of the largest forts in India, the Meherangarh Fort, situated about 400 feet above the city level of Jodphurn housing several palaces within its impressive, thickly constructed walls.
This contrasted hugely with our experience in the Ranakpur Temple Complex, nestled within the beautiful Aravalli Hill range.
Its foreboding exterior gave lie to the peaceful sanctuary hidden inside. Here, we received our blessing from the Swami, high priest, of this Jain Temple.
That evening, we took a convoy of auto rickshaws to a nearby market, where we were met by an eclectic mix of smells, noises, stalls, rickshaws, motor bikes, throngs of people and meandering cows.
Our final destination, Udaipur, is on the shores of Lake Pichola. Here, we checked into the Trident Hotel. We were greeted by the assistant manager, who welcomed us and wished us both a happy anniversary.
My other, and definitely better, half, had emailed the hotel in advance, letting them know. Returning to our room, later that evening, a beautiful bouquet of red roses and a sinfully indulgent chocolate cake were waiting for us on a tray scattered with rose petals.
What a nice touch.
Highlights of our time in Udaipur were the City Palace Museum and a boat cruise on Lake Pichola, from where we could capture magnificent views of the City Palace and Lake Palace, now run as a hotel.
Our last day in Udaipur was one of leisure and we took full advantage, with walks in the magnificent gardens that wrapped the hotel, and its impressive swimming pool, where we enjoyed some much needed r&r after a bustling, non-stop holiday. We flew from Udaipur airport to Delhi, staying overnight, and then took an earlymorning flight to Heathrow and onwards to Cork.
A country of immense beauty, India is also full of complexities. A country that has a thriving economy while, at the same time, such visible levels of poverty. I know this trip will stay indelibly in my mind.
Oh, by the way, renewal of vows did take place, well, sort of. At the Taj Mahal, we found ourselves immersed in the most beautiful testament to love the world over.
We really didn’t feel the need to do anything formal, like our first time round.
So it went something like “Well, do you fancy sticking with me for another 30 years?”
I replied, “Of course, yeah, why not.”
We booked this holiday through the Travel Department. It cost €2,219 per person travelling in March from Cork. Price includes flights, transfers, hotels on a half-board basis and entrance fees.
www.indianembassy.ie www.traveldepartment.ie www.tourism.gov.in/
Recommended time to visit India is October — March
Check with your GP for vaccine advice.
Apply for your visa well in advance. This can be arranged with the Travel Department, but we applied directly to the Indian embassy, a much cheaper option. Always have anti-bacterial wipes/sprays on hand. Carry biscuits with you when travelling if you’re doubtful about eating during the day.
Only drink bottled water.
Crowne Plaza New Delhi Okhla Hotel www.ihg.com/hotels/us/ en/new-delhi Radisson Hotel Agra www.radissonblu.com/hotel-agra Country Inn & Suites Jaipur www.countryinns.com/jaipur-hotel Park Plaza Hotel Jodphur www.parkplaza.com/jodphur-hotel-in The Trident Hotel Udaipur www.tridenthotels.com/ udaipur/hotel Country Inn & Suites NH8 www.countryinns.com/ gurgaon-hotel-in