'That donkey scared the crap out of me," exhaled one of my travel companions, hand on her chest.
As we hurried down the hill that separates the 18th-century City Palace from the charming town of Udaipur, a thundering sound filled the air.
Suddenly, a rogue donkey came galloping down at breakneck speed, nearly knocking us off the precarious footpath.
Inspired by their friend's bold move, the other donkeys followed suit. The gleeful stampede would have been hilarious if not for the young herder's face, poor fellow, as he raced about in hot pursuit. With the help of a few grinning villagers, he rounded up his charges, and order was restored to the "City of Lakes," far south in the Indian state of Rajasthan.
Just another day in Udaipur. And I adored every minute of it.
All my life, I have loved India from afar. Its juxtaposition of mystical legacy with chaotic modernity creates a powerful mishmash of old and new: elephant gods and technology behemoths, Hindu temples and Mumbai slums, Bollywood dance numbers and Vedic meditation.
Throughout this country of 1.2 billion people and 1,500, extreme opposites sit side by side, sometimes in sharp contrast, sometimes in divine harmony.
In Rajasthan, a couple hours of flight from chaotic Mumbai, the two sides are rural and luxury. Named Land of Kings, the gorgeous landscape has long attracted Indians on holiday, from normal folks to royalty.
Though its major cities are as urban as you'd expect, overall, the state retains a traditional flavour, full of folk culture, performing arts, royal history and the slower pace of life in the countryside. Yet modern luxury is everywhere, in fine hotels such as the Oberoi Udaivilas (in Udaipur) and the sparkling jewels of India's precious gem industry.
Founded in the 16th century by Maharana Udai Singh, Udaipur is also called the Venice of India; certainly, its many lakes and vistas make it a serene and romantic getaway. Nestled on the south slope of the Aravalli mountains in the state's southwest region, Udaipur's centrepiece is the City Palace complex, which now includes a museum. Built in 1559 on the shores of Lake Pichola, the palace boasts an Elephant Gate – large enough for the mighty beasts to pass through uninterrupted. Closing my eyes beneath the midday sun, I could almost envision the elephants and tigers who once upon a time roamed the grounds, and the maharajas and maharanees who lived, loved and ruled here, draped in gems and gold. The palace felt cool, serene and mystical, as if time had stopped 500 years ago.
A guided tour through the palace is well worth the few hours. Before it was integrated into Rajasthan upon India's 1947 independence, Udaipur was the capital of the Mewar kingdom. Tales of its dynasty are well preserved. The granite and marble architecture alone made my imagination soar. It's a wild but strangely harmonious mix of European, Chinese, medieval and Mughal (a Persian/Islamic-influenced style featuring domes and recessed archways used in building the Taj Mahal). Inside, the rooms house stunning artifacts, murals and works of art. A highlight is the museum's collection of regional "miniature paintings," intricate, two-dimensional works telling stories of battles, romance and gods through incredibly detailed scenes, one leading into the other, within a single painting.
In Udaipur's colourful, bustling town centre, still within the fortress walls, we shopped for saris, pashminas and tapestries at Soma, a huge but quaint shop nestled in a maze of adjoining houses. Many of its printed textiles are made locally.
The shop is across the street from the awe-inspiring Jagdish Temple, a monument to Lord Vishnu, preserver of the universe. It was built in 1651 according to Vastu Shastra architectural science, one of whose principles is to balance the five elements of earth, water, air, fire and space. Climbing 32 marble steps flanked by two elephant sculptures, we reached the main shrine and removed our shoes. Inside, many Hindus prayed before a sculpture of four-armed Vishnu. Outside, lame and blind beggars sat peacefully, receiving rupees from those who came to pray – a glimpse of India's harsher realities and a reminder of the extreme poverty that exists here. Most people seemed happy though. Locals looked me in the eyes when we spoke and offered warm smiles that made me feel welcome and at ease. Such kindness was consistent throughout my trip.
This sense of grace hovered in the air at our opulent resort, the Oberoi Udaivilas, designed like an Indian palace, full of pavilions and domes. Our moonlit arrival by boat on Lake Pichola was straight out of a fairy tale. When we docked at the hotel we were showered with rose petals, a traditional welcome. Every morning after sunrise, I joined the resident yogi to practice on the ruins of a temple as peacocks strutted about the gardens, saluting the sun with their turquoise feathers.
Rested and relaxed, we were ready for Rajasthan's bustling capital. After a short flight, we arrived in Jaipur, built in the 18th century. In contrast to Udaipur's relative serenity, Jaipur moves at an urban pace – after all, its population is 3.1 million. Known for its palaces and ancient forts (Amber Fort is a main attraction), Jaipur is also called the "Pink City" because its buildings were painted that colour when Prince Albert visited in 1853, pink being a traditional Indian colour of welcome. (Buildings facing the main street must maintain pink facades.
Streets and alleyways are lined with shops and vendors selling everything from spices to saris, leather goods to precious stones. Tourists mingle with locals at outdoor markets and bazaars, where cars, motorbikes and dogs on a mission run amok in every possible direction. Determined shoppers take bargaining seriously: I bought an armful of sparkly bangles for just a buck or two.
For jewellery aficionados with more expensive tastes, the Pink City is a precious-gem wonderland. My travel companions shopped at Gem Palace, which opened for business in 1852 and has served the likes of Jackie Onassis and Diana, Princess of Wales. The Jaipur institution is owned and operated by the Kasliwal family, jewellers for eight generations. Prices are not cheap, but some Gem Palace designs are affordable, and certainly among India's most beautifully crafted.
Instead of jewels, I opted for an equally decadent experience: an Indian cooking class at the elegant Oberoi Rajvilas resort, designed to recreate the country getaways of Rajput princes. In the Rajmahal restaurant's kitchen, the chef and I chopped, seasoned and sautéed vegetarian concoctions such as aloo matar, bhindi masala and dal – a delicious orgy of flavour, spice and sustenance.
"You should learn to cook," the chef said gleefully, impressed at the gusto with which I ate virtually everything. He smiled at me, and there it was again: that simple, truthful joy I encountered in so many people I met in India – an openness toward those moments of real human connection that we North Americans, in contrast, seem to fear.
Some of India's mystique lies in the fact that it's impossible to understand or define. But to me, that human grace is definitely part of its magic.
Special to The Globe and Mail
The writer travelled courtesy of Greaves Travel, Oberoi Hotels and Qatar Airways.
IF YOU GO: Where to stay
Lake Palace, Udapuir Built as a young prince's romping ground in 1743 (according to legend), the Lake Palace sits in the middle of Lake Pichola. The marble edifice features 66 rooms, including an 1,800-square-feet Grand Presidential Suite. Have the "royal butler" arrange a day of activities, or simply escape to the Jiva Spa Boat. No wonder it routinely makes the Condé Nast Gold List of the world's best places to stay. Rooms from $576. tajhotels.com
Leela Palace, Udapuir This five-star property opened in 2009, but it blends in seamlessly with its historic surroundings, with the Aravali mountains providing a stunning backdrop. The Royal Suite features a hand-painted gold-leafed dome. Other special amenities - available to all guests - include an in-house astrologer, musicians and a palace tuk-tuk. The 2012 Robb Report deemed it one of the most exclusive retreats on Earth. Rooms from $385. theleela.com
Oberoi, Jaipur This grand resort, ranked No. 5 in the world for service by Travel + Leisure, spreads across 13 hectares, filled with gardens and fountains. For a change of pace book a luxury tent, fully air-conditioned with teak floors, a claw-foot tub and a private garden, encircled by a mud wall. Or go all out with a villa and relax in your private pool and outdoor dining pavilion. Rooms from $762. oberoihotels.com
Editor's note: The Oberoi Udaivilas, Udaipur, and The Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur, have been ranked 1 and 5 best resorts for service in the world respectively by the readers of Travel + Leisure, USA, in the World's Best Service Awards. Incorrect rankings appeared in an earlier version of this story.