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A Tale Of Four Cities - That Tick All Five Senses

By Seb Thompson, Manchester Airport Press Office Manager

Lively busy streets, scores of interesting people, jam packed traffic with horns seemingly playing in symphony. You could easily think it’s the crowded, roadwork filled Manchester at present. However, it’s actually somewhere much warmer, mesmerising and thanks to Jet Airways a lot closer to all us Mancunians. That is the incredible India.

I was lucky enough to lead the first press trip out of Manchester alongside the airline, and we may have all started off as business associates, but after the intense and enthralling five days together all left as friends. Jet Airways started flights from Manchester to Mumbai, India in November 2018. My blog on the inflight experience can be found here.

The six of us all met at check in bright and early on a cold Monday morning for our Asian adventure. Fast forward nine hours and we touched down in the economic heart of India, Mumbai. Throughout the entire stay we were lucky enough to be staying at ITC Hotels, which stands for the India Tobacco Company, our first being ITC Maratha, a short hop from the airport and the perfect location to access the metropolis of Mumbai.

Welcome gift and my room at the ITC Maratha hotel, Mumbai

Formerly known as Bombay, Mumbai is a city of contrasts. Modern meets the old and there is something for everyone to see. Commerce, culture, culinary delights, it delivers on all levels. Our city tour started with a visit to a gigantic outside laundry, which is awash and blazing with colour and a real feast for the eyes. The juxtaposition of the glorious shades of silks alongside the grey concrete jungle is a visual treat.

Mumbai's outdoor laundry is a visual treat

Gandhi’s house is also well worth a visit to learn all about the man who peacefully worked for independence, which was delivered in 1947 by Louis Mountbatten (the Duke of Edinburgh’s uncle). Throughout India echoes of the Empire still linger, and such praise for Mountbatten. Seventy years on India is flourishing under its own steam and one of the fastest growing economies.

Ghandi's house in Mumbai

The last stop in Mumbai before we head to the airport is the Gateway of India. A towering archway, not too dissimilar to London’s Marble Arch, built to welcome the Queen’s grandparents, George V and Queen Mary when they visited in 1911.

Seb Thompson at the Gateway of India, Mumbai

After a short flight we landed in Delhi, the country’s capital. After about an hour’s drive (you slowly get used to India’s traffic and lack of right of way, where crossing the road is an artform) we got to our hotel, the ITC Maurya. A stunning property - visually spectacular with a colonial vibe and scent, our rooms were sensational and came with personal butlers. Ours was called Akul and was always on hand to help with any request great or small. Be that taking the perfect group picture, making a restaurant booking or ensuring you were awake bright and early for a day of exploring.

A warm welcome and comfortable room at ITC Maurya

That night we dined in the hotel’s show piece restaurant, Dum Pukht. We had an extensive tasting menu that was a gastronomic journey in itself. It tantalised every taste bud and for just £50 per head is worth every penny. The prawns were the real standout dish, which delivered a taste sensation packed full of Indian spice and wonder.ITC Maurya hotel tasting menu

After the best night’s sleep I’d had in ages it was time to see, feel and experience all the delights Delhi had to offer. From the moment we hit the road I fell in love with the city. Our first stop was the Qutub Minar, the world’s tallest brick minaret, which construction started on in 1192. Situated in the Qutub complex (an UNESCO World Heritage Site), the minaret and other monuments in the gardens are all carved with Indo-Muslim designs and Quranic verse. It offers a real calming influence away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Qutub Minar, in the Qutub UNESCO World Heritage Site

Suri, our guide for Delhi, impressed with his knowledge of the city. Alongside the typical tourist sites, we were presented with the little-known fragments of culture hidden just out of sight, which without whom we would never have found all the fascinating sights, smells and sounds to behold. The busy streets diffuse around you; roadside sellers calling out to you and the sizzle of street food permeating the air. The usual drab city buildings garnished with the flamboyant colours I had come to recognise as truly Indian. One startling feature of the city streets was the relaxed approach to the electrical cables which hung from buildings, so dense they became as twisting vines in the concrete jungle. Along the busy streets roadside shoe-shiners sat side by side with dentists, surgeons and a myriad of food stalls. All jostling for trade and business as tuk-tuks darted through at great speed in all directions like a giant living pinball machine. This place really is an assault on the senses and gives a glimpse into Indian way of life.

Busy street life in Mumbai

Other key sights to see in Delhi are the Red Fort, an imposing building which was the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal dynasty for nearly 200 years, and the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India.

The Red Fort, Delhi

The Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India

As dusk drew in, it was time to leave Delhi and hit the road for a three-hour drive to Agra, the place we had all been most excited for, the home of the Taj Mahal.

That night we stayed at the ITC Mughal in Agra, another charming property with lovely rooms and restaurants. We dined in Peshwari, an authentic Indian restaurant where using your hands is encouraged. We each donned a bib and got stuck in with our fingers, a very novel, yet sensory culinary experience.

Dining with our fingers at Peshawri restaurant in Agra

We opted for a sunrise tour of the Taj Mahal which meant leaving the hotel at 5.50am to capture the ancient monument in beautiful dawn light. Commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 for his favourite wife who died in childbirth, the Taj Mahal really is the ultimate symbol of love. It took more than 20 years to build, is made out of ivory-white marble and is encrusted with 28 different types of precious and semi-precious stones including jasper, turquoise and sapphire. Seeing it for the first time is totally awe inspiring, perfectly symmetrical every glance and angle is stunning and the closer you get the colours change and its presence swallows you up. It really is a moving experience, one that will stay with me for a long time.

The Taj Mahal

Shah Jahan planned to build a black Taj Mahal the other side of the river behind the white one, you can even see the foundations. However, his son stopped him and put him under house arrest in the nearby Agra Fort (an enchanting walled city and somewhere else we visited, which is worth a trip). For eight years he longingly looked out at the Taj Mahal in the distance where his true love was housed in the stunning mausoleum.

At the Agra Fort

After a morning of sheer romanticism and awe we headed to Jaipur, our fourth and final city. The four-hour drive to Jaipur was an adventure in itself. By now we were all familiar with the hectic traffic system of India, where vehicles pass by at all angles, sides and directions. Going through the countryside to Jaipur however allowed us to see more wildlife en-route. Horses, camels, wild boar, chickens all wander the roads, some wild, some carrying passengers and cargo. The animal you really have to watch out for (and be careful of) is passing cows. Cows are sacred animals in India and if one gets in front of your vehicle you have to wait to allow it to pass on its own accord. Cue animal jokes on how did the cow cross the road!

We arrived early evening in Jaipur and it was fascinating to see the Pink City lit up. Named after Jai Singh II, who founded it in 1727, the city is the capital of the state of Rajasthan. ITC Rajputana was our hotel and like the other three properties this one also did not disappoint. We were treated to a traditional Rajasthani dinner at the hotel with a wealth of local curries to sample. Each little silver dish housed a taste sensation and was a million miles away from the very British tasting tikka masala.

Incredible Rajasthani food at ITC Rajputana hotel, Jaipur

Our final day in India was spent exploring the Pink City, Jaipur is named this as a wealth of buildings were painted this colour to welcome a royal visit in 1876 by the Prince of Wales at the time. Our exploration started off at Jantar Mantar an outdoor observatory that was originally built in 1734. It houses ancient sundials (that are more accurate than my modern wristwatch) and other astronomical instruments. For the astrology fans, it also has devices for each of the 12 zodiac signs that align with the individual star constellations.

Beautiful buildings and the Jantar Mantar outdoor observatory in Jaipur

From here we went to the City Palace which is a must do in Jaipur. Stunning architecture sits side by side with impressive works of art, textiles and a courtyard with four incredible gates, each designed to represent a different season. Our favourite was the autumn gate, which was bedecked and adorned with peacocks in the most fabulous shade of blue and is dedicated to Vishnu, one of the principal Hindu deities.

The Autumn Gate at Jaipur's City Palace

Onwards we travelled to Amer Fort an imposing fort nestled on the side of a hill and built in 1532. There are two ways up – elephant ride or jeep. We settled for the jeep which was an incredible experience as we held on as we zipped up meandering steep country lanes as hawkers tried to sell us a range of novelty items. A top tip here is to brush up on your bartering skills as there is always a deal to be had. On reaching the summit the views were completely breath-taking and the fort with all its courtyards is another piece of Indian architectural delight.

Amer Fort, built in 1532

From Amer we drove back to our hotel, with a quick pit stop at the Jal Mahal (water palace) for a final group photo opp. We had a few hours spare before our flight home so enjoyed the hotel facilities. The pool at the ITC Rajputana provides a lush oasis to relax and soak up the Indian sun, whilst the spa is pure heaven – I can recommend the head, shoulder and back massage! Emma my masseuse found knots I didn’t even know I had. Feeling refreshed it was time for our flight home via Mumbai. Another seamless experience and we landed over an hour early in Manchester.

Our final group photo at the Jal Mahal (Water Palace) and relaxing at the pool at the ITC Rajputana hotel

My Indian adventure has stayed with me since arriving back in the cold rainy wintery UK. I don’t think I have been to any other place that delivers on so many levels and throws so much at you. The sights, the sounds, the smells and tastes really add to the overall experience in such a touching way.

Experience is definitely the word I would use to describe the trip rather than a holiday. Its charm and character will stay with me for a long time, and I look forward to returning and exploring more of this wonderful country, which is now thanks to Jet Airways in easy reach of everyone in the North.

Need to know:

Jet Airways fly five times a week to Mumbai from Manchester Airport. It makes Manchester the only airport outside of London with a direct service to the economic heart of India. Using an Airbus A330-200, Jet Airways has 254 seats across Première (business) and economy classes.

Economy return fares (Manchester-Mumbai) are from £491 and Première (business class) £1,558 (December 2018). See www.jetairways.com for more information.

ITC Hotels, The Luxury Collection – twelve exceptional, authentically Indian hotels and resorts, each one inspired, in name and architecture, by the ancient dynasties and culture of the diverse regions of India. This trip stayed at the Maratha in Mumbai, the Maurya in New Delhi, the Mughal in Agra and the Rajputana in Jaipur.

See www.itchotels.in for more information

Tamarind Global provided all our on the ground arrangements, tourist attractions and transfers.

See www.tamarindglobal.com for more information