June 28 - Delhi --> Agra

The morning after we get down the stairs to the basement where the breakfast room is. The breakfast room is quite lousy, the breakfast thanks God is alright, we have plain paratha, oven cooked aloo (potatoes) with indian tea. At 8 Mr. Karni goes away (we'll meet him again in Jaipur in two days), and we're ready to start our adventure, lead by Gajju in his shiny car. New Delhi is a modern town ,and as such it's quite rationally built, with gardens, wide roads , but it's also chaotic, noisy, dirty. People is everywhere, noone ever goes at home, cause the street is their home. Life never stops, here, and after a while you realize what you miss more is a bit of quiet and silence. Fortunately cows are no more allowed to stroll in the big town centres, so central Delhi is immune at least to this problem (but we'll see lots of them anywhere else). Immediately you understand the following days will be packed with annoying vendors, India Gatebeggars and people offering themselves as a guide, proposing to explain and to lead you to their special shops, always trying to get some spare rupees. The only place where you can stay alone is your hotel room, everything else is public, no privacy concept. Well, after all, they do everything in public: Praying, sleeping, eating, and yes,, other bodily needs, also; but, you know, you can get used to almost anything, so we try to integrate, and cows layng down in the streets become so natural that you don't notice them anymore.

Our New Delhi tour has to be quite quick, we have to leave to Agra in the afternoon, but Gajju manages to bring us to visit some very interesting spot in town. In the early morning we go to see the India Gate, a majestic arch 42 meters high which is a monument in memory of all the soldiers dead in the first world war. Their names are inscribed by the thousands in the stone. The monument, built in sandstone, stands against Rashtrapati Bhawan, the avenue leading to the President residence and other government venues. It reminds a bit the "Arc de triomphe" in Paris. All around the gate there are very neat gardens, plenty of fountains, and we imagine this place crowded with people taking some rest in the green, but at this time of day the place is uncrowded, and apart from some early-morning rubbish vendor we enjoy the spot in a relatively calm and pleasant athmosphere.

Not far from India Gate stands the beaautiful complex of Humayun Tomb and Mausoleum, Humayun Tomb(Humayun was a Moghul emperor). The Mausoleum is a wonderful sample of Indian-Muslim architecture. The gardens are appealing, and for a while we are tempted to stay and enjoy the athmosphere, but, alas, we're on a vacation, so there's no time to rest, and we have to see everything! The Monument dates back to sixteenth century, and it's a perfect sample of Moghul architecture. It stands on a red sandstone platform, and the walls are characterized by arches opening on small rooms. The main building has high arched portals, and a big dome (38 mt high) stands above it. White marble decorations, like the white dome, create a beautiful interplay with the red sandstone background, and are typical of the islamic style in India. Every member of the Moghul dinasty had a great palace built amidst beautiful gardens surrounded by walls with monumental arched gateways. The palace served as the imperial court residence and, after the emperor's death, as his Mausoleum. In teh next days we'll see some example, including the magnificent Taj Mahal, perhaps the tipping point of this kind of architecture. Inside the Monument, the octagonal central room contains Humayun's tomb but, as in the Taj Mahal, the real grave is in the basement beneath this room. At the room's corners each one of the four smaller rooms contains the tombs of important Moghul personalities of Humayun's times. Humayun Tomb has been declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO, as many of the monuments we'll visit in the following days.

About 10 km outside the town centre, our third target today is Qutb Minar,qtab minhara large archeological zone . The complex includes various Hindu and Moghul style monuments, most of them are just ruins. Perfectly preserved (or maybe restored?) stands a huge red sandstone tower, some 78 meters high. It gives the place his name (Minar means Minaret), and is really outstanding and majestic. The name suggests it was used as a Minaret for muhezzins to pray loud leading the people's prayers. It was built by Moghul Muslims in 13th century, and a twin one, even bigger and higher, should have been built by its side. Teh construction in fact began, but it was stopped and never finished (see the picture). According to a different explanation, the place was in fact a much older astronomic observatory, built around the 4th century and constituting Delhi's first inhabited core. The fact that the tower was a minaret in fact is prone to the objection that non man has such a strong voice in order to be heard from the ground while yelling at some 78 meters height...

Eventually, moving a few Km in Delhi hinterland, we reach a modern temple, namely the Bahá'í TempleBahai Temple. It is known also as the "Lotus Temple" for its shape inspired by the semi-closed lotus flower. Gajju, with his somewhat lame english explains thai it is attended by people of all religons, we feel it's more Muslim oriented. Coming back home and doing some research on the subject (yes, vacations must be an excuse to learn something, what else otherwise?) we discover that Bahaism is a new, quite recent, self-standing religion! We get our shoes off, and get in, joining a long row of visitors. The marble interior seems quite cold, there's a lot of sitting benches, everything is quite simple and plain (apart from the grandiosity of the place itself), so different from the hyperdecorated temples and places we'll see in the next few days! Anyways, strange and striking! Outside the temple, wonderful gardens and water pools (the Temple is surrounded by water, just like a lotus flower!) I never get enough of taking pictures of the place and the people rejoicing there!

Well, it's now time to go. Gajju starts the engine and we fly wink to Agra, Uttar Pradesh. It's a 250 km trip. Two hours italian trip, five hours indian trip. Event in the next days, we realize the mean speed of a trip by car is 50 km per hour. This is due to strict company policy (and maybe national laws, but we never had a firm confirmation about this) of never overcoming 80 km per hour speed. The road status, the crossing cows, the truck traffic and dimensions, the city town crossings get to lower the average speed to 50. You can't do anything about it. We stop in a Gajju suggested place to eat something, and this is the first and last time we do like this. The place is a tourist-bus hangout. This season has no tourist bus, but the concept is the same. If you're on a tourist bus you can't avoid stopping where the driver decides, but if you have a private car you certainly can! In this kind of places your driver will get a free meal while you are being ripped in another dining room. I don't want to think that Gajju did it on the purpose of getting a free meal or some commission, I believe he did it for making us, western tourists, comfortable in a clean place. But in this kinda places you end up spending at least three times the normal prices for a meal. It's not for the final figure, which is anyway a very low one, but we don't like being cheated, that's all. After learning this lesson, in the following days we either buy some fruit and biscuits for a quick lunch, or explicitly point to specific restaurants.

Short before reaching Agra, we stop in a suburb named Sikandra, some 10 km from Agra's centre, to see Akbar's Tomb. Akbar TombAkbar was one of the major emperors of the Moghul dinasty. The Mausoleum stands amidst a beautiful, quite, huge garden full of grazing antelopes and peacocks and monkeys and the ubiquitous, cute little squirrels very similar to chipmunks. You enter the site crossing an imposing red sandstone gateway, really impressive and one of the most important building in this complex. Wonderful white marble inlays decorate the four minarets. The Mausoleum is typical in its style, end closely resembles Humayun Tomb complex and teh Taj Mahal overall architecture. The structure includes a Charbagh (viz. a garden-in-quarters, a square garden subdivided in four square parts by water streams) garden. The complex has avenues and walkways, and some of them are crowded with monkeys. They are not common everydays monkeys but gray langurs, holy monkeys because hindu god Hanuman is one of them! We like the place, and Maddalena discovers to be an interesting subject for many indian visitors, begging for a photo with her (maybe the blond hairs?). We laugh of being tourists and at the same time being a point of attraction... and naturally let them shoot (with a camera smile)

Eventually we arrive at Clarks Shiraz Hotel, a very luxurious resort (but we still have to see the following ones!) and a stiff maharaja-style dressed porter portiereequipped with red-and-gold turban and black whiskers. The hotel is very nice, and we can't stand a plunge in the swimming pool. Maddalena is a bit embarassed for being closely observed by always present personnel, wacthing that we follow the prescriptions for diving in the water. So, following written instructions we take a shower before bathing, but we forget cleansing our feet in the pink water filled vessels at the pool's border, so they gently tell us to do so! It's now almost dark, refreshed and relaxed we go out in search of a restaurant, and very close to the hotel we enter Rajo Restaurant, where we'll have an excellent dinner eating two different thalis, and drinking two kingfisher beers (this drink will become a must in our dinners). We discover that the price for the two bottles is just about as high (better, as low) as the sum for all the dinner, and this will hold wherever we will go. This night we spent 1300 rupees including tips (less than 10 euros each), and this will be the higher bill we'll pay for a dinner in our trip! OK, now our first busy indian day is over and we go to sleep with pleasure. Tomorrow we will have a very very early wake-up call!

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