June 29 - Agra --> Fatehpur Sikri --> Jaipur

Very early wakeup call: 5:45 am we jump down the bed and, without any breakfast (we'll care for it coming back) at 6:00 am, Gajju is waiting for usTaj Mahaloutside the hotel door, and we get on our shiny car (we discovered Gajju accurately cleans it every day!) our destination is Taj Mahal which must be seen either at dawn or at sunset. So we pay the entrance fee (the higher in this trip, 750 rps each (about 12 euros), much more than a luxurious dinner!)Indian visitors pay as high as 10 rps each, but you quickly get used to this double regime, all in all it has some good reasons to be so. The Taj Mahal is surrounded by a safety belt of about one kilometer, where motor vehicles cannot circulate, to protect the monument's white marbles from the thick traffic smog. No need to walk, anyway, not because it's too far, but we feel it better to pay a rickshaw ride than to bother rejecting the offers for it. riscio'All in all, 100 rps don't deserve fighting and getting upset. Our richshaw man will wait for us and get us back when we finish our visit.

Small digression: Rickshaw and autorichshaw, (also called three-wheelers or tuk tuk), are a very popular means of transport. We'll never know how much indian people pay for them, but when they find a western tourist and succeed in catching it, they're very happy smile). Usually you rent one of these equipments (including driver, naturally) and bargain a price for the whole trip you need. If it's a two-way trip, no problem, they'll wait for you until you come back, chatting, taking a rest in the shadow or whatever. When you come back there will be always one (not two, just one) yelling for you, and taking you back. Sometimes you're not sure if that is exactly the same rickshaw or the same driver (or both), but you needn't worry: for sure he will get you back, tuctucwithout need to pay anything more (naturally an additional tip is always welcome).

Coming back to the main story,Taj Mahal is indeed worth the visit, and more than that.
Franco's note: when organizing the trip, I was thinking of excluding Agra and the Taj Mahal from the trip, trying to avoid the one thing I knew more about, and the one I already had seen in a thousand pictures and learnt from a thousand tales. After having been there, I thank Maddalena who insisted to go. It's really magnificent, go there once in your life if you can!
Naturally we can confirm almost every word of the people who was there, and the monument is just simply one of the most beautiful things we ever saw. The one thing we regret is that the season was not the right one to see beautiful dawns and reddish sunsets. The monsoon season was very near, and the winds carried sand and dust over the air, so the sky was never really bright blue, and dawns and sunsets were always whitish and hazy rather than coloured, so we missed mainly two things: the classic pink Taj Mahal at dawn, and the reddish sunset in the Khuri desert, when we went there on a camelride in the late afternoon. No problem, you can't get it all in your life, and the place and the athmosphere were fantastic nonetheless. Taj MahalThe absence of crowd is what we get as a reward of being off-season visitor, and that is more than enough for us, expecially fo Franco who hates crowds and queues. So, after leaving our shoes in an almost empty shelf assigned to thispurpose, we barefoot stroll as in a dream in this magical place. The monument has been built by Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal (viz the Palace's jewel), and he choose the place not at random. The mausoleum is in fact built over a small hill at the border of Yamuna River, in a really enchanting setting. We would never go away, and take picture of every spot and view (sorry if you feel overwhelmed while browsing through the pics)

When eventually Taj subacqueowe got out of the site, the rickshaw man (was really this one?) is waiting for us, carrying us back to the car where Gajju is waiting for us in his turn. The rickshaw ride will be a slalom aamong the child trying to sell us postcards,puppets, Taj Mahal models and other knick-knacks. Eventually, I give up and accept to buy a fancy, unlikely, kitsch Under-The-Snow Taj Mahal! Really beautiful... Appreciating the purchase, the rickshaw driver said I was a "good maharani" (a good lady). Back at the hotel we have a huge luxurious breakfast selfservice, in a chilly cold airconditioned breakfast room (good for americans, not for italians). We abundantly help ourselves with chicken meatballs, naan, omelettes, spiced potatoes, fresh fruit, samosas, tea, coffee, sweets, and eventually get out at 9:30 ready for our new visits.

Agra Fort or Red Fort is waiting for us for a 250 rp entrance fee each.The Fort, first Agra Fortof the many ones we'll see in this trip, is really beautiful and is a good sample of what we will see in other similar places. Grand red sandstone ramparts guard the outside, and the inside is red with the sandstone and shiny white with the marbles. A wide, deep moat is surrounding the external walls. Crossing the majestic Amar Sigh Gate we get in, and we first visit the Jahngir Mahal. This was the main zenana Palace, use by the rajput wives of emperor Akbar. The Palace complex includes rooms, halls, gardens and galleries. After that we visit the Khas Mahal (private Palace), where the emperor lived. It is a really impressive white marble Palace, with amazingly decorated interiors. Just outside the Palace there's a large square garden called Anguri Bagh, with a beautiful pattern of flowerbeds. Going on with the Fort's tour you find the Diwan i Khas, the private audiences hall. On a large terrace two thrones can be seen, the marble one is white and the slate one id black. These thrones were used to watch elephant fightings. After that there's the public audience hall (Diwan I Am), with the ususal columnade to suppport the ceiling, oen on three sides. Everything is really impressive and beautiful.

When we leave Agra we head towards the ghost town of Fatehpur Sikri, Fatehpur Sikrisome 40 km apart. What we saw is a ghost town with a thousand visitors! A lot of local people was visiting the archeological place, Today it's sunday, and lots of families with children came here to enjoy the place and to learn some history. ths usual crowd of rubbish vendors, anyway, knw quite well who's the target visitors, so we had to go through the usual no-thanks-really-don't-want-it procedure. We enjoyed the place, anyway. we had a couple of hour walk in the site, and apart from the hot humid sticky weather everything was alright. The buildings are really remarkable, everything is sandstone-red, and also the visitor crowd was pleasant, everyone very respectful, people asking for a photo with us, some trying to have a small chat, someone else just sayng hallowhereareyoufrom.

On our way to Jaipur Gajju stops in another of those tourist hangouts, but we had warned him we didn't wanto to be robbed as the day before. This time was really better, good samosas fro Franco, good vegetable biryani ricefor me, and we discover that drinking hot tea is a good way to quench your thirst when weather it's so hot. The bill is also acceptable this time (we asked for prices before eating, though...). We travel for more than five hours to reach Jaipur, and I'm really shocked at seeing a supposed-to-be expressway crowded with cows, dogs, camel-drawn carts, tractors, bycicles, and lots of people walking in it. It's just not our IDEA of a motorway...

Well, the fact is that it is not possible to drive over 80 kmph, it's not only the law, the road extremely dirty and crowded with trucks, passing each other so often that sometimes you can't remember if yourrunning lane is left or right. We found ourselves in the car passin a truck, with the other lane completely busy because a truck was passing another truck, COMING TOWARDS US! Sometimes per stradayou just close your eyes and hope you'll open them again. Trucks and wild ovartakings are not the only danger, another one is the number of animals of various kind walking on the roads. They are everywhere, even on motorways, not only cows and buffaloes, but also camels, sheep, goats, pigs, donkeys, dogs (no cats though, I don't know why). Any western driver would go completely crazy after no more than half an hour on an indian road. One thing I've not been able to ascertain: It seems that westerners can't positively drive an indian car, that is you can't hire a car at the airport and drive it yourself, but I'm not sure about it (anyways it wouldn't be a good idea). Last remark: Roadworks seem to be a rule more than an exception, here. You can see road yards everywhere. There are groups of workers (Franco's note: mainly female workers. India is a civilized countrynana and men mainly manage roadworks, while women do the real job) They do their duty using very old but effective tools. You never lavori stradalisee a caterpillar or any mechanized motro driven device. They do everything with just shovels and iron or basins or wicker baskets to carry debris away. Their sarees always bright clean, their basket at hand, they look like the many women we see working in the fields. Everything is done without rushing, in a sort of calm resignation, as if that was the only thing to be done in that place and in that moment.

One way or the other, we eventually get to enter Jaipur, Shapura Houseand as soon as we arrive we dive into our beautiful hotel named Shahpura House. A bitoff the town centre, Shapura House is a small palace built to resemble the Maharajas'palaces we visited in these days, with finely decorated ceilings and walls, and with an adequate furniture too. Our room is furnished in a fairy-tale style, with a canopy bed and lots of brightly coloured pillows, rugs and and glass walls. there's a beautiful Shahpura Houseterrace, and the lobby looks like very chich old living room. It's almost too much, a bit kitsch, like many other things we see here, but we are pleased with this peculiar athmosphere! OK, even if it seems it will be raining in a minnute or two, we decide to try the swimming pool, and get ready for that. As soon as we reach the pool, the firs drops of heavy rain begin to fall, it's really magical, we enjoy that moment, and we realize this is one of the very few places where we will stay for two days! Great, we just relax in the water (water everywhere, it's raining heavily by now) and then we run to our room to drink a Kingfisher beer as an aperitif to our dinner.

Cena da KarniTonight we will go to Karni's house, he invited us for dinner and that has been very kind of him. Gajju takes us up at 7:30 pm sharp and drives us to Karni's home. Karni's wife is cooking for us a tipycal indian meal, with dahl and thali and nan. While we dine, we get to know Karni's brother, wife, sister-in-law and his two very cute daughters, We definitely enjoy our meal (even if with a bit of embarassment, because Karni insists to serves us our meal and don't get to eat himself until we are finished!) After the meal, we settle our travel bill with Karni, and eventually get to sleep in our fairy tale room at Shapura House.

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