I have never thought of myself as a city girl and even less so as a big city girl. In fact, more often than not during my travels, I get itchy feet after about 2 days of being in crowded places. I would have imagined the same to happen in India – and even more so, with the immense crowds, chaos, noise, pollution and dirt that characterises this country. And for a short while, this was the case: I arrived in Varanasi and the minute I got out of the airport, I was so overwhelmed by the traffic, the dust and the honking cars that I said to myself I’d buy a plane ticket to fly home as soon as I got to my hotel.
Imagine my surprise when I realised that none of that bothered me (well OK, I admit that the pollution did make my throat sting a bit). I slept just fine everywhere I went (and with no earplugs in!), even during Diwali – the Indian equivalent of New Year’s Eve, which involves a great deal of fireworks and crackers being popped in small alleys, where the noise reverberates even more. I went to bed with fireworks exploding behind my window, thinking there was no way I’d be able to sleep through that. I’d fall asleep moments later to wake after 7 hours, completely rested, and to discover that the fireworks had not ceased all night and were still going on.
Not only that but I truly enjoyed walking around the streets of India’s cities, getting lost in the markets, looking at the colourful stalls, taking in the vibrant colours of the saris women wear, and searching for hidden corners where I could observe a little bit of the real life of the country, of its beautiful people and traditions.
Of all the cities I have visited in India, I found some to be truly special. They had that unique atmosphere, the beautiful attractions, the colours, the light, the people – they had that something that made me fall in love with them. I can’t wait to go back to India to discover more hidden corners, but in the meantime, these are my favourite cities in India.
I know, I know – a girl that can’t wait to get away from a big city enjoying India’s capital does sound strange. But somehow, I did. Delhi is an incredible mix of history and modernity, of peace and chaos. Next to a perfectly-kept historical landmark, there the mayhem of a market. Modern, luxury cars stand in traffic next to tuc tucs that are falling apart. The younger crowds meet in the trendy bars, restaurants and clubs of Connaught Place. And the modern metro is the perfect representation of the city: women wearing the most colourful saris stand beside woman who follow the latest fashion trends. And all of them are invariably on their smartphones. It is a city of contrasts and I enjoyed all of them.
I thought I’d leave chaos and noise behind in Delhi, then I arrived in Jaipur and realised that no, there is no way one can escape the mayhem in any Indian city. Yet, I liked Jaipur. I took an evening stroll in search of some food, had to cross what may well be the busiest street I have ever seen (picture cars, tuc tucs, rickshaws, bikes and motorbikes, buses, trucks, cows and pedestrians all pushing their way through) to get to the metro station, which was incredibly quiet (no wonder, everyone was in the street!). I also got to explore the market, which was a feast of lights and noise, and very entertaining. One last reason I enjoyed Jaipur is the gorgeous Amber Fort – one of the most beautiful in Rajasthan.
Truth be told, I hardly got to explore Agra. But I am bound to love a city that offers easy access to one of the most incredible sites I have ever seen in my life – the Taj Mahal. Some people prefer going at the break of dawn to ensure they get to explore the Taj when it is still fairly empty. I visited right before sunset and although there were lots of people, I loved the experience. And the light was pretty special too.
Known as the Blue City, what made me really like Jodhpur is the gorgeous Mehrangarh Fort that can be seen from a distance, as it rises, beautiful and proud on a hill. If the view of the fort is spectacular, the view from the fort is just as impressive: the blue houses of the Brahmins can be seen in the distance as the sun sets behind the city. It gave me the impression of an incredibly mysterious city that begs to be explored.
My visit to Udaipur started off nice and quiet with a lovely boat tour around Lake Pichola, from which I enjoyed a gorgeous view of the City Palace. It took a turn for the worst when I went to the City Palace: I happened to be in Udaipur right after Diwali, when masses of Gujarati people were also visiting the city (the closest place for them to travel to) for their holidays. When it became obvious that all I’d see in the City Palace were the heads of those standing in line in front of me, I decided to leave to explore the backstreets of the city. I ended up in the local market, and it was a wholly different scene: goats, dogs and cows roamed about; people went about their usual business; and on a hidden corner a barber was giving a child a haircut. It was fun to observe!
I spent a few days in Jaisalmer, and I could have easily stayed longer. Much smaller than other cities in India, it is still full of life and interesting sights with easy access to the gorgeous Thar desert and sand dunes. And there is a beautiful and, as I discovered, unique fort. The main difference between the forts of other cities in Rajasthan and that of Jaisalmer is that here people (around 3,000) still live in the fortified city, which is packed with temples, palaces, small shops, restaurants and boutique hotels. The local authorities encourage tourists to stay in accommodation located outside the fort, as the city is collapsing onto itself. Needless to say, it is beautiful to explore.
There are no words to describe what Varanasi is. It is chaos yet peace. It is noise yet silence. It is where everything begins and then ends. There simply is no point in visiting India without going to Varanasi. The holiest city for Hindus, the Old City is a medina of intricate narrow alleys where life goes on at a slow pace. Sacred rituals take place by the Ganges: cremations, in the hope of breaking the samsara and reaching liberation of the soul; bathing, to wash away sins; and the rhythmic Ganga Aarti, the offering of fire to the mother Ganges. This is by far the most intense city I visited in India, one that will leave a mark on any traveller, and simply unmissable.
Claudia Tavani is a former human rights lawyer and academic. She left her career to follow her real passion, which involves rafting down mighty rivers, zip lining across canyons and trekking to the craters of active volcanoes. Through her blog – My Adventures Across the World – she shares anecdotes and stories, she hopes to inspire others to travel, she gives plenty of travel tips and occasionally goes on a rant. She’s on a mission to hike up all volcanoes in the world! To see more pictures of Claudia’s India trip with On The Go, check out her Instagram gallery.