11 Monday April, 2011
Like all of us here at Ampersand Travel, Jessica loves India. In fact, we’d go as far as saying she’s a tad obsessed – despite having been on 11 research trips to India in the last four years, she even goes there on her personal holidays! She is currently glowing from a family holiday during which she enjoyed sharing her passion for the country as well as discovering a few new haunts.
Her new favourite place? Hyderabad. Here, she tells us a little bit about her trip and why this city is set to become India’s newest and most exciting luxury cultural destination.
As some of you know, I visited Hyderabad in January and was blown away by this extraordinary city, jam-packed with history and interweaving cultures. My trip filled me with such excitement that I went back again, this time with my parents, and have recently returned even more eager to spread the word about this undiscovered luxury destination.
Not only has it got a new world-class international airport (recently voted top 5 in the world) with direct flights from London, there is also a phenomenal new hotel: the Taj Falaknuma Palace. I was totally capivated by it – not just by the opulence and grandeur of the hotel, but by the service, which is exceptional. You can go to a lot of hotels around India that are wonderful in terms of their architecture and design, but they’re not followed up with the excellent service and food. However, this place is all-round sensational. It is a true destination hotel: the spa is fantastic, the food is divine (nb. the watermelon basil martinis are to die for) and the swimming pool is sensational. It is also very peaceful – you can hear the birds and breathe in the greenery all around you. Set in an amazing location on top of a hill, you can almost step away from the city whilst still feeling a part of it. It’s a mainly Islamic city and you can hear the calls to prayer at different times of the day, so even when you’re in the palace you still have a sense of life going on around you.
The palace, built in the late 19th Century, has a fascinating history. European royalty and heads of states all stayed here and staff do special things to transport guest back to that era. They carry out quite a few of the formalities that the Nizam maintained when he stayed here, like being greeted by a horse and carriage on arrival. Our flight landed and we were driven up the hill by car where our carriage awaited us at the clock tower. We were greeted by a turbaned man in all his finery saying, “Welcome madam, please allow me to take your bags,” whilst helping me aboard. We were then escorted clockwise up the entrance steps of the palace as they scattered us with rose petals. So right from you entering the grounds you get transported into a completely new world. These things are done sometimes and they’re awful and you just think, “No! Not more rose petals!”, but here it makes you feel really wonderful and special.
Princess Ezra – the current Nizam’s first wife – supervised the restoration of the palace and she spent much of the last 10 years making every element as true to form as possible. It is like walking into a National Trust house filled with the Nizam’s original furniture, enormous chandeliers, a formal dining room with the longest dining table you’ve ever seen, and a rather wonderful ‘ladies gossip room’. The last Nizam to reside here (in his time, the richest man in the world) had a room where he used to throw all of his diamonds, coins and jewels into – a pit, basically, that he used to chuck his valuables into, including a huge semi-precious stone which he used as a paperweight. The palace has an in-house historian who really brings the whole experience to life (not that you need that doing for you). And it felt personal: less like a hotel and more like staying in somebody’s home – like a homestay in Kerala, just a quite a lot grander!
As for Hyderabad itself, what I love about it is, unlike many of India’s more popular tourist destinations, here visitors can experience a real, living and breathing Indian city. You don’t get disturbed at all walking around the city – there are no touts and not many other tourists. It’s about seeing unstaged events like people weaving saris or making bangles and knowing that they’re doing it because it’s their trade, their livelihood, not because the tourists want to see it. We have excellent guides in Hyderabad who really allow you to get under the skin of the city, whilst also making sure that you relate to what you’re seeing. Within the city limits you can explore ancient bazaars, the monumental Qutab Shahi Tombs, the impenetrable Golcanda Fort and follow in the footsteps of Lieutenant James Kirkpatrick, whose story is told by William Dalrymple in the White Mughuls. We also visited a weaver who sources textiles from the surrounding villages in Andhra Pradesh. She’s a woman in her late 70s who has been sourcing new materials from around the region all her life. You can buy the most beautiful scarves here for about £1 – and these are the type of products that you would find at Habitat, whom she used to supply to. But the loveliest thing is that it’s not commercial at all; she is just incredibly passionate.
The whole experience totally took my breath away. Where else can one retrace the steps of Nizams, European royalty, enchanting Begums, distinguished heads of state and walk the walk of kings staying in one of India’s most beautiful palaces perched 2000 feet above the city?