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We should have visited the Taj Mahal at the first part of our trip. We realize that now.

One of the new Seven Wonders of the World, the renowned memorial to a Shah's dead wife, it is supposed to be the most beautiful monument of love on earth.

The quote about it that the Indian public seems to like most is that it is 'a teardrop on the face of eternity.'

It's an icon, the name of a blues singer, a metaphor for an act of love.

It's, well, it's pretty.

Really pretty?

Set in a lush garden of flowers, grass and trees (not part of the original plan, I overheard a guide say) and approached along a wide, fountain-dotted reflection pool, the Taj Mahal is a peaceful place to sit and look around.

The cool marble exterior takes on the color of the dawn and sunset. The dim interior is a hushed mausoleum.

But, I can't help but feel, despite its technical elegance, it's world-famous history (Boy meets girl, girl has too many babies, girl dies, boy is sad, boy's son locks him up to die alone), that it's just, well, pretty.

I contrast it to the mirrored palaces and pavilions of Udaipur, Bundi and Ajmer. The gardens in Bikaner. The marble work in Jaipur. Before we had seen these things, I think we would have appreciated this solemn place a little more.

**Click here to see photos from Agra**

 
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The Phantom.
“I thought you weren't interested in cars,” Dan said.


“Hmm....” I snapped another picture. “I like looking at them. I don't like talking about them much.”


That didn't stop us from spending over an hour exclaiming over (and coveting) the fifteen vintage cars on show in the Udaipur maharanas' collection.


From a Rolls Royce Phantom (only 50 made) to 1940s Jeeps, the automobiles were an interesting look into the garage of a family richer than I can imagine. Rolls Royces are great, but our favorite was the 1930 Model-A Ford. Classy!


Usually when we go to palaces or forts, we get to look at the old swords of the maharajas, the clothes worn by the princesses, the household items. Checking out the old vehicles was a refreshing change from our usual sightseeing, and—bonus--the entrance ticket included lunch!


 
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Every time we saw a palace in Rajasthan, it topped all the other palaces or forts we visited before it. Just when we thought that they couldn't get more elaborate, more luxurious, more quirky, they did.

The City Palace of Udaipur was no exception.

Built some 400 years ago by the still-present royal family of Udaipur, whose ancestors were so great they are referred to as maharanas instead of just plain old maharajas, it's a gargantuan opus set on the shore of a placid lake, crowned with pleasure gardens and studded with monochrome rooms decorated with imported tiles and glass. There's the pink room, the blue suite, the yellow hallway.


And the use of mirrors! There's the mirrored courtyard where coy colored-glass peacocks shine your reflection back to you. There's the mirrored hallway, where one side overlooks the white and blue houses of the Old Town and the other flashes you back at yourself. There's the mirrored dining room, that looks more like a modern disco than a royal mess hall.

Only a part of the complex is devoted to the museum. Some members of the royal family still live in the north wing. In a nearby building, a son of the current maharana keeps his classic car collection and his experimental solar-powered vehicles. Another wing has a giant collection of crystal furniture and accessories imported from Europe. Other parts are high-class restaurants and shops.

But the pearl of the maharanas' palaces has got to be the Lake Palace.

Made famous in the west by the James Bond flick Octopussy, the Lake Palace sits on a small island facing the City Palace. In the movie, it's the hideout of the Octopussy herself and her retinue of femme fatale bodyguards. The original island is completely built over, so the palace looks like its floating on the glassy lake.

Like the City Palace, it's still a residence, but for paying guests. People with the funds to fork out a thousand or so dollars a night can stay there, swim in the pool, eat in the famous restaurant and feel a little like 007. We had planned for the last month to ransom several days' budget on a single meal there to celebrate Dan's birthday. Unfortunately, since the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in 2008, the palace only accepts diners who are also staying at the hotel. We didn't have the cash for the room and the meal, so it will have to wait until we're filthy, stinking rich. Or get hired by the British Secret Service, whichever happens first.

We settled for a boat ride that passed by the Lake Palace and headed to Jagmandir Palace, another island retreat of the maharanas. Also a boutique hotel, it's slightly more reasonable at only several hundred dollars per night. We passed that one up too, and confined our lake excursion activities to taking pictures and trying to figure out where Bond's sidekick went fishing in the film.


Click here to see photos of Udaipur

 
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Monkeys relaxing at the palace.
If there's anything I like more than a palace, it's a ruined palace.

Better than a ruined palace? One with monkeys.

Boy, did I love Bundi.

One day there, we trudged up the cobblestone hill from the quaint, blue-painted city to the palace, swinging the peeling red monkey stick our guest house lent us for the day. The sunny morning of a Rajasthan spring was nearly too hot for us, but it didn't seem to bother the monkeys much. They rule the ramshackle avenues of this town.

Eating breakfast at a nearby rooftop cafe, we watched a monkey nearly make off with our egg sandwiches. Across the narrow alley below our cafe, a family of macaques sneaked across the roof to some pots left by a careless housewife. One by one they dipped their inquisitive paws into the leftovers. A cunning youngster jimmied a rooftop water cistern open and took a swim. A baby and his mother scavenged a garbage heap far below.

A woman a few doors down, a laundress hanging up bright clothes, wasn't having any monkeys in her washtubs, though. She kept a slingshot handy while she worked and took accurate aim at monkeys climbing the old city walls. They avoided her.

 At the 17th century palace, wires and screens had been put up over one of the rooms with the best-preserved murals. The marbled corridors and rooftop garden were fair game though, and monkeys swung from the trees and balustrades eyeing the tourists walking into the encaged area below; a strange zoo reversal.

Farther uphill, at the 14th century fort, was where our day changed from ordinary sightseeing to living out childhood Jungle Book fantasies. The red monkey stick didn't do much to scare off the loop-tailed langur monkeys who fed on leaves in the overgrown courtyards and patrolled the maze-like hallways.

And, while Kipling didn't visualize the exploits of a boy raised by wolves  while in Bundi, he did write part of his book Kim here. Our third day in Bundi, we tried to go a little farther than the monkeys' hilltop kingdom by hiring an autorickshaw (three-wheeled taxi) to take us to some nearby villages.

The driver was willing enough, if not real sure where us crazy foreigners wanted to go. His vehicle was another matter.

 We got about 30 minutes out of town, into a thorn-tree desert landscape of ochre fields and lonely brick houses, and stopped at an intersection for a cup of hot tea at a roadside shack. While we waited for the tea Dan went around to all the turbaned men drinking tea and gossiping and took their portraits. I tried to chat to two women waiting for a bus, a conversation that mostly consisted of smiles. We all waved goodbye exaggeratedly and repeatedly, which was why it was such an anticlimax when the rickshaw wouldn't start.

Five would-be mechanics, five attempts at pushing and one at towing later we got back to Bundi one adventure richer.


**Click here to see our photos from Bundi!**

 
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The Maharajas of Jaipur were so feared on the battlefield that Jai Singh II was declared to be greater than just one man.

Given the title “Sawai,” a man and a quarter, his descendants still honor their family's historical prowess by flying two flags--one full- and one quarter-sized.

The Jaipur royal family still live here and, according to their museum's audio guide, take an active interest in promoting their city and its tourism.

On our first full day here we took a look at the public portion of the regal City Palace, a giant compound constructed in red sandstone and cream marble in the middle of the pink-painted Old City.

Entering the gates of the palace was like walking into one of the books about British India I'd read as a teenager. Turbaned guards stand at attention (beside a metal detector, nowadays), and the 20-foot-tall wood and steel gates open wide enough to allow an elephant through (or at least a minibus full of tourists).

The rooms inside the Jaipur palace aren't ancient. The city was built in the 1700s, but some of the courtyard buildings were finished in the last century. Whatever century they were built in, they still impress today. Delicately painted archways, gold and silver inlay on the ceilings and plush Persian carpets are awesome in any time period.

After the main palace, we walked around to one of the most famous landmarks in Jaipur, the Hawa Mahal. Built on a smaller scale than the City Palace, the 'Palace of the Winds' was dedicated to Krishna.

Almost a whimsical construction of sandstone arches fluffed up like foamed milk, the palace's front rooms were a favorite of the women at the turn of the 19th century. In a time when women, especially the royal family, were expected to keep purdah behind a veil or screen at all times, the Hawa Mahal has several stories of latticed windows where the women could watch the street below without being seen.

After spying down on the markets and traffic, we decided to check it out in person and wandered for awhile.

It's a beautiful city and deservedly famous, but it's fame has brought about a harder line of competition in the tourist industry.

The sales people and rickshaw drivers here are the pushiest we've encountered yet in India. The first driver we chose to drive us back to our hotel stopped twice to try to bully us into visiting tourist shops. This would have been exasperating enough if the shops weren't the same ones whose touts we'd had such a hard time getting past on our walk. So, we abandoned that driver, which didn't make him very happy (he came after us and pulled Dan's hair, which precipitated a few choice Aussie words from Dan) but really, how many times can we say, "No shopping?"

Our hotel's manager, who seems like a conscientious and kind-hearted man, has warned us three times already in our short stay that we shouldn't trust any shops or rickshaw drivers and that unless we wanted to be cheated we'd be better off doing our shopping in another city. In his words, "Don't go shopping and you'll have a happy trip." No problem for us since we're really only interested in buying postcards at the moment, but what a pity for tourists who only have a short time in India.

**Click here to see our photos from Jaipur!**