Sent on January 24 2016
There’s a famous family story my mother used to tell. When she was a child growing up in Tralee, Co. Kerry, the local solicitor and his wife went for a holiday to Paris, which was pronounced Paw-rus at the time. (And you still hear quite a lot of Irish folk pronouncing it Paw-rus to this day.) Anyhow, this was the 1920’s, so Paris must have seemed as impossibly faraway and glamorous as New York to a child from Ulan Bator. When the two of them returned to Tralee, they were assaulted with questions. What was Paris like? What did you do? Did you see the Champs Elysée and the Eiffel Tower? Did you meet James Joyce? (I made the last question up.)
Answers came there none. The woman only clasped her hand to her bosom, and with a faraway look, she would breathe rapturously, “Oh Paw-rus, Paw-rus: ‘tis no wonder they call ye Paw-rus.” Nobody knew what the fekk she meant but she kept her mystery to the end. Who knows, she may have had a dodgy snail on the first night and spent the week confined to bed, or she could have been ravished by a boulevardier and offered a solo spot at the Moulin Rouge, but her gnomic utterance made everyone think she’d been taken to heaven and back.
So I am tempted to say, Gwalior, Gwalior, ‘tis no wonder they call ye Gwalior, because I would love to be able to gloss over this place and let you think our visit here was too wonderful for words, but I can’t. You might be tempted to come here and then you would blame me.
Gwalior is no more of a dump than Agra. It has, however, only the one building of immense cultural significance, and that is the Fort. The Fort is terrific, but the Taj Mahal it ain’t. Other than that, it has the Maharajah’s palace which was built during the heyday of the Raj and is a huge and rather lovely place but you wouldn’t go five hundred miles just to see it. You might go five miles to see it – but I live twenty miles from Waddesdon which is splendid, I gather, but I’ve never been round it. Are you getting my drift?
But let’s start with our arrival. Sateesh, our increasingly likeable driver who has been with us since the Unfortunate Briefcase Incident in Delhi, delivered us safely to the Usha Kiran Palace hotel, which used to be the guesthouse for the Maharajah’s chums. Rather a lovely building, actually, though clearly run down. We were taken to our suite – pleasant enough, if grubby, with some lovely carving and our own vast balcony with a fine view of the Fort. Fine so far.
“Beer?” said John. We had two hours to kill before our first event.
“Lovely,” said I.
“Ah,” said John. “There’s none in the fridge. We’ll go down to the bar.”
Off we trotted in search of the bar. After a confusing few minutes in the old, panelled and extremely dusty lift, we reached reception.
“Where is the bar, please?”
“Sir, extremely sorry, there is no bar.”
“Ah.” Thinks for a moment. “Can you send up some beers to our room, please?”
“Sir, we do not serve alcohol. This hotel, it has no license.”
Just consider that for a moment. No license. Those incompetent clods at Expensive Travel had sent JOHN O’NEILL and DILLIE KEANE to a HOTEL WITH NO LICENSE TO SELL FEKKING ALCOHOL!!
Now let me waft you back, dear reader, to Thursday, 28th May, 2015, 15.30 hours precisely, when I walked into the sizzlingly smart Ham Yard Hotel in Soho where Expensive Travel were meeting with established clients to sell them holidays in India.
“What would you say is the most important thing about your holiday?” was the key question they asked.
At first, I said, ‘The food.” After we’d chatted for a little while, I said, “No. I’ll tell you what’s the most important thing about our holiday – it’s a gin and tonic at 6 o’clock. It’s our holiday ritual. We go exploring, see cultural things or swim or whatever, then we come back to our room at the end of the day, shower and change and dress up a bit, and then we go for a G&T in the bar sometime between 6 & 7 before supper. It’s just what we always do. And if there’s no G&T, himself will be raging.“ Now I said this because I knew that India could be tricky for alcohol and I didn’t want us to be sent to a dry area.
And the various people at the meeting looked at one another and said, “I’m sure we can make sure that happen!’ and we chatted a little more about it, but believe me, I made my point very VERY VERY VERY VERY clearly indeed.
So, you see, dear reader, we have a right to feel aggrieved. This is not an India problem, this is an Expensive Travel problem. They’ve buggered up yet again.
Well, we tried to find out if there was a restaurant in town where we could have a bottle of wine, and a couple of rather feeble suggestions were made. I scoured dear old TripeAdvisor but couldn’t find a single English/French/German review for any of the restaurants. Not a good sign. And as we were in the city’s best hotel by an Irish mile, we realised the only safe thing was to stay put.
The hotel staff couldn’t have been more charming, or apologetic – indeed, they sent someone to the Garment Liquor Store to get beer and wine for us, and we ate an exceedingly tepid dinner in dreary pomp in our sitting room with wine, for they would have been breaking the law if we drank it in the dining room. And yes, it was very nice of them to bring the dinner to the room but in truth, they were not set up to serve food in the rooms so all the food had cooled considerably by the time it arrived.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we sat down to dinner, we were taken to the exciting Son et Lumiere show up at the Fort. There were about 15 people there, we were the only Europeans. Here is a rough approximation.
Rumble of drums. Fort looms darkly ahead.
Deep male voice Long, long ago, in ancient times, there vas no Fort here.
More drum rumbling. Fort looms darkly ahead.
Deep male voice A traveller came vandering here. He vas a King, King Somebody-or-Other, but he vas lost, and he had had no vater for many days.
Light male voice Oh, vere can I find vater? Oh, I vill die vithout vater! I must find vater!
Deep male voice But there vas no vater. He climbed higher and higher, but still, he found no vater.
Mounting drum rumbling. Fort looms darkly ahead.
Light male voice Oh, vere can I find vater? Oh, I vill die vithout vater! I must find vater!
Deep male voice But still there vas no vater. He climbed even higher, but still again, there vas no vater.
Drum rumbling reaches fortissimo. Fort looms darkly ahead.
Deep male voice So King Somebody-or-Other prayed and said…
Light male voice Oh, if can I find vater I vill build a great building here!
Deep male voice And so, he found a spring here!
Spectacular drum rumbling breaks previous drum decibel records and a tiny pool of blue light appears and illuminates a small blue circle (plastic?) away to our left. Fort still looms darkly ahead. Two guests from UK are taken away in ambulance and pronounced dead from want of alcohol and decent entertainment.
We lasted 15 interminable minutes of the 40 minute show.
I’ll say this. I’m usually a Pollyanna, trying to find the best in everything, but my spirits sank that night. The longer we stayed in the hotel, the more we discovered how run-down it was. Paint peeling off the exterior walls, our windows begrimed with dirt and bird droppings – no wonder the silk drapes were pulled shut when we entered. Bathmats filthy after one shower. And we were booked in for not just one night, but two… and we have 6 nights elsewhere ahead… I was so depressed, I even asked John if he wanted to bale out and go home.
“No!” he roared, grim determination written all over him. Good old John.
* * * * *
Our guide, Manoo, arrived next morning to take us round the Fort. A small, flabby little man of reptilian arrogance, greasy little curls trying to escape from the back of his neck.
I asked him about the smudge of red on his forehead
“This is because I have been praying at home. I am Brahmin caste, you know the caste system, well I am Brahmin, which is the upper caste in India. It is the most intelligent caste in India. But of course, the caste system does not really hold here nowadays.”
Oh really? Well, introduce us to an Untouchable chum of yours then, asshole. Bet ya can’t.
“We are going first to the beautiful world-famous Fort to see the beautiful exterior and also the beautiful interior, followed by the beautiful palace, and there you will see the world-famous silver carriage of the Maharajah. There you will also bear witness to the world-famous beautiful chandeliers which are the heaviest chandeliers in the world, and the world-famous silver train which is very beautiful, and the beautiful world-famous carpet which is the largest carpet in the world…”
He had a remarkably flat voice and droned on and on. He brooked no questions, he delivered his lectures and looked at us with nearly-disguised condescension from his snakey eyes. I cordially loathed him.
The Fort is a-fekking-mazing. Indescribable. Huge, tiled, and fused with the rock upon which it stands. And built in Hindi architectural style rather than Mughal. We saw a little of the jaw-dropping, carved interior, but nothing like enough. Tourists aren’t allowed in any of the upper stories and guess why? Because of all the cabling for the fekking son et lumiere!
We were stopped by an elderly Sikh with his jolly party of sightseeing relations. He’d lived in Birmingham for many years and wanted to practice his English. Lovely lovely man who strongly advised John to give up meat.
Later, visiting two adorable tiny temples, we were surrounded by kids who wanted their photos taken with us. I repeated my cries of CHEESE and PANEER and it worked again. Gee, it’s great when you repeat an ad lib and it works the second time. I could have stayed and played with those kids every day. Oh, Indian kids must be the best in the world, so open, so cheery, so smiley. I absolutely loved them and of course I’m an eccentric old bat with few inhibitions and little embarrassment so I get connected quickly. They all wanted to try on my hat and glasses, I think they thought I was a hoot. It was a moment of intense happiness.
Later, we were stopped by the Jain statues (astounding creations hewn from the cliff) by a very dark-skinned and smiley family from the Afghan border (I think) who asked to have photos taken with us. We’re quite the rarity here, it seems. Well, who in God’s name would come to Gwalior for a holiday?
The palace was worth a quick visit after all. I especially liked the Murano glass balusters (the chandeliers were enormous but not nearly as pretty as mine) and John was very struck by the silver train, which turned out to be an ingenious device that chugged slowly along the length of one side of the extremely long table and then back down the other, continuing throughout dinner. Its open carriages would contain wine and snacks for the alcoholics amongst the guests. (Pangs!) Those who wanted to replenish their glasses could touch the train as it passed – it would stop so the guest could take the decanter out of the carriage. The thing that pleased John most of all was the fact that the Maharajah could prevent it from stopping in front of any guests he didn’t like. He’s going to google Hornby when we get back to see if the idea can be adapted for us Hall Farm.
Back to our hotel for a secretive beer in the room, then a quick visit to town centre and the market where I saw the first upsetting animal incident. A young calf was in the market, sucking and swallowing a big black plastic bin bag that must have had some food waste on it. I spoke to our guide to get the plastic out of its mouth – he just shrugged. No-one seemed to care. Only Farmer John who grabbed it from the calf’s mouth, all slimy and revolting, and binned it. Even then the calf tried to get it back. Poor John was left with a very slimy hand – we went quickly to a small temple very near where there was running water so he could at least rinse himself. One didn’t like to think…
Gwalior must have been quite a city once – the centre has the relics of a grand town, dusty, crumbling and decayed. But there’s a fine new modern bank, and an old colonial building partly destroyed by fire is being rebuilt. So maybe it’s beginning to show signs of recovery?
That evening we decided that hot food and no wine was preferable to cold food with wine, so we braved the restaurant. Actually, we had a nice enough dinner, and they really wanted to please us but they were kind of hopeless – seating us at a table with a dirty cloth, and I had to report that the loo needed urgent cleaning – someone had peed all over the floor. Vile.
There was absolutely nothing to do at the hotel, no lounge or bar to sit in and relax after dinner, so we were in bed by 9.30. Oh dear. There was an incredibly loud party in the grounds of the hotel and I recorded the fekking drumming so that I can play it to Execrable Travel when I finally get round to complaining about this very substandard holiday. I can’t blame the hotel – tourists are thin on the ground, so they’re clearly catering for a local crowd and they are probably the go-to spot locally for weddings, parties etc.
Poor sad hotel, poor lovely, likeable, helpful staff, poor, poor, hopeless, unvisited Gwalior.
Surprisingly, there were other tourists – they must have equally poor Travel Companies – two British couples, one pair drearily stringy, the other two were a boulder of a man with hard-faced wife. So it was a small mercy that there was no bar, as we’d have had to talk to them.
Cheered by that thought, and by the knowledge that we had an early departure the next morning, we drank wine in bed and felt a bit happier.
Gwalior was nearly over, thank the Lord.