THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain

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Underground in Épernay

We took our time over a shorter drive from Beaune to Épernay. French autoroutes somehow sit more lightly on the landscape than British motorways. They lack the embankments to screen them from their neighbours, the gantries to monitor and nag their users and the ugly safety infrastructure that makes a British motorist feel part of some dark industrial process. In consequence one can get a sense of terroir as one passes through it. I enjoy driving in France more than anywhere I’ve been — except the United States. Swiss roads are more beautiful perhaps, but too aggressively policed to provide enjoyment!

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Higher speed limits help too. On this run I made a conscious effort to slow down in order to break the habits I’ve acquired on this road trip before returning to the UK. The French limit of 130kph is 11mph over the UK’s maximum. I need our home limit to feel fast again when I return or I’ll be picking up points between Folkestone and London. 

At one stage of our run, we found ourselves stuck in a convoy, driving precisely at the French limit, behind a gendarmerie van. Time after time we were overtaken by motorists surprised to find themselves faster than a Ferrari, a Porsche 911 and a nifty little Abarth 500 only to watch their brake lights come on as they spotted the gendarmes’ waspish paint job and see them join our snake of frustration.

They played with our heads a little to amuse themselves. They slowed by 5kph at one point, tempting a Citroën to overtake them — very slowly — only to return to the limit and hold him there, uncomfortable in their gaze. They tried that again after a few kilometres but no-one took the bait. We never did find a boundary to their jurisdiction. We took the exit for the road to Lille and Calais while they carried on — for all I know or care — all the way to Paris  

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Our goal was to arrive at Moët et Chandon’s headquarters on the Avenue de Champagne in Épernay in time to take a tour. We arrived at 3.15pm. Having posed for a photo with the statue of humanity’s benefactor Dom Perignon and bought our tickets, we rested in the elegant exhibition area for thirty minutes before joining the last tour of the day with Belarusian guide, Marina. 

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I’d been before so knew that Mrs P II would enjoy it. Épernay has 110 kilometres of champagne cellars beneath its streets. 28 of those kilometres belong to Moët et Chandon, the biggest if not necessarily the greatest of the famous houses. Marina told us it produces enough of its fizzy joy juice for one bottle to be opened every second. That’s almost true. The house produces 28 million bottles a year (taking seven years per vintage bottle). There are 31.5 million seconds in a year. Near enough for elastic marketing arithmetic.

I enjoyed the tour as much the second time as I did the first though I’d forgotten how much Napoleon featured in the story. M. Moët was so excited at the prospect of his enthusiastic imperial customer's first of several visits that he built a palatial Versailles-style home opposite his workplace to receive him. We viewed that from a domed pavilion built to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Moët Impérial — the House’s iconic product — created in 1869. The dome is made from bottles of it! 

Boney is of course the Emperor referenced in the cuvée’s name. Marina’s constant warm references to that old tyrant jarred a little, but he’s long dead and deserves some credit for his excellent taste in booze, watches and bonbons. Sadly his influence lives on in his legal code, which has done more damage (in the view of this proud Common Lawyer) than his cannons ever did. 

Our tour rounded off with a tasting of the white and rosé expressions of the latest vintage — 2012 — we bought some to take home and headed for our hotel. 

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We are spending our last night of our honeymoon in one of my favourite hotels in the world. Many years ago I was journeying south in Claudia — my beloved Mercedes cabriolet — with my family. I asked the satnav to suggest a lunch spot on our route. It guided us to a converted brickworks on a champagne estate where we enjoyed ourselves so much that it became our regular overnight stop on road trips from our then UK home in Chester to the Côte d’Azur.

Since I was widowed and moved to London it’s been too far north to be a half way point and I’ve tended to break my journeys at Dijon instead, but I wanted Mrs P II to experience its charms. I knew its splendid restaurant would provide a superb last supper of our honeymoon.

After an aperitif in the sunny garden outside, It duly did. 


Beaune, idle

Today was one of the more ambitious in terms of driving. Our South of France idyll over, we reluctantly locked the door of our friend's villa and headed to the autoroutes. Our destination today was Beaune, which is 370 miles from Mougins.

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We decided to make the trip slightly longer by diverting to Abbaye Nôtre Dame de Sénanque. Our goals were not devotional – our researches suggested it would be a good place to photograph the lavender fields of Provence.

A couple of hours into our drive we found the place. After some excitement entering the car park (two Italians in motorhomes insisted on our backing up all the way to the entrance so they could exit – even though they need only have waited a few seconds for us to get out of their way) we set out for the short walk to the Abbaye. It's a functioning Cistercian monastery and growing lavender is indeed one of the ways the monks sustain themselves. Our internet researches suggested the guided tour (for which the monks will break their silence) is not worth the time or money so we contented ourselves with viewing the exterior and smiling at the antics of photographers trying to make the early and rather unimpressive displays of lavender look more dramatic than they were. Instagrammers had come dressed to pose in the lavender and the monks had thoughtfully provided a small patch with wide spaces between the plants so that their quest for the ‘grammable moment did not damage the crops.

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We then headed back to the road and were soon heading north on the Autoroute du Soleil. I was trying to rein Speranza in. We had left our last Euros as a tip for the cleaner at our villa so a speeding fine would have involved a slow drive in police convoy to an ATM. I have experienced this before and it's best avoided!

The speed limits had been reduced by 20kph because of a "pollution alert". I think one reason I became a libertarian is that I take laws so seriously they inconvenience me more than those who adopt the Jack Sparrow approach ("more like guidelines really"). So I wanted to comply. The locals seemed unconcerned however, except when the presence of radar controls was signalled, so I went mostly with the flow and complied in the broadest of senses. Two youngsters in a VW Golf amused Mrs P II by giving her the thumbs-down sign as they overtook us – indicating their contempt for Speranza, or more likely the unworthy chap driving her so sedately, 

We took breaks for lunch and petrol and bowled along enjoying the sights of Provence, Beaujolais and Burgundy while listening to our music. The day passed pleasantly enough for all the blistering heat. The roof stayed firmly up. Driving with it down is not much fun at high speed on motorways anyway and we wanted the comfort of the air-conditioning. Besides, the boot/trunk is fuller than when we set out as we have both received gifts and bought some of our own. The space required for the roof to be stowed is full of those acquisitions so the option is not available. 

Our hotel in Beaune is another old Abbaye, but no longer in monastic use. It's an impossibly cute hotel now, right in the city centre. We are idling in our air-conditioned room to recover a little before heading out to see the sights and find somewhere informal to eat. Much as Beaune may have restaurants to compete with those we've recently visited, I want somewhere I can go in the denim shorts and Fulham training shirt I am wearing in this  heat!

Apparently this is our last day of it as the weather forecast suggests Epernay – our destination tomorrow – will be a full ten degrees cooler and that it may even rain!


Another day in Florence

Our B&B is agreeably like staying in someone's home. We had a simple breakfast on the terrace in the morning sunshine before setting out, dressed in our lightest clothes, to face another 30℃ day. The queues at the Uffizi Gallery were an hour long, so we bought tickets in advance for the afternoon and headed to the Duomo. The queue there was around the block too, but seemed to be moving quickly so we took our place at the back. Forty-five minutes later we were by the door when a German guide leading a group of tourists barged them all in ahead of us. There is no hope for a united Europe if we cannot even harmonise basic politeness! 

It was a minor frustration and soon we were inside. Given the magnificence of the exterior, the inside of the cathedral is surprisingly plain - at least by the standards of Catholicism. It's elegant and beautiful though and we paid the fee to enter the museum in the crypts too, where excavations have revealed parts of the foundations from different periods. Our museum ticket also entitled us to climb to the viewing platform around the Dome but, rather to my relief, that was fully booked until next week. We contented ourselves by visiting the Baptistery instead  

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What can I tell you about the Uffizi? Just as Hamlet is, to moderns, a play full of familiar quotes, so the Uffizi Gallery is full of paintings and sculptures you know on sight. For Europeans, they are a part of our cultural subconscious, even if we may only have seen them on book or album covers rather than in the flesh, It was an exhausting exercise, in our enthusiasm, to try to stand in front of every one - even so briefly as to rather insult the master who made it.

I was so tired as we headed for our hotel that we decided to eat early and head back to our rest rather than change and come back out again for dinner.

Tomorrow we have a longish drive (more than five hours) to our home for the week in the South of France. We have no deeds to do when we get there however so can take our time and look out for a pleasant place to break the journey for a long lunch!


Florence

I am back in my favourite city and Mrs Paine II is enjoying its delights for the first time. After yesterday's stress, we had only a two hour run to Florence, so took a leisurely breakfast and sauntered automotively to the autostrada. South of Modena a convoy of three Ferraris overtook us at speed and we made a fourth for a few exciting kilometres until they decided to comply more narrowly with the speed limits and we left them behind. 

The first of two challenges was exiting the toll road. Our ticket was rejected for some reason the help desk lacked the English to explain. In the end the machine issued a "pay later" ticket and the barrier lifted. We still don't know what the problem was (and the "pay later" toll seems high) but no matter. The second was finding our quaint city B&B in an old apartment building on a roundabout outside the city's southern gate. After circling the block a couple of times we eventually found it. We parked in the careless Italian style we'd seen others adopt, and unloaded. Our hostess directed me to a quaint little garage nearby where Speranza was given a place of honour for the next two days. 

Then we headed out to find some lunch and begin our exploration. This is my third visit and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed my wife’s reaction to catching sight of the Piazza della Signoria for the first time. There’s a known psychological phenomenon that makes us want to share a great movie or book with our loved ones and it probably accounts for the pleasure I felt in seeing a familiar favourite place through her eyes. 

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As always our travels are recorded on the "Track my Tour" app and the map can be found here


A mad rush to Mantua

We set ourselves too hard a task today. This is meant to be fun and relaxing. Mostly it was, but a couple of delays in leaving Switzerland due to accidents ahead of us meant that we fell behind. As much of our journey was on Swiss roads, we couldn't make it up with a bit of judicious speeding or as I call it "broad compliance" with local laws. A French friend who lived many years in Geneva told me years ago never to speed there as "every Swiss is a policeman" paid or not!

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We had hoped to stop for a relaxing lunch near Lake Como but pressed on instead, pausing only for fuel, using the time to keep our appointment with Silvia of the Automobile Club Mantova. She holds the keys to the Museo Tazio Nuvolari and had kindly agreed to open it up at 3pm for our visit. Mrs P2 enjoyed the beautiful Swiss scenery through the car windows, apart from during one spell of rain so heavy it removed the screen kill! We encountered more traffic while circumventing Milan, but that was to be expected. Eventually we were out on the autostrada, where speed limits are similar to Switzerland, but more loosely observed. We arrived with time to spare and, having parked near the museum, found a cafe to rest and recover.

Silvia was on time and I was soon enjoying all the great man's trophies and mementoes. News that the museum was open spread and soon Silvia was taking money from Italians who sat and watched the few rare films of "the flying Mantuan" in action. 

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We then explored the charming, undeveloped little town. Artificial lakes were constructed on three sides of it in the 12th Century to defend the stronghold of the Gonzaga family, later Dukes of Mantua. This constrained its expansion and made it a modern backwater. Its inhabitants economic loss is to some extent our gain — if we like old buildings. Its historical centre is a UNESCO world heritage site and it has been both Italy’s capital of culture and Europe’s capital of gastronomy. My interest in motorsports — indulged my my lovely wife — has brought us to a little gem of a place.

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Tomorrow we make a more leisurely journey to my favourite Italian city, Florence, where we stay for two nights before heading on to our borrowed holiday home (the use of which is a wedding gift from kindly friends) in the South of France. 


To Lucerne via Saarschleife and Strasbourg

A Ferrari factory tour and the Tazio Nuvolari Museum in Mantua seem romantic enough destinations to me but one of our friends last night suggested a nature ramble might be a more appropriate honeymoon activity. So after breakfast this morning we set off to the BaumWipfelPfad or "Treetop Walk" at Saarschleife. We had a short, pleasant walk from the visitor centre on a high level wooden walkway in the canopy of a forest to a spiral overlook structure above the banks of the River Saar at a point where it makes a horseshoe-shaped meander. It was "wunderschön”

The photograph of the viewing platform will give you some idea of the amount of serious engineering Germans are prepared to put into improving their view of a beauty spot!

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One of our friends, now a naturalised Luxembourgoise, was born in Strasbourg. On her advice we abandoned our previous plan to visit the European Parliament building in her home city. Instead she recommended a restaurant where they specialise in a healthy, fish-based version of the usual, meaty Choucroute Strasbourgoise. So we headed off through Germany (where we got Speranza up to 225kph on a short stretch of unrestricted autobahn) and then France to sample that. It was excellent.

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We then walked around the outside of the amazing Gothic cathedral in the blistering heat (32 degrees C) before heading back to the car and driving to Lucerne.

It was a great drive, though mostly through France so lacking in high speed opportunities. We found our way through the pedestrianised old town (as advised by the hotel and assisted by a police woman who gave us directions) under the disapproving gaze of hundreds of passing Swiss. It's a beautiful country but the locals love their rules so much that I never quite feel comfortable around them. I always feel they are looking for an opportunity to call the police!

After unloading our bags in the narrow alley outside the hotel, I left Mrs P2 to check us in and arrange for the luggage to be taken to our room, while I drove Speranza away to a modern car park across the river where vehicles are allowed.

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On my return we took a short walk around Lucerne, photographed the famous bridge and forewent dinner to have ice cream instead. This cooled me down to my optimum operating temperature and was a rare treat under my new dietary regime.

Tomorrow we head for Mantua and the museum of my hero Nuvolari, the great racing driver. 


New Delhi / Old Delhi

My hotel in New Delhi is in the leafy diplomatic district of Chanakyapuri. Some of that extensive foliage nearly took me out today when a tree fell in front of my Uber on the way to visit the Red Fort. Effete Westerner that I am, I thought the driver would turn around and find another route. However, he got out first to check on the welfare of a gardener who had barely managed to jump clear. Then he helped him, along with various auto-rickshaw drivers whose way was also blocked, to pull the large tree to the side of the road so that traffic could pass. For a wiry bunch who looked none too well-fed, I have to say those Delhi-ites were strong chaps.

There was a big police presence outside the US Embassy compound as we continued our journey. Perhaps that was something to do with the attack on the Embassy in Beijing an hour or so before? It didn't add too much to the already dense traffic in my way.

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The Red Fort is a disappointing, poorly maintained and rather shabby affair compared to the splendours of the Amber Fort. It's still a military complex and has heavy security. It was a bit disconcerting to see sentries standing in metal cabins with guns poking through firing slots. It needs some imagination to picture its former glories, whether as home to Mughal emperors or as a garrison for the British Army. 

It's certainly large enough. There's a lot of grassy open space which was, after recent heavy rains, an implausibly deep green. At the entrance to the complex, after separate pat-downs and metal detector screenings for men and women, you arrive in the covered bazaar which used to cater to the ladies of the Emperor's Court by selling jewellery and clothing. Now its tenants aggressively sell souvenirs to the masses of tourists who pass through every day. Some of the handicrafts were not bad and I might have bought more than I did if I had not developed a serious aversion to the pushy tactics of Indian shopkeepers. Given time to browse and a little attention to what I was actually looking for, I would have opened my heart and my wallet. As it was, it wasn't long before I was repressing a powerful urge to bark Anglo-Saxon and leave empty-handed.

I am glad that I have seen the Red Fort but, having checked it off the list, will not be making any special efforts to return. I enjoyed rather more my transfer by auto-rickshaw to Connaught Place for lunch and a bit of light shopping. Having watched the drivers of these nimble vehicles tootle in and out of traffic comprised of heavier, stronger cars, buses and trucks,  I was curious to see how it felt for their passengers. It felt like a fairground ride! My long legs didn't easily fit but I soon found a way to get them entirely onboard after nearly being kneecapped by a passing Delhi bus! The bus drivers are apparently notoriously aggressive even in a driving culture where everyone appears homicidal, suicidal or both!

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After lunch in a hipster cafe (which served a decent paneer tikka) I took a stroll to get in some exercise and headed back to the hotel to relax and prepare for my final dinner in India on this trip.

It's a fascinating country and, d.v., I shall return. I've seen a lot of interesting stuff during my short visit, but there's an entire sub-continent to explore! Next time I will come in Winter though and be less hesitant even then about sacrificing sartorial propriety to comfort! I shall also practice the polite, arm-at-45 degrees, palm open toward the offender gesture that I saw Indians use politely to warn off hawkers, beggars and (genuine or fake) tourist guides touting for business. Getting annoyed only amuses them. Expressing that annoyance only lowers you in the eyes of passing members of the majority of polite and friendly Indians who find them just as annoying as you do.

As for the various scams I encountered, it seems churlish to worry about them after taking into account the excellent value offered by the hotels, restaurants, guides and taxi companies who took such excellent care of me. In any case the total losses amounted to less than the rip-off perpetrated by a currency exchange desk at Heathrow Airport. Next time I shall also order my rupees well in advance!


Chand Baori and the Taj Mahal

Today I travelled to New Delhi from Jaipur via Agra. My friend and I wanted to visit the thousand-year old step well called Chand Baori and – of course – the Taj Mahal. After breakfast we checked out from the hotel at Jaipur and headed out front to meet the car and driver we had hired. We set off at 10 am and arrived at Chand Baori at about 1145 am. First we visited the Harshshat Mata temple in the same village and then headed to the step well. 

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Up until today, I had not been much troubled by people hassling me in the street. That was probably because we had a professional guide with us in Jaipur and he had waved them off. At the step well we declined the services of a pleasant young chap outside and headed straight in. A wilier older "guide" simply started to provide the service unbidden. He wasn't very good at it, but I reasoned that the economy of refusing to pay his modest fee was not worth the grief of getting rid of him. I concentrated on my photography and he spoke mostly with my friend. When we were done, we paid him a modest sum and headed back to the car – where once we were underway my friend realised that her iPhone was missing. 

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We tried calling it in case she had dropped it in our car somewhere, but it had already been switched off – presumably to prevent the use of the "Find my iPhone" location feature. She set it to wipe its data on next connecting to the internet and cancelled her SIM. She recalled that our "guide" had bumped into her clumsily at one point and we realised that it must have been him who had stolen it. It was an old and damaged phone she'd just been using for India. Her brand new Pixel was safe so, sadder, wiser and determined to be less generous with beggars and service pests, we continued to Agra. 

I reckon the first time I heard there was a place called India was when, as a boy, my grandmother produced an old Viewmaster 3D viewer with slides of famous monuments from around the world. The Eiffel Tower for France, the tower of Big Ben for England and – of course – the Taj Mahal for India. We've all seen it many times in photographs and films and I was braced for disappointment. As a photographer I was also apprehensive that I wouldn't be able to find an interesting new perspective on one of the most pictured monuments in the world. 

The fact is, it's just as magnificent as every cliché says. The general shape cannot surprise anyone now but the context is attractive, the other buildings in the complex are appealing and the architectural details of the Taj itself are elegant. If you haven't been, I can't spare you the expense by telling you it's not worth it. It just is. Sorry.

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We spent a happy couple of hours wandering around the exterior before returning to our car and continuing to New Delhi where we will spend our last day tomorrow before I fly back to London on Friday


The Amber Fort

This morning I set out again with my guide and our driver. Our destination was the fort in the village of Amer called either the Amer Fort or the Amber Fort. As the official website uses the latter, so do I. On the way, we visited one of the "step wells" that were built to provide access to deep-lying ground water in the Rajasthan desert. This particular example is called Panna Meena ka Kund and dates from the 16th Century. It is in Amer, below the fort. 


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Tourists who arrive early at the Amber Fort and are prepared for a long, tedious haggle can take an elephant ride around the complex. It begins and ends at a platform (ele-pad?) on the entrance side of the huge parade ground.

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I wondered why there were so many forts close together and asked if they were remnants of local warfare but my guide said it was simply the policy of the Maharajahs of Jaipur to build a fort on a nearby hill to protect each and every one of their palaces. They built many to accommodate their wives or simply to suit the local seasons. Temperatures range from 1 to 49 degrees between Winter and Summer and the monsoon season has its own requirements. 

 

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It rained steadily as we toured the complex, which didn't seem to relieve the intense humidity, I was as wet from perspiration as I was from large, warm raindrops. The architecture of the fort features both Hindu and Muslim motifs. The Maharajas were Hindus but married into the families of Moghul emperors. The fort contains private quarters for each of the Maharajah's wives as well as a common area (overseen by his own quarters) where they could socialise. There are also receiving halls for his public audiences visible from behind discreet screens in the ladies' quarters. 

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From the fort we drove to Gaitor to visit the Chattris or cenotaphs. These are elaborate marble crematorium platforms; one for each of the late maharajahs of Jaipur. The most recent one dates from the death of the present Maharajah's father in 2011. They are not where each was actually burned however. They are monuments used for commemorations on the anniversaries of their deaths. As you might expect they are magnificently carved and decorated. 

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We had planned to visit more forts, but the humidity was getting to me and I asked to head back for an early shower. We made one final stop on the way to view the Jal Mahal or water palace on the Man Sagur lake. This is currently in course of restoration and its future use is uncertain. 

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I had a restful late afternoon working on my photographs and writing this and the previous post. This evening I am returning to what is now one of my favourite restaurants in the world.


Jaipur

I didn't make it to Rishikesh, alas. My friend in Dehradun didn't feel up to it, so I spent the day relaxing at my hotel. On Saturday morning, I took an early plane to Delhi and a connecting flight to Jaipur. It's off-season but this is part of the "Golden Triangle" of Indian tourism, along with Delhi and Agra, and is much more geared toward foreign visitors.

I had one of the ten best meals of my life in the hotel's signature restaurant on Saturday night. Once more I puzzled the waiting staff by abstaining from bread and rice, but it didn't detract from my enjoyment of an elevated version of local cuisine.

On Sunday morning, I set out on a guided tour of the city. We began with "the Palace of the Winds", a place that was used for the entertainment of royal ladies living in purdah. When the various festivals in the city were going on, they could view them from their seclusion through its many windows. There are no stairs. The various levels are reached by ramps along which the ladies, in their heavy attire, would be carried to the various vantage points. It's now government-owned and is one of the city's signature attractions. It's hard to get a different picture of something so much photographed, but I was pleased with this one. I was helped by the overcast skies which made for good, diffused photographic light all day.

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From there we walked to the Jantar Mantar, not a palace but a set of enormous scientific instruments built three hundred years ago by Maharajah Sawai Jai Singh II, a man with a serious interest in astronomy and astrology. It's one of five astronomical observatories he built in North, West and Central India.

On the way there I took a tumble and measured my length on a funky Jaipur pavement. I had my camera around my neck and a backpack full of gear on my shoulder. As I fell in Peckinpah-time, I remember being mostly concerned about protecting my equipment. I fell on a telephoto zoom lens attached to the strap of my camera bag. Miraculously, it seems to be undamaged. Kind locals rushed over to help me up, but only my dignity was hurt. It reminded me of the endless prat falls in the comic strips of my Beano and Dandy-reading youth because it turned out I had – and what a cliché this is – slipped on a banana peel. Not only that but one discarded by the monkeys that raid the nearby fruit stalls!

At the Jantar Mantar (literally, "calculation instrument" but usually translated as "observatory") you can set your watch to Jaipur time by the huge sundials (adjusting by 32 minutes to get Indian Standard Time) or use huge globes set into the ground to determine the current position of the zodiac constellations. People have their photographs taken in front of the structure relating to their particular star sign. The object in the picture is the "giant equatorial sundial" which stands 90 feet high. This structure is used as the logo of the local council and features everywhere in the city. 

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Our driver then took us to the City Palace. This is still the home of the current Maharajah, a twenty-year old who went to boarding school in the U.K. but is currently studying for a degree on the East Coast of the USA. We toured the public spaces and some of the private rooms. Our guide was delighted to have an English car enthusiast to whom he could tell the story of a previous Maharajah who, when visiting London, was given the bum's rush from a Rolls-Royce showroom. He returned in full royal regalia and ordered six cars for delivery to Jaipur. When Rolls-Royce engineers arrived after six months for an after-sales servicing, they found he had given them to the city sanitation department to use for collecting rubbish! 

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Also prominently displayed are two enormous, elegant containers which accompanied another Maharajah to London for a coronation. He didn't trust the local water and so took then filled with Jaipur water for his consumption during his stay. One of the best parts of the visit was time spent with a local gentleman in the arts and crafts gallery of the palace. He demonstrated his skills with a "brush" with just one hair by executing a sketch and then showed us his work. I bought a splendid piece to add to my little art collection back home. Here he is, signing it with that "brush".

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