x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Whirlwind tour of a dizzying city

A weekend guide to ... Delhi Defined by its past, India's sprawling capital has embraced modernity. Today, the old and the new are inextricably merged in a hectic, but delightful, jumble for visitors to explore.

The Red Fort in Old Delhi represents the pinnacle of Mughal creativity, organisation, aesthetics and architectural design. During the British period the structure was mainly used as a military garrison.
The Red Fort in Old Delhi represents the pinnacle of Mughal creativity, organisation, aesthetics and architectural design. During the British period the structure was mainly used as a military garrison.

So many reasons: immerse yourself in history and culture; shop for wonderful artefacts, clothes and fabrics, be reminded that spirituality is more fundamental than materialism; drink frothy cappuccinos in swanky cafes; get lost in the maelstrom of noise and smells of the old bazaars; eat in the latest restaurants and drink in the atmosphere of a city confident in its past and its future.

Delhi is the capital city of the world's largest democracy and if its businessmen are to be believed India is not so much riding the crest of a wave as a tsunami in terms of economic development. This city absorbs everything that is thrown at it like blotting paper. Defined by its past, it has embraced modernity and the two cultures have become so at ease with the other that they have become one.

New Delhi was built as the imperial capital of the British on a site that has seen at least eight earlier incarnations. Designed by Edwin Lutyens, it is spacious, stylish, impressive. At one end of the Rajpath is India Gate, a 42m high stone arch built in memory of 90,000 Indian Army soldiers who died in WW1 and the other is the official residence of the president of India, Rashtrapati Bhavan, an imposing 340-room building. But if New Delhi is about architecture, Old Delhi is about people - the capital has a population of around 14 million. Unruly and raw, the walled city exudes energy and just walking along the streets from the historic Red Fort to the Kashmiri Gate is an experience in itself. Two things in the last few years that have improved the city immeasurably: a ban on diesel for the motorised rickshaws, which has reduced smog and improved the air quality, and the Delhi metro, which opened in December 2002. There are now 62 metro stations on three lines that zigzag the city. It's cheap, efficient and cleaner than the London underground.

If you are there in February to March endure the extraordinary security process to visit the Mughal Garden in the few weeks of the year that it is open. A monument to Lutyens's imagination and a magnet for hundreds of thousands of Indians, the garden is at the back of Rashtrapati Bhavan, and is a backyard fit for a president, full of English garden flowers and immaculate lawns.

The Indira Gandhi Memorial Museum on Safdarjung Road is popular with Indians paying homage to their assassinated leader. The white bungalow offers a fascinating insight into her remarkable life. A more unusual attraction is a visit to the bird hospital at the famous Jain Temple, Lal Mandir, built in the 1950s. The hospital was built on the Jain principle of showing compassion and care to all kinds of living beings. Only in an Indian city which mixes poverty and wealth so dramatically could this sanctuary survive.

Delhi is a shopper's paradise. Go to Chandri Chowk if you can face the hubbub of the inner city, or for a more restful experience go either to Dilli Haat or Khan Market. The former is a little distance from the centre and has the atmosphere of a craft market with a wonderful array of clothes, shawls, spices and souvenirs in a pleasant unhustled atmosphere. The classiest (and most expensive) shopping area is Santushi, inside the air force base. Connaught Place too offers a wide variety of shops, but be prepared to be in the centre of a vast traffic circus.

For a pleasant break head for Lodhi Gardens which was used as a burial ground for Delhi's (pre-Mughal) Sayyid and Lodi rulers. It still offers a retreat for the courting couples of Delhi and while the morning sees the jogging brigade pounding the paths the evening offers the charming site of couples strolling through the tranquil gardens. Just a short motorised rickshaw ride down the road is the spectacular Humayun's tomb, which is set in beautiful gardens and a wonderful place to watch the sunset. There are also the musts - the Red Fort, the majestic Jama Masjid mosque and Qutb Minar, a tower built to proclaim the arrival of Islam.

Budget Hotels in Delhi are the downside of spending a weekend here unless you are happy to spend a lot of money, in which case there are some fabulous choices. Hotels are very pricey in comparison to the rest of India and even in relation to most other international cities.

The boarding houses are generally awful - seedy, dark and expensive for what you get. Visitors on a budget usually opt to stay in Pahargang, the cheap, backpacking district near Old Delhi and the railway station. These guesthouses offer very basic accommodation and charge between 100 rupees (Dh7.8) and 600 rupees per night. There are plenty to choose from but few to recommend. Mid-range An enterprising pair of young Frenchmen have opened two comfortable guesthouses.

Amarya Gardens has four large airy bedrooms, flat screen televisions, Wi-Fi, and a large, shaded garden where you can escape from the bustle of the city. Prices for a room start at around 7,350 rupees including a top breakfast. Their other property, Amarya Haveli, was the first to open eighteen months ago. It has six bedrooms, all painted in bright colours, a large, stylish drawing room and a rooftop terrace. Rooms cost from around 5,350 rupees a day including breakfast. Business is brisk, mainly through word of mouth. Phone on 0091 11 4175 9268 or email amaryahaveli@hotmail.com

Luxury There is no shortage of choice of five-star hotels. My favourites are the Imperial (0091 112334 1234 / 4150 1234; www.theimperialindia.com) and the Park Hotel (www.theparkhotels.com; 0091 11 2374 3000). The Imperial, as the name suggests, has echoes of the Raj including high ceiling rooms, wooden furniture, grand reception areas, but also a warm intimate ambience. The beds are soft, the pillows fluffy and the bathrooms have deep marble baths. The Park is another of the older hotels although it has had a contemporary facelift and boasts one of the most fashionable bars in the city. It is in the heart of the capital's business and entertainment centre. A place to retire and recharge, it contains the electric energy of the city.

'Have More' in Pandara market for North Indian food (0091 11 2338 7070; average price for a three-course meal for two is 800 rupees) is worth a visit as is Sagar for South Indian food in Defence Colony Market (0091 11 2462 1451, average price for three course meal for two 400 rupees) Moets also in Defence Colony Market (0091 11 6569 7689; average price for a three-course meal for two is 900 rupees) has great tandoori. The big hotels have excellent restaurants and there are new openings most weeks. At the other end of the spectrum, Karim's (0091 11 2326 9880; average price for a three-course meal for two is 500 rupees) in the middle of the old walled city is inexpensive and superb. Habitat World near Lodhi Gardens, a nine-acres cultural centre has a variety of good-value casual and fine-dining restaurants.

Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) offers returns from Abu Dhabi to Delhi from Dh1,560 including taxes. Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) offers returns from Abu Dhabi to Delhi from Dh1,820 including taxes.

The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple is on the making of Delhi. Born in Scotland, Dalrymple now splits his time between London and Delhi - a city where he is a major celebrity. For something that takes you to the very heart of Indian life and culture try Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance or Family Matters.

sryan@thenational.ae