My Kind of Place: Ahmedabad, India
Amdavadis, as locals call themselves in this large state in the west of India, are known for their gentle nature and their love of food and finery. Here, if they are not celebrating with a festival, then they are getting ready for their next one. And all festivals come with their own forms of music and dance, attracting travellers from all over the country.
Located on the banks of the Sabarmati River, Ahmedabad remains quiet and sleepy at other times. Although this city is a major hub for the textiles trade, life moves at a languid pace, as it has for centuries now.
In parts, it does sport another avatar, that of a youthful, lively city. This is largely thanks to the presence of some of the most elite institutes of higher education in India, including the NID (National Institute of Design), IIM (Indian Institute of Management) and CEPT University (Centre for Environment Planning and Technology).
A comfortable bed
The House of MG (www.houseofmg.com) is a boutique heritage hotel, ideally located for an exploration of the old city. It was once a mansion belonging to Mangaldas Girdhardas, a prosperous textile merchant. With only 18 rooms and suites, it manages to retain a charming 1920s decor. One of the highlights at The House of MG is a leisurely lunch at the rooftop Agashiye restaurant. Doubles start from 5,300 Indian rupees (Dh291), including breakfast and taxes.
The other charming hotel in town, Divan’s Bungalow (www.divansbungalow.com/), is also a refurbished mansion. The original property is more than 150 years old, with architectural elements that combine Gujarati and British influences. There are eight rooms, each with a private veranda offering a view of the front courtyard, with its flowering trees and fish ponds. Doubles start from 4,000 rupees (Dh220), including breakfast and taxes.
Find your feet
Begin your exploration of this 600-year-old city at the Swaminarayan Temple in the old quarter of Kalupur. Then walk your way due south through the numerous pols (self-contained neighbourhoods) and their narrow lanes with houses lined on both sides. These pols were small villages in the not-too-distant past, with their own public squares and community wells.
Start with the Lambeshwar ni Pol, and then go through Nisha Pol, Chaumukhji ni Pol and Doshivada ni Pol, paying attention to the traditional Indian mansions known as havelis (many of them in a state of disrepair now but with unusual stucco-work statues on the facade). The other sight of interest in these pols is the chabutara – feeding towers for birds created in a region known for its arid weather and lack of vegetation. End your walk at the early 15th-century Jama Masjid mosque, with its hybrid Hindu-Muslim architectural style.
The city corporation (www.egovamc.com/AhmCity/Heritage.aspx) runs a daily heritage walk that explores the narrow backstreets and hidden neighbourhoods of the old city.
Meet the locals
The best place to take in the soul of the city is the austere Sabarmati Ashram (www.gandhiashramsabarmati.org), the spiritual home of Mahatma Gandhi, revered as the father of the nation.
Book a table
Set aside an evening for dinner at Vishalla (www.vishalla.com/), not just for an authentic Gujarati meal, but also a complete cultural experience. A typical dinner platter is an elaborate affair that costs 683 Indian rupees (Dh37).
The decor recreates a rural hamlet, with rough mud floors, hardy lanterns and space for local artisans, folk musicians and dancers. It has been around on the Ahmedabad eating scene since the late 1970s and continues to be popular among visitors and locals. Make sure to spend some time at the interesting traditional utensils museum inside the premises.
The Philosophy Club (www.facebook.com/philosophyclubahmedabad/) is a newish cafe serving vegan food from all over the world and has created a buzz among Amdavadis, who are fond of eating out. While the food menu is eclectic, the global influence is evident particularly in its range of vegan beverages and desserts.
Go shopping for hand-embroidered ethnic garments, bed linen and costume jewellery at Law Garden street market, which comes alive only in the evenings. Bargaining is mandatory here, as is ending your shopping trip with a stop at the row of carts selling local street food.
The Gujarat region is also famous for exquisite tie-and-dye fabric, available at any of the Bandhej outlets (http://bandhej.com). Garvi Gurjari on Ashram Road (www.gurjari.co.in/) is a state-run showroom for Gujarati arts and crafts, including block-print and hand embroidered textiles.
What to avoid
The annual festivals are when Ahmedabad really comes to life, and all hotels sell out months in advance. So if you are planning a trip any time between Navratri and Sankranti (early October to mid-January), then it is best to book early.
Head out to Adalaj, just half an hour out of town, to see the ornate 15th-century stepwell (known as Adalaj ki vav) that goes five levels down into the ground.
Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Ahmedabad, in a code-share with Jet Airways, with return fares from Dh1,714 including taxes.