Best for colonial splendour: Calcutta

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The Independent Travel

Oh! Calcutta! (now renamed Kolkata, which I find too unfamiliar) was described by an Indian writer as "a city of furious, creative energy". It is indeed exceptionally creative, artistic, political, alive, but furiously so? No, not at all. In spite of its vast population – 13m and growing – Calcutta exudes serenity, intellectual profundity and contentment, priceless in today's frenetic world.

This capital of the state of west Bengal had been lurking in my imagination for many decades. When I was growing up in Uganda, we knew it as the brain of India. My headmaster was from Calcutta – fabulously handsome, learned, and a little Bohemian as was his dead-glam wife, also a teacher. They led us, the children of philistine shopkeepers, to drama, dance, art and classical Indian music. Then, as a young adult, I grew to love the tender films of Oscar-winning Satyajit Ray and the writings of Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize for literature, both sons of Calcutta.

When I finally got there, the city surpassed all expectations. I fell in love with it as the cabbie drove me from the airport to my hotel, the Bengal Taj. The passing scenery was lush and watery and beguiling.

The identity of Calcutta has been forged by Empire and stubborn resistance to it. Its people and buildings reflect that duality. Settlements by Indians go back a long way but it was in the early 18th century that Calcutta was built by Job Charnock, an administrator of the East India Company.

The scent of Empire lingers on. Citizens here accept their past with courtesy; Calcutta is an Anglophile hub where bus drivers recite Shakespeare and the newspapers follow life in the old country. Calcuttans cherish the many extravagant symbols of the Raj. The most conspicuous is the Victoria Monument, a white marble, crazy fusion of Mogul and Italian Renaissance styles. Around it is the Maidan, a vast green with snooty clubs whose members play golf, bowl and ride horses. But now shepherds also graze flocks there and lovers shyly flirt under the trees. St Paul's Cathedral nearby is another big statement. Many more such sights intrigue you as you negotiate the city.

All Taj hotels evoke the Raj in their ambience, décor and service. I sank easily back into the opulent torpor of those times, albeit now with air conditioning.

There is a hard edge to Calcutta too, long a site of some appalling historical encounters. Areas here were once demarcated "white town" and "black town"; men were publicly hanged for plotting to kill Governor General Dalhousie, and white men, women and children perished after they were stuffed into an airless cell by the king Siraj-ud-Daulah (the actual facts of the black hole of Calcutta are much disputed). Left-wing politics energise Calcutta. Fantastic graffiti all over the town proclaims equality and justice and some brilliantly caricature petty politicians. This is the Scandinavia of the subcontinent. There is an ostensible lack of ostentation which I loved. Women dress in lovely, but understated, cotton saris.

Walk into any café and you are soon engaged in a spirited conversation with gentle strangers. While exploring College Street, which has bookshops everywhere you look, I found myself discussing Hemingway, Tony Blair, Turner, Jane Austen and our own Robert Fisk. One writer invited me to an unforgettable Tagore dance drama. A young student of political science took me to see the quiet ghats (steps) by the river, where holy dips are taken by devotees. At the many art museums I gazed upon some of India's greatest painters with my new friend Mohammed. In New Market I ate unusual cheeses, warm bagels and chapatti wraps with various fillings. Calcutta is famous for its sweetmeats, the best in India. But it is the fish cooked in various ways that was unforgettable.

Go to Calcutta, the most delightful and humane place in the whole of India. It will revitalise your weary heart and brain.

Imperial ghosts

* The 250-year-old Park Street Hotel sits in two acres of gardens in the heart of Colombo, Sri Lanka. One of the capital's few remaining "bungalows", it has been newly refurbished as a 12-room boutique hotel. 00 94 11 576 9500; taruvillas.com, bed & breakfast from £181

* A grand 1920s mansion in the Malaysian port city of Malacca, The Majestic has recently been made-over as a luxury hotel. It retains many antiques, Portuguese tiles and a well-stocked old library. The new wing houses a vast spa. 00 606 289 8000; majesticmalacca. com. Doubles from £169

* Set in the heart of Guyana's former British colonial capital, the Cara Lodge has distinctive 19th-century wooden architecture that mixes Renaissance and Caribbean styles. Favoured by Mick Jagger when over for the cricket. 00 592 225 5301, carahotels.com. Doubles from £80

* Panama City's colonial district, the Casco Antiguo, is home to The Canal House, a boutique hotel set in a 19th-century mansion. Recent famous guests include Daniel Craig who stayed while filming Quantum of Solace. (00 50 7228 1907; canalhousepanama. com). Doubles from £82

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