Retreat from Delhi

Peter Popham fights his way through the tractors and rickshaws that hog Delhi's new dual carriageway to reach 'a perfect retreat' at Kesroli fort

The children in the back were offering prizes - without specifying exactly what - for whoever saw Kesroli's hill fort first. We had bumped down the long, straight, sporadically scenic, badly potholed country road after branching off the main Delhi-Jaipur highway; admired a sudden rash of palm trees, and the huge, narrow sweep of the Aravali Hills, like the tail of a cosmic dinosaur; then turned left at a roundabout and followed another crumbling road punctuated by rusty, redundant pylons, erected for some grand but long-abandoned infrastructure project.

The children in the back were offering prizes - without specifying exactly what - for whoever saw Kesroli's hill fort first. We had bumped down the long, straight, sporadically scenic, badly potholed country road after branching off the main Delhi-Jaipur highway; admired a sudden rash of palm trees, and the huge, narrow sweep of the Aravali Hills, like the tail of a cosmic dinosaur; then turned left at a roundabout and followed another crumbling road punctuated by rusty, redundant pylons, erected for some grand but long-abandoned infrastructure project.

The children had grown bored with I-Spy; they had stopped counting animals and birds ("camel, donkey, goat, water buffalo ...") when they ran out of fingers. But there was a photograph of the fort on the brochure, so as a final diversion they scouted the countryside for the first sighting of it. The road shrank to the width of a single ox cart - then suddenly the fort was dead ahead, and we all saw it at once, its seven turrets clamped to the crown of a dusty, fort-sized hillock.

The Delhi region can seem a bit of a wilderness after one has done the most obvious sights. Jaipur and the Taj Mahal are not to be missed, of course, but once you have crossed those off the list, where to go next? The other outstanding places in the region, such as Jodhpur in Rajasthan or Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, involve plane rides or seriously taxing car or train journeys, and whether you are in India on holiday or posted there, like us, you need several days to appreciate them properly.

But gradually, thanks to the slow but steady improvement of the capital region's main roads and the creation of a number of improbable but charming hotels such as Kesroli's hill fort, this is beginning to change. The hinterland is opening up.

Kesroli belongs to a unique company called Neemrana Hotels, the product of the single-minded passion of an Indian called Aman Nath and his French partner, Francis Wacsiarg.

Their first hotel, the flagship, is the Neemrana Fort Palace, which has a strong claim to being the most extraordinary hotel in India - the first in country to be named one of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. For many people who stay there it is the place that sticks in their memory long after the rest of their Indian holiday has faded. Stacked up into the hills above a medieval village a little way off the Delhi-Jaipur highway, it was a ruin when Nath and Wacsiarg first set eyes on it. Slowly they transformed it into a jewel of a place, a modern hotel which retains the mood as well as the rich architectural and decorative detail of an ancient Indian palace.

Building on this achievement, they have created another half-dozen small hotels in the same spirit, taking old, often abandoned and disintegrating properties of special character and transforming them, enhancing their essential qualities in the process.

We have stayed at several of them during our three years in India, including a merchant's villa or haveli in the Shekawati district of Rajasthan and an old British dak bungalow in the Kumaon Hills of Uttar Pradesh, and so now we know what to expect: the unexpected. Nath and Wacsiarg's great talent is location hunting: their hotels take you to places so remote and obscure that you would never otherwise go near them. Yet, having got there - whether to Shekawati, its villas covered in amazing old frescoes, or the densely forested hills of Uttar Pradesh where the legendary Anglo-Indian hunter and conservationist Jim Corbett (who once stayed in what is now the Neemrana property there) tracked man-eating tigers a couple of generations ago - the experience is richly rewarding.

Our Kesroli adventure was of the same type. What exactly, the thought passed through one's head, are we going to do when we get there? Will it be worth the struggle? It's three hours, more or less, from Delhi by car, but three hours even on Delhi's new, improved roads is still like six or even nine hours anywhere else.

The main highway from Delhi is a dual carriageway, but many of the people using it have not received instructions as to what the term "dual carriageway" means. So you must brace yourself for tractors, auto-rickshaws and flocks of animals all proceeding the wrong way up your side of the road; for oil tankers flinging themselves at you; for old, imperturbable India to show you exactly what it thinks of these shiny new expanses of tar.

It was with some relief that, nearly halfway through the 115-mile journey, we turned off on to what proved to be a privatised toll road. We pulled up by the toll booth and braced ourselves for the shock of the bill. After counting heads and scrutinising our car, an Indian-built Tata Sumo, the man at the window charged us a grand total of 8 rupees - about 10p. (For reasons nobody could fathom, our friends in the car behind were charged Rs200 - more than £3.) Now we were truly travelling through India. The road was flanked by luxurious clumps of waving grass, taller than a man. The flatness of the plains was relieved by fragments of the ancient Aravalli Hills, said to be the oldest hills in the world, which are scattered from the depths of Rajasthan to the centre of Delhi. All the teeming life of rural India surrounded us: crowds of cranes perched on the bank of a pond, steaming water buffaloes, bleating flocks of goats and sheep.

The question remained, though: what are we going to do? How are we going to fit in with this rustic fastness? At Kesroli, Nath and Wacsiarg have produced a superbly civilised answer.

We bumped along the last and by far the narrowest stretch of road that leads to the fort, skirted the village that hugs the base of the hill and accelerated up the short slope to park outside the ramparts. Then we got out of the car and hauled ourselves up the steep, cobbled ramp that led from the exterior ramparts to the high, pointed entrance arch inside, and penetrated the fort.

What we discovered there was, as expected, a complete surprise - totally different from the the densely wrought concentration of ancient structures, piled vertiginously upon each other, that you find at the original Neemrana. Inside Kesroli, protected from the outside world by the high walls and turrets, is a spreading grassy garden, dotted with shade-giving trees. The exterior walls are full of rooms of different shapes and sizes, there is a small interior palace in the courtyard with ogee arches and a terrace and more rooms and suites above, each with a different character and mood from the others; but in between there are palms, lawns, climbing bougainvillea and more shade trees, so the mood of the whole place, somewhat forbidding and martial from without, is that of a lush and fiercely protected oasis.

An Indian friend in our group remarked, "It's lovely to be inside a castle", and I knew exactly what she meant. It gives, above all, a delightful sense of security. Of course, these days there is nothing to fear beyond the ramparts, no rampaging Jats or Moghuls from whom to take refuge, but the feeling of security is somehow immanent in the structure: it needs no threat to work its magic. Throw in the charms of the garden, compact but full of twists, turns, archways and unexpected views - the children never tired of hide-and-seek - and you have a recipe for a perfect retreat.

Kesroli, the blurb tells us, is in the "heart of the golden triangle", equally accessible from Delhi, Agra and the Taj Mahal, and Jaipur, north India's three most famous attractions. The immediate vicinity is interesting, too. A few miles south is the palace and walled city of the former princely state of Alwar, with a terrific, if rather shabby, museum and wonderful old buildings combining Moghul proportions with Rajput detailing.

Alwar became notorious towards the end of the Raj for its high-profile Maharaja, a prince who was flamboyant to the point of insanity: flagrantly homosexual, he put handsome young catamites in the beds of honoured guests, whether they were that way inclined or not, and bought a new Hispano-Suiza car every year, ceremonially burying the old one in the palace grounds. After his polo pony misbehaved and he punished it by dousing it with petrol and setting it on fire, the British forced him into exile, and he died in Paris.

Kesroli, however, seems to have survived his lunacies unscathed. The Neemrana brochure tells us it enjoyed "a golden period" under its ruler Ranawat Thakur Bhawani Singh (1882-1934), who was "renowned for his equestrian skills" and who is shown in photographs, displayed in the fort, straddling a horse that looks rather too small for him. But thanks to Nath and Wacsiarg, Kesroli's golden age has come round again.

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