For those in the business of travel promotion, fate was generous when it came to dishing out the goods to the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan, which, according to a popular local saying, boasts more history than the rest of the country put together.
"The Land of Kings" has attracted curious travelers for generations, entranced by fairy-tale visions of majestic forts, windswept desert plains and mighty maharajas. But the real public-relations coup is the way each of its key cities has been neatly color-coded by the annals of time, like a bygone theme-park map.
I chose to round out a month backpacking the length of India with stops in the "White City" of Udaipur, the "Blue City" of Jodhpur and the "Pink City" of Jaipur.
Traveling south to north I began in Udaipur (some travelers instead move west to east, beginning close to the Pakistan border at the "Golden City," Jaisalmer). My preconceptions were largely limited to knowledge that much of the James Bond film "Octopussy" was filmed amid the town's characteristic chalk-white palaces.
It's a claim to fame the locals are in no hurry to forget: We spotted perhaps a dozen restaurants and guesthouses advertising evening screenings of the 1983 movie.
Udaipur still has many restaurants and guesthouses that show “Octopussy,” the James Bond movie filmed there. Photo Credit: Sanna Kontinen
But the real thing actually looked better than in the movies.
The town is split in two by the picture-postcard Lake Pichola. At night the bright, white palaces of Jag Niwas and Jag Mandir islands and the City Palace on the eastern bank are all artfully lit in soft, amber hues. The effect casts spellbinding reflections across the water's surface, a view best enjoyed from the excellent lakeside restaurant Ambrai, or any one of the casual rooftop eateries on the western bank, Hanuman Ghat.
Around a six-hour bus ride north lies Jodhpur — and boy, it really is blue. The old city is set around Mehrangarh, a huge 15th-century fort jutting out from a rocky outcrop about 400 feet above the city skyline. Stacked below is a tangled mishmash of weatherworn three- and four-story buildings and a maze of cobbled streets winding inside the old city walls.
Another seven hours east lies Jaipur, the state capital, which is well known as a point on the classic "Golden Triangle" between Delhi and Agra's Taj Mahal.
Arriving from any direction, it's hard not to feel underwhelmed by Jaipur.
For starters, it's not really pink. Moreover, the popularity means tourists are likely to encounter everything one might fear from a trip to India: inflated prices, rude street vendors and beggars.
But there's one reason a visit to Jaipur remains compulsory: the majestic Amber Fort, an imposing hilltop outpost sitting some seven miles from the city. Built in the 16th century and reached by climbing a series of serpentine staircases, the towering, honey-hued structure is more grand, formidable and golden than any Photoshopped postcard could ever capture. This is the romantic land of the maharajas so many travel to India to see.