"Namaste." Our driver smiled and bowed his welcome, offering a tray of cooled drinks before opening the door to the Shangri-La Hotel's immaculate limo. As we journeyed towards our hotel through roads busy with beggars, bikes, cars, hand-carts, hawkers, monkeys, mopeds ferrying entire families, sacred cows and trucks we were grateful for the insulating air-conditioned cocoon of luxury.
Reaching the Eros Hotel, an elegant lady in a vivid red sari welcomed us and swept us through a vast reception forum of chandeliers and marble. She told us that we would complete the formalities of check-in up in our room, accompanied by afternoon tea.
India's capital with its smog, packed roads and reputation for Delhi Belly gets an undeservedly Poor Press. For many travellers it is just a whistle-stop tour as the first leg of the Delhi – Agra – Jaipur Golden Triangle. Yet, just under nine hours flight from London, Delhi is a fascinating and historic destination in its own right. A place where the price tag of luxury significantly undercuts many other international destinations.
Dusty Old Delhi, with the massive market of Chandni Chowk – a frenzied bazaar of over 10,000 shops and stalls – is the place to start. Although we hired a car and driver from the hotel, a car can only take you so far. You also need a guide who will lead you through the crowds to Jama Masjid, the pink-tinged Friday Mosque, with room for 25,000 Moslems to kneel and pray beneath two 40 metre high minarets.
A guide is also essential to hire you a rickshaw or tuk-tuk to weave precariously through the slow-moving traffic around Chandni Chowk. Inevitably, your guide will take you to his cousin's spice stall to smell astoundingly fresh cardamom seeds and cinnamon more fragrant than you have ever experienced before or his Uncle's carpet emporium – but that's the Indian way of doing business, look after your family first.
Delhi's Red Fort is unmissable. Crocodiles have been removed from the moat, but India's non-existent health-and-safety culture allows workers to cling onto bamboo scaffolding as they make slow progress with their restoration work on the red sandstone. Sadly, functional British barracks, built after the mutiny of 1857, do little for the architectural integrity of the site but walking through the fort's mature gardens you can sense the hand of history, back beyond the days of the Raj to the Mughals who originally built the magnificent fortress.
Lutyen's New Delhi, designed and built in the 1920s and 1930s, was intended as a splendid and spacious symbol of the power of the British empire. Wide boulevards lead to India Gate, an imposing, spectacular arch paying tribute to the 70,000 Indian troops who fell in the First World War. Beyond trees which have reached grandiose maturity and down "Lanes", named in fond remembrance of the distant Home Counties, sit elegant white bungalows with gardens of chrysanthemums and daisies.
Typically, at Humayun's Tomb you'll see a very short queue for "Foreigners" who will pay five times more than the locals stood in a much longer queue. Most visitors will not begrudge an extra 80 pence for time saved. Although India has a closed currency of Rupees – and getting hold of them can be time-consuming – you will spend remarkably little on your Indian adventure.
The tomb was commissioned in memory of Emperor Humayun by the Empress Bega Begum, in 1569-70, and designed by the Persian Architect Mirak. At the time neither knew that the project was essentially a prototype for the world's greatest monument to love: the Taj Mahal at Agra.
Yet, Delhi's history stretches back even further. At 73 metres high, the Quran Minar, from 1193, is a soaring tower of victory celebrating Moslem victory over the Hindus. Provocatively an inscription on the Mosque at the tapered rower's base proclaims that it was built from stone from 27 demolished Hindu temples. With such a turbulent history it is no surprise that India is still rent with divisions.
The memorial to Indira Gandhi, with her study preserved as it was on the day when she was gunned down, by one of her own bodyguards in 1984, is just one example of bloody conflict. Today, with enlarged press cuttings telling the story of her life, the museum is testament to India's difficult times since independence and partition were granted in 1947. Similarly, you can follow the final footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi, as he too was assassinated in the grounds of his own home in 1948.
Dilli Haat should be your final destination in Delhi. It is a remarkable feel-good self-help market which embodies the spirit of all India. Traders travel from all over the sub-continent to rent a stall for just two weeks, paying a mere £1.10 a day to sell their wares.
No taxes are charged on goods that include carpets, jewellery, pashminas, shoes, elephant-poo paper, musical instruments, saris and much, much more. With its aim of preserving traditional industries in India's villages, encouraging women to become economically independent and providing work for "Slumdog" children – Dilli Haat is the place to buy those souvenirs of India.
Learn more about Virgin's Direct flights from London Heathrow to Delhi at www.virgin.com and accommodation at the Shangri-La at http://www.shangri-la.com/newdelhi/erosshangrila/#!Last modified: June 10, 2021