We arrived in bustling Agra in the afternoon after spending the first part of the day touring our way from Jaipur via Chand Baori and Fatehpur Sikri. Our driver threaded his way through the jumble of vehicles, pedestrians, cows and trash as we headed straight to Agra Fort. Hurrying to meet a waiting guide, we didn’t even have time to drop off our luggage.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Agra Fort was the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty until 1638, when the capital moved to Delhi. The semi-circular fort occupies 94 acres and sits behind 70′ walls on the Yamuna River. Part of the fort is occupied by active military so tourists only see a small portion of the huge complex. From the main tourist courtyard, we could see soldiers atop the wall separating us from the military area.
Agra fort is impressive with multiple royal residences, courtyards, massive gateways and public buildings, but for us, the highlight was our surprise first glimspe of the Taj Mahal 2.5km away. What a moment! (The ladies in the top photo above are enjoying the same view.)
Probably the most beautiful portion of Agra Fort is the Musamman Burj, the elaborate marble apartments of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan spent the last years of his life under house arrest here, held prisoner by his son, Aurangzeb. The story goes that his son imprisoned him to prevent him from bankrupting the country by building a proposed black marble twin to the Taj Mahal as a burial place for himself. According to legend, Shah Jahan envisioned his black tomb sitting across from the white tomb of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Shah Jahan lay on his death bed in the Musamman Burj gazing at the Taj Mahal.
After leaving Agra Fort, our driver drove us the short distance to Coral Court Homestay, our lodging for the next two nights. I’d read great things about this homestay, liked the idea of a family-owned homestay, and the location was ideal, within walking distance to the Taj Mahal.
The first turn onto the Coral Court’s street was less than encouraging: a dirt road, free roaming livestock. Our guide and driver seemed a little concerned when we pulled up to the locked gate. This turned out to be “Coral House Homestay,” belonging to a relative of our host, but not affiliated. The owner sent us a few doors down to Coral Court Homestay. Our guide went in and came back, much more satisfied, with someone to help with our luggage.
We were shown to a cheerful, turquoise-walled waiting area and offered refreshment while we filled out the necessary paperwork. Then, we were led through the dining room and upstairs to our room. We ended up really enjoying Coral Court Homestay. The delicious vegetarian food was made in the kitchen adjoining the dining room and served at communal tables. We made friends at dinner with two Frenchwomen from Asnières-sur-Seine and laughed when we found out we’d all stayed at the same wonderful hotel in Jaipur. (I blogged about Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel earlier and really recommend it for both amazing design and great value.) The rooms (we tried two due to availability issues when I booked) were comfortable and spotless. The walk from Coral Court Homestay to the Taj Mahal was easy and down a wide, limited-access road that kept the usual throngs of hangers-on blissfully at bay. There are several restaurants and shops along the way, too. We enjoyed good, reasonably-priced Thali lunches at two of them.
The rooftop area at Coral Court Homestay really made it for us, and we even ended up skipping a final wander before catching our evening train to Delhi, preferring to lounge on the roof and watch nearby neighborhood life. One evening, David hammed it up with kids playing in a courtyard below, one boy flexing his muscles and waiting for David to copy him before laughing and striking a new pose for David to mimic. Another group of older boys and young men were occupied shoeing large flocks of pigeons attempting to roost inside open buildings. The white domes of the Taj Mahal gleamed in the golden sunset.
It’s funny, I’d expected to like Jaipur more than Agra, to find the former more elegant and the latter more rough-and-tumble, but I came away really liking Agra and actually preferring our time there. I’m sure a lot had to do with Coral Court Homestay and its neighborhood.
Agra Fort is open sunrise to sunset. The entry fee is 550INR/adult ($7.67). We found our guide to be informative and useful, but a guide isn’t necessary, especially with a guidebook, info on cell phone, etc.
At Coral Court Homestay, we paid 4718.82INR ($65.83 US) for a “King Suite” and 2799.10INR ($39.05 US)for a “Deluxe Double Room.” Both prices include goods and services tax. I booked using Booking.com through Topcashback for a rebate. (I get extra cashback if you use this link and you can get $10. As of today, I’ve gotten $833.40 from Topcashback on hotels and purchases I would have made anyway. I’ve got more ready to claim and more beyond that pending confirmation. It’s an easy and fun way to save a little cash.)