It may be the site of a building of breathtaking beauty, but the Indian city of Agra is anything but peaceful. The Red Fort, the gleaming white Taj Mahal, the brown dust and the grey concrete bulk of the city seem to leave little room for greenery and have little sympathy for the greenhorn traveller. The city resonates to a familiar soundtrack of car horns, trucks, animals and touts.
Most visitors to Agra come to see the Taj Mahal, but must inevitably share the experience with the realities of the boisterous city. Touts outside the monument can be as difficult to shake off as the flu and, inside, it's wall-to-wall tourists.
However, it is possible to gaze upon the Taj Mahal in surrounds that are both green and quiet by visiting a couple of nearby gardens.
To fully appreciate the tranquillity of the parks, though, you should first visit the Taj in the time-honoured fashion, as part of the tourist sandwich. Many foreigners choose to do so at dawn, a time when you might expect reduced numbers of visitors as Indian tourists are said to eschew early visits - avoiding a billion people would seem to be a wise way to ensure a quieter experience. This tactic doesn't, however, take into account the other foreign tourists; even before the sun has risen, visitors of every hue are sardined around the Taj Mahal's marble courtyards and its reflective pools, and jostling to sit on the 'Diana bench' to recreate the photo taken of Britain's Princess Diana during her 1992 visit.
The Taj Mahal, founded on intimacy, rises above the clamour. It was built by Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan in the mid-17th century as a memorial for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth in 1631.
From the rear of the mausoleum, it is possible to see, across the braided gravel beds of the Yamuna River, a green oasis: the Mehtab Bagh (Moonlight Garden). It is about 100 metres away, yet to reach it, you must spend the better part of half an hour in an autorickshaw as Agra's traffic snarls in an indecipherable mess as it crosses the river. The puzzle of cars, trucks, rickshaws, pedestrians, motorbikes, animals and carts resembles an exodus of refugees.
At the garden gates, the cacophony of Agra is already fading to a murmur, and instead of a gaggle of touts, there is a lone drinks vendor as polite as a doorman. 'Welcome to Agra,' he offers with a bow. As breaths of fresh air go, this one is gulped with gratitude.
Believed to have been created by Babur in the 16th century (even then as a relief from the heat and dust of Agra), the garden predates the Taj Mahal but was later named Mehtab Bagh because, it's said, this is the perfect place from which to view the mausoleum in moonlight. For a time it was also believed to be the site of an apocryphal black Taj proposed by Shah Jahan.
Mehtab Bagh's appearance suggests little of this long history. Left to grow barren, the 25-hectare grounds have only been restored in the past decade. The 7,000-plus trees are little more than saplings, making it seem like a recent addition rather than an intriguing piece of Indian history.
The garden is aligned with the Taj Mahal, along an avenue of clipped grass. Hibiscus and Australian bottlebrush trees grow in soldierly straight lines; there's an ornamental, almost French feel to the place, though any continental comparison ends with the first sight of the Taj Mahal across the river. That glimpse comes at the centre of the garden, where a fountain shoots water skywards. Etched into the smog to the south is its unmistakable meringue shape.
Although taking in the rear of the monument, this is no second-class view, for the Taj Mahal has four identical walls. Indeed, it's an outlook that one Lonely Planet guidebook describes as being 'in some ways a better view than the view from the front', complemented as it is by the sight of the river (albeit a polluted one) streaming through the foreground.
When the Yamuna River is high, the scene is brightened further by colourful boats. When it is low, farmers graze and water their buffaloes, goats and cattle on its gravel beds and cricket games are played on the river sands.
Through another tangle of traffic, looping back past the hulking Red Fort towards the monument, is the Taj Nature Walk. Just 500 metres beyond the Taj itself, the path cuts through 53 hectares of parkland and thorn forest. Created in 1998 as part of a buffer zone intended to shield the mausoleum from the city's pollution, the walk was planned as an essential part of the Taj Mahal experience, though it has instead become a little-known and little-visited adjunct.
A 2km-long paved trail winds through the forest, passing a couple of kitschy water features and a wall that doubles as a painted (if faded) field guide to birds, which are prolific among the scrub. Along its course, the trail, used as a jogging track by Agra's keener residents, crosses six custom-made mounds, elevating visitors above the canopy for views of the Taj Mahal. Muted music and noise float in from the World Heritage-listed building, where birds of prey circle the dome and parakeets skim over the tree tops. Young Indian men court sari-wrapped beauties in scenes that are fitting complements to the world's greatest monument to love.
After about 10 minutes the trail comes to a grassy clearing, where a children's slide built into the slope of one mound has almost the best view of all. Higher still is a lookout tower, from where the Taj Mahal seems to float atop a sea of trees. Little else of Agra is visible, with the city of 1.4 million people all but erased by the forest.