Indian Train Journeys – An experience like none other

Sleeper Class

In the past few years I have traveled a lot by trains in different countries, while nothing beats the punctuality of the Swiss Railways (SBB), or the speed of Deutsche Bahn & TrainItalia, none of these travel systems have the true experience like the Indian Railways.

During my college days I’d used to travel regularly on the Sleeper class from Noida/Pune to Lucknow. Like everyone else, I have been a witness to the unapologetic delays,the festival rush when having a reservation meant little when fellow travelers had to get home to be with their families on Diwali.While I upgraded to the AC IIIrd, it just wouldn’t give me the same experience as the Sleeper Class travels or General class travels between Lucknow & Kanpur.

I have been always amazed at the uncanny ability, of passengers, to analyse delays in the local MEMU type trains stopping in between stations in the middle of nowhere. A typical conversation in this situation would go like this:

‘Bhaisaab, ye train kyun ruk gayi? (Brother, why did the train stop?)’

With an air of authority of such matters the reply would be, ‘Passenger hai, Shatabdi cross ho rahi hai, dekhna abhi crossing ke baad chal padegi (ours is a passenger train, giving way to a more important train, you’ll see it pass)’

And if by chance, the above mentioned logic fails, the second response would be, ‘Lucknow station pe platform khali nahi hoga, aajkal bahut train late hai isliye rukna hai. (No free platforms in the destination, we’d get in once it frees up)’

These conversations happen everyday between strangers, nobody knows how true they might be or who created them to begin with, but there would always be someone to ask and answer.

Then, there would be instances when you’d have reserved a lower level seat and there would always be a gentleman requesting you to shift to the upper levels because ‘ladies hai (women passengers with them)’. If you were a guy like me, most of the times you’d grudgingly oblige, even when the upper berth was your last preference.

But the most fun was to be had to be a part of wedding parties, when at each station some new members of your extended family would join you with fresh supplies of snacks, cold water and family gossip. The singing & gossip sessions would last late into the night, but who’d care about other passengers. Of course, there would always be that elder uncle or cousin who’d be snoring like a siren, feeling completely at home in the wobbling train.

Talking of these train journeys, how can one forget to mention the support economy of chaiwallahs and naashta (breakfast) sellers who’d chirp in at each station offering you wafer thin omelettes, & cutlets from unverified sources. Many train stations have their own special offerings which lure the foodies to step out at the stops and attempt to pick the sweetmeat or savory offered. The chaiwallahs (tea sellers) deserve a special mention with their trademark calls for tea, which is always promised to be enriched with cardamon and tulsi (basil) with a money back guarantee on quality! Lets not forget, he’d be off the train much before you’d be done with your tea, but the promise meant something to everyone.

Finally, there would be the ticket collector in his black coat moving with the air as if he were the king of the train, followed by hapless passengers on the wait list requesting the lord’s mercy be bestowed upon them with a berth to sleep for the night.

But while all this excited me, everyone would often knowingly ignore young lecherous men leering lustily at young women making them uncomfortable, exposing the undercurrents of gender issues in India, or parents beating the hell out of their kids in public as a punishment for their hyperactivity.

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Traveling to Spain, Catalonia and Palma Mallorca

The view from Monjuic
The view from Monjuic

Easter break this year resembled Christmas, with yet-to-arrive spring season it had become quite depressing to live without the Sun. I had never imagined that I being from India would ever complain for the lack of sunshine, but here we were escaping to Southern Europe in search of Sun.

It did not elude us, we basked in the crisp golden sunshine of the Mediterranean and committed ourselves to afternoon siestas  in that short break. The trip started with the flight to Barcelona, vueling had excellent connectivity and fairly good prices to offer. Our itinerary could be outlined as Zurch-Barcelona-Palma Mallorca-Barcelona-Zurich, with some time spent on each hop of the journey. Flying in at of the evening of Good Friday, we settled down at a hotel near the airport for 2 nights, the first morning was spent exploring our way to the city. A bus to Placa Espanya was our means of transport, being practically outside the city we suffered slow frequency of the buses.

Plaça d’Espanya is the largest square in Barcelona, once used as a site for public hangings it was transformed to its current shape for the 1929 World Exposition, it is a great point to start for transport connectivity as well. Instead of loitering around at Espanya, we rushed to Jaume I metro station to catch the Sandeman’s Free New Europe Walking tour, this had just started a few days ago. The next two hours were spending walking around the Old town, and listening to the heavy Scottish accent of Frasier who was our guide. We could witness the sights of the old town, and also understand the story behind Columbus’s misadventure in finding India, and landing up in the Americas. It was particularly interesting to learn about the Spanish Civil War, and the ongoing fight of Catalonia’s for an independent new country with Barcelona as its seat.  The tour ended at the Port side of Barcelona, filled with Palm trees imported from Hawaii with Christopher Columbus pointing in the wrong direction (how typical of him!).

After leaving the tour, we walked based to the Old Town and stumbled in the Barcelona Cathedral. Barcelona Cathedral has an interesting history about the patron saint of the city Eulalia; a teenage saint who was persecuted for her beliefs. Barcelona cathedral is remarkable mainly because of the front facade of the church which was created for the 1929 World Exposition.

We walked back to one of the bylanes to grab noodles at a fast food joint and bumped into an Indian gentleman who worked there, after a neat meal our next stop was to return towards Espanya.

Placa Espanya is famous for its pathway to Montjuic (literally means Mountain of the Jews), with National Art museum, and Olympic stadium right at the top. One could either take a cable car or walk up, thankfully they have plenty of escalators to assist the long set of stairways. The Magic fountain show on the weekends catches over a few thousand visitors in the evenings, it was indeed worth it. Montjuic is one of the key sights of the city, opening up to Placa Espanya and welcomed with the two Venetian towers.

Returning later at night to our hotel, we ended up in the middle of nowhere with the bus driver not stopping it at the right stop! We managed to get hold of a taxi, and luckily were not too far from our hotel. Next morning we were dropped by the hotel for our flight to Palma de Mallorca.

Mallorca/Majorca

Majorca is the British Capital of Catalonia, thronged with British tourists all the year round, this Island is the mecca for a relaxing break. Our stay was planned for Palma Nova, which is an hour from Palma Majorca.

Sun kissed beach at Palma Nova
Sun kissed beach at Palma Nova

We took a business to, guess what? Placa Espanya to catch the next bus to Palma Nova. After getting down at a bus stop one too early, we walked almost a kilometer to our hotel.

Our hotel was right at front of the beach of Palma Nova, it was indeed a privilege to be able to just walk right on to the beach within 5 minutes from the room. However, it still being sunny but cold enough that one couldn’t get into water. But, for those who had been missing the bright sun for over 4 months now, it was no less than heaven. Relaxing on the beach, we soon found ourselves digging into dollops of ice cream, the first in this season!

Next morning, we took a bike rental and went on following the route from Palma Nova, St. Mathias beach, Magaluf…a long cycle break in sunny but cool weather we enjoyed traveling along the seaside, between the markets and stopping for a heavy desi meal. While Palma Nova was peaceful, Magaluf beach is famous for its night life with number of Pubs and Discos frequented mainly by British tourists. We could not, however, book tickets to the Pirates show as it was not happening on that day. Cycling is indeed a popular reason for visitors there, with plenty of tourists planning a multi day cycling trip in the Calvia region of Palma.

Back to Barcelona

Olympic Stadium Barcelona
Olympic Stadium Barcelona

Next day, we returned back to Barcelona in the afternoon, this time staying in the city right next to the Sants railway station, which had really good connectivity with the Airport. We spent the evening searching for Sagrada Familia church. This church is unlike any other, it is not like the Milan Cathedral, or Notre Dame of Paris, it is unique in itself and with almost 120 years into it, it is still under construction! The building is a masterpiece designed by the famous Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi. He decided to give it an interesting design departing from the traditional Gothic architecture code followed elsewhere in Europe. To complicate it, he notably used hyperbolic and elliptical geometry in a lot of elements. The entry price per person would be at 16 Euros. It probably is a means to fund the church construction.

Gaudi is probably the most famous architect in Catalonia, may even be compared in greatness with Picasso, another Catalan painter who is a household name. Our next morning went into search for Casa Mia and Casa Batlo, both are must visit places in Barcelona. Both are a demonstration of unique design, combination of colors and attempts of Gaudi to please the snobbish rich of Barcelona. It was also interesting to see various art/architecture students attempting to learn from the design of the great architect. With this we moved to Placa Catlunya, and spent a couple of hours basking in the spring sun and shopping for souvenirs.

Tips

  •  Moving around Barcelona is pretty simple by Metro. You may purchase and use T-10 tickets for 10 trips across trains/buses. It can be shared and even be used for airport transfer.
  • While is plenty of travel advisory about pickpockets in Barcelona, we did not notice as such situation.
  • The official language in the region is both Spanish and Catalan.
  • Be sensitive to the fact that Catalonia is a nation in itself, with multiple attempts to gain freedom from Spain. People are passionate about it, and that is why FCB is not just a club but considered a religion. It was a means for Catalonians express their Catalanism
  • Flights from Vueling and Ryanair are often economical, if you book these well in advance.

Planning your trip to Switzerland (Part Duex)

So here is the follow up post to my last post on Planning your trip to Switzerland; with some questions being asked about Shopping and must-do stuff.

Here we go about those questions;

What should I shop, as a souvenir or gift when in Switzerland? and Where?

Umm…before I answer this, here is a disclaimer that Switzerland is much more expensive than you think. However, if you are a non-EU citizen, be ready to ask for Global Blue Tax free options and save some dough on your purchases. Beware, there is a minimum amount you need to spend on a bill to be eligible to get the tax back.

Okay, here a few things popular to be bought:

  • Cow Bells: Who could leave Switzerland without these, specially if you are a DDLJ fan! Now the thing is that these are available in all sizes in most souvenir shops, some look brand new and others give an old smokey look. The truth is, all are new and some are painted such. Check their sound before you buy them.
  • Cuckoo Clocks: Some believe that the Swiss invented the Cuckoo clock, which is incorrect. The credit should actually go to Germans in the Black Forest region. What the Swiss did was given it the ‘chalet’ shape, which is the most popular shape ever. Getting a cuckoo clock is possible specially in Luzern where most souvenir shops stock these, there are two varieties: Automatic-battery operated or the real manual one. Needless to say, the manual ones are expensive, and need some maintenance every couple of years. Clocks are available in all shapes and sizes, pick the one which suits you best. Insider tip: Clocks bought in Germany would be much cheaper.
  • Watches: Talking about of nation which believe in preciseness, where things move like clockwork, one cannot ignore the  famed Swiss watches. Now the thing is, you could get a Swiss watch from 80 CHF to 80,000 CHF (or more!). The popular brands are Swatch, Tissot, Omega, Patek Phillipe, Bucherer, Certina, Tag Heuer  and so on. Luzern has good stores to buy these watches, but its possible to buy them all over Switzerland. Tissot is pretty popular with Indians, and the company knows it, as a result you will find Tissot posters with Deepika Padukone on them. Insider tip: If you happen to be in Geneva, then do make it a point to visit the Patek Phillipe museum of Horology, its awesome!
  • Chocolates: Ha…I reserved the best for the last. I know everyone has eaten Lindt chocolates, and while they are very famous outside Switzerland, they are NOT the largest selling chocolates. Frey has the largest market share! However, while these store bars are definitely good, I’d recommend you to pick a few select chocolates from Sprungli or Laederach. The pralines are simply outstanding and worth a mention. If you are in Zurich, do visit the Sprungli cafe and try out their famous Luxemburgerli. If you wish to know more about chocolates, you could also plan a visit to Cailler chocolate factory.

Alright, what about eating the yummy Swiss Cheese Fondue?

Ah yes, you must, I insist. Be warned that the molten cheese often has wine mixed with it.

Okay, that is all I could offer in this installment. Keep those questions coming.

Planning your Swiss Trip…Oops Switzerland Trip! – A Sketchy Guide

The road to the Alps (Interlaken)

Yes ji, the country is not Swiss, its called Switzerland and trust me people do not like it when you mention it the wrong way! It is that time of the year when plenty of my fellow Indians and of course other citizens of the world would be in the process of planning their trip to this Alpine country. Thus I also decided to give my two bits, and also offer my help to those who need some tips about visiting Switzerland.

What qualifies me to give you tips on traveling to Switzerland?

Oh Hello! In case you didn’t notice I am the destination expert because I live at the destination (at least for now!).

Ok my apologies, so where do I set my base in Switzerland?

Hmm..now we are talking. For most folks from the sub-continent the trip center is usually Luzern/Lucerne. This is a good central place to stay specially because it is well connected to most other tourist destinations. However, do bear in mind that staying in Luzern probably means that you will be focusing only on some parts of the country.

Hmm…and how long should my trip be? And When?

I wish there was a simple answer to that. Almost two years here, and I am yet to cover it all! A fair answer would be that you should plan a trip atleast 4 days long. If you are a skiing lover, winter months are your choice. If you want to visit Switzerland in all its glory, then nothing beats late spring-summer from May to July (even August).

Summers is the best time in Switzerland (Rigi Klum)

What about Local transport? What about the Mountain railways?

Should you purchase the Swiss Passthen your local travel is included in the ticket system. It is indeed worth investing specially when you plan a short trip with lots of travel in it. Make sure you check their website in time, there are often good offers around. If your trip to Switzerland is a part of a larger Europe trip, then you may also opt for Eurail passes. However, I am not expert in that, but am sure it will result in considerable savings. Also, traveling 2nd class will make no big difference, the 2nd class seats are quite good and comfortable.

Mountain railways are a different question, Glacier express, Golden Pass, Chocolate express, Bernina express…well the Swiss have been experts and there is no beating them in a world class railway system. These train journeys are indeed beautiful, but for someone like me these get boring as well. Purely upto you if they enthuse you.

Where do I stay? How do I move around?

The best answer to this question is that if you are staying in a town like Luzern, Berne, Zurich, Geneva or Basel then the location of your hotel may make little difference, thanks to the extremely well connected and punctual system of trains/trams/buses. You can save a bit of cash on this, specially when hotels are expensive.

In case hotels do not make the cut for you, you could try for holiday rental apartments from websites like http://www.interhome.ch

For checking your local train connections, the only go-to website will be SBB home page of the Swiss National Railways. Better still install their smartphone app.

I am a vegetarian, help me! OR Where do I find Indian food?

I assume this is one of the critical challenges which plenty of Indian travelers face due to their diet preferences. However, this problem is partially solved if you are traveling in a group, as many tour operators in high season provision for this. In fact, lake boat rides in Interlaken region even include Indian buffets in summers. Here are a few general tips here:

  • There are Indian groceries in big towns, you can find namkeen, instant noodles and other staples but at 4-5 times the Indian price
  • Smokers beware, cigarettes are expensive. Not sure of the price as I never cared.
  • Buying drinking water, chips and other snacks on the go are always more expensive  if bought from Kiosks, Train pantry cars and cafes. Instead stock these from your nearest Migros, Coop or Denner.
  • There are plenty of Indian restaurants, but eating out is expensive so bear in mind. Do check TripAdvisor for this search. However, I do recommend the vada pav stall at the base of Titlis.
  • McDonald’s and Burger King do offer veggie burgers.
  • There is no KFC or Pizza hut in Switzerland.
  • Gipfeli/Croissant is a very common snack, and is available almost everywhere.

How do I call home to India? Is it very expensive?

Well, the simplest option is to buy a local SIM card. There are plenty of brands like Lebara, Yallo, or Lyca Mobile which offer very cheap mobile calls from Switzerland to India. All you need is a passport to buy the connection, which is normally available at most Kiosk stores.

Wait I have more questions!

Ok fair enough, why don’t you post your comments on this blog post  and I shall try my best to answer them. Till then Tschüss!

Venice – The City of Love

The romanticism of Venice is much publicized, sold as perfect romantic destination it is easy to fall for the charms of this City of Love. In our itinerary to Italy, Venice was the second destination after Rome.

Arriving by train from Rome to Venice, we were pretty confused about our travel. However, unlike other travelers who weren’t sure if it was Venice Mestere or Venice Santa Lucia where they had to get, we knew our destination. You see, Venice has two railway stations, Mestre falls in the mainland while Santa Lucia is bang in Venice, after crossing a big bridge over the sea. Getting down from the train, the next complex decision was to buy travel tickets for local travel.

Local Travel – What is and Whats not?

What is, is a number of travel cards for tourists are available. Whats not available is simpler help to pick the right one. We had the following options available to pick from:

  • Buy Travelcards – I guess this is the most straightforward deal, with vaporetti travel tickets to move around. A day pass is worth 20 EUR
  • Venice Card – Set of options to choose from, various discounts. Valid minimum three days and is from 39 EUR onwards for adults above 30 years. Visit http://www.veniceconnected.com/ for details
  • Venice connected – A card with focus on specific themes, and includes connectivity to municipal wi-fi. Visit http://www.hellovenezia.com/ for details.
  • Rolling Venice card – 3 days of travel and some limited discounts for people between 6 to 29 years of age. At 22 EUR, we picked this deal. Cannot comment if this is the best one of the lot, but it did make cost sense when compared to a travel card

One must not forget, that while local transport is included in these travel offers, most of them do not offer a airport service, for that one may need to pay extra.

And Venice

Its a funny feeling, the buildings are normal, but as you just walk out you realize that there are no streets but water in them. The first impression, after walking out of the station was extraordinary. Taking the Vaporetti we moved to our hotel, the Ca’dei Dogi which is right on the corner of the Saint Marco’s Square.

We were offered a room which was more like an attic, but it was cute and used the limited  space very well. After a quick reboot, we ventured out into the bylanes. It is often adviced to tourists that the by-lanes of Venice might make you lose your way. However, it is also one of the best ways to experience Venice. In fact, I felt perfectly at home with the lanes reminding me of India. It is important to keep a sense of direction, most common markers on the streets are towards Rialto or Marco’s Square.

Navigating through these lanes, we entered the Piazza San Marco from somewhere in the middle. The huge galleries made during the french rule, ending with the San Marco Basilica is the center-piece in this town. In late autumn, the square is often submerged in water. The square is the witness to the famous St. Marks Basilica. With restaurants on the side with live Piano music, and crowded lanes on that evening it was a beautiful sight.

San Marco's Square in Venice
San Marco’s Square in Venice

We opted to get on top of the Bell tower, it was worth going up. The tower is probably the highest point in the town and you could look down on the houses, basilica and across the grand canal overlooking the next set of islands.

It was already past sunset when we got down and took a stroll to the canal, and took a boat to the Rialto bridge. Venice at night time is a mixture of a few specially well lit buildings and entirely dark areas.

It feels different, and the evening breeze was relaxing. Getting down at Rialto, I could remember something from the play Merchant of Venice, this was a main market area. At night, this place was bustling long after the market was closed.

Venice at night from the Rialto
Venice at night from the Rialto

We walked ahead only to discover bustling night life around the watering holes, venturing in one such place we tried the famous aperitif called the Venice Spritz.It was an interesting concoction. By this time, it was pretty late and we were quite tired, thus we took the next Vaporetti back to our hotel.

Murano and the likes

The next day, I took an early morning stroll on the canal side, this was the only time when Venice was a calm place the tourist crowds were yet to descend on the square. I attempted a few pictures on the cloudy morning. Post breakfast the next destination was Murano Islands, the particularly popular destination around 40 minutes from Venice. Murano is famous for its glass making industry, it is said that glassmakers were banished from Venice on the account of the frequent fires caused by their furnaces.

Murano Island
Murano Island

Murano itself is sparsely populated, it does not have the crowds that Venice attracts. We took a stroll on the main island, peeking into different shops selling Murano glass wares. In a couple of places we also witnessed a demonstration on how they work with class from sand and finally giving it the right shapes and coloring it to form the perfect crockery, showpieces and even jewelry. I must tell you it is not an easy skill to acquire.

We also purchased a few souvenirs from the Glass museum’s shop, after a short stroll in the town we left for Venice once again.

We also wanted to visit Lido beach, but were running a bit short on time specially with the airport being miles away. Then there was the Gondola ride too, how could one miss that? With the number of Gondoliers artificially restricted to around 500, the prices of a short trip hover from 80 EUR onwards, it is not cheap and am sure locals never venture near these guys. But we did, and it was fun.

Travelling in the narrow Venetian canals in a Gondola
Travelling in the narrow Venetian canals in a Gondola

Our Gondolier was an iPhone toting fellow, and he took us around the Grand canal and some narrow bylanes of the town. No, he did not sing, but then I wished for peace in that journey. The ride did remind of the famous Amitabh Bachchan’s song filmed on a Gondola ride.

After the ride, it was the time for souvenir hunting. The funny thing about Venice is, that one does not see any other form of Industry except for Mask souvenir sellers, food joints and a few branded stores. There is absolutely no other form of economic activity going on, after around 15 minutes of mask hunting my brain had stopped registering the difference between masks! Luckily, wifey could find something which fit the bill.

The gondolier
The gondolier

Post souvenir hunting, we returned to our hotel to catch the Blue line boat to the airport. Its a funny feeling to visit your airport on a boat, after 1 hr 20 minutes we arrived at the San Marco Airport.

Venice indeed has its own charm, which words cannot describe, it is an experience to have and a discovery to be made.

Roman Holiday : 48 hours in Rome, Italy

“When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall; And when Rome falls–the World.” 

Rome, the capital of Italy, is said to have been founded by Romulus on the Palentine Hill along the river Tiber. This was the humble foundation of the first metropolis of the world. It was my birthday that day when we visited Rome (or Roma as it is called in Italian).

Planning an itinerary to Rome, when one has just 48 hours to stay in the city is next to an impossible task. One has to be very careful in picking one’s selected sights in the city which is nothing short of an open air museum. With more than 2000 years of history spanning the Roman Empire to the current ages, it is indeed one can find the truth Rome, Non Basta una Vita (Rome, a Lifetime is not Enough). 

After careful consideration, I came up with my list of 7 places on my list, and made sure to be not distracted by the many many sights which Rome had to offer. So here is what we did, hope the tips help you plan your trip. We traveled by Public transport and reduced our waiting time by making prior bookings. We also relied heavily on Triposo Rome travel guide app on our iPhone, this was a free offline guide with map.

  • Vatican Museums – Our first stop, the essential thing to do here was to make an online booking in advance. Vatican Museums are considered one of the most important museums in the world, with works from Michelangelo, Rapheal and da Vinci donning its floors. This is also the place where Sistine Chapel is situated, which alone makes it worth a visit. The Chapel is the place where the Papal conclave happens to elect the new Pope. It also dons the famous paintings of the fall of Man and the Last judgement by Michelangelo. I also loved the Hall of Maps in the Museum, which was was quite grandiose and different from any other place I have been to. The Sistine chapel is right at the end of the visit, a ‘short’ visit to the museum will consume atleast 2 hours. 
  • St. Peters Square and St. Peters Basilica – A few hundred meters from the Vatican Museums is the St. Peters Square facing the St. Peters Basilica, yes Vatican is the smallest country in the world with over 800 citizens only. The piazza itself with the obelisk as its center-piece is simply enthralling. The obelisk was moved from Egypt, and is probably 4400 years old. It is a massive square, and the Basilica is probably the biggest in the world, it is definitely the most important church for Catholics. St. Peters Basilica is said to contain the remains of St. Peters, and has the works from Bernini and Michelangelo, the church itself is massive and one feels like a tiny being in the compound. A trip to the Piazza and Basilica would take upwards of an hour, depending on the crowd. One should avoid Wednesdays and Sundays.
  • Spanish Steps – If you are a Hepburn or Gregory Peck fan, you’d recognize the Spanish steps instantly from the Roman Holiday. A staircase of over 138 steps leading to Trinita dei Monti church. An interesting thing to note is that the  surrounding area of the church and the church itself are a part of the French territory! At the left side base of the steps is the house where John Keats died, it is now a museum dedicated to the works of Mary Shelly (of Frankenstein) and Keats. The base of the steps open to the beautiful Barcaccia fountain by Bernini. We were there at sunset and the ripe golden sun rays made it a worthwhile sight. A stroll to the nearby lanes is suggested if you wish to shop at the various high-end branded outlets.
  • Colosseum – Just as a trip to Paris is incomplete without visiting the Eiffel, a trip to Rome without visiting the Colosseum cannot be justified. Relying again on online booking of entry tickets to Colosseum, we hardly had to wait and avoided the long queues. The ticket itself is valid for two days from the indicated date and is also valid for entry to Palatine Hill and the Forum.
    We took an audio/video guide for support and toured this massive amphitheater of the Gladiatorial games which enticed and entertained upto 50k ancient Romans. It is indeed difficult to comprehend the pleasure derived in such violent forms of entertainment. The edifice itself is a marvel of Roman architecture, the arches still have labeled entrance numbers, the sheer scale of the stadium is mindboggling given that the building is almost 2000 years old.
  • Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum – The Palatine Hill is significant, for this is where Rome was founded by Romulus, midst the ruins one must remember it being the cradle of the Roman civilization. We, however, focused on the Forum, which is a collection of ruins of what once was the central square of ancient Rome. This was originally a marketplace, and a centre of roman public life. We did spend some time identifying the various arches, temple of Saturn, Rostra and so on. So much history can hardly be found in any other place. Rostra itself was the place where Marc Antony delivered the funeral speech for Julius Caesar. The same Forum is also the birthplace of the first Senate. From the Forums we exited towards the National Monument of Vittorio Emanuele. Our next step was The Pantheon
  • The Pantheon – Reaching Pantheon was not as easy, we did end up getting confused and made a pit stop to try out the delicious Italian gelato, many stores make their own and its worth a try. Pantheon is a small building, would not require more than 30 minutes to visit. However, one must understand that this single structure, which was once a pagan temple and later a church has inspired numerous buildings all across with worth with its architecture. The US Capitol building, Jefferson Memorial, Austrian Parliament are a few examples of designs based on the Pantheon. It is also interesting to note that the Pantheon has no windows, and an oculus in the dome illuminates it, also interesting is the draining system which take care of rain water falling inside the building.
  • Piazza Navona – Crossing over a few narrow lanes from the Pantheon is Piazza Navona. A majestic square with the  Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi as its center-piece. The fountain illustrates the four rivers of the continents, namely the Ganges, the Nile, the Danube and the Plate. In the center is an Egyptian obelisk, but this one was not imported from Egypt. It is indeed interesting to note that while Ganges is regarded as a female figure in Hindu mythology, it is depicted as a male figure in the fountain. Surrounding this fountain are a series of shops with local artists selling their beautiful artwork, one could also get one’s caricature made or just enjoy the street performers entertaining the crowd. It might interest you that the Fountain of four rivers was featured in Angels and Demons, as being on the path of illumination.
  • Trevi Fountain – Our final stop in the trip, for the last evening in Rome, was the Trevi fountain. Many people complain that it is a crowded location, indeed they are right. But Trevi has its own moments, the grandiose structures and the sheer scale of the fountain made us spend upto an hour there. Sitting on the steps and attempting to understand the sculpture, we awaited nightfall to view the artificially-lit elements, and it did not disappoint us. Trevi fountain is the celebration of the aqua duct which brought fresh water to Rome, it depicts the discovery of the source of water 13 kms from Rome. Coin throwing in the Trevi fountain is a old tradition, it is said that if one throws a coin in Trevi and makes a wish to return to Rome, one shall return someday. In fact, upto 3000 EUR worth of coins are thrown in the fountain each day, which is used to support local Rome markets for the needy. Yes, I also threw in a coin 😉

Moving around in Rome?

As our hotel was a bit far from the city, we relied on local trains to reach Piazza del Popolo. From there on, Metro was our main support.

  • Buying tickets is easy, one could either use the vending machines or buy tickets from Tabac shops.
  • Same tickets are valid in bus, trams and metro.
  • We used the bus only once, frankly found it very difficult to comprehend the bus charts. If you can do it, then moving around is very easy.
  • Many sights in the Old town are very near, and do not need transport. Example; Forum, Palatine Hill and Colosseum are right next to each other. Similarly, Pantheon, Trevi and Piazza Navona are easily walk-able.

Rome had so much on the plate for us, apart from the above sights, a simple walk across the lanes was a feast to the eyes. This was the cradle of the world in the past, the home to the mightiest empire, 2 days could not do justice to it. But hey! we threw in the coins at Trevi, and we hope to return again someday.

Till then, Ciao Roma.

Budapest – the Paris of East

As a traveler, one’s perception of a place is limited to the sum total of the short experiences of the stay. Often we relay our interpretation to others, thus creating a positive or negative image of a place and its people.

It was the last weekend of July 2012, when we took a train to Budapest, Hungary. The selection of this destination was driven by the fact that this time my father was with us, it was after 30 years that he was visiting Europe, and Budapest was the city he had visited then. Nostalgia and pride in being able to take my parents to the place made us select Hungary as our destination.

Arriving by train to the Keleti station, we purchased daypasses for the Metro system. Our stop(Blaha Lujza tér) was the first one on the M2 line, after a short walk we checked in to the Locust tree apartments which we had booked for the weekend. It was a hot weekend, and the city was sweltering. Right after the check in, we had to start picking up places to visit. My father, was keen on using a hop-on hop-off tour, not my first preference but it was alright.

We walked to the New York cafe, that was the stop but we missed the bus while just crossing the road. With half an hour to spare, we decided to enter the New York cafe. Little did I expect that it would be a charming place. Built over a 100 years ago as a part of the New York Insurance company’s office cafe, this eclectic cafe is now a part of a five star hotel. Nationalized during the communist era, it has been revived and boy it is a must visit place. A round of ginger ales, iced teas and a Sacher torte, it was the perfect beginning to the weekend.

Budapest is a combination of two cities – Buda and Pest. After crossing the famous Sisi bridge, named after the Princess Elisabeth of Hapsburgs. We arrived the Citadel on the top of the Gellert hill, Citadel was an outpost of the Hapsburg’s and later the communists, is it interesting to note that Buda (the hilly side of the city) was the northern border of the Roman empire. The Citadel offers an amazing view of the city, and that explains why it was of strategic importance as a military outpost. It also houses one of the last remaining signs of the communist era, the Statue of Liberty. The statue was constructed celebrating peace, at the end of the World War, and can be seen from the shores of the Danube.

After descending from the Citadel, we crossed the Palace, the Mathias Church and returned to the shores of the Danube. We then took a short river cruise on the Danube, luckily the ticket was already paid for as free coupons from the Hop on-off tour.

Hungarian Parliament Building at the shores of the Danube, Budapest

Late evening cruise in the river was calming, the views of the Castle hill, Chain bridge, the Parliament from the river blended with the golden glow of the sunset. Returning to our hotel, we dined and ventured out again at night. The nighttime visit to Danube shores and the Fashion street painted a very different picture of Budapest, bustling restaurants and bars with street side performers just set the mood. The Chain bridge and the Castle Hill on the opposite shore were surreal, party limousines and boats were pretty common. This was the high point of our visit, it was delightful to the senses.

Budapest at night, with Castle Hill and Chain bridge

Next morning, our first stop was the Great Market Hall(Nagycsarnok), I specially enjoyed the place with shops selling traditional Hungarian fare, fresh produce, souvenirs and Hungarian food. The sheer scale of the activities was a refreshing change from the regular European experience. I could also sink my teeth into the Dobos Torte and it was yum!

From the Market Hall, we moved to the Castle Hill, and used the funicular to go up the hill. By this time it was too sunny and the July heat  was unbearable. After visit to the Castle, the President’s office and the famed Mathias church with the Fisherman’s Bastion we returned back to the town.

Souvenir shopping at the The Great Market Hall, Budapest

The last morning was spent on the trip to the Great Synagogue, the courtyard filled with marked and unmarked graves of the Hungarian Jews who perished here during the Great war made the mood very solemn. It is difficult to imagine, that such terrible events occurred in such a peaceful place. Our next stop was St. Stephens Basilica, this is one of the must visit places in Budapest. The splendid baroque dome is also a viewing gallery, the ceiling from within the Basilica is lower than the dome itself. The cupola is simply outstanding, the inner walls and pillars are delicately ornamented.

Cupola in the St. Stephen's Basilica, Budapest

From Basilica, we attempted to visit the Opera House, unfortunately it was not open to visitors.  We moved on to the House of Terror, which was at the next train stop from Opera house. The House of Terror, is a museum like no other, devoted to the history of Hungary from the beginning of the World War till today. The themes in different rooms, with real artifacts, prison cells, documents and uniforms of the NSDAP agents/Arrow cross supporters. The House of Terror brings out in the open the opression of Hungarians and serves as a reminder that it must happen never again…

The House of terror was the last stop in our journey, with that we returned back to Keleti and took the scheduled train to Switzerland. Thus our trip to Budapest came to an end, it offered us much more than we had expected.

Tips

  • Keleti railway station is a confusing place, flights more preferable
  • The Hop on Hop off tours are useful, however there is nothing which will miss if you choose to travel by Metro.
  • Be aware of the opening times of the Great Market Hall and the Synagogue.
  • Get your money changed at before arrival, better than attempting shady money changers.

Italy Travelogue – Part Deux

Planning a trip to Italy is not an easy task, so when a long weekend was planned to Milan and Florence, I had to pay attention to details. This being a trip with my parents, I had to be extra cautious with the fact that they cannot exert themselves as much we can. After a combination of internet searches, the plan was decided, a train ride from Zurich to Milan and then a ride to Florence. Spend the rest of the day and the next in Florence and catch an evening train to Milan to spend the rest of the weekend there.

With the plan in place, we set out to Milan taking the first train out of Zurich on a Friday morning. The journey is beautiful and picturesque, the first Italian station on the journey is Como. The sudden change in the landscape outside the train surprised my folks. After around 45 minutes, with a 10 minute delay we reached Milan. The Milano Centrale station is massive to say the least, the edifice was started in 1906 and completed in 1931, modified design to reflect the greatness of the Fascist era it is worth a visit. Sadly the same station’s platform 21 was the departure points for trains to Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps during the great war.

With a rush to catch the next train in time, we ended up on Trainitalia’s fast train to Florence (or Firenze), do note that booking tickets early with Trenitalia offers cheaper prices on these fast trains. Upon reaching Florence, we walked our way to the Hotel Universo, which was just across the Basilica Santa Maria Novella. Be careful, for you shall encounter many vendors and taxi-wallahs as you get out of the stations.

The Piazza is unpretentious, we went for a short walk to the famed Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella. Pharmacy? You ask? Well, you need to be there to see it, established in 1612 to serve the needs of the local public, this beautiful pharmacy offers natural products and fragrances for the souvenir hunter.

Post this place, we opted for a Hop on Hop Off tour, something which I am not a very big fan of. However, it was worth getting an overview. Our next stop was the Piazzale Michelangelo, a park with a beautiful panoramic view of the city of Florence, famous for the replica of the Statue of David & the view of a Florentine sunset. On the same hill did Galileo perform his famous experiments in gravity, he was a citizen of this city.

We next visited the famous Florence Cathedral, the landmark monument of the city and its Baptistry, the Bapitstry was exceptional owing to its Gates of Paradise and the eclectic Mosaic ceiling. This, for me, is a must visit place, one has to spend time to understand the ceiling.

The Cathedral of Florence is a unique building, one has to stand in a long queue to get in. For Bell tower enthusiasts, Giotto’s Campanile offers a beautiful sight if you are willing to walk up 414 steps.

Within a walking distance from the Cathedral was the Uffizi Gallery, another must visit place in Florence. A tip here is to book tickets through reservation or you shall end up standing like us in the queue for almost 45 minutes. People are allowed in batches in this amazing collection of art & paintings including works from Da Vinci, Michealangelo, Raphael and the likes. The gallery also offers an amazing view of the bridges of Florence, overlooking the Punto Vecchio.

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One of the regrets of this trip was the lack of time to visit Pisa, it would have been a 4 hour trip, but we had our hands full in Florence. Many people also indulge in tours related to cooking in Tuscany and wine yard trips, am sure they are fun to do.

On the same evening, we took a train to Milan. Reaching Milan at around 9.40 PM, we headed towards our hotel, barely a  walking distance from the station. It was already late at night, all we could wait for a night’s sleep.

Next morning was the last morning in Italy, our first stop from the Metro lines was to Piazza del Duomo. The massive square is the go to place in Milan, our first stop was the Duomo. The Duomo is also called as the Milan Cathedral, it is the 4th largest cathedral in the world constructed with brick and marble. The visit to the top of the Duomo is worth it, the ticket counter is behind the Duomo, not in the same compound. The trip to the top roof is a treat in itself, one of the rare possibilities when it comes to visiting a cathedral.

Inside the Duomo, the composite stained class paintings across different panels are simply majestic. Next to Duomo was the Galleria Vittoria Emaneuelle, a majestic shopping arcade opened over 200 years ago.

Slightly ahead of the Gallery is the famous square with Leonardo da Vinci overlooking his disciples. A longish walk away is the Gallery Ambrosiana, a place which I had visited in my trip last year.

We closed our trip with a short bus ride around the city, there was a lot to see, but tired from the long three days we were content with a glimpse of what Milan has to offer.

Interesting food tips is to try the Milanese Risotto and the Panettone. For shoppers Corso Buenos Aires is the right destination.

A trip to Italy cannot be completed in a long weekend, with destinations like Rome and Venice, I shall return some day. Until then, Grazie Tuscany and Lombardy.

I’ll be happy take take your questions in planning a trip, although am not an expert.

We’ll always have Paris

It is indeed difficult to start with a title of blog post on Travel. I never could buy the phrase ‘City X calling’, No sir, I do not think a city calls one…one being at a specific place in a specific time is purely circumstantial. Anyways, returning back to the post…the title was an easy one, one of the most famous movie quotes from Casablanca, ‘We’ll always have Paris’

Last weekend, we visited Paris, the city of lights and the city of love. Our trip wasn’t the perfect one, but Paris still left a lasting impression. It also taught us plenty of tricks for future travelers to make.

First things first, 3 days is just not enough if you really want to spend time in Paris. Its a good weekend getaway only if you are looking to feast on the city’s beauty without ever tasting the dish. This city, needs around 5 days for you to dive into the Louvre, Versailles and the likes.

Arriving in Paris, we had booked a room in the Ibis Eiffel Tower hotel, it was quite close to the Tower and one could see the most famous French monument right from our window. However, the hotel had bad sound proofing, one could detect any movement in the surroundings without effort.

The first visit was to a nearby local cafe, the couple tried egg-mushroom omlette and a french duck delicacy. The food was good, and the portions too big. We then managed to navigate through the narrow streets to the tower, only to be attracted by Bengali music playing at full blast. It didn’t make sense, why were the French playing Bangla music? Ah ha, a group of Indians/Bangladeshis were celebrating Poila Baishak, and they chose the most prime location in France to celebrate it.

My partner was filled with joy, this was it, the tower and there we were right in front of it! After a round of pictures attempting to look taller than the tower, we crossed the huge garden to reach the river on the other side. The lines below the tower to go up were filled with tourists, this is when i realized that one must book tickets online to save time on waiting to go up.

The river itself is the nerve dividing the city with over 22 or more bridges connecting the ends, the bridges themselves are a feast to the eyes, and the right way to do this is taking a river cruise at night (last departure at 10.30 pm from Notre dame or Eiffel tower). This is a must do activity, one could also attempt boat dining cruises but we focused on the regular one with commentary on the sights. It is the night time when the city of lights really enthralls you. And yes, the tower lights up, I do not know why, but the view just stays with you as a fond memory.

The next day, I was conscious of the Tower queues (and the ticket was not available online for the next month!), so I ventured to the tower around 8.45 AM. It was 45 minutes before they open, only to find myself behind around 200 other people already in the queue. It was a very windy and cold morning, the wait was not a delight…but we got our tickets by 9.45, because most people ahead of me were from group tours and their tickets weren’t sold individually. From this point on, we went straight to the top, at the height of 281 metres, the view was simply exceptional…the wind was like a blizzard. I couldn’t feel my fingers, but when you are on the top of Eiffel tower, would you really care?

Next stop was Versailles, a RER train trip from Champe de Mars (near Eiffel) to Versailles River Gauche (don’t take the one going to Versailles Chantiers – St Quentin en Yvelines). The train station is around 5-10 minutes from the Palace, we had booked the tickets online to save ourselves from the queue. The palace is just exceptional, and will need 4-5 hours for a simple walk. One wonders at the wealth of the time gone by, the richly adorned rooms, halls and beds of the French monarchy and the violent deaths brought upon by the Revolution. The Palace gardens were filled with springtime blooms of tulips and roses, the palace itself is an architectural marvel with a chapel, a hall of battle, the hall of lights and the chambers of King Louis XVI and his Queen.

We returned to Paris in the evening, and helped ourselves to an Indian meal near the Dupleix metro station, it was one of the best Indian restaurant experience I had in continental europe. We then stopped by a local cafe for a dessert, which didn’t disappoint us. Tired and spent, sleep soon beckoned us.

Next morning, our key stop was the Louvre and Notre Dame. How could a trip to Paris be over without a visit to Notre Dame, the 800 year old church, the stage of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. We avoided going up the church tower due to the queues and paucity of time, but the insides of the church are worth a visit.

This was the place where Napolean Bonaparte was crowned Emperor, this was also the place where Joan of Arc was granted her right place in the history of France.

Our next stop was Louvre, we bought tickets at a Kiosk shop and avoided the large queues, our main focus area was the Grand gallery. It didn’t disappoint us, the Nintendo DS audio tour is worth taking, for the paintings have a story..which one doesn’t know about. Apart from the Mona Lisa, David and Goliath by Volterra, Four seasons by Archimboldo, Crowning of Emperor Napolean and other works are worth noticing.

Louvre needs 4-5 hours just for a quick browse, it is a must see place for art students, the colors, proportions and representations of human forms by the likes of Da vinci, Michelangelo, Rafeal and others cannot be missed.

 

Tips:

  • Buy tickets online for Versailles, Louvre and Eiffel Tower
  • There are far too many tourists in the right season, its going to be very crowded, so be prepared!
  • Tourist services were not capable of handling the crowd, specially in terms of washrooms. McDonalds had big queues of folks who wished to use their services, this was noticeable in all the places we visited.
  • Do try the crepes, they are available almost everywhere!
  • Don’t buy souvenirs at Tourist spots themselves. They are pricey.
  • Metro/Train system is not extremely structured, but worth figuring out.
  • Getting a hotel near Notre Dame will be advisable due to connectivity

Respirer Paris, cela conserve l’âme (breathing paris preserves the soul) – Victor hugo

Of Berlin and Berliners

Brandenburg Tor, Berlin

Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner). These words were spoken by JFK during his visit to Berlin in 1963. He proclaimed that every free person is a Berliner. There is an Urban legend, which states that he did not know the nuances of the German language nor was he aware that ‘Berliner‘ is a popular jam filled bun popular amongst the masses, his words really meant he was a jam filled bun. The right phrase should have been, “Ich bin Berliner”. But setting aside the linguistic nuances, the spirit of Berliners was celebrated on that day.

Last weekend, we paid a trip to the city of Berlin. It turned out to be a pretty good experience for a history buff like me, to a massive city, the biggest in Germany.

The first impressions of Berlin came up the moment we got out of the train, Berlin HauptBahnof is a huge railway station opened in 2006 with five different levels serving various local trains like S Bahn and International/National routes. It is modern architectural marvel for its large expanse and design.

Our hotel was near Alexanderplatz, on a cold and wet winter morning, we were standing at the exit of the Alexanderplatz station staring at the  Fernsehturm , at 368 meters it is the tallest building in Germany. It was a TV tower constructed by GDR, as the place was a part of East Berlin. They wanted it to be the sign of the city, and it truly is. One could go up the tower and enjoy dinner at its restaurant.

After a while we attempted to venture out in the cold weather, the first stop was Fernsehturm, we wanted to go up but it had a long waiting period, so we decided otherwise. We then took a train to Hackesher markt and wanted towards the Museum Island (Museum Sinsel). Buildings of Altes Museum, Pergamom Museum and Berliner Dom populate the place. Large hallways outside the National Gallery still bear marks of damage from the WWII.

Berlin Dom

We spent a few hours at the Berliner Dom, which overlooks the Lustgarten (no, don’t giggle!) park. It is indeed difficult to imagine that Lustgarten was one of the places where Nazis would hold mass rallies and during the WWII it was destroyed by bombs. The Berliner Dom is indeed worth a visit, a very different cathedral when compared to churches elsewhere in Europe, it celebrates Reformation and is worthy of spending time.

Next stop for us was Brandenburg Gate, it is the iconic monument of Berlin. In fact it is also stamped on Euro coins, this monument is probably the heart of any visit to the city. This is where the wall stood, right in front of the gate, a division of the people, this is where Ronald Reagen once spoke, ‘Mr Gorbachev, Tear down this wall‘. Till date three US Presidents have spoken at the gate talking about freedom and peace.

Near to the gate is the Reichstag, we really wanted to visit the place inside, but we did not know that free bookings have to be made in advance. I would have loved to visit the Reichstag dome, hopefully I’d go back again someday. With this we returned to Alexanderplatz and visited the TV tower at night, the view of the city and its light was enchanting.

Next morning, the first place to visit was Checkpoint Charlie. A very touristy spot, it was one of the gates where diplomats from US sector would enter/exit the Soviet sector. That single board of Checkpoint Charlie attracts many visitors, an open exhibition of the Berlin wall and markers on the road illustrating where the wall once stood make it an incredible experience.

On the same street as the checkpoint, one could also visit the Mauer Museum (Wall Museum). It is a private museum dedicated to the wall, to peace and the struggle of German people during the days of the Cold War. Anecdotes, actual escape vehicles/contraptions and pictures of people who escaped through the wall make the place a living memorial of the days which went by. Some of the stories are trying heart wrenching, a couple of pictures shook me up…

The last place to visit on the day was Charlottenberg palace, unfortunately by the time we reached there it was already closing time. With this we returned to the HB and waited for our train.

Tips

Local Travel: Buying a day pass at 5.5 EUR (or if in a group upto 5 people at 15 EUR) will allow you to travel by metro, trams and buses. It is worthwhile to also check out the Bus #100 route, it moves around all major spots of interest (except Checkpoint Charlie) and this single bus could be one of the best ways to move around the city.

Stay: We stayed at Etap hotel near Alexanderplatz, the price for two people was 53 EUR. Rooms are clean and simple, perfect for budget travelers.