The Itinerary: France

A la française!

I learnt French (and continue to do so-it’s a process!) in my second semester in law school, and somewhere along the way till my trip to France last month, I just really fell in love. In love with not only with the country, the cities (je t’aime Paris and all that), the charming towns but also with the food (j’aime la crêpe!) and most with the language. Language, I strongly believe, is the single most revelling factor in getting to know a culture. I struggled to form complete sentences, often taking my time to recall words that I learnt during class or duolingo. But the most amazing memories of the trip were just how warm people were just because you spoke to them in the most broken French and not in English. There is some thin silver thread, almost invisible, that just forms, because of a recognition of something that is theirs, and your attempt is rewarded by them welcoming you into their (French) world.

Over the course of 12 days, I visited Paris (because as Audrey Hepburn says, ‘Paris is always a good idea.’), Blois-Chambord and Amboise (in the Loire Valley), Lyon, Côte d’Azur villages and Nice. I had initially planned Rouen (in Northern France), but fell sick so stayed back in Paris for a day.

12 days seems like a whole lot, but honestly? It just isn’t enough to really travel through France. I figured this mid-trip, and it’s safe to assume that I will be making atleast another trip to France.

Day 1 (Paris)

We took the train from Geneva to Paris, covering a bit of scenery from both countries. In many ways, Paris has some of the ways of Calcutta-an unsolicited pride for the language, an absolute belief that French is most superior language on the planet, rich and  with culture and streets brimming with dirt. Since my hotel was at Porte de Montmartre, I decided to explore the area, that twas founded out of abandoned mills and become attractive to struggling artists and immigrants, only to give birth to the art hub of the city. A climb (or ride) up the Montmarte hill to see the Cathedral de Sacré Cœur and get an excellent view of the city. Montmarte makes for a beautiful stroll as well-along the narrow cobbled streets-the Place du Tertre is worth mulling over. My last stop was the famed cabaret dancing club-Moulin Rouge.

Day 2 (Paris) 

I explored the Île de la Cité for the whole of day 2 in the city of lights. My first stop was the Cathedral de Notre Dame, an impressive overwhelming structure that is sure to leave you wondering how such intricate architecture is built. The church is also home to the Krypt of the Île de la Cité, and gives a great insight into the history of the Île de la Cité and traces its evolution from the medieval ages. I continued my history lesson on the medieval ages by walking into the Latin Quarter’s Museé du Moyen Age (or the Museum of the Middle Ages). The tapestries at the museum are a must see! My last stop for the day was the Panthéon, a building symbolic of the ever-lasting conflict between the church and the state. The crypt of the Panthéon also serves as the resting place for famous scientists of the Renaissance and the 20th century and include Emile Zola, Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, Pière and Marie Curie. Another interesting thing in the Panthéon is the 29 kilogram pendulum that swings in the middle of the main hall-its amazing to watch!

Day 3 (Paris)

My third day in Paris is when I did all the clichéd touristy stuff. It started off with a visit to the Arc de Triomphe, which also gives you a great view of the city and the famed Champs Élysees. The arch is a symbol of victory, but recognises the hurt and pain that is often subdued in the aftermath of war. Braving my growing cold, I walked by Champs Élysees and caught the bus towards the Eiffel Tower.

I was given a guided tour of the tower (there was no other way I could have gotten tickets otherwise) by an enthusiastic guide named Cèline. She guides both in impeccable English and Spanish. Fun facts about the Eiffel Tower? It is painted a different colour every 7 years, the French hated it at first (kind of have to agree there. I do not see why so many people go gaga over a radio tower) and it recovered its entire cost in 6 months. The view from the tower was fantastic, but the tower itself? Meh, not so much.

The Louvre was our final stop for the day, and even half a day is just not enough to truly appreciate the museum. The Mona Lisa is great, but there’s so much more to the Louvre than the painting made most famous by Dan Brown.We did the touristy things because of the lack of time, although in all fairness you need two full days to truly appreciate the majesty that is the Louvre.

Day 4- Paris (day trip to Versailles Palace) 

Day 4 was a half day trip to the sprawling grounds of Versailles, which houses the famous home of the erstwhile French royalty. The palace is royal enough, but I wasn’t impressed with grandoise bed chambers and never-ending gardens, it was almost like I was intruding a rich guy’s private home (the entire thing reminded me a bit of the estate tours in Pride and Prejudice).

Day 5-the chateaux of the Loire Valley (Blois-Chambord-Amboise)

Few Indians have visited, or know of the insanely beautiful Loire Valley, let alone the two charming towns we visited-Blois-Chambord and Amboise. Our hotel, the Hotel Louise de Savoie is a cute set-up a few steps from the Gare du Blois-Chambord. It is run by an impeccable French woman who wears tortoise shell rimmed glasses and owns a dog named Bichét, a white Yorkshire Terrier. Everything about the hotel is romantic-the wooden staircase, the creaky floors, windows painted white and looking out to a flower plant or a tree, the white of the bedsheets that often contrasts with the dark wood décor.

Blois is home to the Chateau Royal and Chateau Royal d’Amboise served as a residence to the celebrated artist, scientist and engineer, Leonardo Da Vinci, whose final resting place is in a chapel in the chateau.  Both chateaux import you to another time and space, engulfing you with Renaissance royalty. As I strolled by the streets of Amboise, we were greeted with sounds of fleeting Italian music, played on the harp and the violin, clearly illustrating the French town’s far deeper connection with its neighbouring Italy.

There is something about the ‘Vielle Ville’ (French: Old Town) that I always get attracted to-I’ll probably never tire of it (I hope not). Blois’ old town makes for a nice evening stroll-with good restaurants and bistros. However, they do close early and rise early. The hotel’s breakfast was far beyond excellent-fresh produce from the nearby farm-something as simple as bread and butter seemed so much more healthy!

Day 6 -Lyon 

The next stop was Lyon, and I took the craziest train ride to get there! However, I do congratulate myself on successfully changing THREE trains with a suitcase and with less than 15 minutes of waiting time in-between. Who’s a winner now?

Lyon makes for a short half day to one day visit-there is quite a bit to see, but nothing that will take you over two days. Sights include the Cathedral St. Jean,  the river cruise is nice enough, and there is great food! The river cruise goes by the confluence of the Rhône and Saône rivers.

Lyon is like any other Western European city-honestly it was the Vieux Lyon that I really liked. I saved money by purchasing the Lyon City Card, although it isn’t really worth it if you’re there only for half a day.

Day 7, 8 and 9 (Nice and the Côte d’Azur) 

The train from Lyon to Nice provides some of the best scenic views, especially of the Côte d’Azur. It passes by Marseilles, Antibes, Cannes and finally Nice. The journey charts through Bourgogne (the plains) before moving to give flirty glimses of the French Alps and finally the breathtaking Côte d’Azur, that peeks out shyly, at first, before giving you the greenish blue of the ocean.

Nice is easy to get around-my hostel was bang opposite the Gare Nice Ville, and I basically hung out with a group of Americans for my final few days of the trip. Nice is a city that reeks of sex and money, best illustrated by the fact that there are condom vending machines right next to ATMs almost every 100 metres in the city centre. Also the fact that there is a statue of a naked man in the Massena Square just to get everyone in the ‘mood’ perhaps?

Vieux Nice isn’t too bad, and I tried the socca which was pretty yummy. Of course, there was some strolling along the Promenade des Anglais and general lazying around. In many ways, Nice is just probably the Goa for that part of Europe (actually I can’t really think of another Goa equivalent for the French, Italian stretch apart from Ibiza probably).

There isn’t too much to do in Nice (well, other than party and hook up with someone you met at Wayne’s Bar, a hotbed for tourists (read, mostly Americans) to drink). I spent my second day exploring the Côte d’Azur villages of Eze (which has the famous Nietzsche Chemin or Nietzsche path) and Villefranche sur Mer (French: French village on the sea).

I took the bus from Nice Ville all the way up to Eze village-and what a wonderful ride it was, all along the mountains! Eze is home to the medieval village, and it makes for a great walk. Villefrance sur Mer is more about the journey-you have to climb about 400 steps up and down to go the tiny village and back.

And with that I wrapped a dreamy vacation! Who is not waiting for the next one?

Au revoir! 🙂

The Itinerary: Switzerland

So my grand 2017 vacation concluded last week. I visited Switzerland and France (mostly France-I talk about that in the next post) for a total of 14 days. I spent three days in Switzerland, saw most of the country on a train ride from Zurich to Geneva and was too lazy to scale Mt. Titlis. I met my scientist cousin and his good looking scientist friend and had a fun night in Zurich. Highlights from my whirlwind Swiss trip.

Day 1 : Zurich

Standard questions for Indians (and anyone of colour), because I will leave my high paying legal job to be a homeless immigrant in Europe. They take biometrics of everyone who comes in except the United States and the United Kingdom.

Zurich is a small city (misnomer, I’ll take that). The centre of Europe’s Banking & Finance (excluding the UK, but the Brexit might change that) and home to one of Europe’s richest streets. I arrived in Zurich, bleary-eyed, exhausted from the connecting flight from Abu Dhabi, but so hopelessly excited to be out of mundane corporate life.

Swiss hostels are extremely clean and well maintained. I was stayed at Zurich Youth Hostel, a conveniently located accommodation close to the bus and tram stations. The staff is super helpful and the breakfast is yum (and free!)

Being in Switzerland in the summer means you will undoubtedly encounter other Indians, loud conversations and often looking for vegetarian food. Zurich can easily be seen in a day (actually a couple of hours). Some of the things I did in Zurich included strolling along the city centre, starting from the Bahnhofplatz , where you can see the four famous churches, including the Fraumünster (literally, the Church of our Ladies). A common occurrence in Zurich’s architecture is the regular presence of a bluish green stone. The colour sets beautifully against the dull grey or brown of the body of the monument.

I took a boat ride along Lake Zurich, taking in lakeview houses, some impeccably done (Banker’s capital after all). You can see people have a better standard of living when they’re swimming or walking their dogs in the middle of a work day. I strolled along the lake, listening to soft jazz gig by street musicians.

Day 2: Lucerne (first half) and Bern (second half)

I woke up super early and headed out to Lucerne (French) or Luzern (Dutch/German). Lucerne turned out way prettier than Zurich, probably because it has more history to it. Lucerne has an old town charm to it, typical of European towns that I can never get bored of. The town is home to the famous wooden bridge that is fitted with Renaissance-age paintings and is adorned by roses and smaller flowers.

Lucerne is also famous for a fortress of sorts, unique because each mast of the fort is built with a different design and not all nine towers are open to the public. It was quite a walk (read: hike). The wonderful thing about Switzerland is that there are water fountains everywhere, so you don’t have to worry about clean drinking water (or spending 2 euros for 500ml of water). The Lion Monument is also worth a visit!

Bern was a rather spontaneous decision, because I thought I would take longer to see Lucerne. Thankfully for my Swiss Travel Pass (it comes highly recommended-you can go everywhere with just this one pass), I just took the next train to Bern.

Bern is understated, that’s for sure! Home to Switzerland’s Bern bear, the capital city has some charm of its own-it’s different from Lucerne or Zurich. The buildings in Bern are brown, different from Lucerne, where most buildings are white. A fascinating thing of Berne is dungeon-like hideouts used during the world wars are now used as clubs, discos and dancing clubs.

Day 3: Geneva 

Geneva is, well, disappointing. Sure, its clean and the Jet d’eau is lovely to look at-for all of five seconds. Walk around the Broken Chair Memorial, the Gandhi statute, see the UN from afar and you’re done.

That’s for Switzerland. Next post will look at my adventures in La France!

The Itinerary: Netherlands

This is my first post on travel (well apart from my travel wish-list, that doesn’t count), and I decided to write about my solo trip to the Netherlands last year. I’m the kind of traveller who just cannot visit too many countries at the same time, I like the whole let’s get into the culture experience.

And so, last year, I took a 8 day trip and saw everything that this tiny, but beautiful Dutch country has to offer.

Day 1: Amsterdam 

I arrived in the Dutch capital right in time for lunch. I was feeling all the feels when I landed in Amsterdam’s Schipol airport. This is the first time I was travelling entirely on my own, and I knew I could do this! First things first, I collected my Iamsterdam City Card and my Amsterdam Holland Pass. They are really worth it if you’re going to see everything Amsterdam and Holland has to offer.

Amsterdam, and the Netherlands in general is very easy to get around. So all I had to do was to book a ticket from the airport to Centraal Station (the main station located in Amsterdam) and then switch to the metro to my hostel.

Once I checked-in and collected my bearings, I didn’t want to waste any more time. So I took off with my tiny backpack and headed back to Centraal Station. The first thing I did was to take a canal cruise just to get an idea of how the city is-and it was a great introduction. I would definitely recommend this as a way to start off your visit in Amsterdam.

Once I was done with my canal ride, I took the metro to Westermarkt and walked around the area. It was a pretty, sunny day and made for a lovely stroll. I got into a tiny cafe and had my first dutch pancake (strawberries and nutella)! The waiter was Pakistani, and we got into a short conversation in Hindi. It amazes me how wonderfully we get along with our neighbours when we’re abroad, and not watching a cricket match.

While in the area, I visited the Amsterdam Cheese Museum-full of delightfully flavoured cheese (and got some for my grandpa too).

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(Centraal Station in Amsterdam)

(Dutch pancakes and tulips) 

Day 2: Amsterdam 

Today was museum day! At first, I thought it might be a bit of an overdose, but I love museums and so I decided to make the most of my ‘learning’ day. I pushed myself out of bed early and took the tram to Spiegelgracht. The tram stop brings you right in front of Amsterdam’s (and Holland’s) most frequented museum, the Rijksmuseum (pronounced Raiks-museum). The tall, brown building marks the start of the Museumplein, or Museum plaza. The Rijksmuseum is grand and classy. I am not going to tell you more about it because you should go and see it for yourself.

I walked out of Rijksmuseum and straight into the Iamsterdam sign. And of course, I became all touristy and took a picture. A lovely German traveller agreed to take a picture for me.

My next stop was the Van Gogh Museum-and I fell in love with his artwork in that short span of two hours. My favourite by far is Almond Blossom, so much so that I got my mum a phone cover featuring it. She loves it to bits, and points to me!

My last stop in the Museumplein was the Stedelijk Museum . A museum that espouses modern art, it was a fascinating, brief visit. By the time I was done with all three museums it was well past lunchtime, and so I settled for a warm blueberry and cream waffle with a cup of coffee to enjoy the pretty sunshine.

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I then hopped on the tram and got off at Spui and visited the Amsterdam Museum-a quick stop to get more on Amsterdam history. I then strolled along the cobble stoned area of Begijnhof and got a look at the not at all spooky Amsterdam Dungeon.

I eventually got along  to  De Pijp, an area famous for coffee shops, or basically where weed is sold. I walked in, feeling super awkward but thankfully everyone was just into their own thing. Cannabis is sold in tiny packets, but I couldn’t muster the courage to buy some and so I left feeling quite dejected.

I got out of the coffee shop and into Albert Cuypmarkt, a lively, bustling shopping street. I tried my first Stroopwaffel, a gigantic biscuit covered in honey, that’s the basic one, but you can get more creative versions (chocolate, of course and other kinds).

Day 3: Den Haag (The Hague) and Delft (Day trip from Amsterdam)

So the awesome thing about the Netherlands is that you can stay in Amsterdam and take day trips everywhere. It takes you just 2.5 hours to go from the northern most tip of Holland to the southern most. My first day trip was to the Hague and Delft (they’re pretty close to each other).

The Hague makes a short visit. Being a lawyer, I just had to see the Peace Palace, or the International Court of Justice, a majestic building befitting the purpose it serves in  upholding the principles of International Humanitarian Law. But the court visit was not before a stroll down Binnenhof, (Hague’s old town) where I saw the Knights’ Hall and the Mauritshuis Museum which houses the famous painting, The Girl with the Pearl Earring.

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Delft is tiny! The town is literally just three or four streets. But the canal walk and the sunny afternoon made it a great visit. Sights to see are the Oude Kerk and Nieuwe Kerk (literally old church and new church) and the Markt and Town Hall. Delft is famous for its blue porcelain, and I got some souvenirs.

(Oostport, walking down Delft and Oude Kerk)

Day 4 : Zaanse Schans and Voldendam 

A visit to Holland is not complete without seeing windmills! Day 4 was just that-a delightful day spent at the windmills, and watching how dutch wooden shoes are made.

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I also visited Voldendam, or the fishermen’s village. It is a cute, windy sea-side village rife with pungent smells of Dutch seafood cooking. Although it is commercialised, you do see folks wearing the traditional dutch frock and you can even be a clichéd tourist and get your picture clicked in one!

Day 5: Kuekenhof 

I visited Holland in the spring (April 2016) when tulips were in full bloom. I spent day 5 in the large grounds of Keukenhof, surveying tulips in every colour and pattern. By the end of it, I had gotten some sort of visual fatigue and I’m pretty sure I dreamt in technicolour that night.

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Day 6: Leiden 

I took a day trip to the charming college town of Leiden (famous for Leiden University- the courses on tax law and air and space laws are particularly of interest to lawyers). What’s interesting about this place is that it was a locked city-as can be seen from the keys above the arch through which you enter the city.

My day trip to Leiden was, for most part, rainy. But even then, the city (or town) is so breathtaking, that you don’t mind a little bit of chill on your stroll. Interesting tid-bit is that you see key ‘ports’- little facts about Leiden as you take the Leiden walk. I even stopped for some chocolates at Jacob’s. I recommend the dark chocolate coffee filled ones, which caught the fancy of my grandfather. Needless to say, I knew who finished the Jacobs chocolate box at home.

Day 7: Utrecht 

Utrecht is home to the pretty Dom Toren, or literally the stupid tower. I reached Utrecht quite early, and was on the first guided tour to see the tower. The guide was quite spunky, although the climb up (400-ish odd steps) made for a good work-out. Apart from the Dom Toren, the Markt makes for a nice stroll and the shopping centre at the Utrecht Centraal station is where I picked up little things for my friends back home. The Centraal Museum is also a good visit if you’re into modern art.

Day 8: Rotterdam and some last minute Amsterdam shopping 

My last day trip was to Rotterdam, and honestly there isn’t much to see apart from the Euromast and some nice parks. I got bored by mid-morning so I headed back to Amsterdam. I did some last minute shopping on Kalverstraat and walked about Dam Square enjoying a joint and some frites.

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(View from the Euromast) 

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Author Note: I was along in Amsterdam for Kings Day or Koningsdag in Dutch. It’s a fun day of celebration where everyone dresses up in Orange (signifying the Oranje, the house of the Royal Dutch family). It’s a riot of colour, and its fun to see the entire country descend on Amsterdam, just have fun, have some drinks (Heineken is available like water) and of course, smoke up.

I probably took a pretty long holiday for just one tiny European country-but that’s just how I do things. I mean, I’m on vacation. I’m not the kind who loves 21 day European tours, I like to ease into things, stroll along and just generally laze around.