Sunday, 10 August 2008

European Dreams

Travelling to Europe has always been a dream, and travelling a few times to cover different parts of Europe an even bigger dream. But dreams sometimes come true! On April 2008 Joy and I set out for the 1st chapter of our dream journey amidst a lot of apprehensions and excitement. Since this was our first major trip abroad we chose to travel with a tour operator. For two to three months I called various tour companies, went through a big list of travel plans and prices, and finally decided to travel to Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Holland, France, and England with Thomas Cook. The itinerary set by Thomas Cook looked very exciting, and the pricing was very attractive. Infact, a trip to Dubai was a bonus from Thomas Cook!

The next 6 posts will cover almost every detail that I remember of our travel experience in Europe. The order is Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Paris, and London.

Switzerland

It was last April our dream trip was about to begin. The point of start of the trip was Mumbai. Joy and I reached Mumbai in the afternoon so that we could rest a little at my parent's place before starting the long journey to Zurich. There is always good food at my parent's place as my mother loves cooking. We spent the afternoon chatting, eating, and discussing the itinerary. Later in the evening my parents dropped us off at the airport; our flight was past midnight. Like good passengers we reached much ahead of time, finished with the airport formalities, and went to the lounge to board the flight. During this entire time I was feeling extremely excited about everything, just that I couldn't show it. I wanted to dance like a little girl!

We took the Emirates flight from Mumbai to Dubai, and then from Dubai to Zurich. Dubai airport is huge, we just got to see a bit of it only. We reached Zurich and after the formalities at the airport we met our tour manager who was waiting for us. Everything was happening very fast from this point on. We started walking out of the airport, yet I was unable to believe that I was actually in Switzerland! 

We went to the Zurich train station to board a train to go to Lucerne, and from there we got on another train that took us to Engelberg. Our train passed through small villages, crossing houses, schools, open fields. Some young school boys got on the train with water bottles and apples in their hands. It was wonderful! 

One very interesting thing we noticed that the number of bogies kept reducing after a few stations. Also, we learnt that the train stops on certain stations only on demand. A passenger who wishes to board the train needs to press a button, only then the train will stop. 


On the way to Engelberg

Engelberg

After a picturesque ride the train pulled into the Engelberg station around 5 in the evening. Engelberg, a village in the canton of Obwalden, is situated amidst the snow-clad Swiss Alps, and we were to spend 3 nights there. When we got off the train the station looked like a movie set; it was small and beautiful! Our tour manager said that we would walk to the hotel as it was a five-minute walk. As we were going out of the station we had no idea what sight lay outside, but only in a few moments we realised that we’ve almost reached heaven. Oh what a splendid sight it was! I had only seen something so beautiful in movies. Guess it was at that point Joy and I started feeling the real excitement of the trip.

We reached Ramada Hotel Engelberg and checked in, still unable to digest the fact that we were in Switzerland. Quite tired with the journey, physically, not mentally, I decided to freshen up and take a quick nap before heading out to see the place around. As I pulled the bed cover I found two cubes of chocolate placed on the pillows. We later heard that it is a custom in Switzerland.

After a little while I figured that there was still bright daylight outside, and it was 7 p.m.. Joy and I did not realise that the days are that long in that part of the world. Very intrigued I got off the bed, thinking that a nap is not a great idea at that moment, and I went to open the balcony door. The door seemed a little faulty as it was a little slanted and was not opening. I called Joy for help. With a little effort we opened the door and what we saw outside was nothing less than a dream. True to the promise made by our tour operator this location indeed gave a real feel of Switzerland.


On the way to the hotel


View from the balcony

We sat in the balcony for sometime clicking photographs from every angle possible. Then we went out to buy some food as we were hungry. There was a pizza shop right opposite the hotel. So we went there, but there was noone there to open the door. We went to another restaurant and found that was closed too. While wondering what to do we saw a super market and went inside it. Fortunately, there was a food counter there. We went to the first floor and found a large variety of yummy looking sandwiches and we picked up a few. When we went to the counter the lady at the counter refused to take the Euro cents we had with us. Joy and I were wondering what went wrong, we were giving them their own currency in coins, so what was the problem. Only then we learnt that the currency of Switzerland was Swiss Francs and not Euros. We had fifty euro notes and the lady said that she will give the change in Swiss Francs. We weren’t too sure whether we would be shopping in Switzerland at all knowing how expensive the place was. A little careful research would’ve been useful I thought at that moment, but it was too late to think about it. I fortunately had a five euro note, so we took one big sandwich with that and left the place, rather unhappy. We went back to the hotel, shared the sandwich and some biscuits that I had with me and dozed off.

Around 8:30 in the evening both of us got up with the sound of the phone ringing. Our tour operator was calling as we had to go for dinner. Dinner was organised about three buildings away from our hotel. We got up quickly and literally ran down to the lobby. We then walked to the guest house where dinner was served and met the group we were to join for the rest of the trip, and also met the real tour manager! The group took a different tour option which included Italy and Austria. They were all Indians from India, felt as if I was in India!

The dinner was awesome. A good variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian north Indian dishes. Joy and I had a hearty meal. While leaving the dining area we were told that we needed to be ready by 7:30 the next morning. Well, that was not the best thing to hear after such a great meal, but there was no choice!

The next morning I got up rather early and both of us went down to have breakfast. The hotel organised a pretty good spread, but I couldn't eat much as it was too early to eat. Joy seemed to enjoy his breakfast! When all of us finished our breakfast we headed towards the coach that would take us around. In fact, it was on the bus that I kind of met the rest of the group. Our tour manager introduced Joy and me to the rest of the group and welcomed us on board.

The first thing we saw that day was a glacier falls, deep inside a mountain – the Trummelbach Falls. They are the only glacier falls of their kind in the world, which have been made accessible. It was beautiful.




Inside the Trummelbach Fall

Jungfraujoch

After that we proceeded to Jungfraujoch – the Top of Europe. We went to the beautiful town of Lauterbrunnen. One gets to savour the scenic splendour from aboard the ‘cog-wheel’ train, which goes to a height of 3,454 meters to reach Jungfraujoch! This is a trip to another world – a wonderful world of eternal ice and snow. We experienced the magic of the mountains and visited the Ice Palace on top of the longest glacier in the Alps. For lunch we had local meal with champagne specially arranged for us at the Bollywood cafe! 





Interlaken

Later in the day we visited Interlaken, a charming city nestled between two lakes and surrounded by the splendid Bernese Oberland Mountains.



Mt. Titlis

One of the most memorable experiences of our Europe tour was visiting Mt. Titlis. Titlis is a mountain in the Urner Alps. It overlooks Engelberg; in fact, we could see our hotel from there. This site is famous for the world’s first revolving cable-car. The cable car system connects Engelberg to the summit of Klein Titlis, the 3,020-meter-high mountain station, through the three stages of Gerschnialp, Trübsee and Stand, though Titlis Rotair or the revolving cable car leads from Stand. It was a spellbinding experience as we were ascending the snow-clad mountain to experience the snow and ice on top!





Indian masala tea stall in Switzerland!

Lucerne

Later in the day we proceeded to Lucerne, a city in north- central Switzerland. I had heard about Lucerne but I never really tried to find out anything about this place; and I was glad that I didn't. I wouldn't have felt the surprise and wouldn't have felt the excitement if I had known more about this place. The city, the lake, the mountains, everything about Lucerne is beautiful! The place was bustling with people, there were cars, buses, trams everywhere; yet there was an amount of peace and quiet all over. Everywhere you look you can see the beautiful mountains surrounding you. 

After getting off the coach we first headed towards the Lion Monument. The monument commemorates the Swiss guards who were killed during the French Revolution in 1792.

While Joy and I were clicking photographs and video shooting around the monument our tour manager Anurag asked me if I could spot anything around the lion. Joy and I looked and looked and we gave up. Then Anurag showed us the shape of the pig that was bordering the sculpture of the lion. Apparently, the sculpture had a falling out with someone associated with the contracting of the memorial that he created the pig shape out of spite.



We then went towards the Kapellbrücke. It is a covered wooden footbridge spanning diagonally across Lake Lucerne. This bridge is unique since it contains a number of interior paintings dating back to the 17th century, although many of them were destroyed by fire in 1993. The bridge was rebuilt, and it is the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe.


There was an old man sitting on the bridge and playing the accordian. Almost everyone walked past him as if he wasn't even there, while some dropped coins in the hat that was on the ground; I stood in front of him for a while and heard him play. He looked up and I told him that he was very good. I don't think he followed English, but he seemed to have understood looking at my expression and he acknowledged with a smile. I had a few coins and I put them in his hat and walked along. 

While we were moving around waiting for the rest of the group members to gather I heard the sound of something resonating a little distance away. Joy and I followed the sound and discovered something which we had no idea existed. An unusual but a very enjoyable experience of hearing a large group of alphorn players performing at the square... what a sight to behold! I captured the rest of the performance on the camcorder; I'll cherish it all my life!

Here is a picture...


Alphorn players in concert

We walked around a bit, clicked photographs, bought very typically Swiss souvenirs, the cow bell, post cards etc. The things are cheaper here in Lucerne compared to many places we visited in Switzerland. After a while we went on a cruise on the serene waters of Lake Lucerne, in a group of course! Sigh!



Joy clicked while I was listening to music waiting for the others to arrive



On the boat

With the cruise we ended our Switzerland trip. The next day we were to leave for Germany.

Germany

After a splendid time in Switzerland, it was time to say adieu to one of the most beautiful places in the world. We woke up early morning to have a last look at the unbelievable view of the place form the hotel room and went down to have breakfast. There was excitement as we were going to another country, yet there was a little yearning deep down saying, wish I could be here for a longer time. Had to brush off that thought instantly, and Joy and I went to board the coach. This was the first time we were going to another country on the coach.

We were headed for Schauffhausen to see the Rhine Falls, which is located at the border of Switzerland and Germany. We took a road trip down the mountain instead of the train, and the view outside was, this is where I lack the skill of a writer, it was out if this world! We drove through Zurich, we didn't stop there, neither did we go to the heart of the city, yet we got a feel of the place. And, for Joy and me, it was another quick trip to Zurich!

After a couple of hours drive we reached Schauffhausen. Rhine Falls is definitely beautiful, but what amazed me was the way the Swiss Tourism department capitalised on every opportunity to turn so many places into tourist locations. One thing that I found really nice was that there was a viewing point on the rock which splits the falls, and a staircase to get up there. We didn't have a lot of time and most importantly the courage to get there! Here a few photographs we took near the falls.




Nature always fascinates me , so I went about clicking photographs and video shooting. Time is always limited when you travel with a group. Though I wanted to spend some more time there, I had to go back to the coach. But then I was very excited with the thought of crossing over to Germany! 



Entering Deutscheland!

How excited was I that some tough looking guy will come ask for our passports and ask us why we are here, and I, like the spokesperson for all will tell that guy how fascinated we were to know about their country that we've come this far! But no, noone came! Our tour manager went to meet the border security guys and completed all the formalities; we started moving.

We crossed over to Germany; nature looked different on this side of the border. The grass was not as green and the roads looked rather parched. This time the drive seemed never to end. It was getting a little warm outside. I was over-clothed! We went through many villages and small towns; and at some point our driver Armando, lost his way; so that took us some more time to reach the Black Forest.

I was very intrigued about visiting the Black Forest. Read about forests in Geography back in school, and the picture of forests on my mind has always been about lions and tigers; the deep and scary jungle kind! As we came closer to the Black Forest, I figured it had nothing to do with wild life. In fact, we crossed a town too. Just then I realised that I did not read all my Geography lessons well enough to know that there are different kinds of forests!

We drove further down and arrived at the beautiful lake of Titisee. This is the heart of the Black Forest, surrounded by dark fir forests, fairy tale woods and flowering meadows. We got off the coach and as we started walking this is what we saw!


Don't these bikes look stunning! The people who rode them looked even more stunning, they were young men and women in black leather gear, all of about 50 years!

Since it was time for lunch we first headed for the restaurant that was pre-booked for us. Joy and I, and a few of us had local meal (something like chicken steak) and had authentic black forest cake for dessert. Well, just my thought, our Indian black forest cakes taste better.

After lunch we went to Drubba, the home of the world-famous cuckoo clock. We were invited for a free demonstration in the factory. Oh the shop was full of exotic clocks! The lady who was showing us around told us that in the winter months, when it becomes too cold for farming, the farmers of this region resort to making Cuckoo clocks from the wood found in the Black Forest. We were shown a demonstration of a small part and an explanation of the making of the Cuckoo clocks. They had many varieties for sale ranging from simple clocks which emit the cuckoo sound to musical clocks that perform a whole host of actions in tune to the music. They were very very expensive, so we settled for the miniature magnets from outside the store.


We were given an hour to move around to shop. The place was beautiful! Joy and I walked around, sat for a while, clicked photographs. There were many shops selling souvenir, therefore, spending one hour there was fun! I bought quite a few things as the prices were relatively  low.


Later in the afternoon we went to Heidelberg, situated on the banks of the river Neckar. Heidelburg is known mainly for its famous university renowned for its printing technology and its castle. At the entrance of the castle we saw some people building a stage for a concert to be held. We visited the castle gallery, situated on a hill, from where one can get a splendid view of the city of Heidelberg. We heard that the castle had a Huge Wine vat which was as big as an entire room, but it was closed by the time we went there.

On the way to the castle there were many restaurants and cafés on the sides, and in one, we saw a couple dancing at the open verandah, felt like a shot from a Spanish movie.




We left Heidelberg and drove an hour or so to check into Hotel Ramada in Weisbaden.

Belgium

After Germany we went to Antwerp in Belgium. We reached there late in the evening, so we checked into the hotel and did not go out.

The next morning we went to Brussels. We got off the coach and went to The Grand Palace or Grote Markt Square. It is a vibrant part of the city where one can find people from all over the world. At the square one cannot miss the Godiva shop and the beer cafés and pubs! The narrow medieval streets around are lined with shops selling diamonds, crystals, souvenirs, and not to forget the awesome waffles.

Just a short walk from the Grand Place-Grote Markt is the Manneken Pis, a small bronze statue thought to represent the ‘irreverent spirit’ of Brussels. On the way to Manneken Pis one can see Tintin, Snowy and Captain Haddock painted on the wall of a building; a statue of Van Gogh and a man dressed like him.

Having been playing western classical music on the piano for 25 years I could not miss the statue of Béla Bartók near the central train station in a public square. He was a Hungarian composer and pianist, and was considered one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.
The Atomium adds splendor to the colourful city of Brussels.









































Holland


It was day 6 of our trip, after breakfast, we went back to our coach and headed for Keukenhof – the largest spring garden in the world. If I remember correctly, it was after I saw Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha dancing around the gardens singing to "Dekha Ek Khwaab To Yeh Silsile Hue" in the movie Silsila, when I was probably 12 or 13 years old, that the dream of going to the tulip garden had formed in my mind; quite unconsciously though. That's why this part of the trip was particularly exciting for me. Our tour manager told us that we were very lucky to have come to Keukenhof during period as bulbs of these colourful tulips bloom only till May 18th; that is, just 8 weeks in the whole year!

The drive from Antwerp to Keukenhof was pleasant, nothing extra ordinary. Saw many windmills on the way which took me back to my school days and the pictures of windmills that I saw in text books. It felt nice. Living one's dreams is definitely a great feeling.

Since we had been travelling everyday with just the night to rest I was feeling a little tired and sleepy, but the thought of missing on something on the way kept me awake. I'm glad that I did not doze off for what I saw next needs to be seen to be believed. I received an email a few years ago where I saw pictures of aircrafts moving from one part of the runway to another through an overpass. I did not have the faintest idea that we would be going past the Schiphol Airport and I would see a sight like that. It was so sudden that I could not click a picture. Nevertheless, I was happy to see what I saw. From then on I made a little more effort to watch out for anything on the way.

We were nearing the tulip gardens and had a little prelude on the way to get an idea of what lay inside the garden. There were many tulip fields on the way, and the bulbs looked stunning! In a short while we reached the entrance of the garden. Our tickets were bought by our tour manager, so we just walked in. We were given 2 hours to see the whole place.

While entering, Joy and I had no idea how big the garden was, so we decided to move a little fast to cover the whole area. The place inside was so beautiful that poets will fall short of words to describe such beauty of nature. I have never seen such variety of flowers on television, let alone in real life! Not only the variety of tulips, but the way they were arranged and planted, was unbelievably wonderful.







































































The people behind were a group of choir singers singing in their own joy. I stood next to them for a while, captured them on the camcorder, and walked about when Joy clicked this photograph.

There seemed to be no end to the different varieties of tulips, and Joy and I were starting to feel a little tired of clicking photographs; but we didn't want to give it up! During the entire period of moving from one part of the garden to another, I was searching for just one thing, the tulip field.I searched and searched for the tulip field and I found it finally only to realise that there was a moat to keep the visitors from entering. I was so upset that I cannot tell. The beautifully laid garden had no relevance in my life, which may seem quite strange to many, but my dream of dancing around the garden remained unfulfilled. I didn't want to let the moment of standing in front of the tulip field go wasted, so with a heavy heart I stood there for a while to savour the moment. Here's a picture...

















It was time to leave, I was not happy. I was excited when I went into the garden but quite sad while going out of it.

Next we went to visit Madurodam, Holland in miniature, replicated in minute detail on a 1:25 scale.






























































Later in the afternoon we went to an Indian restaurant in Amsterdam where they served local meal. We had croquette with french fries and bread.
















After lunch we boarded a glass-topped boat for the canal cruise. We sailed through the canals to witness the city’s colourful past with its 1,000 bridges and fine old houses.

































It was late afternoon when we visited the Dam Square – the real heart of Amsterdam, where the Royal Palace, the Nieuwe Kerk and the War Memorial overlooks this vast and bustling open space.