Monday, December 23, 2013

To Rome with Love...

Roman Holiday - Part 2 of Italian Holiday

After starting our honeymoon in a so-called spiritual manner (considering the first place we visited during our trip was the Vatican City), the next day we decided to explore the city of Rome.

City Maps… check, metro card… check, guide book… check, my camera kit… check! So after a heavy breakfast, we decided to cover as much of Rome as possible, because we had a train to catch the next morning as we were leaving to our next destination in our Italian Honeymoon, Florence! 

Travel Tip 1: Always find the quickest way to travel within a city; the local Tourist Information centers are extremely helpful in this regard.

Travel Tip 2: In Europe, the best, cheapest and the quickest way to travel from one city to another or from one country to another is by trains. If you plan on going to multiple countries check out about Eurail Passes, else check out the local train options.

So we had a little less than 12 hours to go back in time, into the world of Gladiators at the Colosseum, walk through the centuries old Roman Forum and gape at the Palatine Hill or admire how mankind had developed these civilizations and the planning that had actually gone into it and finally, solidifying our love at the Trevi Fountain. 

As we walked hand in hand, discussing about how old the Roman Civilization was, marveling at the thought that we might as well be walking and laughing on the same grounds where Julius Ceasar might have walked and laughed. A pretty intense and philosophical moment! This might be true anywhere in this world but the specialty about this one was that it was our first trip together as man and wife, we were stepping into a new phase of life and this made us think about life that had existed there in those ruins, Gladiators fighting for their lives while the crowds cheered for their life or death and the conflicts between science and the Church and the life that has prevailed all these years.

A lot of philosophy on a honeymoon you would think, we were high… not just on love but also on wine!!!


Saturday, November 16, 2013

It’s Amore!! Day 1 - Italian Holiday

Like many Software professionals, my interest in Digital Photography started once I started work. My enabler for life with all this is my husband (my then boyfriend) who decided that a DSLR would be the perfect wedding gift and that was how this journey started for me.

When two of my passions - Travel and Photography, crossed roads it gave rise to this wonderful experience. I really started having so much fun with travel and photography, when on 1st December 2011 two very tired people, after having the first hand experience of traditions and customs of Indian wedding, decided to pack their bags and head out on their honeymoon to Italy. And that is how the clicking frenzy began.

Having slept through the entire flight from Delhi to Vienna and Vienna to Rome, we were all set, quite excited I would say, for our 9 days in Italy. After checking into a charming Bed & Breakfast in a century old building called Hotel Modigliani, we decided to get a feel of Rome and orient ourselves to the city and settle in early. Next day was the big plan to conquer the Vatican City.

Travel Tip:
Rome is well connected by the subway system and they have 72 hours and day passes too. 

We had taken the 3-day pass and after a nice heavy breakfast at the Bed & Breakfast we took the metro to Vatican City. You know you are in the vicinity of the Vatican City the minute you step out, not only because of the St Peters Church but because every other person you meet is a guide offering tours of St Peters Church and the Vatican Museum. But after all, it was our honeymoon and isn’t there a saying more than 2 is a crowd? So we decided to depend on our Guidebook and walked on towards the St Peter’s Square!  

As we walked into the Basilica, we were completely awed by the architecture but calling it Majestic is an understatement. The history of the place and the humongous architecture to add to it, would keep you dazed for quite some time. The best part of all this is that, you don’t need to be religious to feel the divinity the basilica imparts.

If I don’t talk about the Sculptures inside the Basilica, then I would not be doing any justice to it. You are bound to stand in front of many sculptures carved artistically and with precision. And not mentioning about “The Pietà” would be a crime. This sculpture would catch your eye the minute you step into the Basilica and turn right. Michelangelo’s masterpiece, this piece of art depicts Lord Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the crucifixion. Note the intricate work on the sculpture, the realistic drapery on Mother Mary and the veins and ribs of Lord Jesus. It took us some time to realize that all this was made from marble and marble alone.

As we walked further into the Basilica, we came to the main altar...

Fun Fact:
There are 3 altars located inside St Peters Basilica. This is the view from the main altar and below this one is located another altar and below that is another.

We were running out of time and had to choose between going down to see the altars or climb up the cupola to get a view of Vatican City\Rome from the top! We decided to go with the latter.

Climbing meant taking the lift 3 floors for 14 EUR each (disclaimer: this was in the year 2011, they might have revised the rates now) and then walking up a narrow spiral stairways and slanted path along the cupola.

And then for the grand finale, the view of the St Peters Square from the very top of St Peters Basilica; a view from the Cupola. You can walk around the cupola and it would give you a bird’s eye view of the entire Vatican City!

One day in the Vatican City is not enough, a lesson well learnt to be told to the others. But since we had planned for only one day at the Vatican, we had to wrap up our tour of the Basilica and get to the Museum before they close. You wouldn’t want to miss the Sistine Chapel now, would you!

We grabbed some quick lunch and made our way to the Vatican Museum. Believe me when I tell you, you would need one full day at the museum. The museum of Maps, the museum of Tapestry, the Egyptian Museum, the Etruscan Museum, the Sistine Chapel, just to name a few.

Photography is prohibited in the Sistine Chapel. But it is one sight you would never forget in your life. It is like walking directly into a painting; all the walls are painted and so is the ceiling. Sitting inside the Sistine Chapel and looking at all those paintings, every minute little detail painted, we felt a little lost. To imagine Michelangelo at that very place, hanging upside down from the ceiling or at the wall painting The Last Judgment is quite an experience; no camera can capture that! But its feeling you will never forget.

We were physically tired after that long day but mentally, we felt quite refreshed. We then walked to the Spanish Steps, on our way back to the hotel, and sat there watching the people and talking about how great the day was and of course about the great question “to whom does the credit go to for planning this awesome honeymoon”… psst… it all goes to me!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Prague in 3 hours...

After our finding-the-right-compartment fiasco and heaving a great sigh of relief on finding our seats, I was really done with all the running around. We settled in our seats (no berths in this train) for the night. The train was O-V-E-R-F-L-O-W-I-N-G with teenagers, students and groups of people who were taking their party from one party land (Budapest) to another (Prague). And our train, which was supposed to reach Prague at 6:30, reached at 4:00am. We now had 5 hours to spend in Prague before we get to the airport to catch our flight, back to Stockholm.

4:00am - 5:00am:
Freshened up and got ourselves a cup of coffee and a croissant. That was basically our proper meal since the night before we couldn't get much to eat on the train. Over coffee, we dug out our worn out Prague map and discussed what to do the next few hours. We had one place which we hadn't covered the last time. it wasn't that we hadn't had the time, it was more to do with the fact that we had gotten lost trying to find the place :D heehee yeah... the last time in Prague, we had started to go to this place, got down at the wrong stop and then took the tram to yet again, get down at the wrong stop, walked around and found nothing. This place had evaded us and so, we put it as a backlog item to be conquered when we came back here! Guess that's enough build up for this place - Vysehrad!

With "what to see?" question out of the way, the next thing to be discussed was how to conquer it! (You might wonder what's the big deal about this place and why am I obsessively using the word conquer but what would you call a place which according to the map is right in front of you but you cannot find it! Vysehrad was like that, we walked in circles trying to find this place without any result.) We decided to lock up our luggage and take the metro this time. There was a metro to Vysehrad from the Central station.

Travel Tip: Most of the railway stations have huge locker rooms with hourly, daily sometimes even monthly rental. Its completely automatic. All we have to do is walk into the locker room, find a free locker (ensure that its fully functional), place your luggage inside and lock it with the key and enter the amount mentioned. 

5:00 - 6:00am:
We had to change some currency, did that and then stored our luggage in a locker and went to get our metro passes. We decided to get the 30 minute pass so that even if we had to switch metros it wouldn't be a problem.

Note: Time based passes are quite convenient. Once validated these passes can be used any number of times within that stipulated time period. Sometimes if its a travel pass, then once validated you can use it, not only in the metro, but also in buses and trams. 

We took the metro around 6:30am and reached Vysehrad station around 6:45am. We felt a sense of accomplishment that we had finally made there. The air so clean and the sun had just started to rise and the day was so clear and beautiful.  

The catch was, we still hadn't found the Citadel of Vysehrad. After capturing a few photographs of the sun rise, we were back on our mission to find this fortress and the citadel. We walked around for quite sometime through lonely parks (was a little creepy without anyone around so early) before, finally getting back on track to find this place.   

Finally, we had reached Vysehrad!

It is an awesome experience to see a place so early in the morning. Very few people around, just a few morning joggers and a couple of them walking their dogs.

As much as I hated the walk trying to find this place, the views from this place really blew it all away! No words to really describe the feeling of walking through a citadel so early in the morning with very few people around with such stunning views all around you.

Church of St Peter and Paul

After capturing some lovely photographs, we decided to walk back. It was around 7:30am and we still had a lot of time, at least an hour and a half. So we thought we could walk down the hill and go back to our favorite spot, the Charles bridge and old town.

From Vysehrad - Charles Bridge - Old Town - Winceslas Square! A complete walking tour of Prague in 3 hours. At around 9:00am, we bought a couple of 90 minute travel passes and took the metro at the Museum, back to the Central Station. We then collected our luggage from the locker, found the next metro to Dejvická and took the bus 119 to the Airport.

By 10:15am on 18th August 2013, our East European Marathon was over and we were totally worn out and ready to get back home! When we started this trip, 9 days back, we didn't know we were going to drink hot wine at the Royal Cafe in Prague, or listen to a concert in Salzburg, or go on a sound of music tour, or watch an opera in Vienna, or cycle from Melk to Krems in Austria, or walk through a labyrinth which dates back millions of years, in Budapest or cover Prague once again in 3 hours!!! All we knew was we wanted to travel together. But this trip like many trips before this taught us a lot, not only about the world but about each other. What a week it had been!

Getting back to Stockholm had the same feeling we always get when we get back, "Home Sweet Home" and then it was all back to normal, cooking, laundry and work!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Budapest - A city with multiple layers

Our final destination in our East European Trip. It was quite a fascinating place. There were a few things about this place that has imbibed Budapest in our memory.

After enjoying so much natural beauty in Vienna, Melk and Krems, stepping down from the train onto Budapest Central Station was the most disappointing moment of our East European trip. It wasn't a big surprise for my husband, for it was his second time there. But for me, I HATED IT! It was very similar to our railway stations in India, literally; crowded, noisy and dirty.

Note: So to all the people who crib that India is so dirty (this group included me, until I was enlightened here, Prague and at Stockholm), please make a point to travel to either Prague, Budapest or even Stockholm on a weekend in the summers. Do travel in their metro, walk to the various squares where people gather, you might be amazed by the way people party at night, but you might also get the opportunity to see something very different from what you might have expected. To accentuate that feeling, you should get up early the next day (saturday or sunday morning) and see how the place looks. One Saturday night I was so grossed out, I wouldn't sit in the metro, in a place like Stockholm and so decided to stand in one corner of the train to avoid "Beer" spills and "Vomit" :P which was flowing forward and backward every time the metro would stop and start! :D Anyways, that is a different story, more about Stockholm later. And in Prague/Budapest, the streets were littered with Beer cans, Pizza boxes, broken glass and of course "vomit". The point I wanted to make was, a place being dirty is more to do with us, the crowd, than with the country as such!


Note on the above NOTE: 
You also get to see one thing on Saturday/Sunday mornings which you don't see here in India and which we can crib about! Dozens of City Counsel workers cleaning up the entire city, every street, every square, every metro. The metro in the morning is back to it sparkling clean state, ready to be puked on in the evening! And this act of getting the city cleaned for its people is more to do with the Country than with the people! So people who crib about India being dirty, go right ahead and crib about this, I will join you too! :D
Anyways, getting back to Budapest... The minute we stepped out from the central station, the view we had was that of huge barricades, cranes digging, dusty atmosphere and more crowd. Tourists were a little more cautious of their belongings, more homeless people around but the over all entropy level was higher.  It could also be, because of the fact that it was a Friday and people were unwinding and getting ready for the weekend.

Oh! Forgot to mention about the local Tourist Information Center, which I generally talk proudly about. Here they were snobs. They seemed extremely irritated seeing too many tourists asking for help and to top it they did not have city maps so they gave us an hop-on-hop-off map. Thanks to our Lonely Planet Guide book we didn't need to depend on the green line map to find our hotel.

And this was the first layer of the City - crowded, noisy, dirty and dusty! 

We stayed in a place called Leo Panzio. It was right in front of the Ferenciek tere metro station (how cool is that!) and it was a very warm and comfortable place. The photographs above were taken from our room. After checking in, we decided to step out for lunch and started walking.

The second layer of Budapest - welcome to party land!! 

Something that was very prominent in Budapest were the open markets, a shoppers paradise and if that doesn't interest you, you can always buy a Virgin Mojito (you get different flavors of it and in Budapest you can also get the spiked Mojito! Yeah there is stall which sells mojito :D - This is "Hint 1" why Budapest is a party land) and sip on it while watching people at the market square shopping and bargaining. From here we walked to an Irish Pub Cafe and had our lunch. My vegetarian lunch was quite interesting, it had potato wedges, fried cheese and fried mushroom caps all with a cheese dip and the funny part... it came with plain boiled rice! But that was my first rice meal in 10 days and I was quite excited to see it (:P Typical South Indian), but the ironic part was, I couldn't finish it. But it was an enjoyable meal as always... long... relaxed... talking random nothings under the sun with my husband. After lunch, we decided to head out and see the infamous thermal baths of Budapest. Since we were in two minds whether to get into the bath or not, I did not carry my camera. But then once we got there, saw that the place was too crowded so just had a look at it from the outside and went towards the Freedom Square and then got back.

Travel Tip: Budapest has a very good metro, tram and bus system. We can get travel cards for 24 hours or more and it can be used in the metro, tram as well as the bus. 

We then decided to walk to St. Stephen's Cathedral, but decided to take a detour and go back to the market place and get ourselves a mojito. 

Frame 1 Scene 2
Sipping our Mojito, we walked towards St Stephens Cathedral Square; on our way we crossed street performers, kids skating at the park, a group of Hungarians singing "Hare Rama Hare Krishna" Bhajans (awesome right!). They were about 10 of them, harmonium, tabla, and the small cymbals that we use in our Bhajans. They saw us and asked us to join them too, we politely refused but continued watching them for some time. It was quite a nice feeling to see your culture being adapted so far away from home. It was like walking through a fair! We ended up at St Stephens Cathedral Square, just to realize that the party was just starting. 

Frame 2 Scene 2
People were getting together, walking around with beers in hand. One interesting incident which I remember well is of this one guy, who came in his cycle and sat next to us on the steps of the Cathedral watching the people around. This guy, sat for some time watching, then took out a cigarette, smoked for a while and then took out a goblet from his bag and then a bottle, poured himself a drink and sat there sipping it. There was a bachelor/bachelorette party happening one side, guys/girls were wearing weird wigs and shouting something. They played some games together for sometime and then went their separate ways to celebrate, probably all night. More people were gathering, slowly pouring in. Groups of people sitting around, catching up after their work. 

I still didn't have my camera but at the same time I didn't want to waste time walking back and forth. But then my husband sensed my discomfort and decided that we go and get the camera. And so we did exactly that... after so much talk I am now ready to put up some photographs! :-D
After getting the camera, we walked along the Danube River towards the Chain bridge and took night shots of the Budapest Castle on the Castle Hill and the Chain Bridge. Then walked along the Chain Bridge and took some more photos of Budapest at night. But being the lazy person that I am, I did not carry my tripod and as you can see all the night photographs are hand held ones (now this should explain why they are not very sharp)! 

After a nice dinner, we called it a night. The next day, the plan was to go to the Castle Hill and then to Obuda. Little did we know, the next layer of Budapest was waiting to be revealed to us! 

The next layer - historical roots! 
After breakfast at Leo Panzio, we took the metro to Varhegy and walked up towards the Castle Hill. One reaching the top of the hill, you know you have arrived with the well defined entrance. You get transported to a different world, a place whose history is so deep rooted. 
Entrance to the Castle Hill

National Archives Museum

From here, we walked towards the Holy Trinity and the Mattias Church. The best part of Castle Hill was it had splendid views of the city.

Travel Tip: 
The castle hill has splendid views and the evening lights of the city can be captured very well from here. I would suggest the best time to go here is in the evenings. A romantic walk along the cobbled streets, get your adrenaline pumping walking through the eerie labyrinth and then wrap up the evening with a nice dinner overlooking the river and the city! 

After capturing more stunning views of the city from the Fishermen's Bastion, we walked towards the Mattiah's Church. This 700 year old church is quite a sight. We weren't too keen on entering into the church so decided to walk around and take some photographs.

After walking around for a while we found something very interesting in the Lonely Planet City Guide of Budapest. It was about a Labyrinth, that lies beneath the Castle Hill. This cave and cellars was used during the World War II as a shelter as well as a hospital. The Turks also used it in the 16th Century for military purposes. In the 15th century the Labyrinth gave home to a prison and it's most famous prisoner Count Dracula, held in captivity by Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus. What an experience? A must-do in Budapest, in my opinion.

Tomb of Count Dracula

From the Labyrinth, we walked towards the Buda Castle and we have a new surprise waiting for us. There was a cultural folk fair being held at the Palace grounds. We were really lucky to experience something like that. An opportunity to get a peek into the lives of rural Hungarians and their livelihood, we felt quite humbled to be part of it.
We walked through the fair and back into the main city. 
View of Chain Bridge as we were waiting for the bus to go to Obuda

Our next stop was Obuda! The Roman Acquincum was the highlight of the Obuda or the Old Buda. These excavated ruins actually dates back to the second century. But I personally felt that the place did not get the importance it really should. Obuda is not that touristy and in Acquincum we found absolutely no one, other than some guy walking his dogs. It was sad to see a second century excavation receive so little importance.    

Laid back town of Obuda
Taken from the bus on the way to Obuda

We then took the bus back to Batthiány Square and took the metro to Great Synagogue in Dohány Street.

The synagogue was closed, but even otherwise we couldn't have gone inside since I was wearing a sleeveless shirt and did not have any cloth to cover my head and my husband was in shorts. But we did walk around to see the Holocaust Memorial and decided to try and get to the Holocaust Musuem.
Unfortunately, by the time we reached the museum had closed. Since we had a train to catch at 8:00pm, we decided to come back to the hotel and freshen up before checking out.

So that was Budapest, a city which parties hard, but underneath all that crowd and dust, its a city which was captured multiple times by the Romans and the Turks and many more... a city which has seen too many wars and lost too many lives... a city which now knows that you only get to live once!!!

Towards the end of our East European Trip, catching trains had become quite an adventure. Most of the time, we would catch it with a few minutes to spare. This time I wanted to avoid such a situation, so we checked out by 7:00pm and also reached the station in time; was at our platform by 7:30pm and we had half an hour for the train to start. But you know what, Mr.Murphy loves to kick us in the arse (sorry for the curse word, but that was what it really was). There is this concept in Europe, apparently, that the same train would have compartments going to different destinations (:P its not a joke!). So our train from Budapest to Prague, also had compartments which were to go to Warsaw, Poland and to Berlin, Germany. They had quite strict checking of the tickets and the person who checked our tickets directed us wrongly and we were at the tail end of the the train, just to be sent back. We could not walk through the compartments since they were over flowing with people, so we had to get down and run back with our luggage. We had about 5 minutes and we had not yet found our compartment. We decided to climb back in, into the closest compartment only to realize that we could not get through to the next one and this one was going to Warsaw. So we had to get back down and run to a different compartment. 

We then made up our minds that it didn't matter where the train finally stops, its important to get into the train. We did have an East European Pass with one more day available for travel, which we could use. I consoled myself that, this was just an adventure and that it was okay for things to get out of order (I have a slight OCD problem :P) and that, where ever we are in Europe, we are going to be legally present so it really does not matter. But thankfully, the next compartment we got into was indeed part of the train which was going to Prague (WHEW!) and all we had to do now was to find our seats. By now the train had already started moving and by the time we found our seats, it was going in full speed! 

What a way to end our trip! The best part of life is we really don't know what is in store for us. But now that I know what happened, I can tell you, it wasn't the end of our trip yet! We didn't know then, that the train which was supposed to reach at 6:00am would reach at 4:00am or that we would put our luggage at the storage in the Railway station or that we would get the Metro Pass in Prague again and go around Prague. 

More about it in my next blog post - Prague in a Nutshell (3 hours walking tour of Prague)!