Chapter III – ITALY (Part A)

Back to writing about my Europe trip after a whole year and I can’t say I’m having a tough time remembering details. Because you know when you have an epic trip, it is an epic trip!

Crossing the Swiss border along with my little gang in the Opel driven by the handsome Romanian, the first thing we had to do was grab a slice of…PIZZA. If you didn’t do Pizza in Italy then what the hell did you do??? Remember the Topsycola stops I wrote about last time? The border checkpoint had one of those famed Autogrills and I obviously got myself a slice of some very fresh and cheesy Margherita Pizza (still dreaming about biting into one of those again). The fancy cars obviously remained, the scenery switched from snow capped mountains to lush green ones interspersed with small towns. You could see the church bell towers from miles away, straight out of a gothic movie!

Perfecto! Raspberry Ice-cream cake.
Perfecto! Raspberry Ice-cream cake.

We stayed overnight at Ibis in the outskirts of Milano. Not the main city of Milan, but the outskirts. Much quiter, gorgeous blue skies, narrow cobbled lanes with old churches and cafes. Being Indians we obviously had to be loud and noisy and we did just that in the parking lot while we stayed up late playing land-n-water, gold spot and we even managed to squeeze in some push ups (I have no idea WHY!). It also happened to be my brothers birthday the next day so we’d managed to get our hands on some raspberry ice cream cake, some of which landed straight on his face.

Early next morning, we set out to explore our first stop in Italy- Pisa.

Pisa, Tuscany: Pisa was quite a long drive from Milano and a very cloudy one too. But I can’t complain because that did add a strange charm to the route where we could spot old castles and vineyards after every few kilometres. The music was a bonus! Did I mention that most radio channels across Europe would play English music? And everytime we would recognise a song we knew, we would sing along screaming our lungs out!

When one mentions Pisa, the Leaning Tower is the first thing that comes to mind. And why not, it’s one of the seven wonders of the world. But believe you me, the structure which was actually the result of a human error is not what will blow your mind when in Piazza del Duomo. The Baptistry and the Cathedral next to it are absolute works of wonder! The sacred square consists of 4 primary attractions: the Pisa Cathedral, the Pisa Baptistry, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Camposanto Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery), the entire square is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Piazza del Duomo
Piazza del Duomo

The Cathedral and the baptistery have a very intriguing history, a lot of which is unclear. But some of the names that stand out are those of Galileo (who supposedly performed some of his experiments in the tower, the Medici family, Riminaldi and Giovanni Pisano. The Cathedral also has the remains of Pope Gregory VIII, St Ranieri (Pisa’s patron saint), and the tomb of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII.

Also, all the three structures – the tower, baptistery and cathedral are tilted, simply because of the unstable sand they have been built on.IMG_20140519_152317

While we couldn’t go up the Tower, it is believed that you can see all of Pisa from the top and as a rule the government there has ensured that no other structure in the city can be taller than the Leaning Tower.

Nigerian leather bag seller who spoke Hindi
Nigerian leather bag seller who spoke Hindi

If history and architecture isn’t your cup of tea but shopping is, you need to be careful. The bylanes and the market right outside the Square is full of 1. – Pickpockets 2. Stubborn Nigerians WHO KNOW HINDI selling leather goodies. Some poor aunty from our group learnt her lesson the hard way when one of the sellers wouldn’t leave her alone, even after she got into the bus!

One of the adventurous uncles also got conned by a pretty Asian who snuck out his wallet and returned it when she saw no Euros in there. You’ve got to keep your eyes open and your wallets safe. The whole safety issue really kills the vibe of the place but turn a blind eye to that and the city is just so replete with history and culture, I wish I could have stayed there longer and seen every Church and learnt everything there was to know of the city’s rich past.

FYI: there’s also a street named after Leonardo Da Vinci as well as a house, both very close to the square. (let the tongues wag)

Da Vinci Street in Pisa
Da Vinci Street in Pisa
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Switzerland [Chapter B]

Snow capped mountains, scenic cities with posh cars, even fancier people sitting in those cars, probably carrying a wad of notes retrived from the nearest Swiss bank, oh and add a sprinkle of cholcolates and viola- Switzerland!

In the last chapter you read all about quite little Engelberg, but all of Switzerland isn’t as quaint or ‘little’ as Engelberg. You’d be astounded by Luzerne, almost a culture shock after Engelberg. Luxurious and bustling with tourists, Luzerne is a beautify lake city and one of the most important ones financially in Switzerland.

Luzerne- Sidewalks full of well dressed tourists, lined with the biggest and most expensive brands from across the world greet you the moment you enter this city. A hit with tourists from across the world, the main shopping arcade is a jumble of sounds, people in short skirts and sarees and non-stop traffic. Casagrande, a one stop and ‘supposedly’ cheap souvenier shopping destination is extremely popular with tour organisers from across the world. They will all feed you info on how THIS is the place to buy your trinkets, IMG_20140529_231806Swiss chocolates, postcards, army knifes etc etc but nope, don’t fall for it. If you are going as part of a tour, you will in all probability be doing your Euro darshan via road and if you are doing that anyway, well then great! But since you would be travelling by road, you would come across numberous ‘Autogrills’, a true one-stop-for-everything-possible destination. You can grab chocolates, cheese and wine at discount rates, grab a healthy lunch with some delicious pastries and even take your toilet break.

IMG_20140517_202254 You may not be able to able to afford the diamond studded wrist watches adorning store displays or the beautiful scarfs that would suck your pockets dry. But what you can enjoy is a cone of exquisite Bachmann gelato by Lake Luzerne. You can sit by idly, watch little kids feed or try to hurt swans and wait for Paris Hilton to walk by. The roar of a Ferrari or Lamborghini may break you out of your reverie every ones in a while though!

While we gawked at the cars passing by with our cameras in our hands, I knew Luzerne wasn’t my kind of city. With all its grandeur, it did little to make me feel at home and I was glad to see our Opel van with Daniel at the front when it was time to leave the main square.

  • Lion Monument- While most of Luzerne overwhelms you, this little but very important piece of history leaves you feeling humbled and questioning all of humanity. The Lion of Luzerne which is carved on the face of a cliff, commemorates the Swiss Guards who were massacred in 1792 during the French Revolution. The monument is dedicated Helvetiorum Fidei ac Virtuti (“To the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss”). The dying lion is portrayed impaled by a spear, covering a shield bearing the fleur-de-lis of the French monarchy; beside him is another shield bearing the coat of arms of Switzerland. The inscription below the sculpture lists the names of the officers and gives the approximate numbers of soldiers who died (DCCLX = 760), and survived (CCCL = 350).

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Rhine Falls- The largest falls in Europe, Rhine falls right at the Germany-Switzerland border and is accessible through both countries. Be prepared to come across a vada pav and masala tea stall right at the entrance. A little ship takes you to the giant rock smack in the middle of the falls. The roar of the falls and the cold spray that hits your face are just the beginning of the marvel that these falls are. Narrow steps and a firm railing lead you to the very top of the rock which gives a breathtaking view of the entiIMG_20140526_010548re falls, with the ship and all humans down below looking like little ants to be swallowed by the gushing water. An unforgettable experience for a few extra Euros.

Rhine was our last stop of the trip, a stop while on our way to the airport from Austria. And clearly one charged with emotions. Prateek had lost his phone and was upset about the situation while the rest of us just didn’t want to take that flight back home from Zurich and wanted to take in as much as we could while it lasted. A gallery full of selfies obviously followed with some last few ‘group pictures’.

Lugano- IMG_20140518_164309By the sound of the name, you’d think Lugano is in Italy, but nope. The third most important city financially in Switzerland, Lugano is situated on the edge of a namesake lake and is largely an Italian speaking city. For us, Lugano was just another ‘Topsycola’ stop for about an hour. I don’t think even the tour guide, Nasir knew anything about Lugano. Completely unaware back then but much aware now, Lugano is actually replete with museums and historical buildings. Over the last few years however, the city has become extremely popular with celebrities. FYI: there was a Ferrari showroom right next to a Lamborghini showroom as the entrance of the city. Too much swag.

One of the safest countries of Europe, Switzerland is ideal for those looking to live the high life. Nothing like finding a job there, buying a mansion overlooking a pristine blue lake, with a Bugatti parked in your garage and a beautiful man at your arm! But me, I’m happy running across mustard fields, taking long walks in a cobbled little street and singing DDLJ songs atop Titlis. That clearly shows you how Switzerland has something for everybody and a must MUST visit when in Europe!

Eurotrails: Part II, Chapter A- Engelberg, Switzerland

Switzerland was when the idea of being in a different time-zone, a foreign land with foreign currency truly struck me. Coming from Mumbai, the city that never sleeps, Paris while undoubtedly beautiful, was yet another city.IMG_20140516_113653

Switzerland on the other hand was all nature in its purest and most beautiful form. The roadtrip from France to Swiss land was interspersed with mustard fields, windmills, mass of green that stretched for miles with cows and sheep grazing and horses prancing around. Rishant and Prateek ran from one side of the bus to the other, trying to capture everything they could in their fancy cameras.

The road trip to Switzerland is not a short one by any means. What started with a promised 6-7 hours, eventually stretched to a good 9-10 hours. Really long hours. The ice between the young ones had to be broken. We grabbed hold of all the seats at the back of the bus and bonded over Dum Charades, the memory game, rapid fire and some delicious snacks. The music at the back made sure nobody in the bus caught a wink. Nameeta, Prateek, Tanvi, Omkar, Priti, Rishant and I soon made for one formidable and noisy group of youngsters in a foreign land. That was when I knew for sure that this trip would turn out to be a mad mad one!

A lot of things happened in those 9 hours besides the shenanigans I already described. The tour leader- Nasir took it upon himself to ensure the group mingles. He initiated a round on introductions that was soon followed by aunties singing, uncles sharing jokes and fun anecdotes from their lives.

Mustard fields soon chIMG_20140516_203034_1anged to beautiful lakes with snow capped mountains as the backdrop. A slight drizzle hit out windows as the sun peaked out of the clouds making the sky look like it was ablaze. All I wanted to do at that moment was to get off the bus, stretch out my arms and take in all that beauty!

After a LOT of wrong turns, unprecedented stops and some irritation later, we reached the dreamy and quaint little town of Engelberg, one of my most favorite destinations from this Eurotrip. The town won me over from the moment we realised the bus couldn’t go up the narrow cobbled street. A short hike uphill with our luggage led us to our hotel for the next 2IMG_20140516_223910 days- Hotel Hoheneck. A beautiful little hotel, situated very close to main Church in the town. We youngsters were so kicked!
1. The town was perfectly safe
2. We could stay out till whatever time we liked
3. The weather was absolutely brilliant- chilly yet not toooo chilly

We ran to our rooms which had balconies with a breath taking view of the Alps and the narrow street that stretched below, and then met up for a quick yet satisfying Indian dinner. Dinner was followed by a long walk (read: 45 minutes) through almost the entire town. We danced to ‘Baby Doll’ at a crossing, simply because the streets were empty and well we were dancing to a Bollywood number on the streets of another country! We danced, peered into empty shops, hopped in a park, laughed a lot at ‘Extrafahrt’ and just had a very merry time.

IMG_20140517_06264345 minutes were nowhere close to enough and we were out early next morning to explore some more of beautiful Engelberg on foot. This time around, we headed for the mountains across the main town area. Traipsing along the path, we came across a sight right out of a postcard- green pine covered mountains in the shadow of snow capped ones, green fields with little wooden houses and a nice little wooden bridge and a beautiful stream running underneath. It was chilly, but we didn’t really seem to care. A quick photo session followed and then we headed back to the warmth of Hoheneck.

The first stop on our itinerary and something we were all eagerly waiting for was Switzerland’s star attraction- Mount Titlis. The same Titlis that we had seen a gazillion movies where actresses, wearing barely any clothes ran around and danced to popular numbers. The youngsters decided to ditch the bus for the Opel mini van. Just us 7 and Daniel, it was quite ideal, we even had charge of the radio!

We started on towards Titlis, drove for a good 20 minutes only to take a U-turn to come back to Engelberg and realise that Titlis was just 10 minutes walking distance away from Hoheneck! By Titlis, I mean the base camp from where we got our tickets, had some masala tea with vada pav and took our cable cars up to the top.

IMG_20140517_115333 Titlis is pretty amazing; the kind of infrastructure they have up there will blow your mind. You go through an ice cave, a scary but steady bridge with a huge drop, to reach the top. Along the way, you will come across ski-ers of every possible age, taking the most dangerous yet adventurous routes downhill. This is what people do here on weekends or whenever the weather is ideal. Grab your gear and hit the top.

The view from the top was one you won’t ever forget- clouds covered snow capped peaks that stretched for miles under you. A little board that read- ‘Mt. Titlis’ was the perfect photo opp and for us a #selfie must! We made snow fairies, rolled around in the snow, danced to DDLJ songs and made some insane videos of everybody dancing to ‘Baby Doll’ (Again).

Titlis left me completely pumped, very cold and with numerous memories that I’ll hold dear for the rest of my life. I mean, where else are you going to find a life size cut out of Kajol and SRK from a Mumbai that’s a true Bollywood classic?IMG_20140517_132059

Switzerland has much more to offer than its bounty of natural beauty; it has the most amicable, friendly and content bunch of residents you will ever come across. You can survive it with just socks and chappals as well as was proved by one in the group! Switzerland had more in store for us but that’s for another day.

In the meantime, to see some fun pictures from this trip, you can check out #Topsycola on Instagram. More on what that means next as well!

Euro Trails: 2014

      Memoirs of an unforgettable trip

It was with much apprehension and a lot of self convincing that I agreed to go on a tour across Europe with a well, tour. My mind was aflood with images of me waking up at 5, being snowed in, falling sick, eating curd rice, people drama, crying babies, uncomfortable buses, day long journeys and well everything that I didn’t want Europe to be! But here is what really happened and I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed living it:

Paris [Part 1]

After an 18 hour wait (including a 9 hr stop over at Oman airport) we finally landed at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris. Wait, lets’ rewind a little to the stopover at Muscat Airport in Oman. The fight and struggle for wifi started there. The struggle to find a plug point that would work was something I’m never forgetting. Imagine being with people you know are part of the tour, but you don’t want to go talk to them, simply because you don’t want to. You think you’ll spend those long bus rides reading that Frederick Forsyth novel you have carried, listen to the fresh songs you have added onto your phone and do everything but mingle with people. That’s pretty much how those 9 hours were for me but not for my brother.

There was this whole gang of young boys and girls who looked pretty much the same age and they already seemed to know each other from years. They moved together, laughed together, ate together and my brother soon joined that little group while I, after an uncomfortable Q&A round with them decided to go sit next to my parents and read my book.

The first thing that hit me when I landed at Charles de Gaulle was a gust of chilly breeze and then pure heaven for the eyes as gorgeous men and women, dressed impeccably walked by. * sigh* It was to be a busy, VERY busy day as we headed straight for some Paris sightseeing.

You could use a number of adjectives for this city, but all of them combined wouldn’t do justice to all the magic that this city holds:

  • Eiffel Tower: ‘The Grande Dame’ of Paris is no Dame really. This 324 m high tower of iron, one of the 7 wonders of the world has the most breath-taking view of the entire city. Go up to the third floor, the strong and biting winds will bring water to your eyes and when that water clears yoIMG_0036u will see the magical city with La Sienne passing through, sprawled out in front of you. The city with the Arc De Triomphe, its many palaces, narrow cobbled lanes, sun hitting the gold plated citadels, church spires, and little white buildings spread all around you will keep you entertained and guessinIMG_0074g for hours. And wait till you see this beauty all lit up in the night. The ‘illumination’ when the tower sparkles for 5 mins every hour upto 1 am with the help of over 20,000 light bulbs will blow your mind and leave a smile on your face. While I was busy clicking pictures and pictures of this gorgeousness, young couples in love found their fairytale moments of love, held hands, kissed, hugged and lived.
  • Champs-Élysées: One of the most expensive and luxurious streets in Paris, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées is lines with cafe’s, shops, cinemas, art galleries and Paris’s signature horse-chestnut trees. With the Obelisk of Luxor at one end and the Arc De Triomphe at the other,this space was once used to severe many heads during the French Revolution and that is probably the most impactful memory for me of this place. You’ll see tuk tuk’s from Thailand being driven by beautiful French boys here, Mustangs and Lamborghini’s available for rides at a price and tourists all around, amazed by all the grandeur.
  • Bauteaux- Mouches (Cruise on La Sienne): Going over bridges is one way of seeing this city, going under them is equally if not more adventurous. This river that flows through Paris, is lined with monuments and other historical buildings on both sides. You’ll go under 37 bridges or less, have a clear view of the Eiffel (you can take the best pictures here), see Notre Dame, the many ministries, The Louvre, churches, some peIMG_0191ople having a picnic, lovers holding hands and sitting by the river and fitness freaks jogging along the river. While on this cruise, you will pass the Love-Lock Bridge(Pont des Arts) or rather bridges. Visitors proclaim th
    eir undying love by locking a pad-lock to this bridge and some enough throw the key into the river, if you ask me, it’s absolutely silly, romantics might disagree. But what you probably don’t know is that Parisians absolutely hate this (read: Campaign calls for Paris ‘love locks’ to be banned). When you do go here, don’t hang that lock there please? I’m sure you can make better use of that lock.
  • The Louvre: The more you see, the more confused you’ll be. Three sections, various phases of civilisation, works by some of the greatest artists and sculptors and so much history, I could spend months at The Louvre. Mona Lisa, Venus De Milo, Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, statue of Athena, Raphael’s SIMG_0327t. Michael and the quarters of Napoleon III, left me zapped. The intricate paintings on the ceilings, the archways, remains from Mesopotamia and the statues from the French civilization left me feeling like a kid in a candy store. I can’t begin to comprehend the many treasures the place holds. I would guess that The Louvre, after the Vatican holds the biggest and most valuable secrets of mankind (thought courtesy- Dan Brown). One day is truly not enough is see all the treasures that this royal palace holds. And I’m so glad I chose The Louvre over Disneyland that fateful day, even though my legs were dead by the end of the day.

I couldn’t believe that the sun was up and bright at even 9:30 in the night! I would go back to Hotel Ibis, sip on some jasmine green tea (hot water used from the bathroom tap) and watch Greys Anatomy in French. What astounded me even more than the daylight hours, was the many suited men I saw on bicycles on their way to work! Yes, bicycles and men in suits!

Once in this lifetime, you must go see the many beautiful doors and archways, the gold plated statues at every third corner, lanes lined with bistros and florists, models walking the cobbled streets in 6 inch heels, sit by Sienne and enjoy a mousse, or sleep under the trees in the many parks but more than anything thank the French for their love and appreciation for art.

 

Au Revoir!

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