A holiday in South Coorg

This year (2014), I and Sangeetha, along with my friend Joseph and his wife Sheba, decided to embark on a 4 day journey all around Coorg to drink in the beauty of the enchanting place. I have traveled to Coorg 4 times in the last 7 years I have been in Bangalore. And, this trip is definitely not going to be my last. The freshness and greenery keeps drawing me back to the ‘Scotland of India’.

Coorg is a perfect weekend destination for a break from the hectic life in Bangalore. Located at around 250 kms from Bangalore, the journey is quick and scenic, and the roads are well marked and smooth.

My trip in 2009 had been quite eventful and fun. We were a bunch of friends – and went there primarily to do white water rafting in the Barapole river. Adding to the excitement was the fact that we were chased by a lone elephant as we drove through the Nagarhole forest.

This trip was no less exciting. We rafted in the Barapole river, stayed in a wonderful homestay in Kutta, visited Talacauvery – the birthplace of the Cauvery river, saw quite a few elephants in a forest camp, and got a fleeting glimpse of a wild elephant in the woods (did not wait to get chased this time)🙂

I have had the experience of staying in quite a few homestays during my trips to Coorg. This time, I stayed in Rest Inn Homestay, run by a wonderful gentleman – Mr. A N Belliappa. We had stayed at his homestay in 2012, and we were so mesmerised by the taste of the food cooked by his wife that we had decided to stay there again if we visited Coorg the next time.

Belliappa’s Rest Inn homestay is located in the middle of his coffee estate. He rents out 2 clean rooms in front of his home to guests. You can have hot and tasty Coorgi food cooked by his ever-smiling wife Mrs.Shobha. The couple were very friendly and hospitable, and made our stay memorable and pleasant.

Homestay details:

Rest Inn Home Stay
Ajjamada N Belliappa
Kurchi Village & Post, via Srimangala,
Beeruga Road, South Kodagu
Ph: 9449254990, (08274) 246230

Now, some photos from our trip:

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We could find only Ibises in Ranganathittu

 

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Me and Sangi at Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary

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Sangi with Sheba

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Rest Inn Home stay

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Sangi on the zipline

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Posing on a rope

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Before we went rafting in Barapole

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At an elephant camp near Titimathi

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The Golden Buddha Temple (Namdroling monastery, Bylakuppe)

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Ornamental doors

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On the monastery grounds

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A large bell in front of the temple

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In front of the Buddha

How to plan a European holiday? Part-2

The Swiss Alps

The Swiss Alps

Read Part-1 of this article here.

In my last post, I had written about how to choose places to visit in Europe, and how to plan a holiday around Europe. When you plan a holiday, it is only natural that you want to have an idea on how much it costs, and how much you need to spend. This will help to categorize what are the planned costs, and what can be surprise expenses. In this post, I will comment on what are the costs involved in a European holiday, and how to make decisions on the budget for a trip to Europe.

How much do I budget for the trip?

This is another important, but subjective question when planning a trip. If correctly planned, you can stick to your budget, and in some cases even spend less than what you had planned. But, budget planning needs some groundwork. I split my expenses into four main buckets –

  • Accommodation
  • Food
  • Travel
  • Sightseeing

Other than these, there could be expenses like – laundry, medical, shopping, and unexpected expenses. I will show how to plan for each of these buckets.

Accommodation

A centrally located business hotel in Paris can cost you more than the entire amount you are spending for your trip. So, choosing the right accommodation within a fixed budget is important. For a trip in Europe, looking at the average price of accommodations (including hostels) at the various places I had chosen, I had allocated a budget of EUR 35 per person per night. That would make it EUR 70 for a room per night. These were the qualifications I looked for in a hotel while booking –

  • Does it have private double rooms? (Sometimes hostels do not have private rooms)
  • Does the room have a private shower and toilet?
  • Is the hotel centrally located?
  • If not, is there a local public transport option within 5 minutes of walk from the hotel?
  • Does it have a good rating in most of the popular online review websites?
  • If there are bad reviews, what are they based on? And, can I adjust with some shortcomings if there are many positives?
Hotel Isis, Amsterdam

Hotel Isis, Amsterdam

If I get YES as the answer to all of the above questions, I go ahead and book the hotel by paying an advance through the hotel’s own website, or hotel booking sites like hotels.com, booking.com, hostelbookers.com or the like. In some places, I can get rooms for EUR 60 per night, and in some places like Switzerland, I might have to increase my budget to EUR 80-85 per night. But overall, I would like to stick to my average budget. Many times, a non-cancellable option will be 5-10% cheaper than a cancellable option. I try to book cancellable options as much as possible. Who knows when your plan might change, and you would want to minimize losses!

Staying in hostels is a very good option. Though hostels mainly tend to have shared dormitory-like accommodation, a lot of hostels have private rooms as well, which tend to get booked very fast. I have stayed in shared accommodation a number of times earlier, and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. But, since I was traveling with my wife, for whom this is a first time visit to a foreign land, I chose private rooms over dormitories. Either ways, hostels are great because, they have shared kitchen facilities, conducted tours, pub crawls, reading rooms, and sometimes even serve meals. Also, hostels are great places to meet and socialize with travelers from all over the world.

Another options are B&Bs (bread and breakfast), which are usually small establishments with a few rooms, that offer breakfast as well. They offer no-frills lodging, and do not have the other facilities of a hotel, but the rooms are fully stocked and no less in comfort. They give excellent value for money.

In metropolitan cities which have a well organized public transport system, you can choose something 15-30 minutes away from the city center by public transport, and still have an excellent place of stay. In villages and small towns, choose something close to the train or bus station, so that you can get to the hotel or leave easily, especially with luggage. Make full use of Google maps, Google street view, and Wikivoyage for selecting a good accommodation option in any town. Online review sites like tripadvisor.com, and the reviews in booking sites themselves, like hotels.com, booking.com, hostelbookers.com or hostelworld.com will all be very helpful in judging if the place you chose is going to be as advertised or not. I did all this analysis and chose my hotels – and I was not disappointed once in my whole stay.

Places I stayed in my tour –

  • AmsterdamHotel Isis (5 minutes across the river from the train station, good host and rooms)
  • LauterbrunnenValley hostel (an excellent choice, 2 minutes from the train station)
  • ZermattLe Petit Hotel (had to walk 10 minutes to get here, but good hotel)
  • ParisGrand Hotel de Clermont (room on the 2nd floor without lift, and noisy bar downstairs, but vfm in Paris)
  • VeniceCasa per ferie alle Lagune (the best accommodation in terms of comfort)
  • SorrentoHotel Nice (good hotel, but bad breakfast, 10 steps from train station)
  • RomeSunmoon hostel (excellent host, good rooms, 2 minutes from train station)

Food

The cost of food varies greatly between the different basket of countries I had mentioned earlier. And for Indians, especially vegetarians, finding the right food, which is also tasty and palatable is a big challenge. In our trip, I and my wife tried the local cuisine a lot whenever we could, and had a good time in most places. We ate dishes that had eggs, chicken, fish, crabs and shrimps, and occasionally bacon. Also we acquired a taste for the different types of green uncooked leaves served as part of a salad – they were actually good!

Pizza Vegetariana

Pizza Vegetariana
Source: Onnoth on Flickr

All restaurants mostly tend to have at least 1 or 2 vegetarian options, and usually more than that. Salad choices are plenty, and healthy too. Vegetarian pastas and pizzas having aubergines (brinjal) were a hit with us in Italy in most places. Avoid Lebanese kebab places serving pizzas, as they do not suit the Indian palate one bit.

As far as allocating a budget for food, I had fixed it at EUR 25 per person per day. That makes it EUR 50 for a couple for a day. We had a policy of light breakfast, quick lunch, and a sit down dinner. Apart from this, we had snacks and ice creams whenever available. Whenever breakfast was available in the hotel, we used to eat heartily. For lunch, we ate sandwiches, burgers, to-go items or fast food. During dinner time, we went to a good restaurant and had a nice sit down meal.

When the hotel did not serve breakfast, a croissant and a macaroon or muffin in a bakery was our breakfast, and this could be done in EUR 3-6 for both. We had lunch in sandwich stands, McDonald’s, Subway, or sometime packed food from the bakery the morning. This way, lunch always costed around EUR 10-15 for both of us together. During dinner, a main dish in a restaurant usually costs around 10 euros. And, we had 2 drinks, 2 main dishes and sometimes a side dish for dinner, and the bill came to EUR 30 to 35. Add it all, and we could do it in EUR 50 per day for both of us. Breakfast was served in a number of hotels we stayed, and we used the saved money to splurge on lunch🙂 In Switzerland, the bakery items and cookies in co-ops (supermarkets) we pretty tasty and fresh – that we bought packets of them to have whenever we were hungry.

In big cities like Paris, Amsterdam, or Rome, finding cheap and good food might be pretty easy. Cities have a lot of choice in the type of cuisine, cost of food, and the taste as well. You can also find a number of roadside eateries and food stalls selling cheap food. But in small towns and villages, the number of restaurants or food joints are limited, and you will be forced to spend more for food. But the former and the latter balance each other, as you will have cities as well as towns as villages in your trip. Also, avoid eating anything near major sights, landmarks or squares. Prices at these places will be at least 2-3 times more than a nearby cross street or gully. Eating at places that have menus only in the native language (not in English) will be cheaper, but it is impractical most of the times for Indians, because we are choosy on food. So, it is better to stick to some place in a cross street, which has menu displayed in English outside.

Towards the end of the trip, when we found that we have saved up some cash, we splurged a little on food, eating in Indian restaurants and sitting down for lunch as well.

Travel

The first step in travel to Europe, is getting from India to Europe. Based on the travel plan you have drawn up, you can choose your port of entry to the Schengen area. Remember that you apply for Schengen visa to the country where you are going to spend the maximum number of nights. Booking early could give you good fares on flights to Europe. The usual ports of entry to the Schengen area from India are Frankfurt, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Munich, in that order, or other cities, based on the carrier you choose. From your port of entry, you can decide where to go, and how to carry on your journey.

I have found Emirates to be the most professional and comfortable airline to travel anywhere, followed by Qatar Airlines. My experience with Lufthansa was average in all departments – seat comfort, food, and entertainment – but of course the flight was on time.

A superfast train in France

A superfast train in France
Source: Sascha in Flickr

Driving a car in Europe is not my cup of tea. In the US, or even in the UK, it is a viable option, but in Europe, with a language barrier, and not having the best signed roads everywhere, and having an excellent public transport network, I would prefer using public transport any day. Also, in places like Amalfi coast, driving a car is really a challenge, with its winding and narrow mountain roads, and heavy traffic. Also, public transport takes you right to the center of the city or town, and local transport takes you anywhere you need quite fast – so that is the most preferred option.

There are two low cost carriers in Europe – easyJet and Ryanair. Though they are low cost, you might have to pay for check-in luggage, and usually these carriers fly to the second or third airport of a city, which is usually considerably away from the city with minimal connectivity options. There are, of course, exceptions, but this tends to be the rule. So, check for these carriers to go from one city to another, and also remember to check which airport it flies to, and how far it is from the city center. I had taken flights with easyJet from Paris to Venice, and Venice to Naples. In Paris, it was the Orly airport, which has good connectivity with the city by public transport, and Venice Marco Polo airport is the main airport for Venice. In Naples, easyJet flies to the Naples International Airport, and we took a bus directly from Naples airport to Sorrento. In other cities, we preferred to travel by trains, as they took us directly to the city center. Europe has high speed trains that travel up to 320 kmph speeds, and no time is lost in check in or transfer.

In Europe, trains are run by private companies, and a simple google search will tell you which train is run by which company. You will be able to book from the company’s website, and you will get good deals if booked early. The booking period starts at different times for different trains, and may range from 3 months to 45 days. So, keep a track of time and book at the earliest possible date. There are websites like raileurope.com, which can book trains from anywhere to anywhere in Europe in a single place, but the prices tend to be slightly higher. Using the German train website bahn.de, you can book tickets on most trains that go in and around Germany. For Switzerland, sbb.ch is the website to book trains. But, getting a Swiss Pass will be more convenient and will save time. For France, it is thalys.com and tgv-europe.com, and for Italy, it is trenitalia.com. A good option will be to look at the different trains available and their schedules at raileurope.com, and book them from their respective sites.

The very popular eurail pass allows ticketless travel in many trains, but for long distance and high speed trains, reservation fees has to be paid, which at some times is quite high. So, it would be wise to do a cost benefit analysis of the eurail pass, and check if it fits your bill. If it does, and you are doing a lot of train travel, go for it, else stick to individual train tickets.

Instead of taking an eurail pass, I chose to book individual tickets for trains, and reserved them well in advance before my journey. This saved me trouble during the journey, and also let me have low fares. In Switzerland alone, I purchased an 8-day Swiss Pass, which entitled me to travel in any train, bus or public transport for free. Also, the museums and lake cruises were free. So, it was value for money. But, even with my Swiss pass, I had to pay for some of the high altitude cablecars and gondolas (especially the train to Jungfrau). So, educate yourself on these options before you leave.

The budget for travel would vary on a case to case basis – depending on how many places you stay in, how you choose to travel between cities, how you go around in a particular city, how long before your journey you booked the tickets, and so on. In my case, the return flight ticket to Frankfurt for one person costed INR 47,500 per person. All the other travel in Europe costed approximately EUR 750 per person. This includes two flight journeys on easyJet, the cost of Swiss Pass for 8 days, at least 5 train long distance train journeys, one bus journey, and all local public transport options in cities – for a total period of 30 days.

Sightseeing

Sightseeing can be the easiest or the hardest part of planning, depending on how you do it. One approach would be – to decide on the cities/towns you would like to visit, and then check what all sights can be visited in those cities or towns. This is the easier approach. The other way would be to list down all sights you would want to check out in Europe, and then pick your cities based on the sights you love to visit the most. Either way, both of these approaches will overlap one another till your final plan is in place.

Important points to consider when choosing sights –

  • Does the sight interest you, or are you going just because it is in the guide books?
  • Does the sight have an entrance fee? If it does, how much?
  • What are the days of closure?
  • What are the opening hours?
  • How do you reach the place?
  • Does it cost too much to reach the place by public transport?
  • What is the best time to visit, in terms of crowds?
  • Can you carry a bag? If not, is there luggage storage facilities?
  • Does it need to be prebooked, or can you turn up and get in?
  • Can you book it online? If yes, how many days in advance?

All of this information is available online, and for places that don’t need reservations, you can plan a couple of days in advance so that you can be prepared for your visit. When making reservations, please remember that booking anything before 11 am will mean that you will have to wake up early, have your breakfast early, and take public transport if necessary to reach this sight. So, factor in all these while making bookings online. Afternoons are best for spending in indoor attractions, and evenings are best for walking tours or unplanned activities.

The Louvre, Paris

The Louvre, Paris
Source: Grufnik on Flickr

Europe is full of museums. When museums definitely give a good insight into the art, culture and history of a region, they need a lot of time to explore, and usually give too much information than you can assimilate. I prefer to visit only a few museums (around 4-5) in any long trip, because anything beyond that is an overdose, and you cannot enjoy them. Typically, a museum takes around 4 to 5 hours to explore, and all of that time is spent walking and looking at either paintings or artifacts. Exploring museums are very tiring physically and mentally, and by the end of a museum visit, all you want to do is go back and rest. So, I have some tips on visiting a museum.

Either take a guided tour, or an audio guide tour, or a guide downloaded online. Guided tours are very good, because you have some one take you through all the important sights in a museum, and also give you a good insight into what it is all about. Without that, you might end up staring at some unimportant or mundane displays for a long time, and lose all your energy when the real masterpieces come up. But, one problem with guided tours is that you could feel rushed. There might be a whole room dedicated to your favorite displays (say, Egypt), and the guide might skip it for something less interesting to you. The next option – taking an audio guide from the museum. While this helps a great deal in enjoying every display in your own pace, the narrative is usually very long, formal, and boring. It may not give you fun facts or anecdotes some times, and might be tiring as well. The third, and my preferred way of touring a museum is to download an online guide. This could be an audio guide, or a text guide. This way, you choose what you want to see beforehand, and save up all your energy for the best of the lot. I have downloaded audio guides and text guides for Italian museums from Rick Steves (http://www.ricksteves.com/news/audio-tours.htm), and generally had a good experience with them.

Walking tours are a great way of getting to know a city or town. Sandeman’s tours are quite popular around Europe, and there a quite a lot of others, that give an overview of the city. A local guide usually takes a bunch of tourists around the city showing all the interesting spots, and giving a bite of history and stories about the place. Also, there are specific walking tours if you are interested in food, fashion, photography, or anything else on offer in a city. So, make use of these for a pleasant and memorable experience.

Every city has a whole list of sights and monuments, and each have their own opening times and entrance fees. Some of these might need reservations in advance, and it might be difficult to get the reservations if it is too late. Also, reservations are a great way to skip the long queues in the sights, and get in right away. So, read up about the sights in every place you are visiting – in wikivoyages, and choose just one or two of the sights to enjoy when you get there. For example, in Paris, the lift up to the summit of Eiffel tower gets booked up very quickly, and if you turn up there without reservations, you have to get behind an insanely long queue. The same goes for Louvre and the Vatican museums.

Zaans Schans, Netherlands

Zaans Schans, Netherlands

There might also be small excursions to nearby towns or villages that could give you a totally different experience from where you are staying. So, look out for these as well. In Amsterdam, a day trip to Volendam, Edam, Zaanse Schans and so on, will give you lasting impressions of Dutch life, history, and culture. In Switzerland, there are a whole lot of mountains, hikes and glaciers to explore, and the trains are plenty and punctual. In Paris, you could easily do a day trip to the Loire valley, Versailles, Normandy or Disneyland Paris – if that excites you. In Venice, there are boats going to the cute little islands of Murano and Burano. So, reading up about these excursions, or asking at your hotel will help you escape the busy city life and visit some charming town stuck up in an olden era, or a quaint village with picture post card sceneries.

Pub crawls are popular in the cities like London or Edinburgh, or even in eastern European cities like Prague or Vienna, and they are a great way of having a good time, and meeting a lot of people from around the world as well. Piazzas and squares are best visited in the evenings when the sun is a little down, and the atmosphere turns romantic. A walk along a popular street or locality might give you some new ideas for places to visit, food to eat, or activities to do.

Sightseeing decisions and expenses related to that are purely subjective. But, to give a ballpark figure, in my Europe trip with my wife, I spent around EUR 500 per person for the whole 30 days of sightseeing. This includes all walking tours, entrances to museums and monuments, guides, cablecars and all things in that category.

Miscellaneous expenses

Laundry

This is one of the things you need to plan for while travelling. The best trip will be the one where you pack the lightest. If you can pack just a carry on luggage, and live off it for 30 days, you are a travel genius. My advice would be to pack for just a week, and wash your clothes in a laundry every week. If you follow this advice, you will have the least problems with luggage. Self-service laundromats are available in every city, town or village, and they are pretty easy to operate. Usually, they are coin operated. On an average it costs EUR 5-8 for washing a load of clothes, and EUR 4-5 for tumble drying. Washing and drying takes around 1-1.5 hours, and at the end, you just need to fold your clothes to be put back in your luggage. If you cannot make out the instructions (which are usually not in English), ask someone around and you will definitely find help. We did laundry thrice during our 30-day trip, and predictably spent around EUR 40 on the whole.

Medicines and toiletries

You can carry all prescription medicines with you (with prescriptions), and medication for common ailments like cold, headache, diarrhea and so on. I had a small bruise on my knee when cycling down the valley in Switzerland, and could pick up an adhesive bandage in the nearby pharmacy. Toiletries like soaps, shampoos, sunscreen lotion and so on can be picked up from a co-op, and take up valuable space in your luggage if packed from home.

Anything you need, which is not listed above will fall into unplanned expenses. This might be because of cancelled trains, shopping expenses or minor indulgences along the way. Plan at least 10% of your planned budget for these kind of expenses.

This brings an end to the expenses part of the Europe trip. Please feel free to ask any question in the comments section, and I will be glad to answer if I know.

Read Part-1 of this article here.

How to plan a European holiday? Part-1

Read Part-2 of this article here.

Planning a holiday in Europe is fun!

Eiffel Tower, Paris

Eiffel Tower, Paris

There are a myriad of places to choose from, a bigger number of activities to do, and umpteen ways to travel around, that planning the trip in itself is pure bliss for an armchair traveler like me. I just got back from my 30-day trip in Europe with my wife, and the experience was far better than what I had expected before I started the trip. We sampled a wide range of places in Europe – from bustling live cities to snow capped mountains, from beautiful beaches to stunning art and culture, along with options of a variety of foods, and travel options – I couldn’t have asked for any better.

In this post, I will try and explore the answers to some of the basic questions on planning the trip to Europe. Just to remind you, this guide is for Indian travelers, married or single, who have limited time and money in their hands, and want to have a relaxed and memorable experience in Europe in a short span of time. There could be others wanting to do a backpacker trip, live in a shoestring budget, or take things as they come, without a plan in hand – and while I completely relate to that idea, and have done things like that in the past, this guide is not for such a trip. And for the third category of people, who hate planning, or hate DIY trips, there are always good tour operators to go to.

When should I visit Europe?

Summer is the best time to visit in terms of weather, but it also means that every other person on the planet is eyeing Europe in summer. So, expect long queues and jacked up prices for everything in summer. Summer in Europe is in the months of July and August. June or September would be an ideal time to visit – early or late summer. This is the shoulder season, has good weather, and lesser queues and prices than summer. In May, a lot of mountain cable-ways and trains in Switzerland could be closed, and October could sign the start of autumn – with its brilliant autumn colors. Winter would be cold and dull – but the prices would be at their lowest best and crowds would be gone.

Where all should I go?

This is the most difficult question to answer, especially when your destination is a land of a variety of experiences – like Europe, or even like India. The process is making a set of difficult decisions – like choosing one of your favorite places over another of your favorites, or drop some nice place because it is not convenient to reach, or whether to visit a place with a lot of hype, or some place with a laid back atmosphere. You should also remember that visiting the same kind of places one after the other, without having a variety is going to make your holiday boring and tired as well. So, the choice of places, as well as the order in which you visit them is the first important step in planning.

Europe is quite a large land mass. And for the sake of travel, I’d like to put the European countries into smaller baskets, so that it is easy to decide which places to visit, and which places to leave out until the next visit. The grouping of these countries is based on similar experiences, expenses and comfort of travel. From these baskets, you can decide how much of each category you want to experience.

  • The power centersFrance, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland
  • The fun centers – Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Croatia and Turkey
  • Scandinavia – Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and of course Iceland
  • Central and Eastern Europe – Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, and what not!
  • The UK and Ireland

The power centers

Amsterdam

Amsterdam, Netherlands
Source: Kevin Felix on Flickr

You will need a Schengen visa to travel to Europe, which is valid in most of the above countries (except a couple). The countries which have the most financial and business interests in keeping the Schengen area and the European Union together are these countries. They are the most developed of the whole lot, and the most safe for travel as well. You have the best infrastructure here, trains and buses arrive on the dot, and things are generally expensive in these countries, especially for the tourists.

France – You would remember Paris, with its Eiffel tower and Mona Lisa. But other than these, France has a whole lot of things to offer – Loire valley with its palaces and vineyards, the French riviera with its stunning coastal towns and beaches, Normandy with its world war sites, the Disneyland, the Versailles palace, a number of beautiful countryside towns, the French Alps, and the French food. No other country offers as much variety as France does.

Germany – The Rhine valley – with its castles and vineyards, and Bavaria in the south – with its medieval towns, mountains and Black forest are the highlights of Germany. Other than that, cities like Berlin and Munich, offer their own history and charisma to experience. Frankfurt, with its air connections to all parts of the world (including a lot of Indian cities) is the travel hub of Europe.

Netherlands – With its windmills, tulip gardens, wooden clogs, cheese markets, and above all, an open and tolerant atmosphere, Netherlands is a must visit country in western Europe. Amsterdam – the sex capital of the world, offers more than that. It is the center of art, culture and trade, and also a travel hub for all places in the tiny country.

Belgium – Belgium is best visited for Bruges and Antwerp – the well preserved medieval towns. The capital city Brussels offers a plethora of art and history by way of palaces and museums. Do not forget to have some beer and eat some chocolate when in this little country.

Switzerland – The most expensive of the power centers, and the most beautiful as well. The Swiss Alps offer the most breath-taking experience of visiting the Alps anywhere in Europe, and the trains, cable-ways, gondolas and ski lifts that take you to the top of the mountains are definitely and engineering marvel.

The fun centers

Positano, Amalfi Coast

Positano, Amalfi Coast

Calling these countries fun centers does not mean that any of the other countries are less fun. But, these countries give the biggest bang for the rupee. You get to have a rich cultural experience, enjoy wild beach parties, eat the best of the European foods, and generally have a good time in these countries – for a much less price than you would pay elsewhere. You would have to be a little extra careful when traveling these countries, as they do not have the best of the economies as the power centers. But as tourists to these countries, you will have the right dose of fun!

Italy – Now, if art and history is your thing, look nowhere beyond Italy. The triplet cities of Rome, Florence and Venice offer more of the renaissance art and architecture experience than you would find elsewhere. All the popular visits – like the leaning tower of Pisa, Michelangelo’s David, St.Peter’s and Vatican, the Roman Colosseum, St.Mark’s square, gondola rides, spicy food, and warm people – are part of this three-city experience. For those who want more – a visit to Naples, Sicily, Amalfi and the Cinque Terre will not disappoint. Like India, Italy is a country of countries, and the cultural experience is going to be as varied as it can get.

Spain and Portugal – Two words – food and nightlife – sum up the vibrant spirit of Spain. Along with its neighbor Portugal, Spain offers the best beaches of western Europe, popular for their nightlife. If Madrid is the art and cultural capital of Spain, Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, is the food, festival, and nightlife capital of Spain. Enjoy a tapas meal in one of the many bars, and watch the world-famous bull fight in Pamplona. Portugal, which is gearing up slowly to the prosperity of western Europe, can be a good add-on to a Spain visit.

Greece and Croatia – If you think of beaches in the Mediterranean, you should think of Greece and Croatia. The Aegean islands like Santorini and Mykonos in Greece have already started to attract Indian tourists, and are the right place if you are looking for mind-blowing parties, and a vibrant nightlife. You can enjoy a romantic sunset in any of the islands, while enjoying a sip of martini. Croatia, officially not part of the Schengen area is set to become part of it in 2015. It welcomes tourists with open hands, and has got some of the mesmerizing beaches in the Mediterranean, and gives a tough competition to Greece. Dubrovnik, an enchanting medieval town in southern Croatia, is a must visit.

Turkey – Though not in Europe, or part of the Schengen or Eurozone, Turkey has become a must visit for the visitors of Greece, and for the number of cruise ships that sail around the Mediterranean throughout the year. Nourishing a blend of the western and middle-eastern cultures, Turkey is an architectural and culinary delight. With its Byzantine churches, turned into mosques in the Ottoman rule, the lively souks of Istanbul, and its rich food, the cultural shock is well worth a travel.

Scandinavia

The four northernmost countries in Europe – Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland form Scandinavia. Finland is also included in the list for practical reasons, though it is more related to Russia, than the Nordic countries. The Scandinavian countries are the most progressive and advanced countries in Europe, in terms of individual freedom and human rights. Though we mainly know Norway as the land of the midnight sun, there is more than that to Scandinavia. Spectacular deep fjords (sea valleys), northern lights, Viking sights and wooden churches, islands, beaches, volcanoes, glaciers and museums make up the majority of the sights in Scandinavia. Cities like Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Oslo have their own charm, fun, and nightlife. The island of Iceland, which can be reached by a flight is famous for the international trouble it caused because of an erupted volcano a year back. But, the natural beauty of Iceland, with its waterfalls, glaciers and sights is unparalleled.

The Scandinavian countries, though beautiful and comfortable, are definitely more expensive than their counterparts in the rest of Europe. Personally, I would put them off for the last of my tours in Europe, after having seen everything else. But, each one to his own.

Central and Eastern Europe

Chain bridge, Budapest

Chain bridge, Budapest
Source: Szeke on Flickr

The eastern European countries like Austria, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Balkan states, have their own charm. Popularly known to be great party and nightlife destinations for backpackers, these countries have a lot to offer at a moderate price. Mostly having been in the Soviet era communist influence, the eastern European countries are quickly getting to the vibrant European development and economy, and are wonderful and safe places to visit these days.

Austria is known for the Austrian Alps, with its winter sports, and summer hikes, apart from the palaces, castles, and its most popular icon – Mozart. Austrian cities like Salzburg, Innsbruck and Vienna are very popular tourist destinations. Having been powerful kingdoms in olden times, the other countries in this basket offer a rich insight into their history, by way of palaces and museums. The capital cities – Budapest, Prague, Warsaw, Bratislava and the others have impressive old town centers, churches and renaissance buildings, and are definitely worth a visit in one of your tours. Food is not a highlight, and is generally bland for the Indian palate (imagine boiled potatoes most of the time).

The UK and Ireland

I come to the UK last, because we have so much in common with the English, and there is so much to see. UK is a union of four countries – England, Scotland, Wales and northern Ireland. Southern Ireland, or officially, the republic of Ireland is a separate country. Since we share the English language, and the Indian curry, travelling in these countries is a breeze, and most comfortable. Historic buildings and architecture, right from the Roman times, to the renaissance times, and hundreds of castles, offer a plethora of options for the travelers to choose from.

Though I’m not going into the sights in the UK, as they are quite popular by themselves, I will highlight a few. In London, do not miss the Tower of London, and the Westminster Abbey. In England, visit the English castles, and old towns like Oxford, Cotswolds, Stratford, Lake district, and English castles. Definitely take a guided tour of the Scottish highlands for as much time as you can afford to spend there, because, the Scots are proud of their culture, and will keep you entertained with their stories, anecdotes, folklore, and their skirmishes with the English – along with visiting their stunning, and sometimes reportedly ‘haunted’ castles, mountains and mesmerizing little villages and towns. Visit Dublin in Ireland for its famous Irish pubs and nightlife.

Enjoy a sumptuous English breakfast, a meal of fish and chips, or the numerous sea food options in Scotland, or an Indian curry or chicken tikka masala in a traditional English pub.

How did I plan?

Switzerland

Deepak in Switzerland

Overall, Europe offers a lot, and it is your call to choose wisely. I would recommend 4 days in every hotel or hostel you stay in, so that you have time to get your bearings right, and have the right amount of time to visit the popular or laid back sights the place you chose has to offer. For example, I chose 7 places to stay in my 30-day tour – Amsterdam, Lauterbrunnen and Zermatt in Switzerland, Paris, Venice, Sorrento and Rome. Choose more, and you would be traveling more than you would like, and choose less, you might get bored of a place.

The variety in the places you choose, and the order in which you visit them makes or breaks a tour as well. To explain with my example, the first place we went was Amsterdam – a simple city, also a hub for traveling to the Dutch villages like Volendam, Edam and Zaanse Schans. Next, Lauterbrunnen and Zermatt in Switzerland – a total contrast from my previous place – with snow covered mountains everywhere, Alpine hikes, glaciers, and museums. Next was Paris – metropolitan city – with it different set of attractions like the Louvre, Disneyland and Versailles palace. Then we went to Venice – a mix of architecture, waterways, and picture perfect islands. Sorrento – our next stop – was the sea, cliffs, and beaches. Finally we came to Rome to take in the renaissance architecture and the Vatican. Keeping it mixed this way makes sure you have a variety in the places you visit. Too many capital cities, or too many countryside towns, or too many beaches is going to make the trip dull after a few days.

An ideal combination would be a couple of cosmopolitan cities, some mountains, some beaches, some picturesque old towns, some countryside, and some history – that is my personal choice of places for a long trip. You can make your own choices from the baskets above, and as a first step, come up with a good itinerary.

Some tips from my trip

  • Switzerland was the best in terms of scenic beauty. Limit to 4 nights in the Bernese Oberland region. Lauterbrunnen is an excellent place to stay.
  • Things tend to be expensive in Switzerland, and we had to spend more than we planned for food here.
  • Amsterdam was an ideal hub to visit Netherlands. The countryside is 30 minutes by bus, and you can take a cycle or scooter tour as well.
  • We stayed for 4 nights in Paris, and 2-3 more days would have been better (we missed the Louvre, Versailles and the Loire valley).
  • We took a long day trip from Venice to Pisa, and it was worth it. We had to skip Florence for want of time.
  • Sorrento is the best place to stay in the Amalfi coast, beingf a travel hub, and with its food options.
  • Italy is going to be pretty hot anytime in spring/summer, so plan on a lot of rest between sightseeing when in Italy.
  • In terms of food, the oberland rosti in Switzerland, and the vegetariana and arabiata pizzas/pastas of Italy are a must try.
  • We ate chinese food a lot in our tour. It was cheap, filling, and tasted exactly like in India.
  • In Paris, we wanted to have some Indian food, and had cheap Indian/Sri Lankan Tamil food at La Chapelle area.

In my next post, I will talk about the budget, and the costs involved in planning a European holiday.

Read Part-2 of the article here.

Europe – A Brief History for the Indian traveler – Part 2

Read Part-1 of this article here.

The history of Europe becomes interesting with its own share of highs and lows. A period of a thousand years from 5th century AD to 15th century AD, is called the Medieval period, or more popularly, the Dark Ages. Though, in modern thinking, this era can hardly be called dark, the absence of the Roman empire, and as a result, the absence of patronage for art, music, architecture and cultural symbols during this time, caused the 16th century historians describe these 1000 years as dark. All art during this period had something to do with the church, or pleasing the church. Outside religion, people had little life, and there was little progress in science and exploration.

Comparatively, to provide a parallel view, India saw tremendous changes and growth in this period, under the rule of myriad dynasties and able emperors. The Guptas, Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas, Cholas, and all the who is who of Indian history ruled over and flourished in India during the European medieval ages. The Muslim conquest of India, and the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate and a number of Sultanates in Southern India happened during these times.

Coming back to the European medieval times, religious art flourished during these times. Tall and towering Gothic churches, with fantastic stained glass artwork, pointed archways, and flying buttress support structures were constructed during the medieval times. Though the Roman empire collapsed, the eastern Roman empire, or more popularly called the Byzantine empire remained and flourished. Art and architecture during this time, was a blend of the Christian styles of the Roman period, and the Islamic styles from the east. Cities like Istanbul and Venice bear splendid examples of artwork and architectural wonders done during this period.

Tower of London

Tower of London

England, as we know today, rose to prominence during the medieval era. To trace the history, present day Norway, Sweden and Denmark were the home to an aggressive group of explorers-trader-pirate tribe called the Vikings. They usually traveled out of their homelands, and conquered and settled in larger parts of Europe. The Vikings were a constant source of trouble to the ruling kings of the established empires and also to other smaller tribal rulers. And, William I was a descendant of the Vikings, who ruled Normandy, a region on Northern France, during the 1000 AD period. Much around the same time, Britannia, as England was known during the Roman times, was ruled by a group of different tribes – the Britons, the Angles, and the Saxons. They fought among themselves, but had continued to rule different parts of England among themselves. In 1066 AD, an important year for the English, William I invaded England, and established the Norman rule in the British isles. With this, England, which was an obscure little state at the edge of the Roman empire, was brought into the mainstream European political scene, and later would rule a vast part of the whole world. William I went on to build forts all over the island, and came to be known as William, the conqueror. The Tower of London is a remarkable example of the number of forts built by William the conqueror. The English monarchy, which was owned by the Anglo-Saxon kings after the fall of the Roman empire, passed on the William and his descendants after the Norman conquest of England.

Among other parts of Europe, the region of France, Germany and central Europe came under the rule of Franks, and Charlemagne, the Frank king established the Holy Roman Empire. This later led to the rise of France as an independent kingdom, and much later, Germany.

When in Europe, you would unavoidably be bombarded with art, architecture, and symbolism from an era called the Renaissance. This was more of a cultural phenomenon during which the revival of the lost glory and success of the ancient Roman empire was the aim. Roughly around the end of 1400s, people started feeling the pressure of political and economic stagnation all around Europe, and started finding ways to get innovative. A number of events that happened around Europe during the late 15th century paved way for the revival of art and architecture, and sowed the seeds for the modern world in Europe. People started thinking beyond God and religion, and science and technology, art and literature, all of these were approved and appreciated.

Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci

Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci
Image Source: forestpurnell on Flickr

Florence in Italy, and to a lesser extant, Rome, were the seats of Renaissance. Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, and France soon caught up. Explorers set out to conquer new worlds; Artists tuned the two dimensional religious view of life to a multi-dimensional space for art experiments; Sculptors brought out proud and confident real-life sculptors; the Printing Press was invented, and literature flourished; Scientific discoveries became the norm of the day; the Church saw a breakaway and reformation in the form of Protestants; and the early sprouts of Industrial revolution were already getting underway. Every aspect of modern life has its roots in the period of Italian, and the greater European Renaissance.

Popular figures during the Renaissance period are the who is who of science, art and literature today. The artworks of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, the inventions of Newton and Galileo, the literary works of Shakespeare, the explorations by Vasco da Gama and Columbus – and to top it, the rise of America – all of these date back to the era of Renaissance  Masterpieces like St.Peter’s bascillica in the Vatican, the cathedral in Florence, and the St.Paul’s cathedral in London – are all examples of fabulous Renaissance era architecture.

The 18th century saw never before changes in Europe. Industrial revolution gave rise to machines, and manufacturing industries. To get labor to work on these industries, powerful nations like England, France, Spain, Portugal and Netherlands established colonies around the world. A flow of laborers from these colonies ensures economic well being of the European countries. India, which was under the Mughal rule at this time, was also gradually colonized by the powerful British empire. Small pockets of India were also ruled by the Portuguese, the French and the Dutch.

The discovery of America by Columbus was a turning point in European history. A large numbers people, especially from Britain moved, and settled in the newer colonies of America. The Americans bought slaves from Africa to work in their plantations and industries. Eventually, the Americans resisted the control tactics of the British Empire, and finally, the British colonies in America revolted against the Crown, and established themselves as an independent nation of federal states. Slavery was abolished over time, and America started growing to face the world with renewed confidence and pride. Around the same time, the French revolution in France overthrew the monarchy, and Napoleon captured the power, making France one of the powerful forces in Europe.

The early 1800s saw a number of independent warring kingdoms in Europe. Britain, France, Portugal, Spain and Netherlands were powerful empires, with a strong Industrial presence, and innumerable colonies around the world. Germany as a country, was not born yet, and Austria, Poland and Hungary had blurred borders, held together as an empire, and were the centers of trouble. There were uprising by people all over Europe, and the demand for democracy was on the rise. The French revolution had fanned the hopes for democracy in a number of countries in Europe, and opposing political views in these countries made the domestic situation in each of the European countries highly unstable and wobbly. England has made constitutional amendments long back to make the emperor a constitutional monarch, rather than an absolute monarch.

Germany, in the 19th century was a fledgling nation, or rather a confederation of petty kingdoms, that got together for economic reasons. Bismark was a remarkable leader who put together a formidable empire, to counter the supremacy of other super-powers in Europe. By the 20th century, Germany had fought over all of the internal problems, and skirmishes with its neighbors, and emerged as an established industrial superpower. Also, other new powers in Europe, such as Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Russia, all of which had been a little late in catching up with the Imperialistic ambitions of other countries in Europe, had now tamed all internal differences, and emerged as new economies. These countries now wanted to enjoy the fruits of Imperialism, which was already being enjoyed by Britain, France and western Europe. All these, and politics of rivalry between neighboring countries, led to the World Wars.

The world wars were not fought for idealism or defense  but rather, they were the result of capitalistic ambitions, political one upmanship, and assumed racial supremacy of some nations. Every participant in the world wars had hidden ulterior motives which they pushed ahead from time to time. The ambitions of Germany were laid to rest at the end of the two World Wars. The political coalition of Britain and its allies also had to lose most of their colonies around the world in the face of a widespread awareness in its colonies, and a rising pressure from the other first world nations. The World Wars left a lasting impact on the politics of the world.

World War II memorial, Cluny, France

World War II memorial, Cluny, France
Image Source: flitshans on Flickr

Unfortunately, a lot of cultural and artistic symbols of the world were destroyed or damaged in the two Word Wars. Vast cities and small towns in Germany were completely destroyed by air bombings during the wars. The civilized world had to repent for its mistakes at the end of the war, and newer economies were born around the world. Europe learnt the lessons of unchecked imperialistic ambitions after the war. The world wars led to the birth of Communism, and the USA emerged as a new super power, along with the communist USSR. It would take decades more for the cold war between the USA and the USSR to end, and it would result in one country dominating the world politics and economics in the near future, along with a industrial super power in Asia, called China.

Europe – A Brief history for the Indian traveler – Part 1

Planet of the Euros

Planet of the Euros
Image source: DonkeyHotey on Flickr

Europe today is a continent, or a group of countries  each with its own identity, language, culture, customs and some shared history. This is similar to India, where a number of states with different cultural backgrounds have come together to form the Union of India, except that, Europe is not a single country – but a group of countries. The member countries of Europe have worked together in recent times, and signed a number of agreements, so that for a person traveling to Europe, it looks like a single country. There are not much border checks, customs and separate visa requirements when moving between several European countries. Yet each of the country in Europe is an independent sovereign state. More on this later.

Things with Europe have not always been so hunky dory as they are today. Until very recently, there have had been countries of Europe, which were ruled by monarchs and dictators. There were times when member countries of Europe had been at bitter war against each other, when they had invaded their neighbor’s territory, executed mass killings of people with alternative religious views, and had strict restrictions for movement across the borders. Two huge wars fought between the countries made them realize the devastating effect of war, and the impact it had on the politics and economy of the continent. The countries of Europe have realized the need for co-existence of members with opposing views, and have made huge strides improving the relations with their neighbors, which have helped the region to a vast extent.

Let us go back in time to trace how things got from how they were to how they are today. This will help you appreciating Europe in a much better way when traveling through the continent.

Sphinx in Egypt

Sphinx in Egypt
Image Source: digitalurbanlandscape in Flickr

Three independent civilizations which date back to around 5000 years from today rose at different parts of the world, along the shores of massive rivers. These civilizations were settlements where humans started trying out a civilized life for the first time. These were the Indus valley civilization in present day Pakistan, the Sumerian civilization in present day Iraq, and the Egyptian civilization along the river Nile. Each of these civilizations lasted several centuries, during which humans learnt to lead a farming, trade and business oriented urban life.

Around the same time as these ancient civilizations, in present day Greece, the seeds for a new world was being sown. People inhabiting the Greek islands were involved in trade, developed art and cultural symbols, practiced organized religion, spoke a common language, and in general laid the ground for the start of a new empire. This continued for over 2000 years, and gave rise to one of the first recognized civilizations in present day Europe – the Greeks. The Greeks ruled over the region surrounding the Mediterranean sea for a thousand years starting from 1000 BC. Science, mathematics, religion, philosophy, trade, and art flourished during the times of the Greeks. At the height of Greek civilization, the time around 500 BC and later, personalities well-known today, like Pythagoras, Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, lived and taught. To cap it all, Alexander the great, a well known Greek emperor, conquered and ruled a large part of the world known to humans back then, including parts of India. This was the period when Chandragupta Maurya, and Emperor Asoka ruled over a majority of the Indian subcontinent.

The war of the Greeks with a number of their neighbors have been romanticized by the Hollywood. Also, Greek mythology has had been a Pandora’s box of ideas for film makers through the years, and a number of Hollywood films are based on the wars waged by the Greeks.To name a few, Troy, Clash of Titans, 300, Percy Jackson, and Alexander are some of the recent movies done based on Greek wars, or mythology.

During the Greek era, the rest of the European mainland was still inhabited by a variety of tribes, who kept moving across the land, and conquering new areas from other tribes. There were tribes like the Celts, the Germanics, the Slavs, the Etruscans, the Iberians, and what not. Hostility was in the air, and cut-throat rivalry and war was the norm of the day. Anarchy ruled over around Europe, and finally lead to the rise of the Roman Empire, which paved the way for a greater civilization of the continent.

Alexander, the Great

Alexander, the Great
Image Source: omrb in Flickr

After Alexander, Greeks became weak. At the same time, another mighty civilization was getting prepared to rule the world, in present day Italy – the Romans. Several wars were fought between the Romans and the Greeks, and finally, Romans established themselves as the biggest empire that ruled the world till then. In fact, Rome was established as a republic, and continued to thrive through a large part of the 500 years before Christ. Wealth and treasures poured into Rome, and most of the European nations today – including France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Turkey were part of the Roman republic. There was a proper government, taxation, traders, entertainment, art and music. Eventually, corruption and favoritism grew, and the Roman republic had to fall. A prominent politician and warlord in Rome, Julius Caesar, worked for the establishment of a mighty Roman Empire.

Even though the Romans conquered the Greeks, they followed the Greek symbolism to a large extent. The Greek and Roman gods and cultural icons were mostly similar, and the Romans were never shy of acknowledging the intelligence of the Greeks wherever necessary. The Roman Empire, during its heyday, extended from Turkey in the east, all the way to Britain and Spain in the West. The people from outside the Roman Empire were called barbarians. Huge temples, aqueducts, roads, theaters, baths, palaces and whole cities were constructed all over Europe by the Romans. A large part of art and cultural remains, baths, and amphitheaters you will see today in Europe were from the Roman era. Trade flourished as far east as India and China. Christianity, which was founded during the Roman times, was established and widely flourished in all of the Roman conquered lands. Though Roman emperors opposed Christianity initially, the religion spread slowly and surely to the whole of the Roman empire. When the Roman empire finally fell, almost the whole of Europe had been converted to Christianity and the religion was here to stay.

Anything too big and complex would be unstable. Over the course of time, too many barbarians and new empires were attacking the Roman Empire on all sides, and given the spread-out nature of conquered lands, Romans could not hold their fort too long. The people in the faraway conquered lands of the empire loathed the transport of all their wealth and earnings to Rome. Add to this, the conflicts with the Persian empire in the present day Arab world, and the attacks from the Nords and Germanic tribes lead to the fall of the empire. By around 500 AD, the Roman Empire was no more, though the effect of the Romans would stay behind for centuries to come, and remain till the present day.

Read Part-2 of this article here.