Trek to Huthridurga (Uttari Betta)

Having lived in Bangalore for more than 10 years, I had been checking out the BMC website (Bangalore Mountaineering Club) quite a few times. This is known to be a popular agency that organizes treks around Bangalore. A casual check lists a bunch of treks of various difficulty levels being conducted on all weekends of the year. Though I have trekked with a bunch of strangers several times in the past, I had never signed up for one organized by an agency or a club. So, despite the list of treks looking pretty attractive, I hadn’t gotten around to actually sign up for one of BMC’s treks.

Buoyed by the experience of trekking to the Tadiandamol peak in Coorg, I convinced my wife to accompany me on a short day trek with the BMC. Without further ado, we pored over the list of treks available, and zeroed in on Uttari betta.

18556557_10155091387776885_3556987327730489774_o

Bangalore is surrounded by a number of hills and hillocks – all waiting to be explored. One such relatively unknown hill near Magadi is Huthridurga (also known as Uttari betta). At an elevation just over 1000m, and with a short trekking path of 3 kms, Huthridurga is ideal for casual hikers, first-time hikers, children, and family. There a several small rain water tanks at the top of this hill, alongside an old temple dedicated to Shiva, built by Kempe Gowda. Remains of an old fort can be seen at several places along the trekking path on this hill.

The pickup at the BMC office in Indiranagar was spot on time at 6.30 am. After picking up around 15 participants from different points, we were treated to a sumptuous breakfast at A2B on Mysore road. The trek leaders picked up packed lunch for the group, and soon we were driving through the Magadi road. In about 2 hours, we could make it to the small village at the base of the hill.

18527289_10155091401926885_6762694209664661938_o

The group had a bunch of youngsters, some couples, solo trekkers, and even a child. A number of participants were first-time hikers, and a few were trekking with BMC for this first time. After a round of introductions and selfies, we quickly started our ascent.

18491377_10155091388966885_7575775428456282574_o

The trail is mostly rocky – going over boulders and steps carved into huge rocks. Considering that this is an entry-level trek, the trek leaders did a good job in motivating and catering to the needs of all participants, making sure none was left behind. Since it was a hot sunny morning, with no signs of clouds or rain, we took short breaks wherever there was shade.

There was a small cave as we reached closer to the peak. Some of the trek participants went to explore the cave, while the others spent time photographing the beautiful view of the plains from above. Parts of the trail was quite steep, and having good hiking shoes definitely helped cover them easily. I assume it would be slightly more challenging when it rains, but not really dangerous.

Very soon we reached the top and the group scattered around exploring the place and enjoying the cool breeze at the top. The packed lunch boxes were opened and gobbled up by the exhausted group sitting under whatever little shade could be found at the top.

18449541_10155091388176885_3780809453094699690_o

In about half-an-hour, we started the descent, and it took much less time than going up. We boarded the bus parked in the small village at the base, and were soon on our way back to the city. It poured cats and dogs on our way back to Bangalore.

18489841_10155091389021885_377940261636842168_o

Based on this experience with BMC, I found them well organized and quite helpful. This would definitely be a good option solo trekkers. I would look forward to do more treks with them in the future.

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.combooking.comhostelbookers.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 Travel Series – a foreword

International travel has become quite popular in India in recent times, and a huge number of Indians travel out of India for business and tourism purposes every year. Statistics show that around 1.2 crore Indians made international trips in 2011 alone. And of these, around 24 lakh trips were to Europe. Traveling to Europe has become a breeze in recent times with integrated visa solutions, cheaper airfare, and the ease of booking holiday accommodation over the internet. There is a ton of culture and history to take in, and a variety of natural and man-made wonders to gape at, that you can never run out of things to do in Europe.

Hairy Hilland Coo, Scotland
Hairy Hilland Coo, Scotland

Ironically, despite the large market possibility in India, there is not enough travel information available on the internet or elsewhere readily available for Indians traveling to Europe. All of the information available on the internet targets the average American traveler, and filtering out information relevant to Indians is quite a difficult task. Also, there is a mammoth difference in the style of travel, the kind of facilities expected, and the travel budget between the Indian traveler and his American counterpart. Time is precious, and few travelers would want to spend it filtering out information available on the internet. The fear of being left struggling in a strange foreign land with unknown languages makes a self-tailored Europe trip almost impossible for the Indian traveler.

The average Indian traveler is usually a textbook tourist. He would like to get a glimpse of all what he has seen in Indian movies shot abroad, all the while chatting with his near and dear, and eating familiar Indian food while on a trip. Adventure, experiencing myriad cultures, meeting new people, savouring the delicasies of an alien cuisine – all these are unfamiliar terms in Indian travel circles. A secure coach trip where people are herded from landmark to landmark, and serving Indian food, is what the average Indian traveler needs, and travel agents in India offer exactly the same. The travel agents offer packages which spends a whirlwind day at each of the popular capital cities or cities with famous monuments in Europe, and get you back safe to your hotel in the evening. All you get is a fleeting sight of monuments, and nothing in terms of experiencing the places, or knowing the local culture. These travel agents charge an arm and a leg for these international travel packages, and you get back a bland and uninspiring foreign trip. Everything from what you will see, and what you will eat, and what you will experience is decided by the tour operator. Of course, for the first time traveler going abroad, this means a lot of security and comfort. But for those who would like to see something more than the usual, these travel packages are inadequate, the price of private tours is out of reach, and the information available is sparse.

So, I have planned to do a travel series – a set of writeups on traveling to Europe, especially for Indian travelers, sightseeing, knowing a bit of the culture, meeting people, and getting a bigger bang for your buck, or rather returns for your rupee, through independant travel. I will base these on my experiences of traveling in the UK, and the plans I have made for a bigger Europe trip in the near future. With a little bit of planning and smart budgeting, you can have a leap of a better experience and fun in Europe, than what you would have had in a tour-operator-conducted trip. And, the bonus – you get to plan what you would do and where you would go.

First, I would give a brief introduction to Europe, its history, and where it stands today in terms of tourism. Next comes the practical information needed to do a tour of Europe, the travel, accommodation and visa. Then, I would go into individual countries in detail – England, Scotland, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and Netherlands to boot. So, join me for a ride folks…

A weekend break in Yercaud

A mystical cover of mist slowly roves across the valley, and as it moves, a gentle drizzle of rain drops drifts in the air towards you. As you stand in the comfort of your balcony, the magic of the rain mixed with the myriad lights of the valley below transport you to a world so surreal that, doing nothing becomes all what you want to do here. Welcome to Yercaud.

For all the western ghats buffs among us, this idyllic hill station of Yercaud, nestled in the green bosom of the eastern ghats, comes as a surprise. A relaxing 4 hour journey from the maddening crowd of Bangalore lands you in Yercaud. Ideal for a quick weekend visit, Yercaud is one of those hill stations which still remain calm and peaceful, tucked away from the prying eyes of the tourist crowd. Apart from visiting a couple of view points, and boating in the lake, there is nothing much to do, and that is why you actually enjoy the beauty of this place.

Yercaud

The route is simple.

Bangalore – Hosur – Krishnagiri – Dharmapuri – Salem – Yercaud    (230 kms)

Once you reach Salem, you will reach a Y-junction where you will have to choose between going into the city, or continuing on the NH7. Take the road that goes into the city, and reach the five-road junction. Here, take left towards the Sarada-college road. After about 3 kms on this road, you will reach a signal where you should take left to reach Yercaud. There are sufficient sign boards all along to guide. The ascent is gradual and starts around 8 kms from here. The hair-pin bends are manageable if you have previous ghat-driving experience. Also, the roads are butter-smooth throughout the drive. Expect to pay tolls close to Rs.200.

The Route

One of the highlights of this drive is the breakfast at Adayar Ananda Bhavan just before you reach Krishnagiri. You can feast on yummy dosa, vada, idly, pongal and filter coffee. But the place is perpetually crowded and you will have to elbow your way through a crowd eager to pounce on the offerings as much as yourself. The food tastes good, and there are not too many good alternatives to this place. A2B also serves packeted snacks that you can carry and much along on your drive.

My enjoyable experience in Yercaud was also due to my place of stay. I chose GRT Nature Trails, a wonderful boutique hotel overlooking the Shevaroy hills. The hotel itself is perched on the slopes of the hill, and the view from here is spellbounding. The view is also available from the rooms. The rooms are super-comfortable and provided with 3-star facilities. One highlight is, they have a good collection of movie DVDs (English, Tamil, Hindi and Telugu) and books – ideal for anyone who just want to laze around in the room. The hotel property itself is tastefully done, and has a ‘Skywalk’ on the roof. This is a glass-floored walkway, some 100 feet above the valley below. At night, the whole of Salem town comes alive with lights, and it is a treat to watch. So, even if you do not stay here, it is worth visiting the roof-top restaurant to get a spectacular view in the evening.

GRT Nature Trails

There are other good accommodation in Yercaud as well. Check out hotel reviews on TripAdvisor. Hotel Shevaroys is an option I found pleasant and affordable.

Restaurant

Coming to food, we had our lunch at the GRT hotel’s restaurant. It was a buffet with a decent spread. The best part was the Tamil dishes on the spread – vazhaikai poriyal, karunai kizhangu varuval, poondu meen kulambu, and many other similar stuff. I and my wife relished the food quite well. The desserts were yummy and there was a lot of variety to choose from. The restaurant itself is quite comfortable and located at the highest point in the hotel, overlooking the valley.

The Lake

A small lake in the center of the town attracts tourists. We chose a pedal boat, and pedalled as much as we could. The boat was too small for my size, and I had to really struggle to fold my legs and pedal. Choosing an oar-boat will be a better option – it comes with a boatman. Around the lake, don’t miss sampling the hot bhajjis. We also had bhel puri, but it was not much impressive. Adjacent to the lake, there is a deer park. It houses some animals in enclosures, and is ideal for a small walk around. My wife, especially, enjoyed the swings put up in the park.

There are a couple of view points – Ladies’ seat, Gents’ seat, Children’s seat and Pagoda point. There is a Servarayan temple, and a rose garden as well. These are your typical tourist spots, and can be covered in the morning. It shouldn’t take more that 3 hours to see all of them. The drive up to these view points and the winding routes are much enjoyable than the destination itself. Some vendors around these view points sell different varieties of fruits, which would be worth trying out. Monkey menace is omnipresent – so beware!

Room

If you are interested in a bit of descent and climb, you can visit the Killiyur falls. But, expect flowing water only during the monsoons. Also, there is an All-Terrain-Vehicle (ATV) track near the Grange resort. It would be fun to try this out with a bunch of friends.

Ladies Point

Despite all these, as I had mentioned before, spending a night here, and lazing around doing nothing much is the ideal way one should enjoy Yercaud. Some blogs claim that a day trip to this place is sufficient. My take is, you gain nothing in a day trip. Spend a night and relax in the hills; enjoy the sun rise and the sunset; boat in the lake; have a cozy dinner with your partner; take a small walk – eat hot bhajjis; wake up in the morning – drive around to the view points; have a pleasant drive back to Bangalore. This is how I would recommend spending a weekend in Yercaud.

Hogenakkal

We were done with our stay in Yercaud by noon on Sunday. I and my wife decided to take a detour to Hogenakkal falls near Dharmapuri on our way back. That was an interesting experience as well – but to talk about in another post. This is the route we took on our way back.

Yercaud – Salem – Omalur – Mecheri – Pennagaram – Hogenakkal

Hogenakkal – Pennagaram – Palakodu – Rayakottai – Hosur – Bangalore

Falls

I liked this route better because of the greenery, variety in terrain and small villages that come in between. In contrast, the spectacularly laid NH7 is a bit monotonous and boring. So, it could be a good option to make this detour while driving back.

In short, Yercaud is definitely a worthy break for a weekend visit from Bangalore.

Belum caves – a natural wonder

There are no rocks, no hills, no greenery, no nothing! Absolute barren stretches all along. All of the long road, for the next 3 kms is visible right from here, and there is no sign of life. As the cab travels along the totally nondescript, long and straight road, bordered with nothing, you can’t help but doze off into dreams of wandering in lonely deserts in search of food and water, with strange lizards and cruel cacti looking on. The sun glares at your face, and you wonder what brought you here, of all places.

That will be how you can describe the journey in most parts of the Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh. The journey to Belum caves was nothing different either. Approximately 275 kms from Bangalore, in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh lie the longest caves in the plains of India – the Belum caves.

In no man’s land, these caves pop up suddenly out of nowhere. Actually, they don’t even pop up. They are completely underground. Even when you purchase the entry ticket for this natural wonder, you would just be wondering where the caves are. Then as you enter the caves and move further, you realize slowly, they were right beneath your feet!

The caves are a natural formation of limestone deposits that cause interesting structures over the passage of time – a process that takes millions of years. Stalactite and Stalagmite formations can be found here. A completely underground passage way, large chambers and wonderful rock formations have been formed here, which is the reason for the tourist attraction.

These caves are the second longest in India (the longest ones measuring about 22 kms are Krem Liat Prah in the Jaintia hills of Meghalaya). As there is a lot of information about these caves on the net, I will just give you some travel tips.

  • The caves are totally worth the visit. If you are somewhere around the region in Andhra, definitely make it a point to visit here.
  • The total walk inside the caves is around 2 kms. It is hot (Outside air is pumped inside using compressors. Still you feel the heat). You will sweat like hell. Carry a towel to wipe yourself out. It is absolutely necessary.
  • It is not advisable to drive here. Because, you might doze off as I had already mentioned. There is absolutely nothing scenic on the highway. You can see the road as far as your eyes can reach, and you can see nothing! Take a cab!
  • Guides are available at the entrance. They take Rs.10. Hire one of them. One, they carry a torch to show you the way. Two, they tell you a lot of stories about the caves.
  • Some places in the caves need some acrobatics to reach. Sometime you might have to crawl. Not too frightening. It might be difficult for the aged.
  • There is no accommodation near the caves. You have to stay at Anantapur or Kurnool. Nandyal is also a nice place to stay. The caves are about 75 kms from Nandyal. Food is served in a small restaurant near the caves. Don’t expect too much – simple, tasty Andhra meals are served.

Now, over to the pics…

The entrance to Belum Caves
Entrance to the caves

Vinoth, Rahul and Karthik
Vinoth, Rahul and Karthik

Hands
A game of hands

The evil Rahul
Rahul, the devil

Belum Caves
Near a man-made fountain

Belum Caves
Details on the ceiling

Ponder
Vinoth looking on

Belum Caves
A secret passage

Belum Caves
Details on the ceiling

Intentions
Karthik posing

Belum Caves
An underground chamber

Buddha statue
Buddha statue outside on the plains

Karthik falling in
Karthik falling in

Enjoy maadi…!

Here comes the new year!

Hearty wishes for an exciting and fun-filled new year 2010 to all readers!

I finished my last year with an eventful vacation in Goa, enjoying all the beaches and birds of the west coast.

What’s more exciting?

The new year for me has already begun thunderously, with my write-up on Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary getting published in The Banyan Trees.

You can read my article here. Many thanks to Dhivya.

The Banyan Trees is a new-age online monthly magazine that gives a platform to display creative content. The Banyan Trees team has been doing a great job, and the magazine has improved a lot since its first issue in November 2009. I wish them all the best in their effort. A neat looking flash version of the magazine…

http://static.issuu.com/webembed/viewers/style1/v1/IssuuViewer.swf

What’s even more exciting?

Looking at the wonderful show put up by the Banyan Trees, I have been lately thinking about starting my own magazine. It will be a collaborative effort, with the help of friends. Watch out for the first issue very soon…