Australia

Country Counter: 22        

Cities Visited: Sydney, Melbourne

Timeframe: June 2007

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Over the past few months, I’ve tried to pick up my writing. I realise the longer I wait, the more I tend to forget details about trips taken a decade ago. At that time, we could not afford a digital camera and carried our bulky old Canon everywhere, with a few film rolls. Each roll could capture around 36 photos, so we did not have the liberty to click wildly and then sort out the good ones. Each photo had to be ‘planned’, and we had developed this habit of checking the ‘remaining counter’ after every snap. With the advancement of camera technology coupled with its exponential reduction of cost, it is hard to imagine how life was just ten years ago.

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The last time I went home, I tried to dig up as many of these (expensive) printed photos. I couldn’t wait much longer as most of them were either shedding colour or form in some way, and the rest were lost somewhere along the way. It made me really sad (and feel careless), and this tremendous loss is why I won’t be able to write a full post on Nepal (2005) and Thailand (2007, on our way to Australia). I still managed to salvage a few from our Australia and USA trip in time, but they weren’t enough to complete the picture. Among a lot of discussion and reminiscing, I was able to piece the memory blocks and recall most of our journey through this amazing country.

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Our first stop was Sydney, where we spent around 3 days. We were on foot mostly, exploring public squares like The Rocks and The Domain, visiting iconic landmarks like the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, and exploring wildlife in the zoo. Visit the Sydney Tower for excellent views of the city and Bondi Beach for the chilled-out life (but you knew that already).

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Sydney Tower

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St. Mary’s Cathedral from the tower

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View from the Sydney Tower

We took the one-day tour to the Blue Mountains, carefully arranged to include small groups for a better experience. We travelled in a small van with our guide, who was quite the fellow indeed. This is something I want to mention here. I’ve been around different groups of people around the world, and everyone has their unique sense of humour. I found that apart from being generally relaxed, which Australians are known for, everyone almost invariably has a great sense of humour. And the good type, mind you, much like the Irish.

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With our guide

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The Blue Mountains

During the entire trip, the guide kept us entertained with quips like ‘did you know, that the Blue Mountains are neither blue nor mountains?’ and ‘I advise you not to get too close to the edge, but if you do fall over, make sure to enjoy the view.’ The Blue Mountains were fascinating to say the least, and no one died. We checked out the famed ‘Three Sisters’ rock formation, who were turned into stone in order to protect them, according to an old legend. There are hiking trails which bring you close to the rocks but were not part of this tour. Another highlight was the Scenic World railway tour, which is a MUST do, just for the thrill. It is the steepest incline railway in the world, and the ‘open’ cars have only seat-belts. My mother and sister were in the first cabin, and as the coach starts descending, you can almost feel that you’ll fall off your seat and plunge into the valley (that does not happen, of course). Absolutely thrilling!

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Scenic World railway with the Three Sisters in the background

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The Three Sisters

We headed out to Melbourne next, via Canberra. My dad has this enviable gift of finding contacts wherever we fly to. As soon as we reached, a man came to pick us up and invited us to his home. We later found out that he is one of the most successful businessmen in the city, having arrived in Melbourne with his father years ago and gradually rising to where he is right now. His success, however, had not changed his demeanour one bit, and he remained as humble as one could possibly be. He provided us with a great accommodation and an unforgettable gastronomic tour around the city, and our families became good friends. He passed away a few years ago, much to our shock and surprise (he was younger than my father), and we will never forget his hospitality and our friendship.

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One of the first things that struck me was how clean the city was – not a speck anywhere. It was an unbelievable sight to our sore eyes – coming from India and this being only our second international destination. Don’t get me wrong, things have improved back home now, but at that time we were just glad to see a nation collectively deciding not to litter and preserve their cities, something which many nations are still struggling to achieve.

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Spotless!

Tons of things to do and see. From the hustle bustle of Queen Victoria market, to St. Kilda’s beach, the Shrine of Remembrance – a war memorial for WWI, a walk along the Yarra river at the Yarra Bend Park and the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the 1853 birthplace of Test cricket (I’m from India, remember). A drive along the Great Ocean Road is recommended for all visitors, and so is the Melbourne Museum for its fascinating displays (I couldn’t find our pictures of the exhibits, unfortunately).

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The Shrine of Remembrance

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Ceremonial Avenue, looking towards the city of Melbourne from the shrine

There were two main highlights of our stay in Melbourne. The first was the century-old Puffing Billy steam train ride through the Dandenong Ranges. The windows were large enough to allow people to sit through them with their legs dangling outside and enjoy the view. The tour also includes a stop at the Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary, where you can get up close and personal with over 200 species of animals, including everyone’s favourite – Koala Bears.

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Puffing Billy

The second was a day trip to Phillip Island to watch penguins. Honestly, when was the last time you witnessed penguins in their natural habitat? The tour begins with a stop at Warrook’s Cattle Farm (now called Warrook Station Farm, according to their website). This family owned farm has a wide variety of animals on the estate and you can go ahead and feed them if you like – other options include milking cows and watching a sheep-shearing operation. I distinctively remember I took a magnificent picture (according to my camera capabilities) of a lonely tree standing in a vast open stretch, and a broken cart beside it. The entire scene setup was something straight out of an epic romance novel. Unfortunately, after searching for hours, I could not find it. It is ironic how, when I captured the scene a decade ago, I wanted to show it to the world, and now, when I have started documenting, that is the picture I couldn’t recover.

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Warrook’s Cattle Farm

After having lunch at the farm, we head on to the Koala Conservation Center, where you can see Koalas (again) in their natural habitat. Keep in mind though – they might look cute and cuddly, but do not ‘over-disturb’ them, or they will attack. Next, we headed out, in time, to Phillip Island. It is imperative for tour groups to be on time, as a lot of operators run parallel, and the entry to the island is closed after 6 pm. Apparently, some of the tours got delayed during the week because people just couldn’t get enough of the Koalas – oh, the obsession!

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At the island, you pass through an information center and enter into a special viewing platform, where crowds gather from all the tours. As the light dims, penguins can be seen walking along the beach to their nests. Hordes and hordes of small penguins, all marching happily, much to the joy of the humans. It is one sight which you cannot find in the middle latitudes. Thanks to Australia, we don’t need to cross the Arctic circle to view these gentle creatures in their natural habitat.

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Phillip Island

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We stayed in Melbourne for almost two weeks, mostly hanging out with our generous hosts. On our way back, we had to endure one of the most testing experiences we have ever faced in an airport. More on that later.

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With our hosts and their friends

A lot has changed since that summer of ’07. A recent web search displayed a lot more places to see and things to do. Let’s hope I get that chance of visiting again, and this time, I’ll make sure not to skip the Ayer’s Rock!

Adi

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Republic of Ireland

Country Counter: 21          

Cities Visited: Dublin, Glendalough, Kilkenny

Timeframe: April 2017

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to visit Ireland. Having read and heard so much about it, I kept waiting for the perfect time to book my trip. As far as timing goes, it’s never perfect, is it? On some days, prices would be too high, visa issues, sometimes I’d be more focused on securing a job, and once I had a job, taking a few days off had to be accommodated to work schedules. So this April, after finally realising that my visa is going to expire soon and I’ve accumulated enough leaves from work, I decided I had to check this off of my list.

The tales are true. Ireland, especially Dublin, has that rare combination of relaxed and energetic vibes most small and big towns haven’t achieved yet. I also found that the Irish sense of humour is different from English one. It has the same undertones, but you feel that no one is really looking down on you.

My planning started in February, with Ryanair to the rescue again. I also discovered that everything is relatively inexpensive if you book it online. For example, the Guinness Storehouse experience will cost you €14 if you book online instead of the usual €20 at the venue. Direct buses to and from the airport are €10 for a return journey, valid for three months. The Cliffs of Moher tour conducted by Paddywagon Tours is €40 online (instead of €45 at their office) etc.

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I chose to stay at the Paddy’s Palace. Not only is the location great in spite of not being at the very centre of the city, but everything is also easily accessible by foot. I enjoyed walking along the river Liffey from one end of the city to the other, covering all the main attractions, and not taking more than an hour to do so. The hostel was clean, well-maintained and included free (simple) breakfast. The only thing I felt was a bit annoying was the Wi-Fi coverage, which was only present in the main lobby and not in the rooms. That meant that after a long day of walking and sightseeing, we’d have to physically come down and sit in the lobby to get anything done on our phones/laptops.

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There is much to see and do around Dublin. I spent time in the Kilmainham Gaol (€4 guided tours), Irish Museum of Modern Art (free entry), and the Guinness Storehouse (of course). The experience made me fall in love with my favourite drink even more. Next, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral, the adjacent Dublinia and Dublin Castle. The Spire of Dublin is a must visit. I had to skip some spots like Malahide Castle, St. Stephen’s Green, Phoenix Park and the Wellington monument due to lack of time (see you next time, Old Jameson’s Distillery). The Temple Bar area (and the bar itself) has a lively atmosphere, although the place is over-priced in my opinion. For better deals on drinks, head over to the area around Trinity College, and maybe even drop in to see the library (think Harry Potter movies).

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One of my main reasons to visit Ireland was to check out the majestic Cliffs of Moher. The picturesque coast looming high above the ground is just a magical place. The Atlantic Ocean presents itself like a vast, never-ending body of water. The weather there can be quite fickle and changes in an instant. I continuously kept checking the weather on my phone before finally deciding to book the tour for a Friday and hoping we’d have some sunshine. Trust me, you do not want to drive across the country and experience fog and rain there.

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I booked the one-day Paddywagon tour to the Cliffs of Moher. The pickup point was Paddy’s Palace which meant I could sleep a bit longer in the morning. The tour was worth every dime. We had a really engaging driver/guide, who knew his country’s history well and kept us entertained throughout. We had mini-stops at the Dunguaire Castle, which is rumoured to have the power to bring back your virginity (why would I want that when it took me so long to lose it), followed by a drive along the Wild Atlantic Way and the Burren (a landscape filled with limestone rocks for as far as the eye can see). We stopped at Doolin for lunch, which is the nearest town to the Cliffs.

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Post lunch, we headed out to the cliffs and we couldn’t believe our luck. We had the BEST weather possible! It was like the clouds had cleared out on our arrival, as our guide pointed out. Bright and sunny weather meant amazing pictures and a lovely hike along the steeps edges. The Cliffs were jaw-dropping and one of the best places I’ve ever visited. We had one and half hours at our disposal, which it seems was the case for every tour operator present there, in order to avoid over-crowding. We stopped by the Bunratty Castle for half an hour before heading back to Dublin. The only suggestion I have for Paddywagon Tours is to perhaps try and shave off 5 to 10 minutes from other stops, especially Bunratty Castle, and allocate more time at the Cliffs, to the extent possible. Having a one and a half hour stop at the main attraction on a 12-hour trip seems hardly fair.

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On our way back, we passed by (but did not stop) a village where ex-President Barack Obama has some roots. The entire area is filled with signs, probably to get tourist buses to stop. The song The Fields of Athenry, that was playing on our way back, and almost everywhere in Dublin, is a must-hear for everyone. Sad and melodious at the same time, it recounts the dark past of Ireland and transports the listener to another world.

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Booking a room at Paddy’s Palace turned out to be a bigger delight than I had imagined. Apart from the amenities and highlights I mentioned above, customers also get a free tour to Glendalough and Wicklow when they book a stay for more than 2 nights. We set out on a Saturday, with non-stop rain and I was thanking my stars I was able to see the Cliffs properly. The stop at Glendalough was for an hour and a half, giving us plenty of time to enjoy the scenery and go for a hike. Next, we passed by the Wicklow Gap, Turlogh reservoir and the bridge which was the setting for the movie P. S. I Love you. Around lunch time, we arrived at Kilkenny, the medieval capital of Ireland and known for Kilkenny the beer. The small town is filled with remnants like cobblestone roads and the Norman Castle dating back to the 1100s.

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I saw a lot of connections between Ireland and the United States. Airports have pre-clearance options, immigration options are more relaxed and almost everything in the States can trace its roots back here, including Obama as I mentioned above. For example, we passed through Hollywood, which sure enough, was the inspiration for the industry that we all know now. An Irishman who left the country during harsh times on a coffin ship survived his trip and made his way to the West Coast, where he renamed the place Hollywood, in memory of the village he left behind. The hills even have their own Hollywood sign perched at the top.

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It is a shame that I have to get a visa every six months to return to Ireland (and Scotland). The trip left such an impact on me that I’d definitely visit again, and maybe even visit the same places again, now that I know who, what and where. Talking to the people, listening about their hardships and oppression in the past and how they’ve rebuilt themselves made me feel proud walking among them.

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May you be in heaven half an hour before the Devil knows you’re dead.’ – Irish blessing

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Once again, thank you for stopping by, and Sláinte!

Adi

Scotland and England

Country Counter: 19, 20          

Cities Visited: Glasgow, Edinburgh, London, Windermere

Timeframe: December 2016

My first trip abroad was to London in 2005. I don’t know why my dad specifically wanted to visit the UK first – maybe it was some colonial attachment he felt. I was always rooting for the USA, but it’d have to wait for another 4 years. So, a bit grudgingly, I agreed to visit England. I don’t remember minute details of the trip though, as it took place more than 10 years ago and a lot has happened since then.

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Buckingham Palace (2005)

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However, there are some things I can recall clearly. For example, we had our first brush with racism on the Tube, moments after we landed in Heathrow. Being too young at that time, the incident left a lasting impression on me as I asked why were we subjected to that. We had just arrived in the country (which had colonised ours for 150 years) and hadn’t done or said anything to anyone. I strongly believe that incident would’ve played out differently if I was the person I am today.

Not to dwell too much on the past and the negative, I remember some of our firsts as well. We tried KFC for the first time in London. I’m not sure, but I think the brand hadn’t reached the Indian shores by then, or hadn’t really taken off. We stayed at the Grange Wellington Hotel, a brief walk from Victoria Terminus and the Big Ben. There was a cricket ground right in front of us, which was a bit in-your-face. Our room had the most ideal location in the hotel, with an extended balcony large enough for two to sit and enjoy a warm cup of coffee as it rained. We visited Windsor Castle on a day trip and took our time outside the Buckingham Palace. We saw the change of guards, Regent’s Park, Hyde Park and Madame Tussauds.

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Windsor Castle (2005)

Fast forward ten years. My sister had just finished her Masters in Reading and she invited the family over for graduation. It had been a while since I had seen my family so I got a visa for the UK. My parents had already been to London and Reading thrice after my (pampered) sister arrived, so they said they wanted to visit Scotland.

We flew Ryanair to Glasgow and booked SACO Glasgow right at the city centre. It was very well suited for a family of four. Being in the centre meant we had easy access to everything, and the Christmas Market had popped up right next door. Everything in Glasgow is accessible by foot, if you are up for a small walk.

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George Square

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Glasgow Cathedral seen from Glasgow Necropolis

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Glasgow Necropolis

Notable places to see are Glasgow Cathedral and the Glasgow Necropolis next to it (climb to the top for amazing views), George Square (where our apartment was located), the Gallery of Modern Art, the Lighthouse and Provand’s Lordship (a medieval period house still intact). We also took the one-day tour to Loch Ness, Glencoe and the Highlands. This is a MUST DO. The drive to and from the Highlands is just mystifying. We passed through Loch Lomond, where we stopped for some amazing photos. Even in December, when the sun doesn’t shine so much, the entire place looked magical. Our driver kept us entertained with history lessons and some of the best Scottish music I’ve ever heard. At Loch Ness, we stopped at Fort Augustus for even greater views of the Loch. I distinctly remember us driving back around 3 or 4 pm, and it was pitch black outside. We could only see the outline of the huge mountains looming around us. Coupled with addictive, foot-tapping music, it was one of the best bus rides of my life. I remember I was sitting behind this gorgeous young lady (bonnie wee lassie as they say) who was traveling alone, and who had been alongside me the entire time. I still couldn’t muster up the courage to say hi. She must have thought I was utterly useless. If you’re reading this, pretty lady from the tour of 10th Dec’16, you’re absolutely right.

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Loch Lomond

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Dad at Loch Ness

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Fort Augustus

When we were heading out from Glasgow, a Santa run was being organised. At least two to three thousand people dressed up as Santa Claus took part in the run, and the entire street had the Christmas air to it. We took a train to our next stop – the Lake District. My sister said all her friends had mentioned that she should definitely visit the Lake District before she leaves the UK. Not knowing much about it, we headed out and booked the really cosy and comfortable Orrest Cottage in Windermere. Clean, warm and breakfast included, the place is ideally located just 5 minutes from Windermere station, the supermarket, and is at the start of the climb to the Orrest Head viewpoint. It’ll probably take 15 to 30 minutes to reach the summit, but it is totally worth it. You can see the entire lake and the valley behind.

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Kirkstone Pass

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Castlerigg Stone Circle

We took the one-day Ten Lakes Spectacular Tour. Luckily, we were the only customers of the day so we had the entire minivan to ourselves. The tour operator was knowledgeable enough and drove leisurely to ensure we could take our time at the various stops. He even included some spots from other tours which were originally not included, as we were too few and had too much time on our hands. Notable points worth mentioning are Thirlmere, Kirkstone Pass, the rocky and picturesque Honister Pass, Keswick (where we had lunch) and the village of Grasmere, where the gingerbread was invented. We had the chance to dig into some delicious gingerbread from the original store. And in case you missed the Stonehenge like we did, not to worry. The tour includes a stop at Castlerigg Stone Circle, a mini version of the Stonehenge, but equally beautiful, nestled in the lap of valleys.

After two days in Glasgow, we took a train to Edinburgh and stayed at the Safestay hostel. It was pretty neat for the four of us – bunk beds with private bathroom and toilets. Although I choose to walk all around in Edinburgh as well, it isn’t advisable for someone short on time.

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View of Edinburgh from Calton Hill

One of our first stops was the Calton Hill. A small hill in the middle of the city provides excellent views, and is featured in almost every picture of Edinburgh. There is a brief climb though. My sister, who’s been there before, suggested we climb up an hour or two before sunset to get the best views, and she was right. The flat hill provides 360-degree views and tons of photo opportunities – Nelson MonumentNational Monument of Scotland, Holyrood Palace etc. You can even see Arthur’s Seat at a distance, and it looks majestic.

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National Monument of Scotland

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View of Arthur’s Seat from Calton Hill

The next day, we started off on foot towards Edinburgh Castle. Perched on yet another hilltop with a vast viewing area, the castle shines just after sunrise. We were really lucky to have excellent weather, at least for the month of December in the UK. The stretch up to the castle passes by a lot of other attractions – St. Giles’ Cathedral, the Scotch Whiskey Experience, the Hub – which looks like an ornate church from the outside but is more of a meeting and event center. Keeping the castle in front of you, look on your left and you’ll see the castle which inspired Hogwarts for the Harry Potter movies. Look south-west, and you’ll again get an amazing view of Arthur’s Seat.

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Edinburgh Castle

No points for guessing that the Scotch Whiskey Experience was my favourite stop. The largest collection of whiskey in the world, untampered by interference. Only two bottles were affected by the elements and had dried up. The tour included a sampling, a barrel ride and quite the lesson on why Scotland is still the king of producing fine spirits.

Next, we headed up to Holyrood Palace. A half an hour walk led us to the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland. Tip: walk along the walls of the palace from the outside to reach the foot of Arthur’s Seat. The open landscape is one of the best you’ll ever see, and another fantastic photo spot. Although I wanted to hike up to the summit, my parents wouldn’t have been able to make it to the very top, so I left it for another time. The starting point of the hike upwards is, nonetheless, worth visiting.

The stay in Edinburgh was pretty short and I had really fallen in love with Scotland. That is why when it was time to head back, I was feeling pretty low. The country is full of open landscapes and an overall feel-good vibe, making anyone who visits instantly connect with the environment.

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A short flight back, and we were in England again. My family stayed over for a couple of days to help my sister pack up her things and bring her back to India. Visa rules do not allow even the brightest students from top universities who graduate top of their class (case in point – my sister) to stay back, even if they do find work. I, on the other hand, had to be on my way back to France. A chance Facebook post made me realise that one of my friends from school, who I hadn’t seen for 10 years, was residing in London. We decided to meet before I returned, and hence I spent my last day in the capital.

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Before meeting up with him, I decided to walk along the Thames from Westminster to the Tower Bridge. I hadn’t been here since 2005 as I mentioned before, and hence decided to see if and how things had changed since my last visit. Armed with a new camera now, I was able to capture a few, world-renowned attractions – some new, like the Shard, and some historic, like Big Ben.

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The Shard

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On my way to Victoria Terminal for my ride home, a group of people, orchestrating on the street, were trying to talk to people about Christianity, or their version of it. Completing my MBA amongst a truly multicultural cohort comprising of 24 nationalities has taught me to be more accommodating and appreciative towards differences. Not that I was any different before, but living amongst a diverse group for a year shines a new light on things. So when one of the group approached me and asked if I had five minutes to spare, I politely said yes with a smile. Christmas was around the corner and I didn’t feel like shrugging him off like most of the people passing by.

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He was very passionate when he spoke to me, and I patiently listened to him. For well over 15 minutes, I actively engaged and interacted with this man, whose first question to me was “What is your religion?” All said and done, we shook hands and he went back to his group. A minute later, a Hindu group passed by, chanting our religious slogans. To my utter annoyance, this group of African-Christians started hurling abuses towards the Hindu group, while I stood 10 feet away. I thought to myself I just told this guy I’m a Hindu. Then listened to him explaining why Christianity is the only way and why only Jesus can save me (his words not mine). I listened to him because more often than not people are misunderstood and just need someone to listen to them. When people don’t listen, it creates problems. After all that, he now starts insulting my religion, in front of me. He didn’t even wait for me to leave the area. I’m not an ardent follower of religion of course, but I firmly believe that no one should insult another’s faith. The incident once again reminded me of why England doesn’t hold a special space in my heart. From the incident that happened in 2005 to this now, it seems that every time we visit our ‘colonial masters’, things don’t seem to change, no matter what the country tries to portray otherwise. No place, faith or group of people is perfect, but in difficult times like these, one could do with a little bit of compassion towards your fellow human being. Wouldn’t you agree?

Adi

Malaysia and Singapore

Country Counter: 17, 18       

Cities Visited: Kuala Lumpur, Singapore City, Genting Highlands

Timeframe: December 2011

I’m sure everyone agrees that traveling in south-east Asia can be really cheap. Even if you don’t earn in Western currencies, a buck will go a long way in most of the countries down there. My parents read about a holiday package offered by D’Paul’s, one of the most recognized operators in India. 8 nights in Malaysia, Singapore and the Genting Highlands for €700, including flights, stay, transfer AND visa (it’s €850 now, after 6 years though!)

The trip starts with an economy-class flight (usually sold out) to Kuala Lumpur. Once we land, a bus escorts the group to a hotel (think Grand Seasons and the like), with buffet breakfast included. The first half of the first day is free for tourists to roam about independently. We took this occasion to visit the not-to-be-missed Petronas Towers.

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                                                          Mom near the Petronas Towers

The second half is usually spent in a conducted tour of the city. We were glad that we visited the tower early. Although the conducted city tour is great, things are on a clock so you won’t get those leisurely minutes to click an infinite number of selfies. We indulged ourselves in the highly popular street food, or ‘makanan jalanan’, consisting of meats and fish on satay skewers. To be honest, it was so good I kept coming back every day for the rest of the tour. The national dish is chicken rice, which, you guessed it, is fried chicken served with rice.

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Istana Negara – the official residence of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the monarch of Malaysia.

Next, we headed off to the Genting Highlands. On our way, we passed by the magnificent Batu Caves, a Hindu temple set in a limestone cave with a huge golden idol of Lord Murugan. The sheer climb will deter many, but when you make to the top, the view is worth it.

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                                                                           Batu Caves

Simply getting to Genting Highlands is an adventure. A bus takes you to the base of a mountain (or hill, don’t remember). From there, you ride one of the longest (and most scenic) cable cars to reach atop. An absurdly huge area welcomes you – 5 hotels, three casinos, an amusement park, a shopping center – all in one building complex. I literally got lost once trying to find my room, which number into thousands. I’m not saying the place is unorganized – quite the contrary. Well lit, with signs everywhere, the place is a must visit for at least a night, even if you aren’t into gambling.

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                                                                 Genting Highlands

A roller-coaster runs INSIDE the hotel complex, zipping by overhead, and the entire place is decorated with life-size models of every imaginable movie and TV memorabilia. I even tried out the Go-Kart track (which, understandably, has the longest queue and waiting time) which was super fun.

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                                                                          Go Karting

After our one-night stay, we headed off to Singapore. We were able to cross the border pretty fast, as our visa was already pre-arranged by the company. Conducted tours in Singapore ranged from a ride on the Singapore Flyer (Singapore’s answer to the London Eye) and the Jurong Bird Park. A city tour also takes you through Orchard Street, which boasts of all the major luxury brands in one stretch.

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View of Marina Bay Sands from the Singapore Flyer. Residents write their wishes on white balloons and place them on the river before Christmas.

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The city tour was conducted on an amphibious vehicle, which, at the risk of sounding naïve, I had never seen before. It completely blew my mind when the seemingly normal ‘monster truck’ simply glided into the river and became operational as a boat, without any unpleasant noise or jerk.

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                                                     The wonder car (or boat, or both?)

During the tour, we stopped by one of the most visited spots in the tiny island nation – the Merlion Park, located right next to the Central Business District. A clichéd picture had to be snapped.

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                                         Merlion Park, near Central Business District

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The last day was reserved for two separate parks: Resorts World Sentosa, which had the Mama Merlion, and Wild Wild Wet, a water-ride amusement park that is worth its name. The rides were some of the craziest experiences I’ve ever had. The best part is, the whole setup is so well organized, no extra safety harnesses are required. Rides range from steep water slides to downhill Go-Karting.

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                                                                    Marina Bay Sands

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Even though we were returning home during Christmas time, I felt gloomy after the trip ended. I had not expected a conducted travel package to turn out to be so much fun. My mood was partially lifted when we flew back via Singapore’s Changi Airport. You’ve got to experience it to know why it is consistently rated as the world’s best airport.

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                                              The Central Business District and skyline

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Total Cost of Travel and Stay: ₹ 50,000 per person incl. tax (€707 in today’s exchange rate)

Adi

Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia

Country Counter: 13, 14, 15, 16          

Cities Visited: Prague, Vienna, Budapest and Bratislava

Timeframe: May 2016

This trip was officially the last one during my ‘student status’ in France. The whole thing was born out of a certain frustration. It’s kind of annoying that every single time I’m at a party, someone unfailingly brings up the “I was backpacking across Europe for a year” story. One day I said to myself, let’s see what all the fuss is about. So I went out and bought a backpack.

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Prague Astronomical Clock

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Charles Bridge

Since I’m always planning my next trip (because who knows which one is going to be the last one), I realised that if I’m ready to stretch it out a bit, I can get really good travel deals across Europe. It sounds laborious to many of my friends, but I feel I’m getting the hang of this and can travel anywhere I want on a budget.

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Dancing House

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Žižkov Television Tower

I stumbled upon this great service called RegioJet, which operates buses across Central Europe. Not only did I get a great deal (€19 from Prague to Lyon direct), but I also found out that this service isn’t like the traditional carriers I’m used to. For starters, there’s a ton of entertainment options to choose from, including movies and TV series, which really help pass the time. Coffee, tea or hot chocolate at no additional charge! There is no WiFi on board, which was a bit disappointing at first. Later, I felt that this helped me disconnect. All the service patrons on the bus were cheerful and helpful (apart from one, on my return journey from Bratislava to Prague). I didn’t want to make this post about a bus service, but I just had to mention the fact that these journeys, although long, were a breeze. Thanks to these to-and-fro trips by RegioJet, and student hostels, I managed to keep my total cost of trip to a minimum. And no, the company isn’t paying me to write this!

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View from Letná Park

First stop: Prague. The bus drops you at ÚAN Florenc, which has good connectivity to the city. You can buy travel cards for public transport at the station itself, which includes discounted entry to museums. The city has a good vibe with loads to see. I stayed at the Czech Inn, where they were kind enough to check me in early and let me drop my bags. I found all the hostels on Hostelworld. There was a direct shuttle leaving from the hostel with a tour guide, who leads a couple of daily walking tours. One of the things I enjoy the most about European cities is the ability and facilities provided for exploring places on foot. The city can be covered in two days if you’re on a tight schedule and would like to see the most in a short amount of time. Most popular places include the Charles Bridge, the Prague astronomical clock, St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague castle, Wencelas Square, the Dancing House, the Lennon Wall, and my favourite: Žižkov Television Tower. There is something quite creepy about a television tower if it has giant babies painted in black crawling up and down. I kept the second day to visit Letná Park which offers amazing views of the Charles Bridge lined up with other bridges.

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Prague Castle

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Lennon Wall

Next stop: Budapest. Another RegioJet trip from ÚAN Florenc Praha to Könyves Kálmán in Budapest. This city also has much to offer, especially if you’re on the younger side of life. Fully equipped hostels everywhere with an excellent nightlife.

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The Hungarian Parliament building from across the river

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Széchenyi Chain Bridge with Buda Castle in the background

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Shoes on the Danube bank

I chose to explore the city on foot mostly, but there is ample public transport for those who don’t prefer walking all day. I stayed at the Unity Hostel, booked via Hostelworld. It’s ideally located near public transport and touristic spots, and boasts an in-house bar with a lively atmosphere every evening. They even have currency exchange machines, which is a good thing as Euros will only take you so far. The hostel manager was kind enough to let me check-in in the wee hours of morning. The rooms were clean and well maintained. For breakfast, I’d recommend the place right next to the hostel.

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Hősök Tere

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St. Stephen’s Basilica

Major tourist attractions include the Buda Castle, the iconic Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Hősök Tere (among the most beautiful squares I’ve seen) and St. Stephen’s Basilica (climb up for incredible city views). The Hungarian Parliament building is a magnificent sight in itself. Be sure to take pictures from the front, back, across the river, and at night. Also, check out the shoes on the Danube bank as you stroll along the river. I’d recommend keeping some time aside to trek up to Gellért Hill for beautiful views of Budapest.

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Liberty Statue

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View of Budapest from Gellért Hill

Next, I took a RegioJet (again!) from Budapest to Vienna. Ah, the German touch. You could feel it as soon as you enter Austria. Vienna was also the most expensive among the 4 cities, although nowhere near as Western Europe.

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St. Stephen’s Cathedral

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Karlskirche

It’s no wonder why Austria constantly features among the best places to live. The city had an atmosphere unlike I had ever seen before. I met one of my friends who had arrived from India and was doing her own “backpacking across Europe”. One evening, as we set off to experience the nightlife, we were greeted by two complete strangers, who led us to this street party with a very relaxed vibe. Apparently, that night, playing music outdoors was permitted and under every bridge along the river, we found a makeshift DJ setup and pop-up beer and street food vendors. Almost everyone who was passing by stopped, forgot about their destination, and joined in to dance. Literally one of the most enjoyable nights of my life.

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Belvedere

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For my stay, I booked an AirBnB. It was an extremely neat and well maintained place hosted by a Korean family. I cannot post (find) the link as it appears that they don’t host anymore.

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Schönbrunn Palace

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Must see sights include Schönbrunn Palace (climb up the hill for amazing views), the Belvedere (be sure to check out the sprawling lawns behind), St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Museumsquartier (they had an open air music and food festival on that day), Karlskirche (even though they will try to convince you otherwise, it is not worth climbing up to the top) and Hundertwasserhaus, the organic and colourful apartment. Oh, and don’t forget to try the Weiner Schnitzel with beer!

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Hundertwasserhaus

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The last leg of my trip was Bratislava. Ever since I watched the movie Eurotrip, I had always wondered whether Bratislava was actually as gloomy as it was portrayed. Turns out, it was an over-exaggeration (I still love the movie though). Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, is a tiny and charming city. There might not be much to do or see, but I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy your time there.

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Čumil

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Blue Church

I started off with another free walking tour, where we were divided into two groups to keep it manageable for all parties involved, something that I really appreciated. The guides were entertaining and knowledgeable (ours was really pretty as well – Soňa), and we got a good lesson in history. The prices are rock bottom here compared to other cities, so I indulged in a bit more. The best deal I got was on a really cheap bottle of pure Absinthe, which is not available for sale in France. I stayed at Hostel Blues, which claims to be the best hostel in Bratislava (or perhaps Slovakia), and rightly so. Perfect location, super friendly staff and fantastic cleanliness. No complaints whatsoever. I forgot to mention that all of these hostels had pub crawls and tie-ups with walking tours, which is always an excellent deal and an opportunity to meet people from around the globe.

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The climb to Bratislava Castle

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Must see attractions include the Church of St. Elisabeth (also known as the Blue Church), the Bratislava Castle (climb to the top), Čumil the Man at Work (there are some pretty interesting stories about him floating around) and the UFO tower (visit the top viewing deck for amazing views. You can see three countries from up there). Take some time out and trek your way up to the Slavín War Memorial. This beautifully designed area didn’t have a lot of visitors when I arrived, and offered amazing views and tranquility. You’ll find innumerable statues all across the streets of Bratislava. I still remember walking around the city and finally getting that much needed break I was dying for. On my way back, I took the direct RegioJet route from Bratislava to Lyon.

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Slavín

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View of Bratislava from the UFO tower viewing deck

Maybe this wasn’t as flashy or exciting as the “backpacking trips across Europe” you’d see or hear or read about all over. But I do know this. It was one of the most memorable and refreshing breaks of my life, and I’d do it all over again. Cities like Bratislava remain underrated when compared to Paris, Amsterdam or Berlin. However, if you’re looking for a good time without burning a hole in your pocket, Central Europe is the place to be.

Total Cost of Travel: €83.5 (Lyon -> Prague -> Budapest -> Vienna -> Bratislava -> Lyon)

Total Cost of Stay: €85 (for 6 nights)

Adi

Luxembourg, Netherlands and Denmark

Country Counter: 10, 11, 12          

Cities Visited: Luxembourg City, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Christiania Freetown

Timeframe: May 2016

My parents decided to come visit me and my sister in Europe this May. Since she and I have both been traveling, it was hard to come up with a place we all hadn’t visited before. And that is the answer to the question people keep asking me – Why Luxembourg? Turns out, it’s a great place. The city (and the country) is small, tiny if I compare it to my home, and if you’re up for a good walk, most of the places can be covered on foot. My sister arrived a day before on a Sunday, and found out that public transportation is free on Sundays. The AirBnb we booked was large and comfy for the four of us, and right next to the central station (Tip: always stay near the station. It has the best connectivity). As a habit, I had Googled ‘things to do in Luxembourg’ before arrival, and marked most of the places on Google Maps.

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Grund

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Bock Casemates

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Gëlle Fra – the monument of remembrance

My parents are always up for a good walk whenever they are on an international trip. My mom says walking is healthy but they can’t exercise in New Delhi, which if you’ve been following the papers, has recently been named the most polluted city in the world. My parents keep stressing the fact that they’d love their children to find work abroad, but with all that’s going on in the world now, things are not looking optimistic. That is the reason why I had not caught up with my writing.

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Fort Thüngen and Mudam

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The ‘seat’ of the EU outside the parliament

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EU member flags outside the parliament

We covered most of the points via Hop On, Hop Off buses and on foot, except the Vianden Castle, which is a must visit just for its sheer magnificence, perched on top of a hill (a 30-minute train ride from the city and then 15 minutes by bus.) The neighbourhood of Grund is beautiful from the bridges above, especially if seen during sunrise or sunset. After covering a few spots, I insisted we check out some places I had listed, but were not on the Hop On Hop Off route. We ended up walking for an hour and discovered tons of beautiful monuments and country side scenery. Luxembourg literally looked empty, even though I’m sure it has its own population. For us Indians, walking on the streets there was like being in a post-apocalyptic world. I’m glad though that my parents got some time off. They worked hard their entire life to put me and my sister through college abroad and they’ve always craved for exploring open empty places like this.

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Vianden Castle

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Our next stop was Amsterdam. This was my second visit to the Netherlands, the last time being in December 2015, around Christmas. The sunny weather was a delight, hence. My first impression of the Netherlands was a bit of a shock. I knew the name literally means ‘the land below’, but I didn’t know I’d be greeted with plenty of rain and strong winds. And when I say strong, I mean if you just stand at one spot with your arms out, the wind will move you forward. No need to use your own energy. I guess I see why the obsession with windmills now. The last time I stayed in Delft with a friend, and did the daily commute to Amsterdam (Fun Fact: you can cross the Netherlands within three hours by train.)

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I Amsterdam’ sign behind Rijksmuseum

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Canals at the Red Light District

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Heineken Brewery

Although Rijksmuseum is among the world top 10 and impressive in its own right, I had just arrived from the Louvre. The entire tour was long, but nothing compared to what I had done a few days ago. You can find Picasso’s most famous works there, and the ‘I Amsterdam’ sign behind the museum (exit) is clichéd but worth a visit (although you’ll never have a chance to find it empty for that perfect picture). A visit to the Red Light District was suggested. When people mention the area, they are all giggly, but once you visit, the things you see make you feel sadder than aroused. Although prostitution is legal, the condition these women live in is deplorable. To have to spend hours at end in tiny cubicles with a display window and have people walk by and stare is something which made me deeply empathize with them.

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Singel canal

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Colourful houses near Amsterdam Centraal

It also amazed me to see how much the society has progressed. We keep mentioning that marijuana and hash are available in Coffee Shops, you can pay your driving coach with sex instead of money (and you’ll get a receipt as well) etc, and that is why Amsterdam is a must visit if you’re from a country with restrictions. What we fail to see is how the people and society have an unspoken moral code. The laws could easily lead to abuse and misuse, but a quick Google search will tell you that the country has one of the lowest crime and incarceration rates and one of the highest standards of living. Like I’ve been mentioning before, it’s the people who need to change if a country is to change.

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Parents at Keukenhof

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Beautiful and well maintained canals, surrounded by vivid, colourful houses, make up the majority of the scene. With my family, we visited the Keukenhof gardens, home to the largest production of Tulips (look up Tulip Fever for more history). My favourite spot was the Heineken Experience (of course). This was my first time in a brewery.

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Nyhavn

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Børsen (Børsbygningen) – historic 17th-century stock exchange

Our next and final stop was Copenhagen, Denmark. Since our first stop was Luxembourg, we couldn’t find cheap tickets to visit other countries via Luxembourg. Another travel tip I’d like to recommend is to locate the nearest ‘big’ city. For us, it was Brussels. Instead of visiting Amsterdam directly from Luxembourg, we came via Brussels, which took 3 hours more but was half as expensive. Similarly, for Copenhagen, we didn’t fly via Amsterdam, but came back to Brussels and took Ryanair. It’s amazing how lost cost airlines are capitalizing on the no-frills travellers’ needs. The airline has connectivity to almost all major Western European city, at amazing fares. The only downside is you’ll have to reach the smaller airports to catch the flights, which are comparatively less easy to access.

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The Little Mermaid

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Christiania Freetown

Denmark was pleasant during our visit (16 degrees) and delightfully fresh. Again, we were well served with Hop On Hop Off buses plying on three different lines and covering most of the tourist spots. First on my ‘things to see’ list was Nyhavn, which is arguably the most popular tourist spot in Denmark. Bright, colourful houses and shops line the harbour and the best time to visit is around sunset or sunrise. The ice-cream stalls at Nyhavn are also worth a try. One of the routes had Christiania marked on it and upon the recommendation by a tour guide, we decided to check out the place. At the entrance, you are greeted with a huge sign which says Christiania on the front, and clearly mentions that you are about to exit the European Union at the back. Inside, numerous tinker shops greet you and the ‘residents’ warn you not to take pictures, albeit in a friendly way. There I was, thinking to myself, how I turned a trip with my parents into a weed, hash and marijuana fest. First Amsterdam, now this. Things got a bit more awkward when I suggested that the next stop should the Carlsberg brewery. I don’t think I even looked into my dad’s eye when I mentioned it. Oh boy, the joys of growing up in India!

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The Black Diamond (Royal Danish Library)

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Carlsberg bottle outside a gas station

I got the chance to read up on Denmark’s history before the trip. Apart from the wars and the Vikings and all the bad things, there were also numerous achievements in architecture and society. Each and every building looked like something out of an old fairy tale, well preserved to this age. Notable mentions include the Church of our Saviour (with a corkscrew ladder on its exterior), Frederiksborg Castle (my favourite façade), Børsen, Black Diamond, Kronborg Castle famous for Hamlet (situated on an island of sorts) and the like. Hard to miss if you’re not paying attention, the Weather Girls at Town Hall was really the icing on the cake. An intricate structure to tell the weather made in 1936 by Einar Utzon-Frank, the platform rotates to display a golden girl on a bicycle when it is sunny, and rotates to the other end to display a golden girl with an umbrella walking her dog when it is raining. We could feel why the Danes always rank among the top in terms of quality of life. During our cruise, and this was a weekday, we could see hundreds of Danes sitting outside, enjoying the sun, drinking Carlsberg and merry-making. They raised their bottles as we passed by and cheered us with the traditional ‘skål’, which we later found out was a war cry used by the Vikings when they used to behead someone.

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Frederiksborg Castle

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Church of our Saviour

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The Weather Girls

All in all, visiting these three countries was an unforgettable trip, and having our parents with us just made it more memorable. A week after I returned, I embarked on another ‘long’ trip and I shall try to find time to write about that as soon as possible. My goal of visiting as many countries as possible, as mentioned in my first post, is becoming more difficult by the day, with countries shutting out foreigners and visa regimes becoming strict. However, I still keep a positive outlook. Fingers Crossed!

Thank you for stopping by.

Adi

Germany and Belgium

Country Counter: 8, 9          

Cities Visited: Frankfurt, Heidelberg, Brussels, Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp

Timeframe: Dec 2012

2012 was quite an eventful year. The year started with me graduating from my Masters program (no more studies, I rejoiced). My parents celebrated their 25th anniversary in May, which kept me busy for a month. I landed my first job in June and moved to Mumbai, among other things. It was my first time in Europe and, as I mentioned in my first blog post, the first time I witnessed snowfall. I purchased my first digital camera right before the trip and was still getting used to it. It was also the year when I had decided to get an unnecessary surgery performed on myself, so I had to limp and skimp throughout the euro-trip with 14 stitches on me.

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Frankfurt is one of the only four direct destinations in Europe which are accessible by Air India from Delhi. We had been through a lot of ‘mis-adventures’ whenever we took connecting flights (more on that later). My father had already been to Frankfurt three times and he found the German way of doing things quite impressive. Hence we chose the city for our first trip to Europe as a family. While booking our hotels, we stumbled upon the best rates, but as nobody understood German in our family, we ended up booking our stay in the red-light district. It wasn’t so bad, especially for me, but I could sense that my father was trying to steer us away from the ‘obvious attractions’ of the place, lest my mother starts judging him for poor decision making skills!

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On our first morning there, we woke up to heavy snowfall and everything was covered in white. Buildings all around had been decorated with a lot of creative stuff, like live models of Spiderman and Santa Claus. The Bockenheimer Warte station is also a must see. On my first glance from a speeding bus, I really thought one of the trains had a bad accident.

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Heidelberg Castle

Not knowing where to start, we booked a day trip from Frankfurt which included Heidelberg and the Rhine Valley. Before the Rhine Valley tour, there was an excellent wine tasting session offered by the tour operators, at a very cosy and charming restaurant. When the instructor was educating us about their wines and their production, she kept mentioning to the group not to gulp down the entire contents of the glass. After three iterations, she grew tired of saying “sip it, roll it, and let it go inside slowly” to some of the tourists, so she let them proceed anyway. My mom was giving me puzzling looks – “why do we have to roll it on our tongues? Can’t we just drink the wine and get it over with?” No amount of explanation could make her believe that wine tasting is actually an art here, and not an alcoholic pastime.

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Marksburg Castle viewed from the Rhine River

The Rhine Valley tour was conducted on an elegant power boat, complete with restaurant style seating for all the guests. The colourful houses on the river banks really stood out among all the white (picture). On the way, you get a glimpse of the wonderful Marksburg Castle atop a hill and the tour ends in the town of Rudesheim. Next stop, Heidelberg. An 80 KM drive leads you to what is often described as Germany’s most beautiful city. The bridge on the river Neckar provides amazing views of the castle, perched on a hill (in picture) and the castle boasts of having the world’s largest wine barrel (193 litres).

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Euro sign outside the European Central Bank in Frankfurt am Main

While my parents were off to sleep at night, I would go out and explore the neighbourhood by myself. This was my first time in Europe and the city was beautifully lit up during the night. As I passed by the numerous strip clubs, the local ‘managers’ tried to lure me in with a friendly smile. “Hello sir, where are you from? Oh India. Why don’t you come on in and have a pint of beer? 5 Euros.” As much as I would have loved to, I didn’t go in as any kind of ‘excitement’ would hamper the stitches and my recovery from the surgery. In the end, I ended up waiting outside a coffee place, leaning against a wall and a call girl started speaking to me, in French. When I told her I’d love to join her but can’t, using my rusty French, she started shouting and telling me to move away from the place as I was ‘ruining her chances of getting other clients.’ What a night!

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As much as I was enjoying my time, the fact that I didn’t speak German annoyed me a bit. Sure, English comes in handy almost all the time, but not being able to understand what locals around me were constantly talking about was a bit disarming at times. That’s why when we entered Belgium, I breathed a little easy. All around I could see signs of French, a language I was familiar with.

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Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp

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We stayed in a hotel just minutes from St. Mary’s Royal Church, which loomed over the entire neighbourhood. We spent the first day exploring the city. I especially liked the Atomium, being a science nerd, which is shaped like a unit cell of an Iron crystal, magnified 165 billion times! Nearby, the headquarters of the European Commission had a large banner hanging in front noting that the European Union was the recipient of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. At the centre of the Royal Square, there is a statue of Godfrey of Bouillon, who was the leader of the first crusade in 1096 and is considered a hero.

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The Atomium

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Headquarters of the European Commission

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Statue of Godfrey of Bouillon on the Brussels Royal Square

For the next two days, we booked day trips. The first one covered Bruges and Ghent, a UNESCO World Heritage city. Notable mentions are St. Bavo’s Cathedral and the Gravensteen castle. We walked to Graslei, one of the most beautiful medieval ports in Ghent. The second trip was towards Antwerp. The plaza outside the Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp was packed with people as it was a Sunday. It is located right opposite to Het Steen, which has a statue depicting a giant looking down at tiny mortals and scaring them. I don’t know why I found that really fascinating.

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With dad outside Gravensteen castle in Ghent

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Graslei

This was also around the time when I was getting frustrated about a few things in my life. For one, all my friends were abroad, studying or working, and they could easily access places like this. For me, being the traveller I am, this wasn’t enough. One international trip every two years just wasn’t quite cutting it, even though I was really grateful and appreciated what my parents did for us. As we rested outside the Cathedral in Antwerp, I saw a few students standing a few feet away from us. One of them seemed strangely familiar. Before I could recall who and how, she saw me, came running towards and ended up hugging me in front of my mom, which I found a bit embarrassing. Turns out, we used to be in the same class in school, and we got enrolled in the same university for our undergraduate degree in Chemistry, a subject that I adored. I didn’t continue though, and instead ‘chose’ to undertake engineering while she pursued our common love. I hadn’t seen her for six years and although I was really happy, I felt angry at myself for not taking enough steps to do what I wanted and loved, including studying abroad. That meeting left a profound impact on me and ever since I returned home, I started my two year long journey which has helped me reach where I am today. Looking back, I realise had I not met my friend in Belgium, I would’ve become too lazy to leave my comfort zone back home.

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Statue of the giant Lange Wapper at the entrance of Het Steen in Antwerp

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Like I said, 2012 was quite an eventful year for me. It was prophesized that the world would end on December the 21st and I was really looking forward to some Hollywood-style action in my life, but sadly everyone I hate is still alive.

Adi