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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
Headquarters of the European Commission
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.
With dad outside Gravensteen castle in Ghent
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.
Statue of the giant Lange Wapper at the entrance of Het Steen in Antwerp
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.