2017, a good year for travel

Cities Visited: Stuttgart, Brussels, Zurich, Lauterbrunnen, Lyon

Timeframe: September to December 2017

This was originally supposed to be an end of the year post, but no matter. Here’s wishing everyone who is reading this a very happy new year, filled with success and good health.

I usually write about a country in every post, but the second half of 2017 went by in a whirlwind. I didn’t have time to explore a new place, so I tried to fulfill long time visit commitments made to my friends. The year started pretty good, especially with Ireland in April. September saw me embark on my first trip for work to Stuttgart, where I decided to extend the one-day client visit into a weekend opportunity.

When I asked around about the things to do/see/eat, everyone gave me a mellow response. “Stuttgart? Why?”, “It’s just an old manufacturing city” and the like. When I arrived, the first thing that struck me was how it was (relatively) difficult to ask for directions in English. Being a German city, I assumed everybody, more or less, would speak a bit of English, but I was slightly frustrated at the train and metro stations. I even tried to find a French speaker, which is improving daily, but to no avail. After finally figuring out which platform and train to take, I reached my destination. I stayed near the main university campus, on the outskirts of town. The area was really peaceful and had an unmatched view (behind the student residences). My AirBnB host was kind enough to wait for me even though I reached late.

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I had already marked all the sights to visit on my map. However, upon reaching the city centre, a pleasant surprise awaited me. That weekend was the first of the Cannstatter Volksfest, Stuttgart’s answer to Munich’s beer festival, and the second largest. I had been planning to visit Munich during Oktoberfest, but something or the other always kept coming up, so this was quite the lucky stroke. The area was not as crowded as you’d expect, and had plenty of options to do, eat and drink, alcohol or otherwise. It was originally meant to be for families. However, with the popularity of Oktoberfest, they installed beer tents to attract part of that crowd. The atmosphere was vibrant, with people singing and dancing all around. There are, of course, no empty places or tables to sit at, unless reserved in advance.

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Being a car enthusiast, and being in the cradle of the automobile industry, and being in the city to meet an automotive client, my next stop was surely the car museums: Porsche and Mercedes Benz. Both would satisfy any car fan’s ultimate dream. Exclusive models, vintage cars, and new age technologies were merged into perfect symphony. The Mercedes Benz museum was quite well designed. The lobby had an elevator which takes people to the top floor to start the tour. The elevator looked like something straight out of a futuristic spaceship, and made zero noise, even with tons of people inside.

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After Stuttgart, I decided to hop off to Brussels for a weekend. I had been to city previously, but had always been with family and on a strict itinerary. So when my friend from Lyon asked me to come over, I took the bus from Paris after work and reached on Friday night. We spent the next two days just casually walking around with no plan. Brussels is as walkable as Paris, but being smaller, it is highly convenient as well. We ran into a shop that sells holiday and party-themed trinkets, where we all bought fake hair for Halloween parties. We discovered a great Irish pub, where we kept coming back. We, evidently, ran into a museum-cum-gift shop dedicated entirely to Tin Tin. To top it all, my AirBnB was one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen. The host was a chef and an artist. The entire house reminded me of those quirky but deceptively intriguing and fascinating apartments artists own in movies based in Europe.

In November, my best friend from school, who now lives in Switzerland, reminded me of my commitment to him as well. And so I was off again. Since the place where he lives, a nice, tiny village called Lauterbrunnen, was not directly accessible (from anywhere), I had to arrive in Zurich first. I again took this opportunity and kept one day extra at hand to explore the city. Keeping aside the fact that it is one of the most expensive cities in the world, the place is wonderful. The people are wonderful. The atmosphere is great. And the best part was, I could check out the entire city within 2-3 hours, on foot!

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On my second day, I checked out of my hostel early in the morning and took the guided tour to Jungfrau(joch). This has, arguably, been the highlight of my 2017. I remember studying about Europe and Jungfrau in our geography lessons in school, back in the late 90s. Ever since then, Jungfrau has been on my bucket list. The price of the tour (around 200 Euros) was a bit steep, but I can assure you, as have many others in their reviews on their website, that the tour is definitely worth it. It is a comfortably paced tour with ample time at each destination, and is a must visit if you are visiting Eastern Switzerland. It also helped that our group was very open, friendly, chatty, and our guide, Valerie, was great. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to so many people in a month in France, as I did on that day in Zurich.

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The tour passes via Sachlen Tunnel, one of the longest in Switzerland and Lungern, the geographical centre of Europe. It was November so the weather was not exactly kind, but I’ve always found such settings more alluring. One of the stretches on the road was particularly memorable. Imagine a route packed with fog and laden with snow from the previous night. Then, all of a sudden, the sun comes out and pierces through the fog, while reflecting on the half melted snow. It was truly magical, and yes, I know I did not do a very good job of describing it. It was one of those “you had to be there to see it” moments.

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On our way down, I got off at Lauterbrunnen and did not head back to Zurich with the others. My friend and his wife picked me up from the station. My first impression was of a cosy, ski village nestled in a valley. The nearest main station is Interlaken, where most of the jobs are located as well. This brings all the dwellers from above down the valley to work, and back up in the evening. A deal filled with stunning scenery I wouldn’t mind having someday.

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On our first day, we went tobogganing down from Wengen. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had on snow (I don’t ski). While it took some time to get a hang of the steering and the braking, I emerged out as quite the professional! The path starts from the top where you have the entire North Face, including Eiger and Jungfrau, in your background.

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As with every ski station, there are always a few local bars where everyone from the community meets in the evening. The bar was right next to my friend’s place, AND it had a waterfall in the backyard. I mean, can you imagine a more perfect setting than having a waterfall right in your backyard?

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This just makes me want to pack up everything and head over there!

Finally, in December, I headed back to my second-home, Lyon, for a weekend. While in Brussels, my friend and I had decided to organise a small networking session amongst different MBA cohorts. We were expecting a small turnout, but received an overwhelming response. This involved a lot of planning from a distance, as neither of us stays in Lyon anymore. All in all, the event went without hiccups, and gave me another chance to drop by in Lyon before saying goodbye to 2017.

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I hope this year brings the same spirit of adventure, opportunities and ambience for me, and I wish you all the same as well.

Thank you for stopping by.

Adi

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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