Sunday, June 22, 2014

Europa! (Part Three) - Paris - Adventure, Exploration Unlimited

Paris is still fresh in our memory. The reason is that it was the last stop before we got back home. But by the end of the fifth day there, we almost owned it. There was a sense of familiarity-we felt so at home. The first day was as if we were thrown to an alien land our eyes blindfolded and our mouths scotch-taped. But by the last day, we felt we were leaving, only to be coming back soon. Gare du Nord, Chatelet Les Halles, Porte d'Italie, Chalet, Tolbiac...the names we had never even heard before, now keep ringing in our ears, bringing 'nostalgic' smiles on our faces.

So, we were in Paris for 4 nights and 5 days. The first 2 hours were almost 'traumatic'. With all our luggage, we confidently strode into the Metro from the Charles de Gaul Airport, thinking, all we need to do was just hop on and hop off to get to the hotel. But that was not it. If managing the luggage was hard enough, we had to change trains. No elevators. Only stairs. And a few escalators. While the hubby and junior managed, I found myself bumping, bungling my way through the escalators (I have a bit of a 'escalophobia' yes, that's the word for my fear of escalators). Hubby helped me with most of the luggage but even a handbag and a backpack felt like a thousand tonnes. The second station went miles and miles and miles. Hundreds of strange new faces around us, confidently zipping their way through the station. A zillion thoughts in my head, "oh, am I in the way of these people?", "what will they think of me?" "what will they think of Indians?" And finally the big question amid copious tears, "why are we even here? we should have gone back home from Zurich."
The trains stop at each Metro for just about 3 seconds before a scary sounding  beep would go off and the doors would close. So we were cautious, ready and quickly got off at our station, Place d'Italie. Now how do we get to the hotel? As we were standing there and figuring out the maps, avoiding eye-contact with the flower-seller who first tried to sell his flowers, then kept staring at us and then repeatedly asked us where we wanted to go. We somehow got out of the dark dungeons of the underground metro and saw day-light (yes there was still some light at 9 pm). We tried figuring our way ourselves - ignorant people are the best victims of con men, you see. We did ask a few people too. No con men luckily but most of them didn't know where Hotel IBIS was or the address or English. There was even a very drunk couple (around 60-70 yrs old!) trying to help us. After 30 minutes of search, a very sweet family who were also there on a holiday whipped out their cellphone and with the help of Google Maps informed us that we had got off at the wrong station! We had got off at Place d'Italie but we should have got off at Porte d'Italie!! How the hell were we supposed to figure that out in 3 seconds, amidst all the anxiety?
A young boy helped us. (maybe Asian? When you are in a foreign land, your eyes keep searching for familiar looking skin-tones. To your mind, even a Spaniard or a Mexican looks Indian.) He was on the same bus that we took to get to the hotel. We got off at the bus stop he told us to. He took us to the map that was fixed on a street corner. He apologetically informed us that we should have got off at least 3 stops earlier. Now what? Walk back! It was already 10:00 pm. We walked and walked and walked. Finally reached the rather small hotel, which was all closed and packed for the day. No restaurant. No room-service. We would think of that later. We first wanted to just dump the luggage in the room. The room...aha! more than 50 square feet. The tiniest hotel room I have seen all my life. Baby cribbing. Hubby cribbing. He was bent up on vacating immediately but it was 10:30 in the night dammit. We decided to wait till morning. It was finally 11 pm when we stepped out into the chill air to grab some food in a restaurant. The first stop was an extremely seedy looking Tuscan restaurant outside the hotel. More of a tavern. We heaved a sigh of relief when the waitress-with-too-much-make up-on squarely said, "sorry no vegetharian". We quickly darted across the road to another 'Italian' place - nice and warm, with some great food. The biggest blessing of the harrowing day was our baby. She was extremely co-operative. Walked all those miles without a single whine. Stayed hungry without a tear. As if she understood it all.
Phew! That was Day 1. Day 2 was great. We moved into the more expensive but lovely Novotel (thanks to some timely assistance by my brother-in-law). And as if by magic, everything started falling in place...and I started falling in love. A lot of lessons learnt (which I want to share sometime here).

State of mind on day 1: "Oh I hate Paris. We shouldn't have come here."
And now: "Oh I can't wait to go back there some day."

Europa! (Part Three): Paris!

A wonderful city loaded with oomph, charm and charisma!

Our visit was just a sampler as it were, of this lavish spread of beauty and magnitude.

I think the best thing we (rather my husband did) was to pick up a five day pass through the Metro line in the city - the RER (the underground Metro) as soon as we landed. What an amazing connectivity! What surprises me is that the entire Metro system is so organised and standardised that it becomes completely reliable. For instance, take the train routes - each route is colour coded. Now where ever you look for a particular route, the font, the size, the colour everything remains just that. Absolutely no confusion.

So, after a harrowing first evening and the unsettling morning, our first 'sight seeing trip' was to Eiffel Tower. A truly grand assemblage of iron and steel. I never imagined it would be huge. (I couldn't help remember scenes from Queen). The moment we stepped in, it started raining and how! The heaviest rainfall in the season perhaps. Not just rain, the gusty and chilly winds just blew our minds out. All tourists were huddled at Level 2. So were we...sipping hot coffee and taking in the most amazing views from the very top. We unfortunately couldn't do much because of the rain. Also our baby, who was extremely patient and co-operative till this point started showing signs of weariness and homesickness. She wanted potatoes and ladies finger and nothing else. Now where do we find that in Paris? People had told us of Saravana Bhavan but we had no idea where it was. So we walked around looking for it. While we were walking, we passed by a FOREX shop and I thought I saw an Indian - a South Indian, a Tamilian to be precise. Like I said in another post, when you are desperate, even a Mexican starts looking like your countryman. But we still retraced our steps. And politely asked the gentleman, "Would you know where Restaurant Saravana Bhavan is?" He looked up and asked "Tamil pesuveengala?" Those were the sweetest words I had heard in a long time. I could hear Thavils and Sivakasi pattasu in the background. We eagerly replied in Tamil and he sweetly wrote down the train routes and off we went profusely thanking him. The little one who has always smirked at the mention of Saravan Bhavan in Chennai was jumping with joy. We finally reached the place after changing 2 trains. What do we see? A tiny T Nagar, with everything from 'Annachi Kadai' to 'Thanga Maaligai' to 'Anjappar'. And of course Saravana Bhavan. We got back to hotel with silly grins pasted on our faces. Food wasn't great but yet, we were pleased.

The next day, we headed to the famed Notre Dame. We weren't actually very keen on seeing exactly one place or the places listed in the 'must-see' list. We just wanted to explore. We stopped at street corners. We admired the roads. We gawked at the Palaces. We asked someone the directions for Notre Damme. But we found ourselves at the Saint Chapel instead. We didn't mind much. Its a chapel housing the most intricate stained glass paintings depicting scenes from the Bible. Beautiful!

That morning, we had looked up children's parks on the internet and found a place called Jardin d'Acclimation, one of the oldest amusement parks for children. So off we went. It's such a beautiful park with everything that a child would want. A zoo, an aquarium, plenty of space to run and play, a farm kind of a corner with all kinds of farm animals and huge sand pits, wooden houses, pine name it. Yes, there were rides and games too but as it was almost the end of the day, they weren't functional. (We weren't interested either!) There wasn't an whiff of commercialism about the place. If there is someone visiting Paris with children, I would definitely recommend this place. A great place to rest those tired touristy feet while your children get a break from seeing old building and statues which really don't mean much to them. Our moody little one shrugged at the Eiffel and said, "Its just a steel building. What's so great about it?". And at the Louvre, with a roll of the eyes"Oh, they are just drawings and paintings.". So you know what I mean!

Day three was important. On the agenda was Disneyland! Its been a month since we got back but I still see it in my dreams. It just transports you into a world of fantasies and fairies. Everybody knows about Disneyland. The lesser said the better. Unforgettable!

The last day. We made quick visit to the quick that I was almost in tears when I left it. We had a flight to catch that evening. So much to see. One needs at least  3-4 days, if not one week to take in all the wonderful pieces of art. I only feel the object on display needs to be labelled in English along with a little note about it. There is an audio guide but I its more useful for those who have time and the extra 7-12 euro to spare. And like a lot of people have told me before, Monalisa was a disappointment. Neither can you get up close and personal with her nor can you appreciate her beauty even from a distance. Such is the crowd there.

So, our almost 15 day trip to Europe came to an end. Three countries. Four cities. I was charmed by Florence but felt a sense of belonging in Paris. Probably that was the only city, we really 'lived' and 'explored' on our own. A regular traveller would call us lazy. Apart from Disneyland, we didn't have a major itinerary. We woke up late. Never stepped out before 11 am. We got to observe people on our journeys on the Metro. I'm sure we'd be scolded by friends for not visiting this or that place. I think by being laid-back, we were able to soak-in the real feel of the city. And I am glad.  I know I am going back to Paris. When and how, I don't know, but when I do, I know it is going to be a homecoming of sorts.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Horn NOT Okay Please!

picture courtesy:

We often complain about the incessant and unnecessary use of horns on our roads. Honking is a sign of impatience and lack of disrespect to the other road users. 

Don't you think so?

*Nobody enjoys hanging around on the road even after the signal turns green. It might take a second or two for their vehicle to get started. Give them that time.

*Horns are exchanged in place of swear words when motorists fight on the road. The louder, the worse! 

*Drivers of bigger vehicles use it as a bullying technique to nudge smaller vehicles out of their way.

picture courtesy:

I feel if we all collectively introspect, we might be able to break this annoying habit. Why don't we try this. 
Let's ask ourselves, "For every 15-minute drive, how many times did I honk? And why? Was it really necessary?"
Let's avoid using the horn unless we want to avoid danger. 

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Europa! (Part Two) - Viva la Italia!

After an awesome stay at Zurich, our next stop was Florence. A whopping 500+ kilometers by road, impressively managed by my brother-in-law. Though right at the start we were stopped by a dutiful cop who stopped us for ignoring a rather inconspicuous 'one-way' sign. We knew bribing wouldn't work. So coughed up a heavy fine and proceeded on our way. With due respect to the men in the car, their anxiety and the time and money lost, I must say the cop was extremely good looking (I only thought about it but my daughter loudly mentioned it!)

Anyway, so off we went. The journey was smooth, relaxed and interesting. Excellent roads. Amazing tunnels. The roads did take a 'toll' on our budget, though.

At Florence, we stayed in a small and quiet town called Bagno a Ripoli. With Florence as the base we made day-trips to Lucca/Pisa and Rome.

Day 2: As I have always heard, the entrance to the area within which the Leaning Tower is located is absolutely unassuming. But the moment you enter it, the entire square, with its cathedral, baptistery and
of course the Leaning Tower is breathtaking. These magnificent whitish-cream structures are offset by lush green lawns. The Leaning Tower just stands there like a moody hero - valiantly defying gravity. You just can't your eyes off it. Just how does it stand that way? Amazing! I learnt later that there are a few more towers like that in the world a few accidental and a few man-made. After clicking a few quintessential touristy pictures, we moved to the walled city of Lucca.

Lucca. This is one of cities I will never forget and would want to visit again. I don't know what, but there is some vibe that I felt as soon as I moved from the exterior part of the town to the walled area. The walls (dating back to the 15-16 C) don't just guard this town. They guard history, tradition and heritage. The cool air is thick with pride. It resonates culture. Probably the lack of the usual touristy crowd gave that special feeling about this place. So to speak, there isn't much to 'see' here. At least, you have a choice. The promenade has lawns for you to just 'be' and do nothing. I felt so drawn to it that I just didn't feel like leaving it.

Just one of the beauties
We had to rush out Lucca reluctantly as we had just one evening to visit Firenze (Florence city). Ah! The historic center of Firenze! What do I say? Is it for real? Someone might as well have just assembled settings of a couple of breathtaking buildings, some mind blogging statues, a romantic bridge and said, here you go. "the model of a dream city". How can one small area possibly contain so much art and history? Though I was spellbound by this unique place, I couldn't help thinking, didn't this place go through wars/ industrialisation / modernisation / urbanisation? How do they do this? Buildings contstructed 100s of years ago remain intact! No wonder it is a UNESCO protected heritage site. Imagine the effort the government and the people must be taking to preserve it. Having read so much about this place, I was saddened to realise that I all that I saw
was only a small fraction of this magnificent city. At least I am glad I could spend a few precious moments by the most amazing 'old bridge'. As I gazed into the glittering waters of River Arno by the setting sun, I thought of all the glorious people of yore who placed art above everything else in life and lived life like a dream.

Day 3: We headed to Rome with mixed feelings of anticipation and anxiety. We had heard horror stories of it being over-crowded, yet didn't have the heart to give it a miss. So we drove, parked and walked. The Vatican was our first stop. We walked around the square. Didn't brave the serpentine queue to the Sistine Chapel. We then moved visited the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum before calling it a day. It might've been the oppressing heat, the milling crowds or the tight itinerary but the city of Rome somehow didn't capture my imagination. But I must say, the only word that comes to my mind when I think of Rome is 'grandeur'.

Streets of Rome
The Colosseum

Day 4: After spending a couple of hours in a sweet little town called Greve in Chianti, we headed to Venice.

Venice on the face of it, is a regular city-broad roads, busy, tall buildings and business establishments. This part is the mainland, where we stayed. We took a bus to the Lagoon Area. From the bus as we caught glimpses of a busy port and the water reminded me that we are actually headed to this famed city on water. When we climbed on the first bridge, it looked like a regular canal on a river. But as we walked on, we were totally amazed by how an entire town could stand on water. With hundreds of bridges, it functions just like any other city. We learnt from our Gondola oarsman (gondolier) that there are even Ambulance boats. That bit of trivia came, thanks to an inquisitive nephew who remembered to ask questions, while the grown-ups forgot everything else while gawking at this water wonderland. We spent two half days here and I am glad we split it up that way. The first half we just walked around and explored. The second half was reserved for the luxurious and expensive Gondola ride, well worth all the money and effort. Fortunately for us, our gondolier took us around the calmer, residential parts of Venice. A very relaxing and yet interesting experience it was. He said he did not want to take us through the crowded, touristy parts, claiming "eet ees tooo noiseeee". As we were crooning the inevitable song from the film Great Gambler, my mind (as always) went off wandering, wondering about these people and their unique life. I might want to write a story about someone living there...someday.

A Gondola (not ours)
Clothesline-how did they get it up there?
So this rich experience rounded off our Italian part of the journey. I left this legendary land, promising to return sometime.

Note: These pictures are owned by me. They might not be of much use but in case you want to use them, please check with me first.