Friday, May 29, 2009

Day 15 : Da Vinci dreams

The last day of my grand tour had come up fast, we were to fly out of Zurich the next day. Everyone agreed to spend the last day in Rome again. We decided we would simply walk the streets with no major plan or urgency.

We got down at Barbareni and walked down first towards Trevi. Strangely I got reminded of 'The room with the view' as we walked the lively streets. It was very similar to the evening we walked the Champs Elysees - sort of drinking the local atmosphere. Despite the millions of tourists that must be descending on Rome, it seemed to retain the image of a living, breathing city unlike Venice.

Since I read 'Pompeii' I have been so intrigued with the concept of the ancient aqueducts and more than the fountain itself the idea that it stood at the end of an aqueduct fascinated me. The fountain is obviously a big tourist spot and I spent walking up and down enjoying the sculptures and the facade for quite a while. Neptune was majestic from whichever angle. I dutifully threw a coin, hoping to come back to Rome, before we left.

From Trevi, which was a relatively modern structure by Roman standards, I decided to walk in the direction of the Pantheon but took many diversions and bye lanes. One of them was the Piazza Colonna - this is the second of the many obelisks I saw in Rome. The Doric column was not plain and the intricate relief was a delight to zoom in on. Marcus Aurelius was one of the few human figures I saw on top of an obelisk, perhaps the only one. The il tempo office was an equally majestic building.

The Palazzo Montecitorio looked more like a museum or a hotel than a chamber of deputies and I spent some time gazing at the obelisk there. This one did not have relief work in the same detail as the other one, but was more interesting because of its scientific relevance. It is ironic that the restored column is not casting shadows similar to what the ancient romans would have seen.

The many Egyptian columns littering Rome brought to attention, the reach of the ancient Empire. I got reminded of the star trek episode where Kirk bemoans 'Would it have hurt us, I wonder, just to have gathered a few laurel leaves?'

We wandered the streets some more and after some time reached the Pantheon. I had read somewhere that the conversion of the Pantheon as a church was probably one of the reasons for its survival and I fervently thanked God for that. Agrippa or Hadrian, whoever built it the front columns and the pediments in itself sort of makes you stop. It was a warm sunny day and when I entered the Pantheon, light streaming from the oculus in the dome was disorienting. I stared at the oculus for quite some time and with the light dazing me I looked at the other sights in the interior in a haze. I had read the book Angels and Demons but had forgotten that Raphael's tomb was inside the Pantheon. Who could forget the beauty of his Sistine Madonna and the Madonna of the meadows. I stood for a few moments before the master's tomb.

Piazza della rotunda had its obelisk with a rather simple cross but was compensated by the fountain sculptures on the bottom. I spent some time sitting by the fountain. SR had his espresso shots and I followed now hooked on to the dark bitter liquid. We bought some souvenirs and relaxed on the side walk for some time watching the locals and the tourists.

Next stop was Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva, a particularly poignant stop - this is where, I had read, Galileo abjured his thesis. The obelisk was different, shorter than the rest for one, an elephant base for the other. Somehow I was not expecting an elephant and that too a rather cute one like that. "A strong mind is needed to support a solid knowledge" - I'd agree with that. I was amused by a few school children trying to climb to the base.

Our wanderings brought us to the monument to Vittorio Emanuele - I thought the nickname typewriter suited it quite well. We ended up spending quite a bit of time there, watching a bride and groom who were for some reason waiting on the sidewalk along with some guests. The square was large and walking along it was fun. We did not choose to go inside but instead just stayed in various spots of the sidewalk.

On our way towards the Forum, I got sidetracked into a museum. The sign outside said it was an exhibition on Da Vinci only this one had reproductions of his models. A quick poll later, three of us went in and SR and the others went to wander some more about the streets. The exhibits and the in deph analysis of his works were such a rare treat and by the time I came out I was so mentally exhausted!

Of course, I still wanted to go back to the Forum. So off we went, getting lost amidst the ruins. I could hear drum beats and battle cries, almost see Caesar and Cicero and Attila the Hun.

We arrived in the railway station late night to catch the train back to Zurich. There was a moment of anxiety when I had to hand over my passport. The train was quite comfortable and much to my surprise along with our passports we got a shot of coffee and muffin next morning.

We flew out of Zurich later that day, my heart filled with history and the influence of the western civilization.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Day 14 : Of merchants and moors

I must have read the words 'Queen of Adriatic' when I was about eleven accompanying a faded color picture of Venice - a town with no conventional streets, where you go by boat to get groceries. In those days glossy printed books with a lot of color pictures were not that common in our house owing to the money such things cost. I probably saw it in a bookstore in my hometown, called Higginbothams. Since then the romance of Venice has always been close to surface, the highpoint being the delightful movie Casanova capturing Venice in all its glory.

That morning from the point when the train rolled out of the Santa Maria Novella station, I repeated aloud all the stations lining our journey to Venezia Santa Lucia, the words rolling warmly off my tongue, as I gazed at the earthy tones of the scenes outside. As the train moved past Padua and Verona, I felt the words of Shakespeare accompanying me throughout. How many Shakespeare plays are set in Italy; I wondered why. Where art thou Romeo? Petruchio too, for that matter.

I have always felt the two plays set in Venice the most tragic, even more so than Romeo and Juliet. Othello and Merchant of Venice have more tragic figures and are darker than the rest. By the time I got down I was so lost thinking about Antonio and Iago that it was a jolt to see people in their modern attire.

The station was beautiful, the water lapping on the sides and I got my first glimpse of Venice. It was very similar to my feelings when I first saw Bath. It was real! Whatever that was there in artist renderings, picture postcards, period movies etc. is not just one small building somewhere but really the whole city. How could a whole city possibly be so cute?

We spent the next hour in a slow boat drifting across the grand canal taking pictures of various buildings. The buildings were elegant but did not seem like they were lived in. Many seemed like empty facades - a few refurbished and rebuilt shiny ones with bright green trees stood in contrast. It was certainly very touristy - with most people giving the impression they were there for short term - I wondered if there truly were locals or whether the whole town was an elaborate set. We drifted past smaller lanes admiring the buildings and finally deciding enough of the canals made our way to the Piazza San Marco.

No one mentioned the pigeons I thought, seeing the hundreds of pigeons on the way and in the piazza. We crossed St.Mark's lion into the square filled with tourists. There were musicians playing to the lunch crowd, human chatter filled the air and I could see why Napoleon called it the drawing room of Europe.

I first walked the length of the square, taking in the facade of the Doge's palace, imagining the bustle of bureaucracy, though something like that is hard to imagine here - everything seems to be in holiday mode.

I gazed around the various buildings, spent some time taking pictures of the campanile, the pigeons and the musicians, taking time to approach the Basilica. I wanted to savor the moment and was fully rewarded.

The Byzantine architecture with its domes, interior arches, the mosaic, the ceiling, the whole Mediterranean feel was a very unique experience. More than anything else, the Basilica is the best example of Venice's cosmopolitan nature. It somehow made it believable that a Shylock or an Othello lived in this town. For that matter Casanova too..

I made my way to the two columns - Lion of St.Mark as well as the one with St.Theodore and sat down enjoying the music drifting across and the sun on my face.

We slowly drifted to a by-lane and sitting by the water ate a large thin crust pizza. The afternoon wore off, sounds of water and voices speaking in Italian, occasional noise of a gondola filled the air and I felt la dolce vita.

We slowly walked the various streets in the general direction of the Rialto stopping often and a few time getting lost in one of the shops. I bought a small fridge magnet made like a venetian mask instead of opting for a real one and then determined to buy something of Muranno glass I spent time peering over various objects. Some of the vases were gaudy and not intricate, besides were above my price point and I kept my attention to the smaller pieces. I settled for some glass fruits and chocolates. I thought I was done but saw a beautiful set of frogs and a lady bug that I had to buy. Happily collecting my souvenirs, I wandered the streets admiring the scene and finally reached the Rialto. It grew late and I stood there lost in the scene before me.

Venezia, even the name was romantic! I sighed and leaned against the bridge. The cliched yet very real image of a gondola drifting on the smaller water lane against the evening sky and music from some window will remain in my memories for a very long time

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Day 13 : The importance of leaning

Next day morning saw us rise and shine early on under the warm Italian sun on our way to Pisa. Our travel was getting adventurous as most of it was unplanned by this time. I did not have a map, no tourist guides and when we landed in Pisa centrale no idea where to go. As we walked out SR spotted a group of nuns who looked like they were from Kerala and pushed me in their direction. Turns out they were from Nagerkoil and we had a pleasant conversation. Forgetting my purpose I spent the next few minutes happily interviewing them. They were serving in Pisa, many of them and visit home once a year or so, their accommodations and facilities were very nice, they cooked at home and they spoke excellent Italian. The older sister got me tickets to a bus and pointed me to the bus stop and told me where to get down. Heres to forgetting guide books.

As the bus moved on I strained my neck to catch a glimpse of a tower rising above the horizon, above the buildings. But none was visible, not even until we arrived at the very stop. Strangely despite the many pictures I have seen of various things, the leaning tower of Pisa has not been one of them and when I got down and came in line with the gate of the wall it was a delightful shock to see that little tower peeping from behind two larger structures like an impish child.

The tower was somehow smaller than what I had thought and we spent the next few minutes clicking pictures and wandering about the lawn. Beneath a blue sky with puffy clouds the tower looked like a wedding cake about to topple. The rest of the party decided to climb the tower while I elected to stay firmly on the ground. Flashbacks of me huffing and puffing, feeling dizzy climbing the steps to the Vatican dome and all the warnings about people with nausea was one reason. The other was to enjoy the Duomo peacefully. I liked my decision and wandered into the cathedral and spent the next many minutes viewing the renaissance paintings and the pulpit and the mosaic. Later when I came out to sit under the Tuscan sun, I wondered what the moral was. That you need to be out of ordinary to be noticed, that there can be a lot of bell towers but this one has achieved fame because it dared to be different or that a small piece of notoriety can take the attention away from a beautiful piece of architecture which really is the Duomo. I vaguely remembered reading somewhere there were two other leaning towers as well. Perhaps the moral is it all depends on how you market a trait.

The rest of the party joined me with their experiences of climbing the tower and we walked out towards the souvenir shops. A couple of policemen stopped by in their cars and posed for pictures with the tourists. I thought that was amusing - no one would care to take a picture with the policemen in India, the swamis are probably better looking.

We wandered about for some more time drinking in the scenery and then caught the train back to Florence. The day was balmy and we walked about the streets and I reflected upon my favorite hero - the archetype of a renaissance man, in many ways an idol - Da Vinci. Florence is an ancient city, I like to think its similar to my hometown - a living city yet with a rich culture and history. Da Vinci worked here and probably saw similar sights as he pondered on his works. It was not just the city of Da Vinci, but the city of Dante and Macchiavelli and Boticelli. I reflected on the Medici family and the paintings I saw in London and Paris.

We walked the length of the river bank drinking in the beautiful scene and then towards the Duomo. The cathedral, baptistery and the bell tower were stunning despite the many structures I have seen in the last few years. We spent some time walking around and in gazing at the buildings from different points admiring the intricate details and then much later ambled toward the piazza della signoria.

The most memorable parts of a city are often very different from what you expect from tour books when you are in one. It was the river bank in London, the sweeping boulevards in Paris and in Italy its no doubt the piazzas. These large squares, truly large and the looming buildings surrounding them is such intelligent design that I was most impressed. The afternoon was a delightful blur as we went from Piazza de Duomo towards Piazza della Signoria and later to Piazzale degli Uffizi.

I felt like a kid in a candy shop that whole day - Donatello, Cellini, Boticelli -with the highpoint of David. This David is my favorite as the experts say his pose is casual he seems to have decided on the fight but this statue captures the moment before he actually used the sling with furrowed brows and taut muscles. I like the cerebral nature of the statue and it was a thrilling moment to gaze at those eyes.

After what felt like walking many hundred miles in and out seeing many exhibits, we took a stroll amidst a light street painters. We bought some souvenirs, clicked some pictures and eventually came back to the river and enjoyed the evening sun. It is not just art but science too that has flourished. I recollected the statue of Galileo and also the painting in the Duomo at Pisa.

Leaning on the wall staring at the distance, I wondered what made Renaissance possible. It was this city, but what in this city - the patrons? Was it a happy confluence of a wealthy, powerful discerning patrons with abundant talent that caused the turn towards the renaissance. Perhaps I was being simplistic but standing there I could feel the excitement that must have been in the air in the medieval times. Science and art going hand in hand - Galileo and Da Vinci walking this same path - it was a heady feeling.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Day 12: All roads lead to..

Arriving in Rome was a heady feeling. Roma! How many books I have read, how many movies I have watched about Rome! Just walking on the streets was intoxicating - did Caeser walk the very steps, could I catch a strain of Nero's fiddle, was this here that they brought goods from Madurai in the start of the Christian era.. my mind was in a whirl of images and words.

At the station, Angeli E Demoni I noticed from the posters was coming up for release in the next month. We wandered out past the souvenir stalls towards the walled city-state of Vaticano. Vatican in itself is a fairly young city-state not even a hundred years old, different from the Holy See, I realize. The image of Pope John Paul declaring from the balcony overlooking St.Peter's square - 'Yesu piranthar' in Tamil one Christmas was one of the earliest scenes I retained from the Doordarshan days.

I stood for some time taking in the scene. The massive square is a physical representation of the grand history. The obelisk and the rows of statues looking down at us from all sides, the large columns and pillars -it was designed by Bernini after all! The marble pillars reminded me of my hometown and the palace with its large pillars.

We spent a lot of time in the square then slowly walked into the basilica. Though the current Basilica is probably only about five centuries old, this site is said to have housed a church fr at least fifteen centuries. I wondered if I could recall any other site I have visited as old as that. Like Dickens I figured I'd not forget the sensation of looking up at the dome after walking in. Michaelangelo designed this! I rented a audio guide and we spent the next few hours wandering about looking at various paintings, sculptures etc., learning about church design and the variations on this particular one and even how long it takes waiting if one wanted to get married here.

It is not so much a Da Vinci code reference check but Angels and Demons reference check. There are scenes where the Vatican is described in great detail. We took a few pictures of the elite swiss guards - Da Vinci designed their uniforms I read somewhere and made our way up to get a nice view of the city. In the coffee shop, SR asked for espresso and the vendor asked him if he really wanted the Italian espresso or Americano. He went on to explain that Italian espresso is real coffee and Americano is coffee with lot of water. SR an avid coffee drinker laughed and confirmed he wanted the shot. It was amusing to hear the American references - a woman standing queue in one of the shops rambled on in Italian when I said "excuse me" in English about how they did not want Americans and in Italy we should speak in Italian. Granted I ought to have tried to say scusi.. but I certainly didn't expect a caustic lecture. More than that it was further strange a brown eyed, brown skinned, dark haired set of tourists were being mistaken for Americans.

After a long time in Vatican quite drained and tired we slowly ambled out. Deciding to go back in time, our next stop was the Colosseum.

Visiting Rome is a feeling I will never forget in my life.. it was one of those things where you walk a few steps and you are standing in a place steeped in history. I simply stood there my mouth agape gazing at the fantastic structure. Here I was answering my own question, standing at a spot even more antiquated than the Basilica. In a moment of unaided hallucination I could hear the roar of the crowds and the lions and the shouts of the gladiators filling the air.

Scenes from Imperium and to some extent from Pompeii from the Robert Harris novels and the swashbuckling Simon Scarrow novels came to me as we slowly walked up and down what would have been the spectators seating and standing areas in the ancient times. Despite the pictures I had not expected to see it so well preserved nor had I expected this level of sophistication in the design. I could now see that the whole underground system of pathways for the animals and the slaves to popup was indeed true.

I walked about gazing at the grass covered stone structure, the empty stands, the blue sky my heart full. It was a strange feeling to stare past the iron bars in the underground area into the cells. I wondered if Spartacus stood on the very spot long ago.

After some time we ventured out to be greeted by a man dressed in old roman costume. We took the mandatory pictures and wandered towards the Arch of Constantine. I studied the inscriptions and the decorations and pondered about the arch as the ancient roman choice of architecture in comparison to the pillar as the ancient Indian choice of Ashoka some centuries before.

We walked about the Forum gazing at the ruins of the once majestic city - the temple of saturn the temple of castor and pollux, the arches - still breathtaking, defying time, mocking my own mortality.

When I crept to my bed that evening after the long day, i felt overwhelmed like a tired kid after a few hours at the fair and promptly went to sleep

Monday, May 25, 2009

Day 11: Journey to Italy

After the tour of the Swiss landscape, as I planned it the journey took a shift. It was a perceptible shift from the northern countries we had visited so far and the cold Swiss mountains. We were going to L'Italia!

I had chosen Florence as the place we'd visit and my faithful troop did not demur and ask why not the coast, why not Athens etc. I am eternally grateful for such wonderful friends. The morning train deposited us post noon first at Milan Centrale, a planned stop. We got out walked a bit on foot, getting a feel for the place. My first glimpse of Italy was more modern than my expectation. Its sort of like landing in Bangalore on your first trip to India, I thought to myself. The buildings housing mega corps were not ancient and designer shops abound.

We had our first Pizza in Italy, sat by a fountain and gazed at the passers-by.

After some time, I slowly ambled into the station to figure out the train to Florence. The terminus itself is a majestic building with a large dome and wide hall and I learnt it was about a century old.

SR raised a brow when he saw that there was no Florence in the departure board and after a few moments of disorientation thanks to the umpteen Mills and Boon I have read, I made the connection to the Italian name - Firenze. We walked to the information desk to ask for the validity of our tickets and I realized how little my English was going to help. With gestures to support we caught the train to Firenze and got out at some smaller outer station. I had by virtue of a map thought this station was closer to the hotel I had booked but coming out I realized how difficult things were going to be.

All the boards were in Italian naturally and we walked about trying to figure out the bus number to take us to the hotel. SR a self proclaimed expert in public transportation system, came back with tickets and the bus number. We got into the bus and then had to figure out where to get out. Via de Novoli seemed like a major road and the bus was supposed to take us there. I asked a young woman returning most probably from work if she could tell me when we reach the bus stop. She spoke rapidly to the gentleman next to her and explained to me there were three stops in Via de Novoli and naturally she didn't know which one she should point me to. The older gentleman said he will guide us and that he was getting down at Via de Novoli himself. He started talking to the woman - It was quite amusing to watch - I could almost dub the scene - a bus in Chennai, a middle aged man, a young woman the man asking so where do you work, does it take this much time to come back, its nice weather etc. etc. It never ceases to amaze me how people are often more similar than different.

We got out and thanked him and within a couple of minutes arrived at the serviced apartment. It was a residential area and we could go to the balcony and see the other apartments with familiar stuff on their balconies including dish antennas. People returning home to their families, people watching TV.. a sense of familiarity.

SR and ST looking at the kitchen decided to go out and buy groceries. The small shop nearby was like any other grocery store and after shopping for a while we returned and settled after dinner. The TV was not very interesting, seemed like more talk shows than entertainment.

I wondered if we should simply stay in Florence, though my plan was to split the journey and go to Rome and postpone the sightseeing of Florence for later. Cursing myself for not planning better I consoled myself that I get to see all the places after all, whats a little discomfort.

Day 10: Top of Europe?

After Titlis, I was not necessarily wanting to see another peak but the rest of the party reliably informed me we can't miss JungfrauJoch. So off we went donning the borrowed jackets towards Interlaken.

By now, the coniferous trees, yellow flower streaked grassland, fat cows basking on the sunlight were quite familiar. We tried to recollect as many movies as we could that had a reference to the Swiss - though if we were to include Indian movie songs it'd be innumerable.

Luzern was beautiful and after a brief stop over when we wandered about the town, we hopped on to a train to Interlaken.

No wonder it is one of the oldest and most popular tourist point - the view of Jungfrau from Interlaken was picture perfect. It was the quintessential image of Switzerland one has. According to the map I had I could reach Kleine Scheidegg through two routes. We decided we will take the Lauterbrunnen on the upward journey and Grindelwald on the downward. We caught the Berner Oberland Bahn and spent the next hours drinking in the scenery - the houses, the flowers, the mountain ranges towering in the background - it was the pinnacle of nature's beauty.

The final leg of the journey was on the Jungraubahn train on cogwheels. I do not know if it significantly different in technology compared to the trains in south India to Ooty. It was a nice tourist checkmark and we arrived to top of Europe without much fanfare. The Bolywood Indian restaurant was indicative of the number of Indian travel companies covering the spot. There wasn't much to do, the weather turning really bad we simply walked up and down spent some time in the ice cave with its ice sculptures. We stayed out only for a less than half hour, visibility was less than twenty feet and had to come back in due to the high winds.

I was thinking about Mallory and his 'Because it is there!' comment as the cogwheel train got me down. Played in the snow for some time at Grindelwald and caught the next train to Interlaken. Some souvenir shopping - ST looked earnestly for a cow bell while I settled for a couple of picture postcards and some ice-creams later we called it a day.

Someday I told myself, as the white expanse stayed beneath my closed lids, someday I will see Mt.Everest.

Day 9: "Sheer whiteness exhilarating to madness"

The indication was clear - I am an idiot when it comes to packing. We were in Switzerland and I did not possess a single jacket. I showed up that morning on my thin T-shirt and after laughing her head off VA got me and SR a couple of jackets. SS had packed appropriate clothes as usual and finally with warm idlis in our bellies we were set for the Swiss mountains.

Large water bodies, picture postcard small towns, acres and acres of green lawns continued on. How hopeful greenery makes one feel!

My vague recollections from Geography books told me almost 60% of Switzerland was covered by the mountains. We arrived in Engleberg to a fantastic view of the towering snow covered mountain ranges. Clearly all the tour operators from India brought their brood here - the multi language welcome board had its hindi representation and there were a lot of Kesari travel buses in the bus port. We got a ticket and spend the next hour or so in the cable car admiring the snow covered mountain side as we slowly went up and up and away. The three part ride lived up to its expectation and we arrived in the Glacier park. We wandered about for a while and then decided to take the Ice Flyer trip.

Four of us were seated in one chairlift and within seconds of us moving out, the belt like handle flew up in the air. Perched perilously on the edge of the long chair, I realized with a jolt that if I stumbled I would meet a snowy death. What should have been a simple ride, due to the high winds and lack of handle turned to be more thrilling than necessary. It gave a feeling of being open to the elements with no protection whatsoever and the thick snow sparkled mocking my insignificance. It was a beautiful ride in an awe-inspiring way. One day I will learn skiing I told myself..

After the flyer we wandered into the Glacier park and tumbled about in the snow simply enjoying the rare scene. There was a tube ride which seemed to involve sitting in a tire like thing and hurtling down in great gathering speed towards the edge of abyss. SS went first before I could even think followed by everyone else. They were closing down and there was no time to think so
I hopped into one the predominant thought in mind being if the wind is slightly higher I am going to fly over the edge. Incongruently the only image that was in mind was of Calvin and Hobbes in their little snow vehicle. The rush and thrill was awesome and I felt thoroughly accomplished. The words of DH Lawrence [post title] kept echoing in my mind.

I vaguely remembered Byron and Shelly living in Switzerland and tried to recollect some work of Byron mentioning the mountains but couldn't.

The quite evening was spent in the park and I went to bed thinking of the beauty, but more than the beauty the reverence nature inspires in oneself. Sleep didn't come easily that night as the images of snow and grasslands and mountains and cows kept flashing in a montage beneath my lids.

Day 8 : Nien, nien

According to my original plan we were supposed to have started from Amsterdam late night on Day 7 and arrived half way in Germany. But we were tired and were now behind in our itinerary. We had two choices, skip Germany and take on Italy or skip Italy and spend time in Germany. There was a unanimous vote for Italy and so we caught an early train towards Zurich.

I persuaded everyone to take a short detour to Koln first just to get a feel for the city and then we hopped on a slow moving train to Koblenz. The Rhine river I had read had a lot of interesting sites from Koblenz so we decided to catch another slow train from Koblenz to Mainz or Frankfurt. We sat merrily chatting in the train observing the passing scenes. It seemed more industrial staying true to the stereotype images except when the train passed small towns with beautiful churches.

In the compartment was a lady who asked us where all we have been, where we were from etc., and a gentleman who was sitting in a corner not talking to us. I thought he looked very stern, sort of didn't like us brown skinned people invading his quiet compartment. A station flashed past and I told everyone next stop was Koblenz. We all moved near the door and stood there chatting as the train rolled into a small station. We all got down in a hurry and I had a strange feeling - the station was too small and really no one else got down. I tried to look for some sort of a sign when the man from the compartment came running to the door and said in broken English - "Thiz iz not Koblenz, Nien, Nien". He held out his hand as we stared appalled that the train was going to move. He urged us to get back on pointing to the guard who was still watching us. I understood the train wont move half way when we were boarding back and we clambered in, much relieved. We thanked him of course, I am sure he went home to tell the story shaking his head all the time.

We spent a few minutes in Koblenz sitting by a fountain having ice cream and then eventually caught the next train. From Koblenz to Frankfurt was spent spotting castles. Rick Steves's company has these number signs along the river which makes it easy to turn around and look for the castle on the hills. I had read through the history behind most of the castles and though I didn't remember the bulk of it, we all had a lot of fun with everyone else pulling my leg. 'This one must be the feuding brothers and this one the robber baron etc. etc.'

We arrived in Zurich, ate dinner and crashed to sleep. I vaguely was uneasy about booking hotels in Italy but the breeze from the open window and the occasional sound of the tram lulled me to sleep.

Day 7 : Too much sugar

I wanted a break. I was not feeling up to sightseeing that day and my brain wanted a rest. But of course, it was simply not done when you have limited time and money. Dutifully pulling myself I got ready for the day. By now, we had found a Pizza place which sold some sort of breakfast breads with cheese and veggies in it and we predictably went there.

We were going to go to Keukenhof that day. Kilometeres of walking paths, millions of tulips, beautiful colors I had read again and again in the brochures. But I must admit I was only mildly curious. It was the same person who designed Vondelpark that designed Keukenhof, I vaguely remembered. The girls in the traditional dress at the entrance and the large wooden shoes were naturally a photo-op.

We wandered in and while the rest of the party oohed and aahed about the flowers I was only mildly impressed. It felt like the feeling one gets after eating too much sugar. It was all a blur of multi colored flowers with only two things standing out - one, I was besieged by yawns and two the straw bale seats with the nice headrest. It is intriguing how we had spent such a long time in the park and everyone else in our party enjoyed it much but I don't have much to write. I really tried hard to whip up some enthusiasm about the varieties of tulip flowers but failed miserably. If I knew the details about how many people worked, what they exported where, what happens during the rest of the year, I might have liked it better.

We wandered for a long time in the gardens, bought knickknacks in the shops and then post lunch decided to go to Zaanse Schans. We lost the way somewhere in between causing some concern about if the attraction had any closing time, but came back to Hoorn and managed to get to Koog Zandijk with lots of time to spare.

The mills were obviously the first attraction - no doubt it is my romantic view point, but I love seeing old mechanical inventions at work. Like the astronomical observations that human beings of yester-eras excelled in, each mechanical marvel such as these windmills never ceases to amaze me. These were original windmills from all over Netherlands that had worked hard for men harnessing the power of nature to make oil and paint and many things more - I wish we had continued down that path than the detour with petroleum.

The museum or was it a craft shop of shoes and then another one with cheese was thoroughly interesting. There were hundreds of clogs from a giant size to miniatures. I was wondering if it was possible to actually walk in those clogs - sort of reminded me of the Indian style wooden sandals. The cheese shop had a live demonstration and a variety of cheese for sales.

The buildings restored and 'displayed' as a tourist attraction was a great idea - I wished they would think of something like that for all the old bungalows in south India. We do not have a great respect for old buildings in our country.

I chose a delft [imitation no doubt] souvenir. The rich doctor heroes of Betty Neels stories invariably had original delftware in their houses. Many of them came from Friesland too I thought looking about.

After a while we strolled out, I was interviewed by some kids for a school project - an American with an unmistakable southern accent told them 'Be cool, stay in school'. I laughed and complimented him on his rhyming skills.

We traveled back to the hotel, tired.

I was reflecting on the town of Haarlem and other names that many American cities originally had , colonial times and those seafaring men of those bygone years as I lay in bed. My dreams were full of ships and battles.

Day 6 : Sun washed landscapes

The day was unexpectedly cool and we walked out of the hotel looking for something to eat. We had to settle for a warm cheese bread of sorts enough to fortify us in our quest for the bus stop. The funniest moment was when a south asian looking man couldn't respond to us in English (obviously he spoke dutch) but was able to give us the direction in broken Hindi.

After some discussion, due to the weather we decided someplace indoors was a good idea. We arrived at Van Gogh museum as the lines were beginning to form outside. We were ushered in, on time to hear the announcements there was a special show of some select paintings that had come from New York.

The way Van Gogh's name is pronounced is very different from what I was used to and became an amusing pastime to practice the guttural sounds until we got the tickets and walked in.

I had read some where Van Gogh's paintings on starry nights invoked a sense of peace - on the contrary I felt (more so of the starry night above the sleepy town than the starry night over the Rhone) to be disturbing. I found the twirls and circles more indicative of a sleepless turmoil filled night than peace. There must be something wrong with me. Kandinsky's supposedly depressing picture makes me feel better and this one makes me disturbed.

It was not the colors of the night that attracted me, it was the sun washed fields that had me spellbound. The golden sun sometimes bright in its late afternoon might, sometimes casting long shadows over the wheat fields, sometimes behind a mild cloudy screen - I could simply not move away. The light and the warmth of the colors!

It was quite draining to go to any other place after the morning in the museum. We wandered a while and then came to the canal cruise and decided to take it. Amsterdam had more canals than Venice they announced on the system and stopped at a view point of multiple bridges and everyone dutifully clicked pictures. Tourists!

The Canal ride had many worthy sights including Anne Frank's house but it was the maritime museum that caught my attention. Circa 1750, I thought as the cruise brought us to the sea, this would have been filled with ships from the Dutch East India Company. Did they talk over a drink talk about the Dutch defeat in the hands of Marthanda Varma? I idly wondered the whatif scenarios - would I be blogging in Dutch if not for Robert Clive. I figured not, it would have been French.

It was a cool day and I could only think of Betty Neels sitting on that boat, remembering the various cliched scenes from her romance novels of the heroine walking on one of these small alleys comes upon a magnificent house or should I simply say mansion and finds that the hero lives there.

After the cruise we went looking for lunch and came upon a square with many shops. A giant chess board painted on the floor with many life size pieces caught our attention and we watched a game for sometime. Afterwards we dragged ourselves to a noodle bar and had leisurely lunch.

It was getting somewhat cold by then but not wanting to miss a stroll in the park we went to Vondelpark. We spent a leisurely hour strolling about, sitting by the pond, listening to a guitarist play, taking pictures. I vaguely felt I ought to retire stay in a place like this and paint pictures and day dream.

We had burgers and juice and spent some time shopping for books and music. I spied a shop that said magic mushroom and considered the idea for a couple of minutes but decided the rest of the party was too straitlaced for that. I made a mental note to look up the effects of such a permissible society. Prostitutes will have to undergo a psychiatric consultation before they get the license the morning paper had had a news item. Does the ability to monitor and regulate control or bring down illegal trafficking? I am sure there is enough debate in the internet.

Tired by now, we came back to the hotel. NT my colleague invited us for dinner and we went with much alacrity thrilled that GT, his wife had made us Rice, Sambar and all other Indian goodies. On the way we stopped by the lake, calm and peaceful.

I bemoaned the loss of such wide open spaces with so much water in my part of the world as I slept fitfully that evening.

Day 5: Waffles, Hercule?

We bid au revoir to Paris the next morning and headed for Amsterdam with a stop over in Belgium.

An old man walking in stilts oddly with a broom greeted us at the station after our fast Thalys journey across the border to Brussels. We deposited our luggage in a locker and ventured out to a fine morning.

SR prefers to walk whenever he goes to a new city and armed with my map I declared I had found a way to walk down to the Grand Place. However as we continued on I noticed the shops mostly selling electric spare parts and halal meat, the street had a distinct Arabic feel to it. Through the interesting, rather circuitous route we arrived at our first destination. Waffles!

Being a vegetarian whenever I am travelling, I can only read up on the local gourmet food and not really get to enjoy it. From time to time there are exceptions - like the Gingerbread in the lake district, the Baguette in France and the Waffles in Belgium. I settled against a shutter with a lot of graffiti, the warm Belgian waffles from the waffle factory in my hand. The thick waffle oozing with strawberry and whipped cream was delicious to the last spoon. I got reminded of the crepe like pancake a Bosnian colleague's mother made long time ago.

I can't remember if my first introduction to Belgium is through Tin Tin or Hercule Poirot. While I have read a few Tin Tin, my favorite of the two by a very very long shot is Poirot. I believe I must have read 90% of the books with the Belgian detective with the egg shaped head. Much to my disappointment I saw more Tin Tin references than Poirot. The best was the building with a painted fire escape down which life size Tin Tin and Captain Haddock came rushing down.

We strolled along towards Grote Market. No wonder it is a UNESCO heritage site I saw with awe at the buildings surrounding the square. The buildings I had read were of different architectural style yet, there was harmony and a romantic, renaissance feel to it. I walked by the Guildhalls clicking pictures here and there fascinated by the different guild names. I clicked more pictures of the statues of what I presumed to be assorted angels and saints and then the gilded statue of St.Michael.

I tried to lecture about the history of Belgian revolution and the connection between Queen Victoria and the Belgium but the rest of the party was more interested in seeing the Manneken Pis. The statue did not have any costume on the day we went and was at his irreverent best. Forgetting the many stories around why the statue was there, I wondered why people still flock to take pictures of the statue of little naked boy urinating into the fountain. I am sure there is some Freudian psychological significance.

All the way to Belgium and how can we leave without buying chocolates. We spent the next few minutes in a Godiva shop buying and then immediately eating chocolates.

We walked back to the station, settled for a subway sandwich for lunch and caught the train to Amsterdam.

The train slowly moved out and with complete shock I saw the red light district with the window girls in their skimpy dresses. I was not sure what the emotion was - anger, pity?

We arrived in Amsterdam later that day. Rain clouds and unexpected chillness in the air greeted us. We ambled on, figured the bus out for slotermeerlan and called it a day.

I contemplated the permissive society and its impacts as I yawned.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Day 4: Paris Je T'aime

We had two choices for the day - a trip to Versailles or we could simply wander around Paris. We voted for the latter feeling the palace would be a bit of an overdose.

We landed back in the metro station and walked into a boulangerie for breakfast. The baker didn't speak English and I tried my forgotten French - I did remember the s'il vous plait - and amidst a lot of nodding and gesturing and laughter bought ourselves some warm croissants and doughnuts. We ate it all up at leisure and got into the train deciding to see the more modern part of the town for that day.

Accordingly, we went to La Defense. Most of the metro stations had posters of two upcoming pictures, both I was hoping to see. Anges et Demons and Star Trek.

The glass and steel mega buildings of the business district was even more impressive than the buildings in Canary wharf, London. The Grand Arche in the line of sight from the Arc was larger and more awe inspiring but did not have the same romance. I suppose a monument for humanity ought to weigh in more than a monument for military triumphs, yet without personalization the romance is somewhat lost. I sat simply on the steps of the Arche
observing nothing in particular yet enjoying the moment.

We then caught the metro for a dramatic view of the Eiffel tower - after all we can't go home without the classic Paris picture of the tower in the background. I chose the Parc du Champ de Mars liking the interesting contrast of a wall of peace in a park named after Mars the god of war. The glass and steel structure with the words Peace was the first of its kind I had seen - it made me wonder if such a design could possibly be erected at a place of a terrorist attack. We took our pictures of Eiffel tower straddling a block in the background and then walked further.

Lunch was a sandwich and juice on a side walk cafe, to the accompaniment of street musicians.

After the meal drifting by seemed like a great idea and so we decided to catch a Bateaux Mouches for a river cruise. I settled in one of the chairs on the open top to lazily watch all the grand buildings to the right and left. It reminded me of the other river cruise I had taken a few years ago in London and I contemplated the tale of the two cities and how much they are interconnected throughout their histories in the last millennium. The edifices watching us from the bridge as we went under was unexpected as was the balmy sun.

After the cruise, SR declared that he couldn't leave Paris without seeing all the fashionable boutiques so we walked some more along upscale shops Armani, Bvlgari, Gautier, Dubal - it wouldn't even qualify as window shopping since we did not even know what we would buy if we wanted to - when we encountered a crowd staring at a boutique. A quick check with a woman nearby and we were made aware Beyoncee was shopping inside. SR and AS wouldn't budge and we all stood there with the increasing crowds. It was a lot of fun and of course we only saw the body guards from time to time and after fifteen minutes, my patience ran thin and we wandered out back to Champs Elysees. Paris is a city of sweeping tree lined boulevards no doubt, I thought enjoying the soothing evening with an ice cream as we strolled the length of the boulevard.

The baker's assistant spoke English as we got bread for our dinner back near the metro station and she informed me that the baker wanted me to have a freshly baked breakfast sweet bread on the house. I was delighted and smiled my thanks to the nice man.

A bus was leaving the station and we ran to it realizing it must possibly be the last bus. After about fifteen minutes I realized we were in the wrong bus. It was past 9 o clock and we had no idea where the bus was heading as it moved farther and farther away and no familiar buildings from the route we had taken the last two days were visible. We were by now the only passengers in the bus and I ventured towards the bus driver and tried to explain with a lot of gestures and broken words in French our predicament and asked where should we get down to possibly get a taxi or another bus back to the hotel. When he finally understood he shook his head and muttered a series of sentences in French, his expressions leaving no doubt his feelings on the matter. He gestured to me to sit down and then off we went another fifteen minutes - I realized he meant we will eventually return back to the station and from there we could get a taxi. And then the dear man stopped the bus and waved at another driver going in the opposite direction, talked to the other guy, put us in the bus and waved us off. The other bus, empty but for us, neatly came to a halt in a bus stop ten minutes later and the driver informed me pointing at a street sign that thats where we get off. Lo and behold our hotel was just a block away.

Vive Le France!

We walked back blowing dandelions, laughing, happy with our good luck, my faith in humanity restored.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité - the words rang over and over in my head as I slowly drifted to sleep.

Day 3 : Lost in the Louvre

We started early with much enthusiasm. It was a Sunday but luckily a bus was just about to start and an American waved us in having figured it was heading to the metro station. He was obviously starved for company and talked a lot about himself and his work. "People here don't respond if you speak in English," he complained. "Really? So far we haven't encountered that," said SR. "They are probably nicer because of the color of your skin, me.. ," he sighed. Finding fellow Americans in ST and SS, he seemed to be all set to stick to us like glue.

We drifted into a Farmer's market or was it a Sunday Fair in front of the metro station and decided to buy our breakfast there. I got myself some great breakfast bread and wandered around examining the wares - the lady who sold me my breakfast asked me where I was from and pointed me to an Indian in a far corner selling something and also told me there was an Indian restaurant in the village. We had our breakfast in the train and I wondered if that'd be considered ill mannered - the coach was deserted anyway, I consoled myself.

The plan for the day began with a visit to the Louvre. We got down at the right station and after a few moments of disorientation, I regrouped and we started walking towards the Louvre via Jardin des Tuileries. The garden was built on an excavation pit I remembered reading somewhere - we have these huge tanks back home fashioned from such pits. I expected some budding Monets working on their masterpieces but instead all I saw was dog poop littered all over the pathway. We walked the stretch towards the Louvre and I decided categorically that Tuileries didn't dislodge St.James Park or the Lal Bagh from my favorites list. The disappointment was not dissimilar to what I felt at Hyde Park.

Da Vinci Code check! La Pyramide Inversée! I could visualize Tom Hanks staring down at the pyramid in the entrance lobby. The hundreds of glass triangles fitted together to form the famous pyramid felt very out of place. The modernity of the glasses and the aluminium framework did not catch my imagination as much as I had hoped. Then I saw the long long line that snaked around and sighed - Louvre was certainly the star attraction.

The Arc de triomphe de carousel commemorating Napoleon's victories as we waited in the line was eye-catching and reminded me in full force all that I had read about him. This of course was not THE arc - I'd have to wait some more time for that, depending on how long I end up spending in the Louvre.

Everyone I knew had bet that this grand tour was going to be nothing but a series of museum visits. The rest of my party was too indulgent to say no to me, but strangely I was not particularly looking to see the masterpieces. I somehow felt that there was nothing the high quality images did not already provide that I was going to discover. What would be interesting are the lesser known paintings similar to the ones I discovered in the National Gallery in London.

Still, all that did not mean I was going to walk away without seeing the grand ladies of the Louvre.

So after a quick consultation, we decided to go for the Mona Lisa - the long lines and the crowd was certainly a dampener. We walked along to the Denon Wing - and somewhere on the way we lost ST. The place was so crowded with more and more people walking in and it became impossible to locate where he was. I was not very worried assuming he would go ahead to the Salle des Etats but KS was nervous. I must have seemed extremely unfeeling - I was walking along somewhat dazed by the crowd, with the American in the meanwhile wanting to know my email address and predicting we were not going to be able to locate ST. KS and SR went looking for ST while the rest of us kept going towards the lady. I saw the original version of Madonna of the Rocks - Da Vinci code check - and a few more renaissance paintings and inched my way into the room. My first impression was that I was in a western Tirupathi. There were multiple lines moving at snails pace. From time to time, people would jostle and I'd get a glimpse of the wall and would hear the security shouting at those in the front to move on.

There is nothing I can say about the Mona Lisa that hasnt been said before. She is small, beautiful and is definitely amused at all the fuss surrounding her. There were other interesting paintings in the room including the massive wedding feast at Cana by Veronese that I spent quite some time in the room before ST, KS and SR returned. The details in the wedding feast and the massive size seem to mock me for my impatience with everything.

It was an overdose of renaissance painting and after a while it was a matter of what registered in my brain more than the others. I looked up at the beautiful artwork on the ceiling, at the red walls with a feeling of being overwhelmed. The coronation of Napoleon certainly made me pause. Was everyone that fit and beautiful really?

After the paintings, we moved on to the sculptures including Venus De Milo and Winged Victory. Such fantastic specimens of human anatomy and epitome of beauty. Sculptures made with tools from two thousand years ago! The sculptures were the highpoint of the entire trip! I could happily go home! My eyes were glued to Hermaphroditos on bed. Not just for the bizarre yet stunning representation of a bisexual being but equally for the bed, the pillow, the twisted leg, the cloth - then I saw the name of the sculptor and had an aha moment. The drapery folds in Artemis and the doe, the bronze statues at the Cour Puget, the chandeliers, the aristocratic rooms
- there was lot to see - we spent a good part of the day walking around the various wings soaking in fine arts and culture. By the time we came out we were all quite hungry but AS was fixated on pizza so we walked down small streets and found a pizzeria where we had pizza and pasta.

We walked on, meandering here and there, generally towards the direction of the Seine, crossed the bridge not going to the left bank at Pont neuf and gravitated towards Notre Dame de Paris. The late afternoon was blamy and the walk carefree.

The island housed the famous Conciergerie and the words of Sydney Carton echoes in my head - "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." Had he been a real prisoner going to the guillotine, he probably would have gone down this path.

French gothic, flying buttress, Napoleon's coronation and various such words flashed through my mind as I walked towards the cathedral. The sculptures in the entrance archway and the kaleidoscope of stained glass art were a visual treat even after the Louvre. I tried hard to remember what I knew of the history of medieval France - but couldn't. Whether I remembered or not, the grand building stood there a silent witness to centuries of triumph and failure.

I had struggled through a few pages of Victor Hugo in high school French class, most famously the episode of Jean Valjean stealing the bishop's candlesticks, but not his Hunchback of Notre Dame. But I did remember as I watched the grand buildings around Hugo's point of view about the printing press and poetry in architecture.

We walked around soaking in the ambiance and lit some candles and meditated for a few minutes. I thought there must be some moral around the stained glass paintings that had withstood time despite their fragility.

Once we came out I decided it was time for the Arc de Triomphe. The arc captures the imagination of the romantic in me like no other monument in Paris. The military campaigns it commemorates, the series of events beneath its majestic arch including the return of Napoleon's ashes, surrender of Paris, march of De Gaulle and the liberation of Paris... I stood there for many minutes simply soaking in the atmosphere as cars whizzed past on the wide roads and street entertainers danced their way in a corner. Grand structures like this always make me ponder about my own insignificant life - what great drama had been enacted beneath those arches. I realized I was going to keep thinking this throughout my trip - this was Europe after all!

We strolled at a leisurely pace quite a length of Champs-Elysees stopping for ice-cream and coffee - SR getting unhappy about the lukewarm cappuccino - and I gazing at the designer shops.

A look at our clock told us it was much later than what we had thought and we caught the train to our hotel. SR and ST bought bread, juices, fruits and salads and we ate in our rooms, tired and ready to crash.

I thought about all the historical and literary references I knew - Bir Hakeim metro station named to commemorate the battle - and I wondered what it said about my education. I was disturbed to think I might not know enough about the subcontinent. Further reflection made me feel reassured that I knew enough there was to know. The oral tradition and the lack of contemporary research and popular references made it difficult but I knew.

The colors and scenes from Paris, the city of romance, was a montage before I closed my eyes to a dream filled sleep.

Day 2 : Metallic lace

One of the few things I had done as way of preparation was to do some research about a global rail pass. As a result, KS had bought the passes for us from US which meant we could pretty much travel to any city within the 15 countries with a simple reservation charge for the fast tracks. So there we were on day 2, scrambling early in the morning to catch the train to Paris.

We all got ready faster than I had anticipated. I have never seen KS and ST lethargic so the two of them getting ready was no surprise. SS and AS also got ready fast. SR grumbled a little but the rest of the party was so enthusiastic that it didn’t matter.

By now we were veterans of the Zurich tram system that we arrived without any trouble at Zurich HB. Hauptbahnoff was an impressive building and could pass off as a tourist attraction in itself. As we hurried along to catch the Zurich-Paris high speed TGV, I caught a statue in the front and a quick glance revealed the name to be Escher. I paused mid-stride causing a minor collision, then recovered - THE Escher was not from Zurich nor was his name Alfred. Alfred Escher's statue though was at the right place as I later found out he was a railway entrepreneur.

We got in with about 5 minutes to spare and SR vanished for a few moments and reappeared with breakfast and lunch - sandwiches, bread and juices.

My first time in an European train; actually in any non-Indian train. The clean, well cushioned airplane style seats with proper hand-rests, tray table, cup rests etc. bode well. We walked around a bit and after a while settled in our various seats and got ourselves comfortable. KS, ST and PS were from the US and I could see jetlag hitting them. SS and AS also went to sleep on and off. SR was so wired - he didn’t sleep, walked about and was in general sharing observations about people and places. I sat by the window and watched the country side flash past. At a speed of 180 miles an hour at times, the TGV Lyria bullet train ride was remarkable.

Swiss landscape gave way to small towns and wide fields dotted with small churches and cottages. The German sounding town names slowly became more French without any indication of when I crossed the border. The land was tilled but I could not discern what was sown. It did not look like my idea of vineyards. Graffiti adorned almost every wall. I was repeatedly stuck by the lack of crowded big towns on the way - I realized after a while it was because I was coming from India and that the rest of the world is most likely like this.

I enjoyed a huge sandwich feeling slightly guilty since others were still asleep and let my mind indulge in a romantic ramble of facts and fiction - Goethe in Strasbourg, D'Artagnan journeying to Paris, Napoleon's retreat from Russia..

We arrived in Paris Gare De L'East around noon. I have this theory that you should never approach your dream city by road or train – An approach by air gives a majestic view of any city whereas when you approach by road or train you get exposed to the underbelly and gut too fast. But then I was not sure what I was expecting in a metropolitan city metro station.

The station was crowded and we got into the long queue and bought visit paris passes. I was delighted I could use a few French words I remembered from my high school and could make out most of the sign boards. We all had our backpacks and I lobbied to start sight seeing immediately. SR was vehemently opposed, rest were neutral. I persuaded everyone that we should try and see if we can go to the city. So, we caught the tube to the Musee station. I climbed out of the underground to a sunny afternoon.

I have this click in my head when my imagination and a scene in front of me connects. The click I heard when I stood in an almost empty LA business district surrounded by the silent looming skyscrapers, the click I heard when I went down hill in a cable car in San Francisco, the click I heard when I came upon the grand canyon all of a sudden, the click when I saw the buildings in Bath... I heard that click when I climbed up the stairs and saw the signboards. The understated metallic board that announced that we were standing in front of the Musee De Louvre.

We walked about gaping at the grand buildings – it was less crowded than I expected it to be and there was a certain leisure, quietude and lethargy about it that was unexpected. My imagination ran riot and waves of all the words I had read about the city's history and culture overwhelmed me.

We walked around and stopped in a small street near the Rue De Rivoli to have lunch. The young owner got us the vegetarian ware we wanted and we all sat down to eat our pasta. I was fascinated with the older well dressed man who was having his lunch. The glass of red wine next to him and the air of joie de vivre was unmistakable. The young man and old man talked and were joined by another young woman and the three of them continued on with their slow meal, enjoying their wine, as the quiet afternoon passed us by.

I was done! Forget the museums and art galleries! This was the experience of Paris - right there the vision of a lethargic enjoyable afternoon lunch with fine wine.

After the meal we walked about a little more on the various small streets just drinking in the atmosphere. I must admit our walking was also due to my inept guidance towards the right metro station.

Our hotel was in the outskirts at Velizy partly deliberate choice to experience life outside the town, partly because of the long weekend crowd. We caught the metro and then a bus – the driver obligingly showed us where our hotel was. It was still only four and the sun was shining that we decided to do more sight seeing starting with the Eiffel tower.

So far I had not caught a glimpse of the tower much to my surprise and even as the metro approached the stop I still could not. We got down and walked following the map and I was straining my neck to catch a glimpse all the while. And then we came upon it quite suddenly.

I had read of all the famous personalities who hated the tower including Maupassant and Dumas and how some Parisians thought of it as an eyesore. But one wouldn't believe that looking at the queue snaking all over the base. I stood patiently in the hour long queue, watching the loads of Indian tourist buses and hawkers, thinking all this might not have been there if the tower had been dismantled as it was originally planned or had been destroyed during WWII. Robert Langdon in Da Vinci Code calls it an apt emblem for France 'renowned for its diminutive insecure leaders'.

The intricacy of the iron structure was amazing. When I stood in the queue down, when I went up the elevator on the pylon to level two and when I went all the way up the top, the fluidity of it never ceased to beguile me. How could someone envision these rusty brown metallic lines crocheted together to a stunning structure such as this? Especially about a hundred and twenty years ago. What a fresh perspective it must have been then! It appeals to the mind not just for the aesthetics but for the science too with the material of choice and the wind considerations.

The view from the top was predictably marvelous. The sun shone and its rays bounced off of the river Seine and highlighted the tree lined boulevards and the monuments on both the right and left banks. The bridges across Seine brought me back memories of London.

The family in front of me was coughing quite a bit giving me some moments of anxiety about swine flu.

We got down, wandered a bit and caught the train and probably the last bus back to our hotel. I remarked how the streets were looking deserted and SR smilingly told me the time. It was already 9 p.m, the sky was still not dark reminding me of summer in lands much north to mine.

Channa Masala and Baguette is a great combination, I decided as sleep overcame me.

Day 1 : "A happy day because its the first of May"

When I woke up puffy clouds billowed outside and the plane was ready to land in Frankfurt. The best part about this trip was the timing. I did not have to worry about snow and rain and early sunsets. This was the beginning of summer. And I could see that a bright day was dawning.

I landed and cleared a very unfriendly immigration. Why is it that every country treats you like you are about to drop the big one on them? In this economy even my meager spending ought to be welcome. I walked hazily on towards a lounge, feeling quite cross.

The first jolt was the “Achtung Bitte” posters with sundry terrorists and warnings of swine flu. How many times have I heard the word ‘Achtung’ – in the numerous world war II movies and books. The haze lifted and I looked around somewhat wonderingly. This was the second airport I have ever been to where the signs and announcements were all in a language I didn’t know. Clearly though it was better than Hongkong, since I knew the family.

I freshened up in the lounge, the warm shower and cereal making me feel a lot better finally. The fatigue - both mental and physical was ebbing away. And my brain slowly registered the fact that this was the town where Goethe had lived. No, the Frankfurt airport was not named after him but there certainly was a bar named Goethe. As I sat contemplating on Goethe's Italian Journey - 'Slipped out at 3 in the morning, arriving early with just a suitcase looking forward to enjoying a fine summer after a wretched work filled spring' - I realized I am going to keep encountering many more such illustrious characters. The journey has truly begun.

Zurich was to be the first stop. Mainly because of the convenience of VA’s house. The Swiss Air flight to Zurich was shorter than the time the plane spent on the tarmac. It was May first, not just the labor day, but also I had read, in pagan cultures a traditional summer holiday. The beautiful summer morning outside held promises of a lovely time. We flew over unbroken picture-post card scenery of low hills and greenery and landed in Zurich late morning. I had expected to see towering mountain ranges with snow peaks instead and this was oddly like dessert before the meal.

KS, ST and PS had arrived from the US and our party was all set. AS and SS were too pumped up. I asked for “buttermilk rice” for lunch with such feeling that it elicited a round of laughter. VA's house was right on a main tram thoroughfare that still managed to have beautiful trees lining them. There was even a convenient Indian restaurant right below the apartment. Not that we were in need of it. SA and VA had made great food and after a nice lunch deciding not to waste a single moment, we all got out and decided to explore.

There had been travel warnings around rallies in Germany and the year before there had been major riots by left-wing activists in Zurich. SA mentioned that they had burned a few BMWs - no doubt a newer way of bonfire from the pagan reminders. I briefly wondered if it was probably a saner idea to stay home but my limited vacation blinked like red alert in my mind that I quashed that thought ruthlessly.

The rest of my party joked about what 'Radhika travels' was going to show them first. After some quick instructions from SA we got into the tram at Guuggachstrasse and after a short ride arrived past Hauptbahnhof at Bahnhofplatz. The idea was to walk as much as we could in the area and see the sights. The street was deserted and all shops closed. What would have been a meaningless window shopping exercise with jostling crowds instead became a leisurely evening stroll. I could see why Bahnofstrasse was one of the most expensive shopping avenues in the world as we walked past showrooms - Louis Vuitton, Giorgio Armani, Cartier, Bvlgari, Dior... I wondered how I would have felt if I had been to this avenue ten years ago. Somehow the designer shops were not as awe inspiring as it would have been - after all most of them do business in India and I was anyway not smart enough to appreciate the better collection they were sure to have in Switzerland.

Besides the shops there were more sights to see including the welcome green lawns. Past the statue of education reformist Pestalozzi I noticed a clock on the upper part of a store front surrounded by bells. This being Zurich and my brain remembering all the great Swiss watchmakers, I was convinced and I also persuaded everyone it was some interesting contraption which would play some strange music at the top of the hour. We waited but nothing really happened and I think everyone wondered but were too polite to remark about the level of research I had done before. Kurz watchmaker and jeweler had not really advertised anywhere how the clock would perform.

I paused for a few moments near the Granite sculpture by Max Bill. The sculpture gave a feeling of rest and relaxation though I had no idea what was the intended effect. I could almost philosophically interpret it as a series of doors to the inner sanctum of something within yourself. It was slightly colder and I was probably beginning to get jet lagged that I was thinking such pseudo-profound thoughts. I made a mental note to look it up later - I was sure it would be quite the opposite of what I thought. Max Bill had studied under Kandinsky and I have a print of a Kandinsky composition which evoked joyous feelings in me but was in reality about the deluge. Le Corbusier of the Chandigarh connection was from Switzerland, but I had decided to not go looking for a house designed by him this trip.

Strassencafe, straddling the street was quite full with patrons staring at each other across the street. We wandered on past the sights, the spires of the churches, past Paradeplatz and the famous swiss banks and arrived at the lake front to see a man relieving himself on the lake water and a cross dresser in a pink tutu.

From there we walked some more crossing the bridge to the other side. Ability to stroll on a wide street enjoying the sights is such a rare pleasure for me and I took a deep breath and simply let the wind and the evening sun and the views of the marvelous towers of Grossmünster and Fraumünster wash over me.

We joked about opening a Swiss bank account - seeing all the names of the premier financial institutions lining the street and concluded that with our unmade up faces and t-shirts and jeans we will probably not even be allowed inside.

A huge thin crust pizza that we shared sitting on the banks, was deliciously balmy. People milled about relaxing on the lake front. I did more couples than families. I was surprised to see the level of intimacy most couples were displaying - in various levels of embrace from affectionate to borderline obscene. SS sniggered and from thereon AS and SS decided to nudge each other of PDA alert.

Sun's rays reflected off the lake and the ice-cream was wonderful. We walked back after a while and caught the tram home. SS and AS went to a park nearby to feed pigeons while I packed my backpack.

It was past 9 and it was just beginning to get dark. I went to bed realizing it was Mayday and whether the witches were going to wander in to cast a spell or not, Europe was beginning to cast its spell on me.

Day 0 - "But I'll bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel."

I ought to have been excited – granted it was not my first trip abroad, but this was THE grand tour. One could hardly call me an English nobleman from three hundred years ago with unlimited funding but one could certainly still expect me to look forward to expanding my cultural horizons with the same zeal.

I was sitting on a chair amidst a lot of business travelers in the crowded lounge. The new Bangalore airport was glitzy and all I could contemplate staring at the café was how steaming and not baking was the more prominent technique for cooking most of the southern food varieties. I must admit it may not turn out to quite be the grand tour since I only had a loose idea of my itinerary and hardly any reservations. Be that as it may, it was quite unlike me to be as bland as I was on the eve of my vacation.

A minor crisis at work, business visitors who landed at the last minute, some strong suggestions that I re-plan my vacation - all made it seem like I might not embark on the trip after all. There were a few colleagues who were recovering from chicken pox and I had this strange conviction that I was going to get it. And then two days before I left came the swine flu news. I was flying to Europe where there were already known cases. The year before, I had cancelled my tickets due to a death in the family. And with all the other factors, it was probably my brain gearing up for the possibility of not making this trip.

Whatever the reasons may be I found it disconcerting that I was heading out on this trip without an ounce of thrill. It was completely opposite to the way I had felt before my UK trip. I had done my cursory browsing and I did have a single map of western Europe with lines criss-crossing. My visa allowed me to visit multiple countries and I had about two weeks worth of holidays and a mind willing to brush economic concerns aside for later.

The fifteen minutes I had spent on the map, as soon as I had booked my tickets had lines from Austria to Portugal to Norway with everything in between. To paraphrase Emperor Joseph from "Amadeus", I just had to cut a few lines and it would be perfect.

When they announced the flight was ready for departure it finally seemed to sink in a bit. I was really inside the plane - no over booking, nothing wrong with my ticket or passport.

I boarded, ate the airplane food and promptly went to sleep with some vague appreciation about the legroom available. Europe here I come.