My favorite mistake

On my final travelling day on the continent I headed to Pisa from Roma. Unfortunately there were no direct trains around the time I needed to travel so I had to take a round about way via Firenze and reached pisa at around 2 in the afternoon. Now there isn’t much too see in Pisa other than the leaning tower.

Its funny how the architect’s biggest mistake is the sole reason the town is on the tourist map. Checked out the tower and headed back to the train station to find a train to milan. For future trips to pisa, I wouldn’t give the city more than a couple of hours. I headed up to genova via cinque terre. Ideally I wanted to stop at one of the villages of cinque terre for a hike, but I didnt have the time and anyways it gets dark pretty early in this part of the world.

The final train journey was filled with delays. We were more than an hour delayed getting into genova and then further delays going up to milan. Finally reached milan around 11 at night and now all set to fly out of milan and out to london.

Forgive me Father

I was partying with some friends from my hostel last night, when one of them mentioned that the pope is giving a papal audience today. Considering we were up pretty late last night, wasn’t sure I would be able to get up on time to see it.

Luckily my hostel is walking distance from the vatican and I ended up seeing the holy frigging pope in the frigging vatican. I guess this probably happens on a weekly basis on wednesdays but another thing to be noted in the old life history – seeing the holy frigging father.

Bella Roma

If there was one word to describe rome, it would be spectacular. All the adages about the glory of Rome are true, its one of the most amazing cities on earth. I can imagine why rome evoked such feelings amongst the roman empire.

I was also surprised by how big the city is, with a monument at almost every piazza. Ive been roaming the city for a couple of days and still haven’t covered everything, reason for me to return to this city I guess.

When to the musei vaticani (Vatican Museum) to check out Michaelangelo’s and Raphael’s works. The museum is amazingly large and ornately decorated. Do make sure to keep aside at least 3 hours if you want to visit the museum.

Firenze

Firenze(Florence) was at the fore point of the renaissance period. The main attraction still in firenze is the statue of david in the galleria del accademia. I have been studiously avoiding going to any museums in this tour and saving on the admission fees, but if you do visit firenze checking out the wonderful sculpture of david should definitely be on tour.

Obviously everyone has the same idea as well and the long lines do generally take hours to gain entrance. I decided to beat the crowd and go early around 9 am and walked right in the museum (well there is nothing more to watch there other than the statue so using the term museum loosely). The fabulously sculpted statue of David looking on into the horizon after his victory over goliath definitely lives up to the hype around it.

Firenze doesnt have too many other things to check out, so took the evening train to Roma

A Nice place to go

I took the overnight train from paris to Nice on Cote d’Azur (french riviera). The next morning the train had reached the Mediterranean Sea and the train journey from a little before Cannes all the way to Nice was spectacular to say the least. Infact the entire train journey from about Cannes all the way past the Italian city of Ventimiglia might well be on the most scenic train journeys.

Reached Nice and walked towards the sea. I needed to make a few phone calls and passed by a few pay phones. Now payphones like street signs are almost impossible to use in france. These payphones dont take coins/cash and inserting your credit card any which way causes the payphone to show WARNING – put back the receiver as if the phone booth might explode or blast off into space (without having the border guards having their one last hurrah on checking your travel documents). Cursing the lack of user friendliness of the payphones, I continued towards the sea and on reaching it, you are met with a sea of people sunning, running, walking on the mediterranean sea.

Well considering that sunbathing wasn’t my cup of tea and I couldnt really run with a heavy backpack on your shoulders, I decided to walk up and down the riviera. It really is a pretty place to be and I can imagine why the rest of the europeans head down here to enjoy the warmth and probably the beautiful bodies on view.

I decided to take the train towards Ventimiglia south of the border in Italy. On the train station I met this Indian family heading towards Monaco. The gentleman had an interesting story and was part of the generation kicked out of Uganda by Idi Amin and immigrated to the UK (a fact that most people dont know is that most of the Indians in UK are Ugandan in origin). Its also nice meeting someone who identifies himself as Indian irrespective of the country they might live in currently.

The train continued its amazingly scenice journey along the Mediterranean Sea past Monaco and into Italy finishing up in Ventimiglia. You can see that you are italy and not in france/monaco when you hardly see any tourists, the village looks like a sleepy village town and things look a little more run down. So someone wanting the same scenary as the french riviera but are more than happy to avoid the tourists and high prices, might want to consider the italian part of the Cote D’Azur.

The old and the new

I reached paris close to midnight and was wondering on whether to roam around the city all night or find a place to crash. The signs around paris are utterly useless made even more confusing when the street names (for the same straight street) keep changing after every intersection.

So I took out my trusty map and tried to get my bearings straight when an elder parisian comes along and offers help and shows me directions. This was completely surprising considering the image I had of parisians was that they werent welcoming of tourists (and they do get a lot) and more like fuck you tourist, go home.

Well I was roaming around the streets of paris when I came across a budget hostel and no surprise it was all booked up. Resolving myself to a night on the streets (time to get my rouge and lipstick out) and I came across this run down inn which had a small room by the stairs. Gladly taking the room I crashed for the night.

Getting up late the next morning, I put on the backpack and continued my walking europe tour. My camera was dying on me, so I figured I’ll go to the opposite end of the city towards the Eiffel tower. An hour later, I finally reached the eiffel tower in all its splendid glory. The first thing that you notice about it is how massive it looks from close by.

Continued from the tower to the Arc d’triomphe and down the Avenue des Champes Elysees towards the Louvre.

One problem of covering a lot of european cities at one go is that you’ve feel that once you’ve seen one palace you’ve seen them all and wont be too impressed with the newer ones. France has more of the greco-roman architecture which is funny as the Louis’ and napolean where neither greek nor roman.

Now Paris has lots of major train stations and my train out of paris was a little distance away. So walking towards the train station via Notre Dame du Paris, Panthenon and the Sorbonne, I reached the station a couple of hours before my train. Having time to kill I noticed the bibiliotheque du france not too far from this station and decided to walk over to see if I could get some free internet (emphasis on free).

Walking for about half an hour and I still couldn’t locate the stupid library when I came across this mayan looking pyramid structure having wooden steps all acroos the pyramid heading to the top. Now since I had the time and there was this pyramid looking thing to be conquered I decided to climb to the top. On reaching the top I started walking to the center and I was stunned by the architecture on show.
Right at the center of the pyramid was a forest surrounded on four sides by the walls of the library heading into the earth. Unfortunately the library was closed so I had to admire it from the outside, but I like the direction france is going mixing the old style of architecture with the new.

Well time for me to head back to get my train to Nice.

Africa calling

The Thalys fast train from Amsterdam to Paris takes about 4 hours. I was overbooked on the train (considering my last minute booking) and was pleased that the conductor let me stay on the train and even more pleased that I was sitting across this very amazing french girl.

We got talking soon after and I was very surprised that Yohana actually had an amazing story about herself. She is currently doing her PhD in economics as well as working with the World Bank but her background was what captivated me about her.

She grew up in Africa spending most of her growing up time in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Haiti and Gabon. She eventually moved back to France for her education but has been back to a few developing countries to work in her field.

One of my favorite topics is the mix of western and eastern culture and the study of environments where races and religions mix.

When you talk to white south Africans/Zimbabweans they always consider themselves Afrikaans first.
However its not quite the same when the mix is between a colonizing country and the colony. Most of northern Africa was a french colony till recently and the scars still run deep – something which came out during the Paris riots a couple of years ago. People who immigrated to France from the former colonies still don’t have the same rights and opportunities as the locals (a prevailing theme across most of Europe) and when you travel through their localities, it feels like the economic boom has completely skipped that part of town.

A person’s identity is strongly tied to their roots which gets more confusing the longer you stay away from home. Hers would be the opposite story to an immigrant to a western country and I can imagine the confusions she might be facing growing up in a different continent during her growing up years. These would be now heightened now that she is out of the environment, however her thoughts might still be connected to Africa.

Considering this, its really amazing coming across a person who hasn’t yet forgotten her roots and trying to make an impact. Its not easy making a difference in this world but every little effort goes a long way. Wishing her the very best in life

The miracle of Amsterdam

Reached Amsterdam early morning and started walking towards dam square. It was a cold and rainy day and after about half an hour of getting drenched, I thought I was done with Amsterdam and couldn’t wait to get out of the city. Took some time off to have coffee at one of the numerous coffee shops across Amsterdam (as numerous as most of Europe) and after the rains had stopped decided to give the city another try. Walking around the city when I saw someone holding a post saying ‘free tour of old Amsterdam’.

Now when an Indian sees a sign that says free, he/she is automatically attracted to it. There is a strange sort of magnetism and its difficult to break free. Apparently this group (Sandeman’s europe tours) holds free walking tours across most major european cities and the volunteers carrying out the tours work solely on tips.

We started the tour through the red light district (a huge letdown as the windows are family friendly during the day), pass the numerous “coffee shops (serving not just coffee)” and past most of the old city and the stories associated with the city. We finally ended up at the Anne Frank house a sober reminder of europe’s violent history as well as a great reminder of the secular nature of this amazing city. The 3 hour tour is highly recommended and I presume the tours of the other cities should be just as good.

By evening I had changed my mind about the city and wanted to see if I could spend the night in the city. Wandering around the city was a much more enjoyable experience wink wink, however eventually found out that most hostels/hotels in my budget were all booked up for the weekend.

Eventually I ended up at the train station again and bought the last fast train to paris. Goodbye Amsterdam, I’ll be back again.

The Munich connection

The same night I headed out of Salzburg and took the overnight train to Amsterdam. I didn’t notice it at first but I kind of kept things tight having to catch another train at Munich with a 10 minute difference between my arrival and the departure of the next train. To make things worse the train arrived 15 minutes late in Salzburg, which made it pretty inconvenient.

To having to stop thinking of finding alternatives in Munich incase I missed my train, I started talking to this older gentleman in my train. Turned out he was with the british army liasoned to work with the german army and try to convince them to take a more active role in the operations in afghanistan. Our conversations moved from muktada al-sadr, Al Zarkawi, the indian army expectations in afghanistan, how to prevent the envitable failed state of pakistan etc. Soon we started talking about the american elections and I was surprised to hear him say that having McCain as president would be disastrous. I knew all of europe was pro-obama, guess have to put in most of the british army as well in that category.

Anyways our train eventually arrived in munich (at a different platform than was expected) and I took my backpack and started running towards the other platform. Half way down I realized that the train that I needed to take was actually on the other side of the same platform. Now the thing about european trains is that most bogeys end up in different cities so the entire train doesnt go where you need it to go. So having confirmed the amsterdam bogey was at the other end of the train (no surprise), ran back up the platform and made it to the train with seconds to spare.

The hills are alive

Early next morning (if you call a 8.30 am start early), I headed back towards the train center and caught a train to Salzburg. Coming from Innsbruck and Vienna in Austria, Salzburg is a slight disappointment. In my opinion half a day is more than enough to cover most sights in the city.

I headed over towards the castle and trekked up the hill (with my backpack in tow) to check out the famous Salzburg castle. Now everything in europe has an admission price attached to it, which I have studiously avoided paying. Now that I trekked up the hill with my heavy backpack, I figured I might as well pay the 7 euros to get into the castle. The view from the castle is pretty good and definitely worth the trip if you have time to kill. There are some mildly interesting stuff to see in the castle along with the stories of the archbishops who used to hold the religious and political throne of salzburg.

Ofcourse the reason d’etre of Salzburg is the sound of music shot in the city, which you are painfully reminded at every turn. So if you do consider adding the sound of music tour to your itinerary consider staying the extra day and you can prance about singing ‘The hills are alive with the sound of music’, something all intelligent adults seem to do on reaching salzburg.

Unfortunately the urge to sing doesnt seem to be restricted to the hills around the city. I did meet a couple of american tourists happily singing the song and then giving a stupid grin, which I still havent figured out if they expect a compliment on their singing skills or me to join them. I would recommend turning away with a look of disgust (ofcourse this still wont stop them singing)