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I have now moved to a new blog : http://oncethebugbites.wordpress.com

Thanks for visiting and keep continuing the good work ;-)

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2013 in Strasbourg

 

Cycling, Couchsurfing & Copenhagen

The idea was to discover a cheap way to get to Berlin and return en route Prague or Munich if possible. But while tinkering on the Easyjet site, I stumbled upon an inexpensive fare from Basel (the airport nearest to Strasbourg) to Copenhagen and an even cheaper fare from there to Berlin! So was just that an incentive to go to Copenhagen? Nope. It also gave me an opportunity to finally meet my Danish e-friend, Bitten!

So tickets are booked and I am revelling at the amazing deal and how I’d get to see a Scandinavian country that wasn’t even on my travel plan. And then I start looking at hostels.

Mild cardiac arrest. ‘Penny wise Pound foolish’, as the saying goes.

Guilt of having done business and economic studies and not  realised that Denmark is a country with one of the highest standards of living. Which means everything is freakin’ expensive. Which simply put in monetary terms mean 1 Danish Krona = 7 Euros = 450 Indian Rupees.

Good heavenly mother of God, to borrow a wise-mans phrase.

2 days to go before the trip begins and not yet found a place to stay. But why fear when Couchsurfing’s here! And thus, I had my second experience of staying with a local, once again awesome!

I stayed with a Polish-Danish couple for 3 days in Copenhagen. While I slept on a make-shift bed in their living room and showered in the tiniest bathroom ever – it just about fit me in (the couple were much thinner) – it was a refreshing experience nevertheless and one I couldn’t have possibly had in a hostel or in a 5-star hotel. Agniezka (make sure you pronounce that ‘Ag-nee-edge-kah’) the Polish girl warmly welcomed me, chattered non-stop and her Danish boyfriend William who was travelling when I arrived, joined us a day later and together, they gave a complete insight on Danish & Polish culture – both of which I knew nothing about. Ag even lent me her ‘cycle’ (bike as they all call it) and what an experience it was being part of Copenhagen’s much touted eco-friendly transport system! Never in my life would I have imagined cycling in Copenhagen at 11.30 pm and returning home. Completely safe!

On the afternoon of Day 2, we set out to meet Bitten and her family. I had exchanged a few mails earlier with her and all of a sudden I was about to have lunch at her place – and what a lunch it was! She whipped up an impressive meal combining Indian and Danish cuisine. Raw banana fritters, spinach cheese pie, aubergine tomato pie, brown rice and  black lentils (dal) flavoured with mango-chutney – and all of them washed with red wine! She and her husband then took us to the city centre and showed us some of Copenhangen’s landmarks including the beautiful harbour and the next day, we went to a grand park that was later marred by a heavy bout of rainfall. Unfortunate, but gave us the opportunity to devour a nice dessert at a nearby café!

Mange tak, Bitten & Agniezka – truly loved every moment spent with you & your family!

My 2 cents:

Copenhagen may not be on top of my ‘must-travel’ list. But there’s so much about the city and its way of living that I admire. And the two wheeled wonders ofcourse. Forget Amsterdam, if you want the pleasure of cycling side-by-side with an executive head of a Danish company on his/her way to work, you are in the right place.

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2012 in Denmark

 

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Dankeschön Deutschland!

The surprise package of my travel experience has been Germany. And Germans in general.

We all grow with certain perceptions of people, places and things. And stereotype them. So one such stereotype I had was Germans being a cold and unfriendly race and German, a ‘harsh’ language – quite an extreme from French, Spanish and Italian – the romance languages I am more aware of. Another one was a Germany that had only meat and potato stalls for food!

With the germans

And then I met Christina. My first German friend who broke the first myth. Who proved that you can eat a lot and exercise, thereby keeping the stomach and the body happy. But I digress. While I still think German is not the best sounding language, she got me curious and amused. I used to love listening to her and Nils, my other german friend talk though I understood nothing. However, it is interesting to note that it has words similar to English and might not be so hard to learn, after all. Oh, and I expanded my German vocabulary, not all of them decent of course :)

Nils, who looked as german as a German possibly could, turned out to be a lot of fun and more importantly, a great cook. The the mouth-watering sans-meat Spätzle he made for a group of us is personally one of the highlights in our weekly Tuesday dinners.

Strasbourg is just a couple of kilometres away from Kehl – the little German town across the river Rhine. While it is almost non-existential, it means a great deal for the Strasbourgeois who do a lot of shopping (groceries and otherwise) since they are much much cheaper there! I too, saved a few precious euros there.

The potent Gluhwein (Mulled wine) to get by cold german winters

Gegenbach- a little village in which reside the ‘young’ grandparents of Chris. The first visit was a tour of the village early November, where I had some yummy wine and cake at their beautiful home. The second one was later in February to see the ‘acclaimed’ yearly carnival where all of a sudden, the quiet village suddenly sprung to life!

Then came Weisbaden, the historic spa-town close to Frankfurt. This was the base for New Year’s day for the husband and I, thanks to his hospitable (ex)boss. A home-made gourmet lunch made by Pedra, his charming wife, and later a long walk across the city centre with a free tour of the historic spots.

This was followed by a rainy day in Heidelberg visiting its famous castle and walking through the streets filled with university students. Walking always leads to hunger and soon I was in a small Döner kebab joint that served an amazingly yummilicious falafel. The best of the many falafels I ate later on. Yes, vegetarian. That broke the second myth.

When the sun shone

Stuttgart was a bit of a disappointment, a dull city on a rainy day also hampered by a severe winter flu! And looking at tons of Mercedes Benz’ whizzing past us (like they were Maruti 800’s) only made matters worse!

Mannheim had to be visited. Arch – an old school friend I met after years, which obviously meant good moments relived and some great indian home-cooked food. A long drive along the River Rhine dotted with tons of castles and Lorelei, a place where the sun showed some mercy and gave 10 minutes of a much-appreciated panoramic view of the river and the row of sun-washed coloured houses alongside.

East side gallery

Lastly, a city I wanted to go just because it was called Berlin. Nain, I had no valid interest to go there, but how could you stay so close to Germany and return without seeing Berlin and its inglorious past. And so Berlin, I went – the last city in my European voyage. Did I like it? Lets just say that if I were asked to pick one big city to work and settle in Europe, it just might be Berlin. I really cant find a logic to that answer. I tried. No, please don’t blame it on the beer.

And so here’s a toast to Germany and my German friends – PROST!

 
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Posted by on May 1, 2012 in Germany

 

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Notes from Netherlands

A 4-day Easter break provided the perfect opportunity to visit the land of tulips, canals and cannabis.

A little more than a day was spent travelling to and from Amsterdam in the low-priced but painstakingly long and uncomfortable Eurolines bus. But then, that applies for bus journeys world over for yours-truly, so we shall let that pass.

While there was no fixed itinerary, there were a couple of places I wanted to see – Anne Frank Museum and the Tulip garden at Keukenhof.

I dint see either.

To digress a bit, this was my first Couchsurfing experience, where, as the name goes, you ‘surf’ on a couch (or a mattress) at a local’s place. After weeks of contemplation, I finally mustered the courage to stay with a ‘stranger’ who had agreed to host me through the website. (Must admit I did some background research – courtesy google – results of which made me wonder whether I’d return in one piece)

But it turned out to be an awesome experience. My host, a 50ish year old lady with a heavy Yorkshire-accent has spent a major part of her life in Amsterdam, has a small but cosy apartment tucked in a quiet locality away from all the noise and crowds of the touristy city centre. She welcomed me with a warm hug followed by a delicious ginger-carrot-parsnips soup (recipe duly noted) and further went on to share experiences about the city and to a large extent, how its ‘vices’ undid and did her life. I had a small room to myself and was completely at home. It was an enriching experience and only made me wish I had couchsurfed in my earlier travels.

We chatted on and on with me having lost track of time. When I finally left her place and reached Anne Frank’s museum, it was 4pm and suddenly it seemed as if the whole world had congregated in Amsterdam on this long holiday weekend. The queue must have been about 250-persons long. Took the alternative option of visiting the ‘Heineken Beer Experience‘, that included an hour long guide to beer-making along with simulated and interactive stuff ending rightfully with 2 complimentary beers. Anne Frank was momentarily forgotten.

A Sunday morning attempt to revisit the museum was in vain with the queue having doubled. Ditched even the one-hour drive to see the tulips. I was content with my own little tulip corner in Strasbourg rather than seeing a field interspersed with millions of tourists posing or clicking photos. So the miserably cold and rainy day was spent loafing around canals, a quick glimpse at the red-light area (which is literally, at the heart of the city) and a small ‘dig’ of a chocolate ‘hash’ brownie at a coffee-shop (we are in legal territory, remember? :D).

In hindsight, Monday was best day spent in Netherlands. A quick online research made me decide the best option was to get out of the city and its madding crowd. Reached the train station and bought a return ticket to Delft along with a currant bun and raspberry smoothie. The hour-long journey was perfect, the country-side dotted with a few windmills and acres of tulip fields that I’d missed seeing earlier. Delft, a city known for its blue-pottery making was postcard-pretty with a magnificent church at its centre. I was even party to an Easter choir, thanks to a volunteer who instantly gave me a handout in Hindi! Later, was involuntarily pulled into a cheese shop that allowed me to taste 5 flavours of cheese, all drool-worthy. Happily left the place after investing in a small jar of organic cranberry mustard!

The return journey included two more quick stops – at Leiden (a canalled city like Amsterdam but smaller and far prettier) and Haarlem (once again pretty, but eerily deserted and I almost lost my way back to the station, phew!)

I would definitely want to revisit Netherlands some day and explore the many mind-numbingly pretty towns. And finally drop into the Anne Frank museum on my way out  :)

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2012 in Netherlands

 

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Mamma mia, this gotta be Italia! – Part 2

(contd. from earlier post)

The French Padre

And so, from the Vatican I made my way to the metro station to return to Rome and along, figured I had lost my way. And who should I ask but a young (and handsome, if He may) pastor for directions? Turned out that he was also on his way to the capital, and so we had a brief 10 minute walk where I learnt that he was actually French – a religious Frenchman, that’s a bit hard to believe – who obviously was happier answering the call of God in Italy.

To trim or not to trim

3 days in Rome passed by with a running nose, and seeing almost everything Rome had to offer – the Colosseum (stunning at night), Trevi fountain, the Spanish steps and the Pantheon. Then out of impulse, I did the weirdest thing – I went to a barber salon! Haircuts in Strasbourg are expensive, and after an enquiry, i figured that it was 75% cheaper! So, in Rome on my last evening, I communicated with the non-english speaking, Berlusconi-look alike barber in 5 italian words and a whole lot of actions and had a haircut that actually looked pretty cool ;)

Run, Vendor, run!

If you have been to Fashion Street in Mumbai where road-side vendors close shop and run at the sight of cops, this might strike a chord. Similar incidents happen in Italy, as I found out near the Vatican museum. After travelling through big cities in Europe where everything is orderly and people obey the law (in general), it was quite amusing to see vendors, selling fake Gucci’s and Rayban’s run from one end to another, and repeat the whole episode on a regular basis.

The bike ride

No guesses here! Papa G took me on a sexy bike ride across the streets of Naples and onto its posh neighbourhood as well! Sexy because it was a BMW bike. Ooh!

Papa G is the proprietor of a ‘hostel’ aptly named ‘Giovanni’s Home’ in Naples. His home was a blessing after 7 days of backpacking alone. He spent my first 30 minutes breaking some myths about Naples and its mafia and told me the places I should avoid. Thanks to him, I spent a wonderful day at the ruins of Ercolano and climbing up Mt. Vesuvius with 2 American girls who were on a short study-project. Back home for dinner and Papa G made us an excellent local specialty and we even dropped the girls to the airport. And on my final evening in Italy, not only did I get to sit on a fancy bike but was also treated to an excellent cioccolato-espresso at one of the popular cafes.

Lastly, I’d be erring on my part if I dint mention Sorbillo’s where I devoured the best pizza ever eaten. One huge Margherita in 5 minutes. Time to stop, or I’ll salivate my keyboard.

My 2 cents:

When some say Italy is all about food, they mean it. Don’t even dare return without having had a fair share of gelatos, paninis, pastas, pizzas, cappuccinos & espressos. And amidst all this gluttony, well, you can visit a few famed landmarks.

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2012 in Italy

 

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Mamma mia, this gotta be Italia! – Part 1

Italy was the first big solo trip – 11 days in all. Something I’d been wanting to do for long. And now that it has been accomplished, thank you very much but no, not again!

While this post (and the next) is about Italy, it’s not so much about the places I visited but rather about a few amusing observations and encounters.

I visited the 3 cities that most tourists goes to, and then went further south since my Italian friend had sung praises of how the southerners have more beauty and soul, in sharp contrast to everyone else who asked me not to venture down there alone!

And so the itinerary looked like this: Strasbourg – Venice – Florence – Rome & Vatican – Naples – Strasbourg

Pasta

Venice was rustic and commercialized but as beautiful as it is known to be, with gondolas and an array of stores selling fancy Venetian masks. After Day 1 of exploring the place with Meg, an American backpacker I met at the hostel, Day 2 was spent wandering through all those narrow alleys and waterways with an intention of getting lost and attempting conversation with locals for directions. Alongside intermittent but very essential gelato pit-stops.

Walking through one such alley, I hear a woman loudly yelling a repetitive “Pasta! Pasta!” followed by some words in Italian. I stopped and turned around, curious to know what that was all about. After a couple of minutes, from nowhere appears a brown mongrel running towards the lady. Now that was one very inedible but cute looking Pasta!

Marco Polo

Well, it’s just Marco. An old man I met at Florence. I checked into a really nice hostel and after a delicious cup of Cappuccino, hopped onto a bus that took me uphill to Piazzale Michelangelo, known not just for the statue of David, but also for a panoramic view of Florence, in particular The Duomo.

After having taken my fair share of photos, I couldn’t help but overhear an old man in conversation with a young traveller. Soon enough, our friend had a small audience, with me partly playing a translator! (since he spoke better French than English). So Marco had lived all his life in Florence and having retired, came to the square every evening and imparted a bit of knowledge of the place and its art, to those interested. Moreover, he took us to 2 quaint but different looking chapels further up the hill. As a result, I can now claim to know more about Renaissance and Gothic art than just their spellings. ;)

Mexico and Adiga over Risotto

A complimentary dinner and wine at the hostel in Florence made me return to my room by 7pm. Which was not a bad thing because:

  1. I got to taste some exquisite ‘Kirsche liquer’ from Lisa, my German roommate who came from the village which grows some of the best cherries
  2. I shared the table with a Mexican girl who asked me tons of questions on India in relation to Arvind Adiga’s ‘White Tiger‘, which she was reading before I interrupted her. In exchange, I learnt why I might have to carry a gun if I ever visited her little town close to Mexico city. One of the most interesting and intelligent people I met, and we left without sharing any contact information!! Serendipity, maybe?

Italian Mamma

I’ll try to remember Rome as positively as I can. Well, what do you expect if you are struck by a severe flu, put up in a hostel dorm where teenage something’s (okay, they were probably 20 something’s) come every hour till 4am to the room to drink, because the pub below was expensive? Add to that, 5 days of travelling alone with 5 more to go!

Anyway, Stop 1 was The Vatican. After touring the Basilica, I halted at a corner of St. Peters square, sitting next to a touring group of Italian ladies. ‘Mammas’ evidently because of their age and loud animated conversations. They seemed to be on a religious ‘picnic’ and this was their lunch break. The ‘leader’ mamma opened neatly packed foils of Paninis one by one, and distributed them to the rest. And then she saw me watching them all (in amusement, but maybe she dint think so). So gives me one glance and lets loose a string of words in Italian with a sweet smile. I’d learnt some key words, two being “Mangiare” (to eat) and “carne” (meat) so when I figured that the sandwich had meat, I declined with a visual attempt at being grateful for her offer. Only that she looked at me scandalised, threw up her hands the italian way and said – Non carne??? Mamma mia!! A curious bystander then looks at me and says “she is really upset that you don’t eat meat. So what exactly do you eat ??”

(to be contd)

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2012 in Italy

 

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The white weekend

I had this dream where I entered a village enveloped in snow. Everywhere I saw white. Snow and ice and even glistening snow dust that fell over my face. I was staying in one of those ancient roofed houses with chimneys – the one’s that you look at while driving past a village and say “oh, I wish I could stay there for a while”. The air was ice cold. At -17°C and with gusts of wind, it felt like -22°C ? Who knows, it all seemed surreal.

And then I pinched myself – no, I wasn’t dreaming.

When Corinne, my e-friend invited me to ‘Goux-les-usiers’ a village unheard-of near the Swiss border, I happily accepted it, always on the lookout for the ‘authentic’ travel experience that comes when you have a native hosting and showing you around. And so I set off one early Saturday morning. Getting up at 5 am? Oh, never a problem when it comes to travel.

Everything was normal till I reached Besançon, the nearest big city. Corinne came to pick me up, along with Fifi her cute pooch . It was -11°C. And then it happened out of nowhere. As she drove away from the station, everything suddenly turned white. And I mean WHITE. Heaps and heaps of white. Trees covered in white. Houses with white roofs. White cars. And white roads, though that is quite dangerous and not a good thing.

Then we reached her village. -17°C. Yes I could feel it. Call me crazy if you may, but how often does someone from a tropical country get to see something that as a child, only witnessed and visualised in fairy tales. An old but well-maintained house built sometime during the 1850’s with a huge garden, overlooking acres of mountainous forests of Christmas trees,  – all snow-covered ofcourse. An office (where she works) that looks like a portion of a resort that’s been plucked from a far-away beach and planted here. So well, you get up on a Sunday morning, look out through the window sipping hot chocolate and nibbling on some of the region’s best cheese and just soak in all the white. Bliss!

And that closed on another eventful trip – merci Corinne.

3 highlights of the voyage:

1. The yummy Fondue (Comté cheese, white wine & tomatoes) in a small café just off the breathtakingly beautiful Lake St. Point. You definitely emerge energised, happier and ready to take on the cold!

2. Source de la Loué – a spring. While it is more ‘touristy’ during summer-spring, trekking up to it right in the middle of winter and seeing what awaits is quite another experience that cant be described in words.

3. Its almost like being in Swiss with all the snow and the typical wooden houses and plenty ski options. But a lot less cheaper! And ofcourse, you are unlikely to see Bollywood stars break out into a song-and-dance sequence!

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2012 in France

 

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