If you want to just see the pictures please Click Here
We started on Wed May 17th from Newark, nj headed out to Amsterdam, Holland on a Northwest flight. The trip was slated to commence in Amsterdam and after traversing lots of territory in Europe was supposed to end in London on 31st May. We did not do much preparation for the tour since it was all "arranged" - all we did was to take some clothes and our personal stuff. As we settled into our seats on the northwest flight, we were looking out of the window and saying to ourselves - the adventure has begun. We were more right about this statement than we knew !
It was the 6pm flight that we climbed into. The crew was all set and just when the plane was to taxi out we saw the lights flicker a couple of times and soon the captain's voice was on the intercom "we have a slight problem, please hang on". We waited for a few moments, expecting to take off any time when the croaky voice returned "folks seems like we have a major overhaul here, we would like the passenger deplane and go to the ticketing counter for rebooking on other flights". For a couple of moments we did not understand whats going. The gravity of the situation settled in when all the folks got up to dig into the overhead compartments to get their belongings and started to "deplane". The adventure had begun !!
After we got off there was a mad rush to the ticketing counter - we didnt fall behind. A run is always a good thing. At the ticket counter we stood for the next three quarters of an hour without knowing whether we were ever going to take off that day. No information was ever given out about the future. That was the time when we started discussing if the adventure was going to end at this point. Deepa mentioned things about whether travel agent would return our money if we dont take the trip at all. It was a tense moment. Then the airline folks announced that there was a chance that the plane could be repaired the night and we might take off. They also distributed some coupons for dinner and telephone calling cards to pacify the crowd. We hung on to the lifeline that the flight might take off and went back to the gate from the ticket counter. We also called up vicky and made provisions for an email to be sent to the travel agent to inform about our delay. Inside our minds we thought that we would have to cancel the trip since there was no point in flying the next day and trying to catch up with the tour. To cut a long story short, after an agonising wait of 5 hours we did take off 5 hours late.
In Amsterdam, however the tour had proceeded ahead assuming that we will meet them at the hotel they were staying the first night. After landed and had cleared the customs we searched a bit for the tour folks. As expected we did not find them. Then we started on the research of how to get to the hotel for that night. We also wanted to visit the famed Keukhenhoff gardens in Holland. The hotel was in Den Haag (The Hague) city. We had to take a train from Amsterdam airport. Fortunately for us Keukhenhoff was on the way. So we took the train tickets and deposited ourselves on the next available train. The train rolled across the the Holland country side. There we were in an unknown country, with unknown currencey called guilders, just the two of us, knowing not what was in store in for us in the near future. Yet we enjoyed the train ride - it was just too good. Interestingly the guilders look like toy money - brightly coloured, odd shaped notes.
We got down at a station and headed for the bus stand outside - this is where we would get a bus to the gardens. The wait was a bit long but finally we were on our way. The bus dropped us and we started our tour. After a bit of walking we saw the garden restaurant. We then realised that we were hungry. Stopped for a toilet break, refurbished ourselves and sipped a refreshing cup of coffee. We were further ready to explore the gardens. It was very unfortunate that we were there for the end of the tulips season. We did not find lots of bloom.
As we walked further, the miracle of the year happened - Deepa noticed her father headed our way !! She went and hugged him. I just could not believe it, neither could anybody else. We had found our travel group right there in the Keukhenhoff gardens. We quickly finished the tour of the gardens and joined the tour. We were delighted to find the tour bus. We were meeting our parents after quite some time. Pleasantries, hugs and "where were you we were worried"s were exchanged. After that moment the tour was as smooth as silk. We just tagged along with the tour manager - a person who travels with the group and handles all the arrangements on the tour.
The tour as mentioned started in Amsterdam, Holland. Next we drove into Germany and visited Cologne, Heidelberg and the Black Forest. The next country on the list was Switzerland, we visited Zurich and Mount Titilis on this leg (we would return to another part of Switzerland later). After that we drove into Italy - we visited Venice, Florence, Rome and Pisa. The city of Nice in France was next - when here we visited Monaco-Monte Carlo. We returned back into Switzerland visiting a small town called Villars and the famed Jung Frau mountain top. The next day we headed into Paris, staying a couple of days. After Paris we rode the Eurostar train into London. We stayed for a day in London and it was time to fly off ! That was the itinerary at a glance. Yes it is hectic. For the most part of the tour the mode of travel was a nice big coach which had a lot os space in its belly for all the luggage for the fifty people on the tour. The luggage has to move with us all the time. The coach a mercedes benz made, amazingly comfortable. For most parts the roads in europe as pretty much as comfortable as anywhere else in the world (even compared to the US). Thus inspite of travelling 500 kms (remember all of Europe has shifted to meters) on alternate days it was not tiring at all. At places we had to take train rides, cable cars and other modes of travel, but in all it was very comfortable. Our coach was driven by a very professional and courteous driver - Andrei was from Belgium.
The staying places were well chosen, each of the hotels was of the Holliday Inn class in the US. Except for a couple, all of them were very comfortable and clean. The stay at the hotel included a continental breakfast in the morning. We used to fortify ourselves with lots of bread, cereal, croissants, dry fruits, milk, etc etc right in the morning. This meal used to be so effective that we could get by until dinner with some home made stuff to eat for lunch. Our group had carried Thepla, chooda, shankar-pale, laadoo, mandige etc etc, with most of the contributions from our parents. These dry foods would carry us for the day. The dinners were arranged at Indian restaurants, a few of them were arranged in the hotels we were staying. The food was buffet style north indian. It was good for people coming from India, but we would not have minded tasting local delicacies. Moreover the Indian restaurants would be crowded, claustrophobic and at times outrightly bad food. Also at tiems we had to drive a long way just to visit the restaurants for dinner. This time could have been used up for other useful purposes. Anyway we carried on.
The next parts of this trip-doc gives our feelings about each of the countries. Instead of a day to day itinerary, which will turn out to be boring, we will just highlight what we felt about each of the countries as we went along the tour. Remember that these feelings are a result of a fleeting visit to each of the places. Basically each of the countries are good in their own right.
Holland seems to be that ideal mixture of country living with
urban development. You would not find real wilderness in Holland at all.
However you would not find real bad urban sprawl either. The country side
is beautiful and mostly smeared with farms of every sort. The famous
windmills of Holland dot the landscape outside the cities. Amsterdam is
the only "big city" that we found. The people seem to be really helpful
and nice to talk to.
An Exit in dutch is called: Uit or Afrit
This is the country that we felt like exploring more. Even though Germany is famous for its urban development there are still places that one would enjoy visiting. The Rhine river which forms the main vein of Germany flows through some gorgeous locations through its journey. The cities here are not that impressive. At other places the Rhine can be clogged with industrial ships traffic. There are still places that wear the tell tale signs of the World War-2 bombing. What is impressive in Germany is the way you feel when a merc zooms past you on the autobahns ! You are in this coach which is travelling at 100 km/hr, when a mercedes overtakes you in no time - probably doing anywhere between 150-200 kms/hr. In the country side there is no speed limit for cars (only) on the autobahns. Interestingly the slower traffic keeps out of the way (unlike in the US where driving slow in the fast lane is a popular pastime :-).
We meet all kinds of people in Germany. The US corporate fast-food
restaurants (particularly MacDs) are invading in here fast. It is hard to
imagine how much German richeness was destroyed in the wars because now its
difficult to see much of it in the cities.
An Exit in German is called: Ausfahrt
Take a simple point and shoot camera, point it in any random direction and shoot - you are bound to get a great picture. That is Switzerland. The swiss are a blessed race to be living in the midst of the famed Alps. No wonder they call it the most beautiful country. Most of the country is all mountains almost all of them snow covered. Typical scenes include ranges of snow covered mountains, little mountain gurgling brooks, and vast valleys below the towering mountains. At this time of the year (May) the valleys are exploding with spring blooms adding a great look. Most of the valleys and mountains are dotted by rustic wooden cabins. An interesting thing we noticed was that most of the grass around these places even right at the top of the mountains was mowed and neat ! Not sure how they got the lawn mowers up there, but there are vast mowed grass lands whereever you look. Also we were not sure whether they do it for the sake of tourism since that is the major industry in Switzerland. For all you know there might be a law stating... In any case all good calendar photos, I bet, come from Switzerland :-). The Swiss are a mixed set of races, consisting mainly of three groups - German speaking, French speaking and Italian speaking. Though their languages are different they are all the same business minded Swiss folks. No wonder it costs about $100 a day to survive in here :-). I think the rush of all the rich folks (not mention all the bollywood movie makers) to spend a vacation here have driven the costs up.
One starts to admire the people from this area - the Swiss and the surrounding Germans, Italians and French - for the way they have conquered the Alps. The scenery looks great from a distance, but when you really get close to climbing one of these mountains you realise how difficult it is to lead a life here. In the midst of this, these folks have built roads, houses and what not at places you would least expect. Trains climb hill sides at almost an angle of 60 degrees !! Winters here must be really harsh, bringing life to a stand-still. But no, life goes on for these people. Hats off to these people who have conquered the Alps. However one interesting thing about this place is, though its amazingly beautiful, there is not much of variety for the eye. Most of the places look the same - snow covered mountains, valleys etc. So go to one place in Switzerland and stay put for a week and return, you would have visited everything !
The people in Switzerland are pretty nice to talk to, but
beware they will fool you when you convert money from $ to Swiss Francs
!!! Tourism is the biggest industry and getting money from tourists is
the biggest art I guess. As long as you are ready to spend, its heaven
place here. Dont forget to get the swiss chocolates when you are here, but
dont get the swiss watches and knives. They are cheaper elsewhere in the
An Exit in Switzerland is called: depends on where you are. If you are in the German speaking part of Switzerland German is used, French speaking parts use French etc.
If you did not know, Italy is one of the poorest nations in Europe (though probably its far richer than India). I am sure this was not the case before the war. Anyway Italy is place of diversity, history and ruins - pretty much like India. Poverty probably has brought crime with it, but we dont come face to face with it if you are the normal tourist. An average Italian, I think, lives in a run down apartment close to a big city and owns a Piaggio two wheeler scooter. And is affected by pollution, traffic and all that is urban, again reminds of India. The climate in Italy too is pretty hot, you get down from the Alps and get closer to the ocean.
For history craved folks Italy is the place. You can visit Venice where a taxi means a boat. That is because there are no roads in this city, they are replaced by canals instead :-). Dont know how they manage it, but this water doesnt smell bad, though it doesnt look neat. Then there is Rome where you can see the ruins of the great Roman empire, reminding you of good ol' Julius. The distances in Italy are vast too, with a potential to make your trip tiresome. An ideal 15 day trip would drop Italy altogether was our feeling. But then the tick-value of trip decreases with no leaning tower of Pisa.
Again you can find all
kinds of people in Italy. If you are in the popular tourist places you
find very little Italians, only those who are selling something on the
roads. One thing you cannot deny is that Italians are artists in
everything they do. Some of the most difficult to build roads, tunnels
and structures could be seen here. Some of the most delicate glass work
exists in Venice. And we need to speak nothing of the great artists of the
past. Their art still lives on the walls and even roofs of the cathedrals
in Rome and Vatican city. It speaks volumes of the glory of the past.
An Exit in Italy is called: Uscita.
France is a large and diverse landscape country. The southern France is rich and oceanic country. It is close to the ritchie-rich's paradise: Monaco and Monte Carlo. The French riviera, as it is called, is sprinkled with numerous car dealers, rich perfumeries and other pastimes of the rich (read that as gambling). The Monte Carlo grand-prix circuit is world famous. Note that Monaco-Monte Carlo is a seperate rich principality (country), but surrounded by France. All the rich and famous, including Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren etc etc live here. Infact the rich and famous of the rest of the world come down here frequently too - you notice a private jet or a private cruise ship now and then.
The northern parts of France is mostly centered around Paris with fashion everywhere. In between these two rich parts is the flat country side with the peasantry tilling the lands and growing food stuff for the country. The French people are also very nice to talk to with the reservation that though they understand english they dont speak it. Probably a measure to ensure that the french language doesnt die. So you got to speak a couple of french words and when they know that you are trying your best, they will start speaking in english :-). Paris is the urban town plagued by all that is urban - wall writings, tall buildings, traffic buildups etc etc. However, there are quite a few historic sites and buildings right in the heart of the city. The most visible of them is of course the Eiffel tower. On a good tourist day it can be a gruelling effort to get to the top of the tower as we had. It took us so long to get up there that it was almost time to start down when we reached :-))). The view from the top hower is good. Again Paris is the place for history lovers. The Paris transport system is also excellent. A cruise on the river Seine, Paris by night, is a good experiece, since all the historic buildings are lit up. Infact they look better by night than at day.
Another land mark of Paris night-life
is the Lido show. Claiming to be the biggest night show in the world it
never disappoints you. Its like a night club where you and your party
share a table with food and drinks (exorbitantly costly). The tables
sorrund a simple looking stage. Its when the show starts that the stage
becomes colourful and exotic. There are fountains rising from under the
ground, performers doing ice-skating. Its complete with a dragon riding
girl flying onto the stage and fantastic dances/acrobatics. Beware that
some of the dances have top-less girls, but its not one bit vulgar. A must
for any group (probably not childern) visiting Paris.
An Exit in France is called: Sortie
This section is titled as London instead of United Kingdom to reflect reality - we did not tour UK, but toured the London city only. We got to London from Paris via a train line called the EuroStar. This is one of the fastest trains in Europe - next I believe only to the TGV. This train clocks a cruising speed of 300 km/hr !! Its an exhilrating experience to overtake land traffic travelling at 100 km/hr at thrice the land speed !! Food and drink on this train interestingly does not cost much and is served at your table - oh yes there are tables at the seats. Paris to London is three hours.
London is that old town where red coloured double-deckers still ply on the city roads. The first thing you notice in London is the exorbitant taxi prices. It could easily cost you 70 pounds to go to the airports from your hotel. Try the mass transit instead. The underground train and the double-decker bus is definitely a better choice.
There tons and tons of old monuments, castles and bridges
in London. Definitely, you could spend a nice day in there - however its
very difficult to find a "nice" day weather-wise in London. But if you
find one a tour is fascinating. However dont expect too much from this
city in terms of shopping, dining and the like. Its way too expensive.
Thus its a good one day destination - two days at most. As you traverse
the narrow and (at times) dingy streets of London, you can feel the
Sherlock Holmes story unfolding. All residential areas look like 221B
Baker St - substitute the buggies with the taxis. Interestingly London
town planners have maintained a very old design for the taxis, though the
cars themselves might be new. This adds a quaint look to the town, hence
unfolding the above said story. At times it can be really charming.
An Exit in London is called: For heaven sakes they speak english :-)
A trip like ours is a very good deal if you are travelling with parents and other elderly people. Otherwise you could be more brave and embrace the food on the roads and drive around Europe. But remember that the petrol prices are thrice that of US. Moreover a trip like this can give you a bird's eye view. You could choose to visit certain parts of Europe at a later date. Even if you cannot afford two trips, this is a good deal because you get to taste everything.
The buffet style north-Indian food and the lack of flexibility can be trying at times. Particularly the photographer in you feels inhibited. Otherwise it was a great trip that we enjoyed to the core !!