Undoubtedly the best thing that happened last year was my trip to Europe. I felt like being teleported from work, frustration and sleepless marathons to a world of beauty, pleasure and happiness. Sometimes the sheer strength of eagerness for change makes travel time loose its true length of existence that we feel teleported. This post is a compilation of some refreshing, thrilling and brain fucking crazy moments in the trip that have managed to grab a permanent place in my heart.
#1 Tour de Eiffel
Since the Eiffel Tower was the first world wonder that I would be visiting, excitement level was sky high. It was night already and the rain clouds were beginning to loosen giving away mild sporadic drizzles. The local metro train painlessly transported the best of me to the door step of this marvellous structure. At first glance, she appeared like a giraffe neck made of a random arrangement of extra long and double thick bamboo sticks from Cambodian forests. Only when I reached right below her feet, I could appreciate her pure metal – the patterns that contribute to its beauty would make any visitor fall in love with metal. My mouth only gathered the phrase “raw beauty” after a head to toe look of her. After satisfying my initial cravings, I proceeded to get my ticket for second level which was the maximum I was allowed in that weather condition. The elevator was crowded with rumors of pickpockets which reduced the scope for enjoying the already short journey.The moment I reached the second level, I could feel the strong, cutting cold breeze. I could not take more than one snap at once removing my gloves. I took a walk at snail’s pace against the spine chilling, bone breaking winds around the second level of Eiffel to get a 360 degree view of Paris. (Later I came to know that it was that unlucky day that recorded the lowest annual temperature for Paris.) Paris city from there looked like a second sky twinkling with thousands of colourful lights in the city. The drizzles were the only mismatch to this imaginative astronomical system which kept reminding reality’s version of sky. After staying there as long as the cries of my freezing body’s agony became audible enough to interrupt my thoughts completely, I decided to leave her and head back to my place of stay.
#2 Road trip to Pisa
What started as a funny suggestion for a work free day became a reality within 24 hours. I finished work on wednesday evening and my flight was scheduled for friday. It was evident that thursday was going to be a free day and possible one day activity suggestions started cropping from wednesday morning itself. The inviting roads in Nice and organized traffic across Europe made road trips top everything else in the suggestions chart. Pisa for a top choice because the coastal route was too scenic to miss. The idea triggered enough excitement within my system and this effect combined with my thrist for new experiences made me overlook practical difficulties like right hand drive system in Europe. We did not have a good grasp of several essentials like traffic rules practised there or how to use a GPS system (embarassing but true!). Somehow, we did manage to muster enough courage and help from friendly folks to set out on our cross country adventure trip to Pisa, Italy. To me, this trip would take me to another world wonder, the Leaning Tower of Pisa within a span of 20 days which was worth all the risk and adventure involved. As expected, I did not sleep on wednesday night. We did some driving tests that night which gave us a preliminary guarantee for the safety of ourselves and others in the road – you see driving is a collective responsibility! After enough practice, we decided to rest for few hours and planned to set out on our maiden road trip early next morning. The weather dint play pranks allowing us to thoroughly enjoy the breathtaking views in the route – through Geneva, Switzerland primarly over valleys and long tunnels dug into mountains.
Unlike Eiffel, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is a modest construction. It is a petite beauty leaning over thin air and whistling at spectators who raise their eyebrows in wonder. The lawn and cathedral nearby add to the beauty of the site. The emphasis is not on the design or magnanimity of the tower (unlike other world wonders) but rather on the method followed to stop the downfall of the tower due to weak foundation. The fusion of mathematical calculations with architecture enabled the creation of this world wonder.This is clearly explained in charts displayed in the ground floor of the tower. The spiral stairs, a common find in such archeological sites, lead us to floors open for visitors for experiencing the tilt of the construction from different heights. At the top level, this effect is maximum and becomes obvious when we try to walk around the circumference of the level. The angle of tilt can be so sharply experienced that it would be difficult to walk without the support of walls. After enough experiments with the tilt of the tower, we decided to head down and take few fancy snaps.
The return journey was not smooth – thanks to the pranks of weather god after sunset. At one point, we had to drive into a settling fog which appeared to be translucent from outside but became opaque as soon as we drove through it. For a few seconds, I drove like how pilots fly aircrafts through thick clouds with zero visibility (ofcourse we dint enjoy the luxury of a radar system in our car ;) ). It made my heart beat the crap out of me (folding hands and telling ‘See I told u so!’) and pump all adrenalin quota left for the day at one stroke. But thanks heaven… soon enough we were out of the fog and luckily there were no cars before us eliminating possible accident scenarios. There were no more tests from nature after that and so we finally reached our hotel safe after a truly adventurous outing.
#3 The Vatican visit
I never knew that a country could be enclosed inside compound walls until I visited Vatican. Moreover, it was just a metro’s reach from Rome. Coming from a border sensitive land, the butter smooth existence of a religious power center within another country itself was a piece of amusement to me. Though easily outnumbered by the tourists, the huge pillars standing around the vatican square manage to foretell the artistic flavours one is about to experience in the venue. Quickly passing the security checks, while lining up to enter St. Peter’s Basilica, nobody would fail to notice the numerous statues perfectly carved above the pillars surrounding the Square. That’s the point when even the non Catholic hearts pour respect for the venue – if not for spiritual reverence, atleast for the fine works of art. To me, some looked like angels, some like Casper and even some depicted characters I vaguely remember in Jesus movies but that simply din’t matter. It is the magnanimity of presentation of art that dominates the air around the place. I sincerely took to believe that such presentation had a great role for the deep reach and acceptance of Christian faith – suddenly realizing the strength of fine arts, sometimes over science.
Within seconds inside the Basilica, I realized what was in store. On one hand, various shades of marble stones, marble sculptures, golden railings exagerrated by enormous light apparatus and paintings depicting significant Christian events feed one’s artistic taste buds. On the other hand, organ music and prayer songs suddenly make calmness and focus affordable. First, I took a tour around the vast premises of the church getting a glance of all painting works, short stories in the form notes below those paintings and marble sculptures of angels and saints. Then, the organ bgm simply drove me to the prayer area to spend couple of minutes. One must not stop with a 360 degree view inside the basilica – they must also look at the carvings, railings and paintings on the ceilings. These works take full advantage of the lighting and manage to give neck pain to any confused admirer.
On my way back to metro station, I even managed to get a glimpse of Pope who was on the move. With amusement, respect and admiration I bid good bye to the smallest country in the world.
#4 Guided tour of Colosseum
If you go to Rome, you must enter the Colosseum. The remains of the theatre is a standing testimonial of strength, vision and architectural mastery. Not convinced with snaps alone, we decided to venture into a guided tour of this historical place. We took the main gates to enter the podium where numerous fighter slaves had fought for their lives and freedom against army fighters and wild animals. From there, I was able to appreciate the enormity of the surrounding audience stand which stretched into multiple levels. It comes very close to this day’s football or cricket stadium in terms of audience capacity. But the podium looked much smaller thereby increasing the impact of audience on fighters. The audience stand had multiple levels for different classes of people. The king, his senate and royal family members would sit on the lower levels which are close to the podium enjoying better view. On the next level,wealthy members of the society who owned a horse could reserve a seat! Further beyond them,merchants and other kinds of earning population were allowed to be seated. Just below the top level, the poor and the weak were placed to enjoy the shows. Finally, in the top most level, only at the farthest level from the podium were women allowed to sit. I was surprised when the guide informed that women were seated farthest so that they could not distract the fighters or lure them. Oh boy! Gender bias has deep and historic roots! The most striking design in the podium was not immediately visible – the drinage system constructed for draining blood and washing seperated body parts after fights. A drinage for blood – not exactly what I wanted to hear at the beginning of the tour. I just couldn’t imagine that to begin freaking out!
We proceeded to take a look at the undergroud level below the podium. It was interesting to note that while the portions above ground employed concrete based construction, the underground structures employed primitive techniques to glue construction material. In this particular case, brass rods were used to hold together heavy stones used for contruction of arches and pillars. The reason was that under ground levels were used to house fighters and animals used in fight shows. They were very modest facilities which were at times strengthened by using dead bodies of fighters. The cell for fighters is just close to that for the animals and these animals would not be feeded for weeks before their fight in order to keep them hungry. Imagine sleeping next to a chamber of hungry tigers! This feeling, I was able to fathom much easily which I realized from the shivers it sent down my spine.
Interestingly, the Colosseum was tried to be destroyed not once but many times – its building components were broken down and used in the construction of different monuments during different periods of time. Later, during other periods, those monuments were again destroyed and the remains were brought back to fix the damages done to this amphitheater The remains that we see today is actually the Colosseum after several rounds of destruction and dressings made to the damage.
#5 Wandering around Rome streets
Setting out on self exploration of a city with a disproportionate map and streets which constantly take a person back and forth through different periods of history could be much more than brain eating. But trust me – this is definitely a better way to trade your brain rather than your manager eating it in office meetings :) Though people advise to roam in the streets of Rome, we felt it too difficult to accommodate that in a mere 2 day schedule. But we dint know that it was meant to happen. It all started in our effort to locate the Pantheon from the city map. We ended up wandering through random streets and cluelessly exploring several Piazzas and Palazzos in our pursuit to find our way. In our day to day life, we don’t get lost often and if we happen to get lost, we don’t enjoy it. But if one gets lost in Rome, worrying would not be the first thing in mind. In fact, theoretically taking the wrong path is a blessing in disguise :) You roam to find your way and stop at venues which interest you. There is no need to bother if it is a tourist attraction or not. All of us sudden, you get to cater only your tastes and don’t worry about your conformity with general acceptance or liking. But in practice you are never alone in the streets of Rome. There are always tourists who lost their way around and locals helping them reach their place of interest.
In our wandering session which lasted for not more than a couple of hours, we covered several sites including the Piazza Venezia, Palazzo del Quirinale,Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps. (I later googled each of the places that we stopped at and found their names and significance ;) ) Finally, we got to see Pantheon as a bonus. Ironically, what seemed to be a goal at the beginning became reduced to a mere bonus when we reached it.
#6 Walk along Champs-Élysées
I was lucky to walk Champs-Élysées on Christmas eve because thats when it’s at its best. Numerous shops selling all kinds of things from novelties to gifts to toys are lined up on the sides targeting Christmas shoppers. A fair share of the shops also sell various snacks and food items – most of them ingenuiene to France. Unable to resist my temptation, I tried a hot, freshly prepared pack of Churros with sugar – mmm.. delicious it was! It was a pretty long walk but it dint feel so because of the crowd with lots of kids playing around. Inspite of the crowd, it doesn’t take long to realize that the street looks to be misplaced in time. The lamp posts, antique grandiose lights, wide roads, fountains, almost ubiquitous architectural beauty of ancient buildings – all made me search for chariots and horses among the cars in the busy road.The road ends at Arch de Triomphe just like Rajpath in New Delhi ending at India Gate.
#7 Food trails
During this trip, I took time to experiment and please my taste buds by tasting some exotic French cuisines. So these moments fall in the gastronomical excitation category ;). My office was situated in Nice which again is world famous for country wines. This gave me a rich collection to sample. The most amazing of all – desserts. I had some of the best ones during this trip. I take this opportunity to thank people who guided me by suggesting popular preparations.
a) Squid fry – this was the best main course that I had during my trip
d) Chicken & Tuna Panini
An affordable snack type of food that fills stomach when in need.
e) Creme brulee
Please take time to go to wikipedia and read about this dessert. It is the best dessert I have tasted so far. It is an exotic preparation that has a caramel layer on top burned using a blow torch.
Much widely known dessert but anyways I wanted to try it that day!
g) Gelateria (Italian ice cream)
h) Cheese cheese and lots of cheese varieties!
We had a salad late night since few of us were hungry all of us sudden. The restaurant had already closed the kitchen but the waiter there agreed to prepare a salad with various types of cheese he had in kitchen. Few of them which I remember:
Chevre (goat’s cheese)
i) Crepe with Nutella (Thanks Shmruthi, Kannan for letting me taste this one)
j) Churros with sugar (at Champs-Élysées – I should have tried it with chocolate sauce but this itself was difficult to finish)
#8 Last leg run at Rome International airport
This was the craziest moment in the entire trip. The consequences of underestimating the size of airports in Europe could be really really damaging :p So, after our exhausting outing at Rome for 2 days jam packed with a tight schedule, we vacated our room and left for the airport. We reached the airport around 2 hours in advance hoping that it would be enough for boarding the flight. For some wierd reason, security check for our flight never happened till it was just 1 hour for the flight’s departure. And finally when the passengers were called for security check, there was a long queue of passengers trying to hurry because of limited time. We were just hoping for an announcement that the flight’s departure is delayed but we dint hear anything close to that. Finally, when we got through the security check, we had around 30-35 mins for our flight’s departure and we had to just reach the boarding gates in that stipulated time limit. Looks simple isn’t it? But it was this last leg of the journey that fucked us up big time! We neither knew how far the boarding gates are from the security check point nor how huge Rome International airport was :) But our ignorance was shortlived since we were about to find out. We followed the direction boards and we were walking … and walking … and walking…for about 20 mins. Even if we take average human walking speed, we should have crossed 1.5 kms of walking – either planar walking time or escalating time. But the point was, we still dint reach our boarding gates.
Panic struck us as there was hardly 15 mins for our flight’s departure. Since we had to report at office tomo, if incase we missed this flight, we would be required to take the next available flight at any cost thereby ravaging our travel budget estimation. We literally began to run and crashed through the crowd carrying our bags in the middle of the vast Rome international airport loosing the little etiquette that we had learned during the trip. Finally, when there was 2 mins on the clock I was able to see the boaring gate at the far end from the point I was standing then.
As if all this was not enough, when I reached the boarding gates, there was twist waiting like the climax of tamil movie. The display showed a different flight departing to Lisbon and not to Nice. I was shocked. Did we just miss our flight? Did we fail in the last leg of the journey by sheer underestimation of airport size? Before I gave in to all “you are a loser” thoughts, we decided to check with the airport staff at the gates since the flight wouldn’t have departed in matter of minutes like trains. To my surprise, she was not rude that we were late and asked us to wait for a moment. After a minute of talking over the phone, she said that they had already initiated the passenger boarding bridge removal. For a split second I thought we lost the race. But she had something more to tell. She said that luckily the procedure had not yet started till she called to alert about the pending passenger boarding. “Gentlemen, you have a minute to get into the flight”, she said. Wow! with a wide thankful smile on my face inspite of the embarrassment, we ran into the bridge to take our seats in the flight thereby putting an end to the whole “last leg of journey” drama. We were damn tired to contemplate the reason for why it too long to reach the gates or how all the other passengers managed to get there on time. One thing was certain – we screwed up something big time while trying to find our way to the gates.
#9 Meeting College Pals
It feels so good when you are not alone in a foreign land. With my ambitious plans to explore Paris, I was lucky to have Shmruthi and Kannan studying management there. I got some very helpful information about the city and its transport connectivity from them even before reaching there. They were also kind enough to meet me at Notre Dame Cathedral. To talk tamil in French soil with college buddies – amazing feeling :) We had lunch together on the streets while waiting in the queue to go up the cathedral. We also did the usual comparisons between life in France and India. Once we reached the top of the cathedral, we got a complete view of Paris city. It was colorful and mesmerizing. If not for the biting cold winds, we would have stayed longer there. Finally, after taking a few snaps, I had to bid goodbye to them and continue with my plans to explore other tourist venues in the city which was constantly challenging time limitations. I must admit that I was embarrassed later that I dint get them anything from India. A packet of ‘muruku‘ would have been sufficient to express my gratitude in that foreign land.
#10 Audi to office
Nothing specific to the place or trip or anything. But it was definitely a great moment in the trip. I really want to thank Praneeth for taking me to office that day in Audi! Not a big car fan but still it felt gooooood ;)
I hope to travel through Europe again in a much leisurely manner. Already a trip to Amsterdam is on the cards for 2014! Hope things fall in place for it :)