for fellow travellers

Monday, November 16, 2009

Amsterdam to Edinburgh and The Low countries

The sovereign states of Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg are loosely known as the Low Countries meaning thereby the countries lying for the most part below sea level. When I first visited Amsterdam I was struck by the  three storey high, cycle parking filled with hundreds of cycles and roads with separate tracks for cyclists. Then slowly I came to know that this and other low countries are some of the countries which are most worried about the environment and most aware of the effects of global warming, because a fraction of the rise in sea level, spells doom for them. These countries have learnt to fight with the sea and conquer it or may be they have befriended it and have learnt to live with it. They have successfully reclaimed land from the sea for ages  and have learnt to keep the sea at bay with the help of dykes.
The route which we had mapped out, was from London by Eurostar to Paris and from their by Thalys train to Brussels and again by train to Amsterdam. From Amsterdam the initial plan was to take an overnight crossing across the sea and reach Hull in England. Due to lack of time we later decided to fly to Edinburgh from Amsterdam. This was our costliest flight in this trip. We had to pay extra for the checked in baggage also.
This time on my agenda in Amsterdam was Anne Frank house, a canal cruise, eating pancakes and doing whatever else we could manage because we were really short on time.

The queue for Anne Frank house can be really long and it can upset your plans of further sightseeing, so it is best to book in advance on the net. It was an experience going through this house and I wanted to expose my children to this part of human history. It seems almost unbelievable that humans can do such ghastly acts against there own kind.

A canal cruise is  a must in Amsterdam. The best way to see the city. There are glass topped boats which take you through all the major canals. The number of houseboats in the canals is strictly regulated and when one retires only then is another allowed to enter the canal.
All the houses in Amsterdam have a girder with a hook attached right at the top of the house .This is to lift things from the ground with the help of rope and hook through the window, as the staircases are so narrow that there is no place for larger things to be taken up by the stairs.
As we were in Amsterdam in June, it was not possible to see the tulip gardens so instead we went to see the Tulip Museum, which is near the Anne Frank House. This museum can only be used as a filler. I did not think much of it, but as we did not have time for anything else it was good enough. The first image is a photo of a photograph in the tulip museum.

Kohinoor Restaurant
We had great Indian Food at a restaurant called Kohinoor near Anne Frank House and later the next day we had pancakes from Sara's Pancakes. Sara's Pancakes was expensive. We just took one Indian Pancake, the filling was Indian. Nevertheless we enjoyed it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Notre Dame de Paris

The silhouette of Notre Dame in the setting sun
A single post on Paris (my first post on Paris) does not do justice to this lovely city. I found a video which we had shot in the summer of 2004. That had been our first visit to Europe. We had taken a tour from Cox and Kings. It covered Italy, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Holland and England. We had taken great pains at that time to shoot videos, to show it to the family back home. We had fallen in love with Paris during that trip.
The advantage of going on a guided tour was that we were provided with the services of a qualified guide, at all the places. We had a nice guide in Paris. She gave us insight into the lives of the parisians. I particularly loved the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It has innumerable stories attached to it. This video shows Cathedral Notre Dame from inside also.

The Notre dame de Paris ('Our Lady of Paris' in French), also known as the Notre Dame Cathedral, is a Gothic, Roman Catholic Cathedral on the eastern half of the Île de la Cité in the fourth arrondissement of Paris, France.
Besides the cathedral there is the Cathedral tower visit The Notre-Dame tower visit is a trip through all of the upper parts of the western façade, dating from the 13th century, where visitors can contemplate the gargoyles and chimera built by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century and the 17th century Emmanuel Bell. 387 steps (there isn’t an elevator) to the top of the South Tower. It’s best to be in good shape !
Crypt of Notre Dame de Paris
Under the square in front of Notre Dame de Paris is one of the largest archaeological crypts in all of Europe. Before the 1860s, the area in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame was filled with buildings, some dating to the middle ages. When the buildings were torn down remnants of foundations and artifacts dating back to pre-Roman times were discovered. This area on the banks of the Seine has seen human habitation since the early Paleolithic Period, some 500,000 years ago.

If you like this post you will also like Paris - I love this city

Friday, October 23, 2009

Traveling to the moon

This is a video we shot at the Kennedy space centre in the summer of 2007. That was our last day in Orlando. Shaleen drove us in our rented car to the Centre. After 6days of covering the theme parks, one on each day, we saw the Space Centre on our last and seventh day. It was a fantastic experience. I am sharing this experience of the Apollo 8 launch with you.

The furthest destination for a human spaceflight mission has been the Moon, and as of 2009 the only missions to the Moon have been those conducted by NASA as part of the Apollo program. The first such mission, Apollo 8, orbited the Moon but did not land. The first Moon landing mission was Apollo 11, during which—on July 20, 1969—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to set foot on the Moon. Six missions landed in total, numbered Apollo 11–17, excluding Apollo 13. Altogether twelve men walked on the Moon, the only humans to have been on an extraterrestrial body.
Apollo 8 was the first human spaceflight mission to achieve a velocity sufficient to allow escape from the gravitational field of planet Earth; the first to be captured by and escape from the gravitational field of another celestial body; and the first crewed voyage to return to planet Earth from another celestial body - Earth's Moon. The three-man crew of Mission Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders became the first humans to see the far side of the Moon with their own eyes, as well as the first humans to see planet Earth from beyond low Earth orbit. The mission was accomplished with the first manned launch of a Saturn V rocket. Apollo 8 was the second manned mission of the Apollo Program.
After launching on December 21, 1968, the crew took three days to travel to the Moon. They orbited ten times over the course of 20hours, during which the crew made a Christmas Eve television broadcast in which they read the first 10 verses from the Book of Genesis. The crew timed this reading to coincide with a full view of planet Earth hanging in the empty blackness of space, clearly showing the rich diversity of the living planet, as indicated in Earth's colors, seas, landforms, and weather patterns, rising over the dull gray horizon of the lifeless Moon. At the time, the broadcast was the most watched TV program ever. Apollo8's successful mission paved the way for Apollo 11 to fulfill U.S. President John F. Kennedy's goal of landing a man on the Moon.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Problems with Indian credit cards while traveling esp. in Paris.

Special chip missing in Indian credit cards

While boarding from Paris' Gare du nord we almost missed our Thalys train to Brussels because of our credit cards not being accepted by the ticketing machine. During international travel we usually ensure that we reach the airport or railway station well before time.

Gare du nord, Paris but this is a photo while arriving via the Eurostar from London

But somehow we got delayed the day we were leaving Paris and barely managed to reach the station about half an hour before the train was scheduled to leave. At the station in Paris one usually does not come to know the platform at which the train would be arriving till the very last. So the kids and all our luggage was near the ticketing windows and we had to walk a bit to reach our train and the reserved compartment. We had bought our tickets in India through the net and now we just had to retrieve our tickets from the machine. We tried to get our tickets from the machine without any luck and we panicked as there was very little time left and we were carrying loads of luggage.
Meanwhile Anupam, our friend had already joined a queue at the ticket window as he had lost his wallet with credit cards to a pickpocket in a parisian metro!! Yes a man had taken advantage of Anupam as he was traveling with family, a baby and a stroller and was a tourist - yes this also happens in Paris  and we thought that rogues were mainly confined to Italy!. The story goes like this  - As Anupam with family was entering the metro station his paris visite card got folded in his pocket and the machine would not accept it and would not allow him to enter.

This particular man helped Anupam with his card and the stroller and all. He walked with them till inside the train. Now most Paris metro trains open from one side only. At this particular station the doors on both the sides were open. At the last minute the man picked his pocket and ran out from the other side. Meanwhile Anupam came to know immediately he got his family out fast and followed the man. But he lost him in the crowd after a while. It was a planned and targeted pickpocketing.
Coming back to the original story, Anupam joined the queue immediately as we entered the station and so he got his tickets just in time. Meanwhile we tried at the machine and lost precious time. Then we joined a queue and were literally going berserk at the slow pace with which it was moving. It seemed that no one was in a hurry except for us. The clerk would exchange pleasantries with each person first. We were literally jumping up and down with frustration at the etiquettes which the parisians were observing and we were wishing that alas they would behave like Indians. (Do Indians need lessons in etiquettes?) There was no provision for providing tickets to people whose trains were leaving first. We would have stood on the station and watched our train going by.  But it was not to be so and we managed to get tickets in the nick of time. With our friends help we got our luggage and children near the train and literally threw our luggage in the train and got in.
We could not get our tickets from the machine because our cards, which rely on magnetic-stripe technology for transactions, lacked an embedded microprocessor chip, which stores and processes data and is now commonly used in Europe. Such chip-based cards — commonly referred to as chip-and-PIN cards because users punch in a personal identification number instead of signing for the purchase — offer an extra layer of protection against the theft of cardholder data and counterfeiting, and they are designed to replace magnetic stripe technology and signature payments.
The chip-and-PIN technology usually isn’t much of an issue when making purchases at a store, or paying for a meal in a restaurant, as most of those merchants still have credit card terminals that can read the magnetic stripes. Likewise, A.T.M.’s typically recognize and accept many cards whether they have a chip or a magnetic stripe. We could easily draw money from the ATM almost in all the cities we visited.
But Indian and American cardholders have had their cards rejected by automated ticket kiosks at train stations, gas pumps, parking garages and other places where there are no cashiers in Europe. Yes americans are in the same boat as us. It is also important in so much as we had no problems whatsoever in travelling across America in 2007, our credit cards worked everywhere.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Yesterday we were searching for travel videos to upload to a website as an entry for a competition to travel to Philadelphia. As usual it was the last day, when we got round to doing it. But in this confusion I discovered a treasure of travel videos very carefully shot in 2004. I am posting one of them here.
This was a trip to Europe. We started from Rome to Pisa, then Florence and onto Venice. This video has been taken in the field of miracles.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Stonehenge tour

It was possible for us to visit Stonehenge this time in UK, because of The Stonehenge Tour. Most of the tours going out from London leave in the morning as a full day tour usually also covering Windsor Castle and Bath. But as we had to reach London from Hull, it was not possible to reach London early in the morning. We decided to take this tour from Salisbury.
We faced the toughest part in London (which is usually so easy to move around) because of a metro strike. We reached London - King's Cross Station. Here we deposited our luggage in the cloak room at 8 pounds per suitcase, there were four pieces. Then we took a taxi to Waterloo station @22pounds.
On reaching there we bought our tickets from the counter as the ticketing machine was not accepting our credit cards. The ticket to Salisbury which the machine was selling us was costing us 88pounds for a family of four, where as at the window we got it for 55pounds because of discount for the family. This option is not available in the machine. If you are traveling as a family preferably buy at the ticketing window you will get at a discounted rate.

On reaching Salisbury the bus was standing just outside the station and left exactly on time. Salisbury is a quaint town, most famous for its cathedral but we were did not get down to see the cathedral. Inside the bus  there was a recorded commentary about all the sights we crossed.
At Stonehenge we got down and had ample time to explore at our own pace. The audio guides provide a wealth of information. It was quite windy over there. We sat down on the grass and enjoyed a snack as well. In the summers there is a bus almost every half an hour back to the station. It has a stop at Old Sarum, where one can get down and then again catch another bus back. The tour is well organized and punctual and we enjoyed ourselves on this trip.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Oyster card London

We went to meet my husband's colleague who is working at Royal London Hospital, London. When we reached the tube station 'Whitechapel' and came out of the underground it seemed like we had stepped in Aminabad of Lucknow. Inside the tube station the officials were extremely helpful as Shaleen had to swipe his oyster card twice to come out. An official came forward immediately and checked his card in a hand held machine and told him that he had been charged twice for the same journey. At the ticket window he requested the clerk to return the money to Shaleen's card and meanwhile he saw that we had been charged extra for our first trip from the Airport to Embankment that was because we did not know that the card had to be swiped again at the exit and with a lot of luggage we had got out from another gate meant for luggage and handicapped people. The nice clerk at the ticket window returned the money back on all our cards. They also told us that we need not have bought an oyster card for my eleven year old son. We could have bought a one pound ticket everyday for him for the whole day. If you are traveling to London and plan to use the metro a lot, its best to buy an oyster card from the VFS-UK. The card extracts the minimum fare from you for every journey you make and a maximum of five pounds in a day.
Despite the surroundings the Royal London Hospital itself was an amazing piece of architecture. It was beyond what we thought possible inside especially the labs and the lecture theatres.

Below are the labs and there are lecture theatres above, suspended, all in the shape of organelle's of a cell.
From the Royal London Hospital we went to St. Paul's cathedral. The cathedral was grand and I was particularly awed by the crypt which is the cathedral's foremost burial place, and the place where those who have made an outstanding contribution to Britain now rest. Chief among them being Admiral Nelson.

The ceiling of St. Paul's Cathedral
From St. Paul's Cathedral we walked across the millennium bridge to Shakespeare's Globe theatre.

We were lucky to see the rehearsal of "As you like it" which was going on at that time, but we were not allowed to take photographs of the rehearsal. The guide at the theatre was very amusing and told us some remarkable facts. One of them was that the costumes which the actors were wearing had never been washed and that the actors wore a slip next to their skin which was washable and the costumes were never washed. The Globe theatre was strange because the stage had no props no background scenery. The actors costumes and their dialogues were the only things available, for the rest you have to use your imagination. This is one theatre where the audience is fully visible to the actors and if you fall asleep you may be pointed out by one of the actors in the middle of the play. The people standing in the front are very close up to the stage, so much so that they run the risk of being sprayed by saliva.
Then we went to Kensington Palace and gardens. I loved the palace it had an exhibition on debutantes and many of Lady Diana's dresses were on display. The exhibits at the palace gave a closer view of the life during Victorian times.

The ceiling of one of the rooms in Kensington Palace.

This was clicked by Shaleen in the gents toilet at Kensington Palace. I on the other hand had found a very sweet notice stuck on the door of the Ladies toilet which related the details of the first meeting between Queen Victoria and prince Albert as entered by the queen in her diary.
We enjoyed the gardens as much as the palace. They were amazing and everybody seemed to be having a gala time there cycling, skating, etc.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

London Pass

Our second day in London. We had already paid for London passes from the VFS-UK centre in Delhi, but they had to be collected from the British Visitor centre at 1 Regent Street. In our previous trip also we had taken London passes but I think this time, with children, it may not have been such a good idea. Anyway we started from Trafalgar square towards Piccadilly Circus and the centre is just walking distance from the circus.

Piccadilly circus

The Criterion theatre is south of Piccadilly circus

British Visitor Centre
After getting our London Passes from the British visitor centre we also purchased tickets for a musical "WICKED",I had really wanted to see a play this time in London. We went straight for Tower of London, using the tube. The London Pass helped us to just walk through without standing in line for tickets. We went to see the Kohinoor and as this time it was not so crowded we could go round and see it again. We came out from the Tower of London towards the Tower Bridge and there was an exhibition of Bridges which we decided to see, but the elevator was out of order and it was not such a good idea with a stroller. The exhibition was good and going up the Tower bridge was a unique experience but we got exhausted going up the stairs. The entry fee was included in our passes.

After crossing over from the Tower bridge and walking towards HMS Belfast

Photogragh taken from HMS Belfast as the Bridge is being lifted
After coming down from the bridge we went to see the HMS Belfast a world war II warship which has been converted into a museum. The children enjoyed themselves thoroughly. We even met a sailor on the ship who showed us how things had been during the war times.

As we were walking towards an underground station we came across Borough Market London's oldest food market. We bought some fruits and vegetables from here and decided to call it a day as we had to go for a play as well in the night.

Borough Market


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

London - a home away from home

For Indians traveling abroad to the western world, London is like another home, for me it seemed a bit like Mumbai. You can easily hear hindi being spoken on the roads at various places. Saree and salwar suit clad women are seen at shopping areas in plenty. Numerous small general store sort of shops being managed by Bangladeshis who on first appearance look like Indians.
You can roam all over Europe but once you come to London you feel relaxed and at home ground, the reasons maybe loads of relatives and friends in London, familiar language, lot of asians around and friendly english people. I have experienced this thrice that when I am standing (with loads of luggage) at the bottom or top of an escalator in a tube station an englishman would come and help me with the luggage of his own. If you are looking lost and trying to decipher your way around with a map invariably the passers by on their own try to help you out - this happens only in England believe me.

Our stay this time was at Citadines Trafalgar Square Aparthotel, quite centrally located and walking distance from the tube station. We took the underground from the Heathrow airport to our hotel, which I thought was too much adventure considering the amount of luggage we had and a baby on stroller. We had our Oyster cards with us which we had purchased from VFS-UK,Delhi. We had even got one for my son who was eleven at that time and
the officials at the tube station in Whitechapel told us that we need not have got one for him, we could have got a day ticket worth one or two pound a day for him which would have been cheaper or us. We caught the Piccadily line the only one from the Heathrow Airport it was a rush and we changed from Hammersmith to the District line (green). Luckily we had to just walk across the platform for a change in line and not go up and down on escalators or stairs and the station was not crowded, phew! that was really lucky!! Though we had got down on the station after seeing that it had facilities for handicapped people. Then we got down at Embankment and just around the corner was our hotel.
It was chillingly cold that day and it had just rained. We settled down in our rooms which were miniscule, as compared to other aparthotels where we had stayed esp in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. After that we wore our jackets and walked across the pedestrian bridge to London Eye and took a flight.

Pedestrian Bridge

Inflight London Eye
After that we again crossed the bridge and went across to Trafalgar square. It was lovely.

Nelson's column

Just before going back to the hotel we bought some provisions from TESCO. We were staying in London for 4 days and we had to arrange our own meals.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Paris - I love this city

There is something about Paris (पैरी) which bewitches me, despite the snobbish french people, the language barrier, the difficult to pronounce street names or maybe its because of all this. Outside of India the one place which feels like home in the western part of the world is London. I adore London, but the fascination with Paris is much more.
This second visit to Paris was different from the first as we tried to cover the places where we had not gone before, chiefly Musee de Louvre, Chateau de Versailles, Musee d' Orsay and The Moulin Rouge.
Then there was some which we had done last time also, Seine river cruise was as mesmerising as before

The Notre dame at sunset
and Notre dame was as fascinating, Eiffel tower looked great and this time round I appreciated the view of Eiffel tower from Trocadero much more than the last time.

The Eiffel tower from Trocadero
There was so much we could not do, which we had planned. But thanks to Shaleen I managed to buy a purse from Galleries Lafayette, also something which had been overdue from last time. We were overawed by the dome at the Galleries Lafayette

The dome at Galleries Lafayette
The major let down was Eurodisney, we went there because it was here that we had sorely missed our children last time and almost cried for them at the gates of this amusement park and we had promised ourselves that we would get them here surely, but in all this we forgot that we have already been to the Mecca of theme parks and nothing can beat Orlando.
We loved walking on the Champs Elysses (शौंस एलिसी ) and standing at the Arc de Triomphe like the last time. We found our way around Paris using its metro but I think the stations were undergoing renovation, and if not they surely needed to be renovated. The musicians in the train were a novelty and I was fascinated with the different instruments which they used, with which I was not familiar except for the Piano Accordion. The french people we met on the train were mostly forthcoming and strangely we struck up more conversations with strangers on the parisian metro than on any other metro in the world. If you're planning to visit Paris the "Paris visite" is a must, it is the metro pass and it fetches discounts at many tourist attractions, we got a discount at Eurodisney.
A museum goer should get the museum pass. The Louvre (लूव)museum was all that I had expected and more.

The glass pyramid is the entrance to the Louvre Museum
It is a great museum, though we were living at walking distance from the museum we managed only a single visit there much to my disappointment, that too we just made a beeline for Mona Lisa and after that we saw a few more galleries. Musee de Orsay a railway station converted into a museum starts where Louvre leaves off. It was a beautiful museum with lovely paintings.

Musee de Orsay
Going to Versailles (वरसै)was also something which we had planned for days and stupidly I had booked the tickets for Versailles on the net for a week earlier than when we actually reached, so when we reached Versailles the tickets were of an earlier date. Shaleen had done his homework well and right at the entrance where hardly anybody was going, was a small office for redressal of problems with internet tickets and there our tickets were validated for the same day. The palace was magnificent and the gardens were huge we had to take a golf buggy on rent to see the gardens and we also saw the Marie Antoniette's palace.

The Moulin Rouge (मूला रूज़ ) was a great show. I enjoyed myself immensely and it had the distinctive french flavour which is not possible in other shows however great.
The most beautiful building in Paris is the Opera house.

The Opera house


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