Desire for years, expectations of a few months, plan of a few weeks and preparation of just days ? that was how our Europe trip turned out to be. Our plans covered a single destination return flight from Bahrain (we chose Paris), a Euro Rail pass for required number of days (we took 21 days consecutive Global pass), decision about the major cities to be visited (more about that later), the optimum route to be covered and booking of accommodation in these locations. We had to do a little googling too, about sightseeing information at each halting locations.
I started writing this while on our rail trip from Rome to Venice as we finished 8 days of our holidays and then continued a couple of days later while traveling from Venice to Vienna. Remaining part of the travelogue was written as we completed each new city and were traveling to our next destination. I typed this as we continue playing rummy and I sip birra moretti, the Italian beer (on our way to Venice) and Schneider Weisse (from Venice to Vienna).
My first visit to Europe in November 2006, albeit for just 2 days, was a great experience that formed a basis for this holiday. That time, flying to Frankfurt, then to Salzburg (the Sound of Music city, Wolfgang Mozart’s birthplace), driving to Lenzing and then catching a train to Vienna was such an eye opener, that the first thoughts of a Europe holiday sprouted in my mind. Wilma’s (my wife) first cousin, a Capuchin priest, who is currently in Paris, was an useful resource in the Romantic City of Baguettes (bread) and fromage (cheese). So we chose to land at Eiffel city first and go around Europe from there.
After the most difficult phase of getting a visa at the French Embassy in Bahrain (standing in queue outside the gate made me feel as if all the applicants were asylum seekers!) and booking the Bahrain-Paris return ticket, we then drew up a broad itinerary to fit within the initial travel plan of 15 days. We had to include Lourdes and Rome ? the places of historical and religious relevance for us, and the beautiful Austria, but then there were other places that were part of wonderful history to be considered too.
So, we started with a schedule comprising of Paris, Lourdes, Rome, Venice, Vienna and Prague. Paris to Lourdes was a train journey that we booked first, but as the route from Lourdes to Rome would go through the French Riviera (Film Festival land of Cannes, the normal-street side Formula One spot of Monaco, the Casino land of Monte Carlo, sun-bathing Nice and, Antibes – the yacht capital) and the wonderful leaning tower of Pisa, we decided to add them in our plan. And as we had to return from Vienna to Paris through picturesque Germany, we included Frankfurt as our base to explore Deutschland (Germany).
Finally, while traveling from Frankfurt to Paris one can go through Amsterdam and Brussels, we added them in our last part of the holiday, on our way back to Paris. So, what started as a 5 city-2 week trip, increased to about 15 cities in a 3 week venture. Of course, the budget too went higher, but since we get only one opportunity to a particular part of the big, big world, we thought it wise to add this one week and try to see as many more places as possible in this one trip itself.
Yes, all of this was organized on our own (not a part of any holiday package) ? to explore in a real way, to go through the trial & error process. We were ready for some minor troubles here & there, but we did not want to face major trouble for our family of 4. So we had to make sure that the itinerary was well planned and bookings were made in advance.
Based on all this, if one thinks that this was a wonderful schedule, then, I can say it was not one entirely. For example, we did not go to Switzerland, Spain, Portugal or UK. As our cousin priest in Paris would say ?get a general idea of everything, than an expert idea about one thing?, in each place we tried seeing the glimpses of each city and looked around to enjoy the greenery when we traveled by trains between cities.
Historic Rail Terminals (this one is the Paris North Station)
Before I start narrating our experience in each city, let me start narrating a few general experiences of Europe as a whole.
One is of traveling by train in Europe. Trains in Europe form part of an important system that was linked well as the formation of European Union happened and I must say that, barring a few aberrations here & there, its working brilliantly. It is indeed comfortable, provided one does his homework well and plans well. One has to plan their schedule in advance while going through the summer schedule when almost all trains run full. Being fast trains mean there are less rail cars available in each train. Making last minute reservations is very difficult during the busy months especially when one travels with a family and sometimes at night. When the entire schedule is set, one cant afford to miss even one link in between.
Singing in the (t)rain!
About the quality of trains ? generally good, but on one stretch from Pisa to Rome, the first class compartment did not have water. There are toilets stuffed with tissue paper ? a menace in the west I suppose. Most of the times, trains are extremely punctual; well almost all. Also, if a train is scheduled to start in one station, that train would start pnly from there. But we had a fair bit of experience to the contrary! When we had to leave Nice Ville (in France) to Pisa (in Italy), the train was redirected at the eleventh hour, to start from Vintimille (Ventimiglia in Italian), a border town within Italy! And we had to board another train from Nice Ville to this new station in a great rush. To be frank, carrying limited luggage is such a relief, such last minute troubles are easily overcome. Of course, the train from Vintimille to Pisa was late by 90 minutes in the process, so that helped us not to miss this train!
One more general aspect about moving around in Europe is the great network of Metro, bus and tram in each of the big European cities ? Paris, Rome, Vienna, Frankfurt, in fact, any city ? the system is so convenient, even the first timers can easily go around with comfort. Having a Metro rail system underground means having another city at the underground level. Like having two cities at two levels! Or three sometimes, if you see the number of levels the trains go underground in some cities (Paris for example).
I would also like to mention about the convenience of taking a full day, two day or three day passes which are so useful for tourists for them to go around the city easily and help them to see all places of importance. Such passes are not expensive ? for example, a full day pass in Paris costs 6 euros (Rs 300), in Rome it is available for 5. Unlimited travel for 24 hours by bus, tram or train. The tickets for buses or trams in most cities can be bought in Tabak shops, or T shops (Tabacchi in Rome).
The signs on the roads, clearly noted bus numbers in maps, and the stop indicators at each bus stop ? all lead to a comfortable use of this great infrastructure. The easily available maps at each Metro station further help the tourists to switch between buses and trains quite easily.
Colorful and beautiful sights to behold..
Moving around the underground, or in trains, is not a boring affair. There are sufficient number of musicians entertaining the movers. In return they xpect a few cents from fellow passengers of course. Not much different than the harmonium playing orphans in Indian trains ? just a little different type of beggary with a little more sophisticated musical instruments, that’s all.
The last major experience to note is the existence of massive churches, castles and cathedrals, with huge bell towers. "Water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink" was a famous anecdote which I thoughtfully revised to say, "Churches, churches everywhere, not a place to pray". Aptly, the churches, cathedrals and chapels have now largely become commercial locations, retaining their historical glory, and making a lot of money in turn through commercialization (by way of entry fee). Inside these monuments are used as museums, exhibitions and places for operas and outside are the many restaurants and bars surrounding the religious places of worship. Cabarets and sex shops are not far off!
Amazing and efficient metro rail system of Paris
High capacity double deck trains
Sufficient freedom and access for bicycles -In fact, cycling is a major part of their daily life, with separate lanes for bicycles, as much as for pedestrians. A sight that is common all across Europe.
Place of importance for pets all around.. Also, interestingly, many roads are made up of neatly laid stones
Clear signs at bus stops
Neat way to park cars! Not an inch wasted!
24 hour ?Hop On Hop Off? concept tourism bus ? Another regular feature in all European cities.
This is the end of first episode which only provides an introduction to exotic Europe that we explored. I have presented only a few pictures here, but there are many more to show as I take you through different cities we explored. Each city has so much to write about, I have decided to write the experiences in separate episodes.
The second episode of this travelogue will take us to Paris from where we started. The romantic city, city of Eiffel, city of Notre Dame (Our Lady), city of Mont Martre (Martyrs mount where the church of Sacre Coure, or Sacred Heart is located), city of Arc De Triomphe, Louvre Museum etc.
That will be in the next episode coming up shortly – till then, take a choti-si break.
Author: Agnel Pereira- Bahrain