Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Our European Love - A Travelogue

Europe, the world's best tourist spot, I would imagine or should I say the most loved place for any holidayer. The preparations started 2 months prior to our travel which was the best part. The endless hours spent on tour websites, reading reviews & choosing the location made the trip all the more exciting. The most challenging part was to balance our tour between historical spots to child friendly locales. Kids had only one thing on their mind, Disneyland, come what may that location had to be in the itinerary. After considering time, budget and above all kid’s preference we decided to visit Paris and Euro Disney. I charted out our day to day plan with departure times, tourist locations to visit, which trains to catch etc so that we don't end up flipping through travel brochures at the nth hour and lose our precious time. :-). I am very meticulous in whatever I do, let alone planning for a tour. I couldn't resist it, had to say it :-)

Tourists vary, their interests vary, their preferences vary and this is purely our way of touring a country. I’ve tried to bring our experience as much as I could in this travelogue. Some like reading, some find reading too boring and yet some like travel reviews. So please decide for yourself the 'some' part before you start reading. :-).

The Departure

On March 21st 2010, we took the evening flight from Glasgow to Paris to enable us to have a fresh start in the morning. The flight was a little delayed but it didn't matter much because our enthusiasm was too high to even bother about any problem. We reached Paris in about 110 minutes. A train from Charles de Gaule airport to Gare de nord station took about half an hour. We grabbed some food on the way. The kids went to bed quickly. Both of us just ran through the 'Day 1' plan once again. Once that was done we also hit the bed, needed to catch a lot of sleep for an early start the next day.

Cathedral, Arc & Tower
The advantage of staying close to a prominent train station is that it negates the time taken to commute otherwise. Gare de nord (North Station) is one of the largest terminals that offer connections to other lines metro & RER (rapid transit system). The station is more than 150 years old and is evident from the structure.

Our first stop was at Notre Dame de Paris (our lady of Paris) also known as Notre Dame Cathedral. It is a Catholic church. Notre Dame is considered to be one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture. The magnificence can be felt only when you stand right in front of the monument. It is a marvellous sight. The high arches and ceiling inside the cathedral reassures the architectural marvel, the fact that it was built in the 13th century. The kids were playing at a park area outside the cathedral while I took some pictures around Notre Dame.

It was time for lunch and no compromise on that wherever we are :-). We thought of having something different and chose the Mediterranean menu. Chicken shawarma and some fries. It was yumm. After our meal it was time for our second stop, the Arc de Triomphe.

Arc de Triomphe is a monument located at the western end of the Champs-Elysees. Champs-Elysees is a posh avenue in Paris with cinemas, cafes & luxury shops. The street still is the most expensive strip of real estate in Europe.

The arc honours those who fought for France. Names of the soldiers are engraved on the inside and top of the arc. Underneath is the tomb of an unknown soldier. We spent some time at the bottom of the arc and around it. The arc is really huge not what I had anticipated:-). We moved to the last destination for the day, the Eiffel Tower.

Eiffel Tower is a global icon and one of the most recognizable structures in the world. The tower stands at the same height as an 80 storey building. The structure was completed on 1889 and was considered as an engineering achievement. It comprises of more than 10,000 pieces of iron rods held by millions of rivets. There are 3 levels for the visitors and only lift access to the summit from the second.











The most annoying thing about visiting the tower was to wait in the long endless queue to get the tickets for the summit. We had to wait for 2 hours to get access. We went right to the summit after changing the lift at the 2nd level. It was a breath taking view of Paris from the top and all the pains we endured standing in the queue drifted away. After a while we descended to the bottom and relaxed at the park nearby watching the people around us. The kids were playing and having some snacks. It was sunny and a gentle breeze was blowing. There were some group of kids showing off their dance skills for their pocket money. Fresh crowds were coming in to join the queue for their tickets. We were waiting for dusk to set in to have a view of the tower. Finally when it happened, oh what a spectacle!! Astounding is the only word I can think of. The tower with lights was a treat to the eyes, thus ended our first date with Paris.

Palace
Chateau de Versailles (Palace of Versailles) is located 20 km from Paris. The palace is easily accessible by train. The palace was the centre of political power in France back in the 17th century. Louis XIV took great interest in the palace and is responsible for the palaces current shape and form. The entrance to the palace courtyard stands the statue of Louis XIV striding on a horse. The courtyard is huge, very huge. Once again a long queue welcomes us but we were used to it now :-).

We went back in time as we entered the palace. The paintings on the ceiling and walls are mind blowing. The guide told us that some of them took years to complete and is very evident from the final outcome of each. I couldn’t help imagine the splendour and luxury people used to live at those times.

We entered the gardens after completing the tour of the palace. There was garden as far as the eye could see. It wasn’t spring yet, the grass wasn’t that green one could wish them to be and the flowers haven’t bloomed. Nevertheless it was a beautiful sight.

The royal pathway towards the lake had sculptures on either side that added to the beauty of the garden. We spent time at the banks of the lake munching on some snacks and ice creams. We also fed the swans at the lake. It was getting dark and time to get back home. We were very tired after covering long distances on foot. Our second date with Paris ended on a good note.

Museum
The Louvre is almost synonymous to Paris I suppose. The museum would be on the itinerary of any tourist that visits this city. The Louvre is one of the world’s largest museums. It is also the most visited in the world. The museum is located on the right bank of the river Seine. The Louvre houses more than 35000 exhibits ranging from antiques, sculptures, paintings and decorative arts. Antiques range from Greece, Egypt, Mediterranean, the list goes on. There are paintings by Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci and many more. If one spends a minute in front of one item, it would take more than a month to finish all of it. On the contrary we toured the Louvre within a day :-).

The main entrance to the museum is through the glass pyramid at the centre of the courtyard. The visitors lobby overlooks the glass pyramid above it. The lobby itself was very impressive and gave us an idea what was in store for us the rest of the day. We took our tickets and started from the Sully Wing (one of the 3 wings). I especially liked the sculptures area. All of them were so real life like and crafted to perfection. There is this feeling of serenity all around the museum.

We moved to the painting section but personally I am not a great fan of it. But these were something I’ve not seen in my life. Paintings as large as a 2 storey building and the images were so real like. Each of them depicted a key moment in European history. The direction to the famous Mona Lisa paintings is displayed all across the museum. There was a huge crowd in front of the painting. I saw it but I was disappointment because it was really small and did not have any artistic value.

I am no connoisseur of arts but this is purely from a layman term. There are many exceptional paintings in the museum better than the Mona Lisa. The kids started to feel bored and started to crib. Well, can’t blame them because they were too small to appreciate anything in the museum. We spent some more time around the Louvre pyramid taking pictures. The kids were playing around and they were very happy. As for them their trip has not even begun. They have been waiting with bated breath for the past 3 days. Tomorrow we go to Disneyland, Paris.

We went to the room and packed our stuffs. Tomorrow we vacate and travel to dreamland. We were very happy to see the kids. Their eyes had this sparkle of anticipation and why not:-).

Dreamland
Disneyland Paris or commonly known as Euro Disney is located about 32 km from the city centre. The train journey took about 45 minutes and all the way our kids were talking about the park, how it would be, which ride would suit them, how will their favourite characters be like.

Finally we reached the station Chessy, Seine-et-Marne which is very close to the park. We had to dump our luggages at the hotel. I had pre-booked our accommodation well in advance and got a good deal for 3 days 2 nights with unlimited access to both the parks at Disney. Didn’t I mention about meticulous planning ;-). There are bus services every 5 minutes between the station and the hotels. We just had to wait at the bay area against the hotel sign boards. After we had dropped our luggage at the cloak room we were ready to live our dream, our kids dream.

Disneyland Paris comprises of two theme parks – the park and the studio. We started with the park. It was like entering into a totally different world. The world of Disney characters, themes and rides. We decided to cover kids and family rides first. My cousin sisters have already been to this place and gave us the list of ‘do not miss’ rides. Going by their choice we first took ‘it’s a small world’ family ride. It is a musical ride, a song ride, a magical ride. You will see dolls from all nations singing and dancing to the medley ‘it’s a small world’. Anything I say about the ride would do injustice. See it to believe it.



'Peter Pan’s flight' is another fantastic journey to Never Land. It was literally flying over a city at night. We glide past Captain Hook and pirates. This is one ride where no-one grows up.

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'Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast' is inspired by the Disney-Pixar’s film Toy Story 2. Our star cruiser spins while we use our laser guns to shoot the enemy. A luminous and colourful ride this.

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The kids went into through sleeping beauty’s castle, the carousel and Dumbo the flying elephant. Once the kids had their share of fun it was time for Latha and I to explore the thrill rides. We had to take turns to look after the kids each time we went to a ride.

‘Space Mountain: Mission 2’ is not for the faint hearted. A canon blasts you on a warp –speed ride to the unknown. You will feel the g-force as you dodge meteorites and black holes. Ashwin was lucky to enjoy the ride a couple of times.

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'Big Thunder Mountain' is a mine train that twists, turns and plunge through caves and rivers.

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After all these rides we were very hungry. Once again we chose not to have our usual. The Plaza Garden - a buffet lunch that served Victorian-style menu. The spread was huge especially the dessert section. I went wild on the meat/fish and seafood. I had mussels & shell fish for the first time, it was delicious. Latha freaked out on the desserts. It was mouth watering indeed. The kids had their favourite share from the spread.

After we got stuffed, getting into any rides would not be the best of choices :-). One of the major attraction at Disney land is their parade. A unique and spectacular Disney’s ‘Once upon a Dream parade’. All your favourite Disney characters pass right in front of you singing and dancing to the music. If we are lucky we might just get a tap from a character on our shoulders. It was evening by the time the show was over. We just had a couple of family rides before we went to the Disney village for our dinner.

Disney Village has shops, cinemas, restaurants and live entertainment for the whole family. There is neon lights everywhere and loud music in the air. We did our rounds into the Disney stores. We did our dinner at the Sports Bar. A fun filled day came to an end.



Wonderland
Disney studio is right next door to the park. We discover the magical world of cinema and television at Disney Studio. There were two superb live shows at the studio.

'Animagique' – is a journey into the world where the magic of animation and imagination becomes real. Lots of special effects, amazing puppets and Disney characters come alive in front of your eyes. There were characters from ‘The Jungle book’,’ Pinocchio’ and many more. It was an absolute treat for the eyes.

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'CineMagique' – is a place where fantasy and reality come together. This is a BIG screen adventure that will draw us into the movies. The great classic movie scenes one after the other comes to life in front of you. It’s all part of the magic.

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The thrill rides beckons.
‘The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror’ a ride only I ventured into. This is one mind-blowing adrenaline rush ride. You come face to face with your fears in this eerie and abandoned Hollywood Tower hotel. The bellman tried to dissuade me from entering the elevator, but that’s part of the ride :-).

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Once I was in the elevator there was no turning back. I was strapped by my waste to the chair. I experienced breath-taking special effects and spooky surprises. The elevator takes us up to the 13th floor and all goes still, then it drops to an abyss. It’s not yet over, the elevator ascents once again to dizzying heights and drops faster than the speed of gravity. I had an exhilarating experience.

'Rock ‘n’ Roller' Coaster zooms you on a lightning fast journey with G-force more than an astronaut experiences. You accelerate from 0-100km/h in less than 3 seconds, into hairpin turns and jaw dropping over the top flips. Now that was awesome.

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'Crush’s Coaster' inspired by Disney-Pixar film Finding Nemo. It is not a water ride but it sure makes you feel like one. We swim through coral reefs with Nemo and friends. It becomes difficult to hold on when we flow against the Australian current.



Once again that time of the day which I like the most :-), lunch time. We’ve been in Paris for 4 days now and wouldn’t it be a shame if we hadn’t tasted the French cuisine. Oh yes it would be...So we chose an authentic French cuisine at ‘Restaurant des Stars’. A very elegant interior like an ocean liner and on the walls are photos of major movie stars to give it a Hollywood studio atmosphere.

The spread of the buffet lunch was from the movie Ratatouille. The chef did his rounds with a covered platter from table to table. To our astonishment when he lifted the lid, there was Remy the rat the Ratatouille star moving around. The kids loved it. I do not remember the dishes names unfortunately but there were a lot of them that Ashwin and I liked. I went berserk on the meat as usual and Latha on the desserts.



We were stuffed to our neck, at least I was ;-). The kids had the chance to meet their favourite Disney character. They look so real that the kids feel they are in their world. There was this ‘Stars ‘n’ Cars’ show around the studio where Disney characters came in their fancy cars. They were dancing and singing all the way. Some of them even came around to give their autographs. It was a magical moment for the kids.

The Hotel Sante Fe where we spent 3 days. A Mexican theme based hotel.

Dawn was setting in and the kids were already feeling sad and we were no exception. We had our dinner at McDonalds and went back to our room. The kids were very silent and not in a great mood to talk. Latha and I were packing our stuffs. It has indeed been a most memorable trip, wish we could do more of such trips in the future. We had a flight to catch tomorrow at noon.

After our breakfast at the hotel we vacated the room and took a bus to Charles de Gaule airport. Here is a picture of the boys while waiting for the bus. The picture says it all.


The bad and the good
Tours are not complete without an adventure or an incident, some for the better and some for the worse. This was for the worse but there was a happy ending to it.

A not so crowded train station, we are waiting for the train to arrive at the platform. The sound of the approaching train fills the air. We move closer while the train arrives at the platform. I enter the train and turn to find my wife in some sort of fear. She looks around the floor in haste. The train is still in the platform. She tells me that her purse is missing. The train slowly begins to leave the platform. She frantically rummages through the floor and finally gets the purse from the corner. She is in shock as she has just been mugged by two ladies. She is happy but they are not.

Later Latha narrated the incident to me in detail. These ladies were watching us right from the start. As the train was approaching, one of them moved away our son so as to distract her, while the other one snapped open the purse and slipped her hands in. Just about that time she realized and caught hold of the ladies hand. In that commotion they panicked and threw the purse inside the train and escaped. We were lucky to have got it back otherwise our tour would’ve been a disaster. Fortunately it wasn’t to be.

There are lots of African immigrants and unemployment is rampant in Paris. We saw a couple of incidents around the busy train stations where cops were involved. Now you know how careful you should be while in Paris or anyplace for that matter.

We are more than fortunate to have been able to visit these places. I am more than happy to have been able to share these moments with my wife and kids. These memories will stay in our hearts forever.

Paris is not Europe but it gave us a glimpse of how beautiful a country can be. If ever we get another chance we will come again to another European destination and of course a blog will follow :-)

Ref: Wikipedia, Disneyland Paris website

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Immortals of Meluha

Shiva is a man whom legend turned him into a god. God of gods.

This is Book 1 of the Shiva trilogy. It was released early this year. It is now claimed to be a #1 national bestseller and why not? I got to know about the book only recently through my sister. I was intrigued by what she told me and I did quite a bit of googling about the book. I read its reviews and visited the authors website. It talked about a modern day Shiva. I became all the more curious and decided to purchase the book.

I was captivated almost immediately from the very first chapter onwards. The author Amish Tripathi, an IIM graduate finance professional. This is his debut book and 'what a debut!!!'. He's bang on target and he's here to stay. The book is a definite page turner. The story takes you back to the era 1900 BC and the pacy adventure ride begins through Meluha (modern Indians mistakenly call the Indus Valley Civilisation), a near perfect empire ruled by Suryavanshi's. They are at peril and can only hope for one man to save them. Will Shiva-the tribal immigrant from Tibet be their hero or their saviour?

The author immerses you into the world of Meluha. As I read through the chapters I could envisage the people and places during that time. There is anger, there is love, there is sympathy and there is remorse-a range of emotions fills your heart. A very good mix of mythology, fact and fantasy. Amish has been able to merge the three essence to perfection. It is indeed a very bold attempt by Amish to bring out such a story about Shiva. The usage of everyday english makes Shiva all the more human than a god. The Hindu purists would have other opinions about the portrayal of Shiva and other characters in the book. But this is not a religious book or history the author is trying to convey. It is Shiva through Amish's eye.

I could relate one section of the book to the movie 'Matrix'. Here Shiva is the chosen one and he realizes it when he is able to see through the people and himself. The other fantasy novel that I loved is 'Lord of the rings trilogy' and this one too captured my interest. This book is by no means the same as in the content but just about the epic, the land, the empire, the hooded terrorist, the wars etc. This could be one of the reasons I loved the book.

I would recommend this book to all who like mythology and stories around it. The book is thoroughly enjoyable and he ends book 1 in a juncture that you wished book 2 was released already.

Grab a copy and indulge yourself. You won't regret it :-)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Auchentoshan Experience

Scotland is famous for its castles, fresh water lochs (lakes), misty mountains, bagpipers, the tartans, the kilt and the highlands. But if you ask an outsider the same question, the first thing you would hear would be 'for its whisky'. It is indeed true that Scotland is known for its world renowned Scotch Whisky and is one of their primary exports.



'Whisky' is derived from the Gaelic word 'uisge beatha' meaning 'water of life'. Yes it is quite ironic from the general perception about whisky and whisky drinkers :-), well that would mean stepping away from what I intend to write in this blog. So let me stop it there.



I am no connoisseur when it comes to scotch whisky. But I've been an occasional drinker for many years now. It would be a shame if I did not visit a distillery especially after living in Scotland for 2 years. Today that wish has finally become a reality. My friend and I made this trip to a distillery close to Glasgow.



Auchentoshan distillery Scotland's only triple distilled single malt whisky. Auchentoshan is the Gaelic word for 'corner of the field'. The distillery was founded in the year 1823 on Auchentoshan estate, overlooking the river Clyde, by the local corn merchant. History tells us that the distillery was at the corner of the field and thus the name.



The tour was fantastic in terms of the information we could acquire about the how's & what's of single malt and blended whisky. We had the privilege to taste the 12 year old whisky. An Auchentoshan can be enjoyed on it's own straight up or on the rocks. As the guide put it, 'smell the whisky's aroma before you take a sip and swirl it around your mouth, you will feel an explosion of flavours'. It certainly did.



I have learnt quite a bit about whisky and a drink would now become a wee bit more enjoyable. :-) (as if it didn't all these years)