Europe

The dream trip

A dream trip…8 countries in 8 days screamed an advertisement of a popular tourist agency. Another countered saying they would do 10 countries in 8 days and all travel arrangements taken care of including hotel stays, travel and a wonderful chef who would accompany the group. Now that is a dream vacation for some.

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And I was wondering, would that ever be my dream trip? But again, I probably have had several dream trips now, none of which involved 10 countries in 8 days! I doubt if I could travel that fast even in a dream. Not to say, it isn’t a great idea to cover/checkmark more in less, but would that be a vacation? I would need a vacation from a vacation after doing 10 countries in 8 days.

Coming back my idea for a dream vacation, I would do 1 country, or maybe 2 locations in 8 days. Absorb each place for what it is worth and take back memories that are not a blur of travel! Well, I recently did just that…at Paris where I spent an entire week at Paris alone! Of course, I got plenty of weird looks after I answered ‘Just Paris?’ twice over to their question ‘Just Paris’, ‘Nowhere else?’.

Now planning is the part that takes up a chunk of time which I dread. Given that we Indians have to go through quite a rigmarole to get a visa stamped, it is important to get all sorts of documents well in time. Thankfully, sites like Yatra have made this easy to slice and dice data and use all sorts of filters to arrive at the cheapest and the best options for International Flights and hotels. The fewer the places, the less the time spent in planning, booking, researching and merely travelling! I preferred staying in hostels, so I looked up hostel booking sites for this. All done in a jiffy and money saved through miles, redeemable points on Yatra and booking hostels over hotels!

It always is fun to steep yourself into the place even before you get there. So, I ended up reading plenty of Paris based books that made it all the more enjoyable when I found so much of the place familiar (at least the names!).

When you plan fewer places, it is easier to research as well. And you know quite a lot about a place rather than know nothing of many places. And you get to sit in the garden and have a picnic lunch infront of the Eiffel tower and admiring it instead of having to go right away after the photo-op! And you can devote a whole day to one museum and to shopping!

I had an absolute ball soaking (in the rain and the sun and the cold), in the Parisian atmosphere. The museums were absolutely amazing as were the gardens and merely commuting in the subway and walking around was a joy in itself! But again, the best part indeed was taking each day as it came, and not having to rush from one place to another. Again, I met people who were seeing 4 museums in one day and I certainly am glad I didn’t have to rush through and just checkbox all the ‘must-do’s’.

Do let me know what you would enjoy…seeing more and taking back several GBs of photos or seeing less and taking back a bucket of memories!

Categories: Europe, France, Other Travel Blah | Tags: , | 5 Comments

Paris for Art lovers

Well, where do I even start on this topic. Paris has been the stronghold of art and culture and is the ultimate destination for art lovers. It is unfortunate, but the Indian education curriculum has no place for teaching anything about art, or patronizing it. Yes, we learn about a few monuments here and there, and a little bit about the Renaissance period but that is about it. I have learned about whatever little I know from books I have read, particularly Somerset Maugham who has written many a story based on the life of writers, Parisian society, authors, parties and soirees’, and many of his protagonists spent considerable time in Paris. Particularly notable was the Moon and the Six Pence based on the life of Paul Gauguin, the French painter who gave up his ‘corporate slavery’ job (yes even back then) to become a painter who eventually moved to Tahiti. This apart, other research and visiting some museums in the US and Italy, made me appreciate the scale of the artist movements and how important they were in Europe.

Although Paris has so many museums, big and small, I will cover just some of the larger ones here that are well worth a visit. Infact, every church, cathedral and palace – big or small, is a museum in its own right too! I wouldn’t bore you with details on all the museums.

I started by visiting the Orsay museum, the bastion of the Impressionism and some famous modern artists. Monet, Manet, Renoir, Picasso, Gauguin,..you name the artist and he was there if he had created any ‘impression’ back then! The Orsay Museum has a massive collection of Impressionist, classical and paintings of several genres..I won’t bore you with the details, but I spent 4 hours at this museum alone! The Orsay museum is also interesting for the construct of its building. Infact the Orsay museum was originally a train station! You can still see the large clock and the linear structure of the station when you see the museum from the outside as well as from inside.image

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If you like Impressionism, you could also consider visiting the smaller Orangerie museum across Orsay across the river Seine popular for its Claude Monet’s water lilies, certainly well worth a visit. I had seen smaller paintings of Monet’s water lilies, but the huge canvases here, certainly were not to be missed!  In addition to Monet, the museum also covered works of art by Picasso, Henry Matisse, Paul Cezanne, Andre Derain and so many others. You can also buy the combined Orsay-Orangerie museum ticket for a cheaper price from either of the places.

imageThe grandest of them all, was ofcourse the Louvre. The world famous glass pyramids made more famous by the Da Vinci code, amongst the masses, beckoned.  This was among the last destinations I saw while at Paris..I guess I was saving the best for the last..And I wasn’t disappointed. One word to describe the Louvre is Huge. One just cannot see everything in a day here! With an amazing building and architecture, the Louvre takes enough time while on the outside as you take photos! The famous lines aren’t really that long, in off-peak season and there is no need to buy tickets in advance. Infact, there are enough automatic vending machines once you are past the security lines (that one has to go through anyway). The other trick to avoid the lines is to use the lesser known Carousel shopping mall entrance which has barely any line.

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Inside the Louvre

Once inside, you can either head straight to the Mona Lisa like most people do or keep it for as you amble along! However, planning in advance would be good so that you don’t miss any of the paintings you do want to see. It is also worthwhile to pick up an audio guide or a guide-book before you head into the museum for a more knowledgeable experience rather than being lost in the sea of paintings well known and lesser known.

Personally I think I enjoyed the Orsay museum even more than the Louvre as it was just a bit more intimate unlike the intimidating Louvre and its sea of paintings that in the end brought in some fatigue.  Go see the Mona Lisa, but be prepared to wonder what the hype is about when Leonardo da Vinci has seemingly so many better works of art, but well, what do I know!

The other museum I liked was the Chateau of Versailles, the home of the French royalty including the (in)famous Marie Antoinette who liked cake (more than bread J). The palace was splendid and well, to cut a long story short, had an amazing museum gallery. Amazing gardens, pictures and a grandiose building in itself.image

And then there are other museums too worth a visit…the Picasso museum, the Dali museum, the Pompidou center and other smaller galleries..all superb places to explore.

You can also consider taking an art walk through the art district of Montmartre. This is where all the artists lived back in the day. See where Van Gogh lived and the haunts of Picasso. A scenic tour through the hilly Montmartre later you, I will guarantee happiness!

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imageAll in all, if you are a museum fan, Paris is a fantastic destination to be at, although I would say I loved the city of Florence and Rome in that order as well for this reason. If you are a first time museum visitor, do grab some literature before you head into the museum, and that’s the only way to enjoy the priceless artefacts on display!

Categories: Europe, France | Tags: , , | 8 Comments

10 steps to a solo trip for the Indian woman traveller

After the last post I had written about women and independence, where I solemnly decided to undertake a solo trip, I did go on one! It probably isn’t a big deal, it was also not about ‘self-discovery’ and it wasn’t because I wanted to be a tad adventurous. It was a trip of pure pleasure to do what I wanted, eat as many chocolates as I wanted to with no one watching, go where I pleased for as long as I wanted and also not have to change the baby’s diapers and manage the trip between her eating, sleeping and pooping times!

While the trend is catching up in India, there are still a lot of inhibitions, some warranted for and some unwarranted for. Although there isn’t much that hasn’t been unsaid about solo travel, here are some of my experiences and tips from this trip.

 

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Cycling at Brugge, Belgium

 

My 10 tips to having a great international solo trip for an Indian woman traveler –

  1. Choose the right destination – For a first trip I wouldn’t choose a city in Afganistan or a Naxal ridden city or a solo hike to a crocodile infested place in Australia somewhere. I would rather choose a girly destination that would allow me for luxurious travel without hardship! After all, it is the toil of home I m taking a vacation from! Paris ticked off all the girly boxes for me – security, shopping, slickness and simplicity of public transport!
  2. Manage the family – If you have kids, see that they can be well taken care of in your absence. Plan around a long weekend when the hubby will be home, plan around when in-laws or parents are visiting (especially ;)), or just leave your kids at your really nice parents/inlaws! Your kids really can survive a week without you. Mind you, don’t tell them immediately as you start planning! After you have booked the airplane tickets and done the visa, break the news to your parents, in laws, husband/boyfriend etc in order of heavy opposition and convince them it is not unsafe, bad, you are not having a break up or have gone crazy etc. Once the tickets are booked no ones gonna stop you! I had quite the mix of reactions when I announced my trip (which weren’t unsurprising!)
  3. imageResearch or no-research – The easiest strategy is to go to the tourism office at the airport or station and pick up all the brochures and maps and ask them how to get wherever!  But for all those deals and cheap prices (and cheap thrills like seeing where a Bollywood movie was shot), toil a little and read up before you go! I even watched a you-tube video to check out how to take the train from the airport to the hostel and re-read a Somerset Maugham to be able to go to the places his protagonists frequented. But that apart, research  to find the right places to stay or visit, read safest areas. Reviews are a plenty on all sorts of websites now. I stayed in a hostel so I barely felt alone with a lively atmosphere wherever I stayed with plenty of young travellers all around. And I or anyone else didn’t have to be worried about ‘staying alone’ at night in a strange place.
  4. Do everything you haven’t – like packing really light because you are gonna have to lug that bag yourself, wander around at wherever you want to go, do fun stuff like cycling, and spend as much time as you want without having to push a pram or pull a husband along at the museum they find really boring, shop for an entire day (or till your money runs out)..but don’t get get carried away and do anything you will regret!
  5. Use Technology – Offline google maps is a boon, there is wifi everywhere at coffee shops, restaurants…will all let you have more fun and let you stay connected, read up on stuff you are visiting, looking for directions, posting photos etc.
  6. Be narcissistic for a change! – Take lots of selfies. Oh well, one won’t be young forever! You will always look better today without make up than in 5 years with make up! And please buy a selfie stick or else like my photos, you will be in the ‘face’ with the same grinning expression for each photo! I had a selfie stick too when I started out – the first day the stick did not work, the second day the phone did not, the third day I lost it! So maybe keep a spare!
  7. Dine alone – I never felt this strange, but really, it is not weird to be dining alone or sitting by yourself in a coffee shop. Shed those inhibitions and soak in the atmosphere at a lively place by the street. Some creepy Russian tourists (who may not be Russian or tourists) may approach you but hold tight to your purse and passport always whatever you say!
  8. Being by yourself may get a trifle boring maybe. So a way out may be planning some group activities like walking tours, a cooking class, etc. There are all sorts of group tours organized which are really nice and you could meet some interesting people on those. I did a couple of walking tours which were really nice.
  9. Don’t follow the advice given to little Red Riding Hood in its entirety. Talk to strangers, but really, not on the road and streets. Maybe at the hostel. Be safe. Be wary. Be conscious and keep that purse and passport safe. Always!
  10. Very importantly, stay in touch with your family every day and let them know you are safe…or they won’t let you do this again!

If my visit inspires any of the women who know me, I will certainly be delighted! All I can say is, there is never gonna be a good time to take a solo trip. If you like the idea of having one, just start planning even if it is for next year!

Categories: France, Other Travel Blah | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Ramazan at Istanbul, Turkey

One of the biggest questions while visiting a Muslim country is – Is it a good time to visit during the holy month of Ramazan. While several countries have food restrictions during this season in terms of eating while outside and establishments remaining shut, there were no restrictions in Turkey during this season. Infact, looking back, I was lucky to have gone in the season of Ramazan to Istanbul and my worries that we would get nothing to eat were blown away as Ramadan became the highlight of my trip!

Just outside the Blue mosque is the Hippodrome square. Normally quite lively, this square was even livelier on a Ramazan evening as hordes of families camped out with their fast-breaking picnic baskets all over the place. This is the biggest congregation I have seen in such an organized fashion to break the Fast at Iftar. Thousands of people gathered with picnic baskets of food spreading out on benches, lawns and wherever there was space waiting for the sun to set. With the advent of summer, the sun didn’t set till well after eight and yet most people waited on cheerfully in anticipation of the feast that awaited them. What was also interesting to see was their enthusiasm and patience to go to the place to reserve a spot and wait for the next 2-3 hours for the sun to go down. This after all day of going without food and water during the peak summer. Hats off to them certainly.

While the fasters attacked their food, a host of other activities including music concerts, live performances played in the background and a fair like atmosphere prevailed at the hippodrome square and other popular gardens and squares..

Although I am a vegetarian, I can certainly say that people who eat all kinds of meat are in time for a veritable feast for amazing kebabs and Ramadan special delicacies. Even while most employees at restaurants were on a fast themselves, their service to those who weren’t did not cease before Iftar which is certainly very  creditable given that they have to look at food all day long and yet not be tempted to eat. Ramadan special menus and iftar menus were put up at every restaurant in time, all of which were jam-packed as the time for Iftar neared.

If you are planning a trip during Ramadan, I will certainly say go for it in Istanbul to enjoy the wonderful atmosphere there is. That being said, in the interiors and more conservative parts of Turkey towards the eastern and central side, it may not be that easy to get food outside or eat outside. One needs to plan ahead for exigencies.

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Ramzan @ Turkey with the Blue Mosque in the background

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Picnicking for Iftar @ Istanbul, Turkey

Iftar at Istanbul, Turkey

Iftar at Istanbul, Turkey

Categories: Europe, Turkey | Tags: , | 4 Comments

The Roman Colosseum and a School Project

The Roman Colosseum is one of the Seven Wonders of the world and exalted to be one of the most lofty structures ever built. When I was at school, as a part of a history project, I had resolved to build a model of the Colosseum which back then was another historical monument I had to mug up about. As we studied the structure, the windows, the shape of the ruins, the more monumental the DIY project became! I remember several failed attempts at making a simple model of this building which included foolish attempts at cutting up a bucket to get the round shape, curling up a cardpaper which looked too one dimensional, using all kinds of thermocol to no avail, creating moulds that would not break for a POP model and finally using the brilliant technique of paper mache to create that three-dimensional structure that wouldn’t collapse with a breeze! And ever since then, I have wondered how they built the real thing so well! And I guess, that little school project was one of the reasons why I always wanted to visit Rome!

But, well, onto the real thing, when we were at Rome, we wanted to save the best for the last (or a Free Sunday) to see this amazing structure. We scheduled our visit on the first Sunday of the month to gain free access to the Colosseum. Worrying about snaking long lines, we hurried to the Colosseum, a few stones throw away from our apartment bright and early and were at the gate at 8 am where people had started lining up already. 20 minutes later, we were inside after all the free ticket and security formalities were completed. We took the audio guides for the Colosseum to understand points in the building.

About an hour was enough to see the inside of the colosseum. Although much of the middle portion is in ruins, it was still interesting to imagine the gladiators of the days that are past enter make their dramatic entries into the field where the blood of many a brave man was shed. Scenes from the movies on Gladiator obviously came to mind listened to the roar of the lions and the shrieks of the victims.

We went around for about an hour, took some nice pictures and were out on our way to the next stop not before we saw the serpentine lines and thanked our stars we were well on time to see the greatest highlight of the city and the country.

Alongside the Colosseum are other historical structures – the Roman Forum and the Palatine hill.  Well, those are another story to tell. So will leave you with a few pictures of this truly wondrous structure.

The Roman Colosseum

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Rome: The Galleria Borghese

Villa Borghese is one of Rome’s favorite gardens and the famous Galleria Borghese is situated in these picturesque gardens.

A long wak in the Villa Borghese

A long wak in the Villa Borghese

I have to admit that I am not an expert at Art at any level and neither do I claim to understand much of it. But I do appreciate all the Art in its myriad forms. Italy with its bounty of museums and cathedrals was certainly a place I eagerly looked forward to exploring.

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A wrong turn that led to the right place – The Piazza del Popolo

On the way from the Spanish Steps to the Galleria Borghese which was our next stop, a long walk that had taken the wrong direction took us to some right places. On the negative side, we ended up walking far more than we bargained for, but, on the positive side we chanced on a few things that we enjoyed too…but now isn’t it true, that you can always see more and more, the more you explore!

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The Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain

The Spanish Steps

We decided to visit one of Rome’s famous landmarks – The Spanish steps. The subject of several movies that made it popular, these steps are one of Rome’s many symbols. While the tourists went to see the steps themselves, for the Romans it is a popular shopping hangout.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in a Roman Holiday courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Let us start at the top of the Spanish Steps.

At the top -start at Piazza di Trinita dei Monti.  The Church of Trinita dei Monti that dominates this square is a French church in the city built in 1503 and modified over time. Earlier, a slope brought people down to the square below before the steps were built.

And now about the Spanish Steps themselves – You may want to ask why are the Spanish Steps in Rome?  Well, the Piazza di Spagna or the Spanish square at the bottom has the Spanish Embassy which was based there since 1967 and therefore the name. The steps were built by Francisco de Sanctis as a result of a contest held by Pope Innnocent XIII after arguments of over a 100 years on how to build the steps! The staircase has 135 steps and is the widest staircase in Europe. The twelve flights of stairs built entirely in Travertine by Fransesco De Sanctis between 1723 and 1726, widen and narrow in varied stages but in line with rococo architectural concepts.  You may be tempted to eat on the Spanish steps, but please don’t! It is forbidden and you don’t want to pay a hefty fine!

Spanish Steps Top Down

Spanish Steps Top Down

A horse carriage ride anyone?

A horse carriage ride anyone? ..Although the poor horse can’t open his mouth and has an eye patch.

The Piazza di Spagna is the square at the bottom when you descend. This square is more of two triangles like an hourglass and not really a square! If you look up the Church of Trinita dei Monti looms large in the backdrop of the steps as you descend making for a picturesque setting. There are also side ramps or more stairs that run alongside.  At the center of Piazza di Spagna is the Fontana della Barcaccia set against the backdrop of the steps. Unfortunately this fountain was all covered when we were there and we couldn’t see it. Below is a  picture though.

Fontana Barcaccia, The Spanish Steps and finally Church Trinita Dei Monti..all in one pic! Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Fontana della Baraccia I mention above means ‘Ugly Boat’. It was built by Pietro Bernini (father of the more famous architecht Gian Lorenzo Bernini). This boat is a representation of a sinking boat leaking water at the stern and prow.

Let me let you into a secret now. For all the romanticism around the Spanish steps, I only found hype. It was a crowded place, with all the room on the steps taken with photographing tourists. A few horse carriages and the portrait artists at the top were nice. But what was nicer was to escape the hordes into smaller alleys near the steps with little restaurants and gelaterias.  Well, if it hadn’t been for the huge number of steps I have climbed to reach the top of various temples in India, I might have found the Spanish steps a big deal. They make for many a postcard of Italy and should be best enjoyed at wee morning hours or late night before the hordes of tourists descend on them making them pretty invisible in the throng.

The crowded Spanish Steps

The crowded Spanish Steps

We went to the next famous place nearby- the Trevi fountain, with more anticipation after the initial disappointment at the Spanish steps.  The fountain was no doubt the grandest I have ever seen in a fountain, but..Alas! It was being repaired and was reduced to a shadow of its real self and amidst all that scaffolding, I could barely gauge the magnificence that it was. It is supposed to remain closed till October 2015. But here are a few pictures I have sourced for you to see it in all its true glory –

The Glorious Trevi Fountain courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Trevi Fountain

The Trevi Fountain in its caged glory

Next: How we took the wrong turn but got good surprises.

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Richa Roams in Rome!

I’ve got to admit first that I have been really wanting to use the title I did! And now for a series on the Roman Holiday…

It was a fine September day when we landed at Italy from our flight from Mumbai to Rome via Cairo on a Egypt Air flight. Although we craned our necks looking out over Cairo to spot the pyramids, Alas! we saw nothing but the desert and dust! Thankfully SSS wasn’t too uncomfortable during the flight and barely troubled us!

There is a 3.5 hour lag in Italian and Indian time. By the time we reached the apartment we had booked, it was night in India and SSS was asleep. Our kind host at the apartment where we were staying had arranged for food and milk for her and even a baby cot for her. Tired out, as we were, we were fast asleep before we knew it as we looked forward to the next day.

So much to do!

I have never been a fan of ‘places to see’. What I do live by though is ‘places to experience’. However, looking back, I realize Rome is one of those places where you want to see everything and experience it all as well! And it can get mighty difficult to balance it out unless you stay there for over a month! Be it long walks in a quiet neighborhood each different from the other, explore authentic Italian food places in Rome, do a wine tour, travel in the trains and buses and live like locals, enjoy the melodies from the quaint churches, watch the pigeons flutter at the fountain…All the ‘experience’ is challenged by the need to run from one Roman pillar to another Roman post..from the Vatican city to the Colosseum to one museum after another..and yet, there is still so much to do and see that it gets overwhelming. So in this blog, I am going to tell you how best you can experience the city and see some of it as well!

It was a chilly morning as we started out after a home-made breakfast. We were off to see the Spanish steps, the Gallery Borghese and the Trevi fountain in our itinerary.

Walking around and first impressions

We decided to walk to our destination. As it turned out, it was quite a long walk, but one that we really enjoyed. The vibe of a place can be best felt through a leisurely walk through it.  We ambled along smelling the coffee and fresh bread smells that wafted through cafes, passed joggers who had finished their morning jog, and ofcourse hordes of tourists referring to maps like us and looking around in wonder. We noted some of the crumbling architecture of Rome, how the new and the old buildings co-mingled- none , the better than the other. Outside seating of restaurants were being set up and looked inviting.  We passed a couple of churches on the way, passing those little fountains on the way. It was hard not to stop and look at every insignificant place that looked interesting and to cut a long walk short, we walked for over 2 hours for what should have been a 45 minute walk!

Fish Fountain

Fish Fountain

Colorful buildings.. old and new

Colorful buildings.. old and new

Roman Alley

Roman Alley

Chasing pigeons

Chasing pigeons

Buildings Buildings

Enroute..

Enroute..

Tip – Airport transfer: For the airport transfer we just took a taxi although there are cheaper options of using a bus or the train. It cost us €48 which was about €20 more than we would have paid for other modes of transport. But well worth it considering we were tired out and weren’t in a mood to lug the luggage looking for the apartment!  The Leonardo Express train leaves every 30 minutes to the central Termini station and costs €14. The Terravision bus is another comfortable option and costs only €4 but leaves less frequently after every 60 minutes.

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Travelling with a Toddler: Part 3 – Sightseeing

Continuing the ‘Travelling with a Toddler’ series, here is the concluding part on Sightseeing and everything else you need to know.

Sightseeing:

Most developed countries have decent footpaths and walkways, so it is a great idea to carry a pram (stroller) while you sightsee. It is very likely that you will be out for long hours, and your baby may be able to sleep in it. A good quality stroller that has a good suspension system for bad roads and one that reclines fully and half way for her to sleep comfortably is an absolute must.

You are going on a vacation with your kid. Don’t just visit museums and churches that she understands little of and will be impatient to leave! Also take her to the nearby park, the beach or wherever else she would enjoy too! Ask the tourism office for kid-friendly places and they will tell you a host of places. We took SSS to little parks in the neighborhood wherever we were, lounged around in open squares where she enjoyed playing and gave her space and time to enjoy her vacation too!

Pigeons...wheeeeee!

Pigeons…wheeeeee!

Other pointers

  1. The most important of them all – Go slow! If there are ten things you need to see in 2 days, rest assured you will be able to do only 4 or 5! Either extend your trip or prioritize the places you want to see. Between your baby’s nap times, food times, play time and tired time, you certainly won’t be able to see it all! You can also consider splitting a few places with your travel partner such as climbing 400 steps of a cathedral where it may not be a great idea to take her. Let him see what interests him while you look after the baby and you see what you like while he takes care of her. And..we took her up those 300 odd steps in St Peter’s Basilica and I don’t know how I made it!
  2. First aid/Medicines – Talk to your pediatrician and find out what medicines you should carry if required in a foreign country. Also carry the receipts for these if they are required in customs.
  3. Pack light – It is highly probably that your kid’s bag is heavier than your own with extra clothes, toys and diapers! You need to compensate by packing light for your own baggage!
  4. Buy at your destination – Don’t pack what you can buy at your destination. Such as extra diapers apart from those you will require while travelling and for a day more, certain food stuff etc.
  5. Time zone changes – For a substantial difference in time zones you will have to give her two-three days to adjust to a new timezone. Manage your schedule accordingly.

I hope this series was helpful if you are planning to travel with a kid. Although, as someone said, it may scare others into not travelling with a baby! Happy Travelling!

Do check out my other two articles on Travelling with a Toddler –

1. Travelling with a Toddler – Travel

2. Travelling with a Toddler – Food and Accomodation

Categories: Italy, Other Travel Blah | Tags: , , , , | 15 Comments

Travelling with a Toddler – Part 2: Food and Accomodation

Continued from my previous blog on Travelling with a Toddler – Part 1 where I talk about how to travel/commute with a toddler.

Food

Coming on to the next important thing is food. You may be giving your baby only homecooked meals and don’t want to subject her delicate tummy to restaurant food everyday. Can you do that on a trip out? Yes!,To a certain extent you can. It is simple. Don’t book hotel stays. Book home stays with kitchen facilities! That is what we did and I could give atleast 1-2 home cooked meals before our tour and after our tour ended for the evening to SSS.

If you are travelling internationally, you may want to carry a few basic ingredients from home that may not be available where you are travelling and even small cooking vessels if they are not readily available. I carried a small pressure cooker which we used for her food for all our stay, some wheat flour for rotis and Indian spices. You can visit a local super market and buy a few basic vegetables, and plenty of fruits too.  This is when it is not a bad idea to use all those yummy baby food jars that are available in the market. Also carry baby cereal that can be instantly made with hot water. I carried a couple of Cerelac flavors.

Milk:  Carry formula milk or breast-feed if you are staying at a hotel. If you have a kitchen or a microwave, you could even buy milk from a super market if that is what she drinks. While you are out and it is time for her milk, the easiest way is to pop into a coffee shop and ask for a glass of warm milk for the baby. It is that simple!

Lastly, don’t overdo the home cooked food! You are on a vacation and so is she! Let her enjoy some cheesy pasta and pizza too! And a little Gelato or those candies won’t hurt either!

Candy in Italy

Candy in Italy

Accommodation

Food and accommodation go hand- in-hand, since I have recommended you stay at home-stays with kitchen facilities. However, the kind of place you stay at is important too. If you would like to stay in a full fledged hotel instead of a home-stay, then you need to make sure it is kid-friendly. We booked most of our stay through airbnb.com for fabulous home-stays where we had the whole apartment to ourselves in lovely neighborhoods.

  1. Make sure that the hotel staff can cook baby meals for your baby and will sterilize any milk-bottles you may need.
  2. Ensure that the hotel is clean.
  3. You don’t want to tire out your child with excessive travelling, and may want to explore options that are nearest to your sight-seeing places so you can hop down quickly for her to have a peaceful nap.
  4. Kid facilities such as a swimming pool, small garden and a place with activities for kids will be nice too!

Do read my other two articles on Travelling with a Toddler –

1. Travelling with a Toddler – Travel

2. Travelling with a Toddler – Sightseeing

 

Categories: Europe, Other Travel Blah | Tags: , , | 5 Comments

Sightseeing in Italy: To reserve or not to reserve

Italy has several historical monuments and a humongous quantity of art to boast about. It sees millions of visitors in many of its cities every year, and as a result, to get inside to see any famous piece of art or architecture can be stressful with long lines that get worse in the sweltering heat of summers. There are however a few planning tips to help you skip those snaking lines and saving precious time and energy to enjoy!

The second line at the Vatican Museums

The second line at the Vatican Museums

The most common way of skipping a few lines is using a sight-seeing passes. Rome has a sightseeing pass called as Roma pass that will let holders skip the line, see two destinations without paying separately and provide discounted tickets at other places at a cost of €36. It will also provide transport without having to purchase tickets…All this for a validity of three days.  Again, you need to evaluate how slowly or how fast you want to see places, compare the cost of the pass with the individual ticket prices for places you will see in three days and if you will be using public transport often. If you don’t think the pass is worth it, you can separately make reservations for popular destinations as well.  Similarly Florence has a Firenze Pass. Venice and Milan have their city passes as well.

Here is my take on the places you need to reserve at Rome and Florence and what we did –

  1. Rome – Colosseum – The Colosseum is Rome and Italy’s most famous sight and ticket lines can be long. Although you need not reserve in advance for the off-peak season, you may want to book ahead to skip the line in peak season.  Well, that is the advice which most people will give you, but in September, we actually went on the first Sunday of the month without reservation and got in pretty quickly…for FREE! That was because we got reached at about 8 a.m. when it just about opens. But lines can be long all day.  You can either reserve tickets to just see the Colosseum, or go through one of the several guided tours offered.
  2. Rome – Vatican Museums –The Vatican museums which are supposed to be one of the world’s largest museums include the famous Sistine Chapel and is the other most popular place flocked by tourists. If you go in the morning, there are long lines to get. But afternoon can see no line at all! We had pre-booked the Vatican tickets and were able to skip the line for the Vatican museums, although I think we could have done without the pre-booking.
  3. Rome – Gallery Borghese is particularly famous for the marble sculptures of Bernini and is a popular museum in Rome. It is a must to pre-book and they don’t let you in without a pre-booking. You can call up and make a reservation for a given date and time and you need to be present to pick up the tickets at the appointed time.
  4. Florence – Uffizi galleries – The Uffizi gallery is one of Italy’s most visited museums and holds important works of Renaissance by the masters including Leonardo Da Vinci, Botticelli, Michaelangelo, Caravaggio and Raphael. It is a must to make reservations to visit the Uffizi since they only let in a specific number of people at a time and the lines are really long! You can either book online or call on phone (39-055-294-883) during regular working hours there on weekdays. It is important to note that there are several sites where you can book tickets online, but many have a large premium on the tickets. Go through the official site only to book cheaper tickets.
  5. Florence – Accademia gallery is where Michaelangelo’s famous statue of David is housed. Again, go through only the official site to book the tickets at the correct rates.

Some more references in here – Roma Pass, Rome and Vatican Pass, Vatican Museums  and more on reservations

Categories: Europe, Italy | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Planning a trip to Italy

There are two types of travelers- First are the ones who plan and execute it all on their own and the second are the ones who outsource the planning and execution and go with a travel operator on a well planned trip.  Both have their pros and cons – While it is time consuming to plan your own travel arrangements, itinerary and accommodation, it offers far more flexibility and you can spend your time the way you like it. However a planned tour by an agency will take care of all your needs but you need to stick by their rules, schedules and itineraries.  We belong to the first category of travelers. We decide what we want to see, do all our planning, book our tickets, figure out where we want to stay, use a map to figure out where to find anything, and enjoy  exploring on our own! I am going to give you a few pointers on everything that needs to be planned through in this space.

passport

Visa

Italy being a part of the European Union requires a Schengen Visa for Indian citizens which needs to be given atleast 15 days of processing time before one can fly. The Visa list simplifies what needs to be get done – Airtickets, Insurance, accommodation and internal travel arrangements and having your finances in order is what is required. You can find the complete list of documents required here.  The process of submitting a visa application is fairly simple and one need not go through any travel agent. Just take all the required documents with two copies of everything, fill up the forms also available on the online, visit the VFS office that manages Schengen applications and submit the documents. It should not take more than two hours to do that. Once the visa is stamped, you can collect it from the same place. In Mumbai, there is no need for any appointment for a Schengen Visa and one can just go directly walk into the VFS office in BKC to submit the documents.

Booking flights – I expect we could have found sweeter deals in our flight booking had we booked earlier, but well, we didn’t plan well. But if you are reading this, and would like to plan a trip to Italy, watch out for International discount days at major carriers from three months in advance and you may just land a deal as sweet as Rs 25-30K return fares as did some co-travelers.

Accommodations – Here is the thing about Europe where lodging is concerned..As compared to India where decent hotels can get astonishingly expensive at not less than Rs 8K a night, in Europe there is a vast range of places one can book for all sorts of budgets. From hostel accommodations for the solo intrepid travelers, to lavish suites at 5-stars and the mid-range hotels ranging from Rs 3K-8K, it is easier to find a place in the heart of the city. One just needs to look out for the right place. And it is not just hotels and hostels. A vast segment of tourists prefer to rent a home for a few days through sites such as airbnb or booking.com. This further increases the options around the sort of neighborhood you would like to live in and the kind of amenities you can have and one can experience life the locals lead. With a one year old in tow, we had little choice but go for homes that had kitchens we could use for our little picky eater (though we are pickier about what she eats!).

Travelling within the country: This is again that requires a good deal of research. Having zeroed on the destinations you would like to visit, the next step is to check on the cheapest and the fastest ways to get there. Be it a rail pass, cheap airlines, or high-speed trains. All or none may require pre-bookings. Italy has its railway Trenitalia which we used for booking our tickets in advance before we left. Train fares in Italy are not fixed and can fluctuate based on demand and supply. It is best to reserve train tickets in advance or be prepared to pay much higher amounts later. We preferred the high-speed trains to all our destinations that took almost half the time that regular trains did.  If you are thinking about purchasing a train pass, make sure you compare the prices with single leg ticket journetys. In Italy reservations are required on the high speed trains and EuroCity/International trains, and therefore the hop on-hop off convenience is not really there. For more on train reservations read here

Sightseeing and reservations: Italy is a destination that sees millions of tourists every year. All the major tourist places are inundated with these hordes of tourists and you will encounter long lines to get inside anywhere. But some pre-planning can help avoid these long lines.  What needs to be done is make reservations early on or buy the City Tourist Passes. Since there are a lot of options and a lot of places where you may need reservations, I am going to keep this for another post, you will be soon able to read.

Packing

Finally, only our packing remained and this is the most important piece of all. Whatever you do, travel light! Pack few clothes and do your laundry and well, shop in Italy! If you however need those four pairs of shoes to match your outfit, be prepared to lug your suitcases on the roads and through stairways in places such as Venice which has no cars.

Next – About Passes and reservations

Categories: Europe, Italy | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

An Italian Holiday

Italy in three words is Art, Food and Touristy!  As I look back on my recently concluded trip at the beautiful country of Italy, so many images flash by – Pizza at the Piazzas, religion in Renaissance, art with architecture, hordes of tourists, leisurely outdoor lunches, chilling out with Gelatos, the symphony of the bands playing at the square, the grandeur of the Colosseum, my one year old daughter SSS chasing fluttering pigeons..

Through this blog I am going to take you through our trip right from how we planned it out and how we should have planned it out!

Why did we choose to go to Italy?

Italy was a dream travel destination for many a year for me. Three reasons finally saw us zeroing on Italy – Good weather, Amazing art and Culture and great Food! And thus.. Italy fit all our expectations and we locked down our air tickets about a month in advance.

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Deciding what to see

Once our return flights were booked, the next step was deciding the places we wanted to see in Italy and book our accommodation accordingly. Italy is a country with points of interest for varied tastes. One may want to see every major Art gallery there is in places such as Rome and Florence, or visit quaint towns in the country such as Lucca or Pisa, or do a wine tour at Tuscany or click a photo of the Coliseum and move on to the next tourist destination or hike in the scenic coastal town of Cinque Terre. There is much for everyone and it is quite necessary to prioritize based on what one likes!

What did we finally see?

With a baby in tow, we decided to stick to the tourist trail and not the off-beat trail. We also decided to take it easy and enjoy the vacation instead of simply hopping from one site to another. Italian cities have a lot of history and culture in them and we finally decided to visit Rome, Florence and Venice as our key destinations. If at all we had time, we could make day-trips around these places to places such as Pisa, Lucca or a trip to the famed Tuscany countryside.

Next blog – Planning the trip to Italy

Categories: Europe, Italy | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments

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