Posts Tagged With: Europe

Staying at Hostels in Europe

Gone are the days when one had to book hotel rooms without knowing any details from suave travel agents. There are now a plethora of options and even a plethora of aggregators for all the options. From Homestays, hotels, and hostels, there are many places for all pockets to choose from. While staying at hostels is not a new concept, for many Indians, it still continues to be one. There are still perceptions, that these hostels are only for students or for backpackers. Well, my solo trips to Europe have completely busted any former perceptions I had of hostels.

With the changing times, hostels have caught on to the changing needs and have upgraded. No longer do you hear horror stories of bathrooms that smell or claustrophic rooms that give you sleepless nights. Hostels have organized themselves to cater to all sorts of travelers now. There are the budget travelers who don’t mind sharing a room or the bunk beds. The business travelers who are weary of dreary hotels and can enjoy the peace of a private room within the hostel, yet enjoy the jovial and warm vibe of the hostel, the leisure traveler who wants to stay long and enjoy facilities of a good kitchen and laundry at a reasonable price, the luxury traveler who wants to experience a hostel stay at a chic location, the solo traveler who looks to find company, and the party crowd. I have stayed in several hostels across Europe now and here are the points you should consider if you want to stay in one.

  1. Privacy: If you are looking for more privacy, you could look for rooms within the hostel too. These are usually at standard hotel rates in the vicinity but you get the atmosphere of the hostel and a good location. If you are traveling on budget, there are hostels which will provide you with curtains for every bed which trust me is important when travelers come in and out at night in dorms. There could even be attached bathrooms to the dorms if you prefer. For women, check out places that have exclusive female dorms for added comfort and security if you prefer.
  2. Location: After having stayed at several hostels, I realize that the location is not quite as important as the other factors. Most hostels are conveniently located to forms of public transport and it is fairly simple to get around. So, your hostel could be in a cosy neighborhood but a short train ride away from the hordes of tourists and it could just be better
  3. Self Catering: Most hostels provide self catering facilities and you can cook and eat your own food at the hostel. Well, you may not cook a full fledged meal, but it is nice to have a cup of coffee, maggi or a quick pasta at the hostel itself. As a vegetarian it was good to have the facility available. And of course, you can save plenty if you cook especially in expensive countries.
  4. Quiet hostels vs party hostels: Most hostels come in either of the two categories. If you are the sort who prefers to have a good nights sleep, then don’t book a place at a party hostel! Party hostels usually have a bar that is open for long, game rooms and common areas where travelers can enjoy a drink and socialize.
  5. Restrictions: You may want to be sure that the hostel has no restrictions for you or your group. Sometimes people over a certain age, children, pets and families are not welcomed by certain hostels. So be sure it suits you.
  6. Hostel chains – There are several hostel chains across Europe such as St. Christophers Inns, Generator, Stay Okay, Plus hostels etc. These are typically the large hostels, but you can be sure that they are quite professional and you will not face any problems. I have stayed at Christopher’s inn at Paris and the Berlin Plus, both of which were large and catered to my every need. However, there are several cosy old hostels usually with the best locations which are great too. For example, the Hostel Ruthensteiner at Vienna was the best hostel I have ever stayed at I reckon. I daresay, I have liked the smaller hostels better as you can meet more people in a smaller more personal setting rather than a hotel like lobby.
  1. Other factors such as cleanliness, good staff, price, good wifi, enough plug points are hygiene and you can glean how good the hostel is from reviews and pictures
  2. Read up the reviews: Read the reviews on Hostelworld.com before you book. Most reviews are authentic and provide you a good perspective on if the hostel is something  you want.

So, if you haven’t stayed in a hostel before, do give it a try!

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Categories: Europe, Germany, Other Travel Blah | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments

Walking tours in Europe – What, Why, Where should you take these

It was in Europe that I discovered the ‘Free’ walking tours. These walking tours have been my favorite pass time this entire Europe trip. Europe has several wonderful cities in the continent with a huge number of stories to tell, monuments to show, and a history that goes back several centuries. While one can visit the monuments, look at them, take photos and pass on to the next sight to repeat, a tour is something that provides a bounty of information often designed to entertain as much as it is to inform.

And the big question…Free? Well, almost. The ‘Free’ walking tours, are free if you want them to be. But ofcourse, it is only decent that you tip or pay someone who has put an effort into designing and researching the tour, and spending the next 3-4 hours of their time on sharing their knowledge with you. How much you pay is upto you though. Fair deal huh!

What do the walking tours cover?

The tour covers key highlights of the city that can be covered in the vicinity of the area that can be covered on foot usually in a radius of 2-3 kms. Usually in the general overview tours, the old part of the city, the most touristy locations and places of key historical importance are covered. The tour normally finishes close to where it starts or the guide tells you how to get to where you started off or wherever else you may want to go to.

While the general tours are a fabulous way to get oriented to the city very quickly, the more indepth tours are even more interesting and I would highly recommend these depending on your interest. Each company can do their own versions of different types of tours. For example, in Paris there are Art tours of the Montmarte district which housed several famous artists, there were tours to the Prague castle, the Berlin alternate tours provided a peek into the street art and creative projects at work. These indepth tours are also quite reasonably priced and  companies such as Sandeman tours are excellent operators to choose. Then there are other tours such as bike tours or Segway tours which could cover greater distances and show similar attractions around town. There are pubcrawls in every city that promise to take you to the most exciting party places in town for a fee.

Berlin Walking tour

The Berlin Alternate tours guide was as funky as the tour she was taking!

 

What do the tour guides tell you?

These tours are not necessarily purely gyan or knowledge sessions that you might envisage. Run by a bunch of enthusiastic young people, often not always from the same city where they are conducting tours, the guides are certified, well educated and passionate about their work and city.

As the tour guide takes you to each point, he or she tells you the story behind the point. A lot of these stories are told with great animation and emotion and it is quite a performance indeed. Stories of kings, betrayals, crucifications, torture, resurrections, superstitions are all told with greatest relish and the power of storytelling keeps the audience engaged. The tour guide also shatters myths and tells you what is now touristy was never the norm! For example, my tour guide told me that ‘Trdelnik’ which is crisp bread and sugared was never Czech but is Hungarian although it is touted as a Czech delicacy everywhere. The guide at Berlin showed us the bunker where Hitler committed suicide..and it was under a mere parking lot! The tour guide also points out famous places to eat, where certain movies were shot, famous personalities of the country and the city, history of the city, political situation of the country and a lot more!

Prague walking tour

Prague walking tour

Duration of the walking tour

Be prepared to walk for long though! In the 3 hours of the tour, you can expect a 10 minute break somewhere in between but the rest of it can be quite tiring if you aren’t prepared for it! Sometimes, the tours also take you by public transport depending on the theme of the tour, but largely, most ground is covered walking.

Where to find details of the walking tours?

  • Look out for umbrellas beckoning you to join walking tours at key tourist locations
  • Check online
  • If you are staying in a hostel, check if the tour operators begin at the hostel as well. There could be additional discounts also in certain hostels or hotels, so be sure you avail them!
  • My personal favorite are the Sandeman tours. Check them out online! 

A complete must do, one should always check out the ‘Free’ walking tours before attempting any exploration of the city!

 

Categories: East Europe, Europe, France, Germany, Other Travel Blah | Tags: , , , | 5 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

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

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

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