Showing posts with label europe. Show all posts
Showing posts with label europe. Show all posts

December 14, 2013


Amidst years spent in the high-octane economies of Asia full of aspirational youth and rapidly growing businesses, I made a visit to the Old World where a completely different attitude prevails. Mired in a depression with no end in site, Greece struggles to regain even a portion of its former glory.

The birthplace of democracy, the home of brilliant philosophers and mathematicians, and the training grounds for legions of brave warriors boasts the remnants of its past as its main drawing card in these austere times. Many stores in central Athens were shuttered, with unemployed members of society and walls sprayed with graffiti as prevalent as plastic surgery clinics and mismatched couples in South Korea.

The food was good, but not substantially better than the dishes found in Greek restaurants elsewhere. In some ways it was worse, as all vegetable portions had somehow become replaced with french fries in almost every dish I ordered (perhaps as a cost cutting measure).

The summer weather was hot and dry, with greenery nowhere to be found in the arid landscape. The English was decent although some people had the habit of using the words ‘stairs’ and ‘escalators” interchangeably, leading to some unexpected surprises for elderly travelers.

I had about 8-9 days in hand for my Greek odyssey. My journey in Hellas began with a night in the port town of Piraeus, followed by three days on the mystical isle of Santorini, and then a return to the mainland to see the historical sites of Meteora, Delphi, Corinth, and Athens.  


There are some people who live in a dream world, and some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other. ~ Douglas Everett

September 08, 2013

The Alhambra

Quite possibly the premiere tourist attraction in Spain, the Alhambra is a millennium old citadel perched on the hills of Granada. Dramatically layered in between the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the city of Granada, it is sometimes hard to distinguish a photo of the Alhambra from a painting.

Built in the 9th century as a fort and later converted into a a royal palace by the Sultan of Granada, the complex was crafted according to Arab-Islamic architectural styles. Beautiful Arabesque decorations are inscribed on the walls of the palace, similar to those found etched on the Taj Mahal and other Mughal masterpieces in India.

The Muslim rulers tried to recreate paradise on Earth, with Moorish poets describing the Alhambra as a "pearl set in emeralds". Forests, gardens, mountains, and streams sublimely coexist with the man made structure. My princely figure blended in seamlessly with the environs. When Christians came to power in the Andalusian region of Spain, the fort was augmented with more European style buildings. These take a back seat to the impressive Islamic stylistic elements that dominate the design of the Alhambra grounds.

Heavily damaged over the centuries by man and nature alike, the Alhambra has been restored in modern times. After an uphill climb through the Alhambra Park at dawn, I entered the main square through the Gate of Judgment. Only a limited number of visitors are allowed in each day, with a specific time printed on the ticket specifying when the royal palace can be entered. The extensive Generalife gardens can be enjoyed at leisure afterwards.


Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you traveled. ~ Mohammed

January 04, 2013

The Basque Country

Alain, a friend of mine, hosted me in Bilboa for a couple of days. I had first met Alain in China, while sailing the Li River near Yangshuo. We met again in Beijing to feast on some balls. He met me at the Bilbao train station as I rolled into town from Barcelona. Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque Country, which spans several provinces in Spain and parts of France.

We spent the first day exploring the city proper. Bilboa has buses, trams, a metro system, and even a funicular that transports passengers up a mountainside. Bilboa's most noteworthy landmark is the Guggenheim Museum. The titanium sheathed masterpiece was designed by the Canadian architect Frank Gehry, who is also the man behind the Experience Music Project in Seattle. The museum revitalized Bilbao's riverside, brought in millions of tourist euros, and set a new standard for contemporary architecture.

On the second day we explored the surroundings in Alain's car. Castillo de Butrón is a fine medieval castle tucked away amidst some hills, while Bermeo is a quiet fishing village with a picturesque port. We crossed the oldest operational transporter bridge in the world at Portugalete. My favourite part of the road trip was exploring San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a 10th century hermitage perched atop an islet.

We dined at some of the finest restaurants in the region. Lunch was at a traditional restaurant that oozed character, housed within a former mill. Dinner was in the exquisite beach town of San Sebastien. The former royal resort is located only 20 kilometers from the French border. Like plastic surgery clinics in Seoul, Michelin starred restaurants can be found on almost any street corner in San Sebastien.


“Travel only with thy equals or thy betters; if there are none, travel alone.” – The Dhammapada

January 03, 2013

Lingua España

Minutes before the clock struck midnight (GMT+1), I landed in Barcelona. I caught a bus to Plaza Catalunya, the epicentre of the city. My hostel was less than fifty meters from where I was standing, but no one had a clue when I asked them for the street on which it was located. The English skills were painfully lacking, mirroring the level found in China and South Korea. 

However, there were some people who spoke English to me that night. Among them were the hostel staff, African guys offering to sell me drugs, and Pakistani guys offering to sell me everything else. All the inhabitants of Spain are not monolingual though, as many languages are in use within the country. 

In Barcelona, Catalan is the language of choice. The majority of the nation speaks Castinal, which is what is commonly referred to as Spanish. Both these Romance languages are easy to understand, or at least to read, for a man of my linguistic capabilities. By combining my vaunted English skills with the rudimentary French I had learnt in school, it was simple enough to make out what was written on the signage.

Bilboa is Basque country. The Basque language, Euskara, is completely unrelated to the Romance languages. It is a language isolate like Korean, as no identifiable ancestor language from which it could have descended from has been pinpointed so far. There are tales of Viking marauders leaving behind traces of their language in the Basque region, but many other theories about its origins are also in circulation. 


"You have the same birthday as me! You must be a good person." - Portuguese beauty staffing the hostel check-in counter

August 02, 2010

Going Dutch

As part of my Eurotrip, I caught a train in France that crossed Belgium to get to Holland. I dropped off my luggage in Eindhoven, where  former Bangalore roommate Stein lived. Eindhoven is more a residential city than a tourist one, with its claim to fame being that the electronics manufacturer Philips was founded there in 1891. We headed to his university town of Maastricht, which claims to be the oldest city in the Netherlands. Roman fortifications, churches, and public squares abound. As with many European towns it feels like a living museum. We enjoyed some cognac at his college buddy's pad before heading back to Eindhoven.

The next day we went to the Hague or Den Haag as the locals refer to it. Although not the capital of the Netherlands it is the seat of government and plays an important role in international politics. Home to the International Court of Justice and over 150 other global organizations, the Hague bills itself as the legal capital of the world. After traipsing past some parliamentary buildings and estates of the nobility, we caught a tram to the nearby seaside resort of Scheveningen.

Stein was about to begin a new job and his company had provided him with an apartment in Scheveningen. We walked around the the most visited beach town in the Benelux region until we located it. He had not yet received the keys to his house, so we perused it from outside before heading to the coast and enjoying the windswept sands of the Dutch coastline.


“Whenever I found out anything remarkable, I have thought it my duty to put down my discovery on paper, so that all ingenious people might be informed thereof.”
- Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Dutch biologist

June 14, 2010

Mont Saint-Michel

While spending a week in France in the summer of 2007, I took two day trips. One was to see the famous gardens at Versaille and the other was to the abbey at Mont Saint-Michel. One kilometer off the coast of Normandy lies the rocky islet of Mont Saint-Michel, rising sharply out of the Atlantic Ocean. At the prodding of the Archangel Michael, the bishop of Avranches founded the fortress-like monastery in 708 AD. It could only be reached by a natural land bridge at low tide, but would be protected from intruders at high tide.

The history of Saint Michael's Mount is filled with strife. It appears in the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the Norman conquest of England. During the Hundred Years War, the English met with repeated failure in their attempts to seize the island. The French Revolution saw the fortified abbey converted into a prison due to the high security nature of the compound. With the help of Victor Hugo, the site was restored as a national monument in the late 1800's.


"I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."
~ Ecclesiastes 9:11 ~

January 12, 2010

For Your Eyes Only

I got up early Sunday morning for my second day of sightseeing in London. I met up with an ex-colleague from Vancouver who took me to the Imperial War Museum. Apart from various weapons, uniforms, vehicles, and medals belonging to the imperial warmongers, there was a special exhibit on James Bond. The focus was more on Ian Fleming, the man behind 007, than the agent himself. Historical artifacts that provided the foundation of the spy novels and movies were showcased to a steady stream of Bond aficionados.

Afterwards we boarded a double-decker bus that passed by the London Eye and dropped us off near Big Ben, the world's favourite clock tower. While on the bus a marching band passed by us for no apparent reason. We were meandering about the streets when my stomach began to rumble, so she took me to her favourite pub for a traditional Sunday roast. There is nothing like a good book following a heavy meal, and the British Library had 25 million in its collection. We browsed the Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, and original manuscripts by famed authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, and Charles Dickens to name but a few. We vacated the premises when an announcement was made that the library was closing soon, and took a stroll across Abbey Road outside the Beatles' recording studio before calling it a day.


"Bond... James Bond." - James Bond

January 11, 2010

London Calling

After a summer in Paris several years ago, a winter in Europe's other great city was in order. I jetted from New York to London, arriving at Heathrow Airport and taking the fast train into the city. I put up at the pad of my roommate from Bangalore, a Britisher by the name of Joe. He prepared a traditional English breakfast called a fry up, composed of bacon, eggs, toast, beans, and a variety of condiments. Our first stop of the day was at Piccadilly Circus, whereupon I picked up my London Pass at the tourist bureau. This booklet would serve as both a guidebook and entrance ticket into London's foremost tourist attractions.

A ride up the longest escalator in the London subway system later, we emerged in Angel. The chic borough was filled with cafes, restaurants, bars, and quaint boutiques that lined the narrow back alleys. Joe's girlfriend met up with us here. She quickly took a liking to me, and we enjoyed a sip of warm mulled wine together. Dinner followed, and then a long night of bar hopping began as Joe treated me to a pint of Guinness to welcome me to his fine city.


 "What is the city but the people?"  ~ William Shakespeare

November 30, 2008

Notre Dame and the Latin Quarter

I visited the Notre Dame de Paris on my second day in the city, and met up with an outspoken Frenchman named Jacques there. We had worked together in Bangalore. Undergoing restoration for the past several years, the landmark Gothic cathedral still maintains its historic appearance even as many aspects of it have been modernized. The famous bells of Notre Dame are now rung by a motor, so a hunchback is no longer necessary to ring them manually. I walked in and around "Our Lady". Independent of my presence within it, the church contained a massive organ. It has around 7800 pipes and is fully computerized.

Jacques then took me to the Latin Quarter, a lively area full of restaurants. Located near several universities, the name of the district is derived from Europe's ancient language of learning. I enjoyed a donair at a food stall owned by South Indians. Jacques introduced me to the wonder that is Orangina. The carbonated beverage is a mix of several varieties of citrus. The French soft drink has high juice and orange pulp content, and I immediately became a fan. We went to a grocery store to pick up a large bottle before. Several drinks later we bade farewell.


"When a man understands the art of seeing, he can trace the spirit of an age and the features of a king even in the knocker on a door." - The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

October 19, 2008

The Louvre

On the banks of the river Seine over 60,000 square metres of prime Paris real estate is occupied by the finest museum I have been to. As I am a man among men, the Louvre is a museum among museums. Opened in 1793, the Louvre hosts a massive collection of artifacts, paintings, and sculptures. Six million visitors a year wander its wings after entering through the glass pyramid entrance and descending into the underground lobby. Tickets can be purchased from vending machines. A useful map of the grounds that highlights the premier attractions such as the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, and Venus de Milo is also available. With treasures from all corners of the world on display, it was an easy mistake for many tourists to make when they assumed that I was one of the specimens in the Louvre's collection and started snapping pictures.

The collection was so extensive that my entire day was spent at the museum, including lunch at the Louvre cafeteria. Several tourists took ill with cases of museum fatigue and had to be removed from the premises. The Musee du Louvre was formerly a fortress constructed in the 12th century. Three wings, Sully, Denon, and Richelieu, frame the central courtyard and the recently constructed pyramid. There is also a smaller inverted pyramid and an underground mall attached to the Louvre that I stumbled upon. The eight curatorial departments are (1) Egyptian Antiquities, (2) Near Eastern Antiquities, (3) Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities, (4) Islamic Art, (5) Sculpture, (6) Decorative Arts, (7) Paintings, and (8) Prints and Drawings. Room after room, corridor after corridor, new spectacles await.

October 05, 2008

In Flanders Fields

Ypres is a historic town in West Flanders, Belgium. The site of several significant battles during World War I, the town was left in ruins by the conclusion of the war. The most famous of these is the Battle of Passchendaele. Soldiers from Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and other nations combined forces against German troops, engaging in brutal trench warfare that resulted in 750,000 lives lost.

Reconstructed after the war, several Ypres landmarks were restored to their original likeness. One of these structures, the Cloth Hall, is located in the centre of the town and houses the In Flanders Fields war museum. The original Cloth Hall was one of the largest buildings of the Middle Ages, having been constructed in the 1300's for the unsurprising purpose of storing cloth. The museum had a closing time of six o'clock in the summer months. I arrived a little after five, but was denied entry since it takes at least an hour to see in detail. My friend Bart, who was showing me around Belgium, tried to explain that I was visiting from Canada but to no avail.

We walked to the Menin Gate memorial which arches over a road. The names of 55,000 soldiers who died without graves are inscribed upon it. Its Hall of Memory, although massive, was not large enough to hold all the names of those who had perished. 35,000 other names were inscribed at the Memorial to the Missing at Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery. We drove to this solemn place on the outskirts of Ypres. The largest graveyard for soldiers of the Commonwealth anywhere in the world, row after row of white tombstones line the field. The name, rank, and regiment are given when the information is available, but the exact details of many of the men buried beneath the 11,952 graves remains unknown.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
John McCrae

September 08, 2008


It was the summer of 2007. My year in India with Satyam had come and gone. An additional month of travel and goodbyes, and I was on a flight back. As Europe was the midpoint of the 20+ hour flight to Canada, I decided to spend a couple of weeks in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. My cousin was staying in Paris, so I enjoyed his hospitality there. He met me at Charles de Gaulle International Airport and located me with surprising ease. Together we lugged my baggage from the airport shuttle to the metro, through the railway station and the narrow streets, and up to his apartment. I deposited my luggage there, stripping out the essentials into my duffel bag and continued my travels.

Bart, one of my roommates from Hyderabad, met me in Brussels, Belgium. Over a whirlwind weekend he showed me as much of Belgium as possible.
  • Brussels
  • Bruges
  • Ghent
  • Oostende
  • Ypres
Five days had been allocated to seeing the Netherlands. Here my premier guide was Stein, one of my roommates from Bangalore.
  • Amsterdam
  • Delft
  • Den Haag
  • Eindhoven
  • Maastricht
  • Rotterdam
  • Scheveningen
  • Utrecht
The lion's share of my time in France was devoted to wandering around the City of Love.
  • Paris
  • Mont St. Michel
  • Versailles
My Eurotrip began and ended in Paris, one of the most captivating cities I have set foot on. After travelling through Belgium and Holland without a moment's rest, I returned here for a bit of relaxation before making my triumphant return to the Gateway to the Pacific - Vancouver.