Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Off we went to Italy through the Swiss Apls...

Today I wanted to relive our trip to Italy in 2009. We had been wanting to do a week trip to Europe ever since we started living together in 2007. We needed a Schengen visa for the trip. Being Orlando,FL residents during that time, the first step was to take a day off from work to go to Italian consulate in Coral Gables in the Miami outskirts for it. FYI: The Schengen visa is issued only for the number of days on the flight tickets. So, of course we had booked our flight tickets before that. We had got an open-jaw ticket; Our port of entry was Zurich,Switzerland and was returning from Rome,Italy. Since we were planning to spend the most of our vacation in Italy, we chose to apply for the visa at an Italian consulate. The application process is no hassle, and we received our passports with visa in mail before the end of the week. My next step was to book the EuroRail tickets. For the next two weeks, all my lunch hours were spent calling the EuroRail office in New York. I had purchased individual tickets for each leg on my itinerary (that way it was cheaper than a pass), and two days after completing the transaction online, I had received an email stating that one of the leg's tickets were no longer available. So I had to call the Euro Rail office to reshuffle the itinerary in a way that I did not end up paying more but not leaving out any cities I already had on my schedule. But all was arranged well in the end. We were leaving on a Thursday, and two days before that, we had called our banks to bring to their notice that we would be using our cards for foreign transactions.
Also, in the mean time, I had gone through almost all media/notes available on the net on traveling in Italy. I had also purchased Rick Steve's guide for Rome. His guide is very elaborate and accurate.
Points to check before leaving:
1.Rick Steve's guide book
2.Inform the bank about impending foreign transactions - do not be primitive and carry travellers cheques, they are just waste of time - Bank Of America and Credit Unions credit cards can be used in Europe without incurring any extra transaction fees.
3.Carry a comfortable cross-body bag to carry money.
4.Carry lots of hand sanitizers and 50 euro cents - most of the public restrooms in Italy are pay-to-use.
5.Know if you order a Latte, expect to get a glass of milk - say caffe latte for buying coffee.
6.When booking hotels online, check to see if the hotel has people speaking English, well if you do not know Italian; and also try to keep a balance of the price and proximity to the train station when booking a hotel.

Our first stop was Zurich,Switzerland.
The first interaction with a Swiss person - the visa man at the checkpoint - asked us "Are you on a honeymoon?" - so sweet that he thought we looked like a newly married couple - it felt nice, but we just said the truth - No (our honeymoon was in Vegas !!)
Direct train from the airport to the city center, Limmatquai. Our hotel was very near the train station (Bahnofstrasse), opposite the Limmat river. We walked there. It was the most bargain hotel I could find on Orbitz. It had no attached bathroom, but the room was decent, the lady at the counter was very nice, and spoke English. Since we had arrived early at 6:30am, we could not check into our room on our arrival; so we kept our luggage at the hotel, freshened up a little and went out to see the city at daybreak. It still brings back a cool and crisp morning memory. We walked about, crossed the little foot bridge over the river. 

On the walk, we came accross street markets; it was a Saturday, merchants opening up their shops, washing the roads with hoses (just like any daybreak in Calcutta which I had experienced on my routes from Howrah station to Salt Lake city). We already felt like a part of the city.Had a small breakfast in the market, went into the Grossmunster, Fraumunster and St Peter's churches. These were the beginning of the week long church-hopping trip we were embarking on. After that, we went back to the hotel and checked into our room. Took bath, and then after another 1 hour, went out again for the second half of the first day of this vacation which I had been so excited about since its inception as an idea.

The second half of the day started with our trip to the Sprungli store . I had read so much about the Luzemburgerli . The real things were as good as their pictures and reviews. I remember how the lady at the shop warned us that they will not be good beyond 3 days, and my box did not actually last more than 3 minutes ! They are really good. We walked about a little more around the area.
 The bus rides in the downtown area is free. So we rode around the city on the bus for some more time. I had scheduled to go to Utleiberg, a 30 minutes train ride from the city, but on that day, both of us wanted to take in more of just the Zurich city, so we did not go. We saw a Bata shoe shop which I have seen only in Calcutta in the whole of India. I remember how SALE signs outside a show store had excited me, and the least price in the store was around 200 CHF.Then we spent the first evening at a school friend's place. I had lot of catching up to do since we met after 3 years and both of us had got married in the mean time.

The second day, I was awake very early. That always happens to me when I am on a vacation. I am too excited to explore the new place, to sleep well. We were going to catch a train to Lucerne to go to Mt Pilatus that day. I had not bought the train tickets beforehand, because I meant to keep the schedule flexible to accommodate weather changes. But it was going to be a very clear day and we started for Lucerne on a 6am train. We purchased a round trip ticket from Zurich to Pilatus including train and cog rails for 200 CHF. We paid the fare with our Credit Union credit card. They do not charge any foreign transaction or other fees, only the exchange rates. There was another option of a Golden Route which included a ferry ride one way and the cog rail ride on the return trip.

After a very comfortable train ride through idyllic Swiss terrains, we reached Lucerne. We had to catch a bus to the Mt Pilatus cable car stop. What followed was very confusing because we did not speak German and could not find any service personnel's who could guide us to the right bus stop, or I should put it this way: we could not follow their directions in half-english well . According to my studies the bus stop was right outside the train station gate. But there were more than one bus stop, and at all stops we found only tourists who, like us did not know anything definite about the right bus.Anyways, finally we all managed to get on the right bus, and reach the Mt Pilatus cable car stop. We noted however that on reaching the bus stop, if we did not have help from the nice little Swiss woman to take us behind houses, up a narrow pavement, we would not have been able to figure out how to reach the actual cable car station. The cable car had two stops. I am very afraid of heights from a moving object, so never looked down very well. But, the journey was equally wonderful; we could hear cow bells from the rolling mountains below, and see only greenery from the corner of my eyes. The Swiss lady was also telling us about their day to day village life, about the cows, etc. and finally we reached the first stop. From the first stop, the next cable car was much bigger, and no seats. It was much more exhilarating, and I was in total awe as the cable car climbed higher, and over the mountains, and then sudden emptiness-es below as it crossed each peak. We went on a trail around the Mt Pilatus, ate black forest cakes and lamb, lied down a little in the sun, among the clouds which floated around us which we could touch. I could feel I knew at that point, what has been drawing millions of people of all ages to the majestic Swiss Alps over the ages. Simultaneously,one can also see the amount of commercialization of the place all around.

We took the cog rail train down the Mt Pilatus. It had a quaint design with seats at 45 degree to the base of he train which is alligned with the mountain slope. So one cannot stand on the train, but at the same time provides opportunity for loads of fun if one actually stands up and enjoys the journey down.
Once, we reached back Lucerne, there was the old Kallipsell bridge, some very ornate Lutherean churches and souvenier shopping to do before catching the train back to Zurich.In the evening, we walked among the old streets in Lindenhof, had donner kebab; it was the closest we could get to our usual fast food experiences from before, both in likes and taste. Zurich is an expensive city. A Big-Mac is priced at roughly 7USD!

We were leaving early for Venice,Italy the next morning.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Clearwater Beach Gateaway

One weekend we went out to the Clearwater Beach in the west coast of florida. I was telling Neil that we better check it out before the hurricane-season pulls the BP oil spill to the Floridian coasts.Its like my missed chance of savoring the marble's aura of Taj Mahal before the harsh effects of the pollution creep-ed in; or may be as he pointed out "thinking too much". I had a whole day of sea or rather gulf bathing,shell picking, para-sailing, dolphin watching and sunset-watching planned out an week earlier. its a 2 hour drive from Orlando and we were supposed to be there by 10am latest. but after stopping for gas , camera batteries, breakfast, waiting around for our company with kids, we started at around 11am. After about 1 and half hour of un-interesting driving, our GPS took us to a waterfront which looked like a part of the gulf and an abandoned small dock sort of. After another 30 mins of going in roundabouts , finally found the Memorial Causeway which would led us to the actual beach. It was an amazing sight indeed.. miles of white sand which looked more like snow under the bright sun, lined with bright blue beach umbrellas and the dazzling green waterbody and teeming with thousands of happy people. 
Following the sign for "more parking", we reached the pink-hyatt garage which charged us $16 for a whole day. The fun fact is I had a print of the parking garages in the area and their charges. This was the costliest one in there, and even though i am very very money-minded, we had to end up there !! beach umbrella rental was  $15 till 5pm, so we planned to buy one; but then we were novice to setting it up and missed out the whole beach umbrella holder totally and the umbrella was flying away with the wind every time we tried. Now, of course i know better. Then, finally ,we laid out our beach mats and then went for our sea/gulf-bathing session. the water was warm and so nice. we had a lovely time. The waves were small and was perfect for swimming. After about 3 hours and changing and lunch at the shop near the Pier60, we were all unwilling to venture into any of the other activities I had in out itinerary. I had read good reviews about the Grouper sandwich which is a specialty of the area, so I tried it, but believe me i will not recommend it to a hungry-someone , i however will highly recommend the ice creams from the attached sweet-shop. when we returned to the beach, the sun suddenly seemed unbearable. The white powdery sand seemed too white for my eyes to bear anymore, the truth is I was wishing we had rented a place where I could go and sleep at that time. So we moved to the sheds on the Pier 60. We were waiting for the sunset celebration. we had to wait out 3 full hours for that. Neil layed out the mat and had dozed off. I spent my time watching people catching fishes and feeding them to the brown pelicans and egrets and sea gulls which flocked in plenty near the pier. 
Then as the sun set, the dark and threatening clouds rolled in . I overheard someone ask over the phone" are u stuck in the storm?", i am not sure where it was, but looking at and hearing the clouds , i felt the storm was coming our way. I took to the wheel on our way back, and I drove non-stop for full 2 hours and was so happy to come back to Orlando. We did not meet the storm on our way.