Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Travel and Living in Europe

When the husband announced that he'd be sent onsite on an onsite assignment to Switzerland for 9 months, I vaguely pictured myself walking on those cobblestone paths you'd normally see on Europe travel documentaries shown on NDTV goodtimes. We had a home loan to pay off and a few other minor commitments , so me really wasn't sure how much of travelling we would do. Maybe I can check out Vienna , I had thought to myself. I am a big follower of history and the hapsburgs were omnipresent in European history. Vienna being the seat of hapsburgs , held a special interest to me. A few days later the husband said he wanted to visit Rome as well. So Vienna and Rome, I had thought. And so it happened in that order. Then Barcelona and Berlin were added to our list. After which we went to Black forest. And of course , a host of places in Switzerland were covered in between.

  It was the first time I was planning trips all by myself. And that was a hugely exciting by itself. All my trips in US were planned and executed by friends. I had chipped in here and there but mostly stayed away from the main planning. I didn't want to then. It was different in Swiss.  As I searched and researched various places, I discovered the joys of planning out a trip. I was alone at home with lots of time in hand and tripadvisor became my best friend. I became a  member , wrote my reviews on places and restaurants. our neighborhood Indian restaurant owner who is a Pakistani also requested me to review his restaurant. I did and in turn got free glasses of that wonderful mango lassi that I praised in the review.
Stay in Europe is pretty expensive save for the Motel One chain hotel we stayed in Berlin.
While I loved Maria Theresa , more for the food than the room though, The husband would surely chose Die Reichstadt in Black Forest as the best hotel.
The hotel in Barcelona was a huge disappointment and the Motel One in Berlin , a pleasant surprise.
Gambrinus in Rome just served the purpose . Neat and nice place to rest after the hectic sightseeing.

Travelling in Europe is beautiful. If you choose the right area to stay many places can be covered on foot. Covering Vienna was easy peasy even without taking a public transport. Everything was within walking distance of our hotel Maria Teresa, except for the Schonbrunn palace. The bus and the metro can be used to get anywhere inside other bigger cities quickly and without much hassle. Trains are clean and run on time. The Barcelona metro and bus network is the most efficient and the cheapest . After getting lost in Rome multiple times and spending a bomb on Taxis , barca was a relief. But then the tourist attractions in barca were not so many or as far apart as in Rome.  Rome definitely is not covered in a day. It needs a whole week to fully appreciate the main attractions this city has and I am not even counting the lesser known ones. The swiss transport system is also very good albeit a little expensive even with the half fare card that Swiss residents can avail. The Swiss Panorama express is a special train that runs through the most scenic areas of Switzerland and has a specially wide window for the passengers to enjoy the panorama. This was one of the first long train journeys we made in Swiss and it was a trailor of sorts for the things to come. As the train passed through hills ,rivulets , lakes, meadows and alongside  mountains and small waterfalls I realized that Switzerland is more beautiful than what gets showcased in bollywood movies. In fact, the little you see of Swiss in television is nothing compared to what meets the eye here.
Another myth that got busted in Europe was that hiring guides is expensive, unnecessary and sometimes a pain. Vienna in any case didn't need guides and those that hired guides wrote about how tiresome it is to be confined to the pace of your guides rather than explore things on your own. I too believed that half the fun is in exploring things on your own. Research on net, books and the information boards that most places of interest have pretty much covers what we need right? Wrong. Once you take the services of a good guide you realize the things you have missed.
Our first guide was an Indian Malayali lady who took us through the ancient catacombs in Rome. Yes you read it right, Malayali. The husband quipped that there could well be tours of the Vatican in Malayalam. The catacombs cannot be toured without a guide and this lady was brilliant. After the tour I realized that without her to explain the details the place would just be an underground tunnel with lots of slots that once held dead bodies. She brought it alive by sharing her knowledge of the place. After that we chose a guide for the Colloseum as well and were not disappointed. In Barca I hired a student for the tour of the Gothic Quarters. She turned up on time and did a very good job of showing us around though we were the only ones on her tour that day. She showed us the best eating places to try out Gellato and, believe it or not, there were Gelatos in Chili and Marijuana flavors. Much to my surprise, the husband tried chili Gellato. Berlin saw us mostly with guides. One whole day was spent walking to all the major historical places in Berlin with a guide and the holocaust memorial tour was also with a guide. Both were adequate.

I also noticed a sense of community feeling here that I feel isn't there in US. Come evening and there are huge crowds in City Squares and you can see people bonding over a bottle of beer. People are eager to help. If you have a visible lost look on your face , someone will come over and enquire if you need anything. You can walk around admiring quaint buildings and statues that dot most of old European cities. And there is always a person playing some wind instrument , maybe bagpipes or singing a song in every street . People gather around and throw in some money into his bags if they like the performance. As we hiked our way up Neuchatel , fellow hikers stopped and made small talk. The funicular driver in Stanserhorn regaled us with stories on himself and the place. Of course India far exceeds any country when it comes to befriending strangers , but Europe isn't half bad. Language can be a major hindrance here. There was this lady who stayed in the apartment above ours and whenever we met she would smile and rattle off something in German . I would smile back and shake my head to make it known to her that I did not understand a word. This happened whenever we met. I knew she was saying something nice from the tone of her voice and I too started saying some nice things in English. Eventually each time we met , she would have a warm smile and talk in German accompanied with hand gestures and I would say something nice in English , maybe speak about the weather . I once contemplated speaking in Tulu to her. How does the language matter anyways. And then there was this guy who came to fix our window. I had to find a way to converse with him as he needed to tell me his lunch timings, or what time he would come the nest day or if he needed furniture to be moved. I used the Google translate here. Streto , the window repair man, grinned and gave me a thumbs up when I typed out the sentences in English and the German translation came on the other box.

Learning the basics of German was on my agenda when I moved to Swiss. But sadly that didn't happen.

Another thing on my agenda was to try out the local cuisine everywhere we went. This was a resounding success. Though initially I was a little crestfallen when I saw the most of the local delicacies are animals that I don't usually eat. The waitress in Morges had difficulty in communicating the days special dish as she spoke broken English. "Fish with legs" she told me gesturing with her fingers. As I formed mental images of bangude or buthai with legs sprouting out , the lady at the next table spotted my confusion . "Its Octopus" she smiled. I was relieved it wasn't a fish she was talking about. Being a Mangalorean if I hadn't known that there existed edible fish with legs , that would be a major shame. Next delicacy was beef in that restaurant. Finally I gave up and ordered Omelette , same as my husband. He had no confusion though, Its always pasta or pizza or egg . Being a eggetarain with aversion to cheese , he doesn't have much choice . I on the other hand have to really struggle if I want to avoid the likes of beef , turkey , octopus and yet try the local cuisine. Explaining to the folks what you don't eat is an ordeal by itself , given the language problem . Things improved from then on though. After initial failures , I began researching the restaurants nearby before the trip and chose something that catered to both our needs. The traditional Viennese Schnitzel in the Fugmuellers was wonderful . As luck would have it , this was pork Schnitzel . What's more , the husband opted for cheese Schnitzel , pleasantly surprising me.  He experimented with food.  Vienna is also famous for Apple Strudel ,chocolate cake and the accompanying coffee , all of which we enjoyed in 'Demel'. Another interesting dining concept was in 'Vapiano' , an Italian restaurant . They cook up the dish you ordered right in front of you and you need to tell them the amount of garlic , chilies , spices you want in your food. Vienna marked our first success with European food.
Here I need to make a special mention of the wonderful buffet breakfast in Hotel Maria Teresa in Vienna . The spectacular spread included champagne as well. Champagne for breakfast , that's a first for me. Though I loved the breakfasts in other hotels we stayed , nothing could beat this one. Considering that I chose Maria Teresa mainly for the breakfast spread that was praised lavishly in Trip advisor , I wasn't disappointed at all. I also had the best wine ever in Maria Teresa . The ice wine they served was surprisingly sweet. The barman explained that frozen grapes are used and hence the sweet taste. Apparently , sugar concentrate is higher in frozen grapes.
The tapas bar in Barcelona had a cute way of tracking the food we ate. Tapas is a bite sized snack served in Spain. It could be anything - seasoned prawns , tiny roll , or even plain bread with some topping. The bite sized piece is attached to a toothpick and after you are done the toothpicks are counted to determine your bill. Imagine doing that in India . I presume our guys will swallow the toothpicks as well just to take delight in fooling someone to serve them free snacks. Being the experimental person that I am , I tried the tapas with Caviar and spat it out immediately. My mouth stank like Jeppu market for some time. Husband had a more difficult time than usual in Barcelona . Most of the places didn't seem to have the veggie options that he preferred . Hell , they didn't even have chicken in most of the places. It was beef all the way. Then on the last day , we stumbled on this excellent Indian restaurant near the beach. It was most welcome to be eating something familiar.
Berlin also had a very good Indian restaurant that provided a much needed  respite from the breads , pizzas and pastas.
During our black forest trip , we visited the small café where the famous Black Forest Gateau was first invented. The original recipe calls for a lot of Kirsch(Cherry) Liqueur and I found it too overpowering.
Though it was exciting to know that we were eating black forest cake baked using the original recipe , the mellow taste of the cake served in Cochin Bakery in Mangalore is much suitable for Indian palate.
I had one of the best Lamb filets in the restaurant near our hotel Die Reichstadt. The perfectly pink meat was accompanied with ratatouille and it was the first time I was tasking this dish. I couldn't help feel like one of those anchors on food shows who travel all over the world tasting the best looking food and commenting on the taste.
We also visited a host of wonderful eating places in Swiss. The pizza served near the Indische stores has one of the thinnest crusts and was delicious. I quite enjoyed the Swiss Rosti in Appenzell mountains . And who can forget the Swiss chocolates. We were regulars at the Sprungli stores in Zurich. The melt in the mouth macaroons are to die for. I tried all the possible varieties of pastas, Pizzas, sausages , cakes , beers , wines , meat , seafood everywhere . My husband indulged my food eccentricities as I did his in quite the opposite ways. One of the many things that we both so differ in but oblige each other.