Saturday, June 30, 2007

Europe Travelogue Part 4: Rome

Rome reminded me a lot of Kolkata, but its unquestionably more gorgeous. This was one of the few cities where I stayed for more than a day, and that meant I could do more that just rushing from one attraction to another.

Like any other Italian cities, the skyline is dominated by cathedral domes. But unlike most, Rome has much more than that. The all too famous Colosseum and the ruins of the old city around it it probably leaves the most lasting impression. The Colosseum itself is huge, standing right in front of it you realize no photos or videos have quite prepared you for the experience. Sadly most of it is ruins, or looks like going to crumble any moment, and the repairs look horribly out of sync. And it is, like every attraction in Rome, is overrun with tourists. To really appreciate Colosseum, I guess one needs to step back, stand still for a while and let the mind wander around to past - the time when Roman empire was in its full glory, but the jostling and posing-everywhere-for-photo crowd would hardly allow you the serenity to do that.

The other most known symbol of Rome is obviously the Vatican. While the basilica is impressive no doubt, I was fortunate enough to land up on a Wednesday, when the Pope holds his weekly mass. So it was incredibly crowded, and had to wait an hour or so in that expectant crowd to catch glimpse of him for a few minutes far down the hallway. Then I had to rush to the Vatican museums, partly to beat that crowd and partly to spend a good amount of time there before it closes in late afternoon. I would not even try to describe sheer grandeur or the intricate artworks which fill up the place, and the masterpiece is Sistine Chapel, where you reach at the very end. They say taking photos is not allowed inside, and people keep shooting anyway - but I guess world would have been a better place if people stopped thinking about photos (they do a very poor job anyway) and just stared at the ceiling. Standing there, it seems almost surreal - and unbelievably difficult to believe that one man could ever create something like that.

There were other cathedrals of course, often with exquisite artwork, Pantheon is one which immediately comes to mind. There was a castle which offered pretty good view of Rome skyline from the top. There were the countless Piazzas, which are the squares, bursting with people and shops selling "gelato" (pretty much our soft ice cream). And there was the made-famous-by-the-movies Trevi mountain, among other interestingly shaped fountains.

The flavour of the city is distinctly historical. It is so historical, as I am told, that whenever they try to dig up tunnels for extending the underground metro (the network is pretty limited, to put it mildly), they end up discovering another archaeological site! And walking around the narrow brick lanes and bylanes, you realize how insignificant our all too beloved "America" is - a hundred or so years does not even compare with a few thousand years of history and a thriving early civilization. The whole Rome is a vivid souvenir of those bygone days.

My pale efforts to capture that feeling is here.

( A different kind of city, Venice is up next)

Friday, June 29, 2007

End of an "era"!

I interrupt the scheduled programming (the travelogues and the photos) for a moment to salute perhaps the greatest "team" in college basketball history ever. They won two straight national championships, the second one forsaking the money and glamour of the NBA to stay back in college, which is rarity in this day and age. And three of them got picked in top ten of the NBA draft last night, which never happened before. Two more got picked in second round later, making five players drafted from same college only second time in history. Making history was something they thrived upon, and we were fortunate to witness that happen right in front of our very eyes in University of Florida. I, along with the entire gator nation wish them all the success in their professional careers, but their legacy in Gainesville would remain intact no matter how much they achieve later.

Thank you guys. It had been a fun ride.

Europe Travelogue Part 3: Pisa and Florence

I initially planned on spending a full day in Florence (which incidentally is called Firenze there, slightly confusing if one does not know it beforehand!), but a train strike in Italy disrupted my plans a bit, and I ended up doing Pisa and Florence on a single day. That of course did not do justice to Florence (Pisa just has the leaning tower, so an hour was more than enough), but at least something was better than nothing!

Italy does not feel like a typical European country in many ways, rather reminded me of india, not only for the history part - the train strike for a day, too many people everywhere and not at all organized, long lines for train reservations or entering any muesum, hugely overpriced stuff near tourist attractions. In fact too long a line prevented me from going atop the leaning tower in PIsa, and resulted in me hurrying through the world famous Uffizi gallery in Florence a couple of hours. Like any other Italian city, Florence skyline is dominated by cathdrals. Walking through narrow roads, suddenly the enormous Duomo cathedral opens up in front of you, and the sheer size of it is almost unbelievable. There are others too, some of them are equally impressive - but somehow the first sight of Duomo left me awestruck.

The photos are here.

(I expect to post the "eternal city", Rome tomorrow)

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Europe Travelogue Part 2: Zurich

Geneva was just a half an hour bus ride (An aside, buses are wonderful in Switzerland. They run perfectly on time, very frequent, they have dedicated bus lanes in every major streets and nobody ever checked my tickets!) from CERN, and as a result I ended exploring Geneva quite well. After landing in Zurich, and walking around a bit, it felt strangely similar. Geneva is built on the either side of river Rhone, which opens up in huge lake Geneva, while in Zurich, the main city is on either banks of river Limmat, which empties into, guess what, in lake Zurich. Both of them have a charming old city part, with narrow winding cobblestone paths and grand old churches. Climbing up the church towers gives a pretty nice bird's eye views of the cities - and for a better view there are nearby mountains, a cable car ride to La Salève in Geneva and a short train ride to Uetliberg in Zurich. The significant difference is while Geneva is mostly French speaking, Zurich is completely German.

The main street of Zurich is Bahnhofstrasse, which runs from the station to the lakefront, and its lined with tempting shops, both big name brands and local variety and bank buildings. Walking towards the lake, I crossed the famous Cafe Odeon, where apparently Lenin spent a lot of time plotting the Russian revolution. Going the other way, I pass those churches and enter the old city part - which seemed a world apart from the modern part. I sat by the lake for a while, watching the sun going down - and came back to the station for my overnight train to Rome.

The pictures are here.

(And do keep checking back for more. Next up is Italy)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Europe Travelogue Part 1: Golden Pass Express

When it became clear that I would spend a few weeks in and around Geneva in summer, I knew I would have to explore Switzerland beyond the cities - after all those Hindi movies have built up an image of incredibly scenic country for years. The easiest way seemed to take a scenic train ride - and the Golden Pass Express appeared like the logical choice, in terms of the route and time.

Staying in US for last few years, I was actually a bit sceptical of the freedom of exploration offered by a train ride - but it did not take long to realize that sheer futility of that. Almost each place the train passed through can constitute an entire vacation destination - and to cram it all in a day, the train does a wonderful job. It starts from the side of Lake Geneva in Montreux, slowly climbs up passing lush green valleys. And all of a sudden, almost from nowhere, snow covered mountains appear in sight. It stops for a while at Interlaken, where one can take a cable car up to the top of a little mountain and get even more stunning views of snow capped peaks. Switzerland is full of lakes, and they just keep passing by. There are tiny villages, dotted with little houses and tall churches. We stop briefly at a station, where the other side of the platform ends in the lake - where else you would see a train station which is also the lake access? The huge panoramic windows of the train is a photographers delight - but after a while I started getting a feel that it is impossible to capture the sheer magnitude of the unfolding panorama in little frames.

So the pictures barely tell the story, and I am afraid they do not do justice to the stunningly scenic vistas we passed through. But they are here anyway.

(The plan is to post the travelogues/photos by parts, not always chronologically though. So keep watching this space for frequent updates for a week or so.)

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Back home in USA

It feels more like "Back home in heartbreak USA", as the song goes. After three frantic but exciting weeks in Europe, one of them spent entirely travelling through incredibly scenic Switzerland, unbelievably historic Italy and undeniably magnificent Paris, America does seem pale in comparison. While how attractive a proposition it would be for me to move there eventually is still an open question, at this point I am simply in love with Europe!

Pictures (have to sort 5 gigs worth of photos!) and stories (before all cities get mixed up in my head) coming soon.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Just an update

I had a wonderful day at French Chamonix today, seeing Alps (Mont Blanc) from up close and personal. I apologize for not posting those stunning snow capped mountain photos or a detailed travelogue today. I am beginning my grand Europe tour by taking the scenic Golden Pass Express from Geneva (Geneva-Zurich-Rome-Pisa-Florence-Venice-Paris-Geneva, thats the plan for now) tomorrow. I do not expect to be online at all before 25th June.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

I just realized that I am going to spend my birthday in the birthplace of internet.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The most visible Indian contribution to CERN!

... Or at least thats what the standing joke is. This big Nataraja statue stands right between the main building and our hostel.

Another view at night.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Random Observations

This place is almost surrounded by mountains, reminds me so much of Siliguri, a little town on the foothills of Himalaya, where I grew up.

Its almost 10 pm now, and its not completely dark outside yet. Its kind of eerie to go to sleep when its not "night" yet.

Public transit system is excellent here. And so far, in no train or bus, my ticket has been checked. I am not sure if this is usual(and people are indeed so honest) or its just a streak of coincidences.

A six hour jetlag is infinitely worse than an eleven and half hour one. Any clue why?

Its really difficult to survive here without knowing French. My ultra limited vocabulary of "bon jour" and "merci" is hardly of any real help.

Despite being the land of banks, this place is amazingly cash friendly. I have not carried around and used so much cash in ages.

Buying Swiss Chocolate or Knife is more complicated than it should be.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Switzerland is ...

... in the first approximation, scenic, friendly and costly.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

First Glance of Europe: Picturesque Geneva

The famous "flower clock".

The giant "water-jet" rising from lake Geneva.

City Streets.

And city artwork!

Bird's eye view from an old church tower.

Mountains on the other side.

A game of Chess!

Modern side of Geneva.

Food served with "patriotism".

And the all familiar suggestion.

Monday, June 04, 2007

On my way to Europe!

Blogging from Jacksonville Airport waiting for my flight to New York and eventually to Geneva ...

It has been a frantic last couple of weeks. After spending a better part of my time being on hold and trying to get hold of some live person to talk to in national passport information center telephone helpline about my ten week old American passport application, (yes, I was born here) and being assured that it would be in my mail soon, nothing happened. Then got in touch with my local congressman's office, they tried their best to help, but nothing happened still. With only a few days left before my travel date, I had no choice but to drive down six hours to Miami office.

Due to a change in travel regulations, there is a huge rush for passports now and the agencies are just not equipped to handle this overwhelming demand. There were hundreds of people lined up outside the office, around the block from early morning and just getting to talk to someone ressponsible was taking hours. Having gone through a similar experience in Passport office in India, it did not feel much different. And it almost seemed hopeless after first day - there was some complications with my application, but they worked with me next day to get my passport just in time in my hand. That part was indeed impressive, in spite of the general incompetence of a typical government agency, when I could get to deal with a real person face to face, she went out of her way to help me out. I doubt if that would have happened in India!

Next post will be from Geneva, hopefully.