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Eurotrip – Planning and Paris part 1

December 26, 2013 Leave a comment

First of all apologies for putting in this article so late – more than a year after the trip – so there are chances that I would miss out on certain details. But for those who are interested – you can still read along, it might help you plan your own trip. So, this was one of my longest trips – both in terms of days spent as well as number of places visited. And pretty obviously, it had to be a costly one too. There were only two of us – Me and Pradeep. Smaller group meant lesser leave approvals, lesser convincing and easy planning. 🙂 .   So the optimizing function was simple, maximize the number of places and minimize the cost.  So basically we had to plan for the following:-

1)      Flight tickets

2)      Hostels

3)      VISA

4)      Intercity Travel

5)      Prebooking for monuments

in that order. Now, this is a lot of planning considering that flight tickets and hostels have to be submitted as part of VISA documents. So obviously, it is always advisable that you get enough of insurance against visa rejection by getting refundable flight tickets and hostel bookings. To give you an idea of timelines, we started planning on about August 1st for our Sept 22 trip. And we had applied for Visa by about 17 August. And we had to plan and make the bookings before the 17th August.

Dates – we had decided to take two weeks off. So we decided to maximize the length of the trip by leaving India early Saturday Morning (22nd Sep 2012) and reaching back two weeks later on a Monday morning (8th Oct 2012).

After chalking out the important cities that had to be visited, we decided that we will have to start our trip from Paris and make Rome our last place of visit. Now, needless to say, a round trip flight to a city would be much cheaper than having different port of entries and exits. So we had two options – either go catch a flight/overnight train back to Paris so that it is a round trip ticket OR maintain Rome as the Port of Exit.

But fortunately for us, we got a Kuwait Airlines connection –a Chennai Kuwait Flight and then a Kuwait Paris one (with a layover at Rome)  for the forward journey and for the return journey the same flight from Paris (but we could catch it from Rome) and the Kuwait Chennai flight. An online booking would not have helped so we got ourselves a ticket through Akbar travels where it was recognized as a return trip and we could get the tickets for about Rs 34K, whereas individually it could have easily touched 45-46K.

Now, we started booking the hotel rooms. Hostelworld.com was referred to by many as the best site. We booked dorm rooms for almost the whole trip excepting the Switzerland leg where our friends n Germany were going to tag along with us and they made the booking arrangements separately. 10% had to be paid upfront for each booking. We took up another option – extra payment of  2 €s per booking – a kind of  insurance by which we guaranteed that in case of Visa refusal this time, we could use this prepayment for upto the next 6 months.

Now Hostel Bookings and Train Bookings have to be done in Conjunction. This is because if you have an early morning train to catch and if your hostel is nearby, it helps. This specially matters in places like Venice, where you might not get any transport to the station early in the morning.  Apart from that the train travel bookings were quite simple. Specially for some places like Italy we could get even long distances like Pisa to Rome which is quite a lot of distance for 9 € each.

Please find below some of the railbooking websites:-

Italy lefrecce.it
France sncf.com, tgv.com, thalys.com
Switz sbb.ch
Austria oebb.at
Germany bahn.de

And by the way, we didn’t go for a euro rail pass because individual tickets were working out cheaper for us. Also for the Switzerland leg of the tour, we had a rented car.

Forex. We took a forex card – an HDFC prepaid card. Since we were done with the train bookings and part of the hostel fees, we only had to account for food, local travel and 90% of the hostel payment. So we took about 1000 € in the card and some cash.

Now, another particular aspect of the tour which I need to mention is getting tickets early on for some of the places. We got tickets booked online for the following:-

1)      Eiffel Tower

2)      Leaning Tower of Pisa

3)      Colloseum

4)      Vatican City Museum

Also, we saved a lot on Audio Guides etc. within a museum with the help of Rick Steve’s Audio guides .They really helped a lot. These guides not only explain the structure be it a Cathedral or a Musuem inside out but also there are extra guides for a particular part o the city. For e.g. Historic Paris Walk, Salzburg tour etc. with the help of which you get to know places and things on the way which otherwise you would not have been able to. It’s pretty simple. I got the audio files downloaded into my PC and transferred it to my ordinary mobile. But there are iphone and android versions of the same too. We could get Audio Files for Paris, Florence, Venice, Rome and Salzburg.

Now to the actual trip. Our flight to Paris via Kuwait was scheduled at 6 00 but it got delayed by an hour or so. But in the end it did not matter as there was a 3 hour gap between the flights at Kuwait.  After the stop over at Rome, we reached CDG by 19 00 local time and by the time we were done with the formalities etc, it was about 20 00. Our first interaction with the French was at this point.  We had to but a metro ticket from the airport to our station Volontaires. We were a bit apprehensive whether the lady at the counter would understand English. Of course she knew and we bought our one way tickets. Luckily, we had looked online for these details and we knew which metro lines to catch – where to change over and we reached our hostel in about an hour’s time.  It was pretty cold outside probably

We had chosen Aloha Hostel mainly because one of my friends had referred that to us and due to its proximity to the main city. It was near to Pasteur (bigger) as well as Volontaires(nearer).  The receptionist was very cute (as was mentioned even in hostelworld.com reviews 😉 ) and very friendly.

The next morning on 23rd, we first had first planned to visit Versailles Palace. It was a cold morning, we got up early and reached the station by 6 30 am or so. The person didn’t understand much of English though the vending machines helped us eventually.  The regular metro lines within the city won’t help you get to the Versailles. You need to get a RER-C line for that. We bought a Paris museum pass near the gates worth 39€ which entitled us to free entry in about 33 odd museums/palaces in Paris including the Louvre. This is something which we heard can be obtained at CDG as well as major railway stations.

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Versailles palace was really beautiful – the gold plated gates, the beautifully painted walls, the satins, the crowns, the cutlery, everything. It kind of gives you a fair idea of the life and times of Louis XIV and the French nobility. Rick Steve’s audio guide was also a lot of help here. The restoration work done by the government is commendable. We skipped the jardines (palace gardens) because we had to buy an additional ticket for that and didn’t look worthwhile.

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IMG_0317We wanted to go to Montmartre too that day but nevertheless we decided to go by the most operationally efficient way by the map. By this time we were well versed with finding our way through the Paris Metro Network. We decided to go to catacombs. Catacombs was bang opposite a metro station and we could see the entrance and a long queue. But to see the end of the queue, we had to circum-ambulate a park almost full 360 degrees. 2 hours later, we reached the counter. I wouldn’t recommend catacombs as such because the return of investment was way too less. 2 hours in the queue all for seeing a lot of skulls and bones arranged in interesting patterns. There were few other articles of paleontological significance like shells of m  ollusks, limestone deposits etc. Half an hour later , we got out of catacombs. By this time , we had realized that Mont Marthe was out of the question at least for today.  We had a light lunch from a nearby brasserie and went to Notre Dame Cathedral.

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The Cathedral was very beautiful in itself, specially the architecture of the exterior. Rick Steve did a great job of explaining to us the background behind the construction.  There was this small replica of ‘Christ the Redeemer ‘ statue from Brazil too at the entrance of the cathedral. Later on we took up the historic Paris walk, where Rick Steve guided us through a walk along the banks of Seine and also some old roads and buildings in the nearby area. This included the conciergerie and the Saint Chapelle.  It was 6 00 pm by then and since the structures had started closing, we couldn’t visit any of these.

Enough for now. More of Paris in my next post. Also Brussels and Amsterdam.

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Assam – Meghalaya trip Part 2

April 26, 2011 Leave a comment

….continuing from my earlier post…Once we entered Megahalaya, the climate changed a lot – it also rained a bit. We reached Shillong city centre by about 6 00 pm. The city looked very crowded and the waste and sewage management did not look that great. The city centre looked quite developed though. Many restaurants and branded retail stores.  We could get a contact from the hotel for a private taxi driver and he agreed to take us to Cherrapunji in Rs 1800. The vehicle was an Indica Vista. The 5 of us could barely fit in. The other choice would have been the Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation organised tours. They have buses for the same.

So, next morning, we started off to Cherrapunji or SOHRA, what the local people call in local language. We had breakfast from a South Indian Restaurant and started off by 8 30 am. On the way, there was a viewing point, Duwan Sing Syiem View Point. From there on, we went to another viewing point – a water fall, which was very dry, of course. Next was a viewing point where there were 2 viewing points – a stone structure (Devil’s rock) carved out by natural forces from a single Stone and a view of Bangladesh. We were told that Bangladesh starts as soon as the plains start and the hills of Meghalaya end – a sudden end and due to this unique structure, a unique phenomenon of cloud formation takes place and the clouds so formed give Meghalaya its name ‘Abode of Clouds’. Next was a park – a children’s park 😛 from which there were some fantastic views  On the way we were shown the really famous SEVEN SISTERS waterfalls – that too was running dry. Then there was a cave – MAWSMAI Cave. The cave was quite ‘first of its kind’ experience. It was well lit in most parts- and there were some scary, spooky parts too. We tried climbing on top of some rocks too. The last point in Cherrapunji was an ECO park – again a children’s park – with absolutely no greenery at all. There was a MISSING WATERFALL there – we are yet to understand what it was all about. After that we went back to our hotel rooms to watch India lose to South Africa. We planned a trip with the same driver for the next day – a Shillong city trip and a visit to the ‘Cleanest Village in Asia’ – MAWLYNNONG.

On 13th March, we started off early – by 7 00 as we had to cover the city as well as get to the village which was some 60 Km away and come back. The Shillong city trip started off with a visit to the Ward’s lake and park (which was closed and only city dignitaries who had passes were allowed to take a walk). Next was a golf course. The city roads were making way through this golf course and there were watchmen stationed on the roads warning pedestrians and drivers of oncoming balls. Next was a Cathedral of Mary. Then there was another park – Lady Hydari Park with a mini zoo in it. After that, we went to Shillong Peak – the highest point in Shillong or perhaps the whole Meghalaya. We could have a view of the whole city from here and there was also a provision of wearing traditional Khasi costumes and clicking pics – Rs 50 per head. The last stop within the city rather a bit outside the city but on way to MAWLYNNONG was the Elephant Falls. The falls had 3 steps. These falls unlike other falls had decent water levels and wasn’t running dry. After that, we started our long journey to MAWLYNNONG and after about 3 hours of journey, we reached the living root tree bridge. Yes, believe it or not the whole bridge is natural formed from the roots of 1 or 2 tree roots and the trees are very much live and kicking. We were told that there are two such living bridges in the Cherrapunji too but they are out of the way and you need to walk/trek for at least 2 hours after getting off the road.

Then soon, we were taken to another site – a BALANCING ROCK – a huge rock balancing itself on a small piece of stone. Finally, we reached our destination – The Mawlynnong village. Of course it was very neat – there were many dustbins, it was plastic free and all that. But truly speaking, there was no big deal about it. There was a tree house made from Bamboo and it was very tall – almost a 3 storey one and we could see a large part of the Meghalaya hills and forests from the top of this tree.

To tell the truth, the time we chose was not one of the best.  Just after winter, the grass and the hills were dry. And as such the summer and the heat had set in. It was pretty cool though, the temperatures touching 10 deg during the nights. We were told that May to October was the ‘season’ to visit Meghalaya, where you get to see the actual rains- what Cherrapunji and Maywsynram are famous for or at least the green hill tops – the reason why the British called Meghalaya ‘SCOTLAND OF THE EAST’. As far as Assam is concerned, I don’t feel there is any such thing as good or bad weather as you get to see what you are there for in any climate.

The next morning we started off early to Guwahati to catch the train – we did not want to take any chances and we started off at 5 00 to reach the taxi stand. The taxi started off by 6 00 and by 9 00 we had reached Guwahati. Some of us wanted to go see Kamakhya temple which was not very far but in the end, the tired bodies and lack of interest on the majority’s side resulted in us staying back at the station.

Few words on the food and culture– We could not find any such thing as a special Assamese or Meghalayan cuisine. We could get to eat normal roti-Sabzi anywhere and for breakfast we had South Indian restaurants almost everywhere. A special mention of TEA which was made extremely well in all restaurants and we made it a point to have tea even during lunch and breakfast.

As far as the Assamese people are concerned, their language and culture is almost like the Bengalis. Even the written script is almost like the Bangla script saving a few letters here and there. As far as the Meghalaya people are concerned – most of them were Khasis. Their script is the English script (which did not make our life easy as the language itself was very different. They have a spending culture – they don’t believe in saving much. Be it an ice cream at the nearby park or branded sports shoes – they do not think twice before fulfilling any of their kids’ demands. They give a lot of importance to personal hygiene – they keep their house – vessels and clothes very clean. They repaint their houses every year. Everywhere on the way, they are seen carrying washed clothes on their back – kids as well as older ladies. And also near streams and rivers, they could be seen washing their clothes or vessels.

So, all in all a very great trip – I would suggest all of you to make a visit to the north Eastern part of India and if you have additional time, please try to see the other 5 states too – at least Aruncahal Pradesh which I have heard is really beautiful. I will try to recount my journey to Darjeeling and Sikkim which was more than a year back in one of my later posts. Bye for now!!!!

Categories: Travelogue

Assam – Meghalaya trip Part 1

April 26, 2011 1 comment

The post is a travelogue – the first of its kind you can find on my blog. It’s a bit too late considering the fact that I would be posting this more than a month after my journey. The details are about my trip to North Eastern India – an obvious tourist destination when you are staying at West Bengal. So we planned to go to Assam and Meghalaya as soon as we are done with our exams, placements etc at the campus.

Planning:- We did some preliminary research on the internet and decided that a period of 6-7 days end to end would be enough for covering most of Assam and Meghalaya. As a part of booking we booked tickets from Howrah to Guwahati for 8th March – 3 45 pm and the return ticket from Guwahati for 14th March 12 45 pm. There were 5 of us – Pradeep, Rishikesh, Petchiappan, Ashwani Kumar and me. The number should have ideally been 8 as I knew from my previous trip to Darjeeling-Sikkim (Sumo sharing, reaching economies of scale etc etc).

We reached Guwahati in time at 9 00 the other morning. For the later part of the train journey we observed that there was no signal in our mobile phones but we assumed that we would get the signal as soon as we reach Guwahati. But it was not to be so and on reaching Guwahati we realized that only postpaid connections are allowed in Guwahati and as a result the prepaid connections won’t function even while roaming. We enquired at the Assam tourism office about the various trips available – some within Guwahati, some to Kaziranga, Shillong and also Arunachal Pradesh. Eventually, we decided to go on our own – directly to Kaziranga – a slight deviation from our initial plan to spend the day roaming around Guwahati.

We took a ‘Assam road transport’ bus to Kaziranga from the bus station just outside the railway station. It was a long journey – we started at about 2 30 and reached well after 8. The bus stopped on the way for dinner etc.  We were dropped in Kaziranga at a place called Kohora. There were a number of hotels and most of them empty. We knew that with some bargaining we could get a good deal. We were convinced that we would not be going anywhere the next day as we were very much tired already and there were enough days left for Meghalaya. Since we were ready to spend two nights at the hotel we could get a good deal. We booked the elephant ride at Rs 350 per head for the next morning through the hotel itself. Rs 50 extra for each camera too. We had to pay Rs 450 for the jeep that would take us to the national park and bring us back. There were three timings for the elephant ride – 5 00 am , 6 00 am and 7 00 am . We luckily got a slot for the 6 00 am ride.

The elephant ride was really interesting. Unlike other national parks were we have jeep rides and boat rides, the elephant ride takes us right into the forest/grassland and we see the animals from close quarters. The forest is supposed to contain rhinoceros, deer, wild buffalo, wild boars and of course tigers. Rhino so to say is the hero of the movie. Though, it is seen in other parts of the subcontinent also, the Indian Rhinoceros is seen in such good numbers only in Assam. Tiger of course, is supposed to have only a guest role. It hunts only after sunset and there is almost zero chance that you might see it during the early morning elephant ride.

Well, we enjoyed this a lot (though, I am sorry that the elephant with 5 people and all the chains and bondages would not be having as much fun). The rider of the elephant on which I was travelling (and of course the elephant too) had some extra fun in mind. They chased rhinos here and there. The rhinos of course grunted and complained and walked away. They were not enjoying this activity at all. I was a bit worried as I had read accounts of rhinos having chased these elephants and the passengers having been injured.

On the way back to the hotel, we asked the driver of the jeep to take us to various places. Kaziranga had pleasant surprises in store as other than the national park, it had most of what you would want to see in Assam. A tea garden followed by a rubber plantation and a coffee plantation. Then there was a heritage site where the Assam government had made an artificial village, an ethnic village which had models of the homes and tree houses where Khasis and Garos (tribes in Meghalaya). The driver agreed for a total of Rs 650, which was a 200 extra than what he would have taken for the journey back. As soon as we reached back we booked a jeep ride within the forest, again through the hotel – this time Rs 250 per head.

The forest officials came to the hotel to pick us up in an open jeep. They also had a gun in place for safety reasons. The jeep ride was of course interesting but the afternoon sun took a heavy toll on us. Other than the animals we saw in the morning, we could also see turtles. There were also strict instructions not to get down on the forest path (as was said in the movie KAAL) as the wild animals could spring surprises any time. We went shopping in the evening and bought some wooden models of the Rhino. We also bought the tea being sold outside the tea gardens. Here I would advise you not to buy orthodox tea or green tea as they can be had only w/o milk i.e. only the black version. The CTC and the CTC premium should be bought. To tell the truth, they are the same as the normal tea we get to buy in the market. But of course, they are much fresh and have a distinct flavor.

The hotel helped us book a ticket to Jorhabat. The bus and the route was obviously the same as what we would had encountered on our way from Guwahati to Kaziranga. Jorhabat is almost the same as Guwahati – just that you need not go all the way back to guwahati to catch a vehicle to Shillong. We started at 7 30 from Kaziranga and reached Jorhabat by about 12 45. By 1 00 we were off to Shillong in a Sumo. They stuffed about 10-11 of us into the vehicle. We were charged Rs 140 per head. The journey to Shillong was quite tiring. There were traffic jams on the way.

The rest of the trip would be documented in the next post……

Categories: Travelogue
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