From The North Sea to The Mediterranean in 2 Weeks
Part 1: The North Sea
Seems a big deal? Well, to tell you the truth – it was not. Not at all… hmm, ya, except for the monetory aspect of it, maybe. But well, who cares about the expense when you have this vast a mileage to gain? Not me. And still, somehow, you got me speaking about the ‘money’ within just three lines of my story! Awful! Anyway, now to the story… straight away – ahoy!
It was just a whimsical thought on one sunny afternoon in the month of march – sitting idle in the office and reading jokes while taking breaks from working hard in the Devil’s workshop. The thought was spun by a comment from none other than Bapu the Great – who, following the footsteps of the religious gurus of old (who did not thought of any differences between earth and gold), never thought of any differences between sugar and salt (ya, he is gettin’ there) – mentioning something about taking a break from the pressing work schedule and the weekend overtimes, and to have a look about the continent that we were in – namely, that of Europe. There had been problems regarding the French Visa and Carte Séjour, which were all settled by the time we were having this talk. There had been problems with the weekend schedules for system’s production database loadings, which, too, were all taken care of. Finally the whole of the team was looking forward to a weekend without any alarms starting off at 7 in the morning on a sunny saturday which would follow a whole rainy week. And the comment clicked just then – at the right time. And the thought was for making it a success… even before the plan was fully conceived.
And we did make it a success… four of us. The preparation took about half of a day. Starting with the choice of a place to visit, which turned out to be Amsterdam without so much of a word of protest from any single mouth – to the search on the internet for tickets et al., which turned out to be a choice between Thalys trains from Gare du Nord, Paris to Amsterdam CS, or, Eurolines bus from Gallieni, Paris to Amstel, Amsterdam; and the choice was made simpler on our part once we realised from the counter-clerk at Gare du Nord station that we would be paying about €140 per person for a return ticket in Thalys whereas the bus would cost just about €59 for adults and €54 for children (and I am proud to declare that I am still a child – but that’s another story altogether) – to dealing with the simpleton Japanese clerk (after an exhaustive trip from Gare du Nord to Gallieni) at the Eurolines bus counter for the tickets, who would take the passports for verification but would expect us to write down the names of the persons travelling in a scratch-pad because somehow he could not find the same in the passports. Having done all of that, we only needed to arrive at the bus station on the proper day and at the proper time. Thanks to the Heavenly Lord sitting idle in the Sky Above and wistfully smiling at the sufferings of the creations of His Proud Ego, we had been very wise about choosing an over-night journey from Paris to Amsterdam. It was amazing! No, really, I mean it. Scoring a purrfect timing, we reached Amsterdam in the early morning – absolutely clueless about our location (which was ‘Amstel’, we later came to know) and about the means of transport to a friend’s place whose address we had got with us. We had some telecard numbers, so we could call him up from his sweet slumber and made him re-think the whole map of Amsterdam up inside his head – and not getting satisfied with that, we somehow captured a Pakistani fellow who was pretty sentimental about the tensions in the relationship between our homelands and thus used up all his times in showing us how to get a ticket in Amsterdam and how to get the ticket validated in the time-machines. I guess, he was a travel agent of some sort as he left his number with us urging us to call him up if we wanted to have a visit around to the places – which we never did – I mean, calling him up… but on the second thought, I guess, he could also be an agent from the underworld or an agent of some other sort altogether (we were in Amsterdam, for Chrissake). Anyway, he was a good fellow and helped us a lot. And that’s that.
We reached this guy’s home – a friend of Harish’s, Partho. He was working as the DBA with the ABN Ambro (or something something – who cares?) project that TCS had over there. As the day was a saturday and his day off, so he also, and his wife, could enjoy the day’s trip with us and could go to many a places where, being through the normal course of the days of official existence, never before could he get himself to be in. We walked along the canals, we walked through the flower market. We took the cruise over the canals and the backwaters. And then Dipika – Partho’s wife – (if I am mistaken about the name – the Great Bulldog of Amsterdam pound me!) left the group as she had to go back to her household chores. The rest of the evening our minds found our bodies wandering about places like Venus Temple : the sex museum and the infamous Red Light district. And you know what – the pun is intended, but the fun is in refusing the obvious.
For the next day, we bought tickets from the tourist centre for a bus trip to the windmills alongside the river Zans and to a medieval town called Edam. In the dying lights of the evening, we were taking pleasures of exposure-photography (in contrast with flash-photography) trying to store the views of the city at night in our chemical treasurehouses. We were almost done when an elderly Dutch journalist, Adrian, bumped onto us. It was a short talk between us which prolonged into a long one – as he revealed his interest in India and about his fifty-odd tours to our country. In one sentence it would seem to be a surprising range – but in effect we did discuss about things ranging from the employee policies of big companies such as TATA to the differences between French and Dutch architectures! (I mean… damn!) We took our turns in taking photographs with the old fellow, too… and promised him that we would definitely send soft copies of those to his eMail id – which we eventually lost.
The next morning, (I am skipping the details about going back to Partho’s place the previous night – when because of a bomb threat in a place called the World Trade Centre – a stop in between the city centre and Partho’s place – we had to find our long ways back… and how the people there turned out to be always helpful… and how gorgeous a lady was there in the tram… and how we all managed to blah blah blah felana felana etc et al. – I am skipping all these hoping that you won’t mind) we were just in time to catch the bus to the windmills and Edam. (Ohh Raj!) Yes, and before that we had our breakfast in the Burger King at the Centraal Station (remember Amsterdam ‘CS’?… yes, that one)… and the breakfast was wonderful. The whole trip for the windmills and Edam was pretty good, too. The mild breeze was just good enough to keep the wooden blades rotating… and rotating… and rotating… with a pace which seemed like quite lethargic, but effective nevertheless. We saw the shoemaker making wooden shoes – the ones that the farmers there used for their everyday’s work in the fields. We saw the cute teahouses in the town of Edam. We saw the cheesemarkets of the old times. We also saw an old Chevrolet painted with shinning red and left alone just for us to take stupid snaps with it (as if we could ever own one)… and saw swampy clogged water behind the never-been-touched wooden dams. And then it started to rain in a drizzle and we ran for the bus.
Reaching Amsterdam, it was time to have lunch. And in the rains, which got pretty thick by this time, we could think of nothing else except for the Burger King inside the station – once more. (Oh my darling Raj!) The lunch too was absolutely beautiful. We waited and waited munching soft potato-fries – till the torrent of the rain subsided… and then we got ourselves three tickets for a 3D show on Netherlands. It was a good fun walk-around finding the place where the theatre was… but anyway, the show was pretty decent. And then we had a small visit at the building of Gassan – the diamond merchants – and saw so many beautiful reflections that our corneas got all sparky. Coming out, there was just enough time… no, hold on… nope, we had pretty much time left and so we moved around the reddish district once more… spent a few euros just like that (ya, don’t ask me how) and had a filling dinner at an Indian retaurant where there was a bamby young waitress (and that reminds me… Raj! how I miss you!)… and… nah, forget it.
The return trip had nothing special, except for the stupid sandwitch at the MacD’s in the middle of the night at the security-stop, which I did not like that much (as if I needed to tell this to you all). In the morning, the hulk of a bus enterd Paris… and then could not enter the Gallieni station complex. The gates were closed. Why? Because it was too early, that’s why. And when it opened, there were armed policemen with sniffer dogs waiting for us all. The bus was searched thoroughly. And two kids were arrested and taken away. You see, that’s what hapens to you if you come from a country where there is free drug trafficking to a socialist country like France… you get sniffed by a dog! How typical!(this is all about the North Sea… the Mediterranean on the next episode… and forgive me for loading your head with this pile of… no, no inferiority complex… pile of wonderful stories… and not ‘forgive’, ‘bless’ yourself that you are in my list)
Part 2: The Mediterranean
(this one’s a little too big… but I had all 4 days to scrape up things to blabber about in here… so here’s the way it is…)
The map shows the place like a mutated uvula inside an open mouth [you know how the smiley looks? it’s :-(}) ]. But that’s a bad description – really. Football lovers think of the same thing like a profile of a leg hitting a football which, incidentally, is the island of Sicily. But be it Captain Planet’s severed soccer-playing leg, or be it Gaia’s prolonged uvula (yack!), I had to go there – because I had already bought non-refundable tickets on Kuwait Airways (Yes, you are reading me right, alright! Kuwait Airways! Ever heard of anybody buying tickets on that? Now you have – I did). I had every reason to not go… I was not feeling very ‘enthu’ about it, and just one day earlier US had issued a statement warning against ‘possible terrorist threats’ in the major Italian cities (including Rome and Florence – which were on my hitlist, too) on the occassion of Easter Sunday. But then, ironically, that very news got me all enthu about it. And after all, the name of this very piece wouldn’t have got a “two weeks” in it had I not chosen that very friday to start off from Paris.
It was pretty early in the morning when I stuffed my backpack, put on the new cap that I got from HnM a day or two before to protect my scalp that hosts the skull which hosts the finest brain in this sector of the galaxy (I won’t stretch beyond this… I know you people’s limit) and handed over my access card to the receptionist on the night shift. I had to reach CDG Terminal 1 by 0800 hours at the most… the instructions printed on my ticket told me so. And I did abide by those words. And so I was there to see Kuwait Airways’ check-in desk setting off with their daily business, and I was there to see the person in the emigration desk getting illuminated on a concept called “carte séjour” which gave someone unlimited access to the Schengen countries, and I was there to see the lady in the security check confiscating the one single razor blade that I had with me to keep myself looking tidy throughout the four days of the tour that I embarked upon in the following couple of hours.
“… all meats are Halal” was written in the meal description in the Kuwait Airways website. I wondered how it would be to eat something that had such a… a different description. But I didn’t know that a “meal” was something that you got when you bought a ‘long’ distance ticket on the flight… not for short-jumpers between places like Paris and Rome. They didn’t even switch on the television! There was this middle-aged lady travelling besides me – incidentally she was travelling on an airplane for the first time (she had problems with her seatbelt and asked for my help, etc. etc.) – probably never to travel with Kuwait Airways again as she was literally in shock seeing the broken and hanging part of the ceiling of the plane after we landed viciously on the Fiumicino airport. She was in such a good hurry to leave that I didn’t even see her in the Sky Bridge Shuttle which connected the airstrip terminal where we landed to the main building of the airport.
It was about half an hour’s journey from the airport to Roma Termini station – which was the main transport centre of the city. I got off from train acting pretty confident after having a glance at the station around me and thinking to myself, ‘is that all? Rome has got just this to offer – a staion with just three platforms?’ Little did I know that the station expanded in length – not in breadth, the way most of the railway stations did. I started walking – and I walked… and I walked… and I walked – still not finding the “end” (the beginning, really) of the station. I had three, no four problems ready at hand : (1) I had to join three of my colleagues who had travelled from UK and had reached Rome that very morning… I had to find them… somehow (well, I had their hotel address, but, well, once you got to know Rome, you would know…); (2) I had to find a place to spend the night without spending a fortune – as I could not do any online booking and those three goons from The Land of Blue Bloodies had piecefully forgotten to arrange ant for me; (3) I was losing on the daylight fast… it was already about 1:00 in the afternoon – and the travel plan was to leave Rome next day by noontime; and (4) the public toilets were all pay-toilets! Coming from Paris, you know, it’s a pain to see this. Even the MacD’s would charge you for this in here (well, it was same in Amsterdam, too) – and the only MacD that didn’t charge had a broken toilet (they didn’t let anybody in… not the other way ’round).
I bought a ticket on a Rome city panoramic tour bus, thinking that let me atleast touch up all the spots today – even if I didn’t get time to explore them fully – and spend the majority of today’s time in Vattican City – maybe tomorrow would be for exploring the centre of the city – namely, the Roman Forums. I still had almost an hour before the bus started – so I thought about finding a place nearby the station for the night. Somehow I had made friends with a Bangladeshi guy who owned a small stall right outside the main entrance to Termini (obviously by buying a leather pouch, without burgaining) and I asked him for some tips. The guy directed me towards a region which would come into this narration later again for once more… and following his instructions I wandered about in those places finding only costly inns (about €100 or more for one night) or nothing except unkempt roadsides and “patli-galis”. Exhausted, I came back to square-one. The bus came and I boarded. The tour pamphlet promised running commentaries in eight languages as we went from places to places… but luckily for me, the system didn’t work when I chose English (Italian, French and Deutsch worked absolutely fine). But then, I had better things to do with my eyes, so I stopped worrying about the commentaries. Places of historical myths and places of archaic authorities were passing by on both the sides of the bus. But something had my gaze fixed straight to the front of the bus… the irritaibly attractive hostess of the tour (goodness! couldn’t we have some ordinary ‘guy’ guide… after all, the word ‘guide’ is masculine in every respect… I guess). Somehow I could free my mind – Rome did it for me – and took a few snaps from inside the bus, and was relieved to get down at Vattican.
Vattican City – the seat of catholic christianity, the residence of the Pope. A separate country in its scope – population controlled to 1000 male human representatives. No one took birth… everyone died. No female members of the species were allowed to spend the night. But that’s all knowledge speaking – not experience. Experience started with the fact that in the evening lights St. Peter’s Dome was a gorgeous sight to behold. Humongous! And the crowd just fitted the size of it. I thought about entering – but was told by a guard that I could only enter upto a certain point inside the dome as they closed off the entries after 3:00 in the afternoon. So I shied off… and walked around alongside the river Tiber and did photosessions with the special Roman high-end trees (refer to the pictures) and pitied for the city and the river seeing how dirty all have become (or always had been).
The bus came a little late and the same bus it was… and so, I mean, so it had all my attentions ready for the rest of the tour. We saw some old buildings and some very old ruins and some pretty old churches and some not-so-old sanctuaries and etc. etc. And finally the tour finished where it had started from… some place about a couple of kilometers north from Termini (don’t wonder – it was from where the bus started its looping – not from where I got onto the bus). The guide gal (see, it doesn’t fit at all) advised me to take a bus or metro to Termini, and promptly left with the bus. I walked along in directions before realising that no metro stations or bus stops were likely to be found – and finally asked someone where could I find the appropriate bus stop. He told me plainly that he didn’t know about any bus – but if I would like to walk, I could reach Termini in 10 minutes from where I stood. Excellent, thought I. And walked along. Good that I walked… so I could see many a places – photogenic places – which I otherwise couldn’t have, the Basillica being the best of those. I was a little lost in one intersection, and asked a lady quite politely, “Which one of these roads is for Termini station?”, and she replied with similar politeness, “I do not speak English.” Then it was just like the old days : I – “Termini? This or that?”, acting traffic police; and She – “Termini? Là.” making the choice for me.
Reaching Termini and finding a place for the night, I was left with just one last task : finding my friends (talk about needles in a haystack). They had told me earlier that the hotel was nearby a metro station called Manzoni and hence, within 20 minutes, I was standing outside the entrance to Manzoni station with a small piece of paper in my hand which contained the hotel’s address and asking people about it (and all conversation here began with a “Do you speak english?”) only to find vague directions. I went hither and I went thither… and after a long stroll through dim-lit places of Chinese nightclubs and Bangladeshi wineshops, bypassing roadblocks and repeatedly doing to and fro’s, I finally realised that I need not have taken the metro from Termini to Manzoni – because of the simple reason that their hotel was not at all that far from Termini itself and Manzoni was 100% out of the route – these three points formed almost an equilateral triangle! The clerk in the hotel told me that the guys I was looking for had not checked in yet, but they did have a booking and I could leave a message for them that would be delivered if they show in. I was about to write a few sentences of eternal wisdom when the three stooges – all haggardly tired carrying their big bags on their back for the whole day – showed up for a shelter for the night.
This was just day one… whaddya think? Pretty b-o-r-i-n-g? Okay okay – I got the feeling, too. So I will cut the crap short and serve in petite pieces… here you go :
Day 2 started with me checking out from my hotel, reaching this other hotel to club up with them – and to find them peacefully asleep. Finally we could get out in time to see almost all of the Roman forums and not to miss our Eurostar reservations to Pisa in the afternoon. The Roman forums were all broken… all in ruins… starting from Colosseum to the forums of Julius and Augustus – and I was sweating – horribly – it was so darn hot!
The trip to Pisa was uneventful… and Pisa itself was uneventful, too – except for our rides in the local bus without buying tickets – because we didn’t have any chance to – and finding that the “fine-if-caught” could be like €50 (which I didn’t believe), getting down at a random spot and finding our way towards the station. The tower was still leaning exactly in the same angle as was expected. There were groups of cute girls in the plaza and there were old walls to be climbed onto paying a couple of euros… and that’s about it.
I was a little anxious to get to Florence – our night stay for the day 2 was planned over there – and I had no booking whatsoever. My friends had reservations made in the youth hostel outside the Florence city, reaching where was the biggest problem since we arrived in Florence when almost everything was closed off (it was a saturday and some moron told us that the nightlife of Florence was something worth seeing – he didn’t calrify that “seeing” “darkness” was what he meant). But finally when we could reach the youth hostel – I liked it. A place for me was no problemo and the dinner was nice. Sleep was a blessing to come (and I always fall short of it, so I listened to the snore-concerts) and refreshing as always.
Day 3 was totally in Florence for me. My company left me in the afternoon for Milan – they had their flight to catch the next day from over there, whereas mine was from Rome. But together we spent the day pretty okay. In Florence, even in an Easter Sunday like this one, you didn’t have many a things to see (some colorful processions were there, of course) – there was just this big Dome (Santa Maria et. al.) and every road in the city someway or another led to that dome only. It’s a miracle – but I don’t want to discuss that in detail. We did see almost all of the ‘mapped’ places – some were good and some did suck. And finally I took their leave – my friends’, I mean – in the square of the Uffizi Gallery where the statues of David and Perseus-slaying-Medusa waved me goodbye. I went back to the youth hostel and I slept keeping a part of my mind ticking like the clock as I had a train to catch very early in the morning for Rome.
Reaching Rome, I went straight to the Vattican – saw St Peter’s tomb, the little museum of the dome which had a metallic cross embedded with a splinter from The Cross, and went up to the top of the dome, too. It was a horrible ride upwards. There was this elevator – and after that there were these 330 stairs, hardly a foot wide in places, and with an inclination on a side (because of the dome-structure) – a relentless and hopeless journey as no one could see how far or long (furlongs, in other words) to go. But it was wonderful once people were up there – the views were great. Finally the tragedy was that the Vattican museum (with Sistine Chapel inside it) was closed on that day – and so I would have to go back to Rome once again once I get the chance… and that time, I swear, I would not have lunch in the Termini cafeteria like I did in my last couple of hours on the 4th day of my trip to The Mediterranean within two weeks of the one to The North Sea.