Friday, June 28, 2019

Scotland (Edinburgh, Inverness, Loch Ness, Isle of Skye)


After reading rave reviews of Isle of Skye, Scotland kept jumping up on my travel list. Now that we were going to UK for the cricket world cup, I was all excited to go to Scotland for a few days before our England trip. So here we were. 
Our brief itinerary:
Day 0: Arrive in Manchester -> Train to Edinburgh
Day 1: Edinburgh
Day 2: Drive: Edinburgh -> Inverness -> Loch Ness
Day 3: Drive: Isle of Skye
Day 4: Drive: Portree -> Fort Williams -> Edinburgh
Day 5: Edinburgh -> London

When to go:


We got really lucky with the weather. There were no rains. Was cloudy and sunny mostly and we got a little bit of drizzle in Isle of Skye. From what I hear, you hit rains around 90% of the time, so we did well I believe. Even though it was summer, it wasn't hot. We had to use light jackets and full sleeves shirts to feel comfortable. It gets hotter in July-August though. And I am sure the winters here must be spectacular with all the snow covered landscapes, and bone-chilling too. 

Day 0


Getting to Edinburgh


We arrived in Manchester and after a brief rest stop at a hotel, we were headed to Manchester. We had pre booked our tickets to Edinburgh. Advance booking saves cost when I compared the prices. Also, you can book seats if you get tickets in advance. 
Our Edinburgh AirBnB
Train journey from Manchester to Edinburgh was about 3 hours and some change. But our train kept getting delayed. First due to a disruptive passenger. Then they didn't have functioning toilets, so they had to take a restroom break at another station. The train in-charge made an announcement that if anyone took a smoke break and took more than five minutes, she would leave, and boy, she meant business. Haha! Luckily we arrived only 25 minutes later than scheduled time. Had we been delayed by more than 30 minutes, we would have been entitled for 50% refund. Darn!
From the airport, our AirBnB was a twenty minute walk. Even while booking two months in advance, the availability of hotels and BnBs wasn't as great. Looks like the options are few and they fill up fast. Our BnB was located on Queen Street and we walked everywhere from here. So, anywhere close to Princess Street, or Old Town is a good place to stay. Our BnB was cozy and pretty. Such an English/Scottish feel to it. Lacy curtains, black and white pictures in old frames. Pastel wall paper in the room and a small balcony.

Hello Edinburgh!


Edinburgh Old Town
We were so jet lagged that we desperately needed a nap. Thankfully the sunset was at 9:40 pm, so even after we slept for a couple of hours, we had daylight for quite sometime. We went to Kamasutra Indian restaurant for dinner. Pretty decent food, and to my surprise, Edinburgh has quite a few Indian restaurants. If you are here on a weekend, it may make sense to make reservations for wherever you plan to have dinner at. The restaurants get crowded. 
After dinner, we walked to the Greyfriar's kirkyard, which is an old cemetery, but the main attraction for me was the statue of a dog outside the courtyard who dies waiting for his owner next to his grave, Greyfriar's Bobby. From here we just walked towards the High street. And walked along the Royal mile for sometime. The street is lined with souvenir shops and there are street artists performing in the evening. You will hear the sound of bagpipes at any given point in time. After a short stroll, we walked back home via Princess street. It is a cute little city where you can enjoy the local shops and cafe and just walk around and soak in the culture. Meanwhile, don't forget to stop by one of those many red telephone booths and get your standard UK touristy picture!

Day 1


Morning Run and Brunch:


Skilts everywhere
Thanks to jet lag, we were up bright eyed and bushy tailed at 7 am. So we decided to go for a run up to Calton Hill. It was a pleasant day with sun playing hide and seek with the clouds. The run included quite a few stairs to get to the top as well. Their is a loop around the hill to give you 360 degree views of the city. You get the views of the Holyrood Palce, the Princess Street and the sea. There are also a few old monuments and observatory at the top of the hill. 
After we got back, we were hungry, like really hungry. Luckily, yelp works in UK. And I discovered Dishoom. The one in other cities would have definitely had a long wait, so we decided this was our chance. On our way, we discovered that the St. Andrew's square, right where Dishoom is located had a fair and some bagpipers! It was armed forces day, so a lot of men and women in uniforms. At dishoom, we loved the ambience and the look of the place. Old style Irani cafes from Mumbai. We ordered chole-puri, vada pav and pav bhaji. All excellent. The flavors were amazing. I so wish we had a restaurant that served food of this quality in the bay area. 

The Royal Mile:


Up next was doing the standard Royal Mile walk. But first we walked along the Princess Street. Stopped by the iconic Scotts monument and got some good pictures and walked all the way till the end of the street. On our way was the Waterstone bookshop and cafe. I got in to use the restroom, but was pleasantly surprised by the views of the castle from their second floor cafeteria sit out. 
View from the Calton Hill
Continue walking and you are at the King's road. Its all uphill from here till you get to the castle entrance. If you have pre bought tickets, you get 2 pounds off each ticket and you avoid the long wait in the queues. We weren't too keen on going in, but wanted to hang around and take in some views. But our highlight was running into our friend Smita and her sister. We knew they were in UK to watch the world cup matches, but had no clue they would be in Edinburgh and we would just run into them on the streets. What are the odds!
St. Giles Cathedral
From here we started walking down the High street. We had walked a portion the previous day as well. But it being Saturday, it was crowded. Our next stop on this cobbled street was the St. Giles cathedral. Its very beautiful. The arches in the roof and the stained glass paintings are beautiful. There is a small room inside, I don't remember its name but it is used for granting the knighthood. The wooden engravings there are absolutely gorgeous. Its a small cathedral, compared to the ones you would see in Italy I guess, but is beautiful.
Moving on, we stopped for some street performers and then had to wade through small groups of pride parade. Then we took a break at one of the cafes for a quick bite and coffee.  There are narrow alleys that run all the way to the main street and give you the feel of old town. Plus, there are other spots to check out along the Royal Mile if you are interested. There is a museum of optical illusion, recommended by our friends, a dungeon (Mary King's close) and some galleries and museums on the parallel streets. 
Holyrood Palace
Holyrood palace will remind you some scenes from The Crown. The last entry is at 4:30 pm and of course we missed that. But were happy to get the view of the facade from the entrance. There is Scottish parliament right across the street. This is their new parliament house, functional since the last decade. The previous house was on the Royal Mile and is now closed. Apparently you can watch the parliament in action and see some live debates. The building is modern and the architecture so much in contrast to the Holyrood palce it stands across to. You can also listen to Rick Steeve's audio guided tour for the Royal Mile walk.

Arthur's Seat:


Arthur's Seat
Up next on our list was the hike up the Arthur's seat. It was a strenuous hike. About one mile each way with 1000 ft of elevation gain. It wasn't easy, but the views from the top are mind blowing. Do it if you have the stamina and the time. Gorgeous. Downhill didn't take much time and once back, we wanted dinner. We decided to meet with Smita and her sister at Mother's India Cafe. They serve small portions, so you can try multiple things and being four people we tried quite a few things on the menu. All were so good. This was our lucky day with some good Indian food at Dishoom and then here. I recommend panipuri and chaat for sure. Everything else was good too, so you won't go wrong with your order. I just loved how walkable this city was. There is uber too if you aren't too keen on walking. 

Day 2


Drive to Inverness:


Our plan for the day was to rent a car at the airport and drive. We ubered to the airport. Our Scottish driver was so chatty and so helpful. I loved our conversation for the fifteen minutes. He kept telling us basic road rules, how to get the gas at the station. And we passed by a beautiful school, which I assumed was an old palace or something, but I was wrong. It was built as a school for the deaf and the dumb and was not functional anymore. As you get out of old town, you start seeing newer construction and realize how big the city is. Anyhow, we rented our car and were off.
High Tea at Perth
Following directions wasn't hard at all. Scottish people love roundabouts and so do Chandigarh people. So we were home as far as navigating around the roundabouts was concerned. About an hour in, we decided to have brunch at Perth. Luckily, yelp showed this tea and breakfast place, Efiie's at Perth. I absolutely loved this place. The English setting and serving in fine bone china, was just too good of an experience. The food was okay and so was the tea, but I was wowed by the experience. Must go to a tea room if you are in UK. Must, must.
Driving further, we spotted Blair Castle. I had no intentions of going in. So, we skipped that part, but you could stop by and take some pictures of the castle. 
Inverness Castle
The views are pretty. Vast green highlands. A river at times next to the highway. Keep driving and you'll reach Inverness. A good place for lunch. We wanted to get our swim for the day, but their fancy athletic centre was closed for a swim meet that day. Hence, we ventured into the city. Very small old town area. You can walk the entire area in a 10-15 minutes. Got some good views of the Inverness castle from the Ness bridge. And next stop was a restaurant for lunch. While I got hangry looking for a restaurant, they started closing at 3pm. So I opted for whatever I saw next which happened to be an Italian place was pretty decent. 
Next we were driving along Loch Ness. 

Loch Ness:


Loch Ness
We drove straight to the Urquhart Castle. Very pretty castle, apparently at the deepest point in the lake. You have to buy tickets to go in and get some views. Its mostly in ruins, but thats the beauty of it. From here, keep driving to Fort Augustus. A small town to take a break and you could drive to the Suidhe viewpoint form here. We were tired and wanted to head back, so we didn't. This place has top views of the lake and the pictures are pretty, so might as well stop by if you can. You could follow this itinerary or viewpoints.
Urquhart Castle
Onwards, we arrived at our BnB place booked via AirBnB. It was a cottage at the end of narrow road in Dornie. Walkable distance from the Eilean-Donan castle. I'll write more about the castle on our way back to Fort Williams as that is when we visited the castle. The views from our room were amazing and once again we were served english breakfast in fine bone china by our host. Its Glennan House, and we recommend it, in case you are looking for options. The castle lights up at night and looks really pretty, but we both were tired and skipped it.

Day 3


Isle of Skye:


Today was the day for our highlight of the Scotland trip. The weather forecast showed mild showers all day, but it was a bit of drizzle in the morning and not at all disruptive. I am so thankful for the lovely weather that cooperated with us. Portree is definitely the town where you can get options to eat and drink. So we planned our trip around Portree. We started from Dornie and reached Portree in about an hour. We weren't as hungry, so decided to do the north out and back loop. 
Old Man of Storr
Drive is pretty and the first stop is Old Man of Storr. Its a rock formation that stands firm at the top along with other strangely shaped rocks. Its a hike from the car park. So, park the car and get your hiking bag out and start walking. It is a decent elevation gain to the gate from where you could either do a loop or go out and back. If you got a little up, you will get rewarded with beautiful views. Sumit hiked all the way up and I huffed and puffed till I saw him returning back. I realized I had hiked around a mile from the car park and the views were getting better and better. Also, the constant bleats of sheep and lambs were quite serene.
Kilt's viewpoint
Next stop was drive all the way upto flower cottage. Not a scenic viewpoint, but a hotel located at the scenic spot. We stopped, took pictures and started driving back. We stopped at the Kilt Rock viewpoint, which is a must stop. Offers the view of cliffs, a waterfall and the clear waters. Keep driving and their a waterfalls on the left. Its right along the roadside, so might as well stop. Now we were back in Portree and it was time for lunch before heading to the south loop. We got lunch at cafe Arriba. They had some decent vegetarian options, so no complaints. Also, we tried vegetarian haggis, which is a Scotland specialty. Umm, not that bad. I could get used to this taste.
Now, we drove to the Fairy Pools, Off the higway, it becomes a single narrow lane. And you must drive carefully. Pull into the passing lanes to let the traffic pass by. Fairy Pools are about twenty minute walk from the parking lot. Go and take some pictures, don't have to hike all the way up.
Neist Lighthouse
From here, it was a long drive to the Neist Point Lighthouse. My favorite attraction in the Isle of Skye. Find some car parking. Now you can either take the designated pathway all the way up to the lighthouse, or just go right from the cafe shop and walk ten minutes out to get the beautiful cliffs and the lighthouse in the view. We did the latter and oh boy, the views were amazing. I didn't think that hiking up to the lighthouse could give me the views of the cliffs and the lighthouse. So, we skipped it. Also, I was excited to get my cover picture. 
Up next, was the final stop of the evening, Dunveagon Castle. They close at 5 pm, so of course we were late. And I kept looking for some view points, which should be outside the castle, but didn't get any results. Later discovered that if you follow the road all the way till end you will be able to get views of the castle, but they are from a little farther away than you'd like. Now we were headed to our Airbnb, some five miles away from Portree. Nested in middle of the valley with such pretty views, these people get up to such view everyday! Again a decent experience with the AirBnB. 
We should have called it a day, but went for a swim to the Arainn Fhinn, the Fingal Centre in Portree. Excellent pool and some great facilities. You see, I try my best to get Sumit his training workouts even when we are on a vacation. We had dinner at Taste of India, which was pretty pretty bad. But some Indian food at 10 pm, is better than nothing I guess. 

Day 4


Bike Ride:


Biking the Isle of Skye
Plan was for Sumit to rent a bike at the Skye Bike Shack, close to Portree and go for a bike ride, while I spend time at various cafes and get this blog done. Portree is a cute little town and walking around was fun. I visited quite a few souvenir shops and also walked around the harbour.
Bike Route
Sumit completed this bike loop, about 40 miles from the bike rental place Skye Bike Shack. The owner was pretty helpful and a bike enthusiast himself. The roads are narrow, but the drivers are used to bike riders, so nothing to be really scared of but we mindful at all times. From here we were headed to Edinburgh, but not before making a few stops on our way back. Goal was to reach Edinburgh by midnight. 

Drive to Fort Williams:


Silgachen Bridge
Our first stop was Sligachan brigde on our drive back. It is a very old bridge and you get some great pictures of this bridge. Keep driving and admiring the views. 
Next stop was Eilean Donan Castle which we had skipped the day we stayed in Dornie. We went in the castle. It is a residential place and the inside is fully furnished. You get to see a few parts of the castle if you get the tickets. If you are interested in pictures, the best shots ate from outside. It is one of the most picturesque castles I have seen.
Viaduct view from Glenfinnan
Next up was drive to Fort Williams. We just drove straight to the town and headed to a restaurant we picked online. The restaurant food was okay, nothing great, but I was more excited to go to the Harry Potter bridge. It is 30 minutes from Fort Williams. The views of the viaduct however are not on the main road and you need to hike for about 20 minutes to get a to a good viewpoint. Its not difficult to find the viewpoint as you'll see a lot of people heading in that direction. It is located close to the Glenfinnan station. However, you must time your visit with the train times. There are regular trains passing the bridge, and also steam engine trains going a couple of times every day. Look up the timetable if you want to see a train on the bridge. Nevertheless, the views of just the bridge are spectacular too. You can also ride the train from Fort Williams to Mallaig and then then the ferry onwards.

Drive to Edinburgh: 


Next up was drive straight to Edinburgh. If you have time, you can stop by various viewpoints on the way, else drive straight to Edinburgh. I would suggest you stop by close to Loch Lomond for a day and enjoy the views and take pictures on your way back. We hadn't planned on visiting Loch Lomond, so we drove straight to Edinburgh If you have time, stop by to take in the views of Ben Nevis, Glencoe, three sisters and Brackfinn falls. We reached our rental center at 12:05 am, dropped off the car and hired an uber to our airbnb. Luckily, we had rented the same airbnb as before so we were familiar with the house and the owner had given us the keys to keep for our second stay. Worked out perfectly.

Day 5


Train to London:


Pre booking your train and making a seat reservation is always a smart things to do. We arrived at the station in the morning. Grabbed a couple of bagels and coffee and got on the train for our 4+ hour journey to London. Bye bye Scotland. We will be back again for some parts we missed, but our parents will be visiting next week on a pre booked tour.

Other pointers:

  • Must get a railcard if you plan to take multiple trips. Check out various options. The one that worked for us was "Two Together Railcard". It was easy to get and gave us deep discounts on tickets. We booked all our tickets from trainline.co.uk
  • Narrow single lane roads are everywhere, especially in the Isle of Skye. Follow the protocol and wait in the passing areas for other drivers.
  • Decided to skip Glasgow as it is "just another city"
  • Skipped Loch Lomond as we were short on time.
  • If going to Loch Lomond, might as well ride the jacobite train too.
  • Aberdeen is another popular city to visit.

Castles:

I personally don't like going inside the castles as much I like enjoying their setting and their facades. For me a castle nested in middle of mountains, on top of a hill are more picturesque than going inside these castles.  See below for the list of castles on this trip:

  • Edinburgh Castle - Set atop an extinct volcano, looks majestic from the city. Has exhibit of crown jewels and one of the oldest inhabited castles.
  • Blair Castle - Looks very pretty from the highway with green mountains in the background. Boasts of a good distillery closeby.
  • Inverness Castle - Smaller castle, but if you stop by in the city for lunch, take in the views from the bridge.
  • Urquhart Castle - Castle is in ruins. It is next to Loch Ness and you pay to go see. We totally enjoyed going in seein the ruins. Gives really good views of the Loch.
  • Eilean Donan Castle - Loved the setting of this castle. You take a footbridge to get to it. The better views of the castle and the bridge are from the parking lot. Fun fact: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai movie was shot here. See this link on youtube.
  • Dunvegon Castle - We missed this as we arrived late. It closes at 5 pm. But I anyway didn't intend to go in, but couldn't figure out where to get the views of this castle from. If you do, let me know and I will  add them here :)



Thursday, June 28, 2018

Germany (Trier, Heidelberg, Romantic Road)




















Germany was always on our destination list. As a tourist, one can divide Germany into two parts, historic Berlin and other big cities. And the second part, smaller quaint towns with castles. Germany has two tourist routes, Romantic Strasse (with all the quaint towns) and Castle Strasse (with all the castles) with a decent enough overlap between the Romantic Road and the Castle Road. We chose Romantic Strasse for our road trip, which runs from Wurzburg to Fussen and we stopped by a couple of other towns on our way from Luxembourg.

Here is our itinerary:


Day 1: Trier -> Mainz -> Heidelberg
Day 2: Heidelberg -> Wurzburg -> Rotheburg ob der Tauber
Day 3: Rothernberg ob der Tauber -> Dinkelsbuhl ->Nordlingen
Day 4: Nordlingen -> Augusburg  -> Fussen/Schwangau
Day 5: Fussen -> Konstanz -> Zurich

Our road trip route

Getting Around


We rented a car in Trier and returned it in Konstanz, our last destination in Germany. Driving around was pretty simple and roads were not crowded. There are some online sites to help you get acquainted with the road signs. Also, our favorite store was ALDI to buy water, snacks or anything else we needed. Getting vegetarian food isn't difficult in Germany and most of the restaurants do offer a vegetarian variant of most of their dishes.


Day 1: Trier -> Mainz -> Heidelberg

Karl Marx's birthplace

We reached Trier from Luxembourg via train. We took the local bus to the Hertz rental where we rented a car and drove to the old town. We spent some time wandering about in the old town (Altstadt) area. All the major attractions are in this area. We grabbed some lunch here. Saw the old cathedral, Point Nigra and Karl Marx house. From here we drove to Mainz.  Mainz was a comparatively bigger city and all we did there was to have a burger at Hans im Gluck. Burgers were really good and so was their lemonade. I highly recommend them. I guess they are a chain so you can find another restaurant in some other city.
Trier
Heidelberg Citadel
Up next, we were headed to Heidelberg. The drive was through vast rolling hill pastures. We reached Heidelberg in the evening. Parking on street is hard to find, but there are enough parking garages in the city. Also, try making a reservation for your stay where parking is included. Once we found parking and checked in to our hotel, we decided to head out to Old town for getting some dinner. We walked along the Haupstrasse. Its a lovely pedestrian area with many local shops all around. We walked all the way up to the old bridge. Crossed the bridge and took picture. The views of the hilltop citadel are also great from here. There are many dining options in the old town area, and we decided to get some Thai food. Now was the time to head back to out hotel.

Day 2: Heidelberg -> Wurzburg -> Rotheburg ob der Tauber


Wurzburg Marketplatz
We had initially wanted to go to the citadel in the morning, but decided against it. You see, there are so many citadels in Germany, that they get repetitive after a while, so we decided to skip this one. Instead, we spent our morning going to a swimming pool (Thermalbad). Finding parking was not easy in the morning as there were no parking structures closeby and the directions for one way streets can get confusing. But after some struggle, we did manage to find a parking spot with an hour validity or something. After our swim session, we head a sumptuous brunch at Mindel Cafe. Another cafe I can recommend. Now we were off to Wurzburg.
We drove straight to the top of the Wurzburg fortress which overlooks the city. It was too hot and we were just looking for some shade. We walked around the fortress to get some views of the city. I remember there was a tiny little shop in the corner which had ice creams! Yay! Then we drove to the Old town area. There was a pretty old church as usual and lots of shops all around. We found parking in one of the garages and then just walked around the Marketplatz before settling in at a Bierhaus for the football match. It was a party!
Night Watchman Tour

Rothenberg ob der Tauber
After the match we drove to our next destination, Rothenberg ob der Tauber. Such a cute little town on a hilltop and my favorite town in the country. You can only enter from one side and it was hard to find where to drive in from. But once we figured, we were good. It felt as if we were transported in to a fairytale village. We were here in time for the popular "Night Watchman Tour". It was so much fun walking around this tiny little town and hearing the stories of this watchman in his costume. This is the best way to go around this town. It takes only about an hour or so. Later, walking around cobbled streets we got dinner at a local restaurant. Surprisingly enough, finding vegetarian food in Germany hasn't been tough at all. There are quite a few boutique hotels in this town and we stayed at Golden Rose. And do not forget to take the famous picture at the most photographed spot in the city.


Day 3: Rothernberg ob der Tauber -> Dinkelsbuhl ->Nordlingen


Romantic Road
We had initially thought of renting bicycles and biking around the town, but the bike shops were closed on Sundays, so we decided to go for a run instead. I think the whole loop around the city was less than 5 km! But what fun running around this city. This city has a lot of souvenir shops. We wanted to get a cuckoo clock and we found the one we liked and shipped it directly to our home in US. There are a lot of price ranges and options if you want to get one. We got ours safe and sound in the next few weeks and it works just fine. 
After brunch, we headed to another small town of Dinkelsbuhl which was like a miniature replica of Rothenberg ob der Tauber. We found parking right outside and went for a walk in the city. Got coffee at a local gelato and coffee shop. Wandered around aimlessly, perfect vacation!
From here, we drove to Nordlingen. After checking in to our hotel, we went to the cathedral. Here you can go up the tower for a minimal fees and get some views of this tiny little town. These towns are so small that you can walk around the entire town in a few hours and be familiar with the entire layout of the town. We rented bikes at the JUFA hotel for 24 hours. Plan as to go biking the following morning. We had dinner at a Mexican restaurant, Pablo Cantina. Again, the food was awesome. Then we got back to our hotel to watch Croatia vs. Denmark. 

Day 4: Nordlingen -> Augusburg -> Fussen/Schwangau


Biking countryside
We were up early, Bright eyed and bushy tailed! Ready to for a short 15-mile ride around the German countryside. We had to get back in time for the checkout. Sumit had already chalked out a route the night before, so we knew where to go. We had our water bottles and energy bars ready in Sumit's backpack. Be wary of the drivers around as these are not popular bike routes so it can get scary and risky when you cross roads. I am so glad we biked around, it was a very different way to experience the countryside. Totally loved  passing through fields with cottages, small towns and coffee shops.
Once we got back to our hotel, something interesting was waiting for us. A parking ticket! We had unknowingly parked overnight in a parking spot without displaying an appropriate parking sign. So now we started looking for the municipal office to pay our fine. After some sign language and broken English, we figured where the office was, of course everything is close by, the towns are so small! We went to the office and paid our fine.
Experiencing the German countryside
Augusburg
After getting some bad Italian food for lunch, we headed out to Augusburg. We drove past Donauworth as we didn't have much time on our hands. Augusburg was a big city. We parked in a garage. Walked around the old town (Altstadt), saw the fountain and the old church. The golden hall had closed by the time we reached. We spent some time walking around the marketplace and shopping. There was an Indian restaurant in the vicinity, Sangam, so we decided to get dinner here. We got some food to-go and headed out to Fussen, where we were staying overnight.
Drive to Fussen got prettier as you got closer to the Swiss border. As you get closer to the Swiss Alps, the scenery just keeps getting better. We reached a pretty little cottage in the Schwangau area and were all set to go see the Sleeping Beauty castle the next day.

Day 5: Fussen -> Konstanz -> Zurich

Carriage ride up to the Castle

So glad that we had made the reservations earlier for the Neuschwanstein castle. This place gets super crowded. We drove up to the visitor area and parked. Walked upto the ticket window to collect our physical tickets, but it was a long wait. Then to get on the horse carriage was another long queue and wait. Glad that we started the day early. Once at the castle, you are called in groups and have to stick to your group tour. From inside this is like any other castle. Lavish and bautiful. The real beauty of the castle is its location I believe. There is a short hike to the bride close to the castle where you get beautiful panoramic views of the castle. That is a MUST DO. This is where we got all our great pictures and lovely views. We spent good enough time around this area and then hiked all the way downhill to the visitor entrance.
View from the bridge
Next up was the drive to Konstanz where we had to return our car and take the train to Zurich. The views just kept getting prettier as we drove.After we returned our car in Konstanz, getting to the train station was a but of a struggle. Public transport wasn't as frequent and we had to walk quite a bit to get to a bus stop. Nevertheless we made it and reached Zurich pretty late in the night.Voila! That was a lovely German road trip.

Pointers:


  • Payments are accepted mostly in cash. Very few restaurants and shops accept credit cards
  • There are very pretty boutique hotels that you might want to stay at instead of hotels. So prefer AirBnBs.
  • German countryside, atleast the area we were in aren't as scenic. But as you get closer to the Swiss Alps, the scenery keeps getting better.
  • The towns are quite but very similar. Pick the towns you want to spend your time at. Pick a few citadels, castles you want to go see. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Luxembourg City


For our summer trip to Europe, the cheapest flights were in and out of Paris. So, we decided to plan for our trip accordingly. The first destination we chose was Luxembourg. This tiny little land locked country in tucked in between France, Belgium and Germany. Since we were planning to go visit Germany this time, this was a perfect choice for a few days.

Places to visit in Luxembourg
However, since our flights were delayed (not a surprise- flights Gods haven't been happy with us for a while now!), we got to spent much less time than we had anticipated.

Here is the itinerary we had initially planned for:
Day 0: Arrive In Paris -> Train to Luxembourg city
Day 1: Day in Luxembourg city
Day 2: Drive to Echternach and Vianden -> Train to Tier

What really happened:

We arrived in Paris a day late. And hence had to reschedule the train to Luxembourg city. We had to cut short our trip and skip Echternach and Vianden from our itinerary to get to Trier on time. I will write about roaming around Luxembourg city and some pointers for Echternach and Vianden from our plans.

Getting in/out:

Luxembourg City station
Luxembourg City is very well connected by rail, like most of Europe. There are frequent direct trains from Paris to Luxembourg city and also from various other cities in Germany and Belgium. Its a short 2 hour train ride on TGV from Paris.

Getting around:

the city itself s very well connected with public transport. The buses are frequent and convenient. We took the bus to get form the train station to our AirBnB and also to get around the city for lunch and dinner. Pretty convenient and the Google maps are always there to guide you through public transport.

Day 0 in the city

Running aound to explore the city
We reached late at night, around 8 pm and wanted to grab dinner before heading out to our accommodation. We found an Indian restaurant close by, and not knowing the fate of our future dinner cuisines, we decided to grab a bite. I think it was Taj Mahal restaurant and food was a-okay. The city was very lively even at 9 pm in the night. There was quite a bit of hussle bussle and we felt safe walking alone. After dinner, we took a bus to our AirBnB which was located a little away from the city centre. The hosts were lovely and we had a room to ourselves on the top floor. Their pet dog was especially adorable. 

A day in the Luxermbourg City

Notre Dame Cathedral
We had until late afternoon in the city as we were supposed to get to Trier in time to rent our car for our Germany trip (my next blog!). So, we decided to go for a run and explore the city. Luxembourg isn't flat. It has varied elevation and levels, and following the google map directions can be tricky, which we discovered only once we stepped out for a jog. 

Palais Grand Ducal
We started off with navigating to the Notre Dame Cathedral first. On our way though, we stopped  for a cuppa joe and a croissant at a local coffee shop, which I can't remember. They had good strawberry yogurt too. Ahh! And most importantly, they told us, that instead of taking the zig zag uphill route, we could take the elevator upto the plaza level. Who needs a hilly run on a vacation anyway! ;)
Once at the plaza level, everything was right there. The cathedral of Notre Dame, Palais Grand Ducal, Casemates and the souvenir shops. Walk down Chemine de la Corniche to The Grund. A few other touristy spots to stop by if you are interested and have time. This level gives you good views of the city and is the centre for touristy and old-town stuff. Our rough walking route.

Central Plaza - Domfreihof
Coming back was easier as it was mostly downhill. You could also take the local bus if you want to get around via public transport. But the most exciting thing was yet to happen. Sumit decided to jog back and I waited for the bus. He reached home before I did and when I reached, I rang the doorbell. He was of course in the shower and only heard my doorbell after, umm, unbearable fifteen minutes or so. And in his quest to open the door asap, he accidentally opened the door without realizing that our host's pet dog was let out running on the street. They weren't at home and it was us running behind the dog in middle of Luxembourg. He was getting farther and farther away, while some good Samaritan got hold of him and picked him up to return him to the huffing and puffing folks running behind him, i.e. us. 

Whew! We now packed and took the bus to get to the train station for our bus to Trier. Would have been nice to go visit the other cities of Echternach and Vianden, that we had initially planned, but oh well, next time!

What we didn't do:


  • Echternach: Town on your way to Trier in Germany. A small town with old abbey, basilica, an old town area and a lake to boast of. 
  • Vianden: Boasts of a famous castle and Victor Hugo museum.
  • Beaufort: A small little town on your way from Vianden to Echternach. Boasts of cobbled streets and very famous chateau.

Tips:

One of the day trip itineraries that I liked.


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Egypt (Cairo, Alexandria, Abu Simbel, Aswan, Luxor)


Egypt had been our bucket-list destination forever. We had initially planned our trip in 2013 June end, but the protests broke out and we had to cancel our trip and  extend our Turkey stay that time. But it all turned out to be good. We spent an extra week in beautiful Turkey and this time we had a pre planned itinerary and we were going with our family! Here is our trip summary:
Day 0 - Arrive in Cairo
Day 1 - Day trip to Alexandria
Day 2 - Fly to Aswan - Drive to Abu Simbel and back to Aswan
Day 3 - Sightseeing in Aswan - Drive to Luxor
Day 4 - Day tour in Luxor
Day 5 - Fly to Cairo - Sightseeing in Cairo
Day 6 - Fly out

When to go

Our first trip in 2013 was planned for June and thank God, it got cancelled. Even in December the south is super hot and dry, so I can only imagine what the weather would be like in June. The temperatures in Cairo and Alexandria were mild, but Aswan and Luxor were super hot. So, do keep weather in mine when planning

Food

Traveling with vegetarian parents was concerning. Cairo had a few choices for vegetarian food, with Indian restaurants readily available. But, Aswan and Abu Simbel offered none. We had to make do with scavenging the buffet of our hotels for vegetarian food. But Abu Simbel was a nightmare for our parents who couldn't stand the smell of meat being cooked in a regular African restaurant. So stock up on snacks when traveling south. Luxor had an Indian restaurant but it was mostly always booked for the large tour groups and hence we had to work around their times. So yes, food is a bit of concern especially if you are keen on Indian vegetarian food. Also, if you are stepping out early for the day, most of the hotels provide packed breakfast boxes.

Trip logistics

Cities we visited
There is a lot to see in Egypt and it offers plenty of history. But its not possible to plan for things without a tour company. You can absolutely plan according to your preferences and comfort, but you can't do the trip as a DIY. Hence, pick the list of things you want to see and do and pick a travel agency that can weave it all into one itinerary. For us the hotels offered were 4 and 5 star rated and they were all excellent. None of the hotels we stayed at were disappointing. At this point, I must mention the our tour planners: Memphis Tours. Very responsive, prompt and had very good transportation and guides for us, given we had 8 adults and 1 child in our entourage.

Getting around

We flew in and out of Egypt from Cairo. Alexandria is a three hour drive from Cairo. For Abu Simbel, either you fly directly to the airport in Abu Simbel, or you can fly to Aswan and then take a three hour drive to Abu Simbel. Luxor is a three hour drive from Aswan and also has an airport to fly in and out of. Plan as you see fit. Some folks take an overnight cruise along from Aswan to Luxor as well. We chose to fly or take the road between various cities. Its a developing country so there aren't many rest stops along the way, road aren't that great and scenery isn't too exciting as well. So, if the cost doesn't hurt, flying may be the best option.

Cairo


My favorite from the trip
The Pyramids! Yes, the pyramids. Our first stop in the city was The Pyramids. There are three pyramids of different sizes and they are huge! Yes, they live up to your expectations. There is a special ticket and you can go inside the biggest pyramid and see the tomb. There is a narrow opening and a narrow passage to get to the tomb and come out. Of course we were doing that! Only that once we got in, and were half way through, the passage was so narrow that I suddenly started feeling claustrophobic, with my legs shivering and I was sweating profusely. Without a second thought, I turned around and came out. It was a strange feeling I had never experienced before but I think I am more considerate of people who say they feel claustrophobic. Its not pleasant. But the rest of the gang completed the trip and came out pretty happy about their accomplishment.

For the pyramids, the more important thing is to know where to take the pictures from. The guides know it the best. I had clearly stated I wanted pictures jumping over the pyramids and kissing the Sphinx. He made sure that we went to all these spots. There is also a camel ride around the pyramids, but its best to ask your guide to negotiate a price in case you are interested. Have heard enough instances of being cheated upon.
Entrance to the pyramid

Khan- El - Khalili
So after our awe-inspiring Pyramid and Sphinx darshan, we were headed to the the Egyptian Museum. It was undergoing renovation then, but I hear it is now ready and is well renovated. The guide gave us our own headsets so that he could communicate with us. This museum is loaded with historical significance, but our parents were super tired walking around in this museum. So, not a good idea if you aren't up for setting your fitbit on fire. For me, personally, the highlight was Tutankhamun mask and his chamber. Just pure gold, loads and loads of it. There is a mummies chamber too and there are plenty of them and the bodies are so well preserved that was scary I felt.

From the museum, our next stop was the Coptic Church. Cairo has a thriving Christian population also. And there was news of some shooting at a nearby church the previous week. But, funny enough, the guide compared it to the school shootings in the US and told us they were safe as we were still sending kids to school in America. I really had no answer to that. The church wasn't that great architecturally, but had more significance in terms of history and having a church in middle of a Muslim dominated city.

Next and final stop was the Khan El Khalili bazaar. I was looking to get a pendant in the hieroglyphs, but we were short on time, and the suggestions that the guide made were a little too expensive than I had imagined. So, I changed my mind. Family was very interested in buying some Egyptian cotton sheets and all, but this is where we felt being with a guide wasn't useful as they took us to the shops they knew and they were pretty expensive, I imagine they had a commission in the sales. So, we didn't buy those either.

This is the rendezvous city for Egypt. Cairo airport is well connected to Africa, Middle East and Europe. The tour agents are allowed to come into the airport before your immigration check and help you out through the immigration as well. Not that there is any help needed, its pretty straightforward like anywhere else. We stayed at two hotels in Cairo, one at our arrival and other for our departure. Fairmont Nile Hotel was luxurious hotel and we absolutely loved it. Second, we stayed at Fairmont Hotel Heliopolis as it was close to the airport and made our trip to the airport shorter.

Alexandria


Qaitbay Fort
A barely three hour drive from Cairo, it is a crowded old-town on the Mediterranean coast. Navigating through the town in a mini-bus reminded me of crowded streets of Delhi. Densely populated and not much order to the chaos. Our first stop was catacombs. I was quite excited as the first time I went to Catacombs, was in Peru and it left me in awe of the whole concept. Bit the catacombs here are quite underwhelming. First, they are in middle of a housing locality and there is just a tiny staircase leading to the underground catacombs. The facade isn't exciting, on going downstairs, you see the tiny, humid rooms with hieroglyphs and painting on the wall and you are reminded, you are in Egypt. The mecca of historians.
Next up, was the Qaitbay Fort. Perfectly located fortress at the Mediterranean shores. It gives you really pleasant views of the city. I loved taking pictures here. Next we went to Alexandria library and it had such a unique architecture. I here the new tech buildings in bay area are based on that architecture. The sunshine comes in through the roof at every floor. I thought this was definitely worth the visit.
That completed our Alexandria visit and we were on our way back to Cairo from here. We stopped at some Indian restaurant for dinner. Glad we found something that was tolerable for our parents tastes and we went home fully fed.

Qaitbay Fort

Abu Simbel


After pyramids, the next thing on my list was Abu Simbel. Its three hours one way from Aswan, but absolutely worth it. A very old temple, located at the bank of the river and just next to Sudan border. Its not just the history of Ramses II that makes this place highly significant, but how construction of the dam made relocation of Abu Simbel and international project. A marvellous engineering and archaeological feat. More so, the public access to Abu Simbel just started recently, as earlier due to threats from Sudanese terrorists, you had to be accompanied by security convoy in order to visit.

Abu Simbel
Abu Simbel does not disappoint. Its freaking awesome. The whole architecture, the history, the location, its simply mind blowing. I am so glad we made the trip all the way here. I won't write too much about the history of this place as you need a guide for that, plus I don't remember much of it anyway!

The drive from Abu Simbel to Aswan offers vast landscape full of dunes. I was so happy to see those that I requested the driver to stop around sunset so I could take some SRK pose pictures. But, there are no places for food. A couple of local restaurants didn't have vegetarian options and we barely got by with soup and rice. My mother in law refused to even taste it and didn't enter the restaurant because of the smell. So, be mindful to pack up your food bag when making this day trip.

Aswan


By the time we reached Aswan by night, we were dead tired and wanted to catch a break. So, we decided to start a little later the next day. The hotel we stayed in was by the bank of river Nile, Movenpick Aswan resort. Luxurious hotel, with excellent amenities. had to take a short boat ride to get to the hotel as there was no direct road to the hotel. So cool!

Temple of Philae
After a late start to our day, with our bellies full of buffet breakfast, we headed to the unfinished Obelisk. Initially uninterested, I quite liked it. And after that have been paying more attention to other obelisks in the world and where they are located. I didn't know that most them were quarried as a single stone and were stolen from Egypt during multiple wars and raids. It was a bit of a hike to get to this unfinished obelisk, so we left our parents at the market on the streets and made a quick trip with the guide.

Next was the Aswan dam, nothing too exciting about it in my opinion. Just like any other dam. The funding and the construction of the dam was a big deal at that time. And I was just happy to know that there are quite a few crocodiles out there in Lake Nasser 

Temple of Philae
Our final and most enjoyable stop in Aswan was the Temple of Philae on the Isis island. You can get here by boat. You walk through a local market of handicrafts and souvenirs. Good place to shop, but must haggle. Also not that once you engage any seller, they won't let you be. After a quick boat ride, we reached the Isis island. Beautiful, old Egyptian architecture with many many wall paintings and carvings with colors preserved till date. This place was crowded and why not. It was beautiful and that history lesson from our guide made it even more valuable. Excellent place to take pictures too! 

Luxor


I loved our hotel in Luxor too. Steigenberger Nile Palace Luxor was where we stayed and Luxor is the most touristy places of Abu Simbel and Aswan. It has more shops and is a bigger township. We were staying here for two nights.
Valley of Kings

Since we reached early, we decided to venture out, which turned out to be quite an experience! We decided to take horse carriage rides from our hotel to the local souvenir market. A well known tourist stop, now I don't remember what the exact name was, but ask your hotel people and they'll know. So, we fixed a price and got on their carriages, Two of them, of course, with 8 adults and a kid. They took us straight to some souvenir hop where they probably had a commission on sales. It was pricey, didn't have much stuff and not where we asked to go to in the first place. Hence, we got really pissed and asked the carriage guy to take us back. Now on our way back, they tell us the price was one-way price for the carriage ride. It was a nightmare to just sit tight as it wasn't your country, not the language you spoke, so just sit quietly and go to the hotel. Once back, we got off and asked the security folks of the hotel to deal with them. Apparently it is a well known scam run by these folks and if in any case you need to go somewhere, either by a carriage ride or by a taxi, ask your hotel staff to help you out. They will get reliable people.
Temple of Hatsheput



Hot air balloon ride over the valley
Okay so now for the good stuff. Luxor has hot-air balloon rides and Sumit and I skipped it, but we sent our parents for the balloon ride. We decided to sleep in for extra two hours and join them later. If you haven't done it before, you should do it at least once! Our first stop was Valley of Kings, this is the burial spot for Egyptian Kings. There are many tombs that are open and colors on the walls are still bright and painting clear. So, definitely go inside a tomb or two. King Tutankhamen's tombs has his mummy. All the other stuff from his tomb is in the Egyptian museum in Cairo though. It truly is the valley of kings. But it gets hot and dry hair, so take that and always carry a bottle of water.


Karnak Temple
Next up was Temple of Hatsheput, which has this grand facade and makes you think how did they manage to build such architecture back in those days. Behind the facade things aren't restored as well, but it is worth the trip. After this, we went to Colossi of Menmon. Final stop for the day were Luxor and Karnak templesOverpowering pillars and structures throughout this small sight. Lovely place to take pictures and soak in some Egyptian History. As the sun sets, the lights come out and light the pillars and the architecture in a very elegant manner making these historic masterpieces look even more magnanimous. 

Luxor by far had the most beautiful architecture and history to offer in Egypt. There was also a cute little marketplace to shop. We went here on the second day, after the carriage-ride adventure on the first evening. Best place to shop for some souvenirs. They have these painting on a piece of paper that they roll up and give it to you for you to frame on your own. Best souvenir you can take back, I think. There was also an India restaurant around to cater to the huge Indian tourist groups. The owner was a very sweet guy, who on request made space for u sin his tiny little restaurant during his off-peak hours.
Luxor Temple


What else to do in Egypt

View of river Nile and the city on the banks

  •  Cruise on Nile: This is super popular. Given Abu Simbel, Aswan and Luxor are all located on the banks of Nile, staying on a cruise make sure your travel time is covered overnight. Also, the view from Nile of lighted up cities across the banks must make for a pleasant view.
  •  Sharm-el Shaikh: A popular resirt area north of Egypt. We weren't interested much due to the unrest near Suez area. Also, diving here is a popular activity
  • Light and sound show: Both cairo pyramids and Luxor temples have evening light and sound shows. We skipped those, but something you might want to consider.