Monday, July 16, 2018

Monaco (A day trip)


Monaco gets its special page because it is an independent country and I do not want to put it under the South France page! More about the South France itinerary is on its dedicated page. This page is about our day in Monaco.

Getting In:

Biking from Nice to Monaco
Conveniently connected by trains from nearby cities. It was a twenty minute ride from the Nice train station. Train tickets may not be available or the trains cancelled, so check early on the day off or the day before and get tickets.
While I took the train, Sumit was biking from Nice to Monaco. On his way, he stopped by a cute town Eze, a popular stop over for a hopping southern coast tour.
We both reached around the same time, but rendezvous was a nightmare. Here is what happened. Since Monaco is a different country, our phones that were working fine in France, didn't immediately start working in Monaco. I had a bad connection and no wi-fi at the train station, so I couldn't connect with him. We had initially planned to meet at the Oceanography museum, but I couldn't get a taxi. During the intermittent signal calls I got, we decided to meet at the famous pool located in middle of the city by the docks.
Getting to Nice
However, I had come up to the second floor exit of the station and figuring out how to get there was a nightmare. It was right in front of me, I could seeit , but when I stepped out, I couldn't find a road leading up to it. Thankfully I went back into the station and found a help desk. So, this city is vertical and horizontal! I was at the wrong floor. I had to exit on a different floor and just take the stairs all the way down and walk straight for 10 minutes to get to the pool, or the La Condamine area. but I spent an hour figuring this out and with no connectivity I was almost prompted to head back to Nice.
So when you get here, take a deep breath, ask someone and find the right exit and navigate correctly and not just rely on the google map as it doesn't have capability to navigate vertically!
Also, while you are the the tourist information office or the help desk, make sure to get a tourist map to help you navigate.

What to do:

The iconic pool - Next time, taking a dip!
Initially, I had planned on following this walking map I had created. After our fiasco, we met at the pool. First, we grabbed lunch at on of the many restaurants around the area. Sumit left his bike securely fastened to a lamp pole near the restaurant. Food was good.

Next up, we decided to follow our tourist map and go to the Prince's palace, many steps later we were outside the palace and got really good views of this tiny little city-country. Some souvenir shops are close by. There is also an oceanography museum and a view point located close by, but we ditched that and decided to head out straight to the Casino, Monte Carlo.
F1 tracks in the city!

We walked to the Casino Monte Carlo and what a sight! Luxury cars lined outside. I think there was an entry fees, but I don't remember now. the interiors are so royal and opulent, it was much more royal than I had expected. Of course you aren't allowed to go inside to all the game rooms as I guess they are reserved for some "A-list" people.

Casino Monte Carlo
We then walked back to the La Condamine area and settled in a restaurant to watch the France vs Belgium semi final at a restaurant. The atmosphere was electric and there were of course French supporters everywhere.
La Condamine area

After the match, we headed back to Nice via train. This time we had no issues going to the station and yes, we took the stairs and the elevators. Pretty convenient if you do that and follow the tourist information map. The city oozes luxury and clearly you see it would be the richest per capita country in the worls.

Friday, July 13, 2018

South France (Nice, Antibes, Cannes, Lyon, Grenoble)



For our Euro summer trip, there was one city I definitely wanted to visit and that was Grenoble, because of all the endless tales I had heard from Sumit about his internship. So, why not visit South France along with this city. We were going to be in Switzerland after our Germany roadtrip. So this was the plan for the last leg of our trip through South France. Its is a comparatively shorter trip, but you could spend more days in each of these beach towns.
Day 1: Arrive in Nice
Day 2: Bike to Monaco and spend the day in Monaco
Day 3: Train to Cannes ->Antibes -> Lyon
Day 4: Day in Lyon -> Drive to Grenoble
Day 5: Bike day in St. Michelle -> Drive to Lyon ->Train to Paris
Day 6: Fly out of Paris


When to go:

Crepes + Coffee = France
South France was hot when we visited. We were there end of June and it was scorching sun all through our trip. If you love that, this is the places for you, but carry buckets of sunscreen!  Else, you may want to give the shoulder season a try. Perhaps, May or September.

Where all to go:

Southern coast of France is popular for its beaches and the coastal drive. We didn't drive along the coast  but that is always an option. Here is a route that I had picked along the coast.
Nice, Monaco, Cannes are most popular, but there are smaller beach towns which also make for a good relaxed vacation, eg: Antibes, Saint Tropez.
Marseilles is a big city in the south with popular connections to take trains from or fly in to.

Getting around:

Europe is of course well connected with public transport, so you don't need any car unless you want to drive around. Our trip was a mix and match of both. Between cities which were more than 2-3 hours away, we preferred public transport, or else we rented a car.

Getting to Nice:

Nice beach
This was an adventurous day. We had our flights reserved from Geneva to Nice at about 6 pm. Around 3 pm we get a message from our airlines that our flight has been cancelled, and they won't reschedule us, but simply refund the money. We were both in Lausanne that time driving from Zurich to Geneva. We had no idea what to do now. There were no flights, or trains available for the next two days. Everything was completely booked as it was a weekend. One option was to skip the south France trip and just take the train to Grenoble after 3 days, which was the only available option. Or, option number two, which was to extend our car rental and drive to Nice. It was 6-7 hours drive, but we would be in Nice the same day we had planned and we wouldn't need to alter any other reservations.
So, of course, we picked option two. We had to pay a couple of hundred euros extra for returning the car in another country, but it would save us more in reservations and re bookings.
We drove through southern Switzerland, near Mont Blanc, and norther Italy, close to Turin. The drive and the tunnels are a beauty. Its amazing how the bridges have been built connecting mountains and tunnels have been built cutting right through these giant mountains. It was an adventure as it was unplanned, but good thing was, we made it. We were in Nice at midnight and driving through narrow streets and one-way alleys of Nice was a challenge we hadn't signed up for. Luckily we found street parking as we had to return the car the next day, we didn't have a hotel with car parking.
Haash! A long day, but we reached Nice!

Monaco

Plan was to bike to Monaco. Sumit had found a bike rental shop in Nice and he left early, around 8 or 9 am to return the car and rent a bike as soon as he could in the morning. He was planning to bike to Moncao and I had plans to meet him there and spend the day with him in Monaco.
More details about biking to Monaco and the city are here on the Monaco blog page.

Nice

Lamborghini by the dinner table
We returned in the evening and spent time in Nice. We were staying at de la Fontaine. Tiny rooms, but thats what we could manage with such late reservations. Location was good with respect to the train station, Gare du Nice Ville was only 15 minutes walk.
Walking along the beach in the cool evening breeze is definitely a memorable experience. Lot of food carts, caricature artists, crepieres along the beach. The city side of the street, Promenade du la Anglais has a lot of hotels and casinos and plenty of restaurants to pick from. You can spend a few days here easily, without getting bored. Its a crowded city, so don't rent a car and prefer Uber or walking around. We had dinner at a really good Lebanese restaurant, Ya Habibi.
True to its reputation of opulence, there was a Lamborghini parked right outside our restaurant and it was a picture-worthy moment to have dinner with a luxury car casually parked right behind you on the street.

Cannes

Plan for the day was to visit Cannes, spend some time in a beach town, and we chose Antibes and then head out to Lyon from Cannes in the evening.
Outside the red carpet
It is a 30 minute train ride from Nice. Given the town is popular due to Cannes Film Festival, it is crowded with tourists. We left our luggage at the luggage storage right outside the train station (very convenient!). Now we had our days packs and were ready for the day. This town has quite a few private beaches and also public beaches. We chose to first walk straight to the theatre with the red carpet to take our pictures there. The theatre is actually a convention centre, Palais des Festivals et des Congrès. The town is small and walkable. There is also a gallery next to it which has displays of movie stars who are regular a the film festival. After posing for pictures and feeling content, we headed to the beach right next to it. It was still quite sunny, so we thought of going to Rue D'Antibes for some shopping instead.
Pretty little walkable town with small cathedral somewhere in the middle. The shopping was fun and I went crazy at Mango store as we don't have many of those in US and they had an awesome 70% discount going on! Yayy! Grabbed a bite sometime in between all of this.

Antibes

Next up was Anitbes. It is 15 minutes ride from Cannes. A cute little beach town. But, while on our way to train station, we realized that Sumit had forgotten his biking jersey in the hotel room as it was drying in the bathroom! It was his IronMan Canada jersey, so we couldn't leave it behind. Hence, we went all the way back to Nice, got the jersey and came back to Cannes and then headed out to Antibes.
I always have stories from our trip, don't I?
Anyhow once we reached Antibes, we picked a beach to go to from many beaches listed online. We went to Plage LaGrauppe. We took an Uber from the station to get to the beach. Loads of activities at the beach and an Italian restaurant with private showers to offer. Its a lovely coastline here. I would advise you carry or rent an umbrella here as it gets super duper hot. There is a Picasso gallery here which we didn't have time to visit, but it did sound interesting.
A few hours and we were off to Cannes to get on our train to Lyon now. Train was super comfortable and so glad we chose to ride the train instead of driving. Fours hours just flew by. We reached Lyon and we staying at Ibis hotel close to the train station. Tiny rooms, but comfortable. Luckily we reached just in time to watch the FIFA semi final of Croatia vs Russia extended thirty minutes and the penalty shootout.

Lyon

Vieux Lyon
We had a full day in Lyon and I was ready to explore. First we got our rental car and drove to the old town area. We first headed out to Bellacur. After parking our cars, we just used Google maps to explore the city. We first took the funicular up to the church Fourviere. Beautiful church and it offered lovely views of the city from the hilltop. Must do. The ride, the church, the views, a perfect thing to do in Lyon. Next, we were roaming around Vieux Lyon (old town). Visit the Church Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Just roaming the streets was a lot of fun and we decided to stop by one of the shops to get some Onginon pies. It was pretty good. I had been quite skeptical about french cooking, but this was good. Next, I just had to try some crepes and coffee. I mean, I was in France after all!
Here is a link to the walking map that will help.
Church Fourviere












Our hotel in Grenoble





Grenoble

In the evening, we headed out to Grenoble. First up, we went to Inria. It was about time I got to see this place. What beautiful location. Surrounded by tall mountains. Being a weekend, we couldn't get in. But was totally worth the visit. We drove around the city first and then headed out to Fort Bastille, but the roads were so narrow that we ditched it. If you intend to go, must take the funicular/gondola. The town is super cute and a great place to spend a few laid back days. We ate at a really good Indian restaurant, Bombay. Then we drove around the old residence and then to the old town. We were staying at beautiful hotel, in the lovely old town area. Since we had to park, we had to drive around a few loops to find an overnight parking spot. The old town area had some good restaurants and a lively ambience.





Biking around Saint Michelle

Early morning we left for Sanit Michelle and headed straight to the bike rental shop, Velo rental. This is a village at the foothil of Alps and a good starting point for very interesting bike routes. Some of the bike routes around are also a part of Tour de France routes. At 9 am, we were at the shop and Sumit got his bike and was ready to head out.
6 hours to spare
Now who finished his ride!
I had to kill 6 hours ahead of me. I spent that time arguing with a waitress who wouldn't understand English or sign language, offering Swiss Francs to pay for food, and completely forgot I needed Euros in France, and also struggling with a public toilet that self cleaned every few minutes and if you were inside, it meant, you would get drenched, and yes I did. I kept myself fully entertained for those six hours while Sumit was burning calories and riding up Col du Galibier.

Col du Galibier

Back to Paris:

Around 4 pm we headed back to Lyon for our train to Paris at night. We were stuck in traffic first and then, had a tough time refueling our car beacuse it was a diesel and the nozzle type wasn't available at all gas stations. Luckily we made it in time at the station with full TEN minutes to spare before the train! Whew! it was an adventurous day for sure. But we got on our train back to Paris and on our flight back home.

Pointers:


  • Make reservations early to get good hotels in Nice.
  • Always prefer a train ride over flying. More reliable and super comfortable.
  • Indian vegetarian food may be tricky to find, but not hard.

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.