Sunday, June 16, 2013

Travel tips and advice

Though I have just scratched the surface of my odysseys, I have learned a few things from visiting places which I hope benefits you, my readers as well. So here is my personal list of dos/dont's while traveling:

Eat the local food

I can't emphasize this enough. Try the local specialities to see what you like/don't like. Do not go seeking the Chinese takeout in every country you visit. Hole-in-the-wall restaurants are typically a good bet as they tend to preserve the local identity. If you are worried about contamination, choose fried/heavily cooked food over salads.
For nicer sit-down meals, listen to the guidebooks. They are usually right about the good restaurants and it is safer to listen when shelling out the big bucks for a meal.

Visit a supermarket

Nothing gives you a better indication of local preferences than this. Make a couple of your meals a picnic from the local supermarket. We had our most enjoyable meal in Venice from the local grocer, complete with cheese, bread and yoghurt. It is also a nice way to save money.

Do not carry packs of ramen or food when traveling. Just buy these locally. Supermarkets are also a great place to buy water, especially in Europe, where water in a restaurant usually costs more than wine.

Skip the museums (well, most of them)

While there are a few like the Louvre or the Vatican that must be visited, don't spend all of your time indoors. Pick a few that deserve your time and attention. If you are not a purveyor or connoisseur of art or have no interest in that area, it is very likely that you'd forget most of what you see in museums.

While I enjoy viewing art, I can't think of many travel memories that were made in museums for us together, excepting looking at David in Florence or at the Vatican.

Art is a lot more enjoyable when you do your homework to identify what it is you like or admire.

Take the local transportation

It gives you a sense of familiarity in a way that riding in a taxi never can. Subways and bus routes help create a mental map of the city. They are also a lot cheaper than cabbing it everywhere.

Do your homework

Try to learn a little about the history of the place you are visiting, its art and architecture. If you are an avid reader, pick up a book set in the location or watch a movie.
Look up the attractions and decide on what appeals to you and what you could afford to miss. Keep a checklist for this as well.

Don't follow the book

Sometimes the best made plans may not work out as planned. We traveled three hours to Interlaken to find that the train up to Jungfrau was cancelled due to bad weather. In situations like this, look at your next best options (a scenic rail trip for us and a visit to another mountain) and evaluate.

If you see something that you just feel like doing, listen to your whim and ease your plans a little. This will substantially improve your experience.

Travel light

I could write an entirely separate post on this topic. Ideally, for about 2 weeks of vacation, you do not need more than a hand luggage and a backpack. Carry along clothing that can be mixed and matched and re-worn. Clothes fit better in baggage when rolled up, and they don't crumple as much either.

Investing in silk scarves is a great idea for women. They are very light, can fit anywhere and can provide warmth and act as your sun/wind/rain screen as needed. They can also block out light on long plane rides.

Always carry a pair of your most comfortable shoes. Leave the pumps and heels behind; You'll likely need them for just a night or two and they take up a lot of space. Invest instead in a nice pair of going out wedges or flats that are also comfortable. Wear the bulkier pair to the airport and pack the other one.

If you are staying in the same hotel for an extended period of time, unpack your box once you check in. Neatly pack away any outfit you have already worn and won't re-wear. You'll find that when it's time to check out, your suitcase will be mostly packed.

Document your experiences

It is great to reflect upon these a few years later; You could do this in several ways. If you like writing, keeping a travel diary might work great. Saving your tickets & other pamphlets is good too. The easiest way is to take a lot of pictures and then create a photoblog on your album. Note down the things you liked seeing and the meals you enjoyed having.

Happy travels!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The literary pursuit of Travel - Bath and Castle combe

Here is the second installment in what I hope is a series in this blog. This time I take you to England which is the source of literature itself, in its very being. I am not going to write about London just yet, but instead will divert your attention to Wiltshire and Somerset.

I knew I wanted to visit Bath after reading the Austen books. Bath also features in the Pickwick papers by Dickens. Apart from that it is beautifully Gregorian with a well preserved Roman bath that gives the town its name and very scenic. Literature and history? what could possibly be perfectly more inviting?

I wanted to however see Castle Combe, often called the prettiest village in England (though there are several that could live up to that reputation) on the way to Bath. Therefore I got off the train at Chippenham and took a taxi ride to see Castle combe in all of 30 minutes, then got back on the train to Bath. Castle combe was indeed lovely but I think the Cotswolds give it tough competition any day.

It was a chilly spring day, and there was a misty rain in the air as I waited in line at the Roman baths. The baths have existed since the Roman times, when the town was called Aquae sulis. Most of the structure above ground level was reconstructed but the museum does show several artifacts dating back to the Roman times and the original temple steps can be viewed as well.

The hot spring seemed to slightly warm the cold air and you could also taste its water at the posh pump room. It was mildly sulfurous and had mineral overtones but was not as disgusting as was claimed. Right outside the baths is the splendid bath abbey.

After this, I decided to take a walk uphill to see the circus and the royal crescent as well as the Austen house and the fashion museums. The Romans had quite a penchant for building houses around circles, but this just made them all the more fetching. The fashion museum was quite disappointing after the exhibits I had seen at the Met in New York.

The other famous sight in Bath is Pulteney bridge over the river Avon, that is compared with Florence's Ponte Vecchio. It is indeed beautiful but the comparison is totally unwarranted. Both the bridges are lined with shops but I guess the similarity stops there.

Bath is definitely a site worth visiting if you are interested in beautiful architecture, scenic vistas and peaceful walks. Here is a list of books, all set in Bath for reading inspiration before your visit!

Saturday, June 01, 2013

The literary pursuit of Travel - Along Lake Geneva

The idea for this post has been brewing in my mind for a little while. As a child, my only option for journeys to places unknown were through books and wild stretches of my imagination. I managed to, through my reading see quite a bit of the world, and what can be more fun than to (re)visit those places from childhood figments of imagination?
This has inspired me on several of my trips, so much so that the literary vein runs strong through my sojourns. One such trip took me to the shores of Lake Geneva on an April morning in 2012. I combined the trip with a scenic rail journey through the alps.

I took the train to Montreux aiming to see Chateau De Chillon, but wanted to do most of the journey on the scenic Goldenpass rail, which requires quite a few train changes at Bern, Spiez and Zweisimmen to be precise. The Swiss precision makes these changes within minutes of each other pretty easy, except for at Spiez where a platform switch made me run like the wind to catch the next train.

After my first gasps of wonder and awe at the alps which managed to amuse a German artist enough to befriend me, the train weaved through scenic countryside to offer vistas of Montreux from high up.

Montreux is a riviera town on Lake Geneva which is quite heavily French. It is fancy but not as flashy as the alpine towns we passed on the train like Gstaad. I had a simple lunch of crepes (what else) on the riviera.

The riviera is delightful to walk in and my swiss pass let me board a boat bound to the Chateau from Montreux offering vistas of the french alps on the other side of the lake.

I knew of this little castle on the lake from Henry James' Daisy Miller where the outgoing Daisy goes with Frederick on a first date, highly frowned upon back in the day. The Novella itself is quite pleasant to read with several undertones touching on innocence, societal perceptions among others.

Chillon did not disappoint, it still ranks very high among the Castles I have visited. The level of defense that went into its fortress is amazing. As a literary bonus, you can see the poet Byron's name graffitied into the dungeon walls by Byron himself when he wrote the most popular work about the Chateau, The  prisoner of Chillon.

After this, I decided to take a bus to another literary town, Vevey. Vevey is known to most people as the birthplace of Nestle and the place where Charlie Chaplin lived his last days. The Chaplin graves are still in Vevey. It features in Daisy Miller as well as another favorite novel of mine, Little Women. Laurie falls in love with Amy as they cruise around the lake at Vevey, and that was quite enough inspiration for me to warrant a visit!
The bus travels down the main roads of Montreux via the casino to Vevey in about 15 minutes. It is a delightful town with a nice market square on the lake and more splendid vistas.

After this, I decided to do a whistle stop at Lausanne, the Olympic capital of Switzerland, a 15 minute train ride from Vevey before catching a high speed train back to Zurich via Thun. Lausanne has a pretty old town which demands a steep but rewarding uphill walk.

Tired after a full day of travel, I headed back to Zurich to call it a good night.