Saturday, July 26, 2014

A summer in Stuttgart

Situated in the Baden Württemberg region of Germany, Stuttgart is a neat and efficient city. Well spread out, but reachable by the rather impressive array of public transport options, the city has quite a bit to offer to the occasional visitor.

When I landed in Stuttgart, it seemed like a smaller variant of Frankfurt, which I had been to before. However, after being here for some time, I would say it is quite different.

For one, Stuttgart has an impressive array of art and design aspects to look at. From street art to the Kunst museum, art and decor seems to form an integral part of culture here.

Second, is its automotive heritage. The Mercedez and Porsche museums are not only a celebration of a history of car making, but also provide a vivid depiction of the historical and cultural context of Stuttgart, Germany and the World that was, in the evolution of the automobile. To autolovers, this is a virtual mecca.

Third, people here are rather easy going. The German obsession with precision, structure and quality is of course seen everywhere, but there is fun and culture mixed in everyday life as well. There is street performances and art to see everywhere, and watering holes around town are quite vibrant.

Fourth is the fact that Stuttgart provides and easy access the not just the rest of the beautiful Baden Württemberg region with its Black Forests, but also Alsatian France, Switzerland, and the Bavarian region. Strasbourg, Zurich and Munich (and for that matter even Paris, due to the TGV) are at most 3 hours away. In fact, the Baden Württemberg rail pass provides rather cheap access all around the region, including all the way to Basel, and almost to Strasbourg.

The city also forms part of the wine growing region, and even has vineyards within the town!

One additional fun experience is that of being driven around in the wide variety of local Merc taxis. I particularly remember an S-class one which had auto adjusting seats that would variably clamp my left and right sides as the car veered around corners. Freaked me initially, but was good fun later.

Travel date: July 2014

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Memories of a European winter

This past year end, we took a holiday in Europe, with a stop-over in Dubai. For posterity's sake, here is a brief jot-down of our memories.

The place which impressed us the most in our entire itinerary was Dubai. It is impressive to see a city as advanced as the west in infrastructure and services, while providing all the cultural benefits of the east.

We spent a night wandering around the 'Global Village', a cornucopia of shops showcasing wares from multiple countries. The Turkish pavilion was particularly impressive with its shops of colorful lamps and sweet baklavas. The Turkish baked potato - a large stuffed potato dish with a variety of vegetables and spices - was a particularly memorable eat. Yemeni spices were another interesting find. Despite the venue receiving millions of visitors, the spot clean surroundings (and spic and span loos!) were a welcome difference after landing from India.

The Palm Jumeirah area and the Atlantis hotel were pretty interesting to wander around, the underwater aquarium being a worthy watch. The Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa were great to window-shop the wealth of luxury items being showcased from around the world. The climb up to the viewing gallery of the world's tallest building and the view from the top was breathtaking, as were the singing fountains.

Frankfurt was cold, and quite close to the freezing point when we landed. As we got off the Westbahnoff station, what caught our eye was the Saravana Bhavan right up front. Hungry as we were from the long flight, we quickly gulped a dosa and an idly before starting our wandering around town.

Frankfurt's Maine river has an nice walkway around it and we spent some time walking around. It was freezing Christmas eve, and a gulp of mulled wine helped warm us up. The Frankfurt Christmas market (supposedly one of the oldest around) was in flow as we were around, and we had a great time sampling the
chocolates, crepes, pretzels and wines. Another day, we took a walk down towards the University area and sampled some of the quaint markets around.

We took the train to Prague, leaving Frankfurt in the middle of the night. Running around the station in the middle of the freezing night, across empty platforms to catch a train that stopped for a few minutes, and fumbling with confusing German labeling to find our coach, will always be a memory.

We stayed at the cozy Aparthotel City 5, with its charming and warm hostess, Kristina. Recommend anyone visiting Prague to try out the place - we for sure will.

Prague for us was the most memorable European city from the trip. Its cobbled, medieval streets with baroque architectural buildings. Its exotic castles and churches. Its incredibly thick hot chocolates, hot wines, crepes and sweet tredelnik. Its beautiful paintings. Its town square with the unbelievably beautiful Christmas market. Wow.

Another reason that we liked Prague so much was its affordability. Items in some of the supermarkets were cheaper than India!

Vienna seemed refined and business-like, after Prague. We liked the Schonbrunn Palace the best. The tour of the palace is amongst the best organized walks I have ever seen. Wonder why we can't replicate these in India.

Our first impression of the city was unfortunately formed by the Termini railway station where we landed up first. The station reminded us of Mumbai's Dadar station at it's peak hours - not only for the crowds, but also in its rather dirty upkeep. Sad.

We had come to Rome with the intention of gorging on the best of Italian pizzas and pastas. It was after our first meal that we realized how different true Italian food is against we are used to in India. The lack of spice (and the look a waiter gave us when we asked for additional oregano and chilli flakes), made us realize how different was the reality. The only Italian food item which we really enjoyed was gelato.

Now the positives.

The Vatican and the Sistine chapel (despite having waiting lines like Tirupati back home), were mind-blowing in their grandeur and beauty. The Colloseum, the Capitol hill, the Palantine hill and the Pantheon are incredible visits - the experience of seeing the history of thousands of years in such grandeur - few things can match the experience.

Overall, Rome requires at least a week of time, a lot of energy and a large budget to do justice to.

Highlights of the city:
- The Eiffel when it shines at night
- The Notre Dame cathedral and its environs
- The Collections of the Louvre: the tablet with the Hammurabi code, the sculptures and paintings of the masters, the digital Nintendo-enabled walkthrough
- The Sienne river

People often have grandiose views of this city. To us, however, Prague was probably more romantic and prettier. Maybe we didn't spend enough time to sample all it had to offer. Maybe we didn't visit the right places. Maybe it was just the tiny hotel room that cost a bomb. Whatever the reason, it just didn't cut it.

This was a trip we had planned for many years. Ultimately, while we always wanted to do a summer visit, we ended up with a winter trip. Our experiences were influenced by the icy weather and the Christmas and New Year celebrations at various places. We didn't realize we would find Prague so impressive, and find ourselves so let down by Paris. Dubai's development was eye-opening. All said, this trip will remain one of our most memorable getaways ever.