Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Eurotrip July 2009

Before the memory wavers, thought it ideal to pen it down for posterity.

The trip was dotted with experiences with people, places and events which were new, refreshing and surprising. To know that this is also how people live is enlightening.

Amsterdam – A whole new world I discovered. Where people drink more beer than water and smoke more marijuana than cigarettes. Where people walk and cycle more than drive. Even the police are on cycles. Where cobbled streets are outlined with innumerable coffee shops and Irish-ish pubs with tables laid outside on the streets with people sipping beer, coffee and munching fries with mayonnaise, pizza by the slice, ham sandwiches and really large yummy sausages. Where it rains one minute and gets sunshine the next and a cool uplifting breeze all the time. Where pretty women serve as waitresses in the coffee shops that they own. Where the landscape is dotted with several canals with spic clean water and ducks swimming at leisure alongside the boats and these canals are all over the city. Where the sun rises at 5:30 am and sets at 10:30pm. It is actually bright and sunny at 10:00 pm! The day never ends in Amsterdam.

Where the red light district with almost naked women on window displays is a national pride right behind the Dam square and the new church which are their national monuments. Where people from anywhere and everywhere get together and have one wild party all day and all night long.

We walked a lot, along the canals and over the canal bridges, over the cobbled streets, across the flower market with mega sized sunflowers and 20000 types of flowers in full bloom on display, with pit stops at pubs for beer and took the trams and busses when we just couldn’t walk anymore. We also hired bikes for half a day and cycled a bit. When I looked up their official tourism website while planning my itinerary I made a list of things to visit – Dam square, new church, Heineken factory, madam Tussaud’s and the red light district. When we walked out of our hotel we were already on dam square, on the right was the new church and on the left Madam Tussaud’s and the lane behind the hotel was the red light district. I had finished the list in 10 minutes. Which was cool since now we had more time to explore the city. We did visit the Heineken factory which is more like an experience zone and they teach ya how to make beer alongwith a beer tasting session and unltd. beer to drink. We spent early evenings at a small pub below our hotel which serve wine liqueurs in shotglasses. But these are not shots. You are supposed to sip them. They place the shot glasses on the bar counter…a very wooden western salon kinda look – fill it to the rim just a drop from overflowing and they do this with amazing precision, they never spill a drop while filling it up. You are then supposed to bend over and take the first sip without lifting the glass and then whisk it away for sipping it at leisure. There are all kinds of liqueurs from apple to lemon to melon to whisky sours and triple mixes called ‘walk in the woods’. They brew this locally behind the pub in their house lab and bottle it in their own labels. And to go with it there is amazing cheese with mustard sauce. Every bite of the cheese is a piece of heaven!!!

Amsterdam has these several squares where people aggregate in herds – Dam square the most popular of the lot, the Rembrandt square and the Leids Plein. In these squares you will find enough and more pubs and coffee shops and restaurants. You will find street performers – from stunt artistes, to hip hop dancers, musicians (guitarists, violinists and bagpipers) and costumed statue-like mimics. All of them non-intrusive, doing their bit to entertain, picking up the cents dropped in their hats kept in front of their modest stages.

So we walk to one of these squares, 15-20 mins walk at most, take a table in one of the pubs outside, order some beer and you have the world to choose from – Heineken the local favourite, Amstel, Guiness, Budweiser, Stella, and several other local brews in white, dark and golden which we were more than happy to try. The beer never gets you drunk or feel full. You can keep having it till your time or money runs out. I found out that Indian beer has glycerin which they don’t. Glycerin gets you higher and fuller faster and even bloats you up.

And the cannabis. Wow. Like in India, tobacco smoke is banned inside the coffee shops/pubs in Amsterdam as well, but not pot smoke. In fact, people who like to mix tobacco with cannabis can’t smoke it inside either. You haveta smoke pure cannabis joints if you wanna smoke inside. And they have a wide variety of cannabis – Dutch, Mexican, Italian, local, etc. in various formats – various sized joints (the largest is almost like a bazooka), to hash brownies (called space cakes since it gets you spaced out), lollipops and much more. These are sold legally in all coffee shops. Put on display behind the bar counter and have a separate menu card. Each coffee shop is allowed to store only 500gms at a time which can be replenished in real time. This exists to avoid drug trafficking to other countries. But the new mayor of Amsterdam has promised to do away with this limit and make Amsterdam a better city!!! Long live the mayor. There are also cannabis shops which sell you everything to do with cannabis – the grass, rollers, food, souvenirs, etc.

There are separate lanes just for cycles, lanes for trams and buses and lanes for cars. And there are hardly any cars. Nobody honks. They wait patiently for you to cross the road. And you will find an odd biker in full biking gear vrooming his Ducati or Hyabusa into oblivion.

Zurich is like a distant cousin to Amsterdam, similar culture but still not the same thing. Only mentionable experience was the lakeside barbeque run by an Indian - ‘Baba’– steaks, liver, sausages, potato and cheese, baked potatoes, fries all served with beer and any liquor you want right by the lake in the open with wooden benches and tables laid out and buzzing with people. It’s a complete party. Could be mistaken to a seaside fancy restaurant. And this is Tuesday evening. So you retire from work at 5:00pm sharp, get to the lakeside, drink to your complete merriment and devour those heavenly sausages and feel the cool breeze in your face while enjoying the breathtaking view of the lake surrounded by small hills with pretty houses and people paddling in the lake with geese flapping alongside. And you do this everyday.

Titlis was fun. Covered with snow, we freaked out on the snow tube which glides down a slope with twists and turns. We did this 3 times and tried some other surfs and boards to glide down the snow slopes. Amazing landscape and Engelberg which is the base town for titlis is a beautiful town. From here you change 3 cable cars till you reach the top of Mt.Titlis – 10000 feet.

On the way back from Titlis we stopped over at Lucerne where there is a festival on at the moment by the lakeside. All 4 sides of the lake are lined up with flea markets, beer stalls, Smirnoff stalls, Bacardi stalls, food stalls with all types of cuisines, rock shows, jazz performances, on stages on the 4 sides of the lake and the whole town was there, drinking, smoking, eating and partying away to glory. There wasn’t even space to walk and it’s a 1 hour walk to cover the 4 sides of the lake, the place was so full of people and an amazing experience. And this was Wednesday evening.

Paris on the other hand did not keep up to the hype. The city is much bigger, crowded, lot of traffic and the French are not the friendliest of people. You have to take the metro which is the fastest mode to any place. Buses are not so frequent and the distances are too much to walk. A walk down the Champs Elysees the most famous and expensive street in the world is all we could manage – starts at the Arc de Triomphe and ends with the Louvre. Flanked by Louis Vuitton Headquarters, Lamborghini, Mercedes, Peugeot with concept cars on display and bike showrooms like Ducati, Harley, Suzuki, Piaggio, etc., fancy restaurants, coffee shops and designer brands on either side. The tour de france ends in the Champs Elysees next Sunday.

The Eiffel tower though was breathtaking at night, and the view from the top is a wonderful sight. Especially the twinkling lights which they switch on for 5 mins once every hour. The 90 min Seine river cruise the next night was beautiful with all the national monuments on either side right on the river banks - Eiffel tower, Opera house, Louvre museum, National museum, Grand Palais, Notre Dame…beautiful monuments – great works of art and sculpture. You feel you are in the 16th century. Also along the banks in the evenings you find people partying – dancing, drinking, restaurants, sitting and chilling and waving out to us on these cruises. During the day people are sunbathing by the river when it’s sunny.

The Crazy Horse show (its like the lido or Moulin rouge) which boasts of the prettiest women in Paris in the nude was disappointing and the complementary champagne and wine did not help in making up for the exorbitant ticket price. The women were pretty and the dances were nice but didn’t have enough flair to impress us. I was dozing off. We ended with a nice dinner at a fancy bistro in front of the Eiffel Tower. The waitress was friendly and loves SRK and Aishwariya.

Overall Europe is expensive. A normal breakfast with bread and cheese and omellettes and juice for 4 could cost ard. 50 euros = Rs.3500/- and this is in an ordinary café. The fancier restaurants are more expensive. But the supermarkets are reasonable. So you can grab a sandwich at 1.60 euros and a drink and finish off your breakfast in 3 euros. And you could have this at regular intervals through the day. Sandwiches are yum with ham, cheese, salmon, sausages, whatvr u want. Veggies can survive as well on salad and cheese with bread and an occasional falalal and panini. Clothes shopping is outta the question especially the designer brands and in Paris every brand is a designer brand. Though everything is on sale at this time of the year, the discounted prices are way beyond reach as well. A pair of fancy shoes post 40% discount could cost ard. 200 euros = Rs.14000/-. Barring the price you would wanna own everything you see. Clothes, shoes, bikes, cars, Football jerseys, Tour de France memorabilia, Heineken merchandise, pieces of art from Van Gogh and Louvre, wooden works from Switzerland, packaged cannabis, reefers, wine, cheese, juices, Orangina, Perrier water, liqueurs, souvenirs, all of it.

Allover the quality of life is good. The quality of food, products they use, clothes, transportation is great. The climate is wonderful and everything is easy to do. It’s a different life, a better life.

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