It had always been in the making, day dreaming about it, talking about it over drinks with friends, imagining it and then one day we were there – in Europe. This is the story of our trip to Europe, how it fell in to place, our experiences, our discoveries and our thoughts. If you are wondering, why this blog is titled “near-perfect”, well you will just have to read on. In summary, this is what we did in each city and our rating of the Experience. You can click on the cities to jump to a specific city or read it top to bottom if you like…
London: Sights, Peri-Peri Chicken (Rating: Will only go back if in Transit)
Paris: Sights, Authentic French Food, Michelin Restaurant, Discovered Shopping Areas (Rating: Will definitely go back and may be even buy a house)
Brussels: Discovered the best roadside restaurant serving fish (Rating: Will go back to eat more fish)
Barcelona: Ran into local festivities, Tapas (Rating: Have to go back to discover real Boquerias)
Venice: Sights, Hunted down three hidden places to eat tastiest sardines (Rating: Fulfilled)
Rome: Sights, Oldest Pizzeria, Shopping (Rating: Will go back after a history 101 class)
Chapter 1 : 23 Hours in London
Just Arrived @ Kings Cross St.
After a grand breakfast on a warm 21st Jun Peterboro morning, our family dropped us off to the train station bound to King’s Cross station, London. 45 minutes passed rather quick over a cup of coffee and a few winks. We arrived at King’s Cross station, very similar to the station in Harry Potter where kids were running into walls and disappearing. We called a close friend of ours from high school and enjoyed the bustling narrow streets of London while he was enroute. Once he arrived, exchanged hugs, we proceeded to take our first underground tube. Out friend bought us the day passes for about 7 GBP that allowed unlimited rides in a 24 hour period.
Travel Tip: We noticed that not a lot of ticket vending machines accept U.S. credit cards as their credit cards require a Pin to authenticate the transaction. Advice would be to carry smaller bills or sufficient coins and most important – Keep your ticket handy/easily reachable, since you need to punch out at the station as well after your trip (due to the zone system). Also, the restrooms at King’s Cross are pay-to-use. Don’t be surprised.
Having lived in the US, we had different expectations on what an underground train would look like. And then rolled this small little tubular, white bodied, blue striped, m&m dispenser looking train. We average at 5’10 as a couple and we had to hunch a bit on the train to avoid hitting the roof that probably is 6’5 at its highest point. One thing remarkable we discovered as we took more trains over the next day was the frequency. It was almost as if the trains were running a minute apart. However, the tubes do not have air conditioning and rely on side and door windows to circulate the air through the cars.
Travel Tip: If visiting London in Summer, especially if you plan to visit during the Olympics, make sure you carry enough water and have a high tolerance for hot, closed compressed spaces as it will get hot and stuffy on the trains.
We were staying at the Marriott Westminster just behind the London eye. This is a great hotel and is part of the county hall building. The building itself is very historic and the hotel has tried not to change much of that. The rooms were spacious and we got one with a view of Thames too. The three of us hit the lounge to grab a quick bite and leave. One thing to note we experienced at our stays with Hilton & Marriott across Europe was that the executive lounges do not carry plastic water bottles and use reusable glass bottles instead. So plan to buy water if you need to carry on your day trips and excursions.
We got out as soon as possible to hit the streets and absorb London because we only had 21 hours before we had to leave for Paris (hence 23 hours in London). Our friend Pratyoosh is probably the best host/tour guide one can get. He basically planned out the sights we had to see, mapped places we had to eat at and also the logistics to achieve that – all to be accomplished in 23 hours. For those who know us, we are less about hitting the top 10 spots to take a picture and more about walking the streets, discovering the best food and blending in like a local. This fell right into place.
We began exploring London with 10 Downing Street, then walked to Trafalgar square. On the way we stopped for a customary pic within the legendary red telephone booths, imitating a matrix style call.
There One Second
We took pictures at the square, saw the Olympics countdown clock and began our march towards Buckingham Palace. Our timing co-coincided with the queen’s diamond jubilee celebration so the fountain opposite the palace was covered up and the traditional guards were replaced with the military – bit of a downer, but we moved on.
Gone The Next....
Our next stop was though Hyde Park to Picadilly square – a flattering imitation of times square. We then took the train to Oxford Circus and walked through Regent St. Much like 5th Ave in NYC only more expensive in GBP. A wave of wisdom overcame us and we decided to keep our wallets in our pants, resisting the urge to pick up a piece here and there.
We then walked through Covent Garden Market, an Englishman’s version of a flea market but very similar to Quincy market in Boston or the flea markets that come up at 14th Union Sq. Unfortunately, they close at 8 pm and we saw only a few vendors who were closing up too. By now we were in mood for a bite and decided to walk to Leicester Square – a bustling restaurant lined square with seating on the pavement. We saw the first English pub in sight and decided to settle down for a very English fish and chips with some beer. It was here that our friend introduced us to Kronenburg. The Budweiser of UK. Tasty, light and refreshing.
We then took the train from Leicester Square to London Bridge. So, here is something interesting – a spoiler actually. London bridge is actually a very modern bridge, the bridge that we read about in nursery rhymes singing about is actually tower bridge. You can see tower bridge (usually lit up at night) from London bridge and is a 5 minute bus ride.
By now we were really hungry and our friend took us to Nando’s, best described as a South African chicken serving- cooked in one of their hottest “peri-peri” pepper sauce – with over 10 dips to accentuate the spice level – unlimited soda serving restaurant. The chicken is marinated in their secret sauces overnight and their renowned wings are made in limited quantities. Their spice levels start from “I am a woos” to “Atomic”. Atomic being equivalent to taking te next day off to recuperate. You can guess which levels we stuck too. This is a must do if you are looking for some great chicken but watch out for the spice levels. Their spices are well within the Scoville scale (350k-850k) and you probably wont find them that spicy when you are eating them but they come alive intrinsically. So if you are not used to spicy food, try in limited quantities but definitely try them. We tried their Roulette which was a mix of wings with all their sauces. They have a really cool website too.
We met our friend’s room mate who was bored and wanted to join us. A great wild card since this guy was a rugby player with a sense of humor that would put Katt Williams to shame. We laughed till we hurt and decided to retire for the night with captain Morgan to ease the flaming dinner.
Travel Tip: You can buy alcohol past midnight at some of these liquor stores similar to 7/11, but beware of an insane price markup. A half-bottle (500ml) of Captain set us back by 30 GBP and the 2-litre coke cost us 6 GBP. A small price compared to the great time we had but just an fyi. You can always ask the cab guy to take you to one of these places.
Sign Posted Outside Dishoom
The next morning was slower than usual due to last nights food, we caught some very light breakfast and head out to explore more of the city. London’s culinary scene is famous for two things – Authentic fish and chips and Indian Food. We had walked by this Indian place the previous day and wanted to check it out as was also recommended by my friends colleagues. We took the train to Leicester Square to eat at Dishoom that had a rather peculiar sign posted outside. We stuck to plan simple vegetarian dishes to aid in digestion. The food was amazing, simplistic and very homely.
We continued with the day’s agenda to see Harrod’s to really see what was so famous about this store. We then bought some souvenirs, went back to the hotel, packed bags and began making our way to St. Pancras.
It was a fun 23 hours we spent in London, thanks to our friend and great host.
Travel Tip: Lines at St. Pancras for Euro Star Trains do get long especially peak evening hours. Keep aside 30 mins to check in. Immigration is a breeze but security check in takes time. Also, have your boarding pass ready as you need to self check-in at the turnstiles.
Chapter 2: Three Perfect Days in Paris
Paris…ooohhh. In the words of Ernest Hemingway – “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Very true indeed. We arrived at Paris Gare Du Nord by evening and checked into the Hilton Arc De Triomphe. A 70’s styled hotel with paintings of parisian fashion models. We went down to the concierge by about 11pm and asked about some good places to eat. He advised that most restaurants close by 10pm with last call at 11pm. Anyhow we walked down Rue De Washington that connects with Champs de Elysses and found that most places were only serving drinks. We managed to find a place serving Shawarmas and settled down for a quick bite. We did notice quite a few restaurants serving middle eastern food.
Travel Tip: As soon as you get off the Train at Gare Du Nord, follow signs to Taxi and stand in the queue. As you probably know ignore the drivers and touts who will hound you as soon as you get out of the station. There is no taxi dispatcher but cabs pull up in an orderly fashion for passengers to board. Be sure to map your destination from the station so that you can get an approximate idea of the distance and cab fare. Cabs in Paris with a “Blue” Sticker are supposed to take credit cards but will not if they sniff you to be a tourist. Also, there is a 1 euro charge for each big bag in the trunk.
We started the next day with a brunch at La Chateaubriand where we met Oliver, our server. This place was crowded with locals and we were interested in checking it out the earlier night but they were closing. We asked him for his recommendation and he came up with Salmon Tartar with home made Ratatouille and Lamb Chops with Garlic fried potatoes. We took him for granted when he mentioned home-made ratatouille but paused to absorb our first morsel. We could actually smell a light influence of charcoal and wood. Oliver revealed that everything in the kitchen was still cooked over wood. Excellent food!!.
Oliver recommended Cafe Carette at Place de Vosges for some authentic local french breakfast and Janoux as his favorite place for lunch. What better than one restauranteur recommending his favorites. We started our tour of Paris with the Arc De Triomphe, took a few pictures and started walking down Champs De Elysses towards the Louvre. Champs De Elysses is a huge street lined with big brand stores on the main road, roadside restaurants and hidden treasures like La Chateubriand in the bylanes.
Travel Tip: The restaurants with roadside seating on Champs de Elysses are essentially tourist traps. Avoid them to the extent possible as a simple coffee and beignet with set you back by 12 Eu, even though you calculated 7 Eu off the menu. Here is how – Most of these places add a 3.50Eu charge for seating and 12% service charge. That being said, these places serve food until pretty late at night (11 pm or midnight) so in case you are hungry later or missed dinner because you were making the most of your museum – they can be a savior. Albeit an expensive one.
We stopped to admire the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais. There is something remarkably attractive about the architecture in Paris. Born out of the renaissance era with an equal mix of history and grandeur. Its almost as if Parisians built them with an objective to make Paris the most beautiful city ever. We were in awe of the beauty of the buildings and of the subtlety and normalcy with which people walk around innocently, unaware of the beauty around them. We then walked to Pont Alexander III and then took a beautiful walk by the river. We reached the Louvre by late afternoon. Fortunately, the Louvre closes late on Wed & Fri @ 945 pm. The Louvre is probably the single most magnificent universal epicenter of art that man can ever see. It brought out a side in us that we never knew existed – appreciating art. While seeing the Mona Lisa in person was one thing, standing in front of the large format paintings in the wings flanking the Mona Lisa (Salle Daru and the Salle Mollien) had an effect of pausing time in front of you and very touching. We then covered the Napolean Hall and spent sometime outside on the lawns of Louvre in the sunset waiting for the lights to come on.
Sunset From Napolean's Room
Roof of Salle Daru
Large Format Paintings in the Salle Mollien
Travel Tip: We were warned of long lines at all the tourist spots if we went in at peak tourist hours. The trick is to either enter early, during lunch or late afternoon since most of the guided tours, groups arrive late morning. It is advisable to get an Audio Guide to fully experience the Louvre since most of the captions are in French and secondly, the narratives provide context behind the artifacts, paintings and sculptures. Also, these are really cool Nintendo D3’s that are given with location based prompts that automatically update as you move between rooms in the Louvre. Totally worth it. Try to take at least a day out for the Louvre. There are cafe’s on most of the floors but they close by 5pm. So plan your water, snacks accordingly. The only cafes that are open till 9pm are in the main lobby which is quite a walk if you are deep within the Louvre. Lastly, the gate to access the Palais Royal-Musee De Louvre Metro station closes at 8pm. You will have to walk outside of the Louvre for about 2 blocks to access the other side of the metro station.
All in all, a once in a life time experience that can be done over and over again with each time offering you something new to appreciate. We decided to walk back to the hotel and pause to see the river boat cruises as they passed. A bad idea as we would learn later since there was a sudden drop in the temperature causing both of us to catch a cold by the time we reached the hotel.
We woke up the next morning fatigued and down with a cold, but that did not stop us from seeing the concierge to help us plan day 2. We figured we needed something hot to get the cold out of the system and felt like some hot soup. As we walked down Rue De Washington to buy Metro Passes (yes, we had walked enough and were going to take the train from now on), we saw this small Chinese place with lunch specials. What better than some hot spicy wonton soup to drive away the cold. We loved the garlic shrimp, chicken and ham fried rice and the soups we ordered. It was very tasty, quite unlike the Chinese we are used to in the US. We bought our tickets at the George V station and took the train towards Notre Dame and Musee d’Orsay.
Travel Tip: Map out your itinerary keeping in mind the closest metro stations, since we usually tend to miscalculate the walking we do at the place of interest (e.g. Louvre). Also, the vending machines are in French, try to observe what the person (if a local) does before you and repeat the process. There are options to buy a single ride of a booklet of 1o tix. Its economical to buy the booklet since they do not expire within any set time frame. We contemplated buying the Paris pass (fixed fee pass that provides access to dozens of museums and includes day passes for the metro as well). We did the math and concluded that it wasn’t worth it. Their USP to jump lines can be achieved if you play it smart as mentioned earlier. Also, most of the places of interest are not museums you would want to spend time in unless you were a history geek or an architecture major. The heat is pretty strong so make sure you carry water, sun glasses and wear comfortable clothing.
We were quite impressed with the Paris Metro. There is ingenuity in the smallest of things. Unlike most other metro lines, the cars in paris’ metro are joined with fully covered walkways that help disperse the crowds and distribute themselves avoiding crowding in cars closer to exits. There are two sliding doors, one on the platform itself and the other on the train where the former close first for further safety.
We got off at the Hotel De Ville stop walked across the Pont Notre Dame to see this historical monument. A very beautiful monument that had this amazing calming effect as soon as you enter. The chapel was over 300 years in the making and facades reflect different architectural eras carved with utmost detail and dedication. The stained glass windows are breathtaking and we were amazed to see how such structures stand so strong and elegant to this day. We then walked over to Musee D’ Orsay to appreciate some contemporary art.Truth be told after visiting the Louvre, no other museum can ever hold our imagination and attention. We did see the Van Gogh collection which was beautiful.
Travel Tip: Take breaks when you get a seat. This we learned the hard way and realized short 5 minute breaks can help extend the amount of walking you can do in a given day.
We savoured this experience and decided to take the train back to the Hotel as we had some special dinner plans.
We requested the concierge for a reservation at Les Ombres that has the best view of the Eiffel tower and is renowned world over for their food. But they were booked, she did however suggest a Michelin 1 Star restaurant close by called Antoine. Our foodie side within us got the better of us and we requested the hotel to book a table for us. If you go to their website, you will notice that there is no link to place reservations, instead there is something called invitations. You must be invited to eat at their restaurant. We also learned that when the hotel calls the restaurant and drops in words such as “Valued” “Elite” “Diamond” guest, a reservation is always guaranteed. This is a no thrills restaurant and the focus is on food. We requested the sommelier for his suggesstions and he brought up this 8 year old chianti. The menu was in French and it took about 3 requests to explain the menu in English. We settled in for Soupe de Poissons de Roche de Méditerranée (fish soup), Pinces de Tourteaux décortiquées par nos soins (crispy slender shrimp) for the LES ENTRÉES (apps). For the LES POISSONS (Entrees), COQUILLAGES ET CRUSTACÉS course we ordered a Filet de Sole Vapeur et Coques (sole fish filet) and closed with their Déclinaison de Chocolat Grands Crus chaud et froid for desserts. The sous-chef came out after about 30 mins with the marinated fish in the baking pan to show us that he would be grilling it. That was probably the best grilled fish we have had since the flavors were designed to hit you in layers. The first layer was butter and garlic and then proceeded to percolate deeper into the fish with this tinge of herbs. The perfect balance to prove less is more. And then came the desserts. We inhaled the souffle and the tarts as soon as it was out and then topped it in the end with the french version of a mousse cake. Absolutely delicious, soul touching and fulfilling. The experience was definitive of dining in a Michelin Star restaurant.
Déclinaison de Chocolat Grands Crus chaud et froid
Travel Tip: Our meals in Europe generally took a long time to come regardless of whether they were michelin starred or not. The culture here is to enjoy your time while you are out as we noticed people take 2 hour lunch breaks (unheard of and probably mocked in US). So plan your meals so that you don’t end up at a restaurant famished or miss a train. We tried hurrying through two places and got foul looks not only from the staff but from neighboring tables. Also, the meat in Europe if ordered grilled always comes out rare or at best medium rare. If you order any meat, be sure to ask and customize as necessary. Lastly, when you sit at your table and order water, make sure you tell them regular still water. Restaurants do not serve tap water in Europe and will almost always bring a 1ltr bottle of water – specifying “regular still” will save you 6 Eu from drinking branded expensive bottled water which probably tastes the same anyway.
Since we were a stone’s throw away from the Eifel Tower (we chose to dine in the shadow of Eiffel tower), we decided to walk it to Eiffel. It was all lit up and sparkling with light beams rotating at the very top. It was beautiful to look at the tower in its bulb adorned splendor at night. Otherwise, I concur with the Parisians that it sticks out like a toothpick during the day. We stood in line to get tickets to go all the way to the top, which we were initially skeptical of. The lines were long even for a 1130 pm admission considering the tower closed at 1230. Soon we were on the cable car/elevators that packed in about 50 people at once. It takes to you to the first level then you have to change elevators to go to the top mast. The city was beautiful at night and we could see the Louvre, the Basilica and Orsay from the top. The wind gets very strong at the top so be sure to hold on to your cameras tight. We spent sometime absorbing the view then stood in line to get down after descending to the first level. We then got a little adventurous – probably the bottle of Chianti and thought it would be cool to take the stairs. Even though we were climbing down, it took about 30 mins at brisk speed to get down to ground level. We finally managed to get a cab to take us to the hotel, got into our room and enjoyed the day’s last cigarette looking at the Eiffel Tower.
The next morning was slower than usual as our cold was getting worse. It was also Lavarie (laundry) day. We found our way to the fully automated Laverie 4 blocks from the hotel and got our clothes cleaned. Setting out by around noon, we stopped over at this Crepperia where we saw huge lines every time we passed by. We grabbed some crepes, coffee and then took the train to the Basilica to get off at the Abesses station. Now we were aware that the Basilica was situated on top of a hill but assumed that the train station would be like any other with a maximum of 2-3 flights of stairs to get out. Unfortunately, visiting the basilica is a pilgrimage in its own right, that starts when you get off the train on the platform at Abesses. You have to climb 156 steep spiral stairs to get to out of the station that takes the breath out of even the most athletic. Thankfully, there was a fresh juice store just across the station – Savior indeed and also smart business move. We walked up to the footsteps of the Basilica and were not in the greatest of conditions to walk up the stairs (thanks to our cold and the 156 stairs we just climbed. We decided to take as many other wise people with us did – the cable car that takes you to the top. We took some pictures of the basilica and the view of the city from the top and made our way to
View of the Louvre from Basilica Sucre
the bustling streets of Rue Tardiue and Rue D’ Orsel. There is a good mix of affordable boutiques as well as touristy – I love Paris Tshirt shops. We did a little bit of shopping and made our way to BD De Rouchechouart. We found it very similar to Canal street without the Asian influence with street vendors peddling “Loose Veeton” hand bags and “Omygod” watches. A little further down we saw some boutiques, retail stores and thrift stores. We walked about three blocks from the Barbès – Rochechouart station and it began to get Ghetto, so we decided to turn back and take the train to MontMarte and Hotel DeVille to do some Parisian Style shopping.
From our visits the prior day we had noticed some brand name stores (Mango, H&M, etc) by Hotel DeVille that also seemed less touristy. We shopped for a bit then decided to grab a bite at this restaurant opposite Tower Jacques. Parisian’s take their art seriously (performing, or otherwise). There was a huge crowd outside the theater adjoining the restaurant where a remake of Les Miserables was being performed. We settled in the crowd at a corner table and immersed ourselves in the therapeutic activity of people watching. This is what we saw. People come to the restaurant, meet friends or strike up a conversation with people at the tables. Order an espresso, engage in what appeared to be serious, passionate conversations about topics they love, smoke a cigarette or two and order another cup of coffee. This repeated itself graciously until the the doors to the theater opened and suddenly they were gone..Ahhh. how can you not love this life. Where work life balance weighs more on life than work. Life where two hour lunch breaks or a walk in the park rejuvenate you enough to accomplish almost the same as your fellow American eating lunch on his laptop. Leave work at 5 pm to see your family kids, meet friends on the lawns of Louvre, enjoy some wine opposite the Eiffel Tower, enjoy theater, enjoy life endlessly..If only, this life were true, one must be dreaming or live in Paris…
We stopped over for dinner at Oliver’s La ChateauBriand requested just some his wood fired Ratatouille and some Carpaccio. We indulged in light conversation trying to emulate what it felt like to be a parisian, drank our wine and took a silent beautiful walk back to the Hotel, reminescing our wonderful three perfect days spent in Paris – The city where you fall in love, may be with someone, but surely with the city….
Chapter 3: Brussels in A Rush
We scrambled early in the morning to make it to our 625 am train and made it to the station barely a minute before the train was scheduled to depart. Our plan was to stop at Brussels for a day then take the evening train to Amsterdam. Unfortunately, in the scrambling, we forgot to print our boarding passes and all we had were the e-ticket confirmations. When the conductor came about, he was a little disappointed when we told him our story, but decided to give us a pass with a polite caution to carry boarding passes. We arrived at Brussels Midi shortly after that. Now one thing you must know about Europe is that regardless of passenger volume, peak travel times or location of an eatery, they will open when they feel ready. It was 10 am at Brussels Midi which is the second most important station at Brussels after Centraal but eateries, cafes still hadnt open. We checked in our luggage in the self-use lockers and caught some coffee before proceeding to the information booth.
Travel Tip: If you wish to check in you bags at Brussels Midi or Centraal – you have two options. One is the manned service desk that charges 4 Eu per bag or the self-use lockers right behind that charge between 5 Eu – 7 Eu for a day. There are two types of lockers depending on availability (Small lockers for 2-3 hand bags and big lockers that can hold 2 big suitcases or 4 duffel bags). You insert cash/coins, then shut your locker and a receipt with bar code prints out for that particular locker. Careful not to shut the locker before you pay or you have to get the admin to open it for you. You can scan the bar code when you come back and your locker opens. Careful again not to lose your receipt.
We had researched online about how to get from Midi to Centraal, which is closer to the sights and restaurants but always got mixed reviews. So, here is the deal. If you have a confirmed ticket (Eurostar, Thalys,etc) with which you arrived at Midi, you are entitled to a round trip on any outbound train from Midi that stops at Centraal. Nobody checks for tickets but be sure to keep your original and return ticket handy in case you are asked. Train leave from Midi every 2 mins and you can board any train.
Travel Tip: When we asked the information booth, the Lady (who probably hated the morning shift) asked us to buy tickets to go to Centraal that were about 8Eu a person. Not convinced we asked the Thalys staff and a frequent traveler who both replied it was free for passengers with valid train tickets.
We arrived at Centraal, already exhausted by now (we had a bad cold remember?) but decided to press on. We walked deserted roads to the Royal Palace and asked a bus driver for directions to Brussel’s star attraction “Manekken Pis”. We walked through the Centrum square lined with bars and restaurants selling stroopwaffles and fries. As tempting as it seemed, we resisted the urge to drink some fine Belgian beer and followed a group of tourists to Manneken Pis. We took a few pictures and walked our way back where he had seen some architecturally appealing buildings. The place was over run with even management personnel preparing for a Jazz concert that evening. One of the apps we had downloaded had recommended a restaurant situated in a 16th century house that served the best Belgian sausages. We asked for directions and even learnt that in Belgium directions are not given in right and left but a right and the other right (true). We walked past what seemed to be Chinatown, with some establishments serving kosher Chinese. Never mustered the courage to try any of them since to the best of my knowledge kosher and chinese dont go so well. We finally arrived at the square and were looking around for the restaurant when we spotted this eatery with a huge crowd outside eating small plates of seafood on high top tables. Inquisitive, we approached the servers behind the counters who were in a rush. We asked for recommendations and he suggested croquettes and smoked sole fish. We couldn’t resist and also ordered a beer. Well, this hidden gem is called Noordzee.
The fish is cooked fresh and it comes out really fast. Its a cash only place. Brusselles thank you for Noordzee as this one eatery made the trip to Brussels worth everything. We did find the other restaurant La Paon Royal that we originally came looking for and ordered some tuna – But nothing could match the sole fish and croquettes at Noordzee. Content, we made our way back to the Midi to retrieve our luggage and take the next available train to Amsterdam.
Travel Tip: When traveling through Europe on trains, it always helps to check with the information kiosk if your ticket is an open ticket – meaning, you could take any available train that day. This helped us take an earlier train than the one scheduled to reach Amsterdam earlier and get some much needed rest.
Chapter 4: Amsterdam – A Blip
We arrived at Amsterdam Centraal late afternoon and took a cab straight to the Marriott. We went straight to our rooms since we had two of our friends who had already checked in. Greetings and hugs later and some cups of hot tea later, we were snug in bed very exhausted and very sick. We decided to take a pass on Amsterdam if we had to enjoy the rest of the trip. The medication we had picked up in Brussels seemed to be working but there was a delay factor.
Travel Tip: Always carry medication with you – one item we totally missed while packing for Europe. Medicines are sold over the counter in Europe and let us tell you one thing – THEY ARE EXPENSIVE. A box of 20 Day-Flu like pills set us back EU 29. We learnt it the hard way.
We woke up the next morning feeling a little better and walked a few blocks around the hotel, grabbed some food and came back to the hotel to get additional rest and chatting with our friends and their stories from the cafes. We departed for Barcelona later night.
Chapter 5: Barcelona Partying with the Spaniards
We arrived late that night at the Barcelona airport and decided to take a cab considering there were four of us over the Aeropuerto shuttle bus.
Travel Tip: Depending on how many of you there are, you can either take the Aeropuerto bus that takes you to Playa Catalunya (city center) or cab it. The bus costs about EU 12 per head and you can buy the tickets from the conductor before you board the bus. You may have to then take a metro to your hotel/destination, when traveling with bags gets cumbersome and intimidating.
We had anticipated some issues at check-in at Barcelona since none of the other hotel websites had an option for an extra guest and ended up having a book another room for our two friends. Apparently, hotels in Spain cannot allow more than 2 guests per room. Be sure to check your reservation details if you are traveling in a group.
After much heckling and convincing we got one night off the bill and decided to hit the hotel bar for a nightcap. The bartender had been observing our struggle (rude check-in staff and our broken voices) and was kind enough to offer up his Grand Ma’s cold remedy. (Pirate’s rum + 1 Full Lime + Honey + Warm Water). We liked the drink so much we got 2 each and retired to our rooms.
We woke up early the next day and behold – our cold was gone. Completely out. Grand Ma’s recipe worked. We head out shortly after and went straight to Playa Catalunya to grab some original Tapas. We walked down Las Ramblas, winding streets of El Raval, the Pier and then made our way back up to the Cathedral through the El Gothic quarter. We met with two other friends and took the train to the Beach, hungout and then asked around for some good eateries. The recommendations we got were for Rías Do Miño – Small restaurant known for great food. We ordered the patatas (potatoes, Rabbit, Octopus and Lots of Sangria. Jacquiem our server was in a perty mood too, and offered us shots on the house. Great idea at the moment, but bad idea as the night would uncover – we realized.
Partying in Barcelona
As we were were walking up, we heard some festivity music around the corner and followed our ears. Turns out the locals in Barcelonetta had ceremonious processions to celebrate a 200 year old tradition. 200 years ago, the fisherman would go to the nearby hills to hunt rabbit, quail and small animals and the community would extend their support while also praying to the gods for greater fortune. Over the years the communities would form groups and show their solidarity by putting up dance shows minus floats commonly seen. It was great to see alcohol induced dancing and fervent partying Barcelona style with live bands playing traditional cheering music mainly on drums. We followed many groups down this street and ended up getting drunk on local liquor. We also made friends with this elderly gentleman who used his security badge to get us alcohol after hours at many bars since it was closing time. Soon our group was dancing and had mingled with the crowd who had a more-the-merrier spirit and danced with us. A night well spent. A night where my buddy also lost his wallet with ID, Cash and Cards. A fun night it was indeed!!!
We woke up the next morning with bad hangovers and head straight to the Lounge to grab breakfast and pack up. We had Venice to see, so much to do, so little time…..
Chapter 4: Venice – “Venezia – città a forma di pesce”
We arrived at Marco Polo Airport (Venice) by afternoon. We decided to leave Barcelona early due to lack of reasonable transport from Terraferma (main land) to San Marco or other islands. We took the bus from the airport (Bus No. 5) to Venice and then took the ACTV public water taxi to get to La Giudecca.
Travel Tip: Transportation to and from Venice can be an expensive, slightly intimidating affair if not planned properly. There are 3 ways to get from the Airport to any of the islands in Venice. (1) Private water taxi, available 24 hours a day for 100Eu each trip (2) Alilguna (shared water taxi) but takes longer and runs between 6 am to 8 pm, costing about 25EU per head (3) Public transportation, Bus from the airport then public water taxis to any of the islands, costing about 10 EU per head. However, the frequency is lesser at night and includes longer wait times, besides trying to figure out the routes if you have just arrived can be a challenge. If possible, plan to get in at a reasonable hour before 8 pm so that you can use the latter two options, unless you dont mind for a private water taxi.
Hilton Molino Stucky
We checked at the Palatial Sprawling Hilton Molino Stucky (formerly residence and clothes of Venice’s prominent businessmen, credited for bringing economic prosperity to Venice. We got upgraded to a junior suite with a view and was probably the best room we had got so far on the trip. The roofing was made of wooden beams with antique chandeliers with venetian style windows that open to the Giudecca Channel and views of San Marco. We unpacked, changed and hit the lounge to grab some eats before making a plan to check out the city. The pastries served at the lounge were amazing miniatures of detailed to perfection and very tasty. Venice with its canals and steady flowing water, coupled with architectural beauty has this calming effect that wants you to slow down. We couldnt fight the calming effect and walked down La Giudecca to a pier side restaurant and settled in for some wine and pasta. The walk back was beautiful, with a light breeze and pleasant sounds of the water gently breaking against the banks. We came back to the hotel and plunged into the research to pin-point some places we had wanted to eat in.
We discovered a great blog (http://myvenice.wordpress.com) and some articles on chowhound that talked of hole in the wall restaurants known for their original venetian cuisine. We were also impressed with some places shown on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations trip to Venice. We started the next day with a shuttle (boat) ride to Zatterre where we saw Celebrity’s Solstice roll in. It is a magnificent ship, huge with lot of balcony rooms. We then took the next shuttle to San Marco and landed right at the tourist hot spot. Crowds, crowds and more crowds assembled at St. Marks Basilica, Doge’s Palace and main square.
Travel Tip: Venice is popular “en-route” stop for almost every cruise liner. This leads to over crowding on an island as small as venice, especially concentrating around San Marco. Just do the math 3000 passengers from a ship times atleast 4 ships embarked any given day = 12000 people any given day just walking around. Avoid any restaurant that has its menu in 4 languages and where waiter carrell you in.
We quickly made our way out of the crowds and settled in a restaurant for some Brunch. Ordered pizza, wine, and set our to Rialto Fish Market. We walked through Calle de Fabbrri (known for vintage stores and good places to shop). The stores had closed for lunch and were to open late afternoon. We walked over Rialto Bridge another tourist cluster spot lining up at murano glass stores, eating gelato and scrambling to get the first available Gondola. Our aim was clear and direction set – Explore the hidden part of San Polo, Ca d’Oro to uncover these authentic venetian culinary treasures. We made our way past the crowds and finally found found the Rialto Fish Market. We were late as the market closes by 11 am. We had planned to do a Giro d’ Ombre (Bar hopping venetian style) and had to hunt down Pronto Pesce. Best known for serving fish cooked straight after its bought fresh at the market. Unfortunately, it was closed but not losing heart we stopped over at Cantina Do Mori.
Cantina Do Mori
Since 1462, this has been the local watering hole of choice in the market area; legend even pegs Casanova as a habitué. Tramezzini are the fuel of Venice — sample them here where you’re guaranteed fresh combinations of thinly sliced meats, tuna, cheeses, and vegetables, along with tapas like cicchetti. They’re traditionally washed down with an ombra. Venetians stop to snack and socialize before and after meals, but if you don’t mind standing (there are no tables), for a light lunch this is one of the best of the old-time bacari left. Our next stop was Alla Vedova where we had the best venetian meatballs (kind of croquettes but juicy), fell in love with the Sarde Saor, Sauteed vegetables and their fried sardines. So, basically a Giro D’ Ombre begins with going to a bar where there are Cicchetti (pronounced chick-ate-eee) (traditional venetian tapas) behind the glass. You order a bite size portion of the Cicchetti you like and order a small “glasslet” of wine usually in a pitcher. 3-4 Cicchettis with a “glasslet” of wine will cost you about 7 EU. very reasonable.
We then went to La Cantina, drank “Spritz” which is like an orange venetian martini but made with Liqouers’ . Very refreshing. The lady was impressed with our idea of a Giro D Ombre , since not many tourists do it and suggested two other places Al Mariner and Al Timon. We absolutely loved our Giro D Ombre as we also got see the quieter parts of Venice and meet local venetians. The sampling at Alla Vedova left us wanting more and we went back for a full course of Shrimp Pasta and another round of Sarde Saor. So amazing, its left an alluring taste lingering on our palettes.
Travel Tip: Venice is a very different kind of a tourist destination. It has lesser “things-to-see” and more “things-to-do”, such as exploring the baccarias or going to the Murano glass factory. Somethings you should know are that the Murano glass stores near St. Mark’s Basilica and Rialto Bridge are tourist traps, often doubling or quadrupling the price of artifacts. We over heard other tourists too complaining that most glass factory tours end in their showrooms, with pressure to buy. While we are yet to find reasonable places, but found places near the fish market to be more reasonable and less ravaged by tourists. There are a few stores near Cantina do Mori that sold the same for lesser by 3- 4 Eu. A great alternative we stumbled upon by accident was authentic Murano glass earrings and pendants at the Rome Ciampino Duty Free Store. they were far more reasonable than those in Venice itself.
Chapter 7: Off to Rome – Where it all started
We took the ACTV public water boat to the St. Lucia Venezia train terminal and boarded our train to Rome. In about 3 hours we arrived at this bustling, noisy, hot city. We followed signs to the taxi stand and followed the taxi driver signalling us to get in to his cab. Upon telling him our destination, he quoted us a fare of 60 EU. Exorbitant! since we had called the hotel and were advised a fare of not more than 20 EU. We asked him to turn around and he did. Our next cab guy was probably an aspiring indy race car driver as he almost ran over 2 motorists, 1 pedestrian and almost went for a head-on with a bus. As you will notice too, traffic in Rome is a no-lanes-aggressive-get-there-first kind of traffic.
Travel Tip: Always call your hotel before you take a taxi to ask about approximate fares and make sure they turn the meter on. Do not ride with cabbies who quote you an amount unless you know that its accurate based on prior experience. Our first cab driver upon closer observation took the onus of diverting locals to regular cabbies while taking tourists for himself or his buddies. The traffic is rough and be very careful when you cross the streets as pedestrian right of way is at the driver’s discretion.
We arrived at Rome Cavalieri – Waldorf Astoria, the best hotel room we have stayed in anywhere so far. This was also the first time that we were seated at the manager’s table with refreshments served while she was checking us in. After some small talk and completing the check-in process, two concierge(s) escorted us to our room giving us a tour of the hotel on the way. They opened our room door and we looked at each other with a smile ear to ear. To save you the suspense, here is a picture of our room taken from their website. We felt imperial for a moment and enjoyed every second of while it lasted.
Deluxe Room @ the Cavalieri...Sweet!!
We set out a little after and took a cab to the Pantheon. We walked over to Piazza Navona, Fontana Di Trevi and window shopped on Via Del Corso. We then walked over to the Wedding Cake – a tribute to the special forces for their work in third world countries. Apparently, the material to build this white colossal modern day impersonation of true roman architecture was sourced from the Colosseum, angering locals – hence sarcastically named the wedding cake. We returned back to hotel as the heat was getting unbearable and there were just too many tourists. Even though we usually dont have a problem with tourists, their concentration in large numbers around historical sites is just putting off especially when combined with the scorching heat.
We took a small nap back at the hotel and decided to get some spicy food after an overdose of Italian pasta and pizza over the last few days. We walked some distance to find a first of its kind Chino-Japanese restaurant that served everything from Szechuan fried rice to Japanese sushi boats. We ate a sumptuous meal and walked back to the hotel expecting our best friends to join us coming in from Ibiza. Tired from our journeys all day long we hit bed early planning to set out early the next day. We used the automatic shutter blinds to get some extra sleep. Probably what Julius did too…
The next morning was almost coming to an end by the time we woke up thanks to the automatic shutters and we rushed to the Vatican that was a short cab ride from the hotel. Hungry, we walked into this pizzeria that looked more like an open kitchen with a huge crowd inside. It took a while to understand what was going on until we ordered. Basically, the pizzas laid out were flat bread sheet pizzas, you tell the server how much of it you want. Once you have sampled the pieces, he weighs them. It was the first time we had ever eaten this crust pizza by weight. We then entered the Vatican museum and saw some really great paintings by Raphael. We were not very impressed and there was no a-ha! moment, not after the Louvre. But there were a few really liked and were looking forward to see.
Thats What They Looked Like!
We loved the School of Athens, Transfiguration, The Entombment of Christ, and the legendary Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. These were some of the best masterpieces and we were in awe seeing them. It was remarkable to see the School of Athens as it portrayed all of the scholars whose theorems we had studied in high school namely – Epicurus, Pythagoras, Timon, Socrates, Michelangelo, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, Zoroaster and Ptolemy and of course Alexander the Great.
Travel Tip: While it may be helpful to get an audio guide to know more about the artifacts, the museum has English titles for all placards that provide sufficient information on the murals, paintings and sculptures. Some rooms may get congested especially when tour guides herd their guests in huge groups – And there is no air conditioning.
Under the Crepuscular Rays - Blessed!
We then walked to St. Peters Basilica and stood in line that was almost 1/2 mile long. The lines moved pretty quick and we were in the basilica within 10-15 mins after a brief security checkpoint. The Basilica was beautiful especially the altar, the apse with St Peter’s Cathedra supported by four Doctors of the Church. We were even lucky to be right under the Crepuscular rays. We caught something to eat unable to avoid the tourist traps around the Vatican and took a cab to check out a long awaited historical site – The Colosseum.
The Colosseum was the single most influential site that made our imagination run wild and held our thoughts captive for the longest time. Having seen it in full splendor thanks to C.G.I in the Gladiator, we were astounded at the size of this monument and even more so at the engineering marvel surrounding it. The engineering was so ingenious that this can easily be voted to be the world’s most innovative amphitheater. The stage was mobile and could be changed to recreate scenery complimenting ongoing events from tropical jungles to naval combat exercises. We each took our moments of silence to mentally reconstruct the colosseum with spectators, imagine the commotion, the noise and relive for that moment what it meant to be a roman spectator.
Couple Admiring Colosseum
We missed the roman ruins as we had missed the entry time but walking on the outside while seeing the ruins inside, made us want to come back the next day. We took a cab back closer to the Pantheon, ate some pastries at this small little shop run by mother and daughter and decided to buy some alcohol to take the night easy and just catch up on old stories. It was a long night once we had finished our bottle of good old Morgan and laughed at stories more than 10 years old.
We woke up the next morning fresh as lilies (Morgan has that effect you know..) and set out for the day. We checked out of the Waldorf Rome Cavalieri with heavy hearts, coming back to humility after getting used to the nobility. We took our bags and set straight to Roma Termini to buy tickets for the Shuttle.
Travel Tip: There are shuttle buses that run from Roma Termini to both the airports and is usually advisable to buy the tickets in advance as the seats fill up pretty quick. They typically run every 45 mins and require a primitive form of a boarding pass, requiring your to board he bus at least 10 mins prior to departure.
We checked into our friends room and left our luggage there, when a whiff of Chinese food hit the room from an open window. We followed our nose to the place, literally like how its shown in cartoons to the Chinese restaurant, well called ..Chinese Restaurant. We ate mostly vegetarian food to play it safe given we had international flights to take the next day. We then went back to the Termini to exchange some money before we left EU as we were literally down to change.
So, as with all trips, every one gets conned at least once when visiting foreign countries. We almost got conned at Rome termini with the mafia cab driver, but barely escaped. Unfortunately, this time we were actually overcharged that almost felt like being conned – at the Forex Counter at Roma Termini. They charge an exorbitant 15% conversion fee on top of a 5 Eu service charge while most other places charge just the 5Eu fee.
Travel Tip: Always scope out at least 2 or 3 foreign exchange outlets before getting money exchanged. Also, in the event that you are using your credit card to pay for the foreign currency, know that it is processed as a cash advance. So, you either need to have sufficient cash advance limits or simply use a debit card. We contemplated using Amercian Express traveler’s checks but couldn’t find the time prior to departure.
We took the train to Via Del Corso, did some shopping and somewhere in between lost our friends. Attempts to find each other were in vain and called each other to bid farewell.
Travel Tip: While the stores on Via Del Corso have a good mix of branded and boutique stores, make sure you scope them out well before buying from the first store you see. Reason being that some of the stores sell very obvious touristy clothes and so-called “Italian Designer Wear”.
We took our bus in near time to make it to the airport and made it through security with sufficient time before boarding began. We luckily managed to eat some really poor airport food at Ciampino (CIA) before realizing that there was absolutely nothing to eat once you check in after security. While this blog could end with a traditional “Happy Trip – All Done”, what fun is it without some venting and ranting about experiences that should have been so simple but were complicated by a clear lack of common sense. This last bit revolves around Ryan Air – ah! yes the cheaper than train, bus or even walking – airline. After the security check-in, we straddled into a warehouse that seems to double up as Ryan Air’s Boarding gates. Lines inter-cross and its difficult to say which boarding line you are standing in. After a delayed boarding, we saw what was a scramble to board the flight through stairs hitched to the back of truck. Once in, we witnessed the madness called free seating. We failed to understand how difficult it would be for the airline to assign boarding zones to ease the crowd out. In case you didn’t know, booking a seat is a chargeable item above your ticket price. Ah Ryan Air – common sense is not that expensive.
We arrived at Madrid, checked into the AC Hotel Costelo and within 4 hours were back at the airport to board the flight back home. We caught our last European breakfast at the airport at an Illy cafe and boarded our long flight back home after the lovely almost-perfect euro trip.
If you have made it this far and still wondering why this euro trip is near perfect, not perfect as everyone would have expected or wished it to be, its because our experience has left us wanting more. And as with life, any experience that feels perfect feels content and diminishes the urge to make it happen again. There is so much to see in Paris, so much to do in Barcelona, so much to learn about Rome’s history. This can be only accomplished if Europe always feels less than perfect – or at least we try to believe it were so.
End Credits: Thanks to our friends Marc Palmer (for your euro guide) Pratyoosh (for showing us around London) Duma and Geeta (for being awesome fellow travelers)
If you would like to download the maps we used with our notes on it, click on the links below. Note these are HD 720P scans and hence large files.
Map of Paris: Click Here
Map of Venice: Click Here
You can also download Marc’s guide by clicking below
Bon Séjour !