Account of travels across the world. This blog provides descriptions of travels in different parts of the world. Pictures related to many of the blogs can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/7330879@N05/ and for more information I can be e-mailed at ananda@wfu.edu

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

July 5, 2004

We had an early start today as we got up early, got ready and had the breakfast and then carted all our bags to the station to catch the 9:05 train from Geneva to Venice. The train was one of Europe’s direct fast trains. The seats were comfortable and the route took us through Lausanne, Montheux, Brig, across the tunnel in the mountains (there was some serious checking of passports as we entered Italy), Milan, Verona and finally Venice. It was a 7 hour train ride and it went well. We all enjoyed the ride, snacked often and generally took in the scenery and told Bebo about our child hood train rides and travels. We eventually reached Mestre, the station before the train crosses the causeway across the canal into Venice. Eventually we reached Venice Santa Lucia station. This is a bizarre experience – after getting on the platform and walking to the end of the platform and into the main train station one is faced with the grand canal of Venice. There are no cars in this city. The only way to go anywhere in this city is by foot along really narrow lanes reminiscent of Kolkata’s north side, or by water taxi that ply along the canal, or by water bus that run from stop to stop along the canal or by gondola. Since we were new to the city we decided to take a water taxi to the hotel. It cost Euro 50 and it essentially deposited us on the side of the canal at the mouth of a really narrow lane and the driver said that the hotel was right in front. We walked with our bags for five minutes to find the hotel. The hotel was excellent. It was in an old (500 years old) building. Each room was differently decorated and ours was a tiny room and the window opened on to the narrow alley by the hotel. It is called San Giorgio (http://www.sangiorgiovenice.com/) and is run by Vallerio and his wife. Vallerio is a great guy and extremely helpful. I had found the hotel through the Minotel (www.minotel.com) chain and the only drawback was that it did not have elevators and we had to pull the suitcases all the way up the narrow staircase. On the positive side, the hotel offers a wireless Internet service through the Italian TIN (www.hotspot.bergilio.com) and the best access was in the dining room. The hotel also has a resident black and white tabby cat! Venice was hot and humid and the air-conditioning was poor. Venice is not like any other place we have been to before, except perhaps Kolkata. Narrow lanes, canals, and the general stench of the rotting waters in the back canals. There is a significant population of rats in the canals too! We generally unpacked, and then decided to venture out. We walked out of the hotel and crossed a few bridges (Venice has 401 bridges) and were quite overwhelmed by the strangeness of the city. We eventually found a restaurant and decided to eat dinner. Venice is EXPENSIVE. Very, very expensive if one were to eat in these sit down places. We dropped about Euro 85 for a very average meal and vowed not to eat for the rest of the trip! We then walked back to the hotel. Did not venture into the water yet. On return to the hotel I sat in the window alcove and listened to the sounds of the night bereft of any sound of motorized land vehicles. One could hear the pigeons and the occasional sound of the gondoliers singing.

July 6, 2004

I got up early and worked in the dining area. After Mikku and Bebo were up we had the breakfast and ventured out in Venice. The thing was that the Vaporeto (the water bus of Venice) was on strike that day and so we had to do things by foot. We first walked from the hotel to Saint Marcos square. I do not think I have seen more pigeons at any European square ever before. It is a huge square and Bebo had an absolutely lovely time feeding the pigeons. After some time there we walked to the Academia Bridge, crossed it and had lunch at a self-service café. Bebo and I had the ubiquitous ham and cheese toast. We then visited the Academia art museum. There were works of the Venetian artists – the Bellini brothers – as well as several really classical originals. Bebo had a lot of questions about Christ and Christianity since most of the paintings dealt with the life of Christ. We then walked back from the Academia to Saint Marcos again stopping for some souvenir shopping. We hung around the square for some time and then walked back to the hotel. It was a lot of walking in one day but then with the strike this was the only option. After resting in the hotel for some time we went out and took the gondola ride. The ride cost a lot but it was a great experience as the gondola went through the Grand Canal and the side canals of Venice. The Grand Canal is the “main road” of Venice and all the other canals are the side streets. The gondola ride lasted about 40 minutes and we eventually got back to the hotel after a dinner at a café.

July 7, 2004

Thankfully the busses were working today. We bought the all day bus ticket (Euro 10.5 for adults) and took the bus from Saint Angelo stop to the Rialto stop. This is the famous Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal. There were numerous shops there and we crossed the bridge and walked through the fruit and vegetable market eventually to the fish market of Venice. This place was stinky but was a great market to look at. We then took the 40 cent crossing of the Grand Canal by gondola and took the bus to Zaccaria and from there changed to the bus for Murano island. The trip out to Murano takes about 40 minutes and this takes us further into the Bay of Venice (number 42 or 41). The island of Murano is famous for its glass factories. Legend has it that the first spectacles were made in Murano. We watched craftsmen making glass objects, had lunch, and then walked around in the quaint glass shops. Eventually we took the boat (number N) back to the Salute stop the location of the Cathedral. We spent some time in the Cathedral and then walked over to the Wake Forest house. The house was fabulous and we got a tour of the house. A Communication student was there and she showed us around. After the house trip, we again crossed the canal on a gondola (this is quite reminiscent of crossing the canal from AC block to VIP road in Kolkata) and we walked over to Saint Marcos, spent some time there and returned to the hotel by bus. After resting in the hotel for a bit we took the bus to the railway station to get our tickets for Milan. We visited the old ghetto area near the station and ate at a really nice Chinese restaurant there. By this time it was dark and riding the bus back along the canal at night was beautiful. It was also a little cooler after the really hot and humid days. We eventually called it a day. It is also when we decided to make some changes to our travel plans. Everyone were saying that Milan does not have much to offer and so instead of staying in Milan for 3 days, we decided to cut it back to 1 day and take the night train from Venice to Paris, spend a day in Paris and then take a car drive to Calais, cross the channel and then rent a car from Dover and drive to Slough.

July 8, 2004

We took a late start and then got help from Vallerio to carry the suitcases down to the water taxi stand and he helped us load the bags on the taxi. The taxi cost Euro 60 and took us to the station. It was a really hot and humid day. We stood in line and got all the tickets worked out and then went to the self-service café for lunch. The train was at 2 in the afternoon and the ride to Milan took about 3 hours and we reached Milan Central. The station was really large (it is the largest railway station in Europe). We took a cab to the Hotel Gulles (Best Western) which was next to the Plaza Lima Metro station and in a bustling business area. The hotel was nice and after depositing stuff there, I went to the Plaza Duomo to check out the deal about seeing the Last Supper painting. Everything was closed (it was after 6 pm then) and so I just got back and we eventually ate dinner in the room (got stuff from Burger King which is pretty big in Italy) and called it a day.

July 9, 2004

We got an early start and after a pretty mediocre breakfast at the hotel we checked out and deposited the bags with the hotel and bought the three all day tickets for Milan buses and Metro. Took the underground to Plaza Duomo. While the Duomo is impressively large, the front of the Cathedral was covered for renovation which was a bit of a disappointment. Anyway, as Bebo chased pigeons I got the tickets for the APT tour of Milan and Last Supper (on weekends, including Fridays they have two tours, one in the morning and one in the afternoon at 3:00 pm, tickets are available from the Office of Tourism at the Plaza Duomo and the cost is Euro 45 for the 3 hour tour). Since we had some time to kill, we decided to take the elevator to the top of the Duomo. The elevator tickets are Euro 5 each and the view from the top is glorious. It was a clear day following last night’s storm and we walked around the various levels of the top of the Duomo and got some excellent views of the distant Alps which we had recently visited. It was quite nice to take this trip to the top of the Duomo. We then got back down and after a coffee at one of the over-priced cafes went inside the Cathedral. Built in the tradition of the Catholic Cathedrals it had some really excellent stained glass windows. After that we walked around the gallery shopping area and eventually took the underground to the castle area. Here we found a store to get some undergarments for Bebo since we were quickly running out of clean clothes and there were no laundermats that I could find in Milan. We had lunch in that area too and were accosted by pigeons which are quite a nuisance in these cities. Eventually we strolled over to the castle. Not much except the “wedding cake” fountain which Bebo enjoyed. We then took the underground back to the Duomo to wait for the bus tour. It is interesting to see how well Bebo can now negotiate the big cities, the buses, the trains, and the underground and in general is comfortable in these places. We use the walkie talkie a lot and Bebo has that with him at all times and it is really useful. For Italy I did not use a separate phone (as we did in Switzerland, had bought the $90 phone SIM card before leaving the US and that lasted, with one Euro 30 top up, for the entire time in Switzerland) system but stuck to Cingular’s Italian service. We waited for the bus and I had a Euro 4 beer and decided that can not drink any more either, since this was really expensive. Mikku browsed the stores. The bus trip started at 3:00. First the guide took us for a tour of the Cathedral again. It was good to learn of the history of the Duomo from the tour guide. We then walked over to the square where there was a statute of Da Vinci and eventually back to the bus. The tour then took us to the Brera art gallery. Here we spent about an hour seeing some famous paintings. On this tour we met Mr. Khan a Bengali gentleman from Jadavpur University of Kolkata who was traveling in Italy on a conference. He was a Physics professor. The art gallery was excellent and we then drove by the castle and finally to the church where the original Last Supper painting was. The painting is actually a wall mural painted nearly 500 years ago and it survived the years including Allied bombing during the War. It has been restored but to see the massive work was indeed quite a moving experience and surely one of the high points of the trip. The tour was over after that and we went back to the Cathedral square. Had some cold drinks there and took the underground back to the hotel. BTW, the Milan underground is not air conditioned and can get quite muggy in summer. We got our bags from the hotel and took a taxi to the station. Milan station does not have elevators but the luggage carts are designed to go up and down escalators. We had dinner at the self-service cafeteria and waited for the train. After the train pulled in we loaded into the 3-tier coupe. It was frighteningly hot and we were exhausted after getting the bags into the compartment. The coupe was private for us with a little wash basin and 3 beds. We kept the window open since the temperature must have been about a 100 F and the humidity about 99%. Anyway, after the train started moving at 9:40 pm things cooled down some. We looked outside for some time and eventually were lulled into sleep in the only way that trains can lull one to sleep. Incidentally, on cross-country trips like this, it is customary for the ticket collector to take away the passport and hold on to it until you reach the destination, which for us was Paris.

July 10, 2004

We were woken up because the compartment had gotten cold and I had to shut the window. The outside was now the typical French countryside. Mikku and I have traveled in France in train before and it looked pretty. It was also much colder. The attendant brought coffee and croissants and we generally packed our stuff and eventually pulled into Paris Bracey station at 8:40 am right on time. We took a cab to the hotel (Best Western Hotel Paris-Est which was located right in the Gare de L’est – another station in Paris). It took us a little while to get into the room and after we had freshened up in the room we headed out to see Paris. As usual, we got the all day train and bus ticket and took bus number 30 from the station to the Trocadero which is the point across the Seine from the Tour Eiffel. The route took us through the basic shopping street of Paris and by the Moulin Rouge. Those who know Paris will know what I mean. The bus also goes by Place Etiole with the Arc de Triomphe. We got off at the Trocadero and walked over to get a glorious view of the Eiffel Tower. Among other things Bebo was happy to see in real some of the places he has been using in his SIM city computer game! It was a really cold day in Paris and we then walked across the Seine (BTW, the direct path from the Trocadero through the gardens is closed for security reasons, so one has to walk around the area and reach Seine and then cross). There were huge crowds to go up the tower and so we decided against that. Instead we stood at the base of the tower for some time (curiously there was a set of Gujrati illegals who were selling souvenirs and were getting chased away by the police). We then strolled towards the Etiole Military which is on the other side of the tower. Took a lot of pictures and eventually went to an Indian restaurant for lunch. This was a disappointment, the food was OK but the service was really bad. We then strolled along to the bus stop. A bad storm was brewing and so we took the bus to Notre Dame Cathedral. This was an interesting return for Mikku and I because on our last trip to Paris, nearly a decade ago, Mikku’s papers (passport, visa, credit cards, etc.) were all pick pocketed at this Cathedral. We were extra careful this time. We sat in the Cathedral until the storm had passed and then walked around the area. It was typical Northern Europe weather – cold and wet. Eventually we walked over to the Place of Justice, which houses the infamous French prison called the Concierge. This was a prison where people such as Maximillian Robespierre were held as well as where Marie Antoinette was housed before their executions. It was an interesting land mark to see. We spent part of the afternoon there and then took the underground to the Franklin D. Roosevelt stop on Champs Elysee. We walked down the most important street in Paris all the way to the Arch de Troimphe and walked to the Arch as well. It was still rainy. After some time at the Arch we took number 30 back to the shopping district. There was a bumper car ride there and Srijoy enjoyed that as we waited in the cold. I got my underwear! We then took the bus back to the hotel and Mikku and Srijoy got some food and I went out again to scope the area. The place was over run with Bangladeshis and Bengali was a main language being used. In fact there was a store with a Bengali name written in Bengali. I hung around the area for some time and then got back to the room and called it a day. In the meantime spoke to Jill, Beth’s daughter, who was also in Paris.

July 11, 2004

I got out early to get the rental car. It was a dreary day in Paris with rain and it was cold. I first checked with Avis at Gar de la Est to see if a car might be available there. Turns out they were sold out. Took the single stop jump (use either line 4 or 5 from Gar de la Est to Gar de la Nord) to the other station. Gar de la Nord is huge and confusing. Must have walked a good mile before I found the Avis rental place (this is tucked away at the far end of the main level of the railway station where all the platforms are, you need to take the elevator down and all the car hire places are together. The lady said that she could not rent a car without my passport. So, had to take the underground (they call it Metro in Paris) all the way back to Gar de la Est, then had to get to the room, get the passport and return to the other station to get the car. The first car she gave me was a tiny Toyota. I looked at the car and realized that the suitcases would not fit in there. So, went back and got an Opel Corsa. This was now parked in a different place and had to walk to that parking lot to find the car. It was a stick shift and it took a while to figure out how to reverse! Anyway, got the car and found my way back to the other railway station. Eventually, we were ready to leave. Loaded up the car, checked out of the hotel and had croissants and coffee at a café at the station and headed out of Paris. Being a Sunday, traffic was light and it was a straight shot from the hotel out to A1 (follow directions to the Charles de Gaulle airport) and we were soon on the highway A1 headed towards Calais. Speed limits are perfunctory on French highways (although they claim it to be 130 km/h) so was happily going about 150 to 160 km/hr. That was about all the car could handle. Next time I am getting a BMW! Anyway, we stopped on the way for some snacks and then headed out again. Near Lens, changed to A26 now headed straight to Calais. The landscape was nothing spectacular and somewhat reminiscent of North Carolina at places and Wisconsin at other times. We reached Calais right around 12:30 in the afternoon after a 2.5 hour drive covering a total of 290 kilometers. Calais was a small town somewhat like Dover. First we found our way to the railway station and figured out that the car could be returned at the hovercraft port too. So, drove over to the hover port and got the tickets for Dover (Sterling 60 for the three of us, and they let us check bags in) and then came back to the center of town, by the Cathedral, and went to a small souvenir store and then to a café for a quick bite. Eventually got back to the hover port, emptied the car, dropped off the key in the drop box, and then got on the streamer (it was not a hovercraft). The crossing was fine. The seas were choppy and so was a little sea sick at first, but it was a short crossing and reached Dover in under an hour. At Dover we reached the smaller docks (the bigger one is called the Eastern Docks). Also, realized that had messed up on car rental and had rented a car for the day before and thus there was no car to be had since all the rental companies except Europcar are closed on Sundays. There was one taxi traveling between the Dover rail station and the dock. Took the cab to the train station. First bought a ticket from Dover to Slough with a change in London which involved transferring from Victoria to Paddington in London. With the bags this was going to be a stress. As we sat at the Dover station, called the Slough Marriott and through them transferred the night booking to Marriott Maeda Vale and then changed the train ticket back to London’s Charring Cross. This saved about Sterling 30. The train to Charring Cross left at 5:18 pm and we pulled into London Charring Cross at 7:00 pm. The arrival at Charring Cross is nice because it goes on the Thames right by the Big Ben. Took a London Taxi from Charring Cross to the hotel. London was celebrating Party and Hyde Park on that day and so traffic was snarled up. Eventually got to the hotel, and called it a day.

July 12 and July 13, 2004

Relatively eventless days. Took the cab from the hotel to Heathrow. Check in was smooth and the Atlantic crossing was eventless, then there was a little mix up with the hotel shuttle at Washington (were staying at the Chantilly Fairfield Inn). Next morning back to Dulles, and flew back to Winston and then the van home. All well at home.

posted by Ananda  # 9:25 AM


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