Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A backpacker's dream

Until a couple of months back, my idea of adventure was limited to things like roller coaster and skiing. That was probably as far as I could go. Travelling alone across different countries let alone countries that are not predominantly English speaking was a thought that never came to my mind. Although I always wanted to visit these countries, I never dreamt of going to countries like Italy, Spain and Netherlands absolutely alone.

However, with my supposed return to India within a couple of months, I was left with no choice but to go for it. With a lot of self motivation, loads of encouragement from my true friends back home and some guidance from guys who had done this before, I decided to give it a shot. The next month was spent extensively on planning, booking and reading travel advisor sites. I would highly recommend visiting Tripadvisor to get started with traveller reviews of almost everywhere one can go. Its simply brilliant and of course free.

My journey started with going to the Glasgow Prestwick airport at 7.30 am in the morning for my 9.30 flight to Pisa in Italy. The hour long train journey was uneventful though I just wished I could sleep some more time. Anyway, with excitement building up I boarded the flight and witnessed some of the most beautiful scenes through my window. It was 3 hours till I reached Italy.

Stepping out of the flight, the first thing that hit me was the warmth in the air. It was the warmest day for me since a year. Everybody who alighted the flight was jumping with joy feeling the warmth in the air on that sunny Pisa afternoon. I had read many reviews about Pisa and about the things to do there. Everyone had a common opinion that it does not take more than two hours to see the main places in Pisa. I couldn't agree more. The main attraction of the small city is the Piazza Dei Miracoli where the famous leaning tower of Pisa stands....I mean leans !! Reaching the Piazza (Square - in Italian) is usually easy with Buses operating from the Pisa - Galileo Galilei International Airport to the place every hour. One can get more information at the information centre at the airport. I had to take a cab because of a Bus strike on the day. Getting along in Italy and communicating with locals was not as difficult as I had thought and I could reach from A to B with relative ease. Once in the campus, you can see how famous this place is with hundreds and maybe thousands of tourists from all around the world taking pictures of the beautiful structures. The tower actually leans quite a bit and is not just a subtle angle but quite an obvious one. Its weird and interesting.

However, after an hour or two, there is nothing much left to see. Its best to plan your journey so that you have just around 3 hours to spend in Pisa. I did. My next part of the journey was the mystical Rome and I had to catch my train from Pisa Centrale Stazioni to Roma Termini. Reaching the Pisa Centrale from the leaning tower is a pleasant 20 minute walk through the beautiful city streets and is definitely recommended.

On the station I met an elderly Pisa resident named Ivan who told me how much he loved India and we chatted about the various places in India that he had seen. After around 10 minutes of chat and the traditional 'Namaste', I went to my platform to board my train to Rome. As I waited for my train at the platform, I noticed a strange thing. I was sweating profusely in 22 degrees heat. Coming back home during summers would be an adventure in itself for me definitely :D. The train journey however, was highly refreshing and trust me this is one of the most beautiful train journeys you may have. Almost 70% of the entire railway is along the Italian coast and its fantastic.

On the next day, I woke up in the morning at my youth hostel called 'Pop Inn' at around 10 am and had a traditional Italian breakfast i.e. Coffee and Croissant. Although not very filling, it was a satisfying breakfast. Staying very near to the Roma Termini station saved me quite a lot of time and effort as that is the central hub of any kind of transport in Rome, be it Trains, Buses or Taxis. After meeting some friends at the termini station, we decided to go straight to the Vatican City. I got myself the public transport day pass worth 4€ that gave me an option to use whatever mode of transport for the entire day, totally covered. We got down at the Ottaviano St. Pietro metro station from where, it is a 10 minute walk to the hallowed gates of the Vatican. No matter how many times one sees the St. Peter's square on TV, its nowhere close to the real thing. The sight was amazing with all the huge pillars around the Basilica. After checking all the related places there, we decided to check out other historical places in Rome and trust me, you would think you have seen it all but you would still find something new, I mean old !!

After checking out the gigantic place, we decided to take a glimpse of the other famous Piazzas of Rome. We went to Castel Sant Angelo that is very near to the Vatican before walking to the famous Piazza Navona and took some rest in the fantastic church that had a beautifully painted ceiling. From there we visited the Fontana Di Trevi that has a legend of its own about throwing coins in the fountain pond.

All this walking across the city streets was a tiring proposition and so an authentic Italian Pizza was the next logical stop for us. Although not highly impressive, it was a good snack and we continued our exploits of the Roman architecture. We visited the famous Pantheon and admired its famous ceiling before taking rest at the Spanish Steps at the Piazza di Spagna. A hearty Indian dinner at my friend's home brought an end to a fantastic day for me.

No trip to Rome can be complete without seeing the Colosseum and that was my agenda for the next day. Once you step out of the Colosseo Metro station, there is nothing else that you would see except this enormous structure. The home of the Gladiatorial fights is ironically located at Templum Pacis i.e. the Temple of Peace and the metro station is bang in front of it. No matter how many times you see it, it doesn't fail to take your breath away. A trip inside the stadium would send you back by 12 € but is worth it. A huge number of paid tours are available if interested.

So after clicking around a hundred or more pictures, I decided to go home, take a power nap and head to the other equally famous place of Roman history. The St. Peter's Basilica from the inside. Being a Monday, there was no rush and I could easily get into the headquarters of Christianity. The place was so gigantic that my jaw dropped just seeing the main entrance of the Basilica. The colossal ceiling and pillars and paintings and sculptures were absolutely awe inspiring. Its best to keep 2-3 hours spare for this very place. Although photography is allowed, these are the places that are best captured by one's eyes and seeing them in person.

So that was the end of my Roman Holiday and it was time to move to another country, another city and another experience. My next stop was the little island called Ibiza off the Spanish coast in the Mediterranean Sea. Although my Google map below suggests a land route, I decided to fly ! Faster and cheaper :-)

Ibiza is known as the party capital of the world and I can now completely understand why. The place is practically built for holidays and merry making. Imagine Goa, replace the Arabian Sea with Mediterranean Sea, the subcontinent crowd with the wilder and crazier European crowd, sunset at 7 pm with sunset at 9 pm and 37 degrees with 23 degrees. That's Ibiza for you. Being there in summers will make you feel like a celebrity. The suave beach bars with pulsating hip hop beats, people walking on the streets in the best of their clothes ( or sometimes without them ;-) ), gentle cool breeze 24/7 and a freaking crazy party waiting for you, will make you say to yourself - 'I love my life' !! I am definitely not comparing Goa with Ibiza as they are both right up there. I just happen to know the actual difference now :-). For the party freaks, Ibiza is the home to the largest discotheque in the world. And the second largest and the third!!!

I stayed at a hotel Marco Polo that was located in the Sant Antoni town on the western side of the little island. The hotel was good with all the amenities one could ask for the price one had to pay. Also strategically placed, the hotel had good access to all the major attractions in the San An part of the little Island. At a 5 minute walking distance from the hotel, I saw the bay with hundreds of private yachts waiting for a sail. I decided to buy one for myself but I forgot my ATM card so I skipped the idea :P. The area around the hotel was pretty commercial with many little shops, restaurants and pubs scattered over a square kilometre where one could get lost for as long as one wanted. That's precisely what I did that evening.

The next day was spent chilling out on many of the amazing white sandy beaches with pristine blue water and some of the most gorgeous scenes that I had ever seen. The Mediterranean sea was probably bluer than any other water body. Maybe it was just my mood that caused me to believe this :-). I went to a nearby information centre where the lady told me about a Hippy market that opens only on Wednesdays and so I decided to go there. It was located in a small town on the east coast called Es Canar. Reaching there took me around an hour. Once I alighted the bus and walked fifty metres, I saw one of the best beaches and decided to take some pictures. The one above is from here. Hippy market was another ten minutes walk and was a pleasant surprise with a lot of cool things to see and buy. It reminded me of Goa once again. Later that day, I went to the south eastern part of the island, the Ibiza town or Eivissa as it is called by the locals. The beaches there were also as pretty as above, if not better. Overall, Ibiza was the most beautiful destination of my entire trip and I'm damn sure that I would go there once again !

My next stop was the second largest city in Spain, Barcelona, the capital of Catalunya. After a short flight from Ibiza, I landed at the big and swanky El Prat international Airport in Barcelona and I could sense a huge culture shift. Travelling in Europe by flights is a weird experience. One moment, you are speaking English with everyone and within an hour the people don't understand a word of it ! In Ibiza, all I could see was the colour blue and a super slow easy going life. Within an hour, I landed in a huge metro with tall skyscrapers and multi lane highways. The language changed from Spanish to Catalan. I anyway could not make the difference in this regard though :-)

For first timers, it is advisable to exactly know where you need to go once in Barcelona as it is quite a huge city with the population of 5 million. I made a mistake of getting down 1 stop early than my designated stop and had to walk for 45 minutes !!

 I had booked my youth hostel situated at one of the most famous streets in Barcelona, Rambla de Catalunya and you would validate that as soon as you reach there. The really long street is a walkers only area and packed with performers, painters, human statues, small shops, souvenir stores, florists, restaurants and bars all along. It seemed like the entire population was on a holiday. The street itself can keep you busy for half a day if not whole. Just parallel to the Rambla is the big Passeig de Gracia that is the home to Antoni Gaudi's world famous Casa Mila. An architect would probably find his entire world in this city. By evening, I had seen what I could in the only day that I had there and it was time to move on towards another potential culture shift. And that was one huge shift !

Amsterdam !! It is so easy to fall in love with this city. The Dutch capital that drives its name from the Dam on the Amstel river is probably the most tourist friendly city that I have ever come across. Compact and beautiful, the city is like no other city in the world. You can walk around the whole city without getting bored. There is always some activity going around and one can never expect to get bored there. A walk through the city centre would send you back in time. The typical Dutch buildings, more than a hundred kilometres of canals (more than Venice), and an unbelievable number of bicycles would make it hard for you to believe that this is the twenty first century. In the year 2005, 54 thousand bicycles were stolen in Amsterdam and that should give a better idea of the number of cycles in the city. According to the last bicycle census, there were five million of them !! The Dutch public has taken eco-friendliness to the next level with everyone commuting on bikes. I hardly saw a car or two during my 3 days in the magical city. Okay that is a bit exaggerated but I have a point there.

I stayed bang in the old city centre just near the Centraal Station. Now for the people who have been to Amsterdam would know that the area I was talking about houses the world famous / infamous Red Light District, however let me tell you here, the city was one of the safest places to stay at all times.  The Dutch people are known for their tolerance and it shows in their city. The legalization of soft drugs and prostitution has brought about a big drop in the crime rate of the city. The things that are considered illegal or wrong in most parts of the world are a thriving business here and no wonder the whole world wants to visit Amsterdam again and again. Now if someone asked me about my experience, he/she should expect a political 'What happens in Amsterdam, stays in Amsterdam' kind of an answer ;-)

Amsterdam is a city, one should visit if he wants to have fun and enjoy. There are some cities where carrying a camera is mandatory but not Amsterdam. Amsterdam is a city for having fun live! and there are so many options for doing just that. The fellow tourists that you would meet there would be the friendliest people you can meet. I recollect sitting alone in a pub for hardly five minutes when a bunch of Canadian guys came to me and asked me to join them for a crazy party. The other day, I hung out with 3 Irish tourists and partied real hard. That night was something I don't really remember but I will never forget !!!!!!!!

Its a city where it does not matter where you are from. Its a city where the only thing that matters is who you are. For the conservative, it may not be the best city to travel to and definitely not if you are struggling to teach your kid about traditions and culture. But if you have a wild side and wished you could enjoy yourself to the fullest with no restrictions, Amsterdam is the place to go !!

The week that I spent in Europe felt like an hour while I lasted but will stay with me for an eternity. Given a chance, I would do it again. 


Deja Vu said...

hmmm..sounds interesting.. you should write a travel book.. what i am interested in.. is how hard was it on the wallet.??? you missed out the most important detail.. :)

Nikhil Pandharipande said...

One travels more & notices many things when alone.. amazing work buddy !!is there anything left in the backpack?

Biju said...

Very well written Utkarsh. I liked the part when you said 'what happens in Amsterdam stays in amsterdam :-). So I don't have anymore questions on that front. I will make this sort of a trip in my lifetime for sure. The blog has only inspired me and hope you get another chance.

Mukul said...

So i am camping in amsterdam for sure. First step done.