On a boat in Amsterdam

A boat ride through the canals in Amsterdam should be on the itinerary of every visitor. You could rent a pedal-boat or take a tour in a covered tourist boat, but an open motorboat is highly recommended. On the streets by the canals, life marches on at its usual pace. From a boat in the canal, it seems to slow down. The views seem more panoramic, the bikes locked to the railings of the bridges overhead more picturesque. It’s as if the city is letting you in on its grand scheme – one that isn’t revealed to cyclists or pedestrians.

Eiffel Tower collage

Last weekend was the first time we were visiting Paris in winter. Since winters in this part of Europe have been relatively mild, we could walk around comfortably till late. Encouraged by fewer than usual tourists everywhere we went, we decided to give climbing the Eiffel Tower another shot. On our past visits to Paris we had been deterred by long queues at the ticket counter. This time there was no queue. The top of the tower was shrouded in clouds and looked quite surreal. It was as if the top half was never finished. When I craned my neck from the second floor viewing deck to look up at the tower, I was reminded of the postcards you find in the souvenir shops in Paris that show the tower in various stages of its construction. They were also an inspiration for this collage:

Engelberg, Switzerland (Aug 2012)

When your upbringing includes a steady dose of Bollywood, especially the Yash Raj films kind, you associate Switzerland not with cheese and chocolate but with snow covered mountains, rolling hills, verdant valleys and pristine lakes. The dark air-conditioned movie theatre and that imagery on the big screen help you escape the hot, dusty reality of life in a big city in India. Living in Europe means that the imagery doesn’t hold as much sway as it one did, but that doesn’t mean that either the wife or me were going to pass an opportunity to vacation in Switzerland.

We realised, merely two days into our trip, that August isn’t the best time to visit Switzerland. The days were hot. Temperatures routinely crossed 30ºC, which the hotel rooms with their propensity to hold on to warmth made utterly unbearable. With our unlimited access Swiss Rail Pass (wisest purchase ever) we travelled an awful lot in the wonderful, air-conditioned Swiss trains – mostly to escape the heat than to get anywhere particular. The snow-capped mountains in the distance, mocked more than they reassured.

Given this backdrop, we were naturally excited to visit Mt. Titlis in Engelberg. The early morning train ride from Lucerne to Engelberg was quite picturesque. A short bus ride from the Engelberg station got us to the Titlis cable car.

After doing the usual touristy things near the summit of Mt. Titlis – like riding in an open ski lift, tobogganing down the snow, avoiding being clicked with a life-sized cutout of Kajol and Sharukh Khan – we headed back down. Instead of going all the way to the base station in the cable car, we decided to cover the rest of the way on foot. We knew the route was going to be very scenic and since a friend of the wife had done it recently with her husband and their 3 year-old in tow, we figured it couldn’t be all that hard. Sure, I was nursing a wound in my knee from a recent fall from the bicycle, and the wife had been told to rest her left foot but we weren’t going to let such trivial matters come between Mother Nature and us.

If the Gods in Roman mythology were real, at this juncture in our journey you would see Fortuna pointing at us from a window in her abode in heaven and cackle with laughter at our naiveté.

For a long time the breathtaking views of the mountains shrouded in low clouds kept us going. The green valleys echoed with the chiming of the cowbells.

We probably were so busy soaking it all in that we took a wrong turn or two and after two hours of walking began to wonder if we were on the right track at all. We came across road signs every now and then, but instead of mentioning distance to Engelberg, they would mention the minutes it would take to get there. After following a couple of those signs, it became very evident to us that the times were not only loosely indicative, but also meant for people much fitter than us. Several times it occurred to us to turn back but we kept pressing on. The skies were overcast and we were beginning to get worried about being caught in the rain. The wife, being the more paranoid of us set a brisk pace and I limped meters behind her not wanting to miss any opportunity to take pictures.

We ran into people who were clearly more adept at going downhill on rocky paths than us. They’d come bolting down, and lose us behind before we’d say hello. After another hour or so we reached a small restaurant where we caught our breath and treated ourselves to ice-cream. There was a well-paved winding road outside the restaurant that seemed to be leading directly to the Engelberg station so we started walking along it. Several people whooshed passed us on their trotti bikes (basically a Razor scooter with bicycle wheels) making us miss our bicycles sorely. Overhead, in the distance, we could see the cable cars gliding down effortlessly, making us question our choice to walk.

The road eventually led us onto another very ragged, rocky, downhill path. This time we came across many small groups of tourists attempting the same little trek, which was comforting. We were quite relieved to finally reach the cable car station where the bus had dropped us in the morning.

Despite this little adventure, I wish we had stayed somewhere in Engelberg and explored the area a bit more. I hope, one day this post will guide the travel plans of future us.

Keukenhof 2013

Our first visit to Keukenhof was within a day of moving to Amsterdam. We spent all of our time walking in the gardens and wistfully looked at people cycling by a field of tulips outside. I didn’t know cycling back then and the wife wasn’t sure how badly her cycling ability was atrophied after years of disuse. Come 2013, and we not only gave the garden a miss, we queued patiently outside the temporary bicycle rental shop for 40 minutes to get our bicycles.

Spring has been extremely late this year and although Keukonhof opened its doors to tourists in March as usual, there wasn’t much to see till late April. However, by May, things were back on track and we got our fill of fields of tulips stretching for miles and miles:

Although tulips dominate the fields around Keukehof, you do come across other varieties of flowers:

I remember this field not only because of a strong, pleasant smell that the breeze carried to us but also because of the houses that looked perfectly colour coordinated with the flowers.

It was an extremely windy day and cycling occasionally took some effort despite the well-maintained, dedicated biking lanes. We kept stopping for breaks in these fields and kept forgetting our fatigue.

Although you see millions of tulips around you, you’d be hard pressed to find a shop selling a bouquet for your home. You do come across these small, unmanned stalls that work on honour system. The hand-written signs tell you how much you should pay for each bouquet. You take the bouquet and leave the correct amount in a box near by.

The park closes at 6:00 PM and the bicycle rental an hour after that. With the evening getting colder and wind fiercer, we reluctantly turned back to return but took our own sweet time, stopping several times along the way:

Kenukenhof has now become an annual spring ritual of sorts for us, the sort that your year feels incomplete without.