Monday, 8 August 2011

Boulevard of Dreams - Travel Blog on our recent trip to Istanbul,Paris, Madrid and London

Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country- Anais Nin
Before memories of my great escape to an interesting vacation fade away, I decided on consecutive lazy Sundays to pen down  a few’ must visit’ places in the great cities that we traversed  recently , our interest primarily being soaking history, culture, tasting the local cuisine, watching a local performance or sport and travelling to a nearby interesting place and we had an open canvas to paint our trip with shades of interest….
This vacation marked our 12th Holiday in 5 years of living together, we both share the Bengali gene of irrepressible wanderlust … our lives revolve around work, like all working couples with a no kid yet…. we catch up over the weekend that too if my husband is not travelling on work ( which he does 15 days a month) we attempt to take 2 short and one long break every year to break the monotony of our mundane existence  ie work  12 hours , sleep 8 hours and try and catch up for 2 hours in a day( sometimes that’s rare as well)
As rightly quoted by an anonymous Traveller - Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world…..
We both enjoy an element of adventure in our trips , so our trips reflect our spirit of exploration which include driving to the  Himalayas from Delhi – Kalmatiya Sangam , Mashobra, Ananda  , Forest trails of Bandhavgarh , Periyar and Jim Corbett , temple trail at Khajuraho and exploring MP, coast shores of Kerala and  western Ghats, Dune bashing at Dubai, Snorkeling at Bentota, Sri Lanka…For this trip we decided to explore 4 great cities of the world -  Istanbul ( 2 and a half days) , Paris( 4 days) , Madrid ( 3 Days) and London( 2 Days) 
We didn’t opt for any package (thankfully) and decided to soak up the Lonely planet and frommers guide to chalk out a basic itinerary, London and Paris were visited by each of us but not together so we had to choose some interesting places missed by both or places we had decided to revisit with each other, Istanbul and Madrid were new places chosen both for their historic significance….
We chose the Accor group properties due to their size of representation in Europe ( a combination of Novotel and Ibis)  and within Europe travel through Easyjet were booked online( Im going to mention a para on the Easyjet experience somewhere in the fag end of the note as one really needs to be notified on their funny rules and regulations before embarking on these low cost high confusion flights…) , we used a reliable travel agent only for our VISA  and air ticket  coordination…

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware- Martin Buber
As we roved around the city before landing ,the unique styled mosques, domes, minarest,the palaces, the river , lush green patches, hills and the sea already made it seem like traveling back to a setting  in ‘Arabian Nights’ 
There are various swanky cab booths inside the airport but the economical option is to step out and take a yellow cab which worked out half the price ….Our Hotel , the Novotel (120 USD per night) was 15 minutes away from the airport and overlooked the ‘Sea of Marmara’, Swanky and spacious rooms….This hotel is on the European side of Istanbul and about 15 -20 mins by cab from most of the tourist destinations….so in the course of the next three magical days, let me give you a quick descriptor of the interesting places visited…
Let me skip the ‘Must visit’ tourist places such as the epic Blue Mosque , Aya Sofia , Topkapi Palace, Dolmabache Palace,  as you would read/ research about them before visiting these great palaces…
10 Top things to do at Istanbul:
·         Watch a ‘Sufi Music Concert ‘ of Dancing Dervishes , it’s called the Mevlevi Sema Ceremony , inspired by Rumi, the founder of Mevlevi Sufi order , the performance lends a spiritual effect with the dervishes ecstatic flight to the infinite and their twirling transcending towards  oneness with God…leaves you with goose pimples and very calming effect …Book the tickets at your hotel reception in advance….
·         Walk across the ‘Galata Bridge’ , upper deck at night , taste the local ice cream and have the grilled fish on the quay ,at night the view of  lit up domes &minarets, anglers on the bridge and hills lend a very magical feel to the place…
·         Have dinner at the Galata Tower,the walk to the tower is through a steep series and flight of stairs…. brilliant view of the city, the dinner costs  50 Euro per head, slightly steep, we were in a splurgy mood however there are various coffee shops beneath the tower which offer popular Turkish savories
·         Have Breakfast at Café Pierre Lote-The views of the Golden Horn from this hilltop make  the trip to Pierre Loti a great choice….have the apple tea and Turkish breakfast consisting of a variety of  olives , cheese and eggs of your choice….
·          Eyup Mosque: Take a walk through the picturesque cemetery adjacent to the café Pierre Loti; then wander down to Eyüp Mosque , Sultan Eyup was a close companion of Prophet Mohammed and in the 7th century this was one of the holiest sites of Turkey, we were lucky, we
visited the mosque on Sunday and saw boys in fancy costumes with their families for their circumcision ceremony
·         St. Savior in Chora- some of the finest late-Byzantine mosaics , 10 mins from the Eyup Mosque, the confluence of Christianity and Islam is unique at Istanbul…

·         The Basilica Cistern near the Aya Sofia is an underground Palace - it’s a unique underground palace, seems like it was discovered through the process of an archaeological dig,  the cistern contains various marble columns arranged in symmetrical rows with interesting lighting which transforms you to the Roman- Greco era, most intrigued by the path which leads to the inverted Medusa heads, the place has a mystique appeal to it ..….
·         Ortaköy The modern and trendy seaside village is Istanbul’s uptown location. cobbled alleys converges on a picturesque waterside quay, where you’ll find restaurants/ cafes and flea market, the stuffed jacket potatoes is a unique dish available in all the cafes at Ortakoy , a good selection of Hats , wigs and some good boutiques
·         Walk along Ortakoy to Bebec, the lush green low hills on one side, the river on the other, anglers of all social strata across the river side, cafes, interesting looking Pubs and  magnificent views of Palaces and domes across the river …..on a beautiful Sunday the walk for 45-50 minutes felt like a breeze… Angling is a national Past time and the river side was swarmed with people of all social strate, age,
I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.

Things to be careful at Istanbul:
Cabs are cheap however be careful while paying, on our way back to airport we got hoodwinked by a cab driver by paying him 100 Turkish Lira and he swapped it in a split second saying that  we had offered him 20 Turkish Lira….we tried to reason but was of no use….be alert and careful. Period
Cabs taken from the Hotel are more reliable.

Paris – Truly the city of Love, Music, Avante grade Art, Innumerable Cafes, History, wine ……..
The true traveler is he who goes on foot, and even then, he sits down a lot of the time- Colette, Paris From My Window, 1944
Our plan for Paris was not to run around the city with a ‘To do list of travel sights’ as we had both been to this city (separately) ….we were spending three days in Paris and one day at Reims and Champagne, we stayed at the Hotel Ibis( 80 USD per night )  at Place de Clichy, Montemarte..
Interesting background to why we chose this area to stay at Paris, it’s a mix of Tradition, housing the White Basilica de Sacre coer and the night life district, the famous ‘Moulin rouge ‘  was 5 mins from our hotel …
The place was also inhabited by famous artists like Van Gogh; Pablo Picasso…Is the setting of  many famous films including’ Amelie’ &’ La vien en rose’ , the famous cemetery is the resting place for many famous painters and authors who lived at Monetmarte including Alexandre Dumas…basically it appeared as an art village above the city …..
I’m again skipping details of the famous tourist sites such as Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Cabaret show which first time visitors ‘must visit’ and therefore penning the interesting offbeat experiences…
What we explored at Paris:
·         The 15 min walk from Hotel Ibis at Place de Clichy to Sacre Coer is interesting, walk uphill through cobbled streets gives it an old world feel, there are interesting array of art shops and portrait artists and cafes along the street, once you reach the Cathedral, the grand structure at the highest point of Paris is breathtaking and the most magnificent panoramic `views of the city
·         Visit Champs Elyse at Midnight , its ‘Alive’ , throbbing pulse of the city , a shopper’s paradise , up market , we had a great time selecting and buying world music from the 3 storied  Mega Virgin store …if you are a photographer , set your camera on the tripod near Arc de Triumph it’s a great vantage point and you can get some excellent night vision shots…also you can catch a late night French movie at one of the theatres , we saw ‘Midnight at Paris’ and enjoyed it…
·         Being avid readers and grown up reading the great works of Victor Hugo’s-  ‘les Miserables’ , & Alexander Duma’s -‘ Three Musketerers’ and ‘Count of Monte Christo’, we made an impromptu plan to pay tribute to these authors by seeing their names as metro stations …..we visited Maison de Victor Hugo (it’s a museum now),there is a metro station by the name of Victor Hugo  operated by the City of Paris  and  also visited Château de Monte-Cristo , fanciful country retreat in the hills of Le Port-Marly, some 12 miles west of Pari/ 25 minutes away from the city… the palace reflects the vivid imagination Dumas employed on the pages of the best-selling novels, beautiful grounds, this has been restored by the Moorish King.  take a charming bus ride from La Défense to St-Germain-en Laye..
·         We were both keen to do the art and sculpture trail and amongst the choice of innumerable famous museums , zeroed in on viewing the famous Impressionist paintings at Musee de Orsay, we were lucky to view a rare exhibition of Manet , father of Modern art and a detailed collection of Picasso , marble master pieces at Musee Rodin, Take a picture with the thinking man J
·         Stroll along the river Siene, read a book and laze around… …,we took the bridge across Musee de Orsay and lazed at the river side , packed croissants and baguettes and juice and spend one afternoon completing a romantic novel, blissJ
·         Taste exquisite Parisian pastries or a simple plain au chocolate at Fauchon , near the Pantheon and L ‘opera  , I loved the pinkness & the chic atmosphere of the place also explore French cuisine at local cafes , for dinner be careful while choosing the cafes as some of them only serve salad and wines for dinner( reason behind French fitness) so we had to find Italian joint a few nights…
Out of the Ordinary :
·         We had decided to take an excursion to an interesting destination within 150-200 kms away from Paris, there was choice between Normandy  and Champagne Region , so a sparring session between a history & world war buff and a wine freak continued and the wine freak ie me convinced the other to take this trip …Its an awesome excursion , kudos to Trong Nguyen , our wonderful Vietnamese French Guide, He conducts these personalized tours which include pick up from your Hotel at 7am and drop by 7pm , Croissant and Juice Breakfast on the Journey with a nonstop detailed elucidation of the History of Paris , explanation on economic, cultural, demographic and social canvass of the Champagne region, picturesque 2 hour journey leads to the mini slopes of vineyards including Moet and Chandon and an explanation on the perfect mix of the primary grapes used in the production of Champagne - Pinot noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier ..the day long trip includes a trip to a local Champagne maker, visit to the famous Reims Cathedral where all famous French Kings were christened, a 5 course French lunch and a visit to the famous Tattinger Caves that houses 5 million bottles of champagne at 10 degree Celsius and almost 8-10 glasses of Champagne… you come back to Paris with an intoxicated mind…..

Visit : for booking this interesting  excursion

·         On our last day of staying at Paris, I convinced Sourav to do the Movie’ Before Sunset’ trail…it’s my all time favorite romantic film and I’ve seen it at least 10 times….the movie is a sequel to ‘before sunrise’ .. has an interesting format, it has only 2 characters – Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphi reliving their hiatus of 9 years and catching up old times and a whirlwind romantic night spend by both at Vienna in the prequel… the couple are followed around the streets by a documentary crew,the city Paris plays a dominant third character to the film….amongst the various places shot in the movie and my research on Google, I zeroed in on three key locations which seemed every interesting - Shakespeare and Company, 37 rue de la Bucherie ; Promenade Plantée, atop the old Viaduc des Arts in the 12th arrondissement; street behind Notre Dame at Quai de la Tournelle…Im not going to explain the relevance of these places, this is strictly for ‘before sunset die hard fans’ who would appreciate this bizarre plan of mineJ

Quick Tips:
·         Get a Museum Pass when you land at Charles de Galle Airport, we got a 3 day pass and it helped us skip many winding queues especially at the Louvre
·         You do pay more to drink or eat in major touristy areas rather than going off to the branching streets.
·         Metro is the best mode of transport to zip across the city
·         For Local guide books and show/theatre performance booking visit the kiosks on L’opera
                Happiness is a direction, not a place-Sydney J Harris

Quick Tips while travelling Low Cost High Confusion Easy jet within Europe:
1)       Carry only one set of luggage person, we were carrying two per head and had to repack at the airport , much to our dismay we were still left with one and a half extra bags and had to pay 35 Euro per luggage for booking , the cost of an additional ticket
2)       To avoid serpentine queues on the low cost flight opt for Speedy Boarding, it costs 25 Euro but is totally worth it, you skip the queue and get your boarding pass and also have the first preference to board the aircraft
3)       Expect the unexpected while travelling low cost, we had to wait for almost 2 hours in the flight from Madrid to London due to  mismatch in luggage loading by the airlineL
4)       Book in advance , travelling by Bus/ trains are better option within Europe

I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad- George Bernard Shaw

The above line encapsulates the essence of our trip to Spain, for a change we were glad we didn’t know the local language, we had such an interesting time trying to converse with Café waiters, shop keepers, metro officials…..we managed by knowing precisely 4 key words - ‘Ola’ ,’ quotas pesos por favor ‘.’ muchos gracias’,  ‘adios’ ….the local people only speak Spanish.. and the word ‘Por favor’ is used after every sentence which we gathered meant, ‘please ‘J
The reason for choosing Madrid was after seeing a very lively episode on ‘lonely planet’ on discovery channel whilst we were planning our trip…..
The first few hours spent at Madrid and I had already started comparing some facets of spanish people to Indians , Friendly and helpful , Loud and talkative  ,  colorful and a kind of don’t care clothing ( quite contrary to Paris) and bright sunshine in the topography was welcomed after a rather cold few days at Paris….
 We stayed at Hotel Ibis, Suanzes , close to the airport @ 60 Euro per night , though Madrid has an excellent metro network and our hotel was quite close to one, it is preferable to stay in the heart of the city , this place was a little deserted at night and seemed like the office district area…

·         We both are huge ‘ZARA’ fans, our first pit stop at Madrid was to visit La Gran Via , apparently compared to the Piccadilly circus of London or Big Apple of New York , the avenue is a kilometer and half long and house theatres, large clothing brands,we shopped to our hearts content at ZARA Headquarters
·         El Rastro  - we were lucky to be at Madrid on a Sunday. Rastro is the most popular Flea market , it’s made up of hundreds of temporary stalls with some very interesting range of items ranging from trinkets to furniture, apparently the flea market dates back to the 16th century and is open from 8 am to 3 pm on Sundays …we had an interesting time walking around the maze of stalls and trying to bargain in sign languageJ
·         Plaza Mayor –This is a magnificent square surrounded by archways and Red buildings , it’s a great place to buy good artistic impressions/ adaptations , souveniours for friends and family and also we had the best round of TAPAS at one of the local restaurants.
·         Madrid can be quite hot , temperature upto 35 degree at day time, whilst moving across the city , it’s a good idea to take a break in the afternoon at Retiro Park , its like an oasis amidst the historical landscape , The park houses a lake, magnificent fountains, two mini palaces, ….there are two distinct sides to the park , a noisy entrance with magic and puppet shows, tarot card reading …and the other could be walking along the green patches to discover interesting corners like the rose garden or the glass house or laying a mat and start day dreaming underneath a tree….we preferred the latter..

·         Royal Palaise –The location is idyllic, imagine a Palace which resembles the Versailles from the exterior, a large neo classical opera house on the opposite site and gardens on the other two sides. The Palace is lavishly decorated with paintings of Goya , beautiful glasswork and tapestries
·         Reina Sofia Museum : We were keen to visit the two most famous museums of Madrid ,  Paseo del Prado and   Reina Sofia Museum, unfortunately we were a little slack on our research and on a Monday morning laded before Paseo del Prado to discover that its shut on Monday therefore we headed to Reina Sofia - The museum is mainly dedicated to Spanish art. Highlights of the museum include excellent collections of Spain's two greatest 20th century masters, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí,  two non ‘arty’ people suddenly got transformed into a world of creative imagination, the layout of the museum is intriguing and , documentaries playing in dark rooms , theme rooms of artists , Loved the Roberto Jacoby ethos…we spent 4 hours and still had not seen 25% of the museum……

·         Out of the ordinary :

·         Day trip to Segovia – Take the High speed train reinfi from Charmartin , Madrid, takes 30 minutes  and only 10 Euro per head to transport you into a completely different landscape with mountains, large fields, forests…a spectacular roman town and UNESCO world heritage sight …take the bus from the metro station to the town of Segovia, it takes 15 minutes.

o    Aqueduct: This mega stricture had an hypnotic effect on me, I think if I undergo a session of past life regression, I would have been one of the Roman architects who was a part of this Project , we walked almost 4-5 kms along the aqueduct with childlike curiosity to see where it end but later found out from locals that the aqueduct transports waters from Fuente Fría river, situated in the nearby mountains, some 17 km  from the city…..
o    Alcazar Castle : This palace is straight out of a fairy tale setting , apparently the Walt Disney castle logo is inspired by this structure, the views from the castle is breathtaking – Hills , river and Forests , the castle rooms have beautiful stained glass paintings and the manicured garden is picture perfect
o    Walk around Segovia seemed like a treasure hunt, there are monuments ,  cathedral , traditional tavern , museums in every nook and corner , we walked around the town in two-three hours and had covered seeing 70% of the place…
·         Guy Things to do :

·         Watch the Bull fight at Plaza Torres: Steeped in tradition, The bull fight takes you back to ‘Gladiator’ era with the Man Vs. animal duel , choose the shade seats as the programme usually takes place in the afternoon and the sun can be rather cruel, I wonder how PETA has not banned this sport, I was quite horrified to see 4 bulls gets slain by matadors one after the other …...Sourav on the other hand was thoroughly enjoying the art of killing the bull by the matadors…he got some lovely shots of the entire drama unfolding…
·         Santiago Bernebeu: The gleeful look on Sourav’s face  convinced me to undertake circumambulation around the stadium in the scorching heat followed by  overdose of shopping at the Real Madrid Adidias store , I enjoyed the coffee at the Real Café …Im sure if Sourav had written about this place he would have filled a page on it..


To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted - Bill Bryson
We could not do justice to this great city as avid travelers as we hurriedly spent only a day and half at london, the half day in transit between Istanbul and Paris and one full day on our homeward journey from Madrid to New Delhi.
Thanks to my friend Sagorika and Amit, we had a comfortable stay at their place
What we managed to see in one and a half days:
·         Visit the tower of London to see the national jewels – Intrigued by the Kohinoor diamond, this was a must see and well worth the 1 km serpentine line to the house of jewels….
·         British Museum – To do justice to this mecca of history , you need to spend 7- 10 days, what we managed in half day was the Egyptian and the Roman section and a great exhibition on Afghanistan.
·         Hyde park / St James Park – we had a short excursion with packed lunch at St.James park right in front of Buckingham Palace with a Pelican for company…..
·         London by night  - Our friends took us around the Shakespear theatre, Tate , London eye, Big Ben area crossing different bridges on the Thames, Sourav got some lovely night vision shots
·         Trafalgar square and the theatre district – we saw the ‘Pygmallion’ starring Rupert Everet, I was in love with him after seeing ‘My Best friends wedding’ and the star did have the same charm and effect on me after almost 15 years….
Well, a 1000 words to describe each of these great cities is difficult but I’m glad I attempted to capture the essence of one of our most interesting and memorable trip, hope this is useful for travelers hard pressed for time…Till my next trip update, Adios/ Adieu / Allahaısmarladık
Don't tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you traveled- Mohammed