Thursday, October 20, 2005

Back in Brussels

I came back to Brussels on 3rd October and it’s been lazy and pleasant since then. Have been occupied with the following:
Classes (please note that it isn’t in order of priority)
Arranging for and getting my Eurail pass
Planning my next trip to Scandinavia and putting aside dates for other countries
Reading Vanity Fair, playing poker, sleeping, eating, shopping

On a day when Ravi and I had nothing to do, we went to the Atomium. Now this is a totally useless structure and neither the Belgian authorities nor the tourists know what to make of it – so the authorities let it be anyway and the tourists visit it anyway. I’ve also discovered a way of getting free chocolates – I wandered into the chocolatiers in the lanes behind the Grand Palace – they gave me free samples thinking I was a potential customer.
Advice: This gives maximum satisfaction when you visit many shops in a row.

I also got lost a lot by generally wandering around the city. I got lost and accidentally landed up in front of the European parliament. I loved the environment – a dream place for me to work in. I walked around the Parliament and unknowingly entered a museum; luckily, entrance was free or I would have been in big trouble. And one fine day in a bus, a police officer hit on me!!! I also had amazing fun at the Erasmus party last week. Let me also shock my reader by informing them that there was a general strike last Friday in Brussels – it was a surprise and quite unexpected for us that there should be a strike in any country other than India but apparently, its quite common in Belgium.

We also invited a Spanish friend over for dinner one day and the next day 5 of our friends, exchange students from different countries. We think they enjoyed the food, though they found it extremely spicy. We all had a very good time together, though I think we went overboard, giving them classes about India. Well, I shall end here and add updates of my Scandinavia trip of the last week soon.

Hansel and Gretel

Now I know how poor Gretel felt in the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, for that is what happened to us today – we got lost. We were driving down to the town of Maatricht, to the south of Holland. We reached the town easily enough. It’s a very nice little place and very European – with many cobbled pavements, little bars and cafes with chairs on the pavement, a river running right through the city and many other such typical European features. To add to the authenticity, Maastricht is a contender for the title of being Holland’s oldest city.

We walked around the town centre and discovered that there was a shopping festival going on then. This put Navya and me into a state of great excitement but since it encited exactly the opposite reaction from Mihir, our next step was the Maastricht fort. What would have taken less than 30 mins took us a little less than 2 hour because, surprisingly, there were absolutely no directions to the fort and the route was so convoluted that the more than dozen people we asked inevitably got confused and mixed up their directions.

In fact, we took so many wrong turns and turned back and drove around in circles to such a great extent that I saw Mihir angry for the first time ever. To make things worse, by the time we actually reached the fort, it was closed. We then set out for the little German town of Aachen. We first took the wrong lane and after going quite a distance, had to turn back. We then missed a lane and had to go around in circles for a while. While I can understand how frustrating and annoying it must have been for Mihir, who was driving, the positive outcome was that we ended up driving a lot through the actual towns and villages instead of just the highways.

By the time we reached Aachen, its famous cathedral was closed. There was an opera about to start but it was too long and expensive for our taste. So we wandered around the little town. We seemed to run into an extraordinarily large number of mad men. We also encountered an equally extraordinary number of strange statues, none of which we could decipher. We finally wandered into a little chapel where a service was being conducted, completely in German – after a while, the entire congregation sang in German – it was so beautiful and so lovely – I think its an experience I’ll always remember.

We had dinner at a tiny pizzeria and when we walked back to the parking lot, were quite taken aback to see that the entrance was locked. While we debated over whether to spend the night at a youth hostel or by one of the many statues or a pub (Mihir’s suggestion, of course), we luckily discovered another gate to the parking lot.

We had an eventful drive back home – we were stopped by the police!! Since I checked lights, seatbelts, doors, windows, speed limits etc I knew we were in the right and it must have been some minor mistake – so I was more worried about the fine we had to pay than any other consequence. It turned out or lights were too bright – the police showed us how to dim them and let us off without any fine.

Just an observation: In keeping with their so called tradition of being very ‘open’, the Dutch have large windows and seldom close their curtains so all and sundry can know what’s going on inside the house. It also rains everyday in Holland though the outcome is some wonderful rainbows.

The North of Netherlands

We rented a car for the weekend and then drove down to a place called Den Helder, in the north of Holland. But first about the ride – the Dutch countryside is very picturesque with wide green expanses, many canals and windmills but NO tulips!! Unfortunately, this wasn’t the season for the famed tulips. I also saw the most picture perfect rainbow ever on this ride – straight out of a children’s story book. Incidentally, I saw a rainbow almost every single day of my stay in Holland.

One will see a lot of the famed windmills dotting the landscapes. Many of them are the modern windmills – extremely tall and thin and made of steel or concrete. The traditional Dutch windmills are far prettier and ore enchanting – they are stout and short very Dutch (but of course!!)

Well, we parked the car at Den Helder and then took a ferry to the island of Texel, to the north of Holland. It was a short ferry ride and we crossed the North Sea to reach the lush island. Now Texel is a small, highly vegetated (if there is such a word) island and is like a sober seaside resort in which mostly old couples settle down after they retire. It’s so small that there is only one bus line and it covers the entire island in about 30 minutes. It is not surprising that there isn’t much to do there, especially on a wekkend.We just walked to the beach. Much to my surprise, it wasn’t as clean as I expected it to be. This may be because the sand was very porous and resulted in the waves leaving behind large amounts of foam that took ages to get absorbed into the sand. None of us had seen anything so weird before. Since it was raining as usual and very cold by the beach, we had coffee at a cosy little restaurant by the sea and that warmed us up enough for us to walk around the town centre for a little while before catching the last ferry backto Den Helder and then driving back to Rotterdam, where I saw a nice movie called ‘A Thousand Acres’ before dozing off.

Holland Ahoy!!!

After three hectic days, I took a much needed break in sweet and simple old Brussels – for one day, before I set off for the Netherlands. Getting there took me less than two hours and an adventure. I had some work at Brussels Nord station so I set off quite early. First, I got off a few stops too early and had to take another bus. Well, I couldn’t get the work done and then took the wrong bus to the station. On top off it, I got off a few stops later than I should have and then walked in the wrong direction towards the station before finally turning around and reaching Brussels North station.

Unsurprisingly, the train left just 5 mins before I reached the station and I had to wait an hour for the next train. So when I finally and successfully reached my friends place in Rotterdam, I began to feel like I had accomplished something really big. My friends have a very comfortable, well-furnished and cosy apartment…..sigh!!!

Rotterdam had been completely bombed by the Germans during WWII and the gutsy Dutch built it back to make it look much modern and sophisticated. It is architecturally a very elegant city and is home to Europe’s first skyscraper. So we walked around the city and then took an hour long ferry along the Rotterdam Port. Apart from being a pleasant and enjoyable ride, we also learnt a lot about the port – it is the world’s second largest port and the first fully automated one and other such information which I am sure you guys aren’t interested in knowing.

We then went to the Centrum, which is, obviously, the central area of the city and had dinner there. We then went to the Euromast tower, which is supposedly one of Europe’s tallest buildings. The view from there is really beautiful but since it was very windy and raining I was more concerned about keeping warm. However, while walking down the stairs, I slipped and fell so that for the rest of my stay in the Netherlands, I was bound to wince everytime I sat down.

The next day was a lazy day. My friends had class so I accompanied them to college and sat in the library and surfed the internet. I got to chat with a lot of people I hadn’t been in touch with for a long time so I felt very good. We then went grocery shopping and by then it had started raining so heavily that we just came back home. We watched a Demi Moore-Bruce Willis thriller and a couple of travel shows on TV (yes, they even have English channels on their TV) and then I curled up in bed with a hilarious book called the ‘Undutchables’, which is an exaggerated caricature of Dutch living, attitudes and lifestyle.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

An Evening in Paris

We walked around the fashion street of Paris. The streets were filled with expensive stores – think of a designer and you would probably see that store on that street. Our heads reeled at the prices so we sensibly stopped looking at the prices and then started admiring the clothes, watches, shoes, accessories and whatnot with greater peace of mind. We even went to the Gallerie la Fayette, which is THE shopping mall in Paris though we didn’t do much except look around after going there.

We went to the National Opera, and stood in line for some cheap last minute tickets. Unfortunately, they were sold out just two places ahead of us. Though the guys running the show must have been relieved about that because we were the only ones in jeans and sneakers – the rest of the crowd was dressed in suits, skirts and fine dresses and adorned with gold watches and jewelry.

We then walked along the Champs Elysees, which, for a reason I still cannot comprehend, is the city’s most famous street. Apart from high pseud factor, there doesn’t seem anything to distinguish that street from others. The street leads to the Arc d Triomphe, which is a larger, grander version of the India Gate and serves the same purpose. It is an impressive building and we climbed up the close to 300 stairs to view how it felt to be in the centre of the world’s largest traffic roundabout – but after the view from the Eiffel Tower, every other view of a city by the night has been ruined.

One can imagine that our feet were swollen and our bodies dead by the time we got back to the youth hostel. Yet, we got up early the next morning and set off for the cheap shopping district. The first shop we went to had some very cheap and fashionable stuff – all of which were ‘Made in Bangaldesh’. After some more searching, we came across some reasonably priced stroes whose products were not made in Asia and I went on a spree till I started converting my purchases into Indian rupees.

We finally set back for the airport where our rented car was waiting for us. However, our pleasure at the thought of having mastered the Paris public transport system was ruined when we boarded the wrong train and had to get down, retrace our route to some distance and catch another train. Trust me, the system is quite complicated and just when you think you’ve got the hang of it, something like this happens. We did reach the airport, an hour late, and set out for Brussels, and after some amazing driving in heavy traffic and rain, we reached Brussels, returned the car and I went home and slept like a baby.

A couple of observations about the city:
Atleast half of the city’s population must be non-Caucasian.
All the buildings have that old European look, including the ones that have been built recently. You will hardly find any ugly glass and chrome structures. That’s what makes the city so beautiful
The Eiffel Tower is an extremely ugly structure which mars the city’s landscape by the day. At night, it is at the centre of the magic that is Paris.

All in all, I thought Paris was a crazy, chaotic, amazing, magnificent, charming and magical city. I loved it!!!

The Louvre and more

Our second day in Paris was quite a hectic day. We started off the day with a visit to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It is the largest and most magnificent church I have been to in my life. However, a warning to tourists: Don’t bother to visit the treasury there, it is quite useless.

The Church was by the Seine so we bought tickets for a cruise on the Seine where we could get off at every tourist stop, visit the place and get back on to the next tourist spot again. We got off at the Jardin de Plantes and then discovered, much to our disappointment, that it was a zoo. We then got back onto the boat and got a view of the Royal Palace and the Hotel de Ville before finally getting off at the Louvre. Now imagine about 20-30 buildings, each the size of the Salarjung Museum, all interconnected to form a large rectangle – that is the largeness of the Louvre.

We didn’t have much time at the Louvre because it was closing much earlier than expected. And I decided I would rather spend my time going over a few sections of the museum thoroughly than running all over the place. My first stop was at the Mona Lisa (of course!!). I have ever understood why it is so famous and I still don’t. I haven’t found it mystical or enchanting in the least – for me, its just a nice painting, but then I’m not your average art critic!!!

I went through the section of Italian paintings and enjoyed them very much. I especially found the paintings of Paris Bordon very interesting. Now I know what it actually means when a painting is termed ‘erotic’. Some of the other paintings were also quite impressive. I then checked out the crown jewels of the royals in France and surrounding countries. The room in which they were kept was much more awe-inspiring, with the entire ceiling and walls painted or sculpted.

However, what I liked most at the Louvre were the Napolean apartments. For those of you who have visited the Gwalior palace, the apartments are the same concept, but on a much much grander scale. All the visitors to this section were gasping audibly as we entered from one room to another. To everyone who makes a visit to the Louvrre: don’t miss this!!! I then saw other objects of art and sculptures etc but didn’t know what to make out of them so the less said about them, the better.