Europe: Bouquets of Flowers on a Bed of Thorns- I
The second fortnight of May when the Sun is at its hottest best, we decided to channelize some hard-earned money for a family Europe tour. We opted for the 12 nights and 13 days tour starting Italy and ending in Paris through Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands, and Belgium.
The tour has a hectic pace, a first to us. It does not gel with the idea of sitting at the fireplace sipping hot chocolate or the finest wine looking at the Alpine mountains with your feet up on a chair. The tour managers will pull you out of the bed; drag you by the hair to the breakfast; watch silently and coldly at the watch and then you at the table till you get up in fright; strictly time the visiting points; push you for an early dinner; throw you in the bed for an early sleep; and then give a morning call at a sadistically early hour. The pace is phenomenal and one cannot really blame the tour managers- sometimes screaming, sometimes glaring, sometimes gentle, sometimes cold, and sometimes friendly- in the insistence on time management. Managing 38 Indian adults, each one with his/her own aura of importance and an own sense of time is an unenviable job.
We started in Rome, first visiting the Vatican City, followed by the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The bus tour took us over the next 12 days or so across Western Europe. The towns, sights, and countries flowed past: Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands, Brussels, and finally France.
Vatican City is an independent city-state within Rome, Italy. With an area of 110 acres, and a population of about 1,000, it is the smallest sovereign state in the world by both area and population. The Pope, who is the bishop of Rome and head of the Roman Catholic Church, rules the Vatican City. The independent Vatican City-state came into existence on 11 February 1929 by the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and Italy.
Within the Vatican City are religious and cultural sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museums. Sale of postage stamps and souvenirs, fees for admission to museums, and sales of publications supports financially the unique economy of Vatican City. We could see only St. Peter’s Basilica.
St. Peter’s Basilica is the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture and the largest church in the world. While it is neither the mother church of the Catholics nor the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome, St. Peter’s is one of the holiest Catholic shrines. Catholic tradition holds that the basilica is the burial site of Saint Peter, chief among Jesus’s apostles and the first Bishop of Rome.
St. Peter’s is famous as a place of pilgrimage. The Pope presides at several liturgies throughout the year, drawing audiences of 15,000 to over 80,000 people, either within the basilica or the adjoining St. Peter’s Square. As a work of architecture, it was arguably the greatest building of its age. Inside the church, most tourists draw a gasp as an OMG (Oh My God– for the primitives) moment. It is an experience beyond compare.
We drove through the roads of a very busy Rome and saw only one place, the Colosseum, before proceeding to Florence to see the tower of Pisa.
We drove through the roads of a very busy Rome and saw only one place, the Colosseum, before proceeding to Florence to see the tower of Pisa.
The Colosseum is an oval amphitheatre in the centre of the city of Rome. It is the largest amphitheatre ever built, a project of the Flavian dynasty, from AD 72 to AD 80. The Colosseum could hold between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators. Gladiatorial contests, dramas, and public spectacles happened there. The Church also put this place as a place for many martyrs who sacrificed their lives in the hands of ‘Roman brutes’. However, this is one of the most enduring pagan symbols standing amid a civilizational destruction.
The Colosseum is a must visit place, though the time given by the tour guide was infinitesimally small. There were huge crowds and queues waiting outside to go in. It is one of Rome’s most popular tourist attractions, one of the tops in the world too. On Good Friday the Pope leads a torchlit “Way of the Cross” procession that starts in the area around the Colosseum
The Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a bell tower of the cathedral of the Italian city of Pisa, known worldwide for its nearly four-degree lean, the result of an unstable foundation. The tower is situated behind the Pisa Cathedral. The tower’s tilt began during construction in the 12th century, due to soft ground on one side, which was unable to properly support the structure’s weight. The tilt increased in the decades before the got structure completed in the 14th century. It gradually stabilized. Later, engineering efforts in the 20th and 21st centuries have made it completely stable, but with an intact tilt. The tilt brings the tourists.
Students will remember the famous experiments of Galileo dropping cannonballs of different masses from the top of the tower to demonstrate that the speed of descent was independent of the mass. However, this story may be apocryphal
All the tourists separated in groups of two, and the whole area filled with tourists with their palms up in the air. Initially, I thought it was a ritual in the cathedral area, but later realised that it was to photograph a person trying to stop the tower from falling! The craze of the modern digital photography.
Day 2: Venice
Venice is the most romantic place in the world. Paris- I am sorry. For most Indians, Amitabh Bachchan and Zeenat Aman in a Gondola singing an RD Burman number in ‘The Great Gambler’ was the first encounter with Venice. In recent times, one of the best depictions of Venice is in the Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp starrer, ‘The Tourist.’ It is a must see for anyone, especially so if one is visiting Venice.
Venice is the capital of the Veneto region, and is situated on a group of 118 small islands that separate by canals and link by over 400 bridges. Venice has been known “Queen of the Adriatic”, “City of Water”, “City of Bridges”, “The Floating City”, and “City of Canals”. The lagoon and a part of the city are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is facing some major challenges including financial difficulties, pollution, an excessive number of tourists and problems caused by cruise ships sailing close to the buildings, Venice remains a very popular tourist destination, and ranks as the most beautiful city in the world.
In late 2016, it had a major deficit in its budget and debts of more than €400 million. A National Geographic article pointed out in its subtitle: “Residents are abandoning the city, which is in danger of becoming an overpriced theme park”. The city hosts up to 60,000 tourists per day. ‘Overtourism’ is also a problem as UNESCO now talks about ‘sustainable tourism.’
No wonder nobody smiles at the tourists in Venice or for that matter in Italy too.
Day 3: Swarovski Crystal Museum
The most obvious attraction of Austria is perhaps the Swarovski Crystal Museum, an awesome place guaranteed to blow you off. The time given of course is very short, but it is one of the places where one might easily resolve to come back another day. The tour-guide will try to convince that the landscape changes as one enters another country; but frankly, it is a difficult convincing. It is impossible to discern a new European country on road, except perhaps Switzerland.
The Museum is in Wattens, Austria; and constructed in 1995 in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Austria based crystal company Swarovski. Multimedia artist Andre Heller designed the museum. The Chambers of Wonder show works of art in crystal by some of the greatest names in the world of architecture, art, and design. Collective gasps come as one enters each of the rooms with an individual thematic focus. There is a shop at the end of the tour where it is highly recommended to sort out the buying, especially gifts for people back home.
Day 4: Jungfraujoch Rail Journey
Jungfraujoch, in the Bernese Alps, is at an elevation of 3,466 metres (11,371 ft) above sea level. The Jungfraujoch is accessible to tourists by the Jungfrau line, running partly underground through a tunnel. The Jungfraujoch railway station is the highest in Europe and connects to the ‘Top of Europe’ building, which includes several panoramic restaurants. The Sphinx Observatory, reached by an elevator, is one of the highest astronomical observatories in the world, giving an additional viewing platform at a height of 3,572 metres (11,719 ft). The excursion to top of the Europe is a great highlight of the tour, albeit at an extra cost.
Day 5: Mount Titlis cable car ride
Titlis is a mountain of the Uri Alps, and at 10,623 feet above sea level, it is the highest summit of the range north of the Susten Pass. It is one of the most awesome sights to visit in Switzerland. I am not jealous, but seriously, for those who have not visited, our own cable-ride at Auli near Badrinadh is equally good, if not better. The world’s first rotating cable car takes a scenic and awesome ride from Engelberg on the north side. The cable car system connects Engelberg to the summit of Klein Titlis through three stages.
At Klein Titlis, there is an illuminated glacier cave from an entrance within the cable-car station. Be sure to take great pictures of the snow and the Titlis Cliff Walk, the highest elevation suspension bridge in Europe. Send them promptly to your people back home frying in the hot summer of India to burn them even more. And when you take selfies in front of a cut-out of Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol in DDLJ, one really feels tops for being an Indian.
Day 6: Black Forest, Cuckoo clocks, and a cruise on the river Rhine
The Black Forest is a large forested mountain range in southwest Germany, roughly 160 kilometers long and 50 kilometers wide. This was where the cuckoo clocks, a cultural iconic symbol of Germany and an immensely popular souvenir, developed and later popularized. There are many places which highlight the production of these clocks, having museums, cafes, and shops. We drove through the nice forested area and went to a place in Titisee.
A cuckoo clock is a typically pendulum-regulated clock that strikes the hours with a sound like a common cuckoo’s call and has an automated cuckoo bird that moves with each note. The mechanism to produce the cuckoo call has been in use since the middle of the 18th century and has remained almost without variation till today.
The Rhine is one of the major European rivers, which has its sources in Switzerland and flows in a mostly northerly direction through Germany and the Netherlands, emptying into the North Sea. We took a beautiful river cruise on the Rhine and breath-taking view of old castles and scenery indeed etched into our memories.
The river begins in the southeastern Swiss Alps, flows through six countries before flowing into the North Sea at Rotterdam. The Rhine is one of the longest and most important rivers in Europe, running for over 1,232 km. Many cities and towns flourish on the banks of the Rhine like Cologne, Düsseldorf (Germany), Rotterdam (Netherlands), Strasbourg (France) and Basel (Switzerland). Some grossly polluting it too! The largest city on the Rhine is Cologne, Germany.
Like some of our rivers, the Rhine was one of the most polluted rivers in Europe. After a Chemical spill in 1986, Rhine Action Programme (RAP) aimed to improve the quality of the river water and protect the endangered species like salmon. The Rhine and the Danube formed most of the northern inland frontier of the Roman Empire and, since those days, the Rhine has been a vital and navigable waterway carrying trade and goods deep inland. Many castles and fortifications built along the river is a reminder of the Holy Roman Empire.
Day 7: Amsterdam and a river cruise
Amsterdam is the capital city and most populous municipality of the Netherlands. However, it is not the seat of the government, which is The Hague. Amsterdam’s name derives from Amstelredamme, indicative of the city’s origin around a dam in the river Amstel. Originating as a small fishing village in the late 12th century, Amsterdam became one of the most important ports in the world during the Dutch Golden Age (17th century), due to trade and finance related developments.
The 17th-century canals of Amsterdam and the 19–20th century Defence Line of Amsterdam are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. As the commercial capital of the Netherlands and one of the top financial centres in Europe, Amsterdam is an alpha- world city. Philips and ING have their world headquarters in Amsterdam. Famous Amsterdam residents include the diarist Anne Frank; artists Rembrandt van Rijn and Vincent van Gogh; and philosopher Baruch Spinoza.
Amsterdam’s main attractions include its historic canals, museums like the Van Gogh Museum, the Royal Palace of Amsterdam, and many more. Amsterdam is also very well-known for the red-light district and cannabis coffee shops.
We undertook a most amazing cruise on the famous Amsterdam canal system. The beautiful plan developed in the 17th century, and was based on four concentric half-circles of canals. Three of the canals were mostly for residential development. The fourth and outermost canal is a collective name for all canals in the outer ring. The canals served for defence, water management and transport.
This was after a briefest tour of the city center. Amsterdam itself can take about 5 to 6 days for a complete exploration.
Day 8: Brussels (Belgium)
Brussels grew from a small rural settlement on the river Senne to become an important city-region in Europe. Since the end of the Second World War, it has been a major centre for international politics and the home of numerous international organisations, politicians, diplomats, and civil servants. Brussels is the de facto capital of the European Union. The headquarters of NATO are also located in Brussels. As the economic capital of Belgium and one of the top financial centres of Western Europe, it also classifies as an Alpha global city.
In Brussels, we walked hurriedly through the rains for half an hour to see a child statue in the central city in the act of urination. People from all countries flocked around the statue busily taking photographs and selfies. Manneken Pis is a bronze sculpture in the centre of Brussels depicting a naked little boy urinating into a fountain’s basin. Manneken Pis is the best-known symbol of Brussels. Most Indians gasped at the sight of the statue and the desperate people taking selfies. We see live people in the same act at millions of places here and nobody photographs! However, we need to take some lessons in toilet cleanliness from the western world. The sense of discipline and the maintenance of toilets at most places, especially the tourist ones, is exemplary.
The Brussels-Capital Region is officially bilingual in French and Dutch. The main attractions of Brussels include its historic Grand Place, Manneken Pis, and the Museums of Art and History. Because of its long tradition of Belgian comics, Brussels is also a ‘capital of the comic strip’. Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, who wrote under the pen name Herge gave us the wonderful Tintin comics. The all-time favourite Asterix comics in French also first appeared in the Franco-Belgian comics magazine Pilote in 1959. Huge posters of Tintin and Captain Haddock adorned a few walls in Brussels gladdening my juvenile heart.
Day 9: Paris and river cruise and Eiffel Tower by night
Paris is the capital and most populous city of France spread on both sides of river Seine. Paris has been one of Europe’s major centres of finance, diplomacy, commerce, science, and the arts. Fashion of course is synonymous with Paris. Paris is among the top expensive cities in the world along with Singapore, Zurich, Oslo, Geneva, and Hong Kong.
Paris is famous for its art museums and architectural landmarks; the Louvre is the most visited art museum in the world. Other landmarks, to name just a few include Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, the Eiffel Tower, and the Arc de Triomphe. The historical district along the Seine in the city centre classifies as a UNESCO Heritage Site. Paris is the third most visited travel destination in the world after Bangkok and London. A night and a day will not cover even a single percentage of the glory of Paris. Paris would require a week by itself, obviously for another, another day.
And of course, necessary for all tour companies without which they would hang, is the Eiffel Tower, the most visited monument in the world. Most tour companies provide the Eiffel visit up to the second floor. This showcase of Paris gets almost 7 million visitors a year. The Eiffel Tower is a wrought-iron lattice tower named after the engineer Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower. The latest ‘Men in Black’ depicted him as an alien communicator through the Eiffel Tower!
Constructed as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair, it came under severe criticism by some of France’s leading artists and intellectuals for its design, but it has become a global cultural icon of France and one of the most recognisable structures in the world. The tower is about the same height as an 81-storey building, and is the tallest structure in Paris. During its construction, it become the tallest human-made structure in the world, a title it held for 41 years until the construction of the Chrysler Building in New York City.
A petition called “Artists against the Eiffel Tower” sent to the Minister of Works and Commissioner for the Exposition in 1887 read:
We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection … of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower … To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years … we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.
Gustave Eiffel responded to these criticisms by comparing his tower to the Egyptian pyramids: ‘My tower will be the tallest edifice ever erected by man. Will it not also be grandiose in its way? Why would something admirable in Egypt become hideous and ridiculous in Paris?’ If he saw the tourists today, he would laugh the hardest.
The Société d’Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel (SETE) now considers any photo showing the illumination of the tower to be a separate work of art that falls under copyright. This has been rather controversial as it seems a great way of making money. Capturing the lit tower in night- illegal? Must be joking in this digital age.
The controversies ring common with the Statue of Unity of Sardar Patel In Gujarat, the tallest statue in the world. Maybe, a day in the future when it becomes the sight to visit- like the Eiffel!
Day 10: Eiffel tower visit till the second floor, city tour, and metro ride
Paris is very steep for shopping, and it is advisable to sort your shopping needs at other places. Unless budgeting is a silly idea for you. Paris impressed me with the metro system. The metro was not a part of the itinerary. A friend took us on a great metro ride. I realised the importance of an effective mass transport system in the formation of cities. The metro system, a symbol of the city, is known for its density within the city limits, uniform architecture, and unique entrances. It is mostly underground and 214 kilometres long. It has 16 lines and 302 stations, of which 62 have transfers between lines. It carries 4-5 million passengers a day, which amounts to 20% of the overall traffic in Paris. It would be a great idea to include metro ride for the tourists by the tour operators. There is a lot to learn.
Paris in one and half days is the biggest joke of all times, but for a budgeting traveller wishing to taste entire Europe, this is the best we can do. One would require a full week in the minimum to explore Paris.
To gladden our hearts, our friend took us to a ‘100% vegetarian’ restaurant in the heart of Paris. The biggest surprise was when I found it completely occupied by white people. There would always be an Indian restaurant tucked somewhere in all European cities, but many times run by Sri Lankan Tamils (as in Paris) or Bangladeshis. Apparently, it makes more business sense to name a restaurant ‘Indian’ than anything else!
And the next day, we flew back to India via Dubai, successfully ending a whirlwind visit of another world.
Thoughts After a Whirlwind Travel
The European cities, if you travel rapidly from one city to another just blur into a uniform image. The cities are similar looking and a blindfolded person transported from one city center to another would not be able to tell the difference. The schedule becomes a great blur too as one rolls from one place to another and travels constantly on the road. The roads are fantastic, which are a source of great envy to Indians. There is absolutely no strain, even if one is on the last seat. Try a long distance on the backseat of a bus on Indian highways. It is a guarantee to sprain every muscle in the body. We have the talent, we have the science, but Indian roads remain pathetic due to nothing else but sheer corruption. Roads are the biggest source of income for our politicians, contractors, and governmental bodies and hence they stay crumbled. The quality of living is very good; the roads, water, food, air. However, most Indians would perhaps opt for the quality of life back home; friends, relatives, people, interactions, the organised chaos all around- beautiful things we take for granted, the importance of which we realize after a visit or stay in a Western country. I always say, give us good roads, sanitation, cleanliness, and water; and of course, a decolonization in the narratives of caste and religion- and nothing in the world beats India.
Featured Image: Exploring Castles