Monday, January 4, 2016

Riding on top of an Indian train

Chaiya Chaiya moment

In 1998 ‘Dil Se’ movie, directed by the legendry Mani Ratnam was released.  The song ‘Chaiya Chaiya’ was an instant hit as it stirred the imagination of the masses and classes. The song was picturised on Malaika Arora and Shah Rukh Khan dancing atop a goods train and the scintillating music was composed by the upcoming star A R Rahman. The train passes through tunnels, green meadows and the mountains as the dancers clad in vibrant colours danced with gay abandon oblivious to the danger such an act could result in. This would arguably be one of the most beautifully picturised songs in hindi cinema.  This one song capitulated a little known model  Malaika Arora into big league. Her delectable waist and her dancing rhythm would have made her quite a star.  However she became Malaika Arora Khan the same year after marrying Arbaaz Khan, brother of Salmaan Khan and could only come back to limelight several years later in husband’s produced Dabang with another wonderfully choreographed song ‘Munni badnaam hui….’.

It’s a pity that Indian Railway could not make the song ‘chaiya chaiya’ into their advertisement as most of the action is atop the moving train- totally illegal and dangerous! But this roof riding aspect on Indian trains is part of an unwritten script in rural India which repeats itself day after day. I experienced it first hand during an unforgettable journey. 

As my school friend Anjani and I boarded the train for Siliguri from the Charbagh Lucknow station in that summer of 1981, little did we know that this journey which was on paper for 28 hours would actually take 52 hours ! In the scorching heat of 44 deg C as we boarded the 3 tier sleeper (2nd class), we headed for cooler climes of Darjeeling . I hardly knew the people we were staying with and to top it all, I had a guest with me. Our hosts  were related to my mom’s friend and during that particular summer quite a few guests of theirs were gathering at their house. I knew all these guests very well but not the hosts. The invitation seemed very genuine and without using too much brains regarding the inconvenience which we may cause to our hosts, we had booked our tickets and were on our way to the views of Kanchenjunga in June 1981.

At the station Anjani’s dad informed me that he had fever and I was to look after him and ensure that his diet was as per specification and medicines were taken on time. He was a strongly built cop with UP Police and was a concerned father. Train left Lucknow on time but came to standstill just a couple of hours later in some remote countryside. We were told that  our steam engine had collapsed and new one will be brought from somewhere.  So, we decided to go for a walk in the fields and must have walked a km away when the engine whistled, blowed out the steam and train started moving. It was our sprint of a lifetime as we huffed and puffed and reached the train only to be told that engine was just being tested and train was not going anywhere. The net result was that Anjani’s fever disappeared and we just killed time till the time engine was replaced. It is another matter that Anjani started burning in a couple of hours  as the train moved towards Eastern part of India.

Gorakhpur is considered to be the badland of Eastern UP. This was our last major station before the train moved into Bihar. The train was already 3-4 hours  late when we reached here. I had told Anjani that I will get off and get some dinner. This became unnecessary as  2 police constables came looking for us carrying 2 thalis of station food. The perks of being police officers son were visible. They also carried a thermometer and a few medicines. Anjani’s temperature was checked and the constables waited till he finished food. A few doses of medicines were given to him  and the constables went off to give report about Anjani’s health to their seniors who would further report the latest health bulletin to his dad. All this worked as Anjani  remained fever free from next day onwards.  

Chaiya Chaiya moment came in Bihar. In the morning as we got out of train for breakfast we noticed hundreds sitting atop the train. There seemed to be more people sitting on top of the train than inside. No one was remotely as sexy as Malaika but later at one of the villages we saw a full marriage party boarding the train and then climbing on to the top . All were ticket-less and all fearless. Amongst the all male marriage party was  the newlywed bride with red sari and her face well hidden behind a veil. Her journey to a new life had started.

A common sight on Indian trains

Somewhere along the way the train got diesel engine instead of steam. The villagers sitting on top of the train knew all the tricks. There was not one village where train did not stop and none of them were the scheduled stops. They knew how to operate the vaccum system which would activate the ‘brake’ and the train would stop. After every few minutes there would be a loud roar from above and when I asked a co-passenger why were they making this sound I was told that they must be feeling hot.  In the evening I learnt firsthand why this periodic noise would erupt.

One of the co-passenger said that he was hot and sweaty so seeing the hand pump on the platform he stripped to his undies and had a nice long bath. I couldn’t resist the temptation so soon I was also doing the same. Anjani didn’t want to take a chance with his fever so he stayed inside and rested but made fun of me for doing this shameless act.  He said if he had a camera he would have clicked this scene and shown it to my parents, my girlfriend and the class teacher! I decided not to tell him that I did have a camera. 

Accessible bathing means at Indian Railway stations

My Chaiya Chaiya moment

At a station, when I asked one of the villagers how it felt to be sitting up, he gave me his hand and pulled me up. He asked me to experience this till next stop. I agreed. It was around 6 PM and sun was not so hot. But the train was burning hot. They would try to get water and throw it around so it would get cooler. I had to sit on my haunches otherwise my backside would have got burnt. The train took off and I felt that I would be blown away by the wind. I had to take off my specs and put them securely in my pocket. There were small handles on the sides which one had to hold onto. There were water filling covered holes to cling on to. The air was still hot and it seemed to pierce the skin. As a tunnel or an overhead wire approached , a team of spotters would give a shout and everyone would shout and bent down till the danger passed. In the tunnel it would get pitch dark and you could almost feel the roof scraping against your body. You could smell the dampness of the structure before suddenly the bright daylight blinded you as you got out of the tunnel. This happened twice in 10 minutes while I was up there. This was too nerve wrecking. Luckily a village came and vacuum breaks were activated. I was happy to be down in the compartment.  Anjani told me that I looked like a total wreck. My body was full of soot and dust and the hair was standing. I had to wait till next platform to take a bath under a hand pump.

The journey had many more incidents including a flash strike by the driver of our train at Raxaul, Bihar. I really don’t remember the reason but while waiting helplessly I realised that Anjani had disappeared. I went looking for him and in one of the rooms noticed that there were many people gathered and quite a bit of commotion. As I eased inside the room to check what had happened, I could not believe it when I saw a meeting taking place and Anjani being an active member of that meeting. The strike was called off and my dear friend had a role to play as many people came to shake his hand and thank him including the driver. When asked how he managed this, his reply was simple- “I have a cop’s blood in my veins !”

Chaiya Chaiya and 'Dil Se' happened 17 years after my adventure on top of the train. I have been to many amusement parks around the world and have been through thousands of roller coaster rides, but the thrill of those 10 minutes atop a running train remains unsurpassed. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Travelling for Cricket

The new look Green Park at Kanpur. Poor student's still sit on concrete. 

Being a protective parent, I don’t think I would have allowed my children to venture into an unknown territory at the age of 15. Our parents had more confidence in us. Travelling to Kanpur from Lucknow for test matches became a norm for me once the parents allowed me to go and enjoy the stadium atmosphere. 
The Australian cricket team lead by Kim Hughes had a test match scheduled for Kanpur in 1979. Lucknow was 80 km’s away from the venue and Kanpur was an established Test centre. Lucknow had hosted a Test match against Pakistan in 50's but it's stadium was not good enough for an important match now. The distance of Lucknow to Kanpur may not have been much but connectivity was terrible. Being an ardent cricket fan it was my desire to watch the match. I had never watched a proper Test match  in a stadium. I insisted on going to Kanpur and parents relented. From somewhere I managed to get 2 student’s tickets priced at a princely sum of  Rs 12 each for full 5 days of cricket ( I still have that ticket). 
The match was to begin on 2nd October, which was a national holiday . It was the 3rd test of the series and the first 2 had been boring draws. The Australians' third full tour of India  (6 test matches) was of great interest as Australia was rebuilding it's team after the likes of Chappels, Marsh, Lillie had been taken away by Kerry Packer's 'World Series Cricket.' It so happened that after this series a compromise was reached between Australian cricket board and Packer. From India's  viewpoint  it was an important series because India had never won a series against Australia. With the cream of Australian team being lured by Kerry Packer, this was a beatable young side which did not have much experience. The two countries had previously contested seven rubbers over 31 years, during which India had won only five Tests to Australia's nineteen, with six drawn. The 1977 series in Australia had been India’s golden chance but we narrowly lost it heart-breakingly by 2 matches to 3. We had lost first test in Australia by 16 runs and second by 2 wickets. We won the next two but got beaten by a small margin at Adelaide. It was time for revenge. 

The journey begins

The majestic Charbagh Railway Station

My neigbour Raju and I left home at 4 AM in the morning and it had started getting nippy. A 20 minute rickshaw ride got us to the majestic building of Charbagh railway station . We bought our tickets and had a leisurely breakfast of omelet and piping hot tea. The Gomti express brought us to Kanpur station very quickly, in just about an hour at 6.30 AM. Another rickshaw ride and a 20 minute walk got us to  the gates of the students stand at the Green Park stadium. A queue was formed and soon the queue started becoming long. We were quite ahead but as the gates opened around 8.30 for 10 AM start, the swell of humanity surged and  we were pushed in by thousands of people. Everyone wanted to be at vantage points to get a clear view. We got good seats at the top from where the entire arena was visible. The entire students’ stand comprised of cemented steps and one had to sit on them as they were the official  seats. You can imagine the condition of our  bottoms at the end of the day. There was no covering so as the day progressed and the sun got stronger, it became pretty uncomfortable. Even at that time there was huge wire mesh to prevent the boys  from jumping into the arena. I say boys as even though it may have been  a student’s stand , not a single girl was to be seen anywhere.  

A huge roar went up as son in law Gavaskar came out for some net practice. The people of Kanpur adored Sunny Gavaskar as he had married Kanpur’s daughter Marshneil a few years ago. Actually people adored Gundappa Vishwanath more as Vishy had scored century on debut at this very ground and had always done well here. His delectable wrist work and square cuts made people swoon. They kept referring to him as babaji ……I still don’t know why.  

Gundappa Vishawanth was a crowd puller

Vishy had scored a duck and a century in the same match on debut and in his entire career whenever he scored a century for India, we never lost that match. He was Sunny’s hero as well and ended up by becoming Gavaskar's brother in law by marrying his sister. Sunny named his son after the 3 heroes he admired very much – Rohan Kanhai, ML Jaishima and Vishwanath. Unfortunately this royal name of Rohan Jaivishv Gavaskar could not make Rohan a very good cricketer and he just played a few ODI’s for India without doing anything much. He did reasonably well in Ranji trphy and went on to captain West Bengal. The 3 year old Rohan was also around and was being pampered by the likes of  Karsan Ghavri. For the audience he was already a star. Each shot little Rohan played on the sidelines with his little bat during the lunch break was cheered by everyone in the stadium.

Kanpur treated him like a 'son in law'

The Match Begins

Sunny  won the toss and made an elegant 76 but disappointed his ‘sasural’ as he could not make his century. India got off to a great start but just before stumps lost a few wickets in succession. All day we  would constantly look to our right and envy those who were sitting in VIP stands. It was a beautiful stand with colourful bucket seats and was elevated enough to give a great view of the pitch to the audience.It seemed like a big luxury. They had proper seats and a roof over their heads. There were many girls also in those stands and many of the guys were more interested in them rather than the match as it was in that direction the binoculars was pointed most of the time. Someone told me that from that angle you could even see the ball turning. They would constantly look towards us as the student’s stand had some action every minute. People in our section would dance, sing and make a lot of noise. A guy sitting near us had carried mithai boxes with him and each time an Indian batsman scored a boundary, a little bit would be distributed to all his neighbours. There were a few brawls as well and police was present in large numbers.I learnt several new abuses and slangs that day. 

We were supposed to go back the same evening as one had to attend the school the next day. Raju’s relatives stayed in Kanpur so we went there for a cup of tea after the match. His cousin convinced us that he would treat us to a good dinner , show us a night show film and drop us to the stadium the next day if we decided to stay back. This was too tempting. Call was made to Lucknow and permission taken to stay back. Raju’s cousin kept his word and it turned out to be a fun evening as dinner out and movie watching was a big entertainment those days.It had turned out to be a 21 hour of non stop action but we were hardly complaining. 

India collapsed in no time the next morning but grabbed a few quick wickets. We left when Alan Border got out and took a rickety state transport bus back to Lucknow. We were stuck on Ganga bridge for almost 45 minutes. We were listening to commentary on transistor and to our disappointment Yallop and Hughes dug in and took 1st innings lead.

Once again Gomti Express took us to Kanpur on the last day of the match which happened to be a Sunday. Match was poised in India’s favour as Chetan Chauhan had played a dogged innings for India and Vishy played another wristy gem with great support from wicketkeeper Kirmani. As India’s new hero Kapil Dev and off spinner Shivlal Yadav ripped through the Australian top order, the roar with each falling wicket became louder and louder. Alan Border stuck on and when he was bowled by Yadav, the roar must have been heard in Lucknow !India won by 125 runs and we came back very happy feeling as if we had been responsible for the victory. 

Eng Vs India - Jan 1982

I must have had some guts when I went to watch a match at Green Park in 1982 just a month before my class 12 boards. By now I had become an experienced test match watcher at stadia. No one could believe that I had gone to watch a match to Kanpur during the study leave as you were supposed to slog at that time. Thankfully I did well in exams . England team here was being led by Fletcher and in the team they had the mercurial Ian Botham. With Fletcher and Gavaskar both very negative captains the 6 match series just had one result. The Kanpur match was drawn with not even 3 innings completed .  The match will be remembered for centuries by the two of the greatest all rounders in the world- Botham and Kapil Dev. When Gavaskar declared just 1 short of England's total of 1st innings, everyone was shocked. Now that moment is always referred to as the start of match fixing by several cricket writers. Sunny has never explained his decision even though taking a lead was always considered as half a victory in those days.

 I was delighted to see the elegance of left handed batsman Gower who made a sparkling 85. Just a month back I was in Delhi and had gone to watch a  match of the same series at historic Feroze Shah Kotla as I had pavilion passes. David Gower was wrongly given out lbw for a duck in the match. As he had walked back fuming, a guy  standing near the gallery from where teams went to pavilion patted him and said 'Gower well played.' Gower had turned around and caught him by his lapel and hurled abuses at him. I was right there and saw Gower's fair complexion turn deep red. David Gower had become the most hated man during that test match and each time he walked in or out there was slogan shouting against him. 

 But what I remember this Eng Vs India match at Kanpur is not for Gower's elegance or lusty hitting by Botham and Kapil but for something else.

Indians liked Gooch because of his mustache

The Match Stopper

This time I had been accompanied by my sikh friend Mohinder. He did not reach on time so we had to take the state transport bus which broke down mid way. We reached stadium when match had started. The cops wouldn’t let us go in and told us that all seats were taken. Somehow we managed to persuade them to let us go inside. As we climbed the steps and the arena came into view we saw Graham Gooch batting. Now my friend Mohinder was a tall sikh- around 6’2”. His shoes had heels and he wore a turban. This made him almost 6’ 6”. He wore black and walked like Feroze Khan the actor, with chest forward and head held high. As he walked in , he got noticed. Someone shouted “Sardarji has come !” and suddenly the crowd erupted. Entire student’s  section (around 12000 of them) stood up and started cheering and clapping. The people in VIP pavilion wondered what had happened and they rushed towards our side to check what had happened. The cops became alert and moved towards us with alacrity as this was a known trouble zone. There was so much commotion that the match stopped. The players gathered together and started looking towards us fearing that a riot had broken out.  The Umpires walked towards us to find out from the cops if it was safe to carry on. Graham Gooch with his big Moustaches had a worried look on his face, He was not used to all this in sedate Lord’s atmosphere in London where people politely clapped to show ther excitement. Mohinder had made a Test Match come to a standstill for full 5 minutes ! The match carried on but thanks to Mohinder we became VIP’s of the student section. Seats were offered to us in this full house and gratefully accepted. People came to shake Mohinder’s hand as if he was a filmstar. We got offered with food, mithai and soft drinks.The whole day it was party time. 

The match stopper. Mohinder Singh

I think for those who have not had the privilege of watching the match from stands , it must be amply clear that when you go for a cricket match in India and sit in student’s section or the general stands– the match becomes secondary !

Rohin Arora

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Goa- The dying North Goa beaches

A good Goan beach shack makes you feel comfortable

A blog titled ‘Calanguta to Baga’ describing the hub of North Goa had been a great success when I wrote in 2010 ( Since then we have been to Goa several times but now five years later we were back in the same hotel at Calangute and amongst the same eateries we had loved half a decade back. Things had changed considerably since then and unfortunately most of it was for the worse.

Road under repair

We had hired a car which was delivered to me at the Airport. Self driven option is a boon but only possible when you stay in North Goa. Taxi Unions of south Goa are very troublesome and don’t let you hire cars so that they could charge whatever they wish for even short rides.  The drive was very smooth till we reached Calangute but as we turned towards Baga, the dug up roads and huge sewer pipers stared at us . Not only did they look  ugly but driving on them was tough considering that unruly traffic attacked you from all sides while the car hobbled around the craters. Goa roads were not meant for heavy traffic but SUV's were all over the place. Sewer lines were being put in place to augment the infrastructure in this area. And the work had been going on since a long time. “This is nothing,” a local told me. “Next year the entire Candolim road would be in this state.” A warning which we much heed before planning a holiday.

Only Nostalgia Remains

Hotel Vila Goesa seemed a bit run down since the last time we were here.  Or it could be that our standards have gone up considerably and we are now used to staying at better appointed places. Each time we have stayed here, it had been full of foreigners and young people from Mumbai. The crowd looked much different now with hardly any foreigners and many families from South India and Gujarat. A family had come in a Mercedes  and another in Audi. They were constantly fighting with management about parking space. I couldn't understand why they were staying here. 

The biggest advantage Vila Goes has is the direct approach to the beach through a path created under the swaying palms.  As you look up you can see the green coconuts on these palms and I had to warn the children to be careful as the falling coconuts are bigger killers than shark attacks worldwide. They did laugh me off but I was just quoting an expert on this issue who had stated that while Sharks kill at an average of 5 people a year,  falling coconuts kill around 150.

Beaches are not deserted at nights

As we walked towards the beach the same evening as we arrived, the first shack to welcome us was strangely called the ‘Love shack.’ It had no hidden corners nor did it have dim lights so I really don’t know why they gave it such a name.  As you start walking on the soft sand and you look all around, each meter of space seemed to be occupied by the shacks. We walked to ‘Souza Lobo’ on Calangute for our dinner. The food was just about ok and I think ‘Souza Lobo’ and ‘Britto’s’ are doing well due to their past reputation. Their food is no longer exceptional and many more better restaurants have come up giving them competition. Even after darkness had enveloped the beach, thousands of people were milling around and hundreds of picnics were going on simultaneously on the beach. Plastic bags, liquor bottles and Styrofoam boxes were littered all around. The stray dogs were running from one group to another and getting a good meal out of the leftovers.  As we walked back to the hotel , we didn’t feel too happy as groups of men were drinking all over the beach. The sea breeze was lovely and the decorated shacks were playing loud music giving a lively atmosphere to the dark beach. You could see the lights of many ships in the horizon. In spite of all these pluses, it wasn't a very pleasant walk. 

Domestic tourists in action

My precondition with Vila Goesa before booking rooms had been to get the 1st floor room with balcony overlooking the swimming pool.  This condition had been fulfilled. As I got up in the morning after the first night in hotel, I walked out to the balcony where Devicka was reading her book and enjoying the freshness of morning.  Some men and boys were in pool making a lot of racket. Two of the ladies apparently from the same group walked towards their husbands. One was a huge hulk in a Sari and she was accompanied by her friend in salwar kameez.  They tested the temperature of pool water with their feet and on being satisfied that it was tolerable, the lady in Sari
plunged into the pool. Her friend also got excited and jumped in with her salwar kameez. The husbands and other friends all got excited and there was more noise and frolicking and laughter. I watched all this with my mouth wide open. Do I have to clarify that I did not venture near the pool in the next 4 days ?

The swimming pool I avoided

After our breakfast we moved to the beach to our favourite shack called the ‘Big Banana.’  The beach was crowded but most crowds were either on Calangute or Baga and we were in the middle of these 2 points. Big Banana also looked a bit rundown but we relaxed there with beer, prawns and pineapple till lunch time and made intermittent trips to the sea. It was soothing and relaxing and luckily there was no deluge of tourists. Once again I must mention is that very few foreigners were present on this famous belt. This used to be full of foreigners not too long back. We decided to go nearby to a restaurant called ‘The fat fish’ which was not too far from where we stayed on Arpora road. Fat fish must be pretty popular as in spite of being a large restaurant the place was totally packed and people were coming in for lunch even at 4 PM. I loved my fish thaali there though Devicka did not care much for the grilled chicken she had. The kids had pastas and those were alright. A lady seemed to be in charge of the restaurant  and I really don’t know if she was the owner. The restaurant is well located, parking is not a problem and the atmosphere is nice. The next day also we had lunch here and I had Goan Prawn curry and rice. I think whenever we are in North Goa, I will make a trip here.

Let’s talk more about food

As a family we follow a very simple schedule when we are in Goa.  We have breakfast at around 9.30 and leave for beach immediately after. After a lot of swimming and snacking (and Beer for me)  we either have lunch at the shack or find a good place to eat. Afternoon is siesta time . We followed the same routine each day this time as well . While I would laze around in the evening the kids and Devicka would walk down the market for some Coffee at Café coffee day and for some roadside shopping. This would be followed by a nice dinner somewhere. We had 4 nights so we had dinners at Souza Lobo, Wok & Roll, Fisherman’s Cove and Cohiba.

Sizzlers at Fishermans Cove
Fish Chili Masala

Fisherman’s Cove at Candolim serves some really nice sea food. The fish chili masala on a sizzler was exceptional. All the sizzlers were pretty good. Wok & Roll  restaurant was like a breath of fresh air. It is located in one hidden corner near Taj Aguada .The food was mainly Asian and very well prepared. Each dish had a great flavour and beautifully presented. The owner of the place Allwyn happens to be a close friend’s brother. He is himself a chef and worked for cruise lines before starting this venture. I had never visited his restaurant before and was more than pleased to have great seafood  with great taste and correct spices. Malay, Sri Lankan, Indonesian , Cambodian….all kind of food was available here.
Wok & Roll had lovely ambiance and great food
We had Pork, fish, Prawns, beef, rice, Noodles and god knows what. Allwyn informed us that the nightclub Cohiba next door was also being catered by him. So, a couple of days later we landed up at Cohiba but here we ordered mainly the Goan food .  When we reached Cohiba at around 8.30 PM it was quite dull. But it started filling up soon and an area near the bar became the karaoke lounge where some singing competition took place. Some singers were pretty good while some were really awful.  Net result was that it kept us entertained. The DJ was just about testing his equipment for the night revelers when we decided to leave.  Cohiba is worth a visit and even more so if you decide to spend a weekend late night there.

While on food I must talk about Ritz classic in Panjim which gave us great lunch on the way to airport. This is an old favourite  mainly due to food quality and certainly not ambiance. The Goan food is great here and it is pretty cheap. I had a fish thaali and it was quite filling and amazingly tasty. All of it for Rs 160 ! We also had tiger prawns and a few more dishes here. Beer is available at reasonable price. They serve North Indian food as well. If you do plan to go there for lunch make sure you reach early or you will have to wait in a long queue and be prepared for pandemonium. Once you do manage to you get your table, please  be prepared for groups watching you like a hawk so that they can jump onto your table the moment you ask for the bill.

The missing foreign tourists

It must have been the effect of Diwali holidays that busloads of domestic passengers started arriving from Gujarat, Maharashtra and other parts in hordes and took over the beaches. Special arrangements had to be made to park the buses causing traffic jams everywhere. On our second morning after breakfast we arrived at the Baga beach to spend the first half of the day and just one look at what was happening made us take a U turn immediately. The sight was a nightmare. It was as if you were in some mela crowd. Thousands of fully clothed people were in the sea, hawkers were doing brisk sales and the beach was a flood of humanity.  To escape all this we got into the car and drove towards Morjim and Ashwem. There was no point going towards Candolim as that would have had similar crowds. We stopped at rocky Anjuna but it had no life at all. Shacks were being set up at a very slow pace. These guys must have realised that the season was going to be a washout due to non arriving foreign tourists. Otherwise by mid November they would have been ready and in full flow.

The rocky Anjuna
Normally Ashwem and Morjim  areas are filled with Russian tourists but with Russian economy in doldrums, the arrival of Russian tourists is just 25% of previous years. The Europeans and Americans are hardly making Goa their favoured destination. But for us things were much better on these beaches and not only the beaches were cleaner but the crowds were also more disciplined. In the remaining days while we were there, this became our relaxing point. We tried 3 different shacks in 3 different parts and though the food was ordinary, the clean beach and cold beer made up for it. 

It was pleasure spending time at clean beaches further North than Baga.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Budapest- Photo feature of this lovely city

Being right on the banks of Danube gives the Parliament a great deal of elegance.

View from the top- the Buda Castle 

The Danube did not look too blue as we sat on the ramparts of Buda castle while taking in the view of the magnificent city of Budapest. It may not have looked too blue but it looked lovely as it flowed freely dividing the cities of Buda and Pest. At the moment we were parched up on Buda castle having walked up rather than taking a funicular . The views from this vantage point were magnificent and the boats and ships sailing up and down the river added to the flavor of the place. As Danube is a mighty river flowing from city to city and country to country, the river cruises on this river are very popular. Luxury boats like those of Viking, offer several cruises and some of them last as long as 21 days. At a later stage we also did take a cruise but that lasted just 2 hours !

A View from the Buda Castle

After every few minutes my eyes would automatically get stuck on a magnificent piece of architecture across the river. On inquiry it was revealed that this was the Parliament of Hungary and it was a major tourist attraction. The 3 major landmarks of Budapest (The Parliament , the Danube and the Chain Bridge)  were being captured in one frame while I sat atop the 4th landmark- The Buda Castle. We decided to do the Parliament the next day as it appeared to be the most important landmark of the Hungarian Capital.
The boats go under many bridges and it all looks lovely from the top

We were on the last leg of our 2 week trip and till now we had been to several countries on cruise ship and otherwise. The idea was to relax in Budapest and spend 4 days of quality time in this lovely city. Our apartment was located just a lane away from the fashionable Vaci street and a short walk from Danube. Our apartment 'Vaci point Deluxe apartment' was owned by Agnes who had made us comfortable on arrival and had placed a bottle of wine and some soft drinks in the fridge. The WI- FI worked well here so the kids were very happy. Kunal and his family were lodged in another apartment just a short walk away. On the first evening itself we were well settled to take on the city with gusto next day onward. While day one was spent getting acclimatized to the city and climbing up to the Buda Castle, day two was the day we decided to do a tour of Parliament besides doing other touristy things.

The Hungarian Parliament - fit to be a palace.

A Panoramic view from the other side of the Parliament. Looks great in Black and White

Forget the Buda Castle and surrounding areas for the time being. Let me jump to the Parliament right away. The trip to the Hungarian Parliament was fascinating. We had not booked in advance but luckily got the tickets at the venue for a tour which was still a few hours away. They have tours in many language and obviously we have taken tickets for the English Tour. You could only enter the building with a tour and had to stay with your group through the 90 odd minutes. The Parliament building is wonderfully designed and looks majestic as it faces the Danube - one of the rare parliaments facing a major river.

 Not wanting to waste the time waiting for the tour to start, I told the family to hang around near the Parliament till the tour started while I took a metro the the main rail station to book our train tickets for Vienna. Hungarians are perhaps not as efficient as the Western Europeans and what should have taken just a few minutes took a couple of hours and by the time I returned the tour had already started and luckily family had their own tickets and I had mine so they could go for it while I was stranded outside. On my request the management decided to transfer me to another tour but the next English tour was 3 hours away. I decided to join a Spanish group instead and for the next hour or so it was all señor, señorita, gracias and thousands of phrases about which I had no clue.

Everything glitters inside the building

Though I missed out on several stories which our lady guide was rattling off,  it was wonderful to see the parliament in session in their Assembly halls and MP's walking around. As we walked up great ornamental stairs, we saw frescoes on the ceiling and passed by the bust of the creator. The Holy crown of Hungary was a big attraction and a reprimand by the guide to me as she shouted señor and looked at me brought the attention of everyone in the crown room to me. The guards jumped to attention.  All this happened while I was innocently clicking away and photographing the royal crown. Apparently the guide had warned a few times in Spanish that photographing the crown was prohibited but as expected I was totally oblivious to this. Spanish is Greek to me.

Inside the parliament building. Richness all around. 

At many places there were these  gold plated cigar holders built into the structure. The cigars remain safe here while the members of parliament debate on burning issues. As far as many stories that I missed out on, my family was kind enough to update me on those at lunch time.

Cigar time !

Buda Castle and the Castle Hill District

The Buda Castle has seen many wars and had been extensively damaged many times. The chain bridge joins Pest to Buda. 

Now I come back to the Castle. Perched on top of the hill is the Buda castle. It looks elegant during the day and looks lovely lit up in the evenings. It is visible from almost everywhere.To reach it we crossed the famous chain bridge on foot and then decided to ignore the castle funicular but instead took some stairs and a long escalator. Once the abode of the kings, it is now a world heritage site and views from there are lovely. It has gardens, museums and a full article can be written about the castle. Budapest is full of history and has seen many wars and destruction's. It had had even become a part of the Ottoman Empire in 16th century. The palace had been damaged many times but yet with restorations etc it stands tall. Many people take a walking tour which is very informative and takes you around the castle district which has great walking streets and not far from the castle is the famous Mathias Church.

Széchenyi Chain Bridge was considered to be an engineering marvel when it opened in 1849. It spans the Danube from Buda to Pest.

The Mathias Church and the square around it is a big tourist attraction. 

Mathias church is also known as Church of our lady and located in the castle district. Though it was built in 1255 it is named after King Mathias who ruked at the end of 15th century. It was ravaged in 17th century when the Turks were being pushed out of Budapest by European Alliance. Reconstruction happened in late 19th century . Inside is beautiful with paintings and stained glass. One of the highlights inside is the main altar which is well decorated . The Loreto Chapel, beneath the South Tower, holds the statue of the Baroque Madonna, a replica of the original in the Italian village of Loreto.

Need to know the prominence of Lions in Hungary. The statues are found on chain Bridge as well.

What these guys were doing outside Mathias Church- we never could find out !

Thermal Baths of Budapest

The outdoor pools. The front one is heated but one behind it is a lap pool and the water was cold. 

When someone asked me what I intended to do in Budapest, one of the things on top priority was thermal baths. Thanks to a unique geological feature, Budapest 'sits' on over 100 thermal springs that feed the city's famous bathhouses.
There are many Thermal baths in Budapest and most have medicinal value. We just visited the Széchenyi Baths in Budapest and spent around 4 hours there. This was the largest and most popular of the public baths. What you see above in the photograph are the outdoor pools but there were as many as 15 indoor pools. Each pool had different temperature and there were steam rooms and saunas located in different places. The pools are added with calcium, magnesium, hydro-carbonate, sodium and sulfate, with significant content in fluoride and metabolic acid. The waters are recommended to help cure degenerative illnesses of joints, chronic and semi-acute arthritis, and orthopedic and post-injury treatments. The sulfur gives slight smell in the indoor pools. but that is to be expected.
They have several plans written outside but we chose the basic entry one and a towel on rent. The price was approx HUF 4100 ( $ 15.00) and we could very much go everywhere and to any of the pools and each one of us had a locker also to store our goods. 
On Saturday nights there are big parties in these thermal baths lasting till 3 AM and I wonder how they are. Hope people don't get drunk and make a mess everywhere.

The Danube Cruise

The sunset cruise of Danube was all about Champagne, great views as the sun sets, lovely music and the sound of the water as the boat took us from end of the city to another. We went under many bridges and saw some lovely buildings. We had chosen just an evening cruise without dinner. We were given a glass of champagne each and another drink as per our choice. The colour of sky changed as the sun started setting. The musicians arrived and it was a nice sightseeing experience of around 2 hours.

Buda castle and adjoining areas look wonderful from the cruise boat as the sun sets.

Champagne time !

Romancing on the Danube !

A Visit to the Ruin Pub - Szimpla Kert

A Glenlivet at the pub

You cannot be in Budapest and not visit one of their ruin pubs. The story started around 2001 when some derelict buildings were converted into pubs so the locals could get affordable drinks.

Szimpla Kert was the first ruin bar -- it moved around before settling into its home in the Jewish Quarter of Budapest’s seventh district in 2004. It has room after room serving liquor and food. The rooms are never ending and they continue as you climb the stairs. It has  mismatched furniture. It has a garden. It has some kind of art. There are DJ's and loud music. 

There are many ruin pubs in the city and they really are popular. The recipe is simple: search for an old building in downtown Pest, rent the cellar and the ground floor, do not renovate anything, invite some contemporary artists and designers, recreate the atmosphere of the 70’s, build a bar and serve some drinks, invite a band and be open until the morning comes. Some famous ones are Corvinteto, Durer Kert and Instant. 

I enjoyed the atmosphere at Szimpla Kert and the drinks were much more affordable than most parts of Europe we had visited. The next day I wanted the kids to see how the pubs were created in such localities and out of nothing. I did show them the 'Instant' but unfortunately it was still early by the nightlife standards set by the city and all they could see was the decor and no people.

Inside the Szimpla Kert- the most popular Ruin Pub

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Norway in a Nutshell- breathtaking beauty of Bergen and the Fjords

The Fjords of Norway

Delightful Bergen

I had never heard of Bergen before I started planning this trip. Now that we were going all the way to Baltics we did not just wish to be restricted to the places where the cruise would take us. We had a few days which we could spend in Northern areas. The thought of going to Laplands did enter the mind but in June there are no Northern lights visible due to long days so we turned our attention towards Norway. The name of Bergen railway figured in many forums that I went through and many described it as one of the most scenic rail journeys of the world. I also read about the Fjords tour from Bergen and that sounded really good. The decision was made that we would fly to Bergen from Stockholm after the cruise. This is exactly what we did.

We planned disembarkation in such a way from Cruise ship so that we could go directly to the airport. It was a short flight from Stockholm to Bergen. The Norwegian Air plane did not fly very high and sitting in the window seat I got spectacular views of  the areas and the eye pleasing views of green landscapes would give way to views of snow and glaciers. Scandinavia is wonderfully beautiful and these untouched parts of lakes, rivers, glaciers and mountains made this flight a spectacular one.
I had been following Bergen’s weather pattern and throughout the temperatures were around 6 deg C less than other places like Oslo, Stockholm etc. They were predicting rain on the day we were to take the Fjords tour. I hoped that this prediction would be wrong.Eventually the prediction wasn’t wrong but while it rained in Bergen we were already exploring the Fjords and it did not rain where we were.

The colors of Bergen
First impression about a city and country always helps in forming an opinion. The taxi guys advised that we should take a large taxi as with 7 people and luggage we would save money. They even organized a larger vehicle for us ! Our hotel was right in the middle of centre and we just checked in, dumped our luggage and were out on the streets. It was already 4 PM so I could not go and collect the tickets for the Fjords journey , as on Saturdays  the ticket window shut at 4. Neverthless I went strolling to the station to see its location as I would have to go to station earlier than rest of us to collect the tickets before our journey the next morning. It was just a 10 minute walk and with this out of mind I decided to explore the town.  

Salmon and Caviar
I did not venture very far from where we stayed. Devicka and Sanya went shopping and Kartik decided to relax. I walked towards the waterfront and came across the tourist centre  from where I got some information about the town. The fish market was very interesting and it was full of people. There were a few stalls outside selling Nowegian food and a few shops selling lovely Salmon, Caviar and crabs. I spent a lot of time here tasting the salmon and other interesting things and seeing how they were marinating the fish. The evening time was here and the pubs were getting louder. There were quite a few of them near the waterfront.

Busy pubs on a saturday

I walked back to collect the family so we could go up the funicular to the mountain top for spectacular views of the city. 
Scary if you stand as train goes down
The colourful buildings, river and mountains looked really lovely from the top. We went into the woods nearby and took a nice walk. It was beginning to get very chilly so it was time to get back. We skipped the bars and the pubs which had really come alive by now and there were people everywhere. We had to get up early in the morning so had a nice Thai meal and got all set for the Fjords tour. 

Norway in a Nutshell

This is the name of the tour which we took. We boarded 8.43 AM Bergen rail till a town called Voss. We boarded a bus at Voss which took us through spectacular scenery and scary hairpin bends to a place called Gudvangen. This journey was full of natural beauty and there was snow, waterfalls and mountains. The Japanese girl sitting next to me the window seat kept clicking pictures throughout.

One of the many villages we passed. The average age of these villagers is highest in the world. Credit goes to quality of water and quality of life. 
At Gudvangen a nice looking boat awaited us. I secured my seat at the top deck but ensured that I was well clad. It would get very cold when the sun disappeared and it would be nice but cold when sun shone albeit weakly. The rest of the gang chickened and stayed confined to the covered area downstairs. I must say that they missed out on a lot. Fjords are the mountains which rise from below the water and go right up. The boat was turning and twisting to go through the passages.

The turns in the Fjords would bring another spectacular landscape for us
As the boat would sail between the Fjords and make a turn there would be an audible gasp which collectively would go up as some spectacular vista would appear before our eyes which was hidden earlier. The boat made many such turns during these 2 hours and we stayed glued to our seats waiting for the new scene which would inevitably be more exciting than the last. The boat stopped at Flam where we had our lunch.

The waterfalls are exciting to watch as they gush down the Fjords. There were many waterfalls along the way.
The town of Flam was sleepy little town and we spent a couple of hours there. The idea of cycling came to the kids but by then we just had 30 minutes of spare time and the guy wouldn't give us cycles for less than 3 hours. It was working out too expensive for just 30 minutes. We were to catch the Flam railway from here . Flam Railway (Flamsbana) is a spectacular train journey that offers a panoramic view of some of the wildest and most magnificent nature in the Norwegian fjord landscape. 

The sleepy town of Flam made famous by Flam Railway

Flamsbana is one of the steepest train lines in the world on normal tracks, where almost 80% of the journey has a gradient of 5.5%. It takes an hour to cover just 20 km and even stops on way for tourists to get very close to one of the huge waterfalls.

The tourists were taken by surprise when the train stopped at a huge waterfall on the way and suddenly the entertainment came with dance and music

As we came close to town of Myrdal, the entire landscape got covered in snow as we were climbing up from Flam. This snow stayed with us for quite some time even after we boarded the Bergen rail from Myrdal till Oslo.

At Myrdal railway station. Beautiful. 

So, as you can figure out had we not taken the Norway in a Nutshell Fjords tour, our Bergen railway would have come straight from Voss  (where we had got off earlier) to Myrdal and proceeded towards Oslo. We had taken a detour to see these spectacular views. Those coming from Oslo do this Norway in a Nutshell in reverse sequence. We reached Oslo at 10.40 PM. It was still bright. We were in Scandinavia in middle of June after all.

I think this decision of going to Bergen and doing this Norway in a Nutshell tour was one of the best decisions we had taken. The beautiful scenery and landscapes we came across in one day would remain unforgettable in memory. Through the journey on Bergen Railway till Oslo our eyes stayed out of the window as this journey was also fantastic. Once the snow ended other landscapes appeared . I had carried a book to read but hardly turned a page.

Many people have wondered how we manged to do all this with our suitcases ? Walk-train-bus-boat-flam rail-train and then walk to the hotel was involved in a day which had started at 8 in the morning and ended at 11 at night. Well, we actually did not carry our suitcases. If we were to carry our luggage then all the fun would have been lost and it would have been a cumbersome journey. We had booked a service called porter service ( in advance who had picked up the suitcases from our Bergen hotel at 6.45 in the morning and delivered them to Oslo hotel before we reached. There was a price to pay but our comfort level was much more than 250 NOK which we paid per suitcase.