Friday, July 24, 2015

What To Expect When Expecting A Trip To Europe

Or How One Can Run Out of Funny Titles for Blog Posts


So you have your budget ironed out, your dates finalized, flight tickets booked and you are searching the Web for tips on how to make the most out of your European vacation. I'm not sure if this will help with all your questions, but here's what worked for me as an Indian traveling to Austria and Italy with two kids and one wife. Your mileage may vary.


A lot of people swear by renting a car and driving all over Europe, much like Shah Rukh Khan and other heroes from Bollywood movies. We didn't try it because we felt it could be expensive and would add an added complexity of finding parking, especially in big cities like Rome and Vienna. Moreover, we would be in Austria before April 14, the official start of spring, and all cars were required to have snow tires. Coming from Bangalore, where we hardly have tires, let alone snow, we decided to avoid renting a car.

We booked all our inter-city travel on trains, and used trams, subways, buses and Uber for getting around within cities. OBB is the site to use for all travel within Austria, and Italia Rail for Italy. I did try Trenitalia too, but the website chewed up my purchase and that was ₹5000 down the drain. I'm not going to link to their website, that should show them.

I would advise reserving your seats, if your booking does have that option. We made the mistake of not booking seats ahead of time for the fairly long journey from Salzburg to Venice, and had to stand for a while, with two tired children and four tiring bags in tow.

We bought metro passes in Rome and Vienna, and the card we got in Salzburg allowed us to not just get free rides in buses, but cheap entry to museums and other places of interest as well. Highly recommended.

And oh, all trains, buses, trams and bullock carts in Austria arrive on time. All the time.


Airbnb worked like a charm for us everywhere, apart from Salzburg and Hallstatt where I couldn't find homes we liked. Most houses were very well stocked up on basic groceries like bread, jam, coffee, Nutella, wine and beer. The time invested early on in looking at photos of the homes, reading reviews and interacting with the hosts over the Airbnb app was definitely worthwhile. The hosts were professional, welcoming and helpful. Special shout out to Thomas, Paolo and Giovanni, who went the extra mile to make us comfortable.


You have the option of picking up prepaid SIM cards from India based providers like Matrix and Roam1. I use this when I travel to the US, but thought I'd try out SIMs from local providers in Austria and Italy, as they seemed cheap - around €10 - and came with pretty good data plans. I did not have any problem with buying these in both countries, and setup was a breeze. 3G connectivity helped a lot as we could use Maps, look up places of interest on Wikipedia, check Trip Advisor reviews of restaurants and spam our family and friends on Whatsapp with pictures every five minutes. That said, quite a few places had free wifi, so connectivity really wasn't that big a deal apart from when we were on the road.

The Austria SIM card did not work in Italy, but the one I got in Italy worked in Austria, although I was told it would not. I'm still not sure why, but found it interesting.


We had picked the shoulder season, the period when winter eases off into spring and tourists haven't yet swarmed all over the place. India having school holidays in April helps too, as most of the western world has their summer vacation two to three months later. Now the problem with traveling to Austria around the beginning of spring is that it still gets really, really cold.

We have one kind of weather, we Malayalees, even when we are from Bangalore. It's almost always hot, and the temperature does not change beyond a couple of degrees Celsius when it rains. We were just not prepared for the wild swings in temperature in places like Salzburg, where it was fifteen degrees at 3pm and two degrees by 5:45. We had jackets and sweaters to be sure, but had not thought to pack scarves, caps and mufflers. Sindha offered me a dupatta, but I wouldn't be caught dead wearing one, of course. Would have looked pretty silly.

Useful Sites

We wouldn't have had such a smooth trip without two amazing sites: the very practical and funny Reid's Italy and the exhaustive Rick Steve's Europe. Pay special attention to Reid's suggestions around booking online for Museum visits, as it saved us many hours of long wait times. We could not do this at all places though, the dome in Florence for instance had a two hour wait. Equipping your kids with essential travel supplements like iPads and phones will make your wait easier, of course.

Trip Advisor was a godsend for restaurant, hotel and museum reviews. We also read several blogs, some for couples traveling alone, some for single parents with kids and some for single dogs traveling without puppies. Also, as always, Google is your friend. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

David and the Taj

I was not prepared for the size. I had seen pictures, had read up articles which told me what to expect, I had had a similar experience before, but I just wasn't prepared. Wasn't prepared for the size, the beauty, the sheer perfection that is Michelangelo's David.

David stands tall at the Accademia Gallery in Florence. There is a replica available at the Piazza della Signoria, which is now largely ignored. Tourists make a beeline for the Accademia almost as soon as they land in Florence.

We had reserved tickets a couple of months in advance, which helped us avoid the line. It does cost €3 extra, but it definitely beats having to wait for an hour or more. We used the excellent Select Italy site for all our reservations for the various museums and other sites of interest in the country.

Almost everyone rushes past the other sculptures and paintings to view the star of the Accademia, but we wanted to take our time and savour the suspense a bit. We spent the first few minutes admiring the plaster study for The Rape of the Sabines, and the other paintings by Botticelli, Perugino, et al. A long hallway came up next, which featured four of Michelangelo's nonfiniti, or unfinished sculptures, titled Slaves. He had also started on a sculpture of St Matthew, which stands next to the four Slaves. Sindha took her time looking at these sculptures, but I couldn't control myself anymore. David was looming up ahead.

If you include the base, David stands at a colossal 15ft, towering over Goliaths in the crowd below. I was not prepared for the size, nor for the perfectionism of Michelangelo. Take a look at David's right hand for instance, at the veins standing out, fingers holding the stone for his sling. Look at the intensity in his eyes as he stares to his left, presumably at his enemy, later taken as staring towards Rome.

I spent forty minutes looking at David. I took over a hundred pictures. I walked around him multiple times. I watched other people looking at him, trying to find things that I hadn't spotted. I read up articles on Michelangelo and David, wanting to know more. I was awestruck. I was blown away. I cried.

I do not know why the sculpture moved me so much. The last time this happened was when I saw the Taj for the first time, almost twenty five years ago. I still do not know why I had cried when I saw that stunning monument. It was perhaps the most beautiful work of art I had ever seen. Up until this April morning in Florence, when I saw a masterpiece by one of the world's most famous artists.

Art is magical. Art is powerful. Art can move you to tears. I have learned that now.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Travel in Austria

Austria is a strange country. When the railway platform displays the arrival time of a train as 9:07, it arrives exactly at 9:07 and not anytime between 11 and 2, as it would in normal places.

They aren't content with just trains being on time, by the way. Cities like Vienna have buses, trams and five different subway lines apart from the regular inter-city trains. All this, but not a single autorickshaw charging oneandaff anywhere in sight. Weird.

We made use of all modes of transport in Austria. Buses, where you could either buy tickets from the driver after getting on board, or use a city card which entitles you to hop on to any bus, tram or subway train within the city. The Salzburg city card for instance worked really well for us, as it allowed us free use of buses, as well as entry to almost all the major tourist attractions.

Vienna had trams too, which were Spider-Man approved:

We used the Austrian Federal Railways portal to book tickets for inter city travel, like getting from Vienna to Hallstatt. Like pretty much everything else in Austria, the site is efficient and works well all the time.

These trains have a catered dining service called Henry, which serves coffee and sandwiches. No samosas though.

We hopped on to a ferry as well, connecting the Hallstatt railway station to the city center.

The only problem we faced was on the train from Salzburg to Venice, where we hadn't reserved seats in advance. We had to walk across carriages with our luggage looking for unallocated seats, which could have been avoided if I had the presence of mind to book seats as well. No one really makes room for you either, unlike our trains in India. Again, efficient and effective, but not really the friendliest place in the world.

But it is one of the most beautiful. More on that later.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Mohan Lal's Favourite City

I blame Sai Kumar. I don't think I'd have wanted to visit Vienna if not for that one line remark from Aaram Thamburan, where he reminds Mohan Lal of his favorite city. Of all the places in all the world, why Vienna? Eighteen years later, a wife, two kids and a couple of weeks away from work, I decided to find out.

Planning for a European holiday starts at least a year in advance. I wanted to do this the right way, so I spent a few months googling for 'Vacation in Europe'. I then took a couple of months trying to create a Google Map with those nice red pin thingummys spread over Europe, indicating where we planned to visit. Another month was spent in trying to locate the right travel planning site which would take those red pins and give me a detailed travel itinerary, including costs of tickets, coffee and samosas. I spent hours on sites that provided detailed information on the weather, what to wear, food, drink and traveling with children.

Armed with all this, I was ready for the board meeting with my wife and kids. I outlined the principles I had come up with, spoke about the areas we would cover, and was about to get into the do's and don'ts when my six year old promptly vetoed the whole plan as it did not include Paris. Why Paris? Because his best friend has been there and he needs to go too. Not to be outdone, my eleven year old daughter jumped in and asked for Athens. Because Percy Jackson. I was wondering how to include Vienna, Paris and Athens in my proposed tour of the Scottish distilleries art museums of Scotland, when my wife, the Chairperson of the board, declared that we will visit Italy and Austria. Because Chairperson.

And that was that.