Posted in Europe travel, food, life, mountains, Photos, travel, travel photography, writing

A Trip to Liechtenstein and Austria

I am a big fan of budget travel. Apart from meeting new people, you also travel cheap. Having undertaken a number of such trips since I came to the Netherlands about eighteen months ago, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands when one of the student trips organization announced an excursion to Vaduz and Innsbruck.

A view of Vaduz from the hilltop


To those who are not aware of Vaduz, it is the capital of Liechtenstein-the sixth smallest country in the world. Starting from Utrecht in the heart of the Netherlands on a cold evening, about eighty people (some students, some expats) arrived in Vaduz the next morning. We were immediately captivated by the place-the hills, the signs in German and not a soul out on the streets. Coming from India and living in the Netherlands (two of the most densely populated countries in the world), you become accustomed to seeing people wherever you go. But not in Vaduz. However, we were told that while the shops would open much later, the tourist information center would open before time for us. After a quick snack, we went about exploring the city.

Some landmarks in Vaduz

Since this was a one-day trip and we had to reach Austria around lunchtime, we had about two hours to see what the city had to offer. One of the most remarkable sites of the city is the Vaduz Castle-home of the Prince. Sitting on top of a hill, it is visible from anywhere in the city and is like a symbolic watchtower-with the Prince watching over the city’s inhabitants and acting like a guardian angel. Since the city center would be deserted in the early morning, we decided to climb the hill and see the castle. A road near the parking depot led to the path towards our destination. After walking for about 20 minutes, we reached the castle. Made of stone, it is a site to behold. Although not very big, it is still very impressive. One of the lucky members of the group even managed to meet the Prince.

Vaduz Castle

After seeing our share of the castle, we headed back down towards the main street. Here, the tourist information center, the museum, parliament and the main church are all in the same line, with the garden in front of them. The four most important buildings on one street gave us an idea of the size of this city. Especially for me, coming from a big city in India where travelling from one end to the other takes about three hours, it was a bit surprising to see that entire city could be crossed in about fifteen minutes. With our time in Vaduz over, we headed towards Innsbruck in Austria.

Inn river flowing through Innsbruck

Innsbruck (the name meaning Inn bridge in German) is a popular winter sports destination of the country. Located in the state of Tyrol, I was immediately struck as to how similar the city looked to the hill stations like Manali in India, with a rapidly flowing river fed by the melting glaciers amidst snow covered peaks. Since we were about a month away from Christmas, there were Christmas markets all around the city-in total six of them. We went about these markets, trying out the local delicacies, especially “Currywurst met pommes” (Sausages in curry with French fries) and Gluhwein (hot wine mixed with honey and spices).

Apart from all the Christmas festivities, Innsbruck also has a lot of cultural history. We visited one of its most famous landmarks-Goldenes Dachl, loosely translated as the Golden Roof. In ancient times, the Emperor of the land could watch tournaments and other performances going on in the square below from his position. We were lucky to witness a performance of an orchestra from this roof while doing some Christmas shopping.

Goldenes Dach or Golden Roof in Innsbruck

All things must come to an end, and this happened with us too. Soon we realized that it was time to leave and go back to our hectic lives in the Netherlands. All in all, it was a good trip and one that we all deserved given the amount of work we had put in the last few months.

Posted in book review, thriller, travel, writing

Tales of Polar, Desert and Sea Explorations

There are few men in history and almost none alive today, who can be compared in the same breath as Sir Ranulph Fiennes. For those who are hearing his name for the first time, Sir Ranulph is one of the best polar explorers in the world, in addition to being a writer and a poet. I first read about him when I was reading something about Antarctic expeditions and the more I found out about him, the more respect I had for the man. But like him, my thirst for knowledge and understanding was not quenched, and so I decided to read his autobiography- Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know. The unusual sounding title is how he was referred to by his father-in-law when he asked his daughter’s hand to marry him.

The book begins with an account of the author’s childhood-the death of his father in World War 2 before he was born, his childhood in South Africa and how he dreamed of someday commanding the Royal Grey Scouts, which he ultimately did. After graduating from university (where he was taught German by John le Carre, the famous author), he served in the army of the Sultanate of Oman, and once his commision expired began looking for alternative employment opportunities. What followed was a series of expeditions in Canada, Transglobe (where the team started from England and went to Antarctica, the Arctic and back to England over a course of three years, travelling entirely on land and sea), the Antarctic expeditions and countless others. But the one expedition that I was really impressed by was the 7*7*7 marathon challenge.

Ranulph finishing a marathon
Sir Ranulph completing a marathon

In 2003, just three months after suffering a heart attack and undergoing a bypass surgery, Sir Ranulph completed 7 marathons in 7 days across 7 continents. While most of us only dream about running one marathon, this sixty-year “young” man completed seven over a period of six days actually, taking into account the different time zones. And in addition to that, the sponsors had one more condition-each marathon must be completed in under six hours, which both Sir Ranulph and his partner managed to do.

Sir Ranulph writes the book in a no-nonsense style, meaning if he doesn’t like someone, he will say it. And that is what makes this book so interesting. Readers expecting high drama and adrenaline pumping action will be disappointed. The author does not glorify himself or the expeditions, rather he simply states the facts, his preparation, the journey itself and finally the outcome. Towards the end of the book, the author described his failed attempt to climb Everest and successful one to climb the north face of the Eiger.

Sir Ranulph climbing the Eiger

Ginny, the author’s first wife features predominantly in the book. He described her as a rock in his life, taking care of all the planning and communication for his expeditions, in addition to managing a farm in his hometown. Her death due to cancer affected the morale of the author, but he subsequently remarried.

Having raised over 10 million pounds so far for charity, the author pens down his “wishlist” at the end of the book, where even at the age of seventy, he wants to plan and go for a few more expeditions in order to reach the magical figure of 15 million pounds.

After the release of the book, the author succeeded in his third attempt to climb Everest and thus became the first man to cross both poles on land and climb Everest. When one journalist asked him about his plans for retirement, he joked that he would never retire as he thought playing golf and bridge are ways to reach an early grave.

There are many things that one can learn from this man and his book, no matter what your profession. Never give up is the foremost lesson. Strive hard to achieve what you want, and ultimately you will get it. And lastly, age is just a number. If a man in his sixties can run seven marathons in seven days barely three months after having a double bypass, we in our twenties can finish at least one.  

Hovercraft expedition across the Nile
Posted in book review, travel

Tales of African and Amazonian Exploration

Exploration and the desire to reach the most uninhabitable places on earth was always and still is, the fascination of explorers around the world. Since the 1850s, the world wanted to know more about Africa and the Amazon. One of the most famous questions burning through the minds of explorers was regarding the Source of the Nile in Africa and the presence of a lost city in the Amazon, fabled for its riches. These were the topics of my reads this month. The first was Into Africa: The Remarkable Story of Stanley and Livingstone by Martin Dugard and the other was The Lost City of Z by David Grann.

THe lost city of Z

Into Africa deals with the adventures of David Livingstone and more importantly, the search to find him when he goes missing. Like most explorers of his era, Livingstone was a man fixed on his purpose, which can be gauged from the fact that his 21-year-old son had only seen him for 5 years of his life. His life was dedicated to only one thing-finding the source of the Nile. The discovery of the source was a challenge captivating the hearts and minds of the British explorers. Into Africa talks about this challenge. The book also mentions the previous efforts undertaken by Burton and Speke, but the main protagonists are Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley.

Livingstone was a Scottish missionary and had undertaken two expeditions previously to Africa. What made him more famous was the fact that he was a commoner and not an aristocrat as all the other British explorers were before him or at that time. He went into Africa to spread the gospels about Jesus but found himself captivated by the land and eventually with the questions of the Nile’s source. So, he set out in 1867 to finally find the answer to that question. His disappearance and ultimate discovery by Stanley forms the crux of the book. In a way, the book and the story give us the lesson that once we set our minds to a task and go about it with diligence, we will succeed eventually. Even though Livingstone failed in finding the source, he made numerous discoveries which led to people getting to know more about the continent from his journals and writings.

Similar to Africa, there was a myth circulating among the British exploratory circles that the Amazon was once a host of a vast and rich civilization. Though many doubted that an isolated land could harbour such a complex civilization, the evidence was overwhelming enough to point to the affirmative. The city was called Z and the search for it by British explorer Percy Fawcett Jr in the early 1900s forms the heart of The Lost City of Z. The author of the book David Grann retraced Fawcett’s steps as part of his research and ultimately succeeded in finding the lost city which had eluded the explorer.

Both the books are easy reads and make you appreciate the hardships that the early explorers went to help us understand all that we know about these lands today.

Posted in Europe travel, Photos, travel, travel photography

Highlights from the Croatia-Slovenia trip

“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” -Ibn Battuta

I came to Europe about 8 months ago for my masters at the Delft University of Technology. While studying was at the forefront of my ambitions, I also wanted to travel across Europe in my limited time as a student to try to understand first hand the beauty of this continent. In the first few months, I travelled to Belgium, Germany and saw some cities in the Netherlands. Then, after an exhausting semester of studies, I decided to visit Croatia and Slovenia via a tour organized by pm2am student trips.

The departure date was the 28th of April. Arriving at Amsterdam Sloterdijk station, I was happy to see the bus that would be taking us to the destination was already waiting at the bus stop. Loading my luggage,  I sat down for what would be a long journey to Lake Bled in Slovenia.

About 16 hours after departing from Amsterdam, we arrived in Lake Bled. Located about 55 kms from the capital city of Ljubljana, the lake is a major tourist attraction and a must visit for anyone who visits the region. A church sits on a small island in the middle of the lake and Bled Castle sits atop a hill just beside. The church features prominently in the most viewed photographs of Bled. After soaking in the view and clicking lots of pictures for the next 3 hours, we proceeded to the city of Zagreb in Croatia.


Lake Bled in Slovenia

Croatia is not a part of the Schengen agreement, so visitors (even with a EU residence permit) need to stop at the border control. Now, if you are travelling in a bus (like I did), this process can take anywhere from 1 hour to 3-4 hours depending on how many buses are before you at the checkpoint as each member’s passport and residence permit are checked and the details logged. So the best way to avoid the long lines is to reach the border early and no later than 11 am, otherwise be prepared for a long wait. After crossing the checkpoint, we reached Zagreb where we checked into the Chillout hostel  and went for a city tour with a professional tour guide.

The city of Zagreb is divided into two parts-the old and the new-by a tram line. While the old part sits atop a hill, the new lies on a plain. Compared to the new part, the old city is worth visiting. Some of the major attractions include the Museum of Broken Relationships, St. Marks Square and the Croatian Parliament. All these are very close to each other and can be visited in a short time. Also many locals dress up in different styles and this offers visitors a chance to take some pictures with them.


Locals dressed in different attires in Zagreb

After a tour of the old city, we came back to the hostels to freshen up and start the pub crawl. Zagreb is home to some of the best clubs in that part of Europe which was evident as we bar hopped from one place to the next, having tons of fun along the way.

The next morning was the highlight of our trip. We were going to visit the Plitvice Lake National Park. After a sumptuous breakfast, we began the two hour journey to the park and arrived there around noon. One note to those reading this blog and who want to visit the park is to arrive there early-preferably 9-10 to avoid the long lines and have a chance to visit most of the park. The park has different routes marked- A, B, C, K etc. with A being the shortest and K the longest. Since we had arrived a bit late, we took the B route.

You get a different feel as soon as you enter the park. One of the first sounds you hear is that of the waterfalls, and that is also the first site you see. The large waterfall is one of the highlights of this park. Another less known location is the place from which the national park can be viewed from the highest point. To get there, take the stairs upwards from the waterfall viewpoint. After a climb of about 5-10 minutes, you will see a wooden cabin. Ahead of the cabin is a road. Take the road until you see a wooden bridge. Turn right at the bridge and take the small trail on the side of the road. By now you should be hearing the unmistakable sound of waterfalls. Keep walking until you reach a stony viewpoint and then marvel at the view that you see (the view is the cover image of this blog). Visitors at the National park also have the option of hiring a tour guide and camping at the site. Also, don’t forget to take the boat ride when going from P3 to P2. I think it is better than walking the whole way around the hills.


Waterfall at the Plitvice Lake National Park

Our last stop was Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia. We started a bit earlier from Zagreb to avoid the long lines at the border control and arrived at 2 pm. We then began a guided tour which took us into the heart of the city. Home to about 260,000 Slovenians, Ljubljana is not a big city and every major attraction is just a few minutes away. The Ljubljana castle overlooks the city. This is where we started. Visitors can either take the Funicular or walk the way to the castle. We took the first approach to save the time. The castle is home to a museum and offers a fine view of the city. One cannot help but stop and marvel at the city nestled between the mountains. After spending some time at the castle and visiting the detention center for the POWs of the First World War, we came down to visit the rest of the city.


One of the bridges in Ljubljana

One of the famous attractions is the Dragon Bridge as the city is often called the city of dragons. Four dragons are placed on four corners of the bridge and they are believed to act as guardians. A short distance Near the Dragon bridge is the open market where farmers come to sell their wares. A short distance from the bridge is the Butcher’s Bridge. This bridge features a glass bottom along the sides through which the strong hearted can see  the river below. Crossing the bridge one can see the St. Nicholas Church and the market where every friday there is an open kitchen selling different cuisines.

For the food and drink lovers, Ljubljana has plenty to offer-from good wine to great burgers. Don’t forget to eat the ice cream there which according to Lonely Planet is the best in the world. After spending about 9 hours in the city (which I believe are more than enough), we proceeded back to Amsterdam and after a journey of about 20 hours, I finally reached home. As I lay in bed that night, all I could think about was the lakes and the waterfalls in the Plitvice Lake National Park and the amazing time that I had in the trip.