Europe: Things I wish someone had told me before I planned!

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Photo of Europe: Things I wish someone had told me before I planned! 1/9 by sudha

We had been on a great trip. Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and on to a few places in Italy. While the kids joined us for the Italy part, it was Ram and I managing things till then.There were a few things throughout- Right from the application part, when I felt that it would have been easier if someone could have told me a few things.This is my attempt to bridge that lacunae.

Getting a Schengen Visa

Am sure regular travellers are aware of these things, but for people who are still planning:The application to be filled is different for different application centers. We had wrongly filled up the application form meant for people from Delhi and had to re-fill using the application for applying to Mumbai, as Hyderabad, from where we applied, falls under Mumbai Jurisdiction. Next important thing is to choose which of the European country to apply. For example, if you are planning to spend 4 days in Paris, 5 days in Amsterdam and 6 days in Italy, you can apply for Italian Visa (as the number of days you are spending there is more. On the other hand, if you are spending the same number of days in more than one European country, then it will the country you are first entering. ( We heard that an Italian visa is easier to get because the embassy isn't very strict, and applied, planning to spend 17 days there. No complaints because not only we got the Visa easily, Italy was the most beautiful part of our itinerary)

We had used the services of VFS global. They explained that the most important thing for the Visa to be issued easily is that you should have bookings for every journey and every stay. You have to show your actual booking references for every night of stay (15 nights in this case), Also the booking references for flights or any other form of transport traveling from your home to Paris, the place you are staying there and then to Amsterdam and to every place in Italy, you are planning to visit. If you are going to drive, then the car rental agreement has to be shown. The visa is issued for the said period + a couple of days earlier and later. (Yes we did worry about how all or at least some of the money spent on bookings may go waste if the visa is rejected. But that is the only way to get the visa. Also, I heard that they are rejected only rarely and only if all the criteria are not met. We also needed to submit proofs of identity (aadhar card) and proof of residence at the place we were applying. For eg: we had to have address proof in Hyderabad and not Mumbai where the embassy was located. While Ram gave the house document for his residence proof, I had to give a marriage certificate so I could ride along the house document. (Even though the Aadahar cards had addresses, they were not accepted as address proofs.) We also had to provide bank recent statements to show that, Yes! We have the money to make this trip. VFS actually does all the vetting required so as to avoid rejections. But if you are going to use VFS services, be aware that you need to book an appointment there too.) The visa takes 7 working days to 10. We opted for it to reach home by courier.

Things to do in Europe:

After you finish applying, the next thing would be to decide what are the attractions you don't want to miss. Some experiences like the Eiffel Tower Tour, Louvre in Paris {which houses the Mona Lisa}, the Anne Frank house visit in Amsterdam, the Palace of Versailles, Convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan (which houses 'The last supper'), Vatican city, have very long queues for the buying of tickets. But you can book in advance, online and not only can get out of standing in the Qs but also these online reservations include skipping the queues at the entry point (another hour saved)

We did not book for the Louvre and wasted nearly 2 hours waiting at the Queue- the time which we could have used to see more paintings. But immediately, after getting home (Airbnb) from the Museum, booked for all others online. The sad thing was that the Anne Frank house had to be booked at least 30 days in advance and so we did not get to see it.

Another very important thing is to be on time for your bookings. They can even cancel the whole booking without any refunds if you are late. At the Vatican city, we had an appointment for 11 AM and we could reach only by 11.15. The group with whom we were supposed to go in had already left. (The number in each group is restricted). So they told us that we cannot get in. When we repeatedly requested they asked us to wait around and that they would let us join if there are absentees in the next groups. Luckily we got an opening after an hour and we went in, but missed an hour of enjoying the place.

We had a similar issue at the Colosseum in Rome. But that proved to be a blessing in disguise. They asked us to come back the next day because we were late by 10 minutes for a 2-hour experience. 15 minutes after that there was a hail storm there, at which time we were sipping on hot chocolate at a restaurant.

Money matters:

Even if you have any number of master and Visa cards its very important that you carry quite a good amount of euros.

A Pizzeria we ate at, at a small Italian village on the way to Amalfi coast insisted they wont take any type of cards. Also some of the innumerable toll booths, wanted currency. The most important thing was, in Italy, every tourist has to pay something called tourist tax (some places it was 2 Euros and at Venice it actually was 4 Euros per head). This is collected by the hotels/Airbnbs. This needs to be paid only through currency.

All over Europe We found people dressing up as statues and standing outside the tourist attractions. They are extremely good and you will not guess they are aren't statues. As you are passing them they suddenly snatch at you or break into a song and blow kisses at you. Also there are such good street musicians on subways and street corners. You will need currency if you want to put into their hats/collection boxes.

Photo of Europe: Things I wish someone had told me before I planned! 2/9 by sudha

Food and Eating

The next challenge for us was food because most of our stays were in Airbnb, which meant there were no hotels attached. We were also vegetarians which added to the challenges. (but actually nowadays because of the vegan revolution, getting vegetarian/vegan food isn't that big an issue in Europe. I heard in China, Japan and Russia getting vegetarian food is difficult, though). Even though we were wanting to try new food, we felt having simple breakfast/ dinner at the Airbnb will help save lot of time. Also as we did have access to kitchens, we packed a lot of ready to make breakfasts from MTR like poha, upma, pongal etc and some packets of Maggie noodles. Even though this meant carrying more luggage, we saved time, a lot of money and had good food. No regrets about this decision. Ram and I are coffee lovers and we took this ready-made filter coffee decoction, bought milk from local supermarkets and had good coffee in the mornings. Some days we had the local cuisines for lunch and tried out new stuff. While we did like ravioli, pasta etc, we felt it was very bland for our Indian palate. When we asked for spice they gave us some chilly flakes. But it did not enhance the taste as there was not enough salt and sourness to balance the spice. That's when I felt Indians should carry a good mix of salt, red chilly powder and amchur and sprinkle a good dose over the European food so that we can enjoy it. But the kids were of the opinion we should eat them as they are and learn to enjoy it the European way, instead of Indianising it. For dinners, we packed ready to eat stuff like paneer butter masala, dal thadka etc and ate with Kakra. Some days we bought freshly baked bread from the supermarket and had that along with subzis, instead of kakras. The dal tadka and pav baji were our favorites.

While still on food, we realized that most of the restaurants, especially in Italy, charge much more if you require seating and want to be served. (50% more). So the best would be to order takeaway and sit on the sidewalk benches/grass/chairs and eat. Same goes for coffee too.

One Indian restaurant in Rome did not allow us to even sit on the empty chairs as we waited for our take away food to get ready, even though there were hardly any customers.

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Photo of Europe: Things I wish someone had told me before I planned! 3/9 by sudha

I have to mention the European Cappuccinos. They were mind-blowing. Except for one cup at the Milan airport, which a-very-distracted-girl made, every one of them was excellent. The quantity (luckily, not too much like in the USA) was also exactly right for us. If I have to complain, the only thing was it wasn't hot enough for us.

No place we could get 'chai' like in India. They only had the black tea.

But the gelattos??? Amazing. Could not finish trying out all the different flavors. They allow you to choose 2 for single scoops. But the varieties and flavors are sooo many for you to finish checking out in such a short time. Ok

Weather and Jackets:

Then there is the jackets issue. We had gone in the month of October. After checking the weather and enquiring with friends in Europe we had carried jackets with different thicknesses. The day used to start off pretty sunny. Looking at it, we would settle for a light jacket and it would be good to travel on the upper deck of a hop-off-hop-on bus. By the afternoon it would become colder and we needed to sit on the lower deck. By early evening we would start shivering. So from the next day, we began carrying some heavier jackets with hoods in our backpacks. We anyways carried backpacks with snacks and fruits so, we did not need to waste time on elaborate lunches, when the time could be used for exploring more and seeing more stuff at museums.

Photo of Europe: Things I wish someone had told me before I planned! 4/9 by sudha

While it is good to carry food and jackets, you also have to remember that there are no bell boys or porters in Europe. You have to lug around all your luggage yourself. Also flights within Europe charge for the luggage. So you have to carefully pack so you can have minimum suitcases and at the same time pack all essentials. A backpack for every body is a good idea.

Museums and More

Before leaving for the trip, just googling about the places to see at each destination, revealed that 4 days at each place were hardly enough. I am guessing no one can actually 'finish' seeing Europe without visiting it multiple times. {Ram and I visited Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam by ourselves, spending 4 days at each place and the kids joined us for the Italy part, which was for 17 days}. So, I made a list of things we definitely wanted to see. As most of them were famous museums like the Louvre in Paris, the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam etc which could definitely not be seen entirely, We made a list of paintings at each museum that we did not want to miss. We saw whatever we could on the way to these paintings, Murals and sculptures. If we had more time left after that, then we went in any direction we fancied and saw whatever we could.

So a proper googling and listing will definitely help you with having a great experience. Some of the things on our list was The Mona Lisa, the Winged Victory, Venus de Milo in Louvre, The Night watch, Vermeer's milkmaid, The battle of Waterloo (I liked this most for the fine details) and Winter landscape with Ice skaters In Rijks Museum. The original 'David' in Rome. Even though 'The last supper' in Santa Maria Delle Grazie, Milan and 'The girl with the Pearl Earring" by Vermeer at The Hague, were on our list, we could not see them.

(I enjoy bizarre things and found the story that Rembrandt's Night-watch, in fact, wasn't supposed to be a night scene at all, very interesting! The group portrait was named so after a long time had elapsed since it was painted. The varnish had become darker with time and seemed like night. When the varnish was removed the pic showed that it wasn't a night scene at all. But because the painting had already become famous by the name it is still called the Night Watch!)

Getting Around:

We found the Hop on Hop off kind of buses with their open tops, the best way to see places. They were available at all the places we went to, even in remote places like Amalfi Coast. Though they were a tad bit expensive, we used them to go around and decide which of the places we needed to see more of. We never saw Museums during the HOHO bus trips because it would use up the time we are paying for the bus. Instead, we took a whole day at the museums traveling on our own.

The kids had booked our Airbnb and they found places which had access to public transport, The transport system is very good. Everywhere we had Metros, Buses, Trams and Trains within walking distances. We actually enjoyed this aspect of travelling by local transport very much. It gave us a lot of insights into the lives of the common people.

Photo of Europe: Things I wish someone had told me before I planned! 5/9 by sudha

Javel metro station, Paris.

The kids joined us at Milan. We traveled to Venice and Florence by Italia Rail. From Florence we hired a car and Sai drove to all other Italian cities.

Photo of Europe: Things I wish someone had told me before I planned! 6/9 by sudha

At places like Rome, Amalfi coast parking was a big issue. So we had to leave the car in long time parking and use local transport (which were actually good). So it is economical to take public transport to these places and also for sightseeing.But places like Tuscany where we spent a night at this awesome resort growing olives and grapes could not have been done without a car. Also we left some luggage in the car during other stays, so we did not need to carry luggages everywhere. Those were the advantages of having a car during the whole trip.

Within Europe too, instead of taking flights, using the extremely good railways and buses are the best options as you get treated to the beautiful vistas of the country sides. You feel you get to see more of Europe.

LOO'king for washrooms:

I have read somewhere about the 10 commandments of travel. One of them was 'use the loo whenever you see one, irrespective of you need it or not because you don't know when you will find the next'.

In the European context, I think I will modify it to read 'Use the 'free' loo whenever....' because most of the public washrooms charge anywhere between 2 to 4 Euros. Converting to INR (i know I can't stop doing this) it's like minimum 200INR for one use. But I soon realized that places like museums etc have very good washrooms at no charges. So it's wiser to use them despite the big queues.

In this context, I had a funny experience.

We were taking the Eurostar Train from Brussels to Amsterdam and reached the Brussels MIDI station, well and early. Early meant I needed to use the loo and leaving Ram and the luggage, walked the whole length of the platform looking for one. The second time I noticed a small sign that showed the symbol and pointed towards a lift with instruction to go down. When I did that I saw that they were there but with instructions that looked like I needed to use a token. Frustrated, but with nothing else to do, I again went all the way back, hurriedly borrowed a few euros from ram and returned.

But when I reached back I could not see where I could to buy the token from. I tried putting a euro coin in but it just glided back. I walked all around looking for a place to buy, but except for a kiosk selling beer (very tactical, I guess), there was nothing there. There was no one in front of the ladies room, but there were a big noisy group of young guys who were talking what sounded like German.

So hesitantly, I went and asked them where I could buy a token. They did not understand and I tried acting it out. By then most of them had finished their jobs and the last one gestured towards me and said something. Though I did not understand the words, I understood his gesture, asking me to go inside.

I immediately understood what they were doing. They had bought only one token and the others all held the door and let each one use it one by one. Now the last one was holding the door for me and asking if I wanted to use it. I was very desperate. I just took a peek in and realized that the room looked just like the ladies one. So, what the hell! I went in and did my job and came out. When I was out, luckily, there was no one waiting.

So coolly, I went back with the few euros intact in my pockets.

Photo of Europe: Things I wish someone had told me before I planned! 7/9 by sudha

Some interesting learnings:

Paris was our first destination and we landed at Charles De Gaulle airport at 9.30 PM. After reaching our Airbnb by taxi we had dinner (Tamarind rice+potato chips, carried from home). The tiny apartment had a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower.

Photo of Europe: Things I wish someone had told me before I planned! 8/9 by sudha

View from outside our Airbnb

We realized that we were too pumped up to go to sleep. We thought we would go out walking and check if there were some supermarkets nearby, so we could buy milk for the next day's coffee. After hearing so much about Paris night life, we were slightly disappointed that the place had shut down by 10 PM. Maybe the night life was only confined to certain parts. But we walked around, thrilled to think that we were in one historical, famous, fashionable and celebrated cities of the world. Taking photos and looking into shops, closed for business but lit up inside, we were soon very near the Eiffel Tower.

Photo of Europe: Things I wish someone had told me before I planned! 9/9 by sudha

But suddenly we got tired and wanted to get back. As we followed the google map back to our home, Ram's phone shut down. The battery had died. {Only he had 4G}. But using common sense we were finding our way back when we came across three roads branching away roughly towards the same side and we were not sure which of them to take and were too tired to take the wrong one and keep trying. We were just outside the Shangri La hotel and saw a group of well-dressed youngsters chatting and smoking. Even though I was apprehensive about asking them, we went ahead and tried to explain. They knew English and we knew too. But both had different accents and they were not understanding ours. Suddenly I got this idea! Instead of explaining, I just said two words. Lost. Help. and showed them the address I had on my phone. One young and handsome (are there any other kind of French men? sigh) peeled off from the group with a loud 'Aaaah' and entered the address into his phone and soon showed us not only which road to take but also a shortcut!

LEARNING: When you have to talk to strangers in these kinds of situations, use only keywords so you can repeat many times and make them understand through the accent part.

Finally....

I understand that Google may be the best way to get around, find out things when you travel. But once in a while just leave it and ask people around for directions, information or even start a conversation with a stranger.

Because travel is not just about seeing the Eiffel tower or the Mona Lisa. It's about knowing the people whose lives aren't like ours. It's trying to understand their views and ideas. It is trying to figure out their lifestyles. It is knowing them and realize that we are different but we are also alike.

I had such interesting, insightful and funny conversations when I talked to many people. That, I guess will be the subject of my next blog.

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nice work...
Fri 12 14 18, 01:06 · Reply · Report