Gallivanting in Europe

Tripoto
16th Nov 2017

Many parallels can be drawn between the Indian states and the member countries of the European Union. As diverse are the Indian states from one another in terms of history, culture, topography, climate, languages, food, so are the European countries.

It was autumn; it was the six of us; four adults and two kids, ten and seven. We were a bouquet of three sub groups – two of us who have been born and brought up in India with a limited exposure to the western world, the other two adults were born in India but have been in the US for the last 20 years and the kids who are born and being brought up in the US. All these three groups had a different outlook, a different observation.

Paris, France

Our first stop was Paris. We were asked to leave behind the image of Paris being the city of romance and were cautioned against the prevalent thefts and robbery. Enveloped in fear, we embarked on our journey from the airport to our Airbnb apartment on the Haussmann Road, quite central to Paris. The first train was to take us from the airport to the right terminal; the second was the RER B, the one which connects the suburbs to the main city; and the third one was the intercity metro. We got down at Chaussée d'Antin – La Fayette. Paris manifested in its full grandeur the moment we came out of the metro station – the iconic architecture, Parisian balconies, boulevards flanked by glamour laden retail, fabulously dressed men and women – men in hats, women in winter coats, as if they have just stepped out of Vogue and such diligently crafted food, looking warmly at you from behind the windows panes, making you feel weak at your knees. There were French men and women, some tourists, some travelers and some cosmopolites, swarming the streets.

The residents appeared fit and fast paced. A lot of them smoked cigarettes. The streets were littered with cigarette butts. After having parked our luggage in our cozy apartment, we stepped out, breathed in some Paris, walked along the fortified walls of the river Siene. It was evening. Wherever the gaze turned, there was a landscape painted in fall colours. The pathways stretched as far as the eyes could see. The trees that lined all the pathways were pruned in a very peculiar squarish fashion. Painfully enduring the cold waves (7-8 degree Celsius), we were looking at Parisians with wonder, who were running and exercising in shorts and single jersey T-shirts. Enjoying our flânerie, we evaluated a bit of French retail and grabbed a butter croissant from Paul, a boulangerie and patisserie found all over Paris. It is absolutely fine if one doesn’t speak or understand French but it is so much more fun if you do. We had our first meal, an aubergine and zucchini pizza in a very French style café, Tivoli; right in front of an Indian restaurant, Gandhi Ji’s, supposedly run by people from Pakistan. Most of the Parisian cafes had a strange seating arrangement on the outside. There were little chairs closely paired facing the street, sitting on which both the persons could romantically look over the street, even if the street was busy or narrow or as less as 4 feet away from them. The chairs were strewn with throws and wraps. Nonetheless, the thought of enjoying some heat made us secure a warm corner inside.

Day 1

Trees pruned in a squarish fashion

Photo of Seine River, France by Rashi Gupta

The next day we stepped out looking for some bread and preserves that we could have for breakfast. Spending time in these food retail places was like a brush with their culinary culture. There were large sections of fresh produce – fruits, vegetables, fresh cuts of meat, such an exhaustive variety of cheeses (emmental, brie), vintage wines from the finest estates and bread loaves fresh out of the oven.

Day 2

This was also the day of the great European Union. It was the day when my sister’ family was joining us. It was so overwhelming to see them appear amidst all other unfamiliar faces, half way across the world. That evening we walked to the Avenue des Champs-Élysées up till the Arc de Triomphe. Being a retail professional, I had read about the glory of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris, Bond Street in London, Times Square in New York City. But as we bowed before the biggest Louis Vuitton store in the world, every bit of the acclaim of this holy grail of retail came true. The promenade across that avenue stamped the significance of what that place is said to represent.

The great European Union with the family

Photo of Champs-Élysées, France by Rashi Gupta
Photo of Champs-Élysées, France by Rashi Gupta

World's biggest store of Louis Vuitton

Photo of Champs-Élysées, France by Rashi Gupta
Day 3

Day 3 was to be dedicated to the icon of Paris, the Eiffel Tower. I almost screamed with joy as we set our eyes on the tower – tall, magnificent, mighty. The haze was floating across the cupola of the tower. A catholic bride clad in her wedding white was passionately kissing her groom. It was the stature of the tower that swept us away. Designed by Gustave Eiffel, the structure had received very serious criticism in the initial years of its installment. Guy de Maupassant, a revered French author despised the tower so much that he used to have lunch at the base of the tower because apparently it was the only place in Paris from where the tower was not visible. Buying the ticket online in advance was a smart idea and we could use the evening to visit Notre Dame Cathedral. Built in 1100s, this structure is an exemplary marvel of the Gothic style of architecture and sculpting and is beautifully enhanced with subtle lighting schemes. After having spent some time there, we ended the day with a very escapist Maggi dinner and some French wine that we had purchased from a nearby food store.

Photo of Eiffel Tower, Avenue Anatole France, Paris, France by Rashi Gupta

View of Paris from Eiffel Tower (only one side)

Photo of Eiffel Tower, Avenue Anatole France, Paris, France by Rashi Gupta
Photo of Eiffel Tower, Avenue Anatole France, Paris, France by Rashi Gupta
Photo of Eiffel Tower, Avenue Anatole France, Paris, France by Rashi Gupta
Photo of Eiffel Tower, Avenue Anatole France, Paris, France by Rashi Gupta
Photo of Eiffel Tower, Avenue Anatole France, Paris, France by Rashi Gupta
Photo of Eiffel Tower, Avenue Anatole France, Paris, France by Rashi Gupta
Photo of Eiffel Tower, Avenue Anatole France, Paris, France by Rashi Gupta

Notre Dame Cathedral

Photo of Eiffel Tower, Avenue Anatole France, Paris, France by Rashi Gupta
Day 4

The following day was at the Louvre Museum. That space is so rich and vast that a patron of art and history can savour it for days. It literally houses the history of Rome, Greece, Christianity and France. To be able to appreciate the exhibits, I suggest one must go a little read about Renaissance, French Revolution, Roman and Greek history and about Christianity. While the Louvre was at a walking distance from our apartment, most of the other travelling within the city was done through metros and sometimes in cabs when the kids refused take it any more. Walking through the French by-lanes off the main boulevards was like being on a French food trail. We would stop to take a plunge as we stumbled across the most celebrated French delicacies one after the other – crêpes, crème brûlée, Poulet rôti, macarons.

Louvre Museum

Photo of Louvre Museum, Rue de Rivoli, Paris, France by Rashi Gupta
Photo of Louvre Museum, Rue de Rivoli, Paris, France by Rashi Gupta

Macarons

Photo of Louvre Museum, Rue de Rivoli, Paris, France by Rashi Gupta

That evening, we climbed up the butte Montmartre, to visit Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Unlike Notre Dame, it was white in colour, more recent and not Gothic. We had climb up 3-4 steep flights of stair to get to the Church. The narrow, meandering, cobbled streets were different from those of the main city – they were quiet and laid back. It was like an old world. The lanes housed little traditional shops and big castle like mansions. Led by their walking sticks, the faithful Catholic oldsters could be seen approaching the basilica in a slow paced motion.

La Gare, a restaurant fashioned out of an old train station, was very close to our apartment and we were very thrilled about having our last supper there. It was supposed to be authentic French, moderately priced and very popular amongst the residents. But the long queue and our famished bellies made us chose a quicker resort, Le Cardinal.

Brussels, Belgium

Day 5

The second leg of our travel was Brussels. We had taken a Thalys train from Paris to Brussels and also later from Brussels to Amsterdam. The train window was the only window for us to view the landscape of the European countryside - the farms, the pastures, cows grazing, countryside houses, all moved past us like high speed movie.

Both in Paris as well as Brussels, we had our apartments located very central to the cities. The Grand Place, a central square of Brussels and the area around it within a radius of approximately 2 km is like a world in itself, quite divorced from Brussels’ image of being the capital of European Union hosting all the significant seats of power. This little historical and cultural district renders a good space to do all the Belgian stuff on foot. Vehicular traffic does not have access to major parts of this area. You can sit at local cafes, eat fries and waffles, drink beer, patronize Belgian chocolatiers, appreciate the Belgian art of lace making, amuse yourselves by the family of pissing statues - Manneken Pis (boy pissing), Jeanneke Pis (girl pissing) and Zinneke Pis (dog pissing). Honestly these statues will puncture your expectation given the hoopla created around them. Nevertheless, they are silly and they make you laugh and the hunt for each takes you through the width and length of that place.

Zinneke Pis

Photo of Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium by Rashi Gupta
Photo of Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium by Rashi Gupta

Streets of Brussels

Photo of Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium by Rashi Gupta

The environment in Brussels seemed quite unhurried and casual as compared to that of Paris. This easy going disposition reflected in the way people had dressed up, in the way they were walking, in the way restaurants served. We ate at an Italian restaurant by the name of Napoli twice (both our lunches). Not only was the food soothing and wholesome but the host was also so warm and cordial and fun with the kids. At a waffle shop, the cute girls with messy hair were nonchalantly grabbing bites of their snack while preparing fresh deep pocketed waffles filled with goodies of your choice. Belgium is known for its great variety of beer. The local beer is as cheap as 1Euro a can. Many exuberant youngsters seemingly from the neighbouring European countries were visiting – roaring joyfully, singing freely, with large beer mugs tied across their chests.

Pizza divide for two kids, At Napoli

Photo of Gallivanting in Europe by Rashi Gupta

Cheese Croquettes, At Napoli

Photo of Gallivanting in Europe by Rashi Gupta
Day 6

Besides the beer shops, the streets were lined with chocoletiers. These are fancy stores dedicated to hand crafted chocolates. Infact one look at the windows, and we knew that it wasn’t about the chocolates anymore. It was pure art. While the proportion and quality of the ingredients is chosen with utmost precision for the right flavor and texture but they also go far beyond that in their pursuit of art. Chocolate were sculpted into exquisite forms with impeccable surface finishes, all done by hand. In the close vicinity, there is a cocoa museum where one can learn about the history of cocoa, how it came to Europe and Belgium, the processing involved and the various preparation techniques. All of us wanted to be there first thing the morning after. It was indeed a fulfilling experience. There was a live demonstration and each of us must have tasted almost 200 grammes of chocolate including both its components – cocoa butter, cocoa mass and the finished products - dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate.

A Chocoletier demonstrating

Photo of Museum van Cacao en Chocolade, Rue de la Tête d'or, Brussels, Belgium by Rashi Gupta

That evening it rained in Brussels. From our room windows, the streets looked as if it were a perfect setting for a clandestine affair. The row of lamp posts stood quietly, the archaic lamp shades were covered with dropslets of water, exuding diffused light and wet cobbled street reflected the light back, glazing. These two days spent in Belgium eased out the checklist driven Paris tour.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Finally we arrived in Amsterdam. My brother-in law had been to Netherlands a couple of times and had given us a background of the city, about how they are very low lying land masses reclaimed from the ocean and about how the city has concentric almost semi circular navigable canals.

There is something to the city; it is so liberal and has immense dignity of labour and respect for life. Where a mother of triplet infants cycles her babies in a carriage without any speck of anxiety and where a blind man believes in the systems and fearlessly cross the road, that, in my opinion is the city where one would feel privileged to build a home.

Photo of Gallivanting in Europe by Rashi Gupta
Photo of Gallivanting in Europe by Rashi Gupta

The city has an extremely robust public transport system – the trams, metros, buses. We had taken an integrated pass of these for 24 hours/ 48 days with which everything was just a hop and skip away. That evening, we walked along the canals, ate stroopwafels and tasted Dutch cheese and cheese dips in every passing shop – an interesting variety of Gouda and Edam. We ditched our itinerary, didn’t do any of the museums or Madame Tussauds. We were looking to have a nice Indonesian meal. As Indonesia was an important Dutch colony during the 19th century, there are a number of fine Indonesian restaurants scattered all over the city. We approached one of the finest ones, Sampurna but somehow they had a lot of requirements in terms of the volume that we order. We let it pass.

Stroopwafels

Photo of Gallivanting in Europe by Rashi Gupta

The four adults had to do their adult things in Amsterdam – smoke cannabis and have a little fun with the love ladies of Amsterdam. Because of the kids, we had to take turns. So my husband and myself went to De Wallen, the red light district, the first evening itself. Hands down, the ladies were top notch and mischievous. The environment was free, non judgmental and yet had a code of decorum. The visitors’ profile was varied. While some walked around like they would do in a zoo – observing and a bit cautious, some who were delirious with joy looking at the series of spectacles and the others who were fuelling the business. Being from the subcontinent, the only adventure we could wring out of ourselves was to watch a 2 Euro peep show where a naked woman performed her little gig and we were done. Nonetheless, I would say, it is indeed a playground for men.

Later, we went to one of the coffee shops, bought a ready made joint and the never to be forgotten brownie. While we had grabbed a seat inside the coffee shop, it suddenly occurred that this was land where it need not be hidden. So we marched ahead taking in long drags and long strides – unstoppable and buoyant. The cannabis kept hitting like a hammer and gave us wings; we took some long tram rides, as far as it could take us, quiet and staring at the lit streets, deciphering the patterns that emerged.

Day 8

The following morning, there was a plan to step outside the city. Zaanse Schans, a small town skirting the edge of Amsterdam, is how a living and working community in the Zaan district looked in the middle of the 19th century - farmsteads, paths, wooden houses, warehouses, windmills, ditches and fields. They have now built small museums and workshops to showcase and demonstrate the practices of those days – cheese making, clogs making, weaving, baking and a few others. All this set against such a mesmerizing scenery, it was nothing short of a fairytale land. We spent the almost the entire day there and took the bus back to the city in the evening, ate a very expensive anglacised Indian dinner at an Indian restaurant, Akbar. Disappointing.

Old style Dutch windmills

Photo of Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, Netherlands by Rashi Gupta
Photo of Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, Netherlands by Rashi Gupta

Old style Dutch wooden houses

Photo of Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, Netherlands by Rashi Gupta
Photo of Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, Netherlands by Rashi Gupta
Photo of Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, Netherlands by Rashi Gupta

Way to Zaanse Schans

Photo of Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, Netherlands by Rashi Gupta

Grain Mill

Photo of Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, Netherlands by Rashi Gupta
Photo of Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, Netherlands by Rashi Gupta

Demonstration of clog making

Photo of Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, Netherlands by Rashi Gupta

With the cheese lady

Photo of Zaanse Schans, Zaandam, Netherlands by Rashi Gupta

The next morning, we ate another brownie we had asked my sister and brother-in law to get on the way back from their red and green expedition the last night. We got into a boat which took us through, what it seemed in that state of ecstasy, a never ending maze of canals. The two of us were bereft of any sense of direction, were just being carried away on a vessel. I sat next to my little niece. I love engaging in both silly and serious conversations with her but during that ride, her words fell like weight on my shoulders. We ate our lunch at Wok to Walk, a fast food restaurant Dutch chain serving wok stir-fried Asian cuisine. They have recently opened an outlet in Connaught Place, New Delhi and we have been longing to revisit.

That evening we drank to a very successful Euro trip. Along with some Heineken, we drank some jenever, a juniper berries based traditionally Dutch drink served in beautiful, tulip shaped glasses. The morning after, we bid a good bye and left in the opposite directions of the earth.

Jenever

Photo of Gallivanting in Europe by Rashi Gupta
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