Oct 4, 2012
Marseille, if it were larger in size, would’ve been the perfect sister-city to Bombay – it’s full of bylanes, traffic and people crossing the streets without obeying the signals. And, it’s a port city, there’s construction everywhere and they are new metro stations coming up. There are traders on the street – especially African immigrants – selling sunglasses, scarfs and other knick-knacks.
Marseille is a working person’s city – Most people seem to be in a hurry, and no one’s out taking that leisurely walk. I also do not find the locals here fashionable as the French are known to be. No buskers on the streets here. In fact, the pavements hold no space for them. There are either scooters or cars parked on the pavers, or tables from a restaurant spilling out, or people, or construction work. Several buildings, I notice, are old and marked down for rehabilitation. No French romance here!
There are shops everywhere. The harbour-front at the old Port Vieux down La Canbierre faces some of the most expensive hotels and the long curving street is packed with restaurants. I saw a lot of obnoxious American tourists around and a bunch of Indian uncles ambling about with their potbellies and vacation caps. But the majority of the tourists are senior, retired folks, enjoying their walk along the harbour-front.
I am, right now, waiting awhile at Gare de Marseille Saint Charles. This train station – large and in the centre of the city – is like a mini airport from the inside and international trains to Italy leave from here. Suits walk around with black bags and eat sandwiches on the go. In Marseille, I see signs on an active life in France. Finally. There are antennae and water tanks on home terraces, and junk stored in balconies. From the good vantage point here at the station, I see that the skyline is made of red roofs and spot a prominent castle.
I don’t know whether or not I like Marseille, yet, but it does feel like home and reminds me of Bombay. Only, nobody honks here!
Bless my luck, I got to visit Switzerland once again, earlier this month! It’s such a gorgeous country and I have now visited most of it, save a couple of cantons such as Ticino and Basel. I’ve seen the touristy places when I went as part of a media trip earlier this month, and several hidden places, when I went backpacking solo in Europe last year. Based on my experiences, I’ve put together an itinerary of sorts that you could follow, if you’re in country for a week.
Your flight will most probably land in Zurich, but I don’t suggest spending much time here as it’s like other big cities in Europe. Tall, fancy buildings, and busy people.
From Zurich, you can move to Lucerne and acclimatise yourselves to the weather. Lucerne is a city you can see on foot. From Lucerne, once you’ve adjusted to the cold, you can go up to Mt Titlis for a day-trip. You’ll get a direct train from Lucerne to the village, Engelberg. That’s your base for Titlis. From Engelberg, take the cable car, called ‘RotAir’, up to Titlis. Titlis has snow all through the year, so it’s good to go there. Plus, Europe’s highest bridge was opened for public, here, at Titlis last December. It’s a 100m ropeway bridge and is often called the scariest bridge in the world! There’s also a skywalker thing you can do here, at the top. It’s super cold here, because of the wind. The day I visited, the winds were recorded at 95 km/hr!
Jungfrau and Interlaken are similar, and too crowded and tedious to get to, so I won’t suggest that if you’re doing Titlis.
Move to Bern for a day from Lucerne. Bern’s their capital, but it’s more like a small town. World’s oldest hand-wound clock is in Bern, and you can go up to the tower to see the machines too. You’ll have to sign up with the toursim centre for that. The tower serves as the centre of the city, and that’s where all the arcade-styled shopping stores are. You can easily get around Bern on foot.
From Bern, move to spend a couple of days in Lausanne. It’s my favourite place is Switzerland. It’s got all the modern trappings of a city, but from any road on the city, you can catch a glimpse of the mountains or the glistening lake. It’s a perfect mix of urban style and scenery and I often wished I stayed there! Lausanne’s too big to be discovered on foot, but you can walk along Avenue Petit Chenin; it’s close to the train station and kind of in the middle of the city. For everywhere else, the buses serve as a good option. You can also take the ferry.
From Lausanne, you can do a day-trip to Geneva. The Swiss folks do not like Geneva too much because they think it’s too modern and can be any other city in the world. But Lake Geneva is enchanting, and it’s worth a day-trip. I’m not sure about this, but the tourism centre lends out bicycles to tourists for free. If you can ride bikes, that’s a great way to see the city, because it’s large to go walking.
If you have a day to spare, you can consider visiting Zermatt. It’s a quaint little woody village down south. It’s the base to visit Gornergrat. (Direct train from Zermatt to Gornergrat). Gornergrat is the peak from where you can have a close and splendid view of the Matterhorn. Matterhorn’s one of their more difficult peaks to climb as it has a steep face. They have a beautiful restaurant at Gornergrat where you can have lunch. It’s less than half a day’s trip from Zermatt. If you do decide to spend the night at Zermatt, Alpenblick’s a lovely hotel.
I’d suggest you get Swiss Passes. They have one valid for a week. The pass allows you to travel in all trains, buses and even ferries. If you have the Swiss Pass, you almost never have to worry about tickets. From Zermatt to Gornergrat though, you’ll need to buy tickets. You can buy the pass after arrival in Zurich, but it’s convenient and cheaper to book them online.
Spring and summer should give you pleasant weather, except Lucerne, where it’s always raining. You might want to check the weather at Lucerne when you’re in Bern, and go ahead accordingly. Switzerland’s a small country, and to get from any place to another, takes a maximum of 6 hours in the train. So you don’t have to worry too much about going off-track or overlapping cities.
This is all I can think of at the moment; if you need more details about any of these places, leave a comment. Also, http://www.myswitzerland.com has a lot of info, as do the folks over at Swiss Tours at Urmi Estate, Lower Parel, Mumbai.
A snowy winter is a way of life for many. But for someone like me, who has lived all her life in a tropical country (India), snow can pretty much be a bucket list item. My first brush with snow happened last week, on a trip to Switzerland. I enjoyed a lovely train ride from Zermatt to reach up to Gornergrat. From this peak, I was told, I could afford stark views of the steep Matterhorn.
I was looking forward to feel snow on my hands since childhood, and finally, my dream came true. The train chugged higher from Zermatt, and I could see snow around in bits, and gradually, it was a vast carpet. I was so excited by this point, that I was having trouble deciding which side of the train I should look out from, frequently running over to the other side, to see more snow. Sounds silly, I know, but if you’ve waited 25 years of your life for an experience, it can be pretty overwhelming when it actually happens.
I step on snow as I get off the train. I’m told to be careful, as the ice can be slippery. I’m glad I’m wearing my Wellingdons as they offer a sturdy sole and some friction. I walk along, hugging my jacket tighter, taking small steps, mindful of the ice that I tread on. And then in a few steps, ice makes way for snow! I put my foot ahead on soft, soft white fluff and it sinks in a bit to make an impression. I go ahead a few more steps, a smile on my face, my feet digging deeper. And then I look around myself, and all I see is more and more snow and I turn into a child on expresso.
I run, fall and jump about and make snowballs and throw them on my friends. And then I walk further towards the valley where there are no foot marks, and slide my hand in, to come up with a pristine fluff of white sitting on my palm.
I had fallen in love with crushed ice at a young age, when kids used to buy ‘gola’ from a street vendor. A gola is a clump of crushed ice on a stick, doused in flavoured syrup. Something similar to the ‘kachang’ in Singapore.
I pressed my palm shut and the snow hardened a bit. I put it in my mouth, closed my eyes and waited for it to dissolve. My hands were trembling due to cold but when I put the snow in my mouth, it just felt warm. And familiar. And nice.
Where next? What can I expect there? How to get there?
These were three questions I found myself asking strangers and new friends often, in the month I spent travelling solo in Europe recently. I only had my return flight ticket sorted in advance – Mumbai (India) to Geneva (Switzerland) and back – and gave Europe a chance to surprise me. It led me to gorgeous Swiss villages, lively towns in France and a bustling city in Spain, and Lichtenstein and Monaco.
I met several interesting people along the way, a lot many locals helped me, I assisted some travellers with directions myself, and a few asked me out for drinks! I stayed in a fancy hotel, couchsurfed, shared dorms with 30 other travellers and was offered a bed by friends of friends. I had an extremely unplanned trip, with the liberty of spending as much time as I wished in whichever place that caught my fancy.
I practiced broken French, have brought back some Catalan words and discovered that there actually are places where people absolutely do not speak English. I ticked off many items from my bucket list, which include wearing a bikini to a beach and setting off on an unplanned trip. I would consult the map, the hotel receptionist, my Couchsurfing host and people on the street, and come up with a place to go to, for the next day. I spent 3 days in Nice because I loved the French Riviera, a whole week in Barcelona and yet couldn’t get enough of the city, and merely half a day in Lichtenstein, because well, there’s not much to do.
I ate the best croissants in France, drank pitchers of spicy Sangria in Spain and sampled some of the best cheese in Switzerland. I saw impeccably dressed grannies smoking away in French cafes, snazzy cars in Monaco, sunsets in Switzerland that made me appreciate clouds and some insanely cute boys in Spain. I caught my train to France in the nick of time, almost missed all my luggage in Barcelona merely a day before my flight back to India and kind of ran out of money toward the end of the trip!
But I did have an exceptionally excellent time and would urge everyone to visit these parts of Europe and let them dazzle you. I am in the process of pitching stories about my travels to editors of various magazines and I’ll have some stories surfacing here, on the blog, too. Between that, we should have a complete picture of my experiences and the culture of the countries I visited.
Also, due are many thanks to my Schengen visa (I didn’t know Lichtenstein existed until Swiss locals told me about it), EuroLines buses and the French train system. I don’t know what I would’ve done if they weren’t in place.