Vienna has been on my list for a while and was happy to make a start touching down in the city known for its musical tradition, art, architecture. Here is a list of suggestions on things to cover on a 3-4 day trip in around Vienna (or Wien as its called in Austria).

Hop on Hop off Sightseeing tour – I am not particularly a fan of bus tours, more a DIY person, get a travel card and explore the town on your own. However on this occasion I made an exception to avail a tour on the city’s Yellow bus sightseeing. Offering hop on and off service on 4 routes, it provides an excellent way to get to know the city quickly. The 10-12 language commentary provides an informative commentary on the history of Vienna and its landmarks against a backdrop of Viennese classical music. Recommend bargaining for your tickets, in off peak season you can get good discounts. Start with the Red or Yellow route tour followed by the green route tour on a following day.

Schonbrunn palace – one of the richest palatial landscapes I have seen. Set behind the palace is an imposing gate on top of a hill, overlooking the city and giving quite a grand perspective to look at and look down from. A kind of work only possible in the age of emperors.

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Walk around the town centre – MuseumQuartier, Maria Theresa palace, Parliament, State opera, Burg theatre. Few cities will be endowed with a sense of space and aesthetically pleasing an architecture as Vienna is. No better place to see that by taking a walk around the town centre. Both worth during day and in the evening when buildings are lit up, giving a very elegant touch. Interestingly MuseumQuartier, a collection of 5-6 different museums is what used to be the emperor’s horse stables at one time. Must have been some horses.

Attend a concert – With 2 young kids, we were in two minds to attend an orchestra. Being home of Mozart, Beethoven and Johann Strauss what better place than Vienna to experience first hand. However cost of tickets aside it was whether my kids would sit through a concert. Fortunately there are ‘family friendly’ custom concerts by a local Wiener Opera. Don’t worry about booking online. As you venture to the town centre you will be ambushed by enough red and black period dressed men, to sell you these tickets. Do bargain, but make sure you come back with tickets and having seen the opera.

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Take a day trip to Bratislava – The capital of Slovakia is only a hour’s bus or train journey away from Vienna. If you are in Vienna for 3-4 days, you can easily squeeze in trip to Bratislava and back. There are frequent, comfortable and value for money bus services between the two cities. We got one run by StudentAgency (indeed an interesting name) departing from a mall, 10 minutes from away our hotel, Hilton Danube. For 9 Euros a family of 4 got a trip to Bratislava in relative luxury, TV to each seat, coffee and hot chocolate refreshments – what more! That’s less than my average day commute in and out to work in London. Get down at Novy Most in Bratislava and walk around the town. Not as baroque and rich as Vienna, but aesthetic and upcoming. Interesting to see how politics in the region has influence such divergent level of prosperity between two very adjacent major cities.

Enjoy a foodie trip to Naschmarket – 5 minutes away from the central Karlsplatz station is a permanent street market offering food from what looks like food all over the world, but for most part combination of Turkish, Asian, Mediterranean influences. Good for foodies to explore and indulge in.

Trip to Viennese suburbs – If you have time, take a trip to Wienerwald (Viennese woods in the North West suburbs of Vienna) and  Grinzing, famous for its wine growing. A trip up to Kahlenberg for a panoramic view of the city is also recommended.

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Finally some travel tips,

We used the metro for the most part. I found this information very useful in understanding fare options.

Airport to City – There are plenty of options apart from taxi. On the way back in we used the S-Bahn and U-Bahn. Kids 6 and under travel free, up to 15 at half price. Comfortable journey with a few changes in clean and step free stations that cost less than a third of what the taxi coming in cost us.

Best stations to get to for exploring city – MuseumQuartier, Volkstheater, Karlsplatz, Schottentor. Walking is easy and at times faster when exploring the town.

That’s it. Plan your trip and enjoy.

 

 

There was always a special desire to see Rajasthan – a land famous for its unique mix of geography, culture, feudalism,  forts, palaces and stories of legendary courage. Finally come December 2013 we were able to make it happen.

Rajasthan spoils for choice and whilst it is only 1 of the 28 states in India it offers a lot more in proportion. North to South there is the Jaipur, Ajmer, Chittorgarh and Udaipur belt. Western Rajasthan has Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Mount Abu and eastern Rajasthan has Bikaner. Covering all in one go with families and kids was going to be demanding on everyone as well on time, so we picked one. Udaipur, Jaipur, Ranthambore followed by return via Agra.

I decided that it had to be a tour combing the best way of getting around Rajasthan, which if anyone is doubt are the Indian railways. One of the best things about India, take my word for it.

This is the route we planned,

  1. Chandigarh – New Delhi Shatabdi
  2. New Delhi to Udaipur – Mewar Express (Overnight journey)
  3. Udaipur to Jaipur – Udaipur-Khajuraho express (Overnight journey)
  4. Jaipur to Agra – Jaipur-Agra Shatabdi
  5. Agra to Delhi – By road (on new expressway)
  6. Delhi to Chandigarh – Chandigarh Shatabdi

The kids just loved the trains, and could not stop bouncing around the sleeper berths. Come start of every trip, there was the buzz of going somewhere and never mind early morning or late evening the kids did not waver one bit. Well, one thing taken care of!

Reaching Udaipur at 7 am in the morning we got started early in our round starting with the City palace and boat tour,City palace was built by Maharana Udai Singh in the 16th century AD. It is an imposing structure on the banks of Lake Pichola and makes for stunning visuals day and night. The interiors of the palace museum unfortunately are not as well maintained as one might expect and tourist rush was a bit tough to get through with. Anyway, take the positives and leave the could-be-betters behind.

City Palace Udaipur from Lake Pichola

City Palace Udaipur from Lake Pichola

There was a postcard with the view below that I asked my cab driver to show us for real. Interestingly it turned top be a secluded spot on the edge on an old temple and through a path only a local would know. But the sight made for a ‘paisa-vasool’ viewing. One could sense how Udaipur can stands still calmly time brushing it by and adding layers of mystique and aura to its long history. 

City palace Udaipur from opposite bank

City palace Udaipur from opposite bank

Bagore kee haveli in Udaipur features traditional dancing in the evenings and performances from different parts of Rajasthan and cultural elements. Its a must see to start getting into the flavour of things and fortunately we made it in time to the performance of the night with ‘balcony’ seats, albeit stage-side verandah seating normally reserved for artists, because they had run out of space and guests come first in Rajasthan!

Rajathani cultural performance at Bagore Ki Haveli

Rajathani cultural performance at Bagore Ki Haveli

Shilp gram is an annual festival combining handicraft exhibits from 7-8 different states, cultural shows all around the same time. The atmosphere was great, with tradition on show from multiple states, I felt a sense of wonder at how many cultures did this country manage to hold. That in itself is a huge wealth to have more than the material wealth.

Kids delight on a camel ride in Udaipur!

And a horse ride too!

And there was a royal horse ride to cover as well!

Jaipur our next stop, the capital and largest city in Rajasthan is splendid in many ways.

The iconic Hawa mahal is surprisingly smaller than the images suggest, a feat of architectural illusion in a way. Go for bargaining in the shops around Hawa Mahal for the fun of it. Dont be afraid of starting with ridiculous price points. It is almost a kind of social banter that the shopkeepers seem to revel in as much.

Hawa Mahal, Jaipur

Hawa Mahal, Jaipur

Ranthambore, our next stop and about 180 KM from Jaipur is home to one of India’s most successful tiger reserve. We took our taxis from Jaipur to Sawai Madhopur and then onwards on the forest touring gypsies. Tiger sighting proved elusive but it was a different experience of its own. Stepping out into the buffer area forest and coming face to face with the wild (albeit no tiger) was a moment in itself. The silence of the wild is something that can put everything else in perspective.

On Ranthambore safari

On Ranthambore safari

The national bird itself!

The national bird itself!

There is a variety of views on when is the best time to visit Ranthambore. A number of views on internet suggested winter time (Nov to Feb) as the best but the local view I found was that May to July times are the best, when water holes are scarce and staying put near a water hole on your safari gives you a great chance at spotting tigers.

Coming back to Jaipur, we had a day more to explore and lots to do, but just not enough time. Jaipur has perhaps one of the best handicraft marketplace I have seen anywhere. Reasonable (with a bargain) and ages old. Mind the traffic imbroglio of trucks, three wheelers, scooters, bikes, cycles, rickshaws, mule carts, buses and cows all moving in a direction of their preference never mind where the road goes. But that is part of the Indian fun or on a more daily basis, how India works.

There is more to Jaipur by way of Forts, the Nahargarh fort, of Rang De Basanti fame, and Amber fort the largest and holding a vast reserve of history of Jaipur’s beginnings, battles for control, opulence of the Rajputana and the proud signature of the Aravalli crest bordering Jaipur. Eclectic stuff. Time had run out for us to explore these forts on the inside but we did manage to make it to the Amber fort light and sound show, that in all, left us puffed with pride for our Indian heritage.

Amber fort Light and sound

Amber fort Light and sound

Bidding farewell to Jaipur next day and the excellent hospitality we boarded the Jaipur- Agra Shatabdi express and landed in Agra a good 3.5 hours later. Agra by contrast to Rajasthan’s has the old world Mughal feel to it. Still decadent in many parts, the winter fog hung low over the broad Yamuna banks but despite its winter density, could not hide the size and scale of the Taj.  Viewing in clear sunshine would anytime have been welcome, but Taj Mahal is one of the things that is worth looking at any which way.

The day brightened up by the time we got there and first sight, the general impression was – ‘What could drive someone to build something like this!’. Stories and controversies abound to the building of the Taj but keeping that aside one can appreciate why the Taj Mahal is a wonder of the world.

 

Needs no introduction!

Needs no introduction!

Day 2 of Agra was for Agra fort. One of the most famous forts in India, and almost the Mughal family home starting with Akbar, Shah Jahan, Jehangir and Aurangzeb. It was interesting to see the elements of the forts around their indulgences for pleasure, a consequence one wondered of a life with little responsibility an unlimited wealth and power. Things that monarchs could get away with then!

Next to the Taj

Next to the Taj

Well! that was the India of 15th to 18th century, now a vastly changed land, a vibrant, secular, aspirational, and a prospering democracy.  Good and not-so-good residues of the past remain as they would anywhere else, but all adds to the flavour of India. All said and done, in 7 days we had had a full treat of tradition, history, culture, wild, food and hospitality a thousand years old and yet timeless.

Of course every trip deserves its credits. In this case, special thanks to A) envisioning and planning by the author B) superb execution of planning by my brother in law Dr. Sunil Gambhir and C)  to India for the great heritage its holds timelessly!

Top tips :

For Ranthambore – Book your safari Ranthambore well in advance here http://www.rajasthanwildlife.in/. Ranthambore is divided into 8 zones. Of which zones 1-5 have the maximum tiger sightings.  Zones 6,7, 8 are set aside and although form part of the tiger habitat, tiger sightings there are rare.

Getting to Ranthambore from Jaipur  for a day trip – Take the train rather than the road. There are several trains from Jaipur to Sawai Madhopur like Ananya express, Intercity express. A 2 hour journey by train and then head to Sawai Madhopur Forest Office for the safari pickup (about 2 km from the railway station).

Handicraft shopping in Jaipur – go to Bapu bazaar, Nehru bazaar, Hawa Mahal market – all are within walking vicinity of each other. Booth like shops in red/pink painted brick selling just great stuff.

For Taj – do not get engaged into taking the numerous camera men along. They claim to be experts but are no better than anyone else who can hold a camera with stable hands and click. Avoid them, put your cameras aside and take in the Taj calm and slowly.  You can stare at that building sitting afar in wonder for a fair while. The interior of the Taj now has restricted viewing and though we queued for a fair while to go through it, watching it from a distance, away from the crowds is more rewarding.

And last but hardly the least, take the trains wherever you go. The remarkable Indian railways will make getting around a pleasure in itself!

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A picture is worth a thousand words or a lazy excuse to not write. Whilst I have been meaning to put up a short post on London for a while, time has been hard to find. As a starter for 10, here are a couple of South bank post cards from my phone during a spring walk from London bridge pier to London eye pier . The walk turned out longer than I thought and it was cold, contrary to what the blue sky might suggest. But these vistas of the riverside skyline made for a worthwhile capture.  And come summer as is now, a highly recommended walk to enjoy London, from a South bank perspective.

Walking further along, the Shard towers above the horizon

Walking further along, the Shard towers above the horizon

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St Pauls from the South Bank, taken on a long Thameside walk on a sunny Spring holiday

There is something special about Cambridge that sets it apart in England. A haloed University,  venerable college campuses, cobbled market streets, cycle friendly, Mill street, cultural scene, proximity to London and of course the River. Few places in England that I have been to (a fair bit) match the charm that Cambridge is able to create. I lived there for over 2 years and whilst eventually it was my big city genes that lured me away to London, a part of me decidedly took to Cambridge.

Some of the settings that made for memorable moments,

  • Parker’s piece on a sunny day
  • Bridge street restaurants on a Sunday evening – Teriyaki being my favourite and I heard is Stephen Hawking’s too (the possibility is very good in itself)
  • A night charity walk through the fens alongside the river and the colleges
  • Canadian canoe trip up to Grantchester
  • A chance sighting of Stephen Hawking in the market square.
  • Classical architectural, immaculate gardens and a river for good measure
  • Rich home made Ice creams up at a small Italian shop (name I should remember soon)  on Bridge street.
  • Do nothing a laze around riverside.
  • Mill road shops, pots and pans, eclectic coffee and antique bric a brac.
  • Cambridge United Vs Oxford United 1-1.
  • Drives out to the countryside, villages and towns in Cambridgeshire and neighbouring Norfolk. All very doable in a day and very pleasant.

And what made it special for the family, birth of my younger one at the Rosie maternity in Addenbrooke’s, a first rate hospital and amongst the leading medical research centres in the country.

Perhaps all joins up as a write, why a part of me keeps looking for excuses to go back there. Cutting the cake on my last birthday was the last one, I should think of the next one now.

Shimla – the queen of hills – I have oft enough memories of family holidays spent in Shimla, a summer resort of once and now booming capital of Himachal Pradesh.  Overlooking the superheated plains of North west India and Punjab,  Shimla was always and is a welcome retreat. A pleasant 3 hours drive up into to  the lower Himalayas, by road or the famous narrow gauge toy train with a 100 tunnels. Main memories of trip –  walks up the mall, wooden handicraft markets, bustling Tibetan markets, pashmina and woolen specials and Raj style guest houses and coffee shops. Always spurring of a nostalgia there.

How many days would I spend there on a holiday now – 3

Goa – Wow! what a fantastic combination of sun beach, beer and culture. I have been there thrice, as about a 13 year old, a 22 year old and then another 10 years later.  Each time has been special in its own way. Interestingly although travel advisories might urge getting away from the Northern beaches, those are still the most vibrant of the lot and ones I have been to.

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How many days would I spend there on a holiday now – 7

Delhi – Oddly, yes. A big hot, dusty plain encrusted with concrete chumps as it looks from the air. But as much as is the history to it, is the charactered rendered upon it through years of rule by one or another. Lutyen’s New Delhi was always remarkable as a child, and a few decades later having seen the world a bit, it seems more remarkable, in the endeavour, design and achievement.  Holidays in Delhi were frequent with my Dad’s best  friend’s family, so a bunch of lads growing up together and making do with what was the urban sprawl for imaginative games – all good, nice fun that added character to the holidays.

How many days would I spend there on a holiday now – 5

Bombay, no Mumbai – Hmm, I think it was about every 2-3 years, starting with a long train journey, on the Superfast, Frontier mail, later the Rajdhani and of course my first flight. Just relaxed and fun family holidays with my maternal uncle’s family. Incidentally he was (and is) notable figure in the Indian film industry. Occasional brush ins with the luminaries of the Indian film industry added to the delight. (Did that encourage a career in film industry? No).  It was a strikingly different urban scape, the delicious ghee topped chapatties and pickle with yellow dal, finely chopped aloo gobi and of course the super ginger tea! Not too mention a trip to Khandala in a 12 seater van that had been restored after an unintended dip at the Mud beach!

How many days would I spend there on a holiday now – 4-5

I normally keep a seperation of concerns between my travel blog and my ‘general’ blog, but starting the other day out of a writer’s block on the latter I ended up more or less on talking about one of the things I love about travel – Trains. Here is more..

So I believe  that tourism in Australia from the UK is going to see a rather big upswing in 2012, never mind that the big games are here in London and its the Queen’s anniversary and it’s the year of culture and so on. The thing is, it’s winter at the moment and whilst it’s been a warm one, the Sun has been doing a shorter stint than usual. I would say about 10% less sunshine compared to last year day on day average. So more time indoors, more TV time, more Internet time and more newspapers, basically more of media. And with that backdrop enters Australia,in the ads, in the promos, on the newspaper, just about everywhere showcasing a paradise with sun, blue waters, adventure, buzz and just about everything that is an antidote to the British winter niggles. It may mot be that the NothingLikeAustralia campaign is stealing away London Olympic thunder, but it is making a dent alright. Winter months also being the times when holiday plans are made, its almost perfect timing to run a campaign. And that’s not all, quietly in concert I believe, emirates has been running its A380 super liner campaign with 20 flights a week down under,

20 A380 flights a week! When did that happen? This winged beast wasn’t even getting off the assembly for ages and now we have a virtual Emi(g)rates flotilla of them, enough I think to ship my borough off in under a week off to the sunny Oz clime.

Well whatever it is, must admit its a classy, enticing campaign with the right timing, visuals, messages and actually good sense. Bill Gates himself added a bit credibility to their case in his new year tweet. And that has me thinking as well. Trouble is unlike Bill I have to be more measured in my spend plans, but am keener than before.  So come some summer I will plan. In the meantime I’ll hold guard at the Olympics this August whilst most of the holidaying UK  prepares to fly down under.

“We went to Bristol for a couple of days break over the Christmas holidays.” I said to my colleague. “Bristol! Why would you go there?”. Right so that was also how I thought before I planned the visit, but the argument seemed sensible to me when I did and it actually played out better than that.

1.Bristol is 10 miles from Bath, going where would be understandable as a touristy place. 2.Good, premium hotels can be had for a relatively better price than Bath.
3.The wife idea of fun is good shopping more than anything else. Bristol seemed to tick the box.
4.Kids idea of fun was a nice hotel with pool and variety of food. Ticks the box.
5.A bit of theatre thrown in wouldn’t be bad, and if it’s Peter Pan starring The Hoff that was running locally, perhaps all the better.
6.My idea of fun is keeping the family happy and getting nice pictures to cherish.
7.Turned out Bristol also has the landmark Clifton suspension bridge designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. For me all things clever architecturally I have a weak spot to linger and muse over. So a final bonus tick from me too. Not to mention the new part of the town centre Cabot circus, was a clever multi dimensional, neo fusion set piece by itself. Worth a look if passing through the area.
8.Culinary delights, not bad for choice. ‘4500 miles from Delhi’ and ‘Zaza bazaar’ would be my 2 recommendations.

What more did we need in a 2 day break?
Perhaps nearly as enjoyable a short break could be in the midst of winter, within the island, with the assortment of family interests to cater to whilst keeping everyone safe from the cold. Funny that it should be possible in Bristol. But it was!

I can write a fair bit about this place, having become a favourite getaway over the last few years. Simply put Lake District is right there at the top of places to see and relax in England and even in Europe. A mountainous region in the Cumbria county that has some of the largest lakes in the country and the highest mountain range in England. On a comparative scale with other ranges like Alps or Himalayas, they are much lower altitude, but that’s also what makes the region very family friendly. While it is a national park area, there is a vibrant network of towns and villages built alongside the lakes and dotting the routes in the region. All together the mix of landscape, lakes and well preserved english towns makes for some compelling visuals no matter where you are in the lake district.

We visited twice, and although there is no dearth of advice and on ways to spend time, my recommendations for a first time visitor would be,

1) Plan for at least 4-5 days. There is lots to do, if you are an out and about person, like walks, hills, scenery. And for a little more adventure like hiking,sailing, there is an long list of options.

2) Stay in a cottage rather than a hotel if you can. Best way to feel character of the place. Being national park, the hotels are not the large modern, resort kinds and for the majority of them you might find constrained for space.  Yes, there is a bit of carrying the cooking chore with you, but I think that’s enjoyable as well in a home away from home sort of a way.

Home away from home

3) Hike a hill at least a couple. There are loads of options, at different levels, suitable for a family with young kids or all the way to avid hiker. The stunning views you will get at the end of it will be ample reward for the exercise.

Almost there..

4) Lake activities, go sailing. Even if you haven’t done it before, its the perfect place to try your hand at, weather being good.

5) For the first visit for a family, I found Keswick to be a great place to stay at, and yes, better than Windermere. Derwent water, alongside which Keswick is a large rectangular-ish lake circled by several high hills, that makes for several great vistas, like one below, I took from the mini motor boat we rented from a family run private marine harbour on the North west bank of the lake.

Derwent water with Skiddaw in background

6) Keswick is also great starting point for walks, with plenty of easy hills around to trudge around and find a perspective to life :). Whinlatter forest, yes a real forest, is also quite close.

Whinlatter forest, ready to hike

7) Make sure you drive alongside the A591 route between Keswick and Windermere. Some stunning sights along the route and it also passes by the smaller towns of Grasmere and Ambleside, worth stopping by for their pleasant shopping streets.  And of course all have a lake to call their own as well.

Weather wise, it rains a lot, so always and always move equipped. Rain get can get a little rough when it happens, but after a rough spell, as it calms down also reveals the place in a perspective you will enjoy.

Bassenthwaite lake just after a spell of rain

Hunstanton is a small town, or even rather a a big village on the northern shoreline of England’s east coast. We visited in June 2008, and with a picture perfect blue sky, warm weather and some great fish’n chips had a great time.  Smaller than its cousins on the east coast like Great Yarmouth and Felixstowe, Hunstanton still has pretty much most of what it takes to get the kids happy and rolling, a pleasure beach, nice play areas, rides and games and a relatively ‘un-cloned’  high street for the wife to be interested as well.

Green, Blue and Blue

Hunstanton by Postcard

Its a very good day trip, out and for a longer sojourn of 2-3 days, is a just as good a base as any other coastal town. The nearby resort of Wells-next-the-sea ranks as among the best sandy beaches in England, and is a fun place the way the water tide works there. Further along the coast, Sheringham and around the corner even Great Yarmouth are within driving distance.  It is easy to get here from the main towns of East England i.e. Cambridge, Norwich and Ipswich. Car journey apart, take the train from any of these places to King’s Lynn and a connecting bus service right in heart of King’s Lynn town centre will take you to Hunstanton. When we visited again, a year later, four wheels and Sat-nav this time, realised  hands free train and bus are much better, never mind the kid logistics or anything else. So if you are anywhere close to the place, watch for the sunshine and keep the travel kit ready to go Hunstantoning!

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