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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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Position this – A) A country with 400 National parks, 70 wildlife sanctuaries, 4000 year old History, the greatest mountain range in the word, the best whitewater rapids in the world, a subtropical coastline that is an envy of the world, and pearly islands that can compete with the Hawaiis of the world, a topography with practically every kind of variation earth has to offer, cuisine that has pervaded the nook and corner of the world, and much more.., also the largest democracy in the world – gets a paltry 4.4 million tourists a year.

And B) an island which is less than than 0.01% of the above country in size gets 7.5 million.

A) India B)Singapore.

Why? See www.incredibleindia.org for some more and you might wonder India should be as much compelling destination as any other, isnt.

No single reason , but the Government by large should hold the credit for this (lack of) achievement.  In 1960’s and Tourism in India was ranked somewhere as 126th or 127th on the priority list of industries for development, lower than the industry development of lighthouses!

Awareness has grown, and perhaps the priority, but even in the current context, poor project and funds management at the ground level, lack of accountability, political problems, infrastructure arent helping turn things around.

I was just reading P Chidambram’s essays in his book “A view from outside” in which he cites N.R. Narayana Murthy’s assertion that the Taj Mahal, and what its symbolism represents a $20 Bn opportunity for India and employment. Simple math as quoted in the book – there are 200 Mn couples in developed nations. Even if 10% of them decide to spend their anniversary by the Taj in the typical 2 night, 3 day model, that at about a $1000 spend per couple can be a $20 Bn opportunity. Imagine adding to that a cruise by a resurrected Yamuna by Taj, then some more perhaps.  And then add up all the features mentioned earlier, each is a huge opportunity by its own right.

Pipe dream perhaps. Its not about a desire to do it,  only when things get down to ground it becomes a game of oneupmanship, egos,  red tape, sloth, jurisdictions – in corporate speak – misaligned KPIs and  institutionalized mediocrity.  As things stand no reform in the present government either seems headed in a direction, to suggest things will be any better in near or far future.

 

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