Sunday, April 30, 2017

Zaanse Schans, Netherlands - #AtoZChallenge

I can't believe we are already on out last day of #AtoZChallenge, a challenge where the participants had to post every day based on the alphabet of the day. Don't worry, I am not going to take you on an emotional journey as it deserves a post of its own. But I certainly had a fascinating time travelling down the memory lanes, bringing you some places I thought would be interesting for you all. I couldn't have found any better place than Zaanse Schans to conclude this beautiful series.

It is a place which takes you back to the 18th and 19th century with its well-preserved green wooden houses, functioning windmills, barns and workshops. It is a minuscule representation of the 1100 windmills which were built between 17th & 19th century. We got to witness the actual functioning of a saw mill as the weather was in our favour. The mechanism was simple yet ingenious. It was interesting to hear the history of the place while imagining the area from 17th century till today. The windmills looked beautiful on the backdrop of Zaan river. There were walking as well as cycling tours, taking small groups around the place.


After the windmill, we visited the cheese factory. After tasting various cheese flavours and understanding the cheese making process, we left it with our bags full of selected flavours of cheese and our minds full of lovely memories to cherish.

You can find more information about the place here.


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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Youthful & vibrant South Bank, London - #AtoZChallenge

The South Bank of London is most known for the London Eye, but there is a lot to it than the iconic Millennium Wheel. If you want to taste the real culture of London, then this is the place to be. It is always happening irrespective of the season. During summer it is full of people enjoying the sunshine, taking pictures with human statues, enjoying the live singing and dancing by street artists while during winter, it becomes a Christmas market.

Every season and almost most of the weekend you will always find something or the other to do there. If not, then even sitting on one of the many benches, enjoying the spectacular view is as refreshing as any of the activities. Carry a picnic basket and settle down on the grass while watching people enjoy themselves or enjoy a book or musical instrument, there is not the slightest chance to get bored in this place.

We would usually start at the County Hall, taking in the gigantic wheel, walking all the way to the Blackfriars bridge at times. After passing through the crowd eagerly waiting to get on the London eye starts the real fun part. You can see the Big Ben & The Westminster Abbey on the other side of Thames while enjoying the happy giggles of the kids and the hustle bustle around you. According to the time of the year, each of our visits would bring at least one surprise for us. We once visited a science festival here, so full of scientific marvels easily comprehensible even to a science hater!! Once we saw a dome, shaped as a large violet cow, upside down which we later found out as the Underbelly festival full of entertaining programmes of various categories such as circus, comedy, cabaret, music & theatre. The place is lined with so many restaurants serving different varieties of cuisines from across the world that you will be spoilt for choices.

Walk across the Golden Jubilee bridges to find a percussionist practising or sometimes a sale of used books under it. On one hot day during summer, we decided to take a break and walked up the riverside terrace looking for a nice place to settle down with a drink to cool ourselves and found another surprise, a fountain!! but not the usual kinds. It had lines of water jets spraying water creating a rectangle dividing the area into 4 parts by the jets. We could easily stand in an area surrounded by the jets without getting thoroughly drenched, it was mind blowing. I couldn't even remember when was the last time I went to play in a fountain. We spent more than an hour playing in it forgetting all about the drinks. Just a short walk from the Golden Jubilee bridges, there is a graffitied area with roller skaters, skateboarders and cyclists doing stunts we can only imagine. We would stand there spellbound looking at them with admiration in our eyes.

This place is the heart and soul of London and a visit to London without experiencing this place would be incomplete. You can find more information about the upcoming events here.

Here is a virtual tour specially for you to get the hang of this place. Click on the front arrow key to walk along the South Bank.

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Friday, April 28, 2017

Xmas in London - #AtoZChallenge

December is the best month to visit London!! I know, I know, some of you will disagree owing to the grey sky, cold and the travelling woes. Yet the air is filled with Christmas spirit and you can feel it every moment with people in a cheerful mood, food and fragrances specific to the Christmas aplenty, and the best of all - shopping!! With the Christmas fairs & markets, there is a lot to choose from if the shops are not enough for you. Our first Christmas in London was enlightening in many ways. First of all, we used to think that it is all about the day itself, never did we realise that there would be so much to enjoy even before the festival day itself, colleagues at work bringing Advent Calendars, calendars counting days up to the Christmas with small windows for each day or sometimes random days of the month, to be opened to take a gift (chocolates in most of the cases in my office) on that day. Although putting up Christmas tree was the admin's responsibility, we all chipped in whenever we could, while many of them recollecting their fond childhood memories of the festival. As we neared the day, people started bringing in food which was cooked or available only during Christmas. Walking down the street or commuting in underground train or bus, there were always at least a few Christmas trees and decorations visible throughout the city, lifting your spirits instantly. But the Oxford Street beat everything else. A walk down this street after it got dark was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

All the store windows and shelves were adorned with beautiful gifts and unique items. They were so tempting that sometimes we would spend hours visiting stores looking at those fancy items and wondering whom can we buy those for (not to mention we would end up buying many things even though we didn't have much of a family or friends to gift those to, except for a cousin and her kids). But if we had a planned trip to home in immediate future, we would stock up on gifts to carry back home. During one of such shopping spree, we bought a scented oil burner and some lovely burning oils from Marks & Spencers. Coming from India, I was used to having everything available around the year in shops. So one random day long after Christmas was over, I searched for the same fragrances like a maniac only to be told in the end that those are available only during Christmas by a bewildered shop assistant.

As we neared the day, the excitement became increasingly palpable. My workplace had planned an elaborate Christmas lunch a couple of days before they closed for a week's holidays. I was so happy to be able to taste the traditional Christmas lunch as otherwise, I would have never got a chance to do so. The lunch started at about 12 p.m. (though we headed to the pub much before that) and went on for 2-3 hours with many courses of meals and rounds of drinks, followed by an elaborate celebration with more drinks till 8 in the night (at least that was the time when I left for home while many stayed back insisting me to join them for Karaoke or some more fun activities).


The actual day of the festival turned out to be a big surprise for us. All the shops, public transport, malls were closed and the reason was simple - everybody should get to celebrate the festival with their family. It was as if the city came to a standstill to celebrate. It was very unusual for us. We had always seen Policeman, shopkeepers, public transport employees and many other professionals working even on the most important festivals of their religions back in India. For that matter, during early years of my career, even I had spent some festivals in office. For the first time, it made us appreciate all those people back home who work even on holidays instead of being with their loved ones. On one Christmas I was supposed to be alone as hubby dear was going to be in India and I had to be in London for work. By the time the day arrived more than half of my office knew that I was going to be alone and they couldn't stop feeling sorry and wondering what was I going to do all alone. Some of them offered me tips while a couple of them also went to the extent of inviting me over for lunch with their extended families. I had barely joined in October and it felt so nice to be worried about by all of them (many of whom I knew only by name). But finally, I was invited over by a bunch of Indian friends, who just like me didn't have much to do on the day and had planned a house party with lots of food and board games.

It is true that sometimes you have to see the other cultures to appreciate some people back home and also realise that no matter what our origins, languages or faiths might be, we all are human and it feels nice to be treated as just another human rather than one from different religion who doesn't celebrate their festival.

P.S. Don't forget to try Ice Skating if you happen to be in London during winter, many iconic places have an ice rink created just for the limited time and I can assure you, its loads of fun.


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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Window shopping on the wheels, Mumbai - #AtoZChallenge

You may have visited many street bazaars and open-air markets but this one is unique. Mumbai is supposed to be one of the busiest cities in the world; people are running around the clock and hardly have any time for shopping. Taking this into account, shopping comes to you while you commute to work and back home. If you have ever travelled in a ladies' compartment on a Mumbai local train then you know what I am talking about (sorry men, there is no way you can experience this).

When I hated travelling in Local trains after first coming to Mumbai, the vendor selling plethora of knick-knacks and accessories used to be my attraction point. You will find everything from latest hair & fashion accessories to earrings, funky bracelets, anklets to nose rings and household items to quick snacks and seasonal fruits. You sit in one place (of course if you are lucky to have found a place) or stand and all those mobile stalls come by you, luring you to buy at least couple of their offerings for a very reasonable price.

Sometimes I wonder how difficult all those vendors' lives must be, moving from one crowded local train to another during sweltering summer and overpouring monsoon, trying to make their living off the meagre amount they must be making even after selling their whole lot. But one day I came across a lady greeting everyone on her way "Good morning!!!" while making way through the crowd with large piles of hair clips, hair bands and funky accessories in each of her hand. She was as cheerful as the dew on a morning bloom. Everyone in the compartment was worked up about some or the other thing about their life or the heat if not anything else. All of us were sitting with long faces brooding or complaining about something or other in life when we heard her greetings. Her spirits were so contagious that suddenly all our worries melted down and smiles erupted on all our faces. We all had certainly fewer worries than that lady and yet she was way happier than us in her life.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Volendam, Netherlands

When we made plans to visit Netherlands, one of the biggest attraction for both of us was to meet our close friends - S & his wife. We had infinite memories with S since college days and we were going to spend time with them after many years. Though both of them had met us at least once in two years during their short trips to India, our catch up would be quick and rushed. To our surprise, S had taken time off during our visit which was a cherry on the top for us.

On our second day, we went to Volendam, best known as the fishing village with its old-world charm, characteristic houses and a rustic feeling. It was the best setting for us to spend time together. We wandered aimlessly at Marina and the narrow lanes lined with restaurants and souvenir shops on both sides of the street, chatting and laughing heartily. The day was as bright and cheerful as our moods. Though the roads and shops were full of tourists, it didn't feel crowded. What was a visit to a fishing village without nice seafood? After a lovely stroll and many photo stops, we settled down in a restaurant overlooking the harbour for Fish & Chips.

After our delicious meal, we took a stop to get photographed in the traditional Volendam attire and bought some souvenirs for my miniature collection. It felt like good ol' days, three of us hanging out together as if the years in between hadn't happened at all.


P.S. For those familiar with the Bollywood, this is the place where the scene of Rani's gol gappa counter was set up in movie Queen.

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Uplifting orchestra at Paddington station

One day accidentally, hubby dear stumbled upon an orchestra playing at the Paddington station. It was a Friday evening and we already had some plans to kickstart our weekend so he couldn't stay back to hear them. The next Friday he made sure that our Friday evening was free and off we went to hear the first live orchestra of our lives. We were not even sure if it happens every Friday, or every month or was a one-off, but we decided to take our chances, thinking that we will wait till 8 and then go somewhere else to hang out if it doesn't take place. He wasn't sure about the start time but had spotted them sometime around 8.10, so we planned to reach there by 8. Later we found out that it starts at around 7.30 p.m. and goes on until 9 p.m. every Friday between Easter & Christmas and is called The Great Western Railway Paddington Band.

We stood there spellbound for an hour listening to them playing beautiful songs one after another. The station was operating as usual and occasionally some people would stop to listen until it was time for them to catch their train. But I guess they already had some fanbase as we were not the only ones who appeared to be in no rush to reach somewhere. It was as if the world had frozen in their perimeter while the world around it went on with their business as usual. It was there, for anyone and everyone, who was willing to take a moment to pause and appreciate the beautiful things in life! Here is a glimpse for you. Do visit them the next time you are in London.

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Monday, April 24, 2017

Tikona hillside camping, Lonavala - #AtoZChallenge

Have you ever visited a place where you felt a sense of belonging during the first visit itself? This campsite had that charm, for reasons unknown to us, we felt instant connection to the place as if we belonged to this place. It was a strange feeling at start given the scenario that we were visiting it for the first time, but as we spent more time, we felt more comfortable with that feeling and relished every moment at this serene, pristine place. The drive to the campsite was as breathtaking as the site itself.

Although usually, one can drive to the campsite, 4 days of non-stop pouring had made it impossible to drive regular car on the muddy road leading to it, hence we parked our car at their designated parking lot near the caretaker's house and started our journey on foot through knee deep mud. We had to look carefully for the spot with rocks, less amount of mud and least slippery before setting every step. It took us more than 30 minutes to cover 1 to 1.5 km to reach the campsite with most parts of our feet below the knees covered with mud. 

But as we cleaned ourselves and settled down with a warm cup of tea and a plate full of bhajiya, a sense of calmness spread all over us. The view from the campsite was spectacular. After the refreshments, we headed to a nearby waterfall. As far as our eyes could see, there was greenery with light drizzle and a fresh smell of the forest. After spending many moments at the waterfall we returned to the campsite before it got too dark.

The morning was as pretty as the previous evening. We couldn't come to the terms with departing from this lovely place. We sat on the wooden bench for as long as we could while enjoying the cool breeze and birds singing all around us. A drizzle here and there was just enough to make us feel loved but not drench us through. Sooner than we would have loved to, it was time to say goodbye. As we walked back to the car, we promised ourselves to return again next monsoon, only for a longer duration. 

What to pack for camping

1) Make sure you don't wear or carry trendy clothes. You need some simple, heavy duty, large enough clothes to cover yourself properly as it is not a great feeling to be surrounded by mosquitoes and all sorts of insects & bugs wearing shorts and vests

2) Footwear - The most important thing. Give those trendy high heels a rest for one weekend and wear only outdoor type of footwear. We met a lady at the campsite who wore her lovely silver pair of sandals, only to slip on her way and break those, not to mention the difficulty and time it took her to reach the campsite through that knee deep mud. While sports shoes may sound like a good option, once they are wet it may take ages for them to dry, especially during monsoon. The best ones would be floaters or some sturdy sandals with good grip

3) Carry some sleepers to roam around at the campsite as you don't want to roam around in the drenched sandals all the time

4) Rain and windcheater, if you are travelling during monsoon. (Psss this is a place to visit in monsoon). Umbrellas may not be useful as you want to keep your hands free to balance yourself and take support if necessary

5) Mosquitoes repellent, this is a must otherwise your camping trip would become a nightmare

6) An old school style torch. Don't rely on your mobile phone as you may or may not get an electric point to charge it once the battery has drained, not to mention the power outages (which people from Mumbai aren’t aware of)

7) Water bottle as you don't want to walk all the way to the pantry to drink water every time

8) Power banks for your phones

9) Music with portable speakers or a musical instrument

10) Towel & extra pair of clothes (if you get drenched in rain or decide to go for a dip in the nearby lake)

11) Swiss knife if you have one but this is a nice to have tool which may come handy occasionally

12) Be prepared to have basic home cooked meals, nothing extravagant

13) Yourself. You need to take yourself mentally out of your daily rut to thoroughly enjoy yourself and be comfortable without any network coverage in your cell phone or other gadgets. Don't bother downloading your favourite movie on your handset or tablet as it will be a serious insult of the place you are going to :(

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