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Oh, to wander again

So finally, this blog has a reason to come back to life.

In a previous post, I had extolled the virtues of traveling alone, letting your mind and body wander, getting out of your comfort zone and pushing your limits. It had been 7 years since I had attempted something similar and I wanted to set that right. So, on the afternoon of a bright day in the first week of April, I booked a one way ticket to Sikkim. I knew where I would be staying that night in Gangtok, but nothing more. Just the adventure I needed..and perhaps more.

Like Tyler Knott Gregson aptly pointed out

I needed to waltz. And waltz I did. Through the windy roads, through the bridges that took many lives to build, through the gushing rivers, through the majestic Himalayan ranges, through the hearts and minds of the locals and through the warmth they offered me.

Majestic Himalayas

 

I managed to visit Gangtok, North Sikkim (Yumthang valley, Zero Point, Gurdongmar lake) and West Sikkim (Pelling, Yuksom). And topped it off with a 4 day trek to Dzongri – this was the perfect finish to this adventure. People make these experiences count and mine was no different. A few examples…

  • A 20 year old Christ College student who sat next to me on the flight and told me his love story
  • 55 year old Abdul Chacha who moved from Bihar to Sikkim 30 years ago and recounted his journey over the last few decades
  • A French group of 8 folks who travel like the way its meant to be done
  • A 40 year old British couple, who were rediscovering their lives

I came away from the trip learning a lot about each one of them…and myself. That’s the whole point of travel, isn’t it ?  (I hope to write more about each of these places and the people I met, in future posts)

And at the end, I couldn’t help but feel that the mountains have an aura and a rather unique simplicity. Life is rather simple in these parts of the world

  • There are no two ways to get to a destination…
  • There are no two ways to start a fire…
  • There are no two ways to cook…
  • There are no two ways to survive…
  • And there are no two ways to live…

And it is with this simplicity that the locals lead their lives and it is this simplicity that makes their lives rich.

And it made mine too.

Warsaw

Have you ever known a kid who was sandwiched between two bullies when he was growing up? He would hardly have escaped the torture inflicted upon him by one of the big fellas, when the other giant would be ready to pounce on him. Dilly dallying from one to the other, the kid surely was not capable of having a decent childhood.

Poland’s history is very much akin to the life of the kid. Bordered by Germany on the west and Russia on the east, Poland has been grappling with centuries of war, invasion and foreign occupation. But, if you look at Poland today, you would never guess it had such a bleak past. Today, it shines with optimism and a new found “EU energy”. The people are distinctly proud of their struggles in the past that led them to where they are today. Warsaw, its current capital can hold its own against any city in western europe.

Warsaw has a very colorful old town, with the buildings exhibiting very bright colors. My guide book said the old town is a major tourist draw, and they weren’t kidding. The town square was packed with hordes of travelers. Most of them with deep pockets from the UK and the US.

Old Town Square

 

Miasto Feniksa

Right next to the town square, a photo exhibition was on display. It was the most stunning piece of art I ever experienced. Each exhibit consisted of three photos. One of them was of a street in Warsaw immediately after the second world war. Battered buildings depicted the damage that the war caused. The second picture  was of the same street taken in 2008. In the third picture, they morphed the people from today’s picture into the old one. This had an exceptional effect. They say a picture is worth a thousand words…..but two pictures taken half a century apart will tell you a story….a story of a city, its people, their struggle, their passion and their national pride. I have listed two of these exhibits here. I urge you to check them more of them (fullsize) at Flickr here. A street artist playing melancholy saxophone tunes in the background was a perfect accompaniment to the exhibition setting. You can also see the exhibition online at www.miastofeniksa.pl. (however, only the morphed photo is displayed online, which dampens the experience).

Photo exhibit at Miasto Feniksa

Photo exhibit at Miasto Feniksa

It was also interesting to notice the expression on the faces of people looking at the exhibition. Some of them were in awe, while some seemed to remember the war.

Remembering the past     Woman in thought

I also took a video clip of the exhibition to capture the mood( it didn’t quite do justice to the setting, but here it is anyway). The woman in the striped t-shirt is playing the saxophone.

Check the video here

 

Chopin Concerts

Warsaw is the home of Frederic Chopin, the great pianist and composer. During the summers, every Sunday, the famous Park Łazienkowski hosts free concerts, where professional pianists perform one of Chopin’s masterpieces. I happened to be there on a sunday and decided to check it out. Lots of people gather at the park, lying on the grass, around the water. Its a perfect setting for some soothing piano tunes on a lazy afternoon.

Chopin concert

As in most East European capitals, there is a church tower in old town that offers a good view of the city.

Old town square - Warsaw    Royal palace

Characters

Indians

I ran into two Indians when crossing a busy intersection and our “desi” connection got us talking. They had been in Warsaw for six years and now are settled there. After some normal chit chat they discovered that I was traveling alone. One of them literally took a step back….he thought I was nuts. For the next 10 minutes he interrogated me…why alone? whats wrong with you? dont you like company? isnt that fun? dont you have friends?

I tried explaining to him the benefits of traveling alone. He just didn’t get it. He left, disgusted.

 

John Myers

I met this Aussie guy and his german friend at an Indian restaurant. Both these guys were taking a month long course in Polish. As soon as the Aussie realized I was Indian, he started talking about cricket. It was like he was itching to talk about cricket for long. So we did and bored the german to death. We tried explaining the game to him, but it was a futile exercise. What? you play the game for the whole day? For 5 days?

John recently found a new and interesting job..to make beer for a Heineken owned brewery in the south of poland. In an attempt to prepare for the job, he was taking the language course. And from what he tells me, Polish is a tough language to learn.

Vilnius, part two

Uzupis Republic

Uzupis is a small, artsy and bohemian district in the city of Vilnius. In 1997, the residents of Uzupis declared themselves a republic with their own president, currency and constitution. They were only half-joking when they did this and so that makes for quite an interesting story. They are all huge art proponents. Their president himself is a poet, musician and film director. And funny enough, their independence day (also called Uzupis day) is on April 1st and is a huge party day (like the halloween in the US). When you enter the Uzupis republic, you are faced with six boards that list the constitution in different languages.

Uzupis Republic

 

Their constitution is super funny, super real and has 41 declarations. It tells you something about the character of its people. They are simple, no nonsense and love to live life.  I have listed it below…Its long, but very well worth a read. You will have a good laugh.

  1.  Man has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, while the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by man.
  2. Man has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof.
  3. Man has the right to die, but it is not his obligation.
  4. Man has the right to make mistakes.
  5. Man has the right to individuality.
  6. Man has the right to love.
  7. Man has the right to be not loved, but not necessarily.
  8. Man has the right not to be distinguished and famous.
  9. Man has the right to be idle.
  10. Man has the right to love and take care of a cat.
  11. Man has the right to look after a dog till one or the other dies.
  12. A dog has the right to be a dog.
  13. A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in hardness.
  14. Sometimes man has the right to be unaware of his duties.
  15. Man has the right to be in doubt, but this is not his duty.
  16. Man has the right to be happy.
  17. Man has the right to be unhappy.
  18. Man has the right to be silent.
  19. Man has the right to have faith.
  20. No one has the right to violence.
  21. Man has the right to realize his negligibility and magnificence.
  22. Man has the right to encroach upon eternity.
  23. Man has the right to understand.
  24. Man has the right to understand nothing.
  25. Man has the right to be of various nationalities.
  26. Man has the right to celebrate or not to celebrate his birthday.
  27. Man shall remember his name.
  28. Man may share what he possesses.
  29. Man cannot share what he does not possess.
  30. Man has the right to have brothers, sisters and parents.
  31. Man is capable of independence.
  32. Man is responsible for his freedom.
  33. Man has the right to cry.
  34. Man has the right to be misunderstood.
  35. Man has no right to make another person guilty.
  36. Man has the right to be personal.
  37. Man has the right to have no rights.
  38. Man has the right not to be afraid.
  39. Do not defeat.
  40. Do not fight back.
  41. Do not surrender.

KGB Museum

Officially called the “Museum of Genocide Victims”, this building was a KGB prison. People that spoke out against the communist regime and prisoners of war, were held, tortured and sent to their death in this prison. On the outside walls, are inscribed the names of Lithuanians who were led to their death here. Notice how young many of them were.

KGB Museum  KGB Museum

 

As you would expect, the life of a prisoner here was nothing less than hell. When he first arrived he was sent to the Boksai ( the box), where he would sit for three hours while his paperwork was taken care of.

Boksai

Boksai

He was then sent to the search cell, where he was thoroughly searched. He had to take of his clothes, every button was cut off and all personal belongings were confiscated.

Search Cell

Search cell

Then they were sent to their cell. 15-20 people were placed in this cell at a time. There was hardly any room to change your body position in such a cramped place.

Postwar cell

Prison postwar cell

The worst of them all was the torture cell. Its walls were padded, so while the prisoner was tortured, his screams would not be heard by the rest of the prison.

Special Cell

Torture cell

More of the prison photos are in the lithuania set on flickr with the “kgb museum” tag.

You walk out of this building with a sick feeling in your stomach. On my way out, I asked the lithuanian girl who was selling tickets, if she had any animosity towards russians today. She responded by saying that it was only in 1991 that they gained independence, it was not too long ago. She felt it was too early to forget the brutal past. However, she did have some Russian friends in her hometown of Alytus and did not hold them responsible for what their ancestors had done.

Today this building serves as the Lithuanian Court of Appeal. Life has a funny way of setting things right. For over half a century, this building was witness to the cruelest injustice. Today, it is handing out justice to its citizens.

 

Vilnius, Lithuania

Cathedral during the day

Among the Baltic states, Lithuania seemed the least similar to Western Europe. Many parts of the country are still devoid of western influence. My hostel happened to be in a residential district and it gave me the chance to see some of the local life in the area. After getting a facelift in 2003, the city center in Vilnius looks like any other busy European promenade. The residential areas however bear a striking resemblance to Asian suburbs, especially those in Mumbai, India. Lithuania has been a role model of sorts in the region. It was the first country to take a bold step and declare itself an independent state, freeing itself from the agonizing grip of Soviet communism. Its other claim to fame is that it was within a basket of beating the US Dream Team at the Athens Olympics.

Vilnius itself, is a rather small city and most of the attractions are centered around Old Town. I took a hike up to Gedominas Castle, where you can get some good views of the city.

Vilnius's financial district

Vilnius Financial District

View from Gediminas Castle Tower

View from Gedominas Castle

Vodka is everywhere in this country. The brand marketing gurus figured out that to sell anything, you need to add some “vodka” to it. So, even water is now sold in vodka bottles ! These are made of glass and are quite cumbersome to carry. I doubt they would sell elsewhere, but here they seem to be disappearing off the shelves.

Vodka or water?

 

Trakai

Trakai is a quant little town about 30 kms west of Vilnius. In the 1400’s, the king brought some 380 “Karaites” families(rare middle eastern sect) from Crimea to serve as bodyguards. Today only 63 of these families remain in Trakai. These people have been guarding the Island Castle, which is Trakai’s big tourist draw. The castle is very picturesque and on a sunny day, can be a photographer’s delight. I wished I had a better camera, but I went berserk anyway, shooting many pictures of the castle view. I settled in a restaurant on the other side of the river with a perfect view, was clicking away, sipping a latte and reading a book. Oh, joyful times.

Coffee at Island Castle

Inside the castle, for a small fee, they give you some archery classes and teach you how to aim.

Can you aim?

Vilnius is also home to Uzupius Republic ( a district that calls itself a country) and the KGB Museum. Both of these were intriguing and I’ll write about them in a separate post.

More photos are on flickr. Click on this picture Coffee at Island Castle

Characters

My hostel could not be described as social, so I had to venture out to meet some folks.

Raj Choudhary

One of the best things about soccer, is that it is a loved sport all over the world. And it has been a great avenue to make friends. Vilnius was no different. On my way back to the hostel, I saw a few people playing soccer near the city square. I went by and couldn’t resist playing. So I did. Turns out that these folks were waiters at a nearby Indian Restaurant. After an hour of soccer and much needed exercise I headed home. The next day, I visited the restaurant called Sue’s Indian Raja. For being in Vilnius the food was exceptionally good and service was lightning quick. Anything I ordered (starters, mains) arrived within five minutes. The owner Raj Choudhary is a retired Wing Commander from the Indian Air Force. He is married to a Lithuanian lady and is settled in Vilnius. I later learnt that he has a chain of Indian restaurants in the Baltics.

What’s interesting is that the restaurant also serves as the Indian Consulate in Lithuania. Mr. Raj has a framed letter from the President of India appointing him as the Indian Consulate General for Lithuania.I am quite sure, I will never see two boards like this in such close proximity again.

Indian Consulate at Sue's Indian Raja Restaurant

 

Indian Software Engineers !

Had I seen them anywhere else, I would not have been surprised. But here, in Lithuania? On two separate occasions I ran into a group of Indians on the streets. They were working for IFlex in Bangalore and are currently on an assignment for the SEB bank. Russell Peters was not joking. Sooner, rather than later, we are going to take over the world !

Stockholm

After 10 days in Eastern Europe, I took a small detour and headed to Stockholm to meet up with my INSEAD friends. Malte was a great host, knew a lot about the city and took us to places only a local could. I also met up with Emily, Marguerite and Tom during the 4 days spent there. It was superb to catch up with them, chat about what seemed like old times at INSEAD.

Like most European cities, Stockholm has a river running through it and it makes for spectacular sights. Malte took us to a really non-touristy place, a huge rock by the river. We took breakfast with us and had it there, enjoying the view.

View of Stockholm

Stockholm from a rock

 

We visited Stockholm’s most popular attraction – the Vasa Museum, which houses a ship that was built in the 1600’s. There is an interesting story behind this. The king at the time Gustavus, wanted to build a ship that was the largest and something he could be proud of. Known to have a bit of hubris, Gustavus ordered the ship to be top-heavy. None of the engineers had the courage to say no, and when the ship set sail, it sank within 2 kms.  In the 1950’s the ship was discovered and over the next two decades it was restored. The guys have done a superb job – 95% of the wood is still original. Where the wood gave away, they replaced it with wood of a different color, so that one can appreciate how much of original wood is still present. Apparently, a major reason for the wood to have survived, is the absence of a particular tapeworm, since it prefers salty waters. (baltic sea is less salty). You can more about the ship here. When viewed life size, the ship is daunting(note how small the people are in the picture below) and its amazing that they were able to build something like that without the tools of today.

Vasa Ship

Note the “small” people on the bottom left

The weather wasn’t too kind to us. It rained almost incessantly. But when it didn’t, we toured Stockholm on bikes. Malte took us to this one green island with bikeways along the water. It was good to bike – it was my first exercise in ages.

Bike Ride

On another day, we went boating in Stockholm Archipelago. A lot of people in Sweden have boats and its very common for them to take their boats out in the summer and head out for a “drive”. We had a great half day, before the rains came down on us. It was a lot of fun. We docked the boat and had lunch by the water in a dockside restaurant. I also had my first sighting of a gas station on water !

Day on the boat

All smiles before the rain

Pit Stop

Fuel on water

The post cannot be complete without a mention of Malte’s apartment. It was very well furnished and decorated. The kitchen was right out of a 5-star restaurant and invited us to cook. So we did !

Cooking

Emily and Malte cooking

Ready for Dinner

Ready to eat in Malte’s super living room

More Stockholm photos are on Flickr. Click on this picture View of Stockholm

 

Characters

I didn’t stay in a hostel, so did not run into strangers. But one of Malte’s friends has an interesting background.

Tobias Ericsson

Working in a mobile operator company by day, Tobias is the co-founder of Tritoni. Their company makes watches from plastic that look like they are metal watches. I am quite tempted to get one. Check out their website, it has some really interesting ads. Their mantra is to sell watches as accessories, not as time keepers. For being only a year old, they have had tremendous sales and have big plans for the future.

That’s it for now. Next post on Lithuania. I made my way from there to Warsaw, where I’ll be for a couple more days. 

Thanks for reading !

 

 

Riga, Latvia

Latvia seems like a country that is ready for prime time. It is ready to shrug of the memories of its communist past and head down the path of progress (as the EU defines progress these days). While Estonia seemed ahead in the race to modernization, Latvia is showing every sign of catching up. There are two distinct sides to the city of Riga. One is holding on its beautiful and historic past, while the other is screaming with shopping malls, zippy cars and fast food chains. The divide between the rich and poor is very visible here.

My hostel was right by the river and offered a great view. On evenings, a walk by the river was very refreshing and offered a great view of the suspension bridge.

Promenade along the river

Walk along the river

One of Riga’s famous sights is St. Peter’s Church.

St. Peters Church

Legend has it that the builders threw glass from the top of this church. The number of pieces it would break into, would be the number of years the church would stand. The glass fell on hay and didn’t break. The church came down in a fire the next year !

The old town in Riga is pretty, but very very touristy. Crowds from western europe descend into the city with heavy pockets and support the expensive cafes and restaurants.

Busy square in old town

I took a walking tour in Riga as well. I am beginning to like these walking tours. This is a very good way of seeing the city with someone who possesses local knowledge. At the same time, you also meet other backpackers from all over the world, who are also taking the tour. Our guide was James from Eatriga. He took us to this place called Maskacha (moscow district). Apparently this is a place that is a Russian hangout and the locals avoid this place if they can. What was interesting to see was that this place was devoid of any western influence and hence any development.

Maskachka

We also went by these 4 hangar type buildings. These used to be buildings on a port and housed boats/ships and were used as sites for repair. However, thanks to the industrial revolution, a railway track was built about 50 metres from it on a bridge over a canal. As a result, the boats could not make it to the hangars any more. So they were converted into local markets and are still reminiscent of the soviet era markets. A touch of irony here – while the industrial revolution is blamed for destroying the look of towns, it is responsible for preserving this piece of history !

Hangar or ?

Zeppelin hangar market

Woman in Russian Market

Inside the market

Characters

Some interesting folks I met at Riga.

Tommi Karlsson

This fella backpacked around Eastern Europe and Riga was his last stop before he headed back home to Sweden. He had a rather interesting story. Thailand has this tradition of having Full Moon Parties. Its another one of those things that the westerners inflicted upon asian tourism. These parties are held once a month on full moon day. Tommi was at the last party in 2004 was held on December 26th. If that date sounds familiar to you, it is because it was the day of theTsunami that killed thousands. The party was unaffected by the Tsunami because it was on the other side of the mainland. But still, I find it really interesting, amusing and ironic that while a catastrophe has struck the nation on the morning, 20000 people are partying away into the night on the same day. Unbelievable.

 

Martin and Johannus

I met these two german blokes at my hostel. They started out from their small town in Germany, but can you guess what their intended destination is?

Its Bali…yes, thats right..Bali in Indonesia. They aim to be there for Christmas and New year in 2008. And they are intent on not taking a single flight to get to Thailand. Some people travel, some people explore, but these guys are taking it to a whole new level. They are going to go across eastern europe, all of big Russia, China and then head south towards Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. Gosh, what a trip thats going to be !

More photos are on flickr

Well, thats all for Riga. I then went to visit friends in Stockholm (details in another post) and am now back in Eastern Europe territory in Lithuania.

Tallinn, Estonia

On the eastern edge of Europe, Estonia is known for its endless but beautiful coastline, cheap beer and technology overload. This is also where Skype and Kazaa originated. (They have huge hoardings in the airport that advertise their immense pride in the success of Skype). The people here are very warm and friendly, very tall (female average height is 6 ft), and laid back.

Brief History

Estonia has a complicated history.It has been ruled by the Swedes, Germans and the Russians. The last 100 years has been full of twists and turns for this country. It went from being a province of the Russian empire to an independent country, then a republic of the Soviet Union, an independent nation once again and now a EU member. Since independence in 1991, Estonia has made rapid strides in erasing the memories of a communist regime and moving towards a progressive society.

Because the Soviet regime oppressed them in the past, I asked locals in what light they see Russians today. Interestingly, the Russians were portrayed as enemies in their history classes in high school, but today it is not uncommon for Estonians and 26% Russian population to mingle freely.

Like most European cities, Tallinn has an old town. But the similarities end there. The old town in Tallinn is an UNESCO preserved site and maintains its charm of old. It has an enchanting jumble of turrets, spires and winding cobblestone streets. A walk in this town will surely make you feel like you were in a different era..

Town Hall


I took a “funky bike tour” that claimed to take us to places even the locals dont know. And it did live up to its promise. The cynicism of the tour guide notwithstanding, we saw the run-down side of Tallinn, a prison now converted into a museum and a submarine. He also took us to a flea market, gave us 5 Estonian Kroons (which is almost no money) and asked us to buy something from the market. It was an interesting idea, since it made us venture into the market and explore it.  

Some interesting trivia I learnt from this tour… 

Look at this picture and answer the question that follows.

Now, put on your sherlock holmes hat and tell me what the marks on the road are? 

About a year ago, a train overran the tracks and went onto the tar, and crashed into the station building. Legend has it that a BMW was parked illegally where the marks are. What are the chances you think he got covered by insurance !

Black Death Trivia

The Estonian folklore is very different from the story in Wikipedia. According to the Estonians, the locals at the time thought that the wells had ghosts in them and threw dead cats into them to get rid of the ghosts. And thus began the epidemic that caused tons of deaths in Europe.

Discovery

This is in central Tallinn. They were digging up an existing parking lot to make a basement parking lot. They found a lot of these old remains/walls. Now they sill plan to make the parking lot around these walls without destroying them. Thats going to be tough….I wanna see how that turns up

An aspect of traveling alone is the chance to run into some interesting people. Here are two I met in Tallinn.

danel pool

Roland, Kite, Me, Danel (squatting)

I met Danel and his friends on the Pirita beach. They were jumping into a river (some even with summersaults). See video below.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bhatta/2713666182/in/set-72157606348711530

They were super friendly and even  invited me to their place for some drinks. I was there till the wee hours of the morning, chatting and getting to know them better. The next day, on their own accord, they brought along a car and took me to Parnu, a resort town about 125 kms away. The drive was picturesque and we had some good times at the beach there.

ben zilker

Mr.Ben

Ben works at the Euphoria hostel I was staying at. He left his homeland Israel at 19 and has spent two years traveling around Europe. He plays the flute and drums really well and those are his means to a living. This guy’s knowledge of Hinduism amazed me. He really likes religion, art and symbols. He has been listening to the Bhagavad Gita since he was nine. He even recited the Gayatri Mantra and told me of a couple of occasions when he chanted the mantra to successfully get out of trouble. I found this really incredible!  We had some interesting conversations on Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, war and conflict in the region. It was good to get his perspective on the conflict in the region. It seems like the younger generation is grieved at having to suffer the consequences of a war that they had no part in. They want out.

Tallinn was a great start to this trip, both in terms of its charm and the experience it offered via the people I met. I am on my way to Riga, Latvia and looking forward to the next adventure !

More estonia photos are on Flickr

Thanks for reading and if you liked it, drop me a line !

Take two

After a long long long hiatus, blogging is back on the agenda. After my last post in Jun 2007, I continued on my trip and went to Cinque Terre, Rome, Milan, Interlaken, Kanderstag and Salzburg. A US immigration issue forced me to cut my trip short and head back to the US. Long story – but in short, I decided not to bother and went to INSEAD.

The year at INSEAD was fabulous. A lot of my classmates have done an excellent job of describing the experience, so I shall not delve into it. It truly was a remarkable year  that allowed me to experience personal, professional and academic growth. I spent six months in Singapore and four months in France. When in Singapore, the culture at school was to get work done during the week and spend the weekends traveling. We also took some work with us during travel, but tried to limit that down. We visited Krabi (Thailand), Siem Reap (Angkor Wat in Cambodia), Hanoi (Vietnam), Bangkok, Bintan (Indonesia), Hong Kong, Pangkil (Indonesia) and Bali.

In March 2007, I shifted base to Fontainebleau, the French INSEAD campus. From there, I was able to visit Scotland, Barcelona, Dubai, Antalya (Turkey), Normandy and Champagne. It wasn’t just all travel. There was plenty of academics, job search and socializing as well. But I enjoyed travel the most.

Well, now the INSEAD year is over. I have a three month break before starting work in Dubai and it would be criminal to waste the Schengen visa that is valid until September. So I decided to visit the new entrants to the Schengen agreement – the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania. I am also going to visit some INSEAD friends in Sweden. So the grand plan is Estonia -> Sweden -> Latvia -> Lithuania -> Poland -> Hungary -> Czech Republic. That’s the plan anyway. The trip may not pan out in that order or in its entirety. Thats the joy of traveling with on a low budget without a schedule.

So, as many INSEAD blogs come to an end, this one springs to life. As I sit here in my hostel in Tallinn, Estonia, I hope this trip is as good, if not better than the one last year. Tallinn is modern yet has a rustic charm. More on Tallinn in a later post – I am off now to explore the city 

The French Riviera

When I was growing up, cable TV had just made its entry to Indian television. Star TV was a revolution and most of us were hooked on to it. One of the soap operas at the time was based in the French Riviera. I had heard about the lovely Mediterranean coast before, but it was in this TV serial, that I first saw lovely, scenic views of the south of France.

After Barcelona, we took a day train and headed to Nice, in the southern coast of France. Apparently, all of France heads down to the beaches during the summer and I can see why. The place is everything that I saw on in that TV show and more. The Cote d’ Azur (local name for the French Riviera) is very very scenic. The water looks a calm blue and is overlooked by amazing castles and mansions. Many resorts have sprung up on the coast – some exclusively for the rich and famous.

The first couple of days were spent on the coast, taking in the breathtaking scenery.

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There are several small towns to the east  and west of Nice, each with their own beaches, resorts, restaurants and views. The place really makes you want to relax. And thats what I did. I had planned to stay in Nice only for 3 days. But the Cote d’ Azur in combination with our hostel, the Villa Saint Exupery  were excellent to relax. The hostel had a great atmosphere, amazing all-you-can-eat breakfast and free wi-fi. And you could head to the beach when you felt like it. To me it was like a vacation from a vacation. After traveling in big cities, walking a lot, seeing touristy things I needed a break. It does get tiring – sometimes you have to remind yourself that you are on a vacation. So I decided to extend my stay in Nice..day by day…just never wanted to leave…And so I ended up in Nice for 10 days 

See more pictures of Nice in the flickr photo set . I really chilled out in Nice, reflected on a lot of my past and thought about the future. It was time well spent.

Rohit and me joked that we went to Barcelona in the wrong decade. In complete contrast, it seemed that we had hit Nice in the perfect week !   We could catch the Monaco Formula One Race, the Cannes Film Festival and a French soccer league match.

A day of sport

The Formula One Qualifying

The day after we landed in Nice, we headed to Monaco to check if we could get tickets for qualifying and the race. The only tickets available were 70 Euros for qualifying and 700 Euros for the race. We decided to be an order of magnitude cheaper and took the qualifying tickets. We were excited ! It was Monaco, that place where the rich and famous retreat to. This race is most hyped up in the F1 calendar. I took pictures of the stall where we bought the tickets. It was probably stupid, but hey – I was in Monaco !

 

2 days later, we returned to see the qualifying. We had a decent view by the port. Check out this video that I took.

It was a good experience. This was my third F1 race, but the sounds were still quite a lot to handle. It seemed like 100 planes were taking off at the same time. I am glad I didnt try hard to get a ticket for the race. We had reasoned that the track doesnt provide opportunities to overtake and that would lead to a boring race. Thats exactly what happened. The first three to start ended up in the podium.

Monaco as a country did not look as affluent as I had thought. In my mind, Monaco was a place with only huge villas, expensive hotels, crazy casinos and folks that could treat money like toilet paper. It turned out that Monaco has a lot of normal residents. Makes sense – you need a lot of people behind the scenes in order to run a wealthy economy and pamper the actors, sports stars, directors and a huge list of celebrities. I later discovered – out of a population of 40,000 only 6000 are citizens. Apparently, you need to earn above a certain undisclosed number, before you can qualify for citizenship. I am not even dreaming about it now. INSEAD or not !

  

Later, I walked on the pit lane.

      

See more pictures in the Monaco photo set

The Unexpected Soccer Game.

That night after got off the bus and walked towards our hostel, we heard a crowd humming and cheering. We had walked by a stadium earlier in the week – what were the chances that a game was on now ! So we walked to the stadium – and sure enough, there was a contest. Nice vs Le Mans . We bought tickets from some kids outside – 10 euros each. Was well worth it. Being a soccer player and fan, I had always wanted to witness an European soccer league. This wasn’t the best league, but its something – its a start.
The atmosphere was great, every move by the home team was cheered. Every move by the opposition was met with pin drop silence. The match was an even contest throughout – both teams played attacking football. The final score 3-3 ensured that we got more than our money’s worth.