Sunday, December 16, 2012

Barcelona Cruise (Barcelona, Toulon, Palma de Mallorca) - Part II

Part I of this post appears here: Part I

Palma de Mallorca, Spain

Drach Caves

Lake Martel, Palma de Mallorca, Spain
Drach Caves, Palma de Mallorca, Spain

Having visited the Borra Caves in Vizag, India before, our expectation was of something along those lines. However, the underground Lake Martel housed within the Caves makes all the difference here. The lake is one of the largest underground lakes in Europe.
The tour also included a 5 min light and music boat show with live music (western classical) being played on the boat. The effect was quite impressive. Unfortunately, we do not have any pics of the event, not only because of the strict "No photography" restrictions but also due to the prevailing darkness that makes it extremely difficult to take pics.
To finish off, a few more pics of the caves themselves:

Shopping tip: Mallorca is famous for its pearls, aka Majorica Pearls. Though you can find them everywhere in the city, the best place to buy them at factory prices is in the Pearl factory located in Manacor.


Barcelona city panorama

The final stop was in Barcelona, Spain. We unfortunately got to spend only 1 day in Barcelona, which after passing the day, we realized is woefully inadequate to explore a city like Barcelona in its entirety. We really liked what we saw and hope to return there someday soon. So we will leave a detailed description of the city to a later post. Till then, enjoy pics of some of many noteworthy sights in Barcelona.

Barcelona port
Barcelona port
Barcelona port bridge
Barcelona port (sunset)

Gothic quarters - Cathedral

Columbus monument

Las Ramblas

Las Ramblas is the most touristic street in Barcelona. It stretches almost 1km from Plaça Catalunya to the Cruise port terminal. The street is filled with street artists and small shops of all kinds and is a must visit. As we went there close to Christmas, the streets were beautifully decorated with colorful lights (collage below).

Wishing everyone a very Happy New Year 2013 and Merry Christmas (Noël in France, Nadal in Catalunya, or whatever it is called in your part of the world)!

Barcelona Cruise (Barcelona, Toulon, Palma de Mallorca) - Part I

Royal Caribbean cruise ship: Serenade of the Seas (docked in Barcelona)
Serenade of the Seas

Our 3rd cruise was with Royal Caribbean (RC) on their "Serenade of the Seas" ship (pic above). It was a 4-nights cruise starting and ending in Barcelona with intermediate ports of call in Toulon, France and Palma de Mallorca, Spain.
The ship had undergone a lot of renovation just before our cruise and looked in pristine condition. We have given a description of RC cruise ships and the facilities to expect on board in one of our previous posts. So rather than repeating them again, here is a link to the post for anyone interested: RC Cruise ship. A few pics of the ship's interior for your viewing pleasure:

Toulon, France

On the ferry to Toulon, France Port of Toulon, France

Our first port of call was in Toulon, France. It is basically a French naval base, so you can see lots of warships at the port. The city itself is like most French cities - narrow streets with lots of cafes. Two tips here which would be helpful to Indian tourists who are not based in Europe but say come directly from India:
  • It is much cheaper to buy souvenirs (gifts for families/friends) from the 1-Euro stores on the streets than from the souvenir shops at touristic spots. Don't worry as you do not need to speak French to buy from these stores as all the items have prices clearly marked on them and there is no bargaining. 
  • Coffee: We have often found people complaining about the coffee in the "famous" french cafes. As Indians, we are used to drinking coffee with milk and the Indian Espresso also refers to such a coffee. Unfortunately, the French default or Espresso is really strong (bitter) as it is usually made directly from coffee beans rather than filtered coffee as we get it in India. So to be on the safe side, ask for "Cafe au lait" (Coffee with milk) or most cafes usually nowadays also serve Cappuccino. 

Palma de Mallorca, Spain

The next port of call was in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. Palma de Mallorca is one of the Balearic Islands belonging to Spain. Often touted as the Spanish equivalent of (French) Côte d'Azur where the rich and famous head to during summer months, one can clearly see the strains of the current economic crisis with unfinished buildings everywhere. Moving on to more pleasant things, there is still a lot to see and explore on the island even if you go there during winter. Primary attractions include the Cathedral and Drach Caves.

Cathedral of Santa Maria

Cathedral of Santa Maria, Palma de Mallorca, Spain

Having seen many cathedrals in and around Europe, we would rate the Cathedral of Santa Maria in Palma as one of the most impressive (probably right after the Saint Peter Basilica in the Vatican). The entrance is very high so you have to really crane your neck to see the top. The cathedral interiors including the Rose Window is equally impressive.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Saint-Etienne, France - the idyllic city

Saint-Etienne Cathedral (night)
Saint-Etienne cathedral

We spent almost a year in Saint-Etienne (2011/12), so this blog entry will be more on the lines of a city description than a short trip.

For starters, Saint-Etienne is a small city close to Lyon. It is located in the Rhône-Alpes region and is the capital of Loire département. It is well connected with both Paris and Lyon and easily reachable by train - 3 hours from Paris and 45 mins from Lyon. There are also buses connecting Lyon to Saint-Etienne (the buses usually run between the train stations).

Saint-Etienne Gare (railway station) Saint-Etienne Gare (railway station) at night
Saint-Etienne railway station


A few days in the city and you feel like you have reached the most idyllic city in the world. One of those places where you feel like relaxing and writing a poem may be (:wink:) - the sort of place where writers go to solve their 'writers block' - the place where you get up, take a stroll in the pleasant morning breeze, spend the next hour in a french cafe enjoying croissants/coffee and then daydreaming about work (not actually working, of course :)) till lunch. If you are the foodie like us, you should try the local Pâtisserie (bakery) - each region has its own customized cakes/pastries. Unfortunately, we were there for work and hence the lack of any poems in this blog :(

One might argue that a lot of European cities are like this. Well we have been to e.g. Innsbruck in Austria where most shops close at 5pm. Still somehow even that did not ignite the "laid back" feeling we experienced here. To its credit, shops (at least grocery shops) remain open on Sundays here which we really appreciated.

City night life

Saint-Etienne nightlife

True to its nature, most of the city seems deserted at night. The only happening place is the area close to the Cathedral (and also close to the Préfecture).

Get down at the stop 'Place Jean-Jaurès' if you are coming by tram. [The easiest way to buy a public transport ticket is at one of STAS kiosks - buy a 1h30m ticket for the 'Grd St Etienne' region - the ticket is valid on both buses and trams.]

Just keep walking a bit and you will find a Cathedral, movie theater, restaurants offering a wide variety of culinary delights (including Indian) in the vicinity. Unfortunately, none of the Indian restaurants we tried here were up to the mark, so would rather recommend that you try something traditional here.

The general cost of living here is quite low (of course, as compared to European standards) - a tram ticket costs 1.30 Euros, a coffee less than 2 Euros, same goes for taxi and hotel rates. So you can think of spending a few more days here - a slightly longer trip.

Shoppers' tip (Soma's special recommendation :)): The shops here are really nice (from a fashion point of view) and if you combine that with the low(er) cost of living here - you have a real bargain in your hands. Further, if you are here in June/July, almost all shops offer a 50-60% discount - something that will save you a lot of money while buying French gifts for all the nice people back home in India.

Saint-Etienne, France Saint-Etienne Trams (STAS)
Saint-Etienne Trams (STAS)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Verbier, Switzerland

Verbier is one of the more famous Ski Resorts in Switzerland. It falls in the Valais region of Switzerland.

Verbier resort, Switzerland


The train network in Switzerland is quite extensive and it is possible to reach Verbier via Public Transportation. If you try to book tickets at the Swiss railways website for Verbier, it shows many stops, e.g. Verbier TV, Verbier Post Office (Station Poste), etc. This can be a bit confusing - as it was initially for us as well. To clarify, it is possible to complete the final leg of the journey from Le Chable to Verbier via Cable Car or Bus. So Verbier TV is the Cable Car station (ideal if you intend to go for Skiing directly on reaching Verbier, esp. in winter). You can also take a Bus from Le Chable, in which case you arrive at Verbier Post Office - the city centre. In general, Verbier is a very small city so you can technically walk to almost any corner of the city - still may not be the ideal solution with luggage and the slopes everywhere.

Le Chable, Switzerland
Le Chable station - from where you can either take the Cable Car or Bus to Verbier

Verbier TV - Cable Car station

Martigny Gare, Switzerland
Martigny - one of the intermediate cities on the way

Verbier in Summer

Visiting a ski resort makes obvious sense during winter. However, they are not exactly isolated in summer as well. For one, hotel rates are much cheaper in summer. Second, the slopes look very different in summer - very green - in comparison to the snow capped white ones in winter. In summer, the slopes are still open for hiking, picnics, etc. If you do not have the stamina (like us :P) to hike up, you can always take the Cable Car to one of the Ski stations and then starting climbing down leisurely. We saw many people descending on bikes, skateboards as well - something to keep in mind for the more adventurous ones.

Verbier - hiking trail

There are also many cultural activities that are held in Summer. One such is the Verbier Festival held every year where you get to hear and meet celebrated musicians in a very informal setting. We managed to catch Anoushka Shankar's performance this year and were pleasantly surprised to see the 500 seating venue (Church) fully packed with people (mostly non-Indians).

Winter Skiing

We had a chance to re-visit Verbier during Winter 2014. So enjoy some pictures of the beautiful snow capped Verbier peaks ...

Verbier ski resort
Snow covered Verbier
Verbier ski station

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Scandinavia cruise (Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen) - Part II

Part I of the blog appears here: Scandinavia cruise - Part I

Stockholm, Sweden

As the capital of one of the most developed countries in the world, Stockholm gives you the impression of a very well-organized, spacious (not over crowded) city with very good public transportation.

Rainy Stockholm

Primary attractions here include the Royal Palace. Like in the UK, people here are also very proud of their royalty. Sweden's princess Victoria had recently been married when we visited Stockholm, so there was probably more than the usual share of royal memorabilia to be seen everywhere but it is quite evident that people here love their royalty.

Stockholm horse carriage

Coming back to souvenirs, toy ships are probably the most common souvenirs here. Our tour guide told us that almost 1 in 4/5 families in Sweden has a boat, so the fascination with boats is understandable.

Stockholm city

Finally some photography tips from Stockholm before heading to the next stop. If you are a photography enthusiast like us, do not miss the Stockholm Globe Arena, aka Ericsson Globe. It is currently the largest hemispherical building in the world. What makes it even more interesting are the Funicular rails on the sides that take you to the top - from where you can get an amazing bird's eye view of Stockholm (below).

Misty Stockholm (bird's eye view)

Gothenburg, Sweden

Gothenburg is the second largest city in Sweden. It is located along the Göta river coast. A few pictures from the coastline below:

Gothenburg, Sweden

Oslo, Norway

Of the 3 capitals we visited during this trip, we liked Oslo the most. It was raining that day and the city looked lush green in the rain. There is a lot of greenery everywhere and not so much crowd - which is how cities should be. Oslo (Norway in general) is (in)famous for being one of the costliest places in Europe and that shows in the standard of living here.

The most famous tourist attraction here is clearly the Vigeland Sculpture Park. It has over 200 sculptures by Gustav Vigeland.

The Vigeland Sculpture Park (Vigelandsparken), Oslo Norway

We also visited the Holmenkollbakken ski jumping hill in Oslo. When we visited in 2010, the jumping station had been demolished completely and was being rebuilt for the Nordic World Ski Championships 2011. Due to its height, it is also a very good place to get impressive (bird's eye) views of Oslo.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen windmills (black & white)

Historically, Denmark was the strongest of the 3 countries ruling over Sweden and Norway for many years. Actually, Norway was the weakest till Oil and Natural gas reserves were discovered in Norway and fortunes reversed. We found Copenhagen to be most industrialized but also most crowded at the same time.

Copenhagen colorful houses

More than scenic beauty, Copenhagen seems to be more famous for its sculptures, museums and palaces. The most famous sculpture is The Little Mermaid which is based on Hans Christian Andersen's famous fairy tale by the same name. Unfortunately, the statue itself was on loan to Shanghai when we visited Copenhagen - so they had set up a live video feed where you could see the statue on display in Shanghai (below).

Little Mermaid, Copenhagen, Denmark

Gefion Fountain, Copenhagen
Gefion Fountain, Copenhagen