Trip to Antwerp - The Diamond Capital of Europe


According to legend, a giant was demanding taxes to sail on the river Scheldt, so the local hero Brabo cuts off the giant's hand and throws it away. Throwing away a hand translates to "hand werpen" in Dutch. So there you go, the port city of Belgium gets it's name - "Antwerpen", a.k.a., Antwerp.

Brabo's Fountain- Brabo still deciding where to throw the Giant's hand
The city was initially not on our list when we drafted our itinerary, so unlike Paris or Amsterdam we were pretty clueless about where to go in Antwerp. We took Flix bus from Amsterdam at 10:30 am and reached the Antwerp central station within 12:45 pm. We were to spend just one night at Antwerp before we headed to our next stop planned at Brugges. It was not the perfect weather - the sky was overcast  when we reached the station and remained that way for most of the day The Antwerp Centraal, also called "Midden Statie" meaning middle station is a must-visit place at Antwerp even if you don't land here by train or bus like we did. Often ranked among the world's 10 most beautiful train stations (even at no.1 by some surveys),this grand monument is a masterpiece and could easily be mistaken for a museum. The large dome with beautifully decorated exteriors are just a teaser of what's inside.  We  took a few pictures from outside the station, made a mental note to come here later and walked towards our shelter - the Antwerp Central Youth Hostel. The hostel is about 2.5 km from the station and on our way we passed through some of the under construction monuments, tramlines and the oh-so-gorgeous fashion district. Read review of the hostel here
One façade of the Antwerp Centraal
Our hostel was in a surprisingly peaceful complex near the throbbing fashion district. We loved the hostel, but what we cherished the most were the free pocket maps made by locals that were made available on the rack for tourists. These were not just maps but also had a host of local tips and some history lesson of the city which not only guided us through our walking tour of the city but also helped me recollect the tidbits while writing the blog (yes, this is the only souvenir I could bring from Antwerp). So after taking some time to freshen up we set off for exploring the city on foot.Here's a few things that is hard to not notice when you walk on the streets of Antwerp-

- Antwerpeans love to build. The skyline full of building cranes, with the roads connecting one construction site to another. According the map the construction work included renovation of old monuments, raising skyscrapers,constructing tram lines and some big plan of building a whole new green district on top of the ringway around the city ("RingLand").

- The formal, classy dressing style. When it comes to fashion, we mostly think of Paris, but just a walk down the fashion district and looking at the well-dressed men and women you'd know Antwerp is not behind. Honestly, I don't understand fashion, but even for a fashion agnostic person it was not difficult to appreciate their stylish outfits.
The upscale fashion district
- It is a well planned city with one dedicated block for each purpose. On our way from hostel to the Stadspark, we walked through the fashion district with the designer boutiques, big brand outlets and then the shopping malls. Then we came to the Cathedral around which there are the souvenir shop and those mouth-watering Belgian Chocolate shops. Then you would walk into the world's largest  Diamond District, with diamond shops, the Diamond trade center and few offices and banks within or adjacent to the diamond district. Then you enter the foodies street with lots of pop-ups bars, restaurants, pizzeria and cafes. You will see pop-up bars  and cafes everywhere in the city, but there is this one block where you can just reach and have all options for food in a small radius.

At this angle it looks like old Calcutta, my hometown- this is on our way to the hotel

The Stadspark
A pretty theme park for children
We had a delicious bacon and prawn pizza at a local pizzeria and then we went to the city park, called Stadspark. The remains of a 16th century Spanish fortress was re-engineered into this beautiful open park in 19th century, in a classical English landscape style. "On summer days it's full of skaters, girls in bikinis next to women in veils.." said our pocket local guide. But on a relatively cold, somber day it just looked like a page out of Tom Sawyer or Great Expectations. There was lovely children's park where parents were watching the kids play after school-time.
The English landscape at Belgium's park
The Railway Cathedral
We went to the Central Station to buy ticket to Brugges, and took a stroll inside the magnificent building. It actually has two parts- a steel platform covering and a stone station building  near the Antwerp Zoo. It was originally constructed in 19th century but completely renovated ten years ago, completed with a tunnel underneath the station, reverting the station’s status as a terminus. Look up at the glass dome above and the details on the arches with tainted glasses when you go up the escalators. It indeed looks like a cathedral inside but I appreciate the fact that the locals don't shy away from telling the truth - according to our pocket guide the original building was built  under the command of Leopard II, with blood money from inhumane rubber harvest and genocide in the then colonies of Belgium. 
Inside the Antwerp Centraal
The Diamond Quarter, Jewish neighborhood and the Indians
Antwerp is the heart of diamond trading for over five centuries, with around 84% of the world's rough diamond passing through the city. With 220 million dollars worth diamonds traded daily in the diamond district of Antwerp, you'd know why there are so many men in uniform around in the city. The highly secured Diamon quarter is home to the diamond trading center, a large number of jewelry shops, diamond traders, wholesalers, cutters and guess what, a branch of The Bank of India! Orthodox Jews have dominated the closed world of diamond trading in Antwerp for centuries, but Indians are taking over steadily. The rising prominence of the (mostly Jain) Indian community is seen in the cuisine as well, with special mention of vegetarian Indian restaurants on our map. You'd see a large number of formally-clad Jain Indians and orthodox Jews identified by the headwears (kippah) and long beard walking on the street with complete no-nonsense look. There are around 20,000 Jews in Antwerp, most of whom are orthodox and these families have inherited the diamond business from their ancestors from as early as the fifteenth century. The Jewish neighborhood near the diamond district has beautiful old buildings and synagogues. You'd find most of my pictures of the city roads are sort of photo-bombed by an unusually large number of wires - I first thought these were only for the tram-lines, some of them are, but mostly it is the Eruv - a holy wire that symbolically encloses a certain area (a larger home). Read up a little about this on internet and found out that Eruv runs almost throughout the central city enclosing the station and diamond district, to allow the orthodox Jews to move around as usual during a  religious observation called Shabbat, in which they are forbidden to leave their home.

Diamonds are not a woman's best friend, but they are great to ogle at



The Grote Market (The Great Market)
This is the central square of Antwerp is famous not only for the large number of shopping options and cafes but also for the architectural wonders around. Each building- be it a shopping mall or a bank has a medieval design lending the place its old-world charm. The Brabe's fountain stands at the centre, (recall the story I began with?) depicting the hero  This is where we also saw the chocolate shops I mentioned and the stunning OLV Cathedral. With a 123 meter tall tower, which could be seen from various parts of the city on our walking tour, this Gothic masterpiece was completed in early 16th century and has been robbed several times since then. From here we followed the direction of Brabo's hand towards the river Scheldt.. just kidding,we followed the map and walked towards the river
The tower of the Cathedral is just omnipresent



The Steen
Now despite the archaic buildings that we saw in the Grote market, Antwerp in itself looks and feels like a modern trade-hub, so when we got a glance of an old castle while waiting to cross the road, I was just delighted. Strategically located at the banks of the river stands Antwerp's oldest building - The Steen. It was built in ninth century and was subsequently expanded with a stone wall and gatehouses turning it into a fortress that has held its ground for centuries now. It was renovated and further expanded with a neo-gothic wing in 1889-90. The Steen was probably erected as a castle, given it's appearance, used as a fortress for centuries, then as a prison till 1823, after which it was consecutively used as a residence, a saw mill and a fish warehouse until it was reopened to public as a museum in 1863. All this information comes directly from the gate of Steen, where stands a striking  Semini statue, which was a symbol of fertility. The statue was maimed by roman Catholic priests in the sixteenth century.
The Steen - a piece of early medieval era in a modern trade-hub

After spending a great time at the banks of the river taking watching the ships and the windmills, we headed to the Grote market to buy some chocolates and souvenirs, but alas, all the markets were closed already! Not just the small shops but even the shopping malls! Coming from a developing country where shops remain open easily till 10 pm at least,  this thing stunned us. Also with extended daylight hours, this looked all the more surprising, but that's how the city works. Once the shops are shut down, the night bars and parties pop-up and the city gears up for some party time. We ended the day with our comfort food fried rice and pepper- chicken at a WOK outlet, while enjoying the party vibe around.
Beautiful views at River Scheldt
The things we missed? Well, there are plenty -

- the underpass connecting to the left bank of the Scheldt river, which, according to our map is the spot from where you get the best panoramic view of the city,
-the Ruben's museum which is a tourist classic and
-the peaceful hideout of the Beguines, being the top three in my miss-list.
If you are going with kids and have a little more time, the Antwerp zoo will be a great idea. The locals spoke highly about it and it's right next to the Central Station

This was a part of our first Euro-trip and we planned it all on our own. Read more to know about it:Planning our first Euro-Trip
Also check our itinerary for Amsterdam and Paris (more to come on Paris)

Thank you so much for your time. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.
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On our Euro-trip

I shared the story of our planning in the first part. Here's some details and my review of the hotels we stayed at, the modes of transport that we used and travel cards we bought. 
IBIS Budget Amsterdam - source: IBIS website
Except Antwerp, where we booked a couple room in a youth hostel at city center, everywhere else we stayed at IBIS hotels at price range of Rs.5000- Rs.6000 including food.
IBIS Budget, Amsterdam City South - We got a fantastic view of quintessential suburban society from our room at the 14th floor, about 13 km from the city center. But the tram/metro station was just 50 meters away and thanks to the super-fast public transport we could reach all important places in the city within 20 minutes. (4/5)
Antwerp  Central Youth Hostel - 2.5 km from the Antwerpen Centraal railway station, this large beautiful hostel is located at the heart of the city at the fashion district, close to all the major points of interest at Antwerp. Loved the fun ambience, spacious double-bed room and delicious breakfast spread here. Slightly noisy at night, we thoroughly enjoyed our stay.(4/5)
IBIS Style, DeHaan - This one looked and felt like a resort, with spacious rooms,beautiful garden, outdoor dining and even a swimming pool. Amazing place to relax and rewind in lap of nature, at the price of any budget hotel in Europe. Only problem is reaching the place as there is only 1 tram every 30 minutes leaving from Oostend to DeHaan (4.5/5)
IBIS Style, Montmartre- Excellent location close to metro station, 300 meters from the glamorous Moulin Rouge and 1.2 km from the spiritual Sacre Coeur. The hotel room was too small to qualify for IBIS Style and the breakfast space was congested, although given the location advantage and complementary breakfast the price was perfectly reasonable.  (4/5)
IBIS Style, Casteldefells - 2km from the beach,10 minute walk from the RENFE train station, and an additional 30 minutes on train to Barcelona, this place is clearly not for someone who wants to spend all day at Barcelona. But Casteldefells itself is a gorgeous city famous for being home to Barcelona football stars like Messi and Suarez. I loved the spacious room here and also the location in an upscale society near a Carrefour supermarket and a large shopping & entertainment complex. (5/5)
IBIS Budget Calle, MadridLocated in a busy part of the city very close to the metro station , restaurants and even a Carrefour market, this was the last hotel we booked, almost a month after we had booked everything else. Prices by that time had already soared and all other hotels in the same budget was booked. The room was minimalist as expected, but what we really disliked was the absurd restroom arrangement. (3.5/5)

Things that we didn't get in any of the above hotels/hostels-
- No electric kettle or tea bags in the room. Yeah, that's something we have come to take for granted in any hotel in India but you don't get it here at that budget. So if you plan to carry ready-to-cook noodles or soup, plan accordingly
- No dental kit or moisturizers
Things that we got in all the places
- Free Wifi with unlimited and good enough speed even for video calling

TRAVEL CARDS

Iamsterdam city card -  Available in denominations of 24hours upto 120 hours, this is just one small card that gives you unlimited free access to all public transport within the city and free entry to most of the important attractions in and around Amsterdam- more than you'd have time to see. 
While in Amsterdam we returned to our hotel every evening to freshen up and tread out again, all thanks to the unlimited transport. Read more 
The goodies that came with Iamsterdam Card
Places we used the card, besides transport where we saved at least €17.5 (72-hour transport ticket price)
- Audio guided 100 attraction canal cruise for sightseeing (€20)
- Van Gogh's Museum including audio guide (€18)
- Tulip museum including audio guide (€5)
- Inside the Windmill tour at Zaanse Sachs (€4)
- Audio guided tour to the awe-inspiring Zaans Museum, Zaanse Sachs (€10)
- Rijk's museum (€17.5) - well, museum got closed as soon as we went inside.
Add to this the free transport, the travel magazine, map and guide to all of Amsterdam's neighborhood, this wasn't a bad deal for us. Well there are a lot more you can cover if you plan your travels properly. 
Some of the things we missed but you shouldn't-
Entry to atleast one of the castles in Amsterdam neighborhood, Maritime museum, Diamond museum and boat ride at Maarken . 

#Tip 1: All the museums except Anne Frank house close by 5-6 pm, so keep save canal cruise for the evening, and get back to hotel for rest only after the museums are all closed :D
A beautiful view of a series of bridges- photo taken from behind the glass windows of Canal Cruise


Paris Pass - I'd recommend buying the Paris Pass only if you are want to visit a large number of monuments and are ready to roam around from early morning to midnight. The 3 day pass comes at 160 Euros, almost double the price of the 72 hour Amsterdam card, but given that you are in Paris- the world's biggest tourist destination, I'd say it's worth it. This time, I actually stayed awake late planning our tour every day so that we could make the most out of this card, something honestly we could not do at Amsterdam.


Paris Pass cards
With this you get 3 cards - one for transport(3 days) , one for museum (2 days) and one more for attractions (3 days) (slightly inconvenient but it comes in a single fold-able plastic jacket). Paris is a city packed with more iconic monuments and must-see attractions than one can see in even seven days. Here's what we did with the card, apart from the incessant travelling on metros and buses.
  • The Bateaux Parisiens River Cruise €15
  • 1 Day ticket for hop-on hop-off Big Bus tour €35
  • Aquarium de Paris - a state of the art aquarium wit over 500 species €20.5
  • Guided tour of the iconic Opera Garnier €15.5
  • 56th Floor, Montparnesse tower €18
  • Louvre Museum - €15 for 1 day, with Paris pass you can visit it as many times you want in 2 days + save atleast 1 hour with skip the line
  • Orsey Museum €11
  • Rodin Museum €10
  • Notre Dame Crypt €6 and Tower €8.5
  • Roof of Arc De Triompe €12
There you go, without the pass we would have spent €160 on just these attractions, forget the intra-city transport. Just to give a rough idea of the amount we would have spent on transport- any one-way metro ticket costs €1.9 in Paris and we used the metros at least 4 times a day (bare minimum), so we saved atleast €23 on travel. 
Important museums we missed due to time constraints were the wax museum,Palace of Versailles, Pantheon and Conciergerie to name a few,but we saw most of them from outside atop the open-hooded big bus
Notredame Cathedral from atop the hop-on hop-off  tourist bus

Barcelona card With 10% discount online we got a 96 hour Barcelona card at 45 Euros only. This gave us free intra-city transport including (thankfully) transport between Casteldefells and Barcelona, as well as to the airport. There are two cards - one only for transport and one for all the discount and free offers. We got another discount booklet from Barcelona bus touristic which we took using our Barcelona card 😏
There are very few free attractions covered by the Barcelona card but they have great discount coupons for food, hop-on hop-off Bus touristic, and most of the major attractions. However, the top 2 tourist destinations- CampNou and Sagrada Familia are excluded :(
Barcelona Card and Bus touristic booklet
The train fare from Barcelona airport to Casteldefells would be about €4, and the daily rail fare from our hotel to Barcelona was €2.5 - €3. Also include bus fare to Tibidabo, La Rambla and other places within Barcelona, we had easily saved at least €40 only on intra-city travel. Add to that the discounts we took on the places we visited using the card, we easily surpassed the value of the card by over €20.
These are where we used for free or discounted entry-
Skip line and Free entry to CCCB - A dynamic visitor attraction which organises a wide range of exhibitions and activities every day. saved €8 for two exhibitions
Skip line and Free entry to National Art Museum of Catalunya - saved €12 
50% off on Casa de le Punxes - saved €5
20% off on Barcelona bus touristc, the hop-on hop-off tourist bus of Barcelona - saved €8 
€4 off on funicular ride to Tibidabo amusement park -  saved €4
€4 off on 40 minute cruise in the Mediterranean sea from Barcelona port
We also got ridiculous discount at Subway and McDonalds that reduced our joint expenditure on food to less than €15 per day!


The Olympic racing track AFAIR, across the Mediterranean, as seen from bus touristic

Madrid transport card - There are one or two private passes for Madrid city tour that you would find online but its almost as expensive as Paris, and honestly didn't look promising. So the first thing we did when we stepped into Madrid was purchase the 3 day Madrid city transport card at 18.5 Euros. This gave us unlimited access to the intra-city transport netowrk including airport transfer, and.. well that's about it. Not only is it a cheaper alternative to buying tickets, it also saves the time in queue or even on the self-help kiosks.
Plaza de Espana at Marid




Well, I did spend a hell lot of time and effort in scanning all our cards and trying to recalculate the expenses and savings we did with those. Hope it helps someone in planning their travel. Please tell me in the comments and pin the image below for your next trip. Happy travelling!

Roadtrip- Bangalore to Bekal




Bekal is a beautiful fortified town in Kasargod, Kerala. Famous for the Bekal fort and sand beaches this is still among the lesser known jewels in the crown of God's own country. About 380 km from Bangalore, this is a road trip that you'd remember forever. During the journey you'll pass through the beautiful hills stations of Madikeri and Kushalnagar in Coorg district of Karnataka. The roads are mostly in great condition except for the last stretch along the hills of Kerala.

Our Plan

This was one of those whimsical trips where we decided on the day, duration and destination just a day before the trip. With the football worldcup fever on we didn't want to miss out on the matches, hence chose to set off on Friday morning (29th June) - an off day before the round of 16. My husband longed for the hills and I was craving for some beach time, so I looked up the internet and found this amazing place called Bekal Fort. This is famous for being the location where the popular Hindi song "tu hi re" in the movie Bombay was shot. This is a place where you have hills, the sea , the rock beaches and the sandy ones, and a glimpse of history.
The distance was long for spending just one night there, so we booked a luxury beach resort, unlike most of our trips where we prefer standard hotels in town area. The weather forecast said it would rain throughout the day, but to our pleasant surprise we got to see the Nilgiris if monsoon, summer and spring all in the same journey.

The Journey

Map from Bangalore to Kasargod

Thanks to google timeline I could add the exact route we followed on the map above. The drive from Bangalore to Kasargod is the most beautiful road trip I have had for years. We started at around 6:00 am from electronic city in Bangalore and took the NH275 route where almost three-fourth of the route was on national highways NH48 and NH275. The roads were in great condition with breathtaking landscapes on both sides- ideal for long drives. We had a delicious south Indian breakfast at Kamat upachar on the way at 9am (inked on the map above) after which we almost drove continuously halting at few viewpoints. in Coorg. Once we left Karnataka and took the Thekkil-Aletty road, the width of the road almost reduced to half and the drive got an extra bit of thrill that we were not looking for. This part needs to be driven with caution - there are lots of blind turns and some badly damaged parts in between. This road cuts through the well forested hilly range and runs parallel to a river ( don't remember the name, will be happy if someone can help in the comments section). The road ends on NH66 in Kasargod from where our resort was about 20 minutes away. The colorful flags of all popular world cup teams were enough to say you have stepped into Kerala, without even looking at Google maps. It felt like home to the nostalgic Bengalis settled in Bangalore.

The Destination

We stayed at the Malabar Ocean front Resort and Spa, a beautiful beach resort at Kasargod. It's a small area with well maintained garden, pools and fountain. At off-season discount we got the rooms at roughly Rs.6000 per night and it was a luxury experience at that budget. (Quick update: one of my colleagues actually got 2 nights at Rs.9600 after hearing from me and booking just 2 weeks in advance). The room was larger and better than some of the highly priced top resorts I have stayed in during our corporate trips. Its a place where you can literally wake up to the sound of waves and view of  coconut groves along the sea side. It was 2:00pm when we reached our resort and the first thing we did was to head to the restaurant where we had some authentic Kerala Cuisine - Grilled kingfish, Kerala porota and rara chicken.
As usual, make sure you have checked best prices on makemytrip, booking.com, agoda before booking.

After this we spent the entire day walking and chatting at the beach. The sea on this side, as well as at the Bekal fort is rough, unlike the usual calm Arabian sea in Goa or Mumbai, hence not much option for water adventure. Personally I love this rugged face of the sea more than the calm - it's like watching the wild in the wild rather than the zoo. Due to cloudy weather, we couldn't really take Facebook-profile-picture-worthy photos here, but I have included some of the shots that capture the mood in the short video.
Next morning, we headed to Bekal fort at 9am, right after a wholsome breakfast with dosa, bread, eggs, sausages ,cereals and juice. The fort is about fifteen minutes drive from the resort, located just across the Bekal beach. Built in the seventeenth century, spread over 40 acres, this is the largest fort in Kerala. It was built by the Nayakas of Keladi, one of the prominent Kannada dynasties that rose after the decline of the Great Vijayanagara empire in the 16th century. It's easy to appreciate the strategic location of this fort looming upon the rough Arabian Sea. Another aspect that's hard not to notice are the prominent old temple and mosque around the same place bearing testimony to the religious harmony that existed for centuries.
We were pressed for time, since we had to reach home to watch the match at 7:30pm, so we reserved just one hour for the fort and Bekal beach. I'd suggest keeping at least 2.5 hours for enjoying this place if not more. Another attraction of this place are the hoards of peahens living here - strangely enough we spotted a group of 5-6 peahens but no peacock.

Note: I'd recommend this place for a two night stay especially if you choose to drive, so that you can explore the other ruined forts built during the same era, take a boat trip on the backwaters and get time to rest. It took us a little over 8 hours on each side, but that is thanks to minimal traffic on a working Friday morning, and a non-working Saturday evening. Any Bangalorean would know that you can easily add two more hours each side if you decide to travel on Saturday early morning and return on Sunday evening instead.
So are you excited for the trip? Share your thoughts in comments. Happy travelling!


Bekal Fort, Kerala, India
Can you hear the horses galloping from far?

FIFA, football, worldcup, fever, in, Kerala
Football fever in Kerala

Malabar Ocean-front resort and Spa, Kasargod, Bekal
Malabar Ocean-front beach resort & Spa

Beach resort, Swimming pool, Bekal, Malabar ocean-front resort and spa
Swimming pool at beach resort

Bekal Fort, Kasargod, Kerala
Bekal Fort, Kasargod, Kerala




How we planned our first Euro-trip

This is something I have wanted to share for a long time but was pressed for time and ideas to articulate. Taking up a low-travel desk job and not settling abroad was a conscious decision that my husband and I took so that we could visit our parents (or have them visit us) as often as possible. However, I'd be lying if I say that I never envied the friends working abroad posting #wanderlust photos of Grand Canyon and  Niagara falls every other week while we couldn't even make time for Goa.The Europe trip was our first ever "vacation" together - in the sense, the first paid leave we both took not to visit our parents in Kolkata but to go and see the world. Before this our travel plans were limited to nearby escapades on extended weekends- Coorg, Wayanad, Ooty just to name a few (not to undermine the exceptional beauty of the Indian Ghats a bit).

Europe is easily the most romanticized part of the world - the birthplace of Renaissance and industrial revolution that led to modern enlightenment, the birthplace of Newton, Galileo, Leonardo, Dante - so many who changed the world forever and shaped my childhood and adulthood; We planned this trip for almost a year- where to go, what to do, how many days, how much money etc. We finally came up with a fully packed 15 day itinerary covering 6 cities with complete estimate of what the middle-class me was most worried about - Budget! Here's an account of how we did it.


WHEN AND WHERE

The two most important questions to answer in any vacation planning- when and where? Since both of us work, and are fairly frequent at switching jobs, getting leaves at a common time is crucial. Another important factor for tropical people who are used to mufflers and monkey caps at 15 degrees, is weather. The third factor is of course, the availability and price of flights. Each of these factors conflict with each other - for most of us working in US-based companies December is the easiest time to get vacations sanctioned but we don't want to risk bronchitis on our long planned holiday; again summer would be perfect, but it is also the peak season with airfares soaring high.
We finally decided on Spring, the season of blossoms in April and May. Now that we had decided on the season, the choice of one place was simple - Holland , the land of tulips. We booked round-trip flight from Bangalore to Amsterdam for Rs. 38000 (€477) per person on a Friday night - a great deal in the season I'd say. Read more about our Holland trip

#Tip 1: Always book air tickets well in advance
Second question that comes is where else? Covering like 10 cities in 15 days can be a tempting idea, but it's silly. It just makes the tour more expensive, exhausting and gives you no time to explore anything properly. Now when you have just 15 days there are two ways to go about planning- get your bucket list and tick the top places you always wanted to see, or just choose the one indispensable place and then find the places that can be covered in succession from there. Going by the second method this is what we planned :
Amsterdam --> Antwerp-->Bruges-->Paris--> Barcelona --> Madrid

Keukenhof Gardens, Holland
The centerpiece of our Euro planning - Holland's tulip festival

HOW LONG IN EACH CITY
Based on the points of interest and weather forecast, we decided to keep seven days  for Spain- the joyous country in the Iberian peninsula known for great food and warm weather. We stayed three days in Amsterdam, one day at Antwerp, one day at De Haan, three days in Paris, four days in Barcelona and three days in Madrid from where we returned to Bangalore via Amsterdam.
The choice of 1 day each at Antwerp and De Haan may surprise many. Most of you may have heard of the world's diamond capital Antwerp, but may have never heard of this place called De Haan in Belgium. We decided to stay 1 night at Antwerp because it would be on our way to Bruges and the arrival time at the stop would be ideal. Hence the slightly off-beat stopover at Antwerp, a historically significant city where we did a self-guided walking tour. The next stop was supposed to be Bruges - Europe's cultural capital as it is known to be; but how we ended up spending a night at the countryside of De Haan instead, is a story better saved for another day.

ACCOMMODATION

IBIS Budget City South, Amsterdam
Just reached our first hotel- IBIS budget, Amsterdam
This is where you are just spoilt for choices- there are large number of youth hostels, zostels, Airbnb homes, hotels and resorts everywhere in Europe- you just need to choose based on your priorities. Most budget travelers like us go for hostels located at the city center, which are affordable, has good living conditions and are usually located at walking distance from most important places. However, in most top rated hostels at the city center the single rooms are pretty expensive, more than some budget hotels, so people usually go for dorms. Common dorms are a great option for budget stays but has few inherent cons that you should be aware of-
a. lack of privacy and peaceful sleep, with people going out or coming in the room throughout the day (and night); b. accessibility of common restrooms
If you are a seasoned solo traveler, these are nothing compared to the joy of meeting people and making new friends on the go, but if you are not used to it, you may consider a budget hotel. We researched online on all the well known travel sites and found that a budget IBIS hotel costs around Rs. 5000- Rs.6000 (€60-€75)per night including breakfast in peak season, which is the same as any standard dorm arrangement would cost the two of us.

#Tip 2: For friends travelling in groups Airbnb is a great option to explore apart from the hostels, but for couples or family, budget hotels come at the same price with more convenience. 
Also,
#Tip 3: Do your due diligence while booking hotels. Compare prices on Trivago, Booking.com etc. and also check on individual hotel websites for better information
And one thing I'm lucky we didn't do and you should avoid too-
#Tip 4: Hotels near airport are cheap but avoid them since these are mostly far away from city center and the transport to and from hotel is often not covered under the travel cards

Except Antwerp , we stayed in IBIS hotels in all other cities - IBIS budget and IBIS style.My review of their hotel rooms, hospitality and breakfast is pretty good for all- the budget rooms are very minimalist but are 100/100 in terms of maintenance and cleanliness. Detailed review.

GETTING VISA

I found the visa process for Europe fairly simple and hassle-free. You can get your visas from any embassy of any country in Europe, provided the country is included in your itinerary. We got our visa from the French Embassy in Bangalore with no assistance at all. Just go to the website , fill in the form carefully, book and appointment, have your documents ready and appear at the office on time for verification! If you make any mistake in the form, you will not be able to edit it once confirmed, and will have to fill in a new form all over again. No money is deducted for refilling, but just a small hiccup in the process. On weekdays if you don't book a priority slot with extra money, you'd need to take a leave, because from the crowd that I saw, it would easily take 4-5 hours. We booked a slot on Saturday morning (after we returned from the weekday slot) and the entire process took 30-40 minutes. We got the visa within five days.

TRAVEL & SIGHTSEEING

Travel-cards and city-passes are great tools to save both time and money in the expensive west European cities. Since most hotels we booked were away from the crowded tourist destinations, it was important to save on the frequent intra-city transportation we had to take. We booked Iamaterdam card, Paris Pass and Barcelona card online after much research and price comparison. For Madrid we bought a transport card from the railway station, which gave us free access to public transport network in Madrid. Read detailed review of the cards and how we made each penny count.
Beautiful trams at Amsterdam

#Tip 5: Take comfortable shoes and be ready to walk an average of 10 km a day

No matter how good the public transport is, you can't avoid walking if you really want to explore the city. Infact walking is actually fun in the European weather, on the clean cobbled streets, the picturisque bridges of Antwerp and DeHaan where we stayed for one night each, we just explored the entire place on foot. We loved riding the open hooded hop-on hop-off bus for a guided tour of the city and all places of interest at Paris and Barcelona. We got one day tour on hop-on hop-off for free with the Paris pass, while for Barcelona, we bought it at a discounted price for two days using our Barcelona card. Personally I feel these audio guided tours of the city on open-hooded bus or cruises are a great way of exploring beautiful cities with rich cultural history - it feels like literally walking into the world of a NatGeo documentary of the place.

For transport between cities we used a combination of all possible means based on budget, timing and place of departure. We booked Flix bus from Amsterdam to Antwerp, and from Bruges station to Paris. These private bus transport network is amazing in terms of comfortable seating, large leg space, timeliness and speed. We flew from Paris to Barcelona on economy flight Air France - you can call it the French Indigo 😜 except that they offered one complementary soft drink. If you have time and love to see the countryside settings you can take the Euro rail, but using flight we saved at least six hours. We got our first class Euro rail experience when we traveled from Barcelona to Madrid.
#Tip 6: Plan and book intercity transport in advance, online - saves you your precious time and the stress of booking last minute tickets at the kiosk. If lucky, it can save you lot of money as well- we got our first class ticket at a price lower than the normal second class 😁
Tourist pass review in part 2

PACKING

No matter what season you choose to go to Europe carry some warm clothes and a rain-jacket or umbrella. Pack those shorts and florals for great photos at the backdrop of  gardens and monuments and the blue sea, but  always carry a jacket wherever you go. If you plan to stay at just one or two cities, and take day trips , you can get a big rucksack like a proper backpacker. However, if you want to travel to multiple places, I'd recommend packing majority of your belongings in a trolley suitcase, and carry only the bare essentials like bottle, a scarf , jacket and your passports in a handbag or small backpack. The roads were great so we never had a problem dragging along the trolleys from one city to another, rucksacks would have caused severe back-pain given the long distances we had to walk during these transfers.
List of must-haves -
  • Europe compatible adapter for charging
  • A sim-card with sufficient internet for GPS on the go- all hotels and hostels, even major stations and city centers have free wifi, but when travelling on your own, using public transport in foreign countries with foreign languages, I think it is imprudent to depend entirely on WiFi
  • Raincoat/umbrella/hooded windcheater
  • Light woolens, thermals, stockings and scarf for the cold
  • A good Moisturizer or cold cream to combat the dry weather
  • Comfy shoes
Good to have in this season - sunscreen, shades, cap, leather jackets
Wearing both the jackets I carried, on a self-guided walking tour at Antwerp

CASH vs CARD


We exchanged €600 for cash before we left for the vacation. Love digitization, but cash is still the most widely accepted form of money even in the developed world, so do get sufficient cash through online booking, instead of waiting till the airport. Cash card has lower exchange rate usually but we were afraid about its acceptance. We rarely used credit cards, but when we did the interchange fees charged was way higher than the cash exchange rate.

Read Part 2 where I've included free tips of how to make best use of your travel cards. Thank me later :)

So here's my Europe travel planning story - was it any helpful? Anything I missed or could have done better? What was your travel story? If you have any questions, or  suggestions for improving the blog please write in the comment section. 😊😊

Amsterdam - three day itinerary

The choice of Amsterdam as a part of our 15 day Euro-trip itinerary in spring was simple for two reasons-
a. Tulip Festival
b. Holland - my husband's favorite football team
This was the first destination of our Europe tour and quite honestly, no other city we went to could match up to the excitement associated with this. We were pleasantly surprised at almost everything we saw from the moment we landed at the city - the sunny weather, the Iamsterdam welcome kit we received, the amazingly clean roads and railways, the super-fast double decker trains, meeting a fellow Bengali en-route to hotel - the list just goes on.. The original plan (which is perfect and the most that you can do in Amsterdam) is in the image below. Do pin it for your next trip 😊
We however did shuffle a few and skipped some based on our ticket bookings and plans to catch up with some friends.

Amsterdam trip three day itinerary
Our original plan


Where we stayed

IBIS budget Amsterdam City South 
We planned for the trip well in advance hence got this hotel at the same price as that of any standard hostel dorm. Due to the Tulip season, I remember Amsterdam being the costliest location to stay in our Europe itinerary, but we did well with our choice :)
It is located in the traquil Amstelveen, away from the city crowd yet within 50 meters from the metro+tram station Kronenburg. Never regretted not staying in the city center itself because it took us hardly 20 minutes to reach Amsterdam Centraal by metro.

Moving around

Amsterdam transport
Trams of Amsterdam
Public transport of the city is as close to perfect as I could imagine - the 72-hour Iamsterdam card which we booked online at 87 Euros made it faster and cheaper for us with unlimited use of public transport within the city and free access to most of the museums within and around Amsterdam. The physical card needs to be collected at the airport or any Iamsterdam center and it  comes with a welcome kit that includes a travel magazine, Amsterdam neighborhood guide booklet and a handy pocket map with the entire list of museums and experiences covered by the card.
Few important exclusions under the Iamsterdam card that should be noted-
  • Van Gogh Museum is included but needs prior slot booking
  • Transport to and from airport not included
  • Transport to and from nearby day-trip destinations like Kuekenhof, Harlem, Zaanse Sachs etc. are excluded. Although access to a lot of museums/monuments in these regions are included
  • Anne Frank Museum entrance is not included. However, when in Amsterdam, a trip to this unique place just cannot be missed
  • Kuekenhof garden tickets not included

Highlights of our trip

- A mini family reunion
My Jethu(uncle) and Bomma (aunt) , the eldest couple of our family exudes the kind of energy that could put twenty-year olds to shame. They came all the way from England on an overnight cruise just to spend a few hours with us and those were indeed among best few hours of our trip. The bonus of-course, were the sweet delicacies and homemade kebabs which we had for dinner for all three days of our trip. We met them at the Amsterdam Centraal station, from where we took the Canal cruise round the city, had lunch near the Dam square, checked out local markets and even strolled in the famous red light district.
Dam's Square
At Dam's Square-With the coolest globe-trotter couple I know

-The Canals and Bridges
With 165 canals and 1281 bridges, Amsterdam is touted as the "Venice of North" in Europe (fun fact: Amsterdam has more bridges than Venice). We read about so many things to do in Amsterdam, but just walking on the bridges and along the canals is an activity enough to keep you engaged throughout your stay here. During our hour-long canal cruise we listened to the history of Amsterdam starting from 12th century. The canals that stretch over 50km today, were built in the 16th and 17th century before which these were swamp-lands.The canal-system connected different parts of the city serving as means of transport, trade, irrigation, water management as well as defence. This engineering masterpiece is a symbol of the Dutch Golden age during 16th and 17th centuries. We were told that the houses along the canals, which today cost a bomb, were intentionally built leaning towards the canals a bit. the houses had hook at the top of the triangular facade to help lift goods from the boats without touching the windows. The audio documentary did not shy away from mentioning the role of Amsterdam in moving slaves across other European and Arab countries, though the Dutch did not keep slaves. It is a practice that has been abolished and is a part of a shameful past, but hiding or denying the truth wouldn't change it, rather accepting that it happened and that it was wrong, is what prevents a country from repeating mistakes. As a tourist, I was filled with respect for the country for being vocal about the wrongs of the past. We also heard about the conquest of Netherlands by Hitler's forces and the heart-wrenching story of Anne Frank who, along with fellow Jews had taken refuge in a house behind the Cathedral.
Canals of Amsterdam, Canal cruise
Canals of Amsterdam!
#Fun Fact! Do you know half of Netherlands was below the sea level? And that was before global warming!
Bridges and Canals of Amsterdam
One of the thousand bridges as seen from our cruise

- Exploring the night life
Amsterdam is known for a throbbing nightlife and summer season is the best time to explore it owing to the warmer weather. April is usually cold at night, but thankfully we got to spend one of the warmest days of the month on the day we landed Amsterdam. We walked along the bridges looking at the night cruises, floating flower markets and hippie houseboats in the canals. Then we went to the famous Red-light District once again to see what the fuss was all about. The red neon lights on the cobbled streets and even in the outdoor eateries elevate the ambiance. There are hoardings at places stating "Sex Work is Real Work" . Well, that's one hell of a bold statement to be made- but coming from the country that was one of the first to legalise prostitution and marijuana this is not entirely surprising. It's amazing how safe the  city is despite (or perhaps "because of"?) being so open about the "taboo topics" of other parts of the world.
Amsterdam nightlife
Nightlife at Amsterdam 

-Kuekenhof Tulip Gardens at Lisse

 Tulips are an integral part of Holland's culture and every year people from all corners of the world throng into the city for this ultimate sensory delight of being surrounded by million of tulips, daffodils and hyacinths. The entire city of Amsterdam is adorned with tulips at this time of the year - you find colorful blossoms in front of almost every shop, restaurant and balcony. The Kuekenhof garden in Lisse hosts the world's most famous flower show in Spring every year. Remember to book the tickets online to avoid the queue - the place is unbelievably crowded for an European destination even on a weekday! When in the garden you can also see a tiny shelter for rabbits, turkey and other domestic animals where children can run around and play with them. At the far end of the 32 acre garden lies the vast Tulip fields which can be accessed by a boat ride in the river. The garden itself has a large number of flower shows each with an unique combination of colors and designs, the most iconic one being the river of blue muscari flowers (also called grape hyacinths) with colorful tulips on both side. Other striking sights to mention are the windmill near the riverside and the yellow blossoms on the hood of an old Volksvagen
Kuekenhof, River of flowers
The River of Flowers

Zaanse Schans
A visit to the peaceful countryside of Zaanse Schans must be in your Amsterdam itinerary at any time of the year. Deriving its name for from the Zaan river, Zaanse Schans in Zandam  neighborhood became world leader in production during the 16th and 17th century with its windmill technology. The Windmills near the Zaans river form an important part of its landscape and have been romanticized by artists for centuries. With the advent of more advanced production technology around the world, the golden era of the city was gone, and it slowly retreated into a modern countryside. Some of the old windmills are preserved and even operated regularly here thus making it a nostalgic place for the Dutch. We had free pass to the Zaans museum with our Iamsterdam card and enjoyed an hour long audio guided tour into the history of Zaanse Schans which is an anchor point of the European Route of Industrial Heritage The state-of-art museum has models demonstrating the process of production, the history of famous business families like Heineken and a large collection of paintings and artifacts from the aristocratic families of the past. This is the most fun-filled museum experience I have had, with interactive history lessons and games attracting kids and adults alike. Outside the museum you can also enter one of the three windmills that are open for tourist visits - see the machines being operated inside, climb up the steep ladders and rise to the top to get a panoramic view of the countryside. You can spend rest of the time exploring the place on foot or on rented bikes, or just ride a horse around the fields.
Windmills of Zaanse Schans

- Anne Frank House
A must-visit place in the city is the Anne Frank House museum- the secret annexe where the Frank family, along with few other Jewish families hid for over two years during the second world war. Owing to the high demand, and the design of the old building, the entry is highly regulated during the peak season. When we visited, the booking could only be done online, and entry was permitted only during the booked time-slot. The museum is open till 9 pm and the entry passes include free audio-guided tour  that give you a peek into the lives of innocent families clamped into a secret annexe hidden behind a cupboard, living in silence and constant fear of being discovered. An eerie feeling engulfs you as you hear the lines from Anne Frank's diary while walking into the nooks and corners of the building.
Note: Photography is prohibited in the museum. You can however buy postcards with original photos of the hiding place and the building.

- Museumplein
Museumplein is the one-stop place for the best art and historical museums of Amsterdam -  Rijk's museum, Van Gogh's Museum and Diamond museum to name a few. Last entry to the Rijk's museum was at 4:30pm (which we missed by whiskers) but we could still enjoy the musical atmosphere in the corridors and the lovely garden outside. We took a guided tour of Van Gogh's museum, a monument dedicated to the famous Dutch artist known for his heartfelt depiction of peasant life. Along with a collection of Van Gogh's paintings, the museum also has a collection Van Gogh's handwritten letters -from those expressing the joy of sharing his work of art to those revealing his painful struggle with mental illness.


We did miss a lot of other attractions within the city on our trip, which is normal given the loaded wealth of the city. Read here for some first-hand review of those not-to-miss landmarks- Trip to Amsterdam






Bhutan - The Mystic Land of Happiness

I knew that the trip to Bhutan from 30th January 2014 to 5th February 2014 would be memorable for more than just one reason- my first venture into the hills of the North East ( though technically its not a part of North East India), my first tour with friends that included overnight stay, the first stamp on my passport (which unfortunately did not happen πŸ˜”) and of-course my first article on a travel experience.

The Gang!
Bundle of Joy
A place where every building has a story to tell through the exquisite paintings on its walls, where serenity prevails even in the busiest traffic,where strangers greet like they've known each other for  ages and man lives in complete harmony with nature despite the progress in technology - that in a nutshell is Bhutan for you. In the five days I spent in Bhutan with my friends, a number of intricate details touched me more than the natural view, Dzongs and trekking experiences, without a mention of which my account of this trip would remain incomplete. In our 8-hour journey from the border town Phuentsholing to Paro, we could not hear a single horn blowing, even in the twists and turns of the hilly path. In fact, it was the sudden outrage of vehicle sounds that made me aware that I've crossed Bhutan on our way back to Kharagpur. Another impressive thing about the Bhutanese, according to me was that "Formals" to them mean their own traditional attire, rather than the conventional western suits- be it in the monastery or in administrative offices. This trip to Bhutan seemed like a time travel to the period that our parents often talk about- when people were much closer to the nature around them, when kids spent a bulk of time playing outdoor games on the streets without their parents running behind trying to protect them from "calamities" like catching cold or tripping off and injuring their knees; when people were less  worried about future and more indulged in enjoying the present. For the old-world dreamer that I am, the tour was really the much needed break from the mundane mechanical life of ours.

Day 1: 31st Jan 2014, Friday- Enter the land of the Thunder Dragons

It was a surprisingly warm day when we reached Hasimara at 1p.m. After immigration formalities and lunch at Jaigaon we set off for our 8 hour long journey to Paro, a beautiful town in the lap of  the Paro valley that is home to hundreds of legends from the Bhutanese and Buddhist history. What we were not aware of despite the  research we did prior to our tour was that , 31st January 2014 was the 1st day of the last month of the Bhutanese calendar, which according to their tradition was the Day of  Offering, similar to the Thanksgiving day of the US and Canada. We were rejuvenated after the long tiresome journey by the warm reception given by the proprietor of our hotel at Paro, who told us about this day celebrated as Buelwa Phuewi Nyim – the Traditional Day of Offering. 

Day 2: 1st February 2014, Saturday- Exploring the mystical Paro Valley
We were late by an hour on our first day of sightseeing and we set off for Chele la  Pass, which at 3988m elevation is the highest point on the famous Dantak road. It was a 2 hour uphill drive to this point, a path speckled with scenic beauty of the densely covered forests and view of  the snow covered mountain peaks of the Himalayas. The point is marked with colorful flags fluttering in the wind, which are believed to keep demons away and colorful rhododendrons that shine under  the bright sun. We found  patches of snow-covered areas glittering in the sunlight on our way, however the place itself was warm and sunny, and to our little disappointment, devoid of snow :(
Chele La Pass, Bhutan
Way to Chele la pass


As we leave Chele la for our next stop

We spent a great time there enjoying tea and making futile attempts of capturing the spotless beauty of nature in our high resolution cameras, after which we set off for our next destination, the Rinpung Dzong - the ancient court of justice and administrative building of Bhutan. 
At this point I would like to pause and put a note on Dzongs. Loosley translated as "fortresses", the Dzong architecture is typical to the Buddhist kingdoms of the Himalayas. Every valley of Bhutan has atleast one Dzong which is considered to be the most elegant building and a trendsetter for all the building architecture in that area. Every Dzong has an administrative part and a monastic part which are separated from each other. Bhutan homes the world's oldest and most spectacular Dzongs, each of which is an architectural wonder. [Courtesy: National Library, Thimphu]


@RinpungDzong
Built in the early 17th century on the foundations of an ancient monastery of the 10th century, by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the first spiritual ruler of Bhutan, the Rinpung Dzong consists of the office of the Dzongda ( the district administrative head) and the court of justice of the Paro district. People are  supposed to wear full sleeved outfits and remove any kind of scarf off their head before entering these dzongs.

We then visited Ta Dzong- the national museum of Bhutan situated on the hill above the Rinpung Dzong, which was built as a watchtower during the wars of the 17th century to defend the Rinpung Dzong. The place took us on a memorable journey through the histroy of Bhutan- the small country with a population of less than 6.5lakhs, its rich cultural diversity and the faunal biodiversity. Outside  the gate of the Dzong we met a little Bhutanese girl who couldn't understand a  single word that we spoke but stuck around us while we posed for photographs.

Our last destination for the day was the Kyichu Lhakhang monastery, one of the oldest shrines of Bhutan built in the 7th century. It is considered extremely sacred  by the Buddhists and is famous for a pair of  evergreen orange trees that bear fruits throughout the year.

Day 3: 2nd February 2014,  Sunday- Tiger's Nest Trekking

Here comes the day that we were most excited about- a 3 hour hike to the famous Taktshang Lhakhang- more commonly known as the tiger's nest. It enjoys the status of being one of the most sacred sites  for the Buddhists all over the world. Located on the side  of the cliff 900m above the floor of the Paro valley overlooking the Paro river, trek to the Tigers' nest was a rough thrilling path inlaid with thick vegetation all around. It being my first trekking experience, I was full of zeal and started climbing up the rocks energetically despite not being in my best health. On the way to the monastery is a small Lakhang (a small village level monastery) and a temple. This is a viewpoint from where the copper-colored rocky mountain on which the Taktshang Lhakhang is built looks like the face of a fierce demon (a fact cited by one of our fellow Bhutanese co-travelers on our way back). There is a cafeteria on the path below this viewpoint for tourists and travelers to relax a bit.


Tiger's Nest - Perched at top of the Montains

Locals walking to the Tiger's Nest
Crossing a few more hurdles and difficult terrains on the way we finally reached the place to find out that the monastery was closed for lunchtime. However, the waiting time in the monastery came as a  blessing in disguise, that allowed us to enjoy the chilly breeze in the warm sunny day, amidst the sound of waterfall and chirping of birds all around.  We spent our time chewing on snacks and chatting among ourselves as well as with the other travelers from different parts of the world -  some of whom visited the place for religion while some simply for the joy of trekking. Once again I was touched by the warm, jovial nature  of the Bhutanese people, who climbed the hills like it was cakewalk and offered help to others in every possible way. 

The monastery comprised of eight temples each of which housed hundreds of mystical stories. Legends hold that Guru Padmasambhava (popularly known as Guru Rinpoche) arrived at this point from Tibet on the back of a tigress and meditated in the caves for 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days and 3 hours in the 8th century. The monastery was first built in 1692 around those 13 caves, but were destroyed in fire twice, latest being in 1998 and the reconstruction was completed in 2005. One of the disciples in the monastery spoke to us about the various legends associated with the place and took us to each of the temples. We were awestruck at the splendor of this ancient building and the stories encompassing the mystical caves. The thrill and wonder of this amazing place made me forget the pain in my ankles and we returned with our hearts filled with awe at the mystery of the land.
Day 4: 3rd February 2014- Experiencing the rural Bhutan at Punakkha
Punakha, the former capital and still the winter capital of Bhutan is endowed with warm temporal climate and the Punakha valey is the abode of the richest soil in Bhutan owing to the natural drainage provided by the two main rivers, Pho-chu(father river) and Mo-chu (mother river). 
We started off early in the morning at 7a.m from Paro to the capital city Thimphu, where we needed to get the permits. For this first time in the 3days, we found ourselves in a usual urban atmosphere that we are more accustomed to- shopping malls, marketplaces, lots of restaurants, cafes and small shops. While our driver went off to take the permits, we went to the textile museum on the other side of the road. The museum was built in 2001 by the Mother Queen Ashi Choden Wangchuk, with the objective of sustaining Bhutan's traditional textile art and showcasing the cultural diversity of Bhutan on an international platform. We were shown an interesting AV that described the different styles of outfits worn in various parts of Bhutan, accessories distinct to people of a certain region or section of the Bhutnese society, the unique way in which the textiles are woven and the way the traditional formal attire are worn. The museum is  divided into 6 parts- Achievements in Textile Arts, the role of textiles in religion, textiles from indigenous fibres, The Royal Collection, warp pattern weaves, and weft pattern weaves.

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We then drove our way to the enthralling Dochula Pass, the famous pass between Thimpu and Punakkha that gives a 360 degree panoramic view of the Himalayan Range. The pass is decked by 108 chortens known as Druk Wangyal Chortens built opposite to the temple Druk Wangyal Lhakhang. The snow-covered Himalayan mountains provide the perfect backdrop to the pulchritudinous pass that is a center of attraction for locals and tourists alike.

Dochula Pass
Our next stop was the Punakkha Dzong, the second largest and second oldest Dzong of Bhutan built at the confluence of Pho-chu and Mo-chu rivers on the Punakhha- Wangdue Valley. This majestic building stood the test of time and was rebuilt and restored its past grandeur by the present King, after being destroyed four times in the past due to fire and earthquake. This is the  Dzong where the royal wedding of the present King of Bhutan took place in 2011. 

Bridge on Paro River
Punakkha Dzong, Bhutan
Punakkha Dzong, Bhutan
Basking at the beautiful river side beneath the Himalayas
We were standing before a temple inside  the Dzong listening to the mystical chants, when all of a sudden we heard the cries of some monks and found some of them rushing out of the temple with canes   in their hand  hitting hard on the grounds. For a moment we were stunned and fled like a bunch of terrified kids, but soon we discovered that it was a part of an annual ritual that is performed at this Dzong, and felt lucky to have witnessed it.
Our last destination for the day was Chimi Lhakhang- the fertility temple located on a hill top in the farmlands of Punakkha.  It is believed that couples who don't have children get their wishes fulfilled when they worship at this temple. When we reached the temple through the dusty road with lush green fields on both sides, the evening puja was going on, and an occult ambiance was created inside the temple. A  guide was depicting the various legends associated with this temple to some foreign tourists, about how a demoness camouflaged as a  dog to fool  the Lama Kunley but was ultimately  pointed  out and subdued. Lama Drukpa Kunley, was a monk who preached Buddhist philosophy in form of simple tales and was known as the "Divine Madman" for his unconventional ways- a personality that we can very easily relate to our very own saint Sri Rama Krishna. The temple is decked with frescos and statues depicting the legends associated with it.  Outside  the temple were two Shivlings, a huge Peepal tree and lines of colorful flags fluttering in the pleasant breeze in the evening. The mountains far away shimmered like gold during the twilight as we made our way downhill  back to the cab.We stayed overnight at a small hotel at Wangdue.


Illustration of legends inside temple
Chimi Lhakhang temple

Day 5: 4th February 2014 - Sightseeing at the capital, Thimphu
Our last day at Bhutan was dedicated to the capital, Thimphu that exhibits an unique juxtaposition of modern developments with the ancient traditions. Born in the lap of the Wang-Chuu valley, Thimphu is the abode of the historically and politically important buildings and is the center of economic and government activities of Bhutan. We started off from our hotel at Wangdue at 8.00a.m. and drove through the scenic Dochula pass to reach the Thimphu valley. 
Our first destination for the day was the National Memorial Choeten. It was built in 1974 by Her Majesty Queen Phuntsho Choden Wangchuck in memory of her royal son the 3rd Druk Gyalpo, King Jigme Dorji Wanchuck, popularly accepted as the Father of modern Bhutan. Also known as the Thimphu Chorten, it is considered to be the "most visible religious landmark of Bhutan" the frescos and statues inside  which gives an insight into the Buddhist philosophy.


Thimpu Chorten, Thimpu, Bhutan
Thimpu Chorten - the most visible religious landmark of Bhutan
Thimpu Chorten, Thimpu, Bhutan
Gate to Thimpu Chorten

We visited the Changankha Lhakhang, a fortress-like temple standing high amidst the ruins of it past splendor, where young children in Bhutan are named. Established in the 12th century, the temple houses a splendid statue of Chenrezig with 11 heads, a group of three very large prayer wheels and rare large scriptures. The courtyard of the temple provides  an amazing bird's eye view of the Thimpu valley.


Changankha Lhakhang, Bhutan
We then reached the Buddha Point, a place at an elevation of 300 ft above the Wang-chu river bed where stands the grand bronze statue of Gautam Buddha under construction, known as Buddha Drodenma. The 169 ft statue is going to be the tallest statue of Buddha and is envisioned to  become the probable eighth wonder of the world. Overlooking the capital town Thimpu, this temple will have 1,00,000 8-inch idols and 25,000 12-inch idols of Buddha inside. We were spellbound  at the view of the city from the courtyard of the temple. Later, from our hotel far away from the Buddha point we could still see the majestic spiritual body, the first thing in the morning when we woke up to bid farewell to the kingdom of Bhutan.


The Lord Buddha
On our way to the Takin preserve, we caught a glimpse of the one of the most important Dzong of Bhutan, the Thimpu Dzong which has served as the seat of  Bhutan's government since 1952. The pompous beauty of the Dzong thrilled us, but we came to know that the Dzong is  open to visitors of for 1 hour from 4pm to 5pm, after the flag is pulled down ceremoniously. so we went  past  the Dzong and arrived at the Motithang Takin preserve  that is a safe abode of  the national animal of Bhutan classified  under "vulnerable" species. It is the largest and sturdiest goat antelope in the world that can be found only in the Himalayan regions in and  around Bhutan.  Legends have that this animal was created by the great Buddhist Lama, Drupa Kunley- the reason Takin was declared the national animal of Bhutan in 2005. This place was  originally a mini-zoo but was converted into a preserve where the animals could roam about freely, under the orders  of  the King of Bhutan who considered it  was not right for a Buddhist  country to keep an animal confined in artificial shackles. The rare animal was seen living in harmony with other herbivores like deer and goats in the large open space of the preserve. Here  we  also found a  small house outside which a local weaver was weaving the traditional colorful Bhutanese Scarfs on a machine that had a striking resemblance to the Indian charkha.



Takin Reserve
From here we headed to the Folk Heritage Museum having exhibits of ancient Bhutanese artifacts, instruments, domestic equipments and documentation of  the rural Bhutanese lifestyle. We took a stroll into a model 3-storeyed rural Bhutanese house, wherein each of the storeys is dedicated to a specific household activities, and the stairs to the upper storeys are unusually steep, probably to save the ground space. The museum is dedicated to provide a sustainable life to the underprivileged through the revenues earned from visitors. Near the museum there was the Institute of Zorig Chusum, the Art&crafts school which we saw on our way to the National Library. Rare exhibits of Indian Pattachitra art depicting Hindu Mythology, printing blocks for prayer flags and ancient Buddhist manuscripts dating back to centuries alongside the modern academic books, were the biggest attractions of the library. 

A walk at the dusk in Bhutan
After this we headed to the city where we reveled on Indian and Chinese delicacies, and did some shopping at the throbbing marketplace till 4pm, the time at which the Thimpu Dzong would be open for visitors. To our disappointment, we got late to see the daily closing ceremony, but the Dzong was still open so we could go  inside and relish on the amazing visual treat provided by the paintings and intricate sculptures in the interiors.This being the center of political affairs in Bhutan was under strict  security and visitors are restricted entry to many parts of  the building. We could catch a  glimpse of the golden palace of the King peeping  beyond the thick forests, from the courtyard of the Dzong, during the sunset and enjoyed the joyous dance of colors in the sky that quite made up for the closing ceremony that we missed out. Thus  we completed our tour for the day and returned to our hotel at Thimphu full of wonder and with a lingering note of melancholy in our mind as we knew the tour to the  mysterious land of Bhutan ended here.

Thimpu Dzong
Day 6: 5th February 2012 - Goodbye to the world's happiest country

So this was officially our last day in Bhutan- we packed our belongings and set off for our last drive through the hilly roads offering the memorable view of the Himalayas, bidding goodbye to the mountains, forests, creatures and the architectural wonders of  the land of mystery and happiness. As we made our way to Hasimara, our heart was full of thanks to the people of Bhutan and our minds filled with priceless memories to be cherished for a long time ahead.

Special thanks to: Himalayan Travels for planning everything for us - the itinerary, hotels, all permits and car. Recommend them to everyone planning a trip to the Himalayas for all kind of budget http://www.planmyvacation.in/

P.S. This post was originally published in my earlier blog -
https://sinjana-mycorner.blogspot.com/2014/02/trip-to-bhutan-mystic-land-of-happiness.html