Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Switzerland Diaries - Day 1 : Geneva to Montreux

As soon as the plane touched down and we were out on the tarmac, there was a certain sense of calmness and peace in the air. Geneva (or Genève as it often referred to) is the second most populated city in Switzerland and has the presence of numerous international organisations including the UN headquarters. Having relished on a fresh chocolate brioche, coffee and a swiss chocolate on the plane, the husband was keen to use his red book gifted by Her Majesty, The Queen to beat me at the immigration queue. Fortunately for me (and unfortunately for him) there weren't too many non-EU people in my plane, and I was soon greeted by a very warm & friendly 'Bonjour' at the immigration desk. The official language in the city and the canton of Geneva is French as its in the French speaking part of Switzerland. The immigration officer asked some questions on how many days I was visiting, which places etc. and thud - he stamped the passport. 'Au Revoir', he said. I had no clue what that meant but I gathered from his actions that I could leave and since I had no objection to that - 'Thanks and Bye' I said. Thinking back now I could have made an attempt to respond in French specially because - Immigration Officer + French + Polite = Impossible Combination. But later I found out that Swiss French are not really 'French' in any way and in fact they dont like to be called French at all. Anyways, thanks to this rare element in the periodic table and his super fast clearance techniques, I actually beat the husband in the immigration queue.

In most of the cities that I have travelled in Europe, the airports have always been extremely well connected to the city via extremely good and convenient public transport. This is such a stark contrast to what I have grown up seeing in India - now they built a whole new terminal in Mumbai and then they built the new Metro line and the two are far from connected. When I first heard of this 'Airport Road' station on Metro, I could not believe that we as a country had come so far that we were so well planned that one could now come out of the flight and directly board the train to the destination. Naturally this myth was busted very soon when I first landed on that new terminal. The station is so far that the person might collapse either due to fatigue or dehydration or both if he decided to drag his bags from airport to the station, but I digress.

Geneva airport, offcourse, was super well connected and all we needed to do was come out of the airport, lookup the train timings, and climb down the escalator where the train would be waiting for us. The husband and I did not plan to stay in Geneva, so we ran towards the next train for Montreaux which was due to start in five minutes (Like I said before, we are always running).

As soon as the train started, there was an announcement that the next station is 'Geneva'. The husband and I were confused & worried both - confused as we had already just landed in Geneva sometime ago and worried if we were in the right train. Whilst we were thinking this in our mind in a very low volume unaware if there was any decibel limit put on the thought volume in this country, the couple sitting next to us shouted at the top of their voice 'But aren't we already in Geneva. Is this train going in circles!'. I mean its one thing to have foolish thoughts but another to say them loud, but I figured they were Americans by the loudness of their voice so I let it be. As the train was coming to a halt, the husband made an impromptu plan to get down at Geneva (meaning the main station) and go around the town for a while. Now normally it would be impossible to make me get up from a window seat in a train but I am always up for walking around a new city so we pulled our backpacks from the racks above and ran to the door lest it shut on our face before we could get down (Like I said, we are always running).

Geneva has a vibrant feel - its sleek and cosmopolitan yet quaint and cultural. As soon as you step out of the main train station, its amazing to see the trams and the cycles both going side by side making way for each other. Numerous watch shops of you-name-it brands line both sides of the road. In between, the time machines are interrupted by the aroma of the dark chocolates reminding you that you are in Switzerland. The husband was fascinated by neither - he stopped and stared at a glass shelf filled with Swiss knives. The criminal psychologist will view this husband's enchantment differently but I am just a poor software engineer so I remind him that our austerity measures mean that we can only have a hand bag so we cannot carry back the swiss knife home in the cabin baggage, so we move on. While walking to the Lake Geneva, the husband stopped and pointed at numerous hotels where he had stayed on his multiple business trips to Geneva during the good times of the bank. I had no way to verify so I nodded my head and trudged along.

After about a good fifteen minutes walk with our heavy backpacks, we finally reached the Lake and it was totally worth it. The lake is so big that you can only see a vast expanse of clean blue water as far as your sight can travel. About 60% of the lake is in Switzerland and 40% is in France. Multiple ferries traverse the water each day and are often used by commuters. We stood over the Mont Blanc bridge - whilst there is nothing extra ordinary about this bridge, we got amazing views of the lake and its situated over the river Rhone at the point where it meets Lake Geneva. The name of this bridge is given to honour the mountain that overlooks the city from afar. You can also see the famous fountain from the bridge. Unfortunately for us, the fountain wasn't on that day so we satisfied ourselves by enjoying the views of the lake. The bridge is well decorated with the flags for all the twenty six cantons of Switzerland which adds colour to the pristine blue water of the lake below. There are several options for cruises and even paddle boats to get around the lake if one wants. There is so much more to do and see in Geneva but our tryst with Geneva was limited today as we started to make our way back to the train station to catch the next train to Montreux. There is always a next time..

At Geneva Airport - Am busy clicking photos while the husband looks for the next train

The Swiss Knife shelf that caught the husbands attention

Lake Geneva  

Canton Flags on the Bridge 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Switzerland Diaries - Day 1 : Fly Away !

No matter what time our flight is, we are always late. That is how our trips usually start. We never need to specially plan to recreate the famous DDLJ scene, where Shahrukh Khan aka Raj helps Kajol aka Simran to jump on to a moving train before the journey of their life begins. Offcourse, we like to be a bit original here and have modified this epic scene to 'Raj' and 'Simran' running together to catch the flight. OK, I get it, I am nowhere close to Kajol and there can be only one SRK, but what the hell, we were flying to the land where Bollywood romances so its perfectly alright to be a bit filmy.

The excitement has started to seep in when our Interrail Golden Pass tickets had arrived. Now depending on the itinerary, country of residence, places of interests to visit etc. you need to carefully sit down and decide which is the most suitable option.

For starters, there is a Interrail pass that can be used by European citizens and official residents of EU. The Interrail Global Pass is for trains and ferries for over 30 countries and it wasn't really of our interest as we were travelling only in Switzerland. So we looked up the Interrail One Country Pass for Switzerland. You cannot use the Interrail One country Pass to travel in your own country of residence. For us however, we found the perfect option of the 6 flexi days pass - meaning we could use it on any 6 days on as many trains within a month. There are several benefits of having this pass which are listed on the Interrail website. But the most important one is that you get to travel in the heart of Switzerland on the Golden Pass scenic train from Montreaux to Lucerne. If you are in Switzerland, I would recommend not to miss this amazing experience and recreate your DDLJ memories. The only point to note is that this ticket is not valid on most mountain railways. So if you are only planning to do the mountains then it may not be economical to buy this. For non-EU citizens, a Eurail Pass can be bought (Link).  Either ways, please ensure that you fill your personal details correctly as they will be printed on your pass. There is no option to print this pass, it is mailed in paper form, so allow enough time for delivery. The other two options are Swiss Rail Pass or the Swiss Half fare Card. Again depending on how and where you plan to travel and what you want to see, some amount of planning and analysis is required before deciding the best option.

This task was left to the husband under the pretext that he has travelled to Switzerland before and that he has a proven higher IQ than me. Some days later, while travelling to Matterhorn, I would question the economics of the InterRail One country pass versus the Swiss Rail Pass before settling back on my seat and enjoying the amazing views outside.

Where Mumbai is struggling to build a second airport ever since I remember, London has five airports in different directions and all but one are pretty far away from where we live. Now the husband and I had vowed to make this trip a leisure trip, which is almost impossible with the kind of travellers both of us are. But trying to keep up with our promise, we booked our flight from the London City airport at 830 am which is significantly late considering that usually our outbound flights are at inhumane timings in the morning and also that this airport is barely fifteen minutes away from our house. But we were running late. Locks - check, gas off - check, boiler switched off - check, iron unplugged - check, plants watered - check, I quickly finished all my checks while waiting for the Uber and we zoomed towards the airport.

Husband and I are backpackers and after several discussions on the weather in Switzerland we had finally come to a conclusion that we needed to take summer clothes but also take warm layers as we had planned to go up the mountains, goggles but also scarfs and gloves, sandals but also sport shoes, meaning in short we had to stuff a lot into the tiny backpack that we carry. It was like preparing for the worst but hoping for the best. The London City airport is quite small and since we did not have anything to check-in, we were past the security fairly quickly and in no time we were at the gate. 

London doesn't have an outward immigration check unlike Mumbai, the visa is usually just checked at the gate by the airline authorities. The husband has now taken an oath of allegiance to the queen and in return he has been awarded a red book that gets him a visa free  entry into the EU. My passport, on the other hand, was examined with hawk eyed suspicion before allowing me into the waiting area. 

Then it was time..to fly away with the Swiss Air hospitality onto Bollywoods second home

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Wimbledon Experience - Part 3

Link to Wimbledon Experience Part 1 & Part 2

The security tent was in sight, so the excitement level in the group was sky rocketing. Our queue cards were checked one last time to make sure we had not jumped the queue in the 4 hour or so long wait. Just as we were about to be allowed for security check, the 'Head' gets a call from another head (head hunter in this case) and decides that it is absolutely the perfect time to give an interview for which he gets told off by the steward. There are no left luggage facilities inside the grounds and only one bag per person upto specific size is allowed past the security check point. The husband had also pre-warned 'Thakur' that alcohol could be taken into the ground only to the equivalent of one bottle of wine/champagne or two cans of beer and 'Thakur' had used this excuse to pretty much gulp down all the cans of beer during this waiting time.

Once past the security check point there is a flight of stairs, stairways to heaven if I may say so because they take you up to the bridge, across the road and into the AELTC. The entry ticket to the grounds is twenty five pounds in cash only, therefore its important to carry enough cash as you dont want to be turned away from the ticket counter after standing hours in the sun and the rain.

When we entered the grounds, the play had stopped due to rain. The husband promptly directed everyone to get done with the shopping in the Wimbledon store. Everything inside the store is obviously overpriced - keyrings, magnets, tshirts, towels, water-bottles, bags etc. but we went berserk shopping. Although knowing very well that you are being ripped off, its almost impossible to come out of the store empty handed, I guess this is also part of the experience. To reduce the guilt of spending enormous amount of cash in the store, the husband took us to the HSBC stall. Apparently all HSBC customers get a coupon for a free strawberry & cream bowl at any food stall on the ground. Now the husband being a veteran member of the bank suggested we avail this offer and spend some money instead on the other overpriced thing sold at Wimbledon - a glass of Pimm's. The Wimbledon experience is incomplete if you dont settle down on the Henman Hill  with a bowl of strawberries&cream or pimm's.

The play was resumed by now and we we were done with the touristy stuff, so we did what we actually came to Wimbledon for - we watched a few games on the outside courts. We settled down on court number 11 and watched the ladies single game of Navarro who beat Marina Erakovic. You can feel the power of the game when you watch it live. Then there was a mens double game where Rohan Bopanna was playing. Everytime Bopanna was scoring a point, POITR, Head & Thakur were shouting and cheering at the top of their voice which I think was making him really uncomfortable. While watching the game, POITR had settled down not very far from a pretty Indian lady whom he promptly tagged as Bopanna's wife. Determined to prove that he is right, POITR pulled out his phone, googled 'Rohan Bopanna wife', went to the 'Images' tab and shoved their marriage picture on our faces. Now first of all, no one looks really how they appear in their marriage pictures so there was no way to really confirm but we did not want to get embarrassed further so we accepted his analysis. Only if IT showed so much efficiency at work! We had watched a few games by now, and we were getting restless as Federer was going to play the last game on the centre court and we were desperate to watch him play but we did not have the tickets for the centre court.

Very little is known about the second queue, the resales queue that is found at the top of the complex near the Hellman Hill. This queue is to resale the tickets from people who had the show court tickets but have left the ground, and this resale money is given for charity. Prices are pretty low - in the range of 10-20 pounds. The husband was obviously well versed with the resale routine and we all paraded to line up in the queue. The resale queue was quite big as no one wanted to leave the chance of watching the man himself, Federer play on the Centre Court. We were alternating to queue up and watch some games. Suddenly while Gluten Free, husband and I had stepped away to watch a Leander Paes game, one of the stewards came around asking if anyone was interested in Court 1 tickets. The Head made a decision and moved to the Court 1 queue and we got 6 tickets to court 1 where Djokovic was about to play.

We did not get 6 tickets in the same place so we had to split 4-2. When we entered the Court 1, Venus Williams was wrapping up her victory against Daria. When Djokovic entered the ground, there was a huge cheer in the court. Unfortunately, it was not his day and he got off to a bad start. Sam Querrey's serve was nonreturnable and even djokovic's finesse could not help him win the points and he lost one game after another until he lost the first set.

The husband was getting restless as the Federer match was drawing close and decided to step out of the Court No. 1 to give a try for the centre court tickets. After another game, Thakur decided to join him too. Djokivic had now lost another two games in the second set when the husband suddenly asks us to make a mad dash towards the resale queue. Now, no one is allowed to get up, move, come in or leave while the game is on, so we had to wait until Djokovic lost another game to Sam Querrey. We ran towards the resale queue.

I cannot tell you for sure but probably due to the rain showers and frequent start and stop of play, a lot of people who probably had got in the morning had left and the resale queue had moved pretty fast since the husband had joined. We all sneaked in one by one and we could not believe that we got tickets to the centre court for a Federer game. By now, the rain gods were showering their love again and Djokivic's game on Court No. 1 was suspended, what a perfect time to get out we thought ! The centre court roof was on, game was set to begin and we settled down to watch Federer game.

Gluten Free took out his bottle of wine and poured some for the husband in plastic cups. Two American girls sitting beside Gluten Free were throroughly impressed by his meticulous planning. While Gluten Free was busy leaving no stone unturned in impressing them further, I was engrossed in the Federer game.

Federer's serve is top class, his forehand has power, his back hand is like a whip. His sense of speed, his reactions to the moves, his footwork, and his degree of placement is so good that it just flows effortlessly and brings out the beauty of his game. So much is said and written about his play that I need not say more. All I can say is if you haven't watched this man play live, please do, on the grass court of Wimbledon and as dramatic as it sounds, it is near religious experience. Federer eventually won the game and one item of watching Federer play live was ticked off the bucket list.

All in all, Wimbledon is something that one has to experience as it cannot be described. Its something that I keep coming back for as I cant get enough. As for now, I take back wonderful memories and a whole bunch of photos, until next year...

After crossing the security tent

Stairways to heaven

Watching Bopanna play

Novac Djokovic - ready to play

Federer at his best

Centre court roof is on

Henman Hill


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