Sharmi on the Trot

Travelling, Exploring, Eating…

Archive for the category “Europe”

Experiencing Midsummer Celebrations in Estonia

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The beautiful rooftops of Tallinn.

“This is so strange,” AK pointed out. “It’s difficult to imagine going to sleep at bedtime in complete daylight!” We had just met and struck up a conversation in the Tallinn hostel. Our bodies felt tired and sleepy but with no darkness descending, our minds were confused – to retire or not.

My sister and I who visited East Europe last summer, unknowingly found ourselves in the middle of Midsummer celebrations in the Baltic countries. Honestly, we don’t pour over travel guides or spend hours on the internet searching for details about the places we planned on visiting. We do the obvious bit like figure out how expensive are the tickets are and where can one stay. Barring that it’s spur of the moment situations and going by local recommendations.

As Midsummer approaches in 2017, my mind can’t help but revisit those beautiful Baltic memories.
(Read: How I Learnt To Balance Technology And Travel In Hungary)

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The Old Town Square in Tallinn has flea markets on certain days of the week.

Estonia is simply beautiful filled with natural beauty. It’s well worth the early morning budget airline flying and spending a night on the cold floors of Stansted Airport. If one weighs the options – leaving cold and rainy London behind for warm sunshine and 24 hours of daylight, the cold night on cold floors is well worth it.

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Cobble-stoned paths in Old Town Tallinn

“Roam around guys. Enjoy the coffee and experience the weather,” is how the hostel-in-charge put it. The afternoon was hot and sweaty which came as a surprise. Walking along cobbled pathways in the Old Town we found quaint alleyways to explore and the clear blue sky with cotton candy clouds greeted us with warmth. It was somewhat hard to believe we were in a country which for years was just a name on an atlas.
(Read: 5 Ways To Plan Your First Europe Trip On A Budget)

Most people in Tallinn around this time (June-July) are tourists. Locals are usually at their summer houses celebrating the event with beer and meat. St John’s Day or Jaanipäev is a big deal. With almost 24 hours of daylight and official holidays, midsummer is celebrated with gusto by every citizen. The eve, usually June 23, is the day when everyone celebrates with dances, folk songs, bonfires, games and barbecue. One of the best places to experience an authentic and traditional celebration is at the Open Air Museum, a bus ride away from the Old Town.

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The entrance to the Open Air Museum. The place seems huge doesn’t it? It is!

The Open Air Museum itself is huge. Touching the shores of the lake, there’s so much greenery that one can often let one’s imagination run away. For visitors, its an insight into how people in the area lived in the olden times. There are recreated structures of huts and living quarters, of agricultural utilities and everywhere there are signs clearly explaining Estonia’s past.

During the Midsummer celebrations, the performers liven up the Museum. There are small skits happening in different parts, while singers and dancers show off their skills in an open space. Locals sing and dance along as tourists get a taste of Estonian culture and watch the shows. In today’s day of technology, however, mobile camera phones are everywhere filming those memories. It’s the smell from the food counters that ensure long lines are formed, each waiting to taste the mouth watering local delicacies. An boy it’s worth the wait. The salad and potatoes are well roasted while the meat is tender and juicy as you bite into it. Glasses of Kvass keep the throat well moistened.
(Read: Eating My Way Through Spain)

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Outside an exhibit at the Open Air Museum. See the girl in the red jacket? That’s the younger sister and travel partner!

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The Bonfire is an integral part of the celebrations.

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Traditional Estonian performances at the Museum.

After spending some hours soaking in natural beauty and experiencing traditional Estonia, it was time to head back to our hostel. “Did you guys have fun?” we were asked. Nodding in affirmative back at the common room, travellers formed a circle as Midsummer stories were shared over pints of beer. There was no night as the natural light kept us company till dawn.

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Traditional Estonian food washed down with Kvass.

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How I Learnt to Balance Travel with Technology in Hungary

The gorgeous Chain Bridge connecting Buda and Pest

The gorgeous Chain Bridge connecting Buda and Pest

I sat in front of the Chain Bridge in Pest and stared at my phone. It was a hot summer day and being a Sunday in the middle of the tourist season, Buda looked at me invitingly from the other side of the Danube. I was sitting on the party side of the Hungarian capital while the historical hilly portion kept telling me ‘come visit’. My phone had blacked out for the second time during my Eastern European sojourns this summer, absolutely refusing to come back on. And instead of soaking in the historically rich city, I was wistfully gazing at the black screen, hoping against hope to see the start up icon pop up just to ease my racing mind.
How did I manage to get to this point? How did I get so dependent on technology that it seemed impossible to function in the initial panic-stricken moments?
In a constantly evolving world where technology and travel go side by side, can we ever imagine doing things the old-fashioned way? The long phone calls to hotels, going to the Tourism bureaus to check out the brochures, standing in line at the railway stations to book a ticket other than in emergencies, gathering paper maps and neatly folding them along the creases, consulting with the weather forecast in newspapers before a journey, deciding on what books to bring along and the selection of cassettes for the fashionable walkman, buying rolls of film for the camera…
Looking back it seems so long ago. Almost ancient isn’t it? As I staunchly tried to resist major technological changes for a rather long time (I wasn’t on WhatsApp till about two years back which friends called a foolish thing to resist) sitting on a bench along the Danube in Budapest, I wondered if I could balance technology and travel today.
When we make travel plans, applications or Apps are our friends. From the route on the map to where to stay and eat, purchasing tickets to packing according to the weather conditions, reading and listening music to pass time, noting down directions to taking pictures which last a lifetime, everything can be done on one device. And when the device fails, we are at a loss. We panic.
Also Read: Loving Amsterdam on a Budget 

On the bridge

On the bridge

Technology has definitely helped us to be better travelers. We know exactly how long it will take us to reach the destination. Instead of folding sheets of paper, navigation can be done in real time. The best hostel/hotel deals on websites and apps help us fix a budget as do notifications of airfare sales. All it takes is a bit of research to find amazing deals. In fact, I found a lovely hotel absolutely last-minute at a steal near the bus terminal. I wanted to stay around the area thanks to an early morning journey. In money matters, a credit or debit card with net-banking helps with instant transactions instead of cashing in travelers cheques. There’s so much of travel advice on the internet (which also helped finding the hotel in Budapest near Népliget) that helps one decide and focus on how to go about a holiday or even giving everything up for some years to see the world. Careers have been made out of travel blogging and I too had thought would join the bandwagon and live a nomadic life. It is fun I assure you because I’ve met so many of them on my travels around the world. But then there are problems too, like any other profession.
Also Read: 5 Ways to Plan Your First Europe Trip on a Budget

The cars drive on the bridge

A car drives on to the other side

I was in London this summer and to my utter surprise, I found people depending on their phone to navigate the city much more than anywhere else I’ve visited. I was standing at the edge of the Jubilee Walkway at Trafalgar Square and wanted to walk to Hyde Park because the weather was sunny. If you’ve ever visited the UK, you know how rare that is. I deliberately refused to use Google Maps and just asked a passerby if I was on the right path. She took out her phone and of course, Googled it. “Better yet, take the tube,” she exclaimed, giving me directions as to which station to get off at. Do people not notice anything on the streets if it’s not online? I was in London for a week and managed to give correct directions because I was looking up and taking mental images where to turn left or right!
Also read:  Living it up in Paris on a Budget

A view of the Danube

A view of the Danube

But while technology definitely helps, I sometimes wonder if we’ve lost our sense of adventure.
Do we need to know every single detail of a holiday? Do we need maps to tell us the shortest route? Must be depend on food apps to find the best places to eat? Must we note everything down in our phones or tablets and not on paper?
Also Read: Stumbling upon the Royal Cemetery in Bangkok

I can see Pest!

I can see Pest!

Personally, I think it’s wonderful to have so much information at our fingertips. It’s time-saving and very useful when on the go. But on the other hand, I love getting lost in walkways on cobblestone streets, I enjoy stumbling upon little eateries where locals gather and stories are exchanged, I look forward to sitting and reading a paperback somewhere on a park bench, dozing on the green grass, finding a local pool and jumping in, meeting and talking to people from different cultures to share ideas. Nothing ever beats human contact. No amount of using technology can ever replace that.
It’s all about balance at the end of the day. I still use my trusty notebook to jot down addresses and names in case I don’t have wifi to check my phone on travels, I still sit and write down adventures with a cup of coffee by my side and not worry about my laptop crashing and losing all memories. I do use a digital camera and make sure I back up pictures immediately. While I carry mostly cards, I ensure there’s enough cash in hand in case an ATM refuses to dispense. I firmly believe in walking, asking around and checking actual paper maps to locate places rather than use online ones. But when it comes to scoring cheap tickets, I don’t think I’ve been to an agent or tourism bureau in years.
So I stopped panicking. I looked over to Buda across the Chain Bridge. It was a long walk to the other side. I put my switched-off phone into my backpack, took out a paper map I had brought along from the hostel, brushed the dust of the back of the jeans and set off. I was going to enjoy my day without the help of my state-of-the-art phone! It was time to get to know Budapest better.

A view from Buda

A view from Buda

5 Ways to Plan Your First Europe Trip on a Budget

The Sleeping Beauty Castle

The Sleeping Beauty Castle in Germany

It’s summer in Europe and before you know it, you’ll be walking along Champs de Elysees, biting into churros dipped in chocolate and loving the ruins at the Roman Forum. But it’s the pre-holiday bit – the planning – which can be daunting. Especially when you’re travelling to Europe for the first time. Many feel it’s impossible to travel to the Continent on a budget on your own. So, they prefer to travel with groups and eat Indian food day in day out. But if you want to explore Europe on your own, eat and travel the way locals do, planning a budget trip is easy. Here’s how:

1) Set a Budget

The first step is very important. If you’re not earning in Euros or Dollars (I earn in Indian Rupees i.e $1 = Rs 63 approx) you must make sure you know how much you approximately want to spend on your trip. If you have an idea of how many days you want the trip to last, setting a budget becomes easier.
Eg: During my last trip to Europe, I decided to travel for about a month and accordingly set my budget. It included my return flights, internal travel, accommodation, food and the attractions I wanted to visit.

Seeing the Mona Lisa was high on my list

Seeing the Mona Lisa was high on my list

Notre dame in Paris

Notre dame in Paris

2) Save Money by Planning Ahead

It sounds preposterous but if you can figure out which part of the continent, which city or country you want to be in when around an approximate time, it becomes easier to save. Instead of shelling out 100 euros for a train ticket at the last moment, you can end up buying tickets for less than 10 euros.
Eg: I got an overnight bus ticket from Amsterdam to Paris for 8 euros since I booked about 12 weeks in advance. (Also Read: Loving Amsterdam on a Budget)

The beautiful canals of Amsterdam

The beautiful canals of Amsterdam

3) Travel Route

Once you figure out the approximate plan, decide your travel route. Start checking travel websites for deals in and out of Europe from your country. If you book 3-4 months in advance you will find cheap deals. It’s always easier to compare the prices on a travel website and then purchase the tickets from the actual airplane website.
Eg: I got a return fare from Munich to Delhi at Rs 42000 approximately.

It was easiest and cheapest to fly into Roma from Barcelona. Isn't the Fountain of Trevi beautiful?

It was easiest and cheapest to fly into Roma from Barcelona via Vueling.
Isn’t the Fountain of Trevi beautiful?

Now decide how you want to travel from city to city, country to country. The best way is a combination of trains, buses and flights. It’s useless to invest in a EuroRail pass. Eg: Instead of buying a pass for Rs 60000 approx, I used a combination for all internal travels at less than half the price. (Also Read: Paris on a Budget)
All tickets go on sale around 3-4 months before, so if you buy then, you save a lot.
Subscribe to Rail Europe, SNCB Europe, DB Bahn, Eurail, Eurolines, EasyJet, Vueling. They keep having offers.

4) Cheap Accommodation in Europe

Stay in key cities like Paris, Rome and Berlin can be expensive. But instead of booking in hotels, try booking in dorms or private rooms in hostels. Check out HostelWorld, HostelBookers and AirBnB.

The sister and I loving Parc Guell. We stayed in an AirBnb in Barcelona

The sister and I loving Parc Guell. We stayed in an AirBnb in Barcelona

Couchsurfing is a wonderful way to meet new people and understand the city from a local’s perspective.
Eg: I’ve surfed and hosted couchsurfers and I can vouch what a great experience it is. I’ve stayed in hostels in Italy, couchsurfed in Austria, France, Germany and booked in rooms via AirBnb in Spain. (Also Read: Why I Love to Couchsurf)

5) What to See, What to Eat

The best way to see a city is on foot. Instead of investing in City Cards, decide on the attractions you want to visit depending on the days you stay in the city and purchase separate tickets. You can never visit all attractions offered in a card in the limited time-span. Buying separate tickets often work out cheaper.

How can you not have churros when in Spain? The deep-fried delight with oodles of sugar is sinful as it's delectable.

How can you not have churros when in Spain? The deep-fried delight with oodles of sugar is sinful as it’s delectable.

Eating out every meal burns a hole in the pocket. Why not make a meal yourself? Buy local ingredients from markets and indulge in fresh baguettes with olives and meat in Paris. It’s cheap to taste the local street food. You can find crepes at less than 3 euros in France, Paella and Churros with Coffee at less than 10 euros in Spain, delicious pizzas at about 6 euros in Italy. So go indulge! (Also Read: Eating my way through Spain)

Over loading on fried prawns, calamari and mussels at La Boqueria

Over loading on fried prawns, calamari and mussels at La Boqueria

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Who can not try Paella in Spain, right?

In photos: Eating My Way Through Spain

Have I mentioned earlier how much I adore Spanish food? If not, let me clarify — I love food from Spain. The spicy chorizo, the creamy Valencia paella with meat, the gorgeous saffron-flavoured seafood paella from Barcelona, the delicately spiced prawns drenched in olive oil perfect with bread, deep-fried churros dipped in hot chocolate, jugs of sangria to accompany every meal… I can go on and on.

I had the opportunity to visit to Spain in November last year. The week-long work-vacation was a wonderful experience. Though it was my second time visiting the gorgeous sun-kissed country, I can never get bored and will probably end up visiting Spain again in the future.

As in every other country, the cuisine differs from region to region. With such a vast history starting from Roman conquests to introduction of chocolate and paprika during the 15th century, Spanish cuisine is richly diverse and gorgeous in flavour. This time I had the opportunity to visit Valencia and Barcelona. No trip to Spain is ever-complete without learning about Gaudi the genius. But just like his beautiful creations, Spanish cuisine is complex in character, texture and taste. Every bite leaves you wanting more. Here’s my ode to one of my favourite countries…

How can you not have churros when in Spain? The deep-fried delight with oodles of sugar is sinful as it's delectable.

How can you not have churros when in Spain? The deep-fried delight with oodles of sugar is sinful as it’s delectable.

One of the most gorgeous veggie dishes ever. Lettuce drenched in olive oil and tomatoes.

One of the most gorgeous veggie dishes ever. Lettuce drenched in olive oil and tomatoes.

No meal is complete without delicate slices of Jamón...

No meal is complete without delicate slices of Jamón…

Pulpo a la gallega... Boiled octopus with sea salt and paprika

Pulpo a la gallega… Boiled octopus with sea salt and paprika

Piping hot Croquetas!

Piping hot Croquetas!

The icing on the cake: Seafood paella in La Rambla

The icing on the cake: Seafood paella in La Rambla

Over loading on fried prawns, calamari and mussels at La Boqueria

Over loading on fried prawns, calamari and mussels at La Boqueria

The olive love story!

The olive love story!

Seafood salad and lots of it

Seafood salad and lots of it

I love cheese don't I?

I love cheese don’t I?

Hello happiness - Sangria can melt away all your troubles. And the background helps too!

Hello happiness – Sangria can melt away all your troubles. And the background helps too!

And ending on a sweet tooth - colourful and delicious

And ending on a sweet tooth – colourful and delicious

Reminiscing about Roland Garros

The second Grand Slam of the year is underway and I could not be more excited! I doubt I’ve mentioned what I do when I’m not travelling or cooking, but my day-time job is of a sports journalist. And where would my specialisation lie? Tennis of course!

Guess what that is!

Guess what that is!

I don’t think I can remember a day when I haven’t heard the word tennis. Some statistic, some gossip, some childhood memory, some obscure video or book simply an article about a player. Associated with the sport since I was about four, it’s been a long long journey… from the courts to covering from the other side… it never tires.

Beautiful day isn't it?

Beautiful day isn’t it?

Anyway, getting back from all the rambling, I can’t help but feel nostalgic because last year this time I was roaming about the street of Paris, eating crepes sitting on the banks of Seine, admiring works of art at the Louvre… But among the few days I spent falling in love with the city, I took one whole morning off to visit Roland Garros. And when you have an all-access pass (well, somewhat) how can you not enjoy the second Grand Slam of the year!

Which way?

Which way?

Situated in the suburbs, it took me a while to reach Port d’Auteuil, the stop for Roland Garros on line 10, from where I was putting up. About a 15-20 minute walk away from the metro station exit ‘Roland Garros’, you come across many people who love the sport as much as you do. I met this rather determined old lady with a walking stick walking towards the Stadium. “Je na parle pas L’Anglais,” she smiled pointing towards the entrance. With a mattering of broken French I figured out she’s been going there for over 20 years now.

Flags in the sky!

Flags in the sky!

As the roads began to get crowded, I knew I was getting closer. The little tennis ball and racquet stickers on the side walk act as guiders. I was told to waltz in and ask for the pass kept under my name. They turned out to be the florescent wrist bands which are reserved for player guests among others. That was fun!

When you walk into Roland Garros, you realise just how small the area is. I mean I knew it wasn’t as big as Wimbledon, but for years what you’ve seen on television and when you actually stand there – there’s a major difference. But there’s no dearth of atmosphere. The air is charged with excitement, fans move about carrying large tennis balls which will be shortly filled with autographs, tennis officials looking smart in Chanel-inspired outfits giving instructions – it’s everything a Grand Slam should be.

Roaming about

Roaming about

I made my way to Bullring or Court 1 to catch up on the matches. The stadium is so tiny that you feel the red clay is at your feet (Watching a match from the player box does have its perks!). It was a gorgeous feeling. First up was India’s very own Sania Mirza partnering Bethanie Mattek-Sands. It was a good match but I was longing to look around the stadium. Before I knew it, it was time to explore.

That's Court Suzanne Lenglen!

That’s Court Suzanne Lenglen!

I played tennis thanks to my grandfather. Since the age of four, I had heard tales of the importance of Davis Cup, how the French Musketeers surprised the Americans in 1927, the exploits of the likes of Helen Wills-Moody, Bill Tilden, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson… I heard it all. And I would dream. Dream of one day witnessing it all. The replica of the Davis Cup stands tall as you walk to look for souvenirs. I tried to imagine how things were in 1928. Very different to the giant screen or children slurping on ice lollies I’m sure.

Yes, I'm feeling a bit smug!

Yes, I’m feeling a bit smug! (notice the wrist!)

The little florescent wrist band allowed me certain privileges – like walk down the east tunnel entrance into Court Suzanne Lenglen over which stands the legend’s sculpture, barge into the players area (unfortunately Roger Federer wasn’t playing that day) and watch Serena Williams on the red clay. It was something I had been dreaming for a rather long time.

The bas relief of the legend - Suzanne Lenglen

The bas relief of the legend – Suzanne Lenglen

Apart from the three stadiums – Philippe Chatrier, Suzanne Lenglen and Court 1 – the rest of the 17 courts are open to the public. After a quick bite and a Roland Garros photograph (I was such a tourist!) I went to the open courts to check up on proceedings. Since this was the second week of the Slam, the juniors were showing off their calibre on the red clay. There’s something so magical about the clay sticking to your white socks, I mean it feels real. Yes, this is the French Open.

Court Philippe Chatrier

Court Philippe Chatrier

It was Serena’s defeat which suddenly triggered this memory. Well, I did see the American live in action last summer! Anyway, after a whole day of fun, frolic and laughter (and learning new French words) it was time to head back. But somehow as I walked back to the metro station with the canopy of greens sheltering me, I knew I would be back one day. I only wish it’s sometime soon.

The red clay against the blue sky - almost poetic isn't it?

The red clay against the blue sky – almost poetic isn’t it?

Loving Amsterdam… on a budget

I remember leaving Amsterdam early one evening last summer, getting on the bus which would take me to Paris the next day. I left behind two days of walking around the quaint city, masterpieces in the museums, tremendously good food and the promise of learning how to cycle. (Yes, I still keep falling down somehow!).

The flower market

The flower market

An expensive city but not in the league of Paris and Rome, Amsterdam stole my heart and has kept it, asking me to go back every single day. It is possible to enjoy everything the city offers when you’re on a tight budget, and discover hidden gems along the way… I may physically be in Delhi, but my heart still lies in Amsterdam dreaming about the Night Watch. Here’s my top 5 things to do in Amsterdam on a budget.

1. Spend a day at Rijksmuseum
Unlike the Van Gogh museum, tickets for the Dutch national is valid for one year, not a particular date. You do pay 15 euros for a ticket unless you’re lucky to have a student pass but it will be worth every penny. Opened after 10 years of restoration work, its an art lover’s delight. Get lost among the Rembrandts, Vermeers and Steens. Read up on art history in the research library which impresses anyone who walks in. Seriously, do go there. (Do visit the Doelen Hotel if you want see where the Night Watch was painted)

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2. Walk around a lot!
Amsterdam has too many canals! From my hostel near Amsterdam Centraal, if you walked just a few steps, you’d come across one. And another, then another… You cover the whole city in a couple of hours just walking along the canals. Quaint houseboats line the water bodies as tourists fancy a ride in one. Typical Amsterdam houses line either side. You can admire the city differently if you walk in the morning and then at night. The pulse of the city changes completely.

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3. Visit Anne Frank House
a10A few Dutch friends told me that they’ve never visited because its ‘just an old house’. I beg to differ. If you’ve loved reading Anne Frank’s diary growing up, the reality is completely different. Not only does it remind you of the horrors of war, emotions choke you. I hate crying but by the time I left, I could feel my eyes watering. Living in the dark afraid of the sunlight, hoping day after day no one finds out about the hiding place, the lost hopes of ever making it out alive from the concentration camps… the chills don’t leave. Something to learn from the past, of hope and love, all from a young girl who loved to write.

4. Take a free ferry ride
Sometimes a canal cruise may prove expensive. So, why not take the ferry? It’s a free service, leaving every couple of minutes from the dock (behind the station) to Noord (north). Hassle free, get up on one and enjoy the wind caress your face. One can take a short or long ride depending on which ferry you choose to ride. Once you reach the other side, see the city centre from the other side as you sip coffee!

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5. Eating cheap and posing like a pro
From fries to pancakes, herring to cheese, Amsterdam is a foodie’s delight. Local carts easily sell the best stuff. I urge you to try the famous herring. It’s an acquired taste but oh so delish. Then, head to Museumplein to pose in front of the ‘I Amsterdam’ sign. Yes it’s cliched but when in Amsterdam why not!

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I hope to be back very soon darling Amsterdam!

The Paella craving

I don’t know about you but Facebook is suddenly flooded with this thing known as ‘which city should you live in’. And, almost everyone on my friends list keeps posting Barcelona as their choice. Well, that got me thinking, dreaming about my summer in Barcelona. Gaudi, beaches, sangria, Camp Nou and heavenly paella. What more could I ask for?

Every country has a famous rice-based dish. What biryani and pulao is to India, paella serves the purpose in Spain. Though it started off as a humble dish, visitors flock to Spain every summer just to soak up the sun and taste paella.

Each day in Barcelona was something new for me. Friends, unbelievable architecture… it was such a gorgeous city. I spoke to a friend living there two days ago and she kept asking me to visit soon. Well, someday I know I will go back but this winter evening I needed the warmth and comfort of paella to make me smile. The perfectly cooked saffron-scented rice, the tangy lemon juice sprinkled on every mouthful… Every bite made me long for the city and I thought, just for a moment, I was back at Parc Guell admiring Barcelona which lay before me in all its glory.

Home cooked chicken paella

Ingredients

250 g boneless chicken (cut into bite sized pieces)

4 tb olive oil

1 cup rice (medium grain works best)

1 carrot (chopped)

Handful of french beans (chopped)

1 capsicum (chopped)

3 cups chicken stock

1 onion (chopped)

1 tomato (chopped)

3 cloves garlic (peeled and chopped)

saffron (be generous, it gives the gorgeous golden colour)

salt to taste

Serves: 2

The method

Heat oil (about 2 tb) in a flat pan and brown the chicken. Keep aside and add the remaining oil. Saute the onion and garlic. Then add the tomato and cook till tender. Then, add the carrots and beans. Add salt at this point. Once the vegetables are tender, put in the rice and toss about till every grain is nicely coated with the oil. Now comes the best part. Pour in the stock (hot but not steaming) and add the saffron. Put the browned pieces of chicken back in. Put the heat on medium and cover pan with a lid. Let the steam work its magic. 20 minutes later, take off the lid to see fluffy golden rice. Garnish with coriander and lemon. Serve hot!

Paella!

Paella!

PS: I prefer extra veggies when its a chicken/meat paella. Healthy living you see!

Why I love to couchsurf

A friend from Salzburg was recently in India. She stayed with me in Delhi but when she wanted to go up north, she said she was invited to stay with a family in Amritsar, if she chose to visit. Now, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. 

When you travel you meet wonderful strangers who become close friends, share their homes with you in a moment’s notice, tell you of the wonderful things their cities offer which no website shares. How many of you have visited Amsterdam and actually been to the place where Rembrandt painted the Night Watch? Have you gone off the beaten track in Milan just to sample a great pizza in a trattoria? Or how about experiencing the way Italians love to party in Padua thanks to a great host?

I backpacked in Europe this summer along with my younger sister. Our style of travel is similar. We love to get to know the people of the city and experience things which regular travellers often miss out on. Yes we would go to the Eiffel Tower but also meet locals over red wine and Camembert, pick up a crepe and eat it along the Sienne banks waving at the people on the boats. 

That’s why I prefer to couchsurf. (www.couchsurfing.orgIt’s a wonderful way to get to know the actual city or town, through the eyes of the local. And I’ve never come across such wonderful people. Our host in Salzburg recently came to India with a friend and we had the opportunity to show them the city how we knew it! By the way, it was another of his friend’s we met in Salzburg that I’m talking about in the beginning. See how you connect!

Don’t be a burden
However, there are certain etiquettes, which I feel, need to be followed when you plan to couchsurf. Always be respectful because it’s NOT YOUR HOME. Don’t be messy, make an effort to get to know your host, make them feel special by offering to cook/pay for dinner, carry a small gift to showcase where you’ve come from, clean up after lunch or dinner, use the bathroom without making a mess, and most importantly, don’t leave your things scattered.

In Europe…
In Amsterdam, meeting Dicky was an adventure. Having mis-read his instructions, I checked into a hostel. Then Dicky called and asked why we weren’t at his place. Well to cut a long story short, we met in the evening and bonded over French fries. Not only did he take us to off-beat sites in his city, the next morning cooked us two enormous breakfasts! Now, we have a tendency to reach our mode of transport just in the nick of time. Not that we were going to miss the bus to Paris but Dicky drove us to the station not before filling up the remaining space in our backpacks with food! “In case you guys get hungry,” he said! “Anytime you guys want to come back, you’re always welcome!” His gesture touched us so much. And even to this day, we are in touch! I can’t wait for him to come to India so I can show him Delhi!

Dicky the great!

Dicky the great!

Camille was a sweetheart beyond a shadow of doubt. Not only did she give us the keys to her apartment, she made sure we were looked after with lots of extra blankets! (Winter was retreating when we visited). From getting to know Mumu and Marie, her cat and best friend, we became friends over large servings of pizza and juice! Her welcome letter is still on my fridge, held there by a Champs Elysee magnet! Then, there was Elo who was so so wonderful. A photographer by profession and self-confessed India lover, she came over with wine and cheese. And our conversations ranged from politics to art, Starbucks to roadside chai, Mac and cheese to beef bourguignon! She let us in on Parisian secrets from where to go and what to do!

Camille and Marie!

Camille and Marie!

Having wanted to experience hostel life, we stayed in ones in Rome and Florence and let me tell you, it’s one of the best experiences. If you’re lucky, your first hostel will be more than a three-star hotel but sometimes they can be a dump. Just ask our roommates in Rome! The only good thing about that hostel near the Roma Termini was the four new friends we made. And the impromptu party after a long gelato sampling session in the room! In Florence too, we shared our room with two American girls studying in Ireland and we hit it off immediately. From gossip sessions till 2 am to sharing jokes over delicious coffees and tiramisus, they will always find a place in India if they choose to visit.

Thanks to Sri, Milan was a wonder. Not only did we share a common passion for history, but having lived in Italy for about two years and able to converse fluently in the language, Sri took us along for an Italian film, showed how the Milanese drink their beer and treated us to rajma chawal! It took me sometime to register that I was eating Delhi’s favourite lunch sitting miles away!

With Sri

With Sri

Leo showed us what it means to love your country. Originally from Lecce but living in Padua, the detective took time out from his busy schedule to pick us up and take us around the town. We met two other Danish couchsurfers at his place and soon we all headed for a night out! Wine after Spritz after vodka after (hic) which was followed by crazy dancing till 4am, well I know I nursed a headache! Passionate about his town, we loved how much he knew about Italian art and history.

Leo showing us Portia's Padua

Leo showing us Portia’s Padua

Stefan went out of his way to make us feel welcome in Salzburg. From morning to night, he decided to make our stay special. From taking us swimming in a lake to recounting Maria von Trapp’s steps in Do Re Mi, Stefan was a sweetheart. And, we were given the opportunity to host him in Delhi a month later! We met his parents for dinner. They didn’t have to invite us, but they did it just to spend time and understand a little bit about our country. They made us feel so welcome that I still ask Stefan about them whenever we chat!

In traditional attire!

In traditional attire!

Our initial host cancelled in Munich and thanks to a last minute request, Markus agreed to host us. He was nothing short of amazing. From taking us to a couchsurfers meeting on the river bank and introducing us to his friends, he also helped us in getting to know the city with Augustine!

I’m still in touch with most of them. Couchsurfing does that to you. You want to remain friends, tell them over and over again to visit you so you can repay their kindness. Take them around your city with pride; cook for them the authentic local cuisines… The list is endless. If you ever get the chance to couchsurf, do it! You won’t regret the experience. Not only will it help you understand people but will also make your life richer.

Indulgence, a Tuesday treat

It’s Tuesday afternoon. A weekday neither here nor there. Too far away from Saturday while Sunday memories are still fresh. An extension of the Monday morning blues. Thanks to my job, I sometimes go to work at 9 in the morning and return the next day or leisurely stroll into office at 4 in the evening. Unpredictability seems to be the norm.

Well, this Tuesday as my grogginess wore off I realised I wasn’t in a rush. Once the daily chores finished, the dessert craving kicked in, overwhelming me. I needed something sweet, desperately! Italy came to mind. From tasting Tiramisus in Rome to a delectable Cannoli in Venice, I drew my Tuesday inspiration from a small pastry shop in Firenze. It was a simple dessert — vanilla custard and some frills in a dessert cup.  I felt I had died right there as the flavours exploded in my mouth.

So, for all you out there, here’s a little something you can whip up on the weekdays which bother you just that much. It’s a little time consuming but when you dip the spoon into the cup and taste the fruits of your labour, you won’t have a single regret!

Vanilla custard with a side of chocolate
Ingredients
1 cup milk
1 cup cream
1/3 cup castor sugar (or just break down regular sugar in the mixer)
1 vanilla bean
3 egg yolks
1 teaspoon cornflour
100gm dark cooking chocolate
1 knob of butter
6 digestive biscuits
OR
Instant custard powder for the desert cravers with an eye on the clock

The process to sinful goodness
Custard
Heat the milk and cream in a saucepan but don’t let it boil. Cut open the vanilla bean, scrape the seeds and add to the mixture (Add the pod for more flavour). In a separate bowl, mix the sugar, egg yolks and cornflour.
Take the saucepan off the heat and pour into the bowl with the eggs, sugar and cornflour, remembering to remove the pod. Mix well and transfer back to the saucepan stirring constantly for 15-20 minutes over low heat. You’ll know the custard is done when it coats the spatula. Refrigerate for 30 minutes till cold.
For instant custard powder users, please follow the packet instructions.

Biscuit base
Bash the digestive biscuits in a plastic bag with a rolling pin till it forms a crumbly texture.

Side of chocolate
Melt the chocolate and butter over low heat till its forms a glorious gooey dark sauce. Keep a bit of the uncooked chocolate aside to make shavings.

Plating up
Take a glass of your choice and add the biscuit crumbs as layer one. Spoon over the cold custard for layer two. Finally, add the dark chocolate sauce to create layer three. For decorative purposes (how much of chocolate is enough anyway?) use a peeler to shave the dark chocolate on top. Add extra crumbs if you want too.

ImageTuesday blues? Try this. Once you scrape off the last remaining bits, you’ll know all’s right with the world!

Living it up in Paris: For the budget conscious traveller

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Every romantic in the world wishes to visit Paris at least once in their lifetime. The city of love, the city of lights… well, the city is breathtakingly beautiful. The only problem is that the French capital is one of the most expensive cities in the world. While you can probably travel to other areas of France on a cheaper budget, Paris makes sure to drain you of your last euro. But, if you plan ahead instead of deciding in a rush, you don’t have to rob a bank to fall in love with the enchanting city. Here’s my take to discover Paris but on a budget!

The first tip is to decide what you want to splurge on and where you want to stay frugal. Giving an example, I’m a history buff so visiting the Louvre was on my wish list. I require a clean bed to sleep on at night so it doesn’t matter whether I’m in a five-star or a hostel dorm. If shopping or eating delectable deserts is your wish, go right ahead but decide where you can cut  your expenses down.

The second important tip is to book tickets in advance of the attractions on your wishlist just to save time and not stand in the long queue. With internet available everywhere, it really shouldn’t be difficult as Visa and MasterCard is accepted everywhere.

Getting there
You can either fly into Paris or make your way there from other European cities. If you decide to travel by bus (Eurolines), you’ll find tickets that cost less than 10 euros for an overnight journey. The catch: You have to book at least three months in advance. (I got a ticket for 8 euros when travelling overnight from Amsterdam to Paris this summer). If flying in, look for roundtrip deals or promotions which every travel website offers.

Accommodation
It’s lovely to be waking up to the magnificent Eiffel Tower everyday but let’s face it, it’s kinda steep. It’s easy and pocket friendly to be living in the suburbs. The cardinal rule to staying in Paris is book in advance. While hostels and BnB’s are popular, one can get a deal for less than 15 euros a night if booked in advance. I suggest you scour websites like crazy to find a good deal. Important tip is to read the reviews of fellow travellers before booking. If two or more reviews talk about bed bugs, it’s better you give that particular hostel a miss.
The second option is couchsurfing. It’s a fantastic way to get to know the locals and understand their city. I lived in the suburbs of Paris, in Le Pre Saint Jervais, for five days thanks to my kind host Camille. Not only did I make a new friend but also tried to understand the city from the point of view of a local Parisian.

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At Camille’s snugville, just 200m away from Paris!

Travelling within the city
If you’re on a budget forget about the city cards. While the Paris Pass or Museum Pass or any travel pass may give you a list of free museums, sights et al, they are of no use. It’s physically impossible to cover so much in say two days. Decide on the attractions which require payment and then buy a carnet (set of 10 tickets) for the metro. Priced at approx. 14 euros, they are individual tickets which don’t limit you to a respective zone. Once you reach the metro station, get up and walk. It’s a gorgeous city you’ll uncover so many things which you never thought existed.
It’s important to remember that if you’re 26 and under and holder of the international student/youth card, discounts are plenty. Secondly, most attractions offer free/discounted entry for the press. If you’re in the media, make full use of it. DO NOT forget your press card.

When you’re hungry…
Paris is cheap if you know where to look. Coffee and croissant for breakfast, baguette, meat and wine for lunch, then a delectable macaroon for desert after a hearty pasta dinner, the city has cheap eats for under-10 euros if you search. If you’re budget is really tight, I suggest you visit a supermarket to buy cheese, meat, olives, wine and anything else under the sun. Make a sandwich with fresh bread and your lunch-on-the-go is done under 4 euros. Warning: do not miss the nutella crepes for about 2-3 euros near Rue de Montparnasse!

The freebies
We all love free things. And Paris offers so many which will leave your head reeling:
Notre Dame Cathedral
One of the finest examples of gothic architecture, it’s one of the biggest cathedrals in the world. However, there is a charge to go up the towers and the treasury.

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Point Zero
Located outside the cathedral, it’s the official centre of Paris. Gives you a Robert Langdon feeling!

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Cimetiere Pere-Lachaise
Visit the graves of Jim Morrison, Edith Paif and so many others in one of Paris’ most famous cemeteries.

ImageArc de Triumph and Luxor Obelisk
There’s no charge for taking pictures!

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ImageWalk along Champs Elysees
From the obelisk to the arc, this is one of the best streets Paris has to offer. And if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of Brad Pitt!

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Jardin des Tuileries
The historic park with manicured lawns and blooming flowers between the Louvre and Place de la Concorde will bring a smile to your face.

ImageCross one of the 37 bridges over Siene
My favourite is the one with locks near Louvre.

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Picnic on the banks of Siene
Pick up crepes, baguettes, beverages or whatever you fancy. Sit on one of the banks and see the world pass by.

Important: Many museums are free all year round. Eg Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris and Musée Carnavalet. However, on the first Sunday of every month, major museums have free entry.

Time to splurge
Louvre
The entrance free is approx 12 euros but it’s a must visit destination. Remember to wear walking shoes and spare a whole day to see the masters.

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The royal medieval gothic chapel’s entrance fee is cheaper so do visit if you get the chance.

ImageChâteau de Versailles
You need extra tickets for the RER to reach the palace. Give yourself a whole day to surround yourself amidst beauty.

Catacombs
For the bravehearts, do not miss the seven million skulls and bones beneath the city.

Eiffel Tower
Many say its unnecessary to spend 14.50 euros to go right to the top but you must. The trick is to go up just before dusk and take the last elevator down. The way the city transforms right before your eyes is breath taking. If you weren’t in love with the city before, you will be once you do this!

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