Friday, October 12, 2012

A Swiss Safari !

Day 1: Our train from Venice stopped at the lovely quaint Swiss town of Spiez pretty late in the night (By swiss standards). It was around 9 pm and the last of shops were closing down and the watering holes closing their beer taps. View as we came out of the station was breathtaking to say the least with the Lake Thun and towering mountains.

The summer night was still bright enough to provide us with this breathtaking invitation. We first figured out our motel (attached to a theatre) was pretty close to the station. Quickly kept luggage, and came out for dinner ;very few diners or rather locals enjoying a drink post dinner. After some cold sandwiches washed down with Rugenbrau special, a dark brown, medium bodied local beer which kind of tastes as close to herbal as the brew can get! (Or maybe it was the greenery all around ;)

Day 2: Woke up to a cloudy day; had breakfast at 8 am with the wonderful view of misty mountains, lake and Spiez’s old castle. Thankfully our motel had a nice terrace restaurant offering a splendid view of the sleepy town in the wee hours of the morning directly overlooking the Lake.

Since the day was cloudy, we decided against the mountains and planned to do a city today and took off to Lucerne. The tourist friendly trains offered a breathtaking view of the nature all around….that’s one of the best ways to move and do sightseeing in Switzerland…the trains pass through unbelievably beautiful villages and towns offering an awesome view of tranquil lakes, lush green mountains, quaint little houses with painstakingly maintained beautiful flower gardens offering raging splashes of color in the misty drizzle.

It took us a day to just get used to the beauty around and not get awed by nature especially since were coming in from peak Summer in Dubai ! In contrast to India where nature is wild and grows in any damp patch of water and earth, nature in Switzerland seems awfully well-behaved or probably well-manicured by the residents. But its really spectacular to see just the right length of grass on mountains or the harmony amongst trees and plants growing beside each other
The journey was broken by some work on the railway line – hence we had to take a bus through couple of villages that involuntarily added even more to our sightseeing in quant Swiss villages. Interacting with locals on the bus made us realize that they do not take the beauty of the place for granted, in fact they make the best use of the summer with everybody pouring out on sunny days for sports, trekking, boating, swimming and many other exciting outdoors activities.
We reached Lucerne by lunch time and went to an Indian place for food – 8 days of pasta n pizza was enough to make us crave for some chilli and spice ! So we just got in Lucerne and without any further delay or sightseeing made a beeline for an Indian restaurant. Though the food was good; a family in India could have lived for a month for the money we spend on breads and curries there!
Post lunch, we did the usual touristy things, visited the two famous Chapel bridges on lake Lucerne and went on a trail across the Nine Towers and a walk across the town. Then we went on a 2.5 hours boat ride on Lake Lucerne which was the best time of the day. Offered a spectacular view of the lake and city surrounding it amidst cloud and rain. Since we had taken the pass (which is highly recommended if you stay around for 2-3 days) it was covered within that.
On our return we passed several stations by the lake Brienz offering splendid views and light for photography. With a decision to come back to these places, we returned to Interlaken, took a walk there, had dinner in one of the Pakistani places and headed back to our motel

Day 3: Still cloudy, so we decided to trek to the famous Reichenbach falls – a series of waterfalls on the River Aar near Meiringen in the Canton of Bern in central Switzerland - where Sherlock holmes and Moriarty fight against each other ending in demise of the famous detective (only to be  revived after the readers hue n cry).

Since we are both fans of Holmes it was a no brainer! The train journey was interesting with part of the journey in a narrow gauge train and  the journey up in a furnicular (similar to a trolley on wooden tracks). A short ride from the furnicular station brought us to the viewing platform which offers an amazing view of the rushing falls. A fall down is definite way to straight heaven, no wonder Doyle chose this place to finish off Holmes ! Its impossible to not get drenched on the platform , thankfully earlier reading had prepared us for the eventuality and armed with windcheaters n umbrellas, we passed the platform and started the trek to the top of the falls. Was not unduly worried about my cameras since I was using only 7D with 17-40, which meant it could take a bit of wetness with elan.

The trek passes through quite thick n dense woods offering a calm and tranquil environment with only the sound of gushing water as company. Slight off track from the trail offers breathtaking views of the nature and town downstairs. We trekked through the woods to the top – a fairly easy trek of under an hour – whereby we enjoyed the views with some nice Swiss brewed light lager.
Trekking back, we decided to walk all the way to nearby Aare Gorge (Aareschlucht) after resting a bit for energy. This walk through the town made us realize how much importance is placed by Swiss families on keeping fit. Backyard of each house looked like a mini Ace / Adventure HQ shop filled with boats, cycles, hiking and trekking gear and other sports materials. A family of four running, with the father pushing the child trolley, another couple of kids keeping pace with mom leading the pack, made us realize that it’s a way of life for them and its ingrained in the kids right from an early age.
At Aare Gorge, we started at the west end and walked till the east end. It’s a nice walk through a deep canyon …as we walk the canyon keeps getting narrower till a point where we can touch both sides of the canyon with the river flowing below. It’s a nice 1 hour walk with some portion of the walkway inside the canyon and some of it outside in the open air.

The east end station is wonderfully built inside the mountains. If it wasn’t for the couple of locals waiting there, we would have totally missed the station. The ride back was wonderful. We hopped from one station to another stopping to admire the lake and views and then taking the next train to proceed. (Again advantage of having the Swiss pass)
Evening saw us head back to Interlaken for D&D (including a smooth as butter cognac which I forgot to take the name of) and then back to Spiez for a flat out sleep.
Day 4: Niderhorn – the day being slightly sunny, we decided to risk the mountains and started towards Niederhorn. We thought we would take the boat from Spiez instead of the train. Had a nice morning walk to Schloss Spiez castle admiring the quiet roads and houses amidst all the greenery and proceeded towards the boat yards. This was one day where we experienced everything that Swiss transport system had to offer, including, boats, buses, trains, and cable cars. A short boat ride brought us to a small, beautiful village called Beatenberg which form the base of the cable car towards Niederhorn.

We took the cable car and went straight to the top which offers a spectacular view of all the major mountain peaks in Switzerland – the main 3 of them being Eiger (Ogre), Monch (Monk) and Jungfraujoch (the Virgin).

Though not overtly sunny with puffs of clouds blocking our view, we got a good view of the 3 snow capped mountain peaks from the top. A nice cup of coffee in the cold weather (we were yet to visit Jungfraujoch, so were not aware how much colder it could get) was close to heaven. You could probably spend a lifetime doing that !
This place also provided a lovely view of the typical “Swiss cow grazing in the field” view with the peaceful sound of their bells clinging. Another feature of this place is the introduction we got to the wild flowers in Switzerland. Shot many of the interesting wild flowes and orchids.

After a good 2-3 hours of basking in the sun and snow filled mountains, we headed down to Beatenberg.  The sight of many elderly people with hiking sticks going up and down the mountain did not really inspire us to trek down instead of taking the cable car !

From Beatenberg, we headed towards Interlaken via bus. After a delayed lunch, we went towards the sleepy town of Thun. Had a short walk there in the city and post a nice beer and snack at a waterfront, headed back to Spiez. Before turning in to the motel we took a nice night walk towards the castle, though lack of people made us turn back early. (It was indeed eerie!!)
Sat in our balcony till late enjoying the moonlit sky over the lake and mountains. Serenity and peace of the mountain nights are (anywhere in the world) something which one cannot be recreated in plains for some reason!
Day 5: Finally a bright sunny day….with the authorities accurately predicting the forecast weather, we had intentionally kept the best for a sunny day. Post a nice breakfast in the sun overlooking the Spiez castle and lake, we started towards Jungfrau. The train journey is split into 2-3 stops – we took the route via Grindelwald and Wengen and did Lauterbrunnen on the way back. A brief lunch in a Swiss bar in Grindelwald  gave a glimpse of local life there, where locals just sauntered in for a drink, said hi to strangers like us and wished us a good journey and settled down to gossip amongst themselves J. We were quite floored by helpful nature of the Swiss folks- people just came forward on their own and asked if we needed help with directions or anything. A small trek in Grindelwald introduced us to more wild flowers and quaint houses with beautiful gardens.

From there we went towards Wengen, which offered one of the best views of snow capped Jungfraujoch. Of course the immediate attraction was the beautiful mooing cows with their pretty doe-shaped eyes and jingling bells

This along with the Swiss train in the background provided the best photographs of the journey. We spent a lot of time with the cows and again encountered lot of Swiss elderly people with hiking sticks. Guess the sunny weather, being a rarity, had brought everybody out of their homes. We proceeded towards the last leg of the train journey towards Jungfraujoch which stops in between offering glimpses of the snow and time to the travelers to acclimatize to the change in altitude.

When the train became suddenly quiet and conversations died down, we realized that lack of oxygen had made most sleepy especially those travelling alone. Moving higher up also made us realize the drop in temperature and we suited up. -5 degrees on the top! Wow! This was freaking freezing! The first viewing deck offered a splendid view of the snow up close. Sandy’s first snow, so she went crazy playing in the snow – and she was dressed for it with woolens while I was wearing my Nike tracksuit. I realized pretty soon how inappropriate is a track suit at -3 degs !
 Inside offered great views through the Ice palace and snow decks. Today being the 100 year anniversary of the train system to Jungraujoch, lot was covered on history on the construction on the train system and the people who helped build it. After taking loads of pictures in the snow, with the carved animals in the ice palace and the playing in the snow, we headed back to the Wengen and then towards Lauterbrunnen. A short trek over there as well offered us more beautiful views of the amazing contrast of the snow peaks and the greenery below.

After an energetic and exhilarating day, we headed back to Interlaken where we had good food and drinks before heading to Spiez.
Day 6: The last breakfast in Spiez and then onto Paris J - leaving the most amazing landscapes was sad but fact that we were going to probably the most romantic city in the world helped tide over it!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Italian job - Trip report to Italy, 2012

Day 0: Vienna and flights !!
Our Austrian air flight from Dubai on 20th night (of a blistering hot July in Dubai) had a connection at Vienna. The connection did not work due to technical issues which meant we lost one evening in Rome. By the time we landed, it was already night and we immediately took a cab to Sheraton Roma our first port of call. Idea of choosing the Sheraton was (apart from being relatively cheaper) was that they had shuttle services right to the center of historical Rome.

Day 1 in Rome

Took the early morning shuttle from the Sheraton to historical Roman center; The 8 am bus dropped us outside the Campidoglio – the famous piazza designed by Michelangelo. 

Light was harsh and there was no point in doing too much shooting. Just enjoyed sitting by and watching Rome pass by in the shades of some amazing work.  
Latter on decided to walk around enjoying the sights of Rome – first was Monumento a vittorio emmanuel 2, followed by a walk to Colesseum past the Roman ruins. 
It’s a feeling of awe and of stepping back and thinking about what was once a glorious city. How would have he Romans lived in the midst of all the wealth and grandeur (especially after reading the rate for Italian government bonds shooting up in the financial papers in the morning!!)
After lunch in a nice Italian pizza place, used the Colosseum ticket (combined with both roman forum and palatino) to get into the world famous structure. You can feel what the gladiators felt as they probably walked into the centre cheered on by the massive crowds around.
Once sunset was approaching walked over to the Roman forum clicking palatino, temple of Saturn & Mars, Venus, Arco di tito, Arco di constantino along with colosseum in lights.

Also took a short walk by the river (Fiume Tevere) across which would be our next major plan - the Vatican city. Had dinner in the same place that we had lunch since the pizza was really terrific and draught was nicely chilled. (Which helped when outside temperature was in high 30s)
On the way back to where the hotel would pick us up,  stopped at Campidoglio, took night time snaps of the piazza , Foro traiano (along with Mercati Trianei and colonna traiana), Emmanuelle 2. Also took some light trail shots of Theatro Marcello opposite Campidoglio.

Day 2 : Rome
Day 2 was dedicated to Vatican along with some more key monuments on the way from roman centre to Vatican. We decided to walk from Rome to Vatican since most of the important monuments we wanted to see was scattered along the way.
From Campidoglio, walked through the Via del corso to Fontana Di Trevi (coin throwing fountain!!!). Once done with shooting there moved over to Palazzo Chigi on the way to the Pantheon. Spend sometime inside the Pantheon which almost felt super air conditioned inside given the stone construction and air flow. Post Pantheon moved on to Piazza Navona.
Had lunch to break the long walk from a roadside pizzeria close to Navona. After lunch, walked at the riverside from Ponte Umberto all the way to Ponte St Angelo from where shot some great shots of St Peter’s Basilica as well as Castel St Angelo.
Walked into Vatican after that to stand in the long queue for entrance. Had a great time shooting the terrific lights inside the basilica – worth the 1.5 hrs spent in queue in searing Italian heat.

 ntings as well as doing multiple natural light shots (no tripods or flash allowed inside). Gave me a chance to try my new 50 prime (1.8, ver II). Unfortunately, we were so engrossed in the basilica that we ran out of time to get into the Sistine chapel. (Noted for next time’s visit)

We spent close to 2 hours just enjoying the interplay of light, shadows and fantastic pai

On the way back to Campidoglio, had dinner at a riverside restaurant. Tasty and well-priced Gelato was always a time tested way to finish a meal at Rome. We traced the same path back to centre of Rome taking some night shots of the Fontana di trevi, piazza navona as well as Pantheon. 

Spend a while browsing the lovely drawings of artists at the Navona. Sandy bought a couple of lovely paintings to take back as memoir.

Day 3: Florence

Took the hotel shuttle early in the morning to EUR magliana (metro stop closest to Sheraton). From Magliana took a metro to Roma Termini. From Termini train took us to Florence station, from where a Taxi took us to the Sheraton Firenze which was in a nice Tuscan hillside away from the City. Took a nap before taking hotel shuttle to City centre.
Got down close to the Piazzo St Marco. From there walked over to the St Maria Del Fiore housing the world famous Dome. Since all chapels and towers were shut for the day took a few shots in and around the place in fading light which provides a glow to Florence that is memorable. Had some Italian fare for Dinner in a small roadside café across from Piazza di St. Giovanni behind the Del Fiore.
Went to shoot the Piazza SS Anunziata in lights (close to the leather market) post which went back to the Hotel through the inviting Tuscany landscape.

Day 4 : Florence

Today we planned to go to Pisa. Just for ticking it off since it’s indeed a world wonders. I also wanted to read up on the construction and engineering behind the original construction as well as the subsequent renovations.
Half a day spent in Pisa was worth it though we got mugged by a family. Unfortunately for me, the only thing that they could run away with was the sachet of my Lee GND filter assuming it was Sandy’s wallet. The filter had to go into the front pocket of my Photography vest from then on with a real risk of getting broken. Thankfully, the quality of Lee stood us well.
Got back to Florence by evening and went up the 450 odd steps to Dome to shoot the Florence skyline. Was phenomenal to say the least.
Climbed down the 450 odd steps and decided to go up the Bell Tower, another 300 odd steps. It was a real test of both our fitness and determination. A total of around 1500 steps in 2 hours almost killed us. However, we had to do it since we did not want to lose the chance of shooting the setting sun from both the settings. The end product of the work was worth it.
We rested for a while to get breaths back and then moved to Galleria D Uffizi where works/replicas of masters are displayed along with many artists painting below in the galleries (Including the Michaelangelo’s famous David’s replica)
Got a Pakistani dinner place to take a break from the Pizzas and Risottos. After having some Indian food went off for a happy sleep back at Hotel.

Day 5 : Florence
After living in Tuscan hills for couple of days, we shifted to Westin Firenze right in the city centre and bang at the Arno river side. It did live up to the expectations of being one of the top rated hotels in the world. We got a room with a balcony overlooking Arno river and was one of the most romantic settings to spend an evening or early morning – listening to live music by solo musicians, with artists painting across the Ponte Vecchio bridge and brilliant sculptures and domes punctuating the historical city skyline. (Ponte Vecchio is one of the oldest bridges full of goldsmiths from bygone eras)  
After lunch, we decided to go see work of Michelangelo (especially the world famous David); when we saw the queue was around 3-4 hour long I quit to go and get some sleep. Sandhya favored David to sleep and had a great time enjoying the art. We met at Westin in the evening and hiked to Piazzale Michelangelo.  It gives a scintillating view of the Florence skyline after a trek up a hill (easy trek over Asphalt roads – so everyone can do it).

Spend 4-5 hours just enjoying the atmosphere, shooting the sunset, listening to live music, watching masterful spray painters at work and in general immersing in the wonder that Florence is. 

Also finally took shots of the Santa Maria Novella which gives the main station in Florence it’s name.
Clearly, in 3 days Florence became one of our most beloved cities – a terrific combination of music, art, cuisine, history as well as dream shots from a photographers point of view.
Next day we would check out of the fantastic hotel to take our train to Venice wondering if Venice can match Florence in the romanticism. 

Day 6 : Venice
Took our train from Firenze Santa Maria Novella to Venice St Lucia station. Stepping out of the train station in Venice itself is an unforgettable experience. You walk through the usual menagerie of tourists, briefcases, vending machines, shops and step out to see the majestic grand canal with Vaporettos taking people and tourists to their end destinations. In the back ground is St Simeon Piscolo church looming over the everyday Venice scene.
Took a water bus to San Marco (which was where our Hotel Westin Europa and Regina was located). Didn’t know there were two San Marcos. Hence took a grand canal tour and reached the wrong San Marco. Took another Vaporetto back to the real San Marco and checked into the hotel right in the middle of Venice and walking distance from St Mark’s Square and most other attractions.
Waited for the light to become a bit softer. At around 6 p.m shot around Piazza San Marco shooting the tethered Gondolas dancing in the waves with slow shutter speed
.Then decided to go up the Campanile to get city scapes of Venice.
Unlike, Florence, there was a lift to take you up helping us avoid the 1000 step hike. After getting some stunning Venice scapes including Basilica Di San Marco, Island of Giorgio Maggiore, Doge’s Palace and some top down views of St Mark’s Square including an interesting placement of chairs in one of the cafes.

Decided to walk to Ponte Rialto close to the famous Rialto market. Found a nice café just below the Rialto bridge to have a Venetian dinner with Italian wine.
Decided to call it a day to get some rest at midnight for a planned early morning sunrise shoot. 

Day 7 : Venice
Missed Sunrise and slept till 7am. Sunrises usually are best at around 4-5 am during summers and hence was difficult to do after late night shoots.
Decided to spend morning walking to Gallerie Dell’ Academia. On the way shot some Venetian masks and bought one as a nice souvenir. There are some lovely views of Venice to be had from the Ponte Dell Academia. After spending sometime there had lunch at a roadside café.

We had to try the Traghettos – famous point to point gondolas of Venice (these are basically gondolas stripped of all it’s fineries and transporting tourists and well as venetians across grand canal for half a euro). Took one across Grand Canal from Santa Maria Del Giglio to Salute.
Walked over to cheisa della salute from the Traghetto stop and sat around looking at Venice going through her day. Lazily sitting at the steps and enjoying the throng of water traffic and gondolas with tourists flitting about is an experience unlike any other.
In the evening walked to the Punta Dogana next to Della Salute which opens into the seas and is the edge of Venice looking over Island of St Giorgio Maggiore.
For the night took a long waterside walk to Ponte Lungo doing some street shooting, looking at all the cruise ships lined up in the shore and having gelatos.