Gothic Heidelberg castle & a cruise through romantic Rhine Valley.

History in brick red…at dusk

As they say they, some of the best travel experiences are from those that are not so well planned. This one really was a perfect example of one such experience that I had when travelling in Europe. And the more you stay excited to explore places in the short gaps in between your planned travel, better are the chances that you find yourself enjoying such awesome experiences. This was one such “a day’s experience” that is sure to make a wanderlust soul like mine, very happy, when in Germany, especially in Frankfurt. 

The steamer by the pier for a cruise on the Rhine

Cruising through rich & interesting history

After a nice drive from Frankfurt, it is time to set sails along the Rhine river. A traditional steamer anchored by the pier looks more than inviting to unfold history so rich, as it cruised along the river. Though most popular among the travellers from across the world, this is a ‘must do’ one that should be featuring in your lists of ‘things to do’. This route takes us through UNESCO listed River Rhine and what better way to travel than on the top deck that is open to sky offering great views on either side as we cruise along. And if you are one with a camera and a couple of cool lenses, you are in for a treat. 

The Rhine Valley that is a world heritage site unfolds history as we cruise along. Some of the best known landmarks such as Lordly Rock and Rudesheim appears to be posing just the way we want them to. The quiet and romantic villages that appear on either side seem to be undisturbed by the chaos from the outside world.

By the Rhine…as we pass quietly
Calm & peaceful
a quiet & romantic village

This is clearly a ride to keep counting those medieval castles and feel intrigued as you hear interesting stories about everyone of them. The grand old castles, some of them almost as the remains of ruins bare a haunted look, while some look rustic but liveable are converted into expensive hotels. And I am sure every room in these castles will have an unique and interesting story to tell from the medieval age.

Standing the test of times…in twilight
Weathered & pricey
Testament to an incredible history…

Being the end of winter season, the flora on either side of the Rhine offers an interestingly eerie feel in different shades of grey. With cloudy skies above, the waters too seem to be dark and moody, as the chill winds keeps stinging my cheeks.

The youngest traveller who managed to distract me…very sweetly!

After the spectacular ride through history on Rhine, the cruise comes to an end, only to be hosted for a wonderful evening of wine tasting. The ambiance that the little ‘family run’ place provided us, was something that makes this wine tasting truly unforgettable.

An interesting set up for a fine wine tasting session

The entire place appeared to be a museum of some sorts, with every inch on the wall with an antique displayed. The floor just enough for the visitors to walk around, this place offers the best German wine with a lovely dinner.

The lovely loos with an incredible collection of interesting antiques

And the most adorable spot clearly are the toilets that is sure to retain every visitor in much longer than the usual, gazing around and most likely clicking pictures of a wide range of interesting artefacts.      

Heidelberg castle – the remains of rich history

The best landmark in this little town of castles is clearly the Heidelberg Castle. Standing high on the hill the Heidelberg castle appears to be in an elevated level from the plains, as one of the most important renaissance structure in the north of the Alps. Originally built in 12th century, the castle, as history says, has been hit by lightning bolts twice apart from the wars. Partially rebuilt in 17th and 18th centuries, the castle stands in all its gothic glory with its ruins narrating interesting stories from centuries past. 

Gothic glory stands elevated…
an approach marked by the ruins…
A gateway to a renaissance structure
To enter…back in time

Once on top the castles, you get a spectacular view of the old downtown, the beautiful bridges that run across the Neckar river, the similar looking houses that are built to appear in an orderly fashion with red tiled roofs.

The old Town, a beautiful bridge and river Neckar
A view…with the evening sun shining through the town

The dominating brick red colour all around and the ruins that seem to have experienced time and history, characterises the castle thus making it more interesting to know about.

The Fassbau

The best part of the castle is this giant wine barrel that sits inside the castle adjacent to the king’s hall. The Barrel Building’s cellar houses a giant wine barrel – the great Heidelberg Tun, sitting unbelievably big, all in oak wood and with an incredible story to narrate.

the great Heidelberg Tun – the giant wine barrel

The story narrates about a dwarf called Perkeo of heidelberg, a court jester who used to entertain people with his jokes and his legendary ability to drink wine. And boy, what a big barrel! Built in 15th century this giant barrel can store over 200,000 litres of wine, that was collected from the ruled territory as taxes during those days.

Perkeo…the eternal keeper stands guard

And the life size wooden figure of Perkeo by the giant barrel stands as a guardian, an eternal keeper of the barrel and became a mascot to the city too. On top of the giant barrel is a dance floor for the visitor who loves to shake a leg on the wooden floor seasoned with centuries old wine. And if you fancy a private celebration in such an historical structure, they hire out the King’s hall next to the barrel… obviously for a fat price.  

The fabulous facade and incredible interiors

Standing tall & majestic
A fabulous facade weathered over centuries

A part of the castle, as one of most beautiful palaces of German renaissance, stands with its facade adorned by amazing sculptures that seem to bring alive the likes of David, Hercules, Samson, other Kings and Emperors.

Designed to inspire…through the ages

The palace courtyard flaunts richly decorated creations of art on the inside and has lovely gardens on the outside, with incredible views.

A historical sit-out…
…for a beautiful view!

Heidelberg – the Gothic town 

The old…and the not so old…as the sun sets
…for a perfect walk
…for the shopper in us
An evening in the romantic town of Heidelberg…as the sun goes down!

After an overdose of historical ambiance, for those who wish to ease out into shopping, there is the city of Heidelberg with cobble stone streets and perfectly placed lamp posts, adding flair to the evening. The cute looking shops and inviting restaurants set up a perfect end to an awesome day of exploring and remising history in Heidelberg. 

Clearly a ‘must-do’ when in Frankfurt. 

San Gimignano & Siena – A walk through history for the best of tuscany

There will be mornings when you get up with the urge to simply indulge. Walk through the cobbled historic lanes of Italy, shop at a slowest possible pace, step into beautiful vineyards to savour some world class wines and bite into freshly made, award-winning gelatos all day long. And that’s living life “king’s size”!

We went on a gourmet trail through San Gimignano and Siena, the most gorgeous Italian destinations that treasure the magical beauty of medieval history by proudly portraying the splendours of a wondrous past. These places easily make it to the ‘must-see’ list for the discerning traveller, with an irresistible urge to indulge.

Shopping through centuries old walls

An ancient beauty

According to fascinating legends, this uniquely beautiful town has its history dated back to 63 B.C. and the first mention is stated to have appeared in the documentation during 929. With such an incredible history, this place seem to have emerged as a result of a two young brothers who built castles here after they escaped from Rome as they were implicated in a conspiracy.   

Carved lanes between the towers…

San Gimignano, declared as a world heritage site by UNESCO is a city of beautiful towers. As you walk through the beautiful lanes carved between the towers as many as 14, the story unfolds to enlighten you as they are once symbols of power and wealth of their inhabitants. It’s a perfect scene for beautiful vistas, numerous streets and piazzas, centuries old walls with unaltered sight of medieval magic.

Lookin’ out…in leisure

With around 8000 inhabitants now, this Commune lives on agriculture and wine production. Every bit of the complex history about this awesome town is sure to awe every traveller. And if you are more of an ‘inquisitive’ kind like me, San Gimignano is the place for some amazing medieval ambiance that is treasured for centuries.

For the world’s best gelato!

Remember this indulgence, halt only to sniff in the aroma of fine wines from breath-taking vineyards and for a regular dose of salami, gourmet cheeses and a mind-boggling selection of bruschettas.

World’s best gelato
…indulgence

And the most exciting part of the ‘urge’…the hunt for the best and the original gelato in the land of gelatos! Gelateria di Piazza is one place that can’t be missed for its marvellous creations. A favourite among celebrities across the globe, each flavour here is unique and is crafted in the original gelato-making tradition. From cream drizzled with saffron and pine nuts to pink grapefruit, raspberry and rosemary to blackberries and lavender…the list is enticing and endless. No wonder the boards on these outlets claim winners of the Gelato Ice Cream World Championships!

Medieval Magic

Think of a most beautiful medieval city, a world famous (Palio run) horse race around the spectacular piazza and the very place you enjoyed watching in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace, it is Siena. With rich and interesting Roman history, Siena sits pretty over three hills and right at the heart of city is Piazza del Campo that is marked by the red tower, Torre del Mangia. Quite interestingly, we get to see the tower from different angles depending upon where you are walking from towards the Campo. 

Piazza del Campo…as it rains
…a view on a rainy day

As a testament to some brilliant Romanesque architecture with influences from French Gothic and Classical styles, the Siena Cathedral (Duomo of Siena) stands tall with all its glory. With a most fascinating facade, this Cathedral built in 12th century is a beautiful example of sienese workmanship. The pillars with angels, the alter and the grand dome with a gilded lantern like a golden sun shining in, this structure epitomises what we witness inside the Cathedral. Overall, the fascinating facade, the bell tower that is strikingly captivating and the incredible interiors makes Siena Cathedral a ‘must visit’ when you are on a day trip to Siena.    

a 12th century masterpiece 

Siena and San Gimignano…without a doubt is where every traveller walks into history, gets to taste some world’s best gelato and soak in the beauty of these quaint destinations.

A heaven on earth in between two lakes

irk99

‘God has been partial to this place’ – this is the first thought that rushes through my mind as I set my eyes on one of the most surreal destinations in Switzerland, Interlaken. I peer out of the large train windows as it meanders around a shimmering lake reflecting myriad shades of blue. The shutterbug in me excitedly captures nature as she poses for me – the cheery sun rays tears apart the cloudy skies, the morning mist seduces the lush green and little boats with blue sails bob around in perfect tandem. The train ride to Interlaken, from Zurich, Geneva or any other part of Europe is sheer delight. And if you are a photo enthusiast, every glimpse makes a gorgeous picture postcard! 

The train & the stream…A love story

Exploring the town

Located in the Canton of Bern, Interlaken is sandwiched between Lake Brienz in the east and Lake Thun in the west. Strategically located between the two lakes, Interlaken is the most ideal place to stay for tourists as it has easy access to most attractions such as Jungfrau, Titlis, Chilthorn, Luzerne lake and so on.

A little town called Interlaken

A wonderful little town, Interlaken can be actually covered from one end to the other on foot, if you are willing to explore. For all those who love adventure sports, Interlaken has lots to offer like skydiving, hang gliding, paragliding and skiing. Apart from lush green adorned with a rainbow of flowers, the quaint churches add to its artistic skyline.

Invitingly Interlaken…and a walk so memorable.

If you choose to drive (on-road option), it takes you through the streets, little villages and farms dotted with some absolutely stunning views of cliffs, waterfalls and lakes. 

Jus’ a neighbourhood
A church, a street and one big mountain
A drive you can die for…

The Harder Kulm

Despite the regular tourist attractions, one experience that dazzles through my itinerary is the Harder Kulm point. While most visitors tend to skip this trip for want of time, it’s worth every Swiss Franc you have set aside to splurge. It starts with a funicular rail ride in a very specifically built railway compartment or a boogey to climb up and down this interesting railway line that goes over 2,340 ft right up the summit in a straight line.

This funicular leaves every 45 minutes to 1 hour from the ground level and it takes about 20 minutes to witness some absolutely stunning views of the entire town as well as neighbouring cities like Speiz and Bern. While you marvel at the way the funicular has been built, it reaches mid-way to flaunt a breathtaking sight of a sparkling emerald-green lake cutting across the green land mass and flowing through it gently changing its colour to different shades of blue. Once you reach atop Harder Kulm, one can enjoy amazing views of mountains like Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau – some green tops, some white, two lakes and alpine tress scattered around.

An incredible view from the funicular

The highlight of this trip is when it starts snowing, but well, you must be there at the right time of the year for that. A panoramic restaurant at the top lets you grab something to eat and the best thing to get back is to take a walk down the summit through the woods. 

Other activities

The other places to visit when you are in Interlaken include the Alpine garden, the Mystery Park. The Trummelbach Falls which is the world’s only glacier waterfalls. For the trekkers, there is Rugen forest. If you are making your travel plan in January the chances are that you can catch up with the International Lauberhorn Race which is a part of the Audi FIS Ski world cup or be there to enjoy the lake Breinz Rock festival.

Car wash…anyone?!
Heaven above…and a little town below!

Or you can indulge in a private visit to a cheese dairy farm in a nearby little town to learn about the art of making cheese, Swiss-style. This little town offers quite a few shopping options too. For watch lovers there is Bucherer watch store showcasing some of the best Swiss brands. There are other lovely looking shops to walk around and shop for traditional Swiss bells, chocolates and other souvenirs. 

…for the shopper in you

Your abode

And if you are one of those crazy rich Indians, looking to feel and chill like a Bollywood star, Interlaken offers just the right place for you. Located right in the heart of Interlaken, perfectly positioned to offer you the picturesque mountain setting of the Bernese Overland, Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa offers an unforgettable Alpine experience. With the best of regional and international cuisine and bars, this property offers fine dining experiences with breath-taking views. From culinary artistry at La Terrasse to pasta creations at the restaurant Quaranta Uno, the Victoria bar is popular for cocktails and nightcaps. The Spa Nescens is where you want to be when in Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel to pamper yourself.

The superior duplex suites have a view of Interlaken, while the deluxe duplex suites offer views of the Jungfrau. The Tower Suite with elegant furnishings that characterises the unobtrusive luxury, is the highest and the largest too. It offers great panoramic view of the Alps. And for the true Bollywood lovers, you have the Yash Chopra Suite  dedicated to the filmmaker, who personally opened it in 2011. Designed in Indian style with subtle accents makes you feel like a movie star.

Truly a beautiful little town

This could be heaven..or simply Suisse!

Interlaken, without a doubt, deserves to be right on top of the list of ‘must see’ places in Europe and the best choice to stay when in Switzerland. It truly is a ‘heaven on earth’ in between two lakes, to indulge. 

Pictures – irk99

Historical Hanoi & the Halong Bay

A boatman, passing through…appears to carry the monster rock!

‘The most luxurious hotel’ reads the board, right outside Grand Plaza, standing tall in the heart of Hanoi. Though it sounds too confident, it can be your choice, particularly if you had a tiring journey boarding a flight at an unearthly hour as most flight from Indian cities are.  If you are too eager to soak in what the hotel had to offer, it may not disappoint you, as it does offer luxury honestly. Obviously there are choices when it comes to finding a hotel in Hanoi. 

The beauty of this chaotic yet idyllic Vietnam city, the spectacular Halong Bay and its magical islands are bound to leave you enamoured.

There is a clear evidence of lavish space and grandeur in the facade and the interior starting from the hotel lobby, with high roofs and crafty decor in dominating gold. Le Jardin, created tastefully with a touch of fine interiors, offers all-day dining with a specialty being the Vietnamese style boiled vegetables with steamed rice. Grand Plaza also hosts the elegant Taoyuan restaurant that serves a choice of Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai specialties. The Fuji offers an extensive menu of authentic Korean and Japanese dishes with traditional decor to suit your mood. In all if you are on a quick trip and want to give the usual Hilton, Intercontinental and Sofitel Metropole a miss, this abode is good.

The most famous Red Bridge

Now that bit done, if you are eager to experience the true beauty of Hanoi, the capital city has lots to offer. Starting from the Hanoi Museum as a witness to the past, the grand old St James church standing tall as a testimony to strong faith, the most famous Red Bridge as a perfect stage for every tourist to strike a pose and much more. Talking of exploring Hanoi, one cannot resist but mention the unbelievable traffic. Yes, unbelievable even for those who traverse in unruly Indian traffic every day. For any first time visitor, the city’s weird traffic patterns is a challenge to even understand. And hundreds of lean and mean motorbikes swamping you the moment you step out makes for a freaky start.

Setting sails to explore the Bay

Enroute to Halong Bay

The place that amazes you most is Halong Bay. Beautifully described by Vietnam’s national poet Nguyen Trai as ‘a marvel of the earth erected towards the high skies’, a first glance at it brings the complete imagery of his poetic line to life. Situated in the North-East region of Vietnam, Halong Bay is part of Bac Bo Gulf and comprises the sea area of Halong City, Cam Pha Town and a part of Van Don island district, Quang Ninh Province. It’s a reasonably long drive, and even though the road isn’t kind enough to allow a smooth ride, it is worth the effort to reach this natural beauty. It also borders Cat Ba Island to the South-West and the Mainland to the west with a 120km-long coastline. Enroute, one can stop by to witness local artists who are physically challenged, creating incredible works of art, be it with thread or paint. It is difficult to get out of this place without picking a piece of their craft. The chances are that you may instantly fall in love with many a piece that depict so beautifully, the real imagery that is so Vietnam.

One of the first sights of a beautiful setting

The Luxury Cruise

Soon a captivating smell of the sea that draws you, a busy pier dotted with a large number of boats, some small and beautifully crafted, others big like a modern cruise. All of them head to the Halong Bay. Now when it comes to taking this beautiful trip, there are a few options but your pick could well be ‘the Paradise Peak’ cruise. Stylishly crafted in a traditional way, this high-end boutique boat is a classical work of art made of wood and from the finest materials that can be found in Vietnam. As one of the paradise cruise line, the Paradise Peak is a most refined one in its class and beauty that offers royal luxury and comfort. The cruise offers 8 lavishly designed suites, an awesome spa treatment, a fine dining restaurant and an outdoor bar. 

An interesting sight of the fruit vendors who hop in and out of boats in the middle of the waters with such ease teaches you a lesson or two ‘on-the-sea-mobile-delivery’. When the cruise gets closer to nature’s wonder, you could spot the varied shaped rocks lapped up in green, appearing in the middle of the sea in large numbers. The different shades of grey and green kept getting clearer as you get closer. 

Mobile fruit shop for instant delivery on water

Halong Bay covers a total area of over 1500 km, including 1,969 islands of various sizes, 989 of which have been given names. Limestone and schist are concentrated in two main zones: the South-East which belongs to Bai Tu Long Bay and the South-West that belongs to Halong Bay. It appears as if parts of earth right in the middle of the sea just woke up and stretched towards the sky in an attempt to reach greater heights, competing with each other. Exploring the bay, you will find those legendary stone islands appearing to keep changing their shapes depending on the angle and natural light. And it is bound to keep a shutterbug very busy. Based on their interesting shapes, these islands are given many amusing names such as ‘Human head islet’, ‘Dragon Islet’, ‘Cock and hen Islet’ and so on.

Geological wonder

These natural islands are considered to be between 250 and 280 million years old. Apart from the magnificent mountains coated thickly in rich, the mystery of Halong Bay is incomplete without the grottoes and caves. Each of them flaunts its own grandiose architectural creations. At the first stop you get to explore the most remarkable caves that are unbelievably formed right into the massive mountains. Over the last 100 years, the advance of the sea and the strong erosion by the heavily salted water has resulted in geological evolution with deep engravings on these stones, adding to its real beauty. The regaling guide will point out and urge you to see familiar forms such as dancing dragons, elephants, a man’s face and so on with a bit of imagination. Simply amazing, it makes you stand in awe while witnessing the precious geological museum that has been naturally preserved over 300 million years. The sight of sun-rays piecing through a small opening into the caves adds drama to every shot on your lenses.

Captivating caves

Sailing in to discover

After witnessing the captivating caves that was recognised as the world natural heritage by the committee of UNESCO twice, you get onto the boats to sail through some of the spectacular sights.

A picture perfect bay
Harboured boats
Sailing through spectacular natural settings
A caved entry into hidden paradise
Rocky green all around a natural pool and sky above!

Passing through some of most beautiful rocky forms in the sea, you will suddenly find yourself entering a little ‘village on water’. A few families have made this their own with their boat-houses. They even have a school for the little ones. Operating the boats and kayaks for the tourist is their livelihood. And right there, you find yourself all set to go kayaking to one of the best ever hide-outs that you may have ever been in your life. With only one narrow entry to get in you will find yourself in a natural hide-out surrounded by beautiful green topped tall rocks, still green water and blue sky above. You may so not want to get out of this paradise when you are there, as it brings an end to this awesome trip. While sailing back to the pier, the interesting setting of the rocks on the sea is sure to keep you busy with your camera. 

A busy day at the market place
Vietnamese delicacies to try

Back in the city, the ‘historical Hanoi’ promises to keep you busy walking through the numerous streets with shops, food and an adorable over-dose of vietnamese culture. 

Pictures – irk99