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Friday, October 12, 2018

A Blind Date with Europe`

EU Rail Global Pass
It was cold weather in January when I had just returned from a trip to Kerala, the God’s Own Country. It had been a trip full of surprises like watching the Kathakali( A dance), Kalaripattu( Traditional Martial Arts) performances besides a brush with tea plantations, cruising in backwaters under idyllic cocoanut groves and much more. I was sipping the morning tea when my eye caught the sight of an advertisement from European Rail about a promotion which was open for a short time window. It sounded very lucrative with 3 additional days of travel included in the fare for a 21 day Global Pass, across the EU. There were no riders except that it was not possible to retrace the route once the journey commenced until one returned to the starting place. It was a true ‘blind date with Europe! My mind was racing as I booked the tickets for self and wife for the trip in the coming days. 

I did not know from where the journey would commence. Soon the dilemma ended, when another scheme of a discounted return ticket to Zurich came my way. Without losing any time the booking was done.
The lovely, punctual EU Rail
At least now, I had a foggy idea of the forthcoming trip. Endless hours of browsing over the internet to search the, EU Rail timetable, hotel sites, places of interest, the local train passes, and distances of places that we planned to visit finally fructified into a plan resembling a project about to be executed. In 21 days we intended to visit more than 10 cities starting from Zurich, onward to Lyon, Barcelona, Marseille, Genoa, and Padua, Venice, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Berlin and back. The round trip of exploring the world’s major destinations in Europe fired my imagination like nothing before.

The booking for hotels, city bus/ train passes, local sight-seeing trips and detailed planning had to be done. This was to ensure long-distance train connections to avoid upsetting the travel plans. We left for Zurich on 02 June and after a brief stopover at Muscat reached there later in the evening. The first thing was to endorse the Global EU Rail Pass at the Swiss Rail terminal located at the Kloten International Airport in Zurich.

It was late in the evening amidst glitter on the streets when we reached the hotel close to the Zurich Central Train Station. There was no one at the hotel and the place was very quiet. We managed to extricate the room key from the main gate after using a code to enter the premises with the help of a girl who was passing by.
The Glacier Ice Cream at Rene Nardone-Lyon
Next morning we woke up and rushed to the train station to take the train to Lyon. Due to some repair works the trains were re-scheduled, so we left by an earlier train. The journey through Switzerland is a visual treat of green meadows, tiny villages and lakes. The scenic beauty changed rapidly as the train rumbled through the farmlands and vineyards of France. After two changes at Geneva and Gar de Chambery Challes Les Eaux, we arrived in Lyon Part Dieu in the afternoon. The whiff of freshly baked pastries at the Paul Boulangerie had a magnetic attraction difficult to resist. The next 2 days were spent in exploring the amazing beauty of the Traboules (Secret passages), ancient amphitheatre, parks and having a bite of the signature glacier ice cream of Rene Nardone.
A Flamenco Dancer- Barcelona
We then boarded the high-speed TGV train for Barcelona, an unforgettable experience. The train zipped through the natural paradise to reach in just a little over five hours. The city of Gaudi has so many attractions. The notable ones like Sagrada Familia, Parc Guell, La Rambla, Barceloneta beach were packed in the itinerary. The colourful market of La Rambla, delectable fruit smoothies and the nightlife were irresistible. How could we leave Barcelona without witnessing a Flamenco dance and sipping ‘Sangria’?
Notre Dame de la Garde- Lyon
The next halt was the port city of Marseilles where the beauty of the Vieux Port( Old City Port), the cobbled streets of La Panier, the stiff climb to the Notre Dame de la Garde church topped by a 10m  gold draped idol of the Virgin and Child statue, take the breath away. The minibus that we took to climb the grand cathedral had most people in the ages 85 or more, an experience in itself to admire their grit!
Le Strade Nuove -Genoa
The time kept flying as we hopped into trains to head for the remaining destinations. The port of Genoa, the cathedral that has withstood the test of time despite a direct canon hit by British Navy during WW2, historic streets of Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, the brass fountain of Piazza de Ferrari, are some places not to be missed. The land of the advent of pesto sauce, macaroni and pizza has so much of variety of food that one is spoilt for choices.

The train journeys through the French and Italian Rivera is a feast for eyes where the train almost kisses the sun-drenched golden beaches as it moves along. The train station of Monte Carlo resembles a discotheque!
The Rialto Bridge-Venice
As soon as we reached Padua, I realized that I had left all my documents and tickets at the coffee shop when stepping out of the station. My heart missed a beat, as I rushed back to find my belongings untouched. My belief in God and goodness of people was strengthened further. A stay in Padua not only helped in seeing a new place but proximity to Venice gave us an opportunity to take short train rides to visit the grand canals, the Rialto bridge, the Bridge of Sighs, a ferry ride on the canal, admire the sculpture of Doges Palace, San Marco basilica among several things.
The Austrian Parliament Building-Vienna
 The train journey from Padua to Vienna was a long one, over five hours with the change of lines at Verona in Italy and Innsbruck in Austria. Vienna will be best remembered for witnessing a colourful LGBT parade through the heart of the city where perfect strangers came and hugged us. An impromptu military band performance at The Hofburg Palace was a delight for audio-visual senses. The architectural beauty of the Schonbrunn Palace, Opera house and St Stephen’s Cathedral left us wonderstruck. Some locals asked if we knew Shah Rukh Khan, the Bollywood movie star?
Szechenyi Thermal Bath- Budapest
The next halt was the massive Keleti station of Budapest.  A plainclothes policeman accosted me as soon as I stepped out to change the currency assuming that I was a drug peddler. After a lot of convincing, I was left off. It was a scary start but the friendliness of the people for the remaining stay more than made it up. The tram ride on the illuminated historic monuments on Route 4 along the Danube at night, an opera performance at the Erkel Theatre, a live band performance at Hero’s Square, exploring the Fisherman’s Bastion and a splash in the Szechenyi thermal baths were the highlights of Budapest.
The beautiful city of Prague along the River Vltava
 The journey through the Czech Republic in Prague was laced with a long chat with a Malaysian couple our co-passengers in the train and admiring the beauty of Bratislava and Brno en-route. The train station Hlavni Nadrazi in Prague resembles a huge museum for its architectural beauty of the main foyer. The Prague Castle, Old Town, Astronomical Clock and cobbled streets have a bewitching unparalleled beauty. The Bohemian musicians who were playing in the Old Town Main Square soon converted the place into a huge dance floor where many couples danced with abandon. The glass work of the country is very alluring!
The Berlin TV Tower by Night
The penultimate destination was Berlin! A visit to the Brandenburg Gate, The Parliament, Check Point Charlie, and the Berlin Wall brought back the memories of the World War2 about which I had seen in movies and read so much during growing up years. A splendid view of the city by night can be admired atop the Berlin TV Tower.

We were nearing the date of return and with heavy hearts took the train from Berlin to Zurich, the longest journey. It was a treat watching the German countryside as the train went past Frankfurt and Basel before reaching Zurich.

We had traversed on more than 40 major regional and intercity trains on carriers like SBB, DB, Renfe to name a few. It was time for curtains down for a dreamlike blind date with tons of enriching experience, treading the less travelled paths, exploring new cultures, experimenting new food and above all oneself.

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PS-This my submission for the Lufthansa/Indiblogger sponsored #TheBlindDate ,#SayYesToTheWorld contest 
2. All pictures in the post were taken during the trip

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