Thursday, July 30, 2009

EU trip (England), Days 19-22

DAYS 19 – 22

We did not plan much during these few days and just relaxed and enjoyed around the area. First of all we called our friends Rehman and Samha who happily came to Milton Keynes to spend a couple of days with us. We had a seekh kababs session one evening and ate as much as our stomachs could fill up. Kababs were really delicious specially when we had such kababs after so many days and made them ourselves to our liking.

We visited the malls close by to do some shopping. We also visited the outlet mall Bister Village that offers nice outlet stores selling things at a bit cheaper prices than the regular mall stores.

One day we planned the whole day out to the Woburn Animal Safari. Our kids have grown a tremendous love for animals specially since they started keeping several pets at home therefore this safari tour was a real treat for them. We left early with Waseem to drop him off at his office. After leaving his office we went to the super market to get some stuff for children and some picnic for the day. The day was cloudy and rain was expected today but we had only this day before leaving for Manchester tomorrow so we just went ahead to Woburn and got in the line before its opening. There were about 15 cars ahead of us at the opening of the safari park.

We drove in at the opening time and started our car safari right away. We saw some nice and healthy animals. Giraffes, Zebras, Lions, Tigers, Monkeys to name some. We did the safari really slow as the kids wanted to spend time at each animal enclosure. The beauty of safari is that you are face to face with the animals without having any barrier or cage between you and the nature. The animals really got closer to our car and we all had good time here. Once we completed this round on the car in about 1.5 hours we parked our car to have the foot safari in which we went through tracks going through lush gardens with different kind of animals. As close to the natural habitat has been provided to the White Kangaroos, Squirrel Monkeys and many more. It was real fun when the kids found three squirrel monkeys outside sitting next to the track and they were able to touch them. These were tiny monkey of the size of a hand – very pretty.

After finishing the foot safari we saw a bird show followed by a paddleboat ride in the small lake with ducks and swans around us. There were few very small ducklings with their moms. Rain had started by now; we were lucky to have lunch break during the bird show without rain. After the boat we got in line for the train ride around the park and that’s when the real showers started and lasted until evening. We got off at a station closer to the parking and drove off for another round of the safari to enjoy and see the animals in rain. After completing the circuit we stopped at the big birds show. Although it was raining and we were the only spectators, the lady was nice to display some birds including a falcon and a big owl. As we were the only ones there she let the kids to hold the animals on their hands. One could imagine their joy at this point. It was 5pm and that was the time to pick up Waseem from his office so we said bye to the animals and drove off. One more fun filled exciting day was over once we reached home after picking up Waseem. This day ended with the famous fish n chips from Milton Keynes.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

EU trip (Holland & Belgium), Days 18

DAY 18

By today evening we would be in Milton Keynes England from where we started our first leg of the trip. The car was loaded up with all the stuff including our sleeping mats and sleeping bags those we used in our stay in Holland. It was around 8’o clock when we left from our host’s place after very warm good byes.

We came out of the city in no time as it was Saturday and most people were still sleeping. And it was hard to distinguish when we entered Belgium from Holland. Our next stop was Brussels that we planned to stop only for a few hours. Drive to Brussels was about two hours and that we completed without anything important and just watched the scenery around the highways.

First of all after reaching Brussels we stopped at the Mini Europe, which is a major attraction in this city. Mini Europe and Atomium are the two attractions next to each other. Mini EU consisted of all-important buildings of Europe build at miniature size. There was a fee to enter this park. I would rate it as an ordinary place to see, may be I was so tired of this EU trip that I didn’t really got excited about this place and all the more this trip of ours had been more of outdoors and nature dominant and this place was definitely not one fitting into the trip discription.
The Atomium was a large metallic structure that was built for the World Fair in the 1950's. This was made to celebrate the discovery of a certain atom by scientists. These were huge nine metallic balls joined with each other in the shape of an Atom. It was accessible via lifts for viewing of the city from inside the balls.
We spent a couple of hours at these two attractions and then rode towards the main squares of the city. I didn’t hear or read much about this city until I saw it but found this to be very impressive city indeed. The roads were not crowded due to weekend so we found parking very close to the main area in the city. Then off course it was all walk if you would like to see the city including the Grand Place (the main square). There were many small streets leading to the Grand Place. All these streets were full of small shops full of tourist items, eatables, clothing etc. This area was really busy with tourists from all over. We enjoyed this part of the city. In the main square there were several ancient buildings attached to each other. We also had a walk in other areas of the main city.

We had to catch a 6’o clock ferry to Dover from Calais so had to leave early as we were still 1.5 hours from Calais. So we came back to the car and drove in few more areas of the city before catching the highway towards France. The drive was straightforward and we were parked in the line to enter the Ferry with in 1.5 hours. But the Ferry was late and we had to wait for an extra hour for that.

After parking our car in the ship we went up to the deck to enjoy and then settled at one place where they had some children activities. Therefore this time was passed quite nicely as kids got their faces painted with their favorite characters and remained busy with their painting and stuff. We came out at Dover in the evening but still had a good couple of hours drive to Wasim’s place. Roads were familiar so Wasim drove happily and reached his place fairly quickly. We picked up a food order that he placed over the phone on the way. Unloading the car was done after dinner and everyone relaxed after that and was happy to finish the first leg of the trip successfully and collected memories for life.

Friday, July 24, 2009

EU trip (Holland), Days 16-17

DAY 16 and 17 - A Country of Windmills and Canals

Despite we slept almost closer to the morning light, we got up fairly early to explore Amsterdam and around. We were staying in Zaandam area and had no idea at nighttime where it was. Later we found out that it was the main place to see the famous windmills.

Once ready we drove to the city center of Zaandam, which was on the river. It was a nice walk there however we couldn’t find any information center to get some maps and stuff. One travel agent gave us some information but also sent us to the main station Amsterdam for further info. The drive was about 15 minutes through some under construction roads and a lot of zig zags. When we reached our destination it was hard to find the parking but finally we managed to find one but it was quite an expensive one.

We walked to the station for info and received all necessary advise from the young lady along with the direction maps. We decided to go to the fishing and picturesque villages before exploring the main city. Therefore after walking back to the car we drove off to the first place right on the shores of Sea named as Volendam. This was a very beautiful old village sitting right on the shores; the walk in the tourist village was very interesting. There were several shops and restaurants dotted on the Oceanside some having the sea view, selling either eateries or things for the tourists. The arrangements in the stores were very pretty and village like. The stuff that they sell were mostly different types of windmills, famous Dutch shoes models, models of cows etc. The birds here were very friendly and we all played with the little sparrows, seagulls etc. for a long time. There were small houses in the whole village joined together like artificial Lego houses. The designs did not look different from each other but pretty colors used for the finish gave them a unique look. There were canals everywhere in Holland including these small villages on the sea. Boats looked like a major mean of transport here or at least was one of the major means of transport earlier. We really like Volendam and this few hour’s trips was a memorable one.

We left Volendam and drove towards Edam another beautiful village through the smaller roads. It was a green country but in another manner. I couldn’t really compare Switzerland with Holland, as these are two distinct countries with two entirely different landscapes.  The roads other than the highways were really small but maintained.

Most of the area in this country is well below the sea level and how it has survived centuries is because of the system that they have developed to channelize the water.

Edam was also a wonderful village but different from Volendam as it had the big canal dissecting the town and then smaller canals in few streets. It seemed like a village of medieval time. Very quite and elegant but still people living in it. A few shops here and there but with a great décor. We first drove through the streets wherever we could go and then parked our car to have a walking tour that was worth the effort from tired bodies. We saw the old buildings and streets, stroll on the canal banks and enjoyed the fresh air. Luckily today was the sunny day and we could really enjoy the walks, as when we started the day in the morning it was raining but it stopped by noon since when we started walking.

The first infamous round cheeses were exported from Edam to all corners of the world many centuries ago. Traditional cheese markets take place every week during the high season, and the few remaining cheese warehouses keep the memory of this colorful past alive. Edam is a town rich with history, monumental buildings, beautiful squares, shopping streets and outdoor cafés.

It was 5pm and the shops were closing already like rest of the EU. So we drove off to go to Merken another fishing village.
Let me briefly put some more info about these villages. The historic fishing villages of Volendam and Marken are best known for their characteristic wooden houses, water sports, traditional costumes and fresh fish. Tucked away on the coast of the former Zuiderzee (a North Sea inlet), now the IJsselmeer (Lake IJssel), these villages have preserved their character for many centuries. The quaint houses, winding canals and drawbridges create a truly romantic, winsome atmosphere.
These old villages still have life in them and a very well preserved one. These people really respect their assets and in this case their history and the buildings. You could still see centuries old houses in good shape and livable condition. I found people quite simple here.

After Merken we continued driving to another village, which is on the island joined via road. Here we had to park outside the village in designated parking lots for 10 Euros as there were no visitor cars allowed in the village. The gardens here were one the most beautiful ones as we saw in Swiss but here the difference was that they have converted their small gardens into pieces of art by putting so many different kind of plants in a very artistic manner. It was one amazing sight for us. We walked around and enjoyed the village tour thoroughly. Evening was falling in so we started walking back to the car although we wanted to stay here for more time.

We were staying at one of Waseem’s friends from today for the next two nights. So we drove back to their place that was about 45 minutes from here. GPS took us straight to their location and found that they were out for groceries, usually people don’t come in time when they give a particular time but that’s not us, we are always in time, so we had to wait for 30-40 minutes for them to reach back. They were a very nice family of husband and wife with their three children. I sincerely thank them for their hospitality and for having us at their place.

The evening was spent chatting with our hosts and late at night we crashed into our beds. It was a semi camping kind of a thing as we were using our camping mats and sleeping bags on the floor.

We got up in the morning, got ready, had breakfast and left for Amsterdam on a train for which we had bought tickets the day before when we visited the station information center. Today we were planning to cover Amsterdam as much as we could despite being the rainy day. It started to rain early morning and even when we left for the station that was not too far it was still raining. We used our raincoats and continued. Train took 40 minutes to reach the main station right in the heart of the city. We had bought the full day tickets for the buses or trains for today. Rain didn’t stop at all so we came out and started our walk according to the city walking tour guide from one place to another and from one square to another.

Amsterdam was built several years ago as a fishing village and then rose to the level of one of the modern and important cities of the world. Today I see it as a run down city. This city has big networks of canals in a grid system. Must be an elegantly lay out once but now with time and age it is all getting dirty and is breaking down. There was lot of maintenance and construction going on but my views are according to what I saw and felt about the city. It’s a youngster’s city as smoking of even pot and other stuff is allowed here. So it’s a heaven for drinkers and smokers, as I would call it. Another business is thriving in this town is the sex business, as this business is rated as a trade here. We walked quite a bit in rain when we decided to have a break and for that the best thing to do was to hop on to a bus and enjoy the city while drying the cloths, so we did the same. The bus conductor suggested us a couple of places to see and dropped us off at one point where there was a flea market going on. It was pathetic by the way so we had a coffee break instead and used their bathrooms instead of paying euro a person elsewhere, we used this Euro per person towards our cofee.

We came out and started walking when the rain started off again at great pace. We kept walking in different streets, along the canals and crossed several monuments and squares. It was by afternoon when we decided to go back and get the car for further exploration. We had yet to see the famous windmills. The train came right after we entered the station so after 45 minutes we were driving our car and going towards Zaandam where the famous old-fashioned windmills were located.

We stopped just before a bridge where construction was going on and parked our car on the road and walked across. There were several windmills here making beautiful scenery. The houses were along the water and on the other side few more houses and many wind mills. We took a walk in the pretty village along the water and then through the village. There were a couple of small windmills with in the village as well. And no need to mention that there are smaller sized canals everywhere and the birds of so many kinds were in abundance all over Holland. Rain stopped and gave us a chance to explore this village and enjoy the nature. Green pastures looked absolutely amazing with cows grazing in them. On our return we saw the bridge opened up fully to let one ship go under it and that made kids very excited as well because they had not seen this before. Walk to the car took us 10 minutes and then we headed home.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

EU trip (Switzerland), Day 15

DAY 15

It was going to be a long day for us. We packed up everything into the van and I went 10 minutes ahead of the car to return the bicycle that Sajeel brought last night. This was the same bike troubling us last night and I had to stop several times to fix its tire before reaching the shop for return. It was 8’o clock at the return time. We said bye to Sohail and family and drove towards Luzern.

Luzern is a nice city with big lake as one attraction. We spent some time there to walk around and as I mentioned earlier it was just like another EU city if you are not staying there for longer time. This much time gave us a good glimpse of the city and we were able to pick a few souvenirs from there. Luzern’s main attraction was Mt. Titlis that we had explored in the last two days. We also walked around the river and saw the two very old bridges over it. Flowers were the keynote for this city as well and they had plenty of those to massage your eyes with soothing colors.

We left Luzern for Zurich. We planned to spend a few hours in Zurich before driving towards Amsterdam and would make a stop by evening somewhere for the night. The probable stop was after the Black Forest in Germany. But when we reached Zurich we had a lot of trouble finding the appropriate parking and all the more it looked to us a big city and not to be covered in a couple of hours. So we contemplated and decided against staying here. We would leave it for another visit of Switzerland and may land here to start our trip. But still we managed to drive around to have a good feel to take along from Zurich, also paid a Euro each to use the bathroom at the main station.

The next stop in mind was Black Forest, which is the birthplace of the famous Cuckoo Clocks a couple of centuries ago. The GPS was not giving us a proper stop for that so we used the wifi to find some town with in the Black Forest region and started driving towards that place. We crossed into Germany with in the next two hours of driving. The terrain, scenery and architecture changed a bit to give us a German feeling. We took a break at one service center for lunch and continued driving, as the stop was still a couple hours away. We noticed that the traffic had increased on the highways in Germany, roads were very busy by this time and it was already afternoon. We reached the town in BlackForest (Another mountainous region to be covered in another trip to EU) by 5pm. It was to our disappointment that everything was about to close there and this particular town was not the one we intended to reach. And the other town was another 90 miles away into the mountains, and we were not ready to go in an opposite direction at this stage. So we had no choice but either to continue driving or have a stop over for the night, our dream of buying Cuckoo clocks was shattered. If we had stopped then we would be wasting half a day next day while driving to Amsterdam so we decided to reach as close to Holland as possible and then stay somewhere. Our GPS was still showing a good 7 hours drive from where we were.

Anyhow we enjoyed the German highways having no speed limit and we drove really fast on some areas but could not do justice due to busy roads. And then we got stuck in the traffic for about 2 hours; this break was always a tough one for the driver as well as for the passengers. We found the road opened after a good two hours of crawling on the road. But we had some more surprises on the way, the dark clouds started gathering as far as we could see the sky. And it was not far when it started to rain cats and dogs. The rain was very heavy at times and thunderstorm was just half an hour away. It started to get very dark and the thunderstorms really got worst. But with all the obstacles we continued our journey slowly. It was quite late in the evening but now we were not in the mood to stop on the way. We called ahead to Formula 1 hotel in Amsterdam and got the necessary booking of two rooms already. The weather got worst and worst and we had to make couple of unnecessary stops to wait for the better weather conditions as the visibility reduced to zero at times. The drive was treacherous and tiring, it was already more then 12 hours since we started our journey in the morning. The weather remained like that until we finally made it to Amsterdam at about 2am and 18 hours of journey. We just crashed in our beds as soon as we reached our hotel in the Zaandam area.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

EU trip (Switzerland), Day 13

DAY 13
Morning was quite clear with some sunny start. We bought some supplies from the super market and then started off to visit Bern the Swiss capital. It is about an hour drive from Interlaken. We had left Interlaken with some very good memories and given a chance would definitely visit this place again.

The drive was alongside the lake for some time and then on a highway through the mountains towards the capital. We would be finishing our drive at Engelberg just at the base of Mt. Titlis and in the Luzern area. Mount Titlis is another famous mountain of Swiss.

We had another task in Bern to find some Halal meat for the feast tonight as my bro and his family was going to the same place via rail and would join us for the dinner. They were on the run for about a month and desperately wanted to eat something like that. After reaching Bern we parked in the main parking in the center of the city just above the main station and went to the info center for some help. Then we started our city walk to cover the major places on foot. It didn’t take us long to complete our tour, hence we started to find some Asian store for the meat. It wasn’t long when we found the appropriate store and bought some good chicken from there, and some more spices those were running out from our kitchen.

Bern is a nice little town with some great tram system in place. It has a lot of historic buildings in the city like most of the other EU cities. All EU cities are trying to sell their Art and Culture that they’ve preserved pretty well. The city tours are usually consisted of few churches, some govt. buildings, a few museums and a few parks. The architecture is very much similar to each other, to be very honest. The other thing they sell is the liberty they provide to the youngsters in terms of drinking and smoking. Switzerland in this sense is very lucky that it has something extra and that is the natural beauty but very well maintained. Bern was just another city in Swiss and I didn’t find anything really special about it. So we moved on to pass Luzern and reach Engelberg, it was another couple of hours from there.

Drive was through some highways with fairly nice views and we made it to Engelberg without anything special but we knew that tonight’s dinner was going to be a good one. Excitement ran through my spine and I couldn’t wait to eat that. We were camping tonight and tomorrow. This was a very pretty little town with a few streams and rivers going through the town. Mountains on both sides, trees and plantation everywhere, flowers filled windows of each and every house. Despite being a tiny town it had a vibrant feeling and the little main street was busy enough. The station was small but it gets busy for a couple of minutes as soon as a train arrives. We were just about the finish using the bathroom facilities at the station when we received a call from my bro that they were just about to arrive in town. What a perfect timing for us to be at the right place at the right time. So just after a couple of minutes here they were. Small World!!

We left the kids at a park to play and burn their excessive energies and went out to find a hotel for them and a campsite for us. Sohail had stayed here before and he wanted to find the same place for themselves so it took us some time to find the same hotel but finally we found it and also got the booking in it. Then we went to find the campsite and that wasn’t difficult to find either. There is only one campsite here and it is next to a hotel and a trailer park. So this facility has all sorts of flavors having all types of accommodation available. They gave us a site in no time and we were quite happy to find this one as we had a full view of a waterfall from the place we selected for us to pitch our tent.

Let me approve of this campsite being the best of all I’ve stayed at and I’ve been to several other campsites. This was best in terms of the bathroom, laundry and other facilities not from the site perspective. The sites were not bad as well but these are in EU and I explained earlier how are the campsites in EU. There was a big laundry room with drying fans in the basement. Bathrooms were excellent having all five star facilities, but for showers we had to pay 2 euro and the showers worked for 4 minutes. The place was extremely clean and they had some nice play areas for children including a small pond with wooden logs for kids to experience with bamboos to float around. Overall I’ll give full marks to this place, a very well organized and managed place.

After finding a good pitch we erected our tent and set up our beds. The evening was quite chilly and we were using our wind blockers or jumpers to protect ourselves. It was late but for us to start cooking the best dinner of our trip. Sohail and family arrived after setting them up at the hotel. We only had a small utensil to cook so we had to make two or three rounds of cooking to cook for everybody. We had all the necessary stuff to cook the meal as we cooked at home but the environment and the place added some extra taste in our food and without doubt this was our best meal in 15 days. We got fresh bread from the camp store to eat with it. An awesome evening and what a finish to a days excursion. We wrapped up and as usual Wasim did the dishes. We had a nice walk in the area to explore it further and after that came back to the tent to call it a day. Another beautiful night and another wonderful day finished. A lot of memories collected to cherish in the years to come. Good Night!!

EU trip (Switzerland), Day 14

DAY 14 – Lets Conquer Mount Titlis

We had a good few hours’ sleep as we slept late last night but still the night was quite comfortable and was not very cold either. Morning was very nice and bright. An opportunity for us to use the best bathrooms once again and we did justice to that. Breakfast was simple with some eggs and bread. Today we would go up to Mt. Titlis via three different cable cars while Sohail and family would go to another ski place on the opposite side via cable cars.

After we were ready we went to the information centre to purchase tickets to Titlis. We got a deal for three adults and three kids for 200 franks and headed to the cable car station that was just half a mile away to catch the cable car. As soon as we got in line a couple of buses came in a lot of rush accumulated behind us. To reach the top there were three stages and at each stage we had to change the cable car. First of all there is a small size cabin that took us to the first stage, it could only accommodate 6 people. The second stage was a big bus kind of cable car that could accommodate 81 standing people. And the third stage was a circular cable car that revolved around while going up and it could also accommodate about 80 standing people. There were stunning views from the cable cars at each stage, but the side windows and glass in all sides of the cable cars were badly scratched as these were used for people going up for skiing in the winters and they carry their gear and skis, which scratched the sides. On the smaller sized cable cars, there were flags of all the countries or may be flags of those countries where there are mountains and glaciers…I’m not sure about that. Anyhow we enjoyed the ride specially the kids. It took about 45 minutes to complete one side but it took us longer to finish one side as due to some problem we were hung in the air for more than 15 minutes in the third stage.

On the last stop we saw a lot of snow. It was very cold up here. There were indoor viewing rooms for people who did not want to go out. But we had purchased the ticket to the Glacier Park as well to have some fun, therefore we had to walk on the snow for some time to catch an open flying chair which took us down for 10 minutes to reach the Glacier Park on one side of the Mount Titlis. These are the similar kind of chairs used by the skiers to go up or down for shorter distances. There were six seats on one flat surface and we were six people so we all sat on one long chair. The flying chair went over glacial surfaces and crevasses; it was terrible to see those holes in the glaciers. There were snow-capped mountains all around; one would feel like at the top of the world here. This 10 minutes flying over the glaciers was very nice, and once we were dropped at the glacier park kids started to get the two rides available there. Both these rides were not like electric rides but in natural settings, one was a tubing over the glacial surface and nice carved slide that took the tube to high speed and then stopped at a place a couple of hundred meters away down in the valley, and the other one was different types of sledges and a sliding area. Both of them were very interesting. Despite being so cold children didn’t want to go back from here. Running in the snow made our feet wet and some parts of cloths were wet too, but the adrenaline rush kept us going in the cold temperatures. We moved back before getting sick because of the cold after a couple of hours of fun in the snow. This reminded us of snowing in Canada when we used to run to the slopes in a park near by, with our sledges. It was an amazing experience. We came back to the main building/station of Titlis and got some snaps outside. Then had a lunch break in the viewing room on the 4th floor. Day was absolutely clear today and all the mountains in the region were visible with naked eye or with the binocular.

We also visited the Glacier caves here that are nicely carved caves within the glaciers. There was very good lighting arrangement in the ice walls. It was a short walk but worth it.

On the way back we got down on the second stage, as there was a nice lake just 10 minutes walk from the stop. We enjoyed the lake view with stunning surroundings and took a lot of pictures in this area. This hour’s break was very soothing for the eyes due to the fresh green color around and the lake giving us reflection of the mountains. There was abundance of fish in the lake and one could see schools of fish very close to the edges also.

The next stop was on the Engelberg station from where we started this morning. This was the end of a thrilling ride to Mt. Titlis. We walked for half a mile to reach the main street where Sohail joined us and the kids got company. They all rented bicycles to enjoy on the small streets of the town and we headed back to the campsite. Iman and Hassan stayed with us, as they were not big enough to ride bikes on the hilly surface.

The site was full of life with a lot of kids playing in the play areas and running around. Our kids joined them for the fun too. The evening was very pleasant and not cold at all. We enjoyed sitting in the sun for a while, walked on the green pastures and enjoyed the clear view of waterfall just above our camp. A river was passing just behind our tent and was producing rapids and a noise that we didn’t mind rather enjoyed as the music of the environment.

Night was approaching and the rest of the gang also joined us after some time. Tonight we would be cooking Daal Chaawal for all of us. Kids went to play area while we started our cooking. Another delicious meal was served after an hour or so. The environment added a lot of tasted to it without doubt.

After the dinner we all went for bicycle ride / walked further north from our site and crossed some nice fields and golf course. We returned back when it started to get darker. One bike also started to give trouble and its wheel was jamming again and again so it was time to quite cycling for tonight. We all came back to the site and Sohail and family said good-bye and returned to their hotel. We wrapped up as much as we could, as we would be leaving this place the next morning. The night was as interesting as the previous one and we really enjoyed the bedtime talk. Another day and another amazing finish to it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

EU trip (Swiss Alps - Interlaken and Jungfrua Area), Day 11 -12

DAY 11 - 12
When we got up in the morning the clouds were still there but quite high in the sky so it was quite a bright morning and no rain but it could come back any moment. We were to drive to Interlaken today, so we rushed to the bathrooms for early morning jobs and got ready to pack up. We got lucky again as due to the break in rain we were able to clean and pack up or tent and other stuff into the van before it started raining again. We paid our dues at the small camp office quickly and moved out of this town. Interlaken was the next stop a couple of hours away but again through very scenic route. We kept following the GPS directions and ended up at a toll station that claimed 25 franks and we got loaded into a train unknowingly. This turned out to be quite an interesting experience as the train went through many tunnels and made our trip shorter by 30 miles and saved us about an hour roughly. But we came across some very nice areas and water falls falling from great heights, I can’t explain that really. We just sat in our car during this time and enjoyed the scenery or the darkness of the tunnels. As we came out of the train the drive was not much as the lake started on our left.

Interlaken is sandwiched between two lakes, the surroundings are really cool and lush. We had a couple of tough nights so thought of staying at a hotel for a day or so to do some laundry and rest. So we found the information center that told us that there was no place available in any budget hotel or hostel, however he pointed out a tent village where we could rent already erected big tents for the night. So we drove to the booking place that was a hostel too. It was full of young people. The facilities were great with kitchen, laundry, play room, TV room etc. etc. Without any hassle we got a tent with six beds reserved for us for 106 franks, it was quite reasonable owing to the fact that most of the hotels and hostels were packed up. Village was not far from the town and just 1 km from their hostel. We could occupy it not before 4 pm so after getting our place all set up we came back to the main street on bus leaving our car at the tent village, and had a complete round of the city and discovered that due to some local festivities there was a big fireworks at 10 pm. The bus pass was included in our tent rent.

We had a nice lunch / dinner at a Turkish Halal place that we found during our city tour. Food was awesome and filling. When we decided to go back to the tent and bring our car to see the fireworks we got to know that there was no bus available at that time. We got stranded but then saw a taxi, which took us back to the camp while Sajeel and Waseem stayed in the city, as they couldn’t fit into the taxi. I went with my wife and Iman and Hassan back to the camp and drove back to the city. Luckily we found a good parking spot not far from the site of fireworks. The night had become cold, and the fireworks started at 10:30pm but it was a real nice one. It was a treat by this city, and we saw fireworks in the mountains for the first time.

Late night we made it back to our camp. This is when we received call from my elder bro that they were also reaching Interlake but without any kind of booking for the night. It was about 1:30am when their train arrived, Waseem had to go pick them up. He got a tent booked for them from the hostel as well, but when they came the same tent had people already sleeping in it. Finally at 2:30am the attendant from the hostel came himself and sorted it out for us. We slept close to the morning for a few hours only.

Everyone started getting up early morning out of excitement of meeting each other. Now we had my brother, his wife and their two kids with us and they would remain with us for the next four days. This was amazing because there was no plan of meet up or for staying together when they left for EU 10 days ahead of us.

Anyhow we took showers and then prepared breakfast for everyone and had a hearty meal. The famous area of mountains in this region is Jungfrau and is pronounced as yunfrao. Jungfrau is the tallest mountain of this area. From Interlaken there are several routes of mountain trains, which take you to different mountain towns, some are car free zones like Zermatt. So instead of going to one top of the mountain train we took a circular route, which would cover Grindelwald, Kl. Scheidegg, Wengen and Lauterbrunnen. At each of these towns one would have to change the train and hop on to another color of train those are marked for different areas. These are smaller size trains with powerful engines because they have to climb mountains, when you see them from far while going uphill these seem like colored warms moving slowly on the ridges. Our train was not too crowded as it wasn’t the weekend, so we all got seats on the windows. Kids had their cousins so they were over excited anyhow. The development done in Swiss has no words to explain and admire. Their infrastructure is absolutely world class and so is the beauty given to this country by the Almighty.

And the most important thing is how they have preserved it so well. People here are very fond of flowers and plants and you see a lot of different colors of flowers and several types of trees and plants.

We got down at Grindelwald first and had a nice walk in the main and only street of the pollution free town. We also had the lunch break here, and our lunch consisted of fresh bread bought from the bakery eaten with honey, cheese and jam. Breads were very delicious in France and Switzerland and I never had such amazing tastes of breads anywhere.

We hopped on to the next available train to Kl. Scheidegg, going further up into the mountains. This was a small village with lots of man friendly goats on the station itself. What else our kids wanted, they spent a lot of time playing with them. We had a small trekking expedition from here into the green pastures offering abundance of greenery and prettiness. The walk was very easy while going downhill and was difficult uphill. The surroundings were full of fresh air, wet mountain soil, peaks, plants and flowers. Iman made some nice bouquet out of numerous colored flowers growing on each side of the small trek snaking deep into the mountains. We passed some nice water streams and freshened up ourselves with crystal clear chilled water. Temperature kept dropping as we went up into the mountains.

Our last train going back from here was at 5:30 pm and we also had to make another stop so we turned back and came to the station. We wanted to stop at the beautiful town of Lauterbrunen that is the last drivable town in the region. There was one amazing campsite named as Jungfrau Camping, what an amazing natural setting it is sitting in. There are waterfalls visible from where you camp; this was one of the most beautiful campsites I’ve ever seen in the last several years of my camping. This town was very nice and was surrounded by several other waterfalls, 72 to be more precise. A walk in the town was worth it. We came back to the station to catch one of the last trains going back to Interlaken after finishing our excursion. And from Interlaken station we had to make two trips to the Tent Village to transport all of us to the village.

We assembled and then started to cook our dinner, we cooked some rice and daal/channa/lentils combination. It was a weird combination but we loved eating it. The night was interesting. It was not that cold and staying out and cooking was a fun. After the diner we thought of crashing after a hectic day.

Friday, July 17, 2009

EU trip (Swiss Alps), Day 10

DAY 10

I opened the tent windows to admire nature, light was perfect for photography but I just looked it through my eyes, as I wanted to absorb it as much as possible. I could hear the small stream gushing through the rocks just behind our camp; the water was as clean as it could be. Water coming from the springs and glaciers is such transparent color that you only see it in the mountains, it is, as if it is cleaned by the rocks and the falls. The dew washed up green color to make it brighter, and the clouds started to gather to start a whole day rainfall. The early morning dew washed our tent surface and there were some drops seeped into the tent. What an amazing experience that was to get up in the morning in your tent in the Alps.
Everyone got up one by one and enjoyed the scenery around us.
We got ready and prepared breakfast comprising of eggs, french bread etc. and filled up our stomachs for the long day. The rain started right after that. While coming out of the site we stopped at the small cabin office and checked the forecast, it was not looking good, as rain would only stop the next day afternoon. What could stop us? We had already put on our rains coats and were enjoying the drops falling on them and making a nice sound into our ears like continuous ringing bells. We crossed the river towards the town and then had to make another stop in rain as the train crossing turned red. The train took some time to come, kids enjoyed it more than us as they were standing just next to the crossing and watching the train pass by. Once we came to the station we contemplated our decision of going to Zermatt today, as we wouldn’t be able to see a glimpse of Matterhorn the famous EU Mountain due to the bad weather. It would not be fun to take the cable car to go further into the mountains either when one could not see anything around. Anyhow we decided to stick to our plan and would roam around at Zermatt and surroundings rather then going to the higher altitude. So I bought the train tickets and we hoped onto the next available train, which ran every 20 minutes. The ride was fun and the excitement kept growing for Zermatt.

Once we reached the destination we got to know that Zermatt was a much bigger place than Tasche, so Tasche is being used as a parking lot to go to Zermatt in fact. Zermatt is a car free town and the only transport available there are either horse carts or a few electric taxis but no petrol cars are allowed. Hence there is no pollution and as it is, on the mountains with wooded slopes and glaciers in sight creating such an impressive environment. A wonderful town seems like a fairytale. As soon as we came out of the station, fresh and cool air welcomed us but off course the rain was added in it for the time being. I love rain anyhow and it didn’t bother us a bit, though Waseem was upset about it as he sees clouds and rain year round in the UK. We visited the information desk close to the station and they pointed out a few areas of interest for us to visit.

We started our walk in the rain and really admired the way flowers were hung by the windows and balconies in each and every house and building in the town. The flowers were blooming and were in several colors, one could only imagine such beauty but cant really explain it in words. The main street had shops on either side and it climbed up with a backdrop of mountains. There were nice hotels and restaurants up there. A river dissected the town into two parts. We visited the oldest part of the town dating back to 16th century having small wooden huts still preserved. Shops décor was nice and we felt like we were on a real mountain village. Window-shopping was a real fun but ended up with some purchases like souvenirs and stuff. For me outdoor stores always attracted me and I took full advantage of the rainy day.
The rain stopped for some time and then we spent a lot of time on the river bridge, from where the Matterhorn could be seen. But no luck for today, we could see most of it but the tip part, but that was good enough site for us.

We wanted to trek for some time so we crossed the town towards the mountains and at the end of the town had a lunch break with the sand witches we were carrying. Not to forget the rain had started again and the clouds were again very thick and low. The walk was pretty flat and not demanding at the moment. We came across a setup where they had the tree climbing, zips and tarzan swings. Children got stuck there so we signed up Iman and Sajeel on the children course first. They were put on with harnesses and started their adventure. I would recommend that to everyone, as it was a very good experience. They really did well and enjoyed it to the maximum. Once they completed one go of their three levels we also wanted to do the adults area. Waseem could not take care of Hassan so my wife had to quit and then Sajeel and myself went for the two hours of adventure; while Iman kept engaged herself for repeat of the levels she had completed. I couldn’t really explain the excitement, as it was a lifetime experience climbing the trees, going through zip chords up to 110 meters long. Rain had somehow stopped for some time for us to enjoy the experience. There were several different kind of obstacles some 20-30 feet or higher from the ground. Some of them went over the water streams and the river. When we completed the whole thing we had a sense of achievement for the day or rather for the trip.
Waseem had ordered some chips n stuff already when we joined them on the outdoor tables. My shoulders and arms were really tired because of the exertion, as we used those muscles in this adventure, which are hardly used in daily life. But it was full time fun and we loved it.

The rain picked up again right after we were done here. We started walking back towards the town. We saw a big group of children learning mountain biking on the way and they were small aged kids and 20-30 in number, it was an interesting sight. We rushed back to the town and started to have more peek into the stores as there was only half an hour left before they close. It was raining very heavy and continuous by now, the clouds were really dark and thunderous. But the environment was really cool and enjoyable. It was getting quite cold by the evening. So we decided to go back to Tasche. Train was in the next 20 minutes so we used the bathrooms there and enjoyed the last sights of Zermatt before saying goodbye.

Once we reached Tasche the rain got even heavier, the clouds even darker as the evening fell in. We walked to the camp and it took us just 10 minutes. But as soon as the kids got into the camp we got to know that there was water gathered under the tent as it was right above a slight depression on the ground but due to very heavy rain the water accumulated under it. The rain had been playing around with us the whole day in a positive manner and it stopped whenever we needed it to be, so we were heard again and the rain gave a 10 minutes break to do what ever we can, in that time frame.

I made a quick decision to move our tent to higher ground though that was also very wet but no water there at least. We put the kids in the car and removed the self-inflatable mats from the camp, dried them and put them into the car too. This commando action took us exactly 10-15 minutes and we were all set up at the new and better location. The rain started yet again. We parked the car closer to the tent and used the tarp to give a shelter in front of the tent for some cooking etc. It was already dark by the time this effort was over. Night was going to be definitely a very cold one. Rain was heavy and continuous. I found some long sticks from the trees to give my shelter some extra strength that worked very well and our kitchen got established under the newly built canopy. It was time to cook some quick food tonight; therefore we decided to make some nice gravy from the tinned chickpeas. Dinner was served with in 30 minutes in the tent and we had already put on the heater to reduce the cold in side. Once everything was done I removed the canopy and put an extra layer on top of the tent to protect from the rain making its way into the tent through seepage. It was an enjoyable dinner. Iman and Hassan were already asleep due to the fatigued day. Everyone’s shoes were wet and cold and I was just using the spare slippers the whole time and now my feet had turned blue but there was yet another trip to the rest room due to call of nature that you don’t have a control on. Night was very interesting and cold and noisy due to rain falling on top.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

EU trip (Switzerland), Days 8,9

All Swiss
Switzerland has been a fairytale country for me since my childhood and this was the first time we got a chance to visit it. Therefore I made sure that we were having a few days secured for Switzerland to admire its beauty. Name Alps has developed a repo of being a fairytale place with all those green mountains and cows grazing in the meadows. A big chunk of Switzerland is covered with Alps and the same range of mountains is shared with France and Austria. The most popular areas remain with the Swiss not only because these are more beautiful but also the way these have been developed and marketed in the world. Swiss remains one the most expensive places to visit due to the influx of the people visiting it. I found Swiss people generally very helpful with a few exceptions during our trip.
We were staying at Formula 1 hotel closer to Disneyland after leaving Disney very late in the evening yesterday. This place was a small village with some basic facilities. We took shower early morning to leave by 8am for our long drive to Geneva. For that we would be crossing a big chunk of France to enter into Switzerland. There are not many cities in this side of France. The drive took us about 7 hours to complete. We crossed many picturesque areas including the French Alps. The drive was a pleasure and not hectic at all. Highways are very well maintained in France and also in the Swiss, probably the best in Europe.

We had booked another Formula 1 hotel for the night on the French side. Geneva is at the border of France and Switzerland and their sister cities really merge into each other and it is difficult to identify whether you are in France or Swiss. We drove straight to the hotel but then thought of changing our booking to another hotel on Swiss side. We tried but couldn’t get a hold of the hotel reception as it kept going on the answering machine. So we thought we would go to Geneva and then will try from there, otherwise we will come back to this hotel for the night. Geneva was about 20 minutes drive from here through very beautiful green fields and low hills. Once in Geneva, we could only make out that we were in Geneva by their tram system and the number plates on the cars. One thing we noticed as soon as we entered the Swiss side is that people love the bicycles and generally are very healthy. You hardly saw any obesity in Swiss people – a very admirable thing.
We drove around to find the Tourist Info Center and got a good parking spot as well, which was a hard to find thing in this city. We parked right at the river coming from Geneva Lake and on just a 5 minutes walk from the main station and the info center. We walked up to the center and got all the info required for our trip. The girl was very nice and polite, no wonder their tourism is really developed. Those people really care about their country and promote it well. After getting info the Starbucks coffee and usage of their well-maintained washrooms was the highlight. Everyone was fresh and charged up with the Starbucks coffee when we finally came out of the café. Once we were done we started the city tour. First of all, their famous fountain in the Lake Geneva that you find in many of Geneva post cards and a walk on the shores of the lake. It is a nice city with many historic buildings and some modern areas. Being birds and animal lovers this place was heaven for the kids as there were several types of birds on the lake including the graceful Swans, ducks and off course the Seagulls. Kids loved them and didn’t want to move away from there. Next we saw some of their old monuments and the flower clock on one bank of the river just next to the park. I don’t need to mention again and again that this country is lush green. The old town tour was also very pleasant through narrow streets going up and down. After a couple of hours of old city tour we came back to the river and started our walk towards the car. It was time to find some grocery store, as we were short on some supplies. It was just 6 ‘o clock but in Europe this remained a big problem that everything closed by this time and you could only see some petrol pump convenience stores or a few others open. So as expected we found most of the city closed. At one gas station some gentleman gave us directions to one Asian store and we made it straight to that place. In the mean time Wasim realized that he left the gas lid cover and one set of spare keys at the station, so we quickly drove back and found them waiting for us at the counter. We drove back again to the Asian store to purchase some supplies that we did, and started driving back to the hotel.

Hotel was clean and was good enough for us to spend the night. Though we had some challenge finding something to eat in the evening as everything was shut down and the places those were open, were not meeting our criteria of food. Hence we had to take some French bread with honey and jam for dinner to call it a day.

Alps Waiting
We were planning to reach Tasche today, which is just below Zermatt (one of the most beautiful car free town). Tasche is the last drivable town in this area of Swiss Alps. But we would be covering Lausanne and Montreux on the way. And also would drive through Geneva to have a driving tour of the city area that we did not cover the day before.

We took the car for a wash in the outskirts of Geneva and then drove towards Lausanne. The road was very nice with some views of Lake Geneva and on the left the baby Alps, as I would call them, but with very green grape wines very beautifully lined up on the slopes of the hills in straight lines. Green color was looking very bright in the sunny day.  Lausanne is at only 45 minutes and the drive was along the Geneva Lake only, we stopped at the lake, received some information and the kids got a chance to play in the garden. They enjoyed playing in the wooden big play gym. Coop was just in front of the park so we bought some bread for the camping starting tonight. It was a nice little town on lake Geneva.

From here the highway started climbing a bit and you could see Montreux from the highway itself. Pretty views of the city but we didn’t have time to stop here as we were running late to reach our campsite in Tasche to secure one spot for us. So we continued driving up into the Alps. Spectacular scenery started from here and the mountains really showed off their beauty. Green carpeted slopes with jungles on some. Waterfalls welcomed us at many corners. Soon we were driving on the side of a river with mountains on both sides. The scenery was so absorbing that one would not notice and reached the destination in no time without tiring out. That’s exactly what happened in our case and we reached the small village of Tasche in no time. There were rivers and waterfalls around this area. The most famous mountain of Europe i.e. The Matterhorn is just above Zermatt. We finished formalities at the counter and proceeded to find a good spot to camp.

Let me fill-in for people who are like us and used to camping in North America. People may think that camping is same everywhere, however I found camping different everywhere. The camping in North America is entirely different from the one in Europe. The main difference is the privacy provided and the secludedness offered in America and Canada while camping. You could get sites with less privacy if you book late or with total privacy if you book early. A fire pit is a must at the campsite and a campfire or bonfire is a tradition if you camp. Camping in North America offers a feel of away from the city even if the sites are very close to the town, however camping in EU is like camping in each other’s garden. There are flat green patches on which everyone camps. There are no defined boundaries or numbers for each campsite. So you choose where you would like to camp and that’s it. There is no privacy or even a concept of it. So while camping here you are in the middle of a big gathering. But everyone is interested in his or her own stuff and no one bothers what’s going on under their nose in or around the next camp.

So here we were looking at green patches almost full but according to the reception there was room for many more camps amongst the others. So we found a good enough spot for us and pitched our tent. It was a green and pretty place all the more when we came from the desert city of Dubai where it’s hard to find greenery. After putting up our tent we setup beds for everyone and then the dinner preparations started. Today was the first day we were trying our butane gas stove bought from the UK. It worked very well and proved its worth, food got ready quickly and timely. Wasim went to the only village store and brought some delicious cherries and a couple of other things. Everyone enjoyed the meal thoroughly. 

We went for a stroll in the village and saw some nice old farmhouses and fruit trees. We also visited the station and came back to our camp. It was time to go to sleep now. Night was chilly and we also tried out the butane heater that Waseem purchased in UK before our arrival, it worked really well and helped us keeping our tent warm. I tucked up kids into their sleeping bags and jumped into mine to get some rest and to warm up as my hands were freezing by now.