Our trip to Europe exceeded my already very high expectations! France, Paris especially, was a feast for the senses - with historic, ornate monuments, gourmet culinary experiences, haute fashion, rich music and art experiences, enveloped in an explosion of bright, summer colors. Switzerland with it's soaring snow covered peaks, lush valleys and turquoise lakes was a completely different experience. The Swiss villages took my breath away - they can serve as a picture postcard for this beautiful planet!
This blog recounts our wonderful trip! This was our itinerary:
- Day 1: Arrive in Paris
- Day 2: Versailles
- Day 3: Paris
- Day 4: Drive to Interlaken, with a stopover at Geneva
- Day 5: Swiss Villages
- Day 6: Furka Pass, Lucerne and Zurich
- Day 7: Golden Pass Train
- Day 8: Milan
- Day 9: Drive back to Paris, fly out the next day.
Day 1: Arrive in Paris
We high fived when we got into the flight (hey, we'll take our wins when we get them!), and the rest of the flight was quite pleasant.
When we arrived in Paris, more welcome to Paris events unfolded. We were told Vihaan's stroller has gone to Amsterdam! The lost baggage agent told us with a straight face that there is only 70% chance of the stroller making it back to Paris. Further questions were answered with - we will call you. Abhishek and I bid adieu to our stroller, thanking it for all the trips it has ferried our baby.
And then there was more (to make our arrival truly unforgettable). We had booked a rental car online to be picked up from the Paris airport. When we arrived to pick it up, we found our car had been cancelled. Abhishek was running around speaking to other agencies, while Vihaan and I were standing in the scorching sun (well I was mostly running around after Vihaan, while trying to keep within a reasonable radius of our luggage). We finally got an Alfa Romeo Stelvio. Abhishek perked up after this since this car is one of Jeremy Clarkson's favorite cars (Jeremy Clarkson is the host of The Grand Tour).
We then went to a fairly large mall close to the airport to buy a new stroller. Turned out there was exactly one store with exactly one overpriced travel stroller. I guess lesser (or exactly one) option does make shopping fast, even if it is shopping with regret.
At what seemed long last, we arrived at our cute Paris apartment. Our apartment was right on Champs-Élysées, one of the most famous avenues in the world, which runs through the heart of Paris.
The vibrant environment all around - tourists walking and taking pictures, street vendors selling souvenirs, people shopping, delicious smells wafting from restaurants, got us energized inspite of our long day. We freshened up, grabbed a quick bite, and stepped out to embrace the magic of Paris!
An overhead shot of Champs-Élysées
We had a great time strolling down the avenue. If Paris is among the most fashionable places on earth, Champs-Élysées is one of the most fashionable places in Paris we saw. Ladies, gents and kids were all chic, wearing the latest trends, against the backdrop of an old and beautiful city.
Arc de Triomphe is one of the major French monuments along Champs-Élysées. It was just a few minutes from our apartment, and that was our first pit stop in France! It was commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 after his victory in Battle of Austerlitz. The Arc de Triomphe today serves as a monument to the soldiers who lost their lives in the Napoleonic wars and the French Revolution.
There are four sculptures on the Arc, each depicting different causes. One of them was particularly striking. Le Depart shows men - young and old, carrying shields and ancient weapons, depicting the citizen army that was put together during an invasion. It reminded me of the movies from World War 2, where all men - old, young and mere boys, were eventually sucked into war :(
Around the Arc de Triomphe is a cobblestone roundabout where there was traffic whizzing about. It was a poetic site - large reliefs of old men on chariots on the Arc while young men whizzed about on motorbikes around! Tom Cruise apparenetly has a scene in Mission Impossible whizzing around Arc de Triomphe as well. The speed of Abhishek's recollection made me think he has watched this movie too many times :)
Here are some sunny pictures of us at the Arc De Triomphe:
We continued our stroll on Champs-Élysées, stopping at a garden along the avenue. There were some slides here so we played with Vihaan a bit. We then left the park and went to Grand Palais. There when I was looking for water to give Vihaan, we realized we had left our backpack in the park! I sprinted back to the park and Abhishek was rushing behind me, pushing Vihaan in the stroller. Thankfully we found our backpack lying there. Whew!
Still undaunted, we continued our excursion. We took a quick look at both Palais (french for palace). Here is a picture in front of Petite Palais.
We then strolled across the Pont Alexandre ||| bridge, which spans the river Seine connecting the Grand and Petite Palais on one side, and the Invalides on the other. Paris is such a picturesque city - there are grand monuments with ornately carved sculptures every where you look! Even the police station looks so grand, you feel like the thugs inside will be in top coats! It is an extravagant bridge - tall lamps lined the bridge and a gilded statue of a winged horse led by a triumphant lady were mounted on tall pillars at both ends of the bridge.
Our final stop for our amazing first day in Paris (despite the rocky start) was Les Invalides. Les Invalides was commissioned by Louis XIV in 1670 to honor soldiers who lost their lives, and as a hospital to treat war veterans. The complex of buildings has an impressive facade housing a military hospital even today. There is a large park in the front and we stopped there to grab some snacks. Vihaan is running around with this snack box in the picture below. He also spotted a young French girl just about his age, and the two even hugged! Perhaps they were both glad to see someone their size in the stream of visitors!
Day 2: Versailles
Still undaunted, we hurriedly dressed up and set out to revel in the opulence of the Palace of Versailles! We arrived in style!
His son Louis XIV visited the chateau a few times during his youth, and after being crowned king decided to convert the chateau into a palace. As the King increasingly spent his days at Versailles, the the palace was expanded to accommodate members of the government, courtiers and others, who numbered several thousands.
Louis XIV, also known as Louis the Great, was the longest serving monarch in European history. He was a masterful ruler. He invested heavily in making the Palace of Versailles the most opulent and lavish in the land and compelled members of the French nobility to live there, and many of these members had previously rebelled against him in various coups. He seduced them to his lavish palace, prohibited their private armies, and reduced them to mere courtiers. He was very shrewd, placing intelligent commoners in important positions, judging that they would serve him better, would be less likely rebel and could be easily dismissed. Louis's victory over the nobility reduced the number of civil wars in France drastically, which was instrumental in enabling his long tenure - his success is perhaps the best validation of "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer!" Warfare was the primary policy of his government - if he wasn't fighting in one, he was preparing for one!
Pictures at the palace entrance:
The palace is spread out over a staggering 63,000 sq. ft, with 2300 rooms! Maybe there were multiple "You are here" maps across the palace - probably written in gold and framed in diamonds :)
The palace is beautiful - there are soaring ceilings decked with beautiful murals, sweeping staircases with majestic statues and gold plated ornate embellishments. The four poster bed was huge, I was thinking a courtier isn't twice the size of a poor man! Other thoughts that were going through my mind - at any one time a man can only sleep in one bed, eat out of one plate and sit in one car. Money is a man-made concept, sometimes I think people don't know what to do with too much money which is why commercialization exists. For instance, however rich you are, you cannot hoard on food - you can only eat so much, and it goes bad as well.
Musings apart, here is a picture of the soulful Versailles Cathedral, and some pictures inside the palace.
I think everyone who emerged from the jam packed castle looked happy to jump into the scorching sun to get away from their neighbor! We were happy to get some breathing room as well, and Vihaan also ran around quite a bit.
Some pictures from the gardens:
The tower needs no introduction - it is the most visited paid monument in the world!
One of my favorite pictures from this trip, with my little love:
Paris was magical at night - beautiful fountains came alive with light and music, gold colored murals on bridges over the Seine were twinkling under flickering lights, sounds and laughter floated up from restaurants along the river, young love were holding hands walking on narrow, cobblestone pathways, mature love held hands and pushed a stroller, and the youngest of all was gawking with his mouth open at everything, giggling occasionally! There is a reason for the existence of a move called Midnight in Paris :)
Smiling broadly, our hearts full with the day's beautiful sights and sounds, we walked back to our apartment. I am so glad we had an apartment right in the middle of the city - we got a chance to immerse ourselves, however briefly, in the enchanting city of Paris.
Day 3: Paris
Plus touristy spots are starting to look better in DSLRs than in person, without the crowds and potentially bad weather. Another thought worth ruminating over - in many parts of the world you no longer see anything for the first time. So there is limited opportunity for wonder, and it besomes more about meeting expectations. Compare this to Vihaan's experience - everything was new, fresh, and viewed with wonder! Vihaan's wonder has been such a joy for me to experience!
After a leisurely breakfast, we embarked on our walking tour of Paris. Walking through cities is one of my favorite parts of travel - it's nice to see the architecture, how people eat and live, visit different neighborhoods, do some shopping and have good food! We walked from our apartment along Champs Elysees towards the Louvre.
Our first stop was Place de la Concorde. It is a large public square with fountains and some large stone structures on both ends.
Our next stop was the Louvre! It is the largest art museum in the world displaying over 380,000 objects, 35,000 paintings, including the Mona Lisa!
In front of the iconic Louvre pyramid.
We almost pick pocketed at the Louvre, while we were busy taking a photo of the majestic view. Our stroller was right by us and our bags were placed on the it. Unknown to us a man slowly came close to our stroller, pretending to take a selfie, and almost pulled out something from our bag. A family sitting nearby rushed to us, and stopped the man. Whew!
We then walked to the beautiful Notre Dame cathedral. Notre-Dame means "Our Lady" in French, and fittingly is consecrated to the Virgin Mary. The castle is a fine example of French-Gothic architecture. When we visited the cathedral was closed due to extensive damage caused by a raging fire (which lasted 15 hours!). Apparently the French parliament passed a law requiring restoration to be done to match the original structure, rejecting many proposals to modernize the church's design.
Our pic in front of the cathedral:
Our next stop was the Sainte-Chappel, which was the royal chapel within the complex of the King's residence until the 14th century. It seems like every century or so French kings got tired of their digs (forget the fact that the palace was customized to their needs with grandeur everywhere, or maybe it was their grandpa's design, which is why they didn't want to settle?), and moved and built a new palace/castle. We visited at least a few - this was a King's palace, and the new identity is this - in Paris :) This is a phenomenon I hadn't seen before, India has a ton of castles and palaces, but generation after generation stayed put! We visited London the previous year, and King's didn't move around there either, as far as I remember.
The chapel is inside the castle. It isn't very big, but it is beautiful inside.
We then walked across the Seine to the northern periphery of Paris to visit the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. The Basilica was quite far from the other tourist attractions and in not a great part of town. It was also very crowded, was difficult to get to the top and had street hawkers everywhere. In hindsight, we could have skipped this attraction. The one upside of walking to the Basilica was that we could experience both the touristy and the non-touristy sides of Paris, and they are quite different, each with their own charms. On the way we stopped at a nice restaurant on the Seine and had some delicious crepes! We also bought some lovely paintings from a store along the river.
The Basilica stands at the summit of Montmarte which is the second highest point in the city (after the Eiffel Tower), so you can see it from quite a distance away. It is majestic and a bright white in color, so on the sunny day we visited, it shone against the blue sky! It is made of a white stone from the quarries in Souppes, which releases calcite when it rains, so the Basilica cleans itself!
Some pictures around the Basilica:
Our hearts full, we walked back to our apartment with the beautiful view of the sun setting over the river Seine.
Day 4: En-route to Switzerland
We said our goodbyes the next morning to our cute little Paris apartment, and drove off to Interlaken - which is at the heart of the Alps!
We stopped at Geneva on the way from Paris to Interlaken. We took the highway from Paris, and the drive was pretty pedestrian. On the way back from Interlaken to Paris, we took smaller country roads and stopped in small French villages enroute, that drive was much prettier (you will see pictures as you read on)!
Geneva has a large fountain in the center of the city - the Jet d'Eau (which means Water Jet). This is the one of the main attractions in the city. I was amused by what struck me as a stark difference between the practicality of the Swiss and the romanticism of the French - the Swiss named the most important fountain in their city Water Jet, while in Versailles each of the 55 fountains (some of which were pretty small), had a fancy name!
A picture in front of Jet d'Eau:
Day 5: Swiss Villages
Day 5 saw us visit charming villages nestled high up among soaring, snow capped mountains, reflecting off sparkling turquoise lakes on the valley floor, all enveloped in lush greenery! Some of these villages are pretty remote and you can only reach them by mountain train, cable car or on foot.
A majority of the Swiss villages started out as farming communities. Visitors started arriving in the early 19th century and hotels were built by the middle of the century. By the 20th century, tourism was the primary driver of the economy - ski aficionados flocked to the Alps in the winter, and hikers enjoyed the beauty of the Alps in the summer. I could just see Heidi and Peter running down the mountain with goat cheese stuffed in their mouths!
You can either zip to many Swiss villages by cable car or train, or choose to walk from one to the next. We choose to walk through Swiss villages, eating at local cafes/coffee shops, stopping to admire tiny waterfalls, walking down mountains and just spending time admiring the scenery. It was an enriching experience! Here we are walking down the first village, which was high up on a mountain.
If you observe carefully, the Swiss countryside is not naturally wild - you will see no dead trees, bald or bare spots in the grass, unsightly rocks or patches of weeds. Trees and bushes are beautifully trimmed, lush green mowed grass covers the countryside, and balcony planters outside cottages overflow with red geraniums. We saw huge lawnmowers mowing mountains! The government and Swiss citizens have come together to put in constant and considerable effort to maintain the environment, all while local population, tourism and pollution have steadily increased in the world. And they charge for their efforts! Switzerland is among the most expensive countries in the world! Accommodation, transport, visiting tourist spots and food all cost much more than neighboring countries.
However, reflecting on the Swiss mentality, I feel this is a good principle by which to live - live a high quality life - expect and give your best! A prime example of this is the iPhone - it is an atrociously expensive phone, but is absolutely delightful - I am a big Apple fan! Comparing our Switzerland vacation experience with mediocre experiences we have had at other places - some places were way cheaper, but there was something or the other lacking, and I cannot recommend them whole heartedly. The Swiss mentality extends to other areas as well - Switzerland has an outsized GDP compared to it's population, it has a great universities (ETH and Lausanne), internationally renowned companies - Rolex, Nestle, Novartis and the lowest crime rate in the world. Overall I loved our Swiss experience, and think everyone should visit Switzerland at least once - it is breathtakingly beautiful, and we left feeling refreshed and rejuvenated!
Day 6: Furka Pass, Zurich, Luzern
We started the day with driving down Furka Pass. Considered among the most beautiful drives in the world, the pass was featured in a car chase in a James Bond movie!
There were jaw dropping views on each turn, and we stopped quite a few times. Vihaan really liked the song "Puff the Magic Dragon", so we were all singing it on repeat all the way down :) The Alfa Romeo made for a smooth and sporty ride!
Talking about, and reliving our exhilarating drive, we arrived at the quaint town of Lucerne. Sitting on the banks of the expansive Lake Lucerne, the city has an charming, old-world feel to it - a centuries old, wooden footbridge carries pedestrians across River Reuss (a small river running through the city), cobblestone streets zig-zag through old town while church bells chimed from the majestic 16th century church alongside the Reuss.
We spent some time walking around the city (if you don't know me already, walking and taking in a new place slowly is one of my favorite things!), had lunch and coffee there. We also visited the Lion monument in the city.
Some pictures around the city
Zurich is the banking hub of Switzerland, and among the most expensive cities in the world (though after living in the Bay Area, nothing feels atrociously expensive when we travel - we are faced with those realities everyday :))
We parked across a large public square in Zurich called Sechselautenplatz. We had been sitting in the car for a while, so we were all eager to stretch our legs. There were musicians on one end of the expansive, white stone square, while a group of skateboarders were doing stunts on another side. Vihaan was captivated by the skateboarders and I think they enjoyed the little one's audience! He ran around a lot in the square and we chased quite a few pigeons basking in the evening sun.
Day 7: Golden Pass Train
The train starts at Lucerne, proceeds to Interlaken and ends at Montreaux. The journey from Interlaken starts with the train going the charming lush green Swiss countryside dotted with small mountain villages. Expansive farmlands with cows grazing are often located close to these mountain villages. The train then winds its way through mountains and valleys, hugging the banks of turquoise, sparkling blue, glacial lakes. As the train approaches Montreaux, it steadily begins climbing up a steep mountain, which is snow-capped in the winter, and then comes down precipitous rocky cliffs!
The train has gigantic panoramic windows, so the view is great! It was quite comfortable and sparsely populated. The cafe staff make their way through the train and take orders - we had some buttery croissants and sandwiches, while sipping coffee, while looking out at a great view!
We had a lovely, relaxed day!
On the train:
Day 8: Milan
Hats off to our little one, which allowed us to visit Milan. And boy am I glad we were able to visit! We had a great time for the half day or so that we spent in Milan.
Milan needs no introduction - it is one of four fashion capitals of the world (the other three being New York, Paris and London), it has prestigious museums which house prominent works of Leonardo Da Vinci, including "The Last Supper", and is the home of A.C. Milan - one of Europe's most successful football leagues.
We took the train from Interlaken to Milan. The train went over the Alps and had nice views, which were quite different from the views we had seen on the Golden Pass. As we passed by cities and towns from Switzerland going into Italy, I couldn't help but compare the two. Towns and railway stations in Switzerland look neat and organized compared to Italy where things were more messy and chaotic - clothes were hung out to dry from apartment balconies, traffic looked more chaotic, weeds were growing alongside train tracks and stations looked rundown - but, the food was much better in Italy compared to Switzerland! :) The stark differences between the two also carries over to your pocket - food, ticket costs, entry fees are much cheaper in Italy than Switzerland. We were pleasantly surprised to find we could order a full pizza in Italy for the cost of what would have covered just the cheese in Switzerland :)
We had a lot of ground to cover in the few hours we were in Milan, so we set right off as soon as we arrived. Stepping out of the impressive railway station in Milan - all ready to go!
The first place we visited was the majestic Duomo di Milano, one of the most recognizable monuments in the world and the largest church in Italy. The Duomo is built in Gothic architecture style, which is also the architecture style of Notre-Dame.
The cathedral look 6 centuries to complete! Imagine a building that your great-great(+4)-grandfather saw start, and you saw complete :)
Construction began in 1386, when the church archbishop's cousin ascended to power in Milan. Construed as a gift to the noble and working class, the start of construction of the cathedral generated enormous interest in the city and the archbishop collected large sums of money as donations. Over the next few centuries expansion and enhancements continued. In 1805 Napoleon Bonaparte was about to become King of Italy, and he ordered the facade of the Cathedral to be completed - and it was at long last! Napoleon was crowned King of Italy at the Duomo. The cathedral was finally completed in 1965.
The church has the most statues of any building in the world (3400), was worked on by 1000 workers and 70+ architects, from across Europe. A special canal was devised to bring stone from the quarries to the venue.
Pictures around the impressive, imposing cathedral!
Our next stop was Italy's oldest, and now one of the fanciest, shopping malls. It is named after Victor Emmanuel II, the first King of Italy. After all the grief ladies get for shopping too much, the least he could have done is named it after his wife! :)
We did a nice walking loop, lasting about 2-3 hours starting from the Duomo. This was our route.
We spent a nice afternoon having lunch at the Sempione Park. After that we headed to Sforza Castle, which has an interesting history. One of it's earliest occupants was a powerful family (by the name Visconti), that ruled Milan. The family was overthrown by the city residents, and the city became a republic. The city was shortly thereafter attacked by Venice, at which point a warlord named Sforza defended the city - and then he became the city's ruler, residing in the same castle!
The castle was one of the largest citadels in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. It has an imposing tower at the entrance and wide open courtyards inside which are surrounded by rooms. The castle today has been repurposed and holds many of the city's art collections and museums.