Tour of the Occident: 8. France

Day 17 Westwards

Since the train to Nice, France from Ventimiglia, Italy was one of the few for the day, courtesy of the rail strike by the French SNCF Train company, the train was packed. We did manage to find seats for ourselves as Ventimiglia was where the train started its journey.  The journey as yet on that day had been in Riviera Ligure, but thenceforth, we transitioned to Côte d’Azure (literally the Coast of Azure). This did not mean that the landscape dramatically changed from one country to the other; quite the contrary.

In reality, the two Rivieras form a contiguous coastal stretch for all practical purposes. However, if one abandoned the coast and went north at Ventimiglia, one would find oneself in the company of the highest peaks of the Alps culminating at Mont Blanc, the highest of them all. The locus of these icy peaks forms the cultural and political frontier separating the two great countries.

Europe is a very strange place when it comes to the concept of nationhood. We were to travel to one of these strange “nations” on our way to Nice. Monaco, the Goa of the nineteenth century, is one such country. Completely enveloped in the north, the east and the west by France and the south by the Ligurian Sea, it was sustained in popular imagination by two things: gambling and the Monaco Grand Prix. Only an Indian can watch a Monaco Grand Prix race with equanimity. Ridiculously fast cars whiz through ridiculously narrow lanes with ridiculously sharp curves and as ludicrously steep slopes. 2018’s Grand Prix was round the corner and the city-state was gearing up to invite it.

Only this part of the above paragraph is relevant to our journey as, as the train entered Monaco and stopped at its railway station, three women in their forties with bright eyes and weather-beaten faces became our immediate co-passengers in the train. In the past in most cases, conversation with strangers in trains had needed a finite interval of time to develop. In this case, no sooner had their persons hit the seats than one of them started engaging us in conversations. “You are from India, right?…” The trio happened to contain a Dane, a Frenchwoman and an Australian. The Australian was the most gregarious of the lot and an Indophile to boot.

She began an enthusiastic monologue with occasional contributions from Karthik, me and her two friends. The three of them had been part of the large machinery which gets the Grand Prix off and running. Their work done, they were leaving Monaco (of which, they did not have a very high opinion), for Paris. They seemed to have circumambulated the world several times over and knew more about India than in the usual Bollywood way. The Australian belonged to that tribe of people who seemed to draw life and inspiration from the chaotic order of India.

Cannes, known for its Film Festival, was an hour’s ride from Nice. Karthik and I had been toying with the idea of going there, but our new friends disabused us of our apparently ill thought scheme. “It’s all painted faces and fake smiles. Don’t waste your time there.” And that was that. They had a good opinion of Nice though, and advised us that we would use our time better if we spent it there. We assured them that we would follow their advice to the letter as we bid them goodbye at Nice Ville Station.

Our hostel was literally a stone’s throw from the station. (By literally, I mean literally: if you threw a stone from the gates of the station – and if you had a good throw arm, and if the conditions were not too windy – it would hit the hostel). We crossed the road and Hostel Antares was upon us. It was a narrow building with many floors. (It had to be. Imagine opening Leela Palace in North Chithirai Street. You can’t, can you?) We took possession of our room which had three beds and an attached bathroom. The room had an interesting luggage locker under every twin bunk bed. It was made of steel rods woven into a coarse mesh. It had the aspect ratio of a book, and like a book, had a hinge along a longer edge which could be used to open it, stuff the luggage inside and snap shut and lock it with an amukku poottu.

We left our luggage in the room and went in search of the kitchen. It was located in the basement. I could call it spic and span, and if I did, I would be wrong. Most utensils were unwashed and a good amount of searching was required to locate them. There was, however, some free rice. Since the two of us were in Kolappasi, we decided to make Pongal. The welcome change was the gas stove. Until then, we had been forced to use the induction stove which, I hadn’t quite warmed to. We quickly learnt how to use it, assembled the cooker and put it on the stove. We waited and waited. When we opened the cooker after the usual number of whistles, we found that the rice was only half cooked. One more lesson learnt, we supposed and waited a longer wait until a broth which could be approximated to Pongal was obtained. By then, it was half past three and our bellies were braying for food. We ate up the food without complaint, even a little grateful for even this luxury, and exit the hostel in search of the sea.

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The sea was one half a kilometre long road away from our hostel. This road, which seemed to a be an artery of the city, had tram lines and a lavish footpath. It was completely paved. The one wonderful thing about any part of Europe is the extraordinary respect that a pedestrian is given, and Nice was no exception. It was always a bit unsettling to find cars come to an abrupt halt even if one only thought about crossing the road. On the way, we spotted a promising supermarket called Monoprix and decided to give it custom. It lived up to its promise and we filled our day back with our usual stuff including some apricot jam which was priced ridiculously low to our delight. With jingling bags, we continued towards the famous Nice Promenade. Just before it was a huge Circle with a very large statue of what looked like a Greek God (he turned out to be Apollo).

Each city had a certain shade to it, and Nice’s was a sandy orange. Buildings, statues, pavement conformed to that shade in one degree or the other resulting in an illusion of warmth which belied the cold weather which we were currently experiencing at a windy fourteen degrees Celsius. The Circle was approached by piebald tiles. On one side was a largish fountainous area which seemed as though an array of subterranean people lay supine and blew spit bubbles at pre-arranged intervals.

Further on, and just short of the Promenade, we found an ice-cream shop and gobbled a couple under the shade of the shop as it started to drizzle. Our ice cream and the rains ran out almost instantaneously and we proceeded to the Promenade. Promenade des Anglais, translated as Promenade of the English was a road adjoining the beach. It was the arithmetic mean of Kamarajar Promenade, Chennai and Goubert Avenue, Pondicherry in almost every respect thinkable. It was not as wide as the Marina, nor as abrupt as Pondichery. It was neither as sandy as Marina, nor was it just a pile of rocks like Pondichery. It was entirely made of pebbles.

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However, the adjoining road was definitely wider than both the above-mentioned Indian promenades and sufficient walking lanes were in place to help people enjoy a stroll. We walked along the length of the beach all the way to the eastern end from where we could climb up a little hill. Our hostel receptionist had confidently said that there was a lift up the hill which we could use. However, a sign outside it said that it had been in a state of disrepair for a while. “Than kaaley thanakkudhavi,” they say. In any case, we said that to ourselves and began climbing. Two Euro-hungry binoculars later, we were at the top of the hill at the famed view-point from which the entire city of Nice between the Alps to the north and the sea to the south could be regarded all the way up to its western end where lay the Airport.

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From atop, we saw a lone swimmer get into the water a swim what looked like half a kilometer away from the shore and return back. After enjoying the view for a reasonable period of time, we descended to the shore (“bayangara slope”) and took a route through the narrow lanes of Nice to see what the city was like. It was clearly brimming with life. Every restaurant and pub was replete with humanity (especially the latter). On the way, we covered what looked like the town hall (a large and impressive edifice), and several churches into one of which we entered. But for the language of the sign boards, the architecture and iconography was similar to those in Italian churches (which is probably to be expected as both followed the same Roman Catholic faith).

We also walked through a park in a road parallel to the Promenade. Here we found a young woman sitting by herself in a park bench and sobbing noiselessly into her hand-kerchief. Although the park was bustling with humanity, people did not intrude in her misery. I wondered how people would have reacted to a solitary weeping girl in India, on a scale of Madurai to Chennai. I decided that people would have either surrounded her and offered to take her home or call her dad, or might have not even noticed her at all. I don’t really know which is worse.

We eventually reached the Promenade once again and this time, hit the beach. We had brought a change of clothes in the vain hope that we would be able to take a dip in the ocean. At fourteen degrees Celsius, it was all we could do to keep our teeth from typewriting. We found a couple of convenient rocks to seat ourselves and set out to finish our dinner. We washed a couple of green apples (which we had purchased at Monoprix) in the ocean and had a dinner of bread, jam and apple. The washing of the apple had to be accomplished by wetting my feet in the ocean in the course of which process, I first felt a thousand needles prick my feet and then my feet went numb.

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I felt sad for Europe. The poor Europeans, except for some strange people like that solitary swimmer, had but a narrow three-month window in an entire year to enjoy their pristine beaches whereas we Indians choose December of all months to flock to Goa. With dinner coming to a close, we started walking back to our hostel. On the way at a distance, we came across a statue strikingly similar to Kannagi the Arsonist holding the Silambu.

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It was past eight thirty now, and darkness started to set in in earnest. We reached out hostel and found that our room-mate, a Russian aged above sixty had arrived and was busy having his packed dinner. He tried to tell us something. But, we had no common language and so could not understand what it was that he was trying to convey. Eventually both parties gave up. By the time we showered and went to bed, he was already snoring.

Day 18

This day the fifteenth of May, a merry Tuesday, we woke up leisurely, by which time, our Russian mate had cleared his bed and himself. The hostel had promised some breakfast (which was a welcome surprise, as hostelworld.com, the site in which we had booked the room had not mentioned such a perk). We rounded up our possessions, had our breakfast, went downstairs to the kitchen to collect and dismantle our faithful cooker which we had left there to dry, and started our walk across to the station. We gave a healthy cushion of nearly forty-five minutes (given past experiences) and reached the station by quarter past nine itself. There in the very first platform stood the TGV (Train Grande Vitesse, translated as High Speed Train) to Paris.

This was one of those trains we had reserved in advance (which was a requirement for TGVs). The distance between Nice and Paris is roughly the same as that between Bangalore and Mumbai (around 950 km). There is a KSRTC bus to Mumbai from Bangalore which takes well above fifteen hours to cover the said distance. The train route is, and takes, even longer. But the TGV promised to deposit us in Paris in less than six hours for a relatively paltry 15 EUR for reservation which, Vaishnavi had secured for us more than a month previously in Stuttgart itself.

We clutched our reservations which told us the train number and the seat numbers and regarded the serpentine train which stood in our platform. The train number in our tickets and that on display on the train did not match. We asked a train official who stood wearing the SNCF scarf how to resolve this, and she pointed to our left, further along the platform. We went where she pointed. After we had crossed a few compartments and what looked like an engine, we found that many more compartments continued from the engine on the other side as well only, the train number on these matched that on our ticket. We located what looked like our compartment and took our places in the allocated seats.

The train was jam-packed. All compartments were double-decker with two plus two seats all of which seemed to be reserved without exception. Even those which looked empty had the reserved sign glowing which meant that a passenger would fill them at a later station. The train started westwards. as we were trying to settle down at our seats, an American couple came over to us informing us that we were sitting in their seats. Whereas the gentleman was courteous and civil, the lady was brash and loud. From the first instance, her tone was accusatory and condescending. We dug our heels and double checked with our fellow passengers if indeed what they claimed was correct. It turned out to be so. Our rightful compartment happened to be the neighbouring one and since I could not interpret the sign on the outside properly, this error had occurred.

There is nothing more humiliating that being told we are wrong by people who think they own the world. While we were trying to clear our seats and move to compartment, the lady tried to hurry and shoo us to add insult to injury. As tempers rose, her husband intervened and diffused the building tension by taking his worse half for a short walk and apologising to us. Was it classism? Or was it racism? I don’t really know. From the available data, I would say that it was plain old rudeness.

After this avoidable bit of unpleasantness, we found the seats which were undeniably ours for the remainder of the journey in the next compartment and prayed to Azhagar that we would not be made to undergo another mortifying eviction (Poor Azhagar, what will he do if I don’t locate compartments properly?). He gave us our wish, and the rest of the journey passed in peace and harmony with another couple with whom we shared the two plus two.

The promised high speed did not arrive until we hit Avignon. There, the train finally turned north from its initial westerly course and “showed me the meaning of haste”. From there until it reached Paris, it did not so much as slow down for a cow to cross. It by-passed every town and city it would otherwise have been obliged to pass. For those six hundred odd kilometers all I saw was fields and pastures, the occasional mountain, fifteen cows and three people. It did not quite exceed three hundred like the German ICE. The maximum speed it managed was two hundred and ninety-five kmph. But it made up for this lacuna by sustaining this high speed for most of the length and by three forty, we were at Paris Gare de Lyon station.

To understand the general layout and workings of most railway stations in Europe we had extensively relied upon the seat61 blog. https://www.seat61.com/stations/paris-gare-de-lyon.htm was thus a very useful resource from which we learnt that a Monoprix supermarket lay right across the station. We made a beeline for it (it called itself Monop’) and stocked up with dairy products. We returned to Gare de Lyon and located a staircase which would take us underground to the Paris metro station of the same name.

A patient perusal of https://www.seat61.com/Paris-metro.htm made it crystal clear that we should buy a carnet of tickets (a bunch of 10 exchangeable tickets valid for a period of one year from the day of purchase). On an underground atrium of sorts we found a number of vending machines disbursing tickets. However, we chose to transact with the lady behind the ticket counter, to be on the safer side. This turned out to be a good idea as she gave us a complimentary map of the Paris metro and bus systems which came in quite useful.

We had corresponded with our hostess and got instructions on which metros to catch and where to get down. Gare de Lyon is a large metro station with several metro lines crossing it. So, we chose the line to Saint-Lazare metro station with patience and mimicked a fellow passenger at the gate by feeding our ticket to a small slot. It gobbled it up and farted it out on the other side with a tiny date stamp on it. It also opened the gate and on we went. After a nearly five minute walk we went to our platform and the train pulled up. It was jam-packed and we only made it worse with our ample luggage.

Even then, it was becoming increasingly apparent to me that Paris was different from every other place I had visited. For the first time in the entire trip, I felt that we were melting in a pot without sticking out as we had done elsewhere. Just before the train reached its stop, the speaker in the train would announce its name once in aarohanam (madeLEINE) and a few seconds later in avarohanam (MADEleine). We got down at Saint Lazare along with a hundred others and started to follow the sign boards which pointed to the platform of the M13 route.

Each route was colour coded and signboards were plentiful. Sometimes, the same route ended up in two destinations. For example, the M13 had trains which went to either Asnières Gennevilliers or to Saint-Denis. One had to be careful in knowing which direction to choose. As instructed by our hostess we chose the M13 – direction Asnières Gennevilliers. The train which had been sticking to below ground level broke into the sunshine to cross the marvellous river Seine, after which it hurried back below the earth.

We got down at the Gabriel Péri station. In one of the nearby suburbs of Paris called Asnières we had booked a room for ourselves. It was a little past five then, and the sun was positively Madurai-ish. After a short walk, we got to our place which was located inside a quiet gated community which shared a wall with a quieter cemetery. After the high decibel hustle of Paris proper, this was a welcome contrast. We met our energetic hostess outside her house where she was engaging a flock of mischievous children.

She had informed in our earlier correspondence that she would not be able to check us in before six, and so, we waited for an hour in her backyard during which time we downed a large number of strawberries which we had procured in the platform kadai in Gabriel Péri station (Paris was very different). Once her day job, which was that of a nanny, got over, she came over to us and gave us a tour of the house and laid down the rules. She was by far the most engaging and warm of our hosts until then. Ever smiling and ever ready to help, she gave many tips and pointers on how to enjoy Paris.

Sir Google was of the opinion that sun down on that day was not due before nine thirty PM. That meant that three and a half solid hours of sunshine lay ahead of us. We decided to wash and have dinner as quickly as possible (she allowed us to cook in her kitchen) and hurry back to the city. By the time we had done all this, (noodles for dinner), it was almost eight and the sun was still a merry yellow. We rushed to Gabriel Péri and caught the M13 back to the city. We got down at the Invalides station on the southern bank of the Seine. We started walking past the expansive lawns of the Invalides area towards the crowning glory of Paris which the locals had famously hated when it was erected.

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Eiffel Tower was about two kilometres away from the Invalides and we chose a scenic walk along the southern bank of the Seine westwards. The river, like every other river in Europe was fertile with water and had dedicated walking and cycling lanes along both banks. Much Parisian life seemed to revolve around the river which, unlike in other places, did not just cut across the city, but coursed through it in a serpentine fashion so much so, that if one got from a north-western suburb in Paris to a south-eastern area, one could cross the Seine nearly 5 times.

We eventually got to the gates of the Eiffel tower which had been dominating the horizon for most of our walk. It was around nine when we took our place in the queue to the security check. Karthik got security cleared first and then came my turn. What ignoble signs the guard saw in me, I shall never know. But he gave me and my bag a thorough check at the end of which my Swiss knife and lock lay on the table silently shouting “Culprit!” at me. The guard refused to let me in unless I lost these two equipment. He spoke English as fluently as I spoke Russian (which was, not at all). I half gesticulated, half killed the French language to ask him if there was a luggage locker. He shook his head decisively. I told Karthik, who had been observing this drama from the inside, to wait there until I found a solution and headed towards a nearby park.

Just before we had left our room, we had met our fellow inmates: a Brit who looked like the guy who played Watson in Sherlock, and a middle-aged Frenchwoman (with a haircut which my friends variously described as a Bob cut, or Straight Bangs, or a Bob with a Bang) from Bordeaux on business whom our host knew intimately as she was a regular. We had had a very interesting conversation with the latter who apparently had many Indian colleagues as part of her employer’s overseas arm. The minutes of that meeting include the story of some Indians who had come on site to Bordeaux, and gone on a wine-tasting tour. Our friend had warned them that they were supposed to spit out the wines that they tasted. But her very Indian colleagues had thrown caution to the winds and downed all that had been offered them with the inevitable result that they had lost most motor skills by the fourth tasting.

She explained how differently Indians and Europeans worked with the latter sticking mostly to business and not revealing so much as their marital status and the former starting the work day with last night’s dinner, the kids’ school admission etc. She related these stories and opinions, not with disdain or superiority, but with curiosity and interest. She also told the story of how she had been absolutely flummoxed when she had first encountered the Indian Yes-shake of the head. We repeated the Indian head shake tutorial that we had given the sky-diving German two weeks previously.

More to the point, she and our hostess had been unanimous in declaring that Karthik and I were to be very wary of pick-pockets, especially in the area surrounding the Eiffel Tower and Champs-Élysées. Considering this advice, what I was about to do cannot be described as anything but foolhardy. But that’s what I did. I located a path in the park which was reasonably deserted and buried the Swiss-knife and the lock beneath a bush, all in broad daylight. Since it would be dark by the time I got back, I chose a place near a lamp-post so that I wouldn’t have trouble locating it.

I rejoined the queue and was this time granted entry by the same guard. There was an even longer queue outside the entry ticket counter for the lift up the Eiffel Tower. This was not good, as we wanted there to be at least a little bit of daylight when we went up the tower. Fortunately, there was another entry to the tower which was practically empty and cheaper to boot. This was for those who chose to climb up the steps to the second floor of the Eiffel tower, and by lift from there to the top. Just before we started climbing, I asked the ticket checker how many steps there were to the second floor. “Seven hundred”, she answered. It sounded like a very small number and we started climbing with gusto.

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By the two hundredth stair, seven hundred started to look like seven thousand. The long queue outside the lift ticket counter for a sum EUR 8 dearer started to make complete sense. We got to Floor One and clicked away a few photos. The sky was only then starting to dim. A look down from even this height wrung my bowels. We continued our upward march, and arrived palpitating at Floor Two. Here we were joined by a much larger crowd which included the nogama nongu thingara lift-folk. The carpet area of this tower was large enough to accommodate all of us. Even from this height, most of Paris and the Seine’s many convolutions were visible to us. But we quickly joined the queue for the lift further up. Fortunately or unfortunately, the lift was the only way to get to the top of the tower. We were flanked by a chatty group of young women who kept up a constant stream of conversation in Hindi. We could as well have been at Qutb Minar.  A good fifteen minutes later, we entered the lift which zoomed up to the top. The top was the shape of a square with chamfered corners (which makes it an octagon). It had a high enough parapet and was completely meshed. If people with a suicidal bent were to visit the top, they would have to equip themselves with a blowtorch and a power source both of which, I was sure our friend at the gate would object to.

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Natural light had ceased some minutes ago and the city was illuminated with its many street- and other lights. We came around the octagon and consumed the many views that each side afforded us. On one side the meandering Seine could be seen, its path illuminated by many lights. Two huge searchlight kind of things (the kind that would have been used to light the Bat-signal) cast their piercing beams through various parts of the city as they rotated round and round. The centre of the octagon had a display of a mannequin (presumably Gustave Eiffel) seated on an easy-chair along with another similarly seated mannequin (whose identity I know not). There was also a hole in the wall where a chirpy guy sold champagne (some of it was glowing in ways I would have never expected consumables to glow) at such paltry sums as twenty euros a goblet.

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Even at this advanced hour (well past ten), the top was packed to capacity. It was all we could do to find a patch of the parapet so that we could take photos which did not include body parts of strangers. Large groups often froze the free flow of people through the corridor by suddenly deciding that they would take a selfie then and there. In spite of all of this, the crowd was extremely upbeat and largely well-behaved. Convinced that we had squeezed all that was possible to extract from the Eiffel Tower’s many floors, we joined the queue to the lift downwards, and fifteen minutes later, we were plummeting down, two stairs at a time, to ground zero.

As I neared Mother Earth, qualms about the safety of my little treasure buried under a bush in a busy park started to resurface. What if a morally ambivalent Parisian had seen me hide it? What if the park had been closed? What if a dog had found it? After all, dogs were the primary source of irrigation for lamp posts. This last thought doubled my pace, and in no time, Karthik and I had left the Eiffel tower enclosure and entered the park. The park was deserted, but open. I located the alley and the lamp-post and rummaged in the bush underneath. Something glinted and relief swept over me. Both the knife and the lock lay where I had left them – unharmed and spared by all the dogs of Paris and beyond.

As I pocketed the stuff and started to walk out of the park, we heard a collective “Ah!” and we looked up. The Tower was lit up with serial lights which sparkled dynamically from head to foot of the tower, making it look like a many faceted diamond jewel reflecting moving light. This went on for a good five minutes and, when it stopped, we could hear people on the Tower and around it cheer enthusiastically.

This serial illumination of the Eiffel tower was a phenomenon that occurred on the hour every hour from eleven PM until one AM for a duration of five minutes. We had seen the first of these and decided that, unmindful of the tardiness of the hour, would see the midnight illumination too. Our hostess had told us that the Pont de la Concorde, one of the several bridges across the Seine would be a nice place to spy the Eiffel tower from. This was some distance from the tower and involved a walk a metro ride.

We climbed out of the metro hole into the Place de la Concorde. It was a large square with many statues and lawns. On one of the sides of the square was a giant wheel rotating happily at this ungodly hour. Paris seemed to lie awake for a very long time. We walked across from one end of the Place de la Concorde to the other end where lay the bridge. At that time, I did not know that this place with its many statues (of horses mostly) had been built by Louis XV whose grandson, Louis XVI, would later be deposed and killed in the name of Revolution, and that this very square would ironically be used as a guillotine arena (at which time it would be called the Place de la Révolution) to execute him.

However blind we might have been to history and irony, we could not be so to the traffic which was ample at nigh on eleven forty-five PM. We crossed some busy roads and eventually reached the bridge. The Eiffel tower was clearly visible from there in normal illumination. Indeed, one would have to be extremely busy or preoccupied to miss the structure which had inspired many a poet and a cell phone tower engineer, what with its rotating searchlights screeching.

Day 19

As the clock struck twelve ushering in Wednesday the fifteenth of May, the serial lights started to dance as they had done an hour previously. It was a satisfying sight and a different perspective from the one we had had up close. We walked across the bridge to the Invalides station and retraced our now familiar path to Gabriel Péri and our lodging at around one AM, and crept to our bed and slept like babies.

We woke up late next morning – how late, I can’t recall. But when we did wake up, the Sun was shining brightly. We came down to the kitchen to make some breakfast and tea during which time we chatted away with our most excellent hostess and formulated a plan for the day. I had downloaded an app by the travel guru Rick Steves and downloaded a couple of Paris playlists. This is how it worked. We had to follow the written instructions and turn up at the place mentioned and turn on the audio. Rick Steves’ voice would guide us from that point and give us directions to explore a list of places (also found in the app) and tell the story of each place in an engaging and informative manner.  The walk we started with was called the Historic Paris Walk. The map we followed can be found in podcasts.ricksteves.com/pdfs/map-historic-paris-walk-AT.pdf .

We said goodbye to our hostess and her brood of squealing children and proceeded in the direction of Gabriel Péri metro station. After a change at Champs-Élysées – Clemenceau station, we resurfaced at Hôtel de Ville. It was not a hotel, as the name suggested, but Paris’s Corporation office where people presumably came to complain about bad roads and clogged sewers. It was a grand building with flamboyant architecture and many windows. It lay on the northern bank of the Seine. But we were headed to the Srirangam of Paris which lay across the bridge. The Seine forked out and rejoined 750 metres later leaving in between an island called Île de la Cité.

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This was Paris in its infancy. This was the nucleus from which the Metropole had grown

to its present size and stature. In keeping with its vintage, it was home to some of Paris’ oldest and most venerated buildings. The Notre-Dame Cathedral topped the list, and that’s where our audio tour began. It was a beautiful monument. I know so, because Rick Steves held our hands as Karthik and I bumbled on the way he showed sharing earphones to avoid losing sync. The tour covered the history of the Cathedral (almost 900 years old) and the architecture of the facade and the interior, the exteriors, the tinted glass, the gargoyles, the Apostles, Our Lady, Her Son, Heaven, Hell and everything in between.

Our narrator also explained how the edifice had been erected after razing a Basilica which had stood there for some five hundred years by a King named Louis (why French Kings refused to be named in any other fashion is beyond me). Behind the altar, small glass displays of people hauling large blocks of marbles using medieval pulleys helped illustrate Steves’ stories.

We started from the facade, entered, did an internal tour, exited, and walked along the southern wall of the Cathedral which during the French Revolution had been re-christened The Cathedral of Reason. With Reason disposed of in the title, the revolutionaries cut off heads of statues, destroyed the art and generally let the monument fall in disrepair until it was restored in the eighteenth century (following the success of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) by the restorer Viollet-le-Duc who left a statue of St Thomas the Apostle modelled on himself at the base of a tall spire for all to see.

All this and more did Rick Steves say, and led us further along the road to a more sombre place called the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation. Dedicated to some two lakh French people who had been deported during the Second World War, it lay facing the Seine at the south-eastern end of the island. Designed to fill the visitor with solemnity, the memorial lay a few feet below ground level with a small opening at its tip giving us a prisoner’s view of the Seine. On the other side were two rooms with inscriptions and a hall full of two lakhs lamps, each burning symbolising the spirit of the equinumerous people who haven’t been heard of since the dark days of the War.

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The audio them led us past a bridge across the Seine to Mainland Paris south of the Island and through many an alleyway, showing a Gothic church even older than the Notre-Dame here, and a park there. Soon we were again in the banks of the Seine at a curious little bookshop called Shakespeare and Company. An oasis in a desert (strictly in an anglophone sense), it was a bookshop which sold only English books. This was like finding a Hindi Bookshop in Anna Arivalayam. Of all the places in Europe we had yet been to, France was the least receptive of English (Germany was nearly as English-deaf). The bookshop had been famed for having given refuge to writers-in-the-making such as Ernest Hemingway and selling books that had been banned in the UK and the USA (including DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover) But here we were in arguably the most ancient part of Paris and a shop presumed to peddle only English books. A look into the price tag disabused us of any tiny inclination we might have had to buy books.

After spending a good amount of time in its many tiny rooms, all filled with books, we came back to sunshine, walked through the so-called Latin Quarter with its narrow alleyways the stones with which they had been paved had once been weaponised (Rick Steves told us) against the Police in an earlier era. Then we walked back across to the Island to a place called St Chapelle and joined a security-check-queue to enter it. This was because the premises also housed some arm of the law enforcement of the city. In any case, we did not deign to enter the Church which lay inside the premises (Entry was charged) and satisfied ourselves with enjoying the exterior which, frankly, couldn’t hold a candle to Notre-Dame. We quit the island and reached the North bank yet again, as our next stop lay only a few paces away from there.

By then, we were quite hungry. It was well past two and the bright sun was starting to tire us. We located a park bench on the banks of the Seine which seemed to have a bit of shade and munched on a large number of slices of bread and jam listening to a nearby saxophonist’s soothing rendition of an unknown song until we were ready to saachufy the kattai there by the river. However, this was certainly not an option, as we had an extremely important action point to close.

A short walk westwards along the north bank of the Seine and we were at a structure which seemed to occupy most of the horizon, if you looked its way. The Louvre stood, wider than it was tall, and grander than it was old. A few gates later, we were in the Louvre’s version of a naalukattu mutram. In the very middle stood an enormous glass pyramid with a maze of fountains around it which made it impossible to avoid anything but a zig-zag route to the pyramid. Which begs the question, why go there at all? The reason was – for those who have not read Dan Brown – the entrance to the Museum lay beneath the pyramid. Predictably, a long queue stood outside the entrance a part of which we became, and got security-cleared in due course of time (I had left the Knife behind in the room; the nearest bush was at least a kilometre’s walk away).

We descended the stairs beneath the pyramid (below which there was a pyramid below which there was a pyramid below which…) and reached a large Atrium which had all kinds of ticket vending counters, information counters, eateries, restrooms and what-not. We headed for the first of these and pocketed a couple of entry tickets. An audio guide was available on payment of a larger fee. But we were equipped with Rick Steves’ Louvre Museum Tour. After the success of the Historic Paris Walk audio tour, we were itching to try this one out.

As Steves explained, the Louvre is the largest art museum, and the third largest palace, in the world. Built as a castle by French Kings (for a change, not named Louis) in the twelfth century CE, the fortification was shed as Paris became a Metropolis and the Castle became a Palace, and an expanding one at that (a building was appended to it as late as in the 1980s). Various French kings added to the large collection and curated the collection with care. But somewhere along the way, the palace was overrun by the “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” gang. If the Place de la Concorde was the epitome of how Right to Life was dispensed with, the Louvre is the embodiment of the defenestration of Right to Property. This was neither the first time, nor would it be the last, that such excesses would happen (Cough-Russia-Cough). In any case, after Napoleon crowned himself (a portrait of which can be found in the Louvre and the story behind it, in the audio), he added vastly to the collection of the museum, and ever since it has mostly beefed itself up through the munificence of private benefactors.

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It is just not possible to cover the museum in one shot. It is like hoping to eat all Deepavali snacks on Deepavali day itself. If you try, you end up with an upset stomach (True story). There is just way too much to see. Rick Steves had taken the liberty of choosing a route for such absolute philistines as ourselves who knew nary about western art. He took us through a chronologically cogent route. He started with the Egypt and its art (probably “acquired” when Napoleon – and Fourier – lorded over Egypt). Then came the Greek, and eventually Roman, art. (I was thrilled to see the bust of the stoic Marcus Aurelius). Steves taught us what was static and what was dynamic in a sculpture. Until he pointed the differences out, I had thought these were terminologies that art historians made up to justify their salary.

After (or during the late) Roman times came the Dark Ages and one could see why they were called so. All faces in a canvas of this period started to look the same and objects near and far seemed to be no more than scaled versions of the same shape. In Steves’ words, these paintings lacked “depth”. I really understood what he meant by depth only when the Dark ages gave way for the Renaissance. Here, objects far away actually seemed to be far away and not just small. Look at the photos below and you can’t fail to notice the difference.

The latter of these photos is easily one of the largest canvases anywhere in the world. It was painted on a sheet the size of Sathyam Theatre screen (with Jesus Christ in the middle of a positively raucous wedding) and lay facing a disturbingly small portrait which hung alone on the opposite wall. A glass wall separated Mona Lisa from us lesser mortals. The distance added to the impression of minusculitude. Rick Steves acknowledged that after all the fuss that people generally make about A3-sized Mona Lisa, it is a disappointment to regard it in real at last to most people. But he pointed out some characteristics of the painting which, he said, made it unique. One of those was the fact that one could not find the edges of her mouth which formed what, for want of better word, was called a smile. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have brought with him the Mona Lisa to Paris when King Francois I of France invited him there. Da Vinci apparently continued to work on it in Paris. It is said to have been added to the then growing Louvre collection in the year 1518, a year before the painter’s death. There it would remain for nearly four hundred years until an Italian patriot stole it in 1911 and was caught a couple of years later when he tried selling it to Uffizi Gallery in Florence. All for a fatuous painting of a lady with a vacuous smile. (“Blasphemy!”, I hear you cry. I had warned you that I’m a philistine.)

The museum tour also included French monarch’s crown jewels and tea things. By now, our feet were weeping for sympathy. But we coaxed them to bear (with) us just a bit more as we went in search of a possibly India section. All we could find was an Africa-Asia section in which – there is no subtle way of putting this – there was no Indian exhibit. Whether it was because they are stuffed in their vaults because visitors rarely go in search of Indian works of art, or because the French had not had the liberty of plundering India the way the British had had occasion to do, I leave it for the reader to infer.

Eventually, we returned to the Atrium and visited the bakery and ate some croissants. After that, it was time to find a metro station. Since the metro by definition was below the ground and the Atrium was too, the two had got together and conveniently built a station under the Louvre itself. From there, we got a train to Concorde and thence to Abbesses along the M12 route. Abbesses was the nearest station to Paris’ own Parangimalai called Montmartre. I had read of it in, of all subjects, Chemistry where the place had been introduced to me as an ancient gypsum mine and the reason why “Plaster of Paris” was called that.

The peak of Montmartre could be reached by foot, or through a funicular which ride was covered by our metro tickets. As had become the habit of Paris ever since we got here, Karthik’s ticket was thankfully received by the ticket slot, but when I put it into the slot in my gate, it refused entry with an embarrassing beep. After a few anxious moments, I was granted entry when I tried getting through the same gate as Karthik. The funicular was packed with tourists of roughly our age, and the way up was ridiculously short to warrant a funicular. On the way up we saw a tiny little pub where a guitar clad man was entertaining his audience with, I must say, very beautiful music.

In the climax of Thiruvilaiyadal, Parvathi (played by Savithri) tells her prodigal son Murugan that from that day, he, Murugan, shall be known as the one who resides on all hilltops. In Europe, this is roughly true of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Completely unsurprisingly, we found a Church at the peak of Montmartre. The Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur (Sacred Heart in English) was a large one with expansive steps leading up to it. These steps were used by the devout to unite with God and by the heathens to squat on and gape at Paris.

Our hostess had assured us that the view of Paris from atop the hill was one of the best. This, we would have consumed as gospel truth if we had not been to that other city called Florence. Granted, Paris was a most excellent city, but it was also a very large city and the sight of buildings extending to every corner of the horizon did not inspire the amount of awe that had been promised us. Besides, sunset in Paris was an hour later than sunset in Florence which meant that we would have to stay there until nine thirty. Since that was nearly three hours away, we decided that we would do a survey of the mountain and descend by foot. The survey included a peek into the Basilica and a stroll through the food street nearby. In this, we had Paris’s famous crêpe which is a kind of dosai with sugar in the batter. I can’t claim that I enjoyed it, but we were hungry and it went a tiny way in remedying that state of affairs.

We walked down the hill along roads meant for vehicular traffic (which once again begs the question, why do you need a funicular?) and reached another nearby metro station called Pigale. Here we found a Monop’ supermarket and restocked on the usual essentials. Before descending to the station proper, we sat on a couple of seats at a nearby bus stop and finished dinner amidst all the traffic and humanity. So hungry were we that we did not even notice that a poor soul sat right next to us not getting into any of the buses which came and went. Almost at the fag-end of our dinner, he morosely remarked “Bon appetit”, and walked away. Should we have offered him a slice, or would he have taken umbrage if we had? I will never know.

After our very public meal was over, we went through a trapdoor into Pigale metro station and caught the M2 and got down at Arc de Triomphe station. In Europe, the Idea of France or the Idea of Germany is inextricably linked to the language spoken by the majority there. (That begs the question, why a separate Austria etc? Hitler asked this very question and the rest is history.) There are other factors that go into nationhood as conceptualised by each country, such as religion (Protestant or Catholic). But the overriding consideration is language. (Switzerland is one country which defies all these metrics of nationality. If anything, autonomy is an idea which the Swiss can be claimed to be historical adherents of.)

Every city which claims to be the capital of a nation has a monument dedicated to the soldiers who fought wars at the cost of their lives to protect what constituted that country. We have our India Gate commemorating Indian lives lost all the way from the First World War. The Germans have the Brandenburg Gate of Prussian Vintage, the British have the Trafalgar Square, and the French their Arc de Triomphe (Arch of Triumph). The monument was built in the days of Napoleon to commemorate one of his many victories. (This was also roughly the time when its British and German equivalents were raised.)

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It is quite a tall structure with a paid lift that lets you get to the top. Karthik who went up, reported a breathtaking view of the immediate city. The Arch lay at the centre of twelve ramrod straight roads that radiated from it. I chose to do a couple of rounds of the Arch from ground level. The walls of the Arch had names of dead soldiers and on the floor there were many plaques which had famous wartime pronouncements. In the middle lay interred the remains of an unnamed soldier who had lost his life during World War I. The plaque that interested me the most contained the excerpts of a speech that Charles de Gaulle had given from the United Kingdom through radio in 1940 spurring the French Resistance to defy the Nazi Regime which had occupied Paris and Northern France by then. (One reason is probably because it was in French that was roughly understandable to me compared to the rest.)

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That completed our survey of Paris for the day, and we decided to head back to our room. After a change of metros at Place de Clichy (“place de CLICHY?…. PLACE de clichy.”), we got out of Gabriel Péri and walked in the direction of the almost set Sun to our room. We found our ever smiling hostess watching football on TV. We bade her good night and one of the best, if most tiring, days of the tour came to an end.

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Day 20

We woke up at our usual 6 AM on Thursday the seventeenth of May, and packed our bags as promptly as possible except for the breakfast which, if my memory serves me right, was the last of the Masala Upma packets which was washed down with tea. “You do know zat you don’t need to wash the dishes, don’t you? You can just put zem in ze dishwasher,” remarked our hostess for the nth time as we cleaned the utensils which we had used. But cleaning up had been drilled into us by hostel life elsewhere and we did not feel comfortable leaving behind dirty dishes. We said bye to our motherly hostess with whom, in the time we had been her guests, we had become quite chummy. With our luggage, we walked back to Gabriel Péri metro station to catch the M13 and, like the previous day, changed over to the M2 at Place de Clichy. We got down at Barbès – Rochechouart metro station and, from there, walked to Paris Gare du Nord. (Rochechouart, despite its appearance is merely a word of two syllables. Indeed, one of the idiosyncrasies of the French language is the abundance of jobless letters in words.)

If Gare de Lyon was the way to reach Paris from the South, Gare du Nord was the way to go up North to Luxembourg, Belgium and, in our case, Netherlands where had begun our this journey. Thalys was the train company which plied that path. It also demanded a reservation to board any one of its high-speed trains to Amsterdam. (The non-reservation alternative took thrice as long to reach Amsterdam and involved several changes of trains.) We had one, the last and the most expensive (25 EUR) of its kind, as far as we were concerned. The train was scheduled to leave at 10:25. There was a long queue at the platform and something like checking although it was quite perfunctory and not to the extent the Eiffel Tower guards had gone (although our hostess had warned us that we might be subjected to piercing scrutiny. “Don’t be upset. Zey do ze same to us,”).

We reached our compartment and double checked our ticket to ensure we didn’t repeat the TGV fiasco. This train too was packed to capacity. We found our seats and planted our Tashreef there. It was with heavy hearts that we left Paris. Paris, of all the places we had been to, was where we had felt most at home. The feeling at the back of one’s neck of people looking at one as though one were from Andromeda was conspicuous in its absence here. The metro stations with the fruit-vendors and trumpeters, the packed metros trains with the sing-song announcements, the quiet “bon appetit” of complete strangers to one another, and the omnipresent music and laughter, among many other things, made Paris very special to us. “À bientôt,” we told dear Paris and the train was off.

Tour of the Occident: 7. Italy

Italian Day 13

We got into the Regionale (pronounced regionaaley) train which would take us from Chiasso to Milano Centrale (pronounced Chentraaley). It went through the mountainous terrain between the two places at a decent pass and within the hour, we were at Milan. Milan is known for many things: fashion (of which I’m tone deaf), its history (of which I know little) and football clubs (a sport I can neither play nor watch despite several attempts) to name a few. So, it had been decided that Milan’s other great virtue – its being a crossroads of sorts connecting Italy with the rest of Europe by train – would alone be enjoyed. We used a considerable portion of the half an hour’s transit time to actually transit from arrival platform to departure platform (Centrale is a large station).

Our next train would take us from Milan to Verona Porta Nuova. The train was yet another Regionale, and, like the previous train, was made of compartments in which Julius Caesar had probably travelled. Our company consisted of a family none of whose members could be accused of frailty. Karthik and I were squashed between an ample gentleman each on one of our sides and a window each on the other. Luckily, the one side of the vice relaxed a couple of stations later and we began to observe the landscape. We had descended completely from the Alps, which form the northern frontier of Italy on our way to Milan. The rest of the day would be a long ride eastwards on the plains along the edge of Alps. To our left were hills, and to our right, fields and vineyards. Many a river crossed our way as they gushed down from the Alps.

After getting down at Verona etc, we ran helter skelter to catch our connecting train which was due to leave in five minutes. We caught it within a hair’s breadth and managed to locate two plus two seats in a double-decker train, also a Regionale, but far more modern and comfortable than past experience had allowed us to hope for.  This ride, our last for the day with Venice as destination, was further spiced up when a couple of people who had endeavoured to ride “without”, were given a scathing reprimand by a chagrined ticket inspector (“It is stealing!”).

We got down at Venice Mestre station at half past six. We made our way to the nearest bus stop and decided to take a bus to the stop nearest to our hostel. We ended up walking a longer distance than our transit by bus which was insultingly short and 3 euros dear. Our hostel was three km from the station and we had considered such a distance walkable at the time of planning. Two variables which we had completely ignored during the booking had been the luggage (of course) and the general tiredness that accompanies one who has changed four trains in the course of the day. It was a very weary Indian duo that the receptionists of PLUS Camping Jolly, Venice received. The property was put up in an enormous area worthy of a medieval caravan site, with a large number of mostly two-bed cottages with solid basement and plastic walls and roof. It also had a large swimming pool (which was open from ten to five), a supermarket, an eatery and washing machines.

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It was high time we used the last of these facilities. Laundering in Europe, as most people might be aware, is a two-step process, each requiring a separate machine. The first is for washing. Each front-loaded machine had enough capacity to handle more than a week’s worth of clothes of two people. On receipt of EUR 5, the washing was undertaken, on completion of which, for another EUR 4.5, another machine completely dried the clothes (in a manner not unlike how Dumbledore dries Harry’s clothes after they swim to Voldermort’s cave). This was a life-saver, given our vagrant lifestyle. That night, we used up our last remaining supply of kadak roti and curd for dinner which we had on the wooden table outside our cottage and went to bed.

Day 14

The previous night, we had stayed in the part of Venice which was firmly attached to the Italian peninsula. But Friday, the eleventh of May was the day dedicated to the Venice that we know of from photos and history books. The island off the coast in the Adriatic sea with its canals and gondolas lay a train ride away. We indulged ourselves and woke up well after half past seven. After finishing a bread and jam breakfast, we packed our bags and checked out. A long, uncomfortable walk lay ahead. Taking breaks whose frequency and length increased with every break, we reached the mainland Venice Mestre station by ten to ten. The train took us across the sea on the “Liberty Bridge” at a gentle pace and reached Venice Santa Lucia station within fifteen minutes.

The station was right on the banks of the Grand Canal. Here we procured a One Day Travel Card to use any Vaporetto for the duration of 24 hrs from first use for EUR 20. (Vaporetti or water buses are passenger boats that ply up and down the many canals of Venice and between islands of the Venetian archipelago.)  There is not much argument on the soundness of buying this pass, because all that is great about Venice is but a Vaporetto ride away. However, the map which the ticket vendors market very assiduously (for EUR 3) is absolutely unnecessary for anyone with data on their phone, as Sir Google is peerless when it comes to telling people which Vaporetto to catch and when. We got into the first possible vaporetto going down the Grand Canal.

Venice did not seem very appetising at first sight. Many buildings were in a state of neglect or decay of both, and the water of the canal was an ominous green and smelt of stale fish. We got down at our stop and started making our way towards our hostel. The way was very interesting. All non-aqueous pathways were paved and narrow. There was no question of vehicular traffic on the roads. Some cyclists could be seen. However, one had to climb the stairs on the arched bridges across the canals to cross them, making it difficult for lay cyclists. People whose houses were along the canals, owned boats which were docked outside their houses. Nearly every street seemed to have a church or a chapel named after one or the other saints.

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We reached our hostel premises by half past ten, a good three and a half hours before the check in time. As we entered, a disembodied witch cackled ominously. The plan had been to request the receptionists to let us dump our luggage at the reception and roam for a few hours before doing a proper check in at two. The little problem was that, though the reception of Ostello Santa Fosca was open, it was unmanned (or unwomanned, which, in hindsight, was more accurate). There were a couple of inmates of the hostel who were in the process of checking out (which involved dumping the keys in a box), and another poor soul who seemed to be in an advanced state of cold. We made ourselves some tea from the electric kettle and tea bags at the reception, and prepared for a very long wait for the receptionist.

We agreed that we should have booked the previous night too in this hostel. However, the previous night at Venice had been planned late, after some programme readjustment and by then, Ostello S. Fosca had been fully booked. The said hostel was extremely accessible. The building looked more than a century old, and some of the material available around the hostel informed us that it was run by an arm of the Catholic Church primarily for the benefit of travelling students. The kitchen was clean and had all that we needed.

We fell into conversation with the indisposed inmate. He turned out to be a Singaporean businessman of South Korean extraction. He was forty-nine years old (and looked twenty-nine, at best. How do Koreans manage that?) He had taken a break “from all of it” and was on a three-month vacation in Europe. He had contracted cold from his roommate who had spent the night coughing and sneezing. I gave him some paracetamol pills to ease his symptoms. Somehow, he attributed our propensity to carry medicine while travelling to our ‘Indianness’. I wondered if there was anything under the sun that could not be passed off as Indian. Our friend revealed a luggage rack in an inner corridor where we could leave our luggage while exploring the city.

Emboldened by our Giessbach success, we decided to take yet another (measured) leap of faith. We left our luggage at the rack, wished our friend better health, and hit the vaporetto. We got down at Rialto further down the Grand Canal and walked through the busy little streets replete with shops of every description. We visited a couple of interesting souvenir shops with their fridge magnets, Casanova masks and glassware. To soothe our souls we had our customary ice-cream at a gelato place. And on we went until the Piazzale San Marco hit us like a rampaging water tanker. (The English name of St Mark’s Square is so drab and pedestrian that I shall refrain from using it entirely.)

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It was the sheer complementarity of the Piazzale with what surrounded it that emphasised the grandeur of the huge quadrangle. As the alleys were narrow, winding and dingy, the Piazzale was expansive, elegant and majestic. On one side was the massive Basilica di San Marco which gave the piazzale its name.  Right in front of the Basilica stood its Campanile (or clock tower), a slender tower which jutted out of the piazzale higher than any other structure in the vicinity. The Basilica was also the seat of the Patriarch (the most Bishopy of Bishops) of Venice, and so, a Cathedral too. A huge queue snaked out of the Basilica’s entrance. We refrained from joining it. The L-shaped piazzale’s smaller arm terminated in a splendid view of the Adriatic Sea and the islands beyond.

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We decided to follow a different route to Rialto. The way crisscrossed several canals which appeared to be rich in Gondolas and had pretty arches across them. The gondoliers could be heard crooning to their customers as they put the thuduppu. After we had crossed the ninety eighth church for the day, we decided that we would not get closure until we had entered one. To that end, we entered what looked like a minor church (which didn’t charge entry unlike the Basilica) and got a perspective of what passes for “minor” in this waterlogged city.

Soon we were at the Grand Canal on one side of the Rialto bridge. It connected our side of the Canal to where the historic Rialto Market existed through two flights of stairs from each bank which met in the middle at the ‘portico’. The bridge itself housed several little shops adjoining the steps, a trope we would also notice in other Italian cities. The arch underneath was high enough for large vaporetti to pass through without trouble. We crossed over and walked to the Rialto Market which most tourist guides to Venice suggested we visit, but stopped short of telling exactly why.

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The market was a very normal affair. That it had existed for many centuries did not mask the fact that it was smaller than Mattuthavani Flower Market and that the merchandise which mostly consisted of clothes and souvenirs was sold in every corner of the city. However, we did meet an understanding Bangladeshi salesman who knew how Indians multiplied any number by 80 before buying things.

By then, the alarm bells in my stomach had started ringing and we decided to catch a Vaporetto back to the hostel. On the way from the stop to the hostel, we located a Coop supermarket (which was way more reasonable on this side of the Alps than in Switzerland), and stocked up. Back at the hostel, we found that our receptionist had arrived and that we had not been marauded (the luggage was safe). She showed us to our room which we would share with two others. We swiftly made ourselves some lunch in the kitchen (Maggi noodles) and began planning for the rest of the day.

There is no dearth of things to see in Venice. The task of the planner then boils down to choosing from a bouquet of options. We chose Murano and Burano. Both islands belong to the greater Venetian archipelago and lay north of Venice proper. Our hostel lay in the Cannaregio district which formed the northern part of Venice proper. We walked from our hostel through this district to the Boat station through the old Jewish Ghetto of Venice where Shylock would have lived, had he been real. We reached out Boat station and caught a Vaporetto. Fifteen minutes later we were at the huge arch which said, “Murano ungalai anbudan varaverkirathu” (what do you mean, “seriously?”! Of course not!)

The island is known for tinted glassware. Anything from a key chain to a chandelier of coloured glass, known as Murano glass, can be purchased there. It even had a Museum of Glass around which were several shops which sold such artefacts. We visited some half a dozen of these shops walking around the town. We found a giant blue monstrosity called The Comet Glass Star in the middle of a square. Appalled than anyone could be so cruel as to inflict it on mankind, we decided that it was time to quit Murano.

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Burano lay farther up north. The vaporetto ride was a good half an hour long. We deboarded and walked through a vineyard which had a matching rose garden. The flowers were in full bloom, and the vineyard a lush green. This was a morsel of pastoral life off chaotic Venice, and it had the effect of bringing our pulse rate down by several notches. We sat down on a seat along with a bunch of talkative Italian men and women, all of advanced age. The village that lay at the end of the garden had good reason to be in travel guides. It wouldn’t be unfair to call it, the island of Vasthu coloured houses.

Each house was painted a bright, often primary, colour and never were two neighbouring houses painted in the same, or even similar, shade. I later came to know that the exteriors of the houses had to be painted a colour approved by the civic authorities of the island, much like the inner Jaipur city where the so-called pink colour is forced on all the unfortunate inhabitants. Consequently, the village gave the appearance of a Rubik’s cube in my hands, and transformed what started off as a sleepy fishing village into a buzzling tourist attraction. We took a circular path covering as much of the island as possible (including the inevitable church) and bade Multicolour Burano goodbye at something around seven that evening.

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The boat ride back to Cannaregio took nearly an hour in which time we reflected on how our opinion of Venice had changed from pinched noses to unreserved approval. We reached our hostel just as the sun was starting to call it a day. We then showered and set out to make dinner. We had discovered a stash of rice in our bags which had lain hidden in our luggage. As Vaishnavi had left us some paasi paruppu, we made ourselves some Pongal in our faithful cooker. We were ridiculously hungry after a day of considerable walking, and the food disappeared from our plates almost as soon as it hit it. The witch cackled yet again. We decided that this must be Italian clocks’ idea of chiming (and not a bad one when you come to think of it). We met our Korean friend again and were delighted to find that his health had improved sufficiently. After exchanging stories of the happenings of the day, we parted with a well deserved “good night”.

 

Day 15

We woke up quite early next morning on Saturday, the twelfth of May, as we had an early train to catch. By seven, our bags were packed and our Poha was ready to be consumed (It was nearly as good as Abhishek’s mother’s poha: the gold standard). After that rite had been performed, we checked out and started walking to the railway station (which we had discovered was a faster, although a tad more back-hurting, way of reaching the railway station, Venezia Santa Lucia, than by Vaporetto). There, we got into the first available train to Bologna. The roughly one and a half hour long ride took us through the northern plains of Italy and we soon found ourselves in the town which boasted of the oldest university in the world.

At Bologna, we had more than an hour of transit time. So we decided to walk out of Bologna Centrale and explore whatever lay of interest in the vicinity of the station. On the corner near the station road was the Porta Galleria (Porta means Door or Gate). Like the Gateway of India it was a several feet tall structure with an archway for people to pass through. It was deserted and smelt of disuse and refuse. However, the garden that it faced was in sufficiently good condition for us to sit and relax.

Across the road from this garden lay a fancy staircase which went by the name Scanalita del Pincio. I went across to inspect it. There was a wall in front of which stood a statue of a woman on a horse. On either side emanated flights of stairs which led to the top of the wall. I walked up the stairs to check out the view. The stairs seemed to be peppered with people who were engaged in a trade which in India would result in a non-bailable warrant. Inferring that a prolonged stay atop the wall might not be in my best interests, I descended the stairs and walked to a nearby supermarket and did a bit of quick shopping.

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Outside the supermarket, I found a huge square where a Shamiana had been pitched. To my delight, it turned out to be a second-hand book exhibition. I entered it and started scanning the titles. Table after table spewed Italian books of everything from cookery to Shakespeare (translated to Italian). English was conspicuous in its absence until I found an unobtrusive table with a plaque which read “Foreign Languages” with a paltry collection of English books. Disappointed, I left the tent to find Karthik at the park and the two of us walked back to the Railway station.

We went to the eastern part of our nearly half a kilometre long platform (divided in the middle as West and East). In this station, it was not enough to know the platform numbers. As they say, kezhakku merkku paathu poganum. We found seats in our train to Prato Centrale which lay on the other side of the Apennines.

The Apennines are a mountain range which start from the north-western corner of Italy (at the Ligurian Alps) and extended all along the length of Italy. Venice and Bologna were nestled in a triangle formed by the Alps in the north and the Apennines in the south and the Adriatic Sea in the east. The other side of the Apennines were home to all the other cities we’ve read about in our history books: Florence, Rome and Naples to name a few. The train journey was a judicious mix of lush, thickly forested, mountains and tunnels, with the latter contributing to slightly more than half the length. These tunnels, while leaving much of the forests be, achieved the objective of crossing a mountain in surprisingly short time.

We changed trains at Prato Centrale. The last train ride for the day was a short one to Florence. (Firenze, in Italian. Rowling surely seems to have had more than her fair share of fun in naming her characters.) We got down at the Florence SMN (Santa Maria Novella) station and started walking to our hostel. On the way, we found that the roads were wide and contained parallel tram tracks. I had read somewhere that in Florence, the families which had been rich six hundred years ago continued to remain so till date. True to this, the city exuded ancience. Large and old villas with high walls and grilled windows could be found along the way.  Our hostel which went by the name of Affitta Camere David Family was located in the middle of the city in a moderately busy road. It was run by an elderly Chinese man with a permanent smile. He had converted what looked like an apartment into several dorms. Though small, the hostel was clean and the kitchen had a microwave and a fridge. It was well past two by then. We left our luggage on our beds and started our walk around the city for the day.

The city was known for The Duomo, or The Dome. It was the defining feature of the Florence Cathedral and remained the largest brick and mortar dome in the world. When we got our first view of it, we couldn’t quite figure out the front of the Cathedral from its back. It looked like a chaotic mass of white and green marble. One reason for this was the following. There was no open space to stare at the Cathedral from a distance to take it in in its entirety because the space around the Cathedral had been consumed by buildings but for a narrow road separating them from the Cathedral.

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Ankit, who had been to the Dome, had recommended that we wait patiently in the quarter of a kilometre long queue that stood patiently to be allowed entry into the Cathedral. We followed his advice and within a shorter while than I had estimated, we were at the entrance. For the first time in the trip, we were subjected to a security check. After that was over, we realised that we were in a gargantuan room whose dimensions were meant to Awe, and Awed we were.

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The walls contained several paintings and there were several alcoves along the side walls with a deity or a saint and some candles. Shafts of light entered the Cathedral through the high tinted glass windows. We walked down the expansive nave and reached the brightest place of the room: the altar. We looked above us and gasped. The altar lay right below the Dome whose inner walls were adorned by frescoes illuminated by strategically placed windows both at the very top of the Dome and at a circle below the hemisphere of paintings.

Imagine that a globe of Earth was cut into two along the equator and the southern hemisphere thrown away. The north pole contained the above-mentioned strategic windows, as did the equator. The insides of the globes were painted as strips. Every parallel strip spanned roughly some twenty degrees of latitude. For example the strip between the equator and the Tropic of Cancer were painted with scenes of what looked like hell. The strips above that were less macabre and contained what looked like Biblical tales. One had a man carrying a crucifix on his shoulder. In the middle of this spanning all these strips in the longitudinal direction sat Jesus (in Judgement?). The curved walls gave a raw three dimensionality to the frescoes to the extent that we could almost see the people in the painting move.

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We left the building wondering what the Humans could not accomplish if they put their heart and soul into it. Florence was the city of both Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci (Vinci being a small town in Tuscany whose capital is Florence). Therefore, the city boasted of an obscene number of museums. We, who didn’t so much as know the difference between “statue” and “relief”, chose not to visit any of those. However, there was an open square which had several replicas of the famous sculpture which we visited next. The area contained a number of marble statues of unknown people all in a state of undress (why?). We confirmed our initial suspicion that we were absolute barbarians when it came to art of this sort and went in search of some ice-cream.

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The gelato of Florence had been praised sky high. Our experience was neutral. After this, we went in search of the elusive leather market of Florence. After some effort, we located the tented alley of many shops selling every variety of leather goods from wallets to leather jackets. After haggling with a decent number of vendors in true Indian style, we started to walk to Piazzale Michelangelo.

We crossed the River Arno on a bridge which had the usual steel mesh with locks. (Again, why? Is it something like the tying of thottil in kovil arasa maram?) As Salzach was to Salzburg, Arno seemed to be the axis of the city of Florence. The view from the middle of the bridge confirmed the harmonious relationship that the city and the river shared.

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The Piazzale lay on the other side of River Arno atop a hill. The footpath up to it was paved with a combination of slopes and steps. People of African descent sold souvenirs on the sides (They seemed to be economically on the back foot in Italy). We finally reached the top. There we found a set of stairs – stadium style – in which people sat in anticipation. The stairs faced the city of Florence. The Tuscan sunset was famed as one of the wonders of the world, and this was the balcony seat from which one watched the show unfold.

All of this came at a price, sadly. In the couple of hours we spent there until the sun set, which finally happened at eight thirty, our life span probably reduced by a couple of years. Each and every soul around us was busy acting like a chimney. They smoked and smoked as though it was the last day of their lives (which would not be far behind, if that day was any indication). We had fortunately brought some bread and jam with us. So, then and there in the society of all the human steam engines around us, we had bread and jam for dinner. As punishment, we continuously sang our trip song “Hawaayein”, an earworm which persisted throughout the trip and hopefully disturbed the peace of at least a couple of nearby smokers.

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But the wait was worth it, as the sun started to set. The city view along with the Dome standing tall among the rest of the city was worth walking up to the Piazzale. The many shades that the setting sun painted the sky and the city with, with every passing minute, made the experience truly memorable.

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After the sun disappeared behind the hills and the sky started to darken, we started walking down and back to the hostel. We were crossing the bridge when the lights on either banks of the river came to life. Like Marine Drive in Mumbai, the banks looked so alluring that we decided to walk along the banks and spend some more time on the streets. We walked up to yet another bridge which, like the Rialto bridge of Venice, seemed to be considerably built on.

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We got to the middle of this bridge with its shops and many tourists. Here, a street band seemed to be performing a song and a crowd of locals were listening and cheering enthusiastically. It sounded like the Florentine version of “Andha Arabi Kadaloram”. We stayed there listening to it until the end of the song, which was greeted with much applause and general expression of enjoyment.

Whereas Switzerland and Austria had exuded an air of general sleepiness after the sunset, Florence seemed to come to full form only then. Streets seemed more crowded in the night than during day. (This could also have been because it was Saturday night). However, since we had yet another early morning train to catch the next day, we started walking back to our room.

Here we found a couple of young Argentinian sisters (by blood, not the Christian kind). Karthik identified them as the girls who had been checking out from our hostel in Venice just as we had been checking in. One of them spoke only Spanish, and the other had bit of English in her. But the monolingual sister was the talkative one and it fell upon the other sister to translate everything she said, which she did patiently. It turned out that they had just completed college and had come on a three-month tour. Since Italian and Spanish were closely related (both Latin based, as was French), I asked them if they could understand Italian. They said that, even though they could not understand Italian, the Italians seemed capable of understanding Spanish. Italian and Spanish seemed to have the Malayalam-Tamil relationship where Malayalees generally understood Tamil but the converse was almost never the case. By this time, our other roommate, a Lithuanian guy, had also joined us and surprised us by remarking that Lithuanian and Tamil sounded similar. This was news to me, and a couple of YouTube videos of Lithuanian news readers showed that his claim was not baseless. After this stimulating discussion, we washed and went to bed.

Day 16

We woke up at kozhi kooving time on Sunday, the thirteenth of May, and invaded the kitchen. There was a microwave oven and some utensils at our disposal and we quickly made some Oats and ate it up and checked out. With our ample luggage, now a little lighter because of the several packets of noodles and oats we had partaken of, we checked out and started our walk to the station. Our train was to leave at ten to seven and, by now, our confidence in the train system and our ability to plan according to it had grown. We reached some ten minutes before train departure and got into a double-decker Regionale and seated ourselves comfortably in a two plus two on the upper deck.

The ride promised to be a beautiful one as we would be passing right through the Apennines which, in the north-west, practically touched the seas (the Ligurian Sea, to be precise). The wonderful result of this was that the concept of ‘beach’ disappeared for all practical purposes to be replaced by high cliffs with the sea beating them some two hundred odd feet below. This particular journey was almost completely tunnel with the train peeping out now and then to reveal blue waters several feet below where we were. The ride was so therapeutic that I got out of my heavy trekking shoes and started to relax.

The most charismatic of the cliffy shores of the Ligurian province (also called the Italian Riviera because of its geographical contiguity with the French Riviera) were a set of five villages called Cinque Terre (literally five places). They were from east to west, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. They were all towns perched precariously on the coastal mountains famed for their extreme beauty. Our train stopped in all of these places.

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After a long stint in the tunnel the train emerged at Riomaggiore, the first Terre. The sea was so pretty from here there I urged Karthik to get out of the train and click a couple of pics since I was bare-legged. He kindly agreed and got down to take pics. He took a couple and turned around to find that the train doors had snapped shut and wouldn’t open. The window was large enough for me to witness all of this. We exchanged some signs, but the train continued, leaving him alone in the platform, and his entire luggage and papers including his passport and the Eurail pass with me.

He had his phone with him, and that was a relief. But no sooner had the train left the station than it got into a tunnel and signal disappeared. I started shifting our luggage bag by bag to the train door. By the time I got all of it to the door, the second Terre had come and gone. With some effort, I got down at the third Terre: Corniglia. I tried calling Karthik from here. No signal. I decided to take the train back to Riomaggiore where I had left him passless and passportless. This was easier said than done because I had to haul kilograms and kilograms of luggage down an underpass and up a stairwell to get to the next platform. Fortunately, there were trains on this route every five minutes, probably because it was a Sunday. I got into the first possible train to Riomaggiore. In the minute in which the train stopped at the second Terre (Manarola), signal returned to my phone and I found Whatsapp messages informing me that my dear Karthik had taken the next train and ended up at the fourth Terre: Vernazza.

Immense relief and vexation enveloped me alternately. I got down at Riomaggiore with my many bags whose weight seemed to increase with every train journey across the Terres. My call to Karthik finally connected. We visaarichufied kusalam through the phone and decided on who would meet whom where. I would meet him there (Vernazza), since I had the pass with me. The logic was sound, but the inevitable consequence was lugging the bags across two flights of stairs yet again to the other platform. A moment before my train pulled up, I called Karthik again and told him precisely in which train I would be arriving in and when to expect me at Vernazza.

With the little strength that remained with me after all the weight lifting, I got into the train and stayed near the door. The train arrived at Vernazza. Half of it was in the tunnel and the rest in the open, and my compartment was in the tunnel part. I got down there and looked for Karthik in the semi darkness. After some ten seconds of frantic searching, I finally located him. Since the train by which I had come was going in the direction in which we were headed, we decided to get into it.

It took a minute for us to realise that calamity had not struck us and that we would neither of us become thiruvizhaavil tholaindhu pona kuzhandhaigal in an alien land. Our train crossed the fifth Terre. Anxious to avert the above calamity, in spite of crisscrossing the Terres even more than I had intended to, I had paid scant attention to their beauty except perhaps in the case of the first Terre (which attention had been the cause of our little hiccup in the first place). Our train continued through the mountains and terminated at Levanto.

Here we waited in anticipation of our train to Genoa for about an hour. We used this time to collect our wits and update our best practices handbook which previously had not contained “Do not listen to silly friends and exit a train at an intermediate station in pursuit of pic”. We got into our Genoa bound train when it arrived and the train continued on its coast hugging route. Mountains continued to dominate the coast line, but they ceased to be as precipitous as in the case of the five Terres. The frequency of tunnels decrease and our height vis-à-vis the Ligurian Sea halved. At a little after one, we reached Genova Brignole station. A vast stretch of coast seemed to call itself Genoa going by the names the railway stations bore. The stations Brignole and Piazza Principe came closest to the historical city of Genoa.

We started walking to the hostel which lay in the old city. The entirety of Genova seemed to be housed in the small patch of land that lay trapped between the Ligurian Mountains and the Sea, and the old city was the region which hugged the ancient harbour which had given the city its unique place in history. The genocidal explorer Christopher Columbus was a son of Genoa. Genoa was where Indian numerals first reached Europe through links with Arab sailors who had learnt them from Indians. This had enabled modern banks to first crop up in Genoa and spread to rest of Italy and, then Europe (for more details, read Vivek Kaul’s brilliant “Easy Money” Trilogy).

The Genoa we saw still had one foot firmly planted on Renaissance Italy and one on the twenty-first century like the rest of Italy. A very pleasant sight to our sore eyes was the many rows of suspended umbrellas which hung above streets. The closer we got to our hostel, the older the town seemed to get. At one muchandhi, we found a solo violinist playing classical music to a high degree of perfection. He had his violin box open and into it, his legion of supporters dropped Euro bills. Street Music in Europe was of superior quality.

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We checked into a dorm in Hostel Manena Genoa. It was a cozy place with warm and professional hosts and a very good kitchen. We made ourselves some lunch: flavoured pasta. After that, it was wandering time. Our Swiss army friend had spoken very highly of an Aquarium the city was home to. It was famed to be the largest of its kind in Europe. It lay near the harbour, some ten minutes’ walk from our hostel. The rain threat remained very substantial as the sun refused to peek through the dark clouds. We borrowed a couple of umbrellas from our host and made for the aquarium.

The aquarium was brilliantly designed. It had an astounding range of aquatic life-forms (with bilingual display boards – thank heavens for that), most of which I had seen only in illustrations in biology books. My first surprise was the sea-horse. Somehow, I had come to think of them as huge creatures that galloped (or did the swimming version of galloping) through the vast seas, and preyed on large fish. They turned out to be tiny little wisps not larger than one’s palm. Further, there were moray, swordfish, jellyfish, starfish, and even penguins (in a temperature controlled pond). There was a tropical section which included a Boa Constrictor (which was so well camouflaged that we took a full five minutes to locate it). There was also a hall dedicated to evolution which described its history starting from Darwin.

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An interesting concept was that of the Touch Pond. There alone, we were allowed to touch fish. The pond contained a chappathi like fish which swam teasingly close to the many people who waited eagerly to pet the fish in the edges with their hands in the pond. After some ten minutes, they favoured me and Karthik by swimming to us and letting us touch their rubbery exterior. The prime attraction of the aquarium was the dolphin pond. It was roughly twenty feet deep and the side walls were transparent affording the tourist a view of the exploits of the feisty dolphins. While we had been fish-watching, it had been raining cats and dogs on the outside. When we reached the dolphin pool’s surface, the dolphins were jumping up and down at the direction of three aquarium officials in their waterproofs, and wide-eyed children who had congregated around the pool jumped along with the dolphins.

It took well over two and a half hours to cover the aquarium by which time, the skies seemed to have emptied themselves. We came out of the aquarium to find ourselves at the harbour. The proximity of the hills to the seas meant that the Riviera was home to a string of natural harbours one of which was Genoa. Boats of various kinds from fancy Pirates of the Caribbean style ones to utilitarian cruises populated the docks which were arranged in the shape of nearly three-fourths of a circle with an opening for ingress and egress to the sea.

We walked back to our hostel to have a little snack and consult our hosteliers on various ways to spend the rest of the evening. It was a little past seven then, and we were recommended the Spaniata di Castelletto. It lay not far from our boarding, atop the tallest hill within the precincts of Genoa city. We left the hostel, umbrellas in hand and walked up the now familiar combination of steps and inclines and finally reached the place as it started to rain in earnest. There was a roofed belvedere from which all of Genova could be spied. We ran to it for shelter and got a splendid view of the harbour as well as the old city.

The belvedere was shaped in the form of a polygon of many sides each of which was windowed. It was empty but for a photographer and his friend who monopolised the most strategic window. We used the time to stare at the intriguing ships (including a Batman themed one) enter and exit the harbour. The sun began its descent in the west and bathed the city in sepia and the lights started to come up one after the other. That was the second stunning sunset in two days, and I felt Po-ish Inner Peace wash over me.

We walked back to our hostel in the dark, and made ourselves some dinner of Maggi. As we sat eating it up in the kitchen, a guitar-carrying Italian inmate regaled us with an Italian song. He was soon spontaneously joined by a couple of others who clearly knew the song. (I was reminded as “Naalai Namadhey” and other similar kudumba paadalgal which helped reunite family members who had gone missing because of some calamity in their childhood.) And in this merry fashion ended our day in Genoa.

Day 17

The Monday that was the fourteenth of May dawned dry and bright to our great relief, as we were not enthusiastic about braving the rains yet again, this time with luggage. The hostel offered complimentary breakfast with the very same menu. Thought not a fan of a cereal breakfast initially, I had by now grown fond of it and no small portion of the credit should go to the peerless strawberry yoghurt. We packed our bags (rather noisily, as it turned out, as one of our dorm-mates requested me to keep it down). We walked back to Genova Brignole well in time, or so we thought. As it turned out, the train which we had to catch was due to leave in five minutes of our reaching the station, and not ten, as we had previously thought. We had looked up the wrong departure station! But five minutes was good enough for us travel hardened comrades and we whizzed to our train and found convenient seats.

The train was yet another Regionale. It snaked along the coast westwards towards the French border and reached the town of Ventimiglia. Our train further would be a French one run by the Rail company SNCF. As luck would have it, that was the day when the SNCF went on strike. However, a few trains out of Ventimiglia were operational. We located one such train in a far away platform and took our seats there. The display announced that the train was due to leave in five minutes.

The five minutes came and went, but the train stayed put. The lights in the train came and went a couple of times. I later approached an SNCF person in the train and asked her (with the help of an innocent bystander who sportively took the job of a translator) when the train would start. She informed me that some technical issues were being faced and should be resolved in ten minutes. After ten minutes, during which time the lights had come and gone another couple of times, a rapid-fire French announcement was aired through the train speakers and all the passengers started to leave. We asked a nearby passenger what was going on. She gesticulated towards the door and pointed at a train in the next platform. We followed her and boarded this new train which would take us to our French destination.

In this slightly breathless manner, our Italian sojourn came to a close. It was time to say goodbye to a country which had shown how history shapes our everyday lives in ways we seldom think about. The home of the Renaissance had not forgotten where it all started (again) and put its best show to those who sought to unravel its many mysteries while always holding back a tiny tantalising bit. We had walked, climbed, run, passive smoked, got lost, and watched dolphins shoot rings through their blowholes. It was time to invade another country.

Tour of the Occident: 6. Switzerland

The Rest of Day 10

Feldkirch is on the Austria side of the border that separates it from the “country” called Liechtenstein whose area is less than that of the city of Salem (not the district). However, it had a King who knew when to keep his mouth shut and who to play against whom, and so, through two world wars and much else, it managed to retain its sovereignty, and, today, boasts of the highest per capita income. However, all of this is inconsequential as the train did not deign to stop anywhere in there and went right through it. In the time required to travel from Marathahalli to Silk Board (on an early Sunday morning), we had crossed the Rhine and with it, the Principality of Liechtenstein and entered Buchs, Switzerland.

Here again, we had the pleasure of having our passports examined by a Border Security Official who, satisfied, returned our passports with a cheery “Guten Tag!” Just when I was wondering how boring it should be for these officers and how their energies could be better utilised by having them stick stamps for the elderly at Swiss post offices, I saw them escort a couple of guys off the train.

The train was no nonsense from this point. Although nearly one third of the distance was yet to be covered, the train would not stop until it reached Zurich, whereas there had been a thousand stops on the Austrian side. It could not take the shortest way to Zurich from Buchs, as the Appenzell Alps stood formidably on the way. Instead, our train took a more northerly course along the Rhine and turned west along Lake Constance. The lake was large enough for one not to be able to see what lay on the other bank. (Having previously planned a cycle tour around the lake which remained stubbornly on paper, I knew that Germany lay on the other side: the northern side, and that in the east was Austria..)

After continuing for a few kilometers this way, the train turned south-west to swoop in on Zurich. The moment our train entered what seemed like the outskirts of Zurich city, the number of parallel train tracks increased so much that the tracks’ width was almost that of Kaveri at Karur. Knowing now that we were going to be in one of the richest cities in the world with one of the busiest railway stations in the world, we prepared ourselves to be awed on reaching Zurich Hauptbahnhof (HB; don’t know why they ditched the F of HBF). When we did get down, we found the platform to be very very normal albeit extremely long. There was considerable difference between the height of the platform and that of the train floor, and worse, there was no escalator or elevator to switch platforms (Madurai Junction has them, for Heavens’ sake!).

For better or worse, Zurich was only a transit point, and we had two more trains to catch. We quickly switched platforms to catch a train which was bound to Geneva via Bern (where we would get down). The train was as ordinary as the station with no WiFi. Honey and money did not seem to flow in Switzerland, it seemed, at least, not in its trains. However, we met a Sri Lankan Tamil family settled in Bern. One of its members told us how they had visited Madurai Meenakshi Temple in the year 1995. Not too soon, we were in Bern and quickly changed trains. This one would take us to our ultimate destination for the day, Interlaken. We had decided to camp here for two nights, on the advice of Venkat, Saishankar and Pravin who had all used it as base for its proximity to many sites of interest and natural beauty. Our last train turned out to be an Inter City Express (ICE) run by Deutsche Bahn. Kadavul is there somewhere, we thought. We got into it with alacrity and got a very spacious six-seater cabin all for ourselves with WiFi; it was, well, civilisation, as is generally understood and accepted.

We relaxed in our seats and started to enjoy the scenery. Here too were pastures, hills, lakes and tiny little villages. The laid back air of this part of Switzerland served to soothe and calm our nervous system after a day of frenetic travel. We comfortably detrained at Interlaken Ost (East) station and started to walk towards our hostel. It was eight in the evening and the town was all but deserted. After walking a few minutes (and pausing here and there to relieve our shoulders of much load and pain), we reached Balmers Backpackers Hostel.

The place was buzzing with backpackers of all stripes. They seemed to be doing lots of things, but I was too tired to figure out exactly what they were doing. A couple of women were already checking themselves in at the reception which was manned by a guy who spent considerable time in the process. We waited patiently and once they were disposed of, swam through all the jollu to the reception. He took one tenth the time to attend to us, which was probably for the better because, we were getting hungry. We quickly dumped our luggage in our dorm and sped down to the kitchen to cook ourselves a dinner. The kitchen was due for closure in another ten minutes, and so, we made the simplest possible concoction: Maggi noodles and ate it, and went to bed.

Day 11

The next day, Tuesday the eighth of May, we woke up in anticipation of a different sort of experience to what we had put ourselves through these ten days past. Among other things, it would involve reaching Interlaken Ost by nine. There we would meet my IIT Madras friend, Ankit Gupta, who would be joining us from Lausanne on the other side of Switzerland where he pursued higher and higher studies. The reunion was not rendered easy by the fact that Lebara was practically useless in Switzerland. The cell phone operator seemed to have as much luck in bringing the country under their net as the rest of Europe had in bringing Switzerland under EU. The result was that we had to rely on the WiFi in the hostel to communicate with Ankit through Whatsapp.

The hostel, apart from being probably the cheapest place to stay in Interlaken (by Swiss standards), also provided us with a Guest Card (http://www.interlaken.ch/en/information-and-journey-to-interlaken/travel-tips-interlaken/guest-card-and-holiday-passes-interlaken.html). This guest card allowed the holder to travel free within Interlaken in any bus or train during the duration of their stay there. There were half a dozen musical instruments and some Foosball tables. Breakfast was also complimentary.  So, we used the morning to cook ourselves lunch and pack it. That was the day our supply of rice ran out. We padded ourselves up as much as possible, as the annual average temperature was -1 deg Celsius where we were headed. The breakfast was modelled in the same fashion as at Innsbruck (the fruit was orange). That was the morning I discovered the wonder that is corn flakes with strawberry flavoured yoghurt. It must have taken an exceptional mind which combined brilliance with exquisite taste to come up with such a culinary riot.

Armed to combat both cold and hunger, we made our way to the bus stop just across the hostel and took our bus to Interlaken Ost. As previously agreed, we met Ankit at the bus stop right outside the station. After exchanging pleasantries, we got to the business of buying a round ticket to Jungfraujoch. Literally translated as The Virgin Pass in English, it’s home to the highest railway station in Europe at around 3500 metre. Powerful as our Eurail pass was, it could only buy us a discount of 25 % on the route to and from Jungfraujoch after which, our ticket cost us 125 Swiss Francs (abbreviated as CHF for Confeoderatio Helvetica Franc where CH is Latin for Switzerland). Though the CHF was slightly weaker than the Euro, this was still a princely sum. But reviews were nearly uniformly on the raving side, when it came to Jungfraujoch (JFJ), and we decided to splurge.

One should change three trains to reach JFJ, and three more to get back. The legs are Interlaken Ost to Point A, Point A to Kleine Scheidegg, and Kleine Scheidegg to JFJ. Point A can be either Lauterbrunnen or Grindelwald (Rowling, you dog!) We decided to go via the Lauterbrunnen route on the onward journey and via Grindelwald on the return journey. We got our tickets and embarked on the train from Interlaken Ost to Lauterbrunnen. For all the hilliness, Interlaken was only 500 odd metres above sea level which is much less than Bangalore. The train climbed through valley and green mountain and we were at Lauterbrunnen in twenty minutes.

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We quickly changed trains and noticed that the track to Kleine Scheidegg had the extra gear teeth line running in the middle of the track similar to what is found in the Ooty Toy Train. We hopped on to the train and we soon resumed our activity of mountain gazing through train windows. The landscape became more and more interesting as we climbed higher. Waterfalls off cliffs became as common as parthenium in Bangalore and the train started to maintain a pitch angle of well above twenty degrees. The gear teeth on the track started to make a lot of sense. Tunnel followed tunnel and tiny little station followed another. The trees thinned to grass, and eventually, snow. By the end of the journey, all was snow. And the cold was starting to make its presence felt (not that it ever let us forget it, but now, it was incessant and nagging).

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Kleine Scheidegg, situated at a majestic 2000 metres above sea level (roughly Manali’s altitude and two hundred metres lower than Ooty) was a junction of sorts with trains coming on the one hand from Grindelwald and on the other from Lauterbrunnen. These trains were operated by a different company from the one which operated the train to JFJ. The result was that the trains ran on different gauge tracks and used different kinds of electrical power sources. I was just thankful that they had at least ganged up to issue single window tickets. There was a free WC at this station which was a life saver, given what cold climate does to the body’s hydrology. We also filled up our water bottles here and took our seats in the train to Jungfraujoch. Within a few metres of leaving the station, the train entered a tunnel through the very bowels of the mountains Eiger and Mönch. There was an audio-visual presentation on the history of this ghat section and what we were to expect on the other side of the tunnel.

Halfway into the journey. We were given a five-minute break when we could get out of train into the tunnel and, through a thick glass window, could see the all-snow section of the Alps. We completed this ritual and got back into the train. The journey altogether was less than ten kilometres in length accomplishing an increase in altitude of nearly a kilometre and a half, and took us thirty-five minutes to complete, which was no mean feat. https://www.seat61.com/jungfrau.htm shows the general workings of the Jungfrau Railway and the layout of the Jungfraujoch complex. We used it for much of our training. The train burst into the JFJ station, and a corridor later, we were in the huge JFJ complex with large glass windows showing the whiteness around and beyond. There was a food court of sorts with several souvenir shops. Our first stop, though, was the Ice Palace.

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It was situated in an ice cave like space on top of JFJ. We had to walk carefully to avoid slipping in ice. Rails had been thoughtfully provided on the walls for support. Inside were a variety of ice sculpture including those of penguins and bears. There was the ice-age squirrel kind of thing frozen in a bar of ice, there was Charlie Chaplin’s famous The Tramp and The Kid (to commemorate Chaplin who fled the US during and because of McCarthy’s witch-hunt and settled and died in Switzerland). There were also statues of the Italian immigrant labourers who had toiled to bore the tunnel through summer and wicked winter in early twentieth century when the tunnel section from Kleine Scheidegg to JFJ was completed. A good many of them had laid their lives in the process.

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We exited the Ice Palace to enter into the Lindt showroom. The showroom beckoned us with its wafting chocolaty fragrance and colourful display of absolutely unaffordable chocolates. It even had a small display of how the chocolate making process was carried out. Over and above all this, everyone who visited the showroom was given a chocolate at the exit. We consumed it, and controlled our craving to return and raid the shop.

The way out of the showroom led us to the mottamaadi of the Jungfrau building which alone was open to the elements. All was snow and the cold bit into the four or five layers that separated my torso from the cosmos. I had never felt so much gratitude for a human being as I did at that moment for Aravindhan who had lent me his jerkin without which I would have probably become an exhibit in the Ice Palace myself. We climbed up the ice hill and reached the peak where flew the Swiss flag.

A journey to Jungfraujoch can be rendered thoroughly pointless if the panchabhoothams decide to play truant. On various occasions when my friends had visited the Joch, visibility had been in single digit feet and the sun, conspicuous in its absence. Snowing was not uncommon either. But today, the sky was so bright and clear that if we hadn’t worn sunglasses, we would have damaged our eyes. We could see all the peaks around the Joch within a radius of a hundred kilometres and, oh, the view was scintillating. I had been in the presence of so much snow only twice before, both times in the Himalayas and on both occasions, the place had been a frozen lake, which meant that hills around me blocked my view. JFJ stood tall enough to make one feel that they were truly on Top of Europe (which was JFJ’s slightly inaccurate caption). We tried (and largely failed) to click pictures through our gloves. It was almost lunchtime, and we repaired to the building, pining for warmth.

 

The crowd was unbelievable. It consisted mostly of Chinese and Indian tourists with only a sprinkling of Europeans and Americans. In order to have lunch, it was necessary to seat ourselves somewhere, but all seats were taken. So we hawkishly waited until one bench was vacated (“odu meen oda etc.”). We pounced on it, beating a very disappointed Chinese family (“All is fair in love and war”). We consumed our packed lunch which was puliogare from the Balmer end, and Biryani from Ankit. We returned to the mottamadi to battle frostbite once again, enjoy the view and click yet more pictures.

 

We were not quite done with JFJ just yet, as the Sphinx observatory, which lay a few hundred feet above us, still remained to be explored. Observatory gave much astronomical and meteorological data to the scientific community and was the second highest in Switzerland. But to tourists such as ourselves, it gave a high point with excellent views. From the JFJ complex, it was reachable through a lift drilled into the mountain. We emerged from it into the balcony of the observatory and feasted from yet another vantage point on more Alpine peaks such as Mt Jungfrau, Mt Mönch and many others.

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That done, we descended in the lift, and went for another round in the Lindt showroom, you know, just to take in the ‘ambience’. But when we went to through exit and only two of us got free chocolate, the ambience suddenly lost lustre. Sensing our disappointment, the guy at the exit, called us back in and satisfied the other two of us (being from TN, we take our freebees very seriously).

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All of this and more, we achieved by two thirty. And that was approximately when the masculine branch of our team started to suffer from identical headaches. I had been waiting for this to happen, as it had done on the two occasions when I had been at high altitude. Vaishnavi, as usual, remained utterly immune to such physiological phenomena. We decided to bid JFJ goodbye and filed to the platform. The trouble was, two hundred other people had come to the exact same decision around the same time, and all of us jostled into the platform to get to the head of the queue to the train. The gate remained hopefully open almost until we got to the head of the queue and closed just as we got there. I realised that the platform contained a great number of people with pounding heads when, in one swoop, all of us sat on the floor to wait for the next train which would start half an hour from then.

There was much groaning and moaning in the air, and probably the vaayilkaappaans heard it. So, they went into the crowd to distribute free chocolate, thank you very much, to cheer us up. It did. The headache did not disappear. But the endorphins released by the chocolate served to lift our spirits. The good gate-man visited us one more time with his chocolate, just before we were to be admitted in the next train. We boarded it with munching mouths and the journey down to Kleine Scheidegg passed in silence.

We chose to take the train to Grindelwald. The route was just as beautiful as its Lauterbrunnen cousin and we decided to spend a few minutes in the town of Grindelwald, as Pravin, who had stayed there, had said as many flattering things about the town, as the unflattering things Rowling had said about the eponymous man. Most importantly, we needed a WC break. Any leader of a high altitude trek will tell you that the best way to battle headaches is to consume generous quantities of water. And Grindelwald fortunately had a free WC. After that business was taken care of, we walked around the town just a bit. There was a huge square which had the statue of an anonymous ski instructor.

 

We caught pretty much the very next train to Interlaken, and went back to our hostel, and Ankit checked in. It was around five now, and sunlight was promised for another three and a half hours. So, Ankit, Vaishnavi and I decided to pay Interlaken proper a visit. Karthik decided to call it a day and enjoy the vibe of the hostel. Armed with our Guest Cards, we caught a bus to Interlaken West, the other big railway station of the town. There, we decided to first fulfil our obligation to Switzerland of shopping in a supermarket. We had earlier tried one called Coop in Interlaken Ost station and come out horrified at the sudden inflation of zeros in price cards. Ankit, who had a several month head-start on understanding the vagaries of Switzerland, showed his abhayahastha, and took us to a supermarket called Migros just outside West station.

With his guiding hand, we managed to locate the usual bread, milk and curd, but also, some nuts and dry fruit which turned out to be priced in the same way as in India. This was followed by much souvenir hunting, and window shopping. The town had a nice throb to it. Its architecture was interesting. On the road connecting the Ost and West stations, we found an ancient hotel called Victoria-Jungfrau (of course) and on a perpendicular road was the Schloss Interlaken. As Schlosses go, this was on the larger side, and the grounds were well kept. It faced a huge open space grassland on the perimeter of which many people could be found walking with dogs of every description from the ox-sized to the hand-held.

We walked back to our hostel, showered, had dinner (Bhaaji ubayam Ankit and bread toast, an interesting combination) and went back to bed.

Day 12

On Wednesday, ninth of May, we rose early and invaded the kitchen almost immediately. We heated and packed the rajma curry for later. Ankit and I first went in to have breakfast as the others were getting ready. Here, we met an American student who was doing a kind of combo course in Computer Science and Chinese. As part of his coursework, he had had to complete a stint in China, which he had recently done, and was enjoying a break in Interlaken on his way home. Following a stimulating discussion on the nature of the Chinese script, the metric and American systems of measurement, with him taking an unreasonable stance on what he called the beauty of the Fahrenheit, I outlined our tour itinerary to him. After hearing me out, he said, “Hmmm, so you’re going to cover both sides of the Alps, aren’t you?” I hadn’t thought of it that way until he pointed it out to me. I thanked him for his perspective, and bade him all the best for his paragliding session later that day. Karthik and Vaishnavi soon joined us and, after they broke their fast. We cleared our rooms and checked out.

Interlaken, as the name suggests is a town saddled between lakes (Thunersee to the west, and Brienzersee to the east) Ferries in the lakes were operated by a company called BLS, and these, in turn, were covered by the Eurail pass. If you have been following our journey thus far, you would know by now that there was no way in the whole wide world we were going to give it a miss. As our destination for the day lay to our south-east, we chose to cruise on Brienzersee. Across the length of the lake on the eastern end lay Brienz. It was twenty minutes by train and an hour and a quarter by ferry. But we chose the latter for the following reason.

The ferry stop just short of Brienz was a place called Giessbach. By sheer luck, I chanced upon https://www.momstotszurich.com/2011/03/giessbach-waterfalls.html/ which revealed a superb waterfall nestled in the mountains which could be reached through a short trek from Giessbach boat station. I made up my mind that this was a place we would not miss. But when I had thought these brave thoughts, I had imagined my rucksack to be made of feathers rather than food, clothes and pressure cookers. On the Keukenhof day itself, it became clear to me that some reimagining was required if we were to scale the falls.

Interlaken Ost boat station resided near the railway station of the same name. Our bus dropped us there and we boarded the first ferry for the day (0907 hrs). The boat had outdoor seating as well as an indoor restaurant. Obviously we chose the deck. The boat strode at mandha gathi which gave us ample time to take in the beauty of the mountains on either side and the blue-green lake betwixt. In the meantime, I checked with the Captain of the boat if there was any locker facility that we could use at Giessbach. Although he answered in the negative, he assured us that the guy in the station shouldn’t mind looking after our luggage for a couple of hours.

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So reassured, we disembarked at Giessbach, and requested the station master to suggest ways of handling our luggage situation. He pointed at what looked like a shop counter and asked us to leave our luggage behind it. Since it was very much in the open and the place was very much deserted, we initially vacillated on the idea. But Europe until then had been extremely safe, so we decided to follow his advice and left our luggage right there in the care of Goddess Meenakshi who, I hoped, had her powers intact in Switzerland too.

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We started to climb towards the promised waterfall and encountered the lower reaches of it almost immediately. It was almost the width of Old Kutralam falls and seemed as ferocious. The Giessbach waterfalls was not just one, but several waterfalls. It fell and fell and fell yet again, finally spilling directly onto the lake surface. We decided to walk as high as possible in the two hours we had allowed for this stoppage.

 

With every few feet up, we got a different view of the falls. Of the three falls we had visited, this was the one we could enjoy in touching distance. We nearly got drenched in the heavy spray. After a short climb, we found an open space in which was housed Hotel Giessbach. Most occupants of the hotel enjoyed a spectacular view of the falls.

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We continued past it and climbed still further. There were three bridges across the falls. The first, we had already crossed very close to the ship station. The second, we passed a few feet up the Hotel. The third was special. It let us cross the falls behind it. I had never seen or done anything like that before. The very idea of it was the kind of thing Kalam asked people to dream about, probably.

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At this point, we decided to turn around, as we had had a surfeit of falls and the clock was ticking. We quickly climbed down to the Hotel with the falls beside us all the time. At the hotel was a small souvenir shop which had an interesting collection of musical boxes, among other things. We spent some time turning the lever around to hear the music play. Satisfied, we walked down to the ship station.

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The luggage was still there, to our immense relief. We still had a few minutes before our ferry. We spent this time just gazing at and across the lake and all too soon, it was time to say goodbye to Ankit. He would return to Interlaken and go back to Lausanne. As our ship came to pick us up, we waved him tata and readied ourselves to get down at Brienz ten minutes later. This was of essence because we were targeting a train which would leave within five minutes of our reaching Brienz by ship. Our ship dropped us there on time, and the station was but some twenty paces away. But there was a railway crossing whose gates were closed. As a train – our train, in fact – crossed us and pulled up in the station, the gates opened and we hurtled, luggage and all, to the nearest compartment which had a giant ‘2’ on it and settled down in a free two plus two seating. The train, as promised, departed at 25 minutes past noon. This train was interesting in its design as practically half the side walls of the train was made of glass. This afforded the commuters ample opportunity to watch nature unfold around us.

The reason why this train, of all the trains, had such an arrangement became apparent as the train continued. The route to Lucerne, which was where we were headed seemed to be very sparsely populated with the happy result that nature was given a free hand to do as it pleased. And nature, as is the case in such circumstances, had put together a show worthy of the Gods. Trees and grasslands, rivers and snow, mountains and valleys competed with each other to earn our attention. It was the visual equivalent of Open Butter Masala Dosa. We had our lunch (Bread and Rajma) in the train and got down at Lucerne one and a half hours later.

The next, and last, train for the day would take us to Bellinzona where we would spend the night. Switzerland is a diverse country. Although more than sixty percent of the population speaks German, There is a significant French-speaking minorities in and around Geneva (Ankit’s Lausanne being part of Francophone Switzerland). On the south-central tip on the Italian border is the Italian speaking Canton of Ticino (Cantons are political units which made up the Confederation of Switzerland, like States made up India). It’s capital was Bellinzona. (There were also some people who spoke a language called Romansh on the highly mountainous area near the Switzerland-Austria-Italy triple point).

The train to Bellinzona turned out to be a bit crowded. After much scouring, we found a two plus two seat next to a young Swiss soldier in full uniform inclusive of a rifle. After ten minutes of curiosity laden silence, we started talking to him. He turned out to be a very warm person. Switzerland was a country which had conscription, and our friend was on the verge of completing his service.  He said that they mostly used English to communicate with each other in the forces, to avoid Babel-like consequences. He himself was an Italian speaker and gave us our first taste of the vowel-final Italian accent.

I got the feeling that the Swiss had gone for the Tamil Nadu formula, more or less. They seemed to use their mother tongue for everyday business at home and in home canton, and English as the lingua franca. He expressed a wish to travel to India on vacation. So we helped him chart a tentative tour and bombarded him with information on when to go to India, where in India to visit, how to do that, and so on. We asked if the Swiss Army Knife is actually a Swiss Army knife. Out of one of his many pockets, he brandished one to our awe. It was a spartan knife with not too many tools. He informed us that it was part of the kit that every soldier received when they joined the army.

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In no time, we were at Bellinzona station. We parted with our friend and got down there. It was quarter to four in the evening, and the sky was overcast and threatening to pour. We walked as quickly as we could through the town. The road to our hostel was paved with a red coloured stone which gave a unique flavour to it. There seemed to have been a kind of roadside flea market which was just winding up around then. The town seemed to be of considerable vintage with a neat blend of the modern and the ancient.

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A few yards before we reached our hostel, it started to drizzle. We almost ran to Ostello Bellinzona and a helpful receptionist checked us in while Varuna, satisfied that we were under a roof, took the downpour up several notches. We deposited our luggage in our room which had an excellent view of the city and the railway track just behind the hostel. The hostel was an old stone building which seemed to be at the very least a century old. But it had been adapted to the modern man’s needs, and all upholstery and the plumbing was contemporary.

Once the rain abated, we decided to walk around the town. The nearest sight to see was Castello di Montebello (we shall no longer be calling them Schlosses) which was on the hill behind the hostel. Bellinzona had a flattering number of castles. We climbed up to Montebello and spent some time in the huge lawns within the outer walls of the Castle. The view of Bellinzona from the ramparts was lovely, as was the walk around them. We had no intentions of getting any deeper into the Castle as it required a fat entrance fee.

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After the Castle, we decided to walk around the town. There was not much in the nature of shopping to do, chiefly because it was past five and that was when the shopkeepers of the town called it a day. There was a 2 CHF shop which literally shut the door on our face because we were two seconds late. Added to this was the fact that the next day was a public holiday. The only commercial activity that was in progress was the café/restaurant/pub/boova kind.

There was a large piazza in the middle of the town with an obelisk and out of which radiated many alleyways. Into one of those we went and it revealed yet more pretty old buildings. One of these was a government building (at least five hundred years old) which had both the law enforcement and tourist offices. Both of these were closed. Grandfather, who had begun his career working as a clerk at the District Court in Madurai which, at that time was housed at Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal, came to my mind.

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We returned to our room after we had had enough of the by-lanes. After a shower, we set out to make dinner. There was no kitchen open to guests per se. But there was a living room with a TV, books, a fridge and a microwave oven. The accommodating receptionist lent us a bowl and some plates. We made Upma and pasta in the oven, as a middle-aged inebriated German with a passing acquaintance with the English language attempted several times, and failed, to make a conversation with us. The food tasted great. We said needoozhi vaazhga to MTR and Sunfeast and turned in.

Day 13

Thursday the tenth of May was Ascension day, a public holiday in most parts of Europe. We woke up at our usual time and got ready for breakfast which was on the house, thank God. The breakfast was the same with the added attraction of cheese and chocolate along with bread. We tucked in sumptuously and left for another round of castellar perambulation.

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Castelgrande was perched on a hill as almost every other castle we’ve been to. It was roomier than Montebello. It could only be entered into by crossing a drawbridge. The stone walls were tall and thick enough for three people to walk on side-by-side (as we discovered when we climbed up there). There was enough space to store boulders and boil oil to attack any enemy who tried to scale the walls.

 

After taking as many snaps as was decent, we returned to our hostel to check-out and walk back to the station. With heaving chests, we arrived at the station and caught a train to Lugano further towards the border of Switzerland and Italy. We reached Lugano a bit past noon. The town looked busier and livelier than sleepy little Bellinzona. Here, we allowed ourselves a rare luxury. We decided to Eat Out. In the railway station, there was a pizzeria in which we had a margherita (without a straw, of course). After that, it was time to say bye-bye to Vaishnavi who would be returning to Stuttgart, after five days of vagabonding with us. Her train was an hour or so after ours in which time, she would walk around the town as much as her luggage permitted an, later, catch trains to reach Stuttgart by evening.

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Our train to the Swiss border town of Chiasso left Lugano at twenty past one. It was jam-packed, probably because it was a holiday, and we barely managed to get a place to stand. Fortunately, the journey was a short one. Less than half an hour later we got down at Chiasso.

The station was interesting. Although the entire station was on the Swiss side, it was de facto the place where Italy began, as far as trains were concerned. Entire platforms (which were quite long) had both a northern Swiss patch operated by the Swiss Railway companies and a southern Italian patch used by Italian Trains. And so, when we changed platforms to catch our Italy-bound train, we had to walk past Italian customs and border security offices (none of whose personnel stopped us to so much as check our passports).

The last three days in particular had taught us much and more about Switzerland. I had begun to understand how this country had managed to keep out of wars. Hitler loved annexing territory with the pretext of uniting the German people of whom Switzerland had several. Yet, the country did not just not get annexed, but remained neutral despite sharing a long border with the Third Reich. In my opinion, the answer lies in managing diversity through local autonomy and political realism, attributes which seem to survive there to this day.

A few minutes past two, our train arrived to take us to, as our American friend had eloquently put, the other side of the Alps for good. We had begun the crossing the previous day when had left German-speaking territory for Italian speaking Ticino. The Western Ghats teach us (South Indians) how different two sides of a mountain range can look and feel. Just looking at Tamil Nadu and Kerala in Google maps, let alone travelling through those states, will tell us that mountains are fountains of diversity: biological, linguistic and cultural. We had thoroughly relished the northern side of the Alps: the Julian Alps, the Tyrolean Alps, the Appenzell Alps, the Bernese Alps, the Lepontine Alps and several other segments whose name I didn’t know, and were eagerly looking forward to exploring the south.

Tour of the Occident: 5. Austria

The Rest of Day 7

Friday, the fourth May, 2018. Into the tiny Bled station, the little train pulled in, and we went into one of the coaches which had the large “2” written on it. This was code everywhere for second class. The coach had a seating arrangement similar to our night train with cabins of six seats. The train was sparsely filled, and we chose an especially empty cabin which only had a guy who seemed to be more or less our age. As is always the case with strangers in a train, we spent the first few minutes staring at our phones, then staring out of the window, and staring at other places which did not contain the stranger and eventually fell into conversation with him. His English was rather good and he we all became train friends in no time. He said he was from the Baden-Würtemburg area to which Stuttgart belonged, and that he worked in an automobile company there.

He said he had taken a ten day break around the May Day and was returning to duty after the affair. He had decided to take the break the day before his journey commenced. He had covered Eastern Europe in the trip including Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Somehow I tend to think of that country as Bhajagovinda) and several other countries. He said that Eastern Europe had that great virtue of being both beautiful and cheap, and that his trip had been very enjoyable. This liberty of late planning and carefree international travel, he said, was courtesy of his being a German. To that end, he possessed a residency permit card of sorts which had the power to reduce formidable border posts to vayal varappu. He also remarked that such was not the case with residency permit cards of other European nations.

Soon, our train entered a tunnel and continued in it for a very long period of time. He looked out and said, “we are crossing the border now”. On cue, border officials entered our compartment and demanded papers. He flashed his card and we our passports. Satisfied, they bade us a good day, and continued. This was the first time in Europe that we had been checked while crossing from one country to another. When we crossed over from Netherlands to Germany, there wasn’t so much as a border watchman. We had mostly slept through our crossings from Germany to Austria and from there to Slovenia.

Our friend asked us about India and how the landscape was. We tried to give a short answer, which is never possible or justifiable in the case of India. While describing our geography, we said that one thing we didn’t have in India was the tulip. He laughed and said, “If all the tulips in Europe suddenly disappeared, I wouldn’t cry about it.” By now, our train had come out of its burrow into Austrian territory. It soon stopped at Villach. Our friend left us and his luggage for a coffee with a warning that the train would change platforms and engines here, and that he would join us only after the change over. This was thoughtful, because the train soon started from the platform, and we would have pulled the chain if he hadn’t warned us.

The rest of the journey passed mostly in companionable silence and we were treated with lots of undulating grasslands and mountains and lakes. Our train raced with rivers and dove into mountains and at ten to two, we were at Salzburg Hauptbahnhof (HBF) as promised. We said tata to our friend and detrained.

The walk from the station to our hostel was one of the shortest. On the way, we found paved sidewalks and tall and ancient buildings and moderately wide roads. The city looked very pretty. In ten minutes we were at the gates of YoHo (Youth Hotel) International, Salzburg. It was in a prime location in the middle of the city and very professionally run. Our dorm was also spacious. It came with an RF ID key card which could open both our dorm and our luggage storage (which was also spacious). After dumping our luggage in it. We returned to the reception for some advice on how we should spend our day. The receptionist suggested the Salzburg card (EUR 25) which gave us free access to a variety of museums (Salzburg had dozens), and churches (it had scores) and Schlosses (hundreds) and to various other places for a day. The time was half past two, and we had only until ten next morning to use it. The cost benefit analysis didn’t work in our favour, so we chose to go á la carte. The reception had an excellent hiking map of Salzburg with suggestions for walks around the city (https://www.salzburg.info/PDF/06_reiseinfos/plaene/stadtwandern.pdf) . We chose the “Short hike” as that’s all the time we seemed to have. The city was fascinating. It was accommodated in a small valley nourished by the River Salzach. On both sides of the city were hills which were mostly wooded, peppered with a Schloss or two. The average age of buildings in the city seemed to be half a millennium and were exquisitely preserved and lived in. The city had a special kind of trammy buses, called trolleybuses. There were electrical lines on almost all roads in the city, and these trolleybuses drew electricity from them through pantographs (the things on top of electric trains which draw electricity from overhead electric lines) which seemed to have the ability to extend, contract and rotate to a considerable extent so that buses didn’t strictly need to follow the way the electric lines were laid out.

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Aishwarya, my senior from College had visited the city and had given me an approximate idea of how to relish Salzburg. I decided that our day would involve one Museum, one Church, one concert and definitely one ice-cream. Interactions with many locals had impressed upon us the notion that Schlosses, while breathtaking from the outside, were really not all that interesting (to most human beings) on the inside. Besides, we had the Schlossiest of Schlossest in store for us in another country which didn’t call Schlosses Schlosses. So, we decided to stroll around Schloss Mirabell and its magnificently kept gardens with all its sculpture and fountains, but stopped short of actually entering it.

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Once that was done, our next stop was Mozart Wohnhaus. Mozart is the most prolific icon of Salzburg. Born to a Piano maker, he started composing music when most children start aathichudi. There are two museums dedicated to him: the house where he was born (Geburtshaus) and the house where he lived (Wohnhaus). By all accounts the latter was a far more interesting place to get to know Mozart than the former. Also, the Wohnhaus was next door to Schloss Mirabell. We paid up eleven euros per head and the kind lady at the counter enquired which language we preferred and gave us two credit card swiper like instruments with earphones. A plaque at the entry told us the story of the fall and rise of the Wohnhaus. Salzburg, like many cities of Nazi Germany, had been heavily bombed by the allied forces during World War 2, and the Wohnhaus had been the recipient of one such bomb. The Austrians had it reconstructed by the year 1996. The museum began at the hall of the house. It had a many paintings of the Mozarts and several instruments. Each exhibit was numbered, and if one punched the number on the audio guide, a guide told the story behind the exhibit and played out some music of Mozart’s. The collection of instruments which included a couple of piano fortes was interesting, and the audio guide played music played in those instruments.

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And so we proceeded from room to room until the Museum started to go into the life and times of Mozart’s extended family, and that became a little too much for us. There was a frivolous room too in which one could do such things as take a photo as though we were wearing the silly judge wig. We completed those rituals and proceeded to the exit. At the exit was an advertisement which told us all about the concerts which were scheduled in Salzburg. As it happened, three such concerts were scheduled at half past six at the Mozart University, which was just across the street. We still had nearly an hour to kill before the concert. So we decided to close the other action point: the ice cream. We grabbed a couple and seated ourselves at a table on the sidewalk and watched life unfold in Salzburg.

At the appointed hour, we presented ourselves at one of the mini halls in Mozart University in which a Flute concert was scheduled. One student after another played pieces of Bach and Brahms. All were accompanied solely by a pianist. Neither I nor Karthik knew enough about it to appreciate its intricacies, but the music was very enjoyable. I enjoyed the first one immensely and by the time the next flautist took stage, I had begun to nod. Then started a concerto piece which, to my philistine ear, sounded like a very generous interpretation of the word music. It was more like the track that one heard when Tom was chasing Jerry than music, but my fellow audience enthusiastically applauded when the piece ended and we faithfully joined in. It was also our cue to beat retreat.

There was still the matter of the church. To that end, we chose the Franciscan Church. Thus far, we had restricted our amblings to one side of the river. The church lay on the other side. The river was almost the same width as Vaigai with the salient difference that it had water. Several bridges crisscrossed it, and the one we chose happened to have a mesh fence on which several locks were fastened. This motif would repeat itself in other part of Europe.

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The part of Salzburg where the church was situated seemed to be the oldest in an as such ancient city.  The path was paved, narrow and restricted to walkers. It was lined with souvenir shops and eateries and at the end of one such narrow road was a very large church. (Past it was an even larger church, but we did not go there.) We entered it just as it started to drizzle. This was the first Church that we entered in Europe and its patron saint, as the name suggests, was St Francis of Assisi (Austria and Bavarian Germany are predominantly Catholic). Service was in progress and the monk at the altar in his robes spread his hands and said something in German. With him in the middle at the altar and the pillars so tall, he cut a very impressive figure and seemed like just the chap to go to to launder our conscience.

With the sky clearing, we left the Church, and began to retrace our steps to the hostel. We were back before dark and Varunan, our best friend, summoned the rains a moment later. As was our ritual at the end of the day, we showered, and changed. We went for a walk after the rains, and by now, the city had gone quiet. Like old Bangalore, the city of old Salzburg seemed to grind to a halt at around eight thirty in the evening. Very few restaurants were open, and among them was the Indian Restaurant called… Taj Mahal, of course. But being in no mood to spend a thousand rupees on a Paneer Butter Masala, we returned to our hostel and tried to cook a dinner for ourselves. The kitchen was a modest affair with a microwave oven, a toaster/griller thingy and matching utensils. We made ourselves some Maggi noodles and as our bowl was twirling in the oven, met this interesting pair of mother and son who spoke a combination of English, Kannada and Tamil.

The four of us sat ourselves at a table and started chatting. The mother was an excellent conversationalist and soon she was telling us about her doting son, Europe, India, when to marry, what to shop before going to, and in, Switzerland, and various other things. She had the energy and joie de vivre of a person in their late teens or early twenties, and Karthik and I later hoped that that is how we would age. It was half past eleven when we dispersed the sangam and we had a very busy next day in store.

Day 8

We woke up at six thirty next morning of Saturday, the fifth of May, 2018. To replenish our supplies of bread, jam, milk and curd (all less than a Euro each, yay to supermarkets), we visited the SPAR supermarket nearby. We packed quickly and finished our breakfast of toasted bread and jam. We had a hill to climb. Franziskischlössl the little castle atop one of the two hills wreathing Salzburg, Kapuzinerberg, was our destination. Vaishnavi was expected at Salzburg HBF at eleven and from there, the three of us had a train to catch at eleven ten. Against this tight schedule, we decided to climb as far as time permitted, and turn around if we were getting too late.

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The climb was moderately taxing, not least because the clock was ticking, and we plodded on. There was a proper road open to vehicular traffic, and there were also some hiking tracks. But since our knowledge of the geography was very limited, we decided to follow the road. the hill was well wooded and dense enough revealing a sudden aerial view of Salzburg along with a binocular which refused to make its eyepiece available unless cajoled with a one euro coin. Most telescopes in Europe had this unfortunate tendency.

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It was almost ten by the time we got to the hill and got our view of Franziskischlössl. On one side, it could only be reached by crossing what looked like a drawbridge, and on the other side, the wall was hundreds of feet high. In short, it seemed to be tailor made for fort warfare. Time not being on our side, we decided to turn tail almost as soon as we summited. The walk down was unsurprisingly faster and easier for Karthik came up with the marching slogan “bayangara slope, bayangara slope, bayangara bayangara bayangara slope” with the help of which (apart from disturbing the peace of other hikers) we managed to reach our room in half an hour, check out, and leave with our luggage.

We reached the station at ten to eleven and deposited our luggage in the platform from where our train was scheduled to leave. I left Karthik to babysit our luggage and went down the escalator to the next platform to receive Vaishnavi. Her train was a few minutes late which ate on the already slim margin we had provisioned between the two journeys.

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As soon as my Lady wife was in Salzburg soil, she was whisked away by the tyrant husband of hers to another platform where Karthik waited, and made to board yet another train. In a minute of our getting into it, the train started. For the first time, we failed to secure seats. All we could do was put our luggage in the place reserved for it, and stand on the aisle area. In the time so spent, we derived much pleasure by mispronouncing the station where we were planning to get down: Attnang-Puchheim. The latter word is pronounced pu (as in flower), ch (as in karrring (before thu)) and (hei as in Hi!) and m (as in delicious). If you wanted to anglicise it, you could call it pukhaim. As we were exploring novel ways of doing irreparable damage to the word, a chagrined Austrian lady in front of us turned around and said “PUCH-HEIM” with much gravitas and menace. It achieved the objective of securing our silence, and her equanimity, no doubt.

The journey was fortunately a short one and we were at Attnang-Puchheim by noon. This too was a transit point and we changed platforms to await the train to Bad Goisern (BG), our destination for the day. All Austrian trains are run by the company called ÖBB (roughly pronounced retch-bay-bay). It operates a broad spectrum of trains from the most modern and hip trains to the most ancient and quaint ones. The train we had taken at Salzburg was the former and the one we took to reach BG was the latter. Irrespective of whether this train had reached its expiry date or not, it had free seats and we pounced on them. We monopolised a group of four seats (two facing two with a table in between), and began to have lunch. Vaishnavi had made puliodharai for herself and we had decided to taste Uttara Karnataka’s pride: Kadak roti. Made of Corn and completely dry, these crisps are surprisingly filling and resilient. We made a dip of sorts by mixing Shenga powder (peanut powder) with curd. Mouth watering stuff. We ate kadak roti and the dip, much like one would eat nachos and cheese dip.

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This part of the train journey was through mountains entirely and around 15 km of it was with the massive lake Traunsee to our left. All the scenery was postcard material and we oohed and aahed in sync with it. By quarter past one, we had reached Bad Goisern Bahnhof, a sleepy little station in a sleepier little village. Our hostel conveniently called Hostel Bad Goisern was a ten minute walk from the station. The village was very pretty and clean. Our hostel when we located it, seemed like a building probably built in the times of Teutonic knights, but the inside was surprisingly modern and cozy.  We were greeted by the elderly landlord and given the customary intro speech about where what was and what the rules of the house were.

We told him about our plan to visit St Wolfgang, situated on the banks of yet another mountain lake (Wolfgangsee) some thirty km from BG and asked his advice on how to reach there. Unfortunately the town was not connected by train. After giving us a pamphlet on the bus timings to and from St Wolfgang and telling us which app to download to know such things (ÖBB, of course), he said, “Or, I could give you a lift in my Audi as I have some shopping to do at St Wolfgang.” The moment the word Audi reached my auditory apparatus, I said, “Yes!” and that’s how we got to visit St Wolfgang.

He owned a huge dog which ruled the boot and the three of us took our places in the Audi. He told us on the way how he loved German Autobahns with their no upper speed limit policy and in Austria, 130 kmph was the max. Varuna once again teased us with a bit of rain on our way to St Wolfgang, but a km before the town, the sky cleared. The landlord dropped us off at the market where we grabbed a couple of free hiking maps which were conveniently stacked in the tourist info centre.

We chose a route which would take us through the old village. The alleys were paved, narrow and winding as one would expect in hilly terrain. It was located on the banks of that part of the lake when it narrowed such that the opposite bank was within swimming distance (provided the swimmer was Kutraleeswaran material and didn’t mind freezing on the way). The lake had a robust ferry system using which the four or five town on the banks of the lake could be reliably reached. Our destination for the day was one such ferry station at the end of the village. On the way, as was our wont, we had our ice-cream (of course) and did a bit of souvenir shopping. The popular souvenirs of the place seemed to be cuckoo clocks (both mechanical and quartz) modelled on the Schwarzwald design, snow globes, ceramic mugs and miniature cow bell key chains.

On our route stood a massive old Church (there seemed to be only one kind in this part of Europe: massive old) built by the man who had given the town its name, St Wolfgang. It was well visited by pilgrims and tourists and seemed to have an active parish. It was located on a high point on the banks of the lake such that attacks on it from the waterfront would have been difficult.

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What with the cold climate and the copious quantity of fluids I had consumed during the course of the day, it was time for me to give some of it back to the environment. We went in search of a WC, and found only paid ones. As one indoctrinated in the principle that no pee was worth more than what Shanti Nagar Bus Stand charged for it (Rs 5 currently), I instructed my body to behave itself for some more time. The more I implored it the more the situation deteriorated. I decided to relax my rule on a strictly once only basis. We located a pay and use WC in a parking lot and tried to coax the gate by inserting a one euro coin. The gate stubbornly returned the coin to me and remained as solid. Behind us was a truck driver who had been observing the proceedings with some amusement. He went ahead and pulled the gate a certain way, and lo and behold, the gate was open. We mimicked him and thus deprived the Republic of Austria of a few euros with the connivance of a faulty gate and a thrifty driver.

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Suddenly my vision was clearer and the town much prettier. The mountains were greener and the water bluer. We reached the other end of the town with its jetty and park. There was a funicular ride up a nearby mountain from this point, but it would not reopen until a couple of days later which was a pity.

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But the park here was beautiful and contained many tulips and an excellent view of the lake and the mountains on the other side of it. We spent quite a bit of time enjoying the view and clicking photos and soon, it was time for our bus back. It would take us up to Bad Ischl from where we could use the pass to take a train back to BG. We did all of those things and reached BG by seven. On our walk back to the hostel, we paid a visit to the village’s school.

This was not out of any misplaced passion for education but because the park attached to it (intended, I imagine, for people of single digit age) was enticing. Fortunately it was deserted but for a mother and her child. This duo, probably sensing the calamity that was due to befall the seesaws and slides, promptly vacated the park. We amused ourselves by not acting our age until the sky started to darken (past eight thirty).

That was our cue, and we sped back to the hostel, showered, made ourselves some some Rajma Rice (Vaishnavi had brought the mix) in the brilliantly equipped, and spotless, kitchen there, washed up the vessels, and went back to bed.

Day 9

Sunday, the sixth of May 2018 dawned brightly on Bad Goisern a good two hours before we woke (six thirty), and we quickly swung into action. We had many train and boat rides in store for the day, not to mention a trek. Both breakfast (Oats) and lunch (Pongal) were cooked well before eight, and the former consumed and the latter packed. We requested our landlord to let us checkout, but leave the luggage behind until afternoon to which he cheerfully agreed.

With only the daybag, we sped to the Bad Goisern railway station to catch the train to Hallstatt. Hallstatt was the whole point of taking this detour from Salzburg to deep interior Austria. It was no mere town around a lake (Hallstättersee), but an historic salt mine where mining had been taking place on and off since the neolithic age (go Google). The train duly dropped us at Hallstatt Bahnhof which lay on the opposite bank of the lake to Hallstatt town. We walked down to the ferry station to catch a ferry across to the town. The train and ferry services were conveniently synchronised.

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The town was fetching. It was very similar to St Wolfgang in the way it was laid out with the now customary church and the narrow winding streets. The shops sold more or less the same merchandise, with a peppering of salt related goods. It was flush with tourists and townsfolk enjoying a nice and sunny Sunday morning. We did not dawdle in the town. We walked straight towards our destination which lay a good four kilometers from the town.  As we walked away from the lake, the houses became fewer and soon there were only stray horses and ponies grazing on the ample grass.

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We followed the route suggested by https://www.outdooractive.com/en/hiking-trail/inneres-salzkammergut/wanderung-von-hallstatt-zum-schleierfall-im-echerntal-barrierefrei-/21741789/ Soon the path started to steepen and the grass was replaced by trees. Our route started to hug the banks of a gushing stream whose roar gave us soothing company. The route was absolutely deserted. Here and there, wooden bridges could be found across the stream with a parallel track on the other bank. But we stuck to one side and trekked on. After a particularly steep climb we got our first glimpse of Waldbachstrub waterfalls. It was a tall and majestic brute of a waterfall in which water lost an altitude of upwards of a hundred feet. Unlike Kutralam though, one could not stand under it and take a beating. For one thing, the path to right below the falls was treacherous and even the spray from the waterfall felt like tiny needles of ice. Hot on our heels came a solitary Chinese hiker who very kindly clicked a few pictures of the three of us (probably the some of the few photos with the three of us which were not selfies).

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When we started back, our Chinese friend was trying to find a path all the way to where the water fell. Putting a mental petition to Anjaneya to keep him safe, we crossed the river and chose the path on the side of the bank. We reached Hallstatt town quickly (“Bayangara slope, bayangara slope”) and unleashed our shopping instincts. Back in the town, we reached the office of the funicular which took tourists up to the old salt mines. There we bought some rock salt at kadavulukke adukkaathu prices and got back to our ferry station. Time was in short supply and we had several trains to catch. By quarter to one, we were back at BG. We quickly removed our luggage from the hostel and got back to the station.

Our train rides for the rest of the day comprised retracing our path to Salzburg via Attnang-Puchheim and a final long journey to the capital of Tyrol: Innsbruck. We had our packed pongal on the ride to Attnang-Puchheim and changed trains there and later at Salzburg. By four minutes to four, we were on the train to Innsbruck. This train’s ultimate destination was Zurich and we happened to travel on a Sunday. The result was that the train was extremely crowded and it was with some difficulty and team work that we managed to get seats together.

I’m sure the route was beautiful and all, but after the exertions, all we could do was relax, and regain control of our respiratory system.

At quarter to five, we were at Innsbruck HBF (Main Station). It is a large and luxurious station with all that anyone could hope for in a station and more. Most importantly, it had an affordable luggage rack. Our hostel at Innsbruck was a long walk from the station and it had no kitchen. So we decided to dump Karthik’s rucksack and mine in a medium sized luggage locker which was coin operated and costed only two and a half euros per day. We took only the one day’s change of clothes and papers and left everything else in the locker.

Innsbruck is known for many things. But the one thing for which it is Europe famous is Swarovski crystals. There was a largish showroom some ten minutes’ walk from the station, and we made a beeline for it. Innsbruck seemed to have allowed some modernity to seep into its ethos. For one thing, the roads were wider and at least some buildings seemed to be from this century. The showroom itself was located at probably the most ancient part of the city near the Golden Roof. This roof is part of a building which was meant as the palace of the Kings of Tyrol, but apart from a frankly incongruous roof, the building seemed no grander than any of its neighbours at least from the outside.

However, we had come there to crystal gaze, and so we did. The showroom was flooded with Chinese tourists. There was a lot of jewelry and exhibits made of the Swarovski crystals. The crystals themselves were as pretty and clear as diamonds, which is, I suppose, no great achievement, as natural diamonds are some of the biggest rip offs ever perpetrated on mankind.

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There was a “crystal staircase” which is code for a glass staircase with the odd crystal underneath the glass. Besides, there were bracelets, there were necklaces, there were earrings, there were… well, it was a sort of GRT with crystals, with the odd showcase item thrown in. There were also some intriguing mannequins draped in Swarovski. The shop was due for closure at seven thirty in the evening, an arrangement to which Vaishnavi did not entirely agree. But since we had very little say in the matter we exited the shop at seven thirty and started our walk to our hostel.

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The way to our hostel involved walking along the river Inn of which Salzach is a tributary (Innsbruck means Inn’s Bridge), crossing it, and walking a bit more. The sun shone and the river glistened. The banks of the river had seating arrangements here and there to relax and enjoy. We did those two things in a couple of places and checked in a bit past eight.

Garni-Technikerhaus was a decent budget hotel which came with a free breakfast. We had brought some bread and jam for dinner and borrowed some cutlery from our hosts to consume the same. The day concluded with “Hush-a-bye baby on the treetop”.

Two thirds of Day 10

That Monday the seventh of May, we woke up as usual at half past six and got ready for breakfast which was on the house. We would get our first taste of the the concept of “complimentary breakfast” as promoted and practised by hoteliers in Europe. There was a breadbasket which contained some four varieties of it, there was butter, jam, cereal, milk, flavoured yoghurt (curd), a fruit (apple in this case) and there was a choice between coffee and tea. And there was a request not to “take away” any food. In all of the places in which we had been promised breakfast, the menu would be the same except for very minor changes, if any.

We gobbled up everything and checked out. We made our way to a local S Bahn station called Innsbruck Hötting. Eurail pass covered S Bahn rides in Innsbruck too. We relied on Sir Google to show us the way to the station, but He let us down. We ended up on the wrong side of the station which was some fifty feet below station level with no access to the station from that side. When we pleaded with Sir Google once again, He suggested a ten minute walk which would involve crossing the track, which of course was inevitable, and doing a pradakshanam of the entire Hötting hill to get to the station entrance. We decided to take matters in our hands and went along a route which seemed logical. Sure enough, as soon as we crossed the track at an underpass there was a secret alleyway which neatly brought us right into the station with a minute to spare for the train.

Whereas in Germany there is hardly any ticket checking in the local trains, Innsbruck S Bahn had a guy going up and down the train checking tickets. We reached HBF by nine thirty and began along the same path as the previous day. Before the reader starts panicking, I would like to assure them that we would not visit the famed jeweler a second time. It was because the offices of the Innsbrucker Nordketten Bahnen (INB) lay on the same route, roughly.

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We filled our bottles on one of the water fountains liberally sprinkled across the city and reached the underground offices of INB. There we procured two combi tickets to the Alpenzoo and Hungerburg (for the zoologically minded Vaishnavi and myself), and one ticket to Hefelekar (for the mountain minded Karthik). The route to Hungerburg is through a funicular ride which takes one all the way from Innsbruck level to Hungerburg level (with a stop at the Alpenzoo which lies in between). The three of us got down at Hungerburg and enjoyed the view of Innsbruck from there (I must admit that Salzburg looked prettier from above). Here again was one of those despicable one euro binoculars.

We parted with Karthik as he went on to the cable car station which would take him to Seegrube. At Seegrube, there is another viewpoint to regard the city from a slightly higher altitude. There is also a pub up there to take care of one’s hunger/thirst. From there yet another cable car would take Karthik to the summit of the Nordkette mountain called Hefelekar at which Karthik would get an “indha pakkam paathaa Germany; andha pakkam paatha Austria” moment.

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We, on the other hand, took the funicular back down and got down at the Alpenzoo stop and entered what must be one of the most interesting zoos in the world. As the name implies, the zoo was home to animals endemic to the Alps. A patch of the alps seemed to have been cordoned off to house animals in their habitat. Birds and animals were given a bit more real estate than in most zoos I’ve seen and there were even safe paths which were designed in such a way that one could walk into the homes of these animals (mostly birds). It was as though the zoo-keepers had crossed zoos with safaris and spawned the Alpenzoo.

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There were many large birds of the vulture family (we saw the zoo keepers feeding a particularly large vulture some meat). There were also the odd monkey and sparrow. There was even a mini aquarium which housed fish native to alpine rivers and lakes. The animals which I looked forward to meeting (with sufficient distance and a solid partition between us) were the predators. One of these was the Lynx. This wild cat, when we went to its enclosure, was not to be found. It was only when we went further around and up the mountain that we saw a couple perched atop a tall tree and in deep slumber. They had a spotted coat and gave the aura that they were only feigning sleep.

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The next predator, and the de facto mascot of the Alpenzoo, was the Bear. Like any professional show, the Zoo too saved the best for the last. The enclosure was nearly half an acre large and fortified with what looked like three feet thick concrete. The bears were all asleep too (it was the middle of the day for crying out loud!) and even from the distance, seemed very brown, very large and very intimidating. There was a display of the different species of bears and where the Alpine bears stood in terms of size.

With an impressive number of pictures of animals (cuddly and otherwise) clicked, we left the zoo and caught the Funicular back down to ground zero. We had synchronised with Karthik such that we would take the same funicular, and on the way down we swapped stories.

No city can be considered to be ticked off until a supermarket in it had been raided. In keeping with this spirit, we chose a supermarket on the way to the HBF (SPAR, of course) and bought the usual, especially curd, as it was vital to the lunch we had planned. We reached the HBF by quarter past one and sped to our locker to check if a) it had not been robbed, b) our locker was jammed, c) it had been subjected to a rodent attack, or d) something had leaked. The answer turned out to be e) none of the above. We hugged our dear luggage like a long-lost, obese, friend and did a bit of repacking in the waiting room (which was much better than the one in Munich), and went up to our platform.

The train we were due to catch was the same as the one we had come by. Its destination was Zurich (as was ours) and when it pulled up, it turned out to be every bit as crowded as it had been when it had dropped us at Innsbruck the previous day. No amount of teamwork would get us a two plus two (2P2) seating arrangement, with a table in between. So, we settled for two seats on one 2P2 and one more on a neighbouring 2P2 with the aisle in between. As the clock was threatening to strike two, we got down to having lunch. Since we had not had access to a kitchen since dawn, the lunch would be kadak roti with the Shenga curd dip. Lunch was a very sloppy affair because of the inconvenient aisle which made sharing the dip and passing the roti a tad difficult. However, the fact that we were extremely hungry made us oblivious to the existence of an aisle and dozens of other passengers around us. We slurped the dip, and gnashed our teeth and gulped our food with abandon. Within minutes, the couple, with whom Vaishnavi and I shared our 2P2, vacated their spot with a gracious “Enjoy”. The train traveled upstream of the river Inn, some fifty feet above its level and the view it afforded was nothing short of magical. Even after nearly a week of the Alps, it always seemed to have something up its sleeve. The Austrian Alps had been amazing. As our train neared the border town of Feldkirch, I wondered what the Swiss Alps have in store for us.

Tour of the Occident: 4. Slovenia

Day 6

Have you ever booked an RAC ticket in an overnight train, had the misfortune of it not getting confirmed, and had to share a Side Lower berth with an equally unfortunate soul? The experience that I had on the overnight train from Munich, Germany to Bled, Slovenia, with its smelly toilet was not dissimilar. Sleeping while sitting up was an art neither Karthik nor I were masters of. After much twitching and fidgeting, I managed to doze off with my feet on Karthik’s seat which faced mine. He was not as successful. I woke up with a start at around two am. Our co-passenger lady of the family of four was opening the sliding to enter our cabin of six seats. She reported that other than our cabin, almost all others in the compartment were nearly empty. She entrusted the caring of her son and daughter to her husband and went off to one of the cabins to lie down. Karthik and I set off to discover similar such cabins, found one for Karthik to lie down on, and I got back to my cabin which suddenly had more leg room. For another hour, I remained in the Trishanku swargam between sleep and wakefulness and at around three, it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep. I looked at my neighbour and found that the father of the kids was also wide awake, and we fell into conversation.

He told me that he lived with his family in a village near Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. They had driven their car to Germany via Austria on vacation. Their destination had been Legoland, a children’s park run by the toys giant Lego, in the city of Günzburg near Munich. He had let his children loose on the toy paradise, and “they were sooooo happy and laughing and smiling. It was worth it,” he grinned. On their way back, their car had broken down and he had had to arrange for the repair and transport of the car back to Slovenia. He had arrived at Munich Main Station a couple of hours before our train’s departure and managed these tickets to his relief. His friend would be giving him and his family a lift from Ljubljana station to their village, he told me. “It was worth it,” he repeated, shooting a look of pure love at his kids.

He told me about underground caves in Slovenia which were acres large, and of snow and much else. In no time it was five, and we were almost at Bled. The train pulled into Lesce-Bled Station and we bid goodbye to the Slovenian father and got down. We found the train to be much truncated and several cars lighter, it having said goodbye to most of the other cars in Austria. The station itself was one of the smallest I’ve seen anywhere. There were only two or three platforms all of which could be reached by walking across the track at the end of a short platform. There was not a soul in the station building except the stationmaster. The only sign of life in the station itself was in the pub inside it.

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It was five thirty in the morning of the third of May and the sun was out already. We walked out of the station in search of the bus stop which was right outside.  Bled is a settlement of some antiquity founded on the banks of Lake Bled. It is served by two railway station: Lesce Bled and Bled Jezero. The former was around five kilometres from Bled proper. We soon got our bus and were in Bled before six. Our hostel: Castle Hostel 1004 was a very short walk from the Bled bus station. The office would open at nine, but the good folks of the hostel had mailed us the passcode which allowed us into the living room and kitchen. We located the door to the hostel with some difficulty, and the passcode worked and, a flight of stairs later, we were in the living room.

A French lady, who I was quite sure was a guest or a member of the hostel staff, invited us cordially, offered to make us tea (we politely declined) and showed us around the living room and the acquainted us with the kitchen. We figured that since there were three hours to kill, we would use the time to finish our ablutions (showers and toilets were common), and cook breakfast and lunch. I started by making tea.

The kitchen was well equipped with four hot plates, a microwave oven, lots of utensils, a refrigerator, free tea bags, sugar, salt and pepper, and some other free stuff that previous occupants had left behind out of the largeness of their hearts. Once the tea was done and other rituals were over, we unveiled our secret weapon: the three litre pressure cooker. We screwed in its bakelite handles, and started to pressure cook rice as the rest of the hostel who had by now started to emerge from their rooms stared at us in awe. As our cooker hissed and whistled, Karthik and I began work on our breakfast: upma. We had an MTR instant upma packet with clear instructions regarding how to make use it. We used the oven to make the upma and it came out smelling and tasting wonderfully but more in the consistency of porridge than upma. However, by now, we were quite hungry and it could have had the consistency of water for all we cared.

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While the cooker was letting off steam, I went down to the departmental store right next door called Mercator (I wondered why the name of the man who taught the world how to draw maps should be given to a supermarket. Then I discovered that it meant ‘merchant’ in Latin). The supermarket was well stocked and inexpensive. I bought a loaf of bread at well below a euro and returned to the hostel. By then, the cooker was silent and we opened the lid to find that the rice was cooked (a bit too much so, thought Karthik). We split the contents of the cooker into two and added MTR’s puliogare mix in one and curd in another. We packed them in a couple of lunch boxes and awaited our hosts with satisfaction, having closed all action points for the morning. The office opened at nine on dot and an enthusiastic young lady did the paperwork for us.

This hostel, alone of all hostels we stayed at, offered to check in at nine in the morning. They had even allowed us to come in so early and use their facilities even before we had paid a cent. However, the receptionist said that our rooms wouldn’t be ready until a couple of hours later. She allowed us to store our luggage in the hostel office so that we could proceed with our day in hand free mode and check in whenever we came back.

A girl who looked as though she was just out of school was deputed to us to show the facilities of the hostel and give us general info on Bled. She showed us around the hostel joyfully, explained the rules and answered all our (mostly silly) questions. For sheer friendliness Karthik and I christened her Yendeemma. Yendeemma sat us down and explained which places were worth a visit and which tourist attractions were rip offs. Our plan for the day had been to visit the Vintgar gorge in a rented cycle. We had rented one online from a well reviewed Bled based tour company (only to find that right outside our hostel, one could rent cycles cheaper). Yendeema punctured our hopes by revealing that the Gorge was not yet open to public after its usual closure every winter. She however suggested an alternative cycle route which would lead us to the Vintgar waterfalls on the other side of the eponymous gorge. She also assured us that the water of Bled was of the highest quality and could be drunk from any random tap.

We left the hostel with a day pack whose main contents were a raincoat and our lunch boxes and walked to the offices of https://www.pr1motours.com/ There we were handed over our cycles with instructions on how to use them, and a route map of the Bled area with our specific route marked out on it. The shop guy congratulated us on our choice of day because, apparently, it had been raining cats and dogs the previous day, and lots of rains had been promised the next day. We thanked all the nine planets for convincing Varuna bhagavan to spare us.

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Our immediate destination was St Katherine’s Church near Zasip. The church was only around four kilometres from Bled, but Slovenia is almost completely mountainous. Zasip lay at a higher altitude, but we were able to climb there on our cycles. But past Zasip, the road become too steep for us mere mortals who had not trained for Tour de France. We got down from our cycles and started pushing it up the slope. With palpitating hearts, we and our cycles reached the summit and located St Katherine’s Church. Both Yendeemma and the cycle guy had assured us that the path from here to the waterfall would be marked, but it wasn’t. We fastened our cycles to a nearby tree and scouted the area. All around the Church lay wilderness, and several paths radiated from it. Soon, a lady followed us to the Church with her dog and pointed us the way to the falls (“You’ll find signboards all along the way”). We started our hike by following her directions and soon didn’t find any signboards. But we did spot other signs of life – human life to be precise – and thus reassured, followed what seemed like the most likely trail to the waterfalls. We hadn’t preloaded Google Maps of this region in our phones and there was no reception. But GPS worked reasonably well, and a dot on the map that the Cycle renter had given us showed a likely location of the Vintgar falls. Very soon an American couple in their fifties or sixties joined us on the trail and between the four of us, we wound our way towards the fall. On the way, I nearly lost the map which I had inserted between my person and my day bag. But Karthik rescued it from disappearing in the dark forest and issued the following rebuke:

“Irumaappoda poyitrundhingaley, ippo iruntha

oru map-payum tholaikka paathingaley”

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The Americans looked at us in alarm as we rolled around the forest floor in laughter. It was fortunate that they did not know Tamil, or they would have probably fled Slovenia.

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Eventually, the ups and downs reduced to just downs, and the trees abruptly ended to reveal a river on whose one end was a gorgeous waterfall. The Rodovna river itself was a kind of turquoise colour (not quite the kind that you see in photographs of the same river, but nearly as breathtaking). We walked across the foot overbridge which had been constructed right across the falls and got to the other side of the river where we found a wooden platform facing the waterfall at a respectable and enjoyable distance of a few hundred feet. The waterfall was so dense and fast that, even at that distance, spray from the waterfalls managed to reach us.

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We spent almost an hour there enjoying one of the great shows on Earth, staring wistfully at the water that was too cold to take a dip in. It was past noon by then and we unpacked our lunch and had Puliodharai and Thayir Saadham with the waterfall as the side-dish (It is not a great side dish, as it happens. So we would carry a bit of the Puliogare mix in the future to add a bit of taste to the otherwise insipid curd rice). After the sumptuous little meal which would hold us for the next several hours, we started back to St Katherine’s Church.

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It was on our way back that we encountered the snake. I am not sure even now if it was a small snake or a gargantuan worm, but it was the exact same colour as the humus of the forest floor and slithered like an agmark snake. After giving us a thirty second dharisanam, it slipped out of our sight into the woods

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We were soon reunited with our cycles and we rode down the steep slope to Zasip at speeds over which we really had very little control. At Zasip we took a different road to the one we had come through. This one would take us to Bled Jezero, the other railway station near Bled. On the way, we were treated to the sight of rows and rows of the most beautiful houses with the most beautiful little lawns and gardens. Then again, Sir Google made us off-road a bit and when we got back on road, we were almost near Lake Bled. This lake is a fairly large one in the middle of which is an island with a Church, which the locals say, was a temple of an ancient Slavic Goddess before it became a church. Much as we would have loved to take a boat across the lake to the island and visit the church, we desisted and made our way to Bled Jezero station (Jezero means lake in Slovene).

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The Rail Planner app had informed us that there would be a train from Bled Jezero to Bohinjska Bistrica at two minutes to three in the afternoon and we arrived with our cycles well in time. This station was modelled in the same way as its Lesce cousin. It was clean and had a free Water Closet (WC). All right, I’ll call it a wash room, if you insist. In Germany, the only way one could relieve oneself in a train station without paying up was if one used one of the WCs of the trains standing on one of the platforms.

Yendeemma and Rail Planner app had assured us that the Slovenian trains that we were planning to use would be cycle-friendly, and so they turned out to be. When the train came, which was on time, it had a compartment dedicated to people taking their cycles with them (modelled along the lines of the vendor compartment in Chennai EMUs). We pushed our cycles in the compartment (which needed effort because the platform was not flush with the train floor) and parked them inside and found seats. Slovenian trains are shorter than Slovenian station platforms. They are served by the driver, of course, and a conductor, much like a Madurai town bus. The conductor guy waits until everyone has got in and out of the train, helps them in the process, and then gives his signal to the driver to start. Like the Madurai bus conductor, the Slovene train conductor goes around the train selling tickets and checking passes (unlike the Chennai town bus conductor who doesn’t move an inch from his seat, expects passengers to walk up to him to buy tickets and uses words ostracised by dictionary makers to address passengers who fail to comply).

When he came to us, we brandished our passes with pride and bid him farewell. He, however, stood his ground and demanded seven euros. It turns out that while the pass was more than enough to take care of our persons, it did not extend its cloak of protection to our cycles (EUR 3.50 each). We completed our journey enjoying the breathtaking Julian Alps with its many rivers in spate as the spring thawed the snowy peaks. We were at Bohinjska Bistrica twenty minutes later and the good conductor helped us unload our cycles. Our destination lay six and a half kilometres away. Lake Bohinj is yet another lake in Slovenia whose beauty was famed to surpass even that of Lake Bled. Our route lay on the wide valley of the river Sava Bohinjka. The route was marvelous! It reminded me of Sozhavandhan with the Sirumalai on one side and other hills on the other, and a fecund Vaigai and hectares of greenery in between. It felt like heaven to just be there doing that. However, we had been riding through tens of kilometres of hilly roads and hiking up and down waterfalls, and first signs of tiredness began to sprout. The skies was also threatening to open any moment, so we stopped well short of our destination at a particularly fetching place where the river took a turn. There was a place to sit, and a ladder which led one all the way down to the river. Karthik and I spread shop and had some chocolates and biscuits, and recharged our corporeal battery. That done, we climbed down the ladder to wet our feet. The water was icy, but pristine. Would that I had been able to swim in the maragadha amudha vellam! Oh, well, one can’t have everything.

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We then turned back and caught the train back to Bled. We went back to our hostel and checked into our beds, and dumped our luggage into our lockers. It was now time to return the cycle. We were at the pr1motours office by half past six and asked him advice on the next agendum. Pravin, the biggest fan of Slovenia until the previous day (Karthik and I had overtaken him since), had highly recommended the Slovenian Cream Cake, and it was time to try some. The tour guy suggested a shop opposite and we crossed the road and entered the cafe which claimed to have the oldest recipe of the Cream Cake. It lived up to our expectations. I would like to warn anyone from having it and extolling its near perfection to me in the future, as I’ve located some choicy passages in Garudapuranam which deal with such sins.

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We walked back to the hostel along a route bordering the Lake Bled. It was eight and the sun was still going quite strong. We showered and had bread and jam for dinner. We met an American who was a student at the local Management School which, apparently, was quite well regarded. We wished her all the best and repaired to our dorm. It had been a long and loaded day and before my head hit the pillow I was asleep.

A little bit of Day 7

We awoke the next day at around six thirty and made ourselves some tea, had a quick breakfast of bread and jam, packed lunch (same as the previous day), said bye bye to the hostel folks and checked out. It was drizzling and we covered the distance to the bus station in a fast trot. Atul Kulkarni (the two time National Award winning actor, one of which awards was for playing Shriram Abhyankar in Hey Ram) was seated on a bench there, peacefully reading something. A bus stood waiting for us. We caught it to retrace our path to Lesce Bled. The rain that the pr1motours guy had promised arrived on cue and rendered our bus windows translucent. We got down at Lesce Bled and rushed to the shelter of the Railway station and somehow managed not to get drenched. At ten, half an hour later, a train would arrive to take us to Salzburg in Austria. But at that moment, our hearts were filled with all the shades of green that was Slovenia. Maamazhai potrudhum, maamazhai potrudhum.

Tour of the Occident: 3. Germany

Day 2

“Bhoomiyil iruppadhum vaanathil parappadhum avaravar ennangaley”, goes a yesteryear song from the film Shanthi Nilayam (an adaptation of Jane Eyre). Kannadasan the poet clearly classifies people into the earth-bound and the sky-bound. I am the former and Karthik, the latter. Almost the first thing that he said as soon as the trip became a certainty was, “I shall skydive!”. As one who feels giddy looking at one’s own toes standing up, I was clear that I wouldn’t skydive. But we did allocate a day for this adventure. Originally, the plan was to do it in a place called Bovec, in Slovenia in the Julian Alps. Initial emails with the Bovec folks were optimistic, but soon it became clear that the only way to reach Bovec was by renting a car and driving through ghat sections, mostly on rainy days or through snowy roads, as Pravin, who had braved the roads on a Benz twice over, told me. Pravin is an exceptional driver. My driving is passable, and Europeans keep right. So, it was decided that Slovenian skies wouldn’t have the honour of housing Karthik.

That honour would go to Germany. We searched for skydiving companies around Stuttgart and located one called Blue Sky Adventures (http://www.blue-sky-adventures.de/) based on reviews in Facebook and proximity to railway station (so that we could exploit the Eurail pass). The site didn’t have a word of English. We used Google translate to figure out what it said, and mailed them. They responded in English and assured Karthik that he would receive instructions in English if and when he chose to dive with them. Initially, it was decided that the dive would be done on 30th April 2018, a Monday. Assuming this to be writ in stone, we made plans for the second day of our tour, the 29th April, which was a Sunday. The plan was to either go to Rhine falls on the Swiss border, or to Schwarzwald (the Black Forest) known for its dense jungle and wooden cuckoo clocks. Both places were popular one day journeys for Stuttgarters. A few days before we left India, the skydiving folks mailed Karthik that the airport where the diving was headquartered would not be available on 30th, and so the jump would have to be rescheduled. We rescheduled to the 29th, as all other alternatives seemed silly, or stupid, or impossible.

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After an eventful first day at Keukenhof, we woke up late the following day, had a nice breakfast, played around in Vaishnavi’s backyard, and packed our lunch for our trip to Schwaebisch Hall, where the jump would take place. The trip involved an U-bahn ride to Bad Cannstatt (BC), a train ride to Schwaebisch Hall-Hessenthal (SHH) thence, and further from there to Schwaebisch Hall (SH). While riding from BC to SHH, we had our lunch with a German kid looking at us as though we were a particularly interesting cartoon. We reached SH with half an hour to spare for the jump which was scheduled at four.

Vaishnavi had arranged Lebara SIM cards for both of us, with Karthik having GBs of mobile data and I having MBs. (Subbu of the Hague had strongly advised that we should never be without data) Lebara to Lebara was free, and since Vaishnavi was also a Lebaran, it worked out well for us. Thus equipped, we opened Google Maps and requested it to show a route to Blue Sky Adventures. It took us through old bridges, some buildings, across a river and through a park, and we were still walking. Having walked some three kilometers, I started to have second thoughts and revisited the map, as proposed by Sir Google. There was no airport where we were headed.

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We looked for a nearby wall to bang our heads against, didn’t find any, and searched for the airport where the drop was supposed to happen instead. Sir Google said we had to walk another three odd kilometres. It was ten minutes to four and we quickly Whatsapped the Blue Sky folks that we would be a wee bit late (Indians, they must have sighed). The new route was even more interesting. It took us straight through fields. I was surprised at the liberty that Sir Google took in interpreting the word “route”, but for better or worse, we finally reconnected with civilisation in the form of a highway (Autobahn in German) along which we walked and arrived huffing and puffing at the Adolf Würth Airport.

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The Blue Sky folks received us warmly, and mostly in German, and gave Karthik a form to fill. With the formality out of our way, we waited for Karthik’s turn. A couple were gearing up for the jump, and the folks told that would in itself take an hour. So it did, and so we waited.During this time, a German earnestly asked me if indeed shaking the head meant yes in India. We explained that the head has three axes of rotation and that shaking about one of these axes meant ‘OK’ and the about another meant ‘yes’ (what Westerners call the nod), and about the third meant ‘no’. This was only the first of many times we would be asked the same question in this trip.

At a bit after five, the diving instructor, Andy, started packing Karthik in diving gear and bombarded him with instructions and manic energy one invariably sees in people who do incredible things for a living.

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The diving crew which included Andy, the videographer, an American hobby diver and a very excited Karthik made for the aeroplane wherefrom they would leap. Half an hour later, I had my “is it a bird, is it a plane?” moment when I spotted one parachute land first and then two more. The American, who landed first, did so after executing some somersaults and twirls. the parachute which had four legs turned out to contain Andy and Karthik and they landed later at almost the same time the other parachute supporting the videographer did.

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Karthik emerged with a visage which was more teeth than face and continued to be so for the next fifteen minutes. Diver’s high they call it, it seems. (I’m not sure if they intended the pun). It does people good to be in the company of happy people, as glee is also quite contagious, and I too started to exhibit a tooth or two. The videographer played out the video of the jump which had come out extremely well and froze a moment in the air which I’m sure Karthik will treasure for the rest of his life. https://www.facebook.com/aerokarthik/videos/10212194005022353/

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It was past six by then, and we had our train to catch. The good folks of Blue Sky Adventures kindly agreed to drop us at the SHH station. A very nice German guy drove us to the station. He knew as much English as I knew German and between us, we managed a conversation (Him: “Fleisch, Würst”, Me: “Barbecue?” Him: “Ja Ja!!”). We got our train and reached home at about nine in the night. So went the second day.

Day 3

Monday, April the 30th was a working day for Vaishnavi. After her working day ended, the three of us set out to explore the City of Stuttgart. Our first stop was the Stuttgart Library.

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It was an eight storey high library with vast and calming interiors. It also contained free luggage storage in ground floor. There was only one catch. Most books were in German. There was a modest collection of foreign language books among which there was a modester collection of English books. We paid our respects to them by leaving them be, and went straight to the terrace. The terrace was head and shoulders above everything around with the consequence that the cold wind there nearly broke our bones. We took a turn, having climbed all those stairs and quickly repaired downstairs to relative warmth.

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We followed it up with a bit of clothes shopping at a mall called Milano. The next stop was Stuttgart’s famous Königstraße (King Street). It is a wide paved road, not open to traffic, with shops lining both of its sides. It starts from Stuttgart Main Station. The station has a “One Euro Shop” where anything costs a Euro. It is not unlike the “Ten Rupees Shop” of Chithirai Street in Madurai. You get a variety of things, some overpriced, some This station contains the famous Yorma’s which sells the famous Butter Brezel. We procured one each of these culinary marvels and started our Raajaveedhibavani. Before the brezels had passed the oesophagus, we stopped at an ice cream shop and had some of those. Yummo-yummy. Having thus satiated our hunger, we continued in the street.

Our first stop was Decathlon. Two days had been enough for me to realise that a sweatshirt in conjunction with a raincoat was not a jerkin and the wind knew it very well and took every opportunity to drive that point home. Decathlon, being a jerkin haven, seemed like the place to go to to remedy the situation. For those of us who are used to Decathlon outlets the size of three or four football fields, this one was a little more than a hole in the wall. (Apparently, Decathlon there does much of its business online) The jerkins in stock seemed to be designed for Madurai winters (“This is our Spring/Summer collection”). We decided to try another shop. Spring/Summer again. However, this shop had a toilet where you could pay if you so chose. I didn’t, but Karthik did, thinking it was obligatory. Soon it dawned on him that he’d paid a princely sum of Rs 50 (EUR 0.80) for the affair following which he took an oath to never again pay for a pee in Europe, an oath that he kept up to the very end.

We then proceeded to do much (window) shopping. We also visited a smallish souvenir shop, some utensil shop and the likes, and ended up at the Schlossplatz. It is a large area with a towery thing with an angely… No, I’ll leave a couple of photos behind for you, my reader. (The rainbow was unplanned.)

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The end of the street brought us to local station from which we caught a train to Feuerbach. This place happened to have a restaurant cum pub of some repute called Wichtel. It was housed in an old building which had served as a heat and power station of a bygone company before World War 2. It was dimly lit, homely and had an old world decor. Most of its clientele seemed to be senior citizens who had come there for peace and quiet. Vaishnavi assures me that it can take other avatars on other days. We were served by an enthusiastic but overworked waiter who forgot to get us our English menu. When it did arrive, we found that the white sauce pasta with penne, and a pizza would do wonderfully. They would have to, because they had the distinction of being vegetarian. The food was most excellent. Having cleaned our plates, we returned home at around eleven in the night and that was the third day.

Day 4

Tuesday, the first of May was a holiday in Germany as it is here in India. While the rest of the country mourned the martyrs of the Haymarket affair in Chicago, we decided to explore the most famous of Schlosses (Castles) in the Baden-Württemberg area whose capital city is Stuttgart. Vaishnavi’s neighbour-colleague-compatriot-friends Aravindhan, Ganesh, Thamilmathi and Mohan gave company.

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We all sat together and had breakfast. Ganesh, the tour-planner cum cook cum photographer (his flat was also called Ganesh Bhavan, as he dispensed food to whoever knocked his door) shepherded us into train after train until we ended up at a place called Gerlingen. From there we started to walk to Schloss Solitude. The path soon left houses behind and entered the wilderness. We made our way first through flowery grasslands, and then through the woods. There were signposts and a proper footpath. The possibility of getting lost was rather remote, as the place was not deserted.

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We emerged from the forest and got our first view of Schloss Solitude. Perched on the tallest hill around, it sat in majestic assurance. We took our time to reach there, playing a game here, clicking a photo there.

Photo from Bharathan Raghavan

We walked through those parts of the Schloss which were open to the public and soaked in the environment. Unfortunately I did not know enough about the history of the place to savour the experience as I would a Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal, but it was nonetheless a rewarding experience. (The Schloss contains a free toilet. Look for the board which says WC)

From there we decided to walk through the neighbouring forest to Bärensee on whose banks was situated the small cottage sort of thing called Bärenschlössle. This path cut through a much thicker forest and was also open to cycle traffic. Judging by the number of cycles which kept whooshing past us, it must have been quite a popular route.

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Bärensee is quite a large natural lake nestled in mountains and named after bears. Why it is named so, is completely beyond my powers of comprehension, as we did not have the pleasure of meeting any of my ursine friends on the way to the lake. The closest I came to seeing a bear was the following statue located outside Bärenschlössle. There Schlössle has quite a few shops in and around it, and we chose to patronise an inviting ice cream cart as reward for a walk well walked.

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We chose to return to Stuttgart not through Gerlingen but through the University of Stuttgart. Like IIT Madras, it seems to have been carved out of a forest. In its grounds lies buried an S bahn station which gives direct access to Bad Cannstatt (Hail Eurail) where lay the next item of our programme.

Spring is a time of much celebration in most parts of the world. Our northern brethren celebrate it by attacking each other with colour syringes and pink powder. Stuttgart has its own way of celebrating Spring. It chooses an arena the size of Thamukkam Maidanam and puts up stalls of all varieties and hosts a fair called Frühlingsfest (Spring Fest). It is the lesser known sibling of its autumn variant, the Oktoberfest. This arena is in Bad Cannstatt. People dress up in their traditional attire and have food and beer (mostly the latter) in huge tents (whose entry is charged). We roamed around the fair inspecting stalls in which you could win stuffed cuddly animals if you shot a certain number of balloons. There were merry-go-rounds and giant wheels and other high adrenaline sports which mostly involved taking a person and shaking and rotating and revolving a person about all possible axes and returning them to Mother Earth just when they thought they would puke. Vaishnavi and Karthik and a couple of others in our group were great fans of going through such ordeals, so they went on a couple of rides. I peacefully regarded them from terra firma as they all behaved like puppets in a badly directed show.

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As I was going around the stalls, a German teen asked me with much politeness in which stall I had procured my red cap. He explained that it was almost the exact same shade as his pant (which it was, imagine that!). I had the painful task of disappointing him when I told him that I had bought it a few thousand kilometres away. Cha. We had something to eat in the stalls for munpasi, and got back home before dark. Vaishnavi made wheat dosa and thus ended another perfect day, day four.

Day 5

Wednesday, the second of May would be our last day in Stuttgart. We chose this day to do some laundry and take stock. We visited the nearby supermarket called Penny to buy milk and curd. Supermarkets in Europe are the place to buy provisions from, if you are on a budget, as they offer products at a relatively low price (for Europe). Penny and Aldi are supermarkets which work out quite cheap in Germany.

I still didn’t have a jerkin, and much colder places than Netherlands and Germany lay in store for me. This is when Aravindhan, Vaishnavi’s friend and neighbour came to our rescue and agreed to lend me his jerkin. I shall remain forever in his debt. We decided to pay a visit to the local attraction: Max-Eyth-See. It is a lake the size of Ulsoor lake formed along the banks of the river Neckar which waters Stuttgart. There was a beautiful path around the lake where we found a few people strolling. A variety of boats lay docked at a private boat club that operated on the lake. We spent a few minutes walking around a part of its perimeter and turned back home to finish lunch and the last round of packing.

We bid Vaishnavi farewell at around four, bags and all, and proceeded to take the now familiar U-bahn ride from Steinhaldenfeld to Bad Cannstatt. From there the Porsche museum was an S-bahn ride away.

This was because a very important action point was still pending. Stuttgart is the automobile capital of the World (if you ask a Stuttgarter), or of Europe (according to the rest of Germany), or of Germany (according to the rest of the world). It is home to Mercedes Benz and Porsche. Both these car giants have museums in the city, and we decided that it would be blasphemy not to visit at least one of them. We chose Porsche. Initial enquiries revealed that it was open till 6 pm and that if one visited in the last hour (5 pm to 6 pm), the entry fee was half. Most importantly, it had luggage storage. This was crucial because our plan was to catch a train out of Stuttgart right after the museum visit was over. We were not looking forward to admiring cars with boulders on our shoulders. Keukenhof had been lesson enough.

We reached a few minutes before five, and used the time to stuff our luggage in the storage. The lock to the storage would not function unless we fed it one euro. We grudgingly inserted a coin reckoning that Rs 80 was not an unfair deal if the alternative was osteoporosis. The moment the clock struck five, we bought a couple of half tickets (EUR 5 each) and entered the museum. The museum can be split into three generations of people called F. Porsche: Ferdinand (grandfather), Ferdinand (father), and Ferdinand (son). The museum started with a display of what looked like a bullock cart without bullocks. Notice in between the rear wheels an ancient engine.

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From this, Porsche Grandpa went on to make cars of much more complexity, sophistication, and style. This evolution was evident in the way the displays went from the above to the following.

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The museum also had a nice simulator in which one could “ride” a Porsche by operating the steering wheel and the accelerator. We also tried out a 3D animation movie thing in which we could wear a helmet kind of thing which came in half a dozen languages. Once one wore it, one could suddenly see a middle aged guy standing next to the Porsche 911 explaining its features (Modiji, for your kind attention). There was a diverse collection of cars with a discreet board telling whoever was interested the story behind the making of the car.

In no time, the hour was up and we were at the luggage locker. We turned the key on the lock and heard a clink. Surprise surprise, the coin we had put in was returned to us safe and sound. Ridiculously happy with the turn of events (I can hear you say, “Kanjappisnaaringalaa”), we sped to Stuttgart Main Station in an S-bahn. There are regular ICE trains from Stuttgart to Munich, our next stop. The Bavarian capital city with its hoary history was, alas, only a transit point. We were to catch an overnight train to Bled, Slovenia, for which journey we had a reservation.

The journey to Munich is two hours and ten minutes long in an ICE via Ulm, the birthplace of Albert Einstein. We had the Upma that Vaishnavi had packed us in the train. Our train to Bled was scheduled at eleven past eleven, but we reached Munich Main Station with two hours to spare. This station is one of the largest in Germany and connects it with all of Eastern Europe, Italy and Switzerland. Thankfully, there was a waiting room to park ourselves during the long wait. I left my stuff with Karthik in the waiting room and went to the supermarket conveniently located in the station itself, and procured some provisions.

Drinking water is a problem in Germany. You do not have public water fountains to fill your bottles. So, you are left with either bringing enough of it from home, or buying mineral water bottles which cost a fortune (typically more than milk). Fruit juice sometimes works out cheaper, so I bought a litre of fruit juice for the night. Munich is a stub station. By that what is meant is that it’s like Chennai Central or Mumbai CST where you don’t need to climb steps to cross platforms.

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The train came to the platform some half and hour before scheduled departure, and we found that it was a mongrel. Every other compartment was painted differently, and owed its allegiance to a different train company. The train did not have a unique destination, with some of it going to Croatia and some to Hungary, and some other part to God knows where. This meant that we had to choose our compartment very carefully. Since our seats were reserved, the room for error was minimum. We found our car and in it, our seats. Of all the compartments in the train, ours looked least inviting. It looked a century old and appeared not to have been cleaned since. We had got used to more or less sparsely populated  trains, and had been planning to have a few seats all for ourselves, but the six seater room in our compartment already had a family of four. They smiled at us and made room for us and our luggage as we entered, and thus ended the fifth day and began the six hours long journey to Bled.

Tour of the Occident: 2. Keukenhof

“Kumaareeeee” goes the Anniyan song with the lead actors waltzing in a field of tulips acres and acres large. The place is Keukenhof and its open only in the month of Chithirai (mid April to mid May) approximately every year. More importantly, it is only three quarters of an hour’s bus ride from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. We booked a combo ticket which would take care of the bus journey from Schiphol/Leiden to Keukenhof, entry to Keukenhof and a bus journey to Schiphol/Leiden from there. The plan was to take the bus from Schiphol to Keukenhof, dump our luggage in the (freeeeeeee) luggage storage facility which the website promised would be waiting for us, enjoy the flower show and take a bus to Leiden and thence to The Hague by train (Hail Eurail!). The first part of the plan went fine. We located a long queue outside the airport which fed buses with Keukenhof enthusiasts, took our place in it, got into a packed bus and arrived outside Keukenhof.

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The sky was overcast and the weather cold and windy. My sweatshirt did its best to fight the elements with diminishing efficiency. Karthik and I had picked up a couple of sandwitchy things from a supermarket in Schiphol which had gone cold by now and which we, however ate and called it lunch for want of better word. It was around eleven am of a Saturday, and the place was teeming with tourists, Indian, East Asian and European. We went in search of the luggage storage and found a tiny little room, near the free toilet, with a paltry number of luggage racks all of which were occupied. The chilling realisation that we would have to carry the quintals of luggage with us and try to enjoy all the blooms hit us like a ton of bricks, but we soldiered on and entered Keukenhof.

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The place more than made up for all of it. The flowers were in full bloom and of all colours imaginable. Keukenhof, being a flower show, had a variety of multi shade tulips, yellow and red, white and violet, oh-so-red and not-so-red and what not. It was all we could do not to roll in the flower beds.

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We each had a smoothie in one of the greenhouses, visited more flower beds, sat wherever possible to relieve our aching shoulders and started to the exit. As we were getting there, it started to rain. As though this was all part of the plan, every other soul in Keukenhof extracted an umbrella from their person and unfurled it. We ran for cover and found it in a souvenir shop where we did some shopping and, with the rain subsiding, left the poonjolai at about half past two. We got into our bus to Leiden.

If you have read Ponniyin Selvan, you will know that Leiden is where the Anaimangalam copper plates are housed. These plates contain several royal charters one of which is a grant of permission and land for the construction of a Buddhist monastery near Anaimangalam by Rajaraja Cholan I. But that is not why we went there. The idea here was to reach The Hague where we had to meet a friend and receive some supplies, such as manga thokku, for our sustenance, and Leiden was a transit point.

We debussed at Leiden Centraal, a vast station which had multi-level cycle parking. Yes, you heard me right. The last time I had seen too many cycles cooped up in one place was at the Vadapalani Bus Depot’s very own cycle stand, and this was five or six times as many cycles. I had seen a lot of Dutch happily cycling their way around Keukenhof, but I really got a hang of how head over heels in love the Dutch were with their fietsen (Dutch for cycles) when I witnessed the gargantuan parking lot.

We entered the station, and found our progress impeded but a number of gates similar to the gates in any Indian metro station where you have to flash an RF id thingy to a scanner thingy for the gates to open. As it happened, all we all had was a pass, and I tried the QR code with one of the gates. No luck. I tried again in another gate. Then we tried to find another way inside which did not involve gates. Same result. We didn’t have forever to play paramapada sopaana paatam with the railway station. So we decided to approach the ticket counter guy. He gave me a blank look when I flashed my pass and explained my plight and gave me the Talisman. This was a chit of paper – two, actually; one for me and one for Karthik – which had a QR code to open any gate in any Netherlands railway station. We thanked him profusely and entered the station successfully. I checked Eurail’s Rail Planner app, and it assured me that there was an InterCity (IC) train every fifteen minutes to The Hague. We got into one such train and this marked our first use of the Eurail pass. The Dutch trains are run by a company called Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), and are clean, frequent, equipped with free WiFi, and very punctual. We met Karthik’s kind friend Subbu at the Hague who gave us some tea and plenty of advice which would come in very useful in the days to come.

It was around four, and we had to get to Stuttgart by midnight. The least strenuous way (with the fewest transfers) was to go from The Hague to Utrecht, from there to Frankfurt by the German Inter City Express (ICE) and thence to Stuttgart. On the recommendation of Subbu, we took an earlier train to Utrecht than we had intended as, as luck would have it, it turned out that the ICE to Frankfurt had been preponed. The Rail Planner app being an offline one, did not give live updates. For this, we soon realised that we needed to have an app which was operated by the respective railway company. We got to Utrecht in time and caught the ICE to Frankfurt, and fell asleep.

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When we woke up, we were in the Dutch-German border and still doddering at something like 120 kmph. (There was a small LED display which told the passenger at what speed they were travelling.) The ICE, we were told was the fastest train in Europe, and right now, all it was doing was giving competition to the Shatabdi Express. In this manner we reached Cologne (Koeln), and then started the fun. As the train left Cologne, I went to the loo (clean and spacious) and got back to find that the display showed something like 250 kmph. I looked out of the window and scenery rushed past me at a pace I had never imagined it to be capable of doing. And I looked at the display yet again and it stood at 310 kmph! The journey from Cologne to Frankfurt is nearly half the distance of the entire journey, but it was covered by the ICE in less than one fourth the entire journey time. Days later, when the trip was done and I was looking at the Europe train map that had arrived with the pass, I would find that Cologne to Frankfurt was the only dedicated high speed line in all of Germany. I broke an imaginary coconut to my ishta deivam for giving me this experience on the very first day.

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We got down at Frankfurt and changed trains to Stuttgart and it was around ten by then. The sun had only set an hour previously. This train contained a boisterous crowd of school children who sang and laughed, and an hour and a few minutes minutes later, we got down at Stuttgart Main Station (Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof abbreviated as HBF). We met Vaishnavi on the platform, and she shepherded us through the station to a subterranean platform where we caught an S-bahn (similar to Chennai EMUs, and covered by the Eurail pass) to Bad Cannstatt. From there we caught a U-bahn (similar to Metros and not covered by the pass) to a sleepy little station on the outskirts of Stuttgart called Steinhaldenfeld. This was our sixth and last train journey for the day: a day which had begun with a ten hour flight, and gone on to include two bus rides, much walking and lugging, and a lot of flowers besides. Vaishnavi had made some delicious Pongal which we devoured like a couple of piranhas and went to bed.

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Tour of the Occident: 1. The Planning

It is not possible to study the German and French languages, and not want to visit Europe (The English language is an exception, as English authors consider a page wasted in which they’ve not complained about the weather). And so it was that I germinated a plan to visit Europe in the year 2013 when my German teacher told me about the wonderful cycle route called Donauradweg (Danube Cycle Way), which takes you through half a dozen countries. One thing led to another and I didn’t do it (One thing was laziness and another was lack of company).

And I did this and I did that, and I got married and my wife, Vaishnavi, was posted to Europe on work. This fortunate turn of events led to me thinking of a Eurotrip that would not remain hypothetical. When I let my friend Karthik know of my intentions of touring Europe, he expressed interest in joining Vaishnavi and me in the trip, to which both of us agreed with joy.

It was the duration of the trip that I first finalized. Since one’s employer is the Defence Ministry of the country (as also is Karthik’s), I am required to acquire a No Objection Certificate to leave Indian soil which process can take anything from a month to several. Therefore, the duration and the tentative date of departure (End April or Early May) were more or less agreed upon by the three of us by the month of December (2017) itself. All that remained was for us to decide on which countries we would cover and how long we would spend in each, and how we would go about from one place to another. And there was the tiny matter of the air ticket.

A tentative Google search revealed that trains were a great way to travel through Europe. For one thing, they were fast. They let you get from Place A to Place B at surprisingly short time (surprising, that is, to one used to the gentle canter of the Indian Train). Also, Train stations had this habit of being in the middle of any European city that we wanted to visit thereby saving us taxi fare which would be inevitable if we were to travel by air. Above all, trains were a great way to socialize. Fellow travels could be met up with and experiences shared. That, at least, was the theory.

All very well. But unlike Indian Trains whose greatest virtue was their sheer affordability, European trains tended to be on the pricey side. Another Google search revealed that there was something called “The Eurail pass”. This pass seemingly enabled the holder to hop on to, and off of, any train of their choosing in 3, 4, 5 or 28 countries in Europe. Reviews for this were almost uniformly bad. There were people saying that if we planning well in advance and meticulously enough, we could save a lot more by opting for regional passes. I tried doing the math, and found that the difference, if any, was very small and the price to pay for booking all tickets in advance was being enslaved by our itinerary. That is when the sagacious counsel of my old friend Pravin, who had been saved by the pass when he first went to Europe, came to my rescue.

In general, the pass did not allow adults, of whom, alas, I am one, to buy anything less than the first class pass. At least this was the case when I checked the Eurail website in December and January. But miraculously in February, there started to be a Spring offer during which even such geriatric has-beens as I could buy the second class pass. Then came the ten percent discount in honour of Valentine’s Day. Karthik and I pounced on this opportunity and bought a “Group pass” which came with an additional fifteen percent discount and a condition that the group of people (2 to 5 in number) should always travel together. Since my wife could not manage to get leave for the entire duration of our stay in Europe, it was decided that she would accompany us for a part of the trip with a Eurail Select pass covering three countries (and not the Global one). Since we were not in that stage of the planning when we could say which those three countries would be, we deferred the purchase of her pass to a later date.

Reveling in the success of doing something tangible (spending nearly Rs 40k), we sat down to working out an actual route. As such the route would be a circular one with the start and end points being the place where we would land in Europe. Stuttgart, where my wife (Vaishnavi) was based, would be ideal. It was also rather expensive to travel to and from Stuttgart. Pravin suggested that we choose any of the several cities around Stuttgart to which flights would be much cheaper. Frankfurt was the obvious choice. But it was February and time was running out and tickets weren’t getting any cheaper. Then came a day when KLM Dutch announced a one day offer of Rs 6000 cashback on flights booked with their airlines using a CitiBank card. The catch was that KLM Dutch as the name suggests was Netherlands-based and operated flights primarily to Amsterdam. We thought about it and decided this was not such a bad idea after all. We would get down at Amsterdam Schiphol (that’s what their airport is called) and ride straight to Stuttgart with the magical pass.

The two days which followed our purchase of air tickets through makemytrip.com were not the pleasantest that I’ve endured. I did not get my ticket although the payment had been made. When the online ticket agency was contacted, they said that the airline company was liaising with one or two others and in one of the legs of the journey, the other airline company did not have seats. This was strange for several reasons, two of which were that Karthik who had booked seconds after me had got his ticket (albeit only after he himself had made a complaint with the makemytrip mob), and also because we were having this conversation about an airtrip which was being planned months in advance. I confess that I was shaken. The Eurail Group pass precluded any possibility of Karthik and I travelling in separate planes. All in all, if the ticket did not come through, I was staring at sending down the drain a sizeable sum of money. After several anxious phone calls in which call centre person followed apathetic call centre person and finally, after much haranguing, they confirmed my air ticket (“Please give your feedback at the end of this call”). This is not an experience I would wish my worst enemy, and I urge thee, ernest reader mine, to beware.

Having made another hefty irreversible payment, we sat down to actually chalking out a feasible route. Our aides for this task were Google Maps and Rail Planner app. The latter is a utility available free in Androids and iPhones. One could input the date and time of a proposed journey along with the intended source and destination points, and the app would tell us what trains were available, if any. There were certain trains which would require compulsory reservation even with a pass. Buying a ticket is not the same as buying a reservation. There is generally an order of magnitude difference between the two with the former being the more expensive. All French Trains Grandes Vitesses (TGVs), Franco-Belgian Thalys trains, High speed Trenitalia trains, all of which were trains capable of speeds upwards of 250 kmph, needed prior reservation. Overnight trains needed such reservation as well. The advantage with these trains was that they enabled one to cover great distances in no time. The disadvantage was that they costed anything from 10 -25 euros, and they were for a specific seat in a specific train, which meant that one had to be wedded to that train come what may. So, we decided to limit the number of journeys which would require such reservations to the smallest possible number.

When the plan was done and dusted, we had 22 days in hand in which would be covered seven countries. We had to make three reservations. Two of these were made by Vaishnavi in Germany and one by Karthik’s friend Gayathri in Netherlands. It’s a pity that reservations cannot be done online if your domicile is not Europe. raileurope.co.in does allow one to book reservations from where one is, but they charge nearly twenty-five percent the reservation cost for the services they offer us, which includes shipping the physical reservation ticket home. We were saved this money thanks to the fact that Karthik had a friend and I my spouse at the right place at the right time.

Then came the hotel bookings. We would have got to it a little later than in Feb-March had it not been for the condition that details of hotel bookings be furnished along with our application for the Schengen Visa, which was a blessing in disguise. The task of booking took the maximum amount of time and effort, followed closely by the task of finalising the itinerary. Our criteria for booking rooms were as follows: it should be close to the railway station, it should have a kitchen and/or offer complimentary breakfast, and most importantly, it should be inexpensive. In the beginning we almost exclusively used booking.com. Out of those that were listed there, we filtered out those which asked for pre-payment and were non-cancellable. This gave us the freedom to tweak the plan and cancel and rebook at our will and wish. Later, when we ran out of cheap places to stay in in certain places (Nice, France was one), we started searching in hostelworld.com where we did find many a frugal and fullsome property. The catch was that here, even though the booking was cancellable, a small refundable deposit would be charged.

Once the first iteration of the booking process was complete, we started our Schengen visa application process. The embassy to which one applies for Visa is decided by the country where one spends the maximum number of nights. As our plan stood then, this position was held by two countries: Germany and Italy. Since chronologically, Germany came before Italy, as per our itinerary, we decided to apply at the German Consulate. We booked an appointment with VFS Global Bangalore, got all our documentation ready in as many copies as was required and gave our biometrics. This was early March. We got our Visa in ten days.

Meanwhile, we continued to tweak our plan based on inputs from the intelligentsia (Vaishanvi, Pravin and Gayathri) and the myriad selfless blogwrights whose words of wisdom helped avert many a potential disaster. We added an extra night here and cut off an extra day there. The plan continued to evolve organically and our confidence in it increased with every passing day, so much so, that we even ended up paying the entire fare for staying at a certain property up front, in a leap of faith, which we had been incapable of, two months previously.

Food was our next priority. As mentioned earlier, we had chosen those hotels which had a kitchen and/or offered complimentary breakfast. Kitchen is a very flexible term. It can mean a microwave oven, or a full fledged kitchen with several hot plates and provisions. We tried to buy food that could be cooked in a microwave oven. The visit to the nearby supermarket resulted in the purchase of several packets of Maggi noodles, tea bags, MTR/Maiya/Mother’s Recipe Instant upma, Instant Poha, Instant Pasta, some rice, MTR Puliogare mix (which would later prove to be a versatile side dish), and so on. I also visited the Roti Mane (An Uttara Karnataka Food Joint) at Tippasandra and bought some Kadak rotis, on the recommendation of my savvy mother-in-law. These papad like rotis can be stored for months together without refrigeration and did not require pre-heating of any sort, which made them ideal travel material.

Then, there is the question of what to carry, and how to carry them. I had my American Tourister rucksack, an old and trusted travel-mate which had weathered many a trek with nary an issue. I followed what was listed in https://thesavvybackpacker.com/backpacking-europe-packing-list/ almost to the letter. I did not procure packing cubes as suggested in the blog, which was a huge blunder, because the saving in space that these magic cubes accomplish is enormous, as Karthik, who had managed to borrow a pair, never tired of reminding me whenever we were packing and unpacking.

As the travel date came nearer and nearer, the sense that we had forgotten something so fundamental to the enterprise that the whole thing would go up in flames became stronger and stronger. The day did come, and my boss, no doubt fearing that I would blow things up with my mind obviously miles away from work, asked me to go home early and twiddle thumbs. The flight’s scheduled departure from Bangalore was at a few minutes past midnight. I reached Karthik’s place at around six in the evening and we ate an early dinner. Ramkumar came with his family to Karthik’s to say tata to us and forgot that he had come to give me his father’s power backup, sped back home and brought it back. Our Uber finally arrived and Karthik and I, with some 30+ kg between ourselves, got onto it and said bye bye to the farewell party.

An hour into the taxi ride, I realised that I had forgotten my jerkin at Karthik’s place. Murphy sniggered from above. I told myself that I had a raincoat and a fleece jacket between which I should be able to keep myself warm. Besides, it was practically summer, wasn’t it? Karthik and I reached the airport well in time and in high levels of excitement. Immigration check was something I had never been through, whereas Karthik was a veteran (he’d been out of the country once before). He preceded me in the immigration queue and the checker asked him something and he told the checker something and they both looked at me (“pudinga sir… pudichu jailla podunga sir”), and he was cleared. Then came my turn. The checker looked at me balefully and asked if I was with Karthik and laid the seal on my passport and said bye-bye to me.

All this got over more quickly than I had imagined and we reached our boarding gate with nearly two hours to kill. We used this time to bring our family up to speed and charge our phones and water bottles. Vaishnavi, when informed of the jerkin fiasco, did not think it was trivial and immediately thought up three or four different ways of remedying the situation (one of which would ultimately make the trip bearable for me). With the arrogance only ignorant husbands can possess, I reassured her that I should be fine and waltzed into the airplane filled with confidence and a certain something at the base of the stomach. The flight was uneventful with a meal at the beginning of the flight and one in the end.

Tenish hours later, we landed in Amsterdam Schiphol airport, finished immigration (five minutes conversation with Karthik, a careless word with yours truly) and collected our luggage. First task was to validate our Eurail pass, without doing which we could not board any train. Right outside Arrivals are separate ticket counters for domestic and international trains. We chose the international queue and, when it was our turn, a cheerful old lady welcomed us warmly and went to the calendar that hung a few paces away from her, counted out 22 days manually, and filled out the start and end days between (and including) which the pass would be valid, stamped our pass, and waved us a hearty good luck and goodbye.

ஆண்டாளின் பூர்வீகம்

ஆண்டாளின்மேல் இயற்றப்பட்ட திவ்யசரித்திரங்கள் அவள் பிறப்பையும் வீடுபேற்றையும் குறித்து என்ன கூறுகின்றன என்று பார்ப்போம். வெகுநாட்களாகத் தமக்குக் குழந்தை பிறவாமையை எண்ணி வருந்திய பெரியாழ்வார், அப்பேற்றை வேண்டி திருமாலிடம் முறையிட்டார். பிறகு, அவருடைய நந்தவனத்தில் ஒரு திருத்துழாய்ச் செடியண்டை ஒரு பெண்குழந்தை கிட்டினாள். ஆழ்வார் அவளை சுவீகரித்து, கோதை என்று பெயர்சூட்டி,  அன்புடன் வளர்த்துவந்தார். தன் தந்தையைப்போலவே ஆண்டாள் என்று பின்பு புகழ்பெறவிருந்த கோதை திருமாலின்பால் மிகுந்த பிரேமையுடன் வளரலானாள். மணந்தால் திருமாலையன்றி வேறு யாரையும் மணவேன் என்று உறுதி பூண்டாள். அவளது காதலைக் கண்டு மெச்சிய திருமால், பெரியாழ்வாருடைய கனவிலும் பாண்டிய மன்னனுடைய கனவிலும் தோன்றி ஆண்டாளை முத்துச்சிவிகையில் திருவரங்கத்திற்குக் கொண்டுவருமாறு பணித்தார். அவ்வண்ணமே அரங்கத்திற்கு அழைத்துவரப்பட்ட ஆண்டாளை அப்பெரியகோயில்வாழ் உற்சவ (உத்ஸவ) மூர்த்தி அங்கேயே மணந்துகொண்டு தம்முடன் சேர்த்துக்கொண்டதாக வைணவ குருபரம்பரைவந்த திவ்யசரித்திரங்கள் கூறுகின்றன.

இந்த சரித்திரங்கள் ஆண்டாளும் பெரியாழ்வாரும் வாழ்ந்த காலத்திற்கு குறைந்த பட்சம் இரு நூற்றாண்டுகளுக்குப் பின்னர் இயற்றப்பட்டவை என்று கூறப்படுகிறது. நவீன வரலாற்றாசிரியர்களுக்கு இக்கதையை முழுமையாக ஏற்றுக்கொள்ளுதல் கடினமே. ஆகையால், வாதத்திற்காக இக்கதையை விலக்கிவைத்துவிட்டு ஆண்டாளைப்பற்றி நமக்கு உறுதியாகத் தெரிந்த தகவல்களைப் பார்ப்போம்.

ஓர் அடிப்படை வினாவிலிருந்து தொடங்குவோம். ஆண்டாள் என்று யாரேனும் இருந்தாரா? இதற்கு நாம் இரண்டு வகையான சான்றுகளைத் தேடுவோம்: ஒன்று, தொல்பொருட் சான்றுகள் (கல்வெட்டுகள், செப்பேடுகள் அடக்கமாக), இரண்டு, செய்யுட் சான்றுகள். துரதிருஷ்டவசமாக, முதல்வகைச் சான்றுகள் மிகச்சொற்பமே. ஆனால், இரண்டாம் வகைச் சான்றுகள் ஏராளம். தமிழ் பக்தி இலக்கியத்தில், ஒரு பாமாலையின் (பாசுரத் தொகுப்பின்) இறுதியில், பலசுருதி (பலஶ்ருதி) எனும் கவிதை காணப்படுகிறது. அப்பாமாலையைக் ஓதுவதனால் விளையக்கூடிய நன்மைகளை அதன் கவிஞர் கூறும் பாசுரமே பலசுருதி ஆகும். இப்பாடலில், பாடல்களை இயற்றியவரின் பெயர், இடம், பெற்றோர் பெயர், பூர்வீகம், அப்பாமாலையில் இடம்பெற்றுள்ள பாடல்களின் எண்ணிக்கை உள்ளிட்ட பல குறிப்புகளைக் காணலாம். இவற்றை நாம் சங்க இலக்கியத்தில் காணோம். சொல்லப்போனால், படலாசிரியர் பெயரை, அப்பாடல்களைத் தொகுத்தவரிகள் விட்டுச்சென்ற அணிந்துரையிலிருந்துதான் நாம் அறிகிறோம். பக்தி இலக்கியத்தைப் பொறுத்தவரையில் (குறிப்பாக, ஆண்டாள், பெரியாழ்வார் பாடல்களைப் பொறுத்தவரையில்) யார் பாடலாசிரியர் என்பதை பலசுருதியின் மூலமாகத் திண்ணமாகச் சொல்லலாம்.

ஆண்டாள், திருப்பாயையின் முடிவில் ஒன்றும், நாச்சியார் திருமொழியின் பதினான்கு பதிகங்கள் இறுதியில் தலா ஒன்றுமாக, மொத்தம் பதினைந்து பலசுருதிகளை இயற்றியிருக்கிறார். இரு பாடல்கள் நீங்கலாக இவையனைத்திலும் தம் தந்தையை ஆண்டாள் குறிப்பிடுகிறார். அவரை விட்டுசித்தன் என்றோ பட்டர்பிரான் என்றோ அழைக்கிறார். விட்டுசித்தன் என்பது பெரியாழ்வாரின் இயற்பெயரும், அவர் தமது பலசுருதிகளில் தம்மை குறிப்பிடப் பயன்படுத்தும் பெயருமாகம். சில பலசுருதிகளில் அவர் தம்மைப் பட்டன் என்றும் அழைத்துக்கொள்கிறார். இச்சொல்லின் பொருள் அந்தணன், அல்லது கோயில் பூசாரி என்பதாகும். ஆண்டாள், விட்டுசித்தன் வில்லிபுத்தூர் (அல்லது புதுவை) எனும் ஊரைச் சேர்ந்தவர் என்றும் பன்முறைச் சொல்கிறார். உதாரணமாக, கீழ்வரும் பாடலின் இரண்டாம் அடியைக் காண்க:

அல்லல் விளைத்த பெருமானை ஆயர் பாடிக் கணிவிளக்கை

வில்லி புதுவைநகர் நம்பி விட்டுசித்தன் வியன் கோதை

வில்லைத் தொலைத்த புருவத்தாள் வேட்கை யுற்று மிகவிரும்பும்

சொல்லைத் துதிக்க வல்லார்கள் துன்பக் கடளுள் துவளாரே.

தமது தந்தை குறிப்பிடப்படாத அவ்விரு பாடல்களிலும் தம்மைக் கோதையென்றும் வில்லிபுத்தூர் கோதையென்றும் அழைக்கிறார். இரு பாடல்களைத் தவிர பிற பலசுருதிகள் அனைத்திலும் தம்மை கோதையென்றே கூறிக்கொள்கிறார். விஞ்சிய இரு பாடல்களிலும் அவர் தம் தந்தையின் திருநாமத்தை மறவாது குறிப்பிடுகிறார்.

இது சிலவற்றைத் தெளிவுபடுத்துகிறது. கோதை என்று ஒருத்தி இருந்தது உண்மை. அவள் விட்டுசித்தனையே தன் தந்தையாகக் கருதினாள். இப்பொழுது விட்டுசித்தன் என்ற பெரியாழ்வாரின் பாடல்களை ஆராய்வோம். முன்பே கூறியதுபோல் தமது பற்பல பலசுருதிகளில் தம்மை விட்டுசித்தன் என்றோ பட்டன் என்றோ மீண்டும் மீண்டும் அழைத்துக்கொண்டார். இதுவரை இருவரின் பாடல்களிலும் எவ்வித முரண்மையையும் நாம் காணோம். ஒரு பாடலில் பெரியாழ்வார் கூறுகிறார்:

ஒருமகள் தன்னை யுடையேன் உலகம் நிறைந்த புகழால்

திருமகள் போல வளர்த்தேன் செங்கண்மால் தான்கொண்டு போனான்

பெருமக ளாய்க்குடி வாழ்ந்து பெரும்பிள்ளை பெற்ற அசோதை

மருமக ளைக்கண்டு கந்து மணாட்டுப்பு றம்செய்யுங் கொலோ!

“என் ஒரே மகளை மகாலக்ஷ்மியைப் போல் வளர்த்தேன். திருமால் அவளைக் கொண்டுபோய்விட்டான். பெரியவீட்டுப் பெண்ணான யசோதை தன் மருமகளை எப்படி நடத்துவாளோ” என்று இப்பாடலுக்குப் பொருள் கூறலாம். இதை இருவிதமாக ஆராயலாம். சுயசரிதையாகவும், அணியலங்காரமாகவும்.

இப்பாடல், ஆண்டாளின் பாடல்களில் செறிந்துள்ள பொருளோடும், செங்கண்மாலின்பால் அவள் கொண்ட பிரேமையோடும் நன்கு பொருந்துவதால், இப்பாடலை ஆழ்வாரின் சுயசரிதையாகக் கொள்வது மிக எளிது. ஆனால், சற்றே விலகி, இப்பாடல் இடம்பெற்றுள்ள பதிகத்தில் ஒன்றாக பாடலை நோக்கும்பொழுது, காட்சி மாறுகிறது. அக்காட்சியை புரிந்துகொள்ள, பெரியாழ்வாரின் பக்தியை புரிந்துகொள்ளவேண்டும். அவரது பல பாசுரங்கள், ஒரு தாயின் கண்ணோட்டத்தில் எழுதப்பட்டவையே அன்றி ஒரு தந்தையாக எழுதப்பட்டவையல்ல. பாரதியின் கண்ணன் பாட்டு பரிச்சயம் உள்ளவர்கட்கு இதை எளிதில் புரிந்துகொள்ளலாம்.

பெரியாழ்வார் தமது பாசுரங்களில் கண்ணனின் பிறப்பையும் குழந்தைப் பருவத்தையும் பற்றி அழகு ததும்ப விவரிக்கிறார். இப்பாடல்கள் பலவற்றிலும் தம்மை யசோதையாகவே பாவித்துக்கொள்கிறார். தவிர, கண்ணனை அவனைச் சுற்றியிருந்த பலரின் கண்ணோட்டத்திலும் பல பாடல்களைப் பாடுகிறார், பாரதி கண்ணனை தனது மகனாகவும், காதலனாகவும், சேவகனாகவும் சத்குருவாகவும் பாடியதைப்போல. மேற்கூறிய பாடல் இடம்பெற்றுள்ள பதிகத்தில் ஆழ்வார், தன் செல்லமகளை மாயக்கண்ணனுக்குப் பறிகொடுத்த ஓர் அன்னையின் சோகக் குரலில் பாடுகிறார். இப்பாடலுக்கு அடுத்த பாடலை வாசித்தால் இது தெளிவாகிறது:

தம்மாமன் நந்தகோ பாலன் தழீஇக்கொண்டு என்மகள் தன்னை

செம்மாந் திரேயென்று சொல்லிச் செழுங்கயற் கண்ணும்செவ் வாயும்

கொம்மை முலையும் இடையும் கொழும்பணைத் தோள்களும் கண்டிட்டு

இம்மக ளைப்பெற்ற தாயர் இனித்தரி யாரென்னுங் கொலோ.

“இவ்வளவு அழகான பெண்ணை பிரிந்து அவள் தாய் இன்னும் உயிரோடிருப்பாளா?” என்று கண்ணனின் அப்பா நந்தகோபன் ஆச்சாரியப்படுவாரன்றோ என்று பெண்ணைப்பெற்ற தாய் அங்கலாய்ப்பதாக இப்பாடல் அமைந்துள்ளது. இன்னும் ஏதேனும் ஐயம் இருக்குமாயின், இப்பாடல் இடம்பெற்றுள்ள பதிகத்தின் தலைப்பு அதை நீக்குகிறது. அதாகப்பட்டது: “தலைவன்பின் சென்ற மகளைக்குறித்துத் தாய் பலபடி உன்னி ஏங்குதல்”. இங்கு திருமாலைத் தலைவன் என்றழைக்கும் மரபை நோக்குக. இவ்வாறு தலைவனால் கொண்டு செல்லப்பட்ட மகளைப் பிரிந்து வருந்தும் தாய் எனும் பாடற்கரு கொண்ட பாடல்கள் பாலைத்திணையைச் சார்ந்தவை என்பதை, சங்க இலக்கியம் பற்றிய அறிமுகம் இருப்பவர்கள் எளிதில் உணரலாம். இதை மேற்கோள் காட்டி விளக்கவேண்டுமாயின் ஐங்குறுநூறு எனும் சங்கநூலில் வரும் கீழ்கண்ட பாலைத்திணைப் பாடலைக் காண்க:

நீர்நசைக்கு ஊக்கிய உயவல் யானை

இயம்புணர் தூம்பின் உயிர்க்கும் அத்தம்

சென்றனள் மன்றஎன் மகளே

பந்தும் பாவையும் கழங்கும்எமக்கு ஒழித்தே.

ஆகையால், பெரியாழ்வார் தம் பாடல் வாயிலாகத் தமது வாழ்க்கையில் நடந்ததைத்தான் கூறுகிறார் என்னும் கருத்தே உண்மையாக இருக்கும் சாத்தியக்கூறு இல்லை என்று சொல்ல முடியாவிட்டாலும் குறைவு என்றே தோன்றுகிறது.

சரி, நாம் இலக்கிய அகச்சான்றுகளை ஆராய்ந்ததன் மூலம் நாம் அறிந்தது யாது?

  1. ஐயமற, ஆண்டாள் பெரியாழ்வாரின் புதல்வி என்பதும், ஐயமற, பெரியாழவார் ஓரந்தணர் என்பதும் புலனாகின்றன.
  2. திருமால் ஆண்டாளைக் கொண்டுபோனதற்கான அகச்சான்றுகளும் குறைவாகவே காணப்படுகின்றன (இக்கருத்து தவறாயின், திருத்திக்கொள்ள அணியமாயிருக்கிறேன்)

முதற்கூறிய திவ்யசரித்திரங்களை மீண்டும் பாப்போம். திவ்யசரித்திரங்களில் அற்புதங்கள் இடம்பெறுவது இயல்பே. பெரியாழ்வார் மற்றும் ஆண்டாளின் அருளிச்செயலை (பாடல்களுக்கான தீந்தமிழ்ச் சொல்) ஒரு பக்தனாக வாசித்தால் (பெரும்பாலும் அதே என் கண்ணோட்டம்) ஆண்டாளை இறைவியென்று கொளல் மிகவும் சுலபம். இதை ஏற்றுக்கொண்டால் ஆண்டாள் ஒரு மானிடனுக்கு மகளாய்ப் பிறந்திருக்கக்கூடும் என்றெண்ணுதல் துர்லபமாகிறது. இறையம்சமுள்ள பெண்குழந்தையை பூமியிலிருந்து கண்டெடுத்து வளர்த்தல் எனும் வார்ப்பச்சு இராமாயணத்தில் காண்கிறோம். சீதை ஜனகமாமன்னனுக்குக் கிடைத்த சரித்திரமும் கோதை விட்டுசித்தனுக்குக் கிட்டிய வரலாறும் ஓத்திருப்பதையும் காண்கிறோம். எனவே, ஆண்டாளின் அவதார இரகசியத்துக்கு ஓர் எளிமையான விளக்கத்தை நாடினோமேயானால், அது ஆண்டாள் பெரியாழவாரின் சொந்த மகள் என்பதே ஆகும். உள்ள எல்லா கருத்துகளிலும் இவ்விளக்கத்திலேயே அனுமானங்கள் குறைவு. எனவே, ஓஃகம்’ஸ் ரேசர் (Ockam’s Razor) விதிப்படி இதுவே சரியான விளக்கமாக இருக்க வேண்டும்.

இப்பொழுது, கவிஞர் வைரமுத்து முன்வைக்கும் கருத்தை மறுபரிசீலனை செய்வோம். அது, ஆண்டாள் பெரியாழ்வாருக்குப் பிறந்த மகள் அல்லள் என்ற திவ்யசரித்திரங்களின் கதையை அவ்வாறே ஏற்கிறது. ஆனால், அதே சரித்திரங்கள் ஆண்டாள் இறையோடு இணைந்தாள் என்று கூறுவதை மறுக்கிறது. அல்லது, அச்சேர்க்கைக்கு வியாக்கியானமாக “ஆண்டாள் திருவரங்கம் பெருமாளின் சேவகியானாள். அல்லது தேவதாசி ஆனாள்” என்று பொருளுரைக்கிறது. சான்றாக, ஆண்டாளின் காமரசம் கொண்ட பாடல்களையும், அதையொத்த சங்கப்பாடலையும் (குறுந்தொகை 27) வைரமுத்து ஒப்பிட்டு வேறுபடுத்துகிறார். குறுந்தொகை 27ஆம் பாடலை இயற்றிய வெள்ளிவீதியார் திருமணமான பெண் என்றும் ஆண்டாள் திருமணம் அகாதவள் என்றும், ஆதலால், ஒரு கன்னிப்பெண் இத்தகு பாடல்களைப் புனையும் விடுதலையைப் பெற்றிருந்தார் என்றால் அவர் தேவதாசியாகவே இருந்திருக்க வேண்டும் என்றும் ஒரு விளக்கத்தை முன்வைக்கிறார் கவிஞர். இந்த வாதம் அவ்வளவு ஏற்புடையதாகத் தோன்றவில்லை. மாறாக, இந்த வாதம், சங்க இலக்கியத்தில் மண்டியிருக்கும் மணமான/மணமாகாத விடுதலைப் பெண்களைப்பற்றிய களவொழுக்கப் பாடல்களுக்கு முரணாகத் திகழ்வதைக் காண்கிறோம்.

தவிர, இந்த வாதம், ஒரு கதையில் நம் அரசியலையும் நம்பிக்கைகளையும் திருப்திப்படுத்தும் அம்சங்களை மட்டும் கொண்டு புனையப்பட்டதாத் தோன்றுகிறது. தத்துப்பெண் எனும் துணுக்கு நமது அரசியலை ஒத்திருப்பமையால் அது ஏற்றுக்கொள்ளப்படுகிறது. ஆனால், ஆண்டாள் திருமாலோடு ஒன்றாதல் நம் நம்பிக்கைக்கு எதிராக உள்ளமையால் அது திருத்தித் திரிக்கப்படுகிறது. அடிப்படையிலேயே இது ஒரு தவறான, சிக்கலான அணுகுமுறையாகும்.

திருப்பாணாழ்வார் பாதாதிகேசம் அரங்கனைப் பத்தே பாடல்களில் விவரித்துவிட்டுத் திருமாலுடன் இதே திருவரங்கத்தில் இணைந்ததாகவும் குருபரம்பரை கூறுகிறது. இதை எப்படிப் பகுத்தறிவோம்? அவர் ஓர் ஆண் தேவதாசியாக மாறினாரா? மாறாக, இந்த எடுத்துக்காட்டு ஒரு படி ஆழமாகச் சென்று வைரமுத்துவின் வாதத்தைப் பொய்ப்பிக்கிறது. திருப்பாணாழ்வார் எனும் ஆலயங்களும் அனுமதிக்கப்படாமலிருந்த பாணர் குலத்தவர் (இசைஞர். தேவதாசிகளின் முன்னோடிகளோ?) குருபரம்பரையில் எவ்வித மழுப்பல் சப்பைக்கட்டு இன்றி விவரிக்கப்பட்டிருந்தால், ஆண்டாள் ஒரு தேவதாசி என்பதை மட்டும் ஏன் பூசி மெழுகவேண்டும், அவள் தேவதாசியாய் இருப்பின்?

வைரமுத்து, அவமதிக்கவேண்டுமென்றே இவ்விதம் சொன்னார் என்று எனக்குத் தோன்றவில்லை. கோதையின் மூதாதையர்கள் யாராயிருப்பினும் ஒருநூற்று நாற்பத்து மூன்றுரைத்த கோதையின் புகழை அப்பாடல்களே என்றும் பறைசாற்றும். எவ்வாறாயினும் ஆண்டாளை தேவதாசியென்று எண்ணுவதால் அவளுக்கு எவ்விதக் களங்கமும் ஏற்பட்டுவிடாது. அதனால் மட்டும் அது உண்மையாகிவிடாது. அதற்குத் தேவை ஆதாரம். தற்பொழுது அது மிகச்சொற்பமாகவே இருக்கின்றபடியால், ஆண்டாள் ஒரு தேவதாசி என்ற வாதத்தை இலக்கியக் குப்பைத்தொட்டிக்கு இடம்பெயர்த்தல் அவசியமாகிறது.

 

 

The Probable Antecedents of Andal

Let us look at Andal’s life as recorded in her hagiographies. Specifically, let us look at her birth and her salvation. As the story goes, Periyazhwar, childless, asked his favourite God Vishnu to grant him a child. Andal was found in Periyazhwar’s garden near a Tulasi Plant. Periyazhwar took her under his care and raised her as his own. Like him, his daughter too grew up loving Vishnu, so much so that she wanted to marry him, and only him. Vishnu, pleased at such devotion, came in Periyazhwar’s dream and the Pandya King’s dream and commanded that Andal be brought to Srirangam temple in a palanquin. This order was executed and the utsava moorthy of the temple married Andal then and there and took her with him.

This is the story recorded in hagiographies which have been shown to have been written at least two centuries after the period in which Andal and Periyazhwar are believed to have lived. It’s understandable that for a modern historian, this story may not be possible to take as a whole. So let’s keep this story aside for argument’s sake and then see what we know for sure about Andal.

Let us ask a very basic question. Did a person called Andal exist? There are two kinds of evidence we might look for now: inscriptional/archaeological and literary. Of the former there is sadly little. But of the latter, there is plenty. In Bhakti literature in Tamil, we find that at the end of a set of poems (called paasurams), the last of the series is a phalashruthi. A phalashruthi is a poem in which the author tells the benefits one would reap by reciting this set of paasurams. In this epiloguous poem is also listed the details of the author, their place and their parent, their ancestry, the number of poems in the set etc. This is not found in Sangam literature. Indeed, in Sangam literature, the way we come to know of the author of each poem is through the colophon which was added by the editor of the collection. We are in firmer footing in Bhakti literature, thanks to the phalashruthi.

In total Andal has composed 15 phalashruthis: one at the end of Thiruppavai, and one each for the fourteen pathigams (set of ten or eleven paasurams). In all but two of them, she refers to her father. He is either called Vittuchithan (Periyazhwar’s real name, a name which he uses in the phalashruthis of his own poems) or Pattarpiraan (Periyazhwar refers to himself as Pattan, meaning temple priest or brahmin, in some phalashruthis). She repeatedly mentions that Vittuchithan is from Villiputhur (also sometimes called Puthuvai). This is illustrated in the second line of the example given below:

அல்லல் விளைத்த பெருமானை ஆயர் பாடிக் கணிவிளக்கை

வில்லி புதுவைநகர் நம்பி விட்டுசித்தன் வியன் கோதை

வில்லைத் தொலைத்த புருவத்தாள் வேட்கை யுற்று மிகவிரும்பும்

சொல்லைத் துதிக்க வல்லார்கள் துன்பக் கடளுள் துவளாரே

 

In the remaining two in which her father is not mentioned, she simply calls herself Kodhai or Kodhai of Villiputhur. There are two phalashruthis in which she does not mention her name. But even in those, she doesn’t forget to mention her father.

This establishes certain things. There certainly was a Kodhai, and she at least thought her father was Vittuchithan. Let’s focus now on Vittuchithan, aka Periyazhwar. He in turn in his numerous phalashruthis repeatedly calls himself either Vittuchithan or Pattan as mentioned earlier. So far there is nothing in either poet’s work that contradicts the other. In one of his songs, Periyazhwar says the following

ஒருமகள் தன்னை யுடையேன் உலகம் நிறைந்த புகழால்

திருமகள் போல வளர்த்தேன் செங்கண்மால் தான்கொண்டு போனான்

பெருமக ளாய்க்குடி வாழ்ந்து பெரும்பிள்ளை பெற்ற அசோதை

மருமக ளைக்கண்டு கந்து மணாட்டுப்பு றம்செய்யுங் கொலோ

 

It literally means the following: “I raised my only daughter like Mahalakshmi (a metaphor for the perfect female that is in vogue till date), Vishnu took her from me. How will his mother Yashoda the matriarch treat her?” Now, there are two ways of looking at this: autobiographical and allegorical.

It is very easy to think of this as autobiographical, as it beautifully dovetails with the substance of Andal’s poems and her love for Vishnu therein. But this connect becomes a bit looser when you look at the big picture.  The big picture is the following. A large chunk of Periyazhwar’s poems are written from the viewpoint of a mother rather than a father. For those acquainted with Bharathi’s Kannan paattu, this would be easier to appreciate.

Periyazhwar in his poems describes in loving detail the birth and growing up of Kannan. In most of these poems his view point is that of Yashoda. He looks at Kannan from the viewpoints of those around him, just as Bharathi imagined Kannan from the viewpoints of his son, his daughter, his lover, his teacher, his servant etc. In the set of poems of which the above mentioned one is a part, he describes in beautiful Tamil the pains of a mother who has just lost her daughter to that Maaya Kannan. This becomes deafeningly obvious if one reads the very next poem.

 

தம்மாமன் நந்தகோ பாலன் தழீஇக்கொண்டு என்மகள் தன்னை

செம்மாந் திரேயென்று சொல்லிச் செழுங்கயற் கண்ணும்செவ் வாயும்

கொம்மை முலையும் இடையும் கொழும்பணைத் தோள்களும் கண்டிட்டு

இம்மக ளைப்பெற்ற தாயர் இனித்தரி யாரென்னுங் கொலோ.

 

This poem has Nandagopan, Kannan’s father wondering how the mother of this beautiful girl, whom his son has just married, could survive the pain of separation from her beloved daughter. If there could still be any doubt, it is dispelled by the topic of the pathigam which is “தலைவன்பின் சென்ற மகளைக்குறித்துத் தாய் பலபடி உன்னி ஏங்குதல்” which roughly translates to “Mother pining at the loss of her daughter who was taken away by Thalaivan, here Vishnu”. For anyone acquainted with Sangam literature, it becomes immediately obvious that this is text book Paalai stuff, in which the mother pines at the loss of her daughter who was taken away by, surprise surprise, Thalaivan. Given below is one such song from Aingurunooru:

நீர்நசைக்கு ஊக்கிய உயவல் யானை

இயம்புணர் தூம்பின் உயிர்க்கும் அத்தம்

சென்றனள் மன்றஎன் மகளே

பந்தும் பாவையும் கழங்கும்எமக்கு ஒழித்தே

To come back to the point, it seems unlikely (but not impossible) that Periyazhwar’s song of the daughter being taken away by Vishnu is autobiographical.

Now, what are the take-aways from a dispassionate analysis of the literary evidence?

  1. Andal was undoubtedly the daughter of Periyazhwar, who was undoubtedly a brahmin.
  2. There is scant literary evidence for the argument that Andal was taken away by Vishnu. (I may be wrong here, and would be happy to be corrected.)

Let’s revisit the hagiographies. Hagiographies generally contain miracles. And if one reads the works of Periyazhwar and Andal as a Bhakta, a devotee (as I generally do), it is very easy to see Andal as a Goddess. If one accepts that, it becomes difficult to accept that she could have been born to human parents. And there is the readily available template of finding a daughter on Bhoomi (Earth) from Ramayanam, in which Seetha was found by Janaka in a manner similar to the manner in which Andal was found by Periyazhwar. Therefore, if one seeks a rational explanation, the simplest one is that Andal was indeed Periyazhwar’s daughter.  This explanation has the fewest assumptions, and so, from an Ockam’s razor point of view, this must be the correct one.

Now, let’s review the hypothesis that Vairamuthu proposes. It accepts the hagiographies’ stance that Andal was not Periyazhwar’s biological daughter, but rejects the claim that she was taken by the Lord with him.  Or, it seeks to reinterpret that as Andal becoming Vishnu’s Servant in Srirangam which was institutionalized in later days as Devadasis. As proof, Andal’s erotic poetry is quoted and contrasted with similar poetry (Kurunthogai 27) of the Sangam age. The marital status of Andal (Unmarried) as against that of Velliveethiyaar, the female poet of Kurunthogai 27 is said to clinch the argument that Andal enjoyed more freedom than her Sangam counterpart, and so, she must have been a Devadasi. This argument stands on very flimsy grounds in my opinion. It flies in the face of all those Kalavu themed songs in Sangam literature in which women (married and unmarried) break societal boundaries quite routinely.

Besides, this whole argument seems to be made by cherry picking aspects of a story which appeal to our politics/beliefs. It suits the theory to take the adopted daughter angle, so it is admissible. It doesn’t suit the theory to think of a merger of Andal with Vishnu, so it has to be edited to conform to our belief system. This approach is fundamentally flawed and deeply problematic.

There is also the case of Thiruppanazhwar who is said to have merged with Vishnu after he sang his ten songs. How do we rationalize this? Did he too become a male Devadasi? But the Thiruppanazhwar example goes one step further in falsifying this fantastic claim. If Thiruppanazhwar – a person of the Paanar community (Singers. Were they the precursors of Devadasis?) who were not allowed inside temples – could find mention in these hagiographies without any need to whitewash his story, why wouldn’t the same hagiographers have called Andal a Devadasi, if indeed she was one?

I don’t think Vairamuthu meant any disrespect. Indeed, there can be no disrespect in thinking of Andal as a Devadasi. Irrespective of her ancestry, her 143 songs will sing her praise forever. Her legacy would not be tarnished even if we claim that she was a carpenter or a midwife. That doesn’t make it true. For that, we need evidence, and there is, as of now, little or no evidence to support the Devadasi theory. Therefore, it should be assigned to the literary bin, where it belongs.