Saturday, June 14, 2014

Europe You Beauty!

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” ― Ernest Hemingway

"A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step." -- Lao Tzu

That single step for me was the booking of a car from a rental website, after days of speculation whether we would do a road-trip to Italy and Croatia. This was one small step for Leena, who had previously driven for long distances, but a large step for me since I hate driving and also because the steering wheel as well as the roads in Europe is reverse of that in India. But nevertheless, a decision was made that we would be driving all the way to Pula to meet our friend Robert, and pickup another friend Vittoria on the way. That was the rough plan, and thankfully none of us tried to fine tune it during the course of the trip, and therein lay the beauty of our 'plan'. We were travelling not to arrive at some destination, or to see something specific like tourists, but we were travelling to see whatever comes our way...

We got to Strasbourg airport to collect the car, and were pleasantly surprised to find a mini-van instead of the originally booked mid-sized car. The car had automatic transmission, a glass roof, curtains and just too much space for three people. It felt like one of those cars my mom would be travelling in without complaining. But the one thing missing was GPS navigation support. I was sitting beside the driver, so unfortunately that responsibility was bestowed upon me and I would like to believe that I did pretty well for the first two minutes before my Blackberry decided to give up on me. We still made it beyond France within an hour of our departure from Strasbourg, and that's when our smartphone GPS stopped working. We were forced to navigate through Switzerland in the conventional way like our ancestors did, reading signboards on the road and using our common sense. Driving through Switzerland was so aesthetically pleasing that we didn't care to freak out because of this small glitch. We were also very happy at having received a 2 CHF coin each at the border control toll booth, after paying a whopping tax of 40 euros. 

Cow spotting became a sport for the rest of the journey, and almost got us killed once when we freaked out our trip sole driver (Leena), but that comes later. The countryside was beautiful and serene. The radio music was terrible and we ended up buying audio jacks at the first stop in Altdorf, Switzerland in order to be able to play music from our phones. It was interesting to note how the language, food and people changed within such a short period of time. We reached Milan, Italy by midnight and got used to spotting the 'uscita' sign instead of the usual 'ausfarht' or 'sortie' which we saw on the road in Switzerland and France. We also happened to cross some of the longest tunnels in Europe on our way, and every time we entered, one I was reminded of the movie 'Matrix Reloaded'. Yes, they were so well kept and completely justified the exorbitant toll fee (later on we found out its a yearly fee, not one way).


Milan turned out to be the reminder of what happens when you do not have GPS access. After a nice late night snack at a cafe, we thought of visiting a few places before exiting. I happened to pass out conveniently, waking up two hours later to find out that we just exited the city! Leena and Pulkit was super stressed and pissed after having driven in circles for more than an hour to find the way back to the highway. Leena still kept driving while Pulkit took his turn to rest while I returned back to my job as navigator, and by Leena's side to keep her awake till we reached Verona.

Chilling in Milan   

Verona turned out to be one of the many surprise packages of our trip. It is a small town in northern Italy, and a world heritage site as per UNESCO. My only source of know-how about this place was through the Shakespearean drama 'Romeo and Juliet'. We reached there early morning and had a crisp breakfast, which was basically 2 pints of beer, something that Pulkit missed while having Milan nightmares at the back seat. We strolled around the city, visiting the Grand Roman period Arena (which is the 3rd largest in Italy with a diameter of 139m), Piazza dei Signori, and the Cathedral San Zeno Basilica, before setting off for Venice where we were supposed to meet Vittoria, but not before we took a short detour into the vineyards on the mountains. The greatest problem we faced all this while was to keep in touch with friends and family, and getting to that place with free wi-fi became a challenge that we accepted humbly.

City Centre
At the Arena
Piazza dei Signori
Cathedrale San Zeno Basilica

By the time we reached Venice, most of us were dying out of tiredness. The entry to Venice was kind of melodramatic with Leena showing signs of road rage, while I struggled to keep my eyes open.

We were received by Vittoria and her pretty Italian friends in Venice, who escorted us till our hotel. The crazy thing about the place is that there is no motor vehicle allowed, so you either walk your legs off or take the super expensive water taxis. After having walked for about an hour, we finally reached the place, but completely rejuvenated admiring the beauty of Venice. We took a late night stroll to the main bridge, and had delicious authentic Italian food for dinner, with an expensive bottle of dry Italian wine. Yes, we were doing it the right way ;)

We woke up to a bright morning, after having slept like dead men, and explored Venice on foot. People got the traditional masks, gifts, etc for the loved ones as mementos. Venice was pretty, probably the prettiest place I have ever been to. And the fact that I was exploring it with the people I love made the experience even better. It is a colorful city splattered with winding lanes, old buildings patronizing the Roman architectural styles, backwaters (hell lot of them!) and tourists from all over the world. We were thankful that we had an Italian friend with us, which ensured we won't be ripped off at every nook and corner. Childhood memories of playing Assasin's Creed came back being in the city, so did the typical Indian stereotypes depicted in the movies and captured in this video beautifully.



We set off for our next and last target, Pula (Croatia). The 3 hours’ drive was through Trieste, which happened to be the hometown of Vittoria, and turned out to be another surprise package of our trip. Situated at the border of Italy and Slovenia, the city is built along the hillside which merges with the north Adriatic sea. The drive through the cliffs was simply amazing, with hills on one side and the sea on the other. Later on after researching, I found that Trieste has been rated by LonelyPlanet as the No.1 underrated travel destination in the world!


We reached Pula by 10pm the same day, and miraculously found out Robert's place without getting lost. The ghosts of Milan still haunted us and we took extra care this time. We got a warm welcome from his parents, and were immediately directed towards the dining table to have the delicious food prepared by his mother. His dad pampered us with a short wine tasting which we thoroughly enjoyed and almost got drunk. There were some embarrassing pictures of young Robert, when he used to enjoy a normal BMI. Next morning, he made us a sumptuous brunch and we set off exploring the city. It was Wednesday and 11am in the morning, but the cafes were full of people chatting and sharing a drink! According to Robert, that is a normal day for people in his laidback hometown. We visited the market, a fort, a church and the arena (most towns of the old Roman Empire have one) before breaking for lunch.



The clouds had cleared by then, and we hit the beach. Our original plan was to sail in the Adriatic aboard Robert's boat but that could not materialize due to fickle weather condition. The beach was a rocky one but nonetheless we went for a swim once we got accustomed to the cold water. I was swimming after almost a year, and probably swimming for the first time in a place other than the pool, where I learnt the art three years back. I did not fare badly on that account, although my tongue did feel salty for the entire evening. We had a grand dinner by the sea in Istria, tasting authentic Croatian sea-food preparations. It was delicious and expensive, but we had stopped caring by that point of time about financials. I was having the time of my life, and knew it may well be the first and last time we all group together for such a holiday.



We returned the next day, driving continuously for over 10 hours and stopping at Trieste to drop Vittoria and be treated to delicious Italian pasta and hospitality. There was a certain calmness that I had seldom felt in a long long time. Traveling regulated my imagination with reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, I saw them as they are. Our battered bodies were overlooked by the satisfied soul. I was happy, after a long time and I would like to take another trip to Italy this year...

As we neared our destination and the sun set on us, I was remembered the dialogue from the movie 'Perks of Being a Wallflower' in my head

"I know these will all be stories someday. And our pictures will become old photographs. We'll all become somebody's mom or dad. But right now these moments are not stories. This is happening. I am here and I am looking at her. And she is so beautiful. I can see it. This one moment when you know you're not a sad story. You are alive, and you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder. And you're listening to that song and that drive with the people you love most in this world. And in this moment I swear, we are infinite..."

- Prateep

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