A day trip to Bratislava

A revolving restaurant inside a flying saucer. A bronze statue peeping out of a manhole. A church that reminds you of a delectable cupcake. Buildings draped head to toe in art. Scary puppets as the most common souvenir. Bratislava is quirky with a capital Q. It has one of the coolest names for a city and a personality to match.  

art in bratislava
Buildings covered in art in Bratislava
Scary souvenirs

Bratislava probably won’t give you enough reasons to travel halfway across the globe to visit. But if you are in the neighbourhood (especially Vienna or Budapest), missing it will be a sin.

We made a day trip from Budapest. The train journey takes around 2.5 hours. We got there at 10 am and had about 8 hours in town before catching the train back. Bratislava packs more than its fair share of curiosities so we were always going to be stretched for time on a day trip. Now I am never in favour of skimming through a place to cross it off but on this occasion, the lure of visiting Bratislava (and hence a different country!) triumphed. But we decided to take it easy and see whatever time permitted without getting pressured into packing in a lot. 

The journey from Vienna takes only an hour and connections are more frequent so a daytrip from Vienna offers more time in the city. I referred to train bible seat61 to plan the journey.

Our circuit covered most of what is noteworthy though I can’t claim to have seen everything I wanted to. We covered all of it on foot, starting from the railway station.

Everything’s within a 5 km stretch

St Michael’s Gate

St Michael’s Gate

St Michael’s Gate is about 2km from the train station and is the entry point to the tourist circuit. It is the only surviving gate out of four that once served as the portals to fortified medieval Bratislava (then known by its German name, Pressburg). The original Gothic tower was replaced in the 18th century by a Baroque tower. The tower and a small museum inside are accessible for a fee and views of the town square from the top of the tower make the climb worthwhile.

Below the tower is the zero kilometre plate that marks the directions and distances to 29 leading cities in the world and it makes for a nice photo-op.

Main Town Square

Panorama of the Main Square

For a small city, Bratislava has no dearth of impressive squares. But the main square, as the name suggests, is, well, the main square. This is your quintessential European town square with a fountain in the centre, surrounded by lovely colourful buildings and is a prime spot for people watching. The Old Town Hall dating back to 15th century is worth checking out.

We wandered off the main square to explore surrounding alleys, some paved some cobblestoned but all lined with evidently old and pretty buildings. It felt like one of those places that uplifts the spirits even if you are just walking through, without encountering anything of note or repute. That is when you tend to notice beautiful potted flowers on a home’s window sill or a wisecrack on a shop board or some locals getting on with life. You know, the little capsules of joy. 

Cumil the sewer worker

We also came across Cumil, a bronze statues of a sewer worker peeping out of manhole. His head has been knocked off many times by careless motorists and he has, in turn, tripped many a careless drunkard who failed to notice him. Speculation abounds on whether he is a benign sewer worker or in fact a peeping Tom looking up women’s skirts. To me he looks like a philosopher trapped in a worker’s body.   

Church of St. Elisabeth

The Blue Church

This church is located just a short walk away from the main square. It is popularly known as the blue church because the entire exterior and interior is painted in some or the other shade of blue. I have seen much more imposing churches but never a prettier one.  This may be borderline blasphemy but I just couldn’t stop thinking that this looks like a delectable dessert. The church was built in the art nouveau style in the early 20th century.  

Blue interiors of the Blue Church

St Martins Cathedral

Clock Tower of St Martin’s Cathedral dominates Bratislava’s skyline

The largest church in Bratislava has been historically important as the coronation church of the Hungarian empire’s Habsburg dynasty for almost three centuries. The tower of the church was initially a part of the fortification of the city and served as a defensive bastion. Though we couldn’t quite find time for it, the crypts are said to worthy of a visit.

Hike up to Bratislava Castle

The site of the castle has been inhabited since the 3rd millennium BC and has always been historically important once serving as the border of the Roman Empire. It was the main castle of the Kingdom of Hungary when the Ottomans captured present day Hungary in the 16th century and held sway till late 18th century before losing prominence.

The UFO Bridge across the Danube

Unfortunately, we had little time to explore the interiors and delve into the history. We went up the castle hill just for the panoramic views of the city. The vantage point offers views of the old town on one side and the new vibrant Bratislava on the other side across the Danube. It also looks upon Novy Most, the glittering bridge across the Danube and its flying saucer shaped restaurant and observation deck.

As we took in the views of the glorious historical town on one side and the vibrant and resurgent city across the river, a drizzle broke out.  A look at the looming clock tower of the St Martin’s Cathedral told us that it was time to make the walk back to the station.

We would have liked to explore the castle and dine at the UFO restaurant, walk along the Danube and over the UFO Bridge. Nevertheless, we went back delighted with the charming Bratislava and were very happy with our decision to spend a day here.

Wonders of Slovenia

When I called the Slovenian Embassy in New Delhi to follow up on our Visa application, the gentleman from the Embassy replied “Don’t worry sir, we are on it”. “Should I share my reference number so that you can track me down?” I enquired. “That won’t be necessary, yours was the only application this week”, came the reply. And in that instant I knew that we had made an excellent choice in picking our destination.

In the Instagram age, no place can claim to be a hidden gem anymore. Slovenia is at least an unspoilt gem, if not really a hidden one. Ever since I saw the Chef’s Table episode on Slovenian chef Ana Ros and its depiction of the Slovenian countryside, I wanted to be there. But it always seemed too far-flung and in the middle of nowhere. Until I started making the itinerary for a trip to Prague and Budapest and it looked temptingly close. We decided to spend a week in Slovenia on our trip through Central Europe.

Slovenian Countryside is full of post card worthy views
Slovenian countryside is full of post card worthy views

Slovenia is a tiny country but offers a melange of varied terrain.  It has mountains and national parks, rivers and gorges and 30 miles of Adriatic coast. The capital Ljubljana is a hip city. Impressive castles are strewn across the country. For a country its size, Slovenia punches well above its weight. Driving through Slovenia is the best way to enjoy the country and its many majestic sites sprinkled every few kilometres.

Driving in Slovenia
Just your regular roadside view

Driving in Slovenia

Indian driving licenses in English suffice for renting the car. We got our car from SixT in Ljubljana and found there services reliable, professional and reasonably prices. Our Renault Kaptur cost us about €60 a day including the in-built navigation, baby car seat and premium zero-liability protection package. Having a car with an inbuilt GPS is worth the extra €5 a day. Opting for a zero liability insurance is a no brainer. There are things on which one can pinch pennies, insurance is not one of them. Cars using the highways in Slovenia need to have a vignette which is usually included with rental cars.

Here’s our travelogue that doubles up as a suggested 6-day itinerary. 

Day 1: Arrive in Ljubljana, Preseren Square

Just saying Ljubljana (pronounced lyoo-blyah-nuh) out aloud a few times generates good vibes. Seriously, try it! Imagine what actually being there can be like. Ljubljana is a vibrant, compact city. It has the quintessential old town, a castle, green spaces, trendy dining options and a hipster district. Pretty much everything a European capital needs to be to be taken seriously. Most things of interest to visitors are within walkable distance, centred around Preseren Square.    

We arrived in Ljubljana from Budapest by train. Our Airbnb was a very pleasant 10 minute walk away, located near Union Brewery. We spent the evening soaking in the sights and sounds of Preseren Square. Cafes, restaurants, gelaterias and souvenir shops line the streets. One can easily while away the evening people watching and getting oriented to the city. 

Day 2: Tivoli Park & Ljubljana Zoo, Ljubljana Castle

Two years ago, if someone told me that I would spend half a day in a European city visiting the local zoo, I would politely tell him that he needed help. But that was before Nyra came around. Now, we felt it would be a good way of rewarding our two year old for her cooperation during the entire trip. We went in for her only to discover the child within.

Tivoli Park
Autumn colours in Tivoli Park

Tivoli Park is a huge expanse of green that even has a castle inside. We packed some coffee and croissant and took a leisurely, refreshing stroll through the park to reach Ljubljana Zoo. It is home to sea lions, koalas, tigers, chimpanzee, giraffe and many other interesting animals. The zoo is well kept and the animals well cared for.

The entrance costs €8. But watching Nyra scream with excitement on seeing these animals in flesh and blood, hitherto encountered only in books, was priceless. It took us 3 hours to do justice to all the residents.

Ljubljana Zoo
Nyra had a ball at Ljubljana Zoo

An alternative for those travelling without kids would be the Metelkova district. This is cluster of erstwhile army barracks has been squatted and converted into a cultural hub covered in vibrant graffiti.  

From the zoo, we took a bus to Preseren Square again, this time to admire it in the light of the day.  To use the bus, one needs the Urbana Card which costs €2 and can be purchased from most newsstands. Every ride for upto 90mins costs €1.20 irrespective of the distance.   

 St Nicholas Cathedral

Frescoes of St Nicholas Cathedral
Frescoes of St Nicholas Cathedral

This is a prominent church located at Preseren Square. Though the earliest mentions of a church at this site date back to the 13th century, the current Baroque building was built in the early 18th century. The church looks mundane from the outside but the frescos inside are amazing. There are two noteworthy sculpted doors to the church that were added when Pope John Paul II visited the cathedral in 1996.  

Ljubljana Castle

This is easily the most important thing to see in Ljubljana. It is located on castle hill just off the old town centre. The entrance ticket including the audio guide and funicular ride for € 12 offers the best value. The audio guide has lively narration and greatly enhances the tour experience. The funicular from just off Preseren Square takes one to the Castle’s entrance.

Ljubljana Castle
Ljubljana Castle

The area was first fortified in the 11th century and has since been remodelled and re-constructed several times. You may do some virtual exploration beforehand at www.ljubljanskigrad.si or choose to explore it directly in person. There is a video theatre called Virtual Castle on site that shows a documentary video on the Castle’s history.  The ceiling of Chapel of St George inside the castle premises is painted with various coats of arms and is worth checking out. The castle grapevine has a fascinating story. It has been grown from a graft of the oldest noble vine in the world from Moribor

The high point of Ljubljana (literally and metaphorically) was the Viewing Tower in the castle. It is said that on clear days you can see two-thirds of Slovenia from here.  Looking right below we saw locals and tourists alike frolicking in Preseren Square. Towards the horizon, we could see the mountains in the distance. We spent almost an hour atop the tower, right until the sun went down on our time in Ljubljana.

Day 3: Piran

Piran is a lovely town on Slovenia’s very short (47km short!) but very picturesque Adriatic coast. Piran is a 1.5 hour drive from Ljubljana (120km) and is an easy day trip. It brings together rich history and culture with spellbinding azure waters and some great sea food.

We left our car at the Fornace parking lot and took the free shuttle bus that leaves every 15 min from outside the parking lot to the city centre.

Piran had been a part of the Venetian empire from the 13th to the 18th Century. Post that it has shifted hands from the Austrian Empire to Italy and Yugoslavia among others before finally becoming a part of independent Slovenia in 1990. Its historical importance arose from its role in salt production and trade. The city was fortified to protect it from Turkish incursions.  

Tartini Square is a grand plaza eponymously named after Giuseppe Tartini, the 18th-century composer and Piran’s most famous son.  It stands on ground that was once a dock for fishing boats. Gradually prominent buildings came up surrounding the dock and dock was filled up and converted into a public square. A magnificent statue of Tartini lords over the square. The square is surrounded by restaurants and cafes. We started our exploration of Piran with a cooling gelato to beat the hot Mediterranean sun.

While ambling across the narrow winding streets, we stumbled upon Mediadom Pyhrani, a multimedia museum that has a fantastic documentation of the history, architecture and culture of Piran through interactive screens and a video. Know more about them here. The entry fee is just €5 and it is highly recommended to augment one’s understanding of Piran.

Some of the best restaurants in Piran can be found along its seaside promenade. The cuisine here is primarily Italian with some Austro-Hungarian influence. After a hearty lunch, we walked to the Church of St George and then to the walls of Piran. The tower of the church is accessible for a fee and is said to offer great views. I had had a filling lunch and decided to give it a miss.

Posing In Piran

We proceeded instead to the famous city walls of Piran. The earliest fortifications date back to 10th century and substantial parts of the fort walls remain. The view from up top of orange roofed houses dotting a triangular landmass that juts into the glittering blue waters of the Adriatic Sea is breath-taking. As we stood there watching the sun go down, it was not difficult to imagine Piran as a bustling town at the height of its prosperity and prominence, with Venetian merchant ships flocking here to trade in white gold (salt). The €2 entry fee to the complex is easily justified.    

City Walls of Piran
Million dollar views from City Walls of Piran

Those willing to pack in a little more into the day can consider adding the nearby towns of Izola or Portoroz to their itinerary. Another option is stopping by Postojna caves on the way to Piran. 

Day 4: Vintgar Gorge, Jasna Lake, Vrisic Pass

After checking out trendy Ljubljana and the old world  charm of Piran, we were all set to make our way into the north-west of Slovenia, home to Slovenia’s best known attractions – Lake Bled and Triglav National Park. 

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

We started this leg with a stop at Vintgar Gorge near Bled. It’s a 1 hour drive from Ljubljana. It is a 1.6km long gorge created by erosion caused by the Radovna river. There is a wooden boardwalk all along the gorge that makes it easily accessible.

Radovna river flowing through Vintgar Gorge
Radovna river flowing through Vintgar Gorge

The sheer drop of the gorge, the transparent water of the river, the multiple rapids and a layer of mist on top of the river’s surface creates an otherworldly feel. We took 3 hours to complete the walk and come back, not because the walk was long or tough but because we couldn’t help stopping after every few steps to click the hell out of Vintgar Gorge.

Baby strollers and pets are not allowed here because the passage is quite narrow. The gorge is open to the public only during summers so visit http://www.vintgar.si to know the latest updates. The entry fee is €5.

After a satisfying morning of moderate physical exertion, we enjoyed some freshly caught and grilled trout from the river at a restaurant nearby.      

Vrisic Pass and Jasna Lake

We were booked to stay the night in a pretty little town called Ratece, near Kranjska Gora, which fell on Slovenia’s border with Italy and Austria. But before getting there, we had planned to cross Kranjska Gora and drive along the famed Vrisic Pass and its 50 hairpin bends.

Jasna Lake
Jasna Lake

After exiting Kranjska Gora on our way to Vrisic Pass we stopped at Lake Jasna. This was easily the most underrated attraction we encountered in Slovenia. Lake Jasna flies under the radar. It doesn’t find a mention in too many to-do lists and very few tourists come here.  The lake is surrounded by mountains that are reflected in its near-transparent waters. Nyra had the best time feeding biscuits to a flock of ducks while we sat on the pier and dipped our feet in the cool waters of the lake.

Jasna Lake
Nyra’s excitement is writ large on her face

I had come to know of it through Instagram accounts I follow like igslovenia and feelslovenia. Actually as a general rule, before visiting any place, I start following Instagram handles featuring that place to discover such hidden gems.

We then drove on to Vrisic Pass. The pass winds up the mountain from Kranjska Gora and then winds down again connecting the town of Trenta. The road is in excellent maintenance (as, indeed, are all roads in Slovenia) and driving there wasn’t nearly as scary as the idea of 50 hairpin bends would make you believe. The views all around are obviously spectacular.  There are spots every few hundred metres to park the car and admire the scenery.

Vrisic Pass
Breathtaking vistas of Vrisic Pass

Near hair-pin No 8, we stopped at the Russian Chapel. The original road that is now Vrisic Pass was built by 10,000 Russian POWs during World War I under the command of the Austrian army. An avalanche killed 300 of them and the survivors built this beautiful chapel in remembrance.

Russian Chapel - Vrisic Pass
Russian Chapel

After crossing some 20-odd bends, the fading light compelled us to head back. We stopped one last time to admire the vistas and to record this moment forever in our memories. We came back to Ratece and checked into out Airbnb. We thoroughly enjoyed spending a peaceful night in this quaint little town with just a couple of restaurants and barely a handful of tourists.

Day 5: Lake Bohinj, Slap Savica, Lake Bled

Waking up to this view in Ratece

Today was the day to see the most famous attraction of Slovenia – the fairytale Lake Bled. But before that we wanted to check out the relatively low key Lake Bohinj. Bohinj is a 1 hour drive from Ratece.

Lake Bohinj is bigger than its more illustrious cousin, Bled. There is a walking path along the perimeter of the lake and there are some piers for fishing and swimming. Bohinj falls somewhere between the glamour of Bled and the untouched beauty of Lake Jasna. We posed and picnicked on the shore before heading to a nearby waterfall called Slap Savica.

It is an 8km drive from the eastern edge of the lake to the car park at Slap Savika. Thereafter, it is a moderately challenging climb for about half an hour, largely over paved steps. The hike was beautiful and enjoyable and doing it with Nyra in tow felt like an accomplishment of sorts. The waterfall was strictly okay though. There is €3 entry fee for the hike and access to the view point.

It was now time to head to Slovenia’s #1 tourist attraction which has been featured on covers of every travel magazine ever and rightly so – Lake Bled. To make it extra special, we had booked a lake view room at West Western Premier Lovec. After spending most of the trip staying in Airbnbs we wanted to splurge on the last night and what better way than getting a Lake Bled view room.

Lake Bled
View from the room spoiled by gloomy weather

Unfortunately, after being exceedingly kind throughout our trip, the weather betrayed us in Bled.  The sky became cloudy, light faded quickly and we were denied a clear view of the lake. We took a walk along the lake and started heading back.

On the way back we stumbled upon Hotel Park – the birthplace of the legendary Bled cream cake. We couldn’t resist trying it out at its place of origin. And boy, it was delicious! The identifiers of an authentic Bled cream cake are the top layer that makes a cracking sound when tapped with a spoon and the fact that the cake swivels on shaking but never collapses. 

Bled Cream Cake at Hotel Park
Bled Cream Cake cheered us up!

Day 6: Lake Bled

The weather continued to be a spoilsport with moderate to heavy drizzle throughout the morning. We consoled ourselves thinking that we had seen enough of the bright, sunny Bled in photos. We were getting to experience a different side of Bled first hand. Also, if we ever needed a reason to come back to Slovenia, admiring Lake Bled on a bright sunny day would always be reason enough.

We took the boat ride to the Bled Island. The round trip costs €12 including waiting time to explore the island. The Church of Assumption of Mary is the main attraction on the island. There is a wishing bell inside the church which one can ring to pray for good luck. The paid entry costing €4, while not entirely worthwhile, became a necessity for us to shield ourselves from the rain.

On fair weather days, Ojstrica and Osojnica are said to provide magnificent views of the lake below. Bled Castle is also worth checking out.

At noon, we started our drive back to Ljubljana with bittersweet feelings. Slovenia had totally lived up to our expectations and indeed exceeded it. But it was time to bid adieu to this lovely country and head home.

Driving through this spectacularly beautiful country and admiring its mountains and many alpine lakes, its castles and its cuisine, I couldn’t help but wonder why Slovenia should appear any lower than Switzerland in a serious traveller’s bucket list.

7 Reasons to pick Prague – and what to do once there

Some people grow up dreaming of exchanging a kiss in front of a lit up Eiffel Tower or cruising the dreamy canals of Venice with their special one.  But for some others, the charm lies simply in the cobblestoned streets, the cafes that line them and in being surrounded by mesmerizing architecture. If you fall in the second category, this post is for you.

Over the next few minutes of your reading time, I’ll try to convince you to choose Prague for your European vacation and let you in on how to make the most of your trip.

#1- Because there would be fewer people to bomb your photos

It gets a third of the visitor’s that Paris gets. Prague is less frequented than its more illustrious European cousins like Barcelona and Amsterdam but it packs as much of a punch.

#2 – Because it won’t break the bank

Prague is way cheaper than its Western European counterparts without lacking in any of their charms. It regularly ranks among European destinations that are great value for money.

#3- Because you can see all of it without spending a penny on transport

Explore Prague entirely on foot

That’s right. Once you reach your accommodation in Central Prague, you can see almost everything of interest without using any transport whatsoever. We had every place we wanted to visit within a 2km radius of our Jewish Quarter Airbnb.  

#4 – Because no one ever bombed the hell out of Prague

Prague’s historical low profile has served it well. It has been spared the destructions of WW II and the extensive re-building that characterised many European cities. Much of its medieval architectural marvels stand well preserved.

#5 – Because it has great neighbours

Budapest by night

Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna and Krakow can all be easily clubbed with a trip to Prague. Not unlike Prague, these are all on the budget end of the European travel spectrum.  

#6 – Because Czech Beer! (and some awesome places to gulp it in)

Czech Republic is the birthplace of Pilsner beers. The Czech are very proud of being the highest per capita consumers of beer in the world. Prague is also full of lovely places to have these beers in.   

#7 – Because it’s safe and that’s really important

The tourist zones of major western European cities are overrun with thieves and pickpockets. Despite ample precautions, I was relieved of my DSLR in Montmartre, Paris. My friends have met similar fates in Rome & Madrid. Prague, like much of Central Europe, continues to be much safer for tourists, with petty crime being almost non-existent.  

Woof! Quite the speel, huh! If I have managed to convince you to consider Prague for your next vacation. Prague’s medieval castle and Gothic St Vitus Cathedral, Charles Bridge and Astronomical Clock are perpetually thronged by tourists. But there’s much else to see and do beyond these well-known attractions during your time in Prague.

I went to Prague with my wife and 2-year old daughter this September and let me tell you what we were up to and how you can get the best of your trip to this delightful city. Be forewarned though, there are no recommendations on the party places. Here’s a four day itinerary for Prague, by and large tracing what we did. 

Day 1 – Walking Tour, Old Town Square

Sandeman’s walking tour

It’s a good idea to get your bearings around the major sites of Prague with a Free walking tour to kick-start your trip. I took the Sandeman’s walking tour with an Aussie guide which was well organised and informative. It was fun getting an informed outsider’s perspective on the city. Even if you tip generously (€ 5 would be considered very reasonable), you end up paying much less than the paid tours. the tour touches the must-sees and is peppered with interesting information and anecdotes.  

Old Town Square

This is the nerve centre of Prague for tourists. The beautiful spires of the Tyn Church dominate the skyline of Old Town Square and the statue of protestant reformer Jan Hus sits in the centre of the square.  

Evening sun rays on Tyn Church spires

The astronomical clock dating back from 1410 is one of the most visited attractions in Prague and also one of its most over-hyped. The fact that a clock built six centuries ago is still in operation is doubtless marvellous but there is nothing for the visitor to really see.

Astronomical Clock
Klementinium Baroque Library (Image Credits boredpanda.com)

Head instead to the Klementinium Library, one of Prague’s lesser known gems. Its Baroque reading hall is touted as the most beautiful library in the world. It certainly was the most otherworldly library I have set eyes on with its centuries old globes and book racks and the majestic fresco on the ceiling. How anyone could get any reading done in this hauntingly beautiful setting is beyond me. The ascent up to the astronomical clock tower offers great views of the city. Tickets cost 300 CZK/€12 (approx.) including the price of guided tours in English commencing every half hour.


 For me the highlight of Old Town was the Trdelnik a pastry made of grilled rolled dough sprinkled with powdered sugar. It is transformed from delicious to heavenly when filled up with ice-cream & Nutella. It’s known in Hungary as Chimney cake and has originated in Romania. Sceptics say it’s not a traditional Czech dish and has proliferated with mass tourism when something is this delicious, who cares!

Day 2 – Jewish Quarter, Charles Bridge

Spanish Synagogue

The visit to the Jewish quarter was undoubtedly the most moving part of our trip. Staring at the names of thousands of innocent Jews who were mass murdered under the Nazi occupation and the gravestones jostling for space in the solitary Jewish cemetery in Prague is enough make the most stoic well up. Hitler only spared the important Jewish monuments of Prague because he planned to preserve this is as a monument to the race he had every intention of wiping out from Europe.

Names of 78,000 victims on the walls of Pinkas Synagogue

The Jewish Quarter is a cluster of Synagogues and other Jewish heritage sites. The Synagogues are all very different from each other. The Spanish Synagogue will blow you away with the rich and intricate art inside, the Pinkas synagogue will move you with the reminder of the anti-semitic purge under the Nazis, the Klausen Synagogue has Jewish relics that can be your introduction to Jewish culture and the Old New Synagogue (which I skipped) is the oldest surviving Synagogue said to house the remains of the mythical Golem. The Cemetery is also certainly worth the visit. The attached museum sheds light on the Jewish customs related to the last rites.

Jewish Cemetery

Entry to all these monuments is covered by a single ticket that costs CZK 530 (€ 20.50). A discounted version covering everything apart from the Old-New Synagogue comes for CZK 350 (€13.50) and is better value for money. Details here.

Charles Bridge

Charles Bridge

The most iconic image of Prague is that of Karluv Most or Charles Bridge with its 2 sides lined with statues. The legendary bridge dating back to the 15th Century to the 15th Century was constructed by the most revered of Prague’s rulers, Charles IV and is adorned with 30 statues. Wikipedia has basic information on the statues and referring to it while you walk past them will help you see them as something more than beautiful works of art. The bridge makes for a great stroll any time of the day. Mornings are good for leisurely walks. In the evening Charles Bridge is abuzz with a carnival-like atmosphere that makes for great people watching. Turn up later at night to admire a lit up castle district from this vantage point.  

Day 3 – Day trip to Cesky Krumlov

If you have just 4 days for Czech Republic, one of them must be set aside for Cesky Krumlov. You can’t come to Prague and not go to the fairy tale town of Cesky Krumlov. 

Cesky Krumlov

Cesky Krumlov’s sits on a bend in the Vltava river and oozes with oodles of charm. The Old Town is a pedestrian zone with cobble stoned winding streets, baroque houses, souvenir shops with the prettiest of collectibles and beautiful restaurants serving traditional Czech fare with views to die for.  The medieval castle is the top draw for admirers of history and architecture. Even the less historically inclined should climb up to the castle grounds and soak in the postcard worthy views of this quaint town. It is one of those places where you just can’t stop smiling once you are there. You won’t go there with a checklist of things to tick off. But you will doubtless come back happy in the knowledge that such a place exists. That you can step into a fairy tale for a while if you crave it bad.     

Cesky Krumlov

Cesky Krumlov is well connected by trains as well as buses. We took the direct train out at 8 am and got there by 11. You can book the tickets here. For the return leg, we used Regiojet which has almost hourly connections with spacious seats, personal entertainment systems and complimentary Wifi and coffee on board.

There are several other worthy and convenient day trips if you are spending longer in Prague. The spa town of Karlovy Vary that also houses the famed Moser Glassworks factory is very popular. As is the Ossuary at Kutna Hora with its church made of human skeletons. But if you have just a day to spare, spend it in Cesky Krumlov.

Day 4 – Castle District

The Prague Castle is the highlight for most first time visitors to the city with the panoramic views of the city from the castle grounds and the magnificent Gothic Cathedral of St Vitus. It is among the largest castles in the world and also the residence of the Czech president.

St Vitus Cathedral

I had done a trip of the interiors on my last visit to Prague a few years back and chose this time to laze around the palace grounds and enjoy the magnificent views of the city below.

The guards at the castle gate are forbidden from expressing any emotions and are akin to wax statues. The changing of guards provides a nice photo opportunity. The St Vitus Cathedral is a very impressive structure and its stained glass windows are majestic. But to make better sense of the historic, cultural and religious significance of the castle, a guide or at least an audio guide is highly recommended. 

Letna Park

We spent our last few hours in Prague lounging at Letna Park. It’s a vast expanse of greens located on a hilltop next to the left bank of the Vltava river. It has beer gardens, gelaterias and breath-taking views of the city on the other side of the river. If you want to get away from the touristy side of Prague and spend some time watching the locals unwind, this is where you need to come. Sunsets here are the best! This is where we called it a night on our last day in Prague.

View from Letna Park

When to go?

Anytime. Seriously, anytime. But some months are better than other. July-August are European school summer holidays and Prague gets very crowded. The winters are rather chilly for my liking. May-June and Sept-Oct are good shoulder seasons to do Prague, combining good weather and fewer people.  

Where to stay?

Our Airbnb in the Jewish quarter was very conveniently located and placed us within walking distance of everywhere we wanted to go in Prague. I would highly recommend putting up somewhere in the Old Town, if not in the Jewish Quarter itself. It can get a little crowded but you can cover most of Prague’s attractions on foot from here.  

What to Eat?

Czech Goulash

Czech food was not haute but very hearty. It was my kind of unpretentious good food. The Czech Goulash (different from Hungarian Goulash), is probably the most famous Czech dish. It’s beef in a brown gravy with a side of bread dumplings called knedilky. When done right, Czech potato soup is also delightful. For me the winner was Trdelink, referenced earlier in the article.

How are the people there?

To be honest, I felt the Czechs could do with a little more of smiling. I mean its good exercise for the jaws. There’s a lot of discussion on travel forums about the general demeanour of Czechs. The service at restaurants was efficient but can hardly be called warm. The supermarket cashiers seemed to be doing me a favour by letting me buy from them. While I detest sweeping generalisations myself, I found the Hungarians and Slovenians to be much friendlier as a rule.

I guess every culture is unique and some are just more disposed to smiling and mingling than others. There was no untoward incident and we were never spoken to rudely, but a general warmth from the locals does add a lot to any travel experience which I found missing in the Czech Republic.  Some of our previous travels abroad – notably to France and Bali- have been made memorable by some very warm hearted people we met. I can’t really speak in the same vein about the Czechs.

Useful Resource

An extremely useful resource for practical information is the Honest Prague Guide YouTube channel. Highly recommend catching their videos on getting into town, changing money and using public transport. I saved myself a lot of trouble (and money!) by using their tips. 

Final Word

Prague has it all. Architectural grandeur, fascinating history and culture, nightlife & great cuisine. Prague makes you wonder how a city could be so incredibly beautiful and well kept. I thought Paris was the prettiest city around but I am not exaggerating when I say Prague can give it a run for its money. It is about sitting on café tables and watching tourists flow by, delighting in the fact that you have nowhere to go and there is nowhere else you would rather be. Don’t go there to tick off any attractions. Go there to feel the feeling of being in Prague. It’s magical. You will love it.

Travelling with Infants – Why it’s an excellent idea!

Travelling with an infant
Look who’s the most excited about the trip!

As I was planning our family trip to Vietnam next month, the memories of our first trip abroad with our daughter, 6 months earlier, came back to mind.

Making up our minds

But first, let’s rewind to 2015. Moumita, my wife, had never been outside Asia. My own travel outside Asia was limited to a 3 day trip to Prague – a quasi- official trip. So it was with tremendous anticipation that we were planning our first Eurotrip. The idea was to go backpacking through Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris & Berlin. Stay in the hippest hostels, hit the trendiest bars and lose ourselves in the streets. And that was when we learnt that our life was about to change forever. We forgot all about the Eurotrip and started looking forward to the arrival of our child instead!

And in September 2016, we were blessed with Nyra. Travel, especially foreign travel, slipped completely out of our thoughts as we grappled with the challenges and basked in the unbridled joys of parenthood.

Until one day a couple of months later, a friend, an expert deal hunter, informed me of a flight deal that could get us to Paris from Mumbai and back for 18k ($275). That’s less than half of what you would normally expect to pay. My initial reaction was to envy the lucky dog who was not only going to Paris but going there for throwaway prices. Even the idea of travelling with Nyra in tow didn’t cross my mind.

But then I thought about it. And then I thought some more. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that we were letting go of this unexpected kindness of the travel gods. To my surprise, for every argument against travelling with an infant, I could come up with an equally compelling counter agreement. Just one sobering thought. The plans of taking the party scene in Western Europe by storm might have to make way for slow travel around France. We just couldn’t do justice to Amsterdam while travelling with an infant! We had to decide immediately as the deal was valid for just one day. And that night, we booked!

And then began a phase of painstaking planning. But I am one of those for whom planning and anticipating a trip is even more pleasurable than the trip itself.

Travelling with an infant
Nyra supervised the packing

We understood that the itinerary would be dictated by a lot more our travel preferences. To start with, high altitudes were completely ruled out. In fact, any place that could potentially be too cold was best avoided. Beaches won’t be fun as one of us would have to keep a watch on Nyra when the other went dipping. Most live performances wouldn’t allow infants. We would look like nut cases if we went to discos with the baby. Maybe the trip wasn’t such a good idea after all.

But we could still see the Notre Dame and take the Seine cruise. We could still gape at the Loire Valley chateaus and get our fix of lakeside bliss in the French Alps. We could still spend a night at the other-worldly Mont Saint Michel. We could still stuff ourselves with fine French cuisine and polish off some French wine. There was still more than enough to see and do and we were still spoilt for choice. And France with its efficient public transport system & wheelchair friendly sidewalks would be easy to navigate. Soon the days of anticipation were over it was time to board our Air France flight for what would surely be the trip of a lifetime.

Travelling with an infant
All set to take off – so far so good!

A roller coaster ride

We spent the first leg of the trip in the Normandy region. It wasn’t a smooth beginning. Nyra had hardly slept on the overnight flight and wasn’t her usual cheery self right from the time we landed. She was barely eating anything, crying more than usual and clinging to her mother throughout. We had failed to appreciate how big a change it would be for her. Seeing her in this state made us acutely aware of our somewhat selfish decision to travel and we were already having guilt pangs.

Our third day in Normandy was a day trip to the D-Day landing beaches. Till now, Nyra showed no signs of enjoying her Eurotrip and our spirits were very low. So much so that we had half considered heading back to India cutting short the trip. On our way to Omaha beach, our guide from Bayeux Shuttle informed us that it was very rare to have Indian visitors on the trip. Most visitors came from Britain, US or Canada – countries whose troupes were involved in the landings at the beaches. It was also extremely rare to have families travelling with infants. It was the first time ever that an Indian family with an infant was travelling to these sites with them! I won’t claim that this didn’t make us proud.

When we got off the minivan to explore the German bunkers at Pont du Hoc, the sun was shining brightly. Nyra had woken up happy after a nap on the way. We were beginning to feel that we had turned a corner. Midway through our exploration, it started raining. The light drizzle quickly grew into a heavy downpour. We were on a tight schedule and waiting out the rains in the shade was not an option. I ran while trying to push Nyra’s stroller through dirt tracks that had now become muddy. She was drenched and wailing furiously. She was seriously scared and kept crying inconsolably. We had hit rock bottom.

It took us a long time to calm her and seat her down in the car seat for the return journey. We were giving apologetic looks to our co-passengers but they were more than understanding. In fact, we got a lot of encouragement for our bravery (we thought it was foolhardiness). Some of them recounted tales of how they brought up their own kids back in the day. Travelling from an early age, they said, wires kids to grow up into adaptable human beings.

Slowly, things started getting better as the trip went along. Nyra began settling into a somewhat regular sleep & meal pattern. She even began to actively enjoy the new sights and sounds. It would take her a little time to adjust and we would slow down further. We decided that we had to take things in our stride and make the best of the trip. We began figuring out hacks to make life simpler. Pushing her around in the stroller to make her fall asleep was a prerequisite for an enjoyable dinner – far more than the chef’s wares. Failing that, we went to restaurants with high chairs for babies and sat her down with a piece of bread or some fries. That kept her occupied while we had a peaceful dinner.

Travelling with an infant
We made many friends – all courtesy Nyra

The French are often portrayed as somewhat cold and unfriendly and even uptight. In our experience, nothing could be further from the truth. We were bowled over by the warmth of the French people. Nyra was often the conversation starter. Co-passengers on trains, neighbours in restaurants and even random passers-by on streets would often remark on how cute she is and how it was very brave of us to come half-way across the world with her to a new country. We would shrug off the compliments overtly but do a mental high five every time.

Our Airbnb hosts went out of the way to help make the stay comfortable for Nyra. Aurelian, who hosted us in Vernon, actually borrowed a baby cot from a neighbour and dragged it up 3 flights of stairs for us. In Amboise Lucas and Micheline had kept milk, bananas and baby food handy, in case we needed it after checking in late in the evening.

Travelling with an infant
Lucas & Micheline – fabulous hosts and amazing human beings

Every time we took the Paris Metro, we had someone volunteering to help us carry Nyra’s stroller up or down the flight of stairs. Even at the busiest of times. It has been my experience that it is the people in a place who define your views about a place. The most breathtaking places are not enjoyable if the people are not friendly.


Visiting France was also a lesson in knowing how the French are bringing up their kids while ensuring that they continue to lead their individual lives. We saw mothers jogging with baby strollers and cycling uphill with a baby in tow.

The three-week trip was a godsend for our father-daughter bonding. It is one thing to spend time with her after office and on weekends. It’s quite another to be constantly with her for three full weeks. We knew Nyra would make no memories of this epic trip. But we sure did. We made it a point to capture tons of photographs of the places we visited for Nyra to see later. And she will have bragging rights for life for having seen the Eiffel tower before she turned one.

Now, six months later, the first thing she does after waking up is to point her fingers towards the door, urging us to take her out for a stroll. We don’t know if that trip when she was 8 months had any role in making her an outdoorsy kid. We never will. But we like to believe so!

Round up with Pro tips – 9 tips to make things easier for you

Travelling with an infant
The bassinet seat is a godsend


# 1 Book the Bassinet Seats: Most aircraft/airlines will have limited bassinet seats. Do an online check-in as soon as the window opens and book one. That ensures that both you and your baby sleep well on a long flight and arrive fresh as daisies for your holiday.

# 2 Stay at an Airbnb:  We prefer staying in Airbnbs over hotels, hands down. You have access to microwaves to warm the baby food and washing machines to do your laundry (hence escape packing too many baby clothes). But the biggest reason of all is that if you rent an entire place, you can put the baby to sleep and get some time to yourselves in another room.

# 3 Take it slow: One thing that’s definitely out of the equation is hurricane trips. Every attraction will take more time to see with the baby than it would otherwise. Budget for it. There could be things that you cannot do with the baby. Your partner might have to babysit while you climb to the top of a tower and then you will return the favour. In effect, you will take twice as long to get done there.

# 4 Set your expectations right: Babies don’t care much about your itinerary. They may develop a foul mood out of nowhere and throw you off your plans. Be prepared to miss seeing a few things you had planned. Remind yourself that the alternative to travelling like this is not travelling at all. And that’s not really an option, is it?

# 5 Pack smart: Split the baby essentials between your check-in and carry-on luggage. This ensures that you have emergency supplies in the unlikely event of baggage loss. Keep the number of pieces of luggage to a minimum.

# 6 Renting Car Seats: Read local regulations on the use of car seats. It is not enough to simply have one. Western countries have specifications that the car seats need to conform to. In France, car seats are not required for travel by Taxi or bus but are required for rented cars and minivans. Renting the car seat locally may turn out to be more convenient. Check options online prior to travel.

# 7 Carry spare clothes for day outings: Handling kids is messy. If you are out for a day that you want to end with a dinner at a chic restaurant or a visit to some high-end shopping galleries, make sure you carry a change of clothes for yourself. You don’t want to be walking in with a stained dress.

# 8 Making Dinner Plans: Chose a place where you will feel comfortable. We steadfastly avoided fine dining. Infants will be noisy. You don’t want to spend dinnertime on a guilt trip for being an inconvenience to others. Try putting your baby to sleep before you head for dinner or at the very least book a place with a high chair. Infants are curious. And they love eating what they see adults eating. If you can seat them down with some bite-sized portions of your food, you might have a real shot at a peaceful meal.

Travelling with an infant
High chairs at meal times = Happy baby, happy mommy

# 9 Just take the damn trip: Infants fly free! Travelling with kids isn’t going to be any easier until they grow much older. Nor will the kids be making any memories until they turn at least 5. So travel more while the concessional rates still apply. Once you have made the trip, you will always look back on it fondly. You will likely forget the niggling issues soon but will always remember the lovely memories you made.

Travelling with an infant
Making memories

Please add to the tips from your own experiences in the comment section below and feel free to ask questions if you planning to travel soon.

Head to Lake Geneva Region for your fix of Lakeside Bliss

Chateau de Chillon Lake Geneva Region
Chateau de Chillon on Lake Geneva

When you think of visiting Switzerland, what are the destinations that come to your mind first? Jungfrau and Titlis? Without a doubt, these are fabulous. But we were traveling with our 8-month-old daughter and high altitudes were a strict no-no for us. Our trip to France took us to Annecy, barely 40km from the Swiss border and we were naturally itching to cross over to Switzerland to see what the hype was all about. So we decided to spend three lovely days in the Lake Geneva region. The region is packed with diverse attractions that make for a wholesome trip.

Geneva is well-connected to the world through its airport. It is also connected to major cities of Europe through high-speed rail networks.

Where to Stay in the Lake Geneva Region?

For those visiting the Lake Geneva region, there are several options for base location. Geneva is a big city with all the usual comforts and entrapments. Lausanne is also a fairly big city with a hip urban vibe. Montreux is relatively laid back and oozes glamour and old world charm. Vevey is quaint and quieter. Staying in any of these places sorts you out for connectivity through the rail and boat network. We chose Les Avants, a tiny village at about a 3.5km ascent from Montreux, reachable by a short but beautiful train journey. It does add 20mins of travel time each way if you have to get anywhere but it takes you far away from the crowds and into a scenic heaven. Les Avants gave us ample reasons to be thankful for our choice.

Day 1: Chateau de Chillon & Montreux Lakefront

We arrived in Geneva by bus from Annecy and made our way to Gare Cornavin that connects Geneva to the rest of Switzerland, including Montreux, by rail. Montreux station has automated left luggage lockers with rents varying by size of luggage. We utilized these to travel hands-free. Montreux defines lakeside glamour, with mansions dotting the lakefront having fancy cars parked outside and the aristocracy decked up in haute couture.

Fans posing with Freddie Mercury's Statue in Montreux in Lake Geneva Region
Fans posing with Freddie Mercury’s Statue in Montreux

Montreux is particularly significant for music buffs. Freddie Mercury’s band Queen bought Mountain Studios and recorded much of their music there. Fans of Freddie Mercury can visit “Queen: The Studio Experience”, their recording studio which is well preserved and accessible for free to the visitors (http://www.mercuryphoenixtrust.com/studioexperience/). Mercury’s statue on the lakefront was always a landmark and is now a famous selfie point. Deep Purple also came to Montreux to record their superhit album Machine Head. The Montreux Jazz festival is held annually in July and draws visitors from across the globe (http://www.montreuxjazz.com/).

We walked along the lakefront admiring the views. There are designated decks where people can be seen fishing and indulging in general joie de vivre.  A walk along the promenade is a quintessential Lake Geneva region experience. Views of the lakeside mansions on one side and the turquoise waters reflecting the Alps on the other side make sure that the walk doesn’t feel like an exertion.

Chateau de chillon in the Lake Geneva Region was built in the 11th century and is now a museum
Chateau de Chillon on Lake Geneva

After a relaxing walk along the promenade, we made our way to Chateau de Chillon. Chateau de Chillon is Switzerland’s most visited historic monument. It dates back to at least the early 11th Century AD and it used to be the summer residence of the Counts of Savoy. The towers and fortified walls still stand strong today and castle has now been converted into a museum. Entrance to the castle costs CHF 12.50 per adult (price as on 2017). The information leaflet handed out the counter has excellent descriptions of the exhibits and galleries inside. Additionally, there are excellent audio-video aids in the rooms describing the times of Savoyard Royalty and other important events in the Chateau’s long and rich history.

We had arrived here fresh from Chateau overkill in the Loire valley and were almost considering skipping the trip to Chillon. But I am so glad we didn’t because Chillon is completely different from the Chateaus in France. The undisputed highlight for me was the underground section. It was initially a store for weapons and was later converted to a prison. François de Bonivard was a prisoner here for four years. Lord Byron has immortalized him in his poem The Prisoner Of Chillon. Byron’s signature is there to be seen on a pillar in the dungeon.

Boat are a popular means of transport in the Lake Geneva Region
Boat to Chillon from Montreux

From Montreux, Chillon can be reached by road, boat or on foot. We took the boat on our way there and walked back and thoroughly enjoyed both the journeys. In fact, visitors with more time on their hands should consider taking a longer boat ride. Boats are a very popular means of transport in the Lake Geneva region among locals and tourists alike.

Lake Geneva at dusk viewed from the Goldenpass train from Montreux to Zweisimmen
Lake Geneva from onboard Goldenpass

We then boarded our train from Montreux for Les Avants. There’s one every hour. Within minutes of our journey, we were treated to jaw-dropping views. As the train wound up the hill, Lake Geneva looked ethereally beautiful under the diffused light of dusk. We stayed at this lovely and well appointed Airbnb (https://tinyurl.com/yceumdjy).

Day 2: Lavaux Wine Region

Les Avants is a great base to explore the Lake Geneva Region
View from our Airbnb Balcony at Les Avants

In the morning, we woke up to the clinking of cowbells. Vivid memories of reading Heidi as a child came flashing back to mind.

Les Avants is a nice base for some hiking trails like the one to Rochers- de-Naye. But we had a more leisurely day in mind. We spent our second day in the Lake Geneva region exploring the Lavuax vineyards in and around Rivaz and St Saphorin. The Lavaux wine region is a UNESCO world heritage site. The outstanding wine terraces envelope the hill slopes stretching down from the villages right up to the lakefront and date back to the 11th Century when monks cultivated the region.

Lavaux Vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva
Lavaux Vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva

Truth be told, the time of the year we were visiting in (early June) was not the best time to tour the vineyards. The vines were denuded and the sun was beating down. After ambling across the villages aimlessly and finding that all the wine caves were also closed, we headed towards Vinorama (http://www.lavaux-vinorama.ch/). Vinorama is a wine centre that has the largest collection of Lavaux wines to taste and purchase. The most famous varietal from the region is Chasselas which is fruity and dry.

The high point for me was a documentary feature called “The Winemaker’s Year” that we saw in their mini theatre. The documentary captures the winemaking journey with changing seasons. It provided a glimpse into the love that goes behind the labor and the emotional highs and lows that are an inevitable part of a winemaker’s life. Here is a link to the trailer of the documentary – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5sIqxxbkRo.

Day 3: Cailler Chocolate Factory & Gruyere Cheese Factory Tour

We spent our last day in the Lake Geneva Region touring the famous Chocolate and Cheese factories. We visited the Cailler Chocolate factory in Broc and Gruyere Cheese factory in, well, Gruyere. To get to these, one needs to take to Goldenpass from Montreux (we boarded from Les Avants) towards Zweisimmen and get down at Montbovon. From there take the train bound for Broc. Gruyere is on the way to Broc from Montbovon. Both the factories are very close to the respective rail stations.

Maison Cailler tour  

A visit to the Cailler Chocolate Factory at Broc Fabrique can be the highlight of any trip to the Lake Geneva Region
Cailler Chocolate Factory

Callier is a subsidiary of Nestle and a premium chocolate maker par excellence. Entry to the Callier factory (https://cailler.ch/en/maison-cailler/la-chocolaterie-suisse/) costs CHF 12 per adult and children under 16 get in free when accompanied by an adult! It includes a guided tour through the factory through audio-visual aids as well as a tasting of the chocolates. The tour begins with the origins of chocolate in South America and continues to its adoption in Europe ending with the modern methods of chocolate making employed by Cailler. There are cocoa beans, hazelnuts and other ingredients of chocolates for you to see, smell and taste to get a true flavor of what goes inside.

There is a small line that makes Cailler’s famous Original Branches chocolates specifically for visitors to consume fresh. Watching the chocolate being made and having it fresh off the line moments later was enough to awaken the child in me.  However, don’t repeat my mistake and stuff yourself up with these because the really good stuff awaits you at the end of the tour in the tasting section. The tasting is largely unsupervised and you are free to try as many of their chocolates as you want, each more delectable than the other. We introduced our daughter to chocolates here and she seemed to agree that they were excellent.

Chocolate tasting at Cailler Chocolate Factory
Nyra’s intro to Chocolates!

La Maison du Gruyere

On our way back from Broc towards Montreux, we hopped off at Gruyere and headed to the cheese factory (https://www.lamaisondugruyere.ch/landing-page-en/) right outside the station.

Entrance to the factory costs CHF 7 per adult. The audio guide and visual aids explain the various stages in the production of Gruyere cheese. There is an attempt to create an interaction with all five senses- hearing, smell, sight, touch and taste- as they relate to cheese-making. You also get three samples of Gruyere cheese of three different ages to demonstrate how it matures with age. Gruyere gained the AOC as a Swiss Cheese in 2001 and is extremely popular worldwide.

Gruyere Cheese Factory in Switzerland.
Gruyere Cheese Factory


Please refer to the latest cheese-making timetable on their site before visiting. Visiting the factory when cheese-making is not in progress can be a disappointing experience, as it was for us. Even more so after the very high bar set by the chocolate factory tour. I would advise people to skip it unless they are visiting the chocolate factory also and this is something they are covering on the way.

While in Gruyere, it is worth visiting the eponymous castle from the 13th century that has now been converted into a museum. From Gruyere, we came back to Les Avants for the night. Sadly, our stay in Switzerland was drawing to a close. Our train to Paris was on the next afternoon.

We spent our last morning lazing in our Airbnb, soaking in the views for one last time and going over the memories we made. We headed back with a promise to come back to explore more of this beautiful country. We had barely scratched the surface and there were so many treasures left unexplored.

Essential Normandy : A four day itinerary

Indian travellers headed to France make a beeline for Paris and the Riviera. But there is so much more to France. A less frequented region, despite proximity to Paris, is the incredibly diverse region of Normandy. When in Normandy, a four day itinerary could involve things ranging from admiring the impressionist master Monet’s house and garden to checking out the famous D-day landing beaches from World War II. You could be spending a night on Mont St Michel, an island that houses an ancient abbey and admire the Bayeux tapestry the next day, the largest tapestry in the world. And after covering all this you would only be scratching the surface of Normany.
A map marking out the must see spots in Normandy
I was travelling with my wife and infant daughter and here’s how we spent 4 amazing days in this lovely region of France. We relied on public transport throughout but you could also rent a car to make your itinerary more flexible.  
Day 1: Monet’s House and Garden
Upon landing in Paris, we headed straight to Vernon, the rail head for the sleepy town of Giverny made famous by its most illustrious resident Claude Monet. Pro Tip: Get your entry tickets to Monet’s Gardens from the Tourist Information Office at Vernon to avoid lengthy queues. The office is housed in a medieval wooden building and is a sight in itself. Shuttle buses ply from Vernon to Giverny and cost 5 Euros per person one way. Schedules here https://tinyurl.com/yd2x4g2a . Giverny has limited stay options so you are better off basing yourself in Vernon.
The Tourist Information Office at Vernon (Source: Giverny.org)
Monet settled down in this tiny hamlet, about 75km away from Paris. His house and garden now welcome tourists. Monet landscaped an amazing garden and cultivated lilies in a water garden so that he could paint them. No matter which season you visit in, some or the other bright flowers will always be in resplendent bloom. 
Japanese Bridge at Monet’s water garden (Source: Giverny.org)
His house is now a museum and gives a peek into his life and times. But the star of the show is the water garden with lilies that Monet painted. He was heavily inspired by Japan and the quaint green Japanese bridges over the lake, along with a collection of oriental plants are a testament to that. It was incredible to witness first- hand the very scenes that had inspired the impressionist master, before eventually admiring the paintings in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.
Day 2: Bayeux Cathedral and Tapestry
The next day we took a train to Bayeux. Well the thing with France is all railroads lead to Paris. So we had to come back to Paris and change trains for Bayeux. Bayeux falls on the Paris-Caen-Cherbourg line. Visitors to landing beaches in Normandy typically chose between Bayeux and Caen as a base. We opted for Bayeux as it’s smaller and more intimate compared to Caen. It’s a lovely destination in its own right housing the largest tapestry in the world and a fabulous 11th century Gothic cathedral. Bayeux is compact and can be easily covered on foot.
The Bayeux Cathedral in the background
Cathedral Notre-Dame de Bayeux was consecrated by Bishop Odo, the half-brother of the King of England, William the Conqueror in July of 1077. The cathedral still stands strong after over 900 years unlike the cathedral in Caen which fell to allied bombings.  
A section of the Bayeux Tapestry (Source: lelivrescolaire.fr)
The Bayeux Tapestry is a 70 metre long cloth embroidered with tales describing the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror. The tapestry dates back to the 11th Century and was commissioned most likely by Bishop Odo. One thing is for sure, it is unlike anything you have seen before and you don’t need to be a history buff to enjoy it. I knew very little of French history and I came out fascinated. A very engaging audio guide is included in the price of the ticket which stands at 9.50 Euros presently.
The two major attractions aside, you’ll enjoy wandering through the historic town stopping for a coffee here and a croissant there. Bayeux oozes old world charm.
Day 3: D-day Landing Beaches
This is the main reason travellers flock to Normandy. These majestic beaches bear sad testimony to a gory history.
Omaha Beach
There are many operators who arrange full day and half day guided tours to the American, British or Canadian sectors of the D-day beaches. We employed the services of Bayeux Shuttle (http://www.bayeuxshuttle.com) and were very satisfied. The half day tour cost us 60 Euros per person and they were kind enough to give us a discount for our infant and arrange a car seat for her. Our guide Llyod, a Welshman, was a WW II buff and extremely knowledgeable. All our co passengers were either American or Canadian and came from families of war veterans. It was very moving to hear some of their accounts. Lloyd said it is very rare to have Indians on these tours and it was the first time they had an Indian infant on board!  
We went for a tour of Omaha beach which is one among the five sectors where allies invaded German occupied France. It takes just about half an hour to get there from Bayeux. We chose the Omaha beach circuit because it includes a trip to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.
The trip began with a stop at Pointe du Hoc where we saw the German gun installations comprising 6 guns. The canons had a range of 10 miles and could shot fired from here could both Omaha and Utah beaches, thus posing a great threat to the allied landings. We also saw German bunkers were soldiers holed up.
Next we went to the Omaha beach. A chill went down my spine as I heard Llyod narrate the events of the fateful day. It sounded as if he were a first-hand witness of the proceedings. While the incessant rain during our tour was bothering us, it would have been the least of the worries for the soldiers who landed on these beaches on June 6th 1944. It is indeed sad that such a pretty beach, once known as plage d’or or the golden beach had to get tainted with such gory history.
Normandy American Cemetery
Then we proceeded to the American cemetery which houses the remains of more than 9000 Americans, most of who lost their lives during military operations in WW II. It was an extremely humbling experience to walk through the cemetery amidst graves of soldiers, so many of who were barely in their 20s. Famous interments include Theodore Jr and Quentin Roosevelt, sons of president Theodore Roosevelt. The cemetery is featured in the movie saving Saving Private Ryan. The movie is based on the lives of Niland brothers who are also buried here.   
Day 4: Mont Saint Michel
This was our last stop in Normandy and we had saved the best for the last. If you don’t find time to cover Normandy on your trip, at least spare a day to visit the Mont. We took a train from Bayeux to Pontorson, which is connected by a shuttle bus to Mont St Michel.
The impressive Mont St Michel by day
The Abbey in the middle of the ocean can be the highlight of any trip to France. It sure was for us.  The first montastic establishment here was constructed in the 8th century. The Romanesque church of the abbey was built in the 11th Century.
Lots of tourists flock here during the daytime, but I would strongly recommend spending a night here and experiencing the place after the floating multitudes have left. In the summer when daylight stretches to almost 10pm, you can have a magical dinner seated on a restaurant next to the ramparts. Pro tip: Do avail the free guided tour available in English twice a day.  It will help you truly understand the rich history of the Abbey and appreciate it better.

Mont St Michel is also famous for its fluffy omelettes. La Mere Poulard is a legend. They are worth trying because you won’t find anything quite like this anywhere else though we didn’t find them to our liking. The local restaurants also have a wide selection of crepes and galettes. Post sundown, the lit up mont is a magical sight.
MSM looks nothing short of magical at night
Other places in Normandy that would be worth your while are Rouen for its famous cathedral, and the harbour town of Honfleur which was the birthplace of impressionism. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to fit them into our itinerary.

Ten Pro Tips for Your Upcoming Paris Trip



I am writing this so that more people benefit from the extensive research I did before visiting Paris and from my experiences there. These little things I am listing below will help you save time and money and experience the real, “offbeat” Paris.  Disclaimer: I and my wife were travelling with our 8 month old daughter, so if you are looking for party tips, you are on the wrong page.

Tip # Zero: Start every conversion with a Parisian with Bonjour Monsieur/Madame, even if that’s all the French you can manage. Do a social experiment. On one day, start all your conversations with Goodmorning. The next day, start all of them with Bonjour. Trust me, you will be blown by the difference it elicits in their friendliness towards you. The French are very proud of their culture and language and of course rightly so. They detest the assumption that they should be speaking English as much as they appreciate a foreigner making an effort to speak their tongue.

      Tip # 1: Stay at an Airbnb – Give the hotels a miss and stay with some locals by renting out a part of their apartment. It will definitely be way cheaper but that’s not even the biggest reason to be doing it. It will give you a glimpse into Parisian life that a hotel just can’t. We stayed with a young live-in couple. Staying in their home and having conversations with them taught us so much about the Parisian way of life. There will be Airbnbs for every budget, just make sure you go for one which has received good reviews from former guests. Oh, and also look out for a room on a lower floor or a building with an elevator. Don’t assume that buildings which are 6 floors high will have elevators. Its surprisingly rare.  
      Tip # 2: Buy your dinner from the supermarket – Especially if you are staying in an Airbnb and have access to the kitchen. A ready to cook pizza at a supermarket will cost 3-4 Euros, whereas the same Pizza served at an average restaurant would set you back by upwards of 12-15 Euros. All you have to do is grill it in the microwave! Same applies to wines and beers. Buying your stuff from the supermarket will cost you about a third of what a standard restaurant will charge. And trust me, you can still experience local cuisine; even the supermarket will spoil you for choices. 
      Tip # 3: Splurge on Lunch – Go for the two/three course formula menus at lunch. Lunch service at the same restaurant will be significantly cheaper than dinner. Also, in French restaurants it is mandatory so serve a bottle of tap water with food if the patron asks for it. And the tap water is absolutely safe. So just say “un carafe d’eau” and save loads on buying mineral water.
      Tip # 4: DON’T get the Paris Pass – The must see attractions covered in the pass –Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Notre Dame tower, Arc de Triomphe can be covered separately for 46 Euros  whereas a two day Paris Pass will cost you E135 (prices as on August 2017). Though the Paris pass also covers your transport, it’s still not worth the money. A carnet of 10 tickets costs 19 Euros. The tickets are valid for one metro/bus ride reach, irrespective of the distance. The only thing that the Paris pass offers is convenience – you can buy it and forget about having to buy a ticket at pretty much any attraction or form of transport. But the convenience comes at a substantial cost.

A better bet might the museum pass if museums are your thing. The 4 day pass costs E62 is and is well worth it if you use it to see the four must sees I listed above and a few more museums in addition. It also covers entry to the Palace of Versailles which is a very popular day trip from Paris. A big advantage of having the pass is the queue cutter feature. You get direct entry to the attractions without having to wait in the tedious queue. This is a godsend if you are visiting in the peak season. 

Tip # 5Visit a Flea market – We made an impromptu trip to one of them. We just spotted one when we were on a bus headed somewhere else. Me and my wife just gave each other a look and got down at the next step and walked back to this amazing place. You can actually read up and plan a visit to one that is most conveniently located for you. Each of these flea markets is only open on one or two particular days in a week so do work your itinerary around that. You can get brand name designer wear at throwaway prices, old books and LPs, family heirlooms and a lot of bizarre nicknacks.   

Tip # 6: Visit a local produce market – We visited Marche Bastille. I promise you will have a lovely time watching locals shopping for their daily needs from colourful carts selling everything from locally grown vegetables to cold cuts, fish, cheeses and what not. A variety of lipsmacking Turkish and Lebanese snacks were also on offer. The profusion of colours may tempt you to bring out your camera, but do ask for permission before clicking the stalls. The stalls are mostly run by immigrants and I guess not all of them have their papers in order.  

Tip # 7: Take a walk down Promenade Plantee – The Promenade Plantee is a park built on top of a disused railway line. It begins just near the Bastille Opera house and continues for almost 5kms. The landscape of the park changes as you walk along as do the buildings underneath. It offers a very different perspective on the city and you see things from an angle you wouldn’t get to otherwise.



Tip # 8 : Plan your Louvre visit very well – Let’s start with when to visit. If you are spending a Wednesday or a Friday evening in Paris, save one of those for your Louvre trip. The museum is open till 10pm on these nights, as against 6pm on other evening. Staying back till the end on one of the late opening nights is your best bet at enjoying the Louvre with least company. We got to spend a lot of time admiring Mona from up close without being shoved away when we visited on a Wednesday evening in May.

Don’t enter through the pyramid entrance and spend your time cursing the queue. Enter through the entrance called the Le Carrousel de Louvre. It’s an entrance to a shopping strip, accessible from Rue Rivoli, that leads up to the Louvre. EXIT the Louvre from the famed pyramid entrance to watch it and click it when it’s lit up in full glory in the evening. 

Tip # 9 : Skip climbing the Eiffel Tower – I know this is going to get me dirty looks and rolling eyeballs. But let me explain. If you want to climb the Eiffel Tower for the views, go to Montparnesse tower instead. There are no queues. There is an elevator that takes you to the top. It costs less. But the biggest reason is that the views are better. The view FROM the Eiffel Tower doesn’t have the Eiffel Tower in it. This does J. The best way to enjoy the Eiffel Tower is to get to a vantage point at sunset when there is a dazzling display of lights for 5 minutes and then the tower stays lit. We had the most romantic moment taking in the lights from the Pont de l’Alma (incidentally also the spot where Princess Diana crashed to her death).   


      Tip # 10: Be very careful of theft – Unfortunately, this bit is not just research but experience. In tourist attractions, it is very common for touristy looking young fellows to smile and request you to click a picture of them. If you leave your valuables unattended even for seconds, it’s enough for their accomplice to swoop in and run away with your valuables. Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that you act like a jerk and don’t offer to click photos for someone. But do remain very careful when you are doing that. We fell for this trick on our last day in Paris at Montmarte, in front of Sacre Cour and got our DSLR stolen. This was despite knowing that Montmarte is notorious for pickpockets. Another common trick is for someone to pretend to drop and scatter their change and when the saint in you leans down to help this distressed person, you’ll be relieved of much more than your change.

Paris is a fantastic city where every building is a landmark and every street corner is lined with terrific cafés and boulangeries. It is a city everyone dreams of visiting and everyone with the means must experience at least once. I hope this post makes it a tad easier for you on your dream trip.