Sunday, July 21, 2013

Incredible Bus Journeys - National Highway 211

On Thursday, in the midst of the Bharat Bandh, I boarded the bus from Dhule to Aurangabad. I was excited about going to Aurangabad. Research indicated that this was the base town from which the Ajanta and Ellora caves could be visited and I was most definitely going to visit those. I had also been told that there was a ghat section near this town called Kannad of all things, where the bus often slowed down. What I was not prepared for was the sheet awesomeness of this ghat section.

The bus journey till Chalisgaon was normal enough. The road was decent and littered on the side with plastic bags, chips packets and bottles. I really don't know what it is with the littering - almost the entire route was continuously littered with something or the other. Anyways, we pulled into Chalisgaon, a typical dusty small town and after picking up a few passengers, proceeded down the road to some forbidding looking mountains ahead. 

I had saved my dying iPod battery for this ghat section - I intended to play a set of songs that would go perfectly with the landscape; which I pictured as rolling, gently sloping hills. 

I am writing this almost a year later and yet, I can remember this journey almost perfectly. We started the climb in the ghat region, the bus proceeding with the caution of Calvin setting off on one of his manic sled rides. We must have been traveling at least 60kmph and taken the turnings at 40kmph which is borderline insanity on the sharp turns of mountain roads. Sitting right it front, it seemed to me many times that we were simply driving off the edge; and suddenly, the bus driver would heave the steering wheel and the bus would turn at the last moment, listing so precariously that you thought it was traveling on two wheels.

As we climbed higher and higher, the landscape got quite bleak and forbidding. The only vegetation was a species of giant cacti loomed out of cracks in the rock. The rocks themselves were humungous and almost improbably balanced on sheer cliff faces. Just to give you an idea, I am going to cheat and show you a photo from a later trek to Harishchandragarh. I have unfortunately lost all my photos from this epic bus journey.
 As the rainy season hadn't started yet, the landscape was even more arid than what you see in this photo. Soon, the climb ceased and we began to drive through a plateau. All around us, fantastic rock shapes emerged - sharply conical and pointy ones, gigantic dome shaped ones, jagged and weather worn ones. It was incredible. And in a burst of inspiration, I decided to play the surreal 'Echoes' by Pink Floyd on my iPod. The creepy sound of the middle section with the dolphin cries seem to echo from within the depths of the rock formations and the arid emptiness of the landscape.

Soon, we pulled into Kannad, a Bhiwandi like blah town. I bought a bottle of water there and one of those amazing packets of local potato chips - those ridiculously oily and delicious concoctions. The landscape smoothed itself out now into a patch of arid fields. We weren't climbing anymore, not were we descending. Slowly, the road started getting lined by trees. We passed through a shaded boulevard of banyan trees with little shops and cafes. Quite suddenly, we turned a corner and I saw the board 'Ellora' and dotting the sheer rock face on my left were the famed caves! Can you imagine that! On a random public bus ride, you suddenly see one of the greatest monuments and examples of human sculpture in the world! I was as delighted as a little kid who'd suddenly seen Mickey Mouse from a Bombay train on her daily commute. Something like that.

We descended a bit from here and in the distance, a rather improbable looking mountain rose up. As we drew closer, a fort wall and minarets appeared. It turned out that this was the famous Daulaltabad fort, where Muhammad bin Tughlak decided to shift his capital during one of his crazy phases (which were like all the time). I had no idea it was this far south and I was thrilled to bits again!
The road curved gracefully and green fields rose up among us and below us, there loomed a stately gate, one of the 52 gates built by Aurangzeb which used to line this amazing city, of which 13 of them are still standing. As I settled back into the not so comfortable bus seat after sitting on the edge for so long, I was overwhelmed by what I had seen and felt during this perfectly normal commute for so many people. As I write this nearly a year later, sitting in a different country, I can still feel some of that wonder.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Nashik - The Sula Vineyards

I decided to spend my first Sunday in Dhulia visiting Nasik. This is because, there is not very much to do in Dhulia, and I didn’t fancy spending a whole day in my room. Had the room possessed cooking facilities and had I possessed several packets of Maggi, I might have made a different decision. Nah, not really.
At any event, my body (as is frequently the case these days) refused to correspond with the intentions of my brain and I woke up rather late at around 8.30am. As a result, I could set off only at 10am to Nasik. Slightly worried, I checked with Ginger Hotel if they had rooms available for the night and they did. If it got too late, at least I had a place to stay.
Nothing very much was planned about this Nasik visit. I wanted to go to Sula and then to visit areas related to my birth and where my Mom and Grandparents used to stay because, you see, Nasik is my birthplace. Things didn’t go quite smoothly at first though. Our bus broke down somewhere near Chanvad and a bunch of us stragglers to Nasik waited on the highway till the next bus came. This was thankfully quite soon – but it already looked like I would need that room in Ginger. The bus ride though quite picturesque, seemed endless and after an eternity, we pulled into Thakkar Bazaar bus stand, Nasik. 

I asked an auto to take me to Sula – which turned out to be quite an expensive affair. Sula Vineyards is located near Gangapur village, quite away from the highway – so taking a bus is also not much of an option. The vineyards are pretty much meant for those with independent vehicles – the staff at Sula doesn’t even pretend to cater to those who don’t possess their own car or bike. I called them and asked them if they arranged for cabs to drop people back to the city and they quite happily said no. I almost gave up going there at that point but the auto driver I had engaged said he would wait it out and bring me back. The entire endeavor cost me 700 bucks. Considering later on I managed to go to Daulatabad, Ellora and Shri Grhineshwar in that amount, I realize now that I got ripped off.

All my consternation at the unsatisfactory travel experiences and Sula’s lack of help though disappeared when I arrived there. The sight of the lush green vineyards surround by hills and the European villa style construction that Sula had employed to house their wine making enterprises and restaurants revived me instantly. It was beautiful, a slice of France in India, as I wrote to my Grandfather in an email. As the auto pulled up to the lobby, jazz music played from overhead speakers. After a week in Dhulia, I was delighted to be in such cosmopolitan settings again.

Apologies - the photo isn't very good.

Sula has 2 restaurants and a wine tasting lounge. One of the restaurants, happily for me, was Little Italy. After registering myself for a guided tour of the wine making machinery (seems wrong to call it factory. I am sure there is a word for it), I headed to Little Italy and ordered one of my two usuals. I much prefer their Pasta 4 Stagioni but the dish I ordered was also quite wonderful. The restaurant is beautifully laid out like an Italian cafĂ©, largely open air with a slate roof, plaster walls with wall creepers and wrought iron lamps. There were some extremely noisy children but for once, they didn’t bother me too much. I ordered a glass of Sula white (I forget the exact name) and read my Bob Dylan book. Dylan’s writing style in this book and he own descriptions of being on the move, constantly in flux and discovering himself through new places made me feel even more like a hobo and I loved it.
I then went to the wine tour which was interesting, but not very exciting as no wine was being produced at the moment (it was not grape season). Even the bottling plant wasn’t active as it was a Sunday. The tour was fun though. Probably the best part was the barrel room, a gigantic room in which the wine was stored in Oak barrels to mature. We then had a tasting session where the poor guide attempted to explain the basics of wine tasting to a largely cynical audience with a fairly short attention span. There were some ridiculously loud kids during this session also and I really wished they could have been banned from the place. Ah well.

After purchasing some wine and spending half an hour savoring some sparkling wine at The Tasting Room, a lovely open aired balcony which overlooked the vineyards, I called my trusty auto driver and headed to College Road for the latter part of my visit.

Friday, August 17, 2012

So many pending posts!! Here is rough list of what is coming up:

1. Nice and the Cote d'Azure
2. Aurangabad and Ellora
3. Rajkot and Daman
4. Gandhidham and Kutch

I will hopefully get around to posting these soon!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Bhiwandi - Try not to go There

For the longest time, I debated whether I should write a post on Bhiwandi or not. This is because, it is quite an unpleasant place. It is crowded, hot and dusty and the architecture is not charming at any point. It smells roughly like the combination of an open drain, several previously deceased animals, rotting fruit and animal/ human refuse. I kid you not. In the main market area, I saw the carcass of a dog, its intestines spilling out and the traffic happily running over it. The carcass resembled one of those cartoons flattened by a road roller - funny in cartoons, not so funny in real life. Bhiwandi is quite simply as immigrant town, a set of makeshift structures, a purely functional city where people mean to eke out a living and move on. The town's main industries are small scale, low grade cotton mills. Pass through the textile mills area in the day and you will hear the endless clanking of the cotton mills. 

I mention Bhiwandi at all because the train journey to it is extremely beautiful and at the same time rather sad. I also happened to have an interesting experience when I went to Bhiwandi for the first time. Finally, the people of Bhiwandi are extremely nice and extremely stylish. 

First, the experience. I had no idea how to get to Bhiwandi. Now as per a map of the Mumbai Suburban railway, a line has been built from a station improbably named Diva to Vasai. The first stop on this line is Bhiwandi. To get to Diva, I had to take the Harbour line from Vadala to Kurla and then change to the Central line. And so I boarded the train which was mercifully quite empty to Diva. "Wow!", I thought. "Here's a diva going to Diva!" I didn't really think that but I ought to have. Anyways, the train passes through some beautiful scenery. Gently rolling green hills surround what is known as the Thane Creek - a picturesque but rather polluted body of water. Which is what made the train ride a little sad. While the landscape was lovely, it was also very polluted. Plastic bags literally lined the railway track. The water in the creek was far from clear - it was dirty with plastic bags. Sometimes it was choked with white foam or industry waste. I distinctly remember an area where a stream flowed through a tunnel of trees, a picturesque enough scene  - but the stream was white with pollutants and contained the odd plastic bag or two. Kind of like Vishwabharati. I just couldn't help but wonder at the sheer number of plastic bags that seemed to dot the landscape. Believe me, the number was almost at menace levels. There really has to be a way of educating people about using plastic as less as possible.

I reached Diva and found that the train to Bhiwandi goes from Kopar - a station which wasn't visible on my map. I then asked a auto driver if he would take me to Bhiwandi. "800 bucks" he said, without flinching. "Wow", I thought. "Here's a diva stuck in Diva!" Eventually it turned out that the Kopar was the next station after Diva on the Central Line. However, the train from there to Bhiwandi was extremely infrequent. Finally, I took the train to Kalyan and caught an auto from there to go to Bhiwandi. The enterprising auto drivers of Kalyan take you in a shared auto - a normal sized auto into which 5 people somehow squeeze themselves. While it is dangerous, it is also very cheap and efficient - it cost only 30 bucks for me to cover the 12km approx distance to Bhiwandi from Kalyan.

Now about the people of Bhiwandi. They seem to have an evolved form of sign language. Many times I have seen a guy gesture imperceptibly to the other guy, who immediately then knows what to do. A salesman I went with called a auto by waving his hand, pointing in the direction we wanted to go and then showing 2 fingers to indicate two passengers. The auto driver seemed to perfectly understand where we wanted to go. May be auto drivers in Bhiwandi ply on the basis of direction and not destination. That still doesn't explain how once a man got into my shared auto without saying a word to the auto driver. They just made eye contact once and it seemed like enough had been said. It was all very telepathic. The people of Bhiwandi were also fairly warm though more hardened than the Dhulia crowd. I don't blame them, they live in a hard place. 

All in all, I wouldn't want to go back there again.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Shirpur - Bollywood in Day to Day Life

On Friday we boarded a public bus to Shirpur, a little town near the Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat borders. This town also comes under the jurisdiction (for lack of a better word) of my sales officer. He explained that there were several problems with retailers in Shirpur who claimed they could get cheaper stock from across the border. Moreover, there was a huge problem with counterfeit goods - so cleverly cast that even practiced eyes from the company could not tell the difference between the fake Ponds Dreamflower Talc and the real one.

The landscape as we drove to Shirpur was somewhat like an Indian Wild West - dry with scrub vegetation. For most part, it looked like this:

If I was to say that the landscape had an ethereal beauty to it, I would have to be joking. I didn't find it particularly appealing. However, it was a pleasant enough bus ride. The MSRTC buses are rather rickety and shudder in a manner that jars you to your bones when they travel through city roads or over bumps. But on a smooth National Highway they are perfectly serviceable and comfortable.

We pulled into the hot, dusty town of Shirpur just as the thermometer was rising and started off on our beat almost immediately after. While at the first shop, we heard the sounds of drums again. A crowd of people walked past carrying a body on a stretcher. I averted my eyes out of respect and also because I didn't particularly want to see the body - it was clearly a funeral procession. Except, this seemed to be a very cheerful one. The youths in the processions cheered and danced and soon started chanting - about the petrol price hike. The body turned out to be an effigy - one of Pranab Mukherjee judging by the shape of the head. After the protesters were done with their slogans, they shouted 'Jai Shivaji' for good measure. Truly patriotic sons of the soil they were.

The rise in petrol prices was a about to play a very important part in my life later on - but at that moment I was just amused like my sales officer and the retailer (wholesaler to be precise) to whom we were talking.

We visited a variety of 'fancy stores' or as my Mom used to called them, 'Novelty Stores'. These beautifully done up shops had everything a woman wanted - or so they advertised. They had counterfeit Ponds, breast enlargement creams, age defying creams, counterfeit Fair and Lovely, jewelry, purses and so on. They also usually had boards like this:

Apparently you can gets toys and women from this store :)

After spending nearly 2 hours convincing a wholesaler with a cheerful face and the heart of a miser (I am being harsh but he was really irritating) to buy our products, we called it a day and headed to the shadily named 'Hotel Payal' for lunch.

This Hotel Payal completely lived up to its name. It had private booths separated from the public area by curtains where nefarious activities could take place. The crowd was a mix of chaps who looked like seedy small time gangsters and chaps who looked like they had been oppressed by seedy small time gangsters. We went to the AC area which also had a private booth - which was separated by a wooden partition. My curiosity got the better of me; I peeped in and caught a glimpse of a unshaven face with a curly mop of hair. This man was sprawled impudently along the length of the couch as I am sure his companion was on the other side. He looked like he frequented dance bars.

As we took our seats, the conversation going on the in private booth became apparent to us. From the sound of it, the man and his crony were issuing threats to someone over the phone. They were using rather foul language which was all lost on me as I didn't understand any of it. The sales officers with me however were deeply concerned that my young ears were getting polluted and requested the waiter to ask the gangsters to keep it down. The waiter looked terrified. "They always speak like that", he said.

And so a rather hilarious game began of the chivalrous sales officers trying to talk louder than the gangsters. "Check whats on the menu boss", said S. Sir as the gangster went "Teri Ma ki bh*&%$!". My company tried to make really lame jokes about the menu items (comparing them to HUL products) as the gangters started negotiating some terms - "I gave you this amount of money. If <inaudible because of some fresh joke made by my company>, teri behen ki....." The entire scene was incredibly amusing and quite bizzare and I had to try very hard not to laugh. "The spoon with which I am eating, will be in your throat" declared the gangster behind us as our food arrived. "Do you know if the stock shortage in Aurangabad has been resolved?" asked S. Sir rather feebly.

In the same area, a gang of girls sat seemingly unfazed by this environment. They were quite fashionably dressed in t-shirts and jeans and I was impressed for here I was in a salwar and kurta. I was however saddened to note that they all wrapped themselves in dupattas and stoles as they got up to leave. I don't blame them given the general ambiance of the place.

We headed back to good old Dhule - it had been a tiring but very entertaining day. The chief sight which stayed with me on our way back was that of the majestic river Tapi (usually mentioned in conjunction with Narmada) winding its way to nowhere. Here is a picture:

My days in Dhule aren't over yet and there is no telling what else life has in store for me here (though I got an excellent indication of it today - which I will talk about in the next post). All I can say is, watch this space!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Doing time in Dhule

So I am doing my sales training right now - and a part of the training seems to be to send one to towns in the hinterland with interesting and sometimes hilarious names. That is how I ended up and am still in Dhule or Dhulia as many people call it.

But before I move to Dhule, I must relate an amusing incident that happened in Nashik. We arrived in Nashik just about in time for the sales meeting we had there - two of my bosses and I. I was hopping mad desperate to get to a toilet and given my preoccupation, I conveniently forgot that the suitcase containing all my worldly possessions for the next 4 months was still on the bus. I thankfully realised this quite quickly. We had a car waiting for us and instructed the driver to go to the booking office of the bus. It was a race against time. My full bladder forgotten, I anxiously drummed my fingers on the car window as the driver slowly weaved through the non-existent Nashik traffic. Finally we spotted the bus ahead of us. My bosses were totally cool as one of them said the wonderful words 'Follow that bus'. Despite not being a movie fan, I let that moment sink in briefly, and then resumed my anxious drumming. We followed the bus and as it gained speed, our driver grew increasingly concerned and reckless - traffic was a cause for concern by now. However, the bus finally made a stop. We stopped behind it and with a flourish, I threw the door open, ran to the bus conductor who was just opening the cargo hold - and was gloriously reunited with my luggage.

Now back to Dhulia.

This town is in North Maharashtra and has virtually no train connectivity. The only way one could get there was by bus. So after spending a rather emotional night in Nashik, I caught the 6.15 MSRTC bus to Dhulia with my precious suitcase and my laptop bag as my only luggage.

My first impression of Dhulia was quite positive. It seemed like a quaint, sleepy town. From the bus station, an auto ferried me to my hotel - Krishnai Food Garden on Sakri Road. As far as locations go, the hotel is located somewhat away from the city center. However, it is a nice and comfortable hotel with good food and a courteous staff. 

Dhule has a main square which is very war-like (it seems like the town is trying to steal the thunder from its neighboring town actually called War). There is an imposing tank in the middle surrounded by statues of a soldier kneeling with his rifle and a couple of cannons, another tank for good measure and the usual Shivaji statue. I was quite taken in by this circle - which is commonly known as the Santoshi Ma circle after a temple which stands near it. 
Dhule is also a planned city which means that more often than not, the streets are perpendicular to each other and you can see all the way down the length of one street. It is also very hot here - about 42 degrees maximum going down to 28 degrees at the minimum. Sigh. And my mother was complaining about 32 degrees in Bangalore.

My life in Dhule consists mainly of going with salesmen on their beat everyday, bugging the tired sales office with questions and generally observing things. What I have realised is that people in small towns are highly colourful. They live larger than life lives and wear their hearts on their sleeves - and they are not afraid to open their hearts up to you. The people I have met are interesting and entertaining and  incredibly warm. I have been fed so much Thumbs Up, Mazaa and Sugarcane juice which on my market visits that I am quite sure I will not be losing much weight. Moreover, each person here has his or her own story and is usually keen to tell you about it. Take the lady I shared my auto with on day two.

This lady, from the looks of it, was running away from home. She had a suitcase and told me in highly accented Hindi (meaning it sounded more like Marathi than Hindi and had a lot of slang) about how she had to leave home (or had been thrown out) and had no where else to go except to the auto driver (who was either her brother or some relative or just a sympathetic character). She told me how several people had left her village to come to Dhule. She also told me about her daughter who had apparently fallen in love with a nice boy. While most people had been opposed to the marriage and the daughter had considered running away, she the mother had no troubles and asked them both to have a court marriage. She then made allusions to budhu and hospital which made me think of a mental asylum. "Where else do I go?", she said, "Except to this budha" (gesturing at the auto driver). If at all this aunty had really faced so much sorrow and was running away from home, she was extremely cheerful about it. She had strong, determined features and looked like a Mother India types - one that would defy society for her and her family's hnour. Or may be I am building it up in my head. Anyways, we dropped her at the bus stand and later on, the auto driver told me that she had wanted to drop me off and then go to the bus station. 

I then started my sales beat with a salesman whose name was Vani. He certainly lived up to his name. He talked and argued continuously - the previous day, thanks to him, a half an hour meeting had gone up to one and a half hours - till 7:15 pm. For this reason, I was feeling slightly resentful towards him. However, he was interesting company. We met a couple of shopkeepers and ended up at the shop of one of the cooler individuals I have met.

This shopkeeper was a wizened old Muslim man with twinkling eyes, a magnificent beard and a wonderful smile that lit up his entire face and made his eyes twinkle even more. He complained in a jesting vein for a bit about our goods but was cut short by the sound of drums. When we looked out, we saw that the Shiv Sena was protesting the petrol price hike and had taken out a procession to this end. Youths waving saffron flags called loudly for the government to be ejected accompanied by drums and er, dancing. There were only about 25 people in this procession though. "Why do they bother protesting", said our shopkeeper, his eyes sparkling. "They just protest against anything. As if they are even concerned about this issue. You just go to their homes and you will find so much gold stashed away there. And apparently they speak for us!" He then turned his attention to a product catalog we had given him and pointed to one of the products - Pepsodent Day and Night Toothbrush for Kids. 

Uncle: What do you mean by Day and Night?
Vani: <conscious that is was a marketing gimmick, with a wry smile on his face> It means the kids can use it in the day and at night.
Uncle: So other toothbrushes can't be used at night is it? <eyes twinkling away>
Vani: Older children have time to use it only once a day!
We were all laughing hard by this time. Oh boy, marketing really didn't come out on top in that test.

In my next post, I will talk about a rather hilarious trip to Shirpur, another town which my sales officer handles. For the time being, I leave you with this picture of Uncle.

And btw, I am going to come back and post about Nice, so stay posted!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Vienna - A Fading Grandeur (Part 2)

I really should settle into some sort of schedule for posting. I have started my new job and pretty soon, you will find the fancy posts about Europe ceasing, to be replaced by posts on Central/ Western India as I move through these areas for my sales stint. I for one am quite excited. While the obvious territory to hope for is Goa, I would love to go to Chambal or somewhere like that :). But for now, we'll go back to Europe.

Day 2 was spent in Salzberg but I don't think we did justice to the city at all. So I am going to skip over this day. I will hopefully go back an explore that city more thoroughly. Just a couple of mentions though - we saw some spots where 'The Sound of Music was shot and I listened to 'The Hills are Alive' while driving through those very hills. That was quite awesome! So this brings us to...

Day 3:
This day was meant to be spent relaxing in Vienna. We discovered that our hotel was within walking distance from the city center and in a rather uncharacteristic fashion, set out at the late hour of 9:00am for our exploration of the city. Breakfast was had at the Opera Cafe (the cafe attached to the Opera i.e.) - quite expensive; but of course, the croissants were delicious. All bakery, especially croissants are delicious in Europe, as must be obvious to most people. This reminds me, I had a wonderful Danish pastry on the way to Salzburg as well. So back to Vienna. As we got up to leave the Cafe, we were confronted by - men dressed up in 'Mozart' costumes trying to sell us concert tickets! Basically, in front of every building of repute, we encountered a couple of men and women trying to sell tickets for Mozart and Strauss concerts. And mind you, these were respectable venues. We found them outside the Opera, the city palace, the St. Stephen Cathedral and so on - buildings of note in the city. I am wondering if this is indicative of the level of interest in classical music in the city that was once its home. I am sure several tourists like us would be interested in watching such concerts - may be these are concerts aimed only at tourists (the Schonnbrunn one certainly was), but still! What a demeaning way to promote something so core to your culture! Can you imagine mamas and mamis (I am not sure what costumes they can wear) standing outside major katcheri venues in Chennai or Bangalore going 'Saar, katcheri tonight. Local temple artists - Thyagaraja + Dikshitar compositions. You want to buy?' It was similar to chaps at Times Square New York selling passes for cabarets and comedies on the road. You get my general feeling about the thing.

We ambled along the sunlit street toward a towering Gothic Cathedral which we found out later was the St. Stephen's Cathedral. I also found out much later (i.e. now) that it is the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna. It was a beautiful cathedral - but then most cathedrals in Europe are beautiful. It had some lovely chapels and elaborate stained glass work. Do forgive me if I am unable to appreciate its other artistic and architectural merits - I don't have quite the knowledge for that. After emerging back in the sunlight and shaking off a few more concert ticket sellers, I checked the map on how we might reach the Hofburg palace (is that correct grammar?). This palace was the summer residence of the Hapsburg (I know - you can confuse the two names quite easily) dynasty - Maria Theresa, Franz Josef and Sisi and all that.

We reached the palace after passing through the high street with all the major fashion brands. My Dad was obviously very taken in by this street and wanted to have lunch there later. We proceeded to a promising looking facade at the end of the street. This facade quite lived up to its promise; after a conversation with one of the ticket sellers ("Madam you want to watch a Mozart and Strauss concert tonight?" "No thanks, we leave tonight. What is this building?"), we established that it was indeed the famed palace. Now funnily enough, none of us had done any research on Vienna -  we merely went to the palace because it looked big and imposing on the map. And it was quite big and imposing. It was in fact made up of several big and imposing buildings, with a nice central lawn and something called a People's or Mass garden or something similarly demeaning. We went inside and bought tickets to see the Imperial silverware collection, Sisi's palace (my Mom had by now, become enamoured of Sisi's rebelliousness) and the Imperial Apartments.

We first went for a audio-guide tour (yaay!) of the silverware collection. Believe me, I had not expected such a large and elaborate collection of dishes! If you thought the Vessels Museum at Vishalla in Ahmedabad was elaborate (most of you are probably scratching your heads and going 'What?' right now), this was ridiculously opulent. It turned out, Franz Josef had brothers and  various other relatives. And they all required their own dinner pieces. Silverware was also gifted quite freely across various royal families in Europe. There were dinner sets having complicated connections with Napolean and Louis XV (not so complicated this one; if you remember, Marie Antoinette was Maria Theresa's daughter) as well as a dessert set presented by Queen Victoria to the Hapsburgs. This set was so dainty and delicate that it could never be used! It looked wonderful though. There were plates done up in different themes - flowers, animals, Bible scenes and Austrian landscapes. There were sets from China and Japan. There were exquisite candelabras - so delicately sculpted that it was difficult to believe that the piece in front of you had a solid form. There was a ridiculously long center piece with multiple trays for sweets meats and vases for flowers and so on - all plated in gold. The most interesting bit of trivia we got from this tour was this little nugget - during the war, a lot of solid silver and gold dinner sets were melted down to make coins. In order to overcome the indignity of not having these sets any more, the imperial household made sets of ceramic and had them plated with gold and silver. I am glad they saw sense because I find it hard to believe that the European public would allow solid gold dinner sets of that size to survive with the Euro Debt Crisis happening so near by. So in short, Imperial Silverware Collection - totally worth a visit.

After some general disagreement on lunch (my Dad wanted to go to the cool street, I wanted to save time and eat at the Museum Cafe; my Dad won), we assembled at the entrance to the Sisi Museum at 2.00pm for our guided tour. Our guide was quite the historian - full of interesting facts and bits of trivia, he also possessed some solid knowledge about the imperial family. Unlike some of the guides you come across in America, he did not sound like he had mugged up a script. The Sisi museum itself was built to sensationalise Sisi. Her personal effects were preserved in glass cases while on the walls, anguished quotes about marriage being a trap and a torture were printed. Sisi was the original appearance obsessed woman. She was extremely conscious about her figure and frequently went on crash diets. She also exercised a lot and apparently, did some particularly manly exercises just to annoy her mother-in-law (my Mom loved this). She had ankle length hair which took hours to be brushed and while it was being brushed, she learnt languages. Quite a cool woman she was. Her death just made her all the more enigmatic (in fact quite like Princess Diana - loads of similarities between the two except for the length of hair). She was assassinated by an Italian anarchist in Geneva. They had the actual murder weapon on display as well as the coat Sisi was wearing on that day. As you can imagine, we came away feeling deeply for Sisi, after having never heard of her prior to coming to the Museum. Sisi has also apparently been immortalized in some Hollywood movies - though these are quite historically inaccurate.

We then proceeded to the Imperial apartments but I will not bore you too much about those. The Schonnbrunn apartments were more elaborate in my opinion. They were interesting though and we heard about Sisi's son who committed suicide and some more members of the Hapsburg Dynasty. We stepped out into the palace courtyard and spent some time chilling on the lawn in front of the palace. It was a lovely, sunny day and a lot of people were lying around on the lawn. A couple directly in front of us decided to make out in the missionary position (I am not kidding!) causing the 3 of us to avert our eyes. However, in the other direction, was a chap who decided he couldn't bear the heat and was busily taking off his shirt and pants. Europeans - not very private people it seems. It was quite nice on the grass, under the sun though and after having an unsatisfying lunch at a cafe in the garden (I was started to tire of strudel by then and was longing for butter chicken), we decided to take a tram outside the imposing Austrian parliament back to the city center.

Europeans are not private and are also very trusting. We boarded the tram and no one asked us for a ticket. There seemed to be no visible place we could buy tickets from except the tram driver who looked too busy, well driving the tram. There was no visible mechanism for even checking that we had a ticket. So we quite happily rode back to the beginning of the city center (near our hotel) and got of the tram - jubiliant and quite relieved to have got a tram ride for free. It was a huge risk but eh - with their multiple modes of public transport, the Austrians get enough money without fleecing us poor Third World country people anyway.

I bought a pizza slice off a roadside counter and muching it, we headed back to our hotel to collect our luggage. Our next destination was Nice and the famed French Riviera. I was excited and had great plans of cycling around a fair bit and visiting some of the cute Riviera villages. Did I manage to do that.........?

On that intiguining note, I will conclude this post.

P.S.: For the majority of you who feel this note is not in the least intriguing, I agree, it isn't really. But one has to try, no?

P.P.S: I now have an office laptop which doesn't have any photos of the trip :( :(. But I am sure with my vivid and evocative writing and your own vivid and evocative imagination aided by Google image search, you will get some idea of what the places I went to looked like.