Where we're going next

A friend messaged me recently, "Didn't you go somewhere else also after Europe?"

I did. I went somewhere else before, as well. Sadly or otherwise, I don't intend to blog about it all, mainly because I don't think there's value-add from my writing about places where I haven't put in the research time. But the question did make me look back at all the holidays A & I have taken since we got married. I estimate we went to more than 7 places a year... and that's excluding repeat visits to the same places, solo vacays, and visits to what I call the 'home' cities of Madras, Bangalore, Hyderabad & Tirupati. (How did we get any work done? It's a mystery. It's been a charmed life, that's for sure).

We're putting all the air miles we've collected over the years to good use with our next trip. They're going to be paying for us to see Vancouver, the Rockies & Newfoundland in Canada. And after that, we're going on another very special adventure - one where we don't anticipate any 'holiday time' for at least a couple of years. Unlike our usual vacation planning ("Hey, cheap fare. Want to go?"), this plan's been obsessed over, on & off, for as long as we've known each other, and even before that. *drumrolls* A's going to be starting his own company, while I continue taking the rest of this year off to write my book. 

It's a bit odd - we've lived together in Toronto for longer than we have back home! It's going to be interesting going back, especially since we'll be going to Bangalore, where neither of us has ever lived full-time. A new public transport system to figure out, new furniture to buy, new routines to settle into. But I'm thrilled to be in the same city as many members of my family & quite a few friends. It certainly tilts the scales nicely. I've no doubt it'll be well worth it... if only because there'll be no looking back and wondering 'What if?'

Call it irrational, but in between being terrified, I'm actually kind of excited! The next three years are likely going to be the polar opposite of the first three we've enjoyed, but I have no doubt they'll be just as fun in their own mad way.

PS: That picture was taken at the Toronto Harbourfront last summer. We're going to miss this gorgeous city.


Scotland throws up all kinds of philosophical questions.

Like, what did Indians listen to on road-trips before Dil Chahta Hai & Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara came along?

Or, if you see unbelievable beauty everywhere you look, will it start becoming humdrum?

Can any accountant/lawyer/similar in Scotland not also be a musician/poet/artist of some sort?

Is there a more foodgasmic experience than the sticky toffee pudding at Cuan Mor in Oban? 

Do the guides here occasionally make up folk tales because it's so hard not to believe the ones that are 'real' are conjured up?

And, how do you pronounce Edinburgh anyway?

Scotland's a place with as much vastness as there are pronunciations of Edinburgh, sheep in the fields, storm clouds in the sky. Driving through, it felt like we'd gone right into another dimension, and could keep driving on, with the amazing views stretching to eternity. It makes you feel very small, in the best possible way (I didn't even feel this dwarfed in Rome!).

We stayed in Edinburgh for a day and a half, and decided we needed new informants, because everyone had assured us there wasn't much to do there. No one had warned us we'd want to spend the rest of our lives right here. This was especially the case after being walked around by Sandemans - if you're in the city, this is the tour to go on (thanks for the tip, Vimal!)

Then, we drove down to Isle of Skye in Portree, bypassing Inverness, and had to revise our opinion of Edinburgh. This was, if possible, even better. The cherry on the cake was the amazing rainbow we saw stretching across the sky as we drove through in search of dinner. It wasn't the usual quarter or half rainbow that you see; this was a full-blown, expect a pot of gold at the end kind. 

We spent a day just driving around Isle of Skye, marveling at how much natural beauty the island contained. Of course, we had to stop by the Talisker distillery to see how the famous Scotch was made. We earned our scotch passports here, and went to another distillery, just to get an extra stamp on them :)

Finally, going through Glencoe/Fort William to Oban, we found the best food we'd had all trip long, served alongside a picture perfect harbour. By now, we'd been exposed to awe inspiring views for four days straight, and coming back to London, pretty though it is, was a bit of a shock. Which answers one of our questions anyway - you do get used to beauty disappointingly fast. The good news is, with some distance, you start remembering it all properly, and it starts making your heart ache again, just the way it did when you first saw it.

Scotland is completely under-rated. Yes, the weather's often gloomy, and there's no telling when it'll start raining. There are no sidewalks, so there's no way to enjoy it on foot. But if you have a car, Scotland is the closest you'll get to heaven on earth. And that sticky toffee pudding is... just... (I don't even like desserts - famous last words!)

And with that, it was back to regular life. Given regular life is attempting to write my book, I can't complain. A keeps calling this a trip of a lifetime. I like the fact that he uses 'a' rather than 'the.' I've no doubt we'll do something of such epic proportions a few more times in this lifetime.


The UK's home to many legendary creatures - changelings and faeries, the Loch Ness, Jack O' Kent, and, of course, the romantic hero, as epitomized by Hugh Grant. I came across the real life version of that last mythical creature the minute my train from France pulled into King's Cross station. Fresh from a 12 hour flight journey, A clearly had his priorities right, and had dragged over his luggage, our friends, and their luggage (thanks, guys) to greet me. And this three years into our marriage. Who says things like that only happen in movies? 

I was thrilled to see him after nearly two months apart, and promptly revealed which parts of travelling solo hadn't come naturally to me by letting him take over all of them. Through our time in England & Scotland, I refused to carry more than five GBP. I took ten pictures over ten days (none of the pictures in this post are mine). I surrendered my maps cheerfully, along with my obsessive notes. Ah, the joys of having someone else be the responsible one. 

At the same time, I won't deny that it was strange to suddenly have company... not to mention hearing all that English around me! No more waking up at dawn. No more walking all over a city on foot. A lot more coordination and planning. It would have been an even bigger adjustment if I wasn't travelling with these particular people, who all had very similar interests. I think we'll all agree that the highlights of London were:

Seeing The Phantom of the Opera. Weirdly enough, I hadn't seen a live musical before, just televised ones. The real life spectacle was magnificent. The props and lighting, in particular, inspired the kind of awe that we've grown immune to when we see special effects on other screens. I can't recommend this show, in particular, highly enough. And if you do go, can you please send me a postcard with the Phantom on it? It was the one thing I didn't have time to find, and I'm still kicking myself.

The Natural History Museum, particularly the dinosaur exhibit. I vaguely remembered this from the last time I'd visited, back when I was eight or nine, which should say it all. This definitely isn't just for kids.

Visiting Oxford, especially because my childhood friend, Vimal, took time out to walk us around, showing us things we wouldn't have otherwise seen, and telling us what we wouldn't have otherwise known. This wouldn't have been nearly as amazing without him (Cambridge wasn't!). 

Bath, particularly The Pump Room, which was just as proper and grand as I'd imagined. I suspect the group came along to humour me, an ardent Austenite, but they probably enjoyed the scones nonetheless. Everyone agreed it would have been nice to spend a couple of days in Bath, regardless of the literary associations, just to admire the quaintness of it all. 

Wimbledon, which I missed since I was visiting relatives, but which I was told had a very informative tour and scrummy strawberries and cream. I'm not too fussed, not being a big tennis fan myself, but I loved seeing A & R's happy faces outside Wimbledon. I imagine it's the face I had on when I encountered the Rosetta Stone. (Can you imagine if all knowledge of English were lost, and someone generations from now found the key to decipher it? Suddenly, Shakespeare, and Tennyson, and the script of Gilmore Girls and everything would be available to mankind again. </geekjoy>).

I also geeked out over the original Beatles manuscripts/Austen folios in the British Library, and really enjoyed Stratford upon Avon when I went there earlier too. So I'd add these to this list of absolute must-do's for anyone visiting London. My aunt & uncle are there this month, and I can't wait to compare notes!


I started this series talking about the incomparable experience of  walking through Rome before the sun rose. It seems fitting to end the narrative of my solo trip by saying that a Parisian sunset is similarly unparalleled, especially when experienced ('seen' seems too small a word) from one of the city's many bridges. It inspired me to stop thinking about writing, and put pen to paper. I wish I could say more, but I'm trying to save it for the book. So for now, I'm going to resort to telling you other peoples' stories of Paris; focusing on the ones you don't hear about as often.

The oldest bar/cabaret in Paris, Au Lapin Agile was, and remains, a haunt of 'unknown' artists. Picasso, Utrillo and Modigliani, among many others, were patrons at one time. Picasso painted Au Lapin Agile and gave the painting to the bar owners who later sold it, in 1920, for US$20. It was auctioned at Sotheby's, in 1989, for US$42 million!

Abbesses is one of the only two remaining Art Nouveau stations designed by Hector Guimard in Paris. I was surprised to see an elevator in the station - the only one I saw in Paris, a city which gave my legs a thorough workout. It was only after climbing down about 150 of the curved steps Guimard had designed (and seeing no end in sight) that I realized I should have taken it.

The Père Lachaise cemetery was founded in 1804, when the need for a new Parisian burial ground became urgent for reasons of space and hygiene. The cemetery wasn't too popular, so as a marketing move, the body of Moliere was shifted here. Moliere was the French comedian who ironically suffered fatally while performing the part of a hypochondriac in a play. More than 1 million burials have happened here since, and space now has to be leased out and renewed.

Le Palais Royal is one of those buildings which could be used as a history text book. Louis XIV lived here before Versailles. It became the HQ for duc d'Orleans, who used to host 'debating clubs' here, the precursors to political parties. In 1781, he had to rent  it to raise money & Madam Tussaud's first wax shop was built here (you should read about her part in the French Revolution; it's grisly to say the least). It became a 19th century mall. Today, it's a government building.

Le Bon Marche is 'the other building' created by Eiffel. The oldest department store in Paris, it contains the exorbitant, the exotic, the over-the-top. I was particularly fascinated to find over fifty different kinds of salt, and furniture that looked too decorative to be used - this place really does sell everything.

A special shout-out to a couple of places which aren't often on visitors' agendas, but should be. The first is the Memorial des martyrs de la Deportation, which provided me with the most evocative sense of life in a Jewish ghetto, and absolutely has to be experienced. The other is the Petit Palais, a free museum boasting an impressive collection of pieces by Cassatt, Monet, and others. If the building had nothing at all in it, it would still be worth seeing, especially for its indoor garden.

Most tourists know to go here already, but it must be said - a visit to Shakespeare & Company will change the pace of your day, even if you're not a book-lover. At the funeral of the owner, George Whitman, it was said 'He lived in a way that made the rest of us ask, “Why should we be afraid of life?”' You'll find yourself reveling in that simple optimism for as long as you're in the store's vicinity.

For more logistical details about these/other sights and how you can fit them into a day's sightseeing, here are my notes. Here's my FAQ doc on Paris; and here's the last installment of my photo-stories. 

And some day, when I finish my book, I hope you'll read what I really want to say about Paris, because something this objective definitely isn't it. Not all who wander are lost, but when you wander the streets of Paris, you may unexpectedly chance upon yourself.

Food Round-Up: Austria & Germany

I was excited about eating my way through My Favourite Things (crisp apple strudels, schnitzel with noodles...) but a little daunted by recollections of my dad's trip to Frankfurt when he'd found very little to eat other than bread, and very little to drink other than beer. As it happened, I found more than enough to eat and love. However, I realized that local dishes which were inherently vegetarian were sometimes off menu or only available in a couple of restaurants, and I was glad I'd put in some compulsive research time before my trip. I'm going to save you some time and put down a list.

Brotchen: Bite sized open faced sandwiches with toppings you don't see anywhere else. I had onion and mushroom, carrot and cream cheese, and tomato chutney. The cost of these little things start to add up, but they make for a satisfying meal in between meals, and Trzesniewski is a Viennese institution.

Schnitzel: Usually made of tenderized meat, Vienna has several options made with tofu or TVP. I'm not usually a fan of food that's, essentially, processed, but in this case I'm willing to make an exception. The schnitzel at Landia in Vienna was a-ma-zing. I also went a little overboard and ordered their goulash with dumplings, another traditional dish which they veganized with great success.

Käsespätzle: Called 'little sparrow' since the hand shaped noodles resembled little birds, this pasta dish melds grated Emmenthaler cheese and fried onions in a pre-ordained love-match. There are other versions which include minced cauliflower which are equally good. Other cheese based pasta/noodle dishes are Kaspressknödel, and Kasnozk'n. You'll find nice versions at Andreas Hofer Steingasse in Salzburg.

Liptauer: I've told this story before, but Andreas Hofer Steingasse went out of their way to make me this traditional bread dish. It's a spicy spread made with sheep/goat's milk cheese mixed with sour cream, finely chopped spring onions, and some combination of flavours that make the whole thing sing. If you don't experience it in Salzburg, try the similar obatzda, served at most beer halls in Munich.

Currywurst: More commonly associated with other parts of Germany, Bergwolf in Munich nonetheless serves up an excellent vegetarianized version. This fast food dish consists of a full plate of fries (fake meat optional) seasoned with curry ketchup.

Special mention must be made of the Mozart balls in Salzburg, which, while commercial, taste like they deservedly won prizes (Cafe Furst has the best, though they're more expensive); butter brezel in Munich which is the only salted pretzel I actually like; schneeballs in Rothenburg which were the size of my head but well worth the calories; and the infamous sacher torte, a layered chocolate & apricot cake which turned out to be less dry than I'd feared.

Also - I should mention that I usually check out the McDonald's menu in every city I visit. It's a helpful index of prices and tastes. I was delighted to note Munich had the only vegetarian burger I've seen outside of India, and it honestly tasted incredibly good, way better than the McAloo Tikki. Clearly a lot has changed between the time my dad visited Frankfurt and now.

A full round-up of food reccos for Germany/Austria is here.

Around Munich

To give you some context, I visited Italy for the food, Austria for nostalgia, Paris for the arts, and Munich because... I had to visit Dachau. Of course there’s more to the city, but this was the main reason I was here. Dachau was the first camp, instituted before concentration camps were conceived of. It was mostly used to house people who opposed the Reich, to begin with. It eventually became a worker’s camp, where people were put to work until they died. It was a very powerful moment for me to come face to face with the doors proclaiming 'Work will set you free,' and remember all the atrocities I'd read about.

German school children mandatorily visit a concentration camp and learn about its history. I saw two or three groups at Dachau - in fact, I saw teachers talk to kids pretty much everywhere I went in Munich. I've to say, I really admire the German education system. They've fast & slow track learning systems based on both ability as well as inclination, which strikes me as being right. They've a rigorous test to get into college, but college itself is cheap. I think they've cracked something - Germany has one of the highest average earnings in the world; and, despite being roughly the size of Montana, consistently produces 1/4th the GDP of the entire United States. 

They've clearly moved past WWII but you can see it's irreversibly marked the country. I was told that very few people know the words to their national anthem, and that the German flag is rarely flown in the country. It's almost like they've the opposite of nationalism now; which is a shame when you consider what else Germany has produced - Martin Luther, the Gutenberg press, Wagner, Beethoven (the last two weren't Austrian. Hitler was, but everyone assumes he's German. As my husband pointed out - tremendous PR work by Austria, there). 

As for Munich itself, it rained non-stop while I was there. I was staying in one of the most character-full buildings in town, so I didn't mind being rained out. Only 4% of the buildings in Munich survived WWII bombing, and this was one of them. Another place I enjoyed when it was pouring down was the Hofbrauhaus (beer of the royal court) - it's the most famous beer hall in Munich and had a really authentic recreation of the old hall from the 1880's + a museum where it's easy to while away a couple of hours. I know a lot more about beer now. Munich's drinking culture really amuses me. I came out of the train station at about 7am, and overheard a customer ask for a refill

In the brief interludes of sunshine, I decided to ignore the 6 degrees temperature (I live in Canada, after all), and sought out Munich's outdoor offerings, including hikes up the Olympic Park hill and urban surfing in the English Gardens. 

I also got to see a little bit of Bavaria when I took a day trip out to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the poster child of the Romantic Road. I was expecting to see another Lucca, but was pleasantly surprised. Rothenburg is like no other place in Europe, or really, the world. It belongs in fairytales. I loved everything about it - the views, the castles, the moats, the carefully handcrafted wooden toys... I really think it beats the Disney franchises in terms of sheer magic appeal. I'd happily come back here with kids, preferably around the time when they're starting to question Santa Claus, or shooting stars, or whatever else. No easier way to reinstate belief, all around. 

My notes on getting to Rothenburg, as well as on top sights in Munich are here. Photo-stories are here.


Sound of Music was the first movie I fell in love with. Let’s be clear: I’m older, I know the movie wasn’t particularly accurate; Salzburg doesn’t care about the movie, and thinks there’s a lot more to the city. And I agree. I also think running behind each of the movie locations would be a bit futile as they're far flung and doctored into being together in the movie. But, you know the little swoop of happiness in your stomach at certain points in the movie, which is so easily recreated every time you think of them? It may be from the first shot of the hills, or the dance scene in the gazebo; it may be from watching the children row in the river, or from watching Maria dance with the Captain. The point is, that happy feeling, the unshakable sense that the world is beautiful, magical almost - that's what you feel in every part of Salzburg, whether you're trying to find shots from the movie or not. 

It's the kind of place where you're convinced everyone must get dressed with the help of bluebirds, like in some Disney movie. There are ducks wandering around on the roads. You can see the church bells ring from the city. You can't turn around without finding a meadow full of yellow flowers. How could you not want to sing about the hills being alive? Austrian itself does sound like a song. I tried being secular and saying guten morgen and so on for a while, but I soon found myself switching to gruss gott (God be with you) instead. In Salzburg, it feels like an expression of faith in life rather than in religion, as, indeed, it should be.

Obviously I'm over-simplifying and romanticizing and I do know Hitler's from Austria and the WW2 history wasn't pretty, but it's hard to be objective and rational about a place that's such a throwback to my childhood. I was delighted with Gertreidegasse, the main shopping street, where signage has medieval roots. People in the Middle Ages were largely illiterate, so the signs illustrated icons of their craft rather than just the store name. I love the signs where modern day brands get into the spirit of things. And I personally decided which brands to start boycotting because they just didn't seem to get it.

Coming back to my Salzburg-gush, the people are so so so friendly. I went to a restaurant one night and asked if they knew where I could get a traditional dish called liptauer, which I'd thought they had on their menu. The waitress not only told me exactly which other restaurants I may find it at, but also, the cook offered to make it specially if I came back the next day. You bet I did. Incidentally, I ate with other people on both days, because I bumped into them, made some small talk, and they seemed so nice that eating with them was a natural progression. I think that's partly because Salzburg is full of nice people, and partly because that restaurant clearly (deservedly) attracts the nicest clientele.

I think the only exception to the nice-people rule was near Kapitelplatz where all the shopkeepers insisted they wouldn't sell stamps unless you bought postcards from them. Ridiculous policy, especially given stamps almost always cost more than the postcard itself (2 eu vs. 50 cents), but there you go. 

But the absolute highlight, the moment when my heart stopped with delight, was when I was hanging around outside Schloss Leopoldskron, the house with the lakeside that was made famous by the movie. It used to be in the Austrian family, holding Rembrandt paintings and more; before being owned by various people including the Mad King of Bavaria (responsible for the castle which inspired the Disney logo). It was seized by the German government and made a guest house for Reich artists, alternately purposed as a reception to Hitler’s house further away. It’s now a conference center and you can’t go in. Except... I was hanging around outside, as I said, and a woman smiled at me and said to come on in with her. The unspeakable beauty of this place which Hollywood didn't need to alter or doctor in any way - I have no words. Inside, there were geese and ducks, swans and chicks, and even people in trees singing and playing the flute (I sound like I hallucinated this, but it's all literal). And there was this view. Can I live here please?

My self-guided walking tour covering Sound of Music sights as well as some other notable musical/historic sights is here. Pictures are here (and they include pictures of the I Have Confidence road, where there were zeeeero tourists, I'm guessing because it's a 7km walk out there & back with no transport options available. I'm happy, it let me sing out loud without bothering to look around self consciously).