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Old 28th July 2017, 20:53   #1
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Default A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more

This is a travelogue of a month long Euro trip with my family this June (2017). I have tried to narrate our experiences as well as describe the places that we visited. I sum up by providing some tips for planning.

The trip was primarily planned to have a long awaited family break and experience Europe. Coincidentally, it also became my final tour of Europe as I am moving back to India to begin a new venture.

Choosing the Season and Duration

Living in the Netherlands for the past 4 years gave me a good impression on how to organise this trip. The first thing we decided was the duration and the timing for the trip. We wanted a long vacation and agreed on a 30 day vacation considering all our work schedules.

I preferred the trip in Spring / early Summer as it is the best season IMO to see the diverse beauty of Europe. The rationale behind the season are
  • green landscapes
  • moderate weather
  • snow in easily accessible places of Alps
  • warm water in beaches
  • less crowd
  • cheaper fares.

After 2 months of detailed planning, the itinerary looked promising and satisfied everyone’s (my parents and younger sister) expectation of a Euro trip. I systematically made sure everyone's expectation of Europe was represented in the trip by making a requirements table. To reduce the strain of such a long trip I booked complete apartments with kitchen and laundry, rental cars and flights wherever necessary to keep my parents comfortable within our budget.

I am happy to share our detailed itinerary with anyone who is hoping to visit Europe for such a long time.

Gist of the Itinerary:
  1. Fly from Coimbatore to Amsterdam
  2. Week 1 in the Netherlands - Eindhoven, Rotterdam, Zeeland, Maastricht, Giethoorn
  3. Week 2 in Belgium and Paris - Bruges, Ghent, Paris and Normandy.
  4. Week 3 in Bavaria and Switzerland - Munich, Interlaken, Lucerne, Nordlingen
  5. Week 4 in Italy and Greece - Crete, Santorini, Athens, Rome and Pisa
  6. Fly from Rome to Coimbatore


Lifestyle and Dutch tour

Since I was based in the Netherlands, our trip started with my family arriving at Amsterdam. My main idea was to give them a first hand impression about the life style and infrastructure here.

I expected my family to be tired after their maiden long flight and late night transit. But somehow, they woke up early in morning the next day and were full of energy. Their initial response on hitting the streets were the cleanliness and order in the road. Roads in the Netherlands are the best maintained even for European standards and that left a good impression on them. Even the wayside plants are always properly trimmed and managed. The vast fields of pasture without any undulations till the horizon gave a feeling of space. The long daylight was also something new for them having seen the sunset always around 6 pm at home.

In order for them to get an idea of daily life, I took them around in the different public transport modes that I use everyday and they were amazed at how connected all the systems were. One can see the connecting trains/bus/tram info displayed inside the bus and use one payment method(Smart card) in all modalities. The fact that day time was longer helped us to explore more and stay out till late in the evening.

The IKEA Ideology

We visited IKEA, one of the world’s biggest furniture chains. Although my European friends couldn’t understand why I wanted them to visit IKEA, I was convinced it is part of the European lifestyle and mindset. They were able to see a variety of furniture, hardware and mainly witness the DIY attitude of people in general. The supporting infrastructure with self payment counters, different types of trolleys, visualising centres for homes and detachable wardrobes caught the curiosity of my dad. In fact they liked it so much that they wanted to buy a lot of stuff to take home. I had to convince them that I would take them to IKEA in Rome (our last European city) by when it is easier to carry in the long haul flight rather than the low cost European airlines.

We tried the famous IKEA lunch menus with fish fillet, meatballs and salad. As expected, my parents only had the french fries and refused to eat anything else. I had anticipated such a food crisis before and took some measures to make sure they didn't starve during the whole trip.

The Dutch and the sea - two sides of a coin

I admire the Dutch for their handling of an inherent weakness and capitalising it to their own advantage. They pioneered windmills to capitalise on the strong ocean currents, used the power from windmills to perform hard tasks. The old dutch windmills didn’t generate electricity but directly use the mechanical energy to saw wood, grind grains, pump water etc. That is one of the reason why the Dutch had such a huge fleet those days trading almost anything across the world.

Another modern example are the dikes, called “Delta works” that they have built along their western coast to keep out the seawater from flooding the country's low lying plains. It is an engineering marvel and is considered one of the modern wonders of the world. They are continuous structures like dams built along the coastline that acts as regulators of the incoming sea water. There are numerous sluices and barriers where the water level on each of the rivers is controlled from flooding during storms and tidal changes. On the other hand, they use their coastal proximity to operate one of the busiest commercial ports in the world and have excellent inland shipping routes plying across the country.

Rotterdam Harbour tour and drive along the Dikes

What best than to visit both the harbour and the dikes! We went on a guided harbour tour in a ferry to see various parts of the Rotterdam harbour. The tour took us to a loading/unloading berths where containers were systematically placed in a ship, maintenance docks for the ships and a classic steam ship now restored as a hotel. It was funny as my parents preferred to choose a seat in a shelter while the others were rushing to take a seat in the sun.

Cube houses challenging the general perspective
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Dutch Holiday Experience

Having shown them some typical Dutch everyday activities, it was time to show them the popular vacation style. I had arranged for a night’s stay in one of the camping parks with tents and camper vans where most of the people spend their vacation year after year. We stayed in one such hut with a view of a small jetty where personal sailing boats were anchored. It was a unique experience seeing how people integrated sailing in their leisure and as a vacation. These vacations are truly relaxing and are integral part of the life.

Camping park
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sunset coloured view
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Maastricht Caves

This is one of the highlights of the entire trip enjoyed by the whole family. We took a guided tour of the “Northern caves” in the city of Maastricht. These caves are basically tunnels created by farmers apprx. 200 years ago as they mined their land for limestone. It is said to be about 200 km long and most of them made without any plans due to lack of organisation between farmers. The dark and desolated tunnels gives a feeling of desolation and makes one detached from the outside world with an eerie sense of fantasy. The tour party carried lanterns and were backed up by professional rescue team if anyone decides to test their directional skills.

Even the Germans used a section of these tunnels to safeguard some of the famous works of Dutch artists during the world war. Good for the Dutch, the Germans didn’t quite manage to take all the paintings with themselves. The vaults built by the Germans exist to this day and is quite an engineering marvel in itself. There were many artifacts that are preserved to give the visitors a feel for the old methods of cutting, counting and moving those blocks outside. I would definitely recommend this cave tour to anyone visiting the Netherlands.

Giethoorn

Giethoorn is a small village in the Netherlands famous for the canals that act as streets. The village is a tourist attraction with lots of shops, restaurants and boat/bicycle hires. The extent of Chinese tourists is so much that the menu and instructions also had explanations in Chinese apart from English and Dutch. It is a quaint village where you can hire silent electric boats to follow the canals in the village taking pictures of the beautiful houses and farms. The electric boats were fun to drive and we discovered a new driver in the family, my mother.

A week of touring around the Netherlands it was time to say “Tot ziens” and embark further on our journey to Belgium. And it also means that I had to give back the car that I had rented for the week.

First car in the trip

The first car I rented for this trip was a Ford Focus SW Ecoboost. It was a 2017 model with around 5000 km on the odo. The 1.0 L EcoBoost engine was a charm to drive. Never did I feel the strain of the 1 liter motor pulling four adults with 60 kg luggage. The car being a Ford handled amazingly well even for a station wagon. I had a feeling that the gearbox wasn’t smooth as I would expect of a Focus. The brakes and clutch were spot on and offered good feel. One thing that I do before driving off in a rental car is check how the reverse gear is engaged. The ford had a loop around the gear stick that had to pulled up to engage reverse!

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Driving in the Netherlands is smooth most of the times because of clear rules and enabling infrastructure. The drivers are quite aggressive in claiming their right in the road if they have the priority. The priority is defined by the signs in the road or for the vehicle coming from the right in the absence of road signs. I had a nerve wrecking moment in the highways, as someone had dropped a plank of what seemed like plywood on the road. I had little time to react as there was a truck before me and suddenly a piece of wood flew from below the truck. Luckily it was flying very low and hit the bumper of the car and went under the car. Since I had limited insurance, I was afraid it was going to be an expensive incident. Luckily the car rental company shrugged it off since the damage caused to the bumper was less than 2 cm in length and there were no complications. I usually avoid the full insurance which is very expensive and choose the insurance with minimum payment of 800 Euros (based on value of car) along with tyre/glass insurance.

We visited Belgium where we went to Bruges and Ghent. Both beautiful places with lovely buildings and historical churches. As the places are quite popular destination, I will move on with some pictures,

Gravensteen castle,
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A make shift stage that can be folded and towed away!
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A Belgian Chocolate shop in Bruges
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TGV to Paris

Our next stop after Belgium was Paris. I booked the TGV high speed train to give my family an experience of travelling at 250 kmph on land. It was hard to get a feel for the speed as the cabin is well insulated. Infact my dad always predicted that the train was doing 120 - 140 kmph when the actual speed was above 200 kmph. The scenery on both the sides was beautiful with acres of green pastures and slopes of grasslands with quaint villages nestled among small hills.


Paris with caution

I was quite cautious about travelling in Paris as I received a lot of warnings from friends about all sorts of frauds/thieves. Anyone who is hoping to have a trip in Paris should be double careful. I was very determined that I will not be taking taxis from the unorganised drivers hawking at passengers in the Gare du Nord station but yet stumbled on the face of a much sophisticated “taxi scam”

The story is as follows,
On reaching the destination station, we started walking towards the authorised taxi stand. We were almost in the line when a guy dressed formally with tucked in shirt and “STIF” id card (transport authority of Paris) asked where we were headed. On seeing his attire and the id, I felt that he was some kind of authorised person helping people take the taxis. There wasn’t a big queue and he asked me our Paris address. He went on to inform that there was a strike in Paris by taxis against Uber and there was no taxi to take us outside Paris city. Now, this was a trigger for me. I was quite aware of the sad state of French trade unions pulling strike now and then since I had to replan our trip because of an expected strike by the ATC (Air traffic control) staff of Paris airports. His attire and the id card convinced me that it could very well be the case.

He then told me that he is authorised person to help us take a safe ride outside Paris city (I booked an apartment just outside Paris since there were no tourist taxes there and cheaper costs) and asked us to take the elevator to take a bus. He accompanied us to the elevator and pointed at the floors marked as “Rental cars”. As I questioned him on what to expect there, he said that he will help us get a private taxi and hooked up with a guy claiming to be a private taxi driver. Incidentally, I could see only a couple of taxis in the always crowded taxi area of the station and completely believed that there was a strike. We followed the guy right outside the station to a road marked for private taxis.

When I asked the cost of the trip he repeated the same story about “strike against uber” and informed us that it will be 90 Euros. I started doubting him as the distance was just 5 km. He started loading the bags in an old Renault Megane estate as I called my host to confirm the issue of strike. Unfortunately, my host didn’t pick up the call and I was left to myself with my family and a suite of bags with 2 cunning taxi mafia. To add to the mix, it also started drizzling. We were still standing in the pavement contemplating this ride and high cost as the guy repeatedly pressured us to be quick. His antics weren’t working and I lost the trust completely.

Senses prevailed, and I decided to call their game by saying that I don’t need the taxi. I had a feeling that the rate was too high and the second guy was clearly not a professional. The guy then walked away from us asking us to unload the bags ourselves. I saw a McD nearby and asked my family to wait there inside as I wanted to go out and figure out the true state. I bailed out from the first trap.

As we stepped away from the pavement, someone tried to speak to us in Tamil. It didn’t take a minute to realise that he was from Sri Lanka and has been observing us dealing with the scammers. He offered to help and continued the story of strike but said he has a better car and lowered the price to 70 Euros. My parents were anxious and wanted to go with this Tamil speaking guy as we had a lingual connect at least. Since, I believed the strike news from the previous guy I took the choice and we went with the other taxi guy speaking Tamil. It was a new Mercedes Benz V class with executive seats and plush interiors. This was a real luxury taxi but the guy was not honest as well. He tried to play a gimmick of miscalculating the route and I had to force him follow my offline maps to take the shortest route to our apartment.

I was quite annoyed at this level of organised scam as I had nearly got out of their clutch only to be caught again by an another scammer. In hindsight however, hiring such a V-class taxi would have costed us the same amount of money but still I was annoyed because it wasn’t in my control. This bad reception at Paris isn’t just one case and internet is full of such stories. Only their degree of sophistication varies. So, a good warning to all of you planning to visit Paris. The Parisian streets are full of scammers asking for signatures, trying to tie a friendship band and all sort of hoopla only to demand money. I decided that I am going to rent a car myself for our day trip to Normandy and our return journey to airport.

Opel Astra and Etretat

After two days of visiting the typical Paris attractions, we decided to visit the D-Day beaches in Etretat in the Normandy region. I got a good deal from Budget car rental and booked Opel Astra/Ford Focus premium hatchback segment. On the counter, I chose a Citroen C3 picasso knowing that we will need the boot space and the extra legroom. As I picked the car from the lot, I was very disappointed. The car literally felt like a soap box and was huge step down from the Ford Focus. I regretted my decision as I drove off the parking lot. As I was about the exit the lot, I noticed the tyre pressure warning in the MID screen. I know immediately that I am going to drive back to the lot and ask for another car. I was lucky to have gotten rid of that car.

This time I chose the new 2016 Opel Astra 1.4 Turbo Petrol.It was an amazing car inside out. I am not a big fan of Opel but my perception changed after using this car. The interiors was among the best with a sporty feel. The design was neat and luxurious. The controls were spot on and offered good view of the road. Good legroom at the rear with thigh support meant my parents were happy as well. 60:40 rear seat design helped us pack in all our luggage during the airport trip. And Opel "OnStar" service meant that the car detected all the passengers in the car and could give exact details of what to expect to emergency services if need arises.

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What really turned me on the was the lane assist and the automatic braking ADAS functions. Having worked in one such systems during my studies, I never really experienced them in first hand since I didn’t have a DL back then. Feeling the system was totally different than in a simulator.. The car detects the lane markings through a camera and nudges the steering wheel to stay in the right lane when it detects a deviation. It also offered some resistance to the steering wheel when one tries to make an unsignaled lane change. The system is not an Autopilot as it is meant only to help drivers from drifting off to next lane. The correction made by the car, often needs adjustment manually to stay in the same lane. The car also had HUD warning incase the car in front brakes suddenly or if the rate of deceleration is deemed too low by the system before auto brakes kick in.

French highways have tolls like in India with the only difference of being automated. We had to pay around 30 Euros for a commute of 400 km. The place Etretat in itself is legendary. It is confluence of nature and history.

High cliffs facing the sea with lovely pebble beaches meant this is an ideal spot for song shooting and is popular destination for movie makers. This is a place where history is entwined with nature at its ruthless best. The beaches were the attack front for the allied powers to penetrate on the European mainland occupied by the Germans in WW2. It is amazing how the Germans built gun posts in the rock facades in the cliffs protecting the entry and the fact that the allies broke such a defence. The cliffs stand the might of storms and huge waves protecting the town and humble pebbles in the beach reduce the effect of eroding waves on the cliffs. The pebbles are so important that there is a ban to take away even one of the pebbles.

Normandy and the beaches are a must visit for anyone interested in history and nature. This could be planned as a day trip from Paris easily.

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Flying out from Paris, our next stop was Munich. I chose Munich as a base for our Swiss trip since the flight fares and rental cars are much cheaper than hiring in Switzerland. Moreover, the city in itself is a hotspot for its various attractions like the BMW Welt.


Bavarian bond

After almost 2 weeks in the journey, we flew to Munich from Paris. I was looking forward to this leg of the journey as I had reserved a special car for a week. During booking, I went with the BMW 3 series considering the possibility to drive in the Alps. Since, it was BMW capital, I was almost certain I would get a 318d or 320d with M Sport pack if I was lucky.

The first surprise turned out to be otherwise. There were no 3 series available and the guy at the counter tried all his sales gimmick to make me pay more for an upgrade. Usually Sixt,(the car rental company that is now owned by BMW itself) is very subtle in pushing for an upgrade than companies like Budget and Europcar but this time not. I controlled the temptation and avoided paying more for a 4 series coupe or a 5 series. I was finally allotted an Audi A4 Avant Sport 2.0 TDI. I was initially not impressed by the offer however considering we needed huge luggage space and the Diesel fuel cost, I took it.

Initial Impressions of the A4 Avant

It was 2017 model with 10000 Km on the Odo. It was well specified with sports seat and Audi Virtual Cockpit. After inspecting the car for any unspecified damages, we set off to our hotel in Munich. Driving in Munich wasn’t as difficult as driving in Paris but presented the challenge of shared road with trams and one had to be careful especially in junctions.

The MMI unit was spot on and deserves all the hype around it. Virtual cockpit was a delight and I had to get used to seeing the navigation info right in front of me than in the head unit display. I was spoilt for choice in choosing a display configuration. The graphical display was seamless and the images crisp and bright. The 150 hp motor was smooth and very refined with hardly any strain felt inside. The 6 speed gearbox was crisp and felt sporty. The steering wheel was small and feels nice to hold. There were too many buttons on the steering wheel and it took some time getting used to it. The speed is electronically restricted to 250 Kmph. Auto headlamps that detected incoming traffic and dimmed the lights automatically when in high beam.

Virtual cockpit display
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The Audi in full view
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I was also hoping that the rental car would have a vignette (road tax for Austria and Swiss) from previous renters who might have taken the car across the German borders. I was unlucky and had to shell 50 Euros for the Austrian and Swiss Vignette. All vehicles using the Austrian and Swiss roads are expected to have such a sticker on the windshield and it is a flat rate instead of collecting tolls.

Neuschwanstein Castle

Next day we started our drive from Munich towards the famous castle that is said to have inspired Walt Disney. Driving in limitless stretches of Autobahn was fun in the Audi. Surprisingly there weren’t much road work restricting the flow of traffic and we were covering miles well ahead of the initial plan.

We decided to take a detour towards a huge water body visible from the road. It was a camper park on the shores of Forgennsee, a big lake with a faint view of one of the castles. The water was typical turquoise with lush green trees around. There was a special area earmarked for swimming and the water was quite cold. After enjoying the panoramic view of the lake and a small walk along the shore, we headed back on track to Castle itself.

I will let the pictures do the description of the castle. This was taken from Marienbrücke, a pedestrian bridge crowded with tourists. There were a few paragliders and as we envied those lucky souls flying high we witnessed a rescue helicopter scanning the area for a missing paraglider or trekker.

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Tamina Gorge

Driving in Swiss is totally a new experience. Since we stayed off the main cities, roads weren’t crowded and offered spectacular view of the snowy mountains. Cruise control was used to the max in these highways.

It was difficult to convince my parents to have the seatbelt fastened at all times in the rear seats, as they are not used to it in our country. The customs inspector at the Austrian border helped my case by gently warning my dad to wear the seatbelt at all times. I didn’t have to mention about seatbelt for the next 3 weeks of journey!

While planning the trip, I was looking for a pit stop with attraction on our way to Interlaken and hit upon this jackpot. Tamina gorge is famous for its thermal springs and the walk through the high rock facades. The water here is claimed to have therapeutic value and is the core of the spa town called “Bad Ragaz”. The gorge itself is accessible only by public transportation and is definitely worth a visit.

Furka via Grimsel pass

On a fine day when the sun was greeting the snow capped Alps, we set off on the epic drive in Grimsel and Furka pass. I chose this route owing to the proximity from our rental apartment and the fun quotient without getting stuck in slow moving traffic. The drive and views were quite stunning with a lot of lay-by places to rest and admire the view.

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One usually expects a tunnel when there is a looming mass of Granite stone and coniferous trees before you, but now it wasn't so. There was endless maze of paved roads crisscrossing the rocks and snowy lakes. Speed limits for village centres marked that there are much more of motoring breeze and squeeze to come than in a tunnel. The mountain roads opened itself into neatly paved hairpins and curves hugging the rocks. As we drove up, we were greeted by bits of glaciers melting down the road. There were bicyclists who were real speed breakers and bikers waiting to get rid of us in their sight. There were vintage cars with rich grand dads and occasionally grand mothers.

The Audi felt good, I had gotten used to its dynamics by then and managed the ride quite effortlessly. I especially enjoyed the ride back as I changed the seating position to much lower and snug setting. That is when the drive came to life. I extended the thigh support to max and lowered the seat height to an extent I can safely see the road. This I assume is the closest I got to a sports car seating position in the Audi A4. One of the best driving experiences I have ever had followed. The fast corners and slow hairpins were thrilling with not much traffic. I listened to nothing but the sound of the engine and gears clicking as I cautiously avoided any tire squeal.

The car was very balanced and composed, with less load it was surprisingly quite stiff in corners. The tyres were all weather Good Years and seem to be decent enough for the task. The engine was lovely, we didn't hear the strain even when climbing steep hairpins revving over 4k rpm. I have no complaints against the electromechanical steering. The acceleration in 3 and 4th gear was really good and kept the josh to drive through the twists and turns. It was a memorable experience being on the same roads as legends and it will be one of the best drives of my life. At the peak of Furka pass, I could see that there were still snow clearing machines ready to be pressed into duty when needed.

We visited the famous villages of Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald villages that are one of the major tourist attractions in the region. The rides in the cable car, vintage railway lines with stunning views of the Alps will stay a long time in our memory. We experienced some wind in the hair by trying out paragliding over Interlaken. The tickets were quite expensive but I feel it is worth the money for such infrastructure. I will let the pictures do the talking.

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Jungfrau region,

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The old railway line Murren,

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View form the train,

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On our way back from Interlaken, we visited Lucerne but limited ourselves to the main square as we still had to cover some miles to reach our next stop. We stayed for a night at Lindau, a town in Germany famous for its island in a lake. The lake itself is famous for being landlocked by Germany, Austria and Switzerland. So, one can ideally see the other two countries across the lake. We spent an evening on the island witnessing the clear water that turned into molten gold as the sun set.

Bodensee
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First twist

As we drove towards Munich to catch our flight to Crete in Greece, we faced quite some road works delaying our time. After refueling the car before returning to the rental company, we reached the airport 30 minutes before check in closing. On reaching the counter however, we saw the check in was closed as the flight was preponed by 10 minutes without notification. It was a costly event as I had to replan a part of the trip to adapt our delay. With the comfort of having an understanding family, I analysed all options and made a new plan to extend the stay in Munich and fly to Crete 2 days later.

Bavarian Bond Version 2

In order to cheer me up, my dad suggested that we rent another car to use in Munich since it is also convenient to travel. I did some checks both online and offline to decide on a good deal. I found out that Enterprise has a full fleet of new vehicles in Munich and were offering good deals to bring in market share. I asked for a humble station wagon and was given a Ford Focus again. On enquiring for options, I was asked to take a look at the parking lot full of new cars. There were Mercs, Fords, Hyundais, Nissans and even Mustangs. I felt like a kid in a candy store still crying out of confusion on what to ask for. I knew I wouldn’t be able to choose and gave it up to my family.

They selected a Volvo XC60 Diesel Automatic and I happily agreed. We got the upgrade with free insurance. The car was classy with the vertical DRLs and black colour. It was a tall car and I realised it as I stepped in. By the time I pressed the start button, I was no more worried about the missed flight. It is a massive car (for what we were used to) and was way taller than the Audi in terms of seating position. There were ample space everywhere and the seats were broad and comfortable. The HMI of this car already looked outdated even though it is only couple of years old. The gearbox was an eight speed auto(CVT) with manual shift option. The steering felt heavy as I drove outside the parking lot. During the first few minutes of driving, I had a feeling of being in a huge boat wafting through a stream.

After a few kilometers my senses recalibrated and I started settling for the luxury of the Volvo in the Autobahn. It was effortless in terms of acceleration although the gearshifts are felt by the passengers distinctively. It was delight in the slow moving traffic and I wished we never arrived at our hotel. However I felt the steering had less feel and was heavier than in the Audi A4. And the biggest draw was the infotainment. Clearly this wasn’t Volvo’s latest and Audi’s MMI is still miles ahead.

Picture of how ECO tips is provided in the Volvo. It is meant as a reading material when not driving!
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BMW Welt

We spent an afternoon in the BMW Welt and I wanted to check out the the new 5 and 7 series. The building itself was very attractive and contemporary. The engineering section where the hybrid and electric powertrains were explained was interesting. There was an i3 being driven indoors to demonstrate to visitors and a kids section teaching the basics in an interactive way. My family was quite happy to see such premium cars especially the cabriolet versions and we duly took pictures in most of the cars competing with fellow visitors from China. I was looking forward to browsing through the brand shop to buy some DTM models, but was put off by the high prices.

M range with customisation packages
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Hybrid demo
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I checked out the LWB of the new 5 Series and it was amazing. The fact that BMW is innovating a lot in terms of designing multi material chasis and new manufacturing construction methods is the proof that mechanical engineers are still involved in innovation in the car industry. The popular notion in the outside world that the innovation is centered around silicon is not completely true.

Romantic route and Medieval Village

We had one more day left in Munich and we decided to split the day by visiting another mega hardware store in Munich called Hornbach. It was a huge store with plethora of tools and spares required to build/repair houses. It seemed that most of the customers fixed minor repairs in their houses themselves and get to choose every single item that is required. I bought a couple of PIR sensors that were made in Germany to enable automatic lighting in our home. Every home there has at least one of those sensor detecting the presence of a human and triggering something.

Having the Volvo for two days, I had the urge to do a long drive in the car. That is when I found out about the “Romantic route” in Bavarian region. It is a 350 km long route in the region of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg (Black forest) that goes through the countryside revealing beautiful landscapes.

Since we couldn’t do the entire route, I decided to visit follow the route till a medieval village called Nordlingen. This quaint bavarian village is famous for its ancient city wall that is still maintained to this date. It was purely a treat to walk through the old centre and churches imagining the history. We read that there is a certain code that the new buildings should comply in terms of colour and style to preserve the tradition of the region. I would definitely recommend it to anyone planning a trip to Munich or Germany for that matter.

A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more-untitled.jpg

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However, there is a challenge in following the route. The route was neither available in Google Maps or Here Maps and we had some difficulty staying in the route. Volvo’s infotainment unit (2015 Volvo XC60) also didn't have that route programmed and kept diverting us to nearest highway spoiling the whole point. So, it needs some preparation to make waypoints before the journey begins. In an ideal case, the roads are well marked but the problem starts when you first make a diversion due to a road work. It becomes hard to get back to the exact route after that. We lost the route after one such road work and decided to take the highway for the remaining distance.

continues..,

Last edited by vivee90 : 4th August 2017 at 10:38. Reason: Improving
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Old 1st August 2017, 21:17   #2
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Sailing the “blu” in Heraklion, Crete

I had booked a luxury sailing boat for 2 nights and a day in the medieval harbour of Heraklion, in the northern coast of Crete. It was the most adventurous part of our trip next to paragliding in Interlaken, Switzerland. There were 3 sleeping quarters, 2 bathroom with toilets, kitchen and a living area apart from a lounge style deck. It was amazing to see how all the comforts were packed into such a small place. It was even quite comfortable sleeping in the boat as there were full size beds and the gentle swaying of the boat in the sea breeze was perfect. The boat is apprx 14m long and had a 75 hp Volvo marine engines apart from the Sails.

Our home for 2 days
A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more-capture.jpg

Spaces in the sailing boat,
A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more-boatsail-4.jpg

Sleeping Space
A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more-img_20170617_214644.jpg

The true blue
A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more-greece-3.jpg

On the day of the trip we set sail to a nearby island called Dia with 2 crew. It was a learning experience understanding the concept of sailing against the wind and the working of the sails itself. The host and the captain were very friendly and experienced sailors. We anchored a few meters from the island which is not inhabited and it was time for swimming and snorkeling. The water was crystal clear. One could clearly see the bottom that is 15 m deep.

Snorkeling for the first time, the experience was something I cannot yet describe. It is definitely exciting yet very peaceful once you get the hang of it. The view inside the sea wasn’t filled with brilliant colour but a very subtle Mediterranean blue. There were schools of silver fish and dark weeds dotting the sandy bottom. It was exhilarating to see the bottom of the boat that is submerged inside the water. I realised the amount of metal submerged was way bigger than what I expected. What turned me on the most was witnessing the Flounder fish. They are disc like lying flat on the seabed with a cryptic camouflage that makes them hard to identify. They don’t just mimic the area that they cover but somehow seemed to match the bigger pattern on the seafloor. It was a marvel that I couldn’t take my eyes away from.

The next stop was Santorini island. I had booked a high speed ferry that is built in the form of a catamaran. It was apprx. 80 m long and could carry 100 vehicles and 1000 passengers. It was powered by Caterpillar diesel engines and used water jets instead of propellers made by a subsidiary of Rolls Royce. The lounges were luxurious and the sailing smooth.

The high speed ferry as it departs the port,
A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more-greece-4.jpg

Santorini Sunset and Sunrise

The famous village of blue circular houses facing the even bluer sea. We stayed away from the tourist hotspot called Oia village. The entire island is connected by good public transport and there are probably more rental cars/ATVs/scooters than the original inhabitants in the island. I was advised not to hire any since the roads are full of tourists on their own. We were quite comfortable using the public buses. We were lucky to see both the Sunset(from Oia) and Sunrise (from Katerados village) in the island. It is surprising how quickly the Sun rises from the horizon. Ten minutes later and you already see the Sun running across the sky.

Sunrise in Santorini
A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more-greece-1.jpg

The view from Oia village
A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more-greece-5.jpg

We took a boat trip visiting one of the active Volcanoes in the region. There is still steaming hot gas venting out of the craters in the rocks. Experiencing it makes one realise that nature has much more in stock than what humans see in its inventory. It was very humbling and awe inspiring.

Acropolis on the way to Rome

On the last day at Greece, we flew to Athens in the morning and went on a day trip to the Acropolis and the Museum. One really feels the connect between ancient Indian and Greek society there. We skipped walking up to the Acropolis due to the scorching sun and lack of time. And the fact that there was a big deal of restoration going on the site didn’t help either.
We were quite happy seeing it from the distance and learning about it in the air conditioned museums.

Last week in Italy

I chose Rome for the historical sites and Vatican. We visited the popular attractions(Trevis fountain, the Colosseum and the Pantheon) and used public transport for all our commute. It was cheap and convenient. I was adequately warned about the possibility of thieves in the Metro and managed to hold on to our things. The whole city was very much like our cities, huge expanses of land filled with untamed plants and bushes. It was almost summer, so the sun too remained same as in Chennai. Roads are best undescribed and so are the driving manners in Rome. One wouldn’t miss India there.

Current speed of the train in the display
A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more-img_20170623_195804.jpg

We planned a day trip to Pisa since my mother and sister insisted on visiting the leaning tower. After some analyses, I figured out it was both economical and flexible to book the high speed train (Frecciarossa) to Florence and then take the regional train to Pisa. The trip was nice as we had adequate time to spend at Pisa and do some shopping in Florence. For those who are planning on a day trip to Pisa from Rome, I would definitely recommend booking the tickets till Florence in the high speed train and using the spare time to explore Florence.

The final twist at IKEA

Everything was as per plan in Italy and my parents were already beginning to miss Indian food. Discussion of home food began to appear more often and it is a clear sign that they started to feel the wear of the trip now. We were almost done with the trip with just two more days to catch the flight to India. My parents also insisted we spend a day in Rome shopping for family/friends in India and asked me to plan accordingly. I had planned to do some shopping for a day and visit Vatican the next day. I kept my promise of going to IKEA in Rome and we spent a day shopping there and at some other shops.

This is where I had done the biggest casual blunder of my whole life. In the confusion of carrying all the bags we had brought, I had somehow misplaced the bag with Passports in one of the lockers of IKEA. I cannot to this day believe how I did something like that when travelling with my parents in a country where English speakers are rare outside the tourist belt.

Not realising this folly, we travelled to Vatican the next day as I was under the impression that the passports were inside another bag which I always dutifully carried with me. This was a sunday and my family was to fly from Rome to Mumbai on Monday at 11:00 AM. Only on reaching our Rome apartment at 21:00 and asking my sister to keep my passport separately for tomorrow did I realise that we were actually not in the possession of our passports. This was a terrible twist in the story. We had our moments of disappointment when we missed the flight at Munich a couple of weeks ago. That however was also a fault of the airline. But this was purely carelessness on my part and I couldn’t really think ahead for a solution.

Having a cool family helps as they stepped in mentally and physically to sort it out. All the while during the trip, I was like the lone captain of the journey who had planned and executed the entire trip with a good deal of success. But now, I really felt the pressure. My father took down a paper and we started analysing where we missed our passports. It hadn’t struck me that I had kept it in a separate locker in IKEA. I was biased that someone had stolen it from by bag in the Bus/Metro. My sister was smart enough to assure me that it was at IKEA that we had last seen it and never again the next day. Only then did it dawn on me that I had placed initally kept our bags in a smaller locker and eventually moved them to a bigger locker. Thanks to my family, we know where to search.

It was well past midnight and we decided to put our last hope to test. We planned to leave the apartment early and go straight to IKEA. IKEA opens at 10:00 but I was sure shop employees arrive early to prepare for the day.

The next morning I just couldn’t wait to get there. We were lucky to get a very kind taxi driver who took us to IKEA early by 07:00 and was patiently waiting with us. I ran across to the staff door and tried to communicate with the employees who arrived at work but they hardly cared and shrugged off asking us to come at 10:00. Coming at 10:00 meant that we had to re-book entire flight from Rome to Mumbai and to Coimbatore. I called upon our taxi driver who understood English to communicate with the IKEA staff. Finally the eyes of the God (Yeah, GOD) turned to us and sent us a kind lady who didn’t speak English but brought an English speaking colleague.

As the lady explained that we should come after opening time, I realised she was misinformed that the passports were lost in the shop somewhere. I quickly pointed out that it was in a locker which I had not locked as I shifted to a bigger locker and that they don’t have to spend time searching whole store. She went in with a nod and the next 15-20 minutes were testing the endurance of the blood vessels. It was truly a moment of relief when I saw the security walking out with our bags. How lucky I was! I thanked them with the Italian I learnt from Vettel (‘Grazie mille’ he says in the team radio) and walked out towards our taxi.

It brought our journey to its planned track from the jolt that could have totally gone expensive financially and mentally. My family went on the same flight back home to Coimbatore as I further embarked to visit the Mercedes and Porsche Museum before I too bid adieu to Europe.

This trip was nothing short of sensational in terms of emotions and memories. Especially for me it was landmark journey which in itself was full of adventure marking my four years of living in the Netherlands.

Some suggestions based on my experience in planning and executing such trips,
  1. When travelling in group, it helps to have something to please everyone in the trip. Especially as a family due to difference in tastes and age gap.
  2. When booking 3 or more tickets in flight it helps to check the cost of one ticket for the same route. I noticed by accident that I was able to buy 3 tickets for 95 Euros each but when I search for four tickets the cost becomes 120 Euros each. I went on to book the tickets separately and save some money there. I assume that it is because of the differential pricing strategy of seats in an airline.
  3. When travelling with parents, (especially south indians) it helps to take a pressure cooker and few kilos of the rice they are used to. One can buy Basmati rice in all Supermarkets in Europe however the Ponni rice is available only in select Indian/Turkish stores in Europe.
  4. My personal suggestion is to keep the passports at hotel room / apartment while taking pictures/photocopy on your day activities. But be warned, we couldn’t take the guided tour in Paris Opera hall because I didn't want to risk it being stolen in Paris and kept them at home. And also a potential verification by the cops in Paris on the day we went to Normandy due to a terror incident.
  5. Never trust anyone in Paris offering to help you, even if they look like you or speak your language.
  6. Arrive at airports at least 30 mins before check in close time even if you are frequent flier.(Learnt it the hard way)
  7. Get local sim cards for each family member and remember to note down their new numbers
  8. Offline maps are absolute necessary when driving or even walking in the cities.
  9. Check local news for any strike/terror attacks even before the day of leaving. France is famous for strikes.
  10. Not all Indian restaurants serve good food. It is best to ask friends living there for advice as online ratings are often not that reliable.
  11. As long as your family is well fed, they don’t miss home food. I booked apartments everywhere we stayed, so we could at least cook one meal a day. It worked for me almost till the end. But, I think one month is the max duration for such a vacation with parents in early 50s or late 40s.
  12. Taxis could be a gamble and I really thank Uber for stepping up the game.Taking taxis is tricky even with meter fare in Paris/Rome. Feel free to use Uber or local call taxi than picking one from the street.
  13. Have adequate SD card space for photos storage or Sync them to the cloud when you have wifi.
  14. Travel light and ensure the apartments have washing machines and dryers in case of longer trips.

Last edited by vivee90 : 3rd August 2017 at 22:22.
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Old 4th August 2017, 11:12   #3
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Default re: A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more

Some more pictures that arouse the curiosity,

The electric bike we found in Germany,
A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more-img_20170626_180036.jpg

Bicycle stand in the Netherlands
A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more-nlj.jpg

Coconut package with easy opener
A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more-nl.jpg

A strange bicycle that you can drive in a Formula car position!
A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more-ligfiet.jpg

A plundered bicycle, quite a common sight in Netherlands and Belgium. Most of times, people tie the frame to a post but the bicycle thieves are true savages. They once stole just the seat of my bicycle!
A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more-20170602_100156.jpg

Notice the cover behind the horse! Keeps the roads clean.
A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more-20170602_112014.jpg

The Gun tower built by Germans in Etretat to defend the beaches
A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more-dd.jpg

Numbers from the rental cars,
A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more-ccc.jpg

The cars were always given with full tank from the rental company and returned the same way. The FE of the Focus is very surprising, I double checked the actual amount I spent for the Fuel. Considering the car drove in highways with 4 adults all the time, the numbers are unbelievable. I I approximated the fuel costs in each country and retailer to calculate the mileage based on the total number of km driven.

Hope you enjoyed the travelogue.

Last edited by vivee90 : 4th August 2017 at 13:27.
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Old 5th August 2017, 10:55   #4
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Default Re: A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more

Thread moved from the Assembly Line (The "Assembly Line" Forum section) to the Travelogues Section. Thanks for sharing!
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Old 5th August 2017, 12:04   #5
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Great trip and a great post!!!
Just reading it made me itch to go on a similar trip.
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Old 5th August 2017, 20:34   #6
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Default Re: A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more

Sigh. Everytime I look at pictures of European and American towns and cities, i cant help but wonder. When will my town get to to look like that?

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Old 6th August 2017, 09:02   #7
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Looks to have been an awesome trip! The variety you have covered is brilliant. Excellent planning, and a great trip report. Kudos...
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Old 6th August 2017, 20:04   #8
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Excellent trip. While reading your travelogue, I recalled my month long trip in the US with my parents. I was also about to return to India, and wanted my parents to experience America. I did the same planning of booking houses, taking spices for home cooking, different locomotives, etc so they can enjoy the country with comfort.

Is there a way I can get the copy of your detailed planning? It will be helpful for my future adventure. Again, great trip my friend, I am sure your parents must be happy and proud.
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Old 7th August 2017, 11:31   #9
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Thank you for the compliments!

Quote:
Originally Posted by Sparky View Post
Is there a way I can get the copy of your detailed planning? It will be helpful for my future adventure. Again, great trip my friend, I am sure your parents must be happy and proud.
Thank you. It was an unforgettable trip. Here is the link with full itinerary with the actual and the deviations,
https://goo.gl/zWUFHC
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Old 7th August 2017, 12:29   #10
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Default Re: A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more

Excellent and detailed travelogue, vivee90. I'm sure the information you have supplied will help quite a lot of people planning a trip to Europe. I'm planning a week long family vacation to Paris myself and that taxi scam thing is something that I will have to look out for.
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Old 7th August 2017, 15:13   #11
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Fantastic travelogue thoroughly enjoyed reading through entirely. That must have been the trip of your life with family I guess. Nice writing and photography with lots of tips and information. For a trip that lasted 4 weeks across countries with so much of diversity and with four tourists very commendable to do it all by yourself. What kind of a licence is required to drive in all these countries, do you hold an IDL.
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Old 7th August 2017, 17:23   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by vivee90 View Post
Thank you for the compliments!



Thank you. It was an unforgettable trip. Here is the link with full itinerary with the actual and the deviations,
https://goo.gl/zWUFHC
Thank you for sharing. I liked your idea of staying in the boat and camp van, its so cool.
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Old 8th August 2017, 12:50   #13
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Default Re: A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more

Hello Vivee,

Great pictures & write up. Relieved to read about your lost and found passports experience at IKEA.

You chose the best time to go around Europe and weather is best during spring / summer time.

By the way, are you based in Eindhoven? For your information I am also based in Eindhoven and currently working out of HTC.

Thanks,
Jignesh

Last edited by Jignesh : 8th August 2017 at 12:51. Reason: Spelling mistake.
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Old 8th August 2017, 13:17   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Stryker View Post
I'm planning a week long family vacation to Paris myself and that taxi scam thing is something that I will have to look out for.
I am happy that you found it useful. Good luck and Bon Voyage!

Quote:
Originally Posted by majumon View Post
What kind of a licence is required to drive in all these countries, do you hold an IDL.
I have an European DL issued from the Netherlands. But you can still rent and drive a car with Indian DL for the first six months that you are there(any VISA). Ensure that the rental company doesn't require an International DL, most of the times they don't.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jignesh View Post
Hello Vivee,

By the way, are you based in Eindhoven? For your information I am also based in Eindhoven and currently working out of HTC.
Thanks Jignesh. Not anymore, I moved back to India since July. It is a pity we couldn't meet.
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Old 9th August 2017, 06:44   #15
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Default Re: A month in Europe: Bavarian Alps, Netherlands, Greece & more

Superb travelogue culminating in some excellent and highly usable practical tips. Thank you!
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