– Dylan Fernandes, PGP 2014-16
Recycled and rehashed wisdom always harped on the fact that the first foreign trip is always the best one. For someone who’s closest tryst with transcending India’s borders was a work trip to Sikkim, the first trip to Europe held a lot of promise – excitement (genuine), jitters (really) and tonnes of potential Facebook posts (the quest to stand out to the virtual world of unemployed stalkers). So with much anxiety, pomp, shopping and hope I embarked on a 3 month travel (or maybe travail – read on to know more).
First things first – promised mom that’d I’d be a good boy (like I’ve been), assured Dad that I’ll get him 2 bottles of fine Scotch (ensured to take the money upfront), convinced my guy-gang that I’ll live by the bro-code and flirt with as many European women as I can, convinced my love interest that I won’t ogle at Czech girls and promised myself – what happens in Amsterdam stays in Amsterdam.
The fact that the flight from Mumbai to Lisbon via Istanbul would fly for 20 hours was quite amusing. However past flyers of Turkish airlines assured me that the air hostesses are really pretty and friendly. Within 3 hours of flying, a not-so pretty and overly friendly air hostess served me a Turkish meal. I kid you not – I have no clue what I ate. At best, I assume it was a chicken cutlet-like thing served with fruit salad whose yogurt seemed to have been preserved like wine with undesirable consequences for the taste buds. Call it coincidence or whatever you like, I stumbled upon Taken 1 in the in-flight entertainment kit. The Liam Neeson in me (I am tall too) screamed silently to every person who had recommended Turkish Airlines to me – I will find you and kill you.
Upon landing at Istanbul airport, I recalled the rave reviews I had read about it. To my utter pleasure, I saw a mass of crowd which I see every day at a Mumbai local train station!! Was this an airport or what?? Anyhow, with a delayed connecting flight and unfriendly ground staff, I spent one hour pacing down the 50 feet long aisle without purpose. And then, on the next Turkish airlines flight, arrived to Lisbon. With rock bottom expectations, I boarded a Boeing 747 which looked a generation older in aviation evolution. As such, the salmon, potato and some concoction of random pulses tasted like gourmet food. After much drama, an agonizing visa process, tiredness and aftertaste of the chicken cutlets I finally landed (quite roughly) in Lisbon. Oh, before I forget, I had already fulfilled one of my promises – I had initiated a conversation with the Portuguese woman sitting next to me. I played safe – asked for directions, things to do, things not to do. Having lost track of time (not really), I managed to take her contact details (email address only). That’s good enough for a start, I believe. I can already hear my bros cheering for me.
Now back to reality…
After switching on cost-save (avarice, if you may) mode, my co-traveler (name withheld for no reason) and I chose to take a metro ride to our house. For someone (me) who was travelling with just 24 kilos of luggage, helping my co-traveler with his 40 kilos was no like-able task. Looking like homeless nomads on the streets of Lisbon (what a first impression), we somehow managed to reach the Promised Land to be welcomed to a beautiful traditional house by very hospitable hosts – an elderly adorable Portuguese couple. After surveying all beds, we chose the most comfortable ones (the other 4 cohabitants who’d arrive later would learn the real meaning of first mover’s advantage). With all the excitement and energy sapped out, we just crashed for the night.
The next day, we started a walking tour around the city with the end goal of reaching the nearest sea front. Lisbon was a beauty. Narrow streets, cobbled roads, brightly painted houses, cafes and a very agreeable weather. Our first European breakfast was a delight – beef bitoque, egg, fries and wine. After walking for more than 2 hours with random detours and hundreds of clicks, we reached the sea front. It did feel great. Clean blue water, a radiant sun and a cool breeze – it was perfect! After spending a couple of hours there, we walked back home feeling accomplished.
The next day, we traveled to this beautiful little city outside Lisbon called Sintra. Known for its palace and other heritage, Sintra is indeed pretty. Calling upon all our resolve to lose weight, we walked up a steep slope to the castle. On our way, a really kind girl offered us a lift in her car and warned us that the upward walk was not too kind. Our testosterone said aloud – we’ll walk. After a tiring walk up, we happened to meet her again – energetic and smiling. With no malice, she waved out to us and screamed – “I told you it was a tough climb.” Hiding our embarrassment, we forced a smile and walked back. The same night, we made a failed attempt to reach Madrid to for the Tomatina festival but learned a valuable lesson about train reservations. After a tiring day, we decided that we should treat ourselves to a sumptuous dinner. We walked into a fancy restaurant where we ordered one dish each (blame the price tag). Our hospitable waiter got us bread and cheese as accompaniments. Hungry as we were, we gorged on the accompaniments and then the main course. When the waiter got us the bill, we learned another valuable lesson – if you haven’t ordered something, don’t touch it. Who charges 6 euros for 2 pieces of bread, 8 small pieces of cheese and 2 sachets of butter!!
The next day we went to another small beach town outside Lisbon called Cascais. We were joined by 2 other cohabitants and 2 of our friends from IIMB. After spending an obscene amount of time clicking pictures, we started to walk up to the beach. Little did we know, it was 10 kilometers away. Being persistent and motivated by the idea of catching the sunset, we briskly walked up 10 km. The sight of the sunset was a visual treat. Had it not been a 10 kilometer walk back to the station, I’d have never wanted to leave the ice cold water, clean sand and the cold breeze. And so ended day 3.
Day 4 had no activity – college registrations and all those formalities.
Day 5 & 6 were spent in Lisbon to plan the next three months which turned out to be a futile exercise. And after much dillydallying – we set off to Spain.
As a declaration, Barcelona is gorgeous. Be it the walk through the Gothic district or the climb to park Guell to get a panoramic view of the city, Barcelona is breathtaking. May I mention that the beaches are magnificent too but I’ve pledged my loyalty to love the Portuguese beaches (love at first sight for those who believe in it and anchoring bias for the realists). Visiting the Sagrada Familia basilica is an experience in itself. Imagine a cathedral that couldn’t be completed because the architect died an untimely death and modern technology has been struggling since 30 years to compete it. But for a football enthusiast, the tour of Camp Nou sealed the deal for me. The adrenaline rush when you gaze at the iconic stadium from the topmost tier is absolutely scintillating. Be it their trophy cabinet or the pitch, Camp Nou screams “heritage”. And when a Manchester United fan says it (recall that we have lost two champions league finals to Barcelona), you may take my word for it. Next stop – Madrid. Keeping out the details of the day trip, Madrid’s nightlife rocks. Be sure to visit a tapas bar. But yet again, the show-stealer was the 6 kilometer walk to the Santiago Bernabeu. Though I did not enter the stadium, the very feel of standing outside this legendary stadium – place where David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Raul have played – was surreal.
After a brief decamp at the Lisbon house, the next trip was to the promised land – Amsterdam. It’s a pity that a city so gorgeous and beautiful is known only for the red light district. The canals criss-crossing through city, the buildings, the museums and the parks are a tourist’s delight. More than Amsterdam, the smaller city of Rotterdam is a must see. It has that proper European charm – cold breeze, warm sun, people cycling around without any hurry. But I liked Hague the most. A combination of natural beauty and breathtaking buildings, a walk in the rain is little reason to complain. I am not sure how many other people will share my enthusiasm on this, but the view of the Flame of Peace building was almost surreal.
Until I get down to writing about Belgian chocolates and fries and Czech women – Adios!