A beautiful sunny day in Florence

How should I describe Florence? Should I start with the immediate sense of style and fashion the city exuded….? Or possible the most amazing designs of Gold Jewelry and the never ending Leather Market..? Or the fact that the ENTIRE CITY IN ITSELF WAS ONE BEAUTIFUL PIECE OF ART, like a large lovely museum..I think I’ll pick the latter..and that the reason you must set aside at least a day from your Italian Vacation to explore the architectural wonder called Florence

The view from Ponte de Vecchio

The view from Ponte de Vecchio

I arrived Florence via a Trenitalia train from Venice. Honestly, I DID NOT want to visit Florence. I only did because my husband wanted to. While honestly Venice and Amalfi Coast will still be my top choices for Italy, Florence was interesting too- in its own unique way.

The entire city of Florence is like a museum in itself. The birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, Florence is built around two main Piazzas- Piazaa del Duomo (the largest Dome built in brick and mortar in the entire world) & Piazza del Signoria, with many other small Piazza. But how I explored Florence was to just take a map and start walking- aimlessly. I would stop every few steps- go all wow about a church/market/architecture I would see and THEN refer to the map to understand where I was and what was I ‘wowing’ about. Trust me, this way of exploring Florence was fun!

Everywhere you look in Florence, you will find art..

Everywhere you look in Florence, you will find art..

_DSC0237

Guess guess..is this another piece of art..or a human with some very good make-up on!?

Guess guess..is this another piece of art..or a human with some very good make-up on!?

I enjoyed the different markets at Florence..be it the gold market at Ponte de Vecchip or the never ending leather market which sold anything and everything made of leather. Some stuff at the leather market was pretty nice, but being an animal lover that I am, I could not buy something that was being described as “made of the skin of a baby lamb”!

_DSC0029

One thing I particularly enjoyed in Florence was that art still lives among the people of Florence. While some pursue art for money, some create art just to add their bit in making the world a more beautiful place.

Posing with a lady who made some very pretty paintings

Posing with a lady who made some very pretty paintings

_DSC0249

You can see here that this man simply loves what he does

As does he... :)

As does he… 🙂

This was the gate of a church- all in gold. And you simply can’t resist touching and feeling the beautiful artwork. Do notice the head of a boy popping out on the top left corner 🙂

_DSC0061

And the visual delights don’t just stop! Justice can be done to the sheer intricacy of the work in this church ONLY when viewed in real life- not in pictures

_DSC0100

While all of the key attraction in Florence can be visited on foot, which way do you plan to explore this rich artistic city on your next vacation….?

The Modern Style?

_DSC0114

OR

The Vintage Style?? 😉

_DSC0106

Advertisements

Bangkok and the Taxi Mafia!

Planning to Exploring Bangkok via a Taxi/Cab?

On a recent trip to Bangkok, I had a first hand experience of the taxi mafia- Good news, by end of day 1 I LUCKILY got the most awesome driver who explained the entire mafia to me and how to work around it!

Airport to Hotel- As soon as you get out of the Airport, you will be required to but a pre-paid slip, which you will give to one of the zillion taxis lined up outside the airport, which will take you to your hotel.

  • There will be at least 2-3 such pre-paid counters. Ask the lady on the first counter how much the pre-paid coupon is for (should be around 50 baht). Whatever she says, go a recheck with the lady at the next counter. Buy the coupon if the price quoted is the same (after hearing a few friends’ experiences I did not trust ANYONE in Bangkok. In fact in all of Phuket NEVER BUY ANYTHING WITHOUT CROSS CHECKING WITH ANOTHER SELLER OF THE SAME THING- YOU WILL BE AMAZED AT PRICE DIFFERENCES.
  • Once you get the coupon, go to the driver and DEMAND that he start the meter. Pay the highway toll separately, do not get that added into your total bill. If the toll is 60 baht they will charge you 100. The driver will give you a lot of crap about his ‘monthly toll card’ and that you should pay the toll to him, but do that ONLY once you see at the toll, how much is being deducted from his card, and most importantly whether it is for one-way or for return journey.
  • Its a good idea to use GPS to see whether or not they are taking the shortest route to your hotel.
  • Remember, if you are travelling from Don Muang Airport to Suvarnabhumi Airport OR vice versa, use the free airport shuttle bus. They let you carry as much luggage as you want. OR there are 1-2 direct public buses with only 1-2 stops between the airports (I think it was bus # 554 & 555 ) which you can consider taking since the frequency of the free airport shuttle bus is not that great.

Exploring Bangkok

  • My biggest learning- each time you visit a place of sightseeing, like a museum or Grand Palace or Safari World or Siam Ocean Park- NEVER USE THE METER! Yes! I am not kidding. Bargain..bargain like crazy..through the bottom of your nose! Khao San to Safari World is over 500 baht by meter, and I actually went for 150 baht!! How? Well, each time a driver drops you at there ‘key locations’ they get 20 lt of petrol as a reward/payment for dropping you at the attraction site! On your way back to the hotel, you MUST demand that the meter be on.
  • If you see some over sweet guy who will charge you peanuts to not only drop you to your location, but even wait for you DO NOT AGREE! And NEVER  pay a penny in advance. They are definitely going to run away even though they promise ‘free waiting time’ (we were left deserted at Safari World 😦  ..Its was on the way back from Safari World that we met this driver who gave us all these tips, which I am not sharing 🙂 )
  • NEVER sit in the autos who will promise you dirt cheap rates(like 1/10th the meter rates if you stop for ‘5 min’ at 2 shops. You will be required to spend 5 min at the first shop and they will be really sweet to you. While you get down at the second shop they will either run away or claim you did not spend enough time in the shop or that you need to buy something
  • Avoid going to the police. I saw numerous instance wherein the police blindly backed the locals.
  • Consider travelling via the local buses! I enjoyed this thoroughly! Its not only the metro train that makes different parts of Bangkok well connected, its the very well spread buss network! Google your to and fro points and see options of available public buses- Awesome fun and super economical.

Tour Packages

  • First step, check with your hotel reception about any package you are interested it. Chances are that they will try to sell you their own package. Hear them out as it will give you an idea of the rates etc.
  • Once you have done that, start exploring- Thailand is a country that flourishes on tourism. You will see millions of people selling packages on the streets.

Hotel to Airport

  • If you do not want to spend that much, consider asking your Hotel Reception to arrange a minibus for you. I thought it was super convenient and super comfortable for 120 baht per person. Also, the mini bus picked me up right from the entrance of my hotel.

Hope these tips help and in case you have some other suggestions that helped you during your Bangkok trip, feel free to share in the comments here 🙂

Snorkeling vs Scuba Diving

I love water, and most of my vacations are beach destinations. While I have Scuba Dived a few times, sometimes I have enjoyed snorkeling as much as, (if not more), than scuba diving. Below are some pros and cons which will help you decide what you pick will be on your next beach vacation, especially if you are a first timer.

Scuba Diving is a great experience, extremely enthralling to feel the life under the sea. However, nothing in this world comes for free. And not just the money, but the time and energy required for your first scuba diving is way more than that required for snorkeling

Scuba Diving pros over Snorkeling

  • You get to swim WITH the beautiful fish and other sea lives- its magical!
  • You can have a peek-a-boo at their tiny little homes 🙂
  • Though scuba diving allows you to actually touch and feel things underwater, I seriously feel that one should not touch..and especially not break/harm anything under water (including corals)
  • With some prior experience you can go to greater depths. In some regions just the sheer variety of life you will find barely 6mt deep is way more vibrant than what you can see from snorkeling
  • You do not need to know swimming. You are controlled by the oxygen pressure and the weights attached to your body. My husband who has NEVER swim in his life thoroughly enjoyed his first scuba diving experience. Until unless you are a professional, you will have a buddy to guide you. Ideally a buddy should NOT be assisting more that one person under the water.

Snorkeling pros over Scuba Diving

  • More economical- not only in terms of money, but even in terms of time. For a short 2-3 day beach vacation, Scuba Diving would not be the best option as and good institution will require you to undergo at least one session of pool training( ~2-3 hours) followed by the actual dive. Its is BEST advised not to take your first dive on the same day as your first pool training. Save up all your energy and start afresh on the next day, as the getting accustomed to breathing from an oxygen cylinder can get you SIGNIFICANTLY tired; you really don’t want to miss out on a single dive one you are there, in the middle of the ocean!
  • Scuba Diving is definitely more risky, so ensure you choose a reputed organization. I feel one should definitely not keep cheap/economical deals as a factor for risky adventure sports.
  • All you need for snorkeling is the mask and flippers- easily available for sale/for rent (I generally prefer snorkeling without my flippers). However, in case you plan to snorkel..in case the bed is rocky or has a lot of sea urchin, please do put on your flippers
  • It really depends on WHERE you are vacationing at and what the weather conditions under the sea are. For instance, once I went to an island off Goa, and I was so glad I did scuba diving- I would have seen nothing if I had snorkeled. On the other hand, in Phuket- Koh Phi Phi, where the water was CRYSTAL CLEAR, and very still, I was SO glad I opted for snorkeling instead of scuba diving. Another eg- you’ll see some amazing pics/videos taking during snorkeling at Maldives in an interesting blog MaldivesDreamer , where snorkeling can provide as beautiful and clear view of underwater life as scuba diving.  Also, scuba diving can be pretty tiring..Not just the entire event, but dressing up, the oxygen tank..all of it
  • While ideally its best to know swimming, snorkeling can be done even if you don’t know swimming, ONLY if your partner knows swimming and is confident that they can assist you. I for instance held my husband’s hand and we happily snorkeled for a good half hour. However, initially it was super difficult to convince him that I would not let him drown! 😉

So whatever it is you pick, don’t spend a zillion hours thinking ‘What if the other one would have been a better experience’. There’s always going to be a next vacation where you can try what you did not do in this vacation!! 🙂

snorkelling

3 Days of Gorging on Yummy Food at Kolkata

I am a Delhi girl..Delhities know for ‘living to eat’; a place where people come from world over…TO EAT! But I went to Kolkata..for exactly the same reason! 🙂

DSC_0122

Kolkata..the erstwhile capital of British India, the land of yellow taxis, where everyone has an opinion on the local politics, where people are CRAZY about football (and not cricket!), the land of durga puja, and bong beauties in red and white saris, where strikes take place at the drop of a hat, and where you can find something to eat (mostly chaat- indian fast food), at every nook and corner of any street (well I kinda feel the same about Mumbai too.. 🙂 ), and one of the only places in India, where you can still travel in the super slow, but super fun Trams!

Kolkata Trams

Kolkata Trams

A devout worshiping Maa Kali

A devout worshiping Maa Kali

 

The Howrah Bridge

The Howrah Bridge

 

If you want to see what India looked like during the British Raj, Kolkata is the place to go to. A lot of the architecture laid by the British is still maintained by the Kolkata authorities, hence you get to see a great blend of the past and the present, an old world charm along with the hustle and bustle of one of the biggest metros in India.

The best time to visit Kolkata is during the Durga Puja (generally around September), for the crazy 6 day long festivities in the air, and the b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l pandals (makeshift structures made to incorporate fairs, wherein locals gather to praise Lord Maa Durga, and eat and enjoy together). I however, had gone to meet my grandparents

My super adorable grandparents :)

My super adorable grandparents 🙂

A surprise visit to my grandparents, hence a supposedly 'plain' lunch that they had to offer me :)

A surprise visit to my grandparents, hence a supposedly ‘plain’ lunch that they had to offer me 🙂

Kolkata can be easily divided into two parts:

Part 1 is more like the Old Kolkata- with areas like Burra Bazaar,with a zillion people, bustling through open shops, which hardly have place for anyone except the shopkeeper to stand in. People here stay in joint families (with easily over 15-20 members per family..mine has 200 members, including all of my distant aunts and uncles staying under one roof!! :p )

Views of my paternal house in Kolkata

Views of my 5 storey paternal house in Kolkata, known as the ‘Mimani House’, shared by around 200 of my relatives!

DSC_0313

Views of my paternal house

An old man..unfazed by the hustle bustle around him..concentrating on a game of cards..

An old man..unfazed by the hustle bustle around him..concentrating on a game of cards..

Must eat at Burra Bazaar:

  • Chaat..you’ll get some of the BEST chaat in Kolkata in Burra Bazaar
  • Ghoogni chaat (made of boiled chick peas)
  • Puchkas (the Kolkata version of Gol gappas/pani puri..and after 3 days of eating puckas EVERYWHERE you stop, you’ll easily be able to tell the difference between the Puchkas of Park Street v/s that of Burra Bazaar v/s that of Salt Lake :p )
  • Churmur ( a concoction of different types of chips)
  • Jhalmudi- a spicy chaat made of puffed rice
  • The gud rasagullas!!! (mouth watering!!..no not the white ones..these ones are BROWN in colour..they are made out of jaggery and not sugar, hence less sweet and more tasty..Dont EVER buy packed rasagullas when in Kolkata..eat them fresh..cause the BEST thing about the fresh  Kolkata rasagullas are that they simply melt in your mouth..you just don’t need to even chew them!)
  • Mishti Doi- The fresh sweet curd (again…DO NOT have the packed version..eat it fresh!)
The boys..enjoying the Puchkas at Burra Bazaar

The boys..enjoying the Puchkas at Burra Bazaar

Part 2: This one is the more modern part of Kolkata, including Park Street, Slat Lake etc. Park Street is easily one of my favorite hang out places in Kolkata, especially at night. Some really great places to eat, including some really old and popular ones like Flurry’s & Moulin Rouge. I particularly loved the food and ambiance at Mocambo restaurant.

DSC_0120

But there is more to Park Street than high end fine dining restaurants. It should be your choice of stay, as it is quite centrally located in Kolkata, with easy access to the metro and cabs. Also in and around park street, near wood street crossing, you’ll find some of the most amazing chaat, and with the local young crowd gathering here at night, the place has  a lovely energetic vibe to it.

Must eat at Park Street:

  • Breakfast at Flurry’s
  • Doodh pepsi (Milk + Pepsi..ok, I know this sounds yuck, but you have to taste it to believe that its actually quite nice!) right next to the Gurudwara in Park Street
  • The Kulfis near wood street crossing (try the various flavours..mango, orange, chikoo, sitaphal……. ok! so how many times will my mouth water while writing this post!! 😡  😉 )
  • The local pan! (right in front of the people selling kulfi..can remember the name of the shop 😦 )
  • Dinner at Mocambo
The Kulfis- A must try at Park Street

The Kulfis- A must try at Park Street

Preparing chaat..at Park Street

Preparing chaat..at Park Street

Another place wherein I loved for the chat was the Lake. There is a group of few chaat walaas near the Lake who are simply amazing, so much so, that despite is being a significant distance away, I actually went there a second time with an empty stomach ONLY to eat all the chaat all over again!!

There is so much more to write about this fascinating city..when I went there, I had never thought I’d write a post about Kolkata (hence apologies for not remembering the exact names of streets/places to eat at)..but I am going there again, this time to enjoy the city during its festive mood..during Durga Puja.. 🙂

Budget Travelling

So are you one of those people who look at their friends’ travel pictures or hear their travel stories, and are left wishing you could explore the world the way they do..only if you have enough monetary resources…? Then this is the post for you to read! Spend less and enjoy as much.. (if not more!! 🙂 )

Budget_Travelling
Planning your Budget Travel

The first and most important thing to keep in mind when travelling on Budget is to BOOK IN ADVANCE- be it your flight tickets, local transport tickets, hotel rooms. You will be amazed at how much money booking 3 months in advance can save you, even if you are planning to travel during the peak season.

Budget Accommodation

Think travel and think expensive hotels? Well today there are a host of places you can stay at which wont cost you half the price of hotels. One of the options I have used a lot is Airbnb . Not only is it super cost effective, but you can get places in the center of the town you are visiting, where you may not find affordable hotels. Another reason why I particularly like  booking a Bed and Breakfast from Airbnb is:
 (a) I haven’t heard of a single case of theft, and had a great personal experience with respect to the security of my stuff.
(b) I get to use the kitchen of the places I stay in, hence I can cook! It great, especially for a vegetarian, with limited food options available in different cuisines. Also, sometime you get too fed up of the local cuisine. eg during my 9 day trip in Italy, towards the end, the words ‘Pasta’ and ‘Pizza’ literally killed my appetite 😉 What more, while cooking in their kitchen,  you can request them to teach you some interesting local recipes too!
(c) Ofcourse, if you cook, you save money on eating out. And in most ‘bed and breakfast’  you book through Airbnb, breakfast is included (as is wifi )
(d)Its a great blend of privacy along with getting to experience the local life..staying WITH the locals..and trust me, some memories of the places I have been to, are beautiful BECAUSE of the warmth and hospitality of the people I stayed with
(e) The travelling tips, maps etc you get from the person whose house you are staying with. eg I remember when I was in Rome, I came to know from the owner of the BnB that a bus comes right at her door steps which stops directly at the Colosseum! (saving me money which I would have spent on a cab/a long walk to the train station)
While I personally am a fan of Airbnb, also recommend using Hostelworld. If travelling in large groups, you can also consider Apartments.com.
Tip: Identify where all you plan to travel to within the city, and HOW you plan to travel (using a rented car/bike or using local transport.) Sometime the transport cost to and fro your hotel to places of sightseeing can cost you more money than your hotel stay bills! Also, I have often noticed that booking your hotel through sites like Tripadvisor,ExpediaAgodaBooking.com etc gets you a MUCH better deal than booking your room from the Hotel’s Website. I personally compare rates offered by different websites at Tripadvisor.

Budget Eating

Eating out is undoubtedly the most poorly tracked and poorly managed expense, which can spiral up your travelling costs exponentially. Now I’m not saying ‘don’t eat out’..what I’m saying is ‘EAT OUT INTELLIGENTLY’ For instance, make sure the place you stay in offers you unlimited breakfast. Also, as advised by dietitians across the world, you have ‘breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper’ !! 🙂
If you notice, its not the main courses that eat away into your pocket, but the tit-bits you have in between. If your home currency is drastically lower in value than your destination currency, its best to carry biscuits and snacks with you.
Also, when travelling abroad, eat like the locals do. The most expensive restaurants in other countries will be ones that serve you your national cuisine. So blend into the culture of the people there, and while exploring their nation, also explore their cuisine..especially the street foods!

For vegetarians/vegans, do explore eating options before hand, so that you can carry packed food from home. It best not to be completely dependent on buying packed food from the destination country, as I have had experiences where-in I have not been able to decipher the local language written on food products, and hence not been able to identify whether the food was veg/non-veg

Budget Sightseeing

While travelling, a group travel obviously costs more. But I am one of these people who enjoys most when travelling along with my husband. I have noted that in most countries its not the sightseeing that is expensive, but escaping the long queues that costs money! So its best to book your tickets to various entries, way in advance, via the internet

One long trip costs less that two/three short trips

So lets say you are travelling to Europe. Now it makes more sense to do a France+Italy+Switzerland or a France+Spain over a minimum of 9-10 days, instead of doing only one country at a time. (a) It saves you on your Visa cost (Schengen Visa applicable to all countries except UK) (b) Saves cost on your international insurance (c) Saves cost on your flight travel

Local Travelling/Sightseeing on Budget

If you really want to get the feel of how the local nationals live, I suggest you explore your destination via the public transport system. It can be a tad bit confusing in the beginning, but I usually get tips from the host I am staying with, or from people at the reception of the hotel. Its also a good idea to research via the net on reaching your sightseeing destination from your hotel via public transport. Yes, I plan my holidays, but not to so much detail as sometime one just loves to live in the moment..go with the flow. Thats the idea about holidays right?- you aren’t pressed to reach a certain place by a certain deadline. So I just hop onto a bus,train. It may not be the shortest our best route, but its fun. Meeting new people, seeing parts of the city that you’d never have explored if not for the long route the bus would take, taking tips from the conductors/station attendants…sometimes the journey can be much more fun than the destination! 🙂