My Travel Memoirs : Italy

Last year, in July, I visited Rome (my first ever double-deck flight experience), the capital of Italy. And, oh my.., are there many places to see ! The architecture of its buildings and landmarks, with a history of more than two and a half thousand years, is a marvel ! And, then, there is the Vatican ! I don’t know where to begin and where to end..

I guess, I should start by talking about the food. You cannot be in Italy and not talk about the food. Whether its the Pizza, Pasta Carbonara, Risotto, Ravioli, Prosciutto, Gnocchi, Gelato, Tiramisu, or Traditional Roman Oxtail (Coda Alla Vaccinara), you always have something to satisfy your taste-buds and moods. And, the Roman meals have so many courses ! You start with an antipasto (appetizer on the heavy side), primo (your choice of pasta), secondo (generally meat with a side dish), dolce (dessert) which could be followed by a beverage, if you want. here are few pictures 🙂

 

And, for the sights to see, there is the unending list such as Colosseum, Pantheon, squares and fountains such as Spanish Steps with Piazza di Spagna, Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, Fontana de Quattro Fiumi, Piazza Venizia, Piazza del Popolo, Piazza Barberini etc.  Places like Palatine Hill, Circus Maximus (Roman chariot racing stadium) and Roman Forum (the excavated center where you can walk through the period of the Roman history) show the interesting interplay of religion and politics in the Roman era. It is an amazing journey. I highly recommend taking a guide to know the interesting facts and watch history  come alive 🙂

And, if you are a fan of art, you can’t miss Caravaggio’s works at the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, one of the most famous being ‘The Inspiration of Saint Mathew‘. A picture is shown below (No flash used). There are also museums like the Castel Sant’Angelo and churches like Santa Maria in Trastevere and Archbasilica of St. John Lateran.

Rome is also very unique as in, it is a very old city with narrow streets but almost every common building has an architectural pattern which speaks of the abundance of rich history in its past. It is busy, crowded and every tourist landmark has a sign to warn against pickpockets.

And to top it all, the most surprising and unexpected of all my experiences was the fact that during my entire bus tour of the city Rome, I met so many people from Bangladesh, either as a helper guiding tourists to buses or shop keepers, that I did not even have to speak one word of English to ask for all the directions to different places (I am a Bengali from Assam, India).

 

 

And now, we go to Vatican city , the smallest state in the world both by area and population, with its head being the Pope. With beautiful religious and cultural sites such as the Italian Renaissance church of St. Peter’s Basilica with beautiful creations by Michaelangelo, Raphael, or Dali , the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Museums and ‘the Sphere within the Sphere’ statue outside the museum symbolizing the complex and fragile world, it is a treasure for art lovers. These remind us of the ambitious spending of the rulers and religious leaders to keep it as a symbol that stood the test of time. This was possible only by putting a lot of thought behind the meaning of each of the creations and focusing attention to even the most intricate and minute details such the hue of the color of stones and other architectural details etc. Here are some memories from my trip 🙂

All in all, I just have to say that Rome has so many stories imbibed in each of these attractions, that you need one week or more to actually understand and mingle with its culture, tradition and history 🙂 And, you need to take it slowly and allow sufficient time to digest the countless amazing facts.

 

 

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My Travel Memoirs : Germany

I visited Germany in 2009 and again in 2015. The 2009 trip was to Munich in southern Germany and in 2015, I went to Hamburg and Berlin in northern Germany. Did you know that Berlin is the largest city in Germany followed by Hamburg and then Munich ? Though I did not plan to visit the three largest cities in Germany, I am glad it turned out that way 🙂

Here’s a map to give you an idea of where they are 🙂

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I was in Munich for a week in late June of 2009. It is the capital of the state of Bavaria in Germany. Though it was not the time of Oktoberfest, no trip of Munich is complete without having beer in Hofbräuhaus 😉 It was a surprise to me to see that beer in Munich was like water as in , I saw people everywhere in subways carrying beer like water 🙂

I took a bus tour of Munich city and saw some amazing places. Munich was different from the other cities I visited. Its green 🙂 And, because of the following interesting fact..

Fun fact 1: Did you know that no new building in Munich is allowed to be higher than the church Frauenkirche

Munich’s Kunstareal (art district) consisting of Alte Pinakothek (the amazing art museum with collections by Titian, Rembrandt etc.), Neue Pinakothek (with one of Van Gogh’s famous Arles Sunflowers) and Pinakothek der Moderne is a treat for art lovers. Also, the Nymphenburg palace, Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau Castles and Linderhof Palace outside Munich are a sight to see ! Munich’s BMW Headquarters, New Gothic Town Hall in Marienplatz, Glyptothek Museum, Angel of Peace Monument, Munich Residenz including Königsbau, Alte Residenz and Festsaalbau, Olympic Tower in the Olympic Park built for the 1972 Summer Olympics and many others things are its treasures. One interesting thing to see was the Theatine Church, whose architecture had a Mediterranean influence and apparently, the yellow colors eventually became a symbol of the city. Here are some pictures 🙂

 

Hamburg, on the other hand, was a different experience. Its a port city but the port is on the river Elbe, around 110 kms from where Elbe meets the North Sea (See the map above). The ships in the port were huge, and it was my first time I have seen huge huge ships from up so close ! My Schengen visa experience to Hamburg was very interesting. I was applying for my visa in Atlanta, and the visa officer was very friendly and it turned out that he was from Hamburg himself. Towards the end of the discussion, he suggested me to visit a place in Hamburg for which it is famous ! It was Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s infamous Red-Light District and apparently its a hot spot for tourists 😉

Similar to Munich, the town hall of Hamburg is beautifully constructed. And, the city center is a wonderful place to spend time just walking by the side of the Alster lake. Its a perfect mix of tranquility with busy city life and a bunch of nice restaurants and shops 🙂

 

One of the local people suggested us a place to eat, a little far from the Town Hall (Stadt Backerei Cafe) and we had some amazing pastries there. Another unique experience for me was to see hundreds of Syrian refugees near Hamburg Railway station, waiting to be relocated or sheltered by govt. or charity organizations. What a contrast ! But, it was lovely to see people coming to help each other in these situations. It was a lesson of humanity 🙂

We had a banquet in Hamburg’s famous fish market (converted for the night). During our banquet, I had some interesting experiences. Apparently, from some Bavarian tradition, we saw a unique performance in which the performers stood on top of the tables and ‘danced’ with whips on their hands. I also witnessed a game in which any person who can hold their big beer jug on a stretched hand for the longest amount of time without bending the arm, wins the game and gets to drink the beer for free !!

Another interesting sight was the countless ‘love locks’ on the ‘bridge of love’.

Fun fact 2 : If the lock is closed, the key finally seals the love, according to the ritual. The key rusts from that point on down in the water below, out of reach; the lock remains forever connected to the balustrade, inseparable. More details here.

Here are some pictures..

Fun fact 3: Did you also know that the famous clock tower at St. Michaelis Church in Hamburg has been used as a beacon for sailors since 1680 ?

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On my last day at Hamburg, I decided to pay a short visit to Berlin 🙂 I was there only for a day. Steeped with history from the period of World War to 1989 when the demolition of the Berlin Wall began, the visit felt like as if I am being brought back to those days. Whether its the story and message behind each of the paintings and murals while you walk by the East Side Gallery, or the Topography of Terror, the Berlin Wall Memorial, Reichstag Building, Brandenburg Gate,  Checkpoint Charlie where the Soviet and American tanks faced off in 1961, Memorial of Murdered Jews etc., this journey is bound to raise goosebumps ! Of course, Berlin has other things to offer as well like the Berlin Tower, Cathedral, Oberbaum Bridge, and its Museum Island !

Fun fact 4 : The caption at the bottom of the famous ‘Kiss’ painting by Soviet artist Dmitri Vrubel at East Side Gallery reads : “My God, help me to survive this deadly love affair.

All in all, it was a trip to remember ! If you decide to visit Berlin, do allow yourself to spend some time and breathe the countless stories in..

Paris and Amsterdam in one day each !

To me, Paris and Amsterdam are cities of art and culture. I visited Paris in 2009 and Amsterdam in 2015, and I could spend only one day at each of these places.  But, the visits were unforgettable ! My previous travel posts used to target one country at a time. But, I decided to club these two together because I think, art connects these cities.

In Paris, there is the wonderful Louvre Museum which hosts famous paintings like Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’, Rembrandt’s  ‘Bathsheba at Her Bath’, and sculptures like ‘Venus De Milo’,  ‘Borghese Gladiator’, and ‘Victory of Samothrace’. There is also the amazing Musée d’Orsay museum with a brilliant collection of impressionist masterpieces by the likes of Cezanne, Monet, Van Gogh, Gaugin etc.

Likewise in Amsterdam we see Rembrandt’s House, Van Gogh Museum (with multiple paintings of Sunflowers series), and Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ as well as Vermeer’s ‘The Milkmaid’ in ‘Rijksmuseum’.

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Inside Rembrandt’s House

Fun fact 1: Rembrandt bought this house in Amsterdam for a huge sum of money and lived here from 1639 to 1658. But, he could not pay off his mortgage and eventually went bankrupt. His possessions were auctioned off.

Fun fact 2: Did you know that the kitchen was the most comfortable room in Rembrandt’s House and that there was a box bed inside the kitchen where the maid slept ?

Fun fact 3: Did you know that Vincent van Gogh was a great writer and his 820 letters (mostly to his brother) still serve a very important role in understanding him as a person ?

Paris is organised into 20 arrondissements or administrative districts. I just had one day and one day is by no means, enough to see a city like Paris. So, I had to literally run from one place to another. But, thanks to the wonderful subway network there, things were much easier. US could definitely take lessons from these cities at least in terms of their public transportation network and frequency. Paris is a tourist’s paradise. Whether its the architectural marvels like Eiffel Tower and Versailles Palace, the breathtaking view of Paris from the highest point : Sacré-Cœur Basilica at Montmarte, Champs-Élysées for shopping running between Place de la Corcorde and Arc de Triomphe in Place Charles de Gaulle , the beautiful Notre-Dame Cathedral by the Seine River showing the prowess of French Gothic Architecture, or Grande Arche in the business district of Paris La Defense, Paris has something to offer for everybody.

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Fun fact 4 : While going to Versailles, I took a double-decker train for the first time 🙂 

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Paris is also a city of contrasts. On one side, you can see sketch artists just sitting / standing by the roads and busy sketching real life scenes in their own world 🙂 On the other, you can see many homeless people, especially from south asian countries, roaming about the streets near Champs-Élysées and asking for money. Many parts of Paris and outskirts are also not very safe. But, despite all that, Paris is beautiful. There are many more things to see in Paris which I could not cover in this short period. But, there is always next time 🙂

Unlike Paris, my visit to Amsterdam was not planned at all. I was in Hamburg and one evening, suddenly decided to visit Amsterdam with my friend Siddharth. Later that night, we took a late night / very early morning flight to Amsterdam, a vibrant city in the picturesque Netherlands.

Other than visiting the museums and the wonderful works of art mentioned above, Amsterdam is also famous for a few other things 😉 including its legalized prostitution and legendary red-light district, legalized sale of marijuana through coffee shops, vibrant nightlife, systematic canal systems in one of the most watery cities of the world, and of course, cheese and windmills 🙂 A journey through the Anne Frank house is a whirlwind of emotions, and no visit to Amsterdam is complete without this ! History came back to life here..

 Fun fact 5: Did you know that in addition to cheese and windmills, Netherlands is also famous for its clogs and tulips ?

Fun fact 6: The first Heineken Brewery in the World was built in Amsterdam !

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On the whole, it was a great but hectic trip. I would have loved to spend more time here but we had to return back by late night. It was indeed a wonderful experience, and I can’t wait to visit again 🙂

My Travel Memoirs : Portugal

If you think of Portugal, Vilamoura in Algarve does not come up first in mind. But, this is where I went in 2012 to attend a robotics conference. And, it was a trip to remember. Algarve is located in the southernmost region of continental Portugal and is famous for its beaches, coves and calm atmosphere. Here’s a video which shows the natural scenic beauty of the place.

Our conference was in Vilamoura, which is regarded as one of the largest single tourist complexes in Europe. The nearest international airport is in Faro which is around 25 Kms from Vilamoura. The conference venue was in the marina among luxury hotels, a large casino, wonderful beaches, and restaurant / bars. There are beautiful golf courses around and golf is such an inherent part of the people here, that the hotel I stayed in, had a golf simulator where people can play lofty shots and the simulator projects the ball’s trajectory on a screen displaying actual golf courses. Obviously, Vilamoura had options for various water sports as well.

The highlight of my first day at Vilamoura was the dinner which had a flaming Chouriço (Pork sausage). It was delicious and unique at the same time. Here’s a picture to whet your appetite 😛

 

The walk by the water-body in the marina is so beautiful that almost everyday I used to go there in the evenings. There were open restaurants lined up on the side of the road. And, the sunset was mesmerizing.

At nights, I used to walk to the beach with a bunch of friends and just spend some quality time there. The road from my hotel to the beach had patches of paddy fields on the side and the nights turned out to be a nice contrast to the tech-heavy day in the conference.

Though I could not participate in any of the water sports during my short stay there, I did go to watch Dolphins in the North Atlantic ocean and saw a couple but only from very far 😦 However, we got to see some beautiful rock formations and coves 🙂

All in all, Vilamoura was a nice and calm destination. It was undoubtedly different from the other city-life robotics conference venues. If you are looking for a relaxing time, Vilamoura is a great place to visit !

My Travel Memoirs : Canada

Vancouver is the only city I have visited in Canada, till now. It is located in the south-western part of Canada near the US border in the province of British Columbia. This trip is very special to me as it was to present my first ever paper in any conference. It was 2008. Also, it was my first ever short-term international trip ( as in, for a week). And, hence, I had to know what to pack in my luggage (which I obviously, did not !). My first lesson was to carry an international / universal socket adapter because the plug and socket types differ from country to country. Second, to carry a little cash with you (for the initial part of the trip) and to know where to exchange cash for a better exchange rate (airports are the worst places) but, if possible, to use proper debit / ATM cards for the best exchange rates. Credit cards are useful for larger purchases, but make sure to notify your card company before hand 🙂 Here’s a nice and short guide for new travelers. And, my list of hard-learned lessons through this trip goes on and on …

My trip from when I first landed in Vancouver airport to my hotel was full of surprises. At the first immigration check point, I saw an Indian guy at the booth. After I cleared the immigration, I went out and took a cab whose driver was an Indian, and he started talking to me in ‘Hindi’ and told me that he had been living in Vancouver for the last 16 years. He also mentioned that Vancouver was ranked as the most livable city in the world. In fact, now that I look at it, it is ranked consistently in the top five for the most livable city in the world with highest standards of quality of life. Once I reached my Hotel, the hotel boy came who was also an Indian and then I went to the reception, where an Indian guy greeted me and gave me my room key. I realized that there are a LOT of Indians in Vancouver 😉

Once I checked in my room, I realized that drinking water was not free and I had to get bottled water from the vending machines and it was not cheap. Coming from India and South-Korea, it was another surprise, but later I realized that it was not uncommon in Europe as well. It was time for me to visit my conference venue which was at the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Center. Just outside the convention center, I saw the awesome ‘I AM EH’ car. I guess it had various items which Canada is known for / can be identified with / part of its culture and was displayed in support of the upcoming winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010.

 

Did you know that the world’s shallowest / thinnest commercial building is in Vancouver ? It is called the Sam-Kee building and it is located at 8 West Pender Street (2 storeys tall and just 1.5 meters deep) in Chinatown.

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Also, the world’s first steam-powered clock is in Gastown, Vancouver, which sounds the Westminster Chimes every 15 minutes, and a large whistle every hour 🙂

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The Vancouver Art Gallery is a nice collection of artworks and apparently is the largest in Western Canada. Dr. Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden is another tranquil place in Chinatown. Another nice place to visit is the Granville Island which is a shopping district in Vancouver, and also a premier filming location 🙂 Vancouver is the city, where I first saw an aquarium ! It was a wonderful and unforgettable experience. Though over time, after visiting aquariums in many cities, the prospect of visiting an aquarium has lost its original appeal to me now. But, I always enjoy the shows with dolphins and other water animals 🙂 And no discussion about Vancouver is complete without the amazingly beautiful Stanley Park. This is a must see and so is the Vancouver skyline from Vancouver Lookout Tower. Here are some pictures ..

All in all, I had a great time in Vancouver, one of the main locations of Hollywood North. Though my trip to Canada has only been limited to Vancouver till now, there are many other places in Canada (Banff, Toronto, Whistler etc.) I would love to visit in the future. Most importantly, now that I live in the US, I can’t wait to visit the majestic Niagara Falls from the Canadian side. Soon, I hope, soon ..

My Travel Memoirs : Taiwan

I visited Taipei, the capital of Taiwan in 2010. The experience was memorable. Among other things, it is the economic, industrial, and cultural center of Taiwan, especially known for its electronics industry. I was there for a week in late October, but a big chunk of my time was spent in the IROS conference in Taipei International Convention Center (a part of Taipei World Trade Center). Nevertheless, I managed to get a good tour of the city.

Two things that really struck me when I visited Taipei are its amazing street food and the ridiculous high frequency of massage centers (foot / body) (almost every 50 meters or so) in some busy parts of the city. I was told by a local guy that this is probably because of the hectic lifestyle that they lead. Anyway, Taipei’s street food has a lot of variety and is delicious at the same time. Whether its ginger duck hotpot (one of the most famous winter foods in Taipei), or beef noodle soup, or oysters, they have their unique style. Many of you must have heard of the famous ‘Peking duck‘ dish where ducks are especially bred for the dish (imagine the irony !), and it is really delicious too, but ginger duck hot pot has its own flavor. Here’s me with the owner of a street stall which serves delicious ginger duck hot pot.

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Taipei’s night markets are a sight to see, with its abundance of sweets and other food. Here are some snapshots of Shilin night market :

One of the more interesting things was the Shrimp fishing game, where we had a small bamboo stick and a hook and we had to catch shrimp and put it on the bucket..

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Taipei has a rich cultural heritage. Its Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall is a sight to see, built in the memory of the first President of the Republic of China. Note that Taiwan is officially known as the Republic of China (ROC) and China is officially known as People’s Republic of China (PRC). The office of the President of the ROC relocated to Taiwan in late 1940s after ROC lost control of Mainland China.

Also, Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall is beautiful (built after the National Father of ROC, Dr. Sun Yat-sen). Another must see place is the National Palace Museum, which is a huge collection of ancient Chinese artifacts and is almost impossible to cover in one day if you want to look at everything carefully.

No trip to Taipei is complete without the majestic Taipei-101. It was the World’s tallest building from 2004 to 2009.  One of the most interesting things about Taipei-101 is its tuned mass-damper system which is supposed to be the largest passive tuned mass damper in the world, designed to absorb wind pressure and be flexible during earthquake. It weighs 660 metric tons 🙂 Another interesting site was the Miramar Entertainment Park which is a shopping mall, on the roof of which is a huge Ferris wheel !

Here are some photos of the landmarks mentioned above and other random shots :

All in all, my Taipei visit was amazing and I highly encourage you to travel there to get a glimpse of the rich culture inherent in the society as well as enjoy some delicious authentic Taiwanese food 🙂

My Travel Memoirs : Japan

I visited Japan three times, each time to a different place : Tokyo, Kanazawa, and Fukuoka. Lets look at the map to get a clear idea of where they are (see the red dots). Fukuoka is on the northern side of Kyushu Island (closest to South Korea), whereas Kanazawa and Tokyo are in Honshu Island. I visited Fukuoka for a robotics and control conference, Kanazawa for a summer school on Locomotive and Cooperative Robotic Systems in JAIST, and Tokyo for writing my Computerized GRE (I was in South Korea at that time and it had only paper GRE system).

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Japan is a wonderful mixture of culture, tradition and technology-driven modern lifestyle. And in terms of food, you can find a variety of Sushi or Sashimi, which are very popular all through the world. But unfortunately, they are not my favorites given my Bengali upbringing as I am used to eating fried / grilled fish. But, its ‘Kobe’ beef is unparalleled. Also, I love Ramen, which is a Japanese noodle soup dish, Tempura (deep fried seafood / veggies) , Yakitori (skewered meat), and Donburi (rice bowl). Here’s a picture of two bowls of very late night delicious meat Ramen (not so much soup though, me and my friend not in picture) in Tokyo..

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Tokyo has something to offer for everybody, whether its the busy Shibuya with its tranquil Meiji Shrine, the Shinjuku Gyoen gardens, Senso-ji Temple and Asakusa in Taito, Takeshita Dori in Harajuku for fashion, Ginza for shopping, Roppongi for night life, the Electric town Akihabara, the mighty Tokyo Tower, or Ueno Park. Here are some random snapshots from these places (Navigate over each image to see the caption):

At Senso-ji Temple site, I saw a familiar site of burning Incense Sticks and this reminded me of my home, where people burn incense sticks as an aid to their prayers..

And here’s me and others trying to wash our hands and purify them with the sacred water at Chozuya by grasping the ladle with the right hand and pouring the water over the left hand and then switching hands…

At Senso-ji Temple, I saw a very interesting phenomenon where a lot of people were trying to get their written fortune (Omikuji). The way they do it is while praying, they shake a box gently for some time and a stick with a number pops out. They are supposed to remember the number and put the stick back. Using this number, they are supposed to take the ‘Omikuji’ out from the drawer with the corresponding number and take it home with them (See left picture below). Another interesting thing was the ‘O-waraji’ which was a huge pair of straw sandals (You can see one sandal in the middle picture below). Apparently, this was made by 800 citizens of Murayama city in a month and weighs 2500 kgs, and is meant to be a charm against evils. You are supposed to touch this and wish to have strong legs (which, at that time, meant capability of physical labor to feed themselves). And finally, in the right picture below, you can see ‘Ema’, which are votive tablets for special personal prayers. The wishes are written on the reverse side of the tablet and hung around a divine tree.

I was lucky enough to see a traditional Japanese wedding at the Meiji-Shrine (picture below). Also, on the streets, we can often see people wearing traditional Japanese clothes and they look stunning 🙂 Here are some snapshots:

Fun fact: The design of Shiodome Station in Minato is inspired by a pattern made from reeds that grow by water side (Reeds were often used by poets as a subject matter of their work — See ‘A collection of Myriad Leaves’ — the most famous and oldest anthology of traditional Japanese poems. An arrow made from reed is supposed to be a weapon against evil. 

Unlike Tokyo, Kanazawa is not the first choice of international tourists. However, Kanazawa, with its history of Samurais, Geishas, and Temples, has a lot of things to offer like the calm and tranquil environment in Kenrouken Garden, Myoryuji Temple, Kanazawa castle etc. Luckily, I managed to see Japan Tent, which was being held in Kanazawa during my visit and I could try a bunch of international cuisines at different stalls. Here are some shots from Kanazawa:

Finally, Fukuoka, a port city was a nice addition to the Japan travel. Its Tenjin underground city was particularly interesting 🙂 Here are some random snapshots from a random walk through the city :

So, you see, Japan is a perfect blend of tradition, culture, history, and modern technology. Its gaming culture and anime / manga craze is known across the world. After my multiple visits, I have become an avid anime follower myself.. Japan is magical and I would love to visit it again and again.