2012 May – Scandinavia, Amsterdam and India

Day 1 – Amsterdam, NL & Brussels, Belgium

We took the flight from Houston and were in Amsterdam 8 hours later. Tired and worn out, but not letting that dampen our enthusiasm, we set off straight for the rental car company to get our vehicle to take us places. Rental cars are EXPENSIVE in that part of the world and the service is not even close to the US (they close at 10 PM, no drop-off keys)!! It cost is close to $150/day – if that cost doesn’t kill you, the cost of gas surely will!

We didn’t get a chance to roam around in Amsterdam that morning, as we wanted to spend the maximum time at Keukenhof Gardens (30 minutes south from Amsterdam). But we as we drove towards there, we realized what a beautiful city it was, accentuated by the canals, especially later at night as the area around the canals is up. A canal tour is highly recommended there!

We reached on May 17 – the last day of the official Tulip Season, but it was still the highlight of that area. Even though the Tulip fields were all gone by then, we have an eye full of tulips and lilies there blooming in abundance. The entry price seemed a lot, considering that the flowers are already half-gone (Keukenhof should consider doing discounted prices for the last few weeks)! Also a great place for children where they can enjoy on various obstacle courses meandering through the park and petting zoos with local animals. One of the more interesting things there was a maze that they have created with 20 ft bushes – we took a good 20 minutes to find our way out – very Harry Potter-esque!

The trip to Brussels took us about 3 hours and we headed straight to Atomium and Mini Europe. Luckily parking was not a problem as it was a weekday. Mini-Europe was definitely our favorite of the whole trip. Consisting of miniature replicas of famous landmarks from all EU nations, created with painstaking detail at 1:25 ratio… it is a great place for everyone. Advisable to spend a whole day in that area because there are other activities too, like the water park next door and Atomium (replica of the iron atom enlarged 16 billion times).

The rest of the afternoon/evening was spent strolling around downtown Brussels. It is a great place for walking around, soaking in the culture, the palaces, the architecture. Majority of our time was spent inhaling the mmmmmmmmm…. Dark Belgian chocolates, the awesome Belgian Waffles and Crepes. No need to look for a fancy restaurant… any place along the Grand Palais, over the cobblestone pathways, would give you plenty chances to devour these Belgian specialties.

After a lunch consisting of Waffles/Crepes and a dinner consisting of waffles/crepes/chocolates, we decided to head back to Amsterdam – just in time for checking out the gorgeously lit canals in the downtown area. Too bad we didn’t get time to visit other spots there like the Anne Frank House, Van Gogh Museum and Canal Ring … but maybe next time!

Day 2 – Stockholm, Sweden

We took an early morning flight and landed in Copenhagen, Denmark. The car rental experience here was a little better than what we had in Amsterdam – there wasn’t that much of a sticker shock. After getting nicely situated in the car, we started off on our 6.5 hour drive towards Stockholm.

The first landmark was the Oresund Bridge – bang outside the airport. The interesting thing about the bridge, besides the fact that it connects Denmark to Sweden, is that it is 1/3 underwater tunnel, 1/3 over the water metal bridge, and 1/3 a road. Another interesting this…the toll to cross the bridge is a whopping $60!

The fields of blooming yellow flowers on our way to Stockholm were gorgeous. We just couldn’t get enough of them as these. At many places, we rolled down our windows and got great whiffs of these sweet smelling yellow flowers, that the roads were replete with. 7 hours of driving time just flew by as we strode into Stockholm, the home of famous companies like Ikea, Ericsson, Saab, Volvo.

Touted as one of the most modern cities in the world, this was pretty evident from the techno-savvy sign boards all over the place. After checking into the hotel, relaxing for a bit, we set off to our first destination … Gamla Stan. It means “Old Town” and is located on an island. The waterfront, lined with the tall buildings is as beautiful as any other Harbor City as we could see the boats coming and going. The water was calm….the waterfront was a great place to stretch our legs for a couple of miles as we walked around and took pictures. There are several wonderful restaurants and unique old shops around there….make sure you have a full wallet as you may want to buy everything. Don’t miss out on the world famous Swedish Glasswork shops.

Located in Gamla Stan is a great Indian restauraunt called “LEELA KARACHI”…one of the heavenliest Indian foods we have had anywhere!! The Indian-Pakistani cuisine was delicious … highly recommended is the Kadai Chicken.

The hotels in Sweden, though not as expensive and tight as London/Paris, are still not quite as luxurious as the US hotels. With a very “Ikea” feel to them, they are still sufficient for a good night’s rest with excellent service at the front desk…

Day 3 – Oslo, Norway

As our itinerary demanded, early morning we set off for Oslo, Norway – another 7 hours away! This drive was a little different for us as we avoided the highways and took the back roads for a large part of the way. Drivng through Viking country, absorbing their culture first-hand as we looked at their villages in awe, was a unique experience to say the least! Even despite our hectic schedule, we arrived in Oslo Harbor quite fresh. Parking can usually be a problem there, but that day beijng a Sunday, we just lucked out and found a premium spot bang in the middle of the square. This is a great place to absorb all of the history of the area as you walk around. There stands a beautiful palace located in front of the Harbor. Surprisingly, one of the highlights of our trip there was trying to get into a free-standing restroom that was available in the harbor. It was more of a cemodesy show … waiting for several minutes for the door to open, then realizing the door was on the back side, then struggling to get the door open (it unlocks after 5 minutes), then the floor gets suddenly flooded up with the water in the middle of your business. Long story shot … if you get a chance please use the restrooms before coming to the harbor.

One of the most famous things in Norway is the Fjords – though the more involved ones are way West at Begren, anotehr 7 hours away. So we decided to take the min-Fjords tour at Oslo itself. There are two kinds of tours available from the harbor…one for an hour duration and the other for two. The two hour Fjord tour took us around interesting spots and the excellent crew took good care of the visitors. There was a restroom available on the medium size boat.The definition of Fjords is tall mountains or cliffs on both sides with the sea in the middle.However, having seen better fjords at Alaska, we were not all that impressed with this because there were no tall mountains on this tour, just inlets leading into hills with houses on tops.

The major highlight was the guide telling us several stories about the Fjords, some of which quite funny and interesrting. Our favorite one was about the “Bath Houses” that were built at the time, when women were shy to wear swim suits in public. The Bath House at the bottom of the cliff, which looked like a mini-version of the house at the cliff-top, had a hole through which a person could jump straight into the ocean and enjoy the summer water and then climb back up from there itself, with no public display of your swimsuit! Another interesting story narrated by the guide was “Thin Ice” …. this was about a couple who lived on an island which did not have a grocery store. The man would send his wife across the ice onto the other island to get groceries from the mainland. One time the ice was very thin, but the man anyway decided to send his wife. When she got ready to pay for the groceries at the store, she noticed that there was a note to the grocer instead of money. The note said “Sir, I was scared to send the money since the ice was very thin, so I sent my wife instead … she will pay you next time”.

While the Sunday thing worked for us for parking, it did not work very well for us for the rest of the evening. Most shops and restaurants were closed and we had to spend a bit of time driving around looking for places to eat. We, once again, found an Indian restaurant – the food is EXPENSIVE out in Oslo … easily 3 times the US price.

But then came the most fascinating thing about our Scandinavia trip … we finished dinner around 10 PM, walked out of the restaurant and the sun was still up in the sky!! “Land of the Midnight Sun” anyone? We finally bid adieu to it around 11:30 at night but it was up again at 3 AM! Fascinating!

Day 4 – Copenhagen, Denmark

Before we set off on our last 7 hour drive for the trip to Copenhagen, we decided to take a mini detour to the Holmenkollen Ski Jump, which is about thirty minutes from the City Center. This ski jump is most modern ski jump in the world, set at several hundred feet high, from where Olympic skiers jump for their practices and competition. There is a ski simulator ride there, a ski museum and a little snack shop. The view of the city is gorgeous from the ski jump area due to its elevation.

The drive back to Copenhagen was uneventful except the gas prices in Norway and Sweden .. if the cost of food didn’t kill you, the gas prices surely will! Most of our driving was in Sweden as we entered that part right after leaving Oslo. 6 Hours later, we once again used the Oresund Bridge to cross over into Denmark. A whopping $60 later, we drove into Copenhagen City Center, parked right across the hotel and set off on the last leg of our journey.

The location of the waterfront Maritime hotel was strategically located in the middle of the gorgeously built city. The hotel was small and had no parking but at least it offered fresh hot breakfast in the morning. All historical places were within walking distance from Maritime Hotel.The gorgeous waterfront lined with historical buildings, people riding on their bikes, birds cawing was a mere 1 minute wall. We had fun jumping on the mini trampolines located on the sidewalk.

In the evening, we walked around in the NyHaven area, which is the older part of Copenhagen and definitely the most popular, because of the multi-colored buildings. This famous street was full of people shopping and eating at various bars and restaurants. Tthe city looked especially beautiful all lit up at night.

One of the other areas we visited was the Marble Church, which is a large marble Baroque church which stood unfinished from 1770 to 1874. It was finally finished in 1894. It was still under renovation when we saw it. The church had beautifully colored glass, but nowhere close to the ones we saw in Rome and Vatican City.

We proceeded to our destination of the day, the Tivoli Gardens … we walked through the Rosenborg Park and Castle, a great place to relax as we saw tons of people having picnics, biking, playing with their kids and dogs. Tivoli Gardens turned out to be our favorite thing in Copenhagen. A very well maintained park, with a Disney-ish theme, it is full of so many rides, restaurants, gardens and flowers. We saw peacocks dancing and people enjoying the cool breeze of Copenhagen. We rode on some rides, walked around, had dinner and saw a beautiful laser show that showcased many colors blooming out of the water, all set to music.

Next morning, our last stop before leaving Copenhagen was the main icon of that area .. the Little Mermaid Statue. This stood elegant on the waterfront, even though now defaced by vandalists…

In Copenhagen, it is almost cute to see men and women biking in their formal clothes, definitely on their way to work, in what seems to be their preferred mode of transportation. Beautiful city, brimming with life!!!

Day X – Taj Mahal, India

Left for New Delhi from Copenhagen. After spending a couple of days with our families in India, one early morning we rented a taxi and drove to Taj Mahal, one of the wonders of the modern world. This absolutely gorgeous masterpiece was built by Shah Jahan in the memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. Twenty thousand laborers worked to build the Taj Mahal from 1631 A.D. to 1648 A.D. Taj Mahal’s designer was Ustad Isa Afandi of Turkey. The Taj Mahal has the graves of Empress Mumtaz Mahal and Emperor Shah Jahan. There is a Mosque located beside the Taj for prayers. It was coated with diamonds, pearls, rubys etc. but as time went by people stole everything. It is still very beautiful without it.

The drive from Delhi to Agra is about 4 hours and the best time to come is in winter when India is cool, just right and beautiful because the heat just made us go nuts! 🙁

5 Favorite things about the trip:

  1. Chocolates and Waffles in Brussels, Belgium
  2. Mini-Europe in Brussels, Belgium
  3. Walking around in Brussels, Belgium
  4. Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen
  5. The food at Leela Karachi, Gamla Stan, Stockholm

Some Don’ts or recommendations:

  1. Mid to late May is late for the tulips in Amsterdam. Even though the gardens are officially open, the fields are gone for the most part and all you get to see is the leftover flower beds. Still much more than what you would see elsewhere, just not enough by Amsterdam standards!
  2. If you plan to drive around there, try to rent a car with a Navigation System as you may end up taking several detours along the way for restaurants and for various other sightseeing.
  3. Find out about the toll roads in Scandanavia and the fees associated with it from the car rental company. The gas is expensive as compared to US standards. Budget for that too.
  4. It is recommended that Taj Mahal be visited in cooler season.

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